A Sermon for a Time of Uncertainty

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Lent III Year A (March 15, 2020) St John’s Cathedral, Saskatoon

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Iain Luke, Principal, College of Emmanuel & St Chad

A long time ago I picked up a saying from a 20th century philosopher [Henri Bergson] which has become a kind of watchword for me: Time is a device for preventing everything from happening at once. It’s caused me to reflect on how time is a gift, an experience to be enjoyed and appreciated; and also to rein myself in when I am trying to go in too many directions. Seeing time in that way can be a helpful spiritual discipline.

But I also remember sending a message to a friend to encourage her in a challenging moment, and including that phrase: Time is a device for preventing everything from happening at once. Her reply came back quickly: “Mine’s broken, then,” she wrote! And her words forced me to recognize that sometimes it does feel like the gift of time has been withdrawn, and we are overwhelmed by one thing after another, and the best we can do is try to surf the wave of chaos that is churning underneath us.

This week feels like it’s been one of those moments. Everything happening at once, no way to opt out of the constant flux. I’m not a particularly anxious person, but even I’ve found it hard to turn on the radio or TV, or open a webpage or an email, because I’m wondering what it’s going to be next, what new object is going to be thrown into my already rather challenging juggling act.

Even the usual coping strategies don’t seem to be working this week. For many people, when life is chaotic the answer is to narrow down the focus, to think only about your immediate environment. But in our current situation, the immediate environment is part of the chaos. Daily routines at school, work and home are being disrupted by the need to think about one’s own and others’ health.

My preferred strategy, when a lot of things are coming at me at once, is to distinguish between what is urgent and what is important. They’re usually not the same thing, and I can check off boxes of things that need to be urgently attended to, while saving my real energies for what really matters. But that distinction isn’t working right now either, as the urgency of making decisions and changing habits is caught up in something truly important: not only because of the global scale of the public health crisis, but because of the way it touches on how we care about and care for each other, both in and beyond our immediate community. What I do, what you do, in our little worlds, will collectively have a real impact on how many people get sick, or how sick they get, or how fast, and also on the ways our lives interlock with other people’s lives, whether it’s through global travel or through the health care system.

I think, though, that there is one coping strategy available to us that still has something to offer. A strategy that is usually overlooked or dismissed as a form of escapism, and might even be seen as an unaffordable luxury during a time of crisis: prayer. The great spiritual guide Francis de Sales taught that everyone should pray half an hour a day, except when we’re really busy – and then we need a full hour. There’s a reason for that, and I’ll try to explain.

Of course, the kind of prayer I have in mind isn’t one that just collects up all the chaos, all the confusion, all the multiple demands on us, and then has us mentally spinning our wheels for a while as we try to work out how God might be able to help. Instead, it’s about listening. Listening first to your own heartbeat, however fast it might be thudding. Perhaps it will slow down a little, if you just listen. But as you listen to your own heartbeat, underneath you will begin to hear the heartbeat of the world, the pulse of everything going on around you, the roar of the working day, and how it alternates with the silence of the night watches. Pa-pum; pa-pum; pa-pum.

And underneath that, underneath the heartbeat of the world, if you listen deeply enough, you will hear the beating heart of God, pouring love into the cosmos, moment by moment, generation by generation, millennium by millennium. It’s once we’ve heard the heartbeat of God in prayer, that we can meaningfully swim back up to the surface of our chaotic lives, and begin to see what is happening to us and around us, with fresh eyes. What might we see, what might we feel, what might we observe about the social crisis playing out around us, if we could first tune in to the heart of God beating under it all?

We might, for example, recognize some extra layers of meaning in the disruptions to our forms of worship. It is disconcerting, I know, to be told that we won’t give out and receive wine at communion, or that we can’t offer and get the physical contact that affirms we are part of one body at the peace, or that our money offerings will be handled in a more functional and less tangible way. And yet we can understand those changes, and commit ourselves to them, knowing that they express our solidarity with those who are vulnerable to illness, and indeed with our whole community locally and globally, as we work together to create the strongest possible collective response to this pandemic.

