This has been such a hard year for all of us – each in our own particular ways, certainly in our national life and in the world as a whole, and as All Saints’ Church. Last year on this second Sunday of March, the Sunday on which the time changed and we all “sprang forward”, was the last day we were able to worship together in the building. I have strong and poignant memories of that day, as I’m sure many of you do.
If anyone had said to me then that we would have spent the last year grappling with all of the issues and realities we have faced, and learning to do old familiar things in news ways, even has we had to put so many other things on hold, I think it would have been like the conversation between Jesus and Rabbi Nicodemus that comes just before this morning’s Gospel reading. I just could not have taken it in.
Nicodemus, you may remember, has heard Jesus say some interesting, intriguing, and disturbing things, and he comes to Jesus privately, by night, under cover of darkness so that he will not be seen. In that conversation Jesus answers Nicodemus’s question, but the visitor does not understand the answers; they just lead to more questions. They are speaking on two different planes, and Nicodemus does not yet have the spiritual insight to understand what Jesus is saying.
There’s another reason that it is night when Nicodemus visits. Light and darkness are very important themes in John’s Gospel. We remember back to Christmas when we read that Jesus is the Light that has come into the world, and the world has comprehended it not.
The darkness here is a spiritual darkness, a shadow that hangs over those who have yet to step fully into the light and life of God’s love. And the light makes clear and plain not only the goodness and love of God, but also our own shortcomings and failings. And don’t we know those from this pandemic year! There is not one of us who has been the best version of ourselves – how could we have been? We have known fear, doubt, confusion, anger, a desire to lash out, a wish to run away, impatience, hopelessness, depression, sorrow, grief, and so much more. And these feelings then just fold in on themselves and sometimes spin out of control.
And into the midst of all of this we hear Jesus say to Nicodemus and to us: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Or to put it another way: “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.”
Eternal life – that experience of life with God we call heaven beginning in the here and now: peace, wholeness, goodness, love, mercy, truth, God-with-us.
In this past year we have struggled, and experienced, and learned anew – or perhaps for the first time – that Church is not the building, that God is with us wherever and however we gather as a community of faith. We have been reminded that Church is God’s People – all of us – through whom God carries out the fundamental mission to bless, heal, and care for the world, even as we bless, heal, and care for one another and receive those gifts from God.
You will read in our “Year-in-Review” report of many of the ministries that flowed in and through All Saints’ Church in 2020. I expect some of you will be surprised at how much there has been. It hasn’t been perfect, it may not have been what other churches or parishes have done, but it is what God has given us the strength, the wisdom, the light, and the guidance to do, and I am very grateful.
It occurred to me the other day that in many ways All Saints’ has been doing the work of an “institutional system capital campaign”. That’s kind of a funny image. Normally in a capital campaign a church raises money to repair, rebuild, or expand the physical structures that house worship and ministry, and perhaps set up a special endowed funds for outreach or other particular aspects of mission. After the fund-raising comes the work of rebuilding, re-tooling, and renewing. So how has this very difficult year been like a capital campaign?
We have spent the year concentrating on our core ministries of worship, prayer, and outreach. And we have spent time putting systems in place to enable these core ministries, especially in our worship, and in our office procedures and financial systems – and in a year with so much financial doubt and turmoil in society at large, that is an important achievement.
Some of the aspects we have focused on have been building and embedding have been:
- Institutional memory and responsibility
- Institutional literacy
- Institutional on-going renewal
- Engaging in mission and ministry
- Discerning the direction of the Holy Spirit
- Developing Christian and Anglican literacy and capacity for faithful discipleship.
While investing in “the institution” may not seem exciting or even much about mission, the structures of our parish life need to be in place so that our community of faith functions in a healthy way and supports the ministry with which Jesus has entrusted us.
And as we enter what we hope is the final phase of the pandemic, please be patient and full of care for one another for just a little longer. In many ways we are in the “ice breaking-up” season of this pandemic, when we know spring is coming and the ice in the river starts to thaw and move, but the big chunks flow together and are sharp and can crash into boats, and docks, and people and do a lot of damage and cause hurt.
The time between now and whenever we can move fully into what comes next will be awkward and choppy and confusing, but we know that God is in it with us and for us. Let us not lose heart now.
Let us keep front and center before us Paul’s words to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
It is by God’s grace, and grace alone, that we are here, together, now; and it is only by God’s grace, mercy, and love that we will move into the light and love that are up ahead of us.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, we have come this far by grace and faith in your loving care for us. Enlighten the eyes of our hearts with your grace that we may live in your Light and be bearers of Light and Love in your world. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 14, 2021