Flattening the Worship Curve?

Announcing the suspension of all worship services until further notice was heart-breaking. The last in-person meeting with our Vestry and Council members (and two joining via Zoom) was emotional and bewildering. Strong preference was expressed to find ways to keep the members of our two congregations connected. Online worship service, several suggested. And without much thinking we all thought we could do that.

Until one member cried from her heart: “That is not the same. Our faith is a relational faith, we need to gather in person in order to receive the fullness of the encounter with God and with one another.” But we all knew that “gathering as usual” was not an option. We are now asked to live the painful paradox of solidarity and communion by keeping apart from one another, all to fight this invisible enemy called Covid-19. We are asked to live a painful social separation just when we need one another the most. It’s not the kind of Lenten fast any of us had anticipated.

Within days of that last in-person Council/Vestry meeting, online worship services popped up like mushrooms growing overnight. Just like that, countless priests, pastors and ministers of all denominations became like televangelists, praying the daily office in front of a camera, celebrating the Eucharist/Holy Communion at the altar in an empty church or chapel. Some parishes began to live-stream Mass every day with the lone priest in a church with a seating capacity of 500+.

Now televised worship has been with us for a long time. It is definitely a worthwhile alternative for the home-bound and infirm. While they cannot partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus, they can in good faith be united through spiritual communion. And I guess, in a way, we are now all forced into this category.

And truth be told, we were truly caught off guard by this little nasty bug happily galloping around the globe. And everyone was scrambling to find alternatives to the current restrictions on gathering and the need for social distance. Certainly a spirit of grace and mercy, coupled with permission to fumble and slip up, is the least we can afford one another.

There are indeed surprising aspects to the online worship development. The medium connects us with one another beyond time and place, providing an acute sense of the universal nature of our Christian faith. Physical and denominational boundaries collapse as we encounter the face of Christ in one another’s virtual devotions and inspirational messages. One of my colleagues wrote: Now that so many different churches are doing online prayer offices, I can dip into a Catholic morning prayer, a United mid-day prayer, a Lutheran evening prayer, and an Anglican Compline. And then I can mix it all up differently again the next day. (FB posting, March 19, 2020, by Rev. Scott Sharman)

But in the frenzy of live-streaming versions of the real thing, and while I’m all for the ecumenical gift exchange in prayer, I still hope that online worship doesn’t become the new normal. I hope we will not forget to ask ourselves what makes worship worship. What distinguishes worship from private prayer or watching someone else pray? As Christopher Smith wrote in a recent article: “Worship was never intended to be a religious product that is passively consumed.”* And what about the faithful parishioners without internet and social media? How do we include them in online worship?

Holy Communion, the Holy Eucharist, is an incarnational worship experience. The distinct features that nourish the soul and grow our faith lie in joining our voices in song and prayer, in our corporate confession and the words of absolution, in the sharing of insights from Scripture, each person hearing what s/he needs at that time, and the partaking in God’s holy meal of Christ’s body and blood. Or in the words of Paul to the church in Corinth: “What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” (1 Cor. 14:26)

In other words worship, liturgy, is a corporate act, authenticated by the active engagement of the congregation, identified as the full, conscious and active participation of God’s holy people. The Greek word leitourgia originally means the public work of the people. If we lose sight of this, we risk cultivating a passive audience watching a spectator sport (with all due respect for the sincere efforts of clergy to sustain the spirit of the faithful as best they can). Recall Jesus’s words: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matt. 18:20) God is present with us as we are present to one another in prayer and conversation, in joint confession and forgiveness, in song and praise, in sharing Christ’s Body and Blood.

It remains to be seen how our churches will fare in this prolonged Lenten season of corporate fasting from public worship services. Once the worst of this health crisis is over and we will be allowed out of our places of self-isolation, just think how amazingly festive that first Holy Eucharist in the church will be. Like Christ rising from the grave, we will rise from our homes, shining like the sun, and singing for joy. Easter might come later than planned this year, but come it will: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:32-33)

* http://c-christopher-smith.com/churches-should-think-twice-before-webcasting-their-worship-service

  • This blog post was first published on the PrayTell Blog on March 28, 2020
  • For another reflection on the same subject, see this article in the AJ April 9, 2020

One of You will Betray Me

As I pondered the events of this Holy Night so long ago, I began to see something I’ve never really dared focus on. I tried to push it away. I wanted mostly to highlight the sacredness and the lavish gift of God in the Eucharist, the holy meal which Jesus gave us on the night he was betrayed, and in which we partake every Sunday.

But it hit me … on the night … he was betrayed … it hit me… This night we remember in an intense way the last meal Jesus shared with his friends. This night we re-enact the sacred actions of washing one another’s feet, symbol of our commitment to serve and love one another. This night we re-enact the sacred sharing of bread and wine, symbols of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus even in death.

But this night was one of profound betrayal. Not only by Judas, but also by Peter. Somehow Judas is remembered as the main villain. But Peter too denied/betrayed Jesus: I don’t know him! Not once but … I don’t know him, three times! How did Peter become the rock on which Jesus built his church? In any case, both Judas and Peter, the two betrayers, sat at table with their Lord. Both Judas and Peter had their feet washed by our Lord, despite Peter’s protest. Both Judas and Peter were given the bread to eat – my Body – and the wine to drink – my Blood.

