13 December 2019
Today what I say is mainly the work of Barbara Brown Taylor who put much of one aspect of these curious stories of the Ascension better than I.
Ascension Sunday existed before Sir Ed?s achievements on Everest. But maybe in his quiet, understated way Sir Ed followed the disciples. He looked up at the mountain then knew it was conquered. He did not stay looking up. But turned his eyes to what he could give back. I wonder which is the greater?
The climb to the top? Don?t let us underestimate the bravery needed to be the first.
Sherpa Tenzing and Sir Ed didn?t know if at that height they would get there and collapse in the air too thin in oxygen - no one had climbed that high before.
But when they had done it Ed didn?t spend his time doing it again he looked around him at the Sherpa community which had given so much to help the climbers and he used his new mana so schools and hospitals were built in those remote places, making a long tern difference to the Sherpa people.
It is fascinating that probably the first totally authentic New Zealand celebrations consist of groups of people climbing their nearest hill or mountain, even Sir Barry Curits [mayor of Manukau City] made the ascent of Mangere mountain to celebrate Sir Ed?s conquering of Mt Everest, but I wonder if we?d really have bothered if it wasn?t for the work which carried on after the climb.
The going up of Jesus or maybe going beyond makes an even bigger difference. Out on Mt Olivet the disciples were left looking up, one moment he was there with them and the next moment he was gone, no longer present but past,. Luke ends his gospel by telling us that the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy. But they had just been with him, They were still running on adrenaline; BBT says " if they went away joyful, then I cannot help thinking that it was because they thought he would be back in a day or two, next week at the latest."
The pictures of the ascension -usually show Christ hovering in the air, his hands upraised in blessing, while the disciples look up at him with something between awe and delight. But he is there with them in the picture. Luther maybe had it a little better where there is a scene with the disciples looking up and just some feet hanging out of the cloud.
Two thousand years later, we need a new picture to describe our own situation: with just us in it?no angels, no Jesus, no heavenly light?just us, still waiting, still watching the sky. He is not present anymore, not the way he used to be.
Ascension Day is the day the present Lord became absent, which may be why it is the most forgotten day of the church year. Who wants to celebrate being left behind? The one thing we don?t need is a day to remind us of God's absence.
Or is that the reason, we are here? Because we have sensed God's absence?in dark nights, our unanswered prayers?and they bring us here, to seek the presence we have been missing?
Absence isn?t nothing. It is something: a heightened awareness, a finer perception. When someone important to me is absent from me, it becomes clearer what that person means to me. Details that got lost in our togetherness are recalled in our apartness, and their clarity has the power to touch my heart. I see the virtues I have overlooked and the things that drove me crazy at close range become endearing at a distance. There is something else that happens during an absence. If the relationship is strong and true, the absent one has a way of becoming present?if not in body, then in mind and spirit.
My mother in law is a potter, she makes birds. When ever one travels with her she is always pointing out different birds, their habits, the way they fly. When she did it when driving I was more interested in survival, the birds I didn?t really want to know about. But when she was very ill and we were in Australia we really noticed how noisy and colouful their "in your face" birds are - compared to our more modest natives. I saw them, really saw them, there were thousands of birds everywhere we went. I understand that I wasn?t seeing them with my eyes but with Doris?s eyes. She was not there, so we were seeing them for her. She was absent?or was she? She was present in us.
There is no sense of absence where there has been no sense of presence. What makes absence hurt is the memory of what used to be but is no longer. Absence is the empty space where a beloved sleeper once lay. Absence is the child's room now empty. Absence is the overgrown section where the old house once stood where people lived and laughed and thought their happiness would last forever.
You can?t miss what you have never known, which makes our sense of God's absence the sign that we knew God once, and that we may know God again. There is loss, but there is also hope, because what happened once can happen again, and only an empty cup can be filled. It is when we pull that cup out of hiding, when we own up to the emptiness inside?it is only then that things can begin to change.
We come to church in search of God's presence. Like a band of forlorn disciples, we return to this hillside again and again. It is the place we lost track of him; it is the last place we saw him, so of course it is the first place anybody thinks to look for him to come again.
"Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?" That is what the two men in white robes said to the disciples just outside Jerusalem. Luke calls them men in white robes, but you can be sure that they were angels sent to remind God's friends that if they wanted to see him again, it was no use looking up. They needed to look around at each other, at the world, at the ordinary people 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 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: 11 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 11 people consented to become the church, and nothing was ever the same again, beginning with them.
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.
If they had had it their way, they would probably have tied Jesus up so that he could not have got away from them, Kept things the same so that they would have known where to find him and rely on him forever. Only that wouldn?t have worked. It never works to try to keep things the same.. He went away and they stood looking up toward heaven. Then they looked at each other instead, and got on with the business of being the church.
And once they did that, surprising things began to happen. They began to say things that sounded like him, and they began to do things they had never seen anyone but him do before. They became brave and capable and wise.
Whenever two or three of them got together it was as if there was someone else with them?the strong, presence of the absent one, as available to them as bread and wine, as familiar to them as each other's faces. It was as if he had not ascended but exploded, so that all the holiness that was once concentrated in him alone flew everywhere, flew far and wide, so that the seeds of heaven were sown in all the fields of the earth. And they were energised by his power, his mana
We go to church to worship, to seek the Lord's presence, to sing and to pray, to be silent and to be still, to hold out the empty cups of our hands and to be filled with the presence of the absent Lord until he comes again. Do you miss him sometimes? Do you long for assurance that you have not been left behind? Then why do you stand looking up toward heaven? Look around you, look around.
You know Sir Ed has never claimed any christian faith, but his actions are certainly from his christian heritage. Look around you, can?t you see?
Reference and a large part of the content,
Christianity Today, May 18, 1998, The Day We Were Left Behind,Barbara Brown Taylor
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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