Last Sunday was our periodic break from screens and worship on Zoom. I hope you were able to get outside to enjoy creation or family, or whatever helps you feel connected to the Holy.
At our house it was a Sunday of biblical proportions. We spent hours clipping and chopping and sawing at two giant forsythia bushes. Now we can see our neighbors across the fence. Then, just like Jesus says here in John, those “rejected branches, were picked up and thrown onto the fire and burned.” (Well, some of them were burned, the rest were bagged up as yard waste.) Most of the branches weren’t really withered as this passage from John says. It’s just that there were too many of them. They needed to be thinned out, the old wood chopped away so the new shoots could grow and – I better just stop there with this metaphor and forsythia.
We are now well over a year into this worship apart, together on Zoom. That we would stop our worship altogether didn’t cross my mind. And yet it continues to astound me how our work and worship have a new flow, almost a new normal, even though it can still sometimes feel pretty solitary. The viral pandemics of Covid 19 and white supremacy have given our worship and work new focus. And it helps that we have technology and creativity and resources galore in this congregation.
It has been beautiful to discover that even as we are apart, we are still connected to each other. (Those years not so long ago when we had “connection” as a congregational theme for the year were very prescient.) We have discovered in new ways how much we need each other – and the Divine. Vine and branches.
Jake recently gave me a book, Transforming Eucharist: Reimagining communion in a contactless world. In this series of essays from a number of different Christian traditions, the writers all try to understand what communion means when you can’t be together. Is it even possible, to call it eucharist or experience the sacrament if the congregation isn’t gathered as a body in person, if the priest cannot dispense the bread and cup, body and blood?
The writers describe how, for congregations that have the communion liturgy at the center of their life together, this year of separation has felt not only like they have been pruned within an inch of their lives, it has been like starvation. What feeds them, what connects them, receiving the bread from the hands of the priest, sharing a common cup, are suddenly dangerous, possibly deadly. (Remember how one of the first people diagnosed with covid-19 in the DC area was an Episcopal priest in Georgetown?)
It is probably hard for us to fully understand what this emptiness is like for those who have a sacramental theology. Some of the writers describe members of their congregations as bereft. Without the sacrament of communion – their connection to the Divine – they are adrift, unanchored.
I doubt that those of us in “low church” or “free church” or however you want to describe Mennonites, have worried about this particular starvation. We only have communion about 5 times a year here at HMC and every once in a while I have to be reminded to get it on the schedule. That is not to say that we haven’t felt gaps in our connections to the divine. Singing and fellowship meals may not sound all that holy to high church people but they are part of the way we connect with God and with each other. Singing and shared meals are part of the gathered communion that the “low church” misses in a “contactless world.”
We are a congregation that leans toward the concrete in terms of the ways we live out our faith, not sacramentally like high church, but throughout the week. These texts from John and I John put their fingers on the faith scale and remind us that connections are not just physical they are also spiritual. While showing love in person is fulfilling, it is not absolutely necessary. After all, we say that we love God, that we have not seen. One of the learnings from this past year is that though we are embodied beings, created to show love physically, there are ways to show love when we are not in the same physical space.
It can be hard to truly appreciate this spiritual possibility for love when at the center of our faith is the incarnate, embodied Christ, offering his body in love, healing and restoring the bodies of others. As humans creatures, we need touch. At the very least, most of us are accustomed to the physical presence of other bodies, well, we used to be. But in this year of pandemics, we have had to learn new ways to be present, to show love.
Some of us have practiced love by going deeper internally through silence, through exercise, through morning prayer together on Zoom.
Some of us have practiced love by our involvement in outreach, service and justice work. (Thank you Lisa for keeping that in front of us.) That practice of love can look like preparing food for people outside our households but not being able to serve it to them. Or sending money to Congregation Action Network to help immigrants who need assistance with rent and food. Our love looks like donations to Life After Release to help women returning from prison remake their lives. We have been invited to join our dollars with others to bail out women for Mother’s Day so that moms can be with their kids, in the flesh, not just spiritually.
Our work to be anti-racist takes many forms.
We now have four people “court watching” on the phone, keeping courts accountable. We are supporting Liliana and Ana Isabela as they seek asylum. We are on zoom, so much zoom, for organizing, for support, for education. Some have even ventured to rallies and public events.
This list is inevitably partial and it is all love. And it has not been easy for any of us. Most days it seems like pure miracle that we are finding ways to bring light where the shadows loom large. It is a marvel that we continue to find ways to be love to each other and the world.
Let’s be real – It helps that we are starting to be out in the world again, seeing each other, feeling wind on our faces. I am not sure I would have had the nerve to talk like this last year, when we were just trying to make it another day, not knowing how long this separation would last. The negativity and fear and violence in the air was so thick, it was exhausting. It could be hard to conjure love.
But we take the dare because the wonder of love is that when we live out love, we are not alone. It has been moving to hear from a few of you that you have new appreciation for and understanding of your service, outreach, and justice work as an extension of this congregation. Vine and branches.
In these months of separation, the work of love may feel lonely but done in the name of this congregation, as a representative of the congregation, as a branch connected to the vine, there is meaning. There is meaning in being connected to something larger, branches attached to this strong vine of Christ’s body. Our energy can be renewed and nourished by the Vine that is larger than ourselves, that is larger even than this congregation.
It might be hard to know if the service or justice we do is really the work of the congregation. “It’s just what I want to do, what I feel called to do. It’s what is needed in my neighborhood. And I certainly don’t want to toot my own horn. I don’t want to appear proud of my sacrifice.”
I am here to tell you – if you are showing Christ’s love in the community, in your neighborhood, you are a branch bearing fruit. If you are deepening your prayer life, you are a branch bearing fruit. You have the blessing of this gathered body. We want to support you with our own love and prayers.
How are you living out love and connection?
Maybe it feels really small, inconsequential even. Or perhaps you are part of sharing love in ways that impact not just locally but also the larger community and creation? Feel free to let us know in the chat or in the conversation afterward, what living out love looks like on your branch, connected to the vine – whether you are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed or in another watershed far away, whether the fruit is just budding or is nearly ripe. Living out love and bearing fruit connects us to each other through the vine. We want to celebrate that and support each other in living out love.
As we continue to worship together/apart, in this time that can feel like brutal pruning, let’s pray that the vine grows ever stronger, that the branches show new growth and that new fruit continues to form and ripen. May love lead us.