Sighs too deep for words: A Sermon for Proper 12A, July 26, 2020

Early on in the pandemic, I read a number of essays comparing our situation in lockdown with the lives of hermits who abandoned life in community to live in solitude in their search for deeper relationship with God. The tone of the essays was usually encouraging—offering the reader resources for deepening their spirituality in the face of this new situation. But the reality of life in lockdown, and even now as the limits on our movement and activity are being lifted, is rather different. For myself at least, the stresses and anxiety of the moment, the fear of pandemic, reading the news of the spread of illness, protests, and everything else, have left little space for deeper relationship with God.

With worship relegated to livestreaming, the suspension of the Eucharist, the lack of physical gathering with God’s people, the inability to sing hymns, my spiritual life has been something of a wasteland. It’s only the comfort of the daily office, morning prayer, that sustains me. Words written hundreds of years ago, updated, but still they speak to and for me. The psalms continue to inspire me and provide language with which to approach God, and language that often describes or names my feelings and desires. Cultivating a prayer life these days is both exceedingly difficult and indispensable.

In Romans 8, St. Paul has some interesting and surprising things to say about prayer:

 

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

“We do not know how to pray as we ought.” This is Paul talking, remember. This is the guy who had an encounter with the Risen Christ that initiated a radical change in his life. He’s someone who could confront the principalities and powers, challenge Jesus’ closest followers, even Peter. He wrote letters full of brashness and invective, was absolutely certain of his faith and of the correctness of his theology. He could write about his own mystical experiences, journeys to the third heaven. But still, even for him, prayer wasn’t easy.

Prayer isn’t always easy. Finding adequate language with which to address God is a struggle common to many Christians, To grope for language to address God, to express our uncertainties and doubts about God to express them to God, none of this is unique. It is part of the experience of most Christians, at least at some point in their journeys. Even the greatest mystics experienced such times. Teresa of Avila, for example, called such times in her life when God seemed absent, as dryness. For her, the dryness could last for years.

It’s not just prayer, of course. We struggle spiritually in so many ways. We worry that we don’t do the right thing; that we’re not quite dedicated enough. Some of us may worry that we don’t believe in the right way. We struggle with the creed, the resurrection.

Especially now, with all of our anxieties and fears, with all of the new tasks and responsibilities—child care and schooling, work from home that has collapsed the boundaries from the world of work and our home lives, the challenges of connecting with friends and family. We may be largely confined to home, but our lives are busier than ever, and finding time to pray, finding the quiet to pray may be impossible. And so, the idea that the Spirit may intercede on our behalf, may pray with and for us, can be of great comfort.

But that’s not all that Paul says in this passage. As he draws this section of the letter to a close, his rhetoric and language rise to a crescendo as he asks a series of questions:

 

Who is against us?

Who brings a charge against us?

Who condemns us?

What separates us from the love of God?

The answer to each of those questions is “No one.” In fact, these verses are not just the conclusion of chapter 8. They are the culmination and summary of an argument Paul has been making since chapter 5, that we can be certain of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. And in the midst of this powerful argument, Paul introduces another idea that speaks directly to what I was talking about earlier; our struggles with prayer and with God. Earlier, Paul had assured us that the Spirit intercedes on our behalf with sighs too deep for words. Now, it is Jesus Christ himself, who died, was raised, and sits at the right hand of the Father, who intercedes for us.

We are not alone. We don’t need to try to figure everything out; we don’t even need to worry about finding the right words to express our fears or doubts, or our faith.

What we need to do is trust in God and in Jesus Christ. And in those darkest and driest moments, when we can’t even do that, we can rest in the assurance that the Spirit intercedes on our behalf, with sighs too deep for words; that Jesus Christ intercedes on our behalf and that, in the end, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Thanks be to God!

Groaning in Hope: A Sermon for Proper 11A, July 19, 2020

It makes me want to scream. But I also have a sense that I am growing numb to the suffering in the world around us. As the numbers of death from COVID increase exponentially and the measures necessary to combat it mired in partisan conflict, as our planet burns with 100 degree temperatures in the Arctic; as the streets of our cities continue to see demonstrations and nameless uniformed thugs kidnapping protesters in Portland, the relentless beat of the news and our own need to survive incapacitate and paralyze us. The Christian faith, our scriptures, tradition, and worship, seem to lack the resources to feed our souls and inspire our action toward a better future.

All of this suffering, violence, and injustice is enough to make us want to scream out in anger and frustration, or perhaps groan at the emotional pain all of it is costing us. It’s just too much, there’s no end in sight, and our hope grows dim.

 

And then we read the verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans. All creation groans, he writes, and “we ourselves groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved.”

Let me try to unpack this a bit. Today’s reading comes from chapter 8. It’s the conclusion of a section of the letter that is focused on the meaning of baptism, sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection. And here we see that same theme being reiterated. While that language is also in our baptismal liturgy, I don’t think we usually connect our own experience, our journey faith, our baptism, with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But that connection is central to Paul’s own understanding of baptism and we would do well to take it seriously. In 6:4 he writes:t herefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Here, when Paul appeals to the use of “Abba, Father” as our address to God in prayer, he’s not just pointing out the obvious; again, he’s making a connection between the life of the believer and the life of Jesus Christ. There’s the Lord’s Prayer, of course; but also Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, where in a moment of deepest anguish, Jesus prayed, “Abba, Father.” And so, for all of the exalted language of union with Christ, sonship, and adoption, for Paul, part of our shared experience with Christ is our shared suffering with him.

But Paul doesn’t end there. He goes further, connecting human struggle and suffering in the present with the whole created order. The whole creation groans, he writes. It’s a jarring image to modern ears, I think, because we are so programmed to think of redemption in terms of our own individual souls, and nothing else.

That’s not the biblical perspective. We’re accustomed to think of the world of nature, creation if you will, as a pristine, beautiful, good, that its problems, its suffering, if you will, is the product of human intervention and despoliation. The biblical perspective begins at the same place, with the beauty and goodness of creation but as Paul suggests, it was affected by human action, not our ongoing destruction of the environment, but the consequences of our sin and death. Creation groans, because like we ourselves, it experiences the pain of existence short of the perfection for which God created it. Creation groans in longing for redemption.

Creation groans as well because of sin and judgment. Similar language is used in the Hebrew Bible to describe the cries of mourners as they grieve the death of loved ones or in the midst of community crises. It’s also used in the context of communal or personal oppression—one example is in Exodus, where the Israelites groan in bondage. God hears their cries and brings about their deliverance through Moses. In the prophets (Isaiah 24:1-6) the groaning of creation (ecological degradation) is caused by the sin of the people and is God’s judgment on that sin.

The term Paul uses, and indeed his statement in v. 23, that we groan inwardly suggest a suffering so overwhelming that it can’t be described. We’ve all experienced such pain and suffering; many of us are probably rendered speechless by all that’s going on in the world around us.

For Paul, that’s not the end of the story. Instead, in the midst of this suffering, he casts an expansive vision of a new future—of a world, our bodies and souls, redeemed by God. In fact, our groaning may be all the greater because we have begun to experience what Paul will the “first fruits” of that redemption—or faith in Jesus Christ and in his resurrection. Through the Spirit, through our adoption, we have begun to experience the new reality and the new life in Jesus Christ. For Paul, that makes the realities of our present lives all the more poignant; the suffering we experience, the sins in the world, all the more painful.

Still, suffering is not the end of the story. There is hope. In verse 19, Paul uses the phrase “eager expectation”—imagine yourself stretching yourself out to catch sight of the arrival of a long-awaited friend or loved one. We are saved in hope, Paul writes. We have a sense of that new world, the redemption that is promised by God, the redemption that is shown first in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a redemption when the whole world, and we ourselves will be re-created as God intends. It is hope that gives our suffering and our world meaning; it is hope that gives us the strength to bear witness to that vision of God’s redemption. It is hope that empowers us to work for justice and peace.

So as we struggle in these difficult times, as we cry out in anger and frustration, in exhaustion and fear, may we also know hope. Some of what we are feeling is not only loss for what is gone and may not return, it is also a sense that we know the world can change. And we know that there are people who have a passion for justice and the courage to work for it against all odds, like the great American John Lewis who died this week, and whose life, faith, and hope inspire  us. In these difficult times, may our groans become calls for justice, and proclamations of hope, our hope in Christ and our hope that God is making all things new.

I will give you rest: A Homily for Proper 9A, 2020

I can’t tell you how disorienting this all seems. Today is the first time we are celebrating Eucharist at Grace since mid-March. It’s the first time we will have heard the organ, the familiar language, seen this familiar space. And all around us are reminders of the strangeness. There are in various places around this space, lingering traces of the disruptions we’ve been through. Materials from Lent, for example. Do you remember Lent Madness? Continue reading

I will not leave you orphaned: A homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 2020

May God take our minds and think through them. 
May God take our lips and speak through them. 
May God take our hands and work through them. 
May God take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.

 

“We are in unprecedented times.” How often have you heard or read that or a similar phrase over the last two months? We are living through something none of us could have imagined a year ago, an economic collapse deeper than the Great Depression, a disease that is devastating in its effects, with no cure or vaccination. For us as Christians, we are not able to worship together, to celebrate or receive the Eucharist.

But I’m a historian, a historian of Christianity, and when someone says something like “we are living in unprecedented times” I want to examine that. Indeed, many have reached back to the past in search of parallels to the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, or to the Black Plague of the 14th century. Certainly as we think about the future of Christianity, the future of the church, the future of the Diocese of Milwaukee, we might think about how Christians have responded to techtonic cultural shifts like the fall of the Roman empire in the West, or the Protestant Reformation. We sense that the things have shifted dramatically, perhaps even permanently, and the roadmap into the future isn’t clear at all.

As I’ve thought about our situation in these months of COVID-19, I find myself returning to the story of Japan’s hidden Christians. You may be familiar with part of it. During the sixteenth century, as Spanish and Portuguese explorers sailed across the globe, Christian missionaries sailed with them and followed in their paths. Jesuit missionaries like St. Francis Xavier who first went to the Portuguese colony of Goa in India, then to the Philippines and Japan. He died there while preparing for a trip to China. In Japan, Jesuit and Franciscan priests converted thousands before Christianity was outlawed around the end of the sixteenth century. The story of the martyrdom of some of those priests is powerfully told in Japanese author Shusaku Endo’s Silence, which Martin Scorsesemade into a film a few years ago. If you know the story, that’s probably where it ends.

But the story didn’t end there for Japanese Christians. The faithful went underground. They maintained their faith in secret for the next 250 years. Over the centuries of isolation, they developed and adapted Christian rituals to their situation. With no priests, no Eucharist, they continued to practice their faith as best they could. After Japan was opened by Western traders in the 19th century, and Christian missionaries returned, Catholic priests were shocked when native Christians came out of hiding; there were perhaps as many as 30,000. Their faith, their persistence against great odds and at great risk to their lives, remains a powerful witness to us.

As I think about our situation, all of the fear and uncertainty, the challenges that face us, and as I think about all of the challenges faced by Christians seeking to be faithful to God over the last two thousand years, the words of today’s gospel reading provide comfort, encouragement, and admonition. We are again, still, reading from the lengthy farewell discourse in John’s gospel, still at the Last Supper with the disciples and Jesus. Jesus is preparing his beloved friends for his departure—for his crucifixion and resurrection.

“I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever.” Jesus and the gospel writer are talking about the Holy Spirit here. They use a word here that is unique to this gospel and significantly deepens our understanding of the Holy Spirit—the word in its Anglicized form is “Paraclete,” literally the one who comes alongside us—and advocate in the sense of the one who pleads our case, takes our side, is perhaps the best translation possible. There are other English words that have been used: Comforter, Encourager.

When we think of “advocate” we are apt to think of a court of law, the advocate who pleads our case before a judge. And so when we hear the word used hear, we might think that the Spirit is the Advocate on our behalf before God. There’s no doubt some truth in this—the Holy Spirit as the one who pleads on our behalf to God when we have fallen short, when we have failed to love Christ and keep his commandments as the first verse in our reading tells us.

