Up-Lifting Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Ascension 2012 Luke-Acts tells the Christ-story in a very compelling way. 1. Jesus is born (duh!) – Luke 2 2. Jesus – grows in knowledge and faith – Luke 2.41-51 3. Jesus begins his ministry – Luke 3 & 4 (continues ministry of teaching and healing through chapter 21) 4. [...]
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Luke-Acts tells the Christ-story in a very compelling way.
1. Jesus is born (duh!) – Luke 2
2. Jesus – grows in knowledge and faith – Luke 2.41-51
3. Jesus begins his ministry – Luke 3 & 4 (continues ministry of teaching and healing through chapter 21)
4. Jesus’ ministry ends with his arrest – Luke 22
5. Jesus is tried and convicted – Luke 22 & 23
6. Jesus is executed – Luke 23
7. Jesus is remembered/experienced beyond his death (“Resurrection”) – Luke 24
8. Jesus experiences an “Ascension” – Luke 24/Acts 1
9. Jesus returns as the “body of Christ”, the enlivened, spirit-filled Church at Pentecost (Acts 2)
10. The church continues the work of Christ (remainder of Acts)
Luke brilliantly tells the story of how Jesus’ life and work continue beyond Golgotha, and one of the ways it continues is through the people who are committed to following Jesus’ example and teachings. The Spirit of Christ lives on in the followers of Jesus, and the collective followers, “the Church”, become his resurrected and returned living presence on earth, continuing to offer hope, healing, and good news. Luke imagines Jesus passing the torch, as it were, so that “we” continue to be Christ in the world. And that’s the powerful story as Luke presents it. And that is uplifting.
So we have to remember that “Ascension” isn’t a stand-alone story, it isn’t a miracle occurrence that happened once and long ago. The Ascension is part of a larger story that includes us and commissions us to be a relevant, healing force in the world. The story is part of Jesus’ significance beyond his earthly years, and part of our mission beyond simply admiring Jesus. Ascension is part of a story that begins with Jesus and continues with us, and the work is meant to continue as well.
Now, that work isn’t always easy or even safe! And that’s what the gospel lesson today reminds us.
Mark’s original author ended his gospel at chapter 16, verse 8. The original ending to the oldest gospel in our canon simply states, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.”
No explanations. No tidy endings. No iron clad promises. Just mystery and questions and uncertainty. Women visit Jesus’ tomb and find it empty. There is a young man present who tells them Jesus has somehow not stayed dead and can be experienced ahead in Galilee. It all seems overwhelming and frightening and disturbing and the women just leave in terrified silence, the implied ending being, “there may yet be more to come.” And that is uplifting.
After years of persecution and trials and disappointments, the Markan community, or at least someone in that community, must have thought the story ended too ambiguously, and so someone other than the original author put pen to paper (or the first century equivalents of pen and paper) to compose a neater, less ambiguous ending, one that didn’t require the readers and hearers to imagine possibilities but simply gave them answers rather than leaving them with their own questions.
I believe the original author was wise to end it as he did, with the women leaving with unanswered questions that they would have to sort out for themselves over time. Still, this longer ending was later added and while I never use it for any other occasion, it does seem appropriate for Ascension.
The person who added these few verses to Mark’s original ending actually does have something good in mind. Jesus is no longer with them…of course he lives on in ritual and story and imagination and in the work that is continued in his name, but he is no longer physically present to lead a movement. The next generation must now step up and accept leadership if the movement is to continue forward.
Imagining Jesus’ ascension is a way of saying, “He’s no longer here with us in a literal, physical sense, so it’s up to us to continue his mission and ministry.” The story of Jesus being lifted up is meant to lift up those who must continue the mission.
What will that mission include?:
of course, it means offering hope and healing to the hurting
Offering relief and comfort to the suffering
Standing against oppression and injustice
And affirming the sacred value of all people.
