I couldn’t resist using the word “pestilence;” hopefully another chance won’t come around any time soon! I received several expressions of appreciation for this sermon; I think most people viewed it on youtube. I recorded it using “Photo Booth,” for heaven’s sake, but heck I guess it worked ok. I don’t think the sermon was my best, but I think we’re all very open to a message in our isolation. That’s God’s grace working in us!
Scriptures: Ezekiel 37:1-14
When I read these lectionary readings, along with our opening Psalm, the themes of our times were all there, and it all started swirling around in my head. My head seems all a-swirl these days; I’m sure yours is too. But here are the points I meditated on, if you want to join me:
- Crying out from the depths to God, like those on watch all night, waiting for the morning.
- Life and Death.
- Dry bones and new life.
- The Spirit of life (or breath—same word in Greek), especially in our time of deadly air-born pathogens.
All these themes came into focus for me in Paul’s first sentence: “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Isn’t that what we all want right now—“life and peace?” I wish I had more time to catch my breath and try to make sense of it all. It would help if jet lag wasn’t waking me up at 4:30 every morning! But even as we muddle through, we still have each other in this swirling chaos, and our unbreakable bonds are made of divine stuff.
Paul is always a little complicated. Maybe before getting into him, I should talk first about what we can be doing as Christians in this covid-19 crisis. For the younger among us, there probably is not much danger personally. Others of us need to be very careful. But we all need to do our best to avoid catching and spreading this disease. The good news is that our self-care is also care for all. Personally, I’m not worried about myself, but I do worry about people in nursing homes like my mother, people who are immuno-compromised like some in our congregation; and then I think about those crowded neighborhoods we visited in India, and the impossibility of practicing social distancing there.
A deadly disease is a cause for concern. It is also an opportunity for concern, for care, so long as we do not become overwhelmed. From my self-quarantine, I’ve been communicating with our church leadership about how we can reasonably and safely help people in our congregation and town. Right now, my thinking is this: we are in a crisis that is extraordinary but also temporary. We should feel freer than normal to ask each other for help, including financial help—help paying a bill or for an interest-free loan. And if we are doing ok—if we feel safe enough from the disease or secure enough financially to help—let’s commit to helping just one person or family. That’s reasonable and manageable. So here’s how we’ll do it: if you need something, anything, contact a deacon—either your shepherd or our chair, Jeff Dwinell (467-2227). This is a serious crisis; it’s the right time to ask for help. If you are willing to help out one other, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or call me (773-955-4034) and tell me if you can deliver things or help people financially. We’ll match those in need with those who can help, keeping it all confidential as much as possible. There are other ways to help, but we can do this as a church.
“O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with God is great power to redeem.” A crisis like this is dangerous and frightening. You may know that I’m not a fan of saying that because God is all-powerful, God must have created covid-19. Instead, our opening Psalm tells us about God’s power to redeem. In a crisis like this, there is a great opportunity for those who “hope in the Lord” to bring God’s steadfast love and redemption into the world.
Crisis opens us to redemption. In our normal routines, we get used to established orders and the status quo, and pretty soon you start to think it’s normal that many of us live in comfort and luxury while so many people are vulnerable to suffering. Our trip to India woke me up to the absurd levels of crushing poverty there, and here too. Likewise, a crisis like covid-19 shakes our complacency, and we start to see needs all around us. We see God’s Spirit working in love and service all around the globe. God does not manufacture covid-19, but God raises up redeeming power right in the midst of danger and death. That’s what God is doing through Ezekiel to the valley of dead bones. Note: God does this through Ezekiel, through his words. God tells Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones.” (Couldn’t God say so himself?) Tell them they will live. God will to bring redemption from death, but has no interest in going-it alone. We are to be partners in God’s redeeming work.
If, that is, we don’t succumb to fear. As Paul in Romans 8 recognizes, and as we all know, our bodies are mortal. Now death is natural; it’s a part of life. But for us human beings, death is a problem not just for our bodies, but for our thoughts. The fear of death affects our minds, and makes us close ourselves off from others.
