What would Martin Luther do in a time of COVID-19?
On March 6, while we were still physically gathering for worship at Trinity and the “stay-at-home” directives seemed far away in China’s Hubei province and its capital city of Wuhan, ELCA Bishop Elizabeth Eaton wrote about another time of pandemic and fear. She wrote,
In 1527 the plague returned to Wittenberg, Germany. Two hundred years earlier the plague had swept across Europe killing up to 40% of the population. Understandably, people were anxious and wondered what a safe and faithful response might be. In answer to this, Martin Luther wrote “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” In it, he emphasized the duty to care for the neighbor, the responsibility of government to protect and provide services to its citizens, a caution about recklessness, and the importance of science, medicine and common sense.
In Luther’s day, some were calling for mere acceptance of what was happening as God’s will about which they could do nothing. That was not Martin Luther’s perspective. Luther advocated acceptance and action. In a lengthy letter to fellow pastor and friend Dr. John Hess, Luther responded: “I shall ask God to mercifully protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.” (from “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,” 1527).
Luther’s resolve provided a faithful response, and one that could almost be in compliance with the contemporary challenges issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bishop Eaton continued her reflection:
To provide care for the neighbor, Luther recommended that pastors, those in public office, doctors and public servants should remain in the city. Luther himself remained in Wittenberg to care for his people. He recommended that public hospitals be built to accommodate those with the plague. He condemned those who took unnecessary risks that put themselves and others in danger of contagion. Luther encouraged the use of reason and medicine . . .
Luther also reminded his people and us that we should trust God’s faithfulness and promises, particularly the promise eternal life. Paul writes: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8).
Since Bishop Eaton’s March 6 remembrance of Luther’s response to the plague, much has changed as the COVID-19 crisis has spread across the world. We have many of the same concerns people had in Luther’s day. We are anxious, we are assaulted by the relentless rumors and conjecture regarding the pandemic, we are hunkering down at home and we are worrying about the most vulnerable and those who are persistently on the front lines of this struggle, the medical community and first responders in our communities. In response, we have the same desire to care for the neighbor, respect the science, avoid negligent behavior and to pray to our providential God that Luther advocated nearly 500 years ago.
A few Wednesdays ago, as the people of Trinity gathered for Midweek Lenten Worship, I shared a prayer by Martin Luther from the collection of prayers in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Despite being an activist in community, seeking to influence public policy and the betterment of the civic good, Luther knew that, finally, he was to be humble before his Creator. Luther prayed:
Behold, Lord, an empty vessel that needs to be filled. My Lord, fill it. I am weak in the faith; strengthen me. I am cold in love; warm me and make me fervent, that my love may go out to my neighbor. I do not have a strong and firm faith; at times I doubt and am unable to trust you altogether. O Lord, help me. Strengthen my faith and trust in you. In you I have sealed the treasure of all I have. I am poor; you are rich and came to be merciful to the poor. I am a sinner; you are upright. With me, there is an abundance of sin; in you is the fullness of righteousness. Therefore I will remain with you, of whom I can receive, but to whom I may not give. Amen.
Friends in Christ, on Day 2 of our “stay-at-home” response to the COVID-19 shutdown in the state of Michigan, as we practice physical distancing and compliance with governmental executive order, let us remember to care for our spiritual good health. Let our humble response in faithful prayer be as disciplined as our washing of hands and creation of six-foot perimeters. With Luther and all who have faced times like these through the millennia, let us be faithful and ground ourselves in the promises of God.
Grace and peace,
Pastor Bob Linstrom