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Sunday, May 13, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.

The Graceful Art of Letting Go

Lucy Forster-Smith
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 47
Acts 1:1–11
Ephesians 1:15–23

Lord, let me
Grieve my losses
Ponder my sorrows
Engage my limits
Acknowledge my betrayals
That I may
Celebrate my gains
Weather into wisdom
Value my freedom
Receive forgiveness.

Robert Raines

We had gotten a bonus from him. We’d followed Jesus through thick and thin on a pilgrim’s path, from leaving our nets and our livelihood and stepping onto the path of discipleship to the more recent days that the psalms we sang at night spoke of as the valley of the shadow of death. And was it ever a shadowy valley—the eerie last night we were with him in the room, eating the Passover Seder meal and his baffling talk of his body broken for us, his blood spilled as the lamb’s blood on the mantel at Passover; and then all of the events of that fateful week—the arrest, the joke of a trial, the crucifixion—oh, that day, with the very earth under our feel splitting wide open, and then the pauper’s grave, in a garden off to the side.

We thought that was it. We figured all his talk about God’s realm among us; about his Father’s house with mansions; his words that some of those nearby heard as he hung on that cross, to the crook next to him about how that guy would be in paradise with Jesus—well, we simply wrung our hands, wondering. But then things started happening. Out of the scourge of death we heard from some of the women we knew that when they went to the tomb to dress the body they were met by two men in dazzling clothes who wondered why the women were looking for the living among the dead. And those women remembered the words of Jesus that he would rise again. They tore from that grave, and their faces wore the bedazzled look of someone who had risen themselves from all that held them down; new life and spectacular joy! We also heard from a couple folks that they were joined on a road by someone who had powers of a professor—teaching them with incredible wisdom and brilliance. Then over a meal he broke bread, and with eyes of the heart, vision of faith, they realized it was Jesus, right there at the table with them. They never sat at a meal in the same way again.

On another night we were in a room where we were, in hushed tones, recalling so many times. He came and stood among us, and thinking we were seeing a ghost, he calmed us down with the words “Peace be with you.” Later he returned to us holding out his hands and revealing his gashed side to Thomas, one of us, who could not believe our testimony. And there was the lakefront moment when he ate fish with us. Yes, that time again we didn’t dare recognize him—we didn’t want to be disappointed—but over a charcoal fire, he cooked fish and broke bread. It was breakfast—a foretaste of the feast to come. And we knew.

So, yes, we received a bonus of time from him. Not only these appearances, but many more. A good forty days he was among us. We wondered if it was all leading up to what we assumed would be the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. We are good Jewish men. We knew the word of the prophets about the coming of the Messiah of Yahweh. As we read it, the principalities and powers would be overthrown, and the realm of God would be established on earth as in heaven. So we just came out and asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kindom to Israel?” But he shut this thinking down, putting the decisive moment in God’s hands, and putting the power in ours—the power of the Holy Spirit, that is. We realized that other prophets spoke of this kind of power. The prophet Joel had foretold that afterward God would pour out the Spirit on all flesh, sons and daughter would prophecy, old men dream dreams, and young ones see visions. What a promise! We thought he might stay with us to realize all of these dreams, visions, pouring out. But that was when the forty days were up, and I guess if we hadn’t gotten the message by then, that we were the heir apparent of the Spirit’s lighting, we wouldn’t get it at all!

What happened next was something that would put generations ahead in the line of Thomas, the doubter. You probably think it was a metaphor, his ascension. Yes, you might say, he disappeared from their sight, like a shadowy ghost or a superhero takes flight, Superman or Spider Woman or some such. But we stood there, and as sure as we are speaking today, we saw it happen: after he had commissioned us to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of this world in which we were living, he was lifted from our sight, taken up into the sky, and a cloud did the rest of the deed, taking Jesus out of our sight. So what do you expect we’d do? We stood there gawking, trying to catch the last glimpse of him, not wanting to let him go, not wanting to face life without him, and quite honestly unable to move. It was then that two men in white robes, yes, like the ones whom our women friends had encountered at the tomb, stood by. We were transfixed on the sky, but they redirected our gaze. They spoke to us, not rudely but very clearly: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? He will return to you like he went up to heaven.” Then we remembered his words about being witnesses. We also looked at the dust under our feet, his footprints still in the sandy soil and ours as well.

It was very hard to move from that place. It is a good thing it was the Sabbath, or we may still be standing there, honestly. But the prompt of the dazzling men and what seemed a certain promise of remarkable days ahead allowed our leaden feet to find their way.

