Seventh Sunday in Easter: Ascension 2011

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 5, 2011 (Easter 7, Year A)

Anyone feeling anxious this morning? Health concerns? Family stuff? Job stress? Money worries? Too much to do and not enough time to do it? Or perhaps you were doing just fine, thank you very much, until I started talking about anxiety. Most of us live with a fair amount of anxiety; we generally manage it pretty well or at least hide it pretty well. We keep ourselves distracted enough most of the time. Sometimes we deal with anxiety in healthy ways – going for a walk or talking through things with friends; and sometimes we cope in unhealthy way – self-medication or overeating. Sitting in church is generally a good antidote to anxiety but often it challenges us to think about our own life’s priorities or the bigger questions of life and faith which may only lead to further anxiety.

In his first letter, Peter bids us to “cast all your anxieties on God, because he cares for you.” And there’s something wonderfully compassionate in this; we worship a God who loves us so much that he wants to carry our burdens. God doesn’t dump all sorts of heavy stuff on us and then say “Good luck with that.” God invites the anxieties we all face to be cast upon him both because God cares for us and because God can handle it. God invites us into the freedom of being unburdened; which doesn’t mean that all of our cares and anxieties go away but rather that we don’t go at them alone.

The root word for “anxiety” literally means “being of two minds.” An anxious person is divided, pulled in two or more directions. There’s a lack of unity or wholeness in anxiety; a feeling of being somehow off-kilter or askew. But we can usually recognize it not by trying to define it but by that pit in the bottom of our stomach. That feeling of stress or dread that has the potential to consume us. And it is into this common experience that Peter suggests we cast all our anxieties on God.

Here’s one of the realities of our faith – even though all of what we read in the Bible took place thousands of years ago; even though customs have changed and technology has emerged and culture has evolved, when it comes to our inner thoughts and emotions, we’re all linked together by our common humanity. We have much more in common with Noah and Mary and Peter and all the rest than it appears at first glance. Sure we dress differently, we bathe more often, fewer of us are shepherds, and we have central air. But while the sources of anxiety may have changed over the years, the feeling itself has not. And it’s important to keep this in mind as we read these Biblical texts week after week after week. We have much more in common with the people of Ancient Palestine than we sometimes realize or remember. Which is one reason why Jesus can speak with such relevance to each one of us in our own day. He knew God and he knew human nature and that is something that transcends all time and space.

It’s true that many of us live in a state of what you might call spiritual anxiety; torn between deep faith and profound questions. This may not come up at coffee hour when you’re chit-chatting away but a truly living faith is one that engages the questions rather than denying them. Think about what we mark today – the Ascension of our Lord. The Ascension is one of the toughest pieces of the Christian story to come to grips with from a rational point of view. People just don’t float up into the sky like Mary Poppins. But it’s also a perfect example of incorporating mystery and awe into our faith. I don’t know how or by what means Jesus ascended into heaven but I know he’s there. We have the Scriptural account that says he floated away as the disciples watched but I’m clueless as to the physics involved or how this could have possibly happened. And that can lead to anxiety – especially when you’re charged to stand up here and preach about it. But ultimately I think the ‘how’ is less important than the ‘why.’ Because no matter how this happened, the fact remains that Jesus has ascended to the Father. And that matters because it shows that he was indeed both fully human and fully divine; that he has gone before us to prepare a place for us when our time comes to join him in the heavenly banquet. And if we live as people who will one day be raised up, we can’t help but throw off the anxiety that today weighs us down.

So I encourage you to embrace your spiritual anxiety. Embrace the questions and the mystery; because when you embrace this from a perspective of faith it allows you to stand and gaze in wide wonder at the awe of divine mystery. It alleviates the pressure of needing to have all the answers. Because until we enter that ascended state we all remain in a cloud of unknowing; a place of partial sight where the truth is both seen and unseen, visible and invisible. And that’s okay. We are left to live out our faith in a place of creative tension; a place of both/and; a place of being of this world but also of the next; a place between the resurrection and the ascension. It’s not always neat and tidy, this life of ours, but neither is God so predictable as to fit into a box.

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time these days on the baseball field. Our own former associate rector Tom Mulvey and I are coaching a team together and I’ve been working a lot with the kids in the batting cage – especially the ones for whom hitting doesn’t come naturally. Hitting a baseball is all about bat speed and proper weight distribution. There are other pieces to it like footwork and keeping your hands back and taking a level swing but it still comes down to a few simple basics. A lot of the kids I’ve been working with come in full of anxiety. They grip the bat as if rigor mortis has set in; they’re jumpy with all sorts of moving parts as they await the pitch; they back away in fear as the ball approaches the plate – sometimes even before it’s left the pitcher’s hand.

And I understand their anxiety. When you’re standing in the batter’s box facing a pitcher who throws hard with minimal control, it’s not the most calming environment. Which is sometimes how life feels. It comes at us fast and furious and we’re not sure exactly where it will end up. Sometimes we get knocked down, sometimes we get plunked; but as long as we dust ourselves off and get back in the game we don’t let the anxiety rule our hearts. I often tell the kids who are moving their bat all over the place in anticipation of the pitch to have “quiet hands.” Kevin Youkalis does not help my cause with his crazy stance. But we too, need to approach life with a quiet soul and the only way to achieve it is to cast our anxieties on God. That’s what keeps the soul calm and quiet even in the midst of turmoil. God is big enough to handle everything that life throws at us – even the high hard stuff. Ours is simply to trust God enough to cast our anxieties upon him.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2011

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