And, of course, those who would prefer to protect their power and privilege than to empower the marginalized and lift up the outcast will resist this gospel mission, and they can resist in very ugly ways.
So, the writer encourages the community to press forward anyway…
To cast out demons (that is, to offer comfort to those who are psychologically tormented),
To speak in new ways that will encourage and include more kinds of people,
And to know that there will be opponents trying to poison them with slander and gossip (but such deadly drink need not stop them) and there will be some who will attack with venomous rage and rancor (so they will have to handle those “snakes” those scheming, angry, treacherous vipers)…
But in the end, those attempts to derail good news for the poor, outcast, and marginalized cannot succeed.
Those who believe in this mission of justice, healing and inclusion will experience wholeness (salvation).
Though he messes up Mark’s perfectly good original ending, the anonymous contributor is actually agreeing with Luke, and really with the original author of Mark…there is still work to do, and it’s up to us to do it, so even if it costs us something, let’s get to it! We will find ourselves uplifted as we work to uplift others.
Yes, the first and early second century writers of these narratives thought the world was flat. When Luke says “ends of the earth” – he means it. A flat earth has ends.
Yes, they thought God lived in a heaven that was just above the visible sky over the flat earth.
Yes, they imagined Jesus ascending from the flat earth to the cosmic attic where God was believed to dwell.
They didn’t understand that the earth was not the center of the universe, they did not understand that the earth was round, they did not know that the earth rotates and revolves and has a force known as gravity, they didn’t know that if one could fly at anything short of warp speed at the end of the first century that person would still not have exited our solar system, and not knowing about outer space, they didn’t realize that even a resurrected body probably needs oxygen and there would be none to have beyond our atmosphere.
To pretend to take the story literally cheapens it and insults the intelligence of every citizen of the 21st century…or even of the 18th century for that matter. No, this story isn’t about Jesus defying gravity or proving that indeed the earth is flat with a ceiling level heaven just waiting for him; it’s about encouraging fearful people to move beyond their fears to continue to make a difference in the world as Jesus did. What Luke and the person who tagged a new ending onto Mark’s gospel didn’t know about cosmology is a lot! But what they both understood very clearly is that to follow Jesus means to follow his example of offering hope and healing to a hurting world; to do that will take courage and commitment, but it also means we will find ourselves ascending above our fears, above our sense of helplessness, above our sense of loneliness, and above the doubts and despair that threaten to hold us back in life.
Be fully part of something good and you will feel good! If we will believe we have work to do, and if we will summon the courage to do it, we will make a huge difference in the world, and that’s something which can always fill us with joy and gratitude. That is uplifting, that is, that is the experience of ascension.
And finally, in much more contemporary language, Bishop John Shelby Spong offers this same message to us. There is divine power woven throughout all of life. Call it a Higher Power or the True Self or the Buddha Nature or the Christ Consciousness or That of God in every person, but this divine spark is everywhere, and Jesus was one who allowed that divine glow to shine through him and who reminded us that we have the same light within us, and we too can let it shine.
And so Spong reminds us, “I have seen people resurrected by love. I have watched beauty transcend ugliness, love overcome hatred, faith transform fear, life overcome death. This is Christpower, and it is not alien or foreign to our world.” And this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2012
Today, I am uplifted.
I soar above the limitations of the past.
I rise above the judgments of others.
I am ascending to new possibilities.
And as I am uplifted, I lift up others.
And so it is!
“Believe in yourself and all that you are. Know that there is something inside you greater than any obstacle.” Christian D. Larson
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
May 13, 2012
My mother never took a parenting class. I’ll leave it at that. My mother put crazy things in my head. She would pinch me and say, “I’m an ant, I’m an ant.” So I’d pinch her back and say, “I’m an ant, I’m an ant.” And she’d say, “Boys can’t be ants, only girls can.” Do you know I was in high school before I knew that ant colonies weren’t composed entirely of females! At 16 I’m furious that when I was 3 she told me this outrageous lie! I confronted her about it and she said, “I did not lie; only girls can be aunts; boys are uncles.”
