Lower School Chapel Homily, September 11, 2020
Good morning! It’s so good to be with you for our first Lower School chapel. For those of you who are new, we normally have chapel here, in the Little Sanctuary. You are packed in next to each other wearing blazers and ties—full school dress. We have fans going and windows open because it’s sweltering hot in September and there’s no AC in this, the oldest building on campus. But now you are in the comfort of your own home in air conditioning watching chapel remotely. See? The “Remote Plus” schedule has its advantages.
As grateful as I am (and as grateful as I can tell you are) to be back on campus even for a few hours each week, sometimes we might find ourselves wishing things could go back to the way they were. Or that we could move from this place where we feel stuck. That’s normal. But, at the same time, I wonder how these circumstances might shape us into a community even more deeply connected than before.
My first clue that a new deeper community might be possible came this summer at the belonging-pick-up day at Martin Gym. I hadn’t seen you, my old students, in person for 4 months. Some of you had grown several inches. All of us wore masks in 90 degree heat. But we could recognize each other by our gait, our stance, our eyes, and our voices even though we were masked. I could tell from your energy that you were happy to be on campus, glad to know your school was still standing.
And you recognized details about each other. Tatsuto, who had just finished his B-form year, pointed to a backpack and bathing suit on a nearby bench that had been sitting there for a day, unclaimed. He said, “It looks like Declan’s.” Declan and Tatsuto had been in the same homeroom—Mr. Houston’s. They probably never consciously thought about the millions of details about each other they were absorbing over all those hours and days from September to March. But they’d built a deep knowledge over time that came to the surface in that causal moment. I e-mailed Declan and his dad, and sure enough, Tatsuto was right!
Spending time together, we store up tons of data in our brains, some of which we aren’t even conscious of. Sights, sounds, smells... Today’s Scripture passage reminds me of how God uses experience stored in our senses to bring us from places we are stuck into new life.
Two disciples trudge along the road to Emmaus. Everything in their world has changed, and not for the better. Jesus, their leader, has just been killed by the Romans, and his followers are scared that they could be next. Their friends are in lockdown, afraid to leave their houses. As the two disciples walk along, they talk in low voices about what has happened. Jesus, who (spoiler alert) has been raised from the dead, joins them on their walk and asks what they are talking about. It would be as if someone walked onto campus and said, “Why is everyone wearing masks? What’s going on?” We’d respond, “Where have you been for the past 6 months?” The disciples do not recognize Jesus. They catch him up on what’s happened and admit, “We had hoped he’d be the one to make things right again.”
In that moment of disappointment about what they wished could be different, Jesus begins telling them the story of God’s love for them, for their people, and for the world. Time passes quickly and before they know it, they reach their destination. Jesus starts to walk on, and they stop him, “Stay with us…it’s almost evening and the day is nearly over.” Only when he breaks bread with them do they know deep in their bones who was with them all along: Jesus! In that familiar gesture of the breaking of the bread, they recognize him. They turn to each other and say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking with us on the road?” They run back to the other disciples who have also encountered the Risen Jesus. They begin to know him and each other in a new way.
What stands out to me in that story is the way the disciples’ senses are heightened after their encounter with Jesus. This happens over and over again in Scripture when people discover that, even in their fear and grief, God is doing a new thing. I wonder what we will remember as most real, looking back on this time of pandemic. What sights, sounds, tastes, fears, and feelings will we recall from our time together and apart? Which ones will we associate, as we look back, with freedom, new life and God’s grace?
When I was in college, a friend and I, wanted to try out caving for the first time. We joined a trip planned for a group of freshmen boys who wanted to join a fraternity. We were in the cave system for hours. There was one spot where we could see swirling water going down to a bottomless pit. Our guides told us, “Don’t step there, or we’ll never see you again.” At one point, we got separated from our guides and had to crawl on our bellies under a ceiling only 2 feet from the ground. We could see the end far away, but no one wanted to go there, especially the larger boys who worried they would get stuck. Since I was slightly smaller, I led the way, crawling out and said, “It’s the only way through. We have to go.” They followed. When we got out, we were connected, bonded for the rest of our time together. One of our guides, broke open a leaf for us to smell. I’d never smelled anything so strong and fresh. I asked, “What kind of leaf is it? Is it an herb? He said, “No. It’s just an ordinary leaf. You are the one who has changed. Being in the dark all that time, has made your sense of smell and other senses super alive.”
As we crawl on our bellies through this pandemic, not knowing if we can even see the light at the end, we are building community. There are dangers and there are places we don’t want to go, but if we stick together, listen to each other, and offer help along the way, God will bring us through. We will find ourselves more connected and fully alive on the other side.
During this school year, so different from any other, pay attention to the details. To the sights, sounds, tastes, feelings and fears you have and see in each other. Forms I and II, pay attention to what you hear and learn in your discussions of Coates’ Between the World and Me. Consider how we might be allies to each other at this critical time. Pay attention to days like today, 9/11 when we remember another crisis that laid bare our choice to help others or to retreat in fear of our differences. My prayer is as we go through this year together, we will not only focus on being done with it, but that we will learn to experience God and each other in ever-deepening ways.
So make the most of the time you have with each other. Be kind and loving. Considerate and willing to hear perspectives other than your own. And when we tell our story of St. Albans in a time of pandemic, may it be a story of connection and depth; of standing together; and of feeling our hearts burn within us as we sense the power of God’s presence among us. Amen.