March 31: Is Online Church the Way to Go?

I’ve heard from a friend who is excited by putting together an online service (using Zoom, I believe). I also have been intrigued by the possibilities. I had a little good feedback about last Sunday. We forewent streaming a service, which would exclude those who are not online. So we mailed an at-home service and a written sermon; and then made mp3 music files and a Youtube video of the sermon available to the tech users.

Meanwhile, we’ve had helpful support from our SNEUCC staff. But there’s talk about how this crisis might mark the turning point when we no longer need our buildings, and when we leave behind ministry as we have known it. The crisis is uncovering hidden desires for radical change.

I welcome this to some extent. The church as we have been is nothing for us to cling to. I’ve said so often. Not that we haven’t done much good; but the kind of good we have done seems to be waning anyway, rather than increasing. And has the church ever been a powerful and central source of meaning and value? Or has it always been relegated to a supporting role, there to boost our lives as they are formed by other influences. Have we really allowed God to be the Lord, and have we worshipped no other but God? Or have we allowed God to rule only when God will fit into our lives built on other foundations?

But many leaders seem to blame the form that the church takes–namely, a parish model in which a church congregation, anchored in a building, gathers for communal worship, which provides the center from which radiates education and mission. Some leaders are attracted to a “mission first” model of church. Others are very excited to attract Millennials with social media presence. The problem with church is the old form or model; new forms promise new life. Online worship is a new form.

I’m not convinced, although there is room for new forms (and they are necessary while contagion is a central concern). But I stand by the importance of the parish model. Here’s why.

Human beings have always been heavily grounded in local, embodied identities. That includes extended families, local networks, trade guilds, etc. Sometimes they were just and good, sometimes they were repressive.

Capitalism has very hundreds of years been dissolving these local networks. First we became much more mobile. People left the country to work in the city. Fast-changing industry needs to quickly reorganize the means of production (workers). And we’ve been made mobile in our consumption also. We are encouraged to pursue our personal desires, and ads try to channel those “personal desires” along predictable and profitable lines.

Seen in this long history, the internet is a further means of liquidating our culture to make it more manipulable. This is not necessarily a bad thing; and the good ol’ days were’t always so good.

But internet church will be a space-less, non-localized replacement. Now your choices of churches will be endless and ever-more flexible. You’ll be able to pop into whatever church group meets your perceived needs and offers the best programming. And just as easily, you’ll be able to pop off and go elsewhere. Identities will become even more fluid and likely temporary. Our identity as choosers and consumers will be greatly enhanced, particularly in the realm of the sacred.

Again, this can be good. There are oppressive and restrictive churches that deserve to be deserted. But we are losing something crucial in our embodiment–the way our physicality becomes a sacrament underlying our identity and commitments. The parish model honors that embodiment. And while it can mirror patterns lacking diversity (the way Granby is bound to be overwhelmingly white, for instance), the parish model remains responsible to the reality of a multi-generational community. It also resists self-segregation along political or ideological lines, which I predict will increase with a greater online orientation.

So I’m not from Granby, and maybe I’m not a perfect fit for this town, but I remain committed to a church model that is rooted to a place. We also remain rooted in our mission and service to the particular constellation of problems and challenges of this place. I’m not in favor of replacing it with a virtual church that exists primarily in the placeless internet.

What do you think? I’d welcome views that make me rethink this.

 

March 29 Sermon: “Life and Peace in Days of Lent and Pestilence”

I couldn’t resist using the word “pestilence;” hopefully another chance won’t come around any time soon! I received several expressions of appreciation for this sermon; I think most people viewed it on youtube. I recorded it using “Photo Booth,” for heaven’s sake, but heck I guess it worked ok. I don’t think the sermon was my best, but I think we’re all very open to a message in our isolation. That’s God’s grace working in us!

