Ascension Sunday: Rise UP!

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Preached at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church
South Hadley, Massachusetts
on the Seventh Sunday of Easter

John 17:20-26

When you preach every week, every week you have this weird thing happen to you. The Scripture for the next Sunday follows you around for the week. I don’t know if this happens to everyone, but it certainly happens to me. Every day chores or things I wouldn’t normally notice stand out to me, and memories come back to me, all as the words of the lesson I’m preaching on follow me around. If it sounds a little weird and awkward to you… well, it’s because it can be.

This week, the words for the Gospel lesson followed me — this is Jesus’ final recorded prayer before his arrest. It comes at the end of what scholars call John’s “Farewell Discourse,” where Jesus tells his disciples what he wants them to know over dinner before he is arrested. At the end of that dinner and that long talk, he prays — and this is what he prays.

He prays for his disciples and for all who would believe because of their word — us, y’all. And everyone who has ever believed in Jesus or ever will after. And he prays that we may all be one, as he and the Father are one.

That we all may be one.

How’s that coming, Church?

Sure, we could talk about fractured denominations and schisms and the sad state of the church that argues with itself all the time. We could talk about how Christians have been in conflict since biblical times (ever read Second Corinthians?). But instead of lamenting our conflicts, I want to think about this differently. Did Jesus actually mean the absence of all conflict when he said that we should be one? Furthermore, I don’t think that the absence of conflict necessarily entails unity. It’s often quite the opposite, in fact.

I’ll explain as I walk you through my week of sermon prep, starring Jesus, Hamilton the musical, my friend the Episcopal priest, my college softball coach, and a hike up Mt. Holyoke. It might be a weird ride — it was for me. But I’ll promise a good ending. Here we go.

Monday. The hip hop lyrics of the Founding Fathers.

“Talk less, smile more,” intones Aaron Burr in the hit Broadway musical Hamilton.

Hamilton made history this week — the contemporary hip hop musical based on the life of treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton was nominated for a record 16 Tony Awards. The musical takes us from Hamilton’s arrival as a young immigrant through his death. Central to the narrative is Hamilton’s arch-nemesis, Aaron Burr. Burr in the musical represents one path to getting what you want — people pleasing, smiling, avoiding conflict and rocking the boat.

“Talk less, smile more,” he sings, “Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for / You wanna get ahead?” the Burr asks the younger Hamilton at the beginning of the musical. “Fools who run their mouths off wind up dead!”

Tuesday. Memories of old church meetings.

“Christ said we should all be one!” cried a church member. “This is dividing the church — can’t we just drop it?”

From time to time, I’ve heard this argument used to try to stop a conflict — that in order to “be one,” we can’t have disagreements, and contentious issues should be avoided, even if the “issues” are real people’s lives. Of course, this kind of thinking favors the status quo — the way things already are — even if the way things are is problematic to some of us.

I heard it often when I was a kid. I heard it even more often when I became an adult and a pastor. How often we become Aaron Burr as the church — “talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for” — we sell the vulnerable short in the church to keep the peace. Like when serious allegations are swept under the rug to protect the powerful, like in the Catholic church some years ago. Or when some white Southern churches refused to take a stand against racial violence in the 1950s and ‘60s. Or even today when we in the church don’t stand up for those who are being hurt or bullied for fear that doing so will cause conflict.

But we forget that we are to love one another — both those with whom we disagree and with vulnerable people who need us. We also forget that we are neither Jesus nor the Father, and that we are far from perfection. Conflicts happen. It’s what you do with them that matters.

I’ve found that if a relationship survives conflict in a healthy way, it gets stronger. If even church bodies can weather conflict via honest dialogue, relationships and bonds can actually be strengthened through hard conversations. You all know this as well as I do.

I found myself musing on Tuesday about exactly what it means for “us all to be one.” If by “one” Jesus meant for us to be free of conflict, that was one unanswered prayer. But if by “one” he meant that we manage to stick by each other and talk through things and protect even the most vulnerable among us — then we might have a shot at being Jesus’ answered prayer.

Wednesday. Prayer Group.

On Wednesday, the prayer group — which this Wednesday was Bev, Sue, and I — decided to do something different and try lectio divina. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, it involves reading a Scripture passage multiple times and reflecting on and praying about the words. We did so on Wednesday night with this passage.

It occurred to me that when Jesus says that he has and will make the Father’s name and love known, he is praying this right before the cross. Jesus was not one to “talk less and smile more” like Aaron Burr. He made the Father’s love known by laying down his life for his friends — for us — not by avoiding anything.

Thursday. Rise UP!

On Thursday, I wake up to my friend Joseph, an Episcopal priest in San Francisco, telling me about his Ascension sermon for later that day. When he’s finished preaching, he sends me the audio file. I listen.

He talks about Hamilton too. He focuses on the character of John Laurens, Revolutionary War hero, also a character in the musical. Laurens was a staunch abolitionist who died in the Revolution. During the song “My Shot” in Hamilton, Laurens’ character says, in the midst of exciting talk about the Revolution, “But we’ll never be truly free / Until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me.”

Later in the song, set in a pub with several of the founding fathers including Hamilton, Laurens sends the bar patrons to their feet when he chants, “Rise up, when you’re living on your knees you rise up…when are these colonies gonna rise up, rise up!”

In his sermon, my friend Joseph made the point that Jesus’ last words before his ascension were “You will be my witnesses!” As Jesus rose up and ascended, he called on the disciples to do just what John Laurens is calling for: Rise up. Rise up and be witnesses.

But remember what Laurens said: “But we’ll never be truly free / Until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me.”

Until we are all truly equal, the work is not finished.

This could entail conflict.

Rise up.

Friday. Memories of Running for Money in College

Before that title makes you feel any weirder, let me clarify: I played softball in college.

We would often work out early in the morning. One morning early in my career at Troy, I remember looking our across the outdoor football field. It was the middle of January, and even though it doesn’t get as cold in Alabama as it does here, it was pretty stinkin’ cold that morning. Too cold and wet, at least, to be spending our time running outdoors. A fog hung over the field as one of our teammates struggled, over and over, to get across the line during our timed sprints. Finally, we were told to run the stadium (which meant running every stair in the lower part of the football stadium) and we could go home. You know, that was all.

When I finished, I looked back, put my hands on my hips, and tried to catch my breath and found one teammate still struggling. She was only about halfway done, and most everyone else was finishing.

“You gonna let your teammate run alone?!” our coach belted across the football stadium. I quickly learned what this meant. Each time this happened for the rest of my tenure there, if someone lagged behind the rest, someone had to go back and finish the run with them. It didn’t have to be all of us, but no one was allowed to run alone, because we were not just completing our runs as individuals — we were one team.

That stuck with me.

“That they may all may be one…”

Saturday. Saturday I took a hike with you people.

Yesterday we took a hike up Mt. Holyoke, into the clouds and the fog, not unlike that morning in the stadium. Though the way up was steep and the way down was slippery, we got there. One thing that I noticed quickly: no one, no matter how they struggled, was left alone.

We got up the mountain and came down the mountain as one.

Sunday. Conclusions.

If “that they may all be one” means that we as a church do not have conflict, then we’re sure to be disappointed when we read this passage. Besides that, even if we want to avoid conflict, there is no just way to do it this side of the Kingdom. There are times when churches who have actively sought to avoid conflict have ended up hurting people or standing on the wrong side of justice. Jesus certainly didn’t avoid conflict — he shows us the Father’s love most clearly when he rose up — on the cross.

We live in a broken world. Even the Son of God didn’t avoid conflict. The Father did not promise Jesus an easy walk, but the Father never left him — they are one.

Conflict will happen.

But if “that all may be one” means to be as kind to one another as my coach required my teammates and you require of yourselves, then Jesus’ prayer for us may actually lift us up and bind us together. When we walk with one another through heartache, when we provide for each other, when we listen to each other — when we manage to stay in relationship despite all odds and count on the Holy Spirit to continue to bind us together in love, when no one walks alone —- then we are truly one.

That is when we truly rise up to be witnesses. That is when we truly rise up, as John Laurens sings in Hamilton, as one.

And when no one of us has to walk alone, that’s when we are one body.

So on this Ascension Sunday, may you rise up with courage, Church.

You are not alone, you are with us. We are one. And as one, we rise UP. Amen.

One thought on “Ascension Sunday: Rise UP!

  1. Fantastic! I think I personally struggle with not only having conflict and fighting for other people but also fighting for myself. Does it always have to be selfless conflict? Is it always aviation for others? Listening is such a huge part for resolution and being okay with another’s perspective no matter how difficult. Thank you for your thoughts as always!


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