A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli for Foundry UMC April 19, 2020, the second Sunday of Easter.
Text: John 20:19-31
There’s long been a tendency to think of church as a place to go. And perhaps to think that the work of the church is to go “there” and to get other people to go there… If our understanding of what the church is and is for has to do with a building, a place to gather, then it is easy to think that to be a Christian—a disciple of Jesus—is primarily about going to that place and getting other people to go to that place. This, of course, is overly simplified and few if any would actually say this way of thinking is what it means to be the church. But I think this imbalanced view of what the church is and what the church is for is fairly common—if not intentionally, then at least in practice.
But on this first Sunday after Easter, not only is the tomb empty, but so are our church buildings. We’re not able to safely “go” to church in our buildings. Out of care for one another, we are staying home and practicing social distancing. But in this moment, the church is newly alive in so many profound ways. We’re being reminded of what the simple song many of us learned as children teaches, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.” The people who are the church—Foundry Church and countless others all around the world—are finding creative ways to connect, to care, to serve. And in conversation after conversation with colleagues, the trend is clear: new people are being reached and encouraged and supported and inspired by the love of God extended in and through the people and work of our congregations. Generous giving to support direct service and the sustained ministries of our churches is happening. Worship attendance is strong and some folks are describing a sense of feeling closer to our pastors as we “talk” with folks from our homes to yours. New ways of connecting—like our Virtual Coffee Hour—are providing folks an opportunity to meet people and form relationships they’d never have engaged in person.
Even though we might never admit it, it’s easy to make our spiritual lives about a place. And we at Foundry have a pretty spectacular place so it’s especially tempting. Our place and what it helps facilitate are beautiful gifts, never to be underestimated or devalued. Most of us have been grieving not being able to be in our places of worship and gathered with our friends at church. That is understandable and a sign of the beautiful ways God has been at work in our lives in those places.
And also, we are being offered a chance to experience what church is and can be when we move outside the walls, we’re given a chance right now to experience all sorts of newness. So often in our congregations, we get locked in to certain ways of doing things. It can be very easy to end up contained, in a holding pattern, even with locked doors, somewhat afraid of going outside our familiar, protective spaces.
Today we see Jesus come into that place where the disciples have gathered in a locked room out of fear. Mary Magdalene has told them of the empty tomb and her encounter with Jesus, but the rest of the disciples haven’t seen him yet. I’ve often wondered if they weren’t only hiding out because they were afraid of meeting the same fate as Jesus, but also on the off-chance Mary was telling the truth…after all, what would Jesus do to those who’d fallen asleep, denied, and abandoned him when things got real? In any case, Jesus appears not with words of judgment, but with peace, embodying the forgiveness he commissions the disciples to practice. And he says to them, in essence: “Get out of this locked room!” “As the Father has sent me, so I send you…” And as he sends them out of the building, Jesus breathes Spirit into them—the same Spirit who brings life and order out of chaos at creation.
God sent Jesus into the world out of love to share the gift of life in God, the gift of hope, the gift of peace and forgiveness—these gifts of God that mend, that save, that bring new life. And Jesus sends his disciples—sends us—in the same way. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are a people who are not only gathered into the family of God, but we are also, inherently, a people sent. God breathes into us Spirit, enlivening us to participate in God’s mending and life-giving work in the world. // We often talk about the church having a mission—but as we claim our call to be a “sent people” we will understand that it’s not so much that we, the church, have a mission, but that God’s mission has a church.
To participate in God’s mission—God’s mending, life-giving work in the world—is at the heart of what it means to practice sacred resistance. As I’ve defined it, Sacred resistance is anything—any word, deed, or stance—that actively counters the forces of hatred, cruelty, selfishness, greed, dehumanization, desolation, and disintegration in God’s beloved world. Today, I want to focus a few moments on the work of mending creation. This Wednesday, April 22nd is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. On that day in 1970, 20 million Americans — at the time, 10% of the total population of the United States —demonstrated for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Groups that had been fighting individually against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness and the extinction of wildlife united on Earth Day around these shared common values. Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, urban dwellers and farmers, business and labor leaders. By the end of 1970, the first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air Act. Two years later Congress passed the Clean Water Act. A year after that, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act.
