Living Multiple Ascensions
June 1. 2003
There is more than one ascension. If we examine the history of our faith and our own experience, we can identify multiple ascensions. Thus it is appropriate on this Feast of the Ascension to ask ourselves what these numerous ascensions might mean. The ascension which marks today’s feast is the great ascension, the one that is described in the Scriptures. There after his death Jesus is taken up into heaven and sits at God’s right hand. This great ascension is Jesus’ final victory, when he leaves behind all of the pain and imperfections of this life and enters into glory.
The good news for you and me is that just as Jesus had a great ascension, one is promised to us. For we believe that we who are faithful to Christ after our death will ascend into the embrace of a loving God to be with Christ forever. So the good news of the great ascension is that our life is moving upward, that despite all the pains and troubles of life, we are not ultimately descending, but ascending, that you and I are bound for glory.
That is the good news of the great ascension. But there is more than one ascension. If we reflect for a moment we should be able to identify multiple, smaller ascensions in our lives. These are movements away from limitation and pain, small steps which we take towards glory. These small ascensions occur every time that you and I rise above a want or an expectation. We want a lot of things. A good deal of our energy and frustration in life is involved in trying to gain what we want. We want comfort and financial security. We want people to like us. We want good health. It is fine to want these things, but at times our desire for them is so strong, that we begin to confuse the things that we want with the things that we need. Then when any of these wants are endangered, we panic, because we cannot imagine surviving without them. But we can in fact survive without them. When we realize that we can, it is a small ascension.
When we realize that we can live with less, that we can live even though we do not have complete financial security, even though we do not have the same car or house that other people have, then we are not taking a step backwards; we are taking a step forwards, forwards toward joy. When we realize that not all people will like us and yet know that we still have reason to live and rejoice, that is not moving downwards; that is moving upwards, upwards to realistic living. When we realize that even though we are sick and we have to deal with pain and medical procedures, there are still people who love us and there are still more than enough reasons to live, that is not delusion; that is a small ascension, a step towards glory.
All of us have expectations, expectations that can at times enslave us. We expect that everybody in our family is going to understand us. We expect that people will deal fairly with us. We expect that the people we love will stay with us. But when we realize that there is nobody in our family that will completely meet our expectations, but that we still can love them; when we realize that people will hurt and betray us, but that we can still forgive them; when we realize that the people we love do at times leave us, because they need to relocate, or because of divorce, or because of death, but that leaving does not mean that our life is over; each time we realize any of these things we have undergone a small ascension—leaving behind the expectations that enslave us, taking a step towards the God who embraces us. The things we want and the things we expect can at times limit us and cause a great deal of misery in our life. But each time we can ascend above them, we take a step towards happiness, and a step closer to our final destiny.
Now these small ascensions in life are not simply a matter of willpower. We cannot ascend above our wants and expectations simply by choosing to do so. Like the great ascension that we celebrate today, ultimately the upward movement is because of God’s power and God’s strength, not our own. But we can pray for such ascensions, and we can open our hearts and minds to them.
For we believe that our God will not disappoint us. We are people who know that after our death, we have been promised a great ascension. We should pray that God will grant us smaller ascensions today. We should ask our Lord to lift us up above our wants and expectations, and draw us a step closer to his presence at the right hand of God.
Signs of the Kingdom
May 28, 2006
Jesus can sit down because he knows that we are still at work. On this feast of the Ascension we celebrate the truth that Jesus has ascended and entered into glory—or to use the words of today’s gospel, “Jesus was taken up to heaven and sat down at God’s right hand.” But just because Jesus has sat down, does not mean that his work is finished. The Kingdom of God is not yet fully established. There is still violence and injustice in our world. Jesus will need to return at the end of time to finally establish God’s Kingdom in its fullness. Until the time when Jesus returns, he expects us to be active.
Jesus expects us to work for justice, to proclaim the good news of God’s love. This is what we are called to do. The gospel makes it clear. Jesus says to the disciples, “Go out to all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole of creation.” This is our mission. The gospel also makes it clear that our mission cannot be successful unless it is accompanied by signs. Signs make other people take notice. They set us apart and validate the power and the truth of the message. Words are not enough! Signs are necessary if the gospel is to be fully confirmed and believed.
