The Eyes of Your Heart

It’s Ascension Sunday in the church year. The Sunday that we mark the time when the resurrected Jesus leaves his disciples once again, not by death on a cross this time, but by a mission fulfilled and rising from live on earth to life in heaven, in the presence of God. I told the folks who gathered on Tuesday afternoon via Zoom that Ascension Sunday is not my favourite Sunday to preach and I am often away at the Annual Meeting, so haven’t had to preach on it very often. In fact, when I looked back at more than 20 years of preaching, I have only preached on it once. As I thought about that, I wondered about my resistance… what was behind my reluctance to preach on this concept.

And then… I took another look and used a technique that the Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence shared at an event I attended a few years ago… look at the verbs. And then I realized something else, the reading from Luke sets up the Pentecost story, which is one of FAVOURITE Sundays of the year! One of the things that I love about writing sermons is that even after more than 20 years, I can STILL be surprised by scripture! By familiar scripture. For instance, for the first time I realized that according to Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ resurrection, his encounter with the couple on the Emmaus Road, his appearance to the disciples in a locked room and his ascension ALL occur on the same day! How did I not know this before?

One of the things this highlights for me is that each one of the gospels is very different. Despite some stories that overlap, they are all different, written at different times, by different people, for different communities. It also highlights for me how stories can get confused or the connections lost by breaking them up. Keep that in mind when you listen to this reading from Luke’s gospel, in the 24th chapter, and listen for the verbs:

Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. Look, I’m sending to you what God promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power.”

He led them out as far as Bethany, where he lifted his hands and blessed them. As he blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy. And they were continuously in the temple praising God.

Spoke… written… opened… understand… written… suffer… rise… change…preached… sending… stay… furnished… led… lifted… blessed… left… taken… worshipped… returned… overwhelmed… praising…

What a lot of verbs in nine short verses! Which one resonates with you the most right now? Which one irritates you? Which one makes your heart beat just a little faster? Perhaps with trepidation, perhaps with excitement. The ones that are resonating with me today are opened, led and left.

The text says that Jesus opened their minds to the scripture. What does it take for us to open our minds to scripture? Sometimes it is closing them to the messages of our culture. Sometimes it means unlearning things we were taught at home, in school and in the church. Messages that put rich over poor, white over dark, straight over LGBTQ. Messages that want to put God and God’s love in a box, perhaps a pretty box, with a ribbon and bow, but a box nonetheless.

We have long professed that the church is not the building, but the people gathered. The people gathered and then dispersed to be part of God’s work in the world. Did we really believe that though? One of the things this pandemic has demonstrated is that we don’t need to gather in a building to worship, to pray, or to look after one another. Yes, things have changed, and I am as anxious to see my son and his family this afternoon as I am sure have been anxious to see your bubble group.

How are our eyes, ears and hearts being opened during this time? Open to God’s presence among us, even as we are separate. Open to God’s presence in the world. Open to how God might call us to reimagine and reshape congregational life once we are on the other side of this. I know that for some of you, perhaps even most of you, the novelty of on-line worship has worn off. And I can’t wait till we can all be SAFELY together again.

But you know what this has demonstrated to me? Just how very adaptable you are! Hardly missing a step, you logged on that first Sunday, which was TEN weeks ago. And you continue to sign on, we hold Executive and Transition Team meetings, the UCW gathered via Zoom last week, we have Bible Study and conversation. We have even started inviting people to share a little of their faith stories by video. We are connecting in new ways. I have become convinced that despite the challenges and anxieties we have experienced, we will come out of this time together, perhaps realizing what the essentials of our faith are, rather than the traditions that have built up around them.

Faith, love and community are important and just as those first followers of Jesus wound up creating something new, so will we. Our eyes have been opened! While I would love to see you eye to eye, hand to hand, to exchange the peace of Christ with a handshake or a hug, to sing together, we are still the church. The building is a meeting place, but we are the church.

My second word is led. In the scripture passage, Jesus led the disciples to Bethany. Why Bethany you might ask? Bethany was the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, a place where he was always welcomed… where he experienced deep hospitality. It was in Bethany that he raised Lazarus… experiencing sorrow and joy. It was from Bethany that Jesus made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It was in Bethany that he and the disciples enjoyed the Last Supper, love shared in bread and poured out in wine. And so he led them to the place where he was most at home… where he was known in a deep and meaningful way. Perhaps he wanted to remind them that the heart of his message was love.

According to Luke, he lifted his hands and blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. That’s it, not a whole lot of fanfare. No heavenly chorus of angels, no beams of light… just a blessing and a leave taking. He physically left the disciples. But he lived on in the hearts of those who loved him. And the love expanded and grew. It transcended lines of ethnicity… of economic status… of age… of gender… of enslaved… of religion… They lived with heart.

Sometimes it may seem as if Jesus has left us too… that’s my third word. I am not immune to doubts and wondering where God is at times. Where Jesus is at times. Where the Spirit is. But when I open the eyes of my heart, I see Jesus among us once again. Perhaps in some place unexpected. God has entrusted Jesus ministry and mission to us! And Jesus’ ministry and mission is always about sharing love. Love of God, love of neighbour, love of self.

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Here are those verbs again…

Spoke… written… opened… understand… written… suffer… rise… change…preached… sending… stay… furnished… led… lifted… blessed… left… taken… worshipped… returned… overwhelmed… praising…

Which ones resonate with you… I’d love to hear about it in the comments or via email or text message later on.

Paul wrote in a letter to the church in Ephesus: I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers.

Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity of being God’s people! Amen.

Luke 24: 44-53
Ephesians 1: 15-23
May 24, 2020 – SMUC

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