Livestreamed service

1 Corinthians 12:4 – 13:13

         Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

         Whether you are in your homes or here in the sanctuary, whether you’ve been a member of this church since the 1960s or you have yet to become an official member of First Church Amherst, you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. Whether you are on multiple ministry teams, worship with us every Sunday, have yet to set foot in our building or reveal yourself by name as one of our online regulars, or are making your very first appearance online or in-person today, you are the body of Christ.

         We are one in Christ. We are individuals, yes, but all of us being in Christ and connected through this church means that we, each one of us, is an indispensable part of something precious and holy. Together, in and through the love of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit we are inseparable and unstoppable.

         That means, among other things, that if you suffer, we all suffer. That means that if you are honored, we rejoice with you.

         Just as the human body does not consist of one organ, joint, muscle, or limb, but of many—so we together are the body of Christ: each one of us beloved, each one of us essential, each one of us gifted for a ministry no one else can do nearly as well.

         What an amazing gift we are to one another!—as individuals, and as a whole. What a great gift we are to our community, our nation, and the world!

         Now, these are not simply words from the Bible. This business of being God’s hands and feet is not just a mission statement that we say every Sunday. These words about love are not just sentimental things we hear at weddings.

         No, this business about being the body of Christ and, individually members of it is also our true, lived experience. This word about love being the greatest spiritual gift of all, about how we can take all the right positions and have all the best ministries but none of that means squat if we don’t do it in, and out of, love—that’s also our true, lived experience.

         And none of this has been more true or more lived out that it has over the past 17 months.

         And so we are here today to praise God that we are the body of Christ. We are here to celebrate the amazing reality that, thanks be to God, we are still here. Countless houses of worship have closed their doors, businesses have been forced to shut down, but by the grace of God and the love of the body of Christ, we are still here.

         We’re here to celebrate and honor the individual members of this body, and to consider that, as wonderful as all these individuals are, it’s what we can do together feeds and heals, delights and uplifts, strengthens and cares, brings justice and peace. We are here to name and celebrate the particular gifts and contributions each member of the body makes, and also to acknowledge that  the body needs each and every member.

         Seventeen months ago, when Massachusetts and the country were locking down in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, we had never done a live service online. We did not have a YouTube channel; we did not know from Zoom.

         But we had a member of the church, a member of the body of Christ here in this place, who was highly skilled in all aspects of video technology. And, thanks be to God, Holly Howery (Holly, please stand up so people can see you) was willing to share those skills and gifts with us.

         And so it was that as the world shut down, we ramped up. Have we forgotten what a remarkable thing that was? Thanks to Holly and our amazing worship teams, we have gone without a live congregational worship experience—music, singing, Word for All Ages, communion, sermon, the whole nine yards—only once over the past 17 months, and that was March 15, 2020, one week into the shutdown that we thought might last a couple weeks at most.

         Do we realize how amazing that is? Do we realize how blessed we are?

         Isn’t that something to celebrate?

         I want to thank Holly not only for making it possible for us to continue to worship together all that time—and for doing it singlehandedly until recently, and always for fre—but also for the grace and poise with which she did it, and for teaching me some invaluable life lessons, among them: There’s always a way.

         Now, there are several other individuals and ministry teams I am going to mention by name—unfortunately, we don’t have time for me to name every single individual by name. When your name or your team’s name is mentioned, please stand for a moment if you’re here in the sanctuary or acknowledge your presence if you’re online. When I mention something that you’ve done, please stand or type something in the Chat.

         We want to honor and celebrate you, because when you are honored and celebrated, we all are—because we are members, one of another, in the body of Christ.

         Next, I want to thank and praise our moderator through all this, Marylou Sullivan, and all the members—old and new—of the Elected Leadership Team. Marylou has been a steady, thoughtful, and wise hand, and she’s done a wonderful job of leading us through this time together and making some important decisions.

         As for the ELT—well, I consulted my calendar last night, and here’s something you probably don’t realize: During the first 10 weeks of the pandemic lockdown—which included Holy Week and Easter, the ELT met—first by conference call and then on Zoom—no fewer than eight times, three of those meetings coming on Saturday mornings.

         Within the first two months of the pandemic, we as a congregation had  held two congregational meetings on Zoom—stand up or reveal yourself if you attended those meetings—and, in the end, after much rich, prayerful, and respectful conversation, made the decision to give away $27,000 to our neighbors who were struggling to stay afloat.

         Do we realize how amazing that is? Do we realize how blessed we are?

         Isn’t that something to celebrate?

         It was also in those first two months that we formed the Re-Church Team to begin studying the science and thinking about everything we would need to do to re-open our building and regather for worship—because back then we thought that would happen soon. Stand up or give an online shout out if you were on the Re-Church Team.

