By Pastor Monica McDougal
Scripture Acts 1: 1-11
You’re likely familiar with the phrase, “A watched pot never boils.” It’s an English idiom used to mean that if you’re waiting intensely for something to happen it will feel like it’s taking longer to happen than if you busied yourself while you wait. The phrase is attributed to Poor Richard’s Almanack, a yearly publication written and printed by Benjamin Franklin. The phrase was first published in the 1785 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack and was phrased, “a watched pot is slow to boil.” This is one of those phrases that I heard often growing up. To be honest with you, I’m not the most patient person on the planet. My mom is known to say, “Patience is a virtue. It’s just not one that Monica has.” What can I say? I like for things to happen quickly and efficiently and when they don’t, I can get a little frustrated. One time I heard this phrase from my mom while I was literally waiting for a pot of water to boil. I was making pasta and as I waited for the water to boil, I just stood there in front of the stove staring at it. I was growing more and more impatient and exclaimed, “Ugh, it’s taking forever.” To which my mom replied, “Haven’t you heard? A watched pot never boils. Go set the table or something while you wait.” And of course, per usual, my mom was right. When I went and busied myself doing other things, by the time I returned to the stovetop, the water was ready and I didn’t feel like I had wasted 12 years of my life waiting for it.
As I read our scripture passage this morning from the Book of Acts, I was struck by how appropriate the phrase “A watched pot never boils,” is to this story. This passage details Jesus’s ascension into Heaven. Today is Ascension Sunday. In my experience Jesus’s ascension into Heaven is a day in the life of the church that doesn’t receive much fanfare. We enter into Lent by observing Ash Wednesday, we solemnly observe Good Friday, we celebrate the empty tomb on Easter morning. Heck, we even deck the church out in red for Pentecost. But, Ascension Sunday comes and goes like any other day. As I prepared to preach this sermon, I spent some time reading about Ascension Day and why United Methodists observe it. Ascension Day is observed 40 days after Easter, so technically that was on Thursday. It acknowledges the moment when the Resurrected Jesus ascends or goes up into Heaven to take his throne at the right hand of God and assumes the fullness of his reign as Lord of all the Earth.
The ascension is depicted in two Books in our Bible: The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. It is the very first thing detailed in the Book of Acts. The Book of Acts is a companion book to the Gospel of Luke. They share similar theologies and were almost certainly written by the same author. While Acts begins with the story of Jesus’s ascension, the Gospel of Luke ends with it. It is clear, then, that the ascension is crucial to the author of these books. The Gospel of Luke is dedicated to telling the story of the incarnation, Jesus’s life and ministry on earth. The Book of Acts is dedicated to telling the story of the early Church’s life and ministry on earth. The story of Jesus ascending is the bridge between these two books, leading the disciples from one era into another. Before, they were followers. Now, they are leaders. Jesus' ascension changes everything for them. It is not the end of the Jesus Movement, but rather the beginning.
So, no wonder the disciples are standing there, slack-jawed, staring up at the sky. This is the second time in 40 days that this man--their friend, teacher, Savior--was taken from them. The last time Jesus left, he came back three days later. Maybe if they just wait there long enough, he’ll show up eventually. But they quickly find out that standing there, staring up at the sky isn’t an option for them. Harkening back to the women’s discovery of the empty tomb on Easter morning as depicted in Luke’s Gospel, we are told that “suddenly” two men in white robes appear and they have a message for the disciples. They say, “‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’” Reading this reminded me of that moment with my mom in our kitchen. Staring up at the sky, like me staring at that pot of water, wasn’t going to get the disciples to their destination any quicker. It was simply wasting time.
So, the disciples then departed and returned to Jerusalem where they devoted themselves to prayer until the time of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon them so that they could begin their mission to be witnesses of Jesus Christ to all the ends of the earth. And thank God they did.
I titled this sermon today, “It’s Not Called the Book of Waits.” You might be surprised to know that most of our Biblical books did not have titles when they were written but received titles later on by church leaders. The Book of Acts, also known as the Acts of the Apostles, was first called by this name by Irenaeus, an early Church father, in the late-2nd century, over 100 years after the book was written. The name comes from the Greek word práxeis (Πράξεις) meaning deeds, doings, or acts. This title captures the Book’s enduring legacy: the apostles ensured the survival of the movement Jesus began by acting, by turning their heads away from the sky and getting to work. Life as a Jesus follower in those early centuries was not easy. It required taking great risks, going against the establishment, putting one’s life on the line. It required boldness in word and deed. It required support and solidarity.
Movements often die without their founders. When the person whose vision you’ve rallied behind is gone, it is easy to lose sight of that vision altogether. For some movements, that happens almost immediately, for others it happens slowly over time. The apostles ensured the movement's survival throughout their lives. I wonder if we can claim the same? I wonder if we can honestly look at ourselves and say with confidence that we are doing all that we can to ensure the survival of Jesus’s movement and ministry in our world today? Or are we standing there, staring up at the sky while others dismantle it brick by brick in the name of hatred, power, and greed?
