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.

 

 

They knew their Lord: A Homily for Easter Evening, 2020

The gospel reading is Luke 24:13-35

Could you imagine an Easter as strange as the one we’re experiencing this year? Empty churches, live-streamed worship, virtual choirs. All of the things we associate with this day—new clothes, Easter lilies, brass accompaniment, packed churches—all of those things seem remote memories, more the stuff of fantasy than of the reality we are experiencing. And those memories can be gut-wrenching. As I was looking through photos of Easter at Grace from over the last few years, I found myself grieving that we couldn’t be together as a congregation, that our normal services, the Great Vigil on Saturday night, the contagious joy and happiness of gathering on Easter Day, our voices joined in singing the great familiar hymns of the day, would not take place and that we would struggle to find other ways of observing the day—by joining live-streamed worship from the diocese, or the National Cathedral, or, well, any number of other places. But I’ll be honest with you, even those live-streamed services seemed less joyful and more a reminder of what we’re missing this year, than they are a celebration of Christ’s resurrection.

It’s fascinating that we are gathering virtually this evening for Evening Prayer, doing something I doubt any of us could have imagined doing two months ago, or let’s be honest, something that would be unimaginable under ordinary circumstances. It’s our custom to worship on Sunday morning, and on Easter, after that worship to celebrate with family and friends, and have no thoughts to gather for prayer or worship later in the day.

Maybe, just maybe, our gathering like this invites us to see deeper connections between our celebration of Easter this year and the first Easter. Many have observed that the first Easter wasn’t accompanied with brass choirs and large crowds, and joyous celebration. Easter began with women coming to the tomb, in fear and grief, to do what women did—care for the bodies of their dead loved ones.

 

That first Easter ended in much the same way. In John, we’re told that the disciples were gathered behind locked doors, because of fear. In the story we heard from Luke’s gospel, we hear of two disciples returning to Emmaus from Jerusalem at the end of the day. They were full of grief at Jesus’ death and disappointment that whatever they had hoped would occur when Jesus entered Jerusalem ended instead with Jesus’ death.

And here we are. Perhaps not behind locked doors but in lockdown. We are waiting, and wondering, and worried. Think of those two disciples on their way home, trying to make sense of what they had experienced in the past few days, and longer over the months that they had accompanied Jesus. They hadn’t heard the news of the empty tomb and the message that Christ was raised. So they were living in the same fear and uncertainty they had been living in since Jesus’ betrayal and arrest. They might have talking to each other about the things Jesus had done and said. They might have expressed how excited and hopeful they had been. Now, they were probably wondering how to pick up their lives after all that, whether they could return to normalcy, what normalcy even was.

As they made their journey at the end of that day, at the end of that eventful week, they came across a stranger who knew nothing of what they had been through, or what had happened. And so they told him the story, and in response he told them where they really had been and where the history of the world was going.

Kind wayfarers that they were, they invited the stranger to come to their home, to eat with them, relax, perhaps spend the night before continuing his journey. Suddenly as bread was blessed and broken, their eyes were opened and they saw their Lord.

Suddenly, the world changed.

Suddenly grief was joy, sadness hope.

In the breaking of the bread, they encountered the Risen Christ

Suddenly, he was gone, and they were going—back to where they had been. Back to Jerusalem, back to the other disciples, to tell them what had happened to them. In their telling, they were told, of the empty tomb, of Peter’s encounter with Christ, of the promise of faith, and victory over death.

The extravagance and noise of our Easter celebrations often distract us from seeing the silence and uncertainty of resurrection, of simple, profoundly personal encounters between disciples like Mary Magdalene or the two unnamed ones on the road to Emmaus. Disciples who weren’t quite sure what or who they were seeing’ disciples who came to know when they were named by Jesus, who called Mary by her name, and in that moment she knew her Lord.

Or disciples, who in the casual and common blessing and breaking of bread, suddenly knew their Lord who at table three days earlier had blessed, broken, and gave bread, saying, “This do in remembrance of me.”

