Minneapolis Area Synod Worship
Dear friends in Christ, Grace and peace be unto you from our risen Savior, Jesus Christ.
I’m so grateful for this chance to share God’s word with you. Thank you for being present for this first ever synod-wide online worship service.
How many times have you heard the phrase “a new normal”? Though it clearly applies to life during a pandemic, it probably comes from the emotional work of grieving and healing after a loss. When someone you love has died, you’d give anything to go back to the old days. But it’s not possible after death.
Five years ago, at our first counseling session after the death of our son, our therapist said to my husband and me, “the universe has shifted. You have a new identity: parents of a child who died. You may try to return to your former life, but that’s not possible. Everything has changed.
I think lots of us are feeling something like that today. The universe has shifted. We’ve encountered a new, contagious virus to which no one has immunity. As I write this sermon, the virus has infected 4.7 million people across the globe, spread to 188 countries, and caused the deaths of over 315,000 people.
Each day, it seems, brings a new question about how we’re to live in this shifting universe. How much sunlight do I need to kill the germs on my mail? Do I have immunity if I’ve already had the virus? When can we gather for the funeral of someone who’s died from covid?
We’re overwhelmed by the vast and ever-changing questions, exhausted by the endless and, also, ever-changing answers.
So, how do we cope? Do we have the courage and stamina and wisdom for this new normal?
Scripture is filled with stories of change, times when God creates a new normal – creation out of chaos, freedom from slavery, a people where once there were no people. And, most profoundly, the death and resurrection of Christ ushered in a new normal – a new era.
The first disciples, however, had no experience with this – Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. It was as new to them as Covid-19 is new to us. It’s no wonder Jesus takes a whole chapter just to pray for them. That’s the whole of John 17; a prayer; the disciples gathered around Jesus, who’s preparing them for a world about to turn.
But the preparation isn’t just about what happens to Jesus. It’s about what’s going to happen to the disciples! It’s about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – a mighty Spirit who will empower the disciples and send them into the world to love as God loves.
Though the world has turned, God’s resolve to love and heal this world never changes. It’s the reason Jesus was sent into the world – ‘not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved.’ Indeed, “sent one” is the most common title Jesus uses to describe himself in John’s gospel.
And, now, that’s what he calls the disciples. Just a few verses later, Jesus says, “As God has sent me into the world, so I am sending you into the world.” In our lesson from Acts, Jesus says, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ It’s hard to be sent further than to the ends of the earth.
Those united to the crucified and risen Christ in baptism also become “sent ones.” We know the verse by heart: God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son. Now, out of God’s love for the world, the disciples – including you and me – are sent into the world. That’s also part of the new normal of Easter.
And yet, in the midst of a global pandemic, how does one actually live as someone sent out to serve? Most of us have spent the last two months staying in; inside our homes, overwhelmed with tasks like doing our jobs, trying to keep our jobs, trying to replace a paycheck, buying groceries, caring for children, caring for elders.
And, now that we might be able to take a breath, what would it actually look like to be the “sent ones”—out in the world to live and share God’s resurrection power and love.
In lots of ways, technology makes things easier. We can actually see each other on facetime and zoom. We can keep in touch without actually touching. During the flu pandemic of 1918, it was much harder to care for others without coming quite near them. No WhatsAp or Marco Polo. No bitesquad to send that hot covered dish.
Now, we can share food with the hungry and water with the thirsty with funds given at the click of a mouse or the opening of our Venmo AP.
Maybe those of us listening today whose salaries and pensions are intact are called to think about stretching – giving an extra percent or more to ELCA World Hunger, our companion church in Nigeria, a mission congregation in our synod. Notice I said an extra percent – beyond what we’ve already committed to our congregations.
For many living on the edge of poverty, the pandemic is as much about getting food, clean water, and a roof over their heads as it is about a virus.
In Lagos, Nigeria – the largest city in all of Africa – three-fourths of its 26 million people live in one of the city’s 100 crowded shantytowns, many living hand-to-mouth, working in the informal sector, where there’s no safety net. No PPP or CaresAct. And, with quarantines, even the day laborer income is gone.
The synod, through the tithe portion of our Resurrection Fund, was able to send $35,000 to our companion church in Nigeria.
What new generosity might God be calling you to consider? Just yesterday, I heard the phrase: The wise are always learning new things. The generous are always finding new ways to give more. We can lean into God’s call to serve – we can be creative in sharing – even while wearing protective masks.
It’s a new normal. We want the old normal. And, yet, do we just want the old normal as it was? Covid-19 has revealed some things about our society – particularly the systems that leave some more vulnerable than others. Could it be that, as we learn about injustice exposed by the effects of this virus, we renew our commitment to the holy work of building new structures of justice and equity?
The human family – indeed the whole creation – is knit together; knit so tightly that what happens in one part of the world happens to all of us. How might we be learning that access to healthcare is vital to the well-being of the whole human family? How might we be learning that investment in quality education for everyone is vital to raising up the leaders and scientists and caregivers with the wisdom to guide us in the next crisis and the courage to fight for justice and the healing of this planet?
What might we learn in this chapter of world history? How might we be changed?
Certainly, the disciples were surprised when Jesus called them “sent ones” witnesses to the ends of the earth, sharing the love of God. Undoubtedly, they were surprised even more when the tongues of fire appeared – but that’s a story for next week.
What might be the biggest surprise of the 17th chapter of John is how Jesus speaks about the community, the beloved people of God. John talks a lot about community. And, mostly, John talks about how we abide with one another just as closely as Christ abides with God. We are one with each other as Jesus and God one. The image is powerful – and, well, a pretty high bar. One with other Christians, as Jesus is one with God?
And to make things harder, Jesus sends the beloved community into the world to witness to God’s love. How can we be “in” but not “of” the world? How can we engage the culture while living the countercultural narrative of unconditional love and welcome? That’s one of the greatest tensions the church faces: How does the church risk its life for the world and also tend the beloved community? How do communities care for each other, while stretching outward in radical love, justice, and service?
In a promise that hasn’t ever hit me in the same way before, Jesus gives us hope for this very journey.
Yes, Jesus prays that we will be one, even as Jesus and God are one. But, later, Jesus also prays for something even more radical; that the beloved community will be “in us,” in God and Jesus. Think of it, what does it mean for Jesus to say that we, God’s children, become a new community, a household that includes the very Triune God?
It’s given me a whole new picture of the church. We stand, together, hands clasped (this is not an image for today, during a pandemic). We stand in a circle – around a campfire, around the baptism font, around the communion table, around the bed of the sick or dying. We stand – hands joined – and there in the circle – forever and always in the circle – stand Jesus and the Holy Spirit and God, the mother and father of us all.
The circle of the beloved community is never without the presence of the Living God.
Yes, our communities of faith can only clasp hands virtually these days. But, God is amazingly good as crossing barriers. God is present with you. Wherever you are right now, listen to these words: God is with you. And, God holds you in a circle of love that extends beyond time and space – that includes those who’ve gone before and those yet to come – that includes the loved one you may have lost to covid and our son, John Amos.
We join hands in a circle that includes the Triune God.
And the very presence of God who raised Jesus from the dead, who pours out the Holy Spirit – this God will guide and bless and encourage us as we seek to love this beautiful and broken world with all the gifts and love we have to give.