Last night seven people worshipped in St Andrew’s Tiberias. Only one was a ‘regular’, a young (non-Catholic) woman volunteering at one of the Catholic sites nearby who values the opportunity to receive weekly Communion. She was also the only native English speaker in the congregation.
When I invited everyone to join with me in saying the Lord’s Prayer in their own language, I heard whispers of Dutch, Croatian and German alongside our English.
This is a normal Sunday service in Tiberias. I don’t know how many will come, what language they speak, what denomination they are, what their political views might be, what theology they hold dear, what hymns they know. I once prepared a short, simple sermon because I had been contacted by two Dutch pilgrim group leaders saying their groups would come to the service but they didn’t speak very good English. Neither came, but a group of American pastors did.
We don’t have a musician in our small community so we rely on a hymn machine. I joke that it’s better than a bad organist and certainly better than nothing at all, but when a visitor volunteers to play piano, it adds a special depth to the worship (and is well worth the last minute scramble to find hymns they are familiar with).
Last week, my colleague Rev John McCulloch was up from Jerusalem and played a couple of the hymns on the piano. Midway through the service a small group of Presbyterians from the Cameroon joined us, and though my spirit was low that evening, God’s Spirit swooped and dived and danced among us, and the the music drenched my parched heart as I rested in the truth of the words we sang together:
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!
Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
Each Sunday, without fail, I find myself surprised by grace. I never would have applied for this position if St Andrew’s didn’t celebrate Communion weekly. I need that constant reminder in the sacrament that God is present in all I do: God is present in the hospitality, the cleaning, the admin, the driving, the meetings, the meals, the difficult conversations, the laughter, the community, the loneliness, the frustration, the rest.
Regardless of what the week has held, regardless of how I am feeling as I print the service sheets and iron the linens and polish the silver and light the candles and lay the table, God shows up. God shows up in the quiet as I sit in the church alone before the service. God shows up in the conversations I have with the curious passers by who see the open door. God shows up in the readings and the prayers. And God shows up in the bread and wine. Always.
I love hearing what led people to this land, to this town, to this church. It is one of the great privileges of ministry to see God at work in the lives of others, and this summer I witnessed the fruits of God’s love as I baptised five people and led six others in reaffirming their baptismal vows. Standing in the Jordan River, feeling the fish tickling my toes, I adapt the words of the Scottish Episcopal Church’s baptismal prayer: Here in the waters of Jordan penitents found forgiveness in the baptism of John. Here, Jesus your beloved child was anointed with the Holy Spirit, that he might bring us to the glorious liberty of the children of God.
Anxiety and awe mingle in that moment before immersion. I was never trained in full immersion baptisms, but nothing could have prepared me anyway for feeling the weight of another person give way as the water envelops them, or watching their expression change as I pull them back upright. There is always a flash of disorientation, almost fear in the eyes, and then the smile — that pure, innocent joy. Fear and joy. Dying and rising. Salvation soaks the skin.
We’ve had some infant baptisms in the church as well, families from Nazareth. I explain carefully that other churches (Catholic, Orthodox) probably won’t recognise the baptism. ‘Oh, that doesn’t bother us,’ one family said. ‘We want you to do it. You talk about God’s love like it’s true.’
I realised as people gathered in the church that the congregation was made up of Muslims, Druze and Jews as well as Christians. Small children laughed and squirmed. Adults looked uneasy. ‘We are all God’s beloved children,’ I began, ‘and while this is a Christian service welcoming this baby into the Church, we are all here to share God’s love with this child and his parents. Please say the words you feel able to say and participate in a way that you feel reflects your own faith.’ We continued with Communion after the baptism for those who wished to stay. I gave the invitation I always give: ’This is the Lord’s table. And all who love him are welcome here.’ We shared bread and wine. And God showed up.
The congregation in Tiberias will never be considered ‘thriving’. I’ve come to accept that (though in my three years here, I’ve learned that there are more on the fringes than one would suspect). But nearly every Sunday, someone says to me, ‘I needed prayer/fellowship/silence/Communion/God’s word. Thank you for being open.’
I can fret about the liturgy and the hymns and the sermon and how awkward it feels to prepare a service for an unknown gathering. But in the end, none of that is what really matters. I set the table. I open the door. We open our hearts. And God shows up. Always.