“A Parting Tale” / Luke 24:44-53 / 13 May 2018
In addition to Mother’s Day, it’s also Ascension Sunday—which is a day that always mystifies me. At Ascension, we talk about Jesus’ departure from a dusty mortal world, his rising above it all, his return to whatever glory and eternity he must call home, as I suppose we must all. Mission accomplished, headed home, my work is done here. Except that the stories of the ascension surely cannot be taken literally. Even traveling at the speed of light, Jesus would still be whizzing past stars that we see with the naked eye. Perhaps that eternal home is someplace more near than far. Instead of space travel, we might think of the ascension as a parting tale (or two), for we all have goodbye stories that haunt us forever. Or maybe by ascension we mean the power to rise above the broken old world as it is, the power to transcend, and to become available to that world in new and unworried ways. If that’s what ascension means to us, then I’d say we all need a little more of it in our lives. Jesus leaves us with that memorable, mysterious promise, “You will be clothed with power from on high.” O power of heaven, power of Christ, power of goodness, and compassion, and life, come and clothe our human frailty, for we too need to rise above it! We need to rise above our world if we are to serve it.
Just what kind of power does faith wield? On my recent trip to Malawi, as I told you last week, we met with the leaders of two large African denominations: the church in Malawi, which was founded by the famous Scottish missionary David Livingston. That church is a well-tended garden, planted in a peaceful land, watered and thriving, and a little drunk on its own success. We met, too, with religious leaders from South Sudan, where the church is likewise growing rapidly despite five years of brutal, needless, and unexplainable civil war. Malawians tend to be small people, much shorter than me, with coffee colored skin. The Sudanese tend to be tall people, well over six feet, very dark skinned, with small eyes, and traditional tribal scars etched into their faces and foreheads. It’s easy to tell a Sudanese person from a Malawian just at a glance. But in all African countries, it’s common for friends to hold hands. I have a photo of the general secretary of the church in Malawi—who is probably 4’8” tall—and the general secretary of the South Sudanese church—who is 6’9”. In the photo, they have their backs to the camera, holding hands as they walk away together. They look like father and child.
Unlike the peaceful Malawians, the South Sudanese had tales of terror to relate to our group. In South Sudan, there rages a guerrilla war, with all the standard atrocities of an African conflict, with no end in sight, and no apparent cause. It was a personal power struggle that quickly became tribal, fought between the Nuer and the Dinka, Christians killing Christians. The nation is bigger than Texas, with only seventy miles of paved roads. Pastor James, the fellow who stands 6’9”, spoke of a village out in the hinterlands where the Nuer and the Dinka territories intersect. The two peoples had lived together in relative peace in that place until just last year. On a day like any other, the war showed up unannounced. Marauding Nuer armies rolled into town on trucks with machine guns mounted on the roofs. Their intention was to round up and massacre all the Dinka in the town. An evening prayer meeting was taking place in the village church, just a little mud enclosure with a thatched roof. And as usually happens in these horrific cases—as you’ll probably recall from the Rwandan genocide—the people fled to find refuge in the church. The minister—who happened to be a Nuer like the soldiers—hurried to put on his faded old preaching gown, in hopes it might lend him some authority. He stood at the door of the church, listening as trucks full of screaming soldiers drew near.
When they arrived, he saw that many of them were children, kidnapped from their villages, conscripted into service, and brainwashed, and drugged. He spoke as loudly and as calmly as he could, though he was deathly scared, and his voice trembled with a note of fear. “This is holy ground, and all may enter here to pray. But none may enter the house of the Lord to kill.” The soldiers cursed, and spat, and threatened, but they did not enter the church. The standoff lasted about half an hour, when the pastor said, “Put down your guns, my friends. Come inside and pray.” None of them did. But after a few more hours, they clambered back into their trucks and sped away. The very next day, the minister was at his house beside the church, when a crowd of Nuer people—his own tribe—came fleeing to the church. This time it was a Dinka army of about sixty soldiers, chasing after the Nuer militia that had just passed through. They stopped en route to round up any Nuer civilians they could find. Again the minister stood at the church door in his robe and said, “Enter here to pray, for Jesus says, ‘Come unto me’, but you may not enter here to kill.” This time, the soldiers, one by one, put their guns down and entered the church. They glared, and muttered, and looked menacingly at all the scared civilians inside the church—men, women, and children—but they did them no harm. Some of them even paused to pray. In time, they went back out, picked up their guns, and left. What kind of power does faith wield?
There are various kinds of power in this life. There’s the power of force, the power of money, the power of fear, the power of ownership, and the terrible power of being owned by our possessions. At your disposal you have emotional power, relational power, financial power, verbal power. But which of them is greater than moral power, a power you also possess? Only moral power can stand unarmed before a bloodthirsty gang of hardened murderers, men whose spirits have been crushed and dehumanized by the atrocities they’ve seen and committed, and say, “Come in and pray.” In a moment like that, you cannot call on the power of force, for the marauders have more of it. The power of violence will fail you, too, for one person with no gun hasn’t got a chance. The power of money might help. You could pay the murderers to go away, but wouldn’t they be just as likely to take your money and kill anyway? When all other power fails, the power of the spirit remains. The power that rises above the fear and the threat of the moment, the power that calls oneself and others to be better than they’re acting, the power to stand alone with trembling hands and voice, and to gently, firmly speak the truth to the destructive powers of this world. And while it’s true that Jesus in all his great moral power still died a violent death, don’t you think his martyrdom added to his moral power? Don’t you think his death was the spark that landed in the hayloft? Maybe that’s at least part of the reason why Jesus cast himself upon the cruel wheel of history and became a martyr—because he knew that as long as he was with his followers in the flesh, they’d look sheepishly to him and never rise above themselves and their fears. But when people know in their hearts that you’re right, and when people in those same hearts sense that you speak or act from a place of love, then the power you hold is enormous. Jesus’ parting promise is, “You will be clothed with power from on high.”
Luke alone tells the story of the Ascension, but he tells it in two places: in his gospel and the Book of Acts. Storytellers never quite tell the same story twice. In Acts, Jesus’ departure leaves the disciples feeling dazed and lost. But in Luke’s gospel, they’re joyful. They spend their time in the temple, waiting for that power from on high. (The Gospel of Luke begins and ends in the temple.) But what of this power? And does our time in this temple indicate that we, too, are waiting for a dose of it in our own lives?
Instead of putting ourselves in its path and waiting for the gift of power from on high, you and I tend to make silly grabs for power whenever we want it. And some of those power grabs are indeed silly—like wearing black and gold because it will magically improve our team’s chances of winning. When African civilians flee to churches for safety, what kind of power do they think will protect them there? The magic powers of a sacred place? Or a moral power, which tugs at the consciences of their pursuers? The Sudanese pastor thought his old black robe would lend him a measure of power in the face of that dastardly crew, and perhaps it did. But we all know that a pastor’s robe is not Frosty the Snowman’s hat. There’s nothing magic in it. If it gave him power, then it was merely because when he felt in on his shoulders it emboldened him to speak the truth in love. Maybe it had power too in the minds of those killers, for it called them back to a better time in their lives, innocent days when they sat on church benches of a Sunday morning and heard about nobler things than mayhem and bloodshed. This is how moral power works: It joins in the song that our conscience is trying to sing. It has symbols to serve its purposes, but the symbols don’t contain it. If we put our faith in the symbols, then that power slips from our clutching grasp and hastens away. Moral power isn’t in the trappings that are supposed to enhance its glory. Moral power is held by anyone who stands for those universal truths we all know, who manages to rise above the chaos and the fear of circumstance, and who does it all with courage and love.
I once confused power and symbol in my life. We used to live up north, where I gloried in the unsearchable wonders of the Allegheny National Forest. It was a lovely place, and I miss it still. Each Sunday after church, I would take a stick and a bottle of water and give myself three uninterrupted hours in that endless woods, sometimes four. Nothing restored my spirit and gave me strength like the majesty of those woods, and the silence, the gentle trickling of a brook beneath hemlocks, the breeze in the treetops, the sight of a mossy boulder, standing ancient and undisturbed in the same lonely spot for centuries of time, surrounded by beech trees, saying not a word. As old as it was, and as powerful, there it sat entirely available to me. The trails went up into the hills and down into deep gorges. There were groves, and river valleys, and meadows, and overgrown farms. It was a wonderland where my spirit found as deep a communion with God as I’ve ever known. I even began to feel that that place had healed some old, old wounds in my life, hurts so old and so deep that I thought they were beyond healing. It became a holy place for me, and to some degree it still is and always will be—even though the frackers are destroying it. It was so sacred to me that when I left it, I thought for a while that I might lose my way in this world. It took me a few years to discover that the power I met in that place and at that time is no prisoner to place and time. The forest was a prop, like a black robe. The forest helped me focus on a power that is just as present in Times Square on New Year’s Eve—perish the thought!—as it is on a Sunday afternoon beneath hemlocks.
It wasn’t the place that healed me. It was the “power from on high,” the moral power that descends like a November snow on the life of a guy who’s finally getting his thoughts and emotions sorted out. It was the power of being lifted above the fray for three hours a week, to rise above myself and my stuckness, to get a clear perspective. But if I’d never left that place, I may never have found that same power amid the turmoil and the madness of life. I think that’s why Jesus had to leave his disciples. His ongoing physical presence could only stunt their growth. As long as he was around, they’d be like children, always looking to him to fix things, always hiding behind his cloak. Only in his absence could they discover his power deep within themselves.
And again, how can we have this power for the living of our days, this power to rise above ourselves and our circumstances when we need it? Well, some kinds of power can be grabbed. Military power and political power are very often taken by force. But any power you grasp will hate you for it. Like a snake, it will spin around and bite you the first chance it gets. The best power—moral power—is not taken but always given. If you grasp for moral power, it will escape you; for the moment you claim to have the moral high ground, you don’t. This power is a gift that settles like the dew over any person who admits powerlessness and looks to the heavens for help. Moral power is a gift that only comes to those who give up on the pursuit of all other forms of power. Moral power is saved for those who do not seek their own ends, but who offer themselves to those universal causes that we all know to be good and true. This is why Mother Theresa is a more powerful icon and inspirer than Josef Stalin. It must be held humbly, gently. It will only be mastered by one who holds it the way you’d hold a kitten or a baby—with love. In other words, the best and the strongest power only comes to those who relinquish all claims…to power! Why? Because these are the ones who echo back to us the songs that our consciences are already trying to sing.
And you, who perhaps come to this place for much the same reasons the disciples went daily to the temple! You who come here seeking some kind of power for the living of your life, the ordering of your days, the fulfilling of your duties, and the loving of your own! We can only rise above ourselves and our circumstances when we step outside of them. The power we need does not put us in control, but it enables us to accept the fact that we are not. The power we need is a gift for those who give up the pursuit of power. O power of heaven, power of Christ, power of goodness, and compassion, and life, come and clothe our human frailty, for we too need to rise above it! We need to rise above our world if we are to serve it. Amen.
“A Parting Tale” / Luke 24:44-53 / 13 May 2018