Sermon for Ascension Day High Mass with Procession Thursday 14 May 2015
Sermon preached by Father Sean Mullen, Rector of St. Mark’s, Philadelphia
The story is told in America, probably apocryphally, that when President John F. Kennedy was once visiting the space agency NASA he encountered a janitor with his broom in hand. The president is said to have walked over to the janitor, offered his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What do you do here?”
According to the story, the man replies, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”
This story seems to circulate a lot amongst business-types who are eager to express to management the importance of a shared sense of mission within an organization, and who hold up this tale as an example of a well-integrated agency, in which even the lowly cleaning staff feel connected and committed to the lofty goals of the highest echelons of management.
I’m not prepared to speak to you about best practices in business management or space exploration. But I am looking for a lens through which to find the meaning of the Feast of the Ascension. There has to be more to it, I think, than the spectacle of Jesus rising up on a cloud. There ought to be deeper meaning than the memory of his sandaled feet appearing to become smaller and smaller as he is carried away.
It is tempting, as it almost always is, to use this biblical moment as more of a mirror than a lens, and to see ourselves in it – or at lest to try to see ourselves in this moment. By the metric of the janitor at NASA, that is to say by the metric of corporate management, I suspect, we are also invited to see ourselves in the Ascension: to identify ourselves as an Ascension people. After all, we are an Easter people, aren’t we? Shouldn’t we be an Ascension people too?
What do you do here at All Saints, with your altars and lamps, your incense and bells, your Masses, and Evensongs, and Benedictions? What do you do in this nineteenth century wonderland? The question could be asked in my parish on Locust Street as well, since we are kissing-American-cousins to nearly every impulse that drives this great parish on Margaret Street. What do you do here? What kind of people are you? Jack Kennedy wants to know: what do you do here? And if we are looking in the mirror, borrowing the corporate paradigm, we might have a ready answer to this question. “Oh,” comes the reply, “we are helping to send Jesus into heaven. After all, we are an Ascension people!”
An Ascension people…. How tiny, boring, and clichéd! As though we have run out of useful religious sentences, and we are now only filling in the blanks of old ones, depending on the season!
To begin with, Jesus does not need our help to get to heaven and he never did! He is there, as he has always been, at the right hand of the Father. And what’s more, he is not known to have invited anyone to join him there (except, perhaps, his Blessed Mother, but that’s another sermon).
And then there’s this: the Gospel is not a tale told about you and me (although we may, rightly, often find ourselves in its midst). The Gospel is the record of Jesus’ love and the promise of his salvation. The principle burden of the Gospel is to teach us what Jesus is like, not to teach us what we are like. When we learn what Jesus is like, then we may glean rich harvests of lessons about what we might be like. But so often these days we skip the step of seeing Jesus, and prefer to stare into a mirror and admire ourselves.
And we do not listen to the angels, who provide important information about Jesus’ remarkable and confusing ascension. “This Jesus,” they say “will return in the same way you saw him taken up.” This Jesus will return. Long ago, most Christians I hang out with stopped waiting or looking for Jesus’ return. And many of us have made it an article of faith that anyone who is seriously waiting for Jesus’ return is a yokel, a fraud, or an idiot. Or maybe all three.
So here is a story for you. You already know how it goes, I’m sure, but this is a variation on a theme that I find we need to play over and over again, as many ways as we can.
About eleven years ago, a tall shaggy-haired man arrived at Saint Mark’s on Locust Street on a Saturday morning in December. It was the first Saturday morning that we began serving hot soup to any hungry or homeless person who showed up at our door. These days we get about 150 – 200 people to be fed every week. On that first Saturday morning, ten people showed up. One of them – the tall, shaggy-haired man – was named Phil.
For eleven years, now, Phil has come to us on Saturday mornings to have hot soup. Over the years has also slept in our gardens, taken shelter on our porch, and attended every Mass we have on Sundays. For years Phil came to every single Mass, every single day – two on most days of the week – and received communion every time.
Now and then I’d run into Phil walking about the city, and say hello, but he would barely acknowledge me. Over years that many of us tried to engage him in conversation, we accepted that he is extremely non-communicative. One of our chief volunteers at the soup kitchen believes that he is probably autistic. I don’t know. I asked him his name so many years ago, and have heard so few words from his mouth in all those years that I began to wonder if I’d remembered his name correctly – maybe he wasn’t “Phil” at all!
Then, about six weeks ago, we noticed that Phil was showing up in the garden earlier and earlier every day before settling in for the night. And he didn’t look well. I talked to him – or tried to. “Are you sick, Phil? Do you need to go to the hospital? Can we do something for you? We are worried about you, and we want to help.”
Phil responded with his usual single-word-replies, with grunts, and shrugs. It was clear to me that he did not think I could help him or that he needed what I had to offer. We called in people from a homeless advocacy agency – they had no better success. Phil declined their help.
By this time, Phil was in the garden all day and all night. He looked jaundiced to me. We considered calling an ambulance. We asked him again if we could do that for him. But no help was wanted.
