(a sermon for March 20, 2020, the 4th Sunday in Lent, based on Philippians 4:4-9 and Matthew 18:20)
Some years ago when I was still a young pastor I was asked by the local funeral home if I might lead a graveside memorial service for an elderly widow from a nearby rural village. Apparently, though she’d been born and brought up in that community, she hadn’t lived there for years; but after her husband passed away, she’d recently returned home to “the county” and had been living alone in the family homestead… which meant that most if not all of her family was gone now and she really didn’t know all that many people in town.
However, the funeral director let me know, this was apt to be a well-attended gathering; because, as it turned out, this woman and her husband were throughout their lives strong and tireless benefactors of a small private school where they’d lived and worked together. So, I was told, the headmaster of the school was coming up; there were going to be members of the board of directors, and even a few student alumni who had offered to speak; and so it was looking like this service was going to be a true celebration of a life well-lived and of a woman greatly loved and admired.
But then came the hurricane.
Not a full-fledged hurricane, mind you; but as is typical in this part of the world, it was forecasted that we were to feel the effects of such a storm veering out into the Gulf of Maine. Suffice to say that on the morning of the service, the funeral director called to let me know that none of the people who were scheduled to be a part of this memorial service were going to be able to attend… but also that we were going to go ahead with the service as planned. And so, that afternoon, the funeral director and I met at the cemetery… with only one other person who’d come to pay her respects: another elderly widow, who as it happened, lived across the road from the deceased; someone who’d known he woman from way “back in the day,” and who’d renewed their friendship since she’d come back to town. But she was the only one who’d come.
Kind of sad, to be sure; but okay… and at the appointed hour, I opened my book of worship and began the service, speaking those all-important words of promise, assurance and comfort that are given us in scripture…
… and it started to rain.
And not just a few sprinkles, mind you, but a full-fledged shower growing stronger all the time! Now, in retrospect, given the forecast for that day I can’t fathom why none of us had brought an umbrella, but there the three of us were, standing outside in the rain and getting more and more soaked by the minute. And I’ll be honest, at this point not only am I mentally figuring all of what I could leave out of this service so move it along, I’m also starting to read the scripture faster and faster as I’m going… because folks, we’re getting wet! But just as I’m about to “throw in the towel,” so to speak, the neighbor woman leans in close, looks me square in the eye, and with raindrops dripping off her brow, says to me in a way that only ladies from Aroostook County can, “Don’t you dare to leave anything out of your service, pastor… she deserves every word… so keep going.”
And that’s exactly what we did… and it was a truly a sacred time. I thinkmaybe that was the very first time I truly understood Jesus’ words that, “for where[ever] two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about that service this week. Friends, if I’m being honest here, I have to confess that for me, this is kind of a strange way of doing worship. Not that I have any problem with being online like this – it’s a great technological resource, albeit one I’m still learning to navigate, and I’m very glad for it – and it’s certainly not that I haven’t had any prior experience with leading worship before small or even occasionally non-existent (!) congregations! It’s just that by its very nature, Christian worship is about people being together in God’s holy temple singing and praying unto the Lord; face to face and eye to eye as one people, one faith, one church. For a lot of us, myself included, physically coming together to worship on a Sunday morning is as natural and as essential as our very breathing!
But these are challenging and uncertain times in which we live, and so it’s not only prudent and responsible but also faithful that we heed the call not to gather together in the midst of this current Coronavirus crisis… so here we are, gathering in a “virtual” way and, at least for the time being, living separately from one another; living alone together, as it were. And yes, that is strange, even for those of us who are accustomed to solitude; because, to quote pastor and author Craig Goeschel, who posted an article this week about his own rather difficult experience of self-quarantining after being exposed to Covid-19, “We are not created to be alone… being isolated for days on end is difficult and not what God intended for people.” All this to simply say that these days it’s understandably hard for us to think of ourselves as a church, at least not in the traditional sense.
And yet we are. Even now, even here on Facebook Live we are the church… because “where[ever] two or more are gathered…” or, because I can’t let a Sunday go by without at least one translation from The Message (!), “When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.” Granted, we’re all a bit spread out this morning, and our “remote” settings for worship might be well be at a computer desk or with an iPad on the living room couch, but make no mistake; two or more are most gathered because of the Lord, and the Lord is most certainly with us as we do.
I have to say, friends, that over the past few days I’ve been very heartened by your response to all of this. Not only have you been more than understanding of the decisions we’ve been forced to make regarding activities at the church, but you’ve been stepping up to find ways of connecting with and helping one another in the midst of this crisis: making phone calls to check in with those who might be feeling more than a little isolated right now; putting together “goodie bags” to drop off to those who are shut in (at the appropriate social distance, of course); offering to pick up and deliver groceries to those who shouldn’t or just can’t get out. I know that Lisa and I have been greatly appreciative of the calls, the texts and emails you’ve been sending us this week; and of all the offers, large and small, to help get our congregation through this time.
It’s all been a glorious reminder to me that we are the church: a community – a family – who, in the words 2nd Timothy, are called to live our lives knowing that “God did not give us a Spirit of cowardice, buy rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (1:7) Whatever else life and the world hands out, you see, it’s important for us to remember that we are not a people of fear, or discouragement, or anxiety but of a peace “which surpasses all understanding,” of gentleness that shows forth to all, and of thanksgiving for everything we’ve been given because “the Lord is near,” our very hearts and minds guarded throughout this and every crisis “in Christ Jesus.”
Right now, beloved, that’s everything.
In our text for this morning, Paul tells the Philippian Christians in a time of persecution to “rejoice in the Lord always…” In fact, he actually doubles down on this exhortation: “…again I will say, Rejoice.” It was an important word for them both to keep the faith, and to keep focused on that which in faith they knew to be true, no matter what else was going on around them: “Whatever is true,” Paul says, “whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if this is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
That’s a very good word for you and me as well. It seems to me that by the grace of God in Jesus Christ we have more than enough that is pure, lovely, and excellent that will see us through the difficult days ahead. The trick will be for us to focus on those things rather than fear and uncertainty; to try each day to think about what we do have rather than what we don’t have.
I’m here to say this morning that prayer will help us with that; purposely and purposefully taking regular time in these days of “staying in” for personal and shared meditation. Our keeping connected with one another will also go a long way in keeping us focused on that which matters, as will seeking to be creative about how we can be most helpful to those who are the most vulnerable in this crisis. And most of all, we’ll get through by remembering – always – that “the Lord is near.”
Because remember, my dear friends, we don’t just go to church; ultimately, who we are is not about the building or the fact we get together every Sunday morning at 10:00. We ARE the church, gathered in and spiritually sent forth by and in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. If we just remember that, we will get through this thing as a church, and maybe even be a little better off for the experience.
And never forget: through it all, the God of peace will be with us.
That’s why we say, today and always, thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN.
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.