         While all this was happening, we transformed our Chapel into our worship space. We decided that four, sometimes five of us could be in that space safely: Holly, Dick Matteson, a cantor, and myself.

         If you served as a cantor or scripture reader for our worship services, if you provided special music for our services, please stand or otherwise say hi. We thank you and celebrate you.

         Meanwhile, our longtime treasurer, Doris Peterson, and her assistant treasurers, were working wonders and you, our members and friends, were producing a new round of loaves and fishes every week. Doris secured a PPP loan from the government, which made a huge difference in our pandemic finances. Our members and friends continued to meet their pledges and give faithfully to the ministries of the church; our Mission Team continued to make gifts to organizations doing good work here and around the world; our Investment Team made decisions and recommendations; and the Loaves and Fishes Team managed to run a successful stewardship campaign without personal visits or special gatherings. 

         Do we realize how amazing all of that is? Do we realize how blessed we are?

         Isn’t that something to celebrate?

         If you made a contribution to our church, developed our budget, helped count or manage our money, gave away our money, or encouraged us to give—please stand or reveal yourself so that we can honor and give thanks for you. You are amazing!

         If you made a special contribution to, or helped organize, the Hartt School of Music scholarship in Dick’s name—please let us recognize you.

         There are two more ministry teams that must be honored and celebrated today, each one stepped up and did, in essence, the job of a staff person who had left.

         The Property Team—wow!—has managed to keep our building clean, to take out the trash, to respond to floods and other emergencies, as well as do its normal ministry of caring for the long-term maintenance and improvement needs of this big old building. Property Team members have vacuumed, watered plants, taken out trash, mowed the lawn, fixed things I didn’t know were broken, overseen roof repairs and the general care of our building. Please stand or say hi—we are so grateful for you.

         For the first few months of the pandemic, John Aierstuck continued to minister to our youth, children, and families—meeting over Zoom and, at least once, in person. But last August, John retired, and our efforts to hire a new Youth and Family Director were unsuccessful. Enter the Youth and Family Ministry Team—Katie Tolles and others, who with great commitment and creativity, continued that essential and beloved ministry. They also blessed us every Sunday with wonderful, pre-recorded Word for All Ages videos, and Adam Ortiz orchestrated and produced an absolutely delightful Christmas pageant.

         If you have served on the Youth and Family team or the search team for a new director, if you have offered a Word for All Ages, written a letter or sent an email to our families and youth, if you participated in the Christmas pageant or came to the church to rake leaves, please stand and let us thank you and celebrate you.

         If I named every team or every individual who has made it possible for us to still be a healthy, vital church, we would be here all day. But I do want to name some other really important gifts you have given us as members of the body of Christ. Please stand if:

         You attended a worship service, Zoom vespers, or Zoom choir practice.

         If you attended a congregational meeting, hosted or attended a Zoom coffee hour, or have been an online worship host.

         If you helped someone learn how to access and navigate Zoom or YouTube.

         If you wrote a note, made a phone call, or made a visit to check on another church member.

         If you brought flower arrangements to the chapel, potted plants on the front porch, or tended the memorial garden.

         If you did recycling or the Not Bread Alone laundry.

         If you helped decorate and undecorate the chapel for Advent and Easter.

         If you took photos or made videos.

         If you updated the website and posted new material there.

         If you attended an anti-racism vigil or continued supported Lucio Perez and our sanctuary ministry.

         If you watched webinars or read studies to help us learn how to continue to operate and re-open safely.

         If you are a deacon or otherwise helped develop our reopening protocols.

         If you ran a Covid testing or vaccine site (I’m looking at you, Ann Becker and Sara Aierstuck).

         Now: If you have stood up or revealed yourself at any time this morning, please stand again, as you are able.

         Now: Look around you. Look at the online comments.

         You—we—are the body of Christ.

         Do we realize how amazing all of this is? Do we realize how blessed we are? 

         Do we realize that anything and everything anyone and everyone has done has built up the body of Christ, that it’s all holy and all important?

         Isn’t this something to celebrate?

         (And for everyone who realizes that I haven’t mentioned Dick or Will, let me just say this: Our mighty little staff of three has done amazing work, and I am more thankful for Dick and Will than I can say. But we are also paid staff. It is out job to do these things. And still, we do them with love.)

         Beloveds, we have come this far by faith, by grace, and by love. This is not to say that it’s been easy. This is not to say that we’ve always had warm fuzzies for each other.

         This is to say that God is love, and God’s love in action in and through us has carried us through and made us who we are. Without that love, we are nothing. With that love, we are everything.

         May we continue to root and ground ourselves in the love of God.

         Thanks be to God.