The Gospels agree that Judas committed a terrible act of betrayal, setting in motion Jesus’ arrest and execution. In some Gospel reports, Judas is a man set on destruction, laying his trap and then following through to its devastating conclusion. In other accounts, Judas is caught in a web of preordained actions that Jesus greets with acceptance and without surprise. Judas is increasingly panicked and regretful, trying to repent, trying to begin again. Like Peter, Judas realized that he betrayed his teacher and friend. Unlike Peter, he gets no second chance to sort it out.

Scripture gives varying reasons for Judas’ death. In the Book of Acts Judas used the blood money to buy a field, where he ultimately fell headlong to his death. That field became known as the Field of Blood (1:18-19). In Matthew Judas is quickly horrified by his own actions. Matthew says that Judas repented and tried, unsuccessfully, to return the money to the chief priests. When he realized that there was no way to atone for his sins, he hung himself in a field, also known as the Field of Blood (27:8).

The preacher Nadia Bolz-Weber likes to say that while there may be significant differences between Judas and us, one thing is true for us all. She writes: “Judas carried with him into that field the burden of not experiencing God’s grace because he was removed from the community in which he could hear it.” Judas removed himself from a community that could have embraced him in mercy and grace. Judas’s ears and heart were closed, tormented over the evil he had committed.

Apart from a community of love, no one can manufacture God’s healing, radical grace that flows from the heart of God to us, us – God’s blessed and broken humanity. As human beings, we can create many things: entertainment, stories, pain, toothpaste, a cathedral, a spacecraft, maybe even positive self-talk. But we cannot free ourselves from the bondage of sin.

We need a Saviour, we need a Redeemer, one created and sent by God, not someone of our own making. And so God became human and walked among us. Christ Jesus offered his own flesh and blood for the sake of the world: take and eat, take and drink. Jesus did this knowing full well what scoundrels sat around that table on that “holy” night when he was betrayed.

It is hard to accept. It’s hard to accept that scoundrels and enemies receive the same forgiveness and grace and redemption as we do. Sometimes it’s even harder to accept not just that God welcomes everyone, but that God welcomes all of me, all of you, all of us.
God welcomes even the very things we’d rather hide: the cursing we did this week, or the drinking alone, or the lying, or the neglecting or hating our body; or the dark, scary nights of depression we cannot admit to, or the fear and greed that stifles our generosity, or the nursing of anger and resentment, or the shame over our sexuality or the cheating on taxes … all these parts of us we wish Jesus had the good sense to not … wash… or … welcome … at his holy table. You will never wash my feet, Lord …

And yet, Jesus insist on washing us, washing us in baptism, washing us in service, bathing us in God’s mercy. And we are invited to taste and see that the Lord is … good…. All of who we are is washed and welcomed. The gifts of God are free, and given for all, for all. The gifts of God for the people of God …

Who knows whether Judas walked a doomed, inevitable path. But when we hold him so far away from us, so other, so evil, such a monster, we can conveniently avoid confessing the brokenness that runs deep within every single one of us. It is our Christian responsibility to enter into all the broken places – his, hers, theirs, ours. It is our deep and collective responsibility to share the love of God, the enduring grace of God, with everyone who needs to hear it. It’s our responsibility – so important – to create safe spaces where stories can be shared, sins confessed, the dirt of wrongdoing washed off, and forgiveness extended, healing begun. That’s what church is supposed to be: to make sure no man, woman or child ever wanders alone into their Field of Blood, so lonely and afraid and ashamed that they do something they might regret forever.

We enter into every celebration of the Eucharist with sincere desire and intent.Yet woven into every Eucharistic celebration, ever since the Last Supper, are glimpses of human betrayal, glimpses of the mystery of evil even. “We are not mad,” wrote Leonard Cohen. “We are human. We want to love, and someone must forgive us for the paths we take, for the paths are many and dark, and we are ardent and cruel in our journey.”

Maybe there is a flicker of hope for us here today. Jesus did not offer a perfect, harmonious, beautiful memory of self-giving on that Holy Night so long ago. On that night in which he was betrayed, Jesus experienced a deeply troubled meal. But that deeply troubled last supper nevertheless spells life for the world, and for each of us. Who, after all, ever comes to the table of Holy Communion without having betrayed, if only in the smallest of ways, who God calls us to be?

This holy table and this basin of water are safe space, redeeming space, liberating space. Because here with this basin of water and at this table, we can bring our broken pieces without fear or shame.We can bring the most broken pieces of this world, bring the most broken pieces of ourselves, including the world’s tears over a fire-ravaged cathedral.

Here we can receive at no charge, without worthiness on our part, the equally broken body of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion, and in our sisters and brothers around us. We do not need to understand it or accept it. We do not need to put boundaries or fences around it. We need only to do it – wash each other with God’s love and partake of God’s meal of mercy. On this holy night, God invites us. God summons us to be Jesus’ love and mercy right in one another’s Field of Blood, pointing to God’s always expanding, always washing, always redeeming love.

So come, come with all of who you are and receive the loving and cleansing service of each other in the name of Christ. Receive the living bread come down from heaven. Receive life and forgiveness and salvation with all the other broken saints, lost souls, fearful doubters and devious sinners. For it is Christ, betrayed and denied, killed and glorified, who unites us in the love of a powerful God. Amen

Homily preached on Holy Thursday, April 18, 2019
Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31-35

Many thanks to Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rev. Tim Hughes whose sermons helped me tremendously to write mine.