Sermon for March 22, 2020: Teaching us a lesson (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
This past week after the federal government issued stringent recommendations for fighting the spread of the Corona Virus, Pastor Rodney Howard-Brown said, “I’ve got news for you: This church will never close. The only time [this] church will close is when the Rapture is taking place. This Bible school is open because we’re raising up revivalists, not pansies.” A clergy person quoted in another recent article additionally suggested that, “Closing churches and cancelling services betrays [the] duty of spiritual care.”
It’s hard to know what to do sometimes. Personally, as someone who has always found both support and solace in the community of the Episcopal Church, I was resistant to cancelling our services. Even after researching, reading, considering all of the sensible reasons for limiting our contact with one another, and recognizing it was the right thing to do, I still initially planned to come into church regularly myself so that I could be available to those in need. I decided that I was “essential personnel” because I was doing what was best for my parishioners. I was meeting my personal of “duty of spiritual care.”
Then something happened to change my mind. During the course of just one day when I was in my office last week no less than six people came by to visit. This is actually not unusual. As most of you know, being an extrovert, I love company. In this case, however, I was unsettled- because four of my guests were people who are in the high-risk category for infection, and two of them refused to keep the state-mandated six-foot social distancing protocol. I realized then that while I thought I was demonstrating spiritual courage by being physically present at Grace, I was actually being selfish. I had fallen into the trap of substituting my agenda for God’s. I wanted people not to feel angry or rejected and to see me as a reliable leader- and in my own obsessive need to do what I thought was right, I failed to consult with God to determine his will for me and those I serve.
I am not, of course, the first or last person to make that mistake. St. Paul warns against this very thing in today’s passage from Ephesians, in which he admonishes his people to “live as children of the light” and “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness.” It is an inspiring passage – but not very specific about how to know what is pleasing to the Lord. Such particulars, unfortunately, come later in the chapter when the writer of Ephesians starts spelling out his opinions of what serving Christ means. “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church (Eph. 5:22), and “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ “(Eph. 6:5). Although it is probable that the author is encouraging people to follow already existing codes in the interest of living in harmony with one another, some people believe that because they are in the Bible these verses (and others like them) constitute “Christian behavior.”
This is a not only misguided, but disturbing – not just because I find both of these alleged biblical “commands” abhorrent, but because they are not consistent with the context of the overall lesson of the letter to the Ephesians. That message is established in the very first verse of the chapter: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us.” This phrase supports the same basic principle found throughout the New Testament, both in the words of Jesus and the stories about him. Love God. Love one another. Everything else should follow.
Frederick Niedner, commenting on the prophet Samuel’s difficulties in selecting a king for the people of Israel on God’s behalf, suggests that “We live in an age in which theologians and prophets, including many of the self-appointed variety, rarely hesitate to make pronouncements about the will of God and the theological messages they discern in current events. Seers… [interpret] the most recent disaster as heaven’s blow against [the people they view as evildoers… but they forget] that God does not see as mortals see.” In fact, I would argue that we are most spiritually blind when we profess to be able to see with the eyes of God.
This is made clear in the story of the healing of the man who had been blind from birth. The disciples are so confident in the their blame-based theology that they don’t even ask Jesus whether or not the man’s impaired vision is the result of sin, but instead wonder who has sinned – the man or his parents. Their question is consistent with the idea that God catalogues our adherence to human laws and punishes us when we don’t follow them – a belief that is still prevalent today. Jesus, however, quickly disputes this notion, telling them that neither the man nor his parents sinned. Rather, Jesus healed him for the very best reason any of us has to help one another; just because he could.
The healing itself is only the beginning of the story. The bulk of the lesson is focused on how people reacted to it. First, they revealed themselves to have been uncaring toward the man prior to his healing by failing to recognize him afterward, even though they had seen him many times before. Then they called the authorities to demand that the man answer for his own healing because it was done on the Sabbath, which was against the law. Third, they brought out the man’s parents, who, far from being happy that their son had regained his sight, clearly wanted to be left out of the whole situation. Finally, they drove the man out of town – just for being healed.
They did these things because the answers they got to the questions they asked didn’t support what they already believed. Confident in their own understanding of God’s laws, they failed to recognize the importance and beauty of what Jesus had revealed to them: that the light of Christ is best viewed through acts of love and compassion.
We are living through an unprecedented and dark time, and it is sometimes hard to know what to do – but it is not impossible – not if we carry the light of Christ within us. To live as children of the light is to understand that there is both bodily and spiritual darkness in the world, but such darkness is not God’s will -and we have no right to demand that God dispel the darkness, especially if we are unwilling to do what we can to save ourselves. Our path is to take the harder road of being spiritually present in new and different ways – of loving one another even when that means demanding we stay physically separated in order to keep the most vulnerable among us safe. Our task is to remember that God’s presence is not limited to one place or action. God is here at all times and in all places. Even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we need fear no evil, for God is with us. He comforts, blesses, and restores us.
We have not closed the house of the Lord; we cannot close it, because no matter what happens when we live by the light of faith we are already dwelling in the house of the Lord – and will forever. AMEN.
Quoted in Jack Jenkins, (March 18, 2020), “White House takes low-key approach to churches that ignore coronavirus advice,” in Religion News Service, https://religionnews.com/2020/03/18/white-house-takes-a-low-key-stance-on-churches-that-ignore-coronavirus-advice/.
Frederick Niedner, (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], 102.