This is a quiet, confusing, domestic Easter, shared with close friends and family around tables, or virtually via modern technology. But this Easter, our Lord comes to us as he came to Mary at the tomb and to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, intimately, lovingly, touching our lives and our hearts, giving us hope, strengthening our faith. When we see him, recognize him, open ourselves to that encounter with him, our lives change, and our world changes.

 

Christ comes to each of us, calling us by name, offering us sustenance, filling us with hope. The risen Christ has conquered death. His love breaks through all lockdowns and locked doors, binds up our wounds and heals our bodies and souls. May the power and love of the Risen Christ bring hope and healing to us and to the world.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Christ’s suffering and ours: A Sermon for Good Friday, 2020

 

One of my rituals since I’ve come to Grace is to spend most of the morning on Good Friday in the empty nave of Grace Church. On this day, it is completely devoid of decoration. On Maundy Thursday, we strip the altar and the chancel bare—removing all of the paraments, candles, prayer books and hymnals. The Christus Rex that hangs from arch in the chancel is veiled in black. It’s a time for me to reflect on the day, to prepare for the drama and power of the Good Friday liturgy, to pray for myself, for our congregation and city, and for the world. It’s a time of silence, when I leave behind all of the tasks related to Holy Week worship for a few hours, set aside all of the stress and anxiety, and focus on the cross, on Christ’s great gift of love.

Of course, this year is different. The church is empty as it always is on Good Friday morning, but it has been empty for over a month, and it will remain empty for some time to come. Our Good Friday liturgy is live-streamed from my home, unaccompanied by music.

Our observances of Holy Week this year are marked not by the usual rituals and gatherings, marked not by the great hymns of the Christian tradition. Instead, our worship takes place in atmosphere of fear, anxiety, and suffering. The loneliness of our isolation is deepened when we hear the voices of friends and loved ones over the phone or see them via zoom or facetime. We are made aware daily of the suffering in the world caused by COVID-19, and all the ways in which the virus exposes the inequities and dysfunction of our society and world.

In the midst of all of this, our anxiety and fear, our loneliness and isolation, we gather virtually to remember the events of this day that occurred almost two thousand years ago. We pause in the midst of our own struggles, pain, and helplessness to remember the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.

His crucifixion, a bloody, horrific death, often called “execution by torture” because the way that crucifixion caused death-by asphyxiation, often a process that could take days, was reserved by Romans for the most notorious of criminals, revolutionaries, rebellious slaves, and the like. It was public, meant as a warning to passers-by of the fate that awaited them if they challenged Rome’s power.

It’s a death that’s alien to us, even if we are familiar with its images. The sort of suffering it causes is known to us only through artistic images or Hollywood movies.

In spite of that, the crucifixion has often been interpreted as connecting Christ’s sufferings with our own, or with the suffering of humanity. One of the most powerful and most famous artistic representations of the crucifixion is that of the 16th century painter Matthias Gruenewald, whose Isenheim altarpiece depicts Christ’s suffering in visual detail, his body riddled with sores, and bleeding. Painted for a hospital for victims of the plague, the sores on Christ’s body looked very much like the sores a plague victim might have, and so, by the patients could find solace and comfort from the suffering that Christ shared with them.

Today, this Good Friday, perhaps that is the only message that we need to hear. Perhaps that is the message of the cross, of Jesus’ suffering and death. That in the cross, we see Christ suffering, but that he is suffering not for himself alone but for us. In the cross, we see Christ suffering with us.

Whatever our pain, whether it is the loss of our jobs, worry about the immediate or more distant future. Whether it is our own illness, the illness or suffering of a friend or loved one, whom we cannot support or accompany right now; whether it’s the death of a loved one, or a friend’s grief at the death of their loved one. Whatever it may be, whatever suffering we might be experiencing right now, Jesus is here with us, suffering with us, taking our pain on as his own.

We are in a dark and difficult place right now, but Jesus is here with us. In the cross, he takes on our suffering; he has taken on the world’s suffering. His great love will carry us through. Even in the death and darkness of Good Friday, and in the silence of the tomb that marks Holy Saturday, Jesus’ love bears our pain and heals our suffering souls. May Jesus’ love break through our isolation, our fear, our pain, fill our hearts, and transform our lives.

