Last week on the way to church one morning, I was listening to the radio, and I had a somewhat “1984” experience.
The news went on and on about the invisible killer, warning that any one of us might already have “it.” The disease might already be coursing through our veins, we might be already waging war against our last illness and not even know it. It’s the killer that has stalked the globe, it’s the pandemic with no clear cure, it’s in the air, a simple breath can infect us, it is coming for you!
Though I knew that the announcer was talking about COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, which has changed the face of our world’s society in a matter of months, I was struck by the possibility of attributing all that the newscaster said instead to sin.
That invisible killer, the disease we definitely already have. The illness coursing through our veins, the war that we’re losing, it stalks the globe, it affects every life, it tears apart families and steals loved ones, it sows discord and hatred, it destroys human life and community.
We’re here on a Sunday morning, a Sunday morning that looks almost unrecognizable to the people who were headed to church on Kiest Boulevard on March 8th, 2020. [We’re masked, and distanced, let alone being outside and on the lawn in camp chairs, with just one hymn accompanied by an electric keyboard, and a sort of self-serve communion, with a jarring immediate exit afterwards.] [We’re sitting in our homes, hunched over screens, perhaps wearing pajamas, with bare feet and a cup of coffee balanced on our knees. If I remember to sing the hymn in a few minutes, it will not sound at all like when everyone is together and the organ is playing — who could imagine on March 8th that this is what church would look like in June?]
Of course church isn’t the only change — despite many restrictions being lifted in Dallas and in Texas, I suspect like us, many of you are going to grocery stores much less often, not sauntering around retail areas for something to do, not wandering around stores on a Saturday afternoon, not spending hours at friends’ houses sharing dinner and drinks. Indeed, I wrote this sermon seated in my beloved cloffice, Jordan’s dresser at my left elbow and laundry at my feet. We wear masks outside, we work and eat and spend and travel — which is to say we don’t travel — all differently in order to avoid this virus taking hold in our lives and the lives of those we love. We have changed our habits and our very bodies in order to keep this invisible killer at bay.
I’m not saying that we’re afraid, or that the new habits we’ve undertaken are excessive. I believe they are right and good. I believe they showed me the ways that we as a culture and people value human life. I wonder though, whether I am behaving in a way that makes physical death the greatest evil, the biggest-bad, in my life and world. I do not profess to believe that physical death is the greatest evil, I say that I serve a God who finds death to be an insufficient enemy. I say that Jesus is my Lord, and he is the one who overcame death.
So all my care and thought and new habits and preparations made me wonder: how have I changed my habits or arranged my life in order to avoid that one, true, invisible killer? (SIN).
Part of the overwhelmingness of sin is that it takes so many forms, and there is so much we don’t know.
There’s communal, or societal sin, and racism is one of these that has had a lot of media light shed on it the last weeks. Another is healthcare; the difficult systems that have many cracks for those who are ill, or those who have little money, or are stuck in bad habits called addictions, or suffer under the oppressive evil of mental illness. Our society isn’t perfectly just or true, our society does not always celebrate and reward the good and the truly beautiful. There are wide chasms in our communities, across our nation and world, systems that allow for people to go hungry, or to not keep a job, or to suffer and die from preventable illnesses (malaria, cholera, measles, polio, etc etc).
There’s also individual sin. The breaks in relationships that we ourselves cause by our anger or selfishness, the temptations we give into for numbing ourselves with drink or with food or with scrolling or a screen. The self-hate we perpetuate with our thoughts. The prejudices we teach to our children. The choices we make in where and from who we buy our clothes and our food and where we choose to buy a house if that’s a choice we’re privileged to make. How we spend our money or give our money, with whom we spend our time; when we choose to speak up and use the power and voice that we have, and when we choose to be silent in the face of injustice, oppression, and evil.
Who has time, though, to look into the supply chain of the half-and-half that’s available for purchase at Kroger? Who has enough brain power to do a cost-benefit analysis on the environmental impact of producing hamburgers? How do we know which sources of information we can trust? If we happen to have enough time and brain power for these ethical quandaries, do we have enough money to choose better options?
“Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!”
These are worthwhile questions, and good habits to break and re-make. They will not happen all at once, and the thing is that we’ve been living in sin, breathing in and out the coronavirus-of-evil, for our entire earthly lives. We will not be able to suddenly shed the entire system and habit and inner practices and temptations that we have in a moment as if our sin is like the skin of a snake. But that does not mean that we should give up and let evil run roughshod in our lives and communities either.
“We have been buried with him by baptism into death, 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.”
Baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit marks each person’s soul as washed and free. No longer imprisoned by sin, but able to be made into the creature that God has had in mind for his precious creation from the very beginning.
Baptism is being claimed by God, marked as safe from spiritual death, capable, now, of seeing the sin that clings so closely and that tries to continue to blind us with logs and specks and to leech into our hearts and our lives with its smoothness and ease, its go-with-the-flow of the culture of our community or nation or world.
Resistance, though, is not futile. The plodding, continual, transformative work of refusing sin and disentangling oneself, one’s family, one’s culture, one’s community, from the infection of sin is the vital and long-suffering work of the Gospel.
In just 4 months, Texans, as well as people the world over, perhaps especially in the United States, have become disenchanted with COVID-19. We go to bars and restaurants, we see movies and hang out in malls, we have started up long dinners with friends and some — not Episcopalians! but some — churches have started piling people into their pews again.
And, my friends, the wages of non-vigilance are clear: Dallas is suffering a rather dramatic spike in cases, and we have far less an excuse than New York City did in those first days of April; from research, we know a lot more about the novel coronavirus now, and we — Dallasites, Texans, Americans as a whole — choose to ignore the truth, returning to life as normal, resuming our habits that are comfortable, but that are tuned toward death.
“So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Our only life, Brothers and Sisters, is in living away from, out of, in opposition to, sin. Evil, and death, and darkness have no place in God’s resurrection people. You and I are free, we’re made free by the great price of Jesus’ life, by his death on the cross. May we offer the prejudices, the evil, the riches, the power, the relationships, of our lives on the altar of God, and let him give back to us what he would have us use to his glory and the things he’d have us enjoy with his presence.
“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”