Monday, May 4, 2020

“Communing with One Another”
Texts:1 Thessalonians 5:11-28, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

“Siblings, soon after we were separated from you - in body but never in heart - we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face” [1 Thess 2:17]. These words were written by a pastor to his church members, struggling because they could only be with one another using technology from afar.
The year was not 2020. It was around the year 51. These words are written by the apostle Paul in the oldest book of the New Testament - 1 Thessalonians, which is a letter to the church he founded in a Greek city called Thessalonica. Roughly a year before these words were written, Paul had traveled to that Greek city with his coworker Silas and founded a church. But that upset the delicate balance of power in Thessalonica, which stayed free from Roman rule only through careful alliance. The people there worshiped many gods but focused especially on the emperor cult: worship of the Roman emperor. It was considered one’s patriotic duty. As Eugene Boring writes, “to many citizens it was something like saluting the flag and reciting the pledge of allegiance" [Boring, Introduction to the New Testament, p. 57].
So when this new group of people got together talking about a king named Jesus bringing in a different kingdom, well, that was a problem. It upset the delicate balance that kept the ships coming safely to harbor, which kept the money flowing and the people happy. Even though there were only a few dozen people in this church, Paul had to leave after clashes with others in the city. Things were still not great for that new church once he left.
So the only way Paul could connect with the church was by writing letters. That was the technology available to him at the time. “We wanted to come to you,” he wrote,”...but Satan prevented it” (1 Thess 2:18). Eventually he was able to send his coworker Timothy to go, to bring the letter to them and encourage them in their hardships. But as for Paul, he remained separated from them, in his words, “in body but not in heart.”
This separation is the background to the part of the letter we heard from today: instructions to the church on how to be together. Or, to get a bit more churchy, “communing with one another.” It’s also the background to the instructions we heard from 1 Corinthians about the Sacrament of Communion itself. I think it’s important to remember that the words we hear today about togetherness were birthed from the pain of separation -- as we reflect on what it means to be together while also apart.
As we settle into the long haul of “a new normal” the painful reality of separation from one another has set in. I occasionally tune in on Facebook to Governor Pritzker’s press conferences and read the live comments. At first there was a great deal of unity: we were coming together and doing what needed to be done. Now there is a great deal of restlessness and division, as different authorities offer competing visions for what public life should look like. The Pope on Tuesday prayed in a sermon that God would give us “the grace of prudence and obedience to the instructions so that the pandemic does not return.” Even so, on Thursday morning I read an article about priests and bishops in Italy getting restless with the Italian government’s restrictions on in-person religious services. [3] The lawsuits are just starting to fly around here in Illinois.
More and more articles are coming out about all the ways Zoom is not like being together in person. I’m not sure we needed articles to tell us that. There are a million and one ways that being together on Zoom is not the same as being together in person. But it’s also becoming clear that any in-person worship we have will be changed in significant ways for some time. People at the most risk staying home. In churches and all places of gathering, people need to wear masks and keep a distance. I’ve started to think seriously about preaching with a plexiglass barrier in front of the pulpit. Since singing is much more dangerous than talking in terms of spreading the virus, churches are starting to grapple with the idea of in person worship with no singing. And Communion itself, a sacred meal shared in common, will look a lot different when we are in person to keep it sanitary. No wonder many churches are choosing to wait until they can gather more fully. Pray for our leaders making these decisions.
I’m not bringing this up because I love bearing bad news. Believe me, I grieve all of this deeply. And, I have total clarity that God expects our worship to support life and not to spread death. So we would do well to let go of the forms of togetherness we have been used to. The time will come when we can retrieve that which still gives life. But like Paul and the church in Thessalonica long ago, it’s time to adapt to the present circumstances as they are. Even though Paul didn’t have Zoom, he did have a lot of wisdom about ways of togetherness that don’t depend on things being easy. Let’s look at some of the things he wrote to them:
  • Encourage one another and build up each other
  • Respect those who are working with you, leading you, and instructing you. Think of them highly with love because of their work.
    • Note: that doesn’t mean don’t question your leaders. 
  • Warn those who are disorderly. Comfort the discouraged. Help the weak. Be patient with everyone.
  • Make sure no one repays a wrong with a wrong but always pursue the good for each other and everyone else.
  • Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in every situation.
  • Don’t brush off Spirit-inspired messages, but examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good.
  • Avoid every kind of evil.
Paul knew if the church in Thessalonica could live up to these words that they would be strengthened and encouraged for their work in a community deeply suspicious of them. Nothing in this list required Paul to be with the Thessalonians in person and nothing on this list requires our togetherness to take place in one particular way or place. Instead it requires willingness to open our hearts to one another and to God -- that’s not impossible from far away and it’s far from guaranteed even in the same room. This - not a particular form of worship - is what it means to commune with one another.
Even Communion itself is something we can share in so many ways. There is a lot of dialogue about whether or not the Sacrament can really be shared online. Many churches can’t or won’t. And I struggled with it at first, but realized that yes, how close our bodies are to one another matters, but Communion happens when hearts are open, no matter the distance. And Communion in person can be heartless and divisive - which is what was happening when Paul wrote the words we heard today in 1 Corinthians about Communion. 
We are communing with one another, drawing strength from our togetherness so that we can share God’s love with our community and the world. In so many ways we are doing this at Lyonsville already, growing in love day by day. 
With open hearts, we can commune with one another across the distance. With open hearts, we can encourage one another and build each other up. With open hearts we can pursue the good for all people. With open hearts we can rejoice and pray and give thanks even in the most challenging of times. With open hearts we can commune with one another in all circumstances. With open hearts we can give ourselves to the love of God, for as Paul wrote “the one who is calling you is faithful.” The one who is calling you is faithful. So let us open our hearts.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, April 20, 2020

