Thursday, May 28, 2009

“Up, Up, and Away” - A sermon for Ascension

I step into the aisle of the church.  Silence reigns.  Without a word, I reach into the pulpit and pull out a mylar balloon attached to a spool of kite string.  It has a happy face.  Slowly, silently, I release the balloon, and as it goes up, all eyes follow.  Everyone stares at it, except for me.  I look down at the congregation.  

Hey, what are you guys looking at?  Why you looking up there?  Okay, so it’s just a balloon.  But as it went up, you looked.  

And you looked probably just like the disciples as they watched Jesus ascend into the sky.  Only Jesus going up is much more dramatic than a balloon, don’t you think?  So who could blame them for looking?

Understandable or not, however, it wasn’t long before those angels snuck up and said, “What are you looking at?  Up there isn’t where the action is.  It’s down here.”

Even then, they must have had a hard time getting their attention back down.  Not only was Jesus’ departure dramatic, but it left his disciples alone and confused.  They had already lost him once at the crucifixion.  Then with the resurrection, they thought they had him back.  But after forty short days, they were going to lose him again!  Granted, this was better than crucifixion, but still.

So why did Jesus have to leave them again?

Time to clarify something.  Today is not technically the Feast of the Ascension.  It was Thursday.  In fact, they used to call it Ascension Thursday.  You’d hardly we didn’t have a big Ascension celebration.  Who would have come?    After all, there are no Ascension parades or sales.   Besides, it’s Memorial Day weekend.

But once, this was one of the truly big feasts of the year.  Which leaves us the question:  Why is Jesus going away so important?

If you ever played soccer -- or any team sport, but let’s use soccer for our example -- there’s often one kid who’s the star.  He or she can dribble, shoot, pass -- anything he wants.  It’s the kind of kid who the coach points to and says, “Give me a quick goal,” and the kid says, “Only one?”

Problem is, the kid never passes.  Or when he does, the others -- the mediocre kids -- are terrified and pass it right back so they don’t mess things up.  Know what they call a game like that?  Boring.  No Fun.  

The kid who never gets the ball learns nothing of soccer even if the star wins every game for the team.  Jesus knew it was more important for the disciples to learn the work of ministry than for everything to be done well.

But they would never truly learn it if he were always there for them to lean on.  If he were physically there, they would be like those mediocre players who reflexively pass the ball back to the star with an, “I can’t do it!”

Jesus had to leave - to use another metaphore - so they could grow up and move beyond simply watching him preach and heal.  Jesus wanted them to expand his work, and he could only do so be stepping aside.

Not that he left them directionless.  He told them what their work would be.  “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”  He says, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to all the ends of the world.”

Concentric circles spreading out from Jerusalem, including everyone in God’s embrace.  That’s the work of the disciples.

He also did not want them distracted from that work.  Certainly not by questions of when he would return.  “That’s not for you to think about,” he told them.  “That’s for the Father only.”

When you think about it, Ascension is a very simple message.  It’s YOUR turn now.  You know your job and you know that you can do it.

Or do you?  Often we still say, “It’s too hard!”  I know because I find myself thinking that all the time.  Ministry is too hard.  Trying to compete with all the activities that the world throws at us is too hard.  Trying to get your voice heard in this incredibly diverse and noisy electronic age where you’ve got texting and e-mail, and Facebook and MySpace and YouTube and Twitter. 

(By the way, if you don’t know what Twitter is, it’s where you have your own micro-website that you can update from your laptop or cell phone in 140 characters or less -- and do so every minute.  You know, “I’m now sipping my coffee.  Mmm, it was good.”  Some churches are now encouraging parishioners to Tweet through services.  I’m trying to imagine that:  “Oh no!  He’s got incense!”  “He’s still preaching?  How long have I been asleep?”  “Praise God!  The sermon’s over.”).

And it’s hard to preach forgivenss in a world that prefers so-called justice and punishment.  Even if it’s our job.  We much prefer that the “bad guys” “get what they deserve.”  We don’t like when judges are soft or when a foreign country makes an uncomplementary remark about us and we let it go unanswered.

It’s not new to us.  The same held true throughout history.  We want “them” to get what’s coming to them, and we believe that’s good and right.  Only problem is, that’s not what God tells us.  Jesus tells his disciples to preach forgiveness.  To make forgiveness known.

No wonder they feel it’s hard.  No wonder they -- and we -- we are left staring at the sky with this job before us.  We’re alone.  So it seemed to them.

Only not for long.  Jesus promised them they would not have to do it all by themselves because alone they -- and we -- are weak and lost.  He promised them the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit would come soon, he promised, and they would know they could do it.  

Jesus is gone to heaven, we don’t know when he’ll return.  But we have our work.  He has passed the ball to us, and it’s our time to run with it.  Amen.