"How the Bubonic Plague Changed Us" Sermon from Sunday, September 27, 2020
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Message: "How the Bubonic Plague Changed Us"
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13
Last week when the United Methodist clergy and lay members of northern and central California and Nevada gathered, we heard from our colleagues who are serving as chaplains in our local hospitals. From Kaiser in Oakland and San Leandro to the VA in San Francisco, United Methodist chaplains spoke of their sacred work on the front lines in the midst of a pandemic. They spoke of our collective grief, and how hard it is to be in the hospital right now or have a loved one in the hospital, of course to work in a hospital. Their exhaustion was visible, palpable.
A few days ago we passed 200,000 deaths in the US and worldwide we are nearing 1 million perished from COVID 19. We don’t know where this will end. And while these numbers are staggering, and every single life an irreplaceable loss, humanity has faced other pandemics in history. An estimated 20-50 million died from 1918-1920 as a result of the Spanish Flu. At the peak of the AIDS crisis from 2003-2008, nearly 2 million persons died each year, with cumulative AIDS deaths now at 36 million. And the bubonic plague which raged across Europe, northern Africa and Asia tops all historic pandemics by far. It claimed an estimated 75-200 million lives, decimating communities, countries and continents with Europe alone losing 30% of its population.
As the bubonic plague began in 1347, travelling from Central Asia along the Silk Road to Europe and spreading out to northern Africa, no one knew its origins. Doctors said the plague was created by air corrupted by humid weather, decaying unburied bodies, and fumes produced by poor sanitation. They advised people to walk around carrying flowers to stem the stench thought to carry the disease.
Some thought the plague was a punishment from God. They carved the sign of the cross into their doors and painted the words “Lord have mercy on us” over their door frames. God held no comfort for them. One of the great tragedies of the bubonic plague, in addition to the sheer number of lives lost, is this—that in the search for meaning, in trying to understand why, many found not God but a distortion of God, a God so wantonly depraved so as to cause such devastation, rather than a God of love.
As any chaplain will tell you, in times of sickness and pain and fear, we look for some way to make sense of what is happening, and something to cling to. It’s one of the reasons why there are chaplains on staff at hospitals and not at, for instance, restaurants. For my own part, I think many restaurants are missing an opportunity to offer excellent theological conversation over a good meal in a low pressure situation, but this idea really hasn’t caught on.
No, chaplains are found in places of crisis where we face existential questions: such as in the face of armed combat—which is why we find chaplains in the armed forces, or in the perilous transition between childhood and adulthood—which is why we find chaplains in university settings, and when we face our own mortality—which is why we find chaplains in hospitals and often in senior communities. God is always present, waiting for us to notice, but it is in times of crisis that we turn toward God with our full attention.
Any crisis point is a crossroads, a moment of decision that determines the next chapter of our lives, and sometimes of our collective lives. We can choose to shrink back in fear and loss, or we can choose to push forward in faith and hope. In the bubonic plague, we see evidence of both. In the time of the plague and its aftermath, fear and blame caused widespread persecution of minorities including foreigners, Jews and those ill with leprosy. Pain upon pain, suffering upon suffering. These people lived out the adage that hurt people hurt people.
But others moved forward in faith and hope in spite of staggering loss. When over half the parish priests died as a result of praying with the dying and administering of the last rites, the church was at a crossroads. The shortage of parish priests opened up new opportunities for women who had been barred from leadership to serve in ecclesial roles.
Now I don’t in any way mean to suggest that the plague was a good thing, gender equality or any kind of liberation should never come at such a cost. But the women who began serving in more official roles must have been very brave. No one knew for sure what caused the plague and some were convinced it was a punishment from God. The prevailing belief was that women shouldn’t serve in official church roles so not only were these women braving the plague they were braving this prejudice and the presumption that their actions could be incurring God’s wrath.
But their desire to lead and to serve in the church was stronger than those things. The thing about the crossroads at a crisis point is that it can look like one point with a single decision leading either to fear and despair or to hope and possibility. But it’s not. We bring to that single decision point months, years, decades, lifetimes of practice at acting in hope, reminding ourselves who and whose we are, and sometimes, in our own personal dark places whether caused by internal or external forces, a commitment to “fake it till we make it” to keep praying and keep showing up until that dark place passes.
The apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians knows this. Life moves forward and presents us with different kinds of challenges. The challenges that we have as children change, and how we perceive our challenges changes as we grow. Particular seasons of life such as the transition from being a student to being a young adult on your own, or mid-life between a house full of children and an empty nest, or working life and retirement present us with challenges and are a crossroads. Paul tells us that a practice of love is what will help us move well through any season, to make a decision at each crossroads that is about faith and hope and not despair.
To live and act continuously in love is the practice that allows us to face the crisis points well, and the text from 1 Corinthians 13 spells it out, “If I speak in the tongues of humans or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
And then the next verses describe love, with words in this election season that are important for the care of our souls, “Love keeps no record of wrongs and does not delight in evil but rejoices in truth. Love does not boast or belittle. Love trusts, hopes, perseveres.” Stay on the side of love, friends. Victory is not only the abolishment of evil but also the establishment of good.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not in any way suggesting a passive kind of love, and neither is Paul. To love in this way takes effort, action and humility. The key is in the last line, “and now these things remain: faith, hope and love.” To love in this active and persistent way we first must know the experience of love. We receive this first love from God through faith. Theologian Emil Brunner has said, “Faith is the hand by which we receive love, the way in which we receive God’s revelation” and God’s indwelling of love in us and with us.
By accepting love in faith we see even more clearly the need of a world searching for love, for security, for kindness and how far we are from the vision of life that God has for us. And this is where hope comes in. We can only handle what we are seeing through the assurances of hope, and the promises of Christ to make all things new, all persons well, all humanity whole. Brunner said, “faith believes what hope expects and hope expects what faith believes.”
One of our United Methodist chaplains, Rev. Stephanie Gameros who’s at Kaiser San Leandro, said that in the midst of this pandemic, every day facing incredible loss and fear, her call to ministry has deepened. This is a woman who has a baby, toddler, and elderly father at home and could instead respond, this isn’t what I signed up for. I have vulnerable people whom I love and this isn’t worth it. But instead she says her call has deepened, her gratitude has deepened, and she spoke of her deep love for her family and for the people she serves and ministers to at Kaiser. “People do heal from COVID 19 more than they perish,” she said. “Cling to hope, cling to our loving God.”
How did the Bubonic plague change us? How will living through COVID 19 change us? We are strengthening our ability to love, to have faith and to hope. We know now that hope doesn’t mean denying reality, in fact quite the opposite. Hope requires a square, honest and unflinching acceptance of reality. We are bringing to the crossroads of each crisis point the practices of kindness and service and courage that are rooted in faith, hope and love. In each moment may you know yourself in faith to be loved, that love lives inside you, and that it is in this love through faith that hope will bring us out of darkness and despair and into the light of life. Amen.
Order of Worship - Sunday, September 27, 2020
The Community Gathers
Prelude - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Welcome & Announcements - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Opening Hymn: "Come O Thou Traveler Unknown” UMH #384 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Chris Poston
Invocation - Becky Wheat
To Hear the Word
Scripture Reading: 1 Corinthians 13
Children’s Time - Susan Jardin
Anthem: "Landslide" - Judy Kriege, Erin Adachi-Kriege
Message: “How the Bubonic Plague Changed Us” - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
To Respond and Renew Commitment
Hymn of Response: "A wilderness wandering people," W&S 3113 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Chris Poston
Prayers of the People - Becky Wheat
Special Music: "Hamba Nathi / Come Walk with Us" - Epworth Choir
The Prayer Jesus Taught (The Lord's Prayer) - Kim Hraca
Offering Our Tithes and Gifts - Charlotte Rubens
Offertory Music: “This Must Be the Place” - Judy Kriege, Erin Adachi-Kriege
To Disperse in Love and Compassion
Prayer of Dedication - Charlotte Rubens
Closing Hymn: "Falling on my Knees" Worship & Song #3099 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Melani Gantes
Benediction - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Postlude - Rev. Jerry Asheim