by The Rev. Dr. Deborah Silver
I have always loved rocks. My grandson inherited this love of the earth and of rocks. When he was younger, whenever we took my dog Toby for a walk, we’d inevitably come home with hands and pockets full of rocks.
If you come to my house, I will show you the rocks I have collected over the years. Many of these rocks come from Arizona where my father worked with the Corps of Engineers when I was growing up. And, if you promise not to turn me in, I will tell you a secret. Among my collection of rocks are some pieces of petrified wood that I inherited from my dad.
A week ago, Bill and I took a trip to awe-inspiring Sedona, Arizona. For me it was a kind of pilgrimage. There is something breath-taking about the tall and majestic red rock formations in the Sedona area. The red sandstone formations are not mountains. They are either buttes, mesas, or pinnacles formed over 300 million years ago by earth thrusts, sea changes and water erosion.
And then there is the sky. The searing blue sky against the rust stained rock faces, orange-dust pathways, white flowering yucca plants and brown mesquite branches is a water colorist’s dreamscape. Throw in a few puffy white clouds overhead and you can immediately see why it is one of the most photographed areas in the country. And, if you’ve seen my Facebook photos, you know that Bill and I were absolutely entranced.
When we hiked to the formation known as Cathedral Rock, which stretches upwards to 5,000 feet above sea level, we could not help but feel a profound spiritual connectedness to the heavens above and the earth below.
So, you might appreciate why I came to today’s lectionary readings of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven with a bit of reluctance. After experiencing and appreciating anew theologian Paul Tillich’s description of God as “the ground of our being” it was hard to shift my eyes heavenward. But here we are and as our gospel reading this morning proclaims,
Then [Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy….
For the disciples, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there was nowhere else for him to go to get back to God but up — up to the heavens above. So, Jesus ascended. Once the disciples knew that Jesus was back where he belonged in heaven they could go back to Jerusalem in peace and with great joy.
But I wonder, what if God is not confined to the heavens above but is also in the earth below? In other words, what if we think of God located both in the farthest heavens above and in the tiniest rock on the ground below?
Today’s Collect of the Day seems to find a way of resolving this split: Listen again, “… Jesus Christ ascended far above all the heavens … [AND] according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.” Yes, Jesus ascended but he still abides.
Peter Woods, a minister of the Methodist Church in South Africa, who has been very involved in inter-faith dialogue says that European missionaries were faced with this very theological conundrum when they first came to South Africa years and years ago.
According to Woods, missionaries discovered that indigenous people like the Zulu, Khosa, Sotso, Swana, and Ma-pondo (spelled for phonetic pronounciation), had quite a different belief about where God was located. They believed that “God” (who they named NU-KUL-UN-KOLA – translated as the Biggest One –) lived in the ground. Caves and holes were sacred spaces whose walls were adorned with lithographs.
Woods, also points out that the European missionaries were creed bound to teach that God lived in the sky, and also that there was a place called hell, deep in the earth, (which African cosmology had no reference, or need for). The way they did this “preaching” was to literally turn the psyche of Africans around from the God of the deep to the God of the sky, thus creating a deep tear in the soul of Africans.
The European missionaries did not come up with this on their own, however. They inherited a cosmology based on early, pre-biblical thinking. They viewed the earth as a flat disk standing on pillars in the midst of water. This water threatened the earth and was kept back at the shore and in the sky by a dome that held back chaos and destruction.
On a flat earth, it was easy to point to where God lived. God was up beyond the dome and in fact was partly the dome itself holding back the chaos that seemed so close in that early world devoid of simple scientific rationale.
And, for the writers of the gospels, who came with a middle-eastern cosmology to the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, re-assimilation into God made it easy to speak of Jesus having “ascended” back to God. Back beyond the dome.
I remember my grandson looking at a globe we have in our music room one day and asking who had decided that the North Pole should be on the top. “There is no up or down in space” was his insightful critique. What can I say, he’s so full of him-self. I have no idea where he gets this!
In third millennium cosmology, it’s challenging to speak of Jesus ascending. Where is up from a ball? Also, given what we now know about the size of the Universe, ascension gets us into all sorts of problems such as how far, how high, which galaxy? It can be a bit daunting.
So, let’s go back to the African notion of the abode of God in the earth below. I’d like to do this not to reject the notion of God’s being located in the heavens above but simply to expand our thinking and perhaps even offer a corrective path away from the tendency to detach from and then more easily desecrate the earth.
What if indigenous South Africans were correct and Jesus came from God who lives in the earth? He would then have descended on this feast day, back into the earth from which he came. I wonder how that simple change of orientation would have changed our theology and maybe even world history?
Woods asks the intriguing question, “What if these South Africans had sent missionaries with this message to Europe and her Industrialized siblings instead of the other way around?” Would the earth be groaning as she is now? Would we have raped and pillaged the abode of God as we have, all the while believing that God was “up there” blessing our “taming and subduing” of our island home in space?
I’m going to go out on a heretical limb here. Perhaps, it is time that we examine the cosmological, philosophical and theological assumptions that have contributed to the notion that humanity has the right if not the mandate to subdue and exploit the earth.
It is well past time that we let go of the naïve and dangerous assumption that colonial thinking is superior to indigenous peoples’ thinking. The people from the African continent, as well as indigenous peoples on our own continent, had and have much to offer us regarding the sacredness of the earth and all its inhabitants.
So, I’d like to suggest that we approach the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus into the heavens above with our eyes wide open. While glorifying the heavens above our heads, let us not neglect to have reverence for the sacredness of the earth below our feet. May we remember that God is not confined to heaven or earth but is everywhere and that all of creation is sacred.
As Chief Seattle said in a treaty oration in 1854, “Humanity did not weave the web of life – we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”
Let us pray:
O God of earth and sky,
as Jesus came to Bethlehem to be with us on earth,
so today we recall his departing from us at Jerusalem to be in all places.
Though he is hidden from our sight,
enable us to abide in him by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit,
until his mercy and grace fill your whole creation —
both heaven and earth — and repair the tear in our collective soul. Amen.
May the sun bring you new energy by day,
may the moon softly restore you by night,
may the rain wash away your worries,
may the breeze blow new strength into your being,
may you walk gently through the world and
know its beauty all the days of your life.
And, the blessing of God
Creator, Sustainer and Giver of Life
be with you this day and always.