Holy Longing

We will not be gathering again in our sacred space as a community…. well, not yet. But where does that leave us, now? We remain in a time of holy longing. But God does not ­­live in the churches we build. God for whom we long is already close by.

Sermon on Acts 17:22-31 / Easter 6A / by the Rev. Tracey Kelly / preached to the congregation of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Great Falls, VA / May 17, 2020

Gathering again

Good morning.  Last week, as I was studying our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, I couldn’t help but think about our churches. Our empty churches.

Last week, Bishops Susan Goff and Jennifer Brooke-Davidson issued a letter to all of us in the Diocese of Virginia concerning the reopening of churches.[1] Governor Northam has issued Executive Order #61 which outlines “phase 1 easing of temporary restrictions due to the novel coronavirus.” It goes into effect on Friday, May 15 for much of Virginia and on May 29 for Northern Virginia.  Bishop Susan directed that “While this order allows individuals to attend religious services, we in the Diocese of Virginia will not begin our phased regathering in church buildings this month.”

For many of you, this is disappointing news, I know. The letter quotes scripture: “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial.”[2]  It may be lawful to gather again as a faith community; but that may be harmful to the most vulnerable among us.

So, no, we will not be gathering again in our sacred space as a community…. well, not yet. But where does that leave us, now?

We remain in a time of holy longing.

God does not live in the shrines

In our reading from Acts this morning, Paul delivers a sermon to the people of Athens from the hill at Aeropagus. Some context is helpful to understand what is going on in this passage.

Paul has been traveling through Asia Minor, preaching to whoever will listen. He has been kicked out of places like Thessalonica and Beroea.  And now finds himself in a strange situation; he has been separated from his companions and brought to the Greek city of Athens, alone.

When Paul walked through the marketplaces of Athens, he noticed the images and objects dedicated to various deities. But he also noticed something intriguing – an altar dedicated “to an unknown god.”

Maybe the Athenians have dedicated this altar to a god they do not know, to cover their bases –  just in case they left one out.  But Paul sees something different. In that altar to the unknown god, he senses their longing, their longing to know something beyond the limits of human knowledge, their longing for something more than what their gods can provide.

I imagine the Athenians thought of Paul as a bit of an oddity, saying odd things about a crucified criminal named Jesus. But the Athenians have a reputation as intellectuals.  Verse 21 says that they sit around and spend their days tossing about ideas and learning new things. So when Paul goes to the hill of Aeropagus, a group of Athenians gather around, curious to hear what he has to say.

Paul wasn’t happy to observe their polytheistic paganism, but his approach is gentle. Paul respects their religiosity and complements them on it. But there is more. “This god, who is unknown to you,” he say, “I know him, and he knows me.”

This God that I know, does not live in the shrines that you build with your human hands. This God, my God, your God is near. He is not far from us! In him, we live and move and have our being.

Longing for ritual

Just as the Athenians were longing for something more, we too are longing.

What are we longing for? Where do we put our hopes and dreams? A vaccine, to sit in a restaurant, to see a movie, to gather with friends, to hold our loved ones again? Aren’t we longing for something that resembles normalcy, as we remember it from just a few months ago?

Maybe we long to no longer be afraid; maybe we long for certainty. And yes, we long for ritual –– we long for community – we long to return to church.

I share that longing with you. In the past 23 years, I have never gone this long without receiving Communion. In the 8.5 years since I was ordained as a priest, I have never gone this long without celebrating the Eucharist.

I miss leaning down towards the rail and placing a communion wafer into your hands. I miss seeing your smiles when we greet each other. I long to see you face to face, again.

In 1999, Ronald Rolheiser wrote a book called “The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality.”[3] In this book, he delves into the question, “What is spirituality?” Spirituality he says is what we do with our longings, both in terms of the pain and the hope they bring us (p. 5).

 

And one of the essentials of healthy Christian spiritual life, he says, is community worship. “Christian life is not sustained only by private acts of prayer, justice, and virtue. It is sustained in a community, by gathering ritually around the word of God and through the breaking of the bread.

“To gather around the word of God and the breaking of the bread is a ritual gathering and ritual brings something that normal social gathering does not, namely transformative power beyond what can be understood and explained through the physical, psychological, and social dynamics that are present“(p 231).

In other words, the rituals of the Church create the space for transformation. “We gather to communally worship God and to let God do in us what we cannot do within ourselves…” (p 237).

God is already close by

We are in a time of holy longing – the longing to belong to God and be known by God. What do we do with this longing, when we cannot participate in the rituals of the Holy Eucharist?

What if we took Paul’s advice to look for the God who is not far away, but actually close by? 

Well, maybe Paul’s words of assurance to the people of Athens are what we need to hear today. His assurance that God has reached out to us in some way – and wants to be knowable.

This is good news. This means that the God of Incarnation you seek on Sunday mornings from a church pew is just as near to you as you sit on your sofa, even when drinking coffee and wearing pajamas. We still gather communally worship God and to let God do in us what we cannot do within ourselves.

God does not ­­live in the churches we build. God for whom we long is already close by. You know him and he knows you. Your God is near. In him, you live and move and have your being.


[1] http://www.thediocese.net/news/letter-from-the-bishops-regarding-phased-re-gathering-in-church-buildings/

[2] 1 Corinthians 10:23-24

[3] Rolheiser, Ronald. The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality. New York: Image, 2014. Print.

 

© 2020 Tracey Kelly. All rights reserved.

Photo credits: Photo by Linda Xu on Unsplash

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