This sermon was written by Rev. KJ Norris for Ascension Sunday during Memorial Day weekend, May 24, 2020.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
In America, this weekend is Memorial Day Weekend. We started our service with a video of a boy and two men skipping stones by a pond. It doesn’t take long to figure out that the boy’s father died in service to his country. The men and boy skip rocks to remember the ways in which the boy’s father lived his life loving God and other people. And how he served bravely.
This is the weekend to remember. To remember those who have gone before. To think about those who have taught us, trained us, inspired us, helped us to become the people we are today. This is the weekend to remember those who died too soon. This is the weekend to remember those who gave their lives in service to others. This is the day to recommit ourselves to pray for those who put their lives on the line every day for the good of the whole.
Across the world, this is also a holiday in the church called Ascension Sunday. Perhaps it is a lessor known holiday than Easter and Christmas, but a very important one, nevertheless. Today churches across the world are reading the same Scriptures we read, especially the one from the book of Acts.
It tells a short but amazing part of the story of our Lord Jesus Christ. After Jesus died and rose from the grave, he spent 40 days with the disciples. We only know a few stories from those 40 days. We know about Thomas who placed his hands on Jesus sides and found him to be truly raised from the dead. We know about Peter who after denying Jesus three times thought he could never be forgiven and yet Jesus comes to him and calls him to feed his sheep not once, not twice, but three times, fully forgiving him from any passed wrongs. And we know about Mary, the first to see the Lord, but she can’t even recognize Jesus when he is standing right in front of her until he says her name.
We know a few stories but not many, just enough to confirm that it is really Jesus. Jesus really did die and raise again. It is fully him—the same Jesus—and yet, different somehow. Jesus, the resurrected Lord. And then we get this story.
I think that the disciples wanted Jesus, now that he is back, to say forever. And of course, he could. Jesus has proven that he has power over life and death. Nothing can destroy Jesus. He will live forever. He does live forever. Alleluia! Amen! So, Jesus could just stay on earth, showing up whenever he wants to. But forever reason, and our Scripture today gives us a sense of that reason, that is not the plan of God. God intends to send the Holy Spirit.
Spoiler Alert: That’s the Scripture for next week so tune in then, but for the Holy Spirit to come, Jesus has to leave. So, our Scripture tells us that the disciples gather together with Jesus up on a mountain top and suddenly as they watch Jesus is lifted up; it says that a cloud took him out of their sight.
Now, if you know the Old Testament, you know that God appeared in the Tabernacle as a cloud so we are not to think of an ordinary cloud here but rather the idea that Jesus is in this moment somehow reunited fully in the Trinity.
And what do the disciples do? Well, they do what I would do, what any of us would do, they stand there with their mouths hanging open. They have no idea what to do. They are in shock. Their best friend, mentor, savior, just disappeared before their very eyes.
The disciples have already been through so much. They already watched Jesus die on the cross. And then they watched him rise again. And now he is gone. I imagine that they are going through the five components of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, all at once! They have so many emotions at this moment they can’t do anything so they just stand there.
That is until two men in white robes—possibly angels—they are in such shock they don’t even remember this part really—but two guys show up and tell them to go back to where they have been staying.
The Gospel of Luke tells us a little more about this. Jesus had given specific instructions that they were not to leave the city of Jerusalem until the coming of the Holy Spirit so they can’t go home; they just have to go back and wait. Jesus isn’t coming back. Not right away. Not at least for 2,000 years we now know. So there is no sense in standing around waiting for him.
This weekend is Memorial Day Weekend. The day when we remember and grieve those who gave everything so that we might live. This weekend is Ascension weekend. The weekend we remember Jesus leaving his disciples and how they were so full of grief they stood frozen, staring at the sky, not knowing what to do. And we are entering our 11th Sunday of worshiping together in our homes instead of in our beloved building with the blue windows which for many of us feels like home.
I don’t know about you, but I’m experiencing a lot of grief right now.
And while there is a big part of me that doesn’t want to talk about that, our national holiday, and our Scripture, and the circumstances of our lives called me to pray this week about grief.
It’s commonly known that grief has five components which come and go, sometimes they are called stages because we often experience one of them more deeply than another at a certain time, but they don’t go in order and sometimes we feel multiple components at once. Grief contains denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
During Coronavirus, I know that I am experiencing all of these. I’m experiencing intense grief over all of the things I am losing, and maybe you are, too. Most of these are small things: being able to just swing by a grocery store to pick up eggs instead of planning trips wisely to limit them and going in carefully with a mask and being aware of keeping distance from other shoppers. That’s not a big deal; it’s not hard, but we all do grieve the loss of normalcy. And it’s not just the little things. We are grieving big things, too.
For many this is the season of graduation. On Friday this week we are having a virtual graduation at the seminary. And on Friday my nine months as interim there will come to a close. The students can’t receive hugs from their professors and the staff. They will get goodbye text messages or emails and 100s will wave goodbye on zoom, but our graduates are experiencing so many emotions right now and grief is one of them.
For some of us grief takes us to the point of denial. We just don’t want to believe that this is happening. In my own life, I’m prone to denial but then I talk to my doctor friend who I use to live with. She has asthma and has to rotate once a week on to the respiratory wing of the hospital. She’s asked me for prayer because she fears for her life every time she does. And Gwen, one of the church ladies who sung at my ordination service lost her best friend to coronavirus this week. I’m reminded that I might want to wish this away but I can’t. So I don’t stay in denial too long, but denial is part of this grief we all feel.
For others it’s not denial but depression. There are days when some of us just don’t want to get out of bed. When we are overwhelmed by the sorrow. Perhaps you have felt this on a rainy day. Maybe you are exhausted. I read an article a while back that said we are all experiencing something called moral fatigue. We all think about every single action we take.
For instance, imagine a person who helps at food bank. They do their best to social distance while there. They pack the food outside. They wear masks. They station themselves apart from one another. But it takes a lot of people to get the work done. So the person could be a carrier for the virus and not know it. If this person then needs to deliver groceries to someone who has a compromised immune system, they could pass along the virus. This leads to worry that the loving action of volunteering at the food bank will lead to the death of another. It’s exhausting to worry all the time. To worry even about our very best intentions. So there are days when people don’t want to get out of bed. Perhaps that is true for you sometimes, too. Part of grief is depression.
Although I don’t normally consider myself to be an angry person, right now, my struggle is with anger. I feel angry all the time. I’m angry about the squirrel who keeps getting to the bird feeder. I’m angry that the cat sheds and the vacuum cleaner gets backed up. I’m angry at all of the injustices of the world that I won’t name now because they will make me so angry I’ll never finish this sermon. I’m really angry. And I’m mostly angry at me. I mostly angry that I never feel like I’m doing enough. I feel like I’m trapped in my house and can’t fix the problems of the world, and I hate that helpless.
Maybe for some you are not experiencing this with Coronavirus, but you can relate to grief causing these kinds of emotions. Perhaps a different experience caused you to know anger or depression or denial or lead you to bargaining with God or with others.
So, what do we do? If we are experiencing grief today, whatever it’s cause, be it the collective grief caused by coronavirus or grief caused by the loss of a friend or the grief we experience when we remember those who gave their lives for our sake, what do we do with it?
Well, both of our lectionary Scriptures today, as all Scripture does, speak into our lives gently, calling to us, reminding us of who we are, whose we are, and what we are called to do.
The first does so by simply telling us what the earliest disciples did. When the earliest disciples were grieving, they prayed. They were in this weird in between time where they had been told not to go anywhere so they just stayed in small groups up in this upper room and the Scripture says they were constantly in prayer. It sounds simple. But honestly, …how much time have you spent in prayer this week?…. Can find an hour a day to sit in stillness and pray?–just an hour a day.
And then 1 Peter gets a little more deep into our call. Peter, after receiving the Holy Spirit and living for a few years without Jesus on earth writes this letter to one of the fledgling churches—a group of people who met in houses and who passed around these letters to one another for encouragement and instruction. And what he said is this,
“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. 7Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. 8Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. 9Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.”
I think in this time we have to remember who the enemy really is. In this time, it is really easy to place blame. We can blame politicians or people who don’t look like us or ourselves. We can easily point fingers at one another. But the Scripture reminds us that our enemy is not flesh and blood. Our fight is never against one another. We are called to love another another. And God loves us. Even when we think we are weak.
The evil one is trying to divide us in this time. He is looking for someone to devour. And there are so many ways that the evil one can do that. This is why we are called first and foremost to pray. How many hours have we spent in prayer this week? Discipline yourselves. Keep alert.
It sounds too simple, but what Fred Rogers said is right. We should look for the helpers. What story of hope can you share this day? Where do you see beauty?
Is it in the blue jay who scares the squirrel off of the bird feeder? Is it in the story of the military veteran who gave his life for his country? Is it in the doctor who goes to work even through the fear? Is it in the parent who finds more time to be at home to teach their kids? Is it in the gardens we can plant during this season? Keep alert. Look for hope.
Our call, especially this Memorial Day weekend, is to remember. As it says in 1 Peter: “the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” Live into that restoration. That strength. And to look for the beauty of these days. To rejoice in the moments that we do get with family.
To be thankful for technology which enables us to continue to be together.
To be thankful that our Lord Jesus Christ did ascend to heaven so that we don’t have to gather in one specific place to be with him but that God is with us wherever we are—right now. Wherever we are listening to this in our homes or our cars or our on our back porches or wherever.
So let us take a moment to pause. To remember. And to give thanks with grateful hearts.