The Rev. Melanie McCarley
I’ll grant you that the Ascension of our Lord, which we observe today, doesn’t garner the attention of Pentecost (which, by the way, is next week!). However, it is a pivotal moment in the gospel story. Without the Ascension (the leave-taking of Jesus which we heard about in the Book of Acts this morning), there is no Pentecost. Truth is, it’s all too easy to get caught up in a debate about the archaic world view present in the text, based on an idea that Heaven is a place above us in the clouds. So, rather than getting caught up in that—let’s see this story as a reminder that there is a very real separation between God and ourselves. The language (and visual representation of the ascension) reminds us that God lies well beyond our control. We can’t manipulate God, but God can and will empower us, through the Holy Spirit, to carry the Good News to the ends of the earth. What’s more, this is a story about how leaving can be a blessing.
So, how are we to go about understanding such an other-worldly experience? One of the best explanations I have come across (or, at any rate, one of the most fun), is by Matthew Moritz who saw a correlation between the ascension of Jesus—and that beloved movie and character from our childhood. None other than Mary Poppins—not the written story so much as the 1964 movie version starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.
Recall, if you will, the sorry state of the Banks Family on Cherry Tree Lane, wealthy in terms of income, but bereft of spirit. There are Jane and Michael Banks, children who want nothing more than the attention of their parents and are bent on tormenting any nanny foolish enough to enter the premises. Then there comes the day of a stiff East Wind upon which Mary Poppins descends, umbrella and carpet bag in hand.
Mary Poppins, it seems, can perform great feats of power. And, while what she does isn’t quite walking on water—in the eyes of the children, it might as well be. What’s more, she introduces Jane and Michael to remarkable characters they would never have met. There is Bert (played by Dick Van Dyke), a man who holds a variety of positions, all of them on the lowest rung of society—hardly the sort of person with whom the well-off Banks family would associate in normal times. Along with Bert, she introduces the children to other characters who are clearly not in step with the solidly upper-middle class Banks ethos. In other words, throughout the movie, it becomes clear, Mary Poppins hasn’t come into the Banks’s lives just for fun—she is also there to broaden the perspective of the Banks children. She widens their world-view. She teaches them empathy and gratitude.
In one poignant scene, Mary Poppins holds a snowglobe of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and sings the song: “Feed the Birds: Tuppence a Bag”. It’s about an elderly, impoverished woman who sits on the steps of the cathedral selling small bags of crumbs for people to feed the birds. But look closely, this woman is not a beggar, she’s a vessel for new life, feeding the birds. Two pennies—what better way to spend it? And this sets the scene for what happens next.
The children see this remarkable act of generosity for what it is and visit the bank where Mr. Banks works. The bankers sing a song about the importance of having money make more money, but for Jane and Michael, this power pales in comparison with the deeper power for money to feed, bless and be generous with others. This results in a public scene and a movement which spreads like wildfire. The wheels of the great British economy ground to a halt and, (really, we shouldn’t be surprised at this), Mr. Banks is blamed for the situation, and loses his job.
In an instant he becomes no better than Bert, and behold, from the underside of life, he sees things anew. Mr. Banks discovers joy. He values his family like never before.
Which is, of course, precisely why Mary Poppins has to leave. At this point, she would be a distraction from the family—who were finally learning how to be a family.
And this is what brings us to the Ascension. You see, the departure of Jesus which we observe today, made space for us to be the body of Christ in the world—to live into what it means to be the Family of God. Christ’s leaving was a blessing (though, I suspect that perhaps the disciples didn’t think of it this way at the time). If you will, consider the Ascension to be a vote of divine confidence in the ability of the disciples to move into the future, a future filled with the grace of God.
It seems to me that we are living into our own Mary Poppins moment in the world. Things are topsy-turvy. The known has suddenly become unfamiliar and the standard ways of doing business have changed. COVID-19 has thrown us a curve-ball. How shall we respond?
Taking a cue from the Disciples following the Ascension, and Mary Poppins, perhaps we can move most gracefully through this time by being the Family of God. Like the apostles, following the Ascension, we are in our own period of waiting. We don’t know precisely what the future will bring—but we do know this—we know that we shall have a hand in making that future what it will be. What’s more, we carry with us the assurance that God, in the form of the Holy Spirit, will be with us.
I wonder, what the apostles thought as they witnessed the departure of their Lord. The Gospel tells us they stand there—looking up into heaven, until two men in white robes say to them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven...” In other words, “Get on with the business of being disciples.” And they returned to Jerusalem.
But these men and women, they weren’t bereft, and they weren’t sitting around in a funk, twiddling their thumbs: they were praying, and waiting. They knew a future was coming—and they wanted to be prepared for when it arrived.
I don’t see us much differently. Here at St. Paul’s we’re actively preparing for the return of in-person worship on July 5th. It will be different, that’s for certain—and it will come with a variety of challenges we wouldn’t have imagined a few months previously—but I am confident that we will be ready. Like the disciples who lived in that in-between time, we are waiting, we are praying, and we are actively preparing. And, like the disciples, we too are a family, a community of faith, that has been blessed with the grace of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Our task is to live into the calling to be the Family of God, to share the grace we have received with others and to do so with the knowledge, confidence and joy that we, indeed, are guided by the Holy Spirit of God. In the name of our risen Savior. Alleluia! Amen.