Stewards of Relationships-- a Response to the Coronavirus
Now here we are, broadcasting over Facebook. I am looking into a similarly empty worship space. So let's get a few housekeeping items out of the way and address the elephant in the room, although I assure you there are no animals in here; Anthony Hartman is here for music, and there are a few dedicated lay members here as well to greet anyone who missed the notice that services were cancelled today.
- How did we get here? On Tuesday, I reached out to Tom Busby, our Church Council chair, Marsha Kahl, our Lay Member of Annual Conference, and SueAnn Spencer, our Lay Leader. In response to the mounting concern over the spread of the coronavirus, we discussed options for worship going forward. Together, we made decisions concerning things like how Holy Communion would be served and how we would receive the offering. We wanted to limit the amount of hand touching people experienced at Grace. We made several temporary changes, which were disseminated to the congregation via emails, social media, and phone calls.
- As the week progressed, things changed rapidly, to the point that the same four people made the decision to cancel worship and all activities today. This decision was based on input from our Bishop, who encouraged the North Texas Districts in Collin and Dallas counties to suspend all services for two weeks. He said churches in the less-densely populated areas could still have services, but here's the deal: Sherman is less dense than say, Plano, but it is not rural. 100,000 people live within a relatively small-- what 20 miles?? radius. Many of our people work in Dallas or Collin County. Sherman and Denison schools closed this week, Texoma Medical Center imposed limits on visitation, and Wesley Village, our United Methodist retirement community in Denison, is closed to visits. Oh and the NBA, Major League Baseball, the NHL, MLS, the NCAA, even the XFL all suspended all activity. The Eagles concert I was to take James to on Tuesday in Dallas was postponed, and the baseball roadtrip I was going to take with a buddy the week after Easter is now cancelled. All of us are adjusting our schedules. We're doing it for the common good.
- So these key leaders and I decided, without hardly any difference in opinion, to pretty much close the church for the remainder of March. Office hours will be reduced to 9:00-12:00 Monday-Thursday, we will gather for online worship the next two Sundays, and there will be no activities at church. I am hopeful we will next gather in person for worship on Palm Sunday, April 5.
- Is it all an overreaction? Are we moving too quickly? Gosh, I hope so! How happy would I be if a year from now someone points to me and says, "There's the idiot who cancelled church for three weeks even though no one in Grayson County caught the virus!" Bring it on! Do I think that will happen? Absolutely not. We are trying to mitigate the spread of a disease that could make lots of people sick. The first General Rule of the United Methodist Church is Do No Harm. We are responsible for each other. My covenant with you, and yours with me, is that we will not harm each other. The second is Do Good; actively do things to bless others. We'll talk more about that in a minute. The third is Attend to the Ordinances of God (worship, Bible study, communion, etc). We believe we are doing the first two, while allowing for creative ways to do the third, all from a distance. The General Rules apply to a community, not a building.
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Many years ago there was a great video based study called Steward. I'm guessing it is occupying landfill, or church library, space all over the country now, because as hard as I tried I couldn't find any remnants of the study on Google, YouTube, or even Cokesbury.com. Most of the time when we hear the word steward we think of money; we are stewards of our finances, we have a stewardship campaign every year to raise funds for the church. But this study developed the idea of steward more broadly. In addition to finances, we are stewards of:
- our political community, so we should be involved in it as an active participant. We live in organized communities, which in themselves are gifts. We should run for school board, student council, even Congress. There are local needs to be addressed, and communities who need representation.
- the environment, so we should be mindful of what we drive, what we consume, what we throw away. The natural world is a gift to us by a creative God, who gave humanity the responsibility to nurture, not exploit it.
- our relationships, so we should care for one another, even if it inconveniences us. God gives us families, communities of faith, and societies in which we enjoy each other.
The thing about the idea of steward is that it is not just a noun; a person who cares for something that belongs to someone else. It's also something we do-- a verb. I steward my community when I clean a park or provide food to someone who is hungry. I steward the environment when I take the train instead of drive. I steward relationships when I wash hands or stay home or even cancel public worship. One of the assigned scriptures for today is Exodus 17:1-7, where Moses brings water from a rock for the thirsty Israelites, traveling through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. But if you read further, the next story is about war against the Amalekites. War between these two groups happened all the time. Moses told Joshua to go and fight. Whenever Moses' hand was raised, Joshua would win; whenever Moses' hand was lowered, they would lose. Soon he became tired. So they called up Aaron and Hur, those guys brought Moses a rock to sit on, and when he would grow tired they would hold up his hands for him. And the Israelites won the day. Hur and Aaron were stewarding their relationship with Moses and the congregation.
How can we live in to this vision of stewardship-- more than just how we spend money? Well, you can probably guess much of the temporary changes we've instituted at Grace have to do with stewardship of relationships. The "social distancing" about which we have heard LOTS this week involves stewardship of relationships. I may be well, and perfectly able to go to a concert with 15,000 other people. But I could potentially make others sick; or catch something and make you sick! So I'm staying home. I am a steward of each of those relationships-- including, and especially, those who are complete strangers. How can you steward your relationships this week?
- Check in on people who are distancing themselves during the time of the virus. Time away from the church building could well result in a growing of our ministry to each other. Call someone in the church who is 70+. Just say hi, you wanted to see how they are, tell them their church loves them.
- Pray for people on the front lines of the fight against the virus. We have several healthcare providers at Grace-- doctors, nurses, people who work at hospitals. They are feeling anxious, yet they are showing up to care for others. You know, as stewards. Maybe drop a handwritten note in the mail this week.
- Kids will be away from school for at least another week. Don't set up playdates, but maybe share some online tools for families? I saw posts about virtual museum tours and fun games yesterday on Facebook. Discover some posts like that, and tag your friends with kids.
- Give online to a local food pantry. There will be increased demand for meals from families away from school and adults missing work.
Anyone can do these simple tasks, whether they are persons of faith or not. But these acts of kinds and connection are our way of responding to what God has done for the world-- faithful people and not.
Let's go back to our text from Romans. The Apostle says before we realized our need, before we owned our brokenness and asked for forgiveness, God did an amazing thing. God sent Christ as an act of love, and gave us the Holy Spirit, which binds us together and fills us with the love of God. All of this happened in our past, before we could do anything about it:
- "Therefore, since we are justified by faith..." This means to be made right, or aligned, with God's purposes for our life. God has done this on our behalf. We can't earn it by doing good; it's already done. We call it grace.
- "...God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."
- "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly." We are weak from our sinful condition, our broken relationship with God. Before we could repent of it, Christ died to make us right with God.
- But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
You're getting the past tense in these verbs, right? God has already done these things. It's all about love. God's love enfolds us, sort of like your favorite Cardigan sweater. Now watch this. For what purpose has God done these things?
Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.Future. Salvation will be offered to us by Christ's gracious acts on our behalf. We have been reconciled to God, but we have not yet achieved salvation. We're sort of caught in the middle between two realities. What's changed is that the Holy Spirit has made us aware of our brokenness, and God's gracious actions to make it right. God has made our relationships to God and each other right by bringing Jesus into a broken world. We should feel compelled to respond; but how do we do it? Glory and acts of praise. Do no harm/Do good/Attend the Ordinances of God.
The random acts of kindness I mentioned before are not really random at all. They are in response to what God has already done for us. Since we cannot repay God for this grace, we return thanks by sharing the same love with others. As one beam of Jesus' cross points upward to God, mirroring our praise going in that direction, the other beam extends horizontally, stretching our arms out in love to those in need. It's not random or thoughtless; it's a response to what God has already done. We serve others in the present because we are living out our future salvation. And it all results in God's glory.
At the end of our wedding liturgy, the last thing the pastor says to the couple before the wedding kiss is exchanged is, "Go now to serve God and your neighbor in all you do." As we wrap up our online worship this morning, think about who you can call, who would benefit from an encouraging note, what helpful online resources could be shared, what ministries could benefit from your financial support. Go now to serve God and your neighbor in all you do. Go now and be a steward. Go now to do no harm, do good, and attend to the ordinances of God. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.