 

 

He loved them to the end: A Homily for Maundy Thursday, 2020

 

It’s all so strange and disorienting, isn’t it? There’s a certain familiarity in the fact that most of us are confined to our homes or apartments, places we’ve lived for some time. We’re surrounded by familiar things, the various items that we’ve accumulated over our lifetimes, photos, mementos, and the like. These are all things that tell us who we are and where we’ve been. They help to orient us in the world. The only strange thing is that we are around them all of the time now, or most of the time. And after several weeks of “shelter at home” even the unfamiliar has become familiar. We’ve grown accustomed to working or worshiping on-line. Many of us have overcome our fear of zoom or facebook live, and we are finding new ways to connect with each other.

Still, it doesn’t take much to remind us how strange this all is. Venturing outside, seeing people wearing masks, or noticing the lack of traffic at should be rush hour. The parking lots of stores are empty. I haven’t been inside a store in over 3 weeks. We’re making do with curbside pickup, or deliveries, or mail order.

For me, there’s another level of disorientation, as the grounding I get for my faith by worshiping through Holy Week is missing. I’m floundering a bit, spiritually, religiously. I miss the familiar rituals of Sunday and midweek Eucharist, and now I am experiencing a Holy Week far-removed from the ritual drama of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter.

But Holy Week it is even in these strange circumstances. Tonight is Maundy Thursday when we the Last Supper when Jesus instituted the Eucharist. We remember, even though we cannot celebrate it ourselves, we cannot eat the bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood, and proclaim his death until he returns.

Similarly, as our gospel reading indicates, we remember Jesus’ great act of love and service when he got up from the table, wrapped a towel around himself, and washed his disciples’ feet. When everything is about social distancing, our ordinary squeamishness at the intimacy and strangeness of footwashing becomes even more unlikely, more offensive as we consider the implications of touching a stranger in that way.

Still here we are, gathered via the miracles of technology, to remember and worship on this Maundy Thursday. Perhaps it’s enough for us to think about what both of these acts symbolize and enact—Christ’s love for us and for the world.

This is such a poignant and powerful story, introduced with language that is at once eloquent and pregnant with meaning. “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

            Think about it. Jesus knew what was going to happen—that he would be betrayed, arrested, crucified. Knowing where he had come from and where he was going. With that knowledge as background, the gospel writer continues, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

Knowing what he knew, loving his own to the end, what did Jesus choose to do? He got up from the table, wrapped a towel around himself, and washed his disciples’ feet.

Think of those feet, dusty, sweaty, from all those miles they walked. Think of all they had been through as his disciples followed and listened to him. Think of Jesus, touching, washing his disciples’ feet, as a few days earlier, Mary of Bethany had anointed Jesus’ feet with costly nard and wiped them with her hair.

It’s something with which we are uncomfortable, even if we admit the potential power of the act; getting on our knees, washing the feet of a friend or a stranger. And for us, now, we can hardly imagine doing such a thing, with social distancing, instructions to wash our hands for twenty seconds, and masks covering our faces when we go outside.

But then, after it’s over; after Judas leaves the gathering of friends to betray Jesus, Jesus has more to say. A new commandment to love one another as Jesus loved his disciples, to love one another as Jesus loves us.

In footwashing, in this intimate, offensive act, we see Christ’s love for us. In the foot washing, an act that transgresses so many boundaries, we see Christ’s love for us. We know that Jesus loves us. We see that love here, and on the cross, drawing us to him, drawing the world to him.

We see that love here, as Jesus stoops down, kneels down to act out that love. And as he does that, he provides us an example of how we are to love, by reaching out to others, by transgressing boundaries. He calls us to kneel before each other, and before the stranger, to wash their feet, to care for them, and love them.

Even now, as we rely on Christ’s love for us, as we yearn for Christ’s love across the chasm of isolation and social distancing, he calls us to reach out in love to others, he challenges us to love our neighbors, and strangers, the homeless and the hungry. As we receive the gift of Christ’s love, may we also offer that gift, our own love, to the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus weeps for Jerusalem and for: A Homily for Evening Prayer on Palm Sunday

The Gospel is Luke 19:41-48.

 

So many of us are weeping right now. We weep for lost jobs and income, for relationships that are strained because of social distancing and isolation. We weep for missing the usual rhythms of the spring—March Madness, high school and college seniors going through the rituals that lead to graduation. We weep for a world we sense we may have lost, for those who are suffering and have died. We weep because we cannot observe Holy Week in all the familiar and powerful ways and because the joy of Easter will be tempered by empty churches, no gatherings of friends and family.

Our gospel reading, from the gospel of Luke, is one of those vignettes from the last week of Jesus’ life that we rarely notice, or might not even know. It’s a story told only by Luke and it’s place immediately after the Triumphal Entry—or perhaps “Entry” is not the right word for it. Because in Luke’s telling, the scene we recall on Palm Sunday takes place outside the city, on the path down from the Mt of Olives. It’s after that that Jesus stops, looks over the city and begins to weep.

Jesus weeps for its coming destruction. We can imagine Luke, writing perhaps a generation after Jerusalem’s destruction, still mourning the temple’s destruction and the exile of many of the city’s inhabitants, we can imagine Luke wishing there had been some way to avoid that violence and tragedy, and having Jesus weep in advance for all of the carnage and loss.

We saw Jesus weeping in last week’s gospel as well—the story of the raising of Lazarus. Jesus wept at the death of his friend and as he experienced his own deep grief and the deep grief of Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters. Perhaps he was also weeping for what he might have done and didn’t. Had he come earlier, as Martha reminded him, Lazarus would likely not have died.

Holy Week is a powerful, emotionally wracking week in the lives of Christians who follow the daily rituals. There’s the high of the Palm Sunday procession followed immediately and abruptly, with the reading of the Passion Narrative. We enter into Jesus’ final days. We accompany him to the temple as he teaches and debates with other religious leaders. And finally we come to Maundy Thursday—the Last Supper, his betrayal, and arrest, his trial and crucifixion, his death and burial.

Our church’s rituals help us enter into these events. We aren’t simply imitating them or remembering them, through our liturgy, we become participants in the great mystery of our faith, Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But those events and those rituals will take on new, very likely different meaning this year, as we experience them not as a community gathered physically, but very often on our own, as individuals or as families. Perhaps many of us will not even take time to notice them, or to participate as we might in other years.

Perhaps for you, as I am sensing it will be for me, the emotional weight of being separated from the gathered body of Christ will be simply too great for me to attempt any pale imitation of the great liturgies of our church—especially the Great Vigil of Easter.

Like Jesus, and perhaps like many of you, I am weeping this week, weeping for Jerusalem, for the church, for the world. I am weeping for the world we have lost and the great suffering that is taking place. I am weeping because I will not be able to enter into the liturgies of Holy Week in the way I have done in previous years, that I will not be present with other Christians as we wash each others’ feet, remember Christ’s death on Good Friday, and celebrate his resurrection with the Lighting of the New Fire, the exsultet, and everything else that makes the Great Vigil of Easter the highpoint of the liturgical year.

I am weeping, but I am not alone, for Jesus weeps, too. He weeps for all of us, for our church, and for the world. He weeps for the dead and the dying, the lonely and the fearful, and for all those who are putting their lives on the line to save the lives of others.

This is our Holy Week this year, this is the way of the cross we are walking. But even as we walk with heavy hearts and feet trembling with fear, we are walking this way with Jesus—and the cross is not the end of the story, nor is the tomb the final act. Christ is raised from the dead. His victory over death is a victory over all the forces of death and evil that we face. We may be alone, but he is with us, fighting for us, and through his death and resurrection, he has already claimed victory. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tombs and Resurrection: A Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2020

This is the now the third Sunday that we have gathered virtually instead of physically, and even as we are growing accustomed to life in time of pandemic, the difficulties presented by our isolation, by “safer at home,” the disruptions to our lives, world, and economy are only now becoming real to us. Some of us have lost our jobs. Many of us are trying to juggle childcare, home-schooling, and our own work schedule. We worry about our loved ones and our futures. And the virus itself is coming closer, touching our community now for the first time as we learn of friends, relatives, or acquaintances who have tested positive, are hospitalized, or even have died.

