Two weeks ago, if you had asked folks in the US what worried them most about the Corona virus or COVID-19, many of us would have said, “Corona what?”. But what felt like a curiosity or a far removed flu-bug has now triggered a massive response across the globe and here at home, with the CDC on Monday recommending that all gatherings of 50 people or more be canceled as officials struggle to contain the spread of the virus.
At University Lutheran Church of Hope, as well as many of our neighbor congregations, we suspended Worship through (at least) April 1st, and quickly learned everything we could about streaming worship live on YouTube or Facebook. Churches have a particular responsibility to intentionally limit exposure, since much of our community are members of those vulnerable populations who are at greatest risk, the elderly, immunocompromised individuals, and folks in poverty.
In person worship will always be the standard, and I am looking forward to the time where we can gather again, sharing the peace and partaking in the sacraments. But, if I’m honest, I’m a little excited for the church to be pressed into imaginative thinking about worship and the gathering of our community. I believe we’ll come out of this with some new practices, some things that might stick around well after COVID-19 has been contained.
We’ve learned a lot in the short time that the world has been grappling with this horrible disease, but what has stuck out to me the most in the last two weeks is the way that one of Luther’s most famous articulations of the human condition has played out on the public stage.
Simul Justus et Peccator. Simultaneously Sinner and Saint.
For Luther, the Christian exists in the midst of this polarity. We have been reconciled to God through Christ, and live as new creatures, as “saints”. And yet, we also continue to live in a world dominated by sin, and despite Christ’s saving work we continue to sin, in thought and action and deed.
There is something powerfully honest about this dictum. For Luther, nothing is as simple as good and evil. We exist simultaneously in the world as it is and the world as it should be, and as actors in both. Most of us know this reality intimately, and we can nod emphatically as Paul says in Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate”.
In my opinion, there is nothing like a pandemic to bring out both the worst and the best in people, and my goodness, we’ve seen it all this month.
Over the weekend we learned about a young man named Matt Colvin. Colvin and his brother Noah, who live in TN, traveled nearly 1,300 miles across their state gathering every bottle of hand sanitizer they could find. They filled a U-Haul truck and stored items that a frightened populace was racing to get their hands on. The Colvin brothers then listed the items on Amazon, marked up significantly from the original purchase price.
Profiteering off the fear and the necessity of vulnerable people in the midst of a pandemic is, to be clear, a dick move. It is unethical, immoral, and flat out wrong.
The Colvin’s were not the only people to engage in this horrible practice, and Amazon and other online sellers have taken steps to remove price-gouging listings. And in response to the public outcry, the brothers decided on Sunday to donate two thirds of their massive stockpile to a local church.
It’s not just price-gouging and profiteering, we’ve also seen some people’s total lack of empathy played out by defiantly rejecting the CDC’s recommendations for lower exposure and Social Distancing.
Many have tried to characterize the concern over COVID-19 as a liberal plot to attack a President who is woefully unprepared and incapable of providing leadership at this pivotal moment. Others have suggested that this is no different than common strains of the flu and have refused to practice anything resembling care and caution.
Images from New Orleans and New York of overcrowded bars and restaurants, a massive crowd gathered in Florida at Disney World, and many others reveal both an empathy vacuum and an unfortunate belief that if I’m not vulnerable or at risk, my caution isn’t required. It’s enough to make you tear your hair out.
But that’s just half of the polarity. What has been more profound for me are all the small and big ways that people have come together to serve and care for one another at a time where fear and disconnection are at an all time high.
In Italy, where the Corona virus has hit hardest, with 21,000 infected and more than 1,400 dead, sporadic rooftop singalongs were caught on camera. The New York Times reported:
It started with the national anthem. Then came the piano chords, trumpet blasts, violin serenades and even the clanging of pots and pans — all of it spilling from people’s homes, out of windows and from balconies, and rippling across rooftops.
Finally, on Saturday afternoon, a nationwide round of applause broke out for the doctors on the medical front lines fighting the spread of Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak.
There is nothing like the spontaneous outpouring of human creativity and joy amid a crisis. It’s the kind of thing that we remember across generations and it points to the deep beauty of human connection. Pressed by anxiety and concern, quite often the human response is to sing and to find solidarity in the mingling of our voices. It’s a brief but meaningful inbreaking of our capacity to connect.
In Minnesota, as well as other states, restaurants have responded to the closing of schools by offering to provide lunch to any student who might be experiencing food insecurity while classes are canceled. Friends are making space online to play board games, chant the Daily Office, and connect with homebound folks in our communities.
On Sunday, thousands of congregation members across the country gathered in front of laptops, tablets, and TVs to continue worshipping with their communities from the safety of their living room. I was so struck by the intentionality and care with which my own community made the decision to suspend in-person worship. And further touched by the joyful engagement with our first, admittedly imperfect, live stream. Congregants shared the peace with one another through the comments section and sent pictures of their make-shift home-based worshipping spaces. Despite the empty sanctuary I felt oddly connected to each of the participants, and I was touched by the ways we refused to let fear disconnect us.
It looks like we have weeks of social distancing and caution ahead of us, and the fear over the lack of leadership and the rapid spread of the disease is sure to inspire many more stories of self-interest and resource hoarding. The worst of us is sure to be present. But so too is the very best of us.
We’re getting a look at what it means to live in the world as it is and the world as it should be, the polarity of sinner and saint at the communal level. I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to lean into our creativity and our care for one another as this crisis persists. It will be the resilience and love of neighbor that we discover and foster now that will carry us through to a post-crisis world.
Be kind to yourself. Be kind to your neighbor. We will all make decisions now that we’ll later wonder about. But I have faith in the image of God in each of us, drawing us together and building one another up. Thanks be to God!
How are you connecting and creating in your time of social distancing?