Our world is experiencing a pandemic. It’s a strange pandemic, one you can hardly see right now. It’s a pandemic whose victims are nearly invisible to most of us here in San Diego. And yet we are warned that it is spreading, invisibly, from person to person, and there are likely thousands more cases than anyone knows about, and that our health care system may be overwhelmed, and some of the folks affected will die.
Which makes it a strange time to be the church. Here at St. Paul’s, I have been looking forward to being with you for this solemn and reverent Evensong – and I am here, but the congregation is mostly online. We are here worshiping our God and yet keeping a safe distance from each other, and we have asked many people to stay home and watch online if they can, for their safety and the safety of others. This is the right thing for us to do. It is our way of caring for our neighbors, it is our way of showing love to the most vulnerable. As Christians, we sacrifice the joy of worship for the greater good of caring for those in need and preventing this disease from spreading. We have to make this sacrifice. It is how we love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
But here’s the question that we have to address as Christians in times like these: What does our faith say to us in a time of pandemic? How are we to live and believe? Well, the first thing to remember is that one of the most often repeated phrases in all of Scripture is: Be not afraid. I did a quick computer search that showed that some variation of this phrase appears in the Bible at least 78 times. God says it to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph; Moses says it to the people of Israel getting ready to escape from Egypt; the prophets say it numerous times to a people fearful of conquest; the angel Gabriel says it to both Mary and Joseph as he is preparing them for Jesus’ birth; Jesus says it to his disciples when he calls them to come follow him; and Jesus says it to them again when he is preparing to die: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
In a very real sense, we could say that God called Israel as a people, and Jesus came to humans as the Son of Man and Son of God, on purpose so that we should not fear – not fear evil, not fear death, not fear any powers that might overcome and harm us. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Nothing separates us from the love of God. Not sickness, not suffering, not even death itself. Because in Jesus, in the love of God in Jesus, we have the promise of eternal life, and nothing in this world can separate us from that hope and that promise. We are people of hope. We are people of the resurrection. We are not subjects to fear.
Or, as Franklin D. Roosevelt said: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Fear changes us, fear makes us close in upon ourselves, fear prevents us from acting in accordance with our values, fear separates us from each other and convinces us that we can rely upon no one but ourselves. And Jesus has come to release us from the power of fear and the power of death.
Which is why our diocese talks about fearless love. Jesus calls us to act at all times out of love, even when it’s hard to do. And even if we are not really fearless people, even if we are afraid because we are human, that we or someone we love might suffer or die from this disease, it’s all right, it’s only human, for us to be afraid because we can still be courageous. Courage is deciding to act even when we are afraid. When we have courage, we can do things that are not easy to do because we love our neighbors. We can refrain from worship if it might put others at risk. We can care for the hungry and the poor. We can give of ourselves to tend to the sick.
That’s what Constance, an Episcopal nun in Memphis, Tennessee, did in 1878 when an outbreak of yellow fever hit her city. She and the other nuns in her monastery, and two priests, stayed behind to care for the sick when nearly everyone else had fled the city. They were the only people left to care for others in a landscape of horror, illness, and death, and they cared for the sick until most of them got sick and died themselves. We remember them as the Martyrs of Memphis in our Episcopal calendar, Sept. 9. Many other Christians, like Constance, have given their lives, willingly and lovingly, for the sake of others. You may know some. You may have experienced their self-giving love in your lives. You may have done courageous, loving things yourself. That’s courage. That’s love – costly, self-giving, other-focused love. That kind of love describes the life of Jesus in our world.
That courageous, loving Jesus is the Jesus of the Incarnation, the God who became human, the God who died for us, the God who we believe is truly present to us even now. It doesn’t matter if most of our congregation is sheltering at home, it doesn’t matter whether we have Holy Communion or not, Jesus is here. He is here in us, because we are the Body of Christ. Which means that during this Lenten fast, we are fasting from the bread and wine of the Eucharist, but we are still the Body of Christ.
And, as a priest friend of mine said to his congregation this week, Jesus did not come to relieve us from our suffering, but to join us in our suffering. That’s the truth of the Incarnation. The Episcopal Church says that the bread and wine of Holy Communion carry the real presence of Christ our Savior. In this Lenten fast from Holy Communion, we are experiencing a new kind of real presence, not in the bread and wine but in the reality of our suffering, worry, loneliness, and heartache over this disease. Jesus joins us in all of that. The Son of God who cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” knows what it means to be afraid, forsaken, alone. That Son of God is the same God who loves us now, in our time of need and anxiety. That Son of God gives us love to share with the world, now more than ever.
So as the Body of Christ, how can we act with courage in a time of crisis? I believe that it is possible for us to worship God, follow Jesus, and pray for our world in new ways in this unprecedented time. And truly, this crisis may become the opportunity for us to discover new ways of being the church and serving others. Here at the cathedral, for instance, you have started a new ministry, Circles of Love, to care for and keep in touch with each other. This may be the time when we learn how to worship in small gatherings at home, or dive more deeply into our Christian faith by doing prayers and Bible studies in small groups, or help our families learn to worship together, or care for our homeless, sick, and friendless neighbors, or truly love others as we love ourselves. Our response to this time of anxiety may be what brings us closer together in community. This is our opportunity to learn new ways of being the church – not a church that is focused on a Sunday morning liturgy in a beautiful building, but a church that is focused on our call to love our neighbors, courageously and sacrificially, just the way Jesus loves us.
So let’s use this time to discover the new kind of church Jesus is calling us to be. Use this Lenten fast from Holy Communion and the joys of Christian worship to get to know your neighbors. Take groceries and food to those who are homebound. Feed the hungry who have no homes to shelter in. Feed children who will not be receiving meals at school. Give money, if you can, to help your church assist those who lose wages or jobs.
And be the church. Gather in different ways, in small groups or online, to worship and read the Bible and take courage from God’s words to us in scripture. Form new bonds with your fellow church members, recognizing that we, together, no matter how we worship, in this beautiful church or at home with our families, we are the church, the Body of Christ given for the world Christ loves.
And most of all, pray. Pray for our church, pray for our community, pray for our world. Pray for all who are sick and all who are afraid. Pray for those who will lose jobs or wages in this time of crisis. Pray for our medical professionals, that God will give them the strength they need to care for the sick, and our medical system, that we will have capacity to treat all who need to be healed. Pray for those who have died and will die, and pray for those who will mourn.
Pray for Christ to be truly present with us and in us in a whole new way. Pray for the world to know God’s love through our church.
In our reading from the Letter to the Romans for this Sunday, Paul says this:
“We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” During this Lenten fast from the comforts of our usual way of being the church, let us remember that our fasting is a gift to the world. We are giving up something we love because we love our neighbors. And we are suffering – but Jesus is in our suffering, and that means that suffering produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. Christian hope is loving hope, it is living hope, it is courageous hope, it is confident hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the love he gives the world. In Jesus, God’s love has been poured into our hearts, and it is God’s love that we are giving to the world, in the name of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.