Full of fear, worried about today and tomorrow, wondering whether life will look at all the same on the other side, if we ever make it to the other side of the pandemic, we gather to worship, to listen to words of comfort from scripture, to pray for ourselves and for the world.

We may even remember that it is the fifth Sunday in Lent. If you’re like me, most of the Lenten disciplines you began in February have fallen by the wayside as they seemed like meaningless gestures next to everything we have had to give up-the easy sociability of friends gathering, a restaurant meal, Sunday worship, the Blessed Sacrament.

Yet it is Lent, the 5th Sunday in Lent, and although the Lent of COVID-19 will continue for many weeks, liturgically we are drawing near to Holy Week, near to the cross and the tomb, nearer to Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection

As if a foretaste of the great joy of Easter, deferred though it may be this year, we hear the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. And for us in our place, behind closed doors, isolated from the world and from physical connection with our fellow humans, it speaks to us.

The poignancy of Mary and Martha’s fear and grief touches us even as the apparent callousness of Jesus’ response to them offends. They send word to him that their brother, Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, is sick. Instead of changing his plans and going to be with them immediately, Jesus tarries for two days, a long enough delay that Lazarus is dead and buried by the time Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany.

Then come the recriminations. We understand Mary’s anger and frustration—Lord, if you had been here he would not have died. But instead of sitting with her in her grief, Jesus turns this moment into an object lesson about his identity. “I am resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in m will never die.”

Words, words. Sometimes in John’s gospel, even the most beautiful, the most powerful, the most profound words that Jesus says can come to seem less than connected with our lives. He says so many things, so many times he says the same things in slightly different ways, or uses the same words or images again and again. The words may begin to wash over us, or worse, we may simply tune them out because they don’t speak to, or for, us.

After the words, actions. The group goes to the tomb. Suddenly, words matter; suddenly the reality of it all hits home. Jesus tells them to roll the stone away. Martha reminds him that Lazarus has been dead four days; that the stench will be overwhelming. And now we are in the presence, the overwhelming power of death. Even if we’ve never come near a dead body, or opened a tomb, we can imagine what’s going. We’ve seen enough movies, we’ve watched enough TV to know what is happening, what has happened.

Yet the stone is rolled away. And Jesus cries out, “Lazarus, come out!” He comes out, a dead man walking, and Jesus tells them to unbind the graveclothes from him. And we get the punchline. “Many of the Jews believed in him”

A story of miraculous power, of resurrection and life. A story of faith, Mary’s, and Martha’s, and the bystanders who came to faith. A story of love—of two sisters for their brother, and the love of Jesus for his friends. A story of death, and grief, and deep, deep feeling. All those adjectives used of Jesus here: “Jesus greatly disturbed and moved in spirit” Jesus began to weep, and again, repeating that Jesus was “greatly disturbed” All of these powerful emotions given to Jesus the Son of God at a time of the deepest distress of his friends.

Like Lazarus, we are in tombs, tombs of isolation, despair, anxiety, and fear. We don’t know how long this will last. We don’t know whether the pandemic will touch us more deeply and closely. We can’t see beyond the next few days or next few weeks.

But we are not alone. The one who is resurrection and life calls to us, “Lazarus, come out!” He calls to us to come out of our tombs of anxiety and despair. The risen Christ is with us here and now. He has conquered death and gives us life.

I pray that in this time of loneliness and fear, when we are separated from our friends and family, separated from the gathered body of Christ, that we listen for the voice of Jesus. It is a voice that calms our fears and gives us hope. It is a voices that offers us strength and life. And may we look forward to the day when, emerging from the tombs of isolation, we are freed from the bindings that restrict us by the loving hands of our fellow believers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Annunciation by Denise Levertov: Poetry for the Feast of the Annunciation

“Annunciation” by Denise Levertov

‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’
From the Agathistos 
HymnGreece, VIc

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

____________________________

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

______________________________

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.