Getting Our Heads Out of the Clouds: Sermon for Ascension Sunday, May 13, 2018

It’s hard to believe, but Easter was now 43 days ago. It feels like spring just got here last week, so Easter feels like it happened so long ago, at least to me. And yet, here we are, 43 days later. 

I know it’s 43 days because we have a lesser-known holiday in the church called Ascension Day that takes place exactly forty days after Easter. So, that was on Thursday. And you all missed the Ascension Day service!

We didn’t have one, of course. It’s not like Christmas, or even Ash Wednesday, where people come out midweek to worship. Churches traditionally celebrate this holiday on the next Sunday, which is today. 

And, if you don’t know the story of the Ascension, you’re not alone. It’s an important story, but one that’s hard to explain. Frankly, it’s also one that’s hard to believe. And that’s because this is how it goes: 40 days after Easter, after the day we was raised from the dead, Jesus was teaching the disciples, and they were asking him questions. 

One asked, “Lord, is this when we’re going to restore the kingdom to Israel”? What they meant by that was, “So Jesus, we’re about to do this thing, right? We’re about to tell everyone who you are and you’re about to take over and fixed everything here?”

That’s understandable. Here’s Jesus who died and came back to life. It’s amazing, and they know now who he is. They want to tell everyone about him, and they want to show them that they were right, that Jesus was worth following, and that now Jesus was going to fix everything.

So, let’s go Jesus…let’s get started.

But this happens instead. Jesus tells them that they don’t know what’s coming or when, and that all of that is God’s business. He tells them instead that they will be his “witnesses”. And then, while they are still watching him, he lifts up off the ground, into the clouds, and disappeared.

So, I’ve always envied the disciples. They got to know Jesus, to hear him teach, and to see and touch him in the flesh. They never had to ask themselves the questions that we do like “Did he really exist?” or “Did he do all those things the Bible says he did?” or “What was he like?” But this is one time that I don’t envy them, because this must have been absolutely crazy to watch.

I picture them all standing there, with their heads looking up, asking one another, “Did you see that too?” 

And so, they were standing there, with their heads, literally, in the clouds, doing nothing…and that’s when they hear this voice. And there are two men dressed all in white, messengers, saying “Why are you guys looking in the clouds? He is going to come back to you again.”

Sometimes the church needs people like those two guys in white. We need them to call our attention back from gazing up at the clouds all the time and to the world we are in now. And we need them to remind us that we have a task here as disciples of Christ. Jesus said that we would become his “witnesses”, the people who could testify to who he was and what he wants for the world. And with the Ascension the baton has been passed, we are left as witnesses to Christ’s life and work, and we are called to be the church.

And we won’t get very far in that work if all we do is keep our head in the clouds.

The Book of Acts, the book we read from today and the one that we will be reading from a lot in the lectionary cycle we are following now, is about what happens next. This is the very start of that book. And it’s what happens when the disciples become the first church. It’s about how they go from this small group of people who followed Jesus to a community that grows and spreads and endures to this day. 

And it’s worth remembering that it starts with this: the disciples looking up in the clouds and getting their attention called back to the world they have been asked to serve. 

And so those of us who are followers of Christ, those of us who are asked to be witnesses, have this big task of showing the world what the love and grace of Christ looks like. We are supposed to live in this world in a different way, one that shows what could be. One of hope. One of promise. One of building up this world. 

But here’s the thing…this is hard work. It’s work that makes us struggle, and work that will sometimes leave us doubting. And it’s work that’s too important to do alone. And so, that’s where the church comes in.

Christianity is a religion that many try to practice on their own. They think that so long as they believe the right things and try to act the right way, they don’t really need a community of faith like this. And, I’m not saying that those people are not good people. But, I am saying that Jesus never meant for us to follow him on our own. 

Jesus called his disciples into community. He taught them together. He gathered them at the table on the night of his Last Supper together. He showed himself to them after his Resurrection when they were together. And on the day of the Ascension, he made sure they were all there together. And that’s because we need one another in order.

