We're closed for good.
I say that in faith.
Of course, I don't mean that like it sounds. What I mean is that our campus is closed for a time, but it's closed with an expectation that good will come of it. We don't know when it will reopen, but until then it's "closed for good," even if not for long. And even if for long.
We expect that even in this, God is making things new.
I continue to have the sense that the field we've sown and reaped for 70 years, is being forced to lie fallow. I'm not a farmer so I'll let the dictionary explain what that means: fal·low |ˈfalō | adjective | (of farmland) plowed and harrowed but left unsown for a period in order to restore its fertility as part of a crop rotation or to avoid surplus production.
I asked the staff yesterday, "In what ways are we better for being closed?" The easiest answer was a renewal in our appreciation of fellowship. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Then I asked, "In what ways are we worse for being closed?" This was just as easy to answer: difficulty of fellowship.
And this is no surprise. When I polled you all a several weeks ago about what you miss most, you said overwhelmingly: Fellowship. And that's the hardest thing to do online. And to be candid, I wonder if it is a pastor's job to get people to fellowship together. It certainly isn't my job to get people to eat or sleep.
At some point, as adults, we put food in our own mouths, we put ourselves to bed, and we put ourselves in proximity with others to enjoy their company. Nevertheless, many have become accustomed to the local church being their social hub, and when it's not, some of us feel a bit lost.
So yes, fellowship.
But there are other answers to the "better/worse" questions. And not just for us as A church, but for THE Church -- the larger Body of Christ of which we are just a cell, along with all the other churches. And that's where much of my thoughts are these days.
In what ways are we "closed for good?"
Something about this shut down seems to me like God is preparing to do something totally new. And it seems like it's something that needs the "land" to rest first. Like, it's time for a great harvest, but the soil needs to become rich again. So he's causing the land to rest.
I get the thought from Leviticus 25.
1The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, 2“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. 3For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. 4But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. 5Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. 6Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, 7as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.
And then it calls for a double sabbath. In the 49th and 50th years the land is to spend two years at rest. And along with it, property is to be returned to its clan, slaves are to be freed, and debts are to be forgiven. It's huge.
It reads this way:
8“ ‘Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. 9Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. 10Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. 11The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. 12For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. 13“ ‘In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property.
Hmm. The "Year of Jubilee." A year of emancipation and restoration. I wonder why God did that. But I also wonder why we question it.
I suspect he did it because we question it. We don't trust it. We're supposed to work, to sow, to reap. But when God told his people how to live in the land, he said, "Sow and reap! But then, every seventh year, don't sow or reap! Just trust me to do the sowing and reaping! And every seventh time you do that, do it one more year for good measure, so that at least once in your lifetime you know what it is to seriously trust me to provide for you."
Sure, we could say that he said this because he understood the land's limitations and was just teaching them to be good stewards of the land. But we could also say that he understood their own limitations (and temptations to self-reliance) and was teaching them to be good stewards of their own hearts.
I recently finished reading 1st Chronicles and 2nd Chronicles where it describes the up and down, back and forth loyalty of God's people. A good king is followed by a bad king is followed by a good king is followed by a bad king. And sometimes the good king becomes the bad king. It's very disconcerting. Finally, at the end of it, God causes his people to be forcefully carried away from the Promised Land he gave them, and back into captivity again, this time to Babylon. He warned them time and time again, and they didn't respond, so he followed through.
It's summarized in the last chapter, 2 Chronicles 36:
15The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. 16But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. 17He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians, who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and did not spare young men or young women, the elderly or the infirm. God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. 18He carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the Lord’s temple and the treasures of the king and his officials. 19They set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there.
20He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power.
And then it says this curious thing:
21The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah.
Why? Was God really so concerned about the soil? Wasn't he more concerned that his people had not followed him? That they had not trusted him?
Yes, the latter. And yet he honored his own command by following through on the former. And the land was at rest while they were in captivity, all as a testimony against their unwillingness to trust him.
I have a strong sense that what the world is undergoing right now is a time of preparation. It may even be a time of God following through on his warnings. I'll let you talk to God about that for more insight. But for me, my thoughts go to isolation, competition, and an overconfidence in strategy.
If those things were to happen, we would celebrate that we were "closed for good," right? I'm just telling you that I believe in faith with hope that we are "closed for good."
Of course, no matter how you cut it, the Church is still very, very open. In fact, we haven't closed a single day. Not for a single minute. You can't close the Church anymore than you can close a field. It is a field. And we are the Church. But both the field and the Church can honor God with a sabbath rest.
My encouragement to you is to receive your rest. Restore your faith. Renew your energy. Let God take care of you. And trust that God is not done with "ripe fields" but rather he is preparing the fields for a harvest greater than the overworked fields can currently produce.
Join me in that prayer.
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.