Some of us are physically back in church this week, in a familiar yet now quite unfamiliar setting. Some of us have chosen to continue in the Emmanuel community by virtual means for the time being. All of us, though, are grounded in the same things: the truth of the Gospel, the reality of God, the gift of belonging to Jesus Christ. We are not grounded in the experience of being together in the church building or the experience of waiting to be together. We are not actually grounded in our own experience at all. Our experience comes and goes. Grounding in God is what’s given us the strength to get through these past months and will give us the strength to get through the months to come.
I was struck recently by a remark by Fr. Andrew McGowan from the Yale Divinity School, that made the same point about this time when we’ve not been inside the church as we’re used to. He said “While our celebration of the Eucharist is the center of our worship, the eucharistic givenness of Jesus is not created by our [gathering] or limited to it. We are created a community by him and our participation in him, not the reverse. We come and go, as our recent experience during the pandemic has underlined so sharply, but he does not; we may not have been in Church, but he has.”
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It has been a long time, my friends, since I have spoken to you in a homily and the first ever that I have spoken in this format. Please know how grateful I am to be with you today sharing my thoughts on the Epistle of the week, the beginning of the fifth Chapter of Romans. I have been told that attention spans are shorter on line so I will ask you to hold onto four words from this passage. The first three are Grace, Peace and Hope. I will save the fourth for a bit later. Grace, Peace and Hope.
At the time this letter was written to the church in Rome, Paul was at the height of his ministry. He had traveled throughout Asia and Greece, spreading the gospel and founding many churches. His reputation was well established as a strong believer in Christ and a mature theological thinker. While the Roman church had been started by others, Paul knew of their struggles and successes through communication with their leaders. The main purpose of this letter was to communicate Paul’s understanding of the meaning of Christ’s life and resurrection, and its application.
During this time when we daily hear news of new infections, of conflicts about how best to keep others safe, and of deaths, I’ve been just bowled over by the relevance of the Psalms. Our Daily office leaders are praying Morning and Evening Prayer as they normally would, only at home, and the clergy are offering it online, and those offices are grounded in just praying through the Psalter, over and over. Nearly every Monday when I am livestreaming Morning Prayer, there is at least one verse in the Psalms that I appreciate in a way I never have before.
A large number of the Psalms, like Psalm 66 today, refer to experiences of plague, isolation, illness, defeat, loneliness, and despair. They model a language for bringing things like that to God and considering them in the light of his loving power. And you know, for all my time as a priest, I’ve had to sort of re-frame these Psalms for people, because apart from exceptions like a tragic event or a national crisis like Sept 11th, most of my parishioners have been more or less protected from this constant vulnerability to death and isolation and defeat that the Psalms just presume all human beings regularly experience.
But now we’ve spent several weeks in a situation where we cannot hide from our own vulnerability. We cannot hide from the fact that we need help from one another to stay emotionally healthy, or that human bodies are subject to illness and death. I cannot hide from the fact that I have no control over whether some random person who decides not to respect public health guidelines infects my 87 year old father and sends him to the ICU. And right there is the moment when I need the Psalms. Let’s read from today’s. The text is below, or you can hear our Choirmaster chant it in one of the other videos today:
O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Today’s Gospel, which you read in your home rite of Spiritual Communion this morning, tells the story of the risen Jesus making himself known to two dejected disciples as they walked home to Emmaus on the night of Easter. Rumors of the corpse of Jesus having disappeared from the tomb were circulating, and they weren’t sure what to think. But they were sure that the man they had believed to be the Messiah was dead, and that along with him had died their hope that a new creation would come about through his leadership.
Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia! This year we can’t all cry out those words together in a full church, but it is nonetheless true, and it is a proclamation that is even more meaningful right now: Death is conquered. Christ is risen.
I watched a webinar a week or two ago in which one of the guests was Dr. Lydia Dougdale, a physician at Columbia University who specializes in treatment of the aged and in medical ethics. She has a book coming out called “The Lost Art of Dying Well,” which responds to the fact that unlike countless previous generations, we Westerners whose lifespans have happened to fall in the past century or so have been uniquely able to skirt the topic of death, and especially to avoid talking about the fact that we ourselves will die. We have forgotten how to receive mortality as an opportunity to ask big questions, how to prepare intentionally for death.
And we need to relearn this, because mortality has once again taken center stage, along with its colleagues powerlessness, anger, and fear. Over 20,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the USA so far. There aren’t enough beds, there isn’t enough equipment. We don’t know what will happen -- to our businesses, to our retirement savings, to our plans for 2021, to our vulnerable family members; we don’t know, if the disease claims someone we love, if we will even be able to go to their funeral. And, as Dougdale says, contemporary people like us are not used to thinking about these kinds of things. We don’t easily ask, “Am I ready to die? Am I spending my life in a way that really counts?” But now, the times force us to pose such questions.
There are people who treat the Christian proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus, of Easter, as a sort of analgesic, designed to dull the pain of questions like that. A comforting story that helps us feel better and keeps us distracted from suffering. Some of us have probably had people try and use it that way on us, try to rush us out of our crushing grief at the loss of someone especially dear: don’t feel sad, he’s in a better place, just remember she’s with the angels now, you should be happy for her.
If we have anything to say (and this year especially) on Easter Sunday with integrity, it had better not sound like any of that. It had better start with the truth that Jesus suffered and died in agony. Like the people in ICUs all over the world, he gasped for breath on the Cross as his lungs filled with fluid. Like the people confined and quarantined, he faced his torment without his friends and colleagues, and in his final hour even without the felt presence of God, whom he said had also forsaken him. He was crushed by shame. He descended into hell.
This is what happened to God in Christ. We can’t skip over that. We shouldn’t ever, but especially not this year. Because we need that truth now -- not just to know that ever since then God is with us, completely with us in the sickness and the isolation and the powerlessness and the approach of death. We need so badly to know that God accompanies us there, that he understands completely the experience of isolation and powerlessness and fear.
But we also need to know something else. We need to understand that all this is what Jesus was raised from, raised through, raised against, raised to conquer. In his resurrection Jesus does not suddenly waltz onstage like some bespangled assistant we just saw a stage magician cut into three pieces, delightfully whole and cheery at the end of what only seemed an ordeal, waving and accepting applause and saying “See! I’m fine after all! Thanks, ladies and gentlemen!”
No. Jesus appears carrying everything he has been through, the wounds to prove it still gaping open. He appears bearing in his now risen and glorified body the entire incalculable weight of sin and death, soaked through with every drop of human fear and despair and hopelessness throughout the ages, his pierced heart full to overflowing with every wailing widow, every abandoned or abused child, every steadily mounting fever, every flatlined heart monitor, every gasp for breath that has ever been. In his risen flesh he is carrying it. Carrying it all, yet radiant.
By his death and resurrection Jesus has acknowledged, and taken into himself, and metabolized every atom of evil that has ever corrupted and destroyed the creatures of earth, and returned it as good. Every atom of death that has ever broken a human heart, and returned it as life. Not just more of this life, a few extra years to string out the distractions and the stresses we all used to take so seriously before COVID-19, but everlasting life, God’s own life, a life that is immune to evil. That life starts the moment Easter starts, the moment the tomb is empty, the moment Jesus’ lifeless and destroyed body becomes his risen body.
The life of the resurrection has not avoided, not downplayed, but faced and conquered evil, and it invades our world on Easter morning. It comes determined, having raised Jesus, to raise everyone and everything else with him. And it cannot be stopped.
Hear me right: the risen life Jesus has won for us today will not keep you from passing through death, or from losing your retirement savings, or from being hospitalized with COVID-19. God does not promise such things. But he does promise that none of that, when you face it anchored in the life of the Risen Christ, can conquer you. None of that can kill you. None of that can ruin you. Because Christ has already conquered, killed, and ruined death, and you belong to him forever.
A reading from Ephesians: Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true... Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
It is intensely painful not to be able to gather for Mass in this space on Sundays. Now there are ways we can pray together on Zoom and Facebook and YouTube, and the Sunday Spiritual Communion devotions being sent out on the parish email list, and the phone calls a team of people are placing to check in with everyone. We need to stay connected, so these are all good. According to C-U Public Health, they’re even an essential service. But it is still intensely painful not to be able to gather for Mass in this space on Sundays.
Paul writes to the Ephesians today, Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light. This sacrifice of not meeting is painful, but I know that all of us understand that helping reduce the spread of COVID 19 is, for us right now, part of living as children of light, part of loving our neighbors.
And so we are discovering solitude. It has a long history. There have always been people in the Christian tradition whom God called to stay apart, to spend time in the desert. Jesus did it for 40 days and 40 nights, fasting in the wild, which is where we get this season of Lent. The early desert fathers and mothers did it, and hermits still do it today.
The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you… so that you will be a blessing.”
This command of God in Genesis 12, our first reading, marks the moment in long-ago history when God starts to create a family for himself, this great nation of children of Abraham. In our second reading from Romans, Paul, over 1000 years later, is still reflecting on that moment -- how did Abraham get access to God’s family? Was it having a special ethnic heritage, or did his behavior reach some threshold that entitled him to be selected? No. It was God’s choice, pure and simple, and Abraham’s yes to that choice, pure and simple.
In the Gospel today, Jesus expands on the same principle as he speaks with Nicodemus: The image Jesus uses is that God offers people who have been born in the ordinary way a second, different kind of birth, a birth into God’s kingdom (Jesus doesn’t employ the idea of family much). This kingdom does not depend on your heritage, where you come from, what religion your parents belong to, or whether you are a kind or respectable person. None of that has any effect. The only way to even perceive God’s Kingdom, Jesus says, much less be born into it, is by responding to God in trust. All three readings are getting at the same thing: God makes an offer of incorporation, and if we take God up on it, God will do what he promises.
“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.”
In some situations, it makes sense to cover up embarrassing parts of your life. The cocktail party conversation that begins with a casual “how are you” is probably not the moment to talk about the trouble you’re having making your mortgage payments. It’s the moment for “oh, fine, thanks.” When the guy comes to fix the water heater, there’s no point in telling him the anguish of dealing with your mother’s addiction to painkillers. Just show him the stairs to the basement and leave it be.
But there are other situations where covering up something painful or embarrassing is absolutely the wrong thing to do. It defeats the purpose, for example, if you go to the doctor and say “oh, fine, thanks” when in fact you’ve been having uncontrollable tremors in your left leg or steadily worsening blind spots in your right eye. Getting out of your doctor’s office having managed to deceive her or yourself about your problems is not the goal. The goal is to reveal your problems so that they can get healed.