|Published by Josh Hosler on Sun, May 3, 2020 11:46 AM|
Make our hearts glad and generous, that in feast or famine, we will always be able to share your love with the world. Amen.
These days, when the weather is pleasant enough, I get up early in the morning and go for a walk. When I see somebody approaching me on the sidewalk, I cut a diagonal and walk on the edge of the street for a bit. Strangely, instead of being offended by this, the other person often smiles and greets me warmly from ten feet away.
Usually I wind up at a little coffee-and-pastry place a mile from my house called Fresh Flours. There’s a new rhythm there. The chairs are stacked on the tables, and signs and tape on the floor indicate that we must always keep a distance from each other. There is technically a limit of six customers in the place at a time, but we customers seem to share a consensus that two or three is more appropriate. So when there’s a crowd, we form a polite line outside and wait our turn. We don our masks as we enter. We visit with the friendly baristas, and we smile not just with our mouths, which cannot be seen, but with our eyes, which can. We touch the screen to pay for our fare, and afterward the barista wipes the screen down with disinfectant. Nobody seems offended by this, either.
At the grocery store there are other new rhythms. There are one-way lanes that most shoppers haven’t yet figured out. When the aisle is too narrow to keep our spacing, we pass with a quick little dance during which we smile but turn our faces away from each other. We willingly pause in the checkout lane so the checker can sanitize the conveyor belt. Large plastic sneeze guards are now fixed between us and the checkers.
We’re settling into a new rhythm of life. We are all potentially infectious, and we know it. We adopt new practices so we can more effectively love one another.
A few weeks ago we heard the story of the first Passover, of the Hebrews huddled in slave housing, lamb’s blood on the lintels of the doors, waiting for word that it was time to get out of Egypt, to go out into an unknown wilderness trusting that God was leading the way. The old rhythm of their lives—brutal oppression—was breaking apart. Nobody knew what would come next.
Today we hear a very different story of individual families feasting at home. The apostles have come through a great ordeal, and as they spread the Good News, they are settling into a groove. By day the baptized go to the temple to worship with everybody else, even those they disagree with. By night they go to their individual homes and break bread together, a sacramental action that reveals to them that Jesus the Christ is alive. The precipitating event for this new life rhythm was the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, a story we’ll hear in detail in a few weeks.
With glad and generous hearts, the followers of the risen Christ had a clear understanding of what they were to do. We hear that “those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” We also hear that they didn’t hold private ownership of anything, but pooled their resources communally so that nobody would suffer want. Everybody loved the followers of Jesus, and because of this, the number of the baptized just kept growing.
Now, to be honest, this is probably an idealized story. Luke had good reason to tell it this way: he wanted to set a model for Christian community in his own time and place, decades later. This set of practices, Luke decided, was a good way forward. And you know what? He was right. At our best, Christians still follow these practices today.
Muslims have their five pillars: faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage. Luke’s list of practices isn’t that different. We might summarize it as “Learn, love, eat, pray, give,” but that sounds too similar to the title of a bestselling self-help book. Still, it makes for good bullet points. And while I’m not typically a bullet-point kind of preacher, since Luke has given us such a clear list, let’s go with it. As we go over each of these five points, ask yourself: How am I practicing this in my day-to-day life? How is the rhythm of my life distinctly Christian? Here we go.
- Learn: specifically, we learn the teachings of Jesus as handed down to his apostles. As we’ve noted before, these teachings are many and varied. They don’t lend themselves to an easy list of formulas you can drill into people’s heads, like geometry. No, this is a different kind of learning—not just head learning, but heart learning, body learning … soul learning. It does better with parables than with parabolas. Such learning can start from just about any experience, and it will last a lifetime.
- Love: this is fellowship. Being a community means always looking beyond yourself and your family and their immediate needs. It means noticing who isn’t here today. It means noticing who is here but who might feel a bit on the outskirts. It means finding appropriate ways to connect with people where they are and to make a safe space for them to discover the specific ways that God loves them and is helping them grow.
- Eat: it’s one of the few things Jesus commanded us to keep doing. He promised that whenever we ate bread and drank wine in loving community, he would be there. For now, we have to do this in our own homes, just like the earliest followers of Jesus did. That’s OK. In due time, when it becomes possible, we’ll come back together for the traditional sacrament of Holy Communion.
- Pray: we do this because we can’t control the world. We can’t even know for sure the best way through today. We pray so we don’t become like those who impose their will on others. We pray for humility, so that we will not even want such things. When we pray, we tell God how we feel, and this also helps us identify our own feelings and deal with them well.
- Give: it’s never just about us. If there ever was a time when the baptized lived in a perfect, healthy commune, it didn’t last very long. In a world without sin, that would certainly be the best way to live. But as for us, we can keep assessing that we have what we need, and keep giving the rest away. Saving may be prudent, but hoarding is violence. Did you get money back from the government this week? How much of it do you really need?
Learn, Love, Eat, Pray, Give. There’s a rhythm to it. Keep growing, keep caring, keep shedding the excess. This is how we can act as good shepherds to each other, a community of shepherds under the one Shepherd. As in our psalm, we “shall not be in want.” And when there are those who are in want, we will know not to let that situation remain.
We’d love it if, as Luke suggests, our participation in Christian community earned us “the goodwill of all the people.” This isn’t likely on any large scale. Goodness and humility often go unappreciated. And evil and danger still lurk in this world; no rhythm of life can prevent them. Yet every act of love has the potential to help us overcome our fear. When the wolf attacks, the shepherd intercedes for us. Even death cannot separate us from the love of God.
I also notice that although Jesus sometimes calls himself the Good Shepherd, today we hear him say instead that he’s the gate for the sheep. It’s a different metaphor. Jesus is the way in and out of safety—out of safety to go back into the dangerous world, moving among those who most need our help. Then we can come home to the safety of community with one another. Every time you mask up and go out, you are going through Jesus. Every time you come home and relax, you are coming back through Jesus. When Jesus is the gate, we are the shepherds.
Learn, Love, Eat, Pray, Give. How is your new rhythm going? Is it off-kilter and out of step, endangered by the wolves of loneliness and isolation? Reach out. The rest of us do our best to reach in, but we don’t go in where we’re not invited. Ask for the help you need to live a new rhythm of life.
Learn, Love, Eat, Pray, Give. Make these practices the guides for the living of your life as a Christian. And the Good Shepherd will lead you to the good grass and the still waters, even when the valley of the shadow of death is the only way to get there. Amen.