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the Reverend John Leedy
May 24, 2020
A Reading from the Book of Acts
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
I wonder if they saw it coming. The group, standing there, mouths hanging open, eyes lifted toward the sky, watching their hero fly away, up, up into the clouds, and vanishing from view. I wonder if they saw it coming.
I bet they didn’t. I bet they didn’t think this incredible story would end this way. There’s a hundred different ways it could have ended, but they probably never imagined this – him just flying away.
Yeah, I bet the students of Rydell High School never saw this coming.
They stood there, the entire student body, looking up as Danny Zuko revved up Greased Lightnin’ and flew off into the clouds with Sandy by his side at the end of the movie Grease.
I mean, truth be told, I didn’t see it coming either. No one ever does. I hate when movies end this way – with the character just flying off into the sunset. Maybe it’s just me, but something about that particular cinematic device just feels like a let down. A narrative cop out. Can we not just end the thing with everyone’s feet still on the ground?
Turns out, there are a ton of movies that end this way. Thanks to a quick Google search I turned up 55 different movies that end this way. Movies like The Matrix, Mary Poppins, Back to the Future, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Never-Ending Story, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Superman 1, Superman 2, Superman 3, Superman… okay, you get it.
Now, I will say, that if the hero has superpowers or if magic or aliens or airplanes make an appearance in the film… fine, I can get there. But nowhere in the movie Grease, does Danny or any of the other T-Birds slick back their hair, pull on their leather jackets, and then blast off through the stratosphere to pick up their girl for the Friday night dance. Re-diculous.
Now, Jesus did a lot of cool stuff in his day. Truly miraculous stuff. But nowhere does Jesus give us any indication he could fly. It’s like he was holding onto that card for last. So yeah, I’m sure the disciples never saw that coming. I wonder if they felt like I did, watching the end of Grease. What? That’s it? He’s gone, just like that? I’m sure they thought back to the past three years that they had spent with Jesus, living this amazing story. How alive they must have felt – walking by his side, wrestling with his teachings, watching in awe as he defied the powerful and lifted up the lowly. This amazing story – and it all ends like this? Yeah, I’m sure they never saw it coming. Jesus tried to tell them, over and over, he tried to tell them – of his crucifixion, of his death and resurrection, of him returning to God in heaven. But somehow, the end came too fast – his departure too abrupt. So, they stood there, watching the end of Jesus’ story on earth – and watching him ascend to heaven to reign as the cosmic Christ.
We saw it coming though. We see it coming every year, thanks to the liturgical calendar. The day of Ascension, celebrated 40 days after Easter, technically was this past Thursday, but is celebrated by the church six Sundays after Easter and one week before Pentecost. This cycle of Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost brings to a close the festive season of springtime and ushers in the long summertime stretch of ordinary time, or as our kids know it, the green and growing season.
But as we think about the entire liturgical year, we see how all the church’s holy days are spread out over weeks and months, and it’s easy to lose track of the ways they are interconnected. If each of these holy days celebrates a different story in the life of Christ, then it’s easy to lose track of the larger narrative. In the earliest decades of the church, before the liturgical calendar was developed, the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension was recited again and again, Sunday after Sunday, patterning the identity of those early Christians into the story of Christ. As the centuries rolled along, the church began to assign particular stories to particular dates as holy days. And as these holy days and holy stories became further spread apart throughout the year, the less interconnected they became.
These holy days were never meant to be stand-alone celebrations – rather, each of these holy days was meant to be in dialogue with other holy days – other holy stories told throughout the year. These pairings of stories and days reinterpret one another as a way of breaking open deeper theological meaning that would otherwise go unnoticed without this connectivity. Stories foretell and complete other stories. Let’s take, for example, the first three and the last three great feast days of the liturgical year – Christmas, Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord – and Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. The birth of Christ on Christmas is completed after the death and resurrection of Christ on Easter. He was born in poverty though he was God, died among the condemned though he was innocent, and was raised to save the lost. Christmas and Easter reinterpret one another. In the same way, the Baptism of Jesus reinterprets Pentecost. At his baptism, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus and inaugurates his ministry, just as that same Spirit descends in wind and fire upon the disciples, inaugurating the ministry of the church. Epiphany recalls the visitation of the magi who bow down and exalt the Christ child as a king. This foretells the completion of Jesus’ incarnate, earthly ministry when he is lifted up into the clouds at the Ascension and takes his place as eternal sovereign, seated at the right hand of God. These are the mysteries of our faith – these holy days, these holy stories that reinterpret one another, time and time again, year after year. They cycle back on themselves, each time revealing more and more about the love of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
I love the way our church celebrates these holy days. I think back to the candles being raised high as we sing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve and kids sneaking cookies under their costumes during the pageant. I think about the youth group cutting into the King Cake on Epiphany and kids crinkling their noses at the smell of frankincense. I think about the whole church, standing together in a big circle around the Sanctuary, with foreheads still dripping wet from the waters of the font as we remember the baptism of the Lord — this amazing story of Jesus Christ that we live out on these holy days, year after year after year.
And I remember one of the last things I saw on my desk as I packed up on the day our building closed – a draft copy of the Triduum bulletin – that beautiful bulletin that would never be used. The season of Coronatide had begun – and I tell you what, I never saw that coming.
I don’t think any of us saw it coming. And, if we did, we never thought it would last this long. This past Wednesday, the Session voted to postpone returning to the sanctuary at least until mid-August, and y’all, that was absolutely the right move, it was a wise and courageous move, it was a loving and compassionate move, but boy, does it hurt.
In my more discouraging moments, I find myself wondering, really? Is this how the story ends? What if things never feel the same when we go back to church? I loved that church. I loved our story together. And I feel like I’m standing here, looking up into the clouds, and watching it fly away. I hate when great stories end like that. I feel robbed. I feel shaken. I feel angry and frustrated and exhausted and so very, very sad. I feel totally disoriented, like the disciples must have felt, staring out into nothingness and wondering, what in the world do we do now?
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go...”
He will come in the same way you saw him go. The stories reinterpret the stories. In the same way the story of Epiphany reinterprets and foretells the story of the Ascension, the story of the Ascension foretells the story of Reign of Christ Sunday – the last holy day of the liturgical year – a holy day that doesn’t tell a story from the past, but instead, tells a story from the future – to the coming again of Christ in glory. No one knows when Christ will return and make all things new, but we Christians have cause to celebrate our hope in that day right now, on Ascension Sunday. We have cause to celebrate, people of Galilee, because God isn’t done with us yet. Yes, Jesus has ascended to heaven – but God isn’t done with us yet. Yes, we are stuck here in Zoom worship with hearts breaking and society a mess and people getting sick – but God isn’t done with us yet. In the same way God wasn’t done with those disciples on the mountaintop, God isn’t done with us either – because, as the disciples will soon discover, and as we will celebrate next week, God still has a few more tricks up her sleeve.
So, Jesus flies away. Weird, sad ending, roll credits. The disciples leave the Mount of Olives and head back to Jerusalem. Apparently, Jesus decided he’d rather work from home, so they’d better follow suit. They join up with their partners in ministry, the women who had also accompanied Jesus along the journey, and together, they pray. They pray and they pray and they pray. And their prayers begin to lay the groundwork for what is to come, the holy day yet to come.
Their prayers stir the air. Little flames dance on their wicks as they illuminate the room. The heavy door muffles the cacophony of voices coming from the crowd out on the street. They pray and they pray, all the while laying the foundation for the birth of the Church at Pentecost.
About three years ago, in 2017, I kept seeing this thing bouncing around on Facebook about how the church experiences some sort of big Reformation every 500 years or so. We can trace that pattern fairly well over time, from the conversion of Clovis in 503 to the Great Schism of 1054 to the Protestant Reformation in 1517. And guess what friends, it’s been about five hundred and three years since then, and perhaps the church is due. Reformations aren’t easy. They are fraught with conflict and crisis, grief and uncertainty, clashes of culture and ideologies. Reformations are hard, but Reformations are the way the church foretells the church to come, completes the church that was, and reinterprets the practice of faith for generations to come.
So maybe this is where we are, in this time none of us saw coming, this time in between times, this time of grieving with the disciples over the end of one story and laying the groundwork for the story to come – because God isn’t done with us yet. Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda – we are the church reformed and always reforming. What if, during this time of pandemic, our prayers, like those of the disciples, were laying the groundwork for the church to come? What if the ways we were learning to be church with one another – away from the stuff and the stress of the building – were laying the foundation for the church reforming? Perhaps this is the calm before the storm of a new Pentecost. As we devote ourselves to the prayers and to the Word, perhaps we are learning the true heart of worship, right here in our kitchens and living rooms, that we will carry back with us when we are once again able to gather in the sanctuary. What if this is our moment to practice radical love and care for one another as the body of Christ, broken and re-membered here for the sake of the world? What if this is our moment to lay aside the privilege of the church that was and reform the church toward justice for all God’s children? What if this is our moment to set aside colonial attitudes that think there have only been three great Reformations in the life of the church, forgetting the two thousand years that the global, non-Western, non-white church has been faithful to the movement of the Holy Spirit – and doing so without the need to racially oppress or enslave others? What if this is our moment, Men of Galilee, to step aside and remember that women belong right there on the mountaintop beside us, as true partners in ministry and leaders in the world? What if this is our moment – our moment to lay the foundation for the world and the church to come? What if we are living a Reformation in real time? A Reformation we never saw coming.
May the stories of our past foretell and complete the stories of our present. And may the stories of our present reinterpret our hope in the great story to come.
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