Jun4ThuA sermon for Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2020 June 4, 2020
As I begin this sermon,
I would like to make mention of something quite pressing that has come up this week.
Many of you have been following the ongoing news story around the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis,
and the ensuing riots or rebellions erupting in various cities against systemic racism, esp. against African-Americans and other marginalized communities particularly affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Some colleagues of mine have been courageous enough to scrap their existing sermon and start afresh,
addressing these issues in a new sermon this morning.
I am not so brave.
But it definitely has been running around my head, how we are complicit in systemic and structural racism even here in Canada.
We must condemn racism and white supremacy in all its forms.
This past week I had been planning to take part in a church anti-racism workshop with Lenny Duncan, an outspoken black Lutheran pastor and writer, but this was unfortunately cancelled.
Suffice it to say, for now we leave this topic to the prayers,
to our sending hymn which begs the Holy Spirit to
“rouse us from content with evil”,
and to the rite of confession with which we began our worship service, acknowledging “our sins known and unknown,
things we have done
and things we have failed to do.”
And now, after this introduction,
Perhaps brushing it aside too quickly in a cavalier, privileged way,
to my sermon topic of the Day:
Virtual Pentecost Communion.
Today is a special, somewhat historic day at St. Matthews,
as it’s the first time we are celebrating Holy Communion primarily
for and with you, our Golden Hour listeners.
The issue of virtual communion is not without controversy.
The Catholic Church for example is pretty clear that while priests can record or livestream their masses,
laypeople aren’t supposed to participate actively at home.
Anglicans are generally against it,
while Presbyterians have usually been fine with it.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has basically forbidden it,
but the ELCIC bishops tell us basically;
to do what we want to, but be nice and Canadian about it.
The question boils down to this: is virtual communion illegitimate?
Initially I’ve been slow to engage this whole topic
(mainly as I was so overwhelmed in March and April),
but as this state of emergency has been dragging on,
I’ve thought more about it, and my own personal longing for communion, and the importance I place on it.
So with backing from some good theologians I admire,
I decided to go ahead with it.
Thank you to our leadership for their support,
And especially to Pastor Carey,
who was really the one pushing this topic forward.
Theologian Deanna Thompson was one of the first to raise a convincing argument from a Lutheran Perspective for virtual communion during the pandemic.
Her initial realization was that “virtual connections were not simply poor substitutes for real interaction; they filled [her] soul at a time of despair”, when she was feeling very isolated during her bout with cancer a few years back.
She notes that the earliest documents of the church,
the letters of the New Testament, were written for community
and created community, even at a distance.
Even the early church in the first century was partially virtual.
Thompson writes passionately about how “Christ comes to us even when we gather virtually”, and this has resonated with me,
esp. in these past few weeks as our building has been closed and our activities have shifted to the internet and the telephone.
Christ is not just here in the building.
Christ is out there, sometimes even more so.
And Christ comes between believers and links us in our conversations,
so why not in a virtual communion?
Someone else who convinced me to examine virtual communion was theologian Allen Jorgenson (theology professor at Luther).
He reminds us that although communion is “not necessary for Lutherans for salvation”,
it is “one of the ways by which and through which Christ is embodied and proclaimed as God’s unconditional love for us”.
He echoes Thompson’s assertion that virtual community is real:
by offering the challenge to step away from the internet until the pandemic is over, and then see what one is missing.
By now, most of us would agree that our virtual connections formed over the past weeks, although paler than live ones,
are real, and meaningful.
By contrast the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recommends a fast from communion for the duration of the pandemic.
Fasting from Holy Communion is a good spiritual discipline, they claim.
They stress the Lutheran understanding that the Word is sufficient for the nourishment of faith,
and so this time of fasting from Communion is a time to refocus on the Word,
so that when we gather again and are able to partake,
we don’t take it for granted.
They note that our faith is not in danger if we fast from Communion,
and remind us that the Word comes to us through the reading of Scripture, proclamation of the Gospel, the liturgy and hymns,
and Confession and Forgiveness.
And our Services of the Word here at the Golden Hour in the last
2 and a half months have been focussing on the Word in these ways.
So now that we’ve heard from the experts,
What do you think?
What do you think about virtual community?
