Keeping church buildings closed is not a Constitutional Infringement

Keeping church buildings closed is not a Constitutional Infringement.  Not even close.  Here’s how I know.

The Federal Government and the government of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (where our church is located and who’s jurisdiction we fall under) aren’t trying to stop worship.  In fact, many government officials have offered supportive words for worship to continue – albeit in an alternative form than in-person.

There is not one news story in this nation about troops or police showing up at a pastor’s house, or a sanctuary, or anywhere else that a recording of worship or a live streaming of worship (with no in-person gathering) is taking place for.  Not one.  No government is trying to stop virtual worship.  No one is trying to stop Zoom worship or Facebook live worship.  No government agency is hacking into websites or shutting down church websites to prevent worship from happening.  No public declarations are being made about efforts to stop worship from happening.  No pastors are being jailed for leading virtual worship.

Virtual, and other forms of socially distanced worship is being publicly shared and disseminated and there are absolutely no efforts or attempts to stop worship from happening.

No church anywhere has to do worship in hiding when they do it virtually or through social distance precautions.

This isn’t about an evil government trying to step on Constitutional rights or squash churches and their First Amendment rights to worship.

The language of the First Amendment states the following:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

There is no establishment being dealt with here, so let’s set that aside.  I think we can all agree with that.

Now onto the second part – “…prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”  First of all, the Amendment deals with Congress making laws – it’s right at the beginning of the Amendment.  Congress is the subject of the Amendment.  Congress has not done any type of law pertaining to COVID-19 in relation to religion.  It has been state governments who have made recommendations and rules.  But even with that in mind, there is not a prohibition of the free exercise of religion going on.  We are worshipping just as we were before, just in a different platform.  As I mentioned before, no one is trying to stop the church from worshipping.

Here in Pennsylvania we look to the Pennsylvania Constitution which says in Article 1, Section 3:

All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship
     Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences;
     no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any
     place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his
     consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control
     or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference
     shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or
     modes of worship.

The governor has not violated this.  First, the governor never dictated to churches that they must close their buildings – it has always been a recommendation.  And many churches have followed this recommendation for the safety of their congregations.  They did this willingly as a precaution based on sound science.  This isn’t about living in fear – it’s about loving our neighbor and not willingly doing anything that could cause harm to our neighbor.

If you want to worship in person, you are free to do that. Gather together with other likeminded people.  Sing together if you wish.  Shake hands if you want to.  Do it in a place that you want that you have legal access to and are welcome to be in.

Just don’t demand anyone else accommodate you.  Don’t demand that your pastor attend and risk exposing themselves and their loved ones to a virus through you.  You do not have a right to control your pastor or church leadership to accommodate your demands.  Keep in mind this clause in the PA Constitution – “no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent.”  Your freedom does not demand other comply with you and your desires.  Those who wish to follow the safety guidelines have just as much right to withhold from in-person worship as you do to desire in-person worship.  And they would still be worshipping because there is no infringement on the right to worship.  Is there an inconvenience?  Sure.  But inconvenience is not the same as violation of rights.

There is no Constitutional violation going on.  The church building is closed…for now.  But it will reopen.  The building is not the church.  The people are the church.  And the church has always been open, active, living.  Regardless of what happens with a building.  Worship isn’t a passive activity where we gather to be entertained.  Worship isn’t about the focus being on me, me, me.  Worship is about God.  It’s about gathering together as a community to publicly proclaim that we are not the center of the universe and that following God isn’t about our wants and desires, but rather about conforming to the will of God.  Worship is about recognizing our place as creatures in God’s creation.  Worship is about dying to self so that we can be encountered by the living God so that we can be transformed and resurrected so that we may serve humbly and proclaim boldly God’s loving work in the cosmos.  Worship is about hearing the Word of God as the authority for our lives.  Worship is about our desires dying so that Christ can live in us and through us.

At its heart – worship isn’t about us.  It’s about God.  It’s not about our wishes and desires.  It’s about God.  If worship is about what we want, then it isn’t worship.  Worship is about God.

