|Published by Josh Hosler on Mon, Mar 30, 2020 8:25 AM|
Last Wednesday at noon, a small group of Good Shepherd folks met online to pray, but we weren’t alone. We were there at the request of Pope Francis, in a call to all Christians to observe the Feast of the Annunciation, and to pray for relief from the COVID-19 pandemic. We prayed the Magnificat, that wonderful song of Mary that calls for the powerful to be brought down from their thrones and the hungry to be filled with good things. The Feast of the Annunciation, appropriately, takes place exactly nine months before Christmas. Did you hear that announcement? Mary is pregnant! Christmas is only nine months away!
When Christmas comes, I wonder we’ll view this time, nine months prior?
Next Friday, the church will observe the feast of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While secular society celebrates his birth into this life, the church celebrates his birth into the next life. April 4 is the day Dr. King was assassinated. It’s been 52 years since that awful day in Memphis. And every year, the church celebrates this modern-day saint.
I wonder what Martin Luther King, Jr. would say about these times? Well, let’s hear a quote:
I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Such were the words of a man who had set his mind not on the flesh, but on the spirit. He was assassinated the very next morning. But Dr. King knew that for the people of the earth, freedom was coming, and we can know that, too, as we see through the eyes of faith. Just as surely as Christmas is coming, we know that freedom is coming. And I hope I don’t sound too flip when I assert that someday we will all be able to come out of our homes and say, “Thank God almighty, we are free at last!” If Dr. King could use these words to describe the eschatological reality of all of God’s dreams coming true, we can surely also use them for the lesser joy of the end of a quarantine.
Yet also in Dr. King’s words, we do have “difficult days ahead.” Whatever our president might wish for, this pandemic is only now ramping up to a tempest, and we will not worship together in person on the Day of Easter two weeks from now. The weeks and months to come will show us how well we did in responding—as individuals, with our social distancing, and as a nation, with our promptness is supplying our medical community with resources.
This week I texted with Rev. Barbara McHenry, the wonderful new chaplain at St. Francis Hospital. She said that the hospital is already swamped and short of supplies. She asks us to pray for the hospital staff, that God will give them strength, and for our local and federal government and governments worldwide, that God will guide them and give them wisdom.
I struggled with whether to share Chaplain Barbara’s update with you all, not because I don’t think prayer is needed, but because St. Francis is our local hospital, and I didn’t want to cause you unnecessary anxiety. But in the end, having anxiety is not the problem. It’s what we do with it. Just look at Jesus in today’s gospel reading.
We’d rather think of Jesus as a man without anxiety. But that’s just not true. He doesn’t let on about his anxiety at first; when he hears that Lazarus is ill, he doesn’t rush to his friend’s side. But when confronted full force with the reality that Lazarus is dead—and that Lazarus’s friends and family are in agony—Jesus reacts with a lot of anxiety. Our translation says that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” But no translation can really do justice to the Greek adjective here, which is tarasso—angry, stirred up, shaken, agitated.
In other words, if anyone had asked Jesus in that moment if he was OK, the only honest answer would have been, “Not at all.”
Maybe you’ve had a moment like this in the past week. The walls and the darkness feel like they’re closing in. The future is nothing but uncertain. Does it help to know that when Jesus was faced with illness and death, he felt the same way? And that the very next thing he did was to openly weep? Jesus sanctifies our grief, even in the moment just before he raises Lazarus from the dead.
I believe that longer gospel passages call for shorter sermons. But I do want to mention that this week the church observed yet another important occasion: the feast day of Oscar Romero, Roman Catholic bishop of El Salvador. March 24 was the 40th anniversary of Romero’s assassination. Days before his death by bullet, the bishop asserted, “As a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be reborn in the Salvadoran people.”
The archbishop’s prediction came true. Believe me, I’ve been to El Salvador, and I’ve seen it. Romero began living the resurrection before his own death. So did Dr. King. And how on earth did young Mary sing of the downfall of the mighty and the lifting up of the lowly from within the narrow world of her own humble circumstances? All these saints held out visions of new life in the midst of fear and death.
We’ve also just heard the story from Ezekiel in which he dreams of a valley of dry bones, and of the Spirit of God breathing these bones back into life again. Our task as Christians today is to set our present-day experiences into the framework of our theology … and not the other way around. Yes, we see dry bones, but we know there will be life for them. Yes, we see a tomb, but we know that it will be emptied.
We have difficult days ahead, yes, and we have been given this vision of new life that comes only through death, and unfailingly through death. In the short term, our task is to love one another, and every opportunity to do so makes life worth living. First, sanctify your isolation: see it as noble and brave not to risk spreading this virus. We can also make good use of our anxieties by helping others from a distance. If you have more than enough money today, or if the government gives you money you don’t really need, give it to those who need it more. If you have more than enough time today, use some of it to connect with others. If you have other gifts to share, think creatively about how you can do this.
We will also feel hopeless at times. We will feel as if there’s nothing we can do, but that’s not true—we can always pray. When we make a daily practice of prayer, it becomes a habit and a way of life. Prayer will guide us through this dark, isolating time—and prayer will also show surprising places where light and community can be found. So pray more often, on a schedule. For instance, you might join us each Wednesday night for the service of Compline. And next week is Holy Week, which will offer all sorts of opportunities to gather here online for prayer.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” we hear Jesus say to a dead man’s sister. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” Such has been our faith for two thousand years, all over the world, through situations far worse than this pandemic. On the days when you feel strong, pray, and thank God for this temporary boost. And on the days you feel weak, pray, and find someone who can listen as you fall apart a little. Like Jesus did. Just before he put his anxiety to eternal purpose. Just before new life took everyone by surprise. Amen.