I grew up in a small town. Actually, we thought of it as a big town - the county seat of Harvey County, with 15,000 people! Growing up, I loved the closeness and connection of a small town. I knew that I did not want to live in a big city. I certainly didn’t want to live on the East Coast, with its crowded, fast-paced, angry metropolises.
Today… well, today I still frequently forget that I live in a city. West Philly is a close-knit neighborhood. I have my community, my people. In Philly you can randomly run into someone you know downtown - people told me this when I moved here, and I didn’t believe them, but it's true. And from the ground-level, I can forget how big the city is.
Except when I find myself elevated. Driving back from an evening vigil at the county jails a couple weeks ago, we were on that stretch of 95 where you get to look out on the city, the miles of row houses broken up by old factories and churches, the glittering lights of downtown ahead, the curve of the river on the left. Suddenly, I remembered I was just a tiny part of a huge city, each neighborhood crowded with thousands of lives, and stories.
I love getting elevated. Especially when I’ve spent most of the last two months inside my house, my view constricted to my neighbor’s houses, or the insides of other’s houses on Zoom calls, it feels sacred to remember that I am a part of something so much larger.
I had this same feeling a month ago participating in a car caravan protest. We slowly circled City Hall, using our signs and car horns to demand the judges and the mayor release people in the jails before they die. As we honked and shouted and drove, I rolled down my car window to listen to the sound of us echoing off the eerily silent downtown buildings.
I couldn’t help but bursting into a smile. Once again, I was able to leave the smallness of myself and my car, to hear and feel our shared voice in all its power. I found myself belonging to something larger. I didn’t hear me, I heard us.
It is truly joyful to realize that we belong to something larger than ourselves. It’s what we hope to do in our spiritual practice as Jesus-followers. Connecting to a community larger than ourselves can be a gateway to connection with the infinite, with the divine, with a story that extends far beyond the confines of our human and limited bodies. This can be a definition of what it means to be saved.
One of the reasons why I love the Easter season is that in the lectionary cycle, we get to read the Book of Acts. As I never get tired of saying, the Book of Acts is the most underrated book in our Bible. Coming directly after the Gospels, it is the story of the first Jesus-followers realizing they belong to something much larger than themselves.
In case you’re unfamiliar, here’s the tl;dr on Acts: The book begins with Jesus being lifted up to heaven. Then, in Chapter Two, the Holy Spirit shows up in wind and fire. This is Pentecost. The whole community begins to speak in different languages, welcoming in visiting Jews who are in town for the festival of Shavuot.
From there the community changes again, and again. When the mainstream ethnic group is hoarding resources, leaders from the marginalized group are put in charge. A key oppressor has a come-to-Jesus moment and joins the movement under a new name: Paul. He immediately gets in conflict with Peter about whether Gentiles can join, and God has to tell Peter that he’s wrong on that one. The book ends with Paul, living under house arrest in Rome, still preaching resurrection. The multi-ethnic, cross-class network of communities spread across the Roman Empire at the end of this book bears little resemblance to the small group of Palestinian Jews that watched Jesus ascending.
Our Acts reading for today immediately follows that Pentecost story. And if we’re trying to answer the question of who Jesus’ followers are, one answer seems clear: Communists. Possibly, anarchists. At the very least, utopian socialists. “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.”
This isn’t unique or special. Poor and colonized people like the first followers of Jesus are always sharing resources. Mutual aid is an act of resistance and survival. Another way of saying that is: We can’t relegate this passage to the past. People have been practicing this for thousands of years, including all over our city today. This short passage offers us a relevant lesson about who we are.
Our congregation is currently wrestling with its identity. I don’t just mean because we’re in quarantine - we’re all wrestling with the questions of who am I, what day is it, what is time, do I have to put on pants today? No. Next week marks two years since Pastor Amy told the congregation that she was leaving for Frazier Mennonite. For those who knew Amy, let’s give that a second to sink in.
Since then, much of our often-internal wrestling has come to the surface: Who belongs here? Who do we belong to? Who are our people? What do we do with the harmful white and middle-class behaviors that we enact? What songs do we sing? What do we think of Jesus? How do we better welcome those who show up for the first time on Sunday (now on Zoom)? Where and how do we show up together in the world? How do we practice God’s justice and peace? How do we treat each other in times of uncertainty, conflict, or fear? Where are we going?
Friends, these are normal questions for a congregation to have, especially communities that are willing to look squarely at the truth of the world and who don’t accept easy answers about suffering and sacredness. These are good, powerful conversations to have. And it matters that we have them, and how.
When I call members of our community throughout the week, when I hang out on Zoom with our youth, when we gather on Sundays, I am reminded again and again of the incredible wellsprings of love and joy that feed this community. We are truly tapped into something deeper here, something special. The Spirit is still present, still at work.
When we tap into something different, when we can get elevated and see our place in God’s greater ecosystem, our identity shifts. Today’s scripture reminds us that we are part of a God movement that practices abundance: Abundance in redistributing our resources, abundance in welcome, abundance in Spirit. Abundance born out of connection to a Spirit that is deeper, wiser, and greater than ourselves.
God is our shepherd, we shall not want.
God is our shepherd, we shall not want.
When I say these words, I feel myself releasing tension. I feel myself connecting. I find the joy of connection with God that can offer us new gateways into knowing who we are. Abundance isn’t just a mindset or a practice, it’s an opening into generative conflict, into deeper belonging, into greater truths.
Listen to these words, worn sacred over thousands of years, as they call out to you. Let them lift you out of the smallness of the room where you are. Or lose yourself in their depth, so that you can be found again in an infinity greater than words.
God is our shepherd, we shall not want.
God is our shepherd: My anxiety is real, but it doesn’t have to control me.
We shall not want: There is enough food in our world, enough housing. Share what you can, and strive to build a world where we hold things in common and take according to our need, where no one loses their home or dies or starves because of money.
God makes us lie down in green pastures; she leads us beside still waters: Silence and stillness are not failures, they are sacred times of rest.
God restores our souls. God leads us on right paths for their name’s sake: Listen for the leading that restores your wounded soul.
Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil; for you are with us, your rod and your staff comfort us: You can sit amidst death, fear, and disconnection. You can persevere.
You prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies; you anoint our heads with oil; our cup overflows: You are made for abundance, equally blessed in the giving and receiving.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we shall be a part of God’s chosen family our whole lives: You belong to the Spirit. You belong here. You are enough. And there is enough to share.
You belong here. You are enough. And there is enough to share.