On Friday morning, I was driving to the final session of the Festival of Homiletics in Denver when I was startled by the sight of twenty hot air balloons hovering in the sky. As it turns out, they were part of the Erie Balloon Festival. I’m guessing that festival was much more festive on a sunny day than a so-called “festival” in a dark church on the topic of preaching. Unless you’re a total church geek!
Seeing the balloons reminded me of floating in a hot air balloon above the scenic region of Cappadocia in Turkey two years ago this week. Leroy and I shared a twenty-four person basket with a group of French tourists. They shouted “Oo la la!” as we ascended from the ground right at break of day. At the conclusion of our balloon flight, we celebrated our success with a champagne toast and the singing of the French national anthem!
A few years ago, Rev. Adelir Antonio de Carli, a popular Roman Catholic priest in Brazil, strapped hundreds of large, colorful helium balloons to a chair. He sat down, and off he went. Up, up and away! In addition to hoping to break a world record, he was raising money for a ministry that served Brazilian truck drivers.
Father de Carli was well-equipped with a helmet, a thermal suit, and a parachute. He was an experienced sky-diver. In his hands were a GPS device and a satellite phone. Hundreds of people gathered for the lift-off and cheered as the chair and Father de Carli ascended to twenty thousand feet and the disappeared from view on the way to the city of Dourado, 465 miles away.
Unexpectedly, the wind pushed the priest and his colorful balloons out to sea. He contacted authorities with his satellite phone from above the water and asked for directions on how to use the GPS. He was never heard from again. The cluster of semi-deflated balloons was found floating in the water. A search for Father de Carli commenced immediately but was called over after nine days. Two months later, an oil rig trawler recovered his body from the sea.
A story like this of being lifted from the earth and suspended in the air illustrates an important truth: Life has many unexpected moments, and we never know where the winds will blow us.
The Gospels of Mark and Luke and the book of the Acts of the Apostles record a really strange story. Jesus is talking with his disciples when he suddenly lifts off. His feet leave the ground and he ascends like a balloon or a rocket until he can no longer be seen due to the cloud cover. This is one of the truly out-of-the-ordinary accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry that causes us to say, “huh?!” Like the earlier supernatural change in Jesus’ appearance on the mountain top, standing beside Moses and Elijah, it moves us far from the realm of the ordinary.
Following Jesus to this point had been plenty adventurous for the disciples. They never really knew what he was going to say or where he was going to go or what kind of trouble he would find himself in. The Jesus story winds through the hills of Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem and then to an ugly hill where Jesus was killed. The resurrection accounts announced to the world that the grave just couldn’t keep Jesus down. And today’s odd but compelling story is about what happened forty days later. Part of the message here is that just as the grave couldn’t hold on to Jesus, neither could he be constrained by the laws of gravity. Even if those laws were not yet in the books.
For Christians who are biblical literalists, the account of the Ascension must present some particular challenges. We’re told in the text that Jesus was lifted up to heaven. But is heaven really in that direction? Meaning, directly above Palestine? If Jesus had ascended from Argentina, for example, then he would have gone in another direction. Right?? The New Testament was obviously written during a pre-scientific era, so the disciples and the writers who eventually recorded this story would have believed that the earth was flat. For them, everything existed within the realm of a three-tiered universe: Heaven is up, earth is in the middle, and hell is down.
It’s no wonder that the disciples were confounded. Jesus was delivering a message that had enormous implications for them as the ones charged with continuing his work. They listened carefully when without warning, he just started levitating, floating upward. The writer of Acts says that they were gazing toward heaven. I can sort of picture them all shading their eyes from the sun, trying to get a final glimpse after he disappeared into a passing cloud. A preacher friend texted me a cartoon this week that shows one of the confused disciples looking upward, saying “Where?? Where?? I can’t see him! The title of the cartoon is “Ascension Deficit Disorder.” Apparently all of those standing there had this form of ADD since two men in white robes had to show up and ask “Why are you standing there, looking up into heaven?”
That’s a great question.
Not everything that matters is “up there.” At the Festival of Homiletics, a big national event for preachers this week in Denver, historical theologian Diana Butler Bass made the observation that we live in a “theologically flattened world.” She talked about the old three-tiered universe and stated that both heaven and hell have been diminished. The concept of hell holds less power and at least is suspected by more people than ever to be sparsely populated. Heaven has come closer as people take seriously the prayer of Jesus that God’s will be done here on earth as it is in heaven. Longing for heaven seems less relevant that bringing heaven to earth. So this broad three-tiered universe has become thinner. Diana Butler Bass also remarked that many people think there are one two choices: what amounts to Christian fundamentalism on one side and the adamant belief that God cannot exist on the other. Both can represent a need to claim some form of certainty.
Something happened this week in Arizona that may be significant for those who identify as Progressive Christians. A Methodist pastor who produced the provocative video series “Living the Questions” discovered on Monday that eight churches in his community had joined together to present a campaign announced by enormous signs with the words “Progressive Christianity, Fact or Fiction?” For six weeks, starting today, all eight churches will unite in denouncing the message of the one progressive church in that community and the beliefs of many others who claim that questions can be more valuable than certainty. This morning, according to that pastor, Muslims, Jews, LGBT neighbors, and the Methodist bishop will gather at the church to show support of the congregation whose motto is “Prays well with others.” Fox News showed up to report on the situation this week, and the church leaders said “You can’t buy this sort of publicity.” More to the point, if some churches are feeling that threatened, it must mean that the progressive Christian message is growing in its influence.
An open approach to the Christian faith requires being able to live with the uncertainly of questions that are not fully answered: of being willing to remain “up in the air.”
How often does it seem that life itself is uncertain? “Up in the air,” with the wind blowing from one direction or another. Difficult health situations cause us to wait and wonder. Complicated relationships do the same, as well as employment changes and parenting challenges and any number of other unchosen dilemmas that we have to deal with. We wonder what will happen next and how we will ever have the ability to endure the waiting or whether we will be up to the next challenges that will undoubtedly come our way.
The white robed strangers reminded the disciples of something necessary. Just because Jesus disappeared behind a cloud didn’t mean that he was gone. Jesus had moved on so that the next important part of God’s plan could be revealed. Jesus had told them to wait there in the city until they received the Spirit. I doubt they were in the mood for waiting, but they did it anyway and ten days later God came close to them again, this time in the form of the Spirit.
Clouds can block the view, and circumstances can make it hard to see clearly. Uncertainty can keep us up in the air as we wait and watch and hope for resolution and the next good thing that life – and God – has in store for us. God will come close again. Don’t give up. Don’t lose heart. Don’t stop waiting for the gift God is preparing for you.