Luke 24:50-53 Ascension Sunday, 2019
Every Thanksgiving weekend for the past 18 years, Arapaho and Cheyenne youth in Colorado have led a 180-mile relay from the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site to Denver. This annual event opens with a sunrise ceremony honoring the indigenous people who lost their lives at that infamous massacre. Now, if you’re unaware of this historical event, the Sand Creek Massacre was brutal assault carried out by the United States Army under the command of Colonel John Chivington on Nov. 29, 1864 in which over 200 Native American men, women, and children lost their lives.
And while the Sand Creek massacre has been the subject of numerous books, much less attention has been paid to two heroes of this terrible event: Captain Silas Soule and Lt. Joseph Cramer. Now, these men were heroes not because of what they did but rather, because of what they didn’t do! You see, Soule and Cramer rejected the violence and genocide by disobeying their orders that day. They did so by personally refusing to take part in the murder of innocent people and by ordering the men under their command to stand down. The article I read didn’t go into detail about what happened to them, but one can only assume that there were consequences for their actions.[i]
Now, today’s text, as I said before, describes the Ascension, Christ’s departure from the disciples, and his return to God. But the interesting thing here, to me anyway, is the reaction of the disciples. The text tells us that they were “overwhelmed by joy.” What? For the past four weeks we’ve seen his followers grieving, lost, confused at least until they recognized the Risen Christ in their midst; but overwhelmed with joy at his departure? What’s going on here?
Well, a couple of things actually. First, it’s sometimes reasonable, wise even, to break old patterns. Take Soule and Cramer for example. The dominate narrative of the conquest of the West was that the invaders were civilized, and the indigenous people were savages. But Soule and Cramer were able to see through that false narrative and, despite the consequences, took the appropriate action. In a very real way, by breaking the chain of command, they were symbolically breaking chains of ignorance and oppression. Now, the massacre was carried out in spite of their efforts, but perhaps it was the first glimmer of reason in an otherwise dark and utterly merciless time in our history.
Now, as we look at the disciples, and their unexpected response to Jesus’ departure, like Soule and Cramer, there is a reasonableness in breaking the old pattern. The old pattern was to follow Jesus, an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth, listen to his teachings and respond to his example. Right? But that only worked for a while. God incarnate, God in bodily form could only be with them for so long. So, in order to mature in their faith, the disciples needed to begin to find joy, along with praise and worship the text tells us, in an unseen God, an ascended God, a God present in Spirit rather than in the flesh.
And the same is true for us. When we proclaim our faith in God as Spirit, we are participating in the present Reign of God in the here and now. We experience, not the absence of the Divine, but a very real and life transforming manifestation of God. The marvel of all this is that if the Spirit of God is walking with us, then there is no place on our journey that God is not there to greet us, heal us, redeem us, or transform us.
Which leads to the second reason to be “overwhelmed by joy” today: Wisdom. There was a certain amount of wisdom, reason one might call it, displayed by Soule and Cramer and reason played a significant role in the disciples newly found pattern of faith as well. And today, as we look at what it means to the be the Church of the 21st century, I believe that reason must inform our faith as well.
You know, one of my favorite platitudes goes like this, “God gave us reason for a reason.” One example of using reason to challenge old patterns can be found in the history of the United Church of Christ. Specifically, in our decision to no longer blindly follow creeds or doctrines. Now, please don’t misunderstand me here, there is value in doctrine. Doctrines, in a Christian context, are commonly held understandings about the core beliefs of the Church. A good example of this is the doctrine of the incarnation. It’s a pretty basic Christian belief that God was bodily present and is now Spiritually present in the world. The problem with doctrine, however, is when it becomes dogmatic. By dogma I mean using my interpretation of doctrine to judge someone else’s concept of God. That’s why in the United Church of Christ we value a diverse theological understanding and a variety of practices of worship. We choose to be theologically inclusive rather than exclusive.
But what about the creeds? Again, in the United Church of Christ, we choose to honor all the creeds as inspired by God and historically important, and this includes our own Statement of Faith. But the old pattern, the chain that was broken here, was using something like the Apostles’ Creed as a litmus test of one’s faith. Instead, we would prefer to hear “testimonies of faith.” In other words, tell me where you’ve encountered God in the world today? Do you see what I’m driving at here? Faith isn’t monolithic. Each person’s experience of God is different, thus, each of our perspectives on life and faith and the divinity vary. And it’s this diversity of thought and belief that adds to the richness and texture of our church.
It’s kind of like sewing a quilt. I mean, what if every block of the quit was solid white? It would be a pretty boring quilt, wouldn’t it? It would still be a quilt, but, I think, it would lack the ability to spark the interest or the passion of the beholder. Well, in the United Church of Christ we’ve chosen to put together the most colorful quilt we could possibility put sew. A quilt that welcomes people of all colors, ages, nationalities, and lifestyles. It’s a quilt that includes people from all sorts of religious backgrounds or no religious background at all. It’s a quilt that is big enough to include blocks from a diversity of contexts and a variety of cultures. And, my friends, it’s a quilt that big enough to include you, and your life experiences, and your beliefs about God. And this colorful quilt would have never been possible if our fore-bearers had not summoned the courage, perhaps even disobeyed an order or two, to do what was right. If we they had not broken the chains that bound the Church to exclusivism, both culturally and as a denomination, then the quilt we have today would be pretty bland, uninspiring.
But it’s not bland and we’re not uninspired! My friends, as we go forth from this place today, reassured by the presence of God through the Spirit and refreshed by the sacrament, my prayer is that we will be reinvigorated in our passion to welcome all people and to serve God; that we will summon our courage to do what is right, breaking the chains that bind humanity: the chains of oppression, the chains of marginalization, the chains of hate-filled rhetoric that lead to violence against people of color, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and refugees, or our brothers and sisters from other religions. And finally, my hope for all of us, as individuals and as a community of faith, is that in our efforts to loosen the bonds of oppression, we will find, and embrace, an ever-deepening connection with the Source of our faith and learning.
This is hope for all of you. This is my prayer! Amen and the people of God said, Amen.
[i] Billy J. Stratton, Remembering the U.S. Soldiers Who Refused Orders to Murder Native Americans at Sand Creek. In “The Conversation” (www.sojo.net) 2017