The video above includes the full service for today. You can click on the four arrows in the bottom right of the video to make it full screen. Clicking the three lines next to that will pull up the menu.
Special thanks to Elisa and Matthew Leahy for video production.
Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859
Easter 7 | Ascension Sunday
Peace Candle | Lehman Family
As we worship in place today, we light a Peace Candle in our home, inviting you to light a Peace Candle in your home. The flame joins us in spirit across distance, along with our sister church in Armenia, Colombia.
Welcome and Opening | Sarah Werner
Call to Worship | Sarah Werner
HWB 298 | Veni Sancte Spiritus | Paul Knapke
Children's Time | Jon Lucas
Pastoral Prayer and Offering Dedication | Mark Rupp
Special Music | Bach Minuet I: Partita No. 3 in E Major | Alexander Martin
Scripture | Acts 1:6-14 | Larry Less
Sermon | Ascension, grief, falling | Joel Miller (Manuscript below)
Grief in 100 Words | Dan Lehman, Lavonne van der Zwaag, Jerry Nussbaum, Bethany Davey, Matthew Leahy, Laurie Zimmerman
Interludes | STS 45 | Calm Me Lord | Phil Yoder
STS 121 | Nothing is lost on the breath of God | Paul Knapke
Benediction | Sarah Werner
Christian Education | Mental health during pandemic | Jenny Campagna interviewed by Mark Rupp
Ascension, grief, falling | 24 May 2020
I remember the moment each of our daughters was born. I remember how it felt. How my body responded. Each time was similar. At the moment of birth my body reflexively took a huge in breath. Like the world was now instantly a fuller place and my body had to expand to rise to the occasion. This was followed by tears – not attached to any particular emotion I can name other than beholding the wonder of what just happened. A life fills the room, a breath fills the body to the point of overflowing.
This happened three times: Eve, Lily, Ila.
There was a fourth birth, third in chronological order. 11 years ago this past Thursday Belle was stillborn. With labor beginning only 22 weeks into the complicated pregnancy, we knew Belle wouldn’t survive. And in that moment of birth, I experienced an inverse of the others. To behold a stillbirth is to have all the breath leave your body all at once. The space for Belle we had begun to make was still there - in our home, in our hearts. Except rather than being filled with a lively presence, it was filled with a breathless absence.
One second, three seconds, five minutes into the loss of our daughter, this is what grief felt like.
Our focus on grief today has been some weeks in the making. Early into the stay at home era there were conversations within and well beyond the church of what was being lost, personally and collectively. Not long after that we realized we had a word for all this already in our vocabulary: grief.
There are a couple points on the calendar that make this an especially appropriate Sunday for this theme. It’s Memorial Day weekend, and although Mennonites don’t follow the God-and-country civil religion often celebrated, we share in mourning the loss of life from wars. We remember families who live on without a partner or child. The mental health toll on survivors of military combat.
On the liturgical calendar it’s Ascension Sunday.
This piece is titled “The Ascension.” It’s a woodcut from the early 1500’s by the German artist Albrecht Durer. It captures a moment in the story of Jesus’ Ascension in the book of Acts.
Acts is a continuation of the gospel of Luke. A sequel by the same author. Part II of the good news that Jesus, and then his apostles, and then little assemblies scattered throughout the ancient world, proclaimed and embodied. And like some sequels, the second begins with ever-so-slight an overlap with the first.
Luke’s gospel ends with the women’s discovery of the empty tomb, the risen Christ’s appearance to the travelers on the road to Emmaus, followed by the appearance to the “eleven and their companions,” in Jerusalem. Jesus comes and stands among them. He greets them in peace. He gives words of instruction for their work ahead. After this, Luke writes: “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”
The book of Acts then begins by doubling back on that scene, noting that Jesus had been making resurrection appearances like this for 40 days, now giving a more detailed telling of those final moments. Jesus speaks to them of the Holy Spirit. Just as they were baptized with water, they will soon be baptized with Holy Spirit. The Spirit will come upon them, and they will bear witness to all this starting in Jerusalem, then to Judea and Samaria and the end of the earth.
Back to Luke’s words: “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
The history of interpretation of this passage has not prioritized grief. To say that Jesus ascended into heaven is indeed to make a theological claim. Not so much of his geographical location, as if Jesus is going on a space traveling voyage to the undisclosed location of the mother ship, code name “heaven.” It’s a claim that the power and authority Jesus embodied is still in effect. The earthly Jesus, like Elijah in the Hebrew Bible, like Moses in Jewish tradition, ascends to heaven, and in doing so, heaven keeps pouring itself back toward earth, into many different bodies – Elijah’s apprentice Elisha, the Israelite assembly Moses had gathered, the apostles in Jerusalem. Heaven spills out to the ends of the earth. Ascension leads directly into Pentecost, which we celebrate next week.
Which is one of the reasons I especially like this portrayal of the ascension. Because it lingers in that pregnant moment when Jesus’ bodily absence is inevitable, but not yet complete. The crucial hinge between the Gospel, part 1, and the Acts of the Apostles, part 2, is this experience of loss, a kind of death, before Pentecost, before those two brightly clothed messengers ask the onlookers to stop gazing at what is no longer there.
The mound from which Jesus is ascending shows up in other portrayals of the ascension. It’s a nod to Luke’s detail that this happened on the mount called Olivet, by Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. It’s one of many choices the artist makes to make this scene not as much about the heavens to which Jesus ascends, but the earth which he leaves. Only the feet are still within view. What you can’t see, what you desperately want to see, no longer fits in the frame. The seemingly boundless space Jesus had filled, now on the verge of becoming a breathless absence.
Even the footprints of Jesus left on the mount contribute to this message. What gives footprints their definition is the negative space around them. The presence of an absence.
If there is a moment in this story that coincides with our very human experience of grief, this is it.
Rather than painting the scene, this artist made a woodcutting. The picture takes shape through the careful act of subtraction, removing the parts of the wood that don’t tell the story. The full picture emerges only after every scrap and shaving that is no longer needed has been carefully released. Loss in the process of creation.
In our time, psychologists have named the regular and recognizable sign posts in the journey through grief. These are natural and normal responses to loss. The five named stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance give a framework to what can sometimes feel uncontainable by any frame.
The poet David Whyte talks about the loss of a loved one with imagery that’s pretty much the opposite of ascension. He says:
“We have this physical experience in loss of falling toward something. It’s like falling in love, only it’s falling into grief. And you’re falling towards the foundation that they held for you in your life that you didn’t realize they were holding. And you fall and fall and fall and you don’t find it for the longest time…But then there comes a time when you finally start to touch the ground that they were holding for you, and it’s from that ground that you step off into your new life.”
David Whyte, “The Conversational Nature of Reality,” interview with Krista Tippet, around 17 minutes
Maybe a painter or wood carver could portray an image of the ascension in which not only is Jesus rising, but the onlookers are falling toward the foundation he held for them, which they hadn’t before realized was even there.
You fall through the stages of grief, find the ground that was held for you by that which you grieve, that which was lost, and you step off into your new life.
The stages, and the falling imagery, are lovely, helpful, wise. But what is just as true is that grief is a deeply personal experience, unpredictable, unique in how it shows up for each person. If we stick with this ascension scene a bit more, we can imagine that each of those onlookers, Jesus’ closest friends, had their own experiences of grief with Jesus’ bodily absence. Peter’s grief was not John’s grief. Mary the mother of Jesus’ grief was not James the brother of Jesus’ grief. Matthew’s grief was not Mary Magdalene’s grief. For those portrayed here, we can imagine each of them needing to look toward that cloud for a different amount of time until finally the last one lowers their head.
When Belle was stillborn, my grief was definitely not Abbie’s grief, and Abbie’s grief was not mine. There were times it was so different it felt like we were in different frames entirely.
The price of being alive in these bodies is that we experience loss. The poet Louise Gluck writes: “The love of form is a love of endings.” (from the poem “Celestial Music)
And there are so many endings. And there will be so many more. Each moment has its own ending, each stage of life. Each place unalterably changed. Each species that goes extinct. And, as we must, we keep falling in love with forms which are birthed into the room where we’re gathered. We behold their wonder. They are all ours to love, and ours to grieve. Even grief takes different forms. Even grief has endings.
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and you will be witnesses to the ends of the earth.
This much discussed gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised is sometimes the swirling wind of Pentecost that transcends the smallness of our finite lives and puts us in communion with all who ever lived and will live, up to the Source of life itself, heaven pouring itself back toward us.
But we’re not quite there yet. Sometimes, like the earthbound side of the day of ascension, the Holy Spirit is a promise not yet fulfilled. A time to gaze at what is being lost. A time to fall toward some foundation we’re not certain is even there.
To give a fuller picture of what grief means among us as a congregation, I’ve asked six people to give a reflection of Grief in 100 Words, which isn’t a lot of words. We’ll hear those next, interspersed with music.