But there are other ways to think of the Spirit as Advocate. Sometimes, the Spirit comes alongside us and pleads God’s case to us, reminding us who we are as disciples of Jesus, beloved by God and by Jesus, as followers of Jesus called to love him, each other, and the world. It’s easy when there are so many other messages being sent in our world, when the language of fear and despair and hate dominates our world and burrows into our minds, to lose hope and to lose sight of the one who has called us into new life and relationship, the one who has called us to love. Especially now, the Spirit, the Advocate may strengthen us and guide us on the perilous journey that lies ahead.

We can be sure that comes what may, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will be with us, guiding us, leading us, comforting us. We needn’t lose heart, or lose our way. We may wish we could go back, we may long for the past, but the Advocate is leading us forward into the future.

There’s another chapter to the story of Japan’s Hidden Christians. When the Christian missionaries came in the 1850s most of the underground Christians came out and embraced the opportunity to worship freely, to receive the sacraments, to learn about the faith they and their ancestors had sought to follow without leadership for 250 years. But some of those indigenous Christians, as they encountered this new and strange Catholic Christianity, became afraid and went back to their villages and homes, turned their backs on the foreigners’ faith and church and instead continued to follow the traditions and rituals that had developed. Fear conquered them; they preferred a familiar past to a new and different future. I encountered this story via a documentary by Chrystal Whelan: Otaiua: Japan’s Hidden Christians.

We are living in the midst of a crisis and we know that there is no map for the journey that lies ahead. Nonetheless we are not alone. The Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide is walking with us, leading us into the future, assuring us of God’s presence and the love of Christ. Thanks be to God.

 

The Ambiguity of Resurrection: A Homily for Evening Prayer on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2020

The gospel reading for the Daily Office on the Fifth Sunday of Easter is Luke 4:14-30.

Even as we are settling into this new uncomfortable routine, I find that I am learning and discovering new things. As much as I miss gathered worship with hymns and Eucharist, I am also discovering the spiritual power of gathering online for the Daily Office, whether it is our Monday-through Friday of Morning Prayer at 9:00 am, or our offering of Evening Prayer Rite I on Sundays. Coming together as we do on Sunday evenings has come to be one of the highlights of my week, and certainly of my day, as it brings together various things and offers an opportunity to ask God’s blessings on what has passed and what will come.

One of the suprises for me in all this is my encounter with the gospel readings for the Sunday daily office. They are, especially in this season of Easter, a familiar yet disorienting set of texts. Familiar, because we encounter many of them in the Sunday morning Eucharistic lectionary. Disorienting because I read them differently in this context because they are taken out of the roughly sequential order of the 3-year lectionary and often, as in the case both today and last Sunday, they include additional verses that provide additional context and possible focus for reflection.

Take the case of today’s gospel. A portion of this reading, verses 14-21 are read on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany in year B, the year we read the Gospel of Luke. In that context, it’s clearly meant to symbolize Jesus’ proclamation of the coming of God’s reign, a symbol of the season of the Epiphany, when we explore all the ways God comes to us.

But today is the 5th Sunday after Easter and the significance of Jesus’ first sermon seems less important than other themes that emerge from reading this text in the context of our celebration of Christ’s resurrection, not to mention our immediate context, as well.

The drama and power of that sermon, Jesus’ reading those verses from Isaiah, sitting down, and saying, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your midst.” The promise of fulfillment, the promise of the coming of God’s reign continues to beckon us. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ we see the first fruits of the realization of that promise—the power of God’s reign breaking in upon the world, conquering humanity’s greatest fear: death and the grave.

To end the reading with verse 21, Jesus saying, “Today this scripture is being fulfilled in your midst” is to end it on an unambiguously positive, powerful note. We are left with no questions, no uncertainty. But the story doesn’t end there it continues with confrontation, doubt, opposition, and an attempt to kill Jesus. He escapes by passing through their midst. We might imagine a fog descending on the crowd to disorient them and to hide him from them.

