It is the Feast of Pentecost and it is an overcast day in Portland, Oregon. The sermon that you are about to hear is one that I recorded several days ago and that I wrote several days before that. And while there is lots that is awesome about pre-recording things – as you will see in the sermon, you can do things when you pre-record that you can’t do in real time – there’s also some limitations built into it. And one of the big limitations is that you are preaching from the past, you are not speaking in the present moment.
And because in the sermon I am preaching from the past, I do not explicitly mention the murder of George Floyd, nor do I explicitly mention the subsequent protests against police violence, against white supremacy in our culture. And that’s something that I would do if I were giving this sermon in real time with you this morning, I’d make some real-time edits to it to speak to those subjects that are so much on my heart and so much on so many of your hearts right now.
I think in many ways these subjects are present in this sermon: it’s a reflection about trauma and about loss and about grief and about injustice and about how God is present in these things. But it doesn’t speak to George Floyd explicitly or police violence explicitly, and I wish that it did.
One of the great prophets of or time is Austin Channing Brown. A prophet being, in the Biblical sense, not a fortune teller but a present teller. And she shared something recently that I’d like to share with you this morning. It’s a little reflection called Trouble the Narrative. And it goes like this:
If you think all we need for this moment in history is to ask “What would MLK do?” It’s time for you to trouble the narrative. It’s time for you to move beyond simplistic, convenient narratives and wrestle with complexity and nuance. It’s easy to believe that the 1960s had only one leader, MLK, and that he led the perfect protests and that those protests are what led to change. And as much as I honor King, that is entirely ahistorical. The 1960s were filled with protests like King’s but also rebellions (riots) like the ones we’ve seen over the last few years. Both forms of protest put pressure on politicians. Both forms of protest were covered by media. Both forms of protest were in a tug and pull with one another. Both forms of protest were met with violence. Both forms of protest have always existed- together, in one exhale of the Black community. It is, quite frankly, lazy to accept child-like answers to questions like “what would King say?” Or “what would Jesus do?” Or “but isn’t violence always wrong?” Or “does the gospel have anything to do with race?” Or “but aren’t we all just human?” Or “but why can’t they just xyz?” TROUBLE THE NARRATIVE. King was human- growing, learning constantly. And since MLK was assassinated we have no idea what he would think about the fact that cops are still killing Black civilians in 2020. Trouble the narrative. Jesus held a one man riot over capitalism in the temple, but you think he’d be calm about George Floyd? Trouble the narrative. You find violence intolerable when it’s poor Black folks, but not when it’s white folks after a football game? Not when it’s America’s wars? Not when it’s stand your ground? Not when it’s ICE or patrols at the border? Trouble the narrative. History, Scripture, Social Revolutions, Black Struggle cannot be boiled down into one convenient sentence. It’s condescending, lazy, and uneducated. It’s thoughtless. And thoughtless isn’t what we need right now. Trouble the narratives of white supremacy and anti-blackness. Or else we will keep repeating this cycle.
[A pause. Then.]
In the list of universal, or close to universal, human experiences, lying on your back in the summertime has got to be somewhere near the top. The warmth of the ground, the hum of the afternoon, the song of the birds, the buzz of insects. Maybe, if you listen closely enough, even the heartbeat of the earth, far below your body.
Sometimes, when I do this, when I lay on my back in the summer, I imagine that I can actually feel the spinning of the globe. And so I hold on to the sod, lest the centripetal force hurl me up, up and away. Even in the stillness of the grass, this holding on is just a little bit thrilling.
And then there is the sky above. Our ancestors – some of them – anyway, reckoned that they were looking at a great body of water in the sky, an ocean above them. This is why the creation story at the start of Genesis speaks of the waters above in addition to the waters below. The waters above are held in place by a great dome. Except sometimes, the dome leaks a little, and rain falls upon us.
Every day at dusk, the waters drain out of the sky, and the sun, maybe in a chariot, rides to the far side of the mountains and the far side of the waters below. And we are left with the new mystery, which is the night sky and the stars.
But right now it is neither raining nor nighttime. Right now is the warmth and the still of the summer day.
Underneath the dome but still above you and me are the clouds.
That one looks like a dog.
The one looks like a dragon. You can see the scales on its tail.
If I am right in guessing that this experience is universal or almost universal, then Jesus did this very thing, lying on his back in the grass looking up at what are sometimes called the heavens. And Jesus’ friends did it too: Peter and John and James, the sons of thunder, and Martha and Mary and the other Mary. Up they looked. Together.
Until one day, after the resurrection, all of the friends looked up and, as they looked, they realised that Jesus was gone from their peripheral vision. The indentation that he left in the grass was still there, but Jesus was not. Had he gone for a drink of water? Gone for a walk? Or just plain old gone, disappeared the way that Jesus sometimes did.
He had been disappearing a lot since the morning when they found his tomb empty.
But then one of them spotted him.
At first he was just a handful of yards up in the air. But then more, and more, like he was holding onto those great cluster of helium balloons like they have in comic books. As he rose, Jesus didn’t talk and his friends didn’t talk. His friends lay there and they watched him get smaller and smaller and smaller until, maybe, he was even with the clouds and then passing through a cloud, slipping out of vision and then back into the blue again. Until finally they could not see him at all.
In music, they speak of the reprise of a theme. Sometimes the reprise has variations. One of my favourite pieces of music is Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Do you know it?
It goes like that. The theme is simple enough. But then the piano and the wider orchestra does one amazing thing after another with that first handful of notes. These variations are beautiful and new again and again and again. The original theme is always preserved – the variations are like turning a crystal in the sun and seeing light upon light.
The Ascension of Jesus followed by the coming of the Holy Spirit is a kind of reprise or variation on the cross and the resurrection. In both Luke and Acts – two books that are written by the same person, Luke being the only of the Gospel writers who felt that the Gospel needed a sequel – the same sequence or pattern takes place around both events.
In both cases, Jesus has this conversation with his friends in which they ask when he is going to restore Israel’s fortunes, when he is going to put things right, when he is going to lead a revolution. In both cases, Jesus replies with a mystical and a strange and an unsatisfactory answer. Jesus is then lifted up – first, onto the cross, second into the air – as his friends watch in confusion and horror: We can’t be losing him. In both cases, the friends in their grief focus on the place where they last saw his body: the tomb, the sky. In both cases these two men in white robes appear. And they say: Why are you looking for him here?
And in both cases, a little time passes then. Until one day, not so long after Jesus left and the men in the robes appeared, Jesus’ friends encounter God in a new way. First in the raised and contradictory body of Jesus – murdered and yet alive, instantly recognisable and yet not recognisable at all, eating and drinking and yet passing through doors. And then second in the coming of the Spirit. The Spirit which is like a violent wind, which is like fire, which is like being filled up, which is like being able to communicate without limitation, which is like blood and fire and mist, which is like prophecy, which is like dreaming dreams, which is like being drunk at nine in the morning.
The Spirit which is like holy possibility.
But the Disciples don’t know any of that as they look upon the cross and then look up into the empty sky. On these moments, all that they see is loss, all that they know is grief.
Very truly, I tell you,
Jesus once said to them,
unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain;
but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
So much has changed. We have lost so, so much. What if this moment, as we look into the blue emptiness, is when God is doing a new thing? What if we will look back on this day and we say, that is the day when the wonder began, that is the day when the Spirit came among us?