Proper 11A: Romans 8:12-25. St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Lake Jackson, Texas.
Who needs a word of encouragement?
I need a word of encouragement.
Do you need a word of encouragement?
We have a word of encouragement today from St. Paul in his letter to the Romans!
And, I think we’re ready to hear from him and our siblings in Christ from the past, because … we could use some encouragement.
COVID-19 has finally arrived in our little stretch of the Texas Gulf Coast. And while we have never experienced a pandemic, our Christian ancestors have. We know this from history, told in so many forms: art — paintings and stained glass; diaries and letters, graveyards and church records.
Paul, of course knew all kinds of hardship, so let us tune our ears to hear what he has to say about Christian hope in the face of suffering.
Our brother Paul endured terrifying boat trips on the Mediterranean, dank prison cells, and all sorts of things in the days before antibiotics … and orthotics.
Regarding suffering and hope, Paul points to our identity as children of God as assurance of our relationship with God — and God’s love for us.
“…the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (8:18).
“We hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (8:25). And at the end of this chapter, he proclaims what is at bottom for our faith, what gives us ultimate hope: that nothing — but NOTHING — can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (8:35-39).
That word about nothing separating us from God’s love is the encouragement I need, and perhaps you, too … to persevere through anything … including this Coronavirus and all of its effects.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I saw a photograph of a page in a church service register dating back to 1918. There were many Sundays in which the entry read: No service — flu.
This was, of course, the 1918 flu pandemic. And, in an effort to keep people healthy and prevent the spread of the disease, church services were suspended for a period of time.
More recently, thanks to Virginia Theological Seminary, I heard the incredible story of how Anglican and Puritan clergy came together in 17th century in rural England, in the village of Eyam, to lead the people through a 14-month pandemic. I will re-tell that story here.
First, a bit of Church history to set the scene: The 1662 Act of Uniformity had recently been issued and the 1662 Prayer Book along with it; both serving as a rebuke to the Puritans and the Oliver Cromwell crowd. As a result, over two thousand clergy were removed from their posts. This included the Puritan rector of the parish church of Eyam.
Eyam received an Anglican priest and the former, and now exiled, rector took up residence on the outskirts of town. It is estimated that about half of the villagers were loyal to the former rector and about half to the new, making it a challenging time to lead.
In the fall of 1665, as the parish prepared for its patronal festival, they ordered elaborate fabric from London for church decoration and celebration. When the fabric arrived, it was damp, so the tailor’s assistant unfolded the fabric and hung it by the hearth to dry. The next day, the tailor’s assistant fell ill and died. Soon after, so did the tailor and his wife.
In that beautiful fabric intended for celebration, were fleas carrying the plague. And by the spring of 1666, forty-five residents of Eyam had died. The rector suspected that this was the arrival of the plague which was ravaging London at the time and he knew he had to take action.
He prayed in earnest and then went to see the exiled former rector. Together they prayed and came up with a plan. While maintaining social distance, they called the village together to share the plan: God is calling us to stop the spread of the plague. We will quarantine.
The villagers agreed. No one would leave Eyam, even though it meant certain death for some of them.
Expressed in several diaries, the community indeed believed they were “called by God” to absorb and stop the pandemic from spreading to other communities.
They placed boundary stones around the village, every few hundred yards. No one crossed them. Those boundary stones can still be seen today. Some of them have holes carved in them. In these hollowed out spaces, the villagers would leave coins in payment to those who brought provisions. And because the rector continued to read and learn how to prevent the spread of the plague, he knew it could be spread on coins! So, they poured vinegar on those coins deposited in the holes so not to infect the people who brought the provisions.
Also to protect health and prevent spread, there were no public ceremonies or sacraments during this time.
Families had to bury their dead, alone. One woman buried six children in the space of a week, and then her husband died.
After 14 months, it came to an end. Two hundred-sixty people had died from 73 families, and the people of Eyam are credited for preventing the spread of the plague to northern England.
The people of Eyam saw this as their calling. They loved their neighbors … whom they had never met.
We have so much more scientific knowledge now. So many more ways of preventing and treating illness than our siblings of the past.
But what we share with them is our baptism. And what we have in common is our discipleship: following Christ’s teaching to love one another and love our neighbors. Further, we share that our ultimate hope is in Christ … and we are filled with that hope by the Holy Spirit.
We will get through this … together while we are apart, with God’s help … so that when we all gather again, we will all be here.
So, keep coming here, to YouTube and to our Facebook livestream prayer services. Gather in Zoom. Call, text, and visit outdoors wearing a mask.
We will get through this with wisdom, compassion, patience, perseverance … and Christian hope — together —as siblings in Christ, children of God.
Someday, future generations will look at the St. Timothy’s service register and see that at the end of March 2020, no services were held due to COVID-19.
But then those few weeks were followed by so many prayer services on YouTube and Facebook Live, prayer vigils in the church and so many more entries of so many different kinds that are yet to come.
And they will wonder:
What it was like for us during this time.
What we were thinking and feeling. What did we pray for?
How did we understand our calling during this time? How were we living into our baptismal covenant?
How we were showing God’s love to one another?
How were we revealing the hope within us?
Our Register of Church Services will provide some of the answers. And because they will be there — our future siblings in Christ — they will know that we not only kept the faith, but we also shared it.
And they will be encouraged by our Christian hope. For as Paul writes: “…hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).
My siblings in Christ, receive the Holy Spirit.
Hope is ours. Be encouraged.
The video version of this sermon can be found here, beginning at approximately 18:15.