March 15, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
So this is the third sermon I have worked on this week. When I did my bulletin on Thursday — just three days ago — I was working on a sermon about Jesus’ statement to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s because I am preaching through Mark and that was what came next. Friday morning, however, as the nation began shutting down at a serious pace, I decided I really needed a more topical sermon and so I threw out what I had done and began crafting instead a sermon on the theological issues brought on by crises such as this one. By yesterday afternoon, however, even that sermon felt too academic, homiletic, hermeneutic, and all of the other ics that apply to any well crafted delivery so I threw that one out as well to begin again, but I wasn’t sure where to start, because not only was I undecided about the best sort of sermon to preach this morning but in the midst of all of this sermon writing and un-writing, I was dealing with all of what you have been dealing with. The College of Wooster is closing until April and I’ve been trying to find out from Mathew when he is coming home; he’s on Spring Break and he’s not texting me back. I’ve been texting John in Rochester and Stacy in Denver to keep track of how this is impacting them. I’ve spent a good amount of time messaging with my sisters who are also ministers to talk about what their churches are doing, and have been emailing back and forth with our own church leadership about our situation. I confess that I too, made a run to the store for toilet paper but only because I really did need some especially if Mathew is going to be here for the next several weeks. And of course, I’ve been checking the New York Times every couple of hours because that’s how fast everything is changing. Hopefully none of us have the coronavirus but I think we are all experiencing the symptoms of “coronavirus epidemic” which are uncertainty, anxiety, worry over loved ones, and an astounding inability to focus on things like work, which for me was writing a sermon. All of that is to say that I gave up trying to “craft” a sermon this week and instead I am just going to share some thoughts with you today, written off the top of my head at 6 am this morning and I hope they make some sense.
If I were to pick a word that summarizes how I feel about everything right now it would be “surreal,” and part of that unreality is because of the contrast between the immense threat of a pandemic which has brought all normal life to a standstill in contrast to the seeming normality of life on 2394 Stuck Hill Rd. (where I live). As a minister, I am too well acquainted with the way in which tragedies and unexpected crises can upend people’s lives but usually, those people experience that crisis first hand. A loved one dies and the family has to deal with daily reality of that empty place in their house. Or someone’s marriage breaks down and suddenly they are thrown into custody arrangements and legal proceedings. The tragedy changes their life in real and immediate ways. The coronavirus epidemic, however, is “out there” and if I turned off the news and stopped talking to my neighbors, I would have no idea that there even was an epidemic, until I went to buy some toilet paper and wondered why the shelves were bare. On the one hand, nothing in my life has really changed because I’m not sick and so far thank goodness, no one I know is sick, but on the other hand, the entire world has changed and the very assumptions of what normal looks like have been upended. Moreover, even though I know that coronavirus is dangerous and that there are people out there dying from it and businesses hurt by it, I confess that even as I worry about the effect it is having on all of those people, I am also at the same time experiencing an odd sense of delight at the way the epidemic has brought out our common humanity. I’ve smiled at the videos of Italians singing with one another across rooftops and the funny posts people are putting on Facebook. I participate in an online forum that has members from across the world and this week, it was really touching to see mothers in Germany, Poland, Greece, Italy, and the US sharing ideas on the forum for entertaining their school aged children who all all stuck at home, across the globe. This tiny tiny virus, invisible to the human eye, has both the ability to sow grief and chaos in its wake, pushing us into self-protective isolation while at the same time it also has the ability to cause us to recognize our common humanity and draw us closer together as a people. I don’t know whether to be afraid of Covid-19, or to be awed by it. The coronavirus has brought into stark relief the worst of our humanity — our frail mortality and propensity to assign blame and self-centered survival instincts and ignorance and fear — and the best of our humanity — our moral strength, our compassion and empathy, our creativity, our humor, our self-sacrifice, and our love for one another. These past few weeks have been a cauldron of emotions, and living with that emotional uncertainty is exhausting.
And of course, we as Christians, are also asking the tough question of where God enters into all of this. I am sure that you know that I am not one of those ministers who believes that God controls everything that happens in the world and that we are mere puppets on a string. I don’t think God sat up in heaven concocting Covid-19 in a petrie dish and then sent it into the world to punish disbelievers, nor do I think that God is able to protect a person from this disease just because they profess the right creed or vote the right way. There are ministers in America telling their congregation this morning that God will protect Americans from the ravages Europe has experienced because the Trump administration supports Israel and is pro-life. And it’s not just American pastors giving false assurances: one Greek Orthodox priest assured his congregation that they could safely drink from the chalice because the virus would be killed when his prayers transubstantiated the wine into the blood of Christ. This sort of thinking turns God into a magical amulet — a holy form of Lysol — and it is the same sort of thinking that caused the first Cro-Magnon man to throw a sheep into a volcano to appease a god. And you can tell I’m writing this off the top of my head because I actually have no idea whether the Cro-Magnon people performed sacrificial worship. I would normally take time to google it but you get the idea.
The Bible is admittedly back and forth as to how much God intervenes in physical events but I am a 21st century Christian with a much better understanding of microbes than people living 2000 years ago, and what they could not explain and so attributed to the hand of God, I can now explain and refuse to blame on God. Covid-19 is just an unconscious virus which makes no distinction between believers and non-believers, Democrats and Republicans, Americans and Chinese, good and evil. Covid-19 is just looking for a host, and it will take any warm body it can get its sticky little hands on. There is nothing of God in this infection.
There is, however, a lot of God in how we respond to this infection. I said before that the coronavirus has brought into stark relief the worst we are capable of and the best we are capable of, and the difference between the worst and the best is determined simply by who we choose to be — whether we choose, as Star Wars put it, the dark side or the light side. And God knows all too well how hard it is for us to not give in to that dark side when we are afraid or suffering. God is intimately acquainted with our grief and with the temptations we face as a result of it, so much so that every year during Holy Week we are reminded of the tears that Jesus himself shed in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prayed to God asking God to give him the strength to stay the course and not succumb to his fears and doubts. As frail human beings, we confront the temptation to hunker down into self-preservation and self-interest every day, but most of the time it’s pretty easy to choose the good because most of the time life itself is good. When we’re not tired, not scared, too busy to be tempted by much, we choose the light because it’s not any harder to smile at someone than it is to snap at them. In times of crisis, however, those choices become much harder. Nothing has changed about our calling — we are still called as people of Christ to lean into the light, to lean into kindness and compassion— but our moral convictions wrestle with the reptilian parts of our brains that are yelling, “Run away, run away! Every man for himself!” God knows, we need holy help to stay the course right now. God knows that we need more than our human strength to remain strong. We need more than human patience to cope with all of the emotions around us flying out of control. We need more than human wisdom to figure out how to navigate these rapidly changing waters. We need more than human hope to believe that we can see our way to tomorrow. We need more than human love to keep our hearts from breaking. We need the strength, patience, wisdom, hope, and love of God. We need to breathe it in, and drink of it deeply, and feel God restore us to wholeness and sanity so that we can keep living in a whole and sane way in an insane world.
Our need for God to see us through makes it all the more difficult to decide to suspend worship together but I have always said that the church is not the building; the church is the people and even if we don’t see one another on Sunday morning, we are still a church. We will be a church in diaspora for a few weeks, but we will not forgot who we are or who we are called to be. The Elders and chairs of the other boards will be discussing ways of providing for worship and prayer needs, and we will find ways to continue act as a congregation united by the love of Christ. I am especially concerned, as I’m sure all of you are, that we continue to care for those who are facing troubles that have nothing to do with coronavirus — that we pray for Mindy in her grief at the death of her sister and for Catherine Chambers who will be having surgery, that we keep writing letters on behalf of Jiaxi, and that we remember the food pantry. If it turns out to be a short hiatus, then I am not worried about taking a break for a couple of weeks, but none of us know what is going to be happening and if our diaspora is lengthy, we need to commit ourselves to being vigilant about keeping in touch with one another so that we can sustain one another through this crisis in faith and love.
We cannot know what tomorrow will bring, but we can say with confidence that whatever it brings, God will be with us, and we will be with one another, and in that promise we will find hope.