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Isaiah 40.3-8

Welcome to the Future

Fifth Sunday of Easter

What do Microsoft, a former coach for the LA Rams, and a 1955 documentary about government research labs all have in common?  [Pray]

It is so good to see you.  It is so good to be in worship, in the presence of God, with you.  It is so good to welcome all of you from the many towns and states we mentioned earlier to be here with us in our sanctuary.    Do you remember that haiku we shared last spring about quarantine?  “We isolate now / so when we gather again / no one is missing.”  Truth be told, some of us likely know someone who has succumbed to Covid 19, and let me be quick to add that this thing isn’t over yet; we still need to be cautions, we still need to be caring, we still need to be respectful.  But the fact remains, by the grace of God, here at the United Church of Chester, no one is missing.  Praise God.

Things look a bit different from the last time we were physically together, don’t they?  We have our very own makeshift broadcast studio going for us.  [Thanks to Rick Holloway…]  We even have a studio audience!  [Pan congregation]  Wave hello, everyone!  Hollywood’s got nothing on us…  You all look a bit different too – and I don’t just mean we’re a year older than we were when last we met.  I love the variety of face coverings you’re wearing.  (Show Mission From God).  Our pulpit and lectern look different – they’re empty! -  and they will likely remain that way, at least for the near-future.  There are no Deacons or laity helping out with worship right now, though I expect we will resume that in a matter of weeks.  And look at the chancel – no choir!  We miss your company up here, and we dearly miss your music as well.  Things don’t just look different, they sound different.  And it’s not just the choir – there won’t be any singing from any of us in the building!    This is already one of the things I miss most – as we’ve said before, how often do you get to sing along with a group of other people?  Not even the Gris is back to sea chantey night yet!  I do expect this will change, but that part may be a while yet.  So yes, there is a lot that is different about this morning.

But as different as worship looks and feel this morning, I also want to pay attention to what remains the same, as the epigram for today’s sermon has it, “yesterday, today and forever.”  The passage we heard from Isaiah this morning reminds us of what changes, and what remains steadfast:

“A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.’  All people are grass; their constancy is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.  The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”

          For all the changes you and I have seen since March 2020 – and we have seen a lot – there are some things that remain constant, and in times of change you and I find a certain equilibrium, a firm foundation, in the word and presence of God.  Jobs have disappeared, favorite shops and restaurants are closed, friends have moved away, and many relationships have been put on pause. The world remains anxious, the virus continues to wane and then wax again, and epidemiologists have characterized the fight against Covid with one of my favorite metaphors:  it’s like playing whack-a-mole.  You never know where it’s going to raise its ugly head next.  Michigan – Florida – Oregon – India, South America - who’s next?  The ground seems to be shifting beneath our feet.  Yet here we are.  Here in this place a new light is shining, here is this place both literal and virtual, where the constancy and consistency of God’s promises are boldly proclaimed. 

But I think we have also found our equilibrium in the presence – the distanced presence, to be sure, but the presence nonetheless of one another.  You and I and our neighbors and friends have found ways of staying connected with each other.  The phone calls – the singing phone calls!  The thoughtfully penned note.  The masked smile and exuberant wave from the other side of the street.  Occasionally in the past year this year some of you have been walking by the church and called me on the phone, just to smile and make contact and wave to me from the sidewalk.  You can’t imagine how much a gesture like that means.  And those of you beyond these four walls who have never stepped foot into this space but have been church regulars since last year, or who visit with us from time to time, yours remains a welcome presence too, you have warmed our hearts and drawn connections in places that did not exist before.  We are so glad you are here.

I know that some of you remember my saying – more than a year ago – that even if we had to miss Easter together – and, as it turned out, we missed two Easters together – that whenever we finally came back together in person, this would be Easter.  Well, as it turns out, that wasn’t far from the mark, was it?  Easter Day was only four weeks ago, and you and I are still solidly in the season of Easter.  We are still celebrating resurrection, and this morning feels like a kind of resurrection, doesn’t it?  Jesus emerged from the tomb, and we have emerged from our cocooned homes on a glorious Sunday morning.  But as my friend and colleague Lilian Daniel wrote last week, remember that in resurrection life, things look different.  Jesus looked so different his dearest friends did not recognize him at first.  In resurrection life, you and I are different – we are not the same people we were before God embraced us, we are a people of promise, a people of hope.  In resurrection life, the one true constant is Jesus Christ.  Lilian wrote, “[Resurrection] life does not mean more of the same.  So why settle for some pre-pandemic nostalgic normalcy for your church, your children, your institutions, your society, your schools, or your street?  Why do you look for the living among the dead?  Resurrection is the radical change that renders our run-or-the-mill desires unrecognizable.  Christ is risen and there’s no going back.”  I love that last line:  “Christ is risen and there’s no going back.”

Carey Nieuwhof is a retired pastor and a writer from Barrie, Ontario.  In a piece that has been circulating among local church pastors, Nieuwhof writes much the same thing as Lilian did, only he casts it in terms of “method” vs. “mission.”  In a crisis, he writes, what dies is the method, what rises is mission:

“The first thing to die in a crisis is your method.  Gyms had to surrender in-person workouts.  Restaurants had to forgo in-person dining.  Churches had to close to gatherings in their facilities.  What wise leaders realize is that all of those were methods.  None of it was a mission.  Gym owners can miss that the mission is fitness, the method was working out in a gym.  Some restauranteurs missed that the mission is food, the method was a restaurant.  And pastors must understand that the mission is sharing the Gospel [of Jesus Christ], the method was in-person gatherings in a building owned by the church.  Sure, in-person is coming back at some level.  But wise leaders aren’t wagering everything on old methods.  Instead, they’re focusing on the mission.  And as long as there are people, your mission will grow.”

Perhaps this new way of doing church is here to stay, in some way or another.

          If it is, we have a parallel in scientific circles.  The February issue of Nature Magazine surveyed more than 100 immunologists, infectious-disease researchers and virologists working on the coronavirus, asking them whether or when they believed it could eventually be eradicated.  Nearly 90% of respondents believe the coronavirus will become endemic, that it will continue to circulate around the globe, albeit in smaller pockets of outbreaks, and there is a good chance that periodic booster shots will become necessary to keep it from repeating the carnage we have seen in the last year.  In other words, it may well be that Covid is here to stay, and we will find new strategies for living with it, like influenza and measles.  And for neither the church nor the scientific community is this a somewhere far off in the future scenario.  The future is now.

          This, by the way, is the answer to the question I posed at the beginning of the sermon.  The 1955 documentary short about government research labs was titled, “The future is now.”  George Allen, in the early 1960s, inspired his Los Angeles Rams football squad by reminding them, “The future is now.”  And probably most famously, the Microsoft Corporation adopted the phrase as their motto earlier this century.

          The future is now; you and I are living in a world of resurrection change when old familiar ways become unrecognizable until we see them in the light of Christ.  For me, our shared and common fellowship has been a real anchor – they are what have helped us keep our focus on our mission rather than our method.  In Isaiah’s words, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.”  The letter to the Hebrews tells us,  “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”  This morning, you and I stand on these two lodestones, we find our strength in God’s presence, our faithfulness in Christ’s promise, and our fellowship, community and communion sustained by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.

          We celebrate everything God has done for us as we come to the table prepared for us and all God’s children…




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