WIlderness and Pandemic – Doubting the Promise with Sarah and Hagar

Genesis 21:8-21
8The child [Isaac] grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” (Read the whole passage)

My son, with all the gravitas that a 6-year-old can muster, frequently refers to the COVID-19 Pandemic as the “Time Period.” 

“When this time period ends,” he will say, “we can see our friends again.”

While his confusion with pandemic terminology is smile inducing, there is a heartbreaking earnestness as well.

I also think there is something to his unintentional term… While many others have referred to this pandemic experience as an extended Lent, an extended time of sacrifice, I am not so sure that is what we are experiencing. 

Not all experiences of sacrifice and loss are the same, and this pandemic isn’t a short, defined time of sacrifice with a known end point like Lent is. 

It is a time period, a new way of being people and being communities and being society that we are going to have to live with for quite some time to come. A time period indeed. 

This is a transitional time period, a time when everything is being changed around us, whether we agree or not. 

Last week, we set out into the Wilderness with Abraham and Sarah. Their journey was not a short one. In fact, they began a journey that kept on going for generations, as Sarah laughed at the prospect of giving birth, yet then saw the fulfillment of God’s promise in Isaac. 

This wilderness journey of Abraham and Sarah feels like it is a story that is telling our story today. When so many of the familiar stories we hear on TV or in books or in movies fail to speak to this pandemic yet, this story of faith is an ancient version of our current reality. 

No, they weren’t trying to avoid a plague, but they were people who were set out into the unknown with no map, no instructions other than occasional updates from God, on what to do and where to go. And things that they never imagined possible happened to them. It was messy and complex and things often didn’t go right and they often showed a lack of trust or faith in the covenant, the promise that set them out on their journey in the first place. 

Their story sounds a lot of like ours doesn’t it? A story where we can see the same feelings, emotions, fears and anxieties that we are bearing. An immediacy that they were forced to live in… not knowing the plan for the future means you have to live in the moment. And living in the moment, just surviving day-to-day can make it hard to trust God.

Today, as we hear the next chapter in their journey, we are reminded that the promised Isaac who arrived last week was not, in fact, Abraham’s first son. Ishmael, whom Abraham conceived with Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar, was Abraham’s first born. 

And Sarah who laughed at the absurdity of bearing a son in her old age, is fearful that the child of promise would not receive God’s promise made. 

So she implores her husband to send Hagar and Ishamel away. 

Which Abraham does by God’s direction. 

And so cast out in the wilderness, Hagar and Ishmael go. But it isn’t long before they are in dire trouble… and facing an impossible choice, to die with her son, or to at least have one of them survive, Hagar leaves her son under a bush and walks away. 

Filled with unimaginable grief at her impossible choice, Hagar implores God to least spare her watching her son die. 

Two women in the wilderness discover new complications, new unimaginable circumstances, new impossibilities, new absurdities. They are in not just in the wilderness, but wilderness upon wilderness, complication upon complication, mess upon mess. 

How could either Sarah or Hagar be expected to carry on in faith, to trust that God’ promises would hold true? They were both human beings. 

Like Sarah, we too have been living in wilderness upon wilderness. Even though it seemed like the whole world was put on pause in the early stages of this pandemic we soon discovered it was not. Violence, house fires, gun shots and a shooter dressed like the RCMP in Nova Scotia cracked open the heart of a nation. George Floyd was murdered underneath the knee of a police officer, causing protests to erupt around the world. Accusations of racism and discrimination have tarnished the reputation of one of the crown jewels of our city at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. And the one party leader of colour in Canada was kicked out of the house of commons after he called another MP a racist after that MP scuttled the passage of bill declaring the existence of systemic racism in the RCMP. 

Wilderness upon wilderness. Complication upon complication. Mess upon mess. 

Even though Sarah had been given a child of the promise, she couldn’t keep up the faith. She was human after all. 

Even though Hagar had been given a child of the promises she couldn’t keep up the faith. She too was human. 

And even though we are made children of the promise in the Waters, even though we are given a new identity and belonging in the bread and wine, even though we are given forgiveness and new life in the Word, we too cannot believe the promise, day after day, week after week, year after year. It is simply not in us to keep the faith that way…. The wilderness gets us every time. Ever since the garden of Eden, ever since Adam and Eve trusted themselves above God. We hear the promise, but cannot keep up the faith. 

