in the mean (“in-between”) time

preaching a sermon, based on John 17.20-26 and Revelation 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-21, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after Ascension Day, May 8, 2016

Gail Sheehy, in her award-winning book, Passages in Caregiving,[1] shares her learnings from life with her husband, Clay Felker, founder and editor of New York magazine, after he was stricken with cancer. Nearing the closing stage of his life, she writes of their preparations for his death. One poignant moment among many. A physician, a palliative-care specialist, asked Clay whether he was afraid of dying. He nodded. The doctor then asked about his biggest fear. Clay answered, “Being alone.”

In nearly forty years of pastoral ministry, many times I have listened to the terminally ill acknowledge their fear of being alone at that last conscious moment on the inexorable journey toward death. I’ve heard caregivers speak of their fear of being left alone, left behind. I felt this fear when my brother died, then my father. I felt this fear in caring for my mother as Alzheimer’s disease voraciously consumed her personality. When she died, I felt this fear…I still feel it today, this second Mother’s Day since her death, for I live with a daily, ever-growing awareness that I am an orphan.

All who live know or will know the experience of the absence of presence and the presence of absence.

Today is the seventh Sunday of Easter. This past Thursday was Ascension Day when the church celebrated the creedal affirmation that Jesus “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”

The Ascension (L'Ascensione), 1305, Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

Next Sunday is the Day of Pentecost when the church celebrates the coming of God’s Spirit to empower Jesus’ disciples to continue his ministry.

Pentecost, Giotto, 1290-1299

Today, therefore, is “in-between” the absence of Jesus and the presence of the Spirit. An absence about which Jesus, on the night before he died, prayed to God that his disciples would be one in their ministry of sharing and receiving the gospel: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”

I wonder what the disciples felt in the absence of Jesus. I wonder what I might have felt had I been there: responding to his call, “Follow me,” dropping everything for him, trailing after him all over Galilee, listening to his teaching, beholding his miracles, being fed from his hand and having him wash my feet at a supper I may or may not have known was the last, deserting him at his arrest and trial, grieving his crucifixion and death and the end of my dream of being with him, rejoicing when he again appeared (through walls and locked doors, no less!), being confused when he again departed, being told to go to Jerusalem to await the fulfillment of a promise of the coming of the Spirit.

If I had been there, especially traumatized by Jesus’ death, thrilled when he reappeared, troubled when he disappeared again, I might have felt a bit yo-yoed around, pulled here, pushed there. I think I wouldn’t have liked feeling yanked, jerked around. (Or, to borrow a word from this morning’s epistle reading,[2] for it speaks for me, although for different reasons than the Apostle Paul, I would have been “annoyed”![3])

Eventually, I believe (or I would like to believe) I would have figured out there was something for me to do. I couldn’t fill the absence of Jesus, but I could continue to follow him, being actively present, laboring through my life to bring to light in this world his gospel of love and justice.

This, I believe, is as fitting and faithful a course as any. For when I think about Revelation’s promise of the coming of Jesus, the last time I checked, it hasn’t happened. Jesus has not returned to claim those whom God has given him that they might be where he is.[4] Jesus has not returned with “reward…to repay according to everyone’s work.” Jesus has not returned to right all wrong, to bring an end to the long night of the world’s weeping over violence and evil, and to usher in a new morn of song.[5] Jesus has not returned. Yet. Until he does, we continue to live in the meantime, the in-between time of his absence.

Absence, according to an ancient poet, may make the heart grow fonder, hungering to be present with the absent one.[6] So the Book of Revelation comes to a resounding close with a profound cry of longing, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” In this meantime, this in-between time, it is our daily work to fulfill that petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” So, what will I, you, we do today to bring into the present, to make present the love and justice of Jesus where they are absent?

 

Illustrations:

The Ascension (L’Ascensione), 1305, Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. The painting depicts the scene described in Acts 1.9-11. In the top half of the painting, Jesus ascending is the central figure; on either side, bands of heavenly hosts welcoming his return to heaven. In the lower half, there are eleven disciples; five on the left behind Mary, the mother of Jesus (who is mentioned in Acts 1.14) dressed in blue, the color of purity and tranquility, and six on the right. There are eleven, for Matthias, the successor to Judas Iscariot, was not yet chosen (until Acts 1.15-26). In the center, the two angels are shown speaking to the disciples and Mary, “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” (Acts 1.11).

Pentecost, Giotto, 1290-1299. The painting depicts the scene described in Acts 2.1-4; though here, the Holy Spirit is shown not as fire, but rather a dove, which is consonant with the gospel accounts portrayal of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism (Matthew 3.16, Mark 1.10, Luke 3.22, and John 1.32).

Footnotes:

[1] Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence (Harper, 2010); Books for a Better Life “Lifetime Achievement Award” (2012)

[2] Acts 16.16-34

[3] Acts 16.18

[4] An allusion to John 17.24

[5] A reflection on the text of the hymn, The Church’s one foundation: “…and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song” (verse 4).

[6] The Roman poet, Sextus Propertius, in Elegies, wrote: “Always toward absent lovers love’s tide stronger flows.”

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4 thoughts on “in the mean (“in-between”) time

  1. Paul you already know I love your sermons,This sermon however touched me deeply in ways I hadn’t expected. Though I’ve been a caregiver to several members of my family thus far I still learned a lot from Gail Sheehy’s book on caregiving! But it was the line in your sermon “all who live know or will know the experience of the absence of presence and the presence of absence” that really captured me. You’re very aware that my Mom is present but very absent. She can say her name, say please and thank you (though not necessarily at the correct times) but she’s absent from time and locations, holidays and seasons, people and events. It can be hard to take someone like Mom out in public because she looks so “normal”. So when people figure out that Mom doesn’t know that I’m her daughter or very much else, you never know what kind of reaction you’ll get. But today, the people of St. Mark’s were the love and justice of Jesus when HE was absent. They all know from social media that Mom has significant dementia and can’t really carry on a conversation. When many people are aware of Mom’s condition, they tend to avoid making eye contact with us or being close enough to us to have to exchange greetings. BUT today as soon as we entered it felt like Jesus was there. People came from every direction to say hi, to hug, to share a short story (and it didn’t matter that Mom wouldn’t understand it, and she listened intently). or just to hold her hand. I was overwhelmed. A few times I almost cried. They were open and authentic and not judgmental at all. (that’s not always the case). I never knew how it would be, so quite frankly I avoided taking Mom to church for a long time especially when she was in her “reading everything out loud” mode because I was afraid of what people’s reaction would be. I also felt Jesus was present during the service. After not having been in church for almost 8 years, she seemed to follow the service like the true cradle Episcopalian that she is. When she said “Amen”, or “Hear our Prayer”, she said it with feeling and emotion, not her usual monotone voice. Tim noticed it too. It was like the Spirit was there for sure. Then to come home and read this sermon was almost too much!! Your sermon connected this Mother’s Day, the “in-between” time, and the love and justice of Jesus. I certainly feel that I’ve lived this sermon today. I’ll try my best to continue it on a daily basis. Many thanks and much love to you Paul! I hope you’re continuing to heal.

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    • Much love back to you!

      Now, here’s some additional spiritual serendipity. I am now reading your response to my sermon after I saw your FB post of your and your Mother’s Day at St. Mark’s. Thus, when you write “the people of St. Mark’s were the love and justice of Jesus…(and) as soon as we entered it felt like Jesus was there”, I was/am right there with you, more than comprehending your words intellectually, but also deeply emotionally. Your experience at St. Mark’s today put flesh on the bones of the words of my sermon, for what you describe is the fulfillment of what I sought to preach. Amen, amen, and amen.

      One other reaction. Your relating how you have felt when being with Doris in public, not being sure how folk will react tapped a deep well of my remembrance in times past in St. Louis when I was out with my mother. She seemed to others so “normal”, but after a few minutes, sometimes bare moments, it was clear she dwelled in a space/place unreachable by others and they, often enough, would walk away or avoid us altogether. Painful beyond words. Nevertheless, I thank you for reminding me of those days and times, for I miss my mother, even at that time in her life when she still walked and talked though she may not have known where she was going or what she was saying.

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      • I KNEW you’d know exactly the pain I was talking about!! It hurts to the core when people are dismissive or rude even. But I just hold on to Mom more tightly. I’m sure you do miss your mom…your reference to being an orphan really struck me!

        I won’t soon forget this Sunday. The stories people told Mom about me were stunning. One person shared that I had written a book about her and that she was famous, to which she replied “that’s great!” She seemed to understand if only for a second. We even stayed for mini pub lunch (cheese & crackers, coffee & tea) and I answered a lot of questions about my speeches about dementia as people who aren’t friends with me on Facebook have no idea of my Mom’s condition. I’m thrilled that you saw the pics before reading my response to your sermon! Spiritual serendipity for sure!! Now that I’ve tested the StM waters, I will take Mom again. Truly grateful for this day!!

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      • I am grateful beyond measure that your and Doris’s experience with the St. Mark’s community was so very positive. All of us, I believe, want and need people by whom (and places we can go where) we are welcomed, as the hymn sings, “just as we are.” Again, happy to know of your day at St. Mark’s.

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