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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.