- Parish House
Sermon for Ascension Day – Luke 24:44-53
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
Tonight you are the first group to hear about a brand new product. Although, product might be too strong a word. Technically, the item is still just a prototype, so this preview is well ahead of any production. And you’re not exactly the first group to hear about it. There are also a few fourth graders who have seen the prototype. The developer simply asks that no one steal the idea before he makes a lot of money on it. The project came out of an assignment to invent something, or to take an existing product and add an original innovation. The developer, who keeps guinea pigs, looked at his guineas’ cage and came up with a great idea, arguably both an invention and and innovation. He took a backpack, cut the front out of it and replaced the fabric with chicken wire. He placed a hard rectangular piece of plastic on the bottom to create a rigid, flat surface. Note that these elements are all washable and chew-proof, which is key whenever one is talking about the keeping of small rodents. He added a strap for a water bottle so that the nozzle could fit inside the pack, and the creation was complete – introducing the “guinea pack.” It’s a portable backpack for guinea pigs, handy for whenever you might need to take them to school or a friend’s house. To my surprise, the guinea pig that the inventor tried this out on didn’t really seem to mind being toted around in this smaller case.
Of course, when that same guinea pig was put in the grass in the backyard a few minutes later, she took off. Fast. While comfortable with a certain amount of human relationship and even small containment, guinea pigs are also free creatures who run at the first chance at freedom. I’m quite sure she would have kept going if the inventor hadn’t caught up with her. He promptly put her back in her regular cage. I should add that the guinea did get some fancy fresh greens to munch on for her troubles.
As scandalous as it might be, you’ve probably guessed by now that I’m about to say something about Jesus and his ascension based on this little opening story about guinea pigs. Well, the guinea in the backpack is not a bad image for how we try to understand God. We like to contain God. And hold whatever knowledge we have in a manageable box. And in some ways, I think we’re meant to. After all, the incarnation of God meant that Jesus walked around at a particular time and in a particular place. He was one man at the intersection of all of time and space. This was the localization of the divine. Scholars have called this the scandal of particularity, that impossible idea that the infinite God of the universe was made known in one particular man in Galilee so that God would be accessible to us. G.K. Chesterton once said that great truths can only be understood on small stages. And so, God came to us on a small stage in Galilee.
The unfolding of that particular drama is full of both joy and sorrow. Through the story of Jesus we learn about God’s grace and mercy, about God’s love for the world. And we also see how those truths were tested, as people threw as much sin and brokenness at that man as possible, all the way to the cross. The crucifixion was a dark plot twist that tested the limits of God’s good grace. The cross could have been the ultimate containment, the smallest cage for that grace. But God’s mercy could not be contained. It broke free when Christ rose from the dead.
Luke tells us that the risen Christ recounted these things to the disciples on his last night with them. And then he gave them final instructions, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. In other words, they were to spread the news of God’s mercy, a mercy ready to move from the small stage to the world. Jesus then blessed them and was carried up into heaven, which we honor this night.
Richard Rohr describes the Ascension of Jesus as God’s movement from the local to the universal. The Ascension invites us to see that Jesus’ message of forgiveness and unconditional love were not just true in one time and place, but true everywhere. If grace is true in one place, it’s true all over. True for us, and true for everyone else, too, beyond any box we would care to confine it to. That’s the message of the Ascension. What started as a particularity, a localization of God the disciples could know and love, was now free to reach far and wide. God chose a small stage in order to be accessible to us, but God would not stay there. The good news is that grace cannot be so contained.
For a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with smell, I am not a huge fan of keeping guinea pigs in the house. But they are cute, and my young inventor aced a school project thanks to them. I think of that fourth grader carrying around his favorite guinea pig in the guinea pack, and you know, that’s not far off from how we usually think of God. We hold onto what we know, what we can love. We carry a bit of wisdom around with us. The Ascension, however, reminds us that God cannot fit inside our containers. The mercy of God is wider than we think. The grace of God is more unlimited than we try to calculate. And the love of God is more beautiful than what we can imagine. We just have to start with what we know, and God will take it from there.