Not a New Normal but a Heavenly Next

John Spicer
January 24, 2021

Not a New Normal but a Heavenly Next

Click the film strip icon to the right or click here to watch the video.

Not a New Normal but a Heavenly Next
State-of-the-Parish Address
Mark 1:14-20

Welcome to an Annual Meeting Sunday like never before.  All through this year’s Annual Report, one ministry after another notes the strangeness, challenges, or difficulties of 2020.  And they’re right.  To me, 2020 seems like the experience of your first heartbreak: We all made it through, and we may be stronger for it; but few of us would choose to go through it again.

I think many of us wish we could rewind the clock and go back to the time before last February, when things were “normal.”  I’ve heard that longing from many of you who are aching to get together with family and friends, to come back to worship in person, to have a parish party … to say nothing of going to see a movie or taking a trip.  We can’t wait for things to get back to “normal.”

By the same token, we’ve heard countless people tell us to get ready for the “new normal” – a phrase many of us will be happy if we never hear again.  Of course, the problem is that we aren’t “there” yet – and once we are “there,” at the new normal, the goalposts will probably keep moving.  That new normal will be out of date a few months later – or less.

Through 2020 at St. Andrew’s, we did the best we could to be present and responsive to the “normal now,” whatever that was in a given moment.  The Annual Report gives us great examples of people’s creativity and heart as they looked around and said, “A pandemic isn’t going to shut down our worship.  A pandemic isn’t going to cut us off from each other.  A pandemic isn’t going to keep us from loving and serving God and the people around us.”

I am overwhelmingly grateful for the resilience, inspiration, sacrifice, and love you’ve shown this year in ministry, in generosity, and simply in showing up.  As hard as it’s been, 2020 has been one of those times St. Andrew’s will remember and say, “You know, God didn’t just bring us through that; God made us stronger.”

Well, part of growing stronger is living out this truth: We aren’t going back to what we knew as normal, and we shouldn’t be satisfied just coping with the “normal now.”  Instead, God is calling us to create the heavenly next.

How?  A few years ago, I wrote a book called Beating the Boundaries. If you actually read it, you’re part of a very exclusive club, so feel good about that.  It was about nine congregations that were stepping beyond what had been normal for them, combining their inherited approach to being church with new expressions of ministry to the people and the world around them.

In their own ways, each of those congregations was responding to the call Andrew and Peter heard in today’s Gospel reading: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17).  Andrew and Peter understood their work of fishing in a particular way.  They’d been fishing like that for years, thank you very much; and it had worked for them just fine.  But Jesus came by, in that pesky way he has of upending our conventional wisdom; and he said, “Yes, the fishing you’ve been doing is great.  And … let’s fish differently.”  Jesus was beating a boundary, and it changed Andrew’s and Peter’s lives – not to mention changing the world.

We need to apply this same kind of thinking to the question, “How will we be church after the pandemic?”  The beauty of the congregations I profiled in my book was that they never abandoned who they’d been; they just expressed their DNA in new ways for new times and contexts.  That’s our call now.  It’s time for us to move past responding to the pandemic and start beating the boundaries that separate us from the heavenly next that God wants us to find.

So, what boundaries shall we beat?  Well, there are five that rise to the top for me, priorities for this year that will help us express what’s always made us St. Andrew’s but in a world that will never be the same.

First, we need to beat the boundaries of worship in a post-pandemic world.  Though we wouldn’t have asked for it, we’ve had opportunity this year to learn a lot about making virtual worship meaningful and connective for people at home.  The fact that we had livestreaming capacity, and that we could work on improving it in 2020, meant worship was less of a pandemic boundary for us than it was for many congregations.  But still, we’ve got work to do to provide a worship experience in which people encounter Jesus fully in Word and Sacrament, whether they’re in a pew or on the couch.  For example, think about our worship in the summer and fall, before we had to suspend in-person services a second time.  If you were at home, you got to see visuals on the screen as part of our sermons, but you received Communion only spiritually.  If you were in the nave, you received Jesus’ Body in your hands, but you couldn’t see what people at home were seeing during the sermon.  We need to move toward making the worship experience as complete as we can, regardless of whether you’re sitting on your couch or in a pew.

