A sermon preached [remotely] by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock,
On 21 June 2020 [Proper 7]: Genesis 212:8-21; Matthew 10:24-39
I had to chuckle at the meme. It said: “the worst purchase of 2020 was buying a 2020 planner.” The bald reality of the uncertainty of our lives that the Covid-19 virus has exposed, along with the “in-your-face-truth” of how bogus our efforts are to be in control – all this has produced a rawness among us that is as upsetting as it is dangerous.
The point is that we are all afraid. All our lives have been disturbed. We are, therefore, dis-eased. And even the best of us don’t like it. That’s the reason we often refer to the experience of living in these times as a “crisis”. Our reference points, our routines, certainly our plans have all been turned upside-down; and the resulting confusion, the frustration of being untethered and vulnerable fans our fears and deepens our anxieties. And this is the heart of our “crisis”. What do we do in the face of our fear? To what extent does all the disturbance speak of what is to be seen of God’s life in our midst?
In the grasp of fear, we may not have been able to hear what Jesus is saying in this morning’s gospel lesson or recognize what he is addressing. In what is a string of warnings about an imminent crisis (namely, his death at the hands of the authorities and the consequences of this for those who follow him), Jesus names the impending threats and at the same time encourages those who claim him to move beyond the fears. In point of fact, amidst the warnings of rejection by those who are threatened by the Jesus Movement, three times in this reading Jesus tells his followers not to be afraid in the crisis (verses 26, 28, 31). In the face of upheaval from family, from cohort, even from our notions of faith, three times Jesus tells us not to be afraid. How can he say this? What does Jesus see that you and I, in the midst of all that distracts us, cannot see?
In this reading from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus rightly warns of the cost of discipleship; but he also encourages us to realize something that this cost might cause us to miss: The crisis clarifies.
The crisis has the capacity to clarify what we are fearing. For you see, fear is the opposite of faith; and this pandemic crisis and the attending surge for justice among us are uncovering a great deal about us as individuals and us as a nation. And in one form or another we are afraid: afraid to take a deep and honest look at what causes such pain in us and among us; afraid of what it will take to act on what many among us are uncomfortable seeing.
In this, I can’t help but return to the experience of participating in Holy Communion and daring to pay attention to the meaning of the Eucharist’s climax.
What would you say is the climax of the Eucharistic celebration? In the last three months, when we have not been able to gather for Communion, what have you missed the most?
I dare say that most of us miss the ability to gather physically, to see and hear and sense ourselves not only as a congregation but more precisely as the Body of Christ. For in this regard, we are what we eat.
Another thing that we miss is the action and demonstration that we are fed, nourished by God-in-Christ at the altar. Being called to the Lord’s Table, we are given what we need and cannot provide for ourselves. Moreover and remarkably so, in God’s eyes we are honored guests at this sacred meal, and this means that there is a place at the Table for all of us because we are loved by the Holy One – no matter what.
All of this and more is what we miss in the Holy Sacrament; but I remind you (once again) that at the very heart of Communion lies the “Fraction”. The Fraction is the climax. In it we experience God’s radical promise that in Communion with the Creator of heaven and earth, there is more to life than brokenness and fear and death. At the liturgical moment when the consecrated bread is broken, our scripted words speak volumes: “Alleluia! Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore, let us keep the feast. Alleluia!”
Yes, these words and that fracturing action speak directly to Jesus, who endured what we fear to uncover: namely, that life with God is stronger than fear, stronger than death. But these sacred words and formal actions also speak of our life with God: namely, (to use an image) that as with an acorn, we must be cracked open in order for the hidden oak within to begin to emerge. Being Christ-like entails absorbing both the cross and the resurrection. This is the good (albeit paradoxical) news, and it is news that rightly shakes us to our core but is also the heart of our hope.
What in this time of crisis has begun to “crack open” for you, for all of us? And in the necessary and unavoidable cracking open, how do we respond? Fear or Faith?
In the face of fracturing crisis, our instincts tell us either to flee from it or to fight against it. After all, we ask, who in their right mind would volunteer for fraction? Isn’t there more than enough brokenness in daily life? Why invite more? Yet, it is our Easter faith that tells us that we can do more than flee or fight. Resurrection faith tells us to pay attention – to pay attention to the fracturing, to pay attention in hope – hope and trust that God’s life can and will continue to burst forth in our lives.
You see, faith discerns two distinct kinds of pain. There is a difference between labor pains and the pain that comes from slamming our fingers in a door or hitting ourselves in the head with a hammer. They both hurt, but only one leads to new life. In this time of crisis, what will we do with our pain and fear? Will we run away? Will we dig in and fight for what is familiar for us? Or will we stay to bear new life?
