Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sermon: Holy Waiting

Acts 1:6-14
Holy Waiting
James Sledge                                                                                       June 1, 2014

Back in my days as a corporate pilot, I would tell people who asked about what I did for a living that I flew planes for free, but I got paid for waiting. Corporate pilots tend to take the executives somewhere early in the morning, then sit around all day. You get good at waiting.
A lot of airports had movies you could watch. Some had sleeping rooms where you could crash after an early morning flight. Me, I read a lot; I carried my running gear. Some pilots carried golf clubs. We found ways to make the time pass quickly until the return trip home.
However, passengers could make the time pass more slowly. With a 5:00 pm departure time, I would start getting ready around 4:00; file flight plans, get ice, coffee, and any catering we might have. And then I would hope the people would get there somewhere near 5:00. When they didn’t show until 7:00, those two hours often felt longer than the entire day.
After one early morning flight, the CEO said, "I’ve a quick meeting then  need to get right back. I’ll be here no later than 9:30 am." And so I didn't get out my running shoes or book. I got the plane fueled, refilled the coffee and ice, filed a flight plan, and began to wait. I waited and waited and waited. At lunchtime, I thought about running out to grab a bite but didn't dare. If I left, I knew he would show up, ready to leave that instant.
Around 6:30 that evening he walked in. "We ran a little late," he said. "Oh really," I thought . But of course I didn't say it. I just smiled and said something about that being the whole point of having your own airplane.
How many of you enjoy waiting? How many of you relish the thought of a trip to get your driver's license renewed, or a little quality time in the doctor's waiting room? At least with smartphones, you can catch up on emails, read the paper, or do something productive. Because what is worse than simply waiting and not knowing how long the wait will be?
That's where our scripture story leaves the disciples this morning. Easter is 40 days past. The disciples have seen the risen Jesus repeatedly, and he’s continued to teach them about the kingdom, about the coming of God's new day. And he has also told them to sit tight, to remain in Jerusalem and wait for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.
Yet after all the time they've spent with Jesus, both during his ministry and in the 40 days since Easter, the disciples still seem confused. "Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" All that post resurrection continuing education, and they still think Jesus will toss out the Romans and bring back the glory days of King David?
“Don't worry about such things,” Jesus says to them and to us. You're obviously not quite ready, but you are going to be my witnesses in all the world. You will be empowered by the Spirit, and then you will be able to act and live and speak in ways that let people see me in you.
Then Jesus is gone, and the disciples really don't know what to do. They stand there staring up at where they last glimpsed him. I wonder how long they would have just stood there staring if angels hadn’t showed up. Then they go back to Jerusalem. And there they wait. But they don't just wait. They wait, together, the whole community. They devote themselves to prayer, together.

I recently spent a week at something called The Festival of Homiletics. Quite the fancy name, no? It's a preachers’ conference. Homiletics is a fancy word related to sermons, or homilies. There were nearly 2000 of us preachers and we heard some of the biggest names in the business lecture on a variety of topics meant to make us better preachers.
And we worshipped, often three times a day. We sang and heard great music and heard sermons from some of the most gifted preachers there are. It was truly inspiring. Preachers get worship starved sometimes. It's hard to worship while you're leading worship, and it's wonderful just to be worshipers. It's even better with 2000 people singing together and a who's who of preachers opening our eyes in new ways and moving us to tears.
It's hard not to come away from such an event energized and excited, heads about to explode with sermon ideas and methods. But at the very same time, the realization struck me that I am not Walter Brueggemann, Craig Barnes, Brian McLaren, or Barbara Brown Taylor. No publisher wants to print my sermons, and no one's called asking me to be a speaker at next year's Festival of Homiletics. And soon the afterglow of the conference will fade in the daily grind. Plus coming up with sermons like I heard at that festival is hard work, and there are other demands on my time. Like many of you, I have more than enough to fill my time, and the sermon is just one more production item to finish.
We live in a production oriented world. People are expected to work long hours because there is a lot to get done. And if you don't get a lot done you won't advance at work or school. You might even get let go in the next big downsizing or round of budget cuts. You’d better work hard. You’d better stay late. You'd better produce. You'd better be the smartest person in the room. But of course we can't all be the smartest person in the room.
I wonder if the disciples felt any of this sort of pressure as Jesus faded from view, those words about being his witnesses in all the world still echoing in their heads. Be his witnesses? Continue his work? They still struggled to understand him. They weren't Jesus. No one was going to mistake them for Jesus. How could they continue his work?
If I had been one of those disciples, I suspect I'd have done one of two things. Either I would have been so totally overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task that I’d have been totally paralyzed, not knowing where to start, or maybe I would have thrown myself into the work, inspired by Jesus' words and promises. But those disciples didn’t do either. Instead they waited and prayed.
Wait and pray? Not even do any planning, just wait and pray? If they’d thrown up their hands and said, "We’ll never be able to do this," I’d understand. But wait and pray?
Imagine you were part of some group or committee in a congregation that had some really big issues to deal with, some critical decision about the future direction of the congregation. And you went to a meeting about it and the chair said, "I think we need to spend some time in prayer. I want us to meet once a week to pray, and I'd also like you to get together other evenings with those who live near you to pray together."
"What else?" someone asks. "Nothing else; just pray," comes the reply. "Pray about what?" "Just pray." "For how long?" "I'm not sure. We're just going to wait and pray." "What are we waiting for?" "We're waiting for God."
How many think that sounds like a huge waste of time? It feels that way to me, and I’m certain it's viewed that way in the world where many of you work. Imagine your boss asking what you did that day and you answer, "I waited and prayed." Well what about yesterday? "I waited and prayed." The day before? "I waited and prayed."
Of course the disciples weren't at work. They were just getting ready to take over for Jesus, found the church, and spread it over the entire Mediterranean world.
So they returned to Jerusalem, and together they waited and prayed, somehow trusting Jesus' words, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

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