Fifty years have passed and even with the efforts of many, the planet, its resources, habitats, and creatures continue to be deeply wounded by human action. The most tender creatures and plants are quietly disappearing. The less obvious effects of climate change are taking their toll. Just because you and I can’t see the shrinking ice caps and the warming of the oceans doesn’t mean these things aren’t happening. Just because our windshields aren’t as splattered with bugs as they once were doesn’t mean this is a good thing. We know the webs and cycles of interconnection on our planet. Things in the web are disrupted and everything is adversely affected.
Sacred resistance calls us to do something in the face of the disintegration of our planet. Our Judeo-Christian faith specifically calls us to be caretakers of the world and to remember that we are, ourselves, part of the creation. We are creatures, the human animal, made in the image of God. We are, ourselves, woven into the fabric of this beautiful, broken world. And we are “sent” as the church, sent by God to mend, to care, to nurture, to tend, to protect, to share. I’m always amazed at the tenacity of creation. Even with all we’ve done and continue to do, life is stubborn and continues to find a way to flourish, to flower, to bear fruit.
As I reflected on this and pondered the Gospel reading for today, I noticed that, like the wounded earth that continues to offer itself to us with visions of renewal and life season after season, Jesus offers his risen, wounded body to Thomas, an invitation to a renewed relationship of mutuality. The power of life, the power of God, is stubborn, refusing to be destroyed even when we do our worst. But there, in Jesus’ wounds, we see that there are lasting consequences to our thoughtless, selfish, destructive actions. We are invited to enter into those wounds, to reach out and touch the brokenness of our created world, brokenness for which we, in part, are responsible. What does that mean? It means choosing to do something about it—because it’s simply a cop-out to say that the problem is too big to do anything about. We can make choices that make a difference. Right now we are seeing what happens when human activity shifts away from practices that do harm. Even after a relatively short time, earth begins to renew itself.
On Friday Pastor Ben interviewed Rev. Jenny Phillips whose ministry at the General Board of Global Ministries is focused on environmental justice and climate care. Pastor Ben asked Jenny to help us think about what we are seeing and learning about climate care in this moment and what we can do right now in this time of quarantine. She invited us to ponder the ways that shifting to more local economies affects the planet, to notice how shifts in modes of transportation make a difference, and to pay attention to energy and product use in our homes and all our buildings. She emphasized the critical importance of government policies and the need to encourage and hold our legislators accountable for common sense legislation that supports industry and jobs in ways that are sustainable for the planet. And in this moment, even as most of us are at home most of the time, there are things we can do! We can buy less stuff, use what we already have, repurpose what we have, make do with less, and make things at home. It’s a great time to establish new practices for creation care at home… What a gift to realize that in this time when we may feel so helpless to heal the suffering of many, we can do things to bring healing to the earth!
Today we’re reminded that the church is the people of God gathered in God’s love and sent to participate in God’s mending work in the world. To say we are a sent people is to recognize it’s not just about “going to church” only to save or nurture ourselves, but rather that we are to “breathe in” the gifts and grace and love and mercy of God as we are gathered so that we can be breathed out, sent into the world to live our whole life in a way that participates in God’s mission of saving love and mercy in the world. Rather than just going to church, it’s about being the church all the time and in all the places that we find ourselves. That means participating in God’s mending work and care for this beautiful, broken world.
In these days of quarantine, we may feel a bit locked in. But I want to encourage all of us to realize that we are the church no matter where or how we’re gathered. God’s Spirit breathes into us and inspires our response. And though we can’t be “sent” into as many places as we might normally go, through these 50 days of Easter we can care for creation and maybe even participate in the evolution of a new creation—of ourselves, the church, the world… Wouldn’t it be just like God to show up and do a new thing just when we feel most locked in?