Jesus, Ahmaud, race, and grace

(This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, May 17, 2020.  The sermon was in response to the Gospel reading – John 14:15-21.  You can find the full service at this link – https://youtu.be/rxrf0IjSViI)

I have never worried about going on a run.  Ever.  I’ve run 11 marathons and 16 halves and numerous other races of various lengths.  It’s not the races that I’m talking about though.  It’s the multitude of months of training runs – hundreds, if not thousands of runs over my lifetime.  I’ve run alone more times than I can count in all sorts of settings – in the neighborhood around my house, in parks, on trails.  I’ve run in small rural areas like the Cumberland Valley rail to trail.  I’ve run in small urban areas like the greenloop in and around Harrisburg.  I’ve run in large metropolitan cities – like NYC, Washington, DC, and Minneapolis.

I’ve had my share of difficult runs that felt like I wouldn’t survive them – mostly because of how I was feeling during the run.  But I’ve never worried about being chased.  Or shot.  But Ahmaud Arbery wasn’t so lucky.  We was a black man who decided to go out for a run, minding his own business.  He didn’t survive a 2.23 mile run he did in February.

By now you’ve heard the story about how he was chased by two white men who took the law into their own hands and ended up shooting and killing Arbery because they thought he was a suspect in a crime.

Let’s acknowledge something off the bat – talking about race is dangerous, especially in a primarily white congregation, in one of the most white denominations in the country.  It’s like going on a run through a field of landmines – careful where you step, or I might blow myself up.

The mere mention of the word race, like I’ve done, causes a multitude of reactions. And that’s not even saying anything about race – it’s just saying the word.  That should tell us something about our relationship with race.  For some reason we have no problem proclaiming that Jesus can break through the barriers of the tomb and overcome death, but we have trouble believing that Jesus can be a part of the conversion on a difficult topic like race?  Really, race is more difficult for Jesus than overcoming death?  We have no problem declaring that a brown skinned jewish rabbi is the Son of God, but we have trouble thinking that Jesus can be a part of the conversation and has grace to offer?  Does the Good News have a boundary that stops at the doors of race?

For some talking about race may cause them to stop listening.  For others, it may cause you to listen more intently.  Still others it may have some to jump to assumptions – assumptions like that I’m automatically labeling anyone who is white as a racist.  I’m not.  Others may assume that I’m going to lay some kind of guilt trip.  That doesn’t help.  Some may be relieved that we are talking about this at all – something that rarely happens in predominately white settings – as if race isn’t a thing and that it can be ignored.

Others will find this extremely uncomfortable – you may never have had to talk about or even think about race intentionally before.  You may not have any idea of what to say or think.  You may not see the point in talking about it or thinking about it.  You may fall back to a culture which has an underlying belief that we just don’t talk about things like this.  I don’t know.  And I don’t know the answer either.  And I don’t expect you to either.  And that’s ok.  We’re not going to solve anything here today.

It’s not about having the answers.  It’s about facing reality intentionally instead of pretending that it doesn’t exist.  Pretending that black people are being killed for no other reason than they are black isn’t working.  And talking about it doesn’t imply guilt or blame.  The problem isn’t going away.  Not talking about it hasn’t made it go away, nor will it.  All you have to do it list off the names of numerous black Americans who have died in recent years – many just minding their own business – going for a walk, driving in their car, sleeping in their home, pulling out a cell phone, and doing any number of just day to day things not breaking any laws.  Can we just acknowledge that something isn’t right about this?

Talking about race doesn’t make you a racist.  It makes you care about people who suffer injustice.  It makes you human.

We can look to our Gospel reading for some guidance on this.  No, it doesn’t specifically talk about race.  Mostly because the concept of race as we think about it today wasn’t invented until the 1600’s.  Today’s Gospel is part of what has come to be known as the farewell discourse.  It’s Jesus long goodbye message.   He knows what going to happen to him.  And he talks about it.  He’s going to be killed.  He doesn’t avoid it.  He doesn’t pretend it’s not going to happen.  He addresses it squarely.

By doing so he’s able to talk about the painful parts, but also the hopeful parts – a vision of the future.  The parts of promise.  You can’t get Good News by avoiding difficult topics.  You can’t get the hope of the future until you acknowledge the pain of the present.  The proclamation of the Gospel works this way – it highlights our brokenness to the point that we feel hopeless – that we can’t escape our fate on our own effort.  That’s true, we can’t.

We can’t be good enough to earn God’s love, or salvation.  We are incapable of doing that.  It is only in embracing who we truly are – broken, sinful – that we can fully appreciate the Good News and how truly good it is.  That’s what grace is all about.

