It was supposed to be a joyous occasion. One in which we celebrate Eucharist—revival style—out on the front lawn with the bishop and Confirmation and a bar-b-que dinner. We should have had pretty table cloths and flowers and a blue grass band. We should have had face painting and bouncy houses and families camped out across the grounds with kids running around and laughter and joy in simply being with one another. We should have born witness to thirty people making a mature commitment to Christ. That’s what we should have done last Thursday on Ascension Day, on our feast day. But the bishop didn’t come and people weren’t confirmed and no blue grass music could be heard.
Its not the first-time churches have been closed to public worship. There have been other viruses—other bouts with disease—in which the church didn’t open her doors. In those times, so long ago, there was no internet or social media to allow the church to continue to actively proclaim the Good News and gather, even if a little unconventionally for Episcopalians—some clergy resorted to shouting from street corners others continued to offer a pastoral presence in whatever way they could. In 1203 when King John of Britain and Pope Innocent III were in a disagreement, the pope placed an interdict upon the churches of England and Wales effectively closing the churches. The Mass could not be said and clergy could only say private prayers—they weren’t even allowed to have funerals. At least in the current era, we can still offer the Mass (at least every second Sunday) and bury the dead.
All of that is to say, we’ve been here before. Sure, it was long ago and few of us, if any, can remember a time when the doors were shut and we weren’t allowed to pray in this space that means so much to us. That is especially difficult when everything in us is oriented to our worship and need for God in this time of The Great Pause—when we have all entered the unknown and share a common experience grounded in our inability to predict an end to the pandemic and our return to whatever normal might be. We believe nothing lasts forever and that this too shall pass and our experience and knowledge of history affirms that—but the physical absence of the church has challenged us in ways we did not expect and were not prepared for.
Staying home is hard. I have heard from many as to the ever-pervasive anxiety that has kept us unsettled throughout this time. There are those who are lonely and feel helpless and hopeless. We’ve prayed more than ever before—not knowing if God was listening or even cared. We’ve recognized our discontent, our unhappiness, and discovered that no amount of binge-watching Netflix or impulse buying on Amazon can distract us from it. We rely on diversion to keep us from thinking about things like our own mortality. But when the distractions are stripped away and our anxieties and fears whisper sweet nothings in the night; we are left with the psalmist’s ancient question, “From whence does my help come?”
The poet and Episcopalian W. H. Auden says it like this:
The lights must never go out
The music must always play
Lest we should see where we are—
Lost in a haunted wood;
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
What is it that keeps us from sitting quietly in our rooms? Why are we so afraid to be alone? How much do we rely on others for our own sense of self-worth? Our own sense of purpose?
In the movie Forrest Gump, there is a scene where Forrest just starts running. He puts on his new Nike running shoes, walks out his front door and just starts running. He runs for three years, two months, fourteen days, and sixteen hours. Then he simply stops. He turns around, says he is pretty tired and is going to go home now and walks away. In the course of his running, a number of folks joined him. They were looking for something that was missing in their own lives and thought that he could shed some light on the deeper questions they were struggling with and help them find meaning. Forrest ran just because he felt like running. But his walking away from his followers left a deep void in their lives.
The Great Pause has left a deep void in many of our lives. Our many distraction and diversions have been taken away from us and we don’t want to take a look at the deeper questions we struggle with and the search for meaning that so often alludes us. We don’t want to sit quietly in our room. The difference is that unlike the followers of Forrest Gump, we as followers of Jesus Christ know that Jesus can and does fill the great void in our own lives. On that day of Ascension some two thousand years ago, as the disciples stood gazing up toward heaven and two men in white robes stood by them; you know the disciples must have been thinking, “Now what are we supposed to do?” Whether it was a trance or doubt or despair at being left behind, the two fellas in the white robes are able to bring them back to earth simply by asking a question, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
Basically, they are telling the disciples to “change their picture.” If you are simply going to look up into the heavens, your life may always be one of lament. Jesus’s ascension is not a time for lament. He’ll come back. In the meantime, you’ve got work to do, Sabbath to take, prayer and reflection so that you might witness not to my loss but to my presence even if it is a little unconventional. We are in that moment of Sabbath as we experience The Great Pause together. But instead of bemoaning our losses and shifting our personal responsibility onto another, we have the choice and opportunity to do the work Christ has called us too: the work of witnessing to the presence of Christ because he is with us even in this time.
This past Thursday, when we should have celebrated our feast day of Ascension with a visit from the bishop, Confirmation and Eucharist. We instead hung streamers from the bell tower, gathered at safe distances from one another to sing gospel hymns like I Am the Bread of Life and This Little Light of Mine and released eco-friendly balloons in the shape of doves into the sky. Our gaze upward was not in lament but in joy. In that release of balloons and ringing of the bells we offered our presence to the one who has ascended before us that we too might also ascend in heart and mind and continually dwell with him. Amen.
Easter 7A: Psalm 68: 1-10, 33-36; Acts 1:6-14; I Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, May 24, 2020
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer