Scripture: Acts 1: 6-14
The Lone Wild Bird in lofty flight, is still with Thee nor leaves Thy sight. And I am Thine, I rest in Thee, Great Spirit come and rest in me.
They were queer, every one of them… They were drag queens and bull dykes and trannies. They were Black and white, Latinx and Asian American and they were mostly working class and poor.
They had been beaten up, scorned by their families as repulsive, committed to mental hospitals. Their lives were filled with fear, intimidation and shame.
But on this night in the summer of 1969, something happened…They recognized, they perceived, something about themselves and one another. They saw the holy in their midst, or at least the evidence of holiness which is dignity and, so awakened, they claimed an erotic power.
At first it was according to the script. The police entered the bar; the mafia bosses took their things and left; and the queers were herded out the door.
But as they were being pushed toward the usual, normal humiliation, something shifted. Some energy changed. And someone stopped. Someone was overcome by the Spirit and said, no, not this time. And before they knew it, coins were being thrown– a symbol of the system of extortion.
And soon the paddy wagon had been emptied and the police pushed back into the bar.
And like the collective expression of love in public, word went around Christopher Street and Greenwich Village and the crowds gathered. And over the course of the next five nights, they swelled and swelled.
In response, the tactical police force was called in and, with their billy clubs and riot gear, they pushed into the crowd.
But the crowd would not be quashed. Instead, when the tactical police force came at them, they ran ahead, turned the block and re-formed behind the police.
When the police whirled around to reverse direction at one point, they found themselves face-to-face with their worst nightmare: a chorus line of mocking queens, their arms clasped around each other, kicking their heels in the air Rockettes-style and singing at the tops of their sardonic voices:
‘We are the Stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We wear no underwear
We show our pubic hair…
We wear our dungarees
Above our nelly knees!’
It was a deliciously witty, creative counterpoint to the tactical police force’s brute force. It was a claiming of embodied, erotic love. It was a yes to their love for themselves, for one another. They chose music and laughter, resistance and creativity, life and love and dignity in who and whose they were.
It was a resurrection moment.
And it would have remained a singular event had it ended there. If all of those who experienced the power, joy, love and creativity that day had stayed gazing at the Stonewall Inn after the Uprising that was the Stonewall Rebellion, it would have remained a singular resurrection moment.
But someone had the insight, the humor, the wisdom to sidle up (literally and metaphorically) to those who experienced Stonewall and ask them, what are you looking at? Why are you standing here? Get out there and build yourselves a movement on the joy and outrageous love and laughter and the hallowing of bodies that you experienced here. And when the first Pride celebration happened on the one year anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, that rebellion against police brutality, the resurrection moment that happened at Stonewall became a resurrection movement called queer liberation.
I have to tell you that in all my fifty-four years of life, I have neither heard nor preached a sermon on the Ascension of Jesus. And, honestly, I can’t believe this is true, but I don’t think I have ever given the Ascension a moment of thought. And, so, as I prepared for this morning’s service, I asked my clergy, academic and activist colleagues what the Ascension meant to them. And what a response! I have learned so much this week. I feel so blessed.
I want to share some of that learning this morning as we consider our story from the Book of Acts.
First of all, the Book of Acts is written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is resurrected in the final chapter, chapter 24. After he is resurrected, there are two deeply moving encounters between the Resurrected Jesus and the disciples. The first is on the road to Emmaus. As the disciples are walking, a man appears to them and explains all the scriptures to them in a very powerful way. But they don’t recognize that it’s Jesus until they all stop and Jesus feeds them. It is in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup that the disciples recognize the Resurrected One.
The second encounter in the final chapter of Luke’s gospel is when Jesus appears to the disciples as they are gathered some time after their journey to Emmaus. This time, they recognize him but are terrified, thinking they’re seeing a ghost. But Jesus invites them to reach out and touch his wounds. And then he asks them if they have any food and he eats in their presence.
Rev. Ken Sehested, Baptist peace-maker and theologian, suggests that the writer of Luke and Acts includes these stories to emphasize that “[f]aith in the manner of Jesus is always bodified.” He emphasizes that these bodified, feeding and eating, sharing of woundedness and invitation to touch him are all very important reminders for the thing that happens next and is the very end of the Gospel of Luke, namely the Ascension.
And then, there is a re-cap at the beginning of the Book of Acts. We hear about the Ascension a second time.
For Sehested, and many of my colleagues, the Ascension is a kind of ending of the story of Jesus with an exclamation mark on this message of bodification.
