Page last updated





Featured sermon of the week:

  • You say hello, I say goodbye, Acts 1:6-14, John 17:20-26, by F. Schaefer, T. Hall    (see below)

  • Granfalloon or Church? John 17:1-11, by Rev. Rick Thompson      (see below)

  • Family Matters John 17:1-11, Rev. Ronald D. Mishler      (see below)

  • Stay With Us, Acts 1:6-14, by Rev. Kristen Capel   (see below)

  • Stuck Between Presence and Absence, Acts 1:1-14, by Rev. Thomas Hall    (see below)

  • Where Are You Gazing?, Acts 1:6-14, by Janet in NJ      (see below)

  •  Christ's Last Words, John 17:1-11, by Chuck in DC       (see below)


You say Hello, I Say Good-bye
Acts 1:6-14 and John 17:20-26
by Rev. F. Schaefer and Rev. Thomas Hall

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to say good-bye? Some of us have a downright awful time bringing closure to our visits. I want to tell you a parable that helps us to see how hard saying good-bye really is.  Listen to the story of Melpomenus Jones.

Melpomenus Jones was a young minister who went to call on some members of his church one afternoon.  He chatted with them for a while, drank two cups of coffee, then braced himself for his good-bye:
"Well, I think I better be going now."  But the lady of the house said: "Oh no! Rev. Jones, can't you really stay a little longer?"
Never one to lie, he said: "O well, I guess I could stay a little longer."

So he stayed.  He drank eleven cups of coffee. By now night was falling.   He rose again.
"Well, now," he said shyly, "I think I really ..."
Can't you stay longer?" the lady said politely, "Why can't you join us for supper?"

Never one to lie, he said: "O well, I could stay..."
Good, my husband will be delighted."

So they had supper. After supper he started to excuse himself again, but the lady of the house showed him photographs.  By 8:30 he had examined seventy-one photos. He stood to leave.
"I must go now," he pleaded.
"It's only half past eight, Do you have anything to do?"

Never one to lie, he admitted: "nothing."

So he stayed the rest of the evening drinking coffee and looking at photographs.  It got too late to drive home so they invited him to sleep on the couch. In the days that followed the preacher lived his entire time in the drawing room drinking coffee and staring at photographs, but the lack of air and exercise began to take its toll on his health.  Eventually they carried him upstairs in a raging delirium of fever. At times he would start up from his bed   and shriek: "Well, I think I..." and then would fall back on his pillow with a horrible gasp. At other times he would leap up and cry: "Another cup of coffee and more photographs!"

After a month of agony, on the last day of his vacation, he died.  They say that when the last moment came, he sat up in bed with a beautiful smile of confidence on his face and said: "Well, the angels are calling me; I'm afraid I really must go now.   Good bye!"

Melpomenus Jones reminds us how hard saying good bye really is. We've said good byes in our life and none of them were easy. We wonder where the years went.  But there he is--a kid who one moment was fighting with his brother and the next going off to Penn State. So stand bravely in the driveway.  She raises her hand and says, "you'll be home next week-end, right?" And they both say good bye.   Somewhere else two people come to say good bye. Their relationship just isn't going anywhere. They go our on some dates, but as the weeks are swallowed by seasons, they realize it's over.  Time to say good bye.  Not just farewell to the movies and lunches and shopping and games.   But really good bye to a presence and a quality that will never completely be recovered.  Saying good bye is hard.

Something deep down in us resists the move from presence to absence.  When someone is present to us, our space is filled, we are not alone.  There is conversation and communion. When someone leaves us, there is crisis.  Absence means silence--lonely, gaping silence.

One thing is for sure--we had better get accustomed to bidding farewell. Life is a series of leave-takings, movement from presence to absence. Carly Simon sings, "Nobody ever stays in one place anymore. You say hello, but I say good-bye."

We honestly need God when it comes to hellos and good-byes.  Our faith used to be embodied in words like the English, "good-bye, the Spanish "adios" the French "adieu."  They all imply that when we part--in that moment between here and not here, between presence and absence, we'd best give so me one to God when we can no longer hold them ourselves.  Good-bye means God be with you.

So it is that we find a group of disciples this morning caught hearing a good-bye from the Leader who it seemed only months before had said hello.  Jesus has finished his job and now returns to heaven. The story wasn't supposed to go like this.     Everything within the disciples, everything they had been taught, had convinced them that Jesus was supposed to stay. The Messiah they knew was to reign on earth. Thy will be done on earth.

So why was Jesus saying good bye?  Why couldn't he just have hung around and helped to get the disciples going?  You know, establish a few contemporary worship services, maybe start a few social agencies for the hungry and homeless?  According to Jewish teaching, God was supposed to appear in the temple and he was supposed to rule the world from that tiny box  in Jerusalem.  And then all the nations would come to Jerusalem and throw their weapons in a big pile in front of him, making a mountain of shields, knives, spears, guns, and semi-automatics.  He would be around to establish God's peaceable kingdom on earth.

