Sunday, June 5, 2011

Day Twenty Five: Flying

We have been in Norfolk visiting good friends including our beautiful three year old goddaughter and her twin baby brothers. I had the opportunity to preach at St. Andrew's in the neighborhood of West Ghent.

Here's the sermon that I preached.

I recently took a digital photography class at a local college near where I live in Atlanta. It was a great class, I learned a lot, building quite a bit on my previous knowledge of analog photography, learning about how to stretch the limits of the medium using new technology.

On of the best parts of the class, like any class in the visual arts, were the homework assignments. We were instructed to go out and… you guessed it… take pictures. We had assignments to take close ups, to capture movement, to highlight repeating patterns, to play with light. Each week was a new challenge to help us get comfortable behind the lens. The assignments were pretty straightforward and mostly singly-focused, helping us to hone one skill at a time like metering or shutter speed.

And then we came to the final assignment: we had to use all of our newly-acquired skills to create a dream sequence. We had to play with all of those tricks we had learned, tricks of light and focus, of speed and perspective, to recreate something that lived only inside our heads, at night, when we were asleep.

I wrestled with the assignment conceptually for weeks before I started to shoot. The majority of my memorable dreams are anxiety nightmares about church, if you can believe that, and that sounded kind of boring.

Instead, I chose to shoot a dream about flying. In this dream, I wake up early for my morning run, but about a block away, my feet lift off the ground and I am running through the air getting higher and higher over my neighborhood as the sun rises. Every time I've had the dream, it feels very, very real. And every time, I am torn between conflicting feelings of exhilaration—wanting to fly forever—and sadness for everything on the ground behind me. The pull of the real world saves me every time: I always wake up before I'm forced into making a decision.

Because of the photography project, this dream has been on my mind a lot recently. And then-- wouldn't you know—I've been presented with the Ascension.

In our reading from Acts of the Apostles this morning, we are offered the story of the ascension of Jesus Christ. This is the very beginning of Acts and the author was probably the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke. Acts is more or less meant to be read as an extension of that Gospel.

But instead of an accounting of the life and teachings of Jesus, Acts of the Apostles is exactly that: it is an accounting of the life and teachings of Jesus' apostles who were left on earth after his resurrection and ascension. So it is fitting that the book should open with Jesus' departure.

“You have no idea what is coming next: that's my job, not yours. But with the Holy spirit, you have everything you need to preach and teach, to love and to live fully.”

And then he's gone, leaving all the messiness and pain and heartbreak behind for the apostles to deal with. Wouldn't it be nice?

Though my family would probably tell you I can get a bit of a martyr complex, I am certainly no Christ. But who among us has never dreamed of rising above it all, either figuratively or literally? From the character Jenny in Forrest Gump praying, “Dear God make me a bird so I can fly far far away,” to the old gospel favorite, “Some bright mornin' when this life is over, I'll fly away,” there are times in our lives when even the strongest among us wish that we could just rise up and go.

Wouldn't it be nice to say a little prayer and be lifted up, away from what plagues us? Away from the economy and the wars and the earthquakes and floods? Away from loss and hurt? We could just leave it all behind and never again have to deal with the muck that are part and parcel of our lot as humans.

But here is the thing: we are equipped. We are equipped by learning and by faith and by sheer force of the will of God that inhabits each of us, to make it through these things, whatever they are. Jesus did not ascend to escape. Jesus ascended in order that we, the disciples here on earth, might spread out, take charge and work with our hands and with our hearts to bring the kingdom of God closer.

We are charged with begin witnesses to the ends of the earth. We are equipped with the tools to do it. Tools of scripture, community, belief, love.

That doesn't mean it will be easy. “Easy” has never been a promise to the faithful. Some days, just keeping ourselves upright against the onslaught of negativity, anger, apathy, doubt and fear is all we can manage. But that's okay. Those days will pass. There will be other days, days when we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the kingdom is near and our hands brought it so.

And here, I have to disagree with those men robed in white who chastised the apostles in our reading from Acts. I see no problem with looking up toward heaven, if that is from where you draw strength, if that is how you remind yourself of that which is of ultimate worth. I do however, think it is problematic to look toward heaven if you are seeking an escape route, a way to avoid the hard work at hand. Heaven is not a hideout. The ascension is not an eject button.

My dream sequence never really gives me the opportunity to choose whether to go back or to fly away. I wake up in my bed with the duties of motherhood, priesthood, citizenship and friendship all pressing in around me. Sometimes I wake up scared, sometimes relieved. But every time, I wake up here, now. Because that is where my work is. Here. Now. Having looked heavenward, I'm ready to start a new day, apprehensive but assured.

Stay the course, friends. You are perfectly equipped. Look to heaven when you need to be reminded of why we are here, but look to one another to see the face of Christ urging you onward, ushering in the Kingdom of God.

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