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“Catching Flies”

Date: April 21, 2020/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

April 19, 2020

Acts 1:1-14

A few years ago, when I was at my folks’ house for Christmas, I caught part of a show they liked to watch, Undercover Boss. I’m not sure if it’s still on (reality shows really aren’t my thing, other than a couple of cooking competitions), but maybe you’ve seen it; they had the owners of various companies go and work among their employees for a time, to see what it’s really like.

This particular episode featured the Nestlé Toll House Cookie shops, where you could go up and buy cookies, a few different varieties, individually or by the dozen. The owner of the company was working in one of the little shops, and the manager was training her on company policies. One of those was that every transaction with a customer was expected to be completed, from “How can I help you?” to “Thank you, come again” in 45 seconds. 45 seconds! People don’t like to wait, so we won’t make them wait; everybody is in and out in three quarters of a minute.

It turned out that the owner discovered her policy was impossible. Sometimes, in order for the customer at the counter to receive proper service, the people behind them have to wait a little longer than 45 seconds to move up in line.

There are times when waiting is necessary. But we don’t like it.

When we’re at the grocery store, we look for the shortest line at a checkout lane; and if another lane seems to be moving faster, sometimes we switch lanes—which, for some perverse reason, tends to cause the new one to come to a complete stop. We’d have been better off to have stayed put and waited in our original lane.

And heaven help the person behind someone who is still paying by check or cash. There are people who get really irritated with a check-writer or cash-user, although honestly I don’t really see those kinds of transactions taking a whole lot longer than the person who waits until everything is rung up to insert or swipe their debit card. Walmart offered an option for paying with your phone, but in my experience it took longer for the app to load up, get through the password process, and get the little code on the screen scanned, than it would for me just to get out my doggone card and use it.

If we go to a restaurant—I promise we will get to go to restaurants again someday—if we get there and there are a bunch of people waiting, and the host says it’ll be a half hour, 45 minutes, even an hour till we can get a table, a lot of us will just turn around and go somewhere else rather than sit and chill for awhile.

We don’t like to wait! And right now, that’s what we’re having to do, all of us; and a lot of us are getting tired of it.

Mike and I generally like each other pretty well, but right now if we’re in the same room for more than about five minutes, we get to carping and sniping at each other about stupid stuff. Friday morning he was at the stove cooking bacon, and he got bent out of shape because I was staring into space in his general direction while I was listening to a webinar; and I got bent out of shape when he turned on the garbage disposal and I couldn’t hear the webinar. Luckily, we have a big house and are generally able to keep out of each other’s way when we’re in this kind of mood; but not being able to go anywhere is getting to us, like it is to a lot of folks.

Sometimes we have to wait. It’s a fact of life. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to like it.

We may try to eliminate as much waiting as we can, but that sometimes backfires—like when we change lanes at the grocery store and then the new lane stops moving. Or we get to a restaurant and they tell us we’ll have to wait 20 minutes for a table, and we don’t want to, so we go up the street to a different restaurant, only to discover their wait is 30 minutes. Or we call some customer-service desk and get put on hold, and we just hang up and call back. When we do that, we actually lose our place in line, and in the time it takes us to hang up, redial, and navigate through the recordings and “Press 1” menus, several other people have gotten ahead of us, so we have to wait that much longer.

Right now folks really want to get out from under stay-at-home orders, back to work, back to eating at restaurants, back to going where we want and doing what we want—and of course businesses are anxious to get back open because, of course, when they’re closed, they’re not making any money, which means supplies can’t be bought and bills and employees don’t get paid. However, the experts are telling us that if we go back to normal too soon, all the benefits of the stay-at-home orders will be erased and the virus will come roaring back; in other words, if we just wait a little longer, we will be a whole lot better off. But we don’t like it.

We want action. Waiting is a waste of time. We think, “I’ll never get back the two minutes I had to stand in line because they had to call for a price check on that woman’s laundry detergent.” Or, “I’ll never get those three weeks (or four, or six) back that I spent in lockdown.” It doesn’t matter whether those two minutes or three weeks, or four, or six, or whatever were going to be spent productively; we want to be in charge of our own time.

And there it is: Waiting means our time is under someone else’s control, and we don’t like that.

During this scary time, we’re starting to hear some people complaining about their rights being violated by the government telling us we have to stay home. But as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.” Our right to go where we want and do what we like is limited if going where we want and doing what we like has the potential to harm someone else; and that’s what we’re up against here.

