The Presiding Bishop Preaches on Ascension at Stanford Episcopal-Lutheran Memorial Church

The Presiding Bishop Preaches on Ascension at Stanford Episcopal-Lutheran Memorial Church

Stanford University
June 2, 2011

Ascension
2 June 2011
Stanford Episcopal-Lutheran Campus Ministry
Memorial Church

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church

I spent some significant time in this place when I was a teenager. I came to Stanford when I was 16, and I couldn’t even drive yet. One of the women in my dorm borrowed a car and took me to get my driver’s license – after I promised to teach her how to drive a stick shift! Being younger than most of my classmates, and feeling like a geek, and having a whole lot of questions, brought me in here a lot of times in the middle of the night. I don’t think MemChu is still open at midnight, but I am very grateful it was in the early 1970s.

I came here as an Episcopalian and a science major, uncertain whether I wanted eventually to go to medical school or study the amazing creatures that live in the ocean. I also came here full of things I wanted to learn – how to SCUBA dive, and how to fly, among others. I learned to dive my first year here, and how to fly my second. I also struggled through calculus and organic chemistry. But what sent me here in the middle of the night had more to do with big questions about relationship – between human beings, in that challenging reality called love – and about the relationship between being a Christian and a scientist. I’m not sure I found a whole lot of answers here at night, but I did find some reassurance that I wasn’t alone with those questions. I did come to know that even when I was the only person in here, I wasn’t all alone.

That’s the same kind of human longing that Jesus and his disciples are wrestling with. Jesus is leaving his disciples, and they’re not quite sure that’s the best thing in the world. It’s sort of like parents dropping their kids off at college. I wouldn’t know – after I packed up my stuff my folks took it to FedEx and then put me on an airplane. Leaving the familiar is both a thrilling and a daunting adventure, and those guys out in Bethany aren’t sure they’re ready for the next chapter of the learning adventure called life in Christ.

That story in Acts has a wonderful image of those disciples caught in their trepidation as the next chapter begins: they watch as a cloud takes Jesus out of sight, and then they stand around and gaze toward heaven. There are lots of stained glass windows that show Jesus’ feet hanging out from under a cloud, and the disciples standing around with their mouths open. Sort of, ‘now what? We’re supposed to figure this out on our own?’ And as I heard one preacher say, Luke’s version is far too rosy – your trusted teacher, beloved elder brother, and best friend leaves town and you go back to church and rejoice?!

Ascension is a great deal like leaving home and setting out in the world on your own – except we’re never all alone. It takes us a while to figure out, or remember, that Jesus is still here, that our family still wants to hear from us and offer support, that we are going to find new friends and community and support in this new chapter of possibility. But it can sure be scary!

Life is a challenge, and most of us are afraid, at least once in a while. But that fear can be a prod, a challenge to learn something new, to trust that God is doing something new within us, helping some new ability to grow and emerge. It didn’t really hit me until graduate school, but I remember being absolutely terrified the first time I had to do a significant presentation in a graduate course. I was awake almost all night, afraid of having to speak in public before my peers. The great irony is that somehow I ended up in the business of having to do it all the time. Somehow the biggest challenges in our lives often turn into blessings.

The questions and questing that sent me here in the middle of the night had a great deal to do with making sense of being an individual in the midst of community – how to have an appropriate pride in who I was, and not to let that disappear in relationship with other appropriately well-differentiated people. We all wrestle with how to love ourselves in the process of loving others.

I also came here seeking a relationship with something and someone beyond what I seemed to be learning as a science major. I didn’t find as much of an answer as I hoped for, but it did reassure me that I wasn’t alone in the midst of that searching. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school, and I began to read the great physicists of the early 20th century – Heisenberg, Bohr, Einstein – that I realized that other scientists could talk about mystery and wonder. That was the permission I needed, or the lens that validated my sense of wonder and awe in the face of the amazing beauty of creation. It was an invitation to let my faith expand and grow. It was an invitation both to vulnerability and to confidence. For each of us that invitation is connected to learning all sorts of new and challenging things.

In order for those disciples to carry on without Rabbi Jesus, they have to take a big leap – they have to risk feeling foolish and admitting they don’t know it all, and they have to try out new behaviors. The great gift is that they don’t do it alone – they have a community, and they have the presence of the spirit in their midst. God is indeed with them. That’s what I reliably found in this place at midnight, and what I found when a friend took me to UniLu . I have since learned to find that reality in other ways and in other places, so that I can be reasonably confident, most of the time, that I am beloved, that I am accompanied, even when I don’t act like it or feel like it.

The Ascension is a story about the next stage on the journey toward maturity. The disciples are told to expect the confidence that comes with the Holy Spirit, and then go and take up their work in the world, as witnesses to the creative power and abiding presence of God. They never go alone, and neither do we. We gather in this place, and in places like it, to discover the image of the risen Jesus in the face of our neighbors, to hear the voice of the spirit speaking within our own hearts and in the voices of our friends, and to know the abiding presence of God wherever we go. This community, this gathering of the body of Christ, is perhaps the most essential character of the Church, for it continually reminds us that are never alone, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Jesus’ departure is critical. Those disciples aren’t going to be able to take on leadership and responsibility if they’re still waiting for the Rabbi to tell them what to do. After the Ascension, they have to start working out the challenges together. Jesus reminds them that they won’t be alone, and support and guidance are going to come in new ways – in a community gathered in the presence of the spirit, at home and on the road.

So, go on out there and get started down the road. Happy trails!

Share This: