I opened the door to the church fridge to retrieve the leftovers I had grabbed for my lunch that day. They were in a sour cream container that was too useful for me to throw away. As I reached for it I scanned what else was in this community cooler. There wasn’t much. At some point each summer I take it upon myself to pitch whatever food items have been left in our basement kitchen from earlier potlucks or coffee hours. It’s funny what people leave behind, as if those of us on the staff scrounge for food in fits of hunger. I remember a plate of jello with whipped topping that sat there for weeks after a funeral luncheon. (My kids always helped out when there was leftover funeral cake however!) During this August lunch hour, I looked to see what needed to be pitched. Not much. We’ve been out of the building since March 15. No worship. No classes. No pastoral care appointments. No on-site board meetings. I found a stick of butter that was unfit to be smeared on toast. There was a half-empty jar of salsa in the back of the top shelf that I dumped. I discovered a couple of two-liters of fizz-less pop that I poured down the drain and an opened bag of corn chips. In the freezer there was a half-used plastic carton of orange sherbet. I’m sure it was used to top a bowl of punch served at one of our coffee hours. It’s stunning that folks willingly take on the responsibility of providing refreshments for hungry parishioners whose minds start drifting to the treat table during the singing of the last hymn. I opened the lid and the sherbet was gummy. When I scooped it into the industrial sink in the church basement, it sat unnaturally glued together. I hope whoever left it there wasn’t planning on using it months later! I did leave an opened bag of Pecan Sandies in the freezer, thinking someone might come back for that when a COVID vaccination makes us all feel safe. There’s also a big bag of broccoli in the freezer that must be part of a planned supper for our guests when we get back into housing homeless families in our church post-quarantine.
The broccoli and pecan sandies remain. But the orange sherbet and various other odd items abandoned in a communal kitchen are gone. Time to move on. There will be no food occasions in our church in the near future.
Remember when we gathered around a long table in the church parlor to eat cookies and drink decaf coffee? No masks. No tongs. No individually wrapped snacks. Can you recall walking forward during communion to pull a piece of bread off the communal loaf, sharing in the Body of Christ together? Remember when we hugged a friend in the sanctuary after worship because some part of the service set off memories of a difficult loss? Remember baked potato bar luncheons when the donation basket overflowed to support an out-of-state youth mission trip? Packed in vans our teens traveled to some small town where their lives would overlap in transformative ways with residents there. Busy youth parents donated desserts for the fundraiser luncheon, adding one more thing to their endless to-do list. Any kid raised in the church knows the joy of unlimited access to the dessert table. Parents are too busy chatting with friends to notice that you’ve devoured two cookies and three pieces of cake. Grubby hands reach for food they can barely see from their lowly vantage point. But they’ve learned that anything they get will be good.
There will be no “food ministries” in our foreseeable future. If we can’t get closer than six feet from each other, we certainly can’t help ourselves to the same plate of cookies. My Tuesday morning Bible Study class is on indefinite hiatus as we keep ourselves safely apart. On the first Tuesday of the month a couple of class members brought treats to celebrate the birthdays of those who were born in that month. It was an excuse to party before cracking open our Bibles. The average age in that class is over seventy so a couple dozen individuals will have to commit to homeschooled Bible lessons. Will we ever all be together in the church basement again, leaving strange leftover items in our community cooler?
We are planning to reconvene in our sanctuary for worship on August 23. Of course, anything could change between now and then. In these past few months we’ve learned the painful lesson countless times that we cannot plan ahead. Just ask any couple whose wedding was scheduled for Spring, 2020! Against this new backdrop of uncertainty, we have readied our sanctuary to receive the faithful. They will be invited to sit in spaces designated by strips of painter’s tape on the back of our wooden pews. Masks will be part of our Sunday Best in the months ahead. Parishioners will follow traffic patterns taped onto the carpet. Doing all things in an orderly fashion, at a distance from each other, will presumably keep us safe. But many will not come back. I am curious to witness how many folks will stand for the temperature check at the door (100.4 degrees or lower). Who will tolerate the discomfort of donning a mask in worship and leaving distance between themselves and their beloved friend with whom they used to share a pew? For now we will not sing together, a cherished part of each service. The choir director and I will remain removed from our people in the front of the church. I am presently looking for the perfect plastic shield that keeps any exclamatory spray to myself. We have self-contained communion elements ready to put out on the first Sundays of the month so that no one has to take bread or juice from somebody else’s hands. Will we ever pull a piece of fresh bread off from the loaf again, trusting that the hands that have done that before us are clean?
“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure heart…They will receive blessing from the Lord…”
What have I missed? The fact that children will stay in the pews with their parents instead of being dismissed midway through the service for Sunday School classes. Babies and toddlers will stay in the sanctuary rather than play with a capable nursery attendant whose job is on hold due to the virus. A woodworker in our congregation is crafting an offering box on a pedestal into which the faithful can deposit their tithes so that we don’t have to pass plates…and germs.
Oh yeah. No coffee hour at the end of the service. Folks will process out the red doors of our 145 year old sanctuary at the end of the service. In an orderly manner they will make their way to their cars. Outside they can have their own virtual coffee hour by “tailgating” with the faith community. We will not break bread or cookies together for awhile. We will not float scoops of orange sherbet in a lovingly prepared punch so that children head home wearing an orange mustache. No leftovers will accumulate in our refrigerator. No treats will be left for the Tuesday morning Bible Study class. For now the kitchen is closed, the lower level is roped off and the classrooms sit empty.
So why bother? A lot of us have become accustomed to worship in our pajamas with a good cup of coffee in hand. Why take a risk when the sermon can be heard while driving to the cottage?
We take a shower and leave the comfort of home because we have met Jesus when we have been together for worship. We have discovered during the quarantine that the Church is a gathering of the faithful and we miss each other terribly. We have felt the presence of the Spirit when we lift up our prayers together. In the sacrament of communion we have heard the answer to our fervent prayers. As the light danced through the stained glass windows, we knew that we were going to be alright. We can remember the moment when the words of the scripture lesson redirected our path. In a time of loss it was the words to familiar hymns that gave us the greatest comfort.
Each congregation will decide when to reopen their building and how to prepare for the return of their membership. Each disciple will carefully decide when they are able to rejoin their church family in person, even if at a distance. There is risk. There will continue to be risk. Whatever assumptions we had that we would slip back into a familiar style of worship after a couple months of quarantine have been dispelled. So, like generations of believers before us, we must let go of what no longer works and allow the Spirit to lead us in new paths. Fortunately, we know that the form of our worship is not what makes it real. Citrus punch with sherbet melting on the surface is not required for a good Sabbath. It’s the blessed encounter with the One who seeks us out whether we are watching worship with our pillow propping us up or sitting in a marked pew with our mask firmly in place. We have learned a few things in this pandemic. One of them is that nothing can separate us from the love of God!