Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
It Takes a Village
I have a friend who, when her kids were little and still a bit squirmy and rambunctious, remembers one Sunday when she and her family just barely made it to church. They were just a little bit late, and once they got settled in the pew there were a lot of shuffled papers and dropped toys. She says she and her husband cringed through much of the service, hoping that they weren’t being too disruptive. Every parent knows this feeling, right? Wondering if your child is going to be too much for this place – will you make it to the end of this, or are you going to have to pick the child up like a football and just get out of there? Miraculously, they were able to stay until the end of the service. As they gathered their belongings, picking up legos and toy cars from the floor, a matriarch of the church made her way “purposefully over to them.” My friend braced herself, ready for some passive aggressive barb about children in church. She was surprised when the woman smiled and said, “I’m so glad you made it today!” When my friend apologized for being so unruly, the woman laughed and surprised her again by tearing up. She said, “Honey, I can remember a time when it was too quiet in here. You keep coming back, and don’t you worry. Y’all can bother me anytime.”
They did keep coming back. It made all the difference to know they were truly welcome.
We don’t often get to be part of communities that are truly welcoming, where we can really show up with our whole selves – mess, noise, baggage, and all. And we don’t often get to be part of authentic communities that are truly intergenerational. Some of us are lucky enough to be part of families who span multiple generations. Some jobs – teaching, or work in a university, or parts of health care – allow us to interact regularly with people who are much younger or much older than we are. But for the most part, we engage with and build community with our peers: in work, in our social lives. This makes sense: we’re often thrown together with those in our same stage of life; it’s easy to connect with those who are going through the same joy, the same stress, whether it’s parenting young children, or caring for an aging parent, or grieving the death of a spouse, or enjoying retirement.
But for me, one of the gifts of church is the chance to be part of a truly intergenerational community. Where we can learn from and support one another in all the different stages of life we might be in. Where my children can know and be known by amazing people like Marilyn, who makes 90 look young. Where we can learn with and appreciate the giftedness of someone like Samuel, who has lived and taught and played music all over the world. This is a place where our old ones can dream dreams and our young ones can see visions together. The real magic happens when the wisdom of the past connects with clear-eyed vision in the present, to give rise to a common hope for the future. This is part of the vision of salvation shared by the prophet Joel, isn’t it?
I can remember convening a parent circle in my church in Atlanta, where parents of college students and twenty-somethings shared their experience parenting young children and kids in elementary school. We crowded into a Sunday school room, the room filled with people clutching paper cups of coffee and overflowing with questions: How did they prioritize church in the midst of so many competing demands for their time? How did they make a home for Faith? It was so reassuring, to share and learn from one another.
We have a wealth of knowledge and experience here, right? You people have been through a lot – this congregation has been through a lot. You know the pain of grief, the shock of sudden loss, the difficulty of long-term illness. You know what it’s like to lose a job, to be stalked by depression, to learn to thrive despite mental illness, or to have someone you love struggle with the demon of addiction. Many of you have made it through the early days of parenthood, you’ve survived divorce, and most know what it means to retire, or to change jobs, or move houses, or send a child off to school. How do we sustain faith through all of these changes? How have we made it through political crises, how do we support each other as we fight the dehumanizing forces of white supremacy and racism? What can we learn from each other?
God calls us into community because God shows up in and through our relationships with one another. In our hands and feet. In our listening, in our sharing, in our learning. In our presence with and for each other.
The prophet Joel knows this. It’s why, in the midst of the devastation wrought by a locust plague, he paints a picture of intergenerational community, and casts a vision of abundance, of hope for the future.
You may not be very familiar with Joel, and to be honest, I’m not either. This is one of the only times in the three-year lectionary that we hear anything from him, and we don’t actually know a lot about him. We don’t know when he was writing, and his location is lost to the winds of time. But his words are meant to reassure, to give hope to people who are devastated after three years of locust plague. Vegetation and crops have been stripped bare, threatening the lives of humans and livestock. The people don’t know if they would survive. Desperation looms large in Joel’s world. And he has a scary apocalyptic worldview, we hear that too in this passage, believing that the end of time is near.
Cast your memory back to the summer before last, to the great cicada emergence of 2021 and you’ll have a small idea of what his people were experiencing. The noise of the mating calls filling the hot summer air, the deafening drone rising and falling in waves. Cicadas covering every leaf, their bodies crunching under foot. The way the trees drooped later in fall, sickened and weak from the leaves the bugs stripped bare and the nymphs nesting under their bark, and burrowing down in their roots. Ugh.
Here in 2022, we know something about plagues and pestilence, more than we ever imagined we might need to, far more than we ever wanted to. Think back to the scary early days of the pandemic, to the fear, confusion, and worry of March and April 2020: the world changing in an instant, shifting to weeks of lockdown and uncertainty. Not knowing how to stay safe, not knowing when it would end, too many people getting sick and dying too quickly. Disinfecting groceries, isolating from friends, and family, and church. We didn’t know if we would survive, and many did not.
Yes, we can imagine something of what Joe’s community is going through: their fear, their stress, their worry.
We know, of course, our brains feel stressed and worried by uncertainty and scarcity all the time for lessor threats. Will we make it to the end of this interminably long lecture, or worship service? Will we survive? Will there be enough money to do what we want to do, or to accomplish what we feel called to do? Will there be enough people to show up to get the work done? Will there be enough? Try as we might to hold on to the truth of abundance, we have a tendency to believe the myth of scarcity – and suffer the anxiety and stress that go along with it.
So in times that are challenging and in the ordinary, everyday times, it’s important to remember Joel’s vision of God’s promise: The threshing floor piled high with grain, the wine jars and the oil press overflowing. The whole community, old and young, enslaved and free, sharing their dreams and visions for the world that is coming to be. What hope! This promise of enough for everyone. This radically inclusive promise that God’s spirit will be poured out on all flesh, that everyone who calls on God will know salvation.
We are beginning a visioning process here at Faith, with a small group of leaders taking a close look at our mission, vision, and values over the next few months. We are pretty confident we know who we are as a congregation, but our world has changed through plague and pandemic and fractured politics, and we want to listen closely to how God is calling us to respond in the years ahead. What is our vision of abundance, the threshing floor filled with grain, the wine vats brimming, the oil overflowing, here in North Baltimore? How do we listen to the wisdom of each generation here, to respond to the needs both within and outside our congregation? How will we strengthen our common witness to the God of hope, and deepen and expand our experience of beloved community? All of these questions are worth exploring.
If the prophet Joel’s words are familiar at all to us, it’s because Peter quotes him at Pentecost, saying that Joel’s prophesy is fulfilled with the presence of the Spirit like tongues of fire, bringing dreams and visions to young and old, giving rise to the community of the church. My hope and prayer for us in the months ahead, is that we, too, young and old and in between, will dream dreams together, and begin to share a common vision: of a congregation where all find welcome, meaning, and wholeness; where together we work to make our dreams reality of a city where each person can flourish. Of a country free from the shackles of racism, a world where all know peace. May it be so.
 Goodrich, Elizabeth, “Please, Bother Me,” Macedonia Ministry, https://mministry.org/please-bother-me/