So, whenever a scripture passage begins with, “Now concerning virgins…”, you know things are about to get a little… wonky.
(Note: I’ve decided to step back into a daily writing practice given the effect of COVID-19 on those of us in NYC. I’ve pretty much abandoned my planned Lenten practices, so I’m going to challenge myself to engage with scripture instead.)
There are so many reasons why some contemporary Christians cringe whenever we quote any of the letters of or attributed to Paul. Man, whenever he talks about anything having to do with women, gender, sex, or slaves, we’re often like… ok brother… do yourself a favor and stop talking…?
Maybe this is kind of like how some of us felt watching our leaders stumble around this past week as they tried to figure out what to do next, what to cancel, how to frame COVID-19 for the public, etc. Where is the line between causing panic and making sure people take this thing seriously? Where is the line, for a leader, between being a “non-anxious presence” and just looking like you are out-of-touch with the reality of the public health crisis upon us now? And where is the line, as a citizen, between stocking up on essentials… what is essential? Toilet paper? Dried beans? Produce? Ice cream? (You may infer where our family fell on the “essentials” line. What’s the apocalypse without appropriate stocks of chocolate?)
Thinking about all of those fine lines in a crisis gives me a little more compassion for Paul. The lectionary, of course, does not allow us the option of looking away from the cringiest parts of Paul’s writings. I wonder if he’s cringing, himself, up in heaven somewhere? In any case, Here is this morning’s excerpt from morning prayer:
From 1 Corinthians…
Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that. I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
The present form of this world is passing away. Hmmm.
There are a lot of unanswered questions about what life was like for early Christians, but people generally believe that most or all of them believed they were living at the edge of time – that something huge was going to change, possibly the end of the world, possibly a new era in time, possibly what they called the “Kingdom of God” – whatever that meant. So there was an underlying anxiety to their lives, an underlying sense that things might have seemed normal but they were not, an anxiety about how to be best prepared for the new reality. This anxiety is probably what fueled Paul to write things like this. He’s trying to give direction to a community that isn’t sure what’s coming next.
Maybe some of that feels familiar to you. Many of us in faith communities gathered virtually this past weekend, instead of in person. Many of us with children at home are watching them have to learn how to do school virtually and many of us are learning how to do our own jobs virtually. Many of us have had hours cut, lost contracts and gigs that were scheduled, had travel plans upended, had parties and gatherings that were planned canceled.
We had a long talk at our dining room table last night about family agreements for pandemic times. We talked about the importance of eating at regularly scheduled times, of having a creative project of some kind, having books to read, getting exercise and limiting screen time. Maybe you are having similar talks with your families, your friends, your neighbors. How can we together even though we have to be apart in unfamiliar ways?
Can we learn to strengthen our communal bonds, instead of being torn apart at this crucial time?
And might everything change? Might the present form of this world, by virtue of those communal bonds, pass away? Might we learn how to really be together even though we are apart? Might we learn how to rejoice and mourn and have an economy and “deal with the world” in new ways – as though those bonds between us are the most important thing?
Because yes, they are. The Kin-dom of God is at hand.
Thanks be to God.