Stop Looking Up

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Claire Nevin-Field on the Seventh Sunday of Easter

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According to those who keep track of such things, Sunday morning is the most divided time in America’s week. It is racially divided- those who go to church mostly separate into white churches and black churches, and it is the day when, despite what we tell ourselves about being a Christian nation, the majority of Americans do not go to church at all. It is just not part of their lives. They go to brunch, to soccer games, for walks in the park, or they just linger over that second cup of coffee and the paper. We, those of us who do go to church, who gather here, are odd. Non-church folks look at us and sort of shake their heads, wondering why we show up here week after week- spending a non-productive hour or so reciting words about a God no one can prove exists.

But those of us who do show up despite the lure of eggs benedict find we begin to count on it. We begin to see it as the place that helps us figure out who we are, whose we are, where we fit in the grand scheme of life and what we are to do. We sing, we pray, we sit still and are silent, we share bread and wine. We puzzle our friends and neighbors, sometimes we puzzle ourselves- we who talk of light in darkness, good news in the midst of suffering and pain. We who wait for a savior to show up when evidence might suggest he took a long look around and then left quite some time ago.

The truth is we have been craning our necks, looking for him ever since the first Ascension Day. According to Acts, Jesus and his little group of followers wandered up to the top of Mt. Olivet and there he disappeared. One moment he was standing right there with them, hand raised in that familiar blessing, and the next he was carried off into heaven, out of sight. Gone. Like a dream that may or may not have been real. No longer there and real but in the past, like a memory that would haunt them to the end of their days.

Acts tells us Jesus went to heaven where he was to finish the work he had begun with us. That work was to return the gift of life, made flesh at Christmas, back to the Source- to return the body of the world to God. To show that flesh and blood are good enough for God, for heaven. To complete the act of bringing God to us by bringing us back to God. Which is theologically eloquent and sounds really good, but it is definitely one of those things that clarifies that Jesus was/is God, and you and I are not. You and I were born of human mothers, we eat drink laugh cry sleep wake up just as Jesus did. We love people and get angry with people. Just as he did. We even have some experience with rising from the dead, like he did. But being carried bodily into heaven and then taking a seat at the right hand of God? This is where we part company and join the disciples, staring upwards, mouths hanging open. Together, but alone. I am guessing that in the first few days after he left them the disciples figured he would be back soon- he always showed up eventually. But 2000 years later we are still standing around looking upwards- waiting for him to show up again. Waiting and remembering the day he went away- the day the present Lord became absent. That is, in many ways, a terrifying thing to talk about- the absence of God-perhaps this is why Ascension is one of the most under-celebrated days on the Christian calendar. But maybe in the midst of all the other reasons we might cite for being in church, maybe this sense of absence is one of them. Maybe it is our sleepless nights, our unanswered prayers, that prompt us to come here looking for God- for a glimpse of that presence.

And absence might be highly underrated. If you think about it, when something or someone you love is absent all the reasons we love them, need them, become much clearer. When present all we can focus on is that annoying habit of leaving dirty dishes in the sink, but absent we see the virtues we have overlooked, the opportunities missed-and those dishes in the sink suddenly become a cute quirk- an endearing trait. From the enlarged perspective absence gives us we can see the very things that make my someone someone and not just anyone.

Another truth is that you cannot really miss what you have never known, which makes our sense of absence-our sense of God’s absence-the best proof that we knew God once, and that we may know God again. There is loss in absence, but there is also hope, because what happened once can happen again – only an empty cup can be filled. But in order for that to happen we have to be willing to pull our cups out of hiding, willing to admit they are empty, and hold them up to be filled.

So, perhaps that is what we are doing here. Holding our empty cups out in hope that they will be filled again. Like his forlorn disciples, we return to the hilltop again and again, looking for him in the place we last saw him. We have been coming here a long time and this seems like a good place to remember him-to recall best moments and argue about details, to swap old stories until they begin to come alive again.

“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” asked the angels. The angels wanted to remind the disciples, God’s friends, that if you wanted to see him again, standing looking up was not going to cut it. They needed to look around instead, at each other, at the world, at ordinary people living ordinary lives. The angels wanted to make sure they knew that the way they would find him was not the way they used to know him but the new way, not in his body, but in their bodies. The angels wanted to make sure they knew that the Risen ascended Lord was not anywhere on earth so that he could be everywhere instead.

If we had been eyewitnesses that day we would likely not have caught the moment when they stopped looking up and started looking at each other instead. But it became pretty clear to anyone who was paying attention as, in the days and weeks afterwards they went from being 11 abandoned disciples with nothing to show for all their following, to people who, with only a promise and a prayer, became the church. And nothing was the same again. As BBT says, “The followers became leaders, the listeners became preachers, the converts became missionaries, and the healed became healers.” The motley crew of disciples became apostles-witnesses of the Risen Lord. This was probably as much of a surprise to them as it was to everyone around them. And, if they were being honest, I have a hunch they would have preferred it if Jesus had hung around so they could hang onto him. But that is not how it happened. He went away and they stood looking up after him. Then they looked at each other. Then they got on with the business of being the church. And once they did that, surprising things began to happen. They found that they started to sound like him, act like him. They became brave, capable, strong, and wise. Whenever 2 or 3 of them go together it was always as if there was someone else in the room with them. Whenever they ate bread and wine together it was is if he was sitting at the table with them- breathing his life and strength back into them. It was almost as if he had not ascended but exploded in a burst of light, energy, and life- so that all the holiness that was once concentrated in him flew everywhere, scattered throughout the whole earth-imbuing the whole Creation with his presence, his essence.

We come here to worship, to acknowledge the Lord’s absence and seek the Lord’s presence, to be silent, to sing, to hold out our empty cups so they can be filled with bread and wine. Do you long for assurance that you have not been left behind? Then why do you stand looking up to heaven? Look around you. Look around you.

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The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field

The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field is the rector of St. Peter's Church.

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