Listen to the sermon from Sunday, May 13, 2018, titled “Why Do You Stand Here Looking Into the Sky?” by Rev. Stephanie Cooper.
One night, a mother and her young son were in the kitchen preparing dinner for the family. The mother asked the son if he would grab a can of black beans out of the pantry. The young boy said, “But mom! It’s dark in there! I’m scared of the dark!”
She said, “Son, you don’t have to be afraid. Don’t you remember? God is with you everywhere you go, even in dark pantries.”
So the young boy thought about that for a moment and then walked over to the pantry. He slowly opened the pantry door and stuck his face to the cracked darkness and yelled, “God! If you’re in there, hand me a can of black beans!”
Today in our Christian year we celebrate the “Ascension of our Lord”, the day that marks the end of the Easter Season and prepares us for the coming of the Holy Spirit in Pentecost next week. After Jesus was reported missing from the tomb, many of his followers reported seeing him and even eating with him.
Have you ever wanted to pause life? Take a snapshot of what was happening because it is just so good you don’t want the moment to end? If you’re a fan of the TV series “The Office” you’ll remember Jim and Pam taking fake snapshots of those moments they didn’t want to forget. I call it “life pause”. Sometimes I literally call out “life pause” look around, try to bask in as much of that moment as I can before that time slips away and the moment is gone.
Those moments of big belly laughter. Pure bliss. Beautiful sunsets. Being surrounded by love with those you love. Empowering speeches.
After the roller coaster ride our disciples had been on, I imagine this is how they felt. Their leader was executed by the state in the most gruesome way possible, they scattered not quite sure what to do, but then, people keep seeing him and even have been sharing meals with him like in the old days. And then it happens for you. A shared meal with your friend you thought who you thought was dead and gone. If we can just hold onto this moment, all will be well. Life pause.
But we know that isn’t possible. In fact, that is the heartache and beauty of this life is that it is every-flowing, always changing, moving like a stream.
So on this Day of Ascension, we find Jesus imparting final wisdom to our disciples. He then blesses them, and then is lifted into the heavens before them and then… is gone.
I imagine some of you know this, but today’s Acts reading and today’s Luke reading are paired together intentionally by the lectionary folks. Luke and Acts are widely accepted as two parts to the same story, written by the same author around 80-90 CE. In fact, the call to worship, the Luke reading is like the ending to a great novel and the Acts reading is the beginning to the sequel.
My favorite part, though, of these two readings is where the action picks up in the sequel. Try to put yourself there. The author begins with the recap… Jesus imparted wisdom and then was lifted up and taken away and then the scene opens with the disciples standing there staring off into the sky.
It feels like a circus could have been going on around them and they would have had no clue.
Because two men in white clothing (presumably angels) come and stand among them. They’re clueless that they have company, so the men in white clothing ask:
“Why do you stand here looking into the sky?”
Good question. Why are they standing there looking off into the sky? Are they holding onto the moment trying to make it last just a little longer? Are they hoping Jesus might pop back down with a “just kidding!”?
Or are they paralyzed by the fear of the unknown, of the “what’s next”, of what it means to go on doing this thing without Jesus around?
“Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” the men ask.
What a question. Because we all do this. We all have these moments where we literally miss what’s going on around us because we are so focused on some tunnel vision. Whether that’s
- an over-spiritualized Christianity about going somewhere else when we die,
- or the need to conform into who we think we need to be to please a domineering God,
- or the inability to see Jesus sitting on the front steps of the church hungry for a meal and some conversation…
“Why do you stand here, looking into the sky?”
Or maybe it’s fear. Fear has the ability to paralyze us and hold us in place, unable to make a move in any direction. Fear of change. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the new. Even if it is good and right and needed. We can find ourselves staring off into the sky.
“Jesus come back. I’m scared. I don’t know what to do.”
The angels approach the disciples and they don’t prod, they don’t force, they don’t make assumptions about the disciples or their intentions, but they simply ask “Why?”
What a great place to start.
When a child or a teenager makes a mistake, isn’t it more helpful to process with the “why” instead of assuming where they are coming from?
When a partner disappoints you, isn’t it best to try to seek where they are coming from with a “why”?
When we as a church are working to move forward through this Interim towards the future of UBC, we have to start with the “Why”. Why have we done things the way we have? Why have we chosen to stay on this corner of 22nd and Guadalupe? Why do we enter through the back alley entrance and why do we have soul food Sunday?
It is in the question of “why” that we are able to give space to process feelings. It opens a space for the Holy to enter in through vulnerability and without presuppositions. Children and youth, whose frontal lobes aren’t fully developed, can work through their gut reactions to try to process why they may done what they’ve done. Partners are given space to lean into the safety of their relationship and churches are allowed the room examine their true identity, past, and relevancy for the gospel message for today.
The angels don’t make assumptions, because… you know what happens when you assume.
They ask the disciples why- “Why do you stand here staring off into the sky?” They invite the disciples into the vulnerable space where they are free to process their fears and the unknown so that they might step out in faith to carry the Christ light into the world.
It’s like my friend, who on this mother’s day, posted on Instagram about her daily fear of being a single mother of two in NYC. She said wrote that daily she feels overwhelmed, inadequate, and scared. But daily she chooses to step out of her fear of the unknown and into the bustling streets of New York to provide her kids with a vibrant, wholesome life.
When we are given the space to process our fear, we can take our spiritual blinders off to see the world around us. It can be like turning a light on in a dark room.
When we move our gaze from the sky to this fleshy, earthy, human world, we can really begin to understand this God who put on flesh and bones and dwelt among us, even for just a little while, to show us the way to live. We can name, that when fear is met with the space for vulnerability of courage, we can look into the eyes of those we share this life with, those we share meals with to encounter the Holy in such tangible real ways.
We can follow this incarnate God: Who fed the hungry, who wept with the grieving, who loved the unlovable, who actively questioned the systemic oppression of the Empire and who willingly gave himself to non-violent resistance, even to the point of death on a cross.
The incarnate God invites us to move our gaze from the sky to the earth because there is work to do.
“Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” Jesus has shown you the way! Step out of fear and into the light! Go- you’ve been witnesses to the things that Jesus has done so go and do likewise! Feed the hungry. Grieve with the grieving. Love the unlovable. Question the Empire. Stand up against injustice. Welcome the stranger. Bear witness to this different way of being in the world, for THAT, my friends, is where the kingdom of God reigns.
Thanks be to God!