If next Sunday, Pentecost, is the birthday of the Church, then Ascension Day (and the Sunday that follows) is the day that Jesus handed his ministry over to his disciples and to us.
As the disciples were watching, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight…
suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem….and were constantly devoting themselves to prayer…
We don’t need to stand looking up to heaven.
We are called to be the church today in our homes or wherever we find ourselves to be.
For by prayer, we know Jesus is risen, and through him we have abundant life. We live in such faithful hope even in the midst of this pandemic.
Prayer is essential to our lives. The disciples after Jesus rose, devoted themselves to prayer as we just heard in our first reading.
Our second reading from 1 Peter tells us to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, so that God may exalt us in due time. Cast all your anxiety on God, because God cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. – All of which, starts with our prayers.
And in the Gospel reading, Jesus in his final prayer - he prays first for himself first, then prays for his disciples, who will be left in the world after his ascension, and he finally prays for the Church to come.
Prayer is essential for our lives, we do it for ourselves, others, and the world God has made because as we know first hand, tragedy, accidents, pandemics can strike, and we react & we hope…
Two years ago, Debbie Thomas her 17-year-old son had a biking accident. He plowed into the boy in front of him who stopped suddenly. He got up off the ground sometime later with a cracked helmet, a few scrapes and a vicious headache.
The headache still has not gone away.
For two years he has been in and out of school. He’s unable to participate in the extracurricular activities he loves. He struggles to remain upright for more than four of five hours at a time; he often faints and feels nauseous. His mom and dad have consulted several physicians and tried different medications and therapies. But their son’s headaches persist. Debbie who is director of children's and family ministries at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, California writes:
“Two years in, everything I understand about hope has changed. Of course I still pray for my son’s headaches to go away. But the hope fueling the prayer is softer now, quieter. It’s an unclenched hope, one set free from expectations, clamoring, and frenzy. It’s a hope grounded in things not seen, in tiny seeds planted in dark soil; in small gestures of love, courage, friendship, and solidarity; in streams that flow in the desert; in the quiet resurrections that keep my son and our family going.
“When I read biblical stories of hope, the ones that resonate are no longer the stories of epic victories and grand celebrations. Those are lovely, but they don’t speak to where I live as the mother of a son in chronic pain. Instead I take hope in the story of Sarah, 99 years old and pregnant, laughing her head off because she thought for sure she was too old and wise and jaded to ever again be surprised by God. I take hope in the story of Hagar, a slave woman dying of thirst in the desert, who even in her abandonment becomes the first person in the Bible to name God.
I take hope in the story of Hannah, who cries so hard and so earnestly in the presence of God that people take her for a disrespectful drunk. I take hope in the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who ponders hard mysteries deep in her heart. I take hope in the persistent widow who pounds the door of a corrupt judge day after day after day, insisting on justice until she drives the man nuts. I take hope in the story of Mary Magdalene, who refuses to budge even when evil, tragedy, death and despair seems to have won the day.
“What these stories suggest to me is that hope isn’t about magical results — it’s about the long haul and the long darkness. Hope is robust and muscular and ferocious and long suffering. Hope never gets so cynical that it can’t be surprised. Hope finds and names God in the world’s most desolate places. Hope kneels on hard ground and yearns without shame. Hope ponders and meditates and ruminates. Hope gets in apathy’s face and says, ‘No. Not good enough. Try again.’ Hope sits in the darkness — outwitting torture, humiliation, crucifixion, and death — until finally a would-be gardener shows up at dawn and calls us by name.”
“These days I hope not because things are even close to being OK but because the God of the small and the mundane and the inexplicable is my son’s companion in his pain. I’m learning, slowly and cautiously, to live with the mystery of the already-and-not-yet kingdom of God . . .
“After all, what else is hope? Isn’t it precisely the mystery that strains toward what I don’t yet have? Isn’t it all about the unseen, the unknown, the unreached? If I already had what I longed for, I wouldn’t need hope. As it is, hope is my tether, my footing, my solace. It’s a bridge, wider and sturdier than I imagined it would be, that connects me still to the God who loves my son.” [From “Hope sits in darkness” by Debbie Thomas, The Christian Century, December 4, 2019.]
That connection between God and this mom is what Jesus prays for in his prayer today from the Last Supper. As the challenges and obstacles we face in our lives become more daunting, our perspectives may change, our understanding may become clearer, our prayers may be re-focused, but the hope in that connection between God and us remains.
It is our humble prayers to God, offering all our anxieties to the one who will see us through it all.
May the hope of Jesus’ prayer the night before he died be the center of our constant trust that God will transform our Good Friday crucifixions into Easter resurrections. Amen.