Theme: Lean In
Series: IN – Lent / Easter 2020
Bible Reading: Hebrews 10:19-25
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
Preached for the ONLINE 9am worship – 22 March 2020
Pre-Bible Reading Bit
For those who have connected in from other churches, the lectionary readings for today are all about light and dark and the great gospel story of the blind man being healed and his response when questioned, “I don’t know how Jesus did this, but this I know, I once was blind and now I see”.
Great lectionary readings, but today I am going off lectionary. Actually, I confess that I have been off lectionary all of Lent. Here at Turramurra Uniting Church, our lent journey has been focused on the personal aspect of Easter. Our goal is not only to hear the good news of the forgiveness and new life that comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus … but also to personally connect with Jesus. To not only hear about the cross but to know the one who was on the cross.
This Easter we want to deepen our personal relationship with Jesus. And so, on our Lenten journey so far, we have been encouraged to:
- Dive In … to hear the call of Jesus to go deeper into our faith and relationship
- To Abide in… to make sure we are connected to Jesus in the same way a vine branch needs to be connected to the vine.
- To trust in… in these difficult times to give our anxieties and worries to Jesus and trust that we will be given the strength to cope with the unknown.
- And today the theme is Lean IN … in which we are exploring leaning in to God and leaning in to each other. (Which as my wife says is slightly ironic as we are supposed to be keeping 1.5m apart). But let’s explore this by hearing from God’s word … from the book of Hebrews
Can I just say, this is weird? We keep hearing that we are living in uncertain and unpredicted times … and so yes, things should feel weird. But this week I have been having experiences that I never could imagine possible.
On Friday night, the youth leaders of the church met to work out how our Children and Youth groups were going to function in this time of social distancing … and at the end of that gathering, we closed the doors on the church complex … knowing that there may not be any more formal gatherings, worship services, groups or community activities here at the church for the next 3 or more months.
We have closed down the church complex. That is just weird.
And while I keep affirming that we are not closing the church and will be just doing church differently … doing church without in person gatherings … there are still people struggling with the whole concept of what does that mean? How can we be church when we can’t gather? What does this all mean? It is just weird.
And even now, I am preaching to … well, an empty church (other than the band and the tech team). It feels weird, it sounds weirds and … it is weird.
As I was pondering all of this yesterday, I was reminded of a Psalm 137. Don’t read the end of the Psalm, because it is also plain weird, and I don’t have time to explain it … but the beginning of Psalm 137 is a song of lament by the Israelites after they were defeated by Babylon and taken into exile.
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
The Israelites were confronted with a situation where everything had changed. They were unable to go to their temple or church anymore (sound familiar). They were in this strange place and had no idea of how they could continue to worship God in this new situation. What does it mean to do worship when you can’t gather at the temple?
That is the question that many churches in Australia are facing. All Uniting Church building have closed their doors, most Anglican churches have done the same. Hillsong is not gathering. We are all trialling this online worship… but really, how is this going to work. How do we worship God in this strange place we find ourselves in.
During the week when I was prayerfully asking God what would be most helpful to preach about this Sunday – the line from our bible reading from Hebrews 10 came to me … “Do not give up the habit of meeting together.” Ok … if we are unable to in person gather at the church, then how do we honour this biblical principle. How do we not give up the habit of meeting together when we can’t actually meet in person?
So, for the next few minutes, I want to break open this passage from Hebrews 10, letting the word of God speak to us and encourage us this morning, but at the same time, I want to interweave this with some practical answers of what this might mean here at Turramurra Uniting Church over the next few months.
Are you ready for this? Let’s just remind ourselves of the bible reading. I am going to put the reading up on the screen again and I want you to just spend 2 minutes re-reading it. What words or phrases or ideas jump out to you? Or what questions does this reading raise. If you want … type the word or phrase or idea that jumps our Facebook comments. I will give you a couple of minutes to reflect on the reading again.
For me, one of the things that jumped out was the heading … in my bible was “a call to persevere with faith”. I think that in these unprecedent times that we are facing, that this is a good heading for us. So, let today hear the call to persevere in our faith. How do we do that?
Verse 19 starts by reminding us of the good news of Easter. Because of Jesus death and resurrection, we can have confidence to come into the presence of God. Therefore, in verse 22, we are told to draw near to God.