More than that, though, we can be especially conscious in this faith community of what those signs mean which we are giving up for a time. The wine of the eucharist demonstrates to us, as our Moravian friends say, that we are all related by blood, though it is not our own. Now, we do not cease to be related to one another when this liturgical expression is suspended; quite the opposite, it is all the more important that we commit ourselves to living as one human family, who depend on each other and support each other.

Similarly, the peace is, normally, a moment when we acknowledge how God unites us, reconciles us, and makes us a blessing to one another; but it is a sign we might in ordinary times take for granted. While we can replace the sign of clasped hands with a bow, a nod or a smile, we need to pay even more attention to how we will actually live as a community of peace, and how we will be there for each other, in anxious times. How will our parish structure keep us connected? How will you, personally, reach out (non-physically) through the week to the people with whom you share the peace here; especially if they or you become isolated, as a result of the “social distancing” we embrace for the sake of public health?

And maybe it is most appropriate of all that a part of our act of offering, which we have long seen as central to any worship service and especially the Holy Communion, is moved away from its central place. Because our offering, above all, is not simply about us and our church, or our relationship with God and our fellow Christians, but about our dedication to the world, in union with the dedication God makes to the world in Jesus Christ, the heartbeat underlying all creation. Decentering the offering is a powerful symbol that calls us to look away from the centre of our devotional lives, or rather to re-center them on the world that God made and that God loves. There may be lessons to learn there even after “everything gets back to normal”, please God.

One of those lessons is something we can take to heart right now, which is to ask how the society which we live and participate in, demonstrates the human solidarity to which God calls everyone. In the last few days, some church leaders have begun adding their voices in support of a national policy commitment to the idea of a guaranteed basic income. This idea has been around for a while, and has been tested in experiments in Canada and elsewhere, but it has been mired in the political questions of what is good for the economy and what isn’t.

The difference now is that it is being held up by epidemiologists, as the thing we need to have in place, urgently and for the future, to enable the kind of mutuality and solidarity that will give our society resilience in the face of a pandemic. We have only to look around our city to see people who don’t have the option of not going to work, even when that would be the right thing to do; and people who would be unable to remain in their homes, or feed their families, if they could not earn a living because of the impact of this crisis on their workplace.

This sounds like a political or economic question, but it goes much deeper. Can we, in our society, commit to each other so unconditionally that no one needs to experience that kind of fear or precarious state of living? There is a cost, because commitment always has a cost; but the existing experiments reveal how fulfilling and beneficial it can be when we create the conditions for everyone to be part of that network of human solidarity. And, in particular, both in a pandemic and in ordinary times, one of the benefits is expressed in the physical health of individuals and populations, which it turns out has an economic as well as a spiritual dimension to it.

The proposal for a National Guaranteed Basic Income is just one example of what might emerge, or what might be seen in a new light, as humanity works its way through the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic. I have been praying, and I continue to pray, and ask you to pray, that our very experience of what it means to be human might be transformed by the simple fact that we are all going through this together, across continents and national boundaries, across age groups and socioeconomic strata. It is in our shared human experience that we can most clearly hear the heartbeat of God, who shared human life and who is still and always present in it.

That presence of God in human life was evoked in a unique way in today’s Gospel. Many readers are moved by the profound words of Jesus in verse 14, “Those who drink of the water I will give them will never be thirsty.” But what touches my heart is the simple and mundane request he makes of the woman at the well at the every beginning of the story, “Give me a drink.”

When you give someone a drink, when you provide someone with food, when you take care for someone’s health, when you pick up the phone and call someone who is alone, when you offer part of your wealth to enable someone else to have an opportunity, you are a part of the web of human solidarity in which Jesus is also a part, both as giver and recipient. May that knowledge calm your heart, focus your mind, energize your will, and give you wholeness.

God of the present moment,
God who in Jesus stills the storm
and soothes the frantic heart;
bring hope and courage to us
as we wait in uncertainty.
Bring hope that you will make us the equal
of whatever lies ahead.
Bring us courage to endure what cannot be avoided,
for your will is health and wholeness;
you are God, and we need you. 
[New Zealand Prayer Book]

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