Essential: Witness

Scripture: Acts 2:42-47

Back in England in the 1730s, a young Anglican priest and failed missionary named John Wesley began preaching in the streets and the fields. He preached about grace and he preached about holiness, and most importantly he preached about Jesus and how the path to salvation was open through him. People came to hear him by the thousands, at least as his journal tells the story. They heard his message and they believed, and then they asked a question: “What next?”

This was the beginning of the Methodist movement: a network of small groups where people held each other accountable to living out their newfound faith in their lives.  Faith, Wesley believed, shouldn’t just change you on the inside, but on the outside too.

17 hundred and 30 years beforehand, another crowd had gathered, this time in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Shavuot (Pentecost.) An ex-fisherman named Peter preached from the window of an upper room. He preached grace and he preached about God’s power and most importantly he preached about Jesus and how the path to salvation was open through him. And people stopped to listen, and they heard his message and believed.

In the story as we have it, at least, they never explicitly ask the question “What next?” But we do hear what comes next. “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This first verse describing the very first post-Pentecost church should be familiar to you now if you’ve been following along with this sermon series. What strikes me is that the first thing the new believers do when they hear the Gospel is they get to work. When people are convicted, there’s no time to waste getting started.

These new believers hear the story of Jesus and their lives change. It’s not just a matter of finding inner peace or joy, though there is joy to be found. Their lives change not just on the inside but on the outside: The patterns of their day. Who they understand to be their family. What they do with their property. What they devote themselves to.

We’ve spent the last five weeks focusing on this passage from Acts, asking what it has to tell us about the essentials of being the church, both then and now – and especially now as we are being forced to think about being church in new ways. We’ve talked about worship, teaching and learning, communion (both with a big C and a little one), prayer, and justice. These are the practices that define the church’s mission and identity. And when I first planned this series, I was going to leave it at that, because that seemed to sum up what they did. But I realized I had missed one part of this passage: “They praised God and had the goodwill of all the people. [My CEB translation says ‘Demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone.’] And day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

They demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. And once again, people responded, and they changed their lives too, and they demonstrated God’s goodness to others. And day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

The aspect that I missed when I first planned out this series was witness – because the believers did all these things, they worshiped and learned more and ate together and prayed together and shared what they had, and they also didn’t keep it to themselves.

As we’re rethinking these days what it looks like to be the church, maybe we have an opportunity here to think about our own witness to the wider world.

On the one hand, our worship and fellowship and study are now more accessible to many people than they ever have been before. Anyone, from anywhere, as long as they have an internet connection, can come learn about /Jesus and the Bible and how we live out our faith/ for themselves.

And on the other hand, we can now no longer count on someone seeing our building in the middle of Rosslyn and wandering in, as visitors and newcomers to the area have done probably since we’ve had a building. Some of them would come and go, but over time, some would make their home here, just as most of you decided at one time to do. That particular scenario is not going to happen for a while now, and it makes me wonder how much we have perhaps been content to let our building be our witness for us.

So what next? When we can’t use our building in the same way, it becomes even more important to be God’s people in the world.

Even that might seem harder these days. We are in our homes more and in the world less. And still now, all around us, there is death and fear. There is inequality and racism that threatens lives. There is loneliness and longing. All around us, there are people looking for community, and purpose, and hope.

Do we have something to offer them?

How might we use our new more digital reality for good, here? I was excited a couple weeks ago when a friend of mine who is local but not associated with our church sent me a screen shot of a post from a Facebook group she was in. “I’d like to invite you to our church,” the post said, and shared the description of worship for that week from our Arlington Temple Facebook page. I said yes! Someone is doing their job! Maybe you know someone a particular sermon would speak to. Videos are all there on Facebook and our church website; send them along. There is opportunity here.

And still, what made an impression on those newest believers who joined the earliest church wasn’t a fancy website or well targeted Facebook ads. Those things are tools to help us in our witness, but they are not our witness. Instead, for the early church, what happened is that people saw what they were doing. They saw them praising God and being together and God working wonders in their midst. They saw them sharing tables and sharing possessions. And they said, something new is happening here. And we want to be a part of it. The community itself WAS their witness to the story of Jesus. How they lived their lives and lived them together WAS their witness to what God had done and was still doing among them.

Back at the beginning of the year, back when no one knew what 2020 had in store, the Christian writer Brian McLaren wrote a blog post with three New Year’s resolutions for pastors. Number one was: “Smoke what you’re selling.” (His words!) “In other words,” he said, “be sure that you actually enjoy the abundant life you are proclaiming to others.”[1]

That question stops me in my tracks sometimes, especially these days, when so much feels like stress and fear and burnout, and I think I am not alone in those things. And yet, if faith doesn’t make a difference in times like these, then when? Maybe there’s a question for all of us in that: are we experiencing abundant life, together? And then, from that – are we demonstrating abundant life to others around us – not because we need to sell something, but because it’s true? And if not, then how? What’s next?

We’ll be out of our building, worship-wise, for a while now. But the church was never a building. The first church didn’t even have one, at least not their own. There’s a world around us waiting for some hope. There are streets, and parks, and stores, and people on the other end of screens. They’re looking for abundant life. We can offer what we have. These are hard times, but God is love and Jesus is Lord and the Holy Spirit is moving among us, and Pentecost can happen all over again.


[1] https://brianmclaren.net/3-new-years-resolutions-for-pastors-in-2020/

Essential: Justice

Scripture: Isaiah 58:6-8; Acts 2:44-45

We’ve been spending the last couple weeks in Acts 2, and its description of what this thing called church first looked like, just after the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in fire and wind and commissioned them to begin their mission. The disciples preached Jesus and people listened. And as they listened, they reordered their lives in response to what they heard.

Acts tells us, “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to the shared meals and the prayers, and a sense of awe came over everyone.” Over the past weeks we’ve talked about some of the different aspects of this description of the church. What was the church, this new thing God was doing? What did it do? And fast forwarding two thousand years or so, what do those “essential” aspects look like for us now – especially as we discern our identity and mission anew in our new Covid reality that we now admit isn’t going away anytime soon? How might we hear the call anew to be the church in this new season?

We’ve talked so far about worship, and about learning and growth, about fellowship and communion, and about prayer. And today we come to the next part of the description: “All who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

I had a hard time deciding on what to call this essential aspect of church. At first I thought, generosity. But it’s not just generosity, if by generosity we mean sharing some of what we have. There’s a difference between giving out of our own abundance and releasing our claims to ownership altogether. This isn’t just about putting a little extra in the offering plate on Sunday – though of course I’m not discouraging that. This is a complete reorientation of our lives to new assumptions of ownership and sharing.

So then I thought, service. Service is good. This is about taking care of those in need, meeting the needs of those who have less, which is what we usually try to do through service – things like collecting food, making sandwiches, stuffing backpacks with school supplies. But what Acts 2 describes isn’t really service, if by service I mean something I do for you, again often as someone who is presumed to have more. And it’s especially not service if by service I mean a project I do for an hour and then go home. Again, I’m not knocking service projects; I have both participated in and organized a great many of them.  Jesus himself talked a lot about service; but that’s not what’s described here.

So I settled on justice. Justice goes beyond service and generosity to not just meet needs but address the roots of those needs. It’s not the haves lending a helping hand to the have nots; it’s empowering and equalizing. And still, this isn’t a picture of modern “justice work” as we might think of it. It’s not marching to change unfair laws and policies, or even community organizing – well, maybe it is a little of that. It’s not political – or, again, maybe it is; maybe it really is – but not the kind of political that involves calling your representatives. And again, I’m not knocking any of those things, necessary things that some of us may have been involved in recently, but what’s described here is more than that.

