Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 24, 2020 (Easter 7A)

Most of you know that I’m something of a coffee geek. This is not a great news flash, I realize. When people ask the question, “What’s the one thing you miss the most during this time,” my first answer is always ‘going to the coffee shop.’ You have no idea, by the way, how difficult it’s been to write sermons from some place other than Redeye Roasters (but we all have our crosses to bear). 

One of the things I’ve done during this time is tried out a new brewing method. I’ve IMG_4023started experimenting with what’s known as a coffee syphon and it’s kind of awesome. It’s a full immersion method, kind of like a reverse French press, but with the glass tubes and beakers and butane burner, it’s more like chemistry class meets Breaking Bad.

Now, I don’t fully understand the science involved, but as the water gets heated up it miraculously rises into the upper chamber where you add the freshly ground beans. The heat is then removed, the coffee drips back down through a cloth filter, and you’re left with a beautiful, clean, delicious cup of coffee. 

I mention this because all I could think of as I was experimenting with my new toy this week was Jesus’ ascension. Sometimes we get caught up in the physics of it all, and thereby lose the ramifications of it all. The fact that Jesus is with God is the point — not the means by which he got there. Rational beings attempting to parse out the miraculous never goes very well. Which isn’t to minimize the role of scientific inquiry, something we need now more than ever these days, but rather to emphasize the fact that we don’t have all the answers. Mystery abounds in life, in faith, in coffee preparation.

One of the other stumbling blocks surrounding the ascension is that we usually associate up with away. It’s one of the reasons children cry when they accidentally let go of their helium balloon at an outdoor carnival. There’s that sense that when something floats away it is gone forever. And that usually is the case.

But the Ascension of Jesus is different. It’s not up and away, but up and being present in a new way. This is why in Luke’s account of this event, when Jesus is carried up into heaven, we hear that the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” They’re not weeping and mourning, as you might expect, but rather joyous and hopeful. 

And I think this time in our own situation as a community of faith parallels some of this. Just as Jesus is up but not away, so are we apart but still together. We are bound to one another in a way that defies logic and physics and all rationality. By every practical indicator our community should be fractured and divided, rather than tied together and united. But here we are. Missing one another, but loving one another more than ever. Wanting to be in the same space with one another, but connecting with one another in new ways. Hoping to be reunited with one another, but caring for one another by keeping physically apart.

There’s been a lot of talk about religious freedom this past week. It’s gotten politicized, of course, but there’s a push to open churches because there’s a perceived God-given right to worship. I see in this moment, however, a God-given responsibility to love one another, to love our neighbors, to continue to shine a light upon the economic and racial disparities playing out right before our very eyes, as this pandemic unfolds.

And I’ve tried to be clear about this from the very beginning. While the doors of the church are closed, the church itself is wide open. We are worshipping and praying and caring for one another; we are feeding the hungry and making masks and donating blood; we are preaching and teaching and forming disciples. We are serving as God’s hands and heart in this community and beyond, because that’s what we do as people of faith. The doors may be closed, but our hearts and minds and souls are open to being the church in new and creative ways. And that will continue to be the case no matter how long we refrain from in-person worship. We will continue to love one another by not being with one another. At least for now. 

But, believe me, I understand the disappointment and the longing. Tinged with the joy of Jesus’ ascension and the fulfillment of his ministry, was the disciples’ grief in no longer being able to be with him in the ways that were familiar. Of not walking the earth with him and hearing his words and looking into his eyes and breaking bread with him. 

There continues to be a bittersweet element to our online gatherings — and I get that. As much as we all love drinking coffee during church and wearing fuzzy slippers and having the ability to mute the preacher, we’d all much rather be together in person! We want things to go back to the way they were, even as we know that is unlikely. Even as we know that things will be different in the months and possibly even years ahead. We all yearn to hear congregational singing and receive the sacrament and hug one another. For human beings built for ritual and touch, this has all been disconcerting and even frightening.

