This is the sermon the Rev. Kevin Johnson, St. Alban’s, Theatre Arlington, preached at the diocesan online worship service for the Sunday after Ascension, May 24, 2020.
The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth
So….. here we are on Sunday following the Friday’s Texas Supreme Court’s finding adverse to our position as the continuing, loyal Episcopalians in this part of Texas. And lucky for me (or maybe not so lucky) I was the one scheduled to preach this morning. The one who had to magically find some words to gather up all the varieties of emotions and facts and theologies – gather up all the scattered stuff, put them in a box, tie on a neat ribbon and say “Here you are!” At at least that is what I initially thought I had to do this morning.
Except, the reality of the world is that it’s not in a neat little box. Is it? In fact, the reality of the world has never fit into a neat little box. Has it? Frankly, it seems to me, that to neatly box up all the scattered places we are feeling and thinking and pondering is to dishonor the reality of our humanity, to dishonor the reality of the image of God of which we are made, and thus to dishonor God, Godself.
So, sitting at my desk, fingers hovered over the keyboard, I found myself stymied – pulled between my ego’s desire to fix it all and the honesty that right now, in this liminal place, there is flux.
Today is the seventh Sunday after Easter, but earlier this week we asked Bp. Mayer if we could transfer the Ascension Day readings to today. Earlier, as in before Friday’s announcement. Turned out to be a prescient request. ‘Cause you see, the Ascension of the Christ is all about a state of flux. It’s all about a moment of liminality. All about standing between what was and what could be.
If you’ll remember, following his resurrection, Jesus the Christ hung out with with people: meeting them on the roadways, having breakfast on the beach, letting Thomas stick his fingers in the wounds. On the fortieth day after the Resurrection Jesus gathers his disciples around, blesses them, then – Boom!
– is swooped up into the heavens – leaving the disciples in a liminal place – standing on the threshold between – “OK. I think we’re starting to figure out this whole Jesus thing” and “What just happened?” Between ‘the known’ and ‘the unknown.’ Between “I think we kind of got a handle on this” and “Ooooh! Huh?” A state of flux standing there staring up into the sky, mouths agape.
One of my favorite movies of all time is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. You remember that 1986 hit starring Matthew Broderick as a high school scamp who’s always breaking the rules, but seems to have what’s really important figured out. The regular people love and adore him dancing with him on the parade float; the authorities – represented by Principal Rooney – hate his flaunting of the rules, the fact that he gets away with it, and conspire to do away with him.
Who else in history do we know openly breaks societal rules (healing on the Sabbath, anyone?), has lots of regular folks adoring him (5000 gathered for supper), and despite the work of the official enforcers – just when it looks like things are all lost – rises up and can’t be put down?
If you’ll remember, at the very end of the movie, Ferris, miraculously healed from his death bed, wearing a velour plush striped bathrobe, pokes his head from out of the kitchen, strides into the hall, looks you and me straight in the eye and says, “You’re still here? It’s over. Go home. Go!” Then turns and disappears from our sight.
And there we are, the audience, sitting slack jawed ‘cause it was such an unexpected ending. A lot like the disciples on that fortieth day, gazing up into the sky, mouths agape, wondering “What just happened?” “Is this the end?”
But, of course, while it may be an ending, it is not the end.
Whether it is Luke, or Acts, John, or Mark who tells the story of the Ascension there is a clear sense of confusion, of flux, amongst the followers of Jesus accompanied by a clear admonition that we are not supposed to confusedly stand around gazing at the sky with our mouths agape, wringing our hands forever.
In the gospel of John Jesus, talking about his return to the Father, says “…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…”(John14.12). At the end of Mark, right before “being taken up into heaven,” Jesus commands the disciples to “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mark 16). At the end of Luke Jesus commissions his followers as “witness of the these things” (Luke 24). Then in Acts two men in white robes show up asking “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1.11). I’ve often wondered if these are the same two men in dazzling white clothes Luke has appear at the empty tomb asking the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24.5).
It seems to me that in the moment of Ascension the Christ has brought his followers to a threshold, to a liminal place between what was and what could be.
And it seems to me that standing in that liminal place, on the threshold, there are three choices. The first choice is that a person, or group of persons, could choose to go back to what was – except the problem with “what was” is that “what was” can never be the way it was. That is the “Why are looking for the living among the dead?” reality.
The second choice is that a person, or group of persons, could choose to not leave the threshold, gazing up into the sky with mouths agape, wondering “What just happened?”
Or, the third choice is that a person, or persons, could choose to believe – even in the absence of certainty and facts – believe that beyond the threshold lies “the works that Jesus does and, in fact, even greater works than these.”
I guess the question for us this day is whether we, individually and collectively, want to be “what was” kind of people, “staying on the threshold” kind of people, or “beyond the threshold” kind of people?
Next Sunday we will gather to recount and celebrate Pentecost, that moment in which the Holy Spirit blows into the hearts, minds, and bodies of the followers of Christ, sweeping them out from the safety of the upper room and down into the possibilities of the streets. This Sunday following Friday’s difficult-to-hear-decision we gather to pause and reflect – the gift of liminal space. The gift of flux during which we are asked: “Who is the Christ calling us, the Church, to be?” “What is the Holy Spirit empowering us to do?” “What works even greater than those of Jesus of Nazareth lie beyond this threshold on which we now stand?”
Today, all I really know for sure is that those lines from the end of Ferris Bueller ring in my head – “You’re still here? … Go.”
Finally, I want to leave you with a quotation from Arthur Clarke which seems particularly appropriate for the Ascension and for us standing in this liminal space this day. You know Arthur Clarke best as the co-author of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps Clarke had this day in mind when he wrote –
“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”
May we grasp the power of the Holy Spirit to venture into the impossible.