Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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I have always loved Frederick Buechner. Anyone in my Ann Arbor or Kansas City congregations could tell you that, for they have heard me quote him often. It seems almost sacred, though, to quote him in this space, since this is the very room in which his life took a more intentional turn toward faith.

 

In that way, to tell this story is to tell the story of one of our own, which is what we endeavor to do every week, really—to find ourselves in the great, mysterious story of the good news of Jesus Christ.

 

A friend of Fred’s was the rector of an Episcopalian church, and he claims that a Christmas pageant years ago was one of the holiest days of his ministry.

 

“The manger was down in front at the chancel steps where it always is. Mary was there in a blue cloth and Joseph in a cotton beard. The wise men were there with a handful of shepherds, and of course in the midst of them all the Christ child was there, laying in the straw. The nativity story was read aloud with carols sung at the appropriate places, and all went like clockwork until it came time for the arrival of the angels of the heavenly host as represented by the children of the congregation, who were robed in white and scattered throughout the pews with their parents.

 

At the right moment they were supposed to come forward and gather around the manger saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill among all people”—and that is just what they did except there were so many of them, that there was a fair amount of crowding and jockeying for position, with the result that one particular angel, a girl about eight years old who was smaller than most of them, ended up so far out on the fringes of things that not even by craning her neck and standing on tiptoe could she see what was going on.

 

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill among all people.” They sang on cue, and in the momentary pause that followed, the small girl electrified the whole church by crying out in a voice full of sadness irritation and frustration at having her view blocked. She cried, “Let Jesus show!” There was quite a bit of the service left still, but that Episcopalian rector said one of the best things he ever did in his entire life was to end everything right then.

 

“Let Jesus show!” the child cried out, and while the congregation was still sitting around in stunned silence, he offered the benediction and everyone filed out of the church on Christmas Eve with those unforgettable words ringing in their ears.

 

Let Jesus show. That is exactly what we have been endeavoring to do; that is exactly what we have been talking about these past weeks together.

 

At Christmas, it’s God’s work to let Jesus show. But from Easter onward, it becomes our work, too.

Let Jesus show. Let the world see what resurrection looks like—because the love of God that holds on to us in death holds on to us in life, too.

 

So first, John’s letter reminded us that resurrected people seek and sustain community—because we need each other. No one can be Christian alone. Luke’s gospel taught us that resurrected people eat together—because when we do that, we remember all the things Jesus taught us, because so many of his greatest lesson took place over fish or bread or wine, because even now, he is still the host of this table and every table.

 

Peter and John in the book of Acts told us that resurrected people tell their stories, speak their truth—because talking about faith doesn’t require us to speak with certainty. It simply asks us to speak with honesty.

 

Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch reminded us that resurrected people trust that there is room enough for everyone inside of God’s embrace—  and that to trust that God loves everyone is to trust that God loves you, too.

 

And just last week, the psalms told us that resurrected people worship God—not because God needs it, but because we do, because when we worship, we practice acting in here the ways God longs for us to act out there.

 

So, with all this talk over all these weeks about letting Jesus show, what are we to make of this day, the day of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, which is, essentially, the day that lets Jesus disappear?

 

It’s how the book of Acts begins. Forty days after Easter, the disciples and Jesus were together. “Isn’t it time?” the disciples say. “Isn’t it time for you to restore the kingdom?”

“That isn’t for you to know,” he says, “That’s up to God, not you. But you have a power all of your own—you will be the ones to tell everyone everywhere all about me.”

 

Then, scripture tells us, “He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” And while they are still staring at where he was, but is no longer, two strangers appear and ask, “Why are you looking up?”

 

Scholars generally agree that the strangers and their question come in order to remind the disciples that so long as Jesus is up in heaven, their work is down here on earth. I think that’s right. The job of those two stranger angels was to help re-orient the disciples’ attention, and they needed someone to grab their feet and plant them firmly on the ground again. But, I can’t help but wonder if those same angels appeared to us today, if their question wouldn’t be different. I wonder if, instead of “Why are you looking up?” they might ask, “Why aren’t you looking up?”

 

The world has changed a lot since Luke’s gospel was first written down. We have more information available to us than ever before. Google alone processes over 40,000 search queries every second, which adds up to over 3.5 billion searches every day and 1.2 trillion searches every year.

 

We are full of answers. We have access to more information, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, than any one person can consume, and we are constantly connected to it, with a phone in our pocket, a tablet in our bag, or a laptop on our desktop.

 

And having all that information, having all those answers—it gives us a sense of power. Even if you never thought of it that way—to have answers is to have some degree of power in this world. If that’s a new way of looking at that, surely you can relate to the inverse—when we don’t have answers, we often feel powerless, don’t we?

 

But like so much in this life, information can be both blessing and burden.

 

The last time I was up in northern Michigan, I stood outside at night, surrounded by lake and forest and just a few houses, and the stars were incredible. I was sitting out on a swing, with my niece, Lily, and I said, “I wonder how many stars are out there. What do you think? What’s your guess?” And the next thing I know, I heard a familiar little beep, and my niece said into her phone, “Siri, how many stars are in the sky?” An electronic voice replied, “There are 1 x 10 to the 24th stars in the sky.”

 

And I thought—oh come on. So much for mystery. So much for imagination and curiosity.

 

But then Lily asked me what that 1 x 10 to the 24th meant, and when I told her it meant the number 1 with 24 zeros after it, she said, in an excited voice, “I didn’t know numbers could go that high.” And then she said, “Let’s count them all.”

 

Well, we didn’t. We didn’t get anywhere close. Because thanks to Siri, I know there are one septillion stars in the sky and that is way more than can be counted. One septillion stars in the sky doesn’t crush my imagination. It expands my imagination. The very idea is actually too big to wrap my mind, or my imagination, around—it is that far beyond me.

 

After we gave up, she ran inside to tell the others. “Can you believe it?” she said. “There are one and twenty-four zero stars in the sky,” she said, which was close enough.

 

Can you believe it? Can you believe this vast, wide, wonderful world? There are one septillion stars in the sky. Nearly 14 billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy of the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period at the end of a sentence.

 

35 million people visit Central Park every year. Our bodies are made up of 37.2 trillion cells, each and every one of us. There are 352 quintillion gallons of water in the oceans. And a creature called a platypus, a hodgepodge of an animal that scientists first thought was nothing more than a hoax, is actually real. Can you believe it?

 

“Why are you looking up at the sky?” the strangers asked the disciples. Maybe the strangers would ask us why aren’t we looking up. The disciples were looking at Jesus’ feet. We’re so often looking at our phones. But I think it matters less about where we are looking, and more about what we do with what we find.

 

For there is nowhere we can go that is away from that love divine, all loves excelling. God spoke creation into existence, and called it good and very good. Jesus came and walked on this earth, and that means there is no patch of grass or dirt that is not holy. And it is the spirit of God swirling in the brains of God’s people today that pushes the edges of technology and innovation and erases more and more lines between known and unknown, which means, yes, even our smart phones can be used for sacred purpose, because the more we learn about this vast and wonderful world, the more we come to understand our place in it.

 

The poet Mary Oliver says it this way:

 

            Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous

            to be understood.

            How grass can be nourishing in the

            mouths of the lambs.

            How rivers and stones are forever

            in allegiance with gravity

            while we ourselves dream of rising.

            How two hands touch and the bonds

            will never be broken.

            How people come, from delight or the

            scars of damage,

            to the comfort of a poem.

            Let me keep my distance, always, from those

            who think they have all the answers.

            Let me keep company, always, with those who say

            “Look!” and laugh in astonishment,

            and bow their heads.

 

Whether we are looking up at the sky or down at our screens—when what we find there astonishes us or delights us, what do we do? We do as the poet says—we say, “Look!” because our instinct, our human instinct, when we are overcome with wonder and awe, is to share it with someone else. That’s why a whole restaurant applauds when a couple gets engaged, or why everyone smiles when a baby is baptized. It’s because like everything else we’ve talked about this season—wonder and beauty, awe and amazement—they, too, draw us together.

 

And I have to tell you, to choose to see beauty, to seek out experiences of wonder, and to share them with one another—I find that to be a tremendously holy and defiant act, especially when so many in this world are busy amplifying what is ugly and broken. To celebrate beauty even on our least beautiful days is to declare that God’s creativity will always be bigger and stronger than the worst anyone or anything can ever dish out.

 

So, let us bow our heads in wonder and awe together. Let us break bread and share a meal together. Let us tell our stories and open our doors and worship our God together, come what may. Because that is what resurrected people do. And it is by the power of the resurrected Christ that we do it.