That was the way the story was supposed to go.  But instead, Jesus just up and says good bye and leaves them standing outside in the traffic during lunch hour.    There they are gawking toward heaven, watching their last hope for saving the world leave on a cloud.  Jesus, who had instructed his disciples for the past 40 days, just floats out of their lives as mysteriously as he had entered them.  He's gone.   That's what hurt.  That goodbye from the cloud took Jesus away from their presence.

Taking leave, sending off a loved one, saying good bye is hard. But it is an unavoidable reality of life and more than that, it seems to be necessary for a person's growth and maturing. A baby's umbilical cord has to be severed so that the baby can become an independent organism, we send our children off on their first day of school--the beginning of a process of separation and growth toward independence and maturity. As we journey from one stage of life to the next--from birth to infancy, to adolescence, to adulthood, to mature adulthood, to the ultimate homecoming-- the common link between each of the stages seems to be a difficult transition. Each of these times of transition challenge us to grow in our faith. It takes a tremendous amount of faith and trust in our child to be able to send him or her off on that first school day. It takes faith on the part of the child too.

Jesus' good-bye to his disciples meant that he believed in them.  He believed that they were ready for the next phase of spiritual growth.  Jesus, too, knew that good-byes and transitions are hard. 

Following Resurrection Day, Jesus prepared his disciples for that new phase of spiritual growth and maturity. By the time Ascension Day rolled around, he had all the faith in his disciples that they knew that his disciples could handle the crisis and come out stronger and wiser. What was the next phase of spiritual maturity?  The "baptism" into the Holy Spirit.  The fellowship of the disciples were to receive the very Spirit that was in Jesus himself.

Toward the end of his days on earth, Jesus instructed his followers to love one another, to rely on each other, to help, encourage, and empower each other. This is the essence our Lord's prayer for his disciples in John 17:26: "I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them."  Jesus was to live on within the community of his followers through God's Spirit--the Spirit of God's Agape Love.

So really Jesus' good-bye turned out to be God's big hello!   The real story goes like this:  God never left.  Never moved.  Never said farewell.   God simply made an equal exchange.  A shift in the plan.   For tucked right smack in the middle of our lesson from Acts are these words:

...when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
you will be filled with power,
and you will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem
and in all of Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth,"

Far from saying goodbye, God is saying hello in a big way.  God is no longer contained to a single person in single location on planet earth.   By coming into our very lives, God now wants to work through us, giving us the power to live out our faith, to share the Good News, and to grow in our relationships.

Also, because God says hello with the giving of the Spirit, it means that we can say goodbye.  We can say goodbye to our attempts to cling to the past, to cling to people, to structures, to old ways of thinking and doing, and even to our comfort zones.

We can follow God's Spirit as the Spirit moves among us to give us greater mission, clearer vision, and the power to do what we've never done before.  As we follow the lead of God's Spirit we may also have to risk walking down new paths at times.

But the bottom line is that far from a goodbye, God has granted us the Spirit of Jesus and that means that we are filled with power to follow in our Lord's footsteps--to be in joyful mission to a hurting world.  In the midst of our current crises and periods of transition, let us on this day embrace and celebrate God's big hello, the giving of God's Comforter and Encourager. For we are the people of God, empowered by the Spirit of Jesus.  Amen.

Granfalloon or Church?
sermon based on John 17:1-11
by Rev. Rick Thompson

     The late, award-winning author Kurt Vonnegut had a rather off-beat, colorful, and provocative way of looking at human existence.

     Once, in attempting to describe the reality of some groups and organizations, Vonnegut coined the word “Granfalloon.”  G-R-A-N-F-A-L-L-O-O-N.  “Granfalloon.”

     What’s a “granfalloon”?  A “granfalloon,” Vonnegut claims, is an organization that seems to have an artificial, perhaps even arbitrary reason for existing.  It might do a bit of good, and it might provide some momentary satisfaction for its participants, but, by and large, a “granfalloon” has no real, profound, life-changing impact on either its participants or upon the world.

     “What difference does it make in the grand scheme of things,” Vonnegut wondered, “that there are millions of Chicago Cubs fans?  Or what’s the point, really, of gathering alumni of two different eras from the same school?  What’s the long-term impact of being a member of the Procrastinators’ Club–you know, the one that will meet sometime, as soon as the chair gets around to calling a meeting and then, if and when they do meet, they’ll decide not to make any decisions until their next meeting, whenever that is?”

     Those are examples of what Kurt Vonnegut calls “Granfalloons”–organizations that serve no long-lasting purpose and have little or no impact on the world.

     In today’s Gospel reading, we encounter Jesus praying for his disciples.  It is the last night of his life on earth.  He is about to enter into what he calls his “hour of glory”.  Later that evening he will be arrested.  The next day he will be crucified.  Three days later he will rise from the dead and then breathe his Spirit into his disciples before ascending to the Father.  Death, resurrection, pouring out the Spirit, ascension–Jesus’ hour of glory.

     Jesus has just finished preparing his disciples for the climactic and life-changing events of the next few days.  He has told them he will be leaving, but he has also assured them that they will see him again.  And he’s promised that, during his physical absence, he and the Father will send the Spirit, the Advocate, the Comforter, the Helper to be his ongoing presence among and within his followers.  The Spirit will dwell with the church, guide the church, and watch over the church.

