Psalm 98:1 NIV
Sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things;
his right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
Isaiah 43:18-19 NRSV
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
Matthew 16:18 NRSV
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
There’s a first time for everything.
Yesterday was a day of first times for many things - all of them occurring within an hour. At 10am, we arrived at St. Andrew Lutheran for their Parking Lot Worship. Directional signs led us to a welcome station, where we were greeted by masked and gloved parking lot ushers - a first for me. They handed us worship bulletins (more like booklets, since they had to take the place of hymnal, pew Bible, and book of worship) and a plastic sandwich bag containing two pre-packed communion servings. My husband, the engineer, had never seen such a thing before; he was fascinated with the efficient packaging design. My mind went elsewhere: uh oh, I thought, the Bishop has asked us to fast from Communion in September; but I don’t want these good Lutheran folks to think that I’m turning my Methodist nose up at their communion practices. What to do? In the end, ecumenism won out, and I took Holy Communion from a prepackaged set - another first. I’ve seen them before, and consecrated them before, but I’ve never been on the receiving end before.
The welcome and announcements were just about to begin as we pulled up to our parking space and tuned the car radio to 87.9FM. We could have brought our folding chairs and sat out on the lawn near the tent/ worship center, but it was barely 50 degrees, and the wind was whipping around...so we turned on our seat heaters and camped out in the car, watching from a distance. A few hardy souls, well wrapped up, sat at picnic tables with their children, awaiting the Children’s Sermon. They didn’t have to wait long, as it came early in the service; then the children retreated to the south lawn, where they cheerfully rolled around on the grass for the rest of the service. They were happy, and their parents were unbothered by anyone looking askance at their children’s behavior. So far, so good.
A lay worship leader read the Old Testament lesson, we read the Psalm aloud responsively, and then she returned to read the Epistle and the Gospel. Those on the lawn stood for the Gospel reading; all I could do was sit up straighter. The pastor gave a very respectable sermon on the parable from the Gospel, though he was struggling with the wind, which kept blowing his stole up into his face. (Be glad you aren’t wearing lipstick, I thought to myself.) We recited the Apostles’ Creed, and prayed responsively for the Church and for the world. Then it was time for the communion liturgy. I could hardly wait to see how it all would work out.
It worked out just fine. After the confession and pardon, an usher went from car to car with an offering basket (some things never change) while a couple of the children, properly masked, took up the offering from the lawn sitters. The pastor consecrated the elements from a makeshift altar beside his makeshift pulpit. “The body of Christ, given for you,” he proclaimed, and everyone, in unison, said Amen and ate their wafers. The same process unfolded as we drank our tiny cups of grape juice: frankly, it didn’t taste like Welch’s, but you can’t have everything; the important thing is, it was the blood of Christ, shed for us. There was a prayer after the meal, we sang the closing hymn, received the dismissal with blessing, and it was over - but not for me. Because as we rolled into the last chorus of the hymn, it struck me that for the first time in seven months, I was actually singing a hymn, with others. The only “other” I could really hear was Doug, harmonizing along with the tenor line; but still, I was singing a hymn. My voice was badly out of shape after months of disuse, but at last, I was singing a hymn. The organ accompaniment was being piped out from inside the sanctuary, but at least I was singing a hymn; or, to put it more correctly, we were singing a hymn together. It felt like a stream in the desert to me. I was so overcome with gratitude that I choked up before we got to the end, and had to take a deep breath so I could join in the benediction.
Within seconds of the last Amen, people began pouring out of their cars for “the meeting after the meeting.” Masked and mostly gloved, they greeted one another with joy. Some gave each other the Coronavirus “flash hug” and some did the “Namaste, six feet away” thing, but it didn’t seem to matter. They were just happy to see their brothers and sisters in Christ, and they greeted me with as much warmth as curiosity, which I appreciated. They shared their news du jour with each other until they were too cold to stand it anymore, and shouted out “See you next Sunday!” as they reluctantly got back into their cars.
You just can’t kill the church, I thought to myself.
At the beginning of the pandemic, there were plenty of media prophets predicting that this would be the end for the Church. In some ways, it may have been the end of church as we knew it - that remains to be seen - and there were certainly some aspects of church that needed to come to an end; but when Jesus said, “And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”...that was a promise. The Church has not come to an end, nor will it, until God calls time on what we call history, and brings in a new heaven and a new earth. Until then, God keeps doing a new thing, whether we perceive it or not. It’s been tempting to me sometimes to remember the former things, dwelling on what we can’t do anymore, at least not right now; meanwhile, God is busy springing forth new things we couldn’t have imagined back in early March. While we’re wondering what on earth will happen next, God is already making a way in the wilderness, working new marvels, and asking us to sing a new song. It’s time for us to clear our throats and start singing.
“This is a Day of New Beginnings” UMH #383, stanzas 1 and 4
This is a day of new beginnings,
time to remember and move on,
time to believe what love is bringing,
laying to rest the pain that's gone.
Christ is alive and goes before us
to show and share what love can do.
this is a day of new beginnings;
our God is making all things new.
New every morning are your mercies, O God of Light: grant us grace to perceive the new things you are doing, and the courage to embrace them with joy. Open our mouths in a new song of praise! In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.
Pastor Susan Pate Greenwood