Yet at the very heart of the Christian faith is sacrifice. The whole reason that Christians gather is to recall the sacrifice of our Lord upon the cross; to partake in the sacrificial meal instituted at the Last Supper. And so this time apart can be seen as a willing sacrifice we are making in order to show love for one another and for the larger community. It’s not easy. But no one ever said that walking the way of the cross would be the way of comfort or ease. 

Those joyful disciples who journeyed back to Jerusalem would face persecution and derision for their faith. Some would be martyred. But they never lost hope. They never lost the desire to deepen their relationship with Jesus and to know him in new ways. They dearly missed him, but they channeled this grief into love for one another. Which is precisely what we’re being asked to do in this moment.

We will get to the other side of this. And the faith of those first disciples offers us a roadmap — a spiritual guide to navigating the emotional roller coaster of living out our faith amid confusion and uncertainty. The love they had for Jesus, the love they had for one another saw them through a difficult time. And it will see us through as well.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2020


Seventh Sunday in Easter — Ascension 2013

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 12, 2013 (Sunday after Ascension)

As a little boy I was enamored with balloons. Not the kind your dad blew up on your birthday until he nearly passed out but the ones filled with helium; the kind you’d get at a carnival or a street fair. A helium balloon was magic because it defied all logic — if you dropped anything else like a book or your Darth Vader action figure, it fell to the floor. But if you let go of a helium balloon it went up into the sky, that place full of mystery and intrigue.

My parents, like every parent, knew that the first thing you do with a newly acquired balloon was to tie it to your child’s wrist. Nothing made you feel more special than walking around with a balloon tied to one of your appendages. It was like having your own personal, brightly-colored floating pet. It followed your every move, jumped when you moved your arm, and responded to even the gentlest breeze.

Of course one thing you learn pretty quickly as a child is that balloons are not immortal. They pop unexpectedly and scare the bejesus out of your grandmother or else they float away into the abyss. There’s nothing worse than that tear-inducing moment when the string comes untied and you just stare at your balloon as it floats higher and higher; above rooftops and then tree tops until it becomes a tiny spec in the sky before eventually disappearing. I always wondered just how high that released balloon would go — the moon? Mars? Heaven?

Unfortunately, letting go of a balloon is precisely how many of us envision the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. We imagine the disciples standing around with the resurrected Jesus one moment and then staring as he magically floats up into the sky — like a holy Mary Poppins. Higher and higher he goes until, like that balloon, he becomes a tiny spec and disappears before our eyes. We don’t know exactly where he’s going except that it’s to that mysterious place called heaven; the place where God resides.

The problem with this is the way it impacts our view of heaven. We associate “up” with heaven which by itself isn’t a bad thing. And it makes sense in that things “down here” are known to us — we can touch them — while thing “up there” are full of mystery. But “up” can also imply remote and distant and unattainable. Which is a terrible way to think of heaven! And anyway, despite all of the cartoons of St. Peter at the Pearly Gates standing on a cloud, we really have no idea where heaven is or even that it’s a finite place at all.

One of my favorite quotes that underlies the human construct that heaven is “up there” was attributed to the first human in space, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Upon his return from orbit he said, “I went up to space but I didn’t see God.” The implication being that if you go all the way up and can’t see God, all religion must be false. Now, it turns out he never actually said this; the words were put in his mouth by the Soviet propaganda machine. The only one who claimed to have heard him say it was Nikita Kruschev himself. We now know that Gagarin was actually a faithful member of the underground Russian Orthodox Church, a fact he kept hidden from the religion-repressing regime. But at its basest level you can see why Kruschev would think this would discredit the whole notion of God. If God is “up there somewhere in space” and you don’t see him, well, there must be no God. Never-mind the vast expanse of interstellar space and the fact that we’ve only explored a tiny fraction of it. But then such was Cold War logic.

