We are in the 8th month of a global pandemic that continues to wreak havoc throughout the world. Early on in the pandemic, I was checking a website called Worldometers every day, sometimes multiple times a day, just to look at the statistics. Now I check a couple times a month, while still reading the Seattle Times every day and checking Pierce County Health Department periodically to see how the virus is impacting us locally and whether we can move to the next stage or not – there have been times when I have been hopeful as the curve flattened, only to have those hopes dashed with a new uptick in cases. Worldwide there are 40 million cases with over a million deaths. Our grieving minds cannot even comprehend these numbers. We’ve learned a lot about co-morbidities and underlying health conditions, and the potential long-lasting health risks this virus can have if we contract it. COVID is now the 3rd leading cause of death in the U.S. behind heart disease & cancer. It has surpassed injuries, lung disease & diabetes. The impacts of the pandemic are enough to make non-anxious people anxious, not to mention wreaking havoc with people’s mental health. It reminds me of the line in the 1662 version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer that Composer John Rutter used in writing “Agnus Dei” – “In the midst of life we are in death”. The Rutter Requiem is filled with darkness & light, despair & hope, with minor & major keys, with jarring dissonance & sweet melody, with death & with life. For some the more discordant parts of the Requiem speak with greater resonance for these dark days.  

Yet the opposite is true as well – In the midst of death, we are in life. Listen to these words from Scripture.   

Deuteronomy 30:19 –
I have set before you life and death, blessings and cursings;
therefore, choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.

Gospel of John 10:10 – I have come to give you Life and give it abundantly.

These verses are the premise of the book for our sermon series for the next 6 weeks –  The Leading Causes of Life written by UM pastor Gary Gunderson & UCC pastor Larry Pray. They believe that humans could focus more on what it truly means to live. To focus energy and attention on what affirms life rather than what threatens or destroys it. What ingredients make for a meaningful life? Those things that bubble up from within us and through us that give us a sense of richness, fullness, and satisfaction that make for what we call an abundant life.

One of the hymns from the New Century Hymnal that we sang a few weeks back is based on an adaptation by Hindu Upanishads author Satish Kumar. 

Lead us from death to life, from falsehood to truth;  from despair to hope, from fear to trust; Lead us from hate to love, from war to peace.
Let peace fill our heart, our world, our universe.

These are great aspirations, but how do we live that out? Gunderson & Pray believe that there are five leading causes of life: Connection, Coherence, Generativity, Agency & Hope. You might come up with a slightly different list, but this is a good place to start – so over the next six weeks, we will be focusing on these five Leading Causes of Life starting with Connection. 

The editors of the CHRISTIAN CENTURY posed a question  in the April 2020 issue: What does it means to be church during a pandemic without gathering in person, without being connected physically in a house of worship? Christianity is, at its heart, an incarnational faith. Worship embodies the belief that God’s grace comes through physical contact: water trickling down a forehead, receiving the bread & the cup from another during Holy Communion, one person squeezing another’s hand, or touching the shoulder during the prayers of the people. While the closing of public worship doesn’t mean separation from God, there is real grief around the suspension of these tangible forms of connection to Christ, to others, and to the world.

Humans are social creatures. We are wired for connection and social interaction. Human Connections are like a breath of air on which our very lives depend. Capable of only brief episodes of solitude, human life thrives on our complex social connections to each other. Neighbors walking in hood. A global pandemic has made us realize how deeply and inextricably connected we are to one another, like branches on a vine. While sharing close physical connection in enclosed spaces has proven dangerous, sometimes deadly, it is crucial to our spiritual lives AND our mental health to still be connected, to have people who know us by name, who care about us. Connection is a primary and Leading Cause of Life.

Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry has a new book out called “Love is the Way”. You may remember him better as the officiant of a certain royal wedding a couple of years ago. Recently Brene Brown interviewed him in one of her podcasts. Bishop Curry says,

We’re cut off from the very sources that give us life. God is mediated through community. Human beings weren’t made to be separated from each other. We weren’t made for that even when we’re headaches to each other. We’re still better off together than we are apart. We’ve been separated, and it’s causing deep anxiety.” 

Brene responds: “I go to church for three reasons – to sing with strangers; to pass the peace with people I normally wouldn’t like or agree with, and to go to the rail to break bread with people I need to understand better. That’s how I find God in love.”  

One of the scriptures Angie read this morning comes from the book of Hebrews:

Let us keep encouraging each other, and let us not, as some have done, forsake gathering together.

Well, we may not be gathering physically together, but we have not stopped meeting and worshiping together. I have to say I am encouraged, even a bit surprised, by the consistent number of about 50 boxes that show up on zoom every Sunday morning. But we aren’t just boxes that look like the Brady Bunch. Each box contains a life or two or three, named and claimed as a beloved child of God, and connected to one another and to God like the vine is connected to the tree. Your reasons for coming to worship on zoom may be different than the ones Brene Brown mentioned, but we are finding in these pandemic days how important it is to be connected together in Christ through worship, and I would say most of us are surprised by how meaningful virtual worship has been and can be.  

The root of the word “religion” – is religare – or ligament – meaning “to bind, to connect together”. Churches can be places of connection. They can be places of wounding, but they can also be places of healing. Physical healing happens when two sides of a wound reach toward each other and bind together. Healing can happen for us when we connect to the Source of All Being, to the Healer Jesus, who always guides us toward each other. And so we are connected to one another. 

Ephesians 2:22
In Christ you are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God”. 

Matthew 18:20
For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.

Romans 12:4-5 Just as there are many parts to our bodies, so it is with Christ’s Body. We are all parts of it, and it takes every one of us to make it complete, for we each have different work to do. So we belong to each other, and each of us needs all the others.”

When something happens and the challenge is great or the tragedy is almost too much to bear, what do we do? We look for people to pray for us because our prayers by themselves are not enough.  We need the support, the encouragement, the gathering of each other. There are testimonies through the ages that God sustains us in many ways, and one of the ways is connection with others.

50 years ago, the people who made up the congregations of Mayflower UCC and Aldersgate UMC, looked at each other as friends who already knew each other, and also as strangers, who took a risk, trusting that joining & connecting together as one church community would make them spiritually stronger. And so United Church in University Place came to be in January 1970 – 50 years ago. 

What has kept UCUP going these 50 years in being part of two different denominations whose organizational structures are quite different? I would say it arises out of people who have a deep faith in God, and a genuine & authentic community who share a deep connection with one another. 

And we are witness today with Bill & Vicki joining the church how God invites us to draw a circle that is ever larger than it was before and say, “Come be a part of life. Come be a part of something that will cause life within you, life that could be longer, life that could be richer & fuller.”

Where do you find places of connection? What helps you to connect to others? I invite you to write any reflections in the chat if you are willing to do so. 

Having a faith community where people love, look out for & care for each other, pray for each other is one of the things that makes for a long, rich, and satisfying life. Connection is a Leading cause of life. Amen. Thanks be to God!

God is the one who gives us breath, that bids life begin anew. Let us join our voices in this musical collaboration with Jeff, AJ, Neva & Don as we sing Spirit of God, bright Wind.  

Spirit of God – Spirit of God, bright Wind, breath that bids life begin, blow as you always do; create us anew.  Give us the breath to sing, lifted on soaring wing, held in your hands, borne on your wings. Come, Spirit, come!