Grace is different from Karma.  Christianity rejects the idea of karma.  Karma is getting what you deserve.  The problem with karma is that it is reliant on you and what you do.  It depends on how good you are.  We reject karma.  Instead, we proclaim grace and mercy.  Grace is getting what you don’t deserve and mercy is not getting what you do deserve.

Too often, when there is a discussion about race, it is based on karma.  It’s focused on blame and scapegoating.  It’s full of labeling and finding fault.  It’s hopeless.  No wonder we don’t want to talk about race.  Why would anyone?  But what if we approached race from a Christ-like standpoint?  What if we approached the unjust shooting of a black man through the lens of Christ?  What if we said, this isn’t right.  What can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

You see, we can’t receive hope by avoiding talking about death.  You can’t fully be encountered and embraced by God unless we deal with crisis head on.  The same goes for injustice and fear.  Jesus faces these and brings the disciples along for the ride.

Today we hear the promise.  The promise of the Spirit of Truth.  And we hear of the reality – that the world cannot accept the Spirit.  Why?  Because the world refuses to see or know the Spirit.  The world puts its head in the sand, avoiding the truth.  It refuses to see the image of God.  It refuses to participate in what God has been doing all along – moving creation towards shalom – towards wholeness, completeness.  That doesn’t happen through karma.

It happens through grace and mercy.  It happens when we acknowledge reality.  Ignoring the reality of death doesn’t ease the pain.  Ignoring division doesn’t heal it.  Ignoring injustice doesn’t make it go away.  Ignoring the issues around race doesn’t move us forward as a society and a people.  It holds us back. It keeps us slaves to sin.  It keeps us in karma.  It just continues to cause harm and wounds for everyone – including those who ignore and pretend there isn’t a problem.

This is a passage of scripture that shows how broken we are.  And that’s Good News.  Because that means we can’t do this on our own.  We can’t follow Jesus’ commandments on our own like he calls us to.  They are too difficult to do on our own.  We can’t love our enemies on our own – one of the hardest commands Jesus ever gives.  History shows how terrible humanity is at the love your enemy command – even and especially within the church.  It’s too hard.  We can’t pick up our cross and follow Jesus on our own – the weight of the cross is too much for any of us.  We can’t love God on our own – we can’t even conceive of what that fully means.  We aren’t capable.  It’s not about how good we are.  It’s about how broken we are.  It’s about how good God is in spite of our brokenness.  It is only in repentance – radical reorientation towards God – that we can really appreciate what God does and who God is – God does it all.  And we benefit.

Not just individually, but as a community, as a people.  Because remember, God’s message is about shalom – wholeness.  We are not complete and whole by ourselves, individually.  We are only whole when we are connected.  And that goes beyond just the people we know.  It branches out to those we don’t know.  It embraces those that are our enemies.  It connects us to those we usually don’t even think about.  It connects us to people of other races, religions, cultures.  The Good News isn’t about our own personal relationship with God.

It’s about the restoration of all of creation, and we are a part of that.  And so is Ahmaud Arbury.  And every unarmed black man, woman, and child who has been killed unjustly.  Our salvation and survival is intimately linked with those who don’t look like us.  We are called to see the image of God in others.  We are called to see ourselves in people like Ahmaud Arbery.  Can we do that?

It allows us to get a glimpse of Shalom – the kingdom of God.  The word race may scare us.  And that’s ok.  Because we are not alone.  Jesus sends us the Spirit of Truth.  The world cannot receive the Spirit because it neither knows nor sees the Spirit.  But we do.  And that Spirit shows us the truth – that we are no different than Ahmaud Arbery in the eyes of God.  Because both Ahmaud and you and I all have the image of God within us.

And the Spirit shows us the truth that the world isn’t interested in us seeing the image of God in someone like Ahmaud – not even to acknowledge that what happened to him was wrong.  Don’t we owe it to the community, to the members of our own congregation whose skin color either matches or is close to matching Ahmaud Arbery?  Should we let them know that what happened was wrong and that we would do what we can to make sure they don’t become the next name on the list?  That they matter?

The world would prefer we ignore this and every future killing.  To believe that it doesn’t impact us.  To remain silent.  The world would prefer to pretend that black people aren’t being unjustly killed for no reason other than they are black.  But the world doesn’t get the final say.  God does.

