Sermon by Fr. Bryan Owen on March 22, 2020. (Audio available here.)
Well, this is hands down one of the strangest things I’ve ever done. Over the course of nearly 20 years of ordained ministry, I’ve stood hundreds of times in front of a congregation to preach. But this is the first time I’ve preached on a Sunday morning to empty pews. It’s a powerful and painful reminder of the ways that the Coronavirus has changed our lives.
It’s hard to believe how quickly all of this has happened. Within just the past week or so, we’ve gone from taking precautions with small gatherings to social distancing that amounts to virtual self-quarantining. The spread of Coronavirus has stripped us down to the bare essentials, forcing us to give up so much that we take for granted in our daily lives and routines. As one observer notes, “COVID-19 may not have infected every person, but it has infected all of us as a people.”
It’s okay to acknowledge and express how we’re feeling as this pandemic unfolds. We’re anxious, scared, angry, disappointed, sad, frustrated, and at times bewildered. Some have loved ones who are sick and in the hospital. Others may lose loved ones and not even be able to be with them in their final moments. Some of us are doctors and nurses and other health care professionals on the front lines in hospitals and clinics. Thank you for your sacrifice.
And then there’s the economic fallout that will surely affect us all in one way or another. We may be working from home as our teachers at St. Luke’s and around the county in schools, colleges, and universities ramp up online and distance learning. We may have been laid off or had to let workers go. We may have had to give up a job to stay home to care for children now out of school and day care centers. Our business may be struggling to operate. We don’t know what the future holds.
There’s also the odd phenomenon of “prospective grieving” - the grieving of things that were supposed to happen in the future but have now been cancelled. That includes for the foreseeable future the upcoming calendar of worship services and church activities - including very likely Holy Week and Easter. Recording and even live-streaming worship just isn’t the same as gathering in person.
I feel particularly heartbroken for young persons - especially seniors in high school and at colleges and universities - whose culminating sports, academic, and social activities and achievements have all gone away. It’s possible that many won’t even get to have a graduation ceremony. College students find themselves living back at home away from the close communities they have developed. Internships and study abroad programs are cancelled indefinitely. And for the youngest among us, it is hard not to be able to see our friends for birthday parties or our grandparents for that special hug. It’s devastating.
We’ve never experienced anything like this before. This is new territory. And we don’t have a map or a compass to help us make our way.
But as Christians - as persons who, in our baptisms, belong in life and in death to a crucified and risen Lord Jesus - we have grounds for hope and confidence that not even pestilence and plague can take from us. And that’s why we Christians are at our best when times are worst. That’s been true throughout history. It can be true today.
And it all goes back to Jesus, who lived through all of this. I don’t mean that Jesus lived through a pandemic like the Coronavirus. But Jesus did live in a time of daily if not hourly uncertainty and even crisis. For back in Jesus’ day, oppression of the weak by the strong, pervasive poverty, hunger and starvation, diseases without cure - that was all the norm.
In spite of it all, Jesus lived as the light of the world. He modeled a love and compassion that caught people’s attention. And just as we heard in today’s Gospel reading in which he healed a man blind from birth, Jesus performed the works of God in ways that bore witness to the awe-inspiring, hope-filled truth that a new reality is breaking into this sin-sick world - the reality of God’s kingdom of perfect justice and peace. A kingdom in which there is no fear, no disease, and no death, but life in abundance for eternity.
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul reminds us that as disciples of Jesus we are called to “live as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8). We are called to imitate the one who is the light of the world. We are called to do what Jesus did by shining forth in our lives the love and compassion of God - even and especially in this time of Coronavirus.
So what does that look like?
The first thing we can do is to be present.
That may sound really odd. After all, aren’t we supposed to be practicing social distance? How can we be present to and for each other if we’re not actually physically present with each other?
That’s where technology is our friend. Yes, it’s not the same. But we can be present by calling someone on the phone. We can be present by Facetiming a friend. We can be present by texting a check-in. We can be present by holding meetings via conference call, Skype, or Zoom. And we can then offer the gift of our full attention, really listening to the other person - to his or her needs, concerns, hopes, fears, and dreams.
I encourage us all to use technology to be present for each other.
The next thing we can do to make our way through this challenging time is to tell the truth. Be honest about what you think and how you really feel. Name it. Speak it. Share it. Pray it.
And know that it’s okay to go through times of feeling frustrated and discouraged. Even Jesus felt that way at times. And following the model of the Psalms - which give us permission to voice all of our feelings - he wasn’t shy about expressing it. We can do the same, trusting that God accepts and embraces us, and that our brothers and sisters in Christ will do the same.
Another important thing we can do is withdraw. Take time out.
Jesus withdrew all the time. We’re repeatedly told in the Gospels that Jesus would withdraw from the crowds and from his disciples to go to a deserted place.
This speaks to the fact that there were limits to what even Jesus could do. That’s why at the end of any given day there were still plenty of hungry and sick people whose needs weren’t met. It’s not that Jesus didn’t care. He did. But he also understood his limits. And he knew how much he needed time out to rest and rejuvenate.
Friends, we may be in for a long and difficult journey with this pandemic. It is therefore imperative that we follow Jesus’ example of withdrawing.
So after using technology to be present, give yourself permission to turn off the smartphone. Take a break by watching a movie or listening to music. Go for a walk on a beautiful day. Take a nap. Play with pets. Bake bread or make a healthy meal. Do things that renew your soul and nourish your body.
Above all, we can follow Jesus’ example of withdrawing from the tyranny of the urgent to make time to keep company with God. Making time for prayer was the way Jesus found the strength and courage to meet the challenges of his day.
So find a spiritual practice that works for you. Make that practice a daily priority, just like Jesus did. You just may discover along the way that your spiritual practice carries you when you find it difficult to carry yourself.
And finally, we do well to remember that we are never alone.
As Psalm 23 reminds us, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we have no reason to fear. For God is with us in all things. And God will see us through all things.
For God loves this world so much that when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, he sent his only Son Jesus.
Jesus came to rescue and redeem. He came to share our human nature, living and dying as one of us. He came to defeat the power of death. He came to give us abundant life.
This same Jesus is still among us, comforting and challenging, banishing darkness with light, overcoming despair with hope.
He will be with us always.
And he will give us the strength and courage we need to press ahead with faith, hope, and love.