St. Paul’s Congregational Church, UCC
May 12, 2020: Easter 5A
Acts 7: 55 – 60; John 14: 1 - 14
Everything all feels so up in the air, doesn’t it.
When have so many people, everywhere, felt so uncertain, had so many unanswered and unanswerable questions all at the same time? When have so many plans been upended, suspended? When have so many guidelines been provisional, temporary, subject to revision? How long will this last? When will we get to go out/gather/travel/work normally/work at all/hug/feel safe again? Grief, illness, this unseen virus with its terrible tentacles that reach into our homes, churches, schools, hospitals, economy all leave us feeling unmoored, untethered, adrift, even more than we often do as humans. We may feel suspended, floating (not in a good way), unable to get a foothold on something solid and dependable, concrete and unshakeable. It’s all up in the air.
Now, here is the message of our lessons for today: yes, the feeling of uncertainty is real. Yes, the feeling of being off course without our regular patterns and way-markers is real. Yes, the longing for something unmovable yet lifegiving, solid yet sustaining, concrete yet creative is real. And yes, God has given us a way that is steadfast when all feels like sinking sand, a truth that is certain when all feels slippery, a life that is assured when all is shifting. God has given us precisely what we need for now and for all time because God gives us a person, Jesus, and makes us into a people – a church. Both of our lessons today bear witness to this assurance, this place to get a foothold, this pledge of security no matter what. This pledge of a loving presence, a loving guidance, no matter what.
Seems to me that’s exactly the conversation the disciples were having with Jesus in our gospel passage – they’re up in the air too, aren’t they. And they get reassurance, a promise, from Jesus: those who believe in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. And these words: I will do whatever you ask in my name.
So, now, what do we ask for?
The United Church of Christ, for many years, has challenged us to "imagine another world is possible" and to "imagine what's possible." Don’t we see that same theme here and in news commentary as well about the Covid-19 pandemic and the future that lies before us, a future and a world that we're finding awfully hard to picture? Doctors and public health experts try to imagine a solution that brings relief and safety sooner rather than later. We think we can't bear to go much longer without a word of hope, a light in this tunnel: a vaccine? An effective treatment? We look with hope to the experts to fix this immediate problem - we want something sooner rather than later, preferably that won’t require too much change in our lives, again – let us get back to normal, please. But the reality is, we will never get back to normal – we’ll enter a new normal – and we’ll need some imagination, some breaking loose, to do that.
Maybe we might use this time to let our religious imaginations flow in these hours of challenge and fear. Just think about the effects we’re seeing already in nature of our suddenly radically different lifestyles – the cleaner air and water – and imagine the effects of longer term meaningful changes in our use of God’s creation. Before and after pictures from around the world are stunning, aren’t they!
How and to what is God calling us? What’s been in front of us all along that we’ve been missing? Can we go beyond our usual categories of thought about what it means to be faithful, to be open to seeing and feeling God at work in the world around us, to listening for God’s voice – and then to be open to the transformation of our lives, of our church, and of the world? To what greater works are we called?
Yes, all congregations are called to be a safe haven, a refuge, a place of dignity and identity for those who seek a church home, with beliefs, stories, sufferings, and joys deep in the foundation of our shared experience. But there’s more - we are also called to go outside of our walls and share the good news of God’s love for all, to offer God’s hospitality to all. In what ways is God calling our community of faith to become more energetic in embodying hospitality, in welcoming people, in serving our neighbors, no matter the cost? And, how can we do this amidst the challenge of this pandemic?
We’re seeing examples of this in so many places: one local church is providing bags of Gatorade, a protein bar, and a personal note to health care workers in our area hospitals – so far, they’ve delivered over 5,000 packets – and participants are not only from this church but from many other towns!
Another church, this time in Massachusetts, found they had two cases of toilet paper they wouldn’t be needing any time soon – they were in touch with a senior housing apartment across the street and offered them – remember when that was hard to get? That project grew into a food pantry – those able came to the church to get bags of food – those not able to come received these precious gifts at their apartment door.
Yet another church is making fabric masks – they’re hanging them outside their building for anyone to take. Each day, volunteers check the masks and add a few more to the string as locals take what they need. The group has a bin with plenty of sanitized masks ready to go on the doors at any time. They continue to sew nearly full time at this point. And there has been a surge in demand after the Massachusetts governor issued an executive order requiring masks in public places. One woman wrote to the church thanking them after she drove around wondering where she could find some masks since stores were out of stock. She saw the masks hanging from the doors, stopped, and took some for her family.
There needs to be a balance, doesn’t there – we are called not only to gather in worship to strengthen our own faith and the faith of our congregation but also to look outside of ourselves – to do God’s work in our local community and as far as our reach, and our imagination takes us.
How do these weeks, these months, of being church in a new and perhaps disconcerting way, apart from one another, unable to congregate, lead to new perspectives about who we are as a community called and “gathered?” How do we connect with our brothers and sisters in faith? How do we do outreach in a world of social distancing, shelter in place? It’s a challenge of finding a whole new way of doing ministry, isn’t it. But we’re called to use our imaginations and then do it!
These days there are important ways in which we might seek to change the surrounding culture, bringing a prophetic voice to anything that harms any one of God’s children. This pandemic has brought front and center the weaknesses of our society in dealing with our neighbors, who are the outsiders, the reality of availability of health care, of safe and clean housing, of the need for food, of the poverty that’s around us that we don’t always see.
Martin Luther King several years ago noted, the church has too often been the “taillights” instead of the “headlights” in the journey toward justice and righteousness – the surrounding culture led the way and the church, ironically, had to catch up. How is God leading the church, leading us, in this effort?
Jesus assures us that if we know him, we know the one he calls Father, also. God is not aloof, or aloft beyond the troubles of this world. God is knowable because Jesus is knowable. And the God we know in Jesus Christ became flesh and dwelt among us, made a home among the poor, cared for the sick, lived humbly, fed the hungry, blessed children, washed the feet of his disciples, wept at the death of his friend, promised that death will not be victorious, met his disciples even when they had isolated themselves in an upper room, went ahead to prepare a place for us, and will come and take us to himself, that where he is, we may be also. God is with us, even in our vulnerability, our uncertainty, fear. How will we respond?
Let’s let our imagination run wild! We have a God-given power through the one who became flesh who is always with us!
Listen again to the words of Peter’s letter: We have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. And we have been empowered to live out that hope: You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.
Aren’t these good words to hear when everything all feels up in the air. Because what’s not up in the air is Jesus’ love for us and Jesus’ power to love us through any uncertainty. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Rock-solid. Not even a pandemic can change that. Praise be to our God! Let our imaginations run wild! Amen.