Love in a Time of COVID-19

Just in case you haven’t noticed, we are in the midst of a pandemic. And the thing about a pandemic—just like any other disaster or emergency—is that it peels back the layers of society and shows us what lies underneath.

And one of the things that lies underneath—one of the things that we get to see in the midst of this pandemic—is incredible compassion. People are stepping up in amazing ways.

Just in our own church community: we have had people offer to pick up groceries for folks who were exiling themselves for the good of the realm… text me to let me know that folks were setting up the summer lunchbox program to make sure that kids can eat while school is out… offer to give people rides to the school to pick things up before they locked the doors… and offer to babysit for parents whose kids were suddenly at home.

And it isn’t just in our own church community. It isn’t even just in our own community. Businesses and churches and families and individuals across the country have stepped up to help each other out. From restaurants who are giving free lunches to out-of-school students, to rookies on basketball teams who are paying the wages of the staff at arenas that have been closed, to healthcare workers who keep showing up and providing the care people so desperately need.

People are loving each other. And, maybe a little bit, we’re thinking about how we can love each other. Better. All the time.

Today’s reading begins just after last week’s reading left off. Jesus has been in Jerusalem for a little while, causing trouble. And he has been sitting in the Temple for a little while, answering questions from priests and elders and scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees. And he has impressed one of the scribes, who asks him, “Which commandment is the first of all? I mean, there are a bunch of them. Which one is the greatest?”

And Jesus answers him, “The first is this: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. Love God with every ounce of who you are.”

And Jesus answers him, “The second is like the first: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

And I know there’s a little moment of weirdness here. If you’re loving God with every ounce of who you are, then what love is left for yourself? And if there’s no love left for yourself, what love is left for your neighbor?

But the truth is: the Lord our God, the Lord is love. And love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. And when we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.

When we love God with every ounce of who we are, all of that love overflows, and there is more than enough to pour into loving ourselves and loving our neighbors. And when we love each other, all of that love overflows, and there is more than enough to pour into loving God.

Loving God and loving each other is more important than all of the offerings and all of the sacrifices. Loving God and loving each other is more important than worship.

We are in the midst of a pandemic. And the thing about a pandemic is that it peels back the layers of society and shows us what lies underneath.

And one of the things that lies underneath is incredibly cruelty.

Some of the things that we’ve accepted as normal, are silly. For years, I have dutifully packed my liquids and gels in a checked bag when I fly, because the Transportation Security administration told me that anything more than three-point-four ounces could be dangerous. And now, we’re suddenly all cool with twelve ounces of hand sanitizer.

Some of the things that we’ve accepted as normal, are unfair. I know that it’s hard to have your kids home for a month. And I know that’s especially hard when you have to figure out childcare and go to work; or when you have to use your own sick days to stay home with your kids. And I know that this has always been hard for parents who don’t have access to childcare and who don’t have sick days.

For those parents, every sick kid has been hard. Every snow day has been hard. Every vacation day or holiday or summer vacation has been hard.

And some of the things have we’ve accepted as normal, are incredibly risky or incredibly cruel. Closing schools means that some kids will go without breakfast and lunch; or that some parents will go without wages because they have to stay at home. Closing restaurants and bars means that come cooks and servers and bartenders will miss paychecks and have trouble making rent. 

Some people are in fragile positions. Millions of our neighbors are one paycheck away from hunger… or homelessness… or some other incredible hardship. They’re trying to hold it together as best they can, and anything could make it all fall apart.

After Jesus impresses the scribe, he and the disciples go and sit down across from the treasury. And Jesus tells the disciples,

“You know, you have to watch those scribes. They like to wear fancy clothes and have people greet them with respect when they see them at the store. And they like to get the best seats at church and sit at the head table at banquets. And they like to look really important by saying long flowery prayers. But under all of that, they’re devouring widows’ houses and kicking orphans and oppressing immigrants and stealing from the poor.”

And he’s not wrong. There are plenty of people in this world who want to be seen doing good things… and who want to be treated like they are amazing people… and who, when no one is looking, are busy rigging the system… or underpaying the people who work for them… or making money off of predatory lending… or whatever.

And while I know that we are not those people, it is Lent. It is a season when we remember that not matter how much we wash, not one of us has clean hands.

We are not the richest or the most powerful. But every one of us is embedded in systems that are silly, and hurt people… or that are unfair, and hurt people… or that are risky, and hurt people… or that are downright cruel, and hurt people. Every day. All the time. Pandemic or not.

While Jesus is telling the disciples about the scribes, they see some rich and powerful people come forward and put big gifts—humble gifts from their abundance—in the offering plate. And they see a poor widow come forward and put a humble gift—a grand gift out of her poverty—in the offering plate.

And everything that he has been saying is in that moment.

The rich and powerful people are not bad for giving from their abundance. It is good to give from our abundance. And we can all give from our abundance. Every day. All the time.

But we are not called to give from our abundance. We are called to love God with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our minds, and with all our strength… with every ounce of who we are.

We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves.

We are called to orient our whole lives—as individuals, as families, as a church, as a society—towards love. Abundant love and abundant life. For everyone. Every day. All the time. Pandemic or not.

And I’ll be honest: we’re gonna fail at that. I fail at it every day, all the time, pandemic or not.

But part of the grace of God is that we can fail… and get up… and try again. We can make sure that people get groceries, and that kids can eat, and that folks have rides, and that parents have childcare… and so much more… every day. All. The. Time.

And that world—where we share out of our abundance and where we share out of our poverty—is a world where there is enough and more than enough. That world is a world where we love God and our neighbor and ourselves with every ounce of who we are… and where we are loved with every ounce of love in the world. 

That world is nothing less than the Kingdom of God.

Amen.

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

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