She was always messing with my head. She’d say, “I hope you’re proud of yourself!” Which always meant, “I hope you are ashamed,” or “I hope you’re happy” which usually meant, “I hope you’re miserable.”
But it the end, all that madness did create job security for at least one person. To this day my therapist sends my mother flowers for Mothers Day!
Father imagery used in scripture is well known and maybe over played, but there is also the imagery of divine love as maternal.
El Shaddai, “almighty breasted one” (a nurturing, nursing image).
Ruach, the spirit, “she” (giving birth to our world in the creation myth in Genesis 1).
Psalm 23, God spreads a table, like a mother, a wife, or a servant in that patriarchal culture.
Psalm 91.4, “God will cover you with feathers and under God’s wings you will find refuge.” The image is clearly that of a mother bird protecting her young. We see a similar imagery in Deuteronomy 32.11, “like a Mother Eager that stirs up her nest and hovers over her young and spreads her wings to catch them and carries them aloft, God led the people…”
Isaiah 45.15, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and ignore the child she has borne? Even if your human mother could do so, I will not forget you.”
Isaiah 66.13, “Like a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”
Matthew 13, God portrayed as a mother or grandmother baking bread, scooping in yeast until her entire loaf rises. She must make enough to feed the whole family; no one will get left out.
In Luke 15 we see God as a housewife or mother who will not accept losing a decorative coin that probably represented her family. Just as a good mother never gives up on any of her children, God will not, cannot lose any of her children.
Jesus used birth-language when arguing with the Pharisees, saying that the goal of spirituality is to be reborn, or as one branch hanging from the Christian tree loves to say, “born again.” But how is one born? Through a mother. Mothers give birth; a divine mother gives rebirth.
John 19.26, 27, “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”
If you had a good mother, we celebrate that with you today.
If your mother chose you by adoption, then I hope today is a day you feel very special, knowing that you were actually chosen for who you already were.
And if your mother adopted you out so that you could have a better life, I hope her sacrifice paid off and that you have known more joy and love than she could have ever imagined.
If you have lost your mother, then of course I hope you will let today be a day of precious memories that bring smiles that will reflect the love she gave you so abundantly.
If you are someone’s mother, I hope your children, however old they are, know or will come to know how dearly you love them.
If someone has chosen you to fill a maternal role in their lives, I hope just as Mary and John found each other in their moment of need, that you feel blessed to have a way to nurture and be nurtured within the context of a chosen family.
And if you never knew your mother, or if you mother proved to be less than skilled at the art of mothering, then I offer you the idea of God as a mother who will never forget you, as Isaiah said.
These are inclusive images and inclusion and equality are what our readings promote today.
Acts: The “circumcised” (literally, those without foreskins…graphic, but the bible often is) were astounded that the “Gentiles” (aka uncircumcised, that is, those men who had foreskins) could have profound and genuine spiritual experiences. Of course, many people in our churches will be astounded that the scripture speaks so openly and comfortably about genitalia, though of course until we point it out, they will have developed filters so that “circumcised” simply means Jewish while Gentile means non-Jewish. But our spiritual ancestors did have the Puritanical and Victorian hang-ups that we have inherited and tried to read back into scripture. Body identification without body shame is very much part of our scriptures (Song of Songs 8.12, “My vineyard is mine to give!”)
Beyond the earthy language of the Acts passage, the text also (and even primarily) challenges prejudice. “Those people” seek truth? “Those people” experience transcendence? “Those people” touch the numinous? “Those people” are sincere in their faith and are sustained by their faith? Who knew?! How can “those people” have genuine spiritual experiences?
