When I first saw these texts for this plague week I felt “wow, lets change them.” But I’ve only changed the assigned texts of a Sunday less than 5 times. And I am glad I didn’t. In the midst of death, or at least the fear of death, these lessons tell us our hope. That is what the sermon does. Hopefully gives the saints God’s word to live in these times.
Service note: We are splitting our services to say under 10 people locally (everyone has their own pew), 9 AM and 11 AM with roughly the same number online. So, we don’t have music. We are using responsive prayer 2 in LSB. It is also wired up to produce the best sound for those online. I’ve put the entire service out. The back half after the sermon is collective prayer.
I’ve seen some of you this week. I’ve talked to more. There has been some sadness; the Bayer’s neighbor passed away. There as always in such times has been some fear and anger. It is amazing the small things that can be an excuse to let it rip. We should attempt to kind when someone is at tilt, because we are going to hit that point as well sometime. But it has also been a time of some honest reflection I feel. Not much from anything going by the word “news”, but by individuals. It feels a bit like what the word apocalypse originally meant – a revelation. The veil that we often keep over our deepest thoughts, the ones that we only half know ourseves, has been lifted a bit.
This coming Sunday is Lent 5. The texts for the week and the Introit are lit. (The link to the service for those online is below.) A valley of dry bones. Lazarus from the tomb. In other words death. Yea! In the midst of plague, a week of dead things. (/Snark off.) But there is an important spiritual insight that this helps us think about.
The fancy word is atonement. You were probably taught in confirmation that atonement is at-one-ment, how we are made at one with God. And the theory of the atonement that we normally work with is substitutionary. The wages of sin are death. Because humanity sinned, death came into the world. A payment had to be made against that. A payment that none of us sinners could pay. So Jesus, the sinless Son of God, made that payment on the cross. It is a Good Friday centric understanding. It is also a simple historical understanding.
I don’t know how many of you are Sci-Fi or Star Trek fans, but one of the tropes of that genre is that the future can be a cause of the past. I’m not commenting on the reality of that trope, but there is a psychological reality to it. Hebrews 2:14-15 turns the causality around for a second. Instead of sin bringing about death, it is death that brings about sin and our state.
Because God’s children are human beings– made of flesh and blood– the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. (Heb. 2:14-15 NLT)
Did you catch it? Because of our fear of death, we have lived as slaves, slaves to sin. Because we feared death, we reached for everything possible, as if the one who dies with the most toys wins. Or more likely, like our Silicon Valley folks today, we think mystically if we’ve got all this stuff we can buy off death. Even back in the garden in that innocent state it is our very dependence upon God that causes fear. Eve, God is not a good guy, he wants to keep you down. Take the apple now, before you don’t have the chance. It is our fear of our contingency, our fear of dying, that drives much of our actions. The ones we keep under the veil.
It is to this fear that Lent 5 speaks. Can these bones live? The theory is Christ the Victor. My favorite line expressing this comes from an Advent hymn, Hark the Glad Sound LSB 349. He comes the prisoners to release/in Satan’s bondage held/the gates of brass before Him burst/the iron fetters yield. I’m jumping the gun. This is the theory of Easter. Sheol’s gates have been wrecked from the inside as Christ kicked them open. We no longer need fear death, because the eternal welcome of our God has been displayed in flesh and blood. God himself died, and God himself rose, and our brother Jesus has given us the victory.
Our victory over death is not an excuse to ignore good advice, but it is a call to put down the worry. To stop grabbing for every last thing here. Beacuse everything here is going away. Some sooner and some later. But there is a far country, one holding a victory celebration. And everything we need has already been prepared.
Maybe getting the handle on things. So this is the plan right now.
I will be at church on Sunday at 9 AM and 11 AM. I will stream those services at the same place as this past week ( https://zoom.us/j/6458485288 ). I will also be attempting to improve the audio, I think I’ve got it.
Nobody is required to be at church. If you are in a high risk category, please stay home. Please join us online. But if you are healthy and wish to join me at church, that is also fine. We should be under 10 in each. Everyone will have their own pew.
If you have prayer requests, we will collect them during the service, but I’d also request that if you can please email or text them to me.
I encouraged folks who didn’t have a hymnal at home to borrow one from the pews and take it home with them this past week. Likewise if you don’t have one, and you would like one to follow along with, please stop in and grab one for the time being.
I am in the offfice roughly 10AM to 5 PM. Any time during those hours I will be available for private confession and communion. My cell is 585-524-7909 if you want to check beforehand. If you would like outside of those hours, just contact me and I’m sure we can work it out. (I can also come out, but I thought we might all be tired of our walls, and need another place.)
The work of God is always being displayed in our midst. It is up to us how we respond to it. God’s desired response is faith in his son. The life of Jesus is the demonstration, the work of God displayed, of the Goodness of the Father. Even in bad things, God is good. This sermon, through examining the story of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind, is a mediation on both the purposes of God and faith’s response.
I wanted to give an update on church and virus related things, and to share a short meditation.
Church Related Info
After meeting with the council last night (3/18) there are a few more actions that we will be taking for the time being.
Everything from my pastoral letter still stands.
We won’t be canceling service (although we might be making a change, see below)
Most small group activities (i.e. confirmation/bible study) will continue. 3-5 people are well under any limit.
The other modifications to standard routine (no handshaking, offering collection plate at entrance, individual cups for communion) continue
If you are in an elevated risk group, are sick, or simply don’t wish to risk, please stay home. Also, I’d ask that you let me know. I’d like to stay in contact, and I’m not a psychic. (I will have one additional thing to add below.)
Choir practice and worship spots will be put on hiatus. This one hurts, but it seems an appropriate precaution as they are huddled close together.
I’m not sure how it will work for a Sunday, but I have established a zoom channel. I will log in and stream the service as best I can. Here is the login link. I can handle up to 100 people in the channel. Unless you already have the zoom plug in or app you will have to download it and follow the instructions. So the first time give yourself an extra 15 minutes. This is for those in those at risk groups. https://zoom.us/j/6458485288
That same zoom link will also be active for the congregational meeting to follow service this coming sunday.
The official limit is 50 people in a gathering. While our average is above that, on most Sunday’s we are right around that. The request is to limit to 10. We have 18 pews, although this will mean that people will have to use the pews up front. We could sit roughly 20 people checkerboard style each in their own pew and you’d still have more than 6 feet of separation.
To make a good faith effort, starting Sunday, March 29th, we will have two services (Please, please notice that is not this coming sunday!).
The first will be at 9 AM, the normal Sunday school time. What I would ask is that if you are a Sunday School/Bible class attender to plan on attending this service. That gets us 10-12 to start.
The second will be a 11 AM.
For the first time, other than Sunday School folks, I’m not making any assignments. I’m hoping we roughly divide equally naturally. If we are unbalanced, we may ask some to move.
We should be able to keep attendance at each of these around/under 20 is my guess. Enough to be a minyan, but small enough to be prudent in time of plague.
We will return to normal schedule as soon as this passes.
Holy Week is coming up. We will address this in coming weeks.
Since the kids are out of school, I’ve been starting the day at home with chapel service. We’ve been having our own Matins service. In part teaching the kids the Te Deum and the Venite. Two chants that every Christian for most of time would have known by heart and known when to sing them. I wish I sang better. There is accompaniment available online, but we figured out it is just better plowing ahead bad notes and all. The readings (and the matins liturgy) for the day have been from the Treasury of Daily Prayer. This is a prayer book that is part of our Confirmation curriculum that we provide to students as we study the Lord’s prayer and try to demonstrate examples of an intentional prayer life. (Here is the CPH link. https://www.cph.org/p-11350-treasury-of-daily-prayer-regular-edition.aspx ). A physical copy is great, but there is also a digital version that you can get for you phone. (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.praynow ).
Today’s Psalm was from Psalm 106. And like most lectionaries, you get the gospel part. We got verses 44-48.
Nevertheless, he looked upon their distress, when he heard their cry. 45 For their sake he remembered his covenant, and relented according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 46 He caused them to be pitied by all those who held them captive. 47 Save us, O LORD our God, and gather us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise. 48 Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! And let all the people say, “Amen!” Praise the LORD!
But Ellen didn’t have her own copy of the Treasury and was just using a hymnal and when she turned to the Psalms found out that 106 wasn’t there. Which got me interested. I know that imprecatory Psalms, those calling on God to smash our enemies in often gruesome ways, are often left out. But that turns out not to be Psalm 106. It was probably left out of the hymnal psalter simply due to length, but it is worth your read. It reviews the history of the people of Israel, but unlike most histories that would focus on the glories of a people, this one recognizes its faults. We forgot the wondrous works of the Exodus. We forgot the manna and quail. We exchanged the living God for a golden calf or the Baals. That last episode brought on plague, a plague which ended when Phineas took up action against all of Israel who had yoked themselves to Baal. Worth pondering what we have yoked ourselves to in the midst of plague.
The gospel portion provided is a remembrance of the context of God’s steadfast love. The LORD calls and gathers together his people not because we are so deserving, but because he is love. He remembers his promises. He saves his heritage. He gathers from among the nations. While we were sinners, he does this. Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Lord, deliver your people.
The meeting of the Samaritan Woman at the well is one of those stories that I think our “High View” of the bible often gets in the way of deeply understanding. I think it is pretty clear that verses 1-15 have a lot of playful irony in them. And that irony is the set up for an encounter with The Truth. The role of a prophet is to tell the truth. And this woman at the well didn’t just meet any old prophet. She met The Truth. In the midst of plague, one that is asking we step out of tick-tock time, we are having ourselves an ironic meeting with the truth. This sermon holds up the woman’s answers and asks what ours our. It also holds out not just the The Truth, but The Way.
Grace and peace to you. It has been a week for the history books and something that looks far from over. As the preschool kids come in this morning I’m wondering both how long RH schools will be open, when they might open again assuming they close, and honestly just as much the immediate long reaching effects that would have on many. So, we as both a church and a school have a role in the virus. I intend to do three things with this note. First, simply state what I think is the truth about the virus. Second, reflect for a minute on the spiritual nature of plague, maybe recalling a bit the sermon of from Feb 10 (http://www.saintmarkslutheran.org/2020/02/10/a-city-on-a-hill/) on Wuhan which I hoped prepared us a bit as we learned from the saints. And finally, list a few alterations to our normal Sunday activity by means of a response.
What I Know
We are almost all going to get COVID-19 at some point. (This is the root of the spiritual problem, more below).
80% of those who get it have zero to minor symptoms, 15% have a very bad flu, but 5% get sick unto death without modern medical treatments the primary one being intubation.
We don’t exactly know before hand which of those buckets we fall in. Most of that 5% bucket is those who are over 75 years old and those whose immune systems have been weakened in other ways. But, if reports from Italy are factual, there are those outside of those groups.
The suggested responses that are going by the term “social distancing” which range from shutting down mass gatherings like sporting events to “work from home” arrangements are not about not getting it (point 1) but about managing the time-scale of when we all get it.
This chart is the best explanation I have seen of this. If we all get it fast, there is not enough medical capacity to handle that 5% bucket. A large amount of the 5% will experience the disease as if there were not modern medicine. If we can get it slowly, stay below the medical system capacity, the death toll is much less.
The absolute best defenses against this are: a) wash your hands aggressively, b) don’t touch your eyes/face, and c) avoid contact with others. While the virus can spread through the air, most spread comes from close contact.
A Spiritual Meditation
I said that it was that point 1 – we are almost all going to get this – that was the heart of the spiritual problem. It is what causes the panic. In one sense everyone, Christian or not, understands that they are going to die. It is a universal truth. Even Jesus died. In times past, mostly due to childhood diseases, this reality was learned early. Walk through any cemetery more than 80 years old and you will see that reality. We have lived in a time of medical wonders where most of those childhood diseases have been eradicated. And abortions are a human willed statistic, not a grave marker. The result is a society that can largely sidestep any pondering of our universal fate until you start to feel it in your late middle age bones. This virus, something that we don’t control, brings that reality into the immediate time frame and out of the fuzzy “someday” distance. And if one has spent one’s life with this reality in the fuzzy distance, staring death in the eye is unnerving.
