- SERMON PREACHED BY
THE REVEREND DR. HAROLD T. LEWIS, RECTOR
CALVARY EPISCOPAL CHURCH,
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'
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
Peter: "Lord, where are you going. . . why cannot I follow
- 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
- 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
- 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
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.