Exile Worship

Yesterday, November 1, 2020, the congregation at First Church UMC, Huntington, WV returned to in-person worship for the first time since mid-March. Several people – some who were not there – have asked me, “How did it go?” or “What was it like?” or “Wasn’t it great?” Their queries are genuine and I hope my response is as well.


First of all, my expectations were pretty much met with the service, save one.

I expected the Spirit to be very present, and it was!! It was so apparent to me that I stopped using my sermon notes from the start of my sermon and went in a direction that was quite different than I had planned. There was something about seeing people in the pews…hearing the word read to those people…and having to proclaim Good News that overtook the preparations that I had made. (You can compare the two recordings on YouTube to see the difference. Our “pre-recorded Premiere” is here and the “In Person Worship” is here.)

I expected that our attendance would be right about where it was – almost a third of our pre-pandemic numbers. I also expected that there would be a “mix” of people who would be there – from children to older people, from the very healthy and hearty to those who were facing health problems that should possibly keep them home – and that was exactly the case. And it was a joy to see each one of them. The shining eyes of the kids looking around “their” sanctuary was priceless. The peace of seeing someone battling cancer sitting in a sanctuary pew. The laughter of a some…the grumbles of others. The true “gathering” of humanity was a blessing.

There was also the celebration of Baptism for a child who was born pre-pandemic in the worship service. She is a beautiful child of God, in a family of faith and surrounded by people of faith. There is little doubt in my mind and heart that the presence of the Holy Spirit was that much more powerful because of the celebration of this Sacrament – with this child and God making the promises that God never breaks! No. I didn’t get to hold her and walk her around her new family of faith. But she was before us all, reminding us of what God promised to us and we have promised to one another.

also expected that I would get caught up in some of the details and tried to make it so I wouldn’t, but on this, I failed. I got to close to watching over “safety” and “smoothness.” But alas, I am learning yet another new skill. I will give myself the grace to do so and pray that others will as well. For the record, I have learned a lot about video editing in the last six months that I never planned to do either…so, I think God will help me with this one new one as well.

I hoped all would know that this was a “New Service” but am not sure how well I communicated that idea beyond my own hearing. It was at a new time – 11:00 am, but I am afraid some people did not understand that change. It was with a new “order” and still I think some came expecting something else. It was actually in a new setting – no pew cushions, and we really noticed that one!

But the one thing about the “new service” that I thought I would miss the most, I didn’t. I did not miss the singing of hymns. There was music from the organ that was quite moving – thanks to Dr. Johan Botes for that – but there was another “music” in the air as well. I don’t know what to actually call it but a Billy Joel lyric came to mind: “Bill, can you play me a melody? I’m not really sure how it goes. It’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete, when I wore a younger man’s clothes.” That type of melody was floating through the air and somehow, someway, it completed the worship experience.

The last thing that met my expectations was how “forlorn” I would feel among the people who gathered. I wanted to be closer to them – physically closer – and we just can’t do that. I wanted to sit among a group of kids and have a conversation about Halloween. I wanted to give a hug to several people I knew were facing difficult and trying times. I just wanted to be closer and not being able to do so hurt in a way that I did foresee but did not count on being so palpable.

I’ve thought also about what we should call this “New Service” or ours and I’m open to suggestions. In my mind, I call it “Exile Worship” for it is the worship of a people who cannot “sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land”. For us, the captor is a pandemic. For us, the songs just ‘cannot’ be sung because it gives our captor more power. For us, we cannot practice hospitality as we used to because it plays once again into the hands of our captor. “Exile Worship” sounds about right to me.

But most of all, it was another experience of worship. My life has been blessed to see so many different types with two new ones blossoming in God’s Kingdom in the midst of this pandemic: “Online Worship” which is practiced at home and now the “Exile Worship” of those who gather in the midst of their captor.

Praise God that the Spirit is present in these new ways!

Scott Sears
November 2, 2020

An Incarnational Moment

Because there is one loaf, we , who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ. (United Methodist Hymnal, Word and Table Service 1, page 13)

Some of my favorite memories from my teenage years were those where I spent an entire day and night reading a book. My clearest memories of these nights involve books written by Stephen King. Once I started them, I was compelled to get to the end even if it meant spending a sleepless night and garnering my parents wrath the next day. There was either something so scary that it had to be resolved or my imagination was so taken by the narrative that I had to finish in order to rest. Either way, I would give in to the compulsion to read.

There are a lot of things on my “to do” list for today. I had hoped to finish and record my Sunday sermon this afternoon. (Not going to happen.) I still have some work to do to prepare for a Zoom Bible Study this evening. (Will definitely happen somehow.) We are recording parts of the Sunday service today so I can edit them tomorrow. (That’s scheduled…so it should happen.) And yes, I still have hopes of doing some recorded mid-week meditation for the people of First Church. (This one is still unknown.)