Maybe our essential aspect of church here is a combination of all those things. It is a generous justice that comes out of a commitment to live and do life together. It is mutual servanthood that meets each other’s needs but is also a release of socioeconomic distinctions and the power and status that come along with those. It is a justice rooted in the church’s practice of communion: common property as an extension of common tables.

As the church of today, this is probably also the aspect of the early church that makes us go [cringe.]

Worship and prayer? Sounds great. Learning and growing? Can do. Eating together? Yes please! Selling all your property and distributing the proceeds to all who have need? [Cringe.]

And that’s why, I think, it was tempting for me at first to take a line like this and reduce it to something that sounds nice and doable and church-like: Generosity. Service. Even justice.

Holding all things in common is not a characteristic of most modern churches I know. In fact, we have a word for religious organizations that demand that you give up all your worldly possessions, and if you told me you were joining one, I’d tell you to be careful of the Kool-Aid. And if it makes you feel any better, there’s not really any historic evidence that the even the early church was perfectly like this. Acts probably gives us an idealized picture here. Certainly by the time Paul was writing to his churches the picture was somewhat different; we came across that fact a few weeks ago, when some of the church members in Corinth were leaving the potluck drunk and stuffed while others hadn’t gotten anything to eat at all.

But maybe we shouldn’t let ourselves off the hook so fast. Maybe instead we let Acts hold this idea of communal, egalitarian justice in front of us, even if our own community probably isn’t going to look like that today, or even tomorrow.

The question is, if we claim this kind of justice rooted in communion as an essential aspect of church, what does that mean for us now? In a season where neither fellowship nor service can look like it used to – in a season where we are left without many of the ways we have normally found to share with others – what does justice look like now?

What does it mean when we can’t offer our building as a place of welcome and respite to those in our community as we used to? It used to be that people could find a bit of a home here during the week – not just something to eat, but also a place where they were welcome. While not all of you may have been here during the week to meet or greet those who came in, your tithes and offerings helped keep our doors open for them. Sometimes we would see a handful of those same neighbors on Sunday, if not for worship, then at least for coffee afterwards. And it may not have been holding all property in common, but there is something equalizing about sitting at a table with someone, even if only for a moment. It’s a start.

Don’t get me wrong, there are good reasons why our doors are still closed. Many of you have been faithful in helping keep us stocked with food to give out to people who continue to come to our door, and Divine has been faithful in making sure they are fed – not just with the bare minimum, but sandwiches, coffee, extras for the weekend. But there is something lost in not being able to greet our neighbors or sit down with them, the ones who will never make it to a Zoom meeting. This, by the way, is something we’ll have to contend with in the next few years when we don’t have our own building, as a new one is being built.

What does it mean when we can’t gather for acts of service like we used to – to make sandwiches, or even to repair homes in Appalachia? What does meeting the needs of neighbors near and far look like now – needs both material and relational? What does it mean when the call to work for and embody racial justice has been renewed in our country in the past few months? How are we called to work for and embody that communal, equalizing justice within our community, even within our congregation, and beyond?

I don’t know that I have good answers at the moment, but I do believe we may be called to reimagine our practice of generosity and service and justice. How can we be about not just meeting material needs, but offering welcome as equals – in a season of distancing? How can we be the kind of church that cares, radically and sacrificially, for each other and others around us in need, a church that doesn’t just give but shares, a church where our practice of justice is rooted in communion? I’d love to know your thoughts and ideas, either as you write them in the chat or talk to me later.

When life is upended, it’s easy to let certain things go. And it can be hard to reclaim them, especially when life still looks so different from what it once did. But as always, I sense that there may be an opportunity here – to discern God’s call for us once again, renew our focus, be creative, try new ways to welcome people home, building or no.

We may not look just like the church of Acts, today or tomorrow. But I believe the Holy Spirit is still blowing through our midst, calling us back to something old, and on to something new.

Essential: Prayer

Scripture: James 5:13-16; Acts 2:42

“New normal” is the word of the day these days. All around, everyone seems to be figuring out what their new normal looks like. Some of us are going back to work, or sending our kids back to daycare, or deciding on alternate school plans for the fall. Maybe we’re starting to expand our quarantine bubbles to include close friends and extended family in a way that seems sustainable for the longer haul. We’re getting comfortable with going some places again, getting used to wearing those masks. Maybe we’re getting back into some of the habits and patterns that got eaten up for a while by pandemic anxiety. Or maybe we’re just making peace with what the medium-term future looks like and the reality that this virus isn’t just going away. Things could still change at any time and almost inevitably will, but all the same, COVID-19 is here and we’re learning to live with it.

Part of what this “new normal” looks like for me is trying to get back into a good rhythm of prayer.  I’m not saying I haven’t prayed for the past four months. I have. Like most things since about March, however, prayer tended to be crammed in wherever it would fit, here and there, as the need arose for myself or for others. My previous daily Panera devotional routine was actually one of the things I missed most – but when everything got turned upside down, there was simply no time or space for something like that anymore, or at least so it seemed. So when my kids went back to preschool and daycare this week and I found myself suddenly able to hear myself think again, one of the first things on my list was to get back into a rhythm of prayer.

Prayer has looked different ways for me at different times of my life, but some of the main ways it looks now are journaling and long quiet walks where I just get to have a stream-of-consciousness conversation with God. I’m also realizing that these have the potential to be fairly individualistic practices of prayer, where more than anything, I talk to God about me. And I’m wondering, now, if my new normal needs something new.

We’ve been spending the past few weeks looking at the description of the first post-Pentecost church in Acts 2, and what it says about the most basic and essential things that made that church the church. And we’re asking what those essential aspects of church might look like for us now, as we settle into our own new COVID-normal of life and ministry together. So far we’ve talked about the essential aspects of worship, learning, and communion, and today, our next essential aspect is prayer.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Being devoted to prayer is almost a description that makes me picture each of these new believers waking up early and going straight to their prayer closet, making coffee and writing in their prayer journal or going for a walk in the woods to have a long talk with God, except I don’t think that’s exactly what it means. The fact that it says “the prayers” makes me think that there are preexisting prayers they are devoting themselves to – namely, daily Jewish prayers at the Temple: gathered, liturgical prayer at set times of day. Later in the passage it says they continued to be in the Temple daily, and even later, at the beginning of chapter 3, Peter and John perform their first recorded healing miracle on their way to the Temple for prayer.

We think so much of prayer as a practice of individual piety, but for the early church of Acts, prayer was unequivocally part of life in community.

And, of course, that wasn’t unique to the early church – corporate prayer, or prayer in gathered community, has been part of the life of God’s people since there was a Temple, and before. And the church has continued to pray together. We gather each Sunday and pray for each other and the needs of the world. Some of you have been gathering on weekday mornings to do the same. Prayer in community wasn’t unique to the early church, but it was essential to it.

That’s not to say that all prayer in the early church consisted of gathered liturgical prayer. Far from it. The Old and New Testaments alike are full of stories of people bringing their own needs to God. Paul wrote to his churches that he remembered them constantly in his prayers, and he asked them to pray for him too. In the passage from James we read this morning, we hear James exhorting the people in his community to pray in all circumstances. Are you suffering? You should pray. Cheerful? You should pray. Do you need healing? You should pray. But James also talks here about prayer as a community effort. Have the elders lay hands on you. Confess to each other, pray for each other. Prayer may not always mean reciting Psalms together in the same room at certain times of day, but it was meant to be an act of community.

