I’ve been preaching for some 30 years now. In my files I have 6 sermons on these particular readings for the sixth Sunday of the season of Easter. Over the years, my husband Bryon and I have purchased a number of sets of commentaries for the 3-year cycle of readings we preach on. These impressive, thick, very expensive volumes take up a lot of space on our bookshelves and after a while their insights are no longer fresh and we invest in a new set. And yes we do know that you can find some of this online but we’re old fashioned!
But this week, nothing from these experts and nothing I’ve ever preached before quite gets to our current experience. These biblical scholars have never lived through a pandemic. We’ve never lived through a pandemic. I’ve never lived through a pandemic. I’m tired by the words uncharted and unprecedented but that’s what we mean when we say them. We’ve never been here before and we don’t know what to do.
Another thing. I’ve been a Christian for quite a few years but I’ve never experienced the level of anger, hatred and persecution leveled at a church for the simple reason that we’re feeding hungry and desperate people. The fact that the opposition has increased exponentially during a global pandemic when the situation for the poor and homeless has gotten worse is something I would never have expected.
And then there’s the question of what will the future be like? I’m certain that not all our individual churches will survive this upheaval. Although there seemed to be some uptick in virtual attendance when it was the new thing, now that we’re figuring out the metrics it’s clear that our mostly secular society is not tuning into an online church experience to make sense of this situation or listening to Christian preachers for direction or pursuing a deeper spiritual life.
You probably have your own set of “I never thought this would happen” issues. Everything from wearing masks and gloves and wearing out your hands with washing and sanitizer to home schooling trapped children while trying to work online. Then there’s the loneliness of not being with other people, anxiety about the economy and personal finances and the uncertainty about the future. Who can we turn to for leadership? Where is the wisdom we need to face this crisis? Who’s in control?
It turns out that we might not have experienced this before, but those who have gone before us have. The Apostle Paul encountered an educated, philosophical and curious audience in the Greek city of Athens when he was a traveling preacher. Although they professed lots of interest in various spiritual practices and traditions, they were essentially secular and agnostic, unwilling to place their faith and trust in God or to worship and follow any one God.
Paul preached a God who is particular and specific, not God in the abstract. A God who can be known, worshipped and followed. He used every rhetorical tool and phrase he had to let them know that this God was present in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit. They didn’t have to keep searching and trying out new religious and spiritual fads. They didn’t have to beg God to be revealed by leaving offerings and making shrines. The God who was in Jesus is present, through the Spirit in each one, for “in God we live and move and have our being.”
It’s such a great speech, such a wonderful and life-giving message. We don’t have to create God. We don’t have to find the correct mantra, pursue self-enlightenment, take courses on religion, or read through the Bible, Koran and Book of Mormon, although all these things have value. None of this is necessary to experience the life-giving presence of the Spirit of the living God. In fact, God may surprise you when you least expect it, showing up when you weren’t looking for God.
Paul didn’t even share with them how the Spirit of God stopped him in his tracks, when he least expected it with a blinding light and the voice of the resurrected Jesus. I guess he knew another “born again” story wouldn’t impress these cynical listeners. Maybe he should have tried anyway. His excellent preaching didn’t produce much response. He gave a great sermon and most simply turned away to the next speaker, the fresh Ted talk, the new podcast. We 21st Century preachers can relate!
There’s also a lot of precedent for opposition to Christians who are trying to do good. As Peter tries to encourage a small, beleaguered group of Christians, he reminds them that doing good can lead to suffering. Followers of a suffering, maligned Jesus shouldn’t be too surprised when we are abused for doing what he commanded, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, visiting the sick and imprisoned. It’s really encouraging to read Peter’s advice as we continue to operate a meals ministry called the Edible Hope Kitchen. “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence so that when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.”
Although it’s easy to become discouraged and to respond with anger to opposition, we have models of Christian love, courage and forbearance in the saints who have gone before us. We have reason to hope. We have a source of strength to face the fear, anxiety and hatred that is projected onto us and those we care for. We are not without comfort and assistance.
And that goes for this pandemic and all the challenges it brings as well. We are not alone or abandoned. God has sent the Spirit, the Comforter, the Advocate. There are so many things we can be sure of, beginning with the love of God, poured out into the world. There is so much we can be grateful for, even as we experience suffering, loss and ultimately death. God has not ceased to be as near to us as our very breath. God is revealed every day if we pay attention.
Many of us are appreciating the small things we barely took notice of before, birdsong, spring growth, the changing sky, small acts of kindness like wearing a mask and providing distance or greeting a neighbor we’ve never spoken to. We choose in this time to follow God. To be true to love, neighborliness, generosity, kindness and gratitude. To turn away from anger, condemnation, bitterness and hopelessness and to act with courage, patience and a powerful and sacrificial love.
We may not have been here before but our sisters and brothers have and so has Jesus. He took time before the crucifixion to prepare us for times like these, times of suffering, opposition and rejection. He reminds us of God’s love for us as the basis for our continued faithfulness and obedience. He lets us know that we won’t be understood or received warmly when we are true to the radical nature of the gospel. We are to love anyway. To practice belief in the resurrection anyway. To trust the Spirit anyway.
I don’t know who is out there listening to this sermon, participating in worship and joining in prayer. In fact I may be surprised by who is tuning in. Some are friends from afar. Some have discovered this Beloved Community for the first time. I do know that many of you who show up every week are faithful. You aren’t able to do the things you used to do, to be with the people you used to be with, but you’re part of this community. You’re not alone. The Spirit of God is present for you and with you. The love of these sisters and brothers is for ALL because it originates in God’s all-encompassing love.
When I was first a Christian in my early 20’s and letter writing was still a thing, I started signing them “with faith, hope and love, Britt.” I do that still. Much changes. For instance I almost never send hand written letters anymore, but I still use that signature. Faith, hope and love remain. The faith that has grabbed us in the person of Jesus and his timeless message and example. The hope we have that no one is ever lost, that doing what is right even when it is difficult and dangerous is worth it. The love that is poured out for us in Christ and that unites us with God and one another.
So much has changed and will be changing. Faith, hope and love remain. Amen.