And yet, the promise does not depend on us. 

When Sarah laughed, God still brought new life into a barren womb. 

Almost casually, God waltzes into Sarah and Abraham’s wilderness and declares that the promise will be fulfilled. 

When Hagar was at the limit and prepared to give up, God answers Hagar’s pleas with gentle assurance, with water and the renewed covenant.  

When these women cannot keep the faith, God’s promise does not rely on their ability to believe it. 

Instead God’s promise holds true, God promises includes wilderness moments, wilderness upon wilderness moments. God’s plan for Sarah and Hagar, for Isaac and Ishmael extends beyond their present wilderness into future generations. God’s plan for these first families of faith begin in wilderness, in transition, in wandering through the unknown. 

And the convent extends through generations, through kingdoms, through exodus and exile, from judges and prophets, all the way to Messiah. And Messiah’s promise of Good News comes through fledgling communities to empires, institutions and faithful generations upon generations to us. 

And even with all of that. 

Even as we laugh at the absurd promise that we are God’s Body, knit together in water, bread and wine, when we cannot even be in each other’s presence, let alone share these things… God comes into our wilderness with the Word, the Word of promises given for us, week after week. 

Even as we are prepared to give up, unable to keep the faith in the face of pandemics, and shootings, and police brutality. In the face of generations of racist systems, and hypocritical institutions, hypocritical leaders who do not get it… God deals gently with us, granting promise  in the word, relief for parched and cracked souls nearing death. 

And in the wilderness that keeps us from seeing beyond the present, God’s declares that God has plans for our future, plans that span generations and that include multitudes more numerous than the stars in the sky. 

God promises that God is not done with us, wether we believe it or not, whether our wilderness upon wilderness is more than we can bear or not. 

And in this wilderness, this transition, God reminds us again our story is being told again, told in ancient stories of faith, told in the present moment that we can see today. 

And so like Sarah and Hagar we fail to keep the faith…

We cannot help it. 

But God can.

And God does. 

And God declares that God’s promises will bring us through the wilderness, through the wilderness upon wilderness, to when this Time Period is over and we will see our friends again. 

In the meantime, God’s promises will still hold true, even when we don’t believe them…

Promises that will carry us through the wilderness to the promised land. 

Recency Bias, Laughing at God, and Birthing New Possibilities

Genesis 18:1-15 [21:1-7]
And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” (Read the whole passage)

This is the first Sunday of green. Which means that the green banners and paraments are out, and I have put on my green stole. A number of other clergy online remarked about the change. Keeping track of time in the church isn’t always measured by the same calendars. And in this case, many folks noted that the last time we gathered for in person worship it was in Lent, and the colour was purple. Since then we have worn Red, White, Red and white again, and now finally green. And for many this new season of green will be another few months of online only worship. 

In that realization there is lament. Lament at what has been lost, lament at what is now, lament at what might not be recovered when and if things “go back to normal.” 

And so we enter into the next season of the church, the long season of green or ordinary time. A time for hearing the stories of the bible and hearing our own stories in them. Because while we have been experiencing something that no one alive has really known, we are certainly not the first people of faith to face trial and tribulation… in fact there are more stories about that than just normal boring everything-is-fine stories in the bible. 

This season begins with the story of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham and Sarah, then Abram and Sarai, who were called by God to pack up everything they had and follow God’s call into the wilderness. 6 chapters later the pair are well into their journey when they are met by three strangers asking for hospitality. So Abraham and Sarah welcome these passing strangers into their tent. Abraham and Sarah care for their visitors — mysterious messengers from God, with a message to deliver. 

Once the strangers have received the good grace and care of this wandering couple, one stranger promises to Sarah that she will bear a son in due season. 

At this Sarah laughs. 

Sarahs laughs because it is an absurd promise. She is old, she is past her child bearing years. She cannot have a child at this point in her life, that ship as sailed. 

Yet, when Sarah laughs, the stranger hears it and he wonders why. She denies it but stranger says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

It is mean to be heard as  comical interaction with between an elderly couple in the desert and unknown strangers. 

Sarah and Abraham, remind us of ourselves. As they follow God’s call to faith, God’s call to go out into the world, they give of themselves trusting that God will care for them as they go. At the same time, they struggle to trust that God’s promises of them are true, that there is something more for them than just waiting for the end of their lives. So as this stranger and unknown messenger promises something unimaginable happening, Sarah cannot help but laugh.

Their past, their experiences of life thus far are telling them that new life in this way, in Sarah’s body in impossible. They believe that the things that have just recently happened to them will continue to happen forever. 

There is a name for this phenomenon , it is called recency bias. 

We as human being tend to think that whatever has just happened to us will continue to happening forever. Sarah knows she cannot bear children because her body is no longer fertile. 

Recency bias affects us too. 

It is the reason why change is so difficult, our brains convince us that our recent experiences will be our truth forever. It is why people so often buy high and sell low on the stock market despite the adage. It is why when our favourite sports team wins a few games at the beginning of the season we start planning the championship parade. Or why when we have a bad meal at our favourite restaurant we might choose to stop eating there altogether.  

It is why we had such trouble believing the coronavirus was much worse than a flu, when the flu is what we already know as respiratory virus. It is also why with a few days and weeks of low case numbers,  we think we are quickly on our way back to normal and the end of this pandemic. 

We simply cannot stop ourselves from believing that whatever our most recent experience of something is will become the new truth forever.

And it is one reason why we  struggle so much with change and we struggle to anticipate what is coming next for us.

And it is also why declining churches cannot seem to turn things around despite trying “everything,” because they believe that their recent decline is their only future.

We simply assume that whatever has just been happening to us will keep happening forever. 

But now, like Sarah, we are being confronted with a different promise for our future… we are being told that what will come next for us cannot be determined by what just happened, but instead it is mostly unknown to us and rather known only to God. 

Only 6 chapters into the story of their call,  Sarah and Abraham have already forgotten the covenant. The covenant with God, where God made promises to Abraham. The promise of blessing, a relationship with God. The promise of land, a promised land for God’s people. And the promise of descendants. 

Descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky. 

A promise that was going to have to start somewhere. Start in someone’s body, someone’s womb. 

Even when Sarah and Abraham cannot imagine a different future, God has already set it into motion. Even when it seems as though all possibility for life has been taken away and all there is left is faithfulness to death… 

God has different plans. 

God brings the promise of a nation into the world from Sarah’s frail and old body. God brings new life into existence when all there seemed to be was waiting for death. God brings Isaac into the world to be the next generation to receive the promised covenant. 

And all of sudden, everything is different. Sarah and Abraham’s recent past no longer determines their future (it never really did…), instead everything is unknown, unpredictable and impossible to anticipate… but also life-filled and hopeful and on the way to something new. 

Yet, it took taking Abraham and Sarah away from everything they knew, to unknown places and unknown path… 

And in that place of the unknown, in that place where the even the past was left behind, God begins the first steps of the new thing. The first steps towards the birth of a nation, to a chosen people constantly turning and returning to God, and to the eventually sending of the Messiah, to the one sent to save God’s people and all creation. 

And so here we are in our own wilderness. Here were are with our own laughter at the idea that God might have something new and unexpected in mind us for… 

And even as world longs for our recent past, for those pre-covid halcyon days when the world was great…. (it wasn’t that great).

And even as our recent past as the church makes us believe that slow decline is our only future because nothing we have tried has got the young people to come back…

We are discovering that in this moment, when so much has been put on hold, taken way and changed, that our future is unknown to us. That the people we will become on the other side is known only to God. 

And in this opportunity when we are in unknown places and on unknown paths, God just may be planning to birth something new and totally unexpected in us, in the church. 

And yes, this is laughably absurd. 

But look at what happened to Sarah and Abraham. 

That in the just a few faithful servants waiting to die, God began a chosen people, a promised and chosen people to whom the Messiah – the savour of all – would come. 

If Sarah’s laughter and this pandemic have taught us anything, it is not to trust our recency bias, not to trust our limited vision of our future… but to expect that in this moment of unknowns God just might be making us ready for the next thing. God just might be beginning in us something so new and unexpected that we too might laugh. 

So today, on this first Sunday of green, as our way forward is as uncertain and unknown as it may ever have been, and when all there seems to be is lament about what is lost…

God is inspiring us to laugh… to laugh at the absurdity of it all… And God is also beginning in us, something new and unexpected that will change us and change the world. 

Left Over Corners, The Sin of White Supremacy, and The Doctrine of the Trinity

GOSPEL: Matthew 28:16-20
16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The high school I attended in Edmonton was one of the biggest senior high schools in Canada, with a diverse population of 2500 students. A 60s building experiment with no windows, it looked like the mixture between a shopping mall and a bunker. In the middle of the school was a large square sunken-in indoor courtyard called the rotunda. On the four sides were the main office, the cafeteria, the doors to the school theatre, and the the wall of trophies. 

With so many students, it was often crowded in the hallways. The rotunda was a place that students naturally congregated during breaks. One particular memory I have is how student separated themselves into groups. In the four corners of the rotunda, groups would gather often according to the colour of their skin. In one corner the black students, another the Asian students, another the students from southeast Asia and the other the Middle-Eastern students.

And in the hustle bustle of breaks and lunch, these groups would throw pennies and mock others students walking by. Yet whenI walked by, these corner groups left me alone. Even as every students walking in front of me had a penny thrown at them, I wouldn’t. I always passed by unbothered.

I always assumed it was because I was a football player, often wearing my jersey or football jacket. I thought was big and tough, too risky to bother. 

It wasn’t until relatively recently that it dawned on that me that this wasn’t the whole story. I was left alone because I was a white kid. A white football player. They knew that if I reacted and fought back they would get in trouble, a phone call home, a detention or a suspension. While I would only get a slap on the wrist. 

When I finally realized this truth year later, I then wondered why these students were harassing people in the first place.

To answer that question, you need to first ask where all white students were. And the answer is everywhere. The white students filled the tables and chairs in the cafeteria, they sat along the walls of the rotunda to each lunch, they were on the steps down, they were in the middle where you could sit on the ground. But the corners, the corners were the worst place to be. They were busy intersections where you couldn’t sit and eat without being tripped over, where you had to stand and hug the wall. 

The white students took up all the good space, and left the scraps to the racialized students. 

This is what white privilege looks like. This is white supremacy. My prominent memory was of the students in the corners, grouped according to their skin colour but not the fact that the white kids took up all the good spaces. For years, I conveniently overlooked the white students taking up all the good space while being annoyed and offended by students of colour occupying leftovers. 

And even though I try to be aware of my biases, this makes me I realize that I need to go back and review the ways in which I am regularly participating in the systems and structures that privilege my white body over the the bodies of people of colour.

As protests in Minneapolis, across the United States, here in Canada and around the whole world continue night after night, the reality of the inequalities and suffering of black people, of indigenous people and people of colour all around us have been brought to our attention.Our blissfully oblivious world as white people has been rocked this week by the cries for justice of our sibblings of colour. We can no longer pretend like we don’t know what is really happening any more. 

And so we recognize that the systems and structures and attitudes that exist in us and around us uphold white supremacy, even as we may try ourselves, as white people, to distance ourselves from it. Even as we try to be good people who don’t hold malice towards or hatred for anyone. We recognize that we benefit from a world that privileges us because of our skin, and that even though we face struggles and hardships in our lives, one of them isn’t the daily obstacles of racism and discrimination. 

So today, we name White Supremacy as sinful. 

But not sinful in the sense that it is something that gets you on Santa’s naughty list… rather something deeper. White Supremacy is a sin in how it separates and divides us, how it is a distortion of our relationship with God, with others, with creation and with ourselves. We recognize and then confess that white supremacy is a sin because it elevates some people above other people for arbitrary reasons. It attempts to claim that some (white people) are more fully human, while others (people of colour) are less human.

Now you might be asking by this point why the pastor is talking about racism, white supremacy, and the protests for Black Lives Matter and George Floyd on Trinity Sunday. What do they have to do with the Trinity?

Well… they are in fact deeply interconnected. 

Trinity Sunday is often filled with cute, yet borderline heretical examples and descriptions of the Trinity such as: God is like an apple pie, or God is like the three states of water.  

Yet, the doctrine of the trinity is ultimately about relationships. The trinity is a doctrine of community. 

The Trinity is a community, three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God, one Body, one Community. 

At a time when the divisions and separations, the community splitting realities of racism and white supremacy are being revealed to us daily… the Trinity both models to us  relationships and community as they ought to be. 

Relationships of mutuality and sacrifice, relationships of give and take. In the the Trinity, the 3 persons are co-equal, and yet there are times when on member steps forward while the others step back. It is the Father’s voice that speaks in creation. It is the Son that is the Word of God enfleshed. It is the Holy Spirit’s breath that blows through the disciples and into the world at Pentecost. 

