Staring at the Sky
Wondering what is next...
When Jesus ascended into the sky, the disciples were left, mouths agape, wondering what they would do next. I don’t think there is a moment that is quite as relatable in the story of the disciples. I think that’s where we find ourselves today. We’re mourning and living in a world full of violence that feels like it will never change. The progressive view of history, that every day in every way things are getting better and better, that view of history and progress has left us empty and…. We look at the sky and scream out to God, “where’d you go?” We’ve been used to a certain way of life, a certain set of hopes and dreams, a vision of Jesus and the way the Church will be, but the world is full of change, the world is scary, and it’s hard to see the footprints of Jesus that are inviting us forward.
It’s hard to move forward, especially when we’re scared. Early in my days working with kids in the church, I realized that they were incredibly afraid of being in the church sanctuary when no one was in there. They wouldn’t want to admit it, but it was obvious because they would begin to tiptoe and listen for every little sound. It was especially true when the lights went out. We’d play many hide-and-seek games in which the lights would be dimmed to make it easier to hide and harder to find. As kids turned to teenagers, I would have our youth group meetings up on the chancel, that is, up behind the pulpit for those non-liturgical Christians, where the choir sits on Sunday mornings. I did this because I wanted the students to feel like the worship space was theirs, that it belonged to them. I wanted them to be as comfortable here as in their own living rooms.
One activity that I would often do to challenge the students was to ask who would be willing to walk from one side of the sanctuary to the other, by themselves, with the lights completely off. They were SO scared! After they did the challenge, they would often talk about feeling like there were ghosts and goblins everywhere trying to grab at their ankles and get them. I always wished that I could somehow get them to feel that same way - well, maybe not the afraid part - but I wished I could teach the students to feel God that immediately, like God was hiding under the pews, and instead of waiting to grab their ankles, instead, I wanted to see that God’s waiting to bless them with grace around every corner. It was a sad realization that I wanted them to believe in God in the same way they currently believed in ghosts. I wanted them to believe in God in a way that made them walk differently… think differently… and expect God to show up in the darkest places… even a church sanctuary.
My goodness, isn’t it easier to believe in the scary than it is to believe in the good? It is especially true on a day like today in which we have to admit that there have been 27 school shootings this year alone. I had a friend ask if her sermon this week could just be one word, and the word starts with F. 27 school shootings, amid 200 mass shootings this. F-ing year. No wonder we find it so much easier to believe in ghosts with our whole selves - bodies, minds, and souls. We can believe in the scary because we know the scary. We see the scary. We experience the scary. It is far easier to recognize the scary as real than it is to recognize the divine moving and breathing in our lives.
I don’t blame the disciples for being confused and scared. I really don’t blame them, but they did have something we don’t. They had time with him in the flesh. The disciples had spent three years or so with Jesus and they had lots of opportunities to believe in impossible things, but they still struggle. In the Gospel of John, chapter 17, Jesus sat them down to try to explain things one more time. He told them a few things that he wants them to remember, but then, like he gives up on getting through to them, he just started praying instead. He asked God to make them unified. He then said something amazing that’s easy to miss. He said that if they are united, everyone will see their unity and know that Christ is Lord. That’s how big of a miracle unity is. If we were to have it, the world would automatically see it as a miracle. But again the disciples just don’t get it. They had had lots of opportunities to believe in impossible things. They had seen impossible things like bread and fish turning into food for 5000. Or wind and waves turning into a glassy sea because of two or three words. Or bread and wine becoming body and blood. And the one unbelievable thing, the one thing they just couldn’t live with, couldn’t come to terms with, was that Jesus was going to make this world his kingdom, but he wouldn’t do it by force.
The one unbelievable thing was that the kingdom is not soldiers and violence, palaces and buildings. The kingdom is not coercion and force and slavery. The kingdom is not everyone voting, divided into their tribes and teams, knowing that on them rests the fate of the world. It’s not that. It’s a kingdom spread through hospitality, through the sharing of bread and wine and gracious hearts, fed by the grace of God, united by the love of God. That’s what they just couldn’t see. The kingdom is built not on my team killing your team. It’s built on hospitality. The kingdom is a party, a celebration, a sharing.
Henri Nouwen says the same thing. He says that the miraculous thing about ministering together is that hospitality can do something unbelievable: it can turn a wound into a source of healing (Wounded Healer, 94). Honestly, this often ends up feeling so hollow. It can make us wonder, if it’s true, what kind of a God do we serve? Some theologians will say that the ways of God are mysterious and, as humans, there is no way for us to comprehend the reasons for suffering. Not good enough. Other theologians will say that, though God could help us, God will not interfere with our free will. Not good enough. Others still will say that God God cannot help us because God does not have atoms and is not a physical being. Not good enough. All of this is cold comfort to me, no matter which one I try to subscribe to. But Henri Nouwen says something that does bring some level of comfort. He says that humans suffer. That’s not controversial. We suffer. We all suffer. But here’s what he says that I think sounds like Jesus. He says, “humanity suffers and that a sharing of suffering can make us move forward.”
When I think about suffering, I can’t help but struggle to believe any of the versions of God spelled out by most theologians. I simply see a God who cries when I cry, suffers when I suffer, and guides me to share in your suffering as well. By knowing that we all suffer, and allowing our hearts to share the suffering, to share the load of that suffering, we can be united. Jesus couldn’t make the disciples understand that. He had three years with them, revealing the true nature of reality. He gave them opportunities to believe the unbelievable. But when they didn’t understand, he simply walked with them and shared their suffering, even shared their stupidity, made meals, and gave grace. He made unity and the alleviation of the pain of their loneliness and isolation the priority. He shared their suffering, ultimately suffering at the hands of an empire on the cross, but ended up showing the world, and even his disciples, that even that couldn’t win.
Today we might find ourselves staring at the sky, mouths agape, struggling to know what we can do next. Well, we started by thinking about kids who believe in the scary enough to not feel comfortable in a church sanctuary, asking ourselves how we can believe in God that much. Maybe we can finish by asking what would happen if we actually believed in this story of Jesus, the whole thing. What if we believed it, not in theory, not in the creed (“I believe in God, the Father, creator of heaven and earth, and in his only Son…”)? What would happen if we believed in grace as much as we believe in the terrifying? If we believed with every atom of who we are that Jesus who died, rose to life, and went to make a place for all humankind, leaving us in the care of each other, what would we do? What would we change? We’d probably begin to care for one another. Instead of staring at the sky, as we wait for the full liberation of creation, we can move forward by growing closer in the miracle of unity, sharing in each other’s suffering through the love of Christ.