St. Paul’s Congregational Church
May 17, 2020 – Easter 6A
Acts 17: 22 – 31; John 14: 15 – 21
For the past several weeks we’ve held Charles “Rob” Roberts in our prayers as he was in critical condition on a ventilator as a result of the covid-19 virus. Just 45 years old - a 20 year police officer in Glen Ridge – he is one of the finest people I’ve ever had the honor of knowing and working with. He died on Monday afternoon at Lennox Hill Hospital, leaving his wife and 3 children along with his mother, father, and extended family.
These days we rarely are able to have funerals as we have come to know them – and how hard it is for families not to be able to do that – the rituals, the being together, the sharing of grief is so very important at these times. But on last Thursday, a spectacularly beautiful day, Rob’s funeral took place – outside, in front of the Municipal Building in Glen Ridge – there was a procession beginning with motorcycles ridden by police from all over northern New Jersey, a group of bagpipers. At the service the Chief of Police presided, there was a priest there to offer prayers, his family spoke and offered a poem, others reflected on how Rob and how he lived affected them. It was a truly beautiful tribute to this remarkable man.
The town livestreamed the service – there was no way there was room for the tremendous number of people who wanted to be there and still observe distancing – everyone there had masks on. Then following the hour long funeral, there was a procession that would take Rob on his final journey through Glen Ridge and then to the cemetery. Townspeople were invited to stand along the route, to offer silent prayers, hands over their hearts in salute – and were asked to wear the colors of the NY Mets.
I watched the service online - was tremendously moved by it – and then walked to the end of my street – even remembered my mask – found the sidewalks filled – there must have been 200-300 people in my view and this was at the end of the route.
We could see flashing lights coming toward us – after about 60 motorcycles ridden by police officers from all over New Jersey went by, then came the Glen Ridge police, ambulance squad, fire trucks, the hearse carrying Rob surrounded by Glen Ridge motorcycle escort, the limos carrying his family - and the rest of the procession. Friends, there were 300 motorcycles, police cars, public service vehicles, ambulances from all over New Jersey – the procession took 45 minutes to pass. And all that time, the crowd was quiet, hands over our hearts, wiping away tears – all of us having stories to tell of Rob and his kindness, his humanity, his caring, and his huge bear hugs and smiles.
I’ve never experienced anything like that before and doubt I ever will again. It was breathtaking – such an awesome tribute to an awesome man. Glen Ridge has a population of about 7,600 people – I’d guess that most everyone in town was out on the streets to be there for this most incredible coming together as one, mourning and supporting each other in our common loss.
As I walked home, the verse from Acts came to me:
“The God who made the world and everything in it, God who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands” – as we think about what makes church, doesn’t this verse reinforce the statement, the building is not the church - WE ARE the church. This whole experience was church at its best – people gathered under God to care for each other, to serve each other, to love each other. The entire town of Glen Ridge became sacred space and God indeed was present. Doesn’t that have profound implications, a profound challenge to us as St. Paul’s Congregational Church.
The Rev. Kathryn Schreiber wrote a reflection that has been an inspiration to me this week, calling me, calling us, to reflect on places, some of them surprising, where we’ve felt close to God. I invite you to join me in reflecting about this.
Remember your home church – the sanctuary where you arrived, gathered, participated in worship, Sunday School classes, meetings, dinners. Try to remember especially rewarding and enriching experiences.
Remember a different sacred space – maybe not a religious building – but it could be – remember a special event, a special experience in a place that became holy – a place where you felt connected to something bigger than yourself, a sense of well being, of peace – where was it? What happened? What remains special, even holy, about that experience?
Are there times when you feel especially supported, uplifted, connected to God during your daily life today? How do you encourage this sense of comfort, peace, maybe wisdom or deep gratitude?
During the time described in the book of Acts, long before any church was built, Jesus’ followers felt very close to God. Through having a direct connection to Jesus, through the testimonies of the disciples, through small gatherings in upper rooms, in private homes, the early Christians found God in their midst. They knew a God who was everywhere – not just in a temple or a church.
Paul the apostle spoke of a God who was available to everyone, everywhere – a God who doesn’t need a fancy temple to be worshipped. A God who belongs to and cares about all people – this was radical teaching at the time!
We do love our church properties, our sanctuaries, from grand cathedrals to simple New England meetinghouses, and our fellowship halls. We miss being there, doing things as we have in the past, don’t we. We miss our routine, our stained glass windows, the choir for sure, being together in person – we all do.
There’s nothing wrong with all that of course – unless it limits us from experiencing sacred space wherever we spend our days – and it is all around us.
Is the sanctuary the only sacred space we know? As I walked back home on Thursday afternoon, I knew I’d been in sacred space on Ridgewood Avenue in Glen Ridge – and I felt the sense of comfort and connectedness and peace I’d been yearning for. When and where have you experienced that?
Recently Dr. David Vasquez-Levy, President of the Pacific School of religion described a current COVID-19 cartoon: it featured the Devil talking to God. The Devil said to God, “Ha-ha – I closed down all your churches.” God replied, “Ha-ha – I opened one in every household!”
The Rev. Traci Blackmon, one of our national UCC leaders, when Shelter-In-Place began said, “God has left the building and gone into the streets!”
Let’s think about that. Where is God enshrined today? Where is God being encountered today? The God in whom we live, and move, and have our being is with us today and everyday and everywhere. What might that mean for our local church ministries here tomorrow?
May these questions stimulate our thoughts and prayers this week – we ARE the church, aren’t we, gathered and scattered and God is with us everywhere, loving us through whatever we face. Amen.