Scriptures:    Ezekiel 37:1-14

Romans 8:6-11

When I read these lectionary readings, along with our opening Psalm, the themes of our times were all there, and it all started swirling around in my head. My head seems all a-swirl these days; I’m sure yours is too. But here are the points I meditated on, if you want to join me:

  • Crying out from the depths to God, like those on watch all night, waiting for the morning.
  • Life and Death.
  • Dry bones and new life.
  • The Spirit of life (or breath—same word in Greek), especially in our time of deadly air-born pathogens.

All these themes came into focus for me in Paul’s first sentence: “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Isn’t that what we all want right now—“life and peace?” I wish I had more time to catch my breath and try to make sense of it all. It would help if jet lag wasn’t waking me up at 4:30 every morning! But even as we muddle through, we still have each other in this swirling chaos, and our unbreakable bonds are made of divine stuff.

Paul is always a little complicated. Maybe before getting into him, I should talk first about what we can be doing as Christians in this covid-19 crisis. For the younger among us, there probably is not much danger personally. Others of us need to be very careful. But we all need to do our best to avoid catching and spreading this disease. The good news is that our self-care is also care for all. Personally, I’m not worried about myself, but I do worry about people in nursing homes like my mother, people who are immuno-compromised like some in our congregation; and then I think about those crowded neighborhoods we visited in India, and the impossibility of practicing social distancing there.

A deadly disease is a cause for concern. It is also an opportunity for concern, for care, so long as we do not become overwhelmed. From my self-quarantine, I’ve been communicating with our church leadership about how we can reasonably and safely help people in our congregation and town. Right now, my thinking is this: we are in a crisis that is extraordinary but also temporary. We should feel freer than normal to ask each other for help, including financial help—help paying a bill or for an interest-free loan. And if we are doing ok—if we feel safe enough from the disease or secure enough financially to help—let’s commit to helping just one person or family. That’s reasonable and manageable. So here’s how we’ll do it: if you need something, anything, contact a deacon—either your shepherd or our chair, Jeff Dwinell (467-2227). This is a serious crisis; it’s the right time to ask for help. If you are willing to help out one other, email me (wawrigh@gmail.com) or call me (773-955-4034) and tell me if you can deliver things or help people financially. We’ll match those in need with those who can help, keeping it all confidential as much as possible. There are other ways to help, but we can do this as a church.

“O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with God is great power to redeem.” A crisis like this is dangerous and frightening. You may know that I’m not a fan of saying that because God is all-powerful, God must have created covid-19. Instead, our opening Psalm tells us about God’s power to redeem. In a crisis like this, there is a great opportunity for those who “hope in the Lord” to bring God’s steadfast love and redemption into the world.

Crisis opens us to redemption. In our normal routines, we get used to established orders and the status quo, and pretty soon you start to think it’s normal that many of us live in comfort and luxury while so many people are vulnerable to suffering. Our trip to India woke me up to the absurd levels of crushing poverty there, and here too. Likewise, a crisis like covid-19 shakes our complacency, and we start to see needs all around us. We see God’s Spirit working in love and service all around the globe. God does not manufacture covid-19, but God raises up redeeming power right in the midst of danger and death. That’s what God is doing through Ezekiel to the valley of dead bones. Note: God does this through Ezekiel, through his words. God tells Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones.” (Couldn’t God say so himself?) Tell them they will live. God will to bring redemption from death, but has no interest in going-it alone. We are to be partners in God’s redeeming work.

If, that is, we don’t succumb to fear. As Paul in Romans 8 recognizes, and as we all know, our bodies are mortal. Now death is natural; it’s a part of life. But for us human beings, death is a problem not just for our bodies, but for our thoughts. The fear of death affects our minds, and makes us close ourselves off from others.

So when it comes to death, Paul is concerned about where our mind “is set.” For “life and peace,” we need a mind “set on the Spirit.” Let’s go back and re-translate his first sentence. As I’ve done before, let me translate “flesh,” a word that only confuses us, as “ego.” “The mind set on the ego is death.” When death is in the air, we are tempted to live in fear. Influenced by primal survival mechanisms, we are tempted to think only about me—my body, my safety. And I can see others only as a potential threat. Death and the fear of death are a primary cause of war and strife: “I got mine. You go get yours somewhere else. You’re not getting mine.”

That’s why the opposite of “the mind set on the ego” (or the flesh) is not just life, but “life and peace.” To allow ourselves to become consumed by fear and its selfish impulse is the path to strife and war. Life and peace come by letting go of your ego, and seeing others as God sees them—as fellow children, all of us connected and united in God.

This is happening. Despite the profiteering and hoarding and finger pointing, all of which is predictable, we’ve seen so many acts of selfless caring and giving in these few weeks of crisis. We’ve felt a fresh air of unity, blowing tentatively at least. As we did after 9/11; as our elders did after the assassinations of King or Kennedy. Selfless, steadfast love is not found only in the church, for the whole world was created in Christ and for Christ, for this act of loving redemption. Caring is deep in our nature, even though it is often obscured and blotted out by sin.

Christians aren’t much different from anyone else in this regard. But we look to Jesus, and we cannot ignore the reality of this call to love. To ignore it is to deny it. So for us, ignorance is not bliss; it is sin. It is a betrayal of Christ.

I bring that up because it is Lent, after all. And Paul grasps with wonderful nuance how we are redeemed in Christ but still short, perhaps far short, of what Christ has called us to. “But you are not in the flesh, [not trapped in your ego]; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Sure, you are saved. We’re Christians; we’ve been baptized, we’ve confessed our faith, we go to church regularly. Surely the Spirit of God must be in us…right? But Lent is the time when we acknowledge that the Spirit doesn’t always work that way. Death and fear are still powerful; our egos are entrenched. And this virus (or at least the constant media coverage of it) is scary. So we are in the Spirit; but then again not.

So in his wisdom, Paul also speaks to us in what grammarians call “the conditional mood”: “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you [plural, “you all”], he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through the Spirit that dwells in you [all].”

Let me translate this subtle language, briefly. The Spirit is in us, in our church community, because at the center of who we are as a church is Christ and the ego-less love that he stands for. But individually, we don’t all live it, not all the time. I sure don’t. I got scared out of my wits on the flight home by some turbulence. But if I live not in myself and my accomplishments and my needs and wants, then we can find ourselves by working together in our common Christian Spirit. And many hands make light work. I don’t have to do it all; I don’t have to save the world. Maybe you are not in a position to do much for others right now. But some of us are; I am (except for being quarantined). What we can do, we do not for our own glory, but on behalf of the whole church, which is itself only to the glory of God. By the same token, those of us who cannot work right now should by no means feel guilty or lesser for it. Just take care of yourself. It is enough that God gives life to your mortal body.

God’s Spirit will work in each of us to discern whether this is a time for the risk of helping or the safety of self-care. But God’s spirit can only do that work in us if our mind is not set on the ego; if fear is not ruling your mind. So let the Spirit of God come into you this morning, and do away with your fear of death and, chained between the two of them, your ego. Then you can decide reasonably what you should do in this crisis. If you need help, ask for help. Don’t let your ego make you too prideful to ask for help. Let someone do God’s love to you! If you are doing fine, feel secure, and are feeling restless, step up and offer to help. Contact me; I’ll make sure you don’t take foolish risks. If you are doing fine but are at risk, then it’s ok just to take care of that mortal body of yours. There will be other occasions to be selfless.

Let us thank God that we are in the Spirit; we do not make these decisions on our own; we make them as a church. If you set your mind on the Spirit, God will work work in us as each is called, for the Spirit of God dwells in us together as the Body of Christ. Amen.

“Worship at Home–Together” : Everything you need

Everyone is invited–including “visitors” or folks who don’t usually join us–to take part in joint worship at 10:30 Sunday (March 29). How this works is you download (and print if you want) the “Order of Worship.” It gives you instructions for following along in a pretty normal worship service for us.

