Rev. Valarie Englert, Senior Pastor
On the way home from recording our video segment for A Virtual Night in Bethlehem, my husband Rick and I began to sniff.
Cumin! Fennel! Cinnamon!
This took us back to late nights after A Night in Bethlehem in past years.
Since Rick and I host the spices booth with awesome volunteers each year, we’ve come to expect and enjoy the scent of spices lingering in our nostrils and clothes.
We recalled stories from A Night in Bethlehem, and felt pangs of sadness at not being able to enjoy the wonder of Bethlehem in our church building this year.
But we also felt a sense of connection.
This year – on Friday, December 11 at 7:00pm – First United Methodist Church Garland will host A Virtual Night in Bethlehem, ushering the village of Jesus’ birth with all its swirling activity right into our homes.
It’s a meaningful connection, don’t you think?
Along with all the sadness and frustration of our current crisis, we are being given the gift of relating what goes on in the church building with our homes.
Our dining tables have become altars, our living rooms and home offices sanctuaries for worship.
It’s a “Temple-synagogue” dynamic.
In ancient Israel, the Temple in Jerusalem was the locus of worship, sacrifice and festivals.
God’s Presence was understood to dwell in the Temple. But the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 587 BCE.
Great swaths of the population were deported into forced exile hundreds of miles away.
And so the question arose, “If we can’t worship in the Temple, then where is God? And how do we worship?”
The synagogue was the answer to that dilemma.
Groups of exiles began gathering to read the scriptures, to chant the Psalms, and to pray together.
(The word “synagogue” comes from a Greek noun that means “assembly” or “gathering.”)
The gatherings of worship cropped up wherever the people of God lived.
As they worshipped, they realized God wasn’t confined to the Temple.
God was with them, wherever they were!
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were a lay-reform movement that sought to bring the practice of worship and Torah beyond even the synagogue.
They wanted to bring faith practice into everyday life.
Blessings, ushering in the Sabbath, communing at the table over a meal, welcoming the stranger as guest – all of these were part of worship practice that moved into the homes of practicing Jews.
(One of the things Jesus argued with the Pharisees about centered around some of these very questions – How do we worship God with our whole being, day in and day out? How do we practice Torah in any given situation?)
The early Christians experienced something similar: since there were occasions they weren’t welcome in the synagogue, or if they found themselves in a town where there was no synagogue, then how would they worship?
They gathered in homes, sharing the Lord’s Supper, searching the scriptures, praying together.
And God was with them.
Our virtual worship invites us to engage in these very questions ourselves.
We gather virtually, making our homes places of worship that connect to other worshippers.
Some segments are recorded in our sanctuary, inviting us to mirror what’s happening in the sanctuary in our own homes.
In the coming season of Advent and Christmas, you will see the Advent candles being lit in the sanctuary.
In addition, families will lead us in lighting the Advent candles in their own homes, connecting our home space with the formal worship space of the sanctuary ever more deeply.
We miss our sanctuary – especially at this time of the year.
Pandemic fatigue compounds this.
But God is with us, wherever we are. All the time.
Connecting us to each other and to the world through the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.
We can trust God’s presence with us, and give thanks.