Oh, because whatever God is, It is “no respecter of persons” (Acts 10.34)! Yes, those Queers, or Muslims, or Hindus, or Ethical Humanists, or single moms, or people in recovery, or divorcees, or women who have exercised their procreative freedom, or whoever “those people” happen to be have sacred value and can experience the Spirit of Life in transformational and dramatic ways, just like “we” can (whoever we are). The source of prejudice is human, not divine.
How can LBGT people be spiritual?
How can those in inter-religious relationships support the spiritual path of their life-mate?
How can people who live in “those” countries have sacred value?
How can followers of “that” religion be sincere and find joy and peace and hope in their spiritual path?
Of course there are other prejudices…why are wehelping people in Jamaica when there are people in Broward County who need help?
Why reach out to the Dominican Republic when people in the Midwest also have needs.
Why speak out against Ugandan and Nigerian violence against gays when North Carolina has just dehumanized all of its same-gender loving residents.
The racism and xenophobia motivating such questions is clear…the suggestion is that we should be helping “our” people first, and if we do anything for “them” we should do at least as much for “our own.”
But as the first reading pointed out today, we live in one world; there is one human family, one spirit of life…there is no us and them, no there and here. There is just God and all her children.
When we challenge homophobia in the South, we are helping people in the Midwest.
When we challenge violence in the Caribbean or Africa, we are helping people in Miami.
When we collect food for people in Broward, we are resisting the evil of needless hunger that plagues the world.
When we help an MCC in the DR, we help the entire MCC movement.
When we help one person believe in herself or himself, we are helping to uplift all of humanity.
When we pray for you, we are injecting healing energy into the life-stream of the entire human race.
At our seminarians’ graduation last week in Miami, there was this amazing quote by Bishop Untener, “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.”
The message of equality is not absent from our gospel today either.
John imagines Jesus even suggesting that his followers are equal to him, in essence if not in demonstration. We all have the same divine source. We all can and are meant to “bear fruit.” We all have aspirations and are entitled to our hopes and dreams (whatever you ask…) and we all can achieve some of our goals (the divine source will give you…). But of course, not only are we all equal in having sacred value, enormous potential, human aspiration, and at least a good chance of achieving some of our noble goals, we also need love and are capable of giving love. We are not only equal to Jesus, we are equal to one another. Equal with (not inferior to) the richest, the most powerful, the most beautiful, the most privileged. Equal with (not superior to) the person of a different religion (or no religion), the person of a race or ethnicity or nationality different from my own, the person who has a different gender identity than the one I have for myself, the person who speaks a language other than my primary language. What is important is that we grow in the practice of love (not belief or dogma or doctrine, but love). And if we are lucky enough to experience romantic love, that love is blessed regardless of the gender of the person with whom I share it.
And the voters of North Carolina and the 29 other states that have disguised their fears and prejudices and hatreds as values and codified discrimination and injustice into their laws and constitutions will not be able to ultimately keep love and equality from flourishing. St. Paul said in the end three things endure, faith hope love and the greatest of these is love…and guess what…homophobia didn’t even make the list.
The idea that we all have sacred value, and we all should recognize that sacred value in all people is the spiritual truth of our scriptures today. We are all divine, and human; mortal, and eternal. We all are made up of starlight and cosmic particles and dust and energy and water. We all have the same Breath of Life, the whole spirit or holy spirit of God flowing through us. We all have the same divine Mother, the spirit of everlasting goodness whose unconditional and all-inclusive love leaves no one out and is expressed in every life where genuine love is shared. And THIS is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2012
God’s love is expressed in my love.
My life is divine life in action.
God is my mother, father, friend, and lover.
God is the substance of my life.
And in God I trust that all is well.
