Passover and Easter Respond to the Coronavirus

We know where the resurrection is happening. It’s happening when every first responder, health care provider and essential worker starts their next shift.  It’s happening at 7 every evening in large cities when people open the windows and stand on their balconies and cheer them!  It happening when our leaders work around the clock using every resource to protect and support us.  It’s happening as the scientists pull out all the stops to find a treatment and a vaccine.  It’s happening when people risk their jobs to tell the truth.  It’s happening when our teachers painstakingly create lesson plans and parents try to teach them.  It’s happening when we train our kids to cough into their elbows and to wash their hands properly.  It’s happening when we wear our masks and gloves and when we choose to stay home even though we may be lonely or overwhelmed. 

This message was delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse and the Unitarian Church of Quincy on Sunday, April 12, 2020.  Please attribute any use to Rev. Krista Taves.

Wisdom Story – Jennifer and Josiah.  Written by Krista Taves.

Josiah and Jennifer had been friends such a long time that they couldn’t remember not living next to each other.  They did everything together.  They walked to school together.  They jumped on Josiah’s trampoline.  They swung side by side on Jennifer’s swing set, pointing their toes to the sky.  The only thing they didn’t do together was when Josiah went to Temple on Saturday and Jennifer went to church on Sunday.  Josiah’s family was Jewish.  Jennifer’s family was Christian.

Then, everything changed.  Jennifer’s parents sat her down one day in March and told her there was a new disease called COVID-19.  Jennifer would no longer be going to school until it was safe to be with other people. Josiah’s parents told him the same thing, and also that he and Jennifer couldn’t play together anymore.   Not until it was safe.

Jennifer wanted to know if COVID-19 killed everyone who got it.  Her parents told her that for most people it was like getting a cold or flu, but some people, especially older people, could become very sick and have to go to the hospital. Because it was hard to know who would get better and who wouldn’t, we had to stay home to keep from spreading the disease.  It was called “social distancing.”  If we didn’t get close to each other, we would be less likely to get it and pass it on to someone else.

Josiah wanted to know how you got COVID-19.  His parents told him that if someone coughed or sneezed you could get it from them.  If someone had the COVID germ on their hands and touched something and then you touched the same thing, and then touched your face, you could get it too.  They taught Josiah how to wash his hands properly and they practiced not touching their faces.  They bought masks and gloves so that if they had to go to the grocery store they could be safer.  Jennifer’s parents showed her how to sneeze into her elbow instead of her hand.

At first, the social distancing was fun.  It was like a snow day.  Both Josiah and Jennifer played a lot of video games, ate a lot of cookies, and watched a lot of cartoons.   They wore pajamas all day long!  But soon, it got boring.  They missed school.  They missed their friends. They really missed each other!

One day Josiah’s parents let him jump on the trampoline and Jennifer’s parents let her swing and they teased each other across the fence that separated their two yards. It was fun!  But it wasn’t the same.

Then it turned into April and both Josiah and Jennifer had more questions.

Jennifer asked what they were going to do about Easter.  Usually on Palm Sunday, they had palm leaves at church and they sang because this was the day that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Then on Thursday and Friday they felt sad because Jesus was arrested and killed.  On Easter Sunday they were happy again, they looked for their baskets of chocolate in the backyard, they dressed in bright clothes to go to church, sing happy songs, and celebrated that Jesus had risen from the dead.  Then they had a big meal with their extended family, and of course, more chocolate!

Josiah wanted to know what they were going to do about Passover.  Usually they had a Seder. Josiah’s whole family got together, everyone bringing something for the meal.  They told the story of how the Israelites were led out of slavery in Egypt by Moses.  They named all the nasty plagues that God cast over the Egyptians to convince them to free the Israelites, and they especially recognized the last one, when an Angel of Death passed over the land, sparing the Israelites.  They set an empty seat for the prophet Elijah, they sang the old songs, prayed, and then the afikomen, a special cracker made of matzo, or unleavened bread, was hidden and all the children hunted for it.

That night, Josiah’s and Jennifer’s parents talked to each other over the back fence, standing more than 6 feet apart, of course.  They made a plan. Josiah’s parents would hide the afikomen in their backyard and Jennifer’s parents would hide her Easter basket in their backyard, and Jennifer and Josiah could look for them at the same time.

It was a lot of fun.  Jennifer found her basket pretty quickly but it took Josiah much longer and everyone cheered him on until he found the afikomen.  Jennifer’s parents sang “Lo the Earth Awakes Again” and Josiah’s family sang “Dayenu.”

Then Jennifer’s mother said,  “This Easter, we remember that Jesus was killed by selfish people because he spoke the truth, he believed in peace, and he wanted the best for all people.  It is very sad that he died, and it is a joy that he rose from the dead and left an empty tomb.  It meant the selfishness and cruelty didn’t win.  Love won.  Our hope this Easter is that we all stay safe.  The empty tomb is a promise for us when so many are sick.  We serve the empty tomb when we speak the truth, believe in peace, and love each other.  Then death has no power over us.”

Josiah’s father said, “This Passover, we remember Moses’ brave and clear leadership. We remember the families who listened carefully to his words, who protected themselves from the Angel of Death by staying in their homes. It was a frightening time.  Sometimes they just wanted to go outside and live like normal. But they were more hungry for freedom. They stayed in their homes, they ate, they sang, waiting for the time to step outside and walk back into life and to their freedom.

“We know it is hard for us all to do this now.  Sometimes we are afraid, sometimes we are tired, sometimes we feel angry and hopeless, and sometimes we can’t find the words for how we feel. But if we keep the spirit of Easter and Passover with us, then we know that we are not alone.  We are taking care of each other.  We are safe, and we will be alright.”

Together, both families smiled at each other, waved, and went back into their houses.

Reading.  “Love Will Empty Our Churches This Easter” Rev. Jake Morrill. http://thesaltcollective.org/love-will-empty-our-churches-this-easter/?fbclid=IwAR0VGnBRGaFUCveThIiXkYSGtBSYKJ2P8JCaNHdxMEVfj3i6Q1CwqR52Opo

Message

One of the most memorable photos of this week was that of Wisconsonites lining up to vote in the primary election last Tuesday. With Governor Tony Evers blocked in his attempt to get the primary delayed to June and the closing of many polling stations because of a lack of workers, the few polling stations that opened were swamped.

The lineups proved several things to me:

1) People have taken the requirement of social distancing to heart. Almost everyone who came to vote was masked, some were gloved, everyone was standing 6 feet apart, which meant the lines stretched down the streets and around the corners.

2) People took this election seriously and many were willing to take the risk in order to cast their ballot.  People stood in line for hours.  We don’t yet have the final results of the voter turnout, but it is possible that with the increased requests for absentee ballots and the determination of many others to vote in person, Wisconsin may match the turnout for the 2016 primaries. This is a significant accomplishment.  It tells us that we remain hungry for democracy, we remain hungry to have our voice heard, hungry to have a say in who leads us, and so we voted despite the complications of this time, perhaps because of the complications of this time.

And I find myself reflecting on this accomplishment in light of the religious holidays that we’re honoring today.

Passover began on Wednesday night and will continue until Thursday evening.  Passover is a time to remember the story of how the Israelites were freed from slavery under the Egyptians.  From a purely historical perspective, we don’t know if this grand story of leaving in one night and wandering in the desert for 40 years is true.  We can’t even reach any certainty over whether the Israelites ever lived in Egypt.  But that’s really not the point.  The point is that this story has energized the Jewish people for over 3000 years and it has been a focal point for Christians for 2000 years.  In this story, a selfish and evil king called Pharaoh has enslaved the Jewish people. Moses is called by God to lead his people into freedom.  He turns up at Pharaoh’s court, day after day, and calls down a rain of plagues with each one getting worse, and demands that Pharaoh free the Jews.  Pharaoh refuses, until the last one.  That last night, Moses instructs the Jewish people to place the blood of a lamb over their door and to stay in for the night. That night, the Angel of Death took the life of the eldest sons in every Egyptian household and spared the sons of the Jewish families.

