In the Absence of God
Almost a year ago, my family and I flew to Washington, DC for a family reunion. We were gathering together in part to surround my Uncle Joe with love; Uncle Joe is the youngest son of his generation at 86 but now patriarch of the family since his older sister had died. I like visiting my Uncle Joe. He is a very kind and very smart man. He also looks a lot like my father did, and Uncle Joe has some of the same mannerisms of speech and way of talking with his hands that my father did. And I find that comforting. But the main reason we gathered for our family reunion last year was to celebrate the life of my Aunt Carolyn who passed last spring. It was her absence that called us together as a family. And so we gathered in my cousins’ living room, sitting on sofas and chairs and footstools, while I led a little memorial service and we shared stories of Carolyn as a child, in California, on the Family Farm in Indiana. It was her absence that drew us together, more closely, more intimately, more firmly.
We see something similar happening in our first reading this morning, the account in Acts which describes the Ascension of Jesus from the Mount of Olives. One of the greatest privileges of my life was the opportunity I had about a decade ago to travel to Jerusalem for nearly 2 weeks. For my continuing education that year I participated in an interfaith seminar at Hebrew University on Martyrdom that Stephen was teaching in, and so we took the whole family. One of the highlights of our trip to Jerusalem was a walking tour of the city that started on top of the Mount of Olives, the place where Jesus ascends according to the book of Acts. It wasn’t a sabbath day’s walk away—just a few hours. But the mount is striking—the highest point in the area around Jerusalem. The bottom end of the hillside is a massive graveyard, with stone tombs reaching across the landscape. Jewish legend had it—according to the tour guide who led us down the mountain, through the Garden of Gethsemane and eventually into the Old City—Jewish legend had it the most desirable tombs were those closest to the city walls—the understanding being that when the Messiah came and ushered in resurrection, those at the bottom end of the hillside, closest to the city walls and the Temple would be resurrected first. But the top of the hillside, the top of the mountain is where Jesus went to ascend to God, because mountain tops are special places, numinous spaces, divine spaces. For Jesus, the top of the Mount of Olives was the place or space the shortest distance from God.
Which leads me to my first question this morning: where or what is the place or experience that is the shortest distance between God and you? Is it a mountain top? Is it prayer? Is it holy communion? Where or what is the place or experience of shortest distance between you and God? [ ]
When we were in Jerusalem, we too experienced the top of the Mount of Olives as a special place—not in the way that Jesus did. For us the Mount was special because it’s where Hannah and Zoe got to take the one and only camel ride of their life—immortalized in a series of
photos. For Jesus, the Mount of Olives is quite literally the closest place to God. But in contrast with other biblical mountaintops that are places of “theophany”—a place for the appearance of God—think Moses and the burning bush on Mount Horeb or receiving the tablets of the Law on Mount Sinai--the Mount of Olives was the opposite. It was not a place of theophany, it was a place of eclipses—of the disappearance of God.
On this last Sunday of the season of Easter—Alleluia, Christ is risen! [Christ is risen, indeed! Alleluia!]. On this last Sunday of the season of Easter we find ourselves in a weird space spiritually. Jesus has been eclipsed—Jesus has disappeared from the physical life of the apostles, and Pentecost, when we celebrate the formal gift of the Holy Spririt and the “birth of the church” hasn’t happened yet. So we find ourselves in a time of eclipse, of disappearance, of the seeming absence of God. So what happens now?
Something very powerful happens in this time of eclipse, this time of the absence of God. Community happens. The eclipse of God creates a vacuum filled by human community called to make the absent God present. Look at what the author of Acts writes about what the disciples do after Jesus disappears from the Mount of Olives. Do the disciples disappear? Do they disperse? No. After God disappears, the disciples congregate in the upper room, they create community in the upper room….and I find it so striking that the author of Acts decides to create a “membership roll” and list the names of all the male disciples and even names the important presence of women followers of Jesus. Jesus has disappeared. And what has appeared in his place is a community of members, of individuals—like you and me—called together to make God manifest in the world, now that Jesus is no longer in the world.
God creates community, yes. Jesus did while walking the earth gather around him disciples and followers—at times thousands of people. But the absence of God creates an even greater, living, world-wide community—the church.
We are called together into community not simply because we believe a common doctrine— We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” We are called together in community because we love and long to embody the eclipsed God Jesus Christ. We are called together into community because we love the way that Jesus lived---healing the sick, loving the enemy, forgiving the sinner, protecting the vulnerable, calling for repentance and justice. We are called together into community in this church, because we long to experience Jesus’ love, healing, forgiveness and justice for ourselves. We are called together in community in this church because we long to embody the way that Jesus lived, loved and died for the sake of humanity in how we live, love and die for one another and the world.
The pandemic we are living through challenges the way we are community. We have had to suspend being community in ways that are familiar to us—getting together Sunday mornings under this one roof, passing the peace by shaking hands and giving hugs, receiving Jesus’ body and blood in bread and wine in our hands and on our tongues gathered on our knees around the altar. Yes, the pandemic has changed the ways that we have grown accustomed to being community. But the pandemic has not changed THAT we are a community, a community gathered around the way Jesus lived, loved, died, and rose.
In fact, as I said in my short Facebook Live video on Friday night, I think being community in new ways has broken open and made alive the community that we are. In the absence of the old ways of being community, God has created us into a community that now spans the globe with the message of Jesus’ love and transformation. My cousin, one of my best friends, now can be part of this community from Frankfurt, Germany. Thanks to the new ways we are community, I have had a chance to meet and exchange thoughts with Leon’s sister Rienette who lives in South Africa. Parents of current parishioners, former parishioners who have moved out of state, friends of friends, community friends, all kinds of people are finding their way to be part of our community in Christ not just locally—which has always been a blessing, but now globally—a new blessing. It means that the way we understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ and practice the Gospel of Jesus Christ here at St. Matt’s now reaches more people.
Which leads me to my second question: what is distinctive about the way we at St. Matt’s understand and practice the Gospel of Jesus Christ? [ ] The love of God in Jesus Christ liberates, gives life, includes all, transforms.
Which leads me to my third and final question: whoever you are, wherever you are, how are you going to live out the liberating, life-giving, inclusive, transformative love and life of Jesus Christ in your life this week? [ ]
I can tell you some of what living out the transformative love and life of Jesus Christ will look like for me: I am going to talk with some of you by phone or Zoom, listening and giving comfort and support. I am going to love my family. And I am going to coordinate the energy and efforts of a whole other community St. Matt’s has created---the people who are and make NoHo Home Alliance’s drop-in programs and initiatives happen. Some are St. Matt’s members, others are not. Does anyone know how many volunteers are now involved with our drop-in program—even occasionally? [more than 70 people] Add to that another 20 people from our partner church MCC/UCC and another 20 from the community who are involved with our advocacy…..we have given birth to another community of more than 100 people that are putting the transformative Gospel of Jesus Christ as we understand and practice it into action in our city.
There is no doubt about it. The absence of God does not create emptiness. The absence of God creates community. We are that community. Pandemic or no pandemic, quarantine or no quarantine, we are the embodied community of Jesus, locally and now globally. Alleluia! Christ is risen! [Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia!]