Faithlife Sermons

On Social Distancing

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Jesus broke the rule of social distancing and touched a leper.

On Social Distancing Mark 1:40-42 As I was contemplating writing the manuscript for my Easter sermon which because of COVID-19 will have to be delivered on-line, I was troubled at the mass fear I see all around me concerning this virus. So before Easter, I must needs remember the suffering of Holy Week which Jesus undertook on our behalf. In a week where we are all called to shelter in place and certainly to avoid contact with anyone, I asked this question: “What would Jesus do?” The text from the Gospel of Mark I selected to meditate on gives us a good idea. A leper comes to Jesus and asks for healing. Lepers were kept under strict social distancing rules. Anyone with skin conditions such as leprosy was to leave town and live in a colony of other lepers or by themselves. They could keep a begging bowl close to the road, but they had to call out for alms at voice distance. In other words, the practice of social distancing is ancient. As modern medicine was not available to them, it was too dangerous for them to come into contact with someone else. Not all of the skin conditions included under the label “leprosy” were dangerous, but some were. Regardless the stigma applied to all lepers. The self-righteous thought them sinners before God. So even when medically necessary, there was more to leprosy than leprosy. The fact that the leper approached Jesus was, in itself, unusual. What is more unusual is Jesus’ response. He showed compassion on the man, a compassion which seems to have been totally undeserved. Jesus knew the rules of social distance. But He chose to touch the man anyway. So in the face of common wisdom, Jesus broke the rules. We look into history, and we see a church that was engaged in showing this compassion, even in the face of risking life and limb in the process. They showed the grace of Christ, quite often to the underserving. We see an example of this in the Middle Ages during the Bubonic Plague, which is far more deadly than the Coronavirus we face today. It killed a third of Europe. The rich and even the powerful church leaders knew what worked so that they would not catch the plague. They followed the time-honored tradition of social distancing. They left the “mal-aria” (bad air) of the towns and went to their country retreats to escape it. The serfs had no choice but to remain and deal with the plague. There was no escape for them but death. But they were not left alone. Monks and nuns who could have retreated to their monasteries and convents remained in town to comfort the sick and give proper last respect to the bodies of the dead. They broke the rules of social distancing at the expense of their own lives. These servants of Jesus were as brave if not even braver than our medical professionals who are trying to save Coronavirus patients. And least when they have proper equipment, they can greatly reduce the risk. All these nuns and monks had was rosaries and pockets full of posey. I could give many more examples of the bravery of Christians who sacrificed their lives and well being for the sake of Jesus Christ. But I want to get right into the situation I see in the church today, at least in the US. In some states, churches are forbidden to meet because of social distancing rules. Where I live, the Governor still allows church services provided that care is given to social distance. The church officials have been most compliant to these orders and have ordered all worship service to cease, other than online services which keeps things at a proper distance. I am certainly not foolhardy as I would be extremely high risk if I got Coronavirus. There is a good chance that it would kill me. But is this excessive caution actually more a risk to the church than the virus? A church near us has a vital food mission to very poor people who live in the countryside around us. 170 people a week depend on a hot meal and take home of food goods. These people would be called “deplorables” by the elite of the cities and suburbs. They have already been socially distanced. And now the ministry is shut down for safety concerns. Some of these people are at high risk of malnutrition. Suicide rates are high here and so are fatal drug overdoses. And now there is no one to touch them in their sorrows. I think that in the country of India that when their shelter-in-place orders were given that there were millions of migrant workers left behind with no where to go. Some have walks of 100 miles to go home with no food or employment. They are lepers now. But leprosy does not just extend to the marginalized who have been left to their fate. We too have all joined the leper colony. There are now billions of lepers in the colony. Their cries sound out, but there iss no one to hear them. The church is burrowed underground. In a time the world needs the hope of the gospel, the church is mute. No one wants to take any risk. The attitude had become: “Go your way, be warm and be fed.” Pastorally speaking, I am forbidden access to the hospitals and nursing homes. Even their family members cannot visit in many circumstances. The people in them have to add the suffering of loneliness and abandonment on top of their physical suffering. No one is there to give comfort in the face of death or remind them of the hope they have in the life to come. When they die, funerals have to be postponed or live streamed. There is no one to hug the grieving. These people do not have the virus in all the cases I know. Yet they too are the victims of the Coronavirus. The doctors know their pathology. I give them full support for their treating patients. I admire their bravery. They have become the priests while the priests of the church remain mute. The pastor is supposed to preach solutions and not problems according to most of the books I have read on preaching for many years. People want answers and certainty and not questions. In the ultimate sense, we have this certainty. But certainty in this world is by no means guaranteed. I don’t know how we should respond to this crisis, but I am pretty certain that sheltering in place is not the answer. It is hard to think that the way we should implement our denomination’s slogan to be “risk taking disciples for the cause of Jesus Christ when we are so risk adverse. Will we surrender our mandate to visit the sick and care for the poor to the government? Are we afraid that the authorities might come and close our churches, as in the case of a certain politician, permanently? The church that has lost its salt will be trampled under the feet of men. Unless we are willing to speak out, we will lose our voice forever. I can only hope nd pray that the church leaders will wake up to the dangers on inaction. The flocks are being scattered. There are no shepherds as they are in their safe places. They should care, even if for no more reason than the continuation of their salaries that they cannot continue to hide. Sometimes the danger of keeping social distance is more than to break the convention of social distance and touch the untouchables. We might die in this life, but we shall also live. We shall have meaning in this life and the life to come. The glory comes on the other side of the cross which we carry after the cross of Jesus. Easter is coming. Jesus shall return. There is resurrection. But today, God needs people to touch the untouchables. Let us think of these things as we enter into Holy Week. Be the hand of Jesus. Go out and touch someone.
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