Tuesday, May 5, 2009

On Virus and Virtue

On Good Shepherd Sunday, the readings included Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, I John 3:16-24, and John 10:11-18

There is a benediction I use occasionally that speaks of how the world has become too dangerous now for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.

Nothing teaches that more dramatically than a potential pandemic. We don’t know whether we’ve got one, or if we’re in rehearsal for one, this time. Whichever it may prove to be, let’s take a few moments today to consider two simple ways in which worship in a time of epidemic might be adjusted by truth and love.

First, let’s remember that in parts of the Anglican Communion the peace of Christ is passed from person to person without the touching of hands. I don’t mean the “God’s Frozen People” phenomenon still found in some parishes, where the only exchange is a verbal one between priest and people. I’m thinking of our Asian provinces, where culture provides not the handshake but the reverent bow for extending the peace of Christ.

There is a lovely moment in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” when Lucy, youngest of the four Pevensie children, meets Mr. Tumnus the Fawn. Instinctively, she thrusts out her hand towards him. He jumps back, startled. “You shake it,” she instructs him. “Why?” he asks. “I don’t know!” she replies, in some surprise.

I’m glad we live in a culture where we do know how richly valuable touch is. For a very short season, we may wish to give it up out of respect for one another, and then rejoice in its return.

Second, we know that in a large swath of Christendom, receiving communion by the bread alone has been understood as valid. If that’s your temporary answer in a time of epidemic, you’re not being disrespectful.

And I suggest that if you normally sip from the chalice, that you not do that until this epidemic is done with us. Join the holy dippers. But join them just on a guest pass, don’t take out membership—stand your ground and keep to the ancient way, but not for a while, not until this flu has passed.

You may have noticed that there is hand sanitizer in the vestibule and at the foot of the aisle. There’s some also in the upper room, lower room, and in each classroom. You may want to know also that I’ve been using it at the altar since Easter, when I came down with a doozy of a cold, so I handle your bread with clean hands.

Isn’t all of this caution in sharp contrast to the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep?

He doesn’t go, “Eeee-yew!” when he sees us coming. He responds, “You,” as he draws us to himself.

In one sense, though, our caution is quite consistent with his care. New occasions teach new duties, and here it’s to lay down our accustomed patterns for the sake of the flock. We all need to become good shepherds in a time of influenza. The new bumper sticker may read, “Influenza happens.” Influence over what happens to us is, to some extent, a matter of choice.

And some time, some day, that may require some of us to practice more than just good hygiene.

Let me tell you a story. In the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints, September 9th marks the feast day of an Episcopal nun named, aptly enough, Constance and her companions, who have been called the Martyrs of Memphis, earning that name through their bravery in the year 1878, when yellow fever erupted in Memphis, TN. Within a month, a quarantine was ordered and 30,000 residents fled. 20,000 remained to face the epidemic.

It was a time of limited medical options. The death toll was high. But many brave women and men stayed at their posts or came as volunteers, despite the risk. Notable among them were Constance, Superior of the Sisters of St. Mary in Memphis, and her companions. They had come to the city five years earlier to found a school for girls near St. Mary’s Cathedral. Mother Superior was not about to leave.

When the epidemic began, the Cathedral Dean, George C. Harris, and Sister Constance organized relief work. Six of Constance’s sisters joined them, including one, Sister Clare, from St. Margaret’s House in Boston. The rector of a Memphis parish joined them, as did a young priest from Hoboken, New Jersey. Three physicians (two of them also Episcopal priests), and several volunteer nurses from New York also served on the relief team.

They didn’t set out to be martyrs. Their intention was to care for the sick. But they did this, knowing the risk. They were indeed good shepherds.

They weren’t alone. Relief teams from other denominations were doing the same demanding work, caring for the sick, comforting the dying, and taking in orphaned children. We’re not told how the other church teams made out, but of the Episcopalians, only two made it through alive. The high altar at the cathedral is a memorial to Constance and three of her sisters.

They answered the question posed in our second reading today: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” They rose to the standard of their Savior: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

Their story suggests how fortunate we are, to have doctors and nurses and hospitals as available as we have them, and tamiflu, and national and international surveillance. And the media… make of them what you will.

Pray that, when the time comes and we are needed, we will know who will need us, where they live, what they will need, and how we will obtain and share it—that we will be ready, like Constance and her companions, to hear the voice of Jesus and follow where he leads.