Note: In this sermon, I use the Hebrew version of Jesus’ name, Yeshua.
So, I read some good news earlier this week. There’s a vaccine against coronavirus that is in the very earliest stages of its development, and it appears — so far — to be safe and effective. Of course, it’s only been tested on eight people, and it has to go into clinical trials where thousands of people will be tested. But the manufacturer, Moderna, said that if those trials go well, the vaccine could be available for widespread use by the end of this year or early next year.
I know there’s a lot that can go wrong in clinical trials. And Moderna has since been pretty heavily criticized for putting forth such a rosy and aggressive timeline. And I know that even if this drug works out and is available by the end of this year, it could be months after that before I or others I know get vaccinated. Still, I allowed myself a bit of an indulgence upon reading this news: I imagined a world without coronavirus. I imagined being back at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav with you all at worship, bathed in that golden morning light, together. I imagined what it would be like to sing that first hymn together, after so many months — maybe years — of not doing so, and I saw myself crying with joy, along with many of you, not able to even get through the first stanza without breaking down. And I imagined myself saying, “Okay, let’s sing that first verse again, until we can get through it without crying.”
What do you miss from your pre-corona life? What will bring you joy once it is returned to you? In our own season of loss and longing, we may be even more able to taste the joy that the disciples felt when Yeshua appeared to them for the first time after he had died, when he was returned to them. (Parenthesis: No matter what you may believe about whether Yeshua was actually resurrected or if he actually ascended, let’s just set that aside and enter into the story, which is the point of stories — to participate in truths that don’t have to be literally true to be meaningfully true.) Imagine the disciples and their joy. Yeshua was returned to them, and he stayed with them for 40 days! Maybe, it even became the “new normal” to hang with him again, the way it will someday again be the new normal for us to hang with our friends or to sing together or hug each other as we pass the peace or gather shoulder to shoulder around the fellowship tables in the library and eat sliced carrots and hummus together. As much as I think I won’t ever ever take for granted again that kind of embodied togetherness… I probably will and sooner than I think.
So near the end of those 40 days of togetherness, Yeshua rather cryptically tells his friends to stay in Jerusalem and wait for something big that’s going to happen to them. They’re going to be “bathed in the Holy Spirit,” as our translation says. I’m not sure the disciples really know what that means. How could they? And Yeshua hasn’t said anything to them about him leaving again. So the disciples think that maybe this baptism of the Spirit might be when Yeshua will “restore the kingdom of Israel.” They are expecting and hoping for the return of their King. It’s like the last movie in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, where after almost 11 hours of movie in its extended edition and something like 10 hours of orc battles — yes, Patrick and I watched this recently — the people of Middle-Earth finally throw off the oppressive rule of Sarumon — or is it Sauron? see, if we were together at the synagogue, you could actually tell me that — and Aragorn is crowned High King of Gondor and Arnor after centuries of there not being a king! The disciples are thinking something like this might happen for them, and they’re pretty excited. After several hundreds years of foreign rule, maybe Yeshua — this guy who came back from the dead after all — is finally going to throw off their oppressors and assume the throne. They will have a King again.
Yeshua, rather disappointingly, tells them that the timeline for this is not for them to know; it lies in God’s hands alone. But — consolation prize — they are going to receive an empowerment from the Holy Spirit and this is going to enable them to be witnesses to Yeshua and his movement all over the earth. In fact, this empowerment and this witnessing is going to be the big deal, the new thing, not the reinstitution of a long-defunct monarchy. But I’m guessing the disciples don’t understand that yet. And while they’re still trying to take this in, Yeshua is raised up and a cloud obscures him from their sight. A cloud is a common symbol in Scripture for the Divine Presence. So Yeshua is lost in the clouds, taken up into the Divine Presence. He is, once again, gone.
The disciples stand there, looking up, trying to now take this in. What the *** just happened? Immediately, two men in white robes are standing with them and telling them they’re looking in the wrong place.“Why are you looking up?” they say. “That’s not where he is. Yeshua is gone. He’s in heaven now. He’s coming back, but he is gone.”
Now this is not only the hinge point in this story; this is a hinge point in the Christian story. Yes, the birth of Yeshua is a big deal, and the death and resurrection of Yeshua is a big deal, but the Ascension is a big deal, too. It used to be one of the big three feast days in the first centuries of the church— right up there with Christmas and Easter — and it’s still a really big deal in the Orthodox Church, although not so much in the West. It is true that Ascension Sunday usually falls on my and Bob Dylan’s birthday, May 24, as it does this year. And that’s kind of a big deal. To me and Bob, at least.
Why is the Ascension a hinge point in the Christian story? Because this is when we have to grow up. This marks the hinge point between our adolescence and our adulthood. This is our initiation. Yeshua has to go away so that the disciples could grow up. Otherwise they were going to rely on his works and words of power but never really claim that power for themselves, never really step up to the plate of being powerful people of spirit in their own right with the responsibilities that come with that. Almost every healthy society has its rites of initiation, where young people separate from parents and elders to forge their own adult identities and to claim their own spiritual power. This Ascension story — and the one about Pentecost that’s coming next week — is the moment of initiation in our sacred story. The moment when we need to grow up and face the responsibilities that we must take on as adults and be given the power to meet those responsibilities.
It’s interesting to me that many people view this pandemic — and the climate crisis that preceded it — as a kind of initiation for our Western culture. In the words of psychologist Rachel Vaughn, who teaches locally, this particular rite of passage will require those of us formed in this culture “to acknowledge that we have already destroyed the very conditions under which we and everything else alive today evolved, and to avow the enormity of our error. It demands that we bow to our own mortality and acknowledge our total dependence on the rest of the biosphere, as well as the fact that there is a higher goal in life than our own gratification: that of the continuance of life. Such an initiation commands us to step forward honestly, with our hearts in our open willing hands, into the greatest uncertainty of our lives.”
We need to grow up and, paradoxically, to grow up we need to surrender control and submit to the uncertainty of true change. That is, after all, what any one going through a true initiation does. When you go through a true initiation, you confront your own mortality as a gateway to maturity. (Thanks to Joanna Macy for this insight.) You don’t know how the initiation is going to end. In some traditional societies, the young man may not return from his initiatory ordeal. He might die out there in the wilderness. I’ve heard some of you describe having cancer as a kind of initiation — confronting, for the first time, your morality and not knowing how it’s going to end up. If you knew, there would be no initiation. This coronavirus, in that sense, is our initiation. Climate change is our initiation. We don’t know how this is going to end.
We are like those disciples, as they turn and begin walking back to Jerusalem to their uncertain future, knowing no one is going to save them. Yeshua is gone, and he’s not coming back, at least not for awhile. All they’ve got is each other. And they’ve got this hard-to-understand promise that help is coming in the form of power from the Spirit. And they’ve been told to wait for it.
So what do they do while they wait? Our text says they constantly devoted themselves to prayer. What does that mean? When I first read this, I was imagining a kind of prayer that seemed out of my reach. I imagined just sitting around, all day, for hours, praying out loud. I realized that I was imagining the sort of very long evangelical prayer from my youth that could go on for 10 minutes or more. I think many of us had the uncle that we dreaded being asked to give the grace before the meal, because we knew the meal would be cold by the time he was done. It’s that sort or prayer, just now extended to all day. And, I confess, that kind of constant praying often doesn’t work very well for me. If it does for you, I am glad. But then I thought: Why do I think that’s what it meant to pray constantly back in Yeshua’s day? Did they really pray like 20th-century evangelicals? What would it have meant to pray constantly back then?
So I did some research, and I talked to Andrew Ramer. Praying constantly could have meant a number of things. It could have meant the practice of praying three times a day during set aside times of liturgical prayer— similar to the Muslim practice of praying five times a day, or the Christian monastic practice of praying seven times a day. Praying constantly could have meant a more contemplative practice of prayer that might have been somewhat like meditation. Or, praying constantly could very well have been the Jewish practice — which has existed for thousands of years — of aspirating to recite 100 blessings a day. While that may seem like a lot, it’s actually more doable than you might think. (Reference Sha’ar Zahav Siddhur) A blessing is basically when you thank God for just about anything. The traditional way to say the blessing, in Hebrew is: Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam. Blessed are You, Eternal God, Ruler of the universe, who (fill in the blank)… Who wakes me up to a new day. Who gave me my life. Who “makes the bands of sleep fall upon my eyes and slumber on my eyelids,” in the words of one particularly poetic blessing. Who creates food and drink. You thank God for rainbows. For seeds. For being moved by an unusual person. You thank God when you see or do something for the first time — the first time you see the snow fall that winter, the first time you wear a new article of clothing, the first time you eat a peach in season. Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam vo-ray pree ha’aitz. Amain. Blessed are You, Eternal God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree. Amen.
It is, basically, a mindfulness practice, where you stop, notice and say thank you. Thank you for having made this, for having done that, for having placed that there. It’s not only an attitude of gratitude, it’s an attitude of dependence. It’s an acknowledgment that we are not the lords of the universe but creatures who depend upon the gifts of the Creator and creation to sustain us. It is, to quote Rachel Vaughn from earlier, an acknowledgement of our total dependence on the rest of the biosphere. Thank you for this peach that I did not create but that nourishes my body and delights my senses. This is the prayer of someone who has grown up.
This kind of continuous prayer, to me, seems doable, even in the middle of my busy, weird quarantine life right now. Life has been stripped down to its essentials, and I find myself more easily grateful for the simple essential things that sustain life that I often took for granted before. For my health. For being able to breath using lungs that are healthy and not inflamed. For my family. For the dog that makes me laugh just about every day. For lemons. For flowers. In such a way, walking into my kitchen with its full pantry can be a time of prayer. Walking outside to feel the sun on my face can be a time of prayer.
I think of the disciples as they were praying constantly in that upper room as tilling the soil of their soul through this prayer, readying themselves to receive the seed of the Spirit.
May we use this time to till the soil of our soul. May we ready ourselves for the seed of the Spirit, the Power that is promised to us. Amen.