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Post Presbyterian Church
May 20, 2007
Acts 1

 In the book, Secrets In the Dark, Frederick Buechner tells a timeless story about a Christmas pageant at an Episcopal church that is most appropriate for this Ascension Sunday.  “The manger was down in front at the chancel steps where it always is.  Mary was there is a blue mantle and Joseph in a cotton beard.  The wise men were there with a handful of shepherds, and of course in the midst of them all the Christ child was there, lying in the straw.  The nativity story was read aloud by my friend with carols sung at the appropriate places, and all went like clockwork until it came time for the arrival of the angels of the heavenly host as represented by the children of the congregation, who were robed in white and scattered throughout the pews with their parents.

At the right moment they were supposed to come forward and gather around the manger saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill among men,” and that is just what they did except there were so many of them that there was a fair amount of crowding and jockeying for position, with the result that one particular angel, a girl about nine years old who was smaller than most of them, ended up so far out on the fringes of things that not even by craning her neck and standing on tiptoe could she see what was going on.  “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will among men,” they all sang on cue, and then in the momentary pause that followed, the small girl electrified the entire church by crying out in a voice shrill with irritation and frustration and enormous sadness at having her view blocked, “Let Jesus show!”

There was a lot of the service still to go, but my friend the rector said that one of the best things he ever did in his life was to end everything precisely there.  “Let Jesus show!” the child cried out, and while the congregation was still sitting in stunned silence, he pronounced the benediction and everybody filed out of the church with those unforgettable words ringing in their ears.

“Let Jesus show!”  Isn’t that what it means to be a Christian and to live as a Christian in the midst of the many demands on our time and the many roles we assume and the many relationships we experience?  When I’m at the end of my rope with my children fighting, my husband calling and asking me to drop Elliot off at basketball practice and I have one more Hospice visit to make, I confess that the last thing on my mind is letting Jesus show.  Like the little girl in the Christmas pageant, there is so much for all of us that hides Jesus from us.  Whether it is our insane busyness, the many pressures and demands on our time and energies or the hurts, illnesses, tragedies, challenges, accomplishments and distractions that are the stuff of our everyday lives.

On this Ascension Sunday, it is very appropriate for us to look to Jesus and ponder how we can allow his essence to show forth in our everyday encounters with others.  After Jesus was resurrected, he continued to appear to his disciples for a period of time in a changed and almost unrecognizable form until the first Ascension Day, “when Jesus led his disciples to a mount called Olivet just outside Jerusalem, spoke to them for the last time and then disappeared inside a cloud for good.”  Tradition has it that Jesus ascended in to heaven---that’s what we proclaim each Sunday when we recite the Apostle’s Creed.  Many churches with stained glass windows have an Ascenion window with Christ hovering in the air, his hands raised in blessing, while the disciples look up at him.

We just read about it in the first chapter of the book of Acts, “how one moment Jesus was there with the disciples and the next moment he was gone, his well-known hand raised in final blessing, his face grown bright and indistinct, his familiar shape vanishing into the fog like the end of a dream too good to be true---all of it slipping out of their reach until he was no longer there for them, no longer present but past, a memory that would haunt them to the end of their days.” (Excerpts from Gospel Medicine by Barbara Brown Taylor; p. 72-78)

In a sermon entitled, “Looking Up Toward Heaven,” Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Ascension Day is the day the present Lord became absent, which may be why it is the most forgotten feast day of the church year.  Who wants to celebrate being left behind?  Who wants to mark the day Jesus went out of this world never to be seen again?  Hungry as we are for the presence of God, the one thing we do not need is a day to remind us of God’s absence.”

As Jesus was being lifted up, the scripture says that two men in white robes said to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  Barbara Brown Taylor said, “Luke calls them men in white robes, anyway, so as not to scare anyone, but you can bet your last nickel that they were angels---angels sent to remind God’s friends that if they wanted to see him again, it was no use looking up.  Better they should look around instead, at each other, at the world, at the ordinary people in their ordinary lives, because that was where they were most likely to find him---not the way they used to know him, but the new way, not in his own body but in their bodies, the risen, the ascended Lord who was no longer anywhere on earth so that he could be everywhere instead.

“No one standing around watching them that day could have guessed what an astounding thing happened when they all stopped looking into the sky and looked at each other instead.  On the surface, it was not a great moment: eleven abandoned disciples with nothing to show for all their following.  But in the days and years to come it would become very apparent what had happened to them.  With nothing but a promise and a prayer, those eleven people consented to become the church and nothing was ever the same again.  The followers became leaders, the listeners became preachers, the converts became missionaries, the healed became healers.  The disciples became apostles, witnesses of the risen Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit, and nothing was ever the same again.”  When they stopped looking up toward heaven and began looking toward each other, God’s presence became more real and tangible than God’s absence. 

