I had the chance to preach yesterday at my Madison church, Lake Edge Lutheran. Yes, I’m Episcopal. But we’re officially friends. Which is convenient, since I’m married to a Lutheran PK. The local background you need for this one is that in March, an unarmed black teenager named Tony Robinson was fatally shot by a police officer. The DA announced on Tuesday that there would be no charges. You can listen to the audio on the church website, or read the manuscript below.
Business as Usual
Lake Edge Lutheran Church, Madison, WI
Seventh Sunday of Easter/Ascension Sunday, 2015
Texts: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; John 17:16-23
Did you know that today is actually one of the holiest feasts of the church? Well, technically it was Thursday, but we Americans usually do it on Sunday, if we do it all at all. It’s the feast of the Ascension, when Jesus ascended into heaven 40 days after his resurrection, and ten days before the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. On Thursday (of today, if you prefer), my calendar says that Jesus was being exalted high above the heavens, but all I saw looking around Madison was business as usual. And boy do we have some business going on. Tuesday afternoon has furnished us with pressing things to talk about. But the more I thought about Tony Robinson and what he symbolizes, the more I felt drawn to our Lord’s Ascension. Because the Ascension is part of the Gospel, and the Gospel has to be good news in a world in which I can apply for a job and be reasonably certain that they’ll at least give my application a good look, but where it would probably go straight into the trash if someone checked the “yes” box when it asks if you’ve ever been to prison. The Gospel has to be good news in a world in which I can generally count on the discretion of a government employee, a police officer, or a judge to give me the benefit of the doubt and enforce the spirit rather than the letter, but where a man of color can expect imprisonment for the same infraction, if he survives the ride to the station. Or where I can walk down pretty much any street in the country and mind my own business, but where brown and black students and professors get asked what they’re doing on their own campuses, brown and black shoppers are followed around in stores where they would like to spend money, and where driving or even walking while black or brown is probable cause for a search or an arrest. The Gospel has to be good news in a world where I can see a police officer and feel reassured about my safety, but where an unarmed black teenager can be fatally shot by a police officer a block from where I get my groceries. I don’t envy the District Attorney his job, and I don’t know what to call the decision he announced on Tuesday. But what that decision leaves us with is not justice. Since Trayvon Martin’s murder in Florida made the national news, and his murderer got hired by the news station, those of us who are white have been forced to see what our brothers and sisters of color always knew: that racism is not only ubiquitous, but lethal. And I hope we are starting to see that white privilege is built by the systemic violence of racism, which it then perpetuates. In Madison, this pattern has been repeated and the system left in place. Oh, and to add insult to injury, the General Assembly wants the government to police what people who receive public assistance can eat. Justice tarries and business as usual marches on–and Wisconsin is open for business! And in this world that is open for the business of keeping the powerful in power and the oppressed in oppression, the Gospel, and the Ascension, have to be good news.
What is the good news of the Ascension? It doesn’t seem like good news on the face of it. Jesus rose from the dead with all power in his hand, revealed himself to the women and men who were his disciples, gave them and us a mission… and then left. And if you know anything about the history of Christianity, or about it’s current state, you know that it would have been pretty helpful if he had stuck around rather than leaving the whole operation in our hands, because we obviously don’t know what we’re doing. So if the Ascension is good news, it has to mean that the gift God is giving us through the absence of the risen body of Jesus is better than what we could have received through its presence. In his earthly life, he refused to accept the dominion over all of earth’s kingdoms that Satan offered him, because he could give us something better through the hard life of a poor laborer-turned-failed revolutionary in occupied Palestine. And if the Gospel is good news, that has to be true of the Ascension as well.
So what does Jesus give us through his Ascension? What does the Ascension mean?
Quite simply, it means that human flesh is on the throne of God. God came to earth and became what we are in order to make us what God is. The purpose of everything Jesus did is to make us share by grace what he is by nature. And he is God. And so, before the life of the Carpenter from Galilee ended in a lynching, which looked to all the world and even to his disciples like the victory of sin, the devil, the empire–business as usual–but which he knew was their defeat–he looked up to heaven and prayed for his disciples, and not just his disciples then, but all of them in all of the ages. “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” Jesus asked for us to be one with the one whom Jesus called Father, just as Jesus is! He prayed, “The glory that you have given me, I have given them.” And who but God can have the glory of God? “Father, I desire also that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” Jesus wants us to share the exact relationship that he has to the one he called Father. This communion between the Son and the Father is one of oneness, but also distinction. Difference, but also equality. In John 13, Jesus calls these same disciples friends. In the Greek-speaking world of antiquity, only equals could be friends. I can tell you where to look in Aristotle and Cicero if you don’t believe me. Jesus wants us, like himself, to be equal to God, yet different. One, yet distinct. This, by the way, is why we care about the Trinity. Jesus Christ–Messiah and carpenter–God and human being–is where God is. And he prayed and prays that we, who are still in the very world of business as usual that crucified him, that we may have the very joy, glory, righteousness, and power on earth that he now enjoys in heaven, where he has gone.