Some may say that I don’t know how to prioritize, and that may be the case. However, over the past couple of weeks I have had so many conversations about Communion and the “Pandemic Virtual Church Time” we are now immersed in, and I have read some thought provoking articles about the topic, that I find myself compelled to put some words down as well. Priorities or not, I’m at a point of compulsion here.

If you didn’t watch the video that I posted last week of a conversation Rev. Jennifer Williams and I had, I would recommend it as background for this. She’s an incredibly insightful pastor. I also cannot recommend enough a blog post by Rev. Hannah Bonner found here. Rev. Bonner references several other pieces that have been done about the subject of Holy Communion in this time, and if you like, read those as well. She treats them fairly from my perspective. She also gives a much deeper sense to the social justice aspects of Holy Communion than I have experience in giving.

An observation that I have taken from both the conversations and the reading is that parts of the Church have, from time to time, taken respites or fasts from celebrating Holy Communion. Sometimes for a season of discernment. Sometimes from the necessity of having someone available to serve. And sometimes, like right now, when we cannot possibly partake of the Sacrament in person without risking the spread of a disease. Granted, the disagreements about what Communion means – and whether you should even capitalize it – are as varied as the regularity it is celebrated, even within the same denomination.

One thing I can say for certain about the Sacrament – it must be a mystery because we sure as hell can’t figure it out.

Yet, despite the mystery and the problems we have right now with snow in May, murder hornets, COVID19, and the general failure of nerve among our national leaders, I am, as the pastor of a real community of faith wrestling to figure out how to lead as the one who presides over the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

With all the wrestling I have been doing in heart and mind, I finally came to the place where I have found peace about what I am going to do. During worship – both while we remain apart and until we can safely partake of the Sacrament again – I am going to set the Table with both bread and juice. It will be there as a reminder to us of the moment in which we live. It is not a moment where I believe we are “giving up” or “fasting” or “hoarding” (for those who are performing virtual communion). For me, it is a token of the Incarnational Moment for the community of faith to be the Body of Christ, broken and shared.

When I had this thought of it being an incarnational moment, I thought, “Cool! I’ve come up with something new!”

Alas.

I was beaten to this centuries ago by none other than my own favorite crazy Dane, Soren Kierkegaard. Although he is not speaking about Communion, per se, the idea of an incarnational moment seems to have originated with him as he wrestled with some of the Pauline letters. He writes:

The moment is that ambiguity in which time and eternity touch each other, and with this the concept of temporality is posited, whereby time constantly intersects eternity and eternity constantly pervades time.

and

A moment as such is unique. To be sure, it is short and temporal, as the moment is; it is passing, as the moment is, past, as the moment is in the next moment, and yet it is decisive, and yet it is filled with the eternal. A moment such as this must have a special name. Let us call it: the fullness of time. (Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin, ed. Reider Thomte and Albert B. Anderson (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980), 89ff)

I believe that we as a Body have arrived at an Incarnational Moment – where past, present, and future have come together – so that in that confrontation with the elements we are allowed the honor to live out the brokeness of both loaf and body because we cannot partake of the Sacrament that embodies them for us. In the absence of the Sacrament, we are confronted even more plainly with becoming that Sacrament. We need to be confronted by the broken loaf and be that incarnate body for the world as we safely find ways to both be the church and someday(?) gather in someway(?) to celebrate that which we have been living out. But only in the fullness of time. (And right here, I call on us to define that “world” as my colleague Rev. Bonner does with a full understanding of who is not at the Table with us.)

Well, that compulsion is done. It’s not the most scholarly assessment, but hey, that’s not my way. I’ve put some thoughts out there, folks, and you are welcome to comment. I’m just on the journey home and would love to have your company.

 

A Day of Thinking

Fridays are normally days off for me, but in this time of pandemic… Well, it’s just another Tuesday.

I did have time today to reflect with some colleagues about all that is happening and how Communion nourishes us even when we are not partaking. We decided to have fun and record the conversation. Believe me, there was nothing planned about this, so if it seems random, well, it is. But, it’s Thursday, so it’s a good day for random.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=HIc9HGJN5Zs&feature=youtu.be

Enjoy!

Holy Disruptions

Reader…the following is a sermon manuscript that has had an interesting life. It started as a few notes for a Good Friday video devotion and then became a hopeful blog post for Holy Saturday (I hate that name), until finally becoming a sermon. If you can’t find all the pieces in this post, I will be shocked. I don’t like the messiness of posting a manuscript because the oral art of preaching transforms even sentence structures. But I share it with you anyway. (If a good editor wants to make some notes on it and send it back to me, no offense will be taken!)

