What’s that? That, over there. Do you see it? Made you look.
What’s that? That, right here. Do you see it? Do you see each other? Made you look.
Y’all, today is a special day. Today we are honoring the graduates who are a part of Glendale Baptist Church. And what better Scripture for this momentous transition in our beloved ones’ lives, what better text for a day in which we honor the process of learning and the gaining of knowledge, than the Ascension, a story about transition…and about those left behind.
Not left behind in a bad sense, just, not progressing to the same stage. You see, Jesus was a teacher. He was not very didactic, in a “tell-it-from-the-front-of-the-classroom” sort of way, but he was a “show and tell” teacher. He made his disciples work for their learning. Jesus, however nice and friendly as we imagine him, was a hard teacher. Sometimes those he taught were confused–just ask Peter. Sometimes those he taught walked away sorrowfully, not understanding what he was trying to tell them–just ask the rich man. Sometimes those he taught got a different lesson than they were hoping for–just ask the Samaritan woman at the well, or the centurion, or Bartimaeus. Jesus often taught in parables. They might seem simple, but often were a lot more complicated once you dove into them. Parables were not a short memory verse, which you’d get a sticker for in Sunday school; parables became part of you. They made your work for your lesson. Sometimes they worked on you, entering your heart and taking over your mind as you would mull over and over what Jesus meant by “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…” Jesus the teacher shared the knowledge that was needed to get to the next stage of life…but he did not accompany his disciples there. They had to go on their own.
And so on this day, as we honor how those among us participate in the learning process, it is appropriate that we accompany the disciples as they gaze up into the sky, slightly perplexed by Jesus’ last words to them, not quite sure what was going on. That’s what transitions do to us. They shake us up, they make us think, they leave us cautionary and wary and wondering if what we see is real, if what we know is something we can count on. They leave us looking around, trying to learn how to make this place, this “right-now” our home.
Our text for today, at the beginning of the book of Acts, takes place shortly after the resurrection. Church, we are still in the time of Easter–isn’t that wonderful? We are still basking in the afterglow of getting up-close-and-personal with the nitty-gritty moments that surround the death of a loved one as we learn that love is a far stronger and surer power than that of the realm of death. In the season of Easter, we learn about what Jesus did post-resurrection and how the early church figured out their purpose in the absence of Jesus. See, the transition that occurs on this special day is that of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. He teaches and the disciples listen and then Jesus is taken up into heaven, covered by a cloud. After the book of Luke ends with this event, the book of Acts picks up where the author left off in the story, recording that the disciples “were staring towards heaven.” Can you imagine them? The disciples who had given days, months, years of their lives to following Jesus throughout Galilee and Judea and even into places like Samaria; these disciples who had followed Jesus through his arrest, trial, violent death, time in the grave and revelation of his resurrection; these disciples who had been in the Upper Room when he appeared to them and let them touch his hands and side so recently pierced by crucifying nails; these disciples, who we might expect to have it all figured out, are staring up into heaven…lost. Confused. Waiting. And I imagine that Jesus, as he is taken upward on the same path as Elijah, chuckles, “Made you look.”
What happens next is instructive. While they are all gazing up, not sure quite what is going on, not sure what had just happened to them–and graduates, on commencement you might find yourselves feeling similarly–someone says to them, “Hey! You! Why are you all standing here, willy nilly? I’ll tell you what’s really going on. You already know what you need to do. You already know what Jesus taught you.”
The author of the book of Acts writes that before Jesus was taken up into heaven, Jesus instructed them to wait for the Holy Spirit, to be attentive to how the Spirit of God would move among them, to “be witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” That is the calling for these disciples. To be witnesses. And, perhaps because we have heard this story before, or perhaps because we see certain similarities with the way the disciples received Jesus’ teachings (with confusion, shock, frustration and incomprehension), it takes a moment for them to figure out the gravity, and grace, of this call.
Dr. John Holbert, a Biblical scholar who writes a blog for Patheos.com writes,
“But do they, or we, head off to fulfill the command? Hardly! We are too enamored of the ascending Jesus, our necks strained as we peer upward, hoping for a further sign, for a magic act, for a cloud spelling out “I love you.” Suddenly, two men “stood near them.” Just as in the gospel where two men attempt to explain to the women who are looking for Jesus’ dead body that they are looking in the wrong place, since living beings are not to be found in graveyards, so now two men tell the stiff-necked (in more ways than one!) apostles that their eyes are not looking in the right place. “Why do you stand looking into heaven?” Did you not pay attention to him just a few moments ago? He said, ‘Go,’ and you are rooted on this spot, looking longingly for some further word from him. He will come back in the same way that he went, but you need ask no further questions about when, they imply. “When” is simply not the right question to ask. It is far safer, far less demanding, to be a speculator than a witness. Speculators write books of calculations, hold seminars that attract thousands, rake in untold piles of loot, while prognosticating a certain time for Jesus’ return. Witnesses, on the other hand, just witness to the truth of the gospel: the truth of justice for the whole world, the love of enemies, and the care for the marginalized and outcast. As Acts 1 makes so clear, the world needs far fewer speculators and far more witnesses.”
Oh, the spectators and speculators and witnesses. All of these words might seem so closely linked, and yet carry such different meanings when held up to the lamp. I’m gonna guess that some of us are joining the disciples in the “not-getting-it” part of this linguistics lesson. Let’s see if we can parse these out.
Now, spectators are fun! They sit on the sidelines, or sometimes even stand, waving their arms as the “wave” comes around and thrusting their foam finger in the air and cheering. They show up, they are present in the place, together with all the rest. They mostly pay attention–between chowing their hot dogs and Dippin’ Dots, that is. They look. They watch the action happening before them, playing out on a field, a pitch, a rink or a screen. But no matter what they do, they don’t really have a bearing on the action. Nothing the spectator does will change the score, altar the character of the players, or make that perfect pitch, hit, kick or drive. Spectators are present, but they are not engaged.
Witnesses, however, are not just here for the fun. Like the spectator, they are present and they look at the action. But they also see what is really going on. Witnesses feel a sense of responsibility for the action taking place. Witnesses are engaged. They understand the interconnectedness of all life. They understand how our humanity is all bound up together, our love is all bound up together, our liberation is all bound up together. These are no passive bystanders that turn and look and move on. No, these are people who feel duty-bound to truly see what life has to offer them in that moment. These are people who feel that nudge from the Spirit saying, “You’ve gotta be here for this.” And then they show up.
And yes, I know that some of you, who use sports analogies way better than I, would argue that you are not just a spectator, but you are truly a die-hard witness to Vandy baseball or Preds hockey or UT football…or anyone else, for that matter. But, sorry to break it to you, none of us here in this sanctuary is qualified to gain the winning touchdown or goal. So you’re stuck with me and my very limited sport knowledge, as I try to express to you that witnesses feel some kind of solidarity with those with whom the action is taking place, while the spectators can go on with their lives, unchanged.
And this is part of the role of the church: to be witnesses. Those raised in more conservative backgrounds might associate the practice of evangelism with the idea of “being a witness for the Lord.” While we acknowledge that often traditional evangelism, the business of “saving souls” and spreading the gospel of Jesus can be problematic in its theology, spreading paternalism and capitalism and a narrow vision of morality, there may yet be something to the practice of being a witness. We witness in many different dimensions. The first dimension occurs as we witness to the life of Jesus Christ, the gospel that proclaims that death does not have the final answer, the gospel that proclaims love continues beyond all evil, all hatred, all violence. Jesus’ miraculous birth, life, death and resurrection shows us this. These life stages are miraculous not only because of the fact of their occurrence, but because of their revelation that our God is a god who is WITH US. In all of these moments of growth and life, God calls to us, “Made you look.”
The second dimension is that we witness to the gospel, the “good news” that Jesus himself preached in Luke chapter 4:
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
These words are yet another “made you look” arising from our text today, as we look alongside Jesus towards the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, and bring good news to them, good news to ourselves, through our thoughts, words and deeds.
The third dimension is that we witness to the events going on around us, sharing with our Loving God special concern for those who are marginalized by the powers and principalities of this world. Though we are not always good at it, we must do our best to see, truly see and understand, the plight of “the least of these,” those who have been made to be “the least of these” by virtue of their identities and expressions in the world. We must do this for those suffering from natural disasters, displaced by war and greed, marginalized because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship status, economic class and belief system. As Dean Emilie Townes reminded the Divinity School at Vanderbilt during our commencement worship service on Friday morning, we must be present to the grief of the world. Our task is to witness: to see and empathize and move forward being altered. Witnesses do not leave unscathed as spectators do. They leave changed. Made you look.
The fourth dimension is that we witness to each other’s lives. As all of the graduates among us can profess, we have witnessed to this most holy work of Glendale Baptist Church. We have even participated in it. Some have grown up here, people have watched you tread these floors as a toddler and elementary school child and tween and teen and now delightful young people who yet have still not glimpsed the true power of your being and your actions in this world. Some have grown up here, and I include myself in that, learning how to live and move and breathe in the midst of this Spirit that surrounds us and enfleshes us and creates community in us.
And you, dearest Glendale, have witnessed our growth. You have shouldered our burdens and we have shouldered yours. You have born responsibility for our wellbeing and we have born responsibility for yours. You have been moved to conversation and dialogue and action by our relationship, and we have been moved to conversation and dialogue and action by your relationship! I would like to invite you now to share briefly how you have witnessed and been witnessed to as a part of the life of this community.
[Pause for sharing]
As we discover in our moments of reflection and sharing, witnessing is not a passive activity. Witnesses incur a responsibility. As we enter the role of the witness, we are in some way acting upon that moment. Something in the metaphysical cosmic character of a moment is changed by virtue of our presence. This is not said so that we will inflate our own self-importance, but so that we might notice that we make a difference in this world. When we witness something, we we are also allowing it to act upon us. Being truly seen and known is a powerful thing. How many of us here, when finding ourselves overcome with emotion, are relieved in some way when that friend listens to us in just the way we need? When a loved one notices what’s on our hearts without us having to utter it aloud? When a stranger offers a simple gesture of kindness and it is somehow it hits the spot? What we learn from these random encounters, is that others witness to our lives. That our lives matter, how we show up for each other matters: to our families, friends, our church, our community, our world. A life spent learning how to follow Jesus, learning how to live in this world espousing an ethic grounded in love and justice and mercy and grace, is worth pursuing. This kind of life matters, and it makes you look. At yourself. At others. At the world. Toward the future.
So church, I’m not a heavenly visitor dressed in white talking to the early church of disciples as you stare into heaven. But I echo the question asked in the Scripture text today: “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” We know what Jesus has called us to do. Look around at each other. Explore this precious, temporal world with your compassionate heart. Consider everything from the lilies to the least of these. Are you a spectator or a witness?
What’s that? Over there? Can you see what I see? Made you look.
This sermon originally preached on May 13, 2018 at Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee.