05.28.2017 Preaching Text: “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11b)
I have a million theories, in case you hadn’t noticed. And one of them reads as follows: “Life is like doing the dishes. The worst part is thinking about doing them.”
I came up with this little gem in college while sharing a Cambridge apartment with several other students. There the dishes would pile up and up. My roommates and I would give quite a bit of thought to doing them. But there they would sit, undisturbed, for days on end, mounting ever monstrously.
Eventually, of course, somebody would be shamed into attacking this towering mountain of dirt and grease, the mere sight of which was as unpleasant as it was daunting.
But the thought of doing them, I came to realize, always seemed worse somehow than actually doing them.
This applies, I think, to life in general. Consider waiting for a medical procedure. As we wait we naturally imagine all sorts of things (and more so, I’m told, if you’re a medical professional).
Yet when the time actually comes we somehow muster the ability to handle it. Why? Because God in that very moment grants us grace to get through it.
I discovered this years ago while working as a hospital chaplain. Starting out I was terrified since I’d never been in a hospital and had no clue as to what I would encounter there, much less what I was supposed to say or do. Surely the patients would see that I was a novice and a fraud and would be justifiably disappointed in me. How could I presume to help them?
My experience, however, was just the opposite. Sensing my discomfort, at least for the first few weeks, they actually ministered to me! Somehow, in their vulnerability, God was present to them in ways unknown to me. That’s how they were able to put me at ease, I concluded.
In the same vein, I’ve often thought it more difficult for family members and friends to go through the illness of a loved one than the patient herself. We’re left, that is, feeling both anxious and helpless.
Countless times I’ve witnessed an inexplicable calm in those I visit in the hospital, etc. Surely it must be one of life’s great paradoxes. Then again, when we’re at the point of greatest need, we also tend to be far more receptive to God’s urgings.
In today’s reading from Acts, we are given Luke’s account of Jesus’ Ascension. Here the risen Christ, after having appeared to the disciples (and others) during the forty days following the Resurrection, is lifted up into heaven, from whence he came.
Thus begins a ten day period of waiting…waiting for the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (pente meaning fifty). The disciples are faced once again with the absence of their spiritual guide and leader.
Earlier, in the Upper Room, Jesus, as part of his “Last Will and Testament”, had told them he would be leaving them, but only temporarily. He goes on to explain why.
He must go, he says, “to prepare a place” for them in heaven. Eventually, he assures, he will come back to take them to this prepared place (heaven), so that where he is they/we may be also.
But before this happens, he will send an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will bind them to him spiritually/relationally while they await his return.
Perhaps the larger point, and subtext of all this, is that the worst possible thing any of us can experience in life is abandonment.
Years ago, while working as a student pastoral counselor, I met a woman who lived with constant loneliness, anxiety, and fear. She was prone to destructive behavior and didn’t know why.
I “diagnosed” the condition as “borderline personality disorder,” one of the most difficult and troubling conditions to “treat.” The essence of it is that at the very earliest and most formative stages of life the person never experiences unconditional love. These individuals often are left with the impression by the adults around them that unless they behave in a certain way, they will be rejected. This is absolutely devastating.
The woman told me that as a child her mother used to leave a packed suitcase outside her bedroom door in the hallway. The stated threat was that if she wasn’t a perfect little girl and didn’t please mommy, she’d be forced out of the house, suitcase in hand!
One of the characteristics of people burdened with this cruel condition is that they are often unable to form, much less sustain, interpersonal relationships. In fact, they tend to reject others before the other person has a chance to reject them first, all in an effort to avoid reliving the psychic pain of their childhood abandonment/trauma. As I say, this is uniquely tragic and heartrending.
The gospel, on the other hand, promises that God will never abandon or reject us. This morning’s readings remind us that even when God appears to be absent, the promise remains. We will never be abandoned, not now, not ever.
I’ve long believed that we can put up with absolutely anything in life as long as we know we’re not alone and that we are loved. To feel abandoned and unloved is the very worst thing a human being can experience.
Yet it was abandonment, we are told, that Jesus experienced on the cross. And not just from his earthly friends but presumably from God as well. This is the worst psychic pain. But then comes the Resurrection, life out of death, which serves as the ultimate assurance of God’s eternal presence and care.
In the end, there are really only two kinds of waiting. The first kind is born absent of hope, and includes the feeling of abandonment. The second is defined by an aspirational faith in God’s unfailing and goodly presence and promise.
The first kind of waiting produces fears and anxieties about the unknown that can cripple and destroy. But with the other kind of waiting, these same fears and anxieties often serve to break down our defenses, rendering us vulnerable. And in our vulnerability, we open up, becoming far more receptive to God’s Spirit, who is always there anyway and who is always attempting to break through our stubborn defenses.
During Lent I wrote a Beacon article which argued that adversity (in this case waiting) can cause us to give up, like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness wishing to return to the “fleshpots” of Egypt where they at least had food and shelter.
But adversity can also produce the opposite effect. It can lead us forward, in faith, toward the Promised Land we know awaits us, with each step taken in the “assurance of things not yet seen.”
Adversity born of waiting, in other words, can either draw us closer to God or take us further away, despite the fact that God is always near and never far from us. Amen.