Worshiping out of place: This Sunday’s challenge and opportunity (Lent 4)

The challenge faced by some churches last week will undoubtedly be faced by many more this week. As the coronavirus pandemic spreads and government leaders are urging a period of “social distancing” in an attempt to contain the spread, most churches are having to curtail their on campus activities, including regular worship services.

If you are like me, you shudder at the phrase, “worship services cancelled.” Only extreme occurrences of inclement weather, which made it literally impossible even to walk, much less drive, to church have forced such a measure in the past. Fear of contracting an infectious disease while worshiping in the house of God is not something to be countenanced by persons who take their faith in Jesus Christ, the Great Physician, seriously.

Nevertheless, the continued shifting of the goal posts with regard to how large or small a group of people are permitted to gather in one place, has finally forced most churches to make the difficult decision to suspend normal operations until the coronavirus threat is contained. It would be a mistake, however, to say most churches are “cancelling” their services. The availability of a variety of social media platforms affords them the opportunity to offer services online via livestreaming. Many churches, of course, have been livestreaming for some time but those webcasts were of actual in person worship services. The challenge even those churches now face is creating a meaningful worship experience for a congregation that is entirely virtual.

Those of us charged with the proclamation of the Word face perhaps an even greater challenge. We are going to have to reconfigure our homiletical approach, as we will be speaking, from our vantage point, either to a nave full of empty pews or a computer screen in our study. As is so often the case, through the providence of God, this Sunday’s lessons offer us a unique opportunity to address the unusual circumstances that we and our parishioners now face.

In the Gospel text (John 9:1-13, 28-41), John gives the account of the man born blind whom Jesus healed by rubbing mud on his eyes and telling him to wash in the pool of Siloam (“sent”). This miraculous sign is not met with great enthusiasm by the Pharisees who, after some considerable back and forth with the man, “cast him out” of the synagogue. Jesus, hearing of the man’s expulsion, seeks him out and reveals his identity to him. Believing that Jesus is “the Son of Man” who has healed him of his blindness, the man responds by worshiping him.

The contrast John has drawn is stark. The man has been cast out of the synagogue, that is, the place of worship, by those who would claim to be the true worshipers of God by virtue of their being “disciples of Moses.” He is subsequently found by Jesus and, upon declaring his faith in him as “the Son of Man,” he worships him, not in the place from which he has been “cast out,” but right at the very feet of the One who gave him his sight.

As with last week’s account of Jesus and the woman at the well, the message conveyed here is that worship is not, indeed cannot, be confined to any particular place. For those of us who believe, the “place” of worship is wherever we may be; for whenever we worship God “in spirit and truth” (to borrow again from last week), we know that God is with us.

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