Church trivia: What day is today in the church calendar? The Fourth Sunday is Lent is Laetare Sunday or Mothering Sunday: the day we rejoice. Rose vestments mark our joy that we are half of the way to Easter. We are supposed lighten up and celebrate a little, lifting the bleak Lenten mood (or DST sluggishness).
Our lessons are not the most amenable to springing forward to what we hope is the end of pandemic. They are filled with references to sin, death, and darkness. (Who chose these lessons anyway?)
The deep compassion of our Creator is surpassed only by God’s sense of the value of paradox. God often uses the incongruous to bring about blessing. God uses death to invite us to look for new life. God uses the cross – the horror of the cross – to reveal joy. God uses our despair to offer us moments of grace and rebirth. In today’s Gospel, Jesus has a private conversation with Nicodemus and offers the Pharisaic seeker insights which make no earthly sense: being born anew by the Spirit; God sending a divine son to redeem sinful humanity; coming into the light and knowing God. It is either total insanity or a totally new reality.
You may have noticed that those who are touched by death often have a renewed perspective on what it is to live. When Robb Hanrahan died after a massive heart attack – telling his wife quietly that he had to go – he reports feeling a nearly overwhelming sense of peace and lightness. He was resuscitated after he coded. In his recovery, he says his entire life has changed. He retired from broadcast journalism and is doing something new.
Emerging from a year of pandemic-imposed isolation and disruption, we may long to return to our old and predictable lives. That is not really possible. We are emerging from a shadowy time into a new world.
The author is the Letter to the Ephesians invites his readers to live in an entirely new way. New life in Christ demands different patterns. We are created and redeemed to do good things in a new context.
It seems that God weaves human tragedy into our redemption. Think about the cross, which God uses as the means to deliver us from death. What could God’s intention be? It is not reasonable to think that God wants simply to frighten us with the horror. Terror is not godly. Consider that the intention is to help us – so we may know that the Holy One does not shrink from the worst things that happen to us. Sin. Crosses. Death.
That is paradox. The Gospel teaches us that the most terrible burdens and afflictions can generate pathways to wholeness and holiness. Our last year has been terrible, and yet it is not without value, as we have learned a great deal. Loving God and our neighbors means that we must overcome our instinct to avoid fear. Confronting our deepest fears, we are called to honor and embrace the crucified, because they are part of the living Body of Christ. We may think about that the next time we encounter someone who is different or a bit scary.
We want to emerge from this most lenty Coronatide year with deeper faith. Many of us find that our faith is tinged with doubt, or reservations, or questions. Some elements of the life of following Jesus can be puzzling or frightening. Let’s remember that while faith in Jesus offers deliverance, a relationship with God cannot be reduced to a catechism or a pop quiz. With faith, even weakness and doubt are turned into instruments of healing. Would that sort of God condemn us if we don’t “get” everything about Jesus or about our identity as people who follow Jesus? There is not one of us who can comprehend the infinite.
In the end, it is not at all about us, about what we do or understand or earn. It is all about a gift of new life, all about grace, all about what Jesus has done, all about a Love, which are all beyond comprehension.
The Episcopal tradition is such that we are invited to come together each week, bringing our faith and our doubts and all our foibles. We bring our longing to be a part of God’s work of healing in the world. We bring our burdensome knowledge and our excruciating griefs. We bring our hope that some day it will make sense. We trust that in the fullness of time, God will somehow work out all the questions and burdens we have. We trust in the mercy and love of God. While we acknowledge that there will be judgment – and that divine justice demands that we be accountable for our sins – we also insist that the great God of love, who was willing to give up his life for our sake, is primarily inclined to nourish us and heal us, and not to crush us in the end. And so we rejoice. Praise be to God, whose mercy endures for ever, who doesn’t falsely promise us an easy journey, and who always promises new life at the end of it. May it be so.