That’s where church comes in. Church is the place we come to in order to remember this story, to tell it to each other again, to sing the faith, to share our joys and our pain, and to do the work of making this world a little better….together. 

Church is also the place we come to when we are struggling to be witnesses. Church is where we come when belief feels hard, and when we are filled with doubt. When that happens, perhaps more than ever, that’s when we need the church. Because on the days when we cannot quite believe, the community can believe for us, and can carry us through until we know God’s love in our hearts once again. 

Church is big enough for that. Church is big enough for a lot of things.

I think about that today on this Mother’s Day. Every minister I know has wrestled with how to celebrate Mother’s Day in church. On the one hand there’s this pressure to dedicate the whole day to moms and how great they are. On the other, there’s a lot of pain for a lot of people around the day. 

For some, this is a celebration, full only of happy memories of their own moms, or their own experiences of motherhood. But for others, this is a painful day. It’s a reminder of painful relationships, or of the loss of a mother, or of infertility, of the loss of a child, or of an unexpected pregnancy. 

So, what do we do? Do we ignore it completely? Do we choose celebration or sadness? Or, do we do what the church does, and make room for all of it?

I believe that we do the latter, because I believe in the church as a place that is big enough for our whole lives, because God is big enough for our whole lives. I believe in the church as a place where we can bring all of us. I believe in the church as a place that teaches us to be witnesses, and that witnesses to us when life gets hard. 

Carol

Flying kites together

Next week – story of Pentecost – in many ways a continuation of today – Jesus says Holy Spirit coming

Launch: Sermon for Ascension Sunday, 2016

I couldn’t wait to get to college. As much as I loved my parents, like every college freshman I was eager to be on my own. And so we pulled up to the dorm as soon as it opened on the first day, I got everything I could out of the car as quickly as possible, set it up in my dorm room, and told my parents that I was fine, and that I’d see them on fall break.

But as soon as my parents disappeared out the front doors of the dorm, a sinking realization hit me: I was on my own.

I wonder if the disciples were panicking like that the day Jesus left them there at Bethany. Today we read the story of the Ascension, when Jesus is lifted up into heaven, seemingly leaving the world behind, and on its own.

It hadn’t been all that long since Christ has been put to death, and then resurrected. And I wonder if when he rose again the disciples had thought they had him back for good. Were they really ready to be on their own? Were they like college freshmen, eager for mom and dad to get back in the station wagon so that a new life could finally begin? Or were they scared to death?

I was the youngest of my parents’ kids, and born significantly after my sisters, so by the time I went to college they had had kids in the house for 33 consecutive years. I think they had earned a vacation. So they did what they had always dreamed of doing, and they went to Paris.

But this was before the days of cell phones, and I didn’t really have an easy way to reach them. And so a few weeks into my freshman year, when I hit the inevitable point of having some problem I wasn’t sure how to handle, I realized that for the first time in my life I couldn’t turn to mom and dad for advice. I had to rely on what they had taught me, and trust that it wouldn’t lead me wrong.

I wonder how long it took before the disciples had a question they couldn’t answer on their own, and they wished he was back there? And I wonder if like me they realized that they just had to rely on what he had taught them, and trust that it wouldn’t lead them wrong?

That can be a scary thing. Like the disciples, we can feel that void and that uncertainty sometimes. As much as we believe that God is still active in our lives, as much as we believe in the continual guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can feel like sometimes we are on our own.

When Jesus returned to God he did stop being with the disciples in a physical way. But the blessing in that is that this means that he is no longer with just a small group of people in one place long ago. He now is able to be with all of us, all the time.

Christ is here right now in Exeter, and he’s down the road in Boston, and he’s out in California, and across the oceans in every place you can think of. He’s even there at Bethany, where we last saw him 2,000 years ago. He’s with us still.

I believe that. But I also believe this. We have a harder time believing in what we cannot see. And so for those of us who are Christians, we need physical daily reminders of who Christ is, and what Christ desires for us. We need to be reminded that Christ is with us daily, and that God is here.

