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Duration:19 mins 15 secs

Pastor’s Address to Congregation

March 15, 2020

This past Thursday morning, I was writing a letter to be sent to all of you by email blast. My intention was to provide you with an update on all the things we were doing here at MPC to protect our members and the wider community from the spread of COVID-19, or the strain of coronavirus that is making its rapid and insidious way to every state in our country. Over the last week, I have been in conversation with the church staff; the Worship, Property and Fellowship teams; and our Clerk of Session about appropriate measures for our staff and congregation to take while still remaining a community of worship and service. As you know, we had already put a moratorium on handholding, handshaking, and hugging during worship – now we were laying out revised procedures for receiving the offering, registering attendance, and sharing the communion elements.  In my letter I also noted revised food service procedures and the extra and aggressive cleaning and disinfecting going on in the church building. I was winding up with an admonition you have heard many times before, from many sources: “If you don’t feel well, stay home. If you are in a vulnerable population – over age 65, or with other health issues – stay home.” I had almost finished my epistle when my Windows program, capriciously and arbitrarily, decided to do a hard restart, and my entire document was obliterated. “Why is this happening?” I wailed. It felt strangely apocalyptic.

            The truth is, the communication I was laboring over would have been already obsolete by the time I sent it out. Just a couple of hours later, I got a call from John Molina-Moore, our General Presbyter, letting me know that the presbytery’s Leadership Council would be meeting that evening, and that the outcome of that meeting would be a recommendation to the churches of our presbytery that we suspend worship services and other large gatherings for the next two weeks. Those of us in MPC’s leadership have spent the better part of the last 2 ½ days emailing, texting and phoning as we have made the decisions that will keep all church activities either on hiatus or conducted remotely for at least the next two weeks. This is definitely not the apocalypse, but COVID-19 has thrown everything into disarray.

            It is a blow for a Christian community to be told we shouldn’t worship together. I have always said that it is our worship together that reconstitutes us as a Christian community each Sunday. Worship isn’t just an expression of our faith, it is the core of it. When God calls us, it is to be part of a community – a community in which we are equipped, through worship and study, to serve the world God loves.

            So why are we doing this – or, more to the point, who are we doing it for? First of all, of course, we are choosing not to gather out of concern for each other, especially the more vulnerable members of our own community. Since it’s possible to have the virus and not know it, or not know it yet, our not coming together greatly reduces the possibility that the virus will be transmitted to others in the congregation. But also, as I’m sure you realize, by our limiting the possibility of infection among ourselves, we can actually slow the spread of the virus in the wider community and help prevent our medical care facilities and personnel from being completely overwhelmed. So we are doing this not just for ourselves but also for the sake of others.

            Luke’s Gospel tells the story of a lawyer who comes to test Jesus. The debate he engages Jesus in turns on the definition of the word “neighbor.” The lawyer and Jesus agree that the Scriptures command us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself,” but the lawyer has another question: “Who is my neighbor?” What he really wants to know, I think, is “Who is not my neighbor?”  Who is it – what person or population – do I not need to be concerned about?  In answer, Jesus told him a story about the essence of neighborliness, the story of the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan. You know this story: a man lies beaten in a ditch and left for dead, and the good religious people you would expect to help him do not, while the very person everyone else would look down on comes to his rescue, bathes his wounds, and takes him to an inn where he can convalesce for as long as he needs to, at the Samaritan’s expense.

            Clearly, Jesus’s definition of a neighbor is a very wide one: it is everyone who needs our concern, respect, care.

            All across America, local jurisdictions, schools, religious organizations, and even profit-making organizations, like sports teams and entertainment venues, are making decisions to curtail activities for the good of the larger community. There is something noble and self-sacrificing in this – it is an aspect of neighborliness. It is a recognition that we are part of a moral universe that is large and heavily populated, and that our good is tied up with the good of others.

            All these steps we are taking as a church and as a society, of course, do not guarantee that we will not get sick or pass the virus on to someone else. Even with the best controls in place, and even if more widespread testing were available, there would still be risk. But just as we are commanded to love our neighbor, we are also commanded not to be afraid, and to trust that God will still be with us.

            It is normal and to be expected that we would be experiencing some level of both fear and grief at this time. Life is not normal, and we could take comfort in the midst of abnormality by being able to gather as usual for Sunday services. Even if we can’t gather, though, we are still a community and we can still hold each other in thought and prayer. We can still call each other to see what needs there might be that we could help meet.

            I do have one request of you: Please be patient with our communications as we seek to make the best decisions for this congregation. The situation is changing rapidly, sometimes necessitating reversals or modifications of decisions just made, and our overall communications may not always keep up. We will try to keep you informed as quickly as we can.  We encourage you to keep checking your email, the church website, and Facebook for notifications and updates.

            And take heart: Coronavirus or not, spring is here with its promise of warmth, color, and abundance. There is still beauty in the world, and God’s goodness still shines. So “may the peace of God, that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.” And may the blessing of God be with you now and always.

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