Rev. Danielle K Bartz October 24, 2021
Jeremiah 29:10-14 “A Future with Hope”
Earlier this year on Easter Sunday morning, I cried as I drove to the church. I didn’t want to face another empty sanctuary, I didn’t want to preach the miracle of resurrection into a camera. I wanted to see your faces, to feel your presence, to celebrate the greatest miracle of our faith with you – face to face. I am not sure if you remember, but our live-stream technology failed that morning, and it took long time for me to fix it. By the time I got it working, several of you had given up trying to watch, and I was as close as I had ever been during the pandemic to giving up as well. The miracle of resurrection had never felt so far away.
But then that afternoon, Mike pulled a trailer into the parking lot and we set up lawn chairs in the shade. It was time to collect the donations we had been gathering throughout Lent for the Winona Food Shelf. For the next two hours, members and friends of the congregation streamed into the parking lot, dropping off everything they had been collecting. I saw your faces, albeit behind masks, many for the first time in a year. I listened as you visited and laughed with church friends who were dropping off their donations at the same time. The trailer very quickly filled up and required creative organization to make sure we could get all of those much needed items safely to the food shelf. I went home exhausted but filled with Easter joy – the joy of seeing with my eyes the truth of what it means when I say, “We are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our cry.” The exile was coming to an end.
A few weeks later, on a lovely May morning, we gathered for the first time in-person in our parking lot for worship. I giggled as I listened to the set-up volunteers exclaim how excited they were to be back in the building – even if they were just passing through the messy Fireside Room to pick up the sound equipment. We heard our voices say ‘Good Morning’ together, and raised as one for the Lord’s Prayer. People lingered for a long time after worship, reveling in one another’s presence after such a long absence. The exile was coming to an end.
And now our sanctuary is opened again – we can hear the organ, sit in familiar pews, feel the bulletin in our hands, and taste the elements of Holy Communion. But, we have also noticed that we fit into this building, into this community, in new ways. We join together in worship in new ways – some online, some in the building. We pray in new ways, study scripture in new ways, socialize in new ways. We have held tight to some traditions, and have let others go that no longer work. Our exile is indeed coming to an end, but the New Jerusalem we are moving into is not done being created.
The prophet Jeremiah speaks with wisdom into this time of our community. Jeremiah lived and preached and taught during the time of the Babylonian exile – when the ancient city of Jerusalem was conquered, and the Jews were forced to flee to Egypt – cut off not only from everything that was familiar, but their place of worship- the Temple, the place where they and their ancestors had found God. The Babylonian exile was a time of isolation, fear, and questions about who they were as a people and if they would ever experience the familiar again.
When Jerusalem came under new rule, and the exiles were able to return, Jeremiah spoke into that isolation, fear, and questions. He returned to Jerusalem early – to a place drastically changed, a world that no longer felt familiar. But, even in the midst of all that, even in the midst of a city in ruins and a Temple in disrepair, Jeremiah felt God’s presence. He preached words of hope for a people who were lost. He reminded the people of God’s promise, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” The exile was coming to an end, but the New Jerusalem was not yet done being created.
God did not cause the Babylonian exile that forced the people away from everything they knew. And God did not create the pandemic that forced us away from everything we knew. God was present in the midst of it – God was present with the Jews while they tried to make a life in Egypt. God was, and is present with us, as we navigate a world seeking health and wholeness – a world of constantly changing rules, of tremendous loss, and a world extraordinary possibilities of what humanity can achieve together. Just as the ancient exiles, whose lives and faith are chronicled in our scriptures, were able to hold onto God even as they were separated from the touch-point, the Temple, of where they had so often found God – we have done the same. We have learned that God is not present inside this sanctuary alone. God is present when we worship over a computer screen, or by reading sermons sent in the mail. God is present when we hear the beautiful music of our organ, and God is present in the silence of our homes. God is present when we sit together for worship and gather in fellowship, and God is present when we smile and wave at one another over a computer screen or across a parking lot. God did not cause the pandemic that sent us into exile from all that was familiar – but God was present in the midst of it.
And, just as Jeremiah reminded our ancestors and us today that God creates a future with hope, he also reminds us to not too quickly return from that exile. Too not jump back into things in an effort to force them to fit like they used to. Too much has happened, Jeremiah cautioned. Too many lessons were learned and still need to be learned – “You have discovered what was possible with God while you were away, and you must not forget those possibilities.” The same caution is needed for us. Too much has changed, not just in the life of this congregation, but in our world. The pandemic has forced us to pay attention to the disparities and inequalities that wound humanity. How we work, how we gather, how we worship have all changed, and not always in bad ways. We are not the same congregation we were before the pandemic. We are a new people, a new community, one held together by hope.
Church is a place where hope is shouted into the whirlwind of despair. Church is a place where love stands up to hate. Church is a place where equality is demanded in the place of injustice. Church is a place to return to, again and again, to be a touch-point, a place where we can find reminders of our purpose and possibility in God’s kingdom. First Congregational is a church whose doors are opened to all needing a place of rest, needing a home to return to, a place where our Spirits are quenched with hope, love, and justice. As our exile slowly comes to an end, First Congregational has been and remains a place to return to.
But that is not all that First Congregational is, because we are an Easter people. Yes, this is a place to return to, but it also a place to go forth from. We return here, again and again, either in-person or online, to be filled up so we can go forth into the world to cry Alleluia. We return here, again and again, to go forth and bring love to the world. We return here, again and again, to go forth and bring justice. We return here, again and again, to go forth and create a future with hope. That future, that hope, is what you are participating in by gathering together and supporting the ministry of First Congregational. That future, that hope, is the New Jerusalem we are creating for ourselves and for all of our neighbors. That future with hope is not possible unless we create it together, with the help of God. How can you participate? What new ways can you help make sure First Congregational will always be a place to return to and a place to go forth from? The pledges we are gathering today are not simply numbers on a piece of paper. They are the blueprints for a future together. They are a way we cry alleluia. For we are an Easter people, and alleluia is our cry. Amen.
God of return and God of sending forth – we come before you with hearts filled with gratitude for the gifts you give us. For the rest you provide, for the courage you share, for the love you endow. As we pray to you, we do so assured of your plans for us, plans for our welfare and not for harm, for a future filled with hope.
In the midst of all the exiles of our lives, we seek out your presence and know that you are there, even if we struggle to see you. When our isolation, despair, fear, and frustrations feel like too much – speak words to us with your still-speaking voice. Words that we can return to, again and again, and words that fill us up so we can continue moving forward in creating your Kingdom with you.
Just as we pray this for ourselves, we also pray for all of our neighbors, strangers, friends, and enemies who are in need of the reminder of your presence with them. For those who are sick, in fear of persecution, struggling for justice, besieged by grief, or quietly lonely – we pray that their hearts and Spirits will hear your voice, that never stops speaking words of hope and love.
As we prepare a future filled with your hope, give us the wisdom to discern what that future looks like and how we can participate in it. You give us each extraordinary gifts, help us to use them in equally extraordinary ways.
We pray all of this in the name of the Risen Christ, the one who taught us to cry Alleluia, the one who made us an Easter people. And we pray now in the way he taught us, “Our Father…”