So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Keep Your Eyes Where They Belong – May 24,2020 – by Reverend Jane Quandt
In some ways it is a peculiar thing that we do on Sunday mornings, made even stranger these days by the fact that we are doing it looking at one another on a computer screen. Instead of doing the dishes or going for a drive we come together for the better part of an hour with no intention of being useful or productive, listening to things which can not be proven, and declaring our loyalty to a God we can not see. In the eyes of many this activity that we call worship is difficult to justify. But those of us who do it over and over again, well, we begin to count on it – so much so that we are even willing to settle for doing it via this thing called zoom.
Our doing this may baffle our unbelieving friends and neighbors. Sometimes it may baffle us too – proclaiming good news even when the news is bad, affirming there is light even when the sky is dark, continuing to seek our savior, even when the evidence suggests that he packed up and left a long long time ago.
Our scripture reading for today is the account of the Ascension, that day when Jesus left us, when Jesus led his disciples to a mount called Olivet, spoke to them for the last time and then disappeared for good inside a cloud….one minute there and the next gone, his hand raised in a final blessing, then vanishing on a cloud…no longer there…no longer present…entrusted to their memories.
Our church doesn’t have any stained glass windows, but those that do almost all have an ascension window somewhere. Surely you’ve seen them…. Jesus front and center, usually with his hands open to show the nail holes in them… the disciples below with their necks straining to look upward as Jesus is heading off into the clouds. At my church in Arlington VA that was the window that stood front and center before us every Sunday, though in that rendition there were no disciples, suggesting that perhaps we were those disciples looking up at him in awe every Sunday.
But in every Ascension window Jesus is still there. He isn’t gone yet, even though Ascension Day is the day the present Lord became absent, which could explain why Ascension Day is probably the most forgotten holiday of the church year. After all, who wants to celebrate being left behind? As hungry as most of us are to experience the presence of God, who wants to be reminded of God’s absence?!
But absence is a strange thing, isn’t it? For one thing it’s not an experience of nothing. It’s a powerful experience of something. Anyone who has experienced it, anyone who has lost someone dear to them, can tell you how powerful it is.
Have you ever noticed how when someone important to you is gone you become clearer than ever about what that person meant to you. Details that got lost in your togetherness are often recalled in your apartness, and their sudden clarity has the power to pry open your heart. And the quirks that once drove you crazy become endearing.
In the absence of a loved one you begin to see things through their eyes.
You’re at a restaurant looking at a menu and you find yourself seeing it through your loved ones eyes. “Bob would have loved that filet of sole with capers.” You see a hawk in the sky and you think of Sally’s love of hawks and you find yourself loving that hawk as much as Sally would have were she present. You never really liked horror movies, but a loved one did so now, in his absence, your heart warms every time you see an ad for one.
Now that doesn’t happen unless there is a strong bond between people. Absence is painful because it stands side by side with the presence that no longer is. You cannot miss what you have never known. One could argue that our experience of God’s absence is the best proof of God’s existence. Experiencing God’s absence means there was a time when you experienced God’s presence and so there is always the sound and reasonable hope that you will experience it again.
And so, like a band of forlorn disciples we come together Sunday after Sunday, hoping to experience Jesus’ presence with us. But even in his absence it is a good place to remember him, to recount all the old stories until they begin to come alive again.
But listen. Listen to what the two men in white robes said to those disciples gathered on the Mount called Olivet. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” It reminds me of the two men dressed in dazzling robes beside Jesus’ empty tomb who ask the women looking for Jesus’ body, “Why do you seek the living among the dead.”
If you really want to see your friend again, then you’re going to have to stop looking up to the clouds and start looking around…start looking at one another….because that was where you will find him now. . .not in the same way you used to find him, but in a new way. Not in his body, but in your bodies.
Forget about the big daddy God up in the sky. Now our gaze is directed to this world …to the human community.
Those disciples standing there that day could never have imagined what would happen next, when they stopped looking into the sky and started looking at each other. At first they probably didn’t see much – just 11 abandoned disciples with nothing to show for all their faithful following of Jesus. But in the days and years to come who would have guessed what would happen. They would start to see things through the eyes of Jesus: They would see the sick and they would want to reach out to heal them. They would see the disenfranchised and they would want to include them. They would see the downtrodden and despairing and they would want to speak works of hope to them. They would see prisoners and they would want to set them free.
Ascension day is the day when we remind ourselves to stop looking up and to start looking around, to keep our eyes where they belong, to start looking at this world through the eyes of Christ, to walk this earth in his sandals, to extend a hand on his behalf, so that he might be present once again and forever in the likes of you and of me.
The great poet William Blake who wrote these words.
“I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see. I sought my God, but my God eluded me. I sought my brother (sic) and I found all three.”
So forget about Christ up in the clouds. Let’s keep our eyes where they belong….here…right here in this world. Amen.