Sermon: Take the Stone away! Living with COVID19
Grace Lutheran Church Camp Hill, PA – March 28, 2020
Dear sisters and brothers,
I am blessed to be here today. My family has loved this church and by being here, we are also honoring the memory of my kids first father, our precious Reverend Peter Perella. Lately, I have been working more closely with Pastor Cover on the Lent devotional resources she is putting together and also how to go about this time as a church. I must confess that I am thrilled to see how pastor Cover thinks and how much she cares about you all. Pastor Cover is a brilliant theologian with a pastoral heart. You have a tremendous gift to have pastor Cover here. So, love her. Love her family. Thank God for her. And know that she is thinking all the time about how to bless you. Pastor Cover, my deep admiration for you.
Take the stone away! Said Jesus to the people. Take the stone away!
With the Coronavirus, we are living in strange times and a strange place with a stone right in front of us. This stone is the confinement we are into now, and is becoming a sounding board of our anxieties, fears, uneasiness and unknows about this time.
Perhaps, more than anything, we are feeling grief. The world we knew a until couple of weeks ago doesn’t seem to be here anymore. While we all want to go back to our normal lives, we still don’t know what kind of normal it will be. And normal for whom?
While the theories of grief have been developed in different ways, writer Scott Berinato uses the classic definition of grief to understand our time. He says that in this time,
“There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us.”
“There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities.”
“There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right?”
“There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end.
And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.”
Grief is this place where try to process within us a change, a trauma, a transformation, not knowing yet what to do with what we have lost and what we were left with. Our grief is about contending with our past and envisioning our future as we focus fundamentally in our present.
And perhaps this is one of the gifts coronavirus is giving us: Too attend to our present moment, fully! One day at a time! That is ALL we have!
As we do it we must hear Jesus’s voice: Take the stone away!
When Jesus says that, he knows the past and the future of Lazarus and resumes it in the present. Take the stone away! Between past and present take the stone away NOW!
Perhaps this is what we need to hear today. Under the fear of this virus hovering around, death lurking at our doorstep. We are locked up. Literally. We are now afraid of each other, we are afraid for what is going to happen to our elderly people, we are afraid of the virus coming to our families and we are afraid of our future.
So my brothers and sisters, contrary to what you might expect me to say now I say: Yes, it is time to be afraid. To say only “don’t be afraid!” is to be dishonest with ourselves and the God we serve. Many of us are indeed afraid. While on social media everyone seems to be doing so well, in the middle of the night, we lie awake with fears and anxieties. y closest friends and I are discussing how we are trying to cope with it, some days succeeding, some days failing miserably.
Every day we receive different news about the virus and the number of deaths. How long will it take for this virus to go away? How many people will die? Katie, my wife, is an occupational therapist and her work consists in visiting the elderly in their homes. She feels their fear in receiving her into their homes.
Such a difficult time for those in the front lines: doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, orderlies, custodians, and all those who are working to make sure we can stay home, like the immigrants and undocumented immigrants who are working on the fields so we can eat.
Some governments want people to stay home but are not providing anything to them: neither a minimum wage salary or health care for all.
Other governments and politicians are more clearly concerned with the speed of the economy than with people. In Brazil, the country I am from, the president told everyone this is just a small flu and this should not be enough of a reason to keep people at home. The cure is worse than the problem, they say. Evangelical leaders are saying this is the strategy of the devil. The economy must continue for our own good!
This is indeed the logic of our system: money is more important than people. Lately this choice has been posed: should we save the economy or people‘s lives? But this is an irrational choice! No! we don’t have to work for the economy, it is the economy that must work for us. Our concern should not be what is going to happen with the markets but rather, what will happen to those who are the most vulnerable in our societies. his virus effects affects us all, but it is the most vulnerable ones who will suffer the most. A massive number of impoverished people will arise from this crisis.
When governments support the economy more than the people, people die.
No matter what, the economy will most likely go into recession. But to revive the economy will mean the death of so many people that in the end, regular trades and “normal” life will be so deeply affected that no revived economy will survive. Our task is, as it always should be, to save lives.
In the midst of these fears and anxieties, we must hear Jesus voice: Take the stone away!
Take the stone away and go deep into the deep places of yourself. Ask for help and try to get in touch with it. Fear all the fears that are coming to you. Don’t deny them, don’t shy away, don’t pretend they are not there. Embrace them, hear them, until you win them over and they lose a grip on your soul. Don’t do this alone, ask somebody whom you trust to help you. If necessary do therapy online. Brace yourself with the trust that God will be with us in every moment and help us with our fears. For we are not alone! We are never alone!
But how do we get the stone away? How do we handle our fears? What if the virus comes to our family? What if someone we love dies? What if we can’t go back to what we knew and were comfortable with? What if we have to deal with this condition for the next 18 months?
The text of Lazarus for today gives us hints about how we must handle this time and ourselves.
There are times when we have to wait to mourn properly. When Jesus heard about Lazarus illness, it took him two days until he was able to engage with this pain. The text says: “after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” It was only after that he was able to weep and mourn his friend.
