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

Newtown

Last Sunday morning, I had a wonderful group of children gather around me on the steps of the chancel at Princeton FUMC as we talked about a little owl that someone shared with us.  I told them that no matter what, “God knows ‘WHO’ you are.”  It was corny, campy and cute.  Yet, I don’t regret a single fist bump or hug any one of those children gave me.

Last night I listened to the Princeton Senior High School Jazz Band, First Block Choir and The Madrigal Singers all perform beautiful music for the season.  Their selections this year were interesting – even according to the director – who said many of the pieces were chosen simply because the showed a part of the “music of the world” that is so much a part of our culture.  Some of the songs were not Christmas songs but simply recalled that anyone could praise God.  I don’t regret clapping for a single one of the young people who gave of themselves.  I don’t regret being in tears as I heard the words to the Lord’s Prayer in an African language and English at the same time.  I don’t regret moving to the front of my seat and bursting with love and pride as my own daughter sang a duet of “O Holy Night.”

This morning I am doing my best to prepare myself for worship.  There are lots of good things that have happened this week as I prepare for a different kind of Christmas this year.  But this morning I read an Associated Press story on the shooting in Newtown and one quote brought me to tears again.  One child, in the midst of the shooting said, “I just want Christmas.  I want this to stop.  I just want Christmas.”   And now, I go to worship in song as we present our annual Christmas Cantata.  It is difficult to do that in the midst of all that has happened in Newton, Connecticut this week.

I was reminded on Friday by Bishop William Boyd Grove of the following:

Connecticut and Bethlehem

Our cheeks are wet with tears,
and our hearts are angry.
In our minds, the image
of our own children last Sunday
with their smiling faces
and their blue and white robes
Singing the Jesus story.

Violence and death
are not new to Christmas.
There is a part of the story we usually skip because it spoils the mood.After angels had gone home
and the shepherds back to
their fields, Herod’s soldiers
killed every boy child
younger than two,
hoping one of them was the new king.
And within a few days
the Christmas Child was a refugee headed for Egypt.

Christmas was violent
and is today.
Bethlehem and Connecticut.

We pray that Christmas angels
Who sang on Christmas night
will hang out in Connecticut now;
much work to do there.

His words reminded me of the story I mentioned during last week’s sermon from Matthew:

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

And I was also reminded this week that in some places in our world children die by violence each and every day – the Sudan, Darfur, Palestine are just a few that come to mind.
This morning, our congregation will gather to worship.  We will gather to proclaim boldly that even in the midst of the darkest that this world can bring, our Savior comes.  Jesus arrives in the messiness of our world.  Jesus arrives in the midst of the grieve of Newton and all those who look at their children differently – in our country and through out the world.
May Jesus come to us this Advent and Christmas…God knows we need him!