Trinity Lutheran Church
1111 East 22nd Street, Cheyenne, WY
Pastor John C. Preus
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ — Members of Trinity Lutheran Church,
“Grace, mercy, and peace will be with you from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love” (2 John 1:3).
I pray you are all well. Many thanks are due to those who have offered help and encouragement to me and to any members in need during this time of uncertainty. If anyone still has needs, please let me know. There are many in our congregation who stand ready and willing to help in any way. I pray this letter brings encouragement to all of you. Please continue to pray that God would have mercy on all of us – our congregation, city, state, and nation. Yes, even the whole world! I have tried to reach out to many, if not most of you. Please call any time. I plan to continue to send out messages and to make as many phone calls as I can. I wish I could see you all as we are used to doing.
This past Wednesday evening, we held our last midweek Lenten service at Trinity. What a blessing it has been to gather every Wednesday this Lent, to hear the word of God read and preached, to sing psalms and hymns, and to pray together. It is good to hear each other’s voices and to see each other’s faces (if we can). It’s a bit of normalcy in the midst of all this panic and isolation. Naturally, our numbers were very much limited due to the CDC’s recommendations, which our governor has given the force of law. But even so, we have continued to meet as usual.
For Divine Service, though, we have had to cancel. For Lent 4 (Laetare), we put our abbreviated service up on YouTube, which was accessible on our website. We did the same for Lent 5 (Judica). But in addition, we had available times for members to come and receive Holy Communion. We will be doing the same this Saturday and Sunday for Palm Sunday. Please check out the online sign-up or call me to schedule a time to commune. All these services are available online. Some of them will be delivered in CD form to those who let me know they would appreciate it. This last Wednesday’s Vespers service is available on our website. In preparation for Holy Week, I encourage you to listen to this one in particular (my sermon is actually pretty short ☺). Although most of you were not there (which in a way is good, because we had to remain within the law), I was preaching to all of you, even as I keep all of you in my prayers. You can listen here.
The reason we canceled Divine Service is not because of Communion. It is because we would not have been able to limit our numbers according to the state mandate. There is no more danger than usual of receiving Communion. In theory there could be. But there isn’t. All vessels are sterilized over and over. My hands are sanitized copiously. I (who am as healthy as an ox) step back from the altar for the Words of Institution just in case. In order to keep as many cooks out of the kitchen as possible, I myself have sort of commandeered the altar guild duties (with much thanks to the ladies who normally serve in these duties!). It is easier and safer this way. I’m the only one who has touched anything. And I am (almost ridiculously) diligent about all precautions.
This coming week is Holy Week. Lent is a penitential season. Most of us don’t give up anything for Lent. We weren’t taught to. It’s not required in the Bible. So we don’t. Many people think this makes them free. But it doesn’t. It shows how enslaved we are — not only to the things we can’t muster enough discipline to give up, but also to our culture obsessed with consumption and luxury. But now God has forced many to give up things for Lent that they never would have given up willingly. And while it is an annoyance for many, for most it is a doable thing. Most people are willing to give up what they must in order to stave off infection, promote the general health of the nation, and resume the activities of a healthy economy as soon as possible. The more we participate in the strict measures of social isolation, etc., the sooner we will be able to return to the lifestyle we all miss.
The sense of sacrifice is amazing. The willingness so many, if not most people, have to give up so much is impressive. And why? Whence cometh this sense of duty? I applaud obedience. I applaud concern for neighbor. These are good things. God commands these. But something in the heart of man is revealed this Lent. Man is willing to give up just about anything for the promise of returning to all the daily pleasures he has up to now not been willing to give up willingly. That is, unless it’s necessary. Unless we have to. Unless we’re told people will die if we don’t or that it’s against the law not to. These are not the incentives of those who move and act freely. These are the incentives of those who are constrained.
We are all willing and able to give up a lot more than we have ever admitted to ourselves. This Lent has proved it. But there is an expected return that incentivizes us – that makes the sacrifice seem worth it. We just want to return to the way things were. We want to enjoy our stuff, each other’s company, travel, shopping, and so forth. We just want normal back. And we’ll sacrifice – we’ll deny ourselves what we need to – in order to get it back.
I hope you see how this teaches us about Lent. Lent is an old English word for spring. The German word is Fastenzeit, which means “time to fast.” To fast is to deny yourself food in order to teach yourself to reflect on where our food comes from, that is, who gives it, and how the word of God is worth more. The purpose of fasting is to remind yourself how much you cling to creation – even more than to your Creator. It aids us, therefore, in repentance – that is if we use it as a lesson to drive us to the word of God and prayer.
The current Fastenzeit imposed by the fear of COVID-19 has brought out both good and bad in people. It really has. Goodwill and concern and a sense of belonging to a larger community have been clear positives. But the worst it has brought out is not the hoarding or the crime or the political scheming, as bad as these are. The worst this imposed Fastenzeit has brought out is a sense of self-righteousness. See how willing people are (and we are) to comply with mandates by threat of law with the promise that we do good by obeying the expert-guided authorities. How noble of us! Anything to make this pestilence end and avert disaster! And to boot, we feel civically righteous by our compliance.
And yet the Christian fasts not as a practical measure to bring God’s blessings back or to make sure they don’t leave for too long. We don’t fast so that God keeps forgiving us. We don’t fast so that as many people as possible might be saved. And we certainly don’t fast to make ourselves feel more obedient and righteous. No. We fast in order to subdue our flesh – to rebuke our own false opinions that food and clothing are more precious and more pressing than hearing God’s word. Our flesh doubts God’s word. When we deny ourselves pleasures, we are subduing an enemy of ours that does not want us to enjoy God’s favor as much as it wants us to enjoy passing pleasures (which as we have seen, are certainly very passing and uncertain). God has sent this pestilence, this plague, this unrest upon us. He has afflicted our nation and our world to teach us repentance. Have we been bowed down – do we bow ourselves down – in order to just make it stop? Or have we received this as a chastisement from our Lord God? The plague comes from God. The panic comes from the devil! Please read these words from the prophet Joel, which were read at the Ash Wednesday service at 6:30pm on February 26th:
“Now, therefore,” says the Lord,
“Turn to Me with all your heart,
With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.”
So rend your heart, and not your garments;
Return to the Lord your God,
For He is gracious and merciful,
Slow to anger, and of great kindness;
And He relents from doing harm.
Who knows if He will turn and relent,
And leave a blessing behind Him—
A grain offering and a drink offering
For the Lord your God? (Joel 2:12-14)
Who knows? We apply ourselves to the stringent measures imposed on us in this strange time in order to return to normal. But who knows? Only God. What we know is that he is merciful. He is gracious. He gives us everything we have. Although his anger burns at sin, yet the discipline he imposes on us is not from wrath. It comes from a fatherly heart that is abounding in great kindness. He teaches us. So what will we learn? What can we learn if we do not bear this forced fasting in repentance and by more diligently devoting ourselves to prayer and to reading, hearing, and taking to heart the word of God who loves us?
“Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
Things might not return to normal. They might never be the same. We might lose more than we think we probably will. Who knows? But we can still return to God. And he still returns to us. We can still flee to his word – whether alone or together. Pray God that we do no lose this. And we should repair ourselves to God’s word so long as it is with us. Because it is in his word and Sacrament that the Lord Jesus continues to abide with us in mercy, grace, and bestowing all that we need for this life and the life to come.
It has taken the threat of force or the fear of accidentally killing someone or of getting very sick ourselves to finally compel most people to give up anything at all this Lent. It’s a fitting time for a pandemic. It seems harsh for me to point this out. But let us repent. Let us each rend and examine our own heart. Let us humbly lose what God has taken, and commend our loss to him who will restore it in his good timing. Let us all the more humbly, and with certain faith in the gracious promises of our dear Savior – especially as Holy Week begins – refuse to lose, but use and embrace with more than our usual devotion, those certain treasures of divine grace and salvation that are still afforded us through the means of grace here at Trinity Lutheran Church. Behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2). As long as Christ is with us in the world, he is the Light of the world (John 9:5). And lo! He is with us always to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20).
I must impress upon anyone reading this that we ought to obey those who rule over us. The government bears the sword in God’s name for our protection (Rom. 13, 1 Pet. 2:13ff). But we obey with a good conscience. We are not slaves. And I’m not talking politically here. Even of we become slaves – even if “freedom” dies in this great land of ours and the economy crashes and each one of us becomes a dependent subject of a totalitarian nanny-state that runs the economy and our movements and productivity by fiat — even if this happens, we are not slaves. We are able to submit to our rulers with a good conscience. And so we submit as free sons of God, knowing that it is not the government who supplies our daily bread no matter how much they impose themselves into the distribution of it. It is God who gives us everything.
