Most of you know by now that Allegheny County is under a stay-at-home order. Only life-essential travel is permitted. However, one of the few exceptions to this order is religious institutions. We are not closed because we have to be. We could, if we desired, still hold public worship services, and it is perfectly legal. Some churches are still holding worship.
I know that many of us would be uncomfortable coming to church at this time. But some are asking: why should the church close if people feel they need in this time of crisis to worship and pray together? Should those who desire it be barred from the Holy Communion, the sure and certain sign of God's love for us in Christ? Is this bread of life and medicine for the soul not more essential even than food and medicine for the body? And if we are not forced by law to close, why then are we closing? Is it out of fear of illness or death?
It's important for us to understand that if government would try to force us to cease gathering to worship God for whatever reason, however laudable, it would be wrong. We might well decide, at that point, that 'we should obey God rather than men' (Acts 5:29). And we also would not close simply out of fear for the safety of our staff or parishioners. Christians do not fear death, and so this cannot be a reason for ceasing to worship together. Neither is it because no one would come to church, because we do not hold worship to draw crowds.
Why, then, are we suspending services? We are doing so out of our Christian freedom, for the sake of others. Our Lord Jesus tells us to 'love our neighbors as ourselves' (Matthew 22:39). In love for our neighbors, we are freely sacrificing, for a time, that which cannot be sacrificed - the gathering of our faith family, the singing of God's praise together, the proclamation of God's Word of grace and forgiveness, the hugs and handshakes at the peace, the eating of the one bread and drinking of the one cup.
We do so because any of us who would gather could have the coronavirus - even if we did not feel sick. Perhaps it would be fine if it were just us taking the risk. But if we were to hold worship, and thereby provide another conduit for the pandemic to spread, we might well be not only putting each other at risk but putting our neighbors outside the church at grave risk. We might be contributing to the exponential spread of this disease that threatens to overload our system of public health, overwhelm our institutions, destroy our economy, and kill many people, both our fellow Americans and people of all nations.
Thus, we should understand our suspension of worship not as something forced upon us but as a fast - perhaps as a Lenten fast. This particular Lenten fast may well last beyond Lent. But it is a fast of love, a time when we live without that which we cannot live without, for the sake of others. It is also a loving act when we stay home and do not make unnecessary trips. For a disciple, everything a Christian does is related to his or her discipleship.
And perhaps it is a fast of repentance of well. For in the Ash Wednesday liturgy we confessed 'our
negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is
in us.' These words apply to your pastor as well, for there are routines of personal prayer and worship in which I have been negligent. If we, in this time when we must fast from worship, feel the need to be in worship and cannot do so, then maybe when we can gather again we will not take the gift so lightly.
Blessings to you as you live without that which cannot be lived without, for the sake of your neighbor. Christ protect and guard you.