A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli for Foundry UMC May 24, 2020, the seventh Sunday of Easter. “Life Interrupted” series.
Texts: Acts 1:1-14, 1 Peter 5:6-11
Months ago, as I developed plans for this Life Interrupted series, I imagined that by today we’d be preparing to begin some kind of re-entry to in-person worship at 16th and P Street, NW. And I was struck by the fact that the word “restore” appeared in two of the assigned readings for today. “That’s a good word as we contemplate a return to some familiar practices,” she thought. As the reality of a much longer period of physical distancing began to sink in, my focus in our texts shifted.
“Wait for the promise…” (Acts 1:4) “It is not for you to know the times… (Acts 1:7) “…in due time.” (1 Peter 5:6) “After you have suffered for a little while…” (1Pet 5:10)
These words land like a thud. Weeks ago during my Wednesday FaceBook message I talked about how disorienting it is to not know how long this is going to last. Even then, I was already crying out with the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord?!” The fact that we don’t know the answer is among the most distressing and disorienting of the unknowns we’ve been dealing with. We’re such a time-driven culture, marking time with clocks and calendars and watches, with alerts to keep us tracking time and keep us on time.
When Bill Smith and I were working closely to mobilize strategy and witness at General Conference 2019, we would joke with one another that we could do anything for six months, four months, three weeks… We knew the journey wouldn’t end at the close of General Conference, but at least we knew how long that painful and difficult stretch of the journey was going to last. It makes a profound difference in the way we inhabit time right now to not know the time that is set for the end of this painful and difficult experience in our world. The lack of time-boundedness makes it easy to lose focus, to lack motivation, to lose track of things; the lack of time boundary means that things can easily spill out all over, become diffuse, fuzzy, foggy…what day is it today?
All this makes me more compassionate with the disciples’ question: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Now keep in mind that Jesus has suffered, died, rose on the third day, appeared to his disciples over 40 days teaching them more about the Kin-dom of God—topped off with the promise that they can expect to be baptized with the Holy Spirit at some point in the future. If we think we’ve got a lot to process, just think about that community of women and men who were the first disciples of Jesus. They were dealing with a lot of stuff. And in the midst of all the possible questions they could ask, their question is about the time. Is it time for Israel to finally get our power back, to get out from under the oppressive occupation of Rome? Is it time to finally get back to the way things were?
Jesus could have expressed frustration that, after everything, the disciples are still focused there, but instead he simply responds to their question by providing a new frame. It is not a timeframe, so much as a framework. Jesus speaks not of a “when” but of a “what” and a “how.”
The “what” is to be witnesses—to testify to the love and power of Jesus, to tell the story of God’s love, mercy, and liberation extended to all nations, to live as citizens of the Kin-dom even when the empires of this world are still acting as though they are stronger than God. And the “how” is by the power of Holy Spirit at work in and through them. (Acts1:8)
After this reframing, Jesus leaves them to it. “A cloud”—a common image to evoke the presence, guidance, protection, and glory of God in the Bible—appears and takes Jesus up. I tend to think of this moment as a thin place where heaven and earth touch. Here, the Kin-dom of heaven—always near, always “at hand,” but not always visible—opens a door, a cloudy, misty, mysterious door, and welcomes Jesus home. (This past week, I’ve heard some suggest that this story tells of the time when Jesus started working from home.)
So Jesus provides a new framework—not a “when” but a “what” and “how”—and then he makes his exit. The disciples are left there looking up like, “Wait, you’re leaving us again??” Or perhaps, for some, the reaction in the moment was “OK, that was neat, but what NOW??” And two men in white—perhaps the same ones who greeted the grieving women at the empty tomb in Luke 24—emerge to nudge the disciples to grieve as they have need and to begin to adjust their focus: You’ve been given a framework and focus. He will come again just as unexpectedly as he left—you won’t know when. All you need to do now is go to Jerusalem and wait.