So today’s reading ends on a much more ominous note than the reading as it appears in the Eucharistic lectionary. It’s a puzzling story when it’s looked at as a whole and leaves us wondering. In the context of the gospel, it seems to be foreshadowing the conflict that will come between Jesus and the religious authorities of first-century Judaism, and Rome, as well, I suppose. In the context of Eastertide, it reminds us not of the victory of Christ’s resurrection, but of its ambiguity. It reminds us of all those stories that mention the disciples’ fear when they encountered the Risen Christ; all of the stories that emphasize the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus until they heard his voice; all those stories of doubt, and questioning, and wonder.

We tend to emphasize the power of resurrection, the story of God’s victory over death and vindication of Jesus Christ against the forces of evil and darkness. But the truth is more complex than that. “The strife is o’er the battle won” but the war is not over. Evil is not finally vanquished. We live in a world where Christ’s victory over evil and death has only begun, in which the forces of evil continue to do battle.

As we reflect on our lives today and on the struggles going on throughout our community, nation, and world, it’s clear that good has not yet triumphed over evil. The battle still rages. Whether it is in the senseless murder of a young black man jogging down a Georgia road, or the apparent willingness of so many to sacrifice the lives of the weak and vulnerable for their own “freedom;” whether it’s the abandonment by persons in our government of the rule of law and our constitutional norms, it’s clear that the battle between good and evil continues, that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ has not finally vanquished Satan and the forces of evil.

The news is dire. Not just the apparent tolerance of the deaths of tens of thousands, or the hate that divides communities and our nation; not just the reality being laid bare of the deep inequities in our society as unemployment skyrockets and people risk their lives and the lives of their loved ones to work jobs with low pay. The brokenness of our society is on display for all to see.

Yet here we gather, if only virtually, in the small number of those of us who choose to take these few moments from our day to pray and read and listen. Even this may be as much an occasion for despair as for hope and faith as we wonder what the future holds for our gathering and our congregation.

In all of this fear, and doubt, and despair, we wonder. Yet we are not alone. Jesus did proclaim the coming of God’s reign. Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.

We are not alone, either in our homes or in this virtual gathering. As the letter to the Hebrews we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who give us strength and hope; a great cloud of witnesses whose faith inspires our own, and we follow Jesus Christ, the great pioneer and perfecter of our faith. May we take heart and trust that God is with us, that through God’s power and justice, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the beginning of something completely new; that in his resurrection, we can glimpse a future where Christ reigns over all and all suffering and death are brought to an end. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

Resources for thinking about re-opening the church

Updated 12 May 2020

On May 13, I’m convening a conversation at Grace to begin thinking about worship, programming, fellowship, and other ministries when we are able to re-open the church. It’s likely that all aspects of our common life and ministry will be affected by COVID-19 for many months, requiring us to make significant changes. I think it’s important that we begin this conversation now because it will take some time for us to understand how radically our worship, fellowship, and programming will change for the foreseeable future.

We know that Governor Evers has extended the “Safer at Home” order until May 26. The state has also published a plan for staged re-opening called Badger Bounce Back: Badger_Bounceback_detailed. With the Governor’s order challenged by Republican legislators, it may be that the order will be deemed unconstitutional. We will need to plan for that as well. At the same time, our decisions will ultimately be guided by the instructions given us by Bishop Miller and the Diocese of Milwaukee.

Fortunately, there are already many resources available to help us have this conversation and to think about the implications for our buildings and programs. I’ve collected some of those here.

New as of May 12:

 

The Wisconsin Council of Churches has been widely shared: WCC Guide to Returning to Church – Ministry During COVID19

The Wisconsin Council of Churches has also prepared a document discussing music in particular: Returning to Church – Church Music final

One of the most useful pieces I’ve read is this: 24 Questions your church should answer before people return.

There’s a helpful article from the Episcopal News Service that surveys dioceses and parishes across the country:

 

Come away to a deserted place: A Homily for Evening Prayer on the 4th Sunday of Easter, 2020

The Gospel reading is Mark 6:30-44

“Come away to a deserted place and rest a while.”

There are sayings of Jesus, gospel stories, passages of scripture that I am experiencing very differently in the midst of pandemic than I have ever experienced them before. The realities of our situation, the lengthy isolation, my struggle to encounter Christ in the absence of the Sacrament and communal worship, the tenuous connections we make through our disembodied conversations on the web or phone calls, have caused me to read scripture with new eyes.

