During this past month, I (like many of you) have experienced a lot of firsts. This is the first time I have ever been ordered to shelter in place. I never knew what essential businesses were before COVID-19. I cannot recall a time going to a grocery store and seeing bare shelves where the rice and beans were or seeing empty refrigerated cases were the eggs, milk, and butter once were. This is the first time that school was canceled due to mass illness or the threat of community spread. I have never had to be the teacher for my children at home. The congregation I serve offered our first online-only worship services; it was an odd feeling having to offer prayers and even a communion meditation to an empty sanctuary. We tried to rectify this problem the following Sunday by taping pictures of our congregation to the pews. I joked with some of my minister friends that seminary did not prepare me for having church with no congregation. We are learning to use new technology and resources to cultivate community and connection. I recently led a Bible study via zoom. The dynamic was different, but the people gathered shared that it was good to see one another again, even if that it meant it was on a computer or tablet screen.
This is the first time in a long time that I can recall feeling communal, collective anxiety about the future. As a community, we are frightened when we see the news coverage of thousands and thousands of people contracting COVID-19. It seems as if every day the warnings are the same: stay home, wash your hands, the worst is yet to come. Our fears are real, and our uncertainty is growing. We fear the loss of jobs and incomes as the bills continue to pile up. We fear for our health and safety and the health and safety of loved ones. We fear what the future may bring. We fear for how long separation will be the new normal.
Now we have a new challenge ahead of us, Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and even Easter will now have to be celebrated in a COVID-19, social distancing, shelter-in-place world.
I have said for many years that people are not afraid of change; they are, however, afraid of loss. Change happens to us all the time, and generally, we are flexible enough to go with the flow. Sure, it might be annoying when the grocery store moves your favorite items to a new aisle without asking, but we adapt and move on. The type of change that we are experiencing with regards to worship and Holy Week is something completely different. Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are some of the holiest days of the year. For many people, this will be the first time in a very long time that they will not participate in worship in their church’s sanctuary. There is a sense of profound loss and sadness. We might justify missing service together in the summer or fall but not during Holy Week; this week is much too important to be apart. Alas, this is our reality. Throughout the Bible, we find stories of humanity struggling to connect and reconnect to God. The Israelites understood this sense of struggle and loss. Around 597 BCE, the Babylonians attacked and conquered, and the people were removed from their homeland and sent into exile. In a blink of an eye, the world as they knew it was turned upside down. They were away from their homes, their families, friends, shops, business, and, most importantly, their God. The times had changed, and the people of Israel did not approve. The exile had no end date. There was nothing that they could do; they were helpless and sorrowful.
Throughout the Old Testament, we find writings that were composed during this exile time. They speak to the struggle and heartache that the community was feeling. For example, Psalm 137:1 reads, “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down, and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” They wanted to be home; they wanted to return to a sense of normalcy.
But all was not lost. The prophet Ezekiel spoke a word to the people. His visions and pronouncements in the first chapter of Ezekiel tell of a unique encounter. Ezekiel sees creatures with multiple faces and wings, and they are moving in all directions. At the end of the chapter, Ezekiel realizes that this is no ordinary vision; instead, he is in the presence of God in the middle of Babylon.
This is a substantial theological statement to the people in exile. God did not forget them; God did not stop at the border of their home country and stay behind. No, the prophet tells them that God is with them even amid struggle, pain, uncertainty, and strife. He is declaring to them, “God is here!”
This is a message for us today. While we may not be able to wave palm branches, share in holy communion or hear live “Were You There?”, God is still here. God has not left us, and God will be in the midst of our worship in our new sanctuary of living rooms and on laptops. God is not bound by the four walls of a stained-glass building. God is not bound by the borders of our county, state, or country. God is here. God is with you and me wherever we find ourselves.
God is in the emergency department. God is in line with us when we go grocery shopping. God is with those who are lonely. God is with those who have lost their job. God is with the teachers struggling to educate in a new way. God has not and will not forget anyone of us.
So, this Sunday, however, you worship and celebrate Palm Sunday, know that God is there with you. Keep the faith. God is here.