April 19, 2020: "Preparing for Action"

Text: Acts 1:1-14

First came the resurrection at Easter. Then came the shelter-in-place order from Jesus.
If you missed this part of the story before you’re in good company.  The first chapter of Acts is usually read each year in our church, but the things we notice change depending on what’s going on in our lives. Acts begins by looking back: after the resurrection Jesus appeared to his disciples over a period of forty days, teaching them. Then, verse four says, “while staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.” He ordered them not to leave Jerusalem.
No, it’s not the same as our situation today, but it’s worth noting. Why did he order them not to leave? To wait for the promise of the Father. And what is the promise of the Father? To “baptize them with the Holy Spirit.” To infuse them with divine power and purpose. They were preparing for something. But for what, exactly?
They had an idea what it would be: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Is this the time that you’re going to swoop in and take power and make everything right? It’s not a bad question. Many of us have our own version of that question these days: “when will things be right again?” We may have our own fantasies if not about Jesus about someone, some leader, swooping in and flipping a switch and making it all go away. Surely some of our leaders have that fantasy.
But Jesus gave a very Jesus-y answer, offering a truth that might be hard to hear: “it’s not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” In other words, things will be made right eventually, but the world has a timing all its own, far bigger than ourselves. It’s not for us to know. 
So many questions that are being asked in our present moment are about time. Is this the time things will go back to normal? Is this the time we can “reopen the economy,” whatever that means? If not, when? When will this end? But we don’t know, any more than our church ancestors knew how long the 1918 influenza pandemic would last, or the Civil War, or World War II, or the oil crisis, and so on. Is this the time? If not, when?
Jesus suggests those aren’t the best questions could be asking. “It is not for you to know…” he says, “But, 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.”
In other words, it’s not for you to know when everything will be made right. But I’ve got a job for you right now. You’ll get power from the Holy Spirit to go out into the world as my witnesses. What exactly is a witness? We’ll come back to that. For now, notice how Jesus gives them a new question to ask: not when will you make things better, but what do you call us to do? From waiting for Jesus to fix everything, to taking responsibility for a shared call to action.
Then, just to make it more clear, he leaves, in this remarkably confusing event called the ascension: “when he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of sight.” Well, OK, sure. Yeah, people are lifted up and disappear into clouds all the time right? Many modern readers tend to be bothered by this sort of thing, that goes against the way we understand the world works. And in a Bible Study we can explore all of those complexities but stories are told to make a point, which seems to be that Jesus gave them a job to do, promised them the power to do it, and then he left them to it to support them in new ways. As the disciples were gazing upwards, two angels came and asked, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” as if to say, don’t you get it? You’ve got a job: One, wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, and then two, be my witnesses to the end of the earth. So why are you standing here gawking? Get to it.
Well, they had a lot to process so I think it was okay to stand and look towards the heavens a bit. They had wanted Jesus to fix everything for them, and instead he gave them a promise and a job to do. I imagine that’s when, maybe for the first time, they realized the weight of responsibility that they carried as Jesus’ representatives on earth, to carry out his mission. Reality sank in: they had hard stuff to do, and Jesus wasn’t going to do it for them. 
In a way it’s like growing up, which is a life-long process that is both exciting and terrifying of realizing that you are now responsible for things that used to be done for you: tying your own shoes, making your own appointments, stocking your kitchen, managing your money. Even more exciting and terrifying is realizing that YOU are responsible for doing what Jesus did: showing a world ruled by men who call themselves gods a God of endless love and grace, justice and mercy, healing and joy. No wonder they wanted Jesus to do it for them.
Today, Jesus is also listening to our questions and giving us better questions to ask, in this case through the wisdom of public health leaders. “Everyone wants to know when this will end,” said Devi Sridhar, a public health expert, “That’s not the question. The right question is: how do we continue?” Sridhar was quoted in an article in The Atlantic exploring how to prepare ourselves for reality, which as another expert Michael Osterholm said, “isn’t about the next couple of weeks. This is about the next two years.”
Lord, have mercy. 
If you, as the disciples did, need a few moments to gaze towards heaven with teary eyes as reality sits in, take the time to do that.
And, we have a job to do, as the church, called and charged by Jesus himself be his witnesses on earth. To show him to the world so that others can experience his love and power too. That’s why growing a church matters by the way: not to keep an institution going for its own sake but to show Jesus to others for everyone’s sake. And right now the world needs everything Jesus has to offer. So we’d better prepare for action.
In the coming weeks we’ll be exploring stories of the church’s early ministry, so that we can live out God’s Action Plan [show graphic] for our ministry in this time. Today we are preparing for action, so that we can jump into sharing all we can, communing with one another, seeking health and wellness for all God’s children, claiming our moral voice, and embracing hope in the shadow of death. Each week there will be a clear and specific call to action. It’s a big ask. So it’s worth remembering that those first disciples did receive the gift of the Spirit as Jesus promised. Then they got to work. 
We will do the same, and it starts by getting prepared. In a way we’ve been preparing for years, just as the disciples did. We’ve heard sacred stories, explored new ways of worship and learning and prayer, discerned a call to renew our ministry to our community, and adopted new bylaws that let us move quickly and flexibly in the direction God is calling us. Whew. Good timing indeed.
The work in this time is to move from preparation to action, just like those disciples so long ago. So what did they do? They returned to Jerusalem and they went to a room upstairs where they constantly devoted themselves to prayer. That might sound backwards but it’s not. The only way to sustain faithful action in the world is to be rooted in our connections to one another and to God. Otherwise, the moment the wind picks up, we’ll be blown away. 
So, later in the service, Nayna, our Minister for Community Life will demonstrate a small project you can do with yourself or your family for just a few minutes to prepare for each day by reflecting prayerfully on what you need from God and then symbolically carrying that with you throughout the day. We encourage you to actually do this, and to share pictures so that we can be connected to each other and show our community what we’re up to. 
This is a big moment. So, let’s finish preparing for action. Nobody will do it for us, but with God’s help, we can be Jesus’ witnesses to our community today. Because big moments call for big things. And Jesus calls us to nothing less. 


