a reflection on Acts 2 for the Feast of Pentecost 2020
For this morning’s video prelude, click here.
I hope you’ve had a chance to watch this morning’s video prelude. If not, you can find it by clicking on the link above. I’m not sure which I love more: the sight of that huge, beautiful body of starlings, or a chance to use the word “murmuration.” This is a murmuration of starlings: tens of thousands of individuals moving, swooping, turning, flying as one body.
And the really amazing thing is that nobody knows exactly how they do it. We humans have tried to explain it, but no one has yet figured out exactly what invisible force of connection transforms thousands of birds from a collection of individuals each going its own way into one larger body, moving as one: a murmuration.
It turns out that the Bible also has a name for this kind of phenomenon. Of course, when it happens in the Bible, we’re not talking about a group of starlings that begins to move and live as one body. In the Bible, we’re talking about a group of human beings who decide to leave their individual lives behind and live as one body known as “the people of God.” In the Bible, when a collection of individuals suddenly becomes animated and connected by a powerful, invisible force, we call that invisible force the Holy Spirit. And it is this Spirit whose arrival we celebrate each year on the day of Pentecost: the day when a collection of friends and neighbors and strangers suddenly receives a Spirit that transforms them into the Church, also known as the Body of Christ. One deeply connected, living, breathing Body.
This year, in all kinds of new ways, we are learning that we ourselves are deeply connected. This year, in every conceivable way, we are learning that we are one body, not only spiritually but physically as well. This year, the invisible connections between us have been dramatically revealed by a virus that is moving between and among us, binding our lives together in very tangible and very dangerous ways.
At the same time, we are remembering this season that we are also connected in millions of beautiful and life-giving ways. As we bring all our resources and ingenuity to the work of caring for one another this season, we are remembering, together, that just like God’s Holy Spirit, our own acts of love, patience, and self-sacrifice have the power to gather us into a vast community of healing and new life. A virus and a wild, Holy Spirit of Love, both showing us that we are always deeply connected. Which one of these invisible, connecting forces will win the day? That will depend on the choices we continue to make in the months ahead.
Beloved, I miss you. I miss seeing your faces. I miss laughing and crying with you with you in person. I especially miss singing and praying with you on Sunday mornings. I know how hard these past few months have been for you. I see it in your faces on Zoom; I hear it in your voices when we talk on the phone. For a congregation that loves being together, this season of physical distancing can feel interminable, and sometimes unbearable.
Over the past few weeks, there have been a lot of confusing messages coming over the airwaves and the internet about what activities are safe, what activities are dangerous, and what churches should be doing here in our third month of social distancing.
But if the day of Pentecost has anything to say to us this year, it is to very clearly remind us that, appearances notwithstanding, we are one body. A body that we share not only with our fellow church goers but with all of humanity. The choices that we churches make about gathering or not gathering, closing or reopening our church buildings, will affect not only our own health and the health of our congregations, but the health of our entire community and, especially, the health of the most vulnerable among us.
The past three months have been extraordinarily difficult for all congregations, and particularly for church leaders and ministers. What I want you to know is that as the public health situation evolves, this congregation’s Board of Directors is continuing to have ongoing conversations about how to protect the health and safety of congregants, staff members, building renters, and the Salem community. As part of its deliberations, the Board is bringing in the latest information from state public health authorities; best practices gleaned from universities and other institutions; and recommendations from the national settings of the United Church of Christ and other denominational bodies.
For the past three months, I myself have been in daily conversation with other clergy here in Salem and far beyond. Along with clergy members in our own Central Pacific Conference and the wider United Church of Christ, I am attending Zoom gatherings in which we share resources and information necessary to keep our congregations and communities as safe and healthy as possible. In addition, I am working with a group of interfaith clergy here in Salem to share information and best practices for our particular community.
At this time, based on our current knowledge about the novel coronavirus, we understand that the things we all love to do together in church are among the behaviors most likely to spread the virus. Gathering indoors; gathering in mixed-age groups; sitting in pews that cannot be moved; and, especially, singing of any kind, even at a distance — these activities provide ideal conditions for the spread of the virus. For this reason, national and local UCC clergy and denominational leaders are urging churches not to gather in person until all safety concerns are addressed.
