The following sermon was preached in James Chapel, Union Theological Seminary in New York City, at a communion service preceding commencement, May 17, 2002. While many of the references are particular to the setting, the general themes (where to look for God; the awkwardness of losses, in-between times and transitions;it remembering our own stories in light of vocation and mission) are transferrable to other settings.
One explanatory note: the chapel was decorated in part by cords hung at irregular places throughout the space. Graduates and other Union students had been invited to hang from these cords symbols from their time at Union (a backpack, theology books, a stethoscope, baby clothes, a chaplain's vest from the WTC recovery), requiring partipants in the service to take note of them and also negotiate their movements around the objects.
Up in the Air
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:6-11
Welcome. To family and friends and fellow students and strangers, welcome. You have come through a lot to get here, and we appreciate you hanging in there. I hope you know how much your support means.
Right now...is an awkward time. For some, non-Christians in a Christian institution, being asked to sing “Come, Lord Jesus,” is a jarring interruption. For some, this is an unfamiliar place, and it’s not easy to make your way around. We’ve complicated that here in worship by hanging bits of our Union lives in awkward places, and this service, created just for this occasion, is not something anyone is familiar with.
It’s an awkward moment in the school year. For most of us, the work is done...but things aren’t quite over yet. There is something more still to happen. At least that what the graduates are hoping!
It’s the same if you follow the church year. Right now we’re sitting between Ascension, where Jesus was lifted up into the clouds out of sight, and Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit comes down from heaven, to fill the disciples with power and energy and gifts for God’s work in the world. Up, down. Up, down.
At the end of my three year program here, especially at the end of this past year, I find myself feeling something like what those disciples must have felt on that hill. “Did you see that? What just happened?” If your life is anything like mine, there is something up in the air, something unsettled, something going on which isn’t quite clear yet.
I remember the first time I turned my eyes unto the hill that is Union Seminary. I kept running into people who had studied here, who taught here, and it seemed a beacon of hope, a place where vital theology was happening, where faith was formed, and where faith was found precisely in the process of testing what is true, what is real. I took a little class here through Auburn, that odd little seminary attached to Union. For me, it functioned as a gateway school, one class led to another and another, and eventually I found myself mainlining divinity. It was on February 15, 1993 that I used the library for the first time, and pretty soon I figured out how to look like I belonged, so I could sneak in to do reading.
Ever since then, I knew that, at 121st and Broadway, just over the crown of Harlem Heights, was a place I could look to with hope and expectation and just a bit of envy and awe, a place where people were doing Things That Mattered.
Eventually, I came to see that my desire for that light on a hill, this strange schoolhouse of God’s, was a call to turn more than my eyes here, but to ascend the mountain, to make the study of God’s business my business. I think some of you have heard that call too.
I bet you can remember some of the important steps along the way. The turning points, the places, the people, always the people, along that journey of turning to that which is holy...
It seems like just a matter of weeks, but it was almost three years ago that our Seminary Pastor Annie Ruth Powell, dressed in flowing robes, welcomed me and other entering students by telling us that we each had gifts from God. She said it like she believed it, and wouldn’t you know it – she was right!
There’s no way I can tell you very much about what’s gone on these past three years, and nobody is here to listen to that kind of travelogue. But I can tell you a bit about what it’s like to stand there on a hill, looking at hopes and dreams disappear up into the sky, wondering what’s going to happen next.
A year ago, some of us were in this chapel the morning our friend and teacher and spiritual leader Annie Ruth died. Eight months ago we were here when the World Trade Center fell, nearly three thousand souls rising up in smoke and fire. During this year we have planned and debated the future of this school, what Union will look like in the coming years. There have been births and miscarriages, illnesses and healings, deaths and surprising discoveries of new life. So many things up in the air...
This, I think, is what’s going on for those disciples. The Jesus they’d lost once, and then found risen from the dead, is now gone again. While he was with them, he always had an answer, a plan. They usually wouldn’t understand it, but it’s comforting to think that somebody knows what’s going on. And now...he’s gone, and they look after him where they saw him last.
And “suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’”
Isn’t that an amazing thing? That is not the kind of thing you expect to hear in church! “Why are you looking up toward heaven?”
It’s all the more puzzling because these men, these angels, then say Jesus “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” So shouldn’t we have our eye firmly fixed on the last place we saw him? What goes up, must come down... Jesus went up, so surely he’s up there, and when he comes again it will be from on high. Right?
It’s a trick question, you know... My time at Union has taught me well, but not always in the ways I expected. I turned my eyes to this hill. I looked up to Union. And I was not disappointed. This school has indeed been a place that has helped direct my attention to God. And when it has done that, it has been by asking the angels’ question: “Why are you looking up toward heaven?”
Now don’t get me wrong. Heaven is wonderful. We need heaven, there’s a need for holiness and beauty and purity and radiance, all the things we hope for in any decent heaven. But the big problem with looking up to heaven is that you can’t see the person next to you.
No, when Jesus comes again, he’ll come the same way he came before. If you want to see Jesus, don’t be staring up into heaven. Look to the nearest manger. Look to the people who struggle each day for their daily bread. Look downtown to the pit that was the WTC. Come down off of this hill to the poor of this city, this nation, this world. Share something of yourself with another, and take something of another into yourself.
When Union is Union it’s not because it’s a light shining high on the hills of Harlem Heights. When Union is Union, it is a tent, a temporary dwelling. Its focus is not on renovating the buildings, or beautifying the Quad, or building the endowment, or saving the Library – even though all these may be good and necessary things. But we should know better than to direct our attention to the towers of this world. However good it is to know there’s a heaven, if we’re looking for God, we’d better look lower. And we just might find that heaven is a lot closer than we think.