Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Respecting Caesar. . . Obeying God. . .

Let me begin by saying I believe with all my heart that people are trying to act in the best interests of the faithful and the Church even if their responses to the coronavirus is different.  I am not attacking anyone.  But I truly do believe that cancelling church services and closing the church doors is the wrong response to the coronavirus pandemic.

I realize that we are not in the same circumstance as the early Church when Christianity was illegal and persecuted or in other eras when the government was trying to control the faith in order to weaken the faith and shut it down.  However, we are not being disobedient nor are we being careless with respect to our people when we work to make it possible to keep the doors open and worship services continue in a time of fear, panic, and threat.  We are not being indifferent to the very real threat of this virus pandemic when we owe our allegiance to the higher calling of making sure that God's people are not without the comfort of His Word, of absolution, and of the body and blood of Christ in His Holy Sacrament. 

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic is serious, deadly so, and our CDC and political leaders are certainly right and well within their authority to act for the safety of us all in slowing the spread of this threat.  At the same time, we have seen ample evidence that many of the things said have not calmed any fears but perhaps added to the hysteria so evident in grocery stores.

Those who lead the Church are not required to imitate our political leaders or to take recommendations as rules that may not be violated.  Our concern is the spiritual health and well being of the people of God.  Finally, we must use social media carefully and make sure that we do not succumb to the temptation to contribute to the panic.  In the end, we do not have a sure idea of where or how this will unfold but we can and should work to maintain as much as possible a sense of normalcy within the parameters of adequate precaution and prevention.  We should expect our people to wash hands for at least 20 seconds, to use hand sanitizer as a backup, and to stay home when they exhibit any symptoms of the coronavirus, flu, or cold.  This we do out of love for our neighbor more than because we are told to do so by medical or political authorities.

It my contention that closing churches, cancelling services, and turning to social media instead of providing Word and Sacrament is a betrayal of our solemn duty to provide faithful spiritual care to God's people.  I am shocked by those who have made the arbitrary decision to close churches and even cancel Easter. I am surprised that many of our district officials have so quickly rushed to encourage churches to refrain from the use of the chalice if open or to close entirely.  We are doing the exact opposite in Clarksville, Tennessee.  Below is our plan to address the life of the Church within the threat of the coronavirus.


In an effort to serve God’s people faithfully with the Word preached, with absolution of their sins, and with the food of Christ’s body and blood in the Divine Service, we will expand the number of services.  With all due respect to the CDC and political leaders, the Church is not a social club and the Divine Service is not a social gathering.  If it is safe to go to the grocery store, it is safe to go to Church.  We will, however, cancel non-essential programs, eliminate all food events, and adapt our Divine Service to honor both the Lord and the guidelines of the medical community.

Starting March 18, the 5 pm Vespers will become a 5 pm shortened form of the Divine Service.  Soup and Bread will be cancelled.  The 7 pm Evening Prayer will also become a shortened form of the Divine Service.  The format will be similar to the Thursday services we have been observing for many years.

Starting March 18, we will also add daily Divine Services.  Mondays at 6 pm, Tuesdays at 11 am, Wednesdays at 5 & 7 pm, Thursdays at 11 am, and Saturdays at 6 pm.  The Sunday Schedule will also change with service times of 8:15, 9:30, and 10:45 am for the Divine Service.  All Sunday school classes, catechism classes, and Bible studies will be cancelled until further notice.  We are not turning off the coffee pot but no coffee hour will be observed or food served.

We will continue with the changes already announced on March 15:  No shaking of hands or passing of the peace, individual cups handed to each communicant, offering plates will not be passed but will be placed near the front for people to place their tithes and offerings, and we will not shake hands at the door.  Pastors will handle the distribution.  The CDC has never found any credible evidence of the chalice transmitting disease so we will continue the chalice without fear.

Choir and other musical groups will meet as directed by the Cantor but the planned music will be adapted because of the other changes in the schedule.

Easter will continue with services at 7, 9 & 10:45 am but we will not serve an Easter Breakfast.  The Easter Egg hunt will be cancelled but baskets of Easter eggs will be given to the children on Easter Sunday. 

All services will take place in the main Sanctuary so that the distances suggested by the CDC can be observed.  If it becomes necessary, we will use a sign up sheet to schedule which service people wish to attend so that we can honor the spirit of the CDC recommendations.  Note that at this point, the recommendation of the CDC is groups of 50 or less and the State of Tennessee has not put in place rules that supersede this.

Finally, we strongly encourage you not to panic but to act as the people of faith and hope we are in Christ.  We have this moment to demonstrate before the world the power of the hope that lives in us and the opportunity to show the love for neighbor that we have received from Christ, our Good Samaritan and Savior.  Grace Lutheran Church will not close our doors.  We will work within the parameters we have to fulfill God’s purpose and provide the comfort of His Word and the grace of His sacraments to His people.  Your pastors and the staff of Grace Lutheran Church are committed to whatever we can do to be there for YOU and we ask YOU to be there for the Church by faithfully praying for your servants in Christ, your neighbors in need, and providing the tithes and offerings necessary to support this essential work.


Rob Olson said...

Please support your contention that cancelling services is a betrayal. I'm not just a troll who wants to argue. I, too, was disappointed to see how quickly churches would cancel Divine Services without at least trying to be imaginative in finding another option.

D. Bestul said...

Brothers: As the following preface to the order indicates*, it's not a legal option. It's a legal ORDER based on the uncontested recommendation of the CDC and the best epidemiologists in history. Though one may have biblical and legal reason to challenge the order on the grounds that the church is not considered an "essential business" as defined by the order, the time to do so is before or after the three week moratorium, not during it when God's people so need pastoral care, albeit by web-page, podcast, email, phone, and 'snail-mail.' If it's extended much beyond that, it may have to be defied, especially to administer Word and Sacrament to the dying. But, complying with the God-ordained authorities'duty to protect public health and therefore do what it must to mitigate a deadly pandemic is to love our neighbor and to submit to the civil authority God has placed over us. A month without the Supper isn't at all desirable, but there was a time not so long ago when Lutheran laity and pastors received the Supper but once a month. To be sure, it wasn't as often as it should have been, but thank God that His Means of Grace delivers the forgiveness of sins and strengthening of faith through Baptism, Absolution and the preaching of His Word as well, or I wouldn't be serving a congregation which --under normal circumstances--receives the Sacrament weekly today. This pandemic will pass. Helping to mitigate the number of weak and elderly and pastors it takes with it, is, again, to love our neighbor. The doors of the church will again be open because God's people will joyfully come. And we will then be so grateful that our Lord sustained the faith of His baptized through His Word while we eagerly waited to return to His Table. Please pray for us, even as we will pray for you when you are required by law to do what we have been required by law to do.

*The following is the text of the legal order from Contra Costa County announced Monday afternoon. Other Bay Area counties – Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco, Alameda, Santa Cruz and Marin, and the city of Berkeley – issued the same order:
Please read this Order carefully. Violation of or failure to comply with this Order is a misdemeanor punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both. (California Health and Safety Code § 120295, et seq.)

David Gray said...

I'm disappointed pastor that you don't want to address the need to submit to civil authority given your decision not to post my comment. I think, even if you disagree, that the topic merits addressing. Best wishes.

Pastor Peters said...

The kingdom of this world is, I believe, acting within its sphere of competence when it acts in matters of public safety or civil order. If the kingdom of this world sought to close churches because of hostility to Christianity it would be acting in the sphere of authority belonging to the church and outside its competence. But just as Christians owe submission to spiritual authority in the church's realm they also owe temporal obedience to the kingdom of this world when it acts within its sphere of competence, if the act is not clearly sinful. Render unto Christ what is Christ's and unto Caesar what is Caesar's

David Gray sent this comment but it would not post. I asked him to resend it but he did not. Even though I disagree, I will post his comment to add to the discussion.

Just remember I am a full time pastor in exceptional times and do not deal with comments daily. O