Jesus Withdrew: An Ascension Sermon

 
Jesus Withdrew: An Ascension Sermon

Scripture: Luke 24:44-53

“Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, Jesus blessed them.  And while he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven...”

She was standing in the kitchen.  She just finished washing the dishes; she picked up a tea towel and a coffee mug from the pile of clean dishes, dried it off - and then she froze.

She just stood there.  She didn’t know where it went.  Which cupboard? There were so many cupboards on the top and on the bottom - or did it go in a drawer?  She couldn’t remember.

That’s how it started.  What followed was five long years of memory loss.  Five long years of forgetting: her life, her husband, her daughter.

Her daughter who took care of her 24/7.  Her daughter who slept in the room next door.  Her daughter who bathed her so gently, who watched her mother disappear - almost evaporate - day by day.  Her daughter who watched her mother withdraw from this world.  And now her mother’s gone and what is she supposed to do?  How is she supposed to spend her days and evenings? What is she supposed to do now?

“Then he led them out as far as Bethany and, lifting up his hand, he blessed them.  While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven…”

Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover.  He was 11 years old, a junior at New Leadership Charter School in Springfield, MA, a football player, cute as a button.  He killed himself on Monday, April 6, 2009.  11 years old.  He killed himself because he couldn’t stand the constant taunting of his schoolmates:  calling him gay, laughing at his clothes, threatening to hurt him.

His mother had gone to the school over and over again.  For six months she begged them to intervene, to crack down on the bullying.  

On Monday, April 6, she was making dinner.  She went up to his room to call him down to eat, and there he was.  Gone from the world.  He withdrew from it all: from all the pain, from all the teasing.  What is she supposed to do now? Her whole life gone, her son gone, dinner getting cold on the table…  What is she supposed to do now?

“Then he led them out as far as Bethany and, lifting up his hand, he blessed them.  While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven…”

He was their everything.  He was the one who was going to liberate Israel.  He was going to be the one to take them right out from under the fist of Rome, at last!  They wanted to follow him everywhere - but they couldn’t, you see, because the road he was walking down led to death.

For three days they were widows.  For three days they were orphans.  For three days they didn’t know what to do with themselves.  What are we supposed to do now?

But then, on the third day, he rose again.  He rose right up from the dead and for forty days he lived with them.  For forty days he ate dinner with them and laughed with them.  For forty days he poured out love on them.  They had him back for forty days.  Can you even imagine?  Having a loved one back for forty days?  In flesh and blood, mind and spirit, alive and well?

They had him back for forty days and on the fortieth day, he took them out as far as Bethany and, lifting up his hand, he blessed them.  And while he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven…

What were they supposed to do now?  Now that Jesus has withdrawn, has let himself be carried up into heaven?

I wonder…  I wonder if that woman, that woman who’s lost both her kids, lost her house, lost her job, lost everything but she still can’t get sober - I wonder if she feels as if God has left her?

Or that young boy, 19 years old sent off to war.  That young man who saw the most terrible things - death, humiliation, intimidation, torture - and now he’s home and he doesn’t fit inside this world anymore, and every time he closes his eyes he’s there again, he sees it all again.  And his family doesn’t understand, and his girlfriend doesn’t understand, and no one seems to understand.  I wonder if he feels as if God has withdrawn from him?

Or what about us?  When we lose our jobs, when we lose a spouse, when we feel as if God has abandoned us, as if God has withdrawn from us: where are we supposed to go? What are we supposed to do?

Years ago, I was in the Children’s Chapel at Old South Church in Boston hanging up some prayer shawls, and a lay person rushed into the chapel to get me.  There was a woman crying her eyes out in the sanctuary, she was going through a tough break up and just need a place to cry to release her tears, a place to "pray it out!"  

I got a call that same week from a person in the process of transitioning genders.  He wanted to talk to a pastor.  He wanted to know if there was place for him in the church, a place for him in Christianity, a place for him in the very heart of God.

Friends, this is who we are, this is the kind of community we are, the people we are called to be as the church: we are a place where the broken-hearted are comforted, where wounds are bound up and healed, where we affirm and challenge each other, where we lead each other as far as Bethany, and then we bless one another with the Spirit’s love.

The Sunday after meeting the woman who couldn't stop crying and the young man with questions, we had a baptism.  We gathered around a little baby named Maya and this is what we said: “Maya, you are God’s beloved, God is so well pleased with you!  If you ever feel as if God has abandoned you, come into this place.  If you ever feel as if God has withdrawn from you, that God has left you all along, come and sing with us, pray with us, eat with us, cry with us, discern with us…"

I know sometimes it feels as if God has left you, as if God has withdrawn from this world, but the good news of the gospel is that God is as close as the person next to you, as close as the water on a little one's forehead, as close as a prayer lifted up long after the person has left, as close as the very breath in your lungs, as close as the lifeblood in your veins...

I know sometimes it feels as if God has left you, but the challenge and joy of being God's church is believing that God has not abandoned us: God has called us to be a community of love and blessing, a community of justice and joy, and place for Maya and a place for someone who’s never set foot in this church before to vividly, tangibly sense that he or she is God’s beloved, a child of God with whom God is so well pleased!

He led them out as far as Bethany and, lifting up his hand, he blessed them with a comforter.  He blessed them with an advocate.  He blessed them with the Holy Spirit, and side by side, the Spirit and those disciples built the church.  And that means this church, this community called to be a blessing to the world, a place to go, a home for the homeless, a community in which we carry each other up into heaven every day.

My friends, if you hear nothing else today on Ascension Sunday, here this: you are God’s beloved, and God is so well pleased with you!  If you ever feel as if God has abandoned you, come into this place, sing with us, pray with us, eat with us, cry with us, be with us, and bless us, bless us, bless us.  Amen.