Texts: Genesis 12:1-4; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-21
I’ve had a number of different people ask me this week about the coronavirus: what we’re doing about it, whether we should be doing this or no longer doing that. I’ve also had a number of conversations with other Lutheran pastors and colleagues from other denominations about what is the most responsible, most loving response to the situation in which we find ourselves with this burgeoning pandemic.
In the midst of all of this, the thing I see at work most clearly is fear. Some fear is reasonable and warranted, but I cannot help but think that the fear that is present among us right now goes beyond what is reasonable and warranted, even to the point of being not only silly but downright dangerous. Stockpiling supplies leaves stores empty so that our neighbors do not have access to essentials. Mistrust of our neighbors of Chinese and Korean origin is spreading, breeding more discrimination and alienation. People spreading unsubstantiated rumors and hearsay serves only to put us all a little more on edge.
Jesus reminds Nicodemus today of the story of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. The Israelites were grumbling about Moses; about how he was irresponsible, bringing them out into the desert to die, how God had no right to take them away from the three square meals a day they enjoyed back in Egypt. As a result, the story goes, God sent a plague of poisonous vipers among the people. Those who were bitten died. They cried out to the Lord for help (just as they had when they were getting their three squares in Egypt), and the Lord responded by telling Moses to cast a bronze statue of a serpent and hoist it up on a pole; anyone who was bitten could look upon the bronze serpent and live.
It seems an odd way to perform a healing; certainly it would have been more efficient just to call off the snakes, right? But there is a method to Moses’ madness. In order to be healed of the problem, the people had to acknowledge what was wrong in order to fix it. They had to look at the snake, which meant recognizing their grumbling, which meant admitting their fear: the people were afraid that God was leading them into the wilderness to die. In order to live, they had to recognize that the real threat was not God or Moses, but their fear.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that the problem—or the “judgement,” as he says—is that the light came into the world but we loved the darkness. We don’t love the darkness because we are inherently evil or malicious; we love the darkness because we are afraid. Ironically, although it is the darkness that we’re afraid of, we are so terrified of what the light might expose in us, of how we might be laid bare before God and one another, that we prefer to hide in the very darkness that terrifies us.
Nowhere is that more evident than on the cross. When God sent the light into the world, and in our fear, we preferred to remain in the darkness. Our fear is what crucified Jesus: fear of the Romans, fear of his popularity, fear of losing our own power and control. In our fear, we brought death to the one who came to bring us life. Jesus was lifted up like the serpent, a sign for us of how dangerous we can be when we are afraid.
The coronavirus is making people sick, even killing people; but it is fear that is driving people insane, that is emptying store shelves, that is turning us against one another and causing us to see friends and neighbors as shadows in which unknown dangers might be lurking. The fear we have over the coronavirus is no different than the xenophobia that has disrupted our immigration system and now has taken away all hope of asylum for our neighbors in need south of the border. It’s no different than the fear that drives the political polarization which is currently tearing us apart, a fear which our enemies across the world are taking advantage of to further divide us with hate and mistrust. It’s the same as the fear of Black men that causes neighbors to call 911 on people out for a walk or jumpy police officers to shoot 12-year-old boys.
The season of Lent invites us to confront our fear. We are all worried, and that is natural. We can be afraid—but we cannot afford to let that fear control us. This is why Moses lifts up the snake in the desert, why the Son of Man is lifted up on the cross: so that we may be forced to look at the thing of which we are afraid—death—so that we can be saved from its power over us.
In Christ, we are called not to fear, but to love: to love ourselves and one another. Our congregation will continue to show that love as we always have: by worshiping together on Sundays and Wednesdays as usual. However, we will also comply with any official guidance from the local or state government, and we will also be looking for new ways to love those who cannot gather in this building.
We will not be changing our communion practice because, long before this new virus, we were already doing what has been scientifically proven to spread the fewest germs. Taking communion from the common cup has been shown through research to have no higher risk of infection than not taking communion at all. However, this is the same thing as having no risk. If you are sick or think you are sick, I will remind you that receiving only the bread is still receiving full communion, and I will ask you to refrain from taking the wine until your symptoms go away for the sake of your neighbors.
Each of you must figure out how to best protect yourselves. Many of you fall into the vulnerable category: people over 60, or who have an underlying health condition, or who are immunocompromised. I can’t tell you what is best. For me and most other younger people, if I were to be infected, I would probably have a bad day or two and then be fine. The stakes aren’t the same for me as they are for you. If you feel safest staying home, then please do so with the blessing of this congregation knowing that you are in our prayers.
If you are not in a vulnerable category, then the only real fear is passing this on to someone who is. Although this is a “novel,” or new, coronavirus, there are lots of different kinds of coronaviruses. Many types of common cold are caused by coronaviruses. There is also the flu, which can be deadly to many of the same folks vulnerable to this new virus. We protect ourselves and others from this virus the same way we do from the others: by washing our hands, not touching our faces, and covering our coughs and sneezes. If you think you may be sick, please stay home from work or worship until you’re better; it will help give your neighbors peace of mind. I will also invite you all to wash your hands before and after worship and pass the peace with a respectful bow or a tap of the elbow.
Although the news sounds dire, it is good to remember that part of what has officials so afraid is how much they don’t know. There’s only 2 months of data on this virus, and so most of their concern comes from an abundance of caution. Their concern does not mean we should panic. It’s okay to be afraid, but it is not okay to let our fear deprive others of necessities, turn us against our neighbors, or spread panic or potentially false information.
Instead of living in fear, we are called to live in this time as we do in all other times: in love. Whatever you do in this moment, do it in love. Wash your hands, stay home if you’re sick, cover your coughs, help calm your neighbors, but do it because you love them and yourself and this community. It was our fear that crucified Christ, but it was his love that turned that death into life. This is not vague hope for an unknown future, it is a word of comfort for times just such as these.