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April 14, 2019 Palm Sunday, 10 AM
While visiting the Jersey Shore, I attended my second Episcopal Church. When I walked into the small sanctuary, the greeter handed me a bulletin and said that the service was starting in another part of the church, which explained why the chapel was empty. The greeter led me toward the altar area, turned right, through a couple of smaller rooms, then turned right again into what appeared to be the fellowship hall. There were probably fifteen to twenty people gathered, all chatting away with a comfortable familiarity. I walked into the midst of this informal gathering and chose a seat at one of the tables. I sat down. And I watched as everyone continued talking to each other. An older woman in a white alb (long white robe) walked past me and said “hello.” I thought she might be the pastor.
After a good five minutes, the three men at my table took a break in their conversation. I had been writing a couple of notes on my bulletin and one of the men turned to me and asked, “What, are you a reporter?” I replied in the negative and said I was just taking notes. Then, he said “my name is Bill, nice to meet you,” while offering me his hand. I shook it and greeted him with my name.
Another five minutes passed. One more person introduced herself as Terri. At ten minutes after ten, the actual pastor appeared. I could tell because she wore more elaborate, colorful robes. Plus, she announced that she was starting the service with the blessing of the palms, which we would then carry with us as we processed outside and back inside the sanctuary. She sprinkled water over the leaves with what looked like an incense burner, while saying the blessing. Then we were to sing while carrying the palms to the other location. Problem was the choir leader led the procession and when he left the room, no one kept singing. Again, without a lead singer, most non-singers won’t sing.
We entered the sanctuary, trying to sing the upbeat praises of “Hosanna,” but it wasn’t quite working. Instead of the “triumphal entry,” it felt more like the “cheerless approach.” But, hey, we tried.
The service continued with four scripture readings, one of which was fifty verses. Then the pastor delivered her sermon. I always try to find something good in every sermon as I know how hard it is to write one every week. So, I can say that she prepared the sermon ahead of time. She did not wing it. That’s the best I can come up with. There was nothing that moved me or made me think. Every sermon ought to either stir your emotions or leave you with something to chew on. I’m afraid she missed the mark on both fronts.
A long written prayer followed the sermon, then we passed the peace. Once again, everyone stood up and greeted everyone else, far and wide. I stayed in my pew until the choir and the pastor got to me, which took at least another five minutes. Then came the announcements.
Okay, at this point I’m wondering if I can slip out. But I remind myself that it would be disrespectful to GOD, if not to everyone here, to leave. So I stay.
We move into the communion time which is familiar and meaningful to me. But the best part of the service came at the very end. I had been following the father/son conversations going on behind me the whole time. The dad said things like, “stop fidgeting,” “keep your voice down,” “put that away,” and other instructions on how to behave in church. Just before the end of the service, the dad said, “okay, when she calls you up there, just go up, get blessed and come back to your seat. No goofing off, just go up and get blessed and comeback, got it?”
The pastor called the boy forward for his seventeenth birthday blessing. The boy stood up behind me. His father whispered again, “don’t run, stay calm.” The boy walked up the aisle and stopped in front of the pastor. He seemed to have a learning disability, maybe slight autism. The pastor placed her right hand on his head and asked God to watch over and bless this young man on his birthday and always. She thanked God for him and for his joyous personality. When she finished, the small congregation clapped and the pastor hugged the boy. He turned around and came back to his pew without incident. I could feel the dad breathe a sigh of relief.
This little moment of blessing was the best part of the whole service. It was honest, genuine and raw. It’s what makes the church the CHURCH. I’m glad I stayed for it.
I left by the main door, greeting the pastor on the way out. She said, “thank you for coming.” Because no one asked my name or welcomed me, especially in the fellowship hall, this church FAILED the WELCOME TEST.