“…and on this rock I will my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Matt. 16:18b
Many aspects of this stay-at-home order seem imprisoning. That is sort of the point of it; trying to lock down the virus by locking down ourselves, the virus’s hosts. But one thing I find somewhat paradoxically refreshing about a total, unexpected disruption like this is that it liberates us from having to have any confidence that we know what the future will bring.
Nobody on New Year’s Day had any idea whatsoever how strange 2020 would prove. Wall Street investors didn’t know it. Politicians didn’t know it. Scientists didn’t know it. Yet everybody’s life has been profoundly affected. Projections from any quarter, by anyone, have proven unreliable.
Why do I find that comforting in a way? Because it means I don’t have to have a projection, either, or even pretend to have one. You and I don’t need to express any confidence that we know what the next few months or years are going to be like, how things are going to change in the church, country, or world as a result of this, and anything like that. We have to do our daily work, and plan and prepare as best we can, and take what comes. All pretense of knowing the future is shaken, as a house built on sand.
In some ways this failure of projections has been going on for several years. Polls failed miserably to predict the Brexit vote or the presidential election, and people began to lose faith in polling data. Global temperatures stopped matching climate models, and people began to argue about how reliable the models were. Today’s models of the pandemic have been all over the map. The fact of the matter is, we find comfort in polling, projections, confident predictions, because it is unsettling to walk into a dark future. We put our confidence in very uncertain things because if we didn’t, we have no confidence at all.
But wait a minute! Is that really true? Of course not, at least not for us. We who put our confidence in our risen Lord and the promises of God have every reason for confidence. Will the stock market rebound this year? Who knows? Will school start on time in the fall? Who knows? Will church attendance go up or down as a result of this? Who knows? But we know, and I mean we KNOW, with absolute certainty, that the Church will never fail. This declaration about the future is not built on the sand of human institutions or predictions, it is built on the rock.
When you feel perplexed or fearful, remember that promise. I can’t promise anyone’s health, livelihood or 401k will recover. I can’t promise the football players drafted this week will actually play games in the fall. I can’t promise anything, but I can promise everything, at least everything of lasting importance. The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. I’d say take it to the bank, but banks fail. This promise is more certain than a bank. You are a citizen of the City of God, a pilgrim here in this world of swirling change. When it gets overwhelming, remember the promise that cannot fail.
When Latin was in the process of evolving into modern Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian, the word “quarantine” was born in Venice. The root of the word means “forty.” (You can probably see many other possible derivatives that have to do with the number four or forty, like quad or quarter, or maybe I’m just sheltering in place with a Latin teacher). In seafaring Venice, a quarantine referred to a forty day period of separation for sailors who had ventured to plague-ridden ports. The choice of forty days for such things, though, has a much longer pedigree.
Forty days, forty years—Biblically these are times of testing and cleansing, be it the Israelites wandering in the wilderness or Jesus fasting in the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. It’s one of the reasons Lent is forty days (technically the Sundays don’t count) and there are forty days from Easter to Ascension, just like in the New Testament.
Here at St. Paul’s, we’ve been using the idea of forty years as a Biblical generation in our Rededicated campaign that started last year. We’ve been at our current site forty years (forty-one years now) and want to do whatever it takes to help people in Munster in A.D. 2059 inherit from us all the gifts we inherited from the previous generation. In the midst of that campaign, we’ve come upon a genuine time of testing. I don’t know if it will be literally forty days or not, but the purpose can remain the same.
When we think of a time of testing, of some message or opportunity from God that actually shows up on our calendars, questions naturally arise. How do you know God intends this time for this or that purpose? What is the meaning of this pandemic? Is it God’s wrath? A call to repentance? If so, to whom? How do we know what global events really mean?
Over the weekend, I read an article by a well-known intellectual, Andrew Sullivan, which made the following claim: "The truth, of course, is that plagues have no meaning. All they are is a virus perpetuating itself inside and alongside us. Period. We know this now — unlike many of our ancestors — because of science." Is that true? How can science prove or disprove meaning? It can’t, not even theoretically. Meaning is outside the realm of science, in the realm of philosophy and religion. Science can describe viruses and explain how they spread and what they do to us. Science can, with limited success, attempt to predict how a pandemic will develop. But science cannot tell us what such a pandemic means or doesn’t mean, and anyone who thinks science can do that doesn’t understand the parameters within which scientific investigation works. You may as well ask a chemist to examine the molecular structure of the water in the font and tell us what Baptism means.
By the same token, apart from a clear Word of Scripture (or some direct revelation from God, which no Christian should expect, since we’ve been promised that Scripture is sufficient for us) pastors cannot declare with any degree of certainty what exactly this pandemic means, either. We cannot go beyond what God has revealed. We can only go by what we know, and we don’t know why exactly God allows this pandemic to happen. Preachers (usually on tv) who proclaim that they know why this is happening are similarly going way beyond the parameters of their office, which is to preach and teach the Word of God, not put God’s signature on their own opinions.
But just because we don’t know for sure where exactly God is going with this pandemic doesn’t mean we cannot take away edifying lessons from it. We could understand it as a forty day call to repentance, and we would not be wrong. We couldn’t say, “Thus saith the Lord” about that interpretation. We couldn’t use it to call someone else to repentance. But we can be called to repentance ourselves. As long as we don’t bind anyone else to our own interpretations of events, we are free to interpret them for ourselves in any way that is in keeping with what we know of our God incarnate in Jesus Christ.
With that in mind, how has this whole, surreal experience of the nation shutting down changed you? How will you let it change you? What will be your new focus, your new priorities when we come out of this? What will you seek to cease doing, and to what will you rededicate yourself? If you have edifying answers to those questions, then it is true to say for you that this time is a time of testing and cleansing. It certainly can be. Hopefully it will be. If so, it has meaning. No experiment or cocksure declaration about the powers of science can take that away from you.
Many people are trying to predict what this pandemic will mean for the future of the Church. It is all guesswork, because it is God’s future and God’s Church, and He hasn’t told us. Anything He allows to happen invites somehow closer to Christ and His bride the Church. So whatever else may happen out in the world, in your life I pray that this “quarantine” of a sort may clarify your resolve, strengthen your faith, and render you a more committed Christian than you were at the beginning of the year. After all, He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Lk. 10:41-42
Trying to halt the spread of contagion while still living our lives has forced governments to distinguish between essential and non-essential activities, jobs, and events. It has led to some almost comical misclassifications, at least in most people’s opinions. For example, we read reports that in Michigan you can buy lottery tickets but not garden seeds. In some places, apparently, you can be outside getting fresh air and exercising, but not if you’re doing it by landscaping your yard at the same time. In North Carolina, the government has declared that protesting the government’s classifications of what constitutes essential and non-essential activities is itself a non-essential activity, so you’re not allowed to be outside doing that. Which sort of begs the question, doesn’t it?
It is easy to find seemingly ludicrous examples, but that is because reducing everything to simple categories of essential and non-essential depends on a set of criteria that has never been agreed upon. I’ll bet if any of us tried to classify everything and enforce it, in no time there would be social media memes everywhere mocking the ridiculous consequences of the choices we made. It isn’t as easy as it sounds.
There is a famous scene in Schindler’s List in which Nazi officers have to classify all the Jewish workers in Warsaw as essential or non-essential. But at least they have a single criterion: is the job essential to the war effort or not. That makes things a tad easier. In one instance, an elderly man is declared nonessential and condemned because he is a teacher of history and literature. He is saved at the last minute when his friend convinces the officers that he is actually a metal polisher, required for the manufacture of armaments. What is essential? What isn’t? Who makes that call? Of what is a civilization made?
Nobody likes to be declared non-essential. Today, people who might have looked down on others who worked certain jobs are receiving their comeuppance. People who stock shelves, make deliveries, mop floors—these people are being lauded as the backbone of society. Nobody is saying, “We need a ballerina and three modern dance majors over here! Stat!” It turns out the people who might have once turned up their noses at basic trades and menial jobs are now finding themselves the ones declared non-essential, at least by some definitions.
In The Breakfast Club, a brainy A-student talks about taking shop class and failing to make a lamp properly, and how stupid the assignment was. Another student in shop class mocks him for being such a useless egghead in all the useless smart kid classes. The smart kid responds, “Well, did you know that without trigonometry there would be no engineering?” To which the critic replies, “Without lamps there would be no light.”
What is essential? What is non-essential? Students, and sometimes even their parents, fall prey to this overly-simplistic way of thinking sometimes. In the height of frustration trying to do school and work at home, the question, “Why do I have know this stuff?” never seems more apt. The foolish approach is to say that if isn’t going to help you get a better job, you should only do it if it is fun. The purpose of education goes beyond maximizing employment potential or mental entertainment. Language, history, art—these are all non-essential in terms of sustaining life, but essential in terms of making civilization worth sustaining. What is essential?
I hope one casualty of this shut-down is the tendency to look down on the jobs that require less formal education, but that prove essential in times of crisis. I also hope we don’t fall into the trap of looking down on jobs that do require a lot of education but don’t serve much immediate purpose in a crisis. Maybe one thing God is giving us is a renewed appreciation for all the various ways we depend on each other. For example, if you’ve been watching Netflix while stuck at home, thousands of people with “nonessential” areas of expertise, like creative writing, acting, history, modern dance, etc. have made that possible. So have countless people with “essential” expertise in the technology that makes streaming possible. So has the guy who delivered your tv to the store or your house, and the electrician that wired up the outlet. Everyone fits into the picture somehow. Be grateful for the many Marthas who did a million things for you that you couldn’t have done for yourself. We are interconnected.
The familiar story of Mary and Martha takes the world’s views of what is essential and non-essential and turns it upside down. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things—online classes, internet connections, delivery status updates, cleaning up breakfast—but one thing is necessary. There is it is. THE distinction. Christ is the one thing needful.
Jesus makes the distinction for us. Whatever else is essential to survive a crisis, to build up a civilization, to make a living, there is only one thing that that is essential in any eternal sense. If nothing else, God might be using this crisis to make us examine what is important and what isn’t. It is easy to lose track of it. Every other distinction between essential and non-essential fails. Not this one. You have Christ. He will not be taken away from you. You have the one thing needful. That is essential forever.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. Rom. 13:1-5
Of all people, Christians have good reason to know that the governing authorities can be good or bad, but remain the governing authorities either way. Jesus stood before Pilate and died unjustly. St. Paul appealed to Rome and died unjustly. Luther’s Catechism includes “…devout and faithful rules, good government…” in the list of things that constitute the daily bread for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. But, like other things in the list such as good weather and health, we pray for it, then take what God gives us gratefully whether it was what we were hoping for or not.
When to obey or disobey secular authorities has always been a matter of some debate among Christians. In Acts 5:29, the Apostles explain that they disobeyed the order not to preach the Gospel (even after having been arrested for it) because “We must obey God rather than men.” But we also have the 4th Commandment telling us not to anger the authorities but to obey and honor them. Throughout Christian history it hasn’t always been clear when to disobey or submit to unjust authorities, or even when the authorities were really being unjust. From the book of Acts to the Reformation to modern times, the relationship between church (God’s eternal, right hand kingdom) and the secular authority (the temporal kingdom of the left) has been a matter of strong debate and disagreement.
In these strange times, more and more controversy has surrounded state governors issuing edicts about the manner in which churches may or may not offer Holy Communion. This, to say the least, has sparked a fair amount of debate among clergy charged with administering the Sacrament. Who does the governor think he is to tell me how distribute spiritual, eternal things? That’s the kingdom of the right, and none of the governor’s business! On the other hand, who does that pastor think he is disobeying laws about physical, temporal things like eating and drinking? Public health and preventing the spread of contagion are clearly matters of the left hand kingdom and therefore the governor’s God-given task to oversee. If our spiritual practices put other citizens at physical risk, that clearly falls under the governor’s responsibility to the public.
The Sacrament attaches the spiritual and eternal Word and promise of Christ’s body and blood to the physical, worldly elements of bread and wine. That connection between the spiritual and the biological means that the left and right hand kingdoms can’t help but collide when a spiritual practice causes a bodily danger. The Church must obey God rather than men when it comes to shepherding souls with God’s Word and Sacraments. But the secular authority is still the authority when it comes to public policy concerning temporal lives and the spread of contagion. So we’re trying to be good Christians and good citizens. But again, it isn’t always self-evident how to do that. In this case, the dual spiritual/biological nature of the Sacrament itself brings together the two kingdoms that govern spiritual/biological Christian people who are citizens of an eternal kingdom and various earthly realms.
What can you do? First, be patient. I, frankly (and I know Pastor Stock shares this sentiment with me), have little patience for governors telling me how to administer Communion. I feel like telling them they better back off. But I also have to remember that they are trying to do their job of keeping people safe, that this pandemic is a new thing for them, too, and that they are doing their best. If anyone thinks being governor is an easy job or that they could do it better, I suspect such people are kidding themselves. We all need to put the best construction on things, endure difficulties, and not let disagreements spiral needlessly out of control.
Second, pray. If nothing else, Governors Holcomb and Pritzger and President Trump and the other authorities under them need and deserve our prayers. There are so many people and situations to pray about, but please include the leaders of both Church and State in your prayers. All of us are making it up as we go along in this unforeseen situation, and we’re all bound to make a few mistakes.
Third, make sure we keep our priorities in order. Presidents, governors, and health commissioners are legitimate but not ultimate authorities. We must, like every generation of Christians in the history of the Church, make clear that when it comes to pastoral practice and spiritual matters, we will gladly take into account but not be ruled by secular leaders. Spiritual matters are outside their authority and competence. We can accommodate much for the sake of good order, but what the congregation does is more essential, not less so, than any business or government.
