A sermon preached on The Third Sunday of Lent at The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete, March 15, 2020 11:00 am.
The readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A) were: Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, and John 4:5-42.
Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Romans 5.1-5
The Effects of Covid-19
Well, how are we all doing? Is anyone here really suffering from Covid-19? Of course not, you’d be home in isolation, right? But this shouldn’t blind us to the fact that many are suffering:
- People have had to change travel plans or cancel them. Some individuals cannot travel to the United States.
- Many churches have chosen to not have services. While religious services are going on in Greece, they have been suspended by government order in Italy. Some of the larger congregations in the Diocese in Europe, where they get more than a couple of dozen people, have also suspended church services. This is also the case across Canada and the United States. And as for us, while we are here with strict precautions, we may decide not to meet next week.
- I am doing a funeral tomorrow, and three of the children cannot travel from the UK to Crete.
- The tourist industry has ground to a halt. Tours are cancelled, hotels are shuttered, and restaurants and cafés can only do delivery and take-out — and not all of them are set up for this kind of thing.
- Some of us may be in a state of shock as we watch our net worth drop twenty percent and the exchange rate lessen the value of our income.
- Teachers and children have had their school year suspended. University students are getting their courses online, if at all.Parents are scrambling to figure out how to provide childcare or home school.
- Live entertainment venues such as sports arenas, theatres and cinemas are closed, putting not just the athletes and actors on hiatus, but all the people who work behind the scenes.
- Doctors, nurses, and others in the health care system, already almost at full capacity, may be overwhelmed if things get out of control, as they have in Wuhan, Iran, and Italy. In Italy physicians are making decisions according to triage, because resources cannot be allocated to those who only have a slim chance of recovery; this sort of this normally only happens in battlefields or civil disasters.
- And then, there are those who will die, many of them seemingly before their time. Even those who recover from major complications will have been through traumatic situations. And it is not just the elderly or immunity compromised. A story in the New York Times describes two health care workers in Wuhan, China, one a nurse and the other a doctor, who fell ill. One survived, and the other died, but both were healthy, vigorous people.
This is all going to get worse before it gets better. So how do we approach such suffering?
A Taxonomy of Suffering
In my dissertation I consider the problem of suffering, and I suggest that there are a variety of ways of categorizing them.
The first is useless suffering. This is the suffering experienced by the innocent – children, animals, the “collateral damage” of war and terrorism. There may be people causing the suffering and they have their reasons for inflicting it, but usually the objects of their malice and hate do not deserve it. The millions murdered by the Nazis fall into this category, as well as the millions taken into slavery between the 15th to the 19th century (and, under other forms, into the present). Suffering may be caused unintentionally, as when diseases spread among the indigenous peoples of North and south America, and killed off between 50 and 90 per cent of the population. This suffering confronts us as injustice, to which the only answer can be that, however caused ,we need to help mitigate and end it.
The second type might just be the ordinary suffering of life and growing up, the suffering that we freely accept because of the ultimate end. A woman who knows the inconvenience of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth may quite willingly accept it because of the joy of having a child. Likewise, an athlete will push themselves to build up their cardiovascular system, and their muscles in order to become faster, stronger, more able. A student will endure the monotony of memorizing times tables to learn arithmetic, or flash cards to memorize the lexicon of another language. We endure the suffering because of the payoff. This is the kind of suffering which Paul may be alluding to, when he describes the suffering that produces endurance, and endurance that produces character, and character that produces hope, and hope that does not disappoint us. Being called by God, Paul willing accepts the suffering that he experiences from others, knowing that in doing so he is following in the footsteps of Jesus, and that through it and despite it he will experience peace with God, grace and hope, and the glory of God, as well as the love of God given through the Holy Spirit. So that is ordinary suffering, which we freely accept or voluntarily seek out.
A third category is a hybrid of the two. It is what African-American theologians such as Martin Luther King, Jr., called “unearned suffering”. As a black man in the middle of the 20th century King knew that he was going to suffer discrimination and hatred, and quite possibly violence. His response was that if he was going to have to suffer, he may as well make the suffering count for something. In his practice of civil disobedience, of non-violent action against unjust laws and governments, he transformed that suffering into a challenge to the principalities and powers of the United States: “Do your worst, and your hypocrisy and your sins will be exposed to the light”. His “food”, and that of all who in the name of Jesus Christ challenge the seemingly fixed boundaries of culture and society, is to do the will of God who sent him and to complete God’s work.
In our gospel reading Jesus reaches across those boundaries to the Samaritan woman – someone a proper Jew of his time would not normally speak to because she was a) a woman and b) part of what, for the Jews, was a heretical group. As well, she had c) been married multiple times. Rather than blaming the victim Jesus undoubtedly saw her as a woman who had been divorced summarily by a succession of men, and deserving of compassion and care. Despite these three boundaries, Jesus reaches over to take her as she is and allow her to see the salvation of God.
Showing Love and Care
This is where we have the opportunity to act. We do not deserve this pandemic (despite the wild musings of some extremists). But in the midst of it we have the opportunity to help others, to cross boundaries. It can be simple things.
- We can telephone those who need to quarantine or isolate.
- We can pray for those who are working directly with the sick in the healthcare system.
- We can offer to get groceries and pharmaceuticals for those who cannot go out.
- We can buy gift certificates at restaurants or businesses that are closed.
- We can venture out into social media and BE POSITIVE, suggesting creative ways to engage each other, like virtual potlucks, streaming videos, or amusing Tik Toks.
- We can practice social distancing and only undertake essential activities in public places.
- We can check on our neighbours and friends.
- We can even sing across alleys and courtyards!
I suspect this is all going to take longer than any of us can imagine. But when the question is asked, “Is the Lord among us or not?” let us answer with a resounding, “Yes!” as we reach out to others and do the simple things, just as Jesus did by asking for some water from the Samaritan woman. May God bless us in the days, weeks, and months to come.