Tag Archives: covid-19

Wrestling with God, a hungry crowd of 5000 and a surviving a pandemic

GOSPEL: Matthew 14:13-21
16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

If you were all here in person, I would probably begin with an informal survey where you would raise your hand. Even though you aren’t here, we are going to try it anyways. I’ll pretend like I know what your answers are. 

So 4 and half months into this pandemic, who here is feeling a little tired of social distancing measures? 

Most of you? Okay, that makes sense. 

Who here is ready to go back to normal? 

Everyone? I can see that. 

Who has learned or acquired some new skills or abilities during this time, such as new technologies or cooking and baking or puzzles or new workout routines? 

Ah, yes, I see a lot of hands up. 

Who here finds themselves judging pre-pandemic tv shows by pandemic standards, as in hey those people aren’t social distancing!? 

Yup, a lot us. 

Who finds themselves judging others about their social distancing while out and about in public?

Be honest now. Yeah, most of us eh?

Who here has bent a social distancing rule to see family or friends? 

Yeah, almost all of us.

Who is ready of trust that most other people will diligently follow restrictions in order to keep us all safe?

That few of you… umm hmmm… 

Okay, who feels completely confident in government plans to re-open our economy safely and without unnecessarily increasing risk? Including the re-opening of schools?

Anyone? I am not surprised. 

Who is anxious about jumping back into fully participating in public life before a vaccine? 

Wow… most of us… yup….

So on the surface our little informal survey shows a pretty mixed response. Most of us are pretty tired of all the pandemic restrictions and ready for life to go back to normal. Yet, we also are finding it hard to trust that our neighbour and trust political leaders to safely guide us through this pandemic. And most of us are guilty of bending the social distancing rules ourselves. 

So we want all this stuff to be over, but we aren’t sure we are ready to trust the outside world. 

This Sunday, on the 9th Sunday of Ordinary Time, we continue with the story of Jacob and his family (the grandson of Sarah and Abraham). We also hear a family story from Jesus’ life and ministry, the feeding of the 5000 with five loaves and two small fish. And in both, there is a glimpse of just where we may be at these days.

Jacob is the second born Son of Isaac. And Isaac the second born Son of Sarah and Abraham. Abraham is one of two brothers. And from Abraham all the way to Jacob’s own sons, God shows a surprising pattern of preferring second born sons to pass on the covenant, the promise given to God’s chosen people… when of course by normal Hebrew custom, the double portion and birthright was passed on to eldest sons. 

So far we have heard the stories of Isaac following his brother Esau by holding onto his heal right out of the womb. And then tricking his older brother out of his birthright for a bowl of stew. Jacob then met the angels of God descending from heaven on a ladder. And last week Jacob was tricked himself into years of servitude in oder to marry the woman he loved. Women with whom he would father 13 sons and more daughters. 

Yet, finally this week we meet Jacob in an unusual place. He is into solitude. Despite being surrounded by his wives, children, servants and herds he is fearful about finally being reunited with his estranged brother. 

As Jacob sends his large posse ahead, he spend the night alone on the river Jabbok. There he encounters and then wrestles with God. 

While Jacob encounters and wrestles with God alone, the disciples are wrestling with things in the midst of a great crowd. Shortly after the popular John the Baptist was executed by King Herod, a community in shock gathers around Jesus. Even as Jesus mourns his cousin, he is confronted by a community in crisis. A great crowd gathers before him and he teaches and heals them. 

By the end of the day, the disciples are worried about feeding the masses. They implore Jesus to send the crowds to the villages for food. But Jesus tells them to feed the crowds and all that they can come up with 5 loaves and two fish. Seemingly not enough for 5000. 

Jacob’s lonely dark night of the soul and the disciple’s consternation about the feeding the crowd may seem to have little in common at first glance, yet in both stories there is wrestling with circumstances. Jacob wrestles not just with the unknown stranger in his tent, but with the prospect of meeting his estranged brother across the river. The disciples wrestle not just with feeding the crowds, but with understanding just what is going on with their beloved teacher as he compassionately preaches to the masses in crisis. 

Mixed feelings about complicated situations all around. 

Certainly we recognize the wrestling. Certainly we recognize the difficulty understanding just what and who we are wrestling with and why. 

As we struggle with how long this pandemic is lasting with no clear timeline for an end in sight we wrestle with our feelings of wanting life to go back to normal and fearing a serious outbreak of the virus in our community. 

Jacob chooses to wrestle with this stranger and to focus on winning a blessing, rather than the looming confrontation with his brother in the morning. The disciples become event planners and managers for Jesus, focusing on the practicality of feeding the crowds rather the looming confrontation between their Messiah Master and the religious authorities (like his cousin John just faced). 

And our wrestling pushes us to focus on issues other than the big ones before us. Our whole world is debating the technicalities of safe re-opening. We are twisting ourselves in knot over border closures, self-quarantine requirements, safely opening malls and hair salons, remote working conditions, school and day care reopening and of course resuming in-person church services. We are trying to avoid thinking about how this prolonged pandemic and 2nd wave realities will force us re-evaluate how we structure out society, what we consider safe working conditions, how we support families, the elderly, students rather than forcing so many to live on the brink of financial ruin just to keep our consumption of cheap products habits afloat. 

We would rather wrestle all night and demand a blessing or mask wearing then consider what our world needs to become on the other side of this pandemic. We would rather event plan the catering than consider just what God might be already up to in our midst, changing and transforming and preparing our community for the next thing by giving us what we need. 

And yet, as Jacob wrestles, God blesses him with a new name. Israel – the one who wrestles with God (and wins!). A new name confirming his identity as the bearer of his families birthright, the covenant and promise of God’s chosen people. An identity confirmed by the embrace of his brother Esau, whom God had blessed in the way that Esau needed.

And as the disciples distribute the loves and fish, they discover that their Messiah teacher insists on being revealed even in event planning. As they pass the food around the meagre offering blessed by Jesus, they discover an unimaginable abundance. Enough food to feed thousands and 12 baskets left over – enough for the 12 tribes of Israel (the 12 sons of Jacob). 

And certainly, as we wrestle with our pandemic world… with our event planning and insistence on the things we imagine to be of importance, God is already at work preparing to surprise us with the very things we need. 

With the abundance of covenant promise. 

With the blessing and identity that we have trouble accepting. 

With the revelation of the divine even in event planning. 

God is already at work bestowing us with the gospel promise of life and salvation no matter how we gather to hear it – in person or online. 

God is already preparing to walk with us into places that we never imagined we would fear, workplaces and schools, malls and restaurants. And God promises to go with us out into the world or stay with us at home. 

God is already carrying our tired and aching souls. Tired from pandemic, tired from compliance. Aching for community, aching for the familiar. 

God is already where we need God to be, even when, especially when, we would rather wrestle with some other problem, focus on some other issue to keep from having to face the looming danger, the presenting problem, the uncertainty of today that was unforeseen yesterday, and the uncertainty of tomorrow that is unimaginable today.

And so today, with mixed feelings prevalent in our hearts and minds, with wrestling with the things we think we can control in the face of problems and overwhelming anxiety… we go with Jacob across the Jabbok river, we collect the abundance of 5 loaves and two fish with the disciples…

Today, God is already before us, already in our future, already preparing us for the world we need to face. God is already making ready the blessing and abundance we need. 

Today, God reveals to us again that God is already ahead of us, already in the places we have mixed feelings about going toward… And God promises that no matter what will befall us that our future is held in God’s hands. 

The Kingdom of Heaven Isn’t In Hidden Places But In Surprising Places Meant to be Found

GOSPEL: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
{Jesus] put before [the crowds] another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed …
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

It was a month ago that I last preached a sermon to you. And a lot can change in a month’s time. 

A month ago COVID-19 was slowly but surely being socially distanced out of our communities (although with some alarming rising case numbers in the US). Our province of Manitoba was talking a lot about restarting economies and lifting restrictions. The protests of May were falling out of the public awareness and the end of school and summer plans were on the minds of most. 

Today, surging case numbers across Canada and a tsunami of cases numbers and deaths are crashing into our neighbours to south. Our Manitoba government’s plan to further lift restrictions to near normal levels of activity was met with swift push back from citizens. Political leaders in Canada are under ethics violations for possibly giving wealthy government contracts as favours to a cozy with politicians WE charity. And south of border an unstable President with strong facist tendencies is sending in secret police to escalate non-violent protests and punish protestors all while looking like the “law and order” candidate to his electoral base of support.

No to mention the persistent issues of racism, discrimination (such as recent attitudes towards Hutterites in Manitoba in response to covid outbreaks) police brutality, the unavailability of childcare for working parents, questions about a safe return to school in the fall, the outsized effect of this economic downturn on women and the recovery being put on the back of essential workers who are often the poorest among us. 

