As I shared with you on Sunday, Sarah and I ran into two neighbors late in the evening last week. Because of the virus and its impact on lives and health and jobs and the economy, one friend was quite mad and the other was very sad. Both needed to talk, and we stayed with them for a while. I was mostly quiet, except for a word here and there to hold the space between us. It was a challenging half hour for sure, but a gift, as well. One friend said, “It feels critical to communicate how things really are right now.” Amen.
Late in the day on the first Easter, when news of the empty tomb was spreading through Jerusalem, two downcast followers of Jesus head out of town to forget about the whole thing. They had heard the stories of stones rolled away, of neatly folded graveclothes, and a vision of angels, but those glimmers of hope were no match for their feelings. Did we really ever think a peasant movement was a match for the Roman empire, they wondered. Sad and confused, they withdraw to Emmaus, which is where we run to “when we have lost hope or don’t know what to do… it’s the place of escape, or forgetting, or giving up.” (Kate Huey) But then a stranger appears (spoiler alert: it’s Jesus!), and he listens to them, and gives the pair what each of us longs for: the dignity of their doubts and their questions, the space for their fears and frustrations, the time to say what hurts. He doesn’t try to talk them out of their sadness, he honors it, and then places their feelings in a context that is larger than they are able to see for themselves.
“I hear you,” he says. “I hear that you are scared and suffering. I hear how unmoored you feel because of the present circumstances. But there’s more. Your life is anchored, in your spirit and in this moment, and in the experience of your parents and their grandparents, all the way back to the beginning of time.” He tells them that the stories of scripture are in fact an organized, stylized version of their own family story. “You matter,” he tells them. “Your family, with all of its warts and all of its accumulated wisdom knows something about being lost, something about being exiled, something about being enslaved. But if you have ears to hear it, you and your people know even more about making meaning out of your toughest stretches, about finding and being found by God.”
It is important to be honest with each other about the challenging period that we are in. Bishop Sutton is working collaboratively with the bishops of Virginia and Washington, as well as with local and state authorities, both to keep us safe in a time of required social distancing and to plan steps toward the re-opening of churches. The hard news first: the bishops tell us that complete gathering of the community is not likely until comprehensive testing and a vaccine are available, and that may take two years. And since the way of Jesus is all about inclusion, we won’t be fully The Church of the Redeemer until our doors are wide open again, and everybody can safely and joyfully come. I am sharing this sobering thought now so that as a community we can work backwards from that endpoint and envision a life-giving way to get from here to there. More and better on-line worship? Ways to meet on-line for fellowship and study? What about singing together, praying together, serving together in this time of exile? How can we create manageable cells of Redeemer that serve each other now, working hard to ensure that no one is left out?
In all likelihood we can begin to gather in small groups face-to-face sometime in the next 1-2 months, when Governor Hogan directs businesses to resume. We should expect in this period to maintain six feet between individuals and to continue wearing masks. It is not clear when we will be invited to gather in larger groups, or if outside gatherings might be possible before meeting together indoors. At this moment the staff is taking stock of our spaces to understand how we can creatively use them in the next phase. I will keep you posted as I learn more.
Yesterday I asked our staff to consider all of this, and Freda Marie posed the pivotal question: Why do we gather… as a faith community, as followers of Jesus, as folks who love the Lord? Here’s what was shared: “For strength, for inspiration, for community… to be part of something bigger than me, to learn, to be vulnerable in a safe place… to sing together, to pray together, to be welcomed in, to take part in something ancient… for solace, for shelter, for health, for communion… to be changed and to make change, to serve, to laugh, to weep, to grow…” I believe our answers can help us to shape a dialogue I would like to have with each of you. Why do you gather at Redeemer?
Here’s what I think: we know something about being lost, something about being exiled, and even more about finding and being found by God.