When I look to others to be God’s presence for me and when I seek to be God’s presence to others, it boils down to love.  When we choose to let Jesus show in our lives, it is always much more about grace than judgment and always more about being compassionate, respectful and caring than it is about being right and certain and all-knowing.  When I was youth minister at Second Baptist Church in Lubbock, I met every Wednesday night with the youth Sunday School teachers to study the next Sunday’s lesson.  When these dedicated teachers worried about how they were going to teach the youth the great theological truths entrusted to them each Sunday, I encouraged them to relax and I assured them that they were probably not going to teach the youth much about God through their meticulous and well-scripted lesson plans.  I told them many times that the youth would most likely NOT remember much from the lessons themselves but they would remember their whole life long if they had been loved and affirmed and cherished and valued when they came to Sunday School.  I always told these good teachers that if they accomplished this then they would do more to further the youth’s positive experience of God than any wise teachings they might impart.

When I heard the story of the exasperated little girl cry, “Let Jesus show!” and when I pondered the Ascension of Jesus and realized that more often then not we have to look to each other in order to see him and to know him, I was reminded of a story I read long ago entitled, the Rabbi’s Gift.  I found it yesterday on the internet and while the original author is unknown, the story was relayed by Dr. M. Scott Peck in his book The Different Drum.  It powerfully illustrates what can happen in our world when we let Jesus show in our everyday lives.

The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. It was once a great order, but because of persecution, all its branch houses were lost and there were only five monks left in the decaying house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi occasionally used for a hermitage. The old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. "The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods," they would whisper. It occurred to the abbot that a visit to the rabbi might result in some advice to save his monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot to his hut. But when the abbot explained his visit, the rabbi would say, "I know how it is". "The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore." So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and spoke of deep things. When the abbot had to leave, they embraced each other. "It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years," the abbot said, "but I have failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me that would help me save my dying order?"

"No, I am sorry," the rabbi responded.  "I have no advice to give.  But, I can tell you that the Messiah is one of you."

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, "Well what did the rabbi say?"

“The rabbi said something very mysterious, it was something cryptic.  He said that the Messiah is one of us.  I don't know what he meant?"

In the time that followed, the old monks wondered about the possible significance of the rabbi's words.  The Messiah is one of us?  Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery?  If that’s the case, then which one?

Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot.  He has been our leader for more than a generation.  On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas.  Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man.  Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light.  Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred!  Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people's sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right.  Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred.  But surely not Brother Phillip.  Phillip is so passive, a real nobody.  But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for always being there when you need him.  He just magically appears.  Maybe Phillip is the Messiah.  Of course the rabbi didn't mean me.  He couldn't possibly have meant me.  I'm just an ordinary person.  Yet supposing he did?  Suppose I am the Messiah?  O God, not me.  I couldn't be that much for You, could I?

As they contemplated, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the chance that one among them might be the Messiah.  And on the off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.  Because the forest in which the monastery was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even to meditate in the dilapidated chapel.  As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place.  There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it.  Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks.  After a while
one asked if he could join them.  Then another.  And another.  So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi's gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the region.

On this Ascension Day, may we boldly look around at friend, foe, family and stranger and be open to experiencing Jesus in the ordinary, everyday encounters of our lives.  May we strive to find ways to let Jesus show in the midst of our work, our relationships, our play, our successes, our failures, our sufferings, and our passions.  “As God’s people, we live because we are loved and because we are loved, we can live more fully.”  (An excerpt from What We Forgot To Tell You by Peter Gomes)


Loving and faithful God, as we gather in this place again with our family and our friends, we pray that in the quiet of these precious moments together we might have a heightened awareness of the love that has claimed us and the grace that continues to sustain us.  May our sitting, thinking, singing, and praying together open our eyes, ears, and hearts more fully to the miracles of your presence with us and in us.  Life is often difficult and we get overwhelmed by the many responsibilities, challenges, and problems we face in our work, families, and community affairs.  Enable us to be patient, diligent, loving and compassionate as we relate to others and seek to live lives of meaning, purpose, and faith.  In our most vulnerable of places, help us to see that it is in the context of our relationships that we continue to work out our own salvation, to experience healing and forgiveness, and to become more aware of the brokenness and limitations that we must continue to offer back to you, O Lord.

We are reminded that when we experience the Christ in others and strive to let Jesus show forth from all that we do, we become connected to God, one another, and our inmost selves in ways that promote greater life for us and for all.  Help us, O God, to be about the business of doing love in our work, our homes, our schools, and our communities. 

We pray on this day for our friends and loved ones experiencing grief, sickness, and suffering.  Remind them and us that after our lives, energies and health are all used up, it is then that your love goes to work and bears much fruit in the midst of our moments of despair, confusion, and pain.  Continue to give Nelda the energy, comfort and care she needs to experience healing and newness of life.  We celebrate with Kim as she prepares to be mayor and lead this city and we celebrate with Wilson as he graduates next week and begins a new phase of his life===give them both your wisdom, courage and confidence as they seek to find their way in their new adventures and use the good gifts and passions and hopes and dreams that you have given to them in the service of others and in the healing and fulfillment of their own lives.  Give us each the courage, strength and calm we need to respond to others out of love and for love so that we all might become more fully ourselves, more fully alive and more completely dependent upon God and God’s unrelenting love for us.  In the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who taught us how to live and to love, let us pray together, Our Father,… Amen.