This sermon was offered on Sunday, March 15th by Pastor John Valentine — speaking to the community pandemic known as Coronavirus which now torments us.
Love in the Time of COVID-19
Lent 3 (NL2) John B. Valentine
“Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague” March 15, 2020
“LOVE IN THE TIME OF COVID-19”
These are truly extraordinary times.
• On Wednesday ... the County Health Department issued a statement encouraging us to cease gathering for religious services involving 50 or more people ... if we could not facilitate proper degrees of ‘social distancing’ within our worship space.
• On Thursday ... the stock market plummeted some twenty-three hundred points ... as our nation’s financial markets attempted to make sense of what a total societal shutdown might do to the economy.
• On Friday ... I had to write a letter explaining that we are closing our LARC program between now and the end of March ... out of an abundance of caution and at the advisement of the CDC.
• And ... on Saturday ... news trickled out that our local school districts are suspending classes for the next couple three weeks so as to protect their students and their households.
Now ... according to the County ... it would be best if we weren’t here this morning ...
But since we are here ... it would be meet, right and salutary for us to reflect on what our faith says ... what our faith means ... in a time of true national emergency like this one.
For while it may not be “Love in the Time of Cholera” ... to borrow an old book title from Gabriel Garcia Marquez ... it IS most certainly time to think about “Love in the Time of COVID-19".
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Actually ... of all the stuff that I’ve been reading in the past couple of weeks about how best to deal with the Coronavirus ... and how best to live our lives in the face of the Coronavirus ... and what it means to be people of faith in the age of the Coronavirus ...
The thing that I’ve found most helpful ...
• is NOT the latest press release from the nation’s Centers for Disease Control ... and it
• is NOT some snarky piece of political commentary about who’s to blame for getting us into this mess ... and it
• is NOT a paranoid Facebook post about why you need to have 50 rolls of toilet paper stockpiled in your home.
What it was ... what it is ... is a five-centuries-old letter ... a letter written to the Reverend Doctor Johann Hess by one Doctor Martin Luther ... the original Lutheran guy ... entitled “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague”.
You see ... this Coronavirus thing is the first global pandemic since the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980's and the 1990's ... and the Hong Kong Flu of 1968 before that.
WE are relatively inexperienced when it comes to dealing with the trauma and the angst and the fear that has made itself known in our communities in the course of the past couple three weeks.
But Doctor Luther lived at a time when the Plague ... the Bubonic Plague ... the Black Death ... was still rampant in Europe ...
And communities in Luther’s day were regularly needing to make decisions about how to deal with an outbreak of the Plague within their city walls ...
And so those concerns ... that trauma and angst and fear which we know very little about ... were things which Doctor Luther ... and all the original Lutherans ... would have been very well-versed in.
In fact ... much of Luther’s letter to Pastor Hess sounds like an echo of the press releases which have come from the CDC in recent days!
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Now I’m NOT going to read you the whole of that letter ... it’s FAR too long and FAR too intricate in its argumentation for our purposes here this morning ....
But what I’d like to do is read you my contemporized “Reader’s Digest” version of it ... and let the wisdom of the Good Doctor Luther trickle down into your souls ... and let you ponder what it means to be people of faith in times like these.
Dear Reverend Doctor Hess,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ! Forgive me for the tardiness of my reply to the letter which you sent to me, as regards the question of whether it is proper for a Christian to run away from a deadly plague. Part of me wants to say, “God has given you the tools to figure this out for yourself,” but since you keep pestering me for an answer, hear is what I think.
To begin with, some people seem to think that one SHOULDN’T run away from a deadly plague ... that it is God’s chastisement ... that death is inevitable... and that we should just “take it like a man”. Or maybe that people who are strong in faith can endure anything?
To them I would say “Good on you!”, except for that remember how Peter could walk on the water when his faith was strong?? And how – when he began to doubt – he sank and almost drowned?? I’m not so sure that’s the best course of action.
Now to those who are engaged in spiritual ministry like yourself – preachers and pastors and the like – it is your calling and your vocation to remain steadfast in the face of these dangers. No shirking your responsibilities for you! It is precisely at times like this that people NEED that spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts and gives hope!
It’s not that you’re supposed to expose yourselves to danger needlessly. Take necessary precautions, for sure! But don’t you dare abandon your flock.
Likewise, those who hold public office are under obligation to remain. God has placed them into those positions of authority for the sake of good order, and if they abdicate their responsibilities who knows what sort of chaos may break out!
And likewise those who stand in a relationship of service or duty to another must not have the audacity to flee without recognizing their responsibilities – parents to children ... children to parents ... paid public servants and physicians and nurses and caretakers and the like. IF they can make accommodation to ensure that their responsibilities are attended to, so be it. If NOT, they have a responsibility to stay.
The point being ... there are countless examples in the Bible of people fleeing from death ... Jacob from Esau, David from Saul, Elijah from Jezebel and the like ... and fleeing for fear of your life is not necessarily wrong. But it is only okay to flee AFTER one has worked to ensure the safety of all those for whom one may be responsible for the care of.
(Then ... as a bit of an aside ... Luther starts riffing on how great it would be if the government were efficient enough to truly take care of people in need ... but since that dream is far from the reality of things ... we need to be the ones who “love your neighbor as yourself.”)
But then it’s here at this point in the letter when Brother Martin’s advice really begins to hit home:
Now IF a deadly epidemic strikes, we should stay where we are, make our preparations, and take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together ... and totally be prepared to help one another!
We help one another because ...
1) We know that helping our neighbors means we’re doing deeds that are pleasing to God. In fact, we do God’s will and render true and obedient service to HIM when we engage in helping our neighbors. And ...
2) We know that God promises to protect and be with those who take care of their neighbors. “Godliness is of value in every way, and it holds promise both for the present life and for the life to come” ... Saint Paul wrote ... and what is godliness if not service to God ... which is in fact service to our neighbor.
Then ... and here I’m going to quote the good Doctor a bit more directly:
“If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbor close at hand. Go to your neighbor. Serve your neighbor. For you will find Christ in your neighbor. ‘For as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.’”
You see ... “If it was Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness, everybody would be so solicitous and would gladly be a servant or a helper. Everyone would want to be bold and fearless; nobody would flee but everyone would come running. And yet they don’t hear what Christ himself says: ‘For as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.'"
But the letter continues:
Some people are idiots. They disdain the use of medicines, they don’t listen to the public health authorities, they in fact make lighthearted sport of it to prove how independent they are. The bozos!
• God created medicines.
• God gave us intelligence so that we can take good care of our bodies.
• NOT taking advantage of the things that God has given us to deal with these situations is basically committing suicide
Use medicine when you need to! Disinfect your house! Keep a healthy distance from people who don’t need your help. And if you’ve contracted the disease, quarantine yourself and keep away from others!
And the worst of the bunch are people who – knowing that they themselves are sick – go out into public. My advice is that THOSE people should be turned over to Master Jack – the hangman – as outright and deliberate murderers. Despicable!
This is what I think about this subject ... this is what we teach ... if you’re of a different opinion, may God give you wisdom. Amen!
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Be smart ... stay safe ... disinfect your homes ... observe the best practices laid down by public health officials ... don’t unnecessarily put yourself at risk ... or put your neighbor at risk for that matter ... and ... above all ... be prepared to be a neighbor to those whom Jesus calls your neighbor.
And may the God of all hope guard and keep your lives in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen!