First Congregational Church
(United Church of Christ)
Rev. Toby Jones, Pastor

101 State Street
Charlevoix, MI 49720

Sermon: “The Gift of Gathering”

                                                The Gift of Gathering
                        Based on Romans 1:7-14 and Hebrews 10:24-25

      A Message Offered by Toby Jones to FCUCC of Charlevoix on 6/6/21

            If you ask most anyone what they have missed the most during the Covid-19 pandemic, the number one answer will be being together with the people they love. All of us heard the awful stories of spouses that were separated while one of them was dying in the hospital. But on a somewhat less dramatic scale, not being able to attend a grandchild’s graduation, to hug a son or a daughter, to have a few friends over for dinner, or even to attend worship at our church were all things that Covid-19 robbed from us.
            If Covid taught us anything, it should be that to gather is a gift…a gift that we must never again take for granted. In Harry Chapin’s classic song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” Chapin tells the tragic tale of a father who did not make a priority of spending time with his son throughout that boy’s childhood. By the time the father is ready to hang out with his son, that son has become a busy adult himself, who blows off his father in the very same way that the father had blown the son off as a child. The final lyrics of Cat’s in the Cradle sting with tragic authenticity, when that father sings, “When I hung up the phone it occurred to me, he’d grown up just like me…my boy was just like me.” My hope is that as we start being able to gather again, we will do so differently, with deep gratitude, profound appreciation, and a full consciousness of just how precious time spent with loved ones really is.
            The title of the sermon series we begin today is “Better than Back to Normal: Living the Lessons We Learned from the Covid Lockdown.” Each week during the month of June, we’re going to look at one thing we want to do differently – more mindfully – than we did it prior to the onset of Covid in March of 2020.
            The Apostle Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans from the city of Corinth in Greece somewhere between 57-59 AD. When he wrote this letter, Paul had not yet even been to Rome but desperately wanted to get there. A vibrant church was already established there, and Paul used the language of “longing” in writing to the Roman Christians. But it would be almost 3 years after writing this letter before Paul would finally get there. He planned to get to Rome just as soon as he could, but he had received a financial offering from the Christians in Corinth that was earmarked for the poor Christians in Jerusalem, and Paul had committed to delivering that offering. Then he would make his way to Rome. But that errand would be greatly complicated by a shipwreck that he barely survived and a prolonged imprisonment at the hands of the Roman authorities. So Paul knew what it was like not to be able to gather with those he most longed to see.
      In this first chapter of Romans, Paul says, “I pray that now, at last, by God’s will, the way will be opened for me to come to you.” He continues with “I long to see you…so that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” I don’t know about you, but that is exactly how I have felt about returning to this place to worship with all of you. I have genuinely longed for it. It was so hard to be apart from each other for so long, preaching to an empty room or to a few masked faces running the sound board. There is no substitute for being together – truly together, face-to-face, arm in arm.
     Before Covid, I never imagined a scenario where we would not be able to gather for worship. Before Covid, I took for granted that we would always gather here – physically together – each and every Sunday. But I never want to take that for granted again. Instead, I want to be incredibly and consciously grateful every time we gather together, whether it is a gathering of family over a meal, a gathering at a sporting event or concert, or a gathering for worship here in our church home. Gathering is a gift. Gathering is a gift, and I hope that as Covid continues to wane, we develop a much deeper and much more profound appreciation for just how special it is to be together.
      In our second passage for the morning, from Hebrews 10, the author helps us understand the true purpose of gathering with our brothers and sisters. He writes, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good works…and let us encourage one another all the more.” According to the writer of Hebrews, our gatherings with others are always supposed to be about encouraging each other and building each other up. What a great purpose statement! What if all our gatherings at 1st Congregational Church were designed to lift each other up, to fill each other with courage and strength? I’m not just talking about our worship time together, but our committee meeting times, our bible studies, our gardening group, our CMA client meetings. What can we do to make all those gatherings about spurring each other on toward love and good works? Can you imagine how different and how much better our lives in this church would be if, before any of us walked in the church door – no matter the day of the week – we paused and said this prayer, using the words from Hebrews 10: “Lord, help me spur on everyone I encounter this morning to love and good works. Help me be an encourager.” Can I get an Amen?
       We now know what it was like not to be able to gather, right? We now know what it felt like not to be able to worship together, not to be able to study scripture together, not to be able to do the important work of our committees and ministry teams together, and not to be able to sing together. So now that we are starting to be able to do all of those things again, why not do them much better than we did them before – with real gusto, with genuine passion, and with some positive energy and purpose? Why not use all our church gatherings – large and small – for the exact purpose the writer of Hebrews laid out for us: to spur one another on toward love and good works?
      And with our families and friends, we now know what it feels like not to be able to gather for a holiday meal or celebration. We know now how hard it is to have to miss graduations, weddings, funerals, and other significant life events. We know how awful it is not to be able to hug those we love. So what are we going to do differently, now that we can gather and be together in those ways?
      A guy by the name of Dave Hollis put the following quotation up on Facebook recently. It says: “In the rush to return to normal, let’s first consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.” Let me repeat this deep wisdom…(read again) Hollis’s quotation inspired me to make a list of some things I hope we do differently in the days, weeks, and years to come. I’ve entitled the list “Better than Back to Normal: 8 Ways to Make the Most of Our Post-Covid Gatherings:”
1) Hug everybody you can, once it is safe to do so. Hug them hard and hug them long, so they can literally feel the love flowing out of you and into them

2)  Tell people what you appreciate about them, why you love them, and how good it feels to be with them again

3)  Call somebody you know who is isolated, not particularly mobile, or can’t drive and offer to bring them to the next church gathering you attend

4) The next time you are in a committee meeting and things seem rather boring and uninspired, raise your hand and say, “How is this going to help us spur one another on toward love and good works?”
5) The next time you have the family over for a meal, instead of offering a traditional table grace, have everyone say one thing they really love and appreciate about every other person at that table. Go around the whole table doing this.

6) If there’s someone you haven’t seen in worship for quite some time, call him or her. Just say, “I’ve been thinking about you lately and have missed seeing you. You know, we’re gathering again every Sunday morning at 10:30, and we’re always a better group when you are with us.”

7) Whenever we’re singing, let it rip! Don’t worry if you’re not a good singer or if you’re not on the exact right note. Be passionate. Be invested. Think of yourself as sending positive, loving energy out into the entire room.

8) Finally, use your face, your body, and even your voice to encourage the preacher while he’s preaching. The only thing worse than preaching to a roomful of masked faces is preaching to roomful of unmasked faces with blank stares. In the African American tradition, the congregation nods and raises their hands or gives a fist pump when their preacher makes a good point. They’ll even shout things like “that’s right,” “Amen,” and “preach it!” Why not do whatever you can from your pew to encourage the preacher!
     There are all kinds of ways we can make our gatherings matter here at 1st Congregational Church of Charlevoix. We don’t have to go back to the normal we had around here before Covid. We can do better than that…much better. We can go forward to a new normal, a better normal, where all our gatherings are deeply appreciated and filled with the purpose of spurring each other onto love and good works.
     Brothers and sisters, it is such a gift to be together…to pray together, to sing together, to listen to scripture together, and to worship together. I hope we never forget these last 15 months, when we couldn’t be together. I hope we never forget the isolation, the frustration, and the depression we felt during the various phases of lockdown. It is a gift to gather. It is a gift to gather. Let’s treat every gathering like a gift! We don’t want to end up like that father in Harry Chapin’s song.  Let’s celebrate the gift of gathering with all we’ve got this day and forever more…Amen.