Sunday Sermon from Ascension Sunday, May 12, 2013
Text: Acts 1:1-11
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa
I'm sure you all know what today is, the day when we worship the one "far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come." That's right, it's Mother's Day. But of course today is also the day in the church calendar that we call Ascension Sunday - when we remember this text from Acts and the story of the resurrected Christ ascending in the cloud to reign at God's right hand. And so I suppose you can decide for yourself which one of those occasions you'd like to hear in the words of the letter to the Ephesians. Maybe it's just because my mother is a Biblical Scholar, but that's actually how I inscribe all of her Mother's Day cards... "Dear 'one above all rule and authority and power and dominion...,' please enjoy these chocolates..."
The primary text for Ascension Sunday, however, comes not from Ephesians but from the opening of the Book of Acts. Now, the Book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke are widely assumed to be written by the same person; they're meant to be read as as one story in two parts; however, they overlap in this very strange fashion, which is to say that the last appearance of Jesus in Luke's story of his life is not the last chapter of the Gospel of Luke but rather the first chapter of the Book of Acts. So here we are, forty days after the resurrection, and the disciples finally press the question: "Lord, is this the day when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?" And Jesus gives a typically evasive answer - "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority." - honestly, it's not like being resurrected has made Jesus any better at transparency. But then the next think they know, Jesus was lifted up off of the ground, and Luke tells us that a cloud came and took him from their sight. Which is, that one minute he was there, and one minute he wasn't. Which is, at least in the opinion of this Biblical scholar, kinda crazy.
At this point the disciples are doing what I think is the most rational response to the situation, which is to say that they are standing on the ground staring into the sky and not having the foggiest idea what to think. One minute he was standing there talking, and right after that a cloud came along and made him disappear. And I think what you do in that situation is that you stare at the sky for a while, because you don't want to miss whatever the next crazy thing is that might happen. It would have been far stranger if, just moments after Jesus's disappearance, if Peter had turned to the rest of the disciples and said, "Well, I guess that's that. Who needs a drink?" Which is all to say that the disciples are engaged in an entirely rational response, perhaps the only rational response, and yet just then a couple of men in sparkling white clothes appear and ask them why they're acting crazy: "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." And I just don't get it. I mean, he went up. They're staring up. It's totally reasonable. And the men in sparkling white treat them like they're crazy.
Maybe I could let go of it if it weren't a repeat violation. You may remember them from Luke's account of the empty tomb: the women come and find Jesus's body missing and then two men in sparkling white come and ask why they seek the living among the dead. And of course it's a beautiful Easter morning question but it's also just kind of insulting; of course they expected to find him in the tomb. It's the only reasonably expectation they could have. Of course they brought ointments for the treatment of his body. It's what custom dictates then to do. The women are acting in completely reasonable and rational ways, and the men in sparkling white treat them like they're crazy. Which is about the point when I begin to wonder if they are not so much the men in sparkling white as they are perhaps the men in white coats here to take them away. Maybe everybody here is a little crazy. After all, the women at the tomb run to the disciples and say some crazy-sounding things: that the man crucified has risen from the dead. And after the ascension, the disciples go back to Jerusalem and say some crazy-sounding things: that the crucified and risen Messiah went up into sky and vanished into a cloud. It sounds crazy. And maybe the men in white coats are exactly what they need.
But of course the problem is that we stand here and say the exact same crazy-sounding things: that a virgin-born son of God wielded supernatural powers over nature and human disease and vanquished demons and resisted Satan and resurrected the dead and rose himself from the grave and then vanished into a puff of smoke. We say some crazy-sounding things. And with all due deference to real diagnosable mental illnesses, and not meaning to take the term lightly, I ask you seriously, are we crazy? Are we crazy for standing here on Sunday morning and proclaiming the power and love and forgiveness of an invisible God? Are we crazy?
Now, I suspect we could agree that there are people who do crazy things in the name of Christianity. Or perhaps you would prefer to think of it as though yes there are crazy Christians but thankfully we happen not be them. A Huffington Post essay in the early days of the 2012 election seems make this clear enough, asking "the moderate Protestants, liberal Catholics, open-minded Unitarians, and the generally NOT crazy Christians to get up, stand up and make it known that not all who believe in the doctrine of Jesus Christ ... are narrow-minded misogynists, sexual repressionists, moral dictators, delusional cultists," etc., etc., etc. Doesn't that just get you excited for the next election? I mean, isn't it great, being the sane kind of Christian? And yet what sane Christian could possibly say what we say week after week. What sane Christian could come into this sanctuary from the brokenness and bitterness and hostility of the world and proclaim the Lordship of a gracious God and the hope of the fullness of time, week after week? They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
We're so desperate to fight this battle. No, you see, they're the crazy Christians, not us! In an increasingly secular, increasingly rational world, we're so desperate to fit in: No, you see, we're rational, too! We're the good guys! We're the reasonable ones! We like evolution, we like astronomy, we like all science! We can even talk the language of science, say about the evolutionary benefits of religion or the neuropsychological advantages of spirituality. Did you know about the prosocial effects of being in a faith community? What about the microbiological effects of prayer? Here on the reasonable end of the Christian spectrum we can do our best evangelism with a copy of The Bible in one hand and Scientific American in the other. We can map it all out for you; we can lay it all on the table for you; we can sell you on all of the best possible reasons for believing, never stopping for a moment to consider that the thing we believe just isn't that reasonable.
