Sermon preached at First Christian Church in Hammond, LA on July 12, 2020 and Northminster Presbyterian Church in Pearl River, LA August 30, 2020
When states began issuing stay-at-home orders in March, several made exceptions for religious gatherings as “essential activities.”
I believe this raised an important question for those of us who take our faith seriously: “What is an ‘essential activity’ when it comes to practicing the Christian faith?” And maybe more importantly: “Is the way we have always done church essential?”
I have been a student and even a teacher of Sunday School for much of my life. I have always believed in the importance of Sunday School? But a very good question may be: “Is Sunday School essential?” Like, can one be a Christian and not go to Sunday School?
Is singing hymns an essential activity? I love hymns, especially the old, traditional hymns I grew up with. But can one practice one’s faith and no sing?
And here’s a disturbing and potentially dangerous question for a preacher to ask: Is preaching a sermon or listening to a sermon an “essential activity” when it comes to practicing the Christian faith?”
When it comes to faith, what is an “essential activity?”
Jesus seems to have stated what he believed was essential to faith when he said:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’” (John 13:34-35).
And when a scribe literally asked Jesus what is the most essential law we should follow, Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”’ There is no other law greater [ I hear “more essential”] than these’ (Mark 12:28-31).
The Apostle Paul agreed that love is the most essential activity of our faith as he wrote: “All of the commandments are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
And just in case some people did not understand what love means, he added: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Romans 13:8-10).
So, it should be obvious during this pandemic that if singing in a worship service, or attending Sunday School or a fellowship dinner can make our neighbors sick, and possibly kill them, then these things should be avoided. In fact, according to Jesus and Paul, it is an “essential activity” of our faith that we avoid them, contrary to what some of our states’ governors proclaimed.
I am praying that churches will continue to reevaluate what is essential to practicing our faith long after this world crisis is over—that we will continue to rethink the way we do church.
Because I do not believe Jesus ever said: “If you want everyone to know you are my disciples, it is essential to build a building and gather inside of that building at least once a week and worship me.” And as far as I know, Jesus never said: “To practice one’s faith, it is essential to sit in a Sunday School classroom and study me.” Or: “No one can be my disciple unless they sing about about me or listen to a preacher preach about me.”
However, Jesus did say: “No one can be my disciple unless they carry a cross and follow me” (Luke 14:27).
In other words, Jesus said that to be his disciples, to practice the Christian faith, it is essential that we sacrificially do the things that he did to love his neighbors: be willing to sacrifice it all; embrace humility; fight for the vulnerable; empower the underprivileged; feed the hungry; shelter the homeless; heal the sick; free the oppressed; welcome the outsider; forgive the sinner; defend the marginalized; and always speak truth to power.
Selfless and just service to our neighbors is what is essential to practicing the Christian faith. Attending a service with our neighbors has never been essential.
My colleagues have expressed sympathy to me for having the job of trying to plant a new church during a pandemic when large gatherings are not permitted. However, I do not believe there has been better time in any of our lifetimes to plant a new expression of church. Let me explain.
As soon as I moved to the Northshore in January as a church planter, I started hanging out at coffee shops on Sunday morning to meet people who did not attend church. And I met a lot of them! Most everyone I met expressed faith in Jesus, however, for many different reasons, they no longer expressed that faith through the church. They had a desire to follow Jesus, they just no longer had a desire to go to church.
Then, the Stay-at-Home orders came. Coffee shops closed.
I thought, “What in the world am I going to do now?” “How am I going to meet others who may want to be a part of something newd?”
Then, one evening while as I was home watching the local news on TV, a segment on people helping their neighbors during the pandemic caught my attention. They were doing a story about woman with a big heart named Pamala McKay, whose non-profit, God’s Unchanging Hands Feeding Ministry, was cooking hot meals and delivering them to food-insecure residents here on the Northshore, including the homeless.
I met Pamala the following Wednesday and she immediately put me to work helping to prepare, package and deliver meals to over a dozen food insecure households between Covington and Abita Springs.
I asked her if she needed any more help. She said, “I sure do.” So I called some of the folks I met in hanging out in those coffee shops and they have pitched in. The man who I said never felt welcomed in church as an adult is now delivering meals each week right here in Pearl River and Slidell.
