Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
Ascension Sunday – May 16, 2010
May our lives shine with the brightness of God’s grace, the warmth of Christ’s love, and the vitality of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Have you ever felt abandoned? I mean really abandoned—like you were all on your own, the only person in your world, deserted and isolated from the rest of humanity? Maybe the experience lasted only a few minutes—that sense of being utterly forsaken—the moments after the doctor gave you those test results or the boss explained the impact of “downsizing” on your position or the sting of those words from a partner who wants out of a relationship or the discovery that someone you love has betrayed you. Maybe it lasted much, much longer than minutes or even hours. That sense of abandonment may have haunted us for longer than we care to remember.
We all know that feeling we experience deep in the core of our gut, that fear that we will have to endure the loss of something or someone completely on our own—just left out in the cold in our pain. I’m sure that I don’t need to embellish this scenario. We’ve all had a least a glimpse of it at one time or other. Some of us may have lived there longer than we care to recall.
We are celebrating the Ascension of Jesus to heaven this morning, an event that occurred forty days after his Resurrection. We hear two accounts of the Ascension in the liturgy today—the first in the Acts reading and the second in the Gospel. The details are a bit sketchy, but we learn from the Scriptures that Jesus led his disciples out of the city as far as Bethany, where he blessed them and was “carried up into heaven.”
Ascension was the day that Jesus “cut the kids loose.” It was time for them to grow up, to stand on their own feet, and with help from the Holy Spirit—a gift he would send them soon after— they were to go out and preach the Good News that would change the world. This bodily ascension of Jesus was for the disciples yet another miraculous event and came with his promise of power from on high. Nevertheless, it had to feel like abandonment to these close friends of Jesus. What might have been going through their minds in those moments when they were dumbfounded by what they witnessed—their mouths agape as they stood gazing up to the sky?
In 1986, the entire world gazed at the sky with eager anticipation and with wonder and awe. The space shuttle, “Challenger” was scheduled to blast off from its launching site in Cape Canaveral. As the countdown began, students in every classroom in the United States were glued to the TV. This was a truly historical event because for the first time, an ordinary person –a teacher, wife, and mother of two was going into space.
The countdown completed, the space shuttle left its launching pad—and before we could count down from ten again, the shuttle and everything in it—vanished into thin air. We were left looking up at the sky with great horror—and a pall of deep sadness descended over our entire nation. In the days and weeks following, we watched this tragedy unfold before us hundreds of times as this tragic event was replayed on national television. And family and friends of the crew were left behind to mourn. Children lost parents, spouses lost spouses, students lost their teacher—real abandonment.
What made that experience for the disciples on Ascension Day, what made our experience on the day that Challenger ascended and disappeared before our very eyes different from the individual experiences I described—the dreadful times in our lives when we felt so alone and forsaken? I believe the difference is that, for both the disciples on the day of Jesus’ Ascension and for the entire nation in 1986, our sense of loss and abandonment was not experienced in isolation but rather in community.
Like after the assassination of a president or terrorist attacks of September 11, we grieved as a part of an entire country—a broad, diverse community—and like the disciples on that day in Bethany so long ago, we knew that our fears, our confusion, our desolation was being shared by that community. They—we—were not alone it all of it and that recognition that we are part of something beyond our own sense of being forsaken is the saving grace when we are facing abandonment.
The Ascension of Jesus is not meant to direct our focus upward and into space but rather downward and all around us. Those words spoken by the angels— “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”— imply that there is work to be done here on this planet, in this lifetime, in this moment, in this wonderfully amazing world God has entrusted to us.
Retreat leader and author, Paula Darcy, writes, “God comes among us disguised as our life.” Said another way, God’s story is always related to human need. If you have come here with concerns about your health, the gospel is about God’s healing power; if you have come with feelings of guilt, the gospel is God’s assurance that you are forgiven; if you have come in bereavement for someone you have lost, the gospel is God’s strong word of resurrection. For those who are hungry, the gospel may be bread; for those who have been marginalized in any way, the gospel may be liberation and affirmation; for the refugee, the gospel may be freedom in a new homeland.
People don’t want to stand around looking up at the sky to see where heaven is, they want a God who comes down to them, to feel God’s presence in the places of their lives where they have been abandoned— a God who comes among us disguised as our life.
Anne Lamott, in her book Traveling Mercies explains why she makes her son, Sam, go to church. She started going to church early in her pregnancy. One Sunday at the end of the service she stood up and told the congregation that she was pregnant and everyone cheered. She was not married and she did not expect that reaction. She reported that even people raised in Bible-thumping homes in the deep South clapped and clapped. They reached out their arms and adopted her. They brought clothes and blankets for the new baby. They lugged in casseroles that she could freeze and use later. The church members kept telling her that this new baby was going to be part of their church family. And then they began to slip her money. Older women on Social Security would stuff her pockets with tens and twenties. Old Mary Williams always sat in the back and brought Anne baggies filled with dimes week after week.
Anne brought Sam to that church when he was five days old. The members of the congregation stood in line and called him “our baby.” It was the people in that little church that kept her going. They cared, reached out, prayed, and loved her and saw her through some hard days. Anne writes, “Why do I make Sam go to church— none of his other friends go? I make him go because when I looked around me in that place I saw the face of God.”
You and I are the successors of that small community of folk that stood on the hill at Bethany. That small band of disciples has passed on their legacies to us today. They were the ‘starter kit’ for the Kingdom, like a lump of leavened dough starts the next loaf going. Now, two thousand years later, the circle of the Kingdom has moved outwards in all kinds of directions and we are called to continue that sharing and spreading, each in our own way.
The Ascension is far more about God’s coming down than about Jesus going up and Jesus does not want or expect us to stand around gazing up towards the sky waiting for his return. He has entrusted us with important work—the sacred business of healing and transforming the lives of those in this world.
You and I will still face life-changing, even life-threatening events that may leave us wondering if we have been abandoned, but Jesus has given us this community in which we are able to share our grief and our joy, be bathed in prayer, surrounded by love, and where we may actually see the face of God who comes among us disguised as our life.