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.