Sermon, August 14

Earlier this summer, your rector – that’s me – and your vestry, the elected leadership body of this church, sent out a survey about your Covid and church experiences, and what you need and hope for, going forward. 

About fifty of us filled it out. I think we probably captured an approximation of what the congregation is thinking and feeling. 

I’ve been looking at the results, with help from a couple of vestry members, and I think it’s useful to share some of what we see, since these findings are helping shape our thinking and planning .

The first thing to know is that the past two and a half years have been hard on just about everybody – but in different ways. 

It actually reminds me a little of today’s Hebrews lesson about the heroes of the faith before the time of Jesus – “They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented… They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”

I don’t think any of us have been killed by the sword, or forced to live in caves in the ground.  But it’s been a lot… And importantly, it’s been a lot in many different ways. 

Some of us are doing fine. Many of us are more or less OK. Many are struggling or suffering, even if they say they’re OK.  

People taking the survey spoke about Covid risk, medical vulnerability, and fear. They spoke about loneliness, isolation and mental health. They spoke about lost relationships, opportunities, and social skills. About the hurt of feeling that their church community vanished in March of 2020. About the overwhelm of the world and its problems. 

On the other hand, there is a widespread sense that St. Dunstan’s matters, as a church and as a community, and that people’s connections with the church and with one another through the church are part of how people are holding things together and moving forward. 

People really value having both in-person and Zoom options; that allows them to maintain and deepen connections, even when their needs and circumstances are different. And folks really value the new relationships they’ve formed, and new members who have joined, in our season of pandemic worship. 

While we like having multiple ways to participate, there’s also a desire to cultivate connections across our worshipping communities. Some people miss friends who are worshipping in a different way… or just wonder what the other group is up to. Some simply want to feel more integrated as a church. It’s similar to the pre-pandemic dynamics of having 8 o’clock and 10 o’clock congregations – only somewhat more so. 

This fall and winter we’ll experiment with some opportunities that could bring together folks from both our Zoom and in-person congregations.Your ideas are welcome! 

Another finding of the survey is that we continue to have a variety of feelings about the appropriate response to ongoing Covid risks. 

For example: Eleven people said they were uncomfortable returning to in-person church because of concerns about catching Covid, and four people said they don’t want to attend in-person church because they dislike having to wear masks. I don’t want to weigh those numbers against each other. I just want us to hear that we are not of one mind. And while I think the intensity of feeling about all this has eased a little with the passage of time, it still feels loaded. Even within groups who know and trust one another, it can be hard for people at different points of the continuum to voice their feelings and needs. It’s easy to feel judged. 

What I hope you hear is that your parish leadership continue to wrestle prayerfully with all this, and hold balance and maintain options as best we can. I’m sure there will be times in the months ahead when we have to make decisions that don’t sit well with everyone. And believe me when I say that the ongoing uncertainty is such that I genuinely have no idea what those decisions may be. I just ask you to continue to pray for us, and bear with us. 

The survey gave us encouraging news on that front. We learned that about 94% of the fifty respondents feel that they can trust parish leadership. About 90% feel that they understand the decisions we’ve been making. About 88% feel that their needs and feelings have been heard and considered – even if the decisions haven’t always been what they would have preferred. 

Those numbers mean a lot to your parish leaders. We have been trying really hard to listen well, communicate well, and be worthy of your trust. It’s good to know that those efforts have been seen. That said, if you’re one of those who feels less heard, and you would welcome further conversation, please reach out. You can always email . 

At the end of the survey we asked a more open-ended question about the impact of Covid, and Covid response, on people’s lives. One person commented: “Some say COVID is the greatest collective trauma we’ve experienced in a generation.” Another observed, “Covid and the politicized responses to Covid have been part of an emerging liminal situation for which we don’t yet have a useful description.” “Liminal” is a word from my former field of cultural anthropology – it means a time of transition and emergence, when the way things were before don’t apply anymore, but the new reality hasn’t yet taken shape or settled in. 

Those people are aptly interpreting the present time, to borrow Jesus’ words from our Gospel. Recall that Jesus’ original audience were living under military occupation by the Roman Empire, and an economic system that dragged the poor ever deeper into poverty. There were simmering extremist movements, and occasional revolts, brutally crushed. 

Like the first Christians, we too live in profoundly uncertain times. There are big pressures at work on and within our societies, governments, and economies. It feels particularly difficult right now to imagine or predict what things will be like in five years or ten or twenty. 

Jesus is upset, here. He says so, in so many words. He’s speaking from urgency, maybe from fear, from whatever you call the feeling that you’re trying to tell your best friends something really important and they have no idea what you’re talking about. 

When he says, I come to bring not peace, but division! – when he describes family conflict, father against son, mother against daughter – he’s not saying this is something he WANTS. This is Jesus naming a difficult reality, like the prophets of old. This is description and prediction: The world is coming into a time of crisis, and lots of things are going to break, including families. Those who choose to follow him, in the chaotic years ahead, will face conflict and loss, even among their dearest ones. 

I’ve spoken to so many people over the past few years who are struggling with or grieving broken family relationships – close-to-home manifestations of the deep fault lines in our nation. Within church community, the bonds of mutual care that hold us together across differing worldviews have been frayed by the experience of the pandemic, too. I think we’re doing better than many places, and I want to believe that we’re through the worst of the strain. But when I pause to think about it, I grieve the divisions that Covid has created or deepened. The things we are asking about on that survey are things we didn’t have to think about, three years ago. And now we do.

But we’re not alone. There’s comfort in that. We are known, and loved, and held, by a grace beyond our comprehension. And we have many, many sibling churches navigating the same terrain.

This week I read a piece by the rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Rev. Philip DeVaul. It really echoes the mingled sorrow and hope, yearning and hesitation, that came through in our survey responses. It’s so clear and so pertinent that I’m just going to read you most of it, changing a few words so that it speaks to us here at St. Dunstan’s. 

DeVaul writes, “It’s a tale of two churches…

Read the rest of this excellent essay here!