What does this mean in practical terms? While there are some very small churches (50 members or fewer) in rural counties (where there are no known cases of COVID-19) that may be able to gather this summer with extreme safety restrictions, most churches will not be able to safely gather again until there is an effective and widely available vaccine.
This could change, of course. As I mentioned, clergy are in constant communication right now as we strive to stay abreast of new scientific and public health developments. But our denominational and ecumenical leadership bodies are urging churches not to gather in person until it is safe for everyone — including the most vulnerable among us — to do so. If we were to convene church gatherings of any size before there is a vaccine, it is likely that vulnerable people (those with health challenges, those with suppressed immune systems, and individuals over the age of 60) would, out of obligation or great love for their church, be tempted to attend. This would put many lives at risk.
Our own denomination, along with other church leadership bodies, is continually updating its recommendations. Among the most helpful resources is a document prepared by the Wisconsin Council of Churches, which is currently being shared by the national setting of the United Church of Christ. This document translates state reopening mandates into guidelines for church gatherings. Based on these guidelines, churches of our size will not begin to reopen until very late in Phase 3 reopening plans. As is the case in many other states, Phase 3 of Oregon’s own reopening plan requires an effective treatment or vaccine to be widely available, a development which is still many months away.
What does this mean for our congregation and for the body of the church in the months ahead?
First of all, it means that we will continue to find more and more beautiful, new ways to be the Church. Beloved, I have no doubt that God is doing a new thing (and many new things!) among us. Over the past few months, we have seen, right here in our congregation and all around the world, that the Holy Spirit is winging among us, flying over Zoom connections and telephone lines, teaching us how to gather in Spirit and in great love, even at a distance.
In the months ahead, First Congregational Church will continue to offer many opportunities for online gatherings, including regular open mic nights, Zoom garden tours, adult education, Sunday school, youth group, crafternoons and an All-Ages Summer Camp at Home during the week of July 6 – 10th.
Of course, we will also continue to worship in all kinds of ways. So far, our “Worship Where You Are” service has been a big success and has become a model for other congregations around the country. While many churches jumped right into live-stream worship services, we are finding that a self-paced email worship service (with live links to music) is accessible to more people than Zoom or Facebook Live. In addition, each week, we are sending a paper version of this worship service to those in the congregation who do not have internet access at home.
Despite the success of this self-paced worship model, I am feeling the need to offer some kind of live-stream worship service on Sunday mornings. As you may have guessed, churches that were already live streaming their weekly services before the pandemic found it easy to continue broadcasting their worship over the internet when their churches shut their doors. Because FCC Salem was not live streaming before the pandemic, it has taken us some time to assemble the necessary technology and expertise. We began offering live worship during Holy Week, and now we’re ready to do the same for Sunday worship. I hope you’ll plan to join us on the church Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/UCCSalemOR) on Sunday, June 7th, for our first live Sunday worship service. This will be a simple service, with shared prayers, communion, and the weekly sermon. As our staff and volunteers get more comfortable with this format, we will do our best to include music as well. Through the “comments” section of the page, you’ll be able to say hello and see who else is joining you for worship that morning. No need to have a Facebook account: the live stream is public and available to all. Please note that this will not replace the current “Worship Where You Are” email service. I will continue to provide both options every week, so that you can choose the worship experience that works best for you…or join us for both!
Beloved, these are challenging times for our neighbors, our families, and for the worldwide church. I hope you’ll remember that even on days when you are feeling lonely, you are never alone. Friends are only a phone call away, and as always, you’ll find a link to the church directory in every weekly email. Please also remember that I am just a phone call away. I love hearing your voices every day! There are also several Zoom gatherings each week (which are also listed in your weekly e-newsletter), which you are welcome to join.
Best of all, God’s wild Holy Spirit is among us, friends. She is brushing her beautiful wings against our cheeks and whispering songs of healing and hope for us, for all creation, and for this whole world that God so loves. Amen.