Dr. Fred Craddock tells the story of an annual Easter tradition at one church in Georgia. Every year, on Easter Sunday, the church was decorated with 500 Easter lilies. The lilies were arranged on the chancel in the shape of a cross, placed in each window of the church, across the altar rail, across the front of the baptistry – literally everywhere you looked on Easter morning, you could see Easter lilies! Each year, members of the church were given the opportunity to have one of the lilies placed there in honor or memory of a loved one for a contribution of $5. Only $5! And you didn’t even have to take them home with you after the service. The church would dispose of them. Everyone just assumed that they were taken to shut-ins or those in the hospital.
And this went on, year after year, until one Easter Sunday, after the worship service, a dear, sweet lady went back into the sanctuary after church. “I have an aunt who is in a nursing home,” she said, “so if you don’t mind, I’d like to take my lily to her. I’ll just pick one out.” Before anyone could stop her, she took one of the Easter lilies out of the window next to where she was standing. And in a voice loud enough to be heard in the farthest reaches of the church parking lot, she exclaimed with horror and dismay, “Oh, my God! It’s PLASTIC!” People rushed back into the sanctuary and began looking closely at all the Easter lilies, only to discover that every last one of the lilies was plastic!
There was a called deacon board meeting the next night. The pastor and the chairman of the deacons felt as if they were facing a firing squad, as one church member after another shot questions at them. “Just how long has this been going on?” “Where do you hide 500 plastic Easter lilies?” And the one question asked repeatedly: “What happened to all those $5 contributions?”
The chairman tried to explain that the money had not been used for dishonest purposes, that each year half of the money raised from Easter lily donations was placed in the general fund of the church. The other half was sent to denominational headquarters, to be used to finance mission work in Africa and South America and other places around the world. The pastor chimed in and said, “Yes, and do you know what usually happens to real Easter lilies, after the Easter Sunday service? Most people just take them home and water them for a few days, until the blooms fall off. Then they just get thrown away. We just thought that was a terrible waste, and you wouldn’t want to waste Easter, would you?”
Although I’d much rather have live Easter flowers than fake ones, there was something in that story that I think is important for us this morning, on this last day of the Easter season. Did you hear it? “It is a terrible thing to waste Easter.” And that’s what the disciples were doing on that Ascension Day. They were wasting Easter. They were wasting for the power of Jesus, the power to heal, to include, to love, and to change lives. They were wasting the power of witnessing the Way of Jesus to others. They were wasting the power of being a resurrection people. The disciples had become a waiting people, not a witnessing people… witnesses to the power of Jesus’ spirit to change the world.
As I previously said, today is the Seventh Sunday of Easter, the last Sunday of Eastertide before we move into Pentecost Sunday next week and the season of Pentecost. So, it has been seven weeks since Easter Sunday, can you believe it? It’s been seven weeks since the sanctuary was filled with the symbols of Easter and the vibrancy of resurrection life. It’s been seven weeks since the flowers and the lilies (yes, we use real lilies here), the lively energy of our children all dressed up in their Easter best and filled to the brim with candy, the buoyant and sturdy music meant to proclaim the vitality of Christ’s resurrection, the excitement of renewed energy to go out into the world and be an Easter people
All of that energy feels gone now, doesn’t it? It feels as if we are waiting for something, waiting for the next blaze of Holy Spirit energy, Pentecost, to come and enliven our souls. We’re weary and waiting, looking up into the heavens, hoping for the tongues of fire to flicker on top of our heads. We’ve been waiting so long! And I know we are tired. We are tired with life. We are tired of hurting. We are tired of being bullied. We are tired of the mean tweets, Facebook posts, and letters. We are tired of wars and rumors of wars. We are tired of mass shootings. We are tired of feeling helpless, like there is nothing we can do but give in to the frustrations and evils of the world. We are tired of waiting! “Come Jesus! Come back just as you promised you would. We are here waiting, looking up, eager for your spirit to reignite the fire in our souls. Come Jesus! Where are you?”
This brief time between Ascension and Pentecost was once designated by Karl Barth as a “significant pause” between the mighty acts of God, a pause in which the church’s task was to wait and to pray. So, we get this text for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, between Easter and Pentecost, in a time of expectant waiting for the Spirit. And yes, it feels like we are waiting. We are waiting for things to get better, for a change in leadership, for an illness to heal, for a paycheck to be deposited, for a relationship to mend. We seem to be waiting, even though the power of the Spirit calls out to us and moves ahead of us into Pentecost.
But the power we have in the Spirit and the knowledge we have of the lifechanging work of Christ and the hope we have in the resurrection demands something from us, demands a witness from us. Which is why we get those disgruntled angels reprimanding the waiting disciples by saying, “Why do you stand looking into heaven? There is work to be done. Don’t just look into heaven, bring heaven to the world. Help the church do the work of the resurrection and salvation. It isn’t by waiting that Jesus will return to you. It is by you going out and being Jesus to the world, by bringing life from death, by bringing healing from illness, by bringing hope from suffering, by bring love from animosity. It is up to you to stop waiting and to start witnessing to the power of Jesus Christ to bring life to the world.”
And I’m sure the disciples felt just like us. I’m sure they struggled with the absence of Jesus and the absence of hope. I’m sure the followers of Jesus felt like us as they gawked and gazed, watching Jesus being lifted up to heaven. The disciples in this text today were a stiff-necked people (literally in the Greek), as they gazed into heaven, looking after the ascended Jesus. But the messengers who came to the disciples told them that they would not receive the Holy Spirit until they were witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and all the earth. The power to change the world would only happen as soon as they stopped looking up into heaven and look into the eyes of those in the world who needed to know the good news. The disciples were to stop looking into heaven and start bringing heaven to all people.
Richard M. Landers in the Feasting on the Word commentary says, “Ascensions and moments of divine encounter can dazzle us so that we forget the surrounding world. We glory in the moment, only to find that God has moved on, and so must we.” And I know it feels as if there is a distance between us and Jesus in this post-Easter season. The disciples felt lost, abandoned, and afraid. And so do we. We peek into heaven hoping for some type of outstretched hand. But we must move through our grief and our fear and serve the living Christ who has ascended. Emily Dickinson wrote in one of her poems, “At least—to pray—is left—is left—Oh Jesus—in the Air, I know not which thy chamber is—I’m knocking—everywhere—” And the disciples stood there waiting, staring until he was out of sight, knocking on heaven’s door, hoping that Jesus would change his mind and come back to earth to finish what he had begun.
You know, I can imagine the disciples standing with their mouths agape, running through the scenarios in their heads about how long they would have to wait for Jesus to overthrow the powers of the world and usher in a new reality where God’s chosen people were in charge. They wanted him back, his spirit, his fire, his passion, his purpose. They wanted everything that God had promised and were disheartened that it had all ended like this. They didn’t want to move from that spot until everything had been changed as Jesus promised. But the angels knew that those disciples needed a push. The angels knew that these abandoned followers had a job to do, and that job wasn’t simply staring up into the sky. Pentecost was coming, the power of the Holy Spirit was about to set the world on fire. And if the disciples had decided not to witness to that power, then the Pentecost world would never have come into being. The angels needed to push the petrified followers out into the world to bring Pentecost to all people. The time for waiting was over and the time for witnessing had begun.
The excitement of that first Easter had died down and the angels had pressed the disciples to bring about the Spirit’s fire in the world. So, what were these early Christians supposed to do now? They were to stop waiting and be witnesses to the work of God’s spirit. They were to talk about the story of Jesus and how he brought the realm of God into a hurting world. They were to share the sacrament of bread and cup with all who were eager and hungry for faith. They were to baptize with water those who wanted to be immersed in God’s love. They were to baptize with fire those who were frigid with fear. They were to witness… and witness with power.
And that’s what the church today is supposed to do was well. Even though the excitement of Easter has died down, we must not wait until the next Easter to roll around again on the calendar. We must not skip over the power of Pentecost. We must hear Jesus’ last command to the disciples and be witnesses to all people of all nations about the inclusive and healing and reconciling and empowering love of Christ. We are called to be witnesses, Church! And it doesn’t have to be complicated or confusing. We simply have to tell our story of how following Jesus has changed our lives. We simply have to show through our actions that God is a God of love and acceptance. We simply have to be persons of goodwill who call all people to the table of the Lord. The absence of the earthly Jesus beckons us to search for God who is already present in this world. It is incumbent upon us to look for the movement of God, not just up in the clouds, but in the faiths and faces of all of God’s children. We need to relinquish our expectations of how God will move and simply follow the Spirit of Christ into this upside-down world. We need to stop waiting and go out and share the surging spirit of resurrection. We must be witnesses!
Is that you this morning? Are you ready to encourage the people in Dallas who need to feel the love of Christ, the power of the Spirit, and the hope of resurrection that their lives matter and that they can impact the world too? The Spirit is about to come upon us next week in Pentecost and it will be time to get to work… because we wouldn’t want to waste Easter, would we? Are you waiting or witnessing?