One of the particularities of our Christian tradition is that it is all about embodiment. The very first testimony of our Christian story is about the Incarnation: God takes on human form, body and spirit are one: God with us, Emmanuel. And then, when we read about Jesus’ ministry we have story after story in which Jesus is very concerned for and focused on bodies: touching and healing them, feeding them, blessing them. And then, in the resurrection, the power of life over death, of love over hatred and violence, is evidenced by Jesus’ Bodily Resurrection. He isn’t just a spirit in the resurrection, he is a meal-cooking, wound-showing, fish-eating, Resurrected-in-Body Jesus. And, finally, in the Ascension, Jesus as the body-blessing and Bodily-Resurrected One ascends into heaven… a kind of exclamation point on what our Christian tradition and lineage affirms: bodies matter. Indeed, bodies are blessed and holy and sacred.
There’s another piece to this story which Rev. Kelly Gallagher, the Associate Conference Minister for the Minnesota Conference of the UCC, shared. She writes:
In the south we have a saying, “Don’t you pay no never mind to that.” For me the ascension story (from Acts) is about where our focus needs to be. Before ascending Jesus reminds the disciples to not worry about the why’s and wherefores of heaven, end of world, salvation- but to go back to where the work is and expect the Holy Spirit to lead them. [she continues] And as he is taken up the 2 dudes appear and say, “Why are you standing here, looking up to heaven? Don’t you pay no never mind to that. Get on back to Jerusalem and dig in with love.” Don’t just stand there looking up, there’s life and love and inspiration and hope to be done here and now.
This is the second lesson from the Ascension story: It’s not just Jesus’ body that matters, ALL bodies matter. So, feed them, tend to them, delight in them, enjoy them, honor the incarnated God in one another and in all of humanity. Our Christian ancestors and lineage point to God’s actions over and over again: in the Incarnation, God took on human form, in Jesus’ ministry he was all about bodies- feeding, healing, blessing, and in the resurrection which is completed in the Ascension, God continues to make it known that bodies matter… and now, it is our turn to be about the work and ministry of tending to and delighting in bodies. “Don’t just stand there, looking up at heaven, get moving and get to the bodifed work of doing what Jesus would do.
Rev. Ken Sehested goes on to say, “[f]aith in the manner of Jesus is always bodified. Anything less is a signal that we suffer Ascension-deficit disorder.”
I love that! In other words, Ascension completes the resurrection. Jesus ascends to heaven. Jesus wasn’t resurrected for just a short time. Jesus’ resurrected body is taken into heaven. The power of life over death, love and justice over violation and violence, is made an always and everywhere promise.
But there’s a third lesson to take away from the Ascension. And it goes back to the “two dudes” as Rev. Gallagher refers to them. The writer of Luke and Acts uses these angelic figures in both the resurrection scene from Luke and in the Ascension scene from Acts. In both, they carry the first articulation of the message.
The angels in the tomb say to the women who’ve come with spices for Jesus’ body, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen.”
In our Ascension story, the angels seem to sidle up to the disciples and say “[y]ou Galileans- why are you standing here looking up at the skies?”
In both stories, if the followers of Jesus had stayed gazing at the ABSENCE, they would have completely missed the power of God’s uncontainable, overflowing, bodacious, Resurrection-infused, Holy Spirit-led, PRESENCE.
AND, they would have had a resurrection MOMENT. But they would have missed the invitation to participate in God’s resurrection MOVEMENT.
Our ascension story comes right before Pentecost, which is often known as the birth of the Church. But Pentecost can also be referred to as the inauguration of the Resurrection Movement.
“Why are you standing here looking up at the skies?” Don’t just revel in this resurrection moment. Don’t just gaze upon the Stonewall Inn and remember the Spirit-led dancing and resistance, the creativity and love embodied for the moment. Don’t just remember the road to Emmaus and the way your heart was strangely warmed. Don’t just cling to the moment you touched Jesus’ wounds. Focus your attention on the things that God focuses on: healing and justice and love-upon-love-upon-love. In the face of anti-trans legislation, in the face of book banning and bomb-dropping and logics of supremacy and creeping fascism…
And let’s make this a resurrection movement that hosts Totally Fabulous, All Generations, Queer Proms and participates in Rise and Remember gatherings and plants and harvests and shares good food and that blesses the Earth-body, the Cosmic body…EVERY-body.
Acts 1:6-14 from The Inclusive Bible by Priests for Equality
While meeting together they asked, “Has the time come, Rabbi? Are you going to restore sovereignty to Israel?”
Jesus replied, “It’s not for you to know times or dates that Abba God has decided. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”
Having said this, Jesus was lifted up in a cloud before their eyes and taken from their sight. They were still gazing up into the heavens when two messengers dressed in white stood beside them. “You Galileans- why are you standing here looking up at the skies?” they asked. “Jesus who has been taken from you- this same Jesus will return in the same way you watched him go into heaven.”
The apostles returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, a mere Sabbath’s walk away. Entering the city, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying- Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James ben Alphaeus; Simon, a member of the Zealot sect; and Judah ben-Jacob. Also in their company were some of the women who followed Jesus, his mother Mary, and some of Jesus’ sisters and brothers. With one mind, they devoted themselves to constant prayer.