Or when somebody comes to you and say: there is nothing to fear, this is just a small flu. We must remember what Jesus said: “But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”
As we ponder about a virus that is killing people, we have to remember that in the same way that the coronavirus is spreading death everywhere, we the human species, have also become a virus to the earth. The earth is dying because of the ways we are living, consuming, having everything we want, burning fossil fuel, destroying and consuming everything.
As Lazarus is dead, as many people have died of the coronavirus, the earth is also dying. So many species have disappeared. Huge parts of the oceans have dead zones. So let us remember that the virus is not only the corona one. We have become a virus to other species as well.
So I believe that this time is also a time of healing for us all. A time for us to ponder in our ways of being, a way of learning how deep are our connections with the earth are and how much we need to care and give back to the earth. This is what we see in every single page of the Lent meditations Pastor Cover is preparing for us.
Also, this deep connection with everything around us has to do also with a necessary vision of life that entails the fact that cannot separate the healthy ones from the sick ones, the living ones and the deceased ones. Not even from the virus. The virus is not something else apart from ourselves. The virus is part of us. It is fully who we are. We accept our common condition as carriers of the plague but also of the blessings of God. We are interconnected with every living cell and bacteria, the soil, the air, the skies, the winds the trees, the rivers, the whole earth. So if we live we live together, and if we die we all die.
OR on the other hand, when you hear people saying or if you catch yourself thinking “we are all gonna die, this is the end of the world, there is nothing to protect us.” We will then respond to them and to ourselves the way Jesus to Martha: “Your brother will rise again.” Oh yes, we will rise again! Somewhat, somehow! By the grace of God!
This is a time to weep and to pray without ceasing. For instance, it is very sad many Christian denominations are not allowing us to have communion. When we need the gifts of God the most, we can’t have it. So like Jesus, we weep. We weep for the loss of people. We weep for the loss of our communion, for the absence of the sacraments. And we continue to pray without ceasing.
As we go into the deepest of the nights and feel shaken and greatly disturbed, we don’t shy away from feeling the pain and the fears and the horrors of our time. We will embrace it all and remember that the fears are the stones that are blocking our full living! The text says that “Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.” And there, at the tomb he said “Take away the stone!”
The same way, when we feel greatly disturbed, when we are drenched in fears and anxieties we come to the tomb to hear Jesus say to us “Take away the stone!”
For only when we believe in the power of resurrection, and hold on to God’s light, that was given to us, can we conquer our fears.
“Take away the stone.” My Lord said. I am tired of fearing so many things.
“Take away the stone.” My God said. I am tired of fearing the fear itself.
“Take away the stone.” My Jesus said. I will wrestle with my soul and what I am lacking.
“Take away the stone.” The Holy Spirit said. I will pay attention to that which is haunting me and will look for help.
“Take away the stone.” The merciful one said. I will talk to my soul and ask: “Why oh my soul are you so troubled inside of me?
“Take away the stone.” We will hear and say to each other. During this time, we will pay attention to the earth, we will relate to the plants and the soil, we will listen to the birds, we will care for the wellbeing of the rivers, we will demand respect for the whole eco-system.
“Take away the stone.” Because we will continue on living! Jesus said “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
If the plague gets us, we will go from one way of being to another way of being. In God we live and in God we die.
So in God we will say to each other: “Take away the stone.” For we know we are mortals and will confront collectively our fear of death. Death is not the end. As the Scripture says: “Oh Death, Oh Death, where is your sting?” “Take away the stone.” We will live again!
And we will go day by day. Listening to and telling each other “Take away the stone.” For we will live in God.
Let us go deeply into this time with and without fear. From the depth of this moment, Jesus is calling out to each one of us: “Lazarus, come out!” Well, not out of your house let’s be really clear! But out of our fears.
Pastor Cover, have you “taken away the stone?” Come out of your fears! We are here for you! God is here for you! The earth is here for you!
Katie, have you “taken away the stone?” Come out of your fears! We are here for you! God is here for you! The earth is here for you!
Libby, Cici, Ike, have you “taken away the stone?” Come out of your fears! We are here for you! God is here for you! The earth is here for you!
A call I ask myself day and night: Cláudio, have you “taken away the stone?” Come out of your fears! They are there for me! God is here for me! The earth is here for me!
And then, having come out of the places of fear and trembling, having resurrected a hundred times, we will help “Unbind each other, and let each other go.”
Free! In lightness! In kindness! In courage! In glory!
Can you unbind me? I will unbind you.
For this time everything is a matter of us saying to each other: “this is all of us for all of us.”
But in order to do that, we must say time and again, by the grace of God,
“Take away the stone.”
 In the first 30 days, Italy had 1.694 people infected and 29 deaths. In Brazil where the government is minimizing the situation and say we must keep going with the economy, there has been 2.915 people infected and 77 deaths.
 As Siva Vaidhyanathan says, the “economic depression will come, regardless of how many we let die. The question is how long and devastating it will be.”Siva Vaidhyanathan, The economy v our lives? It’s a false choice – and a deeply stupid one