The New Normal

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I am standing at the pulpit in an empty sanctuary. There were no palms last Sunday. There are no quick changes of the paraments for Holy Week. There will be no Easter lilies, for which my asthma rejoices just a little. I miss all of it. And I miss all of you. Not having been able to put something on the smoker for the Lenten Study group. Not having been able to share together in the power of the Palm and Passion Narrative. Not getting to hear Elaine play The Holy City. Not being able to share Holy Communion together on Maundy Thursday (even though we were not doing that this year anyway) or Easter Sunday morning. Not sharing together in the powerful Good Friday Service. Not having breakfast together on Easter. It all makes me want to scream, “Easter is ruined!” And then – God brought to mind a message I preached during Advent. Does that happen to you? You are struggling with something in life and suddenly you remember a teaching or a passage from God’s Word pops into your head. This message that I preached back in December popped into my head. It was titled The Ghost of Christmas Perfect and spoke to letting go of our ideas of what a perfect Christmas looked like and embracing joy instead. I preached that joy is rooted in our relationship with God and nourished by contentment – I cheated and looked up my notes so that I could get that right. I want to shout – Easter is ruined! But I know that isn’t true. Eater is not ruined. Our not gathering to have a nail pressed into our palm does not negate the sacrifice that Jesus made. I know that many of you have saved nails from past Good Friday services. If you have one, clutch it as you go through the Daily Office on Friday. If you don’t have one, please let me know and I will do what I can to get you one. Our not gathering at the crack of dawn to hear the proclamation of the Resurrection does not negate Christ’s victory. Our not having breakfast together does not negate the new life we find individually and together in Christ. Our not experiencing the pageantry and beauty of the Easter Celebration does not negate the power of the Resurrection message. Christ is risen! It will still be true! It is just that things are different this year. They are not the same, not normal at all. This is true of all areas of life. Everything has changed. Work, school, grocery shopping, accessing health care or car care. It has all changed. Nothing is normal. I had said that the only place that was “business as usual” was the Sonic Drive-In, because they never had dine-in service. But even Sonic has changed. They have a few tables sitting out under the canopy and have turned them over so that people don’t get out of their cars and sit there. Life is not normal. It is a new normal. It will be a temporary new normal, but it is not the same as what we have been doing. When we come out the other side of this, many things will return to what we knew before. Other things will have permanently changed. For now, it is all different. And I believe that the individuals, groups and organizations that are embracing that truth and finding their best new normal are thriving (remember that thriving instead of merely surviving is what God desires for us). Life is different. It’s ok. Embracing change and a new normal does not mean that we cannot return to many, most or even all, of the ways we functioned before. Instead of kicking against the goads and trying to keep everything as normal as possible, and failing miserably because they can’t be, let’s find joy in our new normal. And what is true in all other areas of our lives, is true for our spiritual and church life as well. We cannot replicate what we have in worship during normal times. So, for now, we embrace a completely different way of being the church and being in God’s presence. We didn’t have palms; we won’t have nails and we won’t have lilies. We won’t even have breakfast, but we can have joy! Because, Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. I want to tell you about three people who embraced joy in the midst of not normal. Two of them are from the Bible. A third is from history. They each have something to tell us about joy in the midst of not normal. We don’t know a lot about the early church. We pick up some information in the book of Acts. We know some things and can guess at some others as we read the letters of Paul. One of the things we do know is that getting together was very much a part of the fabric of their lives. In Acts 2:44 we read: Acts 2:44 - 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. Just a couple of verses later it tells us: Acts 2:46-47 - 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. We learn from one of Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth that there were some problems when they were together, but it is clear that gathering together was a significant part of what it meant for them to be the church. Later on, in the Book Hebrews we are told to not neglect meeting together. As I have taught before, the bulk of the New Testament was written to churches, not individuals, and that our relationship with God is not a solo journey, but a life lived in companionship with God’s people. I think it must have been as hard for any first-century Christian to not be able to gather with fellow believers as it is for us. I think that must have been especially true for the Apostle Paul. The mission that God gave him was to start churches. After Christ got his attention on the road to Damascus, Paul spent his life telling people about his Savior and gathering them into churches. “Together” is a word that appears frequently in his writings. As he came toward the end of his life, Paul continued to