The Third Sunday of Lent, 15 March, 2020. Readings for this Sunday: Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42
As of yesterday, March 13, the Diocese of Toronto of the Anglican Church of Canada announced that all religious gatherings in its churches and parishes were suspended to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. This morning I was asked to record Morning Prayer and offer a reflection, to be posted on YouTube for the parish website. It’s a strange feeling, but as Matt Skinner notes in his excellent reflection on the Working Preacher website, it’s in uncharted places such as this one that the church’s proclamation and witness are most necessary. MP+
The first reading for this Sunday, from Exodus (17:1-7), speaks across the ages to us, as we struggle with what it means to live in a time of pandemic. We, the “whole congregation” of Canadians, are wandering in our own wilderness, where there is no toilet paper or hand sanitizer in the stores, where our vacations are cancelled and we’re afraid of anyone with a cough and worried about our investments tanking. We’re afraid of being quarantined, afraid of running out of stuff, afraid of getting sick, and probably prone to being a little quarrelsome and plaintive.
When I started to write this sermon, I had no idea if I would actually deliver it in St. Margaret’s 48 hours from now. Now I know that if you hear these words, they will be recorded on Saturday in an empty church and made available on the parish website. History is moving very quickly, and things seem to be unravelling. At least fifteen years ago, during SARS, we could still meet to worship. The difference today is the need to protect ourselves and others, to “flatten the curve”. Cancelling meetings and doing our part in social distancing is now a social duty that the church accepts, however reluctantly. Nevertheless, as we are cut off from the companionship, the koinania, of the Body of Christ, and denied access to the Eucharist, we may feel tempted, as the Israelites did in the wilderness, to ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
The wisdom of our faith, and the witness of the church, throughout the ages, is to say “yes, the Lord is among us.” We don’t need to be in church to be with God. The gift of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, that Jesus promises to his disciples, is unconditional. God’s presence is not quarantined.
I read a series of posts on social media from a Rabbi named Danya Ruttenberg (@TheRaDR) that I thought were fill of wisdom, and I want to share them with you. Answering the question of “where is God now?”, Rabbi Danya wrote this:
“The part that has God in it is about what we all choose to do from here. The Torah commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Right now, for those of us with lower risk, that looks like punctiliousness around limiting our own exposure in order to keep others safe.
The part that has God in it is in whether we check in on those who are more vulnerable, whether we offer to run errands for them or bring by a casserole, how we reach out and towards one another during a time when everything feels stressful and scary.
The part that has God in it is in our awareness that we’re all interconnected, and that each of us is an irreplaceable manifestation of the divine image. And in our decision to fight for one another–now, by staying home, not hugging, washing hands and doing everything else we can to try to help mitigate the impact of this pandemic. Personal level, family level, community level, systemic level. All hands on deck. The part that has God in it is in the showing up.
The part that has God in it is the people working tirelessly, selflessly, sometimes around the clock to take care of other people even at risk to themselves, because ill people need care, better tests need to be developed, vaccines need to be created, and it must be done.”
To the Rabbi’s wise words, I would only add this. God is with God’s people, now, and always, and God will be visible in the actions of God’s people.
So be calm and trust in the Lord and the presence of the Spirit.
Be wise and do your part in all public safety measures.
Be kind and share what you have. Resist the temptation to panic buy or hoard.
Be attentive to the needs of those around you.
Finally, be a people of prayer, mindful of the apostle’s command to pray unceasingly (1 Thes 5:17). Pray for hospital workers, for first responders, for all who care for the sick, for researchers, for those in service industries and those whose work is essential to the public wellbeing. Pray for one another. Since we can’t pray at church, pray at home. Trust that God, who is with you wherever you may be, will hear your prayers.
May the blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be with all of us, now and always.