Okay, I’m going to say it. I am not looking all that forward to getting back to live and in person worship, what some folks call reopening. Of course, calling it reopening doesn’t make any sense. Churches never ever closed. One little meme someone shared with me put it this way. The Devil was talking to God and saying. “Hooray, I closed all the churches.” But God replied. “What are you talking about? I just planted millions of new ones in homes everywhere.”
But still, I’m not looking forward to getting back to this whole in person worship deal. Part of it, is purely selfish. Beyond my hourly Sunday zoom visit, I’ve had Sundays free for the first time in Gosh, I think ever. I gotta admit. That’s been nice. Also, I’m a little nervous about the new technology, getting this streaming business right.
But those aren’t the biggest reasons. No, I don’t look forward to it, because it won’t be worship like I’ve seen it before. People will be scattered and in masks. We’ll all be a little nervous, afraid of passing on the virus to someone we love. After all, one out of three of the folks that catch this virus never show a symptom. So, you could be throwing off virus and not even know it. The last thing I want is to find out one of our worship gatherings got someone sick. And of course, for exactly those reasons, many will be choosing to stay home and watch virtually.
And all of that makes me a little sad. Have you already been feeling some of that grief? Have you grieved a bit about what we have lost, at least temporarily, not just with worship but with so much else? My family was heading recently to Mimi’s Ravioli for some needed supplies. Thanks goodness, the government sees good pasta as an essential service! As we passed by the Hard Rock Hotel, I remembered a recent outing there with my wife’s aunt Carol. We took her out to the buffet and then watched the light show with hundreds of others. And I wondered how long it would be before something like that would even be possible again.
Still, even with the risks, even with the masks and social distancing, even with that sense of sadness, these small steps forward to regathering in person matter. And in words you’re about to hear, God tell you why. For in these words, God reminds you why our community, our nation, our world needs this strange thing called the church more than ever. In these words, God shows the way. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.
Why does church matter? In these words, God tells you. Churches, when they’ve living in the flow of God’s Spirit, breathe life out into the world. No, they do more than that. Churches breathe in too. They breathe in the pain and heartache. And they breathe out the love and grace.
That’s what the Spirit did for those first disciples on this day we call Pentecost. Those disciples were living in fear. Jesus had gone, and they had no idea what the future held. And so, they were doing the last thing Jesus told them to do. They were waiting. That’s what Jesus told them to do, to just
wait. So, they did.
In these days, we’ve had to do a lot of waiting, waiting for the curve to flatten, waiting for more direction on how best to stay safe. And we’re still waiting. We’re waiting for a vaccine. We’re waiting for more steps towards the new normal. And I get it. Waiting can be frustrating. But let’s not forget that the church began out of waiting. Someone put it well when they said this: Joseph waited fifteen years. Abraham waited twenty-five years. Moses waited forty years, and Jesus waited thirty years. So, if you’re waiting, you’re in very good company. As we wait out these days, let’s not forget that God and waiting often go together.
And when these disciples waited, God moved. God’s spirit came. And it came as wind, or at least something close to that. The Bible describes it as a sound like the rush of a mighty wind. And that wind did something. It took in all the disciples’ fear and apprehension, and it replaced it. It replaced it with boldness, with power, with a passion to share God’s love like never before. And that’s where we picked up the end of the story, right as that message hit home and changed the lives of 3,000 people.
But do you get how that change happened? It happened through air, through breath. It came through words, sounds, yes. But how do you make sound. Air does it. You breathe in air. That air flows out and vibrates your vocal cords, and sounds come out.
And in scripture, from the very beginning, air has a sort of starring role. Even before God makes anything, a mighty wind from God shows up right in the first verses of Genesis. But of course, this mighty wind isn’t just any wind. It’s the same wind that you see here. It’s the Spirit of God, that mighty wind, getting ready to bring, out of chaos, order and beauty and life. And again, words follow that wind from God, the very words in which God speaks creation into being.
And is it any wonder that same wind creates the church, that it fills them with the very words from God that speak the church into being. And as you see how God created the church, God is telling you what God is calling this church to do. God is calling that church to continue the Spirit’s work. God is calling it to bring beauty and order and peace out of a world of chaos and emptiness.
Over the last weeks, I have been reading a book by the Buddhist monk, Pema Chodron. And in that book, she shares a particular Buddhist practice calledTonglen. It’s a fairly simple practice.
Basically, you breathe in bad stuff, and you breathe out good. Let’s say you’re feeling some anxiety and impatience in these days of Covid 19. Well, you take all that anxiety and impatience into you, but not just your anxiety and impatience. No, you breathe it in for all those who are feeling that same sort of anxiety and impatience. And then you breathe out relief. You breathe out peace and rest for all those caught in that place. And go figure, when you do that, it works.
And you can do this for anything for those suffering injustice; for those struggling with this illness, for any pain or heartbreak in the world. And in every case, you take that pain in, and you breathe out healing and restoration and love. You can think of it as a sort of Buddhist intercessory prayer, though I doubt a Buddhist would ever put it that way.
But the more I thought of it, and even practiced it a bit, I realized. That’s who God calls the church to be, to be a sort of Tonglen for the world, breathing in pain and heartache and all sorts of human brokenness. And breathing out God’s love and grace and peace.
That has certainly been what the church has done for me. I remember growing up as an insecure teenager, unattractive and geeky. At school, I could never really find my place. But at church, I found a community that loved me in all my awkwardness and fear. That community breathed in all my insecurity, and it breathed out welcome and love and acceptance. And it changed my life.
And at some point, I imagine God used the church to do something like that for you too. Now no church is perfect. And at times the church can take in the bad stuff and breathe it right back out. But when the Spirit is flowing, oh, what the church can do. It can take in brokenness and pain and breathe out healing and comfort. It can take in anxiety and fear, and breath out peace and joy. It can take in exclusion and isolation and breathe out welcome and love.
And in this world, where people seem more and more divided and disconnected, we need that more than ever. For we live in a nation and world, not only sick in body, but profoundly sick in soul. And God has placed his spirit in us to help bring healing to all that brokenness and pain.
And of course, you don’t need a building to do any of that. In fact, for the first 300 years, Christians had no buildings and we did just fine. That’s why I don’t get it when folks talk about churches being closed down. I know of hardly any churches that have. Sure, their buildings have been closed. But when has the church ever been a building? Now we get confused and talk about it that way. We talk about going to church as if the church is a place you go.
But church is more like family. And yes, you may go to family, but that doesn’t mean family has to be any special place. Due to the pandemic I’ll miss joining my extended family in North Carolina at our annual family reunion this year. But what makes the family reunion isn’t that place in North Carolina. It could happen anywhere. What makes it is the people. Still those people gotta have some place to gather. That’s why I’m glad we’ll be reopening. It’ll give us a place to start the gathering once again.
But remember even as we gather, church happens mostly out there. It happens as we let the Spirit flow through us, as in our own ways, we breathe in the brokenness of the world, and breathe out God’s love and grace. For isn’t that what Jesus did for us? With his last breaths, he breathed in all our darkness and chaos and murderous fearful ways. He took all that in. And he has breathed out on us his salvation, his life, his new creation in us. And he is still doing it now.
So, let’s join in on that work. In whatever ways God leads you, breathe in the pain and breathe out the love. Let God use you for the healing of your neighbors, your friends, your family members, everyone you meet. And as you do so, day by day, the Lord will add to our number those who are being saved. And in those simple yet profoundly powerful ways, God’s Spirit will work, bringing healing to our communities, to our nation, to our world.