I think it’s fair to say that most people don’t like to wait. Perhaps we don’t mind waiting for a while. But when the waiting seems to go past what seems the reasonable amount of time for whatever it is I’m waiting for, I START TO LOSE MY PATIENCE. You? The disciples were given this extraordinary new framework and vision for their lives: they’re going to receive power through the Holy Spirit and will be witnesses in ways and in places they’ve never imagined! And then: wait…
This past Thursday, our Bible study group zeroed in on this. What if the waiting is an important piece of the journey? What if the waiting allows for the disciples to sit with what Jesus has been teaching them all along? What if, in the waiting, they will finally begin to understand that the transformation of which they will be a part is about more than their own lives, their own histories, their own nation? // As difficult as it is to be told to wait, some part of us knows that waiting, being still, allowing space for things to simmer or to settle, is part of what it takes to deepen understanding or gain insight or listen more carefully to what we have already received. The waiting is preparation for what comes next. It may be the case that if we rush forward before waiting for discernment, cultivation of spiritual and emotional resources, and wisdom, we could do damage to ourselves and to others. We might undermine a good idea or project if we try to push it forward before it becomes clear that the time is ripe.
Much of that, however, may seem more applicable to times when we choose to wait. But where we are right now is a forced waiting, at least for those of us paying attention to the science and guidance of public health experts. And it may be that the fact of waiting, of not knowing the timeframe for when we will move from one phase to another in this time of pandemic, is its own spiritual practice. We want to come up with an action plan, to know how to adjust our budgets, to strategize for what’s next. We want to fix a new date for the wedding, the Memorial or Celebration of Life service, the retirement or graduation party, and on it goes. And there is only so much of that we can do. Over these months information has trickled out and changed often, messages have been less than clear and the reality has been emerging and evolving. Without information and a firm end-date, planning simply can’t happen. We are clearly not in control. Many of us struggle mightily in this reality. The invitation is to release constant control, planning, and production mode and just be. WAIT.
The guidance given in our texts today is first to pray—the women and men who waited in Jerusalem prayed, they drew near to God to speak and to listen. And 1 Peter reminds us to humble ourselves, acknowledging our dependence upon God; to let God hold our anxiety, because God cares and wants to help us; to be disciplined and alert—that is, to pay attention, to stay awake and open to God’s presence; to resist the devilish (literally from the Greek “slanderous”) voice that will want to distract you and fill your head with lies and destructive thoughts; to remember our solidarity with others all over the world who are suffering, too. On this last point, I hope that in our waiting we recognize what I’ve been saying for months: we are all in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat. Some of us are in secure situations that will weather the storm. Others are in situational “boats” that have been waiting for generations to receive the resources they need to mend and become more safe and sound. //
Perhaps, in our waiting, we might ponder what it means to be “restored.” This word that initially drew my attention, the word translated in the NRSV as “restore” in both Acts 1 and 1 Peter 5, is not actually the same word. What I discovered is that the Greek word used in the disciples’ question, apokathistémi, means “to re-establish, give back, set up again.” It’s a word that looks backward—not necessarily in a bad way—but in a way that longs for a good parts of the past to be restored, perhaps in a way that is more just than before. The word in 1 Peter, katartizó, means “to prepare, to perfect for its full destination or use.” This word leans into the future and tends to evoke a sense of equipping for a whole new reality.
As we grapple with this time of waiting, it is OK to long for good parts of our lives to be restored—singing together, dinner parties, being able to be present with loved ones who are celebrating or suffering, giving and receiving care and service, the list could stretch on. And it is also important to pay attention to the ways God is at work preparing and perfecting us for completely new ways of living together, the ways God is restoring us in ways that will enable us to flourish in a new reality.
Perhaps the message is that we are called to be restored not after the waiting, but in it. God is at work to prepare and perfect our hearts, our minds, our priorities, our awareness, our faith, hope, and love. And for what? To be open to the power of Spirit who comforts us in our pain and struggle, nudges our conscience, stirs our dreaming, touches our hearts and inspires new vision and new life. And through the power of Spirit, to emerge from this time of waiting, isolation, and struggle ready to live more gently and justly, more aware and awake, more committed to addressing the gross inequities and injustices so starkly revealed in this time, and perhaps with a more perfect appreciation for the little things that are so easy to take for granted when time seems more in our control.
Can you actively wait, open to God’s restorative power in the midst of frustration, boredom, anxiety, and grief? The promise is that fresh power, a big vision, and new life will come not just for you, but for all. In due time…