"For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth." ~ Deuteronomy14:2

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Ascension Sky

Thursday June 2nd is the 40th Day of Easter. So as not to confuse, noted here because I left the article below intact. My prayer for you all this Easter Sunday by Helen Steiner Rice: "God, give us eyes to see the beauty of the spring, and to behold Your majesty in every living thing - and may we see in lacy leaves and every budding flower the Hand that rules the universe with gentleness and power - and may this Easter grandeur that spring lavishly imparts awaken faded flowers of faith lying dormant in our hearts, and give us ears to hear, dear God, the springtime song of birds with messages more meaningful than man's often empty words telling harried human beings who are lost in dark despair - "Be like us and do not worry for God has you in His care".
A sermon by Siegfried S. Johnson on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 17, 2009 Volume 1 Number 43, First United Methodist Church, Mountain Home, Arkansas "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father." ~ John 14:12
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven,will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”~ Acts 1:11
This Thursday, Christians throughout the world will celebrate Jesus’ Ascension. The sky this Thursday will be Ascension Sky. If the four gospels declare Easter’s empty tomb, the book of Acts picks up the story with the resurrected Jesus ascending into heaven, an event, according to Luke, occurring forty days after Easter. Clearly, the Ascension is a vital component of the New Testament’s Easter narrative, highlighted in the early creeds of the church. This morning we affirmed our faith together in the words of the Apostle’s Creed, “the third day he rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” In our creeds, the Ascension occupies equal footing with the Resurrection and Christ’s Return. Yet, for most Protestants in North America, the day passes largely unnoticed. Certainly we Methodists don’t emphasize it. This is at odds with the Christian world of the east, where the Ascension is a major feast day within the Orthodox tradition. Even among Protestants the emphasis varies. In Germany, with its strong Lutheran tradition, Ascension Thursday is a school holiday. So central is the Ascension to Lutheran tradition that many churches use the Ascension in their church names. I Googled “Ascension Lutheran Church” and found churches with this name throughout the world, but Googling Ascension United Methodist Church, I found not a single church. What about another of the mainline churches, Presbyterianism? At a denominational site, “What Presbyterians Believe,” I found, “Most Presbyterians consider the Ascension to be an exotic notion, something reserved for Eastern Orthodox Christians or Roman Catholics. We do not typically see Presbyterian churches named Ascension Presbyterian Church. So it may take us by surprise to discover how important the Ascension was to John Calvin. So important to our ancient forbears that they made it a part of the earliest Christian creeds. Early Christians saw the Ascension as a promise of great things to come for all believers.”
Rev. Keenan Kelsey, a Presbyterian pastor from San Francisco, writes of visiting Chartres Cathedral in France, one of the greatest achievements in the history of architecture and a pilgrim destination since the 12th century. Some will recall I spoke recently about the famous labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral. Rev. Kelsey describes her awe in viewing the scenes sculpted in stone, forty-one friezes depicting biblical scenes which adorn this astounding Gothic structure. She writes of the wonder that gripped her as she toured the church when, suddenly, she found herself inexplicably laughing. “Into the hushed and echoing sacred space, into the meditations and whispers of meandering visitors, I guffawed. I surprised and embarrassed myself. I couldn’t help it. In the midst of all the seriousness, the carved scene of the Ascension showed earnest and distressed disciples gazing up, and Jesus’ feet dangling down from the top of the stone frame. It was really very funny.”
Rev. Kelsey was so shocked at her reaction to this frieze which was, after all, depicting an event that is a central part of her faith and creed, that she set out to explore why the Ascension story somehow hadn’t made it in to her theological framework in the same way as, say, the Resurrection. To what extent was her reaction to the frieze an expression of her incredulity at the idea of the Ascension? Perhaps, she wondered, born and raised in the West, had her theology accommodated scientific discovery in a way that disallowed her to conceive of heaven as a physical place in the sky, something that, to her, the Ascension seemed to suggest? Reading her story caused me to reflect on how the Ascension has faded from emphasis in our Holy Land visits. Most Protestant pastors from the United States who lead tours to the Holy Land, me included, don’t take their groups to the Ascension sites on the Mount of Olives. We are careful to point out the magnificent spire of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension, and the smaller Chapel of the Ascension, an octagonal chapel from the Crusader period that covers a footprint which, tradition says, is the last spot Jesus stood prior to the Ascension. I thought of my first visit there when I read Rev. Kelsey’s comments. Looking at the footprint, I had a sense of “Are you kidding?” At least for Protestant pastors from the West, the site conveys more the sense of superstition than of wonder. So I’ve asked myself this week, what is the liturgical and theological significance of the Ascension? What can we learn from gazing into the Ascension Sky?
Well, let’s begin by recalling the Ascension as moment of profound change for the disciples. Change is often experienced as loss and, because it is so uncomfortable, it is often resisted. This is why we read from John 14 this morning, where Jesus prepares his disciples for his Ascension, telling them that when he goes to the Father, he will send the Holy Spirit, and that in the power of this Holy Spirit, “You will do the works that I do, and greater works than these, BECAUSE I am going to the Father.” Ascension Sky was to the disciples, not the feet of their teacher dangling from a cloud, but rather a sky beckoning them toward the blue of the horizon. Ascension Sky is what every graduate is staring at, a change in life filled with promise and potential.
My title Ascension Sky, is my nod to a great film from 1999, October Sky, a true story based on Homer Hickam Jr.’s book Rocket Boys. The story takes place in 1957 when Homer, the son of a tough coalmine superintendent from Coalwood, West Virginia, was a junior in high school. The story begins with Homer’s gaze not skyward, but downward, into the coalmines. He dared not look up. In 1957, few kids from Coalwood were able to go to college. Scholarship opportunities weren’t as abundant then as they are today. Most boys finished high school and were hired to work in the coalmines. Local girls married those boys. Those who did go to college usually did so by winning athletic scholarships. While Homer hated the thought of spending his life in the coalmines, he wasn’t talented in sports, so his future in the mines seemed fairly certain. Homer didn’t dare look up. His gaze was earthward, downward into the mines. Until Sputnik. In 1957 Homer gazed into the heavens, and that October Sky gave birth to a dream. Sputnik, the Russian satellite that was the first to achieve orbit, was visible as it blazed across the sky. It was a world-changing event, a dark and foreboding signal during the Cold War that the Russians were a step up on America’s space program. One of Homer’s friends responded to that fear, “Let the Russians have space. We’ve got rock and roll.” But for Homer, gazing into that October Sky fueled a dream. Homer and his friends, the Rocket Boys, began test-firing their own rockets, enduring much ridicule and opposition from family and community. The opening words of the book are, “Until I began to build and launch rockets, I didn’t know my home town was at war with itself over its children, and that my parents were locked in a kind of bloodless combat over how my brother and I would live our lives.” Some wanted tradition to be honored. Down into the coalmines. Others, particularly Homer’s science teacher, Ms. Riley, who was thrilled at his newfound interest, wanted kids exposed to opportunity to go to college, to have new opportunities.
I see this same struggle in Acts 1, when the disciples say to Jesus, “Lord, is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Ah, it’s hard to shed the old notions. For the kids of Coalwood, the assumption was that graduates’ best opportunity was in the coalmines. For the disciples, the assumption was that their best opportunity would be when Israel ended Roman occupation and stood on her own. Jesus beckoned their eyes to look beyond the Land, beyond politics, beyond kings and emperors. Jesus asked them to look to the world, promising that his Ascension would open the door for the Spirit to come and empower them to spread the Good News of a different kingdom, one of hope and life. It took the disciples a while to adjust to the hope offered when they looked toward the Ascension Sky. And it took Homer and Coalwood time to adjust to the hope he found in October Sky. He began learning all they could about rockets. With an autographed picture of atomic physicist Werner von Braun at his side, Homer began test-firing his own rockets. Though misunderstood at first, his dream led him to develop a high school science project that won the state science fair and, with it, a scholarship to college, and led to a long career at NASA. At his retirement he was training astronauts for Space Shuttle missions.
In the “For What It’s Worth” department, Homer at first didn’t like that the studio rejected his title of Rocket Boys in favor of October Sky. But he was sold on the idea when he realized that October Sky was an anagram of Rocket Boys, i.e., October Sky used the exact same letters, re-arranged, as Rocket Boys.
Perhaps there’s an Ascension Sky lesson in that for the church. If we look skyward, toward an Ascension Sky, we find ourselves open to change, to a re-arranging of our perspective. We refuse to be locked in to one way of thinking. Ascension Sky fuels a dream even as it re-directs our gaze to those around us, to what the church can be, to what we can be as disciples of Jesus Christ within the church – to Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Homer is now retired from NASA. He wrote an article some years back for the Wall Street Journal in which he encouraged the Bush Administration to pursue space, and particularly his passion, SSTO technology — Single Stage to Orbit. That simply means developing spacecraft that can get into orbit without having to drop stages along the way. You can see why it would be the Holy Grail of the space business by simply imagining how expensive it would be if a truck had to throw off several engines every time it made a cross country haul. It’s easy to see the benefits of SSTO. Homer opens his article by quoting Robert Heinlein, “Reach low orbit and you’re halfway to anywhere in the solar system.” In other words, once you lift out of the gravity well of Planet Earth, the vast majority of the difficult lifting work has been accomplished.
Perhaps that’s what Jesus is saying in our passage from John. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do . . . and greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” How could we, the disciples might have pondered, possibly do greater works than Jesus? Perhaps the answer if found in Heinlein’s words: “I’ve done the heavy lifting. Now, you’re halfway to anywhere you want to go. My lift, the lift of my resurrection and ascension, has propelled you away from the powerful gravity well of Death.”
Death and Dust pull at us with an infinitely stronger tug than ever the dusty coalmines of West Virginia could have tugged at Homer’s future. Death inevitably drags us into its shadows, but because Christ has overcome, we too can rise like the phoenix from the ashy dust of death and soar to the heavens. We began the Easter season by singing the words of Charles Wesley’s Christ the Lord is Risen Today,
“Soar we now where Christ has led, following our exalted head; Made like Him, like Him we rise; ours the cross, the grave, the skies.”
We are called to soar with Christ. I hope that this Thursday you will take a moment to gaze into an Ascension Sky, and there be reminded of your high calling. Sources: Homer Hickam, Jr., “The Path to Greatness,” in The Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2001.

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