Still I Rise

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho on Ascension Sunday, June 1, 2014.

Acts 1:1-11

This past Thursday the church calendar celebrated the Ascension, which is the 40th day after Easter, when the church commemorates the Ascension of Christ into Heaven.

We live in a world where people do not get carted off into the clouds. Or at least I don’t live in that world. I have never seen someone ascending to heaven.

But don’t discount these texts because of that fact. The people for whom these texts were written came from a tradition of ascension. Moses ascended Mt Sinai and was gone 40 days, up in the clouds on the mountain, receiving the Law. And Elijah the prophet ascended up into heaven when his time as prophet was over. Ascension-rs

While these ascension texts don’t fit into our 21st century world view very well, they fit the 1st century world view just fine. These texts connect Jesus with the traditions of Moses and Elijah, reinforcing his authority and his connection to the traditions of Israel.

We’ve spent the last 40 days in the celebration of Easter. And it is no surprise that we’d like to stay in Easter all year. This is the celebration of the church where we WIN! God conquers death itself! Take that, Roman authorities! Take that, powers of this world that tell us you’re in charge! Take that, death!

So, perhaps the Feast of the Ascension is a reminder to us that while we are Easter people, while we do live in the reality of the resurrection, we are called to do more than stand around doing the Easter dance.

Because Jesus rises, and then the messengers show up.

I don’t think I would have liked these messengers much.
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward Heaven?”

“Well, if you didn’t notice, Jesus just rose up into the clouds. And while we’ve seen some crazy stuff with him, we haven’t seen that happen before. That’s why we’re looking up toward Heaven.”

I want to fully support the disciples in their looking up to heaven. Because I’ll tell you right now—if and when any of you, or Jesus, ascend up to heaven in my presence, I will stand there staring until the soles of your feet have gone up into the clouds.

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward Heaven?”

“ummm…because we’re scared.
“Because we don’t have a script for how this is supposed to go.
“Because we don’t know how to do this on our own.
“Because we hoped Jesus would create a world that would be noticeably different than this one, where we’re still living in occupation.”

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward Heaven?”

“Because, if we’re honest, we’re a little confused about this whole embodied faith business. We knew Jesus as a guy who fished with us, who drank wine with us, and who walked around town with us.
And then he died.
And then he rose from the dead.
And still walked around town with us. And now he’s just risen up in to the clouds.
We’re a little confused”.

I think we’ve been struggling ever since that day with what it means that God became human and lived among us. Until he left and went into the clouds.

It is a tension the church has struggled with ever since.

Do we look toward heaven, waiting for some day in the future when everything will be great and God’s Kingdom will be seen?

Or

Do we focus our attention right here and now, looking for God’s Kingdom in the midst of this earthly life?

Are our very bodies, imperfect and messy as they are, the way we know we are Godly?

Or

Is it only our soul, currently caged in flesh, that’s divine, waiting for its chance to be free and ascend to God?

The poet Maya Angelou died this past week. She wrote her first autobiography, “I know why the Caged Bird Sings”, when she was 40. After her death, many people commented something to the effect of “the caged bird is free at last”.

We understand that sentiment. For people who experience much difficulty and pain in life, there is something comforting about the idea of setting aside our human, embodied existence, and joining Jesus up in the clouds.

But one blogger wrote this:
“I beg to differ. Angelou is not in heaven “now.” Her writings show a joyful person who was never not in heaven. To me, an ongoing theme of her remarkable work has always been its full-on, all-in commitment to living life in the kingdom.

That’s God’s kingdom in the here and now. Angelou wasn’t waiting for some pie-in-the-sky release to an ethereal realm.”

And I was reminded of our Ascension tension. We want to locate God’s kingdom somewhere other than right here and right now. Heaven will be better.

Roman occupiers will be gone.

Cancer will be gone.

Racism will be gone.

Judgment and bigotry will be gone.

Sexism will be gone. Women won’t be killed by men who hate women because they feel entitled to women’s bodies, as happened last week in the shooting in Santa Barbara.

War and violence will be gone.

Angelou got the title for her book from a poem by poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings
–
I know why the caged bird sings.

One thing Angelou came to understand, through the pain and difficulty she experienced, is that we don’t have to wait for heaven for life to be beautiful. It is beautiful NOW. She wasn’t going to save the singing for after the cage was removed.

Singing is for NOW.

Our emphasis shouldn’t be on the cage. It should be on our reasons to sing.

Our embodied human existence is good, and pleasurable, and worth enjoying and celebrating.

NOW.

We aren’t called to endure this human life just so we can be freed for our heavenly one later.

Singing in the midst of the cages of cancer and violence, of anxiety and loss, is an act of Christian HOPE.

I wonder if Jesus allowed his disciples to witness his ascension to remind us of the importance of rising.

Our ascension, though, isn’t quite like Jesus’. We will not ascend to the skies tomorrow, I don’t suspect.

Perhaps ascension is a frame of mind for how we live between the now and then. It is how we continue to work for God’s kingdom, where those caged by pain and trauma are free at last, free at last. But it is also how we live right here, and right now, enjoying life and liberating people for a better life today.

We rise too.

We rise, above those things that try to limit us, to keep us from being the people God has called us to be.

We rise. By challenging ourselves to continually understand God and this journey in new ways.

We rise. By helping other people rise—out of poverty, out of hunger, out of loneliness and loss.

We rise. By working for justice, so all of God’s children can live their lives in freedom and peace, with the same rights and privileges we take for granted.

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward Heaven?”

We look to heaven because we need the reminder to rise.

Here’s a video of Maya Angelou reading her poem Still I Rise.

As Jesus rose into the clouds, he left his disciples with these words:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

Friends, like the first disciples, we are called to be witnesses to Christ’s Ascension.

In the midst of this messy, earthly, beautiful, joy filled, tragic, and pleasurable life, we are called to rise—

witnesses to God’s kingdom both here and to come—

and sing a song of hope, so others may rise too.

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