Sermon May 17, 2015
I spent this week at the Festival of Homiletics in Denver. I have longed to attend this event for years. All the big name preachers come together and preach and lecture and inspire. I have pages of notes from this week. I heard so many good things. I even went to the taping of a weekly sermon podcast. I didn’t hear one word about the Ascension. To complicate matters, there were always two or three events happening at the same time leaving the feeling that no matter how good the event I chose was, I was missing something else. In the middle of the week, I reached the saturation point and couldn’t take in any more. Fortunately, sleep gave way to a new day and I was inspired all over again. Still, no one said a word about the ascension. I heard conversations around the edges about sermons for today, but everyone was avoiding the ascension like the plague!
Barbara Brown Taylor says the church avoids this story because it’s embarrassing. Who wants to talk about Jesus floating up toward heaven while the disciples stand there with their mouths open? It’s hard enough to convince the world that Christianity is relevant and this story doesn’t help our case at all. The whole thing seems like a bad science fiction movie with Jesus waving goodbye as he is lifted over their heads.
Today is the last Sunday of Easter and next Sunday we hear the story of Pentecost, which we call the birth of the church. Today is that weird in between time that leaves us with more questions than answers. In Oregon, I served a church with a stained glass window of the ascension. Jesus is standing on little clouds that looked more like bunny slippers than clouds. It was something we joked about and I don’t remember any serious conversations about the implications of the ascension for us. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “who wants to celebrate being left behind?”
At the Ascension, the disciples realize (gulp!) that they are it now. It’s up to them to continue the work that Jesus began. He’s been telling them this day would come, but it’s hard to be ready to take over. We can feel the disciples’ pain…First Congregational United Church of Christ is in our hands now. What will we do with this sacred trust?
As we celebrate 135 years of ministry this year, I keep wondering how many people have labored and worried and dreamed and plowed and harvested in 135 years. At some point, they lovingly, gently placed the church in our hands. We are going to mess up, but we have a whole beautiful future ahead of us. We can stand here staring up at the sky wondering what we are supposed to do now. It’s not a bad place to start, but at some point, we begin our next 135 years.
One of the most magical things about living in Albuquerque is the hot air balloons and the October balloon fiesta. It is one of those things that you must experience for yourself. Someone gave our family a balloon ride a few years ago and it was magical being in the balloon as we quietly rose above the city. Afterward as we drove home from breakfast we were singing a song on my playlist and I remember thinking that this beautiful moment wouldn’t last forever but just then I was with people that I love so much and we were singing and all was right with the world. From there, we came home to continue our lives.
I love being in the balloon park for the mass ascension. I feel giddy as balloon after balloon rises and when they are all in the air, I move into the day knowing that there is work to do be done, but I kind of float into the day because I have just witnessed something magical.
In the church, we have those magical moments and then we are left to go on with the work of being the church. Like the disciples, it is easy to feel lost sometimes when we don’t have the money we would like and we need more volunteers and we aren’t even sure which steps to take next. Please note that this has been the way it has been from the beginning. Church, just like life, is improvisation. We are given a few props (sometimes we wish we had more) and we are asked to do ministry with what we have. We realize at some point that we are the only ones who can make this journey.
I came to Albuquerque eleven years ago to take a dream job. I directed a spiritual renewal program for the southwest and led retreats and small groups and developed a program for congregational vitality. When I came out to interview, I went to the Norbertine Retreat Center at the southwest corner of town. The Norbertines were partners in this program and I spent many weeks over ten years at that beautiful facility nourished by the spirituality and care of that community. At the interview, I was introduced to Fran who would be my co-leader in the retreats. He took me on a tour of the facility and I was smitten. I called home to say that I had met a holy man. Fran and I led retreats together for several years. He has the capacity to hear things that most of us miss.
Fran was a spiritual director and he told me about someone who came to him for direction that was going through a time of transition. The person said, “you can’t come with me into this cave, can you?” Fran said, “no, but I will sit outside the entrance and play the flute for you.” I was so touched by Fran’s sensitivity to the person, his honest response, and the intentional care he offered.
I can hear the disciples worrying as Jesus prepares to leave them saying, “you can’t go with us now, can you?” I imagine Jesus replying, “no, but I will send the Holy Spirit and you will never be alone. Your job is to continue to care for the poor, to love those who are alone, to heal those who are sick, to feed those who are hungry and to confront injustice. It won’t be easy, but you will have the Spirit with you to guide you and care for you every step of the way. Your task now is to learn to trust what you cannot see.”
We are in that space too. We cannot see what is next. We can be sure that God is with us. My friend Brian Taylor describes a time in his life that left him confused. He had a powerful prayer practice that sustained him for a long time. But one day, it no longer fit and he felt lost and abandoned. At the same time, he was powerfully engaged in life. He continued on and realized that those years of practice were feeding him in an unexpected way. He said it was as if the training wheels had fallen off and he was riding the bike, which was life in God. (Becoming Human: Core Teachings of Jesus, by Brian C. Taylor, p. 12)
We can be sure that while we may not be able to see the future, we can trust that God is in it and God will sustain us or as Peter Mayer promises in his song, “God is loose in the world.” This story of the ascension is the story of God breaking loose in the world. It is powerful to think that wherever we go, God is there. Whatever we dream, God is there. As we take our next steps together, God is there. When we fall, God is there. When we look up, God is there. All of life is in God. God is loose in our congregation. God is loose in the world.
Jesus has left the building. Now it is up to us to continue his ministry in the world knowing the Spirit will guide us every step of the way.