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?