Order of Worship

At the appropriate time, you can also sing the hymns, look them up on Youtube, or play the original recordings that Michael made for us. I emailed these out; if you can, email me (wawrigh@gmail.com) and I can send them to you direct. It turns out I can’t post them here.

Then you’ll need to watch a video of the sermon, as indicated in the Order of Worship. It’s finally ready! Go to this link: https://youtu.be/UerF9jTTJ0A

If you’d rather read it, here’s the text: Sermon-Life and Peace

And don’t forget that we are beginning a six(ish) week series, “A Guided Tour of the Bible,” led by me via Zoom. See the earlier post below, but all you need is the guide for session 1: Session 1

 

6-week Class: Guided Tour through the Bible

Dear Church and Those Curious,

Attached is a Guided Tour through the Bible–a presentation of what the Bible is about, with short, specific readings to illustrate that. We’ll run this as a (perhaps) six-week class on Zoom. Please do all the underlined readings at least, and write down your questions and thoughts to share.

Adults will meet at Sunday, 9:30 on Zoom for 45 minutes. I’ll send out an invitation to the all-church list.

Confirmands will have their own session on Monday, probably at 2:00 pm.

Let’s give thanks for this opportunity to keep exploring our faith–it will give us perspective in this craziness!

Session 1 & 2

Sunday, March 22: Children’s message

Parents and Guardians: In the tradition of the New Testament epistles (letters), please read this to your young ones. After, you can talk with them about if they are frightened, and about how faith in God can lift us out of our fears. Then you can close with the 23rd Psalm (in our lectionary readings for this Sunday!) and a prayer, such as: “Loving God, who brought Jesus and all your faithful servants from the shadow of death, be our source of courage in these strange times. Amen.”

Dear Church,

I wanted to send out a special message to our young folk out there. Silas, Jessica and I just got back from India–half way around the world–where we saw camels, elephants, peacocks, and cows–walking in the middle of the roads! We also met some wonderful Indian Christians who spend each day helping people more in need than almost anyone you’ll meet in this country. India has poverty like we rarely see in this country. More on my trip some other time, but here’s a picture of the roofs near our hotel in Jodhpur. See the monkeys?

IMG_2513

Meanwhile, while we were away, you have been having your own adventure! Schools are closed; you’ve probably been staying at home. It’s an exciting time in some ways. You probably have more time than usual to play and do what you want at home. There are a lot of good suggestions out there about creative ways to spend your time; and your school teachers are sending activities to continue your learning and fun while school is closed. We have been taking daily walks; remember you don’t have to be stuck inside all the time!

But this corona virus thing is just plain weird. None of us adults has (yes, “has” is correct, not “have”) ever seen anything like this. It’s as new to us as it is to you. We’ve never seen so many shops, and businesses, and restaurants, and schools shut down so quickly. So far it’s kind of fun–like when the power goes out or there’s a big blizzard. But we don’t know how long it will take for things to get back to normal; hopefully only a few weeks.

So that makes the whole thing a little scary–that is, not knowing how long things will be all wacky like this. Not knowing who might get sick. (You may already know that just about zero kids have gotten seriously sick from this virus; but elderly people you know might be vulnerable.)

But here’s the good news: We have our faith in God to help us through.

What does having faith in God change in your life?  I’ll wait for you to answer, and you can talk about it with your adults…

There are many good answers to this question. You might think that having faith in God means that you always see the bright side of things. That you never have to worry about difficult or sad times. That can certainly be true. Paul says in Romans (8:28): “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

But what I most get out of my faith in God, what gives me power, is the tremendous courage that comes from faith. We don’t always think of “courage” as something faith in God gives us. We might think of being good, or feeling hopeful and loving. All of that is great!

