April 26, 2020 | Sarah Stewart
What is a church?
If you just drive through Worcester, you'll see lots of answers to this question. Old stately buildings like our own, sites that now have an office building on them but maybe a plaque that says, “oh, there used to be a church here”, storefront churches, religious congregations that of course are not churches, but are synagogues or mosques and still bring people together as our church does in faith and in love. And if that's the church right now, you drive past all those churches in Worcester, and they're closed. There's no congregation gathering, there's no people going in and out of the storefront door, there's nobody here in our pews at First Unitarian Church. So, this is absolutely church. But this is not THE church.
Think about Jesus saying that statement in Matthew, “for where two or three of you are gathered, I am there with them”. Now Jesus was a faithful Jew and so were his followers and they were faithful in bringing their offerings to the temple a few times a year when the festivals required it. They participated in the faith life of their community and if you had asked them, “what is the temple?” “where's the temple?”, they would have said it was right over there in Jerusalem, I mean it's enormous, you can't miss it. But by the time Matthew's gospel was being written the temple had been destroyed and Jews have been expelled from Jerusalem, and all of a sudden, the faith community didn't have its building anymore. They couldn't go to be together in their sacred place, and they found themselves wondering well where is our temple? Where is our faith community? And they remembered this thing that Jesus said to them, “where two or three of you are gathered together in my name, I am there with you”. We can imagine Jesus’ community looking to each other, looking at each other in the midst of that crisis and saying, “well, we're the community now, we're the temple, we're the church.
I think this happens all the time, that people realize that they themselves are the church. Imagine two young women who meet in their church and become friends, and then move away from one another. But their faith keeps them connected. They reach out to one another with prayers and with love, through miscarriages and joyful births, through doubt, and hope. They light candles for one another in their separate places. They're there for each other when there are prayers and rituals to be said and they're there for each other when there is nothing. The church can be a building. It can be a place where we come to say our prayers and light our candles and have our committee meetings and enjoy a cup of coffee and see one another. But the church is also there for us, for those women, for those followers of Jesus. It's there in our love for one another, in the invitation to serve others in the midst of grief, in our companionship, even when we cannot be together. I imagine that Jesus’ community when they lost the temple, they might have remembered Micah's words: “what can we do God, when we can't bring our offerings? what can we do when we can't say the prayers, the way we learned from when we can't go to the place that is our sacred home?” And they remembered that the Prophet said, “what does God require of you but to do justly and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” Our church's mission of love; worship, connection, and justice continues, even now, when we can't gather together in person. Wherever two or three are gathered in person or online, the Spirit of God is with you there.
Pope Francis has said that the church doesn't have a mission, the church is a mission. So, what kind of mission are we on right now during this pandemic? And how do we know when we're at church? Church is not just this half hour of worship, or that moment when your youth group meets, or when the sisterhood gathers, or when you come to volunteer at the soup kitchen. Our covenant tells us something about who the church is. We've been saying this covenant together since 1898: we are the church and we are the mission whenever we love truth, whenever we asked in the Spirit of Jesus, and the worship of God, whenever we serve others. That is what defines us as a church and the covenant we renew every Sunday to carry us through the week. So, I want to look a little bit at a few of those elements of our covenant to see if we can figure out when, during these hard times, when we are the church.
First, we're the church when we love truth. It's more important than ever right now to figure out where the truth lies. It's not just about finding true news, although that's important, and paying attention to science and trusting scientists as opposed to politicians in leadership on this crisis. It's also about reminding ourselves of reality, it can get easy to be get separated from reality. I go for a walk with my family every day and the natural world is just so normal. Springtime is proceeding like it always does and it's easy to forget that there is a health crisis going on. But when we love truth, we remind ourselves that people are at risk of infection. We remind ourselves that this illness is dangerous, and we need to take seriously the need to protect one another and protect our health and our lives. Loving truth is also imagining truths other than our own experience. This illness has hit poor communities and communities of color, especially hard. And if those are not our communities, then part of our responsibility to the truth is to have understanding and compassion for experiences beyond our own. And to help our society have a response that meets the needs of all the people.
So, when we love truth, we're at church. And when we act in the Spirit of Jesus, and in the worship of God, we're at church. Now I know there are members of our congregation who, when they say our covenant, they say, “in the Spirit of Jesus”, emphasizing that spirit part. And what does it mean, really, the Spirit of Jesus? When we are acting to love one another. When we are healing one another. And we live out of our deepest values. That's what that means to me. So, we're at church when we care for one another. We're at church when we heal one another. And I'm thinking, especially of all those who are working in healing professions right now; health care workers, dispatch workers, EMTs, therapists meeting with their clients over zoom, all of us who work in healing.
And we're a church when we can remember the Spirit of Jesus with those we live with, from whom we are not socially distant, who we are sharing our lives with right now; our families, for some of us, roommates. To see true humanity in each other's eyes, to remember our love for one another, even in trying moments. We're at church when we do that. And we're at church when we engage in all the forms of worship and these services in time outside, in prayer, and meditation. When we engage our spiritual practices that help us remember our deepest values. And then finally, we are carrying out the mission of our church when we engage in the service of all. Folks have been coming to volunteer at Wesley's food pantry next door. That's an active church. People have grocery shopped for others, are reaching out in phone calls, or attending zoom meetings to check in on one another, are sharing notes, caring attention. We provide a lifeline to love in the midst of grief. You know that's what you all are doing for me right now. Your love for one another, your love for this community, your love for the larger Worcester community, it sustains me, it helps me see the hope and possibility during these difficult days. And even when the most basic work of the church, are rituals of mourning, are disrupted, our caring and our love will get us through.
Now, First Unitarian Church has been through hard times before. We struggled when we were founded to have the right to exist as a parish. Suffered fire in the 1840s, made it through the Civil War, and the Spanish flu, a hurricane in the 1930s, two world wars, the changing demographics of Worcester and tragically another fire in 2000. And through all of that, through all of those hardships, through all of those things, that sometimes, just as now, physically close the churches doors, our mission; the mission we are in the world, has always been strong. We know what God requires of us. We know our job is justice and mercy, and humility. When we seek the truth, when we follow the spirit, and serve the world together, we are the church.
I love you. Amen.
Even as we stay home, work in essential jobs, or navigate unemployment, we are all in this together. Justice is just us, working together. A worship theme on the mission and values of our faith during these hard times.