Breaking Our Fast from the Lord’s Supper: Sharing Communion from Home [Message from 4/17/20]

 

One of the hardest things about our suspension of in-person gatherings since mid-March has been the related hiatus on celebrating Holy Communion together. Numerous bishops and teaching theologians of the ELCA counseled early on that we keep a “fast” from the sacrament, a practice not unknown to church tradition during the season of Lent, especially for those preparing to be baptized and those “penitents” longing to be restored to fellowship in the church.

 

This we have done at Grace. We have not introduced adaptations during #SaferAtHome that could potentially transmit the virus, like drive-up Communion or Communion in small groups; nor have I had us rush headlong into the uncharted waters of online Communion without due prayer and study. We have fasted. In fact, by the time you are reading this it will have been almost exactly forty days since the last time the sacrament was shared at Grace. (As many have noted, the word “quarantine” literally means “forty days.”)

 

Are not God’s people getting famished by now in the wilderness of Covid?

 

On Sunday, April 26th, the 3rd Sunday of Easter, we will hear an account of how the resurrected Jesus “made himself known in the breaking of bread” with two disciples in a home in the village of Emmaus (Luke 24:28-35). Their altar was their kitchen table and they were only the smallest of groups gathered in one place for the Supper. Meanwhile, as these two learned upon returning to Jerusalem, Jesus had also appeared alive to Simon (24:34) at practically the same time he was “in” Emmaus. We are reminded by this timely word that our physical distancing is no obstacle for the real presence of the risen Christ.

 

Consider these words from a treatise of Martin Luther on the sacrament from 1527: “Christ is everywhere and fills all things (Ephes. 1:23). He is bound to no particular place…or external thing, so that all that belongs to his kingdom is free and bound to nothing—the gospel, baptism, the sacrament, and Christians. For the gospel is and must be free in regard to all places and is bound to no particular spot…. So also baptism and the sacrament. For it is not necessary that in the churches alone and nowhere else there be preaching, baptism, and the sacrament. They can be in any place where there is need. It does not follow now that Christ in the sacrament is as if bound to one place, here or there. He and his sacrament are or may be free to be in any place.”

 

We have a unique opportunity now to receive Christ into our home and into our bodies right in the place where we are hunkered down. In our 8am worship on April 26th, live streamed and broadcast on D99.3, I invite you to break the fast and share in the Lord’s Supper together (while apart) with the whole of Grace Church.

 

How to Prepare and How to Receive

 

What you will need to have set out in advance at home is some bread and some wine or grape juice. If you wish to bake from Grace’s communion bread recipe, it can be found here, but any ordinary bread will do. Please use elements that are familiar to you from receiving Communion in the past and will not compromise your sense of reverence around the sacrament.

 

Wait to eat and drink until I have spoken the Words of Institution and we have prayed the Lord’s Prayer. (Do not think of these words as magic words going through your radio or computer, but simply Christ’s own words of promise declared to you with a “bigger microphone.”) We will all receive together simultaneously, first the bread, then the cup, when I say “Given for you” and “Shed for you.” If you have others in your household you would like to repeat these words to and serve, you may do so.

 

After worship has ended, if you have extra bread and wine from your “altar,” I recommend you consume it. This is a normal practice in many congregations and it seems more fitting in this situation than the alternative of returning it to the earth, e.g. to a tree in your yard.

 

Finally, I would ask that you only participate live during the service proper and not in conjunction with a recording later (though available on Facebook or YouTube). Ours is a predicament of space and we have no need to impose further degrees of separation in time.

 

As long as we are confined to our homes (at least through May 26th now) on the Lord’s Day, we will observe a once-a-month pattern for Communion. The next “Communion Sunday” would be May 24 (7th Sunday of Easter; 9am Summer Schedule), when our Gospel includes this prayer of Jesus for his disciples: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11).

 

Is This Real or Just “Virtual” Communion?

 

Finally, I am aware that some in the wider conversation in the ELCA at this time have referred to the practice I have described, sometimes pejoratively, as “virtual” Communion. Let’s not call it that. Where God’s Word is present together with the physical eating and drinking, we truly have Christ and the forgiveness of sins.

 

At the same time, I expect that in sharing the sacrament while not all physically together, we will feel both unified by the Spirit and painfully absent from one another. This paradox of presence and absence is always part of the experience of the Supper—we have Christ and yet long more deeply to see him face-to-face. Now we will taste that same paradox in terms of the church, the body of Christ.

 

Our physical presence to one another in the Lord’s supper is important, but this is an extreme situation calling for an extraordinary means of reception. After this time of isolating has mercifully come to an end, so too will celebrating Communion via the internet or airwaves.