Draw near to God. Or in terms of the theme for today … let us lean in towards God. This is what we talked about last week … in uncertain times, let us draw closer to God and trust God to be with us, help us and guide us as we step into unknown.
But I think about this idea of “drawing near”, it also has also a deep personal aspect. I remember when my kids were younger, and say, we were sitting on the lounge watching some TV show or we were on the floor playing some game, sometimes they would scoot over closer to me, and without saying anything just … lean into me. It was like that the physical closeness to me was comforting to them, to just a way to be in relationship. Most of the time, there were no words expressed, it was just the expression of leaning in to be close.
I wonder if the writer of Hebrews is saying that we can have the same experience with God/Jesus. That we can lean in close to Jesus, to draw near to God – and just experience that closeness of relationship that God offers. No words, just that sense of Jesus being right with us.
Let us draw near to God, let us lean in close to Jesus. But I also want to suggest that we also need to continue to draw close to each other as well. As a church we need to – ask verse 25 says – not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing. But the question that we – and churches around the world – have been wrestling with is how we continue to meet together if our premises are closed to gatherings. How do lean in close to our church family we are called to isolate and keep distance?
The simple answer is … we do everything online. We livestream our worship services and in that way, people can watch us on their devices instead of gathering at the church. Well, that is part of the solution … but as it was expressed at the Church Council meeting during the week … watching a TV is not the full experience of worship. How do we connect online and still feel like we are meeting together, talking to each other, praying with each other, being together? Is this even possible?
If the simple answer is to connect online, the complex answer is … we are not sure how to make this authentic gathering experience happen online because we’ve never had to try this before. We have some ideas that we are going to try (which I will explain in a moment) but it will be a bit of trial and error … we will be checking in on how the gathering experience was and how we can improve it. We will keep trying to do better and better because we do not want to give up the habit of meeting together.
So … here are some of our preliminary ideas:
For our 9am and 6:30pm Sunday worship, we are going to use the skills we have been developing over the past two years to livestream our worship services. We are going to make them a little more interactive so it is not just watching. We are also looking at other apps such as Zoom which will allow you to chat to each other … like a virtual morning tea or dinner.
For our 10:45am service, we will be pre-recording it earlier in the week so that we can deliver it on a stick or DVD to our seniors.
But we want to go a step further. There is a church in Tasmania who is exploring an innovative idea called “micro-gatherings” or “micro-congregations”. So, while some people will be happy to watch our church service while lying in bed (I know that there are some people who are doing this) … there will be others who still want some sort of gathering. The best medical advice suggests that small gatherings of less than 10 are still ok … so we are going to encourage people from next Sunday … if they want to … to form a micro-gathering at people’s homes.
The idea is that maybe two families, or a bible study group, or just a few friends from church can get together on Sunday morning at someone’s place. You can all watch into the worship livestream together, when we have a discussion question, you can do it as a small group, and you can also have morning tea afterwards … just with less than 10 people.
You guys can organise this yourself … but we like this idea so much that if you are unsure where to start then we are happy to organise this for you. On our website there is a section for micro-gatherings for worship where you can tell us if you are happy to host a small gathering (of less than 10) or whether you would like to be a part of a gathering … and we will sort it all out, tell you where you are going (or who is coming) and make sure you have the resources for worship that you need.
This will be especially important on Easter morning when we have multiple micro-Easter Egg Hunts!
We might have more ideas moving forward … but I think that a combination of livestreaming, interactive worship, online conversation through ZOOM, and micro-gatherings will help us maintain the habit of meeting together.
And it is not just for worship gatherings. The children and youth leaders have come up with some great ideas that playgroup, BUGZ, Turrazone and SquareOne will continue to meet together … in a non in-person way. They are putting the details together and these will be up on our website in the next few days. But yes, all these groups are meeting … well sort of meeting … this week.
And as I said in my emails during the week – bible study group that meet in people’s homes can continue to meet. I know some groups are continuing and some groups have decided to go into recess for a while. Just check in with the bible study leaders of what your group is doing. I am planning to trial an online bible study this week to see how it goes. I will share the details of how this will work when I have them.
So, our reading from Hebrews encouraged us draw near to God and to continue to meet together but it also had three other points that I want to briefly highlight.