But I think that real Christians are about the most courageous people around. Faith in God allows us to look danger and hard times square in the face. People who don’t know God’s love might not be able to do that. They might have to pretend there’s no danger; or if they see the danger, they get so frightened that they can only panic. Like this:

Image result for panic face

But let’s go back to Paul, who never looked like that! Back in his Letter to the Romans, he wrote this:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s chosen people? It is God who says we are in the right. Who is to condemn us? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed take our side.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’

Yikes! Paul quotes from the Old Testament there. Sometimes God’s people have faced real hard times, but they faced them head-on. Sometimes people have attacked them violently. Paul himself was beaten and thrown in prison many times for preaching the gospel, so he knows what he is talking about. We are lucky–blessed, really, in a way we should always be grateful for–that we can practice our faith in peace and safety. When you think of what some Christians (and other peaceful people) have faced, it makes the corona virus look pretty small. But he continues:

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Nor corona virus! Paul has tremendous courage because he knows that none of those fearful things is (same grammar lesson!) going to break our bond with God. And if God is the source of your courage (rather than your own muscle or brains), then nothing in all creation can overcome it.

So your faith is going to make you brave–courageous! And so here’s what I want you to do during this strange time when we’re mostly stuck at home:

  • Make the most of it! Now that you are no longer afraid, you can see all kinds of opportunities during this time. Do your best to keep learning! And look for creative ways to make the most of your time. Try writing about what you are experiencing–this is a historic time!
  • Be a good model to others–your siblings, friends, and parents–of facing the unknown with courage in God. Some people around you will be frightened. Let people see in your calm and peaceful face an example of courage.
  • Be patient and compassionate with your parents and adults in your life. This is a strange and stressful time for us. Our jobs might be changing in weird ways. And we love being home with you, but that also makes it tough to get other things done. So do your best to keep yourself entertained, to avoid conflicts and fights with others, and to give your adults time to deal with our challenges.

Be courageous! For nothing will separate you from God.

I love you all and can’t wait to see you face-to-face again.

Pastor Bill

2nd in Lent (3/8): “On Our Own We Are Lonely”

I’m taking the unusual step of pre-posting my sermon, since I’ll be on the move right after church! I’m going to leave a few personal details out of the online version.

Genesis 12:1-4; 13:14-18 ; Matt 4: 12-13, 17, 23-25

We have this image of Lent and repentance as a downer. You’re supposed to give up something, sacrifice, feel bad about yourself instead of happy. We wrongly assume repentance is the opposite of joy. Lent is the opposite of Easter.

But Lent is about joy. And vice versa, true joy includes repentance. (And, by the way, Easter includes Good Friday.) If you can’t reconcile happiness with pain and loss, you are doomed to cling desperately to happiness and live in constant fear of loss, or change. Life becomes an unbearable emotional rollercoaster.

When, after his temptation, Jesus begins preaching, we hear these two messages held together: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven (or Kingdom of God) has come near.” Turn away from the kingdoms of this world. But that goes with the good news: Jesus went around “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” The Kingdom requires us to leave something, but it also brings us joy and healing from what ails us.

Repentance will mean departing from where you are; it means separating yourself from who you are, and even from friends, kinsman, and countrymen. This is what Abraham did, without hesitation. But we do so with God’s promise to Abraham as our own: “Raise you eyes and [look around]. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.” This has indeed been fulfilled for us: the whole church is Abraham’s offspring and our kin, about two billion currently. Not bad, God.

That is God’s foremost promise to Abraham. And it is the joy we all receive in this church community, even though it inevitably sets us apart from our other loyalties and identities. But it comes with healing and blessings. For instance, we know that outside of the community and kinship in faith, there is so much loneliness out there. I’ve been reading articles and studies on loneliness. A lot of them are medical studies; apparently, being lonely can take 15 years off your life. These studies go on to talk at great length about which chemicals released in your brain make you feel lonely. Honestly that does nothing to help me understand or deal with it.