So this invitation of Jesus: “Come away to a deserted place and rest a while”—I’ve always heard it as an offer to enter into silence and distance myself from others, to go on spiritual retreat. Such retreats have been restorative; they’ve given me spiritual strength and sustenance to re-enter the world and my vocation with new energy and insight.

But now, such an invitation causes me to recoil, laugh even. The last thing I want is to go to a deserted place. What I crave, what I desperately long for are crowds—the joyous gathering of friends, a full table at a favorite restaurant, a packed worship service. I want the stimulus of a room full of loud conversations, a crowded dance floor.

As we yearn for community, for gathering, for our friends and loved ones, Jesus’ invitation to “come away to a deserted place and rest a while” seems less like an opportunity to flourish and gain strength and more like a punishment. But it’s worth remembering that Jesus wasn’t speaking to us but in this instance to the “apostles”—it’s one of the few times the word is used in the Gospel of Mark. This invitation comes after he has sent them, the twelve out, into mission, into the towns and villages of Galilee. His sending of them was an extension of his own ministry and mission, to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom, to heal the sick and to cast out demons.

Now, they are back and it’s likely they need the rest.

But they don’t get any downtime. By the time they arrive at the deserted place, crowds have gathered. Jesus sees them and has compassion on them for they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he taught them many things. Still, it’s a deserted place and as evening comes the disciples worry about providing for the crowd. Then follows the feeding of the five thousand. All ate and were filled from the five loaves and two fishes.

There’s a powerful message in all of this. First, Jesus sees the need of the apostles to rest after their hard work and travels. He encourages them to do just that. But as they are about to rest, they encounter a crowd that has gathered to see and listen to Jesus. Again, Jesus sees the need. Our translation says he “has compassion on them” but the Greek is much more visceral—something like “he felt it in his guts.” He responds to their need by teaching them, filling their souls with the good news.

Today is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Each year on this 4th Sunday after Easter, the gospel reading comes from John 10—Jesus’ discourse on the Good Shepherd. Each year we say or chant Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” on this day. In today’s daily office gospel reading, we have Jesus using the image of a shepherdless flock to describe the crowd that gathered around him. They are looking for spiritual sustenance, hope, meaning in life. He ends up providing for both their spiritual and material needs.

Even as Jesus attends to the material needs of his listeners, he is also attending to their spiritual needs and pointing to the intimate, may I say, sacramental, connection between the two. The language Mark uses to describe Jesus’ actions: “Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples…

Taking, blessing, breaking, giving…

That’s the language of the Eucharist, the language of the last supper. The meal, the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand draws our attention not just to this meal in this deserted place. It also directs our attention to the supper of the Lord, when we gather at the altar and share in Christ’s body and blood. Indeed, as was implied in Jesus’ encounter with the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, when Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of the bread, when we gather at table, every meal is potentially a Eucharist, reminding us of Christ’s presence in our world and in our lives. When we share bread and wine with each other, no matter how ordinary or how many times we do it, we invite Christ’s presence among us. When we share our bread with those who have none, when we open our tables and our homes to the homeless, when we pause before we it, to bless our food we invite Christ’s sacramental presence among us.

We are living in a time of Eucharistic fast, when the bread and wine that nourishes our souls, when the gathered body of Christ that unites us is a distant memory and a mourned absence. In a time like this, to sit at table alone, or with our family is not just a reminder of the loss we are experiencing but it is also an invitation to welcome Christ’s presence, to be fed spiritually by him. We may find spiritual solace and strength in remembering and re-enacting Christ’s actions in the feeding of the five thousand. To lift up our eyes to heaven, to take the bread, bless and break it, and to give it to ourselves and our loved ones, may bring us into closer communion with our fellow Christians throughout the world, and with Christ himself.

In our deserted places being sheep without a shepherd, we are not alone. The love of Christ binds us together; Christ is with us in our lives and at our tables.