 

For now, however, what must be proclaimed is the compassion of God for the hungry and thirsty. And what does God do for God’s people in the desert? Does he mandate for them a continual fast, until they can arrive at the land of promise? No. The simple truth is He feeds them.

                                                            Pastor Mark

Our Worship Plan This Month [Message from 10/22/20]

 

Before I outline what’s next, let’s start by giving thanks. From August 30th to October 18th, God gave us an opportunity to be together outside for Sunday worship, most weeks on our North Lawn and with just one cancellation for rain. We’ve been blessed with a class of new and returning members, we enjoyed guest musicians Helen Avakian and Dave Irwin, our radio and live stream worship team continues to serve with dedication. All seven of our 8th Grade confirmands have their own adult mentor walking with them through the Making Disciples program, a highly flexible, Covid-friendly curriculum focused on deepening faith through caring relationships. Council members and officers continue to work over-and-above on your behalf seeking the best available options for stewarding our life together while supporting the health and wellbeing of the broader community.

 

Now for the November plan. For the five Sundays in this month, starting November 1st, we’ll be shifting to a single 9am, radio and livestream only service, more or less in line with our summer schedule. With local Covid rates in Iowa County spiking dramatically in the last weeks and our first two-week “pivot” to all virtual school in Dodgeville, plus the arrival of cold weather, your council leaders and I feel this is a time to tighten our policies concerning indoor gatherings. As council president Jacque Goetzke, who also serves as a liaison to the Iowa County Emergency Management team, said, “We don’t just want to do whatever is allowed. We want to be part of the solution.”

 

Having experienced firsthand the parental strains of the pivot to virtual school last month, I know how these pivots send shockwaves through people’s work and family lives. As a church we can do our part to get rates down to a level where in-person school can be counted on. In addition, as Ezekiel 34 reminded us recently, we bear responsibility for those “sheep” in weakest health in our community—the elderly and those with comorbidities (in health-speak)—and need to place that biblical value ahead of our culture’s often higher valuing of individual choice.

 

As for the rationale for shifting to the 9am time, I know this shakes up the routines of our 8am folks, but for a single service, it’s the optimal time for bringing together (if “virtually”) the different generations who make up our church. If you’re looking for a constant, keep marking down the 4th Sunday of the month as Communion Sunday—November 22nd this month.

                                                                                       Pastor Mark

Our Fall Worship Plan, Including Quilt Sunday and Affirmation of Baptism [Message from September 2020]

 

It is a daring thing to make plans of any sort during a pandemic, but this fall we are at least embarking on a seasonal plan. Starting with Sunday, August 30th, we are going to return to an 8am and 9:30am worship schedule—8am as a radio and live stream-only service, and 9:30am as an in-person outdoor service held on our North Lawn. Although this location for an outdoor service is untested as of this writing, we can always shift around the building to the parking lot if we have to. As envisioned at this point, however, this is not a “drive-in” church but a sit-together-by-household church. As with Advent in July and Worship in the Park, you should

 

  • bring your own chairs and arrange them with six feet of physical distance from other households.

  • Wear a face covering, including children age 5 and up.

 

I was very proud of our in-person worshipers at our summer services for complying with these rules to a tee. From our North Lawn, we should be visible to passing cars and McDonald’s customers, so in addition to health concerns, we have a chance to witness to others how we care for one another and our community as we gather.

These 9:30am services on the North Lawn will also feature some congregational singing (while masked), single-use bulletins, and households will be able to basically “hold their position” for the entirety of the service. In lieu of children’s messages or Children’s Chapel, a shortened outdoor family Sunday School will be held meeting at the Sunday School door at 9am (see p.4). I want to remind you again about the lack of shade, and also ask you to park in the main part of the parking lot and walk around, so those who prefer to sit in the preschool parking area for the service rather than the grass may do so.

In the event of rain or inclement weather, the 9:30am service will simply be cancelled. We will do our best to get word out about a weather cancellation via D99.3, Facebook, and email, so you have a chance to adjust and tune in at 8am!

Regarding Holy Communion, for the time being we are going to remain with a 4th Sunday schedule, meaning that on September 27th there will be an invitation to receive from home at the 8am service and a chance to safely receive in-person at the 9:30am service (with communicants receiving from where they are seated). While it could be feasible to include Communion weekly at 9:30am, the prevailing value in my own mind, based especially on 1 Corinthians 10-11, is that we not introduce any hierarchies into the body of Christ when we celebrate the Supper. In this case, that means those who remain at home due to age or at-risk conditions and those who gather in-person will receive equally and—in the Spirit, wherever they be—together.

