Thursday May 21, 2020, was Ascension Day, the day we remember Jesus concluding his 40-day time of teaching with his disciples following his resurrection, and his ascension to heaven, as portrayed in the first eleven verses of the Acts of the Apostles. It is ten days before Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit would blow into the upper room and into the disciples, driving them out preaching to the world, giving birth to the Christian Church (Acts, Chapter 2).
In her devotional given at the beginning of the May 20, 2020 Greater Northwest Area webinar, Rev. Erin Martin, the Columbia District Superintendent in the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference drew our attention to a question the disciples ask Jesus just before he ascends—“Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” (Acts 1:6, CEB). Her mention of this question reminded me of past homilies I’ve done where I’ve stated that I think this must have been a disheartening question for Jesus to hear. After all the time they had spent together, both before and after his crucifixion, the disciples were still looking back to a restoration of Israel’s glory days, hoping to reclaim the national strength, wealth, and right relationship with God held in the days of King David and King Solomon. The disciples see the display of the power of God in raising Jesus from the dead as a precursor to God’s resurrection of Israel’s idealized past.
Rev. Martin noted that we too, pastors and laity alike, are often looking back to the past in these days of COVID-19 isolation. We speak of “getting back to normal,” and in the church, of “getting back to worship.” I feel like my focus has been on waiting it out until we can get back to doing what we were doing before. But now I’m realizing that’s going to be a long time yet, longer from now even than we’ve been out of our routine already. And I’m also wondering if maybe God wants us to to look forward, instead of backward, move forward, instead of backward. I’m wondering if this isn’t a good time to evaluate what we’re learning about what it means to be Christian when we can’t join together in person on Sunday mornings, what we need to be doing to live that out, and to consider what we might want to carry forward with us out of this time.
At the beginning of the Langley UMC May 17, 2020 worship service, their pastor Rev. Richard Fuss reflects on this time of being away from our church buildings on Sunday mornings, and suggests that we may have become too Sunday morning focused in our understanding of Christianity. His comments raised in my mind the question “Do we believe we worship because we’re Christians, or do we believe we are Christians because we worship?” Is worship an expression of our Christian faith, or the extent of it? Rev. Fuss hopes that this time away from worship in our church buildings can help remind us that what is central to Christianity is “an open heart, a great love, and a willingness to serve.”
We have many ways we can be the church. Being together on Sunday mornings in the Prosser UMC sanctuary is one of them, but not the only one, just as gathering around the dinner table on Sunday is one way of being family, but not the only one. We have shown open hearts, great love, and a willingness to serve in continuing our monthly soup distribution, even while observing pandemic restrictions. We have shown these aspects of our faith in the new Community Needs program that you support with your contributions, and we deliver to organizations helping people in our communities. We show our support for our own church family through our continued giving to the church, to pay staff salaries and church bills.
We are also family when we support each other, giving each other our time and attention. Donna Barr is setting up a phone tree for the church. We can use this in case a message needs to get out to everybody, and not everybody is on e-mail. I would hope we would also use this to check in with each other once a week, to share what’s going on and how we’re doing with all this time at home. E-mail and text are quick ways to communicate, but they don’t allow for as much of our “open heart” and “great love” for each other to come through. We hope to have this ready soon, so if you don’t hear anything about it after a week or so, and want to be a part of this phone tree, call the church office.
As we move through the state’s, and church’s (more about this next week), re-opening phases, think about what ministries we have started during this time away. Which of them are expressions of our faith that should continue when we gather together again? What are the things we had been doing that perhaps we now feel don’t reflect our faith—that we might let go? As we go forward, not backward, how may we keep open hearts to “receive power” when God’s Holy Spirit enters us, so that we may be Jesus’ witnesses “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NRSV)?