Do you think that the community we experience through the Radio on the Golden Hour is legitimate enough to consider
that it is an assembly where Christ will be present in, with and under the elements of Bread and Wine
when we attempt this in a few minutes?
What’s your experience of Zoom worship or the Golden Hour?
Is it real, is it fake,
or somewhere in between?
Have you experienced real connection, and felt gathered,
felt the presence of the 500 others who tune in to FaithFM?
Or the dozen gathered in the parking lot for the Drive-in Golden Hour?
If you say virtual community is not as real as physical community,
I won’t fully disagree, but I ask you to consider this:
Even when we are present physically in worship,
We still can be absent to one another,
and experience less than full community with each other.
For example: groups of people can be sitting in adjacent pews for years or decades and still don’t know each other’s names.
You can be sitting in a pew, and still not be fully present,
drifting off during the sermon, not letting the words of the hymns or prayers fully impact you,
or only going through the motions of the passing of the peace.
So just because you are physically present in worship,
doesn’t mean you are actually there, in mind, body and spirit.
It doesn’t mean that you are necessarily part of the gathered assembly.
Furthermore, like the ELCIC Bishops wrote,
I think there’s always the option to disagreeon this.
But we need to acknowledge that some parishioners really want it
and this is an opportunity to spiritually feed some who are desperate for it in times like these.
And plus, at once a month or two, it’s not too frequent to give offense.
Now what do I think?
For one, I believe Christ comes when we gather virtually.
For example, when I pray with people over the phone,
it’s not much different than when I pray with them in person.
I believe that Communion has the potential to nourish and heal,
And recognizing that we are now broken and hurting and tired,
Holy Communion is a hug from God, it’s “food for the journey”.
My experience with Zoom communion last week confirms for me that virtual communion is legitimate.
One way of looking at it
is to examine the case of the frail and the “shut-ins”,
Those who cannot come to church and who listen to the Golden Hour,
and who wait for pastors’ communion visits twice a year.
We still considered them active members,
because they contribute prayers, offerings,
or suggestions to the church community, and they read the newsletter.
Their lack of health is no barrier to them being part of the community. They are part of the virtual congregation (in normal times).
Yet now, just like the shut-ins,
all members cannot come to the building,
so we are truly in this together as a virtual assembly.
Another way of looking at things is to focus on a reading
which was appointed for today but wasn’t included.
From the book of Numbers, Chapter 11.
It tells the story of how 70 elders were chosen by Moses
to share the burden of leadership,
and the spirit got poured out over all of them and they prophecied.
However, 2 of the 70 were missing when this happened,
two men named Eldad and Medad weren’t there with the others.
They were in a different part of the camp.
However, the spirit also rested on them, and they were able to prophecy, even though they were not gathered with the others.
Joshua, a real stickler for protocol,
jealously complained to Moses:
“Eldad and Medad are not legitimate,
they weren’t gathered in the proper fashion,
they were only virtually present!”
But Moses, wise enough, said:
“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets,
and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”
Basically saying: the proof is in the pudding, Joshua,
the Spirit is not confined by space and time like you and me.
Widen your horizons.
Those not present are also part of the community.
Virtual Community is real!”
So this passage is perhaps a good pandemic reference for us.
The Holy Spirit is poured out on those even if they’re not present,
And if we hold this as true, we can say that communion
(mediated by the Holy Spirit) is also valid if we’re scattered all about.
As we celebrate this feast of Pentecost,
(which commemorates the birth of the church, not the building)
we can focus on how the Holy Spirit
is still moving and acting in our world,
challenging our preconceived ideas,
emboldening us to new forms of ministry,
even virtual communion on the radio.
The Spirit creates unity amidst separation, transcends boundaries,
and creates new community with her virtual gathering power.
She still assembles us to worship,
to gather virtually to hear God, to hear about God,
and to praise God in return.
If we embrace the Spirit and allow her in, we can do amazing things,
just like Peter, transformed from a Jesus-denier to a rousing preacher of the Gospel.
We can invite the Holy Spirit to fashion us anew, to mold us, lead, guide, and motivate us.
And rest assured that she will be comforting and sustaining us in Jesus’ absence and in our absence from our church building!
No matter if we participate in virtual Holy Communion or not,
we trust that though we are physically separated from our fellow parishioners at this time,
nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
And for this we say: thanks be to God. Amen.