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An Altared Heart: Sunday

Nickaela also says, “Sundays are hard because we are homesick for heaven.”

We feel the rupture of what was always meant to be together: earth and heaven. Earth-and-heaven. We feel how unheavenly earth is. We feel how unearthly heaven seems.

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Kingdom this earth, our Father.

Sundays are hard because we feel so far from home. We feel the toll our mobility has taken. The gears have been grinding all week as we learn to move at a different pace in an oh-so-familiar place. We feel now the toll that running from ourselves and from God has been taking every minute of every day. Give us this day. This day, O Lord.

Our church is live-streaming the service this morning. Our L’Abri co-workers and housemates are streaming the service for their church from the sunny, tiled floor room in our house because they are helping to lead their congregation through a pastoral transition. We “go” to their church this morning because it is here and I feel pangs of anxiety and guilt. I’m feeling lost right now in more ways than one.

The fact is, even before COVID-19 social distancing measures, we were moving toward the periphery of our church, beginning an exit and a transition to a different church. The main reason is geographical: we live 23.4 miles (thank you, Google) from our church, which in metro Boston feels like traveling to a different world every Sunday.

What does it mean to go to church right now? What does it mean to be the church right now?

Herbert looked at the altar and saw his heart. He looked at the walls of St. Andrew’s and saw stones…perhaps he looked out at the gathering of parishioners and also saw stones:

Wherefore each part Of my hard heart Meets in this frame, To praise thy name: That if I chance to hold my peace, These stones to praise thee may not cease. —George Herbert

On the first Palm Sunday, Jesus said of the exultant multitude, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:36-40). The apostle Peter—named “Rock”—clearly thought a lot about what it means to be a stone. He wrote to the church in exile under Nero’s violent persecutions:

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. —1 Peter 2:4-5

I imagine Jesus, standing on the threshold of my heart, taking a long, affectionate look around. I see him enter and lay his hands on the stony walls. I hear him say, we can work with this.

I think of so many scattered stones praying quietly in their homes this morning, perhaps joining live-streamed church services and singing along with the hymns coming through computer speakers. We can work with this. We’ve always been working with this.

What is God doing with this whole constellation of events? Pandemic and shortages of protective equipment. School closures, church “closures,” shifting timelines, uncertain projections, uncertainty projected. Our economy poised on a precipice.

My heart, the broken altar. My life and so many lives, scattered stones for the building of a spiritual house.

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. —Ezekiel 36:26

We can work with this.

For years—decades even—I have breezed past Psalm 23. It’s everywhere, after all. On pillows, framed in cross-stitch, on kitschy posters—everybody knows it. And like every good adolescent (and we all know how prolonged adolescence is these days), I rejected the familiar and the popular because it was…familiar and popular. And, I wrongly thought, it just seems too nice.

I cast for comfort I can no more getBy groping round my comfortless…

The worst thing is not the last thing. Sarah Chestnut

Throughout this past year, I have returned to Psalm 23 like…well, a hungry sheep to good pasture, a thirsty sheep to quiet waters. I have prayed it at night, as part of the liturgy of the pillows, prayed it when my heartbeat is too loud in my head, prayed it driving to and from my children’s schools, prayed it as a song, prayed it half-said, prayed it under my breath and when making bread. And this past week I have prayed it again and again walking the half-mile lane that runs through our neighborhood.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil, for you are with me;

Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

I have prayed this Psalm standing in my children’s bedroom doorways, brushing my hand over the doorframes, imagining the Hebrew people in Egypt painting lamb’s blood on their doorposts. I have prayed for Jesus’ blood to mark our doorposts. Then I’ve second-guessed that prayer. If I pray this am I saying COVID-19 is a plague on the earth, a mighty act of judgement which is also a mighty act of deliverance? Who can say that? Who is being judged? Who is being delivered?

I pray Christ’s blood on our doorposts, yes, as a plea that coronavirus will pass over our house and all who have sheltered here, but I pray it even more as a way to rehearse my ultimate hope whether or not illness finds its way to us. I pray and I plea Christ’s blood because, in Christ, judgement has already come. Death has been met and mastered. The worst thing is not the last thing. It is not Friday; it is not Saturday; it is Sunday, resurrection day.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Death is swallowed up in victory.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?

And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Today I might die. Yesterday I did not. All of my tomorrows belong to you,

Lord Jesus.

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