Practically Perfect in Every Way

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Donna Ialongo

Preached on: May 28th, 2017



No recording

Scripture Text:

Acts 1:1-11


We preachers all have our routines when we prepare a sermon. I read the passages from the lectionary for the day, usually several times, and I wait for a story, or perhaps just a verse, to catch my attention. At that point, I usually ask the Holy Spirit to help me out, to help me discover how to present the Scripture so that God can come between what I have to say and what you hear. And I pray that you will hear what you need to hear.

I also read commentaries by scholars to help me understand the historical and theological contexts of the passage. Some of those commentaries are in books; some are online. Working Preacher is one of my favorite websites. And, I also use a website called where I can do all sorts of things: read other people’s sermons, look at how artists have depicted the story, or discover if people have seen a relationship between the Scripture for that day and a movie. So, I did all that for today’s sermon.

The story of the Ascension in the Acts of the Apostles is so familiar, I wondered if the textweek website could help me look at in a new way. And sure enough, it did. It suggested that there was a connection between the Ascension and the movie Mary Poppins.

I imagine many of you have seen the film, which was released in 1964 — 53 years ago! If you haven’t, it’s based on several very popular children’s books about an English nanny in the late 19th century who is “practically perfect in every way.” She arrives at the household of Mr. and Mrs. Banks and their two not-so-well-behaved children, Jane and Michael. Using her own brand of magic and plenty of common sense, Mary not only straightens out the children; she also makes sure their parents get their priorities in line.

This is the point where you’re asking yourself, “What in the world does that film have to do with the Ascension?”

Well, in the last scene in the movie, after Mary Poppins has helped everyone get in right relationship with one another (in fact, the family is going off to fly a kite together), Mary opens her big, black umbrella and the wind catches it and lifts her quickly into the air. On the ground, her friend Bert (an artist-musician-dancing chimney sweep), looks up, winks at her, and says, “Good-bye, Mary Poppins. Don’t stay gone too long.”

Well, I thought, that is interesting; her exit is a kind of ascension. And then, because I love to make connections between popular culture and Scripture, I started to notice some other ways in which Mary Poppins’ story echoes that of Jesus.

And I don’t mean to push this too far. It’s just an example of how we may look at all sorts of ordinary things in our lives and think about them theologically — how we may learn to see God’s presence in our lives Monday through Saturday as well as on Sunday.

So, back to Mary Poppins. Like Jesus, Mary is confident in her view of the world and her mission in it. She knows who she is and makes no apologies. Mary, like Jesus, recognizes that being in right relationship with others is very hard work, and that it is also of excruciating importance. Mary is likewise direct and unequivocal about where people’s priorities should be if they truly wish to have love in their lives. At the same time, like Jesus, Mary loves and serves all those she meets. And she is also misunderstood and actively opposed just as Jesus was.

About three Christmases ago, a movie was released about the making of that 1964 Mary Poppins movie. It was called Saving Mr. Banks. The title refers to the intent of P. L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books. While Mary Poppins was in production 53 years ago, Travers demanded that the people at Disney Studios (and especially Walt) accept that the story was not just about getting unruly children to behave. Mary, in P. L. Travers’ mind, had actually come to the Banks household to save the father, to help him see that his life was out of kilter, that his messed up priorities were causing him to ignore his children and miss out on the joy of being part of their young lives.

So, Mary is a kind of savior, working miracles that, like those of Jesus, are physical and down-to-earth but also are miracles that feed the soul.

Jesus, of course, is all of this and so much more. As he stood with his disciples that last day, he was the risen Lord with full knowledge of who he was and what was to be. He was, is, and will be the risen Cosmic Christ.

And, even after his death and resurrection, even after all he had carefully taught the disciples, they still didn’t understand him that day. They asked if it was finally time for the kingdom to be restored to Israel.

Before the Resurrection, those kinds of questions must have frustrated Jesus. But on this Ascension Day, I think he must have felt only patience and love. On this day, he knew what these disciples all would face as, one by one, they responded to his call, as each went out all over the world to baptize in the name of the Holy Spirit — to baptize in “Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth.”

The disciples were frightened that day, but Jesus knew that the Spirit would give them courage – and wisdom and understanding and counsel and fortitude and knowledge and piety and fear of the Lord.

And then he left them. Left them in a place where they could do nothing but trust that all would be well.

Those next ten days must have been very difficult. They had been told to expect the Holy Spirit, but what did they imagine the coming of the Spirit would be? I really doubt they had any idea how much the Spirit would change their lives.

So, they stood there that Ascension Day after Jesus had left them. They stood there looking up toward heaven. And two men in white robes, essentially said to them, “Stop gawking. “We’re done here. Move along. Get back to Jerusalem. There’s work to be done.”

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