So what’s the answer? It’s us. You and I. The church. And the world around us.

There are two parts to this, and every one of us has played both roles. First, we have to learn how to see Christ in everyone we meet. And second, we need to learn how to be Christ to everyone we meet.

Maybe you’ve heard it said before that Christ comes disguised as the stranger. Christ is in our midst every day, but he doesn’t look like the Sunday school painting of him with the white robes and long hair and sandals. He might look like a woman who needs money for food. Or a man who is in the hospital, fighting depression He might look like the kid who is getting bullied in high school. Or the veteran returning from war.

Jesus shows up in the most unexpected places. And when Jesus does, I want to be ready. I want to meet Jesus, and love Jesus, and be the person Jesus wants me to be. And so I try to practice. With every person I meet, no matter how they might challenge me, I try to see Jesus in them.
That’s not easy. But it’s the best way I know how to make sure I don’t go through a day without seeing Jesus in the world around me.

But then there’s the next step too. And that’s not just learning to see Christ in others, but also learning how to be Christ to others. Martin Luther wrote that we Christians are called to be “little Christs” to one another. Our job is to imitate Christ in our lives, and respond to those we meet the way we think Christ would respond to them. When we do that well, lives are changed.

But only when we do that well.

Churches, and their clergy, have sometimes been accused of being out of touch with the real world. Karl Marx called religion the “opiate of the people” because he believed it made us ignore the pains and injustices of the world and look to a pie-in-the-sky heaven when this life is over.

They might even say we have our heads in the clouds.

That problem didn’t start, or end, with us though. Because from the very beginning of the church, nearly 2,000 years ago, Christians have had to be reminded that they can’t spend too much time with their heads in the clouds.

IMG_9225

In fact, standing there looking up in the sky after Jesus, the first disciples were doing literally just that.

My guess is that they were all standing there looking up and saying, “Where did he go?” Or, “did that really just happen?” Or, “what do we do now?”

They were standing there, with their heads in the clouds, doing nothing…and that’s when they heard this voice. And there were two men dressed all in white, messengers, saying “Why are you guys looking in the clouds? He is going to come back to you again.”

Sometimes the church needs people like those two guys in white. We need them to call our attention back from gazing up at the clouds all the time and to the world we are in now. And we need them to remind us that we have a task here as disciples of Christ. Because with the Ascension the baton has been passed, we are left as witnesses to Christ’s life and work, and we are called to be the church.

But we won’t get very far in that work if all we do is keep our head in the clouds.

And so here is the reminder of the Ascension: the church would never have gotten anywhere if those first disciples hadn’t stop looking at what didn’t matter, and instead start looking around at one another. That doesn’t mean don’t ask the big questions. And that doesn’t mean get busy and stop taking time to be with God.

On the contrary, I think it means something else. It means that sometimes when we get distracted by the fears, anxieties, or distractions of minor details, as every church does, we have to get our head out of the clouds too, stop being paralyzed by what matters little, and start being the church.

It is a luxury to spend our time focused on things like building and spreadsheets and committee structures and the like. Yes, it’s necessary to do these things, but ultimately we are not here for that work. It’s just cloud cover. These are the things that help us to do our ministry in this world. They are not our ministry. They are tools. They can never become our idols.

Instead, we have to look down, and look at one another. We have to figure out how to be Christ embodied to one another, and to the world.

Today we have a good reminder of why we get our head out of the clouds. Today we are baptizing James, who is all of eight months old. We already know James, and love him. And today we are going to pledge to help to teach him who God is, and what it means to follow Jesus Christ. He is going to grow up in this church, and he is going to learn from us.

And so, what are we going to teach him that church means? What are we going to teach him is most important?

I hope this is what he learns most of all: I hope he learns that God loves him, and that God needs him to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world. I hope he learns what it means to love other people. I hope he learns to pray, to ask big questions, and to serve. And I hope he learns that clouds come and go, but the firm foundation of faith is always there. And I hope he learns that here in this church, and from us. Amen?

Ascending: Sermon for June 1, 2014

Acts 1:6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

1:7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.

1:8 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.”

1:9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

1:10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.

1:11 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.”

Churches, and their clergy, have sometimes been accused of being out of touch with the real world. Karl Marx called religion the “opiate of the people” because he believed it made us ignore the pains and injustices of the world and look to a pie-in-the-sky heaven when this life is over. And even today you hear plenty of people talking about how Christians are too focused on the next life, and not focused enough on this one.

They might even say we have our heads in the clouds.

cropped-img_0929.jpg

Sometimes they’re right. I’ve talked before about how after seminary I did some coursework to get a PhD, and how I ultimately left that program because I felt like I was gazing into the heavens, doing nothing, while the real world, full of real needs, was all around me. And as much as studying theology at the next level had felt noble at the beginning, by the end it felt like I was really missing the point.

The problem didn’t start, or end, with me though. Because from the very beginning of the church, nearly 2,000 years ago, Christians have had to be reminded that they can’t spend too much time with their heads in the clouds.

The first disciples were doing literally just that. On the fortieth day after Easter, after weeks of Jesus appearing to them after the Resurrection and telling them how to be his disciples, he told them that he wouldn’t be physically with them anymore. Instead, he would always be with them, but in a different way. He was returning to the Creator, and speaking through the Holy Spirit.
And after he told them this, Scripture tells us that he was lifted up into heaven and “a cloud took him out of sight”.

In the church we call this the Ascension, which is a fancy way of saying that Jesus is preparing a new place for us now, and has gone before us. But, fancy theological terms aside, can you imagine what the disciples were thinking that day? My guess is that they were all standing there looking up and saying, “Where did he go?” Or, “did that really just happen?” Or, “what do we do now?”
And so, they were standing there, with their heads in the clouds, doing nothing…and that’s when they hear this voice. And there are two men dressed all in white, messengers, saying “Why are you guys looking in the clouds? He is going to come back to you again.”

Sometimes the church needs people like those two guys in white. We need them to call our attention back from gazing up at the clouds all the time and to the world we are in now. And we need them to remind us that we have a task here as disciples of Christ. Because with the Ascension the baton has been passed, we are left as witnesses to Christ’s life and work, and we are called to be the church.
And we won’t get very far in that work if all we do is keep our head in the clouds.

The Book of Acts, the book we read from today and the one that we will be reading from a lot in the lectionary cycle we are following now, is about what happens next. This is the very start of that book. And it’s what happens when the disciples become the first church. It’s about how they go from this small group of people who followed Jesus to a community that grows and spreads and endures to this day.

And it’s worth remembering that it starts with this: the disciples looking up in the clouds and getting their attention called back to the world they have been asked to serve.

It’s really fitting that this passage happened to come up in the lectionary today because today after coffee hour we are starting phase two of our visioning process. This is the part where we sit with each other for the next six weeks and we have discussions about what we believe God is asking us to do, and how God is asking our church to exist in our community.

Our church has had some good things happen to it in the last few years. We are bigger, and we are increasingly connected to both mission and the larger church, and we are looking ahead to a future that I believe will be very bright. But that also means that we are on new ground. And we are having to learn how to be the church together in new ways. And sometimes that can feel confusing and daunting, and we feel better looking up in the clouds and asking, “now where did that guy with all the answer go?”

Those first disciples knew what that was like. Because on that day they were standing there, looking up, and going, “What now?” “Where do we go from here?”

And the answer they got, was “don’t look up in the clouds. Look around you.”

And that’s what we get too. In this visioning process, instead of just looking to the clouds for answers, we get to ask the question, “What is clouding our vision?” We get to ask, what is happening here all around us, in our community and in our world? And then we get to ask, what is our role in it all?

