Our Expansive Ascensions

On Jan 6, 2021, Jenny Cudd, posted a video to Facebook while at the capital on Jan. 6, Cudd, draped in MAGA gear, said: “We were founded as a Christian country. And we see how far we have come from that. … We are a godly country, and we are founded on godly principles. And if we do not have our country, nothing else matters.” She said, “To me, God and country are tied — to me they’re one and the same.”

Cudd was later tried and convicted for her actions at the Capitol.

There are many narratives that guide each of our lives.

We have stories that we tell as a church community that shape us.

We have stories about the origins of our Faith.

Origins of our families. Origins of our Country.

These histories tell us who we were, and they help guide us towards what we become.

We Mennonites tell the story of persecution in Europe, and the immigration to the United States. We talk about the opportunities for the Swiss Anabaptist to settle in this region.

Obviously, There are larger narratives than just the Mennonites that are told here in the United States.

Narratives that include things like – Our founding “fathers” of the United States were Christian Men, with Christian Values. Narratives like this get woven into this idea that we live in a “Christian Nation.” – with the ten commandments in our court houses. This narrative, like Jenny Cudds, is one that is quite common within American Christianity. In Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry’s book “The Flag and the Cross,” they name this narrative and how these narratives are then lived out, White Christian Nationalism.

Nationalism – meaning identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations. Nationalism, they write, is loyalty to one’s tribe that is always at the expense of an outgroup who are deemed, like in the context of the US, “unamerican.”

This, being different from patriotism. Gorski and Perry write that Patriotism is “loyalty to one’s constitution or political regime.”

Nationalism often disguises itself like patriotism. Gorski and Perry write that “ Because it is difficult to convince people to pursue a course of aggression, violence, and domination, nationalist pretend their aims are instead protection and unity, and that their motivation is patriotism. Gorski and Perry believe that this is a lie and that patriotism is animated by love, and nationalism by hatred.

While I am not quite sure about either of them being intertwined in my faith tradition, you can see the difference here between an American flag in a Methodist church and believing that violence towards someone who doesn’t have your skin-color or religion, or nationality, is justifiable for the sake of your country.

So – Why talk about White Christian Nationalism today – what does this have to do with the scripture we heard today.

This morning’s scripture kicks off the book of Acts – a part 2 of the Gospel of Luke. At the end of Luke, after Jesus dies and is resurrected, Jesus then ascends to the heavens. The book of Acts opens, describing the moment of Jesus’ ascension a bit more, including some dialog from the disciples.

Just before Jesus ascends, the disciples say to Jesus in Act chapter 1:6 – “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Willie James Jennings in his Act’s commentary writes that this is a tragic question – AND an understandable one. Jesus had just resurrected – just beat death and overcame violence, shouldn’t that make Jesus a super weapon against the empire, so that their dream of a restored Israel is possible.

Jennings claims that this is a nationalist question. The disciples want to know if they will rule their own land once again, when they can be self determining, when they can be the folks with their super weapon Jesus, able to impose their will on the world. You see at the time, the Roman empire was over all of Israel and Judah. Wouldn’t it be great if Super weapon Jesus could take care of all of that. Wipe out their oppressors. Couldn’t a death defying God do this?

Like all nationalist dreams, the disciples think this would be good for the world. This is not a unique dream. And this is a similar dream that people hold today, and it is held all over the world. Jennings writes that

So, is it just the flag waving, bible thumping capital coupers that are intertwined with white Christian nationalism?

In the United States, the Mennonite Church is a predominately white institution and is Christian.

How sure are we that we do not have this white Christian nationalistic impulse. We might think that progressive Mennonites are immune to such things. But are we?

Ben Goosen, in his book, Chosen Nation, writes about how in Germany during WWII it was the progressive Mennonites that identified themselves with the White, German, Nationalist cause. The German Mennonite was even seen as an ideal in the Nazi fantasy.

It was the progressive German Mennonites who wanted to build institutions of power within Germany, that fell into the trap of White Christian Nationalism. The ones that were excelling in academia, and were gaining power. The ones that I can relate to in their social location, who were building churches like this in Germany.

It wasn’t the rural, uneducated Mennonites in Germany that aligned with Nazi Germany.

A question that I am asking myself while writing this sermon, is how have we as a church dabbled in Nationalism. An impulse that is at least as ancient as this moment where the disciples fantasize about Jesus restoring what once was. Goosen even argues that this German-Mennonite-ideology spread to white Mennonites, who have a Swiss German heritage, all around the world.

How do our Anabaptist Heritage tours through Europe, something that I have done myself and have loved, dabble in white nationalism, as American white Swiss German Mennonites focus on their origins and unconsciously create a fantasy of a Mennonite diaspora from the motherland.

