Looking Up

May 28, 2017

Series: May 2017

Category: Faith

Passage: Acts 1:6-14

Speaker: Rob McClellan

There was a chapel skit at the camp where I grew up that went like this:  A terrible storm came into a town and local officials sent out an emergency warning saying everyone in the town should evacuate immediately.  One person stayed behind saying, “I will trust God and if I am in danger, then God will send a divine miracle to save me.”
The neighbors came by the house and said, “We’re leaving and there is room for you in our car, please come with us!” But they declined. “I have faith that God will save me.”
As they stood on the porch watching the water rise up the steps, someone in a canoe paddled by and called, “Hurry and come into my canoe, the waters are rising quickly!” But again they answered, “No thanks, God will save me.”
The flood waters rose higher and higher until they had to climb up to the rooftop.  A helicopter came by and dropped a rope ladder. A rescue officer came down the ladder and pleaded with the person, "Grab my hand and I will pull you up!" But they still refused, folding his arms tightly to his body. “No thank you! God will save me!”
Shortly after, floodwaters rose even higher, swept the person away and they drowned—yes, such a happy story to tell to children.  In heaven, the person asks God, “I put all of my faith in You. Why didn’t You come and save me?”
And God said, “I sent you a warning. I sent you a car. I sent you a canoe. I sent you a helicopter. What more were you looking for?”

In today’s reading from the book of Acts, Jesus ascends to heaven and the disciples seem to be looking up to heaven waiting for a miracle, when the angels appear asking, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” 

Now, let me take up the side of the followers for a moment here.   The disciples had now lost Jesus twice, and it’s difficult to be left behind.  As for the character in our little parable, well we might say he was just doing what he was taught.  In the West, the working paradigm has been that we are in peril and God comes like a hero from above literally to “save” us.  We have cultivated a strong sense of the transcendence of God, of God’s sovereignty and power. 

Neglected has been the immanence of God, God’s nearness, which can empower us.  In the Gospel of Luke, which was written by same person who wrote Acts, Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is within you,” “the kingdom of God is among you.” (Lk. 17:2), “you” beng plural in the Greek.  We tend to individualize it in this culture, but that’s not faithful to the text. The notion that God will come and rescue us, while of some comfort, when blown out of proportion may be taken as permission for some dangerous behavior, such as sitting in denial as the sea rises around us; such as treating the world, people, or anything for that matter, as disposable; spending our lives in search of our own purity that we might be worthy of rescue without regard for the other, missing the way in which all of us are connected. 

Our sacred stories have always born witness to God’s immanence alongside God’s transcendence.  In the first creation story, God swoops down over the formless void in the form of breath, wind, spirit.  That breath becomes voice when God speaks, “Let there be…” and there was.  The echoes of those first words, that divine voice, still reverberate today through everything in all places.  You know we are all vibrating right now.  Even these pews, these walls, this ground, is vibrating.  The scientists tell us this movement only ceases at absolute zero, 0 degrees Kelvin, or about -273 Celsius, almost -460 degrees Fahrenheit, a state cannot be physically achieved.  In fact, as an editorial caveat.  Upon preaching this sermon on Sunday, a parishioner with a science background said to me that in fact, even at absolute zero, while linear movement ceases, vibration continues.  In other words, the vibration that is in us, the echo of the first word ever spoken by God, cannot be stopped.  As the Psalmist said, there is no where you can go where it won’t be too.  Nowehere and now way.

Sometimes in religious practice, people chant with an “om” or an open “ahhhhhh.”  One of the ways to think of it is people tuning themselves to that divine vibration.  Those of you who practice yoga may be familiar with the practice of Ujjayi breathing, where you constrict the throat which makes the breath to become more audible.  It’s that same vibration.  It is said this mimics the sound of the ocean, which, wouldn’t you know, is the image Patrice gave us last week for God, both transcendent in its grandness and yet immanent in its nearness to us, coming to us in each wave.  In yogic breathing, one practices letting God flow through.

