Allow me to begin by saying that I am not trying to indicate that the COVID-19 virus is not something to take seriously. While I do believe that there is an inordinate amount of hype over it, health threats are real and should be handled accordingly. Whenever possible and feasible, we should follow the advice of health professionals. That said, we also need to remember that we are not of this world and we have a responsibility that is different. Also worth noting, my underlying health conditions set me firmly in the “at risk” group for severe effects from COVID-19. I mention this so that you, dear reader, understand that I am writing what will follow from the perspective of someone at an increased risk and not from a position of relative safety.
Bishops, and more and more I am convinced that this is largely a title and not a Spiritually endorsed calling for most in the American wing of the UMC, across the UMC are “strongly urging” the cancelling of public worship for periods of time. My own conference had this to say: “Bishop Palmer is strongly urging West Ohio Conference churches to cancel public worship for the next two weeks. This is not a decision he has taken lightly. These precautions are for the health and safety of everyone. He is not asking you to cease operations completely but to avoid large group gatherings. Please remember the poor and marginalized still depend on our churches. The need may increase due to company shutdowns and closures for any period of time. In the days to come, the conference website and social media channels will have additional resources for you and your local church. Please continue to pray for those directly affected by illness and those making decisions to keep all of us safe.” Our Bishops are, in America anyway, by and large, cowards. Decisions to keep us all safe…that one really gets me.
From August 16, 2015, the headline reads:Christians Risk Their Lives to Attend Worship in Nigeria. The article features the following story: “”We tried to gather up the children and get them out or hide them,” Reverend O said. His voice faltered and he was silent for a moment as a tear rolled down his cheek. “My daughter was among them,” he told us. Then he asked the people, “Do you want me to close the service so you can escape?” After pausing to remove his glasses and wipe his tear-filled eyes, Reverend O continued, “They said to me, ‘You taught us that Jesus is worth dying for. This may be our last Communion. We will take it and die.'” This is just one of many stories of those in danger worshiping anyway. It would be safe to cancel worship on Sunday for them, but under the threat of imminent death, they worship anyway. “This may be our last communion. We will take it and die.” Unless there is a virus anyway.
We have examples in scripture when it was dangerous to be faithful. Take the example from Daniel 3 when three Jewish boys refused to worship anything but the creator God of their fathers. It wasn’t safe for them, yet still, they held to the One they should worship. Their response was that God could save them, and even if He chose not to, they would hold fast. A little later on, there is a whole bit with some lions and a guy named Daniel that wasn’t very safe either. The faith wasn’t safe for John the Baptist. He lost his head. It wasn’t safe for Stephen when the stones flew. It wasn’t safe for Peter and Paul who were martyred by Nero, or for Andrew who was crucified in Greece. Thomas was killed on soldiers’ spears, Philip put to death in Turkey for converting a proconsul’s wife, Matthew stabbed to death in Ethiopia, James stoned and clubbed to death in Syria, Matthias, who traveled to Syria with Andrew, was burned alive. Those are just some of the apostles. The faith has never been safe, nor has it ever been about being safe.
If we understand the faith properly, we know that not only are we strangers and aliens, we are accountable to an entirely different kingdom that the one that we live in, and the goal, and future reality, is that that kingdom will overthrow all others!. What exactly screams safety about being what amounts to an insurgent? What part of serving a Lord who not only died for us, but invited us to do the same, screams safe? “This may be our last communion. We will take it and die.” Unless there is a virus anyway.
The church is called to be the light in dark places. Traditionally, when times are trying, when, and pardon my language here, the shit hits the fan, people go to church. When desperation reigns, when fear is rampant, when there is no where else to turn, people still go to church, even if only to feel better. How can they come when we have cancelled service? We may be trying to be safe, but it is precisely because the times are not safe that the church needs to be open the most. If it isn’t then it is an act of cowardice, and a failure of our duty and call by God. I know this won’t make me any friends, but it’s the truth the best that I can see it.
I will be at church on Sunday. I have not heard if mine is meeting, but since I have seen no cancellation, I assume so. If it is closed however, I will be in the parking lot. Here is what I will promise, on Sunday at my church, or in it’s lot, there will be some praying, and some singing, and some preaching, even if I have to do it. It might not be safe, and that is not only ok, it might just be a good thing. At risk or no, I will be there. If it happens to be my last communion, then, with all of my brothers and sisters worldwide who refuse to be intimidated out of worship for any reason, I will take it and die. I hope to see you all, or at least hear about you all, doing the same.
“This may be our last communion. We will take it and die.” Amen, and amen.