Sixth Sunday After Pentecost (year A)
Preached by Rev’d Andrew Mintern – 12th July 2020 at St Peter’s Church, Glenelg
In 1527 plague struck the town of Wittenburg. If you know just a little church history you will know that was significant town at that time. Wittenburg was the place where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door questioning the Catholic church on the practice of indulgences and thus prompting the start of the European Reformation – and eventually led to the formation of the Protestant Church(es) breaking away from the Roman Catholic church.
Wittenburg was a centre for philosophical thought in Germany – a university town. When, in 1527 plague struck, university classes were moved to another unaffected town. Martin Luther refused to leave, he stayed to care for the sick and dying and transformed his home into a makeshift hospital.
The Christian Response to a Pandemic
In mid-May this year Dr Mirjam Schilling, a virologist at Oxford University and a Doctor of Philosophy student in Theology researching the theological aspects of viruses, along with two other writers in the theology of medicine and bioethics (Joel and Nathan Gamble), wrote an article called “Fear Not, Sneer Not, a Healthy Christian Response to COVID-19”. In reflecting on this issue, the article references the experience of Martin Luther, who was one of the most influential reformist theologians.
Martin Luther wrote about this because he was questioned by a fellow pastor Johann Hess, “Whether it is proper for a Christian to run away from a deadly plague.”
So I want to quote from the article in response.
For Luther, our loving God hiddenly but surely works for our good even in the places we do not expect, including amid the evil of deadly epidemics. The fear of bodily illness and death should drive us to pray and to care for our souls, remembering that this world is not our lasting home. An epidemic is one of many evils that beset us, and we have to take that seriously; but the greater evil is the evil within (Matthew 10:28, Luke 12:4). Therefore, responding to an epidemic or any other crisis must involve turning from our sins — chief of which is the selfish love that gives thought first to self, and only secondly, if we can assure our own health and safety, to others.
Luther regarded the epidemic as a temptation that tests and proves our faith and love: “our faith in that we may see and experience how we should act toward God; our love in that we may recognise how we should act toward our neighbour.” Through faith in God and out of love for neighbour, Christians must think first how to contribute to the physical and spiritual care of those who are vulnerable, self-isolated, sick, or dying. Only then did Luther permit Christians to make private decisions about whether to flee. In an era without widespread institutionalised healthcare, Luther wrote that Christians are under a divine obligation to fill the gap: “We must give hospital care and be nurses for one another in any extremity or risk the loss of salvation and the grace of God.”
Our Response in this time
What does this mean for us? How should we respond in this era where there is institutionalised health care? Well, Christians who work in medical care and research have a clear calling in this situation but what of the rest of us? The article goes on…
For those of us who do not have special training to participate on the medical front lines, we are called to responsibly play our part in society: in our jobs that help keep our economy going; in our families as parents, children or siblings; in the way we communicate, listen and respond to news; in the way we care for our neighbours, cities and communities. Above all, we are called to pray for and do our best to support good journalism, research and medical care. For Christians, truth is distinctly important. Every Christian has the responsibility to find and rely on accurate sources of information, having nothing to do with either sensationalisers or scoffers.
I think this provides both helpful historical insight and very applicable advice as we reflect on the theme – “Love that Challenges”.
Today’s readings – Psalm 119 and The Parable of the Sower
Psalm 119, as I have reflected upon in the pew sheet, systematically encourages us to see the relevance, importance and applicability of God’s law in every aspect of life. Jesus taught us that God’s law is love. He summed up the commandments in just two laws – Love God and love your neighbout. As Martin Luther pointed out, the challenge of a pandemic tests our faithfulness to these two commands.
Fundamentalists spouting rubbish about the virus being God’s judgement are not faithfully loving God nor the Gospel of God’s love for a redeemed humanity. Loving neigbour may be hard when many people are tempted to consider only their own safety to the detriment of others – we see this in some extraordinary scenes from USA where social fabric seems to be fraying. Perhaps a more minor example is seen in the attempts by people in Melbourne suburbs that have been in lock-down to change their ‘official’ addresses online so they can escape the restrictions of lockdown – and thereby get around health regulations which are intended to ensure protection for the whole community (their neighbours).
How do we love God and neighbour in these times? The Gospel reading reassures us that God’s love and God’s word is scattered over us generously and indiscriminately all the time. God the farmer is always planting, always hoping for growth. Some of that seed may fall on the path, the rocky soil and among weeds. Perhaps, in this era of pandemic, those inhospitable environments represent those for whom life is dominated by fear and panic, or disinterest and escapism, or lack of compassion and excessive self-interest.
The good soil is any faithful person who can live with measured concern – remaining persistent in prayer, remaining constant in compassion, remaining sensible in communication, remaining steady in contribution to society, remaining committed in love. The promise of Jesus is that just one seed of God’s law of love in our hearts can bear thirty-fold, sixty-fold or a hundred-fold.
Be assured – the world may have changed, but God’s word is still with us – yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Thanks be to God.