 

 

Now the silence: On priestly ministry and presence in time of pandemic

It will soon be three weeks since I’ve celebrated the Eucharist. The last time wasn’t a Sunday morning with a full church, choir, organ, and hymns, but our Wednesday noon service. There were eight of us in attendance. We were aware of COVID-19, concerned about sharing the common cup, but we weren’t doing any of the things that have become our routines. There was no social distancing. We may have refrained from shaking hands at the peace, but we closed in around each other to chat. None of us knew that it would be the last time we would gather like that for several months.

As I returned the sacred vessels to the sacristy and closed up the church, I had no idea that this was the last time I would be doing those things. In the nearly fifteen years I’ve been a priest, I don’t know how many times I’ve presided at the Eucharist. I do know that since I’ve come to Grace, it’s been three times a week, every week, except for vacations and six weeks of sabbatical. So that’s probably at least 1500 Eucharists at Grace.

1500 times saying the words of institution: “This is my body … This is my blood.”

1500 times saying the words, “The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.”

An unknown number of times that I have said to people at the rail, “The Body of Christ. The bread of heaven.”

Now the silence.

We don’t how long it will be before we can again gather at the Altar of our Lord, to join in the messianic banquet and eat of Christ’s body and blood. The central sacrament of our life as Christians, the Eucharist, our offering of sacrifice to Him in thanksgiving and remembrance of his death and resurrection, is taking place in some places around the world but not here. Our offering for Christ, for ourselves, for each other, is an offering deferred, an offering of hope.

Looking back, had I known that the Eucharist would be taken from me and from us by COVID-19, would I have done things differently? Would I have made note to myself or to those present the historical significance of our little gathering? Would I have sought words to make sense of our situation in light of the Eucharist’s coming departure? In fact, I love the quotidian simplicity of that small Eucharist: spoken, not chanted, with so few present. The Solemn Prayer over the People for the Second Sunday in Lent a fitting way to go our separate ways and enter into the silence and absence of Eucharistic fast:

Keep this your family, Lord, with your never-failing mercy, that relying solely on the help of your heavenly grace, they may be upheld by your divine protection; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The following days were filled with frenetic activity as we clergy began planning for worship and all other programming to move from the comfort of physical presence to the mystery of online platforms, and the uncertainty of how it would all work and whether any of it would be effective.

When gatherings of more than ten people were banned, and as our Diocese lowered that limit to 5, it was clear that nothing would be the same for some time to come, that the familiar rhythms, language, and sacraments of Episcopal worship and life would no longer shape our lives and our ministry. We experimented with Facebook Live, with Zoom, and with other methods. Some of us found them helpful and adaptable and were surprised at the response from parishioners. We struggled with questions about what sort of worship was appropriate and debates raged throughout the church on the validity of things like “virtual communion” or “private communion” or “spiritual communion.”

On a pastoral level, in spite of the distance, I have found this time to be energizing. Connecting intentionally with people brings great rewards and is far better than relying on the chance encounter on the street, or the random possibility of conversation on a busy Sunday morning. I’ve connected with some people more regularly in the last two weeks than I ever had before. We set up a phone tree for the first time to reach out to all of our parishioners and that has engaged an already active pastoral care team in important and ongoing ministry. I’ve watched as new friendships have begun to develop from those initial phone calls.

Inside the whirl of activity, as in a hurricane, there’s an eye of silence. As priests, at the core of our existence are the sacraments and especially the Eucharist. In its absence, many of seem to be floundering for meaning and purpose. If we can’t celebrate the Eucharist, what can we do? And if as priests we can’t celebrate the Eucharist, what’s the point of being a priest?

Our identity and vocation is bound up with the sacraments. They brought us to faith, nurtured us, ordained us. And as we celebrate the Eucharist we make the bread and wine the Body of Christ for the Body of Christ. We help to enact and incarnate the Body of Christ in our local contexts. Without that, what, who are we? Without the Eucharist, what are our congregations?

We flail about, looking for ways to continue celebrating the Eucharist and engage in debates in conference calls and on social media over the validity of such practices or the Eucharistic theology that might underlie them. Drive-through Eucharists; consecrating the bread and wine of a family at home through the wonders of modern technology; private Eucharists, celebrated by priests alone in empty churches.