     Jesus makes these promises and prays this final prayer because he knows his disciples.  He knows how frightened they are, and he knows how fickle they can be.  In fact, he’s already predicted some things that will indeed take place: that one of his disciples, Judas, would betray him and another, Peter, would deny him that very night.  Jesus knows his disciples.  Jesus knows us, too, doesn’t he?  So Jesus prays for his disciples.  Jesus prays for us!

     And that’s no little thing.  This is no ordinary person we’re talking about here!  It’s a lot different from you and I praying for someone we care about.  The one who’s praying is the One who has come from God.  Jesus has come from God, taken on our humanity, come to dwell in this world that keeps trying to shove God out, endured the hostility of many and the failure of his own followers, and, finally, will die on a cross for the sake of the fickle disciples–and the whole hostile world–which Jesus loves with a deep, abiding, unending love.  And he knows that that death will be not a defeat, not a final “No” spoken over Jesus and his work on earth; his death will be a victory!  That’s the One who’s praying for his church here!

     And that’s what makes the church not just another “Granfalloon.”  Jesus gives the church an identity and a purpose in the world.  In fact, Jesus draws the church into the grandest purpose of all–his purpose, the entire reason for his coming: to glorify God by drawing people into an eternal relationship with the living God! 

     That’s the purpose of Jesus and, now, with his work on earth completed, that’s the purpose of his church!

     In short, our task is to change the world in Jesus’ name!  Focused on Christ, we take up his mission!  Focused on Christ, we strive to discern what God is doing in us, among us, through us, and in the world–and then to follow where that leads us!  Focused on Christ, united by his love, gathered in his name, called and sent to glorify God in the name of Christ, we are not a “granfalloon. WE ARE GOD’S BELOVED CHURCH!”

     We are God’s church.  And did you hear what Jesus said about us in his final prayer?

     “You gave them to me, and they have kept your word,” Jesus prays.  I think that’s amazing!  Don’t you think that’s amazing?  Here’s Jesus, about to die for his church and for the world he loves–his church which will fail him, betray him, deny him–and what does he do?  He thanks his Father for giving his disciples, his church to him! 

     Yes, I think that’s AMAZING! 

     I think that’s amazing because I know I’m a sinner.  I fail Jesus again and again.  I reject the authority the Father has given him over me and all creation because I have this foolish notion that I can do just fine taking charge of my own life.  It’s not just Judas who betrays Jesus—it’s me.  And it’s not just Peter who denies Jesus—it’s me.  And yet, what does Jesus say about me?  I’m a gift to him from the Father!  And I have faithfully kept the Word he taught me! 

     That’s what Jesus says in his prayer about me, about his church.  And that’s what I find amazing!  This sinner, this fickle and unfaithful disciple, Jesus sees as a gift from the Father, as one who remains faithful and true.  Wow!  That’s amazing!  That just blows me away!

     But that’s not all Jesus says in his prayer.  He keeps on pouring out his love and grace, doesn’t he!  He also asks his Father to protect and watch over his church.  He knows the world is a difficult place.  He knows there is indifference and even hostility to Christ and those who strive to follow Christ.  He knows the way will be hard for his followers after he leaves them physically.  And he cares.  He cares about his church.  So he asks his Father to keep it strong, keep it faithful, keep it from getting distracted and succumbing to the temptations it faces in the world: temptations like the incessant drive to consume and possess more and more stuff; the urge to stay comfortable and safe rather than take the risky path of discipleship; the compulsion to please ourselves at the expense of others and even if it distances us from God.  Jesus prays that the Father will protect us from all of that.  Why?  Because he cares so deeply about his church!

     And Jesus keeps on praying.  He prays that his church will remain united, so that we can be strong and vibrant and effective in our witness.  He prays that, in all we do, we will glorify God and point others to the abundant, eternal life God offers in Christ.  Jesus prays, and prays, and prays for the strength and vitality and mission of his church.

     And then he goes on to do even more than that.  He goes to die.  He goes to die out of love for his Father, love for the world, love for his church, love for you and me.  And his love is so strong that not even death can kill it.  He bursts out of the tomb, full of God’s glory and life, and shares his victory, pours out his glory, pours out his life, abundant and eternal life, on his disciples.

      And because of this, we are not a “granfalloon”–an irrelevant, pointless organization.  BECAUSE OF JESUS, AND THE SPIRIT HE AND THE FATHER SEND TO EMPOWER AND ENLIVEN US, WE ARE THE CHURCH! 

     We are God’s church, loved by God in spite of ourselves, protected by God, held together by the power and mercy of God, and sent to glorify God in the world!

     We are God’s church!

     We are God’s church, gathered in the name of Christ, gathered by the power of Christ, gathered to give glory to God with our lips and our lives!  We are God’s church, whom Jesus prays for the night before he dies!  We are God’s church, sent by Christ, empowered by his Spirit, to show the world the depth of God’s love!

     Yes, by the sheer grace of the Father, the love poured out by the Son, and the sustaining presence of the Holy Spirit, we are formed and shaped into the people of God.

     And may the world know who we are–not a granfalloon, but a people with a purpose!  Not a club, but a center of mission!  Not a safe, comfortable refuge from the world, but a school for disciples, training and sending people into the world to glorify God.

