“The Whole Picture”


Sermon—5Jun11/Sunday After Ascension

Acts 2/Jn17

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

The New York City tourist season is about to begin. Already, lines are forming in front of our famous neighbor, the Empire State Building.

On clear days and nights, the line stretches around the block. Visitors from all over the world wait to ride up the elevator to see the view from the 102nd floor.

Most tourists say that it’s worth the trip. They marvel at the New York skyline and the hills in the distance. But visitors also marvel at the view looking down. Cars below them appear to be toys; people on the sidewalk are like ants.

And the view from the top of the Empire State Building reminds us how “small” we human beings are. We may think that we are in charge of things. But our physical smallness symbolizes our relative inability to influence what happens.

We may think that we human beings run the world. Yet as the recent tornadoes in the Midwest have demonstrated, many bad things occur and we’re helpless to stop them.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that religious experiences often occur on mountaintops. Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai; Jesus delivered his most memorable Sermon “on the Mount.”

And that may be why we feel spiritually touched when we are in high places: we subconsciously feel that we are sharing God’s view of things.

Indeed, people used to believe that Heaven was literally “above” us human beings. When the Risen Christ left this world, the Bible says that he “ascended” to the Father. So God’s superior reality was reflected in the idea that God was higher than the human reality of earth.

Of course, Heaven is better construed as neither up nor down but an entirely different dimension. We can, however, still appreciate the value of the ancient metaphor. For God’s perspective is above and beyond this world.

Before Christ “ascended,” he prayed for his disciples. As we heard in today’s Gospel, Jesus prayed that the unity of the Church could be maintained even though he was returning to Heaven and the disciples would be remaining “in the world.”

And this is the point: if we human beings are “in the world,” then we’re not in Heaven! Even if we sometimes have mountaintop experiences, we can’t see the world as God does. Being in the world, we lack the perspective that we would have if we could somehow reach a point where we could see all creation as it really is.

This limited view of life can be deeply frustrating. We grant that God’s Creation is mysterious. But mystery is also just another word for human ignorance. And we don’t like being ignorant.

I suppose it’s something like the experience of being a soldier in the midst of a battle. You do what your platoon leader tells you; you march one way, you stop and fight for a while; then you withdraw; then you attack again; then you take a break.

Yet all the time you’re fighting, you have no idea how the whole war is going. For thousands of other troops and ships and planes are being deployed over a vast area of land and sea. Only the generals in command can figure out who is winning. And so only they could tell you why you’re marching one way, rather than another—taking this hill, rather than that one.

In fact, not even your generals see the entire war! For they can’t peer inside the minds of the enemy generals, nor can they predict the moves that each enemy soldier will take. Only God could predict who will win the battle, because only God can see the whole picture.

Today, we are singing the hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” While this hymn is a favorite of our Head Usher, who is a veteran of the British Royal Navy–some people don’t like it. For them, “Onward Christian Soldiers” seems “militaristic.” It appears to glorify war.

The actual words of the hymn, however, say that “Christian soldiers” march “as to war.”We are meant to imagine that serving God is like being in the midst of an armed conflict.

We have to make tough moral decisions without being sure we have all the information we need. We have to try to do the right thing even when we are afraid that we might just be doing what makes us happy.

The Christian “fight” can be so intense and our perspective so confusing that we feel battle weary. If only we could see the larger picture. If only we could be absolutely sure that we are doing the right thing.

But, of course, we can’t. We remain confined to a fallen world. A world in which mountaintop experiences are rare.

So what do we do? Well, there are spiritual techniques that can help us to sense that there is a divine plan and God is in charge. For example, sometimes we detect the realm of the Spirit through music.

Listening to music in church allows us to escape the pressures of life in the world—we experience the transcendent beauty of the composition and the organ and the human voice.

Today’s offertory anthem is a wonderful setting by Bach to the words “Praise ye the Lord, all ye nations, and honor him, all ye peoples! For his grace and his truth have power over us for evermore. Alleluia.”

These words suggest a second spiritual technique: to remind ourselves that even if we don’t know what God is doing, we can be sure that he is doing something! “His grace and his truth have power over us.”

So, we can always call upon the spirit of God to offer us the balm we need when we are wounded by the battles of life. We aren’t always favored with the spiritual power of a peak experience. We don’t always know the battle plan.

But, as the communion anthem says, God does not leave us “comfortless.” The Holy Spirit is always with us, and our hearts “shall be joyful.”

And now unto that same Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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