Finally, we have one special fall tradition and one important deferred faith milestone to celebrate this month:

 

  • Lutheran World Relief Quilts and Kits Sunday will take place on Sunday, September 20th. The Sanctuary will still be decked out with handmade quilts, which we will feature on camera at 8am and allow people to tour in-person after the 9:30am service.

  • Affirmation of Baptism for our ten now freshman confirmands will take place in a special evening outdoor service at 5pm on Sunday, September 27th, with a rain date the following Sunday at the same time. Unfortunately, in order to keep reasonable numbers, we will need to restrict this service to confirmands and their families and godparents, but I urge you to be in prayer for these young Christ-followers as they take this step of deepened commitment to God’s mission and God’s church.

 

All these plans are, we all know by now, subject to change. But the steadfast love of God—that’s a constant!

                                                                                  Pastor Mark

Getting Outside  [Message from 6/29/20]

Covid-19 cases have had a significant uptick in Iowa County, and our public health department continues its Phase 1 recommendations (released in mid-June after some area congregations had already begun to meet indoors), which advises 10 or less for indoor gatherings and 25 for outdoor ones. Meanwhile, the nationwide protests that took place last month following the killing of George Floyd, in which participants by and large wore face coverings even while chanting, shouting, and singing, appear not to have led to measurable transmission. This is consistent with a widely reported Japanese study that says indoor gatherings are 19 times more likely to transmit Covid than outdoor ones.

 

Our church council in June, taking these factors into account along with input our members have shared, decided it is best to continue our live streamed and radio broadcast-only 9am service for the time being, while channeling our organizational energy toward periodic outdoor gatherings. (Our first outdoor worship was a Prayer Service of Remembrance for the Emanuel Nine martyrs, killed in Charleston five years ago by a stranger they had welcomed to Bible study. It was organized by our youth on June 28th.) 

 

Our building remains closed for walk-ins, and requests to use our building are being handled on a case-by-case basis. Council also formed a working group to develop any plans for returning to worship in our sanctuary, and you can help them continue to “take the pulse” of our congregation by completing and returning the survey enclosed in your newsletter (it is the same as the one sent with our weekly e-news in an online version; please just take it once!).

 

Please save the date for our annual Worship in the Park on Sunday, August 9th, and keep an eye out for another outdoor opportunity in the second half of July. I’m also heartened by the reports of neighbor-to-neighbor connections being made in driveways, backyards, and on porches, and encourage you to continue to look for ways to gather in small groups outside in the name of Jesus. As the popular camp song by the Jay Beech Band so well taught many in my generation:

The church is not a building / where people go to pray;

it’s not made out of sticks and stones, / it’s not made out of clay…

 

WE ARE THE CHURCH, (clap, clap) / THE BODY OF OUR LORD (clap, clap, clap);

WE ARE ALL GOD’S CHILDREN, / AND WE HAVE BEEN RESTORED!

 

                                                                                                Pastor Mark

Safer At Home, But Still Together in the Spirit: A COVID-19 Update [Message from 3/27/20]

 

By the time you read this, you will no doubt have heard that the State of Wisconsin has issued a new order, called Safer At Home, which extends nearly through the end of this month. As a church we want to play our part in reducing the spread of COVID-19, protecting our most vulnerable community members, and supporting those providing health care on the frontlines.

 

Therefore, I’m saddened to say that our period of suspending in-person worship and all in-person gatherings in our building will need to be extended into the foreseeable future; that is, until our public health leaders give notice that it is acceptable to gather again.

 

Your staff has been working hard to use every communications tool at our disposal—the radio broadcast, Facebook Live, Zoom, YouTube—to continue to steward the worship life of the congregation and find ways for us to be together around God’s Word and prayer, though physically apart. The same goes for faith formation and care ministries. I appreciate the patience and grace that has been shown us as we improvise and experiment, and I urge you to stay in touch with each other and practice the “mutual conversation and consolation of the saints,” using the good old telephone or postal service if that is what works best for you.

 

Even During Holy Week?

 

Yes, I’m afraid so. It is tempting to try to assemble for some sort of parking lot service or drive-up Communion, but I believe this would be unwise to attempt at what may be peak COVID-19 time in Wisconsin. We do have Lutheran World Relief eco-Palms already being shipped, and would be glad to safely deliver yours to your doorknob or mailbox on Saturday, April 4. Just call or email the church office and indicate how many you’d like. Want to have some fun with it? Film yourself or your family marching around your yard or out for a walk singing “All Glory Laud and Honor” and post it to Facebook!

For other at-home Holy Week ideas, I highly recommend Sparkhouse, an ecumenical offshoot of Augsburg Fortress Publishers. From Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday you’ll find a daily activity for families on Sparkhouse’s Facebook and Instagram pages. It might be a game or a craft with simple supplies families have or could easily modify. We’ll try to share these posts through Grace’s social media outlets. And again, I encourage families to share their experiences, reflections, and photos. Look for the first post on Palm Sunday, April 5.

