Allow me to take a moment, at the outset of my sermon this morning, to thank the ladies of Triple D for inviting me to attend their annual banquet, which took place yesterday in the Mildred Cutter Memorial Parish Hall.
As the clouds thickened, and the rain began to fall in the parking lot, the ladies pulled some tables together, and we all sat down to pass a couple of thoroughly enjoyable hours, eating a delicious spread catered by the Optimus Cafe.
Well… it was so pleasant! It went… all over the place! Let me see… we talked about
The virtues of a good chicken salad,
How the spelling of surnames changed when our ancestors arrived on Ellis Island
Sewing projects that proved way more complex than expected
the uncontrollable fertility of rhubarb and horseradish
grandchildren who recently graduated with honors
The question of bird feeders and visiting bears…
the ups and downs of a recent band concert at the school
A son’s heroic service during the pandemic
the best places in Jaffrey to go for an afternoon stroll and
the new local ordinance prohibiting people from throwing candy into a crowd of children…
You just never know what a multitude of church ladies will talk about when they have some good food and a couple hours to kill!
I’d tell you more, but I’m afraid if I reveal all their secrets, the ladies might not invite me back!
When the delightful luncheon was all over, and I was heading out, I happened to notice the church sign.
Oh! The church sign…
The church sign is something that I dearly want to find peace with…
I want the church sign to speak for the church, and I wouldn’t mind if it happened to express my peculiar brand of poetic creativity… that would be the sweet spot – but…
This goal has proven to be elusive!
Much to my shame, the church sign remained unchanged for much of the winter. The sentiment was appropriate enough – that we “prayed for Ukraine, Turkey and Syria” – but the fact that it sat in that state for months, suggested a woeful lack of imagination and follow through on the part of the church… and, for those in the know… the church’s pastor.
The buck stops here.
But if the church sign being stuck in limbo is bad, it is, perhaps, just as much of a problem when the church sign says the wrong thing!
I woke up with a start, in the middle of the night, sometime last week, with the church sign looming in the darkness above my bed. As Cary continued to make blissful little sleeping noises, I was smacked with the terrible clarity of 3AM.
Oh the terrible clarity of 3AM!
You know what I mean.
You wake up with a start, and your mind presents you with the pure, unadulterated certainty that you have made a mistake that, naturally, you cannot do anything about, because it is 3AM.
At 3AM I awoke with this shocking clarity: the church sign was all wrong!
I’d left it, the Sunday before, with a kind of Mother’s-Day-Themed Public Service Announcement:
“Call your mother… it proclaimed: on one side of the sign, and on the other side, it added, in what was meant to be a little playful encouragement, the words:
it’s not too late!”
Wide awake at 3AM, I realized that this message was all very well, when I wrote it on the sign on the evening of Mother’s Day, but it was going to age badly as the week moved on! What passing motorists might read as a playful nudge on Sunday evening, would transform into a nagging reproach for Wednesday commuters. And there was another problem. What about the folks, like myself, whose mothers have long since passed away? It literally is too late to call them!
I was going to have to get up there and change that sign!
So, on Saturday afternoon, after the Annual Triple D banquet, my 3AM reverie returned to me in a flood, and I pulled the car into the parking lot of the abandoned Catholic school, to ruminate.
I knew it was time to change the sign. But this certainty presented a new, all too familiar conundrum – what was I going to change the church sign to!?
The rain was falling steadily on the top of the car, filling the silence with that lovely feeling of optimism that comes with a sweet afternoon rainfall in late May. I reached into the backseat to retrieve my box of letters.
I thought about the sermon that was percolating in my brain…
A few years back, you may recall, my church sign strategy had been to use the sign to post teasers that anticipated the theme that I thought might show up in the upcoming Sunday sermon. My rather naive, and somewhat self-aggrandizing hope had been that the curiosity of a passing motorist might be made sufficiently peaked by the sign, to inspire them to actually come try out UCJ on a Sunday.
I doubt this marketing ploy ever worked.
It was also a risky strategy, because my creative process simply cannot be second guessed in this way! Sure, I could make educated guesses about what the upcoming Sunday’s sermon might involve, but there was no way of knowing, for sure, that the Holy Spirit would obey that prediction!
Still… when I think about what should go on the church sign, this is the well worn path that my mind wanders down…
What is my next sermon going to be about?
My sermon, of course, was going to involve the story of the Ascension of Jesus Christ… the story that Owen just read for us.
What a strange tale!