Verse 23 says that we should also hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, because God is faithful. Yes, the next few months are going to weird as we can’t gather in person here at the church … but let us make sure that our spiritual growth, our faith, doesn’t suffer because of it. Let us be unswervingly committed to continue to grow in our faith.
And as your pastor, and as a church, we are committed to helping you do that. Over the next few weeks, we are going to be putting together a whole suite of resources to make sure that our faith and hope in Jesus does not suffer. An example of this is that we are going to bring back the daily reflections that we did during Advent. I am going to ask different people from our church (and maybe beyond) to choose a bible passage and write a short reflection and prayer. And then we will post them on Facebook or email them every day. Would you like that?
Or another idea is that I am thinking of running a book club – maybe on one of my favourite books about faith … where we would read the book together and share our thoughts, ideas and questions and be encouraged in our faith together online.
Verse 24 goes on to ask us to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds”. This is particularly important when it comes to our pastoral care network. As a church family, how do we pastorally care for each other and love each other when we are not meeting together?
Church Council acknowledged that we are going to have to ramp up our pastoral care during this period to make sure that everyone is feeling loved, supported, connected and cared for … and the Pastoral Care Working Group are taking the lead on this. I am sure that we might need people to call each other to see how we are going; some people to drop in the DVD to our seniors each week and to use the opportunity to check up on them; and maybe people to do practical things like going to the shops for someone who is forced to isolate. We will make sure that you hear about these opportunities when we work them out, but in the meantime … I encourage you to use the phone, messenger, email, zoom whatever to touch base with others in your church family and community to see how they are going. People are going to need this loving care more than ever.
Lastly, verse 25 challenges us to encourage one another … all the more in this time … find ways to encourage one another. There are people who are going above and beyond in their service and ministry at this difficult time and … they need our encouragement. People are feeling anxious and worried, and they need our encouragement. People are doing amazing things behind the scenes … little things that are making a big difference … and they need our encouragement.
So, I encourage you to be generous with your encouragement. And one of the best ways we can do this is to pray. To pray for each other and to pray with each other.
I am going to be speaking with the prayer team this week on ways that we can encourage a deeper engagement in prayer and look forward to sharing their creativity. But in the meantime, please pray … for those in need, for our church, for our community, for those who are on the front line serving, for all. Let us encourage one another and pray for one another all the more.
Just keep a track of the website to see what is happening, the resources and tool and opportunities for you to connect and for ways in which you can help. I know it is a little empty at the moment, but it will fill up more this week.
Ok, to wrap this up … At the beginning I used the example of the exile in Babylon – and how the Israelites were feeling so lost that they were wondering how they could worship God in this weird place they found themselves in.
The prophet Jeremiah was also in Babylon and was bringing messages from God to the Israelites. In Jeremiah 29, God has a go at some false prophets who were spreading fake news that this period in exile was only going to be a short time and then things would go back to normal. God said through Jeremiah in verses 4-9 … there is no quick fix here. You need to work out how to do life and worship here. God said to build houses, settle down, plant gardens … you need to work out how to worship in this strange land because this is where you are at.
I think that God is saying the same to us. Like it or not, there is no quick fix to the situation we find ourselves in. Our church complex is not closed for a week or two, but more like 3 to 6 months! We need to work out what it means to do church and life in this strange place we find ourselves in.
So, that’s what we are going to do. We are going to keep trying things to work out the best ways to do worship and pastoral care and spiritual growth and supporting each other and being a church family in this COVID-19 pandemic … because this is the reality for the next 3 to 6 months. So, let’s do this together.
But in the same breath in Jeremiah 29 that God is telling the Israelites to get used to this exile they find themselves in, God also in verse 10 onwards reminds them that we can trust in God, we can draw close, lean in close to God because God does indeed care for us. In Jeremiah 29:11 God says that we can trust in the plans that God has for us as a church – plans for us to prosper and not to be harmed.
Yes, we are living in unprecedented times and yes, we are still working out what it means to do church in a time like this … but let’s remember that God is still here with us. God has not forgotten us and is encouraging us to continue to love and care and support each other as a church family.
So … let us draw close to God, because God is faithful and can be trusted.
Let us draw close to each other, because we are all in this together and we need more than ever to be a church family.
Let us just lean in close to Jesus … set us scoot over closer to Jesus, feel his love and warmth … and just lean in. lean in close and just … enjoy his presence and love.