Preaching During a Pandemic

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by Randall S. Frederick

I.

Last week, the girlfriend and I decided to visit her parents in Pennsylvania. We live in New Orleans, one of the epicenters of the Coronavirus outbreak in the South, and although we have both tested negative for the virus and self-quarantine and sanitize ourselves even we have not been in contact with others or touched things on our walk around the neighborhood, we felt that the longer we stayed in the city, the higher the risk of infection. On top of this, her brother has remained vigilant that no one should be allowed contact with him, his wife, or their child which caused Lizzie (the GF) to cry almost every night. She missed her family and needed to see someone other than me. Once the decision was made, things moved quickly even though we weren’t in a rush. It felt simple and easy to pack two days before Palm Sunday. 

Her mother is a Presbyterian minister who briefly attended Fuller Seminary, one of my alma maters, before graduating from Princeton Seminary. On top of this, Lizzie’s oldest brother and sister-in-law also graduated from Princeton; in our respective ways, we share something of realistic optimism that can be seen within the Reformed Presbyterian tradition. “Things will turn out fine eventually, but first we do the work.” Palm Sunday, now unpacked, Lizzie, her parents, and I watched churches with which we have connections. Lizzie’s brother and sister-in-law watched from just outside of Seattle. We each felt the incongruence. Here we were celebrating the “triumph” of Jesus at a time when the world was experiencing a pandemic. Text messages came in throughout the day, new warnings, links to articles posted to Twitter, cheeky quotes, all threatening “the worst week ahead.” Some of the ministers broadcasting through social media or their church websites spoke of this, that there was mourning ahead for Jesus just as there would be mourning ahead for each of us in the middle of the pandemic. “Ah,” the ministers seemed to say, “But then the resurrection! All is well! All will be well! Let us rejoice the coming King of Heaven!”

Still.

We felt the incongruence.

The false and empty hope.

The failure to recognize and fully embrace the weight of where we find ourselves.

I, specifically, felt disgust and disappointment. It was the same falseness and empty promises I had been raised on in the Church, a failure to recognize the real world. A celebration of… what exactly? That death would come to all and that we too could find hope in this macabre senselessness?

Texting and video chatting with one another across the country, trading new messages and e-mails with friends and fellow ministers, watching other sermons as Sunday became first Sunday afternoon and then Monday morning, trading even more messages, the now expanded pool all seemed to be saying the same thing: This is not a gospel that embraces reality. This is no gospel at all if it cannot first acknowledge pain.

II.

Almost two decades ago, I stood against the back wall of a church as we replayed the events of 9/11. It was 2002, the Sunday before the one-year anniversary of the collapse of the Twin Towers. Little did we know, we would soon lament the displacement and death of thousands from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It was enough to honor the dead in New York.

I had edited a 10-minute montage for the anniversary and had cried several times already. In fact, that particular Sunday, I was cried out. I might have even said to someone, “I’ve got no more tears left.” As I stood at the back of the sanctuary, I watched the faces of other congregants as they now saw what I had spent the last week putting together. Music swelled. Reporters voiced over. People on the street gasped as the video watched a man jump from a burning window. The video, condensed and focused, brought to mind the very worst of the Twin Tower bombings. There was no hope. That was how I put the “package” together. That was my gift, the brutal and unblinkable horror. I had designed the service, even accounting for the pastor to walk up after the montage and try to find the words that would follow. We had just watched people die. We were marking one year since a shift in our orientation to the world. What words of comfort, what mockery of the pain could the pastor come up with? None, I reckoned, and I was right. That had always been my intention – to break through the false optimism. And so the pastor, instead of offering a sermon as he had planned, wept and prayed then dismissed the congregation to go home and be with their families. There was nothing else to be said.

A few years later, responding to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I was still working for that church when we had an emergency staff meeting to decide whether we would open the church buildings to those who had been displaced and how we would help feed those who had already begun filling up the local university dorms, sports centers, and shelters. The college pastor and his wife decided to set up a trailer with speakers and sing hymns outside in the parking lots of the college building. The staff chose not to open the church. We chose not to cook meals. We chose not to fundraise. Instead, we sang songs and kept taking donations for our new building project. I opened my home to three families, stocked the pantry, and felt guilty that I could not do more. I was outraged that, in the midst of tragedy, all my congregation could do was sing songs. But that was what we felt was “safest” for “our” people, our facilities. The pastor felt that “if we help, they’ll never leave and we’re just teaching them to wait for handouts.” A year later, I quit. The insult of my complicitness wore on me. It wore on all of us. Around that same time, the college pastor and his wife, the youth pastor and his wife, even the pastor resigned. The year that had followed that decision was one wrong move after another, only reinforcing my belief that “one bad turn begets another.” We had lied to ourselves in an effort to close our hearts. We had become too focused on self-preservation to admit the failure as it was happening. We had failed to help. 

