COVID-19 and ILC Churches in Germany and Nicaragua

WORLD – Lutherans across the world continue to respond to the COVID-19 crisis with spiritual and physical care. In this post, we highlight the response of member churches of the International Lutheran Council in Germany and Nicaragua.

Germany

Bethlehem Church in Hanover, Germany live-streams the divine service.

Germany has reported 183,564 cases of COVID-19, with 8,605 deaths. The country acted quickly to enact lockdown measures after the disease began to spread, leading to the closure of schools, the closure of national borders, and the imposition of curfews and stay-home orders in various parts of the country. Restrictions were also placed on church gatherings. Recently, some of these pandemic containment measures have begun to be relaxed.

From the beginning of the crisis, Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (Selbständige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche – SELK) has worked hard to provide continued pastoral care to members in unusual circumstances. A special crisis group was struck to provide pastors and congregations guidance and assistance about how to deal with the situation, as well as offering comfort and spiritual guidance. Churches moved quickly to offer services and other programs online, as well as offering services over the phone for older parishioners. Devotional resources for holding home services have also been made available.

“All the things that developed in our congregations with the various online services are a cause for much gratitude,” noted SELK Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt. “How many possibilities are suddenly arising in our congregations which⁠—without this insidious virus⁠—we would likely never have thought of.” Bishop Voigt is also Chairman of the International Lutheran Council.

The SELK was clear from the beginning the Lord’s Supper could not be consecrated online. Some churches have been able to resume in-church services since May 17, albeit with reduced numbers of parishioners, so pastors are working hard to administer communion to members who have gone without—sometimes conducting two or three services each Sunday in order to accommodate the reduced number of participants allowed to attend each service.

In this time of turmoil, Bishop Voigt encourages Christians to take comfort in the words of Jesus Christ: “I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart: I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

“In these days,” Bishop Voigt comments, “may this promise be our strong consolation.”

Nicaragua

The ILSN shares a message for Easter Sunday via social media.

Nicaragua currently reports 370 cases of COVID-19 and 35 deaths. The country has refrained from mandating the social distancing and quarantine measures common in other parts of the world.

The Lutheran Church Synod of Nicaragua (Iglesia Luterana Sínodo de Nicaragua – ILSN) reports widespread concerns that there may be more sick than currently verified by testing. In the midst of this unease, the church is offering spiritual support and guidance to people as they are able.

The ILSN took steps early on to keep members and their communities safe, suspending normal church meetings and activities. Large gatherings were suspended, with pastors instead meeting with small groups of people at a time to administer the means of grace. They have also distributed printed devotional material as well as offering services and messages online.

Some programs have had to be suspended for the time being, including the church’s large education program for children. The children’s feeding program, however, continues to be offered by deaconesses and volunteers, as it supports people in some of the poorest parts of the country. The program has been adapted to follow appropriate safety guidelines: rather than gathering children together in church buildings for meals, prepackaged food items are instead being delivered to the houses of impoverished children and families.

“We see how blessed our deaconesses in Nicaragua are in their dedication and service to the poor in their communities,” notes a recent update on the ILSN situation via The Canadian Lutheran magazine. “Their faith has opened their eyes to the needs of the people, and has inspired and led them to find ways to address those needs, even in the face of a daunting pandemic.”

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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 Russia and Togo

Participating in Easter worship online, with ELCR General Secretary Pastor Mikhail Ivanov broadcasting from St. Mary Cathedral in Saint-Petersburg, Russia.

WORLD – The member churches of the International Lutheran Council continue to reach out in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today we highlight the work of ILC member churches in Russia and in Togo.

Russia

Russia now reports 187,859 cases of COVID-19 as well as 1,723 deaths so far. Different areas have enacted quarantines and lockdown procedures, with many citizens ordered to self-isolate, and a do-not-work order runs at least through May 11, 2020.

Rev. Igor Alisov of St. Trinity in Moscow prepares to lead evening devotions online.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria (ELCR) has moved much of its work online during this situation. On a daily basis, several congregations (and two dozen on Sundays) are live-streaming or publishing record videos of worship services, theology classes, Bible studies, confirmation classes, devotions, and more. Each week, Bishop Ivan Laptev and General Secretary Mikhail Ivanv go live online, answering viewers’ questions.

“The Church is exploring a new missions field in the internet,” the church reports. “The Word of God has come to every home. And even secular specialists—through the expertise in internet technologies—are becoming involved in the work of Christ.”

Other ongoing activities include online meetings of youth and the publication of Bible classes for children. The Theological Institute has implemented distance education programs.

The church is also reaching out with practical care as well, providing support for those in need of material assistance who have no other means of support.

“We are longing to meet with one another again, and with Christ in the Sacrament of Holy Communion,” the church reports. In the meantime, “we continue to pray, praise, and worship together as we joyfully celebrate the Easter season.”

Togo

In Togo, 145 cases of COVID-19 have been reported, as well as 10 deaths. In order to prevent the spread of the disease, several official measures have been taken, with gatherings restricted to 15 people are fewer.

Rev. Remy Lari Lamboni holds a worship service with five members of his parish in Sankpong, Togo.

The Lutheran Church of Togo (Église Luthérienne du Togo – ELT) faces a difficult situation ministering to its members during this crisis. “The coronavirus pandemic has affected our church negatively,” notes President Kolani Lambon Lare. “The public celebration of Holy Communion, Baptism, weddings, conventions, Sunday schools, and church meetings are all stopped.”

In remote areas, some pastors have been permitted to hold small gatherings of five to ten people. During these services, church members are asked to practice social distancing, wear masks, and wash with hand sanitizer. Some pastors are also able to provide baptism and holy communion in small family settings.

The church has no website, complicating their outreach to church members. The ELT has turned to WhatsApp to share devotions with members every Wednesday and Sunday. President Lare has also encouraged members to study their Bibles at home, and to pray against the pandemic.

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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 Ghana and Haiti

ELCG President John Donkoh leads evening devotions online.

WORLD – Lutherans continue to respond to the coronavirus pandemic spreading around the globe. In this report, we focus on the response of ILC member churches in Ghana and Haiti.

Ghana

Ghana has reported 2,719 cases of COVID-19, with 18 deaths. In response to the crisis, the country banned all public gatherings on March 15, including worship services. Several regions have been gone into partial lockdown or quarantine.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ghana (ELCG) has urged its members to follow all government protocols and remain at home. At the same time, the church is working to identify members at risk because of the lockdowns. “We note that in some communities, the majority of people live from hand to mouth, and cannot stay at home and isolate themselves, because that would bring about their swift starvation,” notes ELCG President John Donkoh. Thanks to support from The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, the ELCG is rolling out a range of various activities to reach out to the needy and less privileged in their communities.

COVID-19 awareness material shared online from the ELCG’s National Lutheran Youth Executives.

The church is also launching an interactive online program in collaboration with the Lutheran Media Ministry, to keep faith alive for youth, women, compassion children, and their parents. Each Sunday, regional pastors preach in turns live via Facebook, and sermons are translated into local Ghanaian languages where broadcasts are taking place. At the same time, the church encourages its members to also engage in personal study of Scripture, to pray, and to continue studying the Catechism.

The Lutheran Media Ministry Studio in Accra is also assisting with Christ-centered programs to share the good news of Jesus with the whole country. From Maundy Thursday through Easter, the church presented a series of messages on suffering, death, and the resurrection of Christ to the nation via FM radio.

The church is also responding to questions of faith and fear from the general public as well as major media on various theological topics.

“This is a very challenging time, but we don’t lose heart because Jesus has overcome the world,” says ELCG President Donkoh. “The period of lockdown has been uncomfortable for many…. People are grieving that life has not worked out as they had hoped.”

“We seem to be living in a broken world,” he continues. “A world with bad news. COVID-19 is indeed disorganizing our normal life.” And yet, he says, “the Holy Spirit through the blessed Word relieves us from the fear of death, and gives us the power to triumph over this great and final foe. Through the great power of the Gospel—the good news of Jesus’ blessed death for those who are subject to death, and His glorious resurrection from the dead—we are gifted with hope in this world.”

Haiti

The country of Haiti has reported 100 cases of COVID-19 and 11 deaths so far. To arrest the spread of the disease, the Haitian government has restricted gatherings of more than 10 people, including at churches.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Haiti (Église Évangélique Luthérienne d’Haiti – ELCH) is reaching out to people during this difficult situation, which is aggravated by recent instability in the region. The church reports that a lack of infrastructure in the nation also creates challenges; a majority of the population, for example, do not have access to electricity.

The ELCH is relying on WhatsApp—a form of communication in widespread use in the country—to distribute messages, sermons, and other information to congregation members. But this is often an imperfect solution, as those without regular access to electricity may not be able to read or hear sermons until several days later.

Visitations are also prohibited in order to prevent the spread of disease, effectively preventing pastors from visiting the sick.

“In this time of distress, we focus on God,” notes ELCH Secretary Thomas Bernard. “As we are battling with this pandemic, God is the only one who can save us with His message of grace and forgiveness. As Christian leaders, we encourage our members to remain faithful in times of suffering because through suffering we may be equipped to comfort others. We know that even in times of suffering, ‘God is still our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in time of trouble.’”

ELCH President Eliona Bernard sends greetings to Lutherans around the world, encouraging pastors and church leaders: “May our Lord continue to equip and strengthen you all so that you continue to faithfully serve His flocks!”

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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 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.

Lutheran Resources for COVID-19

WORLD – As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, many member churches of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) are providing resources for Christians in the midst of this crisis.

The following churches and associated agencies have set-up dedicated webpages with free resources for churches, families, and individuals affected by the pandemic. Additional resources in other languages may be available directly from other member churches of the ILC.

Readers may also wish to read Martin Luther’s open letter “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague” available in English here. You may also read a letter from ILC Chairman Hans-Jörg Voigt here.

ENGLISH

FINNISH (SUOMI)

GERMAN (DEUTSCH)

PORTUGUESE (PORTUGUÊS)

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A Pastoral Letter on COVID-19 from the ILC Chairman

WORLD – As countries around the world grapple with the pandemic caused by the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19, the International Lutheran Council presents this pastoral letter from ILC Chairman, Rev. Hans-Jörg Voigt D.D. (Hannover), Bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany.

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In View of Human Impotence in Regard to the Spread of the Pandemic We Pray to God, the Creator and Keeper of Mankind

In Christ my dear Brothers and Sisters!

The numbers of those infected by the coronavirus COVID-19 are increasing daily. The transmission of the virus seems to spread exponentially and with it the number of those who have died.

The media are reporting extensively about all developments in the coronavirus crisis. This enables us to get all necessary information in this regard.

In light of the dangers of becoming infected, many are asking these days whether we can responsibly conduct our public worship services. Especially our celebration of Holy Communion is being questioned in regard to aspects of hygiene.

Our faith assures us that “the healing of the soul also helps the body,” as Martin Luther says of Holy Communion in the Large Catechism. And therefore in faith we properly expect salvation and healing from the Lord’s Supper. But at the same time we need to make good use of a healthy dose of our God-given human reasoning.

Therefore I propose the following for your consideration:

  1. 1. During these days Pastors officiating at confession and the absolution pronounced with the laying on of hands will want to make use of an additional washing of their hands.
  2. 2. Especially while administering the communion chalice these days great care is to be taken.
  3. 3. If you yourself belong to a group especially at risk you could, during the distribution of Holy Communion, restrict your reception to the Body of Christ only and decline to receive from the chalice. In that case you can be fully assured that you receive the entirety of salvation, the fullness of forgiveness, as you partake only of the life-giving body of Christ. Indicate your reception of the consecrated bread only by crossing your arms in front of your chest or by putting your hand in front of your mouth as the chalice is administered.

In some of the larger communities in various countries assemblies have been prohibited, among them the worship services. How are we Christians to deal with such a situation? Are we to “obey God more than man”?

In this case, two Christian “values and essentials” compete with one another: on the one hand the Third Commandment about keeping God’s day holy, and on the other the Fourth Commandment about obedience to lawful authority. In assessing these Christian values, we may reasonably assume that governments and health authorities have not acted on the basis of anti-Christian motives; they were rather moved to act out of care and concern for the population. And all these are restrictions of a temporary nature.

Therefore our obedience to these measure is of considerable importance for Christians. Additionally, none of us know what consequences our keeping the Third Commandment to keep the holy day would have in regard to the possibilities of spreading the infection. And even if I do not belong to a group especially at risk, I should not want to be the source of infection for anyone else. For these reasons I recommend that we follow the rules issued by the authorities and do not conduct public worship services.

Here following let me make some recommendations for such a case:

  • 1. With the assistance of technically savvy parishioners the Pastor could have his sermon recorded electronically and inform the church members about the link
  • 2. Pastors might want to increase their offer of private communion to the members

Obviously, none of this can fully take the place of the parish communion service. This present situation clearly indicates how precious are the means of grace that God presents to us in the worship service.

And this pandemic also show us how dependent we are on God’s help and grace. There let us not grow weary of offering up our fervent prayers.

PRAYER

Lord God, merciful Father, Creator of the world, we commend to you all those who are ill. Send them willing helpers. Grant them relief in their suffering and, if it is your will, let them be healed.

Lord Jesus, on the cross you bore for us all sickness. Strengthen those who serve in hospitals and doctors’ offices. Protect them from being infected. Let them not grow weary in their service to others.

Lord, Holy Spirit, in your mercy turn away further danger to our land and to our world. Limit all harm to our schools, our culture, our economy and politics. Guide the scientists in their work and grant their research success.

O blessed holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit! We thank you for your gracious gifts, your Word, holy Baptism, Absolution and Communion that you to this day so richly distributed. Forgive us when we looked upon these means of grace without full appreciation and gratitude. Maintain among us our worship services, knowing that in them you seek us and lead us to life eternal Amen.

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Translation by Rev. Dr. Wilhelm Torgerson (Windsor, Canada)