This is the text of the message I preapred for Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 22nd March 2020. This was the week when COVID-19 restrictions really hit home in Australia. Shops were denuded of many basic essentials, and indoor, public gatherings of people had to ensure at least four square metres of floor space per person. For this reason many church services were cancelled, and ours moved outside to the local football oval.
Well, here we are at the footy ground. I didn’t see this coming and I dare say none of you did either when we gathered to worship last week at the Church of Christ building. Some of our cohort are in isolation, parents and grandparents to some of you, friends to everyone here. Others are unable to be here because of the need for us to meet outside, or because of the need to care for family in other parts of South Australia and Victoria.
You may or may not be blessed by the news that the message I had prepared for you, for today, was seven pages long. Truth! I think it’s a good word, it’s certainly a solid word, and in view if the quote I have presented previously from Joyce Meyer it is certainly a “now” word even as it also seems to be a “new” word. The new thing isn’t always relevant, the previous thing and the old paths aren’t always redundant. Perhaps today those of you who were once Methodist might recall that John Wesley often spoke outdoors to crowds, either when the local parish chapel was too small, or too small-minded, to allow for the now word of God.
The message I have for you, which is the message I had and which you will get when the time is better suited, is that as The Church it is vital that the local Christians get out of their buildings and be the people of God in their communities. In this past week the Bishops Conference of the Roman Catholic Church in Australia has decreed that there is to be no indoor worship in any Catholic Church until this pestilence is passed. The Territorial Commander of the Salvation Army (Australia Territory) has sad something similar about Salvo citadels and Sundays, indeed the Kaniva Corps met outside this morning. Many Anglican diocese have made a similar call, not all of them, and not the one encompassing the West Wimmera; and the Uniting Church Synods of Queensland and NSW/ACT have done so too, but again not the Synods of SA or Vic-Tas.
I do not believe that God sent this Coronavirus on the world to get the Christians to worship at footy grounds: however, the virus does exist and so to do footy grounds, so let’s make the most of it and worship The LORD and proclaim Christ Crucified publicly and openly. It is Lent after all; Resurrection Day is in 21 days’ time.
So what is to be said on such a day. Sadly it is just family today, there’s no one to lead to The LORD in a lifegiving way, all of you are saved enough as you are. Well we can all do with more of Jesus, no matter how much of him you have (or perhaps more importantly how much of you he has), but the point remains, no one here is looking for a saviour because everyone here has found him. Everyone over there hasn’t, but then they’re over there today. Our project is to get ourselves over there asap, and to get there with the message of Love in a Time of Coronavirus. So, don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased to be here with my brothers and sisters in Christ today: but I’d dearly love it if we could have added new siblings this morning.
The news for us, and for the world, whether you have been hoarding toilet-paper, or Glen-20, or Dettol Handwash, or whether you have been generous in your caring and sharing for sibling and neighbour, is that God is with us. I mean look at us, here, doing church. Carlton and Richmond played to nobody at all at the MCG on Thursday night, Collingwood and Western Bulldogs had zero spectators at Docklands on Friday. But come to Leeor Footy ground at twenty-five to midday on a Sunday and wa-hey!
Seriously, I love what today’s lectionary reading has for us in the Psalm. My original sermon for today focussed on the other three readings so it’s a bit of a delight to be able to hold them over for later and to just sit with our Shepherding lord beside those cool waters and in the sweet grass.
As I was writing this message yesterday I had a new App playing on my phone. I say “playing” because it’s called “Calming” and is has mindfulness and reflective tracks on it, as well as sleepy and soothing background noise, and other stuff. So anyway I was a bit stressed, having to redo my sermon and think about how to preach at a footy ground, so the soothing sound of “Mountain Book in Flood” was a wonderful background. Except that it took me four hours to write these three pages because I had to keep getting up for a wee!! Twinkle, twinkle, trickle… But even with that the calm waters did cause stillness in my soul, even as it played havoc with my bladder reflexes. My shoulders relaxed, my jaw relaxed, my eyes opened a bit wider as the tension soothed away and the aahh! set in. In Psalm 23:3 we are reminded that this is one of the works of the Shepherd, he restores my soul. Again I don’t believe God sent Coronavirus to make us all lay down, but the fact that we have had to lay down has meant for example that the skies above Beijing and Paris are clearing, and the waters of Venice lagoon are too. Stiller waters has equalled cleaner environments. God did not send this virus to clean out the world, but there is a virus rampant so let’s make the most of our enforced quietness and worship The LORD and proclaim Christ the Redeemer who has saved all of Creation and is shaping a New Creation. Praise the one who leads me in right paths for his name’s sake as Psalm 23:3 says, celebrate and acknowledge that God has brought good out of this, and that God always will.
In the next sentence, Psalm 23:4a we read the great encouragement for us today. Even though I walk through the darkest valley I fear no evil says the NRSV, other translations offer the valley of the shadow of death. Coronavirus is a dark valley, a valley of deathly shadows, there is no doubt. Thousands have died, hundreds of thousands have been laid low with illness and pain and fever and coughing. Sadly thousands and hundred of thousands more will go on to experience the same, including people of Australia. But in all of that, all of that, COVID-19 as a disease is a shadow: God is the light. We see the shadow because COVID-19 is real and it is blocking the light in some places, throwing its shade like we used to throw toilet-paper at the houses of people we didn’t like. But it’s the light that matters, God is here, and the light is shining. The shepherd is here and the grass and the stream and the breeze and the birdsong are inviting.
This is a season of rest for us, I have no doubt. Our God and our government want us to look inward for a time of self-care, neighbourly care, generous calm, and quietness. Psalm 23 suggests that none of this is to be seen as a punishment, nor is it a reward, it’s simply a season. It’s nap time, it’s rest time.
I admit to being frustrated on Friday when I went to Foodland in Boredomtown and it was out of loo rolls. I don’t need many, I will be okay for a few weeks yet. But the panic buying, and the hoarding saddened me, saddened me that even the Tatiara ad the Wimmera have it? The Mighty South Aussies, yeah? Not this week Foodland. But it’s got me thinking, what is the church hoarding in this crisis. Okay so yes there is a secret stash of loo roll in our storage cupboard, our stewards shop ahead and yes we are sharing it (one at a time) with those who have none. But what of the other stuff of which we have an abundance and others have none. From a John 10:10 storehouse how are we going proclaiming Psalm 46:10. The life in abundance for which Jesus came is our promise that it’s safe to be still and know.
Don’t hoard peace this week Church, don’t hoard hope. There is more than enough for you, be generous in sharing it.