The antidote to all of this is Christmas. Yes, the whole manger scene and the Star of Bethlehem and everything else we associate with the nativity of our Lord — well, maybe not the elves. But specifically, the beauty of the Incarnation — God’s coming into the world in human form (that thing we celebrate at Christmas) — is that it places God right in our midst. Jesus can uniquely relate to us because he has experienced the human condition — he knows our pain and joy, our grief and our elation. The Incarnation indelibly links earth to heaven and heaven to earth thereby pulling them together, if only briefly. Think about that the next time you trim your tree.

But this image of Jesus floating away like a balloon puts the emphasis on Jesus being removed from us; that after doing his time among us he’s cashed in his chips and is simply enjoying retirement staring down at us from God’s right hand. Speaking of which, a child once asked me, “why does Jesus always sit on God’s right hand? Isn’t that uncomfortable for God?” But the mystery of faith is that Jesus is both here at hand with us and also with God at God’s right hand. It’s not one or the other but both.

Now if we try to completely wrap our minds around this holy bi-location along with Jesus’ ascension, we’ll go nuts. Trying to rationalize mystery is a losing proposition. But the thing is, we don’t need to get bogged down with the physics of the Ascension. That Jesus is with God is more important than the means by which he got there. I, frankly, don’t really care if he floated or walked or took the T.

One way to get a sense of the importance of the Ascension is looking at the disciples’ reaction to it. Luke tells us that after Jesus was “carried up into heaven” the disciples “worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” That doesn’t sound like a kid that’s just watched his new balloon float away. As any parent knows, that’s always accompanied by, to put it Biblically, “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And it never takes place next to the balloon vendor while you’re still at the fair; it’s always in the parking lot just when you’ve finally gotten to your car after fending off the crowds.

So why are the disciples full of joy? Why were they “continually in the Temple praising God?” On the surface level their Lord has just left them for good. But their hearts are overflowing with joy because they knew that wherever Jesus was going, he would always be with them — just in a new way. A way that meant he could never again be crucified or taken away from them. A way that would mean no matter what they faced in this life, nothing could ever separate them from the love of God in Jesus Christ. And that, my friends, is what the Ascension of our Lord is all about.

© The Rev. Timothy E. Schenck 2013

Seventh Sunday in Easter: Ascension 2010

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 16, 2010 (Sunday after the Ascension)

Of all the miracles in Scripture – and there are a lot of them — the Ascension of Jesus might just be the toughest one to reconcile. Water into wine; walking on water; even the resurrection itself may be easier for modern, rational Christians to accept. But the Ascension is tough. A person just doesn’t float up into the sky like a runaway balloon or Mary Poppins. Beaming someone up only happens in Star Trek. The Ascension of Jesus is illogical, irrational, and impossible. Isn’t it?

It certainly is when we find ourselves wrapped up in the mechanics of how it could have happened. Physics isn’t much help here; nor is astronomy. And don’t even think about bringing in Isaac Newton’s apple and his laws of gravity. Science will not and cannot solve the mystery of the Ascension. I wouldn’t go so far as to proclaim that the “devil’s in the details” but when we get caught up with them we often miss the larger picture of why it matters. The temptation is to dwell on the impossibility at the expense of the extraordinary possibility. And when we start in a place of doubt it keeps our minds closed to the wondrous mystery of the divine.

When I was a kid there was a cartoon called “Underdog” – some of you may remember it. It ran from 1964 to 1973 (thank you Google) and featured an ordinary dog who, when called upon, would become Underdog and pronounce, “There’s no need to fear, Underdog is here.” I seem to remember that he always spoke in rhyme. His other catch phrase, and the reason I bring it up this morning, was “Up, up, and away!” Like a canine Superman, he could fly – I may have failed to mention that. 

It’s hard for me to hear the story of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven without hearing Underdog proclaim, “Up, up, and away!” In the Acts of the Apostles we hear that Jesus was standing in the midst of his disciples when he was suddenly lifted up in a cloud and removed from their sight. In the account from Luke, who also wrote the Book of Acts, we further hear that he was in the process of blessing them even as he was lifted up. “Up, up and away!”

The problem with my profound theological comparison between Jesus and Underdog – besides the potential heresy – is that Underdog’s statement doesn’t hold true. The Ascension doesn’t lead Jesus up and away but rather it leads him into a new relationship with the disciples. He is not up and away; he is present with them in a new way, one that transcends physical presence. One that is based exclusively on the experience of faith. In other words the same way that we relate to the risen Christ: through our own faith, through the Christ-like acts of one another; and through the sacramental mystery that is Holy Communion.

But of course the disciples don’t immediately get this. You can picture them staring up at the sky in utter silence with bewildered looks on their faces wondering what in the world had just happened. Which leads to the question posed by the two angels who suddenly appear: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up to heaven?”

How often do we get caught looking for faith in all the wrong places? We look up hoping to see God when perhaps God is right in our midst. Or we look down, failing to see the wonders of creation. That doesn’t make the life of faith some sort of cruel divine shell game: “Nope Jesus isn’t under this one; let’s try that one.” It just means that in order to fully know the presence of God we must look in unexpected places. Like our own homes or our workplaces or the new Panera at the Shipyard, or our own souls, or, and I know this is radical, this church. 

Immediately before he takes his leave of the disciples, Jesus gives them a promise: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” That’s what we celebrate next Sunday on Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit in power and great glory. But for now, it’s a promise. A promise without which, the disciples will certainly not be able to act as true disciples of our Lord. If disciples are to follow Christ and share the good news through their words and actions, they need the Holy Spirit to empower them. More about that next week.

I do love that line spoken by the two angels after Jesus ascends: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up to heaven?” And I love it because it helps us get away from the dualistic dichotomy where up is good and down is bad. Heaven is up; hell is down – everybody knows that. That’s the way preachers and artists have depicted things for generations. This is in part because up is pure mystery while down is well-known. When we gaze upward we see sky and stars and celestial bodies; when we look down we see our feet. 

I talked about the Ascension with the kids at yesterday’s Family Service – we had “Mass on the Grass” in the Memorial Garden – and it was wonderful to do so while literally looking up at the sky. And yet these angels remind us that God isn’t just up, but everywhere. Stop looking up, they suggest, and see the love of God right here. Their time in heaven will come – wherever it might be located – but right now Jesus is in their midst in a new way. And that’s the power and the promise of Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

At first glance, the Ascension does reinforce our notion that heaven is up, up and away. But we can’t forget that Christ’s presence is not distant or remote or away; but right here. The point of the Ascension isn’t that God is “Up, up and away” but rather in this place, in the here and now, present among us, abiding in you and me. And so while the mechanics of the Ascension may be hard to grasp – they’re not really the point. The point is that Jesus is not taken away from us but that our relationship with him is simply transformed. That is the true miracle of the Ascension of our Lord.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2010

Seventh Sunday in Easter: Ascension 2006

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on May 28, 2006. 
Based on Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:49-52 (7 Easter, Year B).

Up doesn’t mean away. Out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind. Today we celebrate Jesus’ ascension to heaven and when it comes to the Christian faith, things aren’t always as they appear. And so up doesn’t mean away and out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind. Jesus ascends but he doesn’t leave us. It’s one of the mysteries of the faith; one of the paradoxes of Christianity. The ascension – that movement up and away – doesn’t lead to emptiness, but to fulfillment. It doesn’t leave us orphaned, it leads Jesus to an even greater presence among us. If the greatest paradox of our faith is that Jesus’ death on the cross leads to new life, then the ascension ranks right up there.

For us, of course, up usually does mean away. When we want to hide things from children we put them up high. Like the cookie jar. Which works only until they inevitably discover the concept of a chair. But the ascension of Jesus doesn’t leave him out of reach. Jesus’ ascension flouts the whole notion of “out of sight, out of mind.” And Jesus is never out of reach because even though Jesus is no longer with us physically, he is even more present with us spiritually.

But it’s hard to let go. This is never clearer than with the exchange in John’s gospel between Jesus and Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb. “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father” Jesus tells Mary. Noli me tangere, in Latin. Literally, “touch me not.” But I like the translation “do not hold on to me,” because that’s our natural inclination. Like Mary, we want to hold on to the things we love. To hold on to them gives us a certain power over them. It’s perhaps why we become so attached to our possessions and things. But Jesus is not a possession. We do not possess him; he possesses us. And so we, like Mary, must let him ascend to the Father so that his mission and ministry may be completed. The fullness of Jesus is not in the earthly realm and so he must ascend to heaven in order to fulfill God’s plan of salvation.

Let’s face it. The ascension is an ethereal concept. People don’t just fly up into the sky. Superman perhaps. But it’s a hard concept for 21st century Westchesterites to grasp. At Old St. Paul’s, the parish I served in Baltimore, there was this great big hook that was hidden way up in the ceiling of the chancel. It was lowered every Christmas to attach giant garlands and then it was hoisted back up. And the effect on Christmas Eve was stunning. Whenever Ascension Day rolled around I always thought about that giant hook and how dramatic it would be if I preached the sermon on my way up to the rafters. Fortunately our organist reminded me that I wasn’t the one ascending. It’s always good to stay grounded (so to speak). 

But even if I’m not ascending while I preach, I do love the image of Jesus blessing the disciples as he is ascending. As Luke tells us, “While Jesus was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” Jesus well understood that this was not an easy moment for the disciples. As much as he warned them that up did not mean away, they were probably still skeptical and so his ascension must have seemed like a final goodbye. He was leaving them; they were losing their Lord. And so Jesus offers them his blessing even as he is ascending. A recognition that goodbyes are hard even when we know the goodbye is not final. Just as the death of a loved one is hard even though Jesus has given us the promise of eternal life. And so the blessing is a wonderfully pastoral gesture, meant to comfort the disciples in their grief. Matthew’s gospel ends with Jesus saying, “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” So, again, up does not mean away. Jesus’ ascension only makes Jesus more present. If the incarnation, the coming of God into the world in human form, is about Jesus coming to a particular group of people at a particular time in history, the ascension shows us the universality of Jesus Christ. His ascension to heaven allows Jesus to become present to all people for all time. The ascension allows Jesus to be with us always, even to the end of the age.

While we may have a hard time relating to the physics of the ascension, one of the lessons here is that we sometimes need to simply accept God’s blessing. Know that you are blessed by God. Accept that you are blessed by God. Keep with you this week the image of Jesus blessing you as he ascends to heaven. Hold on to this blessing even if you cannot hold on to Jesus physically. Jesus does not leave the disciples comfortless. Neither does he forsake us.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2006

Seventh Sunday in Easter: Ascension 2009

A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 24, 2009 (7 Easter, Year B)
The Sunday after the Ascension

Gravity. It’s the force that draws objects to the Earth’s surface. You can’t fight gravitational pull. If you jump off of a three foot wall, you’ll go down not up. I’m not telling you anything you didn’t learn in middle school science class. Sir Isaac Newton, the apple tree, the Law of Universal Gravitation. 

And it is this concept of gravity, this basic tenet of everyday life, that makes it so hard for us to wrap our minds around Jesus’ ascension into heaven. People just don’t float up into the air like Mary Poppins. Or fly like Superman. That’s all fiction or fantasy or wishful thinking and so we don’t know what to do with this piece of Jesus’ life. We tend to ignore it or minimize its importance. And we do so to our detriment because it limits the soaring possibilities of our own faith.

