On the first Sunday in Lent, I stood in the pulpit of Christ Church, Georgetown, where I am Assistant to the Rector, and preached a sermon titled, “Go to Church or the Devil Will Get You.” While the tagline was tongue in cheek – a throwback to my Southern Baptist, Alabama roots – the sentiment was not: We are meant for each other, and our Sunday worship fortifies us against the everyday temptations that accompany being human this side of heaven. Be together, be the church, I urged.
On the second Sunday in Lent, I stood in our church courtyard and turned people away. The doors were locked; all services were canceled until further notice.
On March 7, our rector, Tim Cole, was diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Sleepless nights and frenzied days followed. The pace has been relentless. My concern for our community, especially its most vulnerable, my family, and my own health have left me tender and, at times, fearful. Yet, through it all, God remains close and grace abounds. While I am limited to phone calls and video chats, I have never felt closer to my people. We have whispered our fears, laughed at our misplaced anxieties, and committed ourselves to being church, even without our beloved building and cherished traditions.
We Episcopalians are a liturgical people, and today’s daily office reading is particularly apt: “And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39). Peace, be still. Words spoken then into the eye of the storm. Words spoken to us now, if we have ears to hear them.
As the story goes, Jesus and his disciples board a boat and begin to cross the Sea of Galilee. It is not long after the journey begins that the boat and the lives of those on board are threatened by a raging storm and ferocious winds. There on the water, the disciples confront a chaos that leaves them frightened and with little hope. I imagine that it is only after doing everything they know to do as fishermen – people deeply familiar with the sea – that they look to Jesus, who is asleep, and ask, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38).
It’s a story that many of us are living today. Grocery shelves are emptying. Churches are closing. Confirmed cases are growing in number. States of emergency are being declared. The stock market is plummeting. Media is circling. There is no end in sight. Our fragile vessels are threatened by waves and winds we cannot control or predict.
We humans cross seas of uncertainty all the time, navigating questions about who we believe we are, what we believe about the world, and, finally, who we believe God to be. Asking these questions is what it means to be alive, to be human. The disciples confronted this truth as their boat tossed at sea; we confront it now. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Don’t you hear our prayers? Do you really love us after all?
But while fear wants us to believe we are alone, faith knows differently. The disciples not only have each other in that boat, they also have Jesus. When all seems lost, Jesus stretches his arms out over the tumultuous waters and says to the sea, “Peace! Be still.” And, there was calm.
Fear is not the enemy. But where our fear can lead us, that is cause for concern. Our fear can lead to a distortion of perception. Things can grow smaller: the world, our capabilities, our resources, even our perception of God. In response, we stockpile supplies, fear our neighbor, lose our patience, spread rumors of infection, violate people’s privacy, cast blame, sow doubt, and ostracize the sick (and the potentially sick). Before we know it, we are entirely alone with our fear, us against the world. But, hey, at least we have 288 rolls of toilet paper; surely Charmin will save us, right?
Instead, as people of faith, we are called to draw closer to God in these tumultuous times. To operate on faith, not fear. To listen to Jesus. In a time of global pandemic, this might look like reaching out to your neighbor, fortifying connections previously established and forming connections previously lacking. It might look like more consideration for the least of these. It might mean more listening, more patience, more caution than we are used to operating under. It might mean more compassion.
As Christians, we are committed to caring for the most vulnerable among us, a commitment that our actions should evidence. We must take COVID-19 seriously, following the advice of medical professionals even when it inconveniences us or challenges us to protect vulnerable populations from exposure. We can be faithful and be prepared.
On our first Sunday of closure, I stood at the doors of Christ Church turning people away. It broke my heart. I worried for my people and for my church. How many of them will get sick? How long will we be closed? Will they come back when we reopen or will they be too afraid? One of the people I turned away, a relative newcomer in the life of our church, returned an hour later with a small white box of fresh pastries, a gift of grace left at the door. This single act of kindness feeds me even now.
Peace. Be still. Let us hear those words and accept the gift of stillness that our faith offers. Let us give up on our illusion of control and look to Jesus who is with us. Let us lean not into fear, but into faith.