SERMON PREACHED BY
THE REVEREND DR. HAROLD T. LEWIS, RECTOR
CALVARY EPISCOPAL CHURCH,
PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA
IN SAINT ANDREW'S CHURCH, HIGHLAND PARK
ON THE FEAST OF THE ASCENSION OF OUR LORD
1 MAY 2008
 
 
"Men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?" (Acts 1:11)

I have always taken some comfort in the fact that the disciples aren't the sharpest pencils in the Biblical box. In fact, the adjective "obtuse" comes readily to my mind when thinking about them. Even a cursory perusal of the New Testament would suggest that, despite being with Jesus 24/7, they are almost never on the same page as he is. Examples abound. After Jesus had a long conversation (in fact the longest conversation in the Bible) with the woman at the well, they marveled among themselves that he would be talking to a woman. After the mountaintop experience of the Transfiguration, Jesus has to intervene to clean up the disciples' mess. As you may remember, they proved totally inept at healing an epileptic child.
 
But the disciples' cluelessness shines through especially in the Gospel readings in Eastertide. Their obtuseness seems to be inversely proportional to the profundity of Jesus' statements.
Jesus: 'Yet a little while I am with you. Where I am going you cannot come. A new commandment I give you, that you love one another."
Peter: "Lord, where are you going. . . why cannot I follow you now?"
 
Jesus: When I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also."
Thomas: "Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?"
 
Jesus: If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him."
Philip: "Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied." --- a response which causes Jesus to express his exasperation:
Jesus: "Have I been with you so long, Philip, and yet you do not know me?"
 
A final example:
Jesus: I will not leave you desolate. Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me, because I live, and you will live also."
Judas (not Iscariot): "Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?"
 
These vignettes help us, I think, to understand the disciples' behavior at the time of the Ascension of our Lord. St. Luke tells us, in the Book of Acts, that Jesus gives the disciples his final discourse, in which he yet again promises that the Holy Spirit will descend upon them. He then gives them their final marching orders, to be his witnesses to the end of the earth, and that at the end of the speech, "he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight." Fine! Now what did they do? Organize a committee to decide who would go to Judea and who would go to Samaria? Did they critique Jesus' sermon? Did they even reminisce about the good old days around the Sea of Galilee? None of the above. They simply gazed up into heaven. This scene, by the way, is dramatically depicted in a mural over the high altar of our sister parish in Oakland, celebrating their feast of title today. In that mural, we see twelve craned necks, looking up at Jesus' feet sticking out below a cloud.
 
Enter the angels. What would we do without the angels who are always on hand --- at the Annunciation to let Mary know of her special role, at the Nativity, to proclaim the news to the lowly shepherds, at the Flight into Egypt, when they functioned as Joseph's GPS; at the Resurrection, to explain the Empty Tomb to the women? And here they take an even more active role and challenge the disciples. "Men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing into heaven?" they ask. The question challenges the disciples to get to work; the angels tell them in effect that they can ill afford the luxury of staring out into space, marveling at the miraculous event. They tell the disciples that Jesus' earthly mission completed, it is left to them to be the Church, the Body of Christ.
 
Now I began this sermon by saying that I took comfort in the obtuseness of the disciples. I take comfort because I believe that if the men whom Jesus chose to be his chief lieutenants, the ones to whom he entrusted the Gospel --- and the Church --- the ones on whom he breathed the Holy Spirit empowering them to absolve sins --- if these guys were qualified for their positions despite their obtuseness, then there's hope for all of us. I'd like to suggest this evening that the spiritual descendents of those indolent disciples are alive and well. In fact, I believe, the church is made up of four distinct groups.
 
First there are the gazers. Like the disciples looking up to heaven, they are totally passive; they believe they have no role except to stare up to heaven and wait for the next miracle. Their favorite Biblical text is "The Lord will provide." Their favorite hymn is "Just as I am without one plea." When there are no skies to look up to, they stare at the altar. Church is a combination of spectacle and entertainment. They feel a little better after they attend worship, even if they don't know why. On Monday morning they revert to doing whatever they do in their parallel universe on which their religion has no effect whatsoever.
 
The second group is made up of the lazers. They are happy to let others do everything for them. They tithe not, neither do they pledge. Volunteering for anything is anathema, but they are grateful when others do things on their behalf. They are like the nursery rhyme characters who would not lift a hand to plant or harvest the wheat or bake the bread, but who were happy to line up to devour the loaf when it was came out of the oven.
 
The next group is made up of the grazers. These are my favorites. Like cattle, they often go from one pasture (read parish) to another, in an effort to find out if the grass is greener or tastier. They chew the cud at coffee hour and at potluck suppers (to which they always bring Jell-O while others bring beef Stroganoff). But their appetite is not limited to donuts and salads. They nibble at the clergy, soak up whatever they can from classes that are offered, and take a bite out of parish volunteers. When their jaws are not used to chew everything in sight, they are used to chew out everyone in sight.
 
On this feast of the Ascension, my friends, I would like to suggest that we eschew membership in the aforesaid groups, and become instead card-carrying members of the hazers. This group is not called that because they make things fuzzy or unclear. The derivation of their job description takes its clue from fraternity life. My dictionary defines hazer as someone who "harasses with difficult tasks." If we are true to our vocation, are we not hazers for Jesus, reminding the faithful and those who would like to be that to use Bonhoeffer's expression, there is a cost of discipleship? Picking up one's cross as a prerequisite to following Jesus is a difficult task. Giving sacrificially for the spread of Christ's kingdom is a difficult task. If you want a list of difficult tasks, try the Baptismal service. There is nothing easy about renouncing Satan, denouncing evil powers and sinful desires and turning instead to accept Jesus as our Savior. And when we consider the implications of the promises made later in the service, we have to admit just how difficult it is to seek and serve Christ in all persons, even those we don't particularly like, and striving for justice and respecting the dignity of every human being.
 
The problem with the gazers, lazers and grazers is that the church for them is made up of some entity external to themselves, be it an ethereal being obscured by a cloud or Mrs. Jones, the pillar of the church in the next pew. We who would be hazers allow ourselves no such luxury. We know that it is we who must roll up our sleeves and be the hands and feet of Jesus here on earth, now that he has left it. But the good news is that Jesus has assured us that he will not leave us desolate. Jesus has sent us his Paraclete, his Advocate, his Comforter who will lead us into all truth. He invades our respective Babels where our speech is confounded and we cannot communicate with each other (sound familiar?) and transforms us into his Pentecostal children, who are able to sing from the same hymnal (Hymns Ancient and Modern) and understand each other, including the Parthians and Medes, and even the Cretans among us, perfectly.
 
This is the challenge of the Ascension. It is our hope that God will send us men in white robes to remind us of our task.

Let us pray:
Thou hast raised our human nature on the clouds to God's right hand.
There we sit in heav'nly places, there with thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels; man with God is on the throne;
Mighty Lord, in thine ascension, we by faith behold our own. AMEN.