Monday, May 09, 2016

Feet on the ground and hearts in heaven, a sermon for the Sunday after Ascension Day 2016

Everybody hates goodbyes...

That's something that feels particularly true for me this year, which began with one child moving to Canada for 2 years and another heading off to Ghana on a volunteer project for some months. I'm at that stage of parenthood where I'm always practising letting go – but if I'm honest, I'd rather like my children with me where I am...maybe not under the same roof, but definitely within easy reach for a quick coffee.

Yup - it's fair to say that I'm RUBBISH at goodbyes.

The trouble is, I think, that even the little goodbyes are in some ways a preparation for the bigger ones – those that feel really rather final...I always try to remember, though, that "Goodbye" is the quick way of saying "God be with you" – and that wherever we are, and whatever may happen – that is always and wonderfully true – and even when I'm struggling I can think back to Pat,  a wonderful lady in my last parish, who said to me, a couple of days before her death

“See you later. Here or there”.

 But it's that difference between here and there that we find ourselves caught in – so sometimes it's quite hard to actually see Ascensiontide as a celebration.

 The physical, walking, talking, fish-eating Jesus is gone from our world...– no longer visibly present to us as the man from Galilee, though he is, of course, wonderfully present wherever his Church practises Kingdom living – loving mercy, doing justly, walking humbly with God.

Today, though, I want to share a story with you that looks at the Ascension in a rather different way. Before I begin, I must remind you that whenever we talk about God, we find that our words aren’t really good enough. God is beyond our language just as God is beyond our understanding – so the ways in which we speak are mostly metaphor…using something we do understand to help us describe something that is too big to be limited by our brains or our language.

For example, we often describe Jesus as the Light of the world – but I’m sure that none of you think in terms of a light bulb or even a candle when you pray. We think about God as a rock, but that has more to do with the fact that we know we can rely on God’s loving presence, come what may , rather than counting on any supposed mineral qualities.

So, when you hear this story, which talks about heaven as somewhere up in the clouds, I don’t want you take that too literally. Let's not revert to those weird and wonderful medieval paintings which show a pair of feet sticking out of a white and fluffy cloud.

Ascension tells us something important – but  the language a way of talking about something that’s way beyond speech.

The real meaning of the story…that’s true enough,

So, if you’re sitting comfortably, suspend your disbelief while I  share a story with you that has been told since the days of the early church - by the desert fathers and mothers, sitting around their camp fires -by St Gregory of Nyssa and St Basil the Great - and by many others we won’t get to know this side of Paradise. I heard the story from someone who’d read it in the works of Abba Sayah*…He admits that it’s a story with only the shakiest of provenance - but there is no doubt whatsoever of its underlying truth.

As the gospels tell us, after forty days of resurrection appearances, Jesus knew it was time to leave his disciples – his mother, his brothers and sisters, all his companions in the Way. It was hard to say goodbye, but he knew that the time had come. After all, he was the Truth and we humans can only take so much of that.

So Jesus called them all together on the mountain top, and made his farewells. It was a tearful moment. Mary was crying. John was crying. Jesus was crying. Even Peter, the immovable rock, was reaching for his handkerchief. 
They knew that Jesus had said he would always be with them. But they also knew it wasn't going to be the same. There would be no more breakfasts by the seashore, no more late night discussions around the campfire, no more unexpected jugs of wine…and so they wept.

Jesus was sad too, but he was glad to be returning to his Father, and he knew it was all part of the plan. And so he began to ascend.

As Abba Sayah told the story,  as Jesus began to rise, slowly and gracefully into the air, John just couldn't bear it. He grabbed hold of Jesus' right leg, and refused to let go.

"John?" said Jesus “What are you doing?”

And John shouted back,

"If you won't stay with us, then I'm coming too."

Jesus calmly continued to rise, hoping that John would let go. But he didn’t. And then, to make matters worse, Mary suddenly jumped up and grabbed hold of Jesus' other leg.
"I'm coming too," she shouted.

