Lenten Services for March 22, 2020

Immanuel UCC – March 22, 2020

Gathering Prayer
O God of Many Names, we know that we are loved wherever we are this morning. We gather as one people, divided in ideology but united in our ideals. Be with us as we awaken to a higher purpose, inspire us to be creative in our compassion for one another, and give us an internal power to overcome our anxiety and fear. Help us to be truly alive to your love-a love that serves as the foundation for our faith. As we continue to journey with you through the season of Lent, may this time of true wilderness wandering-the new normal-compel us to reach new heights of humanity. Amen.

Last week, from the pulpit, I talked about how we are all like “sitting ducks,” which feels even more true today. I noted that this pandemic had the wherewithal to become more real to us during the season of Lent because Lent is already a season of self-imposed spiritual vulnerability. Now we have spiritual and physical vulnerabilities coexisting. This has become a true test of our humanity. I hope we pass the test.

When we are in a vulnerable state, we become more vulnerable to those who would take advantage of the moment and seek to spread a false and dangerous message of hate and fear. We have seen this all throughout our history when a tragedy or crisis occurs.

The first thing some of the “loudest” preachers in America do is look for scapegoats, people they believe are “sinners” in a special way. Their message is that the crisis is somehow God’s punishment for the “sins” of these people, or for society’s “sin” of accommodation.

We saw this blame game during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, 9/11, and the Ebola outbreak in 2014. One would think that this sort of nonsense would eventually subside, that we would realize that no, God is not willy-nilly punishing presumably innocent people for what they assume is sinful behavior.

But no, it still happens. Just recently the pastor of a large church in Dallas, Texas (and I won’t mention his name because I don’t want him to receive any more notoriety), preached a sermon titled, “Is the Coronavirus a Judgment from God?” Although he wisely suggested that the coronavirus is not one of the plagues found in the book of Revelation, he did conclude that “All natural disasters can ultimately be traced to sin.”

And, there you go. All we need to do is pinpoint the most egregious sinners out there.

He isn’t the only one to be spewing this kind of nonsense. Another Christian group with a popular media platform is claiming that the coronavirus is “the killer of globalization” and “a scourge from God.” They claim that the virus is a punishment from God for the sins of our nation and even suggests that God’s punishment is “a sign of love.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t need that kind of love. (I need toilet paper.)

Of course, the LGBTQ+ community is often the favorite scapegoat of these fear-mongers. One pastor of an internet-based church is arguing that this community is one of the reasons why the coronavirus has infected so many people around the world. He refers to this as a “national disobedience of God’s laws.” Another preacher of this ilk suggests that this is a “plague” sent from God to wipe out these supposed sinners.

Finally, someone shared with me the other day a social media post from Kourtney Kardashian, who suggests that the Bible supports the notion that God might punish an evil world with an “epidemic.” Kardashian quotes 2 Chronicles 7:13-14:

“Whenever I (God) hold back the rain or send locusts to eat up the crops or send an epidemic on my people, if they pray to me and repent and turn away from the evil they have been doing, then I will hear them in heaven, forgive their sins and make their land prosperous again.”

The problem with this kind of theology is that, number one, it doesn’t line up with our experience of life. We understand that bad things happen to good people, and yes, good things happen to bad people.

Second, this kind of theology has been debunked more times than the flat earth theory! Sometimes the biblical stories seem to exist in tension with one another, and this is a good example of that.

Whereas parts of the Hebrew Bible want to argue in an “everything is black and white” sort of way, that if we obey God, God will bless us, but if we disobey God, God will curse us, other parts of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) and the Christian Scriptures (or New Testament) disagree.

The book of Job, for example, seems to be a rebuttal of this “black and white” theology. Job’s so-called friends are convinced that he must have done something sinful or else why would God punish him so much. Because Job is a “righteous” man who suffers a great deal, the book of Job exposes this kind of theology as simplistic, if not fraudulent.

In the scheduled gospel lesson for today from John 9, Jesus meets a man who has been blind since birth. His disciples, who have bought into this “God as cosmic punisher” theology, asks Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” After all, someone had to have sinned, or else why would God punish him?

But Jesus is having none of that. He says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” He goes on to say that this is an opportunity to show “God’s works,” and then proceeds to heal the man with dirt and saliva, i.e. mud. Don’t try that at home.

In Matthew 5:45, Jesus undercuts the “God as cosmic punisher” theology with this announcement: “For (God) makes (the) sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

These are trying times, and, as I said, this has become a true test of our humanity. We will fail that test if we take the lead of the “blamers” out there and look for a convenient scapegoat. We will pass that test, however, if take the lead of Jesus and seek ways to show compassion. And there will be no shortage of the need for compassion in the coming weeks.

The Psalm reading for today could not be more appropriate. Psalm 23 is often read at funerals and memorial services because those are the moments that we, the survivors, need a word of comfort and hope. Hear the words of the psalter once again. This is from the Common English Bible:

The Lord is my shepherd.
I lack nothing.
He lets me rest in grassy meadows;
He leads me to restful waters;
He keeps me alive.
He guides me in proper paths
For the sake of his good name.
Even when I walk
Through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger
Because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff__
They protect me.
You set a table for me
Right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil;
My cup is so full it spills over!
Yes, goodness and faithful love
Will pursue me all the days
Of my life,
And I will live in the Lord’s house
As long as I live.

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