Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany.
On the second day the heads of ancestral houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to the scribe Ezra in order to study the words of the law. And they found it written in the law, which the Lord had commanded by Moses, that the people of Israel should live in booths during the festival of the seventh month, and that they should publish and proclaim in all their towns and in Jerusalem as follows, “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” So the people went out and brought them, and made booths for themselves, each on the roofs of their houses, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them; for from the days of Jeshua son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing.
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles.
There was a bit of a tempest in a teapot among my clergy colleagues this week.
Last Sunday, the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest and author of two books on sacred practice, published an editorial in the New York Times arguing that churches should drop their online offerings. Church is an embodied experience, she argued. The only way to truly worship is together, she wrote, is with other people.
The internet—or at least the corners of it I frequent—exploded.
Rev. Warren is by far not the only person to be making that argument. Pastors and congregation members have been arguing with each other since—well—March of 2020 about whether online worship is worship, or whether communion can consist of coffee and pastries, whether folks worshipping from their couches are still really part of the congregation, and if not can we prod them back in, either with strong theological arguments or with a healthy heaping of church guilt?
As with any argument, some of these fights have gotten a bit extreme—anybody who worships online is lazy, anybody who doesn’t worship online wants people to die—but at their core is a real, genuine, honest question: what does it mean to be drawn together as the people of God?
A few of my clergy colleagues agreed with Rev. Warren that online worship is no worship at all, but the vast majority were indignant. Part of that, I am sure, is that being told that something we worked our hinies off to institute is worthless is bound to rankle some feathers. But I was moved by the outpouring of stories from my colleagues about how God has been at work through online worship. People who have been barred from worship for years, because of health or distance or their work schedule, feel they belong again. Ex-Christians burned by the church and never-Christians afraid of sticking out have found a safe way to test the waters of worship. New parents, instead of dropping out of church to manage infant sleep schedules (or lack thereof) have found new rhythms. Families who live across the country get to worship together again.
I have my own stories, about how our online worship has borne fruit—of connection, of relationship, of generosity, of praise. Five years ago, a session member suggested streaming our services, and I said no, because—get this—I hate the sound of my voice when it’s played back. What a selfish, self-important reason to deny worship to people who cannot make it to 710 Western Reserve! Looking back, I cringe at how lightly I brushed off decision. I am not grateful to the pandemic for much, but I am grateful that even while it closed our red doors, it opened many others.
Rev. Warren’s argument—and that of many others who agree with her—is that we have to be together to worship. And I understand where she is coming from. The two words in scripture used for the people who worship are collective nouns—in Hebrew, qahal, the assembly. In Greek, ekklesia, those called out to be together. While there are plenty of moments of private prayer in the Bible, worship—worship—as a distinct, immersive experience—is done together.
But what does it mean to be together?
Our first scripture today is one of my favorites in the whole Bible—because it’s the tale of the day stories became scripture. The book of Nehemiah takes place as the exiles are returning to Jerusalem. Before the exile, the Israelites certainly had important stories, important writings—the Torah, the Shema, the Psalms, the histories—but they were not a cohesive whole, not scripture, not a Bible.
When they were deported and scattered into exile, something changed.
They could no longer go to the Temple of Jerusalem, which had been the center of their worship. It was ash and rubble, and miles and miles and miles away. So the question became: what does it mean to be drawn together as the people of God?
In exile, scattered, separated, it was the writings that saw them through. The books that would eventually become scripture took the place of the temple. They gathered around the word, in tiny groups, even single households. They held fast to their faith—and their community—not by gathering in a single place, but by gathering around a single Word.
And when they came back, back to Jerusalem, they still gathered around the Word. And they were overjoyed to do so—overjoyed enough to build a little tent city, and study scripture together for a full week.
The temple would be rebuilt, and destroyed again, and rebuilt again, but the Jewish people—they would henceforth be people of the Book. Wherever they were scattered—from Rome to Russia to Argentina to Cincinnati—it was the scripture that unified them. That drew them together into one people.
When Christians came along, our Jewish roots had already given us an appreciation for writings, for scripture, for the way we could be together even when we were scattered apart.
I love this image of the Apostle Paul from the St. John’s Bible. If you can see in the background, he stands surrounded by city buildings from every historical era, some of them fully painted, some rendered as only architectural sketches. To his right are white buildings from the Mediterranean; to his left a block of apartments from New York’s Fifth Avenue. The Bible speaks to us in every generation.
Paul’s letters reveal a man of faith who lived very much in the real world—he had concerns about making a living and fundraising, about social class and exploitation, about clashing cultures and healing divides, and about what it meant to be drawn together to worship.
“I am longing to see you,” he writes in the letter to the Romans. I meant to come. I want to be there. But I can’t. So for now, this letter is the mark of my presence. This letter carries my spiritual gifts, and my encouragement, and my faith. This letter is how I will work along side you.
Paul’s letters were the first-century version of online worship. He had never even met the church at Rome, yet, through connections in the community, and through the authenticity of his own writing, he already felt part of them.
If Paul had not written his letters—to Rome and Corinth and Ephesus and beyond—we would not have nearly half of the New Testament. Much of our scripture exists—exists—because the first Christians found a way to be together without traveling to the same place.
In his hands, Paul holds a sketched out line drawing of a church—St. Peter’s basilica, actually, but my point here is how fragile, how tentative, how unfinished it looks. Paul planted churches, but he had no idea how they would turn out. He strode forward into a brave new world—Christ’s brave new world—without knowing exactly how things would play out.
We’re in a similar season right now. The church that used to seem as solid and complete as brick walls now looks like an architect’s sketch again, able to change and flex again to meet new needs. I don’t always like that. I understand Rev. Warren’s desire to go back to the way we’ve always done it, to fill in that sketch with the details that make us most comfortable, paint it solid again. But, like Paul, we are holding only the beginnings of a church in our hand, building, this time, not with stone or brick or glass but with pixels and prayer.
It’s not our Wifi or our Mevo or even our livestream tech (sorry, honey) that truly makes online worship worship. Those are the tools. What makes us able to worship from wherever we are is that we are drawn together, in heart and mind and spirit, and yes, even body, into a single purpose and a single passion: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.
So for those of you worshipping online—whether you are sick or cautious or iced in or tired or far away or whether this is just a season for it—I want you to know that you are a part of us. When we are drawn together, I want you to be drawn in too. I want all of us to gather around the same songs, the same prayers, the same energy, the same Word. I want us all to see each other, serving our same God. I want our spirit-led togetherness to be a hallmark of this congregation, a value we cherish.
In writing this sermon, I found myself astonished that I have found yet another reason to fall in love with this book—this ancient, fresh, change-worn Bible.
When our immune systems are different, and our physical locations, and even our time zones, this Book? This Book lets us all worship on the same page. 😉
What a gift.