May 21, 2009
Scripture: Acts 1:1-11
Sermon Title: “The Places You Will Go”
Rev. George Miller
Earlier this year I attended a workshop on evangelism and the presenter told a story about his father. His Dad had a saying that went like this: “I’m gonna tell you once, you’re gonna hear me twice. I’m gonna tell you once, you’re gonna hear me twice. You’re going to wake up and you’re going to say ‘Is it going to be a good day or a bad day?’ Make the right choice and you’ll be OK.”
What did that mean, and why did his father repeat it again and again, year after year? One day our presenter understood...but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about tonight’s scripture.
It’s the beginning of Acts, which in many ways is the 2nd volume of a story that will never end. Jesus has been resurrected and for the past 40 days he’s been hanging out with the disciples, teaching them about the Kingdom of God. He’s ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait, for soon they’ll be baptized with the Holy Spirit.
He redirects their attention to the present moment, and is lifted up and taken away.
After 3 years of ministry, after 3 days in the grave, after 40 days of resurrection appearances, Jesus is out of their sight; he’s absent. And in his absence the newest stage of ministry begins.
That may sound like I misspoke, but if you look at what occurs here and couple it with the Gospels, you’ll realize that part of Jesus’s ministry was preparing the disciples for his departure while at the same time helping them understand that his leaving is just another part of his ministry.
For example, in John 14-16 Jesus explains that he’s to go ahead, establishing a place for them, and that God will give the disciples an Advocate, meaning the Spirit. He encourages them to continue abiding in him, as he abides in them.
Then in ch. 16 he gets right down to it: that it’s for their benefit that he goes away because if he stays the Advocate will not come and guide them in all things. In other words Jesus is saying to them: “Oh, all the places you will go!”
Yes they’ll weep and mourn, yes they’ll miss him, but their pain will turn into joy because Jesus has already proved victorious.
In Acts we witness that it was the ascension of Christ that created a space for the Spirit to pour down upon the people, ensuring that the Good News reaches all people throughout the world.
But how can absence be a good thing? How can being apart work for the good? Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote about absence in his book “The Living Reminder.” According to Nouwen, much of our faith is stories of memories, of people, places and events that happened some time ago.
Memories are more then just things we recall but they connect and sustain us during hard times. They are well-springs of hope, teaching that love transcends the limits of time and space.
How does this pertain to absence? When a place, person or event is close to us, we can grow numb to it, failing to see and appreciate it, failing to learn from and find comfort in it. Absence does something unique: it helps us see in a new way.
When we’re not near someone, we engage in an act of memory about them that allows us to see them in ways beyond physical, creating a space for a different level of intimacy.
Think about it, when you’re apart from someone, you don’t focus so much on their idiosyncracies, such as the mole above their lip or spinach caught in their teeth. Instead you can reflect on things they have said, actions they have done.
The space creates a chance to clarify and bring to the foreground things such as gifts or kind words they said or lessons you learned from them.
Absence also does this: it makes us want to be together again. When someone is always in our life, we take them for granted and wish for space. When we are apart and separated, we long to see them again, to be in their presence, to hear them snore, to hear their goofy jokes, to see what new outrageous ensemble they will wear.
Space creates closeness, and absence can make us more present to each other then we can imagine. Think of the truths that are revealed by friends on the phone when intimacy is increased by the non-existent sight of body movement. Think of the war time letters soldiers wrote to their honeys saying vulnerable sweet-nothings they may not have had the courage to say face to face.
Absence works in ministry, such as visits. A visit that’s too long can drain a person, but a visit done right creates a healthy space that allows the Spirit to move and educate. Sometimes the real visit happens in absence: as one waits for the visit, looking forward to the time together; in the space that’s created when the pastor leaves, and both people can reflect upon and bask in the spiritual after-glow of what they shared.
Tonight we spiritually kick off Memorial Day Weekend. We’re closed this Sunday so people can enjoy the holiday. Diaconate wanted to create a space, a chance to be absent and to give people the OK to take a step back, chill and relax.
Some may use this as an opportunity to garden, others to travel, some to spend time with family and friends or visit other churches. Oh, the places you will go.
But it’s also a way to create healthy, holy absence. For each week we worship here, we gather, we take in the sounds we know, the sights we see, the people we’re familiar with.
But with an absence we now have a chance to come back next Sunday. And to come back with new eyes, new spirits, new insights.
To see the windows anew after a week away. To hear our organist anew after hearing the sound of silence or of someone else playing.
To revel in the voices and smiles of our children, to shake hands and to reacquaint ourselves with dear old friends and faithful apostles.
This time of absence is not to pull us apart but to actually bring us together, to remind ourselves of who we are and of whose we are.
Jesus spent 40 days with the disciples. This gave them the space and time they needed to grow, become adjusted and be prepared for what they had to do. And when the time was right, he left.
The irony was that in Jesus’s departure he actually became closer to them, for now he was ever present, always there, in their hearts and spirit, in their work and their mission. Jesus remained the center of what they did, but now their focus could be redirected onto the community and ministry that was at hand.
And when Jesus ascended, the disciples were actually able to step into the people they were destined to be, to do the work they were destined to do and to prepare the next foundational level for the church we are today.
And it happened all because of Jesus’s absence.
In conclusion, let us return to the story I was first telling, about the father and his words. Day after day, the father told his son “I’m gonna tell you once, you’re gonna hear me twice. I’m gonna tell you once, you’re gonna hear me twice. You’re going to wake up and you’re going to say ‘Is it going to be a good day or a bad day?’ Make the right choice and you’ll be OK.”
The son grew tired of hearing his father say those words. Then one day he was hanging out with his friends. They were drinking and got it into their heads that it would be fun to go drag racing.
The young man was about to step into one of the cars, when he heard his father’s voice “I’m gonna tell you once, you’re gonna hear me twice. You’re going to wake up one day and you’re going to say “Is it going to be a good day or a bad day?’ Make the right choice and you’ll be ok.”
And now he understood. The hearing once was his father’s first telling him, the hearing twice was what he was now hearing in his father’s absence.
He listened to his absent father’s voice, and stepped away from that car, and it was the right thing to do. Moments later an accident occurred, killing the driver and leaving another paralyzed.
His father was wise. He knew he could not be with his son 100% of the time, otherwise his son would never live his life. But he made sure that even in his absence his son would know well enough to make the right choices to live life.
In his father’s absence, those words took on more meaning and power then they ever had before.
Its Memorial Day Weekend. Oh the places you will go, the things you will do and the people you will meet. Even though we’ll be apart this Sunday, may our absence liven our hearts and bring us closer to one another.
And when we are reunited, may we be glad to be in the house of the Lord and glad to be in one another’s presence again.
All thanks and praise be to the Spirit that falls upon each and every one of us, for God whose kingdom we are called to make real and for Jesus who, even in his absence, lives within us all.