Now the difficulty in today’s gospel is that the signs that are listed there are peculiar and dangerous. We are told that we will cast out demons and handle snakes in our hands and drink deadly poison. I don’t recommend that you try any of these things at home. It is true that if they work, you’ll be on the evening news. But if they do not, you’ll be hospitalized. We need signs to accompany our message. So if the signs enumerated in the gospel are too extreme, we must find other signs to replace them. Let me suggest a few.
What if children not only obeyed their parents, and did so without complaining. What if they did what they knew they had to do even before they were asked? That would be different, wouldn’t it? That would cause people to notice. That action could be a sign of the Kingdom. What if parents occasionally set aside their work, set aside their household tasks and their multiple schedules and created a space where the family could simply gather. What if they could allow their families simply to be in one another’s presence, listening to one another’s lives, celebrating life together? That would be a change in the pattern of what’s expected, would it not? That choice could be a sign of the Kingdom. What if someone objected to having a co-worker or a fellow student belittled or refused to laugh at a racist joke? What if someone stood up to defend another who was being ignored? That would set that person apart, wouldn’t it? That could be a sign of the Kingdom. What if someone decided to be patient with another person who annoyed them, with someone who always got under their skin? What if instead of discounting that person or saying offensive things to them, a person would choose to listen and perhaps understand where that person was coming from? That would cause people to do a double take. That could be a sign of the Kingdom.
These are just a few examples. You can add your own. Whatever causes people to notice, sets us apart, goes against the grain—if it is orientated towards justice and love—can be a sign of the Kingdom of God. If we are going to fulfill our mission, we need such signs. Words are not enough! If our lives and actions are just like everyone else’s, no one is going to give much importance to the words we say. Then the proclamation of the good news will go unheard. Just because Jesus has ascended, do not imagine that his work is finished. He is calling upon us to act. He is counting on us to proclaim the gospel. Jesus can sit down because he knows that we are still working—working in such a way that our lives can be signs of the Kingdom, working so that our lives might give authority to the words that we say.
Passing a Milestone in America
May 20, 2012
Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-13
The teaching of Jesus does not change, but the impact of that teaching is greatly influenced by the circumstances in which we live. This week we as a country passed an important milestone that radically influences our circumstances. I want to bring your attention to this milestone not just because it is important, but also because it has an impact on the teaching of Christ. That teaching can be found in today’s second reading which comes from the letter to the Ephesians. This letter reminds us that Jesus came to save all people and indeed to make us one: “There is one body, one spirit, . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of us all.”
Because Christ’s mission is to make us one, we as followers of Christ are committed to work against the divisions that separate us one from another. We are one in Christ Jesus and therefore we are committed to serve and love not only people who are like us, but all people in our world however different they may be. This teaching of unity in Christ reveals the sin of prejudice. Whenever we exclude or ignore another person because of their race, nationality, or background, we introduce a division into the very world that Christ has come to make one. This teaching of Christ runs against our normal human inclination. We naturally love and cherish those who are like us and tend to be fearful and dismissive about those who are different than us. Yet Jesus reminds us that we must treat all people as our brothers and sisters.
There’s nothing new here. The teaching of Christ has been true from the beginning of Christianity. You have all heard this teaching time and again in homilies and education settings. But this teaching of Christ takes on a new perspective when we place it in light of the milestone we passed as a nation this week.
White people of European origin have, for a long time, been in the majority of the American population. Most of here this morning come from that cultural background. We have lived our lives as part of that majority. This week for the first time in our nation’s history, there were more children born to minority families in the United States than were born to white families. This, of course, is part of a larger trend which projects that in a number of decades the number of white Americans will be an actual minority in this country. But what happened this week indicates that already white people are a minority in the youngest members of our population.
Therefore, in the next couple of years Asian, Hispanic, and Black children will predominate in the nurseries and schools of our country. The moral question for white Americans is: Will we see those children as our children? It is still true that white people over fifty control the vast amount of wealth in the United States and the most political influence. So, are we willing to use our wealth and our influence in order to insure a quality of life to children who are very different from our own? We would do this willingly and with great sacrifice for our own children and grandchildren. But are we willing to make that sacrifice and give our resources for children who look different than our children and grandchildren? Are we willing to commit ourselves to see that Asian, Black, and Hispanic children have solid nutrition, good education, and adequate access to health care?
