I want to share with you some thoughts about where we are right now as a community of faith.
First, we are grieving. What we are experiencing now – like all other faith communities around the world – is a shared season of grief. The global coronavirus pandemic, in a matter of a few months, has stricken more than 3 million persons, and killed at least 212,000 worldwide – 60,000 in our country, more Americans were killed in the 20 years of the Vietnam War. And in the State of Maryland, the daily count of the dead is still rising. We are grieving the sick, and we’re grieving our dead.
But we’re also grieving what this virus is doing to our way of life as a church. Because of it we have not been able to see, hug, kiss and hold each other. For the sake of our health and the protection of our loved ones, we’ve been locked out of our churches, our favorite chairs and pews collecting dust. Sadly, our Eucharistically-centered spiritual community has not been able to receive the Holy Eucharist, and it’s become more difficult to “be” the Sacrament, the Body of Christ, to those in our wider parish – the poor, the hungry, the refugees, the homeless, the sick and the lonely. We are in gratitude to those faithful and courageous colleagues who are still there, still serving Christ in their food pantries and clothes closets – but we grieve that the need is growing but the resources are shrinking. We…are…grieving.
And we are scared. Fear, that old unwelcome friend that accompanied the disciples throughout much of Jesus’ earthly ministry in the gospels, has increasingly become our unwelcome guest as well. Last week I announced to you what we all probably knew in our hearts but were perhaps unwilling to admit: that it is highly unlikely that we will be returning to our churches at all by the previously hoped for date of May 17. Moreover, only some of us will be able to gather for live in-person worship at some point in the next few months – if the daily numbers of the dead declines for at least two weeks in a row. Further, it is not likely that all of us can return to live in-person worship and congregational activities until a vaccine for the virus is developed – which the scientists tell us could be at least a year from now, and probably longer. The Standing Committee and I are meeting regularly, consulting with public health experts and neighboring dioceses, and developing a process for the re-gathering of our congregations in phases, as public health conditions allow. You will be getting more information about this as needed in the weeks and months ahead.
The reality of the gravity of the situation is sinking in. The world as we know it is changing before our eyes, and it will not with a snap of the finger go back to how it was just three months ago. Every aspect of life, from how schools educate our children, to how we work, shop, recreate and play, will see fundamental changes. And, of course, how we pray together will have to change as well. Prayer itself is not going away – not for a second – but how we do it as a community of love must change to adapt to the present moment. My brothers and sisters, the church as we know it is changing. We grieve the loss of what we have come to love, and that grief is real. Don’t beat yourself up for grieving! You’re not alone, and we are doing it together.
But fear? No! There’s a reason that Jesus addressed that emotion to his disciples in the gospels more than any other. In the gospel lesson assigned for today’s feast of St. Catherine of Siena (Luke 12:22-24, 29-31), Jesus tells them, “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear…do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for God’s kingdom, and these things will be given to you.” This scripture should be memorized by every Christian leader in the coronavirus age.
In the era of Jesus’ earthly ministry, there were different challenges than the ones we face today, but the fear was much the same.
– in the calming of the storm, Jesus said to them, “Why are you afraid?”
– in the sermon on the mount: “Do not be afraid [when you have to stand before the authorities].”
– when sending the disciples out for a mission: “Do not be afraid…”
– after the disciples “drowning” in fear on seeing Jesus walking on water: “It is I, do not be afraid.”
– on their way to Jerusalem with Jesus to meet his final destiny, he told them, “Don’t be afraid.”
– after his resurrection, to the women at the tomb: “Don’t be afraid, go tell the others.”
– when they were “startled and terrified” upon seeing the resurrected Lord: “Peace….why are you so frightened.”
– and when they were huddled in the room with the doors locked for fear of the religious authorities: “Peace be with you.” (three times)
In fact, the most constant admonition that Jesus said to his followers in the Scriptures was not, “Shape up or you’re going to hell” or “You’re going to have to become an expert in the latest technologies before God can use you!” No, the words Jesus used most to motivate his disciples to face a changed situation was “Peace…Do not be afraid…Do not fear…Fear not!”
The church of Jesus Christ has been here before. For millennia the Jesus Movement has weathered many storms, many times when people were afraid it wasn’t going to survive. In our own diocese there have been numerous occasions when individual congregations thought their doors would be closed forever. The American Revolution took an enormous toll on the Anglican churches in Maryland. During the Civil War, several congregations in the middle part of our diocese stopped gathering for a while – years for a few – their buildings ravaged and their congregations torn asunder. Our website today on the first page tells the story of how The Great Influenza epidemic of 1918 forced several churches to close its doors during that plague. The Great Depression brought more congregations to the brink of death. In each case, the ones that survived were able overcome their fear, grieve their losses, and adapt to the new situation – sometimes by merging with others, and sometimes by re-booting their worship, Christian formation and outreach ministries to meet the new challenge. They experimented; they weren’t going to let a good crisis go to waste! Instead they used whatever challenge or calamity that knocked them down to eventually energize them to get up and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in new ways. They refused to let “Fear of The Unknown and The Untried” win the day.
The good news is this: there is something available to us that is more powerful than fear. The world calls it courage. We are all afraid sometimes – but we don’t need to live there. Courage is that amazing ability to act with conviction in the face of fear, and even when one cannot see the horizon ahead of them. You’ve heard me quote Eleanor Roosevelt before; she was one of the great inspirational figures of the 20th century who once said:
“Courage is more exhilarating than fear, and in the long run, it’s easier.”
My friends, I’m calling upon you, the clergy and lay leaders of the Diocese of Maryland, to buckle up, roll your sleeves up, and lead with courage in the days, weeks and months ahead. Don’t give in to fear, because courage is more exhilarating, more uplifting, more powerful than fear. In the present crisis, fear is going to cost us too much, spending energy we just don’t have. We’re going to need every ounce of energy we can muster now, and we’re going to need each other more than we realize. Yes, we are afraid for our lives and our livelihoods, our loved ones, and our parishioners; we are afraid of what the winds of change will mean for our congregations. But it is in these moments that our Lord comes to us, just as he did to his disciples, saying, “Peace be with you…be calm…do not be afraid…do not fear…I am with you always.”