One of the affirmations that I’ve come more and more to believe
Is that, if you’re heart and ears are open to it
You can encounter God anywhere, anytime.
Sometimes, you just have to be looking for it.
Have you ever been sitting somewhere minding your own business
Maybe it’s a coffee shop
sipping your Americano trying to read or tackle emails
or talk to your friend
and you overhear a conversation a few tables over that blows your mind
a perfect entre into the story of God and Jesus and the world
that we are confronted with in Holy Scripture.
This was that sort of overheard conversation:[i]
“I was visiting my uncle near the end of his life…
When he was so sick with that cancer.” That’s how she started…
“We were sitting at dinner and he startled us.
He was normally so quiet, but he just burst into laughter, there in his chair.
He said he remembered this chance encounter he had
That stirred a memory from a long time ago.
He told us that he had run into a woman at the doctor’s office that week.
He was walking by when she looked at him,
and stopped him, and said:
‘George Hocker, is that really you?’
At first, George didn’t recognize her. He had no idea who she was…
But she told him her name,
and then he remembered, that night they met,
years and years ago…
He had been at a dance in town when he was young and single.
It might have been the first dance he had ever been to.
George was raised a Mennonite, and lived a fairly sheltered life
He was not accustomed to such things.
No doubt he felt awkward and shy in his new clothes…
Not knowing how to dance…
Not knowing how to ask a young woman to dance…
Or quite what to do once he did.
Can you imagine the culture shock of going from a farm
Among “the plain folk” upstate
To the “big city” of Hershey, Pennsylvania.
And then again, you know making conversation is sometimes just…hard
For plain spoken people like my uncle.”
The coffee-shop talker took a sip of her coffee and continued…
“I mean, from members of my family who are still Mennonites,
I know that they like to simply say what they mean
…or to say nothing at all.
It’s a noble thing to ALWAYS tell the simple truth, don’t you think?
…and its so rare these days,
certainly when it comes to polite conversation.
Just imagine it! Imagine if a stranger came up to you and said…
“The band sounds great, doesn’t it?”
And you felt compelled by conscience to reply:
“Well, actually the singer is out of tune,
And that saxophone is not up to tempo…”
OR, to say nothing at all!
How hard would it be to strike up a conversation
with someone you don’t know under these circumstances.
I honestly don’t know how he did it.
Anyway…Uncle George was at this dance, his first dance, in the big city
and this young woman caught his eye.
When she saw him staring at her,
well, she just smiled and walked right over and started a conversation.
So strange for him. I don’t think he knew quite what was going on.
Somehow, he seized the moment and asked her to dance,
And he led her cautiously to the dance floor…
They tried a few steps, but he kept stepping on her toes.
She kept trying to make light of it, but it was getting… painful…
So she turned to him, and said…
“You know…its getting a bit warm in here.
Why don’t we go outside, you know,
And um take a look at the stars…”
“So this shy, plain spoken young man
walked with this pretty young woman
Out onto the veranda… and he gazed up into the sky.
He looked at the stars. They were brilliant!
He contemplated their beauty.
He noted that there was not a single cloud in the sky.
She moved a bit closer…. He looked at the stars.
She cleared her throat… He…looked at the stars.
Finally she said,… “Why are you staring at the sky?”
“Um, I’m looking at the stars,” he replied.
And with that, she turned on her heels and left.
And my uncle,
laughing more than I’d ever seen him laugh before,
ended the story saying to us…
“She said, why don’t we go look at the stars’
…so I went…and looked at the stars.
There was that pretty girl…
just WAITING for me to take her hand…
And I…I was staring at the sky…”
Its so easy to get distracted by what is right in front of us.
The things we miss when we’re focused on the wrong things!
Here’s another way to put it, how easy we can miss what is right in front of is:
Those of us who were not watching very carefully
might have missed Ascension Day this week.
Ascension Day is always the Thursday
that falls forty days after Easter,
ten days ahead of Pentecost,
which itself is fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus,
Don’t worry. There’s no test if you didn’t follow the math.
But long ago, Ascension Day was a significant holy time
for the Christian Church.
Somewhere along the way, we slightly lower-church, Protestant types
lost the reason why…
In medieval times, the Ascension was big news.
The congregation would gather for worship with great anticipation.
And at the appropriate time during the mass,
a statue of Jesus somewhere near the altar would be slowly drawn up into the air,
ascending all the way up to the ceiling,
sometimes even disappearing through an opening up there.
Just as we read in Acts, the people would stand around staring,
LOOKING UPWARD as Jesus was enveloped by the clouds.
And sometimes the church added a little non-biblical twist to the story.
As Jesus made his upward exit, at the same time, in a few churches
a statue of the devil would be lowered slowly down into the sanctuary
from another hole in the ceiling.
Imagine the drama and the power of those church theatrics!
Better than any sermon, I guarantee it!
It created a memorable moment, a visual moment,
for the mainly illiterate peasants
crowded into the church, watching in awe.
In today’s age, though,
where the clouds no longer mark the bounds
of human sensory experience
(as any trip to the airport will make clear to us)
the day of Ascension still has meaning and importance, I think.
It may never have the glitz of Easter Sunday—with bonnets and bunnies and brunch.
It may never be a Christmas season: there won’t be songs
with the title “I’ll be home…for Ascension”
you won’t see special Ascension day sales on Amazon.
But I want to suggest
that the Ascension might be an important day for us.
Its REAL potential lies in the fact
that it marks the beginning point of the church’s waiting time,
and the day we are told to get out of our inward focus
to not allow ourselves to be distracted
and, instead, to get to work….
A time of waiting.
With Jesus leaving his disciples, we find ourselves in the MEANTIME…
We live in the time between the times.
Jesus has ascended; we await his return.
And like those early disciples, we can stand fixated at the stars,
Or we can listen to what God is doing among us today.
Like those early disciples, the question posed to us is plain:
What are we looking at? What now?
A fundamental part of being Christian is learning to be patient.
To do our part, but to leave the rest to God. To learn how to wait.
This is hard for us. Its hard for me.
But the heart of this is what we do
When we pray.
Have you noticed how, whenever the disciples are at a crossroads
Whenever Jesus was in a tight spot, or wanting focus
They turned to Prayer.
That’s what the apostles did, after Jesus left them, according to Acts:
they “devoted themselves to constant prayer.”
A life of prayer, of seeking out God, of focusing on God
Of letting God be God and seeking God’s will
That’s not often the quickest plan.
–We may want fast answers to our petitions.
–We might yearn to know what is in store for us.
–We might have deep hope that God will have things work
according to our schedule, our imagination
our way of seeing things.
But God will do with our prayer what God will do;
ours is simply to keep praying,
trusting that in our waiting time,
God is wonderfully and mysteriously at work.
To mark the weekly Sabbath,
Orthodox Jews have been known
“to tie a string around the perimeter of their community
as a tangible sign that within the string,
people are living in sacred time.”[ii]
That is a good way for us to envision the waiting we do in prayer –
as if we have stepped inside a circle of string
that makes our prayer sacred time and our patience holy.
That kind of patient praying is so important for our lives!
One day or another you and I will find ourselves face to face
with suffering of one sort or another in our lives. Its part of being human.
Some of us, I know, are already in such a place,
or have passed through that lonesome valley…
with the death of someone we loved,
or a relationship that is crumbling,
or a job that is lost,
or a loneliness that will not go away,
or a serious illness in our family.
The time of waiting and praying can be a sacred time of holy patience,
as we trust in God to come to us.
The Ascension of Christ opens for us the waiting time,
when we learn a holy patience.
There is profound desire for us to try to know the future,
To discern what it is God has in store for us.
It is so much harder to learn to pray and to trust.
But Christ tells us that it is not that simple:
That such answers often do not come immediately to us…
The disciples, they want to know when Jesus will return.
He died once, he returned didn’t he?
If he leaves again, surely he’ll be back real soon.
“It is not for you,” Jesus said,
“To know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”(Acts 1:6)
A holy patience is like that;
It knows there are forces larger than us at work in the universe.
A holy patience instead trusts God to be God,
and lives into the demands and joys of the day, of THIS day.
and THAT is a good thing on Ascension Day,
when we bid Christ farewell for a time.