April 12, 2020 (Easter): "Fear and Faith"

Text: Mark 16:1-8

This is not how it was supposed to be.
If you expected an Easter sermon today that skirted around that stark, difficult fact, you clicked the wrong link this morning and heard the wrong gospel lesson. Because for us on this Easter Sunday, gathered just as Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome were on that first Easter, under the shadow of death  grieving the brutal execution of their teacher just days before, this is not at all how it was supposed to be and it’s perfectly good and faithful to say so.
At Lyonsville, this was going to be the first Easter since we have returned our worship to the chapel, a space which has nourished us well. We were to celebrate our refreshed space: a new ramp and chairlift, new paint and wallpaper and flooring and lighting, rebuilt stairs to re-open the front chapel entrance, lest late churchgoers be forced to make eye contact with those already seated! All of this physical change is symbolic of a spiritual shift I have sensed at Lyonsville, as we have moved from a focus on ourselves and our survival to how God is calling us to love our neighbors. Right after Easter we were going to launch a community needs assessment to connect more deeply with our community and develop a shared focus for our ministry. We were ready to go, making sure that the walls of our church were inviting and getting outside the walls to share the love of God with our community.
But none of us were planning to get outside the walls quite in this way.
That’s to say nothing of the things in our individual lives that are really not how they were supposed to be: school buildings closed, layoffs and facemasks, family and friends we cannot see, weddings and trips postponed, for those living alone more solitude than you could ever ask for; for those living with others more time together than ever before. Many of us get up in the morning and check each day to see what death has been up to in the last 24 hours, as more and more of us know and love people who have fallen ill or even died from this awful virus. 
This is not how it was supposed to be. And it’s perfectly good and faithful to say so. In fact, there’s no other way to receive the gift of Easter today.
The Easter story, as told in Mark’s gospel, is not the most popular version of the story. It ends not in joy but with fear. In Matthew and Luke and John, Jesus shows up himself, which helped quite a bit with the whole “did he really rise from the dead” thing. But in Mark there is no resurrected Jesus appearing to anyone. Just these three faithful women, finding an empty tomb with a stranger inside telling tales of resurrection when a grave robbery seemed far more likely.
“So,” the story ends, “they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s where it ends. With the fear and the not-quite-yet believing that death had really met its match in this Jesus. With trembling hearts and closed lips.
In other words, Easter had come, but they didn’t see it yet. They hadn’t experienced it yet. Not only is that where the story ends, that’s where the whole gospel of Mark ends. In the years since, many have found Mark's ending to lack a certain sparkle. So new endings have been added: most Bibles will label them as the shorter ending and the longer ending. They try to wrap things up a bit more pleasantly. And obviously the women eventually did go and tell others or we wouldn’t be here today. But on this day, Mark’s original Easter is just right. We have heard of resurrection. We have heard that Christ is Risen, and even sung about it. But if we are not seeing or encountering or feeling close to the Jesus we’re told is risen, feeling instead that death has the final word, we’re in good company with Jesus’ most faithful followers: the three women who came to the tomb. 
After all, Jesus conquered death but he did not eliminate it. No Easter proclamation - especially in the age of COVID-19 - is honest or true if it doesn’t say so plainly. Jesus may be risen, yes, but death is all around. And few knew that better than Mark, writing this story down just as the Jews -- and followers of Jesus were all Jews at this point -- just as the Jews revolted against Rome only to be brutally crushed and have their temple destroyed.
And, Mark knew something else, which is why during a time of great despair he wrote a story of Jesus in the first place. He knew that you didn’t have to meet the Risen Jesus face-to-face for Easter to be real. 
When the women did go to Galilee, did they find Jesus in the flesh? I don’t know. But I do know this: once they did open their mouths to share what they saw, the Jesus movement took off. The Easter season, the fifty day celebration that starts today is all about telling the stories of the early Jesus movement: this group that traveled around challenging the authority of the brutal Roman rulers who called themselves gods, sharing everything they had with one another and with the poor, providing free healthcare to all who needed it, gathering not in magnificent buildings but in private homes to sing and pray and share a simple meal of bread and wine. They did this while persecuted and prosecuted by the government, surrounded by wars and rumors of wars, and without the benefit even of landline telephones to communicate with one another much less Zoom or FaceTime. They traveled around with the most odd and unbelievable insistence that “Jesus is Risen,” mocking Rome’s most dreadful punishment for rebels, the cross, which became for Jesus’ followers a symbol not of the power of Rome to kill but of the power of God to bring life from death and destruction.
Almost all of the people who did those amazing things did so without the benefit of seeing Jesus in the flesh - at least not in a way they would recognize. But they didn’t need to in order to find the Risen Christ, and neither do we. They encountered Jesus by telling the stories he told, living the way he showed them, and refusing to let anything, anything, stop them from dedicating their lives to the love of God and the love of their neighbors. 
On Maundy Thursday, the day we remembered Jesus’ commandment to love one another, we sent an invitation to the congregation to participate in ministry projects: making sure those without masks have them, keeping connected with one another, working to ensure that people have food to eat and money to pay the bills. After all, we draw near to the Risen Jesus not by waiting for him to show up to prove anything to us but by dedicating ourselves to the work of his people, the church. This Easter season we’ll tell stories of the early church’s ministry while living out God’s Action Plan for our ministry in these times. Six Tasks for Six Sundays:
  • Preparing for Action
  • Sharing All We Can
  • Communing with One Another
  • Seeking Health and Wellness for All God’s Children
  • Claiming our Moral Voice, and
  • Embracing Hope in the Shadow of Death.
We won’t just talk about it. We’ll do it: each week we will be invited to take a concrete action, to share with one another and our community. Preparing. Sharing. Communing. Seeking. Claiming. Embracing. 
In living out God’s Action Plan for this Easter, we will draw near to the Risen Christ, who lives in and among us still. Today.
This Easter, this Spring, nothing is how it was supposed to be. But truth be told it’s just as well that we’re not celebrating Easter in our building today, because Jesus isn’t in church buildings this Easter. Jesus is out among his people, each one of us. Jesus is in the healthcare workers and hospital staff, the parents and teachers. Jesus is in the often-painful choice to continue social distancing. Jesus is in the calls and texts and letters we send, Jesus is in the masks we make and wear, and in the money we give. Jesus is in the tears we shed and the grief we move through. We are looking for Jesus, who we’re told has been raised. And when we follow in his footsteps, we will see him, one way or another: Preparing. Sharing. Communing. Seeking. Claiming. Embracing.
Christ the Lord is Risen Today. Today

