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Today's livestream was interrupted right before the sermon began. Read Pastor Melody's sermon below:
SERMON “Practicing Communion: Why are we Really Gathering?”
We are starting a new series today for the summer months called “Gathering and Gospelling,” which is partly based on a book titled The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker. As we are still emerging from the chaos and trauma of 2020 and over a year of social distancing, I felt it was important for us as a church to hit the re-set button on gathering again, and to spend time together rediscovering how WE meet and why it matters.
As you’ve noticed our flow of worship is a little different today – we’ll be using this format to build in both some time for personal reflection as a way to bring ourselves fully before God as we center ourselves for worship, and some time for rebuilding community by learning or re-learning how to talk to each other about our faith: sharing joys and concerns and prayers, and sharing the ways we’ve experienced God. We’ll also be engaging in some fun and creative activities together throughout the coming weeks. And all of this is being planned with the intention to help us come back together after being separated for so long, to help us remember and RE-member, to put ourselves back together as one body, as one community of faith.
So we’re starting today with the question, Why are we REALLY gathering? Why is it even necessary for us to gather together to worship? Why gather instead of just worshipping individually while we’re enjoying nature or a cup of coffee or a day on the lake or golf course? Why gather at an appointed time to worship with other people, whether in person or online? Why not just watch a sermon at some time when it is convenient, or listen to a devotional podcast? Can’t I take care of my faith and my relationship with God on my own time, and all by myself?
During the past year and a half, we certainly did have to adapt and change the things we have been accustomed to doing in groups, and that included worship. When it wasn’t safe to gather in-person, our worship team and I pivoted to learn and acquire new technology so that we could provide worship at an appointed time online. Our hope was that we would continue to gather in spirit to worship together at that time. But what we had hoped would be only a matter of weeks, or a few months, turned into a year before we reached a point when it was considered safe enough to at least worship in smaller numbers with extra safety measures. And finally the vaccines were available, and summer came, and we have this beautiful space outdoors so that we can finally all gather together again! But we’ve noticed that even with the number of people attending in-person and online combined, we’re not all here.
We understand that our world has changed because of the way we’ve lived through these past 15 months. And some things may not ever go back to the way they were before. But we miss the together-ness that this community of faith once provided. Many of our members say what drew them to this particular congregation was the feeling that they could be part of a family... but we are grieving that loss of family-feeling when we come to church. So our hope is that with our new technology we will continue to be able to provide online worship for those who are home sick, or more vulnerable to infection, or traveling… but that we will reclaim our time of worship together as a time for growing closer to God AND one another.
So let’s think about our purpose for gathering in the first place… why does this church thing matter?
First of all, God created us to be in relationship, with God and with each other. On the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit gave birth to the church, the body of Christ. At that time, a diverse group of people which included all ages, genders, ethnicities and socio-economic classes became the model for the new way that Jesus’ love is experienced and shared in the world.
I believe that the church – the fellowship of Christians formed into community – is the best place to be welcomed by God, to be encouraged when life is hard, to be held up with hope, to be nourished with friendship, and to be truly known and loved by God.
Second, Jesus came to call disciples who would continue his mission of building the Kingdom of God. I believe that the best chances for doing good that makes a difference in our world, that transforms people and the world into a reflection of God’s love, is through the power of the Holy Spirit, who works through the body of Christ on earth. It is when we come together that we are most effective in ministries that feed the hungry, attend to the needs of the sick, the poor and the oppressed, and that offer hope, comfort and unconditional love. And before people can experience any of this for themselves, they need to see the evidence of this transformation in the world.
Finally, we ourselves need help to stay on the path of discipleship – we need to hear from each other about how God is working in each other’s lives, we need to hear each other’s insights from scripture, we need to be able to trust one another for prayer and support in our times of need. Our own spiritual growth is spurred on by the spiritual growth of others in our community. We gain wisdom and inspiration from others who are on the same spiritual journey!
It is out of the overwhelming joy we gain from all these experiences of God in our lives that we return our offerings of worship and praise. And we do that by offering our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness in the context of a community of faith.
Our scripture lessons today speak of the way that Jesus declared himself as the Bread of Life – the one who satisfies the hungers of our heart. And in Jesus’ resurrection and sending of the holy spirit, WE become the body of Christ, and WE become the answer to the world’s hunger for physical and spiritual nourishment. By sharing in the sacrament of holy communion, by gathering together at the Lord’s table, we who are many become ONE.
As United Methodists, we understand Holy Communion to be a sacrament. Holy Communion (and baptism as well) is a means by which God encounters us, works in us, and sustains us in mercy and love. Through our sharing of the bread and cup together in the community of faith, we are brought into relationship with God in Christ Jesus as well as into a relationship of love for one another. In Holy Communion our giving thanks to God and sharing in the Lord’s Supper becomes a means by which we begin to fulfill the two great commandments to love God and our neighbors. When we gather for worship and the sacraments, we are encountering and sharing God together – so that we can be encouraged, transformed and sent out to share the good news of God’s grace and love with others. One way we may share is to invite someone to come worship with us, to be welcomed by a community of faith where they themselves can encounter God’s love and grace. Where they can also be transformed by God to become part of the community, and to begin serving in the ministries that help transform the world by building up the kingdom of God.
We have a task force from our church leader’s council who has been praying and working together on a mission statement that states precisely our purpose as a church, as the body of Christ known as Polk City United Methodist, and they have proposed this statement: “The mission of Polk City United Methodist Church is to be welcoming of all people with the transforming love of God while serving in community with each other and the world.” Welcoming. Transforming. Serving. Community.
If that’s our purpose, who will do the welcoming? And welcomed into what? If that’s our purpose, how will we hear and know about God’s transforming work in each other’s lives unless we hear it from each other? How can we be a source of encouragement and inspiration for each other’s transformation if we are not gathered together? If that’s our purpose, how can we maximize our effectiveness in serving the world’s needs, in serving through ministries to help transform our community into a place that looks a little more on earth as it is in heaven, if we ourselves are not present and engaged?
I know that things have changed in our world because of the pandemic. And the way that we gather as a church may continue to evolve and change over time, as well. But even if HOW we gather changes – whether that continues to be in a church building or an outdoor sanctuary, or in a pub or brewery, or by the lake, or in each other’s back yards or living rooms – the WHY of gathering will never change. I don’t believe God intends for there to ever be a replacement for the gathered community of faith. We were not created to live in isolation, or to practice our faith that way. The world needs the church – the body of Christ on earth – so that others will come to know and encounter God’s grace and love.
It is our hope that whether you come in person or join us in this time online that you will gather together with us to be the Church that God intends. And if you are already back in the habit of gathering regularly, then maybe you know someone who is still feeling cut off, or isolated after the trauma of the past year. Maybe that’s someone you can invite and welcome into this community, so that they, too, can experience the togetherness they’ve been missing. Let’s feed the world’s hunger for community, for welcoming love, and for mercy and grace.
This weekend, people across this country are coming together around tables: picnic tables, kitchen tables, dining tables… and whether it is BBQ, fried chicken, Mom’s favorite homemade dish, a hot dog stand, potluck, whatever was in the pantry or whatever they could afford, many will to remember the value of freedom and hopefully enjoy the company of friends and loved ones.
When we practice and partake of holy communion, we gather around another table to remember the good news of release, liberty, and healing preached by Jesus. We remember that in Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, we are released from bondage to sin and death and are given freedom for life in God.
Christ himself invites each of us to gather around this table. Together. There's a seat waiting for you; I pray you'll join us. May it be so. Amen.