While I have observed many Ascension Days in my life, I honestly don’t think that I’ve ever preached on Ascension Day. Being a lover of liturgical history, it was rather fun boning up on some of the church customs around the feast day. Traditionally, it was on Ascension Day that there was a blessing of the first fruits — usually grapes and beans. In some churches, the Paschal candle is extinguished to mark the feast. In England, there is an outdoor procession with torches and banners. The lead banner bears the symbol of the lion, and the second banner, with the symbol of a dragon, is at the very end of the procession. The order of the banners in the procession and the images on them were meant to visually proclaim the victory of Christ over the devil. Now, on to my personal favorite. In some churches, they would actually raise a statue of Jesus above the altar and during the liturgy it would be lifted through a special door in the roof. Now I have to say that — because you are named Church of the Ascension — I am hoping against hope that you have such a special trap door. Liz? Maybe the work on the rectory could be expanded?!
So, some 40 days after Easter, Jesus was gathered with his disciples on the Mount of Olives. Jesus tells them that in a few days, they will be given the gift of the Holy Spirit. What they did not know — because who would have imagined such a thing — was that he was about to literally physically leave them — via the clouds. In our lesson from Acts, Jesus finishes his thoughts about the Holy Spirit, and abruptly ascends. The disciples are left looking upwards; I imagine their mouths were agape in shock. Their Teacher is gone — whoosh — and they have been given assurances that they will not be left alone because this powerful Spirit of God will be upon them. But Jesus has told them that they have days to wait for that Spirit to arrive. They are in what must have been a very frightening period of in between. Their Savior is physically gone — and their promised source of strength, courage, and guidance has not yet arrived.
The disciples were in what we now call a liminal time: the time in between. The writer Alice Walker calls such a period “the pause.” Before you called Liz to be your rector, you experienced a lengthy pause. If we take an honest look, a good part of our lives are lived in those periods of in-between. We do not profess to like them. They are uncomfortable. Full of uncertainty and fear. Walker says that what she likes about “the pause” is that it is a time of emptiness. Because the new has not yet emerged to be claimed and held onto and the old has been surrendered, there is suddenly space … room to see, and hear, and wait. A time for exploration.
Art has always been an important bridge, for me, into the sacred realms. There is a Harlem photographer named Roy DeCarva whose work I’ve long appreciated. A few months ago, there was an article about him in the Times Sunday magazine. The writer made a very keen observation about DeCarva’s photographs that I continue to mull over. This is what she said: “DeCarva’s work is an exploration of just how much could be seen in the shadowed parts of a photograph — just how much could be imagined into the shadows.” She is right about his work, but her remark also led me to think more about the in-between. Liminal times are not about the bright light of clarity — they are about seeing into the shadows. Recognizing the grace and power of what is on the edge of things. Today as we install Liz, we celebrate new beginnings, and more clarity than shadow. Yet, as Liz and you continue in this ministry you are crafting together, remember that there will be periods of liminality: when it is time to let go of something old, and then sit and wait for the new to emerge. In our Gospel, we are told that the disciples left the Mount of Olives and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, in spite of the sudden disappearance of their Savior. May we all embrace those times of waiting with such unbridled enthusiasm and anticipation!
What I hear in the ending of our lesson from Acts — when the angels appear and ask the disciples why they are looking up — are two things: “what did you expect?” and “now it is time to get on with things.” They can no longer gaze upon Jesus. They have been freed to live into their ongoing call. As I sat with this passage, the phrase that kept coming back to me was “love what is. Love what is.” Looking up or looking back helps for a short bit of time, and then we need to look at what is right before our very eyes, and live into that. And love it. But doing this is far more challenging than we think. As human beings, we spend an awful lot of time ruminating, blaming, bemoaning, wishing, regretting, and the list goes on. Loving what IS means being a bride of both amazement and realism. It is not a simple task.
One of the many things that Liz and I share is a love of dogs. In the last few years, we have walked the path of putting beloved dogs to sleep, just as we have also welcomed new dogs into our households. Recently, I sent Liz an amusing article called Upward Dog by a writer friend of hers from Holy Apostles. The line I especially loved from that piece was “dogs exult in the world itself.” As far as we can tell, dogs really do love what is. Honestly, I’d like to BE more like my dogs! I’m much too much of an idealist — and when things don’t match up to what I imagined, I’m deeply disappointed. To be able to exult in what it is to live each day fully, honestly, realistically. It is to eschew denial, to let go of disappointments and all of the things that hold us back, and instead claim, embrace, and celebrate what is present. As you and Liz hope and dream and weave a new vision, remember to ground yourselves in the reality of what is. And be glad for it. To use a line from a June Jordan poem, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” In other words, this and we are what we have got. Work with it. Honor it. Let the Holy Spirit move in it and you and through it and you. Don’t let fear hold you back. Be of good courage. Trust God. Love what is.
