For many of us, we have been in quarantine for 30 days, maybe more. Perhaps many of us feel this time of quarantine has taken away from us the diversity of daily living that each day brings and our human free will to do as we wish with each day. It’s a bit like the 1993 film, Groundhog Day.
In this classic comedy, Bill Murray plays Phil—a cynical, smug weatherman who’s trying to advance his career. He is given an inglorious assignment to go to a small town called Punxsutawney in Pennsylvania to film a report about their annual Groundhog Day festivities. (Fun fact: The movie is actually filmed in a small town called Woodstock, Illinois, which is where my dad and stepmother live. You can spot many of the landmarks in the small town square and the house Phil stayed in functions as a bead and breakfast.)
Phil just wants to get the stupid project over with and return to Pittsburgh. Much to his dismay, however, when he wakes up the next day he finds that he’s reliving that day, February 2nd, over and over and over again. No matter what he does, Groundhog Day repeats itself. Even when he kills himself, he just wakes up to start the day all over again!
The movie never explains what caused this to happen, but Phil eventually realises he’s cursed to live this day over and over again because of his narcissistic focus and lack of concern for his neighbour. So, he begins to help others and go out of his way to be kind and generous, developing feelings for one of the members of his crew, Rita, played by Andie MacDowell.
Yet much to his dismay again, he continues waking up to the same Groundhog Day over and over again. Though it takes him a while to figure it out, this is because his love for his neighbour is disingenuous; he is still in it for himself when he “cares” for his neighbour. It is not until his love and care for his neighbour actually becomes genuine that the curse is broken.
What does this have to do with the coronavirus quarantine? Probably nothing, but I think this movie can help us remember our Christian duty to love our neighbour, particularly getting out of the rut of our daily quarantine living to genuinely care for our neighbour. Whether it was intentional or not, Groundhog Day illustrates what many call the “golden rule” of Christianity: love thy neighbour as thyself. This, of course, is after the commandment greater than this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind (cf. Matthew 22:36-40).
Many are jokingly calling these times “coronacation”—a pun on coronavirus and vacation. For those who are financially stable, this has seemed much like an extended vacation, I’m sure. Others are struggling to maintain employment. Unless you’re an essential worker, many of us are stuck in this daily rut of quarantine that seems like we’re living the same day over and over again, forgetting what day of the week it is; and running out of Netflix and Hulu shows to watch, books to read, and getting bored of staying in our homes.
This is why it’s important to stay connected to your church during these times. Depending on your congregation’s resources and capabilities, your church might be recording services and putting them on YouTube or livestreaming them on Facebook and/or YouTube. Or if your congregation is small enough and depending on the orders of your state, your church might still be able to gather together in smaller numbers.
Either way, this is an extremely important time to stay connected to your church not only to receive the means of grace in Word and Sacrament, but also to continue loving your neighbour. What is your church doing to continue serving its community? How can you appropriately remain involved in your church’s mission and vision during these strange times? By remaining involved in your church, though uniquely challenging, I think the ways in which it may be serving your community can help us get out of this daily rut of quarantine living.
As always, this love for your neighbour must be genuine. Jesus’ command to love your neighbour is not a “do it or else” command, and neither is it a command where you’re in it for yourself, as Phil eventually realised. Why does the Lord command us to love our neighbour? Why must we do these good works?
Our Confessions are helpful here. Quoting from Luther, the Confessions say:
Faith, however, is a divine work in us that changes us and makes us to be born anew of God, John 1[:12-13]. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; it brings with it the Holy Spirit… It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them… This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all creatures. And this is the work that the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace. Thus, it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. [LW 35:370-71]FC SD IV, 10, 11, 12
The faith the Holy Spirit creates in a person utterly changes them. This is not a symbolic change, but a true, real change that takes place in the heart, spirit, mind, and powers (will) of the person, which is wrought by the Holy Spirit (can I emphasise that enough?). By faith, this regenerated human being cannot help but do good works. Just as a human being cannot help but breathe, so a Christian cannot help but do good works. And why? Because of his confidence in God’s grace that has brought this gift of faith to him to utterly change him from being a son of disobedience to being a child of God (cf. Ephesians 2:2).
Another way to understand this is in terms of the two kinds of righteousness (aka 2kr). Briefly: our passive/vertical righteousness is our righteousness (or relationship) before God, which is given to us by faith (not taken) from God the Father by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, wrought by the Holy Spirit (i.e. justification by faith). This faith—this righteousness—is “not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Second is our active/horizontal righteousness, which is our righteousness (or relationship) with our neighbour. By this righteousness, we do good works for our neighbour not for our own interest, but solely for the sake of our neighbour who needs our good works. This active righteousness flows from our passive righteousness—that is, our good works flow from faith, not the other way around. Faith creates good works. By faith, we cannot help but do good works.
And how do we know what good works we ought to do for our neighbour if we remain disconnected from the community of faith—the Church—that endeavours to bring these good works to our neighbours out of the genuineness of faith? Granted, these times of quarantine make it difficult for us to be entirely and physically connected to our church community, but not totally.
When the Church went through the bubonic plague during Luther’s day, the Church still found ways to stay connected and love their neighbour. And they didn’t even have Internet and smartphones! Or even advanced medical practices and common knowledge!
The Lord has blessed us with vast resources in our era to continue serving and loving our neighbours in spite of these Groundhog-like Days. How is your church continuing to love your neighbour? How can you help? How can you, individually, love your neighbour out of the genuineness of your faith because of the grace of God? Whatever these ways are, loving our neighbour can help us get out of the daily rut of quarantine living.