Well, this morning was “interesting,” to say the least, with a Zoom outage thwarting our worship gathering. This is the message I would have given, and it is a scriptural response to those who say we don’t love or trust God enough if we choose to take precautions by wearing masks, keeping distance, and not opening our building up too soon for worship. Blessings, and take care. Pastor Leslie
The WI State Supreme Court ruled this week against Gov. Evers’ “safer at home” extension. It was not long after the ruling was reported that people began gathering, many without masks or social distancing, in bars and restaurants. Some counties, including ours, has instituted their own “safer at home” public health orders. As we seem to be speeding (quite unprepared, at least here in Wisconsin) toward reopening the economy, there is much discussion going on, not just in businesses but also among faith congregations, about if, when, and how we should gather in our buildings, in person, in groups. Friday afternoon was the latest in a series of conference calls that our Lt. Gov. has been having with faith leaders, and the questions asked of many faith leaders was not when, but how we can gather in person.
Yes, I would like us to gather in person – to see people, talk with them, sing together, pray together, drink coffee afterwards and get to know their story a little better – those are some of the blessings of this thing we do on Sunday morning. The Dane County public order states that places of worship are “essential” services, but has restrictions on how we can gather. And if we listen to the health experts, we are not at a point where it is safe to do so. This week our Church Council will begin discussing what our policies will be concerning when and how we will gather in person in our church building, and there will be opportunities for congregational input as well. But at least through May we will not be gathering at the corner of Atwood and Ohio – it is not safe to do so yet.
There are many voices being raised in the public sphere about this issue, and some claim theological reasoning for opening up public gatherings and even doing so without safeguards such as wearing masks and keeping six feet apart. These voices challenge us: “If you trust in God, God will protect you,” as if to say that wearing a mask means we don’t trust God. Others judge people’s commitment to God by saying, “If you get sick, you just haven’t prayed hard enough.” They recite “God helps those who help themselves,” as if it is scripture. And the one I heard this week, as justification for opening up churches for worship: “God is worth taking the risk for,” as if God is only resident within the confines of four walls designated as “church.”
These sayings remind me of the modern parable about the man and the flood. Its been raining and raining, and a flood is predicted. A man decides he’s going to stay in his home despite the warnings; “God will protect me.” The waters start to rise to street level, and his neighbor stops by, “Come, let’s evacuate.” The man replies, “I’m staying; God will protect me.” The flood waters continue to rise, and they get up to the front door of the house. A boat comes by with law enforcement personnel, “We’ve come to evacuate you and take you to safety.” Again the man replies, “I’m staying; God will protect me.” The water rise some more, filling the house so much that the man has to climb up on his roof. A helicopter hovers over his house, and a rescuer is lowered in a basket to bring the man to safety. Again he replies, “I’m staying; God will protect me.” The flood water rise so much that the house is completely covered, and the man drowns. When he gets to heaven he meets up with God, and he practically yells at God, “I trusted you, that you would protect me. Why didn’t you save me?” God answered him, “Oh son, I tried to protect and safe you. I sent your neighbor, and the police, and the helicopter. Why didn’t you take my help?”
Yes, I value the spirit that flows among us when we worship together in our church buildings; I understand why people are eager to do so. But from what some people are saying, what is more important to them than the worship experience is their sense of liberty, which is not really a value mentioned by Jesus. Yes, people were free to follow him or not, but he never implied that following him was about freedom. What he did emphasize, in word and deed, was that following him was about our responsibility toward one another. Jesus never really talked about a personal relationship with God, but he talked a lot about our relationship with one another, our communal responsibilities. His teachings emphasized how we were to treat one another, how we should related to one another, how we were to be covenant with one another.
“You have heard me say, ‘It’s going to be bad.’ I’m telling you again—it’s going to be bad—so that when the bad begins and when the bad overwhelms you, you’ll be prepared to hold on to love and remember that you’re not alone.” (paraphrase of John 14:27b-29, by Rachel G. Hackenberg)
Jesus proclaimed that he did not come to overturn the law, but to fulfill the law, the law that was about a faith that was communal, not personal.
Honor your mother and father…Do not lie…Do not steal…Do not kill…Do not covet what your neighbor has…the Ten Commandments were mostly about how we should relate with one another, how we were to live together in community.
“What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.” Micah 6:6-8. The prophets emphasized how we all, common folk and leaders alike were called by God not to make altar sacrifices to fulfill some sort of personal piety, but that we were called by God to be about the work of doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly. We are not alone, we are not an island, it isn’t just about us, but about the other as well, especially the most vulnerable.
This is echoed in Jesus’ great commandment, to love God and love one another, both parts of the same cloth. It is echoed in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, when after telling the story he questions the man who asked “who is my neighbor”: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” – Luke 10:36-37 This is echoed in Jesus’ teaching that “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
And we could go back, almost to the beginning of the Bible, to the story of Cain and Abel: “Then when G-d asks [Cain], ‘where is your brother Abel?’ he arrogantly responds, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’” As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin offers to us in Jewish Literacy, “In essence, the entire Bible is written as an affirmative response to this question.”
So if anyone tries to tell us that we don’t love God enough because we aren’t worshipping in the building at Atwood and Ohio, the we don’t trust God enough because we wear a mask or keep our distance in public, or if they claim these are just political responses, we can confidently say, “no, these are faith responses…we are following Jesus’ teachings, to love one another, to be a good neighbor, to be our brother’s/sister’s/neighbor’s keeper.” We are doing the sacrifice God requires of us, to do justice for the most vulnerable, to do loving kindness toward nurses and CNAs and doctors and other hospital and nursing home staff, and walking humbly in the face of a dangerous virus with our God. And if they still give us grief about what we are doing, then our only faithful response is to bless them – “God be with you.”