Based on Matthew 28:1-10

At the beginning of the COVID19 outbreak, I had high hopes that I would find a lot of time that I could devote to writing and maybe even making my blog “alive” again. But alas, the learning curve on technology that I have had to master over the past few weeks, the new ways I have had to learn to adapt as pastor, husband, father, brother, son, and friend during this time just seemed to eat away what little creativity I had left. I started this in several forms, several times and failed.

But it kept building up this past Holy Week and I have to share it on Easter Sunday.

Matt was my best friend in first grade and for the first half of our second year of school. We were in the same class but first met during the walk home from school. Matt lived closer to Barrackville (there is no “s” in that, folks) Elementary, but it was on the same route I took home, so we would often walk together and talk. It wasn’t long till the friendship spilled over into school and recess. Our friendship would grow deeper because of the time after school. Occasionally, we would pass by his house, walk half-way to mine, and stop at a little “Mom and Pop” store to get some candy. Then we would go our separate ways.

Eventually, my mom and dad gave me permission to stop at his house and play after school. And we did the things first grade boys would do – climb trees, play games, and make stuff up to do, and, oh yeah, break things. Imagination and creativity in our 6 and 7 year old selves wasn’t limited by what other people might think of what we created or thought, or even by how much the other laughed at some silly creation, it was only limited by the time we had and the materials that we had at hand.

Boxes became spaceships and racecars.

Clouds could be anything.

We even took the time, perhaps in the summer between first and second grade, to come up with an entire new monetary system which we called “Funny Money”. We made billions and billions of “Bucks” on that idea. The only problem was that no one else would accept it as legal tender. We always had hope that it would catch on some day, but just didn’t know how to manipulate the system to make that happen. Our parents would not even buy in.

Somewhere near Thanksgiving of that second grade year, my Dad let us know that the temporary job that he had been working in Beckley was soon to become permanent. We would move over the Christmas holiday.

I went to Matt’s house for the last time on the day school let out for Christmas break. We made sure we had each other’s phone numbers, addresses, and exactly half of the Funny Money each. We promised to stay in touch with one another. There weren’t any tears, because, first of all, we were boys and we didn’t do that sort of stuff. But deeper still was the overriding belief that this was just some little interruption to our friendship. We’d be back at it in no time.

My family moved what was at that time six hours away. You can do that drive in half the time now that I-79 is complete and the bridge over the “Big Ditch” (I’ll explain why I call the New River Gorge that some other time.) are complete and Route 19 is basically a four lane highway now. But in 1972, the trip took six hours.

I remember talking to Matt one time after that. It was a phone call. I can’t even remember what we said.

And, of course, I don’t have any Funny Money. Not even sure what I spent the last of it on. Probably used as a bookmark and eventually threw it away. It may be buried in a box somewhere near the house in Mt. Hope where I grew up. I might have used it to paper some creation or another. Maybe I burned it all. I just don’t know.

Something has been churning in my head for a while now. I’ve talked about it with a few trusted friends. I’ve tried to give voice to the words in a video recording that I could share, but somewhere in the midst of talking, my thoughts got jumbled from the notes I had made. So, I tried to use my blogging muscle, but even that got distracted. In the end – it is this, a sermon for Easter. The story of my short friendship with Matt and the way he and I both looked at my family moving away from Barackville as an “interruption” to our friendship is just a way that I’m able to imagine what I want to say.

COVID19 is not an interruption to our lives. It is a disruption of life itself. Or, at least, it could be. I feel quite certain that there will be powers at work to try and get everything back to just the way it used to be, but in my heart of hearts, I both think and hope that they will fail miserably. I hope we come out of this thing not just shaking off the dust and going back to making Funny Money or whatever it is that we do but instead we step out into a world made new by the disruption of some respiratory virus that is so novel that it makes everything novel.

An interruption is a phone call from some sales person during dinner. I might be irritated a bit, but it doesn’t spoil a good meal. A disruption is a phone call from the hospital telling you that “You need to come now. Your son was in an accident.” Life isn’t the same, the world isn’t the same after a disruption.

And COVID19? This little bug has disrupted everybody. Think about it. Even the President of the United States, who was never very fond of the press, has spent extended periods of time with them every single day. Think about it. There was a time when if you heard two people in a grocery store, one of them passing gas and the other one coughing, you’d have kept your distance from the former rather than the latter. Think about it. I walked outside about a week ago and I could smell the aroma of baking bread coming from the Heiner’s bakery that is over a mile away. (Go ahead, Southsiders…give it a try. It’s wonderful!)