I wonder whether our need to celebrate the Eucharist is so tied up with our identity and vocation as priests that we can’t see other possible ways for being priests in a world of pandemic. I wonder whether our desperate need to celebrate the Eucharist is more about how celebrating feeds our spirituality and egos than anything else.

At our ordination we are admonished:

In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the
riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this
life and in the life to come. BCP 531

The Eucharist is only one of many ways that we may nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace. In its absence, let us explore other ways, through prayer, scripture study, and pastoral care, to help our people deepen their faith and share God’s love.

As I reflect on my own experience these past two weeks, I have found myself entering more deeply into the Daily Office. One of my Lenten disciplines this year was use Rite I and to follow the monthly Psalter reading, so that over 30 days, I read all 150 Psalms. I also decided to begin the Office with the Angelus, a practice to which I have grown attached during my retreats at the Society of St. John the Evangelist. The language of the Psalms speak to us across the centuries. They express our hopes and fears, our faith and trust in God as well as our doubts and despair. And the Angelus, that ancient prayer to Mary is as much a confession of faith in the Incarnate Word as it is to Our Mother to pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

It seems to me that the example of priests saying the Daily Office on behalf of ourselves, our congregations, and our larger communities, might be an important way that we can continue to exercise our priestly ministry in this time. It’s reminiscent of the work of cloistered monks, whose prayers are offered on behalf of the world. But it’s more than that. By praying the Daily Office publicly we may also be offering a way for lay Christians to engage more deeply with a life of prayer, to develop new habits of prayer that might take root and have lasting consequences.

Finally, I was overwhelmed by images and video of Pope Francis’ “Urbi et Orbi” blessing last night. Alone, in a usually bustling St. Peter’s Square, he sat silently and spoke eloquently, offering a message of hope and faith in these dark times. And then there was that image of him, bearing the Blessed Sacrament, elevating it in the open window to the empty square and to the dark city, and to a suffering and fearful world. Then he turned and limping, carried it back inside the papal apartments.

My piety does not extend to Solemn Benediction or processions with the Host. Such processions were traditionally one of the chief ways the church acted in times of plague or pestilence. They seem quaint, outdated. But perhaps in this time, I need to nurture such piety. To display Christ to the world may be what we need in this crisis. I have not been downtown more than a couple of times in the last week but I know that the streets are for the most part empty, and that those who are on the streets are among the most desperate of our homeless neighbors—severely mentally ill; victims of substance abuse. The streets are empty except for pain and suffering There may come a day when we will need to offer our own blessing of the city as life returns to something like normal. There may be a day when a procession with Christ’s presence might bless Capitol Square.

Resources for online worship, March 15, 2020

A link to our facebook page: You may also search for it on Facebook: @gracemadisonwi

A link to First United Methodist Church’s livestream (I’ll be joining their clergy for informal worship at 9:00 am).

our service bulletin for this Sunday.

A link to the online Book of Common Prayer.

We will begin with the Penitential Order Rite II, followed by the Eucharist

Prayers for Spiritual Communion (from Forward Movement Publications and St. Augustine’s Prayerbook), intended for use when it’s impossible to receive the sacrament. You may pray them while I’m consecrating the elements today:

National Cathedral’s streamed worship (Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is preaching

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Magnificat

The throne of God in the world is set not on the thrones of humankind but in humanity’s deepest abyss, in the manger. There are no flattering courtiers standing around his throne, just some rather dark, unknown, dubious-looking figures, who cannot get enough of looking at this miracle and are quite prepared to live entirely on the mercy of God.

For those who are great and powerful in this world, there are two places where their courage fails them, which terrify them to the very depths of their souls, and which they dearly avoid. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No one who holds power dares to come near the manger; King Herod also did not dare. For here thrones begin to sway; the powerful fall down, and those who are high are brought low, because God is here with the lowly. Here the rich come to naught, because God is here with the poor and those who hunger. God gives there the hungry plenty to eat, but sends the rich and well-satisfied away empty. Before the maidservant Mary, before Christ’s manger, before God among the lowly, the strong find themselves falling; here they have no rights, no hope, but instead find judgment.

From a sermon preached in London, the Third Sunday of Advent, December 17, 1933