The government of Ontario announced this week some lifting of restrictions for certain parts of the province, with implications for churches.
While this announcement gives hope especially to those of us yearning to meet again in person and in the building, the announcement can give a false hope that we are now all safe.
We are definitely not. We are not out of the woods yet. Just a couple of days ago the World Health Organization reported the highest number of infections in a single day worldwide since the pandemic broke earlier this year. There are signs and worries even in North America that a second wave or spike can strike this summer. Of course we don’t know for certain and when.
But we do know that Toronto remains locked down. In the southern States new cases have been alarmingly rising over the past couple of weeks. These are sobering facts we cannot deny.
How do we respond, as a people of God, in faith?
We were treated by a special guest to our house this past week. A baby robin lingered on the back deck after being fed by her mother who kept watch nearby.
We like these images of protective wings. They remind us of the nurturing and comforting presence of God. We may feel privileged with God under the shadow of the Almighty. Chosen and held by a loving God. The image of God bearing us, as God bore the Israelites up out of slavery in Egypt, has found its way into hymns, songs and prayers that have sustained the people of God over the centuries.
We are chosen by God. But we are chosen to take responsibility in our privilege. Being called “a priestly kingdom and holy nation”is not license to think exclusively of ourselves. We are not God’s pets, singled out for special favors and exempt from suffering and consequences of bad behavior. Being chosen and called by God is not permission to protect a life of comfort, luxury and privilege for ourselves without regard for others.
God does not love just me, and those like me. “Indeed, the whole earth is mine,” says the Lord.God is always choosing all people on their very different journeys of faith and life. If there is anything we pray we have in common, it is that we can all share in an experience of being loved by God. And we must care for others so they can too.
This text from Exodus precedes the giving of the Ten Commandments. The second half of the Commandments – the last five or six have to do with loving our neighbor. God’s promise of protection must extend through us and our responsibility to protect others.
The Israelites are parked at the base of Mount Sinai, ready now to receive instruction from God. They say all the right words: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do!”
At least, good on them for that. But it’s not enough to say the right words. Because we know how the story goes for the ancient Israelites. They don’t always take care of the “alien, the orphan and the widow”History shows the failure of God’s people “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
The Bible doesn’t end with that bold and righteous intention to do everything God has told us. Rather, the Bible ends up being a very long story of humanity’s failure, over and over again, to do God’s will.
That is why when the mother robin kept perch on the fence in our backyard, when she maintained distant yet vigilant watch over her chick, I thanked God.
Sometimes God may seem distant, and literally in the case of the baby robin, physically distant. In these turbulent times of increased confinement and social upheaval, God may feel to us physically distant.
Yet God’s people will not rest from our responsibilities. In the decisions we make, in how we relate to one another, our behavior, our lifestyles we hold a great responsibility for the other.
And despite our failures to get it right, to do it perfectly, despite the words declared from podiums and over backyard fences, God is never too far away. Never too far away to watch over us and be faithful to us in the wideness of God’s mercy. Because if there is anything that endures throughout the bible’s story besides human brokenness and sin, it is more the never-ending story and promise of God’s grace and love for all the people.
The Psalmist takes God at God’s word. The Psalmist proclaims God’s faithfulness even at the farthest reaches of what is possible, and prays: “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea” – if I go beyond my comfort zone and let go of private privilege for the sake of the other, if I embrace my limitations – “even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
So, what shall we do as a church? If you are rostered in the community of Faith Lutheran Church, you will receive a communication in the next couple of weeks outlining our plan. In the meantime, I would ask you to consider the following affirmations we can make as a church together:
- We affirm that during this time of pandemic lockdown the church has not been closed. Even though the building has been closed, the work of pastoral care, worship, prayer and other ways supporting the ministry of this congregation and the wider community has continued.
- We affirm that though this work uses imperfect and limited means, the grace of God sustains it as much as it did pre-COVID and will for all time to come.
- We affirm that that members of the church experience anxiety, fear, loss and anger during the pandemic. There is a longing for the way things were. This yearning speaks to our humanity held in God’s love; and, speaks to our need to grieve and express our losses.
- We affirm that as we move forward into an uncertain future, we want to love each other by upholding safe, social practices – even if it entails maintaining physical distancing and sheltering-in-place. In so doing, we consider everyone’s safety not just our own. We protect all people, especially those most vulnerable among us and in the wider community.
- We affirm our intention and hope that slowly but surely we will come to worship again together in person. Whether this begins in a couple of months and extends over a couple of years, we affirm that all our times are in God’s hands. Re-entering the building will be a process that will at first feel awkward and slow and sometimes rigid, especially at the beginning when we put into practice safe, physical distancing measures.
In closing I would like to pray one of my favourites from the old green book – the Lutheran Book of Worship:
“Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Deuteronomy 10:18; 24:19; 24:20; 24:21; 25:7; 27:19
Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1978), p.137