As a Christian you have two advantages. The first is the Truth of Psalm 90. By having a God who is not yourself our creaturely dependence is a daily reality. We ask for our daily bread in the prayer Jesus gave us. Our entire existence from the moment of our conception until our death is contingent upon the providence of God and its entire span known and set by Him.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!” For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. (Psalm 90:2-6)
Now that truth of our contingency, like the truth of death, can make us feel real real small – like that blade of grass. But the promise of God is that not even a sparrow falls to the ground outside the Father’s care (Matthew 10:29). You are worth much more than these. And what God has promised to us he has shown forth in Jesus Christ. Christ is risen. You also will rise.
The Psalmist concludes his meditation.
So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. Return, O LORD! How long? Have pity on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands! (Psalm 90:12-17)
As long as we are in this body, we have the work of our hands which the Lord establishes. When this body wears out, we are with the Lord and his steadfast love. Today the “Return, O Children of man” is to that intermediate state of which we don’t know much other than it is with God. But tomorrow, “Return, O Children of man” shall be to the resurrection body and the new heavens and the new earth. Either way, we truly have nothing to fear. The Lord will establish us.
Today we serve the Lord by serving our neighbor. Tomorrow, the love of God will still empower our steps.
Some Sunday Considerations
If we were 2000 people we might have a different decision, but we are typically 60, so Sunday services will continue until such time as I am told directly by authorities I must shut it down.
The sacrament will also continue. There have been multiple studies over the years about disease transmission and the sacrament. All of them have concluded that it is no different than standing in a line.
That said, if you are in an at risk category or are yourself sick, please be sure to tell me as I am not psychic, and do not fret about missing Sunday service. I have a calling to be a little risky, but that is not yours. The lessons, sermon and typically at least one hymn or the choir are posted to the church website by Sunday afternoon. If you wish to keep up with service, that is not the same as gathering together but it is available for your private meditation.
Also, for the sacrament, I will be encouraging the individual cup. I will not withhold the common as that is not mine to do, but individual cups seem to be an appropriate precaution.
Likewise, if one wishes to refrain from the sacrament, that is OK for a time.
I normally shake hands with everyone after service. I’m going to suspend that practice for a bit. This also seems like an appropriate precaution.
We do share space with the preschool. The biggest area of overlap is the room we use for coffee hour. The Preschool does a great job of wiping things down, but it seems an appropriate caution to try and eliminate that overlap. The virus seems to have no effect on kids, but they can be great carriers. I’m going to ask the coffee hour crew to set up in the narthex proper for a time. There are also chairs and a table in the bible study room. We may cancel the coffee for a time in the future, but for now just move it a space over.
Thank you for taking the time to read, and if you have any thoughts or concerns don’t be afraid to contact me. I found last week’s collective prayer from Sunday amazingly appropriate.
O God, you see that of ourselves we have no strength. By your mighty power defend us from all adversities that may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
This is something of a statement about the purpose of preaching. We attempt to put so much on the sermon. We look for all kinds of things there. And I honestly think we look for the wrong things. What the sermon is about is proclaiming the gospel. What the sermon is about is evangelism, our evangelism. And that is what this sermon attempts to do. It isn’t 7 words of wisdom for your best life. It isn’t 5 ways to life hack your way to Jesus. It is “God so loved the world that he gave his son.” He gave him for you. He gave him that we might hear and believe and live. There is a lot else that the Bible teaches that we should do, but preaching – that is about love, what God has done for us.
I’ve become convinced that the real “crisis” if you want to call it that in American Christianity is the dismissal of the calls of the spiritual life. Even the church seems to have a very utilitarian view of the faith. It “sells” faith as something that will be good for you. It will make you healthier, wealthier and maybe wise. The trouble is that The Faith makes none of those claims. It doesn’t necessarily rule them out, but the norm would be the life of Christ, which is a life of trial. What the Faith does claim is truth. Christ is Lord. He bids us follow him. Hence the real test, do we follow?
This particular sermon was composed to take part in a specific liturgical situation. We had a baptism at the start of service. It was also helped by one of the great hymns of the Faith – I Walk in Danger All the Way (LSB 716).