May 21, 2023 — The Rev. Hillary Kimsey

posted in: Sermons 0

Observing the Ascension of Our Lord: Homily

In the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Amen.

Yesterday, I went to a memorial service.

It was a beautiful day for a long drive to Oak Harbor to remember a priest after his death. When we gathered under the trees with singing birds and sunshine to tell stories about him, I shared briefly that I’d had the honor of meeting this man at the hospital when his wife was sick. I was their chaplain and visited as often as I could to hold the phone or an iPad so that he could talk to her. The hospital had to lock down as the Delta wave swept through. He would talk to her and sing to her as often as he could, even when he couldn’t be with her. Knowing that they are together again gave me some comfort despite my grief at their lives ending too soon.

I knew them both during some of the hardest days of their lives. But yesterday I got to hear stories about moments of joy and discovery and love that his parishioners will carry with them. I got to see his legacy at work. A parishioner who felt accepted after coming out; a parishioner who was equally measured appalled and delighted when he offered to help paint their house; a parishioner who loved the additions to the liturgy and the fresh baked bread. These memories gave me a glimpse into the happier moments of their lives, before I met them in the ICU, and I was so glad to hear them.

In our tradition, the Episcopal Church conducts memorials and funerals like a Sunday in Easter season. We vest and drape the altar in white and gold, with bright colors and beautiful flowers, burn the Paschal candle, and turn our hearts towards resurrection.

In fact, the rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer say this about funerals: “The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all meaning in the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we too, shall be raised. The liturgy, therefore, is characterized by joy, in the certainty that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It is a strange thing to hold hope and grief at the same time, but that’s what we strive to do when we remember our loved ones who have died. We cling to the hope of being reunited with them one day and still grieve that they are beyond our reach for now.

I have to imagine this is how Jesus’s friends and apostles must have felt when he ascended to heaven. It’s one of those otherworldly, fantastical Jesus stories, the Ascension story. After final parting words of wisdom, encouragement, and prayer, Jesus is taken up into the skies and vanishes into the clouds. A wild, hopeful moment, to be sure, and Luke’s Gospel tells us the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”

And yet… it was still a loss. Jesus, their friend and teacher, though miraculously raised from the dead, is still gone from their sight after the Ascension. I have to imagine there was a sting of loss, too. In the Book of Acts, the writer says that the disciples were still staring at the sky where Jesus had disappeared when two angels appeared and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” It reminds me of when angels appeared at the empty tomb and said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Even after the miracle of Easter, Jesus still vanished into those clouds, leaving his friends holding both grief and hope. Death defeated by resurrection; loss with the hope of return.

All of us gathered on the church lawn yesterday, telling stories about a good man and a good woman, both gone too soon from our sight, we remembered and experienced their legacy. Today, like every Sunday, like every DAY if we do it right, we are remembering and experiencing the legacy of Christ. While Jesus of Nazareth, the teacher, the man, is gone from our sight, the stories we tell about him, the sacraments we join in, the love we give, and the example we set… all of this adds to his legacy.

The capital-C Church and Christians throughout the last two millennia haven’t always done credit to Christ’s memory. Sometimes we forget or feel unable to tear our focus away from life on this world to look up to the sky and remember that a bigger story is unfolding and has been since the dawn of time. Other times, our gazes are stuck to those clouds, yearning for Christ to appear, yearning for God to feel closer, that we forget the important mission Christ gave us to love recklessly, ridiculously, extravagantly.

Today we remember that Christ lived with us and left us to continue his work. Next week, on Pentecost Sunday, we will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to help us do that. We will hear how our Spiritual Pilgrims understand their part of Christ’s legacy, and we’ll join Canon Britt during her sermon in telling stories about where the Spirit has and continues to move around, within, and through this community.

And in just a few minutes, we will gather at the altar, pray our prayer of thanksgiving and celebrate Eucharist. We remember Christ died and rose and will come again. Grief and hope, remembering and imagining. We’ll have a tiny taste, a fleeting glimpse of the meal that our loved ones who have lived and died are already enjoying, in the presence of the One who lived and died and rose, who vanished into the clouds and yet never left us alone. The table is prepared. Our loved ones gone beyond our sight are already there. And there’s a space for you. Amen.

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