“The past is gone, and everything is fresh and new!” So says Paul in the inspirational passage we heard this morning.
Today, as the third wave of COVID-19 recedes and as Canada’s vaccination campaign continues, many of us hope the past 15 months will soon be a fading memory and life this summer and fall will feel fresh and new.
But whatever happens this summer and fall, I am confident it will be different since change is the only constant in life. As an example, take the physical infrastructure of Edmonton. When I moved here in January 2014, the Anthony Henday Ring Road was not yet complete, the Ice District and the Valley Line LRT had not yet begun construction, and scores of condos, apartment blocks, and suburbs that now house tens of thousands of people were still on the drawing board.
But change in a cityscape is not what Paul means by “new creation.” He is referring to the process of dying to an old way of life and being born again to new life in Christ. This is the healing and enlightenment that result from surrendering to the power of Love during life’s ups and downs.
In the church, we usually think of new life in Christ from an individual standpoint. But I think we can also view it communally; and so today I reflect on our dreams of being a new creation both as individuals and as a community.
The past 15 months will leave their mark on each person, on churches, and on the city, country, and world. Governments and other leaders have been humbled since many of them have mishandled some aspects of pandemic response. The status of science has both been enhanced by the astonishing success of new vaccines and eroded by the spread of outrageous conspiracy theories.
Many have learned to work from home and to cope with the absence of traditional rituals of passage, mourning, and celebration. Some have reconsidered their priorities in the face of painful changes and losses.
Churches have learned to offer worship, congregational care, and faith formation over the Internet; and last week, I talked with several people about how more than one year of online life might change Mill Woods United.
If vaccines continue to work, if public health restrictions are lifted this summer as planned, and if Albertans come to trust the pandemic is no longer an overarching problem here – and I pray this happens — what will church look like in the fall?
Will the people who came to worship services on Sunday mornings in fall 2019 show up this September and October? Will people who found us online join the community? How many of us will decide to continue gathering online instead of in person? How many will have given up the habit of gathering for worship entirely?
I am sure that choir members will return when Bryan restarts practices in September. The suspension of choral singing has been a painful aspect of quarantine for people who love to sing. And even though livestreaming will capture the anthems the choir presents in the fall, it is better to experience them in person.
This spring, Nancy, Wanda, are I are participating in a four-week Stewardship workshop offered by the United Church, and we have been brainstorming about new ways of branding Mill Woods United. One, which we cribbed from the website of a United Church in Regina, captures a faith community in three short phrases: “Music for the Soul; Conversations that Matter; and Companions for the Journey;” and the placement of music first in this list makes sense to me. If there is one way above others with which we express our faith, it is music.
This fall, to mark the end of public health restrictions and to encourage renewal in the congregation, several ideas are being discussed – a Thanksgiving Sunday focused on the joy of being back together; a Sunday focused on lament, mourning, and remembrance, probably on October 31st; a Sunday in September to honour the “frontline” staff of Mill Woods United; a festival of food and music on Sunday November 14, which is the 45th anniversary of Mill Woods United; Christmas gatherings that are as joyous as any we can remember; a wide variety of social events; more book studies; and so on. If you have an idea to add to the hopper, please talk to me or to a member of Church Council.
All ideas, simple as well as complex, are welcome. An example: last week, Jennifer organized a “Coffee Time on the Church Lawn,” and I was delighted to spend time with some people I had not seen in a long time. It was so well-received, Jennifer has organized another one for June 24.
Whatever the hoped-for end of the pandemic means for the church, this feels like a good time to reflect again on why we gather, what we most value, and why we pour our hearts into Mill Woods United. Have we felt blessed by this community during the past 15 months? What more could it provide? What should we discard from the “before times” and what might we add for the “after times?” What will the next stage of our evolution look like?
When the pandemic began, many of us hoped it would help the world rethink some big economic questions. Could we find a way to enjoy abundance without destroying natural habitats? Could the inequities exposed by the pandemic help us bridge the gap between North and South, immigrants and native-born, and those with comfortable jobs and those whose work was unsafe?
Some of these dreams may not be realized; but the struggle for equality and social justice is never-ending. Happily, the sources of inspiration, empathy, and love that fuel our outreach to the neighbourhood and our work for justice are also endless.
But regardless of what transpires at the level of the economy, we only have the present moment to be a new creation. Our dreams might seem massive in scope; but as Richard Wagamase, a contemporary Indigenous author, expresses in today’s first reading and as William Blake, a 19th Century English poet, expresses in the epigraph to this service, any moment can be one in which we can experience eternity and feel as though we have entered heaven.
Sometimes we enter new life in Christ after grieving a painful loss. Sometimes we become a new creation when we join voices with others to sing a joyous hymn. Sometimes rebirth happens when we look into the eyes of a child or stare at the beauty of a wildflower.
The world after the pandemic may not be exactly the new creation of which we dream. But at the same time, and at a deeper level, God’s new creation is already here. We are already healed; we are already in heaven; and we are already lost in wonder, love, and praise.
Thanks be to God. Amen.