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03.29.20 When Life Looks to the Lord Mark 10.17-22 Sermon Summary

In this famous exchange between Jesus and an interested disciple, Jesus seems to be in a testy mood. First he challenges the young man: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone!” Then he’s short with his answer to the man’s question: “You know the commandments. Why are you asking me?”

Maybe Jesus is so testy because he’s having the same experience as the rest of us.

We have a person who comes to Jesus and asks about eternal life, a life that is more than this ordinary life. He’s taken his first steps towards following Jesus, towards a life of faith. The same is true for all of us. We may not be rich and young, but all of us can follow Jesus and live a life of faith.

That’s the hopeful part of this story. Anyone can follow Jesus. The hard part of the story is that following Jesus and having a life of faith requires sacrifice. What is the sacrifice that must be made? For the rich young man, as for all of us, and even for Jesus, the sacrifice is ourselves. It is our egos and the idols to which our egos attach.

Let’s start with the rich young man. He has his whole life ahead of him. We’re not talking just about time. It isn’t just because he’s young. He’s also rich. He has endless opportunities.

He is rich young man, a person of privilege: Rich, young, male. As Luke tells the story he’s also a ruler. So he’s rich, young, male, and well-connected. Young people of privilege have endless opportunities. He could invest in himself and become even more rich. He could afford to take some time off, maybe take a gap year after graduation or serve in the Peace Corps and come back to privilege. He could become a “prodigal son” and waste his opportunities in “dissolute living.”

Or he could follow Jesus and live a life of faith. On some scoresheets he’s already living a life of faith. He’s obeyed all the rules even “from his youth,” he tells Jesus. This is the kind of boy we hope our daughters bring home, except Jesus is not impressed. “You lack one thing,” Jesus responds.

One thing?! This evokes hope. It pulls us to the edge of our seats. This is the answer! One thing! “What? What is it? What is the one thing, Jesus? Eternal life rests on only one thing?! Tell me what it is!”

“Sell what you own,” Jesus continues, “give to the poor, and THEN come follow me.”

Not all of us are people of privilege. Many of us are not young. Not many are rich. Some are not socially privileged and we may not be well-connected. But like this young man all of us have an idol, an identity to which our egos are attached.

It may be an achievement or a gift. A responsibility we bear or the time we were a victim. An addiction we have or a grudge we nurse. An image we maintain or a goal we are pursuing. Or like this rich young man, a social standing. These define who we are, and to follow Jesus requires that we give them up.

We can no longer be the perfect mom, the stoic leader, the loyal employee, or the answer man. We can no longer be the fixer, the optimist, the reasonable one, or the comedian. To follow Jesus requires we leave these ego identities behind and become real-time followers of Jesus, people of faith, people on a journey.

That’s what Mark tells us about Jesus: “As Jesus was setting out on a journey . . .” Jesus is out learning about himself. One thing he’s discovered is that God alone is good. People keep coming to him but he knows only God is good. All he can do is point to the goodness of God. “You may look to me, you may follow me. But all I can do is point you to God.”

The revelation that comes through Jesus is that if we want to live with God we have to sacrifice ourselves, sacrifice our egos, and sacrifice the idols to which our egos are attached.

This is the answer to the rich young man’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life? To have a life that counts for eternity and not just a life full of options?” “[An overabundance of options sets] our expectations so high, no one individual choice could ever satisfy them, leaving millions with the feeling ‘I have everything I could ever need, so why do I feel so unhappy?'” (Becoming a Beloved Community, p. 27)

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is the question of anyone who would follow Jesus. We desire a life like Jesus’ life, a life more meaningful than following a set of religious rules, more meaningful than satisfying the whims of our desires. “What must we do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus answered this question for the rich young man. He directed his gaze to God alone who is good. And today do you realize that life is forcing us to look to the Lord God? We are being forced to answer, “What is truly important in our lives? Where is our eternal life?”

Is it working extra hours? Is it going to the gym? Is it shopping to fill the void? Is it going to the casinos? Is it going to the salon? Is it attending another meeting? Is it volunteering at another charity?

“What must we do to inherit eternal life?” Just as Jesus answered the rich young man, so life is answering us. “Stop!” is the answer. “Slow down. Pay attention. Look to the Lord. The resurrected Christ is in your midst—in the laughter of children, in the swaying of trees, in the flavor of foods, in the mundanity of your homes, in the needs of your neighbors.”