As I prepared this sermon today, I was reminded of a conversation I had in college. I was asked to guest preach at a small church near my university. I preached a sermon on Amos 5, one of my favorite passages. Specifically, I love verse 24, which says, “Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” My sermon was about what I believed was our moral imperative as Christians to respond to injustice in whatever ways we can. At the end of the service, a woman approached me and told me that my sermon was good, but that I should, “stop worrying about the inevitable.” She went on to say that injustice and evil were facts of life; She had made her peace with the fact that there was “nothing she could do” and that all we could do was wait to be liberated from evil through our deaths. Now, don’t get me wrong, I agree that in death we are liberated from evil, suffering, pain, and injustice. That is crucial to my personal theology of death and dying, that our lives after death with God are better than our lives here on earth. I believe that, I do. However, what I vehemently disagree with is that evil, suffering, pain, and injustice are inevitable and that there’s nothing we can do about it.
For starters, if evil and suffering were inevitable there would be no point in following Jesus. There would be no reason for us to have been commanded to love our neighbors. Furthermore, I believe that theology is harmful because it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where we become convinced that evil systems, structures, peoples, and actions can’t be stopped so we continue to allow them to happen.
On April 20, 1999, I was 15 days shy of my 5th birthday when 13 people were killed in Littleton, Colorado at Columbine High School. In the 23 years since that tragedy, at least 169 people have been killed and 385 people have been injured in school shootings in this country. Throughout my entire academic career from Kindergarten to college, I went through countless active shooter drills and trainings. I would walk into classrooms and make a mental note of all the exits, hiding spots, furniture that could be used to barricade a door, objects that could be used to disarm potential shooters. When I was in middle school, a gun threat was made at the high school my brother attended. It, thank God, turned out to have no credible threat attached to it, but I wondered if my town would be the next headline, the next hashtag. It’s been 23 years and I remember all of those shootings vividly. I can tell you where I was when I heard about the Amish schoolhouse, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Florida, and just four days ago... Ulvade, Texas. And after each of these tragedies, a debate erupts over the cause: Is it about guns? Is it about mental illness? Is it about misogyny? Is it about violent video games? We argue about what is causing a clear pattern of violent behavior in our country and then we do exactly nothing about any of it and then we are shocked and outraged when it happens yet again.
And look, I know some people think it’s too soon to talk about this tragedy, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s been 23 years. 23 years waiting for the water to boil. 23 years of staring up at the sky waiting for change to come. 23 years and 169 lives, almost all of whom were children. This week as the news coverage of the murders of 2 teachers and 19 children at Robb Elementary School in Ulvade, Texas has aired, I was reminded of that conversation I had at that church in college when I read a tweet from a Congresswoman that read, “You can’t legislate away evil.” And you know, maybe that’s true. But we also can’t wait away evil either. As tragedy after tragedy, massacre after massacre, wages war on our lives and our sense of safety, we wring our hands and shake our heads and think, “Where is Jesus?” We stand there, staring at the pot of water, wondering when Jesus is going to show up and make it boil. Meanwhile, we haven’t even turned the burner on yet.
And look, I know that it’s daunting and exhausting and scary. We look at the news and the world around us and it’s so much. Not one of us can single-handedly bring an end to gun violence, especially overnight, but no one is asking us to do it alone. There’s a reason that Jesus surrounded himself with many followers and not just one. He knew that when he left, that they would need each other. Each one of us, working together can make a difference in this world. We see it all the time. When communities come together to rebuild after storms, to to the streets in protest, to flood the phones of elected officials when demanding change, to gather donations of food and clothes, to donate blood and register people in the living donor database. We can affect real change if we are willing to try--if the Church becomes more than just a place you park yourself for an hour once a week.
Next Sunday is Pentecost, and the hope of Pentecost is that God’s promise has been fulfilled. That God’s Spirit, the abundant overflow of God’s love and grace, has been poured out over all of creation. That the Spirit is at work in all people and all places. That’s the Good News of the ascension. Jesus had to ascend in order for God’s presence to return through the Spirit, so that ALL people could experience God. The angels told the disciples to move, to act, to quit looking for Jesus in the sky where they last saw him, but to seek him to the ends of the earth. To let the Spirit transform them, move them to action. Thousands of years later, we too have been gifted the Spirit and we too have to act. We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus, going to the ends of the earth so that all people can experience the transformative grace of God. And we have all that we need to do just that. If only we quit staring up at the sky and get to work. God empowers us to act in ways that make God’s Kingdom a reality not just in death but in the here and now: Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done. On Earth as it is in Heaven.
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