The following was delivered May 8, 2005 on my first Sunday at Murphys First Congregational Church. Feel free to share your responses, thoughts, insights or other comments.
Today is a very important day because it begins a journey of faith for First Congregational Church and for me as your Interim pastor. I am excited about being with you because I am convinced that this period of time between settled pastors can be a time of real growth, of positive change, of moving to even greater levels of church life than you have experienced to this point.
Today is Ascension Sunday, a time to observe that often overlooked event in our faith history when Jesus, after his resurrection, and before the day of Pentecost, ended his time on earth and ascended into heaven.
In the very first chapter of the book of Acts, the disciples were together, with the risen Christ among them, and they asked him if now was the time that he would “restore the kingdom to Israel.”
“Don’t worry about dates and times,” he said. “The important thing is that you witness to me, here and wherever you are, and as far as you can go.” And with that he lifted up and rose into the sky, and was gone.
This was totally unexpected. No one knew what to say. Until a couple of other fellows -- or were they angels? – spoke up and said “Why are you gazing into the sky? Jesus who was taken from you will return and will be with you.”
So these disciples got together with the other believers and devoted themselves to a time of prayer as they awaited and anticipated what would happen next.
I find this text very fitting for today because it is all about rising, about Jesus rising to the heavens. And it becomes for us about rising to meet the challenge and opportunity of this Interim time.
The story is about Jesus lifting off into the air. Now in the first century they believed in a three story universe – there was earth (which was of course flat at that time), there was the underworld below the earth, and there was heaven which was over the earth.
In Luke’s thinking when Jesus ascended he went up a certain distance and into the heavenly realm. It was like Jim Carey at the end of the film The Truman Show. In that film the main character sails off into the sunset, but instead of finding a sky that goes off into infinity, he finds a door that opens into a whole different realm of existence.
But the richest and the most important meaning of the ascension story is not found in a literal reading. For 21st century people in this day of space travel, and understanding the far reaches of our universe, there are difficulties with a literal reading.
CARL SAGAN ON THE ASCENSION
Bishop Spong tells the story of being at a conference with his friend Carl Sagan. Now as you may know Carl Sagan was an outspoken atheist, but what you may not know is that he enjoyed talking about God. Bishop Spong said he was approached by Sagan who asked,
“Jack, have you ever thought about the story of the ascension of Jesus from the standpoint of an astro-physicist?”
Spong said he hadn’t, so Sagan continued,
“Think of this. If Jesus had ascended as the Bible says, and if he had traveled at the speed of light – 186,000 miles per second – do you realize that by now he would not have even left our galaxy yet? And there are billions and billions of other galaxies out there!”
For many modern folks – maybe for some of you -- a literal reading of the story is difficult. The good news is that the ascension is most importantly about Jesus rising into the higher consciousness of the disciples. That’s what the story tells us. It is about that group of believers – in an “Interim Time” by the way -- between Resurrection and Pentecost -- coming to a new understanding of themselves and their place in the world.
The disciples at that time were in a transition... from dependence on the presence of Jesus with them to an understanding of his presence within them.
The mood of the story is a positive one – it is about rising, moving upward; it is about awareness, it is about meeting the challenge of the future. In other words it is a story with unique relevance to First Congregational Church.
I say this because that is the mood needed in this church – the mood of thinking upward, of rising to meet this new challenge that is yours, of growing in your awareness of who you are now and what your place will now be in the world.
STILL I RISE
The mood reflected in the ascension story and that is needed by us today, is captured well by Maya Angelou in her poem, Still I Rise:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise…
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Hers is a powerful message of choosing the upward way, deciding to be a person who will rise to the occasion.
My hope for this church is that together we will make this transitional time an opportunity to develop our life together, to come to terms with history of this congregation, to move into the future with an attitude that will make the months and years to come the best yet.
But to do that will require a strong will, as we sense that presence within us of the one whose rising so long ago made all the difference in the world.