Sermon. September 12, 2021
Rev. John Steitz
As we prepare to gather in the Sanctuary for worship after eighteen (18) months of a still raging pandemic, we reflect on why we gather as followers of Jesus Christ.
Like Peter, we affirm that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. Like Peter, we don’t want to hear that this involves suffering, and even defeat.
We want triumph and glory. Or at least a confirmation that we can live comfortable lives. Confirmation that the church will be here when we need it to be. Confirmation that things will soon return to the way they were before the pandemic.
Yet, in this passage Jesus calls his disciples to follow him. And following him does not lead to comfort. Following Jesus means to deny ourselves and to take up our cross.
What cross are we to follow in this age? Are we willing to carry it?
One cross that we all carry is the impact of the pandemic on our lives, on our families, on the world. We are learning how to adapt to a new reality.
Just as it is not possible to be a follower of Christ and avoid the cross, it is not possible to live today and avoid the realities and ongoing consequences of this pandemic age. For an all too brief moment at the beginning of the summer I had great hope that by the fall things would be able to return to the “normal” we knew before.
The pandemic has completely transformed what it means to be the church. Before we would gather on Sunday, hold Sunday school, a worship service, and then a coffee hour. Those on boards would meet on occasion and the pastor would be alerted to offer care to those in need. But for many church goers it was the act of going to church every Sunday that constituted what church was all about.
Then suddenly we were not able to gather safely. Would it be possible to continue to be the church without being able to gather together?
What we learned is that much of the life of the church is able to continue, and in some ways can be done very effectively by connecting remotely. I’m not saying that this is the most ideal situation, but carrying the cross of the pandemic has helped us grow as disciples of Jesus.
As we prepare to gather in-person in the Sanctuary I am filled with great hope, but it is a different kind of hope than I had at the beginning of the summer. It is a hope based on concrete ways that we have continued to be the church throughout the pandemic.
The Prayer Circle gives me hope. After meeting daily for the first ten months, this now meets three times a week. The Prayer Circle was a key way that some of us stayed connected across distance and across the months. People grew spiritually. We lifted many people up in prayer. Without the cross of the pandemic I doubt such a group would have met so frequently and might not have grown so close.
The online Sunday School gives me hope. There is a sustained weekly attendance of about ten, whereas before the pandemic the Sunday school averaged two children each week. Moreover, there are three children who participate from a distance. Therefore, the Sunday school is now reaching five times as many children online as before when it was in-person. And nearly a third of the children live too far away to participate in-person. Without the cross of the pandemic we would not be reaching as many children.
The Transition Committee gives me hope. This has been a very long process, especially for those on this committee. Some congregations divide the work they have done into three committees, one for the goodbye to the previous pastor, a second to select an interim, and a third to work on the profile. The Transition committee persisted through the multiple challenges and is nearing completion of its work. The cross of the pandemic slowed the work of the Transition committee, and forced the committee to do things quite differently than we would have had we been able to gather in-person. Yet the committee persisted and the work is getting done.
The Church Profile gives me hope. This document plays an important role in the search process for a settled pastor. It is a mission document and a spiritual document on who we are as a faith community. The profile helps us discern where God is calling us as we move into the future.
The Core Values of UCC Norwich – Spiritually Alive, Neighborhood Engagement, Making Disciples, and Loving Church Family – grew out of the work that was done on the profile. The Welcoming Diversity section will give a strong grounding for living into the UCC Just World Covenants.
It was clear that the cross of the pandemic was transforming us as a faith community and the church profile reflects this. It is a snapshot of who we are and where we are right now going as we journey through the ongoing pandemic.
The Open and Affirming group gives me hope. Very soon after we agreed that ONA would be the focus of our community engagement ministry everything shutdown. Yet the ONA team persisted and developed an online program to reach local youth. This fall the ONA youth group and an ONA community group will gather in-person once a month.
The Rainbow Mondays online campaign grew out of our ONA group. There were weeks that I wondered how much of an impact this might really have. Now the diversity and inclusion office at a local college is promoting Rainbow Mondays on their campus. And diversity and inclusion offices at other colleges are being contacted to participate.
The cross of the pandemic required that we organize online. We reached local youth and had a positive impact on several young lives.
Now there will be college students impacted by our work for LGBTQ+ inclusion beyond Norwich.
Finally, the Livestreaming group gives me hope. We are getting all the equipment in place and learning how to integrate this into our live in-person worship service.
Once this is all in place people will be able to join us both in-person and online as we gather to give God thanks and praise. Those unable to attend in-person on any given Sunday will still have an opportunity to join in worship.
The cross of the pandemic required that we shift to a weekly worship video. This gave people an opportunity to join worship from their homes, and this will continue through the Livestream service. The pandemic has not and will not stop us from worshipping God!
Just as the online Sunday school and the Rainbow Mondays online campaign reach new people we would not otherwise reach in-person, there is a potential that the online Livestreaming service will do the same.
There is no way around the cross for followers of Jesus Christ. There is no way around the pandemic. Yet by carrying the cross of the pandemic we have kept the faith and grown as disciples of Jesus Christ.