On Sunday, March 15, 2020, This is What Love Looks Like - An Empty Church
A sermon by the Rev. Susan Bek; Lent 3, Year A; From Home on Behalf of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Ventura; March 15, 2020
What a strange Sunday this is when the pews are empty. We’ve worked hard all week. Usually our efforts are to encourage people to come to church. This week our wonderfully dedicated leadership team, led by our Senior Warden, have been laboring to get the word out that all church services and activities have been cancelled or at least postponed until further notice.
From Washington Cathedral this morning the so familiar Episcopal Sunday service was broadcast. There were some differences, though. The ministers stood six feet apart from one another. Hand santitizer was brought to each for the cleansing of hands during the offertory. The congregation was not in the pews, but at home, keeping social distance because of the pandemic and threat of Covid-19. Because together we face this challenge, we must remain separate. We separate in an attempt to slow the spread and “flatten the curve”.
Every day, every hour it seems, we learn more about the things that have been cancelled – sporting events, concerts, gatherings of over 250 people. There was a mad rush for supplies which laid waste to store shelves. Next came the closures – libraries, schools, even churches and houses of worship. Over the course of just a few days our lives here in the United States have changed completely.
Our Presiding Bishop reminded us in his sermon this morning that we are made by the hand of love. Made by love, and made for love. His words were powerful. We need to be separate for a time, but we are still bound together as the body of Christ and God is still with us.
On this first Sunday morning that we are apart, I want you to remember that you are loved. We, the people of St. Paul’s, love you. Jesus loves you. God loves you. The Holy Spirit is, even now, whispering love and inspiration into your life. Stop. Take it in. Be still and know God’s love for you. Then, let that love so fill you that it overflows.
May the only thing we spread to one another this week be this amazing, abundant, radiant, life-giving, sin-forgiving, and joy-sustaining love.
Love seeks the good and welfare of others. Jesus went to the cross for the wellbeing of others. He did it to show what love looks like. Our empty church is what love looks like today. God so loved the world that he gave his only son that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16) We, the congregation of St. Paul’s, Ventura, so love the world that we have given up gathering for worship. We have sacrificed a lot. Let us offer to God, on behalf of our neighbors, this sacrifice. This is a new Lenten commitment for us – not gathering. May our not gathering be a disciplined labor or love.
These are interesting times. Today, our empty church is what love looks like. Today, people sitting faithfully in front of their screens, worshiping God online instead of going to church, is what love looks like. Today, neighbors sharing what they have and giving up some hand sanitizer or toilet paper to someone in need is what love looks like.
We think not just of ourselves but of our neighbors, especially those who are most vulnerable. Realizing that our choices effect our brothers and sisters, we have no choice but to take these precautions.
Still, it was odd to watch the Celebration of Eucharist and not participate in it. How much my hands longed to be stretched out to receive the bread and wine made holy. In place of receiving communion, we said this prayer together across the miles:
“My Jesus, I believe that you are truly present in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. I love you above all things, and long for you in my soul. Since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. As though you have already come, I embrace you and unite myself entirely to you; never permit me to be separated from you. Amen.”
We may be separate one from another, but we can never be separated from God. God is with us and God is with our neighbors. Spend time thinking about that today. As people who live very busy lives, we often do not have the time we wish we had to focus on things spiritual. Now that life has slowed down and so many things have been cancelled, perhaps you can find time to make this a sabbath day, dedicated to resting in God through worship, prayer, study, and music. Take this opportunity seriously. It is, no doubt, a great inconvenience. It may turn out to be a great blessing as well. God is the master of turning adversity into blessing. Turn yourself over to his transforming love today and see how your life will be blessed!
Love can heal what nothing else can. Through love we can do what others think can not be done. Love has amazing power to bless and heal. I encourage you to invite the full power of God’s love into your life today.
Stay calm. Pray for the needs of others. Stay separate. Offer this sacrifice to God out of love for our neighbors. Stay connected. Spend time with God and reach out to one another and to us at St. Paul’s this week. We look forward to hearing from you.
We will get through this, and while sacrificing in order to be a blessing to our neighbors, we too will be blessed.
Thanks be to God!