I greet you from our empty sanctuary for the second week in a row, the second of many Sundays to come when we will be together in spirit but not in person. That is difficult for me to say and probably difficult for you to hear, but it is our situation.
I can tell you even now that barring some great, unforeseen change, we will not meet together here on Easter Sunday. Easter is a day on the Christian calendar, a day that changes each year. It is not some sort of deadline to which this pandemic must conform. We will need to continue being apart and we will choose to continue being apart until medical science and public health guidelines tell us it is safe and appropriate to come together once more.
In this empty sanctuary I can see the stained glass that we look at—perhaps in wonder as we prepare for worship, perhaps even in holy boredom at times. I see the pews in which we and so many others have sat and prayed and sung and laughed and wept together over the years.
Every now and then I’ll bring people into this sanctuary for the first time. They might be a couple looking for a place to get married. They might be visitors to Iowa City who simply want to see what this place looks like inside.
The result is always the same. They look around and sigh and say, “This is a beautiful place.” It is. Most feel the even deeper beauty—that mysterious, unseen yet palpable sense of, well, holiness—created by the faithful who have worshipped here for 150 years.
This is what we long for—not simply the beauty of this place, but the strength and comfort that we find within these walls; for what is called the “communion of the saints”—the sense that we are not alone, that we are connected with each other even while we are apart.
Paul’s letters are the scriptures that we need when we are separated.
The gospel stories have a sense of closeness and immediacy about them. Jesus is in contact with people. What happens, happens now. We saw that in the story about the calming of the storm that I read during last Sunday’s worship. Jesus is in a boat with his disciples confronting the wind and the waves of the moment. And such closeness is a little, well, too close for us to hear about in these days.
But read through Paul’s letters—and the stories told about him in Acts. Again and again, we hear of the deep longing caused by separation from those whom we love. When Paul prepares to leave after visiting a city, he and the small group of Christians there weep because they do not know when or if they will see each other again.
These are scenes filled with both gratitude and tender regard. We listen to those stories and hear in them the deep love, the compassion, the concern to say all that must be said because time grows short. What would you say to those you were leaving, those you cared about, those whom, in all likelihood, you would never see again?
When Paul writes to those early congregations, separated by distance and even prison, he tells of how he misses them, how he wants to see them in person, and how he prays for their well-being while they are apart: “God knows how I long for you all with the deep yearning of Christ Jesus himself.”
That’s how a lot of us might feel today.
And while Paul puts it in religious terms, the deep desire for connection is central to human experience. We are social beings.
This, of course it why life during this pandemic is so difficult for so many people. We are not told to get out and work together with others as we were when the flood waters started rising twelve years ago. We aren’t told to gather to show are solidarity as we were after 9/11.
We are told to stay at home. That’s why you’re there and I’m here this morning.
In this process, of course, we’re finding out that words matter. We started out calling this “social distancing.” But more and more people are recognizing it’s physical distance that we’re talking about. We’re discovering that we can be social and six feet apart—or six miles or six hundred miles.
We long for one another with deep yearning.
So we’re finding some ways to gain physical distance while bringing us closer as a congregation.
You can go to the Congregational UCC Facebook Group and join in our virtual coffee hour after worship.
I’ve been calling and emailing a lot of people this past week—just to be in touch. I’ll continue that in the weeks ahead and I encourage you to do the same.
To my surprise, I am beginning to discover the upside of the internet, which has tended to isolate us as we are kept to our devices. Now we’re finding new ways of connecting to each other on line.
This is a source of great hope in these days. Agustín Fuentes, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame, recently said: “What is so important to humanity is connection. The kind of quarantines—in New York and Seattle, and what will happen in thousands of other places in the United States—will require people to connect in other ways,” he said. “One of the amazing things about the human species—once harmless critters not much more than monkeys running around—is that, over time, we have become very creative. We’ve adapted to survive. That’s what people will rely on now—coming up with incredibly imaginative ways to find connections even when they’re not in the same physical space together.”[i]
As we do so, we need to keep in mind the many people even in our own city that have neither the technology nor the ability to use it in such beneficial ways. And perhaps we can find ways to help them connect as well.
As much as Paul longs to be with the community in Philippi, there is something else he want even more. He writes: “This is my prayer, that your love may grow ever richer in knowledge and insight of every kind, enabling you to learn by experience what things really matter.”
This, I think is the great opportunity that we have in these days, to learn by experience what things really matter.
We speak theologically and say that this is a fallen world—that we are alienated from God, from one another, even from the best in ourselves. In a fallen world there is war and accident and broken minds and terror and greed and human evil and, yes, covid-19.
Suffering is real.
But it is not the ultimate reality.
Beyond suffering, even in the midst of suffering, we encounter the crucified God who calls us into life on behalf of the suffering world.
We are connected in new ways to each other as a congregation. As we learn what really matters we come to understand again how we are connected to the larger, suffering world—those in our community who are still hungry and homeless and on the edge. Those who were just getting buy until the bottom fell out.
In Jesus crucified, we begin to get a picture of God. It is not a complete picture, because we do affirm that, as one theologian said, “The edges of God are tragedy; the depths of God are joy, beauty, resurrection, life. Resurrection answers crucifixion; life answers death.”[ii] But when we encounter the suffering and pain that are a very real part of our lives and the life of the world, the cross is the best place for us to begin our search for God.
We open ourselves to the One who suffered on the cross, we see that the God we worship is no stranger to pain and sorrow and suffering. And our actions, our lives begin to announce to this hurting and frightened world the deep mystery that in this Jesus Christ, we see the crucified God.
We need one another—in silence, in support. There is the hope that even in simply staying at home or walking in our neighborhoods we will learn to respect each other, to see in each person—in their own joy and their own suffering— an image of the living God.
Diana Eck, who teaches at Harvard Divinity School, writes: “In the Christian tradition, it is so very clear to me that God accompanies us in our suffering. God so loved the world that God became one of us and accompanies us. God accompanies us not just in our life, and in the challenges of growth, but in the sorrow, in the suffering, in the confronting of illness and death and tragedy that are part of the fabric of our lives. We can’t see those moments as provocation for us to say, ‘If God were really on the job we would be shielded from those times.’ God is present right in the midst of those times. That is the power of the Christian story.”
In spite of our own worries and fears and trepidations about the days ahead, may we learn the things that really matter. Then we will go forward into those days with a kind of confidence that we would not have had on our own, a kind of confidence that we know by the grace of God. We call this faith in the power of the resurrection. It is a sense—sometimes quite strong, often shaky—that love triumphs over hate, that life conquers death, that we need not return evil for evil but that we are able, even now and in all things, to seek the good.
[i]Robin Wright, “Finding Connection and Resilience During the Coronavirus Pandemic,” New Yorker, March 12, 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/coping-camaraderie-and-human-evolution-amid-the-coronavirus-crisis
[ii] Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, God, Christ, Church, quoted in Bearing our Sorrows, pg. 166.