With our lips we say that “With God all things are possible.” But do we really believe it? Or do we really mean “With God many things are possible?” Or “With God some things are possible?” The ascension of Jesus expands our notion of the possible. It’s what allows us to live in a world where “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised.” And where faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains.

But gravity holds us back. Sometimes physically but more often spiritually. It’s like a millstone around our necks that keep us from experiencing the fullness of life and faith. But there’s another way. Because when we throw off the constraints that have become so ingrained in us; when we let go of our pre-conceived notions; when we accept that we don’t have all the answers, the possibilities are limitless. Jesus can ascend and our broken relationships are healed. Jesus can ascend and our prayers are heard. Jesus can ascend and our sins are forgiven. Jesus can ascend and our eternal life is assured. 

I did defy gravity once and it was an odd experience. It happened on the third of the required five parachute jumps when I was at Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. I jumped out and everything was normal – or as normal as things can be when you jump out of a perfectly good airplane. I had a nice smooth exit, I kept my feet and knees together as I’d been instructed to do countless times, I looked up to check my canopy and it was nice and full. And then the strangest thing happened. I started going up instead of down. I looked around and all the other parachutes were descending as they should have been but I kept going up. Now I realize I don’t weigh a whole lot but this was ridiculous. So I started tugging on the straps trying to will myself down until I thought “Hey, this is pretty nice.” And I just enjoyed it – it’s not like I had somewhere to be. It turns out I had hit a thermal air pocket. It’s rare but it happens. Eventually it passed, gravity kicked in, and I landed back on the drop zone bewildered by the experience but in one piece.

And it was a good lesson that things don’t always go as you might expect; that there are other possibilities beyond what we could possibly imagine. The temptation is to give in to the gravitational pull that keeps us solely focused on this world. And when we do so we start playing God ourselves by thinking we can do everything and control everything. And that, friends, is the essence of sin. Because as hard as we may try, we can’t control the world around us. There is a greater force at work. One that defies gravity; one that defies even the grave. The good news is that our being made in God’s own image means that we have the potential to be pulled by the greater force that is God rather than the forces of this world.

I’d argue that God operates on a reverse gravitational pull because God is forever seeking to draw us in. To draw our hearts and minds and souls upward to seek the things that are above. Which is another reason why the ascension matters: it lifts our eyes upward; it keeps us focused on the things above rather than the things below. Which doesn’t mean we ignore what’s happening in our own lives. Quite the opposite. But it puts our lives into context. And the context in which we live and move and have our being is the context of the sacred. It makes everything we do or fail to do an act or missed opportunity to serve God. It means that all our human relationships are dripping with the chance to witness to Christ’s love for us. 

It’s helpful to reflect upon the forces in your life that weigh you down. What are the gravitational pulls that keep you from living a life fully open to the spirit? What are the gravitational pulls that limit the possibilities of your own faith life? What draws you away from God rather than toward God? It may be as straightforward as not making enough time to tend to your prayer life. Or being overly negative rather than proactive when you encounter a problem. It may be an obsessive love of creature comforts while ignoring the needs of others.

Whatever it is, it’s comforting to know that we’re not the only ones who struggle with keeping our minds focused upward. This exchange between the disciples and Jesus in the Book of Acts shows that even as Jesus is about to ascend, even as he has spent the past 40 days after the resurrection offering proof after proof of his identity, they still don’t get it. They, like us, struggle with living between heaven and earth. Just before Jesus ascends, they know something big is about to happen. Jesus has gathered them all, perhaps on a mountaintop. And in this moment of expectation they ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

They still think his mission is to set up a worldly kingdom! They still don’t get it. They still can’t see that his kingdom is not of this world; that it’s not about palaces and grand armies but about servanthood and salvation. But he offers them a promise, the promise of the Holy Spirit. And one of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to bind the heavenly with the worldly. It’s the working of God’s purpose here on earth. Which they won’t understand for awhile.