Lastly and most importantly, be not afraid, but rejoice and be glad in this joyous Eastertide! Don’t worry about things outside your control, because your Lord is risen and nothing is outside His control. No temporal, worldly situation can matter more than that. Be assured that you will be served, by hook or by crook, with God’s Word and Sacraments. Maybe not in the manner or frequency you’d like, but still adequately. We will figure it out. We are in good hands.
Easter means there is nothing this world can do to you. You are a citizen of an eternal kingdom. Rejoice in hope, be patient in affliction, be constant in prayer (Rom. 12:12), because it is in doing those things that you most meaningfully shout to the world, “He is risen indeed!”
Disorienting. That’s what today feels like to me. It is hard to get your bearings when the landmarks aren’t there. By landmarks, of course, I don’t refer to the things that mark the physical landscape. I mean the things that give shape to time, the habits and rituals by which we all live.
God invented time along with everything else in Genesis 1, and He gave shape to it, a seven day pattern that has continued unbroken since the beginning of the world. Even we Christians, who are not bound by Old Testament Sabbath laws, still typically worship once every seven days, the day after Jesus’ Sabbath rest in the tomb. Church doesn’t have to take place on Sunday, but it always has. It is disorienting (especially but by no means exclusively for pastors) to get up on Sunday morning and think, “So…. What should I do today?” I read the following in an online article last night:
JERUSALEM - Adeeb Joudeh, standing in front of the now-locked Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City, had a pretty specific answer when asked when the church last closed to the public like this: "It was the year 1349, at the time of the Black Plague," he said, holding the key that had shut things down a day earlier and back in the 14th century as well.
A little over a year ago I was there at that church with some of others of our St. Paul’s family. Its huge, ancient dome encloses the traditional locations of the cross and the empty tomb. It seemed like if there were any constants in the world, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was one. It has closed for brief periods a few times in history for this or that reason, but the last time is was ordered closed for an indefinite period was 671 years ago. Wow. One comforting thing, one silver lining in that fact, is that I feel better about suspending worship at St. Paul’s, something I never thought I’d do and about which I still have mixed feelings. But hey, if they’ve closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I guess we can be closed, too. But it is still disorienting.
But anything that is disorienting demands a reorienting. You have to get your bearings. In the Milwaukee airport there is a great sign that read “Recombobulation Area.” I love that word, recombobulation, referring to what comes after the discombobulation of going through the arcane process of airport security. When you get lost, confused, or thrown off your game, you reorient.
The Gospel disoriented its first hearers. Jews and Gentiles mixing? Righteousness not by works? God becoming a man, and that man dying? And then rising? How could that be? All the old ways seemed to be collapsing. All the old assumptions, all the patterns, all the givens were thrown out the window. And yet to those with ears to hear, it was Good News. It was Good News because the massive Reorientation was based on Christ, the true, immovable cornerstone by Whom all of time gets its bearings. The wholesale disorientation caused by God making all thing new didn’t end there; it began a great reorientation on that cornerstone.
Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. The Third Commandment, insofar as it talks about a day, refers to Saturday. But that was the Old Covenant. It pointed to Christ and was fulfilled in Christ. That’s why Christians are not bound to worship on any particular day, and typically do not, like Jews do even today, worship on the Sabbath, that is, Saturday. Instead, we mark time as reoriented around the stone which the builders the rejected, the death and resurrection of Christ—Sunday, the first day of the New Creation, the day Christ rose, the eighth day of creation, when God makes all creation new.
Luther’s catechism, as usual, captures this reorientation on Christ perfectly. What does it mean to remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy? We should fear and love so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it. Amazingly, the explanation doesn’t even mention a day. That was the old landmark, the Law, the thing that pointed ahead to Christ. We have the fulfillment, the proclaimed Gospel of Christ crucified and risen. We keep this commandment whenever and wherever we attend to the proclamation of the Gospel with all seriousness, reverence, and earnestness.
Reorienting. That’s what this bizarre quarantine can be for you. It gives all of us a chance to get our bearings and examine our habits, schedules, and priorities to see whether and how they are oriented on Christ. Perhaps they already were before all this. Perhaps not. But no forced change in schedule can disorient those whose lives are oriented on the immovable rock that is Christ, the cornerstone.
I hope you all partake of Matins today via the website. Matins is old. But the last closing of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is much older, predating the English language itself. Chaucer wasn’t even writing yet the last time this happened. There are no permanent things except the one thing upon which everything depends—the Word of God become Flesh and reigning forever. When you worship via the website, I hope your focus is not on the archaic words, whether you love them or don’t like them at all. Your focus should be on the words of Scripture, Pastor Stock’s Christ-centered sermon, praise of the eternal God, and the timeless Gospel that gives you life today and every day, in any circumstance, until we join in the heavenly worship of God forever.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana