Yesterday leaders of Lutheran churches from around southern Alberta – pastors and council members – met for the annual Area Gathering. A couple of years ago that group met here at Hope. Now it’s all online, of course, but the purpose remains the same: to have an opportunity to connect with each other and share joys and challenges of ministry, and be encouraged and strengthened in our work. This year the topic at the top of everyone’s mind was the pandemic and how it is radically changing how we do things in the church.
Our speaker this year was Susan Beaumont, an extraordinary teacher who has both an M.B.A. and an M. Div. She is an experienced change management consultant in the business world as well as a trained spiritual director. She wrote a book in 2019 called How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going which has provided excellent food for reflection for myself and many other pastors in our area. At this gathering we heard Beaumont describe the current situation of the church as a time of liminality, that is, an in-between time when many of the old ways are not working anymore, but when new ways have yet to solidly emerge. It’s a time of both anxiety and creativity. There is grief for what has been lost but also curiosity about what could be in the future. A biblical story that speaks to our time comes from the book of Ezra, which tells of Israel’s return from exile in Babylon, and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, 40 years after it had been destroyed. Ezra, chapter 3, describes a great gathering of the people when the new foundation stones are laid, and a liturgy of celebration that marks the event.
All of the people shouted with praise to the Lord because the foundation of the Lord’s house had been laid. 12 But many of the older priests and Levites and heads of families, who had seen the first house, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this house, although many others shouted loudly with joy. 13 No one could distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, because the people rejoiced very loudly. The sound was heard at a great distance.
Isn’t this how things are in our day? Something of what the church was is gone forever – the Luther League events overflowing with attendance, multi-classroom Sunday Schools, Vacation Bible School, sports tournaments, even large seniors’ gatherings – yet something new is still being built – online gatherings, small spiritual reflection groups, social justice action groups. We are in between, in a liminal season, and we cannot always distinguish the sounds of joy from the sounds of weeping.
Our own Bishop Larry concluded the meeting with an update on the happenings around the Synod, and reflecting on how all of us are coping with the pandemic. For him the paradigm was a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony by the “distinguished British baritone, Robert Bennington,” a.k.a. Mr. Bean. You can look this up for yourself later by going to YouTube and searching “Mr. Bean Beethoven 9”. For now I’ll just have to describe it to you. The performance starts out with appropriate classical music seriousness as Mr. Bean takes the stage. The orchestra begins to play, he opens his folder of music, and he starts to sing the opening strains:
Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Then he turns the page and a panicked look comes over his face. He frantically turns the pages over and over but it’s no use: the rest of the score is missing. But the orchestra is still playing and Mr. Bean is going to have to improvise. And so he just starts to spout random German words and names to the tune of the Ode to Joy. He puts his best face on things and bravely soldiers through to the end of the piece.
It’s a parable, Bishop Larry said, of the church in a liminal time, especially since the shutdown of COVID-19. We were doing the things we did, according to the received traditions and scripts, singing happily from our music sheets. And then, suddenly, we had to do something different. The music played on – our call from God to be Christ’s body in the world and the prompting of the Holy Spirit – but the traditions that shaped our response to that call were no longer of use. We’ve had to improvise. Sometimes our efforts are bumbling and clumsy, like Mr. Bean’s mashup of the German language. We take bits and pieces of the old but they don’t really cohere meaningfully anymore. But sometimes a beautiful new thing can emerge – and this indeed, is the promise of God: “Behold, I make all things new.”
There’s another video you can search up later on YouTube. Search “Mack the Knife Ella Fitzgerald Berlin.” You’ll come up with a live performance Ella did in Berlin in 1960. You can hear the audience applauding as she introduces the song, adding, “I hope I can remember all the words.” Uh oh. Well, she starts out strong, but then, midway through the piece disaster strikes: Ella completely blanks on the rest of the lyrics. So, like Mr. Bean, she starts to improvise. Unlike Mr. Bean, however, Ella Fitzgerald’s improvisation is a creative masterpiece. It’s absolutely incredible how she makes up lyrics on the spot that first of all acknowledge what’s happened.
“Oh, what’s the next chorus / to this song now
this is the one now / I don’t know
but it’s a swingin’ tune / and it’s a hit too
so we tried to do / Mack the Knife”
What happens after that is magic. Ella Fitzgerald makes up lyrics, does some of her famous scatting, and keeps the mood light with self-deprecating humour. The audience absolutely loved it. Ella’s Mack the Knife, Live in Berlin was a work of musical genius and became a jazz classic. She won two Grammys for her performance.
This, I think, is an even stronger metaphor for our situation as a church. While we may feel like Mr. Bean as we improvise new ways of being church through online technology and new kinds of programs, bumbling our way forward, still we have the possibility of being like Ella in Berlin. By remaining faithful to the living Word of Christ, and through listening carefully to the breath and promptings of the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to create, by the power of God, a beautiful new thing. What the church will look like in 5, 10, or 20 years, I don’t know. I don’t think anybody does. But I do know that it can be – will be – as beautiful as an improvised melody over the chords of an old classic song, and as fresh as the budding branch off an ancient vine.
Which is, of course, how Jesus speaks of himself and his church. He is the vine; we are the branches. He promises that his life will abide in us as we remain connected to him. This promise was true for his tiny group of disciples who faced an uncertain future without his physical presence among them anymore, and it’s true for us in the unknown 21st century. Whatever the changes and chances of history, Jesus remains with his church insofar as it abides in and with him too.
And how do we do that, whatever improvisation of church tradition, routine, or program that we make? How do we abide in him? The answer is unchanging from Jesus’ time to our own:
One, we remember God’s undying love for us. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Two, we love one another as God has loved us. Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God.
Love is an internal disposition…
Love is action…
Beloved, in these changing and challenging time I call you back to the ancient wisdom of our faith and the eternal promise of Jesus: his love abides in us like the sap of a vine shared with its branches. Whatever the shape of things to come in church or society, our call remains the same: to love one another with the love with which he first loved us.
In the name of Jesus the Vine, Amen.