Second Sunday of Christmas: January 3, 2021



A few weeks ago, the Session had a special meeting for the sole purpose of discussing plans for a return to in-person worship. We had already taken some steps. Over the summer, we added hand-sanitizer stations at the doors. We had all the pew cushions cleaned and removed from the pews, because cleaning them is not an easy task. We pulled the hymnals and Bibles from the pew backs, and then we roped off pews in a sort of checkerboard pattern to help with social distancing. We roped off the first several rows in front of the pulpit here because I know several of you struggle to hear, lip-read, or both if I am wearing a mask, and, if I am speaking with the force needed to fill this pulpit, if I am projecting my voice to fill the back of this sanctuary, well, six feet is not enough. We have taken these steps, but still decided that the rate of spread in our community was too high to bring people back in. The covid section of our prayer list is growing, and the names on that list have changed from friends and relatives living elsewhere to friends and neighbors in our county to members of our community.

And so, the Session decided that we could not invite you all back into this space just yet and decided to plan to revisit the question in January. I remember writing the email and making the announcement at the time, and I remember struggling to face the final part of that date—struggling to say, or even just to type, January 2021.

I have one friend who has suggested that is because the number 2021 sounds a lot like a declaration that we lost to 2020—that saying 2021 is a struggle because it sounds too much like 2020…won.

I do not think that was it. I think, instead, I wanted to hold onto the idea that 2020 was just a bad year, like sometimes we have bad days, and come January 1, we would wake up, and 2020, and the problems that came in it, would be finished. I wanted to believe that 2021 would be a new year, a fresh start, a clean slate.

And here we are in 2021 and I am still preaching to a camera and nearly empty sanctuary. I am still holding Bible Study, Book Group, office hours, and meetings on Zoom. I am still making phone calls instead of visits, and if there is one way in which I live up to the stereotypes of my generation, it is the discomfort I have using my phone as…a phone. I want to either see the person with whom I am communicating, or I want to be able to read that communication on my own time. This is where I apologize for not having spent more time calling many of you. I will not say I am trying to be better about that in 2021. I have been trying to be better about that for some time already. Changing a number on a calendar will not make me a better caller.

That is the truth I was trying to avoid, trying to evade, by not acknowledging that the next time the session would discuss covid procedures and try to answer the question of returning to in-person worship would be in 2021. I wanted to pretend that all our problems could be contained in just the year 2020.

The problem with that is simple. The choice of when we roll one number over to the next is an arbitrary decision where the main thing that matters is agreement.

And so, when we hit midnight last Thursday evening, whether you were awake, or not, whether you watched a ball drop, kissed someone, had a sip of champagne or sparkling cider, sang “Auld Lang Syne” or the “Good Ol’ Song,” or did nothing at all, nothing really changed.

Yes. We have a vaccine, and it is being deployed, slowly, but as I keep hearing from public health officials and a few public health friends, vaccines do not help people: vaccinations do. It exists, but we still must make enough of it, transport and distribute it, and, ultimately take it, wait a few weeks, and take it again.

You are probably sick of hearing me preach about covid. I know I am. I am tired of phone calls and Zoom. I miss eating out, swimming, visiting people and being visited by people. I miss sitting down after the worship and overthinking the handshakes and “good sermon, pastors” to decide which of you meant it, which of you were not paying attention, and which of you are furious with me but too polite to say anything.

But changing a number on the calendar does not change the circumstances we are in. It does not change the core fact that once this disease became established, became a pandemic, everything we have been doing has been for mitigation and not prevention. I see the people shouting that prevention measures do not work, that even with a mask you can still get sick and everything else.

And yes, they are part right. You can still get sick with a mask. Most, if not all, of us know people who have gotten sick despite doing those things. But the goal was never to keep everyone from getting sick—the goal was to keep as many people as possible from getting sick—the goal was to keep too many people from getting sick at once so that the people who do get sick can get all the help they need.

None of that has changed, but now, now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We can see the end of our exile into our homes and from each other.

We read today from Jeremiah, a prophet who is not known for having a rosy outlook, the prophet from whose name we get the word jeremiad, a long list of complaints, a word which could describe this sermon. Jeremiah who gave us “seek the welfare of the city,” the bible verse mis-appropriated by urban churches trying to attract the relatively wealthy young people who just moved to the neighborhood even though Jeremiah was writing to the Jewish exiles who had just been forcibly taken to Babylon and not to the fun new couple who moved in down the block. Jeremiah who prophesied that the exiles were themselves to blame for their exile and the destruction of Jerusalem and that the exile would last for 70 years.

Jeremiah though, can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and so, in today’s passage, he foretells the end of that exile, when God will: “…bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations [God] will lead them back.”

That sentence has sat with me this week. That sentence sums up the promise of the passage and of its larger context in a part of Jeremiah’s writings sometimes called the Book of Consolations.

Jeremiah does not promise the easy path. Jeremiah does not promise the quick end. Few of those who were taken into exile will make the return journey—it will, after all, last 70 years. Those coming on the return journey will be the children, grand-children, even great-grandchildren of those who were taken.

The weeping here, then is not just some sustained weeping from those who were taken, it is not a generational weeping of the loss of Jerusalem. It includes those who are weeping for Babylon, for the destruction brought on that city by the Persians. It is weeping at the fear of making the return journey, a journey of some 400 miles on foot.

This weeping likely includes the pregnant women, the blind, and the lame: those who cannot possibly be expected to walk four hundred miles, and yet God promises that they, too, will make the journey. God does not, however, promise that the lame will walk or that the blind will see, and so likely some of the weeping includes those who are able to make the trip, but were not enthused about having to make it while carrying someone else.

But this, this is the core of Jeremiah’s promise. Jeremiah is not promising a return to Jerusalem for people who have never been to Jerusalem. Jeremiah is promising a return to the chosen community, a return to God’s promised land. God is not promising to come in and fix everything. God does not come in and fix everything—God does not even swoop in to carry the lame back to Jerusalem. No. God promises that the community will take care its own. God’s promise that no one will be left behind is a promise God makes to the people who would be left behind and an obligation God imposes on those who would do the leaving.

The return to Jerusalem is not a clean slate. It is not a new beginning. It is not a fresh start. It is an opportunity to try again, to fix the problems that Jeremiah preached against back at the beginning. It is a chance to break the cycle and stop creating the conditions that led to the exile in the first place.

Neither is 2021 a clean slate, nor is it a new beginning. 2021 is not a fresh start just as the problems we have faced in 2020 did not being in 2020—the disease is named covid-19 because we found it in 2019—but the conditions have been with us far longer. The ultimate gift of God’s grace is that we get more chances. The change from 2020 to 2021 may be arbitrary, it may not mark any change in our circumstances, but it can make a change in how we treat those circumstances, a change in our attitudes, and a change in our actions. This is the pattern of the prophets: warnings, usually ignored, a disaster that exposes the cracks even more clearly, and a new opportunity to fix things—the things broken by the disaster, but more importantly, a new chance to fix the things that were broken before.

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