I woke with a start at 6 a.m. yesterday. How did I sleep through the 5:30 alarm? Why hadn’t Maggie, my canine back-up alarm, wakened me for her morning walk? How would I get out the door on time?
And then I remembered. I haven’t set a morning alarm in more than a month. Maggie likes sleeping in on snowy April mornings. I don’t have to get out the door at all. In fact, we are encouraged not to get out the door unless we have a toilet paper emergency or to wave “Thanks” to the delivery person.
We are staying at home, working at home, shopping at home, worshipping at home, playing at home, eating at home, fretting at home. Isolated from one another and all our routines, through no fault of our own, everything has changed. Even our waking and our sleeping.
I am not complaining, only musing. I fully understand and support the need for this current state of affairs. And, because of the privilege of my life, I have no fears about keeping my job or making the mortgage or feeding my family. Not everyone enjoys those luxuries. And, for that reason, not everyone is as understanding or patient.
Even though my routine, like yours, has been completely upended, I continue to prepare for worship and preaching as though I would be seeing you on Sunday. And this week, studying the gospel text, I had an insight about why we might regard the stay-at-home orders, the assault on our economy so differently from one another.
The gospel reading on the Second Sunday of Easter? You need not ask. It is the same text every year—the Trashing of Thomas, Jesus’ temporarily absent disciple. (John 20.19-31)
You know the story. On Easter evening Jesus’ disciples were huddled in a locked house, lights out, trembling in fear for their lives. They had reason to be afraid. They had witnessed Jesus’ fate at the hands of religious and political leaders. And even though reliable witnesses had reported an Empty Tomb and a Jesus Sighting, they were terrified. Self-isolated for fear of their neighbors.
It takes no imagination at all to put ourselves in their place. Afraid of the unknown. Suspicious of strangers. Angry at the authorities. Cautious, even around those whom we love the best. Self-isolated for fear of our neighbors.
But, as one of my favorite Star Trek characters recently quipped, “Fear is an incompetent teacher.” (Jean Luc Picard, “Star Trek: Picard,” CBS All Access, March 26, 2020) Rather than being trapped in fear’s feedback loop, learning nothing but more fear, Jesus would interpret our self-isolation differently.
Jesus understood fear better than anyone. (Remember betrayal, denial, abuse and crucifixion?) He also knew that fear is completely self-defeating, an incompetent teacher. So instead of stoking his disciples’ fear of their neighbors, Jesus kindled their love. Go to them, Jesus urged. Offer them peace, Jesus said. Forgive them, Jesus invited.
Though I sometimes struggle with the same fear and anger as did the disciples, Sunday’s gospel helped me see that, if we adopt Jesus’ view, our self-isolation takes on new purpose. Following Jesus’ example, we can decide our distance from one another is driven not by fear of the neighbor, but by love of the neighbor.
Here’s what I mean. I wear a mask at the grocery store, not because I fear other shoppers, but because I care for them. I keep my distance in conversation, not because I fear my friends, but because I want them to trust me. I accept the advice of our political and healthcare leaders not because I fear them, but because I respect them. I accept this open-ended absence from you not because I fear you, but because I love you. Though apart from one another for at time, this isolation and absence will make it possible for us to be fearlessly, joyfully reunited when this crisis has passed.
Jesus’ disciples isolated themselves for fear. We isolate ourselves for love.
All week long, our staff and leadership have been meeting (remotely) about what “normal” will look like in this abnormal time. Though we have no inside information, for the sake of planning we are imagining activities at Ascension will be suspended through May. If we are released sooner? Hurray! If later? We’ll talk.
While absent from one another, we will stay in touch through a layered communication strategy of phone, e-mail, meetings and prayer. You will receive electronic updates from us four times each week: a Sunday worship link, “Ask Ascension” on Monday, “Ascension Update” on Wednesday, and this blog on Friday. We ask you to continue your financial support of our ministries, and support our ministry partners as you are able. We are checking the mail daily, and our office manager has routed the church phone to her cell phone. (Please call the church office only during office hours. She has been awakened with random early morning and weekend church business calls too often.) All staff members are available by e-mail. Vicar Julie Grafe and I welcome contact by phone or e-mail, and for any reason.
Though we must be apart from one another for now, our ministry continues. It may even grow.
Is it possible to shove fear completely out of our hearts and minds? Perhaps not. Remember the women who first found the empty tomb? An angel instructed them, “Do not be afraid!” (Matthew 28) Though they were not entirely successful at squelching fear, they obeyed the angel as best they could. Matthew writes, “They left the tomb quickly, with fear and great joy.” Notice, the joy was greater than the fear.
We are, for a time, isolated from one another and from the ease of in-person ministry. But even in isolation, we find ways to speak peace, to offer forgiveness, to enter peoples’ lives with hope. We do not fear our neighbors. We love them. Even as we are loved.
See you Sunday (sort of),
Pastor JoAnn Post