Today’s discussion is about “purpose”, as in “what is our purpose here as a church?” And I’m not going to give you all the “right answers” here about how why our church exists in our community, or how our life together should unfold, because I don’t claim to have all the “right answers”.

But I will say this, our purpose has to do with something more than looking into the clouds and longing after Jesus. And it has to do with more than being a clubhouse for people who believe and act the way that we do. Instead it has to do with helping one another to live out the sort of life that Jesus asked of us, and serving our neighbors in love because Jesus first loved us. It’s a very down-to-earth purpose that we are called to gather around, and that means that it is also a very possible one.

It has to start with pulling our heads out of the clouds, and looking around. We live in what has been called the “least religious state” in the country. We live in a small community that has fewer and fewer year-round jobs and that means a lot less young families. We live in a place where many, if not most, people have to work on Sunday morning in order to provide for their family. And we live in an era where compulsory church attendance has vanished. We live in a challenging time to be the church.

But it’s not the first challenge. The Scripture passage today proves that. But even if you want to get a little closer to home, in both time and place, there are other examples too.

A few years back I was given an excerpt from a letter written by a “George Mann” to his friend “Rice”. The date was August 6, 1858, 156 years ago. And the place was West Dover, Vermont. That summer, the church, this building we are sitting in now, was being built.

And I don’t know much about Mr. Mann, but he didn’t have a whole lot of faith in either the future of this church or of Dover in general. He wrote to his friend,

“The meeting house advances towards completion slowly – the steeple is on it looks majestic – they have money enough subscribed to purchase a bell I think – os you see we shall soon be cheered weekly by the tones of “Sweet Sabbath Bell” – but I fear it will not have the power to bring out to church all the wicked, hardened “non church going” sinners of this wicked place”. He underlined that last part for emphasis.

Mr. Mann, whoever he was, was wrong. Because 156 years later you and I are sitting in this sanctuary. And the community outside our doors is not full of “wicked, hardened” people, and it is not a “wicked place”. It’s a good place, filled with good people, church-goers or not. Everything else has changed, except that, and except the fact that our church bell still tolls every week, not just welcoming our neighbors, but reminding us to serve them.

As much as those two men reminded the disciples to take their heads out of the clouds, that bell reminds us to stop looking up, and start looking out. To keep serving our neighbors, and to keep spreading God’s love to our community. We’ve been doing it for 155 years. But we’re just kids, in the big scheme of things. The church has been doing it for nearly 2000 now. And somehow, by the grace of God, it’s still going. I think that means that God has a purpose for us yet. Amen.

Getting Our Heads Out of the Clouds: A Sermon for Ascension Sunday, May 12, 2013

Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo, Ascension of Christ

Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo, Ascension of Christ

Churches, and their clergy, have sometimes been accused of being out of touch with the real world. Karl Marx called religion the “opiate of the people” because he believed it made us ignore the pains and injustices of the world and look to a pie-in-the-sky heaven when this life is over. And even today you hear plenty of people talking about how Christians are too focused on the next life, and not focused enough on this one.

They might even say we have our heads in the clouds.

Sometimes they’re right. I’ve talked before about how after seminary I did some coursework to get a PhD, and how I ultimately left that program because I felt like I was gazing into the heavens, doing nothing, while the real world, full of real needs, was all around me. And as much as studying theology at the next level had felt noble at the beginning, by the end it felt like I was really missing the point.

The problem didn’t start, or end, with me though. Because from the very beginning of the church, nearly 2,000 years ago, Christians have had to be reminded that they can’t spend too much time with their heads in the clouds.

The first disciples were doing literally just that. On the fortieth day after Easter, after weeks of Jesus appearing to them after the Resurrection and telling them how to be his disciples, he told them that he wouldn’t be physically with them anymore. Instead, he would always be with them, but in a different way. He was returning to the Creator, and speaking through the Holy Spirit.

And after he told them this, Scripture tells us that he was lifted up into heaven and “a cloud took him out of sight”.

