ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: Gracious God, your blessed Son came down from heaven to be the true bread that gives life to the world. Give us this bread always, that he may live in us and we in him, and that, strengthened by this food, we may live as his body in the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:51.
“Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…” As many of you will no doubt recall, that was the tag line for Jaws II, the first of three sequels to the original thriller/horror flick about an oversized great white shark with an appetite for swimmers on the fictional New England resort community of Amity Island. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not seen any of these films. But from what I can tell, it seems that no matter how many times you kill the damn shark, it keeps coming back. White sharks, by the way, are no strangers to us here on the Outer Cape. They are seen off shore at our beaches with some regularity. Thankfully, however, the real ones seem mainly interested in seals. On those rare occasions when great whites attack humans, it is usually a case of mistaken identity. A swimmer on a boggy board looks a lot like a seal from a shark’s point of view.
But sharks are the least of our worries out here on the Cape these days. Just when we thought it was safe to venture out to plays, crowded restaurants and densely populated beaches, just when we though it was finally safe to take our masks off-Covid 19 reared its ugly head again just like that confounded shark. So, we are back to social distancing, wearing masks indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces and keeping track of who comes to worship so that we can contact trace if that becomes necessary. This time the stakes are not quite as high. Massachusetts generally and the Cape in particular have a high rate of vaccination. Though the new Delta variant has proven that it can infect vaccinated people, the symptoms of the disease for those vaccinated generally range from mild to non-existent. Only two hospitalizations have occurred and no deaths. Still, it is demoralizing having to defer once more getting back to some semblance of normal living.
The good news is that we will eventually get beyond Covid 19. For the church, that is very good news indeed. Our faith is all about human contact-flesh on flesh. Our gospel lesson makes that exceedingly clear. Talk about “eating the flesh” of Jesus might rub our modern sensibilities the wrong way. But we Lutherans take these terms quite literally. There is a story about how Martin Luther went to debate doctrinal issues with his fellow reformer, Ulrich Zwingli. Among the topics under discussion was the presence of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. There was a lot of pressure on Luther to find enough common ground with Zwingli to enable an alliance with the evangelical churches of the Lutheran persuasion. It was said that the first thing Luther did before the debate even began was to write these words on the table in front of him: “This is my body.” He felt he needed a graphic reminder that, on this point of Jesus’ actual, real and bodily presence in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, there could be no compromise.
Some might accuse Luther of being overly stubborn. To be fair, he had that tendency. But I believe Luther was onto something here. Faith needs the assurance that God will be present where God promises to be present. Of course, God’s presence is not limited to the Eucharist. One might encounter God anywhere. But there is one place you can always count on finding God and the “yes” to all of God’s promises. That place is the Lord’s table where Christ himself invites us to “take and eat” the bread of eternal life. For that reason, it is important that the world know that the Body of Christ gathers at 9:30 a.m. just off Route 6 in Wellfleet at the Chapel of Saint James the Fisherman and off Highway 137 at Saint Peter’s Lutheran in Harwich at the same time. The Christian faith is all about gathered bodies-old bodies, young bodies, healthy bodies, ill bodies, crippled bodies, restless bodies of bored children, screaming bodies of babies, all kinds of bodies that are members in the larger Body of Christ. Without bodies, there is no church.
That brings me to the pressing topic of “virtual” worship. In some respects, there is nothing really new here. The radio and television have been broadcasting worship services for decades. I met more than a few people back in the 80s who told me they preferred to watch the late Rev. Robert Schuler in his Chrystal Cathedral to attending any local church. “The music is so beautiful and that man’s preaching is so inspiring!” And it’s true. None of the small steeple churches I have belonged to or served over the years could ever come close to putting together a choir like that of the Chrystal Cathedral. Our organs could never compete on a scale with the Cathedral. What’s more, Pastor Schuler and his congregation neither know nor care that you are sitting on your couch in your PJs with a cup of coffee, munching on a donut. They don’t expect you to get up on the early side, shower, shave and get dressed up. Most important of all, while they might appeal to you for money, they won’t pass the plate to you in front of the whole congregation so you don’t have to feel awkward about hanging onto your money.
I tried to point out to these TV worshipers that, while all of this might seem appealing on the surface, there was a serious down side. Rev. Schuler, I reminded them, would not show up to visit them in the hospital; he wouldn’t reach out to them if their loved one were to become seriously ill; nobody from the Crystal Cathedral would show up with a casserole, a hug and a sympathetic ear at the deathbed of their spouses. In short, there would be no Body to share the pain of its member. The choir would go right on singing praises and the pastor would keep on preaching inspiring sermons as though the tragedies of their television audience did not exist-because for the Crystal Cathedral crowd, they don’t.
When the Covid 19 pandemic struck, our churches were faced with challenges we had never before encountered. There was no precedent, guideline or set of rules to direct us as we tried to hold our congregations together under the strictures of quarantine, social distancing and restrictions on travel. I had the good fortune to have retired from ministry a couple of years before Covid 19. I must say, though, that I stand in awe of the faithfulness, creativity and courage with which pastors I know met these challenges. I would not want anything I say here to be taken as a criticism of what any pastor did during this pastoral crisis that, thankfully, I never had to face. But now that the crisis is passing-albeit at a slower pace than any of us would like-I think we need to examine the pastoral and liturgical practices we developed during the pandemic and consider what role, if any, they should play in a post-pandemic church.
Let me say from the outset that a congregation’s use of virtual platforms to maintain its worship, ministry and witness during a pandemic is entirely different from what Schuler and his ilk were doing. Nonetheless, the issue remains the same, namely, if we have no bodily presence, is it still church? I worry that recording services in cyberspace invites worshipers to skip the trouble of being present on the Lord’s Day in favor of squeezing worship into a convenient spot in one’s schedule. I worry that the Zoom conference might usurp meeting around the table over coffee. I worry that we will lose in the depths of cyberspace the tear welling up in one’s eye as they tell us that things are all right even though they are not. I worry that future generations of pastors educated increasingly by virtual means might never know most of their colleagues other than as two dimensional disembodied heads. I worry that we might well be undermining the miracle of the Incarnation and substituting “virtual” presence for “real” presence.
I am not suggesting we reject all things virtual. The internet has opened up some exciting opportunities for expanding the church’s mission. For example, many of our homebound folks have said to me that, since we started virtual worship, they have never felt so connected to their church. I believe that virtual platforms can be a vital source of outreach and support for many people who, for various reasons, simply cannot be present. These platforms also offer us an opportunity to show members of the public what we do-and God knows there are enough popular misconceptions these days about what actually goes on in church! Virtual presence does not necessarily negate real presence. But I think we need to take care that it is used in a way that nourishes and facilitates rather than inhibits or undermines the public gathering of God’s people on the Lord’s Day. Thus, I look forward to having some deep and nuanced conversations about the place of virtual platforms in the life of the church.
Here is a poem that celebrates our bodily existence as a precious gift.
After the Pandemic
There will be packed stadiums,
Subway cars with bodies
Standing shoulder to shoulder,
Face to face;
Sweaty, stinky bodies
In long lines.
There will be beaches
Populated by nearly naked bodies
Sitting on blankets
And perched in chairs
In close proximity.
Life will be much as it was before
Except for our knowing now
The sacredness of touch,
The holiness of faces,
And the infinite worth
Of body touching body.