ASCENSION OF THE LORD (B)  May 13 or 16, 2021

Acts 1: 1-11; Ps 47; Ephesians 1: 17-23 (Ephesians 4: 1-13); Mark 16:15-20

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

During the years I preached in West Virginia I remember small towns, "up the hollows", where there were churches whose ministers and members of the congregation, as a test of their faith, would plunge their hands into a box of rattlesnakes, pull one out and hold it before the congregation. Others would drink strychnine poison. Why not, isn’t that what Jesus is saying, in today’s gospel, believers will be able to do as we go about proclaiming the gospel? The rural communities that performed those tests of faith saw their ability to do these feats as a sign that the living Christ was in their midst fulfilling his promises to them. Some of the faithful were able to handle snakes and drink poison and survive. Their community supported them and celebrated their faith. Others suffered snake bites and the effects of drinking deadly poisons...some even died. But even then, their communities took the failure on themselves as a congregation, they didn’t fault the individual preacher or believer’s faith. They saw the failure as a sign that the whole community needed to turn more fully to the Lord.

I belong to a church community that interprets these signs of belief in another way. I hear in today’s gospel a promise that signs will accompany believers. In Jesus’ time there were large cracks between the human world, what we can could see, measure and explain, and God’s. Illnesses and negative human conditions that were beyond their ability to explain or heal, were credited to evil spirits and demons. So, for example, a person suffering from mental disease was said to be "possessed." Since the afflicted weren’t their usual selves, the community reasoned, it must be the fault of an outside and malevolent spirit possessing the person. Nowadays, science, modern medicine and drugs have filled in a lot of the cracks between what was once unknown, mysterious and frightening and was in the realm of the measurable and explainable. We have narrowed the void, answered a lot of "mysteries." So, then, where is God in all this and what about Jesus’ mission and the signs he promises we will perform as a testimony to our faith?

Jesus tells us we will be able to "drive out demons." New medical drugs can now alleviate schizophrenia and bi-polar disorders. But there are more powerful demons medication can’t deal with, that concerned Jesus and continue to require believers to confront and drive out. For example, the demon poverty: even in a wealthy country it grows and continues to victimize the young and elderly. The demon of ignorance: it holds people captive and locked in darkness, superstition and prejudice. The demon of war: it seduces the powerful into thinking that problems can be solved quickly by force. The demon of racism: a sometimes subtle demon, but these days it has raised its divisive head in ugly manifestations. Even the so-called enlightened discover racism is still a part of their lives. The demons of homophobia, sexism and agism and all the other "isms" that permeate our institutions and churches. These are demons that might not be driven out with a prayer of exorcism. But they may be driven out by a prayer for conversion, a prayer to have our own hearts and attitudes changed; a prayer for wisdom, to know where and how we must get involved to do something; a prayer for strength, to keep us in the struggle against these demons over the long haul; a prayer for courage, as we face opposition; a prayer for hope, as we deal with discouragement and lack of quick progress.

Jesus says we will lay on hands to cure the sick. We do this in our prayers and sacramental anointing of the sick. (This might be an opportunity for the preacher to do a brief catechesis about the sacrament of the sick.) But we also show the sick and very old, who are often on the periphery of our communities, that we want to stay in contact with them through visits and gentle touch – "laying on of hands". Some years ago Vernon Jordan, a presidential aid, was shot in the back. While acknowledging the expertise of the doctors who worked on him, he said what really saved his life, was the doctor who sat with him and held his hands – day after day. We lay hands on the sick in many ways. We stay by the side of someone struggling with illness, despair, loneliness, addiction, divorce and death. Someone said to me once, "I don’t always know what I am to do – I just show up." That’s a way of "laying hands on the sick," just show up.

That’s also one way to face the powerful forces that surround us and need to be driven out: we "show up." The risen Christ acts through his disciples who show up, giving them: wisdom when serious problems and issues arise; power over the evil forces of unjust systems, policies and governments; a healing touch, when someone just needs a faithful presence standing with them in the valley of the shadow of death.

