WHAT TO DO? WHAT TO THINK? WHAT TO BELIEVE?
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 29 May 2022 [Ascension Day, transferred]:
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
For the second week in a row, we have been subjected to the frustrating horror of more gun violence in our country; and to add to the wrenching pain of it all, the latest violence involves not only another school shooting; but the murdered students in Robb Elementary School, Uvalde, Texas, were third and fourth graders. On a day when they were celebrating the completion of their school year and the growth they had experienced at school, yet another distorted soul chose to make his mark in the world by destroying the lives of others. And we – we are left wondering: What to do? What to think? What to believe?
These questions are painfully hard to absorb. They come on the heels not only of the slaughter of ten people in Buffalo last weekend but also in the pandemic’s overarching context of disruption and death. As a people we are already raw, and the level of fear and division among us continues to fester and eat at the mutual bonds that are necessary for a healthy common life. For instance, in a recent poll, 16% of the country felt that we were on the right track. That leaves a great deal of room for bitterness and distrust to breed, which is in fact what is happening socially and politically among us. We are in the midst of some deep darkness and painful confusion. Things are not working well. Feelings of powerlessness frighten and drain us until in reaction, we are tempted to go numb. What to do? What to think? What to believe?
Well before Buffalo and Uvalde, I made the decision to transfer the scripture lessons for today with those for the Ascension of our Lord. I did this essentially because Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday, forty days after Easter Day, which means that most of us do not experience what the tradition holds as a major event in our Easter faith. I made this change because I wanted us to be together to consider the Lord’s Ascension and consider the impact on us now that Jesus, having fulfilled his earthly ministry and mission, returns to the Father. A meme I received yesterday put a light-hearted spin on the day this way: “The Ascension of Jesus: Celebrating the day that Jesus started working from home.”
The truth is that under ordinary circumstances, we must admit that most Christians tend to overlook the Ascension and thereby miss its “Good News” message. But as I have said, today we gather in painful circumstances, confusing conditions, and enervatingly enraging grief. Our faith in God is tested by the horror of these days, in what ways can our Easter belief “save us from this time of trial”? How does Jesus’ Ascension speak to where we find ourselves with all this wrenching tragedy?
It is quite natural, I think, to want answers to our broken-hearted questions. At the core of them all is the tortuous scream: “Why?” That nine and ten year-old, school kids have been senselessly murdered pierces our souls in ways that don’t allow us much wiggle room, when it comes to our emotional responses. This tragedy, involving young innocents as it does, unavoidably hits home; and it leaves us breathless. What to do? What to think? What to believe?
In terms of what to believe, what to remember, what to keep at the center, that petition in the Lord’s Prayer that we have used over these pandemic years emerges: “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.” These recent incidents of deadly violence, fueled by hatred and lies and a frighteningly palpable presence of evil, remind us of our need to be saved, rescued from the power of death. Sophisticated folks like us have tended to pooh-pooh such primitive sounding notions as “evil”. We have been taught to be smart enough, rich enough, powerful enough to control such outbreaks, to fix these situations, but mostly to be able to keep such threatening stuff away from us and those we love. How’s that going? From the looks of it and how it all feels, not so well, eh!? There is something bigger and ominous at work than we can hope to control or manage.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
What to believe? I, at least, need to ask this question because the darkness revealed in this time scares me. The darkness of the world that has erupted in Ukraine, El Salvador, Washington D. C., in Buffalo and Uvalde begin to trigger the darkness in me; and that is a real problem. Rather than bearing witness to the light of Christ and having my life sing the truth of the God-life [sung: In the darkness there is no darkness with you, O Lord; the night is as bright as the day.”] – rather than rejoice and live in this sung truth, I can feel the beginning of my collapse, adding to the darkness by neglecting the light, wobbling as I pray, “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil…”
What to believe? How can this time of the Ascension come to the aid of our battered souls? In the simplest of terms, I have come to view Jesus’ Ascension as the fulfillment of what began at Christmas. At Christmas, in the Incarnation, God’s Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and we saw this. We have seen the God-life on our terms. In the cross and resurrection, fear and death have been overcome; and we are set free – once and for all. Christ Jesus, having (as it were) “come down” to us and our lives, has now ascended into heaven, into the full and complete life with God at the center so that we may know the Way for ourselves and for the world. Full cycle. Homecoming at last.
But – and here is the hard part of this God-truth -- but believing in God’s victory does not mean God’s people get a free pass from living in the incompleteness of this life. As with Jesus, we, too, must endure the power of fear and death and overcome the threat of such darkness. This is what the cross presented to Jesus and what the cross signifies for us. This world is broken. We are broken. In Christ, God’s healing plan has begun. We don’t need to face the resistant darkness alone.
The cross reminds us that our God joins us in facing this life’s incompleteness. Our God is heart-broken over the pain the world can produce, just as we are, just as those parents whose kids were students at Robb Elementary School are. The darkness is real. No one disputes that. But so is God’s presence with us in these dark times of trial, and we will be delivered, if somehow we don’t quit, don’t collapse in fearful resignation. That’s what there is to believe; and in this belief there is flickering illumination into what we can do and what we can think.
As much as we might desire answers and promises that will make us feel better, fix what is wrong, this is not what is needed; nor is it honest or helpful. From the belief that God is present in the darkness and that the darkness has not and will not overcome the Holy One’s light, what we are called to do in this shattered time is to foster God’s presence with our presence, which is what Bishop Reed has written to his people. Avoid “thoughts and prayers”, please. But by all means, do pray and do think. You and I most certainly will pray – continue to pray -- as a concrete offering of our presence. Right now, our prayers need to function as a way to break through all that blocks God’s life among us. View our prayers as being a part of a faithful witness that pushes the darkness back, that reassures that God is present especially in the darkness. I encourage you to see your prayers in this way, as an active expression of presence, compassion, and life-restoring love.
This type of prayer is work. This type of prayerful work is long-haul work; and those of us who want quick results will be disappointed and will fade away from the witness. But we, too, are not alone in this prayerful push against the darkness. We have each other’s witness, each other’s presence; and we also have the witness and presence of other faithful members of Christ’s Body. And this is the reason that some of the leaders of this parish, this St. Philip’s in Easthampton, Massachusetts, have wonderfully come up with the idea to take our prayers and put them into palpable action, making them a visible offering of hope and life to the folks at St. Philip’s, Uvalde, Texas. Today, we will begin to write messages that express our presence and our prayers, sending them by mail to St. Philip’s, Uvalde, so that through their onsite witness we may add who and what we are to their healing, strengthening presence. And when they get tired and weary and overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead, we will be there with them; and they will be with us. It’s the least we can do – for now.
I will close with the words of the Collect for the Ascension. In the context of the Easter life, it is what we believe, just as it is what we can do. Let us pray.
Almighty God, who blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages…
[sung] In the darkness there is no darkness with you, O Lord. The night is as bright as the day.
Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Amen.