Rev. Nathan Huguley
Please allow me to start by sending our greetings to Orlinda, TN, where my mom and her parents are worshipping with us this morning. Today is Paw Paw’s 87th birthday, and when I had to leave his bedside on Friday, I promised I would wish him a happy birthday this morning.
As I look around the worship space today, I’m struck with how weird it is. It’s weird that there are only a few others here worshipping with me this morning. It’s weird that I haven’t seen most of you for the past 5 months. It’s weird because it looks like this building is being used in different ways than it was before March.
I’ve read and heard a lot in the past couple months about “reopening the church.” We’re all tired of having to play by COVID rules. A pastor friend of mine shared this social media post with me from a member of her congregation:
Here’s my rant. I can’t sleep. Our church deacons tonight voted to close our doors once again. Oh, I’m sure some of them had good reasons to vote against reopening. We are all worried about COVID but we were open for one Sunday. The pews were taped off for social distancing and we all wore masks. How do a few people, who mostly weren’t even there, get to decide for the rest of us? The sermon and music is on YouTube for virtual worship but it is not the same. I miss the beauty of the sanctuary. I miss worshipping with others even at a distance. I don’t get the same feeling watching on my iPad. It was different when all the churches, shops, and restaurants were closed but that is not the case. There are restrictions but we can deal with that. Those of us who wish to worship in our church should be allowed to do so.
These are the words of a sincere and well-meaning Christian whose opinions and questions are probably shared by many people in many churches across America these days. And they’re entirely valid. This long physical separation from one another is unprecedented in modern church history. This is really weird. I mean this is paradigm-shifting, fundamental-change-inducing, REALLY-rock-your-boat kinda weird. But as difficult as this weirdness is, there are opportunities in it that we should explore.
Let’s go ahead and get one thing out of the way: the church can’t be closed. The Body of Christ isn’t a business. We don’t keep bakers’ hours, bankers’ hours, or even pastors’ hours. We don’t have one of those signs with a clock face that reads “Sorry, We’re Closed. Will reopen at 8:00” (or when the vaccine arrives or when Jesus comes again). Church, my friends, is not this building I’m standing in right now. Church isn’t somewhere you go, it’s something you are.
We’re being church whenever we’re living the lives that God has called us to live. If you’re a healthcare professional, you’re being church when you treat a sick patient. If you’re a teacher, being in the classroom—whether in person or virtual—is church. If you are a parent, you are being church when you kneel to pray with your kids at night. If you work in an office, you’re being church when you ask a coworker how they’re fairing these days.
Y’all, we are the hands and feet . . . and ears and eyes and arms and mouth of Christ. We are one body with many parts, and even though those parts aren’t all in this building on Kasold Drive this morning, we don’t stop being church. This building is just a means to an end, and that end is what the New Testament calls ekklēsia which means “the assembly.” It’s a coming together of God’s people, but we’re not limited to literally coming together in the same place. Here this morning, we’re coming together to join our hearts and minds in worship, and we’ll continue coming together to join our individual callings to the Church’s mission to “go and make disciples of all nations.” [ Pause for transition ]
Phyllis Tickle has observed that every 500 years or so, the Christian faith goes through a kind of rummage sale. The old ways of doing church no longer address the needs, concerns, and questions of many of the faithful, so those people hold a metaphorical rummage sale in which all the old stuff that doesn’t work anymore is sold off to make room for something new, something fresh, something relevant. Don’t get Ms. Tickle wrong, it isn’t that the “old” way of doing Christianity dies out as a new way is born. After all, the Catholic Church of today is what it is today because of the Protestant Reformation. Speaking of which, the Protestant Reformation was the last great rummage sale, and guess how long ago that was? We’re due for another. So, let’s explore the weirdness of this moment together a little bit to see what opportunity may be opening to us.
We’re not meeting in person for worship. That’s weird. It’s weird because, with the occasional exception of extreme weather, the church we’ve all known always meets in its building on Sunday morning. We’ve never been pushed to be church away from the building and the people that meet in it. But, meeting virtually means that our worship is now open to many more people than it was before. Our own homebound members come to mind in addition to former members who have moved away as well as people who had never known we were here. It is still hard to go without seeing each other, to forgo the smiles, hugs, and handshakes that remind each of us of God’s love for us. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still communicate that love to one another. Smiles have become “likes,” handshakes have become text messages, and hugs have become phone calls. Though these may not be quite as satisfying to those of us who are used to seeing everyone every week, they’re still important connections with the people of this community.
We can’t get together to break bread at the same table. That’s weird. This morning, we’ll be celebrating communion. Few, if any, of us have ever experienced communion alone. The word “communion” itself implies community. But community and communion both look a lot different today than they did last year. We can still meet each other over Skype or Zoom or FaceTime to spend time together, though. A couple months ago, I had a “let’s drink bourbon and talk about Star Trek” night with a friend in Nashville that I hadn’t seen in about a year. It wouldn’t have occurred to us to arrange something like that before this pandemic. I appreciated that opportunity to share fellowship with a friend I probably wouldn’t have seen if things weren’t so weird right now. So sharing a physical table has had to be traded for sharing a virtual one, but that doesn’t make the fellowship any less important. There is opportunity here to be creative about how we spend time together. Next week, we’ll be joining together for parking lot worship. That’s a good new way to commune together safely, and there are other opportunities like that in the works. Y’all we have to innovate, we have to find new ways of meeting our own needs and the needs of others during this strange time.
We couldn’t send a group to Nicaragua this June like we’d been planning to do for almost a year and a half. That’s weird too. We knew that the trip might get postponed or cancelled, but we were thinking it would be likely due to something like political unrest in Nicaragua. Who could have known that we’d have to stay home to keep the people of that place healthy because of the danger we pose? But we don’t have to travel thousands of miles to share God’s love. I communicate God’s love to everyone I see at Menard’s when I wear a mask so that if, God forbid, I’m infected with this awful virus, I’m at least less likely to transmit it to the person behind me in the checkout line. You can do that and you can find other ways to spread love in the world around you. You can buy a meal for the person behind you in the drive-thru or at a curbside pickup. You can share the produce of your garden with your elderly neighbor. You can offer some free babysitting to parents who are too afraid to put their kids in daycare or school right now but who have to work to make ends meet. I’ve been so impressed, though not much surprised, by the ways this church is sharing God’s love even in the weirdness of our world today. You expanded the feeding ministry of this church to meet increased need. I hear reports that you organized your Sunday School classes to meet over Zoom before the staff or SLT even asked you to. You have called, messaged, emailed, and video chatted with one another to keep connected. You continued to live into the plans for Earthworks despite the challenges, and you’ve found creative ways to continue that important work.
The world we live in today is weird, and it’s hard. We weren’t prepared for this. Our economy wasn’t ready to shut down and then limp along at partial capacity for months. Our leaders hadn’t thought through what starting Spring Break in March and ending it in September would be like. Our healthcare system wasn’t supplied enough to handle a massive influx of critical care patients. And we, as individuals, weren’t ready for this new reality either. All of my studies in and practice of monastic spirituality and ministerial self-care didn’t prepare me for this kind of living. But focusing too much on all these ways in which we weren’t prepared hasn’t helped me do a better job of rising to challenges and taking advantage of opportunities these days.
In today’s Gospel passage, the disciples come to Jesus and say “It’s gettin’ late and we gotta send all these folks home before they get any hangrier.” Jesus didn’t respond by asking the disciples to tell him more about the limitations of the situation. He didn’t focus on what they didn’t have. He said that the people didn’t need to go anywhere, that the disciples should give them something to eat. “But we aren’t prepared,” the disciples responded. “We’ve only got few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, and that’s not even really enough for the thirteen of us.” Jesus started with what they had, the resources at their immediate disposal, and he worked a miracle with them. Everyone went home full and there were a dozen baskets left over to boot.
How many more resources do we have at our disposal today? Are we focusing on what we have or are we focusing these days on what we don’t have? Are we so quick to rush a return to the status quo that we’re missing Holy Spirit’s invitation to join God in something new that’s being born in our midst?
Since the church can’t close, it can’t reopen. Even better than the venerable Waffle House, the church has been open 24-7 for two thousand years now because church isn’t a place. It isn’t a building that can be locked up when the service is done. Church is a people, and we are a people bound together as we journey toward the coming of the Kin-dom of God. If it’s time for Christianity to have another rummage sale, I imagine this pandemic will accelerate its coming. We here at FBC Lawrence are going to need to adopt Jesus’ outlook from this Gospel passage if we’re going to be part of Christianity’s future. We’ve got a lot of resources at our disposal. We’ve got folks who are gifted and passionate about a number of different ministries. We’ve got leadership that is wise and committed. We have assets like this building that we already put to wonderful use. Most importantly, in my opinion, we have people who love one another like sisters and brothers. That’s what attracted Julia and me to this congregation, by the way. This community is a family, and we really are bound together on this journey.
That tie that binds us cannot be broken by this pandemic. It can’t be severed by time, space, or any power of this world. It is the tie that has bound us from that first Pentecost right down to today, and it’ll continue binding us long after we’re all dead and gone and this building has turned to dust.
We don’t have to be standing in the same room to be bound together. The weirdness of this new normal is an invitation from God to step out of our comfort zones and step out in faith into a whole new paradigm of being church. I don’t know what that will look like just yet, but I can promise you that the “tie that binds” reaches through wires, cell signals, and fiberoptic cables. That tie binds us regardless of where we are, when we are, and who we are. It ties the members of this church community together. It ties us to the other American Baptist Churches. It ties us to the other churches here in Lawrence, here in Kansas, here in the Midwest, here in the United States, and all around the world. That tie, friends, binds us to all humanity. Blest be that tie.