Several summers ago John and I visited one of his seminary classmates…from fifty years ago if you can believe it!…and his wife in central Oregon. They live in the high desert which is stunningly beautiful in a way that is quite austere in some places, but that austerity is punctuated by oases of lushness like beautiful evergreen forests. I loved it there. One day we drove over to the little town of Sisters, Oregon, named for the three mountains looming in the near distance which are known as the three sisters. We went to see the church where Bob and Peggy worship in retirement, and while we were there Peggy and I were able to browse unhurriedly through a wonderful shop…once we parked the guys in some of the rocking chairs out front. Among many intriguing things, the shop had several nice tee shirts. You may have seen them in other places, but one was bright red and emblazoned with “Advice from a Lady Bug”. The one I bought is yellow with sunflowers printed on the front and reads “Advice from a Sunflower”. Here’s what it says: Be outstanding in your field, Hold your head high, Spread seeds of happiness, Feed the birds, Think solar and Keep on the sunny side. All kind of cutesy for my taste, but the very last piece of advice made me laugh out loud and clinched the sale. The last piece of advice was simply: Grow up.
I love that. It seems like I’ve spent most of my life either trying to grow up or avoiding it one way or another. I don’t know about you, but I often find it an elusive goal. Sometimes I feel and act like a four year old trapped in a sixty-eight year old body.
This Thursday just past was the fortieth day after Easter. It’s the day the Church remembers Jesus taking leave of his disciples for the last time as he ascended into heaven. In the gospel for Ascension Day which we just heard this morning, Jesus is going over everything one last time before he takes his final leave of them in his earthly form.
This is what I’ve told you over and over again while I was with you, that everything that’s happened was necessary to fulfill what’s written about me in the law and the prophets and the psalms. I had to suffer, die and rise from the dead, and your job is to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in my name to the ends of the earth. I’m leaving you now so wait here until you receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.
With that he raised his hand in a final blessing and was lifted to the heavens. Luke says that they worshiped him and then went on their way rejoicing to spend most of their time in the temple blessing God. I guess I’m a little skeptical of Luke’s kind of happy clappy report. I have to wonder if they didn’t experience some significant grief at this final parting. And, in spite of his reassurances about being empowered by the Spirit, I wonder if they weren’t still a little anxious about being on their own.
When I think about Jesus ascending into heaven, I think about the times someone or ones have taken leave of me. Occasionally that leave-taking has been in the form of dying. The person I love and care about is no longer physically present with me, and for the longest time I ache to see and touch and hear them again. Other times they may simply move far away. They’re still available by email or telephone on a regular basis, but being in their presence takes planning and can cost a pretty penny. Yet other times someone will just drift away, caught up in new relationships and interests. They’re around and available…and then they’re not which is its own particular kind of pain. But what I’ve come to understand in my life is that when people and relationships are lost to me in one way or another, I eventually move on. If I let it, the loss becomes a catalyst for a little more growing up.
I believe that’s part of what happened with the disciples that day so very long ago when Jesus said his final physical good-by. The disciples had kind of relearned what he tried to teach them before. They better understood what had seemed puzzling and frightening earlier. They were able to take it in differently after experiencing the resurrection. And they were reassured at some deep level as Jesus gave them precise instructions to wait until the Holy Spirit came upon them. You know, someone asked me recently whether Jesus had to go away before the Holy Spirit could come, before Pentecost could happen. I think Jesus did have to go away, but not to make room for the Spirit. I believe he had to leave his disciples so they could grow up. They had to learn that with God’s help they could manage even if Jesus wasn’t physically present with them. They could preach and teach and heal like big boys.
You may already be aware of this, but some sociologists say that in our time and culture adolescence can last into the mid-thirties. (Sorry parents of teenagers.) One of the ways that manifests itself is that many people marry much later than their parents and grandparents did. The responsibilities of a lifelong relationship are delayed, and the pleasures of youthful freedom are savored longer than in generations past. Now I am not advocating that people get married earlier, but I do think all of us need to be concerned with growing up. Christian maturity is the fruit of intentionally faithful living, but it’s not separate from the rest of our life. Our lives, day in and day out, are full of events and turning points that can help us grow up, but only if we have eyes to see and ears to hear the prodding of the Spirit. My yellow tee shirt, adorned by sunflowers reminds me every time I put it on that far as I’ve come, much as I’ve grown up, there’s always more growing up to be done.
God’s generous that way.