Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
The church council met on Monday evening (May 10). In that meeting we spent a considerable amount of time discussing where we are going to gather for worship for the next six weeks. We looked at the results of the brief survey sent to the congregation and tried to interpret what it said about how the membership of St. Paul's was navigating this new phase of the coronavirus pandemic. What we have discovered is that each household or even each person looks at the situation differently, acts and reacts differently, and bases their decisions about when and where to worship on a variety of different factors. At the current time, it is impossible organize a worship service that a majority of our membership will want to attend and in which they will feel both safe and comfortable.
In March of 2020 our purposes in moving to all-remote worship services were easy to articulate. We did so out of love. Out of love, we resolved to do what we needed to do to slow the spread of a terrible disease and to protect the most vulnerable among us. Quite quickly we learned that gatherings like worship services posed a special and distinct risk of spreading an airborne infection such as coronavirus. It seems almost every aspect of our corporate worship services -- the gathering, the length of time together, the closeness of worshipers, the amount of singing and spoken responses, the conversations associated with fellowship -- increases the risk of spreading the virus. From the beginning, however, I cautioned us against viewing our response to the threat of this virus through anything other lens than love. For us, there was not a force or a power that was closing our church or denying access to the worship space or looking to disrupt or prevent anyone from worshiping in the manner they cherished. Instead, I advised we look at how we could make small adjustments to our lives for the sake of our neighbors, to protect their health, to prevent the spread of this disease in our communities, and be part of the solution to the problems we were facing. If we could connect our actions to the love of Christ, by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit at work in and among us, we could actually thrive and learn and grow in our faith and love during this pandemic.
Now in May of 2021, we find it difficult to articulate any unifying purposes to guide us as we make a decision about where and how to worship as we enter a new phase in the coronavirus era. Here is why I think that is the case.
This second factor is simply part of life in the church in the United States in the 21st century. People work to balance worship and all the other things they need to do and want to do. When, however, we add our individual ways of adapting to life under coronavirus, we can see that there is no one solution that a congregation or a council can put forward that will exactly fit for every or even most of the membership.
What does this mean for us? I think it means that we nearing the end of a transition in congregational life that has been in the works for most of our lives. I think this means that way of being and acting as a congregation that came into being about a century ago no longer makes any sense to us. And, I think this means that we are learning as we go a new way of being Christ's church in the world together. This new way demands the active involvement, participation and communication of each individual member and household, not as clients or consumers, but as members of this particular fellowship.
Pastoral Guidance for A Way Forward
In our Gospel readings over the past few weeks, we have heard Jesus teach us about what it means to be part of His church. He used the rich image of vineyard, with himself as the living, true vine at the center, as a framework for understanding what he was creating. Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. The Heavenly Father is vine grower. This is the church. In miniature it is an individual or household connected to Christ. At the same time it is a local cluster of individuals and households connected to Christ in a particular area. It is also a system and network of branches that are connected to Christ, spread out across the face of the earth. In Christ, you are part of and participate in the life of God's vineyard both locally and globally.
If you look at the church as something other, something has disconnected, something has gone wrong. In the same way, you cannot speak of St. Paul's with any other pronouns than we or us. If you speak of St. Paul's in the second or third person or as something other than a fellowship that includes you, then something has become disconnected. In our baptism, we are joined to Christ and to each other. We are what God intends us to be when we are in Christ and members of one another. Apart from Christ, we can do nothing. Apart from Christ we whither and die. We cannot be part of Christ and not be part of each other. We cannot be joined to Christ and dismembered from his body at the same time.
So, God has planted a vine and you are part of it, but what type of fruit does this vineyard produce. Jesus answers that question too, love. The business of this vineyard is to produce the fruits of the Spirit that bind us together, and we can sum up all that fruit in the first fruit, the enduring fruit -- love. The single commandment that guides the actions and behaviors of this community is this -- love one another as Jesus has loved us. Here's what's amazing about love at work within a community like St. Paul's. No one person can decide what is loving without the other. Love demands relationship, knowledge, communication and commitment. An action, rooted and grounded in Christian love cannot be created by order or plan of pastor or church council, but only in the connection between the membership. The pastor and church council can seek to know and understand what is going on in the life of the membership and then lead and guide us in the Spirit to act out that love for each other. (Here Jesus' images of shepherds and flocks might be more helpful.) But, in the end, it is only love that counts for or amounts to anything (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
Loving one another is not the work of the Pastor or the council on behalf of the membership. It is Jesus' commandment that each of us love one another that enlists every single one of us into God's venture. It is Jesus' commandment to love one another that leads us to give generously of ourselves, according to the gifts we have been given. Love leads to participation, participation creates fellowship, fellowship inspires generosity. Being church is something that happens in Christ, with each other and for each other. It is what we do together. It is a we, an us. That is why from the beginning of the pandemic, we have challenged each other to balance our own desires with the needs of our neighbors so that we can enact the love Jesus has for us and the world.
While it is becoming clear to us is that the rituals and habits of in-person worship attendance on the weekend can no longer hold us together as a community, we still confess that the love of Christ flows through each us, and each of us, connected to the vine and to each other, has received the Holy Spirit. Going forward, it will be necessary to look instead at these three areas the forces that hold this community together: our connection to Christ, the way we love each other, and how generously we give to each other and to the world.
