We live in risky times. The risk is not just to ourselves, there is risk also that we will harm others by our mere presence in their lives. In response we have the call to stay away from one another. In church that is almost completely unconnected to social media, I offered online worship last Sunday. The experience was surprisingly positive; we had real conversation, heartfelt prayer, we struggled with scripture and it’s meaning for today. The next morning the state called for us to stay physically separate until April 7. Now it seems likely to last even longer. For the social well-being of our neighbors, we will follow this guidance.
The risk/benefit balance between whether we should worship together or apart is clear. God can handle our absence from the sanctuary, we can handle finding remote ways to connect to each other and to God. The side affects of feeling disconnect, anxiety, and loneliness are worth the benefits of protecting our neighbors from illness. Not all acts of distancing have so few side affects.
When those of us with ample resources stay away from people who have few resources—when we stay away from people who don’t have homes or who are food insecure, when we decide against volunteering at the shelter or the food pantry or the meal, the risk/benefit analysis is quite different. Yes, we are reducing the risk of sharing illness with people who are possibly at high risk. Yes, we are reducing the risk of bringing illness from the streets and into our homes. We are also leaving people hungry and isolated. Isolation for someone who is already shunned by our society is more dangerous than isolation for those of us with extensive community supports. I can talk to my congregation, my family, a circle of friends. Homelessness is both caused by social isolation and exacerbates it.
How do we balance the risks and benefits for ministries to those who are hungry, thirsty, in need of clothing, those who are sick, and those who are in prison? Matthew 25:40 (“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”) is certainly relevant, yet when it comes to taking risks, other words of Jesus are also important.
Consider Matthew 16:24-26. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?’” While in modern times we may think of “the cross” as small challenges we face, in Jesus’ time he was literally talking about the possibility of being killed. I don’t think he meant we must be willing to die for our right to worship (although there are Christians in other countries who are risking their lives to worship). If, as I believe, the true test of our faith is whether we have cared for the least of brothers and sisters, it is hard to see how we are not called to take real risks to do that caring.
Perhaps in your church, there is much angst about deciding these things. Many churches are not coming to a unanimous decision about any of these choices. That brings to mind the battles between children and their parents, fights between members of one’s own household, mentioned in Matthew 10:34-39. Verses 37-38 are especially harsh, I hate when I have to preach these words: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
These hard texts seem distant on ordinary Sundays, but now as we face significant risk, risk to ourselves and risk we carry back to our neighbors, families, to the wider community, we must ask what exactly they mean about what we are canceling in our church buildings. Suspend worship, for sure. Move bible study to online. Certainly get rid of the self-serve buffet!
But we are called to take on the risks that come with continuing to serve the poor, the hungry, the sick, and those that alone. We must figure out what we can do for the prisoner and the elderly, each behind different locked doors. As a church must ask ourselves whether we are the only place that might offer safe space for AA, for the guy who talks to himself on Main Street, for the hungry, the displaced, for those who don’t have homes.
We want to be as safe as possible. Thus we may move our food pantry to the doorway, limit visiting, and pre-package the foods we give away. We may switch our meals to take out, most certainly we will wear gloves as we serve. AA and NA maybe asked to limit their in-person meetings to new comers or to people with less than year of sobriety. Perhaps if your program was two days a week instead of one you can limit the size of each gathering. Send letters every day to people you used to meet once a month in prison or in a nursing home. But take a risk. Do not assume that the only right answer is to cut out all risk, and therefore end all programs.
Christians are willing to risk our lives to make the good news real to others who are suffering.
"Rock balance" by kingzoot is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
For my organized thoughts, see my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Developing Relational Food Ministries. In this spot are thoughts that appear for a moment--about food programs, mission, church, building community, writing, and whatever else pops into my head.