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You say Hello, I Say Good-bye
A homily based on the Ascension of our Lord
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 meone 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.