050320 Easter 4
This last week my professional world has been filled with questions like:
- When will we be able to return to the physical building for church?
- What will worship services look like when we start?
- How will living through the lock-down impact the way we do church in the future?
- How will we practice the Eucharist when we are still concerned about the virus?
Every industry is asking their own questions; and different answers are being given as different states and municipalities around the country open at different paces. The left and the right are divided about what matters most: healthy bodies or healthy economies. Protesters are showing up in places that haven’t been associated with political protest before.
The other day one of Saul’s coworkers asked him if I was downtown marching with those who were protesting the quarantine. He assumed that since I was always going to protests, I must be at that one. Most of us know that not all protests are the same. That’s important to remember when the left and right pit healthy bodies against health economies. True protesters know that truth overcomes false dichotomies like that.
In the language of today’s Gospel, protesters want to be shepherds – or gatekeepers – for the community. Today’s protesters want to protect the economic and emotional wellbeing of the sheep. They shout, Small businesses are going under. People will go crazy if they can’t go to the beach. They see the ones extending the lockdown as thieves taking away their livelihood. The argument takes many forms:
- Can we trust science?
- If we’re going to get the disease anyway, why not expose people to it now?
- Can’t we trust people to be responsible in the way they return to their lives?
What kind of community is the church called to be in this moment and in the near future? The Gospel gives one answer; the Book of Acts another. Jesus identifies himself as a gate: anyone who “enters by me will come in and go out.” The gatekeeper’s place is at the edge, where the gate is. The world needs people who can stay on the edge, hold together strong opposition to injustice, listen deeply to those with whom we disagree, speak clearly for truth and justice and against lies and injustice to outsiders and insiders, and know when it is time to let people out.
How do Gatekeepers at the edge discern when it’s time for those inside to taste pasture on the outside, and when those on the outside need to be welcomed into the fold? Some protesters try to answer those questions without understanding what it means to be a gatekeeper. Living on the edge is different from being an insider or a dues-paying member. The best patriot understands and honors the system as far as it goes, but doesn’t need to protect, defend or promote it. The system has served its function. The true patriot knows the rules well enough to know how to break them without really breaking them at all.
The passage from Acts gives us different clues about the kind of community we need to be. It tells us that the primitive church lived a radical kind of community when it first began. They shared life and possessions as a family. They sold their possessions and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need. The distinctions that existed before, and that still existed in the society around them, ceased to be factors in their life together. The larger society looked with awe at their life as a community, especially the signs and wonders performed by the apostles. It seems that healing was the greatest sign at that time. During the current pandemic, healers continue to be the heroes who evoke the greatest awe.
That radical way of being community didn’t last long in the church. Three chapters later, the seeds of destruction were revealed in a couple that was deceiving the community through a secret real estate deal. The New Testament goes on to describe community after community that failed to live up to the idyllic image of community painted in today’s passage from Acts. Maybe we shouldn’t use this idyllic picture of community as a standard to measure whether a certain community is worthy of our participation. Instead, we can use it as a picture of what is possible, and how to create community when we most need it. It was an experiment by a small group of people in a larger population that mostly carried on with life as usual.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had several experiences of radical community. 40 years ago a church community cared for me when my wife was dying; 30 years ago a squatter community in Mexico showed how struggling for the basic elements of life bring people together; even 6 years ago here at St. A I remember the congregation coming together around the youth when they needed to apply for DACA. All those were experiences of radical community. They were short-lived; but they served a purpose for their time.
What kind of community do we need to be during this pandemic, and in the transition from lock-down to whatever comes next? We don’t have to know how to create a permanent way of being community. We only need to discover a timely way to be community today. What does it mean for the church to practice radical community in a society sending mixed messages about what kind of health matters most?
In my email to you yesterday, I quoted the Bishop’s guidelines for returning to worshipping in our buildings. The last two speak to the kind of community we need to be:
- Even if smaller churches in less dense communities could open the soonest, using the same timeline for all our churches will be healthiest spiritually for the whole body of the family of God in our diocese.
- In recovering what we love, we should be sure to claim all we have learned.
St. Athanasius is one of those smaller churches that could open sooner with social distancing. But waiting until all the churches can return to their buildings is a radical way to be community. It fulfills the Bishop’s last point: to claim all we have learned. We have learned from the coronavirus that we aren’t just thinking of ourselves when we decide to wear a mask and practice social distancing. We’re protecting others – especially the more vulnerable – by going beyond our rights to what is best for all. We used to call that the common good. Serving the common good has fallen on hard times. Today it is being questioned by protesters around the country. Even if we can’t always fulfill the call to live for others, at this moment we need to step up. What other measures can we adopt to
be the radical community the world needs today?
Next Door as a source of need
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