“Always, We Begin Again”
A monk was asked, “What do you monks do all day at the monastery?” The monk’s response? “We fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up.”
What a great summary of the spiritual life! It isn’t a gradual step-by-step journey to enlightenment. For most of us, the trajectory of our spiritual journey more resembles a toddler’s crayon scrawling on the dining room wall, full of fits and starts, backtracking and spinning in place. We fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up.
The same is true for faith communities. We also follow Jesus in fits and starts. We backtrack; we spin in place. We fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up.
This pandemic year has felt like one, long, slow-motion fall, hasn’t it? One of those falls that seems like it’s never going to end, where the whole way down all you’re thinking about is how much damage you’ll sustain when you hit the ground.
Something happened Easter Sunday morning out in the back parking lot. Thirty of us gathered in the cold to celebrate the resurrection story. Even in our winter gear, even with our face masks, even socially distanced, it happened! We experienced resurrection. After a year of NOT worshiping together in each other’s presence, we did. After a year of falling, we began getting up again. The sisters I hang out with in Indiana have a phrase that describes the falling down and getting up process, “Always, we begin again.”
Now that our church is poised to begin again, where can we go for guidance on how to discern our church’s post-covid mission? A great place to start is the book of Acts.
Today’s passage happens right after Pentecost, that day when God’s Spirit whooshed in, and everyone understood each other, and were on fire with God’s love. What was the first thing Jesus’ followers did after this pivotal experience? They couldn’t help themselves…they drew together in community. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
I suspect we all can remember times when church felt exactly like what’s described here. We remember Sunday school classes or book studies that opened our minds and hearts to new ways of understanding the world and God’s love in it. We remember fellowship times and breaking bread together in each other’s homes. During the pandemic, we’ve created a meaningful time of praying together each week. I wish I’d been here when marriage equality became the law of the land. Based on what I’ve heard from those of you who were here, awe did come upon everyone at the wonders and signs being done.
The financial generosity of this congregation is inspiring. When the first stimulus checks came out last year, many of you said, “I don’t need this money. I want it to go to someone who does need it.” In response, we established the Care and Share Fund to assist our members who are struggling. They would distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
Reading through these verses reminds us of what makes a faith community strong. It also might make us a little sad at what we’ve been missing this year. But as the pandemic winds down, it also gives us a to-do list for how to begin again, post-pandemic.
As we figure out how to begin again, let’s look at the last two verses of the passage: Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day God added to their number those who were being saved.
With the repetition of “day by day,” the author draws a direct link between what happens in the first sentence and what happens in the second. Think, cause and effect. Day by day, they spent time together in the temple, they broke bread together in each other’s homes, they acted with goodwill toward all the people. That was the cause. Here was the effect of doing those things: Day by day, God added to their number those who were being saved. Luke seems to be saying here that when we seek to create beloved community within these walls, we participate in creating beloved community outside them.
Here are two examples of how our beloved community is working to create beloved community beyond these walls. After that, I’ll share an opportunity to expand that work.
The racial reckoning in our country sparked by George Floyd’s death last May sent many of us into a period of deep mourning and questioning. How could we as a predominantly white church help dismantle a system that values Black lives so little? Since then, we’ve done two church-wide book studies. We’re now in the middle of an anti-racism workshop, led by alexandria ravenel and david greenson of Collaborative Organizing.
One of the awe-inspiring wonders in the last year is the partnership we’re forming with the YMI Cultural Center, in Asheville…just a ten minute walk from our church building.
The conversations with YMI began when our “Say Their Names” exhibit was displayed at YMI last summer. As often happens with well-intentioned white folks, we made a few missteps… but we learned–and keep learning–from them.
In the last couple of months, we’ve begun talking about what it might mean for our art galleries to become “sister galleries.” Our inaugural sister-gallery event begins next week, with a new “Say Their Names” exhibit to commemorate the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder. The artwork of two young Black artists, Kai Lendzion and Heather Tolbert, will be exhibited in our gallery. We’ll have an opening event for the gallery on May 7th on the front patio outside the gallery. The gifted singer, Kia Rice, will offer music. It also will be the official kick-off for our Sister Galleries initiative. Here’s a really cool thing…at the end of our opening, we will encourage people to walk to YMI to see the art exhibited there! That will help us–literally–to embody the connection we are forming with YMI.
The work of dismantling systemic racism can be overwhelming…but we have begun that work by building relationships with Black people and organizations in our community. All this work toward the beloved community has grown out of our tending to our FCUCC community.
Another example of our own beloved community spilling out to create beloved community beyond our church has been partnering with the Western Carolina Rescue Mission to provide space for a Code Purple shelter this winter. As of yesterday, Code Purple has officially ended. We’ve gotten word from the city that 379 different individuals made use of the shelter. That is a remarkable number. 2121 beds were filled during 68 Code Purple nights. That’s 2121 times someone didn’t have to sleep in below-freezing weather on the streets.
Here’s the opportunity to expand our efforts at creating beloved community beyond our church community. Because it’s a BIG possibility, it will take time to think and talk it through. Please put Sunday, May 16th on your calendars. That’s when we’ll have a Congregational Conversation about this possibility. This thing is so big that we aren’t in a position right now to say yes or no. Some of you will say a quick yes. Others will say a quick no. As a community, though, we don’t yet have enough information to make a determination.
The city, county, rescue mission, and so many clients have expressed deep gratitude to First Congregational for providing space for the Code Purple shelter this year. “This is exactly what church is supposed to do,” one person said. When I spoke with Marc, host for the shelter, he told me stories of people who made use of the shelter…including a woman who’d just had a baby who was able to take time, to spread out her things, and get her head clear. He talked about the wide diversity of folks who came each night. He expressed gratitude that the EMS folks were located just across the parking lot. He couldn’t say thank you enough.
Here’s the opportunity. The city has asked if we might continue providing space for a shelter for some of our most vulnerable unsheltered neighbors. The city will use stimulus funds to create a permanent shelter for these folks, but it will take some time to create that shelter. In the meantime–for at least 6 months, maybe more–they’re looking for a temporary site to shelter those folks. The city wonders if we might provide space for that shelter.
I told you it was BIG! I don’t have any idea whether we’ll be able to offer space for the shelter the city is imagining. When the Board talked it over on Thursday night, they didn’t have any idea either…but they were very clear: “We have to take this to the congregation.” Which is why we’ve scheduled a congregational conversation about it on May 16th.
As followers of Jesus, we are called into community. But we aren’t called into community just for ourselves. We are called to be community for the world. We are called to create beloved community with each other, because that is how we help to create beloved community in the world. Day by day, they worshiped, prayed, and broke bread together. Day by day, God added to their number.
It’s true that we’ve fallen down a few times, both with our own beloved community and with the wider beloved community. What will it look like to get up this time? How will we continue practicing resurrection now? How will we nurture the new life sprouting up all around us? This time, now, in this moment, how will we begin again?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2021