the third Sunday in Lent
15 March 2020
Today’s readings are:
If you don’t have a Bible in front of you, click here for these readings.
There are times when one should not preach from the lectionary. Sometimes I leave off the lectionary for special days like those in Lent or Advent and preach, instead, on the theme of the Church Year. And there are times, like now, when I think it best to sit and think with you all about something going on around the world, and that is the coronavirus, or COVID-19. I encourage you to read and contemplate the story of Jesus and the woman at the well this week at home (I might post my reflections on it this week), but I think it best to sit together and talk about the Christian response to this sort of illness.
The Word of our Lord Jesus Christ in times like these, and in every time, is this: Do not be afraid. Now, these are pretty easy words to say, aren’t they? It’s easy in the midst of despair and anxiety, to pat someone on the back and say, “Hey, just don’t worry about it.” Chill out, calm down, relax. Whistle a happy tune, and everything will be just fine.
But when Jesus told us not to worry, to not be afraid, I don’t think he did it with a shrug. Jesus didn’t tell us to just deal with it. Even as Jesus went to Calvary to be nailed to the Cross, carrying the weight of the world on his back, he didn’t tell us all to grin and bear it. “Don’t worry” doesn’t mean “just pretend it’s not a problem.”
Now, I’m not a psychologist. I’m not schooled in the mental make-up of people, much less anxiety within the human body. I studied literature, poetry, and theology, and while those studies give me specific insight into the human make-up, I’m not a doctor. But I am a priest, I am a fellow Christian with all of you, and I also follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And so I say, with our Lord, we cannot enter this, or anything, with fear.
The big picture, that we must always remember, is that we have put our faith in a God who holds us in Love. That doesn’t mean that, if we have enough faith, we’ll be saved from any trouble we encounter. Those saints with the deepest faith often faced the most desperate times, and we must remember that Jesus Christ, whose faith was greater than any, and for whom God was closest, faced the Cross. Faith does not get us out of trouble but reminds us that, even in difficult times, God is with us. And God will continue to be with us through thick and thin, whether these times worsen or get better. And that faith reminds us that, even at our deaths, whenever or by whatever means they come, God will be waiting with us to bring us home. That is the promise that God gave us in Jesus Christ, that our home, our True Home, is in the Light and Love of the next world. We need not be afraid.
But looking to the joys of Heaven isn’t the only thing Christians do. We also look to the pain and suffering of this world, and especially to those who are in pain and who are suffering, in this world. We look to how to deal with problems like the coronavirus rationally and in the hope – the real hope – that we can do something good in all this. Part of this is listening to health officials (not op-ed articles, not Facebook posts, but real, honest health officials) about how to handle this situation. You know, wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and all that. These are good things to do anyway, so do listen.
Health officials are also encouraging what is being called “social distancing”, not just staying home if you’re sick but actually not going out as much even if you aren’t sick. Go out for essentials, but be careful of being around too many crowds, especially if you’re one of those who are at risk. And this is good advice (and I’m told by health officials, it’s really good advice), but there’s a spiritual element here that we need to be cautious of.
Christianity is built on community. We are not a bunch of individuals running around, all of us praying to Jesus in our own way. Jesus isn’t just our personal savior; Jesus is the savior of all humanity. We’re the Church, a community of people bound together not just by a common creed or way of life but by the Holy Spirit himself. We gather together on Sundays to pray not because we really like coffee hour or our pew is actually pretty comfortable but because Christians have always gotten together to pray. And they’ve gotten together to pray because the Spirit brings us closer and forms us into and as a community.
But health officials are encouraging us to avoid crowds, and there is a possibility that Bishop Michael may ask all churches in the diocese to stop gathering for worship. And as we follow the directions of professionals and our leaders, let us not forget the importance of that community. While we pray by ourselves, remember that we are never truly praying alone. There are countless Christians all throughout the world who are also praying, and many of them are praying for the same things. The Church, capital C, is larger than just this community, and it expands beyond this hour from 9:30 to 10:30 each Sunday morning. We are bound together, we Christians, by more than just our social connections. We are bound by the Holy Spirit, and nothing, nothing, nothing can ever break that bond.
There are a few things that I’ll be setting up over the next week. I’m going to encourage everyone to join a prayer chain, where we pray for one or two others in the church and know that they’re praying for us. I’ll be posting reflections online and through email, and I may even do some of the offices online with all of you. The diocese is setting up online church services as well, and I’ll be sending these around. And I will always be open to your calls, so let me know if you ever need me.
Trying times are difficult, but trying times call for holy measures. We Christians have more than just our own faith behind us; we have the faith of the whole Church, those who are here with us and those who have come before, from those who are named on that plaque in the parish hall all the way back to the earliest saints. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who are praying for us, and we are surrounded by the loving arms of God: God, who extended those arms in love upon the hard wood of the cross, so that we may all come into his loving embrace.