A Sermon Preached for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson
It seems kind of strange today for me during foraging season, mushrooms everywhere, and my gaze is always directed at the ground! But today the message seems to be “Look Up!”
So the scriptures implore this morning.
Look up with the apostles, as the book of Acts revisits the Ascension of Jesus, rising before our eyes into heaven.
Look up, says the Psalmist, describing how God arises in glory and scatters his enemies; God, who, the Psalmist tells us, like Zeus of old, rides upon the ancient heavens, whose strength is in the skies!
Look up, with Jesus, who, in the gospel of John is in the final hours before his arrest and crucifixion, has just finished his great farewell discourse, and offers a prayer on behalf of his disciples, and so lifts his gaze skyward, as if to direct his words to their intended recipient.
It sounds like a strange invitation given how much our cosmology has changed since these word were first written. We no longer think of the earth as a flattened disc and the cosmic heavens, home of the Divine, as “up”. So, to imagine Jesus’ ascension, boggles the mind, like he’s blasted off into space, and is out there, even now, exploring where no man has gone before, visiting world’s yet unknown.
Introducing, Rocketman Jesus!
Indeed, when we ourselves look up, we now understand that we are only truly looking out and away, into the vast expanse of the cosmos, to the stars and galaxies that are even beyond the reach of our human sight.
Whether it is apocryphally or genuinely attributable to Abraham Lincoln, you might know the quote,
“I can see how it might be possible for a man to look down upon the earth and be an atheist, but I cannot conceive how a man could look up into the heavens and say there is no God.”
For many of us, to look up, regardless of our cosmology or understanding of the Divine, is to look into mystery, wonder, and beauty. When we look up and see as many of you did this Spring, the aurora borealis, shimmering in curtains of color across the night sky, or the moon in full, shining silver and bright, or the first images of the James Webb telescope, peering into the gaseous clouds that make up a stellar nursery, you might begin to imagine that such a vast and wonderful universe only exists by grace, by the purposes of some invisible power greater than ourselves.
But, look around? Down here? That is another matter altogether. When we look around instead of up, we see the decay and the death, the hurt and the hopelessness, the nightmarish realities we’ve created by greed and fear, hatred and envy, the broken planet and divided peoples. Look around and one might begin to wonder if there is any “wonder” left in us, any possibility of a divine spark, any hope that some power greater than ourselves is even there, beckoning us and calling us to live into the better angels of our nature. Look around and you will see that we are drifting apart, as a people, pulling away from those we regard as hopeless cases, as vile and reprobate, as enemies worthy only of scorn.
Look around and you will see, like the galaxies of our universe, expanding away from one another at the speed of the Big Bang, people of different races, politics, religions, and cultures appear to be hurtling away from each other too, the space between our various divisions widening at an incredible and despairing rate, such that the bonds of community that bind us one to another, are stretched to their conceivable limits. Whatever once tethered us together in a great web of humanity, if ever such a thing were true, feels as if it will snap at any moment.
In an interview, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson said that the thing that keeps him up at night, is the knowledge that because of the rapid expansion of the universe, that we humans will one day look out into space, and because we’ve pulled so far apart, we will no longer be able to see any of the galaxies that are now discernible from this vantage on our planet. That the only visible bodies in the night sky that we’d be able to see with any technology at our disposal, would be the stars of our own Milky Way galaxy. Can you imagine that? The vast darkness and loneliness of that view? There will come a day when we will no longer be able to see that the Universe contains multitudes of worlds. It will be as if, says DeGrasse Tyson, as if a chapter was torn from the book of knowledge that we have about the cosmos. And, worse, he says, even now, we have no way of knowing, at this stage of the Universe’s expansion, what other chapters have already been ripped from our book, what things we might once have seen but can no longer perceive.
The same must also be true about our humanity.
All we have to do is look around to recognize that as we separate ourselves one from another, we no longer have the connections that allow us to see and fully know each other, that allow us to understand the complexities of each other’s lives and hearts, the needs, the triumphs, the hurts, and the hopes, so great is the gulf expanding between us. We have withdrawn into our bubbles of carefully crafted media and peer groups and neighborhoods, never interacting with others different from ourselves, never mind, knowing and loving and deepening our connections across those lines.
So, what are we to do?
No, really, what are we to do? I need your help here!
I’ve been wondering about this all week too as I prepared for today’s sermon, praying and hoping that God would spark my imagination, that I’d look up and see some sign in the heavens to set the record straight. Then, out of the blue, I started to remember the stories so many of you have been telling me of late, how you found St. John’s, after years in lockdown, how you needed a place to be in community, or you yearned to find a faith community that didn’t condemn you for your sexual or gender identity, or how you came during Epiphany and heard the readings in the language of the feminine, or heard for the first time that God loves you just as you are, or were in recovery and learned that it was here, at the “church of the open door” that you could explore your relationship and connection to your higher power. And, then I realized the answer of what to do was staring me in the face in the bodies and lives of each of you! Jesus prays this week for the disciples, that seemingly impossible calling, more difficult to believe we could achieve than it is to believe Christ ascended straight up into heaven, that “we all might be one”, just as he and the Father are one!
But, church is, or ought to be, a place where such deep and vulnerable unity is possible. It is in this body that we hear and discover what may have been hidden to us for our whole existence, that wonderful knowledge – God loves us, each and every one, gay and trans and straight, all genders, all races, all people, not in spite of our differences but in them, just as we are made! You see, unlike the laws of physics, which tell us that the universe is forever expanding, we come here and discover that a way has been made that allows us as people to come back together, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, through his presence in our midst, not up there, but down here, on earth.
Which is not to say that what we have here at St. John’s or in the church anywhere is perfect. Far from it. We hurt each other, and mess up, and say the wrong things, and as we come closer together in the midst of our differences, so we are finding our growing edges and ignorances, uncovering our shadows, and bumping into our blindspots– discovering all the chapters of knowledge that, because we once lived farther apart, are missing from the book of our life’s experiences.
Thanks be to God, in and through the Body of Christ our divisions are healed, and we are reconciled to one another across every line of difference. In this place, in this body, we can be a community, more deeply connected and knit together, no matter how much we might otherwise be drifting apart.
Don’t believe it? Don’t look up! Look around!
Look around at the beautiful array of humanity here today – so many different ages and colors and types of people, and growing more diverse by the week.
So, perhaps the wisdom today isn’t to look up, perhaps we should listen to those people who appeared next to the disciples today.
People of St. Paul and surrounding environs, why are you looking up? The Lord will be known to you just as he was in his life, and after his resurrection, in your midst. God isn’t “up there” or on a throne far removed from us in the heavenly places. No, instead, look around you! Look around, God is here, in our midst, just as Jesus descended to be with us, God is still among us, the Spirit moves within and around us, drawing us more closely together, to be the body of Christ alive and active in the world, in the here and now, healing our divisions, empowering us to reach across all lines of difference, emboldening us to proclaim God’s audacious and life-giving love for all that we can see.
Look around, there is no divide or division, no gap or chasm, no line between us so great that God’s love, in Jesus, can’t bring us together in love.