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Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 24, 2020 Rev. Nancy Talbot
Luke 24: 44-53 Mount Seymour United Church
Today is known as Ascension Sunday in the Christian Church. This is now the seventh Sunday after the celebration of Easter and the final week before the festival of Pentecost when we gather to remember the coming of the spirit to the early disciples and to us as they and we are formed into the Body of Christ that is the Church.
Fr. Richard Rohr says that the Ascension, as it is described in the gospels, is the moment when the human Jesus and the universal Christ become one and the same. This then, is yet another revelation of the mystery of Easter.
When we talk to the children about this mystery we take an unlit candle and say when there is no light we say Christ has died. Then we light the candle and say when the candle is lit we say Christ has risen. And then we change the light and say that the Ascension tells us that Jesus is away, but somehow he is still here and he comes again and again, for this Light is now in every place and in every person.
Well, when I turned to today’s scripture reading from the gospel of Luke it wasn’t the mystery of Jesus who is wholly human yet wholly divine that gave me pause to wonder. It was the joy, the overwhelming joy that his followers experienced after Jesus had taken his leave. In verse 52 we read “They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy.”
Wait a minute. Isn’t this the same raggedy band of followers who thought the women were telling idle tale when they returned from the tomb and found it empty just a few short verses of scripture ago? Isn’t this the same crew that were startled and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost when he appeared among them? The same ones who while in their joy were still disbelieving? How did they get all the way from doubtful joy to overwhelming joy in just over 10 verses of scripture?
And what about us? It may be the seventh week after Easter but are we really ready for overwhelming joy? I can’t tell you how many people have told me over the last few weeks that it feels to them like we are still in the season of Lent. We may have entered into phase II this week but just this morning I heard Dr. Bonnie say that there will most certainly be a second outbreak of this virus and as early as September. How can you expect us to go around feeling joyful when we are still in the midst of this? When people are still dying? When people are still going to die? It’s all seems bit disrespectful don’t you think? Isn’t it a bit too soon for joy?
So just why were the disciples so joyful anyway?
I wonder if it had something to do with the fact that they were just given a purpose. When Jesus ascends into heaven, when Jesus gets out of the way, space is created, space for us to do our jobs. Jesus gets out of the way so we can take our place, so we can become more fully who are and what we have been created to be.
We all know how this works because we have all experienced in our lives. You know that old saying give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. None of us would have the jobs we have or the volunteer work we have or the sense of purpose we have if someone didn’t first show us, support us and then get out of the way so we could take our rightful place in the world. Even the most innovative, out in front people have someone behind them who has helped to shape and form them into the people they have become and then stepped aside to let them find their own wings.
During this pandemic we have discovered in my household that my youngest son is actually very good at cleaning the bathroom. In fact he likes cleaning the bathroom. It gives him joy. He never would have discovered this new found joy if his parents hadn’t gotten out of the way and created a space for him to test his bathroom cleaning wings. In the same way we are increasingly discovering that my eldest son has a gift for weeding the garden. Both my boys might complain when they are first commanded to take up these newfound roles, and neither one of them are perfect at what they are doing but trying out new roles, testing our limits, being encouraged to grow into who we are meant to be are all part of stepping into our life’s purpose. We all know this.
Ministry is at it’s very best happens when each one of us claims our role in spreading the word of God, in spreading the Gospel, the good news, in spreading love to all the ends of the earth.
After my father died, 25 years ago, I remember my mother telling me that she spent that first summer without him trying to find her new purpose. She had spent so much time caring for him in those last years of his life that she needed to figure out who and how she was going to serve the world. She found it through her volunteer work with the MS Society. And when she moved into the Atrium right across the street from the church at the age of 84 she found it again volunteering in the Thrift Shop. It may have only looked like she was keeping all the shopping bags at the till organized but in her mind she was contributing to a ministry that served the wider community and that gave her joy.
What is the God given purpose you are fulfilling in your own life right now? How is it that you are being called to spread Good News, unconditional love in these days? Is there a new role you have been called into? I have spoken with those of you who think that you don’t have much of a purpose at all in these days. You feel like your purpose has been diminished in isolation. But staying home is actually a way we are loving one another right now. Maybe this time has created some space for you to fulfill a purpose that you might not previously have had the time to fulfill in pre-Covid times.
And it is love and loving one another in its’ multitude of manifestations that we are really to be about in these days and in all days. Listen again to the purpose Jesus gives his followers: “A change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in Christ’s name to all the nations. You are witnesses of these things.” In other words, we are to be witnesses to hearts changed by unconditional love.
Some translations use the word “repentance” instead of the words “changed hearts” but I love the particular translation we heard today because it causes us to ponder what it is that changes our hearts. Its love isn’t it? Do you remember when you thought your heart couldn’t get any bigger, couldn’t love another child after your first child or grandchild, niece or nephew had been born and suddenly another child comes along and lo and behold you discovered that your heart could expand a bit more? Or when you thought you couldn’t love again after your heart had been changed by being broken and then somehow you found yourself opening up to love once more?
Love changes our hearts when it expands and hearts are expanding right now. Our world is in trouble and we can’t help but want to do something about it so we are saying hello to every stranger we meet and when we are doing that we are actually preaching a gospel of unconditional love.
And love changes our hearts when it contracts so far it breaks right open. The disciples hearts were shattered to pieces when Jesus was crucified on that cross, when they realized their own contributions to that event through their denial and fear, when they felt guilty and remorseful, when they realized that the systems of oppression and power were strong enough and cruel enough to let love hang out to die, when they felt incredible sorrow and loss at the death of their beloved leader, companion and guide.
Our hearts change when they are broken. What is it that is breaking your heart these days? My own heart is breaking from the pain of not being able to visit my mother in her care home and then it breaks a bit more when I think of the way that the virus has spread amongst the elderly, poor and people of colour due to our own failure to protect and care for those people better. My heart breaks a little each day I hear the statistics for British Columbia, one death today, three deaths today and then it breaks a whole lot more when I think of the thousands around the world whose lives have been lost and the conditions under which this virus will continue to arrive in places that are ill equipped to handle it.
Our hearts change when they are broken and yet isn’t it the broken places that love most readily finds a way to enter in, to call us to deeper love and to active love, love that cares enough to actually work for change? And when love seeps in, joy is never far behind.
In the final moments of Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus life, Jesus leads the disciples out to Bethany, the place where he had been anointed with oil for his death, the place where Lazarus had been raised from the dead, and he lifted his hands and he blessed them. As he blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven.
Barbara Brown Taylor says that in order to pronounce a blessing on something it is important to see it as it is.
Jesus, the Universal Christ, blesses his followers, blesses us through eyes that see us clearly as beloved, forgiven and freed, equipped and enabled to be who we were created to be, to share in the sacred purpose of loving the world as God loves the world, each one according to our gifts, each one according to that which gives us our greatest joy.
This morning I heard Dr. Bonnie Henry interviewed on the CBC. One of the last questions she was asked about was where she finds joy. After she responded she said “yes, even in the midst of a pandemic, there is joy.” May it be so.