I. My piano teacher, Philip Lillestol, bristled at being called a “teacher”; he insisted he was a “developer of talent.” Every musical possibility, he believed, was already within us. It was an adventure for him to discover, identify, and develop each student’s singular sound, skill, and voice, enabling each to be the artist we alone were created to be. Mr. Lillestol was himself a brilliant pianist—and eccentric. If we were enjoying an especially productive session, he’d cancel the rest of that day’s lessons, send me to “Ralph & Jerry’s” corner market for a roast chicken and iced tea (to which he’d add a good quantity of vodka), and we’d work into the night.
I didn’t learn how to play the piano “by the book,” or by having someone explain it to me. I got to know the piano through the passion and wisdom of a true disciple of the instrument, someone who was in love with music. He lived music.
II. Not even on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity do we venture into the heady heights of dogmatic theology and philosophy. Today’s scriptures do not attempt an explanation of God. Rather, they record God’s actions, people’s real-life encounter with Him. Listen again to Moses’ homily:
Did anything so great ever happen before? Was it ever heard of? Did a people ever hear the voice of God
speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live?
Or did any god venture to go and take a nation forhimself
from the midst of another nation, by testings, by signs and wonders, by war, with strong hand and outstretched arm, and by great terrors, all of which the Lord, your God,
did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? This is why you must now know, and fix in your heart, that the Lord is God in the heavens above and on earth below, and that there is no other.
III. So too, the first Christians had no doctrine of the Trinity. What moved them was not an understanding of God, but their experience of God. In Jesus Christ, they met God’s love face-to-face. Their Spirit-filled communion was another incarnation of that divine love. What constitutes the Church, its essence, its heartbeat, is the extension of that love, of the divine communion of Father, Son, and Spirit. We don’t teach the Trinity but live it when we offer ourselves to one another in joy and welcome. When the Christian community—when this parish community—practices hospitality and generosity and self-sacrifice, we imitate the Triune God, and make God visible and palpable.
“I am with you always,” Jesus says, “until the end of the age.” Only if we are his witnesses. Only if we live Jesus.456
I. Sometimes we have to wait. And wait. And wait.
The disciples were waiting, holed up in the upper room, waiting until the time for Pentecost was fulfilled. They had waited fifty days—seven weeks—since the resurrection of Jesus, not having a clue what their future held. They were waiting for a revelation about what they should be about, totally dependent upon the outpouring of God’s spirit. They weren’t going to do anything until the coming of the Spirit.
And on the fiftieth day, the Spirit came. What most astonished the crowd was not all the commotion of the strong driving wind and tongues of fire, but the fact that, although each spoke in a different language, those who were listening heard them in their own language. That was the sign of what they should be about.
We had a Pentecost moment in our Unity Mass last weekend on the Feast of the Ascension. No matter the language one spoke, whether the Creed, or the Our Father, or our “Ay-mens” or “Ah-mens,” we understood one another. That was a sign of what we should be about. It pointed to the truth of our Mission Statement that we are a safe, loving, holy place where all are invited to recognize, acknowledge, and live God’s presence.
II. The late Harvard preacher, Peter Gomes, suggests that, with the advent of the Spirit at Pentecost, diversity ceased to be a curse and became a blessing. The power of the Spirit transcended national and ethnic differences and created an understanding, a unity, a communion among peoples that neither eliminated nor diminished their diversity. In conceding that the Spirit was given to all, that all were “made to drink of one Spirit,” the peoples of the Church became more than they had been. They began to understand that God wanted them all to participate in His plan, each making a unique, irreplaceable contribution.
III. French philosopher and theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, writes,
The day will come when, after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, human beings will have discovered fire.
Add that to our Mission Statement: We will harness for God the energies of love, and discover fire.
h/t: Mary McGlone, Jim Wallis
I. I noticed on the “marquee” of the nearby Franklin Middle School that they will be celebrating, not a graduation, but a “Promotion” ceremony in June. As one facet of the Easter mystery, the Ascension is a celebration of Jesus’ promotion, if you will. His mission and ministry done, and done well, he takes his seat at the right hand of God.