And so this week, as the Pentecost spirit lifts up the voices of Black Indigenous People of Colour, it is our turn as mostly white siblings in faith to listen.  

It is our turn to step back, to make room for voices that have been relegated to the left over corners of the world. To wonder why we have been content to stand by as our brothers, sisters and siblings of colour have pushed to margins to suffer. 

And then it is our turn to follow our siblings of colour into the work of justice.  

And yet…

And yet on this Trinity Sunday, we are also reminded that our world will not be fixed by our own power. And we are reminded that it is our imperfections, our flawed humanity that got us here, and so our flawed humanity will not save us. 

But rather, this Triune God – whom has been revealed to us in the Word passed on from generation to generation – that this Triune God is already at work among us transforming us and the world in ways we could never imagine on our own. 

That on this Trinity Sunday during the middle of a pandemic, 
surrounded by protests for justice and change,
we are reminded that this triune God, 
this community God, 
this God of relationships… 
that THIS God is the One 
who will work in us the new thing 
that will bring the world to right. 

That the God, 
who died as a brown human body on a cross,
is the one who is ushering in a new creation, 
new life revealed in the same brown human body 
that walked out of the tomb 3 days later.

We are reminded today, that God will do and is already doing what we cannot, breaking hearts open for the sake of our brothers, sisters and siblings who are suffering. 

Opening our eyes to truly see our neighbour calling for justice, 
opening our ears to hear the pleas of voices so long silenced by our indifference. 

No, we cannot fix this broken world on our own. 
No we cannot bring justice and peace by our own power. 

Yet, the God who walks with those on the margins, 
the God who makes room for the other 
rather than taking up all the space, 
the God who has suffered with humanity in human flesh…. 

The Trinity will do 
in and through us 
that which we cannot do by our own power. 
The triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 
will extend the loving community 
of the divine three-in-one to all creation, 
and especially to those most forgotten and excluded. 

The Trinitarian God revealed to us again today,
will bring us to new life, 
new resurrected life, 
new resurrected life found in the One Body, 
the One Community, 
the One family of the divine one-in-three. 

And so, on this Trinity Sunday, on this day when our suffering world cries out again and again for justice… we are reminded that God the Trinity is bringing to life in us the very thing we have failed to be…

yet, the thing that the Trinity is preparing us to become – the Kingdom, Community and Body of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  
The Body of Christ.

Amen.

“I can’t breathe” and the Fires of Pentecost

GOSPEL: John 20:19-23
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” (Read the whole passage)

“I can’t breathe”

If you have been paying attention to the news at all this week, you will know that this is a quote from George Floyd. George Floyd was killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck for 9 minutes as Mr. Floyd was being arrested by Minneapolis Police. The officers involved were fired and one has been charged with murder. 

It is another incident to add to a long list of black men and other people of colour being killed in encounters with police. While at the same time our news has also been filled with images of white protestors congregating at state capitals, in masks and brandishing assault rifles who are allowed to “protest” without police engaging. 

This past week protests have grown violent in Minneapolis and around the United States. Cities on fire and protesting crowds have been flooding our news feeds. 

Breath, fire and crowds. 

These are the images of Pentecost. Pentecost 2020. 

Once again, we arrive at another significant church festival, and things aren’t the way they usually are supposed to be.

Pentecost at home and social distancing is a something we never imagined as a way to mark this moment… at least not until just a few weeks ago. 

Like Lent, Holy Week and Easter this year, the Pandemic has imparted a certain authenticity to the moment. Lent required an unusual amount of sacrifice this year. Our Easter confinement to our homes was more like the original Easter than we ever imagined. And just last week, as the disciples wondered when things were going to go back to the good ol’ days, we too have been wondering when things might return to normal, or at least return and open up at all. 

Today, the Easter story is now bringing that community of disciples to an important moment. A moment of transformation and change. All the preparing that Jesus has been doing, helping his followers for what comes next, for their life as an Easter community comes to fruition as the spirit pushes them out into the streets and through them proclaims the gospel to all the nations. 

As we hear the Pentecost story each year, it is easy to get focused on the well known details of the story. It is easy to think that it is all about the disciples having tongues of fire landing on them (what is a tongue of fire anyways?), about going out into the streets and preaching in all different languages, about the accusation that they are drunk and finally the 3000 people that were baptized. Those details that lull us into thinking that Pentecost is all about the rapid expansion of the church, a model for faithful church planting and growing, a sign of the Holy Spirit’s blessing that good ministry is happening. 

