May 24, 2020 – Easter 7A, Ascension Sunday
Acts 1: 6 – 14; John 17: 1 – 11
Today we begin our meditation with a story from our Sunday School curriculum: The Cameron Street Fiesta.
People were friendly on Cameron Street, even the grown-ups. That was one of the good things about Cameron Street. Everyone looked out for one another. But there was one good thing about Cameron Street that was like no other street – the Cameron Street Fiesta.
This is how it all started – one day, Ramon’s mother and Mrs. Bileski were chatting. Ramon’s mother mentioned the fiestas they used to have when she was a child in Mexico. Mrs. Bileski thought a fiesta would be a great idea for a street party. Now, it so happened that Mrs. Bileski was one of those people who could really get an idea going. She and Ramon’s mom worked together and got everything organized for the party. There were costumes, pinatas, games, BBQs, and dancing. Everyone danced – kids, teens, moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas. It was a wonderful, unforgettable night.
That was a year ago. Since then the Bileski family had moved away from Cameron Street. Ramon felt very sad. He missed them. “I bet nothing happens this year, now that the Bileski family has moved away,” Ramon muttered. But the longer Ramon thought about it, the more he thought, “Maybe we could still do it.” Ramon went to his mom and said, “Mom, why don’t we get people together to have the Cameron Street Festival again this year?”
“Oh, Ramon,” said his mom, “The fiesta was a lot of fun, but it was a lot of work too. I don’t have the time for it this year. Just forget about it.”
But Ramon couldn’t forget about it. “I bet if we got different people to organize different parts of the fiesta, then we could do it,” he thought. “Mom knows what has to be done, she just doesn’t have time to do it herself. But she could tell us and we could give each family part of what needs to be done.”
Ramon persuaded his mom to write down a list of all the things that needed to be done. Then he got the kids of Cameron Street together and told them about his idea of families sharing the work for all the parts of the fiesta. “That sounds great,” the kids said. “We can do it.” Everyone chose a part and went to talk to their parents. The parents thought it was a great idea and gladly took their part. Everyone started to get excited remembering the good time they had the year before.
Pretty soon the day of the fiesta came and the whole neighborhood had a great time, even better than the year before. Near the end of the party, one of the neighbors called for everyone’s attention. He said, “Last year we had a fiesta because Mrs. Bileski was willing to do the work. Many thanks to Mrs. Bileski! But this year we are having our fiesta, because Ramon thought we could all work together and do it. He was right! Thanks, Ramon!”
Jesus’ disciples weren’t sure if they could carry on without him, just like Ramon’s mom wasn’t sure if the Cameron Street Festival could happen without Mrs. Bileski. Then the disciples remembered what Jesus had said to them about the Spirit of God being with them to guide them in every new situation. They realized that, together, with the same Spirit that was in Jesus, they could do even greater things than when Jesus was with them.
We’re at the end of Eastertide with the story of Jesus’ ascension to heaven and his promise that the Holy Spirit is coming, the Holy Spirit which will empower them to be witnesses to the ends of the earth. Like the disciples, we’re asking what’s next – a question with an even deeper meaning for us as we’re out of our sanctuaries, worshipping remotely – building a powerful recognition in new ways that the church is not the building; rather WE are the church, in the streets, in newly found sacred spaces, moving into a new creation, a new normal whether we’re comfortable with that or not. Next week, Pentecost, marks the birthday of the church – what does that mean in our times today?
We all yearn for a return to normalcy, don’t we – and this week we’ve been surrounded by news of re-opening of our country, wondering what does that mean. I’ve been on multiple zoom meetings with colleagues in ministry, in New Jersey, in the Central Atlantic Conference, in the Southern New England Conference, and the denomination, learning about and talking about what this means to churches: most conferences, including our own, have issued guidelines for churches as they discern the right time to re-open – we here at St. Paul’s have much work to do to review these guidelines and make our own decision as to what is right for us – keeping in mind, that safety for the most vulnerable among us is priority. I welcome your requests for copies of this information.
A colleague in Connecticut wrote to her congregation, “Our biggest concern is keeping everyone safe, and right now we can’t say we’d be able to be safe if we resumed Sunday worship in person. Everyone would need to be 6’ apart, everyone would need to wear masks, all surfaces would need to be sanitized, and bathrooms need to be cleaned and sanitized after each use. All the guidance coming out now is that choral and congregational singing require distance of over 20’ to be safe, and being inside for any extended period of time with the same group of people gives time for germs from one person to work their way across far distances. So, for now, we are holding off and reevaluating as new information becomes available. I know this isn’t encouraging news but it’s just not yet time.”
The Southern New England Conference of the UCC is strongly recommending that churches not re-open for in-person worship at least before the end of summer. Another recommendation is that churches re-open for in person worship when social distancing is relaxed.
Our own Conference Ministry Team is recommending that we continue to suspend in-person worship and gatherings until June 15. They write, “we know that this is a hard thing again to recommend – however, it is our opinion that your health, safety, and well-being are far more important than the current pressures to place profit and “liberty” above the lives of people.”
The Newman Congregational Church in Rumford, Rhode Island, has determined they will have no in-person services for at least the next year. The pastor reports that there is overwhelming support in his congregation for this decision, an appreciation that this decision is made from a place of love and call, to lessen the risk. When asked what criticism he’s received, he reports there is none! Oh yes, there is profound grief to this, but the responses have been understanding and they are hard at work in building a thoughtful plan to re-open.
Remember the Cameron Street Festival? Ramon’s mom wasn’t sure if it could happen without Mrs. Bileski. And remember that Jesus’ disciples weren’t sure if they could carry on without him? But, they did. They remembered what Jesus had said to them about the Spirit of God being with them to guide them in every new situation.
Today we’re in a radically new situation too: the church that continues on today is not the same church as “back there.”
Today the Spirit of God is with us to guide us to do even greater things than when Jesus was with those first disciples.
That realization, that promise is for us too, here at St. Paul’s.
But first, we have to answer some questions – we need to know who we are as church – then and only then can we build our plans for the future: questions like these:
Why and how are we church today? What are our strengths? What are our weaknesses? How are we using our building as a resource for our ministry? How will we use it in the future? Is there an opportunity to live in covenant with our sister churches to expand our ministry of compassion, of serving, of radical hospitality? How do we care for the “least of these”, the vulnerable, the hungry, the afraid, the lonely? What good news do we have to share?
These are hard times for all of us for sure: full of anxiety, fear, grief, loneliness, cabin fever is setting in, yearning for the way things were but, if we’re honest, we all realize that things will never be the same again.
Discerning where the Spirit of God is leading has always been a difficult task for the church. Where are we being called to remain faithful to the wisdom of tradition as we have received it, and where are we called to be open to the new possibilities of the present and the future?
As we seek to be the church in a world of great diversity and change, it is comforting to know that Christ’s prayer is for us as well: we’re all in this together, friends: may we one with Christ through the Spirit, even as Christ is one with God. Again, I’m happy to share resources with you all – the future is coming regardless if we’re prepared or not. Let’s meet it together!
What’s next for us? Amen.