The Ascension of the Lord, Year A
21/24 May 2020
When Jesus ascends into heaven the disciples follow him with their eyes. As when we say goodbye to someone and watch them until we can no longer see them. We don’t do that with everyone, but with people we are close to. And when we have picked up our kids at the airport and waited at the cell phone lot, we have also looked for their plane coming in. That I am mentioning planes does in no way suggest that Jesus left on a jet plane when he ascended into heaven.
Our eyes turn toward the things and people we love. I have a distinct memory of when I was 14 and was saving my pennies to buy a windsurf board. I remember lying on the floor of my room, listening to music, and pouring over the same catalogues over and over.
When I was 20 I thought how wonderful it would be to have a place in our homes designated for prayer, where we can focus our attention on God without being distracted by the mail, or dirty dishes, or by anything else. Of course, I only had one room in those days, and later there were five of us in our house, so it has never quite worked out that way. But I think you know what I mean. If you are participating in our worship from your home, you may have lit your own candle in addition to the ones on the altar, to mark this time and place as holy.
And so the disciples gaze into heaven. And as they do, two men in white robes, ask them about their gazing and promise them that this is not forever and that Jesus will return to them.
I think that when we read and hear these verses, we tend to take this episode as a Mary and Martha story, only that this time it is Martha who has chosen the better part. We don’t hear the promise that Jesus will return but we hear what we perceive as a complaint that the disciples are taking time to process, to gaze, to reminisce and to be sad because of their love for Jesus.
Maybe we do so because for all of our appreciation of the sacraments, we are Protestants; and for all our valuing of God’s grace, we think we must be busy, less so because God wants us to be busy, but because we still think that that’s how we find value and worth.
In my first call my co-pastor and friend gave me a prayer book. In it there is a section on busyness and prayer. And it reads, “Never was there a ministry so bustled and rushed and perspiring as is ours now. If things stick, we devise yet another type of meeting, and when this additional wheel is spinning round with all the rest of the complex machinery, and a wind is blowing in our hot faces we feel better, and have a comfortable sense that something is going on; … But the whole point of the ministry, the reason why there is a ministry at all, is that people out in the press of life and find [there] that they cannot keep in sight of God …”1
That of course, is not only the experience of the clergy, but it is what we tend to do. It is easier to be busy than to be still and listen to the presence and voice of God.
Now, we know that once Pentecost had come and the disciples had received the Holy Spirit, they did all kinds of things. They healed people, they preached, they shared their possessions, they included the outsider, they witnessed in defiance of the authorities, they could not keep from singing.
And so, I am not speaking against being busy. I am only saying that being busy isn’t everything, and that if we are going to be busy, we better know why we are busy.
There are good reasons to be busy and bad reasons.
Being busy to prove myself is not a good reason, because before God I do not need to prove myself.
If my business keeps me from paying attention to God and others, then this is also not a good reason.
During the pandemic I have listened to various conversations on the radio about people working from home, and how that is working for people, particularly if they have children and their children are also at home.
Well, I can work from home, although I don’t usually. But there are definitely things that keep me from doing the things I need to do. I am not a big fan of paperwork, be it taxes, or extended medical, or whatever. And I am pretty good at finding other things to do, so I don’t have to do those things quite yet. And I can really be busy doing things of secondary importance in order to avoid those of primary importance.
This is relevant, I think, because I have also observed that I can seek distractions from my life with God, from the God who loves me and created me, and whom I seek above all else. To avoid the presence of God by being busy is a temptation that offers it’s own rationalization, and I am not just speaking about Sunday worship. When we do find other things to keep us busy, rather than spend a relatively small amount of time in prayer or worship, I think it is because we not only seek God but also are afraid of intimacy with God, for we know that being with God will not leave us unchanged.
And so it seems to me that the point of the address to the disciples is not that their gaze is misplaced and that they should get busy (after all, it’s another ten days before they receive the Holy Spirit), but rather that they need not be sad, for Jesus will return, or in the words of Jesus’ promises from the Gospel of John and Matthew, he will in fact be with them. But in a post-Ascension world it takes time and attention to see Jesus’ presence. Taking time to see Jesus is good, so that we will be grounded, that we understand the Kingdom of God and live in it, that we would not see others as enemies or competitors but as God’s beloved, that we would see the earth not as natural resources, but as God’s good creation entrusted to our care, that we would see those who are suffering not as people to be pitied but as people in whom Jesus meets us.
And so we interrupt our busy week to worship. We begin our day with prayer, even when there are many things to do, especially when there are many things to do.
May we all look to heaven, because the things we look up to will shape our lives.
1 Minister’s Prayer Book, Philadelphia, PA, Fortress Press: 1986, page 298