Even in the midst of death, God still speaks.  God comes to us and promises to be with us – to send God’s Spirit of Truth.  And God promises to declare the truth – regardless of how inconvenient and uncomfortable it may be.  Because that’s what shalom is about – the whole truth.  That we are broken.  And that in spite of our brokenness, God loves us anyway and does what needs to be done – because God cares and loves us that much.  God loves us so much that God is willing to die for us, you, for me, for Ahmaud Arbery, for the whole of creation.

God does what needs to be done for us and for the families of the men and women who died a senseless and unjust death.  Jesus gives us the Spirit of Truth to abide with us.  Give us eyes Lord to see that Spirit and be moved to live out the faith that God has given us.  To speak up for those who suffer injustice.  To do what we can to prevent future injustices.  To acknowledge the truth.  To love.  To see the image of God in ourselves and others – especially those that are different from us. Amen.

Prayer for May 14, 2020

Prayer for May 14, 2020: Please pray with me.  God of love, you are love.  Not the mushy gushy kind of love that we prefer.  Rather, you are the love that endures, that bears all things.  You are a love that exists through a force of will.  You are patient.  You are kind.  Fill us with this love.  Open our eyes to see that you have always filled us with your love – a love that makes no rational sense.  A love that does not focus on what we deserve, but rather a love that is given in spite of what we deserve.  A love we do not deserve.  Yet you give it anyway.  You give yourself over and over.  You are a love that is vulnerable Lord.  A love that is willing to get messy and be rejected.  And a tenacious love that doesn’t quit on us, even when we push you away and reject you.  Wow.  Amen.

1 Corinthians 13 is more than just a nice wedding Scripture

You’ve probably heard 1 Corinthians 13 if you’ve ever been to a wedding.

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (NRSV).

 

Certainly are great words for a wedding aren’t they.  Except that’s not what Paul, the author, was writing them for.  Weddings were the furthest thing from his mind when we wrote this.

The chapters preceding 1 Corinthians 13 talk about the institution of the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, and the church being one body and having many parts.  This is about community, beyond the community of marriage.  I think the words Paul wrote certainly fit for our understanding of marriage in the 21st century.  I also think that his words have deeper meaning in the midst of pandemic.

Let’s take a short look at that middle paragraph from ch. 13.

“Love is patient.”  Why?  Because life can be frustrating.  Patience allows us to recognize that we are not in control.  Patience allows us to recognize that we don’t get to determine the speed at which things happen.

“Love is kind.” Why?  Because there is so much meanness and anger.  Love is an alternative way of being in a world that is traumatized by so much.  kindness isn’t sappy and weak.  It’s is confident that it’s way of being will outlast any emotional burst that tries to stop it.

“Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”  Why?  Because Love isn’t self-centered.  Love isn’t narcissistic.  Narcissism is envious, boastful, arrogant, and rude.  Love is the opposite of narcissism.

“It does not insist on its own way.”  Why?  Because Love isn’t about the self.  The self is incomplete.  It is only in community that there is completeness, wholeness.  Even God is not alone, but rather a Trinity – an eternal relationship in community that works together in perfect harmony and oneness.  Love is voluntary in response.  Force is not a part of love.

“It is not irritable or resentful.”  Why?  Because Love is all the things we have already mentioned.  Love isn’t focused inward on itself, but rather, Love is so confident of what it is that its focus is outward.  Love exists to expand.  Love grows.  It isn’t resentful because love isn’t in competition with anything.  Love sees the image of God in all.  If the image of God is in all, then what competition is there?

“It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”  Why?  Because love doesn’t need to hide behind lies or falsehoods.  It doesn’t skip out on harsh reality.  It faces it.  Love desires to know what the truth is so it can be dealt with – so there can be wholeness and completeness.  Love rejoices in the truth because it has nothing to hide.  Love is vulnerable and hence risky.  A risk like that needs the truth and it does not fear the truth.  Love doesn’t manipulate data in order to tell a different story.

“It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  Why?  Because love is expansive, breaking past all barriers that are intended to restrict it and contain it.  Love cannot be contained or walled off.  Love does not fear death.  Because Love knows that death is not the final say – just a stop on the journey.  Love is what resurrection is all about.  Love is what God coming to creation to spend eternality with renewed creation is all about.

Love never ends.  And that is a good thing – not just for a marriage.  But for all of us, regardless of our station in life.

