Grace and peace to you this day.
We are in a time of quick change and upheaval. Plans that were made a week ago, even a day ago, are needing to be changed in so many areas of our lives. These quick changes are just as real for First Congregational.
Beloved Community, we are, for a time, a church without walls. But we are still a church. We are still a community of faithful surrounded by the love of the divine and following the teachings of Christ. As a church – we believe in God. And we trust in science. It is in that belief and in that trust that we will be living together, though physically distant, but spiritually close.
Gov. Walz has asked the state of Minnesota to stay at home for the next two weeks. This is done to slow the spread of the coronavirus which will allow our medical establishments time to prepare for the peak of the pandemic here in Minnesota. So, First Congregational Church of Winona, I am asking you to stay home, just as I will be staying home.
Worship this Sunday and next will be just me from my home. While the Governor’s order exempts clergy and religious workers, and I am grateful that our state recognizes that spiritual health is essential, I want us to model our deep care for our neighbor. So, for these next two Sunday’s worship will not be broadcast and recorded in our sanctuary. That means there will be no music, and I know and understand how fundamental that is to our community life. But the health of our community is far more important than our desire for music. I will still be leading worship with liturgy, scripture, sermon, and prayer. Sandy Todd, our organist, understands and supports this decision. After the two week stay at home order is over, Sandy and I will once again lead digital worship from our sanctuary so we can bring music back to your at-home worship.
Additionally, in an attempt to beat the online rush on Facebook Live, I will begin the service at 9:45am, 15 minutes early, on Sundays. That may work, and it may not. If the servers continue to be over-whelmed on Sunday mornings, we will simply let that go and just record the services and send them out to you. And, the worship service will always be recorded, so you can worship any time. But, know this, worship is a vital part of our community life and it will never stop.
First Congregational is also suspending for three weeks, beginning today, our Souper Thursday grab and go lunches. We are doing this knowing that a community wide effort is already in place to provide shelter and meals to the most food insecure in Winona. I am confident that the suspension of our meal efforts during the stay at home order will not put the health of anyone in our community at risk. Indeed, I believe it protects the health of our community.
We will not gather together for community in-person worship until we are told it is safe to do so by the Minnesota Department of Health, and not one day before.
Therefore you be wondering about Holy Week, which begins on April 5th, next Sunday. Yes, Holy Week and Easter Sunday will be dramatically different than anything we have experienced before. On Sunday April 5th we will have Holy Communion in our homes and I will be sending out liturgy in the coming week about how we can do that together, but distant. There will be a Good Friday evening service to hear the dramatic story of the crucifixion. And our Easter Sunday worship will be different, quieter and more reflective. But, don’t worry, because the Resurrection does not depend on us. The Resurrection is a promise that has already been fulfilled and will be fulfilled again.
It feels uncomfortable to suspend ministry in this way. Indeed, so much of our lives are in a place of discomfort right now. Beloved Community, that discomfort we are all feeling is grief. We are grieving the loss of so much of what had very recently ordered our days and our lives. We are grieving the loss of physical connection. We are grieving the loss of long-held plans. We are grieving the loss of routine. That grief is real. And that grief is normal. And God exists in the midst of that grief. In fact, God blesses that grief. And it is into God’s arms that we lean.
When we do finally gather again in person – what an extraordinary moment that will be. It will be big, grand, and sloppy with emotion.
I want to say two final things: first, I miss you. I miss being with you in person. This is hard for me too. I am grieving alongside you. I miss sitting in my office at the church and all of the sudden hear people chatting in the Fireside room because they had stopped by. I miss working on a puzzle on Tuesdays with that Bible study group before we settle into our discussion. I miss the bustle, good smells, chatter, and high spirit of Souper Thursdays. I miss getting to church on Sunday mornings, never ever being the first one there, and seeing the coffee is already brewing and people are already visiting in the kitchen. I miss, desperately, looking out into the sanctuary from my pulpit and seeing your faces. I miss you, so very much.
And finally, and most importantly, I want to say thank you. You have all awed me with your grace, acceptance of change, willingness to try new things, and tremendous support of me. Indeed, my deep thanks cannot be adequately expressed. It simply overwhelms me. You are an extraordinary community of people and during this time of being church without walls, I have felt your spirit and your love for me and for one another. Thank you.
May God bless you this day, this night, and all of your days to come.