I have shared with you before how Patricia and I met as the result of an Internet matching application called “Chicago.matchmaker.com,” which I think ceased to exist not long after we met, as other programs, in particular, eHarmony, sprang up. Though chicago.matchmaker.com apparently was the default dating program for my then Internet carrier, AT&T Worldnet, whether it was shear luck or God’s watching over me that Patricia was also on that program, I am thankful to God for the fact that I got there and and for what has followed.
On Chicago.matchmaker.com, one filled out an online questionnaire, with some of the questions having multiple choices so that the site’s software could calculate how closely two people were matched. I perhaps underrate the software they had and whether it could deal with more open ended questions, but some questions were in fact open-ended. One had to do with something like, “What happens if you leave the sour cream out of the refrigerator?” To which Patricia’s answer was, “You end up with a biology experiment.” My answer was, “You hurt its feelings.”
But there was a question about watching television, and while I do not recall how Patricia answered, I said, “TV was made for sports.”
I’m still surprised she agreed to date me with that answer, but other than having CNBC, a business cable channel on her TV while she was working, Patricia was not really a TV watcher. Not really a TV watcher until . . . until after we were married, she “re-took up” knitting, which she had learned as a girl, and which keeps her hands busy but not so much either her eyes or her mind, such that a common call to me mid-evening is, “Do you want to watch television?” Which sometimes has some appeal, but I often watch it more just to sit with her than because of interest in what we might watch.
But there is lots on TV that is pretty fair, indeed, some even especially good . . . provided one has Internet. That is because, as many of you are aware, streaming movies and programs over the Internet has dramatically upset the broadcast television industry. Most of you have heard of Netflix, which started out by renting through the mail DVD’s, which it would send out in a once familiar square red envelope. But the company, Netflix, had the brilliance and foresight, true brilliance, to foresee that streaming over the Internet those same movies as were on the DVD’s would be the next big thing, and began doing so. Netflix then started developing its own programs, and, well, having become a virtual king-of-the-hill for what we once called “television entertainment,” not only are the networks and Disney seeking to compete with Netflix in streaming, but the equally brilliant company, Amazon, which I once loathed because of what it has done to book stores, is offering a great deal of streaming entertainment as well for its “Prime” customer, including both its own original productions, movies, and programming that it has purchased from others, such as BBC, the British Broadcasting Company.
. . . which is a long way of getting me to the subject at hand. Patricia and I have been watching on Amazon Prime a BBC series on King Charles II of England. He became king in what is known as “The Restoration,” following the death of Oliver Cromwell, whose Puritanical government had committed regicide when it executed Charles’ father, Charles I, a Catholic who had become king in the then officially “Protestant” England. Cromwell and the Scot clergyman John Knox of that period helped give a bad name to Calvinism.
At any rate, Charles II reigned from 1660 until his death in 1685, and one of the major events that occurred, and over which he had no control, was what thankfully proved to be the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague to hit England, in 1665-66, bubonic plague, the “black death.” In the neighborhood of fifteen to twenty percent of the population of London is believed to have died in that event.
That plague, and the periodic such epidemics — since this outbreak of plague was apparently confined to the Island of Great Britain, pandemic does not apply, — such periodic epidemics resulted in a horrible number of deaths . By the way, if any of you are or were teachers and wonder if you had an affect on a student, John McGreivy, who introduced me to the great English poet and clergyman John Donne, and nurtured a fondness of literature that exists to this day. If John McGreivy was correct, and I have used this idea many times and fairly recently, such an epidemic of the plague was happening on the mainland of Europe some forty years before that of Charles II’s reign, specifically in 1623-24, when Donne’s “Meditation 17,” part of a collection, was published.
I guess it is ironic that I believe have used that Meditation recently, though I could not find exactly when, and when I use it, I always refer to the clause, “No man is an island,” words that are so well known they are almost a cliché, but words that in their context related partly to the plague on the continent — but they also relate to our faith.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
As I said, I could not readily find when I last used this passage with you, but part of it bears repeating:
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
“For whom the bell tolls,” by the way, gave rise to a book of that name by the twentieth century American, Ernest Hemingway.
The “bell” to which Donne referred was the bell tolling the death of someone from the plague — this is nothing I have not shared with you before, — but as we engage today in this highly unusual and not wholly satisfying substitute for communal worshipping together, shoulder to shoulder, or at least, worshipping together in the same room, it is worth understanding why, ultimately, today we are not worshipping together, physically, in our churches.
Unlike the plague epidemics experienced by England under Charles II or on the continent at the time of John Donne, the world today is experiencing a pandemic, and we cannot realistically — nor in our faith — pretend it does not affect us or that we might not cause others to be affected by it.
“Yes,” part of the reason I am sitting here alone is your Session’s and my concern for your health, especially since few of you — few of us — are under thirty (or under twice thirty), but before being contacted by our presbytery and before the governor of Arizona proposed ending gatherings of ten or more, I had planned that we would simply call each of you and read to you a text I had prepared: If you are feeling the least bit ill or the least bit concerned about the health risk of attending church, God will not mind if you stay home.
I also said we would sit apart, not hug or shake hands, not have fellowship, not exchange bulletins, and in general, avoid being in physical, tactile contact with one another, that we would practice social distancing so that we did not breath upon one another.
And I was confident that each of you has sufficient maturity and wisdom that you could have decided what best protected your health.
But, and this was in large measure the result of talking with Nancy Blank, our polymath pianist, champion glider pilot, and former Clerk of Session in Florence, it was in large measure the result of talking with Nancy Blank that I realized it was also good citizenship — we want to help the community avoid the spread of COVID 19 so that our hospitals are not over-whelmed, and we want not to appear as though we feel ourselves better than others and can simply ignore the CDC or governor.
But it is also, and more importantly for us who seek to be Christians, forced upon us by our Christianity, a point that is always worth making, for, to paraphrase John Donne,
any human’s death diminishes us, because we are involved in humankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for us.
We are all children of God; we have a shared interest in not seeing the lives of other children of God cut short when it is reasonably avoidable, nor the lives of others’ loved ones made sorrowful because of this deadly pandemic.
Our behavior should be driven by our shared Christian faith, not by partisan politics, and even as we are concerned about the serious issue of economics, and the economic impact on many individuals is very substantial, that impact should not be cavalierly dismissed as some in the media are prone to do, even as we are concerned about economics, we must at least always weigh in the balance what Jesus said about the one lost sheep, how the shepherd rejoices even more about the one sheep that was lost and then found as over the ninety-nine that were never lost. He was talking about something a touch different, that is true, but I think he would approve of my using that to strengthen the point that:
any human’s death diminishes us, because that human was created by God and was a child of God, as are we, and whether we choose so or not, he or she is or was thus a brother or sister, and whether he or she knew so, Christ died for him or her just as Christ died for us.
So we are made less, we do grieve, for those who have contracted or whose loved ones have contracted this disease and not recovered from it. As Christians, we know that God cares for them, so making adjustments, sometimes nuisance adjustments, sometimes more than nuisance adjustments, is our way, your and my way as individual Christians and together as Christ’s Church, of expressing that we do Love God with all we have to give — and that requires, indeed, loving our neighbor as we have been loved by God.
In the name of the Son of God, Jesus Himself, Amen.