In the church we call this the Ascension, which is a fancy way of saying that Jesus is preparing a new place for us now, and has gone before us. But, fancy theological terms aside, can you imagine what the disciples were thinking that day? My guess is that they were all standing there looking up and saying, “Where did he go?” Or, “did that really just happen?” Or, “what do we do now?”

And so, they were standing there, with their heads in the clouds, doing nothing…and that’s when they hear this voice. And there are two men dressed all in white, messengers, saying “Why are you guys looking in the clouds? He is going to come back to you again.”

Sometimes the church needs people like those two guys in white. We need them to call our attention back from gazing up at the clouds all the time and to the world we are in now. And we need them to remind us that we have a task here as disciples of Christ. Because with the Ascension the baton has been passed, we are left as witnesses to Christ’s life and work, and we are called to be the church.

And we won’t get very far in that work if all we do is keep our head in the clouds.

The Book of Acts, the book we read from today and the one that we will be reading from a lot in the lectionary cycle we are following now, is about what happens next. This is the very start of that book. And it’s what happens when the disciples become the first church. It’s about how they go from this small group of people who followed Jesus to a community that grows and spreads and endures to this day.

And it’s worth remembering that it starts with this: the disciples looking up in the clouds and getting their attention called back to the world they have been asked to serve.

It’s really fitting that this passage happened to come up in the lectionary today because today after coffee hour we are starting phase two of our visioning process. This is the part where we sit with each other for the next six weeks and we have discussions about what we believe God is asking us to do, and how God is asking our church to exist in our community.

Our church has had some good things happen to it in the last few years. We are bigger, and we are increasingly connected to both mission and the larger church, and we are looking ahead to a future that I believe will be very bright. But that also means that we are on new ground. And we are having to learn how to be the church together in new ways. And sometimes that can feel confusing and daunting, and we feel better looking up in the clouds and asking, “now where did that guy with all the answer go?”

Those first disciples knew what that was like. Because on that day they were standing there, looking up, and going, “What now?” “Where do we go from here?”

And the answer they got, was “don’t look up in the clouds. Look around you.”

And that’s what we get too. In this visioning process, instead of just looking to the clouds for answers, we get to ask the question, “What is clouding our vision?” We get to ask, what is happening here all around us, in our community and in our world? And then we get to ask, what is our role in it all?

Today’s discussion is about “purpose”, as in “what is our purpose here as a church?” And I’m not going to give you all the “right answers” here about how why our church exists in our community, or how our life together should unfold, because I don’t claim to have all the “right answers”.

But I will say this, our purpose has to do with something more than looking into the clouds and longing after Jesus. And it has to do with more than being a clubhouse for people who believe and act the way that we do. Instead it has to do with helping one another to live out the sort of life that Jesus asked of us, and serving our neighbors in love because Jesus first loved us. It’s a very down-to-earth purpose that we are called to gather around, and that means that it is also a very possible one.

It has to start with pulling our heads out of the clouds, and looking around. We live in what has been called the “least religious state” in the country. We live in a small community that has fewer and fewer year-round jobs and that means a lot less young families. We live in a place where many, if not most, people have to work on Sunday morning in order to provide for their family. And we live in an era where compulsory church attendance has vanished. We live in a challenging time to be the church.

But it’s not the first challenge. The Scripture passage today proves that. But even if you want to get a little closer to home, in both time and place, there are other examples too.

Last fall I was given an excerpt from a letter written by a “George Mann” to his friend “Rice”. The date was August 6, 1858, 155 years ago. And the place was West Dover, Vermont. That summer, the church, this building we are sitting in now, was being built.

And I don’t know much about Mr. Mann, but he didn’t have a whole lot of faith in either the future of this church or of Dover in general. He wrote to his friend,

“The meeting house advances towards completion slowly – the steeple is on it looks majestic – they have money enough subscribed to purchase a bell I think – os you see we shall soon be cheered weekly by the tones of “Sweet Sabbath Bell” – but I fear it will not have the power to bring out to church all the wicked, hardened “non church going” sinners of this wicked place”. He underlined that last part for emphasis.

