This past Monday night I met with a small group that included people from Bemidji, St. Paul, Ely, Apple Valley, Cross Lake and Minneapolis. No one had to leave the comfort of their own home — and yet there we were, all together, gathered to talk about a book that Bethlehem’s Care For Creation team had recommended in our ongoing pursuit to be good stewards of God’s earth. (By the way — it’s called, “Grounded: Finding God in the World” by Diana Butler Bass. And I highly recommend it!) Even four months ago… who could have imagined this scenario of people from so many different places hanging out on a Monday to discuss a book? It’s not something we would have thought to do, though it would have been possible. So much has changed in such a short time. Our world’s been turned upside down and inside out.
It’s hard to feel like you can get a foothold. We’ve lost so much of what was familiar. And the best way forward is unclear… it’s overwhelming. It’s exhausting — for those on the front line that provide care and healing; for those at home wearing multiple hats, many of them new; for those worried about income and jobs; for all of those doing the hard work of keeping physical distance.
Last week we started a new focus on the Acts of the Apostles, the book in the Bible that picks up where Luke’s gospel left off. The people in these stories are figuring things out in their upside down, post-resurrection world. We’re calling the series: Becoming Church Together — for a couple reasons. For one: it points us to Bethlehem’s vision statement of Becoming Together: sharing in the work of God’s vision for a healed world.
God is never done with us — as individuals or as the church. There’s always work to be done — in us and through us. We are becoming. And we’re in this together… becoming something new, something holy, something healing. We’re listening and learning, changing and growing, telling the truth about ourselves and our world. Bethlehem Lutheran Church Twin Cities looks for where God is showing up, speaks about what we see and hear and we practice acts of compassion and love for the sake of the world. We are becoming church together.
The Book of Acts is also about becoming church together. It’s filled with stories about people through and in whom Jesus continues to be alive in the world. Blessed with the breath of God, they live into a future they never imagined. These are our ancestors in the faith. In “Grounded,” Diana Butler Bass writes, “Knowing the stories of our ancestors makes a difference in how we act, the choices we make, and how we understand our own lives.” Steeping in the stories of the early church has power to shape us as a church in this time.
Last week we read from Acts, Chapter 1. Pastor Ben spoke of Jesus’ last earthly words to the disciples, and to us, since we’re on the family tree. Jesus said: “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.” And so you have. The Holy Spirit, the power of Jesus’ presence is tangled up in and with you. This can’t be undone. In the waters of baptism you are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Forever. The promise was proclaimed again at the beginning of worship — a thanksgiving for baptism; a reminder of your identity in Christ and God’s promise to you in Jesus: You are loved. You belong. You are never alone.
In today’s reading from Acts we meet Philip and an Ethiopian — two unlikely characters in this story of becoming church. Philip’s official role in the Jesus movement was deacon. His job was to care for the poor. His work was essential. He was on the front lines, so to speak, to ensure everyone was fed. In this story Philip goes outside the scope of his job description and way outside his comfort zone. It’s a familiar pattern when you listen for the Spirit of the living God.
God calls Abraham to leave all that’s familiar to lead the people to the promised land. God calls Moses to leave Egypt and lead God’s people to freedom. Deborah, Samuel, Jonah, Mary and Joseph… story after story God calls people out from all that’s familiar and sends them into the unknown with a promise: God’s Spirit will lead them as they go.
Since Jesus’ departure to heaven, there’s been disruption, persecution and death for his followers. The work is overwhelming. Still, the Spirit persists. Philip hears her voice calling him to get up and go, to leave what’s familiar and travel the unknown, to the wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza. It’s in this uncharted territory that Philip meets a stranger through whom the church will grow. It’s an unexpected encounter of the Spirit-led kind.
The man is a foreigner, a eunuch, an official in the wealthy court of the queen of another country. He’s a person of importance. These details identify the human made barriers that should keep Philip and the Ethiopian from connecting even as they wander the same wilderness.
But there’s one more detail that makes all the difference: the Ethiopian official is seeking God. He’d been to Jerusalem to worship and is on his way home. He’s reading scripture and it’s not making sense.
According to one part of scripture (Deut. 23), the Ethiopian understands that he is forever excluded from the community of God. But the words from the prophet Isaiah seem to contradict this. Which is it? Is he in or is he out? It’s a debate that’s been around for centuries and still shows up. It’s a debate that’s caused and keeps causing immeasurable harm to countless beloved people of God. But our human made barriers do not deter God.
The Spirit persists: “Go… and join him.” So Philip goes. He sits alongside this stranger. He begins with a question. His curiosity leads to deeper conversation, revealing the beauty of human connection and the healing power of God.
A little over a week ago, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Fry drafted an executive order to allow the Call to Prayer to be broadcast five times a day in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood during Ramadan. This is the first time this has happened in the U.S. Ramadan, which began on April 23rd, is the month in which Muslims around the world focus their thoughts and actions on their service to God practicing generosity, mercy and love.
Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that “the call to prayer…will bring comfort and remind the faithful that as we are physically distant we can still be connected to our faith and mosque.” In this time of isolation, the sound reminds them there is a community to which they belong.
The sound may be unfamiliar to our ears but it need not threaten our faith. God consistently calls God’s people from what’s familiar into uncharted territory — always with the promise that the Spirit leads and guides. Pastor Laura Everett writes: “To fully preach the gospel, we need to sit side by side with people wildly different from us.”
After learning that there’s a place for him in God’s kingdom, the Ethiopian asks Philip: what’s to prevent me from being baptized? Philip knows there is only one answer. He has just shared the story of his experience of Jesus Christ. Nothing can prevent the Ethiopian from being baptized and no one can separate any one from the love of God in Christ Jesus. The Ethiopian is baptized. He rejoices that the good news of Jesus includes him. He is loved. He belongs. The church grows.
Beloved people of God, there are dangers beyond the coronavirus that we face as we remain physically distant: isolation and feelings of loneliness threatens our mental health. We’re missing social connection and the affection of genuine friends, loved ones and community. But do not be afraid. Physical distance can’t keep God away and it cannot cut you off from our shared humanity. You are connected to others and you are forever connected to God.
Hear God’s promise today and always: there’s a place in God’s kingdom for you. You’re marked with the cross of Christ forever. You are loved. You belong. You are not alone.
May God bless you with courage — to keep reaching out to others, to stay curious, to listen and to share with others where you see God at work in your life and in the world. Then may the whole world rejoice in the reality that God’s kingdom grows.