If the first thing this passage suggests is holy patience in holy prayer
The second thing we learn from this passage
is to place our focus NOT on Christ’s return,
but on the world around us.
In the Ascension, as described in the Book of Acts,
Jesus, after admonishing the disciples to work a bit
on their sense of timing, of expectation
Jesus then is suddenly taken up into heaven in a great cloud of glory.
Remember, the scene creates a HEAVENWARD commotion, this Ascension.
That’s why the medieval statue-theatrics worked so well….
The disciples cannot seem to take their eyes off the skies.
They are mesmerized by a glimpse into the world beyond.
But that’s NOT where God wants us to be looking!
God is concerned enough with the FOCUS of disciples,
That God sends two angels to RE-FOCUS them:
“People of Galilee,
why are you standing there gazing up into the skies?
Jesus is gone, but will return someday.”
They say, in effect,
“What is it you are looking at?
Jesus’ work is now your work, his life is now your life.
His hour had come. Now it is your hour.
It’s time for the church to be the church.”
What is happening here at the beginning of the Book of Acts
Is essentially a story of succession.
Here the torch is being passed, the baton handed-off.
Whereas before, proclaiming the love and justice of God
was the business of Jesus, now it is OUR business.
No wonder the followers of Jesus stood there so long, staring off into space.
The enormity of the responsibility must have dawned on them.
It was awesome enough to freeze them in their tracks.
Wait, Jesus, Just where do you think you’re going…
There’s so much to do down here…
Wait…. Please….Just wait a second….! Where are you going?!?
I’m not so sure we’re ready for you to go yet….
Karl Barth called the Ascension “the beginning of this time of ours.”[iii]
The Ascension is essentially a call to mission, a call to service,
A call to get to work…
And what work we have to do,
When we can turn from gazing up to the stars and start looking around us:
To bind up the broken hearted
To be agents of reconciliation and forgiveness
To pray, actually pray, for our enemies,
and our friends, and our neighbors.
To witness to God’s amazing grace and joy and love and peace
In a world that DOUBTS, frankly, that these things really work.
Its been impossible for me to ponder this this week
without thinking of the late poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou.
She died this day, May 28th, three years ago
And she was an advocate for this way of thinking,
for Love in the face of long odds.
Maya once said:
“I am grateful to have been loved and to be loved now
and to be able to love, because that liberates.
It doesn’t just hold—that’s ego.
Love liberates. It doesn’t bind.
Love says, ‘I love you. I love you if you’re in China.
I love you if you’re across town.
I love you if you’re in Harlem.
I love you. I would like to be near you.
I’d like to have your arms around me.
I’d like to hear your voice in my ear.
But that’s not possible now, so I love you. Go.”
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.[iv]
How is God asking us to love today?
How are we being called to love our neighborhood?
How are we being encouraged to love our city?
Are we willing to be set free from gazing at the sky long enough
to find our calling down here at 114th and Wornall?
Our job is to stand up and say that Love Shall Win
and then to live it. I mean live it. In what we do, and say,
in loving people just to love them, because that’s what Christ did,
and because in loving we find our true, free selves.
THAT is the work we have to do. The work Christ empowers us to do…
Jesus has risen….again.
We celebrate the church next week.
Its birthday, the coming of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost.
This week we observe the Ascension of Jesus back to God.
Let us look with amazement at what God has done for us,
And THEN let us turn our gaze back to earth
Offering patient prayers, within God’s time,
And listening to our neighbor right next to us,
Tending to them in Christ’s name.
What a fun calling. What a liberating calling.
It excites me. I hope it excites you.
May it be so. Amen.
[i] The origins of this story are lost to me, but I heard it in a sermon in the mid 2000’s, perhaps in Chicago. It may be from a preaching resource around that time, but it is not original to me.
[ii] Sojourners, May 2005, p. 22
[iii] A Dictionary of Christian Theology, p.16
[iv] Touched by an Angel, accessed on May 31, 2014, at http://allpoetry.com/poem/8511433-Touched-By-An-Angel-by-Maya-Angelou