Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“For God alone my soul in silence waits.” (Ps. 62)
Many of us woke up Thursday morning with a lightness in our step that had not been there for a very long time. It was as if the inaugural events of the previous day had lifted from our shoulders a great burden that had been weighing us down even more than we were consciously aware.
Reaching this milestone put me in a reflective mood about all that we have been through together as a parish over the last five and a half years. Looking back as pastor of this congregation, it really amazes me how much we have had to respond to as a community, both out of a sense of social responsibility but also to preserve our own emotional well-being.
There were the victims of mass shootings, for whom we have tolled bells, held concerts, and kept silence. The very first month after I came, the attack at the Mother Emmanuel AME Church. Then the Pulse Night Club. The Clovis Library. Sutherland Baptist Church. A concert in Las Vegas. A Walmart in El Paso.
And there also came the busloads of immigrant families whom we readily met, offering shelter, food, medical care, transportation, and a kind and welcoming word. They were the lucky ones – we also had to listen in horror on the radio to the cries of the children who had been separated from their parents at the border, put by our own government like beasts into cages.
And then there were the almost daily assaults from our national leadership on the basic values of human society— values such as truth, decency, and integrity. How often from this pulpit I and other preachers have had to state our resistance as Christian people to such moral degradation, reasserting our core belief in the inalienable dignity of the human person.
And then came the pandemic, and we as a congregation have done our best to rise to the occasion both by observing the necessary public health restraints, and by working hard to find creative ways of remaining connected and in communion with one another. Above all, week by week, we’ve gradually figured out how to do worship online—believe me, with a lot of trial and error—and overcoming a host of technological challenges along the way.
Do you remember for instance our first virtual choir, which sang “Draw the Circle Wide,” what might be called St. Michael’s theme song? Or the Sunday we solemnly observed the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in “a service of loss, mourning, and resilience”? Or the contemplative evening services during Advent? Or the online Christmas pageant, with a different Mary in every scene, and the angel Gabriel caught on mute? What a year it has been!
So there have certainly been some hard times, these last several years, and some great things have happened too. I would have to say that navigating these troubled waters while trying to keep us together has been a pastoral challenge unlike any other I’ve ever known. Yet by the grace of God even in the midst of it all, we have found energy and strength and resilience amongst ourselves.
Scores of volunteers turned out to help with the immigration ministry. In Sunday forums and online commentaries, we turned to such prophetic voices as Jeremiah, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Frederick Douglas, and the Martyrs of Memphis, to find mutual strength and encouragement from their words and example. Parishioners repeatedly stepped up to make calls on those at home. The staff too has put the shoulder to the wheel to keep our worship life active not just weekly, but on a daily basis. Financial support from you has remained amazingly steady. And we have turned wherever we could to find musical and liturgical resources to give voice to our pain, our fear, and our hope.
Do you remember for instance what we did after the shocking news of the Pulse Night Club shooting? While we were still struggling to figure out an appropriate response, in through the door of the church office walked a young woman from Bosque School, who said she wanted to put together a memorial concert, and asked if we would consider hosting it. “Yes! Yes!” we replied. And a few nights later a pick-up orchestra of students, teachers, and friends played their hearts out on Barber’s Adagio for Strings before a packed audience, invoking Leonard Bernstein’s famous words after the assassination of JFK, that “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” And indeed they did.
So now here we are, having finally crossed over the great sea of anxiety and despair of the last four years, and yet even here on this further shore many of these dangers still lurk. The pandemic is far from over. Violence is certain to erupt yet again. The border is still an unresolved morass of human misery.
So like the Israelites after they had crossed through the Red Sea, we have to ask, “Now what?”
Well, you may remember that a year ago at the Annual Meeting, we talked about how if the mainline church is to survive, it has to change, and change radically. We were going to spend this year thinking about and studying that challenge, but then life happened as what used to be called “the novel coronavirus” first hit. And the kind of change we might have only discussed hypothetically, began to happen all on its own.
Pushed out of our comfort zone, wae’re discovering that worship is becoming more relational, and less transactional. The intimacy of small groups is overtaking the anonymity of large gatherings as our primary way of gathering. The experimental rather than the customary is becoming a way of life. The dynamism of the local congregation is re-emerging from under the inertia of centralized church structures. In short, after the pandemic, church will never again be the same. There will be no normal to go back to, when Covid is finally over. Who we are as a community of faith, and the shape of our spiritual lives, will have changed irrevocably.
And in this brave new world, I wonder if what we will most need is what was so on display in Washington this week: a sense of common purpose that moves beyond the anger, the bitterness, and the resentment of these past several years. I heard it in the voice of Amanda Gorman, whose inaugural poem “The Hills We Climb” said that “If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all of the bridges we’ve made.”
Perhaps the task of our time is for all of us again to become bridge builders. Bridge builders to those who are unlike us. Bridge builders to the next generation. Bridge builders to a new church just beginning to emerge. Bridge builders to the future.
So I wonder if it isn’t time for us as a parish to commit ourselves this year to engaging in some deep thought and reflection on what the post-Covid church and world are going to look like. Today’s psalm gives us encouragement to do so: like many psalms, it comes out of a place of deep anguish. But unlike the psalms of lament, that struggle to rise out of their despair, Psalm 62 abounds with a quiet confidence in the future: “For God alone my soul in silence waits.” And just in case we might miss it, the psalm reminds us that God has spoken once, but twice have we heard it: that the unifying force in creation is the steadfastness of God’s love. It doesn’t wane, it doesn’t waver, it doesn’t slip away.
And so it is in that confidence that we can entertain a future very different from the present, not with a sense of alarm and resistance, but with a spirit of anticipation and wonder. A future where bridges will have been built where now there are only chasms; where links will have been forged where now there is only isolation; where connections will have been created where now there is only alienation. The future is ours to build.
As Amanda Gorman so beautifully finished her poem, “there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.” Amen.