The Sunday Sermon: Ascension Sunday

We are a little late posting this as your blogmaster was on holiday. However, given the major news of Scott’s and Mary’s departure, we thought you’d like to be able to read his recent sermon–better late than never.

VII Easter; the Sunday after the Ascension
Saint Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
20 May 2012
Scott Richardson +

In the Name of God: Creator, Christ, and Spirit. Amen.

Most of you received word this week that I am going to be leaving Saint Paul’s later this summer to take up a new ministry in San Francisco, at the Episcopal Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. A portion of my letter read as follows: “While it is hard to leave this community we have come to love, we are taking up an exciting new ministry opportunity in the city that formed both of us as children… Mary grew up in Santa Clara and I came of age in the East Bay. We will soon be reuniting with family members and old friends… We leave Saint Paul’s with a tremendous sense of gratitude for the wonderful support we’ve enjoyed while here. This is a very special place and our hearts have been deeply touched by the love you have shared with us and with one another. We will miss you terribly and we are confident that the leadership team in place will serve you well.”

So we’re going home. And that’s the primary theme of today’s gospel – Jesus ends his incarnate ministry on earth and returns home to his Abba. And this, of course, is where I have to be careful lest I fall into the pit of absurdity – I am not comparing my story to his in any way except one; that some of us are, to a lesser degree, feeling a few of the emotions that his friends felt when he left them for heaven.

The Feast of the Ascension, observed last Thursday, is meant to be a celebration. Jesus closes the circle – he comes down from heaven, ministers on earth, and then returns. And because of that, we are swept up in that same return to the Father – we will all follow him into the celestial realm. That’s the Good News.

But we can also detect the faint undertone of loss in today’s lessons. Let’s retrace his time with the disciples. His followers gradually come to know him – it takes months, years. But before they know what has happened, their lives are tightly bound up in his. He’s then taken away, destroyed on the cross. God raises him from the tomb and he appears again to his followers. He spends weeks revealing mysteries and then departs once more, this time for good. They will never see him face-to-face until they too ascend in his name. Before that happens, most of them will wander far and wide to share the good news.

So it’s fair to say that a broad range of human emotion is deeply felt as the story unfolds in the lives of these first disciples. And that may be your reaction to our news. The ratio is microscopic in relation to the Ascension narrative but the reaction may be similar: anger, perhaps, that an expectation wasn’t met (the expectation of constancy or permanence); sadness that friends are moving on; fear that you may be left alone in your moment of pastoral need. All of that is normal and human. I have lots of feelings too, as you might imagine – it is hard to leave because of my great affection for you and gratitude for gifts received. We’ll be here through June and invite you to come talk if any of that is percolating in your soul.

And as we, together, hold those feelings we might recall the first friends of Jesus. That we experience anger, fear, and sadness is predictable; those closest to Jesus felt all that even as the miracle was occurring. And it is right here, as Jesus ascends to the Father, that the gift of the Holy Spirit becomes fully manifested. It is no accident that Pentecost, the great festival of the Holy Spirit, co-equal with Christmas and Easter in importance, follows immediately upon the heels of the Ascension. The Spirit blows hot and hard into the lives of the disciples, preparing them to do greater things even than Jesus, in accord with his prediction and promise for them. And, as that occurs, the memory of loss is overtaken by a keen sense of his presence among them. I will not leave you comfortless, Jesus pledges – a pledge that I take to heart on your behalf and mine.

As his disciples, we will be protected while we are in the world. We will be one, even as Jesus and the Father are one. We will hold to the promise of eternal life even as we hold onto one another in this life, dealing with gain and loss not alone but as members of a great congregation. We will sing God’s praises and we will be blessed beyond our best imagining. We claim the promise this morning and in the days ahead, in the Name of the One who died and rose and ascended, in the Name of the One who stands at the very center, the very heart, of this and every Christian community, in the Name of the only One who finally matters, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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