Big Souls and Thin Places: Teaching Time from Ascension Sunday, May 17, 2015

Before I went away for a week of study leave, I asked you to try to start each day with a simple prayer, like this:

“Dear God;

Please show me what I can do today, for you.

I will do my best to do it, with your help. Amen. “

Does anyone has any stories to share, about what it meant in their lives, to pray this prayer?

I had a great email this week from one member of the congregation who took the challenge seriously, and it led them to do something that was difficult, and involved a level of emotional vulnerability. The email described the effect this had on a small group of people. This person saw a change in their own life, and they were able to help a few other people as well. The person who emailed me was glad they took the risk, and with God’s help, moved a bit outside their comfort zone.

I believe powerful, important things can result if we follow this practice of prayer, and ask God what we can do, and then ask God to help us to do it. We need God’s help, and great changes can happen in our lives when we look for God’s guidance. Ultimately, God is the one we end up relying on. God is permanent. God is always with us.

The scripture stories this morning all seem to be about what happens to a faith community when it is time for their leader, their teacher, to leave. The leave-takings are very dramatic. In the case of the prophet Elijah, he is walking and talking with his protégé, Elisha, when

“suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.”

Just before that, Elijah had asked Elisha what he could do for him, before he was taken away. Elisha had asked his teacher for a double portion of his spirit. Elisha wanted to know that somehow, Elijah would still be with him, helping him with the work of being a spiritual leader.

In the Gospel of Luke story about Jesus’ leave-taking, Jesus told his followers he would send them what his heavenly father had promised. They should stay together until they have been clothed with power from on high. That phrase “being clothed” is a kind of literary allusion to the story about Elijah and his follower Elisha, who picks up a cloak, also called a mantle, that belonged to Elijah.

In the reading from Acts the promise is a little more detailed. Jesus said his followers should stay in Jerusalem until they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Next week we will hear the story of Pentecost, which describes this promised moment, when the Spirit touched and energized Jesus’ followers, and a great crowd of others in Jerusalem.)

In both stories about Jesus leaving, after Jesus has made his promise, he is described as being taken up into the sky. In Acts it says a cloud hid Jesus from the sight of his followers.

A few years ago, when I was teaching the story of Jesus’ Ascension, I showed a short clip from Mary Poppins. The movie is actually 50 years old. It has received renewed attention because of a more recent Disney movie, called “Saving Mr. Banks,” which is about the making of the first movie.

Mary Poppins is the story of a magical nanny who appeared in an upper middle class English household just when they needed her most. She came sailing in on the wind, literally, floating through the air, upheld by her umbrella.

With her messages of love, and adventure, and openness to new experience and new people, she nurtured Jane and Michael, the two children of the Banks household.  They are transformed from brattish hellions into loving, kind, and generous young people. Much of this transformation happened because of the effect Mary Poppins had on their Mother and Father. She helped them look upon their children with love rather than mere tolerance, and re-discover the delight of actually spending time with them, rather than being absorbed in themselves.

Along the way there is magic and singing and dancing, and humour. These provide the spoonful of sugar needed for the viewer to swallow the medicine, or the moral of the story.  If parents don’t actively love their kids, they can lose them.

By the end, the Banks family is getting along famously, having been transformed by the message of love. Mary Poppins sees her work is done, and it is time for her to leave. It is time for them to carry on, with all that she has taught them, and with the spirit of love that gave life to her teaching.

It is not easy for her to go. She has grown to deeply love this family, especially the children.

The visual effects seem pretty hoaky, compared with what could be done in our time. Mary Poppins flies above the smoky clouds of London, as the credits roll on the screen.

Where was she going? She was a kind of a magical figure in the movie. She was actually very much a Christ figure, one who brings a message of love, and reconciliation, and tolerance and openness to differences in people. So where does she go at the end? Up into the sky. Heavenward.

That works in the movie, as long as you don’t think too hard about it. It even kind of works in the stories about Elijah and Jesus, again, as long as you don’t think too hard.

In the ancient world, there were many stories of kings, heroes, prophets or holy men being taken up into the realm of the gods, at the end of their earthly lives. It was a way of saying that they were divinely blessed, and that their message would live on.

In the ancient world, people viewed the earth, and the universe around it very differently than we do. They had what I have sometimes called the “layer cake” view. Our world was the middle layer. Hell was the layer below, and heaven, the realm of the gods, was right above.

With this cosmology, this understanding of the architecture of the universe, it made perfect sense to talk about a hero descending into the depths of Hades, or ascending bodily into heaven.

But that is not how we see things in our day. When we talk about Heaven being up, and Hell being down, we are usually only being poetic. We live in a time when satellites orbit the earth, and rockets have pierced the dome of the sky, and gone to the moon. It is harder to imagine heaven as a physical place that is over our heads. It is harder to read these stories as literally true.

So how do we think about this? Where did Elijah go? Where is Jesus?  One of the downfalls of thinking of heaven as a physical place, above our heads, is that this literal-ness reduces reality to things we can see. It leaves out the possibility that there are things that are real, that we can’t see.

The Irish poet and mystic John O’Donohue once said that rather than thinking of the human body as the vessel that carries around a little thing inside us that we call a soul, it may be that instead, our human bodies are surrounded by something like a force, or energy, that is bigger than our bodies. Maybe instead of our body carrying around the soul, our soul actually envelops our bodies.

In a lovely book called “To Bless the Space Between Us”, O’Donohue quotes another mystic, a fourteenth century philosopher and theologian named Meister Eckhart.

“Meister Eckhart was once asked, Where does the soul of a person go when the person dies? He said, no place. Where else would the soul be going? Where else is the eternal world? It can be nowhere other than here. We have falsely spatialized the eternal world. We have driven the eternal out into some kind of distant galaxy. Yet the eternal world does not seem to be a place but rather a different state of being. The soul of the person goes no place because there is no place else to go. This suggests that the dead are here with us, in the air that we are moving through all the time. The only difference between us and the dead is that they are now in an invisible form. You cannot see them with the human eye. But you can sense the presence of those you love who have died. With the refinement of your soul, you can sense them. You feel that they are near.”

This may be just another form of poetic expression, but I find it sits a little better with me than the idea of chariot of fire carrying Elijah up into the sky. Scientists now tell us that nothing can ever really be destroyed. Things change form, but the matter and the energy that make up our bodies continue to exist, in one state of being or another. Perhaps we don’t really go anywhere physically when we die. The visible parts of us, our bodies, may change form, but the invisible parts of us, our souls, thoughts, feelings, still exist, held safely by God, in God’s universe, which is all around us.

So perhaps Elijah and Jesus never really left. Maybe these Bible stories about them mysteriously disappearing into the sky were the best poetry the people had in their time, to talk about how even when their bodies failed them, their souls, their spirits, carried on. Amen

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