Hello, friends! There has been a lot going on behind the scenes at RCC lately – plans for what church will look like during this time of social distancing – plans that we are ready to put into action! Thank you for continuing to tune into worship, week after week. We appreciate the love and support more than I can say!
Here is my sermon from this week, as well as the video from worship.
Rehoboth Congregational Church
August 23, 2020
We Are Not On A Sinking Ship
Someone asked me this week what is has been like to pastor a church throughout a pandemic. I said that, in many ways, I feel like the musicians on the movie version of the Titanic. The boat was sinking and chaos was ensuing all around them and yet they just kept playing.
This was never more apparent to me than during Holy Week and Easter: We were approaching the first wave surge in Massachusetts – the Governor was literally saying, please stay home, everything that was nonessential was shut down, I was livestreaming worship from a half-finished nursery – and yet, on Sunday, April 12th, I hit “go live” on my phone, looked directly into the camera and said, “Christ is risen, friends; he is risen, indeed.”
When it comes to my pastoral approach to things over the past five or six months, while I have been very cautious and conservative in terms of safety, by and large, on the outside, I have tried to remain positive and optimistic about the situation.
Behind the scenes, however, I was breaking down just like everybody else. I was very much mourning all that we were losing – and will continue to lose. I moved worship online, canceled events and indefinitely postponed other things. I watched dates on the calendar pass by – dates that were supposed to be filled with fundraisers, meals and special worship services. I hung up my vestments, which I had draped over a chair in my office after our March 8th worship service, wondering when I would robe again.
And then last week I had a change of heart. I was out in my vegetable garden, which was a little bit of a mess. It was kind of a strange gardening year – par for the 2020 course, I suppose – that I assumed had come to a screeching halt during the tropical storm a few weeks when all of my tomato plants collapsed in a giant heap on top of one another. As I looked around that day, there were plants that had bolted, had been eaten by bugs and were lying flat on the ground. I thought to myself, well there is always next year.
But then I thought to myself, well maybe this year is not over yet. Maybe there is still hope.
So I wandered over to the raised bed that held all of our lettuce and greens; I pulled those plants out, tilled the soil and planted some beans.
A week later, that raised bed is full of bean plants – about three inches tall.
I was inspired. This week, I pulled out some other plants and planted some more beans and a packet of peas.
We’ll see what happens. It might work, it might not. But the year is not over yet.
And the same is true at the church.
Time is marching forward. And while we now have to consider things like safety and the Governor’s most recent orders and our sector-specific guidelines for the reopening of religious organizations during covid, the church is marching right along with it. Much like the renewed sense of hope and excitement I feel for gardening right now, I feel the same way when it comes to the church. Because this week, we put some dates onto the calendar; we planned a much-anticipated Confirmation Sunday, a drive thru communion service and a takeout supper fundraiser for the Missions Committee. We talked through some of our traditional fall events – such as, Trunk or Treat, the Bazaar and Homeless Awareness Weekend – and what they might look like during covid times. We put together a plan for Virtual Church School, including videos with lessons for our different classes based on ages and activities for every month. We dusted off the plans that were in their initial stage back in March for a fall women’s retreat and brainstormed how we could still move forward with that event on a virtual level.
Church is not over; it is just in a different season.
I chose two scriptures for worship this morning, because when I looked at the lectionary, I noticed just how well they complement one another. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus talks about what his church will be built on; in the letter to the Romans, Paul talks about what the Body of Christ – the Church that Jesus enacted into being – looks like.
Let’s start with the Gospel of Matthew: In the passages leading up to the one we just heard, Jesus had set the stage for what it meant for people to follow him. He taught by speaking in parables, performed miracles and blessed the loaves and fishes, feeding the multitude. At this point, people know that to follow Jesus means to believe in the unseen, to care for the least of these and to challenge yourself as you learn and grow in faith.
In this passage Jesus is in the district of Caesarea Philippi, which is a city about 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is asking the disciples who the Son of Man is and who people say that he is. Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replies to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.
Two things are important to know about this exchange. The first is that Jesus’ phrase, “I tell you” is a common introduction to Jesus’ authoritative teaching; it is found at other points throughout the Gospel. Jesus’ use of the phrase, “I tell you” in this passage is sort of like a high school teacher saying, “Listen up, guys – this is going to be on the final exam.”
In other words, this is important.
The second thing that is important to note is that Jesus uses the word (or what we translate in English to be), “church” – “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” – but this is only one of two times Jesus uses the word, “church” in all four Gospels. Church is not something Jesus talks about a lot – and even here church is not something he is talking about in regards to a religion; he is telling Peter that he – Peter – is part of the foundation of the church.
For Jesus it was never about buildings or institutions, it was about people; it was about commissioning people to go out into the world to share the Good News that love is real, that justice should be fought for and that hope is worth holding onto.
In a way, Jesus sets Paul up for his conversations about the Body of Christ. Because the church Jesus calls into being is not one concerned with elaborate governance and power, it is one that gives everyone the opportunity to pitch in and keep things going. Paul says, “[do not] think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.” There is no time for a hierarchy; instead, as members of the Body of Christ – the church – we all have to get to work. As members of the Body of Christ – the church – we do not all have the same job, but we do all have a crucial role to play in the church “according to the grace given to us.”
There has been a lot of talk about re-openings lately and churches are certainly not excluded from this conversation. And I understand the context for this conversation; I really do. The state needs to mandate certain things to make sure people stay safe if they physically gather together. But here is the thing we have to remember: We never closed in the first place. Churches are not about buildings and institutions; they are about people. We are where Christ builds his church. We are the Body of Christ.
And we are still here.
And we still have a lot of work to do.
Bruce told me I had a look in my eyes this week – the look I get when I’ve got an idea and I need all hands on deck. And he was right. I have this renewed sense of hope and excitement because I no longer feel as though we are simply trying to figure things out; I truly believe that God is using us to write this chapter of our narrative where we show the world just what the church is capable of doing.
Our church was not built on a building; it was not built on historical documents and bylaws and governance structures. It was not built on anything that is “closed” or in a phased opening because of this pandemic. Our church was built on people who came together and said we want to tell this story.
And that is what we are going to do.
So as we close out the summer and begin our program year in this virtual space during this time of distancing, I invite you to remember who you are – a member of the Body of Christ, an individual on which Christ’s church is built on. You are telling this story with your gifts and exercising your membership in our church through the gifts you have been given.
When you send cards and seeds and lemonade.
When you lead prayers.
When you log on to prayers and worship and comment so those of us on the other side of the screen know who we are talking to.
When you submit music for our gathering music.
When you serve as a virtual greeter.
When you organize scavenger hunts and put together summer fun buckets.
When you distribute over 100 Peace Be With You signs – and when you proudly display those signs in your yard.
When you cook for the Missions drive thru dinner.
When you agree to virtual hymn sing-a-long.
When you fuss with technology for hours so Church School is accessible online or so people can pre-order and pay for their drive thru dinners.
When you keep up with your pledges and offerings.
When you participate in a virtual choir.
When you agree to manage new software so we can do a completely online silent auction.
When you drop off meals or bring someone a picnic lunch you can share together outside.
When you contribute to a collection.
This is more than enough right now. This church – built on the Body of Christ – sharing the Gospel in a time when, more than ever, the world needs to hear it.
Friends, while sometimes it feels this way, remember this: We are not on a sinking ship. We are just navigating uncharted waters.
And we’ve got a lot of work to do.
Thanks be to God!