Acts 4:32-37: 32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’). 37He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
This is an incredibly unique time to be living through. There are moments when I am still frightened about getting sick or about which family members, friends, or parishioners will get sick. I worry about the economy. We hear that COVID-19 is the great equalizer, but I know that is not true. There are populations that will be affected more severely; that is part of the broken system we live in. As I write, a meat-packing plant in my home state of South Dakota has closed indefinitely. This one factory employees 3,700 workers who collectively speak more than 80 languages. Those workers’ pandemic experience is much different than that of people who can work from home.
In the midst of sorrow over these inequalities, some of us, maybe those of us with time to read a devotion like this one, have time to wonder and ask questions. We might have seen photos of city skylines or mountain ranges that are consistently clear for the first time in many years because pollution has drastically decreased. We might ask, how can that be sustained? We might be spending more time with family and friends, either with the people we are stuck with or thanks to digital platforms. We might wonder, on the other side of this, will we make time for these connections? With restaurants closed, friends and I are sharing recipes and cooking more. I absolutely feel closer to my food sources and I wonder, how can I keep this up when the tap to the economy is reopened? And the big one—life has slowed down. Many of us are walking more, listening to the birds more (at least in Southwest Idaho where spring has sprung), simply enjoying the small things in life. I heard from a friend who teaches at a big state university. She and her husband have four kids. Her summer meetings and travels have been cancelled or postponed. She is disappointed that she will not catch up with colleagues, but she said, “I kind of might enjoy just staying home. It might be fine.” Will we rejoin the cycle of being overly busy when it is available?
There are times when I experience an ugly but real cynicism in myself about what will happen on the other side of this pandemic. But I also have a deep and abiding hope that transformation could occur. Most of us do not have a huge currency for changing the larger world. We are not elected officials or CEOs. What currencies we have are our ability to vote, our money, and our time. The thing about these big systems we are part of is that they are made up of smaller communities which include individual members. On the days when my hope is abundant, I imagine a different world. We know we will not go back to the old normal. How will we live? Before the tap is opened, we could take some of the time we have been given to ask what we want the world to look like later.
In mid-March, a friend shared a YouTube video of Hunter Parrish singing Beautiful City, from the latest Godspell revival on Broadway: “Out of the ruins and rubble, Out of the smoke, Out of our night of struggle, Can we see a ray of hope? One pale thin ray reaching for the day. We can build a beautiful city, Yes, we can, yes, we can. We can build a beautiful city, Not a city of angels, But we can build a city of man. We may not reach the ending, But we can start, Slowly but truly mending, Brick by brick, Heart by heart, Now, maybe now, We start learning how.”
I assume that composer Stephen Schwartz had, as his inspiration, the passage from Revelation 21, in which John is shown the holy city Jerusalem, but the thing about that passage is that it does not contain much about what human behavior should look like. For that reason, I included the passage from Acts Chapter 4, in which resources are shared so that all had enough. Granted, this is a community of people who shared amongst themselves internally. Reading the entire book, we know that this was just the beginning. Eventually the Apostles were reaching out to others, continuing to learn how to bring about the reign of God as Jesus had taught them. That is our calling as Easter people.
Will the beautiful city suddenly appear in our world in six, twelve, eighteen months? I doubt it. Can we take this pause from life as we knew it and ask questions about what our corner of the world might look like later? Absolutely. The last verse of Schwartz’s song is, “When your trust is all but shattered, When your faith is all but killed, You can give up bitter and battered, Or you can slowly start to build!”
God our comforter, you are a refuge and strength for us. Enable us so to hear the words of faith that our fear is dispelled, our loneliness eased, our anxiety calmed, and our hope reawakened. Amen.