Sermon – May 24, 2020 – Seventh Sunday after Easter

Time to Wait

Forty days.  That’s how long it’s been since the events of that first Easter.  Forty days since Jesus was crucified, died, was buried and then raised again.  Forty days when he had been alive again and among his followers in a new way, a way they could never have dreamed.  Forty days when he had been reminding them of all that he had said and done and taught.  Forty days when he had been preparing them for what would come next.

                The ancients believed that forty days was the time a disciple needed to learn his master’s yoke, his teachings, by heart.  And now those forty days with the resurrected Jesus were drawing to a close.

                In the verses just before the ones we read together today, Jesus tells his disciples what they are to do in the immediate future.  Wait here in Jerusalem, he tells them; don’t leave; just wait for what God has promised.

                And immediately—wouldn’t you know it?—the disciples pick up on the wrong promise.  “This is it, isn’t it, Jesus—the time when you’re going to send Rome running and restore the fortunes of Israel and put us back on top again?  It’s now, right?”

                Well… no.  Jesus sits them down and explains that the power they are about to receive isn’t military power, but spiritual power, power that will enable them to testify to the love, the grace, the mercy that they have come to know in him—the power that pours itself out for the sake of others.  And that message is not just for the ones who look like them and think like them and act like them.  They are to go to Jerusalem and Judea, yes, but also to Samaria and on beyond to the ends of the earth, until all people know, until all creation knows and has been restored.

                To receive that kind of power means a shift in their focus.  It means letting go of their certainty that they know exactly what needs to happen next and then placing their trust in a God who is at work to redeem and remake the world.  And it means taking the time to listen deeply to that God, so that they can take up the part of the work God calls them to do.  That kind of change takes time.  And so there is more waiting to be done.

                But this waiting isn’t for just sitting around, twiddling their thumbs and hoping something good will happen.  No, after they stand there with their mouths hanging open as they watch Jesus ascend to heaven, after the two men in white encourage them, they do go back to Jerusalem, back into the city.  They gather as a community with other followers of Jesus.  And then they devote themselves to prayer. 

                I suspect that, at the beginning, that prayer may have been the kind that we are so often prone to, a laundry list of hopes and dreams and wishes and demands for God to do what we want God to do.  But I have spent enough time in prayer to know, and the great mystics teach, that if we keep at it long enough, prayer will change us.  And we will move from focusing on ourselves and our loved ones and what we think we want or need into a place of profound gratitude for what God has already done, for all the ways God has already blessed us, for all the ways God has already acted to bring good from evil, life from death, hope from despair.  And when we reach that place of gratitude, we are ready to pray that God will use us, not to promote our own agendas but instead to be agents of God’s goodness in the world.  We begin to pray to be ready to receive the Spirit and for the courage to follow its leading in our lives.  I cannot know, of course, but I suspect that it worked that way for those first disciples, too.

                I suspect it because we see what happens when the gift of the Spirit sweeps through the room where they are gathered on that first Pentecost so long ago.   We see the effects of that gift in what they say and begin to do. The good news of Jesus Christ is proclaimed in every language, despite their own limitations.  And they also begin to create small communities of believers where man and woman, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, master and slave sit down to break bread and learn together.  They devise ways to make sure the most vulnerable among them—the widows and orphans, the sick and the poor—receive the care they need.  They find ways to use the resources they have for the common good, rather than withholding the gifts they can give—in terms of finances, of course, but also in terms of time and knowledge and skill and, most of all, attention and care.  It doesn’t go perfectly, of course.  They’re still, we’re still, human beings who are prone to sin, human beings who get scared and think that we must save ourselves, instead of trusting the God who loves us and who is always, always, always at work to bring good from evil, life from death, new beginnings from disaster.  But the fact that they tried to do those things, the fact that they aspired to do those things when the winds of Pentecost had begun to settle, points us in the same direction.

                The time through which we are living is apocalyptic—not necessarily in the sense of the end times, as some would tell you (though Jesus himself says none of us will ever know the day or hour for that).   The Greek word we translate as apocalypse actually means “a revealing” or “an uncovering.”  And what a revelation this time has been!  Even if we were able to turn away from the knowledge before, this time has shown us all too clearly how many of us in this land of abundance live without access to adequate health care, how many of us are only a paycheck or two away from financial disaster, how many of us don’t have even that much of a cushion.  We have seen the long lines at food pantries as more and more families begin to experience food insecurity—and, God knows, those lines were long enough before this happened.  We are becoming increasingly aware of the ways that generation after generation after generation of poverty and prejudice, of hatred and enmity, have left our brothers and sisters of color far more vulnerable to the effects of this disease than those of us who have led more privileged lives.  Each day seems to bring a new heartbreak if we truly believe that all human beings are created in the image of God, and so are precious and holy.

                But, friends, it doesn’t have to be the way it was.  We are in an unprecedented time, a time of waiting to see what comes next, a time when we can be preparing for that.  We prepare just as those first disciples did, by gathering with one another and with constant prayer.  The way we gather looks different these days, as we learn how to connect via technology while we don masks and maintain social distancing because we care for one another and want to protect each other—not just the ones we love but the ones we don’t even know and the ones they love. 

                But, just like for those first disciples, this waiting time needs to be filled with prayer, deep prayer that moves us from a focus only on ourselves and what we think we want and need into that place where we ask God to make God’s dream of a world where God’s peace and justice reign a reality, a place where we ask God to show us how to be part of that dream, how to be an agent of God’s goodness in the world. 

                The church gathered virtually can and will become the church sent out again as we move through the process of reopening, a process that will likely include advances and retreats as we learn more about this virus.  The world as we knew it before this experience doesn’t exist anymore; we cannot go back to “the way things were.”  But if we have waited well, if we have prayed deeply, if we have allowed the dream God breathes into us by the power of the Spirit, we can begin to build something better.  We can work for a society where everyone has what they need to know abundant life—food and financial resources and health care and education, love and care and respect and dignity….  What would you add to the list?  Maybe that’s the piece of the work God is calling you to pick up in this time.  Think about it, pray about it.  God will make a way where no way yet exists.

                This rebuilding will not happen quickly—change takes time, especially change of hearts and minds and attitudes, especially of social and economic structures.  But we can begin—even if we do not get to see the end, we can begin.  Our God is in the business of transformation—of you, and me, and this poor old aching world.

                Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift of love.  Amen.