May 29, 2022

Ascension Worship


May 29 was the Sunday when we celebrate Christ's Ascension. Our hymns were Crown Him with Many Crowns and Alleluia! Sing to Jesus. The sermon was entitled Stardust, and spoke of Jesus' Ascension using Joni Mitchell's anthem Stardust as its main illustration. A video of this worship service is found below (click on "read more"). At the end of the video, please look at photos of our old flag being lowered and a new flag being presented for Memorial Day. Beneath the video, there's a transcript of today's sermon. 

Stardust

Introduction: 1969

I came upon a child of God—
he was walking along the road.
And I asked him,
'Where are you going?
This he told me:
I’m going down to Yasgur's Farm;
gonna join in a rock and roll band.
Got to get back to the land
and set my soul free. [1]

Almost 53 years ago, Joni Mitchell was planning to perform at an obscure music and arts festival in Upstate New York. But her agent convinced her that it would help her career if she appeared on The Dick Cavett Show instead. And so that's what she did. The festival, of course, was named Woodstock. And they say that she wept when she saw the reports on television of what it was that she’d missed. Her boyfriend, Graham Nash, was there, and he told her all about it. So she sat down and wrote a song, and named it Woodstock after the event she wished she’d gone to. This song has been acclaimed by one 21st century author as “the most popular and influential poem written in English” in the past forty years. [2]

We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
and we got to get ourselves back to the garden. [1]

I. The Entrails of Each Star

I look forward to singing Crown Him with Many Crowns every year on the day we celebrate Jesus’ Ascension into heaven. But it’s Joni Mitchell’s anthem, Woodstock, that I really relate to on this holiday. I know I’ve used it as an Ascension sermon illustration before, but it’s the best way I know to get across my Ascension theology.

There’s sort of a seamless story that’s told during the forty days of Lent and the Great Fifty Days of Easter—a story that’s about life and death, and then life again. It begins with ashes on our foreheads, and the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Did you know that the Hebrew word for dust (or soil) is adam? It’s no coïncidence that, according to Genesis, this was the name of the first man God created, for in our creation story, he was created out of the earth. And when he died, it was to the earth he returned. He went, as we say, the way of all flesh.

Except, the resurrection seemed to imply that that saying didn’t apply to Jesus. That is, not until forty days after he rose from the dead. On that day, we’re told that he ascended into the heavens, showing us that when Jesus returned to the dust, it was not to the dust of the earth, but to stardust.

II. Cosmic Canticle

This isn’t really as supernatural as we think, though. Twenty years after Woodstock, a Nicaraguan priest named Ernesto Cardenal said this in his Cosmic Canticle:

What's in a star but we ourselves?
All the elements of our bodies and of the planet
were in the entrails of each star.
We are stardust. [3]

This wouldn’t have been understood in the same light two thousand years ago as it is today. But what seemed impossible back then is now scientific fact. The stars in the heavens are not such foreign bodies to us after all. These stars, which are farther away than could be imagined by our ancestors, are nevertheless close at hand. So much extraterrestrial material has fallen to earth that perhaps even the ground we tread is extraterrestrial. [3] Our planet is made of the same elements as the sun and the moon and the stars. The dust of the earth from which we are made is the same as the dust of the heavens to which we will one day return.

This sheds a whole new light on the main proclamation of Jesus, that “the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” I suppose we’ve always assumed it was just a figure of speech. But I suppose we could also take it literally, for the invisible dust coating our palms is composed of elements that are all found in the stars. The kingdom of heaven is not just at hand, but in our hands. For, as Jesus showed us in his Ascension, there’s a bit of heaven in each of us. “We are stardust,” the song says, “we are golden...”

Well, then can I walk beside you?
I have come to lose the smog,
and I feel like I'm a cog in something turning.
And maybe it's the time of year,
yes and maybe it's the time of man [sic].
And I don't know who I am,
but life is for learning. [1]

III. Shine Like Stars

Every generation faces challenges, and in every age there are those who thoughtlessly live their lives as though nothing ever has changed and nothing ever can change. But in the middle of history came One who taught us—as Paul said in Phillipians—that…

In the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, we can shine like stars in the world.
—Philippians 2:15

But life, as Joni Mitchell reminds us, is for learning. On the day Jesus ascended into heaven, his followers learned something. They had an epiphany—a heavenly message that they were not simply to stand around looking up at the stars [see Acts 1:11], longing for him to come back. It was their responsibility to share his message with a generation that needed to hear it. And the message was that God’s Realm was at hand… heaven was literally in our hands. The prayer, Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, was coming true in each of us.

We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
and we got to get ourselves back to the garden.
[1]

What is now called the Woodstock Generation also had an epiphany—a realization that humanity had gone too far down the wrong path, and that somehow we had “to get ourselves back to the garden.” Joni Mitchell’s song was a deep longing and also a call for action. As Christians, I hope we can relate, for these are feelings we express every Sunday. We must come together to pray for a better day—and not just to pray, but to join hands and work for a new day. When we come together, there is nothing we can’t accomplish, for when at the end of worship this morning, we “reach out to others so all the world can see,” we hold in our hands the entrails of a star, extraterrestrial material fallen to earth billions of years ago.

Each of us is an invitation to look at those we know we love, at those we’re told to hate, and, yes, even in the mirror, remembering that we are dust. Yet the dust of the Ascension is the dust of the earth and the heavens. The message of the Ascension is that Christ has “ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God… from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” That’s the tradition. But it’s no less true that the message of the Ascension is that heaven and earth are of a piece, and that all lives are intertwined.

Conclusion: We Leave No Footprints

In my own mind I can draw a line from Christ’s ascension to Woodstock, to Ernesto Cardenal’s Cosmic Canticle, to a song written by another Spanish-speaking poet—this one a Jewish physician from Uruguay. Perhaps Jorge Drexler's song Stardust is the most beautiful of all:

One life is worth the life of a sun.
It’s learned in the cradle, it’s learned in bed,
it’s learned at the hospital door.
It’s learned suddenly, it’s learned gradually,
and sometimes it’s not learned until the end:
All glory is nothing; all life is sacred…
We’ll leave no footprints, only stardust. [4]

It’s hard to see stardust beneath the smoke rising from the bombs falling on Ukrainian children. It’s hard to find the stardust on the floor of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. For 2000 years Christianity has taught about peace and radical love. But I guess we’re just not saying it loud enough—or maybe not sincerely enough. It’s not just preachers—songwriters and poets have been saying it, too. And Jesus said it the most eloquently of all. And he showed how to get back to the garden; he taught us the path to peace and the way of love. On the cross, he showed us that one life is worth infinitely more than that of the sun, for he valued each life as being worth the life of the One who made the sun and the stars by shedding divine blood.

Our bodies of dust were once shared by the One who was present at the beginning of all things. And because he shared our life and death, we know that in his resurrection and ascension we can "shine like stars in the world,” for we really are stardust.
—©2022 Sam L. Greening, Jr.

NOTES
  1. Joni Mitchell, Woodstock, from the Ladies of the Canyon LP (A&M, 1970) 
  2. Camille Paglia, Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads 43 of the World’s Best Poems (New York: Pantheon, 2005) 
  3. Ernesto Cardenal, Cántico Cósmico, Antología Nueva (Madrid: Trotta, 1996). 
  4. Jorge Drexler, Polvo de Estrellas, from the LP Eco (DRO 2004). This song was inspired by the aforementioned canticle by Ernesto Cardenal.