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Reclaiming Community

with Rev. Alex Lang

September 12, 2021

This Sunday we begin our new sermon series Making Peace with the Pandemic where we will confront different aspects of how the pandemic changed our lives. Filled with interviews from members of our community, we begin this series by talking about the challenges of losing our community to the pandemic and how we can get it back!

The Scripture

Luke 10:1-9

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two[a] others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. 2 He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. 3 Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. 4 Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.

5 “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ 6 If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. 7 Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.

8 “When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. 9 Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’

Galatians 1:1-4

Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2 and all the brothers and sisters with me,

To the churches in Galatia:

3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,

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September marks 18 months since the coronavirus pandemic forced the United States to shut down. Thanks to the vaccine rollout, we’ve been inching closer to the prospect of returning to normalcy. I’ve had conversations with so many people about what happened to them during the pandemic and where they are now. The consensus I hear from many is that they want to forget the last 18 months and just move on with their lives. But that is easier said than done.

What we experienced during the pandemic was traumatic. Millions of people around the world lost their lives. Millions of people around the world lost their jobs. The pandemic forced us to reorder our lives in dramatic ways. We were sequestered inside of our homes. We had to adopt completely new ways of navigating the world. From the way we educate our children to the way we shop for groceries to the way we do church, there was no aspect of life that was not upended by the pandemic.

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I understand the desire to move on. I understand the desire to forget the hardships and return to a normal life. But the truth is, this approach is not healthy. When you’ve been through something that is traumatic, you can repress it and push it away or you can work through the difficult parts and understand how it has impacted and changed who you are as a person and the community around you.

Most people will choose the former path. Most people will push it away because they’re scared of drudging up those painful feelings; but having the bravery to confront the hardships you have faced will ultimately result in healing. So to that end, I want to offer you an invitation. Together, we are going to confront all of the issues that have plagued us during the pandemic. Together, we are going to be Making Peace with the Pandemic.

This sermon series is going to last 9 weeks and each week we are going to examine a different aspect of how the pandemic changed our lives. We’re going to examine it from every angle. From the loss of community, to the loss of jobs, to the loss of education, to the loss of life. There is so much we have lost over the last year and a half. Being sequestered inside, some of us have struggled mentally and emotionally. Some of us have developed negative coping skills. As a result, I think many people feel they have been set back or have lost important time they will never recover.

However, on the flipside, some of us have used this time in the pandemic to better ourselves. Some people have reorganized their house, found a hobby, got in shape, and started eating healthier. Some people have even realized what’s important in life. The pandemic shook them out of their stupor and helped them to reset their priorities. Regardless of how the pandemic impacted you personally, we need to reflect on our experiences and process what we’ve lost and gained.

Each week we will begin our sermons in this series with an interview of two members of our congregation. This interview will set the stage for what we are talking about for the rest of the sermon. The people who did these interviews, many of them were extraordinarily vulnerable. They spoke about the challenges they faced in very raw terms.

If you see them, please thank them for what they’ve done. What they’ve given us in these interviews is a real gift to our community because it opens the door for us to really talk about how our faith can guide us towards healing. Today, we begin our sermon series with Kristin Michalczyk and Laura Carlson who are going to set the stage for us to talk about the loss of community.

So if we are going to really discuss how the pandemic impacted our community, I think we need to begin with a basic proposition: humans are social creatures. We are not really designed to be isolated from each other. Even if you are a very introverted individual and like to spend time by yourself, humans require regular social interaction to maintain their mental and emotional health.

When the pandemic began and we were all forced to quarantine, we found ourselves in a situation where our normal patterns of movement were disrupted. We couldn’t go to our place of work. We couldn’t go to our place of worship. We couldn’t go to school or the gym or our sports teams. We couldn’t even go have dinner at the houses of our family and friends.

These are activities that all of us took for granted prior to the pandemic and once they were stripped from us, we ended up losing touch with the various communities that feed us. Obviously, we kept in touch via Skype and Zoom. We would have been even more isolated had it not been for that technology, but I think what people discovered very quickly is that, as wonderful as this technology can be, it’s not quite the same as being in person and there’s a good reason for that.

If we could step inside of a time machine and visit our hunter gatherer ancestors 20-30,000 years ago, what you would find is that they lived together in groups of about 100 people. The group would shift and change over time, with people coming and going, but the size would stay relatively the same. This number is really a part of our DNA and to prove it to you I want to turn to our first scripture reading came from the Apostle Paul where he is addressing the churches he established in the area of Galatia.

