Oct15ThuThanksgiving/ Re-opening Sunday October 15, 2020
It’s hard to believe we’re finally back to in-person worship!
How many of you were here on Wednesday, March 11th for the Lenten Service?
That was the last official service prior to our closing.
Show of hands?
Today is our 1st Sunday Back.
It’s been a long time, “locked out of our church building”, so to speak.
Perhaps some of you believed it might be a matter of weeks
or a few months.
Probably not many of us in April thought it’d be mid-October
when we’d meet again in person.
But here we are!
We missed Holy Week together, we missed Easter, Pentecost.
Even the hot and humid days of July.
One of my colleagues early on promised that when his church building would re-open for worship, he would celebrate Easter Sunday with all the trimmings, no matter what date it was.
It’s hard to believe we couldn’t celebrate Easter Sunday together in-person together.
Though the Golden Hour has continued every single Sunday since March 11th with a fresh worship service, it still isn’t the same.
For me and Pastor Carey, the feeling of preaching to empty pews,
and to you, listening on your radios, tablets, computers,
imagining yourself in this space perhaps, but feeling distant.
But some of you also enjoyed some of the perks of virtual worship,
like going to church in pyjamas with a cup of coffee,
and being able to get up 10 minutes before service.
And yes, sitting in your comfy chair.
Our first reading speaks to today’s situation, of having come through the wilderness of a closed church building,
these 7 months of worship desert,…
and now we are (almost) back in the promised land,
back in church, at least,
well …some of us, and for how long, …remains to be seen.
In our reading from the book of Deuteronomy,
We can imagine the setting right out of a Hollywood movie:
With a helicopter shot zooming in on Moses, the great leader and liberator at the top of a mountain,
right across the Dead Sea from the promised land, Canaan, with a large crowd gathered around.
He is an old man by now, and it’s been more than 40 years since he led the Israelites out of Egypt…they’ve been wandering in the desert ever since, as punishment for their unwillingness to follow God’s commands.
Moses has a long farewell speech.
He is prohibited by God from crossing over the Jordan River,
so he takes some time to explain to the crowd of Israelites the grand story:
Why they’re there, and what has happened these past 40 years,
and what they should do once they cross over to the other side.
He urges the listeners:
“Observe God’s law and instructions: because they are the wellspring of life!
Observe God’s commands; remember what was learned in the wilderness!
Walk in God's ways!
Choose life: that is a life lived where God is at the centre.”
Moses reminds us that everything happens because God loves us,
That is, God saves and God blesses.
Moses explains that the whole story of our lives is set within the framework of a covenant, a mutual contract between God and humans.
A Covenant is two-sided: God has obligations, and we have obligations, and this relationship with God is lived out in good times and in bad times!
And our relationship with God is one that is rooted in community.
What does that mean?
It means that it’s hard to have a relationship with God as a lone individual.
It’s hard to have a relationship with God only listening to the Golden Hour by yourself.
That’s why people have been building churches for hundreds of years.
The origins of the word “church” means “gathering.”
When we come together, we’re stronger,
Singing is better together, praying is better together,
eating is better together.
And that’s why these past 7 months have felt so much like a long trek through the wilderness,
We’ve been separated from community,
And so we realize it’s harder to live out our faith life.
Just like how the Israelites lived 40 years in the wilderness,
Perhaps these past 7 months have felt like 40 years,
esp. as we gear up probably for another 12 months of this.
It ain’t over yet.
What have we gone through in these past 7 months?
A lot of new experiences, that’s for sure,
in our longest closure at St. Matthews since October 1918
at the height of the Spanish Flu here in Kitchener.
It started out with learning to do Zoom meetings,
And then changes to the Golden Hour so that our service would be focussed primarily on those gathered at home,
And time wise fit into the one-hour time slot.
Then we had Virtual Golden Hour communion,
drive-in Golden Hour, zoom Communion,
the Pew removal for COVID distancing,
Phone calls instead of in-person visits,
Masks, screening, contact tracing and preparations for a new and foreign, silent and passive, type of worship we are experiencing today.
All this amidst the broader backdrop in society of Stage 1, 2, and 3 here in Ontario,
Life events like deaths, funerals, births and weddings being disrupted, medical appointments and surgeries cancelled,
Jobs lost, businesses destroyed,
Rolling supermarket shortages.
We have been humbled.
We have been afflicted!
This low-level stress and worry that’s constantly nagging at us and attacking us at every turn of the TV dial or swipe of the finger.
COVID fatigue is real and chronic and most of us have never had to deal with such long-term trauma.
Esp. not as a global society.
There are rocks and boulders and scorpions everywhere,
and no oasis in sight (well perhaps the summer was a brief oasis).
And even now with (those of) us back in the building.
All kinds of emotions are coming out:
anger, sadness, relief, joy, worry, disbelief…
But we look around, and notice,
it’s not the same place as we remembered it:
The ropes, the COVID space, the posters on the pew backs,
the chancel arrangement,
Much of it is the same, but not all.
And we look around and we’re so evenly spaced out,
but people seem far away, and many people are missing.
We realize we might not see some people back in church
for another year perhaps.
Normally, in a time of crisis, like a World War, or Great Depression,
the Church building would be there as a place to regroup, recharge,
But this pandemic is different:
Indoor spaces, if not appropriately controlled,
are potential for super-spreaders of the virus,
and so the measures we have put into place are there.
And at least for this weekend,
churches in Ontario are spared the closures
(in the 3 hardest-hit Regions) that affected other businesses like gyms, theatres and restaurants.
At least the political leadership realizes the great social and community benefit of places of worship,
that Church gatherings are a regulator of emotions,
And help people cope with these stresses and uncertainties and fears.
and so we gather,
Realizing that our COVID wilderness is not over.
Today’s reality is different from the sunny optimism of mid-August,
as this second wave spreads throughout the globe.
And so we gather, with mixed emotions on this Thanksgiving Sunday.
Normally a pretty normal affair any other given year,
Last year perhaps, the only stress on our minds was how long to keep the turkey in the oven.
Somehow those worries seem so far away these days,
compared to what we’re fretting about now.
Moses’ advice to the Israelites is as good as any for this moment.
In this time of challenge and change,
of uncertainty and fear about what the future will hold:
Remember God provides,
Remember God with thanks,
Even though it may be difficult to do so.
Do not forget!
The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words … today in your heart. (Dt. 6:4-5)
Normally Thanksgiving is always a bit of a mixed bag,
Real human life is never fully complete, fully happy, fully grateful.
That’s just being real, that’s just being human.
This Thanksgiving, perhaps it’s even more so,
Our joy will be tinged with sorrow,
As we won’t be able to gather with extended families around a large table,
And we’ll have to keep to our household bubbles.
Perhaps we’ll take some time to ponder whether we took those large gatherings for granted, and how much else we took for granted,
in those seemingly blissful, carefree days before the pandemic came crashing down around our ears 7 months ago.
So this Thanksgiving, we remember.
We remember the wilderness we’ve gone through this past half year.
We remember God who accompanies us through this challenging time, and brought us this far along the way.
We give thanks for what we’ve still got.
And we celebrate and remember God’s blessings, now and always.