My apologies to those of you who have already read my blog post from a few weeks ago. It has now evolved into this September 20th homily. Discernment-wise and content-wise. This one you can also listen to or watch.
So, I begin in the same place and end in another.
Over the past several weeks, I have not been able to get the doo-whop 1964 song — Chapel of Love — out of my head. A Phil Spector hit, it spent three weeks on the Top 100 Charts and was made famous by the New Orleans pop girl group, the Dixie Cups.
Going’ to the chapel and we’re going to get married, goin’ to the chapel of love.
Spring is here (Fall for us!😊), the sky is blue, whoa-oh-oh. Birds all sing as if they knew. Today’s the day we’ll say “I do.” And we’ll never be lonely anymore.
Bells will ring, the sun will shine, whoa-oh-oh. I’ll be his and he’ll be mine. We’ll love until the end of time. And we’ll never be lonely anymore because...
We’re going to the chapel of love.
So, you might be thinking “Is Joani going to get married?” Oh my goodness! NOOOOOO!
The Chapel of Love has been echoing in my head, ever since Emmanuel’s staff first met on Virginia Seminary’s Holy Hill to visit the Chapel Garden – where we have begun to gather for outdoor worship.
Masked-up, Chuck, Ryan, Janie, Karen and I stood in the sanctified ruins — mapping out how we could safely and socially distanced celebrate Morning Prayer here. While we talked logistics, check-ins, frisbee-place- markers, electrical outlets, bathrooms, ushers and Clorox wipes — my mind wandered. It wandered back to the three different times — this Immanuel Chapel had been my spiritual home.
Back in the eighties, this is where I became an Anglican. Immanuel on-the-Hill is my home church. My children were baptized here and I taught Sunday School and chaired the Outreach Committee here. I read the lessons and passed the cup here. I remember distinctly the Christmas pageant where the Advent wreath “exploded” and two year-old Colleen escaped down the aisle and ended up behind the altar.❤️
In the nineties I was a student here. I made it to 8:15 chapel most mornings (though sometimes you could find me at the Dunkin’ Doughnuts down the hill.😊) In the cruciform Gothic 1881 Immanuel Chapel, I sat in the south transept, where across the aisle I had the stunning view of a triptych of Tiffany Windows. In all honesty, the biblical scene of Paul with King Agrippa and Queen Bernice was both obscure and totally lost on me. But the liquid blue iris radiated heavenly light. Heavenly light that lit my crooked three-year path to graduation.
And in 2007, in the mid aughts, I went to work here as a book-jockey at Bishop Payne Library. I loved my seven years of being staff: working with seminarians, spending other people’s money on books, running a little used book store. I used to refer to the library as the second chapel on campus — a holy place where a lot of holy reading – lectio divina – worship went on.
Virginia Seminary’s campus — the library and the classrooms and the chapel — the whole place is incredibly dear to me. And so, it was more than painful to be present on October 23rd of 2010. To stand in the grove and watch Immanuel Chapel burn to the ground. Students, staff, and faculty poured out of every building to see smoke and flames rising from the roof. The fire so fierce, firefighters and their trucks strained to put the fire out.
Not much survived. The altar rail was gone. The “Go Forth Into the World and Preach the Gospel” window over the altar was gone. The Tiffany Windows with the liquid blue iris – gone.
But the brick walls stood. The gazillion dollar capital campaign that followed and built the new “Chapel of the Ages”, also preserved the ruins in what is now the Chapel Garden.
And here we stood, our Emmanuel, planning to worship here in this holy ruin, in this holy space. This place of resurrection.
The fire led to a time when VTS worshipped in the wilderness – actually an auditorium in Addison Hall. The virus has led us to do the same. And both the fire and the virus have confronted us with our mortality, with the paper-thin fragility of life. How precious it is and how quickly it is gone.
Bishop Goff has called the Diocese to a time of “fasting from public worship.” We have been worshiping at home, as did the early Christians, digitally. This is how we love our neighbor and protect the most vulnerable members of the community. And now, in a new phase, we can also gather to worship outdoors.
The first Sunday was just lovely. The weather cooperated and all the behind the scenes planning by the staff paid off in spades. Our morning prayers literally rose to the skies as the Guitar Circle played — all masked, socially distanced, and safe. Space is limited, so you need to reserve a spot. Registration email will go out early each Tuesday prior to the coming Sunday service.
The choice to gather is a personal one and for many this may be a no brainer. “Of course, I want to come!” you might have said to yourself. But for others, never has the choice of whether to go to a church service ever been more fraught with anxiety. The excitement of return and reunion is palpable but it is also complicated by risk. Many of us, including myself, due to age, pre-existing conditions, health issues, professional limitations, family concerns, and other factors, find ourselves in a high risk category.
My vanity does not like me to admit it, but I am sixty-five. It is not a feeling. It is not an opinion. It is a fact. I am healthy and strong, but the data shows that the risk of severe illness goes up considerably at my age. I have yet to get my hair cut. I have cancelled my dentist appointments. I have travelled, basically from one bubble to another, to visit my new grand-baby Zelda in North Carolina and to house-sit my daughter’s home in D.C.. I have been in no group larger than a half a dozen.
This decision was a struggle for me, as I am sure it is for many. Up until a week ago or so, I was certain I wanted to return but discerned that I was not ready to lead in person worship. And I was grateful there was no pressure to do so from the Bishop or Chuck or the parish – given my age. But I worked through this decision carefully with my doctor and discerned that the risk – while not zero is low. I just ask you to back up 8 feet instead of 6!
I tell you this, so that we remember all of our fellow parishioners who because of the virus aren’t ready to venture out onto this Holy Hill. That we support them and care for them and that it is totally okay, if they are not ready. There is NO rush. Chapel Garden worship is an extension of Emmanuel at Home. Both are Morning Prayer.
One great discovery in this time of worshiping in the wilderness, is the discovery of sacred space and holy places are everywhere. The discovery that the church is far more than any four walls. So let me invite you now to close your eyes and visualize all of the holy places you have experienced these last six months: your living room, kitchen, backyard, porch, local park, neighborhood paths, and on zoom screens too. Our common prayers and praises will rise to the heavens whether we worship on VTS’s Holy Hill or back at home. Or both!
And because, this is a homily and not just a blog post, let me end with a little bit of the Gospel, definitely stretching the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard – beyond its usual interpretation. The Lord tells us that the “last shall be first and the first shall be last.” It does not matter when or where we “go to church” the blessings of our awesome and generous God fall equally upon us all.
And a reminder: Don’t forget Coffee Hour at half past eleven — where we can be all be together on Zoom. Good news, right? Today Ryan, our Music Director is the host and the theme is “Favorite Hymns.” I hope to see you there!
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog