Fourth Sunday of Easter
In some ways, it is overwhelming to think about the future of the “Church” as we have known it. We have laid such high stakes on our buildings and structures, rituals and routines. Who would ever have imagined the possibility of worship being meaningful without sitting in our favorite pew or doing things the way it has always been? We are creatures of habit, are we not? We feel safer with routines that are familiar, even when they are not so good or continue past their time.
Here we are, weeks in with a brand-new way, one that is likely to go on for a very long time. One that will continue evolving. It’s not just us but people all over the world, from every tradition and every faith – and from none at all.
Still, there is something fascinating about this hour as it relates to the Church– capital C. It has caused many of us to think again about what we do and why. And of course, how. We ask ourselves what essential elements are necessary to invoke or rather celebrate the presence of God in our midst – whether we are two people, three people, or all by ourselves.
I don’t mind telling you that while it has only been Isaiah, Derrick, and me (along with Lisa and Marcus), there has been a palpable presence of the holy each Sunday morning. And I am guessing that you have felt some of that too if you have been worshipping with us wherever you are.
As we have made ourselves ready, our hearts been pried opened. The stillness of this time has rendered us vulnerable in so many ways. We have made room for God to break in on us, perhaps in ways that have not happened in a long time. Through tears, laughter, sharing, and our common circumstance, our hearts are ready to receive.
Alas, we have confirmed that our real work is about people. A few years ago, someone came up with a slogan: “Rethink Church.” It is hard to imagine what they had in mind, but I am guessing it was nothing like this. But here we are.
So many people have expressed the joy of worshipping with a mother or father, sister or brother, friends for the first time in years. We are hearing the same messages and prayers and finding fresh connections. I’m glad about that at the end of the day. What really matters? What is true?
We ask ourselves in this moment, “What does a healthy church look like?” The hungry look for food that nourishes the soul and spirit as well as the body. The tired and weary look to lay down their burdens and catch fresh glimmers of hope through word or song. The fearful listen for prayers that might connect to their anxiety. Even the curious stop by, just in case.
How do we forge ahead and uplift the essential messages of God’s inclusion of all people? We ask ourselves whether we have a little bit of faith, just enough to walk that lonesome valley, enough to declare on the saddest day that “the Lord is my shepherd.” And because God is the One leading and guiding me, I can trust somehow in God’s way, in God’s penetrating love through the hearts and minds of other people and my own, that God will provide.
Did you notice what we said in the Call to Worship? That old, old staple of the church, the 23rd Psalm? We took some liberties with Scripture and said the Lord is our Shepherd – your Shepherd and my Shepherd, the Shepherd of the sick and afflicted, the Shepherd of they who mourn, of the hungry and marginalized, the Shepherd of those who are weeping this morning unsure of the way forward. This same God is all our Shepherd and because we are all in this together, we cannot – we must not – think of ourselves in the singular any longer. None of us should want.
The Lord is our Shepherd. The Lord’s desire is that we all should rest by quiet streams and green pastures.
Our New Testament lesson gives a glimpse of what the early Church was like. Many scholars label the book of Acts as “the acts of the Holy Spirit.” We need to pick up on this because we are heading toward Pentecost in just a few weeks.
We especially need Pentecost this year. We need to memorialize that charismatic, unimaginable wind and fire of God breathing on us and igniting not only our souls, but also our hopes, minds, hands, and spirit. Power beyond us, motivation beyond ourselves, willingness to hang on and try again.
There was so much doubt and confusion, bewilderment, and hopelessness after the Resurrection. The leader was dead, and the Movement appeared dead as well. It looked like a mess of the highest sort. But if we read and listen carefully, we discover some clues that remind us that it is never over until God says it is over. It is never a complete mess when God is involved. This is our hope, is it not? Therefore, we cling to this so much.
The word “Church” was barely used in the New Testament. A more accurate reference is the Greek word ekklesia which means “the called-out ones.” It describes the people and not the building. In early translations, the ekklesia meant the assembly, the congregation or believers, the gathered ones; those who have set themselves apart to be God’s presence and light in the world; those called together as the actual body of Christ. We come to the building for the sole purpose of being edified and built up, comforted, and strengthened, but we have been reminded that we don’t necessarily need a building to be refreshed and pushed out into the world for our real work day-by-day.
Despite their circumstance, Luke tells us that they were filled with a sense of awe and wonder. After the crucifixion, in that dark moment, amid death and seeming defeat, the people, the ekklesia, were filled with awe and wonder.
I hope we won’t miss those moments of awe and wonder still before us. Over these past few weeks, I have heard story after story of how people are rising; how love is rising in new and unexpected and unexplainable ways. Neighbor to neighbor, friend, and stranger. Generosity, kindness, thoughtfulness, patience, reaching out, check-ins, going the extra mile – all bound up together by our common reality. And I hope it never ends. It never has to stop, and we must not let it.
The world needs these hope-filled signs of humanity at her best. We need the Holy Spirit alive in every age and every circumstance in people – not brick and mortar. We need a spirit of truth and action, not of quiet passivity; a spirit that transforms people into the very image and essence of God. And oh, how ripe is this moment!
Those early gatherers (the ekklesia) cared about one another and their shared mission and purpose. A new standard of economic empowerment was ushered in as these new believers sacrificed and tended to one another. The rich gladly share with the needy. They had all things in common. Did they all agree on everything? I can hardly imagine that but nevertheless, their shared work and common purpose created a foundation that attracted people day-by-day and thousands were added to the flock.
Can you imagine what it would be like if all our gifts and opinions were blended for the common good with each person doing their part? Some have money – or more than others. Some have time – or more than others. Some have gifts and talents, creative ideas, and experiences. Some have good will and a positive attitude, but all give and all benefit. None feel more entitled than the other.
This give and take of shared life would turn the world upside down. And that is what it means to be the Church. And make no mistake about it, we all have something to offer. If we have breath, we have something. God set it up that way.
And maybe this is the right time to do a careful analysis, an assessment of what we truly bring to the table.
We can give a clean slate to someone who needs forgiveness. We can offer the gift of acceptance, the freedom for someone to be who they are in love, to not try to change a thing. We can give a laugh, a smile, or a thank you here or there. A little patience while the other works to get themselves together. We can give an empathic ear, where we place ourselves in someone else’s shoes – assuming they have shoes, and if they do not, we can go to our closet and give a pair away. We can give a heart of understanding because right now such things have great value.
I tell you I have appreciated every time someone has asked, “Cathy how are you doing?” and then stuck around long enough to hear the response without judgment. It has helped me. I have appreciated when someone has asked, “Do you need anything?” Or better yet, anticipated the need, thought about it, and acted on ahead of time.
“We are all in this together” is more than a slogan. It is church talk, God talk. Everybody is in it and everybody is somebody. For we all bleed blood; all tears are the same. All yearn for love, acceptance, and freedom, a small piece of the pie.
And this kind of thing is not without cost and it does not come cheap. It is radical and revolutionary; it goes against the grain. But oh, how sweet. How sweet and wonderful and life-giving – oh my! How hopeful, how extraordinary! Oh my! Oh my! How possible. How possible.