Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Seventh Sunday of Easter: Ascension Day (transferred) – May 20, 2012
We never know what’s coming our way next. Do we? We can plan well and far ahead. We can take precautions in advance of possible setbacks. We can map out our calendar. We can make the best investments. We can get to know the right people. We can eat the right foods and be faithful to our exercise routine. But we never really know what’s ahead—even maybe as soon as tomorrow.
On a large scale our entire nation experienced this on September 11, 2001. Who expected when retiring the night before that the world would change in a matter of hours? Since then, other disasters have occurred affecting more local communities such as New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and parts of Japan.
You may have a story or two that bears witness to the truth that we just never know what’s ahead. I woke up at 4 am on April 14 to a room spinning round and round and wondered if we were having an earthquake. Fortunately, it was only Benign Proximinal Positional Vertigo, a non-life threatening but sometime debilitating condition; a completely new and most unexpected phenomenon.
A more tragic example came in a call from my 94-year-old mother this week who is a resident at Laurel Ridge Health Care Center in Ridgefield. “Did you read it in the paper,” she asked. A lovely young woman who was Mom’s aide and with whom she had bonded over the year was killed; Twenty-year old honor student Ashley Armstong, hit in crossfire last Wednesday in New Haven. That unhappy truth from which none of us can escape: We never know what’s coming our way next.
Two thousand years ago, a small band of women and men decided to follow a teacher, a rabbi, who preached a very different perspective about God and faith and life than the old time religion to which they had been accustomed.
They lived in community with one another for three years, witnessed the marvelous signs and healings Jesus performed, scratched their heads a lot after he had told a puzzling parable or two, and eventually trusted him enough to be sent out on mission on their own to spread the Good News. Then, after an emotional Seder Supper, at which he blew their minds by actually getting down and washing their feet and feeding them with bread and wine that he said was his own body and blood, they watched him be arrested, tried and convicted, tortured and nailed to a cross. Three days later they would get the news that his tomb was empty and that her had risen—all confirmed by multiple appearances Jesus made to them over the next forty days. Our truth was their truth: We never know what’s coming our way next.
I wonder what the confused followers of Jesus were doing that night before what we now know as “Ascension Day.” Were they throwing a going away party for Jesus? Were they still cowering in a hiding place for fear of meeting the same fate as he did? Was Jesus even there with them—or had they not seen him for several days? And, did they even know he was going to be leaving them the very next day? I’ll be the last possibility was their reality—that they had no idea, as they often had not—what was coming next, not unlike all of us.
Luke tells the story twice today. In the Acts of the Apostles, which we think Luke may have authored, the story places the disciples in Jerusalem and opens the door for the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church. We get a different version in the Gospel where it is an intimate time for closure for Jesus and his companions. Here the ascension takes place in Bethany, a place where Jesus spent a lot of time with his best friends. In this tender rather than church story, Jesus departs from the neighborhood in which he loved to hang out.
We leave them at first gazing up into the sky wondering how far up or out or in what dimension of the planet he would now abide, but gazing not for long before they are sent on their way back to Jerusalem—to wait. They may have been—as artists have for centuries following—compelled by the upward movement and other world aspect of that day, but they were now to focus on a very different dimension: waiting for the Spirit’s gifts of power, wisdom, and vision. “Stay here in this city,’ Jesus commands them, “until you are clothed with the power from above.”
What Jesus was telling them was that they should shift their attention from what has gone away from them and turn it to what was yet to come, what was yet to be received. The promise is similar to that made to Mary at the Annunciation: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” The power of the Holy Spirit that has infused the ministry of Jesus will now be bestowed upon his followers as they carry out his work.
But first, “You must wait,” Jesus says. These are words most of us never like to hear. We are very much in a hurry all the time. We value fast results, getting things done ahead of schedule, short lines at the bank or grocery store or DMV. Like the disciples, we want to know when we might expect God to establish the kingdom God promised. We don’t like to wait and we don’t like it when, after waiting any length of time, we don’t get what we expected.
We have become a society that is all too familiar with road rage, airport rage, sports rage, office rage. Waiting is very un-American and seems too much like just wasting time. But the instruction “to wait” was among the last words, the parting words Jesus gave us, and although it is a word we may not like to hear, it reveals the uncomfortable truth that we are not in total control of our destiny, that we don’t always have things all figured out, and that, yes, we never know what’s coming our way next. Those first followers of Jesus didn’t; neither do we.
The good news is that the Ascension is about promise—the promise that God’s power, not the world’s power, will reign. We wait, yes, but we wait in the wings of that promise and with eyes wide open to discover the evidence of the Spirit’s gifts all around us—often where and when we least expect them.
Jesuit priest and psychotherapist Anthony de Mello tells this parable: All questions at the public meeting that day were about life beyond the grave. The Master only laughed and did not give a single answer.
To his disciples, who demanded to know the reason for his evasiveness, he later said, “Have you observed that it is precisely those who do not know what to do with this life who want another that will last forever?”
“But is there life after death or is there not?” persisted a disciple. “Is there life before death?—that is the question!” said the Master unexpectedly.
In our waiting, in our living of our days, in our engagement with each other and our sharing of our joy and sorrow, in our expectation and in our uncertainty, we are, in fact answering the Master’s question. What’s coming our way next may not be what we want or expect but…could very well be the power of the Most High and the surprise of God.