Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.Matthew 22:21, Mark 12:17, Luke 20:25
Yesterday, I had a bizarre experience that can serve quite well as sign of what is happening among the people of God these days. Now, the one caveat I give is this is California, your state may be quite different in how it approached the treatment of churches throughout the whole pandemic/lockdown situation. Anyway, on to my story.
In my congregation, we have done whatever we can to keep our doors open throughout this whole ordeal. We did not try and make some grand political point of defying county health orders, we were not interested in being on the front page of the local paper, but we were going to do what we had to in order to take care of our own. So, the Word is proclaimed, and the gifts are given as together we still sing the praises of our Lord. This has done some interesting things to the congregation. Those who continue to come are eager and somewhat proud of their newfound defiant streak attached to being part of the Body of Christ. But those who do not feel safe gathering together feel left-out and cut-off from the body. In an attempt to correct this, about once a month I offer and day where people can sign up for individual or family unit communion services and we run them through the day so they can still receive the goods. Yesterday was one of those days.
Now, I had some free time in between these mini-services and, as it happened, during one of these little breaks there was a knock on my door. It was a lady who wanted to talk about joining the church. Her church (a different denomination) had kept their doors closed for the duration with no real sign of being open any time soon. Sure, there was the streaming services and such, but she wanted more. She wanted the fellowship, the gathering of the people of God, and she was not alone (I have had similar talks with other seekers of a speakeasy church). In her case, this caused her to examine more closely the teachings of her church and, the more she looked, the more she was concerned. It was a place which talked a lot about love, but that love seemed unhinged form the Word of God and, in the end, left her all alone.
As soon as we finished our conversation, I had to rush back into the sanctuary for the next communion service. In the service, another saint received the gifts and heard the Benediction, and she began to tear up a little. I invited her to talk, which she gladly accepted. I piously thought it would be a conversation about how much she missed this and how she was hopeing to return soon to regular worship, but that was not the source of the tears. She was frustrated, even mad, at her church and her pastor.
She was upset that her church had not simply done what the government had asked. She was upset it seemed okay to defy the law of our state. She said the government is there for our protection, to keep us safe, and help us get through this together. To go outside those bounds was wrong and unloving. Did we not care about the safety of others? Did we think it was not necessary to do whatever we could to protect someone else? While she loved and missed her church, some part of her was upset and deeply troubled that her church seemed to be indifferent to the call to love one another.
I could not help but think of the lady who had just left my office, who was searching for the unique love of God rooted in a fellowship of believers. These two could not be more opposite, so it seemed. And their timing displays the actual messy struggle which is so commonplace these days. Saint Paul reminds us how there is no authority except from God and even our government officials are His ministers. Yet, all the conversations about our rights and duties do not really clear up our current situation.
Perhaps a better question to ask is, what does it mean for the government authorities to teach us how to love? This, I think, is a better starting point for the conversation. Is this what they are called to do? Can we trust them? Should we?