June 2, 2019

Ascension Sunday, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Acts 1:1-11

In 1990, I traveled to the Holy Land with two professors from seminary. I vaguely remember the holy sites to be impressive, but I what I remember most was my dawning awareness of the political realities on the ground.  I was largely unaware of the depth and tragedy of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.  We traveled, despite State Department warnings, during the time of the intifada, a Palestinian uprising in Gaza and the West Bank against Israeli occupation. I had never seen a machine gun before except on television, yet a man carried one in the seat behind me on the bus. We encountered tear gas in the streets of Jerusalem.  Most shops were closed in protest, the streets of Jerusalem abandoned and eerily quiet.

We visited Augusta Victoria Hospital.  Run by the Lutheran World Federation, it is the only specialized care center for Palestinians in the West Bank.  At the time of our visit, the hospital was known for its treatment of gunshot wounds.  Now, it’s known for its cancer center, dialysis, and pediatric care.

This week, Barbara Rossing, a new Testament professor, reminded me that Augusta Victoria is built on the highest point of the Mt. of Olives, and the hospital compound contains one of the three Churches of the Ascension on the hill.  From the bell tower—you might say from an Ascension vantage point–you can see the divided Jerusalem:  an Israelis settlement, the separation wall snaking its way through the city.  The church is next door to land called Area E-1, the last remaining piece of land that connects East Jerusalem to the rest of the Palestinian territory.  Many nations have called on Israel to scuttle its plans to build there.[1]

In the apse of the Church of the Ascension, above the altar, is a mosaic of the scene.  Jesus is in the center; his arms open as if he is praying as he ascends.  Your eye is drawn upward to him.  When Luke tells the story of the ascension, he tells us that as Jesus ascended, he blessed the disciples.  As he rose, I suppose he would have seen the city, Jerusalem, divided then as now, Rome against tiny Judah, the powerful squeezing out the poor, hatred roiling in alleys, the holy ground of the earth even then considered real estate that could be occupied and sold to the highest bidder?

Some have suggested that when Jesus returns, he’ll come in judgment because of what he sees on earth.  The story says that he will come as he left.  But the last view of the historical Jesus is with his arms raised in blessing, not in judgment.

The two messengers in white are there in the mosaic, too.  However, they are not paying any attention to the rising Jesus.  They seem to be looking down at the congregation.  Likely, this is the moment when they say, “Why are you standing looking up toward heaven?”

The messengers direct the disciples to look down and to witness to the good news that Jesus is surveying the world in a new way:  a way of blessing, a way that redeems and heals; a way that makes peace and reunites divided peoples; a way that treasures kindness and generosity above all things.

The Ascension really provides the Bette Midler view, “From a Distance.” Many misunderstand the song and think that she’s singing that God is “at a distance.”  But the song is really about the way God sees the world:

From a distance we all have enough
And no one is in need
And there are no guns, no bombs and no disease
No hungry mouths to feed

From a distance we are instruments
Marching in a common band
Playing songs of hope
Playing songs of peace
They are the songs of every [one.][2]

I love the notion that Lutherans built a hospital over the site of Jesus’ very last footprint.  A hospital grounded in the vision of Jesus to heal every child of God, especially those who are poor and without a land to call their own.  Turns out that Jesus already did return to the Mt. of Olives.  Just not on the clouds; but from the ground up as the hospital was built.

Those Germans that built the hospital listened to the messengers. Look down. Build the world you see in the clouds on the ground where you live.  Speak of the vision that you’ve seen.  Speak of the One who is pure and unconditional Love, the one who blesses the creation. And then build this heavenly church as a world that everyone can live in.

Pastor Gordon Braatz, one of our beloved members, calls the church the “basecamp,” where we come to be inspired, to be trained in how to survey the land with the eyes of Jesus, to get the heavenly view of the ground, to be filled with grace and power. And then to go and be the church.  We build the church primarily in the lives that we lead while not in this place.

Every year, Gloria Dei produces an annual report that highlights the ministries that we do together.  They’re important, and they’re impressive.  But it’s the tip of the ice berg.  The true impact comes in how we love the people with whom we have daily contact, not only our families, although sometimes our homes are the hardest places on which to build the church. It’s how we love the people we work with, or pass on the street, or sit behind in traffic, or who are profoundly different than we are. The true impact comes as we make our desks or classrooms, offices or legislatures into little churches of the ascension:  places of healing and grace constructed on exactly the last place Jesus footprint was just made…which, of course, is everywhere.

The true meaning of the Ascension isn’t that Jesus goes away to heaven. It’s the Jesus goes into every moment, every place, every heart.  Jesus isn’t absent but now present in all things.  With us, he’s building a world.

Mary Oliver wrote:  My work is loving the world, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.[3]

And maybe the very practical Lutherans would add “astonished enough to build a church, and a hospital, and an entire society that can raise its hands in blessing.”

[1]“Living the Word,” The Christian Century, By Barbara Rossing, online:  https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-04/ascension-lord?utm_source=Christian+Century+Newsletter&utm_campaign=6196b94a1b-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_09_11_08_32_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b00cd618da-6196b94a1b-82381019

[2]From a Distance lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, A Side Music LLC D/B/A Modern Works Music Publishing

[3]As quoted by Emily Ott in “Living the Word,” The Christian Century, online:  https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/may-30-ascension-luke-2444-53?utm_source=Christian+Century+Newsletter&utm_campaign=6196b94a1b-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_09_11_08_32_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b00cd618da-6196b94a1b-82381019