Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
Ascension SundayMay 28, 2017
It’s that time of year: Graduation!
Children—from pre-school to college—are graduating.
Graduations are marked by commencement ceremonies.
Commencement is one of my favorite words. As a child, I thought it meant the end of school. I remember distinctly my surprise on the day when I discovered that the word commencement had a double meaning. According to the dictionary, commencement is defined as: 1. the ceremony of conferring degrees or granting diplomas at the end of the academic year. 2) an act or instance of beginning.
At commencement ceremonies, your name is called, you walk up, shake hands, take the diploma that confirms you completed the degree—it’s the end! But then, you turn around and stand, looking out ahead, seemingly frozen in time, knowing you can’t go back, but you are not quite ready to move forward and begin something new. You are at a crossroads. Crossroads is another word with multiple meanings. A crossroad is:
1)The place where roads intersect. 2) A point at which a vital decision must be made.
In today’s Scripture reading, we find Jesus’ disciples at a crossroad.
They are at a place where roads intersect and a point at which a vital decision must be made. They start by looking back. They look back and remember all that Jesus did and taught them from the beginning, remembering how after he rose from the dead, he appeared to them speaking about the kingdom of God and baptism. They look back with grief—they are angry with those Roman soldiers who killed Jesus and dashed their hopes. They look back with shame—they denied him and abandoned him, when they needed them most. They look back with nostalgia—they want to go back and be with their master, their teacher, their friend.
The disciples are at a crossroads. And all they want to do is look back. Sound familiar? When faced with something new, we turn around and look back. We look back with grief when someone has left us. We look back with shame when we did something we regret. We look back with nostalgia when we long to go back to the place we knew, the life we knew, the people we knew back then.
This weekend we celebrate Memorial Day—a day to look back and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice in war, who gave their lives, so that we might live in freedom. Of all of the memorials in Washington, DC, one of my favorites is the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. It is made up of two long walls of black polished granite that meet at one end. To recognize the sacrifice of all who died in Vietnam, the walls are etched with all 58,315 names: including Otis Lee Allen, Marvin R. Young, and Sharon Ann Lane. When a visitor looks upon the wall, his or her reflection can be seen simultaneously with the engraved names, which is meant to symbolically bring the past and present together. We cannot go back, but the Wall helps us look back and remember, so that we can go forward differently.
Like us, the disciples look back, but realize that they cannot go back. So they ask, “Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” They ask a question, but what they are really saying is, “We think now would be a really good time for you to come and make all things right. Restore us back to the place we know and love.”
Jesus says, “It’s not for you to know the time…but I promise, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, and to the ends of the earth.” In what we might call a stirring commencement address, Jesus calls them to go forward and begin to witness—in word and deed—to the power of the gospel of love.
Then Jesus ascended to heaven. He was taken up out of sight.
The disciples stood looking up to the sky. Waiting and wishing Jesus would come back down, saying, “Just kidding! I’m back to stay. I will take care of everything and right the wrongs of the world.” As they watched, two angels said, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
Why? Because our friend has left us alone. Because we don’t know what to do. Because we are afraid. Because we are at a crossroads and don’t know where to go. Sound familiar? When we don’t know what to do, we look up to God—in desperation, in hope, in prayer. We look up to heaven—hoping to find the answer in the clouds, the voice that says clearly, “Do this,” the arrow on a billboard directing us, “Go this way.” But, instead we hear, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” You can’t stay here forever.
This past Monday, on May 22, a suicide bomber detonated an improvised explosive device, packed with nuts and bolts to act as shrapnel, in the foyer area of the Manchester Arena, killing 22 people, many of whom were children and youth. Days later, hundreds of people filled St. Ann’s Square in Manchester in remembrance of those killed in the dreadful terrorist attack, no doubt lifting their eyes from the carnage to the heavens for answers or at least comfort. Individuals could be seen consoling loved ones as well as strangers standing next to them. After a bell tolled, signaling that the moment of silence had ended, someone in the back of the crowd began singing “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” by the band Oasis, which was formed in the city of Manchester. The crowd joined in singing along and then applauded. Their response spoke loud and clear, saying “We can’t be looking backward to what happened; we have to look forward to the future.”
