A sermon for the seventh week of Easter

Friends, we find ourselves today in an in-between time, a time between what was in the past, and what will be in the future. We’re between the world as we knew it, and the world as it’s going to be, and it’s like being poised on a threshold between two different places, but in this case we can’t turn back. We can’t go back to the way things were, and there’s nothing we can do to make the future come any faster.

All we can do is wait.

And I know you might think I’m talking about the pandemic, or the way things are in the world in general, and of course those things do come to mind.

But I’m also talking about our life in church. Today we find ourselves in an in-between time, the time on the calendar of the church year between Ascension Thursday, which was last week, and the Feast of Pentecost, which is next Sunday. On the Feast of the Ascension we remember the day when Jesus Christ departed this earth in his human body, and on Feast of Pentecost we celebrate the dramatic arrival of the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire and rushing wind as the dispirited disciples waited in Jerusalem.

And in that time between, the disciples were waiting, not knowing what was coming next.

And I wonder how that must have felt for them. After the devastation of the crucifixion, and the unexpected joy of the resurrection, they must have hoped that Jesus would stay with them for a while. And that in-between time, the time before they became aware of the strength and comfort of the Holy Spirit—the power of the Holy Spirit—that must have been a very sad and lonely time for them.

In the church, we used to call this time—this in-between time—Ascensiontide, and the tradition was to extinguish the Paschal Candle—the symbol of the Light of Christ—after the reading of the Gospel on Ascension Thursday.

And I think the meaning of that gesture is pretty obvious, but we don’t do it any more. We leave the Paschal Candle lit until Pentecost. Because the church chooses now to emphasize that God is always with us. That God never leaves us. That God continues to be the ground of our existence no matter what we’re going through. And of course that’s the truthv.

But I wonder if maybe we’ve lost an opportunity here to acknowledge something real in human experience: to acknowledge the very real discomfort that we feel in the face of uncertainty. That anxiety we feel when we don’t know what’s coming next.

Change is hard, and waiting for things to change is even harder.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke famously advised a young friend to learn to live with that kind of uncertainty, and even to love it. He said, “Have patience with everything that has not been resolved in your heart,” he said, “ … Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”[i]

So he said live the questions. Love the questions. Love the uncertainty  .

But how is that even possible?

Did you ever sit on a plane that was fully loaded, all doors closed and locked, ready for takeoff. And maybe it even backed away from the terminal. And then nothing happened. And you waited. And waited.

I have to say that thanks to covid, that hasn’t happened to me for quite some time, but I do ]remember the feeling. I don’t know if any of us really like waiting, not knowing when that wait will be over.

So I want to talk this morning about three spiritual practices for getting through these in-between times. And the first thing I want to mention is prayer.

Today’s Gospel is about prayer. In it, we see Jesus himself at prayer. The Gospel takes us back to the time before the crucifixion when Jesus is preparing his friends for his departure. And he prays. It’s a long prayer—it’s so long that they divide it into parts, so that each year on this Sunday we hear just a part of it.

Jesus prays for himself and what’s going to happen to him. He prays for the disciples who are with him then, and he prays also for all of us faithful who will come after them.

In this passage from John we hear the words Jesus prayed, but there are many other places in the Gospels where he slips away to pray by himself, perhaps not even using words at all. Prayer seems to be what keeps him grounded.

So prayer is number 1 in my list of spiritual practices for in-between times, and the simplest prayer—even just reminding yourself every now and then that God is present—that can help to keep us grounded, too.

The second practice I want to mention is the practice of holding on to hope. Hope in this sense is not just a feeling. Hope can be a decision. You can decide to hope, even when you don’t feel particularly optimistic.

Walter Wink was a theologian and a biblical scholar whose work was tremendously influential in the late 20th century, and I love what he had to say about hope. He said, “Hope envisions its future and then acts as if that future is irresistible, thus helping to create the reality for which it longs.”[ii]

In plainer words, hope is about living now as if the future we desire is definitely going to happen. And by living that way, we actually are helping to make it happen.

So holding on to hope is number two. And the third practice I want to talk about is gratefully receiving the gifts we’re given, even when they aren’t exactly what we wanted.

Christine Valters Paintner is an American who’s written a number of very helpful books about the spiritual life. She lives now in Ireland, and she likes to tell a story about St. Kevin, and about learning to embrace unexpected gifts. St. Kevin is the patron saint of Dublin. He lived in the 7th century, and he was a monk who was said to spend time praying every day with his arm outstretched and his palms open.

And you know, as long as your fists are closed you won’t be able to receive anything you’re given. You have to open your hands to be able to accept a gift.

I’m not sure that’s what was on Kevin’s mind in his prayers but anyway, they say that one day as he was praying a bird landed in his hand and began to build a nest. And instead of pulling his hands down and tossing those twigs and whatever aside, Kevin stayed right where he was. He stayed in place and he held up his hand while the nest was built. While the egg was laid. Until finally the chick was hatched. He waited for new life to begin, and he waited for it to grow strong.

I remember celebrating my father’s birthday a number of years ago, when my niece was still little. After each gift he opened she said, “Is it just what you wanted, Poppa?”

And he dutifully answered yes each time, until finally he decided to have a little fun with her, and he said, no, it wasn’t what he wanted. And she looked kind of disappointed at that. “Well, you’ve got it!” she told him, quite firmly, and without hesitation. Because even at that tender age, she knew how you were supposed to feel about a gift you’ve been given. You might as well tell yourself you want it, because in any case, it’s what you’ve got.

Like St. Kevin, who was able to receive “the gift offered to him no matter how uncomfortable,” as Paintner points out. “He says yes to what arrives into his life unbidden.”[iii]

Can we say the same? Can we learn to find the blessings in whatever happens, the things we didn’t expect, and even the things we didn’t want? That is the third spiritual practice.

I’m particularly aware of the in-between place where we find ourselves right now. But the truth is that we’re always in some in between time. We’re always in between now and then, between the past and the present—and that is exactly where life happens.

And if we don’t pay attention because we’re still yearning for the past, or worrying about the future, we risk missing gifts that are far greater than we can ask or imagine, to paraphrase Ephesians.[iv]

May you experience your life now as a time that is filled with blessings. May you open your hands and your arms to receive those blessings in abundance. May you yourself be a blessing to all you meet. And—in the words of that well-known Irish blessing—may you be held in the palm of God’s hand. Like St. Kevin and his birds.

Amen.

Preached for the Church of the Ascension, Parkesburg, PA


[i] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.

[ii] Walter Win, Engaging the Powers.

[iii] Christine Valters Paintner, “Pilgrimage of Resurrection: A Creative Journey through Eastertide,” April 3, 2015. http://www.patheos.com//Progressive-Christian/Pilgrimage-of-Resurrection-Christine-Valters-Paintner-04-03-2015.html. Accessed May 12, 2021.

[iv] Ephesians 4:20.

[1] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.

[2] Walter Win, Engaging the Powers.

[3] Christine Valters Paintner, “Pilgrimage of Resurrection: A Creative Journey through Eastertide,” April 3, 2015. http://www.patheos.com//Progressive-Christian/Pilgrimage-of-Resurrection-Christine-Valters-Paintner-04-03-2015.html. Accessed May 12, 2021.

[4] Ephesians 4:20.