A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on May 20, 2007.
Based on Mark 16:9-15, 19-20 (7 Easter, Year C).
This morning the torch is passed. Not in an Olympic flame kind of way. But in our readings we hear the very end of Mark’s gospel and the very beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. We move from Jesus’ physical presence to his spiritual presence; from the account of Jesus’ life in the gospels to the ministry of his followers in the Acts of the Apostles. And between these two moments, the ascension of Jesus stands as the transitional moment. It marks the start of the Christian life devoid of the physical Jesus. And so it is quite literally a time of transition. Jesus ascends and the disciples go out into the world to proclaim the good news.
And the ascension of Jesus is a transition we affirm every Sunday in the Nicene Creed: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” In a theological context, it’s all part of the Paschal mystery – the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus followed by the sending of the Holy Spirit. So the ascension is an integral piece of the Christian puzzle. Yet many of us struggle with the irrationality of it. We probably don’t doubt that Jesus has ascended and joins God in heaven above to rule over all creation; the ascension affirms the divinity of Jesus. But we’d rather not think about precisely how it happened. It leaves too many questions and we just can’t get our rational minds around the whole concept. It’s hard not to think about God as the giant “Scotty” in the sky beaming Jesus up. Or the superhero’s cry of “Up, up and away!” On the surface of things it’s all so illogical. And yet even if it takes the suspension of the rational to live into the ascension, we can all relate to the transition of it all.
Because our entire lives are transitional. We stand in-between life and death, between mortality and resurrection. But even beyond this big-picture transition, we all live in-between lives. We may be between jobs or between houses or graduating from school or waiting for our children to get old enough for us to go see a movie. We may be awaiting surgery or retirement or the impending death of a parent or loved one. Each stage of life is full of transition. Life is transition. The ascension, this transitional moment in the lives of the disciples, helps us to live into the present. And if we spend our entire lives waiting for the time of transition to come to an end, we’ll spend our entire lives waiting rather than living.
When I was in seminary in Chicago I did some chaplaincy work at a nursing home. As part of this I spent a significant amount of time on the Alzheimer’s ward. Some of you may know this disease on a very personal level; when Alzheimer’s touches a loved one it is always emotionally painful for a family to endure. You watch the person you know and love literally change before your eyes. With Alzheimer’s family members must grieve for the living – the person is still there physically, but sometimes that’s the only recognizable aspect of the person you once knew. From the patient’s perspective the hardest part is the time when they’re lucid enough to know they’re slipping away. But after awhile this ends and then there’s a mid-stage of Alzheimer’s that’s actually a pretty peaceful place. A place where the person becomes blissfully unaware of reality. They’ve let go; the struggle to stay coherent has been given up. And there can be a wonderful sense of peace that washes over them. But at this stage they only live in the immediate present. And so I could speak with a woman, walk down the hall, come back 20 seconds later, and need to reintroduce myself. She literally wouldn’t remember a word I’ve said or even know that she’s ever met me.
This is something we can all learn from. Alzheimer’s patients live only in the present because they have no other tense. We, on the other hand, spend so much time dwelling in the past or living for the future that we often neglect the present. Despite the potential anxiety of the transitional life, God resides most powerfully in the present, in the “here and now” of everyday life.
Bryna and I once watched an episode of the Super Nanny. If you’ve never seen it, there’s a woman known as the Super Nanny (she’s British of course) who steps in and sorts out extremely dysfunctional family situations. Like a super hero of co-dependence, she swoops in to save the chaotic day. It’s not one of my favorite shows because after we finally wrestle the kids to bed and can relax for a few moments, the last thing I want to do is watch other parents try to get their kids to bed. But this episode had one particularly oafish father who was pretty useless when it came to dealing with the kids. He’d come home from work and tell his wife he needed “transition time” before he could possible be asked to help do anything around the house. So as the kids ran amuck while his wife tried to get dinner ready, he’d lounge around in his laz-y-boy chair drinking a beer, enjoying his “transition time.” Mom resented it yet also served as the classic enabler, allowing the behavior to continue. Don’t worry, the Super Nanny quickly put an end to dad’s “transition time.”
But in a sense life itself is “transition time.” If we’re always on the couch, paralyzed by fear, we’ll miss it. And we’ll drop the torch or the baton or whatever else we’re metaphorically trying to pass. So the key to life is to live into the transition. It’s easy to become paralyzed by it, to live in fear rather than hope. But the ascension helps see us through it. Not because we can fully comprehend it but because Jesus’ transitional life and ministry raise us to new hope and life.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2007