“It’s not easy being a mother. If it were easy, fathers would do it.” Dorothy Zbornak (played by Beatrice Arthur), The Golden Girls
The Divine Photo Album (or The Many Faces of God)
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
1 John 4; John 15
May 6, 2012 – Sunshine Cathedral
What is God? Some people tell me they don’t believe in God, and when they explain what they mean, I usually say, “I don’t believe in the same God you don’t believe in!” But I believe in hope, and I believe in beauty, and I believe in kindness, and I believe in compassion, and I believei in joy, and I believe in courage, and I believe in love. These so-called atheists, so far to a person, always believe in these same wonderful qualities. I choose to call those qualities divine; others choose to not call them divine. But regardless of what we call them, are they any less amazing or life-sustaining?
God language trips up some people, it really does. But that may be because we’ve allowed our god-language to get too narrow and limiting. If we were more faithful to the biblical tradition, then the Substance of Life could be called many things, and if one name didn’t appeal to someone we could just offer them another name. Our spiritual ancestors seemed to possess that wisdom.
Deuteronomy 32.10-11, “…God shielded and cared for God’s people as the apple of God’s own eye, like a Mother Eagle that stirs up her nest and hovers over her young…” God, the mother eagle, watching over her chicks, teaching them to fly on their own is one of the ways that the ancient writer of that text imagined God.
Job 38.29, “From whose womb comes the ice of the world? Who gives birth to the frost in the air?” The answer is God. The only time God is ever imagined to have genitalia in the bible is in the book of Job, and the genitalia that writer imagines is female. Job may be the oldest book in the entire bible, and in that book, there is an image of God as divine mother, giving birth to nature, even the ice and the frost of winter time.
Ezekiel 1.28, “Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day…such was the divine glory.” That prophetic writer imagines God as a rainbow, an inclusive image of many colors arching over every place that has experienced rain. The rainbow God leaving no one out is an especially appropriate image for a rainbow people.
Matthew 13.33, “The kin-dom of God [the community of God, the family of God] is like yeast that a grandmother baking bread keeps adding to the flour until it is all throughout the dough.” A grandmother lovingly baking bread, making it super delicious and making enough for the whole family, making sure there is enough yeast for the entire loaf to rise, so that there will be enough bread for the entire family to enjoy…that’s one of the ways that Matthew imagines God. Nana God working to make sure everyone gets a taste of her love.
In Luke 15, there are three parables that each imagines God in a different way. The first is the parable of the lost sheep where God is compared to a shepherd, who could be male or female, who tends to the sheep and feeds them and makes sure they get exercise and are protected from predatory animals.
The second is the parable of the lost coin where God is imagined in the form of a housewife. The housewife, in her younger days, would have been given a wedding gift from her husband, a head piece with 10 coins dangling from it. The coins would of course have some value, just as if you made a piece of jewelry from dimes or quarters it would have the value of those coins, but also the extra value from the labor put into it, plus sentimental value if it was gift. The woman who loses a coin from her precious gift tears the house a part looking for it because losing it simply is not an option.
She isn’t crazed because of the monetary value of a single coin. The coin represents her family, her husband’s love, her marriage…it is priceless and losing it simply isn’t an option. And so Big Mama God tears her house apart until she finds that coin, because none of God’s coins, just like none of God’s sheep, can ever really be lost. It just isn’t an option.
The third parable in Luke 15 is the parable a father who has two sons. In this story, God is the parent, the father who loves all of his children equally, and proves it by being generous with the one who deserves it least. But love isn’t a transaction, it isn’t quid pro quo, it is freely given and it is unconditional, or it isn’t love.
God the shepherd or shepherdess who will not lose a single lamb, God the mother who will not lose a single coin, god the father who will never give up on even the most difficult of his children, these are all images, all in the same chapter of Luke’s gospel, for God.
But of course, Jesus said wisely and simply, God is spirit (John 4.24).
Spirit is energy, wind, breath, life-force.
The Hebrew word for spirit is Ruach, which is feminine.
The Greek word for spirit is Pneuma, which is gender neutral.
The bible is so full of symbols for the divine. God is imagined as a father and a mother, a dove and an eagle, a rainbow, a castle and a rock, and yet, in spite of all these symbols pointing to what can’t be fully known, we have the commandment telling us to not limit the divine to any image, because image is not essence (“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…” 2nd Commandment).
