Sunday, May 24, 2009

Leaving Muddy Footprints

May 24, 2009
Ascension Sunday
Taken Up
Luke 24:44-53

Parents, try to remember the emotion. Others of you who are not parents can imagine it fairly easily, I would think. Your first child has come into your life. It’s been a day and a half and the hospital has carefully packed your room. You’ve nestled the baby in the car seat for the first time, with one of you actually sitting in the back seat on the drive home. And here you are, the baby carefully lying on a blanket on your bed in your home. You look at the baby’s intricate little self. Likely aloud, you say to one another, “Now what do we do?”

This little life is your responsibility. There is no longer a nurse to bathe the baby. Every diaper is yours now. Midnight feedings will be done by you. It is completely up to you.
Remember that feeling? It’s almost like the whole world has vanished. There you three are all alone. “Now what do we do?”

It’s a similar emotion the disciples feel in our lesson today. While it doesn’t say it in the text, I think the emotion is implied. Jesus has risen from the dead. There have been many appearances of Jesus. They have enjoyed 40 days of the Risen Jesus walking around. They’ve been given a little pep talk of sorts. “You are my witnesses of these things” Jesus tells them. He even promises them a special gift for the task, an innate something that will empower them. And he has even blessed them.

Then, he’s taken up. Luke says he “was carried into heaven.” The book of Acts has a cloud doing the work of “taking up.” I imagine that the disciples stood there for a moment. The book of Acts says they were “gazing up toward Heaven.” They are staring off into a distance. Maybe they are even saying aloud to one another “Now what do we do?”

They are entrusted with the precious life of the gospel. There is no one else anymore. Jesus is no longer with them physically. It’s all up to them. You can imagine the emotion.

Barbara Lundblad, a preaching professor from Union Theological Seminary, tells of a picture of Jesus’ ascension that caught her eye. It was a black and white woodcut print, finely etched. In the picture Jesus is rising up while the disciples watch him disappear into the clouds. But if you look closely at the picture, not at the clouds, but look on the ground, you can see footprints on the earth. The artist has carefully etched Jesus’ footprints. Those footprints are down on the level where the disciples are standing. They are down where they are standing with their mouths open, down where the disciples are asking “Now what do we do?”

It makes you wonder what the artist was thinking when he or she etched those footprints into the picture. Maybe it’s just a strange detail without too much meaning. Perhaps the artist is imagining something about the text that isn’t in there at all. Or perhaps the artist is pressing the question from Acts: “Why are you staring off into heaven?” Maybe the artist wants us to notice the footprints instead of the cloud, to notice Jesus’ footprints here on earth. Maybe the artist wants us to stop staring up into heaven and start looking at the earth. Maybe the artist wants us to start noticing the footprints of Jesus, the muddy footprints of the one who walked the earth.

Jesus’ muddy footprints are all over the pages of the gospel. Can you see them?
Can you see his footprints as he walked along the shore, inviting this motley crew of disciples to his work? Can you see his footprints as he walked hand in hand with the outcasts? Can you see his footprints as he walked into the temple to correct ancient teachings? Can you see his footprints as he walked to get a drink from a woman the most despised race in his day? Can you see his footprints as he entered Jerusalem to give up his life? Can you see his footprints as he stumbled under the weight of the cross? And can you see his footprints leaving the empty tomb? Or walking on the road to Emmaus? Or entering the closed and fearful hideout of the disciples?

Jesus’ muddy footprints are all over the gospel. It is hard not to notice the muddy footprints, the very real presence of Jesus walking the earth.

Now Jesus is calling the disciples to the task of placing his footprints all over this world.
Repentance and forgiveness are to be preached in Jesus’ name and this precious gospel is to be proclaimed to all nations. “And, by the way,” Jesus says to the disciples, “You are witness to these things. And I am sending you. I am sending you to blanket the earth with my muddy footprints.”

But Jesus has been “taken up.” He is no longer standing among them. So the disciples stand, mouths wide open, staring off into a distance, as they mumble under their breaths to one another, “Now what do we do?”

That day in Bethany, before Jesus was “taken up,” he had promised them a power to get the job done, an innate, internal thing that would empower them in their foot-printing work. That power that would come to them soon enough, the power of the Holy Spirit.

Then Jesus blessed them. He lifted up his hands and blessed the disciples, this motley crew of unlikely, imperfect characters. He lifted his hands and blessed their footprints. He made holy the impact of their steps on earth. He made holy each footprint a disciple on earth makes, not only the “days after the resurrection” disciples we read about in the gospel, but also the “21st century disciples” gathered for worship today. Jesus blessed us and made holy the impact of our footprints.

Here is the theological truth of Ascension Sunday: Because there is no longer a physical body of Jesus, we are the embodiment of the risen Christ. Where there is no physical presence of Jesus anymore, we are that body on earth. It is our feet that will leave muddy footprints on earth. It is our feet that must walk the way of Jesus. It is our feet, our blessed and made holy feet. We are the embodiment of the one who left in the cloud. That is our call as disciples.

No matter where we walk, our steps are made holy by Jesus. Our task to embody Jesus is to make careful footprints on the earth, to walk tenderly and intentionally with our lives, to make each step count for the sake of the precious life of the gospel.

So how are we doing at making muddy Jesus footprints with our holy feet? Are we walking among the unlikely to invite a motley crew of disciples to Jesus’ work? Are we walking hand in hand with the outcasts? Do our footprints show up in the worship space? Do we make steps among races and genders that are despised? Are we stepping out to heal and make whole? Are we walking among the hungry and poor and oppressed to bring food and resources and freedom?

There’s a lot of talk lately about our carbon footprint. It is a question of the environmental impact of your life. Do you drive to work, or ride your bike? Do you recycle, or throw everything in the trash? We are encouraged to as faint a carbon footprint as possible.

Sometimes we get our muddy Jesus prints confused with our carbon footprints. We think the task is to walk lightly on the earth with the gospel, to make faint the footprint of our faith. We are discouraged by some from making an impressionable footprint, so as not to offend other faith traditions. It is best if we keep our faith to ourselves. Then no one will be offended or hurt or …. Impacted. We tend to walk so gingerly, that Jesus’ footprints have a hard time being noticed in our generation. Or we are so busy looking up that we aren’t making footprints? Are we so concerned with our “heavenward-ness” that we standing staring into the clouds and forget to look at or make footprints on earth?

One of those “Reader’s Digest” quips seems appropriate here…Jesus has no hands but your hands. Or, if you will, Jesus has not footprints on earth if you are not making them. We are the embodiment of Jesus, the Risen Christ, and our call is to be sure that our muddy Jesus footprint is significant.

May you walk firmly and intentionally with the love of Jesus, and may you make real the one who was “taken up” by your words, your actions, your footprint on the earth. Amen.

Rev. Becky Jo Thilges, Lead Pastor
Homestead UMC, Rochester, MN

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