This isn’t a sermon, it’s a modern-day lament. These are some thoughts on a difficult night.
Like the psalmist as of old, I cry out to God “how long,” knowing full well that it is we humans who are choosing to perpetuate evil in our world, by things said and done, and by things unsaid and not done. How long, how long will we devalue human life (at least some human life, especially human life that comes with skin of color)? How long, how long will we choose not to love our neighbor by denying that our personal actions and inactions can literally mean the difference between the life and death of another? How long, how long?
Tonight our country reached a horrific milestone, over 100,000 dead from COVID-19, and each day we will be adding more and more to the total. My heart breaks for each life lost. My heart breaks for each person mourning the loss of a loved one. My heart breaks for what the world has lost with each life lost. We didn’t create the virus, but our actions can help keep it from spreading. Yet picture after picture from this past weekend showed people gathering in crowds, not keeping 6 feet apart, not wearing masks. How many in those pictures were sick without knowing it and infected others? (I was going to say “unintentionally infected others,” but when you know there are risks involved, is it unintentional?) How many of those people, or the people they encounter since, will die? On average about 1,000 people have been killed by this virus in the US since the first victim in February (or was it January?). I used to live in northwest Wisconsin in a city whose population was about 3,400 people – I think about how with an average death rate of 1,000 people per day, it is like that city being wiped out in about 3.5 days, and I can’t imagine it. I think about those lovely people—mothers, fathers, daughters and sons, sisters and brothers—gone. They are people. Their lives matter. Why can’t we love one another enough to wear masks, and socially distance, and wash hands to protect one another? Why don’t we love our neighbors enough to say that we will take the vaccine when it becomes available (yes, a recent poll found that only 51% of Americans say they will take the vaccine if/when it is available!). Why can’t we love one another enough to insist that our government (President, Congress) do their job of protecting us, providing sufficient PPE for frontline workers, getting enough testing and contact tracing done? Researchers say if we had just started responding sooner, if we had just taken this more seriously, we could have saved tens of thousands of lives—why don’t those lives matter more to us that we aren’t more outraged at the lack of leadership, the lack of guidance, the lack of action?
But, as one TV commentator puts it, COVID-19 is not the only virus leading to preventable deaths in our country right now. Racism is like a rampant virus in our country. We proclaimed slavery abolished almost 150 years ago, we have laws that claim that discrimination on the basis of race is illegal, yet our actions show that the virus of racism is still very deadly. Racism recently took the lives of Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, two more lives that should have mattered more added to a much too long list. Racism was the virus at work in Central Park that thankfully did not cost an African American man his life, but it could have. Racism is the virus at work that compounds the COVID-19 virus by targeting people of color and Native Americans because racism has led to poverty, unequitable distributions of healthy food and medical care. Racism is the virus at work that leads to families separated at the border, that leaves children incarcerated at the border without medical care. Racism is the virus at work when the land of a native American tribe is taken away from it by order of the American government so that a competitor can put up a casino. Apparently we do love one another, but only if they are white. It is not up to people of color to “cure” the virus of racism—the only people who can do that are the perpertrators, us white people.
How can we say we love one another, when the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, when we live in cities where there is not enough affordable housing or access to medical care? How can we say we love one another when we exploit people in low paying service jobs while not giving them a living wage? How can we say we love one another when we allow billionaire bailouts during this pandemic but won’t decry the lack of support for small business owners and the poor and the immigrant? How can we say we love one another when our actions threaten the very planet we all have to share, not just with one another but with future generations?
I turn to Jesus’ great commandment, to love God and love one another (each a part of the other) because it is his key teaching for those of us who call themselves Christians. Or at least it should be, from what he said; we Christians in general have a lot of work to do to make this teaching a reality. It is not a teaching exclusive to Christians, but shared with Jews and Muslims, and other faith traditions have a version of its close relative, the so-called Golden Rule, among their teachings. It is something easy to say, but complex and challenging in putting into practice, as the history of humankind has shown us.
The deaths due to the coronavirus and the virus of racism and our other human-caused ills are causing me to lament tonight, as they should. Maybe my feelings are heightened right now because I am missing our in-person gatherings at church. We are trying to keep one another and our community safe, and that is a good thing. But when we gather, not just for worship but for the conversations at coffee hour and over meetings (I’m glad we have ways to connect electronically, but its not quite the same over zoom), we share stories, and I get to hear about the ways in which good is being done in our community, and it reminds me that God’s Spirit is at work in the world, that yes, there are people loving their neighbors. I know we hear of this with the sacrifices being made by frontline workers, and parents who have found themselves being not just parents but also teacher and social director. I know we hear of this with the stories of generosity of many giving to COVID relief efforts, and the stories of people working together to end racism and other forms of discrimination. Sometimes one just feels overwhelmed by the horror stories, and one needs to lament. This lament will not solve all the problems of the world, heck, it doesn’t even begin to describe them all. But it helps keep the fires within me burning to do something about the problems, to work toward being part of the solution and not part of the problem. I hope it does the same for you.
That is the thing about those lament psalms—the psalmist starts off in lament, but eventually remembers that there is another side to what is going on in the world, that there is indeed reason to trust in God’s steadfast love, that it endures forever, in spite of what we do or don’t do, because God intends good for all creation. God loves us, this is why we can love one another. God made us in God’s image, which means we were made to love one another. We don’t do it often enough, there is so much more work we need to do in our world to show love to all, but we can do it. I think…I hope…I pray.