Let us pray… … Lord God, may your peace and Holy Spirit fill us this morning. Open your scriptures to us, and may I clearly communicate what you intend us to receive. May your Word take root and flourish within each and every one of us, and through it may we be strengthened and transformed by your unconditional, living, and limitless love for each and every one of your children. In Jesus Name, Amen.
As I read this morning’s scripture (Acts 2:1-19), I imagine the disciples huddled in that Upper Room. They are no longer afraid, but Jesus’ last command is to remain there, to “shelter in place,” until they receive the promise of the Creator. So they wait, separate from those who resumed their normal lives after the turmoil and death of that first Easter week.
I’m sure they mourned. I’m sure they prayed and planned. They must have wondered about Jesus’ promise and his commission to be witnesses there in Jerusalem, then in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of all the earth. How would this Great Commission be fulfilled? They waited.
And there our church sits. All of us are gone. We’re waiting. Only Pastor Tom is there this morning, all alone. We have quarantined ourselves from our neighbors and friends. But like the disciples, we know we must soon move on to something new.
Sure, we can connect with each other through screens and wires. We can maintain social distancing as we take our afternoon walks, run our morning errands, or get takeout dinners. For almost 12 weeks our lives have been on pause. We are isolated, waiting, wondering what the future will bring. Wondering what our New Normal will be like.
Now we’re told we can re-open our church. But what does that mean? How do we determine and meet the criteria to re-open? We are also mindful that we are an Open and Affirming Church. And so, how do we show our love and concern for not just our own members, but for the community around us? How does all this affect when and how we re-open our building?
Just because we can re-open the building now does not mean we should. Nor does it mean we will simply go back to the way things were. We will re-open, but many things will change. Just as the disciples, in that Upper Room, knew change was coming for them. Even once we open, we know it will be a long time before everyone can attend safely.
In this time of quarantine we’ve had to be alone in ways we have never experienced before. Unable – not even allowed – to gather together to play, share a meal, celebrate a new life, gather in worship, mourn those whom we have lost, and to be there for those who are suffering. (Not to mention reaching out to demand justice and bring healing to those harmed by the racism, hate, and injustices we witness on our screens and streets – even today.)
Among other things, Pentecost promises that even when we are isolated, we are NOT alone. The Holy Spirit appeared to the disciples like a fire: dividing into tongues that touched each of them. It filled them, as it fills us. It unites all of us across both space, and time: present, past and future. It provides the gifts, talents, and strengths we need to fulfill God’s purpose for us and for all who are part of God’s Creation.
We are all integral parts of the Body of Christ. We are united through the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit given to the disciples, and to us, that morning. We are not alone.
I often think and preach on Matthew 1:23, which tells us Jesus is to be called Emmanuel – God With Us: the one who walks with us in our very shoes, experiencing everything we do, exactly as we do. Through Christ Jesus, God intimately knows what it means to be who we are. God is there with us on every step of our journey through life to death – and beyond. We are not alone, and never will be – in this life or the next. Emmanuel: God with us.
That we are not alone is not merely a gift, it is a responsibility. The Holy Spirit is not only for our personal edification and comfort. It is a tool to enable us to do the work of the Body of Christ. It is a call to action, just as it was for Peter and the others that morning. They were Disciples no more, but Apostles: called to bring the Word to all the world.
This is our task as well. We are not alone. We are called to live that reality out in meaningful ways. We are to bring the Good News to all. No one is alone: no matter who they are, what God they worship, what color their skin is, their politics, the size of their bank account, what language the speak, where they were born, how able their bodies or minds may be, what gender they identify with, and no matter whom they love. God loves us all unconditionally: no prerequisites, no expectations, no limits, and no end.
So, how do we live out the reality of this infinite Love of God when we can’t gather together in the ways that have been essential to the life of our church for so long?
You know, broadcast church services never did satisfy my own need to participate in a Community of Faith. Watching church on TV feels like I’m peeking in through a window: cut off, alone, merely a spectator.
The Rev. Courtney Clayton Jenkins spoke to this in a recent UCC webinar.[i] She challenged us [and I paraphrase] “How shall we bring folks into church when the building is not accessible?” “How do we get them involved?” “How can we create full relationship for those who are not physically present?” In other words, how do we be a full and vibrant Community of Faith for everyone when some of us cannot safely enter the building?
Rev. Ned Allyn Parker, a friend of Tom and I who preached here a few months ago, recently wrote this, he said:[ii]
“I [recently] came across [some posts] describing a certain elation about online worship. These were written by people – some elderly, some with varying degrees of mobility – who had not been able to take Communion for some time. Now, with Communion being offered online, they felt like they were re-entering full participation with their church communities.” Ned then asks, “How can this inform how we enter into and share this sacred act?” I believe his question is relevant for every aspect of the life of a congregation, its’ members, and our mission as a church.
Ned then adds: “Let’s [also] continue to rethink the way our communities talk about healing narratives. … how can these stories be used in ways that don’t minimize members of the community for whom greater accessibility is an everyday [challenge]?” Ned’s words speak to me of how our present task to include those who are absent has always been a challenge.
Jesus has left the building. One message of Pentecost is that now is the time for us to follow – leaving the familiar behind as we move into a New Normal. As important as the building itself is (and will remain) to the life of any congregation, the church never was in the building. The Church is in us. — It is us. That truth must inform how we encounter the New Normal that is upon us.
The building remains, but we are changing. How we use it will change too. This pandemic shows that we can integrate those who are scattered and isolated. We have new tools to help them participate fully in the Body of Christ.
The task before us is to find our path, as a congregation, to this New Normal. Our Faith teaches us that everyone is essential in the Kingdom of God. We must find new ways to make this a concrete reality for all. We must make room for all to participate meaningfully in the worship and work of this church, no matter who or where they are.
In Acts chapter 2 we see the Apostles encountering the future. They did not yet know what that future looked like. Much of the rest of the Christian Scriptures are a narrative of how they learned on the job. They confronted challenges of all sorts as they reached out to those who were alone or marginalized and welcomed them into the Body of Christ. Even so, the Scriptures clearly bear witness to many mistakes they made along the way.
We are not called to hang back and let others who are more experienced and skilled do the work for us. It is we who are now on the front line. We are the ones carrying the flame of Pentecost into the places it must go. It is we who must take risks and confront challenges and make mistakes. That is what it will take to build a more expansive, more inclusive church that well-serves all those who would otherwise only be looking in through a window (if that).
We are not alone. It is both a gift and a responsibility. Pentecost impelled the Apostles to see and serve their community in new and more expansive ways. And now, so do we.
Delivered at Memorial Congregational Church UCC in Sudbury MA, May 31, 2020 (Pentecost).
Copyright (c) 2020, Allen Vander Meulen III.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.