II. Eventually, too, we will be promoted and go where Jesus has gone. But in the meantime, we’re told, as were the apostles, not to stand idly gaping up into the heavens. The Ascension is a turning point. It is the moment when Jesus handed over his mission and ministry to his disciples. It is a moment when we, also Jesus’ disciples, can remind ourselves of our mission and ministry. Our Ascension Mission Statement reads that we are committed to providing a safe, loving, holy place where all are invited to recognize, acknowledge, and live God’s presence. We are commissioned to use Jesus’ power within us, and direct our eyes, not up, but into the world, into the earthbound faces of the suffering and the weary, and walk with them to a life that transcends the only life they’ve known: a “better place” of healing and freedom—until we are all promoted, arriving at our final destiny, that “even better place.”
III. When we learned to ride a bicycle, Mom or Dad was there to steady the bike, until we learned to get the pedals, handlebars, and our scrawny limbs all working together. We relied on their strong, supporting hand, without which, we’d fall and go boom. At long last came that momentous ride when Mom or Dad took their hand away, and we discovered, for the first time, that the balance and power that was in their hand could be found in our own bodies.
Finding in our own bodies the balance and power of God’s hand: That’s the grace of the Ascension.
It’s First Communion season. We celebrated 35 coming to the table today, and will have six more tomorrow. It’s also wedding season. Loads of those, where we commonly hear today’s gospel reading: “Love one another.” At weddings, the reading swoons with romantic love. While there may be a couple of you swooning this afternoon, the reading takes on another tone in the general assembly. It recalls Jesus’ words to his friends on the night before he died, just after he washed their feet. He speaks of friendship which, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is the highest form of love. This friendship is the uncommon relationship modeled in Jesus Christ: the capacity to lay down one’s life for others—and not only to others to whom we are naturally drawn.
The kind of friendship that Jesus calls us to is that which shows no partiality, as St. Peter highlights today: “God shows no partiality:” love without an asterisk. While it’s unlikely that I’ll be required to lay down my life for anyone,
• Can I lay down my mind, setting aside my opinions out of love for someone else?
• Can I lay down my heart, setting aside my desires out of love for another?
• Can I lay down my soul, setting aside my needs out of love for a friend?
II. Jesus has befriended us, bridging not only the divide between master and servant, but the gap between divine and human. He urges us to pay this gift of friendship forward. His “command” is not restricting, but enriching and empowering. We’re made a link in a chain of love—from the Father to Jesus, from Jesus to us, from us to others. The poor, the oppressed, the excluded—people in our very community—will only experience themselves as grace and treasure if we regard them as grace and treasure. For the Christian who “gets it,” there’s no reason to hang on to life and love as if they were scarce commodities, no need to be stingy or cheap. Life in and with Jesus Christ is immeasurable abundance. In fact, “Life in abundance” is our lofty Ascension motto. Who will know that abundance through our friendship and love today?
I. My father died three months ago today. His health, for a 96-year-old, was remarkable, declining only in the last few months. When he moved into assisted living, and then into nursing care, we had many opportunities for good, but sometimes difficult, conversations. In the end, when he was more confused, he said something to me one day that I’ll never forget: He said, “When you’re not here, I don’t know who I am.” “When you’re not here, I don’t know who I am.”
II. Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches in St. John’s gospel is rich. The vine would not be the vine, there would be no vine, without the branches: the vine is its branches. We are one with Jesus. As a Christian, of course, I would not exist without Jesus. My deepest me is Christ. When I’m not attached to Jesus, I don’t know who I am.
III. It is equally true that, without one another—our Christian community—we would not know who we are. Our Ascension community, and our Northside community, give us our purpose. Our mission statement reads that we honor people as they are, that we’re welcoming and caring; we live in gratitude with respect and mutuality; and, we are engaged in our community. Christianity is not a private matter between Jesus and me. Encounter with Jesus Christ is always entwined in our encounter with others. The communal celebration of the Eucharist Sunday after Sunday undoes the delusion that we can make it on our own without others; and the delusion that the others, they, can make it on their own. We engage in our community by getting to know and love and reach out to our Northside neighbors. We engage in our community by surrounding our immigrant brothers and sisters with love and concern and assistance in these trying times. We engage in our community Sunday after Sunday to give and receive life support.
