Sermon for Ascension Sunday, May 24, 2020 -- "Waiting"

                                             Ascension Sunday, May 24, 2020



          As I often do when I’ve accepted an opportunity to share a sermon or meditation, I found myself looking through the many books on my shelves that fall into the category of spiritual writings. I noticed one tucked back, long forgotten, a slim volume by Pema Chodron called “The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times.” Wow, I thought, that’s a title meant for this time and place.

          It is scary out there. And in here. And although I welcomed the chance, when first asked, to join you again as your pastor on occasion, the act of sitting down to reflect and write for today’s gathering left me feeling almost paralyzed. I had hoped that an outing yesterday with my daughter (who lives with me) would help lift my spirits and reveal inspiration and hope to share with you. Instead, as we drove into the parking lot of Lost Lake Greenhouse and saw how many cars were there, how many people were there, how few were wearing masks and respecting social distancing, I felt my spirits spiral downward. Being with other gardeners did not bring shared joy, but paranoia. Seeing one man slowly making his way down the sidewalk, hands covered in black plastic gloves, face mask securely fastened, it was evident that he was so frail. And others there seemed oblivious to him in his weakened condition, walking as they did with no thought whatsoever of his need to be protected, of our common frailty in the face of this coronavirus.

          Poor Sena was also beside herself with the callous and casual attitudes of people picking out their petunias. And as my spirits fell and I faced my fears, I’m afraid I dragged her right down with me. We drove home in silence.

          How, then, do we learn to practice fearlessness in difficult times? And when did Pema write that book? It is a thing I do, when I read old sermons or spiritual books. Was it written before 9/11? Or after. Because if it was written before 9/11, well then, the author had a different, probably brighter perspective on life. Indeed, hers was published in 2000, but likely written and edited before the turn of the century and the falling of the towers that fall.

          Now, here we are in something so vastly different than that time. In those early days after the bombings, people flocked together. Churches opened their doors so people could gather and pray or light a candle. Vigils were held. Family members, once estranged, reached out to each other. We realized, as a nation, that life could change in an instant. We slowed down and reached out and did our best to practice gratitude. Preachers, at least this one, were relieved to find the lectionary turning us to passages in the Old Testament filled with lamentations. We were lamenting, crying out to God, weeping in the night.

          Today, we lament alone. When we most need each other, we have to settle for a two-dimensional version on a screen. When families long to hold the hands of their loved ones in the ICU, the hand of a nurse, instead, holds an iPad for the patient as final goodbyes are said. We say we are zooming a lot lately, but really, we are standing still. Standing at the edge. Standing in the face of never before known difficulties, where coming together means potentially passing on or getting the virus, where embracing your beloved in the nursing home might lead to her death, where gathering for worship and singing and speaking and sitting together carry risks too great to pursue, no matter how lonely we are.

          While before all this, we may have looked to 9/11 as a signpost, a turning point, a trailhead, we will now be looking at 2020 and the pandemic as the time when the world as we knew it forever changed. We are in a time of waiting, watching, sitting. We don’t know how this will play out. I don’t know about you, but keeping an eye on the news feed on my phone is almost like a daily or hourly ritual. On my better days, I sit outside with my dog, watching masked walkers and bikers go by on the sidewalk, observing the explosion of blossoms and greenery in the park, feeling the grass beneath my feet and the sun on my face.

          This, then, is how to face the places that scare you, it is how to find fearlessness in difficult times. It is in the practice of waiting, watching, sitting, breathing.

          I chose to select the readings today for Ascension Sunday, although ascension happened on a Thursday, not a Sunday. When Jesus led his followers up that mountain and then left them as he rose into heaven, it was 40 days after he first rose on Easter morning. In the early days after he appeared to them, they were terrified, confused, fearful. They kept to themselves, in the upper room, where he appeared to them. They took walks, two by two, down a quiet, dusty road, when he joined them. They sat at a distance from each other by the fire at night, when he broke bread with them and shared a meal. They had those days to adjust to the new normal. He had been tortured and killed. By virtue of being his followers, they were at risk of the same thing. But when he showed up, his body brought back to life, and they could hear his voice and remember the teachings and way of life he had shown them, when they saw that he was not lashing out in hatred for those who had betrayed him, for the people and the system which had nailed him to the cross, they remembered. Their hearts burned within them. In those 40 days, his presence was like a balm.

          And then, they climbed that mountain and heard his last words, they received his blessing, and they watched him be drawn up into the clouds. The two shining men who suddenly appeared, as on the Transfiguration, brought them back to reality. Why are you looking up? And they looked down at the path beneath their feet and started the hike down to the valley.

          He was truly gone. No sense trying to deny it. No effort to distract themselves or tune it out or pretend it wasn’t true wasn’t going to change it. He told them to wait. To sit. To stay. To trust. The uncertainty of how they were going to receive holy power was palpable, and so was the opening and emptying of their hearts as they stayed there, without him. They stayed there for 10 days until, on the 50th day after Easter, they gathered on Pentecost. But that’s the story for next week, or next year, or on some unknown day in the future when we can all collectively meet together without such fear of a disease from which we have no protection side from isolation.

          The followers, his spiritual buddies, were in an in-between time. We, too, are in such a time. And we, too, are given the opportunity to just stay, to sit, to breathe. When I was in the hospital after my first hip surgery, I made it through what seemed like the longest night ever. I had gone on what seemed like the longest walk ever, shuffling behind my walker with my daughters at my side. And I was finally sitting up in a chair, waiting a long time for lunch to arrive. In walked a chaplain, the Buddhist one, a woman in her 30’s, with short cropped hair, wearing her robe. She approached me where I sat. “My name is Pema,” she said. “I understand you wanted to see a chaplain.”

          She sat down and asked about my well-being. She wondered if there was anything she could do for me and I looked at her and said, could we sit together for a little while? She smiled and nodded and called me by my name and said, I want to invite you to do something a little different. When you breathe in, allow yourself to take in all of your suffering and pain. Breathe in what is painful and unwanted with the sincere wish that you and others may be free of suffering. Then, as you exhale, send out relief from the pain, send out the intention that you and others will be happy and at ease.

          Breathing in the pain seemed counter intuitive, but something shifted inside me when I did. I inhaled and yes, there was the pain, there was the pain in my body and also in the bodies of all who suffer, and as I stayed with it, as I allowed it to just be there, I was not so afraid. Maybe you want to try that now, first, find a stillness, an openness or emptiness, a posture of waiting, of staying. Allow yourself to be aware of the tightness and discomfort of this time, this space we are in. And breathe those uncomfortable feelings into a wide open space, like the vast ocean or a cloudless sky.  And then, exhale, breathing out a sense of relief. With practice, it is possible to find a way to be less fearful. With practice, it is possible to tap into the holy power within and without, the Holy Spirit, the light and grace and deep peace of the Spirit.

          We live in this in-between time, between quarantine and a vaccine, between stability and a recession, between certainty and places that scare us so much that nightmares are now routine. And yet, we are not alone. We still do have each other, our spiritual buddies. And we have the promise that God will never leave us nor abandon us. May you know the sweet presence of the Spirit shining within and without. Amen.

  August 2021  
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