For years artists and scholars, poets and priests have tried to make sense of what we witnessed. And for even more years, the witnesses who have come after us have been just that, witnesses. Jesus said to the doubter, Thomas, that he was blessed because he was a direct witness to Jesus’ resurrected glory, but those in the years beyond would be blessed even more because they had not seen yet believed. Those of us who witnessed Jesus’ going up may have a heavy heart, longing for his presence in our lives, and for some days we waited, praying and wondering if the promise would be realized—that the Comforter, the Fiery light of God’s presence, the Spirit of God, would indeed be poured out. Honestly, it was very hard to let go of him. It is human nature to want to hang on, to have the kingdoms or the even the thiefdoms arrive, because then we have something to hang onto. But the leave-taking, the ending, the transition of life is necessary for bounty to arrive, and in our experience, post-Jesus, post-forty days, there was a very pregnant pause that actually was an immeasurable gift. It taught us something about waiting, and even more it taught us something about trusting.

We all wait, of course. We waited breathlessly with Jesus when he encountered prostitutes, lepers, women with a flow of blood, or a legion of demons that possessed a man. We waited and wondered what would happen when he flipped over the tables of the money changers in the temple. We waited for him to reveal his realm, his healing power, his holy light. And we know you, in your times, you wait as well. You wait when you are between jobs or when you aren’t sure if you should just retire. You wait when relationships break or when your teenager or their friend storms out of the house and you don’t know what will happen. You wait as your children leave home for college. You wait for that itching cast to come off or for the results of a biopsy. You wait for the birth of a child or for the positive pregnancy test. And all of us, ancient ones and those living in postmodern times, are called to wait, to dwell in the in-between times.

But what resides underneath all of the waiting? What anchors our waiting? We learned the very hard way: it is trust. Trust in the words we heard from Jesus at the end of his earthly ministry. Trust in others that they will not fall asleep in the gardens like we did when Jesus was praying in Gethsemane before he was arrested. Trust in ourselves, that we will be trustworthy with all that is entrusted to us. And trust that when the curtain rises on the plots, the narrative, the story of God’s revealing power and God’s marvelous grace, that we can not only hear it but live it in our loving of others and loving this one wild and precious life!

If waiting and trust were not a tall enough order or charge from Jesus on that day, the overarching message was one of promise: the promise of the Holy Spirit and also, even more poignantly, the promise of our lives as bearing witness to the God-infused love and joy. He had to leave us in order for us to take up the work to which we had been called. We knew the score from the days of our ancestors: Moses had to depart for Joshua to cast out the prophetic spirit; Elijah had to ascend for Elisha to receive the double portion of prophetic power. Jesus had to go to God so that the church could be born. The end game here is complete or full love for Jesus, such indefatigable joy that even when everything that flashes across our life’s screen rails against it, love seeps through like the fragrance of a spring morning lingers on our skin. He had promised it all along, if only we’d gotten the cotton out of our ears and heard it. He was speaking to us of a raucous Spirit, the Holy Spirit, that would awaken in us a robust and resolute hope, a hope that all we had been promised was just over the next rise in the pilgrim’s path. This promised hope would lead us to the sometimes perilous and yet precious reality of a life that witnesses to power of Christ’s life in ours.

It cameto us as we listened to his words that day when he was taken up. It came when the kind men in their dazzling glory redirected our gaze from the heavens to our feet, to our waiting, to this whole big world! It came to us in a funny way, almost a rebirthing way, when the transforming, awakening power of God’s love was planted in us at a cellular level. And it came even in the waiting, when we prayed our hearts out, when we listened with waiting hearts and minds, whenour hearts leapt with joy and hope in remembering, and when the haunting words of those two dazzling men rung in our ears: why are you looking up when your sights should be set on the path?

We somehow knew that our assumptions were far too small and that Jesus’ message was enormous—bursting the seams, this new wine in old wineskins. We could not begin to imagine what was to come when the Spirit was poured out and overcome with such power that the world had not seen. However, having the pause between his going to God and the Spirit’s fire coming down on us was quite necessary. We held the door open. We waited by the door. And though we, his disciples from old, find ourselves straining to fully articulate the creation-flinging, victory-singing, going-to-the-ends-of-the-earth God, we only wonder what on earth we did to deserve such love, such joy, and such a wondrous calling. But that is God. That is Jesus, whose presence is birthing the entire created order to nothing else than holy heaving, laboring love for every person on this planet.

The promise of what happened on that day to us, as we watched Jesus go up, comes to each of you this day. New life erupts, infused by the steady presence of the living Christ, whose resurrected joy infuses this weary, war-torn planet and births us anew each day with his mothering presence. In every step we took from that place, we knew we were accompanied by the promise of God, by the teaching of Jesus, and by the Holy’s deep and miraculous trust in us that we are the ones whose faith can move mountains, who are witnesses to the mighty power of God, and whose footprints follow Christ’s with such trust and love that it is, as a famous priest said twenty-one centuries later, (it is indeed) enough “to stagger the very stars” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Altars in the World, p. 209).Thanks and glory to God!