Updated: Jul 31, 2021
Alleluia! The Lord is risen! (Wait for response). Okay. I know there aren’t many of us in here and you guys at home probably feel weird yelling in your family room, but it is Easter. So, I said, “Alleluia! The Lord is risen! (Wait for response). Much better. Now, I did sense a small bit of grumbling over the fact that our call and response was, once again, not done in person this year. The truth is that I know it is disappointing to get this close to worshipping indoors, in-person for Easter, but I have to say that I am incredibly grateful that we have not lost one parishioner to COVID-19 during the pandemic, so whatever frustration I feel about the missing hugs, lemon bars, and echoing Alleluias is more than equaled by my joy that you are still here –and we are still church.
We are still church. I know this because I actually had to answer that specific question recently on a diocesan form: “What has the pandemic has taught you about what it means to ‘be church.’” I was initially irritated by the question, mostly because I still have to answer essay questions at this stage in my life, but also because I believe this question has a very straightforward answer – one so simple that we can teach it to our children in a song: I am the church. You are the church. We are the church. The church is not a building. The church is not a steeple. The church is its people.
I know that over the last year many of us have felt and continue to feel isolated and alone, and I am not immune to this. I have been fortunate because I have had my family at home with me this year, but I am certainly lonely in my office at Grace. Nonetheless, Grace is still a family. I take great joy in reading the comments on the Facebook page, participating in Zoom worship and meetings with you, and enjoying texts and phone calls. I also worry about those of you I don’t hear from- folks that say they have given up on technology or have drifted away – those who have found other things to do with their Sundays. Because those folks are not alone. A Gallup poll published this week reported that, while most Americans continue to believe in God, for the first time since the late 1930s, less than half of Americans report being members of a religion.
I am not surprised by this, but I find it deeply ironic. One glance at the internet will tell you that we are living in a time in which people are urgently seeking spiritual guidance. Americans are troubled by what appears to be inexplicable behavior by our fellow human beings. It seems that we add the names of victims of new hate and rage-fueled shootings to our prayer list too often- as we did again this week. Young people are trying desperately to find safe places to figure out who they are and how to live in an immensely changing world. Folks of good conscious are looking for spaces where we can learn to respect the dignity of all human beings without experiencing name-calling and judgment. Sadly, it seems that church is the last place that most people look for these things. According to Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, “Christians have… suffered [from] self-inflicted damage: Surveys show that the identification of many white evangelicals with former President Donald Trump drove many millennials away, as did the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church over the previous decades.” In other words, instead of thinking of churches as places of unconditional love where they can safely explore their identities and develop a sense of connection with other human beings, young people have learned to fear and dismiss places of worship, identifying them with words like “political,” “hypocritical,” and “judgmental.”
That is not my church. I grew up in a congregation where I knew I was loved. When my father died, parishioners were zealous in showing interest in both my triumphs and difficult periods. This was true even when my nine-year-old self kicked Mr. Vezina’s shin with my shiny patent-leather shoe and when arrogant 15-year-old me almost decapitated the crucifer when I tried to swing the censor the way our rector did. I knew that no matter what I did, St. John’s was my forever home, and I could always go home again. Grace Episcopal Church Martinez has been that place for many others in much the same way.
The truth is that we have what so many people are seeking. We believe in unconditional love, thoughtful, civilized conversation in an unsafe world and, above all, being a place where you are known, loved, and forgiven. The problem is that people do not know this. Even worse, we do not always know this. We have forgotten the resources of our own community – going to therapists, google searching and soul cycling instead of using the ancient and proven tools of pastoral counseling, prayer, and reading scripture. No wonder the world thinks we’re irrelevant. We think we’re irrelevant. We’re not. Not even close.
For two thousand years the people of God have been sharing their lives and their stories so that we will know exactly what to do in difficult times like these. What is happening in our world is exhausting and disheartening, but it is not unprecedented. I would suggest the Bible is actually the most complete text on human emotion ever written. If you need help processing recent news stories about mothers torn from their children at our southern border, read the story of King Solomon forced to judge between two mothers claiming the same child. True parents have always sacrificed their own well-being for the good of their children. Unsure of how to think of the case of Breonna Taylor, woken in the night by armed law enforcement who admittedly had no cause against her? Think of our Lord woken deep in the night in the Garden of Gethsemane. The stories and practices of our faith are timeless, but only if we continue them – and only if we are open to applying them to the changing circumstances of our lives.
That is what Mary had to do. When she arrived at the tomb of her beloved rabbi, she saw that he was missing and felt only loss, just as when we see our churches change from the way we know them, we see only failure. He was supposed to be the Messiah, the one who would overthrow the unjust and return the Judeans to power. Instead, he has suffered the death of a criminal. It is only when he calls her by her name that she knows him and remembers. Jesus’s ministry was never about obtaining or maintaining power or privilege. It was about relationship. It was about knowing and being known. It was about community and love. Yet even then she wants to hang on to him. After all, she has gone from being a central part of a growing movement to an uncertain future – and her grief is coupled with tremendous fear. But when Jesus shows himself to her, he will not allow her to continue to grieve. “Do not hold on to me,” Jesus tells her, knowing that the teacher she knows is only a fraction of what he really is – that the human Jesus demonstrated only a small portion of the love and mercy that his sacrificial death made possible for him to give to all humanity for all time. By dying to earthly life, he was able to rise to a greater, more meaningful, and more loving divine life – one that would change the entire human race. “Do not hold on to me.” We can allow ourselves to experience the brokenness of the last year, the brokenness of a society that has changed beyond our reckoning, the brokenness of a church that will never be the same – and then we can look for the light that shines through the cracks.
Let go of what is temporal. Let go of what is earthly. Grab hold instead of what is heavenly and ascend with Jesus. Let him take you with him as he rises above this world and into a realm of pure and unceasing love. We are God’s hands and feet in the world. We carry the risen Christ in our hearts. We are the church. Alleluia! AMEN.
Bob Smietna, (March 29, 2021), “Gallup: Fewer than half of Americans belong to a church or other house of worship: while American still believe in God a growing number have dropped out of organized religion,” Religion News Service, https://religionnews.com/2021/03/29/gallup-fewer-than-half-of-americans-belong-to-a-church-or-other-house-of-worship/.
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, (March 31, 2021), “Behind Gallup’s Portrait of Church Decline: America’s religious life will be shaped not by secularization alone,” Religion News Service, https://religionnews.com/2021/03/31/behind-gallups-portrait-of-church-decline/.