Uncharted Territory

A friend described this cartoon that she saw recently: The apostles are standing looking up into the clouds as Jesus rises. One says to another, “I guess he’s working from home now.”


Put yourself in the apostles’ sandals. You have followed Jesus while he healed and taught and led people into new relationship with God. You have witnessed with horror the crucifixion of your leader. You have rejoiced when he showed up again in your midst and appeared numerous times over the course of 40 days. And now you have come with him out to the Mount of Olives for what turns out to be an impressive farewell.


Notice what the apostles ask Jesus: “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” This question sounds like they still harbor hopes that he will be the kind of messiah who comes back to kick out the oppressors and make all of his own followers kings and queens, or at least winners. And his response says essentially, “Wrong question. That is not for you to know.” Then he goes on: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).


Oh. That’s not what you were asking. Witnesses, not kings and queens. I see. Except, not really.


And as you stand there together, Jesus rises up into the heavens and disappears from view. You stand looking after him for so long that two men in white robes (angels?) come along and give you a nudge to move on, as if they are the groundskeepers and it’s closing time.


So now what?


I have at least once titled a sermon, “Now what?” and there are plenty of other times when that title would fit. Every so often we come to a point in Jesus’ story, or a point in our own lives, when we have to stop and say, “Now what?” We are in uncharted territory and can’t see the way forward.


That’s where we are now. The normal, familiar ways of being out and about in Seattle—getting on with our business, getting on with our lives—those are suspended for now, and we don’t know when they will resume. The apostles want Jesus to take them back to the old days, to the old “normal.” He says the old “normal” is gone; they have to move on. They stand there looking after him because they don’t know how to move on. Where do you start? What do you do? He says they are to be his witnesses not only in Jerusalem and environs but to the ends of the earth. How do you organize such an effort when none of you has ever done anything like it? When you don’t even know what that means? What is the new “normal”?


We are asking the same thing: What is the new “normal”? Like the apostles, we are waiting and wondering, trying to find the path forward. Many experts have said in recent weeks, “We are building the airplane as we’re flying it.” Not a metaphor that the apostles would have understood, but it’s essentially what they had to do: create their ministry as they went. Build the ark even as you set sail.


Our schools are closed for the year or have moved entirely online, and who knows whether they will open “normally” in the fall. Restaurants, bars, gyms, clothing stores—closed. Concerts, Folklife, theater, movies—canceled. The economy has a Mt. St. Helens – sized hole blown in it. The unemployment numbers hearken back to the Great Depression. This is uncharted territory.


We can’t force our way back to the old normal. We can’t just declare that it’s now safe for everyone to gather in person for worship, simply because that would be nice. In fact, you all know how dangerous that advice is.


Speaking of which, the Rev. John Dorhauer, general minister and president of the UCC, had this to say in response to the president’s declaration that all churches must resume meeting in person immediately:


I am furious!
Earlier this week the Officers and the Council of Conference Ministers of the United Church of Christ issued a letter of strong caution to our churches. Because we are not a one-size fits all kind of church, we didn't issue directives or instructions to our churches. Every Conference is taking on that role—and doing a very good job at it, by the way.

Many of our Conference Ministers are in contact with their state officials, including the Governors of their state, and are working with them to protect our members against contracting the virus by releasing churches to worship too soon. And now the President comes out and declares churches an essential community need and encourages them to go back into their sanctuaries.

I repeat our strong caution against this. As we said in our letter, your decision should be made NOT through the lens of the healthiest bodies and what they can tolerate, but the most vulnerable. This could be devastating, if not fatal for some of your members.

I think this is a reckless, irresponsible act by our President.
I urge all caution before opening your sanctuary.
Yes, we all want life to go back to the way it was.
It isn't going back to normal any time soon. Wishing it so doesn't change that.

Please, please think long and hard about how your decision will affect the most vulnerable among you.
Continue to find ways to gather virtually.
Continue to play with new ways to experience community and to engage with the holy, the sacred, the divine.
God has never wanted to be confined to our boxes—even when those boxes are gorgeous sanctuaries and especially when those boxes might prove dangerous to its inhabitants.

Our faith is essential.
Our sanctuaries are not.
They are beautiful, and inspiring.

And we can express our thanksgiving to God with and without them.

But never at the risk of another person's health and safety.

Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer
General Minister and President
United Church of Christ

We are not going back to the old normal. A new long-term sustainable concept of normal has yet to emerge. Like the apostles, we gather, we pray, we strengthen each other through love—and we wait. We wait for Spirit to show up in our midst and guide us forward. There is no going back. There is only forward.


We will get there together. We continue to be God’s people, followers on the Way of Jesus, whether we gather in the sanctuary or on Zoom or by phone and emails or one on one at a safe six-foot distance. The angels are nudging us to move forward, and we do it, one minute at a time, one step at a time, one day at a time. We do it by reaching out to each other, checking on each other, sticking together. Our singers do it by singing in ones and twos and sending recordings to be combined into a virtual choir. We do it with a phone call or a text, an online Bible study.


We will be witnesses to God’s love to the ends of the earth: looking out for those who are lonely, hungry, depressed, sick, unemployed, homeless. We will do it with great patience and compassion. We will steep ourselves in God’s love every day and let that love abound in all that we do, all whom we meet.


We will get to our new normal by supporting all those on the front lines of this disease: those working in hospitals and long-term care facilities, those packing our fruits and processing our meats, those collecting our germy trash, those keeping the grocery stores and gas stations and other essential businesses open.


In the reading today from 1 Peter, we hear of early Christians who were experiencing persecution for their beliefs. It would be inaccurate to say that this text was talking about our current situation—we are not persecuted for our beliefs. But the last part of this reading sounds like excellent advice for this uncharted territory in which we find ourselves with this devil of a virus:


Cast all your anxiety on God, because God cares for you. Discipline
yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist the devil, steadfast in your faith, for you know that
your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who
has called you to eternal glory in Christ, will restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To God be the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 5:7-11)


Amen indeed.

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