A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 29, 2020

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Beth Lind Foote, Interim Rector, on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 29, 2020

Hello everyone.  I’m recording my sermon and posting to YouTube from my home in Alameda. We are doing well.  My 90 year old Dad remains in the nursing home at St. Paul’s Towers in Oakland after breaking his hip, and we can’t visit.

But yesterday we had a Zoom call with him. It was really good to see him on the screen and talk face to face. 

Seeing people’s faces on Zoom is a powerful thing.  On Wednesday night we had our first All Saints’ zoom meeting. About 12 people came, and it warmed my heart to see everyone’s faces.  It made me realize how much I miss you all and celebrating the Eucharist with you on Sunday morning.  Later this morning we’ll try our first Sunday morning zoom service.

The Coronavirus is changing life as we know it, and as a priest it’s challenging me to learn technology that I’ve never used before, like YouTube, and Zoom. 

Before now, the Episcopal Church has not really embraced the broadcasting of services.  The National Cathedral and other cathedrals have done it, but not many churches.  Why is that?

I think that overall, we are traditionalists at heart.

We also have an incarnational theology of worship that invites us to actively participate in the liturgy.  We stand for the Gospel, and for the prayers; we greet each other with the Peace.  And then, of course, we participate in the Great Thanksgiving, and we come forth to receive the blessed bread and wine.

All Saints’ Anglo-Catholicism heightens this incarnational approach.  We cross ourselves, we bow, we kneel. We sprinkle the people with holy water, we take in the sweet scent of incense. We chant, and our voices respond with hymns. We create the liturgy together as the gathered people. 

We do it all to create the beauty of holiness, and if you go to YouTube and watch the Mass we recorded on March 15, you can see most of the familiar aspects of our worship.

I know that you all miss our Anglo-Catholic liturgy, and our beautiful church. I do, too.

I realized this week that what I’m feeling is grief. I am grieving for the loss of our face-to-face community, and I am grieving for the familiar way we have always done things at church, and I’m grieving for many other things, too. 

Accepting the uncomfortable feelings of grief (because there are many aspects to grief) has helped me find new footing this week. It’s important to be realistic about where we are in the midst of this strange situation. 

At the same time, I am thankful for technology. It brings us closer in such a stressful time when we cannot be together.  With zoom, especially, we can be face-to-face in real time.  And for that I’m thankful.

I’m also thankful for the many conversations I’ve had on the phone with parishioners.  I spoke with Rod Dugliss early in the week and he said, “we have a larger story that encompasses hope.”  And that has stuck with me through all the bad news this week.

We have a larger story that encompasses hope.  Certainly, our readings today speak to that larger story, that larger hope.

Our reading from Ezekiel is known as The Valley of the Dry Bones, and is one of the traditional readings for the Great Vigil of Easter.  God shows the prophet Ezekiel a valley strewn with dry bones, which represent the people of Israel. When Ezekiel prophesies to the bones, God causes them to rattle up from the ground, coming together into skeletons, and flesh and skin covers them. God breathes upon the bones and they live, a great multitude are brought back to life.

In the midst of this Lent, when we have given up so much; in the midst of this serious pandemic, I find hope in this story of the dry bones. It reminds us we have a larger story.

The Dry Bones story also speaks to the resurrection of the body. The ancient gnostic Christians valued spirit above the body, and argued that the separation of the spirit from the body after death was a triumph. Early Orthodox Christians disagreed.  They affirmed that the spirit and the body were one, and they argued that the body good and holy, and that a body was needed for resurrection to happen. The argument between the two camps came to a head during the Christian persecutions when the Romans deliberately destroyed the bodies of Christian martyrs to prove the Christians wrong about resurrection.   

Ultimately, the orthodox Church Fathers went back to the story of the dry bones, and the creation story when God breathes life into Adam to affirm that God doesn’t need a complete body to bring us to resurrection. Our resurrection is totally up to God. This also gives me hope. We have a larger story, a story that encompasses hope.

In our reading from the Gospel of John we see Jesus raise Lazarus’ body from the dead. The text makes it clear that Lazarus is truly dead.  When Jesus says, “Take away the stone,” Mary says, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

So we have a pretty stark scene of death, in our Gospel passage and in our world today. Yesterday I saw that in Madrid they’re using an ice rink as a makeshift morgue for victims of COVID-19.

I’m lingering here in front of the tomb for a moment because I feel like that’s where we are right now in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The scene in Bethany when Jesus arrives and everyone is in mourning feels strangely familiar right now.  If we look at Italy, and Spain, and now New York City, and other parts of the U.S., we see people in shock at what’s happening, we see people mourning the dead, and other things, too. 

I’ve been mourning the poor response by our government, and the way our health care system is set up.  Why aren’t we better prepared?

I think we are mourning the disruption of our regular lives.  Our freedom. We take so much for granted.  The pandemic has thrown all of us into a place of uncertainty about the future. 

In terms of us at All Saints’, I am mourning the loss of momentum in our interim time.

I acknowledge that at this moment in Lent we are Lazarus in the tomb, we are Mary and Martha in mourning, and we are Jesus, who weeps for his friend, and who is deeply disturbed by death. We are human, we are mortal.  We may be contemplating our own mortality in a new way.

And yet we have Jesus out in front of us.  He says “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, wil live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  Like Martha and Mary, we can affirm our faith in Jesus, the Christ.  That gives me hope.  We have a larger story, a story that encompasses hope.

Jesus says “take away the stone,” and cries out, “Lazarus, come out!” When Lazarus emerges from the tomb, Jesus told the people, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  What do we need unbound in us?  How can we help unbind each other?

In the last couple of days I’m starting to see this shelter-in-place as an interim time within an interim time, like a play within the play in Shakespeare. 

Where is God in this time of quarantine?  What is God calling to us to learn at All Saints’ that we’ve not learned so far in the interim time?

As we mark the last Sunday in Lent, let’s remember that God is with us through this difficult time, and Jesus is calling us out of the tomb into newness of life.  As Rod Dugliss said, “we have a larger story, a story that encompasses hope.”  Amen.

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