[This sermon is written for the church where I grew up, C.C. Hancock Memorial United Methodist Church. It has many references to people known to the hearers, but probably few others. It helps to know, in reading it, who they are.
Charlie Weigel – pastor in the 1980’s.
Paul and Jane Harris – pastor and pastor’s wife in the 1970’s. Paul went from hard-of-hearing to deaf in his years at Hancock.
Janet Hess – the current pastor. This sermon was preached as part of a pulpit exchange so that she could share with the First UMC of Phoenixville the story of her ministry with the Discovery Service Project.
Ron Stott, Jim McIntire, and Dick Howarth – pastors of Hancock in the 1990’s and 2000’s.
Walt and Gina Reeves – longtime members. Walt became a licensed local preacher and served as assistant pastor for several years until, in April of 2014, unexpectedly being appointed to a church in Delaware.
Bob Edgar – a man who grew up at Hancock in the 1960’s. Ordained a United Methodist pastor, he was appointed “Minister to Society” upon his election to the U.S. House of Representatives. He later served as President of Claremont School of Theology and as Secretary of the National Council of Churches.]
Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this, because I know a few of you have. It was a long time ago, but this is where I heard it.
Ascension Day had come one year, the day that celebrates how Jesus was taken up to heaven following his resurrection. Some Christian traditions pay a lot more attention to it than we do. For the Roman Catholics and some Episcopalians it is a major feast day, and I’ve since learned that it’s a big deal among the Amish, of all people. Anyway, someone at a seminary had the idea that it should be observed with a solemn procession following their chapel service – you know, the kind of procession led by a cross and some banners, with everyone following behind in a long line and singing. It can be very impressive. Before it started, one of the seminarians slipped out and went ahead to a spot they would pass, because he had an idea of how to communicate the message of the day, that Jesus had ascended beyond time and space. So as the procession moved along, suddenly they saw a plastic baby-in-the-manger figure, the sort that is on a front lawn at Christmas, shoot up and over the line, powered by skyrockets and Roman candles.
I wish I could tell that story like Charlie Weigel did. Man! He could tell a story, couldn’t he?
Of course, the plastic baby had to land somewhere, and that makes me think of the part of today’s scripture where the angel promises the disciples,
“ This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” [Acts 1:11]
That, in turn, puts me in mind of the sermon series that Paul Harris did here one time, on the book of Revelation. I honestly don’t recall much of the exact content, but he talked about how to read it responsibly, not as a prediction of the future so much as a reflection of God’s power in the present. Of course, Paul died last year. Jane died only a couple of months ago, too. Remember how they worked as a team? She was his ears for a long time.
Then again, just the word “heaven” in this passage puts me in mind of another time I preached here. I don’t remember the occasion, but Jim McIntire, after we prayed together but before we left the office and went into the cloister before the service, said, “Go out there and give ’em heaven!” Jim just got married again last year and is doing well.
I get news about Ron Stott from time to time, too, because his granddaughter is the person who cleans my office up in Phoenixville two or three times a week. I also see Dick and Judy Howarth most Sundays.
Oh, and I follow what’s going on with Walt and Gina on facebook, as a lot of people here probably also do.
I’m very glad that Janet Hess is around. I came to appreciate her gifts greatly and consider her in many ways a mentor. She and I worked very closely together in Frankford in the early 1990’s on everything from confirmation classes to neighborhood renewal projects to pastoral care. Those were great days! Oh, yeah. The church that I served, that housed the Group Ministry, collapsed three years ago.
Do you get the point I’m trying to make? When Jesus ascended to heaven, his disciples were on the edge of doing a very normal, very human thing. They were about to lose track of the world around them while they were lost in all the emotions and memories that they had rolled up in the time that Jesus had been physically among them. Even before he left them, they really were already on the brink of getting wrapped up in the idea that he had been all about bringing back the good old days, and he had to point out to them that they were supposed to be looking in the opposite direction, ahead.
“So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’” [Acts 1:6-8]
I’m not just speaking to C.C. Hancock here, but this message is one that the whole Church probably needs to hear. I know I do.
We’re in the middle of some sort of mixed-up age when things are only going to become more mixed up. We’re so mixed up that we are probably worrying about all the wrong things. We’ve become bogged down in questions about same-sex marriage and ignore the sad state of traditional marriage. We’ve gotten stuck on fine points of biblical interpretation and don’t realize that most people never open the cover of a Bible in ten years. We worry about the political climate when the physical climate of the globe is changing faster than it has in millions of years and will to do far more than we anticipate to disrupt the economy and even the security of life on this planet.
This is the time to be celebrating all that is good, not lamenting what we may miss. This is the time to prepare for the days ahead, and to dream about what may yet be. It’s a time to remember that in the midst of the way things are, we are the ones whom Jesus has appointed to bear witness to his loving grace. If we do it well, maybe one day someone we don’t even know yet will look back on us and say, “Hey, do you remember how…?”
Jesus has ascended to heaven. He looks over all time and oversees eternity with loving care and compassion. He has sent his Spirit to be with us in our present and lead us into a future which is not ours, but his.
Somebody once said,
“Ingrained in my faith is God’s call to provide a flicker of light in the midst of darkness. This is not the only time in our history that dark clouds have brewed on the horizon. Neither must it be the first time we surrender to despair rather than reaching deep within ourselves for the hope and possibility and promise with which God has equipped every human soul. We are called to use our faith to give hope to others – and ourselves.”
The man who said that was Bob Edgar. Man! Remember him?