Blessed are the people who know the festal shout; who walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance. They exult in your name all day long; they extol your righteousness, for you are the glory of their strength. (Psalm 89:15-17a, NRSV) For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them. (Matthew 18:20, NKJV) Yesterday, I did something I haven’t done in four and a half months. I went to church. Not just to worship (I can do that in my jammies on my cell phone), but to church. It was heavenly. Doug and I made the 7 minute drive around the harbor to St. Christopher by the Sea, an Episcopal “summer church” that has figured out how to abide by all the fine points of the Governor’s executive order and still gather for worship. (There aren’t a lot of United Methodists churches in downeast Maine, and the only one on the whole peninsula has shut down again after a brief re-opening.) The 8am service at St. Christopher is held inside their sanctuary, since there are usually fewer than 10 attending, and folks can be seated more than 6 feet apart with ease, but...it’s at 8am - and there is no music. So we opted for the 10am service, which is held outside on the lawn when good weather permits. It’s a BYOC (Bring Your Own Chair) affair. We found ourselves a shady spot under the spreading branches of a large maple, at a respectful distance from others. There were 15 of us, plus the rector, who stood on the porch, and the organist, whose music wafted through the open windows of the nave. A gloved greeter handed out bulletins (she told me they had been “aging” since Wednesday), and another gloved helper gave each of us a “sanitized” Book of Common Prayer to take home with us and bring back each Sunday. (She put our names on a list of takers so she would “know where they are” should we forget to return them at the end of the season; I assured her we would not.) She also recorded the names of all worshippers “in case contact tracing becomes necessary.” As we settled down and the prelude came to a close, I noticed a chalice and paten on the makeshift altar in front of the rector, and thought to myself, “Wonder how that’s going to work?” I didn’t have to wonder long. The rector announced that for reasons of health and safety, there would be no singing, and the congregation would receive Holy Communion “in one species only” - namely, the wafers, which he assured us had been placed in individual paper containers by “a gloved sacristan.” The wafers would be brought to us in our seats, we were told, by a masked and gloved server - no lining up and filing forward. I nearly fell out of my folding chair when I heard the words “There is no need to stand and kneel at the customary times.” Wow, I thought, it’s amazing how many things we considered necessary to worship that have fallen by the wayside. Nonetheless, despite all the concessions made to the pandemic, everything was done “decently and in good order” - a phrase dear to the hearts of Episcopalians everywhere...and more than a few Methodists. And, somehow, it all worked. None of the various adjustments really mattered. Though I did miss singing, the music floating out the windows was sufficient to serve the purpose of making a joyful noise....and it sounded almost celestial, coming from a distance. We were gathered together to worship, and that was more than enough. There aren’t enough masks and gloves in this world to kill the worship of God. The promise of Jesus still holds: where two or three are gathered together in his name, there he is, in the midst of them. And there he was yesterday, in our midst. As we spoke aloud the responses in the liturgy, I knew what the Psalmist meant: blessed are they who know the festal shout; who walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance. It was so wonderful to be with brothers and sisters in Christ, I felt as though I really could “exult in God’s name all the day.” Now, I’m not gonna lie: the bright sunshine and the light breeze fluttering the canopy of leaves on a 71 degree morning did not hurt. I felt almost guilty to think that such an option wouldn't work for Centenary: the heat alone would ruin the experience at best, and decimate the worshippers at worst. But I was too grateful just to be there to linger long in feeling guilty. And I was not alone; everyone hung around after the benediction, reluctant to leave that time and place of communion with God and with God’s people.
When we returned home, Doug got the Centenary service up and running on his cell phone, and we went up to the deck to watch the 11am worship. As I listened to Pastor Tom preaching (excellent, as always), and to Paul playing (nothing quite like it) and to the choir singing (angelic, to say the least), I caught a glimpse of the chat lines at the bottom of the screen, and they told the story: Centenarians were also experiencing the presence of the Lord in the community gathered for worship - no matter whether the worship was happening “live and in person” or “live streaming online.” Jesus is able to keep the promise of his presence among those who are gathered in his name in limitless times and places, in ways infinitely more numerous than we can ask or imagine. Thanks be to God for such an inestimable gift!
O let the Son of God enfold you with his Spirit and his love.
Let him fill your heart and satisfy your soul.
O let him have the things that hold you, and his Spirit like a dove
Will descend upon your life and make you whole
Jesus, O Jesus,
Come and fill your lambs.
Jesus, O Jesus,
Come and fill your lambs..
Pastor Susan Pate Greenwood