Finally, in our lesson from Acts, there is that cajoling tone of the angels that is a call to action. Christ is gone to be with the Creator. He has ascended. It is up to you — which is us — to be his hands and heart in the world. St. Francis, one of my heroes, says this: We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart and to bring home those who have lost their way. Poet Mary Oliver puts it this way: can one be passionate about the just, the ideal, the sublime, and the holy and yet commit to no labor in its cause? In the book of Acts, just after today’s passage, we learn that the disciples return to the Upper Room, have a meal together, and add more disciples to their ranks. They leave the Mount of Olives, and Jesus in the clouds, to begin the work of ministry. They did not wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit to arrive; instead they moved forward, towards the Spirit.
Our ministries vary from place to place, but we all begin from the very same starting point: our baptismal vows, which are both marker and guidepost throughout our journeys. We choose hope over despair … and we plant seeds of hope by treating people with respect and dignity, because we believe and know that every person is made in God’s image. We tend our own brokenness and support those around us, we serve in our shelters, greet people on the street, hand out food and make meals for those who are hungry because we know that their lives matter as well as our own, and that through our acts of service, we are honoring Christ in us and in them. We choose justice over injustice … and we help usher that justice in by seeking to change structures and improve infrastructures, so that safety nets are strengthened, new configurations are brought forth and people are kept from free-falling. St. Benedict says, in his Rule of Life, that at the end of every night, one should ask: did I see Christ in others? And did others see Christ in me? Maybe those two questions need to be asked not just by us individually, but also in community, in our parishes?
As you and Liz move forward, what are the ways in which you might be even more deeply engaged in the world than you already are? What does the transformative love of Christ mean to your neighbors? To the people who sleep midst Washington Square Park and Union Square? To students and others from NYU and the New School who might be asking questions around meaning and purpose? As you all know, parish life is never static. Part of our job as Christians, and you as priest and parish, is this ongoing process of discernment around mission and purpose. Where is God leading this place? Who are you being called to serve, you who are the hands and heart of Christ?
Tonight, we celebrate and mark a new beginning. To the people of Church of the Ascension, I say this: I have known Liz since we started in ministry back in the early ’80s in the diocese of Newark and then here in New York. We have had many great adventures through the years and I trust, many yet to come! You chose well. Your new rector is a gifted priest, a woman of enormous integrity, humor, intelligence, and creativity. A champion for justice. She will help you cultivate your gifts and forge new directions. And you will have fun doing it.
Remember to help her balance play with work; family time along with her time with you; and when she does a good job, or does something you especially appreciate, tell her. Receiving affirmation is always a good thing. Trust and respect each other. And be willing to take risks (I suddenly feel like I’m giving a marriage homily — but maybe that isn’t too far off base here). I look forward to seeing where you will go in this ministry, together.
Liz, you are beloved by many, including me, and you are beloved by God. God has called you here, to be pastor, leader, preacher, teacher, spiritual guide, and soul worker. The two words I would say to you are (and this is absolutely NOT a book reference): lean in. What I mean is: lean into your own innate wisdom, into the Spirit’s joy, into the love of friends and family, into your wry sense of humor, into all that brings delight. Lean into prayer, as you seek to hear God’s still voice — while leading, unfolding gleaning, and guiding. Lean into nature, song, poetry, dance, breaking bread of all kinds … into all the things that feed your soul. Lean into the knowledge that you are called by God to be here — as rector. In times of challenge, remember to lean into the veracity of that call — and into God’s immeasurable wisdom and grace. Finally, lean into this community who has called you, and entrusted themselves to you. Together, you will create a new story that is, as yet, unknown. Blessings and love on this great day of celebration! AMEN
Preached by The Rev. Elizabeth Sherman at the Institution of The Rev. Elizabeth G. Maxwell as the 12th Rector of the Church of the Ascension, May 13, 2015, the Eve of the Feast of the Ascension