Sermon delivered at First Christian Church in Hammond, Louisiana, July 12, 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 is Sunday School essential? Like, can one be a Christian and not go to Sunday School?
There’s nothing I love more than church fellowship dinners. I love me some pot-lucks or covered dishes or whatever you call them! I love the relationships that are made, especially the intergenerational relationships. But are fellowship dinners essential to our faith? Like, can one be a Christian and never attend a potluck?
Is singing hymns an essential activity? 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, 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 oru 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.
I am praying that we will continue to reevaluate what is essential to practicing our faith long after this world crisis is over—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 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 oftentimes express sympathy to me for having the job of trying to start a new church during a pandemic. 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 a church planter for the Great River Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I have been blessed with a wonderful opportunity to meet several people here on the Northshore who want to show the world what is truly essential to the Christian Faith.
Before the Pandemic, I met a man, who is now retired with an incredible heart to love his neighbors with the inclusive love of Christ; unfortunately, he has been shunned by churches his entire adult life because of who he loved.
I met a single woman with no children who found it difficult to to go to church to listen to sermon after sermon, Sunday after Sunday, about how to be a good wire and parent. Church had ceased being meaningful and relevant to her, so she ceased attending.
And I met many more like these two who told me that were all but “Done” with the church. But they still had a strong desire to follow Jesus as a disciple.
I also met a local Lutheran pastor who quickly became a friend as we began talking about the essentials of our faith before state governors started talking about it. His church just so happens to occupy the former home of Grace Disciples of Christ, the church that sold their property and currently funds my position as a Church Planter.
Before the Pandemic, I met these folks in restaurants, coffee shops and other social gatherings. Then, the Stay-at-Home orders came.
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 a new expression of church?”
Then, one evening while as I was home watching the local news on TV, a news story caught my attention of a woman named Pamala who was cooking hot meals for food-insecure residents in the kitchen of that Lutheran church. During an interview, she said that she just felt compelled by God to start cooking and to feed people in the Pandemic.
I immediately contacted the pastor and asked him about what I had just seen on the local news. He explained that Pamala was not a member of the church, but someone that he recently met who was trying to cook meals in for those in need in a very small kitchen, until he invited her to use his church’s much larger and better equipped kitchen.
I said, “Do you think she could use some help?” He responded, “I am sure she could. Just come by the church this Wednesday around lunch time and you can meet her.”
When I met Pamala that Wednesday, 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.
This presented me with a new opportunity to build relationships with people who, living in poverty, have a plethora of other needs besides the meals we were delivering.
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 elderly woman, a recent widow who lives all alone.
I met a couple who both have an array of health issues who are raising eight children in a small single-wide mobile home.
I met a nursing home custodian who lives with her sister and ten children in a home that is badly in need of repairs.
I met another man who has 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 man, who appears to be in his seventies, 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 receives no income— no disability, no social security—and lives alone in a home his parents built with no running water, no furniture, no appliances with the exception of an old ice-box.
And I met many others in similar situations.
I immediately contacted the folks that I met before the pandemic, some who said they were nearly “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.
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 get much need assistance with home-healthcare. And they bought gift-cards to give to the nursing home custodian to help put gas in her car.
Just last week, 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.
One offered to bake a cake and get some balloons to deliver to a disabled man whose birthday is this week.
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 most church buildings closed during the pandemic, many are not attending a service of worship every week. But, more importantly and most essentially, we are all worshiping every week withour service. These days, we are not singing about Jesus. We are not listening about Jesus. We are not studying Jesus. We are, however, following Jesus. 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.
I truly believe that if all people of faith embraced the “essential activities” of our faith— if we just loved, if we just lovingly treated others as we would like to be treated, if we just loved 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 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.