This is my sermon from July 25, 2021, the Ninth Sunday after the Pentecost. You can read the lectionary here.
This gospel is chockfull of nuggets to preach It’s one of those weeks when you read it and think, “Oh! That’s a good idea.” And then you think, “Oh, but maybe this is a better idea,” and then it just keeps going on and on. I have to say, usually those gospels kind of drive me nuts. Nuttier than I am on any other given day. But this week, I realized as I was sitting with a number of pretty heavy emotions, how grateful I was for the multiple messages that we have. And I’m going to share just a little bit of where my head and heart space are because perhaps some of it will resonate with you.
One is, I feel like I came crashing down, in terms of COVID. I don’t know that I was fully aware I of the depth or the scope of the toll the long-term nature of the pandemic and resulting restrictions have had taken on me. I don’t think so much in my daily life apart from the church, if a priest can ever have a life apart from the church, because I got to tell you, I’ve been enjoying my time and my study with my knitting and my books. There have been some parts of COVID that have been liberating. But mostly, I have felt the absence of community, or at least the absence of all of you in-person. I have felt deeply the absence of all of you and the way I had come to know us as a faith community in the 14 months I was here before we went into a lockdown.
I also had an experience this week that kind of crept up on me. And I was sitting on Zoom, yet again, in Spiritual Direction, which in some ways feels really bizarre. I was kind of in a little bit of a funk and my spiritual director -as a wise man -and I noticed something felt off. And I happened to look down and there on the date on my computer, I realized that today is the fourth anniversary of my brother’s sudden death. Which means tomorrow is the second anniversary of the death of my dear friend, Hank. Some of you have heard about Hank. I used to travel to Massachusetts every 10 days to take care of him. So there’s kind of let down of thinking we were moving forward in COVID with some very real, though unconnected, grief attached to it.
And as I sat after Spiritual Direction, looking again at this gospel, I was so much more aware of the abundance of grace and love that I have experienced in my life. The loaves and the fishes – just when you think life is as hard as it’s going to get, something happens and you realize there’s always a next thing, which then reminds me that with God, all things are new. So there’s always a next thing. And for me, being in Spiritual Direction yesterday, two days after saying we can’t have communion, we can’t sing together, we can’t have coffee hour, all of those things that help us to know who we are. I was reminded of the community of faithful that I’m a part of, and that is such an abundant blessing.
Then there’s the second part of this gospel: Jesus needs to go and spend some time and be in prayer. And the disciples, they get in the boat and they go across the sea and there’s Jesus.They realize that even in the midst of this crossing, which is dangerous, Jesus is with them. They know this. And he says, “It is I, do not be afraid.” If you look back to the language and translation that is more in keeping with the original Greek, it would be, “I am.” The great, “I am,” hearkening back to the Hebrew scriptures. And once they realize that they have only to open their hearts and have faith and trust, they’re at the other side.
And this message today for me, in the context of us, this beautiful, faithful community of St. Stephen’s, is that we have had so many blessings during this time. Even though we’re an older congregation than some, we have not had a single death resulting from COVID. We have not had a single extended ICU stay resulting from COVID. I’m not aware that we have had any ICU stays. I know we’ve had a couple of hospitalizations. We have been able to gather, whether online or in person, literally with one week of no worship, since COVID began. We have continued to have music, not the congregational singing we love, but we have had music, which in our parish is such an important part of who we are. We have had a preschool that has been open and loud and joyful for most of this time. (We closed for a little over a month.) We have been so blessed.
And so as we think about this, it really feels like a step backwards to be officiating a worship service that is a Liturgy of the Word with no Communion and no congregational singing. Some of us had this conversation, we’ll know we’re getting through it when we celebrate the Eucharist and share Communion again. We’ll really know we’re getting through it when we can sing together again. We had this idea of what it would take for us to feel like the people we know ourselves to be, beloved of God and loving God. It now feels like we are stepping backwards.
But the image I have in this moment is that we are on the sea. We are right there in the boat with the disciples. Now look up. This is called the nave because what does the ceiling look like? The keel of a boat, right? We’re kind of upside down. We’re in the boat. And as we take this step back, we are not falling off into the abyss. We’re stepping back into the presence of Jesus, who loves us and who is with us and will carry us along in this time of uncertainty, in the time of ups and downs and the craziness of COVID. We are stepping back into those loving arms, that grace-filled presence, to be held with all the hope and all the promise that has always been ours. Hope and promise that has been ours in God, through the love and relationship with Jesus, felt by us through the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Amen.
Copyright 2021 The Rev. Paula J. Toland