Thursday, May 1, 2008

Why Do You Standing Looking Toward Heaven? A Homily for Ascensiontide

Sermon for Easter 7, Year A
(Sunday in Ascentiontide)
Sunday, May 4th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Acts 1:6-14

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
-Acts 1:11

Sometimes we feel that we have been left alone, abandoned, forgotten. As individuals and as a people we often feel abandoned. The death of a loved one, the moving away of a friend, or perhaps the coming of age of a child – each of these leaves a hole our hearts and perhaps, a deadening of our spirit. During this past month as we remembered the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., forty years ago, we are called to remember all manner of people and societal groups that have been forgotten or abused by the powers that be, and consider what it is like to be part of a people who are forgotten, left alone or abandoned by the powerful classes of the world. And whether it is abandonment as individuals or abandonment as a group of people; whether it is abandonment by those close to us or abandonment by the institutions and systems that are meant to help us, abandonment can leave us feeling stranded, helpless, immobilized. In the powerlessness of abandonment we meet the demons of hopelessness and loneliness. To be left alone without aid or succour is, perhaps, our deepest human fear. There are times in our lives when each of us have felt abandoned, left alone, forgotten and we have a taste of the pain that is felt by so many in this broken world on a daily basis.

On the Mount of Olives, as the Risen Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God to his disciples, he suddenly disappeared. St. Luke tells us that he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. Whatever we might think about the mechanics of the Ascension, whether or not he was taken up into the sky, or simply vanished from their sight, or walked away into the distance, the disciples experienced his departure as a shock. The picture painted by St. Luke is one in which they are staring up into the clouds, looking for one that they could see no longer. In their abandonment they were immobilized, frozen. It was like they could not move.

They had not expected their leader to be taken away again. After all, they had not first expected their king to be crucified, and yet, he was, to their shock and surprise. Yet, their sense of fear and abandonment at his death, their loneliness and despair gave way to rejoicing at his surprising and glorious resurrection. And so they ask the Risen Christ, having witnessed the power of God, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” The disciples had expected a show of power and force from the earthly Jesus during his ministry. They had been disappointed, but surely this resurrected Jesus would topple the powers and oppressors, surely he would lead them triumphantly, surely this was the time appointed for victory. But he answers them with a cryptic response that it is not for them to know the times or seasons set by the Father. He goes on though to tell them that they have a special job to do, as his witnesses, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Then, suddenly, he is taken from them. Thus, we can imagine their shock. They expected a show of force. Their expectations were thwarted. They expected Jesus to lead. He disappeared. They expected to follow him. He told them that they would lead the way. Would not you or I be shocked and immobilized? For a second time, their expectations were left unmet. For a second time, he had left them.

But had he left them? For suddenly, two angels appear to them offering an explanation. Two messengers who seek to remind the disciples of their call. What they say, in essence, is this: “Why are you looking up to heaven? Why are you still standing around? You have other things to do! You asked about the kingdom … what are you waiting for? Now is the time. Will you waste your time waiting around until Jesus comes back? He will return just as suddenly as he left, and will you lot still be standing around here with your jaws on the floor?” Perhaps at this moment one of them, a certain man named Cleopas might have recalled another moment, perhaps days earlier in which their Lord, at a certain supper at Emmaus, had disappeared; a moment in which Cleopas and his companion realized that Jesus had not really left them but remained with them, in their fellowship, in the community, in the breaking of the bread, even though they saw him no longer. Perhaps, just perhaps, they caught a glimpse of the abiding presence of Jesus and the true meaning of their acclamation that “the Lord is risen, indeed!” At that moment, they realized that they were not left alone, even though he had vanished. At that moment they recalled what he taught them, what he gave them, what he called them to be. They picked up their jaws, they left their sense of abandonment behind, they turned from their places and headed back to town, not dispersed as at the crucifixion, but together as one family. They journeyed together, unemployed fishermen, dishonorable tax collectors, frustrated revolutionaries, folk of all sorts and conditions, and a widowed mother who had lost her son. They journeyed together. And he was with them. In an upper room they met, and prayed, and broke bread, not immobilized by abandonment and loneliness as a people without hope, but as a community and a family with a mission to the world – messengers of hope.

So we and many around us stand in our age, in our moments of loss and abandonment, in our fear and our hopelessness, in our immobility and frozenness, in a daze, gazing into the heavens, waiting for the kingdom of God, waiting for someone to make things right. But as the angels proclaimed to those disciples “people of Galilee, why are you staring into the heavens,” so those same disciples, who are to us angels of the gospel (for what is an angel but simply a messenger) proclaim to us through the pages of Holy Scripture across the ages, “People of your age, why are you gazing into the heavens? Why are you sorrowing as a people without hope? Why are you feeling lost and forsaken? The one who was crucified and was raised from the dead has not left you, but is glorified in your midst! He is with you to the ends of the age to the ends of the earth and is calling you to be his people and his messengers of the gospel!” Hearing these words, shall we forget the story of our faith? Even in our moments of isolation and abandonment, shall we forget the one that has journeyed with us through the crosses we have had to bear and has raised us up in from our moments of sadness and despair? Shall we forget the one who has carried us when we were weak? Shall we forget the one who forgets us not? Shall we forget the one who is with us always? We do not forget, because even in our brokenness we do not approach this story of the ascension as a paralyzed people but as a people who live in the power and light of the Risen Christ. We are a people who live in the power and breath of the Holy Spirit of God. We ourselves have become messengers, witnesses, like the angels and the apostles, who bear a message to a broken and hurting world. We come here like the apostles to discern our call, to wait on the call of the Spirit of God, to meet Christ in the breaking of the bread, and to return to the world proclaiming “He is risen, indeed!” To a world that only knows abandonment we proclaim he will not abandon or forsake the world or a single one of his children. In our experience of being beloved of God, in our knowledge that he will not forsake us, he gives us a mission: He sends us forth as messengers to proclaim to a hurting world that he is with us always, that we are not alone, that the kingdom of God is at hand.

Text copyright 2008, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This homily may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.


Anonymous said...

Thank You Rev.
Indeed he has risen. But why should we not mourn and cry in our dispair. Are these parts of our humanities not given to us through the grace of the lord?
How then do we know the right time to set them aside?

The Rev. Daniel Francis Graves said...

Thank you for your comment. You raise an important point. I certainly don't mean to suggest that we shouldn't embrace our pain. Indeed, in other writings I have stressed this point. However, I believe strongly in the fact that we are often confronted by moments of crisis. In these various crises of our lives we are called to confront whatever our angst might be and make a choice about how we will move forward. There is a time for weeping and a time for laughing. There is a time when grief gives way to healing. I would suggest that this was a point of crisis for the disciples. At the crucifixion they felt left alone, abandoned as a people without hope. The second time they are left alone, they have the abiding presence of the Risen Christ in their community and their lives. This gives them a way to turn their grief to joy and later, to mission to the world. They could have continued in their grief endlessly but through the words of angels, they were reminded of a deeper truth that caused them to approach their grief in a new and different way than before. In other words, it was okay to grieve for a time, but it could have also been destructive if they had chosen to embrace it continually. The Risen Christ, abiding with them (even though he was physically gone) continued to walk with them as they confronted their angst over this second (apparent) abandonment. When they realized that they had not really been left alone, they were able to experience even greater joys and hopes in their lives. The story of Pentecost (this coming Sunday), as I read it, is about an experience of not being left alone. The Eucharist, celebrated as an ongoing feast, is also a sign of the abiding presence of Christ in our shared life. I hope this helps.
Fr. Dan+