Still, why go now? Okay, he became human to make us divine. Why not stick around and see the job through? My dad always told me that if you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself. I suspect that this is a point on which Missouri paternal wisdom and Wisconsin paternal wisdom are in agreement. But no, Jesus doesn’t want us to follow his directions. Jesus does not want to us to be soldiers with orders or customer service representatives with a script. Jesus had to step back, because now he wants us to stand in his place. His place in heaven where he has gone, but first, his place on earth. Jesus is making us what he is. He is the one who is equal to God, and he is also the one who is sent. And now, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” We get everything that is his, including his mission, and you saw what they did to him.
Call it the fine print. Or call it the Gospel.
In this world of business as usual, the only way to share his blessedness is to live as he lived. Racism is lethal. White privilege is poisonous. Business as usual divides communities of color from one another, it divides poor people of color from poor white people. It divides white women from women of color. It divides queer people from marginalized straight people. And having divided, it conquers. And it divides white people, and white men, from everyone and from each other, and keeps us unwilling to stand in solidarity with everyone against the things that will eventually kill all of us, for fear of losing our precious privilege, or of having to realize we have it. But a human being has conquered it. A human being has come into the world of business as usual, and bankrupted it. Death thought it was taking Jesus, but it it was giving itself to him. The devil thought he had Jesus, but Jesus had him. The empire thought it had gotten rid of a trouble maker with a radical agenda, but Jesus revealed himself as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and his power is our power.
It is our power whenever we pray, because when we pray, we join in with Jesus’ prayer. There is a Jewish tradition that when Moses received the Law on Mt. Sinai, and all the people of Israel who had come out of Egypt stood at the base of the mountain and heard the voice of God speaking the Ten Commandments, every Jew was there. Not just every Hebrew alive at the time, but that every person who ever had or ever would be born a Jew or convert to Judaism, from the beginning of the world to its end, was somehow present at Sinai to receive the Torah. How were people who had died and who hadn’t been born yet present at this one moment and in this one place? The temporal mechanics aren’t really important, but if that’s a sticking point for you, plausible explanations are offered in any number of Star Trek and Doctor Who episodes. I tell you this because I wonder if something similar didn’t happen on the Mount of Olives the night before the Crucifixion. Jesus lifted up every human being who would ever join themselves to him, up into his communion with the one who sent him. And now, on high, his reign, his victory, his glory, is that he brings humanity into God. His glory is solidarity.
And now we stand where he stood. We are sent as he was sent. He was God become visible in the world, and now, we are where God is visible in the world. We are the one’s whose job it is to manifest God’s glory, the glory of solidarity. Jesus withdrew his body from the world, because now the church is his body. This is not a metaphor. We’re not very good at this job. Never have been. This is an uncomfortable place to be standing, but we stand here with is power. If we will stand here. If we want the power of Jesus, we must stand in the place of solidarity, where he once stood on earth, and now stands in heaven. And be willing to pay the price. If you were last week, you saw us confirm and receive new members. And you saw Pastor Stephen give them a small wooden cross. If you have joined or been confirmed in this church, you got one too. It is a reminder that you may be killed for standing in the place of Jesus. I repeat, you may be killed for this. But this place of solidarity, solidarity with those who get killed because the majority society sees their dark skin as a threat, this is the place where Jesus gives his power.
Do we not see Jesus’ power manifested yet? Do we only see business as usual? Are we waiting for God to reveal God’s power and glory, and put a stop to business as usual? The good news is that God already has. And it’s us. The bad news is that God already has, and it’s us. You want Jesus’ power? The power of God? You’ll have to claim it. You’ll have to pray as he prays and stand where he stands, and show the world of business as usual, that the Kingdom of God is open for business.
© Kyle Rader, 2015