I have to tell you; the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones has always been one of my favorite Bible stories. As has the tale of Lazarus’ death, and the musty, mildewy wraps that trail from his body as he emerges from his tomb. For me, these are both stories that pull together the grief, loss, tears, hope and love of a community. In both narratives, God’s breath blows new life into desolate voids.
And now we have our own, desolate void, don’t we? A new virus. Real life concerns. Our routines upended due to the pandemic. COVID-19. As we gather for worship today, I am here at my house—and you are each there at yours. Winds of uncertainty blow about.
Remember that we are in the church season of Lent. The theme that choose us for this journey was wilderness. Over the past 2 weeks our reflection on the wilderness places in our lives has taken a sudden, dramatic turn.
Just think, it was only two Sundays ago that Council leaders and I did something unheard of in the life of the church: we began to actively encouraged people not to come to worship on Sunday morning. At first, this was in response to Public Health recommendations not to gather in groups of 50 or more. That Sunday we did a test run of live streaming worship at Memorial—just in case we would need to offer services online in the future. Just in case.
The “future” came all too quickly. The following week, last Sunday, we worshiped together for the first-time using a platform called Zoom. We selected Zoom because it offers us a way to lead worship, even if all of the worship leaders cannot be in the same place at the same time. For example, last week seven worship leaders including myself were at church, in the sanctuary. There were two additional worship leaders who joined us from home. Many of you were there too… at home. Between individuals and families, worship attendance was approximately 125 people. On Facebook alone, the video of the service has been viewed over 215 times. This digital space was also an interactive place, with over 100 comments posted on Facebook and Zoom from those participating in the service.
The technology did what it was supposed to do—it connected us. Standing in the sanctuary, it was a joy to see on my computer screen the toddlers and families in their homes joining us in worship, as well elders in their 90s logging in from home, and each and every one of you in-between.
I know that the camera work and audio was not perfect, but the fact that you were each open to stepping into a new space, following the Spirit, to gather digitally was WONDERFUL! I consider that a success. I can tell you that I met with six Fitchburg pastors for our monthly prayer gathering this week. Turns out we all had tech problems. The tech challenges were rooted in the fact that across the country last Sunday LOTS of faith communities were doing the same thing at the same time. Quickly moving to online worship services meant that between 9 and 11 am there were A LOT OF CHURCHES and A LOT OF PEOPLE streaming… all at the same time. The streaming of services overwhelmed platforms and the internet. Tech happens…
That is a lot of change in a very short period of time. How are you feeling?
Are you hanging in there?
I pray for us all, because… of course… we are not done yet. This week brought an entirely new reality as Safer at Home orders were put into place by the State of Wisconsin. This precipitated another rapid set of changes in the life of the church. Worship leaders and I had talked about what we would need to do to make church happen should “stay at home” guidelines be enacted. It was, as Ezekiel says, “a noise, a rattling…”
This rattling, this unsettling, deep down inside my gut rolled as I met with staff and worship leaders via Zoom to figure out how to led worship outside the sanctuary space. You see, church services are not listed as “essential business,” and so today I am facilitating this service from my home. Jeff is in his home, as are Rebecca, Jonathan, Lynn, and Jon.
Worshipping in this way might feel uncomfortable, but this is how we love our neighbors. I believe that we are modeling healthy community relationships by fully worshiping outside of the building on Lacy Road. In his pastoral letter to congregations this week, the Rev. Franz Rigert, Wisconsin Conference UCC Minister wrote, “As people of faith, we understand the highest calling is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Thus, we must observe these guidelines for the sake of keeping love and saving lives.”
And those ancient words of Ezekiel ring all too true. His cry reverberates in our hearts, our homes, our community, our world: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
Social distancing. Safer at Home. We are cut off completely.
These days, many of us feel like dry bones. No matter who you are, or where you are on your life’s journey…
young, old, child, teen, adult…
healthy or sick…
working on the front lines in the community, working from home, having lost your job… your business…
Whether you are caring for a loved one who is vulnerable to the coronavirus…
Or cut off from a loved one who is in the hospital, a nursing home, hospice…
Or if you yourself are vulnerable to the severe complications of the viral infection due to health concerns and/or age…
Whomever and wherever you are on your life’s journey, we are all experiencing this pandemic together. Together there is trauma. There is grief. There is fear. Anxiety. Uncertainty. Wilderness.
Our bones are dried up…
But wait. I implore you Beloved… to remember. Remember that you know… you knowthe rest of this story. You know all about the pulling together of bones which are dry. You… this congregation… has lived this story of hoped-for flesh being renewed.
This is our DNA. And you know what happens.
For this faith community has lived it, has risked it, and has experienced God’s Holy Spirit revitalizing “it”. “It” is us. This church. This story is us. If you have forgotten, or if you are new to Memorial, let me tell you once again the story of our own sacred text:
On our website, we embrace being “a church on the move.” This is a congregation that has, time after time, followed God into new places. In Memorial’s 100-plus year history, members have taken risks multiple times to move the location of the church building. This happened most recently in 1986 when Memorial was located in Madison, near Camp Randall. That year the congregation took a prophetic vote. The church was in decline. How should they respond? They prayerfully decided to move to Fitchburg.
The last Sunday they worshiped together in Madison, they did something symbolic. At the end of the service, each person placed a strip of cloth on the communion table. Those strips of cloth were then sewn into a quilt. For the next two (or so) years, as the building on Lacy Road was being constructed, Memorial worshiped at an alternative location. It wasn’t a traditional church space, so each Sunday flagpole standards were erected in the room. The quilt was then hung. The quilt, this quilt, marked their worship space.
Thus, this quilt is a symbol of who we are. A church ready to listen to the Spirit. Prepared to move. Even unexpectedly.
And beloved, this is all so very unexpected.
And in the weeks ahead, as this quilt travels with us into places unknown, may it remind us of who we are as a faith community. May it be a reminder that Jesus calls “Come out!” in all sorts of unexpected places in the midst of grief, tears, and loss. Even death.
Come out, O people of God.
In this wilderness, may the hand of God rest upon you.
May God’s breath renew you. Renew us. Renew the world.
And may God put her spirit within us once again.
Reflection on Ezekiel 1-14 and John 11:1–45 offered March 29, 2020