The sermon below begins, in the above video at minute 7:54
Easter feels different this year.
I have to admit that, even though I’m a Christian minister, it has been hard to focus on Easter.
The outbreak has overtaken our lives so completely.
“The bright side” has gotten a whole lot harder to see since the virus took my cousin Al.
God rest his soul!
In our attempt to stay safe, each and every one of us has had to alter the most basic ways that we function in society.
We are in a new reality…
Shaking hands is a thing of the past…
All “fives” high, low or otherwise, are strictly forbidden.
The humble doorknob – once an invisible part of daily life – is now a specter greatly to be feared…
A toilet paper sighting at the family dollar causes the heart to skip a beat…
If, by chance, our orbits swing too close to one another, we instinctively take shallow breaths until the aisle widens and we can resume our customary six-foot waltz.
It’s nothing personal, it’s just the way it is.
And it seems like the “way it is” got to be that way awful quickly, doesn’t it?
One of the greatest challenges that this Pandemic has brought for me, personally, is that it is really better if I don’t spend time around all of you, up in Jaffrey.
It has been more than a month now since I last drove this way.
Since I became your minister, in November of 2016, I’ve only missed a handful of Sundays. On most Thursdays too, I’ve come up to be with you – either to take part in meetings or go on pastoral visits.
It’s true that I’ve done my best to keep you all spiritually fed, and the church active during this strange time… but even so, being physically separated from all of you has been hard.
I have long believed that human relationship, for it to be true, must take place in person – face-to-face as they say.
Indeed, this commitment to being present in relationship was one of the main reasons why I decided to become a minister.
It had become increasingly clear to me that the information age, for all its astonishing advancements, can be a spiritually perilous terrain – a place where it is very easy for the immature and the vulnerable to get terribly lost. We were a fractured society already, before we started our headlong descent into the virtual. The most important thing I could imagine doing, to push back against this growing alienation, was to create community.
And what better way to create community then around the central notion that love is real…
That love unites us
Inspires us, comforts us,
and challenges us to grow in spirit.
And so it was, in the summer of 2016…
That I made my way north on Route 10 into New Hampshire…
Turned right in Winchester onto 119
Zigzagged through Fitzwilliam,
And drove, for the first time, into the town of Jaffrey New Hampshire…
Where my dream of creating community came true in ways that I could never have imagined.
The irony, of course, is that I am now talking to you through the internet – using the very technology that I have faulted for making our culture more fragmented, more estranged.
I am using this technology because, of course, it is the only way that I can figure out how to keep us together.
All the same, I can’t manage to get too worked up about this paradox. I don’t consider myself a hypocrite for using the very tools that I have elsewhere decried, because after all, Religion is no stranger to such paradox.
If there is one field of human inquiry that has not the least difficulty with paradox, it is religion.
We need look no further than our Easter readings for convenient examples of opposing tensions peacefully coexisting with no apparent difficulty.
Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” go to the tomb of a man who they have seen die on the cross. The corpse, though, is not there. Instead they find an Angel who tells them that Jesus “has been raised.”
How can a dead person be raised?
They do not know, but neither do they doubt the story told by the angel.
And then, (I love this) the two women run off to do as they are told, feeling, “fear and great joy.”
Fear and great joy.
I can imagine (though of course there is no way to verify it) that the gospel writer may have initially written that the women left the tomb in a state of fear, and then thinking that this was not an adequate description, added “and great joy” and in this way managed to depict, with a little more accuracy, the complexity of their spiritual response to the unprecedented moment.
“Fear” because, naturally, the women were witness to an event that defies human experience and understanding.
“Joy” because, of course, their beloved teacher, for whom they mourn, has now returned to walk among them.
Neither of these opposing sentiments is sufficient on its own.
Together, they create a response that is religious. Both fear and joy, surely, are present with any experience of the divine.
A similar exertion of opposites is unabashedly at work in the mind of the Apostle Paul when he writes, in his letter to the early church in Rome, that
“all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death”
Baptized into death?
Who ever heard of that? Baptism is associated, in many churches, with infancy – or if not infancy, at least with ritual re-birth. Not death.
But Paul goers on to double-down on this strange notion:
Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, [he writes] so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
Newness of life?
Paul seems to be at galivanting in a playground of mixed metaphors. Buried with him, raised, and walking in new life?
Death and life – which we understand to exert opposing forces, coexist in these sentences with apparent ease – conspiring together to “walk in newness.”
Both readings surprise us with their frank acceptance that darkness exerts its influence on our growing spiritual light.
Fear lends meaning to great joy.
Death is a necessary step when walking into the “newness of life.”
We don’t go out much these days.
Cary and I only go to the store when we absolutely have to, and the only other time we leave the house is to go for walks on the bike path or down by the canal.
When we encounter other people on their walks there is, of course, plenty of room in the wide-open air to give them the prescribed wide berth, and since there is no particular danger, I make a point of saying hello and being pleasant.
I do this, not to be annoyingly chirpy in the midst of a crisis, but as a kind of informal social experiment.
I want to see if people are more suspicious of each other than in normal times.
One might expect people to react that way – and some do… leaning their be-masked chins into their chests and hightailing it by without even a nod.
This virus situation is, in its own charming way, a kind of perfect storm for causing paranoia.
And yet, I’m pleased to report that, so far at least, my admittedly unscientific observations seem to suggest that, as long as I keep my distance, most people with whom I exchange pleasantries, are pleasant right back to me.
The interesting thing about all this, is that even though we are rightfully scared of each other, we are also, at the same time, perfectly aware that none of us has any intention of hurting anyone else.
Usually, when we endanger each other, we do so purposefully: making a fist or pulling a trigger.
In this case we are unwitting hosts of the danger – none of us wants to or intends to cause harm to anyone else, so even though paranoia is legitimately present, suspicion is not.
This lack of human involvement in the danger creates a new moral situation for us. We respond, now, in the absence of fault. There is no one to blame for the thing itself. If someone is to be criticized, it is not for the virus, but for a lack of determined response to it.
And there is something else too, that is even more intriguing!
Since any one of us could become a potential carrier of the virus, protecting oneself is an urgent need, not only for one’s personal health, but for the health of the community.
Before the outbreak, we had the luxury of being able to place our own needs before the needs of the community – but now in this new world, a single rule commands both our personal and communal ethics.
It’s a hard rule.
Don’t even get close.
Grandchildren cannot hug their grandparents.
But it is one rule that applies equally to me and to you. When I act to protect myself, I am, at the same time acting to protect you.
Fear and great joy.
Death and newness of life.
You and me.
Six feet apart.
In this moment, I remember my lost cousin, Al Jansen, and I do not say that the virus has a “silver lining”
But I do say, that it is a teacher.
It is teaching us something that we have lost sight of.
That the same moral response applies equally to both me and you.
That we grow in faith through acts of love.