Of course, when we look at the teaching of Christ, there is no doubt what we should do. Christ clearly directs us to treat all people as our brothers and sisters. But here is the new twist: the statistics that came out this week make it clear that, if we allow prejudice to deny the fullness of life to minority children, America will decline as a country. This is because in a very short time there will not be enough white children to make our country work. We will need more than white children to be healthy and to receive a solid education, because those children will be the doctors, engineers, scientists who will allow our country to innovate and grow. We will need more than white children to have access to a good job, because their work will be what keeps this country competitive. Their salaries will be what funds our Medicare.
So when you put together the milestone of this week together with the teaching of Christ, it leaves us either with a Lose-Lose or a Win-Win. If we allow prejudice to deny quality of life to minority children, we will put our country on a course of economic decline (Lose) and at the same time demonstrate that we are not following the teaching of Christ (Lose). But if we begin to see all children as our children we will demonstrate that we are disciples of Jesus (Win) and at the same time assure our country of a positive future (Win).
I would suggest we go with the Win-Win.
The Garbage and the Flowers
May 13, 2018
A wealthy widow who lived in Washington, D.C., died. She left her entire estate to God. Now, this rather strange bequest gave rise to many legal ramifications, because if the will was to be processed, it had to follow legal form. So lawyers drew up a lawsuit in which God was mentioned as one of the parties. There was a summons issued for God to appear in court. The summons was delivered to the sheriff whose job it was to serve such documents. After some time, the sheriff sent this message to the court: “After a due and diligent search, it has been determined that God cannot be found in Washington, D.C.”
Now, political considerations aside, this conclusion is obviously false. God can be found in Washington, D.C. God can be found in any place, if we know where to look. Looking is an important part of today’s first reading from the book of Acts. Jesus ascends into heaven, and the disciples stand looking intently up into the sky. Then two men appear and ask them, “Why are you looking up into the sky.” These men want the disciples to know that if they are looking for Jesus, they will not find him by staring up into the clouds.
So where should we look for God? Should we look in religious places like churches and pilgrimage sites? Yes, God can be found there. Should we look in the beauty of nature? Of course. Which one of us has not been enthralled by a divine sunset? Should we look in the happiest points of our life: when we fall in love, when a new child is born, when we celebrate a friendship that has lasted over decades? For sure. God is visible in all these events. And even if we group all of these events together, we have not yet exhausted the range of God’s presence. God can be found in any place if we have the right focus.
There’s an old song by Leonard Cohen called “Suzanne.” In this song Suzanne serves as a kind of mystical guide who shows us where to look and how to see. Here is the last stanza of the song:
“So Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river,
and she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers.
There are heroes in the seaweed; there are children in the morning.
They are leaning out for love, and they will lean that way forever
as Suzanne holds her mirror.”
God is not only found in the religious and perfect places of our lives. God is also found in the mixed and compromised nature of human living. God is found among the garbage and the flowers.
This weekend, we celebrate Mother’s Day. And it’s right to honor mothers for they are a blessing in our lives But mothers are not perfect. Like all of us, they can at times be demanding, stubborn, frustrating. But what a mistake it would be to conclude that God cannot be found in those challenging aspects of our relationship. If we know where to look, can we not see a faithfulness, a desire to bless, a leaning out for love that will lean that way forever. God is there, however perfect or compromised our relationship to our mother may be.
It is easy to believe in God’s presence when we are young and healthy. But as we age, as our faculties lessen, as our health fails, we can conclude that God has left us. Look again. Can you not see God’s presence in the people who love you, in those who drive you to your doctor appointments, in those who call you just to check in? Is there not a holiness on those days without any special reason that we find the strength to continue on? These are the heroes in the seaweed. God is there.
God can be found in any place, if we know where to look. So for sure, we should look in those perfect and ecstatic places where all is right with the world. But we should not stop there. We should also look in the mixed nature of everyday living, in the relationships that are both genuine and compromised, in the situations that are both painful and holy. God can be found among the garbage and the flowers.