I remember one of my first days at the University of Oregon. We all crowded into Mac Court, home of the Duck’s Basketball Team—but we weren’t there to play or watch basketball, we were there to hear Poet Maya Angelou speak at our Commencement Address.
I don’t remember much of what she said, though I do remember the deep feeling that her words caused to welled up in my heart, a feeling of possibility, a feeling of fully leaving Wyoming behind and entering into a different world.
And I remember later reading a poem of hers written to an anonymous preacher.
And, in memory of her and as a way to think about today’s reading from the book of Acts, I would like to read that poem to you all:
Preacher, Don't Send Me
Preacher, don't send me
when I die
to some big ghetto
in the sky
where rats eat cats
of the leopard type
and Sunday brunch
is grits and tripe.
I've known those rats
I've seen them kill
and grits I've had
would make a hill,
or maybe a mountain,
so what I need
from you on Sunday
is a different creed.
Preacher, please don't
streets of gold
and milk for free.
I stopped all milk
at four years old
and once I'm dead
I won't need gold.
I'd call a place
where families are loyal
and strangers are nice,
where the music is jazz
and the season is fall.
Promise me that
or nothing at all.
she lifts up the false heavens that come so easy from the lips of preachers—of streets of gold and milk for free, images that, when overused or misused, are, to quote Johnny Cash, “so Heavenly Minded They’re No Earthly Good.”
She points us to the hell we sometimes find ourselves in, malnourished monotony and the grim and grimy reality of giant ghetto rats.
she anchors us in the heaven of small decent things—loyal family, the kindness of strangers, good music, and a favorite season.
What I want to talk to you about briefly today is witnessing to the world—witnessing to the world.
And to get at what I mean by witness and what I mean by world we’ll have to look at their opposites in today’s reading, a worldly kingdom and a heaven fixation.
Or to break it down a little more by borrowing from Maya Angelou,
I want to talk to you about the glitter of heaven and power,
and how the small things that give life meaning can speak and save in this gruff world.
Let us pray.
“Is it the time when you will restore the kingdom?”
How often we’ve heard such words.
In the wilderness Jesus is tempted by Satan, “just bow down to me and I’ll give you all the Kingdoms of this world.”
The crowd at one point seizes Jesus to crown him and make him king, and it is all he can do to escape from them.
Counterwise, he rides into Jerusalem on a decidedly non-regal Donkey and when asked by Pilate if he is a king, Jesus responded mysteriously, “It is you who say I am.”
In short, Jesus’ Kingdom is of a different type than all expect…
Yet here we are, with the disciples again grasping at a political kingdom,
and not laying hold of one.
Instead Jesus responds, “It’s not for you to know…” instead of a kingdom in this world Jesus offers them an opportunity—to witness to the ends of the earth about Jesus.
To tell the whole world that Jesus lived, died, and rose.
To tell them as well, of the strange enthronement, the strange kind of king, that Jesus is. He’s a king acquainted with sorrow—more than that, acquainted with our sorrow, yes, each and every one of ours.
Witness has nothing to do with the glitter of kingship and power.
Witness is a small thing, a weak thing, held together by no army or castle wall, instead an open hand, a simple story shared by word of mouth.
A weak small thing, but pure paradise,
like a loyal family or jazz, or anticipating fall—dying leaves and cool air—small weak things,
yet powerful, just in a different way.
So too telling that old old story of Jesus and his love.
And then almost immediately after Jesus tells the disciples to witness, to tell people of their experience of him—to go out to Jerusalem, and Judea, and Samaria, and to all the ends of the earth in the power of the Spirit and the strange weakness of witnessing…
Immediately after that comes one of my all-time favorite bible verses—Acts Chapter 1 verse 11.
These men in white, presumably the same ones we first meet at the tomb announcing Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday, wander up to these disciples all agape at the Ascension of Jesus, and ask, “Why y’all lookin’ up?”
These heavenly beings find the disciples’ heavenly-minded-ness to be out of place.
It’s like they’re following Maya Angelou’s lead, “gold and milk shimmer, but aren’t something to hold onto.”
Don’t look up, but instead look around you—look out—you’ve been empowered to preach to the ends of the earth… You have good news, look around you and see all those who need it.
Look to the crowded ghettos of Jerusalem,
To the squalor the Hellenist Widows will wallow in.
Look the giant prison rats in Philippi and Caesarea with Paul right in their eyes,
know clearly the hunger of all those people in Asia Minor yearning for the good news you know so well,
yes go even to Rome and to the end of the earth, eyes open to the conditions and situations of the people who Jesus’ Gospel has come to free.
Word and witness—clear eyed about the world around us, but empowered by the Spirit to act in small, sacred, and significant ways so that Christ may be known.
… That’s pure paradise.
Amen and Alleluia.