Sermon for Sunday, August 23rd, 2020
March seems like decades ago.
When we were gathered together for our parish’s annual meeting at the beginning of February, I cracked a joke about sending our new Junior Warden to Wuhan China, where the people were battling the outbreak of some strange virus. I never imagined that within a little over a month we would be living in the epicenter of a new disease outbreak, Covid-19, caused by that same virus. I never imagined that our churches and our lives would be locked down. I never imagined that social gatherings would come to an end. I never imagined that our faces would become almost permanently covered by these masks.
It is hard to believe now, that we actually thought in March that things would be getting back to normal by Easter. And here we are, closing in on the end of the summer, and although we may be able to open our doors again and have some gatherings for worship, we are a long way from what any of us would consider “normal.”
In the beginning of March, Keith and I went to see Celine Dion in concert at the coliseum, something that I couldn’t imagine doing now. So much has happened since then. It seems like decades ago.
We have lost parishioners to this disease. Quite a few of you have had it and some I know are still suffering from its effects long after you have “recovered.” And of course, there has been more going on in our world than just covid-19. Our country is in the middle of one of the most divided, polarizing times in its history. Politics, race, medicine, science, it doesn’t seem like we can agree on anything. Everything is now a source of division. The internet, which we all know has this extraordinary power to bring people together, is used more and more to tear people apart. I don’t know, something about being online makes people lose their humanity. We stop thinking for ourselves. We stop reading critically. We share memes and news articles and headlines that other people have shared, not stopping to really question or investigate: is this true? Is this helpful? Is this intended to build people up or tear them down? Does this really reflect what I believe or am I just being used as a tool in someone else’s agenda? There is a huge difference between being informed and educated and being manipulated. There is a difference between opening our minds and poisoning them.
It is a difficult and painful time that we all live in. And yet,
I believe that God is still good.
I believe that Jesus is still the messiah, the son of the living God.
I believe that the lord is still the sovereign king of the universe
And I believe that the kingdom of God is still alive and well in this very broken world of ours.
Now some priests like to stand up and tell people that they need to go out and change the world. I’m not gonna do that. Oh I think the world needs changing, but I think most of us are too broken ourselves to go around thinking that we can fix things. If we aren’t actively allowing and asking God to change us first, then we are just going to make a bigger mess of things when we go out trying to change others. We need to change first.
When we were in the midst of the more strict and severe lockdown earlier this year, when things really were shutdown and we were far more isolated even than we are now, I had what was for me a bit of an epiphany. I was so frustrated at all of the changes and all of the restrictions that I frankly didn’t want to deal with, and it was really starting to get me down. And at some point I heard this little voice in my head that said: this can either be a prison, or it can be a cocoon. It’s your choice.
I could either choose to look at my situation as a prison, something forced upon me that I could sit around resenting and railing against, like some prisoner rattling his cup against the bars, or
I could see it as a cocoon. A time of transformation. A time for becoming something different. Something better. A time that ends, not just with a return to the life I knew before, but a time that ends with a new life.
I think that really is the challenge of the time we are living in: do we see it as a prison or a cocoon? Are we sitting around waiting to just go back to the way things were, or are we hoping for something better? Are we allowing ourselves to be transformed?
Our approach to this season of living with the coronavirus, may in fact be emblematic of our approach to faith, and life, in general.
Is our response to God just sitting around waiting to be set free on some future day by some cosmic jailer or are we actively offering ourselves, or souls and bodies, to God as something to be transformed and shaped like a piece of clay, or perhaps, a caterpillar?
Saint Paul, who knew a thing or two about sitting in a prison cell, wrote to the Church in Rome, a church that was itself struggling with internal division, a church living in uncertain and dangerous times, Paul writes to that church and says: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” Another translation puts it as “spiritual worship.” Either way, Paul is saying that if you really want to offer God something, offer God yourself. Offer God your life as a living sacrifice. Not as someone whose life is ended by the act of sacrifice, but as someone whose life is transformed, re-created, re-ordered or re-oriented by an ongoing act of living sacrifice.
“Do not be conformed to this world,” Paul says, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God- what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Do not be conformed, but be transformed. During this strange time which we all find ourselves to be in, are we being conformed or are we being transformed? Are we renewing our minds? Are we allowing God to shape us and transform us? Or are we allowing ourselves to be conformed to the world as it is? Are we allowing God to use and shape the raw materials of our lives? Are we giving God full use of the gifts that he gave us in the first place? Because if we aren’t being transformed by God, we will never be able to truly know what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Now, I don’t think that Jesus is some self-help guru that wants you to attain some enlightened state merely for your own enjoyment and benefit. If God has given you gifts, if God is transforming you, then it is for the sake of all of his people, not just for you. But if we really care about God’s kingdom coming and God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven, then we will begin not with trying to change others, but by first allowing God to transform and renew us. That, Paul says, is a part of our worship.
Since March, none of us have been able to worship God the way that we are accustomed to and the way that we would like, and although I long for the day when we can get back to some of our honored and time-tested traditions, I also know that worship comes in many forms. Perhaps one of the ways that we are being called right now to worship God is through the renewing of our minds. Maybe we are being called to offer ourselves to God as a living sacrifice, by being called into a time of focused transformation. But if we are going to allow God to renew us, then we need to make sure we are actually being transformed by God and not conformed to the world.
My advice, as your priest and as someone who struggles with all this as well is pretty simple: spend less time on the internet. Use social media to share pictures of your kids or your cats, not for news and information. Maybe turn the news off and listen to the talking heads a bit less. I have said this before. I know that may seem pretty funny for some of you right now, that are watching this service on the internet. For many of you the internet is the only way you have been able to worship or keep in contact with other people throughout this crisis; it can be a wonderful tool for information and connection. But it also a powerful tool for manipulation and conformation. We are told what to think, how to think, what to believe, what to be angry about, what not to be angry about…my cultivated newsfeed tells me what to buy, who to vote for. My emotions, my fears, my hopes and dreams, they are manipulated and used. We end up spending more time getting into stupid arguments with people we don’t know, than we do learning a skill or showing love and concern. If you really want to transform your mind, stop wasting time reading and sharing articles that support and “prove” things you already believe or want to believe, and maybe pick up an actual, old-fashioned book for a change. An old book, one written a very long time ago by someone very different from you. Learn a language, try some new recipes, pray the rosary, go for a walk, read all of Paul’s letter to the Romans, or Luke’s gospel, or read a Psalm each day. If you are using the internet to worship and renew your mind, great, if you are using it to stay connected to your church or to loved ones, great, but if all you are using it to do is to share things that you didn’t write, and argue with people that you don’t know, about things that don’t affect you, and which you may, in fact, not understand, then I am here to tell you that you are being conformed to what the powers of this world want you to be.
“Do not be conformed to this world,” Paul says, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
We are still living in this strange and difficult time. Restrictions have lightened a bit, we have gotten used to some things, but we are a long way from where we want to be. There are many things right now that are beyond our control. But one thing we do have control over is how we respond to this time. How we approach it. We can see it as a prison. We can grow ever more resentful, we can withdraw further and further into our little silos of like-minded but perpetually angry people. Or we can see it as a cocoon, a time of focused transformation and change, where what we become is far more beautiful and marvelous than what we were before. We can be conformed or we can be transformed.