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Sermon for Ascension Day, May 24, 2020: Turn around as one (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

“Turn around. Every now and then I get a little bit lonely [because I can’t feel you around]. Turn around. Every now and then I get a little bit tired of listening to the sound of my tears. Turn around. Every now and then I get a little bit nervous that the best of all the years have gone by. Turn around, [because] every now and then I fall apart.”[1]

Actually, it seems like every now and then all of humanity falls apart- and it feels like that’s what’s happening right now. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, for the last few months some of us have been trying to live differently –to eat in, to teach in, to worship in -to live in. And yet we still face the likelihood of more disease and financial instability. Worse, we are divided about how we should face these things and even how we are supposed to look at them. The question of what this pandemic means is particularly acute for Christians. This is evidenced by a recent survey that found that about two-thirds of Americans who believe in God think that our current problems are God’s way of telling human beings that we need to change the way we live.[2]

Feeling occasional discomfort with our lives is not unusual among human beings – but certain conditions seem to impress us with a more urgent need to change. The issues we are currently grappling with, especially how the Christian mandate to love others as we would be loved should be applied in this situation, gives us a chance to look at the way we have been living – and to wonder if we need to repent – to turn around.

Carlos was an inmate at the Vacaville correctional facility who had particularly good reasons for wanting to turn around – except that by the time he looked behind him all he could see were the bridges he had already burned. Carlos’ father ran out on his mother when Carlos was a baby and his mom was in and out of rehab for most of his life. But Carlos had one great thing going for him. He had a grandmother – a beloved abuela- who raised him in the absence of his parents, who took him to church, who gave him food and shelter and attention and, most of all, love. Abuela taught him right from wrong and good from bad and shared with him her great love of God. And then she died – and everything that Abuela had taught him died with her. Because Carlos could not believe in a God who would take away the only person that cared for him. Carlos would not believe in a God that caused a nice old lady to die alone on a cold hard floor. Carlos hated a God that said he loved you and then killed you.

So Carlos gave up trying to be good because it was easier to be bad. He got a new “family” who said that he mattered to them, that he was important, that they were his blood now. It was so much easier to live in a half-conscious state of intoxicated apathy than it was to think about how alone he felt. It was easier to do what he was told without thinking about the consequences.

So when he was arrested and his new “family” threw him under the bus and he was sent to jail -and when he had to detox in jail and fractured his skull banging his head against his cell door – he knew for sure it was too late to turn around -and he fell apart. He fell into darkness and helplessness and cried out for his Abuela. He cried out to be a child again, to lay in her arms, to have her make it right. But there are some things that can’t be turned around – and death is one of them.

Unless you are Jesus, the resurrected Christ. Jesus, who turned death itself around by descending from heaven to live a human life just like ours – and then carried that knowledge with him as he ascended again to be at one with God. Jesus, who Abuela loved. Jesus, who loves the human beings that killed him. But Carlos did not know how to believe in Abuela’s God anymore. He only knew how to believe in hatred and anger and fear.

Mike knew those feelings intimately. Rage and violence and death were his most faithful companions for many years. Mike had never met Abuela’s God, had never believed in any God, had never even believed in his own soul – until he finally committed a crime that even he despised, when he killed his own infant son in a drunken rage. But Mike didn’t know how to turn around either. Until one day a prison chaplain walked by his isolation cell and offered him a small book that said “The New Testament” on the cover – and Mike, who was bored, took it and began to read. He wasn’t quite sure what he was reading – he had only a vague understanding of Christianity – but he was drawn to this person Jesus, who seemed to know what anger and fear and pain and sadness and death felt like. He liked that Jesus could love people who did bad things, and he began to wonder if Jesus could even love him. So Mike kept reading – and then he began meeting with the chaplain – and then he began praying on his own. He prayed for forgiveness and mercy and grace. He prayed for a spirit to see God – and his faith grew. And as it grew, Mike began to believe that he had to tell other people about this God – about this Jesus who understood and forgave sins – about this Jesus, who had come down from heaven to be with them and then returned to heaven to wait for them. He needed to tell others what he had experienced for himself, what he had seen, what he knew. He had to tell people that you could turn around.

And so it was that when Carlos wandered into the community room of his prison block one night, he found Mike reading aloud words that Carlos hadn’t heard for a long time, words that his Abuela had sung to him as a boy. “Sing praises to God. Sing praises.” And Carlos was filled with rage. Who did this prisoner think he was, praying the same useless prayers as Abuela? And he began screaming at Mike to stop stop praying –stop lying –to admit that neither of their lives meant anything to anybody. And he ran toward Mike to grab the book out of his hands, to hit him until he stopped saying Abuela’s words – to stop making him cry. But when Carlos launched himself at Mike, Mike caught him and held him tight and whispered, “Peace brother. God told me to tell you my story – to tell you our story.” And he held Carlos while they both wept. When their tears dried up, Mike told Carlos what he had seen. He told Carlos what he knew. And he told it with a spirit of power and wisdom and revelation and joy. He told Carlos that God had never left him, that God had already forgiven him. He told him that God would always be with him – in this life and ever after – even when it seemed like God had turned his back to him. He told Carlos that he could turn around. And Carlos believed.

Just as we believe. Just as others can believe if we tell them what we have seen and what we know. The Holy Spirit rests on us and we have the ability and the responsibility to witness to that blessing. Change happens when we show ourselves and others that we can turn around – if only we will turn not away from one another but toward God. This is the revelation of the ascension of Jesus Christ – not only that he is divine and has risen, but that he remains with and in us – and will never turn away from us.

Turn around. Every now and then I know there’s nothing in the world that cannot be saved by our God. Turn around. Every now and then I know that Jesus shares our sorrow and our fears. Turn around – because God wants us now tonight, and we need God more than ever, and [I know] she’ll be holding us tight. Together we can start tonight. Forever’s going to start tonight. Amen.

[1]Jim Steinman (1983), “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

[2]Associated Press, (May 15, 2020), “Two-thirds of U.S. believers see COVID 19 as a message from God, poll finds,” quoted in The Guardian, Religion,

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