I think Luke knows it. I think Luke knows that the story he's telling just sounds crazy. Yes, it's true that the men in white coats come along and ask questions that make the disciples sound crazy, but in fact those same men for Luke's original audience would count as a kind of evidence. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Jewish Law requires the presence of two witnesses to corroborate the commission of a crime, like, for example, the theft of a body. The number becomes something of a mandatory minimum; in order to tell a credible story, you need two witnesses. And so it's no surprise that these two men appear just when Luke needs them, at the most critically insane moments; they appear to make it all seem credible. But of course we are reasonable enough to know better: the men in white coats are just obscure figures in a Bible passage; in and of themselves, they don't prove anything, except this: that even Luke knew that the story he was telling was just a little crazy. That the story of the empty tomb and the story of the ascension on a cloud are stories that touch the very boundary of the natural world, or, more to the point, stories where the unnatural world breaks through and touches us. Luke knew that there was something a little crazy in this story; no wonder he sends for the men in white coats.
All of which is to make two points this morning, the first of which is that, as reasonable as we may also be, it's okay for us to be a little crazy. To admit that this thing we believe - no matter how many layers of scientific inquiry and deductive theology we put on top of it - to admit that the cornerstone of what we believe isn't a reasonable thing. It's not a matter of evidence or logic or proof; quite to the contrary: it's a leap of faith. And of course there are degrees of difference; of course there are ways of being Christian that are crazier or less reasonable than others, and to say that the first step of Christian discipleship is a leap of faith is not to say that reason itself is the enemy or that the two cannot coexist. But I do think every once in a while we need a reminder that what we do here, that what we say here, that the radical and revolutionary claim that Jesus Christ is Risen, that it's all just a little crazy. But of course, in its own way, the world is also a little crazy. Just because we are children of the age of reason does not make the world a reasonable place, not beset as it is with brokenness and bitterness and hostility, not overrun as it is with the the violence and avarice of the human heart. Just because we're a little crazy doesn't make the whole world sane. Who's crazier: the disciples staring reasonably into the clouds or the men in white coats asking them why they bother? I guess it depends on your perspective. I guess it depends on who's running the asylum.
That's the turn in this text. It's just a few lines earlier, in that evasive answer to the disciples' original question. Remember what Jesus said: "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority." It's not for them to know, not because Jesus just feels like keeping some things confidential but because there's something about God and something about God's love is beyond what we can understand, that God is not ours to discover or describe or imagine or investigate. That's the turn in this text, and the other point for this morning: that we're a little crazy, and everybody's a little crazy, and the world's gone mad, but thanks to be God for having some perspective. Thanks be to God for having some authority. What we celebrate at Easter Sunday is Christ risen from the tomb; what we celebrate on this Ascension Sunday is Christ risen above us: above the craziness, above the insanity, above the the slings and arrows of our mad fortune, above the brokenness and bitterness and hostility of the world, above the violence and avarice of the human heart. "One above all rule and authority and power and dominion," Christ Is Risen!
One final story. In the early 1850's, in Barbour County in what is now West Virginia, there lived a woman named Ann Marie Jarvis, though she had moved as a young girl from just up the road from here in Culpeper. She'd married a pastor's son, but young Ann Marie was not content simply to raise their children and show up in church on Sundays. Instead, she poured her energy into the community. She began an campaign to improve the health and sanitary conditions in Barbour County, largely by motivating other young mothers in the area: together, they began the organized inspection of milk, long before state or federal requirements dictated it. They raised money for medicine and secured training for themselves in physical evaluation and treatment. They called themselves the Mother's Day Work Clubs.
Soon enough, however, the war broke out. When Virginia seceded from the Union, Barbour County, along with the rest of modern day West Virginia, refused, meaning that Ann Marie's life now teetered precariously close to the front lines. But instead of picking a side or running for the frontier, she instead called on the Mother's Day Work Clubs to declare neutrality. Throughout the war, she and her clubs provided food, shelter, and medical attention to soldiers on both sides. But even after the war officially ended, tensions nonetheless ran high, and so state and local officials began searching for a way of providing some visible sign of reconciliation or unity. Lo and behold, they called on Ann Marie. And so it came to be one day in 1868, at the Taylor County Courthouse, that Ann Marie organized a "Mother's Friendship Day," inviting local soldiers and families from both sides of the fighting: Union Soldiers on one side, Confederates on the other, the fog of battle still hanging heavily on the ground. The band played "Dixie" and "The Star-Spangled Banner" and, appropriately to a season of new beginnings, "Auld Lang Syne." I suppose the idea was that a nation divided by the madness of war, a country divided brother against brother needed the intervention of one unquestionable authority: their own mothers. History failed to record anything that Ann Marie may have said but I imagine it to be something like "I don't care which one of you started it; you're both going to end it, right now." It was, by contemporary report, a great success -- so much so that, several years later, reconciliation between the states having been soobviously accomplished, the annual ceremony was ended.
Decades later, after Ann Marie's death, her daughter, Anna, embarked on a crusade to enact a holiday for mothers in her own mother's memory, a crusade that found its success in 1914 when then-President Woodrow Wilson signed Mother's Day into law. This is the holiday that we now celebrate, the modern occasion for the sending of carnations and the delivery of breakfasts into bed and no shortage of long-distance phone calls. Certainly it is an honorable occasion. But when it began, the world didn't need carnations or greeting cards or eggs benedict. When it began, on that day at the Taylor County Courthouse, the mad world needed somebody with anything like perspective; somebody with the authority to take charge. Suffice to say that on that day at the Taylor County Courthouse, the world needed its mother. Amen.