(4 April 2020)
Virginia - Western Maryland Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
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Please read Bishop Riegel's Pastoral of Oculi Sunday if you haven't already.
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Center for Disease Control guidance related to COVID-19 of 16 March is still accessible on the web at https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/03.16.20_coronavirus-guidance_8.5x11_315PM.pdf.
Oculi Sunday, 2020 (Also the Ides of March, A.D. MMXX)
Brothers and sisters in Christ, since the age of 19, I’ve been in uniformed service. Park Ranger, FF/EMT (with multiple departments and squads), and, for most of my life since, the ministry, have been professional and volunteer work in which I put on a uniform and served my neighbor. I think back, at this time, to my fourteen years in EMS. When I first started running on the ambulance, the HIV pandemic was heating up. There was an initial time of fear, but no one I knew quit the service. We learned to use gloves, masks, shields, and other devices in new ways, but the mission didn’t change. The klaxon screamed, and we climbed into our rigs, heading out with no idea whether the next patient was infected. We were more cautious than we had been before, but the mission was the mission. Whoever the patient was and whatever their medical condition or emergency, it was our job to care for them. There was danger, but, in the field, there is always danger. The question was never “should we respond,” but rather “how do we respond well.” I remember a fire fighter who performed CPR without a pocket mask (a barrier to prevent direct mouth to mouth contact) on a little girl who was pulled from a house fire. Someone questioned him, “Aren’t you afraid of getting AIDS.” I still remember his response; “I could die of AIDS, but I couldn’t live with knowing I hadn’t done everything I could to save her.”
Later, hepatitis became a major concern. In my county and those around us, the number of hepatitis cases had grown to the point that health department officials were saying we were on the edge of an epidemic. Hepatitis cases were reported to be many times more numerous in our territory than HIV, and the disease more easily transmitted. No one quit the service as we reviewed our safety procedures. The klaxon screamed, and we climbed into our rigs.
There are real dangers in this world. It may seem that the world is a beautiful and wonderful place, and it is; it is also trying to kill you. One can live in ignorance of that harsh reality and enjoy a blissful ignorance. One can also discover the truth and, in shock and consternation, become petrified by the horror of it all. Still others discover the truth and crawl into the illusory cave of denial.
What should we, as Christians (Lutheran Christians, specifically), think? Jesus, with bloody brow, prayed, “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not not my will, but thine, be done.” The Son of God, embracing our humanity, through his incarnation in the person Jesus, embraced the full horror of our existence. Leaving behind the supernal realm of light, the Light came into the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. In Christ, not by our work to become like him but by his work of becoming one of us, we, with him, are in Gethsemane. We too pray that God take this cup from us as we stare unflinchingly into jaws of death, for “there is nothing in death or life, in the realm of spirits or superhuman powers, in the world as it is or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in heights or depths---nothing all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In this conviction, we laugh at the Devil who would drive us to despair and distraction, praying all the more fervently, “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”
What should we, as Christians (Lutheran Christians, specifically) do? Each and every member of the Body of Christ shares in Christ’s universal priesthood. We sometimes say that each of us is a priest, but that is not quite on the mark. Christ is the great high priest and we participate in the singular priesthood that is his. Christ, having ascended to the right hand of God, makes perpetual intercession before the judgment seat of God. We are so united with Christ that his prayer is our prayer, and, as he prayers there, we pray, through him, with him, and in him, here. As priest, he renders unto the Father the perpetual praise and thanksgiving, and we make, through him, with him, and in him, the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.. He also as priest, offered up his own life, once and for, as the perfect sacrifice, and we, through him, with him, and in him, “present to God [our own] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our reasonable service.”
This universal priesthood is the work of Christ, but, in our union with Christ, it takes form a the work proper to all of us who are in Christ. Beyond that, the particular work of each is a matter of one’s place in life, vocation, and office. Thus, the work of each must reference the three estates, i.e., the economic estate, the political estate, and the ecclesiastical estate. I’ll probably write a longer treatise on this some day, but let the following suffice for the moment.
All of us have some place in the economic estate (which is primarily the household but includes work and commerce). We have family members to care for. This hasn’t changed. Children must be fed, the parent honored. The spouse and friend are to be loved and supported. The duty to instruct children in the faith remains. The duty to care for the sick remains. This is holy work. If those of us who preach and teach have not said this to you, forgive us. Indeed, and it is in these quotidian works of love that prepare ourselves to love the neighbor in times of emergency.
Some of us hold office in the political estate. Government officials are the most obvious example, but so to do police, firefighters, and EMS provides. Those of us who are health professionals or perform vital services have always been there for the rest of us. We may not have realized it, but, now, they should be first in your prayers. Nurses, doctors, technicians, aids, orderlies, front-line EMS providers, epidemiologists, researchers, pharmacists, and so many others, I pray for you, and I ask my brothers and sisters to do the same. To those of you in vital services, who make sure that the water flowers, the power stays on, the food and medicine gets through, those who do not have the option of flight or self-isolation, I pray for you, and I ask my brothers and sisters to do the same. Your work is holy work. If we have been insufficiently grateful, forgive us.
Some of us hold office in the ecclesiastical estate. Some of us are clergy. Some of us are the lay leaders that manage and maintain the church’s structures (physical and operative). Some of us are wondering what to do, especially those of us whose regular church activities have been suspended. Clergy, our duty to pray has not been suspended, nor has our duty to proclaim the Word of God. Let us recommit ourselves to prayer. I also ask you to call those of your respective flocks most in need of the comfort and consolation of the Gospel. Indeed, not just the clergy should do this but also you laity: the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints is something we can all share in. If your neighbor is fearful, encourage. If your neighbor is hopeless, share the hope that is in you. Clergy, I ask you also to take this time of social fasting and immerse yourselves in the Word of God. As you probe that word, share your discoveries with your flock, and, you, flock, read and digest them.
There is much more that could be said, but this is a beginning. There is nothing in the current situation that we have not been through before. Plague is not new. We’ve been down this road before, and we will be down this road again. Through it all, we have never been alone, for the Christ who touched the leper is the same Christ who takes our hand as we walk this rocky road of life. We each participate in the universal priesthood. We each have our own particular work. The klaxon screams; the rig awaits.