Sermon given during the 9am worship service on Sunday March 14th, 2021 by the rector, the Rev. Dr. Stephen Hassett.
This text produced by audio transcription software, so please read generously and with forbearance.
Give thanks to the Lord for God is good. God’s mercy endures forever. Amen.
I wear this wristwatch on my wrist every week or every day, rather. It’s a simple, plain old fashioned Timex. And I wear it partly to keep time, but also partly because I’ve been wearing a watch on my wrist since forever. And when I don’t have a watch on my wrist, something feels really wrong.
And this is a different wristwatch. It’s got a different band. It’s the same watch with a different face and a different band. And this one is the one that I normally wear on Sundays. It’s a simple thing, really, but it’s just a little tiny personal kind of private until I’m revealing it to you. Now, token of the way that I remind myself that Sundays are different than the other days of the week. So on Sunday mornings, when I’m getting up and getting ready to come to church and worship with you all, I wear this wristwatch instead of my other wristwatch. And I’m pointing this out to you because at some point in the last year I stopped wearing my Sunday wristwatch because Sundays stopped feeling different than any other day. We are at the one year anniversary of when we began live streaming worship, live streaming meetings, zooming conversations, zooming coffee, hour zooming, and live streaming, everything. And every day just feels the same. And so when it was time to adjust my wristwatch, because today is also springing forward into daylight savings time. I was aware that my Sunday watch had never, in fact, fallen back. I had put it aside and forgotten about it. And so today I’m restoring it to my wrist and I don’t even have to change it because it’s already set for daylight savings time
And all this is my way of sharing with you some observation about the fact that we’re at the one year anniversary of when we began having to shelter in place and amend our lives. So as to protect ourselves as much as possible from the coronavirus and take care of ourselves and each other in ways that were hard and strange because they meant not seeing or being with one another all week long. I’ve been hearing from friends and seeing notices on social media and reading articles here and about people’s memories of, and experiences of this past year on this anniversary of when everything went dark for my part, working liturgically on a calendar year of liturgical remembrances, I’m always looking back to what we did a year ago to think about what’s happening in the worship right now. And so I’ve been reviewing a year ago, those liturgies and noting the changes that we had to make to account for this dramatic and drastic change in our lives.
And anniversaries may be arbitrary, but they are also a normal occasion for remembrance reflection, evaluation assessment, a kind of gathering up of what has been taking place since we last encountered one another in this part of the year. And it has been as all, will attest a year, unlike any other so much loss. So much sorrow, so much struggle, so much grief. And with all in that as well. So many surprises, so much has been learned so much has been discovered. So many connections have been made. There are people watching this live stream. Now who’ve never been to St. Stephen’s church before this year and who have found and connected with us because of this year. All of this is to say, we all know that it’s been a tough year and we’ve muddled through it together. And we also see signs of hope on the horizon as spring arrives.
So does the vaccine, so does good news from the CDC and the County health department and the diocese and the state of California. My cousin, the doctor who many of you have heard me say is the one person that I consistently turn to for advice and counsel about what to trust and what not to trust is hammering the message on his Facebook page. The news is good. It’s very good. Things are getting so much better soon. And very soon we’ll be able to return to what should we call it normal? I don’t know if we can call it normal. What will happen is we’ll be able to do things that we used to do and which we took for granted and we’re accustomed to, in which we have longed for and want to do again and we’ll be able to, but it doesn’t seem quite right to say that that’s what normal is.
Some of us may even be imagining that on the other side of the vaccine or on the other side of this pandemic, the world will be a place of bliss, harmony, joy, and perfection. It might seem so by comparison, but maybe one of the things that we’ve learned in this past year is that the world that we were already living in was a world that included considerable struggle and suffering the pandemic on some level served to reveal some of the things that we had been struggling and suffering with, but maybe not necessarily looking at directly during this year of pandemic. We have also had to contend with the virulent strain of violent racism. That is part of American culture. The pandemic has revealed to us more sharply inequalities in income and wealth and access to things like healthcare or medicine or basic services. The pandemic has revealed to us the ways that our economy is based as one writer, put it on some people having a lot of extra money to spend on things that other people have to work for. And when those things, restaurants and other basic services were not available to us, those workers really suffered. So on some level we hope for a bright day for a spring renewal on another level, we have to remember that the world that we’re going back to was already a difficult and challenging world with myriad problems, whether we were looking at them or not, the world is a complicated, messy place, full of good things and full of sorrowful things.
And the world has always been that way. The world is just like that. And the world is in fact what it is that the writers of the gospel of John want us to be thinking about when we think about what it means for the word to have come to dwell with us, as it says in the gospel of John that we heard this morning, famously God so loved the world that God sent his only begotten son that the world might be saved through him. Now let’s ask ourselves, do we think that the world in the year 30, whenever it was that Jesus was baptized, or let’s say the year one, whenever it was that Jesus was born, do we think that that was a world that was perfect free from suffering free, from economic inequality free, from what we would call racism free from disease sickness or any other kind of human suffering? Probably I’m just taking a guess, but probably that world also had its share of suffering, but that was the very world that God so loved that God sent God’s son to be with us, to dwell among us and to reveal God’s salvation, which we might render healing or wholeness.
God did not come to the world to condemn the world. It says, but that the world might be saved through God. What does that look like? How would that salvation be effected? Well, if we call ourselves Christians and we follow the example of Jesus, or we call him our savior, we can look to him and his pattern of coming to the world, even in all, its glorious imperfection, even in all, its messy painful belovedness and saying to us, I will be with you in this. Let’s walk together through this. And Jesus walks to all the places where all the suffering is and looks the suffering dead in the eye and says through love, you can be transformed. The demons know this and they fight him. The sick people know this and they seek him and over and over again, his disciples resist the message that he delivers to them, to us, that he has to go to the place where his own suffering will be manifest so that he can heal the world by means of that suffering to reveal and look at the ways that the world creates suffering through the death of the innocent.
The culmination of all of our human sinful manifestations is exactly where Jesus has to go so that he can look death itself in the eye and say through love even you can be transformed somehow though, we resist it. Looking at the things that cause us pain is the means of our healing. This was already known by the experience of the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness between their place of imprisonment and slavery in Egypt, and the promised place of blessing abundance, a land flowing with milk and honey, which God had promised to them and to which Moses was leading them. And they suffered and they struggled and they complained. And they said to Moses, why did you bring us out to the desert to die? Were there not enough graves in Egypt and their small mindedness and their impatience and their not trusting their hardheartedness was manifest among them as poisonous serpents, who bit them and they died.
And I have to say reading this passage in preparation for preaching this morning, it’s struck me that this bizarre, peculiar story about serpents, biting people and people being healed by looking at an image of a serpent on a pole is kind of like what an ancient worlds person’s description of vaccination might be like, how do we describe to people that in order to be healed from a disease, you have to take some of the disease into your body. Wouldn’t it be the case that we’re supposed to avoid every possible trace of the disease in order to be healed from it, if not to avoid getting it to begin with. But no, actually the way medicine works is that our exposure to some version of the sickness is what allows the immune response in our body to manifest so that we can fight and be healed.
What if we thought of our exposure to the sickness of sin as the same way? What have you thought of the things that cause us spiritual sickness in epidemiological terms? What would the medicine for greed be? What would the medicine for hatred be? What the medicine for petty, small mindedness and envy and malice towards others be what would the medicine for untruthfulness be? Well, I propose that what it would be would be to name those things as such and look at them as Jesus did, and imagine that through love, they can be transformed now the world and perhaps especially the world of prosperous post-war white American suburbia, the world would have us believe that our salvation is in our having avoided all the hard things about life, all the things that give us grief or sorrow or pain, but the message of the Bible, the example of the Israelites in the wilderness of Jesus, himself, and the revelation of the cross, all challenge.
The story that the world gives to us and invites us to imagine that our healing, our wholeness is like a vaccine in which we take some part of the disease into ourselves in order that through love that disease might be transformed, but without looking and describing and saying what it is that we’re suffering, that can never happen as we continue to make our way through the season of lent examining ourselves, thinking about our participation in the world’s sorrows, the things that we do that cause us and others pain and grief. What if the example of healing from the pandemic guides us in our spiritual disciplines, the care that we take both to protect ourselves and others, but also our willingness to receive the medicine, which in some bizarre way resembles the disease itself and which allows our immune response to fight and overcome.
It would be nice if we could avoid sin just by being nice, good people. But as it turns out, that’s not how it works. Sin is already with us. It’s a part of the world we live in, but that’s exactly the world God loved and into which God came to be with us. And to show us by our working through the struggle, to be free from sin, by looking at naming and lifting up the things that cause us pain and suffering and by inviting God’s spirit to transform our hearts in love that healing and that wholeness can take place. And not only a new Dawn, a new spring, but quite possibly a new world. Can be both.