A sermon preached at St. George’s Anglican Church Calgary, by the Rev. Clara King, on May 13, 2018.
The Feast of the Ascension – Year B
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Perhaps it is a particular gift of genetics, but when I look around my family tree, there seems to be an abundance of extremely vibrant young girls. Take my brother’s daughter, for instance. Gabrielle.
She’s turning six this September, and believe me, the world better watch out! She’s bright and social and determined, and strong-minded, and creative and oh nelly, she has a temper worthy of a diva, and throws tantrums the size of Jupiter.
She melts down when she’s hungry – even when she doesn’t know she’s hungry. She melts down when she’s tired – even though she doesn’t know she’s tired. She’ll run around screaming her head off about going to bed while what she most needs is some sleep. And boy is she sensitive to the emotions of the people around her – but she doesn’t know that’s what’s making her upset.
She acts out of all these vibrant feelings she’s having, but she doesn’t really even know she’s having feelings at all.
It will take time for her to learn the connection between all those feelings and all those reactions; and then it will take more time to learn she has options about how to react.
And that’s what my brother and sister-in-law are trying to teach their beautiful, vibrant, challenging, explosive daughter Gabrielle, so she can grow into a beautiful, vibrant, dynamic woman who contributes to the world in beautiful ways.
One way or another we all have to learn that lesson: noticing the way we act; looking for the feelings inside; and choosing how to react.
At the moment, Gabby needs her parents to help her with every step. But hopefully over time, she’ll learn to do it more independently. Hopefully, as she grows up, she’ll be able to ask herself the questions, and talk herself through it, so that one day she’ll do it without even noticing.
And in order for that to happen, at some point in time, her parents will need to let her do it on her own. If they’ve done their parenting well, she will carry their voices in her head for the rest of her life, and they’ll remind her to notice her reactions, look for the cause, and choose how to respond. They will be even closer to her then than they are now, with her always until the end of her days.
This past week, us clergy were all up in Banff for our annual Clergy Conference, and the speaker, Stephen Cottrel (Diocese of Chelmsford, UK) told us a very beautiful story. It goes like this.
Without a doubt, if God wished, God could appear right here in our midst, in fire and lightening and thunder, and prove to all of us that He exists. If God wished, God could appear right now over at the Mall or the Leisure Centre, and knock everyone off their feet, and leave us all cowering in terror in the sure and perfect knowledge of God’s incredible power and real-ness.
But God chooses not to. And why does God choose not to? Because then we would have no choice but to believe, and God does not wish us to be without choices. Love does not force itself on the beloved; it invites, and waits for the beloved to respond. So also God invites and waits for us to respond.
That is why in the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection, people don’t recognize him; he asks them questions, engages them in conversation, and waits for them to realize who it is – for he does not wish to force himself upon them.
And so also, this is why God comes to meet us in his Son. Every time an angel appears to someone in the Bible, or God reveals himself, the first thing that God or his angel says is, “do not be afraid”. Because it is impossible for us to meet God in person with anything much less than terror.
And so out of love for us, the Son emptied himself of all his magnificent, terrifying God-ness; he emptied himself of all his power and all his glory, and entered into our human flesh to meet us in a form that wouldn’t terrify us. Jesus was born a babe in a manger so that his first words to us didn’t have to be “do not be afraid”.
And we can come to know God in human form, bound by the same kinds of limitations as us: with a body, suffering pain, limited by time and space.
But the point of this was not to keep us as children, and to stay with us forever; but to raise us up to transform the world. To grow us into beautiful, vibrant, dynamic Christians who contribute to the kingdom of God in beautiful ways.
And so Jesus walked with the disciples, teaching them, raising them up, coaching and schooling them so his voice lodged in their heads, until the day came when Jesus no longer needed to be there with them in person. For he would be with them always until the end of the age.
And then, on the day of his Ascension, which we celebrate today, Jesus let them go. Jesus lets us go. He ascended into Heaven – not to abandon us; but because now he can be with us in our heads and our hearts, even more intimately than he could before, when he was bound by time and space.
Each of us is not really so very different than my beautiful niece. We’ve heard the lessons, and when we try really hard and pay a lot of attention, guided by the loving voice of our heavenly parent, we do okay. We say sorry, we treat others with respect ,we forgive others, we share what we have, we pray for our enemies, we believe in God, we live the Good News of Jesus Christ.
And like Gabrielle, it’s still hard to do it on our own.
Yet like a loving Father - like a loving Mother, God never stops believing in us; and God never stops encouraging us. Jesus, our much older and wiser brother shows us the way; shows us the truth that the Good News can be lived; shows us the life that he holds open to us. He shows us the path of Christian maturity, in which we respect others, offer and ask for forgiveness, share all that we have, pray for our enemies, and live the Good News – all the time, in every moment of our lives, no matter what we are doing.
Like Gabrielle, it may seem utterly impossible at this moment. But it’s not. Jesus reassures us, we can grow up to follow his way, and live his truth, and experience that life. It is not out of our reach!
But love does not force itself on the beloved. God-who-is-love invites us to take our next step towards maturity; and it is up to us how we would like to respond.
At least we know how we might begin: we can begin like Gabrielle: by noticing our reactions, and looking for the cause, and choosing to respond to one another with love and grace and respect.
And God, like a loving Mother, watches over us, and takes delight in every new step that we take.