In this reading from Matthew, Jesus reminds us that crisis clarifies. On the one hand, crisis forces us to face what we have feared and hoped would go away. On a national level, the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed how, in spite of our mythological rhetoric, inequality defines so much of our American life, how in terms of health care, education, and employment (for instance) we are not created equal in opportunity or treatment.
And yet, in the midst of our national crisis and its economic impacts, isn’t it ironic and telling that those who have turned out to be deemed as “essential workers” (in most times people of color and/or people of low means) are mostly the ones that heretofore we “successful” ones (that is, white ones, rich ones) have ignored, overlooked, or dismissed.
A crisis clarifies.
And in our own lives and in this time of fearful separation, what of the church? What of our church, this St. Philip’s? What is its place in our lives? What is its function for us? Do we turn in fear or faith? A crisis clarifies.
I have been both deeply touched and deeply confused by how members of St. Philip’s have responded to this crisis. On the one hand, in this time of crisis, faithful and sacrificial leadership has emerged from our midst. For instance, mission among us continues, when in the face of disruption it is quite instinctual for us to hunker down and just take care of ourselves. But I am grateful to say that this is not the case for St. Philip’s.
One example is our monthly rotation of “Take and Eat”. Our team continues to shop for, cook, and deliver about 200 meals on the fourth weekend of each month. Even in the face of the physical distancing requirements, faith, not fear, exists; and this, our parish’s mission, continues.
Special thanks to Elizabeth McAnulty for being our “Take & Eat” chef, not to mention our parish’s Junior Warden; and to Jon Cartledge who has spearheaded this outreach ministry from the beginning dream to what is now an ongoing tool for healing and caring change.
Another example of faith in the midst of fear stems from our parish’s historic commitment to the challenge of food insecurity in our area. Through our hands-on support of the Easthampton Community Center, St. Philip’s confronts fear with faith and ongoing presence. As an example, every Monday and Wednesday you will find Joe and Mary Bianca at the Community Center, hustling to put together food packages for those in our midst who need help. Joe and Mary and the others who are faithfully present help to tamp down fear with the faith of their being there.
We haven’t been together physically since mid-March. Yet, Bonnie Katusich and Deacon Jason Burns have led the movement in our parish that allows us to be connected while we are physically separate. The new use of the technology offered by Zoom and YouTube and the NOW are all we have at this moment for common prayer, for worship, and for staying in touch as a community. While none of us ever imagined that we would be involved in televangelism, Bonnie and Jason and Karen Banta and our musicians (not to mention the rest of us who need technology guide dogs) – all of us refuse to give up on the steep and often frustrating learning curve of technology because we know that we need one another to help keep the faith in the midst of our own fears.
That we continue to work on using our technology to keep the prayers and to worship is reflected not only in what happens on Sunday mornings but also each night at 8 o’clock. Compline (the night prayers) is offered, and the team of those who lead us on screen is expanding, as well as those of us who continue to discover how eight minutes of common prayer at the end of the day and its deep rhythms can anchor and clarify an entire day.
Another testimony to faith over fear comes in the innumerable members of St. Philip’s who quietly and steadily keep phoning other members who are in need. They keep reaching out to remind the more fragile among us that they are not alone. This is another powerful sign that in the face of fear we are doing more than holding on and hunkering down.
How much has the pandemic proved the truth in the statement that 90% of life is in the showing up, in being present?
Yet, on the other hand, amidst all the faith exhibited by our little church, in all honesty I must say that I am confused and frustrated by how many who claim us do not respond to offers of connection and invitations to rally to the team. Where are they? What is going on for them? Are they ok? We knock on their doors, but there is no answer. Fear can do this to us – all of us.
What do you see in this up-ending time? What is clearer to you about your life, about our God?
Much of what there is to see is hard, and we are tempted to turn a blind eye to what makes us uncomfortable and fearful. It’s not that we should have no fear. That would be inhuman and, in many cases (such as at present), irresponsible. Brokenness demands attention. But the issue is that in faith (wobbly as it may be) we pay attention and not allow ourselves to be full of fear, not allow fear to capture us and enslave us and rob us of our hope and the fact that new life – the life we have in Christ – is emerging in our midst.
Crisis clarifies; and how we regard the crisis (with fear or faith: with trepidation or trust) determines the extent to which there will be new life or ongoing, recycled, old death. Jesus warns us about the depths and recalcitrance of fear; and there is nothing fun or easy about facing the incompleteness of our lives, as individuals, as a nation, or as a church. Yet, having named the resistance, Jesus also reminds us that the God-life we are given seeks to be our life. And we are together in order to give the God-life room to emerge and take deeper root.
Look at the cross; but also remember to live the reality of the resurrection. Crisis clarifies. God is present. Take heart and don’t run away. Amen.