Have you been to see the herons? They nest, each spring, on two islands in the Mississippi, near Marshall Terrace Park in Northeast Minneapolis. They are also right beside the Riverside power station. It’s such an odd and revelatory combination. This power plant, surrounded by forbidding concrete walls with peeling paint, embodies the ugliness and deadliness of our present dependence on fossil fuels. And meanwhile, the river utterly teems with life and beauty. Hundreds of nests dot the tall trees. Heron parents swoop, glide, and hover, and strut through the shallows on their long legs, building and tending their nests with an awkward grace I find irresistible. And then there are scores of other aquatic birds zipping through the air and water in constant motion: egrets, geese, various kinds of ducks, and I’m not sure who else.
The heron rookery is a central image of Easter for me. This scene promises the abundance that will flourish, as we humans restore harmony to our relationship with creation. In my opinion, fixation on Jesus alone, on what happened to his singular body, misses the point. The real Easter miracle was that despite Jesus’ torture and death at the hands of an empire seeking to terrify and silence all who followed him, the community of his disciples persisted in their commitment to the way of life he had taught them. Amid powerful forces bent on destruction and oppression, the community kept on loving, healing, doing justice and bringing new life to each other and to the world around them.
The book of Acts gives us a glimpse of resurrection community as one shaped by the spiritual practice of abundance. Abundance, in a biblical sense, is not opulence. It has nothing to do with excess. Abundance is everyone getting their needs met. Abundance is the capacity to enjoy the gift of creation, green pastures and cool waters. Abundance is a table that has room for all, beloveds, strangers, and even enemies. Abundance means trusting our lives to the care of the community. It means being able to say together “God is our shepherd. We shall not want.” What creates abundance is sharing. The Acts passage says that folks were devoted to being together. They shared their time and attention with each other, studying the teachings of Jesus, breaking bread and raising prayers. And they shared their material resources as a way of correcting the inequities of their larger society.
Sharing everything, however, was a fragile and fleeting state of affairs. Just a couple of chapters later, we hear the story of Ananias and Sepphira, husband and wife, who sold a piece of property. They gave the proceeds to the apostles, but secretly held back a portion for themselves. Both Ananias and Sepphira fell down and died, instantly, on the spot, when this deception was uncovered. The early church as it is depicted in this story took an all-or-nothing approach. And the tale of this unfortunate couple was meant to warn that sharing only works if folks are all in. I wonder, though, how we might make space for abundance even amid our inevitable imperfections? It is difficult and risky to entrust our lives to community. I think we’re all tempted to hold some part of ourselves back, to shy away from commitment. Because we know we might fail each other. We know betrayals are bound to happen.
When I was a teenager, I had a painful experience of church. My dad was the pastor. A conflict arose. There were tense meetings late into the night. One evening in particular, I was already in bed. Suddenly, I heard a door slam, and then loud angry voices and the sound of weeping. We lived in a parsonage, next door to the church. Someone had followed my parents home from the meeting. It was frightening to have a community conflict invade my home. It was painful to realize that people who I had thought were committed to loving each other were now harming each other deeply. This childhood memory remains bitter even today.
In my adult experiences of church, I can certainly name numerous failures, disappointments, and betrayals—my own and others. Sometimes, as a community, we are able to grow through moments of pain. They can become an opportunity to practice the ways of truth telling and repair Jesus taught us. And at other times, for all sorts of reasons, we aren’t able to make things right. My early disillusionment with church taught me to be realistic, to recognize that in all communities, the good and the bad intertwine.
I’ve been doing some anti-racism training with an organization called Crossroads. I’m preparing to be part of a committee charged with addressing institutional racism in the Minnesota Conference of the UCC. Two others from our church—Hikaru Peterson and Jean Chagnon—will also be part of this work. In the trainings, the consultants are focusing on the power of stories. Many of our stock stories, like that of the American dream, are simply not true; they intentionally hide the multitude of other stories about how systemic racism keeps people from living and thriving. We need to make our stories more complex, more expansive, and messier.
Applying this lens to the church for a moment . . . Yes, the founding pastor of First Church was an ardent abolitionist who worked to free a slave who had been brought north by her master. And yes, sermons were preached from this pulpit against the Vietnam War (at one point causing a famous member of the church to walk out). And yes, way back in 1987, members of this church voted to become the first UCC congregation in Minnesota to be Open and Affirming to the queer community. And yet it is also the case that we have photos, in our archives, of white members performing in blackface in the mid-20th century. And that the Pillsbury family and other leading industrialists who provided the funds to build this church were instrumental in the theft of Dakota land for the sake of profit and directly benefited from the genocidal policies of our government. And it is surely true as well that the culture of white supremacy continues to shape our life as a community—even as we seek to unlearn and undo it.
Friends, the failures, frailties, and hypocrisies of the church have not yet caused me to lose my faith in religious community. I am still here. I still believe in resurrection. I still want to entrust my life to the spiritual practice of abundance. Perfectionism is the enemy of abundance. The medieval writer Sir Thomas Mallory once said, “Enough is as good as a feast.” So I am going to keep savoring the feast of imperfect communities who are enough, who do our best to follow Jesus—to embody love, healing, and justice despite all that gets in the way.
The persistence of the early church in cultivating a resurrection community led to growth. The community was not a dour, duty-bound bunch. They ate their bread with glad and generous hearts. They were full of songs of praise. And they “had the goodwill” of the people around them. It’s like the poet, Jan Sutch Picard says:
First there was one [primrose] alone/ a brave promise of new life,
a single star; then ten, a score/ more, more, lifting up their heads:
a constellation, a celebration—here and now.
Right now, the First Church board is taking bold steps to enable our community to grow and thrive into the future. In addition to a significant surplus from last year’s operating budget, we will be receiving more than $50,000 from the federal government as a result of the Employee Retention Credit. And we want to invest this abundance in creating more abundance. The board has allocated funds to study the feasibility of a range of green heating and cooling options for our building. And it has made the decision that we will welcome a half-time seminary intern next year, Chris Bonhoff. Chris will be among us to learn, and he will bring many skills to share with us. His presence will increase our capacity to engage with the community. And finally, we will be applying to join a two-year program called The Vinery. Beginning in January of 2024, we hope to be part of a cohort of congregations across the nation that are in close proximity to college campuses and wish to find ways to be better neighbors to those campuses.
“Day by day, the Lord added to the number of those being saved,” the Acts passage concludes. I think, given the way the word “saved” has been co-opted by the religious right, it needs some translation. Offering salvation does not mean we are shoving the truth only we have down other people’s throats. It means we are inviting folks to belong to a messy, imperfect community of abundance that is dedicated to care and healing and justice. And to journey with us, following Jesus, on the path of resurrection. Amen.