Faith in Lent

video of the livestream of the service

from the preamble to morning worship —

Good morning; and welcome to each of you. Three of us are physically here at Mill Woods United Church today – behind the podium is myself, Rev. Ian Kellogg; behind the piano is our Music Director, Bryan LeGrow; and behind the iPhone is Brian Sampson, who is streaming this service through Facebook.

We are so glad that you can join our first online-only service. I will be curious after the service to see how many of you were able to watch live. We will also post a link to the video of this livestream on the church website later today. Please let us know what you think. We know that we must improve many aspects of streaming — from boosting our Internet-strength, to providing ways for you to interact in real time, to adding additional elements like the lyrics of songs, and so on.

Yesterday, I got an email from our friend Linda Paddon, who along with her husband Bill has been living in Burnaby BC since 2016. She said people at their church there, Deer Lake United, had started to talk of online worship as “lovestreaming.” I am cheered by this formulation. In these strange and fearful times, I pray we will continue to find ways of being together in love even as we are physically separate.

Mill Woods United is a spiritual community where you can explore your purpose and place — and in the face of pandemic illness, economic collapse, and social isolation, we need communities of faith like this one more than ever.

At Mill Woods, we celebrate and mourn together; we care for one another and our neighbours; and we reflect on how to follow the Way of Jesus. And starting last Monday, we are learning to do this at a distance – through phone calls, through mailings to those without computers, through our social media feeds, through our website, and through livestreams like this brief spiritual gathering.

Let us continue to do as much as we can to connect with one another and our neighbours. Having talked on the phone last week with all the people in the church we knew or suspected didn’t have a computer, I intend to reach out to everyone one of you. But don’t hesitate to contact me first. We need each other now more than ever.

A Working Group will gather again tomorrow to discuss how to shape our work in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Please hold this group in prayer as it meets to share, discuss, and make more decisions.

This morning as always, we welcome everyone regardless of belief, sexual orientation, gender identity, or cultural background. As an Affirming congregation we work to make this community a place where all of us feel safe.

We also acknowledge the land on which we gather. The church building where the three of us have gathered this morning is located on the traditional land of Treaty Six First Nations. From wherever you are joining us, I suggest you take time to think about the land you are on, about its history, about the blessings that its original inhabitants have bequeathed to us, and about the wounds they may have suffered along the way. We are all Treaty people, for which we give thanks.

Last week, our focus was on maintaining hope in Lent. Today it is about maintaining faith. My prayer is that the words, music, prayers and silences we offer might give us some of the courage and faith we need to cope and perhaps even thrive in the face of rapidly changing times.

Sermon, based on Matthew 17:14-21 (“moving mountains”)

What can we learn from the metaphor we just heard? Jesus tells his students that faith has the power to move mountains. What might this mean? And how does his metaphor speak to us this Lent as we try to maintain faith in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and of social and economic collapse?

Today’s extraordinary efforts to maintain social distance can feel like a community effort to move a mountain. You have undoubtedly seen a graph that projects numbers of infections over time without social distancing versus numbers with it. Without social distancing, infections quickly soar to a point at which hospitals are overwhelmed; and this then leads to a terrifying number of deaths. With social distancing, the curve might be flattened.

These projections explain why governments, businesses, and most individuals are willing to undergo the pain of isolation and the economic destruction caused by closed borders and businesses. We are practicing social distancing as a collective act of caring, generosity, and hope.

I pray that the curve is flattened and that Edmonton, Canada, and the rest of the world don’t undergo the traumatic losses that northern Italy has endured for much of this month.

Different models are being pursued to confront the pandemic around the world. But despite heroic efforts, researchers and public health experts have much more to learn. So, we are left to support their efforts and wait in hope to see how the pandemic unfolds and what might be asked of us in the weeks ahead.

I am shocked by how swiftly so many sectors of society have moved. Leaders in government, business, academia, and other sectors have shown a mobilizing capability in the past few weeks that I cannot remember seeing before.

My prayers this Lent are mostly focused on the sick, those who care for them, and the many billions who are threatened by sickness and by the loss of income, opportunity, and access to bare necessities. May our collective efforts curtail the pandemic and end the social disruption it has triggered.

I also reserve some of my prayers for social learning. May the pandemic response show society how to confront other crises like war and climate disaster. I suspect the world that will emerge from the ravages of the pandemic will be different from the one we have just left behind. I hope these differences will be ones that move us closer to a sacred realm of love and compassion.

In the face of inaction on chronic problems like pollution, homelessness, and racism, some of us become cynical about humanity’s ability to effect positive social change.

Perhaps the pandemic response will challenge this cynicism. Almost overnight, the virus was identified as a threat by masses of people. In the face of changed perceptions, government and business moved quickly to make drastic changes.

We hope social distancing doesn’t last for too long. For one, this would devastate the economy in ways that are hard to imagine. But if best practices are identified and shared; if researchers can find treatments; and if a vaccine can be developed sooner rather than later, we could then re-establish social and economic connections.

When we do emerge from isolation, I pray it will be in a society that has both proven it can respond rapidly to a deadly threat, and one that will then tackle other threats. Could we not find a way to maintain order without mass incarceration? Could we not have a booming economy that wasn’t dependent on fossil fuels? Could we not forge global interconnections that eroded the disparities between racial and national groups? Could we not create a society with adequate healthcare and material abundance for everyone, and in which there was scope for the creative and spiritual flourishing of all people and not just for a few?

The rapidity and deep nature of the pandemic response strengthens my faith that many other such potential transformations lie dormant within the world community.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus heals a mentally and emotionally distressed boy. I don’t see this healing as an illustration of the unique power of Jesus. The simple reason for this is that individual healing is bound up with the health of the community. To me, the boy’s healing signifies how an awareness of a Christ light in each person can transform a community into a healthy and healing one.

We live in a world with too much violence, too much pollution, and too many irrationalities. For this reason, all of us live in a precarious state. Creating a society that was better able to tackle war, pollution, and irrational prejudice would be one that would allow all of us to better heal our inner demons and to build more loving relationships.

I have faith in the sacred values that we uphold every day at Mill Woods United Church. Values like respect, humility, solidarity, hope and love create the platform that we need as individuals to flourish in community and that society needs to confront existential threats like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leadership is key, I believe. I wish there were more world leaders that I trusted. I also wish the world had better mechanisms for global cooperation. But I have faith in the power of a struggling humanity when it unites from below on the basis of shared values. When billions of us come together in fierceness and joy, we can move any mountain and overcome any obstacle, in my opinion.

At the local level, I trust in our ability to stay in touch with one another during the pandemic; to reach out in compassion to those who are sick, afraid, or in mourning; and by doing so to make a loving difference in our own hearts and within the neighbourhood.

I have faith that Love is our source and destiny. We all carry wounds caused by family dysfunction and social irrationalities. But we also carry a sacred light within. This light helps us to see the divine in others, and it reminds us that even in the face of pandemics that can’t be easily overcome and social evils that can’t be easily defeated, we are already united with our fellow pilgrims and with the God who is Love. We are already one.

At the global level, I pray that more leaders — political, corporate, scientific, and religious — will rise to the challenge of the pandemic. Together, may we care for the sick, stop the spread of the virus, and create a model for how a uniting and compassionate humanity could move the other mountains that lie between us and the Promised Land.

May it be so. Amen.

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