Alleluia, and Amen.

Monday, April 6, 2020

April 5 (Palm Sunday): In the Moment with Jesus

This haunting, beautiful song is a plantation hymn, a song composed by Black enslaved persons in the nineteenth century. It has become a staple in worship services, particularly those of Holy Week, exploring the pain and anguish and deep sadness of Jesus’ suffering - and that of his followers.
The song touches a deep place in the human spirit.
There’s something about it that just pierces through and reaches the tender places inside us in a way only music can - music forged in the furnace of deep suffering and oppression. 
If today’s worship service has felt like a bit of a roller coaster to you, you are probably not alone. This Sunday, “Palm/Passion Sunday” is a bit of an odd day. Some of you might remember a time when only the Palm Sunday story was shared on this day -- the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, that makeshift parade over on the east side of Jerusalem. A moment of joy and celebration. But then the mood shifts. We jump over several chapters containing stories we’ve been reading this Lent, stories of Jesus’ dialogues and conflicts with the authorities. And we get to the natural end of those conflicts: the story of crucifixion. The tone shifts, the celebration quiets. Why would we do this on the same Sunday?
For a long time I believed that this was a sort of recent invention, a mashup of two stories in response to the reality that Good Friday attendance is pretty low these days. As the story goes, the “lectionary people” who plan this sort of thing wanted, rightly, to make sure that more people heard more of the story before Easter. After all, going from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the celebration of Easter skips a pretty important part of the story in between. So they just sort of glommed it all together.
The problem is that’s not actually true, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I learned that about a month ago. It turns out that reading the story of the Passion on this day is a very old practice, and the Palm Sunday only thing is new! When you take a deeper look, there is a deep wisdom in hearing both stories on this day.
They are like two sides of the same coin. On the one hand you have this moment of joy and celebration, and on the other, death and desolation. The story of Jesus being surrounded by an adoring crowd is incomplete without also hearing the story of the crowd calling for his death. 
There’s a lot of guesswork about who exactly was in each of these crowds. Were there people in the Palm Parade who later switched teams and called for Jesus’ crucifixion? There’s no evidence and I think it’s unlikely. We do know that there were people who witnessed both events: those twelve men traditionally named as Jesus’ disciples, and as Mark notes, “there were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome….and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”
If you think it’s a roller coaster hearing both stories today imagine being among those who watched it all play out. But here’s the thing: neither story is complete without the other. We can’t have the Palms without the Passion. You don’t just get to enter into Jerusalem in a parade mocking Roman displays of power and not then be a victim of Romans displays of power. It’s all wrapped up together, and we can are ready to receive the gift of Easter when we can hear those stories together.
And not just hear those stories, but hear our own stories. The most faithful people in both stories were those who showed up for all of it. So often we focus so hard either on the good stuff or all on the bad stuff. As if we can only maintain joy by pretending nothing bad could or would ever happen. Or as if we cannot find joy because there are bad things in our lives and the world. 
So much difficulty comes when we believe things are supposed to be a certain way, instead of accepting things as they are. Accepting isn’t the same thing as liking or supporting. It’s just acceptance: this is how it is. I might be able to change it. I might not. But this is how it is. Acceptance allows us to be more present to all aspects of our stories. Many in the crowd on Palm Sunday knew and accepted the great risk Jesus was taking; they shouted and celebrated anyways. And, I imagine, as they watched and grieved Jesus’ death that joyful memory surfaced once more. 
This isn’t just in our individual lives. It’s also as a congregation. It simply does not do to have our head in the sands and ignore our challenges, the pain and losses that in many ways have defined this community for decades now, the continued letting go required to discover something new. But neither can we focus everything on “The Problems” and miss the real experiences of joy and celebration among us today. Today! Regardless of what tomorrow may bring.

