This past week, the county of Santa Clara issued a ban on mass gatherings of 1,000 people or more. This is just the latest direction by health officials to reduce the likelihood that the coronavirus will be transmitted between people. Keeping at least 3 feet from others, opting to work from home, cancelling events and gatherings – all these things are forms of social distancing. How much distance is the right amount? When does caution turn into fear-mongering?
The Bubonic Plague hit Europe in the mid-fourteenth century. In that first epidemic an estimated 30% of the population of Europe died. It left even the survivors weakened and vulnerable to other diseases. That wasn’t the end. The plague kept returning in 5-12 year cycles, and then in longer intervals, until the late 15th century. Some towns were completely decimated, some deserted, and some spared entirely.
This affected every part of human life. The sudden rise in mortality forced everyone to suddenly become concerned with salvation, and therefore, righteous action. Some asked what the faithful response to the plague could be. What were we supposed to do? In response to these questions Martin Luther wrote a letter titled “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.”
In his letter, Luther reminds us that as followers of Jesus we are not called to flee for the sake of our own health, but to serve those who suffer alongside us. He encouraged all people – each in their own vocational realm - to provide for the care of the sick, dying, and surviving. When some Christians said that they should ignore plague precautions because God could heal through supernatural means, Luther responded that God had given us doctors and medicines as means of healing. In all manners related to the plague, Luther reminded us that love of neighbor was the guiding principal and that this was made manifest not in abandoning one another, but in banding together.
Luther said, “If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God. Moreover, those who have contracted the disease and recovered should keep away from others and not admit others into their presence unless it is necessary. Though they should receive aid in their time of need, as previously pointed out, after their recovery, they should act toward others so that no one becomes unnecessarily endangered on their account and thus they cause another’s death.”
Luther and many other faithful acted on what they said. Luther took into his house several people who were infected. His own children were infected and survived. Stories are told of Lutheran priests and nuns who tended to the homebound and dying when no one else would and remained uninfected themselves.
All this reminds me of the time when CGS responded in a similar way in the 1980s. When all the prevailing guidance about AIDS was to quarantine the sick many took the distancing precaution to lengths that proclaimed exclusion over caution. Lutherans in this place did not join in this fear-driven exclusion, but served and tended to the sick and dying. When patients had lost their community, family, and dignity because of that plague, faithful people in this congregation brought medicine, community, and the means of grace.
Once again we face a plague in our midst. And not for the first time in our lives we ask the question of whether or not it is the faithful response to flee or exclude. So it turns out that Martin Luther’s letter from 1527 is still relevant. We are called not to preserve ourselves, but to serve one another.
A pastor in the Wuhan province of China wrote an open letter stating “Christ has already given us his peace, but his 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 (John 14:27, 16:33). Otherwise we have not believed in the gospel of peace (Ephesians 6:15), and, with the world, would be terrified of pestilence, and lose hope in the face of death.”
Please, dear people do not be afraid. Do not let the world’s broadcasting about the coronavirus fill you with such terror that you lose hope and remove yourself from the Body of Christ. God is with us, even in this. I hope that your response to this virus will be formed out of a desire to honor the life of every person instead of fear of your contagion and death.
At CGS we will still gather for worship, Bible study, Catechism, Pi day, Tai Chi, choir, and every other activity; though we’ll use more hand sanitizer than usual, touch one another a little less frequently, and be more vigilant about washing and wearing protective gear. When some of us need to stay home because our immune systems are compromised, we’ll reach out via phone, text, email, and video calls so that none of us is isolated. If there is a need, we will find a way to serve one another in ways that honor every body and every life.
If you’d like to read Martin Luther’s letter, there are copies by the couch in the Narthex, or linked here. If you have questions about how you can be safe or serve through CGS, please contact a member of council.
Christ the Good Shepherd
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