May 16, 2021
Ascension Sunday, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
Last Thursday was Ascension Day, forty days after Easter, when the church tells the story that shifts Christian narrative from Jesus in a historical body to Jesus in the church. Luke even tells the story twice, once at the end of the gospel as a conclusion, and then again when he starts his second book, “The Acts of the Apostles.” This time the story serves as a jumping off point. If you want a fun afternoon project, pull out your Bible and read the gospel lesson that I just read, and then turn to the first chapter in Acts and read the same story, told in a different way. Note the differences in the telling of the story.
When I was thinking about these texts, I went down the Google rabbit hole looking at paintings of the Ascension. Most of them are like this.
Show picture on screen here..
They’re very literal. Jesus is usually floating upward into a big cloud, almost like that hot air balloon getting away at the end of The Wizard of Ox. Everyone crying out, “Oh no,” and trying to stop the ascent. There’s either a lot of drapery around Jesus as if he decided to take a load of whites with him; or he’s just wearing a little napkin because apparently the resurrected body has a six pack.
But then I came across this one by Salvador Dali.
Show Dali, “Ascension”
I was mesmerized—captured you might way. The painting felt more spiritual than literal. The actual face of Jesus is already lost to the church. Yet you have his feet, which are dirty. I began to contemplate dirty feet as a symbol of the risen Christ. Then there is the golden circle that seems large enough to connect both the heavenly place and the earthly place. Christ at the center. One commentator suggested that it’s not clear if he’s going or coming again. I wondered. Could it be both at the same time? Dali painted this painting during a spiritual awakening as he was drawn to the Catholic Church. He was also captured by nuclear science. He said at one time that the nucleus of the atom is the essence of Christ. You begin to see the atom in the painting, or is it a sunflower, the circular, mathematic movement of seeds around perfect sphere. It made me imagine that Jesus ascends into the molecular structure of the cosmos. Heaven is in the sunflower. And then I stared at his hands. The more I looked at the painting, the more I fell in.
Add the sound of a phone ringing.
And then my phone rang.
It shocked me back to my desk, to my task list, to the work of the church. The moment of presence with that painting; gone in an instant.
I’m not sure what happened literally on that mountain, but this spiritual experience of being captured and then losing it, seeing and then being refocused, feels very real. In the story that is told in Acts, the disciples stare into heaven, marveling and joyful about this Jesus. But then two messengers, with voices that no doubt sounded like a cell phone ringing, say, “What are you doing staring off into space? Go be the witnesses.”
There are two movements in the Christian life, one in which we let everything go and we stare into the love of God. We’re captured by it. Or we wait for it to capture us. The mystics call this contemplation. Just letting yourself experience God as pure, heavenly love. Jesus even gives the disciples instructions, “Wait and be clothed from on high by the Spirit.”
If you want to take your fun Ascension bible project to the next level. After you’ve compared the two accounts of the ascension, just sit and let yourself be loved. Do you know, do you really understand, how much God loves you? How precious and beautiful you are?
I don’t know about you, but that’s really hard for me. It seems easier to focus on mistakes, or what’s left undone, or even the list of things for tomorrow, to turn over and over the fears that nag in the background. But to stop and simply receive love and mercy; God’s grace. That’s really hard. We have to learn how to do it and practice it.
Yet, without it, without love, as St Paul says, we’re just a clanging gong or a noisy cymbal.
But equally important are the voices of angels that say, “What the heck are you doing staring into space? You need to get off the mountain and witness to what you’ve seen. You be the body in history that’s filled with such love. You be the reign of God in the world.”
Today, after worship, we will cast votes on important proposals now before this congregation. “Rise, O Church” has been our project to renew the sanctuary, to enhance our song, to be more welcoming and accessible, and to serve the community. The sanctuary is the place where we have a concentrated experience of God’s love. Many of us have learned that during this pandemic; how important this place is for gathering and waiting, being clothed in wisdom from on high. In a sense, it’s our mountain, where we experience Jesus; where we’re captured by a love that is always beyond our own. The Big Love. That’s for all. The sanctuary is where we’re drawn into God’s beauty; God’s heart on display to hear and touch and taste.
But if we get stuck on the mountain; if this project is just about us, our own private spiritual experience, a way of inscribing our current preferences on a generation to come, it’s not worth the time and expense. If the project is just about maintaining how we’ve always been, the people who are nervous about expenditures on a building are right. It’s too much.
But if this investment fuels our faith to pick up the work of love and compassion in the world; to be wildly generous and advocates for justice; if we leave this building loved and inspired, prepared to make the whole world a sanctuary of love and peace, then we will have found the rhythm, of being in God and sent to the world that God loves. In that way, the other project that we’re voting on at the meeting, to turn Room 99 into an apartment that houses an immigrant family is part of this mysterious and joyful movement in and then out, welcome and hospitality turning into mercy and kindness and a better world.
“Rise, O Church,” in the end, is a hymn. We’ll sing it at the end of the service. The poetry by Susan Palo Cherwien fits the pattern. The first three verses are about the Trinity, each verse beginning with the active command, “Rise.” Rise, O Church like Christ arisen. Rise, remember well the future. As if ascending, Rise into God’s life. Cherwien chose the word “rise” instead of “resurrection” because it looks forward, not backward. But the fourth verse surprisingly, poetically shifts the perspective. It starts with a different word, “Service be our sure vocation.” That last verse is like the angels on the mountaintop, “Why are you standing there? Get out of here!”
The poetry is perfect for this project. Of course, the real reason we chose the hymn is because Tim Strand wrote the tune Surge Ecclesia. I asked him what he thought about as he wrote the tune. Here’s what he said:
Tim’s interview video clip.
The harmony propels the tune.
The Spirit propels the church.
Love transforms the world.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia!
Copley, John Singleton, 1738-1815. The Ascension, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=50177 [retrieved May 12, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jesus_ascending_to_heaven.jpg.
Dali, Salvador, 1904-1989, Ascension, Fair Use.