Delivering the meals presented me with a new opportunity to build relationships with people who, living in poverty, have a plethora of other needs besides hot meals. I could no longer meet people in coffee shops, but I could go out to meet people where they live.
I met a retired school teacher who is a dialysis patient and double amputee.
I met a 41 year-old man who suffered a stroke and is disabled.
I met an an elderly widow who lives all alone with very little income.
I met a young father who is awaiting a kidney transplant who’s raising a house full of kids in a small single-wide mobile home.
I met a nursing home custodian who lives with her sister and several children in a home that is badly in need of repairs.
I met another man who has also been shunned by church his entire adult life, who is a caregiver for his elderly mother. They live in a trailer that leaks badly every time it rains.
And I met a seventy-year-old man, who worked 24 years at a country club until he got injured on the job and was subsequently let go with two-weeks severance pay. He currently lives alone in a shell of a home his parents built with no flooring, no furniture, no kitchen sink, no appliances, with the exception of an old ice-box.
And I met many others in similar situations.
I immediately reached out to all the folks that I met before the pandemic, some who said they were “done” with going church, and I offered them opportunities to not go to church, but to be the church.
Some started helping us prepare, package and deliver the meals with Pamala.
Others helped get a new wheelchair donated to the double amputee and retired school teacher. They helped to get the 41-year-old stroke patient home-healthcare. And they bought gift-cards to give to the nursing home custodian to help put gas in her car.
One donated a stove to the man who was injured at the country club who only had a hot plate with which to cook his meals.
And just this past Friday, one donated a double-oven and hooded stove-top to help Pamala cook more meals.
And many others have seen what we are doing via social media and have joined us.
Three families routinely purchase groceries for the children who live in the households that receive the hot plates. They will ride along to help deliver the meals and groceries and so they can assess needs and explore other ways they can help. Two are attorneys. One is a nurse. One is a healthcare professional. One is a retired police officer. And one is a baker, who has not only cooked meals for us to deliver, but now bakes cookies weekly to deliver to each of the households. One who is involved in delivering the meals each week buys fresh flowers to deliver with the meals. Each possesses a variety of gifts that can meet a variety of needs.
As a pastor, I have had tea with the elderly widow who lives alone. I have also offered pastoral care in the hospital when one resident became sick. I routinely offer pastoral care in the homes when I deliver the meals. I have even had the opportunity to serve communion.
With many church buildings closed during the pandemic, the folks involved in helping me with the new church are not attending a service of worship every week. But, more importantly and most essentially, they are worshiping every week withtheir service. These days, they may not be singing about Jesus, listening about Jesus, studying Jesus. They are, however, following Jesus. Together, we are doing what is an “essential activity” of our faith, we are loving our neighbors as ourselves. We are not going to church; we are being the church! We are making disciples. And together, others know we are disciples of Jesus by our love.
Just this past Friday, I discovered that 3,000 evacuees from Hurricane Laura were staying in hotels in New Orleans, many of them low income, children and elderly. I reached out to the person on the ground who is doing relief work with them and was told they were had an urgent need for adult diapers and baby formula for their most vulnerable evacuees. After reaching out to our little group, less than 20 of us, yesterday we were able to deliver 24 boxes of Depends and 16 big cans of Similac to the Sheraton Hotel on Canal St.
Here’s the thing, I reached out to the same group this week and asked them to come here me preach hear this morning, and looked around at who showed up. My wife is here.
But I have decided that that is ok. Because no matter what a governor may say, listening to me preach on Sunday morning is not an essential activity. Loving our neighbors everyday of the week is!
I truly believe that if all people of faith embraced the “essential activities” of our faith, if we stopped sitting around bemoaning how our church buildings are empty— if went out and just loved, if went out into the world, met people where they are and just lovingly treated them as we would like to be treated, if we just loved them as we were created to love, shown how to love by Jesus—then a light would shine in the darkness that is so bright, all of the evil that present in this world today, no storm, no wildfire, no virus would never be able to overcome it.
Church would begin to become meaningful and relevant to all people.
Selfishness would begin to vanquish.
Greed would start fading away.
Corrupt, dishonest, divisive politics would be voted away.
Racism, sexism and all types of bigotry would finally begin to die.
And a sick world and very sick nation would finally begin to heal.