Mr. Mann, whoever he was, was wrong. Because 155 years later you and I are sitting in this sanctuary. And the community outside our doors is not full of “wicked, hardened” people, and it is not a “wicked place”. It’s a good place, filled with good people, church-goers or not. Everything else has changed, except that, and except the fact that our church bell still tolls every week, not just welcoming our neighbors, but reminding us to serve them.

As much as those two men reminded the disciples to take their heads out of the clouds, that bell reminds us to stop looking up, and start looking out. To keep serving our neighbors, and to keep spreading God’s love to our community. We’ve been doing it for 155 years. But we’re just kids, in the big scheme of things. The church has been doing it for nearly 2000 now. And somehow, by the grace of God, it’s still going. I think that means that God has a purpose for us yet. Amen.

What Happens Now? – A Sermon on the Ascension for May 20, 2012

I couldn’t wait to get to college. As much as I loved my parents, like every college freshman I was eager to be on my own. And so we pulled up to the dorm as soon as it opened on the first day, I got everything I could out of the car as quickly as possible, set it up in my dorm room, and told my parents that I was fine, and that I’d see them on fall break.

But as soon as my parents disappeared out the front doors of the dorm, and sinking realization hit me: I was on my own. I wondered, was I ready? Could I do it? And most of all, what happens now?

I sometimes wonder if that’s what the disciples were thinking on the day that Jesus left them there at Bethany. Today we read the story of the Ascension, when Jesus is lifted up into heaven. It seems like he is leaving the world behind, and on its own.

It hadn’t been all that long since Christ has been put to death, and then had been resurrected. I wonder if when he rose again the disciples had thought they had him back in their midst for good. I wonder if they expected him to stay. Or were they ready to be on their own? Were they like college freshmen, eager for mom and dad to get back in the station wagon so that a new life could finally begin?

I always imagined that the disciples were there saying, “Where are you going? You just got back?” But Scripture tells us that they receive Christ’s blessing, and after Christ returns to heaven, they return to Jerusalem with “great joy” and that they are continuously in the temple after that, celebrating.

I wonder how long that lasted?

I was the youngest of my parents kids, and born significantly after my sisters, so by the time I went to college they had had kids in the house for 33 consecutive years. I think they had earned a vacation. So they did what they had always dreamed of doing, and they went to Paris. This was before the days of cell phones, and so I didn’t really have an easy way to reach them. And so a few weeks in to my freshman year, when I hit the inevitable point of having some problem I wasn’t sure how to handle, I realized that for the first time in my life I couldn’t turn to mom and dad for advice. I had to rely on what they had taught me, and trust that it wouldn’t lead me wrong.

I wonder how long it took before they had a question they couldn’t answer on their own, and they wished he was back there? I wonder if they too realized that they just had to rely on what he had taught them, and trust that it wouldn’t lead them wrong?

That can be a scary thing sometimes. We can feel like we are on our own. As much as we beleive that God is still active in our lives, as much as we believe in the continual guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can feel like the disciples had it easy. They at least got to have some face time with Jesus. We haven’t gotten that.

Have you ever played that game where you answer the question, “If you could have dinner with any person living or dead, who would you pick?” The answers have their fair share of presidents, famous artists, and historical figures. But whenever I’ve heard it played the one answer I hear more than any other is Jesus.

I don’t think that’s a coincidence, especially for those of us who would follow the way of Christ. I’d like to think that maybe some Tuesday Jesus and I could go down to half-price pizza night together. (I’m sure even Jesus likes a good deal.) We could sit there and talk about what how we Christians are doing on creating the world he wanted us to create. And then we could talk about how we who would be disciples sometimes get it wrong. If I could just sit with him, and talk to him, and get my marching orders directly from him, face to face, I’d know what to do. I’d be sure I was on the right path.