Second, we need to beat the boundaries of parish life in a post-pandemic world.  In 2020, we learned that people can come together virtually for meaningful fun, fellowship, and learning. Of course, we’re all looking forward to the next Haiti Dinner or Trivia Night or Discovery class where we can actually sit next to someone and enjoy a conversation.  But even once we can come back together, we’ll still need to share parish life with people who can’t or don’t want to return to it in person.  With activities like coffee hour, Sunday school, youth gatherings, newcomer classes, and other learning opportunities, we’ll have to figure out how to bring people together so that physical separation doesn’t stop fellowship. With both worship and parish life, we’ll have to learn how to inhabit a new reality, what a market-research firm calls “phygital reality” – a hybrid of the physical and digital worlds.1

Third, we need to beat the boundaries of pastoral care.  2020 has reminded us how deeply we need connection with God and each other.  It mattered that, twice last year, Vestry members, Parish Care volunteers, clergy, and staff called members just to check in.  It mattered that we brought Christmas Communion to homebound members’ front doors.  It mattered that the Order of St. Luke was praying for people every week.  But 2020 showed us that we need to continue building our capacity to provide the care you need.  We still have work to do to beat the boundary of our expectation that pastoral care is something only “holy” people with clerical collars do.  And we need to beat the boundary that regular checking-in by trained parishioners might seem just too hard for us to pull off.  It can’t be.  So, in 2021, we’ll keep at it: equipping more people to check in and show God’s love, doing a better job of systematizing contacts with you, and continuing to improve our use of data to care for you.

Fourth, we need to beat the boundaries of our church walls.  Before the pandemic, we’d been making solid progress with this.  The church and HJ’s Youth and Community Center were busy nearly all the time, both with St. Andrew’s people and folks from our neighborhoods.  Some of that community use we sponsored as part of our mission, and some of it helped with our bottom line.  We’d realistically planned that event revenue at HJ’s would cover the cost of the building’s operation in 2020 … until March came.  We’d also planned to launch a new worship experience at HJ’s called Trailside, a less-formal service with more accessible music to tap into the spiritual longing of our Brookside and Waldo neighbors we aren’t reaching otherwise.  Now, we have to get Trailside launched this year, once it’s safe and reasonable to have a service in the friendly confines of HJ’s.  I hope that can happen at back-to-school time.  In the ways we offer worship and engage with people around us, we need to help them see that the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement offers grace and hope, even if they aren’t so interested in reading from the Prayer Book among stained-glass windows.

Finally, we need to beat the boundaries of difference and learn to love people who aren’t like us.  COVID certainly wasn’t the only challenge our country faced in 2020.  Protests in our streets and a divided election have shown clearly how much we struggle to listen to each other and to hear godly intent in people with whom we differ.  In 2020, we began trying to listen to our neighbors of color.  We prayed with neighbors on Troost.  We gathered folks from St. Andrew’s and folks from St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church on the east side to experience art together and talk about what they saw.  We had plans for more gatherings like that, until COVID got in the way.  Once the pandemic allows, we’ll start that up again, as well as offering opportunities for book and film discussions here.  At the same time, we learned how differently people in our own parish view the world and how hard it can be for us to talk about our passions, hopes, and dreams for ourselves and our nation.  And, with our baptismal promises to love all people, respect all people’s dignity, and strive for justice and peace, we heard calls from parishioners for the church to proclaim more publicly what we stand for as Episcopalians.  All these situations point to the reality that, whoever we are, we need to grow in loving our neighbors who aren’t like us.  So, we’ll try to understand each other better by beating the boundaries of race and worldview, learning how to hear each other’s passions, hopes, and dreams for God’s world.

Clearly, we’ve got our work cut out for us.  But you know, we serve a Savior who’s already beat the ultimate boundary.  It was the boundary of death, with three crosses as its fenceposts and a tomb as its guardhouse.  On Good Friday afternoon, it looked like death had won.  On Holy Saturday, experience showed that sin held even the best of us bound.  But then came Easter morning, and the ultimate boundary was beat.

Jesus has already done the hard work of resurrection for us.  All he’s asking us to do is this: to look at fishing differently and then hit the road, loving one another and the people we meet along the way.  We can do that.  What we can’t do is say that journey is too hard.  What we can’t do is say we’ve never fished like that before.  Instead, we’ve got to follow Jesus and beat our boundaries: the boundaries of worship, the boundaries of parish life, the boundaries of pastoral care, the boundaries of our church walls, and the boundaries of our differences.  If we’re faithful in that, I believe Jesus will be there helping us clear the path, leading us not simply to endure a new normal but to move down the road toward the heavenly next.

  1. “Top 10 Global Consumer Trends 2021.” Euromonitor International. January 2021. Available at: https://www.euromonitor.com/top-10-global-consumer-trends-2021/report. Accessed Jan. 20, 2021.