Life is saying to us, “Get your ego and your idol out of the way. Look to the Lord. Attend to those whom you now are able to see. Give what you have—give who you are—for the benefit of the needy.”

“And then,” Jesus says, “for that eternal life you ask about, come follow me. For now I can lead you.”

Lord Jesus, the demands of life are burdensome to us this day, in ways few of us have ever encountered before. We are isolated, we are uncertain, we are surrounded by fearful voices. But within each of our lives, and among all the voices, you bring God’s Word to us. Help us to receive what we have heard this day, about looking to the goodness of the one you called Father. And as you taught us in Matthew 25, help us to remember, that as we attend to our neighbors, it is you whom we serve. Amen.

03.22.20 Upside Down and Inside Out Mark 2.1-12 Sermon Summary

A very famous story found in the Gospel of Mark turns the world upside down. Today we find we must turn this story inside out.

Jesus was from Nazareth but he appears to have made Capernaum his ministry base in Galilee. It was there he called the first disciples and taught in the synagogue, “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” He also healed a man with an unclean spirit.

Then Jesus went “to neighboring towns, “proclaiming the message, and healing” those who were sick. Eventually he returned to Capernaum and by then word had spread. Jesus had become famous. The house where he was teaching was filled so that even the doorway was crowded.

We’re told that four people brought a paralyzed man to Jesus. I wonder if the paralytic asked to be taken to Jesus? “C’mon guys, take your paralyzed friend to this healer!” Or did the four friends use the paralytic as a gambit? “The doors are blocked and we need a way in!”

Either way, Jesus wasn’t “accessible.” The crowds around him were too big. Today some people may feel that Jesus isn’t accessible. To sinners he’s too holy. After all he’s GOD, right? To the marginalized he’s too privileged, too American, rich, and powerful. To submissive women he’s too much of a man. To the uneducated he’s too much of a Rabbi. To the modern he’s too historical. To the introvert he’s too extraverted. To the extraverted he’s too mystical.

To the four friends Jesus wasn’t accessible. But they were determined: The fifth friend would meet Jesus. Finding the way obstructed they climbed the house, tore open the roof, and lowered their friend into the room.

Did Jesus feel his hand had been forced? Of course he cared but he didn’t heal EVERYONE. “Seeing their faith,” Mark reports—the faith of the four—Jesus proclaimed the fifth man’s sins forgiven. And to prove his authority to forgive sins as redeemer, he proved his authority as creator and recreated the man. He healed the paralytic.

This was the result the four friends expected. But  on what were their expectations based? Why were they so determined to overcome the obstacles, the crowds, the building, the roof? Could it be because they saw in Jesus God’s determination to overcome obstacles?

Did they recognize in Jesus God’s passion to have a relationship with us? Did they recognize God’s commitment and determination that no matter what obstacles there were, God would overcome them in Jesus?

When God saw our pride God was born to us in a manger. When God saw our religion God spoke to us in a prophet. When God saw our prejudice God came to us from Nazareth of all places.  When God saw our sickness God rose to us as the sun with healing in his wings. When God saw our captivity to sin God was born to us as one under law.

So when the four friends saw this and heard Jesus’ preaching they saw God’s steadfast determination to overcome every obstacle, to surmount every challenge, and to once again be our God and we God’s people. No trial is so onerous, no river is so wide, no wilderness is so dry, no sin is so separating, no plague is so deadly, that God’s grace cannot overcome it.

And so those four were inspired to look past the crowds, to look over the high walls, to break through the barriers, and lower their needy friend into the presence of Jesus and see the redemption and healing for themselves.

These four friends turned the world upside down. Convention dictated the door; they went through the roof. Etiquette said, “wait your turn;” they prioritized justice. If culture says, “take care of yourself,” they took care of their friend. “That’s what loving friends do–they go out of their way, out of compassion, to bring others in need to the Lord.” (Becoming a Beloved Community, p. 22)

This story turned the world upside down. Now we must turn it inside out. They brought the sick to Jesus, now we have to bring Jesus to the sick. They made extraordinary efforts to bring the needy to Jesus, now we have to make extraordinary efforts to bring Jesus to the needy. They overcame obstacles to bring their neighbor to Jesus, now we must turn it inside out. We must overcome obstacles to bring Jesus to our neighbors.