The disciples are at a crossroads. They stand there frozen in time, knowing they can’t go back, and knowing they can’t stand still looking up to heaven waiting for Christ to come again. They look at the path in front of them, afraid and not ready to move forward. It was a crossroads—a point at which a vital decision had to be made.
They remembered that Jesus told them to go to Jerusalem together and there they would receive the power of the Spirit. They looked around and saw that they were not alone. Together, they found the courage to step out in faith and went forward. They went to Jerusalem together—Peter and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James and Simon and Judas, and Mary, the mother of Jesus and other women. Together they prayed. Together they waited for the day when the power of the Holy Spirit would come to them. Together they imagined how they were to answer Jesus’ call to share the good news of the gospel with the world. Together they looked forward without fear.
What about you? What crossroads are you facing today?
A vocational decision between this job or that, work or retirement?
A financial decision about saving, spending, or giving to the church?
A political decision about whether to speak up and try to make a difference for good?
A heart decision whether to get married or wait, whether to get divorced or wait or have affair?
A medical decision to have surgery or chemo or do nothing?
A spiritual decision between staying put in the comfort zone or stepping out in faith?
I remember in 2002 I stood at a crossroads. I had a 1-year old baby and a 5 year old. I heard a call to go back to work and to accept a call to serve a church in Findlay, Ohio, a vibrant beautiful church, as a young girl described to me, “the church where the cross points up.” But, it meant Brian leaving his job, our family leaving our house--just 5 blocks from the Ocean in beautiful Belmar, NJ. It meant stepping out into the unknown. God called and so we answered yes. But I stood there, looking back, wanting to change my mind. Looking up, searching for God to make it all right. Looking around for other options. Then came a book as a gift from a Findlay church member named Mariann Younger. She was a wise woman. She has since gone to the Church Triumphant, but in memory of her, I read you this book in hopes that it will speak to you as it did to me:
Read Beginnings by Warren Hanson
This is the Beginning. This is where it all will start…On the wings of some new Spirit. With the beat of some new Heart.
Every morning brings a Promise. Every day has Gifts to give.
But Today…right Now…this Minute…is when I begin to Live.
And the air that I am breathing is the breeze of what could be, as I stand here looking out on all the things that could me Me.
And the road that goes before me, leading somewhere out of sight, is a brand new Opportunity for me to get it Right.
This is the Beginning. This is Once upon a Time.
There are dragons to be vanquished! There are castle walls to climb!
But this story isn’t written yet. I’m only at page One.
The Adventure that’s awaiting me has only just Begun.
There are Mysteries and Treasures. There are daring deeds to do.
And if I speak the secret word, then all my Wishes will come true.
That Magic Word has powers that can make the heavens spin.
But it really is no Secret that the password is…Begin!
Oh, the possibilities in this Beginning I have made!
I am Ready!...but reluctant. I’m Excited!...but afraid.
Afraid that starting something New leaves something Old behind.
Afraid that what I seek is something I may Never find.
Or, if I Find it, that it won’t be what I want at all.
That what I’ve left Behind is what I needed after all.
Beginning can be bittersweet, and hard to comprehend.
It can mean that some sweet, precious part of life is at an End.
And the Heart can feel so Hollow when it has to say Good-bye
That the thought of starting Over is too Hard to even try.
But when I reach the End, when all my days are nearly through,
I will Not want to look back on all the things I Didn’t do.
Nor regret the Joys and Passions of the me that Might have been,
If Only I had found the simple Courage to Begin.
So…This is the Beginning.
I Awaken to the Wonder of what I am Really worth.
It is a Springtime for the Spirit, and it’s Giving me a Choice.
So I choose to Use this season as a reason to Rejoice!
I lift my voice in Sweet thanksgiving, singing Loud and not alone.
A host of Harmonies accompanies my song of the unknown.
Loving Friends and willing Strangers, with their voices joining in,
create a chorus of Encouragement that begs me to Begin.
And the end?...
It’s out there, Somewhere, farther than the heart can see.
And the Power that will take me there is Here, inside of me.
Though there is no way I can know how many trials I’ll endure, nor the Joys that I may find,
There is One things I know for sure…
This is the Beginning.