7 Easter A May 28, 2017
Luther Memorial Church Seattle, WA
The Rev. Julie Hutson
Acts 1: 6-14 + Psalm 68: 1-10, 32-35 + 1 Peter 4: 12-14; 5: 6-11
John 17: 1-11
Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
His name is Robert Timothy Clark. He’s been away for just over two years, serving in the United States Army. His mother keeps his room ready for his return. In fact, she keeps their entire home ready for his return. His clothes are all clean and put away. His car has a full tank of gas and every few days Margaret drives her son’s Ford Focus around the block to keep it in good running condition. Some days she’ll ever drive it down to the high school…slowing down as she remembers how she used to drop him off there before he got his driver’s license…calling out after him to have a good day and “Love you!” She’d remember how red his cheeks would turn, but how he’d never forget to turn back and wave to her as she drove away. The cookie jar on the kitchen counter is filled with his favorite cookies…chocolate chip. And there’s always plenty of cold milk in the refrigerator.
Margaret misses her son in a way that is so profound that some nights she could swear she hears the floorboards in his room creak under the weight of his size twelve sneakers. She knows it’s silly to think he’s still there, especially since it’s been so long since that proud day he went off to basic training. But some days she sneaks into his room, just to catch a whiff of what her only child smells like, because somehow that scent brings her beloved son closer to home.
Do you miss someone? Maybe an old friend who now lives far away and the good times you had together? Maybe a loved one who has died. Maybe an old love. The pain of missing that person is not just an emotional pain, it is a pain that you feel, in your stomach, in your bones, in that place where you carry your deepest heartache.
On Friday I was sharing a cup of coffee and an oatmeal cookie with Jennings Hanseth, a long time member of Luther Memorial. Jennings is ninety seven years old and he misses coming to worship. But, as he said, it takes a lot to make that happen. Jennings beloved wife, Nancy, had died on Wednesday and we were remembering her – how lovely and gracious she was. I asked Jennings how long they had been married and he couldn’t remember exactly, but then he shared the answer from his heart: “not long enough.”
When we miss another person, we miss not only that person but what our lives were like with them in it. Their absence is felt so acutely because their presence was so important to us. If this were not true, the pain of their absence would not be so profound. What makes absence ache in our bones is the memory of what used to be. “Absence is the arm flung across the bed in the middle of the night, the empty space where a beloved sleeper once lay. Absence is the child’s room now empty and hung with silence and dust. Absence is the over-grown lot where the old house once stood, the house in which people laughed and thought their happiness would last forever.” Absence is what Margaret felt each morning when she tried to imagine what her son was doing at that exact time, half a world away.
When we gather to worship, we gather as followers of Jesus Christ, who is, in the flesh at least, not present with us. The early church as we read about them in the book of Acts, which is the story of the early church…the early church was convinced that Jesus’ return was imminent. That they would experience it. After all, when he ascended, as we read in the first reading today, he gave no indication hat he was going to be gone for so long. The early church was so convinced, in fact, that he was going to return and return quickly, that they lived each day as though it were the last day. That was why Paul told them not to get married. Why marry, why make that commitment, when Jesus was going to return so soon?
Now, here we are, some two thousand plus years later, still waiting on Jesus to return and to some, perhaps, that might seem a little bit ridiculous. It might seem as though we are somehow placing our faith in something that is not true.
This is why so many people expend so much energy trying to determine when the length of days on this earth will end. When will Jesus come again? They try to read signs and completely ignore that Jesus himself says that no one knows the day or time. For awhile the authors of the Left Behind series of books tried to convince us that being left behind was the worst possible thing for a believer in Jesus to experience. That being left behind meant we didn’t believe. But friends, here we are and we are the left behind. And as we read today’s story of the Ascension of Jesus, we know that this is also what happened to those early followers of Jesus and to his mother and his brothers and the other women who were critical to that early church. They were also left behind. As they witnessed Jesus ascending into heaven, they could do nothing more than stand and watch.
I wonder, if when they gathered together there in that Upper Room, they talked about the many ways they missed Jesus? Did they speak about him with great fondness and tell stories about when he was with them?
Remember the time we were in that boat in the middle of that terrible storm?? Yeah! He slept right through it!
And what about the time he walked on water? Wow! Then Peter tried to do it too!
And who would have thought he would get so mad at the money changers in the temple that he would flip their tables over?
And maybe from Mary: I’ll never forget when Joseph and I thought we’d lost him on the way home from the temple.
You can’t miss what you’ve never had. Absence is only possible where once there was great and profound presence.
When we gather for worship, it is an act of searching for God’s presence with us. God, who chose to be present in flesh among us. God who came to earth as Jesus. We search for God and we come here to worship and seek God’s presence, returning again and again. We come here because we know we will hear and tell the stories of God in the world over and over. We will teach them to our children. We will remember them because they come from and live in the deepest places in our very souls. We search for God and find God in ways we can touch and taste and see and hear and smell…in bread and wine, in water and word. We pray for the coming of Christ again.
As Jesus ascended two beings in white robes appeared to those with him and asked why they were standing there, looking upward. What was the point? They were just abandoned followers of someone the government had finally caught and crucified and who even now had left them. They had nothing to show for their beliefs. No Jesus. No risen Savior. No Messiah with wounded hands and side.
And then….a remarkable thing happened. As they prayed in that upper room, the Spirit came upon them and the followers became leaders. Those who had heard the proclamation of Jesus became the ones who proclaimed the word of Jesus. Those who had been healed became the healers. And the church grew and a movement….a Jesus movement….a resistance…..grew up….a Way became clear. And we are still here.
To be sure, that we are still here, waiting for Jesus to come again, is a great frustration to those who want to know the time and the place of his return. And there are those who call us foolish for coming to church week after week and worshiping a God who hasn’t been seen in thousands of years. We long for the presence of Christ among us. We feel deeply his absence, because somewhere within each of us lies a memory. A memory of a very real, a very flesh and bones Jesus, who was born, just like us, and who lived and laughed and cried and loved…just like us.
To see Jesus, beloved community, we don’t have to stand and look up toward the skies. We don’t even have to search our memories. To see Jesus we only have to look around us. Look in the eyes of friends and strangers. There’s Jesus. Look in the eyes of the young and the old…the rich and the poor. Especially the poor. There’s Jesus.
This is not how he was known to those earliest followers, but it is how he is known to us. The risen and ascended Christ comes to us in every breathtaking moment and in every heartbreaking one. The risen and ascended Christ walks with us through the darkest valleys and rejoices with us on the mountain peak moments of our lives.
This Jesus who is no longer anywhere on earth is everywhere instead. And on this day, in this space that is set aside for worship and prayer…Christ is known to us in the body of Christ as it forms and re-forms. Christ is known to us in water that welcomes and washes. Christ is known to us in bread and wine.
People of Galilee, people of this place and this moment….why do you stand looking up toward heaven? Just look around. Christ is with us.
Thanks be to God and let the church say…Amen.