Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
I bet you never imagined that going to church would be one of the biggest controversies in today’s news. Protesters and some government leaders, insisting that churches reopen, have claimed the headlines, along with a smattering of responses by others insisting that we remain closed. Many congregations have members on both sides of the issue, which is causing quite a dilemma for their pastors and lay leaders. I’m grateful the ELCA has taken a firm stand on it. Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has been unequivocal in her position that we do not open until it’s safe for all our members. On Friday, the bishops of the three synods in California also issued a “Joint Letter Against Re-opening for Public Worship.”
Even Martin Luther is being quoted from his response to the bubonic plague in his time: I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others.
Of course, those in favor of opening would claim that today the presence of Luther’s contemporaries is needed, that the church is an essential service that should not be denied. And as much as I don’t agree with their decision, I certainly get the longing for in-person church gatherings. As much as we rightly claim that the church isn’t a building, we miss being together. As much as I’m grateful we have the technology to be together virtually, it’s not the same as sharing the peace with a handshake or hug or placing the body of Christ into your hand. Although, current information is telling us that these actions, among others like singing, may have to be abandoned, at least for a while. It’s all rather complex. When the time’s right, reopening will take a lot of prayerful, thoughtful deliberation about how to do it responsibly. But in the meantime, we wait.
The Waiting’s the Hardest Part
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like waiting. Waiting for something to happen is like being at the airport. You’re not at home anymore, but you’re not where you’re going either. You’re in a middle space between here and there. Even when you’re not looking forward to something, the waiting is still hard. For example, you need surgery. Who wants to go through that? But you can’t go back to not knowing there’s a problem that needs correcting but it’s still two weeks before you go into the hospital. You’re in a middle space and time. Or you might remember from a couple of weeks ago, I talked about a book I’m reading called How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season. Liminal is that middle space, the waiting area between one point in time and space and the next.
Like today. This is the seventh and last Sunday of Easter. Next Sunday is Pentecost, one of the Big Three days on the Christian calendar, along with Christmas and Easter, although we don’t hear much about it outside of the church (that’s not true in Germany, where the Monday after Pentecost Sunday is a national holiday).
Wear Something Red!
I happen to love Pentecost, maybe because it doesn’t have any of the cultural trappings around it. Maybe also because it’s not something you can easily wrap your mind around. It’s a matter of wonder that we can get at only with symbols like fire, wind, descending doves, red balloons, everyone wearing something red to church to imagine the coming of the promised Holy Spirit, which became the birthday of the Church.
But it’s not Pentecost yet. We have to wait one more week for the fifty days of Easter to be complete. Although our tradition does say that something happened on the fortieth day, that after appearing alive over the course of the forty days after the resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven. The number forty should ring bells with us. It’s one of those biblical numbers that signifies something really important. In this case, forty days represents completeness; Jesus’ work on earth was finished. People back then would have gotten right away that the story of Jesus’ ascension was like the prophet Elijah being taken up into heaven by a whirlwind in a chariot of fire. And as Elijah passed on his mantle to a successor, his protege, Elisha, so does Jesus; he passes his mission on to the disciples – and then through them and the Holy Spirit to the Church.
But before Jesus left, he instructed his followers what to do until the arrival of the Holy Spirit: that dreaded word – wait. By leaving them again, Jesus threw them right back into that middle space again, neither here nor there, waiting for the fulfillment of a promise they didn’t really understand. And here we are, too. Ascension Day was Thursday and we’re now in the midst of the ten-day middle space until Pentecost – waiting.
Not in an upper room, but sheltering in place. For some, stopping work or school; waiting for a vaccine, waiting for an all-clear from medical professionals to go back to work, school, church, etc. Again, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of the social distancing and voluntary quarantine. By the way, did you know that ‘quarantine’ literally means forty days? It’s the waiting time that ships in 14th/15th century Italy had to stay in isolation before passengers could go ashore during the bubonic plague.
There’s a lot of commonality in the isolation, uncertainty, and enforced waiting of the disciples after the ascension, the passengers on 15th and 21st century ships, and us – longing to get back into our daily routines of work, school, family, church, and life. As Tom Petty sang, “The waiting is the hardest part.”
You Take It on Faith, You Take It to the Heart
But the line right before that is, “You take it on faith, you take it to the heart.” And faith is where we’ve got to take it. And this passage from Acts just might point us to what might get us through our quarantine.
Jesus told the disciples, “You’re going to have to wait a while longer. Go back to Jerusalem and wait.” So they went back to the room where they were staying. And here, the details of all these people isolated together in an upstairs room, is kind of humorous. There was Peter, and John, James and Andrew; Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus; Simon the Zealot; and Judas son of James. Also some of the women who followed Jesus, his mother Mary, and some of Jesus’ sisters and brothers. That’s a lot of people in one room! But it also conveys the seriousness of this liminal time. And while we’re waiting with them in our own context – we can take a lesson from them: “they devoted themselves to constant prayer.”
No binge-watching for them. Constant prayer. At first that might seem like a no-brainer, especially for those early followers. But when it comes to ourselves, sometimes we might find it difficult to pray or even to know how to pray. Then I suspect that many people feel guilty for not praying enough.
A Quarantine for the Soul
But you know what: sometimes we make things way too complicated. I like what the late Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel had to say about it. He said that to pray is to open a window of the soul to God. Just meditating on that phrase for a while, imagining what that would be like – is a fine prayer in itself.
Heschel is also the one who said,
Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. . . to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.
He also said,
It is gratefulness that makes the great.
Which reminded me of the mystic Meister Eckhart, who said,
If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.
And when I read this from Heschel, I think I experienced radical amazement because he wrote this in 1945:
Prayer clarifies our hopes and intentions. It helps us discover our true aspirations, the pangs we ignore, the longings we forget. It is an act of self-purification, a quarantine for the soul.
A quarantine for the soul. In the midst of a quarantine that can sometimes feel soul-draining, the antidote is to quarantine ourselves in prayer. According to the crowd in the upstairs room, the best thing we can do as we wait for the end of this pandemic and for the spiritual renewal of Pentecost is open up our souls and pour out our hearts to God.
What Does It Mean to Be Church?
Now, make no mistake: as much as isolation takes us out of the world, it does not mean that we neglect our responsibilities to our world. What’s the old saying: you can’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good? Or as the two messengers in white said to the astonished disciples, “Why are you standing around looking up at the sky?”
Even in this liminal time, the coming of Pentecost is the perfect time to think about what it means to be church. For some, it obviously means getting back to business as usual with no concern for the risks. For some, it means a way to make a political statement. Church can and often has been co-opted for less than Christ-like reasons.
All the more reason to spend time about it in prayer. I’m imagining when we do get to go back to meeting in person that we will do a lot of praying and reflecting about what it means to be church post-pandemic. All the more reason to anticipate the arrival of the Holy Spirit into the realities we face today. In what ways, both old and new, will we pick up the mantle that Jesus has passed on to us?
I sure would love to be working on these questions now. I sure would love to be at 301 Burlingame Avenue this morning instead of on Zoom. I sure would love to be scheduling visits with all of you. And I am sure that you have your “I sure would love to . . .” list, too.
But Jesus says, “Wait.” And so we will. Dedicating ourselves to care for one another and to constant prayer as the day of Pentecost approaches. Not that I’m expecting the corona-virus to adhere to the church calendar and disappear amid wind and fire. But I am expecting that we will be renewed by the reminder of what has always fueled our lives as followers of Jesus – power from on high, the Holy Spirit of God. Just knowing makes the waiting a little easier.
We take it on faith, we take it to the heart, even when the waiting is the hardest part.
After the Passion, Jesus appeared alive to the apostles – confirmed through many convincing proofs – over the course of forty days, and spoke to them about the reign of God. On one occasion, Jesus told them not to leave Jerusalem: ”Wait, rather, for what God has promised, of which you have heard me speak. John baptized with water, but within a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
While meeting together the disciples asked, “Has the time come, Rabbi? Are you going to restore sovereignty to Israel?”
Jesus replied, “It’s not for you to know times or dates that God has decided. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”
Having said this, Jesus was lifted up in a cloud before their eyes and taken from their sight. They were still gazing up into the heavens when two messengers dressed in white stood beside them. They said, “You Galileans, why are you standing here looking up at the sky? Jesus, who has been taken from you – this same Jesus will return, in the same way you watched him go into heaven.”
The apostles returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, a mere Sabbath’s walk away. Entering the city, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying—Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus; Simon the Zealot; and Judas son of James. Also in their company were some of the women who followed Jesus, his mother Mary, and some of Jesus’ sisters and brothers. With one mind, they devoted themselves to constant prayer.