A Virtual Mission Trip
King of Kings Lutheran Church in Woodbury didn't let a pandemic stop their members from experiencing t[...]
As we prepare for Holy Week and Easter in this year of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been remembering other Easters. I recall the first time I stayed through the Tre Ore mid-day service on Good Friday as a teenager, the surprising liturgical richness to which I was introduced in seminary, the first Easter Vigil I attended, and remarkable sunrise Easter services, hosted by a neighboring congregation at daybreak, on the eastern shore of Lake Huron. I remember great family reunions, the year my father was dying of cancer and the year when my mother did die from a heart attack on Low Sunday. The best memories and the hardest ones are all woven together.
We will remember this Easter 2020 as the year we were not able to gather in person for worship; the year we cobbled together creative ways to reach out to family and friends while keeping a safe and required distance during a stay-at-home order. This year – along with all the Holy Week and Easter memories we have collected – will be one in which the good news of God, who raised Christ Jesus from the dead, will be at the heart of the "Alleluias" we proclaim and the words of joy and hope we share with others.
As the bishop of the Saint Paul Area Synod, I have been asked what I recommend that congregations do for Holy Week and Easter. My first recommendation is that we abide fully with the stay-at-home order issued by Governor Walz. While the letter of the law allows a small number of persons to go to a church building to record or livestream a worship service, is this a risk we really need to take? And if so, what is the smallest size crew that can record the most basic service? Holy Week and Easter 2020 do not need to replicate the magnificent, well-choreographed services of previous years. We know this year is unique and that we each have a role to play to slow down the spread of COVID-19 infections. Our Jewish and Muslim neighbors are following this same protocol, absenting themselves from in-person gatherings until it is safe to be together even though both traditions have cherished practices and festivals that are now interrupted.
I will worship during Holy Week and on Easter morning from my house. Though it is tempting to imagine there could be some kind of safe drive-in service, please stay home. Honestly, we will need to do so for the coming weeks until the governor tells us we may congregate again. That may include all of April and even May. This staying apart is not forever but for a season. It is how we protect our own health, as well as the health of our communities.
I have been asked what I recommend congregations do to receive Holy Communion during these coming weeks without in-person gatherings. My recommendation is that we refrain from sharing this sacrament until it is safe for us to gather in-person.
I know there has been much discussion online of ways in which Holy Communion might be shared through a gathering hosted on social media, by drive-by, pick up of the consecrated elements, or through a family-led service at home. I have prayed about and studied each of these options. And still, I do not recommend any of them at the present time.
At the heart of our evangelical faith as Lutherans is the surprising discovery of the God of grace, who comes to us in Jesus Christ and the power of the Gospel to bring new life to us and to our world. That Gospel comes to us through the Word of scripture, the Word proclaimed in preaching and personal testimony, the comfort and consolation one Christian speaks to another, the daily remembrance of our Baptism, and in life-giving acts of service. Yes, the Gospel comes through both the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion but in an extraordinary season without Holy Communion the power of our gracious God still abounds even if we are not able to receive communion.
Many have been turning to Luther for a rationale to commend an alternative form of Holy Communion. Martin Luther wrote for nearly 30 years in the midst of an unfolding, ecclesiastical reformation and over that period Luther wrote many things about Holy Communion, depending on the argument at hand.
Early in the reformation era, Luther was responsible for preaching at the city church in Wittenberg. In 1521, while he was sequestered in the Wartburg Castle (a form of social distancing), he was deeply concerned about his congregation back in Wittenberg. He worried that they were not hearing the life-giving Word of God. He fretted that those in charge of innovation in communion practice were moving at a pace that was hurting the congregation. You may know that in December of that year Luther snuck back to Wittenberg in disguise to see for himself how the congregation was faring. Luther, the pastor, went slowly when it came to liturgical innovation. Perhaps I am a bit like Luther myself.
Some of you may wonder why I would recommend that we all set aside a faith practice that means so much to many worshippers. In 1539 Luther wrote an essay in which he outlined the marks of the church.1 He made a bold move to include suffering alongside the other formal activities that distinguish the church from other institutions. This is not only suffering within the community of faith but suffering embraced for the sake of the world. Even as those who are healthy stay-at-home for a time, we, who have access to online resources which are not available to everyone in our congregations nor commonplace globally for Christians, can forego a sacramental practice for this time in which we are not able to gather in person.
Two other things have been on my mind as I have studied and prayed about what to recommend to you about Holy Communion during this pandemic season. The first is the deep ties we have as a global partner with churches in Tanzania and in Guatemala. I have been in communication with both Bishop Blastone Gaville of the Iringa Diocese and Pastor Karen Castillo, president of the Iglesia Luterana Agustina de Guatemala. Their prayers for us in America are fervent and deep. COVID-19 cases are present in both countries. In neither context is there any plan for sharing Holy Communion except when people can gather safely in person. Our waiting is a sign of solidarity with our global partners and with the many member church bodies of the Lutheran World Federation.
I am also keenly aware of the ways in which the witness of the Lutheran Church in our generation is an ecumenical witness. I cannot recommend a new understanding of Holy Communion for an online world that does not come out of dialogue and conversation with our full communion partner churches and with Roman Catholic dialogue partners. It will be important to have theological dialogue with one another about new understandings of virtual community and implications for church life but the rapid onset of the pandemic has not allowed time to do so.
As this synod’s pastor, a colleague to the pastors and deacons of this synod, and a bishop, I know that not every congregation will follow my recommendations. A few pastors have already been in conversation with me and asked what I plan to do about those who do not follow my recommendations. Friends, I long for the day when we can gather in person for a rich and clarifying discussion of Holy Communion. I am interested not only in the steps that congregations took or refrained from taking during this pandemic season but in a discussion about our understanding of the power of the Word and the sacrament of Holy Communion and the implications of that understanding for our life together. God willing, we will be able to have such face-to-face discussions sometime this summer.
In the New Testament, my favorite Easter story is found in John 20:11-18. Mary Magdalene is alone in the garden outside the tomb. She is beside herself with sorrow and grief. Jesus comes to her but she mistakes him for the gardener. When he calls her by name, she recognizes that it is Jesus. And then this happens: “She turned and said to him in Hebrew, Rabbouni! (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me …“ In Greek what Jesus says is “do not touch me.” (v. 17) He sends Mary Magdalene off to tell the others that Jesus is going to their God. She becomes the first witness to the resurrection, proclaiming “I have seen the Lord”. (20:18)
Knowing that there was physical distancing that first Easter as the Risen Christ first revealed himself can cheer us this Easter. Please find ways to mark the day. Do join in worship with others. Put on your best Easter clothes. Pick up the phone and call friends and neighbors and tell them that Christ is risen. Listen to the great music that will be streaming online and on the radio. Share stories of the Easters you remember. Find a concrete way to give help to someone, who is homeless, hungry, or more anxious than yourself. As Wendell Berry instructs in his famous poem – “practice resurrection.”
In Christ – risen and present among us,
Bishop Patricia Lull