When people ask me to describe the United Church of Christ, here is what I almost always say, “The great thing about the UCC is we provide no definitive answers to the big questions of life, simply a safe community in which to ask those questions, talk about them, and worship God in varied ways. The worst thing about the UCC is we provide no definitive answers to the big questions of life, simply a safe community in which to ask those questions.” Because, I believe that is truly what makes the UCC so wonderful, and so incredibly frustrating.
There is a gentleman from the community who attends Souper Thursday and I often see walking about downtown. I really like him, even though every time I see him he has another question about the meaning of life for me he wants to ask. Here are a few that I have heard from him: “What does your church believe happens to people after they die?” “Does your church believe in pre-destination or free-will?” “What is your church’s position on LGBTQ rights?” “What is your church’s position on abortion?” “What does your church believe?” Every time I see him, he has another question – and almost always it is related to a public conversation or debate that is happening in our country. He watches the news, reads the paper, picks up on one of the big questions of life that is in the headlines, and comes to me and asks what our church believes. And I tell him the best thing about the UCC is we don’t give black and white answers about those questions, simply space to discuss them. And I tell him the worst thing about the UCC is we don’t give black and white answers about the big questions, simply space to discuss them. Except that answer doesn’t satisfy him, so more often than not I tell him what I believe, making it clear I am only speaking for myself.
The temptation for me can be to avoid him when I see him. When he waves me over at Souper Thursday I could pretend not to notice. When I run into him downtown I could pull out my cellphone and pretend to be in a deep and important conversation. While I haven’t done that yet, I do confess I almost always try to buy time by laughing and teasing him for never asking me an easy question. Thank goodness he has a good sense of humor, but he still never lets me get away without providing an answer.
These questions we ask ourselves. These questions we are asked. These questions we are asked when people find out we are Christian. They are hard. I like that they are hard. They should be hard. And our scriptures don’t make it any easier for us. The UCC, which has a broad understanding of Biblical interpretation, doesn’t give us a helpful list of verses to turn to when we are looking for answers. How much easier would it be if we simply could refer to a helpful guide, a bullet-pointed list, an answer key, when we are looking for the meaning of life. You have a question about why bad things happen to good people, please see chapter this and verse that. Next!
Yes, the questions should be hard and the answers should take time. And, it is perfectly acceptable that our answers change over time. When our experiences, conversations, prayers, that pesky Holy Spirit work on us and we realize that what once seemed so simple is no longer that way at all, that is good. I believe that is what God wants. Part of our faith journey is the struggle. And we are so lucky to be part of a community that gives us room to struggle together.
So, why am I going on and on about this? Well, today’s scripture is one of those tough ones. It is one of those moments, a Christian holy day even, though not often recognized in protestant churches. It is the Ascension. The close of one chapter to help us begin a new one. In fact, that is exactly how it is written. The Gospel of Luke ends with this story, of Jesus leaving the disciples and going up to heaven. And the Book of Acts, the continuation of Luke’s writing, the rest of the story if you will, begins with the Ascension and continues on with a telling of how the disciples and early leaders of the Jesus movement spread the Good News and started the church. In musical terms the Ascension is the bridge, something to help us move from one part of the song to the next. Something to help us move from Easter to Pentecost. And Luke is the only Gospel to provide us with this image. Matthew, Mark, and John simply stop and we are left wondering what happens. Jesus has been resurrected and appears before the disciples, giving them proof for their doubts that he was truly the Messiah and God said yes to his message of justice, hope, and love, even when the rest of the world said no. Luke, the only one to write an additional book, the Book of Acts, needed someway to connect these two stories. But, it is a bit…odd. If my friend came up to me and asked what I believed about the Ascension, what I believed happened to Jesus after the resurrection appearances, I am not sure I could come up with anything satisfactory for him. Or for myself. It is one of those questions of our faith that we must simply just keep working on.
The artwork doesn’t help either. I often look at artwork depicting scripture in my studies. All the traditional artwork shows Jesus, in flowing white robes, with flowing blond hair, floating above the disciples who are huddled on the ground looking confused and terrified. One of the more contemporary pieces of artwork I found showed Jesus rocketing off to heaven Super Man style – looking like he is off to another great adventure. To be fair, a lot of the artists seem to be struggling with what to do with Jesus’ body posture during the Ascension. I couldn’t help but notice that many of the artists depict Jesus with both arms raised, in what I saw as a gesture, “I’m not really sure what is happening here either.”
Despite my light tone, I am not suggesting we simply chuckle at this story and move on. It provides questions we need to wonder about. If we believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, which I personally do, what happens to Jesus? Where did he go? What gave the disciples the courage, the conviction, to keep spreading the Good News? What gave them the audacity to share the message of Jesus as Messiah, no matter the consequences? What gave them the daring to form an entire religion? Because that is what happens next. Next week, Pentecost Sunday, we will celebrate the birth of the church with the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Gospels aren’t the end of the story, it goes on, all the way to today, this moment at First Congo in Winona, MN.
So, the Ascension is important. One of my colleagues said it is in fact so important the incarnation, the belief that God became fully human, doesn’t work without the Ascension, without an understanding that Jesus returned to God – in a way different than you and I will do when our lives here are over. And I think she is right, it is one of those big questions of our faith we need to wrestle with. But, I don’t have an answer for you today. In fact, I may never have an answer. But, I will keep trying. I will keep wondering. I will keep discussing. I will keep praying. And I hope you do too. Because what I am sure of, is that it brings God great pleasure when we ask the hard questions and try to make sense of them by wondering where is God in all of it. I believe it gives God great pleasure when we try.
I want to close with a story that was told to me by Rev. Corrine Haulotte, the Lutheran campus pastor at Winona State. We were talking about blessing things, how we both love to bless people and objects and moments. Corrine said she blesses each of her young children every night. Even when they are not with her, she calls and blesses them. When they are with her, right before they go to sleep, she makes the sign of the cross on each of their foreheads and says a special blessing over and for them. And, she said, sometimes her young son, Micah, blesses her. He takes her head in his little hands, does his best to make a cross, and blesses her. Corrine says he always forgets the words at first, so she helps to get him started. And when he gets started, he says all sorts of things, some silly, some beautiful. It is never the blessing she says to him every night, though that is what he is trying to repeat. And Corrine told me that when she hears her son bumbling around with words, doing his best to bless her just as well as she blesses him, getting the words wrong and giggling when he does – when that happens, Corrine says it is as if God is there in the room and blessing them both. Never does she feel quite so close to the love of God than when her young son is blessing her.
That is why I believe God loves it when we try. I believe God gets great delight when we try. I believe God smiles on us when we are struggling for words, struggling with answers, looking at the face of another and saying “I am trying to work this out, can we talk about it?” It is in those moments, in those questions, in those conversations, in those nights of fitful prayer when God is most fully with us. God delights in our questions and our efforts. And I believe God feels blessed when we are working hard, just as we are blessed by God for our efforts. The Ascension is one of those moments that, for me, requires a great deal of effort – and I am still trying. There are likely other moments in scripture, big questions of life, small questions of life, that require a great deal of effort for you. How lucky are we that we have a place to work on all of it together? And, what is even better? God is delighted as we try. Amen.