For years the call of the pastor has had an element that always plays out behind the scenes, something most people assume a pastor does but never really know what it is about. It is wrapped-up in one of the vows he makes on ordination, the one where he promises to, “Minister faithfully to the sick and dying and demonstrate to the Church a constant and ready ministry centered in the Gospel.” That is, he will go to those who cannot come to the Church (what we usually call shut-ins). He will be the Church in their midst, hear their confession, speak the words of absolution and deliver the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sin.
A constant and ready ministry of the Gospel is not necessarily one the young and healthy would ever even know existed outside of Sunday morning or a mid-week Bible study. But to the sick and dying, to the elderly who no longer drive and are dependent upon the kindness of others, this ministry is a crucial part of their existence. They cannot get to the church. They cannot be there to sing the hymns and confess alongside their brothers and sisters. They cannot climb the stairs of the chancel and kneel at the rail to receive the gifts of life and salvation in the same way as everyone else. So, they rely on the pastor, that occasional arrival of God’s Word into their home to do this great and life affirming work.
Perhaps one of the great blessings of the whole Covid-19 Pandemic is the reducing of everyone to the status of a shut-in. All the sudden, when no one feels comfortable coming to church, when the breath of a brother or sister in Christ is a potential hazard to your health, why then, we begin to invest a little more on the shut-in experience. What can we give them and what can we not give them? What is necessary and crucial and what is falling in love with the novelty of our technology? How much church can we stream into your home and is it still church at that point?
This is the best of all times to be a shut-in, or so we think. For once you are not being overlooked or forgotten. Everyone is scrambling to find out how to do this better, all for the sake of those who newly joined the ranks of the shut-in.
Here is the thing I think we often forget in the conversation of how to get church into the home; something those old shut-ins would have told us if we had asked them (which of course we did not). It is simply that there is no church without a communion of the saints, without a fellowship gathered around Word and Sacrament. If the means of grace are absent the Church becomes another form of entertainment or self-help project. It can be good, it can certainly be a blessing, it can keep your mind occupied and lift your spirit, but there is a tangible reality to the Church. It is not only heard but seen and smelled and tasted and touched.
So, unfortunately, we find the renaissance of the shut-in is not a renaissance at all but a continuation of what has always been. It turns out those who long for me to bring them the gifts are now cut-off from my feet and hands and mouth which bring it to them. They are in lockdown away from the gifts they long to receive. For as great as our technology can become, it will not replace the community of the faithful. Our longing for what we had ought to hurt, it ought to be a stinging pain. That is the way it goes. This is the nature of the thing. It is what the Church’s shut-ins have been saying all along, we were just not listening.