Ever Vulnerable, Ever Resilient

a sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter [Year B]

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 and John 17:6-19

The chicks in the nursery school here hatched this week. And boy are they cute. Six little chicks from six eggs that sat in an incubator in the classroom of the 3- and 4-year olds for a couple of weeks. Hatching chicken eggs has become somewhat of a spring ritual here, a way that pre-schoolers learn about life cycles and animal care and…how to be gentle. The day the birds actually emerged from their eggs was pretty exciting, but it was a little strange to see them all crammed on top of each other inside the plastic domed device that kept the eggs warm.

And then there was us, on the other side, our faces crowded together and peering in at these new fuzzy little creatures. The kids got to name them, and they chose to name them after the Paw Patrol characters, which are actually dogs, but that’s what you have to expect when you give naming rights to pre-schoolers. Chase, Rubble, Marshall, Skye, Zuma, and Rocky are doing just fine down there and there’s even a key chart taped above the container so you can figure out which chick is which. They are peeping constantly now, and they can make a bit of a racket when you try to reach in and pick one up to let a preschooler pet it.

easy now

Nature is amazing. To a large degree, chicks hatch already knowing things like how to scratch for food and what to eat but if they had been raised by a hen they would be so much safer. She would have sat on them until they were all done with hatching and drying out. She would have kept them warm and safe and no one would have been able to just reach in and grab one to hold. They are tough and resilient, and yet they are vulnerable. Their new life is so precarious. But we know they’ll be OK.

I see the new chicks here and I can’t help but think about the new life of Jesus’ disciples after his ascension. They’ve emerged from the events of Good Friday and Easter morning, from the tombs of their doubt and fear and amazement, to find themselves vulnerable, living this precarious life without the protection and guidance of Jesus, who, you may remember, once called himself a mother hen. The world is peering in at them—suspicious Romans that want news of Jesus’ resurrection silenced, curious Jewish friends and relatives who don’t trust the gospel yet, Gentiles wondering how welcoming they’ll be, governments that are hostile to any upstart movements. The world is peering in at them and watching this new way of living take shape and their leader, their risen and victorious leader is no longer with them in the same way they’ve always known him. Precarious and vulnerable, that’s what we see in them.

One of their first obstacles is replacing Judas, one of the original twelve who left them. Problem-solving, right off the bat: how they mount this challenge in a peaceful and calm way that limits fracturing their communion will be a big test. They talk together about several candidates, other people who saw Jesus after his resurrection and learned from him and who will be able to convince others about it. They discuss those candidates attributes, their qualifications, their growing edges. They go and creep these Facebook pages and look back at their past Tweets to see if they’ve said anything incriminating. They run background checks and they come up with two fellows who can fill the spot, and instead of just letting them both serve, which is totally something I would imagine a church today would suggest, they settle on one by rolling some dice. The arrow points to Matthias. Things move along to the next crisis, the next challenge of this fledgling community known as the church..

Ascension (John Singleton Copley, 1775)

The church has almost always been in a precarious position, vulnerable to the world. In fact, that’s how God has plans it and it’s the way Jesus himself lived his life. We are always on the edge, always at risk of making things too complicated, always tempted by sitting and doing nothing. It’s when we wall ourselves away from the world and try to be too overprotective that things start to go wrong. It’s when we shy away from moving forward that we stop living up to that first task—to be witnesses to the risen life of Jesus. We are meant to be transparent people, meant to live, so to speak, under a plastic dome with everyone peering in, a community that rolls with the punches and does what that original little core did. We trust God.

And there will always be decisions we have to make. This past fourteen months has been a stark reminder of that, hasn’t it? In fact, most people I’ve talked to, especially people like school principals, business administrators, and parents, have come up with a term to describe what they’re feeling from all of this: decision fatigue. We have certainly felt it here! How will we worship? What should our capacity in the sanctuary should be? Now it’s should we wear masks? Should we check vaccination cards at the door? When will we sing?

The over-riding challenge in all the decision-making, the remaining transparent and vulnerable, is maintaining the unity. When the CDC or the governor, for example, releases a new guideline regarding COVID, they aren’t really worrying about keeping people unified. They are primarily concerned with stopping the spread of a disease or keeping people safe. People may decide to follow the guidelines or not. The CDC might wind up with a public trust issue here and there, but they don’t have community relationships to tend to. They aren’t concerned with people’s feelings and don’t have tools for how to patch things up when people don’t get their way.

But the church is and has always been different. We’re not an organization as much as we are an organism, a body that is supposed to think and act and do things as one. God creates us this way and the Spirit forms us as people who present Christ to each other. You know that back during that first decision the people who supported Justus really thought he would be a better twelfth disciple than Matthias. There were Justus fans who really wanted to see him get the job, but for all we know those people got over it pretty quickly and agreed to go along with Matthias. The reason? They knew Jesus had prayed specifically for their unity, their life of togetherness. On the night before his death on the cross, Jesus had taken great effort to pray to God for the little fledgling community that the Holy Spirit was starting. Jesus prayed for them to stick together, to put personal differences aside as much as they can, to see themselves as part of a bigger picture. If they got a decision wrong, they would suffer along with each other and trust God. They’d trust that God would ultimately, at some point, correct them down the line.

It’s probably why singing—group singing, not soloists—became so quickly a hallmark of Christian worship. Some of the oldest texts we have in Scripture are songs, both in the Old and in the New Testaments. Singing in a group is a fundamental expression and practice of unity. When we sing we take our individual voice—that part of us that is quintessentially ourselves and unique—and we place it within a larger sound. The point is not to hear our own voice above everyone else’s, but to let it get lost and find itself among all the others and make it better. In singing we practice sacrificing our individuality to be part of a richer, stronger reality. This is why being church without group singing this year has been so strange and difficult, especially for those who might not consider themselves strong singers. I am so thankful that it will be coming back here beginning this Sunday.

Whether in singing, in our service to our neighbor, in our sharing of our lives together, God’s nature is to be made known through all of it. When Jesus prays for us, he prays that God’s ways will be recognizable through us, that the world desperately needs to see a people who love one another, who are not afraid to hatch out of the shells of doubt and fear and live in the forgiveness and hope that Christ brings. Because Jesus does not pray that God remove us from the world. Jesus prays that we be protected from the evil one, from the forces and authorities, even the ones within ourselves, that want to pull us apart.

This year so many of you have sacrificed of yourselves to embody and foster this unity within this congregation. Eileen Johnson, for example, has tirelessly led Zoom meetings with our Clara Sullivan Circle every Wednesday, and she consistently sends out a prayer list that lets everyone know who has specific needs or joys. Kim, Lisa, Carl, and Clair have taken time from their busy schedules to serve as our COVID medical advisors, who’ve helped make these hard decisions about worship. Lyle and Wayne obtained our radio transmitter and work to set it up on Sundays so people can sit in the parking lot and listen. The Seedling Group led by the Becks have been meeting, conscientiously checking in and doing virtual Bible studies together. Matt Greenshields has kept adult Sunday School going. Several of you have made facemasks and some of you have bought them, bringing them into the office for the staff on a regular basis. Some of you have served as ushers during a time when many thought it was unsafe to worship in public, and you think of all the bases I’ve forgotten to cover.

And perhaps some of the most meaningful and joyful expressions of unity for me throughout all of this have been the little emojis some of you have left in the Facebook comments during morning prayer. Some of you say good morning and then leave a little sunshine if it’s sunny out or an umbrella if it’s rainy. It’s just a little sign that we’re in this together, watching and praying over the internet until the day when we can return together. I was just talking to someone about this the other day, someone who plans to come to worship soon but who has grown fond of that morning prayer community. She, too, felt like the simple greetings in the comments had a unifying effect for her.

We can do this. We’ll be OK. We can come through the decision fatigue of congregational life during a pandemic and still be one. We can hold our singing for a spell in order to stop the spread of disease. We can live with the whole world peering in at our peculiar self-sacrificing ways as we scratch around and try to figure out how to move forward. We can trust God. We can look to the cross and trust God in each and every moment of loss and despair and frustration and know that Jesus, who endured the same, is now ascended, sitting at his Father’s side. We can trust him because he is praying for us. We are his. God gave us to him and he has sheltered us and given us his Word. We have a message to make known. Step out of the fear and solitude and the sadness and sing. Or start with a little peep, if you need to. The Lord our God is life and we belong to him.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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