What are we doing here at this Eucharist? Are we holding a memorial service for someone long gone, who once inspired the world? Lamenting his absence saying, "If only Jesus were here, he would know what to do." No. We are celebrating the signs of his presence we have experienced in and through his community, the Word and the sacred bread and wine we eat at this meal.

The Acts of the Apostles starts with an injunction by the risen Christ to wait. I wonder if the activists in that early community weren’t frustrated by his directive. You can see that they were ready to get on with things – and they would have gotten it all wrong. It’s their question that reveals their mis-direction, "Lord are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?" Of course, they mean a purely external, politically and militarily dominant kingdom of Israel. No, they will have to wait for the baptism with the Holy Spirit, then they will know how and where to be Jesus’ witnesses.

He wants them to break free of their limited view, their biases and tendency to misinterpret the meaning of his life. What he also wants is that they witness to him far beyond the boundaries of Israel. They will, he says, have to be, "my witnessers in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth." For all this they will need help, so they must acknowledge their dependence on God and wait for God’s pleasure to pour that help out on them.

We are not good at waiting. We tire out if we do not get quick results. Waiting on lines, for lights, for our children to come home from the dance, with our aging parents at the doctor’s office, for the strife to end in Myanmar, and Yemen to come finally to peace. Waiting is not what we do well. Why is waiting so frustrating? Because it means someone else, or some other power is in charge, not us. And being out of control and subject to other forces reminds us of our finiteness, and vulnerability.

Jesus tells the disciples to "wait for the promise of the Father." They cannot go off spreading the news of his resurrection on their own. They are a small, fearful community that has no power on its own. As the Gospels showed, they have a tendency to get Jesus’ message all wrong. What’s more, they flee when things get tough. On their own they will be misguided, perhaps engage in ways that are not of Jesus. Haven’t we made some pretty big mistakes in our history about his message and in his name? Our history has tales of promoting our religion by forced baptisms and by trampling over the dignity and cultures of whole civilizations. And like the original disciples, we have been cowardly when courage and resistance to force was required.

So the disciples and we must "hold our horses," restrain ourselves and wait for God’ promise to be fulfilled. What’s more, the fulfillment will come at God’s timing, not our own. We are action-oriented aren’t we? We have our projects and plans, we want to get on with things. Even when our plans and intentions are noble and serve a good purpose, how does God figure into them? Do we know? Have we asked? Do we wait for an answer, some direction? Maybe we have to "hurry up and wait." "Don’t just do something, stand there!" Waiting on the Spirit is a reversal of our usual mode of operating.

Thomas Troeger, the Presbyterian preacher and homiletician, in a sermon preached on Ascension Day, recalls the frustration of the disciples and the early church in their waiting and longing for the fulfillment of the reign of God. He says we too know that frustration. After having given our lives over to Jesus Christ, we experience not triumph, but a mixture of triumph and defeat. Has anything really changed? What difference does our faith make? "When will things come together in some whole and enduring pattern?" he wonders. And then Troeger quotes Yeats’ lines to describe our world:

"Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

the blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

the ceremony of innocence is drowned;

the best lack all conviction, while the worst

are full of passionate intensity."
(from, "The Second Coming")

We are wearied by our waiting. With Yeats we voice our longing, "Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand." It’s a lament, a prayer of need and dependence. We need help that we cannot provide for ourselves. Troeger invites us to hear again what the early church heard in its anguish and yearning, "It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by [God’s] own authority." How difficult it is for us to hear these words surrounded, as we are, by the kind of events we see and hear on the evening news – pictures and sounds of human distress. What we have, Troeger reminds us, is the belief that Christ reigns and will send the Holy Spirit to help us live as we must. We cannot force the hand of this Spirit, it is a gift constantly coming upon us. And one that still requires waiting.

(Thomas’ Troeger’s sermon was preached in 1982 and is reprinted in, SEASONS OF PREACHING, pages 158-9.)

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