For those of you following the Revised Common Lectionary’s recipe for how to make a Church Year, you know that this past Sunday was Ascension Sunday, when the readings and prayers celebrate Jesus’ ascension into heaven to join God and Holy “The Friendly” Ghost.
Last Sunday was also “Youth Sunday” at GForce’s church. The youth did all the readings, the prayers, and the sermon. As they were divvying up the various responsibilities, GForce apparently volunteered to preach. When my gaping mouth betrayed my excitement on hearing this, she explained, “If I have to get up in front of a bunch of people and read, I’d rather read my own words.” Look out, world. We might have a third-generation preacher in the making.
GForce also volunteered one of her friends (I’ll call her Stella) to preach with her. When I offered to spend a couple of hours with the two of them on Saturday morning to bat around some sermon ideas, they were surprisingly excited.
On the way over to Stella’s house, GForce and I were talking about this business of Ascension Sunday, and I reminded GForce of one of PW’s recurring preaching themes: when Jesus talked about heaven, he wasn’t talking about some faraway paradise that some of us get to go to after we die. Jesus’ life and ministry were about how heaven is very near, how heaven is at hand—right here and right now—when we focus on giving ourselves and others a chance at life BEFORE death: by feeding people who are hungry, giving water to people who are thirsty, sheltering people who are vulnerable, freeing people who are trapped, etc.
GForce thought about this for a bit and said, “Yeah, I like that. I don’t see the point of going to church just so you can get into a heaven that’s supposed to exist after you die.” Me neither, Grasshoppah.
GForce, Stella, and I had a delightful time together Saturday morning. It was inspiring to me to hear the different ways these two teenagers are chewing on what it means to call themselves Christians, what it means to participate in a church community, what it means to be privileged, what it means to be human.
When Sunday came, the girls did an amazing job of preaching together, and I’m a pretty harsh critic when it comes to the art form of the sermon (PW can attest to that). Many a wonderfully written sermon is thoroughly hosed by a preacher who doesn’t understand that a sermon is, above all, an oral art form.
GForce and Stella really got that, and it wasn’t something we talked about. They marked the text up to give themselves reminders to look up, to look at each other, to pause for emphasis. They spoke slowly, expressively, and confidently. They engaged the congregation. They got some laughs, and more than a few people had tears in their eyes at the end.
GForce and Stella have given me their permission to share the text of their sermon with you. I’ve marked some of the paragraphs for who was speaking, but I can’t remember exactly how they divvied everything up, and I kind of like how it blurs together like that.
GForce: For Youth Sunday, I volunteered to do this sermon, and I volunteered Stella, who was absent, to do it with me (pause). Because that’s just how it is in church. You volunteer, or you get volunteered. (pause)
Stella: Luckily I didn’t mind at all, I was excited to write the sermon with GForce.
As you know, it’s also Ascension Sunday, when we celebrate Jesus ascending into heaven. But Jesus’ life actually seemed to be about making heaven on earth – a place where hungry people are fed, like here at our Food Pantry, or where thirsty people have water to drink, like in the villages where St. Paul’s has worked in Honduras, a place where we can be cared about by others, and care for others, where we can put good out to get good in, and appreciate the beauty in the world.
Tracy Chapman has a song, some of you may be familiar with, it’s called “Heaven’s here on Earth”.
If we have faith in human kind
And respect for what is earthly
And an unfaltering belief
In peace and love and understanding
This could be heaven here on earth
I’ve seen and met angels wearing the disguise
Of ordinary people leading ordinary lives
Filled with love, compassion, forgiveness and sacrifice
Heaven’s in our hearts
We looked up “ascend” in the dictionary. Apart from meaning to climb, or to go upwards, ascend also means “to come to occupy.” We believe that St. Paul’s is place where we volunteer to let Jesus into our own hearts, and we let Jesus be a part of our own lives. When we let him occupy our hearts and minds and thoughts, we can follow his ways to create the heaven he wants to exist on earth. Even though Jesus is not with us in the physical way that he was with his disciples thousands of years ago, Jesus is with us spiritually, and his teachings give us an example to live by, to try and make that heaven more alive on Earth.
I believe that confirmation is a part of that. We chose to step up, and claim our places in the Episcopal church so that we could come to occupy a part of it. When we were commissioned to be confirmed by Jeff, we were asked to carry hope in places of despair, to sow love in places of hatred, where there is doubt, faith, where there is sadness joy. This is the Heaven on Earth we both hope to make more prominent.
GForce: I was confirmed to be closer to the St. Paul’s community. I wanted to find out what Heaven means to me. I actually found out by writing this sermon. When Stella and I were discussing what we wanted to say, we spoke about how Jesus wants us to step up and have a life before we die, not just to hope for something better once we pass. Living in the moment, and trying our best to create a heaven under the soles of our feet, not only in the stars.
Stella: I joined the confirmation process part of the way through. I was living abroad when it all started but also, I was never baptized as a baby. My parents wanted me to decide what I wanted for myself in religion. So when I was offered the opportunity to be confirmed, just I dismissed it without much thought. But, when I returned from where I was living abroad, I returned to Sunday School and services. Although I didn’t have plans to be confirmed, I was asked to go on the New York trip. I had so much fun with my friends, and the Nightwatch program at St. John the Divine was eye-opening for me. Our mentor told me I could be baptized before confirmation, and then get confirmed with the rest of the group. I thought shortly before deciding I really wanted to go on the confirmation journey, and do it with my friends. I wanted to be a more solid part of St. Paul’s, and I wanted to explore God, to learn to listen to [God] more carefully, and find what [God] wants me to do. Right now, I think I understand that [God] wants me to do all these things that make Heaven more visible on Earth, to come to occupy my space in the church by showing up, participating in events like the Walk for Hunger, and letting Jesus occupy my heart more often and more deeply, both in and out of church.
St. John Chrysostom wrote, “Those whom we love and lose are no longer where they were before. They are now wherever we are.” Jesus ascended to come and occupy our hearts. We would like to take a moment for you to remember those you have lost in a physical way, and allow them to occupy this space with you, or to take a moment and let Jesus occupy your own heart.
(35 seconds of silence)
That silence at the end was a brilliant touch. After they said “Amen,” their priest stood and led the congregation in a long round of applause, for them and for all the other teenagers who had led worship.
If you don’t know Tracy Chapman’s “Heaven’s Here on Earth,” I suggest you find it and listen to it. It’s on her “New Beginning” album.
With all the talk about heaven ringing in my head, my latest earworm has been Matraca Berg’s “South of Heaven,” from her new album, “The Dreaming Fields.” I have this weird habit of walking home from the bus at the end of the day while listening to songs that often make me cry. I don’t plan it that way, but it happens at least a couple of times a week. So far, no one has stopped their car to ask me if I’m okay. If they did, I’d invite them to listen in. The first time I heard this song the floodgates opened when, on the recorded version, it sounds like her voice cracks both times on the line in the third verse, “You are not the only one.”
South of Heaven, by Matraca Berg
Praise and worship, bow your heads.
Say a prayer for the too soon dead.
Call it God´s will, call it fate.
Call for mercy, it’s too late.
‘Cause this ain’t where the angels dwell:
south of heaven, north of hell.
21 guns and cathedral bells
south of heaven, north of hell,
south of heaven, north of hell.
Mothers hold your babies close.
Father, son, and holy ghost
cannot keep them safe on earth.
So throw your rose down in the dirt.
Holy water, tears of pain
cannot wipe away the stain.
God, you gave your only son.
But you are not the only one.
No, you are not the only one.
Hear the weeping, hear the knell
south of heaven, north of hell.