You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
So begins my favorite poem of blessed Maya Angelou, who died this week. We are observing Ascension Day today; the day that Jesus rises into heaven after rising from the dust of the grave. It was hard not to make the connection… Jesus has been beaten, crucified, scorned... and now he is rising above it all.
There are two collects, or prayers, for Ascension Day, and both wrestle with what to do theologically with this new distance between us and the ascended Jesus. The one we used today prays that as Jesus has risen to heaven, “so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell.” It’s about how even though we are physically on earth, spiritually we should rise up and join him. The other collect says, “Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.” We are on earth, Jesus has ascended, but don’t worry—he’s still down here dwelling with us. It’s two ways of approaching our faith—neither of them wrong—one way is to try to rise above the sin and violence and struggles of earth; the other is to remember to bring Jesus into that sin and violence and struggle. Which sounds more familiar to you? Hopefully we do both; I think I’m probably better at bringing Jesus into the muck than I am at rising above… Maya Angelou you just couldn’t hold down… as one friend said upon her death, “Usually, when someone dies we say “May she rest in peace and rise in glory,” but I bet she’s doing more rising than resting.”
The disciples aren’t so sure how to deal with this new distance either. They look up to heaven like they would like to rise but have no idea how to follow Jesus... and they no longer recognize his abiding presence with them on earth. The Ascension marks a turning point in Jesus’ followers. They have been his disciples, his students—but now they are being sent out on their own as apostles.
For many people, this is a season of graduations…. the Ascension is not exactly graduation from Jesus-school; but it is a commencement of a new phase in what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus says to the disciples—now apostles, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” and then he’s gone. You can almost hear them thinking, “Wait, we’re not ready yet.” But they are indeed witnesses. Think of what this group of men and women had seen and heard in the past 3 years:—they’d seen people healed by faith, they’d heard the sermon on the mount, heard “love your enemies,” and “do this in remembrance of me.” And now the person who led them, who corrected them when they were in error—which was most of the time--who taught them everything they know, is gone up into heaven, with some vague promise of a Holy Spirit for future guidance. And they are left as the witnesses, the ones to testify and tell the story and spread good news throughout the entire world. Blessed are the poor. I am the way, the truth and the life. Jesus has been raised from the dead. And they are going to be persecuted and shunned and know violence while they are witnessing—they must bring Jesus back down into those experiences and also rise above them.
We are apostles and disciples all at the same time. We are never finished learning, and are always sent out into the world to proclaim good news. Our knowledge, like that of those first apostles is incomplete; we, like them, would like to be able to ask just one more question, to have Jesus stay for just a few more minutes while we get some clarifications on our faith. But we’re not as unprepared as we think. We, through those first apostles, have witnessed what they witnessed—the healings, the sermon on the mount, the last supper, the resurrection. And we are witnesses of God’s action and love in our own time and place as well. We are witnesses of grace in our personal lives, witnesses of a Gospel and a church broken open to include all people, and witnesses of that promised Holy Spirit, the comforter that does not leave us lonely when Jesus ascends. We are witnesses that the One who was beaten and downtrodden and who rose like the dust of the streets of Jerusalem.
It seems like that should be enough to testify to God’s abiding presence on earth—even in the pain and the violence and the sin. It should be enough to testify that God’s heart is breaking in Santa Barbara over the deaths of young people; that God’s heart is gladdened at the release of a young soldier in Afghanistan. And it should be enough to carry our hearts and minds up with him as he rises with his pierced hands raised in blessing upon us.
“Still I Rise” is a poem I can hardly hear without hearing Maya Angelou’s voice—it is such a witness to who she is and was; her suffering and injustice and pain held in tension with her beauty and confidence and sassiness and joy. But what if we heard Jesus speaking through her words? “Sassy” isn’t usually the first word I think of when I think of Jesus… but his confidence in his identity when faced with a crowd or the powers that be was sassy. I want to worship a sassy Jesus. He would not give earthly powers the authority they thought they deserved… and they couldn’t stand it so they killed him. Since then, he has been misrepresented and misunderstood for centuries by the inheritors of those very same powers—but we are left to be his witnesses to the other truth. The truth that he could be absolutely broken by the powers of this world, and still rise because neither they nor death could hold him down.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.