     That’s what Jesus prays for.  That’s why Jesus dies and takes his life up again in resurrection.  That’s why God has chosen us, claimed and named us, and filled us with the Holy Spirit: to glorify God and point the world to the unconditional, amazing, unending, eternal love of God, poured out in Jesus Christ!

     May the Father answer the prayer of the Son—and may we be the answer!


Family Matters
a homily based on John 17:1-11 (and beyond)
Rev. Ronald D. Mishler

Our Scripture Reading in John 17 is a prayer that Jesus formulates on account of his disciples.  Jesus prays to the Father in Heaven one more time before he ascended.  His last thoughts were dedicated to his followers and his friends. He leaves with a prayer on his lips.  In his last moments on earth, Jesus was concerned about the fledgling church because Jesus knew from personal experience how hard life is as a human being on earth, how many temptations there are and how many distractions.

I entitled my sermon “Family Matters” because Jesus really talks about two things: our relationship to our heavenly father and about our relationships among each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s all about unity, peace, and finding strength in the spiritual family of God!

Did you know that Jesus introduced “Father metaphor” for God?  In the Old Testament, the preachers, prophets and teachers referred to God as the God of the Fathers—meaning the God of the forefathers, of the ancestors, but Jesus said, in other words, no, I want you to think of God in terms of a good father;  God is your Father in Heaven.

And, so, in John 17 Jesus prays that God may protect and care for his disciples--and all of his disciples in future times--like a father protects and cares for his children.

This is quite an exciting prayer because Jesus specifically mentions his future disciples in his prayer  (Verse 20: "My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message), so you and I and all disciples that live today are directly included in his prayer.  I wonder if Jesus was actually picturing all of his disciples in the future when he prayed—even you and I.  I would like to think that he did think of us at that moment.

So all of us--Jesus’ followers--are to think of God in terms of our Heavenly Father. To think of God in terms of a Father was a new way of thinking of God in Jesus’ times.  In the times before him, preachers portrayed God mostly as a God of wrath, revenge, a God to be feared, who will punish severely the wicked and prosper the good.  Trouble is that in this world, there is not one without sin; we all sin, people back then sinned; and so there was a tendency in the Old Testament understanding of God that put God at odds with his creatures. 

What is so radically new about the good Father in Heaven metaphor that Jesus introduces?

1. Jesus wants us to think of God as loving and kind first, long before we think of God as a God who disciplines us. Again and again in his parables Jesus talks about God, the loving, caring Father. 

Listen to what Jesus says about our Heavenly Father in Luke 11:

Luke 11: 11-13 "Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"


Or, remember when Jesus announced in Matthew 6: don’t worry about all these things in life for your heavenly Father knows what you need even before you ask about anything.  And if God takes care of the birds of the air will he not take care of you who are worth much more than they?

What Jesus proclaimed was a God of Love and Care.  We used to think of God with fear in your hearts; but Jesus wants us to think of God as your loving and caring Father who will provide for us and who will protect you and me, because we are his and he is ours.

2. The second radically new concept about God our Father is expressed in our passage and especially in Verse 11: “that they may be one as we are one.” Jesus wants us to think of God in terms of OUR Personal Father.  In our passage Jesus prays that God may be one with the Father; in the same way that Jesus himself was one with the Father when he lived among us.  Do you understand what that means?  Jesus wants us—his disciples to a have the same kind of connection to God the Father that Jesus himself had.

Jesus prays that the Father would be inside of his disciples as much as the Father was inside of Jesus. In other words Jesus talks about a very, very close relationship between the Father and us.  Jesus talks about a personal relationship here; we are to have a direct line to God; in fact, our relationship to God is according to Jesus to be so close that it is like the Father’s voice is inside of us; it’s like a built-in phone connection. 

Note: This aspect of a personal relationship was radical at a time when people thought that only a few choice people like Kings, priests and prophets would have a personal relationship with God.

From my counseling and pastoral care experience I know that a lot of people even today have a broken father image.  More often than not do we think of God as the punisher rather than being our friend, our supporter, our Father.  And sometimes that has to do with the way God has been preached to us in church, sometimes it has to do with the way our earthly fathers related to us.  Don’t forget: earthly fathers are not perfect; so when Jesus wants us to think of God in terms of being our father, he wants us to think of the ideal father; and unfortunately, in some cases that means that you should think of God in terms of the ideal Father you never had.

Are you one with your Father in Heaven? Do you really know your Father in Heaven on a personal level?  When was the last time you had a heart-to-heart with your Father in Heaven?  How long has it been that you talked one-on-one with your Father God?  Really talked to God?  About your joys and concerns, about your worries, your inner thoughts and feelings?  Or just about what is important to you, what excites you, about your dreams and aspirations?

Are you one with your brothers and sisters at church? Is our fellowship, are our relationships a living testimony of God’s love and power?

Let us pray:  Almighty, loving and ever-gracious God, you have sent your son to live among us in this earthly realm to reveal you to us in new and deeper ways. We thank you for being our loving Father, for loving us and caring for us even more so than how our earthly fathers do.  Help us to be heirs worthy of you and help us to live as children that make you proud.  Continue to protect us as Jesus prayed; and help us to become one with you and our brothers and sisters in Christ to your glorification; all honor and glory be yours forever. Amen.


Stay With Us
a sermon based on Acts 1:6-14
by Rev. Kristen Capel

In 1986, the entire world gazed at the sky with wonder and awe. The space shuttle, “Challenger” was scheduled to blast off from its launching site in Cape Canaveral, Fla. As the countdown began, students in every classroom in the United States were tuned in to their local TV station. This was a truly historical event because for the first time, an ordinary person – a teacher, wife, and mother of two was going into space. The countdown completed, the space shuttle left its launching pad – and before we could count down from ten again, “poof” – the shuttle and everything in it – vanished into thin air. “Poof.” We were left to gaze at the sky with wonder and awe – and an air of deep sadness descended on the entire nation.

In the days and weeks following, we watched this tragedy unfold before us hundreds of times as news programs reported the latest concerning, “what went wrong with the Challenger.” Every time I watched it unfold before my eyes – I was hoping, praying, that this time it wouldn’t vanish. Every time this event was replayed on national Television – I would silently utter to myself, along with the entire nation, I suspect, “stay with us.”

Stay with us.

The disciples gazed at the sky with wonder and awe. And as Jesus ascended, what were they to say, except, “stay with us.” Jesus had come to them and turned their lives around. He had come and left and then come again. Jesus had turned the disciples’ lives upside down and inside out. In the Gospel accounts of the days following Jesus’ death, the disciples wander around in a cloud of confusion and loneliness. And when he finally appears to them again – they party on the beach, he breaks bread with them and teaches them concerning the fulfillment of scripture. Only a few days pass before he is engulfed in a cloud and carried away to the heavens. The disciples gaze up at the sky in wonder and awe as “poof” Jesus disappears in a cloud. They gaze up at the sky, wishing, it seems, that he would come back and stay with them. And then the men in white who are standing next to them say words that my Pastoral Care professor warned us never to say in a pastoral care setting: They say, in summary: “Don’t worry, you’ll see him again someday.” The disciples wanted Jesus here, now. Not in some distant far-off future. Not in some grandiose exhibition in which Jesus would descend from the heavens in glory and honor. The disciples longed for Jesus to stay with them on that day. Stay with us. Stay with us now.

If we were to do a top ten list of questions about God – I suspect the question topping the list would be, “where is God now?” In all of the confirmation classes I’ve taught, in all of the Adult Forums I’ve led, and in all of the conversations I’ve had with lost and broken people, this question resounds from the mouths of people at unbelievable frequency. The disciples, gazing into the sky, wonder that very same thing, “where is God now?”

We, all of us disciples of Jesus, gaze into the sky and wonder, where is God while our world is plagued with famine, war and sickness? Where is God, while our hearts are hard and our lives filled with hypocrisy? Where is God, while our hearts are torn apart by death, violence and despair? We gaze up into the clouds and look for Christ. We gaze up into the clouds and look for a God who is with us; a God who will stay with us.

But what if you’ve looked up into the sky and not seen Christ, but only clouds? What if you’ve looked up into the sky and seen not the promise of a bright and glorious future in which Christ will come again to reign over heaven and earth? What if you’ve looked into the sky and all you’ve seen is remnants of tragedy, shards leftover from an explosion? What if you’ve looked up into the sky and all you’ve seen is disaster?

We would be fools not to admit that sin is strong and hate is powerful and evil is real. In the Gospel of Luke, we hear Jesus teaching the disciples: “…repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” The news that we’ve been given is not that everything has been made all right already; the news we’ve been given is that the ultimate outcome is promised. The promise of the Resurrection is that mercy is manifest in Jesus Christ. Grace is guaranteed to us. Love will lure all toward its promise. The promise of the resurrection is that God overcomes death; and in overcoming death, God overcomes our hypocrisy, our brokenness, and our sinfulness. God gives hope to a hopeless world by bestowing upon us the greatest gift of all, the forgiveness of our sins.

If the promise of the resurrection is forgiveness of sins, what then, is the promise of the Ascension? Hidden between the lines of repentance and forgiveness and the lifting up of Jesus into the clouds – is a promise so great, a promise so enduring, a promise so life-giving, that I wonder why we often miss it. The promise of the Ascension is that God is with us. We need not beg God to stay with us. We need not gaze at the sky in wonder and awe as we ask, “where is God?” God sends the Holy Spirit so that we might not be alone in our work on earth. God sends an advocate so that we might be empowered to spread the Gospel to all the ends of the earth. God sends a comforter who is with us in our despair, our loneliness, our hypocrisy and our fear.

The moment we were baptized and came up dripping wet, we received the gift of the Holy Spirit. We cannot give back that gift any more than we can give back our names or the blood that runs through our veins. The moment we arose from that water, we died with Christ and arose with him into new life. In water and word, in bread and wine, God is with us here today. In water and word, in bread and wine, God is with us here, on earth. Right here, right now, in this place, God has chosen to stay with us. Amen.

