This week I took old photographs down from the wall. Each one was a smiling face from the past. Some I haven't seen in a long time. Others are still near by, and I see on occasion. Some are the faces of beloved members of IHS who have died recently, and others passed years before. Some moved away, and others just drifted away over time, taken to new places by the circumstances of life. Some of those depicted were burned bridges, folks who left because they were unhappy or upset. Others said goodbye with hugs and tears. The photograph wall in the IHS parish hall showed snapshots of past times in our congregational life, but no longer reflected the faces someone might see on a Sunday morning if they come today. And so we decided to take it down, with plans to replace it with a memorial board for IHS members who have died.
Yet despite our good intentions, I don't have the personality for this kind of thing. I'm immensely sentimental, I hate change, and I'm not good at handling it when things change. For me, taking down a wall of photographs is more than a simple task to complete. Each smiling face I pulled down brought memories of a different time in our parish life. Taking down the photos carried for me years of love, loss, regret, and the pain and loneliness of the last year and a half.
The congregation that is coming back after the pandemic time of online worship is not the same congregation that left. As I said, many of our folks have moved, or their circumstances changed. Others have simply drifted away during this time, or chosen to leave church life altogether. Likely some have turned away from God in anger or grief. Others have died in the last year and a half, some without getting to say goodbye. A whole generation of our IHS members have become home-bound, moved to care facilities, or in some other way become isolated from our congregation during a time that has made that isolation even more intense.
Additionally the last year and a half has changed all of us in ways we don't even yet understand. A year and a half is a long time, and naturally our lives adjusted to meet the new normal. We adjusted to life without church on Sunday morning, and once you're used to something not being there it is so hard to add that time back into the week. I heard many folks at church say, once we are back to worshiping inside, people will be back. As much as I hoped that this was true, it doesn't reflect the reality that we've changed forever in ways beyond our control.
It's not just my resistance to change or the memories of years past at IHS that made me emotional pulling down these photographs. Pulling them down also made me afraid: what if these faces are forgotten?
This brings up foundational questions of faith. What happens to those who have gone? What will happen to us? Where is there meaning in all of this? Why is there suffering, and why is there pain? Where is God in all of this loss? And as the old hymn says, will the circle be unbroken?
The promise of scripture is better than we can imagine. God remembers. Though these faces are pulled down from the wall, God remembers. Though many of our beloved members have died, God remembers. Though you may have feel forgotten or alone, God remembers. Though it might feel during a pandemic that he is far away from us, that he's forgotten us and left us to our troubles, the promise and the truth is that God remembers.
We see this truth in the story of the Flood. We can imagine Noah and his family floating on the water, looking out at a horizon totally alien to their experience, struggling to remember what trees or ground looked like as the Earth is covered in water. But that wasn't the end of the story. Genesis chapter 8 begins with those words of promise: "But God remembered." God remembered, and the waters subsided, and God's bow of promise hung in sky pronouncing
"As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
shall not cease.”
Coming back from the pandemic feels a lot like leaving the ark. We've been isolated from one another for a year and a half. So much has changed. The world we come back into is not the same one we remember. But the promise to us is that God remembered, and always remembers. God's unchanging love and grace endure and never abandon us. Nothing can separate us from that grace, and therefore no matter what changes in life, we can depend on him.
Normally in the month of September, we have a Kickoff Sunday with a big church picnic. Our choir and Sunday School programs return from hiatus and we get to see a lot of people again we haven't seen in awhile. And we typically introduce our theme for the program year. This year is different in a lot of ways. We're smaller than we've been in a very long time. Our Sunday School will not be back for the time being with fear of the Delta variant and children under 12 still unvaccinated. We're not sure what church will look like going forward, or even for sure what it will mean to be faithful followers of Jesus during such times.
So perhaps our theme is more important now than ever. Our theme this year is that promise from Genesis 8: God remembers. This year we will lift up God's unchanging grace, favor, and love toward us in the midst of these very uncertain times. We'll pray together, we'll break bread together. Some things we do will seem strangely normal, and other things will seem just strange. But together we'll figure out what it means to be faithful followers of the One who is ever faithful to us, our God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the words of ancient prayer, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.