May 8, 2016
Once, when I was 9 years old, my parents left me at church. They didn’t mean to. They thought I’d ridden home with the Johnsons, our next-door neighbors. But I sat on a bench in front of our church building, angry and scared and sad until they realized their mistake and came back to get me.
I’m guessing that some of the disciples might have felt abandoned and bereft when Jesus ascended into heaven too. Maybe, like a kid on the church steps, they were angry and scared and sad. Even though Jesus leaves them with the promise that the Holy Spirit is coming, that couldn’t have meant much to them at the time. They didn’t know what he was talking about. They had had no experience of the Holy Spirit. They knew Jesus. They knew that when they spent time with Jesus, they were better people. From him they learned about justice and mercy and compassion and generosity and forgiveness. They didn’t know who would show them what to do or how to be now. They were bereft, grief-stricken.
Perversely, I’m glad to talk about grief on Mothers Day, when our culture is awash in cards and other gifts purportedly celebrating the love between mothers and their children, but which sometimes has the opposite effect. For people who have been left—not just temporarily or accidentally by their families, but deliberately and forever—today’s sentimentality can cause them to feel their abandonment more keenly. Children who are mourning a death or a genuine abandonment by their mothers can feel very alone today. And mothers who regret that they didn’t adequately parent their children—which may or may not be true—might be swimming in guilt. And women who want to be mothers but are not or can’t be, or who became mothers without anticipating it, struggle today too. Women who are trying to figure out what it means to be a step-mother, a single mother, an empty nester, an adoptive or foster parent face a variety of challenges. For a whole host of reasons, there are many, many people who will cry today because of mothers and motherhood. Thanks, Hallmark, for all the absurdly unrealistic expectations you dump on us.
So it’s a good thing that we gather in a place of grace and forgiveness and mercy today. It’s good that the Bible reminds us that no matter how forsaken we feel, or how messed up our family relationships are, we have a mothering God who will not betray or abandon us. Jesus knew that in order for the disciples to be who they were called to be when he left, they’d need some help. So Jesus promised, “I am not leaving you alone. I am sending the Holy Spirit to be with you. You will receive power from on high. You will be able to be my witnesses to the whole world because I will help you.”
And then, “While they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?'” Why are you looking at where God used to be, when it’s clear God is not there anymore? This question echoes what the two strangers in white asked the women at Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning, doesn’t it? “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Then, as now, the disciples must have felt like answering, “We aren’t looking for the living. We’re looking for the one we loved who has died. We are looking up now because that is where we have just lost all we know of God.”
Eventually the disciples stop looking up, which forces them to look around. What do they see? The people Jesus said were to announce to the whole world what Jesus had shown them when he opened the Scriptures to them. But my guess is that they are dubious, as they take stock of one another. This little motley crew? We are fishermen and tax collectors! We are selfish and misguided on our best of days! We are not very bright or very faithful or even very clean. You think this group of sinners is going to be God’s voice in the world? Really?
“Why do you stand looking up into heaven?” Because for many, it’s easier to look for a pure world up there or out there than it is to embrace the reality that the church is the body of Christ. We cringe at many of voices that claim to be witnessing to the truth of what God wants, of what what the Christian church is or believes. We feel we have to qualify what we mean when we say we are followers of Jesus—but no, not THAT KIND of follower. No, loving Jesus doesn’t mean hating certain types of people. We struggle to remember that we don’t have to have all our ducks in a row in order to be loved by God. Whether those accusing voices are outside or in our own hearts, it’s hard to look around at the church without focusing on its many blemishes—so many things wrong! I know I’m not the only one to have heard people—possibly even myself say—“Show me a church where ministers aren’t self-serving, where the people aren’t hypocritical, where love is genuine, and then I’ll become a member.” Yeah, well, if that’s what we are looking for, we’ll be waiting a long time. No such church takes up space on this earth.
The fact is, as St. Teresa of Avila once wrote, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” Uh oh.
So are we going to stand around looking up into heaven, mere spectators, or is it time to trust Jesus’ promise that we, the complicated, imperfect, flawed church, will be his witnesses? No, we aren’t ideal children or parents. We may not even feel like we’re very good people in general. But in baptism we have become God’s people, and those family ties impact everything we do and everything we are. For better or for worse, we are connected to God and to each other by water and the Holy Spirit, empowered to love not only the people we are related to or like, but the whole world that God so loves. In all the ways that count, water is thicker than blood.
So let’s stop looking up and around, stop waiting for the perfect relationships and the perfect church to arrive. Let’s start doing and being what we are called to do and be. Let’s follow the footsteps Jesus made in the mud of this earth—bringing hope to the hopeless, food to the hungry, comfort to the sick and sad, forgiveness to the guilty, belonging to the lonely, and a voice to the voiceless. We won’t always have pure motives or good follow-through. But we trust that God can work through anything, no matter how flawed. We are part of God’s forever family, and as such, we have both the freedom and the responsibility to behave accordingly. Let us be the church in the way the Ephesians seemed to be, so that this is how people will perceive us: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”
Perhaps one of the best things we can do together is to pray for each other along these lines: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. “