Instead, we sang songs.

We offered false optimism. “Thoughts and prayers” that didn’t clothe, feed, or shelter. We went from “victory to victory” even as our neighbors, wrapped in rough blankets and thinking about how much they had lost, stared at us from the sidewalks. We failed them. And we failed to do the right thing. But, we assured them, “All is well. All will be well.”

III.

At our best, the Church has been eager to rush into danger instead of waiting it out or (God forgive us) singing songs to the disheartened, sick, or dying. During the Black Plague, the Church ministered to the sick. During wars, religious leaders have stayed with the congregations and administered rites. The legacy of religious communities during upheaval is so well-established that those who violate this trust by attacking the clergy, the sacrosanct, are anathema because they offer a particularly indefensible kind of horror. You’re attacking those who would give dignity and peace to the dying? we seem to ask. 

Matthew Weber, writing for History Collection, points out that 

In the mid-1300s, there was an outbreak of plague so virulent that it killed between 75 and 200 million people in Asia and Europe. That is a staggering number of people for that time period, especially considering that the populations of Asia and Europe consisted of the majority of Earth’s population at the time. If the numbers we found are true, the total population of Earth in 1300 was between 300 and 500 million people. Killing off 200 million of those, if the top-end estimates are correct, make the Black Death the worst disaster in human history by far.

The death rate for the Black Plague has been debated for centuries, however. A more conservative number, and the general consensus, puts the death around 30% for the general population. In The Great Mortality, John Kelly says that the mortality for priests during The Black Death was “42 to 45 percent”, higher than the overall mortality rate for the general population.

Clergy who cared for the sick were dying at a high rate, and no wonder: the sheer exhaustion and repeated exposure of moving from home to home at all times of day and night to visit the dying would have made priests especially vulnerable. Because there were so many ill, and so few priests remained as the disease progressed, Clement VI declared that the dying could make their confession to anyone present, “even to a woman”, and that it would still lead to salvation. This was a big deal for the Church, as previously only clergy were permitted to perform last rites. This move allowed the religious commonfolk (and yes, even women) to do what their spirits compelled them to do, to serve the sick and dying and give them dignity and care in their final hours – even if, perhaps especially if, it meant the placed themselves at harm. So great was the compulsion of the Church to help one another that self-interest was set aside. They must, they felt, help one another.

It wasn’t just practical help that the Church offered. They also offered an aggressive campaign to discuss the pandemic in universal terms and to teach Christians to avoid blaming particular ethnic communities. Renewed religious fervour and fanaticism bloomed in the wake of the Black Death and some Europeans targeted groups such as Jews, friars, foreigners, beggars, pilgrims, lepers, and Romani, blaming them for the crisis. Lepers, and others with skin diseases such as acne or psoriasis, were killed throughout Europe. Because 14th-century healers and governments were at a loss to explain or stop the disease, many turned to astrological forces, earthquakes, and the poisoning of wells by Jews as possible reasons for outbreaks. Many believed the epidemic was a punishment by God for their sins, but Jews in-particular were targeted throughout Europe. For example, in the Strasbourg Massacre of February 1349, about 2,000 Jews were murdered. In August of that same year, the Jewish communities in Mainz and Cologne were annihilated. By 1351, 60 major and 150 smaller Jewish communities had been destroyed. During this period many Jews relocated to Poland, where they received a warm welcome from King Casimir the Great. Pope Clement VI, the pope at the time, released two papal bulls in 1348 condemning people who blamed the Jews for the plague, saying that they had been “seduced by that liar, the Devil.” Showing common sense, he wrote: “It cannot be true that the Jews, by such a heinous crime, are the cause or occasion of the plague, because through many parts of the world the same plague, by the hidden judgment of God, has afflicted and afflicts the Jews themselves and many other races who have never lived alongside them.”

As Barbara W. Tuchman writes in A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, “Clement VI [later] found it necessary to grant remission of sin to all who died of the plague because so many were unattended by priests.” The priests were doing what they could, but their numbers continued to decline, as Kelly points out, and they died at a faster rate than the general population.

