Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? – A sermon (or rant perhaps) for Ascension 2020

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This started out as a blogpost. But perhaps inspired by the Festival of Homiletics this week, it turned into more of a sermon. No, I am not preaching this week. But as I was writing, I found, I guess I had something to say. So maybe this is a rant. Maybe it’s a sermon. Maybe it’s part of my prophetic call as a Minister of Word and Service, a Deacon. Or maybe it’s just the musings of a Deacon thinking about Ascension yesterday amid the realities and challenges of this pandemic time. Read it if you are interested. And if you’re preaching on Ascension this weekend, feel free to use any of this that might be helpful for you (just please cite it in a footnote if publishing it elsewhere). It’s based off the appointed readings for Ascension Day, especially from Acts 1:1-11, and Luke 24:44-53.

Grace and peace from our God who though ascended, is still very much present with us and for us. Amen.

“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” (Acts 1:10-11, NRSV).

God in Christ has ascended, just as he said he would. Just as the psalmist said God would. Yet, here we are. Gawking heavenward. Looking up. Eyes fixated on the skies. Perhaps missing the world all around. Perhaps looking right past our neighbors in need. Perhaps, even missing God right here in our midst- calling us to see and care for our neighbors whom God calls us into relationship with?

Perhaps we’re so focused on our church buildings and on being in-person for worship that we have turned them each into an idol? Perhaps by being so focused there, we are missing the opportunity that God is calling us to see and be part of now- of worship and life together- in new digital and physically distanced ways? Aren’t there ways that we have experimented with these past couple of months that have created new opportunities for learning, faith formation, community, life together, and service? If so, why on earth would we suddenly give these new ways up in order to return to in-person worship where out of the order of health and safety, it won’t be like in-person worship we have experienced in the past?

Something is bubbling inside me this week. Call it frustration. Call it anger. Call it pandemic related or not. But I am so tired- not of this virus, though I am tired of its deadliness and the way it turns people’s lives upside down. I am so tired of seeing the numbers go up here in our health district each week. I’m tired of seeing the numbers go up of hospitalizations. Douglas County to our south, Omaha’s county, is on the verge of a major spike, and if distancing isn’t followed this holiday weekend, will likely result in nearly over-running the city’s hospitals after the people of Nebraska have done so well to try and flatten the curve these past few months.

I am tired, because there is a sense that some have said, “Enough is enough. Let’s get back to normal.”

If we do this now, the numbers will spike. If we do this now, we’re only going to make it worse. About 90,000 people have died so far in this country from this virus. We’re weeks or even worse, days away from passing 100,000 lives lost. How many is too many? I would say one more. Because if we claim to be God’s people, we care about every single person’s life.

I’m angry because this virus has made it abundantly clear that those who lack access to health care, and those who have to work to keep food on their family’s table, are at a distinct disadvantage. I’m tired because yet again, our society seems to sacrifice certain ethnicities and populations for the sake of mammon and the earthly.

I’m distraught, because people want to gather back in person for worship, consequences be damned. But what about our older saints who might most be at risk? What about those with pre-existing conditions, or who are susceptible to pneumonia (for example) like me? What about those who are pregnant, like my wife?

No. God gave us brains so that we might use them. God gave us ears so we might hear. God gave us eyes so that we might see our neighbors and each other. God gave us lips to proclaim God’s promises and truth. God gave us stomachs, so that we might taste and see that the Lord is good.

Why are we staring up towards heaven? Are we missing God’s activity right here? Or, perhaps this year, amid this pandemic, are we looking heavenward with lament and hope? With anger and trust? With exhaustion and sorrow? With fears of burnout and hopes of renewal?

Looking heavenward into the clouds out in the country of Eastern Nebraska.

God has called some to be scientists and doctors, for a reason. We should be listening to them. They are warning us that we aren’t through this yet. They are calling us to see that our actions matter for our sake, and especially for our neighbors. We’re all interrelated here. That’s why we wear masks when out in public. That’s why we provide physical distance between each other. That’s why we are finding new ways to be the people of God gathered at a distance, but connected through means online, over the phone, and in other ways.

I am not saying I don’t long to be back in person with my sisters and brothers in Christ. I do. Oh, how much I long for the day when we can enjoy the sacrament together. Oh, how I long for the day when we can break into four-part harmony in singing “Beautiful Savior.” Oh, how I long for the day, when we can stay for an hour or more after worship and enjoy each other’s company in fellowship over a good potluck meal and shoot the breeze about the weather, the Huskers, and plans for the weeks and year ahead. I lament all of this, that we can’t do right now.

I long for this, and I know you do too. But because of the brain, ears, eyes, lips, and stomach, that God has entrusted me with, I know that we can’t. Not yet. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not even next month.

Worship, whenever it happens in person, will not feel or seem the same. Masks will no doubt be a required best practice. It may well be common to see your pastor preaching with a mask on. Communal singing will not happen until there’s a vaccine. There may be music to listen to and ruminate on, but it will not be communal. The sacrament may not be shared because of the risk of germs, or, it will look a great deal differently. The passing of the peace, will continue to be at a 6 foot distance without any physical touching. There won’t be any food and conversation over fellowship either. There will be no passing of the plate for offering, but rather stationary sanitized giving stations, and a greater emphasis for online and direct-deposit giving.

As I come to terms with this, myself, my heart sinks. It’s pretty clear from the science and data, that it is not safe to sing with a crowded assembly right now, nor will it be until this virus is at bay. But when I remember, worship isn’t about me, nor is it solely about you, but it’s about God being praised and with God’s people together, I start to reclaim some sense of hope.

We can still sing, if gathered remotely through online worship. We can sing outside on our own, in God’s creation. But we can also share our praise to God in other or new ways. What might praise look like in the meantime? We can praise in ways like how the psalmist says this day, “clap your hands.” We can do that.

Even amid the anguish, challenge, and pain that is this virus, we must rejoice. Because God is still present. God has not left us with a shout alone, but with the Advocate. The Holy Spirit, God’s on-going presence in the world. God has not left us alone, but God has left us with 6+ billion siblings whom God wants us to be in relationship with and to care for- to recognize that we are each intricately tied to one another.

Our human family is not so small that we can build four walls around ourselves and say only those who reside there within matter. No. But rather, rejoice and know that your family is my family. Rejoice and know, that you are part of God’s family- you are a beloved Child of God. God knows you and calls you by name. You are God’s! When we remember this, we can’t help but with the psalmist, “Clap our hands” and “shout to God with loud songs of joy.  For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth” (from Psalm 47:1-2, NRSV).

People of God, you are not alone. God is with you. I am with you. Your pastor and congregational leaders are with you. And we all give thanks for you being with us, and for the one who has called us altogether as God’s people, though physically distanced from one another right now, still very much connected and gathered as God’s people here. Paul’s quite right right when thanking the people of Ephesus and remembering them in prayer (Ephesians 1:15-16). Your leaders do the same for you. I trust you hold them up in prayer too. During this time, we all need more prayer than ever. Thank you for holding me in your prayer too.

We look heavenward today, but we can’t keep looking up forever. Our necks would give out. Our eyes, if we catch the sun breaking through the clouds might burn, or worse. And we can’t keep our gaze up to the sky, when we know and confess that God has called us to the work and identity of being the very Body of Christ, in the world.

The apostle Paul writes, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:15-23, NRSV).

Looking heavenward into the clouds in Eastern Nebraska, with a cross below.

Jesus ascends today, to fulfill promises and the prophets’ words. He ascends forty days after he’s resurrected to again show that God’s word is true. To be with God, and to intercede for us. But God doesn’t leave us. God is with us, interceding with us with the Spirit’s presence which we’ll celebrate in just about a week. It will be a different kind of Pentecost this year, one where we might bear more truth to the scripture’s words about being called and sent, as we have all been sent out of our church buildings to our living rooms and backyards. Sent from our pews to our couches and dining room tables to worship. And in so doing, God calls us this year perhaps even more so to see that God is with us, wherever we might be, and wherever we might reside.

In his last words to his disciples, those whom he loves, before he ascends, Jesus again says, “You are witnesses…” (Luke 24:46-49, NRSV).

We are all witnesses to God’s saving work. We are all witnesses to God’s on-going activity in the world all around us. We are all witnesses to God’s story. And we are all called through our baptisms, to proclaim it honestly and boldly. To live out it’s truth as the most abundant and generous good news that we could ever receive through our own generous stewardship of all that God entrusts. To lean into the Good News of God’s presence, and serve and grow as disciples because of it.

The story ends saying that those who witnessed the ascension, “returned with great joy” (Luke 24:50-53, NRSV).

Some day, maybe weeks, maybe months, maybe even a year from now we will all be able to safely gather in large groups again and hopefully too, worship safely together with all of our sisters and brothers in the same physical space at the same time. That will be a day of rejoicing, whether or not we can sing at that point. Because how can we not help but do like these disciples and witnesses, in our lives and service as disciples ourselves? How can we not rejoice?

But that rejoicing together, that returning together, is not something to rush into. It’s kind of a both-and thing. We’re quite good at this as Lutherans. The Kingdom of God is now and not yet. We are simultaneously saints and sinners. We’re perfectly free and servants of none, and yet also perfectly bound, and servants to all. We do rejoice. But we also can lament the pain and suffering this pandemic continues to wrought. We can long for being back in person, while also knowing that it is too soon to gather. We can give thanks for good leaders living out their vocations in care for their neighbors, while also holding all in authority accountable for their decision making as it relates to the care of our neighbors. And we can both stare heavenward for awhile, and then stare at our feet on the ground below us and the horizon ahead of us.

Again, why are we staring up towards heaven? Are we missing God’s activity right here? Or, perhaps this year, amid this pandemic, we look heavenward with lament and hope? With anger and trust? With exhaustion and sorrow? With fears of burnout and hopes of renewal?  

For whatever reason you stand staring to heaven today, know that your staring is okay. But just don’t do it forever. Take a breath and watch. You are a witness. But remember too, that you are a witness with a call and part of God’s work and mission in the world. We aren’t here, standing idly by waiting forever without something to do. And we aren’t here, just working as hard as ever, because to work hard is what we do. No. What we do and what we’re doing, is following God’s call. Serving and responding to God’s promises as stewards of God’s love. And bearing the truth and promises of our God who is with us, for us, and loves us through our discipleship.

May the Holy Spirit come as she did that first chaos and drama filled Pentecost so long ago, and fill us. May the Spirit move us, and breathe life into us. And May God with us, not only comfort us in our anxiety, fear, exhaustion and frustration that we feel right now; but may she encourage us, and enliven us for the work and mission God has called us each to be a part of, here and now. Amen.

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