March 24, 2020
Preaching should always be contextual. What in the world does it look like to preach in a pandemic, though? The world seems like it has turned upside down in the last couple of weeks. Most of us are wondering what the world will look like a week from now, a month from now, and a year from now. It is a hard time to be preaching, when we have our own anxieties to manage, and we are trying to speak a true word that is relevant to our current crisis.
I’ve been thinking these past few days about Scripture passages that might speak to us more profoundly in our current context, and which ones might help reveal how God is at work in our midst even in the pandemic. If you are off-lectionary, here are some that come to mind that might be helpful for preaching in this challenging time:
Exodus 16:1–18 (“Manna from Heaven”), or most any text about the Israelites’ 40 year journey through the wilderness.
Wilderness is an appropriate symbol right now, both for the season of Lent, and for the pandemic. Wilderness is a place of isolation, a place of uncertainty, and a place where we lack what we need (including toilet paper!). We do not know how long this season of wilderness will last—it will last longer than three days, and likely longer than 40 days (as was Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness), but hopefully it will last less than 40 years! Many of us will no doubt be weary from the journey, and we may wonder if there will ever be an end to it.
But Scripture also suggests time and time again that it is in the wilderness where we meet God. The Desert Fathers and Mothers knew this—this is why they retreated to the wilderness in the early centuries of the Christian movement. Is it possible that here, in our solitude, we might encounter God in new and more immediate ways?
Moreover, we believe that God continues to provide for us in the wilderness. Just as manna came daily from heaven, we must continue to pray and trust that God will provide our “daily bread.”
Genesis 12:1–3 (Abraham’s call).
This is a passage I return to time and time again. Genesis 12 picks up after the primeval history and the origin stories of humanity. In many senses, Genesis 12 is where it all begins: God calls Abram to “be a blessing,” so that “in [him] all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Those of us who trace our religious heritage to Abraham and Sarah must remember the purpose of our calling as the people of God: to be a blessing to the world. I fear that the temptation right now is for us as churches to “hunker down” and try to make sure that our own are safe. Church staff members are struggling and working overtime to shift to virtual worship services, pastoral care, and discipleship opportunities. We are trying hard to figure out how to care for our own right now. But we cannot lose sight of our larger purpose—we are called to be a blessing to the world, to be light in the world. We must find creative ways to do that in these challenging times of social distancing and self-isolation. My hunch is that churches will find that there is great need now, and we still have much to offer. Keep looking outward. Keep wondering what it means right now to be the church in the world.
James 1:27 (True religion means caring for the most vulnerable among us).
Caring for orphans and widows is a common refrain in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Scripture champions their cause because they were among the most vulnerable members of society in antiquity. In a patriarchal context, orphans and widows would generally have lacked the means to provide for themselves without a male head of household. “Foreigners” or “aliens” are also listed among these especially vulnerable groups (see, for example, Jeremiah 7:6).
Part of what it means to be people of faith is to offer care for those who are most vulnerable in society. This is rooted in God’s own identity: Deuteronomy 10:17–19 (among other passages) suggests that God is deeply concerned for orphans and widows.
Our context has changed, but our calling has not. Who are the most vulnerable among us now? As I wrote a couple of weeks ago on the CBFVA blog, in light of the pandemic, it is especially those who are elderly and who have underlying health conditions. Our extreme shift toward social distancing is an act of love and care. It is also a radical expression of our faith and our belief in God’s deep love for those who are most vulnerable now.
Len Niehoff, a Law Professor at University of Michigan, wrote on Twitter a couple of weeks ago: “If we view ourselves as besieged victims who need to go into hiding, then we will cultivate fear and hoarding. If we view ourselves as a community working hard to protect the most vulnerable among us, then we will cultivate courage and helping. Mindset matters.” (March 13, 2020 on Twitter; @LenNiehoff)
Ecclesiastes 3:1–8 (There is a season for everything).
The beginning of Ecclesiastes 3 is a beautifully poetic text that speaks to the full range of the human experience—the good and bad, life and death, building and destroying. It reminds us that each of these seasons of life is fleeting.
This Ecclesiastes passage speaks to those of us who are struggling with—or breaking under the weight of—anxiety right now. Breathe deeply. This, too, shall pass. It is a season—one that we would never have hoped for, but it will pass. Our children and our children’s children will share stories of this unique time in history. They will say, “I remember when . . . .”
If we can, we should also look for the goodness of this time, too. I am finding that, on my better days, I am especially grateful for extra time at home with our children (granted, there are plenty of difficult moments, too!). I wonder what goodness you are encountering in this season?
This sort of pandemic and radical shift in public life is unprecedented in our lifetimes. We are in uncharted waters. But this season will give way to the next, and the next after that . . . .
For what it’s worth, I think that humor, wisely employed, may be valuable for us right now. This passage is rife with possibilities for injecting humor into your sermon. As my friend Katye said, it is “a time to wash hands, and a time to keep stepping back on the close talkers.”
(Special thanks to Mark Snipes for suggesting this passage.)
Mark 1:40–45 (Jesus touches a leper and heals him)
One of Jesus’ first healings in the Gospel of Mark is remarkable in the means by which Jesus accomplishes it—Jesus touches the leprous man who approaches him. The man suffering with leprosy would have been considered unclean, as well as “untouchable” among the Jewish religious authorities. He would have likely been socially isolated and would have practiced mandated “social distancing measures” because of his disease.
Leprosy in antiquity might evoke for us in our context the mandated social distancing of today. This passage reminds us how important touch is, and how important meaningful physical contact with others is right now; many of us are going to struggle in the weeks ahead with lack of physical touch. As humans, we are wired for connection.
How can churches and followers of Christ get creative in “reaching out” to those who are the most isolated? How can we make sure our members who are not technologically savvy don’t fall through the cracks? Who are we forgetting about that lives alone and can’t attend virtual worship? This is not a call to disobey recommendations from the CDC for social distancing, but it is a call for creativity in how we care for others among us who are feeling especially lonely right now.
A quick word of warning: If you preach on this text, be sure to avoid any hint of anti-Semitism. It may be easy to suggest inadvertently that “all Jews” lacked compassion for the leper. Rather, it is likely that Jesus’ anger (alternate translation of “pity” in vs. 41) is provoked toward the religious authorities and priestly establishment in Jerusalem.
There you go—five passages to consider in the weeks ahead. I would love to hear what you think. Also: What other ideas do you have, and what passages are you planning to preach from in the weeks ahead? Please share your comments, thoughts, and questions below!