I preached today at St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem.
It was my second time.
In March, I remembered with joy and humility that St. James Presbyterian is where the Rev. Dr. Lenton Gunn served faithfully and well for many years. I had the privilege of working with Lenton on the Presbyterian Hunger Program's Advisory Committee. It was an honor to be in the pulpit where he had stood.
Today I returned.
Again I preached - and I led the service welcoming a member into the congregation by reaffirmation of faith. It was a moment of joy. I had forgotten how great a blessing that aspect of ministry is.
Very early in the service, came the prayer of adoration (I did not write the prayer although I truly wish I had). The prayer included the sentence: We gaze at the sky looking for you, when you can be found in the laughing play of children; we wonder where you have gone, while you are all around us in our sisters and brothers.
I prayed those words with the congregation and realized immediately that they summed up what much of what I wanted to say about the Ascension.
Almost at the same moment, I remembered a song by John McCutcheon - Picture of Jesus - that reminds us we see Jesus in everyone we meet (a theme echoed by many others through the years including Leo Tolstoy in the short story Where Love Is, God Is.)
I scrapped the first two pages I had written and rewrote on the fly. I started with the lines from the prayer. Then I retold a version of Picture of Jesus.
I noted that the Ascension tells us what not to do: we are not to look for Jesus in some indefinite future; not to look for him in heaven; not to focus our attention away from this world and the places we live (I mentioned the corner of W. 141st and St. Nicholas in Harlem and I also mentioned Argentina, France, and Italy - the places where some of those visiting St. James this morning live).
I also noted what the Ascension is. It is an invitation to see Jesus we encounter every day in all the places we find ourselves. It is a call to discipleship - to follow Jesus - to live as Jesus lived - to love as Jesus loves - to be his witnesses to the end of the world. It is a promise that we will receive the Holy Spirit who will gift us and accompany us in our living. It is the proclamation of God's amazing grace and unshakeable love for each of us - for me. And that amazing grace and unshakeable love allow us to accept the gift of the Holy Spirit and live into the adventure of discipleship with all its challenges and perils as well as its wonders and blessings. Thanks be to God!
For the record, it seems like there is something going on with St. James Presbyterian Church, hills, and me. In March, the gospel lesson was the Transfiguration. Today the lesson from Acts was the Ascension. Both of those events take place on hills (mountains).
Also, when walking up Amsterdam from La Salle (where the Shire on the Hudson is located) to W. 141st (where St. James is located) there is something of a hill to climb. This seems a tad odd, since La Salle is located in Morningside Heights. But there you have it.
Of course as one of the members of St. James pointed out, the way back home goes downhill. And as another member told me, the walk on St. Nicholas is pretty level. And as a third member said, "If you came back more often, you would get used to the walk!"
See you along the Trail!