Stuck Between Presence and Absence
a sermon based on Acts 1:1-11
by Rev. Thomas Hall (this sermon leans heavily on
William Willimon, “Good-Bye,” Pulpit Digest (May / June 1991), page 19)

I think we’re stuck in an awkward place this morning. Somewhere between Easter and Pentecost. Remember the cliché, "between a rock and a hard place"? Maybe that was written about today, Ascension Sunday.

On one hand, we have Easter. We’ve ushered it in with filled-up pews and extra chairs, trumpets, lilies, and the Charles Wesley tune. We’ve watched the disciples make the discovery of a lifetime, that they serve a living savior . . . he’s in the world today. That’s Easter. A high celebration-Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

And then on the other side of the Christian story we celebrate Pentecost. We know that part of the story too. Jesus announces his replacement: the Holy Spirit will come upon the disciples. Thus, filled with The Replacement, they step up to the table and proclaim the gospel with awesome boldness and power. The Spirit will lead them (or shove them!) to carry the good news from the local precincts of Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria and all the way to the remotest part of the earth (somewhere near Cincinnati?). Easter and Pentecost. What great, exuberant, confident, explosive days on our Christian calendar.

But in-between, what? In-between Easter and Pentecost is Ascension Sunday. Ascension Sunday shows up on our churchly Day Runners every year. Same time. Same passages. Yet it doesn’t hold a candle to Easter and Pentecost. Even our hymnals reflect the awkwardness of Ascension Sunday. In my denomination’s hymnal, for instance, we sing over thirty-three hymns for Easter and over twenty-seven hymns for Pentecost. And Ascension Sunday? Well, you’ll find it smooshed into the fourth or fifth verses in some of our Easter hymns.

What’s the story about Ascension? Jesus leaves on a cloud, rides up to heaven like an elevator racing to the top floor of the world’s highest building. We lose sight of him. We’re gawking up, squinting to catch the last glimpse of him when we get rebuked for staring off up into the air. "Why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky?" That’s pretty much the basic plot of Ascension-Jesus departs while his disciples are left leaderless and earthbound. Ascension Sunday.

Ascension is an interruption. A break in the action. It’s the half-time break in a football game, the intermission between the Brahms and Beethoven symphonies, the dull lull between December 25th and January 1st, the summer interlude between 8th and 9th grade, the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Ascension is the time between . . . absence.

Theologically, of course much more is going on in the passage. Luke may have wanted to answer the unvoiced question of the early Christians: Where is Jesus? Good question. Where is he? So Luke fills in the blank with this brief account of Jesus’ departure to heaven. His reporting has become the Church’s textbook answer to anyone since the early days who wonders about the absence and whereabouts of Jesus.

Luke is not the only one of course who has tried to fill in the blank between Jesus’ departure and Pentecost. An unknown writer in ace 90 also wrote about this awkward time. Scholars call it "The Didache," but I like the original longer title: The Lord’s Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations. The idea behind this early work was to suggest what Jesus taught the disciples during the 40 days between Easter and just prior to Ascension Day. Inquiring minds wanted to know what in the world Jesus could have taught his disciples during that hiatus.

Ascension Sunday is a time to think about the movement from presence and absence. That’s a frightening shift. When someone is present to us our space is filled, we not alone. We have conversations and sharing and communion. But whenever someone leaves us in a final way, there is a crisis. Many of us may well be more Ascension Christians than Easter Christians than we realize.

I never knew my dad the way I could have. At eighteen I left home to join a band and spent the next six years away from him. And even when I’d outgrown high energy sounds and gigs, I settled away from my family. We talked over the phone, of course, and shared a few brief moments together on visits, but it wasn’t until his death a year ago that I suddenly felt absence in the most painful way I could imagine. I have hundreds of questions I want to ask him; hours of conversation about how he grew up, his parents, and his own stories about growing up. I want to tell him how much I loved him . . . But he is gone . . . away . . . and those questions and the interviews won’t happen.

A colleague of mine describes what many of us feel about absence:

When someone leaves us there is crisis. Absence creates a void. What will fill it? Absence means silence-awesome, lonely, gaping silence. No wonder we fear it, avoid it, cling to the presence, do anything to avoid good-bye. [1]

Jesus called, taught, turned water into wine, and raised the dead is gone. I bet they had a thousand questions to ask too. "What’s to become of us?" "Yes you told us that you won’t leave us orphans, but we be sure?" Presence gives way to awful absence.

But Ascension Day isn’t just about bon voyage. Not just about "Why are you gawking up at the heavens?" Maybe the disciples wished that they too could have ascended, glad to leave this old world behind.

But that’s not the plan, Luke’s gospel and Acts exhort us. We must get on with Jesus’ work, and so it is our vision of the world that is to be that calls us to serve in the world that is without Christ, a world that is impoverished in spirit, and that always seems to devise more devious ways of making life mean and nasty. "Why stand gazing into heaven" is another way of saying "Get on with it. You’ve got work to do."

We are not without presence in what often seems like an absent, godawful, God-minus world. God has gifted us with two qualities that assure us of presence in absence: The Spirit and the Community.

