3 When the seventh month came, and the Israelites were in the towns, the people gathered together in Jerusalem. 2 Then Jeshua son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel with his kin set out to build the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as prescribed in the law of Moses the man of God. 3 They set up the altar on its foundation, because they were in dread of the neighboring peoples, and they offered burnt offerings upon it to the Lord, morning and evening. 4 And they kept the festival of booths, as prescribed, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number according to the ordinance, as required for each day, 5 and after that the regular burnt offerings, the offerings at the new moon and at all the sacred festivals of the Lord, and the offerings of everyone who made a freewill offering to the Lord.
The passage above comes from the story of the return of the Israelites from their exile in Babylon. It takes up the whole of the first few chapters of Ezra, and I chose this story because it is one way to explain our experiences over the course of the last 14 months – we have been in exile. The Hebrews were in exile because of war and politics, and we have been in exile because of disease, but it’s an apt image, I think.
This passage also came to mind because it describes not a sudden return, but a gradual one. The Hebrew people were in the land for seven months before they gathered in Jerusalem for worship. They began with a single altar, presumably in or near the ruins of the Temple. They were still afraid, and anxious, but in the midst of that anxiety, they began again the whole annual cycle of worship that had been so familiar to their ancestors, which they had kept alive in exile despite their circumstances. They returned to the burnt offerings and festival of booths, the freewill offerings and other sacred festivals. They slowly began to rebuild, and work toward their own version of “new normal.” Things would never return to the way they were before the exile, but they would find a new way to practice their ancient faith.
Starting on Sunday, June 6th, we will be returning to in-person worship in our sanctuary at 10:30am. Our return from exile will be a bit like that of the Hebrews, on a much smaller scale. We will return, not to how things were 14 months ago, but to how they are now. Rather than go through all of the decisions that are involved in returning to worship in person, we are just going to lay out two things you’ll notice if you choose to join us for worship (apart from the joy!): masking and social distancing.
We will ask everyone who attends worship to wear a mask. Masks will be available in case you forget yours. The two main reasons for this decision are that we do not know, and will not be asking, what visitors’ vaccination status is, and also because we want children and their caregivers to feel as welcome as possible. Children of course cannot yet be vaccinated, and we are not yet ready to invite children back to our nursery and childcare during worship. This means that children will be joining us during the worship service (we hope!) and we want them to feel like they are welcome and safe to do so. We expect to revisit the question of childcare during worship after July 4th, and will be sure to let everyone know when childcare is available for worship. Our plan is for it to be available, but not yet.
You will notice that our worship team, staff and volunteers, will not be wearing masks when leading worship. This is because all of our staff and volunteers are fully vaccinated, and when leading worship we will be far enough away from the nearest parishioners (20-30 feet at least) that we will pose little additional risk. When we are not actively leading worship, we will be masked so that others are as safe as possible.
We will also be encouraging social distancing, which like masking is not new to any of us. For the first two weeks of June, every other pew will remain taped off, and after those two weeks we will assess whether that policy is helping people remain spaced apart, or whether it is just funneling people into fewer pews and making it hard to be socially distant. The Session was divided on this issue so we are going to see how it works in practice.
The Narthex is of course a traditional place for pre-and-post-worship socializing, but we will ask that you greet one another outside the sanctuary. We don’t want a situation where people have to move through a crowded room in order to enter or leave the sanctuary. When we are passing the peace, we will encourage our previous no-contact option of a bow in greeting with a hand over one’s heart, or a minimal-touch greeting of the “elbow bump.” The most important thing is that we respect one another. We expect that some people will choose to shake hands or hug, especially if they are part of the same family or group of friends who have been in contact and know one another’s vaccine status. We also want it to be easy and comfortable for those who wish minimal contact or no contact to greet one another and pass the peace.
We want to reiterate that it is our plan to continue live-streaming worship services for the foreseeable future. We know that some people will prefer to join us for worship in that way for a variety of reasons, and we will continue to share worship in that way as well as in person. If you join us live, please let us know you are there through YouTube chat.
Over these past 14 months, we have been incredibly thankful for how you have all responded to the challenges we’ve faced. We have seen new leaders step up, new volunteers step forward, and through it all we have sought to remain in contact with one another. Like the Israelites, we have continued to worship and practice our faith even while in exile. We can now plan to re-open, and trust that we will be gracious and welcoming toward one another, and that we will continue to prioritize one another’s safety and health. We are eager to gather in person once again!
Yours in Christ,
The Session of First Presbyterian Church of Phoenixville
May 27, 2021