Rider of the Clouds
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
Before Pentecost arrives next Sunday and we say goodbye to the Easter season, we would be wise to celebrate a holiday that most skip on the church calendar – Ascension Day. This holiday is tucked far away from most everyone’s sight. It falls on a Thursday, this past Thursday to be specific. To the best of my knowledge, no one gives Ascension Day presents or has the family over for an Ascension Day meal or belts out Ascension Day songs. This holiday is so obscure that you cannot even shop for it on Amazon Prime.
Arriving forty days after Easter Sunday, Ascension Day or the Feast of the Ascension is the church’s annual attempt to celebrate “he ascended into heaven,” to announce that God’s work of redemption is complete. To make Ascension Day even more of a non-event, Psalm 68 is the appointed psalm for this so-called holiday. Now, Psalm 68 is not on the favorite list for most readers of the Psalms. Replete with cosmic and bizarre and military images, it is almost as embarrassing to stand up and read this psalm in worship as it is to sit here and celebrate an up, up, and away church holiday.
Maybe, then, today is the day for a really short sermon – call it a “holiday meditation.” We can sing an extra hymn or two, pronounce the benediction early, and get on with the day. Sadly, for you at least, I happen to love Ascension Day and I think Psalm 68 should be pulled out of the church’s recycling bin.
The God we meet in Psalm 68 is the same God we encounter on Ascension Day. This God is not a timid, impotent god, not a frightened god who hides in the clouds. Early in Psalm 68, we are asked to: “Sing to God, play music to God’s name, build a road for the Rider of the Clouds, rejoice in Yahweh, dance before God. Father of orphans, defender of widows, such is God in God’s holy dwelling.” “Sing to God,” writes the psalmist, “build a road for the Rider of the Clouds.” These are fighting words, because in the popular theology of the day – Canaanite theology – Ba’al, not the Lord God of Israel, was the cloud rider, the god in charge of the world.
Ascension Sunday features the image of “Rider of the Clouds,” hardly a serene image that we conjure up while gazing skyward on a lazy late spring day. It is a military metaphor for a God who will not be defeated by the most advanced arsenal of evil – be it the gods of the Canaanites or the gods of our own devising.
In Psalm 68, we meet a God who fights but not in the way you and I have been trained to fight, our God fights non-violently, even from the cross, and urges us to work against evil, and in the face of evil to pray, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In the view of the world from the cross and from the eyes of the Rider of the Clouds, our God does not sit passively on high and watch with sympathy or delight in the machinations of the human comedy.
Maya Angelou closes her powerful poem, “My Guilt,” with this line, “My sin lies in not screaming loud” (The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou, p. 45). The psalmist commits no such sin. He screams in holy rage in the name and for the sake of the Rider of the Clouds who notices things that others miss, who sees people that others pass by. That is why the church cannot afford to consign Ascension Day to liturgical obscurity, to leap frog over it from Easter to Pentecost.
Much ink is being spilt about the decline of the church today. New books come out each month telling pastors and congregations how to turn this trend around. They describe how to be an “Emergent” church, how to do “contemporary” worship, how to “brand” our share of the church marketplace. I have read more than a few of these books and find them like Chinese food, I am hungry for something more substantial an hour later.
What I am waiting for is an Ascension Day book that will speak to the heart of the issue of why so many people I know yawn when the word “church” is mentioned or simply have no feelings about church whatsoever. While the Rider of the Cloud watches for us to act and listens for us to speak, we have grown lethargic and hoarse; we have forgotten how to scream loudly. It is not that we no longer fuss and fight. We fuss and fight plenty in the church, but most often it is a family feud about silly stuff that keeps us preoccupied with ourselves while the evil about us grows unchecked and the needs around us go unnoticed.
Psalm 68 knows nothing about such a timid, distracted, and
disengaged faith that yawns before a timid, distracted, and disengaged god. This psalm knows everything about God, the Rider of the Clouds, who is also the Parent of orphans and widows, the Guardian of the most vulnerable, the Sustainer of all who grieve, the One who wept first on Friday night when innocent women and men added to the growing list of gun violence in the land.
What if Ascension Sunday became our annual service to rededicate ourselves to “screaming loudly” in the name of and for the sake of the Rider of the Clouds, the Climber of the Cross, and the Ascender into Heaven? What if you and I were to begin every service of worship confessing the ways that we have been complicit in the abuse of the most vulnerable for whom God has given us charge?
Year ago, I walked up to our church’s night shelter in Atlanta and one of the guests started a standing ovation for me, saying, “He’s the one who makes it possible for us to be here.” His words were an undeserved and grace-filled compliment, but taken literally, they spoke a hard truth.
“God gives the lonely homes to live in,” says the psalmist in Psalm 68. In part, it is precisely because you and I are not “screaming loudly” enough at the local, state, and national level that too many of our sisters and brothers must live on the streets or under overpasses or in a shelter that we would not house our dogs.
What if we were to reclaim Ascension Sunday as our annual bookend to Easter Sunday with the cadences of Psalm 68 beating throughout the service? What if every pastor and every elder were ordained to live into the biblical image of a non-violent street fighter, to fight to the death nonviolently rather than remain silent before the evil around us and within us? What if Ascension Sunday were our annual wake-up call to a God who will not be reduced to irrelevance or ignored when putting a lasting claim on our lives?
Maybe then, on Pentecost, the Spirit of the Living God, the Rider of the Clouds, the Ascender of the Cross would find us ready, really ready, to receive the fresh, life-transforming breath of God.
So, may I be the first to wish you all a Blessed Ascension Sunday!