Scripture Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23
I didn’t have time to write a long sermon. Would those who were looking forward to a long sermon this morning, please raise your hand, and I’ll talk slower!
I met Debbie Osgood at Home Depot yesterday and she praised the work of those who came to help with the gardens for the workday. I join my thanks to hers. At first glance, the gardens look beautiful out there. I’m sorry I could not be here, but I had spent practically the whole day on Friday at Ursuline College activities. You see, the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences was ill, and the President and Vice-President asked me to fill in for her. That’s why the title of this sermon is “Substitution.”
Substituting for the Dean meant that I was required to go to the Baccalaureate Mass in the morning and assist in “hooding” the graduates. One of the Assistant hooders talked me through it. I don’t know when you were last at a college graduation. It’s like a medieval pageant. The faculty and graduates all wear academic robes. Everyone has a different style and colors depending on your school, your degree and your status. Some even have cords and medals draped over their shoulders. I envied some of the most colorful and ornate!
So the graduates came up to the altar where six of us hooders stood on the first step leading up to the altar. The graduates handed their hoods to the Assistants. The Assistant hooders asked them to turn around and back up to us hooders, then they expertly folded the neck of the hood and handed it to me just right so all I had to do was put it over the head of the graduate and flare out the colors inside. At the orientation, I only had one question since most of our graduates are female: “What do I do with their hair?” I was warned NOT to touch it.
Then that same evening, we had the graduation itself with the awarding of diplomas. It is a big deal, held at the Wolstein Center at Cleveland State University. There were almost 400 graduates seated in front of the raised stage and their parents and relatives sat in the balconeys. The faculty formed an honor guard and clapped as the graduates processed in. There was a video screen, an organ and a trumpet player playing Pomp and Circumstance and traditional graduation music. It took about 20 minutes just to get everyone seated.
My job was to walk with the stage party and the other Deans, since I was substituting for a Dean, and then when the graduates’ names from the School of Graduate and Professional Studies were called, I took my place beside the President of the Board of Trustees, and handed him the diploma cover which he then handed to the Graduate and shook hands. All I had to worry about was not dropping a diploma during the handoff (and I didn’t!).
But this thought struck me as I performed this substitution task: All these families in the stands were taking pictures, and someday ages and ages hence, these graduates might be showing these same pictures to their sons and daughters, and maybe one of them will ask: “Who is the gray haired man standing beside the guy in the fancy robe?” –And no one will know the answer. What does it say in the Book of Isaiah? “All flesh is grass; …The grass withers¸ the flower fades…” (Is. 40:6b, 7).
So much for being a substitute. But I know from being a high school administrator, how valuable a good substitute is. I know that some of you have been teacher substitutes. It can be a harrowing experience, requiring nerves of steel, a great sense of humor, a sensitivity and love of students, and a deep knowledge of your subject matter.
Who would ever WANT to be a substitute? The times I think we most want to be a substitute is when someone we love is suffering. We usually say: “I wish I could take your pain.” But isn’t it true that the person in pain often replies: “I don’t need you to do that; I just need you to be here with me, to talk to me, hold my hand, distract me, maybe get me a glass of water or a nurse, love me? Just don’t leave me alone.”
So that brings us to Jesus on this day when he left us alone. It’s difficult to believe that 40 days have passed since Easter, but here it is, on Thursday of this coming week: the Feast of the Ascension. As the story in the Acts of the Apostles affirms, Jesus’ body was taken up, and the Apostles who were staring up after he disappeared with their mouths open were told by an Angel: “He will come again.” No wonder they were putting all their hope in that, longing for it to come, some of them refusing to go back to work, in fervent expectation.
There is a theological theory of substitution. I think it goes something like this: that the people who should have died on that cross were US—you and me; but that Jesus in his love for us, took that punishment from God upon himself. He substituted his holiness for our sins, and encouraged his Father to look at him and not at our sins.
And I have to say, after a lifetime of believing that and questioning what sort of Father takes pleasure in seeing his son die and in sending people to hell, and maybe one who loves us by default with a shakey kind of love–not really loving us but only his Son, sort of expecting that we can never remain sin-free, but will lapse and relapse again and again.
Therefore, I’m so happy that the people who picked the readings for today, did NOT just leave us with the story in the Acts of the Apostles, but instead had us read and hear these wonderful words that Paul the mystic wrote in the Book of Ephesians. In that same book, one chapter later, we read these wonderful words: ….”through him we [both] have access in one Spirit to the Father” (EPH. 2:18).
In terms of substitution, what Jesus did was—not substitute for us, but JOIN us. We have pain; we have loss—the loss of love and relationships being right up there with the worst of pain; we have physical problems; we age; we have to die and we have to suffer the loss of our loved ones. But then we can remember his sacrifice: he is with us. “I will not leave you orphans,” he promised (John 14:18). “I will come to you.” He promised to send us his Spirit.
Ah. His Spirit. Unraveling what that means. Chewing on it; living it out; trying to be open to it. That Spirit is going to cause us to WANT to substitute for others, to do what we can, to sit by a beside, to visit someone in a hospital or in a funeral home, to share our resources.
He ascended into heaven so we wouldn’t have to flock to a geographical place to meet him; so we can be filled with his Spirit if and when we open ourselves to receive that Spirit.
And so we look forward to Pentecost—to the celebration of that day when fearful people were blasted out of their seats (like Clevelanders will be when we win a national basketball championship) with a great sense of love and courage and power and grace. And you can imagine them laughing and talking all at once and knowing perhaps for the first time the GOODNESS of the Lord.
Let us pray,
Lord, we miss you. We look around for you. We let the cares and worries and needs and sorrows of life overwhelm us. So quiet us. Dissolve us into silence, and whisper in our ears when we are ready: “Behold, I am with you always. And I love you.” Amen.