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"What Do We Do Now?"

Katie Omberg
Sun, May 08

Text: Acts 1:1-11

I have no idea what sort of weather is going on now, but all 50 degrees aside, we’re square into May. Around this time of year, especially in places like Cambridge, there’s a run on a certain book. It shows up in Barnes and Nobles and is checked out from libraries, and I’m sure many of you in this room have either given or received this book. It’s a Dr. Seuss classic, called Oh, The Places You’ll Go. I don’t know how this became the Holy Book of Graduates, but somehow it’s been canonized as such. It speaks to the fear of the unknown, the hope for adventure and opportunities, and the bumps and bruises one will get as one moves in life’s balancing act, which the narrator offers at a 98 ¾ percent guarantee.

The book is kinda cheesy, and I know referring to it in the opening of a sermon runs the risk of doing the same to this whole endeavor, I can assure you I’m not going to do any rhyming today, at least not on purpose. But in this introduction to Acts, we see Jesus telling the Apostles of Oh, the places they’ll go: from Judah to Samaria, to the very ends of the earth! It is a moment of reassurance that things will be ok, they will be empowered by the Holy Spirit of God. And then, he just…ghosts. Jesus vanishes, into the sky, raised up by clouds. He just leaves, no “see you later” or even a “goodbye” to his followers.

This first chapter of Acts is really strange, it doesn’t seem like much of an introduction at all. The author of Acts, who is believed to be the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke, and so, is called “Luke,” takes up Acts where the Gospel left off, with the Ascension: the close of the Gospels of Jesus and the start of the Gospels of the Holy Spirit. Luke begins Acts with an ending, a graduation of sorts: the Ascension is the commencement for the disciples, the end of their time learning from Jesus and the beginning of their time being out “in the real world,” and it comes with a promise: the Holy Spirit will come to you.

This isn’t the first time there’s been a changing of the guard in our Scripture, where someone has to leave in order to pass along the mantle of leadership. Biblical commentator Luke Timothy Johnson notes that Jesus’ physical removal is for Luke the condition for the gift of the Holy Spirit, just as Moses has to leave in order for Joshua to work with his prophetic spirit (Deut). Elijah, too, had to depart in order for Elisha to gain a double portion of prophetic spirit (2 Kings). Also worth mentioning, Elijah is assumed into heaven with a chariot of fire in a whirlwind, usually depicted as clouds, a direct parallel to Jesus’ Ascension.

So too do we find a New Testament referent in the story of the Ascension and the hope that comes with it. The period between the Ascension and Pentecost reminds us of the in between time at the very beginning of the Easter season, Holy Saturday. Both are a liminal times, a time in between, when God’s presence feels far away. Within the story of Acts, we need wait only one chapter for the Spirit’s arrival. In the liturgical year, the Spirit arrives a week and a half after the weekday feast of the Ascension, on the day of Pentecost.

So, this miraculous abandonment would not be new in the worldview of the disciples, they would have heard of things like this happening before with God’s appointed prophets, as new Spirit-filled people came into leadership. But does it make them any easier for them?

So too, are transitions any easier for us, just because we’ve done them before? Just because you’ve broken up with someone before, doesn’t make it not heartbreaking when it happens again. Just because you have changed jobs or moved cities or lost a mentor, does not make it easier when it happens again.

It can be so hard to trust in God’s presence sometimes, especially in times of transition and leave-taking, which I see as a central theme in this story: the end of an era for the disciples, a commencement of a new life. What must it have been like for the community to see Jesus disappear from their sights? And then, the two glowing figures appear beside them and admonish the Galileans for watching the clouds once Jesus ascends. It makes sense to want to watch after something like this has happened; you don’t see people disappear into the clouds every day. But the figures say: “Don’t just stand there, do what Jesus commanded you to do! Trust in His word!”

Oh man, does my heart go out to those disciples, gaping up at the sky, being like, “Do I really need to leave? Can I really trust that God will provide?”

