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Wilderness: A Place of Surprises

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You might not know that planning for each worship service begins months in advance. That gives the worship team, from the music ministries to the worship committee and faith development, time to collaborate. Back in December, in all its darkness and cold, with the holidays in full swing, I sat down to prayerfully reflect on Lent. The Bible passages we read today had already been selected and the hymns picked. The theme chosen for these 6 weeks was wilderness. On that day waaaaay back in December a sermon series emerged. Thus, when Lent arrived two weeks ago we started out with Wilderness: A place of beginnings. Last week we reflected on Wilderness: A place of mystery. The title for today’s sermon materialized back in December as well. Are you ready for it?

Wilderness: A place of surprises.

Wilderness. A place of surprises. Wow. No kidding. After this past week, those words couldn’t be more true. Last Sunday, as I stood in this pulpit, I would never have imagined that we would be contemplating moving worship online… let alone actually doing it. Seven days ago, I had no clue that Council would need to be meeting to discuss whether or not we should cancel church activities and worship.

And now?

Note: Memorial UCC actively encouraged members and friends to not attend worship due to the pandemic. However, we held worship in case community members did not receive the message. We live streamed its worship service via Memorial UCC: Ever-Widening Circles for the first time that morning.

Steve, can you tell us how many people are joining us via FaceBook live today?


All across our country this morning, congregations are live streaming worship services. Many for the first time, like us. Some have already fully shut their doors. But whether in-person, online, with or without doors shut, we are still Church. The Body of Christ. Interconnected. Adapting to the current needs of the community. That is what Church does.

On Friday, a pastoral letter and message from the Council regarding the measures the church would be implementing following worship this morning was emailed. Copies are available this morning for you to pick up after worship. In my letter to the congregation, I noted that wilderness moments happen throughout our lives. Sometimes we enter the wilderness willingly. The outdoors beckons. What are some of the activities YOU like to do in the wilderness?

Those both present and online responded:

“Hiking.” “Biking.” “Bird watching.” “Camping.” “Photography.” “Walking.” “Horseback riding.” “Mule riding!”

Then there are other times when we are drawn into wild places we did not expect. Places we do not want to be in. The list of wilderness places deep-rooted in the world is bewildering. We lament. We cry. We feel lost. Isolated. Forgotten. The ancient cries of the Israelites, “Is God among us or not?” seems all to real.

And now… and now here we are. An unexpected wilderness. We have been thrust into a collective, global, reality. COVID-19. This is a place in which we have not been before – not in our lifetimes, not in this way, not with this tech. The pandemic has led us into uncharted territory. Yet we are still Church. Here in the pews. Out there…in our homes. We are the Body of Christ.

In a very short period of time, new words and phrases have emerge. The one that unsettled me the most this past week was social distancing. According to the CDC, “Social distancing means remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet…) from others when possible.”[1] It seems so not church-like.

This morning, in this space, is really the first time we have had an opportunity to practice social distancing. How has it felt to you?

Those both present and online responded:

“Oddly strange.” “Sad.” “Scary.” “Alone.” “Isolated.”

It doesn’t feel quite right, does it?

In another wilderness, a very long, long time ago, in the reading from Exodus, we encounter a community wandering in the desert. Things weren’t feeling so right for them either. They thirsted for water. They were afraid of death. For us, death is also all too close. And in this time, we will find ourselves thirsting for human contact.

There will undoubtedly be rough times ahead. I do not want to sugarcoat this. In our own way, we are each experiencing the stresses of the reality of living into self-isolation, potential quarantine, acknowledging our personal risk factors, and those of our loved ones. This takes a toll on everyone’s mind, body, and spirit. This is a wilderness. In this wilderness, how will we care for one another? Connect? Show up?

Yet this is also Lent. In this wild place, we have the opportunity to surprise each other with good news. Hope. Love. Grace. I liked this list that Megan Westra developed, “In this time where so many of us are social distancing, what if we approach this wilderness time as a time when we allow our imaginations to be reformed when we push our social institutions to be centered on love and care for one another than exploitation?  

  • As we are physically distant from one another, what if we become more open-hearted and honest with one another? 
  • As we are limited in our ability to go out and buy and consume, what if we evaluated not taking more than we need so that all may have enough? 
  • As we are all taking measures to protect the vulnerable in our society, what if we shifted our mindset to always considering others above ourselves? Towards loving and protecting one another, even if it feels inconvenient or disruptive. 
  • As governments around the world shift to make provisions in both time and resources to provide for people, what if we asked why we were okay with so many stretched so thin in the first place?”[2]

Beloved, we have the tools at our disposal to do this as Church. Yes, the building will be locked. But we can call one another. Text. Email. Message. Send a card. Show up on social media. Pray for one another. We have people in the congregation who have volunteered to write reflections, record and post music. In less than a week we are already hosting our first worship service that is live streamed. Rebecca and I, and others at church, will be offering suggestions regarding what faith practices you can do at home. By yourself. With family. With kids. For this pandemic impacts us all.

It will also be important for you to rest. To take breaks from social media. The news. What I call taking tech sabbaths. Do something you enjoy. Have you had any ideas for yourself, or your family, to engage yourself in life in the days ahead?

Those both present and online responded:

“More outdoor time.” “Painting.” “Yard work.” “Unpacking my suitcase.” “Write.” “Spring Cleaning.”

If you need something—someone to talk to, an errand done, food, have a financial emergency, know of a need in our wider community—let us know. Pastoral care continues to happen. The person heading up the Care Team and I have met and a plan is in place to keep in touch with those in our congregation who are in vulnerable, at risk categories. Yet the congregation is large enough we need each of you to help as well– consider committing to reaching out to 2 or 3… people you know at Memorial on a regular basis. The Membership Committee is reflecting on other ways we can Be Church. If you have suggestions, let us know. This is uncharted territory for each and every one of us.

Connect via FaceTime. I have made arrangements to meet with 2 people via FaceTime in the last 72 hours. Yesterday I visited a member of the church who had surgery last week at their home, but I did not go in the home. A family member opened the door and I shouted “Hi!” from outside and we had a brief conversation (remember… social distancing!). On a nice day, when you have access to the outdoors, come to the church. Walk the grounds. Say a prayer. Sit for awhile at the picnic tables. Pray for the Church Council, lay leaders, and staff of Memorial as they lead us through all the unknowns ahead. I will take your prayers as well.

Connect with God.

Again, if you have other ideas, let Rebecca, a member of the Church Council, or I know. I have great faith that we know how to do church and Be Church in ways that will keep us connected. Church will be opened… in new ways.

I admit I will miss these in-person moments. But while we will not be worshiping together in the same space in the upcoming weeks, I will also not say that we are “canceling” church. Instead we will be Being Church outside the walls of the building. And THAT is the Body of Christ.

Peace my beloved. God’s peace be with you.


~ Pastor Kris

Reflection on Exodus 17:1-7 offered on 3.15.20.

[1] “Interim US Guidance for Risk Assessment and Public Health Management of Persons with Potential Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Exposures: Geographic Risk and Contacts of Laboratory-Confirmed Cases.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 7, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/php/risk-assessment.html.

[2][2] Westra, Megan, “Social Distance as Wilderness.” March 14, 2020.