The God that can only be understood as one thing, one gender, one religion, one nationality, one form, one image, such a god is not very god-like after all, but is really just an idol doomed to wind up on the scrap heap of all of history’s idols.
In the bible God is he, and God is she, and God is it, and God is always more than the name or image we choose in any given moment. God of many names, mystery beyond our naming…
Why do you think the biblical editors left in all these different names and symbols of that which cannot be named or adequately symbolized? Probably so that we wouldn’t get too attached to any one of them. Probably so that we would notice that there are too many possible ways to relate to the source of all life to simply say God is this and nothing more, God must called that and nothing else. To let our experience of God be bigger, the compilers and editors of scripture presented God as a grandmother, and a mother eagle, and a loving father, and a feudal Lord, and a bright and beautiful rainbow, and the very energy of life, and even more. The bible calls us to always seek to let God be more.
So, when John imagines Jesus saying, “I am the true vine,” that isn’t an exclusive claim saying that only people who have certain opinions or understandings of Jesus get to be in communion with the spirit of life! No, that is John imagining Jesus demonstrating how we can believe in ourselves. Jesus believes that the spirit of life and love is flowing through him, expressing as him, is part of him, is the source of his very existence, and so he can make powerful I Am statements, and we aren’t meant then to turn around and make Jesus an idol because he affirmed his sacred value. Jesus was Jewish, and would have taken the Second Commandment seriously.
No, we are meant to follow Jesus’ example and affirm OUR sacred value! I am the good shepherd, I am the gate, I am the way, I am the vine, I am a child of God, I am the lamb who cannot be lost, I am the coin that will never be abandoned, I am the bread with enough yeast to rise to my full potential, I am an eagle learning to fly, I am the apple of God’s eye, I am divine love embodied. I am, you are, we are, everyone, without exception.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “A person will worship something, have no doubt about that…That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
I don’t worship a tyrant lord, because I don’t want to be tyrannical I don’t worship a tribal deity that prefers my clan, class, country, or creed to everyone else because I don’t to be that kind of bigot. I don’t worship a god of war because I want to experience peace. I don’t worship a god of form, because I want to see God in every form and beyond all form. I don’t worship a male deity because I have feminine and masculine qualities, and I have women and men and gender non-compliant people in my life and I want to see and experience God in the femininity, and in the masculinity, and in the fluid gender continuum in my world. I don’t worship a god who is so petty as to not recognize love when it is shared between people of the same gender, because I want genuine love to be celebrated every time it is experienced. I don’t worship a god who cares what we call It, because I want a God that is big enough to answer every call, and I hope in time to be the kind of person that can respond more often than not with compassion to the cries that I hear.
That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping, we are becoming.
Can you let your God be more than she or he or it has been so far? Even if you aren’t sure if you believe in God, can you be honest with your doubts and let your courage and integrity be what boosts you higher as you continue your spiritual search? Can you imagine God as infinite compassion, as unlimited grace, as universal hope, as the ground of being, as the spark of light that indwells all life?
If we can let our understanding of the divine grow, not only will we be overcoming the limitations of idolatry, but we will also be letting ourselves grow. Oh let your God get bigger and bigger because what we are worshiping, we are becoming.
Maybe that’s why in the first letter of John, the whole matter is stated so simply, so beautifully, and so powerfully: God is LOVE, and whoever lives in love lives in God and God lives in them. We can all believe in love. We can all express love. And we can all grow in love. That is really the only kind of religion that I’m interested in, and that’s the only kind of religion that can truly be called the Good News. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2012
My understanding of God is growing.
And so am I!
I am the lamb who cannot be lost.
I am the coin that will never be abandoned.
I am an eagle learning to fly.
I am the apple of God’s eye.
“Love, not religion, but one another.” Raymond John Baughan