The pandemic was no small thing, you understand. The Black Death killed one out of every three people, a third of Europe’s population, in the mid-fourteenth century. Victims usually died within a few days and spent that time suffering from horrific symptoms like gruesome boils, bloody lungs, severe vomiting, and high fevers that sent the infected into delirium. Between the rapid spread, scary symptoms, and high mortality rates, people were understandably driven to panic. Combine that with the poor state of medical knowledge, and it is unsurprising that many latched on to cures that did not work or only served to increase the victims’ suffering. As Khalid Elhassan points out, hysteria caused otherwise sensible people to even live in sewers on the assumption that noxious air would kill the virus. “It was thought that the sewers’ horrible stench would discourage the clean but disease ridden air from coming near them. Not only did it not work, it also made those visiting and living in the sewers susceptible to other illnesses caused by their vile surroundings.” Others smeared themselves in feces or bathed in urine. Many wore talismans.

In many cities and villages where medical knowledge was limited, communities turned to spiritual help. Cities and villages often adopted a plague saint to protect them. For example, in Florence, Italy, the bishop had an altar built in honor of St. Sebastian as a means to stop the Black Death. After the plague was over, he built a church dedicated to the saint in thanksgiving for his intercession, and artwork depicting the plague shows that St. Sebastian seemed to be the go-to saint at the time. St. Roch was also portrayed in several paintings of the plague, but he is shown among victims, often praying to Mary, since he too was a victim of the disease. In fact, were a whole group of saints who were called on for prayers during the plague as early as 1348 in Munich. This group goes by the name the Fourteen Holy Helpers. Carol Zimmerman, writing for The Catholic News Service, reminds the faithful that

The group of 14 – each with individual feast days and initially one day for the whole group until 1969 – is honored in a German chapel that is a pilgrimage site. There also are churches in Italy, Austria, Hungary and other European countries named after these 14 and one parish in West Seneca, New York, in the Diocese of Buffalo. Twelve of this specialized group are martyrs and three are women. Perhaps most known now among the group is St. Blaise, patron saint of throats, who is invoked each Feb. 3 on his feast day, for blessing of the throats. The names of the other 13 — and what people pray to them for protection from or intercession for — follow: St. Achatius, headaches; St. Barbara, fever or sudden death; St. Catherine of Alexandria, sudden death; St. Christopher, plagues, sudden death; St. Cyriacus (Cyriac), temptations; St. Denis (Dionysius), headaches; St. Erasmus (Elmo), abdominal maladies; St. Eustachius (Eustace), family trouble; St. George, protection of domestic animals; St. Giles (Aegidius), plagues, good confession; St. Margaret of Antioch, safe childbirth; St. Pantaleone, physicians; St. Vitus (St. Guy), epilepsy.

This wasn’t the end of it. Chris Sundheim writes that

The very worst of the plague’s many outbreaks occurred in the 1340’s, but the disease continued to resurface in the sixteenth century while Martin Luther and the Reformation sought to change many of the Christian church’s fundamental teachings. Certainly few events in this period would so likely provoke religious questions as a bout with the plague. The plague touched Luther’s life most closely when it struck Wittenberg in August 1527. He mentioned the disease regularly in his sermons and other writings, particularly in discussions of Genesis…

The plague could spread by the briefest touch and yet some people who cared for victims were constantly exposed but never infected. Furthermore, infection with the plague was not always a death sentence. Some strains of infection could be beaten. The best way to escape the plague was to simply flee from it by leaving the afflicted area. Luther knew this and his fullest commentaries in the disease are found in the essay “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague,” written in 1527. The fourteen-page pamphlet was reprinted in nineteen subsequent editions and enjoyed wide readership, especially when plague threatened. Luther’s composition of the booklet served a dual purpose: to comfort followers who lived with the pestilence and to discuss the moral obligation of Christians if their communities became infected. He assured fellow Christians that it “is proved by experience that those who nurse the sick with love, devotion, and sincerity are generally protected. Though they are poisoned, they are not harmed” (from Luther’s Works, vol. 43:127).

It wasn’t theoretical. The Black Death struck Wittenberg on August 2, 1527. Concerned for the safety of faculty and students, Elector John ordered professors and others to leave for Jena, but Luther was not persuaded by the Elector’s request or the appeals of his friends. He decided to stay and minister to the sick, to all who could not leave. He also helped the city council and lectured to a small group of students who, for unknown reasons, remained. Perhaps they were following  Luther, perhaps they were persuaded by the obligation of which he spoke, but within three weeks, 18 people had died in the city including several who were close to Luther and his family. The wife of the mayor literally died in Luther’s arms, and his own son John, then a toddler, likely suffered from the plague that September before recovering. Luther’s daughter Elizabeth, born in December, died within eight months, presumably weakened by her mother’s exposure to the plague while pregnant.

