These are strange times. Businesses are shuttered. Schools are closed. Hospitals and nursing homes are denying visitors. Masks cover the faces of strangers. A new phrase, "social distancing," has entered our vocabulary, as people adjust to a stay-at-home order. A virus none of us had even heard of seven months ago has become the leading cause of death in the United States. For the first time in US history, every state is under a disaster declaration. Protestors are demanding a return to normalcy, while experts warn of a possible resurgence if we end social distancing too soon. Worries abound for the millions who are especially vulnerable to this fast-acting, easily spreading virus, as well as for the many who are out of work, the businesses that may never reopen, the children and youth who are being irrevocably changed by this experience, and those who are especially unsafe right now: abuse victims, people struggling with addiction or depression, people with disabilities, farmworkers and other immigrants, and low- or no-income families.
At a time when people need the church more than ever, church buildings are closed. Doors are locked. Programs are canceled.
It may feel like these are unprecedented times. I've certainly never experienced anything like this before; there's a good chance neither have you. And yet, we are not the first to tread these waters.
Our story, as Jews and Christians, was born in these waters. The Torah tells us that when the people of the earth sought to gather in one place, and eliminate all differences among them, and thus posed a danger to the world, God struck down the Tower of Babel and "scattered" the people (Gen. 11). In the Book of Exodus, God commands the Israelites to shelter in their homes, while disease traveled through the land. From this day comes the Feast of Passover, celebrated by Jesus himself: "And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’ And the people bowed down and worshiped" (Ex. 12:26-27).
The laws instituted by God in the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy make special provision for the protection of the most vulnerable: widows, orphans, the poor, the immigrant, escaped slaves. These laws demand that the rest of society make sacrifices to ensure their wellbeing. These laws even make special note of how to guard against the spread of disease, implementing an ancient version of social distancing.
According to the Gospels, after Jesus died, the disciples were scattered, isolated. Though a few came to his tomb, the resurrected Jesus did not wait for the disciples to gather together in one place. No. He came to them and found them where they were. He met disciples on a highway to Emmaus; he met others in a locked house, who sheltered in fear; yet others, he met on a lakeshore, essential workers whose fishing could not wait.
The early church of Acts was not one of grand steeples and packed stadiums. Mostly, it consisted of house churches, underground movements, small cadres of people proclaiming the love of God. The gospel spread one household at a time. It was in that context that the Apostle Paul penned these words: "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:35, 37-39).
When Paul wrote those words in Romans, stating that nothing, not coronavirus, not social distancing, can separate us from the love of God, or the love of one another, he did so remotely. All those epistles from Paul, they were all written from afar, sometimes from prison, sometimes from illness, sometimes across whole continents. He knew that the Word of God could travel any distance; the Church does not close. We may not be together physically, but we are always the body of Christ, and that body cannot be broken. Paul's letters became the visible link between those separated households of worshipers, and eventually became the bedrock of a new movement, first called the Way, and then Christianity. Far from a hindrance, those letters spread the gospel; they left us something permanent we can read to this day.
Paul used letters; we're using letters too: mailings, newsletters, phone calls, social media, online worship. He used trusted disciples to deliver his messages; we're using the Internet, perhaps not as trustworthy(!), but certainly quicker! And just as Paul, from afar, connected with his siblings in Christ through prayer, so do we. Churches did this during the pandemic of 1918, commonly and mistakenly known as the Spanish Flu, and we're doing it now.
I think we've never been closer to our roots than right now: facing hardship and fear, we make the difficult choices necessary to love and protect one another, while refusing to cease in our worship and praise of God, in our proclamation of the Love that vanquishes even death.
Our worship has seen more participation than ever, with hundreds and hundreds of people worshiping with us every week, including many folks who haven't previously been able to. Palm Sunday alone had 1200 views. Holy Week services of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunrise saw far more participants than I've ever experienced in my time with you. Every Sunday, people joyously interact, posting hundreds of comments, including prayer requests and worship responses. We're seeing faith become more personal, as people move from Sunday-only worship to daily spiritual practices. Many of you are engaging in acts of compassion and service, as you seek to care for others.
This is the day we remember: the church isn't a building; it's not coffee hour, or a pretty bulletin, or committee meetings, or thriving programs, or generous endowments, or even that wondrous organ. The church is people... people loving God, loving one another, when it's night and there's no apparent reason to do so. We are the Love that will not be stopped.
I can imagine no greater tradition for us to uphold in this time of social distancing.