Spend enough time with small children outside, and it’s bound to happen sooner or later.
The kids will likely hear it before you do, their younger ears being better at hearing distant noises than those of us with more years behind us. But then even us grown-ups will catch the distant low hum, or (even more exciting!) a faint chopping thrum. And the kids’ eyes will immediately start scanning the skies.
An airplane! Or maybe even a helicopter!
And their eyes will probe the blue expanse above until they find that moving speck, often with its trail of white behind it. It’s almost a reflex, something ingrained. Where is the plane? Which corner of the sky holds it? Once they hear the sound in the air, looking for its source is the automatic response.
If, as I suspect, many of you have witnessed small children scanning the skies for aircraft, perhaps you share my impression. The wonder of seeing something flying, and the impulse to find it seem almost involuntary. Even in this day and age, human flight is such a marvel that children (and maybe even adults) like to see it when it happens.
With that in mind, I feel like perhaps the angels who showed up at Jesus’ ascension were a little bit unfair. If we, who have never lived in a world without airplanes, still gaze skyward when we hear one, how much more would people in Jesus’ day be drawn to stare into the air as they watched someone fly away? Nobody flew at all in those days! Wouldn’t you stare, too?
And yet, the angels ask anyhow: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
Isn’t it obvious? Jesus just disappeared into the sky! He just rose up to heaven in front of their very eyes! Even after all the time he’d spent during his ministry, and all the miraculous things his followers had witnessed, human flight was something particularly amazing. Who could possibly expect them to stop watching, looking for one last glimpse?
Now, I’m not entirely sure how familiar angels are with human nature. Frankly, I suspect we’re rather odd to them. In the perfect realm of heaven, our fascinations and squabbles must strike them as strange and foreign much of the time. I can imagine that peering upward at a disappearing Christ would never have occurred to them.
But no matter how strange or inexplicable the disciples’ behavior may have been in that moment from the angels’ perspective, I don’t think they really wondered why they were doing it. I think their question had more meaning to it than mere curiosity.
“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” It’s not that it hadn’t been understandable to watch Jesus as he rose, even after he faded from view. It’s that hoping to see Jesus from that point forward meant looking somewhere else.
They could still see him if they wanted to. But looking upward was the wrong way to find him. He could only be seen in another direction.
“All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world,” said Jesus in our reading from John. He is praying for his disciples shortly before his departure, and asking for God’s protection. But he is also letting them know something about themselves.
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
Just as Jesus and the Father are one, so now Jesus and his disciples are one. And so, when the angels ask those disciples why they are still looking upward to see Jesus, what they’re trying to tell them is that Jesus can still be seen, but they’ll have to look for him in each other.
It can be easy to miss things that are right in front of us if we don’t know how to really see them.
This is Memorial Day weekend, as anyone who had to drive north on I-95 over the past couple of days could remind you. It’s a holiday weekend that signals the unofficial start of summer. But of course, it means much more than that.
For those of us who live in this area year-round, it’s a kind of reawakening. The place we have seen buried under snow, then mud over the preceding months becomes a place people drive for hours to be. Its loveliness is revealed all over again. The new and returning faces help us to see the beauty around us once more.
Beyond the local reminder, however, Memorial Day is about something far deeper. It’s more than flags and parades and grilling out. It’s about remembering those whose lives were given in service to our country.
When we do so, I hope we look deeper than the mere words. I hope we think about what it truly means to lose your life for your country. About the true costs of war, no matter how just the cause it prosecutes. About the loved ones lost, about the ones left behind to grieve. Let us reflect on their legacy, and remember Christ’s call to us all to be peacemakers.
Let us also remember it’s not only those whose lives were lost who have sacrificed in service to our country. War can leave wounds that are not visible to the eye. It’s important to truly see the veterans around us, and remember that they may have experienced hardships most of us could never imagine. This weekend in particular, consider reaching out to them with love and gratitude.
The angels promised the sky-gazing disciples that Jesus would come back the same way he left. But they clearly told them not to spend their time staring up and waiting around for it to happen. How it will look and when it will occur isn’t really what we ought to be spending our time thinking about.
Instead we should look at each other, and see the Jesus among us. Not only the presence of Christ in those who follow his teachings, but in opportunities to put those teachings into meaningful practice. We should look at the world around us, appreciate the blessings we have, but work to share God’s blessings with those who have experienced too few of them in their lives.
And this weekend in particular, we should remember and honor those whose lives were lost, those whose lives were changed, while striving for a better world in which no more such losses must be suffered. Amen.