On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten men with skin diseases approached him. Keeping their distance from him, they raised their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, show us mercy!” When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” As they left, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw that he had been healed, returned and praised God with a loud voice. 16 He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus replied, “Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go. Your faith has healed you.”
Good morning! This is the third week of our “Our New Normal” sermon series, where we are focusing on what messages God has for us in the new aspects of everyday life that have been brought on by the global Covid-19 pandemic. Over the past 2 weeks we have been thinking about the new things we need to have with us or pay closer attention to when we leave our homes. So far, we have considered wearing face masks and handwashing, and how they can connect with our faith as we work to follow Jesus.
Today we will focus on another important tool that we have to keep ourselves and each other safe, social distancing.
Wearing a mask, washing our hands, and social distancing are the main ways scientists, doctors, and experts have found to slow down the spread of this deadly virus. It makes sense– with an airborne virus we want to avoid breathing the same air as others. But even though social distancing seems like the easiest way to limit our exposure to the virus, I think it’s the hardest of the 3 to practice.
As someone with health issues that put me in the “higher risk” category, I have chosen to stay home as much as possible. Kelsee and I do our grocery shopping online and pick up our groceries through curbside delivery. When we eat food that we haven’t prepared at home, we either get it delivered or go through a drive-thru. Over the past six months, we have hardly had any in-person contact with the outside world….and while it is important, it is also so hard.
We have chosen to delay our wedding celebration to 2021 so that no one has to choose between celebrating with us and staying safe. We have cancelled vacations and opportunities to see our loved ones, all of whom live in other states. Perhaps most sadly, we haven’t had the opportunity to meet many of you in person. I long for in-person worship and the community of a church potluck, and I wish that all of us could gather in person during our first year of ministry together. I know from our conversations that many of you are going through similar struggles right now as well.
A friend of mine who is single and lives alone was recently sharing with me how difficult it’s been not to have physical contact with any human being for the past 6 months. She hasn’t gotten a hug or a hand on her shoulder or even a high five in 6 months, and she isn’t alone in this. I have heard story after story of people who are living in similar circumstances right now. It makes me think that many of us may have some understanding of how it must have felt to have leprosy in Biblical times.
The story of Jesus meeting 10 people with leprosy reminds us how cruel the world can be to those who are chronically ill and how hard it is to live separated from others. These men with leprosy created their own community together because no one else would live with them or be near them or even touch them for fear of contracting leprosy themselves.
It reminds me of the little communities that we’ve been forming to still have some contact with others while trying to stay safe. We all need social interaction, whatever that looks like during a world-wide pandemic. I’ve heard people pointing out that what we need is physical distancing not social distancing. We can still be social while giving each other the safe space we need.
That’s just what the men with leprosy did. They didn’t physically approach Jesus as he passed by, they gave him the respect of their distance as they did with everyone, but they still called out to Jesus.
I imagine they would tell us we have it easy with all the various ways we have to stay connected while remaining physically distanced. Thanks to some incredible technology (which we will talk about in a few weeks) we can continue to connect and interact with others. We can still meet in worship through Zoom, see each other’s faces, and take communion together. We have to maintain physical space from others right now, but that doesn’t mean that we are alone.
It is so very hard not to fall back into our old ways of being as we return to familiar spaces. And it makes us weary to continue such rigid safety measures. I know that I am feeling the effects of 6 months of social distancing. I miss my family and friends. I miss writing my sermons in a coffee shop. I miss eating out and not being worried about my safety.
Yesterday, Eric Hays-Strom forwarded an article to me that was written by Prof Aisha Ahmad, who among many other notable things has been a Senior Researcher in Global Justice and Chair of Women in International Security. Her research has taken her into Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, and Lebanon. She advises governments and international organizations on global security policies and investigates civil war economies around the world.
In the article, she says that the struggle that so many of us are experiencing right now is actually very normal for a prolonged time of crisis—she calls it hitting the 6-month wall. We have worked hard to adjust our lives to this crisis, but it’s been so long now that we are exhausted. Since it seems like this won’t be ending anytime soon, we are overwhelmed by the thought of continuing to try to adjust to the changes this pandemic has brought.
But she does offer these words of hope and reassurance, “This is my first pandemic, but not my first 6 month wall. So, what can I share to help you? First, the wall is real and normal. And frankly, it’s not productive to try to ram your head through it. It will break naturally in about 4-6 weeks if you ride it out.
Of course, there are things we have to do. Work. Teach. Cook. Exercise. But just don’t expect to be sparklingly happy or wildly creative in the middle of your wall. Right now, if you can meet your obligations and be kind to your loved ones, you get an A+.”
Eric has put this article in our October newsletter, and I highly encourage you to read the whole thing. It helped me to understand what I and many of my loved ones are going through right now. Another piece of writing that I found very helpful this week was a post I found from Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. I want to note that this was written a couple of months ago, so I updated the statistics that she shared then to their current numbers now. In her post, she wrote,
“I get the strong desire to return to normal life now. I, too, want so badly to go out and do something fun & normal. But every spiritual tradition teaches about mastering desire for a reason. What you want & what you need, or others need of you, aren’t always the same thing.
Often it’s about working to be more aligned with divine service, or towards alleviating suffering. Now, it is both of those things, but in the highest-stakes, most literal way: if you give in to your desire to pretend we are in a post-COVID world, people will die.
Our desires are natural and understandable. We can have compassion for them. We can be empathetic to the parts of us that feel like, my goodness, these last few months have been long and hard and maybe lonely and exhausting and we Just. Want. Some. Respite.
Yes, lonely, exhausted part of us: We see you. You just want out. But the stakes are too high to let that part be in the driver’s seat now. We have to, gently, like a parent showing a kid appropriate boundaries, hear that part of us without letting it make decisions for us.
There is still a deadly, highly transmissible disease with no good treatment and no vaccination out there. More than 6.9 million people in the US have had it. More than 200,000 have died so far. Numbers are currently rising again. And a rush to return to “normal” …is going to be a death sentence for a lot of people.
Maybe for you. Maybe for someone you love. Maybe for a stranger you don’t know but whose life matters every bit as much as yours does. And whose life matters considerably more than your fun, carefree weekend does.
Yes, we’re still all in survival mode now but this moment is also an opportunity for spiritual growth. For looking at our urges to throw caution to the wind, for sitting with them with generosity, compassion, curiosity, and trying to find the holy sparks we can release from them.
Do you need time and space to mourn? Do you need an activist place to put your energy, to work for something good?
Are there less risky ways you can get yourself some sunshine, a beer, some joyful music, a socially distanced walk with someone you can laugh with?
You are not your feelings.
You are not your desires.
Listen to them, make space for them, but do not let yourself be driven by them. Make choices that come from a place of caring for others, for understanding that your actions have consequences. What you choose matters.”
This is how physically distancing relates to our faith, it’s a spiritual practice when we choose to do what we know is right even though it’s not what we want and it’s really hard and we’re all sick of it. We maintain a holy distance for the health and safety of ourselves and others.
The Good News for us can be found in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Colossians 2:5-7 says, “…even though I am absent physically, I’m with you in spirit. I’m happy to see the discipline and stability of your faith in Christ. So live in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same way as you received him. Be rooted and built up in him, be established in faith, and overflow with thanksgiving just as you were taught.”
It’s true, we cannot physically be together, but we can still be together in spirit. As we seek to pray without ceasing and increase our awareness of God’s presence with us, we will find our connection to God strengthened. And as our connection to the Spirit strengthens, our spiritual connection to each other will get stronger.
So, continue to connect with God through prayer, continue to pray for one another and be present with each other in spirit, and like the men with leprosy, use what you have to reach out to others. They only had their voices, we have cards and phones and computers! Use all the means you have to stay socially connected as we stay physically distanced, so that when we return to being together in person no one will be missing.