This sermon was originally preached at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Herndon, Virginia.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
As of this Sunday, I can personally attest that I have attended church services twice inside a church building since March 14th of this year. That’s two times in four months. Twice, in roughly one hundred and twenty days. For someone who is about to be ordained into the ministry, it feels surreal not to have been physically in church or performing services for that long. But this is the “new normal” in the age of coronavirus, with its social distancing and quarantining. I imagine that most of us have not had the opportunity to be in a church at all during this time. This pandemic has forced us to be separate from one another; from friends and family; from our coworkers; and from our church families. And just when things seem to start getting better, and it appears as if we’re returning to “normal,” the number of cases flares up and we discover that the virus is still a threat to us and our loved ones and neighbors. Our return to normal is put in jeopardy and we have to figure out how to live with the new change in circumstances. Already a number of states have rolled back reopening plans or have instituted new quarantines on out-of-state arrivals. Social distancing, separation from those we love, separation from our church family, separation from the sacraments–it seems like it’s going to go on forever.
But, thanks to the wonders of this modern age, we’ve been able to “do church,” and do it pretty well–extremely well here at Good Shepherd!–with the help of internet streaming services, Zoom Bible studies, group calls, and now, parking lot services. We can hear the word of God and receive His absolution through online and outdoor services. We can study the word and experience that wonderful thing, “the mutual consolation of the brethren,” when we have our online meet-ups and Bible studies. And God does indeed work through these things. But it’s not ideal. It’s not the same. We are not together in the same place, as we are meant to be. And I don’t know about you, but physical separation from our friends and family and from the medicine of immortality can feel unbearable. Even though we can talk and experience life together in a virtual medium, we’re still alone, and a flat image of another person is no replacement for physical contact. A blown kiss cannot replace the real thing. An emoji of an embrace is not a hug. We can enjoy the connection that the digital world brings, but it’s no substitute for the real joy that comes from being together.
And separation–loneliness–paired with the invisible threat of death by a disease that fills one’s lungs with blood clots, can lead us to feel despair and fear. Christians have been in this place before. In 1793, the city of Philadelphia was struck by an outbreak of yellow fever that killed four-thousand, thirty-one people. That was eight percent of the city’s population. Among the dead were six-hundred and forty-one members of Pastor J.H.C. Helmuth’s Lutheran congregation. Helmuth believed that the epidemic was God’s judgment on the city of Philadelphia, but as the epidemic wore on, he wrote in his journal, “The sickness and death are all around us. Lord Jesus, help us. Do not leave us alone.” Pastor Helmuth, watching his flock die, was afraid. He feared that he and his people would be abandoned to suffer God’s wrath, so he called out to our Lord for help, imploring Him to stay with them in their distress.
That was in 1793. In the present of 2020, it’s not all that different. I can only imagine what some of our brothers and sisters around the country and around the world have felt these last few months, or even what some of you have experienced with your family and friends who live in areas hard-hit by the virus. This week, I will be driving up to East Setauket, Long Island to begin my call as the senior pastor at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church. Suffolk County, where my congregation is located, was one of the most heavily affected areas in the country when the pandemic began. But now, other parts of the country are suffering, and no doubt people in Suffolk, and now people in Florida and Texas, are asking in the midst of all the turmoil and conflicting information: “Where is God in all this?” “We’re dying–is He there?” “Lord, I’m so afraid to go out right now when ten-thousand people have been diagnosed positively today.” “Lord, am I trusting you enough in all this chaos?” “Am I being faithful by wearing a mask? Lord, give me a sign!” “Lord, save us, do not leave us alone!”
Certainly, the people of the early church felt this way at times. Almost from the time of its birth, the Church has experienced all kinds of tribulations, chief among them persecution, and I am sure that when Paul, the writer of today’s epistle reading, was still Saul the Pharisee and leading pogroms against the Christians in Judaea, his victims asked these same questions. Certainly, after Paul’s conversion, more persecutions would come from other corners of the world–Christians would be famously persecuted in Rome in AD 64, and at other times in the following centuries until Constantine became the Roman emperor in 312. Plagues affected the early church, too; for example, the Antonine Plague of the late-second century AD killed some five million people, and the Plague of Cyprian in the mid-third century likely killed as many. Christians are no strangers to calamities, both natural and man-made, and I am sure that, just like us and just like Pastor Helmuth, those who suffered in those persecutions and plagues, cried, “Why is this happening to us, God? Where are you? Do not leave us!”
But Paul reminds us in today’s epistle reading that our feelings of separation and fears are misplaced. God knows exactly how we feel and what we fear, and he is with us through all of it. In fact, in the person of the Holy Spirit, he speaks for us; Paul says:
The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Ro 8:26-27)
The loneliness we feel, the hopelessness, God feels it all, and he articulates our pain and our worries far better than we ever can. And how could he not? The Son became one of us, after all–he humbled himself and took on human flesh and experienced the ultimate suffering of torture and a slow death on the cross for our sake. When he cried out from the cross, he cried out the pain and suffering of all the ages, and he took the consequences of that pain and suffering with him into the tomb and buried them. Our God knows what the pain and fear we experience is. He knows it all too well.
But isn’t that a great thing? That our God knows and articulates our fears and pains for and with us when it seems too great for us to bear? There’s a great comfort in that, that he knows our loneliness and worry better than we do. But there’s more to it than that. Not only does God empathize with us and know and feel the pain and fear we do, he has also promised never to leave us. Though we may fear abandonment when the evil powers of this world close in on us, God in Christ Jesus has promised to be with us always, never to be separated from us. Paul reminds us:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
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. (Ro 8:35-39)
Do you hear what he’s saying? Nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. When we feel alone, Christ is there with us–his love is with us. When we are tempted to despair, he embraces us. When what we read in the newspaper or watch on television or see in our Twitter feeds becomes too depressing, he encourages us and reminds us of our hope. When we fear to go out because the wolf is at the door, he tells us that we have nothing to fear. We are more than conquerors in Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the Devil–nothing can separate us from his love and the life he gives.
So, though the SARS-CoV2 virus still forces us to socially distance and isolate from our friends, loved ones, and our congregation, we should remember that, in Christ Jesus, we are not alone. We are all together in him, regardless of where we are physically located. We are all members of his body, the Church, and if nothing can separate us from him, we, as the Church, cannot be separated from one another. So as this epidemic rages on, as the world seems more divided and partisan every day, take heart knowing that you are not alone. You will never be abandoned. Your Lord who loves you will never leave you, and even though you may feel as if you are apart from everyone and everything you know, you are not. The Church–the body of believers everywhere in every time and every place–is one in him, and nothing can separate you, the Church from his love, and from the love of one another.
This is something that I will keep in mind when I make my drive north tomorrow to East Setauket and the people at Messiah. In Christ the Church is one. In a way, that means I’ll be taking all of you, who have taught and supported, and inspired me over the last nearly thirty years at Good Shepherd, with me. Going to the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic while the pandemic still rages to begin my ministry is a very daunting task, especially because I’ll have to quarantine in place for two weeks upon arrival. But I know that I will carry with me all of the love you have shown to me over the years to my new congregation. It’s been a long journey to Long Island, beginning when I was a small child here at Good Shepherd’s preschool, continuing through the only kindergarten class we ever had, going through Sunday school, Confirmation, and youth group all the way through adulthood, university, graduate school, and seminary. I’m so blessed that you all have been a part of my life and my formation, and that we have been sojourners together, bound in the body of Christ by faith and the promise that Christ gave us in baptism: that we will always be in him and he in us. So from the bottom of my heart, I thank you for all your love, support, mentoring, and prayers. I hope to see you in Setauket someday soon. Thank you.
And now, may the peace that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.