Return from Sabbatical
Easter 7, the Ascension of Jesus
Hi. My name is Brian, and I’m your Rector.
It’s very good to be back. Sometimes distance does make the heart grow fonder, and during my sabbatical, I realized how much I enjoy my life and work with you. So I’m more than ready to dive in and start the next phase of our life together.
I want to thank you for the precious time you gave to me. It was one of the greatest gifts for my life that I have ever received. It unfolded just the way it needed to, and I think the Spirit and I used it well. The effects will be with me forever, some of which, I hope, will have an impact on my continuing ministry with you.
Next week, we’ll have an end-of-sabbatical party, together with our bishop’s visitation. And then later this month, there will be an opportunity to share what you and I have both experienced and learned over these past 7 months.
But today is a mixture of joy and sadness, because in addition to my return, we have to say goodbye to Fr. Daniel, who now takes up duties as the Canon to the Ordinary, the bishop’s assistant. But more on that later.
As I’ve been away from regular church life for an extended period of time, I’ve been thinking a lot about all this stuff we do. I’ve considered deeply why I am a priest, and how I want to serve. Daniel and I have had long conversations about his sense of call into diocesan life. And I’ve thought about you - why you’re motivated to give so much of yourselves.
At the heart of it, I think what we are all doing is making movements into the divine dimension, even as we are rooted in this world. We are seeking a higher life, a love and a power that is both within and beyond our more mundane concerns. As a faith community, we support one another as we seek this higher life, and that’s worth a lot. For where else does this happen?
That’s really what our first reading is about today, the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. The Feast of the Ascension was last Thursday, and we repeat the story today. As a literal story, it is hard to picture, almost ridiculous – Jesus, with a resurrected body that is sort of like it was before but sort of not, zooming up through the clouds, into the skies, to go…where?
I’ve always had more interest in this story as a message about how we ascend, along with Christ – how we are called to a higher life, into the divine dimension with him. We prayed this, in fact, in the Collect for today: Exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before.
During his very human life on earth, Jesus also lived in the divine dimension, what he called the kingdom of God. And as our model and guide, as our advance scout, he went there before us, and invites us to follow where he led the way.
But we have to be mindful about how we do this. Many base their religion – or their spirituality, if you prefer – on the delusion that they can ascend beyond their humanity and live entirely in the divine dimension. If they work it just right, they’ll transcend suffering, they won’t hurt anyone ever again, and they’ll live in peaceful bliss and love forever.
I like to think of our humanity as porous, hopefully more and more porous as we mature in faith. We’re very much human, but the Spirit blows through us - sometimes invited, sometimes uninvited, sometimes noticed, sometimes not - so that there is this constant interplay of humanity and divinity. Like the disciples in the first reading today, our feet are grounded here on earth, but we’re also looking up into heaven. Occasionally our heart even lifts us up there for a spell.
As I said, that’s what we’re doing as a church – making movements into the divine dimension. Whether we worship, paint icons, have parties, ask for anointing when we’re sick, or feed the hungry, we are ascending, we are making movements into a higher life.
But it doesn’t happen automatically, just because we show up here. It takes some intention and a willingness to peer into that divine dimension. We will find if we seek; the door will be opened if we knock. And church, I think, is one big opportunity, in all that we do, to seek and to knock.
Over the last 7 months I have slowed down enough to be able to do this. It has been an incredible luxury, a kind of extended retreat, where I have had the freedom and time to listen for and then follow wherever God might be leading me each day, whether that was to an internal place or into some external activity.
It was something like the relationship between an attuned mother and her baby. Such a mother’s internal radar is always on. Whether the baby is in the crib or crawling on the floor, a part of the mother is always tuned in to sounds, gestures, or intangible communication that tells her what the baby needs and how to respond. My wife is still attuned to our grown sons. If they’re on an airplane or going into an important meeting or a doctor’s appointment, her radar is definitely on.
Well, I’ve had the space in order to be that attuned mother, as it were. I’ve kept my radar on, so that each day, I might sense the Spirit leading me towards this book or that woodworking project, towards a conversation with a friend, towards writing, or just being present, with God, to a particular state of mind and heart I was in.
As I reflected during my sabbatical on what we’re doing as church, on what I’m doing as a priest, I remembered that this is the heart of my calling - to practice that same attunement to the Spirit, together with you.
And so I want to spend more time with you in spiritual direction and pastoral care, to listen to how you are seeking God, and what your faith struggles are. I want to talk with you who are ministry leaders about how your groups might be more available to the Spirit as you go about your work. I want to teach more. I want to bring my whole attention to worship, because it is the most powerful movement into the divine dimension that we do together regularly.
In short, think that at this point in my life and ministry, I can bring more to the how of church life than the what of it. You might ask “Isn’t this what you’ve always done?” Well, yes and no. It is possible for clergy to become so busy with the mechanics of parish life that we don’t have any energy left for the heart of the matter. And at times that happens for me.
So I intend to start up again by putting first things first. And Daniel, I’d like to suggest that you, too, find this same center in your diocesan work, by asking yourself in everything you do if you are helping people to ascend into the divine dimension.
In the end, this is not only the job of clergy. All the people of God are part of it, and that’s why we are all given the Holy Spirit – to help us, and those whose lives we touch, make this movement into the divine dimension, day by day.
Next week we will celebrate this gift on the Feast of Pentecost. Claim the Spirit your own. Attune yourself, listen to where this Spirit bids you follow. And together, we will ascend to that place where Christ has gone before.