The Spirit is the Comforter-Replacement that Jesus has promised us during the long absence until he returns. The Spirit is the Empowering One who will lead (or shove us!) into the work to which God has called us. The Spirit will speak in new tongues through our tongues of God’s love to our ethno-varied cultures. The Spirit will strengthen and fortify our lives and work to destroy the fences that keep people separated from each other.

The Community shares with us the adventure of faithful living. Through the sacraments, word, and ministry Christ continues with us. The Community is the place where we are connected to God, find our spiritual gifts and use them to serve Christ and the world.

We are still stuck between presence and absence on this Sunday, but we are not alone. Jesus is constantly coming and going through the earth. Through the promised Spirit and the community of the Church, we will continue to meet Christ and to make Christ known with power and boldness. Amen.
1) William Willimon, “Good-Bye,” Pulpit Digest (May / June 1991), page 19.

Where Are You Gazing?
based on Acts 1:6-14
by Janet in NJ

A few days ago I came across some light bulb jokes on the internet. I don't know why, but I like light bulb jokes. And there are lots of church light bulb jokes. How many Roman Catholics does it take to change a light bulb. The priest composes a homily in honor of the old light bulb, while the nuns raffle off the old one. How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? Change? My grandmother donated that light bulb. Ok, how many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? Well, six to form a committee to study it. The property committee will actually change it. The fellowship committee organizes a pot-luck dinner, and after it's changed, people look back and lament that the old one is gone, because that one shone the way light bulbs were supposed to shine.

Well, light bulb jokes are silly, but like many jokes, it's the kernel of truth that makes them funny. And we church members do have a way of looking back and hanging on to the past. No, not just church members. Members of the human race. We remember the good old days and look back to what was, to what worked, to who or what we loved.

"Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?" Jesus had ascended into heaven, and his disciples stood looking up to where he had been. They were looking up to the last place they had seen their Lord. But he was gone. Who knows how long they would have stood looking back, looking up into heaven if the two heavenly beings hadn't tapped them on the shoulders and asked them why they were looking up toward heaven. It was time to move on. Time to do something else. And so they did. They went back to Jerusalem, back to the room upstairs where they were staying. And they prayed. A good thing to do when it's time to change.

There was no going back. Jesus had returned to heaven. But he had told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the helper, the Holy Spirit that he was sending to them. So now they were caught in this in-between time of waiting. The time between Jesus and the Holy Spirit. They didn't know when it would come. They didn't know what would happen next. They didn't know what their next assignment would be. So they turned to the Lord in prayer - not to turn back to what was, but to wait and to discern what was to be so that they could be witnesses to Christ in Jerusalem, in Samaria, and to all the ends of the earth.

The church is in an in between time now. We are in the time of the Holy Spirit, waiting for Jesus to return to the earth, to claim his faithful. And we have been given an assignment. To be witnesses to the love of Jesus Christ to in this area. And to be witnesses beyond here - to all the ends of the earth. And like Peter and James and John, and the rest of the disciples, it is the power of the Holy Spirit that enables us to do that.

But like the disciples, we sometimes are caught gazing up - gazing back at what was - to the good old days when the church was successful. To the good old days, when most Americans went to church and brought their children. When there were no soccer fields and baseball fields that were busy on Sunday mornings. When there were no stores open to be filled with shoppers on Sunday mornings.

But things have changed. People have a lot of choices now on Sunday mornings. Old fashioned hymns aren't familiar to as many people. The stately liturgies confuse visitors instead of drawing them into worship. Some people dress up, some people dress down. Some people come to hear the music or the message, some come to soothe their souls, some come to be nourished by the Lord's supper, and some come for all of the above reasons. But whatever it is that draws people in, the need is the same as it was 20 years ago, 100 years ago, 2000 years ago. The need is still to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. People still need to hear that God loves them - God loves you. No exceptions. God loves you. Even if you feel unlovable. Even if your having a bad day, and it's the 500th straight bad day in a row. God loves you - neat or sloppy. God loves you - whether you have the voice of an angel or the growl of a lion. God loves you - whether you get straight a's or you're an average student or even if you didn't make it through school. God loves you.

And here's some more good news. God loves us so much that he doesn't leave us the way we are. When we are open to being changed by God, you may find that life changes much more drastically than a light bulb. And when we, as a people of God, as the church are open to change, we may find that God will change our church as well. We might enjoy looking back to the way things were, but we need to be looking around at the way things are, at who we are witnessing to so that we may witness in ways that people will hear. Because the important thing about being the church is not that we carry on lovely traditions, as nice as they may be. But the important thing is that we continue to grow as Christians, and that we continue to make the good news of Jesus Christ known. The message is the main thing.

God dearly loves the people of this world and wants them to know it. God loves the people of this world so much that he sent his only son, Jesus Christ to this earth to teach us about God's love, and to die and conquer death for us. God wants health and life and peace for us. God commands us to love him and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Not only the neighbors who come to church. But any neighbor that we might encounter. Any other human that we might encounter. That's part of our witness to Jesus Christ. When we live as Jesus taught, we are witnessing. And of course, when we tell other about Jesus, and invite them in, we are also witnessing.

Like the disciples, we do need to look toward heaven, to turn our hearts toward God. But we can't do just that alone. We need to look at our neighbors as well, and see how we can share the love of Christ with them. A love that came to earth for us. A love that went to the cross for us. A love that abides with us forever.

