This is one of those Sundays when I would have been tempted to rewrite on Saturday morning the sermon that I had written on Thursday.
Once again yesterday, the President took yet another opportunity to sow divisiveness and discord in a time when we desperately need to be working together.
What’s ironic is that the divisive salvo happened to fall a few days before the Sunday when tens of thousands of churches will be reading from Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in John 10. The reading ends, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11)
That’s right. A prayer for unity in a time when the divisiveness and polarization keeps getting ramped up, and the president is the Stirrer-of-the Pot-in-Chief.
I understand that Jesus’ prayer is not a prayer for the unity of a nation-state. It’s a prayer for the unity of the church. What saddens me and concerns me is that the politicization of our response to this pandemic on that national stage, and more and more on the state and local levels is going to spill over into congregations. The President’s pronouncement just made exponentially more difficult and precarious the work of local congregational leaders and pastors who are trying to be responsible and conscientious and are trying to make plans based on the advice and counsel of the public health officials.
I haven’t read of one public health official who says that it’s time to open up the churches. The science of the coronavirus hasn’t changed. Gathering indoors in confined areas is still one of the riskiest ways to contract the virus. It’s still true that speaking and singing and distributing communion are three of the riskiest behaviors for contracting the virus. It’s still true that asymptomatic persons can infect dozens of others before they know they are sick. And it’s still true that the older you are, the greater the chance that contracting Covid-19 will be fatal. Those facts are apolitical, and they are the reason that public health officials have urged patience and caution about churches returning to in person worship.
I’m grateful for the consistent voice of my denominational leaders who are urging caution and patience. (Shout out to you, Bishop Eaton and Bishop Mansholt.) Also for the Wisconsin Council of Churches who not only urge caution, but have done an incredible amount of work in providing detailed guidance about what gradual reopening might look like and how to make a timeline. I’m grateful that the leaders of my congregation are taking that collective counsel seriously.
But I can see what’s happening in congregations because it’s beginning to happen in mine. The leadership is urging caution while a few voices are beginning to push back because they want to be in church again. And the President’s unhelpful words yesterday only give a larger soapbox for that sentiment.
Divisiveness in the church is evil. And it’s always knocking at the door. Read Paul’s letters carefully. In every one of them he has to warn against the factions that are developing in the churches he’s planting. Ironically, in the second lesson that will be read this weekend, the writer of the letter that we call First Peter also ends with a caution, “Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith.” (1 Peter 5:8-9) The divisiveness that is always standing at the thresholds of our congregations is now ready to pounce by sowing the seeds of discord over how and when we should open. The society-wide politicization of our response to this pandemic is now about to explode (if it hasn’t already) in congregations. I’m telling you, that’s not the work of the Spirit; it’s the work of Evil.
So, don’t let it happen. Stay together. Like the disciples in that time between Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost, make this time a time of prayer. In my sermon that my people will see tomorrow, I asked them to pray for discernment for our leaders.
I wish I had also asked them to pray that our plans to gradually reopen don’t cause division, but rather help us to be the answer to Jesus’ prayer, that we may be one.