Phew… does that about cover the last month?

Nothing in 2020 has been normal or expected and each day, week, month brings with it things that we wouldn’t imagine being possible. 

And somehow in the midst of this unimaginable world we are living in, we are left to sort through what God might have to say about all of it, and just where the good news of the Kingdom of God might be. 

Today, we continue along into our season of green Ordinary Time. Jesus again is speaking in agricultural terms and in parables. And the people of Genesis, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah continue to navigate their way through the world with God’s covenant promise along side them. Their complicated story continues with Abraham and Sarah’s grandson Jacob making agreements for marriage only to be tricked into having to do twice as much work in order to get the woman he wants to marry. 

And somewhere in the collision of our COVID world and Jacob, Leah and Rachel’s reality, we find something of our story being retold in the biblical witness. Somewhere in the parables of Kingdom that Jesus tells today, we are reminded of where the Kingdom of heaven is revealed. 

Today, Jacob sets out to make a deal Laban for marrying his daughter Rachel. Jacob as you recall is Abraham and Sarah’s grandson, son of Isaac and Rebekah. Jacob we already know is a trickster. He has tricked his older brother Esau out of his inheritance and wrestled with God. Yet, when it comes time to negotiate with Laban he meets his match and Laban tricks Jacob into marrying both of his daughters for 14 years of work. 

But of course there is a back story here. Laban is not some vague relative as the story suggests, but the brother of Jacob’s mother… Laban is Jacob’s uncle. And when Laban was younger, Abraham sent his favourite servant to find a wife of Jacob’s father Isaac. Laban was in charge of that negotiation too. But the clever servant managed to trick Laban to giving Rebekah away for less than he wanted, by appealing to divine Providence. 

So this time Laban is ready to negotiate, maybe even to get back with interest what he lost out on by negotiating harder and tricking Jacob. 

So now let’s set aside. The problematic aspect of this story. The close family relationships, the sale of women as if they are chattel to be owned and traded for. 

This family is a complicated system and web of relationships. And we know that after this Jacob ends up fathering children from 4 women, Leah and Rachel and their two maids, Bilhah and Zilphah. And the 12 sons that result become the forebears of the 12 tribes of Israel, with the most famous son, Joseph, whom after being sold in slavery by his brothers saves his family from slavery by bringing them into Egypt… which then leads us to the story of Moses and so on. 

In fact, the twists and turns of the story of the family of Sarah and Abraham feel awfully familiar. Jacob puts in the time and work with the promise of getting what he wants at the end, only to find out he has to start all over sounds a lot like what many of us are feeling after months of staying home only have to a resurgence of the virus. 

What Jacob imagined for his life and what he ended up getting in Rachel and Leah and his many children sound an awful lot like the expectations we hold for coming out on the other side of this pandemic wanting things to go back to normal while at the same time knowing that 2020 is going to change our lives and world forever in ways we cannot imagine. 

As the new coronavirus surprises at each turn,

As we grow tired of restricting our lives for what can feel like an invisible benefit,

As we juggle keeping people safe, healthy both physically and economically during this pandemic, 

As politicians make messy promises and make self-serving decisions,

And as the people of the world having unimaginable stressors placed on us…

Maybe we are just an extension of the story of Abraham and Sarah’s family. 

And maybe as they did, we might wonder what does God has to do with us? What does God have planned for us? Where is the good news of the Kingdom of heaven?

As Jesus speaks in parables today, he describes the Kingdom of God over and over again. The Kingdom of God is like… Like mustard seed, like yeast, like a treasure in a field, like a fine pearl and so on. 

And we might wonder, why is that the Kingdom seems to be in hidden places? 

But I think that it isn’t about where the Kingdom is hidden, but that the Kingdom is found. Found in unexpected places, founds where we wouldn’t usually think to look, found in the messy and surprising places of life. 

The message of these parables isn’t that God’s kingdom is hidden from us, but that it is constantly being found. Found where? Amongst our complicated and twisting and turning lives. And boy do we know about complicated, twisting, turning life, don’t we?

The Kingdom of heaven is constantly showing up in places we never imagined it would be, so that in our complicated, twisting and turning lives, the good news of God’s love and life given for us keeps finding us. 

