Ascension Sermon: To Bless Us Forward
Ascension Sermon: To Bless Us Forward
May 24, 2020

Sometimes we desperately need the assurance that God is with us, that love will not forget or abandon us. It’s often when we are standing at a threshold – when our lives are about to radically change that we need to know that God’s blessing goes with us.

Thresholds abound in our lives: when a relationship is ending; when someone we love is dying; when we are preparing to graduate from school; when we are getting ready to move to a new community or start a new job. Even when we have great faith and are excited about the future, there is something inside most of us that feels vulnerable when we stand at a threshold.

Today we celebrate a threshold moment, the Ascension of Jesus. In the reading that we just heard, the resurrected Christ knows he must make his final departure. The disciples know that they must start a new, larger mission without him physically by their side. Theologian Mark Tanvik writes, “Jesus’ departure to heaven is accompanied by a blessing of lifted hands. These are the very hands that still bore the wounds of one who was murdered on a Roman cross. He has commissioned the first witnesses of his ascension and then he provides them with a remarkable message of forgiveness. Let us remember that these witnesses themselves were complicit in his execution. But the last image of their betrayed leader is a dramatic sign of mercy.”

What is remarkable is that even though his disciples betrayed him at the hour of his greatest need, he doesn’t sneak out the back door, make a quick exit, or leave in anger. Instead, he pauses at the threshold, and blesses the disciples for the future. In response, the disciples are able to joyfully take their next steps and return to the temple to bless God. The blessing that Christ offers his disciples enables them to cross the threshold of their life without his physical presence and into their new mission enfolded by the grace of the Spirit.

A few weeks ago, a dear friend, I will call her Cara, recognized that the school where she was working had some extremely unhealthy dynamics and that for her own well-being, she really needed to leave. She sent a gracious resignation letter, indicating she would depart at the end of the school year.

The next day, her immediate supervisor, Linda, sent an email intended only for the administrators that was inadvertently sent to all of the students. It was highly critical and woefully uninformed about my friend’s work. It was nothing short of a public humiliation. Shocked by what they had read, students and parents flooded my friend’s inbox and voicemail with words of support. Without skipping a beat, they also expressed their shock and dismay to the leadership of the school. Linda, in the meanwhile, quickly realized her error and made a heartfelt apology.

In the face of the public humiliation, no one would have been surprised if Cara decided not to wait until the end of the school year to leave. But, she did not sneak out the back door, make a quick exit or leave in anger. She did not react defensively and write a letter attacking Linda. Instead, she forgave her supervisor – and not only privately.

Cara and Linda had been tasked with working together to create two rituals to mark the end of the school year. Cara decided that as her parting gift to the school, she would collaborate with Linda; she would stand with her – as we do these days on Zoom – to lead the rituals as a team. Cara would teach her final, remarkable lesson by showing her students, their parents, and her colleagues how forgiveness actually works, what forgiveness means. Cara will offer her final blessing and heal a community she loves through the way she takes her leave. As Cara stands at this threshold, she will ascend.

The Hebrew word for blessing, bracha, shares the same letters as the word for pool (b’raycha), suggesting that when one offers a blessing, we are actually gathering energy and drawing from the pool of abundant life, the pool of grace. To bless is an act of giving, deepening the connection between the one who blesses and the one who receives the blessing. A blessing uses words and sometimes, gestures, as vehicles to express care and hope. The experience of receiving a blessing can be a source of sustenance, faith, and meaning.

In my own life, I think of a good friend, Mary Claire, who surprised me at a threshold moment for me when at the end of one of our visits she reached over and made the sign of the cross on my forehead and said, “Go with God.” I felt so cared for by her tender words and gesture. Before we moved to Annisquam, our pastor in Rockport, Rev. Derek, offered me and David a blessing during Sunday worship. We felt strengthened for this new chapter in life. A blessing shines a light on the wholeness we yearn for and affirms our deepest connections between one another and with the Source of All.

As Christ blesses his disciples before his departure he is affirming and strengthening his connection to them and their connection to each other. Mark Tranvik writes, “a new view of God is emerging in the biblical texts describing the Ascension…We read that after he was taken away to heaven the first act of the disciples was to worship Jesus. These … pious Jews, know that God alone is to be worshiped…It means it is no longer possible (for those who follow Jesus) to talk about God without talking about Jesus. Our lens for thinking about God must always include a crucified, risen, and living Christ.”
Part of the pain of our current time is that we are in many ways being left stranded from one another at important thresholds. Our in-person goodbyes and celebrations are thwarted or diminished, intensifying for some of us our sense of loss, bewilderment, uncertainty, and even hopelessness. At a time such as this, we may benefit from remembering the power of blessing, and exercising this spiritual gift by blessing each other and ourselves in whatever creative ways we can.

By and large, the conscious act of blessing is not necessarily a part of our daily lives, even in “normal” times. We might say “Bless you” when someone sneezes; some of us might say grace over a meal; others may cross ourselves in a moment that we sense we need help. One might even argue that in the broader culture we are far more likely to curse one another than bless one another.

In the Talmud, our Jewish brothers and sisters are commanded to recite 100 blessings each day. For Jews, like Jesus, the way to be connected to the Divine is through living a life immersed in blessings, immersed in gratitude.

While we as individuals, a church community, and nation stand at the threshold of what life will be like after the pandemic, this may be an especially important time to recover the power of blessing. The blessing that Jesus gave at his Ascension was not only for his first disciples, it was for us as well. It is a reminder that in the Spirit there is no distance between us and God. (2x) At a time when we do not know what is ahead, but we are beginning to have an inkling of what we are most deeply yearning for, by blessing ourselves and one another we can activate the depths of our own souls and the power of the Spirit to create a bridge to the future.

John O’Donohue writes “Blessing is a more robust and grounded presence; it issues from the confident depth of the hidden self, and its vision and force can transform what is deadlocked, numbed and inevitable. When you bless someone, you literally call the force of their infinite self into action. When a blessing is invoked, time deepens until it becomes a source from which refreshment and encouragement are released. Whenever one takes another into the care of their heart, they have the power to bless.”

Blessing is a way we can bring more of God’s presence into the world. As the disciples of Jesus knew, when we bless God we are recognizing God as the source of our blessings; that God is involved in everything; that it is God who is our ultimate bridge from where we are to where we are going.

What blessing do you need right now as you navigate this time, as you stand at the threshold of the life that was and the life that will be on the other side of this pandemic? What blessing do you see that your beloveds and our world needs?

Our thresholds need not be a threat; they can be experienced as invitation and promise. In a time of confusion, fear and uncertainty, blessings enable us, as O’Donohue says, “to call upon the invisible structures of original kindness (God) to come to our assistance
and open pathways of possibility by refreshing and activating in us our invisible potential. When we bless, we work from a place of inner vision, clearer than our hearts, brighter than our minds; we are enabled to go beyond our present circumstances, reach into the deep well of grace, and set our sails for the future that beckons.”

Some commentators believe that at the Ascension Christ likely offered his disciples the words of the most sacred blessing in Jewish life, the priestly blessing. May the words of this holy blessing be a bridge for you for the life that is to come on the other side of this pandemic and may they inspire you to become a person who consciously blesses others by your words and deeds.

The LORD bless you and protect you!
The LORD deal kindly and graciously with you!
The LORD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!