Following Christ in a Pandemic
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“Why do these things happen?” is a question as old as humanity itself. Why do good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people? Is COVID-19 a punishment from God? We hear these kinds of claims punishment from God for the sins of New Orleans, some have claimed. What about this pandemic that the world is going through? To begin to answer we look to words of Jesus. We heard a story of Jesus hearing about a group of Galileans who had been put to death by Pilate. A man-made disaster if you like. He asks his followers “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all the other Galileans?” Jesus goes on to mention 18 people who were killed when a tower fell on them. A much more random act, though one might question the construction of the tower I suppose. “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Did these people suffer because of their sins?
Similar story in John 9, which we looked at this past Lent. Jesus and his followers come across a man who had been blind from birth. The question comes directly from Jesus’ disciples this time. “Rabbi, who sinned, that this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Not even a question of whether or not this blindness is some sort of punishment for sin. The only question is “Whose sin?” How are we to make sense of this situation?
Jesus turns the question around in both cases. In the first one, he issues a call to repent. To turn. To what or to whom are we going to turn in life, whether in times of great joy or great sorrow? At Easter, Pastor Abby spoke about Mary Magdalene turning from the empty tomb. Turning from a place of death and encountering the one who is new life. The one in whom new life is found. Which really invites another question for the follower of Christ in these times. What are we being told to turn away from when so much has been stripped away? What practices have we been engaging in as individuals and churches that have not served to turn us toward Jesus but actually away from him? What practices have we started that we need to continue? What has not being able to gather together meant for us, if anything? Is that good or bad?
In the second story, Jesus provides another way of looking at the question. Rather than “Whose sin caused this suffering?” the question becomes “How might the works of God be revealed in these times?” What are works of God? Love. Grace. Mercy. Justice. Wholeness. Healing. In the case of the man who was born blind, the work of God was wholeness and healing. Ruth Haley Barton describes how Jesus reframes the question in this way – “… the blame question is as unhelpful today as it was back then, but what is helpful is the way that Jesus reframes the question. With this reframing, he helps us get in touch with the deepest cries of our heart.” RHB poses these questions as one the church should be asking in these times – “God, what are you doing in all of this and how can I join you in it? What are you saying and how can I hear you better? What are the works of God waiting to be revealed in me and in each of us through this COVID-19 global crisis that affects each of us so intimately and personally?”
So let us ask these things of God, of ourselves and of one another. I know that when the shutdowns started, my first thought both for my own family and church family was “Is everyone ok?” It continues to be! I was reminded though that our call as a church is beyond our walls – a truth that seems more evident now that we don’t have walls. This call is for each of us no matter what how extensive or not our immediate families are. In what ways are we being called to love our neighbour in these times? Do we love our community and honour God by continuing to gather? This is a question that many churches have faced and answered in different ways. What will honouring God and one another look like as we begin to gather again when we can? What are we doing individually and together that will enable us to hear God’s voice? More about that in a little while. For now, the truth to carry with us is that God has been turning suffering to good since the earliest of days. Remember the words that Joseph spoke to his brothers when he revealed who he was in the middle of a famine - “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” God showed this way in the death and resurrection of Christ and God has been showing this way ever since. We carry this truth but it’s not always a good thing to lead with it. As followers of Christ, we are called to grieve with those who grieve, not offer up easy answers. Very little about anything these days is easy it seems, and oftentimes the most appropriate response is lament.
Lament Psalm 22:1-11
All around us people are grieving losses. Our awareness of this has been made very acute. There are degrees of loss we shouldn’t discount any of it. Loss of routine. Loss of a graduation ceremony. Loss of livelihood. Loss of being with one another. Loss of life. We’re made acutely aware of the latter every day when we hear the count. Number infected. Number of lives lost. It’s relatively easy to hear a number and not be struck by it. One thousand dead. Twenty-thousand dead. Seventy-thousand dead. It’s different of course when we see the pictures or hear the stories. I read an article from a newspaper series called “Voices from the Pandemic.” This was a first-person account told by a man called Tony Sizemore, whose wife was the first person known to have died of COVID-19 in Indiana. She had worked at a car rental company. The article starts like this – “She’s dead. I’m quarantined. That’s how the story ends. I keep going back over it in loops, trying to find a way to sweeten it, but nothing changes the facts. I wasn’t there with her at the end. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I don’t even know where her body is right now, or if the only thing that’s left of her is ashes. From normal life to this hell in a week. That’s how long it took. How am I supposed to make any sense of that?”
