Last Week's Sermon
COVID-19 Response May 2020
Dear UPC friends and family,
In the twenty-ninth chapter of Jeremiah, the prophet writes a letter to the people of Jerusalem, now taken into exile by the conquering Babylonian empire. They had been removed from their homes, with no certain knowledge of when they would be able to return, or what the signs of return might be. But Jeremiah counsels the people not to dwell on the timetable of return, but rather to live into the strange newness of the moment: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce … Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
On Wednesday night, your UPC Session considered this passage in the context of this unique moment. Our moment is not, of course, a literal exile — but, as metaphor: what does it mean for us to build houses and plant gardens in this in-between season of our congregational life? We would all love to be able to gather for worship in our sanctuary, to join our voices in song and shake hands in peace. But we are also keenly aware that, here in Austin, the infection rates keep climbing — and that the need to safeguard the most vulnerable among us has never been more urgent. Therefore, the Session voted on Wednesday to commit to building houses and planting gardens in this remote place for some time yet to come —so we will continue in our online-only worship format – at least – through August 16, 2020. Normally, that would be the last Sunday of the summer season at UPC. The timing may yet be extended — Rally Day is still on the calendar for Sunday, August 23, though we don’t yet know what it will look like. For now, we plant our gardens.
This decision was not easily reached, particularly as we begin to see other kinds of establishments opening their doors to limited forms of service. If I can go to the mall or
the grocery store, it seems like I ought to be able to go to church, too. And yet your church leadership is particularly wary of enacting the sorts of occupancy and density restrictions that other establishments are having to enact in order to maintain public health: nobody wants to tell the ushers to only let in twenty-five or fifty people right before we sing “God Welcomes All,” even if we could safely join our voices in the first place. Early indications suggest that services of worship have been among the most severe occasions for transmission of the disease. The science is still emerging, but while it does, we’re going to continue gathering for worship in the way that best seeks the welfare of our church community and the city around us: online.
Furthermore, as I keep being reminded: the building may be closed, but the church is very much open. I continue to be astounded by the ways in which the Holy Spirit moves and breathes through our Zoom community in Sunday morning worship — and, as you’ve heard over the past few weeks in our Minutes for Mission: our church is still going. Micah 6 is still feeding the hungry. UPLift is still seeking the welfare of the vulnerable. Christian Formation and UKirk are still equipping us to live out our baptismal vows. Congregational Connections is still connecting our congregation. The Deacons are still loving and praying. It looks different, and it feels different. But in some ways this church has never been more open — open to where God calls us in this strange time. Open to the movements of the Holy Spirit, even in Zoom calls and drive-by celebrations and virtual choirs. Open to what new day may yet be born.
Everybody wants to return to our home sanctuary. As I write this, your Safety & Security Task Force is hard at work planning for what our return might look like, drawing up the tiers and phases that may guide our reentry and discerning what kinds of public health metrics to look for before we begin that process. For now, however, we’re going to keep building this house, planting this garden, and seeking the welfare of this city. We’re going to give thanks for all the #signsoflife and #signsoflove happening in this unfamiliar time. We’re going to ground our hopes where we’ve always grounded our hopes: in the grace of God, which no disease could ever undo; in the love of Jesus Christ, which no lockdown could ever confine; and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, which no quarantine could ever contain.
I miss you, friends. But I’ll see you at church.
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
Senior Pastor, Head of Staff
University Presbyterian Church