News

COVID-19 and ILC Churches in the Philippines, Russia, and South Africa

LCP President Antonio Reyes leads Easter worship for residents in the immediate vicinity of the Lutheran Center in Tiaong, Quezon Province, where he and his wife were stranded when the nation-wide quarantine began. The church here has also been distributing rice, milk, and hygienic products.

WORLD – The coronavirus pandemic continues to affect nations around the world, and churches are responding with practical and spiritual care. In this report, we highlight the work of International Lutheran Council (ILC) member churches in the Philippines, Russia, and South Africa.

Philippines

The Philippines has reported 9,485 cases of COVID-19 so far, with 623 deaths. The country entered into quarantine measures on March 15, 2020 in order to combat the spread of the disease, and those measures have been extended at least through May 15. Authorities have called on citizens to refrain from attending mass gatherings and to ensure social distancing.

In response to the spread of COVID-19, the Lutheran Church in the Philippines (LCP) responded immediately, encouraging all members of the church to abide by and respect the government’s directions. Through the church’s website and social media channels, the LCP has published a wide variety of resources to assist church members during this time of crisis. These resources have included the broadcast of worship services online, the publication of written devotionals and sermons, and posting regular prayers and inspirational articles.

Faith Lutheran Church in Batuan City, Philippines, distributes face masks to local residents as part of their practical support during the coronavirus pandemic.

On the local level, pastors and congregations are also reaching out with practical support to the people in their communities. Faith Lutheran Church in Batuan City, for example, has distributed face masks, as well as food supplies, to families in need. Similar distributions of foods and other necessities have taken place in Tiaong, Quezon Province; Patag, Opol, Misamis Oriental; and in Sitio Suapog Barangay Camachile, Bulacan, among other locations.

In a prayer posted on the LCP website, President Antonio Reyes writes the following: “I come to You in behalf of those affected by COVID-19. You are the Great Physician and healer. You have healed people of old and You can do the same today.”

“Protect those serving on the frontline around the world: doctors, nurses, and others in the medical profession,” he continues. “Protect and bless the government representatives. Give wisdom and good health to those working for the antidote of the virus, that they may develop the cure.”

“Lastly, I pray for Your mercy and grace in Jesus, because it is really You who heals our sickness… Help us to be patient… Come, Lord Jesus, save us from this predicament. Amen.”

Russia

Russia reports 145, 268 cases of COVID-19 as well as 1,356 deaths so far. Different regions have enacted quarantines and lockdown procedures, with many citizens ordered to self-isolate.

SELC Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin leads Easter worship in Novosibirsk, Russia.

As late as Easter, the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC) noted that its churches were still able to be open, even as they worked diligently to comply with sanitary requirements, doing everything possible to ensure the safety of members.

In an Easter letter to all parishes of the church, SELC Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin asked members to reflect not only on their physical health during the crisis but also on their spiritual health. “After all,” he wrote, “not only temporary health but also eternal life is given to us by a God who has died for us and has risen, for Whom no doors can be an obstacle.”

Noting that the current pandemic meant many parishioners were unable to attend church, Bishop Lytkin encouraged members to remember that the Eucharist will be waiting for them when they are finally able to return to church. “If current circumstances and restrictions keep you from this for the time being, please remember that in the church every service with the Holy Communion is a little Easter. And this is the main joy of Easter: Christ has risen to be with us and not to leave us; therefore, He is always waiting for us at the altar.”

South Africa

South Africa has reported 7,220 cases of COVID-19 and 138 deaths. A national lockdown began on March 26, 2020, with the country entering into a period of gradual easing of restrictions beginning on May 1.

LCSA Bishop S.M.A. Modise Maragelo leads members in a live-streamed service.

From the beginning, the Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (LCSA) called on its members to heed government calls for lockdown, with the Office of the Bishop postponing and suspending all church activities.

Like many other churches around the world, the LCSA has embraced a number of various mediums of communication to ensure continued spiritual care for members. This has included recording and live-streaming sermons, as well as sending regular messages to members via the church’s Facebook page.

Individual members and congregations have also reached out to the needy with food parcels where possible.

“It could seem at times as if things were out of control,” acknowledged LCSA Bishop S.M.A. Modise Maragelo. “But things never get beyond the control or the reach of God. Because of the fact that He is in control, we can always look to Him and we can always trust Him.”

“We trust God to give compassion and dedication to medical professionals,” he continued, “and wisdom to researchers as the world faces this pandemic.”

“Fear and panic have been the order of the day,” he said. “Yet there is hope because God is still alive and still in control.”

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For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

Wittenberg Outreach during COVID-19

GERMANY – Like many churches and organizations around the world, the International Lutheran Center at the Old Latin School (OLS) in Wittenberg has been dramatically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Together we rejoice in the victorious resurrection and gracious reign of our Lord Jesus Christ over all, even as we mourn the suffering worldwide under the pandemic,” writes Rev. Dr. Wilhelm Weber, Managing Director of the International Lutheran Society of Wittenberg (ILSW), in an Easter update. “Lord, have mercy.”

Worship services across Germany have been banned to help curb the spread of the disease, but Dr. Weber continues to reach out to the people of Wittenberg with mp3 sermons. In normal times, the International Lutheran Center at the Old Latin School provides a place for people to learn, grow, study, meet, retreat, and experience the Gospel in Wittenberg, the birthplace of the Reformation.

Like many businesses, the bookstore at the Center was closed for an extended period due to government regulations, and was only able to reopen on April 20. But the hospitality business—including hotels—remains suspended indefinitely, significantly impacting that aspect of the International Lutheran Center’s work.

“We are still very much in shut-down mode here in Luthercity,” Dr. Weber notes. “Things have practically come to a standstill: no tourists, no buses, no ships on the river, no cyclists, the market square deserted, and parking bays available all over.” With tourism suspended, the work of the ILSW in sharing the Reformation witness to the Gospel has been complicated. Several future events scheduled to take place at the Center also remain up in the air.

Dr. Weber encourages Christians everywhere to pray for those affected by COVID-19. “We prayerfully bring before God those suffering and facing hardships due to this pandemic,” he says. “May the Triune God continue to grant healing and salvation as we call on Him in our good Lord Jesus’ name. We pray for a vaccine son. We thank Him for those many people who have been healed and who continue on the way of recovery.”

The International Lutheran Council is part-owner of the ILSW and the International Lutheran Center at the Old Latin School in Wittenberg. For more information on its vital work, visit www.oldlatinschool.org. You can support the ILWS through online giving via the ILC website. Just select “Wittenberg Outreach.”

You can also donate by mail:

International Lutheran Council
P.O. Box 18775
St. Louis, MO 63118

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For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

COVID-19 and ILC Churches in Australia and New Zealand, Sweden, and the USA

LCA Bishop John Henderson records a Holy Week message.

CANADA – Member churches of the International Lutheran Council around the world are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with practical and spiritual care.

Today we highlight the ministry of three member churches in Australia and New Zealand, in Sweden, and in the United States.

Australia and New Zealand

To date Australia has reported 6,645 cases of COVID-19 and 71 deaths, while New Zealand has reported 1,445 cases of COVID-19 and 13 deaths. Like many nations, both Australia and New Zealand have instituted numerous containment measures to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, including border restrictions and a prohibition on gatherings. New Zealand instituted a nationwide lockdown on March 25.

Directions from governments have required the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA), including the Lutheran Church of New Zealand (LCNZ), to suspend weekly worship services and public gatherings. On the local level, individual congregations are providing regular pastoral and spiritual care through recordings of Services of the Word, and care teams make regular phone contact with members.

“This enforced physical isolation seems to be increasing our hunger and drive for our church community,” notes LCA Bishop John Henderson in a letter to the church. “Maybe we are feeling just a little like the first believers in the early church, when they could not get enough of the Gospel.”

The LCA/NZ has published a dedicated COVID-19 Response webpage providing comprehensive information and support for the church, including links to government information and support. The site also has messages from the national bishop, regular news updates, devotional materials, pastoral guidance on matters related to sacramental practice, and Church@Home (a dedicated landing page providing resources to keep faith alive at home, connect with the community, and stay safe during this time of physical isolation). The LCA website and social media also includes additional devotional and prayer resources.

The LCA is further negotiating with community television stations in each state to show regular church services, including specific indigenous services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Lutheran Media continues to share “Messages of Hope” across several radio networks in Australia and New Zealand.

In this time, Bishop Henderson says, “We experience a sense of loss, of sadness, and uncertainty. We can be tempted to clutch at straws and seek comfort elsewhere than trusting in God.” But, he stresses, we must take those cares and concerns to God. “I encourage each of us to take all that to the throne of grace, and let it land at the feet of our Saviour…. You are not alone. You help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

Sweden

Sweden has reported 15,322 cases of COVID-19, and 1,765 deaths. The country has closed schools and universities, banned visits to nursing homes, and limited public gatherings to fifty people or less.

Easter service broadcast live from the Mission Province’s Immanuel Parish in Göteborg, Sweden.

The Mission Province (Missionsprovinsen) in Sweden is offering pastoral care in the midst of the pandemic. “It has had a great impact on our daily lives,” says Bishop Bengt Ädahl. “Persons over the age of 70 are recommended not to come to church, and pastors over the age of 70 are recommended not to conduct services.”

Most, but not all, congregations are still holding services. Some congregations are broadcasting services online via social media and YouTube. Pastors are also providing pastoral care through home-visits, where they offer communion to those unable to attend church.

Bishop Ädahl has sent letters to clergy with recommendations about pastoral care as well as a prayer for use during the coronavirus outbreak. At the same time, the Mission Province is holding many of its board meetings by conference call and video-calls.

“It is important in this time that the Gospel of our risen Lord, Jesus Christ, is preached to people and that He is worshipped,” said Bishop Ädahl. “It is also important that church members pray at home, and read the Word of God and other good Christian literature. We encourage people to do this in their daily life.”

United States of America

The total number of reported cases of COVID-19 in the United States has risen to 794,347, with 43,115 deaths. Different states have different regulations in effect to slow the spread of the coronavirus, with many limiting the total number of people allowed to participate in public events while others have banned public events altogether.

LCMS President Matthew Harrison provides a word of comfort in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) reports that the coronavirus has had a dramatic impact on its ministry. While the church does not have authority to direct congregations to close, LCMS President Matthew Harrison has encouraged all members to obey the 4th and 5th Commandments.

“I’m very proud of our pastors, church workers, and congregations,” says President Harrison. “Far and away, they have been engaged, working as hard as possible to offer online options to parishioners, offering the Sacrament where possible to many small groups.” While the LCMS has encouraged its congregations as they offer Gospel-outreach in new ways given the situation, President Harrison, the church’s Commission for Theology and Church Relations, and the systematics departments of the LCMS’ two seminaries have all advised against the novel practice of in-home consecration of communion elements while watching online services.

“Pastors are hurting because they can’t be at the deathbed to comfort the faithful, or even have funeral services,” laments President Harrison. “But they know that the Lord Christ most often and most dramatically blesses through the cross. It will be a joyous day when we are back together in church to receive the gifts of Christ.”

The LCMS’ seminaries and universities have all switched to online classes, and staff at the LCMS’ International Centre are working from home. The LCMS has also temporarily pulled many of its mission personnel and their families from world areas.

The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has made available a wide variety of resources related to the pandemic, including devotional resources for families and individuals, as well as care for pastors and church workers.  Record numbers of members are engaging with the LCMS’ social media accounts and websites. Among other resources, the LCMS is providing daily Bible studies on Facebook.

Almost all resources of the LCMS Office of National Mission have been focused towards the COVID-19 crisis. Mercy agencies are doing important work under very challenging situations, caring for thousands upon thousands. And the church is also partnering with the Lutheran Church Extension Fund to provide funding for Soldiers of the Cross, a longstanding program which assists church workers. Requests for that funding have been increasing.

“We also think of and pray for in these days our millions of Lutheran partners and friends around the globe,” notes President Harrison. “Christ is risen!”

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For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

COVID-19 and ILC churches in Canada, Rwanda, and South Africa

LCC President Timothy Teuscher brings Easter greetings online.

WORLD – As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, member churches of the International Lutheran Council continue to respond with practical and spiritual support. Today, we look at the response of ILC member churches in Canada, Rwanda, and South Africa.

Canada

Canada has reported 35,708 total cases of COVID-19, and 1,618 deaths. Different provinces have set different regulations to curb the spread of the disease, including required quarantine periods for those travelling out of province, closing national borders, and limiting the number of people allowed to gather in public. There is no deadline yet indicated for lifting of these measures.

Lutheran Church–Canada has been proactive in responding to the changing situation, providing guidance for members across the country. In a letter on March 19, LCC recommended all congregations temporarily suspend services and other group events for the time being. The letter highlights four of the Ten Commandments especially applicable to the current crisis: the Fourth, the Fifth, the Second, and the Third Commandments.

“The latter one was the primary challenge facing us,” notes LCC President Timothy Teuscher. It was important, he says, to assist churches in “providing new and various ways for our people to hear God’s Word and so receive the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation which Christ offers and bestows upon us apart from the normal and ordinary Divine Service.” Many congregations are now offering services, sermons, Bible Studies, and more online.

LCC has also gathered a number of resources for pastors and people on the synodical website, which continue to be augmented with new material. They include devotional and congregational resources developed by LCC, along with links to various resources made available by The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and Concordia Publishing House. Among other materials, LCC has also provided written sermons, and video services and devotions prepared by President Teuscher and LCC’s Mission Executive. These resources are intended to supplement material offered pastors to congregants on the local level.

Lutheran Church–Canada also revamped the latest issue of its national magazine, The Canadian Lutheran, to focus entirely on providing spiritual resources for church members during the COVID-19 pandemic. The issue includes devotional articles, a guide to home devotions, prayers, and links to more resources. Pastors have been encouraged to drop the magazine off at the homes of members, but you can also see the magazine for free online.

Meanwhile, LCC is continuing to find ways to serve its congregations. “Our administrator, office manager, and financial people continue to provide assistance to our congregations and pastors who are or may be experiencing financial hardships,” says President Teuscher. To that end, LCC has revamped its national website to accept online donations for individual congregations, and is providing up-to-date information from the government concerning its wage-subsidy program. Currently LCC continues to be financially able to meet its commitments for international and national missions.

President Teuscher notes that he continues to meet via conference call weekly with the Vice-President, Regional Pastors, the Communications Director, and Executive Staff “to receive updates, information, and above all to pray for and with one another in these uncertain and difficult times.” In particular, he points to this prayerful hymn composed by Martin Rinckart, who served during the famine and epidemic that broke out during the Thirty Years’ War and who wrote these words following the death of his wife:

Now thank we all our God With hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, In whom His world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms Has blest us on our way
With countless gifts of love And still is ours today.

Oh, may this bounteous God Through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts And blessed peace to cheer us
And keep us in His grace And guide us when perplexed
And free us from all ills In this world and the next! – LSB 895:1-2

Rwanda

The country of Rwanda has reported 147 total cases of COVID-19, with no deaths so far. Residents are not allowed to travel between cities, and all but essential workers are required to stay home, except for necessary movements like purchasing food or medicine. These measures have been extended at least until the end of April.

The local LMA-STH pastor in Sovu, Rwanda holds a small Easter celebration in his home.

The Lutheran Mission in Africa–Synod of a Thousand Hills (LMA-STH) is facing severe difficulties as a result of the crisis. The church body is small and very young; its ability to operate is dependent on regular offerings. As people cannot gather in churches at this time, there are no offerings. What is more, many members of the church are poor and are facing economic suffering as a result of work closures. “We have nothing with which to support them,” laments Bishop Selestine Seburikoko.

Pastors are still able to provide limited services to some members, including Bible Studies, but very few are now able to offer Holy Communion. They share messages of hope through phone calls to those members who have phones. They also offer, as they are able, limited sanitary support and food to neighbouring homes.

“Our confident hope is in God, who raised our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead,” says Bishop Seburikoko. He offers us the following passage from Romans 8:28 for our comfort and consolation: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.”

South Africa (FELSISA)

At present, the nation of South Africa has reported 3,158 cases of COVID-19. A total of 54 people have died so far. A nationwide lockdown continues in effect at least until the end of April.

Rev. Kurt Schnackenberg, a FELSISA pastor serving St. John’s Lutheran Parish in Shelly Beach, South Africa, preaches online for Easter Sunday.

The lockdown has had a major impact on the Free Evangelical Lutheran Synod in South Africa (FELSISA). “With all gatherings being banned, no church services could be held in a period that included Holy Week, culminating in the Easter celebrations,” notes FELSISA Bishop Deiter Reinstorf. “Realizing that the temporary measures introduced by the president had the sole purpose of stemming the tide of the virus, and was not directed against the church, FELSISA’s leadership suspended all services.”

In the absence of regular services, the pastors of FELSISA have responded by using online media to reach members of their congregations: through livestreamed services and sermons; through video recordings; and through WhapsApp audio recordings. “The joyful realization soon dawned that this was a divine opportunity to reach far more people than before,” says Bishop Reinstorf. “Recordings are being forwarded to friends and family members who do not always gather in church, and we hope that the comforting message of the Gospel might lead to greater church attendance after the lockdown.”

Economic challenges arising from the lockdown threaten both individual members and smaller churches. “Despite the call to show generosity in difficult times and to continue with joyful thanksgiving by electronic fund transfers, the continued existence of some smaller congregations is threatened, as the future—in particular for small business owners—is bleak,” notes Bishop Reinstorf. In order to assist poorer communities, the FELSISA has introduced a “Solidarity Fund” in support of struggling congregations.

“This is a time to have faith, and for the Church of Christ to be a light to the world,” encourages Bishop Reinstorf. “This can only happen through the Word of God and His Spirit. We therefore humble ourselves before God, acknowledge our dependency on Him, call for mercy, rejoice in our salvation in Jesus Christ, and pray that God may use even the COVID-19 pandemic to our benefit to the salvation of mankind.”

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For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

Essay: The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Digitization of the Church

NOTE: Since the writing of the article there has been some developments locally in Siberia. When writing about possible suspension of the regular worship services, I thought about it as a theoretical possibility, based on what was happening elsewhere. Well, now it is a reality for Siberian Lutherans also. The governor of the Novosibirsk region has issued an order to stop all religious gatherings beginning from Saturday, April 18. The last service with the Lord’s Supper was conducted in St Andrew’s parish in Novosibirsk on Friday evening, April 17. Siberian Lutherans are very fortunate as compared to the Russian Orthodox in that they were able to celebrate Easter service in an almost normal mode in most of the parishes of the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC); Eastern Orthodox Easter is one week later this year. As it stands now, no laypeople may enter the church buildings and take part in any religious ceremonies. Of course, as Lutherans, we can’t conduct the Eucharist with no laypeople present. Mass is not a sacrifice, it is about eating and drinking. So what shall we do now? Local pastors including those who are Seminary instructors would divide the area of larger Novosibirsk into parts based on where they are located, and so they will visit parishioners in their homes and serve Holy Communion to them as they are able. Siberian Lutherans are determined to do their best not to leave their people without spiritual care. ~AS

This is a document which was prepared for the Russian speaking Lutheran context in view of the questions the people of the Church had related to the Coronavirus Pandemic.

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COVID-19 Pandemic and the Digitalization of the Church

by Alexey Streltsov

Rev. Dr. Alexey Streltsov

In 2020 A.D., the Church of God throughout all the world encountered a special trial that especially fell in the time of Lent, and now it looks like it will continue also through the Easter season, and perhaps beyond.

The rapidly growing threat of a dangerous viral contagion (or a declaration of such threat) has put the usual conduct of regular church services in jeopardy. These problems may have to do either with specific parish circumstances (like the temporary termination of rent in the case of our Moscow SELC parish), or with regional regulations of the authorities (for example, in St. Petersburg, where SELC does not have any parishes, but where all gatherings of people are now prohibited).

Practically every day brings additional news. We do not know what will happen tomorrow. In this context, the churches are likely to react ad hoc by making decisions spontaneously, or at least without serious preliminary reflection.

The main question that confronts the churches at the present time is the following: What do we do in the case that it’s no longer possible to conduct services, or if most people can’t get to them because of unforeseen circumstances even if the services do continue?

In many cases, a workaround has been implemented by means of a temporary transfer of services to a digital format.

A few people are trying to conduct sacraments over the Internet. Such cases have become widely discussed and, as a rule, are getting a very negative reaction. Such cases, when people attempt to conduct Baptism and the Lord’s Supper over the Internet, are rare and extreme.

The more typical situation looks like this: a minister conducts a service (without Holy Communion) on the church premises. He can be alone in the church, or accompanied by one or several assistants. Whatever happens at the altar is recorded on a camcorder, and is instantly displayed online via social media, such as YouTube, Facebook, or Vkontakte. It might be that there are a few other people in the church besides the liturgist, but it’s not that relevant here.

Parishioners are invited to participate in the services right from their homes by connecting to the live broadcast. In some cases, it is impossible to view a service online due to technical problems or some other reasons. In such cases, parishioners may watch it at some other time by clicking a link.

Are such decisions concerning the temporary “digitization” of the Church correct? It depends on how one understands the Church herself, that is, what the Church actually is. According to the universally recognized definition of the Church among Lutherans, which is given in the 7th Article of the Augsburg Confession, the Church is the gathering of the faithful, among whom the Word of God is preached purely and the Holy Sacraments are distributed rightly, according to the ordinances of God’s Word. This gathering happens in a specific location where people are physically present in one and the same place. The early Church, both in the New Testament and in the texts of the earliest Church authors, habitually used the language of gathering “for the same” or for the “common-union” ( ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτὸepi to auto in Greek), which meant gathering for the Divine Service.

According to traditional ecclesiastical understanding and theology, characterized first and foremost by faith in God incarnate, the created things do matter. Body, things bodily, things fleshy do matter. Specific place matters.

At all times, God has acted salvifically through specific people, specific circumstances, and specific places. Before the Incarnation, the special place of God’s presence was Israel, and within Israel: Jerusalem, and then the Temple, within which there was the Holy place, and, finally, the Holy of Holies, where as it was proclaimed in divine revelation that Yahweh (the Lord) was present between the horns of the altar.

Now, there is no single place in the geographical sense for the faithful to receive the grace of God. Nevertheless, in every case, it is a particular and concrete place, that is, that place where the Word is pronounced and the Sacraments are distributed. This is what the priests of the church speak and do. There are specific places in Novosibirsk and Tuim, Novokuznetsk and Chita, and so forth, to speak of SELC parishes. In each of those places, there is a pulpit and an altar. And in each case, one and the same Church is gathered. The Church, which is one, is present in this place in her fullness, although there are different individuals within each gathering. This fullness, this completeness, this catholicity of the Church is due to the complete presence of Christ, whom the priest proclaims in preaching, and whom he administers in Holy Communion.

So, what happens during an attempt to transfer Church and the church gathering to a digital mode? At a minimum, there is a loss of significance of particularity of place in people’s perception, a loss of the concreteness of liturgical space, and a detriment of understanding by the faithful of the way of God’s presence in the world.

From the earliest times, the Church fought Gnostic influences in her midst, that is, those attempts at “spiritualization” of the Christian faith. In the early Church, Gnostics and Manichaeans claimed the presence of a “divine spark” within them that made services unnecessary. Gnostics ridiculed the Eucharist. In the early Medieval times, there were influences of Neoplatonism, in which a man was invited to ascend to God in his soul, instead of meeting Him in the means of salvation as the incarnate God who came to earth and bound Himself to His presence in particular places for the salvation of the people—although God, by nature, is omnipresent, and not subject to spatial limitations. Another danger of this spiritualization at the time was represented by the excesses of monastic asceticism. The monks fled to the desert in order to gain a special insight, and to sense the divine presence in their lives by way of strict spiritual discipline.

The Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli proposed spiritualization at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century. Bodily things were of little importance for Zwingli: “The flesh is of no help at all,” he said, and God is spirit, and He acts as He wills and where He wills. This was understood by the Zwinglians as an action detached from the physical realm. In this case, any possible connection between the heavenly and the earthly is no more than the association between reality and symbolic representation of this reality, which is inherently conditional according to Zwingli. In other words, the heavenly things can happen in the absence of any earthly representation, while the earthly things have no inherent significance. “The flesh is of no help at all.” Martin Luther considered this “spiritualistic” teaching of Zwingli to be the fruit of the devil.

Today’s temptation comes from the world of digital technology.

When we disrupt liturgical space, when we deprive specific sacred place of its sacred nature, when we try to represent the Divine Service as a kind of theater or circus, or as a function that can be reduced to the sound vibrations of the air, or to a footage sequence, we consciously or unconsciously change our perception of what the Church is.

Modern digital technologies are a great blessing that the Church has at her disposal. Radio and TV programs, films, TV Channels, multiple resources on the Internet—all those are an aid in the work of the Church’s evangelism in the wide sense.

The question, however, is whether it is done along with the traditional service, or instead of the traditional service. This is a very important question.

If it is impossible to conduct a service, then it can’t be done. One cannot perform something instead of a common liturgy and just call it “liturgy” anyway. If at least “two or three” cannot gather in one place, then Christ cannot be there in the sense in which He promised to be present in a Eucharistic gathering.

Therefore, in this case, one cannot pretend that everything is (almost like) normal, and that it is possible by a slight adjustment to conduct services in a digital mode as though everything were just fine.

A digital service becomes a surrogate of the church service. A danger of such Internet services is that people would come up with a valid question: “Was it a viable option after all?” And if it were a fine opportunity to pursue, what would prevent anyone from to continuing to do it in the future?

A number of areas of human activity are already being transferred, or will be transferred, whether fully or partially, into a digital mode. Perhaps, the COVID-19 situation will serve as a trigger for these further changes. The Church, however, cannot be subject to digitization due to her non-digital nature.

The ancient Pythagoreans thought that the whole world could be reduced to numbers, and described by numbers. Modern proponents of the Internet-church suppose that in the absence of traditional services, one could, in principle, get by with some online broadcasting. The danger here is that such actions would throw the baby out with the bath water, in this case, the baby being the bodily, creaturely dimension of the Church.

When there are no church services in the Church, it is an egregious thing. This is a crisis (the Greek word “crisis” means judgment). It is not just a minor warning sign, it is a loud bell calling us to repentance and to correction of our lives. The meaning of Lent is to show us that we won’t survive without God. God forbid us from being spiritually complacent! Rather, being bereft of an opportunity to attend regular church services, let us experience true spiritual hunger for the Divine Service, for the gathering of faithful brothers and sisters, where we might have a living connection with God through the gifts that God himself has appointed for usage in a particular place. God grant us to forsake false spiritual satiety and any sense that God owes something to us, and that the Church owes something to us!

As a faithful bride to her Lord, the Church acts according to her calling. She can’t simply stop being the Church. She can’t act in an unchurchly way. That would be an obvious contradiction, an impossibility.

God, however, promised not to leave His faithful. Even in the absence (temporary absence!) of church services, He will not leave the faithful!

If it is permitted for you to move about, get in touch with your priest and request communion to be administered to you. He will come. You will get Word and Sacrament in a home-service format.

If, for whatever reason, that is not possible, there will always be the prescribed readings according to the Church’s calendar, as well as home prayers.

You could ask the priest to send a text of a sermon. The reading of such a sermon (whether privately, or read aloud by the head of the household) would be instructive for the soul.

If you are currently conducting readings of Scripture and joint prayers in the family setting, then you may keep on doing the same, perhaps, with some additions in view of the absence of the main services. If not, now is the time to learn such spiritual discipline and prayer practice!

This time of quarantine, this time of external limitations, may continue for a while. Perhaps, it will last longer than we hoped for. However, it will not last forever. And at first opportunity, the doors of the Church will be opened once again, and the priests will conduct services just as they were doing before!

Fr. Alexey Streltsov
Judica, 2020.

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Rev. Dr. Alexey Streltsov is Rector of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Novosibirsk, Sibera (Russia), a theological institute of the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC). An earlier version of this essay was first published on Gottesdienst, where it is also available in Russian.

For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

COVID-19 and ILC churches in Argentina, Belgium, and South Sudan

Choir members of Santa Cruz Lutheran Church in Bahía Blanca (Buenos Aires, Argentina) sing “Yo sé que vive el Salvador” (I know that my Redeemer Lives) for online Easter celebrations in this YouTube video.

WORLD – Member churches of the International Lutheran Council continue to reach out with the good news of the Gospel in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this article, we highlight the situation facing ILC member churches in Argentina, Belgium, and South Sudan.

Argentina

Argentina has reported 2,669 cases of COVID-19 so far, with 123 deaths. The country has been in lockdown since March 20, with the general public allowed to leave their homes only to buy food or medicine.

As church services are currently prohibited, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Argentina (Iglesia Evangélica Luterana Argentina – IELA) has responded by equipping members for home devotions. Pastors are offering resources ranging from written liturgy and sermon, to audio, to video. Many churches are livestreaming services for members, or uploading them to YouTube. During the week, several churches are also hosting Bible studies on Facebook or other platforms.

“We emphasize communication among our members as a way to care for and sustain ourselves in this difficult time,” explains IELA Pastor President Arturo E. Truenow. Pastors are using phone and video calls to provide spiritual support. In cases of dire need, pastors are currently allowed to visit a member’s home.

The IELA is providing various resources for members through its website. There members can find brief devotionals, Bible studies, and free access to the church’s national magazine El Nuevo Luterano. The church has also issued an internal document to pastors and parishes reporting IELA board decisions regarding the COVID-19 crisis

The church’s seminary has moved education online, as have the IELA’s ten schools. The church schools, however, are facing financial hardship as a result of the pandemic and are struggling to pay wages for teachers and administrative staff.

The many challenges in this situation should lead us back to God in prayer, says Pastor President Truenow. “We continue to pray that God will soon free us from this pandemic, and, in the meantime, keep us firm in the faith, take care of us, and assist us in caring for others.”

 

Belgium

Belgium has been particularly hit hard with COVID-19, with one of the highest reported death rates for the disease in the world. More than 36,138 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the country, with 5,163 deaths. Belgium has been in lockdown since March 18, and containment measures are scheduled to last at least until the beginning of May.

ELKB President van Hattem brings Easter greetings to members of the church online.

In the midst of the crisis, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Belgium (Evangelisch-Lutherse Kerk in België – ELKB) continues to reach out with the good news of the Gospel, making devotions, liturgy, and video of worship services available online.

In a letter to the church, ELKB President Gijsbertus van Hattem reflected on the meaning of the word “quarantine.” The word, he explains, originally refered to a 40-day period of isolation following the arrival of ships in Venice around the 15th century. “The number forty plays a major role in the Bible” too, President van Hattem notes: forty days and nights of rain during the Flood; forty years in the desert for the Israelites on the way to the Promised Land; forty days of temptation for Jesus in the garden; forty days of post-resurrection appearances by Jesus before His ascension into heaven. And Lent, drawn from these biblical examples, is likewise a season forty days in length.

“In the Bible, the number forty represents a change, a preparation time for something else or something new, something better,” President van Hattem writes. “In the current quarantine, we naturally hope that afterwards the COVID-19 virus will be manageable.” But there may be other changes too, he says: challenges like economic stagnation, yes, but also environmental healing, air-quality improvements, and reduced crime.

President van Hattem encourages the members of the ELKB to also use the figurative “forty days” of the COVID-19 quarantine for spiritual change as well. “In these forty days of Lent, an additional time to reflect is given to us,” he writes, “to reflect on the future of our earth, on our relationship with God and with those around us. By spending more time at home, we all of a sudden have more time to read God’s Word.”

“The churches are still closed for the time being—we are in the desert,” he says. “But the churches will open again—the promised land lays ahead. And then we will thank and praise God with renewed courage and faith, and again receive His Word and Sacrament.”

 

South Sudan

The country of South Sudan currently reports four cases of COVID-19. But the nation has limited medical resources, and so there are concerns that an outbreak in the region could be particularly deadly. To curb the spread of disease, South Sudan enacted containment measures even before confirmation of the virus in the country.

SSELC Bishop Nathaniel Bol Nyok

The South Sudan Evangelical Lutheran Church (SSELC) is facing substantial difficulties in ministering to its members as a result of the crisis. “Technology is still a nightmare in most areas,” notes SSELC Bishop Nathaniel Bol Nyok. “Lack of technology has made it impossible for the church to provide online worship services as is being done in countries with better internet.”

Pastors continue to minister to parishioners as they are able, while observing social distancing. Those with cellphones are also being ministered to in this way.

“Despite all this, Christ is risen and He is alive, and there is nothing that can separate us from the love and care of the risen Lord Jesus Christ,” encourages Bishop Nyok. “He is a conqueror who, through His death and resurrection, has conquered everything—including COVID-19. Christ has liberated us from fear because we live and die in Him.”

“It is my prayer that the risen Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, by His grace, mercy, and love for His Church and for the whole human race, will bring this pandemic to an end quickly,” he says.

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For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

COVID-19 and ILC churches in India, South Africa, and the United Kingdom

President S. Suviseshamuthu brings a video Easter greeting to the India Evangelical Lutheran Church.

WORLD – Members of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) continue to respond to the coronavirus pandemic currently gripping the world.

In this second post in our series, we highlight the situation of ILC member churches in India, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

India

A nationwide lockdown in India was implemented on March 23, and will continue at least through the end of April. So far, India has reported more than 12,700 cases of COVID-19 and 423 deaths.

The situation has proven challenging for the India Evangelical Lutheran Church (IELC). Worship services are banned, which was particularly difficult during Holy Week and Easter. Some pastors and congregations are able to broadcast services online, and some members are able to watch from their homes. The church, however, is unable to administer Holy Communion during the lockdown.

Movement from one place to another is also restricted. And while some pastors are allowed to visit nearby homes to pray with members, in other places this is not allowed.

On the eve of Easter, IELC President S. Suviseshamuthu sent a message of encouragement to the church on YouTube and WhatsApp, likening the situation facing them to that described in the first chapter of Joel. Joel describes a crisis that had “never happened during the time of old men, the inhabitants of the land,” President Suviseshamuthu writes. “The priests, the Lord’s ministers, mourn. The field is wasted. The land mourns. Joy is withered away from the sons of men. The meat offering and the drink offering are withheld form the house of your God.”

“But in the very next chapter, Joel speaks of the day of the Lord,” President Suviseshamuthu continues. If we “rend our hearts and turn unto the Lord our God,” we will find “He is slow to anger, and of great kindness, if we repent from evil.”

“This makes us to realize that Jesus is the only way,” President Suviseshamuthu explains. “He loves us profoundly. That is the only reason He laid down His life on the cross. Jesus loves each one of us without discrimination. Let us separate ourselves from the world to be united only with our Saviour. Let us confess daily. May the Lord protect us and lead us through the wilderness.”

South Africa

In South Africa, more than 2,500 cases of COVID-19 have been reported, with 34 deaths. On March 23, the country enacted a nationwide lockdown, which will be in effect at least until the end of April.

This has led to major challenges for the St. Peter Confessional Lutheran Church of South Africa (CLCSA). Churches are not allowed to gather in groups of more than ten, funerals are limited to just family, and no weddings are allowed. Easter services were cancelled in South Africa, as in many nations.

Online preaching from the St. Peter Confessional Lutheran Church of South Africa.

Many churches around the world have turned to electronic means of ministering to members during the current crisis, and the CLCSA is no different, reaching out via social media. But many of the CLCSA’s members are elderly and not familiar with this sort of technology. Many are also rural, living in remote areas which do not have easy access to the internet.

“Our church is in a learning curve as to how to serve our membership,” explains CLCSA bishop Mandla Khumalo. “We have learned and are learning even more the importance of households becoming the church, with fathers effectively being encouraged to go back to using Luther’s Small Catechism to minister to their families.” Bishop Khumalo notes especially the value of the daily services in the catechism. “This is leading us to understand more fully what fellowship means on the family level—how the church begins at home, and how the worship building is only a place of fellowship.”

The CLCSA is facing other difficulties as a result of the coronavirus too. Holy communion and visitations, including to shut-ins, have been suspended, and pastors can only attend to members in extreme cases after receiving permission from the authorities. Some international staff have also been repatriated, further affecting the ability of church and its agencies to minister to its members.

The church is also facing financial difficulties since many of its members are unfamiliar with telephone or online banking, and are unable to give in person. And this has a cascading effect on the church’s education and social ministry work. The church receives no government funding, and with schools closed, there are challenges paying staff and covering overhead costs. What is more, many of the students depend on the church’s food program and now face food insecurity as a result of the lockdown.

Despite these challenges, Bishop Khumalo also sees an opportunity to reach people anew with the good news of the Gospel during this crisis. Some people who normally “would not attend church in any way” are nevertheless deciding to tune-in to the CLCSA’s online outreach “because of the curiosity created by this pandemic.” The church is proclaiming the message of Jesus to those newly willing to listen.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom has so far reported more than 103,000 cases of COVID-19 and 13,729 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. On March 20, the government initiated a lockdown which resulted in churches being closed for public worship and which strictly limited the public’s ability to leave their homes.  While clergy have been categorized as key workers, and can thus leave the home to work, congregants are not allowed to attend churches.

ELCE Chairman George Samiec livestreams his sermon for Easter Sunday.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of England has reacted quickly to the situation to ensure continued pastoral care for members. By March 29, all congregations had begun offering alternate worship arrangements, including online video conferencing, live online worship services, pre-recorded worship services, and written material emailed or posted every week for members to read on Sunday.

“The absence of the Divine Service in the life of the Church is painful,” notes ELCE Chairman George Samiec. “We look forward to the time when we can worship together and receive from the Lord of the Church all His blessings.”

In the meantime, congregations continue to use alternate means to continue ministry. Some congregations are also now broadcasting Matins and Compline during the week, while Bible Studies and confirmation are being conducted via video conferencing. Congregational WhatsApp groups have been formed. And pastors are regularly phoning members to provide care.

The ELCE’s theological institute, Westfield House, has moved to provide classes online. And Lutheran Radio UK has amended the Daily Offices on Sundays to include sermons and prayers.

The ELCE ministerium is also using video conferencing to consult with one another, Chairman Samiec noted, to “learn from each other in terms of technology, to think collectively about how to go forward and what to do to minimise any ‘digital divides’, and how best to resume public worship if COVID-19 fears still exist.”

The situation also puts a strain on the fiscal well-being of congregations. To that end, the ELCE Executive Council has established a ‘hardship fund’ to help congregations deal with financial stresses.

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For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

COVID-19 and ILC churches in Chile, Japan, and the United States

Pastors, vicars, and seminarians of the the Confessional Lutheran Church of Chile are offering a daily devotional study online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

WORLD – As the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact people across the globe, member churches of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) are stepping forward to provide physical and spiritual care to the people in their nations.

The ILC is launching a new series to highlight the response of our churches to COVID-19. Despite challenges, the proclamation of the Gospel continues. Despite difficulties, the needy are still provided for in body and soul. Please, remember the churches of the International Lutheran Council in prayer as they minister to their flocks around the world.

In this first post, we consider the response of three member church bodies in Chile, Japan, and the United States.

Chile

The first case of COVID-19 in Chile was reported on March 1, 2020. Since then, the country has reported nearly 8,000 cases of COVID-19, with 92 deaths. In response to the crisis, the government has closed borders and imposed quarantines or lockdowns on several regions.

As the situation began to unfold, the Confessional Lutheran Church of Chile—Iglesia Luterana Confesional de Chile (ILC-Chile)—moved to offer devotional resources online. The church offers daily devotional videos to “assist our members with the comfort of the Holy Word,” notes ILC-Chile Bishop Omar Kinas. The series features pastors, vicars, and seminary students, as a way of involving all members in the church response. The church is also offering group Bible Studies and live-streams of the Divine Service of the Word online, as well as sending activities for children.

“We understand that this is not the ideal way,” Bishop Kinas says of the online outreach. “However, we have taken advantage of technology in order to continue proclaiming the Holy Gospel.” Pastors also continue to offer private communion to members while following necessary safeguards and social-distancing measures.

The church is ministering to others in physical ways too. Donations through the churches’ Mercy Boxes have helped the CLCC to provide material support to those who have lost their jobs or are unable to leave their homes for work.

Local health authorities were also invited to use the chapel office in Cerror la Cruz, Valparaiso for a flu vaccination campaign to protect the elderly. And the local pastor’s wife, Jessica, has made and donated hundreds of masks to protect people during the pandemic.

“Although this pandemic has brought several changes and challenges, it is undoubtedly a great opportunity for our church to share with others the Crucified and Risen One, who has carried all our illnesses and bought us everlasting life,” notes Bishop Kinas. “We pray for the whole Church of Christ, that we may set our sights on the one has already destroyed the evil one, sin, and death, and has given us eternal salvation.”

Japan

Good Friday service at St. Paul Lutheran in Asahikawa, Japan.

Japan has reported more than 7,600 cases of COVID-19 and 143 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. The country declared a month-long state of emergency on April 7 for Tokyo and six other prefectures.

The emergency has forced the Japan Lutheran Church (JLC) to find alternate means of reaching its members. “Due to the declaration of a state of emergency, many churches have cancelled all gatherings, including Sunday worship,” notes JLC President Shin Shimizu. “However, some churches are distributing written sermons and handouts to church members regularly. Others are posting worship services on their websites.”

The situation is a challenge, President Shimizu explains, but we find comfort in the words of Scripture. He quotes from 2 Chronicles 7:14—“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

United States of America

The United States has recorded more than 600,000 cases of COVID-19 so far, with more than 25,000 deaths. The country has closed borders, while different states have imposed different measures, including shelter-in-place orders and quarantines.

The American Association of Lutheran Churches (AALC) reports that nearly every aspect of their ministry has been affected by the pandemics. “We have adapted our routines to tend to the sheep of Jesus Christ and do the work of an evangelist based on national, state, and local regulations,” says AALC President Pastor Curtis Leins.

AALC Pastor Jamie Strickler leads worship on Easter Sunday at a Drive-In Service at St. Timothy Lutheran in Charlestone, West Virginia.

He notes that some pastors live in jurisdictions that allow for “drive-in” services, with pastors leading worship and preaching to parishioners in their cars, with the help of sound systems. Many pastors are also recording worship services (either the full liturgy or scaled-down orders of worship) which are then shared online. Some are leading Bible studies through live-streaming, pre-recorded messages, podcats, video-blogs, and virtual classrooms.

“This is not to say that this time is free of frustration for our pastors,” President Pastor Leins explains. In particular, he says, “it is difficult and sometimes impossible to offer pastoral care to the dying and to those who mourn in these times of extreme limits.”

“We have continued to remind our pastors that the virtual experience is no substitute for direct pastoral contact, such as a phone call or a visit with proper precautions,” President Pastor Leins continues. The church has also issued a letter to its ministerium discouraging virtual celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar.

The AALC published an electronic copy of its national periodical, The Evangel, before Holy Week to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic while also offering the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.

In addition to spiritual support, local churches are offering practical care where possible as well. One congregation, for example, has lent its church van to transport meals for home-bound school children.

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For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

Hope in the Valley of Dry Bones: A Holy Week Message from the ILC General Secretary

The Vision of Ezekiel: Francisco Colliantes, 1630.

In 2020, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter have taken place within the context of a worldwide Coronavirus pandemic. Liturgical practice the world over have undergone unprecedented challenges. Government regulations have closed churches, reduced others to a handful of worshippers, with many turning to live streaming via the internet to reach congregants confined in their homes. Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill, General Secretary of the International Lutheran Council, sends the following message of hope to Christians around the world.

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The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones… Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel.” Behold, they will say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold I will open your graves and raise you from you graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the Land of Israel… and I will place you in your own land.” – Ezekiel 37:1, 11-12, 14

 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

On every continent people are hunkering down in their homes as the Corona Virus spreads around the world, leaving many people sick and many dead—a global valley of bones. Many people in post-Christian and increasingly secularized nations are living in fear and anxiety, without hope. Even if they dodge the bullet this time, the awareness of the fragility of life and their human mortality has made a deep-rooted impression.

For Christians, however, the Word of God brings hope, a sense of calm, and even joy. All three Scripture readings appointed for the 5th Sunday in Lent bring hope: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:1-11; and John 11:1-53. What Ezekiel proclaimed to ‘dead’ exiles in Babylon, what St. John wrote in his Gospel about the resurrection of Lazarus and St. Paul’s in his Epistle to the Romans is that God gives life to the dead. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies…” (Romans 8:11).

What we read in all three Scripture readings is indeed of great comfort as we find ourselves in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. Of course, this is nothing new. We have heard and confessed and sung about the resurrection long before the coming of the Corona Virus, and we will be doing so again long after COVID-19 is dead and gone.

Just nine days ago I brought the Lord’s Supper to an elderly homebound lady. The widespread effects of the Coronavirus were already being reported nonstop on TV news and talk radio. The dear lady told me she was concerned about the effect all of this was having on the children. When I asked her to elaborate, she explained that her twelve-year-old granddaughter was worried about the pandemic and recently asked mother, “Am I going to die?” As our conversation continued it was wonderful to learn that the girl’s parents were faithful Christians and to hear how her mother answered her: “All people will die one day, but do not worry because Jesus will always be with you no matter what happens, and you will be raised again to eternal life.”

I told the grandmother that her granddaughter was blessed to have such parents and a grandmother who faithfully teach their children about Jesus Christ and teach them how to pray. In times like these it is absolutely essential for children to know and pray the Lord’s Prayer, the Creeds, and Luther’s Morning and Evening Prayers, not to mention the well-loved classic: “Now I lay me down to sleep I pray Thee Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray Thee Lord my soul to take.”

When the Lord gave Ezekiel the vision of the field of dry bones, Ezekiel was with Israel in captivity in Babylon. Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed. The glory of the Lord had departed from the Temple. It was utterly devastating for God’s people. To make matters worse, their Babylonian captors tormented the Israelites demanding that they sing songs from their homeland, from Zion. But instead of singing they wept. Psalm 137:1-4 captures their anguish:

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captures required of us songs, And our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?”

Their refusal to sing was not simply a stubborn protest against being forced to entertain the Babylonians with national folk songs from their homeland. These were the Lord’s songs, namely liturgical music intended for use in the Temple liturgy. The Temple was destroyed. The liturgy and sacrifices which proclaimed and delivered the Lord’s eternal steadfast love, mercy, and forgiveness of sins had ceased to exist. God had abandoned the holy place on which he put his Name and mercy… but He did not abandon his people. The Lord sent His prophet Ezekiel to proclaim an “oracle of hope” to uplift His despairing people. The Lord showed Ezekiel a vision of dry dead bones which he was to use as the basis for his message of hope.

Following all the great battles of history, valleys were littered with the remains of soldiers slaughtered in combat, whose bones were picked clean by predators and bleached white by the sun. The same could be seen along the valley roads where women, children, and the elderly were forcibly marched by their captors, with thousands dying along the way. Every generation, including ours, has their valley of bones.

In Ezekiel’s vision, Israel’s exile is compared to a valley of dead dry bones. Dead bones cannot make themselves alive physically or spiritually. But the Lord, who breathed the divine breath of life into Adam promises to do so with his people. “Thus, says the Lord God to these bones: Behold I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD (37:5,12,14). “I will do it,” declared the Lord, and He did it. But the children of Israel had to spend 70 years in captivity before they were released and allowed to return home, rebuild Jerusalem, rebuild the Temple, and resume the beautiful temple liturgy where they would again sing the Lord’s songs.

Today, churches all over the world stand empty and silent due to the Coronavirus and government regulations. Some are closed completely. Some allow only the pastor and a handful to gather. The thought of forbidding the Lord’s people from entering this holy place during Lent and Holy Week is heart-wrenching enough, but the idea of our churches standing devoid of the worshippers on Easter Sunday is even more heart-breaking. Thank God what is happening here today is not as extreme as the 70-year Babylonian exile. We anticipate that today’s interruption will only be a matter of weeks or months at most before things get back to normal, not seventy years.

Nevertheless, these unsettling days serve as a wakeup call for times when we are tempted to take the Lord’s divine services of Word and Sacrament for granted. For the Israelites, being cut off from the Temple liturgy was to be cut off from God’s gracious and life-giving presence—it was to be dead spiritually, real death, ultimate and eternal death. Thus, Israel confessed, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; and we are clean cut off” (37:11). This is a repentance which understands that apart from God’s mercy, all hope is lost—there is nothing we can do. It is up to the Lord to restore spiritual life, and this requires a divine act comparable to bringing the dead back to life. Thus, the Lord God commanded Ezekiel: “Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people.”

Today’s events help us to understand how devastating the Babylonian Captivity was for God’s people. But they remained God’s people because he remained their God and did not abandon them. God has not and will abandoned us. In confessing our sins, we feel sick to the bone; a sense of hopelessness seeps in as we cut ourselves of from God and one another. But the Lord promised to open the tombs in which we have sealed ourselves with our sins and cut ourselves off from him.

Lazarus didn’t raise himself from the dead. He just lay rigid and alone in the horrible stench of death while his family grieved deeply wondering why their good friend Jesus allowed it to happen. The disappointment and grief among Lazarus’ sisters and friends was so deep that seeing it, Jesus Himself wept. However, the grief gave way to joy when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.

Today we find ourselves between a sick and dying world and the celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. In normal times, our beautiful churches around the world are filled on Easter, overflowing with worshippers, song, and joyous exclamations of alleluia. But even where the virus persists and churches remain closed or restricted to a handful of people, we still look forward to the resurrection with hope and joy.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

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Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill preached the above sermon on the Fifth Sunday in Lent in 2020 at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, the large neogothic mother church in downtown Fort Wayne, Indiana. By law, only ten worshippers were allowed to gather in the beautiful sanctuary built in 1889 and capable of holding more than 1,000 worshippers. Despite this restriction, the service was live-streamed over the internet where it has received more than 1,000 views.