"Worship in the time of COVID-19"

3 Lent.A.20
Romans 5:1-11
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

Having endured a week such as the one that has just past—as well as the one beginning today, the collect for our Third Week of Lent takes on heightened interest and power:

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Over the course of this past week the events of our world have shown us how quickly our lives can change, not in a span of months, but of days and even hours. Certainly, I would not have imagined that I would be conducting worship over the internet, and discouraging people from coming to church. At this present moment life appears fragile, and the old constructs of the way we conduct our daily lives have changed. Suddenly, it seems, we are aware of germs (in a way we never were before), of the cleanliness of the surfaces that surround us, of how frequently we touch our own face, and Heaven forbid that we should cough. And commodities we once took for granted are now in short supply: hand sanitizer, anti-viral wipes, and toilet paper, for heaven’s sake.

What do the scriptures have to say to us as we enter unchartered territory? A listen to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, sets us off on the right foot: “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

The first thing to hear in this letter is that we have peace with God. Peace is not found simply by weathering the circumstances of this life. True peace is found with our Savior, the God of all hope and love. There is an old-time hymn whose refrain reads: “On Christ, he solid Rock, I stand; All other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.” St. Paul, writing to the Romans from his cell in prison reminds them that their hope is to be placed in nothing less than Jesus. And he goes on to remind us that character is shaped not simply by our circumstances, but through suffering and endurance. Paul says: “Endurance produces character.”

The Methodist minister, Halford Luccock once wrote: “Character is the accumulated result of a long-(term) investment. It is not a mysterious “gift”, as lawless and irrational as the gift of a fairy godmother in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It is not a mushroom which springeth up after a summer rain. It is not produced by a clever trick, like the manipulation of a sleight-of-hand performer.” Character comes from endurance, from fortitude. As Booker T. Washington said finely, “Character is the sum of all we struggle against.”

Perhaps, this week, more than most, the wisdom of Paul’s Letter to the Romans hits home in a way that it could not have done months earlier.

For what we face with the advent of the Corona Virus isn’t a problem that will be solved in a matter of hours or even days. In some ways, we are charting a new course in the history of our country and our world. Despite the modern world in which we live, we realize that we cannot protect ourselves from every contingency, hard as we might try. We understand, perhaps in a way we had not until now, that life truly is fragile, and the course it takes cannot always be dictated by ourselves.

For here I am, standing in a pulpit in a largely empty church, preaching to a congregation at home. For someone who has spent her entire career encouraging people to join in community, and to come to church, the landscape from which I stand is suddenly unfamiliar. Yet the truth is, I don’t want you here; at least not right now. I’d prefer you safely in your home. And yet, as uncomfortable as I am, I am also profoundly grateful. Grateful that there is a way for us to continue to worship together, grateful that there are creative and dedicated individuals who are able to navigate the wonders of technology to bring us together—perhaps not in person, but certainly in spirit. Grateful, indeed, for each of you and for the God who calls us to worship together and has helped provide a means for us to do so. To be certain, it’s not what I prefer—but, then again, I don’t expect that St. Paul preferred to be in prison. Just as St. Paul continued his ministry from a prison cell, and I conduct mine from an empty church; and you conduct your from where you are now; we each persevere. We endure, for we are a people of character and hope. All of this is possible for us. And it is our Savior himself, who in Matthew’s gospel reminds us that indeed “all things are possible with God.”

Now, for how our lives will change over the course of the next weeks and months. Bear in mind, we’re working with a fluid situation—things are changing all around us. While I have no doubt that there will come a time when we will stream through the doors of St. Paul’s with joy, for right now, we will continue to worship together at home. We have taken steps to cancel our programming: our Lenten series, Conversation Group, Sunday School and Confirmation Class until further notice. Each week we will reassess the situation. However, from where I stand at this present moment, I believe you can safely assume we will continue this present course until at least the beginning of April, at which point we will reassess.

I am confident that our Lord will direct us into new ways of being together. Sunday School Lessons for the family will be sent to your e-mail box; as well as prayers and inspirational writings for people of all ages. We will continue to communicate with you several times a week and to study new forums for us to continue our calling as the people of God.

And I have no doubt that through our experience of these times we will also discover the truth of St. Paul’s words: that suffering does indeed “produce endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” It might be that the circumstances are not what we would have chosen; and that the world has become an uncertain place in which to live; but God has not left us. Indeed, God is here—not only at St. Paul’s, but in your home and within your heart. Who we shall be will be changed through our experience of the coming days and months; yet, I am confident, that whatever we face will not dim the love we have for one another in Christ, Jesus. Indeed, my hope—and my prayer—is that what we face will deepen our love for one another and for our Savior. In Jesus’ name. Amen.