Loneliness is not a brain problem, it is a social problem. It’s about how we live. Now, just living alone does not necessarily make you lonely. We are lonely because we feel isolated, even if others are around. There is some evidence that the size of social networks for older Americans has shrunk by one-third since 1985. But the youngest Generation, Gen Z, reports the highest levels of loneliness. That and other evidence suggests that social media does not help our loneliness; it appears to make it worse. (So guys, are you on your phones?)

I think loneliness has a lot to do with our culture of freedom. Much of our life is lonely by design. We live on lonely streets with no shared public space, no plazas, few marketplaces. Our church is the exception: Dinofest, Chicken Pie Supper, Christmas Bazaar are some of the few opportunities here in Granby to commune with your neighbors, and not be drowned out by music or fireworks. But our society has made it easy for people to withdraw from others, into our isolated homes. (Again, many of us here are the exception in our neighborhoods.) Even within the family home, we can withdraw into entertainment and distractions that are practically designed to not appeal to the whole family. Our music and video production is targeted to narrow age ranges, meaning that adults and children often go their separate ways inside the home, as they do outside. But honestly, much of our culture is designed to dissolve the family; our economy depends on a liquid population, so that workers can go where they are needed.

Well, there’s not much we can do about the demands of our economy. And of course children do need to grow up and find their own life. But I remember my own teenage years. Later on I had good friends, but there was a year or two when I had just about none. I ate alone at lunch every day. My parents loved me but were pretty hands off. They predated the helicopter parent and even the baby boomer almost-too-friendly parent. My older siblings had all moved out. And all the influences of youth culture encouraged me to withdraw from my parents, to hours spent in my room or in front of the tv. They must have found it miserable too. We had no lager community to envelop us together, to break the loneliness. I’m lucky I survived that year. …

Older people living in isolation breaks my heart. But nothing breaks my heart as much as seeing this pall, this terrifying silence that descends on too many of our households during the teen years. No parent is innocent here, and no teen is either. But we’re all at the mercy of a culture that puts a high value on freedom and a low value on community. Consider this: we’ll gladly ship our children away for school, sports, camps. (And hey, nothing wrong with a little time to ourselves.) We gladly send our children out to be trained for success and made “resilient,” a word a lot of people like these days. But how much time do we spend in a community like the church, where adults and children are brought together in a common faith, a common story, common values? Where else can we all be children of God together?

Our values of freedom and prosperity have brought most of us much. But as a parent, I’d leave just about anything behind to hold at bay that deadly silence between me and my son. I’ll gladly give up my pursuits that exclude him; and I’ll fight hard against all the forces that entice him away from me. He has to go to school. He has to go to camp. He needs friends his own age, of course. I want him to succeed, of course. But church is where he an I come together before God, read the same scriptures, take the same sacraments, sing the same “lame” songs, share the same culture and faith. And we served side by side at Cathedral last week; it meant a lot to both of us.

We can repent of all that threatens the church. We can repent of making personal freedom and success more important than community and shared purpose and formation. We can leave our land of loneliness and travel to God’s promised land of joyful togetherness. We can, because we the church have the intergenerational community that our world so desperately needs for its salvation and joy. Let’s lift our hearts and thank God for this glorious gift.

But we must tend it carefully. We must be willing to forsake some of the things that take us away from it. And we in the church must work hard to form ourselves into loving community; that doesn’t happen easily. A lot of us have baggage that can make togetherness, well, challenging. And we need to teach our faith in a compelling way, with confidence that we have the words of life, and you’re not going to find them at school, or sports, or at work. Thanks be to God we have been delivered to this place; now let’s build an altar to God and prepare for all those descendants.

Great Guide to Epidemics

Rev. Don Remick, our Massachusetts, our UCC Bridge Conference Minister, sent this out. When it comes to COVID 19, I am trying to balance preparedness against not panicking. So I thought I’d post this for anyone interested in planning ahead, especially since I’ll be away from March 15-22, during which time we could see a lot of local infections.

Pandemic preparation list

Please use this prayerfully, not driven by fear, since the virus is not generally fatal. But out of a desire to serve our church and community wisely.