[A sermon meant to be preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Trumbull, Connecticut on March 22, 2020, but cancelled due to COVID-19 sheltering in place.]
A few weeks ago on Ash Wednesday, one of the last times someone outside our families touched us, a priest pressed ashes onto our foreheads with the admonition, “Thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” To paraphrase, Memento mori, remember that you will die.
If you’re like me, my body’s return to dust did not seem imminent. Then, just days later, the gravity of this pandemic began to lower its weight upon us, and, beyond reminding us of our mortality, it began to demand sacrifices of us we had never dreamed of.
Lent has a way of shedding light in the dark places, of illumining our misplaced passions and our impulses to distract ourselves from the reality of our finite journey on earth.
Most of us, during most Lents, repent. We try to extricate ourselves from those things that distract us from God. The purpose of our self-denial, whatever form it takes, is to unite ourselves with Jesus, to imitate, in some small way, his total offering of himself in perfect obedience to the will of God.
It’s hard. It was hard for Jesus, who prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane in the full dread of his impending arrest and crucifixion, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.”
The repentance called for throughout the Bible is a summons to a personal, absolute and ultimate unconditional surrender to God as Sovereign.
Psalm 23 is a meditation on surrender, on the difficulties we are asked to endure in this life and a reassurance that God is present through it all.
The Lord is my shepherd;
Augustine wrote, “When you say “The Lord is my Shepherd,” no proper grounds are left for you to trust in yourself.
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul
Psalm 23 does not quantify the circumstances in which God is present to us. God leads us, reviving our souls upon the mountaintops, as well as within the storms.
The Psalm continues, Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil;
Fears are low hanging fruit right now: the anxiety caused by ever widening restrictions, fear of a toppled economy, crashed 401Ks which for some of us signals a retirement marked by scarcity, the very real terror of job loss, our fears for the health of those we love, our fears for ourselves.
I shall fear no evil, the psalmist confesses to God, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
God shepherds us in our solitude, in our separation from routines we considered indispensable, from people and places, and even, incomprehensibly, from the Eucharist.
Scripture frequently affirms that God is present in our seclusion.
In the Book of Genesis, Hagar fled Sarai’s harsh treatment and took refuge in the wilderness–God met her there. When the infant Moses was abandoned in a basket, hidden in reeds along the Nile, God found him there, sending Pharaoh’s daughter to rescue him.
After the crucifixion, Jesus’ own disciples sequestered themselves behind closed doors in fear. Jesus found them there, stood in the midst of them and ministered to them.
Scripture even speaks to our fear that we presently have about taking this virus to someone we love. The thought that we might inadvertently contribute to someone’s suffering and sicken them by our presence causes us to withdraw from those we love.
In Luke 17, we read, “Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
In Biblical times, those suffering from leprosy remained at a distance, knowing they carried in their bodies something that could harm others. They stood at a distance because their presence instilled fear. Isolation defined their life. Yet even from a distance, the lepers recognized Jesus, and they prayed, “Jesus, have pity on us.”
In our own isolation, Jesus finds us and answers us.
Psalm 23 gingerly leads us out of the valley of death, out of our fears of mortality, towards abundance, towards “the joys of resurrection life.”
The Psalmist prays, You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
God, hospitable and generous with His gifts, has prepared a table for us. The blessings He pours upon us runneth over. May we be drunk on the blessedness of God’s presence, despite the stripping away of so many things we claim as essential: affection, and community, communal prayer, and celebrations, despite even the incomprehensible loss of the Eucharist.
May we be drunk on the blessed assurance of our Salvation in Christ, whatever our losses, whatever uncertainty or illness we face.
The fruit of Lent is not Easter. The fruit of Lent is intimate relationship with the Divine, achieved by the stripping away of whatever is not God. Of course, our Lenten deprivations are usually voluntary, not imposed upon us. During this extraordinary Lent, we sacrifice even our self-determination.
If we peel away our last attachments to this world as the soldiers peeled the tunic off Christ’s lifeless, broken body, if we are so stripped of all that belongs to this world, then when we meet the risen Christ, our love for God will not be diluted by our love of this worlds good, of distraction or of independence, or even by our love of one another.
We will recognize the risen Christ before us. We will know God, because we have been so stripped and humbled we can see nothing else. When we recognize him, will say as St. Thomas did, “My Lord and My God.”
Dear friends, we are walking daily in the shadow of death, a valley whose length and width we do not know. We do not yet know the duration or magnitude of its evils. But we know God. And God knows all. Psalm 49 reads, “But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead; he will surely take me to himself.”
As Christ answered the lepers who called out to him from their isolation, the Lord, our shepherd, cannot help but answer us, lead us, calm us and feed us. God finds the hidden, like he found Hagar, and Moses, and like Jesus found his disciples shut away.
Jurgen Moltmann writes, “Death is the power of separation. Socially, it is experienced as isolation and loneliness. Eternal life is the power to unite. In this life, it is experienced as gathering into new community in eternal love.”
Though we are dispersed, though we pass our days isolation with every temptation to anxiety, we are not estranged from God. God has found us. God is reaching out to all of us. We are already dwelling together in the house of the Lord.