be together, but it was not with the church. He was together with the guards in prison. He was separated from the body of believers. He was unable to pray with them, to sing with them, to teach them, to fellowship with them. It should have been depressing. Paul should have kicked against this “not normal” time. Instead, he continued to communicate the Gospel, writing instead of talking, sending letters instead of visiting in person. His letter to the church at Philippi, written while he was in prison is filled with words like – thank, joy, contentment. He says, “I yearn for you all.” But he also says, “What has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.” Paul could very easily have said, “I cannot do what I normally do. The Gospel is ruined!” Instead he said, “This is my new normal. Look at what amazing things Christ is doing.” The other Biblical individual I would mention is John. I believe that the book of Revelations was written by the same John who gave us the gospel and the three letters. This John was one of the twelve disciples and was one of the inner three. He was an active part of the church in Jerusalem. He knew how important life in community was. And then we find him on the Isle of Patmos. He had apparently been exiled to that chunk of rock as punishment for his preaching. As with Paul, what seems right is that he would be complaining and resisting. He could very easily have said along with Paul, “I cannot do what I normally do. The Gospel is ruined!” I want you to look at one verse with me. After the standard introduction in the first several verses of chapter one, John introduces the rest of what is going to be written with a simple phrase in verse 10: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” He was not able to be in church. He was not able to gather with fellow believers for prayer, singing, teaching and fellowship. But that did not stop him from being in the Spirit. That phrase can best be understood to mean that John was in worship. He was giving his attention and focus to God. The special revelation that follows is clearly not what we should expect to take place when we are in worship, either privately or corporately. God had a message for the church through the ages and by the Holy Spirit sent that message through John. The point is that both Paul and John embraced their new normal rather than crying, “The Gospel is ruined! Easter is ruined!” Let me give you one more example. This one is outside of the Biblical record. I don’t have the space to tell you the whole history, but here is the condensed version. Dietrich Bonhoffer began life and ministry in a very normal way. He studied in a traditional university and seminary setting. He pastored and taught in traditional churches and seminaries. In 1935 all of that began to change. Bonhoffer, who was German, resisted Nazism and all that Hitler stood for. As a result, he was removed from his pulpit and seminary post. Ultimately, he traveled in secret from town to town to teach young pastors in an underground and quite unconventional seminary. He was arrested in 1943 and was executed a week after Easter in 1945. Bonhoffer could have said, “My life is ruined! The Gospel is ruined! Easter is ruined!” The Germans are very good at developing methods and processes and meticulously sticking to them. All of that, everything that he had known about seminary life and about parish life was taken away from him. All that Bonhoffer had known about what to do and how to do it was gone. And yet he decided that this was his new normal. For his scattered seminary students, he wrote a book called Life Together. He reminded them and us of the unity that we have in Christ. He ministered to fellow inmates at the prison and later concentration camp before he was executed. He showed us, like the Apostle Paul and the Apostle John, that the Gospel is not ruined. Easter is not ruined. It is just different. Here’s the challenge for us. Life is not normal right now. Church is not normal right now. Easter will not be normal this year. I believe that asking ourselves how we can make it as close to normal as possible is asking the wrong question. I think that the better question is, how can we take advantage of this new normal? My encouragement is to draw yourself and whatever your stay-at-home situation looks like into a deeper relationship with God. Take advantage of the emptier calendar to turn your focus to God in prayer and Bible. Use this time to develop new spiritual disciplines. Use this time to find new or, perhaps, old (anyone remember how to write a letter) means of communicating with other members of your church family. How many members of the congregation, those individuals you desperately need to talk to and hug every Sunday morning, have you reached out to this week? Text, email, call, Facetime, video chat, etc. with them. Drop a card or letter in the mail to them. I don’t know how long this will go on. But let’s take advantage of this new normal while we have it. When I have talked to parishioners who were experiencing extended hospital stays, I have begun to invite them to reframe their hospital stay. Usually when we are sick and, in the hospital, we are only thinking about one thing, when will I be well enough to get out of here? I have invited folks to ask an additional question, how can I be a blessing to others while I am here? We will keep asking the question, when will this be over? But I think an additional question to ask is, what can God do in me and through me during this time? Easter is not ruined! Christ is still risen! Our celebration of that is completely different this year. And maybe, like Paul, like John, like Dietrich, that’s going to be ok.
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