I know “thoughts and prayers” get a bad rap these days, and for good reason, when that’s no more than a catchphrase that we use to excuse ourselves from actual repentance and healing action. James says that the prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve, but in the face of a global pandemic, or centuries of institutional racism, or whatever intractable challenge we may be personally facing this week, mere prayer may seem like a weak offering. Yet there is a reason prayer was essential to the early church, as it has been throughout the story of God’s people – it was the basis of their dynamic and ongoing relationship with God, a way to ground themselves in who God was and what God wanted and what God was doing and how God was drawing them together. The church can’t be the church in the world, we can’t be the church together, without prayer to ground and guide us.

I wonder if, as part of our new normal, we might hear the call anew not just to pray, or just to be individual people who pray, but to be a community grounded in prayer.

Here are some ways I think that could look. As always, I invite you to respond in the chat function or talk to me later if you hear something that resonates with you, that you’d like to be a part of, or if you have other ideas.

First of all, join in Morning Prayer on Wednesdays and/or Saturdays! I’m so grateful that Barbara H. has initiated and taken leadership of this which provides an extra chance for people to connect and hold each other and the rest of our community and world in prayer each week. The link is, as always, in your e-note.

Maybe that schedule or format doesn’t work for you. Maybe you’d be interested in having a prayer partner from the congregation, someone to intentionally share and pray for each other and develop that relationship over time.

Maybe you’re an introvert like me who’s pretty attached to your quiet prayer and devotional time. You can still make your prayer an act of community. You can commit to praying for this church as part of your own prayer time. Do you do that? Pray for each other. Write down the concerns that are lifted up on Sundays. Use the prayer requests section of the e-note. Pray for the needs of our immediate neighborhood and community around us and how we might help meet those needs. What vision might begin to emerge if we all committed to doing this, to asking God what our next steps might be or what God wants from us next? What if we were able to bring what those questions reveal to us to discernment together?

In a time when we are all asked to reassess what community means and what it means to be together, we can make our prayer more community-oriented, too. As you settle into your new normal, how will you engage in prayer as an act of community?

I believe that prayer is essential to who we are as a church, something to undergird everything else we do. I believe it is a way to share one another’s joys and bear one another’s burdens, to make our fellowship go deeper than just coffee. I believe prayer can shape and form us, making people into God’s people. I believe prayer can ground us in who God is and what God wants from us. I believe that prayer can be the unique offering of the church to the world around us. And I believe it’s something to do together. Today, may we hear this call anew.

Essential: Communion

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Acts 2:42, 46

Last weekend, while I was on vacation, I got to finally experience online worship as a participant, in all its glory. I rolled out of bed, booted up my computer, sat on the couch in my pajamas, and sang hymns while I made coffee and the kids did their thing and Jon went to pick up brunch. There was no struggle to wake up early and get ready and get the kids ready – granted Jon is usually the one who does that on Sunday mornings – but there was no rush to make it out the door, no wondering if there would be time for breakfast. I found myself thinking, I get the appeal here.  I could get used to this.

At the same time, something was missing. There were no other people. There were, of course, the pastors, on video; there was a Scripture reader, and some musicians in a virtual choir. But there was no one to greet me at the door with a bulletin, no one milling around and chatting in the narthex, no chorus of voices surrounding mine as I sang, no conversation over coffee and cookies after the service.

Altogether, I thought that was not a small thing that was missing.

We’ve been talking for the past few weeks about what it is that makes the church the church, looking to the first post-Pentecost church of Acts 2 as our model – what the essential aspects of being church were for them and what those look like for us now, especially now in this new-normal season of life and ministry. We’ve talked about worship and learning, our first two essential aspects of church, and two that we’ve more or less figured out, at least in terms of format. We can worship and have Bible study and antiracism book discussions here on Zoom. It’s not necessarily the same, but we’re doing it and it works. Today’s essential aspect is one where it seems to me we may still have some thinking and visioning and discerning to do, as we look ahead to the long haul of this pandemic and maybe even beyond. Today’s essential aspect of church is communion.

When I say communion, I do mean our practice of Holy Communion, our sacrament, but I also mean more than that. I mean the sharing of food around ordinary tables, and the sense of fellowship that results from that. I mean the things that make us one body, the Body of Christ in the world. I mean becoming the kind of community that Paul exhorts the Romans to be in the Call to Worship we read earlier: a community that laughs together, rejoices together, weeps together, hopes together, challenges each other, sometimes just tries to live with each other, welcomes strangers into the fold together. I have always loved our sacrament of communion for the way it embodies these things and invites us to experience them in the rest of our life together.

And we can do many of them still. We can still laugh together and weep together and challenge each other, but not always in our old ways. It’s hard to eat together now.

And yet Acts 2, in this one paragraph description of the early church, says that the early church ate together. They devoted themselves to their shared meals, to the breaking of bread. They gathered in the Temple and ate in their houses and they shared food with gladness and simplicity. This isn’t just “coffee hour,” it’s not something extra and optional that happens after church; the sharing of food together is church. The becoming one body over shared tables with thanksgiving is church.

It’s not just eating for the sake of eating. It’s equalizing and connection-forming. It’s that sharing a meal is sharing a basic part of our lives with each other, and in the end I think that’s what God wants.

And that gives us some rethinking to do, about what that means for us now. (As always, as I speak, I invite you to respond with your own comments and ideas in the chat; or if you’re on the phone, get in contact with me later.)

Because I do think something is missing without our usual tables. Without our communion table, where we all come forward to receive God’s grace in tangible ways. Without our Fellowship Hall tables, where we get to know one another over coffee and snacks every Sunday, and where we perhaps most effectively welcome new visitors into our church family. We can pray together and rejoice together and hope together and weep together here during our prayer time and after the service ends, but it’s also hard to really get to know people better and include everyone in a big, virtual group. And even if we do begin offering in-person worship again in the next weeks or months, the reality is that medium-term future probably does not include coffee and potlucks. So what next? What do fellowship and community look like in the new-normal era of coronavirus?

As with most things these days, I suspect that there is also opportunity here. Maybe this move to doing most of our church life together over Zoom gives us the chance to get to know one another and build community in new ways. We are less impeded now by geography and traffic when it comes to chances to connect – one new prayer group has already started, maybe there’s the opportunity for other small groups as well. Or maybe especially as the weather grows cooler in the fall, there will be chances to connect outdoors in ways we never would have thought of before. Maybe we have the opportunity here to think more intentionally about the ways we are building community because it’s not going to happen in the ways we took for granted.

We heard another passage of Scripture earlier, from 1 Corinthians. In that passage Paul passes on what we call the words of institution, words we hear in our Great Thanksgiving: “This is my body, that is given for you. This is my blood of the new covenant. Eat and drink in remembrance of me.”

If you read what Paul says before and after, you’d realize there was more to this story than just the beginning of liturgy. Paul is writing to a church that isn’t acting according to the model of Acts 2. People aren’t sharing their food, and some people leave the ritual meal drunk while others go hungry. Instead of using the meal as a chance to share lives and build community and become one body, they use it as a chance to solidify divisions between the haves and the have nots. This, Paul says, is not real communion.

