Still Blessing 05/13/18 (Ascension Day)

Still Blessing
Texts: Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
May 13, 2018 ~ Ascension (Year B)


“The Nurturing Place” was a day care center in New Jersey.

Few people would have heard of it if Anna Quindlen hadn’t taken us there in her newspaper column. [1] This week, I came across her essay as summarized by theologian Barbara Lundblad, who writes: [2]

The center, run by Roman Catholic sisters, welcomed children whose families were homeless, families with no addresses. One day the sisters took the children to the Jersey shore. The 3 and 4 year olds scrambled up the sandy dunes, falling and giggling their way to the top of what must have seemed like mountains to their little legs. When they got to the top, they could hardly believe their eyes: water as far as they could see – more water than they had ever seen. They slid down the dunes and ran to the ocean’s edge. They chased the waves that teased their toes. Then they went off for a picnic in a nearby park. After lunch they begged to go back to the dunes. One little boy named Freddie outran the rest and climbed his way to the top. He looked out, then turned to the others and shouted, “It’s still there!”

Reflecting on this story told by Anna Quindlen, Lundblad goes on to say:

In Freddie’s life, so much had disappeared – even the ocean could disappear over lunch. We’re older and wise enough to know the ocean is there even when we’re not looking. But we’re not so sure about other things. We may feel a bit like the poet who said: “you live in a different place though you have never moved.” We’re scrambling up the sandy dunes, trying to find a place that will hold.

I imagine that might be how the disciples felt on this day we call Ascension Day – that the earth was shifting underneath their feet, that although they were still in Jerusalem, they were in a different place. As my friend Liz Goodman says, “the one who loved them, around whom they’d organized their lives, not to mention their lives together” [3] – even he, who they thought was as permanent as the ocean – could disappear.

After all they had learned, and seen, and done, and witnessed, Jesus left them. He didn’t fight the powers of the temple and Rome; he went to the cross and then he went to the tomb. They found themselves scrambling up the sandy dunes, their feet sliding back and getting buried in the cascading sand.

But then he returned to them. He walked with them on the firm, steady road to Emmaus; he explained the scriptures to them and shared bread with them. He appeared to the eleven disciples and their companions; he ate broiled fish with them and the ground solidified once again. He was there, he was really there. They had found a place that would hold.

But not for long. Now he is leaving them again.

Ascension Day is a festival day in Christian tradition. After all, Jesus has ascended to the Father, where he will rule in grace and truth, and that is good news for us and for the world. But I wonder if the disciples could possibly have felt joy in those moments when he spoke of his final departure, and in those moments when he was lifted up to heaven on a cloud.

Indeed, not everyone in our Christian family sees Ascension as a time of rejoicing. The Amish, who count it to be as significant as Easter itself, think of it as “a time of mourning.” As one Amish bishop in Indiana said, “It’s a time for lament because that’s when we remember that Jesus left us behind – that’s when he left us here.” There is no feasting, only fasting. [4]

In the Gospel version of this story, we hear Jesus speaking to the disciples as he is lifted to heaven. But in the Acts version, we hear a further detail: as he ascends, they stand there, looking up at him. This detail captures my attention every time I read the Acts account. And I’m not the only one whose imagination is kindled by those words. Google “ascension art” and you will find more paintings, drawings, poems, stories, and songs than you can possibly absorb.

Personally, I love the poignant 1958 painting by Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí. With the disciples, we look up at the feet of Jesus as he is lifted to heaven. Those feet that walked all over the countryside and the cities of the region; those feet that led him to the people who were in need of healing and learning and feeding; those feet that led him to those who needed hope and justice; those feet that walked beside the disciples and that led them to new life and unexpected adventures; those feet that were so cruelly nailed to a cross, apparently never to walk again. In Dalís work, we too look up at those precious feet knowing we will not see them again – at least, not like this.

The Gospel of Luke ends here: Jesus is now, at last, truly gone. It is finished.

So what are they – what are we – to do now?

It turns out that with God, nothing is ever an ending – at least, not exclusively. Within every ending there is also a new beginning. As the disciples stand there, bewildered and undoubtedly incredibly sad, two men in white robes appear. (I wonder, as have many others, if they are the two men who appear in Luke’s version of the resurrection with their question, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”) On this day, as Jesus withdraws from the gathered disciples, the men say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

In other words: Stop looking up. It’s time to look out. Now the real work begins.

