One person is all it takes.
One person with the coronavirus and people start dying. Let me tell you the real-life story of Bob. Bob isn’t his real name, but the story is real. Bob sat down to dinner one night with two family members. They were sharing a take-out meal together over a nice leisurely dinner that lasted three hours. The next day, Bob went to a funeral where he offered his condolences to the family with hugs of support. Not long after, Bob went to a birthday party with nine other people who all hugged and laughed and ate together. Three of the people who also went to the birthday party went to church that Sunday. Unfortunately, they shared much more than God’s love. Within four days of that first dinner, both family members became sick. Another family member at the funeral also became sick. Seven of the nine people at the birthday party became sick. Six more people at the church became sick. And finally, Bob became sick, was hospitalized, ventilated, and died. In all, Bob infected numerous people, 16 ended up getting ill from COVID-19, and 3 ended up dying because of it. All from one initially asymptomatic person.
Most churches take the pandemic seriously.
According to Christianity Today 93% of church buildings are closed, most taking their worship online. But it’s that vocal 7% that gives us all a bad name. Churches started to realize they were potential hot spots when disaster erupted in a number of places early on. Forty-four people were infected after attending a church conference in Eastern Kansas back in late March, five people related to this group died. About 100 people were placed under quarantine in Hopkins County, Kentucky after a church held a revival in mid-March despite the warnings. Dozens reported COVID-19 symptoms and two died. But perhaps the most well-known case and one of the saddest comes from the Skagit Valley Chorale who joined together on March 10th for choir practice. Even with social distancing and everyone bringing their own music sheets, 75% of the people in attendance were infected or had symptoms. Forty-five of them were ill, three hospitalized, and two died. Most of us have learned our lesson and are taking great care when thinking about reopening. Most of us are erring on the side of caution when it comes to decisions about live worship. Most…but not all.
Churches across the country are filing lawsuits against state governments to open back up.
A very small minority of churches, but a very vocal minority nonetheless. They are pushing back against states’ orders to keep the doors shut. They are claiming their religious liberties are being infringed upon, that it is a violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause. The lawyer representing three of the churches in California who are filing suit said, “People need faith more than ever in difficult times.” That statement is 100% true. But church buildings don’t need to be open for people to have faith. If your faith is rooted in a building, you don’t understand what faith is. Faith is rooted in Jesus Christ. I don’t believe there is a God because a church building exists. I believe in God because GOD exists! I believe in God because Jesus died for me and then came back for me, too. The basis of our faith is not a building. It is in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In your heads, you know that to be true, but in your hearts? When we take a step back, most of these fights are not about preserving the faith. They are about preserving the church as we know it. Our faith doesn’t need a building or an order of worship or potluck suppers. The early church didn’t have any of those things. All they had was each other and the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit and that was enough to see the church grow by the thousands. But in our human nature we become attached to “the way we do things.” Our faith becomes twisted and we begin to define it not by the movement of the Spirit but by the familiarity of the routine. Like a tattered and torn security blanket, we cling to the past and ignore the present. Worship attendance might have been falling for decades. Baptisms might have continued to shrink in number. Younger generations might not be leaving in droves. But we make excuses for why this is happening instead of realizing that “church” isn’t changing with the times. The same is true today with the vocal 7%. They don’t have faith that the Spirit can move in new ways and cling to their old traditions. The problem is now it is costing people their lives.
Things change all the time.
We just need to have faith in Christ that God can use any circumstance to work in the hearts of those who need him. We don’t need a building to do God’s work. We just need the church. And those are two different things. The apostle Paul reminds us not to cling to the past in this passage we’re about to read. Paul, as you know was a converted disciple. He didn’t start off that way. In fact, he was known for being one of the most dogged persecutors of early Christians before coming around. But he became so on fire for Christ, so devoted to helping others know the love of Christ, that he gave the rest of his life for that mission. In this passage we’re sharing today, Paul is writing from prison. His situation is dire, but he’s writing to inspire those in the church at Philippi to take heart! To be bold and press onward! Not to look to the past, but to be inspired by the future. Here’s what he wrote.
We are supposed to press on.
In the midst of trouble, in the midst of this crisis, we are supposed to keep moving forward and not get stuck in the past. We should heed Paul’s words to forget what is behind and strain toward what is ahead. Not to deny our past. Our past will always be with us. The people, places, and events that have molded us and shaped us to be who we are is an important part of our character. But to look back is to risk missing opportunities for what is ahead. That’s why Paul is so eager to press on. He wants to take advantage of every opportunity God places in his path. He wants to make sure he is always looking for where God is leading him. Even while in prison. Maybe especially while he is in prison. Because it might seem like there is so little room for opportunity, but Paul knows that God can do amazing things. Think about it. Paul writes this letter while he is in prison, taking advantage of this opportunity to share his thoughts with this distant congregation. Not only does he help the people of Philippi, but this letter survives the millennia to bless us in the here and now. If Paul hadn’t been attuned to the leading of the Holy Spirit, would we have received this word of encouragement?
We are in our own prison.
It’s not quite the same and much more comfortable than what Paul had to endure, but like Paul we are suddenly living in a new reality. And like Paul we’ve adapted. Worshipping in this new way has opened up possibilities we had never explored before. I have been so encouraged to see our people stretching their imaginations, pushing at the boundaries, and trying new things to make worship meaningful and they have. We embraced this moment and are moving forward. But this is only one moment, and as we move forward, we will face new challenges. Will we face each of those in the same way? Even when we are able to come back, it will look very different. We’ve already started discussions about what our “new normal” may look like when we come back to our buildings and already some pretty radical changes are being discussed. No choirs. No call and response. No fellowship time. No hymnals. No bulletins. People sitting in every third pew. Multiple worship services. What this will look like when it all shakes out is still being determined, but we know it will be different. Will you dwell on the past or will you move forward?
We are constantly challenged by a changing reality.
Not just in this, but in every facet of our lives. And if we trust in Christ and turn over our fears and doubts to God, we can make it through with grace and love. Our eyes will be open to new possibilities and new hopes and dreams. And we will grow in faith as well as in ability. But if we allow fear and doubt to overtake us, we end up putting on blinders to God’s work in our lives and in the world. We will miss opportunities God is offering to us, and in the end become like those 7% of churches that are willing to risk the lives of their congregation just to “do church.” As God told Jeremiah, he has plans for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans for hope and future. Don’t miss out on God’s plan for your life. Keep an open mind and an open heart and see what new possibilities God is opening up in front of you! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.