Fear of Easter
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.
Good morning friends. When I first looked at the lessons for this week, I had every intention of preaching on Paul’s beautiful letter to the Ephesians. This bold, radical statement about who we are…where we came from and how we should live in relationship with God…just kind of….says it all. It says everything about who we are as Christians and especially who we are as Lutheran Christians. It is what attracted me to the Lutheran church many years ago and the thing that we can all still hang our hats on today…sometimes for me the only thing. My Catholic friends often ask me: “what’s a Lutheran anyway? What do you believe?” Well the whole passage from Ephesians would be a pretty good place to start but I always at least tell them…as Paul reminds us today…that Lutherans believe we are saved by grace through faith. Sola fide as Martin Luther said. Faith alone. Nothing we do…nothing we say…nothing we can earn. By a simple act of faith we receive the free gift of grace. I could usually preach on this passage forever but somehow…this year…I’m just not feeling it. But luckily there’s always John 3:16!
John 3:16. Easily the most famous and professed beloved Gospel passage of all. Certainly the passage most quoted on signs held up at sporting events…and bumper stickers…and even tattooed on arms. John 3:16…Ask random people on the street what their favorite passage from the bible is and the vast majority will say John 3:16 even though some of those people won’t be able to accurately quote it.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
It really is an amazing sentence. Somewhere in translation we lost the word “begotten” which I grew up with…only begotten son…but still…this single sentence really does tell us everything we need to know about the nature of the God we worship and the sacrificial love to which we are called…or at least to which should aspire. An act of pure sacrificial love that certainly any parent can relate to…or at least try. Actually, I really only understand it intellectually but can’t really fully comprehend it. I have two kids and I love them in a way that…prior to their arrival I didn’t even know it was possible TO love. But no. I can’t really imagine the love necessary to “give” them up. Sorry. You just cannot have them. But certainly, I could eek a sermon out of John 3:16. But again. This year. It’s just not coming to me.
Today, as we gather on this 4th Sunday of Lent and prepare shortly for Holy Week and Easter to come, I have to say that I am kind of stuck in this moment of time and even the bumper sticker ready theology of Ephesians 2:8 and John 3:16 just aren’t getting me out of it. Maybe it’s just the time.
I looked back at my Google calendar for this week in a year ago. It went something like this:
· Wednesday the 11th the WHO declared a global pandemic.
· Friday the 13th I went to the evening AA meeting downstairs and announced that the church was suspending all outside groups from using the building until further notice.
· Sunday the 15th, a year ago today, we worshipped in this space for the last time with communion. It was the 3rd Sunday in Lent. Who knew it would be our last meal together for more than a year. By Sunday the 22nd….we were zooming downstairs. (look back)
· On Monday, our LTM folded up the tables chairs and we began serving “to go” meals only. For many of our guests…their only place of refuge was lost. One more TO GO option for people who are told to go…mostly away…every single day.
One year ago this week, the world changed and time kind of stopped. And it stopped in Lent.
I used to love Lent. An old pastor here used to make fun of me because I loved it so much. Very Catholic of you she would joke. But I always looked forward to the intimacy of Lent. The opportunity every year to spend 40 days exploring our own fragility as we journeyed with Christ in his. 40 days to really experience the miracle of Christmas…the astounding reality of what God with us looks like…in our sin…in our suffering in our humanity. Beginning with a reminder that we are dust on Ash Wednesday and ending with our Good Friday Pilgrimage and evening service…a service I used to say was my favorite service of the year…Lent represented an opportunity for closeness with God that just worked for me. And we prepared for Easter…and Spring…and re-birth. And it made Easter all the more was glorious.
So why is this year different? Well partly, it’s just because time has stood still in so many ways. I wanted to start the service today by saying: Welcome to St. Matthew Trinity on this 55th Sunday in Lent. OMG. Enough Lent. The reminder of our humanity this Ash Wednesday seemed redundant at best…almost cruel at the worst. We’ve now had half a million reminders of our fragility. A full year of isolation to reflect on our human condition. We have all settled into a perpetual Lenten Reality which often feels like it will never end. One fear and anxiety ridden day blends into the next…and the next…and the next. 40 days in the wilderness seems like a vacation at this point.
But you know what. There are visible signs of change and Spring (and not just the clocks robbing us of an hour sleep this morning). Hospitalizations and deaths are down…new cases are falling and every day I run into more and more people who are either vaccinated or have a plan to be. This past Tuesday Pastor Gary and I had the pleasure of helping at the Hoboken Shelter as 70 of our most vulnerable residents and 30 volunteers received the single dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine. More are coming this Tuesday and hopefully the Tuesday after that. The president just signed a bill that will significantly reduce the economic stress on many Americans and by some accounts, cut the number of children living in poverty in half. The president has committed that by May 1, any American who wants a vaccine can register for one and has taken steps to ensure adequate supply. People are starting to use phrases like…light of the end of the tunnel…signs of hope…returning to normal. And while our optimism does need to be tempered with caution…a lot can still go wrong…we definitely have reason to be hopeful. And interestingly, this new hope has it’s own challenges.
There was an article in the times last week about the fear of getting back to normal and the anxiety it is producing. I mean let’s face it, after a year…this is our reality. As the prospect of returning to work in offices and commuting on subways and gathering in churches and homes and even flying on a plane gets more and more real, there is naturally some fear. Will we remember how to act? How will we greet each other? Handshakes? Hugs? Will we even remember how to smile at each other in the street after a year of mask wearing? It’s going to take time. It will not be a light switch.
Now I know you didn’t come to church or log on this morning to hear more pandemic talk. It’s already every minute of every day. But I only bring it up because I think there’s a parallel to Lent and Easter…especially this year. As we prepare for Easter this year and the end of a year long Lent, we need to also ask ourselves, how we will act when Lent is done? How will we put aside the pain and isolation, not to mention the cross-carrying and crucifixion of the past year and step into the light of the resurrection? How will we once again claim light…after so much darkness. And remember John 3 also tells us that we often choose darkness. How do we again feel worthy of the light…accept the light into our lives…and then shine that light outward? How do we again own our calling as Easter People? Especially after this year. Are you afraid of Easter? I think I am a little. And I don’t know if I’m more afraid that it won’t come…or that it will.
So this is how I think about the relationship between us and God sometimes and thanks to David Lose for reminding me of this.
My son Aaron used to have transition issues. Like every child (and every adult for that matter) he wanted what he wanted when he wanted it. More than once after not getting his way he would say: “I Hate you Daddy! You’re so mean to me”… to which I replied, as any parent would, “that’s OK Aaron, I love you anyway”. Well this would really infuriate him and he would yell at me to “Stop saying that!”. I think this is how it is with us and God! We scream at God in ways large and small “we hate you God…you’re so mean to us”. And God says back…It’s OK. I love you anyway. And I think that’s why I had trouble with the sermon today because I was afraid and angry and saying to God “Stop saying that!” But the fact is, whether we like it or not…whether we deserve it or not…whether or not we can see past the mask of our own fear…God continues to say I love you anyway. And he can prove it.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Dear friends. Spring is coming. The end of pandemic is coming. Resurrection is also certainly coming. We will be together soon and hopefully we can once again own the light that is our inheritance as Easter people. There will always be darkness and there are still dark days ahead but if we trust the Lenten message that God is with us even and especially in the darkness and when we, in words or deeds scream that we hate God, our job today is to remind each other God is still whispering “It’s OK. I love you anyway”. John 3:16