So when it comes to death, Paul is concerned about where our mind “is set.” For “life and peace,” we need a mind “set on the Spirit.” Let’s go back and re-translate his first sentence. As I’ve done before, let me translate “flesh,” a word that only confuses us, as “ego.” “The mind set on the ego is death.” When death is in the air, we are tempted to live in fear. Influenced by primal survival mechanisms, we are tempted to think only about me—my body, my safety. And I can see others only as a potential threat. Death and the fear of death are a primary cause of war and strife: “I got mine. You go get yours somewhere else. You’re not getting mine.”
That’s why the opposite of “the mind set on the ego” (or the flesh) is not just life, but “life and peace.” To allow ourselves to become consumed by fear and its selfish impulse is the path to strife and war. Life and peace come by letting go of your ego, and seeing others as God sees them—as fellow children, all of us connected and united in God.
This is happening. Despite the profiteering and hoarding and finger pointing, all of which is predictable, we’ve seen so many acts of selfless caring and giving in these few weeks of crisis. We’ve felt a fresh air of unity, blowing tentatively at least. As we did after 9/11; as our elders did after the assassinations of King or Kennedy. Selfless, steadfast love is not found only in the church, for the whole world was created in Christ and for Christ, for this act of loving redemption. Caring is deep in our nature, even though it is often obscured and blotted out by sin.
Christians aren’t much different from anyone else in this regard. But we look to Jesus, and we cannot ignore the reality of this call to love. To ignore it is to deny it. So for us, ignorance is not bliss; it is sin. It is a betrayal of Christ.
I bring that up because it is Lent, after all. And Paul grasps with wonderful nuance how we are redeemed in Christ but still short, perhaps far short, of what Christ has called us to. “But you are not in the flesh, [not trapped in your ego]; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Sure, you are saved. We’re Christians; we’ve been baptized, we’ve confessed our faith, we go to church regularly. Surely the Spirit of God must be in us…right? But Lent is the time when we acknowledge that the Spirit doesn’t always work that way. Death and fear are still powerful; our egos are entrenched. And this virus (or at least the constant media coverage of it) is scary. So we are in the Spirit; but then again not.
So in his wisdom, Paul also speaks to us in what grammarians call “the conditional mood”: “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you [plural, “you all”], he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through the Spirit that dwells in you [all].”
Let me translate this subtle language, briefly. The Spirit is in us, in our church community, because at the center of who we are as a church is Christ and the ego-less love that he stands for. But individually, we don’t all live it, not all the time. I sure don’t. I got scared out of my wits on the flight home by some turbulence. But if I live not in myself and my accomplishments and my needs and wants, then we can find ourselves by working together in our common Christian Spirit. And many hands make light work. I don’t have to do it all; I don’t have to save the world. Maybe you are not in a position to do much for others right now. But some of us are; I am (except for being quarantined). What we can do, we do not for our own glory, but on behalf of the whole church, which is itself only to the glory of God. By the same token, those of us who cannot work right now should by no means feel guilty or lesser for it. Just take care of yourself. It is enough that God gives life to your mortal body.
God’s Spirit will work in each of us to discern whether this is a time for the risk of helping or the safety of self-care. But God’s spirit can only do that work in us if our mind is not set on the ego; if fear is not ruling your mind. So let the Spirit of God come into you this morning, and do away with your fear of death and, chained between the two of them, your ego. Then you can decide reasonably what you should do in this crisis. If you need help, ask for help. Don’t let your ego make you too prideful to ask for help. Let someone do God’s love to you! If you are doing fine, feel secure, and are feeling restless, step up and offer to help. Contact me; I’ll make sure you don’t take foolish risks. If you are doing fine but are at risk, then it’s ok just to take care of that mortal body of yours. There will be other occasions to be selfless.
Let us thank God that we are in the Spirit; we do not make these decisions on our own; we make them as a church. If you set your mind on the Spirit, God will work work in us as each is called, for the Spirit of God dwells in us together as the Body of Christ. Amen.