I had planned to preach something else this evening, but while I was reading my emails, I came across a statement by one of our pastors who was announcing the decision to cancel a conference meeting. He said this was being done because of the “unprecedented situation that we are facing in the struggle with COVID-19.”
As individuals, I suppose he is correct. I have never experienced anything like this in my lifetime. But as a community, what we are going through is nothing new.
Some three hundred years ago in the little town of Trappe, plagues like COVID-19 swept through the region with regularity. Typhoid fever, diphtheria, pneumonia, and worst of all, cholera, were well known here because they left so many dead behind. There were no doctors here. There were some in Philadelphia, but there were almost no professional people here at all. Our people here were dirt poor. Malnutrition was almost as big a threat as a plague.
The Muhlenberg family dabbled in the medicine business. They imported from Europe a few concoctions that they felt helped in times of sickness. But it wasn’t much. So, they decided to make their own medicine. It was better than nothing, I suppose. The Muhlenberg women would mix various powders and herbs with sugar syrup and sell it to neighbors and friends. Strangers would come to their front door and beg for “medicine.” If they could pay—well and good. If they could not pay, they gave them whatever they had concocted. Did this help? I think it did! Because the placebo effect is a very powerful medicine. But of course, it only worked for some—not all, and the people knew it. But they kept coming to the Muhlenbergs for medicine anyhow because there was nothing else, or so they thought.
But there was something else. And old man Muhlenberg (Henry Melchoir) wrote about it in his journals because he was so impressed. The plague of cholera hit the town of Trappe one year. People started dying and soon everyone was in a state of terror. Cholera is a particularly dreadful disease because it empties the bowels and people die of dehydration. It is very contagious, and the people knew that too. So, anyone who came down with it was immediately isolated. Whole families would be stricken. Sometimes the parents would die and the children would be left to fend for themselves. People who would normally help neighbors were too afraid to go even next door to lend a hand.
Muhlenberg said that one of the women in Augustus Church had arrived here as an indentured servant. She worked for a man twelve years older than she was, and when her seven years of service were over, she married him. Marriage did not change things much except that child-bearing was added to her list of duties. It was a life of drudgery day in and day out.
Then cholera came to town and threw even more work her way when her own family got sick. Nursing, endless washing of bedding, clothes, and bodies. But they got through it. Then the neighbors got sick. Both parents were stricken and nobody was able to nurse, cook and clean for them and their children. This woman learned of the situation and went to help them because everybody else was too afraid to go anywhere near them. She went to work and got them through the worst after doing for her own family first. “Oh, she must have been a super-woman,” you say. No, she was just a regular haus frau and two weeks later she came down with cholera and died. Muhlenberg marveled at this.
Why did she do this? She must have known how dangerous her work was. But she did it anyhow. Muhlenberg felt that her faith enabled her to do this. She seemed to understand that when people stop helping one another, life as God intended it to be, becomes hellish.
Sometimes hell is well-camouflaged with gates and guards and passwords and security systems. It can be hard to recognize, but is still lethal.
You say that people don’t act heroically anymore. I think they do, but you just don’t see it. First-responders, healthcare providers, police, teachers and many more, put their lives on the line every day for us. Why do they do this? Some are paid. Some are not or at least not enough. I think they do it because they are interested in the survival of the community. I assume Muhlenberg’s parishioner felt that way. They care about what will happen in the future. They care about not only their own children and grandchildren, but about other people’s as well. How do they do this? They rely on their Christian faith to provide the necessary strength and motivation. Keep this in mind as we progress through Lent.
Where to do you fit in this picture?
ELCA Prayer for Time of Public Health Concerns, COVID-19
God, our peace and our strength, we pray for our nation and the world as we face new uncertainties around coronavirus. Protect the most vulnerable among us, especially all who are currently sick or in isolation. Grant wisdom, patience, and clarity to healthcare workers, especially as their work caring for others puts them at great risk. Guide us as we consider how best to prepare and respond in our families, congregations, workplaces, and communities. Give us courage to face these days not with fear but with compassion, concern, and acts of service, trusting that you abide with us always; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.