I think this passage can be a challenge to any church in any season, but it is perhaps especially one now, because the reality is that not all the people we might normally see on a Sunday morning has access to this new virtual table. Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing ways that worshiping online is MORE inclusive, because you don’t have to be right in Arlington to come. But maybe some of you remember T, who for months walked across the bridge from a shelter in Georgetown with her foot in a walking boot to come to worship at Arlington Temple. I haven’t seen her since we started doing this, and I don’t know how to get in contact with her. Most of our unhoused neighbors aren’t just going to wander into Zoom worship on a Sunday morning, and many of them couldn’t if they wanted to. We are still feeding people during the week via your donations of food – it’s just not quite the same as sharing a table. This is, to be honest, the thing that troubles me most about our current reality, and I wonder often, is there some other way God might be calling us to offer fellowship and community, not just food, to our neighbors beyond these virtual walls?

And I still believe that there is possibility here, though I’m still trying to work out what it is. I do believe that God is calling us back to the essentials of what it means to be the church, and giving us new ways to live them out. The sacrament of Holy Communion has always been a reminder to us that the Holy Spirit can work to bring us together across the bounds of space and even time, as it unites us to the whole communion of saints. There’s no reason why the Holy Spirit can’t be at work now in new ways too, bringing us together across and through and perhaps sometimes despite our screens. We can still be a community in this time: laughing, weeping, hoping, praying, challenging each other, welcoming the stranger, building up God’s kingdom, breaking down new walls.

We may not have our tables, but we are still called to communion. So what does that look like now?

Essential: Learning

Scripture: Psalm 119, Acts 2:42

Back in March, when staying at home became a thing, it was branded by certain people as a chance to finally achieve everything you had always meant to achieve but never had the time to. It was time to spring clean your house, read those neglected books on your bookshelf, write your novel, learn a language, build something, or finally be able to do a pushup. To be honest, it wasn’t altogether different from some of the messaging I was getting from church circles. “Never waste a crisis,” is something I heard a lot around that time. Here was this opportunity falling right in our laps to perfect our websites and our digital ministries just like we had always been meaning to. There was learning to do!

I was – quite frankly – not into it. For me, like for most of us, life had just been turned upside down. I had less time, not more. My anxiety was high. I didn’t care about wasting a crisis, I was just trying to survive it.

It’s only more recently that I’ve started to come around a bit. Life has settled somewhat into its new rhythms. They are still difficult rhythms, and they will probably change. The future still seems very much up in the air. Still, it’s beginning to feel like more of a marathon and less of a sprint. It feels like time to discern rather than just react. It feels like time to ask what this season has to teach us and the ways it invites us to respond and change, maybe for the long haul. My hope over the course of this series is that we’ll begin to do that. As we look back to the post-Pentecost church of Acts 2, what was it that made them into this new thing called church? And how do we embody these things now, especially in this particular season none of us asked for?

Last week we talked about worship as the first essential aspect of what it means to be the church. The first Christians gathered in the Temple, praised God, and were awed by what they saw God doing in their midst. We talked about how all the rest of what they did flowed out of that sense of awe. Today we come back to that very first sentence about the church in Acts: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. In other words, the second essential aspect of church – and the first thing Acts specifically says about the church – is that they were committed to learning.

They weren’t learning just anything, of course. They are learning what the apostles have to teach, the ones who were there in the upper room when the Holy Spirit blew in like a rushing wind and tongues of fire, the ones who knew Jesus in the flesh and heard him teach and saw him heal and who knew what it meant to leave it all behind and follow him. They are learning the stories of Jesus, who he is and how he died and rose again and what it means to claim that salvation is through him. These are the stories that give the church its identity.

The church today may not have the apostles here to teach us in the flesh, but we do have the words of Scripture – both the part that tells us about Jesus and the part that tells us the first chapter of God’s story. It’s certainly nothing new to say that one of our key jobs as the church is to read and study the Bible. We’ve been doing that since long before Covid-19 was a thing. And one of the blessings of this time of online meeting has been getting to see more of you join in our Sunday Bible study. As we read through the Bible in a year, my hope has always been that getting a sense of the whole story will help you to put things into context and understand more as you go back and study the bits and pieces on your own. Still, as we look ahead into this season of ministry front of us, I wonder if we might hear a call to approach our sacred story differently, to bring to it fresh ears and new questions and maybe even a renewed sense of urgency, as we figure out anew just who we are.

It is possible to fall into the trap of learning things just to know them, as if being able to recite John 3:16 or pronounce 2 Corinthians is enough to make us good Christians. I would be the first to tell you that the Bible is fascinating in its own right, but still, the church is not an ivory tower, because the church can’t exist in isolation from the real world that it is part of. God doesn’t call us to learn for the sake of having knowledge. God calls us to learn so that our lives and the world can be changed by what we learn. Our Bishop, Sharma Lewis, defines disciples as lifelong learners who influence others to serve. We learn so that we can serve and help others do the same; we learn how we fit into God’s story so that we can live it here and now.

I told you a few minutes ago that I belatedly came around to the idea of not wasting this crisis, and of trying to discern what it had to teach us and offer us instead. I think that shift, for me, came around the time Ahmaud Arbery’s name showed up in the news. He was the young black man who was killed by white vigilantes while out for a jog – just weeks before George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police sparked waves of protests across the country. What happened to Ahmaud Arbery wasn’t indicative of something new in our country, it was just the latest incident in a string of many such incidents, and I know my own privilege in being able to forget, for a time, especially as Covid-19 ravaged communities of color across the country while I stayed safe at home. But the news was a stark reminder that there were things going on in the world beyond my own stress and anxiety, and maybe it was time to look beyond myself again. That was around the time I picked up the book How to Be An Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, which is one of those books I had kept saying I would read when I had more time. It was time to make time.

A couple weeks ago as Katie and I talked about plans for the discussion group on So You Want to Talk About Race that begins tonight, she sent me an article she came across – one I then saw appear again and again on social media. Its headline was “When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs.” And I read it and I recognized myself in it, because sometimes it’s easy and comfortable to learn for the sake of knowing information and think we’ve done our job.

But it’s hard to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves when you don’t know what you’re up against, or how you’ve been part of it all along. Our hope for this discussion group is that there will be learning that will help us to live more fully as God’s people in all shades of black and brown and white, resisting racism in specific and concrete ways, as a result.

Does reading a book about race count as devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching. No. But maybe. Kind of. We can’t neglect that foundational story of Scripture that makes us who we are. We should know it well enough to live as part of it. But sometimes, I believe, God’s people are called to learning in new ways that help us live out our part in the story in specific ways today. It might, at any given time, have to do with race, or LGBTQ+ issues, or immigration, or it might have to do with how to be a church in the midst of a pandemic. In all of these things, God’s church is called to learn, and to follow where God leads as a result. So let me ask you, and you can feel free to answer in the chat or otherwise: What (or how) do you think God needs the church to learn now, in this season of ministry?

I don’t want you to think that we can’t do anything or really BE the church until we have all the right facts lined up, and all the right lingo. The church of Acts 2 devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. And, as they did, they also worshiped and prayed and broke bread together and shared what they had and bore witness to people being healed. In other words, they did all the other things that made them the church. And I’m sure learning about the Kingdom of God came through all of it. Learning was an ongoing part of the process, not a prerequisite. And it still is.

Thanks be to God for the story and the teachings that make us who we are because they enable us to follow Jesus. And thanks be to God for calling us forward, and equipping us in new ways as we seek to live out that story in a world that keeps changing, and always stays the same.

Essential: Worship

Scripture: Acts 2:42-47

A while back, before I was the pastor here at Arlington Temple, I went to a training event for people who wanted to be church planters (to start their own churches.) It took me about 15 minutes into this training to realize you should probably be an extrovert to be a church planter, and that I did not in fact want to be one. But every once in a while I think about the question: if I were going to start a new church, what would it look like?

It’s not about wanting to be in a different church than this one.  For me, this is a vision question.  Starting from scratch, peeling everything else away, what are the essential things that make a church a church? Coming back to that question sometimes helps me focus on where I sense God calling me and us in the time ahead. What are the important things, and what can be let go?

You may remember that we discussed a version of this question a few weeks ago on Pentecost. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit shows up to the disciples after Jesus’ ascension into heaven in the form of a great wind and tongues of fire, and they all speak different languages to tell people gathered in Jerusalem from all over the world the story of Jesus, of his life and death and resurrection.  And when all the excitement has settled down, a church is born.  People gather and they praise God and they pray and they share what they have and they eat together, and people see what they are doing and they want to be a part of it too.  On Pentecost we read this passage from Acts 2 and I asked you what you heard in there – what does this first, post-Pentecost church do, and what picture does that paint for us about the essential aspects of being church in any time and place?

Here’s my list, aided by our conversation that day: Worship. Worship is an essential part of what it means to be the church. Learning and growth. Prayer. Communion or fellowship. Sharing of resources – generosity and justice. And witness, living and telling the story in such a way that people want to join in.  For the next six weeks or so we’re going to talk about each one of these essential aspects of church. Each week, as I talk, I invite you to respond with your thoughts and reactions and ideas in the chat, so this can be a conversation we have together. I won’t see those comments in real time – I’m not that good at multitasking – but I will see them at the end. Phone people, you are always welcome to respond however else you want to get a hold of me later.

I also asked you another question back on Pentecost: what do each of these essential aspects look like for us now, specifically in this new season of life and ministry? Back in March when stay-at-home orders were issued and we started worshiping online, I think a lot of us thought, OK, we’ll do this for a few weeks. Three plus months later, it’s clear nothing is going back to normal for a while – even as things open up again, they are not back to normal.  And so I find myself coming back to this question of what church looks like now, now that we’re not just filling a gap in time but moving into a new season.  We have an opportunity in front of us to reimagine and envision and focus in on what church is and what it can be. Some of this I think we’ve figured out pretty well as we’ve gone. Some of it may take some vision and discernment on our part still.

I want to start with worship today – worship as an essential part of what it means to be the church – because it’s probably the most obvious one on the list. It’s the main thing we do, the thing we all do together.  And yet in Acts 2 it never explicitly says the early church gathered for a worship service. It does say they spent time together in the Temple, devoted themselves to prayers, probably publicly and together; and that awe came upon all of them as they saw God at work. All of that is to say, it sounds like worship to me. It sounds, in fact, like worship is such an ingrained and basic part of this Spirit-formed community that it is assumed. The life of this gathered group begins in awe and praise of God; everything else is an extension of that.

Why is worship essential to being the church? Not, I’m pretty sure, because God needs our flattery – but rather because we are a people formed by awe of God and what we see God doing, and who commit to living our lives as praise in response. 

Because worship is the most obvious thing we do, it’s also the one we made sure we were doing as soon as things changed, and so here we are. We’ve figured this part out; we continue to be a worshiping community in our new virtual space. I think many of us have found things to love about this new way of gathering, the way we can see each other’s faces and sometimes homes and pets – I love when pets come to worship; the way it is inclusive of people in different places or with different needs who otherwise wouldn’t be able to physically join us. It has its drawbacks, too. Singing along to a hymn by yourself is no match for being surrounded by the singing of a congregation. And inclusivity has its limits – there are those who don’t have access to the technology to join us, maybe even the people who need community most right now. 

There are upsides and downsides, but I think one thing we’ve learned over these past few months is that we don’t need a building for worship to happen. A building helps in lots of ways, don’t get me wrong, and I will be glad when we can safely use ours again! But a building doesn’t define our worship. In fact, maybe the changes of this season have been a good reminder to us that there’s not just one way to worship. Worship can happen in lots of different ways – on our long walks, and in our quiet alone time, maybe even in the midst of chaos if that’s where our lives are right now. The post-Pentecost church worshiped in the Temple, but also in their homes. All of these places can be our sanctuaries. Perhaps this new season brings with it the chance to remember that worship isn’t just something we do for one hour on a Sunday morning, it’s something we do with our whole lives, in our work, in our caring for one another, in our protest and our honest self-reflection and our work for change, in our sharing what we have – if those things are done as praise to God.

I remain convinced, though, that we remember this best when we remember it together.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t always feel an overwhelming sense of awe on a Sunday morning. Sometimes I’ve just barely made it out of the house – you don’t even have to do that, which may make it easier or harder for you to show up! Sometimes I’m already overwhelmed by the week to come. Sometimes I’m afraid my sermon is all wrong. But then I’m here, and I hear a joy lifted during prayer time about how God is working in someone’s life. And I remember this sacred burden we bear as we pray for each other. And sometimes a line of a hymn will hit me in just the right way; and because I am here, I remember that God is good. I remember who God is and who I am in relation to God. And then, hopefully, I can live the next six days in light of that truth.

My hope during this time is that because what worship means for us has already been upended, the concept will be opened up and shaken up in new ways too. We can worship in a building or worship on Zoom.  We can worship wherever we are – from Arlington to Algeria. We can worship in our homes. We can worship in our PJs (well, not me.) And if we can do that, we can worship in every moment of our lives, as we live them for the glory of God.

Thanks be to God for the opportunity to remember – that God is still with us, that God is still among us, that God works in new ways, and that our job is to live our lives in awe and praise. We are the church, and everything else comes out of that.

Losing Your Life to Find It

Scripture: Matthew 10:34-39

I remember the first time I learned that some people are scared of the police. 

I was 23 or 24, in my systematic theology class in seminary, part of a comment made by a black classmate. She didn’t say it like it was any big and shocking revelation. For her it wasn’t.  But in my world police were helpers; maybe the worst that would happen would be that I would get a ticket for speeding or my taillight being out, but definitely people I could call if I were in danger.  It had quite literally never occurred to me that some people were scared of the police.

The summer before, I had been in a chaplaincy program where on the first day, a black man on our student chaplain team told me he didn’t like white people. I was shocked that this was the kind of thing that could be spoken aloud.  I was there, a white chaplain working almost entirely with black kids in low-income housing, to save the world.  Looking back, I kind of get it.  This man and I butted heads multiple times that summer over issues I never saw coming, issues of cultural expectations and language and politics.  To be honest, he butted heads with everybody, including the other black members of our chaplaincy team, but looking back I also understand, though I am quite sure this was not his mission, how much he had to teach me.

Once a year or so, when some act of white domestic terrorism and/or police brutality brings race and racism to the forefront of our national consciousness yet again, these memories come back to mind for me.  The memories themselves, though, weren’t forged in any sort of national historic front-page news kind of time.  They were forged in my mundane, day to day life as I met people who said things that shocked me for what they taught me about myself and others and the world I thought I had figured out.  They were small moments that forced me to confront my own racism.  I wasn’t racist, of course, like the people who carry torches at neo-Nazi rallies.  I wasn’t even racist like the family members who make you dread the conversation over Thanksgiving dinner.  I was just racist like a white person who had never realized how much the world was set up to accommodate and benefit and center me.