Jesus and the disciples appear to be having a conversation – there is the familiar back and forth, in which they ask him a question, and he responds with one of his sweeping prophetic answers, when, (like a school teacher being interrupted by the bell), Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry comes to an abrupt end, and he is gone…
The text describes the moment like this:
“When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
The Bible can be so maddeningly matter-of-fact sometimes!
If you and I were standing there, watching this happen, surely we might be tempted to show at least a little bit of amazement when the person we were talking to was suddenly lifted, bodily, into heaven.
But even as the disciples watch Jesus being whisked into the heavens, the story itself continues to downplay the moment:
While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”
What kind of question is that?
Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?
Surely these mysterious white-robed-men (who seem to have appeared out of thin air) can appreciate that it’s not everyday that you see someone ascend into heaven?
I suppose it is possible that for these mysterious white-robed-men (who seem to have appeared out of thin air), seeing people ascending into heaven is an everyday occurrence that isn’t worth looking at.
But for you and me, and the disciples, this is, most decidedly not an everyday occurrence!
There is a wide expanse that separates heaven and earth. It’s not easy to overcome that space! For the disciples, the only way to imagine moving from one to the other, was to imagine giving up the physical body, and moving, as a spirit, up into the celestial plane.
Heaven is heaven.
And earth is earth.
And the question of how to move from one to the other, is at the core of the whole idea of religious salvation.
If we are worthy of God’s approval, our spirits will ascend to heaven – but only after we die and can move, like a spirit, on this wind.
So, if you think about it, this miraculous thing that the disciples witness – this ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven – is a physical expression in time and space, of that most coveted of human hopes – the hope that the universe is set up in such a way that we – you and I – have a place to go to when our time comes.
The rain fell steadily, making long puddles in the parking lot of the old Catholic school. It was sad and beautiful, really. Sad because of the unapologetic neglect, which is so perfectly expressed by broken asphalt, weeds, and the few unkempt trees that border the road. Beautiful because of the scent of rain – the briskness of its promise, the hope of abundance seeping into, and nourishing the earth.
How do I make the ascension of Christ – the relationship between heaven and earth – relevant to people driving by?
Earth is our reality – all too temporary.
Heaven is our hope. Our great hope to somehow be united with eternity.
When our hope moves into, and influences our reality, we call it religion.
But how to put that sentiment on the church sign?
I remembered the saying that my mom sometimes repeated to me. Maybe that would be good for the church sign. It was a cautionary aphorism that went like this:
“Don’t be so heavenly minded that you are no earthly good!”
I have my own, slightly less religious version of this saying that I sometimes said to my children. I would say:
“If your head is always in the clouds, it’s hard to keep your feet on the ground.”
I like this version a little more. It seems like it could be more relevant for the passing motorist…
But I’m not sure this is really a message that we, in our culture, need to hear right now.
Most people, today, seem to me to have the opposite problem. There aren’t many poets left out there.
The vast majority of folks do not give eternity – heaven – a second thought. They are simply too busy figuring out how to keep one foot moving in front of the other — how to make enough money to pay the rent, meet the deductible, or feed the kids.
Most people’s feet are so busy on the ground that they don’t notice the clouds around their heads.
So this interrelation between heaven and earth – the relationship that was made physical by the ascension of Jesus Christ – seems to me to, functionally, be kind of irrelevant to the average motorist.
It’s almost as if today’s average motorists, who pass by our church on route 124 heading toward town, or passing the other way, on their way to Marlborough – are like the two mysterious white-robed men who appear out of thin air to say…
“Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”
Looked at this way, the question feels like a kind of criticism…
Why are you bothering with things up there, that you have no control over — pay attention to what is down here – things that you might be able to do something about..
And then I had an idea…
I leaned over to my box of letters that were sitting on the passenger seat and started taking them out and making a little pile. When this was done I stowed the letters in my pocket (taking care not to mix them up) and looked out at the rain.
It had let up a little bit, but it was still going.
(Jess: short rain piano, & stop)
Getting out of the car, I opened the back door for a sec, just to see if, by some miracle, there was an umbrella back there.
No such luck.
I’d been thinking about those two men in white robes who seemed to think the relationship between heaven and earth was nothing special.
Something that happened everyday.
So it was!
“Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”
You may well ask!
(rain piano continuing quietly till the end)
I’m looking at something…
A salvation for the earth…
I walked over to the church sign and opened it up.
On one side of the sign I wrote the words:
and on the other side of the sign I wrote:
And this, my dear friends, is my message for Ascension Sunday:
Four words that contain all the everyday blessed salvation that comes to us from the relationship between heaven and earth: