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Gospel Life

Telling the Story

I readily admit that I’m not the greatest at doing online worship or devotions. Maybe I’m getting a bit better each time I write and record audio and live stream, but I’m not good. Yet.

After online worship this Sunday, I poured myself my third cup of green tea and sat down in a chair in the living room. Usually I spend time reflecting on worship, thinking about things I did well and not so well. My sermon may have been too long or contain a longer story than normal. The prayers could have been a little long or too short or were missing that “something something” that would make a petition pop. 

And then I complain to myself that I could be better.

As I was reflecting Sunday morning, my phone rang. The out of town number wasn’t in my contact list so there I sat for a few seconds trying to figure out who was on the line. Taking a deep breath as I put my earphones in, I tapped the green icon on my iPhone’s screen. After saying “hello,” the person on the other line was a pastor friend.

Surprised to hear from him on a Sunday morning, we chatted a bit about how things are going in our respective communities. Here in Bergen County, things have been tough for a while. Where my friend lives, not so much. His town has seen single-digit coronavirus cases. That’s a good thing.

He complained about online learning and couldn’t understand how parents can be homeschool teachers with children who want to play on their phones all the time. We laughed that now parents see their children in their true light…and thus we pray for their teachers.

My friend told me that things were going OK for him and his families – his wife and kids were fine as were the members of his church. I told him my story of funerals, death, life’s struggles, and worship issues being locked up at home. Overall, I’m fine and doing well.

“Anthony, I gotta ask you something.”

“Sure. Go right ahead.”

“Do you think we pastors can be so focused on orthodoxy we miss what’s going on around us?”

“Huh?”

He went on to tell me that he records his weekend divine service on Friday morning. Over the course of the day, he takes the video and edits it, taking out blunders and reducing the time between parts of the liturgy. For example, he cuts out the time when he walks from the altar to the pulpit to preach. When he’s done, he uploads it to Vimeo and places the video on his church’s website. Congregation members then watch it at their leisure over the weekend.

“I got this call from a person in my congregation yesterday,” he said, “and it disturbed me. She told me that my sermons are difficult to watch because the house is on fire, people are dying, and you’re talking about how it’s our fault for the fire.

Ouch. As soon as he said that, I knew exactly what that member of his church was thinking. 

Lutheran pastors are trained to preach sermons that are supposed to balance “Law and Gospel.” The Gospel is easy – Jesus is your Savior. The Law is harder for the focus is on the individual listening or watching the sermon and their sin. So, in a nutshell, the sermon is supposed go something like “You’re a sinner. Thank God for Jesus for saving your wretched soul. Amen.”

The pattern can be switched up, but the basic foundation is there – Law, you the sinner have broken it; Gospel, Jesus came to save you. 

This hermeneutic structure is fine – nothing is wrong with it. But what happens in times of crisis that we’re living in? Do people want to hear that they are super sinners in every sermon? Is it possible to switch up the formula a bit to put the church in the midst of the crisis and encourage the living of the Gospel to make lives better? 

I think “yes.”

Here in Bergen County, the infection rate of the virus is well over 13,000. In the grand scheme of things, 13,000 infected people in a county of 932,000 people doesn’t sound overly horrific. The numbers of deaths – 741 – when compared to the population sounds less significant. But as Bergen County people, we see the impacts of the virus around us daily. We see the sadness and the heartbreak.

People are getting really sick. Even those who never need hospitalization or spend time in an ICU, the sickness they are dealing with is terrible. A friend of mine from New York went to the testing drive through in New Rochelle a couple of weeks ago because his wife was feeling ill and had symptoms of the coronavirus. Their doctor gave them a prescription to get a test. They went, got tested, and they found out later that she was fine but he was sick. It shocked them because he was feeling good. On the orders of their doctor, he isolated himself at home in his garage (it is like a family recreation room with a 85 inch TV). And as the days went on, he was feeling great, until Thursday of this week. He started coughing and feeling terrible. His fever had spiked to 101. On Saturday morning, he was thinking of heading to the hospital. “I felt like dying.” 

He didn’t die or go to the hospital. When I spoke to him Saturday night, he said his fever had dropped to 99 and he was able to eat something (Doritos). He still felt bad, but was getting better.

The numbers of unemployed people are beyond astronomical here in New Jersey and around the country. More than 700,000 people in the state have filed for unemployment. And do you think that the unemployment system is able to keep up with this massive flood of filers? Of course not! So many people in Bergen County are struggling to get food on their tables because they have zero income. Food banks and pantries are being overwhelmed. 

Most of these people work paycheck to paycheck. Without a paycheck, they’re in a deep crisis. 

A week ago I was online at the ShopRite supermarket in New MIlford when a woman came out of the store crying. The supermarket was out of peanut butter. Most people will think, “What the heck? I’ll get almond butter instead.”  However, almond butter is much more expensive than peanut butter. While they told her that they expected a shipment, they were still out of the one thing she needed to feed her kids. She was unemployed and without an income. She was fighting to make ends meet, and she couldn’t as she waited for her unemployment check.

I know a businessman who had to layoff all of his employees because he couldn’t afford to pay them while his store was closed. While he applied for the PPP loan, his bank told him they couldn’t approve it because the system was overwhelmed. He then had to lay off his employees because he couldn’t pay them any more.

For pastors, we see the crisis all around us – at least we should see it. Not just from news stories on TV or in the newspapers but in our daily ministry. If you’re a pastor sitting at home spending more time editing videos or reading books in this time of crisis, you’re missing the point.

When a pastor can’t see the forest through the trees, or see that the house is burning down and he’s focused on something else, then they need to reassess the state of their ministry.

Sermons are supposed to be impactful with the Gospel, but also with the knowledge that the pastor gets what is going on around the people in their community. And in these times of crisis, pastors need to show that we’re all in this together – congregation, pastor, and Jesus. 

I get critiqued plenty of times when my stories drag on or that somewhere in my sermon I didn’t make sense. It happens. But in every sermon I try my best to make the Word of God impactful by connecting the Gospel to the people sitting in the pews or watching at home. And sometimes, I don’t talk about sin or Satan in these times of crisis because the fallen nature of the world we live in shows our greater need for the Gospel and for God.