The Rev. Christy Laborda Harris gave this sermon online on Sunday, March 15, at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Sebastopol. Her parishioners watched from their homes. We include it in what we hope will be the first in a collection of thoughts by local religious leaders on this difficult historical moment.
It is a little odd to be preaching to my iPhone this morning. And I wish that you all were here in person, but I know that we are doing the right thing by not gathering this morning. It is important that we try to slow this virus down. So I thank you for doing your part. And I'm so glad you're joining us in worship this morning, even though it's virtual.
This whole thing, this virus and the scare that it brings, is a lot. It is stressful. It is overwhelming. It is full of the unknown and it's scary. At the root of our fear, I think, is fear of the unknown and our fear of death. We fear what we cannot predict, what we cannot control, and even more so when what we cannot control or predict involves death.
This makes me think of one of my favorite parts of our burial service. The priest reads, “You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth and to the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so you did ordain when you created me, saying, ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” You can hear the echo of Ash Wednesday — the reminder that we are dust — that Wednesday that ushered us into this season of Lent just over two weeks ago.
But the question we might be left with is: Why? Why do we make this song at the grave, in the face of death? Why is it that we are still singing alleluia?”
For me, the reason for our song is best articulated at the beginning of our burial service. As the service the begins, the priest processes down the aisle reading an anthem that I consider a sort of “best hits” medley of scripture about death and resurrection and life:
“I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall have life,
even though he die.
And everyone who has life,
and has committed himself to me in faith,
shall not die for ever.
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger.
For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord's possession.
Happy from now on
are those who die in the Lord!
So it is, says the Spirit,
for they rest from their labors.”
We need not know how or exactly where or exactly when, but life continues beyond death. Our connection to God does not die — it does not end, all is not lost. We believe there is something more. We believe there is something bigger than us. Something connecting us, holding us all, something bigger than life and death themselves. We believe in a God who has conquered death, overcome it.
This does not mean that we are wrong to fear death. This does not mean that we are wrong to work hard to avoid it. We are human. And loving this life is being grateful for all that it is and all that we are given. It is truly something to celebrate and to cherish and to protect. Instead, it means that we trust that even in the midst of death, there is life.
During this time we are right to take precautions. We are right to try to slow the virus down, to protect and cherish all of our lives, especially those of the most vulnerable. That is our role as Christians: to love our neighbor as ourselves. This role is highlighted even more so at this time.
I encourage you to push back on fear as it tries to push its way in. I encourage you to engage in those practices that help you to stay connected, grounded, and rooted.
This Lent is indeed a journey in the wilderness. It is indeed about reflecting on our mortality and our brokenness. It is an opportunity for us to be aware of our need for God in our lives, rooting us and holding us strong. It is an opportunity to grow deeper roots, to be intentional about strengthening our relationship with God. And it is a time to strengthen our relationships with one another — to connect with one another in spite of social distancing and weave the fabric of our community stronger. This time reminds of our need for God and our need for one another.
In the midst of this challenging time, may we be blessed by this opportunity to root ourselves more deeply in the divine and to strengthen our relationships with one another.