The Worst of Times and the Best of Times
As Charles Dickens famously quipped, ‘it was the best of times and the worst of times’. I am sure that many of us – myself included – are still processing what is happening to our species right now, on a planetary level. I know I am. It is hard to think in exponential increases, in orders of magnitude, in terms of emergency declarations and social distancing. This is the stuff of dystopian near-future sci-fi and we seem to have landed in the middle of it.
A good sermon brings comfort. But an even better sermon allows us to express our feelings, to process and heal, to express our anger and dismay, so that the comfort that ensues is rooted in our souls. This is not a time for papering over our feelings. This is not a space for pretending everything is okay. It is perfectly okay to sit with our hurt, pain and fear, to approach our sense of trauma and crisis gently and to make up in love for others and self what we loose by social distancing. Our future is perennially uncertain right now and that is legitimately frightening. It is the mark of a spiritually mature person to name that fear and to know that we can tackle that fear by being in holy community. We know and trust that this too shall pass, but the timescale of fate may not be the timescale that we would prefer.
At the same time, over these last few days, I have seen more light, love and humanity than I thought humanly possible. I saw a heart-wrenching clip of quarantined Italians singing stirring folksongs of hope and solidarity in Siena, their resonant voices pouring out of their windows and balconies, bouncing off the walls of their streets. I have seen colleagues rally their communities with leadership and fortitude to keep people as safe as we can. I have seen ordinary people offer practical wisdom and deep empathy. What we know is that the novel Coronavirus can affect us all, ‘from Pharaoh on his throne to the maidservant at her millstone’, to quote the book of Exodus. We also know that, unlike Egypt’s courtiers, we do not need to proclaim that ‘all is lost.’ As we reach for strategies of social distancing, the metaphor of blood on our lintels is timely. We may retreat to our homes, but we trust in redemption. We trust in science, in technology, in the hard workers of compassion and healing on the frontlines. Pesach seems more timely and apt than in a long time in our personal histories.
My comfort for you is this: not that we will not suffer. Not that we will not witness great tragedy. We will. But rather, that we have an ancient story through which we can live this modern story. For thousands of years, our people have prayed through plague and affliction, have rallied courage and compassion and wrested meaning out of destiny. Those are the gifts and tools we bring to this moment. Through this crisis, we will lift our eyes to the mountains; we will bring the eternal perspective and Divine grace.
This week is Parashat Ki Tissa, a portion riven with internal contradicts befitting for our current age. On the one hand, there is hope and generosity as people give to the project of the Tabernacle. On the other hand, there is fear and closed-mindedness as people give to the Golden Calf. Both cases draw on the same demographic. Both impulses live within us. We can sacrifice the common good on the idols of fear. Or we can invest in the truth of community. We can reckon with the trauma of this moment in healthy ways, or we can shatter the tablets of the Law – our sacred ethics – in unrequited anger. The choice is ours, and the moment is now.
We are here together to make that choice. To lean into goodness and kindness. To remind ourselves and the world that God loves us through this. Coronavirus is has neither will nor intent, is neither punishment or judgment. We are the ones who bring intention and encounter to this moment. We are God’s hands, we are called to connect, heal and build. While our streets fall empty, dear ones, we will fill up with love. And do what we have always done; bear our light in a dark world. Truly these are the worst of times, but more importantly still—best of times.