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Feast of the Ascension, May 8, 2016

Wait for the gift. Go back to where you were and wait for the power to come down upon you. The Holy Spirit is on the way so, seriously, wait for the gift.

Since this Ascension lesson comes to us on Mother’s Day, it’s tempting to think of the great joy that can result from a baby, who makes us wait nine months…but not all of us can have babies. However, all of us are pregnant with something: some idea, some ability, some understanding that the world really needs, and which can come only from us.

You have inside you something the world longs for, but you are asked to wait. Why? Two things, I think: the time is not ready, or we are not ready. Now there’s little we can do to prepare the world, but we can surely try to prepare ourselves.

Jesus says, Go back to where you were and wait for Holy Spirit power to come down upon you. In the meantime, is it a pretty mean time? Well, some would say that, but I’m not so sure. I think there are wonderful advantages to waiting, for having time to prepare. Let’s reflect together on some of them, using examples good and bad. We will, of course, begin with the latter.

Once upon a time, in a parish far, far away, there was a candidate for holy orders. She was older than the general run of aspirants; she’d already had a career in another field. In her mind, she had little time to waste, so she had to convince her lay committee to say yes quickly. Questions about lay ministry were tossed aside; she wanted ordination, and she wanted it now.

You will not be surprised to learn that her lay committee did not hear God calling for any rush to judgment. One of her comments was of particular concern to them. She was asked to talk about what she had done prior to entering discernment. “Oh,” she said, “I wasted 20 years of my life.” They were absolutely astonished. Wasted?!? Had she not learned anything in that long, long time which might be of help to her in ministry? Turned out it was not just a flip response: she really believed those 20 years were of no use. No preparation had been taking place, because no reflection had been happening.

Her committee truly helped her. They helped her enter a period of reflection…that’s what people who care for us will do. We need sisters and brothers. The wisdom of God sends us time for reflection, but our friends know that we must do the reflecting. Then we will see the results.

Miss Rosa Parks did not just suddenly sit down on that bus and refuse to get up; she had been preparing for nonviolent protest her whole life, so when she did act, she was effective. Judge Frank Johnson did not just suddenly begin deciding equal-rights cases willy-nilly; for a very long time, he had been building up the enormous courage it would take to uphold the Constitution in Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s. They are heroes, people who practiced so they could move when the world caught up to them.

Queen Esther is a hero, who not only prepared, she asked her friends to hold a prayer meeting for her…so that, as she waited, she might be completed in courage, equipped to go in to the king and save the Jews despite her doubts and fears. Suddenly the time was exactly right, urgent in fact, and her relative Mordechai had challenged her by saying, “Who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

Esther’s prayer meeting is important. People who care for us will support us in preparation as we wait. They will help us hear God. Theologian Sarah Coakley emphasizes how crucial it can be to open oneself in prayer, to stop talking and start listening…so God can be God, so God can interrupt our self-focused monologue.  As some folks suggest, just “get over yourself.”

Prepare, listen…and reach some tentative conclusions about training practices. Here are two examples, young and old. We will, of course, begin with the latter.

At age 95, Pablo Casals was arguably the best cellist the world had ever known, certainly the best who was then alive. Yet every day, Pablo Casals practiced playing the cello for five hours of grueling exercises and complex performance pieces. One of his master-class students asked him, “Maestro, at your age and great level of competence, why do you spend five hours a day practicing?” 

“Because,” Casals replied, “I think I’m making some progress.”

Beginning at age 12, Malala Yousafzai sometimes spoke out about the importance of education for girls, but she always did her homework. Radio talk shows, press coverage, threats from terrorists, attacks from murderers, hospital rehab that was as painful as the attack, becoming the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Prize, whatever…there she was: biology, algebra, English literature, homework.  One reporter asked her, “Young lady, at your age and level of international fame, why do you still bother with schoolwork?”

“Because,” she replied, “I must be true to what I value.”

Wait for the gift, Jesus says.  Prepare, listen, train yourself to make progress and stay true to what you value.  The Apostles discovered joy that fed their souls, even in tough times. When the Holy Spirit gift came, they were ready to act.

Results may vary. Here are two examples from individuals who are also heroes. The first is Anna Mae Bullock. Never heard of her? Perhaps you know her better by her other name, Tina Turner.  Tina is my role model for what it means to be a little old lady. She grew up dirt poor in Nutbush, Tennessee, and was for many years an abused wife, but then hard work and great talent led her to a life of comfort. Sadly, she found that comfort got in the way of her pipeline to God, so she entered a period of true reflection and waiting.

She prepared, she listened, she trained to make progress and stay true, and the result was not a total shift in focus; it was a realization that her gift was hidden deep inside what she had already been doing. So at the age of 70 – that’s seven-zero, my friends – Tina Turner gave the world her “50th Anniversary Tour,” the most explosively wonderful musical bombshell ever recorded…watch the film; she is amazing! And after her 76th birthday party last November (you can check it out on YouTube), she released gospel recordings that combine her Baptist upbringing with the Buddhist sensibilities she developed while waiting. She is her own self, God’s true Tina.

By contrast, a totally different result came from Eugene Peterson’s time of waiting, preparation, listening and training. Gene had been a Presbyterian minister doing the same things over and over for 40 years in the same Maryland suburb. But he had always rankled at the way translators turned Hebrew and Greek scriptures into stilted, formal, boring English…when he knew the originals he studied at Johns Hopkins were earthy, idiomatic, sexy, bold and exciting. He entered a period of waiting and preparing, gathering courage he would need.

And on the occasion of his 60th birthday, a newer truer Gene gave the world a whole new way of hearing the old, old stories. It’s called The Message, a Holy Spirit gift if ever there were one. People who never read the Biible read this Bible and fall in love with God. Tina went deeper; Gene went worldwide. Both of them are cool.

What will you do while you wait? That’s between you and God. Prepare, listen, train to make progress and hold fast to your values. Then, in the fullness of time, you will be ready to receive the Holy Spirit gift…and deliver to the world your own precious gift. Praise be to God for the holy time of waiting. 

Amen.

     -- Prof. Patricia G. Bleicher