I am assuming that those of you who do not have these roots, probably grow weary of the Mennonite game, a game that traces connections back to this fantastical motherland.

I am not saying that it is all bad, I am just trying to reflect on this in my own life.

Part of what is important to combat Christian Nationalism, is an understanding of the World that is not nation centric. Not Swiss centric, not German-cetric, not American-centric. I am not calling for the dissolution of the United States, but an understanding of our faith tradition rejects an hierarchy of race, religion, and nation.

When Jesus Ascended, in verse 8 he said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The holy spirit is not just for Jerusalem. Its not just a superpower for reclaiming a national identity. It is to spread to the ends of the earth. The spirit is not just for the Swiss or the Jew.

I imagine fantastically, Jesus ascending into the sky, and seeing more and more land mass as he went up. Slowly he can see whole countries, then continents, then the hemisphere. Then perhaps the whole planet.

I imagine eventually getting to the spot where the spacecraft Voyager 1 on 14 February 1990 departed our planetary neighborhood for the fringes of the solar system. I Imagine Jesus, just like the spacecraft, turning around for one last peak at his home planet from 4 billion miles away. Earth as a pale blue dot.

The image Voyager 1 took is on the cover of your bulletins.

Scientist Carl Sagan wrote about this image that the Voyager 1 took. Perhaps many of you have heard his thoughts on this image before, and perhaps they have become a bit trite, but I’d read them now because I think he is getting at what Jesus might be getting at.

Perhaps we can make this a spiritual practice for the morning. I invite you to pull out your bulletin and look at the cover – the image of Earth, the pale blue dot, as I read Sagan’s words.

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturing, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

-end quote

Perhaps as Jesus ascends, he sees something bigger – bigger than perhaps even this pale blue dot that we live on. He is sending the holy spirit – the spirit of Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness – to be spread to the end of the earth – across the pale blue dot. Not in some colonizing fever, eliminating different languages, traditions, and cultures that has been the historical practice of white Christian Nationalism. But in a spiritual transformation towards Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.

For example, next week we will be celebrating Pentecost. The Day on the Christian Calendar where we remember the holy spirit spreading, making people speak many languages. It was a moment of diversifying, quite like the story of the Tower of Babel. The holy spirit does not inhabit a monolithic people, she has inhabited many languages, many skin tones, many sexualities, many genders, many faith traditions. Once we begin thinking that we have it right and that others have it wrong, we begin to embody the spirit of nationalism.

Theologian Carter Hayward in her book “the 7 deadly Sins of White Christian Nationalism,” writes about the necessity of embodying humility as a way of combating white Christian Nationalism. She writes that we must work towards knowing our place in creation, which is neither better or worse than the rest of humankind. This kind of humility values and celebrates people that are different than you.

As evident of Jesus’ vision for the holy spirit, Christian Nationalism is a deeply spiritual issue. It is deeply spiritual in that it informs who we open our hearts up to, and who we close them to.

It is tough to open your heart to others – especially those who you might feel like are taking what you deserve.

This year – we have been focusing on issues of injustice. So far, we have had Sunday’s dedicated to reflecting on the need to work for justice for those marginalized because of race, ability, sex, and in June, being pride month, we will be looking at sexuality. These are not just issues of injustice, but deeply spiritual issues. They are spiritual because it takes incredible resilience to face ongoing discrimination. It is deeply spiritual because of the need for resilience to work up against systems that continue to oppress. They are also spiritual for those who do not face marginalization because one does not learn to open their heart to the experiences of others without a spiritual transformation. The very spiritual transformation that Jesus is asking of the disciples when he tells them to spread the spirit, and not focus on the restoration of their nation.

I have been encouraged by our congregation’s decision to participate in WelcomeCorp as the broader Bluffton community looks to welcome refugees into our town. This is about as anti-white -Christian-nationalistic as it gets – inviting folks from different countries, different races, different religious traditions to come and be our neighbors. That is a great step one.

However, what will it be like for the refugees to experience a small town that is predominantly white and Christian? What do we need to be aware of as American Christians in a predominantly white community as we seek to serve the refugees. As a broader Bluffton community, are we willing to change and accommodate and hopefully celebrate these folks in the Bluffton community as different religions and languages are present here.

Jesus’ ascension was not an act of closing boarders, closing hearts, and taking power. It was an expansive ascension, opening the eyes of the disciples to the need for the spirit to spread. The spirit prefers no nation, race, religion, but it opens us to the other. May we like Christ, have our heart’s ascend, higher and higher to be able to see more than just our little corner, expanding our capacity beyond borders and beyond our own tribes. May love spread across this pale blue dot.


May we like Christ, have our heart’s ascend and see more than just our little corner, expanding our capacity beyond borders, beyond our own tribes. May love spread across this pale blue dot.