"A Tale of Two Cities"
Scripture – John 17:1-11
Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, May 24, 2020
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The day was so gorgeous and everyone was so weary of sheltering in place, that some just could not resist the summons of the shops and restaurants. They felt it was time to resume living as they had before Covid-19 kicked all of us in the seat of the pants. It was time to liberate themselves from those pesky restrictions the gloomy health officials have warned us to follow.
The governor paved the way by cooking the books to make it appear that cases and deaths were declining in their state. After jostling a few dates, the statistics suddenly supported his decision to reopen stores – including hair salons, nail salons, massage parlors, and tattoo shops. In a posh, upscale development, stores displayed signs beckoning the adventurous inside. The signs read "Welcome back" and "The future is bright" and simply "Yay!"
One woman, wearing nothing on her face but a smile, breezed into her favorite store. She took a pass on the hand sanitizer that was offered and meandered through the store touching everything that caught her eye. Outside, her mask-free husband said, "It's a personal choice. If you want to stay home, stay home. If you want to go out, you can go out. I'm not in the older population. If I were to get (the virus), I have a 90 percent chance of getting cured."
The writer covering the reopening spoke briefly to one woman who was pushing her 88-year old mother around the carousels of clothing. The writer also spoke to people who were meeting friends for cocktails and hugging each other.
"I think you have to live life," one man said as he sipped his beer. Then, he added, "I know what some people are going to say – 'Those selfish idiots are killing our old people!' "1
Hmmm. I'm not sure I could have said it better myself. The reason for the various precautions we have been advised to observe is not simply for ourselves, but for others.
I understand why this man's attitude triggers a visceral response in me. I spend almost all of my time around people of faith, and I often forget that there are so many whose criterion for decision making is singular. How will it affect me? Period.
We Christians are a peculiar lot. We follow One who commands us not simply to love ourselves and to do what makes us happy, but to love others as ourselves. Jesus expects us not only to be devoted to our family, but also to the common good. He calls on us to feed not only our personal appetites, but to feed others who are hungry. And in times of crisis, we are expected to step up to the plate and serve the needs of others.
Today's gospel lectionary reading, like the previous two Sundays, moves back in time to the Last Supper. Jesus is delivering his final instructions to his disciples. His core message – which he drills home to them – is his new command: "Love one another as I have loved you."
In today's passage, the disciples are honed in on Jesus' words as he prays. Jesus says, "Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." To know God is to embrace what Jesus has revealed: that God loves us and we return God's love by loving others. Giving ourselves for the good of others makes life meaningful. It also sparks joy and arouses hope.
Until recently, I had not heard of "Q Ideas." It is an evangelical Christian group with a large audience. It has an annual conference in which people give presentations like a Ted Talk and they post podcast interviews. In both March and April, "Q Ideas" featured a nutritionist and cookbook author named Joshua Axe. He downplayed the severity of today's pandemic and cast doubt on the recommendations of Dr. Anthony Fauci. Axe suggested that the pharmaceutical industry and the media were hyping the danger of Covid-19 so they could benefit from people fearing a pandemic. He also claimed he had "complete confidence" that he could either avoid infection from the Coronavirus or defeat it in a few days by boosting his immune system. The way to accomplish that, he said, is by drinking ginger tea and ingesting oregano oil. He also said that "the ultimate way to protect yourself and your family during any health crisis is to put your faith in God."2
Obviously I am all in favor of putting faith in God if that means deepening one's understanding of the Bible and following its core teachings. However, I am not in favor of putting faith in God if it means believing that God will keep you free of the Coronavirus if you just ask. God is not going to place a protective bubble around you if you pray hard enough. We have brains and God expects us to use them. We have scientists, and God expects us to listen to them. By all means, pray. Pray for strength, pray for patience, pray for courage; and pray for the wisdom to follow the best medical advice on how to avoid catching and spreading this deadly disease.
By the way, you may have encountered someone who has tried to downplay the severity of Covid-19 by stating that the 1968 Hong Kong flu killed 100,000 people in the U.S. It is true that the Hong Kong flu was one of the deadliest viruses we have seen. However, keep in mind that Covid-19 is on course to kill more than 100,000 in our country despite the entire globe being locked down for two months, people sheltering at home, practicing social distancing, wearing face masks, not going to restaurants and almost no one flying. The comparison is misleading.
Many are becoming impatient with sheltering in place and wearing a mask and keeping a distance from friends and family. Aren't we all? But downplaying the severity of Covid-19 will only lead to more deaths.
The same day that one city was opening its stores and customers were throwing caution to the wind, in another city a few dozen Lutherans engaged in a different kind of spectacle. A colleague describes it. She says that a few dozen people met in a parking lot of the local university. Most remained in their cars and most wore a mask. She walked along the cars, wearing a mask and keeping a safe distance. She spoke to a few and waved at others before climbing back into her car for what came next.
The people had not gathered simply to see one another. That was just a side benefit of what was about to happen. They had assembled to form a procession down Miller Avenue. Aidan and his parents had come home after 35 grueling days and nights in a hospital where he was receiving treatment for leukemia. Between the strict isolation protocol for his condition and the added restrictions due to COVID-19, he had been almost entirely cut off from the outside world.
So at 7:00 p.m., several dozen vehicles decorated with streamers and welcome home signs were led down the street by a roaring fire engine and a flashing ambulance. As each car passed Aidan's house they honked their horns in celebration and shouted out words of love. Neighbors paused on their evening walks to watch the procession leisurely pass. Others stepped out of their homes to smile and clap and cheer. That neighborhood became a thin place where God's Spirit was palpable.
My colleague points out that people are separated by so much these days – by politics and by the ways we believe we should move forward during this pandemic. But for a shining moment, people in her community were bound together in love and gratitude and hope for a young man and his family.3 It was a beautiful thing to behold.
This is the true tale of two cities that represent two ways of living during this global pandemic.
Prayers of the People ~ Barbara Jobe
Gracious and loving God,
We are bombarded with news of flooding in Michigan, cyclone devastation in India, and world-wide Coronavirus disaster. Glimmers of optimism for relief alternate with dashed hopes. We cry out, "When will this time of disruption and isolation end?" The road ahead is long and progress toward healed societies will not be linear, so we pray for all who continue to suffer:
May we all feel your loving presence like a warm blanket wrapped around us. Remind us that you are always with us--we are never alone.
We pray for all who are challenged today to dig deeply into reserves of strength or creativity:
Sustain us all with energy, inspiration, wisdom-- and patience. And when responsibilities overwhelm, help us to trust you to share our burdens.
Lord we thank you for those who have been newly inspired in this time of crisis to act as your eyes and ears, hands and feet, and for those for whom sacrificial service is a continuing way of life:
Buoy all our spirits with the knowledge that, through service, we are becoming more like the people you call us to be.
Lord in this momentous and sobering time, we thank you for small moments of brightness in our everyday lives:
Remind us that savoring these moments of grace makes a positive difference in our physical and mental well-being.
Finally, we thank you Lord for this moment in time: the opportunity to hear the word of God, to sing along with our music leaders and to pray out loud as a community of faith-- even in front of computer screens. For though we must be physically distant for now, we remain spiritually connected through your son, Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray, saying,
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
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