Governor Gordon has prohibited gatherings of more than ten people. We plan to abide by this order. He is God’s servant. There are exemptions for businesses in which people are not generally closer than ten feet to each other. To some degree this seems to exempt us as we gather in church. At least there seems to be an argument to be made. I don’t want to try to make this argument. We should be honest and obey the order as much as is possible. We should be cautious. And we will be. We will abide by the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Our church is equipped with three spaces for gathering that make attending worship legally possible. We have the sanctuary, the narthex, and the balcony. If necessary, we also have the fellowship hall downstairs. But I doubt we will need this last measure. We will be spreading out to keep our numbers down, not only in terms of space, but in terms of time. If anyone is concerned upon arriving by anything, you are welcome to gather downstairs or even in the sacristy on the lectern side of the sanctuary (by the sink and drinking fountain). Let me know. I will bring you the Sacrament. Your choice will be respected and you will be served by Jesus in safety.
- Maundy Thursday will have three times for you to gather for a full Divine Service with Holy Communion: 9:00am, Noon, and 6:00pm. All three will be the same.
- Good Friday will have three times for you to gather for a service of lessons and chorales: 9:00am, Noon, and 6:00pm. All three will be the same.
- Easter will have three times for you to gather for a full festival Divine Service with Holy Communion. All three will be the same:
- 6:00 pm on Holy Saturday
- 6:30am and 9:00am on Easter Sunday
Not very many attended our Ash Wednesday Divine Service. I wish more would come. It is a nearly-lost tradition among us to make such festivals priorities (including our regular Midweek Lenten and Advent Vespers). Our lives are busy. The culture (at work, school, and in our social lives) makes fewer and fewer allowances for us to conveniently lay aside time for observing holy days. We should resist this. We should bear the inconvenience. I don’t mention this to make those who came feel better than those who didn’t. I don’t say this to make you feel guilty. I say this in the spirit of stirring all of you up during these times of God’s gracious chastening to reevaluate your habits. These festivals are appointed every year to provide us times to reflect on and receive what is most important in this life of labor and toil. This Holy Week, when we especially focus on our Lord’s labor of love in the upper room, in the Garden, and on the cross, I ask all of you to increase your observation and participation as much as possible.
If you are older than 65 years old, please do not feel like you should come. Your health may be at risk. You may already be fully quarantining yourself. Keep this up! Your health and safety is important to all of us. If you are immunocompromised or otherwise simply afraid of the risk, please do not feel pressured to come. If you have been to e.g. Denver lately, or have traveled a lot for work and fear you may be carrying this COVID-19 virus, please play it safe. We will be taking every humanly possible precaution, and abiding by the law in our gathering. But we want you all to take seriously the advice that the health-experts have given you. But we must all take seriously the gracious invitation of our Lord to gather to receive his word. We must not neglect gathering so long as it is not manifestly hazardous or defiant of the law. If we take risks to acquire the bread that perishes at Albertson’s, so much more should we commend ourselves to God when we “take a risk” to receive the Bread of Life in the word and sacraments.
If you cannot come, check out our website. All our Holy Week services will be audio-recorded and posted under the “Sermon Audio” tab. Some may even be live-streamed on Facebook if it can be figured out. For those of you whom I know not to have the internet, I plan to send you my sermons and some prayers. Some CDs will also be prepared and delivered. If you cannot come, if you dare not come, remember that you are free. Just as we make every effort not to defy our governing authorities’ orders, so also you will not be under the shadow of suspicion that you are defying God. You will no doubt remember this holy season even if you cannot be present with the few who are able to gather. God bless you. Let no judgment or regret defile your conscience. Remember that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7).
If you can come, please do so. And don’t just choose one day. Choose every day. Maundy Thursday is not Good Friday. And Easter Sunday is the culmination of both these days. Most of you have more time than ever. Recommit yourself to observe Holy Week and Easter as faithfully as you are able. This is the perfect time to discover again how great a blessing it is to do so.
Dear congregation, dear homebound members, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I have lately been recalling how moving my last observance of Holy Week was, knowing it was my last at Trinity Lutheran Church in Clinton, Iowa. The saints there still hold a precious place in my heart. And so you too have been imprinted there as well. Never did I think my first Easter in Wyoming would be celebrated like this. But God’s chastening hand continues to give us direction to his tender mercies in Christ. I am honored to be called by God to serve you with the gospel we have all depended on. You all remain in my thoughts and prayers. God will bring deliverance soon. That is my prayer, that things can return to our normal prosperity and safety before long. I hope to see many of you soon and to keep in touch with all of you. The peace of Christ be with you all and always. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
On my heart imprint Thine image,
Blessed Jesus, King of Grace,
That life’s riches, cares, and pleasures
Have no pow’r Thee to efface.
This the superscription be:
Jesus crucified for me
Is my life, my hope’s foundation,
And my glory, and salvation. Amen.
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
Pastor John Preus