This has been “The Week that Was”, has it not? We’ve gone from little more than a nod in the direction of a “Chinese virus”, to an all-out panic, at least on the stock market and in some government circles. And today we gather, not in the pews of the nave at St. Paul’s, but around the area, and in doing so we make our homes our chapels.
I’d like to point you to something we have not yet prayed in this liturgy: the collect for Lent III. We will pray it a few minutes.
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
On a “normal” Lent III, I’d be tempted to try to explain the 16th century Calvinism of this collect away, but as I’ve walked through these weeks, with rehearsal and concert cancellations, school closures, and job disruptions that no longer seems appropriate. To top it off, the bishop has asked that we, along with the rest of the churches in the diocese, close St. Paul’s—no masses, no daily prayer will be held in our sacred space. This collect sounds less like a set piece and more like a cry from the soul for me, and for many of the people I know.
We can isolate ourselves; we can wash our hands; we can exercise stronger hygiene practices, and yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that all we are doing is bending the odds in our favor; we can’t really guarantee that we won’t get COVID. What we are doing by meeting today on Zoom slowing its spread and possibly protecting some of the more vulnerable members of our community (and that is a valuable service we render to the world around us).
“We have no power to help ourselves.” This is no counsel of despair, but rather a statement of truth and freedom, for we have a heavenly Father, who through the incarnation of the Son is able to act on our prayer “that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body and the soul.”
Paul wrote in our second lesson, one of the sources for our collect, “Having, therefore, been vindicated by faithfulness, we have peace before God through our Lord Jesus the Anointed, through whom we have also gained access to this grace wherein we have stood, by faithfulness, and we exult on the hope of God’s glory.” God did not vindicate us because we were wonderful, because we were strong, because we were powerful, but because we were weak, because we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. “But God demonstrates God’s own love to us by the Anointed One dying on our behalf while we were continuing to be sinners.” Our hope in this Lent is not in isolation, in social distancing, but in the God who breaks all boundaries, who transcends all distances, in the Christ who gives himself up on Good Friday so that we might share in his resurrection. This is our hope in God’s glory!
Nice theology, but what we are doing this morning frankly seems if not weird, at least a little odd. St. Paul’s is a Eucharistic community which is constituted when we gather to offer bread and wine. How is saying morning prayer this morning together over the internet “real church” doing “real worship”? How do worship God when things aren’t normal?
I have often been amazed at how a lectionary, constructed years ago, on abstract principles, seems to come up with content that is wonderfully appropriate. Here is yet another example, for the second part of Jesus’s conversation with the Samaritan woman centers on this very issue. The Samaritans had been closed out of Jerusalem temple worship for at least four hundred years. That’s four hundred years of “not normal”. Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, in answer to her question of how to worship when things aren’t normal, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.” We are not in our “Jerusalem” on Roy Street, but where ever “two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, he is there in the midst of them.” Paul and our collect remind us that this gathering is at God’s invitation and to God’s glory. God transcends both time and space. We are together, even though we are apart, for in Christ, we are one body.
What we do today is sacramental as well. While we talk about seven primary sacraments, the church understands that sacramental life is not limited to those seven signs of God’s presence. This daily prayer of the faithful which we are offering is just as real a sign of our unity in the Holy Trinity. This daily prayer is a gift back to God of the worship of four millenia of faithful believers. In it we are joined, as one body in the consolation of the Holy Spirit. In communion with all the saints and in union with the Holy Trinity we stand (or sit) today without fear (but not without concern or care) waiting in the hope of God’s glorious remaking of the world in the Easter of Christ’s resurrection. We are resurrected in him. Possibly more importantly, the entire universe, COVID-19 included, is already being made the new creation of “all things brought together in Christ.”