A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Ascension Sunday • May 13, 2018
One day last week Jacquelyn and I toured the Alhambra, an enormous Medieval complex of palaces, gardens and fortresses overlooking the city of Granada. It was the last hold out of Muslim rulers in Spain, and its swirling walls decorated with plaster calligraphy, its pools of water, and mountain views were exhilarating.
Still, three hours of walking in such beauty, we were tired and hungry. We bought sandwiches and found a bench in some shade. Drawn by the same shade, two young couples sat across from us. Soon a small cat came over and clearly sniffed Jacquelyn’s sandwich; she was having tuna, and the cat wanted som,e so it did what always works with Jacquelyn, sat in front of her and quietly looked hungry and sad and hopeful.
We all laughed at the cat and began to talk. One of the women was obviously pregnant. We asked when she was due; she said August and I laughed and said August babies—of which I’m one—were extraordinary people. As we talked, she mentioned how scared she was about being a mother. I said being a parent was the most fun I’d ever had; Jacquelyn added comments on how wonderful it had been, having May, bringing her up. It turned out the other woman was pregnant too, and soon we were all laughing. Of course, Jacquelyn went from just dropping crumbs for the cat to breaking pieces off to feed the feline. With lunch over, we said goodbye to our friends and the cat and wandered off. I’d like to think we not only made the cat’s day but gave those two couples a bit of hope, another brighter voice than all the scary rational ones. I’d like to think we passed on a little of the love we’ve found parenting together.
Today is one of those days with many priorities. In the United States, it’s Mothers Day. In the past, that often meant exalting on one day out of the whole year the role of women who have children. Often we left out those who didn’t. Today I want to make it clear that as we mention this day, we honor with it those women, mothers, grandmothers and others who care for children they didn’t have to cherish and raise but do so with the same generous love. We honor as well women who have never had children but also share their care and love in so many ways.
I said it was a day of different priorities and if Mothers Day is one, the calendar of the church provides another. Today is Ascension Sunday. Long ago, the church remembered there was a time, a moment, when the direct, immediate presence of Jesus walking and talking with his friends ceased, when he returned to the Father so that his followers could, like fledging birds, learn to live out the love he had taught on their own.
The Book of Acts invites us to imagine Jesus taking his disciples out to a hill where they ask if he will at that time restore the kingdom of Israel. He replies, in effect, that the scheduled for the kingdom is none of their business and that instead their job is to go out and be witnesses to the ends of the earth. He mentions Judah and Samaria; you can substitute whatever place seems foreign and exotic to you. Brooklyn, maybe, or New Jersey or West Virginia, or Georgia or Buffalo. Buffalo is definitely one of the ends of the earth, at least it’s near the end of the turnpike so it will do as a symbol.
But my favorite story of the ascension is actually the one we heard today in Acts. Jesus has gone and now for the first time his disciples have to organize on their own. How are we going to continue? That’s a question all organizations ask. These early Christians don’t have the tools we have. Roberts Rules of Order won’t be written for centuries; there is no church constitution. They can’t even settle this question the way we settle such matters now by asking, “What did we do last year?” because this is the first year, the first time. But they understand this single important thing: they are there to continue the work of Jesus and that means continuing to create and recreate the community of Jesus. So they pick a couple of good candidates, people they’ve known, who’ve been active and nominate them and then they pray and cast lots; Matthias becomes the new disciple.
In the whole book of Acts of the Apostles, I do not know a more important moment. For in that moment, these people, who so often fumbled and misunderstood Jesus, begin to move forward in his spirit. In this moment, they begin to do what he told them, to ready themselves for continuing the ministry of Jesus on their own. The Romans thought they could kill the movement by killing Jesus; the religious leaders thought they could kill the spirit by killing the preacher. But God’s love and life were so strong that instead he overcomes death and his resurrection inspires these followers to continue to create communities of care just as he did, communities that will spread throughout the world. The light of love is shining in this moment and being passed like candle light, from one to another. We sometimes get so concerned about daily challenges we forget this is the most important challenge of all: how we can pass on the light of love each day.
That’s the point Jesus is making in the part of the prayer we heard this morning. He says about the disciples he about to release into the world like a dandelion releasing its seeds,
They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. [John 17:16-19]
That’s us: that’s who we are meant to be, people sent into the world who have seen how much difference a moment of grace, a cherishing love, a boundary breaking invitation can make.
That’s the spirit in which Mothers Day originated. You can read in the bulletin article today a longer history of Mothers Day. I want simply to point out here that it began not as a day to give your mother a card but out of the boundary breaking work of bridging the gap between former Union and Confederate soldiers and families. West Virginia had become a state through the breaking of ties that inspired the war against the Union and the restoration of peace left broken bodies and broken communities there more than in most places. Anna Jarvis worked to promote peace and her daughter worked to lift up and honor that work.
There are so many stories like this. We often feel powerless but the truth is we have the power to act, as the disciples acted, and when we do amazing things happen. Let me give you one more souvenir from our vacation in Spain this year. We always visit Cathedrals and this year one that stood out to me honors St. John de Dios. It stood out because it is a soaring basilica perhaps four stories high at the front, all in figures of gold and for one euro you can turn the lights on and startle everyone there. It stood out because I’m a Congregationalist who loves the spare, plain beauty of our meeting houses which are almost undecorated. In that church, decoration assaults you at every turn and it includes that odd medieval Catholic obsession with relics of saints, so they have various skeletons in glass boxes.
All of it was over the top but it did make me look up St. John of God, the inspiration for the place. What I found was much more amazing than the gold and the skeletons. John was a poor Portuguese boy who did what boys from poor boys often do today: he enlisted in the military. He did well as a soldier, survived and went on to have a variety of experiences. At midlife, he had an experience of inspiration and began to help sick and needy people. Others joined him; the work expanded. Eventually a whole order was funded which operates hospitals around the world.
“The lot fell on Matthias,” Acts says; one person, one moment. Hundreds of years later, it fell on a former soldier and now we have hospitals. Hike up in the mountains, the Adirondacks, the Catskills, anywhere will do and if you watch a stream flowing downhill you can see it is irresistible. Blocks a path, it finds another; when a tree falls in the middle, it divides around it. It doesn’t look like much, often, just a little stream but nothing will stop that stream flowing to the river to the sea and joining the ocean. That’s how it is with God’s love. It’s flowing all the time, touching someone here, there. Like a working at a counter, calling, “Next, please?” it moves from person to person.
One of the wonderful gifts of travel is that you stop seeing news alerts. So this past week while we were in Spain, I’m sure that lots of things went on. The President did things; other people protested or agreed. Global leaders did whatever they do. Millionaires in the city got mad that someone parked a fireboat that helped rescue people on 9/11 in front of their condos, spoiling the view.
But this happened too: the Henry Street Settlement got a 6.2 million dollar donation. The Settlement started in 1893 when Lillian Ward settled in a slum in New York City among what today we would call undocumented immigrants. That another term for many of our grandparents, mine among them. Henry Street has far too many accomplishments to list but an important one today is supporting young people going to college. A lot more will be able to go because of this huge donation. Now you might think that in New York, with so many very rich people who live in rich towers, a donation would come from one of them. But it didn’t. It came from Sylvia Bloom, a 96 year old woman who retired after a 67 year career as a secretary. She never had a child; thanks to her gift, hundreds of children will be nurtured and grow up in new ways.
“Next, please?” Matthias starts out as the first disciple to continue the work. Others follow. Still, the Spirit is calling: next, please? No one knows what blessings make a difference. But like the stream running down the mountain, no one can stop that stream of blessing. We are invited to make our lives part of the stream, part of the blessing, to live as the next ones to light the candle of love.