Pentecost rolls around May 31st on the liturgical calendar, the end of May in 2020, 50 days after Easter. This week, catching up on On Being podcasts, I heard Krista Tippett’s interview with Ocean Vuong that aired on April 30th. However, the interview itself happened March 8th. As she noted at the beginning of the program, how the world changed between when she interviewed him (at a festival gathering, no less!) and when the interview aired (at a time when large in-person gatherings are ill-advised). Timing is everything, it’s said … and something Ocean Vuong said early in the interview caught my ear. Speaking of his fascination with the story of Noah’s Ark, Vuong said:
“When the apocalypse comes, what will you put in the vessel for the future?”
When the apocalypse comes … We use that word (apocalypse!) so often; I do not think it means what most people think it does. In common vernacular it is has come to refer to some sort of cataclysmic event that completely up-ends, if not totally ends, the world for everyone. At this point, there’s no way of knowing for certain that the SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic will bring the end of the world as we have known it. (Stephen King is on record as saying “No, this is not The Stand.”) However, if we take the true meaning of the word apocalypse, which is unveiling or revealing, we are indeed in an apocalyptic time. Underlying assumptions about the way things work (or should work) have been laid bare. Workers we regularly encounter, whom we frequently dismiss as being of little significance, have proven to be essential workers. Some of our essential workers are some of the least paid, least protected employees in our communities. There are glaring gaps in our healthcare system that have put certain groups and populations at more risk of harm in this pandemic than others – more than enough care for those who do not absolutely require it (see the layoffs from hospitals due to cancellation of nonessential procedures), not enough for those who need it (underlying health conditions are high in populations that do not have regular health care). Business plans have been suddenly upended. People who never had to ask for help in their lives trying to navigate unemployment, food shelves, and housing assistance. More community services might be needed, but tax revenues to pay the workers are dropping rapidly.
Churches – often regarded as something apart and disconnected from business and daily realities – are also impacted. Shelter-in-place orders have banned gatherings of over 10 people, especially indoors. Singing together is strongly discouraged in the wake of an outbreak among choir members in northwest Washington State. Sanitation concerns discourage baptisms – certainly no basins with water (even blessed, holy water) should be out for people to touch. Communion practices are rife with exposure concerns. Many congregations have had to scramble for ways to sustain community and worship services without in-person gatherings … Zoom meetings, Facebook Live streaming, YouTube videos … it’s been a steep learning curve for pastors and for congregants. It’s also been a mixed bag – some people who haven’t been able to attend in-person now have easier access … but others, who lack computers or internet or smart phones or even push-button phones, are being left out. Now that shutdown orders are being lifted, shelter-in-place guidelines are being relaxed, some groups are eager to regroup in buildings while others are holding back because SARS-CoV-2 is still very much active and will be among us for the immediate future. Our relationship to our buildings, as well as to each other, is being revealed in this time.
Now that the apocalypse has come, what do we put in the vessel that carries us forward?
Sunday school teachers for generations have long taught children the finger play: Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people. But the same finger play could be done with words like: The church is not a building. The church is not a steeple. The church is the people! Lutheran pastor, theologian, teacher Kelly Fryer made a splash almost 20 years ago when her doctoral thesis was published as a small book titled Reclaiming the “L” Word. Among other things, she challenged the conventional operating formula that:
Church = Pastor + Building
The church, she (and others of the missional church movement) argued is the people of God coming together as community to learn, nurture, and support one another in living as followers of Jesus in daily life. One of the things being revealed in our current situation is what is necessary for faith communities to be the people of God in this time and place … and what is not.
What do we put in the vessel that will carry us forward?… And that brings us to Pentecost, the celebration of the birth of the Church, and what it might mean in the current time and situation.
Because Ascension Day, which marks the turn of the Easter season from the Resurrection of Jesus to the coming of the Spirit, falls on a Thursday I was struck by the contrast between what’s envisioned for the Church as the Body of Christ on earth and what’s actually reflected in our faith communities by a regular prayer. In a classic Lutheran Book of Daily Prayer, the Thursday Morning prayer (in both weeks) focuses on mission, the task of proclaiming the gospel to those outside the faith community. The prayers focus on “those who labor for us” in God’s kingdom. Pastors, missionaries, teachers – even referred to as “frontline workers” – are lifted up in prayer. However, the one offering the prayer is praying on their behalf … which suggests most people offering this prayer do not have any role in actually doing this … which is pretty much how people see things. Pastors and trained others study the scripture and communicate what they’ve learned to others (who don’t have the skill or knowledge base … or time?) to read and learn for themselves. The church building is the congregation’s place of schooling where they gather to hear what the pastor has leaned …which will help them be better people in some way (if only to assure them they are already good people). The people support the work of the pastor (and other frontline workers) with their offerings and also maintain a place to gather for learning and worship.
