Grace and peace to you in the name of our risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Yolanda, who lived in her grandmother’s house. From as early as she could remember, Yolanda loved to sit in the kitchen and listen as her grandmother spoke to her about life and love and God, while her beautiful dark hands sprinkled cinnamon-sugar on top of peach cobbler, or cut out buttermilk biscuits with an old glass. Yolanda often followed her grandmother out of the kitchen and into the world, and watched her minister to the sick and the lost, with a Bible in one hand and a pound cake in the other.
Yolanda grew up knowing that if God was real, and if God truly loved her as a parent loves a child, then God was also “mother” and not only “father.” As she got older and encountered dogma and doctrine that said that “Father” was the only acceptable thing to call God, she also grew wiser, and came to believe that human words and names only get you so far, and that neither “Mother” or “Father” or “Rock” or “Light” or any other name she’d ever heard for God could ever do justice to who and what God truly is.
And then one day, her grandmother died. Yolanda grieved, and was sad, but time passed, and eventually, the second Sunday in May came around, and Yolanda found herself facing Mother’s Day without a mother and, for the first time, without a grandmother. She found that Hallmark didn’t make a card to express both the powerful sense of loss, but also the profound wellspring of memories.
Today Yolanda Pierce is a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, and she uses a theological term to talk about the way that she still feels her grandmother’s presence and her guiding wisdom: “absent presence.” Her grandmother is absent from the world, yet powerfully present in Yolanda herself; in the way she makes peach cobbler, in the way she ministers to others, in the way that she imagines God.
Absent presence. Jesus’ disciples surely struggled to find the right words to describe the aching feeling they had as they gazed toward heaven, up where Jesus had disappeared in a cloud, a feeling of fierce joy and throbbing sorrow. He would no longer be with them, not ever, not until the time when he came back forever with the fullness of God’s reign clinging to his robe. But at the same time, there would not be a single day of their lives from that moment on where he was not at the center of everything they did, and everything they became. Jesus was absent from the world, but powerfully present in them.
It sounds lovely on paper, but in the moment, can you imagine how the disciples felt as they craned their necks to the sky? Why did Jesus have to ascend, anyway? Never mind the disciples; I want to know. Wouldn’t it be delightful if he were still walking with us on the road to Emmaus, and eating breakfast with us on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and comforting us in our moments of doubt by reaching wounded hands out to us? Wouldn’t that be…better?
Instead what we have is Jesus’ absent presence among us, in the mysterious and complicated and often frustrating-as-all-get-out movement of his Spirit.
To be honest with you, I am totally confused by those two guys who show up at Jesus’ ascension. “What are you standing around, staring up at heaven for?” they ask, and then, guys, they give the reason that everyone’s standing around and looking up towards heaven. “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come again in the same way you saw him go.”
That’s why everyone’s standing around on a hillside getting a crick in their necks! They don’t want to miss it. The moment when Jesus’ presence turns from absent to actual.
But I will say this for the two men in white, the Captains Obvious of this biblical narrative. By interrupting the disciples’ dedicated neck-craning and eye-peeling, they get them to stop looking up, and start looking around.
They implicitly remind them of the thing Jesus told them before he ascended: “You will be my witnesses.”
Witnesses have a hard time doing their job when they won’t move, or, for that matter, blink.
Witnesses actually have to accept a certain amount of absent presence as part of the package deal in order to do their jobs. If the thing or person to which they’re witnessing were still around, then we could all pull a Samaritan woman—“Come and see!”—and call it a day.
As it is, we’re charged with telling more of the story. We’re charged with telling how Jesus, this person we’ve never met in his human body, is still with us, in bread and wine, in Word and water, in moments of grace, in acts of compassion, even—and especially—in moments when it seems like God is absent.
We’re a little like Yolanda. The person who makes us who we are, who claims us as her own and loves us without reserve, isn’t here. But at the same time, her presence is still so powerfully a part of us, that we see the world differently because of her. Because of Jesus, we have a vision.
It’s a vision of a time when Jesus is among us again. Of a time when creation isn’t groaning in labors pains, because the new creation has come to be. It’s a vision of being able to see through the looking glass, clearly, the vision that God has had all along. It’s a vision of all of creation at peace and in joy, singing a hymn of praise to God forever. It’s a vision of a garden where the innocence that we lost is somehow redeemed, and we can walk with God again in the cool of the evening.
Paul wrote to the Church of Ephesus: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.…”
The vision that we see when the eyes of our hearts are enlightened—that is the right-now-not-yet vision of the world as it shall be when Christ comes again. That vision has its own sort of absent presence: when we look around at this broken, hurting world, that vision makes us see with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, and in the brokenness, we can suddenly see the golden lines of God’s careful knitting that are making us whole even in the right-now-not-yet.
Yes, we’re waiting. We’re waiting for Jesus to come down again from heaven. But the words of the two men in white sing to us even now: “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” And so we don’t stand waiting for a vision from heaven. Instead, we look for our beloved where he has promised to be right now: in the hungry, the thirsty, and stranger, the naked, the incarcerated.
And the aching nearness of his absence draws us to be for others what we ourselves are longing for: the Body of Christ in the world.
What a miracle. Alleluia. Amen.