“Fight fear. Be free,” is a mantra from Radio Influenza, artwork by Jason Bateman that tells the stories of the Spanish Influenza outbreak between 1918 and 1919. The artist assembled these stories from newspaper archives, as people grappled with a pandemic that killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide. Radio Influenza tells 1-2 min. stories in audio for each day of the pandemic. It is recorded in a grainy, almost robotic voice, which sounds as though it’s both from the past and the future. When I logged into the site radioinfluenza.org I heard the following daily entry:
October 31 
There is a danger of panic. If you create an unreasoning, a culture of fear, then you create anxiety, hatred, hostility, negativity, depression, frustration, and despair. Fear makes allowances, builds rationales, and provides a reason for inactivity and stagnation. Fear is contagious. Fear creates fear. Fight fear. Do not accept a state of mind that is fearful. Enjoy yourself. Look around you. There is wonder around you. There is wonder everywhere. Daily, make something for someone. Or just make something just to make it. Allow yourself to experience sensation. Be joyous. And fight fear. Join together to dispel panic, to share information, and to make a positive, progressive difference. Reject fear. Reject paranoia. Fight fear. Be free. Share what you have. Make, accept, and extend friendships to your fellow creatures. Be well and unafraid. Fight fear. (radioinfluenza.org)
One thing that strikes the listener is just how contemporary this account and advice is. This resonates with our current situation, not to conflate them. COVID-19 is not the same as the Spanish Influenza. We didn’t just wrap up a world war. We also have the benefits of modern medicine, ability to develop vaccines, and even just the availability of painkillers.
Nevertheless the emphasis on fear is key. Fear allows people with bad intentions to prey upon other people when they are afraid. I think about the rally a couple dozen anti-vaxxers led in Vancouver last week protesting COVID-19 restrictions as a government conspiracy. At least one of these organizers is a white supremacist and like all extremists they use a crisis to leverage a following and power.
There have been armed protests at state legislatures across the US protesting COVID-19 restrictions. While I hear Canadians taking heart that the border is closed to non-essential travel, we see evidence that Canadian groups are encouraged by such displays that threaten violence. We cannot ignore the reality that whatever happens in the US has a profound impact upon us, whether it is the availability of medical equipment or the organizing of militias and white supremacist groups. We are neighbours, siblings in Christ, many of us have family and friends across the border, and we care for one another’s wellbeing.
And yet the answer to fear is not more fear, but love. One thing we can do to combat conspiracy theories and fear are the kinds of gospel advice we hear in the quote I read from: “Look around you. There is wonder all around you…Be joyous. Fight fear.” Love fights fears.
This too is our Easter message: Be joyous. Fight fear with love. The disciples needed Jesus to tell them or better yet to show them why they do not need to be afraid. Because Jesus is still with them. He appears to them behind locked doors. Jesus appears not as a disembodied spirit, but having a body that can be touched and embraced.
Aside: the text says the disciples were afraid of the Jews. We want to nip anti-Semitic interpretations in the bud. We’re not going down the path and the 20th Century is rife with examples when we don’t stand up for Jewish neighbours as church.
The disciples were afraid because Jesus who they have been following was brutally killed by the Romans as public spectacle. The disciples heard the testimony of others that Jesus rose again, but together with Thomas they want to see and believe. They want the comfort of sensation, to touch Jesus, and know it is really him. They want to experience that joy firsthand.
We can empathize with Thomas who wants to touch, who wants the intimacy of meeting Jesus face to face. After all we’re struggling with not being able to be together in person these days. We want to touch Jesus, sharing in holy communion together. We are struggling not gathering here in the worship space and gathering for coffee afterwards. Many of us have not seen extended family members for some time. We miss friends. I know as parents we definitely miss schools being open.
No wonder Thomas wants to reach out and touch Jesus. To experience the incarnation as someone tangible. We’re right there with Thomas. We yearn for when we can break bread and enjoy sacraments together.
We miss seeing strangers gathering in a café, at a restaurant, at a movie or art performance. A lot of people are asking questions whether all these will return, how long it will take, and if so how things will be different.
Someone online wrote, “Maybe Thomas was an essential worker.” Maybe he needed to be away doing important work, which is why he missed seeing Jesus the first time. We don’t know for sure. While Thomas unfairly gets a bad rap, he reveals to us our inmost selves, how doubt gives way to believing in relationship, in community, through bodies.
We think about essential workers in our midst. Thinking about nurses, doctors, and care workers who are touching the bodies of the most vulnerable, washing people’s wounds, taking temperatures, giving medicine, physically being present. We think about people working in retail jobs like grocery stores and plumbers. Imagine if your toilet broke, you couldn’t fix it yourself, and there was no one to help? There are so many ways we are interconnected and depend on one another.
Story of Love
What are examples you see love in the world? Where do you see the Spirit at work?
One example I saw love at work in the world this week was joining for a Zoom meeting with Indigenous youth. It was an opportunity to reflect for Indigenous organizers who helped raise awareness about the Wet’suwet’en nation, their right to sovereignty over their own lands, and Indigenous rights generally. There are several UVic students who lost a semester of studies devoting their lives to organizing the camp at the Legislature steps and helping tell the story with the media and public. They did this selflessly at great personal cost. Despite what we sometimes hear about paid protesters, it’s not really a thing, at least not the people doing the actual work. Instead there was a gathering of people sharing out of what little they had, including food.
One of the organizers said something that stood out. They said we can’t sustain this work out of bitterness or resentment, but out of love. That love begins with the Wetsuweten Nation and benefits all Canadians. It’s about access to clean drinking water, clean air, and arable land for the children of CGL workers, for grandchildren of corporate executives and investors, and for all those who find themselves unemployed by the energy sector. Instead of funnelling wealth to the top, it’s about sharing the wealth of the land with everyone, including the Indigenous groups who have never ceded their traditional lands.
In a sense isn’t this the kind of collective acts of love we are doing now in the time of COVID-19 restrictions. We are demonstrating to ourselves as a country that we are capable of rising to the challenge of making drastic changes to our daily living and societal structures for the greater good. We can and we are doing this work together.
If we can do it to fight COVID-19, then we can also do it to respect Indigenous rights and fight climate change. We’re not going to let anyone try to trick us into thinking it’s too much or it’s too hard any longer. Collectively we’ve realized in these few weeks how much we’re capable of. As church we be part of that vanguard, of the front line of essential workers, pushing ahead for change, demanding collective action out of love.
We notice the asymmetry of power remains even now, that work camps in Northern BC and Alberta continue, even at great risk to Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in those places with limited access to healthcare facilities. Even in the midst of a global pandemic there will be those who tell us we can’t change or the cost is too great. But we’re learning the cost of doing nothing is far greater. The cost of not acting out of love for all our neighbours far more serious, than awarding privileges to the rich and powerful. Together we can build an economy to give jobs and self-worth to those who need them.
We can do it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the gospel thing to do. It’s the loving thing to do. Together with Thomas we stand here and say, “My Lord and my God!” Doubt gives way to faith.
Wrapping up we give thanks for the gift we’ve been given in one another. We give thanks for the privilege of gathering as church in new ways. We give thanks that the Spirit gives us wisdom to learn more voices of the past. Not to give way to fear, but trust in love.
We gave thanks for Thomas, the essential worker we need today, trusting in a gospel of presence, a gospel of incarnation, a gospel willing to risk all out of love.
See and believe, Jesus is with us even now, even as we physically distance, as we rise to the occasion building a world in which there is a place for each one of us. Amen.