Think about it. This is no mere interruption. This is a disruption.

Forgive me, but I have to remanence again. This time, I’m not going quite so far back.

When I was in seminary, I actually took a course on Preaching. Yeah, they offer those there and despite what my congregations are subjected to on a regular basis, I took one and passed. I didn’t get an “A” but I didn’t fail either. But, I did come close.

We all were assigned passages to preach on that appear in the Lectionary. I lucked out and got the gospel lesson for Easter that just so happens to be the same passage that comes up this year in the Lectionary, Matthew’s account of the women coming to the tomb. That had to be the luckiest draw in preaching that anyone could get in seminary – the equivalent to winning the lottery. I mean, come on! Preaching on the Resurrection? Piece of cake.

Well, I found a way to screw it up. Somewhere in the midst of my sermon in front of classmates and professor, I started referring to the “miracle of the Resurrection” and made repeated mentions of it throughout the sermon. I noticed the first time I said the phrase that my professor shifted in his seat and I thought, well, that got his attention.

Oh, it did.

When I got my sermon manuscript back, it was marked with a big ugly letter grade that rhymes with the letters “C and B” but has a much harder sound at the beginning, and underneath it in very legible writing, that really didn’t need the double underlining to draw attention to it, were the words, “The Resurrection of Jesus IS NO MERE MIRACLE! IT IS AN ESCHATOLOGICAL EVENT THAT CHANGES EVERYTHING!!” (Now, I could tell you what eschatological means. I do know. I even knew it then. But I’m gonna have more fun imagining you at home Googling it. E-S-C-H-A-T-O-L-O-G-I-C-A-L) The fact of the matter is that my professor was absolutely right. The Resurrection wasn’t about some miraculous event. It. Did. Change. Everything.

Or at least it is supposed to change everything. The problem is that we have to realize that it changed everything and like good little humans, we can choose not to do so.

The resurrection is a disruption – not an interruption. It reverses the power of death. It sets us free from the bondage of law. It changes everything – past, present, and future. (That’s a hint for those of you who both didn’t know the meaning of eschatological and were not willing to Google it because you knew I thought it would be funny.)

COVID19 is also a disruption. Not on the level of the Resurrection, mind you, but it is an incredible opportunity for us as individuals, communities of faith, families, nations, and yes, even the whole world, to accept that things have changed and allow God to introduce new life into these mortal bodies and mortally built systems that we describe as “normal.”

As I wrote earlier, I have been working this out in my brain for a little while. I thought I would write it out on Good Friday, because, the way I see it now, we are still too close to the event of COVID19 to know exactly what will change and what won’t. Lots and lots of people will predict. Lots and lots of people will be wrong. It’s sort of like standing and staring at the Cross of Jesus knowing that this is bad, but the best thing to do is run and hide. Good disciple.

But I finished this out yesterday on the day known as “Holy Saturday” – a name that is further proof that Christianity is woefully disconnected from our culture. A better name might be “Woah! This is the most different Saturday ever!!!” Because, it is the most different Saturday ever. The Son of God is dead and in a tomb. If we thought things were bad on Friday, then the unknowing of this time is even worse.

And that is where I think we are right now as Homo Sapiens. We are at that Saturday mark following a major disrupter of history.

So, what comes on Sunday? What is Easter going to be?

I don’t know for this event. We can let God recreate us and everything we hold onto, or we can blink, stretch, and go back to normal. I don’t want to do that. I want to use this time as a jumping off point into whatever new thing it is that God would allow to happen. I don’t want rescued from this virus. I want resurrected! I want the church resurrected – not just with ‘new people’ but with a whole new way of being church! We are figuring it out now when we have to, why can’t we figure it out in the not so distant post-COVID19 world as well?

We’ve done one heck of a good job fighting back against a “novel” virus. The real question is “Can we fight for a ‘novel’ world in a post-virus age?”

The women came to the tomb, felt the earth quake, saw soldier fall stupid with fear, and then had a angel say to them – “Don’t be afraid. I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said.”

Sometime in the future, we are going to walk out of this social isolation, feel the earth quake, see people around acting strange out of fear, and maybe, just maybe, if we have the faith and grab hard onto the hope that Resurrection offers, we will hear an angel say to us, “Don’t be afraid. I know you are looking for normal that got locked up during this pandemic. Normal is not here. Normal is being recreated by Resurrection people like you, just as Jesus said.”

P.S. – Matt, if by some chance you happen to read this…sorry about the Funny Money. We really should have been bright enough to figure out cyber currency instead. And Dr. Lischer. Thanks. I know better now.