Preaching online presents an interesting challenge. When people are sitting right in front of me, they are stuck. There is nowhere for them to go, and they have to at least pretend to be interested in what I am saying. Other than for a couple of worship leaders here with me, that is not true today. People joining us online can do whatever they want while I preach.
So let me begin by promising that we are going to get to the Gospel. I am going to preach good news, so it is worth sticking around!
But before getting to the good news, I need to acknowledge that this has been a hard week.
Many of you will have seen our Bishop’s most recent pastoral directive closing all Church buildings in the Diocese through July 1. The decision strikes me as wise and prudent. But it also hit me hard, particularly after discussing it with other priests in the area. Even if we do reopen our building on July 2, and there is no guarantee of that, it will almost certainly be a slow, phased reopening.
By July 1, we will receive guidelines from the Diocese about what to do in each of the phases of our reopening. They will, I am quite confident, be sensible and prudent. We will have some flexibility in what we do here at Saint David’s. But probably even after July 1, we will only be able to gather in small groups for a while, maybe for a long while.
Even when we begin to have truly public worship, we will have to continue social distancing, and that will mean significant changes in our service. No touching at the peace. No passing of the plate. No handing the microphone around for the prayers of the people. No coffee hour after the 10:00 service. That is all bad enough, but it gets worse. We may not be able to sing as a congregation. It is unclear how we will handle the Eucharist.
Now, none of this is set in stone. Conversations about the details have only just begun, and
all of it will depend on what happens with the virus and on what public health officials are recommending.
But here is what I take away from the Bishop’s directive and the follow-up conversations I have had so far. We are not going to be back to normal anytime soon.
Folks will hear this differently. I gather at least some people at other parishes have been frankly relieved that we won’t be rushing back too soon. And in a way I am glad, too. I certainly don’t want to put anyone at risk. I would hate to think that people got infected with a deadly virus while worshipping with us.
But I still find this prolonged closure deeply distressing. This year started out with such promise. Our long-time ministries were thriving. We had just started some new things, and we had more ideas that had only begun to take shape. Now all that is on hold, maybe for a long time.
Until this week, I was thinking of this quarantine as a short-term interruption to our normal life. I didn’t know exactly when things would get back to normal. But I assumed that they would get back to normal, that we would simply take up where we left off when everyone began sheltering in place, and that that would happen pretty soon.
This week I realized, with dismay, that this is not just a short-term interruption in our normal lives. This is a chapter in our life together. And the next chapters, what comes after COVID-19, is likely to be different than what came before. Our future will be shaped, in part, by this pandemic. We are not going to simply pick up where we left off in early March, certainly not on July 2.
For me, all that hit on Tuesday morning. Tuesday evening, our vestry gathered with two priests from the Diocese to do a “Mutual Ministry Review.” We were asked to think about a few questions. What is going well? What challenges do we face? What are we called to do now?
That meeting was a great help for me. We are truly blessed in our vestry! We acknowledged the challenges we face. They are obvious enough. The big one is, how do we continue our life with God and each other when we can’t come together in worship and service? How in particular can we stay connected to people who are not on the internet?
But our vestry was clear that good things are happening at the same time. The livestreaming and zooming are working pretty well. Exactly how they will continue after we reopen our building remains to be seen. But we needed a fuller internet presence than we had. In the last few weeks, we have made more progress on that front than I expected to happen in the next decade. That is good news.
We also talked about new ideas for ministry. The vestry has its regular meeting next Tuesday, and we will hopefully make progress on some of the things we discussed. But I was inspired simply by the fact that our leadership continues to look forward, to listen for the call of Christ to us in this time. Ministry doesn’t stop just because we can’t go in our building.
I was reminded, and I needed this reminder, that our building is not the Church. Our building is just the place the Church gathers. We, the people of Saint David’s, are the Church. Even when our building is closed, Saint David’s remains open, engaged, faithful, active. That is true while our building is closed. It will be true when our building is semi-open. And it will continue to be true when we enter the post-COVID chapter of our lives, no matter what that looks like.
That brings me, at last, to our Gospel reading for this morning. Jesus is preparing his disciples for the hard times ahead. For them, that was his crucifixion. For us, that is now. And Jesus says three things that we need to hear.
First, Jesus promises that we have an “Advocate.” Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit strengthens and sustains us in hard times, times like right now. That’s good news.
Second, Jesus promises that he is not going to leave us orphaned. Jesus won’t continue to be with his disciples physically in the way he was during his earthly ministry. But as we are learning all too well, we can be connected without physical presence. In our passage, Jesus says as much. Jesus says that he is continually coming to them, that he is with them in spirit, that he, too, will sustain and strengthen them in the days ahead. That’s more good news. We are blessed by God the Father. We are sustained by Christ and by the Holy Spirit.
And, with that blessing comes a responsibility. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” even in the hard times.
What our vestry showed me last Tuesday was that the people of Saint David’s do love Jesus, that the people of Saint David’s fully intend to keep Jesus’ commandments even in this difficult chapter of our common life.
Discerning exactly what Jesus is commanding us to do now is a work in progress. But in this chapter of our common lives, this chapter which is dragging on much longer than I expected or wanted, we are still God’s people, called by Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit for mission in the world.
And for that I give thanks to God, in the name of our risen Lord. Amen, alleluia!
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan