Suspension of English Canon Law to Allow Solo Eucharist

The Right Reverend
Martin Warner

26th March 2020

Dear brothers and sisters,

The pilgrimage of faith is taking us into challenging territory: let us walk together in hope and in the certainty of the presence of Jesus Christ as our companion and guide.   

Government regulations on how we now live must be observed.  I believe that as Christians we have a moral duty to do play our part in the disciplines needed to contain the coronavirus.  This means that our church buildings must be closed and not used for any gathering.  Baptisms and weddings in church are also suspended.

The Archbishops have written to clergy, and the Church of England website notes the following specific guidance from that letter: 

  • Emergency baptisms can take place in hospital or at home, though subject to strict hygienic precautions and physical distancing as far as possible.
  • Funerals can only happen at the crematorium or at the graveside.
  • Only immediate family members can attend.
  • That is defined as a spouse or partner, parents and children – all maintaining a physical distance.
  • Clergy are encouraged to be as creative as possible with streaming services, teaching, and other resources.  

NB If you are streaming from home, this must also take into account demonstrating attention to both hygiene and safeguarding regulations.

  • Foodbanks should continue where possible under strict guidelines and may have to move to be delivery points not places where people gather.

In this diocese I would also encourage clergy to use the Government’s allowance of daily exercise as an opportunity to check that church buildings and their contents, for which you are responsible, are safe.  We will be providing further guidance from the DAC on this duty of care.

Many clergy have asked about whether they are forbidden to enter their churches.  It is vital that we model best practice in terms of public safety, protecting the limited resources of the NHS, and attention to the care of the most vulnerable to infection.  Nothing we do should compromise these concerns or the regulation of them by Government instruction.

If you can ensure that these requirements are met, and you still decide to go into church to pray and celebrate the Eucharist, I would respect your decision on the basis that it is made in conscience and informed by legitimate pastoral, spiritual, missional and legal considerations. Thank you to all who streamed services and messages last Sunday.  Any service must clearly be solo-streamed or you should explain that it is being done with the aid of a person who lives in your home.

Many of you have also asked about celebrating the Eucharist alone, without a congregation.  In some cases clergy will wish to do this at home.  I repeat the permission of the Ad clerum on 19 March that gives an exceptional dispensation to a priest (licensed or with PTO in this diocese) to celebrate the Eucharist without a congregation, during the course of the present restrictions.

If it is your practice to reserve the consecrated elements in your church, then please ensure that they are replenished.  If you are celebrating the Eucharist at home, then you should take a supply to church for this to be done. 

If you are not celebrating the Eucharist at all, please consume the supply of consecrated elements that have been reserved and leave the place of reservation open and unlocked.

You should not reserve the sacrament at home.  I have asked for legal advice on this and that is the advice I have been given.  The purpose of reservation in the Church of England is the giving of communion; any devotional practice is recognised as a consequence of this. 

The continuation of reservation in church would be as a confident and symbolic statement that it is the place of holy communion for the gathered people of God, and the potential for that gift to be recovered is not being intercepted.

The dispensation to celebrate the Eucharist without a congregation can seem generally foreign to the Church of England’s tradition. What are we to make of it?  How are we to do it?

There is perhaps some guidance from the book of Exodus, when the children of Israel are going through their desert experience. 

This resonates with this season of Lent.  It is also a model for our life as a pilgrim people, journeying together in “darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1.79), with our sights fixed on Jesus Christ, the source of light and peace. 

In the provisional dispensation of this pilgrimage, we read that “Whenever Moses went out to the tent [of meeting], all the people would rise and stand, each of them, at the entrance of their tents and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent” (Exodus 33.8).

There are further details of the rituals of this meeting and the role that both Moses and Aaron are given.  These two Old Testament figures were foundational for the Church of England self- understanding of itself in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.  They feature in the title page of prayer books and the King James Version of the Bible; they are prominent in the decoration of many churches in this period. 

The focus of the ordained minister interceding for the people in ritual is well-established in the Church of England’s imagination, though it is now overlaid by other important considerations of the nature of the Church and the active participation of the whole people in worship.

When an incumbent is inducted, the ritual of going to the church door, tolling the bell and being placed in a stall all have meaning.  The priest is the doorkeeper (just as Jesus describes himself as the Door of the sheepfold).  The bell is the indication of proclamation, witness to the Church’s activity of prayer, and the stall is the study desk of scripture, liturgy and meditation.  These distinctively Church of England rituals are indicative of a profound sense of the church as temple, a building that expresses in its sacred geometry a material delineation of the body of Christ.

It is important, however, that we draw from our scriptural and ecclesial tradition in order to make arrangements that will meet the provisional limitations which are likely to be with us for some time.

Moses, and on other occasions, Aaron, go into the tent alone, in order to pray for the people.  But the people are not passive.  They go to the door of their dwellings as witnesses to this work.  They stand in the presence of God with them: they watch, and they pray.

This dispersed work of prayer is also the work of Christian laity.  It is what we are now being asked to nurture in their lives, as well as our own, of as we emphasise and celebrate the link between the corporate worship of Church and the domestic worship of home.  In each home, for example:-

  • the chair in which you sit to read the Bible is the domestic lectern where together we hear read what the daily scriptures are saying to us. 
  • your front window is the pulpit where the mystery of Christ in your life can be articulated.  In the diocese of Chichester we have offered an A4 Passiontide poster that proclaims, Praying for you.  Here
  • your meal table is the place where you give thanks for creation, for the food by which God sustains your life, and for the mystery of Christ who is present to us in this same manner as the food of the Eucharist.  (Grace at times of meals could reference this more carefully.)

The role of the priest in the celebration of the Eucharist is to bear all this to the altar in church through the rites of word and sacrament that unite earth with heaven and thereby give glory to God the Father. 

The celebration of the Eucharist without a congregation should heighten our awareness that this act does not belong to the priest. 

The celebrant of every Eucharist is Jesus Christ, the new Moses.  The gifts on the altar are the manifestation of the life of the people of the new Israel, the Church, in their daily working life, and in prayer and worship in their homes.  Jesus unites these gifts with the offering of himself to God for the salvation of the world.   

How do you celebrate this without the people of God being present?  (This would also apply to celebrating the Eucharist in your own home.)

  1. As a priest, remember you also belong to the people of God.  You are a sinner like any other Christian.  In offering the gifts at the altar, you also come in search of mercy and forgiveness.
  2. Extra special preparation is needed for this distinctive celebration.  Liturgical texts, vessels and bread and wine must all be in place and easily accessible.  Work out carefully how you will place a lectern, altar and chair or stool and move easily between them. 
  3. Speak at a volume that you would use in conversation with a person who is in need of reassurance.  Imagine you are speaking to any one of the people who are saddened by not being able to get to church.
  4. Prepare carefully what you intend to bring to God in the offering you are about to make, i.e. the names of people, places, etc.
  5. Light the candles, vest and go to the altar as you normally would.
  6. Remember that the Eucharist is a conversation: with the members of the Church on earth, and with the angels and saints in heaven, and with the persons of the Holy Trinity.  The text of the rite should be essentially the same as you would use if a congregation were present.  You should say only the words of the priest or reader, and the words that priest and people say together.  Do not say the responses of the people who are not present.
  • Do say, “The Lord be with you.”  Do not say, “And also with you.”
  • Do say, “Let us pray.” 
  • Do not say the responses in a responsorial psalm
  • Do not say, “Thanks be to God” after the OT and/or NT reading
  • Do not say the responses to the announcement and conclusion of the gospel
  • Do not invite an exchange of peace
  • Do not say the people’s response in the Sursum Corda
  • Do say the Sanctus and Benedictus
  • You may say the Mystery of faith and you may say the Agnus Dei
  • Do say the invitation to communion and its response
  • Communicate yourself in both kinds
  • Do say the blessing and dismissal
  1. Think carefully about where you focus your attention, given that no one else is present.  Read the texts carefully; look at the gifts you place on the altar.
  2. Allow time for silence.  This is especially important after the gospel and after holy communion.  Ensure that there is a chair or stool conveniently nearby.
  3. Enter the celebration in the services register, noting that there was no congregation, under the terms of permission from the bishop, to meet Covid-19 restrictions.  This will be a significant record for history.
  4. Make sure that after the liturgy you set aside time for thanksgiving.

Finally, please ensure that you take good are of yourselves, spiritually, emotionally, medically.  There is much that will cause anxiety and grief in the weeks to come.  I hope that you will also carve out time for spiritual refreshment, reconnection (safely!) with friends and people who encourage your in your ministry and faith.  Look, too, at what will enliven your hope and imagination.  Even now, we might begin to think about what we will be wanting to do and to be, when this dark episode draws to its close.  What will we have learnt? 

I leave you with some words from a Bible commentary by St Bede (spoken of so brilliantly by Karen Kilby at our last Clergy Conference):

Christ is the morning star who, when the night of this world is past brings to his saints the promise of the life and opens everlasting day.

With thanks and with joy in sharing with you our apostolic calling,

+Martin Warner

The church without the Eucharist is not the church — interview with John Zizioulas

Interview: Metropolitan of Pergamon John Zizioulas with Public Orthodoxy (23 March 2020)

Metropolitan of Pergamon John Zizioulas

We wish to hear your views on the current situation, since your theology plays a great role in the present circumstances.

Metropolitan John: My theology, unfortunately, cannot be applied. In Greece, they have already closed the churches, and the Divine Liturgy is not being served. Is it served in Serbia?

Taking into consideration the decision of the government that the number of people in one place be limited, as well as the issue of getting around and social distancing, the Patriarch Irinej’s newest decision is that services be held in churches but without more than five people.

Metropolitan John: That’s acceptable.

In America, it was decided that the priest, chanter and altar server be present, in order for the Liturgy to be served, so that they might have the holy mysteries in order to commune the people. What do you think about that?

Metropolitan John: For me, the Church without the Holy Eucharist is no longer the Church. On the other hand, the danger of transmitting this virus to others imposes on us the need of doing whatever is necessary, even if that means closing the Church. The Greek government has taken drastic measures due to the very serious matter at play.

Many have posed the question: What does John Zizioulas say? Since everyone knows that you had once said that in Orthodoxy a “private” Liturgy doesn’t exist.

The liturgy under the current conditions will be served for the life of the world. One priest will serve in order to allow the people to take communion. Let us not forget, the Liturgy is served “for those who are absent with good reason.” Those, who cannot come, are now everyone. I think it is an acceptable decision that a priest serves the liturgy in the church with two or three people. How he will forbid others from attending, I don’t know. I think the best decision, instead of completely closing the church, is to have the priest serve with up to five people. Therefore, the Liturgy should be served in churches, but the possibility of spreading the virus should be reduced to zero.

The Church of Greece will broadcast the Holy Liturgy via the Internet. Some in America will do the same. What is your opinion? 

I don’t agree with the Divine Liturgy being transmitted by television. I’m confined to my home and will not be able to attend Liturgy. However, I will not turn the television on in order to watch the Liturgy. I consider that an expression of impiety. It is impious for someone to sit and watch the Liturgy.

We heard that the faithful in Greece will follow the Liturgy on television. Where will the Liturgy be served?

Metropolitan John: I think it will be televised from the Cathedral church of the Archdiocese of Athens. Personally, as I said, I don’t like the Liturgy to be broadcasted on a TV channel. In Greece, there is at least that one liturgy that will be served in the Cathedral church.  In my opinion, it could have been served in more churches, but there is the fear of spreading the disease.

At the Liturgy one is either present or not present, we have already read this in your writings. What can Christians do on Sunday morning when they are prevented from attending Liturgy in a church and they have to stay at home? What would you suggest Christians under these current circumstances do?

Metropolitan John: Let a person remain at home and pray. The Church can prepare some service texts to encourage the faithful to read, for instance, the morning service in their homes, but not to read the text of the Liturgy. The Liturgy requires our presence. One cannot participate in the Liturgy from a distance. Therefore, let the faithful pray from their homes.

When you say “prayer,” what do you mean specifically? To read those prayers they know or to have the bishops and priests recommend them something? 

Metropolitan John: The Dioceses can recommend a prayer rule; in my opinion, the Orthros (Sunday Matins) is sufficient. The Church should distribute the text for Orthros, for instance, in order for the faithful to read them at their homes during the time the Liturgy is being served. A televised broadcast of the Liturgy is not the right thing to do. On the other hand, a good solution is to have the Liturgy served by a priest and two or three people and, if possible, to distribute Holy Communion to the faithful. As far as I know, this is difficult now since we don’t have deacons who could deliver Communion. In the ancient Church Holy Communion was taken to those who were unable to attend. Thus, if this doesn’t exist, let the Liturgy be at least with five people.

What do you recommend to the faithful concerning individual (private) prayers of each Christian?

Metropolitan John: The faithful should continue to pray, to offer their personal petitions to the Lord.

What would you call this state and this situation, since it is now extraordinary? You said that the Church without the Eucharist is not the Church and that the Eucharist must be preserved. This type or form of the Eucharist, what would you call it, that it not be turned into a “private“ rite?

Metropolitan John: If there are five people at the Liturgy it is no longer a private Liturgy. It is important that those who attend are not in danger and cannot endanger others.

As for the danger, however, no one can say that there is no danger in the matter of transmission.

Metropolitan John: As doctors tell us, the danger is minimized if distance is maintained and hygiene measures are observed.

Therefore, it is excluded that the Eucharist can be reduced to a private matter. If the Liturgy is performed in the presence of several believers, is this danger avoided?

Metropolitan John: It is better than having fully closed Churches.

Some believe that in this case of limited participation of the faithful, the Church no longer exists as a Eucharistic community and assembly, and therefore they say that the Eucharist should not be performed. And they add: if it is not done at all (which is beyond our will and desire) then God will not leave us. So, they ask: if we do not have a church community assembled, why should we serve such a “limited” Liturgy?

Metropolitan John: A community (κοινωνία and κοινότητα) is never complete in terms of the participation of the entire community. There is always a minority present; however, it still represents and acts on behalf of all those who are absent. And of course, we pray for all those who are “absent for a reasonable cause,” i.e. who were prevented from attending. This is not a novelty in our Church. There have always been those who are absent from the Liturgy. Those who participate in it pray for those who are absent. As we know, some may be absent because they are ill or because they are on the road. However, one may also be absent because the state does not allow him or her to attend due to an emergency. There is no substantial problem here because there is a community or a congregation of those few. It is better to have a community of a few than a state where there is no one in the Eucharistic assembly.

Some believe that those who participate in this three- or four-member liturgy are “privileged” and thus more favored than others?

Metropolitan John: What does “privileged” mean? Those who are present would very much like others to be present but are aware that they cannot. They do not look at it with exaltation or satisfaction that there are no others. They are aware that they represent those who are absent.

The dilemma some have is whether to deprive ourselves of the Holy Eucharist and thus help others (stopping the spread of the infection) or to serve the Eucharist in the hope that it will not harm others. Is it sufficient to comply with all measures to prevent the transmission of the infection?

Metropolitan John: We should prevent the spread of the infection because it is a huge risk of transmitting the virus. Not only to those who are in our immediate vicinity but also to those who are further away. This is spread throughout society and why should we be the cause of such a spread of the virus?

Does the image of the Liturgy we now have, where it is confined to several believers around the priest, violate liturgical iconism? Does this limited gathering continue to iconize the Kingdom of God, which is the meaning of the Liturgy?

Metropolitan John: The small community does not diminish the image (iconization) of the future Kingdom. Very often, in many countries in Europe, I went to parishes whose temples were used by very few Orthodox believers. Yet the entire Holy Eucharist is offered for all the universe. A parish represents not only the local community but also the entire Catholic Church. Therefore, the smallest temple represents the universe and summarizes the whole world.

Many fear that some elitism does not emerge from this state: those who are privileged in the Liturgy. Do you see any danger in that?

Metropolitan John: No, I see no danger.

In what sense?

Metropolitan John: It is enough for the local bishop or priest to allow an alternative presence so that the same parishioners do not always come. This week there are three or four, next week there will be another three or four faithful. The participation of others will be gradually made possible until this situation is over.

Many people put it this way: it is not a question of whether the Church exists without the Eucharist, but whether faithful can refrain from participating in the Eucharist for a month or two. There is a view that we should not serve now because it is such a situation. Liturgies were abolished in some dioceses, where state authorities ordered a ban on gathering at the Liturgy. The bishops had to completely prevent the participation of believers, as in Greece. Are you satisfied with the decision in Greece that the Liturgy cannot be served until the end of the pandemic?

Metropolitan John: I don’t think that’s good. I believe that they could find another solution where the liturgy could be celebrated with the small participation of laypeople. They chose that solution, but I do not think it was the best one. The decision not to attend the Liturgy could have been avoided.

If this happens in the whole world, what do you think, would the Church cease to exist then?

Metropolitan John: It is just a hypothesis. I do not think in reality that can happen. There will always be people who serve the Liturgy, for example, in monasteries.

