Those “In-Between” Times of Life – May 8, 2016
May our lives shine with the brightness of God’s grace, the warmth of Christ’s caring, and the vitality of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Does anyone not know what it’s like to be through an “in between time” in your life? That uncomfortable stage when you know things are going to change but you have no idea what that’s going to look like?
Perhaps you’ve lost a job or left one for a better offer. Maybe life circumstances have required a move to a place you’ve never lived. Or you have just graduated from high school, college or grad school, anticipating what comes next. Perhaps you are going to become a parent or you have just retired. It comes with the beginning of every new chapter in life – that uneasy, up-in-the-air, mysterious period when we just don’t know how life will turn out and we may feel anxious and very much alone.
That’s where we meet the followers and friends of Jesus—his disciples—in the lessons we hear and the feast we observe this morning. The reading from the Book of Acts tells us that Jesus appeared again to his disciples forty days after his Resurrection and was taken up right before their eyes into heaven.
Historically, the church has celebrated the Ascension on the sixth Thursday after Easter. We observe it on the Sunday following so that it doesn’t get “lost” in the important sequence of events from the Resurrection on Easter to the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
Artistic renderings often include a profusion of puffy white clouds and an assortment of angels. Jesus is in the center of the picture, bathed in ethereal light and carried upward by an invisible force. Often he has his right hand raised in blessing. The disciples and his mother Mary are huddled together looking up into the sky with looks of bewilderment. In some paintings, all that we see are his feet and ankles suspended in the upper portion of the canvas, the rest of him having vanished into the sky. It’s rather humorous to consider the assembled group below staring up at Christ’s bare feet!
Those witnesses to the Ascension of Jesus might have stood there staring into space for hours or even days were it not for the admonition and challenge they received: “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” Translation: There’s more to come so get ready! The Ascension may seem to be other worldly but it does not direct our focus upward but rather downward and to the reality of what is happening in this life—not the next. Two thousand years ago, a small band of women and men decided to follow a teacher 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 and traveled 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 their own to spread the Good News.
Then, after an emotional Passover Supper, at which he astonished them by getting down and washing their feet and feeding them with bread and wine that he said was his 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 he had risen—all confirmed by multiple appearances Jesus made to them over the next forty days.
Now they were in that very uneasy “in between” time knowing that something big was going to happen but totally unsure of what it was or where to find it. All they could do was to return to Jerusalem as they were told to do…and wait. And pray. And be restless. That’s what our “in between times” are all about, aren’t’ they?
In our anticipation of that new job or move or retirement or start of our career or as a new parent, we never know what’s coming our way next. We can plan well and far ahead. We can make provisions. We can make the best decisions. But we never really know what’s ahead. We all have our stories that bear witness to the truth that we never really know what will follow those “in between times” in life. Perhaps the uncomfortable truth about those times is that we are not in total control of our future, that we can’t have things all figured out, and that we never really know what’s literally right around the corner. 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. When we wait, we wait in the wings of that promise and with eyes open to discover the evidence of the Spirit’s gifts all around us—often where and when we least expect them.
I wonder if the Episcopal Church is not living in that “in between time.” Long gone are the days when pews in most of our buildings were full, the clergy were all white men, the coffers were full, endowments were large, and Episcopalians were known as the “frozen chosen.” No longer.
Statistically, St. Paul’s on the Green is one of the sixteen most vibrant parishes in Connecticut. Yet many others are small, declining congregations, some in desperation. All, I’m sure, wondering what’s next? Maybe the question is “Where is our gaze?” It is easy to keep our heads up in the clouds. The church has done it for centuries and, in some ways, still does. While it argues about things that have no relevance to people’s lives or refuses to change in order to be relevant to the needs of a different generation or is stuck in its outdated canon about who can receive Communion, folks are walking right past church doors. They keep walking because they are searching for the presence of God among people whose lives demonstrate an authentic commitment to the Gospel that Jesus preached and to the way of life to which Jesus has called us.
People are not interested in looking up at the sky to see where heaven is, they want to sense in some small way God’s presence in their earthly lives.
The Reverend Bill Tully, former Rector of St. Bart’s in Manhattan, wrote the following some years ago: “We are, God and our weak flesh willing, real disciples. But we live in a time removed by many years, years marked by some real changes. We are not playing at the first century church; we are living now in the 21st century church.
“To be faithful today requires a breadth that wasn’t spelled out by Jesus or by a few who would literally lay down their lives for him. But it’s a broad-mindedness expressed by his expansive and forgiving spirit, and anticipated in the diverse personalities, foibles and weaknesses even of the twelve in his inner circle. Of necessity, we are a church that, as the author Ian Hislop writes, ‘allows for science, biblical theology, unbiblical scholarship and changes in knowledge, and trusts its members to form their opinions—that is its strength.”
So what do we do as a faith community in this “in between time?” As a wonderful blend of people with an assortment of outlooks, perspectives, beliefs, and levels of faith, our common thread is our humanity and our capacity to love one another and to share that love with a broken world. In some funny, unexplainable way there is power among us here in this church that feels like God at work. There is power in the Body and Blood of Christ we share and there is power in all of us who gather here to partake of that sacred meal. There is power in the words spoken here and the work done here.
In his book, The Scent of Love, Keith Miller writes about how the great movement of the early church was how it transformed people. They were not trained in theology, were not skilled preachers and had no degrees that would impress others. What they did have was an experience of the Risen Jesus, a generous outreach, and a depth and quality of common life—together. As Miller says, “The way they lived together gave off a kind of haunting spiritual scent which drew people to them.”
In those “in between times” of our lives, in this “in between time” for the church and Christianity, we may not know what’s next. We may be anxious. We may fret. We may wait and pray. What we can be sure of is that when we carry a “scent” of love and community which draws others to ourselves, we will discover together the One who is at the center of it all. And it will be totally life-giving. And God will surprise us.