Inspired by Acts 2: 42-47
Gram was not my grandmother, but at 99 years of age, this was how she was known to everyone in the church.
This is a story about Gram.
I was covering the phones in the church office for Gram’s biological granddaughter the day the police called the church office to say that, in an effort to do laundry, Gram had pulled a bottle of Tide off the shelf and onto her head and was being taken to Urgent Care.
Since I did not know Gram’s legal name it turned out there was no quick way to explain that I was not Gram’s biological granddaughter. It turned out to be more efficient to go along with the assumption that I was her biological granddaughter and just rush off to the Urgent Care to make sure Gram was going to be okay.
Gram was going to be okay, the doctor said. Followed by a strong recommendation to head to the hospital for an MRI, just in case.
Gram listened to the doctor, then turned to me and asked me, what I thought she should do.
“I think you should do what the doctor recommends.”
I have a dozen stories similar to this experience with Gram; medical professionals giving medical instructions followed by patients asking me, the pastor, what they should do. In the context of congregational community a pastors’ function as a buffer between a vulnerable patient and an unknown expert. I’ve learned that my job is to be the person the patient trusts and to model a trust in the expertise of the medical professional. I buffer the fear of the unknown simply by being a trusted person affirming the recommendations of the doctor in the room.
It is not easy to trust a stranger with our lives, especially in a culture where the people we depend on often prove themselves untrustworthy and where the way forward often proves more complicated than a straight path forward. As uncomfortable as these scenarios prove to be, it is this patter of dependency that defines the aliveness of community. Participation in community, as a process, ends up requiring each person to trust people… who trust other people to survive.
We need someone to babysit, so we ask a friend with young children who they use to babysit their kids. We need a plumber, so we put out a recommendation request on our Facebook feed. Like a cabin built using Lincoln logs, community is established over time using layers of trusted connections between people we trust, and people trusted by people we know. As unnoticeable and unconscious as this practice may seem to be, it is our willingness and ability to form webs of trusted connections which ensure the sustainability of our common life as a species.
Nicholas Christakis, a Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University, argues that capacities like friendship, love, teaching, and cooperation exert a tremendous and practical force on us. Put plainly, these are the behaviors responsible for helping humans evolve as a species. Our willingness to observe, to integrate and to trust in the learnings from these social relationships turns out not only to be a great way to find a trustworthy plumber, but also a great way to ensure our species survival.
Christakis writes that this process of social learning is “…a kind of altruism. It’s a kind of gift,” he writes, “when you teach someone something. And if you think about it, every animal can learn; a little fish can learn that if it swims up to the light it’ll find food there; that’s independent learning. And some animals learn socially, and this is extremely efficient. So, you put your hand in the fire, and you learn that it burns, so you’ve acquired some knowledge at some price. Or I can watch you put your hand in the fire, and I get almost as much knowledge for none of the price, which is really super-efficient. Or, I observe you eat red berries, and you die. And so now I’ve learned something at no cost; it’s amazing. But we do something even more than that,” he continues, “We copy each other. We imitate each other. We learn from each other, which is rare in the animal kingdom, although it happens. We teach each other things.”
At a basic evolutionary level, social learning translates to survival of our species. At a deeper, theological level, social learning translates to the purpose for which we are alive; to learn from one another, to teach each other things.
In the Book of Acts, community is presented in the form of snapshots of the good, the bad and the ugly. Each scene woven together to provide a turbulent and transformational corporate exchange. In spite of the utopian vision presented in our lectionary passage this morning, it is this turbulent and transformational corporate exchange witnessed in the wider narrative of Acts that offers to the world a glimpse of what it means to for a community to live faithfully; a common life marked by the presence of those who trust in the power of life and the presence of light.
In the Book of Acts, faithfulness is modeled as participation in individual practices that cultivate the wholeness of the common life. It is an inclusive process. Jerusha Matsen Neal writes, “Pentecost gave the early church a community that was full of difference, a community that needed to build a common life even as it changed from day to day.”
Today, we face the task of rebuilding a common life in a landscape that is changing day to day, if not hour to hour.
Every day new openings and restrictions, recommendations and warnings. Every day new numbers and charts, concerns and criticisms. Our role as teachers, as greeters, into a faithful common life is more necessary now than ever before in our lifetimes. There is an urgency to our work of welcoming, learning and witnessing to the world a new way of existing as a cooperative, courageous movement in this time of panic and pandemic. This work is as critical as it is challenging. As the need to learn through the experience of others heightens in times of great uncertainty, so too does the distrust of expert information and fear of stories foreign to our own. In any crisis, survival depends on pockets of people who are willing to reform and model common life in context; in the stories of those foreign to our own, with an educated trust in the information of experts.
Jerusha Matsen Neal points out that similar to English, the Greek word for ‘common’ has multiple connotations. Common can refer to things commonly held or shared, but it can also mean things that are not set apart or holy. Common things are ordinary things, unconsecrated things, or even unclean things. This framing of what is common poses a possibility for those of us seeking answers for what to do next in contemporary times. It is a possibility prompted by what theologian Willie Jennings suggests is the “common reoriented.” In this reoriented common life, a community is reoriented toward divine love through the resurrected life of Jesus as it is manifest in common ways, in every day ordinary ways.
A common life that normalize the necessary in a time where nothing is normal.
Two weeks ago, I was walking my dog, Tracey, in the neighborhood. Down the street I saw a little girl on a bike pedaled toward me. I started to notice that the closer she got, the slower she pedaled. Just as she was about to pass me, she stopped altogether, her eyes fixated on my masked face. I smiled to calm her, to assure her there was nothing to fear, but in that moment my mask obstructed my message. This little girl neither knew me nor trusted me, and in that moment, there was no buffer present to encourage her that things were okay.
At certain moments during this pandemic, I imagine we have all experienced a certain stuck-ness while staring, waiting for the whisper warning of danger in this direction or a suggestion of safety in this decision. Pedaling again, moving forward into this new normal, will require the creation of a common life which deliberately normalizes the necessary.
In the work of rebuilding a common life reoriented toward divine love through the resurrected life of Jesus, we ask the question, what is necessary for us now, that we might live together as a community honoring the sacred worth of all of creation? Prioritizing the safety and well-being of all people?
It is necessary for all of us to wear masks. And, I wonder, how less fearful we would be, if we normalized this new necessity? If we prioritized the presence of every person in the public sphere to the extent that we adjusted patterns of our private lives. What if we saw wearing a mask, not as an act of fear, but as a promise of solidarity, that in the reshaping of our common life, no one will be behind for the forward motion of only a privileged few. We will trust what we lament to be true, that when one is vulnerable, we are all vulnerable. And, we will trust that living into this vulnerability we access a collective power to shelter one another in acts of courageous, compassionate care.
In her reflections on Hurricane Katrina, author Rebecca Solnit shares that in tragedy she has witnessed that, “Love is made in the dark as often as not… And for me, so much of hope is, not optimism that everything will be fine, but that we don’t know what will happen…when all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brother’s keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness brings joy even amidst death, chaos, fear and loss.”
The beauty of the story about Gram was that anyone could have gone when that call came in that day. Gram was not merely a name, but a reflection of her presence among us all. It is our task, now, to rename one another as kin. To reform a common life that solicits a trust, that offers a buffer between the normal we knew and the normal we now need.
Wear a mask. Stay six feet apart. Live as if what you do or do not do, could save a life. And, normalize being a buffer with behavior that speaks for itself; in this revision of the common life, where every life matters.
And when we feel lost on what this new common life should look like, perhaps it is wise to pause where we are, grow silent, and listen. Listen to the stories of the medical professionals, the essential workers, the vulnerable and the undervalued. Listen to stories and struggles that are not your own. Listen. And trust that learning from one another, we will be able to teach the world what it is we are to do next.