We bring Jesus to others by shopping in community stores, by ordering take out, by sharing with our neighbors. We bring Jesus to others by purchasing gas at the corner store, by delivering hand washed produce to our neighbors, by writing notes, making calls, and reaching out. We turn the story inside out and bring Jesus to others by asking how we can pray for them, by sharing how we see God at work in the world, and by reminding them that we are not alone.

Despite our solidarity in experience: “Stay home. Wash your hands. Don’t touch others.” Despite our solidarity in experience we do not share community unless we do what those four friends did. We must recognize that God came to us in Jesus, and so we go to others.

We can turn this story inside out. We can lift Jesus out of the house, out of the church. We can bring Jesus to the paralytics in our lives; bring him to the isolated, bring him to the sick, bring him to the children out of school, bring him to the desperate out of work, bring him to the overwhelmed parents.

In Christ God turned the world upside down by overcoming every obstacle to come to us. In Christ we can turn the Gospel inside out. Instead of bringing people to the church, we can bring the church to the people.

May God show you this day how you can do this in your unique life. For our neighbors need Jesus and you are the Body of Christ. Amen.

03.15.20 To the People of Faith Presbyterian

Brothers and Sisters in Christ. Today was already to be a unique Sunday in the life of our church. We were to have a shortened service of worship, followed by an extended offering of service as worship. Now we understand how unique it actually is.

Three days ago the Session made the extraordinary decision to cancel weekly worship services for four weeks, despite this being one of the holiest times of the year in the church’s calendar. We’ve also directed small groups to be especially vigilant in their gatherings.

These decisions were made in faith, hope, and love. Faith that God can provide for the spiritual well-being of the members of Christ’s Body outside of corporate worship. Hope that with precautionary action, we may slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and allow for the medical community to care for the sick and find a cure. And love for the members of our community who are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of the virus.

Some might wonder how the church can be the church without corporate worship. You know that this question fueled my doctoral studies in liturgical theology. In fact, however, there has always been a relationship between official worship and personal devotion—and often in the history of the church that relationship has been strained. And while we have a more thorough record of the church’s official worship through liturgical documents, we also acknowledge the sustaining power of personal devotion.

To be more to the point, canceling worship as we have done has caused many of us—scholars, pastors, and people in the pews—to recognize anew this parallel life in the church. You are a child of God even if we cannot baptize you at this time. You are one with Christ even if we cannot break one bread. You may hear God speak to you through Scripture apart from a prayerfully discerned and studied sermon.

Most importantly, you don’t need a shortened worship service to prepare you to serve in your life as worship. This has been your calling all along. And the world, especially now, needs us to be the church in service as worship.

We must serve those in need, speaking words of assurance to an anxious people that God is steadfast and faithful. We must serve those in need, providing for those whose resources have run out. We must serve those in need, protecting those whom society easily overlooks as unimportant. We must serve those in need, praying for those who care and provide for others, who protect and govern our communities.

“What shall I do now that worship has been cancelled?” The answer is, “Worship God!”—not with organ, choir, sermon, and sacrament—but with love in service to others. This morning take time to listen for God’s Word. I was to preach on Luke 14:12-24. There Jesus instructs his disciples to invite those who have no status to join them at a meal. They were already having a meal, so the teaching would apply to the next opportunity.

Our next opportunity to have a meal with Jesus is April 12, Resurrection Sunday. Beginning today you might pray that God would lead you to those whom you may not only serve, but whom you may also invite to join us at the Lord’s Table.

Go in peace to serve the Lord. Amen.

Further Clarification on Small Groups

Initial Further Clarification—IHN, Small Groups, and Leadership Meetings

Friends of Faith,

Since announcing that worship has been cancelled from March 15 through April 5, two recurring questions have surfaced: What about IHN host week beginning April 5 and what about small groups?

Since we’ve never cancelled worship over a lengthy duration before, we are working this out as we go—building the plane as we fly, so to speak. Though our ongoing research may modify the recommendations we are offering now, we want to provide some initial further guidance in line with the most conservative precautions.

We encourage the continued gathering of small groups of ten (10) or less, whether at the church or at people’s homes. The host location will need to be thoroughly disinfected prior to and following the gathering. People should wash their hands immediately upon entering the location. Greetings should not include physical contact. Seating should be generously spread. Any food served should be done individually, not family style. Of course, if you feel sick, are at increased risk, may have been exposed, or are overly anxious, do not participate in a small group. But do let your other members know.

Should your group exceed the conservative 10 person limit, it will up to your members to decide whether to meet. Until we know more, we encourage the limit, especially if the group meets at the church.