Yet, this year amidst lockdowns and quarantines, we cannot even offer up our merger reproductions of that Pentecost experience by gathering for our small neighbourhood outdoor worship services and BBQs that we usually celebrate with.

All the while, just down the road from Winnipeg in Minneapolis, the images of fire and crowds, protests and anger speak to another version of pentecost this year. 

And they remind us of police involved shootings of indigenous people here in Winnipeg. We are forced to recognize that pandemic has locked down many things, but not the complicated (and often racist) relationship with police that people of colour have both in our country and just across the border to the south of us. 

And so despite the lack of tongues of fire, speaking in different languages, and 3000 baptisms… despite not having our usual pentecost celebrations and observances… and with the unmistakable pentecost images flooding our news this week… we might be wondering what is the Spirit actually up to among us? What does Pentecost mean for us today in 2020?

In John’s gospel we are given a clue. 

As the disciples are hiding out after the crucifixion, hiding in fear from the outside world, Jesus appears in their midst, speaking peace. 

Nothing else is familiar in this moment, but peace – shalom – is something they know. The greeting of the faithful, the peace of God shared between the people of Israel in the synagogue, in the street, in homes, wherever they are – Shalom Aleichem. 

And then Jesus breathes on them the spirit, the sign of life itself, the breath of God, breathed into Adam and Eve, now breathed again into them. 

Peace and breath given by the Word of God. 

The Word who was there in the beginning, speaking all of creation into existence.

The Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. 

The Word who rose from the dead on the 3rd day, transforming the life of creation itself, detaching us from death. 

And now the Word whose breath came upon the disciples, and 7 weeks later, whose breath and fire drove the disciples out into the streets to proclaim the good news to all nations.

The Good News of resurrected life found in the Word of life. 

This Word brought the disciples to the Pentecost moment. 

But Pentecost, this story central our identity as church, is not the destination. 

Pentecost was not and is not the new thing. 

Even as this community of disciples had gone from following Jesus for 3 years, to the experiences of Holy Week, and the re-orientation of Easter and resurrection, even as Jesus prepared them to be the new Easter community…

Pentecost was not the destination. Pentecost was temporary, a transitional space, a moment of disconnection. It was unlike anything they had experienced before, nothing like offering sacrifice in the temple, nothing like learning the Torah in the synagogue. 

And Pentecost, big spirit filled gatherings, full of converts hearing the good news and being baptized… is neither what this Easter community would become. 

Pentecost is a moment of disruption and disconnection. The moment that separated the disciples from the baggage they carried from before. The desire for the return of the Kingdom of Israel that they were still asking for just last week. From their desire for power and control, from their desire to shape and contort the spirit into their image. 

Pentecost instead was making them leave the old things, the old ways behind. 

And soon the early church became small communities of faith spread throughout the Empire, communities of 15 or 25 or 40 gathering around the Word and the shared meal of the Eucharist. 

And yet through all of it, the thread that connected this new Easter community to the faith that birthed them, to the ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, to Pentecost and then to the early church… the thread that connected them was the Word. 

The Word of God speaking from the beginning of time and still speaking to them now. 

And just as this pandemic world is unfamiliar to us and we don’t know where we are going, it is plain to see the we are living in our own Pentecost moment. The Spirit is not necessarily showing us the new thing that we are about to become, Pandemic church is not our new future. 

Instead, the spirit is stripping us of our baggage. 

Stripping us our of attachment to the old ways that we believed being faithful was all about. Of our attachment to culture and traditions that may not be helping us anymore, stripping us of our attitudes and assumptions that contribute to prejudice, racism and white supremacy that allow for a world where Black Indigenous People of Colour can be killed in broad daylight with almost no consequence, even as they cry out, “I can’t breathe.”

Stripping us of all the things that we thought we so important about being church, with the hopes that we will discern again what is essential. 

Yet, Pentecost is not our destination. 

This moment is one of transition for us too, the way are as community in this pandemic world is not the new way are going to be forever.

But as we await the new thing that we will become, Jesus is still speaking peace to us. 

Speaking peace in our homes, behind our locked doors, tying us to the thread of the Word that has been with us all along the way. 

The Word that centred the Church from before the time it was the Church.

