A Sermon for Ascension Day
There is a word that, I believe, most children find difficult to hear. And although they may grow slowly into it as youth and young adults, and perhaps even experience a renewed appreciation of it in later life – it still remains (to put it bluntly) a word this is difficult to swallow.
And so – what is this word, you might be asking. Well, I’ll tell you in a moment. And no – it isn’t “no.”
Today is the Seventh Sunday of Easter and we are in the month of May. I’ve always thought of the month of May – and the season of Eastertide – as a time of changes. This is a time of spring-going-into-summer, of graduations, of weddings, of Mother’s Day (followed closely by Father’s Day in a few weeks), and of Memorial Day, marking its remembrance of important life passages. It is a season of picnics, vacations, yard sales, baseball and other outdoor sports, and lots of special occasions. It is a time when many look forward to the school year drawing to a close and the beginning of summertime adventures.
In the liturgical year, the Seventh Sunday of Easter comes right before Pentecost (next Sunday) and right after the Ascension (last Thursday), which is forty days following Easter Sunday – and therefore always falls on a Thursday. So, liturgically speaking, in this month of May, we are in the middle of those days between Jesus’ ascension into heaven and the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter that Jesus promised would come.
And so here we are at a time in the midst of changes, both in our secular and sacred worlds. It can be an exciting time, but it can also be a confusing one. We are like those musicians who wait with voices and instruments poised, all eyes on the conductor. We are in that precise moment of exquisite anticipation - a moment when we hold our breath, awaiting the downward sweep of the conductor’s baton which, with one movement, sets the glorious music free.
Now: have I given you time enough to think about that word that most children (and adults, too) find difficult to hear? In case you haven’t guessed it by now, the word is “wait.” W-A-I-T. When we wait, it may sometimes seem like we are carrying a very heavy burden – the weight (w-e-i-g-h-t) of the wait (w-a-i-t) that we all too often find troubling and bothersome. Waiting holds us back. It blocks us. It holds us back.
In addition, it seems that we wait for a lot of things. We wait in innumerable lines for innumerable reasons; we wait for an announcement; we wait for airplanes, buses and trains; we wait (and this can be many minutes or hours) at the doctor’s office; we wait for test results and results on that term paper we worked so much on; we wait to be eligible for that driver’s license or to vote; we await our graduation and wedding days; we wait for the birth of a child, or the passing of a loved one; we wait (as Snoopy in the “Peanuts” cartoon waits for “Suppertime – the Very Best Time of the Day!”), as many in the world wait for food and other basic necessities; we wait for justice; we wait for a paycheck; we wait for an important reply from someone; we wait to learn what next may be required of us; we wait for news that can affect or change our lives.
Yes, we do wait. But we find waiting to be inconvenient, at best, and painful, at worst. For, you see, we don’t like to wait. We want the answer, the resolution, the event to happen - right now! Perhaps this is because we hate living and struggling with ambiguity. Perhaps this is because we live in a world of “immediate everything” – from microwave ovens to Instant Messaging. Perhaps this is because we want not to live in the present moment, but are always looking at our watches and at our calendars, so as to move on quickly to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing after that. Or perhaps we do not wait well because as children we learned that we cannot control everything in our lives. (This is an important lesson to remember in our adult lives, too.)
No, we don’t wait very well. And so, I suggest that we may all (and certainly myself included) have to re-learn how to wait. Our liturgical seasons and scriptures remind us of this – of the importance of waiting for the appointed time, of the time to be fulfilled, of the moment when all is in readiness.
A short story here will illustrate this point. I remember a time when I was in the military and I was part of a work detail that was assigned to paint a newly constructed wooden fence near a high traffic area on the base. We were instructed to put two coats of paint on the fence. When we had finished applying the first coat of paint, we sat down to rest before resuming our work. An officer happened along and, seeing our work detail apparently sitting idly by, inquired loudly of us, “What are you doing? Why are you not busy doing your work?” I replied, in as respectful a tone as I could muster, “We’re waiting for the paint to dry. It’s part of the job.” The officer, apparently seeing the logic of this explanation, had no reply to this, but simply nodded and, seeming a bit flustered, finally walked away.
So I think that part of re-learning to wait is knowing that “waiting is part of the job.” We have done what we could and now we are standing by. But, importantly, that is not all that there is to it! We must not only wait – we must wait in faith – with the promise and the assurance that there will be an outcome, an answer, at the right time. And we wait to be present to that answer.
And so now, as we live these days between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we wait not passively, but with an active faith and anticipation, and a feeling of assurance. We believe in that which will be revealed to us and await its fullness in time, just as the early disciples awaited that which Jesus had assured them would indeed come. This is not just standing idly by. This is not just “killing” time. This is the kind of waiting that waits in faith.
I remember one time, many years ago, when I was sitting with my family on the back porch on one of those warm evenings of late spring-into-summer. A thunderstorm earlier in the day had cooled things down a bit, but had left many clouds in its wake. I commented that the sky was so overcast that evening, not even the stars were there. And then I remember my mother wisely replying, “Just because you can’t see the stars, doesn’t mean that they’re not there.”
We must wait – in faith – with a fierce confidence that we know that even if we can’t see it, it is there – and will be there – for us.
And so maybe that’s it. Maybe we must pair up “wait” with another word. Maybe “wait” when paired with “faith” isn’t such a difficult word after all.
In fact, it is how we can best live in those times “in-between.”
May 20, 2012