It’s easy for me to sit here and tell you that racism is evil.  It’s easy for me to say that it is not God’s intention for humanity. No one disagrees with those statements. No one debates those things. It’s harder to confess that we ourselves are not immune to it.

Some things we do debate, “we” being the country at large: We debate whether it’s right to say that black lives matter or that all lives do.  We debate whether monuments should come down, or stand as a testament to history.  We debate whether black men and women who have lost their lives had it coming somehow (“they shouldn’t have struggled”); whether their lives were just unfortunate collateral damage in the course of police doing what police do.  We debate whether officers who do these things are just a couple of “bad apples” among a larger group of public servants and heroes; or whether the police as an institution need serious reform; or even whether the concept needs to be abolished altogether.  We debate whether rioting is acceptable – “we don’t condone the destruction of property,” though as others point out, perhaps our outrage over the loss of property during protests over the loss of life is misplaced.  And yes, maybe some of those questions get in some of our faces a little, threatening to expose the assumptions that underlie them.  I get hung up on the argument about abolishing the police.  Who would I call if I needed someone to protect me? It’s only more recently that I’ve begun to recognize the assumption inherent in that question – that they will, in fact, protect me when I call.

Some of those questions – not all, but some of those questions – I’m still working out my own answers to. And sometimes I wish that I could hear the voice of Jesus cutting clearly into these conversations.  Sometimes I long for a word of faith that goes beyond culture wars or whatever people I know happen to be saying on social media.

If he were here now, what would Jesus tell us? That’s what I want to know. Jesus was a pacifist, right? He told people to love their enemies and turn the other cheek.  But he did have some pretty harsh language for leaders that exploited and harmed their own people.  He would never condone destruction of property, though, right? Except that time he turned over the moneychanger’s tables in the Temple.  Jesus brought together both tax collectors and revolutionaries in his circle of disciples, yet he said he didn’t come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword.  Jesus didn’t liberate Palestine from Roman rule like many people hoped he would, and yet his entire life was in its way radical resistance to empire.

Jesus was kind of a complicated guy.  Which makes sense, because he is inviting us into a relationship with the living God, not handing us a checklist of good deeds to do.  We sometimes like to say it’s easy: just love God and love your neighbor.  But does love always have to be gentle? Can it sometimes be angry? Is it enough to love our neighbors in our own comfortable, unexamined ways, within the racist structures that define our lives, or does love demand we take down the structures themselves? And is it possible to really love without having to give part of yourself away?

It’s not lost on me that the books of the Bible that tell me these things is written by, for, and about brown-skinned Jews living under the oppressive hand of empire. We are all used to identifying ourselves with the people in Jesus’ stories, and for those of us who are white, we are aided in that endeavor by the white characters who so often populate our Sunday School worksheets and picture Bibles and stained glass windows.  But for those of us who are white in America, the fact is that we are the Roman Empire. That’s our social location in the story, at least inasmuch as we read it in the context of power and oppression and resistance. Try reading the Bible from that perspective and see how things change. And I have to wonder if that means that Jesus isn’t always talking to me. Maybe I don’t get to weigh in when Jesus talks to his fellow brown-skinned subjects of empire about what kind of resistance is good resistance, about what turning the other cheek really means.  Maybe they get to be the interpreters of that.

There are some times, though, when I do hear Jesus speaking to me loud and clear.

Earlier this week, President Trump walked through crowds dispersed by pepper spray and held up a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.  I found myself wondering what exactly he thought was in that Bible, whether he knew how much Jesus lived in solidarity with the most marginalized people around him, whether he knew how much of the message Jesus lived and preached involved saving your life only by giving it up.  It’s not, I think, a very American message.

I do not, for the record, think that Jesus meant for his brown-skinned followers to hand over their lives to their oppressors. Taking up your cross does not mean submitting to your own humiliation on earth while you wait for something better in heaven.  That’s a Roman Empire reading of that passage. Rather, it’s something we are invited to do willingly, boldly, for love of neighbor, for refusing to live as anything less than people made in God’s own image, because that is freedom, that is finding life. For Jesus, even in the actual cross was freedom and life.

Meanwhile, for those of us more Roman than first-century Palestinian Jew, living in our world that has been bent to our advantage for so long we can’t even see it, there’s a lot to give up, and a lot we have to lose.

Losing your life to save it may, at times, look like standing in a crowd facing tear gas and rubber bullets. But I don’t think it starts there.  Losing my life starts with losing my assumptions about this world I live in, things that are right or wrong or good or not good simply because I know them to be that way.  It involves listening to people who have things to teach me about their different experiences of the world, and opening myself up to questions about things no one has ever caused me to question before, about why things are the way the are and whether they have to be that way.

You think that’s the easy way out? You think that doesn’t hurt? Well, I can tell you from experience that it does.  That it continues to. 

But I believe it’s a matter of life and death.  For people like George Floyd.  And for me.

And the life to be found on the other is one we can live, as God’s children, together.

Stories from the Wilderness: The Daughters of Zelophehad

Scripture: Numbers 27:1-11

This Easter season, we’ve been journeying through the wilderness with the Israelites, asking ourselves what their stories from that time might have to teach us now in our own Covid-induced wilderness period.  By the time we get to today’s story, the last in our series, the Israelites are nearing the end of their wilderness wandering. They’re looking ahead; they’re making plans; their good future in the Promised Land is no longer just a far-off dream but actually beginning to come into view.

And to be honest, when I planned out this series, I kind of thought that it would be for us now too.  I thought that our time in the wilderness would be coming to an end – maybe not the end of Covid-19 altogether, but at least we’d be over the first hump, at least we’d be getting somewhat back to normal for a time.

Instead, even as things do begin to open up a bit around us, each day seems to bring new realization that normal is a long way off.

Surely, in 40 years in the wilderness, there must have been times when the Israelites thought the same: it won’t be too much longer now.  It can’t be, this isn’t sustainable, not in the long term; surely, the Promised Land can’t be that far away.  And still the wilderness stretched around them, as far as the eye could see.

I imagine there must have been some grief in that for them, in those moments of realization.  I know there is for me.  All these things that have been survivable for a time are turning into bigger questions: When will my daughter be able to go back to preschool?  What about all the things she’s missing out on in the meantime? When will we be able to spend time with family like normal? When will we be able to have dinner with our friends? When will we be able to gather for worship in person like we used to, and actually have it be recognizable as worship? And with those questions often comes a wave of despair, because none of it was supposed to be like this, certainly not for the long term.  The wilderness is no longer just an interruption, not just something to journey through.  It’s something to make our peace with.

So many times in Numbers we’ve read about the wilderness as a place where the Israelites butt heads with God, but remember, the wilderness is also a place where they encounter God’s grace and provision. Every day they’re fed with manna that falls from heaven, even as they doubt and fear and wish they could go back to Egypt.  When there is no water, God provides water.  When they trek through dangerous territory with enemies on every side, God is with them.

Good things can happen in the wilderness, too.

And then there is today’s story.  As a census is taken of a new generation of Israelites and plans for dividing up the land across the Jordan River are announced – land to each tribe and each clan within a tribe and each family within a clan – five sisters realize there’s a problem.  You’ve probably never heard of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, the daughters of Zelophehad, unless you either really know your Bible or are into feminist biblical commentary, or both.  But the author of Numbers considers them important enough to record their names, an honor not always bestowed on women in the Bible.  They are their father’s only children.  By custom, if not explicitly by law, they can’t inherit land.  And this means their dead father’s portion of the land will go to his brothers, and this means, effectively, that their father’s name and legacy will be blotted out among his people.

