Preaching and COVID-19

March 13th, 2020
This article is featured in the Sustaining Worship issue of Ministry During The Pandemic
I am pondering what to say this Sunday, and how to say it. We will not have in-person services; everyone worshipping will view our livestream or Facebook live on their computers. The probability of distraction and multitasking is great, and I fret a bit over my own delivery come homily time. I play so much off the energy and eye contact of people.
I think of President Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” during the Depression and World War II. People huddled around their radios and somehow felt he was right in the room, speaking to them. I’ll need, in my gut, to forget the room is empty, and imagine real people are right there, a couple of feet away, as if we’re chatting at a diner. Maybe I’ll think specificially of three or four people, maybe even print their photos on my notes so I’ll remember to speak to them directly and personally.
It’s probably important to name the absence, and yet try to embrace the good wonder of technology that enables us to connect. How desperately do we need human contact? Handshakes, hugs, embracing: All these are expressions of a deeper love, a hunger for community, a slaking of loneliness. We are urging our people to get on the phone, do Zoom small groups, text and email any and everybody to overcome the isolation.
I hope I will sound hopeful on Sunday without resorting to trivial foolishness about God’s protection or a quick return to normal. Jeremiah told the exiles to settle in for decades. What is the hope anyhow? In my mind, I’m gravitating to two women from history who’ve been closed in to small spaces. Anne Frank, in hiding during the Holocaust, wrote
“...I don't think about all the misery, but about the beauty that still remains. This is where Mother and I differ greatly. Her advice in the face of melancholy is: 'Think about all the suffering in the world and be thankful you're not part of it.'... I don't think Mother's advice can be right, because what are you supposed to do if you become part of the suffering? You'd be completely lost. On the contrary, beauty remains, even in misfortune. If you just look for it, you discover more and more happiness and regain your balance. A person who's happy will make others happy; a person who has courage and faith will never die in misery!" (Diary of a Young Girl, Tuesday, March 7, 1944)
Even better, I think, is Julian of Norwich. She was in a small cell during the plague that decimated Europe. Outside her walls, half the population of Norwich died, and the plagues continued for years. She had, in 1373, astonishing visions of Jesus, his suffering, his compassion, his mercy and love. And people who don’t recall anything else about her know that her mantra was “All will be well. All manner of things shall be well.” I can say this to my people, without the assumption that all will be rosy or quick.
Our epistle in the lectionary, Romans 5, bears its own hopeful wonder — that is, if I don’t try to over-explain it. “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” “While we were weak, Christ died for us.” Paul was on fire the day he paced the room and dictated those words to a secretary whose hand must have trembled in awe as he jotted it all down.
Friends, Sunday is coming. So much faith, hope and love will be required. Thank you for sharing in this preaching journey with me.

Preaching Online, and Covid-19 originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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