I want to give us another image for the Ascension. Now before I show it to you I want to give you the heads up that this is a secular image, not a rendering of the Ascension of Jesus. But art in all forms can point us God-wards.

You may remember that the film Mary Poppins ends with Mary leaving the Banks family. Jane and Michael have been restored to full and happy childhood; Mr. Banks has discovered the joy and freedom of family life and has put work in its proper place; Mrs. Banks – well, now that her family’s dysfunction has been healed, she can continue on with her work for women’s suffrage with a smile on her face and even a new song or two in her heart. What was broken has been made whole. As the family prepares to “go fly a kite,” Mary floats off into the sky in the same way in which she first came, held aloft by her enormous black umbrella with the talking parrot handle.

The children are sad to see their beloved nanny depart, but the joy and love they feel as they begin a new life as a renewed family far outweighs their grief. Yes, they are still sad, but that isn’t all. There are new and exciting adventures to be had. Grabbing the hands of their parents and holding on tight to the string of the kite, they don’t stand looking up at Mary’s departing form; they run headlong into their new life.

Maybe it’s the same for the disciples. Yes, they’re sad to see Jesus go, but they have been healed in so many ways; they have heard and seen made real the forgiveness, grace, and new life offered by our God. Yes, Jesus is leaving them, but there are still so many opportunities to live out the love Jesus showered upon them. Perhaps now, as Jesus is lifted up into the sky, they sense the new beginning about to unfold. Perhaps that’s why the disciples return to Jerusalem with great joy and are continually in the temple blessing God.

If the Gospel of Luke is the end of the story, it is only the end of the first part of the story. Now, in the book of Acts, Luke gives us the second part: the church is about to be born. What has ended has given way to something that is just beginning.

As she floats into the sky and the Banks family runs to the park, Mary Poppins gazes down at them with a gentle, loving smile, knowing that they don’t need her anymore.

And so too, perhaps, does Jesus gaze down at the disciples, knowing that they don’t need him to walk with them anymore. He has shown them what God’s mission in the world. He has taught them all he can. Now it is up to them to, as one scholar has said, “to turn their gaze upon the world, where “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in [the Messiah’s] name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem (24:47).”” [5]

A detail from this story that I absolutely love but haven’t mentioned yet is this verse: While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven (v. 51). Do you hear it? He’s still blessing them, even as he leaves. I wonder: is he blessing us still? I like to think he is, wherever he is.

As for Mary Poppins: “On the ground, the chimney sweep/angel Bert watches her sail up and away. He winks at her and says, “Good-bye Mary Poppins! Don’t stay gone too long!” [6]

As Luke/Acts tells it, God doesn’t stay gone too long. In ten days, the Holy Spirit will come upon the disciples and all those gathered like a great wind and tongues of fire. And soon, very soon, they will go out into the world to continue what Jesus started, continually blessed by Jesus and the Holy Spirit he promised.

As we round the corner from the Easter season to Pentecost, we too are invited to look for new beginnings. Where have we seen and felt and experienced God? Where has Jesus taught us or touched us, healed us or renewed us? And how can we share that good news with the world? How can we demonstrate repentance and forgiveness? How can we bring healing and wholeness to places of pain and fear and loss?

It’s a daunting task, maybe: maybe as hard as family life, maybe as hard as going out into Jerusalem, to all Judea and Samaria. But Jesus left because he knew we are ready. Like Mary Poppins gazing down at the Banks family, Jesus gazes down at us, knowing it’s time and we’re ready. We’re ready because he has taught us all he can. And we are ready because we aren’t in it alone. We have one another. And we have the Spirit, who is coming at Pentecost. We are ready because the Spirit is already here. And God is still blessing us.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Anna Quindlen, “Public & Private; Social Conscience” (New York Times: April 4, 1991).

[2] Barbara Lundblad, “Commentary on Luke 24:44-53” (working preacher).

[3] Liz Goodman, “From the Meetinghouse” (Monterey News, May 2018).

[4] Isaac S. Villegas, “Living by the Word: May 10, Ascension of the Lord.” (Christian Century: 25 April 2018.

[5] David S. Cunningham, “Theological Perspective” (Feasting on the Word, Year B).

[6] Karen Sapio.

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