Uplifted by Rev Ty Bradley – 9am

On May 13, 2018, in Sunshine Cathedral, by Rev.Dr. Robert

Gracious God, May we be present to one another always in ways that affirm life, reflect love, and advance justice. And now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts nourish our minds and uplift our spirits. Amen. So this morning is both Ascension Sunday and Mother’s Day. I want to […]

Gracious God,
May we be present to one another always in ways that affirm life, reflect love, and advance justice. And now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts nourish our minds and uplift our spirits. Amen.

So this morning is both Ascension Sunday and Mother’s Day. I want to first recognize and say thank you to all the mothers with us this morning, including our mothers of choice! Though, to be fair since it is also Ascension Sunday, I should also give a shout out to anyone who’s ever had an out of body experience.

The Ascension doesn’t really get the attention it deserves. We get all excited about the Resurrection, and then once it’s done we are immediately looking ahead to Pentecost. It’s like, Hallelujah Christ is Risen…now let’s go get drunk in the Spirit.
But the Ascension of Jesus is an important part of the story. Indeed it is the lynchpin that holds together Resurrection and Pentecost as a coherent narrative. It is what takes us from the remarkable story of an impoverished Galilean preacher and reformer to the even more remarkable story of the community of his followers who set out to share and embody that preacher’s empire-shaking vision of God’s abundant life for all people. Without the Ascension, I just don’t think we ever get to Pentecost.

Now, I never make it my business to tell folks from the pulpit whether they should believe in dead bodies reanimating, or people floating away into the sky, or any other kind of supernatural thing. The happy truth is that the factualness or lack thereof of these events is inconsequential to their meaning for our lives and the life of faith communities.

And I think that is because stories like the resurrection or the ascension are not ultimately stories about God; but rather are stories about us. About our journeys and experiences as we navigate our lives, particularly in light of our being children of a loving God called into communities of faithful response to that love.

And that is why the Resurrection story needs the Ascension story, because our stories of new life, of second chances, of resurrection, need the uplifting story of ascension to become all that they are meant to be in our lives. Resurrection is not enough. Without Ascension, resurrection is nothing more than a return to the status quo.

Before the resurrection, Jesus’ friends and family felt debilitating loss and fear and grief. The death of their friend was for them the death of their hope. They had invested themselves in a way of being in the world that they thought was going to see them through to the end. But suddenly it was gone, it was dead. And like many of us have found ourselves in the aftermath of deep, death-like loss, they were paralyzed. Stuck. Their lives were on indefinite hold. Sometimes we can’t envision how to move beyond the death and devastation we have suddenly found ourselves in.

And then, the good news of the Resurrection. Jesus is alive! He appeared in their midst. And suddenly the return to life from death allowed a new hope to arise from the ashes of their despair. What they had thought lost to them forever had returned and now there was hope. New life, resurrection, always brings new hope.

But new hope is not enough. They were still stuck. They were still in a holding pattern. Not because of fear or a debilitating sense of loss. They were stuck by their contentment at what seemed to be a return to the way things were. Oh wonderful, Jesus is alive again. Now we can get back to how it was. We can return to what we were about before everything went bad.

They are happy to follow Jesus’ lead, to go back to the Teacher-Disciple dynamic they had enjoyed with him. But the miracle of resurrection from the dead has not yet done anything to propel them forward into a new way of being faithful in the world.
They didn’t yet realize what we too have sometimes struggled to understand. The hope that resurrection brings is not a hope for reliving the past. Resurrection Hope is about taking hold of new possibilities for the future.

When I came out as a gay man nearly 20 years ago, it seemed like everything important in my life had become as dead to me. Relationships, ministry, material possessions. Not one area of my life as a married rising star Pentecostal minister escaped devastation. But when new friends, and a new relationship, a new career, and even a new welcoming church began materializing in my life, it was for me the most powerful experience of resurrection I had ever known, before or since.

But even though I was experiencing resurrection, for a long time I remained stuck. Not in despair, but in contentment. I wasn’t looking forward, I was looking back. I was cherishing the things that had returned to my life and, like the disciples waiting on Jesus to tell them what to do again, I was looking back and waiting for everything to be like it was.

It took a long time for me to realize that what had been restored in this resurrection experience was far more important than what I had originally lost, more authentic relationships, a more powerful conception of the Gospel’s meaning, a deeper personal connection to the divine. I struggled to recognize that what lay in the past paled in comparison to what lay ahead if I would only rise above what had been and take hold of the amazing possibilities of what could now be.

And that is what the Ascension story means, in our lives as much as in the lives of those first Jesus followers. To ascend is to be uplifted if you will. We are lifted up from the places where we have been stuck in the past and elevated to places where new possibilities are ours for the taking.

How the story of the ascension demonstrates this uplifting is more clearly seen when we look at how the author of Luke-Acts retells the story at the beginning of Acts. The writer ends the Gospel of Luke with a telling of the ascension that sounds like an ending. Some final instructions, but then a nice, fuzzy, goodbye. We can picture Jesus slowly disappearing into the clouds like helium balloons being released at someone’s memorial service. In the retelling of the story in Acts, the writer includes a lot of the same elements, but here it reads much more like a beginning.

