Sermon from May 24: The Return

The Return
Easter VII; May 24, 2020
I Peter 1:13-21

In last Sunday’s sermon I said that today I would pick up the idea of where we go from here: how do we make something good come from all this? Although the battle is not ours, but God’s, nonetheless we do have our part to play in rebuilding after the pandemic. I’m going to talk about the Church, and particularly our Church, society, and ourselves as individuals.

The Scripture I’ve chosen is from I Peter, a little book that we did in my Saturday morning Bible study not too long ago. By the way, this is the last sermon in the series about encouragement during the emergency; after Trinity Sunday I’m going to start something new. I need your help with that, so please listen to my notices at the end of the service this morning for more about that. Anyway, the key line in today’s Scripture is, “If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile” (1:17). That is, if you think of yourself as a child of God, then while you are in exile live reverently.

This period of pandemic has felt like an exile to me. With the Church, I had started preaching on the story of the Exodus, the formation of the people of God. I’m not going back to that, at least not soon. This time has not felt like the slavery in Egypt, from which we are awaiting liberation. It has felt like the exile in Babylon, from which we yearn to return. Maybe someday I’ll preach from the stories of the return from exile, but not yet. There is much we can learn from the people’s experience of return; one lesson is that although they had gone back to the same land, things were not the same. Everything was different politically, economically, and religiously. A major factor shaping the life they had when they returned was how they had lived during the exile. So Peter tells us to live reverently during our exile; how we live now will shape our reality when we return.

For the Church, for society, for ourselves things will be different when we return from exile. Or so I hope. One of you said to me, when we talked on the phone, “Maybe this pandemic will change the world.” Many have expressed that hope, from the Dalai Lama to a recent editorial in the journal Science. I hope we will be different, although the pull is strong to simply restart, go back to where we were. That is a strong pull and I hope we are strong enough to resist it. We will have resist not only the pressure outside us to just restart everything the way it was but also the pressure inside us that wants everything to be just the way it was.

Well, let’s look forward. I’m going to talk mostly about the Church, mostly about our Church, but I’ll reflect with you a bit on society and ourselves as individuals too. First, where we are at Presbyterian Church of the Master. We have been trying to continue worship and education, both online; committees have met and other work has continued. Supplies for Siena Francis House and Rainbow House went out of here the other day; we’re looking to a possible distribution of help to refugees in August.

With respect to worship, what we are doing now will continue for at least a few more weeks. We are monitoring the situation and are aware of the dangers of gathering as a worshiping community. We’re not so much afraid for ourselves as we know our responsibility for public health; it puts many people at risk for themselves and everyone they meet when we gather for worship, far more than grocery shopping and other similar chores. We hope that by late June we can gather for worship, but if we do, there will be conditions. Those with underlying health issues will be told to stay home. We will have to stay separated; there will be no gathering in the Commons, no doughnuts in the courtyard, no forums after worship. And worship itself will be restricted: wear a face covering, don’t sing, don’t touch each other or touch books or papers and so forth. When we gather, it will be different, and will stay different as long as necessary for the sake of public health.

But since we are children of God and are living in reverent fear during the time of our exile, your Worship Committee has started meeting to discuss a bigger question: What is essential for Reformed worship? Since everything is different now, and everything will be different for awhile, why should we go back to what is familiar later? When the people of God returned from exile in Babylon, they did not go back to doing what they did before. Their religious life was different. We are going to be intentional about our religious life when we return, and not simply fall into the pattern of “This is what we’ve always done.” We can do what is familiar, or we can do what God leads us to do. Those are not the same thing.

One thing that will be different is we will continue to provide an online worship experience. That will not have the same production quality as what we’ve been doing since March. Bill Norton, don’t you dare edit this out: friends, the reason we are able to do what we’ve done is we have a church member who has experience in television production and has given his experience, his time, and energy to filming, editing, and producing our weekly services. Bill has done this because of his commitment to Jesus Christ and to Christ’s Church; I hope that leads all of you to ask yourselves what you have done out of your commitment to Jesus Christ and to Christ’s Church. Live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.

Anyway, the Session this week authorized the purchase and installation of equipment in our Sanctuary that will allow us to webcast our service every week. Rather than this nicely produced webcast that you’ve grown accustomed to, instead you will see the service actually happening in the church-house. It will be available live, and will be recorded so you can watch it whenever, as you are doing now. That will be ready to go by the time we start worshiping here again.

What else will be different? One Presbyterian pastor told me that small groups in her church have blossomed during this exile. People are making use of Zoom and Google Hangout and other video conferencing to create and develop new book clubs and other groups in the church. They have a men’s group for the first time ever. I’d like to know if you’ve been doing that. They didn’t wait for the Pastor to tell them to do it; they took the initiative and did it. Will we continue to make use of tools we have learned during our exile to expand our witness in the future? One Catholic layperson commented, “Our job is to take Jesus to people.” That’s excellent. Too often we Protestants get the notion that we’re to bring people to Jesus, or we’re to bring them to Church. “Our job is to take Jesus to people” says it much better, and I pray that we will continue to find new ways to do that.

A few thoughts on other matters and then I’ll stop. I hope that our world will be different, too. The skies are clearer, the wildlife is healthier, carbon emissions are down. If we are in a hurry to go back to the way things were, with no thought given to how things can be, then our march to damage human life because of climate change will resume. As we rebuild, we can build something better than the way we had been living, if we are thoughtful. I know: most people don’t think, they simply follow their feelings to do what makes them feel good. You see that already in those who march on State capitols demanding their brand of freedom, in those who don’t think about the well-being of others and wear a face covering when they go to the store, in the group of young men who were walking together at Standing Bear Lake, making it difficult for others to pass them with a responsible six feet of separation while they kept no separation between themselves. Most people don’t think, but if those who lead us are thinking, are doing responsible planning, and if enough of us are thinking and urging them, we can build something better. All it takes is for those of us who consider ourselves children of God to live in reverent fear during our exile, rather than yearning for everything to go back to “normal.”

Of course, as with everything important, we begin with ourselves as individuals. I have often asked colleagues and others, “What have you been doing during this time that you hope to continue?” One colleague said that he was being much more attentive to what he eats, trying to be healthier in his living, and he wants to continue that. I have been giving more time to prayer; not as much as I would like, but more than I used to do; and I want to continue that. What about you? What gems have you discovered during the time of your exile, gems that you want to take with you as we begin the return to Zion?

Except for this one, my sermons have tended to be shorter during this exile, and maybe that’s something else I should strive to retain! No promises, I’m afraid. But I do promise that your Church will be intentional about what we do as we return to Zion. I pray that our world will be intentional too, and that you will be. It won’t be soon; don’t listen to the voices that are ignoring reality and demanding too much too soon, because we still have a deadly pandemic out there and we need to be patient during our exile, knowing that a new day will come, a day of return. Even so, the return should not look the same as the way things were before. And in the meantime, if you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska