Here we are. After 65 Sundays, at last, our church doors are open and there are people again in our pews and online! Wow! What a journey we have been on.
What is the story you might tell about these last fifteen months?
From a high level (a phrase our new Treasurer, Al, has taught me), we might say something like this:
At some point in December of 2019, a new coronavirus surfaced in Wuhan, China. A month later, the Chinese government reported the first death from the virus. On January 23rd, the world looked on- stunned – as the government of China locked down Wuhan, a city of 11 million people. In February and March, cases of the Coronavirus first appeared in other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States. On Feb. 29th the first death in the U.S. was reported to a man at a nursing home in the Seattle area. By March 15, 2020 the U.S. began shutting down.
Since then, nearly 600,000 people have died in the United States; and more than 3.7 million people have died around the world. In the fifteen months that pandemic restrictions were in place, untold numbers of people struggled with grief, isolation and depression; young people’s and teachers’ lives were upended as school was held remotely; families experienced catastrophic levels of stress; jobs were lost; businesses closed.
Your own story might include you or a loved one getting sick with COVID or another catastrophic illness; perhaps, tragically, as was the case in our family, a loved one dying. Your story might include learning new technology for work or to connect with family, friends and this church community. Your story might include the questions you asked that you could never have anticipated before, like: What happened to all the toilet paper at the store? What is Zoom? Did you remember your mask?”
These details are likely part of the stories of the pandemic that many of us could tell. But, they are not the whole story. Because even while our “outer natures” (as Paul referred to them) were challenged in unprecedented ways, by the grace of God, if and when we were willing, our inner natures were also being renewed. Paul writes “we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”
Paul’s message invites us to look beneath the surface of our lives to see that even in the midst of the greatest challenges we can face, God’s spirit is present and working to bring new life in ways often unseen by the human eye, but perceptible by the human spirit.
Through the lens of faith, through the lens of love, there are other stories, spiritual stories, we can tell about the last fifteen months. Even with all of the challenges we faced, we also can see that God’s spirit was active, truly active in our midst.
Holding onto God and each other, we found our way through the pandemic. And we are not the same people we were 15 months ago- as individuals or as a community. We now know things about ourselves, our relationships with the people who matter most, our planet, and our God that we didn’t know before.
Remember how amazing it was when we first realized how much bluer the sky was becoming? (I remember a chance encounter on the Leonard St. path with Beebe… we both were in awe of the sky… She recognized that this time of pandemic might also help us recognize more clearly the threat posed by climate change… She wrote a letter to the Gloucester Daily Times that expressed her concerns, concerns many of us also began to notice.) And then, many of us paused not only to enjoy the blue skies, but to listen to what God’s creation – what the sky, earth, and sea are trying to tell us.
Over the last 15 months, we may have also learned painful truths about ourselves and others – like there really is such a thing as too much time alone or too much togetherness. We may have also learned things that give us new confidence and peace.
This church is also not the same. (As I mentioned outside) We have lost treasured members and gained delightful new ones. We have grown. It hasn’t always been easy. But, consider where we are today…As a church community, our circle of love has expanded and deepened.
Through Sunday worship and Midweek Prayer, some of us have come to a new appreciation of ourselves – of our courage and our gifts. (Example of Clare Norton sharing her wit and wisdom.) Through our Care Team and Diversity & Inclusion initiatives, some of us have grown in compassion and in our commitment to justice (Example of Gwen Hadden leading our discussions); and through our Creation Care Team many of us have grown significantly in how we understand our call to be active stewards of God’s creation. And through all of these things, many of us have grown in what’s at the foundation of it all – our relationships to God and each other.
The fact that we have placed solar panels on our roof and raised the Progress Pride flag represent the powerful ways in which this church community is transforming. Even our worship has changed… because of Zoom, we explored some new elements in worship – including time for silence and to hear the wisdom of this community. By the grace of God, this community is being spiritually renewed.
Two weeks ago on Zoom, we spent some time in small groups. The feedback suggested that the Spirit was moving among us! Given that we are at a threshold moment today, here is what we are going to do… When I am finished with this short sermon, you will have two minutes of silence to reflect on a question I will give you. Then, if you are on Zoom, please accept the invitation to your small group. If you are here in person, please turn to one or two people to share your reflection – if you are comfortable doing so. At the conclusion of the small group time, we will take some time to hear from a few of you about how you hear the Spirit speaking.
Paul’s words to us today suggest that what the Spirit creates within and among us through faith is God’s freely given, overflowing, abundant life— making our lives a roomy and expansive domain of grace.
Here is the question: Through the lens of faith, what are ways you have noticed or experienced grace during the pandemic?