Livestreamed service

Mark 8:27-38

        Early in the pandemic, back when the only way we could worship together was online, about the time we were beginning to realize that we were going to be doing church this week much longer than we had originally thought, I discovered a new-to-me song at the back of our hymnal.

        The only way we could sing back then (and this remains the case even now) was at home, often alone, in front of our screens.  And since singing is such a powerful and comforting way of remembering that we belong to God and one another, I wanted to add a little more music to our services—ideally something short and easy to sing and remember, something that would carry us out of the community of our online worship and into the many unknowns of the week ahead.

        The song I discovered—just a refrain, really—was composed in 1940 by Thomas S. Dorsey, often considered the creator of gospel music, and someone named Artelia W. Hutchins, who, I learned yesterday, was a gospel singer. Dick agreed that the song was perfect, and so we added “God Be With You”  to the end of the next service as a sung benediction.

        For those of you who weren’t with us back then, it went like this (and for those you who were, and still are, worshipping from home, please join in):

God be with you,
God be with you,
God be with you till we meet again.
God be with you,
God be with you,
God be with you till we meet again.


        We sang that refrain—twice through—every single Sunday for more than a year. More than a few people told me that singing those words was their favorite part of worship.

        As I recall, we often sang it with a catch in our throats—because we really didn’tknow when we would be together again. I think it’s safe to say that as the COVID death rates kept rising and rising into the hundreds of thousands, some of us sometimes wondered if we would meet again. In our more vulnerable moments, some of us wondered which of our beloveds might no longer be with us when we could finally meet again.

        Back then, meeting in-person again felt like the Holy Grail of our life together as a church. Back then, most of us thought of the pandemic in binary terms—either on or off, over or still on-going. Most of us hadn’t considered the possibility that so many would refuse to take the vaccine, and we hadn’t factored in the virulence of new variants. In short, we hadn’t fully thought through all the ways and for how long both pandemic realities and pandemic restrictions would continue to separate us from one another.

        And so it is that while the church resumed in-person worship in mid-July and some of us are meeting again, many others of us are not.

        Some people are staying home because they feel conditions are still too dangerous for them to gather with others in a closed space. Some people have always had health conditions that made it hard for them to come to the church, and for them on-line worship continues to be a lifeline. Others have moved away and love being able to stay somewhat connected to First Church via our online gatherings. Some parents are staying home because their children are too young to be vaccinated. Still others just really like doing church somewhat anonymously from the comfort of their homes.

        And then there are some folks who have simply drifted away from First Church Amherst, for whatever reason. We don’t know exactly why and we’re not even sure who they are. We know only that we miss them.

        We only know that church is not the same without the many who are not here in the sanctuary with us, and without those who are online actively engaging with one another.

        I want to be very clear here: This is not to cast judgment or blame on anyone. I fully respect everyone who feels they need to stay home to keep themselves or their family safe.

        This is only to acknowledge and name another reality of ongoing pandemic life that we hadn’t really anticipated: That even after resuming in-person worship, we would continue to feel something less than whole. That our joy would be incomplete. That all things pandemic would continue to challenge us to adapt, innovate, update, and re-create. That even as we work to move forward, so much about being the church in a pandemic-weary world would involve returning to the basics of loving one another and building and re-building community.

        You may be wondering what any of this has to do with Jesus’ challenging question: “Who do you say that I am?”

        You may also be surprised to know that, as important as I think that question is, I’m accepting of answers that are different from my own. Yes, I still remember quite clearly how my heart broke a little one day when a beloved church member, in response to my statement that we are a church that loves and strives to follow Jesus, said somewhat emphatically, “I don’t love Jesus.”

        My heart broke a little because I do love Jesus and, as long as I’m being honest, I wish other people did, too.

        Because even though I usually fail to live and love as Jesus did, I believe his barrier-crossing, circle-widening, outcast-empowering, and power-resisting ways reveal the extravagant and scandalous love of God and show us the way to true, abundant life.

        But I’m also aware that, Jesus’ life was never primarily about him and who he was; he didn’t even want most people to know exactly who he was. His life was about who God is, and how we can know God’s unfathomable love and, by God’s transforming power, love ourselves, one another, our neighbors, and our enemies and, in so doing, re-create the world of love, justice, peace, wellness, abundance, and flourishing God has always intended.

        Not that it’s easy, even with Spirit power. Not that living as Jesus did won’t get us and our church into serious trouble. Jesus knew trouble, pain, and death were coming, and still he chose to live and love out loud, sharing God’s transforming love with any and all.

        While the apostle Peter was concerned about worldly success—getting results and winning powerJesus wanted only what God wants for all people and all creation. Just that.

        But we should credit Peter and the other apostles with one important thing: As much as they wanted Jesus to triumph over all the earthly powers, they never doubted that a new world—the realm of God—was possible. Which is why, even after the cost of discipleship became clear, they continued to spread the good news of love, transformation, healing, justice, and beloved community.

        So today, as we kick off the One Heart, One Church: Rebuilding Community phase of Alive with Purpose, let’s be clear about what we’re doing and why: We want to focus on restoring and renewing our holy web of loving connections not because we’re worried about the institution known as First Church Amherst, but because we love God and one another. We want to rebuild our separated and somewhat weary community because we need each other and the world needs a church like ours. And because one of the many gifts of church is that it calls us out of our narrow, sometimes self-absorbed lives and into the broad, caring, life-giving blessing of community.

        Faith that is built from love of God and neighbor has less to do with believing certain things than in participating together in something so much bigger than we are: the healing of the world through love, community, justice, and peace. And community itself—the church itself—is, at its best, an instrument of both personal and global healing and transformation.

        So let us together—with great joy, faith, hope, and love—participate in the rebuilding of our beloved church community, that we might become one dynamic church and one great heart.

        We need you to gather on Zoom with us at 12:15 today to begin this important phase of the journey. We will form Connection Circles that will enable us to more intentionally engage with one another and begin both restoring and making new our community. This will be our common holy work of this fall season.

        I can’t wait to see you there, at 12:15—