The hope to which we are called (sermon)

Well friends, it is a great privilege to be here with you this morning.

It’s just a year since I left St. Paul’s as your seminarian, though perhaps you’ll agree with me that it feels like maybe two or three or five years has passed

A year ago, I drove to the church and packed up my office—a few months later I would set off for North Carolina, for a new town, a new job—all amidst a pandemic with no end in sight.

And despite the allure of new things, of new places, of new adventures, I remember being very unsure, and not at all excited. A new place, where I knew nobody, a new job via Zoom. It wasn’t what I’d envisioned or been trained for in seminary—who knew that we’d need to learn how to be virtual priests, after all?

In those months, I didn’t even know what to hope for… too much worry and uncertainty has a way of overwhelming fragile, and half-formed hopes, and perhaps you know this feeling too.

In a world where the future is uncertain, it’s easier sometimes to go smaller, to just focus on the next 24 or 48 or 72 hours. That’s what I did, and perhaps you did too.

It was hard to know what to hope for.

And this experience of hope that resonates with so many us over this year, I think teaches us something about the nature of hope itself. That hope cannot exist in a vacuum, that the feeling of hope and vague positivity cannot be sustained in the midst of crisis without a definition of what it is we are hoping for.

And so on this Sunday, where we observe the Ascension of Christ, I invite us to think about hope.

Not the vaguely positive, undefined hope of greeting cards and picture-perfect social media posts.

Not the frozen hope of so many paintings of the Ascension, with adoring disciples staring upwards and fluffy clouds and cherubs and the tips of Jesus’ feet as he disappears out of sight.

Not even the hope of the disciples themselves and their first followers, as they worked slavishly to tell the Good News to others, hoping that each day would bring the return of Christ and the kingdom of heaven on earth, a hope for immediate return that died with them.

Not that kind of hope.

Instead, I invite you to the stunning and glorious hope that Christ sits at the right hand of God, interceding constantly for us.

I invite you to the real and present hope that Christ died and rose for us, so that, as the writer of Ephesians says, you may know that you are forgiven and loved and freed, to be part of the church, “which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all”.

I invite you to the difficult and gritty hope of the communion of saints, who in the years since this Ascension, have labored long for a new heaven and a new earth, without knowing its time, or season, simply because they have come face to face with the God of love, arms outstretched on the cross, who calls each of us by name.

“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 thing that matters about the Ascension is not the tips of Jesus’ feet in a painting, or the disciples on the ground staring upwards, or the fact that somehow he was taken up into heaven and we don’t know when he’s coming back.

What matters is the words that Jesus spoke before this moment, the opening of the disciples’ minds to understand the scriptures. The incarnation, the cross, the grave—empty, and death and despair defeated. This is the hope that Christ spoke to his disciples in today’s lesson from Luke, before sending them out as witnesses of these things to all the world.

The disciples knew, in this moment, the hope to which they were called.

And perhaps now, this spring—one year later—you too remember what it is like to hope for something.

Hope for a world where we are no longer separate from one another,

hope for a pandemic ending,

hope for a new world where the safety and dignity of every human person is preserved.

On this Ascension Sunday, I invite you into this hope. Not just the hope of this year in our lives, but into the Christian hope that is so much bigger, so much better than anything we can imagine. For each of us, this hope may look different. But as we remember what it is like to hope for something real and tangible in our world, perhaps this is a time where we can also remember that we are witnesses to hope in Christ, sent to a world in desperate need of… hope.

What is the hope to which you are called?

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