With regards to IHN host week, we’ll be in touch with IHN early next week to put together a plan. While we will not worship April 5, setup that day and hosting that week should still be able to occur without interruption. At this point, we are planning on having Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil services (April 9-11).

Another form of small group is the leadership team. Session has found using Google Meet to be an effective way to facilitate remote meetings of limited numbers. People can use their computer or telephone to participate. If your leadership team needs to meet and wants to avoid the precautions outlined above, a Google search on how to use Google Meet will yield a tutorial you may use to learn how to make use of this technology.

You can count on more guidance from us on an ongoing basis as we continue to research and adapt solutions to our congregation.

Thank you for your patience with and care for one another through this uniquely challenging time. Let us remain in prayer for our church and the world.

Prayerfully,

The Session

Letter to Faith Presbyterian Church re: Cancelling Worship

Letter to Faith Presbyterian Church, March 13, 2020

Friends of Faith

We are writing tonight having watched developments concerning the novel coronavirus over the past several days. Many of us have read widely through materials provided by our local and federal governments, the medical community, and other church and community leaders. As of tonight, March 13, 2020, we are cancelling worship services at Faith Presbyterian Church effective for four (4) weeks, including Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020.

To some of you this information will come as a relief. To others it may sound extreme. This decision to cancel worship is not one we make lightly. We all know the essential need we have as humans to worship God and to be together. The Lord’s Day Service is the largest and most public way we do this as church. But it is not the only way.

One of our first tasks in the days ahead will be to identify ways we as the church—that is, all of us—can maintain spiritual practices that allow us to worship God and remain connected. Already some members of the staff and Dr. Tom are working on this. The Deacons and Session will play a crucial role, as will your own circle of spiritual friends at Faith as we continue to care for one another.

We ask you to take initiative to let your Deacon, Tom, or the leader or another member of your small group know how you are doing. Though we may not be together physically, our baptismal unity in Christ ensures that we are never alone. Be assured of our prayers for all of you.

A subsequent task in the weeks ahead is to determine how we may sustain ministry to and with one another and the world in this and similar situations. We envision using technology to facilitate our ability to worship and remain connected. We will also be determining how best to serve our neighbors.

Throughout the duration of our cancellations, we will of course continue monitoring the novel coronavirus and attendant COVID-19 disease, plus any related developments.

Dr. Tom has written an article for our church and denomination which you can find on his blog (www.tomtrinidad.com). In it he reminds us of the precautions we can take. These include: (1) Regularly washing one’s hands for 20 seconds with soap and running water; (2) Limiting physical contact with others; (3) Not touching one’s nose and mouth; (4) Disinfecting surfaces often; (5) Quarantining oneself if you feel sick or may have been exposed to the virus; (6) Coughing/sneezing into a tissue and discarding it right away; (7) Maintaining a distance of 6 feet from people who appear to be sick.

He also advises, “We need to remember that anxiety, lack of sleep, and depression suppress our immune systems. Thus it is necessary to take care of ourselves physically and mentally. Eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, balance vigilance with amusement, and socialize. With precautions and discipline, all these are possible and they will keep our bodies strong against sickness of body and mind.”

You might be wondering what impact this will have on our paid staff. Many staff activities will be redirected or perhaps reduced during this time. Session has committed to maintain staff salaries through these weeks so as not to cause additional stress upon our staff. Of course to maintain this commitment to them we need you to maintain your financial support of Faith Church. We’ll clarify ways you may do this in another letter.

Concerns about the novel coronavirus have inspired many people to act and live in fear. We want you to know that this decision is based on love. We care for those members of our congregation who are most at risk. We care about the anxiety that many of us are feeling. And we care that everyone in our congregation continues to develop the practices of faith: knowing the Bible, prayer, building spiritual friendship, serving others, and of course worship. As the church, we simply have to find alternative ways to pursue these practices in light of the love we have for others which dictates this decision.

Please pass the word to those who may not have access to this letter otherwise. We will provide regular updates as to our progress, and we welcome your thoughtful and constructive advice.

Peace be with you all,

The Session of Faith Presbyterian Church

 

03.08.20 Of Shepherds and Samaritans, Psalm 23 and Luke 10.25-37 Sermon Summary

One of the most famous verses of the Bible says, “The Lord is my shepherd.” First Peter also affirms that God is “the shepherd and guardian of our souls.” Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” That’s a good thing, because it’s not just a matter of life and death. It’s a matter of life and mere existence.

