Sermon for March 15, 2020: 3 Lent, This is not a test (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Welcome to Grace’s first livestreamed sermon! As you know by now, on March 11 in response to concerns about the Corona Virus our Bishop, The Right Reverend Marc Andrus, asked all parishes in the Diocese of California to cancel our primary worship services, but he also gave permission for churches to have what I am calling “mini services,” and to simulcast those services so that a maximum number of people can participate “virtually” in worship together. This is new territory for many of us – and new things are often scary, but that’s why we live in community, so we can do these things together. We are journeying into an unknown and unprecedented future, but we are not alone.
This is evidenced by a post in Episcopal News Service Friday which stated, “As parishes across The Episcopal Church suspend in-person worship in a precautionary effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sunday, March 15 is shaping up to be a historic day, with many – if not most – churches switching to online services. With only a few days’ notice, churches are preparing for a radical, unprecedented shift in the way they gather as a community, and there’s no certainty about how long it will last.”
There’s no denying that this feels strange – and difficult, but today’s readings remind us that we are not the first of God’s children to foray into the wilderness with more faith than expertise. Our Hebrew scripture provides us with a picture of the mental status of the Israelites along their long journey out of slavery in Egypt toward the Promised Land – and it’s not very healthy. God has been faithful to these people, actively and even dramatically helping them to escape from the cruelty of the Egyptians and supporting them as they travel through the desert wilderness, but they seem to have forgotten about that, because when they run out of water they immediately start to wail and complain with all the volume and conviction of a bored two year-old in a grocery store checkout line. And, like any parent, Moses is frustrated. God is frustrated. What are they going to do with these quarrelsome, ungrateful, faithless people? For God, the answer is automatic – if a bit begrudging – help them. Give them what they need – not because they deserve it, but because that is God’s nature.
Just as it is almost always our human nature to turn inward when we feel threatened, focusing on our own troubles rather than considering those of others. A simple review of the human nervous system tells us that human beings are prone to react rapidly and often thoughtlessly when they are afraid – when, for example, they are escapees wandering through a desert wilderness to an unknown destination; when they are, like Paul’s flock in Rome, new Christians wondering why if Jesus is the God they have been looking for, they are still suffering; when they are, like us, confronted with a global pandemic causing extraordinary changes in our lives. If God loves us so much, we wonder, where is God when the water runs out? Where is God when the authorities show up to arrest the faithful? Where is God when the government runs out of coronavirus test kits?
The answer is: right here. God is present. We just get a little confused about what God’s presence means. It means that God shares our lives – our triumphs and our sorrows. It doesn’t mean that God micromanages them. When we are warm and cozy and well-fed it is easy to wander around pronouncing that we are “blessed,” but in times of trial we become like our ancestors, hardening our hearts and accusing God of deserting us. David M. Burns describes this tendency in the Israelites, suggesting that “Even after all that the Lord had done for them, they still fell into a whiny panic when things did not appear to be going as they wished. This is not a shortcoming particular to the Israelites. It is a shortcoming for all of us. How many times must God act on our behalf before we trust God?”
Probably for as long as we keep thinking of God as simply being a bigger and more powerful version of us. We see a lot of this lately – people embracing the basest of human instincts and then claiming they are acting on God’s behalf. But substituting human understanding for the will of God is both limiting and dangerous. It causes us to believe that God is like us, succumbing to fear, anger, prejudice and doubt. It makes us worry that when bad things happen it means that God is testing us or punishing us for our sins. But God is not like us. God is not petty and vengeful. God is merciful and just. When bad things happen to us, it is not because God is angry. It is not because we are being tested. It is simply because when human beings decide that we can control the world that God created, things go wrong – sometimes very wrong. When this happens, we can choose to see the terrors of our lives as the result of God’s wrath – or we can view them as opportunities – occasions to try to restore our relationships with God and one another and to demonstrate that miracles happen when we remember that we are in this together.
Hard times require faith, endurance, and hope. These virtues give us the strength to put aside our fears and reach out to others, which (by the way) is the best medicine for calming our own fear. Staying hopeful, says Paul, never fails because “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Look at the Samaritan woman. It was hope that led her to talk to a strange and raggedy Jewish man who very inappropriately asked her to give him water from her holy well. Their conversation was, like today’s circumstances, unprecedented. By any standard of their time – gender, race, religion, nationality, or culture – he shouldn’t have spoken to her -and she shouldn’t have responded. And yet it was to her that Jesus offered the first “I AM” statement in the Gospel of John, revealing to this allegedly heretical foreigner that he is both the Messiah of the Jews who worship in Jerusalem and the one that she and her people have been waiting for. The message of this story is clear: through the grace and truth of Christ Jesus, God dwells in both Jerusalem and Samaria, in Martinez, California and online.
The truth is that when we are afraid, it is easy to wallow in the muddied and shallow water that is human nature. But the living water brought by Jesus the Christ has no depth and no limit – and, whether our baptismal font is dry or not, Christ’s living water is here. God is with us in this sanctuary and with all of you watching. God is present at the bedside of every person who is ill and God is in our anxious hearts. God is, after all, with all those who accept membership in the community of Christ, no matter where we are, because it is through him that we are and will remain one body and one great and courageous spirit. AMEN.
Egan Millard (March 13, 2020), “Presiding Bishop will preach sermon during livestreamed National Cathedral Service on Sunday: As churches cancel in-person worship service move online,” Episcopal News Service, https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2020/03/13/presiding-bishop-will-preach-sermon-during-livestreamed-national-cathedral-sunday-service/
2David M. Burns, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 85.