Then, early one Friday morning – my day off – I was leaving the Rectory to go out to the country to go riding, dressed in my breeches and tall boots. Roofers working on the church were already on site; they’d become accustomed to Phil’s presence. I noticed that Phil was still lying down in one of his usual places. I mentioned to one of the roofers how odd this was. Phil never slept late. I told the roofer that we’d been concerned about Phil. But I had a riding lesson to get to. I picked up my helmet and my crop and my gloves and off I went. I never went over to Phil.
Later that morning, the roofer was nearby Phil’s prone figure, and he heard him moaning. So he picked up his phone and he dialed the emergency number for an ambulance, and they came to get Phil.
By the time they got Phil to the hospital he had no pulse. His blood pressure had plummeted, his body temperature was dangerously low – “incompatible with life,” they told me later. They gave him chest compressions and lots of medicines to get him going again. They resuscitated him, because he was gone when he got there.
By the time my associate and I reached the hospital later that afternoon, he was still in a bad way. She said the prayers. I laid my hands on him, anointed him, and commended him to God’s care. And I stood there and cried at his bedside out of sheer confusion, and helplessness, and a profound sense of failure.
Then, Phil spent two weeks in the hospital. His hemoglobin levels were so low they could not believe he stayed alive – but he did. We visited him, many of us. When he gained strength, I talked with him privately about how we could help, what he would do if he recovered (it was still not clear that he would). But Phil did not seem to need or want my help. His responses were the same short shrugs, grunts, and dismissals I was accustomed to. I had long discussions with the hospital staff. I wondered, what is my job? How can I be helpful? What do I do here? The answer was never clear. I certainly wasn’t sending Phil to heaven.
And here’s what happened: Phil came back. The hospital called to say he’d recovered well enough to be discharged, and that he’d declined placement in a shelter: he intended to return to the church. He came back in more or less the same way he went away, albeit not in an ambulance. He came back to take up his post in the garden outside the church. Occupying the same place, back at Mass, back at the soup kitchen, back on the streets. He came back.
I have often wondered what Phil is supposed to stand for. Of what is he a sign? Most obviously he stands for Jesus in our midst. The shaggy hair helps make this connection. But what does he mean? What lessons am I supposed to learn from his almost silent, almost constant presence? Or from his near-death, departure, and return?
It has always been so obvious that Phil is, in a very real sense, a representation of Jesus; but it’s almost never been clear what that’s supposed to mean. OK, we fed him. But he would not let us clothe him, or tend his sickness, or visit him much. He’s seemed not to inhabit the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel in any easy or obvious way.
So now, I am beginning to wonder if he really inhabits the first chapter of the Book of Acts: “This Jesus will return to you in the same way.” You see, it sounds, at first glance, as if the two men dressed in white are talking here about the mode of Jesus’ travel, when they say that he will return in the same way. But maybe it’s not the mode of Jesus’ transportation at all; maybe it’s the mode of Jesus’ being that the angels are describing: two feet on the ground, real as can be, poor as ever, constantly there with you, frustratingly silent, obviously in need, perplexingly resistant to your ways of helping, fixing, taking control.
Frankly, I was not even expecting Phil to come back from the hospital; how much less am I prepared for Jesus’ return? But maybe that’s just the point! Maybe Jesus did return when Phil came back? And if Jesus was returning in that same way on Locust Street (that is, in the flesh, feet on the ground, really but perplexingly in need), then maybe Jesus was also returning somewhere around the corner on Walnut Street, and on Spruce Street. And maybe Jesus is always returning here on Margaret Street too. Maybe if we are craning our necks, looking up to heaven for the tiny dots of the soles of his sandals to get bigger and bigger as they get closer and closer to earth, then we are watching for the wrong thing – his mode of transport rather than his mode of being. And maybe we lose track of Jesus so easily precisely because we have given up on his return, even though he is always returning, always among us, always alive again.
And maybe this helps us answer that apocryphal question: what do you do here? What do you do with your wafers and your ciboria, your humeral veils and your thuribles, your burses and your pyxes? You are not, like the proverbial janitor, sending Jesus into heaven. And neither am I. We are witnessing, day in and day out, to Jesus’ return, to God-with-us, Emmanuel. We are standing here, with our feet on the ground, because that’s the way Jesus comes back: with his feet on the ground, too. We are waiting, and working, and visiting with the poor, and the homeless, and the hungry, and the outcast because that’s where Jesus is reliably to found – in the same way that he once was found all those centuries ago. We are standing here, looking earthward, not heavenward, focused on the altar, down here where Jesus promises to be with us in the Body, in the same way that he was taken up, in the Body.
We are nowhere more confident, than in parishes like yours and like mine, where the Mass is our daily and constant reminder of this – that Jesus is coming here, in the same way he left: in the Body!
And though we know this perplexes people who see us as old fashioned, and anachronistic, and hopelessly clinging to a ceremonial religion that has passed its use-by date, we rejoice on this glorious night, when we hear the men in white ask, “Ye men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up?” They might as well be asking us, “What do you do here?”
We rejoice, because perhaps we have at last learned the answer to this simple question. We know that we are not sending Jesus to heaven or anywhere. And we know that this question, like this feast, is not a mirror that shows us only more of ourselves.
And we rejoice at the question, “What do you do here?”
“Dear, friends,” we reply, “we are waiting for Jesus. He is coming in the same way he left, and without a doubt he will be here soon!” Thanks be to God!