18 Mar President Saunders on COVID-19 – A Kirchenblatt
To my blessed and faithful brothers of the Holy Office:
Last Friday Karen and I set out for a little get-away over her spring break. We planned on being out until the 23rd. That get-away would also include an Upper Midwest Council of Presidents meeting in Sioux Falls. Oh how things change and with such swiftness. After seeing things change by the hour I cut our time-away short and headed back to Cedar Rapids. I want to express my admiration as to how Dean and Daniel answered questions and posted information as quickly as they could on our webpage. I appreciate their dutiful service and efforts on my behalf while I was gone. So now I am back in the office and want to send out to you a Church Note with my thoughts and encouragement concerning this situation. We are in strange and unprecedented times (at least in the time any of us have been alive). The virus contagion has had the political, medical, financial, and spiritual communities in flux. Some of which has resulted in concern and even panic. What do we do? When do we do it? How do we do what we would like to do as shepherds of God’s flock? These and many other questions flood our minds and the minds of our members. Let me first answer with the Psalm Luther relied on during his turbulent and difficult days. He daily prayed using Psalm 46 with an emphasis on verse 10, “Be still and know that I am God.” The original Hebrew would read more like this, “Let be! And know that I am Elohim.” Nothing stands outside of the Lord’s sight nor is it unknown to Him how He saves. We can be “still” and “let be” because all disaster and evil has been conquered in Christ our Lord.
Toward the end of David’s reign as King, his military leadership resulted in victories over most every enemy that came up against Israel (II Samuel 24). An era of peace was at hand and time was to be dedicated to praise and honor of the God of Israel. That is what should have happened but no such praise and honor was heard. David prided himself with these many victories and awarded himself by falling prey to Satan’s lure to take a census of his fighting men. David did not resist this temptation. It resulted in a plague that God sent upon David’s kingdom. Thousands died from this plague. Death was a consequence, but David’s repentance was the purpose and thankfully, that was the result of the plague. David repented of his sin and was then instructed to build an altar on a particular sight. There he would offer burnt sacrifices and fellowship offerings to the Lord. The place of the sacrifice is exactly the place where the plague became “still”. It is that place that God saved His people from a terrible plight. Interestingly it is also the place where the Temple would be built called Mt. Moriah. In fact one thousand years later it is the spot where the Lamb of God would give His life over for the sake of redeeming the world from sin and death. The point of this? It is at the altar of the Lord that cure, healing, forgiveness, life and salvation are present for us. At the altar is the Word of God both preached and administered in the Sacraments for the sake of hope, courage, and eternal life.
That is why we are filled with so many questions as to what to do and how to do what we have been Called to do for the precious flock where the Holy Spirit has placed us during this time of virus danger. As Lutheran’s we highly value and believe in the power of the Word of God. It is His Truth, and it is the Truth that sets us free. We spend hours preparing sermons and bible classes so that Law and Gospel are rightly divided. We hold to the fact that Jesus is truly present and among us with His Body and Blood in the Sacrament. We know and believe that these are the means by which He brings comfort and strength in times of doubt and fear. We know and believe that these are the means whereby faith is created and strengthened. We know and believe that these are the means in which salvation is granted. So we use them. We delight in using them and rejoice we have been given the privilege and honor to steward them for God’s sheep.
So what do we do when we have received the notice and order from the Governor of Iowa that came out yesterday? Are we in a time of persecution? Is the government overstepping their bounds by laying down an edict that assemblies of more than 10 are not to meet even in churches until the beginning of April? Do they have that right and authority? If they do should we ignore it for the sake of the Means of Grace? These and other questions I would like to address in this Church Note.
First let me say what I think we all agree on. The Governor is not trying to be an irritant against the Church. I have heard her speak on more than one occasion and have conversed with many legislators who know her well. She is a confessing Christian and supports the efforts of the Church on many social and moral issues. Let me repeat, this order is not an act of persecution against the Church. I spoke to the Iowa Department of Public Health this morning. They assured me this order is for the sake of public safety and getting everything back to normal as quickly as possible. One of them even used the phrase “this is for the sake of your neighbor” which rings familiar from the Good Samaritan text. I also asked them if there would be any consequences were there to be any group that ignores the order. The answer was twofold: Frist (which was a quick response to my question), “you mean other than possibly putting yourself or anyone else’s health in danger?”; Second, yes there could be legal consequences. I was told that it is possible that any assembly of more than 10 could result in arrest of the business owner (or the pastor) and or also those in attendance. It is highly unlikely they would do that. It was shared that there would be a request that the gathering be dismissed and everyone go home. Now, to be sure, there are times and situations where that risk must be faced. The question we must give consideration to is, “is this a time like that?” Use your best wisdom and collection of information to determine this. Sometimes it appears as though there is a competition between the 3rd and the 4th Commandments. This need not be so. I will share a few ideas I have that may be helpful.
Here are some thoughts I have about how Word and Sacrament ministry can continue albeit in a modified format. In all of these please be sanitary. Exercise good hygiene and cleanliness in all you do and make it known to your members the precautions you are taking for their health and safety. For questions on sanitary procedures at your congregation, please look for resources at your county health department, or online at the Iowa Department of Public Health and the CDC.
Ministry of the Word: If your congregation has the capability you could video yourself reading the lectionary for that Sunday followed by a sermon that you preach. You would be robed and vested. Some might want to video a Matins service with hymns if you are comfortable singing without others joining you. You could then post the video on your website or on YouTube or Facebook page for the membership to watch. If you do not have that capability then you could send an email copy of your sermon to each members home. If some members do not have a computer or internet access, home visits would need to be an added part of your schedule.
Baptism: Baptism is the gift of the Holy Spirit to the child. This is a must. These would be conducted with 10 or less in attendance.
Funerals: This is the most difficult one to assess. The funerals would be conducted but with 10 or less in attendance. The decision of who the 10 are would be family decisions. A memorial service could be conducted when the order is lifted.
Weddings: Also very difficult to assess. The wedding could be delayed but if that is not a desire of the couple you would conduct the wedding for the couple with a few witnesses in attendance. All licenses would be signed, sent into the county and a new household is established. A celebration of their vows could be conducted at a later date with all the trimmings they would have had on their wedding day. The couple will certainly have a story to tell their grandchildren someday.
Service of the Sacrament: This is the one that is going to take some adjustment. One thing you could do is to list certain hour or hours you will be vested and robed in the Sanctuary on which ever day you choose. It would make sense to do this on a Sunday but any day or time would work. You would ask those folks who wish to commune to be at the church during the hours you post. You would commune one table at a time (probably 10 or less, they would be the only ones in the Sanctuary). You would do this for the entire time you had slotted. If more time is needed then allow more time to do this. I would suggest that you speak the words of institution for each table. Have them confess the Nicene Creed and pray the Lord’s Prayer together then commune and leave. You could do this for each week that you normally would have had the Sacrament.
Confession and Absolution: Since this is done privately I don’t think anything would have to change or be adjusted for this. There may be more making use of it in these trying time that before which is always a good thing.
Offerings: I think this is going to be an issue the elders or yourself will need to address. Lack of attendance in person can result in lack of offerings. There are a few things to highlight here: First, the mission and ministry of the Church continues to accumulate expenses no matter the social condition; Second, you as pastor will not cease the responsibilities of your Called vocation for their sake. Bills will still need to be paid and mission work will continue and maybe even increase. Your work load may even expand with additional hours and trips to those who are bound to their homes.
I am sure I am not covering everything you are experiencing at this time but these are some thoughts I had on my drive home from Missouri yesterday. The ultimate decisions you make are the right and privilege of the local congregation. The district office cannot demand you do one thing or the other (except maintain true doctrine). You are all well-educated and experienced men of God. I trust you to use your best wisdom and care for everyone with the decisions you make about worship services and pastoral care. I have all confidence the lessons we learn during this time will be beneficial in times to come. This isn’t the last health issue the world will face nor is it the last government order we will hear, none of which overcome the Gospel. We are not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe it. The Lord of the Church will not abandon us nor forsake us. He will not turn His face from us. By the blood of His Son we are righteous in His sight and for that reason His Bride is precious to Him.
Please feel free to give me feedback on my Church Note. Improve on it where needed. Share with one another how you are doing and what things are allowing Word and Sacrament Ministry to continue unabated in your congregation. The Lord of the Church bless you all and grant you His courage, strength, and peace as you stand in the stead of Christ among His flock. This is time for the Church to shine the brilliant witness we have in these seeming darker days. We will be fine. We are always fine in the hands of He who gave them up for us all.
God be with you!