None of us have had that chance yet. At least I’m assuming. (If Jesus has been down at La Toscanella and you haven’t been telling me I’m going to be really sad.) Instead we have to trust the witness of the disciples, who had those sit down dinners all those years ago, and who tried to pass on what they remembered to the ones who came next, who passed it on to the ones after that, and the ones after that, and all the way down to us.

But, for those of us 2,000 years later, though, we might, understandably, ask where is God now?

Like I’ve said, I believe Jesus is still here. I believe Jesus is here with us today in worship. I even believe Jesus is down the street at the pizza place on Tuesday nights. I believe Jesus is always with us.

When Jesus returned to God he stopped being with us in a physical way. That means that he no longer was just with a small group of people in one place long ago. He now was able to be with all of us, all the time. Christ is here right now in West Dover, and he’s down the road in Brattleboro, and he’s out in California, and across the oceans in every place you can think of. He’s even there at Bethany, where we last saw him 2,000 years ago. He’s with us still.

I believe that. But I also believe this. We have a harder time believing in what we cannot see. And so for those of us who are Christians, we need physical daily reminders of who Christ is, and what Christ desires for us. We need to be reminded that Christ is with us daily, and that God is here.

So what’s the answer? It’s us. You and I. The church. And the world around us.

There are two parts to this, and every one of us has played both roles. First, we have to learn how to see Christ in everyone we meet. And second, we need to learn how to be Christ to everyone we meet.

Maybe you’ve heard it said before that Christ comes disguised as the stranger. Christ is in our midst every day, but he doesn’t look like the Sunday school painting of him with the white robes and long hair and sandals. He might look like a woman who needs money for food. Or a man who is in the hospital, fighting AIDS. He might look like the kid who is getting bullied in high school, or the veteran returning from Afghanistan.

Jesus might show up in the most unexpected places. And when Jesus does, I want to be ready. I want to meet Jesus, and love Jesus, and be the person Jesus wanted me to be. And so I try to practice. With every person I meet, no matter how they might challenge me, I try to see Jesus in them. That’s not easy. But it’s the best way I know how to make sure I don’t go through a day without seeing Jesus in the world around me. And I’ve found that as hard as it may be for me to see Christ in some people, when I can do it, I’m blessed by it.

But then there’s the other side. And that’s not just learning to see Christ in others, but also learning how to be Christ to others. Martin Luther wrote that we Christians are called to be “little Christ’s” to one another. Our job is to imitate Christ in our lives, and respond to those we meet the way we think Christ would respond to them. When we do that well, lives are changed.

I’ll give you an example that was shared with me. I’ve been given permission to share it with you too. Someone I know lost their father suddenly, and traumatically, when she was 9 years old. In the aftermath of his death, her Sunday school teacher went out of her way to may time and space for her. She gave her space to ask the questions she needed to ask, and reassured her that God was still there, still loving her. It didn’t make the pain go away, but it did help the girl to feel that someone was making time and space for her and taking her faith questions seriously.

That Sunday school teacher was a little Christ to the little girl who needed to know that Christ was there with her. Maybe you have your own stories. Who has been Christ to you in your life? Who has stepped in when you have needed it most, and treated you the way Christ would have? Who has seen the Christ in you, and met it with their own?

And now the harder part: How are you going to be Christ to the people in your life? To your family? To your friends? To your neighbors? To that person that annoys the ever-living love out of you?

And here’s the question for all of us gathered here today: How is this church going to be Christ to the people in our community? To those who are hungry? To those who are just getting by? To those who are sick? To those who need hope? To those who want to see who Christ really was, and how incredible that love really can be?

These are the questions we Christians ask ourselves everyday: Where can I see Christ in my life, and how can I be Christ to others? Here’s my challenge to you this week. Each day, try to see the image of Christ in someone you meet. The more difficult the better. And then, try to find Christ in yourself, and be Christ to that person. I promise, Christ is there. In both of you. And when you find him you will find that he was not the only one who was lifted up to greater things on Ascension Day. We all were. And we all continue to be. Amen.