And we might express it in terms of violation of rights and freedoms, but the reality is that we simply prefer to be the captain of our own ship, and when we have to wait, we aren’t. Someone else is in charge of our time, where we can go and what we can do. Our lives are out of our control.

But in just about every life there are in-between times when we have to wait. We’re in one of those right now, all of us, and we don’t really know when it’s going to end. We were thinking maybe the end of April—but the assorted city and county governments of the Kansas City metro area just extended their stay-at-home order to May 15. The state of Virginia has extended theirs through the beginning of June.

We may have to wait a little longer—maybe a lot longer—but I just think it’ll be worth it if it keeps some folks from getting sick, or at the very least keeps everybody from getting sick all at once and overwhelming our doctors and hospitals.

Our Scripture reading today is about an in-between time and people who are having to wait. Since Mark’s resurrection story is so short and there really isn’t much after it—like there is in all three of the other Gospels—we have jumped straight from Mark to the beginning of Acts, and the disciples’ last encounter with the risen Jesus. He has been among them, Luke says, for forty days (which may actually be a literal forty days, an allusion to the forty years Israel wandered in the wilderness, or just Bible talk that means “a long time,” like today we might say “eleventy-nine days,” a totally made-up number that still gets the point across). He had shown himself and made clear to a whole lot of his followers that he had been raised, and he continued to teach them, so they could take up their own ministries once he was gone. And here at the beginning of Acts, he leaves them—but not totally alone, as it turns out.

Before he goes he tells them a couple things. One is that they will, at the right time, be his witnesses in Jerusalem, all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (v. 8). And he tells them to wait. Before they can go out to be witnesses, they have to spend some time waiting. They needed to receive the power of the Holy Spirit before they would be effective witnesses, and that was still a ways down the road.

We know that the time between this conversation and Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to them, was only ten days, but did they know how long it’d be? Or were they like us, just parked in one spot without really knowing when they’d be able to move again?

It doesn’t look to me like they had a date certain. Jesus says it will be “only a few days,” but have you ever noticed that we don’t all define “a few” in exactly the same way?

And so they must wait. Jesus is lifted up and out of their sight, and then…they wait.

Do you suppose they got as impatient as we often do while waiting? Did they post little mini-tantrums about their waiting time on their Facebook or Twitter? Did they sigh petulantly several times over the course of each day the Spirit didn’t show up? Did they turn to one another and complain about how long it was taking?

Well, that’s sure not the way Luke tells the story.

What are you doing while you wait?

I know some of you are checking in with one another by phone. Some of you are still working, at least some of the time. Some of you are catching up on reading or crafts or binge-watching some TV series you haven’t been able to watch because you were busy.

If you’re like the folks who are on my Facebook feed (I’ve given up Twitter for the time being because it was putting my stress level in the stratosphere), you might be doing a lot of baking. It’s amazing how many folks, myself included, have sourdough starters going right now. (Good thing, too, because apparently people have moved on from hoarding toilet paper to hoarding yeast, of all things.)

Personally I’m taking an online class, have attended a couple webinars that I think will be of help to not just me but the church as a whole, and yes, I’m baking. I’ve also been posting daily Morning Prayers on the church’s Facebook, for the last week live at 7:00 every day, which anybody who knows me very well is aware is a little bit of a stretch. I hope some of you are finding these Morning Prayers a helpful way to begin your days. God willing, I will continue that even after the lockdown is lifted.

And that brings me back to our reading for today.

The disciples, after watching Jesus be lifted up and enveloped in a cloud out of their sight, after two angels come and tell them to stop standing around with their mouths open catching flies and staring at the sky where Jesus appeared to have gone, spend their waiting time doing two things. They went back into Jerusalem, back to “the room upstairs where they were staying”—which could well have been the same upper room where they had shared the Passover meal a few weeks earlier, before Jesus was crucified—and they stayed there together: the eleven disciples, the women who’d been with them all along, Jesus’ mother, and his brothers. And they prayed.

The rest of the first chapter of Acts tells us about the congregational meeting they held to choose a replacement for Judas; and even that was bathed in prayer. For ten days, between Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost, the disciples gathered in community and prayed. They waited, and they prayed—together.

It occurs to me to wonder what we would be saying to the world around us if we spent this in-between time, this uncertain season of waiting, praying together, in spirit even though we can’t be together physically.

And do you know what? Through the rest of Acts, the early church kept it up. Every day, but especially when they had a decision to make, like calling the first deacons or deciding whether and how the church would admit Gentiles, the community prayed. I do hope we’ll do the same, even after our stay-at-home orders are lifted and we start trying to resume some semblance of a normal life.