Prepare Now to Return to Church

Sunday of the Adoration of the Holy Cross, March 22, 2020
Hebrews 4:14-5:6; Mark 8:34-9:1

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

All across the world right now, this Sunday of the Adoration of the Cross is being marked either with darkened churches or with churches whose doors are closed and are manned by just a skeleton crew, which is the case here today in Emmaus. I am not going to debate whether this is necessary. You can certainly find that debate all over the Internet right now.

This state of affairs is nonetheless where we are, and as we all struggle to be obedient to our bishops and our civil authorities, the question for most of us is not “Should this be how it is?” but rather “Given that this is how it is, what do we do now?” And it is that latter question that I wish to address today.

Today, halfway through the six weeks of Lent, we lift up the Cross of Christ and venerate it because of the Lord’s conquest of death and His coming to establish justice on earth, to bring down and punish the wicked and to lift up and vindicate the oppressed. And a lot of us are probably feeling like this rings a little hollow at the moment because of how we feel at being severely restricted in our lives, even for most of us to the point of not being able to worship God in His holy temple and to commune His Body and Blood.

Given our circumstances, however, I say this: Let us take up even this cross and join it to our Lord’s cross. Generations of Christians before ours have taken up the cross of martyrdom, the cross of persecution, the cross of the Black Death, the cross of exile, the cross of famine, the cross of foreign invasion, and so on, and joined them all to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I will not belittle today’s cross in any way, even if it may seem less extreme than those other crosses, because it is the cross given now to us. No cross is a lesser one if it is from the Lord, being permitted by Him for our repentance, for our holiness.

The Call to the Couch

So the question, then, is how exactly we take up this cross? I have seen it said that to take up this cross we need merely sit on the couch for a few weeks. This glib response makes no sense to me for two reasons: First, it is deeply inconsiderate of those who are already being devastated financially by the economic suppression that is now happening as a result of our restrictions. Not everyone has months of reserves saved up, and not everyone can afford to stay at home for even a week.

But second, the call to sit on the couch is not merely a call to a holding pattern, waiting until we can get back to normal, but it is rather a call to begin a different way of life. What do I mean by that? Let me explain.

Most of us probably think of what we choose to do and the kind of people we are to be the result of conscious choices of conviction. I believe something, so I act on that belief. I believe something, so I am the kind of person who aligns with that belief.

But that is not usually how human beings work. That is not to say that belief does not affect who we are and how we behave, but the influence flowing in that direction is actually pretty rare.

Rather, the way it works most often is this: What I do affects who I am and what I believe, especially when it is something I do over and over.

In other words, it is my habits, my repeated actions, that influence how I see the world and who I am.

In the situation in which we find ourselves, this means that if I choose today to sit on the couch, and then I choose tomorrow to sit on the couch, and then the same thing the day after, then I am becoming the kind of person who sits on the couch. I will come to believe over time that sitting on the couch is the normal thing to do.

What you do every day trains you to be who you are.

Now, you might say to yourself, “It doesn’t matter how long this social distancing goes on, I will definitely be back in church when it’s over!” And that might be true.

But what if you discover that watching services on live-stream is not too bad? After all, you can stay home, have breakfast, maybe even watch in your pajamas. And if you duck out during the sermon, no one will even notice.

And what if you discover that you’re saving a little extra money during this time because the habit you had of bringing your tithes and offerings to church isn’t happening? After all, it sure is nice to have that 10% back in your pocket, and surely the church can get on without you. Shouldn’t all this online stuff be free, anyway?

And what if you discover that going without the Eucharist doesn’t seem so bad, anyway, that you still can love God without it, still can believe in Jesus without it? And do I really have to commune every week? Can’t the priest just bring it to me once in a while instead? It’s the same, right?

Now, you may not identify with any of those ways of thinking right now (though it’s very clear to me as a pastor that some people have thought in those ways for a long time already), but if you simply put your spiritual life on hold during this time, you will gradually begin to feel pressure to think in exactly those ways. Why? Because whatever it is you do every day is what is “normal” to you, and then when something pushes against that “normal,” it will be easiest to try to reestablish the “new normal” again.

That is why, even outside this current crisis, when you miss church a couple times, it’s far easier to do it some more. That’s why, when you decide to have a snack in the evening a couple times, before you know it, you find that you’re doing it every night. That’s why, when you decide to blow off the needs of your spouse or kids or neighbors a few times, it gets to the point that you don’t even think about it any more. That is how human beings work.

The Call to the Cross

So, what do we do? How do we make sure that we take up this cross in such a way that it is in fact joined with the Lord’s cross? How do we prepare now for the return to church?

First, it is utterly critical that you are practicing daily prayer, at least every morning and, God willing, every night, as well. It is hard to establish this habit, I know, but do it now. You may not be able to participate in the sacrifice of the altar right now, but you can offer up the sacrifice of praise and asking for forgiveness and mercy at home. And pray those pre-communion prayers even if you don’t know when you’ll receive communion next. I’m serious about that.

Second, if you live with a family, pray together. Read the Scriptures together. Talk about your faith together. Right now, the community with whom they usually do these things cannot come together. But you are together. Do this together.

Third, set a schedule to practice care for your neighbor—your family first, then the people near you whom God has given you. Check in with them, ask what they need. If you don’t make that into a habit now, you will be neglecting someone God gave you—and you should not be surprised if, when you are in need, you are also being neglected.

Fourth, figure out a way to be consistent in giving to God both through the church and also through other worthy outlets. Mail it in, give through PayPal, automatic bank draft—whatever it is you need to do. If you neglect this habit now, then you will be the kind of person who is not giving as God commanded. Your belief in supporting good works will be eroded by your failure to support good works.

Finally, connect to church life in whatever way you can right now—live-streaming services, reading or listening to good things sent out from church leaders, spiritual books, etc. These things are not substitutes for being there in-person, but they are at least stop-gaps for the moment.

In short, develop habits of worship, education and outreach that you can do at home and that shape your daily life.

If you do these things, then when the time comes to return to church, it will be with rejoicing. If you do not do these things, then there is a very strong possibility that you will have become conditioned by the “new normal,” becoming the kind of person who believes that the norms for Christian life in the New Covenant are not actually really the norms. I mean, I can love God and believe in Him anywhere, right?

The Call to Continue

I will leave you finally with this thought: Here now is where taking up this cross is not actually just a temporary set of measures to get us through until we can come back to church. Here now is where taking up this cross actually is going to make us stronger, holier, more Christ-like people. How?

When we do come back to church, keep doing these things. That’s right. Keep up the daily worship at home, keep up talking about the faith at home, keep up outreach to your family and neighbors at home, keep up your giving to Christ at home, keep up connecting to good materials at home.

Why? Because that is what we should have been doing all along anyway! This crisis we are now in has revealed to many of us—including myself—how weak we are on the home front of the spiritual battle. Now is the time to become strong. Now is the time to sanctify our homes. Now is the time to commend ourselves and each other and our whole life unto Christ our God.

Don’t wait. Don’t let the couch become the new normal.

And when we can all come together again, having been strengthened in the might and power of the Holy Spirit we will have invited so deeply into our lives, we will come together with a shout, with a voice of glory and joy that we are together again in the presence of the Lord, communing together and sharing all things together.

To our Lord Jesus Who took up His cross for us and who gives us our cross, with His eternal Father and His all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

13 comments:

  1. Dear Father Damick, thank you for your wise and encouraging words. They give me strength and hope and guidance during these challenging times. May God bless us all. Aliki Asikis McDonold

  2. Another way to look at what this disruption to our ‘normal’ spiritual and ecclesial lives might lead to:

    What if it prompts us to face up to one of Fr. Thomas Hopko’s famous “challenges”? Perhaps it will enable us to ask the hard questions of the inheritance of a pattern of parish life that is the legacy of post-Constantine Empire and the Orthodox village of post-Empire Slav/Ottoman cultural hegemony and stability, a pattern we have thrown haphazardly on top of our modern cultural and secular lives.

  3. Dear Father,
    Even as I started out by livestreaming the liturgy, praying daily, etc., the internet delivers no shortage of distractions that are all the more tempting, now that there is no physical community, and I see myself drifting in the wrong direction. So this sermon serves as a reminder to me of the seriousness of the matter.

    1. What I found really helpful for the streams is to make it full screen on whatever you are using and to use headphones.
      I really need to figure out a way to get the Facebook Live streams to work with the TV. If they were done on YouTube it was be far easier.

  4. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

    You’ll forgive me for starting with a quote from “The Lord of the Rings.” It seems to me, however, that hobbits are a great example of living in quarantine. Their lives seemed “simple” to all those who observed them. Merely agrarian routine filled with comforts. But it was these halflings who, when called to endure struggle and hardship, bore up under it far beyond expectations. For they indeed did not merely sit on the couch day in and day out. They lived!

    The call to take up our cross is indeed a call to die to self — for so whoever shall lose his life for Christ… But it is also a call to live; TRULY live! For so whoever shall lose his life for Christ… will find it!

    Your advice here in five things to do is well met indeed. May we all continue to walk daily in faithfulness laying down our lives to gain true life. For our journey does not begin when we can “leave the Shire”; indeed it has already begun. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

  5. My wife and I are new catechumens at Saints Constantine and Helen Church in Honolulu, Our mayor has just issued a stay at home order effective thru April 30. I am praying that our first Holy Week and Pascha won’t have to be conducted over the internet. Blessing to all.

  6. “And when we can all come together again, having been strengthened in the might and power of the Holy Spirit we will have invited so deeply into our lives, we will come together with a shout, with a voice of glory and joy that we are together again in the presence of the Lord, communing together and sharing all things together.”

    Father, thank you for these words of hope!

    I was surprised over how lost I felt over not being able to go to my local Church this weekend, to meet with Christ and His Body because of this virus. I hope I will be able to stay true to Christ and not put my cross down during these trying times. Please, keep encourage us even if it will be a long time before this will come to an end.
    God bless you

    1. If God wills that this passes for me, I will be glad when they say unto me. Let us go into the house of the Lord.
      If God wills that this does NOT pass for me, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.”
      To Him be all glory, honor, and praise NOW and forever and to the Ages of Ages.

  7. Thanks. I like to think of the time as being in the wilderness like hermits. After all we must not interact with someone not living in our own household, those of us in countries under Lock Down especially.

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