Some say it only “keeps the flames going” (eucharistic flame) which is a nice, poetic image. Is that the theological and substantive answer?

Metropolitan John: That’s not the answer. Whenever something is not our choice but a necessity that comes from the outside then we do what is called an oikonomia. A lot of things are not quite right in practice, but since what is right cannot be valid, then we accept it only as oikonomia. And here we have just that today: we apply oikonomia things to deal with one serious problem. I view this as a measure of oikonomia.

You said and wrote that in ecclesiology it is not only taking Communion of the sacred gifts (communio in sacris) that is crucial, but also participation in the community of the saints (communio sanctorum). Some forget that we do not merely distribute some “thing” from the Holy Altar which is taken and absorbed in the organism, but that with communion, we participate in the community of all of the Saints. What can you say on this topic during this era of the coronavirus?

Metropolitan John: That community of Saints certainly exists, even when there is a small number of faithful and laity. It is the community of Saints, and not merely a community in a sanctuary.

Do you have any comments on the manner of receiving communion? I assume that you have heard the current arguments on this topic. While some insist on giving communion from the same spoon, others are searching for other ways, in order to respond to the challenges of the epidemic and show their social responsibility. One of the local Churches ordered mandatory spoon disinfection, while another began using disposable spoons. What do you say? What oikonomia or dispensation should be applied here?

In the Liturgy of St. James the Brother t the faithful take communion separately, the Body separate from the Blood of the Lord. As we know, according to the order of this ancient liturgy, these are not both placed in the chalice. There are, therefore, various ways. I don’t agree with having disposable spoons for each person. I don’t think this is good. Instead, it is better for the faithful to receive the Body of Christ which would have been dipped in the Blood of Christ beforehand. In this manner, the spread of the virus will be avoided. This is an ad hoc answer, of a provisional character. But I think ways can be found. Although the Church has not given much thought to other ways, I think it should do so.

Communing with a spoon dates back to the 11th or 12th century?

Metropolitan John: Yes. This is a considerably later practice and I think, at least temporarily, we should go back to the ancient solutions. I believe we will discover them. But who thinks of them today!?

Some have suggested the following solution. Priests should prepare the particles of the Body of Christ from the Lamb and then steep the particles with the Blood of Christ.  Then the people approach and take that Communion. What do you think of that?

Metropolitan John:  I think this is a very good solution, since there is already fear among a group of faithful. Personally, I would like and desire that the faithful have no fear (from the Holy Communion). I consider that the Body and Blood of Christ is truly the receiving of medicine immortality and I don’t think it is dangerous. Personally, it wouldn’t bother me to commune from one chalice during an epidemic or, even to use one common spoon. However, since there are those who, as the Apostle Paul says, are weak in faith, we must avoid scandalizing them. The Church must find a solution for them as well, to meet their needs, in order to avoid accusations that we Christians transmit infections or disease.

We notice that you consider that accusation, or testimony, which comes from outside the Church to be important. Do you think that the Church should be careful what image or impression it has on the world?

Metropolitan John:  With the prevailing practice of taking Communion, I think that, in the event this disease spreads, many will accuse Christians of being guilty and many will say that the Church spread the infection.

Is there a responsibility of the Church towards society and creation?

Metropolitan John: There certainly is.

Your Eminence, we owe you much gratitude for this conversation. It is wonderful that our readers will have the opportunity to see your answers to these current issues.

Metropolitan John: I hope the one who reads this will read it correctly and not misinterpret me. I pray that the Lord helps us deal with this situation in the right way.

Translated from Serbian by Fr. Bratislav Krsic and Fr. Milovan Katanic

Sermon: Jesus Comes to Jerusalem as King

Matthew 21:1-11

Our season of Lent is drawing to a close, and we move ever closer to the cross of Jesus. Today we face the entire set of emotions from extreme joy to extreme sadness and grief as we move from the triumphal entry of Jesus to Jerusalem to his final hours on the cross. Celebration and praise will converge with loss and grief. Not unlike how many of us might be feeling right now. We are happy that we are well and with our loved ones, but sad that we cannot be together in our church building on this beautiful Palm Sunday.

But this feast calls us to communal faith, and no matter where we are today, or when you might view this video, we have gathered and will continue to gather as Church.

This singular event drew people from all over the region. Jesus’ fame had reached the far ends of the Empire, and everyone wanted to see him. He was not going to be able to slip into town; they were going to welcome him as a king, or were they?

Keep in mind that those that were expecting the Messiah to come were expecting a military genius one that would free them from their bondage to the Roman Empire. Sure, the Messiah is a King and did come to free them from slavery, just not the bondage they were expecting. When a king or ruler, who just conquered a city, went into the city, they would ride in on a horse, a warhorse if you will. They were coming as a conquering hero to claim their prize.

But, and this is important, the King was coming in peace, they would arrive on a much nobler beast, the donkey. This would show submission and not triumph. Jesus came to Jerusalem to bring peace, not war. Jesus came to Jerusalem to bring love, not judgment. Jesus came to Jerusalem to bring forgiveness and freedom from the bondage of sin, not the slavery of political oppression. Jesus came as a peacemaker, not a conqueror.

All of this, as you can imagine, caused the religious and political authorities of the day to sit up and take notice. Until this point, Jesus had just been a burr under their saddles, a little painful but not much to worry about. But now, he has just raised a man from the dead, and the people have crowned him King; this was something they could not simply ignore. They were going to have to take action.

The people come, they cut down branches from the trees, they place their cloaks on the ground and sing Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna. They are happy and filled with anticipation of what will come next, or what they think will come next. The people who had come out were doing so at significant risk to themselves for in proclaiming Jesus King they were, in fact, committing treason.

But as we know that joy will soon turn ugly and go to a very dark place.

