Ocean Springs, Mississippi

We’ve Been Here Before

Sermon on John 9:1-7

A friend of mine is a pastor at a Lutheran church in South Carolina. This week, shared on Facebook that while he was biding his time in the office social distancing, he looked through the church’s records. He went back to 1918 when that congregation was just eight years old and a flu pandemic gripped the whole world. In those records, in the fall of 1918, was a handwritten note: “no Sundays from September.” And there was nothing for the rest of the year.

Now on the one hand, that’s a little ominous. What happened after September? Well, we know from the history books, that it was a lot of suffering. But on the other hand, it’s a bit reassuring. It’s reassuring because it reminds us that we, the church, have been here before. God’s people have been through this. And I’m sure that for the people of that congregation, the separation, the distance, the unknowing, was just as painful as it is today.

Let’s got back a little further in time. It’s the year 1527, and there is an outbreak of the bubonic plague in Wittenberg, Germany. Martin Luther receives a letter from a concerned fellow pastor asking what to do. And Luther wrote a characteristically long response back; he’s got a lot of advice.
But some of it seems strangely familiar:

“Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence . . . and act like [someone] who wants to help put out the burning city.”

Not that far from “Stay Home” “Wash Your Hands” “Flatten the Curve.” I think the CDC would approve.

All of this is to say that if we look back in history—if we look back on the story of God’s people—we the church, we the human race, have been here before. We’ve been here many times before. And we’ve survived, we’ve made it through, and we’ve even found ways to flourish in the face of turmoil.

During Luther’s time, the best method of surviving the plague was to run away. They didn’t fully understand how it spread. There were no effective treatments. So if the plague showed up in your town, you best get out. And that meant leaving behind the sick and dying. That meant closing shops. Doctors would not treat patients; priests would not administer last rights.

But Luther had a different approach: Don’t run. Stay. Serve your neighbor. Love your neighbor. Like Jesus does in our gospel lesson this week, we are called to bring healing to others. We are bound to each other…in ways that we are discovering are so much more complex and intimate and unbreakable than we ever realized.

I think these are lessons that we, as a church, have learned over and over again in our history. And we’re going through it again today. It’s times like these—when we are walking through that dark valley—where we learn to walk in faith.

So how do we walk faithfully in the shadow of a global pandemic? Well, there’s quite a bit we can do on a practical level. Here are just a few:

+ First, we make sacrifices out of love. We stay at home when we can, we adjust our lifestyle so that we protect those around us who are vulnerable.

+ Second, we live generously. We trust that God will provide everything that we need. We don’t hoard toilet paper or face masks. When we got to the store, we take what we need and nothing more—but if we do take a little more, let that extra can or loaf of bread be for the neighbor who needs it.

+ Finally, we let our prayers guide us into action and hope. One of the things we can pray about during this crisis is for the strength to act. So Luther’s response to the plague was to open his home to be a sick ward. Maybe not the most effective treatment for the current pandemic, but it was a sign of his willingness to place his trust in God and serve his neighbor in the best way he could.

It’s been said that in a crisis, we can look to the helpers. But all of us are helpers. We are not powerless in this, and we are not alone. This is not the first time the church has been called to this type of work in the face of suffering, nor will it be the last.

We will get through this, and we will be stronger and more faithful because of it. But look: let’s not kid ourselves, it’s not all going to be easy. If we follow the path that other countries have been on, this week in particular is going to be a lot harder than the last. But we persevere by embracing hope. In the face of the cross, we continue to hold out the promise of the resurrection.

As Jesus said to us today: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” And Jesus is still very much in this world, just as he has always been and always will.