“What Happens Next?”

May 10, 2020 | Acts 6:8-15; 7:1, 51-60; 1st Peter 2:19-25 

This past week Tomos Roberts posted a reading of his poem, “The Great Realisation” on YouTube.  It is presented as a children’s bedtime story.  If you were physically here with me, I would ask you to raise your hand if you saw it.   If you are watching now, you could send a little heart icon if you saw it.  The poem describes our world before, during, and after COVID-19.  It ends with a vision of what happens next. The poem begins with the words “It was a world of waste and wonder, of poverty and plenty….”  then goes on to tell the story of how we human beings lost our way.  We wanted and we wasted.  Some had much.  Some had little.  We spoiled the earth, the air, the waters, and we forgot what really matters.  Although we were together, our devices and preoccupations kept us apart.

“But then,” writes Tomos, “in 2020 a new virus came our way.  The governments reacted and told us to hide away.  But while we all were hidden, amidst the fear, and all the while, the people dusted off their instincts, they remembered how to smile. They started clapping to say thank you, and calling up their mums….”  The poet celebrates the fact that in this crisis we are finding each other again, and finding gratitude and delight in simple things. The earth and her creatures are recovering.  We are seeing the truth of the socio-political and economic systems we have created and live in.  Tomos expresses his hope for what happens next with these words:  “So when we found the cure and were allowed to go outside, we all preferred the world we found to the one we left behind.”  At the end of the video a child asks,  “But why did it take a virus to bring the people back together?”  The poet answers, “Sometimes you’ve to get sick my boy to start feeling better.”

Everybody’s asking, “what happens next?”  We’ve been doing it for weeks. And I haven’t talked with anyone who says, “I hope everything just goes right back to the way it was before.”  There are some who may be hoping for this.  But many of us recognize this crisis as an opportunity to do our lives together on this planet differently.  Sometimes we’ve got get sick to know how sick we already are and to start getting better.  We’re seeing it now, again.  Not for the first time.  The racial inequalities.  The economic disparities.  The reality that 42% of the U.S. population lives paycheck to paycheck.  We’re waking up the reality that many of our lives have been way out of balance with too much work, too much stuff, too much of too much.  Which also means too little rest.  And too little time to smell the roses and delight in the wonder of tiny ants marching in step to sustain their communities, and too little time to be deeply, fully present in the present moment.   And we see ever more clearly that the whole creation has been suffering because of our hurried lives, and our anxious, careless consumption.

We have come into a great realization, as Tomos Roberts titles his poem, because this invisible virus has pulled the rug out from under us and forced us to pause, and prompted us to wonder and imagine what comes next.  Who will we be?  How will we live together?

And it strikes me that during these weeks that COVID has had us physically separated, and asking, “what’s next?,” sometimes with worry, and sometimes with excitement, the Church calendar has had us engaged with a string of stories that keep asking the same question.   Six weeks ago we celebrated Palm Sunday with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey with the people cheering him on, pretty sure that what would happen next was Jesus’s liberating them from the rule of the Roman Empire.   A few days later, Jesus is executed by the Roman government in complicity with the religious leaders, and the question comes again, with genuine shock and absolute unknowing, “what’s next?”  Two days after Jesus’ death, his disciples experience him alive, and the question comes again, with genuine hope, joy, and excitement, “what’s next?”  And this morning, we get these stories about the early church, and find out that what comes next, is that the followers of the way of Jesus are suffering, being persecuted, even killed for their way of living.  The story turns and turns and reminds us that there is so much about “what’s next” that is beyond our control.  But it also shows us that we can and we must choose how we will live in response to things that feel beyond our control.

I did not choose either of this morning’s Scripture readings.   I almost choose other, more cheerful texts to preach on this Mother’s day.  But then, I heard Tomos Roberts’ poem, and something clicked.  I realized that his hope for what happens next—his dream that when we have found a cure for COVID, we will all prefer the world we have found during these difficult days to the one we left behind—I realized that this is what is happening in these early Christian communities.

They have found a new world.  They have been drawn into a new way of living through their up and down experience of Jesus, and the outpouring of his Spirit on them and in them.  And it is a way so beautiful, a way that feels so right and so satisfying, a way of being in community that brings together Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, male and female, slave and free as equals, and, insures that every person has what they need through the complete sharing of goods and money.  Their life together is abundant and miraculous.  Of course, it is not perfect, because human beings are never perfect.

But, the early Christians experienced an awakening, and found a different world than the one they knew within the stratified, unequal, oppressive economic and political systems of the Roman Empire.  They are sharing life in the just and peacable kingdom, the love-soaked commonwealth of God.   And, as the gospel writer Luke tells it in the book of Acts, they won’t give it up.  They won’t stop talking about it or inviting others to join them.  And these followers of Jesus won’t worship the Roman Emperor as is required of them, and they won’t submit to the ways of the Empire.

So, like Jesus, they suffer at the hands of the religious leaders and the Roman government.  Stephen is bold.  Confrontational.  Prophetic.  He doesn’t waver.  He doesn’t fight back.  Stephen entrusts himself to the God who raised Jesus from the dead and so he lives and dies in peace.   Peter’s community also suffers for following the way of Jesus, but they are tempted to give it up and just follow the ways of the Empire.  To accept the inequities, endure the injustices, put up with the oppressions because the system is too big, too entrenched, too impossible to change.    Peter encourages them to stay the course.  To follow the example of Jesus.  Peter says, “to this you are called.”   The call is not to suffer.  This is not the call.  The call is to do what is right.   The call is to do justice.  The call is to love loving kindness.  The call is to walk in total trust of God who is bringing a new world, a new way to live, a new way to be, in the midst of the old world and the old ways.  It is a world in which self-giving love grounds and shapes everything.

Tomos Robert’s poem expresses the hope that when this whole COVID thing is over, we will prefer the world we have found rather than the one we have left behind.  And I hope he is right.  But I know that the long history of humankind, of nations and empires rising and falling, shows us that we struggle to do what is right.  We keep creating these systems and structures that propagate injustice, and do violence to the least of our brothers and sisters, and to the earth.   We get caught in the tangled webs that we weave.  The Bible calls it sin.  We are sick.  And then, something happens to awaken us to the reality of what we are caught up in.

An invisible virus makes us sick and shows us how sick things really are and begins to change us.  An innocent man named Jesus is executed for showing the world that there is another way to live.  And people are awakened to see the madness, and awakened to the good news that, somehow, through the life, death, and resurrection of this Jesus, we are freed from these webs of sin, injustice, violence, and death.  We are freed in and with the Spirit of Jesus to choose what is right.  To love sacrificially.   To resist and undo other ways of living.  And it isn’t easy.  It isn’t automatic.  It isn’t quick.  But by the great grace of God, it is what has come into the world to heal us, to ground us, to grow us as a people who prefer the ways of God’s peacable kingdom and God’s commonwealth of self-giving love.

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