Some theologians will argue that this was intentional on the part of Jesus. His time had come, and he had to do something to raise his profile so he would be noticed. As I have already mentioned, they did not pay him any mind at all; he was just some backwater preacher going around doing good for folks and not getting in the way.

But if we leave the story here, all we have is the triumph, and for many, that is where they want to stay. Many want to go right from Palm Sunday to Easter without the pain and agony of Good Friday, Jesus was one of those for a bit in the garden when he was praying. But we cannot skip over the unsavory bits to get to the parts we like. We cannot ignore the difficult parts of Scripture and focus on the nice happy bits. What the story of Palm Sunday reminds us is that in the life of the Christian, there will be joy as well as pain, sorrow, and grief. And we must experience it all.

The German Theologian and Martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer often spoke of what he called Cheap Grace. Bonhoeffer was concerned that we had lost the idea of Good Friday, that we had forgiveness with repentance. That we had, or thought was had to do nothing to work at in our Christian life. This is not only wrong, but it is bad theology.

An English Orthodox Bishop tells the story of being asked about being saved. I don’t know about you, but I often get asked by some Christians if I am saved. What the bishop would say is that he is not saved, but instead he is in the process of being saved, salvation is something we continuously work toward it is not a moment in time when all things change, and we are on the right path, no it is the very opposite. We must continuously work at our faith, t is a daily struggle between the joys of Palm Sunday, the agony of Good Friday, and glorious feelings on Easter. We must go to the tomb to be resurrected.

But the other meaning behind this feast is that we must come in the same way that Jesus came. We must come with no expectation, with all humility, and with love, love for God and love for our neighbor.

This week we made the difficult decision not to stream worship live from the Church. This decision was made to provide an example to those who are advising us to stay home. The only way we will get through this is if we shut ourselves in for a while, it has worked in other places. As much as we feel we need to go out, we simply cannot. But thanks be to God we can video this message and service so we can be together during this time to support one another.

But I mention this because, for me, it comes back to this idea of love, love of neighbor. Our staying home might save someone’s life. Our staying home might be the greatest example of love that we can show to another person. Our staying home keeps them and us safe, and that is an expression of love.

There will be time to celebrate when this is all over, and we can once again gather for worship. But for now, this is what we do; for now, we must pause a little while at Good Friday, and then, our Easter will come.

Amen.

Keep the Churches Closed!

This past weekend, congregants of River at Tampa Bay Church gathered with their pastor Rodney Howard-Browne for a worship service in defiance of the order by Hillsborough County Florida Health Officials. Pastor Howard-Brown has said that the doors of his Church would never close until the “end times.” On Monday, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister arrested Howard-Brown and charged him with two counts: unlawful assembly and a violation of health emergency rules. Both are second-degree misdemeanors.

On Wednesday, April 1st, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said religious services conducted in churches, synagogues, and houses of worship are “essential business” and, therefore, exempt from this stay-at-home executive order that he had recently signed. I am not sure what this will do to the charges against Howard-Brown, but I am confident his lawyers will be seeking to have the charges dropped.

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, an open letter was released to the nation’s Roman Catholic Bishops, urging them to “restore the Sacraments to the people.” The letter reads in part; “Something is terribly wrong with a culture that allows abortion clinics and liquor stores to remain open but shuts down places of worship. While safety and cooperation with civil authorities is necessary, we must do everything we can to have access to what is essential for our spiritual lives. We should certainly not voluntarily deprive ourselves of the sacraments,”

The letter is authored by Dr. Janet E. Smith, recently retired, who held the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She is the author of many books and articles on life issues. “The sacraments are the spiritual ‘Personal Protective Equipment’ of Catholics,” said Smith. “They enable us to work in the field hospital of the sick and dying. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Catholics are being deprived of what is central to our faith — the sacraments. The sacraments are gifts of inestimable value: They open up for us the gates of Heaven and bestow upon us graces that enable us to be loving disciples of Christ, our Savior.” Writes Dr. Smith.

In her letter to the Roman Catholic Bishops, Dr. Smith bemoans the fact that abortion clinics can remain open. Since she brought pro-life into this, I believe staying home is a pro-life issue as it has shown to actually be working to keep people alive.

I have a few issues with all of this. Biblically we are commanded to obey the laws of those appointed over us. St. Paul writes, “Obey the government, for God is the One who has put it there. There is no government anywhere that God has not placed in power. So those who refuse to obey the law of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow.” Romans 13:1-2 We claim to be a country founded on Judea/Christian ideas, and this one is somewhat pointed.

But I have a sacramental disagreement as well. Dr. Smith claims, and rightfully so that the Sacraments are “spiritual person protective equipment of Catholics.” My personal, theological understanding of Sacraments, especially Holy Communion, is that those elements become sanctified and different. I stop short at the idea that they become the actual body and blood of Christ. I believe they do become blessed and sanctified and do provide spiritual nourishment to those who partake.

But what about everything else around the wafer and wine?

I don’t mean to simplify things but, regardless of what you believe about the bread and wine, everything else around it, the altar, the cup, the plate, the priest/minister, other people, the air none of it is sanctified and remains just as it is. If it is infected, you will get sick!

I understand how vital the Sacramental life of the Church is to people, but there comes a time when we must think of others over ourselves. If depriving myself of the Sacraments will save a life, isn’t that more important than the risk I would take by attending Church with others?

In the Communion Ritual, the Words of Institution come from several places, but I will quote from the Gospel of Matthew, “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Matthew 26:26-28

Jesus is saying that the bread and wine, either symbolically or actually, represent his body and his blood. Jesus gave his life willingly for others out of love. He did this because, as we read in the Gospel of John, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 In the Gospel of Mark Jesus says when asked which of the commandments was the greatest; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31

The Sacraments of the Church are visible signs of the love that God showed us in the life of his son Jesus Christ. Jesus Sacrificed himself willingly on the cross to show us the way of new life, a new life of love. The most significant expression of that love is to love God and love our neighbor. We can show that love to our neighbors by making sure they are safe. And we can do that by staying home. I certainly think God will understand.

