Three times this week, small groups gathered for worship.
On Tuesday and Thursday morning, we drew into a close circle in front of Redeemer with just enough chairs and benches to keep us safe, put a placemat on a borrowed table with wafers and a bottle of Purell, and broke open our hearts to each other. For the sermon, I asked each person to “share something that’s good and something that’s hard.” Several spoke of the gift of racial reckoning and the difficult work of change. Three grandparents rejoiced at the arrival of new babies and managing the loss of not being able to hold them. One mom heard that morning that her daughter has the virus. Another wept in thanksgiving over her son’s movement toward well-being. A senior talked about wishing to go to the store to buy buttons, and the frustration with non-mask-wearers who don’t seem interested in the common good. Most of us prayed for children and partners and friends and rest. For a few minutes, the Spirit held the weight of our worries and gave voice to our thanks. “It’s so good to see you,” said one after another.
On Saturday morning, we had a different kind of church in East Baltimore. This time a dozen came together from the Johnston Square Community Association, Redeemer, Parks and People, and Troop 35 to clean up an empty lot. We removed old bushes and pots, cut down a couple of trees, moved a very heavy sign, and created a meandering walkway that folks might use to imagine a new way to be neighbors. “It’s the beginning of our Miracle Mile!” said BUILD organizer Regina Hammonds. It was hot, but it felt so good to kindle old relationships and make some new ones. One community leader prayed, “Open our minds. Open our hearts. Open our wounds, O God, that we might one day be well.”
Is worship what we do inside a building, the Hebrew people wondered, 2500 years ago, as they returned from their lonely exile to Jerusalem? If we can’t gather for feasts and fasts, have we lost our way? Why is this so hard, they cried aloud, as they confronted their missteps, tried to reconcile their differences, and prayed that God would help them fix the mess. Sound familiar? What they were desperate to know was whether God and grace are equal to their hard reality, whether there was strength for the struggles in which daily faith operates. Can you heal us, God?
God’s answer to them, through the prophet Isaiah, was probably not what they were expecting. If you want to be well, he says, loose the chains of injustice, set the oppressed free, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the wanderer. That is true worship, he offered. (What about this magnificent edifice, you can hear them saying… what about the altar and the trumpets, our liturgy and feasts? We’ve been in the wilderness, and we want to go back inside.) The prophet goes on, When you do away with the yoke of oppression and spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry, your healing will quickly appear. If your people will rebuild the ruins of the city, and raise up the old streets and foundations, together you will be called repairers of the breach, healers of the broken places.
They were being called outside, into the streets and into the hearts of strangers and neighbors, and so are we. It felt just right to worship and work that way this week, to gather together with old friends and new friends and reimagine a new way to be church. In the courtyard at Redeemer, the Spirit is breathing new life within us. With our partners at ReBuild Metro in Johnston Square, we are making a way where there was no way. Construction on new homes has not stopped, and Redeemer has responded to the call with $170,000 from the Covenant fund for affordable housing. 83,888 meals have been served to 2700 people in the last 15 weeks, door to door, and the Covenant Fund has supported that effort, too. And with every knock, volunteers have asked, “Are you well? Does your family need to be tested? Does your child have access to wifi for school? Have you lost your job?” It’s not what we would have expected, but relationships have been built and individuals strengthened through the exile of coronavirus.
Will you be a healer of broken places? O God, open our minds, open our hearts, open our wounds to the light of your truth, and make us well.