Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren
Maybe I’ve told this story before: when registering for my first year of seminary classes, every student had to choose between a “clinical” placement – as a chaplain in a hospital – or a “social” one – working in community services, homeless shelters, etc. To this day, I am not a fan of hospitals, but back then, they terrified me. I quickly checked the “social setting” box, hoping to avoid the intimidation of a giant institution, scary medical procedures and rules and regulations that I did not know about or understand.
A few weeks later, I received my assignment in the mail: I’d spend the year as a chaplain intern at Metro State Women’s Prison. It was like God saw my paperwork, chuckled, and sent me even deeper into the situations I declared that I did NOT want to experience (not, by the way, the last time that would happen).
At Metro, Chaplain Susan Bishop taught us newbies by the “sink or swim” method. We had a one day orientation that included a whirlwind tour, intense declaration of the federal laws we must understand and not break, and learning how to get through the multiple levels of barbed wire and locked doors. I was TERRIFIED of doing ministry in the prison. I wished, fervently, to be reassigned to a friendly hospital floor.
One of our requirements over the year spent as chaplain interns at Metro was to lead a Sunday evening worship service with the inmates. The women in charge of the gathering were just as regimented and traditional as any congregation you’ve been a part of: chairs arranged this way, leaders sat in this place, order of worship rarely deviated from the norm. When it was my turn to preach, I and several other of my fellow students showed up just in time, did our jobs and then stood, awkwardly, as the women mingled, chatted, and did the work of stacking chairs and sweeping floors.
Uncertain about our own role, now that the preaching was finished and the service was over, not sure if we were free to leave or should wait for Chaplain Bishop to escort us out to the front gate, we stood uneasily by the door. I got tired of standing still and watching others work and, formed deeply by the Brethren sense of service and working together, decided to make myself useful. I started stacking chairs. My fellow students joined in.
Chaplain Bishop, who had been deep in conversation with someone, noticed what we were doing, came across the room and told us to stop. “That is not your job,” she said, turning on her heel and returning to conversation.
Surprised and embarrassed, we students returned to standing around, awkwardly.
Later that week, in our classroom discussion, we asked Chaplain Bishop to explain what had happened. “You are not there to stack chairs,” she said. That’s actually a task required of these inmates. It’s part of their ability to attend church services and work with me in my office. Stacking chairs is NOT YOUR JOB. You’re there to be chaplains. Do THAT.
I think about that evening at Metro State a lot, especially over the last decade of ministry. I love working together. I like stacking chairs and sweeping floors. Painting chimneys, sorting sweet potatoes, walking in the CROP Walk, collecting disaster relief kits…these acts of service that we get to do together as a congregation are important! I learned about the value of service and the ways that relationships deepen over shared tasks long ago in the First Church of the Brethren kitchen. The ministry of stacking chairs is important.
But Chaplain Bishop was right: that was not my job in that moment. My job, as a chaplain intern in that prison where everyone had an agenda, a pile of paperwork to get done, a to-do list or a parole goal – a place where everyone’s interactions were filled with external expectations and processes was to be present. My job was to BE. My job was to pay attention, to listen, to show up as a witness without an agenda. My job was not to join in the busy-ness or the agenda-setting of the place; my job was to show up, wait for the Spirit, and pay attention when She showed up.
I did a lot of waiting and watching at Metro. I mostly felt like a useless presence and a burden while I was there: I couldn’t help inmates with their tasks and I made even more work for the employees who had to escort me and make exceptions for me and monitor my presence. I wished, every time I entered those gates, that I could be DOING something, stacking chairs or teaching classes or, for God’s sake, helping some of those women escape that awful place.
Instead, I showed up every Wednesday afternoon and sat, for four hours, without an agenda and without a to-do list. I showed up. Chaplain Bishop had left a list of women who might appreciate time with a chaplain. A guard called them up, one by one, and we sat in tiny cinder-block cells where I did nothing other than watch, wait, witness and listen.
Those hours in that tiny cinder block cell were excruciating, and they were deeply moving. I learned, that year, the importance of witness. Not preaching, not teaching, not leading, not even praying – though, if I did anything at Metro, it was that. Just being. Just watching, and waiting and listening. Showing up in the middle of a place where every single interaction seemed to be tinged with impatience, entitlement and agenda and attempting to inhabit a space without expectation, without agenda…just watching and waiting for the Spirit to move.
I learned to trust that She would.
Today’s text is the very end of Luke’s gospel. We have been moving through the season of Easter these last few weeks, remembering Jesus’ appearances to his followers after the resurrection, reminding ourselves of the promises he gave at that Last Supper. Today, we arrive at the story of Ascension. The church celebrates this day as the one when Jesus – after being crucified, killed, and resurrected – returns, again, to heaven. Jesus ascended into heaven.
His friends, who had grieved his death, been astounded to witness his resurrection and spent these last days – weeks?- in his resurrected presence – are now faced with losing their lord and friend and savior…AGAIN.
Jesus has been trying to reassure his disciples, trying, again and again, to interpret the scriptures for them so that they will understand why he is leaving them.
And then he says “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
In other words: I’m leaving. The Spirit is coming. Stay here – wait and watch – until the Spirit arrives.”
We hear a lot about the Great Commission, and even just last week we remembered Jesus’ words that those who believed in him would DO greater things even than he did. We remember Jesus as commissioning his disciples – and us – to GET BUSY, to DO the WORK, to follow in his footsteps.
But we sometimes forget that what Jesus actually told his disciples, in the moments before he ascended into heaven, was to SIT STILL AND WAIT until the Spirit showed up to lead them.
Stay here, he said, until you have been clothed with power from on high.
Can you imagine? “You want us to…wait, Jesus? Shouldn’t we be evangelizing? Shouldn’t we be taking care of all your followers? Aren’t there orphans and widows and lepers who need help? Isn’t there a revolution to be organizing? Didn’t you want us to be offering cups of cold water? Aren’t we supposed to be SERVING?”
Nope, that’s not what Jesus said. He said “Wait until the Spirit shows up and leads you.”
Luke’s gospel is actually a two-part series. This passage today, at the end of Luke, is not the end of the story. The book of Acts is Luke’s second episode, and we learn, there, that the disciples obeyed Jesus. They stayed in Jerusalem. They gathered together and devoted themselves to prayer. They got themselves organized, calling a new disciple, but other than that they didn’t do much. They prayed. They waited. They sat. They watched.
We don’t know how long that time of waiting lasted. We don’t know if the disciples were sitting and watching for days or weeks or months before the Spirit finally showed up.
We know – from our vantage point of a couple thousand years later – that the Spirit did show up; that Jesus’ promise was fulfilled; that the Spirit led those scared disciples out into the world, all the way through Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria into Rome and across centuries and oceans. We know that we are gathered as part of Christ’s body today because those first disciples stayed, sat, waited and watched. We know how the story went on from that moment.
But they did not know. In that moment, when Jesus told them to stay in Jerusalem and WAIT for the Spirit to show up and clothe them in power – which means, by the way, giving them a new identity as not only followers of Jesus but part of this mysterious divine relationship – in that moment, Jesus’ friends did not know how it would turn out. They did not know when or if the Spirit would arrive. They did not know what it meant to be clothed with Her power. They did not know what the Spirit would ask of them or what the Spirit would make possible. They did not know. They just knew that they trusted Jesus and Jesus had asked them to stay, watch, and wait before they did anything else.
I don’t know about you, but I am not very good at waiting. I get impatient. I want to GO. I want to DO. I want to SERVE. I want to collect food or deliver supplies or offer some kind of balm to the people who are lonely and in need. I want to be ACTIVE. Especially right now, especially after ten weeks of being stuck at home waiting and watching and wondering how much longer this time of staying-in-place is going to last, I would much rather be hearing a command from Jesus to “go into all the world,” to “visit the sick and those in prison.” I would much rather be receiving a word from the Lord to get in my car or hop on a couple of airplanes and go preach and lead across the country, like I had planned to be doing in this season.
I don’t know what you’d rather be doing right now, but I imagine that it has something to do with GOING and DOING and being done with all this WAITING and WATCHING.
And yet, here we are, in week 11 of this season of waiting, watching, and witnessing. There is good to be done – and we are doing it. Even those first disciples made sure that they were together, cared for, and in prayer. But Jesus told them to stay put, and so they did.
I wonder what Jesus is asking us to watch for, right now, when we are stuck in our homes, forced into slower rhythms, asked to live our lives by staying put. I suspect that Jesus is asking us the same thing he asked of those first disciples: wait for the Holy Spirit to show up, clothe you in power, and send you out into some unknown future.
We don’t know. Neither did they. But we do know that the faithfulness and obedience of those first disciples – their willingness to set aside their anxious energy, to settle in and stay put, to watch and wait in prayer, to submit their every action to the power and purpose of the coming Spirit – we KNOW that their faithfulness is the root and cause of our faith. If they hadn’t spent time watching & waiting then, committed to moving out into the world only when the Spirit compelled them to do so, we might not exist as followers of Jesus today.
So, friends, I am committing to another week of watching and waiting. I am entrusting my anxious energy and cabin-fever to the Lord. I will promise to be in prayer this week, to watch and wait for the Spirit to show up. Sometimes she takes a while. Sometimes the Spirit is a little slow-moving for our tastes. Sometimes we wish she’d hurry along and clothe us in power already so we can escape the prisons we make for ourselves.
But I am convinced that this is true: we are never abandoned. The Spirit always shows up. And when she does, man, you better watch out. Because being clothed in divine power is no small thing. When the Spirit shows up, we will be glad for all this time we’ve had to pray and discern and watch and wait and submit ourselves to the ways of God, extricating ourselves from the ways of the world. Because when the Spirit shows up, she’s gonna have WORK for us to do. We are going to be SWEPT up into the presence of a God on the move.
May we receive the gift of this time as just that – a gift. A command. An opportunity to obey the words of Jesus by staying put, waiting, watching and immersing ourselves in prayer. May we receive the gift of this time as an opportunity to prepare ourselves to be clothed in power. May we receive the gift of this time, knowing that we are not the first who have waited on the Spirit to move, and we will not be the last. May we receive the gift of this time in faith, in trust, and in gratitude. May it be so. Amen.