- Parish House
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
Year A, Acts 1.6-11
The Rev. Scott Walters
Over the past few weeks I’ve been reminded that there is one thing I wish I were better at wasting: storage space. We’ve been going through our attic and the garage, through closets and cupboards and bookshelves and drawers, trying to get rid of anything we don’t want to move to Memphis. But it’s a struggle.
For example, in the attic is a large blue bag that anyone who’s ever shopped at an Ikea store will recognize. These bags really are the handiest things ever. They are light and strong and big. This one, however, is not filled with particle board, bolts, and brackets ready to be assembled into hip, sleek, but kind of flimsy Swedish furniture over the course of 4 or 5 very frustrating evenings. No, the Ikea bag in our attic is full of…get this…other bags.
Yeah. Apparently an Ikea bag is just right for the storage of old backpacks, purses, duffel bags, laptop cases, and more. So, think about it. Here’s what’s going to happen in a few weeks. All those smaller bags, that are stuffed into the big blue Ikea bag, will be packed into a cardboard box, and loaded into a moving van, that will probably drive them to a storage unit. Because our new house doesn’t have a garage.
It’s kind of a hoarder’s version of those cute little Russian nesting dolls, without the cuteness or the littleness.
We’re told the Devil tempted Jesus first by telling him to turn stones into bread. But when the Devil comes to me in a moment of weakness, his suggestions are more like, “You know, I bet you could use that for something someday. Better hang onto it.”
Baggage. We’ve all got baggage. Some of us have baggage for our baggage. It’s part of the human condition. And sometimes we’re told that all the baggage of being human is what we must let go of or lay down so we can enjoy the bliss of heaven unencumbered.
But what if part of the Ascension’s good news is that you actually can take it with you? Your baggage, that is. Your humanity. What if the good news it that the baggage of being human, however many layers of it there are, has already ascended into the divine life in Jesus? And how might we be changed if we really trusted that this were so?
I was absent from the actual Feast of the Ascension on Thursday night because my daughter was making the three and a half hour ascension to the stage at Verizon Arena to get her Central High School diploma. But I believe those of you who were here sang a hymn whose last verse begins: “Thou hast raised our human nature on the clouds to God’s right hand; there we sit in heavenly places, there with thee in glory stand.”
Now, there’s a striking image. And one that might even make some theological sense of what might otherwise just seem like a flashy, Old-Testament-prophet-style liftoff from the earth by Jesus forty days after his resurrection. The hymn suggests that the ascension of Jesus, the fully human risen One, means that our humanity has been taken into the life of God. It suggests that our familiar, imperfect, wounded humanity — not some scrubbed up and purified version of it — is capable of being received and embraced by God.
What an astonishing thought. “There we sit in heavenly places, there with thee in glory stand.”
To make a similar point, Rowan Williams once brought Augustine’s reflections on the psalms into a sermon on the Ascension. I know. Me referencing Rowan Williams referencing St. Augustine on the psalms of David is a bit like a bag in a bag in a box in a van. But it’s good stuff. Bear with me.
Williams said Augustine was troubled, as many people have been across the centuries, about the vengeance and violence and hatred that gets voiced in some of the psalms. The psalms are often humanity at our rawest rather than humanity at our best. So Augustine wondered why in the world we would keep saying them in Church? Don’t tell me you’ve never wondered the same thing after politely asking God to dash the heads of your enemies’ children on a stone.
Well, Augustine first decided that the psalms are worth praying because they remind us that we don’t have to hide away the darker parts of our humanity in order to approach God. In fact, we can’t. We should take our hatreds as they are to God and not pretend they don’t exist. Some days they’re all we’ve got, after all.
But Augustine went further. Remember that the psalms were Jesus’s prayer book, as they were and are for all Jews. He was quoting Psalm 22 when he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He presumably prayed some of the vengeful and violent psalms in the synagogue and on his own as well. Well, said Augustine, that doesn’t mean Jesus endorses everything humans say and feel and do, or everything that’s said in the psalms. But it does mean that he treats us, with all our messy feelings and unstable personalities, as real. He takes us seriously.
He takes us seriously when we’re at our best, giving thanks, extending grace and forgiveness toward others. And he takes us seriously when we’re pulling away from God and one another in our hatred and anger and betrayal.
Williams puts it beautifully, I think. “Jesus hears all the words we speak. He hears them and he takes them and in the presence of God the Father he says, ‘This is the humanity I have brought home. It’s not a pretty sight; it’s not edifying and impressive and heroic, it’s just real: real and needy and confused, and here it is (this complicated humanity) brought home to heaven, dropped into the burning heart of God – for healing and for transformation.”
Now there is an ascension I need to hear about. There’s an ascension I need to believe in and be transformed by.
Because what would it change in my relationship with the rest of this “complicated humanity,” of which I am a member, to believe that all of us, and every part of us, has already been brought home to God?
Well, recently I was reminded of another chapter in my life in another place. Some years ago a friend was having an extramarital affair. Anyone who’s been close to infidelity knows how painful it is and how far flung the collateral damage can be. Like many of us close to him, I was angry with him and frustrated and protective of his wife and children as he cast about, trying to decide what he’d do, whether he’d stay or leave. After long phone calls I’d write longer, passionate emails late at night, trying to persuade him to come to his senses, to do the right thing.
We were catching up not too long ago and our conversation returned to that time. And my friend said that only one person heard about what was happening and looked at him with great compassion and said, “You must be suffering so much right now.” Only one of us said that. And that one person was not me.
There wasn’t any justification in the response. But there also wasn’t the implicit message that there are sins beyond the pale, failures that are just too foreign to God and to goodness and even to us fellow, sinful humans to be endured. One person responded compassionately, because he seemed to trust that there are no dark parts of ourselves that are alien or surprising or unbearable to God. Because Jesus hast raised our human nature, every last bit of it, on the clouds to God’s right hand. Which gave one friend just enough room to feel compassion, even for a poor sinner who was actively making a mess of his life and several other lives nearby.
My friend found his way back into faithfulness to his family, to his friends, to himself. These stories don’t always play out so happily. But I’m convinced that part of the reason this one did is because someone responded out of the good news that the Ascension provides for every human life. The good news that our baggage, which may be baggage wrapped in more baggage, boxed up and shoved into some dark corner of our memory, is not too much for God. It need not stay hidden, unspoken, denied.
Trusting the Ascension means something more than believing Jesus went up in the air. Trusting it means we can bear a little more of the truth about ourselves, the truth about our neighbors, even the truth about our enemies, because Jesus has borne every last bit of it deep into the burning, loving, wide open but unfazed heart of God.