Bishop Lee preached this sermon on Ascension Day, May 10, 2018, at Church of the Ascension, Chicago.
A couple of years ago I had the great privilege of traveling to Ghana. I was there with a delegation of other clergy and lay leaders from the Episcopal Church to hold a consultation with our sisters and brothers in the Anglican Church of Ghana and from other African nations, part of a series of conversations to explore our differences and our common faith in Christ in light of the developments in this country and in Africa around the inclusion of LGBT people. This particular consultation was held in the coastal city of Elmina, at a hotel near one of the most remarkable and disturbing places I think I have ever visited.
From the late 15th century, the southern coast of Ghana became dotted with fortified castles. These were built by Europeans as they established their first footholds in that part of Africa. At first, these forts were built in order to sustain the vast gold trade there, but by the 17th century, what was being traded had changed. These castles along the coast were the staging ground for the devastating and hugely lucrative Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In the dungeons of these places, thousands and thousands of captured men and women were held until they could be shipped off to the various colonies of the new world. The slave castle at Cape Coast was one of the largest of these horrors, and today it is certainly one of the most well preserved. It was the center of the English slave trade. In the unspeakable confines of airless, foul dungeons, up to 500 women and over 1000 men at a time were held for months until they exited through the infamous “door of no return” to board ships and be hauled like dry goods across the ocean.
An image I still have trouble not seeing there in the castle is that of a blindingly whitewashed structure, built directly over the doorway to the men’s dungeon. It is built high enough to look over the rest of the castle and out at the ocean vista. It has windows to allow for refreshing breezes off the water. It was the site of the Anglican chapel for the British who occupied the place. It was there that hymns were sung, prayers offered, Holy Communion celebrated — there directly over the place below it of savage misery for enslaved human beings. As he stood squinting up at the place our tour guide said, “Yes, the view is very beautiful from up there — they must have thought they were ascending into heaven.”
Most of us I suspect — if we think about it much at all — most of us are accustomed to thinking about the Ascension in just the way it is portrayed in the Bible. Jesus “goes up,” caught up in some kind of special effects cloud. The Keystone Cops disciples are left squinting up at the cloud, open mouthed and wondering what it all might mean. Maybe we might picture it that way. Or we might find all that just a little embarrassing. Episcopalians, we like to think, take the Bible seriously, not literally. And yet, neither literalizing it into a cartoon nor sophisticatedly explaining it away as some kind of psychological experience those first disciples had and wanted us to have too, the event we call the Ascension will not go away. It is a mystery proclaimed consistently by the Christian faith down through the millennia. And it still has the power to gather us together. Right here. Tonight.
The Ascension of Jesus gathers us. It is one instance in the totality of his birth, life, death, resurrection and return to the Father. And, it is part too of the sending of the Holy Spirit. “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit, with power,” he says to his first friends. He sends them. He still does. He sends us. “You will be my witnesses.” Witnesses to what? For what? What else, dear friends, than the mighty good news Jesus came proclaiming, the good news he came embodying in the first place — sight for the blind, food for the hungry, hope for the hopeless, freedom for captives. Just as Jesus led Peter, James and John back down from the mountaintop after the Transfiguration (“Come on,” he said. “We can’t stay up here. We’re going back down to the rough and tumble and danger of Jerusalem.”). Just as then, so at the Ascension, the angels remind those first disciples of Jesus that following him is not a matter of staring up at the clouds. It’s going back down to the earth, back to the needs, straight to the heartaches and troubles and terrors of this world. To be the good news they and we preach.
This is the heart of the Baptismal promises we recommit ourselves to tonight. In the celebration of confirmation and in the formal reaffirmation of vows, we are challenged to remember who we are … and whose we are. These promises we use to describe our practice of the Christian faith are just that — practices. They commit us to very doable, very tangible ways of living in this world, of “going down” with the Lord we follow into the hurts and heartaches, the challenges and needs of a hurting world, the whole wounded condition of humanity which our God has chosen to enter and redeem.
And we have not been left high and dry, staring up into empty space all by ourselves. The mystery of the Ascension leads us in only a few days to the mystery of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit has been poured into our lives and leads us down into the heart of the world. If you want to go up, you have to go down. We cannot approach glory without remembering that we are all dust. At Cape Coast Castle the beauty of that chapel in the sky was mocked by the degradation below it. You cannot have the glory of the Ascension without descending to the deepest depths of human pain. Christ himself has led the way exactly there. The doors of those dungeons imprisoned not just the enslaved persons down in them. They kept those above from knowing the Reign and reality of God too.
In his sermon at the conclusion of the great Anglo-Catholic Congress in 1923 in London, Bishop Frank Weston of Zanzibar put it this way: “If you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum …. (So) go out into the highways and hedges where not even the Bishops will try to hinder you. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.
May God bless this parish, this local instance of the church catholic, in its mission of worshiping the living God and of changing the lives of those in want, of ministering to those who suffer, of feeding the hungry and making the love of the Dying, Rising and Glorified Christ real. May God set us all free to go down and so to rise in glory.