Communities in Transition

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Psalms 31:1-5, 15-16

Acts 7:55-60

1 Peter 2:2-10
The world changed. There’s no going back to “normal” — only a march toward some kind of new normal that hasn’t fully revealed itself.  Society is restructuring to figure out how to meet people’s basic needs, but a lot of people suffer and die in the process. Some people cover their ears, grab weapons and mob the truth tellers like Stephen.  With all of the post-resurrection upheaval, life must have been so disorienting, overwhelming and exhausting for the early church.

Acts describes a community in transition that’s trying to figure out how to live in light of the ongoing revelation of God.  Spoiler alert – they weren’t the first and they aren’t the last to embark on this journey. In the epistle lesson, Peter compares that community to spiritual infants.  Figuring out how to order our lives seems to be the eternal Judeo-Christian project.

As you clearly know, we are also communities in transition, trying to figure out how to be church when we cannot be together. Our global context is changing in ways we can’t yet fully comprehend. Society is restructuring, although it’s questionable as to whether we’re really geared toward meeting people’s basic needs (let’s be honest, that’s never been the forte of either America or of capitalism). People are suffering and dying from coronavirus at an alarming (and underreported) rate – and will continue to do so for months. (I can hardly bring myself to write years, but maybe?) People are grabbing weapons and mobbing truth tellers. We are disoriented, overwhelmed and exhausted. There’s a sense of collective grief and unrest. 

And during all of this upheaval – global pandemic, physical distancing, suffering and death borne disproportionately by black and brown people, threats of violence, mass lay-offs – how do we now order our lives in light of God’s self-revelation? 

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to follow the rocks through the lectionary, because they show up a lot this week.  Perhaps they’ll offering stepping stones to insight for your community as you re-imagine your present and future.

God is a rock of refuge, a safe place to complain about all the things. In her latest blog post, the Joy of Complaining, therapist Esther Perel notes, “My Jewish ancestors mastered the art of suffering (and it is an art) as a means of maintaining a connection to our historical coping skills and to ensure, in a way, that the lessons learned from tragedy stay with us forever.” Psalms offers the perfect case study, situating us in an individual lament. The lectionary leaves out most of the lamenting, and boy it is a doozy. The Psalmist is physically ill, he’s grieving and socially isolated. Even his friends enforce social distancing, running away from him when they see him. But the Psalmist identifies God – who knows all of these afflictions (and notably does not improve his situation) – as his rock of refuge, his fortress.  Giving voice to lament doesn’t guarantee an outcome, but it does help the Psalmist feel seen and heard. In the vein of the Psalmist and Perel, I commend to you holy griping. 

Stones of self-denial for the sake and souls of others.  We’ve heard reports of people like Giuseppe Berardelli and Suzanne Hoylaerts, whose beliefs informed the decisions they made as death pelted their bodies. Both refused a ventilator so a younger person could have one. Coronavirus isn’t persecuting Christianity, so it would be an error to align the church with Stephen, who was stoned for his beliefs, but Stephen did plead for God to be merciful to his murderers.  In their own ways, Giuseppe, Suzanne and Stephen facilitated life in their own death.

There’s also something to be said here for not being the people who cover their ears, for refusing to rush ahead to chuck the proverbial stone.  For those who can, staying home and physical distancing as much as possible is a self-sacrifice for the sake of other’s lives – especially those who are most vulnerable.

A spiritual house built from living stones (that’s you).  Here’s where churches will continue to have opportunity to seek out and align with the creative flow of the Spirit in this time of transition. Peter gives you license to imagine a church without walls.  I cannot make any claim to know how this looks in your particular community.  However, Peter’s call to be living stones and let yourself be built into a spiritual house affirms the work that you’re doing to re-order life apart from the bricks and mortar. Nothing about the ekklesia is spared: gatherings and rituals, spiritual disciplines, mission and social justice, community building.  This is a transformation, a rebuilding from the cornerstone up on the way to a new normal.

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