Our story is only complete when we can show up for all of it. And the story - the story of God’s entrance into human flesh is only complete with the Palms and the Passion, the joy and the sorrow, the hope and the devastation -- all bound up in One Story, the story of this holiest of weeks, the story of our lives and of life itself. Amen.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

March 29 Sermon - Water from the Rock

Texts: Exodus 17:1-7, John 4:5-15

I was a fourth grader. Teachers changed all their plans that day to talk to us about what happened. I came home that night to see the newspaper on my parents’ table, with three huge letters filling the page: W A R. It was 9/11.
9/11 was a defining moment for people of my generation: millennials. Millennials were born roughly between 1981 and 1996 and are now between ages 24 and 39. Generation Z - the generation after mine - runs from about 1997 to 2012, so that’s people between ages 8 to 23. One of the main differences between those two groups in this country is whether you remember 9/11. Researcher Jason Dorsey says that “in order for 9/11 to be a generation-defining moment you had to remember it, feel the emotion of it, and the uncertainty of what was going to happen next.” Surely we are now in another generation-defining moment today.
There are many of those moments in the history of our faith. A few weeks ago, I shared one. Does anyone remember? It’s a real question - I’ll unmute.
Yes: I shared the story of the Roman attack on Jerusalem that took place over months, ending in the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 AD. That temple was called the Second Temple. I talked about how the pain and trauma of that story is central to understanding the New Testament. 
I believe the biggest moment for really getting the Old Testament, including today’s story from Exodus, was a similar event which I’ve referenced many times before. The destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem , in the year 587 BCE, by the Babylonian Empire. The Babylonian Empire was a brutal and violent empire just like Rome would be centuries later. As I tell this story I invite you to paint a picture in your mind. So much like what happened in 70, it began when the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside said enough, and their King - Zedekiah - revolted against Babylon. In return the Babylonian army attacked Jerusalem for 18 or 30 months, depending on the sources. The Bible describes awful conditions and says after the fourth month there was no more bread to eat.
Eventually the Babylonians broke through Jerusalem’s walls and conquered the city. The King’s sons were killed in front of him and he was then blinded and taken captive to Babylon. Jerusalem was plundered, and the Solomon’s Temple was destroyed. The elites were taken to Babylon and only the poorest remained.
With the destruction of the Temple, the people lost their biggest connection to God. Many had believed that certain things could only happen at the Temple, that it was in some very literal sense where God lived. It was the pride of the people and the center of religious life. And then it was gone.
(It helps me put in perspective my own yearning to be back in our building. We will be back. When, I don’t know. But it’s still standing. We will be back).
This was a generation-defining moment if there ever was one, and most of the Old Testament was developed and finalized in its wake. Stories that had been told for generations got written down and rewritten. And in particular, the books of the Torah came together: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. 
Stories like the Exodus story, which we heard part of today, got put front and center. Stories of ancestors who wandered in the desert wilderness far from home, sacrificing and struggling. Stories of a God with a portable home: a God who dwells among the people in the wilderness and not in a house of stone. Stories like these - and not the stories of past wealth and magnificent temples - became key. 
So we read and hear these Exodus stories through the eyes of those who wrote them -- those who had everything taken away from them, who thirsted not only for water but for new ways of being human, reimagining everything from the ground up: their faith, their community, their economy, their culture. All of it.
In today’s story the people were thirsty and they were complaining to Moses about it. And when Moses took it up with God, God directed him to strike a rock with his staff and promised that water would come from it. And, it did. Miracle or a surprise of nature, depending how you see it. The point is their needs were supplied. Moses named the spot Massah, meaning test, and Meribah, meaning quarrel. Why? Because the story says, that’s where “the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking “Is the Lord really with us or not?”
“Is the Lord really with us or not?”
That is the question that rings out in this story. A question I can easily imagine God’s wilderness people asking; a question written down centuries later by God’s people who had lost everything to the Babylonian empire; a question surely echoed by those who centuries later watched the exact same thing happen at the hands of the Romans, a question echoed by people in every place and time when facing down a situation that seems just absolutely beyond what they could ever imagine and just getting real: “is the Lord really with us or not?” 
But here’s the thing about that question: it’s written down at the end of a story that answers the question loud and clear: Yes, the Lord is really with us. That’s the answer that our ancestors came to time and time again: Yes, the Lord is really with us. I’m a pastor and this is church so it’s sort of our job together to find it in ourselves to answer yes to that question, trusting that whatever we individually feel in any given moment we are part of a community and tradition that has found reason after reason to say: yes, in this thing called life, no matter what happens, the Lord is really with us. 
So the question that nags at me now is on the other side of the coin: “will we stay with the Lord or not?” We as individuals, families, church, state, nation. Will we stay with God? Or not? Right now staying with God has everything to do with staying away from people we don’t live with. Staying at home as much as we can if we at all can. Staying with God means donating whatever we can spare -- this last week the church donated 1,200 latex gloves to Plymouth place, and we’ll be handing out gift cards to food pantry guests in 45 minutes or so. Staying with God means choosing to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, sacrificing our freedoms to save lives -- our own, our families and friends, and those we’ve never met. Staying with God means listening to public health experts and following their recommendation. And yes, as with our ancestors it means reimagining everything from how we organize faith communities to how we organize our economy.
And yes, staying with God includes staying home on Easter. I want to be crystal clear: a church gathering in person for Easter worship during this pandemic is not staying with God, it is abandoning the worship of God to worship economic productivity instead, a hollow freedom requiring no sacrifice. For as the Rev. Emily Heath reminds us that “ the first Easter didn’t happen at a church. It happened outside of an empty tomb, while all the disciples were sequestered in a home, grief-stricken and wondering what was going on. So, we’re all going to be keeping things pretty Biblical this #Easter. The good news, though, is what came next. New life happens, no matter what. The more we make sure people are protected, the more we can proclaim the goodness of God’s grace.”
Our ancestors, when facing profound lack of freedom and intense sacrifice, decided to stay with God time after time after time. Not without questioning or complaining. Not with fear or grief. But they stayed with God. They wrote and rewrote stories. They shared with one another. They did what they had to do so their people would survive, old and young, to tell stories of a God who dwells not in a house of stone but among a wandering people, a God who stays with us and invites us to stay with her in return, a God who brings manna from heaven and water from rocks still today, giving us what we need to so that we can do what the world needs us to do. 

We have a lot of choices in this season for who to follow. To stay with. Let us choose wisely. Let us stay with God, protect our neighbors, and look always for new life. Amen.