by the Rev. James B. Craven, III
In the name of God – Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good morning. I last preached in March, when we were still open for regular in person worship. It seems far more than just 5 months ago. I have to work on sermons ahead of time. A number of very fine preachers I know can do it all on Saturday night, including our dear rector, but I can’t do that. In fact, I began working on this sermon in late April, planning to preach on May 10, and had it about half done when I unexpectedly spent a week at Duke Hospital. But I saved that first half, written when the COVID-19 tsunami had not yet clearly taken over.
Remember the first Holy Saturday. Many of Jesus’ followers, including his mother and John, had witnessed the crucifixion. They saw him suffer, they saw him die, and make no mistake about it, he was dead as dead can be. Some of them were there at the burial, when his body was covered in spices, wrapped in cloth and laid to rest in the rock tomb. It was unimaginable. What do you suppose they were thinking? It’s all over! He’s gone! Will they come after us next? I don’t want to die, and I sure don’t’ want to be crucified! It really is over! We fought the good fight and we lost! Little did they know. All that happened on Good Friday was as real as can be, but so too was the Easter awakening, when the women arrived at the empty tomb. So too was the moment the risen Christ walked in the room and asked if anyone had a piece of fish for him. And now, nearly 2000 years later, all over the world the joyful cry goes out, “The Lord is risen, he is risen indeed!”
We have though since then faced other enormous times of despair. Bodies piled up like cordwood, all over London, in truth all over Europe. It was the year 1348, Edward III was king, and the Black Death tsunami had hit, and really hit. Hundreds of thousands died throughout Europe. But life has to go on, for so long as a benevolent God allows. Attendance is sparse at Westminster Abby. Everyone is standing, as there are no pews or seats for the worshipers. A priest, perhaps himself having frightening symptoms, wonders what in the world he can say in the way of a homily. I know how he felt.
Bodies were piled up like cordwood, all over San Francisco, in fact spreading east to Reno and south to Los Angeles. It was called the Black Plague at the Golden Gate, bubonic plague which began in Chinatown in 1900, borne as it turned out by flea infested rats. Then brand new and untested, the U.S. Public Health Service finally after four years of dissecting hundreds of bodies of people and thousands of rats, eradicated it. Interestingly the local crime leaders and the Governor of California tried to keep a tight lid on the news, bad as it was for business. They were not unlike the Mayor of Amityville, in the movie Jaws, who said he knew there was a great white shark out there, but hey, this is a beach town built on tourism.
Attendance was likely sparse at the small wooden Grace Chapel on Nob Hill, just a few blocks up from Chinatown. The old chapel, dating from gold rush days, burned in the great fire after the earthquake a few years later. Grace Cathedral is there now. I have no difficulty imaging a priest in that bare chapel wondering what in the world he could say that would help. I know how he must have felt:
Not twenty years later came the Spanish Flu, which killed hundreds of thousands the world over, including several hundred here in Durham, and rivaled the Great War of 1914-1918 for deadliness. Marines from Quantico collected and buried bodies from the streets of Washington. Joseph Blount Cheshire, a deacon at the Chapel of the Cross and later bishop of North Carolina, used to walk from Chapel Hill to Durham on Sundays for services at St. Philip’s. Surely Bishop Cheshire too could think of little but the Spanish Flu pandemic when wondering what to say to folks that were likely terrified, and with good reason.
And now we fear COVID-19. If you don’t know people who have the virus, you will in time. How will it end? I have no idea when or how it will end. But it will end. It will not last forever. It just seems like it. The COVID-19 death toll in this country has now surpassed the number of deaths in the Great War, World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined. We aren’t going to last forever either. Martin Luther famously said at the birth of his first son, “He will never get over this.” We are all going to die someday. That’s a certainty. The unknown is what we are going to do with our lives between now and then. Sometimes we run from death, as a foe to be defeated in battle. Sometimes we embrace death, as a friend in the night, to relieve us of pain that all the morphine in the world can’t reach.
Everyone has heard of the hospice concept, dedicated as it is to helping people die. I had a friend who died much too soon and was a pediatric oncologist. He said once that helping children die peacefully was what he really did best. Forty years ago there were two hospice programs in all of North America, in New Haven and Montreal. Our dear friend Lex Mathews, an Alabama priest who was Director the Christian Social Ministries for the Diocese of North Carolina, talked Bishop Fraser out of some seed money and a meeting was held in front of our fireplace-Lex, my wife Sara, and Peter Keese, another priest. Well, out of that gathering came the third hospice program in North America. All three of them hit the road, driving all over North Carolina, spreading the hospice gospel. And did it ever take off. Hospice is literally and figuratively the way to go.
Life is real, death is real, COVID-19 is real. So what are we going to do about it? There is little proactively that we can do beyond wearing masks, hand sanitizing, and social distancing. And it is frustrating not to be able to fix it. I have reminded folks for years not to confuse me with their grandmother. All grandmothers have the magic ability to kiss it and make it well, a power I wish I had. But there are things we can do. Alas, therapeutic hugs will have to wait awhile, but a kind word, a smile, a listening ear, or just being with someone in the peace of quiet and silence. We need more of that sound of silence which Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel wrote about so tellingly.
Recently I was at a grocery store when a cashier looked as though the weight of the world was on her shoulders. “Long day, huh?” “You don’t know the half of it.” I then said, “Well you still have your high school picture on your name tag.” She laughed until the tears came. Two weeks later she recognized me, beamed, and happily pointed to her picture on her name tag. Next week she may be the one who picks me up when I need it. It is frustrating though. We know COVID-19 has to end. We know our country and the world need to change, but what can I do?
I am indebted to a Navy rabbi for this powerful story which has helped me and I hope it may help us all. It is from a fascinating book, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, a collection of stories of the experiences of Hasidic Jews during the Holocaust, and I will always be dumbfounded that the Holocaust is not ancient history, but rather happened in my lifetime.
A prominent and well off rabbi went for a walk in his neighborhood in Poland. The rabbi always wore a top hat and carried a cane. Every morning the rabbi encountered a poor, simple Polish peasant, an impoverished Volksdeutsche, an ethnic German, living in Poland. His clothes were tattered, he had no education, and he was not Jewish. By any standard he came in well beneath the social station of the rabbi. In spite of the difference in social class, education, and religion, the rabbi greeted the man politely and warmly every morning. He would tip his hat, smile, and say “Good morning, Herr Mueller,” and with equal dignity Mueller would reply “Good morning, Mr. Rabbi.”
This friendly exchange went on for ten years, until late 1939 when the Germans conquered Poland. The rabbi went into hiding from the Nazis and Herr Mueller found himself impressed into the SS. He became a guard at Auschwitz. The rabbi was caught by the Nazis and sent to the death camp at Auschwitz. The Jewish prisoners were herded out of the box cars by Nazis with whips and dogs and were made to stand in formation for the selection, to work on one side or to the gas chambers on the other. The rabbi spotted Mueller on the platform, so he smiled, tipped his hat, and said “Good morning, Herr Mueller.” Mueller in turn smiled, said “Good morning Mr. Rabbi,” and directed him to the right, to life. The rabbi ended up in a better camp and survived the war, as did Herr Mueller.
Now ordinarily the results of a simple kind “Good morning” and a smile are not so dramatic, not to say life saving, but you never know. That simple greeting, with a smile and looking another in the eye, especially if that other person is actually one of “the other”, or them, acknowledges the humanity and dignity of that other person. And it establishes a bond. Rolling down the car window and giving the guy on the corner $5 or whatever is good, and we should do it on occasion. But even though it may back up a few cars, it takes little additional energy to look the fellow in the eye and ask how he is doing? In one such encounter I learned that the man with the sad sign liked baseball, so the next morning I had a Durham Bulls ticket for him and lo and behold he joined me at the game that night. At the downtown post office last week, a woman behind the counter had obviously been crying. She has worked there for 25 years and is terrified about what may become of the Postal Service and her job. We were able to bond in our brief encounter over the fact that the Postmaster General likely won’t be Postmaster General too much longer, and we agreed we need a modern day Benjamin Franklin in that position.
When I was in the hospital for a week in May, the COVID-19 crisis prevented visitors, but you know what, the doctors, the nurses, the blood drawers, the housekeepers, they all stepped in tremendously. They held my hand at all hours of the night. They obviously and visibly cared how I was doing, and feeling. I could feel that loving care, see it, and sense it. It was powerful and I am convinced it contributed significantly to my recovery.
Perhaps twenty years ago a couple I know separated. I gathered their children, then teenagers, gave them a hug and said “Look, I got something to tell you. You didn’t break it and it’s not your responsibility to fix it.” I wish someone had taken me aside and told me that when my parents separated in 1950 when I was 7. Those three teenagers have mentioned what I told them many times over the years.
I remember another occasion years ago when a teenager who had clearly been crying and had her lip stuck way out, walked in the door here. I sought her out and asked her what was wrong. She said “I am learning that there are consequences to poor choices.” We both started laughing and have laughed about it since.
A very old rabbinic mishna says we should:
“make a set time to study Torah (the Hebrew Bible) every day, say a little and do much, and greet all people with a pleasant face.”
That will work for us today too.
If we need more, another old rabbinical scholar, Paul, helps us in his letter to the Romans, the longest and the last of his letters we have, for in all likelihood Paul was martyred at Rome. Clement, the Bishop of Rome in the year 96, says Paul went on to Spain. Regardless, Paul puts it well and unambiguously in what we heard today:
Let love be genuine; hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection…be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord…Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep…live peacefully with all…overcome evil with good.
If we all do that we will have a good idea what the heavenly kingdom of God looks like.
And don’t forget to say “Good morning, Herr Mueller.
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