Perhaps our charge is to live like the astronauts once they leave the earth’s orbit. Freely floating in a sort of spiritual weightlessness with the freedom to let go of the gravitational pull that brings us down. Only when we suspend our conventional notions of what’s possible do we allow the fullness of God into our lives. And only then can we truly say, “Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2009

Seventh Sunday in Easter: Ascension 2005

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on May 8, 2005. 
Based on Acts 1:1-14 and John 17:1-11 (7 Easter, Year A).

“Why do I have a belly button?” Zack asked me this question at the dinner table this week. And so I launched into a discussion about umbilical cords and the ways in which babies are nourished in their mothers’ wombs. I talked about actually cutting the cord in the hospital and how it was necessary to sever that tie so that a baby could take his or her first steps toward independence. My conversation with Ben and Zack soon turned into an existential discussion about the relative merits of “innees” versus “outees.” But this whole concept carried over into my reflections upon Christ’s ascension. At first glance an odd connection – birthing and ascension don’t normally go together. Even when Ascension Sunday falls on Mother’s Day, which, I assure you, is unusual.  

But this morning is the Sunday after the Ascension. And so our lessons point to this theme and we sing hymns with phrases like, “When Christ was lifted from the earth.” In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles we hear the actual story of Jesus being lifted up and taken away from the disciples. As they were watching, we’re told, Jesus “was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.” 

The ascension of Jesus is like the cutting of a divine umbilical cord. Jesus cuts the disciples loose. He withdraws physically from them. But the ascension, like the cutting of that cord is not abandonment. It simply ushers in a new relationship between disciples and Lord just as the cutting of an umbilical cord ushers in a new relationship between mother and child. There is newfound independence but there are also new ways of nourishment and comfort. For a child it means love, milk, and near constant attention. For the disciples, and so for us, it means love, the sending of the Holy Spirit to guide us, and the presence of Christ in our lives. 

It’s important to remember that the ascension doesn’t mean that Jesus is going away. It’s not about abandonment but fulfillment. The relationship must change. And through the ascension Jesus is even more present with us. Which seems paradoxical. But in the same way, a baby cannot be held in its mother’s arms inside the womb. The relationship must change. The child must leave the safety and security of the womb to experience love in a new way. Through the ascension, we experience the love of Christ in a new way.

Both the ascension of Jesus and the birth of a child are inevitable stages along the continuum of life. For a mother, I’m told that nine months in the womb is plenty. For Jesus, the ascension is the inevitable fulfillment of Christ’s promise to us: that he will be glorified by the Father and reign with God in the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s all part of one single, saving drama — the death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit. What’s known in theological circles as the Paschal Mystery. Paschal, because it relates to the “passing over” of Christ from death to life and mystery because precisely how the entire cycle takes place is beyond human comprehension. Let’s face it, the ascension is a tough concept for us post-Enlightenment modernists. People don’t just fly up into the sky. 

But the particulars don’t really matter. What’s important here is that in order to complete his mission of salvation, Jesus must return to the Father. Or, to use the language of the Gospel of John, the logos or Word that is Christ must return to the Father. It is inevitable in the same way that a child’s birth is inevitable after nine months in the womb. Jesus must return to the Father so that he can prepare a place for his disciples in heaven. And be glorified so that we may believe in him and be saved.

Baptism plays right into all this. Because baptism is, after all, as the Prayer Book says, “the sacrament of new birth.” In a few moments Riley will pass over from sin and death into new life and resurrection. She will be indelibly drawn into the Paschal Mystery of the Christian faith and brought into the community of faith that we all share. And through this new birth, she will enter into a new relationship with Jesus Christ.

I didn’t go into quite this amount of detail when I spoke with the boys about belly buttons this week. But the answer to the question, “Why do I have a belly button?” is a profound issue of faith. May God bless all of us who continually seek deeper connection with God in Christ. And may we remember that nothing, not even the ascension of Jesus, can separate us from the love of God.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2005

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