The Third Sunday of Easter / Year A
This morning’s reading from the Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus walking with two followers and discussing how the events of the past week have been a fulfilment of Holy Scripture. I remember my youth minister calling this the single greatest bible study in history. “Were not our hearts burning within us as he was talking about the Scripture?” While Jesus’ words lit a fire, it was the act of breaking bread that revealed to them who he was. This would become a common experience in the early church. As disciples broke bread and remembered Jesus (as he had told them to do) they discerned his presence with them.
Word and Sacrament, both present in this story, are the two foundational experiences of our communal worship. Through the Liturgy of the Word we hear the ancient story centered around the actions and teachings of Jesus. They speak to our hearts and our souls and become a burning fire lighting our way toward holy and faithful living. Through the celebration of the Great Thanksgiving we receive the real presence of the Living Christ into our very bodies. It becomes for us a source of strength, of courage, of healing, of forgiveness, of hope, and mysteriously, but surely, helps us to sense Jesus is with us as we gather.
But now is the seventh Sunday we have not gathered and the seventh Sunday we have not celebrated the Eucharist… and there does yet not appear to be a Sunday on the horizon when we will gather again and receive communion.
Clergy are talking about this, among ourselves and with our bishops. Almost every Episcopal Church is now live-streaming a Sunday worship service in some form or fashion. Many do as we are doing… a service of Morning Prayer. Some stream a celebration of the Great Thanksgiving. Those few present receive communion (observing safe practices and social distancing) while those at home receive a spiritual benefit by watching. For me, this is something like having a Thanksgiving Day meal live-streamed from the church where a handful of people have gathered to enjoy a turkey dinner with all the trimmings as those of you at home watch while chocking down a bologna sandwich.
Serving as the Rector of St. Paul’s I have opted not do this because I believe the open gathering of the community is an essential and necessary element of the Eucharist. The rubrics of the prayer book state a priest cannot celebrate communion alone. It is never to be private and personal. The presence of one other person is required, even if it is just an acolyte. This says to me a basic requirement of the Eucharist is that it has to be open and accessible and at this time it can be neither.
There is another push among some clergy. Why can’t smaller congregations who can maintain social distance within the confines of their sanctuaries conduct public worship, celebrate the Eucharist, and administer communion in a responsible way? I pray for Bishop Susan who (in lightening speed) went from being a rector of a congregation who loves her (as you love and care for me) to being the Ecclesiastical Authority of people and congregations she has yet to meet, but must still lead. I can’t even begin to imagine.
I told our bishop I value the opportunity for each congregation to discern what is possible locally. In other dioceses, including the northern Diocese of Virginia, bishops have told clergy they are not permitted to go into the office nor are they allowed to live-stream or record services from within the worship space. To my way of thinking this may be very sensible in some contexts and entirely unnecessary in others (such as ours). I appreciate our bishop’s wisdom to value the individual congregation’s ability to discern what is possible.
But… going in to the church office every day and using your personal smart phone to live-stream a prayer service is something entirely different from celebrating the Great Thanksgiving. Maybe some congregations can do this free of fear, but I wonder. If, prior to the liturgy, a priest has to take 10 minutes to explain the process required to consecrate and administer the elements safely, how can the focus any longer be on what God in Christ has done for us, but rather the health risk we face by being here? If the Eucharistic liturgy raises anxiety in the congregation, should it be celebrated? And if we offer public worship, is it wise to invite those who are best served by staying at home but undoubtedly will be here? And is it spiritually harmful to those not ready to gather publicly to say we are here, why aren’t you?
These are the questions I ponder and why I hold Bishop Susan in my prayers as she has weighty decisions to ponder.
In the midst of all these matters I am trying to get my head around something I never contemplated or saw coming. Every morning and every evening some 25-30 households are logging on to a live-stream of Morning or Evening Prayer officiated by either Al or me. Every day, without fail, I am hearing from someone – either via e-mail, text, message, phone call, or even an old school letter in the mail – how these services are helping you in these tough times.
Albert Jennings, a priest I first knew when I was in the Diocese of Ohio, in a very insightful live-streamed service, equated our newly discovered virtual worship with the manna God provided for the children of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. He noted after leaving Egypt and crossing through the Red Sea the people of God where starving in the wilderness. God provided for them daily manna (a Hebrew word literally meaning “what is it?”) Well, what it was was enough to feed them during forty years in the wilderness. And, as Albert points out, once God’s children enter the Promised Land and can grow crops on their own, the manna disappears. The messages, he says, is God gives us what we need, when we need it, to sustain us.
And this ancient lesson is our current experience. God is giving us what we need during these wilderness days. And one way this is happening is through our virtual worship. While I miss the weekly celebration of the Holy Eucharist I recognize and celebrate what God is giving us in this wilderness time of COVID 19. And, unlike those two followers at table with Jesus yet to recognize him because the bread is not yet broken, I sense the Risen Lord is with us in ways I have never sensed it before. And, what I am hearing from you tells me you discern his presence too.
I so look forward to the day when we can all gather with confidence to celebrate our faith and our fellowship. But, do you know what? I look forward to being with you this evening virtually. I look forward to Tuesday, when God will use Al’s spirituality and gifts to feed and sustain us. I look forward to Mobil Wednesday Morning when I attempt to do Morning Prayer from some location in, St. Paul’s, outside of St. Paul’s, or who knows where! I look forward to Healing Fridays. I look forward to this new way, through God’s manna gift, to being feed. God is giving us everything we need and that is enough even as we look forward to the Promised Land of being together again.