Some of my colleagues have been saying that, after COVID, every church is a new church start.
I need to be a little careful here. It’s not like we’re living after COVID.
Everything about COVID is reported in incomplete chunks: numbers are updated every so often, and at-home testing means that some things are not reported at all. But, on Monday, when I was writing this sermon, the seven-day average for new cases in Iowa was six hundred; and the seven-day average for deaths was four.
And, nationally, the seven-day average for new cases was sixty-six thousand, five hundred, and one; and the seven-day average for deaths was three hundred and ninety-five.
And that is a lot better than it was, but that is not after COVID. COVID is still very much part of our world and still very much part of our lives. And some people—people who have other illnesses, or who have co-morbidities, or who are immunocompromised—are still very much living in the middle of a pandemic… while the rest of us go on with our lives.
And I need to be careful here. It’s not every church.
There are churches and mega-churches who went all in on COVID-skepticism—who dismissed outbreaks and deaths as the result of personal sin and not corporate irresponsibility—who seem to be doing fine thank-you-very-much.
And there are big churches who had the resources to close their sanctuaries and pivot to being interactive online communities who are seeing their congregations reshuffle—some people leaving and some people joining, some people moving from in-person to online and some people moving from online to in-person—instead of drift away.
But still, some of my colleagues have been saying that, after COVID, every church is a new church start. And that is—with some caveats about ‘after COVID’ and ‘every church’—true.
We know that in our bones.
Over the last couple of years, we have re-invented and re-re-invented and re-re-re-invented ourselves as we have responded to a changing world. We have started new ministries and put old ministries on hiatus. We have resurrected things, and tried to resurrect things, and let some things sleep.
We have worried; believe me, we have worried. And we have celebrated; believe me, we have celebrated.
But the truth is that we are not the church that we used to be. And the truth is that we are not the church that we are becoming. And it’s all a little weird; and it’s all a little scary; and it’s all a little… terrifying.
In our reading today, we meet Abram.
There is this story about Abram that is not in the Bible. There is this story about Abram that takes place before the story in the Bible.
Abram grew up in the city of Ur.
His father was a maker of idols: the statues that all of the people of Ur worshipped as gods. And one day, Abram smashed the idols in his father’s shop and made fun of the work that his father did. So Abram’s father took him to see the king.
And the king told Abram that he could smash stone idols, but he could not smash fire, so the people should worship fire. But Abram told the king that water is stronger than fire, because water can put out fire.
So the king told Abram that the people should worship water. But Abram told the king that clouds are stronger than water, because clouds hold water.
So the king told Abram that the people should worship clouds. But Abram told the king that the wind is stronger than clouds, because the wind blows the clouds all around the sky.
So the king told Abram that the people should worship the wind. But Abram told the king that people are stronger than the wind, because even when the wind blows, a person can stand upright and resist the wind.
So the king threw Abram into the fire and told him that if there was a real God—a God who was beyond all of the idols, and was beyond fire and water, and was beyond clouds and wind—then Abram should cry out to that God to save him.
And even though Abram didn’t know who he was crying out to, he cried out to the God who is beyond all of the idols, and beyond fire and water, and beyond clouds and wind.
And even though Abram didn’t know who he was crying out to, that God heard him… and saved him… and brought him out of the fire.
In our reading today, the Lord speaks to Abram. In our reading today, the Lord speaks to this man who knows that there is a real God—a God who is beyond all of the idols and natural phenomenal and social constructs that his people had shown him—even if he doesn’t know who this God is.
And the Lord says to Abram, more or less, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house—go from everything that you know and love and are used to—to the land that I will show you. I am going to make you into a great nation. I will bless those who bless you. I will curse those who curse you. And in you all of the people of the earth will be blessed.”
And Abram… does. He picks up and he goes.
And we’re not going to hear about it—we’re going to skip the rest of Abram’s life, and his children’s lives, and his grandchildren’s lives… we’re going to pick up next week with an episode about one of his great-grandchilden—but Abram is going to have some adventures.
And eventually—and against all of the odds—Abram is going to become Abraham: the ancestor of a multitude.
But in this moment, the truth is that Abram is not the man that he used to be. And the truth is that he is not the man that he is becoming. And it’s all a little weird; and it’s all a little scary; and it’s all a little… terrifying.
Last week, we heard the story of Noah and the great flood. And I told you that, at the end of that story, God makes a covenant with Noah and with humankind: a covenant to lay down her arms and never destroy every living creature again.
And I told you that that covenant was unconditional. It was not about who Noah was and what Noah had done. It was about who God is and what God does.
And I think that the same thing is true in our reading today.
The Lord does not say ‘if’ anywhere in this story. The Lord does not tell Abram that if Abram does these things… or if Sarai refrains from doing these things… or if Lot remembers to put on sackcloth and ashes…
No. The Lord simply calls to Abram, and tells him to go, and tells him what is going to happen.
And I don’t know what would have happened if Abram had stayed where he was. I can’t imagine what would have happened if Abram had stayed where he was. Maybe God would have found someone else… maybe God would have made Abram a great nation, anyway… maybe there would have been another path forward.
But that doesn’t matter. Because God, for God’s part, tells Abram about the weird scary terrifying future… and Abram, for Abram’s part, says… yes.
Some of my colleagues have been saying that, after COVID, every church is a new church start. And that is—with some caveats about ‘after COVID’ and ‘every church’—true.
We know that in our bones.
And I know that we are tired of the re-invention and the re-re-invention and the re-re-re-invention; believe me, I know. I would love me some stability. I would love me some certainty. I would love me a little bit of boredom.
But I also know that God has a future in store for us: for this church, for this community, for each and every one of you.
And I don’t know what God will do if we stay where we are. Maybe God will find someone else. Maybe God will give us that future, anyway. Maybe there will be another path forward.
But I believe that that should not matter. Because God, for God’s part, is calling us to embody some aspect of the gospel for this community: the generosity of the gospel… the extravagant welcome of the gospel… the proclamation of the gospel that no matter who you are, and no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are loved, and you are worthy of love, and we will love you.
And we, for our part, can say yes. We can let go of the church that we used to be; we can go all in on the church that we are becoming.
And that will be a little weird, and a little scary, and a little terrifying… and that will be a little wild and a little dangerous and a little surprising. And that will be absolutely and abundantly overflowing with grace.