This Sunday our church will regather in our building for the second time during this pandemic. We will be masked, socially distanced, and observing all kinds of safety regulations. In many ways it will not be the same. The crowd will be much smaller than normal, we will not be able to hug or slide into a seat next to a dear friend (or soon-to-be friend). We will not be able to sing, or kneel at the altar, or linger for conversation and coffee.
But we will be back in a space so sacred that simply sitting in the chairs will bring a flood of memories and emotions. We will be with people who have suffered through a long, hard year, just like us, and who are just as overwhelmed with gratitude as we are. We will engage all the senses in worship: hearing the word and music, seeing familiar and new sights, touching chairs we have not sat in for months, smelling the spring air floating across the room, and tasting the distinctive taste of a communion wafer.
Five weeks ago, when we read the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness at the beginning of Lent, I am not sure we fully understood Jesus’ experience. We certainly have a whole new appreciation for the literal experience of wilderness – the deprivation, separation, and desperation. But I am not sure we have ever fully understood what it means to be tended by angels and to reenter society. For me, I always thought of Jesus having gone through an ordeal, but essentially leaving the wilderness the same, albeit a bit stronger, person. But having just marked the one-year anniversary of this pandemic, I am now keenly aware that no one who enters the wilderness ever exits the wilderness the same person.
Similarly, though I am thrilled to see some of my people on Sunday, and I am honored to offer angelic-like care after a year of suffering, I know that when we finally exit this pandemic, we will be changed community. We will be a community with an increased capacity for empathy and justice. We will be community who is not just open to experimentation and creativity, but who demands the kind of nimbleness that will always keep us open to the movement of the Spirit. We will be a community who is less married to our buildings and more married to creating sacred spaces wherever we find them – online, in homes, in the community just outside our property. We will be a community who knows all the goodness we have found inside this church community does not belong inside our community, but outside in the world with those who need it. As we gather in this hybrid time, we are not returning to who we were. We are pausing in the wilderness to be tended by the angels. And then, slowly but surely, we will walk unknown paths together, a stronger, nimbler, more faithful community.