Sunday, May 12, 2024

First Reading (Acts 1:1-11, NRSVUE)
Gospel Reading (Luke 24:44-53, NRSVUE)
The Ascension of Christ — Rev. Brent Gundlah

Today’s just one of those days — or, to be more accurate, it’s three of those days; and therein lies a problem. You see, today we get ourselves a trio of important occasions on a single morning — occasions that might seem kind of hard to celebrate and reflect upon simultaneously.

As I’m sure you all know, it’s Mother’s Day — as it has been every second Sunday in May since President Wilson first declared it to be a holiday back in 1914. It’s the day on which we celebrate the mothers and mother figures in our lives; motherhood and maternal bonds, in general; as well as the complex roles of mothers in our society. That’s a lot to deal with, then again, so is being a mom — or so I’ve heard. But you probably don’t need me to tell you that.

Mother’s Day was initially conceived of by its founders, groundbreaking women like Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis, as a way of bringing attention to social justice and public health issues like, poverty, temperance and war (all of which hit families quite hard). Originally, Mother’s Day was dedicated to the hope that the world could be a better place for present and future generations. And this was a notion with which mothers — and everyone else, for that matter — could certainly get on board.

These days, Mother’s Day is generally a joyful time full of greeting cards, gifts and flowers, a morning for sleeping-in and enjoying breakfasts of rubbery scrambled eggs and burnt toast made by smiling, well-meaning children; and this okay, I suppose. However, it is, for some, a time of sadness, disappointment, conflict, anger, frustration and other difficult feelings. And we need to honor that truth today as well.

But today’s also Ascension Sunday in our church calendar, the day on which we mark the final departure of the risen Jesus from his very first followers. This important event is described in some detail in the Acts of the Apostles and in less detail in Luke’s Gospel. Because the Gospel reading generally follows the first reading here in church, we actually addressed these texts out of order today — the passage that is from the very end of Luke actually precedes the one that is from the very beginning of Acts (and, as I mentioned last week, the same person wrote them both).

Acts tells us that the Ascension took place forty days after the resurrection, and so Ascension Day has always been celebrated on the fortieth day after Easter, which this year would have been this past Thursday. In today’s church, this event, if it’s even acknowledged at all, is often celebrated on Ascension Sunday — the Sunday immediately following the fortieth day after Easter, which would be today.

For some reason — I know not why — the Ascension has kind of just disappeared from most churches’ radar screens; and this is strange because it’s kind of a big deal — after all, Jesus is going back home to be with God.

Ascension Day actually used to get you a day off from work or school in many places, but not any more. I think we’ve lost sight of the idea that the newly-risen Jesus actually stuck around for almost six weeks after Easter trying to convince his disciples that he was really alive before he finally headed off to heaven.

During that strange time, these disciples had to deal with a lot of confusion and conflicted feelings — and I’m not sure that the surreal experience of the Ascension really helped them sort it all out. I mean, I doubt that they stood up there on the Mount of Olives feeling like everything had finally been revealed and resolved, like the nature of their relationship with Jesus had been made clear as he floated away. Not even close.

Because no matter how hard we try to think about God and talk about God, we always seem to fall short of complete understanding. This is just what happens when human beings try to process the unfathomable reality of our Creator. And while Ascension Day is worth remembering for a bunch of reasons, perhaps the most important one is that it reminds us we can’t ever put God in any box that we ourselves create.

God chose to do the seemingly unthinkable — showing us the way and the truth and the life in the person of Jesus; and this, in and of itself, is worth celebrating. But Jesus’s return to God also demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, that God can’t and and won’t be pinned down to any one place or time. Jesus’ ascension, then, isn’t simply about his leaving us; it is about recognizing that our ongoing relationship with him — and with God — is complicated, contradictory, and well beyond our capacity to understand it fully.

We experience Jesus’ love for us — indeed, God’s love for us — in specific times and places, and we know that this love transcends all time and place. We are overjoyed that Jesus dwelled among us for a while, and we are saddened that he is not here right now. We cherish the abiding presence of his Spirit, and we miss the tangible presence of his person terribly.

And perhaps this is where these seemingly unrelated occasions of Mother’s Day and Ascension Day intersect with one another, and also with this day on which we here at HUCC celebrate this year’s graduates.

Luke never tells us whether Jesus’s mother, Mary, was there as he ascended to heaven, but I can’t help but believe that she was. She was, after all, there to hear his borning cry, she was there for his very first visit to the temple, and she was there with him at the cross; it’s hard to imagine her not being present for this final “goodbye” with her son.

I wonder what she must have been thinking and feeling as she stood there that day. She knew from the very beginning that Jesus was no ordinary child; she understood before he was even born that he was both hers and not ever just hers, that he always also belonged to God and the whole world too.

“As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight,” Luke tells us in the opening chapter of Acts. How hard did Mary have to fight that impulse to hold on tightly to Jesus, to pull him back down towards her? At what point did she realize that this would be impossible to do, no matter how hard she tried and hoped and prayed?

Did that young Hebrew mother in the book of Exodus named Jochebed feel the same way that day at the river’s edge when she let go of that basket she’d made to float her baby away to safety? Did she truly believe that God was in charge and would see to her son’s well-being, or did she feel like she was simply doing the best she could with what she had — don’t we all wonder about that sometimes? Did she sense that this child, whom another woman would adopt and call by the name of Moses, also belonged to God and the whole world too, that he was always both hers and more than hers? And did Pharaoh’s daughter feel the same way when Moses grew up and left her to go do all the great things that he did?

Are they ever really just ours, these children — or do they always really belong to God and the whole world too? I remember, when our daughters were born, feeling like this giant stopwatch had been started inside my soul that would hereafter mark the passing of time from the moment they were born until they were all grown up.

What I hadn’t counted on, though, were all of those smaller experiences of letting go that would happen along the way and how they would feel: nervously releasing their hand as they walked by themselves for the first time, running behind a bicycle as they rode off on their own, standing still and waving to them as they walked into their first day of kindergarten, knowing that we were on the verge of monumental changes when they graduated high school, crying our eyes out when we left them at college and went home alone, looking into their empty room and realizing that things would never be the same for any of us again.

And yet we — and by “we” I mean mothers (and fathers) of all types — still have  of our memories of all the joys and the challenges of our lives together, we watch home movies and look at photographs and, hopefully, we can muster up a smile through our tears. We look at all they’ve accomplished and realize with a measure of pride that we’ve played some part in it. We think about what is and what might have been, and ponder why it all turned out the way that it did even as we wonder what comes next.

And so we hang on while we can and let go when we must, all the while believing that there is something more to it all — that there just has to be something more to it all — than what we are capable of seeing or understanding in this time and this place.

Because they are never really just ours, these children; they always belong to God and the whole world too.

I wish you all a blessed day of celebration, for there is indeed much to celebrate today.