By now, Jesus’ big exit had obviously been ruined, but he looked up into heaven, and called out:
"Okay, Father... what do I do now?" And a voice came out of the clouds, deep and loud like the rumbling of thunder in the distance.
"Ascend!" the voice said.
"Ascend?" Jesus asked
"Ascend!" the voice replied.

So Jesus continued to rise through the air, with John and Mary holding on until they too were lifted off the ground.
But the other disciples couldn’t bear to be left behind either, so they too jumped on board…and within moments there was this pyramid of people hanging in the middle of the sky. Jesus at the top. John and Mary next. The apostles hanging on below. Quite a sight, if anyone had been watching...

And then - what was this?  Suddenly all kinds of people were appearing out of nowhere…friends and neighbours from around Galilee, people who’d heard Jesus’ stories, people whom he had healed, people who just knew that he was something special…Young and old,-  men, women, children, Jews and Gentiles…a huge crowd – and they too refused to be left behind…So, they made a grab for the last pair of ankles and hung on for dear life. One way and another there was quite a kerfuffle -people squealing “Wait for me” -then startled yelps as they felt themselves seized by the ankle -and above it all the voice of God calling out, “Ascend!"

But all of a sudden, from the bottom of the pyramid, there came the piping voice of a small child.
"Wait!” he shrilled,  “I've lost my dog!  Wait for me”
"I can't wait," Jesus called back, "I don't know how this thing works."
But the little boy wasn't going to be left behind, and he was determined his dog was coming with him. So, still holding on with one hand, he grabbed hold of a tree with the other, and held on with all his might.

For a moment, the whole pyramid stopped dead in the air - Jesus pulling upwards, and the little boy holding on to the tree, scanning the horizon for his lost dog.  But Jesus couldn't stop. The ascension had begun, and God was pulling him back up to heaven.  
At first it looked as if the tree would uproot itself.  But then the tree held on, and it started to pull the ground up with it. Sort of like when you pull a rug up in the middle, the soil itself started moving up into the sky.  And hundreds of miles away, where the soil met the oceans, the oceans held on. And where the oceans met the shores, the shores held on. All of it held on, like there was no tomorrow.

To cut a short story long: Jesus DID ascend to heaven, He went back to his natural habitat, living permanently in the presence of God’s endless love and care and wholeness and laughter. 
But, as Abba Sayah tells it, he pulled all of creation – the whole kit and caboodle – everything that ever was or is or ever will be – he pulled it all up into heaven with him. And there's the truth of the story.

When I'm celebrating Ascension with children I sometimes talk about it as “Christmas backwards”.
At Christmas, we concentrate on Jesus coming to earth to transform us with the presence of God. At Ascension, we focus instead on Jesus taking earth back with him into heaven…
Whichever way you look at it, the work of Jesus was to transform us and the world we live in by infusing everything with the presence of God.
Heaven meets earth; earth is drawn into heaven.

And, as Abba Sayah said. that's where we've been ever since. If we have our feet on the ground but our hearts in heaven, that should make a real difference to how we live our let's do all that we can to demonstrate to everyone we meet  that we are children of God and citizens of heaven.

Over the next week, our Archbishops have invited each and every member of the Church of England to pray with a particular focus “Thy kingdom come”....and to ask God to send the Holy Spirit to help us to live each day as witnesses to God's love and signs of God's kingdom. There are pilgrimages and prayer vigils, a huge celebration for Christians from all over the Midlands in your very own cathedral, and all sorts of other ways that you might get involved with this. If nothing else, if every one of us prayed the Lord's Prayer as if we expected it to change things – the results could be amazing.

Remember, feet on the ground – making a difference in our own ways in our own communities...but hearts in heaven, filled with the love that makes us one in Christ, and signs of God's Kingdom.

*The Abba Sayah story appears in Edward Hays "The Ladder" publised by Forest of Peace Publishing 1999

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