There are some obvious ways to draw connections to what we are experiencing now with the Passover story as it has been handed down over centuries.  There is a plague in our land and we are confining ourselves into our homes as much as possible.  Instead of smearing lamb’s blood over our doors, we are wearing masks and gloves, washing our hands and sanitizing everything we touch to avoid this plague and to lessen its harm.  We are hoping that this angel of death passes over our houses.

But there are other ways that the Passover metaphor is stretched.  It would a mistake to say that COVID-19 is actually the angel of death.  In the Passover Story the angel exacts a punishment upon the Egyptians for enslaving a whole people.  The angel is a strategy to achieve justice. The weak are taught how to protect themselves and the powerful are left vulnerable, with each powerful family losing the most precious thing that can be lost in a patriarchal society – the eldest son.

COVID-19 is not a punishment.  There is no moral stain on those who contract it.  It’s not creating justice by where it lands.   In fact it is just the opposite.  Often it is exposing injustice.

What we are now seeing more clearly is that where COVID-19 lands is often shaped by the injustices that are built into our society, into our economy and into our health care system. It’s exposing the weaknesses in our leaders and our political systems. COVID-19 is only partially wreaking havoc because of it’s own power.  Much of the damage we are experiencing is because our larger systems and our leaders have failed to protect us.

We’ve learned this week that African American communities are most vulnerable to the disease.  Here in the St. Louis Region, we have this map that is updated each day which breaks down the confirmed cases by zip code with the darker colored zip codes having more cases and the lighter colored ones less.  The dark blue zip codes are predominantly African American and the lighter blue zip codes are predominantly White.  Because our economy is structured through the legacy of white supremacy, African Americans experience the highest levels of poverty and among the lowest rates of health insurance.  The reality of poverty means you have less power to protect yourself and your family. The health care you need is more often out of reach.  Why can an entire NBA team get tested just like that and tests are being rationed for everyone else?  This is not acceptable.

There is one anomaly.  The richest whitest areas in our region are also experiencing outbreaks.  They are travel related because those populations have a higher rate of international and air travel, business trips, ski trips to Colorado or the Alps, and March breaks spent on the beaches in Florida or the Bahamas.  White privilege and the wealth that sometimes comes with it has exposed some whites to the virus, and poverty has exposed more African Americans to the virus.  For those with eyes to see, COVID-19 has brought into relief the unequal distribution of power and wealth.

I know that when many of you put on your face masks and lined up to vote on Tuesday, or when you slipped your absentee ballot into that envelop and put in the mail, this was on your mind.  You were intent on casting your vote for those who might have the courage and the vision to either mitigate, lessen or end the harm of our unjust systems – health care, the economy, the justice system, education, the environment.  When you cast your vote, you were channeling the spirit of Passover because that is exactly what Passover is about.  Moses and the Israelites used every tool at their disposal to usher a path into freedom. For many Jewish families, observing Passover is about much more than remembering a mythic passage to freedom. It is about recommitting to freedom in the here and how, seeing with open eyes the ways that people are enslaved now and dismantling those systems.

Let’s move on to Easter.  Here, the Egyptians are replaced with the Romans.  Pharaoh is replaced with King Herod and Pontius Pilate. Once again, it’s a pretty grim scene for the Jewish people, but instead of being slaves in a foreign land they are an occupied people in their own land.  In the Christian Tradition, Holy Week started last Sunday, the day that Jesus supposedly rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  His journey ended at the Temple where he turned over the money tables and freed the sacrificial animals, an act of protest against those who exploited the poor when they came to worship.  It was his most brazen act of protest in his three years of ministry.  Then he went into hiding in the upper room of one of his supporters where he stayed for several days with his disciplines.

Let’s think about this act of hiding in light of our own social distancing.

Jesus hid for several reasons.  He knew he was a wanted man.  He had been pushing the envelop for 3 years and knew at some point it would catch up with him. He hid for his own safety and the safety of his followers, just as we are retreating into our homes for safety.  But his danger and our danger are somewhat different.  His danger came from a cruel system. Our danger comes from a disease.  But in both cases, our retreat is in response to a threat.

