Livestreamed service

Psalm 98:1, 4-8
Matthew 13:44-47
2 Corinthians 8:1-2

         If we have learned anything from the deadly coronavirus pandemic, it may have something to do with the thinness of the line between life and death. How many people have we heard about, how many people have we known, or known of, who were just going about their lives, nothing particularly dramatic or interesting or concerning and then, more suddenly than anyone thought possible, they were not going about their lives, they were not doing anything? They were in the hospital, they were on a ventilator, and then, just like that, they were gone.

         The veil between life and death can be thin and sheer, sometimes cruelly so.

         But if there is anything we have learned from following Jesus—especially following Jesus through a pandemic—it may have something to do with the thinness of the line between death and new life, the thin veil between normal and not, the surreal passing/non-passing of time, the swinging bridge that suddenly appears over the canyon that separates the way things used to be from the way they are now and the still-unclear way they will be some day.

         That line or veil or bridge—whatever you want to call it, whatever metaphor works for you—is made of many things. Surely adaptability is a big part of it. Adaptability and creativity and the determination to keep going and keep living and keep loving and keep thriving, even.

         Surely love with a capital L is part of it. Surely, Spirit with a capital S is part of it. If you ask me, it’s the Spirit of Life and Love that is most responsible for keeping us going and living and loving and being the church.

         And all of it, along with the loss and the pain and the death, is amazing to me. It is a testimony to the grace that carries us from day to day, the grace that somehow makes it possible for us to learn how to do things we never even knew about before, under circumstances we never could have imagined, with a joy—yes, joy!—that we don’t really understand.

         And still we long for what we know. While it’s clearer now than ever that our illusion of control was all but delusional, we’d give almost anything to have it back. We ache for the ease of the “before time,” when we didn’t have to calibrate our every move, when our lives weren’t governed by a microscopic organism, when we didn’t think twice about hugging a friend or going to school or sitting beside a visitor on Sunday morning or singing our hearts out.

         All that longing and aching is enough to make some references to the before times feel audacious, if not downright cruel. Psalms that tell us to break into joyous song, for example, when we cannot sing together at all. Psalms and hymns and stewardship campaign themes that speak of singing together for joy when we cannot be together. Sermons that summon us to give generously to the church when we’re not quite sure what, or who, our church is these days.

         It’s a fine line we walk, and maybe a foolish thing to ask, but so, you see, is the line between death and new life, between not singing and singing a new song, between not being together and coming together for joy. What gets us from one side of the line to the other is not only grace and Love, Spirit and Life. It’s also you, each and every one of us, giving the best of ourselves—our time and energy and talent—and the first of our fruits—our best, most generous gifts—to the life and mission of First Church Amherst.

         For seven long and strange and scary months, you have continued to give. You have remained faithful in your pledging, even when that means going to the computer or addressing and stamping an envelope and putting it in the mail. We are so very, very grateful to you.

         Your faithful and hopeful generosity is what is making the difference between death and new life, between an empty building and a life-giving church, between grief over all we’ve lost and a deep joy over what is yet to be.

         You see, the kingdom of heaven is like a church that was entering more deeply into the season of Lent one Sunday, with church members bringing little things they loved and putting them on the communion table, and then suddenly pivoted on nothing but a wing and a prayer and within two weeks was live-streaming worship to you in your homes from here in our Chapel.

         You see, the realm of God is like a group of people who didn’t even know what Zoom was, suddenly meeting in little boxes once or twice a week for weeks on end and then asking an entire church-full of people to gather in little boxes to consider a whole new way of loving our neighbors. The kingdom of heaven is like a church that doesn’t even know if the center is going to hold deciding, over multiple meetings held with people in little boxes on computer screens, to give away $32,000 to help other people make it through the pandemic.

         You see, the realm of God is like a church that manages, through prayer and discernment and worship at a distance and meetings in computer boxes, to revive and renew its commitment to anti-racism ministry in the middle of a pandemic.

         The kin-dom of heaven is like a church that over years and decades has continued to widen its welcome of the least and the lost, to feed the hungry and house the stranger, to do justice and love kindness and walk tenderly and joyfully with God in broken and hurting world.

         You see, the kingdom of heaven is like a Youth and Family Ministry Team that, after the church’s beloved youth minister retires and the job goes unfilled, stays connected to church families, reaches out to church children and youth, and continues to bless us all with their Word for All Ages videos.

         You see, the realm of God is like a Property Team that, faced with a non-working sexton and then no sexton at all, keeps the bathrooms clean and the plants alive and the lawn mowed.

         And, yes, the kingdom of heaven is like a church staff of five now reduced to three that, along with a worship team and more good-hearted, smart-headed church members than I can count, continues to gather the choir, pray for the sick, feed the spiritually hungry, and take care of the business of being church.

         The realm of God is like a community built up over years and decades of worship and care, study and service that stays connected even though physically separated. The kingdom of heaven is like a thread of Spirit and love and hope and grace that keeps us together when so much in our nation and our world is falling apart. The realm of God is like a church that, although it hasn’t worshiped in person together for seven months, is preparing to receive three new members next Sunday.

         The kingdom of heaven is like a church whose members continue to give of their time, talent and treasure even though there is no longer a collection plate being passed down a pew. The realm of God is like a church-full of people who, in spite of everything, think prayerfully and carefully about whether they can manage to pledge even more to the church next year than they did this year.

         The kin-dom of heaven is like a community of folks who are trying to follow Jesus and realize now more than ever how much they need their church and how much the world needs a church like theirs. The realm of God is like church that, even when so much is unknown and uncertain, is sure of its place in the world and gives generously to stay alive and thriving.

         The beloved community of God is people who are not governed by fear and do not worry about not having enough, but who realize that that they are God’s hands and feet, and who thrill at the promise of being God’s partners in loving and healing the world. The realm of God is filled with people who find joy and hope in giving, people who know that they carry within them the potential to make the difference between barely surviving and new, meaningful life, between not singing at all and singing a new song of joy.

         Beloveds, the kingdom of heaven is like each one of us making a joyful noise from wherever we are. The realm of God is like the trees of the fields clapping their hands and the hills singing together for joy. The kingdom of heaven is all of us realizing that, by the grace of God, we are in this together, even though we are apart.

         Beloveds, the realm of God is living and giving for the day when we will be together, in person, again, stronger and more alive and filled with more joy than ever before.

         So let us give with open and generous hearts. Let us give together—in joy and for joy.