 

Prayer for May 13, 2020

Prayer for May 13, 2020: Please pray with me.  God of creation, you made humanity in your image and likeness.  Yet, why do we try to reject this?  Why do we reject your Sabbath?  Why do we trade in our identity as your creation in for something else?  Why do we try to claim the mantle of Savior who will fix everyone of their wrong beliefs and ways?  Forgive us for putting ourselves in place of you.  Radically reorient us to stop looking inward on ourselves and instead to look to you.  Align us with your will.  And set us on the path of peace knowing that peace is a way of being and living, not a destination.  Amen.

Who do I need to be?

Who do I need to be in the midst of this pandemic?

Like most things right now, the answer is this – I don’t know.  There’s answers I could give.  There are answers I should probably give.  There are expected answers.

But I wonder – are they the right answers?  I don’t know.

There are some things that I am regardless of whether a pandemic is going on or now.  I’m a husband and father.  I’m a pastor.  I’m a writer.  I’m a strategist.  I’m someone who loves to learn and explore.  I’m someone who enjoys challenges and will deal with conflict directly.

And ultimately, I am a follower of Jesus.  That’s the core of who I am.

I’m not perfect at this.  Far from it.  Thankfully perfection isn’t required.  But that’s not an excuse though either.  It’s more of a relief.  Because I know that I’m going to mess things up.  And yet, Jesus is there to pick me up, dust me off, and send me back in to face the world again and again.

So who am I supposed to be in the midst of pandemic?  The same as always and different.  I remain a follower of Jesus.  And being a follower of Jesus means a few things in the midst of crisis – that there is hope and that I will proclaim it for one thing.  Being a follower of Jesus in the midst of crisis also means forgiveness.  People are going to say and do things that they might normally do.  And I have no control over that.  But forgiveness means I can let go of blame.  Being a follower of Jesus means loving enemy and neighbor because they are the same in their essence.  How so?  Because both enemy and neighbor have the image of God within them.  And as a follower of Jesus, I am called to see the image of God in all others.

So what else am I called to be in this time?  A calm presence.  In times of anxiety, a calm presence can set a tone for others to follow.  I’m called to communicate.  Communicate hope and grace and vision.  I’m called to communicate the Good News.  I’m called to communicate hard and unpleasant truths that others may not want to deal with.  I’m called to listen, to identify what people are going though.  I’m called to rest.  Yes, rest.  I am not the savior.  I am not called to fix everyone or really anyone by running myself ragged.

Which leads to who I am not called to be.  I am not called to be the one who convinces anyone of anything.  I am not called to be the one who argues with anyone who is convinced they are right.  I am not called to put up with everything.  I am not called to accommodate everyone’s wants.  I am not called to fulfill everyone’s expectations.  I am not called to do things alone.

That is who I am and who I am not in the midst of pandemic.  Who are you?

When God shows up

When God shows up, things change.  I know that everyone knows that intellectually.  But I’m not sure how much we really grasp the idea.  Do we think that this is still true and applicable today?

The very essence of Christianity is that everything changes.  That’s what happens when God becomes manifest and encounters creation.  Why would we expect anything less?

The first instance of God showing up is in Creation.  The very act of creation changed everything.

God shows up to many people in the stories of Scripture too – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.  God shows up in Egypt when the Egyptians would not release the Israelites.

God shows up in the New Testament to.  God showed up in Jesus – at his birth, his resurrection, and his ascension.  God showed up at Pentecost.  God showed up at Paul’s conversion.

In each instance of God showing up, everything changes.  In each instance humanity thought that everything was linear and that the only way to get from point A to point B was by a straight line.  Then God showed up and showed that there were other ways to go and that often time, God wasn’t interested in going to our point B.  To stretch the analogy – When God shows up, we see that we aren’t dealing with a nice straight line, but rather a line, with another line going up and down, and a third line coming out at us.  It’s 3D.

I think part of the reason for everything changing when God shows up is that things that are alive change and adapt as new circumstances come into play.  And when God shows up, things change.  Faith is a living thing and so it changes and adapts.

Do we believe that God continues to show up today?  Open your eyes and look around.

Prayer for May 12, 2020

Prayer for May 12, 2020: Please pray with me.  God of all things, you show up and everything changes.  It has to.  How could everything stay the same when you enter any situation.  Not changing would mean that you aren’t that important.  Open our eyes and hearts.  Open us to seeing where you show up and how things change.  Open us to being encountered by you so that we can be changed too.  Amen.