What is this place?
What is this place where we are meeting?
Only a house, the earth its floor.
Walls and a roof sheltering people,
windows for light, an open door.
Yet it becomes a body that lives
when we are gathered here,
and know our God is near. 1
Hymn # 524 in our Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal, “What Is this Place?” offers a three-verse hymn text with a simple teaching that echoes a truth I learned in Sunday School. The church is not a building; it is a people. The Body of Christ cannot be contained in structures made of timbers, brick and mortar. Yet we have learned in the exile of our pandemic disciplines how deeply we long to gather in that place we call our church home at 2700 Fulton Street East. In our gathering together for worship in that place, we know that God is near.
Someone once said, “We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us.” We who gather as the people of Trinity Lutheran Church find identity in that gathering. In the faces and the presence of fellow worshippers and in that familiar worship space, we know Christ incarnate. In the bread and the wine of the sacrament shared, we know a grace that is physical and present. In our gathering together for worship, we know that God is near.
Words from afar, stars that are falling,
sparks that are sown in us like seed:
names for our God, dreams, signs, and wonders
sent from the past are all we need.
We in this place remember and speak
again what we have heard:
God’s free redeeming word.
So, some of us will gather for worship in the sanctuary and in Centennial Hall this coming Sunday for the first time in more than seven months. In that gathering onsite at Trinity, we will “remember and speak again what we have heard: God’s free redeeming word.” But we have also learned something important in this time of separation – we are bound to one another in community even in our separation. Our house of worship becomes a home in the hearts of that community, a community not defined by the walls and furnishings of our worship spaces but by a deeper bond. Still, the prospect of seeing the faces of worshippers on a Sunday morning is a privilege I have missed since March 8. I know that many of your have missed that privilege as well.
Our “Returning to Worship Coordination Team” has sought to provide a responsible way for us to host worship onsite at Trinity this fall. Congregation Council leaders and pastors have been joined by public health professionals to organize physical distancing, sanitizing stations, the requirement to wear masks and liturgies that will keep us apart even as we come together. We will refrain from singing and we will share the Peace from our distance. Our Faith Community Nurse Kristin Bradley wrote that if you are coming to Trinity, you will be asked to verify your current health status and if you’ve been around anyone recently diagnosed with COVID-19. You’ll be reminded that your mask needs to cover your mouth and nose. “Yes, it’s gonna be different,” she wrote, but, “Yes, the Spirit will fill this place!”
Kristin also wrote that if now isn’t the right time for you to come into the building, for any number of reasons, know that you are not alone. We remain privileged to have vibrant live streaming of worship and Zoom faith formation opportunities throughout the week. You are welcome to continue to share in our online worship and fellowship experiences. “Virtual togetherness is really a thing!” she wrote. “You’ve felt it, haven’t you?”
And we accept bread at this table,
broken and shared, a living sign.
Here in this world, dying and living,
we are each other’s bread and wine.
This is the place where we can receive
what we need to increase:
our justice and God’s peace.
Yes, we who gather will receive the sacrament. It will be wafer only, but it will be Holy Communion. Yet, “here in this world, dying and living, we are each other’s bread and wine.” We will be a community of faith this Sunday, gathered and scattered, together and separated. We will be signs of grace, one for another and for the world. We are each other’s bread and wine.
It is clear that we are seeking to resume “in person” worship at a time when the pandemic is becoming more challenging in west Michigan. Our timing is not, perhaps, exemplary. We will do our best in meeting that challenge with protocols that will provide reasonably safe gathering. We will count on each one who comes into our building this coming Sunday morning to be an active partner in caring for the health of our neighbors. And we will evaluate how it’s going in the weeks ahead, prepared to refrain from “in person” worship again if conditions continue to deteriorate.
Rudolf Schwarz noted that church buildings are really waiting rooms, waiting rooms before God’s threshold. God transforms our waiting rooms into churches when God begins to work, when the Spirit begins to light a fire. In a real sense, our house of worship on Fulton Street and Robinson Road has been a waiting room for more than seven months. It becomes a church when in our worship God is at work. And though our church facility has been a waiting room in this time of pandemic, we know that the Body of Christ is alive and vital in our life as a congregation and that the Spirit of God is enlivening our community. We have learned that we are a community of faith even in our separation, as were the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness for 40 years 3300 years ago, as were the people of Israel in their 50 year Babylonian exile some 700 years later. We are each other’s bread and wine, and our separation does not dismantle that affirmation.
Some of us will gather for worship this Sunday in the sanctuary and in Centennial Hall. Others will wait, knowing Christ present in their virtual worship, in their breaking bread at table, and in their common table prayers. “Come, Lord Jesus, and be our guest,” we pray, and Christ is present. God is near.
Blessings to you, O people of Trinity. May you be safe, may you be well, and may you be held in love.
It remains a privilege to serve as one of your pastors.
Grace and peace,
Pastor Robert Linstrom
1 What Is This Place
Text: Huub Oosterhuis, b. 1933; tr. David Smith, b. 1933
Text © 1984 TEAM Publications, admin. OCP Publications, 5536 NE Hassalo, Portland, OR 97213. All rights reserved. Used by permission.