I was doing OK when we started worship on Sunday morning, even after worse-than-usual insomnia kept me up for hours in the early morning. I was doing OK, even during more discussions about CoVid-19 with our senior pastor and others. I was doing just fine, thank you very much, until I started to lead worship.
I began with some weird announcements - basically explaining that the morning would feel strange in this strange time, but here we were, anyway. Then, just like that, we slammed into our Lenten liturgy, slammed right into the Confession and Forgiveness. I had the congregation stand and off we went...
I even held it together then, even as I felt like I could hardly read the words on the page in front of me, inviting the people into our time of confession..."If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us..." And then came the part where I started to fall apart - I got to the words I've heard so many times before, and said so many times before, and my voice started to crack, and I knew, "Oh shit...this is not going to be easy..."
"Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts and minds, so that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord. Amen."
My voice cracked, but I held things together. The liturgy, as it does, kept moving me along, moving me along through the hymns, through the readings, through the sermon and the creed and the prayers. We carefully and distantly greeted each other at the Peace, and then began the Communion portion of our liturgy. And that was where I stopped the liturgy in its tracks.
I chanted at first, and all went well. I kept getting hung up in my head on certain words and phrases, like God calling us to prepare with joy for the paschal (Easter) feast. That messed me up because I was wondering when we would be celebrating that feast. "Will the church doors even be open that day?" I thought as I kept going. I held together during the Sanctus, singing with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
Then I began the Thanksgiving at the Table, tracing through the stories of grace shown by God to God's people through every age. My voice caught in my throat again, but I kept going. I got through the Words of Institution, telling the story again of Jesus instituting His Supper. I looked people in the eye, as I always do. And it was OK.
Until my eyes fell onto the next words, there in black and white:
"For as often as we eat of this bread, and drink from this cup, we proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."
And I couldn't speak. I stared at the words. I couldn't stop staring at them, even as I thought - no, that's wrong - even as I inwardly cried out, "But when? When will we eat of this bread and drink from this cup again?" I choked back a sob as I finally said the words out loud. The congregation's response was a relief so I could catch a quick breath:
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
And in those few short phrases, the people preached to me, and to each other: "Christ will come again."
I served Communion with tears streaming down my face. I couldn't wipe them away, dammit, because we're not supposed to touch our faces. And so I stood there, handing out the Body of Christ, broken for you, with tears and mascara running down my wet cheeks.
There is much that is uncertain in this new, strange time. We don't know when the calendar will fill back up with Bible studies and quilters and crafters and people sharing stories and sharing lives and sharing laughs and tears and hugs. We don't really know when our music groups will get back to their important work. We don't really know when we will worship together again, letting the light coming in the stained glass window blind us in its morning shine. We don't know when our "non-essential gatherings" - which really are quite essential, as it turns out - will resume.
And so, in the meantime, we will find that Christ is present with us in other ways. We will gather online, we will talk on the phone, we will write encouraging texts or emails, we will carefully and distantly meet in groups smaller than ten. We will keep on being The Church, living through this time of exile. We may cry out, "How long, O Lord?" like the psalmist did, and we may not get an answer.
But we also know and trust that "suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Romans 5:3-5).
Amen. Come, Holy Spirit.