Sermons That Work

It’s Always A Little Surprising…, Ascension Day – 1997

May 08, 1997

…as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight…

ACTS 1:9

It’s always a little surprising, the kinds of questions people ask. You know, there’s something I’ve always wondered about and you’re the one who can tell me the answer: Does it say in the Bible that we become angels when we die? I think of one man putting it all together in an adult inquirers’ class: So, then, you’re saying that the Old Testament was written before the New Testament? Or — and not so funny — the woman who is recovering slowly from a stroke and trying to understand the meaning of this tragedy in her life: What does it mean when it says “The sins of the fathers will be visited on the children?” Does it mean this happened to me because of something my parents did? It is terrible that she spends even a minute thinking such a thing. But she is not untypical: many bright people are strikingly and, sometimes, painfully uninformed about their own spiritual heritage, displaying a naivete about basic religious concepts that doesn’t match their considerable sophistication about everything else.

The above questions, and the hundreds of similar ones people ask, make some sense, though, if the last education these folks received about their own spiritual traditions was when they were about twelve. And if that education came with the understanding that nice people don’t question assertions made by church authorities. Left with a hodge-podge of half- remembered teachings that they’re not allowed to examine critically, and following the natural curve of intellectual and moral growth in every area of life save this one, a lot of bright, moral baby-boomers just walked away from faith.

Now they want to return. This demographic group has made up the largest segment, by far, of new attenders in every American religious denomination in recent years. It should surprise no one to find otherwise smart people — stockbrokers, teachers, mathematicians — earnestly trying to make sense of religious concepts that are essentially childish: guardian angels, illness as punishment, prayer as shopping. They don’t know there are any adult ones.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t find out. People want very much to believe in something, in the larger view of life that includes its meaning, our ethical and moral life, our understanding of God, our ways of relating to God, whose existence causes and contains our own. We want a spiritual life. In this story, Jesus ascends into heaven and the disciples are left looking up in the sky for him. Our quest, though, cannot begin up in the sky. We need Jesus right here. We need to learn how to see the signs of him here on the earth. It is not easy for us to learn.

The principles of the religious heritage of the West can no longer simply demand assent, if they ever could. They must be presented in a way that makes sense to modern people. Vague ideas that faith requires turning off one’s brain makes smart people uninterested in investigating it. The church’s goal is to invite them to bring their minds to the table along with their souls. You have to: they are joined at the hip. We can no more decide not to think than we can decide not to read a word once we have seen it. Once you know, you cannot “un-know.”

And yet we cannot live an authentic spiritual life on the basis of thought alone: the experience of living provides the material upon which we reflect in the quiet of our souls. It would not help us substantially in our faith if we could actually understand things like the Virgin Birth, or the Resurrection, or the Ascension we celebrate today. We are not disembodied spirits or bodiless intellects: we are real people with real lives. Real people learn about God from listening to their lives.

Here is a yearning for tradition virtually everywhere in our culture, from the faded nostalgia of the interior decorating schemes proffered by women’s magazines to the sudden popularity of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, from the wave of longing for common purpose we witnessed during the observances of the fiftieth anniversary of the Second World War to the unexpected emergence of Gregorian chant as a musical fad. But it would be a mistake to dismiss these things as mere fad: they are signs of a deep and genuine spiritual longing. People long for the past because the present is a tough place in which to live. We need advice and wise counsel from our elders, people who come to us from a time before we thought every problem could be solved in half an hour, like they are on TV, a time before we assumed that we could always have more and more and more. One thing we know about the past is that life was hard then. It is hard now — a different sort of hard, maybe, but human life has never been easy. We need the strength our traditions give us.

We now suspect we have discarded some wisdom from the past that we’re going to need after all. Our past, not a borrowed one. Not a utopian, magic one. Not all of us want to know about how crystals can give you the secret of The Life Force. We don’t all think we were Amenhotep IV’s grandmother in a previous life, or that we would in some way better understand this life if we had been. Not all of us think that the right combination of vitamin pills and pleasant thoughts will enable us to live forever, and we don’t all think that we know everything there is to know about ourselves once we’ve discovered we’re Adult Children of Alcoholics. Some of us even have a few questions about the Power of Positive Thinking. And about impossible-to-understand things within our own tradition, like the Ascension, as well.

But many of us do want to explore the spiritual dimension of our lives, the part you can’t reason or measure your way through. The things that occupy most of our energy and emotion are not the sensible, quantifiable components of everyday life: they are spiritual. Things like love. Anger. Fear of death. The meaning of work. The worth of the self. The goodness of the earth. Sorrow. There is nobody who doesn’t puzzle over these things. Life is just one damn thing after another unless you give some thought to them.

Generation after generation of faithful people have puzzled over them, too. The heritage of the Judeo- Christian world is the record of this puzzling. There is very little about which we are concerned that has not been seen before. We will see what we see with our own eyes, of course, and not with the eyes of a previous generation, but we are stronger and wiser if we draw on the wisdom of the past as well as on our own.

So you don’t have to learn about crystals. You don’t have to shave your head or levitate or drink vile herbal teas. You don’t have to leave the religion you were brought up in. All you have to do is approach it like a grownup and ask it some grownup questions. You’ll probably find that what you were looking for was right here all along — not in the sky, but right here. AMEN.

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Christopher Sikkema


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