The Word that birthed faith in us, in well-traditioned church communities that knew how to be church in their time. 

The Word whose resurrection and Easter story has been gathering us for generations, and will continue to gather us, even if it is in new ways. 

The Word who breathes the spirit in us, even in our socially distanced Easter, even in our homes at Pentecost. 

This Word is the constant all the way through, while the fires of Pentecost seem to be burning the rest of the world down around us. 

This is Pandemic of 2020 is our Pentecost moment when we know everything is changing while we still don’t know what we are changing into.

But Pentecost this year is also the reminder that the Word of God has not left us, nor sent us into this new word alone. 

Instead Jesus is coming again into our midst, speaking Peace to us, bringing us that familiar wind of the spirit, that familiar Word that gives us life.

So your church is opening up after COVID-19 closures? It won’t be what you are hoping for.

*** Guidelines and public health orders for opening up churches are sometimes hard to follow as the long lists can make your mind go numb. The following is a way of trying to put the guidelines in narrative context, to help picture what “going back to church” might look like in these COVID-19 days. ***

Sample Guidelines

It’s been months of isolation, months of mostly staying home to stop the spread of COVID-19. But active cases are going down (or maybe not), and politicians and business leaders are worried about the economic impact of social distancing. And so, for a few weeks now, things have been opening up. Playgrounds and hair salons, dentists and restaurant patios are letting people come back. 

And things seem to be going well enough, so the government announces the next phase of opening, which includes increased gathering sizes. And one of the places you have been missing the most, your church, sends out an email telling you that they are going to re-open for an in-person service on Sunday. 

You heard from a friend that your Pastor was against it, but enough folks were pressuring the council because of freedom of religion, people are getting tired of staying home and surely church should be a safe place right? Plus you are missing your friends, the folks you love to see on Sunday mornings, the other couples that you often go for brunch with following worship. 

Finally, the big day comes, you wake up excited to get back to this important part of your life, to something that feels little bit like normal, seeing familiar faces, hearing  familiar music, being in familiar community. 

You hop in the car with your spouse and make the well worn drive to church. You notice that the streets are even deader than usual for a Sunday morning. 

When you arrive at church there are few cars parked around building. You go to your normal parking spot, just down a side street, half a block from the church. 

You start walking up to the building, but before you get too close, a masked volunteer stops you. They are standing on the side walk. 

“Please stay there.” they stop you about 6 feet away from where they are standing. 

Okay… you think you know who this is, but they have a mask on their face and you aren’t totally sure. 

“Have you had any of the following symptoms recently: Cough, fever, body aches, difficulty breathing?”

“No, not that I know of,” you say.

“Are you over the age of 65 or have underlying health conditions?”

“No,” you say.

Technically, you and your spouse are 67 and you take blood pressure meds. But it’s no big deal.

“Have you been travelling recently, or spent any time with someone who has travelled recently?”

“No,” you answer again.

You don’t mention the socially distanced backyard BBQ you had with your neighbours the other night, including one neighbour who is a long haul trucker. 

“Have you been in contact with anyone who has been exposed to COVID-19, such as health-care workers?” 

“I don’t think so,” you murmur.

The babysitting you do for your son and daughter-in-law, who is a care-home nurse, doesn’t count. Family doesn’t count, right? 

“Please maintain social distance while you wait in line here.”

The volunteer gestures ahead, where you see a few dozen folks lined up – all space out according to markers along the side walk.  

Usually when you arrive at church, you come early to visit with folks before the service, but as you stand in line, people just whisper amongst households. Even though you can see many familiar faces ahead, you cannot help but feel suspicion and fear when you look at the others. You try to shake the feeling, but this pandemic world has affected you more than you want to admit.

Another couple lines up behind you and then you hear the masked volunteer turn another family away. 

“Sorry, we are at the max group size we are allowed. Maybe try again next week.”

The church stays closed right up until the time of the service. Then finally with 5 minutes to go, the door opens and households begin entering, one at a time. Another masked volunteer is letting people in. 

Slowly, you shuffle up to the door. When it gets to your turn, the volunteer waves you in. There are two surgical masks and some hand sanitizer laid out on a table.

“Please clean your hands and then put these masks on.”

You comply.

“Please follow the taped line to pew number 23 and take your seat. Please don’t stop to talk to anyone, and please remain seated for the duration of the service.”