Jesus even prayed for his disciples - and the ones to come after. That would be us. He prayed that the Father would protect them - and us in the time to come. Our savior intercedes for us - who prays on our behalf for what we need. And always has time to listen to us and comfort us - when we are hurting, when those we love are hurting, when we face difficulties or don't know what to do next, and even when we miss the good old days - the way things were. Amen.

Christ's Last Words
based on John 17:1-11
by Chuck in DC

In last week's service we read the apostle Paul's last words to the church. We talked about how important the last words of a person are and how we especially honor those last words.

A few moments ago, we read Jesus's last words to the church. He spoke these words right before he was taken up into heaven. That's why we celebrate Ascension Sunday today. Jesus is taken up by God and is no longer physically present with the church. And before Jesus leaves, we find him praying for the church, and blessing the church. One last time the disciples gather around the Master and listen intently to his words of prayer.

And how appropriate are Jesus' words of petition for the church. He prays for the church's unity, for oneness in Spirit, so that the church may keep the revelation of the one true God of love and peace. And as we look around us we realize how urgently we need this prayer: instead of being one we find ourselves separated. We find ourselves putting up dividers, fences.

Fences differ in function and purpose. Some fences are actually good. The ones we put up in our back yards, for instance, may serve for the protection of our little ones so they won't get hurt by the cars that go by. Then there are fences that deter burglars from breaking into our homes, prevent wildlife from destroying our gardens and dogs from using our backyard for their business.

Fences to keep out, fences to keep in, fences to protect or to guard--we are surrounded by fences. Our neighborhood is full of crisscrossing fences. And the thing about fences is that we tend not to see them until something happens to draw our attention to them. And if we do notice them, we are likely to say with Robert Frost: "Good fences make good neighbors!"

But, then there are also those barbed wire-fences from behind which we see outstretched arms and terrified faces, like those surrounding concentration camps, POW camps, refugee camps. There are fences or walls separating whole countries like the ones that separate Yugoslavia into Albanians and Serbs.

Our obsession with fences, whether they serve a right or wrong purpose, is really a reflection of our conflicts with one another. Would we really need fences if there was no such thing as burglary? If we got along with our neighbors? If there was unity and harmony in our neighborhoods and communities? Robert Frost, in the same poem I quoted above says, "Something there is (within us) that doesn't like a wall." In an ideal world, we feel, there is no need for fences. We hardly think of God's kingdom in terms of fenced-in properties, do we?

And the worst kind of fences--and the most difficult to detect--are the ones that are invisible to our eyes. Where are those invisible fences that keep us from being united with our neighbors and God, from being one in the Spirit? There are fences based on physical appearances, separating persons of different race or ethnicity or gender. There are fences based on nationality, regions, or language, or even accents. There are fences between different generations, between people of different theological, ethical, or political persuasions.

We do not easily agree on which fences to preserve and which to tear down in our Christian communities. Some say we must keep distinctions clear, those whom we allow to come to the Lord's table and those we need to refuse. Fences are erected over such issues as birth-control, sexuality, euthanasia, when or how Jesus will come again, whether or not women can preach, whether we should be one sort of church or another. We disagree over the length of the service, what kind of hymns or instrumentation is acceptable, what prayers should be included, who should or should not do certain parts of the service, how people should dress, and much more.

And amidst all our squabbles over where fences should be erected or preserved and where they should be torn down, amidst our disagreements and confusion, we find the Founder of the church praying--one last time. And he prays for unity, for peace and for love among the people of God. And as we listen to Jesus praying for the church's unity, we are reminded of Jesus ministry to the people. We see Christ with arms open wide, welcoming, forgiving, accepting, loving, healing, not just some, a few--no he stretched his arms out to all.

Jesus certainly gave us guidelines, he gave us fences, but Jesus certainly also abolished some of the fences of his time. His ministry was to all--even the outlawed, the unclean, the sinners: "For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, that whosoever believes shall be saved--whosoever!!--not just a few elect...Teacher, how can you fellowship with the ceremonially unclean and with sinners? is the question the Pharisees asked. Jesus answered: "Those who are healthy, do not need a physician, those who are sick do. I came to seek and save the lost." It seems to me that Jesus erected fences of good standards, healthy living and morality, but never to a point where people were shut out. When it comes to dealing with people, he never turns his back on anyone--not even the one who crucified him. Remember his prayer: "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do?"

So, as we argue over which fences to erect, which to keep, and which to tear down, we should keep this in mind. It is true, God calls us to hate the sin, but he also calls us to love the sinner. Just like Jesus, we must pray for love and unity. Jesus knew that the enemy was out there, ready to cause dissention, to cause strife and hatred among God's children.

I would like to close with a little anecdote from the Tales of the Hasidim:

An old rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun. "Could it be," asked one student, "when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it's a sheep or a dog?" "No," answered the rabbi. Another asked, "Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it's a fig tree or a peach tree?" "No," answered the rabbi. "Then when is it?" the pupils demanded. "It is when you can look on the face of any person and see that it is your sister and brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night." Amen!