Connection to Christ and to each other
Weekly worship is essential to the life of Christ's church. We may now gather in-person or online. Live on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. or Sunday at 10:00 a.m., or we may worship at different time or even on a different day. Within that worship, we connect with Christ and with each other. So, let me suggest that no matter when or where or how we gather for worship that we make it a point to connect with someone else in the process. This might include, liking the page, making or leaving a comment, greeting a fellow worshiper and replying to other comments when we are worshiping online. When we worship in-person greeting each other appropriately and engaging conversation helps us realize we are part of something. A worshiper is never a mere spectator, no matter where we worship. We are part of Christ and part of a community and full participants in an act of worship that joins us to the body of Christ in all its forms.
Weekly worship is not the only way we stay connected to Christ and to one another. Bible studies, prayer groups, support groups and even friendly gatherings are places where Christ present and the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives. While I offer two Bible studies weekly and provide two opportunities daily to participate in a prayer service, there are ways that the members of this fellowship can reach out to connect and support each other. Let me encourage each of us to spend some part of that conversation in learning how we can pray for each other, care for each other and remember to be there for each other. Jesus commanded us to love one another. Each of us has been given the Holy Spirit, take the lead and love. Start by asking how we can pray for each other.
Act out of love
I myself struggle with how broad Jesus' command to love one another truly is, and often have difficulties seeing what's involved in loving another. What I've discovered, though, is that by participating in worship, Bible studies, prayer groups or prayer services, or just reaching out to talk to others in this congregation, opportunities to live and act in love reveal themselves quite quickly. We have been isolated for so long, though, that we have forgotten what once came so natural to us, participation and fellowship. It may take a little while to get used to being around each other. It may take a little while to get to know each other again. It may take a little while to not feel awkward in trying to start a conversation. We are all struggling to put our lives together again. This fellowship we share in Christ can help us do just that. A renewed awareness of Christ's presence in our lives can also keep us from making ourselves as busy as we once were. We can choose to seek God's kingdom first.
When we talk about how Jesus loved us, we have to talk about the abundant generosity in Christ. "For God so loved that he gave ..." (John 3:16) is our most basic confession about who God is. We typically talk about giving financially to support the mission of the church, but now we can see the wider implications of generosity and how love leads naturally to generosity, not just of our financial gifts, but of ourselves. Once again, active participation in the life of this congregation and using the many gifts with which you have been endowed to build up, encourage and strengthen others in this fellowship is a way of giving generously. The word we most use to describe this is engagement, and it has to do with where we give our attention. All sorts of businesses and organizations are out to capture our attention. They want us to spend our life on them -- to see the world as they see it; to see their product as the key to happiness and the life we want to live; to act according to their purposes and in favor of their agenda. Jesus once said that where your treasure is, there your heart will be as well. The treasure most coveted by the world is our attention and time. Where we focus our attention and spend your time is where our heart is set. Who benefits from your generosity of time and attention? Is it your God, your neighbor, or The Algorithm? Do your actions, in-person or online, bear witness to the love of God in Christ.
Participate in a Fellowship of Members; a Community of Households
A congregation like St. Paul's can do a lot to strengthen your relationship to Christ and to your siblings in Christ. A congregation like St. Paul's can do a lot to help, guide and give you and your whole household a sense of its importance and place in God's kingdom and in the world. A community like St. Paul's can bless this whole region and make life better for people who have never even heard of us. The Holy Spirit is not just present for us when we gather at 445 Old Post Rd, but with us where we are now, pulling us into the world where we spend most of our lives as a witness to life, love and generosity of Jesus Christ our Lord. This community exists to equip you and support you in that mission; and it exists as a corporate witness to the kingdom of God; and it exists as collective witness to what the world will be when Christ comes again to judge the world and set things right. In this community, the participation and presence of all makes us stronger, as individuals, households and as a congregation.
This week in our morning prayers, we finished reading through the Acts of the Apostles. In that inspired book, we witnessed the Holy Spirit bringing the whole world together in faith and love in Jesus, the Messiah. This new thing that emerged from God's ancient promise invited all people to gather in fellowship around the same table, and, in doing so, they were invited to give up the other things that they thought defined their identity and distinguished them from each other. As the story unfolds, we see the Holy Spirit bring Jew and Gentile together in one fellowship, and then we saw the forces on each side try to drive them apart again and destroy what the Spirit had created. Whether the Spirit was speaking in the wisdom of Rabbi Gamaliel, or in a vision to Peter or to Paul, the message was the same, our selfish desires and righteous self interest can put us in a position where we find ourselves actually fighting against God. The message of the Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit brings us together in Christ, the powers of this world, the powers we renounce in our baptism, drive us apart.
Our God is a creative and life-giving God. In Christ, there is more than one way forward from this place, and even though we might move in different ways doesn't mean we can't move in the same direction. As we move on from this place, thing of this venture in terms of the vineyard and in terms of a flock. Vines and flocks are messy things that have the potential of going off in all sorts of directions. The vine grower and the good shepherd know just how to keep things moving all together and in the same direction. The Holy Spirit is leading us. I pray that the Spirit gives us eyes to see it, ears to hear it and the heart, hands and feet to put God's vision into action and to be part of what God is doing in the world now. Please, join me in that prayer.
Yours in Christ,
Rev. James Krombholz, DMin
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