The Pain and Joy of Absence and Presence

The Ascension of Our Lord, Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11, 5-24-20

Sermon to Pohick Church on Facebook Live, back in the Historic Church Building May 24, 2020

“I am going to send you what my Father has promised, but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” and, “….he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”

On this particular Ascension Day, maybe more than any other in recent history, we can really relate to the grief and joy of those first disciples when their beloved Jesus disappears into the clouds. They grieve his absence, even as they rejoice in his promised presence.

Like them, we reflect on the spiritual legacy of Jesus’ Ascension, that:

Though Jesus has left, he is somehow here more than he has ever been.
Though Jesus has become absent – he is more present than he has ever been.

This can be a strange concept to wrap our heads around, unless we connect it with events in history, and events in our lives today.

During these surreal pandemic times, we are not able to gather in community like we used to. We are certainly grieving about one another’s absence. At the same time, we are discovering new ways of being present.

In the days following Jesus’ death and resurrection, his disciples were experiencing the end of community as they’d known it. Jesus was no longer physically with them. In his absence, they were feeling disoriented, afraid, and lost. Yet they were also hopeful, faithful, and expectant about his promised presence. For Jesus said:

“I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

So they waited patiently. And when the Spirit descended at Pentecost, they joyfully experienced Jesus’ presence more powerfully than ever before. They discovered a new way of “being community.”

Have you experienced this strange interplay between absence and presence in your life? Think about what it’s like when a loved one leaves home – when a teenager graduates and goes to college or starts a first job. As a parent, pulling away from the curb, you’re overwhelmed with a sense of their absence: the one you’ve just hugged and kissed is out of your sight, suddenly gone. (If you’re like me, you went home and sat on their bed clutching their beloved childhood toy and crying for a while!)

Yet, soon your child becomes more present to you than they’ve ever been. You hear echoes of their voice at meals; you think of them in their room that evening; you find yourself wondering what they would say about something. They are so much on your mind and heart – so present to you in their absence.

Those of you who’ve grieved a loved one’s death, or who are newly in love, also know what this pain and joy feels like. Separation from the object of your deepest desire sharpens your awareness of just how much that person means to you.

In time, you discover that somehow their spirit continues to influence you. You may even laugh as you realize you’re sounding like them. Their character, values and choices affect your own.

Here in this historic church completed in 1773, I am often struck by the ongoing presence of our patriot forbears. George Washington served on our vestry of elders for 23 years. Like his father Augustine, he was formed here, in the colonial church values of scripture, tradition and reason – in what we call the Anglican “Via Media,”or “Middle Way.”

This was the pew he bought for Martha and his family. Other patriots like George Fairfax, George Mason and their families were formed here as well.

On the occasion of Pohick Church’s first centennial in 1873, one of my predecessors, the Rev. Philip Slaughter, wrote about the formation of George Washington. First he offers two quotes:

“Daniel Webster said, ‘ America furnished the character of Washington, and if she had done nothing more, she would deserve the respect of mankind.’”

“James Russell Lowell said, “Virginia gave us this imperial man – this unblemished gentleman – what can we give her back but love and praise?’

Rev. Slaughter added, “I trust that I shall not be deemed presumptuous if I add: the Colonial Church gave Washington to Virginia, and to the world, and if she had done nothing else, we would deserve well of the country and of mankind. (Washington) was born in her bosom, baptized at her altar, trained in her catechism, worshiped in her courts and was buried in her offices.”

Transformed by the Holy Spirit and formed in colonial church ethos, these patriots remain present to us today. They continue to witness the Gospel to the world. I believe they have much to teach our divided and individualistic culture about moderation, community, and selfless service.

Their legacy and ongoing presence inspire generations of patriots to serve, protect and defend our nation. This Memorial Day weekend, we give thanks for the thousands of courageous veterans who have caught the colonial church’s ethic of community, and their vision. From the Continental armed forces, forward, we honor all those who gave their lives for the sake of something much bigger than themselves.

In their absence, they seem more present to us than ever before. We continue to learn from their courage, selfless sacrifice, love and devotion. They are with us always.

Jesus sent his Spirit to be present with us always. Somehow he is more present now than he ever was before. As we intentionally spend time with him, and listen for him, we experience his presence.

Likewise, we can count on the near presence of our loved ones – past and present – who are absent to us now. With intention, we can remain “in community” with them.

In these strange times, our presence with one another may not be physical; it may actually be “virtual,” like this live-streamed worship service. Yet, we can count on Jesus’ promise. We are “ clothed with power from on High,” with the power of His Love forming us to be present to each other in new ways, even as we are absent. Amen.