Saturday, March 7, 2020

Year A, Lent 2, John 3:1-17, Fear and Faith

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Fear is gripping our world.
COVID-19, the latest coronavirus.
We don’t know yet whether our fears are justified or overblown.  We simply do not know.
The fact is that we are vulnerable to certain illnesses, and the most vulnerable, elderly, children, and those with compromised immune systems are most at risk.
Part of what is going on is this is a new thing.  And we fear it because it’s new, and we don’t know much about it yet.  And perhaps our immune systems have little defense against it.
According to NBC news “the death toll in the U.S. from the coronavirus outbreak rose to 17 on Friday, with more than 330 cases confirmed across the country. Johns Hopkins University announced that more than 100,000 people have been infected worldwide.”
And as you are aware, western Washington is one of the epicenters of the outbreak.  Particularly Life Care of Kirkland nursing home. 
But, stop, for a second.
Reality check.
The Center for Disease Control estimates that during the 2019/2020 flu season there have been 34 to 49 million cases of the flu in the United States, and that there have been 20,000 to 52,000 flu related deaths.
So what that means is that approximately 10% of our population has had the flu this last year, and that of that, 1 in a thousand died.
The mortality rate for the corona virus appears to be higher than the flu, though we do not know for sure because the symptoms are so similar to the flu that without proper testing, it’s hard to determine if someone had the flu or the corona virus.
The point is that out of a population of 326 million people in the United States about 36,000 have died of the flu this last year or so, or one in 10,000.  Or to look at it locally, one or two people have likely died from the flu in Otis Orchards and Liberty Lake, and they were likely in a nursing home.  And so far, out of that 326 million people 1 in 20 million people have died from the corona virus.
In contrast, about a million people die of heart attacks each year, accounting for about 1/3 of all fatalities.  Or one in 326.
I have two reactions to these numbers.
The first is “Calm down.”  Chill out.
At this point your chances of dying from the corona virus or flu are about the same as dying from a motor vehicle accident.  Yet you all drove to church.
The second is that we can all be a bit smarter and more diligent. 
When we drive, we wear seat belts.  We don’t drive when intoxicated (or shouldn’t).  We stop at stop signs and obey the speed limits, more or less.  Our children are in car seats.  And so the list goes.
Well, the same sort of precautions are appropriate regarding infectious diseases like the corona virus and/or the flu.
Wash your hands.
Stay home when sick.
(On that one, one of the most absurd criticisms I ever received as a pastor was when one lady chastised me because she’d been sick with the flu for two weeks and I hadn’t visited her.  First of all she didn’t tell me she was sick, but second of all, it’s not a good idea to visit contagious people.)
There are other things we can do.
Cough into your elbow.
Cover your mouth and nose when sneezing.
Actually wash your hands.  I’m purposely mentioning that a second time.  I saw something the other day that said we should wash our hands as diligently as we would if we had just cut up a jalapeƱo pepper and are now going to take out our contacts. 
And take precautions when serving the public, as we do during communion here, and as much as possible use ‘best practices’. 
Those most vulnerable should avoid large crowds in confined spaces.
Oh, and did I mention that people should wash their hands.
The point is that the risks are low regarding dying from the corona virus or the flu, but don’t be dumb.
Just as you put on a seat belt when you get in the car, wash your hands.
The life you save may be your own, or someone you love. 
This point was brought home to me when I remembered that my son has what is called an IGA deficiency.  IGA stands for immunoglobulin-A, our body’s first line of defense against most bacteria and viruses.  He is more likely to get a cold, or the flu, or other because this immunoglobulin A is not present at a high enough level in his nose and mouth.  So he is at higher risk.
Now, let’s talk about fear.
And faith.
Death is the most primal fear we have.  I don’t want to die, at least not prematurely.  And so I am afraid of certain situations.
One example of that occurred the first Christmas Eve I was with you.  We had services at 7 pm, and it snowed and was nasty outside.  The roads were slick.
As we drove home with our family I became acutely aware that many of the people on the road late that night had probably been drinking.  It was then that I decided that we’d have our Christmas Eve services earlier. 
It’s all about fear, and avoiding risks.
We fear death.
But our lives are in God’s hands.
That’s the faith part.
God loves us.  God cares for us.  And our lives are in his hands.
So each year we go through an influenza season, yet the immune system which God gave us is usually sufficient to either prevent us from getting sick, or help us to get well if we do.
Yes, one in ten thousand will die from the flu this year, but 999 will live.
And secondly God gave us instincts and brains to avoid risks.  It’s up to us to trust these and act accordingly.
Have faith and live faithfully.
Trust in God and live trustworthy lives.
That said, we will all die one day.
And regardless how much we fear death, and how cautious we are, it will come.
Yet even then our lives are in the hands of a loving God.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Time and time again the scripture invites us to a life free from fear.  “Fear not” is a phrase that repeats itself in many bible passages.
From Luke 12:32:
"Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Faith, not fear.
The thing is we shouldn’t let our fear of death prevent us from living life.
Again, we need not fear death, for our lives are in God’s hands, but neither should we court it through our own stupidity.
For me as a pastor this gets very concrete and personal.  I don’t want you to die, and especially don’t want my actions or lack thereof to be the cause of your dying, yet one day you will and should the responsibility for doing your funeral fall to me I will preach on the resurrection and eternal life that is ours because of the love of Christ.
We are to live, confident and trusting in the loving God who has given us life, and yet seeking to be wise ourselves in doing those things that will lead to a long and healthy life.
So back to the issue that is dominating the news and wreaking havoc with the stock market.  (That’s one of the things I’m most afraid of, quite frankly.)
The COVID-19 virus.
Don’t be overcome with fear, but live responsibly as you can so as not to cause harm to yourselves and others.
The challenge for our lives is to find the balancing point between trusting in God and acting responsibly.
I had a conversation online with my ELCA colleagues on Friday, expressing my concern regarding communion practices in the face of the risk of flu and the corona virus.
One pastor, convinced that there is no risk associated with the common cup, said: “I guess it boils down to whether or not you believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist...And whether or not you believe there is healing, life and wholeness there.”
I was a bit upset with that answer.
Yes I believe Jesus is present in the sacrament and, as Luther says, bringing life and salvation to us through it.
But that doesn’t protect us from the transmission of infectious diseases through careless administration of the bread and wine.
To put it bluntly, I know where my hands have been, and believe me, Body and Blood of Christ or not, you want me to wash first. 
Have faith in the God who loves you.
But act responsibly so as not to harm yourselves or others.
That’s the bottom line.

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