Sermon, May 8, 2016

Stay Here Until You Have Been Clothed with Power 
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
May 8, 2016   Seventh Sunday of Easter, Ascension Sunday
Revelation 22; Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53

The Holy Spirit came upon the Virgin Mary. The Holy Spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism to drive him into the wilderness. The Holy Spirit filled Jesus with power for his ministry. The Holy Spirit was his final promise to his disciples. The Holy Spirit would come after he was gone to guide and empower them to be the body of Christ doing his works in the world.

Our task as followers of Christ is to wait for the Holy Spirit to act in, through and among us. “Stay here until you have been clothed with power,” Jesus tells us. Then we can be witnesses. Then the Spirit will guide and empower us to take Christ’s message out to the world through works of healing and mercy, justice and peace.

Wait, the scriptures tell us. Wait for the Spirit to come upon us with its power.

Kathryn Kuhlman was a well-known American faith-healer in the mid-Twentieth Century. She would preach to large crowds of people. Many would come in with cancer or in a wheelchair and walk out healed. Sometimes the crowds would have to wait a long time for Kuhlman to come onto the stage, though. They would sing hymn after hymn, until finally she would appear. Asked why this happened, she answered that she had to wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon her. She knew she could do nothing without it.

John Milton is considered one of the greatest poets of English Literature, coming just after Shakespeare in both chronology and reputation. He began studying for the priesthood but decided to focus on poetry instead. He got involved writing theological and political pamphlets during the English Civil War on the side of the Puritans and Commonwealth. He traveled extensively and served as a government official. Then he became blind at the age of 46.

Milton wrote the sonnet printed in the bulletin when he first became blind and was despairing that he would be able to continue serving God as he had. It begins heartbreakingly,

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide…

Milton compares his situation to Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), in which a master gives three servants large sums of money called talents to steward while he is gone. Two invest their money and make interest on it. The third buries his one talent, unwilling to risk investing it, and does nothing with it while he waits. The master returns and is so angry at the wasted talent that he casts the servant into outer darkness.

Milton feels that his “one Talent that is death to hide” is now useless. He cannot invest himself using his gifts because of his blindness, even though he yearns to serve more than ever. The poem goes on,

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask.

The word fondly meant in those days “foolishly.” It is a bitter question, a grievous cry to God asking, “How can you expect me to serve you when I have suffered this loss?”

Milton’s answer to himself is to be patient. The poem ends with these famous lines that speak wisdom to his foolish despair:

“God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Milton tells himself that even if he cannot travel the earth as he once did involved in important affairs, even if he must patiently stand near the King’s throne waiting to be given something to do, he is still serving. He is still doing what God calls him to do if he is waiting for the Spirit to guide and empower him to undertake some task.

In fact the King did give him something to do. The Holy Spirit came upon John Milton, and he wrote Paradise Lost, considered one of the greatest poems ever written, as he stood and waited.

The Interim period between settled pastors is a time of waiting, and yet it can also be one of the most exciting and creative times in a church’s life, if it waits for the Holy Spirit as Kathryn Kuhlman did, and John Milton did, and the first disciples did.

Today’s scriptures and hymns show that waiting for the Spirit is not a dull or passive act.

The Book of Revelation is electrifying at the climax of its vision:

“See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end….” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Waiting means invoking fervently what we are waiting for, it means reaching out and actively inviting all those who are thirsting for the same thing. Waiting is a time of passionate hope and anticipation.

In the Book of Acts we heard Jesus tell the disciples to wait for the promise of God to be fulfilled, when they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Then as they were watching he was lifted up into the clouds. The disciples were standing there staring at the sky when two men in white robes appeared beside them. They asked why they were looking up after Jesus, when it was on earth that they would find him when he came again.

The disciples kept busy while they were waiting. They grew closer as a church. They organized themselves, chose leaders, and devoted themselves to prayer, so they were present, ready and waiting when the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost and clothed them in power.

Waiting does not mean standing around looking wistfully at what has gone. It does not mean watching paralyzed for a deus ex machina riding on wires and a painted cloud, coming down onto the stage to save the day. Waiting means being busy with gathering and building a beloved community, choosing and training leaders, worshipping, singing and praying together, showing up and opening up to the Spirit—the kinds of things this congregation has been doing.

Luke says the disciples returned to Jerusalem from the Ascension with great joy and were continually in the temple blessing God. Waiting in faith and trust is a joyous act.

One of our hymns says we will “pray and hope and labor till Christ’s new realm is come.” Another says, “only be still and wait…in cheerful hope, with heart content,” and “sing, pray and keep his ways unswerving, so do thine own part faithfully.”

Waiting means serving however we can now. “Life is what happens while we are busy waiting for other plans.” We have ways of serving even as we wait to serve in greater ways.

Today’s Introit is one of my favorite modern hymns. It is such a simple prayer. “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.” It is a prayer to sing in every moment, especially in an interim or waiting time. The only other words in the hymn are, “Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.” I think of a silver communion chalice. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.

Waiting means being melted and molded. Our old rigid ways need to soften in order for the Holy Spirit to shape us to new purposes for a new day. Our dross needs to be burned off so we return to the pure, childlike quality that Christ says we need in order to enter the realm of God and be his witnesses.

Melting and molding are not comfortable things to go through. They require struggle and change, they require letting go completely, like the acorns I talked about earlier in Easter Season that had to let go of their proud shells to soften and crack open and become oaks. Waiting can be painful as the Holy Spirit melts and molds us.

Then comes the filling and using. The Holy Spirit pours into us that cool, sweet, mouthwatering grape juice. The Holy Spirit lifts us and holds us out to serve a world thirsting for the love and compassion and hope and joy that are the blood of Christ flowing through us.

Waiting prepares us. Waiting shapes and opens us. Waiting brings into being new light that shines through us like a lighted window.

What are we waiting for? We have no way of knowing exactly, not in the church, and not in our own lives. We cannot know what adventure the Holy Spirit will give us next, but we do know that the words of Corrie Ten Boom are true. Corrie Ten Boom waited in a Nazi death camp, the worst kind of waiting imaginable, and she emerged melted, molded, filled and used to do beautiful things in the world. She liked to say that with Jesus Christ, we know that the best is always yet to come.

We do not know exactly what is coming in our church or in our own lives, but we know it will be more love to give and receive, we know that it will be more meaningful serving, we know that it will be more light to see and to shine, we know that it will be more and more joy.

So stay here. Just stay here, waiting, and you will be clothed with power. Come here and wait in all the glorious, active, hopeful ways that disciples have always waited for Christ.

The Spirit is coming soon.

Let us pray and wait in silence…