And that doesn’t seem fair.

So they stand before Moses and the gathered community and speak, representing themselves.

Our father died for his own sin, they say.  They mean simply that he was part of the older generation that was told back in chapter 14 that it would not get to enter the Promised Land.  He was not, however, part of the much worse rebellion against Moses and Aaron’s leadership.  He has just as much a right to a legacy as any other imperfect, complaining, fearful person there in the wilderness.

We should inherit that land, they say.

But of course that’s not how it’s done.

And you could imagine – I could imagine – Moses telling them to take a seat, let the menfolk worry about all this, ladies. And after all what they’re proposing isn’t what God said, when God was giving the directions; and what’s more, there’s lots of important and immediate stuff to think about now, as we stand here on the precipice of crossing into the Promised Land, we need to deal with those things, let’s not get sidetracked.  I’m tired, it’s too much, let’s just get through this, we can work out those details on the other side, when things are more settled.

And the truth is somewhere there I’ve crossed from Moses’ supposed response into mine.  Because this is how I feel about a lot of things these days – I can’t handle this now, I’ll worry about that later, when things are settled. Right now we just have to get through this.

And I know that’s normal, because this is, after all, a pandemic; this is, after all, collective trauma; I am, in many ways right now and like many others, trying to sustain the unsustainable. But as it becomes clear to me that there is still a lot of wilderness left, I’m also beginning to realize that I need to envision what this future looks like, and not just the one I thought would be.  I need to start answering some of those grief-filled questions about preschool and family and friends and yes, even church, to the best of my ability.  Those things may not look like normal for a while, so how do we move forward now?

And this is actually how Moses answers – with a willingness to consider that positive, forward-thinking changes might be able to happen now.

He brings the case of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, the daughters of Zelophehad, before God, and God, perhaps surprisingly, says they’re right.

Yes, God says to Moses, give these women their land!  And not just them – if any man dies and doesn’t have a son, give his inheritance to his daughters.

And OK, it’s not perfect, by modern standards; the daughters are still Plan B in this scenario; the whole thing is still about keeping land in the family along patriarchal lines – but I love this story.  I love it first for how when God hears their case you can almost see God cocking God’s head to one side and saying, “Hmmm, I never really thought about it like that before!” I think we talk a lot, sometimes, about yielding to the will of God as if it’s some unchangeable force, and certainly it may often require giving up some of our own personal hopes and ambitions and prejudices and grudges – but when it comes to that arc of history bending toward justice, at least, I suspect sometimes God might welcome our suggestions regarding the details.

And I love it, also, because it shows us new things can happen in the wilderness – for the Israelites, and for us.

The time for taking steps forward is now.  The time for imagining possibilities is now.  The time for moving along that arc of history toward justice is now.  The time for loving, serving, and welcoming our neighbors is now.

Might these things look different than they would have otherwise, if none of this had ever happened? Well, I don’t know how they could look the same.  And that does require some imagination, and it might require a bit of chutzpah – but luckily, God seems to appreciate those qualities in God’s people.

I’m coming to learn, all these weeks in, that life now isn’t just on pause.  We’ll be here in the wilderness for a while.  And there is grief in that, for everything we’ve lost and still will lose.  Believe me, I know.

But there’s hope, too.

Because God still goes with us, and manna still falls, and possibilities abound if we can speak them into being, and changes can be made for the better – not just in the Promised Land, but even here, even now, even in the wilderness.

Stories from the Wilderness: The Diviner and the Donkey

Scripture: Numbers 22:2-12

This story from the wilderness begins, once again, with fear.

This time it’s not the fear of the Israelite people wandering in the wilderness.  Rather, I mean, it is not their fear – it is fear of them.  The same God who last week was deploying the poisonous snakes has recently granted the Israelites some military victories against the nearby nations who threaten their progress through the wilderness.  Moab, the nation just across the Jordan River from the Promised Land, is next on the list.  Moab’s king, Balak, has heard what has happened to the other nations that have tried to thwart the Israelites’ journey.  And he is afraid.  There is fear from many sides, in the wilderness.

Mostly, in stories from the Hebrew Bible, it’s natural for us to identify with the Israelite people. But today I’m going to ask us to imagine ourselves in Balak’s place.

Balak sends some royal messengers to a local diviner named Balaam.  “Please come and curse this people for me,” he says, because that’s what fear does so much of the time, it makes you look for people to curse.

Balaam says he’ll confer with God overnight and let them know.  It’s interesting to note that Balaam is not himself an Israelite, but he talks to God – to YHWH, specifically, the Israelites’ god.  That night YHWH speaks to him and says don’t go.  “You shall not curse the people,” YHWH says, “for they are blessed.”

Balak isn’t satisfied with that, so he sends some more important messengers, who promise to make it worth Balaam’s while if he will only come with them and curse the Israelites.  Even if Balaam could be bought, however, it wouldn’t change God’s answer.

I confess that when I put this story in the lineup for this series, the only thing I remembered about it was that there was a talking donkey – the donkey comes later. Charming and amusing, right? A break from all of the more serious stuff we’ve been talking about lately.  But as I went back and read the passage, it was God’s words that stuck in my mind: You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.

Fast several thousand years or so to modern day America. Here we are, still in the thick of a global pandemic.  You’d think that a pandemic would have the power to bring us together.  Instead, especially as the country begins to reopen, it seems to just be one more reason to hate each other: the people who think it’s all just a hoax, the people who want to sacrifice the grandparents to the economy, the people who want to throw away our freedoms…I could go on.

Instead of coming together, it seems, we’ve only found more reasons to curse one another.

And these sermons are always so hard to preach because I hate cheap calls for unity, which always seem to paper over the concerns of the most vulnerable and marginalized people.  I know that literal lives are at stake here.  I know the structural injustice at play.  I don’t mean the economy is more important than lives – although it affects real lives, too.  I don’t mean that it’s OK to carry a gun around because you don’t want to wear a mask.  I don’t mean to defend mealy-mouthed leadership that has put us so far behind other countries in addressing this virus.

What I know is that I see and hear people calling each other idiots, hoping that karma does its thing, making caricatures of each other.

Now, as always, we need to hold strong to our values that protect the vulnerable and the marginalized first – including those who don’t have a choice about whether to go back to work or what conditions they’ll find there.  The name-calling, though, the making of straw men, the lack of capacity for nuance – that doesn’t really seem to be what Jesus calls us to.  Jesus, of course, says “Bless those who curse you.”

Or, in older words with a similar echo: “Don’t curse the people, because they are blessed.”

What if the people God loves and blesses are the ones we see as our enemies?  [PAUSE]

Let’s see what happens when Balaam does decide to go with Balak’s messengers.

 

[Read: Numbers 22:22-35]

 

Has God ever just stood in front of you like that?

Well, probably not exactly like that. But maybe there are some times that God has needed to kind of get in your face, and say hey, this isn’t the road I want you to go down, here.

I have a group of friends from college who I’ve been doing weekly Zoom hangouts with.  Last week we started to talk about reopening and some of the decisions being made in different places and how people were responding and whether Americans were or were not, in fact, capable of nuance.  I launched confidently into my own thoughts on the matter, and then one of my friends stopped me and said, “I don’t think that’s true.” And it turns out we disagreed on some of these topics: how responsible leadership is being, how long we can do all this staying inside stuff, how well we can actually trust people to follow the rules.

I bristled at first, because that’s what my bubble has conditioned me to do when I encounter someone outside of it; but then it was this moment for me of, oh, right, not everyone who has a different perspective from me here is an idiot or a gun-toting conspiracy theorist; it’s possible for smart, compassionate people to have nuanced conversations about this without everyone retreating to their sides; it’s possible that we don’t have to be enemies.

Do I still think she’s wrong? Yeah.  Do I worry about the implications? Some.  Do I think what she wants for herself and for her neighbors is right-hearted? Yeah. I do.

So the next time I’m tempted to curse someone who disagrees with me, I’ll think of her, for whom I want nothing but good.

I think sometimes God works like that.

In the end, God tells Balaam to continue with his journey.  Say only what I tell you, God tells Balaam.  Not what Balak wants to hear. Not what they’re paying you for. Not even what you might think yourself – but what I tell you.

And when Balaam speaks, those who were supposed to be cursed will find themselves blessed instead.

Stories From the Wilderness: The Bronze Snake

Scripture: Numbers 21:4-9

You might know by now that I tend to love the stories in the Hebrew Bible that kind of leave you going “what?” I don’t know if you join me in my love for those stories.  Some people don’t.  But to me, these are the stories that make the larger story of our faith come alive.  They make me laugh and sometimes squawk with indignance and scratch my head.  I had a professor in seminary who said that some of what we read in the Bible is the kind of thing you’d tell eight-year-olds over the campfire; this is how tradition got passed on.

It’s often hard to preach on these stories, though, because they can also be pretty challenging in how they depict God. In today’s reading, we have God sending poisonous snakes to bite and kill people in the wilderness after they complained about manna one too many times – again.  We’ve gotten used to this kind of theological challenge in Numbers by now, and honestly, yes, I do sometimes question my decision to preach through this particular book in the midst of a pandemic.

God, in the book of Numbers, can often come across petty. You want meat? Eat it until you’re sick of it.  Don’t like the bread I gave you? Here are some snakes.  I can love these stories because I hold this vision of God somewhat loosely.  I think we can clearly see the Israelite people’s understanding of God evolving and changing over time in the Bible – and no, I don’t just mean in the New Testament, I mean across the span of the Hebrew Bible too – and I’m happy to talk more about this sometime if you’d like.

I believe that God has always been the God we meet in Jesus, even in the Old Testament.  I do not believe that Coronavirus is like a poisonous snake God sent because God got mad at us. I do believe that a book like Numbers can have a lot to tell us about ourselves in relation to God.  And it also seems to me that a story of plague and healing in the wilderness is pretty relevant to today.

Plague – illness – is also over the news these days, but so is healing.  There are, among the horror stories and dire warnings, stories of survivors being wheeled out of the hospital to applause after weeks on a ventilator. There are stories of promising new drugs being tested, and potential vaccines going to the next stage of trials.

So many of our hopes, right now, are focused on the healing of a disease. Including mine. But there’s more to the healing we need right now than that, isn’t there?  There’s more to the cultural trauma, the economic impact, the individual emotional toll than any vaccine will fix.  And meanwhile, the old problems, the things we used to talk about, haven’t gone away, even if we talk about them less now.

This week there was another story in the news, and it wasn’t about Coronavirus at all. It was about a young black man named Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed in February while out for a run, because two white men with guns decided he looked like a robbery suspect. Neither of the men were arrested until this week, after a video of his killing went viral.  I read that story, and later in the day I went out for a run.  Being white, I did not fear for my own life.

On a friend’s link to the story on Facebook, someone commented, “There is a sickness in this country, and it’s worse than Coronavirus.” And they were right, because while this may be a long and costly two years, Coronavirus will come and go.  But the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and the racism that so insidiously spreads its roots in our hearts and minds will continue to be with us for a long time.

And it’s no secret by now, I think, that Coronavirus has only served to highlight that racism and the structural injustices our society is built on.  You might say that Covid-19 has magnified our national pre-existing condition.  Maybe you’ve heard that in DC, black residents have been diagnosed with Covid-19 at twice the rate of white residents – a trend which is reflected in other areas of the country as well.[1]  It’s people of color in our country, not exclusively but disproportionately, who don’t have jobs that allow them to stay safe at home, who have to choose between going to work sick or not being able to feed their families, and who are more likely to suffer from underlying health conditions in the first place.[2]  And then there are those who still have no choice but to go to work at places that refuse to make sure they are safe, as the virus rips through meat packing plants.

Last week I talked to you about fear, and the largely personal fear I’ve experienced since “pandemic” became a household word back in March.  And I acknowledged, then, that there are many others who have more right to their fear than I do.  There are also those, like Ahmaud Arbery, or like anyone who struggles daily to put food on the table, for whom the threat of Covid-19 may not be the biggest threat to their existence they face when they walk out of their house on any given morning.  The old problems have not gone away just because there is a new one.  In Numbers, God sends a plague; but it seems to me we as a society can be pretty good at creating our own plagues.

Maybe this isn’t the kind of comforting sermon you were hoping for today.  It’s a hard season to be in the business of good news.  Often reading these stories in the news tends to lead me farther down that road of despair that, the one that just says everything is going to hell and there’s nothing I can do about. And that’s probably how it felt there in the wilderness, too, when after everything they’ve been through, all of a sudden there are snakes to contend with.

In Numbers, the people repent, and they ask God to take the snakes away.  And God, in response, tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and when anyone gets bitten, they can look at the bronze snake and live.

I always thought this was a strange and kind of annoying response.  Why go through all this rigamarole? Why can’t God just take the snakes away?

But maybe healing isn’t as easy as that.  Maybe God doesn’t just take the problem away.  Maybe we have a part to play in it all, too.  For ourselves, for others, for our community, our country, our world.  Maybe we don’t just have to sit there, as paralyzed as we may feel.

There are those of you who may have reason to fear for your own lives, or the lives of your sons, when doing something as innocuous as walking or running around your neighborhood.  And there are those of you whose skin looks like mine, who are probably more shaped and formed by the racism we live and breathe than we’d even like to believe about ourselves.  And our jobs are not the same here – white people, it’s our job to undo this thing that our ancestors started – but there is plenty of need for healing in this world, from the physical to the spiritual to the structural – and plenty of bronze snakes for us to hold up to counter the poison.

I never thought that “speaking out” had much effect until this week I saw how the massive outcry about the lack of justice for Ahmaud Arbery led to the arrest of his killers.  Being aware matters.  Talking about the sickness matters.  Learning how to recognize and address the sickness in yourself matters – in fact, I’m going to make some resources available on how to do this.  Using whatever gifts you have to work for a better world matters. God will work with us, but God won’t do it all for us.  Sometimes healing is our job, too, and sometimes it takes repentance – not just to stop a virus, but to stop some of the things the virus shows us about ourselves.

Did you know Jesus once compared himself to the bronze snake? It’s in John 3, in a conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus.  Jesus healed a lot of people in his time.  He knew that physical suffering was real, and that it wasn’t what God wanted for anyone.  He also knew that healing was about more than that: that it was about repentance, and forgiveness, and liberation, and love, and abundant and eternal life.

And he tells us it can happen.  And he calls us to be part of it.  Even now.

 

 

[1] https://dcist.com/story/20/04/08/black-d-c-residents-have-been-diagnosed-with-covid-19-at-twice-the-rate-of-their-white-peers/

[2] https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/04/coronavirus-inequality-america.html