A sermon given by Rev. Eleanor B. McCormick on Sunday, April 2, 2017
There are many stories describing the beginning of the church. This is just one of them. And I’m not sure the story goes exactly like this, but I know this story is true. After Jesus had died, his friends and his disciples gathered together on a hillside. They gathered together to remember their rabbi, their teacher. They retold some of Jesus’ jokes, and they remarked on the fact that Jesus was always losing his glasses. And then, suddenly, in their midst Jesus appeared. He sat down with them and he began to teach them again. He said, “You, disciple named Susan. Do you remember to love your neighbor? You, disciple Reagan, have you gone to visit the imprisoned? You, disciple Sarah, have you brought bread to the hungry and water to the thirsty?”
And he continued to teach throughout the day. When he was done, a large voice boomed from Heaven, saying, simply, “Ascend!” Jesus looked up. He began to smile. His arms lifted. And he rose. But Mary Magdalene, who was one of his closest friends, saw what was happening to Jesus and took a running start, grabbing hold of Jesus’ ankle, saying, “I want to go, too.” Then there was John, who never wanted to be left out. John took a running start and held on to Jesus’ other ankle. They began to rise, together. Jesus looked down, a little bit surprised, and then he looked up and said, “God, what do I do?” And God said, “Ascend!” And so, Jesus reached down a hand to Mary and reached down a hand to John, and they began, slowly, hand in hand, to rise – together. Now, there were all these other disciples, all these other friends who had gathered on that same day. Seeing what had happened, they too wanted to join in. So, they ran and they leaped and they jumped, grabbing on to robes and ankles and hands. Now, Jesus, looking a little more alarmed, looked down and looked back up and said, “God, what do I do?” And God said, “Ascend!” The hands fell downward, holding on to each other, lifting each other up. They all began to rise, until there was a great pyramid of dangling people from the sky. Now, the countryside had heard of this amazing man named Jesus, and word began to spread. The people who had heard about his miracles, the ones who had been healed, the others who had been cared for, the strangers who had been lifted up, began to travel across the countryside, reaching for an ankle. Reaching for a hand. Holding on to each other, lifting each other up. They all began to rise. And then, there was a small, little girl, trying as fast as she could, to reach this pyramid of people, all rising together, all lifting each other up. She yelled to the top of the pyramid – she yelled to Jesus, “Wait! Stop! I can’t find my dog!” Then, Jesus yelled back down, “Hurry up! I don’t how this thing works!” And so, the little girl grabbed on to a tree branch, and she held tight. She held tighter. Everything kept rising, and the tree began to rise, too. It looked like the tree would be uprooted from the earth. But the tree itself reached down and curled its toes under, and the earth started to rise. And the earth reached out and grabbed the sea. The sea reached back with its waves, and everyone – everyone – held on tight. No one let go. They all began to rise together, slowly, holding on to each other, lifting each other up. They all began to rise. And the whole world was drawn closer to God. The whole world was drawn closer to God. God looked down and could not keep from grinning.
I love this story. My friend, Rev. Lori Walke, has spent some time studying a rabbinical tradition called midrash, where oral testimonies are added to written texts, giving them at times more conceptualization, more metaphor, more illustration, more depth, just like this one. And I owe it to Rev. Lori Walke for first telling me this story of the ascension and allowing me to adapt it, to make it my own, and to retell it to you this morning. She is a wonderful storyteller and she made me want to be a storyteller, too. I am retelling this post-Resurrection, post-Easter story during the season of Lent in the midst of our sermon series on discipleship because storytelling is at the heart of today’s reading from Matthew – and at the heart of our commission. According to Matthew’s Jesus, we are being commissioned to make disciples in two ways. First, to baptize. Second, to teach the nations everything that Jesus has commanded. In Matthew’s Gospel, number two promises to be far more time-consuming and promises to involve a lot more talking. A lot more storytelling, that is.
