Bishop’s COVID-19 Notice #3, March 24, 2020

“Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”Luke 10:25b, 27
In the midst of a crisis beyond our imagination, it’s good to go back to basics:
Love God  |  Love your neighbor  |  You will live
Jesus doesn’t say that if you do this you will not get the Coronavirus or that if you get it you will not die. Jesus says that, no matter what happens, if you live your life in love with God and neighbor, you will experience the blessing of living life in all its fullness. I pray this for all of us who try to walk in Jesus’ footsteps.

LOVING GOD WHILE PROTECTING PUBLIC HEALTH
Suspension of In-person Worship and Other Gatherings through April
As your bishop, I am charged to lead and oversee the spiritual and temporal affairs of The United Methodist Church. For the love of God and of our neighbors in every place, today I am directing continued suspension of in-person worship through April 30, 2020. This directive is in effect for United Methodist Churches across the states of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington and anywhere in the Greater Northwest Area served by United Methodist clergy under my supervision. This suspension of worship includes Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter. It applies to both indoor and outdoor worship, weddings and funerals and to all days of the week. Please continue to conduct worship, bible study, prayer groups, and fellowship groups if you can do so remotely.
The virus is spreading in every state in the country in an invisible, vicious cycle. When a person becomes infected, symptoms don’t appear for up to two weeks. If they don’t follow hygiene and social distancing guidelines, they will expose others, who won’t show symptoms for two weeks, while they, in turn, expose others. In order to slow the spread of the virus, and to protect health care systems from being overwhelmed, each of us must take precautions to protect ourselves and others as if we are carrying the virus ourselves and as if the people around us are infected. This is what loving ourselves and our neighbors looks like for the foreseeable future, no matter where you live or whether you know anyone who has been diagnosed with the Coronavirus.

Holy Week and Easter
For churches that are unable or choose not to lead worship remotely, I am working with a team to produce an Easter Sunday worship video resource that can be accessed by local churches at any time and in any place with internet service. It will include a variety of voices, faces, and landscapes from a wide variety of people and places across the greater northwest. We will encourage groups to organize watch parties on Facebook to share Easter together/apart.

Communion
The bishops in the Western Jurisdiction are issuing a letter regarding the online celebration of Holy Communion when we are not “congregating” for worship. This guidance will be available tomorrow.

Closure of Church facilities to all except essential services
All United Methodist church buildings and other facilities are to be closed, effective March 28 to all but essential services and only to the extent allowed by state and local government restrictions or advice. Protective cleaning and hygiene practices are mandatory for all exempt essential services held in United Methodist facilities: 
1. Sanitizing cleaning of the building before and after every use
2. 6 feet social distance among participants
3. Handwashing with soap and water or hand sanitizer
4. Coughing and sneezing into tissues which are discarded into closed containers

LOVING NEIGHBORS
God loves the faithful, so the faithful can love God’s vulnerable children. This pandemic is putting many people at dire risk of disease, isolation, hunger, unemployment, mental illness. Protecting people from the virus is just the beginning. Our calling is to form life-giving relationships with people who are poor, homeless, outcast, unemployed, abused, despised or forgotten. In every place, I challenge you to think creatively about how your church can hear the cries of the needy and respond in ways that offer dignity, self-determination, and hope. Gift cards to grocery stores, drive-through food pantries, volunteers to purchase and deliver food to people with compromising conditions, phone calls, hygiene kits for homeless. If you ask people in your community what they need, they will tell you.

SHARING THE BURDEN IN CONNECTION
We know that this crisis will create hardships for local churches. Church budgets will be strained as people are laid off from their jobs, struggle to buy food and pay rent, and watch their retirement savings plummet. Your conference leaders are planning for reduced income in local churches and at the conference level. My priorities, as we make adjustments are
1. Finding ways to lighten the burden on local churches,
2. Protecting income security for clergy and staff in our churches and conferences,
3. Re-directing resources to relieve financial strain among the most vulnerable

We recognize that funds saved for a rainy day, are needed now. Watch for concrete plans.

LET’S MAKE IT A STANDING DATE…
Every Wednesday morning through April, clergy and lay members of the Annual Conference can join a Zoom webinar with me and other conference leaders at 9 am PDT (10 am MDT, 8 am AKDT). If you want to be part of these gatherings, mark your calendar now for this hour every Wednesday and watch for the links.

May God bless you and take care of you;
May the GOD be kind and gracious to you;
May God look on you with favor and give you peace.


Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky

Pastoral Letter from Bishop Stanovsky: Local Church Responses to COVID-19

For the bread of God…
comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.
John 6:33
Friends and Colleagues in Christ, grace and peace be with you as we navigate the life-changing and uncertain waters of COVID-19. YOU HAVE BEEN AMAZING! As I surfed a variety of online worship experiences these last two Sundays, I saw people singing, praying and preaching their hearts out. My deep gratitude to each of you who is trying something new in response to new and challenging circumstances.
At the same time, we know this isn’t going to work for everyone or every place. There’s nothing wrong if your church decides to send out printed bulletins and sermons or joins another church for its online worship. If you try something and it doesn’t work, ask for help or try something different. There isn’t one right answer for all the circumstances and capacities of our churches. Adaptive leaders don’t follow the crowd, they use the resources they have (or can get) to address the circumstance they face.

You have a lot of Unanswered Questions
Easter. You want to know about Holy Week and Easter observances. I promised I’d let you know by Tuesday, March 24 whether I will extend, amend or lift the suspension of in-person worship in our churches. I will keep that promise. I hoped to have a decision today, but in consultation with other conference leaders and crisis response advisors, I am waiting to make a final decision. It is likely that I will extend the suspension of worship through at least Easter, April 12, 2020 and perhaps beyond, so be prepared for this possibility. We are planning to offer an online alternative to local worship on Easter in case in-person worship continues to be suspended.

General Conference. Annual Conferences. Jurisdictional Conference.
We learned yesterday that May’s General Conference will be postponed. Leaders across the Greater Northwest Area, and the Western Jurisdiction, are closely monitoring the recommendations of public health agencies, with the wellbeing of potential participants our utmost concern. I’ll let you know as soon as decisions are made about Annual and Jurisdictional Conferences.
Finances. We know that we are in the midst of a dramatic economic downturn. We don’t know how long it will last, or how deep it will crash. We know that others are experiencing loss of employment or income. We do know that some local churches are already experiencing reduced income. Your conference leaders are exploring ways we can relieve pressure on local churches, and ways in which we can sustain essential conference functions through this time of scarcity.

SOUL WORK: Caring for relationships and spirits as well as bodies.
We know that human beings are vulnerable to insecurity and isolation as well as to the virus. I share your concerns about how damaging fear, scarcity and isolation can be toward maintaining a balance between 1) protecting and preserving physical health and 2) concern for spiritual health and nurturing relationships. At our best, we see and tend and invite the wholeness of the persons we serve to show up in worship, in prayer, in play – in Church. And we know we aren’t really whole on the phone, or online, or with 6 feet of separation.
How do we deepen our confidence in God and each other and cultivate human community while practicing safe distances from each other? One pastor shifted from saying “social distance” to “physical distance,” emphasizing the importance of drawing near to one another socially, despite physical distance. It’s a challenge. But it’s not impossible. I know you are rising to it and sharing creative ideas: from online worship to drive-up food pantries and parking-lot meet ups for neighborhood prayers.

What hope does God offer?
Your faith in God should be a resource for you in these times.
COVID-19 is causing far-reaching, long-term changes in our daily lives and in the human race, globally. We experience the effects in our daily lives: empty store shelves, restricted activities, unusual awareness of every sneeze, throat tickle, morning cough. How many will lose their jobs? Homes? Pensions? How will we eat? We worry for our parents, grandparents, children. Some families are living in tighter contact than usual and experiencing both the blessings and curses of close community.
The Bible acknowledges that life comes with blessings and curses. Full times and lean times. And the Bible also shows us that bad news isn’t the final word. We are living in the imperfect, uncertain, dangerous, perplexing world God reveals in the Bible.
As Christians, we have a relationship with a Savior who comforts the afflicted, rescues the perishing and welcomes strangers. We know him as a man who lived in a world of human misery, and he went out of his way to reach out across social distances of every kind. We know him as God-with-us. And Jesus invites us to be partners in God’s saving grace by being with others. Jesus knows our strength better than we do. Listen for the voice of the Savior, saying, you are living through a time of trial. I see you. I am not causing this disease. It is part of an imperfect world. I am with you, leading you to be a blessing in a world of hurt.
I’ve asked you not to share Communion for a while. But don’t forget the bread and the cup. Life, given for you. Love, poured out for you. Jesus says, this is me: my body my blood. Cup of Salvation. You don’t need the symbols to experience God’s real presence. Remember God’s love for you. God puts you in the world to love one another.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky

In-Person Worship and Meetings Suspended

Dear Friends,

At the direction of Bishop Elaine Stanovsky (UMC) and Bishop Laurie Larson Caesar (ELCA), all in-person worship and in-person meetings are suspended through March 28 in the interest of public health. You can find more information here: greaternw.org/category/blog/pastoral-letters/ . We will continue to follow the directions of government officials and our denominational leaders regarding how best to keep our communities safe.

Look for more information regarding online worship and other activities on the church Facebook page and the website: hoodriverchurch.org

The health prescription for COVID-19 is social distancing. However, social distancing has its own negative health consequences, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. While meeting face-to-face is impossible, it is all the more important that we find other ways to connect with one another. On Sunday, I’ll be introducing a new plan to keep us connected.

In the meantime, I encourage you to keep in touch with one another and with your friends and family through telephone calls and video chats. Commit to making at least four calls every day. We human beings need connection with one another. It is part of our ministry in this time to reach out telephonically to make those connections happen. It is an expression of the love of God. It is our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Please know that I am always available to talk with you. Let us all pray for wisdom and safety in this time of pandemic.

Blessings,

Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
Spirit of Grace, ELCA UMC

Update

As concerns grow about COVID-19 and authorities are advising more “social distancing,” we are developing plans for how to stay connected in the event we cannot meet together in person. At this point, worship is still scheduled for this Sunday, March 15, but with extra precautions to limit points of contact. You’ll find the latest updates here and on the church’s Facebook page.

I pray that we will all to act wisely, but not fearfully.

Sermon: One Person’s Sin

Sunday 1 March 2020
The First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19

The story from Genesis is really weird. I know it’s a very familiar story, the story of Adam and Eve. It’s one of the best known stories in the bible. It might be the most familiar story in the bible. But that doesn’t keep it from being really weird. We’ve heard the story so many times, and we’ve been told so many times what it’s supposed to mean that we don’t usually notice. But if you take time to notice the details, it is very strange. And it really doesn’t square very well with our usual understandings of God.

The first thing to notice is that the story of Adam and Eve is not the same story as the six days of creation in Genesis 1. They are completely separate and incompatible stories of how God created the universe. The bible actually has several different creation stories, and they don’t agree with each other, but it is quite interesting that it starts off in Genesis 1-3 with two different stories of creation that don’t match. Genesis 1 is the six days of creation. God speaks and creation takes shape. First God separates light and darkness, then God separates ocean and sky, then ocean and land. Then God makes plants. Then God makes the sun and moon and stars. Then God makes fish and birds. Then God makes all the land animals and finally humans, “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” Finally, God takes a day to rest, observing the first Sabbath.

But then in Genesis 2:4, a completely new story of creation starts. And it happens totally differently. God starts by making earth and sky. Then, before there are any plants or animals of any kind, God creates Adam from the earth. Adam is the Hebrew word for human, and the word for earth is adamah. It’s not until after Adam is created that God starts planting a garden, including the two trees: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God tells Adam not to eat from those trees, but Eve still hasn’t been created yet. Then God starts making animals, trying to make something that will be a good helper for Adam, but none of them are right. Finally, God breaks Adam into two parts. The larger part is called ish, or man. The smaller part becomes ishah, or woman. Adam and Eve.

The two stories are completely different. God uses different methods for creating things, and God creates them in a different order. The two stories don’t even agree about the name of God. It’s two different stories, from two different places, from two different time periods, that eventually got collected together and placed side by side here at the beginning of Genesis. That’s not the main point I want to make about the creation story this morning. That’s not what makes the Adam and Eve story weird. But it’s important to know that these are two different stories, and that many of us have gone for years reading through Genesis without noticing.

But let’s move on to the story of Adam and Eve. Even though it appears second, it’s the older of the two stories. It comes to us from a time before monotheism, a time before people believed there was just one God. They thought that their God, Yahweh, the Lord God, was the greatest of the gods, but they thought that there were other gods around as well. That will become important later in the story.

In the passage we have from today, God has already created Adam, but no other land animals. He shows Adam the two trees at the center of the Garden of Eden—the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We might call it the tree of morality. If you eat from the tree, you know the difference between right and wrong. And God tells Adam not to eat from that tree. God says that if he eats from it, he will immediately die.

So let’s stop right there. That is really strange. Why would God not want humans to know the difference between good and evil? Isn’t that kind of the main thing that God is supposed to be about? Isn’t a huge amount of the Bible taken up with God trying to encourage us to do good and to avoid evil, to choose what is right over what is wrong, to live a moral and righteous life? It’s impossible to do that if we can’t even tell the difference between good and evil. So why is God try to prevent humans from getting that knowledge?

It’s also strange because what God tells Adam isn’t actually true. God threatens that if Adam eats from the tree that he will die on the same day. That isn’t true. He does eat from the tree later, but it doesn’t cause him to die. In fact, he goes on to live. In fact, according to Genesis 5, Adam goes on to live for another several hundred years. He doesn’t die until he’s 930 years old. What God says to him is simply not true: “In the day that you eat of it you will die.” It sounds like the kind of over-the-top threat that parents sometimes make. If you do that, I’ll ground you until you’re 30 years old. But it’s definitely not true. Which is very strange.

The reading for today then jumps ahead. In the part that is skipped, Eve is created from Adam’s rib. Which means that she never gets the warning not to eat from the tree at the center of the garden. Presumably she only has a second-hand warning from Adam.

In any case, our next scene opens with Eve and Adam having a conversation with the snake, who is described as the most intelligent animal in the garden. Notice that this snake is never described as the devil. It’s just a snake who is talking with Eve. It reads kind of like a folktale, with talking animals who act like humans. The conversation is between Eve and the snake, but it’s revealed in verse 6 that Adam is there the whole time. He just doesn’t say anything.

So Eve and the snake have a conversation about the sacred tree while Adam stands by listening. The snake asks if God really said that they shouldn’t eat from any tree in the garden, and Eve corrects the snake, that they can eat from any tree except the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that if they eat from that tree, they will die.

But the snake disagrees. The snake says, “You won’t die! God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So here’s another weird thing. The snake is right. What God said about the tree isn’t true, but what the snake says about the tree actually is true. Do you see what I meant about this being a weird story? It is a really weird story.

As we know, both of the humans do eat from the tree, and just as the snake predicted, they don’t die, and they become a little more like God. They gain moral reasoning. They gain he ability to know good from evil. We might say, they grow up. Of course, God is not pleased. God curses the snake and Adam and Eve, and expels them from the garden.

But why exactly? In one sense, it’s obvious. God is upset that they were disobedient. But before they ate the fruit, they didn’t even know right from wrong. It’s not until after they eat the fruit that they realize that it was wrong for them to disobey God. And why did God want to keep them from knowing the difference between right and wrong in the first place? Why wouldn’t God want people to know the difference between good and evil? That’s just very odd.

And the answer to that is given a little later in the story, in Genesis 3:22. It appears that it’s because the gods are jealous of humans. Here’s the quote: “The Lord God said, ‘The human being has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.’”

Remember what I said about this story being older than monotheism, the idea that there is only one God? What seems to be happening in this story is that the gods are afraid of the humans. There are two things that separate animals from gods. The first is their ability to reason. The second is immortality. The humans have begun to bridge the gap. Humans are now able to reason, they have the knowledge of good and evil. The gods know that that is halfway to become a god. If the humans are allowed to eat from the tree of immortality, then they will be just like the gods, and presumably, that means that they would be a threat to the gods. As in the stories of so many other ancient cultures, the gods are afraid that they will be overthrown by a new group of gods, in this case, by humans.

Do you see what I mean that this is a strange story? This is an incredibly familiar story, but it presents an image of God that is so unlike the image of God we are used to. This is a jealous, capricious God who is afraid that if humans learn the difference between right and wrong, they might become a threat to God’s position. I shouldn’t be spending as much time as I am on it, but I just can’t resist pointed out just how strange this story really is. It is ancient, and it is, in many ways, quite foreign.

The Apostle Paul picks up on the themes of the Adam and Eve story in the 5th chapter of his letter to the Romans. He compares the first human being, Adam, with the person he thinks of as the new Adam, Jesus the Christ.

The main detail Paul latches onto is that Adam commits the first sin. In eating from the fruit of the knowledge tree, Adam disobeys God. Oddly, Paul doesn’t mention Eve here. I’m not sure whether to congratulate him for not putting all of the blame on Eve, on the woman—like so many theologians have wrongly done—or whether to be upset that he has written her completely out of the story.

In any case, as Paul understands it, this first sin has a number of consequences. Sin enters the world. Along with sin, death enters the world. In Paul’s understanding, the nature of human life changes in this moment. Humans are now under the control of sin and death. Paul doesn’t think God starts keeping a strict tally sheet of sins until after Moses comes along and reveals God’s law. After all, can people really be held accountable for breaking laws that they have never heard? Nonetheless, they are still subject to death. All of this, Paul argues, follows from Adam’s first sin of disobedience. At some level, Adam can be blamed for every sin that comes after his.

It’s important for Paul to establish that all sin is ultimately the result of just one person’s action because he is about to argue that just one person’s action can break the power of sin and of death. When Jesus is unjustly killed, when he sheds his blood like one of the animal sacrifices that people used to make for sin, he wipes out the power of sin with the many-times greater power of God’s grace. Not only that, but when Jesus is raised from the dead, he destroys the power of death. Just one person, Adam, did something that brought sin and death to everyone. Just one person, Jesus, does something that destroys the power of sin and death, not just for himself, but for everyone.

Now we can argue about just what happened in the garden, or what it is that Adam and Eve did wrong, or whether Paul is really understanding the story about Eden. As I’ve mentioned, it’s a very weird story, and therefore, it can be somewhat confusing.

But no matter what we think about those questions, the point that Paul makes about Jesus is absolutely right. He says it over and over in this passage, no matter how much sin you and I and the entire human family might accumulate, God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ is not just a little bit more powerful, it is many times more powerful. “The free gift of Christ isn’t like Adam’s failure. If many people died through what one person did wrong, God’s grace is multiplied even more for many people with the gift—of the one person Jesus Christ—that comes through grace.”

God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ is enough for me. God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ is enough for you. God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ is enough for the whole human family. In fact, it is many times more than enough. Our sin is dwarfed by God’s grace.

In this season of Lent, when we tend to focus more on our sin, to try to find ways to live more closely with God’s intention for us, it is enormously important to remember God’s grace. You and I can never make up for all of our mistakes, for all of the ways that we have hurt God and one another, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly. But we stand in the power of God’s grace, a grace that is more than sufficient for us. In fact, it is only by God’s grace that we can begin to stand up to the power of sin in our world.

As we reflect on our lives this Lent, we aren’t trying to clean up our lives to make them presentable for God. No, we are accepting God’s grace into our lives, to transform us, a grace that has already conquered our sin, a grace that has already righted the scales, a grace that has already broken even the power of death. Thanks be to God, who in Jesus overwhelms us with grace and leads us forward to share that grace with our world.