Yet, so little of this fits with what we see of the beginnings of the Church on the Day of Pentecost. The bulk of the narrative is in the early chapters of the Book of Acts: The disciples want to know if it’s time to (finally!) have the messianic restoration of the Holy Kingdom. Jesus tells them to stop fussing about times and specifics, advising them simply to wait until they receive power from on high. Then Jesus ascends to heaven (or otherwise exits the scene). Angels tell the awe-struck disciples to stop standing around staring and get back to doing what Jesus told them. So, they start hanging out in the upper room (where they’ve been hanging out for weeks by that point) and the temple, praying, remembering Jesus and his words and actions. Then ten days later, the Spirit comes to them in the rushing of a wind and flames of fire, and all heaven breaks loose in a chaotic scene of disciples speaking languages they don’t know … and people in the area who do speak those languages being drawn near to hear what is being said. Whatever was happening, it was not happening in the temple – nor was it all happening inside the upper room. It was happening out in the streets, in the neighborhood around the disciples’ hang out.
The truth of this came home (literally!) to me a couple weeks back when I was leading the Kyrie, a litany, in our congregation’s Zoom worship service. Sitting in my own home, I read the line “For this holy house …” and realized a number of things. First, yes, the house that I am in is holy; God is here and blessing this place and all who come under this roof. Second, looking at other congregants on the screen in their little display boxes, I realized that they, too, were in their homes – houses just as holy and blessed as mine. And third, that the rest of the line applied just as much in this virtual Zoom setting as within the church building: “and for all who offer here their worship and praise.” So, I ad-libbed a bit: For these holy houses and all of us who are now gathered to offer worship and praise, let us pray to the Lord …
The church has left the building now … and maybe it never really belonged in one. In the beginning, it was people, not a place. The upper room was borrowed (rented?) space, not the permanent possession of any one of those gathered in that upper space. When the Spirit blew through, out they all went … all of them, every single one of them … not just the special twelve … not just the men. Mary was there, too, along with other women who had been among Jesus’ followers. Jesus’ brothers were there, too. And the people who heard and responded swiftly joined in the group as well.
Are our church buildings “the vessel that carries us into the future”? Are buildings something we should put in that vessel? It was a long time before congregations, gathered groups of Jesus-followers (Christians) had buildings – several centuries, in fact, before they could come out of hiding places (like catacombs) and people’s homes (members well-off enough to have one) and have a public building. And yet, despite no building, the faith spread: believers were supported with teaching, prayers, worship, sacraments … children were nurtured in the faith … new believers were brought into full participation in the community. The congregation shared food and other goods, provided care to those unable to attend, gathered and scattered to live out the gospel in their everyday lives.
Buildings are beautiful things. There is much to commend them in terms of beauty and design that works to provide a sense of sacred space. Buildings can be places for vital ministry (like soup kitchens, shelters, food shelves) as well as for important community services (meeting spaces for recovery groups and other community needs). A lot of good things can and do happen because we have buildings. Virtual space is not a real substitute for meeting in person … and meeting in person requires sufficient space for the gathering. But maybe they aren’t central … or “mission critical.”
There’s a lot of wisdom to be gained from the classic Orthodox icon of the Ascension. Most of us moderns (Protestants, especially) would be somewhat surprised (startled? … shocked??) that Mary is front and center in the image. She’s certainly not named as present in the account of Jesus’ ascension. But she is there and the central figure because, as Christ once dwelt within her body, Christ will now dwell within the body of believers – gathered together and even individually. Martin Luther hailed her as the first Christian and an example to us all for much the same reason.
What vessel will carry us into our future? Does it even have to be a physical structure? If we have the Spirit calling us together and sending us out, breathing in … breathing out, what more do we need? God’s love is the vessel that carries us into the future, as surely as it has carried people of faith in the past. As Lady Julian was told, as God showed her all that is made as something small and round like a hazelnut and she marveled that it survived at all, “It lasts and will go on lasting forever because God loves it.” We have the witness of those gone before us – and out own experiences – of the mighty deeds of God, how we have seen and experienced God bringing new life from dead ends. We have the voice of the Spirit speaking all around us in all kinds of ways – through Scripture, through each other, even through people who might surprise us and the world itself around us.
Now the Lord said, “Church, you better love
‘cause it’s a wounded world that needs a healing touch.”
And he gave us a promise and he gave us a job;
he’ll be with us but the work is up to us … it’s up to us
For these holy houses and all who dwell in them, offering up their worship and praise, let us pray to the Lord … Lord, have mercy