Ascension Sunday

“Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” Don’t you just hate angels with attitude?! Angels are like email—they may be an efficient way to send a message but subtle they are not and tender is beyond them.
Because there has to be something both tender and subtle about what we ponder today. It is subtle. Only Luke really notices it. And he raises it up and makes it this hinge on which his message turns. Volume One ends with it. Volume Two opens with it. Today, just to render the subtlety as confusing as possible, we begin with the end and end with the beginning. And there’s something right about that too. We are in-between. We are waiting. We know we have to go back to the city and wait there —literally sit still. But not quite yet. We are still standing here looking up at the sky.
And there’s the tender part. What kind of witnesses would we be if we could leave so easily the one who has left us?
My mother has a friend. Once upon a time when they were young couples, newly wed, they were a foursome. Alma and Jim and Jean and John. I’ve seen the seaside photographs of cotton-candy and sand castles, of windblown hairdos and held hands. Later, of little ones in pushchairs, wide-eyed, with them parent-proud. But somewhere along the line I understand there was a falling out or at least a falling apart. Distance, silence, little hurts not made up, that kind of thing. And communication cut down to Christmas cards and anniversaries. Yet somewhere along the line that changed again as four became once more two. My father dead and Jean’s husband lost to another woman. And Alma and Jean became again fast friends, united this time not so much by the open future as by memory—by memory and compassion for each other’s loss. But—and I’ve heard them—what they wonder from time to time, in a kind of oneupmanship of grief, is whether it is worse to be widowed or divorced—worse to have the once-beloved taken away or have him leave of his own accord.
“Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” Which is the greater grief: when we lost Jesus through death or when he left of his own accord? What kind of witnesses would we be if we could leave so easily the one who has left us?
Well what kind of witnesses are we? Just exactly what are we witnesses of? What have we seen and what can we tell? How much does Jesus matter to us? How has he changed our world? If the only gospel was to be ours how would it read?

“Stay in the city,” he says, “until you are clothed with power from on high.” For this is about power, this waiting, this witness, the power from on high but also the low-down and dirty power of this world. Who has it. How it works. And how Jesus has destroyed it—even though we do not often see the results.
… Maybe I’m just bearing the grudge of his going a little too heavily but Jesus is a big disappointment to me. His death was a disaster. And though his resurrection kind of makes up for it, it doesn’t put any damn thing right. The rich still oppress the poor, religions still think it is a holy thing to kill for God, bureaucracies still crush the soul, the work of our hands still wounds the world. What the hell has changed with his coming and going? Aren’t the principalities and powers, the dominions and thrones, aren’t they all still in place, brooding over this bent world with their dark wings?
But don’t you think that Jesus asked himself the same things? At home there in Nazareth. “What good have all the prophets been?” I hear him wonder, hear him accuse, “All the history of this chosen people and here we are strangers in our own land, the rich still fatten themselves off the poor, religion still crushes the soul, and the fields blow dry as dust.” But, as Luke tells it, Jesus ups and leaves the life he loves, following his questions to the Jordan where he is drenched first in water and then in Holy Spirit. And there, as he waits, words are whispered in his heart, “you are the child I love.” The rest we know. So began Volume One. But here we are at the beginning of Volume Two. Asking the same questions and waiting the same way. Waiting for that same spirit. Waiting for that same whispered words in our hearts.
Luke needs two books to tell his story. Two books with parallel plot, of oh so very human beings full of questions and soaked with spirit. Witnesses to the words whispered in their hearts. Jesus’ journey comes to an end in Jerusalem. But, picking up where he left off, another journey begins there, in Jerusalem, and spreads out through Judea and Samaria, out to the ends of the earth. Peter and John, Mary and Magdalene, Paul and Barnabas, Lydia who traded in dye, Julia the deacon, Felicity and Perpetua martyrs, Francis and Clare, Ignatius, Francis de Sales, San Lorenzo, and all the martyrs—the witnesses—of Vietnam, of Japan, of El Salvador, even of Oakland.
“Come Holy Spirit fill the hearts of your faithful and we will renew the face of the earth.”