And because we engage in our community, because we care about who lives, works and worships here in Hennepin County, I ask you to join me in talking with our Hennepin County Commissioner candidates this afternoon from 1:00—3:00 here in the church. Commissioners have a great deal of power in setting the priorities for our tax dollars in the county, and they need to hear from us about our concerns for our Ascension neighborhood and families.
We cannot and will not make it if we are separate from the Lord or each other. “Without me,” Jesus says today, “you can do nothing.” Without him, we don’t know who we are.
Father Klaus Demmer was my moral theology professor at the Gregorian University in Rome. Diminutive, soft-spoken, and timid, he cut a small figure on the dais of the grand lecture hall. One day, just as the bell rang for class and students were getting settled, a classmate sitting next to me pointed to Father Demmer at the podium and said, “Watch his lips.” “What?” “No, really. Just watch his lips.” Sure enough, before he started his lecture, the professor uttered something, a couple of words, under his breath. On my own, I would never have noticed it: he obviously didn’t intend for anyone to hear or see it. What I came to learn was that this brilliant theologian began every one of his lectures with the words, “Cari amici”—“Dear friends.” That small, tender act revealed the regard and affection he had for his students. “Dear friends.” Just two words—and I’m still talking about it 37 years later.
II. In our communities, even in the Church, people can be dismissed and disregarded, put down and excluded, either blatantly or subtly, and come to believe themselves unworthy for this communion, “excommunicated,” outside the reach of love. Jesus, of course, wanted those who were nobodies in the eyes of the world to know that they were somebody, including those who, we hear today, “did not belong to the fold,” the stranger, the “excommunicated,” yet another indication of Jesus’ regard and affection and self-sacrificing concern for the foreigner, the wanderer, the immigrant. By laying down his life for us, Jesus demonstrates that we are God’s beloved and, at the same time, gives us a model for our advocacy for those on the margins. God’s love for us is not a feeling: it is our constant and unconditional state. There’s not a thing we can do to undo God’s love. We belong to the shepherd; we belong to God. Nothing and no one can snatch us from God’s hand.
III. If children and grown-ups are told that they are good, that they are enough, that they are worthy of God’s love and this communion, perhaps they’ll come to believe it. We come here to learn, and remind one another, that we belong to God. Here our identity as children of God — our primary and most fundamental identity — is formed, deepened, and nurtured. Here, and in every encounter, Jesus whispers affectionately, “Cari amici.” “See what love the Father has bestowed on us,” St. John says, “that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are.”
I. In all the accounts of Jesus’ passion, we’re told that Peter followed Jesus (quote), “at a distance.” Peter was scared.
The women who accompanied Jesus made the journey all the way to the cross, but then stood, looking on, “from a distance.” Watching it from there was probably all that they could bear.
II. Will we follow Jesus all the way to the cross so that we might learn from Him how to suffer and die for the Truth, how to suffer and die for one another, how to suffer and die? Or, will we merely look on from a distance?
III. There is no authentic Christianity apart from the cross. In other words, there is no authentic Christianity “from a distance.”
I. The word, “detox,” has found new meaning in recent years. Whether with green tea, or products such as “Almighty Cleanse” or “OxyFlush,” a well-designed detox can clear our body of any impurity or pollutant.
Today’s gospel describes something of an “Almighty Cleanse”: Jesus clearing the temple of money-changers and livestock. The sheep, oxen, and doves in a sacred space was not the problem. What pushes Jesus over the edge was that the merchants were selling these necessities of worship at exorbitant prices, ripping off and exploiting the poor. Jesus uses the occasion to not only cleanse the temple, but to relocate it, redefine it. In Jesus, we no longer need to travel to a sacred site to meet God, because Jesus himself is the new temple, the place where God and humanity meet. From now on, the preeminent place of encounter with God, the temple, is he himself.
II. Jesus has entrusted us with his “scandalous” legacy, making us the bearers of his divine presence, temples of his Spirit. The Second Vatican Council, in the document, Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), affirms God’s presence and action within:
We have in our heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of humankind…Conscience is our most secret core and sanctuary. There we are alone with God, whose voice echoes in our depths.
Encounters with others can be encounters with God.