The disciples are eager for Jesus to tell them what he plans to do next. He tells them that it is not about what he will accomplish, but about what they themselves have the opportunity accomplish. Then, as if to prove his point, he disappears from sight. Still a bit obtuse about the position that Jesus has just put them in, the disciples stare up at where he was last seen. An angel appears and asks in essence, “why are you looking to heaven. The work of the Gospel is right here on earth. It is your work now.”
In the Resurrection, the disciples were given new life, new hope. But in the Ascension they were given new purpose. Resurrection without Ascension is not true resurrection at all. Hope that is not uplifted by purpose remains stuck in the past until it ceases to be hope at all. Only in ascending above what was and taking hold of what can be do we take full advantage of the resurrection hope that we have experienced in our lives.

My mother died on Mother’s Day, 10 years ago this past Friday at age 54. I find it impossible every year at this time not to think about her life and its ultimate meaning. She was in and out of prison constantly from the time I was 9 years old until I was about 31. While I do have quite a few memories of the time we spent together, much of it pretty wild stuff, overall my thoughts about my mom reflect a sort of distance. Most of her time as a mother was spent out running the streets or sitting in prison, not with us kids.

When she died, her funeral was in the small chapel of a funeral home in the desert town she lived in on the Arizona Nevada border. As I stood at the head of the chapel officiating her service, I looked out and took in the reality that only six people were present beside myself and I remembered a somber conversation we had a few years earlier while we were driving somewhere together. She was staring off into nowhere silently in the passenger seat, when she suddenly turned to me and said with the sadness of regret in her voice, “Ty I know I am hardly in the position to offer motherly advice. But, if there is one thing I could leave you with that would stick, I want it to be this. Some day you will find yourself at a place in life where you have considerably more old memories behind you than new experiences in front you. Please try to live your life so that when you get to that place you are happy with the memories you have made.”

Thankfully, my mom had a good 5 more years to make new memories with my brother and I, and to enjoy her final season of life where health problems had forced her to slow down and savor every blessing. Over those years, I know that much of what she thought she had lost, what had died (to frame it in our language this morning), ended up being resurrected for her. She ended this life happy, with memories that may not have outweighed what came before in volume, but certainly were far more powerful in meaning.

But looking out at that empty chapel at her funeral, I wondered if the new life she had experienced at the end was enough. Had her life been meaningful enough. Had she ascended, as it were, to a life with some more lasting purpose? I have wondered it still in the years since her death.

But about two weeks ago I was going through a box of her old effects that I had boxed it up after her death and left alone all these years. In addition to pictures, letters, and other keepsakes, I found packets of prison education materials. Upon closer inspection I was shocked to see that some of these materials were created by my mom. They included reading comprehension aids, workshops on available legal aid for appeals, parole board interview training. All stuff my mom had created and used to educate other inmates. What stopped me in my tracks was some basic materials on HIV/AIDS that were accompanied by several letters to the warden, the state prison bureau, the state department of health and others wherein she decried the lack of HIV/AIDS education for women in the California prison system and detailing how that was killing women entrusted to the state’s care, especially women of color. In the late 1980’s, when no one else thought to do it, my mother had done the research, gathered or created the materials and fought for the opportunity to educate her forgotten sisters in chains on HIV/AIDS.

1 of the 6 people at her funeral was a young woman I did not know. She was a local and apparently my mom had taken her under her wing at some point. She approached me after the service and said, “I want you to know that your mom was more mother to me than my own mom. I would be dead or back in prison if it weren’t for her.” I didn’t give it much thought beyond being touched to hear about their relationship at the time. As I look back now, however, I believe she was standing in for the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women over the years for whom my mother had made a meaningful difference.

It turns out my mom had indeed experienced more than resurrection hope at the end of her life. Somehow, all along the way in ways and at times I never knew anything about, my mom had found ways to experience ascension. She had been uplifted, rising above the literal and figurative prison she found herself stuck in, because she had taken hold of untapped possibilities that had given her new purpose. And she had made a real difference in her unconventional world of influence because of it.

When we ascend to take hold ourselves of the possibilities that resurrection hope has made available to us, we are moving in the tradition of those first followers of Jesus. We get unstuck. We stop looking up to the heavens. We stop waiting for God to do what our own resurrection experience has made possible for us to do, for ourselves but equally as important, for other people who also need hope and to be uplifted. Like those who experienced ascension on that hill in Bethany, we become witnesses to the world around of us of the Kindom of God. We become the Church of Jesus Christ. Alive with Resurrection hope, uplifted with Ascension purpose, and ablaze with Pentecost power. This is the life abundant God would have for us and for all people. And this is the Good news.

Ministers are coming forward to anoint you with oil and provide you with a prayer card. We are the ones who do the work of uplifting, but we don’t do it by ourselves or merely for ourselves. True ascension happens in a communal context and gathering here at this altar every week arm in arm is a powerful, embodied reminder that we are at our best when we are at it together. There is no magic in the oil, or in the prayer on the card. But there is magic in our shared life together. We lift one another up and we bring others with us when we are lifted up. Perhaps you need some uplifting this morning or maybe you have some uplifting you can share with someone else. Whatever your situation, I invite you to rise as you are able, and come forward as you will, and let’s give miracles a chance.

Gracious God, we have seen and experienced your resurrection life time and again. We commit ourselves to the work of translating that new life into purposeful living so that we may ourselves be uplifted and that we may be a meaningful part of the uplifting of others. May we never be satisfied with returning to what was, but rather motivated to action by the possibilities of what could be. That our lives and this world may increasingly reflect your character of love, justice and compassion. We offer this prayer in faith as we affirm together…

New life fills me with hope.
I am turning possibilities into purpose.
I am uplifted and am lifting others with me.
Allelujah!
Amen.

 

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