Don’t Look to Heaven for Jesus
by Louise Westfall
God could not be everywhere, so God made mothers.
Way to go, all you Divine surrogates! Happy Mother’s Day. My own mother claimed to have eyes in the back of her head and her uncanny ability to know precisely when any of her five children got out of line makes it seem sort of credible. Like the TV cartoon character from my youth whose god-like omnipresence carried a warning: He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere … so beware!
The Scripture reading for this Ascension Sunday is a kind of “locator map” for God. Offered as a letter written by the same author as the Gospel According to Luke (aka “Luke”), the opening section picks up where the gospel leaves off: Jesus who was crucified, has been raised. He’s alive, and hundreds of people have seen him. Remember, though, that this letter is addressed to the Church long after these life-changing events happened; no more eyewitnesses remained. Luke explains why they can’t see the risen Jesus … yet how Jesus is powerfully present everywhere, to everyone. A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, in the first chapter, at the first verse. Listen for God’s Word … to get some clues about where Jesus is these days. [Acts 1:1-11]
The Ascension of Jesus has never been as popular as Christmas or Easter. For one thing, it’s hard to get your mind around. A youth leader in another church tried to generate interest in a unique way involving pop bottle rockets. Yes, the church paid her fine for shooting off fireworks illegally. Then there’s the almost comical artistic renditions throughout the ages — Jesus, surrounded in light and angels, rising off the canvas amid cumulus clouds. I am part of a group of Presbyterian clergy who gather semi-annually in each other’s communities for support, and conversation about best practices and the intersection of church and society. Our visit last week included a tour of The Cloisters on the edge of New York City and I saw one of the cherished artifacts in that museum collection: an intricately-carved ivory cross from the 12th century, depicting biblical scenes beginning with Creation. The Ascension was depicted at the top of the cross, and all you could see were two disembodied feet sticking out from a cloud.
Humans have always struggled to describe the indescribable, and maybe that’s as good a way as any. I love the way Native Americans prefaced stories of truths too wonderful for reason: I can’t say for sure that it happened just this way, but I know it’s true. So maybe we can avoid bogging down in literal descriptions of Jesus’ Ascension and instead seek what’s true about it. Because here’s the thing: the biggest challenge to believing in God is the obvious disconnect between God’s goodness and power and the mess the world is in. If God is so great, why do little children get cancer? If God can do anything, why not put forth a little more effort to rid the earth of violence and warfare? If God is here, how do we know? What’s different about life when it is God-infused?
These questions are not so very different from the one raised by the disciples in their post-Easter conversation with Jesus. Is this the time where you restore the kingdom to Israel? Is this the time when you kick the Romans out and set things right? Are we on the threshold of a great new era of peace and justice? Please let it be now!!!!!!
But God’s ways are not our ways. If the resurrection could be thought of as a sunrise, then we must acknowledge there’s a lot of daylight still stretching before us.
As if Jesus understood their disappointment and impatience (and ours perhaps?), he continued by invoking that small but significant conjunction: BUT …
The gap between resurrection and final curtain will not be one of quiet desperation or unrelieved longing. Instead, Jesus’ followers will receive God’s Spirit and become compelling witnesses to God’s rule of light and life and love. Jesus’ followers will demonstrate the presence of God and the power of God to bring life out of death, transform selfish individualism into loving community, and work for the healing of the whole creation.
It’s his last words to them before he is “lifted up” — no matter how we picture it. Maybe the Hallelujah Chorus was playing in the background, an affirmation that the Lord God omnipotent reigns for ever and ever and ever.
But it’s not over for them. Or us, who seek to follow. And it becomes immediate clear that staring upward is looking for Jesus in the wrong direction. Why do you stand looking up to heaven? Stop your cloud-gazing! But really, why? If Jesus is coming again from heaven, why shouldn’t our focus be heavenward? Why should we stay earth-bound, where things have gotten so bad, so complicated, so painful?
I wonder if the disciples remembered then that Jesus had sent them there. Into the city, the region and to the ends of the earth. To be witnesses to God’s love and transforming power. He gave them a mission, with a promise: I will be with you always, even to the end of the age. Jesus is here, just as he’s always been here. We can safely leave the future in God’s hands.
Friends, the Ascension story calls the Church to redirect our gaze from heaven to earth. To be attentive here, there, and everywhere to signs, puzzles, and wonders that show us this is God’s construction zone. Here, in the churning, vibrant city where great wealth and crushing poverty exist too comfortably side by side. Out in the countryside, threatened by an opioid epidemic beyond all proportion. Over there, in the Middle East, where the “holy” land is torn apart by unholy alliances, willful neglect of human rights, and millennia of resentment and smoldering fear.
Why doesn’t God do something? — the faithful cry. Comes the response: I did; I made you.
Because God made us and sends us to be witnesses and truth-tellers, healers and lovers in our city, Central’s Session has authorized the formation of a Task Force for Community Engagement. This team of people (all ages, members and non-members) will lead us into innovative, cutting-edge, effective engagement with diverse communities downtown and beyond. We will tell the old, old story with new accents that will help us identify the surprising ways God is working in our time and place (the team is being formed right now; if this might be a call for you, please speak with me or another staff member).
For God is here!
* A group of Central folk have formed a new life group exploring racial reconciliation and developing ways to practice it;
* The summer of service offers multiple ways to engage our neighbors in Sunnyside, the San Luis Valley, downstairs in New Genesis;
* The Middle East peacemaking life group is holding conversations with people representing a variety of perspectives. Sherry Kenney will give a presentation a week from Tuesday on positive investments the Presbyterian Church is making in Palestinian business enterprises to move the dial toward economic justice, a proven contributor to peace;
* A growing number of people have requested Central care partners for non-members, people they know who need the support of a loving community communicated through visits;
* The upcoming confirmation class at Central will be the largest in a number of years; we need adult mentors for each of them. You don’t have to be perfect, just willing to engage with a young person as they navigate their faith journey at this crucial time in their lives.
Our vision is trained not to heaven, but to earth, because this is where we expect to find Jesus.
Seems to me the saying got it wrong. Friends, God is everywhere; but God made people: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, neighbors, to make sure everyone knows.