Harrowing Of Hell
May 8, 2016

Stillness, Study, and Story

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
Scripture: Acts 1:1–11

Look! Up there. In the skies. Through the roof. See? Jesus ascending, and that is how he will return. What do you think? You don’t have to answer. It is just our question for contemplation today on the feast of the Ascension.

But I’ll share this with you: I believe that Jesus ascended up into the sky and I believe he will return the same way. Is that a rational, reasonable thing? Well, if you’re looking for facts, like in a court of law, or proof, as in a scientific experiment, then maybe not.

But if you, like me, believe there is a bit mystery in life, and if you, like me, value communion with others, and if you, like me, hope for connection with God, then owning the Ascension might not only be reasonable, it may even guide us into a better patterns of living.

You see the question here at Epiphany is not: What do you believe? The question is: How do you live? It’s not about right answers; it’s about right actions that unfold as habits over time to produce beauty and goodness in the world. Christianity is a way of life, not a set of rules. And the mystery of the Ascension is an invitation to consider the Christian lifestyle.

Now what I’m going to say next is not meant to be an apologetic for the Ascension. It’s just a little story about how, at least for me, the Ascension can reorient attention to the presence of God here and now.

When I was in seminary, I remember a conversation I had with a wise professor, Bishop Mark Dyer. We were talking about the Second Coming, and all of the crazy predications and speculations about when and how Jesus would return.

And Bishop Mark said, “We don’t have to speculate you know. We already know. It is very clearly articulated in the Bible. He will come as he left.” And I was a little surprised by this, as Bishop Mark was an eminently reasonable man. And, he continued, “so don’t waste your time looking up into the sky. It is like waiting for water to boil. It happens when it happens and there is nothing we can do to make it happen any time sooner because the Second Coming is not about us, it is about God.”

And so, Bishop Mark concluded, “live as if it has already taken place.” That is the point of today’s sermon. If you remember nothing else remember this: “live as if Jesus has already returned.” That is exactly what the Apostles did.

I mean, initially they were a little bit of a surprise to see Jesus disappear up into the sky. The two men standing there in glistening white, by comparison, might have seemed mundane until they said: “Why are you looking up in the sky? Jesus will return as he left.” Meaning to say: Don’t look up in the sky, look out into the world, into that space that Jesus blesses. And know that in the same way his ascent was a surprise, his return will be a surprise, so don’t wait around. Live like it has already taken place. And this filled the Apostle’s with joy and energy and possibility. Possibility for what the world could be like.

Let me tell you a story of possibility, and living into what the world could be like. I don’t remember where I heard it, but probably from Bishop Mark, who was a good friend of Desmond Tutu. It comes from South Africa, in the days before the disintegration of Apartheid.

Bishop Tutu was leading a huge outdoor worship service. It was held in a natural amphitheater surrounded by sloping hills on three sides. As the Gospel was being read, suddenly Government security forces appeared on the ridge of the hills, armed and ominous. Guns pointed down upon the people, as Tutu stepped up to preach. The timing was no accident. The guns were a message for Tutu to guard his words. The people were being held hostage. So Tutu scrapped his sermon, but not in response to their warning, rather in response to God’s invitation.

He turned his words to the men on the hills saying, “It is finished. It is over. God has won. The day has come where race no longer separates us; we are brothers and sisters.Come down, come down and dance with us. The victory is here. It has already happened. Come join us.

Instead the men, from shame or fear, faded quickly away; caught in the cross hairs of the Holy Spirit they evaporated like smoke.

Tutu invited those men to live as if they lived in the presence of God. He articulated the Christian lifestyle: God is with us… live into that reality. That is what the Apostles did and this way of life changed the world. It didn’t happen through creeds, or doctrine, or dogma; it happened be living as if to lived in the presence of God.

And so, the question is, How? How do we best do this? I’ll give you three words:
1) Stillness
2) Study
3) Story

If you’re here for Mother’s Day, each one of you can remember one of the “S’s” and then repackage the sermon at brunch. We’ll start by being still.

I’ve been talking this morning about the Christian lifestyle, which implies action. but our Christian action begins with stillness. We start with stillness. It is an exercise; a spiritual discipline, if you will. Do you know how to do the exercise of stillness? STOP MOVING, intentionally. Let’s try it for 15 seconds. Are you ready?

That is a taste of stillness. I’ve taken up the discipline of standing still for 10 minutes twice a day. (It is a form called Immovable Root stance.) It is not very hard, and it is super hard. The hardest part is setting aside the time to do it. There is no right way to be still. All forms of intentional stillness create the stamina needed to confront guys with guns on hills, or bad traffic, or even a bad mood. Stillness is a practice that orients us toward living as if we are in the presence of God. Because when we are still that is all we are doing. We are being in the presence of God. So take some time every day to be still.

Which brings us to “S” #2: Study. Studying is the art of allowing ourselves to listen through a source other than our own mind. It is a discipline that fires the imagination, and gives us cause to wonder how we fit into a larger context.

Studying is not just gathering information, it is using information to see differently. Sometimes my studying involves reading a page or two in a book, and the re-reading it, and then writing about it, and wondering about it, and then moving on, with scarcely a memory of the information read, yet, deeply moved by the insight garnered.

That is the hope of “S” #2: study, to sharpen the rough edges of our lives against new ideas, and information, and context. Studying pushes us into seeing in new ways and more than that, it trains our eyes to look for the presence of God.

Study whatever you like. Study math or music or medicine or martial arts… but whatever you study, study in the hope of better seeing the presence of God in the world around you. Keep in mind, study, like stillness, requires regularity and intentionality.

Which brings us to “S” #3: story, which is short-hand for the story of God. This is not just about knowing the story of God, as in Bible study. It’s about living in the story of God, which is about worship.

Every Sunday we gather here to remember the story of God, and place ourselves in it. We hear “Do this for the remembrance of me.” And we hear “unite us to your Son in his sacrifice.”

Remembrance and unity are the things we find when we step into the story of God. Weekly worship is designed to remind us that we live in the presence of God and that our story is wrapped in to the more glorious story of God. And when this reality is graphed to our bones we become the people who produce beauty and goodness in the world.

Stillness, study and story are patterns of the Christian lifestyle that orient us toward living as if we are in the presence of God. And this changes things. When we live as if we live in the presence of God the world adjusts to meet us. Which is what happened with the Apostles. The world changed because of the manner by they choose to live… that is, to live as if they lived in the presence of God.

“Why are you looking up into the heavens?”
“That Jesus you saw ascend will return the same way.”

And since we don’t know when that will happen, live as if it has already has!


Sermon Reflection Questions

  1. Do you practice stillness? If so, how? If not, how might it fit into your life?
  2. What do you love studying? Where do you find God in this subject area?
  3. When Doyt is talking about God’s story and your story fitting in it, what does that mean to you?