If you had a chance to open up yesterday’s e-news – those of you who receive my Saturday note into your inbox-- you’ll be aware that I have one foot in Ireland these days as I think back to my sabbatical leave 2 years ago. And with this passage of scripture that we have this morning, I find myself in Dublin, standing in the Roman Catholic Cathedral where Bev and I wandered in one Wednesday afternoon. The doors were open, we were welcome to come on in, as did a few others in the time we were there, to sit and pray, light a candle.
Coming through the doors into this wide-open sanctuary, our eyes were immediately drawn upward to the dome in this great vaulted ceiling. Etched into the plaster in the dome were a number of figures and it took us no time to recognize that what we were looking at was this story of Jesus’ ascension, where after appearing to the disciples over the course of 50 days following his resurrection, Jesus is giving some last instructions and then, as the story goes, he departs from them, disappearing into the clouds.
What you see in this scene etched in the dome are the disciples looking up, some of them looking to each other, the expressions on their faces full of dismay and fear and grief. It’s compelling -- it’s visceral … the feeling you get as you gaze at them gazing at the disappearing Jesus. What do we do now? Where do we go? Who even are we without him?
You’ve got to feel for these guys … what they’ve been through. Three years keeping close company with him … having walked away from whatever was their life before he invited them to come and journey with him. Off they go, without a clue where this would take them, what it would make of them, only to find themselves being mentored into a whole other way of being and relating, witnessing Jesus’ power to heal, to set people free, to restore people to life again. And then, the trauma of his execution, his suffering … the trauma of his death. Only then to experience him alive! You can see it can’t you, how massively disruptive— good disruptive, sure!! but the twisting and disorienting -- the seismic shifts in their world as they knew it. So then this period of 50 days, adjusting to the new reality of his companionship … only then to lose him again?
Etched into the ceiling, and written into the story, the disciples aren’t the only ones there. Into their company have arrived two strangers, who say to them, “why are you standing there gazing up to heaven?” Sounds a lot like that other question, on the first day of the week, when they came to the tomb early that morning: “what are you doing seeking the living among the dead?” Why are you looking there? Of course the answer is “where else? Where else would we be looking?!!”
So here they are again – their gaze being re-directed. And not just their gaze. One more time they are being called to re-orient themselves – their focus, their lives-- to a new reality. They are being called to make the move from what was, from how they navigated, what they understood to be their way in the world, to “Behold I am doing a new thing!” Now, not only is this new reality framed in terms of “out of death, life!” but here they are being given to grasp that out of absence will come an all pervading presence!
There is a sense that in these days we too have landed into a new reality. Of course it’s not the first time. And those questions on the faces of those early disciples are our questions too … what do we do now? Where do we go? Who even are we?
Before we ever get to that question “what are you doing looking up into the sky?” we have the disciples asking their own question of Jesus: “is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” It’s that “when are you going to make it all right?” kind of question, with their vision in mind of what that will be. It’s the question that many of us may well be asking these days “When are you going to make it all right?” Not all of us may be laying that one on Jesus … but this question of WHEN is a big one these days …when will this be over? When will we taste the life we had before this pandemic came upon us. When will we be able to move about more freely, see our friends in the flesh again, our family, embrace one another. When will we be able to sing together, eat together; when will we be able to walk back into our sanctuary on Michigan St, or wherever we might typically gather, to worship side by side, under the same roof?
WHEN … it’s a pressing question. It arises out of deep desire, deep need, deep discomfort with how things are.
But Jesus, in response to the disciples’ when?, he shifts their attention away from their need to know, their need for the promised land now …their need for him to move things along. “When? --it’s not for you to know,” he says. "But what you can know is this: you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.” YOU, he says. Not me but YOU! You, empowered by the Holy Spirit, will be witnesses to Love’s way here, there, and everywhere." “To the ends of the earth,” he says … in case they didn’t catch it, that the scope of this next move will be far wider than Israel alone.
A lot of what’s coming across my desk these days is about when will the church re-open. What do we need to consider to do that safely, responsibly? What will that look like? and what it won’t look like … important considerations, all of them.
I get it … the building has been an important place. For many of us it’s our gathering place, it’s where we meet up, it’s where we worship, it’s where we eat together, make decisions together. It’s our sheltering place in times of loss, it’s where we know we can count on finding care and connection. So when will we get back into the church? I get it--it’s a live question. But I can almost hear those 2 messengers asking us “why are you focusing on that? Why are you looking there?” as if to re-direct us to something else that is already afoot.
It’s true! …for all that the building has been significant to our life together, something else is happening among us in this time without it. We’re putting ourselves out there in ways we haven’t til now. Our Sunday morning sanctuary extends way beyond 511 Michigan St. The telephone tree that was developed as 20 people so readily agreed to make weekly phone calls because we wouldn’t be meeting in person -- that, in many instances, has brought about the forming and deepening of relationships. The pantry on the patio has invited the entire neighbourhood to join us now in feeding the hungry at our door. Cheryl is offering mid-week guided meditations, and Suzanne, her supportive video chats and follow-up conversations. The Thrift Shop volunteers, also without their building, are forever coming up with ways to connect and encourage and bring delight. There’s this beautiful dynamic of people stepping up and stepping out with acts of loving care. There’s a freedom and courage, a generosity and imagination that’s stirring among us, such that all these gifts are seeing the light of day and spilling over to bless more widely.
You see, the church is already OPEN! And that Spirit Jesus promised … it is alive and working in and through us …sending us out to embody love’s way wherever we are, with all the gifts we have been given. What do we do now? Where do we go? Who even are we? These questions are already being answered in us … through us. Our life as a church is unfolding in ways and with an energy we couldn’t have predicted.
When can we get back in the building? We don’t know. Of course it matters. But in the meantime, maybe it’s occurring to us in a fresh way … that we are the church … a people empowered and sent out to embody love’s way.
This day and with each new day we are invited into an astonishing call and response …where God proclaims a great YES to us, through that endless outpouring of the Spirit, and we in turn, with our lives, our receptivity, offer our YES back.
What a wild partnership! There’s no telling where it will take us … what it will make of us. Except that as more and more of us offer our YES there is a growing groundswell of goodness made available for the healing of the world.
What a time! … what a time to be alive … for goodness sake! And so may we be fully alive.