Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Jesus has ascended to heaven…We can no longer see him. He is no longer in the world, but we are. So how do you express love to someone, when you can’t see them?
How do you practice your faith, when you can’t go to church?
How do we sing praises to God, in this strange land?
Between the years 164—180 of the Common Era a great epidemic known as the Plague of Galen swept through the Roman Empire. The death toll is estimated to be in the millions.
Christianity was a new, and not yet, officially recognized religion. Some scholars suspect that the term “Christian” developed as a slur…a term of reproach deployed by the Romans to deride those who refused to worship the emperor. But during the Plague of Galen, it was these Christians who stayed behind in plague ravaged cities, while others fled. They tended the sick, they buried the dead. Tertullian, an African theologian who lived through the plague wrote that Romans were utterly astonished: “it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble,” he wrote, “that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another.” [source]
In the Yellow Fever epidemics that plagued eastern cities in the early years of the new American republic…one of the saints whom we were to celebrate with an Evensong in March, Richard Allen, stayed behind with his fellow Christians to tend the sick, while others fled.
Richard Allen, along with Absalom Jones, were leaders of the Free African Society. In 1792, they were unceremoniously removed from St. George’s Methodist Episcopal church in Philadelphia for violating the segregationist policies of the church. Jones founded the first black Episcopal congregation, and was the first black man to be ordained a priest in our church. Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and became its first bishop. But during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793, in that hot, fetid summer, when more than 5,000 people died in Philadelphia, and more than 20,000 had fled the city, it was Jones, and Allen, and the Free African Society Christians who stay behind to care for the sick, and bury the dead. The white civic leaders were convinced that the black citizens were immune to the disease.
Throughout history, Christians have practiced their faith, and demonstrated their love and care for all by doing, in the words of one scholar, “risky, compelling, good things that helped people.” [Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity, p. 60].
Jesus has ascended to heaven…He is no longer with us. We can no longer see him. How do we show our love? How do we practice our faith? How do we sing our praises? The same way we always have…by seeking the common good…By doing risky, compelling, good things that helps people.
We’re two thousand years beyond the Ascension, and far from that mount where he rose. And we find ourselves in the midst of another great pandemic. Mercifully, as of yet, with nowhere near the mortality rate of either the Plague of Galen or the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793. And yet, as in the past, we live with amped up levels of fear, and dread. We live with unnamed and sometimes unnamable grief. We have daily battles with frustration and anger. And we have to remember that a lot of smart, committed, faithful people are working on ways to get us through this time of turmoil, yet there’s still an awful lot we don’t know…And, just as in ages past, there are many, many people of all faiths (and no faith) doing risky, compelling helpful things for the common good. Working in hospitals, and nursing homes, and prisons. Cleaning work spaces, stocking shelves, processing food, operating public transportation, filling orders…conducting vital experiments to create treatments and vaccines…and if that is work you are doing or have been called to do…we thank you, we pray for you, and we pledge to do our part as well. But not all of us are called to that work…for many of us the best things we can do are stay home, wear masks, and wonder…if there isn’t something more we could be doing?
How do we practice faith…express love…sing praises…under these conditions?
This section of John’s gospel that we heard today, is part of the lengthy Farewell Discourse (John 13 or 14-17); that Jesus gives to his disciples just before his arrest and crucifixion. In John, Jesus doesn’t tell stories or preach in parables like in the synoptic gospels, instead he speaks in long, sometimes confusing speeches. But don’t forget that in John Jesus also operates by performing signs. He often shows rather than tells what the reign of God is all about: changing water into wine, healing, feeding, raising from the dead…God’s work in the world is all about moving from one state to another…about transformation…about following Jesus into and through this transformation. And I know John’s Jesus can come across as metaphysical…mystical, or just far too miraculous to be practically imitated, but think back to the night of the Last Supper. What is the first thing John has Jesus do?
“Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come… And during supper Jesus…got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him…” (John 13). Before he says a word, he gives us a model of a simple, effective, and self-sacrificial act of service that is the whole new commandment in a nutshell…that we love one another as he has loved us. That we serve one another as he serves us. Not always heroically, but simply, consistently, and with great care.
Following Jesus always means that we must get clear about the reality that we are facing. That we need to absorb and give voice to the grief that is in us and around us, and then find ways of imitating Christ by doing those risky, compelling, good things that supports and sustains the common good. Right now, that might be a simple as wearing a mask when you go out. It might be giving sacrificially the church or to a charity doing work on the front lines. It might be calling people and checking in on them, or offering to shop for them. It might mean helping with MANNA, or another feeding program. For all of us, right now, it means continuing to worship online so as to continue to slow the spread and flatting the curve of this virus.
How do you express love to someone, when you can’t see them? How do you practice your faith, when you can’t go to church? How do we sing praises to God, in this strange land? The same way we always have. By following Jesus. By imitating Christ. By carefully and creatively seeking the common good. By taking care of our neighbors.
In the late 4th century, St. John Chrysostom wrote: “This is a rule of the most perfect Christianity, this is it’s most exact definition, it’s highest point, namely the seeking of the common good…for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.” [quoted in Butler Bass. p. 60].
Jesus is no longer in the world. But we are. And through us Christ still is in the world. The transformative power of God to feed and heal and create anew is still in the world…because it dwells in us.
We will be able to regather here, and worship here and have fellowship and sing together. That day will come, and sooner rather than later if we all take the necessary, risky, steps now to take care of one another, and to follow Jesus, and do the things that each of us is called to do.