Livestreamed service

Hebrews 11:32-12:2
Matthew 7:7-11, 24-27
Ephesians 2:8-10

         Last Sunday the New York Times published a special section called “Transformation” to document some of the ways the coronavirus pandemic is changing us.

         Many of those interviewed said their pandemic experiences had led them to reconsider their values and priorities. Some said they had gained a new awareness of what is important and what means to live.

         “What I’m thinking,” said one person, “is the difference between surviving and thriving, between living and being truly alive.”

         Another woman said simply, “I am alive.” On top of everything else over the past year, she had lost her home and all she owned to a wildfire—and it left her wanting to live more purposefully.

         “I am alive, I am still here, and what can I do about it?” she said.

         “Transformation was forced on some, and for others it was chosen,” said the editors of the section. While acknowledging that our “process of reflection is just beginning” and that we don’t yet know where pandemic-prompted changes will take us, they encouraged readers to capitalize on this moment of clarity.

         “We have a window now to look at our lives anew,” they said.

         This window is available not only to individuals, of course, but also to institutions and organizations, to families and communities of faith.

         Here at First Church Amherst, we also have a window, a rare opportunity to look anew at who we are, who our neighbors are, what they need, and who God calls us to be. Both the times and our own circumstances make this an opportune moment for going deep, discerning how God would have us live out the gospel in this time and place, and renewing our ministries and our mission—our purpose, if you will.

         The time is ripe for coming alive in love and justice. The time is right for us to come alive with a new clarity of purpose.

         Think about it:

         Thirteen months out from the last time we worshipped together in person, we’re not yet past the deadly coronavirus pandemic. Vaccinations give us hope, but we know that whenever we are able to come back together, church will look and feel very different than before.

         How can we use these trying circumstances as an opportunity to—dare I say it?—build back better, to come back stronger and more effective, closer and more loving, as an even greater blessing to one another, our community, and the world?

         We’re one month out from the end of Lucio Perez’s 3.5 years in sanctuary—a righteous, powerfully transformative, and community-building experience that demanded much of our time and energy and limited our collective capacity to do a whole lot of anything else.

         What have we learned from providing sanctuary to Lucio that might strengthen our current ministries or shape new ones? What were the benefits of diving into that ministry with no sense of what we were getting ourselves into, and what were the costs?

         Just as the pandemic has motivated many people to set clearer life priorities, are we willing to consider that we might need to let go of some things to become more effective in the ministries we are best suited for? What can we do that no one else can? What does our community, what do our times, need from us?

         At a time when fewer and fewer Americans have any connection to institutionalized religion and yet more and more Americans are discovering a longing for meaning and community and hope, what is our role as a church?

         I realize these questions can feel overwhelming. I can understand the desire, especially after the year we’ve just had and, really, the past four years, to just “coast” for a while.

         The “Alive with Purpose” process we are beginning today is not at all about “coasting,” but it will allow us to catch our collective breath and consider together where we want to go. It will invite us to “center down,” as the late mystic and activist Howard Thurman said.  It will equip us to move “directly to the core of our being” as a congregation, and then, after a time of listening and discerning, dreaming and grounding, to grow into the fullness of our partnership with the Divine, our purpose clarified, “our spirits refreshed,” our hearts and our church come newly alive.

         Are we ready to discover the difference between surviving and thriving, between living and being truly alive?

         Are we prepared to consider anew what difference it makes that we are a wonderful church and that, after 282 years and a drastic decline in the role of institutional religion in American life, we are still here?

         Surely, there will never be a shortage of needs clamoring for our attention and action. It’s unlikely we will ever have more members than ministries. From our children to our elders, from our LGBTQ siblings to our differently abled members, from racism to poverty to the climate crisis to our immigrant neighbors and needs around the world—the list of needs, opportunities, and people to love never ends.

         But living into, and loving out of, our purpose is about far more than figuring out what the world needs. It must also also involve discovering what makes us come alive. “Because what the world needs is people who have come alive, Thurman said.

         Perhaps we can find the thread that ties together everything we do and unites us in a common and holy purpose, no matter what our individual callings, passions, and priorities. Through open-hearted prayer, open-minded conversation, and open-ended discernment, maybe we can excavate the strong foundation that grounds us, holding us up and holding us together.

         Are we ready to come newly alive with purpose?

         Ask, Jesus says, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you.

         Yes, it will require faith and hope and love—as well as the willingness to participate fully in a months’-long, community-building process. We may need to throw off some extra baggage and get rid of of whatever trips us up. We will certainlyneed to fix our eyes on Jesus. What we won’t have to do is re-invent the wheel or somehow save ourselves; we have already been delivered by God’s grace into new life. We were created in Christ Jesus to love and be loved, to be whole and united, to do good for the least of these.

         Let us together, through this process, discern not only how to do good, but also which good.

         Let us together discern not only how to come alive, but also what we are alive for.

         Let us together discern not only how to live, but also how to come alive with purpose.

         Let us build our church on the bedrock of God’s extravagant love. Let us stand together on the foundation of Christ’s call to life abundant for all. Let us gain more strength than we can imagine from the Spirit’s enlivening power.

         Then, when the rain falls, the floods come, and the winds howl and beat against our open doors, we will stand firm—wise in love, filled with joy, and alive with purpose.