The Courage to Rebuild

Scripture: Haggai 1:1-8

Most of you know that in our Sunday Bible Study we’ve been reading through the Bible in a year: we’re doing the abridged form, with about a chapter of assigned reading a day. Today we’re going to be finishing up the Hebrew Bible, talking about the last three of the so-called Minor Prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, and I thought I’d bring you all along for the ride here in worship too.

Not all of the Minor Prophets are easy to preach on – join us later on to hear more! – but as I was reading the prophet Haggai this week I did think that Haggai might have a good word for us today. He is not one of the more well-known prophets – even I didn’t remember much about Haggai before putting this week’s study together – so let me start by telling you telling you a little bit about him.

Haggai was a prophet around the year 520 BCE. Years earlier, in 587 BCE, the Babylonian army had laid siege to the city of Jerusalem, broken through the walls, and destroyed the Temple along with the entire city.  The religious and economic elites of Jerusalem, the ones who get to write the books, are led away in chains and scattered across the Babylonian empire, while the poor are left to farm the land. It’s not a stretch to call this the defining event of the Hebrew Bible. The Bible becomes the Bible in light of this event. Even much earlier stories and scriptures are edited and compiled in light of the destruction of Jerusalem and what becomes known as the Babylonian exile.

The Temple was where God resided on earth. When the Temple is destroyed, then what? Well, either God is absent, or your theology has to change.

But that was all before Haggai came on the scene.

By the time Haggai is part of the picture, Babylon itself has fallen. Persia is now in charge in the Ancient Near East. In 539 BCE, King Cyrus tells the exiles to go home, and he sends them with resources to start rebuilding. For this, Cyrus is called no less than God’s anointed, in Hebrew mashiach, Messiah. Back in Jerusalem, reconstructing the Temple is the first order of business. That way, God can dwell with God’s people in Jerusalem once again. The returned exiles get down to work on this holy project that God has called them to – work God has given them both the opportunity and the responsibility to undertake.

You can imagine it’s probably not as easy as all that. The small surrounding nations and some questionable newcomers to the city itself see the Temple beginning to be rebuilt, and they start to feel threatened. What happens to them if Jerusalem starts to gain power again? So they actively work to subvert the process.

And the people get discouraged. They start to believe their neighbors. And the project comes to a halt. It’s not necessarily a grinding halt, as far as I can tell. It just kind of…peters out. And maybe sometimes the people will walk past that half-rebuilt Temple and feel a kind of pang, you know, but mostly they try to push it out of their mind – the Temple was before. And hopefully someday it will be again. Just not right now.  

Maybe there’s some connection here to the way I imagine a lot of us feel right now, discouraged and despairing that life will ever be the same. I’m not saying it’s the same as being forcibly exiled from your home (there are those in our country, out in the West, who are experiencing a version of that too) but I think it’s fair to say that many of us are experiencing a sense of exile from life as we knew it right now. Once in a while there are some signs of hope, some promise of a return to something normal, and discouragement as we realize it’s just not that easy and it’s just not the same.

I’ve experienced this as my kids have returned to preschool, only to have our new rhythm interrupted by the need to quarantine. Young adults are starting college only to be told to return home. Some of you have been through Plans A, B, and C for major life events this year. Or you’ve found new jobs and lost them. Trying to find “life” in all of this just isn’t that easy, and maybe trying to find God in all of it isn’t so easy either.

And so the people say, we’ll build the Temple later. Later, when it’s easier. Later, when resources are more abundant. Let’s just regain our footing, here, and then we’ll get back to God’s work.

That’s where Haggai comes in with a word from the Lord.

At first his words sound angry, or at least disappointed. “These people say, the time hasn’t come, the time to rebuild the Lord’s house….Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses while this house lies in ruins?”

Think about it, God says, “You’ve sown much, but it has brought little. You eat, but there’s not enough to satisfy. There’s clothing, but not enough to keep warm.” And what it sounds like to me is that the people think they just don’t have enough to really invest in anything right now. They’re just trying to survive, here, to get through, and someday, when things are better and easier and more abundant, then we’ll build the Temple.

No, God says, go to the highlands and get some wood. You all are waiting for things to get better, but actually what would make things better is for me to dwell among you in that Temple again.

We call the Bible the Living Word of God because, even though it was written in and about specific circumstances in specific times in history, it still has the power to speak to us today, and this week, Haggai did to me. Because how many times during this whole pandemic have I said I’m just trying to survive here, I’ll worry about the rest later?

On the other hand, that’s not all wrong, is it? Sometimes just trying to get through a rough period is all you have, and I have to believe God understands that. I think there’s been something good, even, about having to pare things down to the minimum this year, and having to face that question of what really matters and what’s just been keeping us busy. God has never cared if you used this year to write your novel. God has never cared if your house is clean.  God does need us to care for ourselves. God does want us to be well and whole and not just overwhelmed all the time.

So I wondered if this was, in fact, the right word for today. Maybe it’s really not time to talk about rebuilding yet. Maybe the time to bring out Haggai is after there’s a vaccine, after all of this is over, but it’s still hard and we’re still figuring it out.

Maybe I’ll preach this sermon again then. But I still think Haggai has a word for us today.

Building the Temple is doing God’s work, and that’s what the people are stalling on, saying they just can’t focus on it now, they don’t have enough to invest in it now, and it’s to all of those excuses that God says no, it’s time.

I’m not talking about the pressure to accomplish all the things you wanted to accomplish this year; what I’m talking about is doing God’s work, whatever that looks like for you: the work of being part of a community, the work of caring for our neighbors, the work of pursuing justice, the work of prayer; the work I have so often gotten away from in the past six months as it has been so easy to turn in on myself and my own stress and my own fears and my own scarcity. At various times in these past six months I’ve heard God telling me, no, it’s not going to be better later, you’re not going to have more time to help out a neighbor or support a cause for justice later, you can do that now, and your life will be better for it.

What is God asking of you now? Not someday when things are better and you have more time and more money and it all seems generally safer, but now?

Life is different now, but it’s not on hold. That’s what God needs God’s people to know. The time for rebuilding is now.

I am with you, God says to God’s people, and they start to get to work.

The next words of Haggai are words of encouragement. Be strong, Zerubabel, says the Lord. Be strong, Jeshua, says the Lord. Be strong, all you people of the land. Work, for I am with you. Do not fear. When you’re done here, it’s going to be even better than it was before. Not the same! Not the same. But even better.

So who here needs to hear a word from Haggai today?

A Debt of Love

Scripture: Romans 13:8-10

Let’s talk a little bit about debt.

(Are you uncomfortable yet?)

If so I don’t blame you. Money is a hard thing to talk about in general, and the lack of money maybe even harder. No one wants to be in debt. And yet, for many if not most of us, debt is a part of our lives. We have student loans, car payments, mortgages, possibly medical debt if we haven’t been lucky, or we’re behind on our bills, we’ve run up our credit cards. Sometimes debt is about personal responsibility. A lot of the time it’s about social justice. Have you ever been in the position of having to turn over your car title for a 300% interest loan just to pay your rent for the month? I hope I never am.

By the way, it’s not stewardship season yet. In fact, this sermon isn’t really even about money.

In today’s Scripture reading, Paul is writing to the church in Rome, and he has something to say to them about debt. “Owe no one anything,” is how he puts it in the (NRSV) translation we read; the CEB says “Don’t be in debt to anyone.” This is a church that is dealing with its own internal conflict between its Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian members, and Paul is writing to them that both kinds of Christian have a place in God’s story, that all are called to live lives that are transformed by God’s grace. Living lives transformed by grace means living well in community with each other and also living well in relationship to the outside world. Show respect to your governing authorities, Paul says. Pay your taxes. Settle your debts.

Strange words, maybe, for a guy who offended the governing authorities enough to get himself thrown in prison a number of times. There’s a lot of conversation around that that can be had, but that’s a sermon for another day: in the end, Paul may not believe the church should conform to the world (12:2) but he does believe in living peaceably and respectfully within it as much as possible (12:18).

“Owe no one anything,” Paul says, “except – except – to love one another.”

Like I said, this sermon isn’t really about money.

Which is great, right? I’d rather owe someone love than money. I think.

Actually, when you get right down to it, this talk of love being something that is owed makes me uncomfortable, too.

Talking about love is all well and good. The Bible talks a lot about love. We as Christians talk a lot about love. We all know it’s a thing God wants us to do and we’re generally OK with that at least in concept. Love is a nice, uncontroversial thing to preach about – as long as no one gets too specific.

But it makes me uncomfortable because, again, I don’t like being in debt. I’d rather give and show love out of my own abundance, freely and joyfully, and not because I owe anyone anything.  In fact, that sounds almost antithetical to the Gospel, where we are freed from sin in order to love fully, where our debts are forgiven and there are no ledgers anymore.

And Paul, of course, believes that too, that Christ’s death frees us for love. You could call this talk of owing love just a rhetorical move on his part. He goes from living as good neighbors and settling debts to the real crux of a life transformed by grace, which is loving one another.

But I also find this uncomfortable question to be a meaningful one: what does it mean to owe someone love? To be obligated to them in some way for the sheer fact that they are another person God has created?

I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean that I’m supposed to be a doormat for anyone or endure their abuse or give them anything they want. Nothing like that. This question has come up for me, though, when someone comes to me in need. What does it mean to owe this person love? How much am I obligated to? I’m just one person, after all, and I have other stuff going on, and there are other needs in the world than the one right in front of me, and of course, I suspect that this debt of love I owe is not one I’m going to be able to easily pay off.

A few weeks ago one of my neighbors posted in our community Facebook group. Her next-door neighbor, Sharla, was living alone while Sharla’s husband was in the hospital with heart issues for an indefinite amount of time. Sharla suffered from muscular dystrophy and had lost the use of her legs. She had no way to take care of herself. So, the first neighbor and her husband had been taking Sharla three meals a day, checking in on her, feeding her cat and changing the litter.

We need help, this first neighbor said. We can’t do this alone.

My first thought was, what good neighbors this couple was. A need arose and they met it, even though it was more than they could realistically take on. My second thought was, I have too much going on to get sucked into this very open-ended situation. My third thought was, what do I owe a neighbor in need – to both neighbors in this situation?

Not just what would it be nice to do if I felt like it. What do I owe?

I told the neighbor who wrote the Facebook post that I could bring Sharla lunch the next day. And I did. Jon cooked, and I brought it over, and I chatted with her a bit and made sure she had what she needed, and I left. I said maybe I would be back at some point, but I didn’t make a commitment. And as I drove the few blocks home I thought, “What now?” Because I knew this debt I had was not paid up, and I also despaired of how much more might be expected of me – not just by my neighbors, but by God.

But then, over the next few days, I watched neighbors jump into action. One made an online sign-up form. Other people signed up for meals, until Sharla’s husband eventually came home from the hospital. And I thought, this is what happens when we share that debt and pay it off together.

And you see, in that way, that debt we bear is actually a gift, because it’s what connects us to each other in community: our duty and responsibility to each other, which we call love. And it points us back to the one who first loved us, who loves each of us to an extent we can never repay.

What do we owe each other? It’s a question that goes beyond bringing lunch to a neighbor. What do we owe each other, even the people we know with the most offensive political views we can imagine in the leadup to a national election? What do we owe each other, the most vulnerable members of our society – the poor, the sick, the historically oppressed? Not just what can do we if we feel like it or for extra credit. What do we owe to someone, simply because they are here and alive and created in the image of God?

Nothing, says Paul. Owe no one anything. Except – Except – for this debt of love, which is kind of everything.

Which maybe makes you wish sometimes you could just write a check.

But that’s not how things work in God’s economy, where grace is free but never cheap, and where we have already received more love than we could ever give away.

So I’ll end today with what is probably some questionable financial advice for you: go ahead and rack up some debt. You’re never going to pay it off anyway. You’ve been given too much already. But you might as well live your life paying it forward.

You know it’s not really about money.

It is about love, and grace, and the abundant life we share together.

Pray and Act Boldly

Guest preacher: Rev. Cathy Abbott

Scripture: Acts 4:23-31

Friday, thousands of people came out to march in DC on the 57th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s stirring “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Representative John Lewis’s death on July 17 also reminded us of the witness of faithful people devoted to ending injustice.  He is remembered for many things—for his historic work in the civil rights movement; for his clarion calls for justice throughout a long political career; even for preaching to chickens as a child.  He was a man of God, who named the injustices of our world without falling into despair.  I treasure this tweet from 2019:

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way.” 

One Sunday morning, I was feeling parched and dry, and in need of some inspiration. So, Ernie and I headed downtown to the Martin Luther King Junior memorial.  Who here has been there? 

We walked around the massive image of King: emerging from a wall of stone.  Surrounding the image is a great wide circle of stone wall.  And as you follow the wall, there are all these sayings of Martin we used them today in our litany.  Now Martin…well, Martin had a way with words, didn’t he? Mulling his words, I tried to imagine what it would be like, to be a black preacher in the south at the beginning of the civil rights movement.  It was not an auspicious time.  There were many injustices; many hardships; many trials that Martin and his people faced.  And where, I wonder, did he get his courage?  Where did he find hope in the midst of that struggle?  Before the successes of the civil rights movement, there were many times when it looked like they would fail.  Many times, when Martin could have despaired.

As Ernie and I walked around the Memorial, we went out through this narrow slit between the walls—and turned around…and saw through these high sentinels, the “wall of stone.”  On the other side of that wall, Martin emerges from the rock–tall, powerful, leading.  But you don’t see Martin. 

What you see, off in the distance is the Jefferson Memorial—a symbol of hope; a symbol of freedom; a symbol of democracy at its best.  And on the stone out of which Martin Luther King Junior emerges is written:

Out of the mountain of despair; a stone of hope.

A stone of hope.  Where do we find hope in our own “mountains of despair?”  In this season, there is plenty to despair about:

  • Our nation failing so utterly to protect us from the ravages of this pandemic
  • Racism more deeply imbedded in our culture than we care to admit—the heavier toll of the pandemic on people of color than on people like me.  One more police shooting of a black man.
  • The economy
  • The state of our political discourse
  • The anxiety and fear that pervades our world.
  • And I am wondering, how many Zoom meetings at work just… exhaust you?
  • I could go on, but I won’t!

How do you live with hope when you are drained—tired and empty?

I confess that I have succumbed to near despair myself at times.  There was that year at Arlington Temple when Joan Cure, our long-time church secretary went to the hospital on Dec. 20th—-and died in March.  That was the year that my Dad came home to live with us for hospice care—and we had no idea what we were doing or how long he’d be with us…It was that same year that Kathy Lewman, my beloved lay leader, died—suddenly in the night, alone in her Rosslyn apartment.  Nobody knew she had a heart condition—and I had to go and identify the body. 

When I get into that “pit of despair,” I first try my feeble “it’s not so bad” self-talk:

  • I don’t have it as bad as Martin Luther King Jr—shot to death 48 years ago.  It’s one thing to risk your own life for the sake of justice—but to when the lives or your small children and your wife are placed at risk as well—that’s a heavy burden for a man to bear.    
  • I don’t have it as bad as Nadeem Khokhar did, a pastor who worked here while at seminary.   Nadeem was living in Pakistan when his Muslim business partner became so impressed with the way Nadeem conducted business that he, too wanted to become a Christian.  It’s not safe to do that in Pakistan.  And when the man was baptized and became a Jesus follower, his relatives threatened Nadeem…threatened him with death. 
  • Nadeem fled to the US, leaving his wife and three children in hiding.  (Blessedly, he has now been reunited with his family, and is serving a church in Blackstone.)
  • I don’t have it as bad as the apostle Paul, in prison for proclaiming the Gospel.

This self-talk works for a while…but it never holds.

Jesus says:

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”  (Matt 7:7)

What do we do when our troubles build up…and build up…and build up into a “mountain of despair”?

We can pray.  Sue Nilson Kibbey introduced me to a new way of praying.  She says there are three types of prayer:

  • “Threshold” prayer, which brings your current broken reality to the threshold of God; and asks for God to do a new thing; asks for hope; asks for possibility.  This is the kind of prayer Anne Lamont calls “Help, Help, Help.”  We’ve all done this kind of prayer:  you’re running late to the airport, and pray:  “Please, please, please Lord—don’t let me miss my plane.”  Or you get a call from your sister, there’s something wrong with the baby:  “Help, Lord!”  Or you hear about the latest police shooting of a black man, and all you can do is cry out to the Lord in pain and anger.
  • “Arms of God” prayer, which asks the Lord for healing of all kinds.  This is the kind of prayer we often turn to—your child has a spot on her shoulder—it’s cancer; a childhood friend attempted suicide–again; a neighbor has a terrible accident.   Or, we pray for the church—struggling to connect with a new generation—we pray for healing and for hope.
  • But then there is a third kind of prayer; “Breakthrough” prayer, in which we ask God boldly to break through the current reality and bring us to a new future reality.  It is as if we are asking God to put extra oxygen into our own feeble human efforts.

In her work in Ohio for the Methodist Church, Sue has found their most powerful tool for bringing real and dramatic change to congregations is teaching “breakthrough prayer.”   Too often, our prayers are too timid, and our God is too small. 

Teaching churches to pray boldly for a powerful breakthrough brings new life to lukewarm congregations.  There is something Biblical about praying together as a church—the power that comes when, together, we trust God to bring about a future we cannot.  Citing Oswald Chambers, Sue testifies that just as food is fuel for our physical bodies; prayer is food for the spiritual body of Christ.  Retired Bishop Cho always said:  “There is no church vitality without spiritual vitality.”

Breakthrough prayer is about praying—and then acting—and praying again.  This pattern of trusting God to make a breakthrough, but then stepping up and taking action was central to the movement that King led.  Training in prayer was part of the rigorous process that anyone who wanted to march with Martin went through.  Potential marchers had to sign a covenant of how they would behave—and prayer was a core part of that discipline. Protestors had to be prepared to meet violence and hate and anger by turning the other cheek—with nonviolent resistance. 

In 2015, Rep. John Lewis returned to the Edmund Pettus Bridge to re-enact the Selma march.  Fifty-five years ago, he was so badly beaten that they feared for his life.  How do you resist returning violence for violence when a police dog charges and bites you?  How do you continue to march nonviolently when the fire hoses are turned on you?  You do it through prayer—lots and lots of prayer.  In our lesson from Acts this morning, we see Peter and John facing imprisonment and beatings through prayer.

I imagine that Martin Luther King, Jr practiced his own form of breakthrough prayer.  He dared to dream that one day, “justice would roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” But he didn’t just dream—he gathered a community of people to work and to fight until that dream was realized.  The great Jewish rabbi Abraham Heschel spoke of marching with Martin as “praying with my legs.”  Martin prayed; and acted; and prayed again.

Breakthrough prayer is like the King memorial—we look through the narrow slits, and see…far off in the distance, not the Jefferson Memorial, but the Kingdom of heaven.  And just as Martin Luther King, Jr became a stone of hope amidst a mountain of despair, our churches can become places of hope when we radically rely on God’s power.

So, I am wondering, what would happen here at Arlington Temple if we began to practice and to teach “breakthrough prayer.”  What would happen if we began dreaming dreams so big that only God could fulfill them? 

What would happen if this church began believing that God could indeed “breakthrough” our toughest and most worrisome reality?  What if?

In the Book of Acts, Peter and John speak boldly about Jesus, and are threatened with prison and beatings unless they cease.  But the apostles continue to preach and act boldly.  They pray, they act, and they pray again.  Hear again their prayer:

“And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness…When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.”  (Acts 4:29-31)

Breakthrough prayer invites us into a collective pattern of life of praying and acting with boldness.

Amen.

Ruth & Naomi: Soul Friends

Guest preacher: Rev. Cathy Abbott

Scripture: Ruth 1:1-18

My younger son Tim delights me with his devotion to his first born, Lily.  There is just something about little ones that fills our hearts with joy and with hope in the future.  Tim’s wife, Alya, moved to the US from Russia when she was 10.  Her grandparents and elderly aunts speak primarily Russian.  And while her parents function very well in English at work, with their friends, and at home, they are most comfortable speaking Russian.  And so, Tim and Alya have decided to raise Lily to speak both Russian and English. 

When I asked Tim why they were teaching Lily Russian, he said it was all about relationships:  they want Lily to be able to communicate with her grandparents and other relatives in the language in which they are most comfortable expressing themselves.  For immigrant families, what to keep and what to shed of their “culture of origin” is an important source of identity and discernment.

In today’s world, 258 million people live in countries not of their birth:  19% of this total live in the US.  In N. American, 42% of the population growth from 2000-2015 was from migration.  Germany has taken in more than a million immigrants since 2015, many fleeing war and chaos in the Middle East and Africa.  When we visited S. Africa, we were amazed at how the local African population resented the migration of Africans from other nations, fearing they were “taking our jobs.”  The world-wide pandemic has created even greater stressed on immigration.  Many Asian Americans in the US report greater discrimination and racial slurs since the pandemic began—even though epidemiologists have found that the primary strains of the virus came to us from Europe—not China.  How many here came as immigrants or have parents who came as immigrants?  (show of hands) You know this story well. 

Today’s story is a story of immigration.  Naomi and her husband left their home in Bethlehem because there was a famine in the land.  They immigrated to Moab.  Ironic, since Bethlehem means “the house of bread” and was renowned for its grain. Most Israelites considered Moab to be a place of death and destruction.  But when you are in the middle of a famine, you do what you must do.  In Moab, Naomi’s husband died.  Then, her two sons married two local girls, Orpah and Ruth.  Life went on. 

Naomi’s life was hard:  first one son died, then the other.  Suddenly, Naomi has no one but her daughters-in-law.  She urges them to stay in Moab and make a new life for themselves in their homeland:

“Go back each of you to your mother’s house.  May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.  9The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.”  Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.  (Ruth 1:8-9)

Naomi was a stranger in a strange land.  In ancient Israel, names have meanings.  Naomi means “sweet.”  But, whatever sweetness there was in Naomi’s life had shriveled up and died.  Naomi decides to go home—and her daughters-in-law offer to come with her.  She discourages them:

Turn back, my daughters, go your way…No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me!  (Ruth 1:12-13)

Sweet Naomi has become bitter.  Bitter people often choose isolation; they choose lonely roads. Naomi plans to return home alone—to Bethlehem—where the famine—the physical famine—has ended.  But the spiritual and emotional famine in Naomi’s life–the one that took her husband and her two sons– has made bitterness her ongoing companion.  This bitterness of heart and spirit now causes Naomi to push away the only family she has—Orpah and Ruth.     

Naomi feels cut off from her family—because there are no children—and from her homeland far away.  At such a time as this—some word must be spoken.  Ruth knew that.  She speaks a powerful word to Naomi:

 “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!   Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried.   May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”  (Ruth 1:16-17)

Ruth decides to leave her homeland and accompany Naomi back to Bethlehem.  For Ruth, Naomi is “family” and she will leave all she knows so that Naomi will not be alone.  Through her decision to accompany Naomi to a place she’s never been, Ruth creates a future for Naomi.  Ruth reminds Naomi her love. What Ruth is saying is, Naomi, your people ARE my people; your God IS my God; therefore, where you go, I will go, where you stay I will stay.  I am here for you!

Naomi thanks her daughters-in-law for their “kindness.”  The Hebrew word hesed that is translated kindness here is actually far more expansive.  A better translation would be “fierce covenant loyalty.”  Mama-bear kind of love—or a kind of positive “Tiger Mom.”  This word describes the nature of God.  It describes moments of grace, undeserved love and mercy.  Naomi is saying that in the kindness of Ruth and Orpah, she has experienced the love of God.  Even though Ruth and Orpah are from another culture, and were raised in a different way, Naomi (a foreigner) experienced the love of God through them.  Who has shown you this kind of love?

Ruth and Naomi set off for Bethlehem together.  It is here we can see the depth of sadness that has enfolded Naomi.  As she enters Bethlehem, some old friends see her on the road.  “Are you Naomi?” they ask. 

She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.  I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”  (Ruth 1:20-21)

Naomi is in such deep despair, she tells her friends to call her “Mara,” which means bitterness.  This once sweet woman has taken on a new identity—a woman bitterly disappointed by life and by her God.  This is the story of many immigrants—they travel to a new land, fleeing persecution, fleeing famine, fleeing war, or simply seeking a better life.  But that new land does not always become the “promised land,” does it?  Bitterness can come and inhabit our hearts when life disappoints us. 

When we are unmoored, and bitterness eats away at us, we can end up in a “far country” –like the Prodigal Son.  At such times, we are sorely in need of companions to journey with us, to guide us.  I wonder what lessons we can learn from the story of Ruth and Naomi?  Let us see what happens when Ruth becomes the immigrant, and Naomi the guide:

So, Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab.  They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.  (Ruth 1:22)

This is a foreshadowing.  The Lord is going to use Ruth’s adaptation to the culture of Israel to bring a harvest into both Naomi’s and Ruth’s lives. 

Ruth and Naomi are both widows—they have no way to sustain themselves.  Ruth is a stranger and doesn’t know the Israelite culture and ways.  So, Naomi instructs Ruth on how things work.  She sends Ruth to ask permission from the landowner Boaz to glean the grain that falls to the ground during the harvest. 

Allowing widows and the poor to glean the “leftovers” from the harvest was one way that ancient Israelites helped  those in need in their community.  Another way the community provided for widows was that the closest male relative could marry the widow and purchase, or “redeem” the property owned by the dead son. 

Thus a “redeemer” is someone who buys back something; someone who frees someone from captivity or oppression. 

When Naomi sent Ruth to Boaz the landowner, she knew that he was a potential Redeemer.  Boaz was in the family line and could redeem her son’s name and property.   Ruth’s fierce covenant love for Naomi brought them both back to Bethlehem—but Naomi’s instruction of Ruth led to a future for both of them.  How?

Well, Ruth gets to know Boaz as she gleans in his fields.  Boaz negotiates to become her “redeemer”—marrying Ruth and purchasing her husband’s property.  They wed and have a child.  What we discover is that Ruth’s covenant loyalty to Naomi actually became the path to redemption, a way out of the famine and their vulnerability, to a great harvest. 

When Alya’s parents came to California 25 years ago, friends from Russia had paved the way.  Their friends helped them find jobs, told them where to rent an apartment (near good schools, the grocery story, and the bus line), and helped them learn “new ways” so that they could thrive in a new land.

Can you think of people who helped your parents, or you become “at home” in a strange land?  Can you think of someone who helped you figure out the norms of a new school when you moved as a child?  Or when you went to college—a new friend who made this new place “home” to you?  Someone who, just like Naomi, schooled you in not just how to survive, but thrive in a new place?

What is interesting to me about the story of Ruth and Naomi is that it is Naomi (the one more familiar with Israelite culture) who becomes the “guide” for helping Ruth navigate a future for them both—a future with hope.  This is in line with our usual way of thinking:  it is the older generation who instructs the younger.  But notice what is important here is that Naomi is familiar with the culture, and Ruth who needs to learn.  Naomi emigrates twice—once leaving home to go to Moab, once returning home from Moab. 

As she returns to Bethlehem—“the house of bread,” she is able to teach Ruth how to be “fed”—not just spiritually (by gleaning); and not just emotionally (by marrying).  Naomi teaches Ruth how to be “fed” by the Lord.  She is a blessing to Ruth, and in return, Ruth blesses her with a “son.”  The younger woman and the older woman mutually bless each other.  They become more than “in-laws”:  you might even call them “soul friends.”

So, I am wondering, who do you know who needs such a friend?  It could be someone who has suffered numerous losses—like Naomi.  It could be a new co-worker, who doesn’t yet “know the ropes.”  It could be a non-Christian, who will not know peace until their hearts rest in God.

Lily is older now.  But, I love how my son Tim is learning Russian so that both he and Lily will be able to have a stronger relationship with Alya’s parents and grandparents.  This “learning the language” is a sign to me of his “fierce covenant loyalty” to his wife and to her family.

Increasingly as churches in American, we have to “learn the language” of a new group of people—our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends:  people who have not been brought up in the church, who stopped going when they went to college, who do not know Jesus.  Who here knows someone like that (show of hands)?  Who amongst them might need you to become their “soul friend”?  For such people to come to know the living God, we need to learn how to speak their language—and to “translate” live-giving faith in ways that new people can enter into a relationship with the living God.  Your knowledge of the ways of God could provide the gift—not of earthly sustenance (of a husband, of food, of shelter…or an heir)—but of eternal sustenance—life with God.  As ATUMC plans to move off-site when our building is torn down and rebuilt, Pastor Allie has challenged us to think about how we can reach out to new neighbors in new ways.

What the story of Ruth and Naomi teaches us is that this challenge of evangelism is all about relationships:  relationship with God and relationship with new people who do not yet know the Lord.

When Ruth’s baby is born, no one is more delighted than….Naomi!  Indeed, the women of the village say:

“A son has been born to Naomi.” (Not to Ruth, but to Naomi!)  They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.  (Ruth 4:17)

Now David was the famous King David—and who is King David’s most famous descendent?  [Jesus]  And Jesus is our… Redeemer!

Out of Naomi’s bitterness—out of all the losses and brokenness in her life, sweetness returns when Ruth bears a son!  Even though her husband and her two sons die, through Ruth’s fierce covenant loyalty–Naomi now has a “son.”  The women say to Naomi:

Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a next-of-kin…He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.  (Ruth 4:14-15)

And what brings about this transformation from death to life for Naomi?  A decision by Ruth to travel to an unknown country so that Naomi would not be alone:  a new life that began with these powerful words:

Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.   (Ruth 1:16)

With this commitment, Ruth and Naomi became more than in-laws—they became soul friends.  Where are you being called to go and do likewise? 

Amen.

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.