 

As for worship, we are committed to maintaining some form of Maundy Thursday (7pm), Good Friday (1:30pm) and Easter Sunday (8am only) services. The weekday services will be in an online format, and Easter will be live streamed and broadcast on D99.3FM. That said, I find it comforting to know that before there ever was an Easter Sunday festival day on a church calendar, Christians gathered on the first day of the week every week to celebrate the resurrection. Whenever we can first gather again in-person for Sunday worship, that will be our “big” Easter.

                                                               Your partner in the gospel,

                                                               Pastor Mark

Grace's Response to COVID-19:

Suspension of In-Person Gatherings, Continued Ministry of the Gospel including through our Radio Broadcast [Message from March 16, 2020]

From Pastor Mark to all of you in Christ Jesus, grace and peace.

 

In partnership with the widespread effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Grace's executive committee, ministry staff, and I have prayerfully made the decision that we must suspend all in-person gatherings in our building until further notice. The CDC's most recent recommendation that in-person gatherings of 50 people or more be suspended for the next eight weeks, so we recognize that this fast from physical togetherness as church may need to extend longer.

 

This closing of our building is effective immediately and will include the suspension of Lent soup suppers and midweek worship, confirmation, Sunday School, regular church groups and meetings that take place in our facility, and use of the building by outside organizations. Grace Christian Preschool has cancelled for today and, per usual, will follow the same closure schedule as our public schools.

 

Our office doors are closed but our office is reachable during the normal hours by phone or email. Your pastor can be reached directly at by cell phone or email. We are working with Office Administrator Karla Vogel and the rest of our ministry staff to determine how to shift work and enhance our communications and outreach from offsite.

 

Vicar Heidi and I, along with our homebound visitation team, will also be putting a hiatus on in-person visitation ministry, save for emergencies and care around the time of death. We are working with our local funeral directors to determine a plan for graveside services with delayed sanctuary memorial services, should the need arise over the next weeks.

 

Please know we are taking these strong measures out of sincere faith in Christ, an abundance of care for those in our community most vulnerable to COVID-19, and a desire not to overwhelm the capacity of our health care providers and emergency responders.

 

How We Will Remain Together in the Spirit: Continued Radio Ministry Sundays at 8am on WDMP, Live Video streaming and More

 

We are more grateful than ever for our partnership with WDMP 99.3FM and will continue to broadcast a radio service at 8am each Sunday. We will also feature this service via livestream video on Facebook, and video will be available later as well for watching including on our YouTube channel. Please join us for Radio-and-Video Church and invite others to participate in worship in this way. If you can serve this ministry by working a camera or offering a musical gift, please contact me or Quinn Christensen.

 

Let's also resolve to be together in prayer. At noon each day--upon the sound of the "lunch whistle" for those in range to hear it--we will covenant to pray as a community from wherever we are. Our health and care facility workers, educators, social service providers, local businesses, political leaders, first responders and law enforcement, childcare providers, students, parents, and elders all need our intercessions at this time, and I would urge your attention to our own congregational prayer list as well.

 

The home is church too. Our ministry staff, including Youth Director Rachel Mueller, will be working to resource you and support you in nurturing faith at home. I pray that our families may be blessed in this strange and unexpected abundance of time at home and discover new opportunities to serve as a home-school of discipleship. Please keep an eye out in your email inboxes and on Facebook for increased pastoral messages (e-pistles!) from Vicar Heidi and myself to help you take strength from the Word in a time of much fear.

 

Our call to be an evangelizing church remains, and we know that in a time of crisis people in our mission field will be looking to God for help and hope. I urge you to share our devotional communications broadly on social media, invite people to tune in to worship, and keep aware of how we can extend compassion to our neighbors in caring for their basic needs. As Paul exhorts us, "Proclaim the good news whether the time is favorable or not" (2 Timothy 4:2); perhaps the time is more favorable than circumstances might appear.

 

A Word on How to Give Your Offerings

 

Finally, let me encourage you to continue to make your financial offerings to support our mission. We are grateful for our electronic givers at a time like this, and ask those of you who give through checks to put them in the mail to Grace or our outdoor dropbox. You can also give easily through our webpage via GivePlus; just click the Donate tab on our homepage to make a one-time or a repeat gift. Those of you with greater or more stable income, consider giving more so that those who will be most adversely affected in their livelihood may give less.

 

In closing, let us take to heart these words of Scripture which attest both to human frailty and the incredible power of God in us:

 

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power comes from God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. --2 Corinthians 4:7-12