One time Jesus was questioned by a Lawyer (Luke 10:25ff). “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He responded, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The Lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus concluded, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

We learn something very important in this passing exchange. It is that eternal life isn’t merely life after death. It’s life now. “Do this, and you will live,” Jesus said. In another place he said, “I have come that they may have life to the full.” Life to the full is loving God and neighbor. Rather than a life after death issue, it’s a matter of life before death.

You might wonder how to do this concretely. So did the Lawyer. He asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan. At the end of the parable, Jesus asked, “Which of these three was a neighbor?” He may as well have asked, “Which of these three was a shepherd?” The job of a shepherd is to finds the lost, protect the vulnerable, and provide for the needs of the sheep.

To Jesus these are the same thing—neighbors and shepherds. The “good shepherd” Jesus is also the “good neighbor” Samaritan. The “good shepherd” comes to us when we are lost and calls us by name. It is a familiar voice—as much as an “assurance” as it is a “known.” And the good shepherd leads us to “eternal life.”

Jesus answers the Lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” with, “Go and do likewise.” Don’t ask, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus is saying. BE a good neighbor; BE a good shepherd. You might say, “I don’t know how to be a shepherd!” But you have a shepherd. Jesus is our good shepherd. What do we hope he does for us?

Do we not hope that when we are lost our good shepherd will seek and find us? And when our good shepherd finds us he will restore us not only to health but to community? And do we not know people who are lost, in whatever way they are lost? People who are separated from others because of addiction, ambition, or physical handicap? People who are separated from others because of poverty, mental illness, their success, or because they are in prison?

Can we not seek and find them? Can we not restore them?

Don’t ask, “who is my neighbor?” BE a good neighbor; BE a good shepherd. We say, “I don’t know how to be a shepherd!” But we have a good shepherd. What do we hope he does for us?

Do we not hope that when we are weak and vulnerable our good shepherd will protect us? Do we not know people who are weak and vulnerable because they are intellectually simple, or don’t have job security, or are poor and marginalized? Do we not know people who are weak and vulnerable because they don’t have rank or standing, who are children or women or LGBTQ or immigrants?

Can we not protect them?

“I don’t know how to be a shepherd!” we cry. But we have a good shepherd. What do we hope he does for us?

Do we not hope that when we are deficient our good shepherd will provide for us, that he will make up for what we are lacking? From grace towards our family to righteousness before God? Do we not know people who suffer insufficiency, who can’t balance thought and emotion, whose circumstances rob them of hope, who are overwhelmed with the demands of life?

Can we not provide for them? Give them a break? Lend a hand? Offer the grace of hospitality? Our Lenten devotional refers to this as being “grounded”: “When we practice welcome—and grounding—we find ourselves better able to connect with God and one another.” (Becoming a Blessed Community, p. 14)

Is this not what our good shepherd does for us? And can we not do this for others? Jesus knows of course we can! When our good shepherd says, “Go and do likewise” he casts his vote for us. He says to us, “We are one in baptism. I am God’s Son, you are God’s child. What I do, you can do. Freely you have received, freely you are to give. Come, and follow me.”

This is exactly what his Table is about. Jesus said, “No one has greater love, than to give his or her life. I give my life out of love for you. As my disciples, you are to give your lives out of love—for one another, for the world.”

“I am your shepherd. You shepherd those around you. I am your neighbor. You be a neighbor to those around you.”

God has come to us in Christ, a good shepherd among the sheep of God’s flock and among the people of God’s pasture. Let us listen for the voice of our shepherd, calling us to love, service, and trust. His own life was guided by God’s will, and ended with the sacrifice on the Cross. As his followers, may we be ever mindful of the high demands of discipleship, and by the power of God’s Spirit be made eager to discern how it is God is calling us to love our neighbors. Taking up our own crosses, may we like our Lord show the love of God for all people by the love we show to others.

Pastoral Response to the Novel Coronavirus

The longer one serves in the pastorate the more one discovers how inadequate seminary training is. This is not the fault of the seminaries, but rather the multitude of demands on the pastor. In addition to everything else, these past weeks have added anxiety management to our roles as pastors.

As pastors, we have to listen to give people a chance to express their anxieties. We have to respond to them from a pastoral perspective which is sometimes in tension with the biblical or theological perspective. It is helpful to be knowledgeable about whatever it is about which people are anxious, so we are constantly keeping up with politics, economics, social dynamics, psychological development, and health matters.

