I’m Rev. Peggy Clarke, Senior Minister at the Community Church of New York. I’ll offer these reflections for us on Sunday mornings until we can be together again. This isn’t worship. It’s not a complete experience, but I’m hoping these words become a balm for you during these trying days.
My sermons usually start with a story. Something historical or maybe personal. I tell a tale and over the course of the sermon, it becomes a metaphor. But, we’re living the story, aren’t we? There is little to tell outside our experience, our Right Now, our current moment of global pandemic, of social distancing, of sheltering in place. New York is shutting down. As of the taping of this reflection, we have just a few more hours before the entire state is banned from even individuals gathering with people not in our households and all non-essential businesses shut down.
Or, maybe I have two stories to tell, and both are happening, both have become part of our lived experience.
One story is about fear. It started playing out as cases began to be counted here in the United States and we watched as people in Wuhan, China were restricted, not allowed to leave their homes and people here started stocking up on things they’d need if they, too, were trapped at home. Then Costco put a sign up in one of their stores noting that they no longer had toilet paper in stock. Someone took a picture and posted it somewhere and anxiety peaked for thousands or millions of people who bought out toilet paper in every store they could find and then cleared out the online sources so warehouses around the country were all putting up signs noting they no longer had any toilet paper in stock. It didn’t end there. We need Lysol wipes and hand sanitizer and who knows how many face masks and rubber gloves one might need in a pandemic and as long as we’re buying, we should get extra just to be safe.
Just to be safe.
Just to be safe, we bought all the bananas and chicken wings and ritz crackers and while we’re at it, let’s get paper towels and eggs and toothpaste because who knows how long it’ll be.
We bought and stored and bought some more until shelves are bare and essential workers include all those people in factories creating the things we’ve been hoarding in our basements and storage lockers and all the people who have to package and ship and delver those things to us as we stay in our homes afraid.
That story also leads us gun stores around the country where people stand on line to purchase even more weapons and enough ammunition to slaughter their entire neighborhoods if it comes to that, which, of course, they hope doesn’t happen but you need to be prepared.
There’s a story of fear that lives within each of us. A panic. Some of that is a fear of getting sick or of getting someone more vulnerable than ourselves sick, but some of that is a fear of living in a world of fear. If everyone else is going to hoard things, I have to also or there won’t be enough. What if I’m alone in not having?
There’s another story to tell. It’s a story of love and it’s also happening right now. In addition to the constriction, to the fear response, the hoarding and holding close, there’s another story and this one is expansive. It’s about generosity and openness even in this time of isolation.
It’s a story I hear told in those same aisles, the empty ones fear ravaged. I hear it when a mother tells her son not to take the second can of tomatoes since there are so few left and they can live with just one. The story is being told when a blind woman laments not being able to get audio books from the library now that they’ve closed and someone finds her a phone number so she can get what she needs. This story is being told by newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post as they make all information about the virus free to anyone who wants it. The examples go on. There are free online meditation groups and happy hours and cooking classes. The Indigo Girls gave a free online concert and Audible is offering children’s books without charge and people in our own congregation are picking up the phone or running online check ins and book groups and art classes for anyone who might be lonely or frightened or just in need of connection or something to do.
Breaking through the story of fear is a new vision of a world we’re starting to dream together. In this new world, the priority is compassion. We value each other’s health enough to sacrifice our lives in significant ways. We value each other’s happiness enough to collectively reprioritize community over profit.
I’m particularly interested in the rapid, massive, social restructuring happening right now because 2020 is the year scientists tell us we have to turn the ship if we’re going to survive the climate crisis. (A little side note: If you’re in my congregation, I’d like to suggest some kind of drinking game where every time I mention climate, you get to drink.) But, really, this kind of large scale mobilization is what I’ve been talking about. Can we – or will we – willingly alter our behavior as to prioritize the health of our planet and the future of humanity? And my answer has been, “I don’t know.”
As a result of this global pandemic and our response, I have hope. Admittedly, we aren’t moving quickly enough nationally to respond to the current pandemic crisis. But, if we moved at this pace to effect climate, we’d be successful.
This is to say, as a human family, we have in us exactly what we need. We are able to reach across all that divides us. I mean, we also have it in us to hoard toilet paper. That’s real too. But we have demonstrated our ability to live out of love, to embody generosity and kindness on the large scale.
What this pandemic is offering us is a choice of the world we dream about. Are we going to define ourselves by our fear drawing walls around our own and constricting compassion to those in very small circles around us. Or, are we going to allow this health crisis become an evolutionary leap that transforms our social and economic structures, defined no longer by what we can get but by what we can give?
Over the course of these next few Sundays, I’m going to tease out what this new world might look like and I’m hoping to hear from some of you about the world you dream about.
We are writing our nation’s story right now. This is soon to be our history and whether we use this experience to hold us back or propel us forward is still unknown. But, as awful as this experience has been, I’ve never felt more hopeful about our long term future than I do right now.
I love you all very much. Do Good. Be well.