The Strangeness of this moment.
We find ourselves at a strange moment. The ordinary has been disrupted. Thursday was a big day, in the life of the church. It was the Feast of the Ascension. You are forgiven if you missed it. We only had a tiny in-person service. The Seventh Sunday of Easter always follows Ascension Day. We spend the last 10 days of Easter in this strange in-between space, after Jesus has been taken up, and before the Holy Spirit comes down.
This strangeness explains our readings today. Peter is leading the disciples in asking “what’s next?” or, maybe more accurately, “who is next?” They choose Matthias to take a place among the twelve. You have to imagine the Gospel a little differently today. The disciples are not hearing from Jesus directly. He hasn’t come back down to pray this prayer. Instead the Gospel today for the original disciples is like it is for all of us every Sunday. The disciples are remembering what Jesus said, what he stood for, what he meant for them.
Today is also a strange Sunday because we, like those disciples between Ascension and Pentecost, between Jesus going up and the Holy Spirit coming down, we find ourselves on the threshold of something new. We held our first indoor Sunday service since March of 2020 this morning. We are, once again, working to reinvent church. Soon we will invite you to join us at 10:30.
More than the strangeness of Ascension
And, I gotta say, Thursday was also strange beyond reading the story of Jesus’ Ascension. Because on Thursday the CDC declared that vaccinated people basically don’t need to worry about masks anymore. Thursday was disruptive. Thursday upset some folks. The CDC certainly made me wonder. We just spent all this time and energy figuring out our new practices to welcome people in person. Those practices definitely involve wearing masks. We will wear masks for quite awhile at church.
But we find ourselves in this strange in between space. I’ve said to you before, Jesus’ followers know strange spaces. We know the in between. Flannery O’Conner, that Southern Gothic mystic, once misquoted Jesus, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Shall make you odd. We know strangeness.
Friends, these next days, and weeks, and months are going to be a little strange, a little odd. We just surveyed the whole parish, and while the sample size doesn’t let me say anything about what our city or country are feeling, it did tell me quite a bit about what our church is feeling. We are all over the map. We have folks who are just done with the pandemic and want the church to have a full choir and nursery and potluck suppers. They want all this yesterday. They are afraid we are losing steam. We also have some folks who are still afraid to move. They’re not sure it is time to start worshiping in person. They are definitely sure we need significant protections measures in place. We have folks saying: you’ll have to pry this mask off my face.
Let me say, I identify with both those positions. I don’t say that to try and please everyone. I don’t. I kinda wonder what would’ve happen if we had asked you all to fill out the survey not just once, but twice. Simply wait an hour, read a news story or two, and take it again, if there wouldn’t be people who swapped sides: if someone who said we are moving too fast would say we need to move faster, and vice versa. These days are difficult days to navigate our emotions. It’s hard to know exactly the right response or what to do. It’s tempting to retreat into fear.
But friends, there is a reason that every time and angel appears the first words we here are “fear not.” Fear not. Living in fear has a tendency to harden the soul. Too much of our world is living with fear. Fear of the other. Fear of the political other, fear of the racial other, fear of the immigrant, fear of the Palestinian, fear of the Israeli. Fear hardens us, and makes growth and health and life impossible.
Today, with Peter, i want to ask you to challenge fear. I want to invite you to take a brave next step. Peter finds himself, among the disciples, trying to sort out what is next. He says, we are down to eleven. We need twelve. I know we’re not quite ready for everything that is to come. I know we are here in the city waiting, like Jesus told us, biding time. The world that is to come, the power coming from on high, it’s still coming. But even in this strange in-between, we can act. Even now we can take one brave step.
Friends, I want to invite you today, take the next brave step. For some of us, for some of us, that means coming to church in person. Notice, I didn’t say everybody. We are going to take this slow. We published our summer guidelines this week, and the CDC announcement doesn’t change them. We are going to have options this summer. We will have online worship and indoor worship. Once a month we will have outdoor worship in the park as well. In all the spaces we are going to keep things pretty simple and as safe as possible. We will open windows, even when it’s noisy or hot and muggy outside. We will wear masks, even if out in the stores and restaurants they are no longer required. We have a lot of people, including kids, that still can’t be vaccinated. We are going to keep them safe. For awhile, we are going to keep things short here, limit our time. But for some of us, coming to church in person might be the next brave step away from fear.