Any of these topics can disrupt the church’s life, but in my years as pastor nothing has required a greater responsiveness as the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and its related disease COVID-19. Here are some of the ways we are responding at my church.

First, it is important to remind the congregation of best practices for preventing the spread of any virus. These include:

  • Limiting physical contact. During this time we will encourage substituting other rituals of friendship for hugs and handshakes. Popular alternatives are elbow bumps, toe taps, or gestures of peace. We may need to discontinue the “sharing of the peace” all together.
  • Regarding the offering, we may do a passive offering, that is, not passing the plates hand to hand throughout the pews but having people place prayer requests and financial offerings into a receptacle as they depart or on the way to Communion. If so, then the musical offertory becomes a time of prayer and reflection as our musicians offer their gifts for God’s glory and our edification.
  • Not touching one’s mouth and nose. We will remind people of this and model it as best we can.
  • Regularly washing one’s hands for twenty (20) seconds with soap and running water. Demonstrating this could easily be a children’s sermon. We will be including regular times of twenty-second pauses during prayer (the confession, the intercessions, contemplation, as examples) to get people familiar with how long that is. Hand sanitizer is an alternative but less preferred option.
  • Maintaining six (6) feet of distance from anyone coughing or sneezing. Pastors can model this if we sit with other liturgical leaders. It is important to give people permission to practice this without fear of being judged. But it should be necessarily rare because . . .
  • People should stay home if they don’t feel well. We will tell people this through pastoral calls and newsletters. We will remind them to prepare for this self-quarantine by having fourteen (14) days’ supplies of food, petfood, water, medicines, and prescription drugs on hand. And we will remind them to let someone in the congregation know.
  • Disinfecting commonly touched surfaces. Our custodian does this regularly. Our kitchen and nursery users will be encouraged to spot clean following use. Coronaviruses are spread between people through droplets that are airborne and inhaled, or touched and then transferred to the nose or mouth. It is helpful to keep in mind that by the time our pews, hymnals, Bibles, pencils, etc. are used by a second person, the risk of contagion is gone.
  • When one coughs or sneezes, do so into a tissue and discard the tissue immediately. Alternatively one may do so into one’s sleeve or elbow. We will increase the availability of tissues and trash receptacles throughout the church. This would be less of a problem if people who don’t feel well stay home.

During past flu seasons we have heard concerns about Communion, which we celebrate each week. Here is some guidance on this most important Christian ritual.

  • We serve the bread by breaking off pieces from a large store-bought loaf. This is the most sanitary way to serve bread. In this case, only three people touch the bread before the members of the congregation: the person who bakes, the person who prepares communion, and the server. We can trust bakery regulations and our preparer to wash their hands, and prior to handling the bread our server conspicuously uses hand sanitizer.
  • We will tear longer, thumb-length portions of bread to make it easier to grasp and dip into the cup.
  • We will no longer place the bread into the open hands of people. Instead we will hand the bread to them (fingers to fingers). This avoids the bread carrying any germs from their hands to the cup.
  • What about cutting bread in advance? There are too many variables. Do we know the knife was cleaned properly–not only the blade but also the handle? Do we know the cutting board was disinfected? Have these been stored in a clean environment? Can we ensure those before us do not touch our bread cube when they retrieve their cube? For these reasons tearing the bread as we do it is more sanitary.
  • Additionally it’s important to maintain the sacramental significance of sharing one loaf.
  • We serve the cup through intinction, that is, dipping the bread into cups of wine or grape juice. Serving the cup in the manner we do is the most sanitary way we can do it. (There is a more sanitary way, namely with silver chalice, wine, and wiping between sips–as the Roman Catholics do–but our congregation will not tolerate that. And it doesn’t work with grape juice, which we are required to have available, because unlike grape juice, wine acts as a natural disinfectant.)
  • The most compromised situation our method risks is if someone inadvertently dips their fingers along with the bread into the cup. Adults and children both do this on occasion by accident. It is less a concern with the wine than the juice for the reason above. We hope to avoid this by tearing longer pieces of bread.
  • Another other option we’ve considered is the use of “pouring chalices” which have a pouring lip. The server tips the chalice and pours the contents into a communion cup. This helps avoid fingers in the wine/juice, but see below.
  • What about individual communion cups? As with pre-cutting bread, there are too many variables. Someone, perhaps more than one person (given the labor intensity, which is significant) has to touch each cup on its rim. The wine and juice are handled more frequently and through more surfaces (pouring into the squeezer, squeezing into the cups). People’s fingers touch other cups when they pick their cup out of the tray. If taking from a package of cups to receive with a pouring chalice, the same thing happens. Given that it’s better to have more than enough than not enough, it’s wasteful of wine and juice; and those plastic cups are bad for the environment. Do we have reusable glass cups. Yes, but washing them is labor intensive and also bad for the environment.
  • There is a theologically suitable practice that may help alleviate some people’s concerns. In the middle ages the Roman Catholic Church came up with theological justification for “communion in one kind.” This refers to receiving the whole Christ in only the bread (they were interested in withholding the cup from the laity). The Reformers rejected this practice, but the theology still holds. So in years past I have taught this to the congregation and invited people to commune in only one kind, namely the bread, if they have concerns about sharing germs by dipping in a common cup.

Regarding other church gatherings, it’s probably not a bad idea to have food handlers wear gloves, and perhaps nursery workers also. At potlucks, we will have dedicated food servers rather than serving family style to limit the number of hands touching serving utensils.

Should someone get sick during an event at the church, we will have masks for the sick person available and a room available for immediate and temporary quarantine. Wearing a standard mask does NOT protect a healthy person from getting infected. Only specialized air-filtering masks protect the healthy person. We should not need to purchase these if all the other safe practices above are implemented, and medical professionals working with the sick need them.

We are planning for further responses if there is an actual outbreak in our city. We will develop a reliable, fast, and exhaustive communication system. Some churches have a calling tree initiated by elders or deacons. In addition to using our Facebook page and website, we may create a twitter account. We will use our email newsletter distribution. Other options will need to be identified, assessed, and implemented accordingly.

If we come to the place where significant numbers of people are not attending worship, how shall we provide spiritual formation for people at a distance? One opportunity already in place is my blog which includes sermon summaries each week. This allows people to access the sermon at least.

We will invest in different ways to have a pastoral presence to people remotely with greater frequency and in smaller doses. This will include our electronic newsletter, more phone calls, use of other technology, and perhaps a YouTube channel.

These strategies will be utilized by the Deacons who already have the congregation sorted into flocks. Our elders would reasonably participate in this ministry as well. We may initiate a weekly huddle with me and other pastoral leaders to equip everyone with a consistent care message through these channels.

For a long time we’ve needed to install cameras or find an alternative way to make our worship service available to interested folks remotely. This isn’t rocket science, but it will likely require some money and a learning curve. To change metaphors, this wheel has already been invented. Many congregations already have audio if not video streaming of their worship services available for their remote congregants. If done thoughtfully, this technology upgrade would be useful for many applications over several years.

Finally, I offer some comments of a more specifically pastoral nature.

In times of uncertainty, and especially as exacerbated by quickly evolving circumstances and conflicting, inaccurate, or insufficient information, people typically fill the knowledge gaps according to their personality and experience. Thus if one is predisposed to fear, the gap is filled with fear; to prejudice, with prejudice; to conspiracy, with conspiracy, to denial, with denial, to intellectualization, with intellectualization. We all need to be aware of this in ourselves and as we relate to others.

But we also must remember that we are people of faith, and so our response should also reflect our belief in a God who delivers his people, works all things out for good, and uses communities of people to accomplish these things.

We need to remember that we are bearing witness to our children and to the world as well as to one another by the way we respond to this and any anxious or fearful circumstance.

The concerns around this coronavirus, and any disruption, open doors for ministry and mission. How we worship together, care for one another, and serve the world (my church’s mission statement) must always take real and emerging circumstances into consideration. This is what it means to be incarnational. This conversation is healthy and can be productive for the church’s witness if we are open to the Spirit’s leading and careful in our deliberations.

We need to remember that anxiety, lack of sleep, and depression suppress our immune systems. Thus it is necessary to take care of ourselves physically and mentally. Eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, balance vigilance with amusement, and socialize. With precautions and discipline, all these are possible and they will keep our bodies strong against sickness of body and mind.

To all these ends, it is important that our first and final preparation is prayer. Let us set aside personalities and experiences and attend to God’s presence every time we begin and end our responses to this and every concerning situation. The more thoroughly we practice prayer at the beginning and end, the more quickly we will return to prayer in the middle.

May God’s peace attend us all.