St. Paul’s Congregational Church, UCC
March 21, 2021, Jeremiah 31: 31-34, John 12: 20 – 33, Lent 5B
The Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
It was Sunday, March 22, 2020, when we gathered for worship the first time virtually – Iah and I were in the sanctuary to broadcast, holding our breath that the internet connection would stay stable. It did – that week – but the next week when it failed we quickly moved into my office closer to the wifi connection. After that Sunday I set up my worship space at home, Iah began recording the piano or organ music at home – our dream of being back together in person for Easter was gone – and we turned our attention to being church in new ways.
Who would have thought that a year later we’d have adapted to where we are today – continuing to share the Sacrament of Communion each month, worshipping through the great festivals of the church year – Pentecost, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany –with a small and so very dedicated choir leading us in our music, rehearsing weekly, hours spent recording and editing - our musical gifts of time and talent enriching our worship so very much.
And now we’re nearing the end of the second Lent, second Tenebrae, second Easter are on the horizon – that season that calls us to repentance, our liturgical color purple, a color associated with mourning: it’s been a year since our worlds were completely changed. A year of adjusting to new ways of gathering. A year of limiting in person gatherings to protect each other and the most vulnerable. For many folks, our worship, though remote, brought us together to see each others’ faces without masks – our virtual coffee hours have been an opportunity to catch up and check in with each other.
And it’s been a year of mourning: a year of great loss, of grieving unbelievable numbers of family members and friends who have died of COVID; a year of horror as the national death toll, the world death toll, continues to climb, out of control at times. A year of so much societal disruption, violent deaths, a chaotic political scene – so many changes, almost more than we can bear.
But through it all, we have never been alone. And friends, from the beginning of this year of chaos, fear, sadness, disruption, uncertainty, sickness, isolation, I have believed that this is a good time to be church – and I continue to believe that. Some days are certainly harder than others – we all know that – but we have been called together in covenant to be the Body of Christ, to follow Jesus’ teachings, to share God’s love, to do our part in bringing in the realm of God – we have been called together exactly for such a time as this. And as hope dawns on the horizon that we can begin to meet in person again, what does that mean for us as church? It’s a whole new world in front of us – we can’t go back – we’re called to look ahead and explore what it means to be church, what our mission and ministry will be, will look like in this new world. And it just might be very different which brings its own anxiety.
Current news and the social unrest of this past year may well have left us with the same request as the Greeks in today’s gospel, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” We have come face to face with the ways in which our world continues to oppress, but it has also lifted new movements to create opportunities to correct what has been wrong for so long. Our lesson from Jeremiah reminds us that the Lord will forgive Israel. A radically new future is presented: maybe this is a time of God forgiving our communal sins and making way for a radically new future. Forgiving us for not listening to the voices of those suffering; for trying to ignore the realities or experiences of those who we label as outsiders. Allowing this sin to separate us from God and each other.
This pandemic has allowed us to see what privilege looks like and who it benefits. And this has left us wondering what it looks like to serve God. Jesus says that those who serve must also follow. Today, we are serving God by loving our neighbors, by listening to those voices telling us that they are not doing well. We are following Jesus by protecting our neighbors.
This year has been one of much listening. We have heard the voices of so many. We have heard the voices of our neighbors who are Black and Asian and indigenous people of color in ways that we have never heard before. We have heard the stories of families in need. We have heard the voices of anger, despair, and rage. We have heard the voices of the marginalized, the once forgotten.
What if we found God in these voices, too? Today, we can decide to be intentional about listening to these voices. We educate and inform ourselves in what matters to those who do not look or think like we do. We make space to welcome them into our lives, our communities, our churches, and our families. We welcome them in authentic ways that leave nothing to the imagination – because our actions make clear statements that we embrace all.
As we come to the end of this Lenten season, can you stop and wonder where you have heard that voice? From whom the voice came? Or even with whom have you shared this voice?
In answering and understanding these, you will also find love. You find God. You find forgiveness. You find that even in the midst of chaos, there is love. Even in our struggle, we will find love. You hear God saying that you are enough – that listening to God’s voice is transformative and healing.
Yes, it has felt like an extremely long season of Lent this year, but Easter is coming. We believe in a God who gives life. We believe that joy comes in the morning. Perhaps you have been feeling like this unrest will never end. Although we are slowly coming to a new normal, we know that nothing will entirely go back to what it used to be – nor should it. Be reminded that the same Jesus who cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” will do the same with us even when we don’t see it. Even now, God is calling us with a loud voice, saying, “Come out!”
Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry writes in his latest book, Love Is the Way, “The journey is always a struggle. But the movement is always forward.” He adds, “Now, if you ask me why, I’ll answer I don’t know. But as Fredrick Douglass put it, ‘If there is no struggle there is no progress.’” We cannot learn from blocking changes or denying our struggles – and this is difficult to understand. There will be days when we will not get all of the work done, days when we will not know which voices to listen to – but God will remain with us. We must take our time when listening to the voices around us and decide where we can find God in them. We must decide to love because we know that hate is too much to carry. We must continue to say, “We wish to see Jesus.” Let us continue to boldly claim this for our lives and for our world.
And be reminded that we are not ever alone. Remember that God delights in our particularities and that God sees our struggles. God recognizes all of who we are and all of what we experience. We have the example in Jesus, who also offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the One who was able to save. Jesus is the example for us to follow. So, offer up your prayers, your loud cries and tears, knowing that God hears them, knowing that we belong to a God whose compassion blots out our offenses. We serve and follow a God who sees our transgressions and loves us the same.
What encouragement this brings! What a vision of challenge and hope to a beleaguered people. What a vision it is for each of us today as we struggle, each in our own way, with the trials and tribulations of life today, with our own exile that we all know from time to time. And what encouragement this brings to us as church. What a vision of challenge and hope this new covenant brings to us as we look to our future ministry here in Nutley.
Friends, this is a good time to be church. This is an essential time to be church. The truth is: we all matter. We are all precious in God’s sight. These are difficult times for so many people – the pain may be hidden – but it’s there. We have so many opportunities right here, right now among the people we meet every week – here, or wherever we spend our days. Whenever we take the time to hear with our hearts, not just our ears; every time we feel with our hearts, not just with our logical minds. We have opportunities to live out that covenant written on our hearts.
Friends, we’re all in this together. May the God who saw your tears yesterday and heard your silent prayers today provide and care for you in ways that cannot yet be described. May the voice sustain you, may love guide every part of your life, and may the loving and liberating Son, our Savior Jesus Christ give you peace. Amen.