Plagues and What to do About Them

September 6th, 2020

Lay preacher: Frank Lawler

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my strength and my redeemer.

In Doyt’s sermon two weeks ago, he talked about how evil can thrive in chaotic situations. Confusion, fear, disorganization, and disinformation can disrupt our abilities to stay on course, morally and spiritually.  Confusion, fear, disorganization, and disinformation: All are words that accompany the current pandemic.  Or, perhaps, we should call it the current plague.  I know that sounds quite biblical, but as one politician recently said, right now we’re not dealing with leaky plumbing: “This is a flood economically and healthwise, of biblical proportion.”

Plagues do not fit in neatly with our society. They don’t fit in neatly with our economics; or with a global, mobile world. They don’t obey international law and stop at a border. And plagues don’t target just the bad guys.  In short, plagues don’t follow the rules of the world we have constructed, of our own little kingdom.

The last plague in today’s Old Testament Lesson struck down “every firstborn of the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals.” Now, Pharaoh and his cronies – you could make an argument that they had it coming, but children?  Lambs?  Puppies?

This is one of those difficult passages in the Bible.  Were the innocent being rolled up with the guilty – collateral damage, perhaps, of God’s wrath? Or were the eldest sons and daughters, lambs and kittens guilty by association, and deserved what they got?

The last plague that descended on Egypt was the most terrible of all, not only because it took children from their families and plunged the country into mourning, but because it did so in such an indiscriminate fashion, striking down both  “good” and  “bad” Egyptians alike. And that is scary. 

Plagues force us to ask big, seemingly unanswerable questions such as “Why did this happen?” – “Who is to blame?” –  “What do we do now?”

I’ll leave those big questions looming up there, but for now, let’s consider the immediate outcome of the plagues of Egypt.

That outcome was not clear-cut, not a simple division of “losers” and “winners.”  The Egyptians, considered the losers, did lose their economy based on slavery. But their civilization survived. Meanwhile, the “winners” spent the next 40 years wandering in the desert.

So if the outcome of a plague isn’t a clear-cut set of winners and losers, what is it? In the case of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt, and, I would argue in the case of America today, the outcome is fundamental, society-shattering change.

Slavery, whether within Egypt or within the US, was a systemic injustice. Systemic injustice persists unless attitudes and structures that support it are fundamentally changed. And even after that change occurs, it doesn’t guarantee smooth sailing, as we know from the history of the Jewish people.  The emancipation of the people of Israel was only the beginning of their journey to the Promised Land. It didn’t instantly transport them there.

In a recent commentary in Sojourners magazine, theologian and Presbyterian minister Liz Theoharis said: “The truth of disasters in the Bible, including plague” is that “they tear down the flimsy, whitewashed walls of false narratives to expose the foundations of injustice.”

In the midst of our current plague, she points out that homeless families, like the rest of the population, are told to isolate and shelter when the reality is that they have nowhere to isolate and shelter.  The sick and the medically at-risk cannot bounce back from a pandemic when the reality is that our medical care system was already on the brink of collapse before the crisis, after decades of focus on profits rather than public health.  We cannot simply ask that everyone stay home and live off their savings until the pandemic passes when the reality is that tens of millions of Americans are already at or below the poverty line, and tens of millions more have no savings and are one paycheck away from joining them.

The Reverend Doctor Theoharis proposes that a plague, biblical or present-day, is not a storm to be weathered before a return to normalcy. Rather, it is a call to come together in new ways to stand up against systemic inequity and rebuild our world on foundations of love and justice.

And if you’re in doubt that it’s a call to action, let’s go back to today’s Old Testament Lesson. How does God say that the Passover meal should be eaten?

This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.”

This is a WAKE UP CALL. Get ready!  Things are about to be shaken up, big time. You need to be prepared to take action at the drop of a hat.  For the Israelites, this action was to begin the Exodus from Egypt.

But today, in the midst of this pandemic, are we ourselves perhaps getting our own wakeup call?