III. Prior to any knowledge of it, we were created in the image of God, imprinted with God’s image at our very depths. At Lent, we hit the reset button, refreshing and renewing our covenant relationship with God. We cleanse—“detoxify”—our bodies and our hearts: those sanctuaries where God and humanity meet. Being active and deliberate in our love of God, practicing justice and caring for our neighbor, is the conduct appropriate for one who is privileged to be so related to God. In doing so, we ourselves become the Body of Christ, the temple of God’s Spirit, the preeminent place of encounter with Christ. This, in the words of St. Paul, may be a “stumbling block” to some, and “foolishness” to others. But, to those who are called, to us, it is the power and wisdom of God.
I. My father died 20 days ago. I’ve been flooded with memories of him—from my young and innocent days, to my not-so-young or -innocent adulthood. He was happy in the good times, and faithful to his family in the hard times: through sickness and addictions, divorce, disappointments, and death. Despite all these struggles and more, my dad, for as long as I can remember, would often declare that if he were to die that day, he would have had a good life.
II. Jesus struggled. We hear today that the Spirit “drove” him into the desert where he encountered temptations, wild beasts, and Satan. This kind of suffering is nothing we desire or seek out. We don’t look for opportunities to struggle: one must be thrust into it, plunged into it. While God doesn’t cause our suffering, the Spirit can make use of these challenges—because it is at our limits, at our weakest, where we meet the power and promise of God. There we learn, finally, that nothing separates us from the love of God, that God will not let us go. Life is always working to bring us to an awareness and acceptance of our poverty, the essential condition of our being able to receive God. Jesus knew that. It was in the midst of his temptations and struggles that the angels ministered to him.
III. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas maintains that suffering is not a problem in need of a solution, but rather, a challenge requiring a response. In other words, in the face of pain, we don’t need an explanation, but love. Jesus didn’t solve the mystery of suffering, but initiated a “community of care,” a community in which the suffering and non-suffering are bound to each other, a community that absorbs suffering and sustains the sufferer, and enables faithful living despite pain and evil. The ministry of bringing new life to the sick and fallen, of being a “community of care,” is entrusted to us, embodied in us, realized through us. I have experienced this “community of care” firsthand as you have reached out to console me on the death of my father.
There are two kinds of people in a faith community: those who suffer, and those who console. Depending on the day, we’re one or the other. Which are you today?
h/t: David Lose
I. In an Ascension third-grade classroom last week, we talked about what the name “Jesus” means, and how the meaning of one’s name can be revealing. “Jesus” means “God saves.” Sarah and Abraham gave their son the name “Isaac.” He was a surprise since Sarah was 90 and Abraham was 100. Sarah wondered, “Now that I am worn out and my husband is old, am I still [to have a son]?”
But the Lord said to Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really bear a child, old as I am?’ Is anything too marvelous for the Lord to do? At the appointed time, about this time next year, I will return to you, and Sarah will have a son.” Sarah lied, saying, “I did not laugh,” because she was afraid. But he said, “Yes, you did.”
Isaac: It means, “laughter.”
II. Not in her wildest dreams did Sarah expect to have a baby. Not in his wildest nightmares could Abraham have foreseen the torture of surrendering his son. That wasn’t the future he expected for himself and his wife and the son who was named “laughter,” the boy of his dreams. Isn’t it telling that we name the young people who came to this country with their immigrant parents, “Dreamers”? As they grew, they believed that they would be granted a path to citizenship, even if it took a long time. Not in their dreams or nightmares would they have expected that things would turn out as they have, that they would once again have to live in the shadows and fear that their families will be torn apart.
III. But God has the last word. Although Abraham relinquished his hold on his lone heir, he was granted heirs as “countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore.”
We may be asked to relinquish our planned future, but only to be offered another possible future. This is not mere wishful thinking, but deep and proven faith. Peter, James, and John were made more able to head back down to the valley after their exhilarating mountaintop experience. They caught a glimpse of the Risen Lord and that was enough to see them through the suffering and struggle that they would soon experience. Jesus came to show us that all suffering ends in new life, all dying ends in resurrection. There isn’t just a chance that God will intervene in our future: we count on it.
May Dreamers, and all of us who dream, continue to dream as we catch a glimpse of the Risen Lord. That Lord is embodied in us who bring to birth God’s reign of love and justice here and now. We are the true and risen Body of Christ. After all, “If God is for us,” St. Paul says today, “who can be against us?”
h/t: Diane Bergant