Some of you have heard me reference a New Yorker political cartoon because it is one of my favorites. I lift it up again this morning because it speaks to our uneasiness as disciples to do that work of using our words and telling our story. You see, in this New Yorker cartoon, there is a man sitting on a non-descript bench, and he’s wearing a T-shirt with big, bold capital letters that read, “Ask me about my religion.” The caption underneath the cartoon tells us, “Just another way to keep an empty seat beside you on the bus.” It’s funny. Perhaps because it’s true, and it speaks to truth. It’s something I read on a weekly basis. For I too get uneasy talking about our story, my story. I get uneasy at times when I’m telling the story and sometimes even when others are trying to talk to me about their story, whether that’s a Christian story, a Jewish story, a Muslim story, or almost any story at all.
The question before us in this commission – in receiving the commission that Christ gives to us – is how do we ease that uneasiness and discomfort that the cartoon plays upon? An uneasiness that so often erupts in that natural chuckle and laughter. An uneasiness about being disciples commissioned to bring in other disciples. An uneasiness with evangelism and Christ’s call, to not just tell the story, but retell the story for new generations, for the unchurched. To retell the story again and again, so it is not forgotten. So it continues to have the breath of a still-speaking God imbued within it. We are called. We are commissioned to tell the story. But the truth is, being good storytellers takes work. It takes effort. I was here much of the morning, rehearsing my own story. You see, truth be told, we – myself included – are almost never asked to share our faith with others, let alone shown how to share our faith with others. To do these kinds of things, even in the relatively safe confines of the church, let alone the more threatening situations outside the church, whether that’s a bus, a train, a classroom, or an office desk. Which means that the bottom line is, we don’t seem to feel competent to fulfill what Jesus is asking of us: To fulfill a mission in the world that shares the great story to the world. Speaking to the adults now, we derive a great deal of our sense of self from our areas of competence, whether that’s steel engineering, whether that’s art and pottery, whether that’s preaching itself. We develop these areas of competency but we find in ourselves a growing anxiety. An anxiety that can literally shoot through the roof when we’re asked to do something outside our competency. That so often comes when we are asked to talk about our faith. And to tell our faith stories with a passionate abandon.
So this, I propose, is a starting point. A starting point to receiving and living the great commission as found in the Gospel of Matthew. The starting point is to retell a story you love. Think for a moment about your favorite Biblical story, the story you know best and feel most competent in sharing. And like I began mine, it may not be exactly how the story goes, but it is a story you know to be true. Think about how you might begin to share that. Think about who taught you that story, where you were taught that story, and why that story continues to speak to you. Practice sharing it with others. Become then, like Mary, reaching out a hand to bring the next person into the story with you. Reach out your hand to share that story and bring the next person into the story with you. Now think about a story you don’t know very well or one you would like to know more about. Take a moment to look around this sanctuary. Someone here knows that story and knows it well. It may even be their favorite. So, think about finding this person, this disciple, and reaching out to grab on to their ankle so that you can be brought into the story through them.
In Rev. David Luce’s words, “Over time we gain a competency in basic skills.” Basic skills like telling the story or asking to know more about the story. It makes it easier to entertain the possibility that, like Jesus’ disciples, we too – all of us – are called, are equipped, are prepared to go out into the world and to make other disciples. In our teaching. In our acts of mercy. In our calls for justice. And in many other ways of sharing God’s abundant grace. Because, you see, Jesus didn’t just commission one person. Jesus commissioned all eleven of his disciples, and then at the very end of the passage, “to the end of the age,” He says, as if he were speaking over the heads of his disciples to all of us who are here today, saying to each and every one of you – to each and every one of us – that we are to receive that commissioning, too.
We are commissioned to be storytellers, even if we doubt that we have the ability. Doubt is not presented in the Gospel of Matthew as an obstacle to discipleship. It is, in fact, an element of discipleship from the very beginning. And we are commissioned to be storytellers, even when we can’t find exactly the right words, because there are still other ways of telling this story and other words to be found. Some of which are shown to the world not so much through our talking, but through our doing, so even those who still have their doubts, even those who are still turned off by the man sitting on the bus, asking to talk about his religion, are none the less welcomed into the water. And somehow become more willing to wade into that water with us. As we approach Easter, I invite you to take your commission, your commission to be passionate storytellers. To take it. To practice it. To own it. To grab on to an ankle in the midst of these disciples and to reach out a hand to a disciple nearby. For in so doing, we discover a deeper sense of discipleship for ourselves and we discover that more and more disciples are willing to join us on this shared path. We are disciples commissioned, ready to ascend. So let us ascend together. Amen.