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"The Pandemic is a Portal"

This is an in-between time. The world as we knew it is no more. The new world that will replace it hasn’t happened yet. We are in-between.

The Indian novelist Arundhati Roy had an article in the Financial Times on April 3 entitled “The Pandemic is a Portal”, in which she wrote:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

Now there are those who will push back on this idea, people who are determined to restore the old world as it was, to make things normal again, perhaps with grudging acknowledgement that this will be a “new normal”. Will we pass through a portal to a new world? Will the changes that lie ahead amount to tinkering or transformation? Well that will depend on us, all of us, as we move forward. A rupture has taken place between life as we knew it and our life now. Will we be able to imagine our world anew?

Some questions can’t be answered. After all, many of us are dealing with loss right now, and we need time to mourn our losses. Many of us are dealing with anxiety right now, and it’s easier to imagine this time as a temporary blip rather than a leap into the unknown. All of us are dealing with uncertainty right now, and that’s just not a comfortable place to be. No one chooses to live in in-between times.

In our church calendar, we are in-between Ascension and Pentecost, a waiting period of ten days. Most years we don’t even notice it. This year I think that we should. Maybe it can help us to get some perspective on the times in which we live.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles puts the disciples into that in-between time. The gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are a two volume set. Luke ends the first part of the narrative with the Ascension of Jesus. But Acts doesn’t really begin until the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost in chapter two. The first chapter of Acts is in-between.

The world as they knew it is no more. “Jesus has been taken from you,” the angels tell the disciples as they stare longingly towards the sky. They must be experiencing a tremendous sense of loss as they are forced to contemplate life without Jesus. Do they even know that something new is about to begin, or are they too preoccupied with uncertainty, with anxiety, with trying to figure out how to get back to normal?

And as they contemplate an uncertain future, their question to Jesus on that last day, the day of Ascension, is about restoring the past. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Their instinct is to want to get back to the good old days, the good old days when their tribe was in power and got to dominate the other tribes who lived around them. But Jesus imagines a new future, one that sets aside tribalism, one that isn’t dominated by human power structures but inspired by the power of the Holy Spirit. The mission he gives them is as breath-taking in its scope as it is infuriating in its lack of detail.

“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

And then he is gone, having left them really only one instruction, one piece of advice to get them through.

Wait for it!

“He ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m not very good at waiting. In fact, I do everything in my power to avoid waiting. Whenever I get in a line-up, or have to wait for an appointment, I pull out my phone. I read the news, or I just scroll aimlessly, anything to avoid having to wait.

Waiting, in our culture, is counter-cultural. We’ll do whatever we can to avoid it. And we’ve all just been plunked into the greatest waiting period of our lives.

Can we embrace the waiting?

On Ascension Day, Jesus said, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. Wait for it.

The old world has ended, the new one has not yet begun. Wait for it.

Waiting sounds so passive. But it doesn’t have to be. Waiting is an opportunity to imagine our world anew, to use the language of Arundhati Roy. Waiting is a time to constantly devote ourselves to prayer, to use the language of Acts. Waiting is a time to prepare, to become open to new possibilities, to get ready to receive the Holy Spirit and the new world that she will offer.

In the time between Ascension and Pentecost, the disciples devoted themselves to prayer. Now often we think of prayer as a time to ask for things, or to give thanks, or to hold up people and concerns, and all these are good. But prayer is also a way to imagine, to imagine our world anew. Prayer and imagination should go together. There is a beautiful interplay between the two.

I come into God’s presence in prayer, and in that prayer I begin to imagine the world anew. I imagine a world more in harmony with its Creator. I imagine a world that is healed and renewed. I imagine a world in which all life can flourish. I imagine a world in which the dignity of every human being is respected. What would that world look like? What a prayer that would be!

Prayer won’t give us all the answers, especially now in these uncertain, in-between times. But the interplay of prayer and imagination can get us leaning in the right direction. And it can get us ready for the Spirit to come and guide us, to help us through this pandemic, to make our way through this portal from one world to the next

With whom will we walk with through this portal, and what will we bring with us?

The disciples in Acts used their waiting time to build community, a radical new community of all genders, men and women who worship together, eat together, pray together and spend time together. This is the community that was all together in one place on the day that the Spirit comes. This is the community that was ready to receive the Holy Spirit.

Many of us are more comfortable with giving than receiving. You know the old saying, it is better to give than to receive? Well in our relationship with God, that saying’s got it backwards. God is the great giver, God’s greatest gift is the Holy Spirit, and we are the ones who need to receive. In these in-between times, we can use our waiting to prepare ourselves to receive the gift of God’s Spirit.

Arundhati Roy sees this pandemic as a portal which will take us from one world to the next. In her article she imagines us being on a long walk, much as millions of poor people in her native India were forced to make a long walk from the cities to their native villages when the Indian government locked down the nation and caused a mass exodus of evictions. Of necessity, they couldn’t bring much with them on the way.

What will we choose to bring with us as we walk through this pandemic together? What will we value as we imagine the world anew? What will we bring with us, and what will we leave behind?

Will we bring with us an economic system that produces vast amounts of material wealth, but also produces vast amounts of poverty and inequality? Will we bring with us the busy schedules of our former lives? Will we bring with us our high levels of consumption that drive the burning of fossil fuels that destroy the planet we live on?

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

We are in an in-between time, the time between Ascension and Pentecost. It is a time to wait. To pray. To imagine. To build community. To think about what to bring on our journey and what to leave behind. To get ready to be empowered when the Holy Spirit comes upon us.

We are in-between. But Pentecost is coming.


Homily. Yr A Easter 7, May 24 2020, St. Albans Church

Readings: Acts 1.1-14; Ps 68.1-10,33-36; 1 Pet 4.12-14,5.6-11; John 17.1-11

Image by Jason Saul, Creative Commons


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