All over the country, churches are wrestling with decisions about how to do ministry in the midst of a pandemic. This is an on-going challenge, because the circumstances of the pandemic are constantly shifting and changing. Yesterday’s decisions are called into doubt by today’s news.
Over the years, I have always found that, when facing uncertain circumstances, it is important to dig deep to find the unchanging principles of our faith and make decisions based as much as possible on those unchanging principles. The eternal truths of our faith are the solid footing we need for coping with the sometimes-mind-boggling uncertainties of life—the kind of uncertainties the coronavirus pandemic has forced on us in these days.
One of the abiding principles of the Christian faith is that the strong are to go out of their way to provide for the needs of the vulnerable. In Matthew 25, Jesus says that the mark of his true followers is that they provide for “the least of these, my brothers.” In Mark 10:43, Jesus says that to be great in the kingdom of God means to serve the needs of others. In Jesus’ eyes, greatness is not achieved by asserting our rights but by denying ourselves and serving the weak, the wounded, the vulnerable.
As we try to sort out how to do ministry in our various church settings, that priority of serving the needs of the vulnerable among us must be what guides us. It doesn’t mean that every decision we make will be right. But it will keep us facing in generally the right direction.
This past Sunday at my particular congregation, I watched that principle play out in what seemed to me to be a beautiful expression of that principle during our worship service. In that service, we received part of our current confirmation class into membership. Because of that event, we had a number of people in attendance who have, for health reasons, not been regularly attending worship in person during the pandemic. In the pews that morning there were two people who are currently being treated for cancer. We had an older member with chronic liver disease. A ninety-year-old had gotten to her seat with the help of a rolling walker.
These are some of the vulnerable ones among us, some of the least of these, in a sense. They were able to come to worship that day, because all of us were going out of our way to make the room as safe as possible. All of us wore our masks from the moment we entered the building until we walked out the door. None of us enjoys wearing a mask, but we did it because we wanted to keep the people around us safe. We wore our uncomfortable masks so that the vulnerable ones would be safer.
We all wanted to give hugs and handshakes. But we deny ourselves that for now in order to make sure that we don’t do any harm to anyone, especially the most vulnerable. We spread out in the sanctuary, so that we could maintain a safer distance from each other for the sake of all, but especially those who were most at risk. We slathered our hands in smelly alcohol, not because we enjoy doing that but because we care about each other, especially the least robust among us.
Because we all chose to make ourselves a little uncomfortable, to refrain from doing everything we’d like to do, because we all chose to deny ourselves a bit, we made it possible for some of the least of these, our brothers and sister, to be in that room with us to worship. That is what followers of Jesus do. I was proud of our church.
We won’t always have to wear these wretched masks. There will come a time when we will again be able to shake hands and hug and stand close together and talk. Sometime before too long we won’t have to mark off the pews, and you all will again be able to crowd together in the far back pews. We may keep hand sanitizer stations around at least during flu season, but it won’t be as urgent that everyone use them. God will see us through all this.
But I wonder and worry a bit about what kind of churches will come out the other end of this experience. We’re going to learn habits from this time of Covid19. We want to make sure we learn the good ones not bad ones. It’s very important to me that the people of my church continue to practice the habit of going out of our way to care for the vulnerable among us. I want it to have become second nature to us to choose to inconvenience ourselves for the sake of the least of these, our brothers and sisters. This experience, if we let it, can teach us the habit of denying our own preferences for the sake of others. When the choice is between our own preferences and the needs of others, this season can, if we let it, teach us to choose to serve.
Let’s allow God to use this season to lead us in the way of our self-sacrificing, servant King.
(c) 2020 Gary A. Chorpenning, all rights reserved.
Photos are by the author and are from the stained glass windows at North Presbyterian Church, Elmira, NY.