As many of you know, I grew up on the east coast, where I went to junior and senior high school on Long Island. While I much prefer living in Oregon, there’s no question that going to school 35 miles from New York City had its perks. Basically, the city was our resource center. We saw plays on Broadway, went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to French restaurants, took boat rides around Manhattan Island past the Statue of Liberty. It was fabulous. One thing I remember being cautioned about, we were told it was a law but which is surely an urban legend, was that we were never to stop on the streets of New York and look up for an extended period of time. Supposedly, as the story went, this would cause other people to do the same, and a crowd could form impeding foot traffic. If the crowd grew large enough and spilled into the street vehicular traffic could be affected, and well, chaos would ensue. So, the admonition went, don’t look up. You have to know I think of that every time I hear in this lesson from Acts: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” At the other end of the emotional spectrum from this light-heated connection, is the day the whole city of New York looked up, frozen in place as they beheld the horror unfolding above them. Only when a dust cloud of truly biblical proportions sent them fleeing by any means possible as far from downtown and the collapsing towers as they could get, did people look away.
While it would seem nothing could be farther removed from the Ascension than the nightmare of 9/11, there is one way in which I believe these events are strikingly similar. Surely every person in New York City that day had to have been thinking, as I was standing in my living room here in Eugene staring at the television, some version of, “What’s happening? What does this mean? What are we supposed to do?”
Think about the lives the followers of Jesus described in this lesson have been living. Three or so years earlier, they had walked away from their livelihoods to follow an itinerant preacher, albeit a very charismatic one who did over time become quite popular. For the most part his popularity was with the people of the land, that is the people who couldn’t possibly keep all the purity laws required of faithful Jews because they spent their days from dawn til dusk working in the fields or the vineyards, tending sheep, fishing, doing whatever they had to do simply to survive. They tended to be looked down upon by the upper classes who did have the time and resources to follow all that the complex rituals Jewish religious dogma required of them. Over time Jesus’ popularity with these everyday people started to feel like a threat to those in power, something the disciples surely must have sensed. Jesus finally named the problem himself when he announced that he needed to go up to Jerusalem where he would be killed. His followers’ perfectly human, not to mention rational response was, well then let’s not go! But no, Jesus said, I have to go. So they went, and heading into the city things looked good, people welcomed Jesus with open arms. Maybe he had exaggerated the disciples probably hoped, maybe things would be okay after all. But of course they didn’t know they had a mole in their midst, who would sell out Jesus to the authorities for thirty pieces of silver. Worse yet, Jesus didn’t just end up with the the Jewish high priests, because they quickly turned him over to the Romans.
Now Jesus walked the earth during the Pax Romana, the period of time when the Roman Empire extended from Hadrian’s wall in the north of England south to Morocco and Egypt over to Iraq in the east. The Romans were able to maintain control of all that territory for roughly two hundred years because they simply did not tolerate any sort of turmoil among the peoples over whom they ruled. Cause any sort of a stir, and they executed you. It wasn’t anything personal, they just couldn’t allow a small problem to escalate into something larger. So when it appeared to Pilate that a riot was ensuing, he ordered the unthinkable, he told his soldiers to crucify Jesus. Terrified that they would be next his follows went into hiding. But on the first day of the week some of the women in the group, who were probably in less danger than the men, chose to go to the tomb to properly anoint the body, because that hadn’t happened when Jesus’ body was laid in the tomb on the eve of the Sabbath. Totheir horror as we know, they found no body to anoint. Jesus was gone. Fear not they were told, either by Jesus himself or an angel, depending on which account you read, Jesus is alive. Sure enough, he appeared to the disciples in that upper room where they were hiding, and to travelers on the road to Emmaus, and by the lake back in the Galilee. Because adapting is how we survive, Jesus’ followers probably began to get used to seeing him less often than they had previously in this somewhat weird manner during the weeks after Easter. But then Jesus told them you’re going to receive help from the Holy Spirit so you can be my witnesses to the ends of the earth, and he was gone again. “What is he talking about? What’s next? What are we supposed to do now?” We all know what’s coming next, Pentecost is only a week away, but they didn’t know that. They could easily have said at that point, that’s it, I am done, I am heading back to my boat or my tax booth or whatever, gone home, and Christianity would have died before it was born.
Not knowing what’s next is how we live. Most of the time we cope with that well, in fact we take it pretty much for granted, but in times of crisis not knowing what lies ahead of us can be absolutely terrifying. Clearly the disciples wanted information, they begged Jesus to give them a sense of what was coming but he refused, saying it wasn’t for them, or us, to know. We aren’t made that way. If we knew what the future held, there would be no room in our lives for hope. We would be little more than robots, going through the motions of life rather than really living it. How many times have you found yourself thinking, Oh, I wish I didn’t know that? Sometimes not knowing makes it easier for us to be our best selves, unencumbered by the disdain, or disapproval, or fear that can overtake us, depending on what it is we’ve found out. I was and still am profoundly thankful we didn’t know until three weeks before she died that my mom had cancer. Given the sort she had there would have been nothing to be done had we found out three months, rather than three weeks, ahead of time. However, she and we would have spent those three months fretting, overreacting to every tiny twinge or slightly down day she might have had. As it was, everything happened so fast all we could think about was being there for her, caring for her around the clock until the moment she left us. Our hope in that seemingly hopeless situation, was that we could keep her comfortable while conveying through everything we said and did, how much we loved her. I believe we did that.
Hope isn’t passive. Indeed, it is hope that prevents us from being passive bystanders to our own lives. Hope is what enables us to keep on keeping on as the saying goes, when everyone and everything seems to be telling us to just give up. Hope is what allows us to see a light at the end of a tunnel that others perceive as nothing but a black hole. We know about Jesus because his terrified followers did not give up, did not scatter to the four winds, but stayed together even after Jesus left them, linked by their common love of this man they had come to know as the Messiah, and a sense that whatever was coming, they would not only be be able to handle it, but were expected to. Jesus had told them they would be empowered to do his bidding. They believed him and their faith was justified.
We’re called to demonstrate that same sort of confidence when we find ourselves in difficult situations such as having to say goodbye to someone important to us. Whether the individual in question is going off to college, or leaving to take a new job in a different part of the country, or has left this life for the next, parting is always hard. But thanks to the remarkable spirit to spirit to Holy Spirit connection that links us all through time and space, the aching loneliness and sense that we don’t quite know how to be without that missing person subsides over time. As was pointed out more than once before he left, Father Brad took something of us with him to Wisconsin, but he also left part of himself behind here at St. Mary’s. We have been forever changed by having known him, as he has by having known us. That’s true throughout our lives as connections are made and broken, no matter the circumstances of the separation. Life goes on, we busy ourselves with the ministries that fulfill us, while finding new and different ways to connect to those we no longer get to see face to face, if only in our dreams. The Celts described this ebb and flow of life beautifully with the saying that accompanies their round crosses: What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. This end is where we start from.
In so many ways, Christianity is a religion of paradox. We worship an all powerful God who chose to take human form with all its limitations, and live among us. We believe that in giving we receive, that in pardoning we are pardoned, that in serving we find perfect freedom. Perhaps strangest of all, unlike other religions whose symbols - a six pointed star, a crescent moon, a lotus - suggest beauty and light, Christianity takes as its symbol an instrument of death. But those crosses that grace our church buildings, our altars, that many of us wear around our necks, are the ultimate symbol of hope, because they are empty. However each of us understands the details of Easter Day and the Ascension, we absolutely believe that the cross did not win. Jesus did. We absolutely believe that death did not win. We did. For that reason we don’t need to know what our future holds to know that we have one. We are a resurrection people, who live with the sure and certain hope that even death is not the end, but rather that this life is only the first step in our eternal walk with God. Amen.