The next Brave Step
For some of us, the next brave step might be getting vaccinated. I know we have a few folks for whom the vaccine is still scary. I want to encourage you. Take the brave step. Really. If I’m being honest I think getting more folks vaccinated is behind the CDC decision. They want to incentivize people to be brave and to get immunity. I don’t think this is partisan. One of the side effects of the vaccine isn’t changing your political party affiliation. But I know there are folks who are still hesitant. If that’s you, your next brave step might be vaccination. If you live with someone or love someone who is eligible for a vaccine and hasn’t gotten it, your next brave step might be having a conversation and telling them how badly you want them to get the shots. How their life and health matters to you. In this strange space, we are invited just to take the next brave step.
Howard Thurman on Fear
Before I finish, I want to turn to the words of Howard Thurman. Thurman was the dean of chapel at Boston University when Dr King was a student. He became a mentor to King and to many in the Civil rights movement. He has, lately, been called the mystic of the movement. Thurman’s little book “Jesus and the Disinherited” is a powerful text. They say Dr King carried it around with him, wherever he went. Thurman’s little book went along with the Bible for King.
The book is worthwhile for anyone who seeks to follow Jesus and who cares about racism and discrimination. Though it was written 70 years ago, it is surprisingly relevant still today, in some ways painfully relevant. Not enough has changed for Black people in this country. Not enough has changed.
But today, as I wrap up this sermon I want to share some words from Thurman about fear. Thurman’s central question in the book is, “what does Jesus have to say to the [person] with [their] back against the wall?” What does Jesus have to say to the Disinherited, the oppressed? It turns out Jesus has a lot to say. Thurman tells us Jesus was principally concerned with those on the under side of oppression.
And he dedicates a whole chapter to fear. Fear robs us. Thurman says, fear robs us of reality. Fear robs us of the truth, that we and our neighbor are created in the image and likeness of God. Fear takes our humanity from us. The central message of the Gospel is this: you don’t have to live from a place of fear. Jesus wants us set free from our fears. Jesus wants us to live from a place of blessed assurance. This isn’t about recklessness. It’s not about throwing reasonable caution to the wind, indeed Thurman knows how cautious Black people and the oppressed have to be in America. How parents have to teach their kids to act around the police. How Black people have to behave in society to not be perceived as a threat. But Thurman says, too much fear, unhealthy fear, robs you of your God-given potential.
We are having a hard time gauging fear right now. So many of us have spent so much time afraid, our gauges have broken. They say, once your are fully vaccinated, that it is far more likely, statistically, that you will die in a car crash than that you will die of coronavirus. We are used to assuming the risk of driving a car. The coronavirus remains novel, and we are still unsure how to gauge the threat.
Fear is a disease, the mystic says, and you have to get vaccinated. You have to get inoculated, by trusting, trusting in God that whatever the world tells you, you are beloved, you are deserving of a full life. And, you know what, your neighbor is beloved and deserving too. Even your neighbor who disagrees, even your neighbor who votes the other way. We are, all of us, beloved. We have to take small brave steps toward one another.
Today the followers of Jesus remember his words: they do not belong to this world. We are God’s. We belong, together, to God. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, but we sure are good at separating ourselves one from another. It is time to take the next brave step, to come closer together. Strangely, still six feet apart, don’t get me wrong. But a little spiritually closer.
In these strange days where we find ourselves, in these strange days, I want to invite you, for the sake of Jesus. Be brave. Take the next brave step. For the sake of your neighbor, be slow to judge. Take your brave step graciously. Make room for patience. Make room for differences. Be slow to judge, even the folks who are suddenly maskless. Be slow to judge, even the folks still clinging to masks. Make room for going slow. Brave steps have to be small for the more anxious among us. But In the strange time we find ourselves, can we take a brave step? A step that draws us closer together? Can we take a brave step together that takes us further down the road to that beloved community of God?