as preached for the online service of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 29, 2020
I do not know about you, but in these strange days, I have found myself doing many new things. In the last couple of weeks, I have been invited to virtual dinners, virtual dance parties, and virtual cocktail hours. Recently, I was even invited to a virtual tea-time. There was a story on NPR about virtual first dates. My son is starting online–which is to say virtual–school on Tuesday. And, of course, right now you are joining us for virtual worship.
In essence, we are doing new things but calling them by old names. We are in a time of metaphors. “Metaphor,” Aristotle wrote many centuries ago, “consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.” We use metaphors when we say that one thing is another thing. A metaphor is something that represents something else. Metaphor is essential to art and poetry. “And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Love is a stone / that settled on the sea-bed / under grey-water,” scribed Derek Walcott. “[V]erdad del río que se va perdiendo;” “the truth of the dying river,” we find in our morning’s reading by Amanda Berenguer. The sun is a bucketful of gold. Love is a stone. The river is dying. Each is a metaphor where one thing is said to be another.
I have come to realize, that for me, virtual worship is a metaphor for life as it used to be. This is our third week of recording our service in an empty sanctuary. There are only a handful of us here. We are practicing appropriate physical distancing.
We are also cleaning the pulpit, microphones, piano, and other equipment each time a different person uses them. In order to safely offer an online worship service, we are filming everything out of sequence. Alma and Scott recorded their portions of our liturgy prior to me recording mine. Mark recorded much of the music in his home studio. This week, he is not even here for the sermon.
Christian and Alma take this out of sequence audio and video and splice it together so that we can provide you with an approximation of our regular Sunday morning service. We want to offer our regular Sunday morning worship participants a continuing feeling of connection to the religious community that is the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. And we want those of you who are joining us online without ever having entered either our sanctuary in Houston or sanctuary in Richmond to know that when we gather again in person you will be welcome among us. But we do so with the knowledge that virtual worship is not the same as in person worship. You are not sitting in a room filled with people. You are not joining your voices with a crowd of others in song–though I hope that you are singing along with Mark’s excellent arrangements of our hymns.
We do all of this in the hopes that our virtual worship will provide you with a sense of connection and comfort during these strange days. Our hopes for these online worship services remind me of a fable from the Hasidic tradition. In one of his books, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben recounts a version of it that he found in the work of the Jewish mystic and scholar Gershom Scholem.
The Hasidic tradition was founded by the Baal Shem Tov–the Master of the Good Name–in early eighteenth-century Europe. He was reputed to have been a pious, wise, and compassionate man. He was also supposed to have been a great worker of miracles.
It is told that when he had an insurmountable problem before him, he would go into the woods to a special place. There he would “light a fire and meditate in prayer.” And then the problem he had sought out to solve, the miracle he was hoping to perform, would be done.
After the Baal Shem died, his successor went to the same special place in the forest. He had forgotten a little about the ritual. He said, “We can no longer light a fire, but we can pray.” And then he was able to work a miracle.
The Baal Shem’s successor died. And the day came when the Rabbi of the next generation was faced with a great task. So, he went to the special place in the woods and said, “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayers, but we know the place in the woods, and that can be sufficient.” And sufficient it was.
The fourth generation came into being. And the Rabbi of that generation was called upon to perform a great task. But he did not even know the place in the woods. And so, he said, “‘We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayer, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of all of this.’ And, once again, this was sufficient.”
Our online worship services make me feel like we are somewhere inside Gershom Scholem’s tale. We cannot kindle the fire of our faith together. We cannot meditate together. We cannot go to the woods–or gather in our sanctuary–together. But we can offer you a video, a story, about what worship might like if we were to gather.
And we can hope that it is sufficient.
Most of the metaphors we are offering each other these days are offered in the hope that they will be sufficient. We provide each other the metaphors of virtual schooling, virtual dance parties, virtual dinners, virtual dates, and virtual tea times in the hopes that they will be sufficient to see us through these strange days.
But, in these strange days, we need to be careful of our metaphors. Some of them can be dangerous. It is unwise to let some things stand in for others. And here we come, at last, to the title of our service: illness is not a metaphor. Illness does not stand in for something else. Illness is just illness. It is not something that should be freighted with moral weight or political valence. It should be for what is, a global health crisis, and not imagined as something else.
For the virus is not a metaphor. The virus is only a virus. It does not represent something else. It is, like all viruses, a small organic infectious agent that replicates within living cells. It replicates and it spreads, from host to host, and bringing suffering to those who it encounters.
The virus is not a metaphor. It does not have consciousness that imagines, that dreams, that tries to discern truth from lies, or that refers to one thing by calling it by another name. The virus does not write poetry or create the metaphors of music, painting, and photography.
What is more, the virus does not care about human metaphors. It does not respect national boundaries, or religious beliefs, or race or ethnic identities. It is not, as some would say, a Chinese virus. It can potentially infect everyone. There is no cure. There is no vaccine. And while we must pray that these are found soon, we must also recognize that until they are everyone is vulnerable.
That, indeed, is one of the lessons of the hour. That we humans, no matter how great or powerful, weak or marginalized, we might be are alike in our human mortality. The Prime Minister of Great Britain has tested positive for the virus. Rita Wilson and her husband Tom Hanks have tested positive for the virus. The basketball player Kevin Durant has tested positive for the virus. The playwright Terrence McNally has died from the virus. Indeed, many people–rich and poor alike–have been stricken ill and died from the virus: people in Italy, in New York, in China, and here in Houston.
There is a way in which the global pandemic reminds me of a verse from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This was a verse beloved by many of our Universalist religious ancestors. It bespeaks the idea that God loves everyone, no exceptions, an idea that lies at the core of the theology of our Universalist forbearers and Unitarian Universalism today. It suggests a fundamental, non-metaphorical, truth: there is only one human family and we are each a part of it.
Today, we might consider re-casting the words from Galatians as there is neither Christian nor Muslim, neither Italian nor New Yorker, neither citizen nor undocumented migrant, for all are alike to the virus. There are some religious leaders who are saying that the virus must be understood as God’s judgement upon this country and the world. If it is, then the only interpretation that I can find is that we are being reminded, in the words of the Christian New Testament, “that God is no respecter of persons”–words meant to suggest that the divine does not care about human status but instead loves, and calls upon us to love, everyone the same. We are being reminded, in the sense of the seventh principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association, that we all part of the same interdependent web of existence. That we are each, in William Ellery Channing’s famous words, a part of the great family of all souls.
Yet, historically, people have often draw, precisely the opposite lesson from pandemics. They have turned illness into metaphor. One of the oldest ideas in human history is to view pandemics–which we sometimes call plagues–as forms of collective punishment. In such a narrative, one group of people, usually the powerful, label another group of people as responsible for the pandemic. In Europe, during the Black Death, Jewish people were often blamed for outbreaks of the plague. As a result, many Jewish communities were destroyed and many Jewish people were killed. And, of course, the truth was that Jewish people had no actual connection to the plague. They were just blamed for it because they were different from the rest of the population.
Some years ago, at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, before there was a treatment for HIV, the philosopher Susan Sontag wrote insightfully about the dangers of using illness as metaphor. She observed three dangerous things about illness as a metaphor. The first two I have already alluded to. The pandemic is cast as a form of collective, and sometimes individual, punishment. Responsibility for it assigned to “a tainted community.” And, finally, “the disease invariably comes from somewhere else.”
Over and over again, human history has shown each of these ideas to be false. Illness is not punishment. It has the potential to impact all alike. Cancer, one of the diseases that Sontag wrote about, can strike anyone. People across the world have been infected by HIV–babies have been infected with it by their mothers; and, though it was once cast as “gay cancer,” everyone must practice safer sex if they want to reduce their risk of contracting it.
Illness happens because we have organic, permeable, human bodies that can host viruses and bacteria. Illness happens because to be alive is to be mortal and subject to the possibility of pain and suffering. Illness is not a metaphor.
Responsibility for illness cannot be borne by a single community. The virus that causes COVID-19 might have started in China but it is not a Chinese virus. It does not recognize the imagined human community of nation. Instead, it reveals the truth that human beings are far more alike than we are different. Whether you live in Italy, China, New York, Houston, or Fort Bend County, you are vulnerable to the virus. Little can be accomplished by assigning blame for it to one group of people. Illness is not a metaphor.
The disease might have started in Wuhan, it might have come from there, but the virus is teaching us, again, that disease cannot be contained. Quarantines may slow the spread of the virus–and staying home continues to be one of the best things that non-essential workers can do–but they will not stop it. China has paused the spread of the virus and is now trying to prevent its resurgence by isolating anyone who visits from outside the country. This may slow the spread of the virus. But it will ultimately prevent it from continuing to inflict people in China.
Eventually, the virus will reach every corner of our globe. The virus is no respecter of nations, just as the scripture says God is no respecter of persons. It can only be slowed. Pathogens have always spread across humanity–smallpox might have started someplace in the Mediterranean but it eventually spread throughout the globe; syphilis could have originated in the Americas but it is now found everywhere. Every lifeform can become sick. Illness is not a metaphor.
Illness is not a metaphor. Illness is simply illness. But we can learn from illness. It can teach us that the entire human family is in this together and that each of us is vulnerable. All of us are mortal and our bodies are vulnerable to the virus. The threat of the virus will only end when a vaccine is found–not a vaccine for some of the people of the world but a vaccine for all of the people of the world. The spread of the virus will only be slowed when we all act together–engaging in only essential work and practicing physical distancing.
And that will only be possible when we recognize that in these strange days, when all but essential work must stop, most of us are economically vulnerable. I already know of people who are members of this congregation who have lost jobs. I have friends who are wondering if they are going to have to make the choice between paying rent, paying for medical bills, and eating. Some economists are anticipating that the unemployment rate will soon hit twenty, or even thirty, percent.
Such a high level of unemployment threatens massive social disruption. Many people who might, in other times, think of themselves as economically secure will suffer–I know of scientists with PhDs who have already lost their jobs. At such a time, we cannot afford to think of illness as a metaphor. The virus is not a respecter of persons. And the disruptions it brings do not care about your level of education or your current level of economic security. If this pandemic continues for twelve or eighteenth months–as many think it might–it will most likely upend the lives of many people.
At such a time as this, when illness is not a metaphor, we are challenged to rise to meet the situation with compassion. As Scott told us at the beginning of the month, “Sympathy is the ability to recognize that a person is in pain.” “And empathy is the ability to… experience some [of] their feelings,” he continued. But compassion is putting “those thoughts and feelings into action.” We demonstrate compassion when we move beyond simply worrying about other people, or the state of the world, and try to do something about it.
When we recognize that illness is not a metaphor, we come to understand that the only response to the global pandemic is a compassionate one. We do this, in part, because we recognize that we must protect the most vulnerable among us. It is the moral thing to do but it is also the necessary thing to do. In some cities, but not in Houston, homeless people are being given shelter in closed hotels so that they do not spread the virus. Such an action protects both the homeless and everyone else. For the virus does not recognize rich or poor.
The disruptions can impact everyone. And because of this, the disruptions will only be mitigated if we work to provide for all people during this time. And, here, I am reminded of another passage from the Christian New Testament, this time from the Gospel of Matthew. There we find Jesus say, “Truly I tell you: anything you did for one of… [the people] here, no matter how insignificant, you did for me… A curse is on you… [if I can say] For when I was hungry, you gave me nothing to eat; when thirsty, nothing to drink; when I was a stranger, you did not welcome me; when I was naked, you did not clothe me; when I was ill and in prison, you did not come to my help.”
Those ancient words speak a truth in a time of crisis like this, when illness is not a metaphor and when all of us are vulnerable. And that truth is this: we can only address the health and economic dimensions of this crisis by acting together and protecting everyone. That means that everyone is vulnerable. Everyone must be protected–and that everyone who needs them be given access to personal protective equipment. Such equipment is now, to slow the spread of the virus, a need for all people and something that federal government should be mobilizing to produce on a mass level. If it will not, then local cities and counties must step into the gap.
Here in Houston, we had a troubling illustration of what happens when we personal protective equipment is not available to all. On Thursday and Friday, the Houston Independent School District had to shut down its food distribution sites. A lack of personal protective equipment made them unsafe for both people distributing and collecting food.
At a time when people are food insecure at greater rates than every before a lack of equipment, here in the richest country in the history of the world, made it even more difficult for people to get food.
When we recognize that illness is not a metaphor we also recognize that the only way the virus will contained is if we have a coordinated health care policy that makes treatment and testing available for all. And that the state of Texas is wrong for declaring that some essential health care services, such as abortion and family planning, should not be available at this time. Such actions will prompt to travel. And that brings the risk that they will spread the virus further. If we do not treat health care as a human right, in this time when illness is not a metaphor, then it will be impossible to coordinate efforts to slow the spread of the virus and, eventually, find and distribute a cure.
It is only by recognizing that illness is not a metaphor that we will be able to end this time of living primarily in metaphors. It is only by acknowledging that illness is not a metaphor that we will be able to return to actual shared dinners, dance parties, tea times, and cocktail hours. It is only by rejecting illness as a metaphor that school and non-essential work will resume. And it is only be casting off illness as a metaphor that we will be able gather together, as a religious community, in worship and in fellowship and physically unite in the difficult, though rewarding, work of building the beloved community.
These are my words for you, offered to you from Houston, Texas, in the midst of a pandemic, as part of a virtual worship service, that is a metaphor for religious community. In this time of anxiety and illness, I pray that they are sufficient. And so, I invite you, wherever you are, to say Amen.