The Kingdom of heaven that was promised to Abraham and Sarah in the covenant at the beginning of their story, and that God keeps bringing back to this family, this chosen people over and over again as they cast about in the wilderness. 

The Kingdom that we got used to hearing promised to us in person, at church, and next to our neighbour, at the font and at the table, has been finding us through computer screens, through zoom calls, text messages and over the phone. 

The Kingdom of God that is hard to see, hard to know, hard to believe some days, is finding us unexpectedly and surprisingly the care that we have been giving to one another in hard and difficult times of which we don’t when the ending will come. 

Today, our story, like Jacob, Leah and Rachel’s seems to start and stall. Our world, like theirs, is a world with twist and turns and challenges and surprises. And yet in the midst of that, the promise that God made in beginning, the promise of the covenant, the promise of the Kingom, the promise of love and live given for us…. That promise somehow keeps finding us. The God of that promise keeps finding us, keeps showing up where wouldn’t expect to find God, or to be found by God. 

And God promises that the complications of this life won’t overwhelm us, that the surprises of this world will not define us… but rather the Kingdom of Heaven will. 

God promises that when we wonder where God is in this messy world of ours, that God is coming and finding us in the Kingdom of God. 

WIlderness and Pandemic – Doubting the Promise with Sarah and Hagar

Genesis 21:8-21
8The child [Isaac] grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” (Read the whole passage)

My son, with all the gravitas that a 6-year-old can muster, frequently refers to the COVID-19 Pandemic as the “Time Period.” 

“When this time period ends,” he will say, “we can see our friends again.”

While his confusion with pandemic terminology is smile inducing, there is a heartbreaking earnestness as well.

I also think there is something to his unintentional term… While many others have referred to this pandemic experience as an extended Lent, an extended time of sacrifice, I am not so sure that is what we are experiencing. 

Not all experiences of sacrifice and loss are the same, and this pandemic isn’t a short, defined time of sacrifice with a known end point like Lent is. 

It is a time period, a new way of being people and being communities and being society that we are going to have to live with for quite some time to come. A time period indeed. 

This is a transitional time period, a time when everything is being changed around us, whether we agree or not. 

Last week, we set out into the Wilderness with Abraham and Sarah. Their journey was not a short one. In fact, they began a journey that kept on going for generations, as Sarah laughed at the prospect of giving birth, yet then saw the fulfillment of God’s promise in Isaac. 

This wilderness journey of Abraham and Sarah feels like it is a story that is telling our story today. When so many of the familiar stories we hear on TV or in books or in movies fail to speak to this pandemic yet, this story of faith is an ancient version of our current reality. 

No, they weren’t trying to avoid a plague, but they were people who were set out into the unknown with no map, no instructions other than occasional updates from God, on what to do and where to go. And things that they never imagined possible happened to them. It was messy and complex and things often didn’t go right and they often showed a lack of trust or faith in the covenant, the promise that set them out on their journey in the first place. 

Their story sounds a lot of like ours doesn’t it? A story where we can see the same feelings, emotions, fears and anxieties that we are bearing. An immediacy that they were forced to live in… not knowing the plan for the future means you have to live in the moment. And living in the moment, just surviving day-to-day can make it hard to trust God.

Today, as we hear the next chapter in their journey, we are reminded that the promised Isaac who arrived last week was not, in fact, Abraham’s first son. Ishmael, whom Abraham conceived with Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar, was Abraham’s first born. 

And Sarah who laughed at the absurdity of bearing a son in her old age, is fearful that the child of promise would not receive God’s promise made. 

So she implores her husband to send Hagar and Ishamel away. 

Which Abraham does by God’s direction. 

And so cast out in the wilderness, Hagar and Ishmael go. But it isn’t long before they are in dire trouble… and facing an impossible choice, to die with her son, or to at least have one of them survive, Hagar leaves her son under a bush and walks away. 

Filled with unimaginable grief at her impossible choice, Hagar implores God to least spare her watching her son die. 

Two women in the wilderness discover new complications, new unimaginable circumstances, new impossibilities, new absurdities. They are in not just in the wilderness, but wilderness upon wilderness, complication upon complication, mess upon mess. 

How could either Sarah or Hagar be expected to carry on in faith, to trust that God’ promises would hold true? They were both human beings. 

Like Sarah, we too have been living in wilderness upon wilderness. Even though it seemed like the whole world was put on pause in the early stages of this pandemic we soon discovered it was not. Violence, house fires, gun shots and a shooter dressed like the RCMP in Nova Scotia cracked open the heart of a nation. George Floyd was murdered underneath the knee of a police officer, causing protests to erupt around the world. Accusations of racism and discrimination have tarnished the reputation of one of the crown jewels of our city at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. And the one party leader of colour in Canada was kicked out of the house of commons after he called another MP a racist after that MP scuttled the passage of bill declaring the existence of systemic racism in the RCMP. 

Wilderness upon wilderness. Complication upon complication. Mess upon mess. 

Even though Sarah had been given a child of the promise, she couldn’t keep up the faith. She was human after all. 

Even though Hagar had been given a child of the promises she couldn’t keep up the faith. She too was human. 

And even though we are made children of the promise in the Waters, even though we are given a new identity and belonging in the bread and wine, even though we are given forgiveness and new life in the Word, we too cannot believe the promise, day after day, week after week, year after year. It is simply not in us to keep the faith that way…. The wilderness gets us every time. Ever since the garden of Eden, ever since Adam and Eve trusted themselves above God. We hear the promise, but cannot keep up the faith. 

And yet, the promise does not depend on us. 

When Sarah laughed, God still brought new life into a barren womb. 

Almost casually, God waltzes into Sarah and Abraham’s wilderness and declares that the promise will be fulfilled. 

When Hagar was at the limit and prepared to give up, God answers Hagar’s pleas with gentle assurance, with water and the renewed covenant.  

When these women cannot keep the faith, God’s promise does not rely on their ability to believe it. 

Instead God’s promise holds true, God promises includes wilderness moments, wilderness upon wilderness moments. God’s plan for Sarah and Hagar, for Isaac and Ishmael extends beyond their present wilderness into future generations. God’s plan for these first families of faith begin in wilderness, in transition, in wandering through the unknown. 

And the convent extends through generations, through kingdoms, through exodus and exile, from judges and prophets, all the way to Messiah. And Messiah’s promise of Good News comes through fledgling communities to empires, institutions and faithful generations upon generations to us. 

And even with all of that. 

Even as we laugh at the absurd promise that we are God’s Body, knit together in water, bread and wine, when we cannot even be in each other’s presence, let alone share these things… God comes into our wilderness with the Word, the Word of promises given for us, week after week. 

Even as we are prepared to give up, unable to keep the faith in the face of pandemics, and shootings, and police brutality. In the face of generations of racist systems, and hypocritical institutions, hypocritical leaders who do not get it… God deals gently with us, granting promise  in the word, relief for parched and cracked souls nearing death. 

And in the wilderness that keeps us from seeing beyond the present, God’s declares that God has plans for our future, plans that span generations and that include multitudes more numerous than the stars in the sky. 

God promises that God is not done with us, wether we believe it or not, whether our wilderness upon wilderness is more than we can bear or not. 

And in this wilderness, this transition, God reminds us again our story is being told again, told in ancient stories of faith, told in the present moment that we can see today. 

And so like Sarah and Hagar we fail to keep the faith…

We cannot help it. 

But God can.

And God does. 

And God declares that God’s promises will bring us through the wilderness, through the wilderness upon wilderness, to when this Time Period is over and we will see our friends again. 

In the meantime, God’s promises will still hold true, even when we don’t believe them…

Promises that will carry us through the wilderness to the promised land. 

So your church is opening up after COVID-19 closures? It won’t be what you are hoping for.

*** Guidelines and public health orders for opening up churches are sometimes hard to follow as the long lists can make your mind go numb. The following is a way of trying to put the guidelines in narrative context, to help picture what “going back to church” might look like in these COVID-19 days. ***

Sample Guidelines

It’s been months of isolation, months of mostly staying home to stop the spread of COVID-19. But active cases are going down (or maybe not), and politicians and business leaders are worried about the economic impact of social distancing. And so, for a few weeks now, things have been opening up. Playgrounds and hair salons, dentists and restaurant patios are letting people come back. 

And things seem to be going well enough, so the government announces the next phase of opening, which includes increased gathering sizes. And one of the places you have been missing the most, your church, sends out an email telling you that they are going to re-open for an in-person service on Sunday. 

You heard from a friend that your Pastor was against it, but enough folks were pressuring the council because of freedom of religion, people are getting tired of staying home and surely church should be a safe place right? Plus you are missing your friends, the folks you love to see on Sunday mornings, the other couples that you often go for brunch with following worship. 

Finally, the big day comes, you wake up excited to get back to this important part of your life, to something that feels little bit like normal, seeing familiar faces, hearing  familiar music, being in familiar community. 

You hop in the car with your spouse and make the well worn drive to church. You notice that the streets are even deader than usual for a Sunday morning. 

When you arrive at church there are few cars parked around building. You go to your normal parking spot, just down a side street, half a block from the church. 

You start walking up to the building, but before you get too close, a masked volunteer stops you. They are standing on the side walk. 

“Please stay there.” they stop you about 6 feet away from where they are standing. 

Okay… you think you know who this is, but they have a mask on their face and you aren’t totally sure. 

“Have you had any of the following symptoms recently: Cough, fever, body aches, difficulty breathing?”

“No, not that I know of,” you say.

“Are you over the age of 65 or have underlying health conditions?”

“No,” you say.

Technically, you and your spouse are 67 and you take blood pressure meds. But it’s no big deal.

“Have you been travelling recently, or spent any time with someone who has travelled recently?”

“No,” you answer again.

You don’t mention the socially distanced backyard BBQ you had with your neighbours the other night, including one neighbour who is a long haul trucker. 

“Have you been in contact with anyone who has been exposed to COVID-19, such as health-care workers?” 

“I don’t think so,” you murmur.

The babysitting you do for your son and daughter-in-law, who is a care-home nurse, doesn’t count. Family doesn’t count, right? 

“Please maintain social distance while you wait in line here.”

The volunteer gestures ahead, where you see a few dozen folks lined up – all space out according to markers along the side walk.  

Usually when you arrive at church, you come early to visit with folks before the service, but as you stand in line, people just whisper amongst households. Even though you can see many familiar faces ahead, you cannot help but feel suspicion and fear when you look at the others. You try to shake the feeling, but this pandemic world has affected you more than you want to admit.

Another couple lines up behind you and then you hear the masked volunteer turn another family away. 

“Sorry, we are at the max group size we are allowed. Maybe try again next week.”

The church stays closed right up until the time of the service. Then finally with 5 minutes to go, the door opens and households begin entering, one at a time. Another masked volunteer is letting people in. 

Slowly, you shuffle up to the door. When it gets to your turn, the volunteer waves you in. There are two surgical masks and some hand sanitizer laid out on a table.

“Please clean your hands and then put these masks on.”

You comply.

“Please follow the taped line to pew number 23 and take your seat. Please don’t stop to talk to anyone, and please remain seated for the duration of the service.”

You follow the taped line into the sanctuary, everyone is sitting down in space-out pews by household. The church is eerily quiet, kind of a like a funeral with a masked pianist playing quietly. 

Finally when everyone is inside, the doors to the church are closed. 

Instead of processing in from the back, where the pastor is usually visiting with people before church, the pastor slips in from the front of the church through a side door. The pastor then greets you from behind a mask… which makes them hard to understand. The pastor then explains that there will be no singing in worship, and no praying together or communal responses to the liturgy. You then notice there are no hymnbooks, offering envelopes or welcome cards in the pews. They are just empty. You also didn’t get a bulletin on the way in. 

Listening to the pastor, they don’t sound like their normal self… forced, stressed, tense? You can’t quite put your finger on it. 

The pastor then goes and stands in front of a phone on a tripod at the front of church and starts talking to it, welcoming all the people worshipping online. The pastor explains where the bulletin can be found on the Facebook page, how to share the peace and greet others also watching online. Then the pastor picks up the tripod turns it around and asks you to wave at the phone… which feels pretty silly and weird. 

Worship begins.

The pianist plays the hymns, but no one can sing. So you just sit and listen. It felt awkward to sing along with the hymns at home, but this feels even more strange. 

The pastor then begins worship, and every time you want to say “And also with you” or “Amen” you have to stop yourself. Instead, there is just silence while the pastor imagines how long it would take the folks watching online to give the responses. 

The first masked volunteer goes to a mic and music stand on the other side of chancel to read the lessons. You can’t say join in the psalm responsively, so again you just sit quietly and listen. 

Finally it comes time for the sermon. The pastor preaches about Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, encouraging you (but mostly the folks at home) to keep the faith. The pastor says that the time will come when the spirit will send us out into the world – but that time isn’t quite yet. And that even though we are apart, the spirit ties us together into one.

It doesn’t really feel like the pastor is preaching to you, but mostly to the those still at home.  

After listening to the hymn of the day, the creed and the prayers, it comes time for the peace.

The pastor offers the peace, but tells you that today it has to be virtual sharing only. The pastor uses their iPad to share with the folks online, and talks a bit to the phone again saying hello to people watching at home and commenting. 

Then it comes time for communion. Something you have missed for months now.  

The pastor puts on a face shield and changes their mask before the Thanksgiving at the Table. You notice that they don’t lift the bread or the wine. After the Lord’s prayer, which you say along with the pastor in your head, one of the masked volunteers steps up to the mic to instruct you on how to receive communion. 

And household by household you go forward. There is only bread to receive today. You have to hand sanitize again at the front. The pastor is using a set of kitchen tongs to put the wafers in the hands of each person. 

“The bread of Christ given for you.” you hear from behind mask and shield. 

This is not like communion you have ever received before. You aren’t allowed to eat until the pastor has moved away, and then after you put the wafer in your mouth, you have to hand sanitize again (also knowing that pulling off your mask has compromised it, because your daughter-in-law gave you a lecture in mask wearing). 

The service concludes with another hymn that you listen to, a blessing and some announcements. 

And then just like you came in, you have to follow the tape straight out of the building, one household at a time. The pastor isn’t greeting people on the way out, in fact there is no one. Just the the voice of the masked volunteer in the PA system announcing pew numbers. There are signs that tell you to leave the church straight away, no lingering. 

You walk back to your car with your spouse. 

You get in for the drive home. 

You have no idea what you just experienced. You were at church, there were other people there, there were hymns and prayers, the pastor preached, you received communion (kind of)… but that wasn’t church, and it certainly wasn’t what you imagined when you thought of things opening back up again….

You drive home in silence… realizing that just maybe the world has changed more than you figured before now. 

It might take some time to get used to this. 

+++

Three days later you get a text from your neighbour, one of the ones you have had a few socially distant BBQs with. 

“You are going to get a call from the public health nurse,” it reads.

“I am so sorry.”

A few minutes later the phone rings. 

“Hi, I am calling from your local public health agency. I am calling you today as a part of COVID-19 contact tracing.”

Your heart drops and the nurse’s voice starts to sound like the teacher from Charlie Brown. You make out something about a testing appointment, the nurses gives you a time, date and address. 

Then the nurse says, “I am going to need to you to tell me all the people you might have come into contact with in the past two weeks. Especially, any groups in indoor spaces for prolonged periods of time, like doctor’s offices or someone else’s home, or maybe a church…”

There Is No Going Back To Normal Or the Glory Days – This is the Beginning

GOSPEL: John 17:1-11
1After Jesus had spoken these words [to his disciples], he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you… 11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (Read the whole passage)

Today, we arrive at the seventh and final Sunday in the season of Easter. Easter 2020 must be, without a doubt, the most memorable Easter in our memories. “We are living through history” has been an oft’ repeated phrase of the pandemic era. And our Easter journey as people of faith has not been that far off from our lived reality. Hiding out in locked rooms for fear of the outside world is an essential Easter experience. Having no frame of reference, no experienced story to tell that makes sense of our new world is an essential Easter experience. And being prepared as disciples of Jesus for an unknown future is an essential Easter experience. 

As we prepare to the flip the page on Easter with Pentecost Sunday next week, we slide between Easter realities. In John’s gospel we slide back to Holy Week where Jesus prays for his followers just as he is about to go the cross. In Acts, we hear Jesus and the disciples having a conversation about what happens next to this fledging Easter community. 

The disciples come to Jesus with a request to go back, to return the Kingdom of Israel.  To a specific dream of the“glory days.” A vision that requires a deep dive into the history of Israel.  A specific moment in time, after Moses, after the promise land, beginning with King David but before foreign nations began threatening their borders and before they were exiled and occupied by the Romans. And of course not during the reign of one of the bad or mediocre Kings, but one of the greats! Of course they forget that even during the best of times, God was still sending prophets into their midst telling them to repent and get their act together. 

After all the disciples had seen, from following the call of Jesus from their fishing boats to witnessing the resurrected Christ appear behind locked doors, and their burning question is “are we going back?”

Sound at all familiar?

If you have spent any time reading, watching or listening to the news, you know that the world is wondering when things are going to reopen: from sports to shopping to public spaces – including places of worship. In fact, in many cases, Christians have been at the forefront of the demand to for political and public health leaders to loosen restrictions on gatherings. 

And you would think of all the people demanding that things go back to the way they used to be, we would know better. 

Because we have been longing to go back to what we remember as the glory days, long before this pandemic hit the world. But of course, nailing down what we think we want to go back to is not as easy or straightforward as we think. It was only a matter of weeks ago that we were concerned with declining resources and aging populations and shrinking congregations. Is that what we want to return to? Or is there a more specific place we want to go backwards towards? Do we want to go back to the days of church buildings full of worshippers and bursting Sunday Schools? To a time when women, people of colour and LGBTQ2SIA+ people were prevented from holding positions of leadership in the church? To the time when many churches were homogenous cultural enclaves? To the time when pastors were paid in the chickens and made pastoral visits in order to shame members into handing over their offering?

Our desire may be to go back to the good old days, but which good old days might be hard to answer. 

It is normal to lament what was. Especially when we don’t know what is or what will be. But we have to admit it is strange to long for something that most of us can agree wasn’t that good… something that, if we’re really being honest needed change?

So when the disciples ask their question, Jesus not so gently tells the disciples that they have no clue what is coming next for them, and it isn’t their job to know. That is up to the Father. Instead they are just along for the ride, they are simply witnesses to the activity and plans of God in the world. 

The disciples had no clue that they were about to preach the gospel in all kinds of languages to all kinds of people baptizing them by the thousands. Nor did they know that most of the early church communities would small groups of 12 or 25 people spread throughout the Roman Empire and would be ministered to by a former Pharisee and murderer of Christians who liked to write letters. They did not know their little group of followers would spawn generations upon generations of faith communities proclaiming the gospel to all the ends of the earth.

They had no idea what their path would be as Jesus ascended to the Father. 

Yet as John describes to us, Jesus knows that his followers don’t have a clue what is in store for them. They are dreaming of the return of rose-coloured glory days, of going back to some imagined time of greatness that is certainly better in their imaginations than the real thing. 

They cannot help but look back with nostalgia and hope for the glory days again. 

And yet as Jesus prays, he names the ways in which his disciples belong to each other, that their life together is a reflection of Christ, peek into the Trinity, the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All along Jesus has been stitching this rag tag group together, shaping and moulding them for the next phase, the next chapter. Transforming them into this newly birthed community of the gospel. A community defined by the life of Christ, a community tied into the very death and resurrection of the One sent to save. 

That even as they have no idea where they are about to end up, Jesus has been preparing them to be what God needs them to be. 

A community of faith, 
of imperfect and flawed people 
who may not know where they are going, 
but who proclaim that the risen Christ 
is their way, their life and their truth. 
That the cross and empty tomb have changed them 
and all creation 
for the kingdom that has God envisioned. 

And so here today, what does this mean for us? 

We who long to return to normal, even as we begin to recognize that life as we knew it will not, cannot to be the same as it was. We come to the end of Easter, in the midst of this time of global uncertainty longing for comfort of the past. 

And we too are just as clueless about what comes next for us as the disciples were. No matter our desire to go back to normal, to go back to the glory days, to restore the kingdoms of our imaginings… there is no going back. And more importantly, we aren’t the one steering the ship anyways. 

Yet, Jesus’ reminds us today, with Pentecost on the horizon, that our future is known by God. And that we too are being prepared for what comes next for us. 

That Jesus is sticking us together into One Body, 
preparing us yet again to be new communities of faith, 
birthed into the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. 
That the cross and empty tomb redefine us, 
even in a world of declining churches, 
even in a world of pandemic closures… 
God is transforming us into the very body 
that will proclaim the Good News to the world, 
through whom God will proclaim 
forgiveness of sins and salvation in the waters, 
in whom God feeds the world with God’s own Body – the Body of Christ given for us. 

And so yes on this 7th Sunday of the most memorable Easter we have known, we are reminded again that God has the regular habit of setting us off in new directions when we least expect it. And that the destination is not for us to know, nor what things will look like when we get there. But only that God is the one leading us, that we belong to one another in Christ and that the sprit goes with us. And that Christ has been preparing us for this moment long before we even had a clue.

The season of Easter may be coming to an end…

but Christ promises us that this new resurrected life in this Easter community is only beginning. 

Amen.