Wednesday, April 1, 2020

In Each Others Arms


April 1, 2020 - Wednesday in 5 Lent

Video of this service can be seen here. (The Sermon begins around 18:50.)

We aren't supposed to go this long without hugging one another. Maintaining physical distance is the right thing to do in this time of pandemic, of course, but it isn't supposed to be this way. Being apart from one another runs contrary to who we are--both as human beings and as the people of God.

In the readings for Evening Prayer tonight, Jeremiah warns of a disaster that spreads "from nation to nation" and of "a great tempest that is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth." That sounds familiar to me--not because I believe that the coronavirus has been sent to us by God but because the calamity we face is something that affects all of us. This is not a nation-specific crisis. It is a pandemic. And, much like the pandemics of old, back when medical science had not discovered how diseases were transmitted, the response to a plague was not only physical distancing but social distancing. I read this week of a victim of the bubonic plague whose body was left out in a field and guarded by townsfolk so that no one would come close to it. Even in death, a pandemic leaves us ostracized from our community.

In fact, some of the reasons that the plague only became a recurrent problem relatively late in human history are population density and intercultural commerce (see this article). The closer we live together and the more we interact with other people the more likely an epidemic or pandemic will strike. As long as we are apart from one other--isolated from those who could carry terrible infectious diseases--we can stay safe. (Maybe in our isolation it would serve us well to read some of Edgar Allen Poe's works.) But we aren't supposed to live apart from one another. We aren't supposed to be cutoff from one another and the world.

When his disciples tried to keep eager parents from bringing their children close to Jesus so that he might touch them, Jesus rebuked his disciples and said, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." They were not being held at bay by the disciples because of fear of contagion. Instead, it seems that disciples didn't think that the needs of the parents and children deserved their rabbi's attention. But that instinct ran contrary to everything Jesus embodied. What does it mean to belong in God's reign? What does life in the fulfillment of God's promises look like? How do those who live lives that point others toward God behave? Like children.

My youngest child, who is four years old, still likes to sit in my lap. In the evenings, as dinner is finishing, she invariably asks if she can come and sit in my lap. Partly, that's because she wants to be finished eating the foods she doesn't really like, but also it's because she likes to be held. She wants someone who loves her to wrap his arms around her and remind her through a physical embrace that she is loved. A few days ago, I noticed that, when no one else was around, one of my older children came and sat in my lap, too. Is there anything that the child inside each of us needs more in this time of anxiety and uncertainty than a warm and loving embrace? Is there any better way to describe what it means to participate in the loving reign of God? (Maybe that's why Jesus is so hard on those who get divorced.)

As the church--as the Body of Christ--we must overcome the necessity for physical distancing that this pandemic brings. We cannot be who we were created and called to be if we respond to this moment of crisis by withdrawing from one another. Yes, if a child not in your family tries to run and jump in your arms, you may need to take quick action to maintain good physical separation, but we must recognize something wrong in this need for apartness. We must remember that this is not how things are supposed to be. We must long for physical reunion with one another--for the loving embrace of the community of faith--and we must respond to that longing with non-physical gestures of connection. We must pray for one another. We must say "I love you" and "I miss you" to each other. We must call and check on each other. We must hold onto one another especially when we can't because that is what it means to be part of God's reign. That's what it means to be the Body of Christ. That's what it means to be the people of God.

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