Although Luther chose to stay and minister, many other clergy were faced with the same dilemma of self-preservation or caring for the sick. Luther’s “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague” was written in response to such a question from Johann Hess, a Reformation leader in Silesia. Hess had asked Luther whether Christians could flee from the plague with a clear conscience and Luther was generous in his response, for Hess was not the only Reformation leader who felt compelled to take a common-sense approach to vacate diseased communities. Luther may have also been prompted to write the treatise after hearing how a Dominican in Leipzig had mocked the way residents of Wittenberg ran from peril. All this to say that although Luther was an important voice for the then-emerging Protestant communities and discussions with the mother Church, there was not some sort of legendary or apocryphal consensus. Clergy may be pious, but they are still human. The guiding thoughts Luther put forward was that pastors should not abandon their flocks and all Christians, clergy or commoner, should resist giving into panic.

This is not to suggest that Luther had a superior position on the matter of pandemics and religious responsibility. He was a man of his time and inconsistent. He writes at times that the Black Plague was punishment, a demonstration of divine power, or an exercise to test humanity, perhaps even “a fatherly game… for the purpose of melting and purging.” The punishment, if it could be called that, was a product of “simulated” anger and not a cause for alarm. “Indeed, we must fall most horribly in order that we may recognize our wretchedness and weakness” (from Luther’s Works, vol. 7: 231, 254, and 228). As any student of Luther would know, there is also a great deal of superstition in his thought. Like many of his contemporaries, he believed that Black Death was “spread among the people by evil spirits who poison the air or exhale pestilential breath which puts a deadly poison into the flesh” (Luther’s Works, vol. 43: 127, see also vol. 42:91). As he grew older, this thought was abandoned for practically, but even on the question of staying to minister, he vacillated. Luther writes in “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague” that

Those who engaged in a spiritual ministry such as preachers and pastors must likewise remain steadfast before the peril of death. We have a plain command from Christ, “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep but the hireling sees the wolf coming and flees.” [John 10:11]. For when people are dying, they most need a spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts their consciences by word and sacrament and in faith overcomes death.

He argues, however, that this does not require all ministers to stay behind with their communities. In fact, he argues, if enough religious leaders are already staying to take care of the sick Christians,  preachers were free to leave with those Christians who chose to leave the city. Ministers need not expose themselves to undue danger in all instances. Luther continues,

I do not consider such conduct sinful because spiritual services are provided for and because they would have been ready and willing to stay if it had been necessary.

He goes on to say that this reasoning extends to civic officials. Secular authorities should stay to see that law and order are preserved in prevention of “fires, murders, riots and every imaginable disaster… On the other hand, if in great weakness they flee but provide capable substitutes… all that would be proper.” But no one, he insists, should leave without first checking on the wellbeing of those who cannot move or take care of themselves.

Still, in October of 1539, more than a decade after the Wittenberg outbreak, Luther once again buried friends as a result of plague. At that time, he sermonized that the panic-stricken should flee without shame from the threat of plague because “fear itself is the chief cause of this calamity” (Luther’s Works, vol. 4: 91). Notably for a man as explicit and given to verbosity, Luther does not elaborate.

This attitude prevailed until the Twentieth Century. In 1918, the Spanish Flu shuttered America and many other countries, especially those with soldiers returning from World War I. Influenza would kill almost 700,000 in the United States and 50 million globally and was the worst pandemic in modern history. That the Spanish Flu erupted right after what was, up until then, the most climactic war in human history, brought the world to a standstill similar to what we see today with Coronavirus but, unlike Coronavirus, the tools needed to fight it were largely non-existent. Social media consisted of telegrams, mail, and messengers, so the scientific community could not benefit as immediately. There was little in the way of pharmaceutical intervention available; to fight it, medical professionals recommended limited socialization, better personal hygiene, and disinfecting surfaces as “best guesses” rather than informed directives.

As the influenza spread, the American government recommended the cancellation of Sunday assemblies. The Christian Leader, a publication of the Churches of Christ, implored churches “to observe strictly all the regulations urged by our State Boards of Health and cooperate in every way.” Professor of Theology for Hazelip School of Theology, John Mark Hicks writes that 

Churches in California, Minnesota, West Virginia, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas and all across the country suspended their regular services. Ben West of Ennis, Texas, informed the Gospel Advocate that “Sunday was the first day for twelve years that I have failed to attend service,” and then added, “We had three funerals here Sunday.” Though the church was not assembling, they were “busy attending the sick.” Some died caring for others. The Gospel Advocate reported that J. D. Northcut, an evangelist from Tracy City, Tennessee, fell ill with “influenza followed by pneumonia” and died at the age of 43. He had given “almost continual attention to sufferers near him.” M.C. Kurfees, the minister of the Campbell Street Church of Christ in Louisville, Ky., sent a letter to his members announcing the congregation’s compliance with the Kentucky State Board of Health. “It behooves us,” he wrote, “to cheerfully submit to this order and to exert all our energies in an earnest and sympathetic effort to cooperate with the benevolent purpose of our government to check the deplorable disease.”

Though churches suspended their large assemblies, they did not cease to worship. Rather, as E. D. Shelton, in Fayette City, Pa., wrote, “We worshipped God from house to house.” H. E. Winkler, of Adairville, Ky., and his wife “worshipped in our home” for three weeks. Kurfees recommended his congregants worship in their homes “as was sometimes done in the days of the apostles.”

The influenza epidemic, as A. B. Lipscomb wrote in The Gospel Advocate, a publication of the Churches of Christ, had “opened up a way for the enlargement of the sympathies of Christian people.”

For comparison, the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination that strongly believes in physical healing through the laying on of hands and divine healing through prayer and fasting, also complied with governmental directives. This was no time to play loose with the Christian community or neighbors. Writing for Influence Magazine, Daniel Isgrigg, an associate professor and director of the director of the Holy Spirit Research Center at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and an ordained Assemblies of God minister, writes

Churches and ministers complied with health department mandates to close their meetings and quarantine those who were sick. They recognized that they needed to protect people in the cities they lived in. On several occasions, ministers canceled revival meetings because influenza was spreading across the town. Some saw the epidemic as resistance to the great work God was doing. Even so, they viewed the painful reality of human mortality as a greater impulse to reach the lost. Yet, these believers also went to the homes of those who were sick to pray, and they saw many answers to prayer. They weren’t afraid to pray for the sick. In some cases, they ministered to them even in death…

Isgrigg notes that the Assemblies of God used their denominational magazine, The Christian Evangel, to educate, inform, and encourage Christians who had been taught to believe in miracles and protection from disease. He writes that the paper was sober and offered stories of death beside those of loss.

Sadly, many missionaries also died from the pandemic. One in particular, Nellie Andrews Norton, died because of her ministry to people infected with the H1N1 virus. The tribute to Norton published in The Christian Evangel states: “When the Influenza came into our midst last month, she did not spare herself, but worked night and day caring for the sick until she herself came down with the disease.” But accounts like this always acknowledged that for the believer, death was a “promotion” to heaven for sacrificing their life here on earth… [they] also published stories of the triumph of Pentecostal saints who made it through. One particularly important testimony was that of E.N. Bell’s wife, who contracted the influenza virus but was healed. She testified, “The Spirit Himself interceded for me,” and she made it through…

As Spirit-empowered believers consider how to respond to the current crisis, there are two things to take away from this historical example:

First, early Pentecostals endured the worst flu pandemic to that point in history. Although they believed in healing, they didn’t claim that their faith in God would protect them from the disease. Many caught the flu; some died. Yet, early Pentecostals continued to proclaim that God was a healer, and many were preserved through the flu or healed of it. In either case, they testified that their faith in God and prayer got them through the crisis.

Second, early Pentecostals’ worship and ministry were interrupted by the crisis. Missions were closed. Revivals were canceled. Even the publication of The Christian Evangel was delayed. Yet, early Pentecostals followed the guidelines of the city or health department and closed their churches and missions when instructed to. They were not careless with the lives of people during the pandemic. They were willing to stay home and pray, knowing that that was just as valuable in the crisis.

IV.

I suppose this is why I felt such disappointment at the Church’s response to Coronavirus. Ministers continued to promote a “we got this, Fam!” triumphalism instead of a cautious expectation that God will see His people through. I know well the consequences of failing a congregation, and the guilt that lingers for decades when we fail to do the right thing.

Many churches met on Palm Sunday, reasoning that the triumphal approach of Jesus to his impending death and the timing of the current pandemic prescriptively modeled how Christians are supposed to respond to Coronavirus. They encouraged congregants to defy the government and attend services against the recommendation of medical and scientific experts. Solid Rock Church of Monroe, Ohio, has been particularly defiant.

In a CNN segment on Palm Sunday, members of the church were asked why they continued to attend, risking infection for themselves and non-churchgoing people in their community. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” one woman said.

“Aren’t you concerned you can infect other people if you get sick inside?” CNN’s Gary Tuchman asked.

“No,” the woman responded. “I’m covered in Jesus’ blood. I’m covered in Jesus’ blood.”

The woman went on to say she visits multiple stores a day, including the grocery store. In other states, church leaders who have violated stay-at-home orders to continue holding services have been arrested. Despite exemptions being part of a stay at home order, Governor of Ohio Mike DeWine has called pastors’ decisions to continue holding services a mistake. “Any pastor who who brings people together, in close proximity to each other, a large group of people, is making a huge mistake,” DeWine said. “It’s not a Christian thing to do.”

Butler County Health Commissioner Jennifer Bailer added to this assessment. “We are often asked many times a day why we have not shut them down. It’s because the governors gave churches an exemption. We would prefer as public health authorities for them not to meet in such large numbers.”

In my own Baton Rouge, Life Tabernacle Church also held services in defiance of a stay-at-home order issued by Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and a direct ban by the state on gatherings of 10 people or more. Pastor Tony Spell, who was arrested the previous week for holding services, summoned his faithful again. Hundreds of worshippers converged on the church, many arriving on one of the 26 buses sent to pick them up. Pastor Spell insisted they had “nothing to fear but fear itself.”

The failure, then, is not with the government but religious leaders and the defiant who believe their individual “rights” and interpretation of religion give them privilege to endanger others. It reeks of dishonesty, faithlessness, and absence of concern for others. Such behavior is out of character with historical Christian witness, to say nothing of the ethical and social responsibility shared with other faiths today.

The most honest response of Christian leaders has been the quiet moments when they have been most human. In the Palm Sunday message of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian in New York, there were two moments that I noticed. One was a moment of pause, long enough for Senior Pastor, Dr. Scott Black Johnston to take a breath. His shoulders drooped too long, I noticed, and it was in that breath he conveyed the weight of the present circumstance, the exhaustion and uncertainty everyone feels at this point. In his sermon, Rev. Johnston thanked emergency personnel in New York City. He reminded his viewers – because, after all, all ministers who have taken their services online out of respect are now televangelists – of Jesus’ triumphal entry recorded in Matthew 21 and Mark 11. Then, the people of Jerusalem went to the windows and gathered in the streets to shout “Hosanna!”

Growing up, I was taught that Hosanna meant “praise!” or, if the minister felt especially theological, as “salvation” but neither of these are accurate. Studying Hebrew and Greek in seminary, I discovered that it is more accurate to translate the word as “save us!”It is a cry for help, a claim to helplessness, not one of celebration. As Rev. Johnston pointed out, the word hosanna comes from a Hebrew word meaning “save now” or “save us, we pray.” The first word of Psalm 118:25 is howosiah-na, which is translated there as “Save us!” Telling then, he offered, that the people of New York City have been going to their windows each night and banging pots and pans, celebrating the helpers in the city – the nurses and doctors, the firepeople and emergency teams, those delivering meals and groceries. Like the people of Jerusalem did with Jesus so long ago, the people of New York are grateful for whatever help can be offered from these contemporary “saviors” who are willing to meet the need while following best practices.

The second moment, also from Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, was when the pastor for Congregational Care and Outreach, Rev. Kate Dunn, offered the blessing of forgiveness. While she went about the pouring out of water that symbolizes the “washing away” of sins and the declaration of forgiveness, you could hear an approaching siren. Blink and you wouldn’t have noticed it. She winced. She winced and in that moment, if you heard her break the movement of the liturgy or noticed her eyes flick downwards, it was because that siren announced the death of someone nearby. It brought the sobriety of the rite into full relief. While so many among us isolate themselves with fear and paranoia, blaming “those people” or going about their services and sermons as though the world around them didn’t matter, death was just around the corner. It is not piety and distance that “save” us. This is not the Church’s witness. Instead, God and salvation are to be found in the practical, faithful application of beliefs and worldviews put to the test.

Against the threat of death, the Church cannot continue to celebrate their own individual, personal Jesus but must instead reconcile themselves to helping others, offering salvation even if it means death to ourselves or, I would offer, our convictions and beliefs.

Further Reading:

“Pastors and Pestilence” by Chris Sundheim

 

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