The third Sunday in Lent, March 15th, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made it into my sermon.
Referring to the Samaritan woman in John 4, I noted, “Sinners with a capital ‘s’ are not embezzlers or wife-beaters or murderers, or even hand-sanitizer price gougers, but people like ― well ― this gal.”
We had avoided handshakes for a couple of weeks, but nothing seemed serious enough at the time to go beyond a hand-sanitizer quip. Elbow-bumping still felt novel and amusing. When a visiting six-year-old witnessed the encounters, she extended her elbow for bumping, then held up her Pete the Cat for his bump.
On the way home, I stopped at the new pan-Asian buffet in town. Buffets and newspapers have always been a favorite combo of mine, but as I happily dredged cold mussels and cucumber slices through the wasabi, no lie, I came across an article in The New York Times called Please, Don’t Go Out to Brunch Today.
“Gathering in groups right now is selfish and puts the lives of others at risk,” Charlie Warzel wrote. “The coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, are spreading across the United States faster than we can track or test. … (E)ven Disney shut down its parks worldwide.”
When I Got Home, I Stayed There
Changes came fast and furious. Major League Baseball’s opening day ― cancelled. Huntsville’s Trash Pandas debut ― ditto. Proms. Graduations. Weddings.
And worship services.
In short order, the leadership of Stevenson CP decided to cancel worship in the sanctuary until Easter.
Our first e-worship was via Facebook live video March 22, the fourth Sunday in Lent. The morning was pleasantly cool and cloudy.
One of the recurring themes in our opening prayer is giving thanks to God for the gift of the Holy Spirit, enabling us to join all the world to worship in spirit and truth. That prayer seemed especially important as we found our little congregation scattered over northeast Alabama and beyond. Our remote congregants typed their prayer requests into the comments section of our live video.
The sermon definitely felt different ― I read it directly off my laptop rather than printing it out, and eye contact with a camera offers nothing like eye contact with human beings. After the sermon, though, just before sign-off, as I closed my eyes to offer the benediction, everything felt the same. The Holy Spirit united us as I said, “The love of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ go with you all, both now and forevermore. Amen.”
Probably our most painful time was Easter. We had hoped to lift the ban by then, but there was no way. Sunrise service, Easter breakfast, all canceled. Celia, our pianist, posted on Facebook that she walked the half-block or so from her house to play hymns of resurrection to our empty sanctuary.
We worshiped electronically for 11 Sundays. Barring a few technical hiccups, everything went smoothly. The reviews were good. The most common comment was that our dogs Scotty and Demitasse in the background were the best part of the service. Some suggested we continue including them when we move back to the sanctuary.
A few days ago, I got word that we return to worship in our sanctuary on the first Sunday in June. I thought I would feel excited to hear that news, that I would be refreshed and eager to once again gather together.
But in fact, I felt exhausted.
This virus struck with the suddenness of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, exacted a death toll like Vietnam, and will likely reverberate longer than any Wall Street crash in our history. It made a permanent imprint on the nation — and on me. The days and months ahead just looked like a grind.
But I was forgetting the hope, help and purpose a good church family can provide. It all adds up to the hope I embrace as we return to our sanctuary ― Christ’s promised gift of healing.
Gospel ministry isn’t a job, and it’s not a performance. It’s an opportunity to share the Holy Spirit. Preaching over the internet is one way of communicating that presence, but there are many others, and now I realize their power.
Stevenson’s congregation is sparse enough to easily mete out six-foot buffer zones between family groups, but will we? What about handshakes and hugs? Even elbow-bumps seem a little risky after what we’ve been through.
There will be a lot to sort out when we gather again, but it brims with the promise that became the Church from the moment our Savior arose from the grave: the love of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, both now and forevermore. Amen.