The wakeup call in Exodus was heard after the 400-year enslavement of the Jews under the Egyptians. Is our own wakeup call being heard 400 years after African Americans were first brought to this country as slaves? 

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought together people of color, indigenous groups, and white people, leading them to stand in solidarity – not just in Minneapolis or Kenosha, but across the nation and around the world. Hawai’ian protesters in Honolulu held signs reading “That’s not a chip on my shoulder; it’s your foot on my neck”. Australians marched through the streets of Sydney in protest of the treatment of Aboriginal people of color, who have world’s highest incarceration rate of any indigenous group.

The world has been responding to this wake-up call, even while braving a global pandemic, a terrifying plague.

The source of that terror is that plagues target anyone. In normal times, it can be tempting to believe that disease – or poverty – or brutality – or incarceration only happens to those people. And that those people‘s troubles don’t affect us.

Plagues, however, force us to realize that we are all vulnerable.  At the same time, as Christians, they should also remind us that we are all part of God’s family. And when a family member needs help, you take care of that family member.  In the time of COVID-19, it might include wearing a mask, washing your hands, checking in by Zoom, but you still step up and take care of family.

And our family includes those who were enslaved 400 years ago into a system that permanently benefited one segment of society over another, simply because of the color of their skin, a system which in practical terms persists in so many ways, even a century and a half after legal emancipation.

Just as the tribulations of the Jewish people persisted long after they were freed from their Egyptian slavemasters.

Many of you have heard spoken here at Epiphany and elsewhere the words of Martin Luther King, paraphrasing the abolitionist Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  

These words serve to remind us that there are no quick fixes in the struggle against injustice, and there is often a step backward before we take two forward.  The arc of the moral universe is so long, that, when these backsteps occur in our world, in our kingdom, especially in the midst of a chaotic, foundation-shaking pandemic, many of us still want to identify “winners” and “losers”, to get simple answers to seemingly unanswerable questions like:

“Why did this happen?” – “Who is to blame?” –  “What do we do now?”

–The big questions which have been hovering up there since earlier in this sermon.  Questions can appear unanswerable because they are misunderstood, mis-stated, or perhaps not even the appropriate questions to ask.  Let’s have a look at these three…

First question, “Why did this happen?”

In March of this year, Nicholas Wright, former Anglican bishop of Durham, and now a research fellow at Oxford, wrote in Time Magazine: “Rationalists want explanations; Romantics want a sigh of relief. But perhaps what we need more than either is the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and they don’t get an answer.”

It’s what they do when they move beyond worrying about their own sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world.

Wright goes on to say,

“The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments. Some Christians like to think of God as above all that… calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible.”

“God was grieved to his heart, Genesis declares, over the violent wickedness of his human creatures. He was devastated when… the people of Israel turned away from him.”

And when God came down to his people in the person of Jesus, he wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus.

Wright concludes that It is not the Christian vocation to explain what’s happening and why, but “to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell.” 

Second question, “Who’s to blame?”

Are we experiencing God’s punishment?  On whom, specifically? For what?

God says in today’s lesson from Exodus, “on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments”.  If there were specific targets for the plagues, they were the false gods of the land.

Perhaps Covid-19 is judgment on the false gods of today: nationalism, materialism, tribalism, racism, social media feeds from those who match your political views.  These are the false gods that are so often worshiped – by many who profess to be Christians – in our own little kingdom to the neglect of the true Ruler of  the true Kingdom – The Kingdom of the One God who loves all humanity as one family.

And the final, and perhaps most important question, “What do we do now?”

After lockdowns started happening all over the world earlier this year, Pope Francis said,

“[Lord], it is not the time of your judgment, but of our judgment: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others…we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.”

What do we do now?  A plague is tearing off the veneer which has hidden the injustice upon which much of our kingdom is built.  I believe we are summoned as children of God to dismantle that pervasive injustice and start building on foundations of justice and love, the foundations of God’s kingdom.

What do we do now?  We answer the wake-up call with our loins girded, our sandals on our feet and our staffs in our hands.