“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Matt. 6:34
April showers bring May flowers. On the other hand, “Rain, rain, go away. Come again another day.” After yesterday was such a surprise nice day to be outside, I have to admit it was a bit depressing to wake up to gray skies and rain that looks to be settling in to stay all day. It is amazing how much the weather can affect moods, especially when there is really no place to go. If we had a choice about the weather, we’d have to weigh the benefits of May flowers tomorrow against having a nice day today.
Balancing the need to live for today while planning for tomorrow has always been a mysterious task. Just because we aren’t supposed to anxious about tomorrow doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to take tomorrow into account at all. Planning for tomorrow is part of today’s to-do list. The difference is that St. James tells us all our plans should contain the tacit caveat “God willing,” since we don’t know for sure what will happen. And Jesus says not to let tomorrow gnaw at you with worries and fears, but to plan for it, wait for it, and takes whatever it brings in full confidence that somehow it will be full of God’s grace. We who sow seeds do so in view of the harvest down the road. Today we focus on today’s work of plowing and planting.
Those of us in charge of planning the near future at St. Paul’s have been frustrated by our inability to know what the laws and health recommendations will be tomorrow. Indiana’s stay at home order expires tomorrow, but there has been no indication yet as to whether it will be extended, modified, eased, or cancelled. Obviously, such a situation makes it hard to answer any questions. Our Board of Deacons has been meeting weekly to consider the situation. We’re looking at how and when to being the process of opening things back up at St. Paul’s. When we do that, we will do it with all the proper safeguards in place to ensure that we’re being good neighbors to our members and our community while putting first things first in our earthly lives.
We’re all getting antsy to ease back into normal life. For now, though, answers to specific questions will have to wait for the May flowers. I do not know, for example, whether Confirmation will be able to happen on May 31, but I do know families need more than a moment’s notice to prepare for it the way they’d like. I’m not sure yet when we will be able to have a communion service in the sanctuary. Today we will continue receive God’ gifts with thanksgiving. Those gifts include the rain that waters the earth and makes it fruitful, the time we have to work, read, and pray, the church family we have at St. Paul’s, with whom we remain one in heart even as we inhabits different homes, and especially the Word, which bids us not to worry. Tomorrow will worry about itself.
“…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
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana