One day in the Garden of Eden, God comes to Adam and Eve and tells them God has two gifts — one for each of them. The first, God says, is, well, the ability to pee standing up. Adam starts jumping up and down excitedly and loudly declares that he wants it. Eve, listening to him jabbering on and on about it, rolls her eyes and asks God what God has in mind for her. "Brains," says God.
That’s the kind of story that would put a smile on our daughter Maggie’s face – she’s a strong young woman with views. Just what we hoped she’d be.
I still remember like it was yesterday the day my wife Leslie and I took Maggie to Dulles airport to fly to Edinburgh, Scotland to begin veterinary school there. That was 4 years ago now. I knew it was the right thing for Maggie – a wonderful opportunity for her to pursue her life-long dream. That made it the right thing for Leslie and me, too. But I still was overwhelmed by the sadness of so much separation in the coming years. Standing in that soaring, iconic airport terminal, outside the security barrier, my eyes brimmed with tears – I was far from the strong, stoic father image that’s common in our culture. I just didn’t want to let her go.
Perhaps that’s how the disciples felt about Jesus when he set out for a different kind of ascension, when he had to end his time walking the earth with him. Maybe they had some understanding of why this had to happen, why this was the best thing for the spread of Jesus’ good news; maybe not. But I don’t doubt it was a sad, painful parting.
Jesus’ ascension from earth into heaven is a way of describing the end of Jesus’ appearances on earth, and his return to his Father God. Jesus had prepared his disciples, his followers, as well as he could. He had trained them to go out and preach, teach, and heal in his name. They knew his vision for the Gospel to spread beyond Palestine into Asia Minor, Rome – to the ends of the earth. But were they ready? I’m sure they would have loved to stay with Jesus, listen to him teach, and enjoy the warm bonds of fellowship they had formed. But that was not to be. The times, they were a-changing.
St. Dunstan’s congregation is in a similar place, I think. Like the disciples – we are a scrappy band of folks, with lots of opinions, but a common bond of devotion to Christ and his ministry in this place. We cherish the traditions we’ve enjoyed here, the good times of the past – and rightly so. We have much to cherish and be thankful for.
In particular, I sorely miss the band of founding members of our church, who worked and sacrificed for decades here. When I arrived, they were elders, and they amazed me because their support was unwavering, but they did not try to control the parish. They wanted it to change and flourish, not be shackled to some image of the past. That was a remarkable combination: steadfast support and good humor, along with a willing “letting go” of the reins. I think of them often, and give thanks for their faithfulness and friendship. On this Memorial Day, I remember them.
But – and there’s always a “but” – I’m not sure Jesus will let us stay the way we once were. It’s a new world, and people are not flocking into the churches as they once did. They still need to hear about the love and forgiveness of Jesus – that hasn’t changed. But fewer folks are coming through these doors. So Jesus is leading us out – out onto the sidewalks, the streets, the shops, the schools, the offices and workplaces – to be Christians in the world.
Our “inner circle” as a congregation is smaller than it once was, but our impact in our neighborhood, in the city, and even in other parts of the world is as strong as ever! Thousands of people encounter St. Dunstan’s through children’s programs, musical events here, and outreach projects, in addition to those in worship and fellowship and formation. Many of those will never come to worship with us, but still we are offering a Gospel of hospitality, of open discussion and inquiry, of beauty and art. Many of us are involved in refugee ministry now – I’m amazed how many are going to the Orthodox church this Saturday to support refugees in the camps. Today we make sandwiches for hungry Washingtonians, as we do every month. We are working more with neighboring congregations. St. Dunstan’s is a small but mighty church!
It’s hard to let go of the way things used to be…just as it was hard for the disciples to let go of Jesus’ physical presence with them. But they had no choice…and frankly, we have no choice. As a parish priest, I was much more comfortable when thoughtful worship, creative programs, and pastoral care was enough to build up a congregation. I would love to go back to those days. But we can’t. The world moves on; the church moves on, into new forms that we probably can’t even imagine. God will sustain God’s Church the way God chooses. We cannot control what that Church will be like, no matter how hard we try to hold on.
Over the last four years, Leslie and I have learned to let go. We’ve had to trust. Maggie has grown and changed, and she will become the young woman and dedicated vet that she needs to become. The strain and stress of letting go, of change, will be worthwhile.
And so it is with the Church. After 33 years of ordained ministry, I understand Jesus more and more, and I can predict the future of the Church less and less. But a future there will be. We need to be like the wonderful founders of St. Dunstan’s, who supported this lovely community at every turn, yet set it free to become what God would make of it. Each of us is a member of this body, the Body of Christ, which comes into being as Jesus’ human body ascends into the heavens. Each of us has a call, a ministry to do. Maybe you know what God is calling you to do, and you are firmly engaged. If you are unsure, I’d be glad to talk with you about your call.
What I know is this: together we can be the hands and feet of Christ. Together, we are stronger than we are alone. Together, we can navigate the uncertain road that lies ahead of us, certain only that God is with us and that God is love.