March 15th, 2020
And they quarreled in the wilderness and asked, “Is God among us, or not?” This question lands hard on us right now. Is God among us, or not? Is there an us, when we are not together, perhaps tuning in from so many living rooms and offices across this neighborhood? The turmoil of the Israelites, thirsty for water before God, screaming at their leader for a solution: that seems very familiar to us these days, does it not? The difference, of course, was that the Israelites have Moses at the top, who took responsibility and found a way to help his people, and we, well, we do not have a Moses at the top. But we have tension. We need security. It’s not too much now to say that there are life and death choices we have to make. Things as normal as play dates have the soupçon of disease. So it would be no wonder if we were to ask—is God among us, or not?
As many of you know, a member of the OSA/Cornerstone Community tested positive for COVID. The person’s last contact with OSA was February 26th. I have heard from some of you that you have had colds—coughs, congestion, but often no fever. The person who tested positive also has not had a fever. I’m therefore asking all of you to stay home as much as possible. Do not assume that because you don’t feel anything you don’t have the virus; do not assume that because you don’t have a fever you don’t have the virus. Play it safe. Stay home.
This is a hard thing for me to say, and it’s also a hard thing for me to ask you to do. But it’s important. Our distance will be a sign that God is among us. It’s easy to feel God’s presence when we’re rocking together—like just a few weeks ago at Domingo Gordo, or even at our Wednesday night Dinner Church. But now we need to be alone. How do we know God is with us when we’re alone and isolated and bored out of our skulls?
The questions the Israelites asked, is God among us, or not, is a question that puts God to the test. It comes from despair. I am tempted to say that it is not a faithful question, but to say that I fear I descend into judgment and I don’t want to do that. So instead I’ll say it’s a question that brings faith to bear—another way of asking that question, I suppose is like this: how can we believe that God is among us?
I read this week an essay by Martin Luther called, “Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague.” Luther lived during a time of plagues—like the bubonic plague, which was so horrible, infectious, and terrifying, people called it the Black Death. He ministered to the sick and dying when the Black Death came to Wittenberg, even after he was ordered to flee. And so, some others wrote to him to ask if it was ok for Christians to flee the plague. And he said something along the lines of, “If you can stay and help, do it. If others are helping, and you are too scared to help, go. But don’t do things that will endanger others.” So we have suspended our meetings because meeting now—though many of us would come no matter what was happening—is way for us to protect one another, especially those of us who may be more likely to experience the full severity of the virus. This separation, therefore, is an act of love and of faith. Faith that God is with us, even though we are not together, and love enough for one another to put a pause in our fellowship.
It shows that we have faith in God to call us together again, even as God called us together in the first place. God is among us—remember that when, over the next weeks we must all further withdraw into our homes and cut off even more contact with one another. God is among us through the power of God’s promise and God’s Word. Do not fear—take all appropriate precautions. But listen to what a pastor from Wuhan, China, the center of the outbreak has to say: “[Christ’s] peace is not to remove us from disaster and death, but rather to have peace in the midst of disaster and death, because Christ has already overcome these things.” This is a powerful letter of witness by a man under siege by pestilence and by being a leader in a somewhat illegal religion—and hear his exhortation to all of us who call ourselves Christian: to know that in the midst of disaster and death, we are more than conquerors through Christ, who has already overcome these things.
It shows that we can love each other enough to take a hard step to put the other person first. I would love to be preaching for real right now: I love to mix it up when I pass the peace. But that would be like Luther’s foolhardy men, “tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health.”
And so we see the way the world is going, and we know the best way to protect each other is to prevent the virus passing along, one to another. Medicine and science are gifts of reason and gifts of God. It would be easy to meet and scoff and say, “The Lord protects us; nothing bad can happen in church!” The Lord does protect us, but that protection does not mean that we should tempt God. Is God among us, or not? What if we affirmed that God is always among us, whether we gather in our Sunday best, or distance ourselves in love.
We require faith right now, faith that God really is among us. We will experience massive shifts in the way we live. People, especially the most vulnerable people, will die. Everything now depends on slowing this virus, to separate ourselves to starve the virus. We must trust that God is with us in this, even though we may feel lonely, abandoned, bored, or even silly. But let us not be the foolhardy man in the plague, who by his negligence infects and kills. Normal life will resume—but first we must pass through an abnormal time. We will celebrate around the Lord’s table again, but for a while we must abstain.
When the woman at the well came to Jesus, he asked her to believe that he gave water that will satisfy forever—living water. We take this to mean the life he offered for the world, the life we joined in baptism. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. The living water will nourish us through suffering, sustain us in our perseverance. It is the source of our hope. It is the life of our faith. As the pastor in Wuhan said, Christ has already overcome these things. And so will we.