It would not do to come alongside such suffering with triumphal proclamations of the hope and joy you have. It would not do to speak first of how God can bring good from suffering. For the follower of Christ, we turn to lament. NT Wright has described lament like this – “Lament is what happens when people ask ‘Why?’ and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centred worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world. It’s bad enough facing a pandemic in New York City or London. What about a crowded refugee camp on a Greek Island? What about Gaza? Or South Sudan?”
The Bible is a rich source of prayers of lament, which are really songs of lament. My God my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me? Yet you are holy… Yet it was you who took me from my mother’s womb… While we’re lamenting, we’re still orienting ourselves toward God. I like to think of lament in much the same way I think of the blues, you’re singing about the harshness of life but you’re still singing. At the same time, God laments with us, God’s spirit groaning within us with sighs too deep for words. Sometimes this is what is called for first.
A lament is a song. A lament is a prayer. This is what we turn to now.
It was a time of much fear. It was a time of people hiding in their houses, afraid to come out. Behind locked doors even. It was a time of waiting, keenly aware of dashed hopes and an uncertain future. It was a time when Jesus came among his followers. A time when Jesus made his presence known and made his message known, which was – “Peace be with you.” I’m talking about the evening of the day that Jesus was raised from the dead. In a time of waiting and fear, new life was made known. Jesus’ presence was made known. John 20:19-22
How do we wait well? There is another account of Jesus’ followers waiting in the New Testament. It comes at the beginning of the book of Acts, where Jesus tells his followers to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father.
The Holy Spirit.
There weren’t very many of them. One hundred and twenty, Luke tells us. They were all together in an upstairs room, women, and men. A question I often ask myself is “How do we wait well?” There are seasons in our lives where we are called to wait. We always live with a certain amount of unknowing, granted, much as we like to try and fool ourselves that we are in control. There are seasons though, in which we are made acutely aware of how uncertain the future is. This is, for many, such a season. It’s such a season for the church, most definitely. What are we being called to? What will being the church look like in the days to come? How do we wait well in the middle of such questions?
They were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. Acts 1:13-14. How do we wait well? Devote ourselves to turning to God in prayer. What does that look like for you? What does that look like for our church? We’ve set up times of prayer for people to be praying together each week via video-fellowship or telephone fellowship. It’s strange at first, but with practice, it becomes less strange. We’ve been listening for God’s voice and making our thanks and gratitude and requests known. It has been good. Join us in this if you haven’t.
Because we want to be people who wait well. Peter and company were waiting for the promised Holy Spirit. We have the Holy Spirit in us and with us as we await the promised return of Christ. We pray “Come Lord Jesus!” And all God’s people say, “Amen!”
We pray for others. We pray with others. A poll was reported by a British newspaper last weekend that said one-quarter of adults in the UK have viewed a church service online. (Another poll reported that the Vicar of Dibley was the people’s choice for best screen-priest to lead the country through coronavirus.) For those aged 18-34 the number was one third. One in 20 people have started to pray – praying for family, friends, thanking God, frontline service, someone sick with COVID-19, other countries with COVID-19.
There are people all around us open to prayer. Pray for people. Let’s not just pray for but pray with. Invite others into the place of prayer. Pray simply. Thank you, God. Help us, God. Bring your peace. The invitation from Jesus remains – “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” Jesus’ invitation remains. “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Let us be friends who make that invitation known in and through our prayers for and with people.
Whether it be through asking God where God is at work in our days and how and where the Holy Spirit calls us to join in, whether it be in our lamenting, whether it be in our praying – may God make us faithful people who wait well. Knowing that in the most uncertain times God’s goodness, mercy, love, and presence never fail. May these things be true for us all. Amen.