MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
June 1, 2014
Day of Ascension
He Ascended into Heaven
24:44 Then Jesus said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you--that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled."
24:45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,
24:46 and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,
24:47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
24:48 You are witnesses of these things.
24:49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."
24:50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.
24:51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.
24:52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;
24:53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
My friend Elizabeth Goodrich got interested some years ago in the last words from various famous people. Of course the Internet makes this kind of interest easier than ever to indulge. Consider these:
Henry Ward Beecher, clergyman, abolitionist and reformer:
Now comes the mystery.
Poet Francois Rabelais:
I go to seek a Great Perhaps.
Henrik Ibsen had been sick for awhile, and his nurse said to him, ‘You seem to be feeling better this morning.’ Ibsen looked at her and said,
On the contrary,
and then he died.
I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.
It’s very beautiful over there.
Marie Antoinette, after she accidentally stepped on the foot of her executioner as she went to the guillotine.
Pardon me, sir. I did not do it on purpose.[i]
Today is the Day of Ascension, when we remember the end of Jesus’ life here on earth. After he is raised from the dead he is with his friends for a time, and then he is lifted into heaven… in a rather cinematic way it must be said!
But here we have Jesus’ last words before this happens:
Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day (He reminds them of what has happened before)
…repentance and forgiveness of sins (He reminds them of what the main focus of his ministry has been)
…You are witnesses of these things. (He reminds them of their role in continuing his ministry)
…And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. (He gives them instructions for the future.)
Next Sunday is Pentecost, the day we celebrate the Holy Spirit who came and gave the disciples power to bring the Christian church into being. But that’s still a week away, so at least liturgically, we’re in this in-between place in which Jesus is gone, but the Holy Spirit hasn’t come. And this mirrors what the disciples went through. Jesus says to them “Just hold on a while, sit tight, and wait.” And then he leaves.
It’s an interesting space to be, that waiting space.
Just about everybody is waiting for something.
As I serve as a candidate for vice moderator of our denomination, people have asked me how it’s going, and I always say, “I’ll just be glad when June 14 is here and the election is behind us, whatever happens.” I’m waiting… waiting to know what life will look like.
Some of us are waiting for the adoption to move forward.
Some of us are waiting for the end of school.
We wait to find a job.
We wait for the depression to get better.
We wait for the test results.
What are you waiting for?
In a world in which the only constant is change, we are often waiting. We are often between this and that, just as Jesus’ disciples are between this and that. How do we wait?
The text gives us a couple of clues.
First, there’s Jesus’ command to “stay here” in the city. But what does that mean? Well the Greek word he uses, kathisate, carries the idea of “standing quiet or calm.” So he isn’t just telling them where to be, he’s telling them how to be—quiet and calm.
Sometimes when we’re waiting, we’re very busy. When we’re looking for a job we aren’t passively waiting for one to come to us. We’re sending resumes and networking and going on interviews. But in the midst of that, Jesus invites us to also stand quiet and calm—in a spirit of trust that the thing we’re waiting for will come to pass.
And second, there’s this business of blessing. Because those words of Jesus’ I shared earlier aren’t technically Jesus’ last words. We don’t know what they were. We just know that as he leaves them he blesses them. We don’t know what his last words were. But they were words of blessing.
And then at the end of the story, when the disciples return to the city, they too are blessing. Having been blessed by Jesus, they in turn bless God. It’s like the blessing bounces back and forth between them. It’s reciprocal. Jesus blesses and they bless.
So maybe that’s what we do while we wait. We look for the places of blessing, even in the uncertainty.
It’s fitting that this would be our gospel story this week, as we say goodbye to the writer and teacher Maya Angelou, who died on Tuesday. It’s rare that I have seen such a tremendous outpouring of love and admiration among friends and on social media.
Many of you know this part of Maya’s story:
At the age of eight, while living with her mother, Angelou was terribly abused by her mother's boyfriend, a man named Freeman. She told her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty but was jailed for only one day. Four days after his release, he was found dead, probably beaten to death by Angelou's uncles. Angelou became mute for almost five years, believing, as she stated, "I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone..."
My heart goes out to that little eight year old girl and the trauma she felt. But I also think about what it must have been like for her family, to watch this sweet girl go silent. What it was like to wait for her to find her voice again. I imagine that their waiting was not “standing quiet or calm.”
And yet something was happening during this time:
It was during this period of silence when Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, her love for books and literature, and her ability to listen and observe the world around her.
Angelou credits a teacher and friend of her family, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, with helping her speak again. Flowers introduced her to authors such as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson. (from Wikipedia)
And then the time came when she began speaking again. And the words would spill out for the next seven decades—poems, prose, speeches, songs. Those words of Dickens and Shakespeare blessed her, so that she would go on to bless countless others. She was open to the blessing, even in a dark and quiet time, and it came to her and rebounded toward the rest of us throughout her life.
Words of blessing—not always nice or easy to hear, but full of blessing nonetheless.
One of the quotes that has circulated the most this week is this one: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
That’s absolutely true. I met Maya Angelou in high school. She was speaking in Dallas and my AP English class went to see her. I’ve racked my brain over the years trying to remember what she said to me. And I can’t; those words are gone. But I will never forget the feeling of being in a luminous presence. How she made me feel. It made me want to be a better person. She blessed me, and I hope that I in turn tried to bless others as a result. That’s the beauty of a blessing. It goes both ways. It echoes.
And as we celebrate ascension, that strange and mystifying event in which Jesus leaves this earthly Somewhere so that he can be Everywhere… I keep thinking about Maya’s poem about her own ascension. Here’s a portion of it:
Still I Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.
We don’t know what Maya’s actual last words were. But we do have her last tweet:
Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.
May that be our task this day--even in the waiting time. Amen.
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©2014 MaryAnn McKibben Dana. These sermon manuscripts are provided here for personal use, and are not to be redistributed or otherwise reproduced without permission of the author.