I have a hard time trusting in God in moments like what the apostles might have experienced the day of the Ascension, in times of transitions. And maybe you have too, in times of mourning, of divorce, or loss of a job. Maybe you have it in “good” things too: starting a new job, beginning a new relationship, graduating from school.

I am a complete over-functioner when it comes to these seismic shifts, trying my best to cover all the bases and be in the outfield at the same time. I am not willing to allow much to chance or divine providence. When I graduated from my undergrad I managed my plans and schedule so that I walked on Sunday, drove 8hrs back to DC on Monday, and started a FT job on Tuesday. I made sure there was no time for tears, no time for grieving, and most importantly, no time for uncertainty. This transition from grad school is a bit different. Things are kind of rocky, things aren’t certain. Things are grieved. There is time.

And there was time between the Ascension and the bequest of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles. There was uncertainty, there was fear and anxiety, but there was also time to process. There is over a week between the Ascension and Pentecost, and while grieving takes many forms and different times for people, God provided the space just to breathe. We see it in the psalm we read to day. Did you hear that funny word, “Selah,” at the end of line 4? “Selah.” Short, simple, but what does it mean? Selah is translated many ways: rock, to lift up, to exalt, heavy. But here, it is taken to mean “stop and listen.” As the psalms were originally sung, this would point to a music interlude, a rest. The nine or 10 days between the Ascension and Pentecost are a Selah in our liturgical calendar. A rest is not put there just because the author doesn’t know what to do next; the Ascension doesn’t have a gap between it and Pentecost because God is trying to figure out what comes next, but it is given. It is on purpose.

It is room to rest, with certainty that the music of the psalm will return, with certainty that the Holy Spirit will come, as Jesus promised. It is a pause to ponder, to grieve, to give thanks for what has happened before the pause, and to consider what will come after. God knows we need this.

A week and a half ago I went to a retreat at EDS. They had blocks of quiet prayer time where you could paint, pray, write, study an imago, be near the altar. But there was also, in the middle of the chapel, a giant canvas labyrinth. I saw it and thought a mix of “My God, how did you know I needed this?!” and “Uh oh, I must be in real trouble if you think I need this.” See, labyrinths show up for me at times of transition. I don’t know what it is, but it feels like God is like, “You’re terrible at transitions, you need this.” I first did one at the end of my senior year in college, and didn’t do one again until I was a month away from leaving DC to start my journey towards grad school. This was the third one that’s been presented to me, just before my graduation from Divinity School and the end of my internship here at First Church.

The labyrinth is a space that I can see mirroring the movement of the disciples from the Ascension to Pentecost. There are many ways to do a labyrinth, but the way I’ve always done it is where One starts the journey with a prayer or intention, and then holds that until you reach the center, the nest, the womb, the vanishing point, where you center yourself in your prayer until it is answered or illuminated. The journey into the center is a little difficult for those of us who have trust issues or a question where the stakes are high, or a perfect storm of both: You come with a question, but will it be answered? You come with a prayer, will God hear it? Am I walking too fast? Too slow? To walk a labyrinth is such a journey of trust. You go in, trusting that something will happen, something will change, something will be answered. The disciples after the Ascension were asked by Jesus and then again by the glowing figures to trust, that something would happen, that if they returned to Jerusalem, this “holy spirit” they’d heard so much about would come to them.

It can be hard to trust that God will be with you. Especially in times of transition, good or bad. The uncertainty can throw you off balance. To “just trust in God” can be hard advice to give, hard advice to get, and sounds just as corny as a rhyming children’s book.

It’s especially hard at moments of leave-taking and saying goodbye to something you know. And so we put things in place to remind ourselves that we will be ok: from Dr. Seuss’ book to friends who can remind you you’ll be fine, just like the angelic figures remind the apostles after Jesus’ Ascension.

But to trust is what God has asked us to do— to trust that God will show up in God’s own time, that God does not take rests because the Holy One is trying to figure out what comes next, but that God takes time because maybe you might just need a breather. So when the knee-jerk reaction to do it all yourself comes out, when you plan everything down to the minute to prevent any of your anxieties or uncertainties from welling up, remember: you just might need a divine pause, a Selah, a breather.

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