You follow the taped line into the sanctuary, everyone is sitting down in space-out pews by household. The church is eerily quiet, kind of a like a funeral with a masked pianist playing quietly. 

Finally when everyone is inside, the doors to the church are closed. 

Instead of processing in from the back, where the pastor is usually visiting with people before church, the pastor slips in from the front of the church through a side door. The pastor then greets you from behind a mask… which makes them hard to understand. The pastor then explains that there will be no singing in worship, and no praying together or communal responses to the liturgy. You then notice there are no hymnbooks, offering envelopes or welcome cards in the pews. They are just empty. You also didn’t get a bulletin on the way in. 

Listening to the pastor, they don’t sound like their normal self… forced, stressed, tense? You can’t quite put your finger on it. 

The pastor then goes and stands in front of a phone on a tripod at the front of church and starts talking to it, welcoming all the people worshipping online. The pastor explains where the bulletin can be found on the Facebook page, how to share the peace and greet others also watching online. Then the pastor picks up the tripod turns it around and asks you to wave at the phone… which feels pretty silly and weird. 

Worship begins.

The pianist plays the hymns, but no one can sing. So you just sit and listen. It felt awkward to sing along with the hymns at home, but this feels even more strange. 

The pastor then begins worship, and every time you want to say “And also with you” or “Amen” you have to stop yourself. Instead, there is just silence while the pastor imagines how long it would take the folks watching online to give the responses. 

The first masked volunteer goes to a mic and music stand on the other side of chancel to read the lessons. You can’t say join in the psalm responsively, so again you just sit quietly and listen. 

Finally it comes time for the sermon. The pastor preaches about Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, encouraging you (but mostly the folks at home) to keep the faith. The pastor says that the time will come when the spirit will send us out into the world – but that time isn’t quite yet. And that even though we are apart, the spirit ties us together into one.

It doesn’t really feel like the pastor is preaching to you, but mostly to the those still at home.  

After listening to the hymn of the day, the creed and the prayers, it comes time for the peace.

The pastor offers the peace, but tells you that today it has to be virtual sharing only. The pastor uses their iPad to share with the folks online, and talks a bit to the phone again saying hello to people watching at home and commenting. 

Then it comes time for communion. Something you have missed for months now.  

The pastor puts on a face shield and changes their mask before the Thanksgiving at the Table. You notice that they don’t lift the bread or the wine. After the Lord’s prayer, which you say along with the pastor in your head, one of the masked volunteers steps up to the mic to instruct you on how to receive communion. 

And household by household you go forward. There is only bread to receive today. You have to hand sanitize again at the front. The pastor is using a set of kitchen tongs to put the wafers in the hands of each person. 

“The bread of Christ given for you.” you hear from behind mask and shield. 

This is not like communion you have ever received before. You aren’t allowed to eat until the pastor has moved away, and then after you put the wafer in your mouth, you have to hand sanitize again (also knowing that pulling off your mask has compromised it, because your daughter-in-law gave you a lecture in mask wearing). 

The service concludes with another hymn that you listen to, a blessing and some announcements. 

And then just like you came in, you have to follow the tape straight out of the building, one household at a time. The pastor isn’t greeting people on the way out, in fact there is no one. Just the the voice of the masked volunteer in the PA system announcing pew numbers. There are signs that tell you to leave the church straight away, no lingering. 

You walk back to your car with your spouse. 

You get in for the drive home. 

You have no idea what you just experienced. You were at church, there were other people there, there were hymns and prayers, the pastor preached, you received communion (kind of)… but that wasn’t church, and it certainly wasn’t what you imagined when you thought of things opening back up again….

You drive home in silence… realizing that just maybe the world has changed more than you figured before now. 

It might take some time to get used to this. 

+++

Three days later you get a text from your neighbour, one of the ones you have had a few socially distant BBQs with. 

“You are going to get a call from the public health nurse,” it reads.

“I am so sorry.”

A few minutes later the phone rings. 

“Hi, I am calling from your local public health agency. I am calling you today as a part of COVID-19 contact tracing.”

Your heart drops and the nurse’s voice starts to sound like the teacher from Charlie Brown. You make out something about a testing appointment, the nurses gives you a time, date and address. 

Then the nurse says, “I am going to need to you to tell me all the people you might have come into contact with in the past two weeks. Especially, any groups in indoor spaces for prolonged periods of time, like doctor’s offices or someone else’s home, or maybe a church…”

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

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