These are first Christian churches that met in people’s homes. Most scholars think each of those churches were comprised of about 50-100 people. Interestingly, the average size of a Presbyterian church is about 100 people. And even though First Pres is an outlier having 1000 members, my guess would be that, if you’re a long time member, you know about 50-100 people out of that 1000. Maybe you don’t know them super well, but it’s in our genes to surround ourselves with groups of that size.

Our brains evolved to live in communities of one hundred people because it’s small enough for us to know every single person and develop relationships with them, but large enough to have numerous mating options. More importantly, you were around people and interacting with them all day long. They relied on you and you relied on them. Anthropologists who study communities who live similar to hunter gatherers today have noted these people exhibit none of the classic signs of depression and anxiety that are so prevalent in our society today.

There are some psychologists who have suggested that the reason why we are having so many mental health issues is because our living patterns are becoming more and more isolated, which is unnatural for human beings. Your brain doesn’t work right when you’re not spending time with other people. And so, prior to the pandemic, we were already living in a world where we were more isolated than we should be. Then, once the pandemic began it shut down what little community we had.

Perhaps one of the most moving moments that Kristin talked about was how she would have these small little interactions with people. Maybe it’s here at the church. Maybe it’s at the gym. Maybe it’s at the grocery store or coffee shop. These were not super deep relationships where she knew everything about these people. But the interactions themselves were life-giving because it made her feel a part of something bigger than herself.

Yes, the pandemic prevented us from visiting those who were most important to us, but we often neglect to realize how much of our community is comprised of those small, brief interactions and how much those interactions feed our souls. So when those more tacit relationships that came from running into people who we would cross paths with during our routine was choked out by the pandemic, our only source of community were those with whom we were immediately cohabitating.

All of sudden, assuming you weren’t alone (and I know some of you were) your spouse, your significant other, your children, your roommate, your relatives, these are your only in-person interactions. These few people now have to compensate and replace your whole community, which was comprised of dozens of people. That’s a lot of expectation to place on the shoulders of these few people in your life.

Think about what Laura was talking about with her loss of community. She had been spending a lot of time at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab doing working with her physical therapist and being around other people who were struggling with their mobility. Laura talked about how important it was for her to be within that community. They could all relate to one another in their struggle. They could all support each other. There was an understanding of her condition that she just couldn’t find anywhere else.

Then, in an instant, the pandemic eliminated all of those relationships. Like everyone else, Laura was sequestered at home. But the consequences of being exiled from the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab was not just the bodily repercussions of being unable to do the physical therapy, but also a feeling of isolation that nobody around her could really relate to what it was like to live in her skin. Laura described how her husband loves her. Her daughter loves her and they would do anything to help her. But helping her get around and understanding what it’s like to live with a body that won’t do what you want it to do are two completely different things.

You see, what we often fail to realize as humans is that at the core of our relationships is a need to be seen. Yes, we want to be around people who we get along with. Yes, we want to be around people who treat us well and have our best interests at heart. But it’s the people who understand our struggles, our failures, our values, these are the people who bring us the greatest comfort. And the amazing thing about those people is that you don’t have to have a deep relationship where you’ve shared your deepest, darkest secrets. It’s just an understanding. You can see it in their eyes and simply being around them can give you a sense of belonging.

This is why being separated from our church community was so incredibly hard for so many of us. Part of being together in this place is that we share a common desire. We come here because we believe in something bigger than ourselves. We don’t possess all the answers to life’s questions. We come here because, as we search for meaning, we are striving to make the world a better place. And to know that there are people around us who have the same questions; who are seeking the same answers; who want to make a positive difference in the world; that knowledge binds us together.

Today we read the story of when Jesus sends out the 70. Jesus takes this group of people who had been following him and commissions them to go out on his behalf. These are people who were all on the same page and who Jesus trusted to spread his message of love and redemption. Did they know each other super well? Probably not, but they were involved in the same work and could commiserate on the challenges of being a follower of Jesus. When they looked into each other’s eyes, there was an understanding—we’re in this together.

And this is what I want to say to you this morning: We are in this together. As Kristin said at the end of her video: you and me, everyone in this community has been through something hard that is unique to them. But here at First Pres, we’re here to have each other’s backs. We’re here to lean on each other. Our church is that judgment free zone where no matter what your story is, no matter where you’ve been, no matter where you’re going, we are a place for you. Together, let us embody this spirit as a church so that when someone comes into our community, they will look in our eyes and know—I belong here. Amen.