Commentary: How Are we Doing?

So how is everyone doing?  Are you working form home?  Are you home schooling your kids? I hope that you are all doing well and that you have found enough to keep you busy during what can be very long days of confinement. It can be difficult to deal with these situations especially since we do not know when it is going to end. All the medical folks tell us that if we hope to defeat this, and I believe we will, we need to just stay put, hunker down, and ride it out until it is over.

It can also be daunting to watch the news and try and make sense out of everything that we area hearing, this is closing that is closing school here in Massachusetts will not be closed until at least the first week in May and all the rest. Try and get sometime away from it all if you can. The weather is starting to warm up and we can get outside for a walk or starting the spring cleanup around our yards.

But this time a year our thoughts start to turn toward the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter morning but this year, as of right now anyway that celebration could look much different. As a church leader I have been asking my self what will be do if we cannot all be together in the sanctuary of our beautiful church on Easter? What about Palm Sunday and all the other services that will take place during Holy Week? These are all questions that I will be dealing with in the coming days and weeks.

Missing services on Easter and other times brings a sense of loneliness and perhaps grief, yes grief is a real part of not being able to gather. We all long for the “good old days” of just a few weeks ago when we could all gather together and celebrate birthdays and other such miles stones and not being able to do that now can cause a sense of loss and along with that loss comes grief.

But the upside of all of this is that Jesus does not need to be gathered in a finely decorated building for the resurrection to take place, Jesus has risen from the dead and remains with us when we are together and when we are apart.

I was reminded recently of that first Easter when the apostles and other were gathered in the Upper Room and locked in because of a very real danger to their lives. This happened during the season of Passover when the remembrance of being locked in for fear of another real threat to the lives of people was happening. The Apostles and other were locked in and Jesus came to them anyway. He came to them through the wall and bid them peace.

I know things are going to be different this year and I grieve right along with you but the important thing to remember are those words that Jesus spoke after the resurrection, peace. Jesus brings us peace and although it may not feel like it right now, it is that peace that I hope you are able to find this day and, in the days, ahead.

Sermon: Breath of Hope

John 11:1-45

One of the side benefits of holding worship online is that I get to pop in on worship services all over the world. It is fascinating to see how people in different parts of the world gather for worship.  Today I spent a few moments in worship with a Church in Scotland and one in England. Last week it was churches across the United States. Another benefit of this, and more serious, is that I get to see what others are preaching and “borrow” some of it for my sermon.

Another benefit of all of this is that I cannot tell if you are laughing at my jokes or not, so I am going to assume that you are at that these jokes are the funniest things you have ever heard!

Two weeks ago, when we gathered to worship for the first time online, I asked if you were overwhelmed. I am asking again this morning if you are feeling overwhelmed and if you are taking care of yourselves and each other. It is hard to believe it has only been two weeks, as it seems so much longer. In those two weeks, we have learned a new vocabulary, words, and phrases like Social Distancing and Shelter in place. And we have had to learn new skills like getting a worship service online.

But in all of this, all the uncertainty all of the craziness going on all around us the Church is still the Church, and we are here, albeit, at a distance, the Church is still being called to be the Church and to care for one another.

Today we come upon what I believe is one of the greatest stories in Scripture the story of the Raising of Lazarus from the dead. I say that this is an excellent story because not only does Jesus raise his dear friend Lazarus from the dead, but we get to see a glimpse of his humanity as well.

Jesus is no stranger in the town of Bethany; in fact, Scripture tells us that Jesus often went to Bethany to find rest. In Bethany lived his friend Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. As the story goes, Jesus was about a day’s journey from Bethany, and word came to him that Lazarus was sick. But Jesus did not come straight away; he waited two days before returning.

When Jesus arrived, as the story goes, he found that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. This is an essential point for those us reading the story now. Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days, which means he is truly dead, and there can be no mistake about it. But when he arrives, he is confronted by Lazarus’ sister Martha who scolds Jesus for not coming sooner.  Martha believed that if Jesus had come before this, her brother would not now be dead four days.

Jesus takes a moment to comfort his friend Martha and tells her that her brother will rise. Martha is sure she knows what Jesus means and assures him of that when she says to him, “I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus tells her that he is the resurrection, but she does not quite understand what is about to happen.

Martha takes Jesus to her home, where he sees Mary, Lazarus’ other sister, and those who had come to be of comfort to them in their mourning. I am not sure if you have ever been around professional mourners, but the sounds in the house were sounds coming from the very depths of their souls. There would be crying and wailing, as you have never heard before. In John’s version of the story, we read that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Now keep in mind, Jesus knew what he was about to do; he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, but seeing those around him in mourning, he was overcome with grief for them and at the loss of his friend. He is going to raise him, but he was still overcome at the sight of those around him mourning their loss. Perhaps it was also a stark reminded to him of his own death that would soon be upon him.

Jesus asks where he was, and the women say, “Come and see.” These are familiar words, “come and see” these are the words that Jesus spoke when he was assembling his disciples at the very start of John’s Gospel. Now they are placed here as a reminder that following Jesus leads us to the tomb, not in a physical way but in a spiritual way. To be followers of Jesus, we must die. Die to self, die to what we want for what someone else might want. We must die to hatred and bigotry of all kinds since we cannot follow Jesus unless we truly love our neighbor. So, when they say to him, “come and see,” this is a reminder from John of the cost of discipleship.

Jesus arrives at the tomb of Lazarus, and Scripture tells us, “Jesus wept.” I mentioned this passage last week as a reminder that Jesus understands our grief as he shared in it and shares it with us. Jesus walks the same road we walk and shares in our joys and our sorrows, and he will never leave our side.

Jesus asks for the stone to be removed; this is all by the way a foretelling of Jesus own raising from the dead in a few days’ time. He calls for the stone to be rolled away, and they object because of the smell. Again, John throws this in there, so we understand that Lazarus is really dead. They roll the stone away, and Jesus looks to heaven and then cries from deep within himself, “Lazarus come out.” And he does.

I have read this story probably a thousand times, but it has taken on new meaning for me these days. Here we are, the Church of the 21st Century and some might say, on our last legs some might even say we are in the tomb, and along comes Jesus and says in a loud voice, Church come out! Come out of your four walls and come out and be with the people, serve the people, and one another. Come out and witness to the world that all of creation is a cathedral, and what is of the utmost importance in caring for each other and loving one another.

In all of the doom and gloom of these days, we have seen some extraordinary acts of love. Nurses and doctors are going to work, day in and day out, putting their lives on the line. People checking on their neighbors and see if they are okay. Shopping for them and just striking up conversations to they days do not seem so empty and endless. Each day I am amazed at what I see going on out there in the world.

But this has also forced the Church to reexamine what Church really means. People who were once resistant to the digital revolution have now embraced it, and I hear conversations about how we need to keep up this online stuff when this is all over. This is a reformation of sorts; the stone has been rolled away, and the Church has been called out of the tomb, and I can say with confidence that she has embraced it with both hands.

But in all of this, let us not forget that there is grief. I wrote a short essay this past week about grief and how it comes in many different ways, maybe you read it, I posted it on the Church Facebook Page. We are all grieving loss right now, the loss of being together, the loss of worship, the loss of worshiping on Easter, and all the rest. What this story tells us is that even when we know the outcome, as Jesus did, it is still okay to grieve and to weep. But for those of us who know, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story, we know that after a long and dark night morning comes and then the resurrection.

My friends, Jesus is here with us, walking with us and showing us the way. Sure, times will be difficult, and we are going to grieve, but Jesus will never leave us, and for that, I am truly thankful.

Amen.

Grief Comes in Many Ways

We need to have a conversation about grief more often than we do. Grief, and the pain associated with it, is not something we like to discuss. We try to avoid it at all costs. But, if we love, we grieve. Those who help others deal with their grief will say that we need to acknowledge our grief as part of the process of working through it. Grief is not something we get over; instead, we learn to exist with the new normal in our lives.

Society understands grief after a loss of a loved one; in fact, the definition of grief includes the phrase “especially grief caused by someone’s death.” Society is starting to acknowledge that grief associated with the loss of a pet can be just as painful as the grief that comes with a human loss.

But what of other types of grief that might be less socially acceptable? The grief that comes with the loss of movement due to quarantine or a Shelter-in-Place order, the grief that comes from not being able to be with family and friends, grief that comes from the loss of a job? And, what about the grief that comes from not being able to worship together physically? All of these are examples of loss, and all of these come with some level of grief.

Very often grief that comes from a loss other than death is not accepted, and that makes coping with it more difficult. If the first stages of coping are acknowledging the grief, and society does not allow for that, how does one grieve? Not being able to express the emotions that come with grief over such a loss or being made to feel that your feelings are illegitimate makes coping that much more difficult.

I am a local church pastor, and since the order was given a few weeks ago, we have suspended in-person worship. We have worshiped the last two Sundays virtually, and it has been uplifting as well as rather fun. But it does not replace in-person worship. I understand that we can worship God anywhere, at any time and that we do not need the building. But buildings help us to focus and hold memories for us, like memories of happier times, weddings, baptisms, and Sunday worship. Of course, buildings can also hold bad memories like funerals and the like. Worship space and being with others is an essential part of who we are as a community.

As we approach the Holy Season of the Church calendar, Holy Week and Easter, we realize we may not be able to come together in the way we usually do. I have fond memories of the pageantry of the liturgies of Holy Week and Easter, and I will miss those this year. I will miss the faces of the people in the congregation and seeing their new “Easter Outfits.” I will not only miss all those things; I will grieve the loss.

Everyone experiences grief in their way, and everyone deals with grief in their way. Grief is a very natural response to a loss, any loss even if those around you do not acknowledge that loss. Grief can be debilitating, and the symptoms can manifest at any time. Coping with that loss is one of life’s biggest challenges. But whatever the cause of the grief, there are healthy ways of dealing with the pain.

Although you may not think so now, it will become less painful with time. We never “get over” the loss.  We learn to adapt to the new way of being community, being family and being church.   We will build on what we have already grown to know and love.  It may look and feel very different.  We may grieve the ways of the past, but that is always the case in our lives.  We now find different ways to do that and we will do it together.

Sermon: Restored

John 9:1-41

There is certainly a lot going on in this passage of Scripture we just heard. We have Jesus meeting a man blind from his birth. We have Jesus’ disciples asking Jesus who had the greater sin, this man or his parents? You see, the ancients believed that illness or handicap was caused by sin and so the question for them was a valid one.

We have the man being healed. We have the man being hauled in and questioned before the authorities. We have his parents throwing him under the bus. We have religious leaders more concerned about following rules than about the fact that this man, who has been blind from birth, can now see. We have the man being cast out of the Synagogue because he dared to challenge what the leaders were saying. And we have the testimony of the man born blind, “I believe Lord,” to which I will add, “help my unbelief.”

The words I have added to the story come from a different story and can be found in the 9th chapter of the Gospel of St. Mark, but I believe that in our world today, they ring very true, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”

Some crazy things are going on in our world, including this virus that has us all on edge. We are worried, and rightly so, what is going to happen. Sure, I can stand here and try and reassure you all will be well, and my faith tells me that it will, but during the storm, that is not easy to believe. We so desperately want to believe that all will be well, but we are scared, we are worried for ourselves and our families and friends.

Last week I spoke about the story of Jesus calming the storm, and I want to believe that Jesus will calm the storm. I want to believe the words from Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

I keep telling myself, “I shall not want,” “I shall not want,” “I shall not want.” It has become a mantra that I repeat over and over again in my head and my heart, but I am still scared, and I am still concerned.

But what of the blind man from today’s story I am sure he was afraid. He could not see; he had never seen. He had been stumbling around his whole life, shunned by most and pitied by the rest. How was he to care for himself, feed himself, clothe himself, earn a living? Then along comes Jesus. The man did not ask to be healed. Jesus healed him.

Now he was scared for another reason. Now he can see things he had never seen before, things that he had drawn images in his mind that might now be changed because he can actually see them. He is so excited that he can see. Then he gets hauled in before the Church council and grilled about how and when he was healed and, in the end, he is cast out, and once again, he is scared.

Being thrown out of the Synagogue was a horrible thing to have to happen. He is cut off spiritually and physically. Now he is back to worrying about how he is going to care for himself. But along comes Jesus again, this time looking for the man because Jesus has heard what happened to him. Jesus asks if he believes and, after a few moments of questions, he tells Jesus that he does believe.

Now get ready because here comes the meaning behind all of this, and I don’t want you to miss it.

Come one, get ready… Jesus healed the man born blind, but he never abandoned him. Jesus healed his physical ailments and then came back to look after the spiritual ones. Last week Jesus calmed the storm and then stayed with his Disciples to make sure they were okay. The point is, Jesus will never leave us no matter what. Turn to the person next to you and say, “Jesus will never leave you no matter what” go on, those of you at home go on I’ll wait, Jesus will never leave you no matter what.

Now I know it’s easy to say and hard to comprehend. When the waves are crashing over the side of the boat, when the virus is creeping around and we don’t know where, when Tom Brady signed that contract with Tampa Bay I know it feels like you are all alone but you are not, Jesus is right there with you.

I know this is going to sound strange, but I get great comfort from the story of Jesus in the garden just before his arrest. He has gone off to pray by himself. He knows what is about to happen, and he is scared.  Let me say that again, Jesus is worried. He starts to pray, and he is pleading with God. Scripture tells us that his prayer is so intense, so focused that drops of blood form on his forehead. He is pleading with God to take this cup away. But in the end, he finds comfort, and he tells God, not my will but yours.

A few hours later, he is hanging on the cross. Everyone close to him is gone save for a few brave souls that have come to be with him. He is in agony, and he feels totally abandoned, and he cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me.” And God comforts him in his time of desperation and need.

So, what is the message? It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to cry out to God. It’s okay to struggle with your belief at times like these because Jesus has been there, and he knows what we are going through, and He will never, ever leave you. I hope you believe that.

Commentary: Coronavirus Week 2

So here we are, facing another week with our lives much different then they were a week ago. Last Sunday, like many of my clergy colleagues across the country, I fired up Facebook Live for a church service. The interesting thing about this week was that it was my first Sunday in the new Church.

I started as Interim Pastor at Second Congregational Church in Beverly, and my introduction to the congregation was via Facebook Live. I mention this because we are all doing what we must do during these unprecedented times in our lives. But I also mention it because of something I saw recently on Facebook. With Church, doors closed, it reminds us that being Church was never about the building it was and is about helping our neighbor and those less fortunate and on the margins. Being Church is about loving one another just as Jesus has loved us. Sometimes we need those gentle reminders.

I will confess to you that I was reluctant to close the Church and suspend worship services. My feeling is, in these times, people need the Church the most and that the physical manifestation of the Church is the building. People need to be able to support one another, and we do that with the weekly gathering as Church. Then it all started to make sense to me; the very thing I was advocating for could make people sick—the very act of gathering as a community could make things worse. So, we suspended worship and had to find other ways to be a community.

As I already mentioned, we fired up Facebook Live, which has been tremendous is helping to create community these last days. I sat in my home study, just me and my notes on the service, while my parishioners gathered in their homes in their pajamas and coffee, and we worshipped together. I opened the stream a few minutes before the scheduled time so folks could check in with each other in the chat room, and they did. We worshipped together, read scripture, asked for prayer requests, and held each other, albeit from a distance during this trying time. We were Church without the building!

Right now, we are in the “honeymoon” phase, and the prospect of not being able to gather in person for Easter has some folks depressed. Yes, Easter is the day when we should all gather together and worship our risen Savior. Still, whether we are on a beach at sunrise, in a church with great fanfare, or sitting on our couch watching a computer screen, Jesus is still Jesus, and the promise of the resurrection is still valid.

In a recent conversation, we were talking about that first Easter. Those closest to Jesus were in hiding. They were locked in a room because of real danger on the other side of the door. Sure, what they were experiencing is much different than our situation, but the point is, on that first Easter morning, people were locked up for their safety, and Jesus came to them with words of peace. He entered among them and bid them peace.

In my sermon last week, I preached from the story of Jesus calming the waves during a storm. For those of you unfamiliar with the story: Jesus and his disciples were in a boat, a great storm arose. Jesus was sleeping and, as usual his disciples were going crazy, so they woke him. He calmed the storm and rebuked them a little by asking if they had no faith. They point of the story is, if we are taking all the precautions, if we have prepared our families and us, then all will be well. Jesus will bring us the peace that passes all understanding and will help us settle our minds and our hearts.

None of us can predict how long we will be hunkered down, and no one can predict what life will be like after all of this has blown over, and my faith tells me it will. But I have hope. Hope is the promise of Jesus when he appeared after his resurrection to those locked in the house, peace.

My prayer in the weeks ahead for all of us is that we can find that sense of peace.

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