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"We Will All Be Changed"

“We Will All Be Changed”

February 20, 2022

Seventh Sunday of Epiphany

Pastor Anna Blinn Cole

1 Corinthians 15:51-58

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

Thank you. Thank you for helping me get through the long winter months. The thought of being together with you all once a week kept me going. I’d look over here on Saturday night at the dark church windows and think, tomorrow people who love me and who love each other and who love God will brave the cold and make their way here to worship God as a community. So many times this assurance has lifted me up.

Togetherness in the midst of isolation has been our worship theme for these winter weeks. Taking cues from the church in Corinth, we’ve learned about what can make or break a community of faith. How pride and individuality hurts the community. And instead we have to dig deep and locate the unique God-given gift each of us has to offer that will make this community stronger. It takes all of us showing up and offering ourselves to the mission to make the community work. We are bound together by God’s agape love and that love compels us into action…to be a community that is always looking for the best way to share God’s message with a changing world, even if that means leaving our comfort zone. And what is the message at the heart of it all? God’s wisdom always defeats the world’s conventional wisdom. Love will always triumph over hate and sin because we are people who believe in the resurrection. This hope binds us together.

We’re at the end of the series today. But there’s one last thing to be said and I’m sorry if this comes off as awkward or uncomfortable. My life is going to end. And so is yours. In fact, all of our lives are going to end. Not anytime soon, I hope! The ending of our physical life on this earth is inevitable, though. Our bodies are finite. It feels really hard to say this out loud yet the fragility of life is something all we think about. And it’s this unavoidable fact that makes for the final and critical installment in any conversation about Christian community.

Why? Because Christian community suffers when fear and anxiety about our own mortality takes hold. And especially during a global pandemic, fear is everywhere. It has become like the oxygen we breathe and at the same time also the thing that suffocates us. Don’t misunderstand me. Some fear is healthy if it makes us serious about addressing risks to ourselves and others. For example, we are still wearing masks in our church. Even though the state isn’t requiring us to the CDC still recommends it as the best way to prevent the spread of COVID when our numbers are still moderately high. Reasonable caution is common sense, especially when our job as a church is to care for the well-being of the vulnerable.

But it all takes a toll. I have never seen a span of two years that has so transformed the human psyche around fear and anxiety as these last two years have. The pandemic has changed the way we live. We have gone for so long covering our smiles, we’ve now forgotten that smiling at a stranger as you pass them in the grocery or on the sidewalk is a thing we used to do. Now we barely make eye contact. Hugs have had to become so scarce that it may be a long time before our heads let our hearts feel comfortable physically reaching out to another person. We have conditioned ourselves to accept the disappointment when gathering after gathering had to be canceled. And we can only postpone the joy others give us so many times before our brain adapts and says, hey, maybe you don’t need the joy other people give you. We stayed home for so long because we needed to, that now it just feels more comfortable to stay home. Why expend the energy to get dressed and leave the house when it’s easier to just stay home? Wounded by disappointment one too many times, our hearts have begun to harden to the hope that we’ll ever return to life as it was before. That’s the power of fear. We pull back and hunker down. We do what we need to do to persevere. New habits based on that fear form. And even when fear is needed to protect us during a pandemic, pastors everywhere look out into their congregations now, two years later and realize the side-effects of fear cannot be denied. Social disengagement has now become the new normal.

You’ve all seen it. You’ve all lived it. We look around now at a sanctuary that struggles to feel physically full on a Sunday morning.

Addressing the widespread social disengagement of our times has become the biggest challenge of Christian community in 2022. If I were an apostle and if I were writing an epistle to Cobleskill in 2022 AD, just as Paul did to Corinth in 53 AD, I would say that struggling with the fear of death has become one of the largest barriers to living fully in Christ.

Yet it is this very fear and anxiety that Jesus became human to directly to address. Is it not?

Last Sunday we said that the thing that binds us together as a Christian community of faith is our shared belief that the worst thing in life is not the last thing in life. That God’s wisdom is greater than our conventional wisdom. This means that our physical death is not the end. That something better is waiting. And so if resurrection really is our common belief as Christians—that Jesus was not left dead by the cross but raised back to life by God to prove that love wins— if this is truly what we all believe, then Jesus gives a gift. And it’s not just a gift reserved for us on our death bed when we look toward heaven, it’s a gift that is given to us each in our living days. The gift is the courage to face life without the fear of death. Let me say that again so it sinks in. Jesus’ gift to us is the courage to face life without the fear of death.

Do you know how insanely hard this is, yet also how fundamental to living full lives?

I stepped into a nursing home for the first time in two years this week. I took my COVID test at the door and I donned my mask and I walked down hallways lined with men and women who looked at me like I was from another world, so uncommon has it become for visitors to visit. I found Sally and Clara’s room, and there were two sisters whose arm chairs were close enough for them to reach out and hold hands. The warmth of their connection to each other was immediately gifted to me. While we were together time stood still. Suddenly I wasn’t overwhelmed or stressed. We were laughing and chatting about ordinary things like the weather and our families. And then suddenly Sally asked if I would remove my mask just for a moment so that her sister could see my smile, she had told her that it was beautiful and she wanted her to see. I was taken aback but then I understood. It was okay. It was okay to show a smile for a brief moment to share that bond. And it wasn’t just the moment where our smiles could be seen that made the visit special. It was the reminder of a human connection that had been put on hold.

And you know what the saddest thing is? Before I walked into the nursing home, I had a lot of anxiety. I couldn’t explain it; it wasn’t rational; I felt nervous and unsure; I felt like I was stepping out into the unknown. I almost changed my mind about going altogether. The patterns of fear have become so ingrained in us that now in the absence of the extreme threat, the imprint left by fear is still there. It has reduced our ability to live fully.

After my visit with Sally and Clara I felt whole again. They lifted me with their love and I found myself wondering how soon would be too soon to return. Fear and anxiety have become grafted into our subconscious. But we’re selling ourselves short when we settle for the person fear makes us. And we’re letting one another down when our fear leads to disengagement. All of our lives will end. But whether they end in disconnection or not, that is still a choice we can make.

Yesterday I was waiting to give blood and sitting in the social hall with nothing to do except look at the beautiful stained-glass window in front of me. The big one in the center that has the words “Look up, Lift Up” at the center of the window. What a beautiful and simple sermon, I thought. I’m not sure why I even bothered to say more than that this morning. If we are people who anticipate that God always wins with love and that death is not the last word, then we are people who focus our lives on the simultaneous actions of looking up and lifting up. Focusing ourselves on the mystery of resurrection and showing up to the people around us who need our presence. Look up! Anticipate what is to come and live without fear so that you have the strength to be present to those around you who need lifting up. It’s simple and profound.

We’ve been on a long road of isolation that has led to endemic social disengagement. But we can’t settle for this as the new normal. When we do, we forget who we are. We are social beings; created for connection; created for community. We are Easter people. Deep down inside we know that life is too short to let fear or even the imprint of past fears pull us away from the connections that will ultimately sustain us.

Here are three simple things you could try this week to break the cycle:

  • Reach out to someone in a way that you haven’t done in the last two years.

  • Get dressed and get out of your house for a community event that you’ve gotten out of the habit of attending. Make sure they have safety protocols that make you feel comfortable and put yourself out there.

  • Question that feeling inside of you that tells you “maybe another day” or “I don’t really feel up to it.” Breaking out of the habits of disengagement we’ve formed will take resolve. Thankfully, God gives us the gift of this resolve. Take it.

‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’

The sting of death loses its power when we trust in the mystery of the resurrection. The endless winter has a glimmer of spring coming. The bleakness of our disengagement can change. We can change. We will be changed. We just have to trust that God is doing a new thing.

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Anna

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