We need both the transcendence and immanence of God, we simple need to bring them back into balance.  There, the world is no longer disposable; it is teeming with the substance and energy of God.  Our lives are not relegated to a personal or tribal quest for purity, for we are all resonating with the voice of the One who is in all things.
In the West, there is a common misguided critique of the contemplative, the prayerful, the spiritual, as if it constitutes self-absorbed navel gazing, but of course nothing could be further from the truth.  True contemplation expands the awareness and thus compels the person not merely to retreat from the world but to engage in the world and equips them to do so differently, recognizing the connectedness and the availability of divine resources both to experience ever-present blessing and work to alleviate the all too present suffering.

The story from Acts is an illustration of what happens when the sense of God’s nearness is lost.  One stands around waiting for God to come from somewhere else to fix things.  The angels appear to the disciples to remind them that God is right there.  They have been called for blessing, yet they are momentarily unable to fulfill their divine vocation because they do not believe they have what it takes to do so.  Sadly, one of the other unfortunate legacies of our tradition is that we are unworthy, incapable, blemished, imperfect, or incomplete.  Our inheritance becomes then not conviction and confidence, but guilt, which is a lie that we are separate from God.  As a result, we feel powerless, and so we don’t act.

If we are waiting for perfection, we will be waiting on that rooftop forever.  The Bible is a collection of stories about, and by, people who were every bit as imperfect as we are, who don’t have it all together, and who constantly have to function with incomplete information, incomplete tools, and incomplete perspectives.  Yet they carry on the best they can with what they have, sometimes more successfully than other times, and so they leave behind valuable lessons from which we can learn.  We’ve gotten that wrong too, treating the Bible as the yearbook nobody wants signed because it’s of all the perfect people.  Of course, they don’t exist.

Look at today’s story.  It is marked by incompleteness.  As Jesus’ followers gather ‘round him, they ask, “is this the time you will restore the kingdom,” and they are given an incomplete answer, “It is not for you to know” (v. 6-7).  So much of life is left to mystery.  Then, as if to make matters worse, Jesus disappears, his work seemingly incomplete.  So they stare up to heaven, a would I in their shoes, waiting for God to finish what God started in Christ, but no, the angels say, that’s for you to do. 

It’s the divine version of the Patrick Ewing Theory.  Do you know what that is?  Ewing played basketball at Georgetown, where he now coaches, then for the New York Knicks.  He was a star at every level, yet at one point, a man named Dave Cirilli made an observation that it seemed as though Ewing’s teams seemed to fare better without him on the court, when he was injured or on the bench because of foul trouble.  This led Cirilli to coin the term the “Ewing Theory,” to describe the phenomena that sometimes teams do better without their best players.  

The theory is that when the star, the chosen one, the savior, is there, everyone stands around expecting them to do everything.  Only in their absence, do the rest rise up and recognize what they can do as individuals and maybe even more importantly how much they need to work together as a team.  In this sense Jesus’ ascension, which is what we call when Jesus rose to heaven, is not God leaving us behind; it’s God giving us yet another gift—the gift of empowering us to do what Jesus spent his life teaching us to do and be.  In fact, in his life, he seems to feel frustrated when the people don’t believe they can feed the crowds themselves, tend to the sick, and stand up to systems of injustice.  At one point, Jesus tells his followers that they will do even greater things than he (Jn. 14:12). 

What do his disciples do after the ascension, that imperfect group of 11, one man down with Judas gone, and the women not even mentioned by name—talk about an imperfect bunch complete with the biases of their culture?  They carry on.  They get to work, somehow trusting that even in their imperfection, their limitedness, their partial vision, they are, and can do, enough.  They have what they need.  They have the Spirit, and the Spirit gives power.  Remember what Jesus does at the end of John, harkening back to the very creation, he breathes on his disciples, giving them the Spirit.  The Word made flesh breathes that creative, vibrating breath on them, and that’s what enables them.  Without it they would be likely to do more damage than healing, or be stricken like a bunch of scared children.  I sure would be.   

Speaking of scared children, I saw an incredible video this week.  It’s of a father and a newborn baby lying down together.  The baby is crying in terror and then the father does this amazing thing:  he looks into the baby’s eyes and just goes, “Ahhhhhhhhhhh” and instantly the baby calms, once again, in alignment with the creating loving voice of God, which is flowing through all things and in all moments.  Listen for that voice all around you, be assured, and be unafraid to join in its song.  Amen.