In both cases, the danger is not only about what is out there, but what is also within.  We aren’t just retreating into our homes because COVID-19 is out there. The majority of those who contract the disease display no symptoms. Some of us are infected and we don’t know it. Our bodies may be a site of danger.  Some of us do have COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone who has it, and we are self-isolating.  I’m not sure that many of us have experienced seeing ourselves as dangerous, our bodies as dangerous.  I find that to be a very unsettling thing to reflect on.  I’ll find myself looking at my own hands, or feeling my chest rise and fall, becoming nervous with even a slight cough or a little soreness in my throat.  We are containing our own bodies so that this disease does not undermine the collective body of our society, especially those who are most vulnerable.

Part of why Jesus and his disciples retreated to that upper room is because they were stressed as a body of followers and friends. This ministry was exhausting.  It was heartbreaking.  It was dangerous.  There was tension in this body of people who had become a chosen family. Judas kept leaving and being gone for hours at a time.  Where was he going?  Who was he meeting?  What was he bringing back into the family? During the Last Supper, which some scholars believe was actually a Passover Seder and is the foundation for today’s Christian communion, Judas left one last time. He led the authorities to the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus was arrested. The body of the community was fractured.  What broke the body is that one of their own brought it all done.  It wasn’t the Romans or the Temple Priests.  The betrayal happened inside the body, within the circle of trust. And by Friday, the body of their beloved teacher had been buried and the stone had been rolled across the entrance of his tomb.

We have also experienced this breach of trust. When the leaders in the highest offices delayed preparations for this pandemic, when it was and is still minimized and denied, when we are fed misinformation, when we are called to fill our sanctuaries on Sunday, invited to identify the virus as a foreign invasion connected to a particular race or nation, it is as if Judas has slipped away from the Last Supper and led the authorities to the Garden where Jesus is praying.  While there is no doubt that this virus was going to claim many lives among us, the level of loss could have been mitigated.  There could have been enough protective equipment, there could have been enough ventilators and tests, states wouldn’t be competing with each other for these precious supplies.  The media wouldn’t have to deconstruct every misleading press conference knowing that a failure to do so will cost more lives.

And yet, the point of Easter is not the crucifixion, it’s not the betrayal, it’s not the broken fractured family.  The point of Easter is the empty tomb.  When the women disciples came out of hiding they found the stone rolled away from the tomb and Jesus’ body gone.  An angel stood inside and told them that Jesus was no longer there. He had risen and was among them.

What Easter tells us is that love always wins. The betrayals, the deaths, the lies, the brokenness, the corruption, the power plays – none of this is powerful enough to have the last say.  We know where the resurrection is happening. It’s happening when every first responder and health care provider starts their next shift.  It’s happening at 7 every evening in large cities when people open the windows and stand on their balconies and cheer them!  It happening when our leaders work around the clock using every resource to protect and support us.  It’s happening as the scientists pull out all the stops to find a treatment and a vaccine.  It’s happening when people risk their jobs to tell the truth.  It’s happening when our teachers painstakingly create lesson plans and parents try to teach them!  It’s happening when we train our kids to cough into their elbows and to wash their hands properly.  It’s happening when we wear our masks and gloves and when we choose to stay home even though we may be lonely or overwhelmed.

And the resurrection happened on Tuesday in Wisconsin when voters cast their ballot and poll workers showed up to serve despite the cynical attempt to use the pandemic to suppress the vote.  I am not criticizing those who stayed home that day. But I do want to hold up that we should never underestimate our hunger for freedom, never underestimate our unceasing yearning to mend, heal and restore.  We are hardwired to love each other, hardwired to live in a spirit of reverence for our deep interconnectedness.  That is how the resurrection happens every day.

So we will carry on.  We will keep living.  We will keep loving.  We will wake up each morning hoping for the continued safety and health of those we love. May your Passover and Easter be filled with old and new ways to be together, and may you and yours be blessed with hope, compassion, and peace.

About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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