COVID-19 has changed nearly everything about how we interact. Multiple months of social isolation have caused churches to re-examine what it means to be a community, to worship, and to carry out their missions of faith. Most churches have considered these things prayerfully and deliberately. Others have tried to stand like rocks against the viral tide—and unfortunately against public need—insisting that their priorities remain central in every circumstance, attaching God’s name to their views in order to justify the stance.
In the face of the resurgent virus, on behalf of those suffering from it and all the people around them, I think it’s important to examine and debunk some of the arguments that churches are using to justify in-person meetings, mask-less gatherings, and boisterous worship services. They don’t make sense right now. None of the ELCA Lutheran churches in our area are doing these things, but we are not the only faith communities in existence. You can’t go very far on social media without finding video featuring irresponsible gatherings. You can’t go very far in your own social circles without finding someone who’s advocating doing the same.
Today we’re going to look at three claims people make to justify their worship practices in the face of COVID, sharing where they fall short. We’ve heard all of these things repeated in public. Most of us have said some version of them ourselves.
“God Must be Worshiped!!!”
From the earliest stories of Israelites wandering in the wilderness, to the Book of Acts, to our modern church, we do not know a faith life without a worship community surrounding it. God and our neighbors are linked. They cannot be separated.
That said, there’s a huge difference between saying, “Worship is irreplaceable in our relationship with God,” and saying, “MY worship in MY way is necessary to God right this instant!” The former explores the implications of a relationship beyond is. The latter centers around the self and quickly becomes idolatrous.
The people who make that second claim emphasize worship as our gift to God. They posit a God out there waiting for us to do and say the right things. If we do not, God will be angry, or somehow feel impoverished and diminished.
At best, God is a demanding child in this construct, refusing to act until he hears what he wants to hear, punishing those who don’t give him what he wants. At worst, God becomes dependent on us. We become the prime movers, for whom and upon whom the Lord of the Universe waits. By our magic words we summon God, who comes at our beck and call to do our bidding because we are so faithful.
Neither one of these definitions of God is very powerful, or convincing.
Worship is not a way of “buying off” God. What do we have that an infinite Lord could possibly need? Who told us we were the center of the universe, the ones God depends on to make himself feel good? Where, in all the ministry of Jesus Christ, do we find the lesson that God only responds to those who shout the loudest, claim the most faithfulness, or do things only in the way prescribed to benefit themselves? You have to read sideways to see any of these things in the Bible.
Instead, worship is a mutual relationship conveying love. We encounter God everywhere we go: at home, in the supermarket...everywhere! We may not always see God clearly in those places. In worship, God comes in ways we can all gather around, despite our differences in experience and perception. Seeing God in worship helps us perceive God (and God’s love) all around us, among us and all our neighbors.
In this way, worship is a gift. It’s not created by us, for God, to make God happy. It’s given by God, with and among us, for the benefit and goodness of all.
Worshiping in a way that does not care for others is theologically backwards, the exact opposite of what the gathering is meant to be. Saying, “We must gather as we always have no matter who it hurts because that’s what God expects,” neither honors God nor worship. It betrays the purpose of both.
In the first chapter of Isaiah, the voice of the Lord speaks about exactly these things. It says:
11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
13 bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation--
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
When every festival, gathering, or motion of the community tramples the vulnerable (in Isaiah, the oppressed, orphan, and widow, but also applicable to people today at risk of contracting COVID), those gatherings become an abomination to God. “Who asked you to do these things?” God says. And God says this no matter what the community claims to be offering up to him.
Do we somehow think that the world, or God’s relationship with it, will end if we don’t gather at precisely “x” o’clock on Sunday morning and do exactly what we’re used to? Or do we stand among a communion of saints extending backwards and forwards as far as time itself, all of whom worshiped in different ways? Are we even asking the right questions here? I’m guessing that when or how we worship isn’t nearly as important to God as who we worship and for whom.
Faith without compassion is empty. Worship that disregards care for the neighbor and the world is empty, self-centered braying. We can put God’s name on it, but that doesn’t make it any more right or holy. It’s less, in fact, since we’re bearing false witness to the world in the process.
“They’re taking away my right to worship!”
How many times have we heard this in 2020? The claim shows as poor an understanding of rights as the prior claim does of worship. It turns the whole concept on its ear, abandoning goodness for all in favor of goodness for self.
Common rights didn’t always govern our interactions. Once upon a time, rights belonged to monarchs, or the rich, or the people with the biggest club. Everyone else had to go along, or suffer. The Constitution of the United States was one of several documents claiming that rights belonged not just to some people, but to all. We’re still wrestling with perfect implementation, but the direction is clear.
The Constitution did not claim to invent rights. Instead it rested on the claim that human rights are inalienable...that they cannot be separated from our humanity. The framers of the Constitution were careful to say that their documents spelled out those pre-existing rights, but it did not grant them. They could not be bestowed by a piece of paper, nor could they be taken away. They were to be uplifted, acknowledged, and lived by.
We all have value. The framers claimed that both government and our interactions with each other should reflect that universal, pre-existing truth. Rights do not say, “I am more important than the community and I will get my own way.” Rights became our guiding principles precisely because someone said to their neighbors, “You matter in a way no individual or communal practice should take away.”
Claiming a right to worship in a way that harms the surrounding community is a perversion of the entire concept of rights. It asserts what the right is while betraying what the right is for.
People making this claim want to peel back the concept of rights to the exact point that it gives them what they want, without regard to anyone around them. The vehicle they use to do this—worship and the church—becomes the club they employ to enforce their will over others. They attempt to become the new monarchs, repeating the refrain, “I get what I want, and everyone else has to go along or suffer.” Neither the church, nor the concept of rights, can retain integrity when used that way.
Churches already attend to matters of public safety as they operate. We have building inspections. We follow fire and health codes. Nobody would claim that refusing to serve expired, moldy potato salad would be taking away our right to potluck. Nobody would claim that closing the sanctuary if the roof were about to cave in was a violation of our right to gather. We understand those as prudent measures to preserve the goodness that gathering and eating were meant to bring. So is worshiping remotely in the time of COVID.
We are capable of gathering in ways that are less harmful to others than in-person worship would be. Re-defining our concept of worship for a season is far less severe than re-defining the concept of rights and human value forever. We can worship in a different way and still remain faithful. We cannot assert our right to worship to the detriment of our neighbors without betraying the core values of rights and worship.
“Remote worship is just not the same...”
No argument here! You’re right. It’s just not the same worshiping virtually. We worship at odd times, in different places and ways. It doesn’t create the same feeling of comfort. We don’t get to see the same people or do the same things. We feel a loss. We feel lonely. Even after months of getting accustomed to it, it’s still strange.
Even if virtual worship isn’t “the same”, what price are we willing to pay for our familiarity and comfort?
As of November 21st, the CDC reported 240,000 Americans had died from COVID-19. They started counting on February 1st, roughly ten months prior.
For perspective, the polio epidemic in the United States peaked in 1952, with 57,628 total cases and 3,145 deaths that year. Typhoid took 25,830 lives between 1906 and 1907. The U.S. lost 116,000 people in 1957 to the H2N2 flu, the deadliest outbreak of the 20th century. COVID has already doubled that in ten months.
Mortality data are difficult to pin down, even for experts. Johns Hopkins University cites 79 deaths per 100,000 people in the United States due to COVID. That doesn’t take into account age or risk factors. Out of every 100,000 random people in the population, 79 have died from COVID so far.
Let’s pretend that rate stays the same. We are not the largest congregation in the universe, but even in a congregation the size of Shepherd of the Valley’s, those numbers amount to a 40% chance of someone dying if we continue to risk the virus by coming together in person.
I have a hunch if we factor in other risk factors it’s higher, but let’s just go with 40%, the most conservative possible estimate. It doesn’t sound too bad in the abstract, right? 40% is less than a coin flip.
Now bring it down to the people you know, the community we love and want to be a part of. Who is it going to be? Whose life is worth that risk?
We’ve had multiple positive tests among our members this year. I’ve had to take two tests myself and I can’t be 100% sure that I’m completely clear. Nor can my family. Will it be me taking that coin-flip risk? You? Our parents? Our children? How about the people we shop beside? The technicians at the medical clinic?
Those big-gathering worship videos seem so tantalizing and faithful. Are you going to look at them the same when you realize that, on average, for every 1,000 people on that tape, one person will die?
It seems so unfair when you drive by another church with a sign that says, “In-person worship open now!” Does it seem the same when you open the paper or turn on CNN and see Boise, Idaho in the news?
Will this still feel like holy community to you when you factor in all the people we might be infecting, or the number of weeks we might be prolonging the virus and the long-term health complications that COVID-19 can bring?
How do I, as lead pastor at Shepherd of the Valley, get up in front of people at a funeral and explain that they lost their beloved family member or friend because we just didn’t feel the same worshiping away from each other? How do I get up and give a sermon explaining how our comfort was more important to us--and to God--than the life of the person they loved?
Are you willing to flip a coin that I’m going to have to preside over that service? I’ve thought long and hard about it. It’s not something I’m willing to do.
I’ve been an ordained minister for a while now. I believe community is an irreplaceable facet of faith, without which we do not understand clearly God’s voice or our calling through it. Emphasizing safety is not against church, but for the people who are out there risking their lives every day: medical professionals and healthcare workers, chaplains and people serving in assisted living facilities, those working in retail or transportation. It’s for infectious disease experts begging us to include compassion for our neighbors when we think about faith. It’s also for those among you who would see their lives change—or maybe even end—if we prioritize “church” or “worship” or “rights” over you being a beloved child of God who deserves to be safe.
Millions of people have virtual interactions every day. People do find life, hope, joy, and connection through online venues. It’s perfectly fine to say that adjusting is hard or different. We cannot claim it’s impossible. Finding a way to do that, not just among ourselves, but with everyone around us, is not an inconvenience or distraction from the mission of the church; it IS the mission of the church.
It’s not enough to ask what a church is. We’re supposed to ask who it’s for. If we do not include our neighbors, particularly people who are vulnerable to serious complications from COVID, then our faith extends no further than our belt buckles and our God no further than our minds. I don’t believe that’s what we stand for. I don’t believe that’s what we should witness to the world.
I don’t know how this will all turn out. I can’t even guarantee you it’s the right thing. All I know is that when this is all over, saying that we didn’t open before it was time will become its own witness to what we’re about, and more importantly, a witness to who God is and how God loves the world.