The Church…after the pandemic

I’ve always loved the various encounters between King David and the prophet Nathan recorded in the Hebrew Bible. And I’m especially fond of the one we had as our First Lesson on this Fourth Sunday of Advent. David is feeling guilty that, as king, he is living in a fine house made of beautiful, fragrant cedar while he still hasn’t gotten around to building a Temple for the Ark of the Covenant to be housed in, but rather has left it outside in a simple tent.

He confesses this state of affairs to Nathan who assures him that the Lord is perfectly capable of making his will known on this matter and then, Nathan himself, becomes the conduit of that will when he hears God say, “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: ‘Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel…saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ (Second Samuel 7:5-7)

The LORD then goes on to instruct Nathan to remind David that he had been called from “following the sheep” to be a prince over the people and to become a great military leader. It soon becomes clear that God is more concerned about the people of Israel than he is about some kind of earthly edifice. And makes his point vivid by basically saying, “You’re not going to make ME a house. I am going to make YOU a house,” meaning a heritage, a lineage which would secure the blessings of peace and security on Israel for ever.

That lineage and heritage became a mixed blessing for Israel down through the centuries, but they never gave up hoping for “one like David” who would arise one day to restore their former glory and in fact to secure those same blessings of peace and security. We Christians, of course, believe that the ultimate descendant of David’s “house” was one Jesus of Nazareth whose conception in Mary’s womb we read about in the Gospel and whose birth we prepare to celebrate next week.

There is a good bit of hand-wringing out there these days about the decline in membership, shared to a greater or lesser degree, by all Christian communions in our day. That anxiety has been heightened by the novel coronavirus we are facing around the nation and world and the restrictions on our ability to gather in any kind of large groups in order to keep everyone as safe as possible from infection.

Many wonder whether this long absence will indeed “make the heart grow fonder” and attendance will rebound after we get this pandemic somewhat under control. Or, whether having gotten out of the habit of attending public worship, folks will just continue to stay home on Sunday mornings, reading the paper, or perhaps contenting themselves with some kind of “online” experience, rather than rolling out and actually getting to “church” on those Sundays.

It’s probably too soon to know, although I think it will more likely be the former rather than the latter at least for committed Christians. The question is, will we have learned anything during this bleak year of 2020 which can help us move into the future in perhaps an even stronger way than we have in the past. I, for one, hope we will have learned something from our spiritual ancestors and even from our First Reading today. I hope we will have learned, for example, that God is not contained in “temples made by hands” but is always on the move and always finding new ways to come to us.

When the first and second Jerusalem Temples were destroyed, the Jews had to learn to worship and live out their faith in new ways. With the sacrificial system no longer possible, smaller gatherings in synagogues and even an emphasis on worship as families, in homes, became paramount and served to preserve this “house of David,” this “chosen people” through centuries of persecution and exile. Jesus and his disciples attended synagogue and even the Temple when they were in Jerusalem, but we hear comparatively little about that in the Gospels. Like their God, Jesus and his friends were “on the move,” teaching and preaching and healing and loving up and down the Galilee and down into Judea itself. They met people where they were…not where they might wish them to be.

So, what do you hope we will have learned during our period of “exile” from public worship these many months? Here are some of my hopes and dreams to get you started:

  1. That God is more interested in creating a “people for himself” than he is in Average Sunday Attendance (ASA).
  2. That the online expertise we have learned about can be part of our ongoing communication and life into the future. When we resume in-person worship, that we can find a way to “live stream” as a matter of course, reaching those who cannot — or will not — be in “church” on a given Sunday to be “part of the church” anyway.
  3. That we will be freed to spend as much time worrying about how to be the church in the world as we have worrying about how to receive Communion “virtually” or bend the rules so that we can get back to in-person worship no matter how much danger we may be putting others in.

In other words…after the pandemic…will we just return to God’s house? Or will we become God’s house?

2 Responses to “The Church…after the pandemic”

  1. Dianne and Ed Knox Says:

    Good things will come of this. This is what Jesus did and is showing us today.

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