This is the sermon the Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles preached at the diocesan online worship service for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2020.
Even though I’ve never done so before, this week I planned on preaching about Mother’s Day. I wanted to recognize all the exhausted moms who are emotionally, physically, spiritually drained from isolation. Drained from preparing, serving and then cleaning up three meals a day. Drained from supervising online classes for children while balancing their own work responsibilities. From negotiating screen time to physical distancing on bicycles. From too little sleep and too little gratitude. I wanted to preach about loving our elderly mothers from afar because they are isolated in nursing homes.
Then I read the lectionary texts and all that went out the window. The stoning of Stephen? The go to funeral gospel lesson from John? Those do not say to mothers, I see you. You are doing an incredible job. You are enough. You are giving enough.
But these texts aren’t just for mothers. Our readings today have significance for all of us in the church, and I hear them as a call to action.
It’s true, many of us know this selection from John’s gospel from hearing it at funerals. I’ve preached it twice at gravesides in the past two weeks alone. In that context, we focus on Jesus saying goodbye to his friends at their Last Supper together. We hear him saying amidst the grief of our loved one, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus needs his friends to understand that he’s leaving but it’s not forever. He’s going to prepare a place for them, and like our loved ones, one day we will be reunited.
Today though, I’m drawn to the second half of this text. When Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father, and Jesus responds that he is in the Father and the Father is in him. If the disciples have trouble believe that the Father is in Jesus, then they can believe the acts of mercy, inclusion, and healing they’ve witnessed again and again and again the past three years. “Very truly,” Jesus tells him, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”
You will do greater works than these.
Greater than touching outcast lepers. Greater than dining with despised tax collectors. Greater than loving one’s enemies and blessing one’s persecutors. Greater than respecting the least of these.
Jesus tells his friends, he tells us, that we will come together through him to do these great things. Jesus is not telling us that he’s the end point. He is the way. He is the life.
His way is one of connection to all of God’s people, not exclusion from them. Jesus is this point of connection for all of us – he’s where we gain strength, hope, grace, and so much love to go out and do these great things. To go out and BE the church.
Is that what we are doing? I worry it isn’t.
Just before our Acts reading picks up today, we hear Stephen’s testimony to the Sanhedrin court. He names all the ways the religious institution has become just that—a faithless, aspirational institution. They stopped living out the works of God long ago. They stuck God inside Jerusalem’s Temple, never thinking about God outside its walls.
Stephen preaches, “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: The heavens are my throne, the earth is my footstool. What kind of house can you build for me? says the Lord, or what is to be my resting place? Did not my hand make all these things?’ “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose the holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors.”
It’s not long after this that they chase Stephen out of the city and throw rocks at him until he dies.
After fasting from public worship for more than 6 weeks, we know God doesn’t dwell in houses made by human hands. God dwells in us. In all of us. And this is where I’m worried that we are falling short. Where I am falling short of what Jesus demands of his followers.
In our western world and especially in our Episcopal churches, it’s so easy to separate ourselves from the problems that other people face. We collect food or coats or backpacks, but all too often, from safe distances. If we have the means, we retreat back to our homes in gated communities, which is sometimes a physical gate, other times an invisible, economic one. We protect ourselves from the poor and their problems. We fall into binary thinking, of us and them. Sheep and goats. Wheat and chaff.
This may be what our world expects of us. But it is not what Jesus expects of us. It’s not what Jesus demands of us. Stephen preaches that God dwells in all of us. We are all connected and cannot separate ourselves from the rest of the world. We must engage the world in Jesus Christ’s name.
Right now, I fear that COVID–19 is severing this connection. Specifically, I feel it pulling us back from our interconnectivity every time we turn a blind eye to the staggering statistics of infected black and brown children of God. Yes, there are so many acts of mercy being carried out right now. So much good, generosity and grace. But there’s also the alarmingly high rate of Black and Latino Americans diagnosed with Covid-19 and dying from it.
These are the Americans engaged in unprotected work. In my neighborhood these are the people caring for lawns, collecting our trash and delivering our endless packages – all while we isolate inside. And they are doing all this for us, work that’s impossible to do the safety of their homes. We consider them essential workers, and yet we are exposing them to this virus in a way we are protected from experiencing.
Last month in a Facebook Live conversation with the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas said, “We are the church that is the embodied reality of Jesus and a God who is incarnate. (This embodied reality) takes us beyond being a religious institution who just talks about God. It takes us beyond the church walls…”
When we look beyond these church walls, beyond our neighborhoods, we see that, “the very communities disproportionately impacted (by the long-standing systemic economic and health disparities between white Americans and Americans of color) are also disproportionately impacted by realities of COVID-19. This is an indictment of our democracy….and of the Church.”
Kelly Brown Douglas reminds us that “crucifying realities are happening on our watch. It’s aspirational for us to even call ourselves church because this crisis is showing us how we are falling short. The ones who Jesus was in solidarity with, are the ones we are leaving out.”
In that Facebook Live conversation Canon Spellers said that we are now, “reaping what our nation has sown. She said, “it’s not a coincidence that black and brown people are the ones dying more (from COVID-19), because black lives haven’t ever mattered.” She wondered aloud if our elected officials’ hesitancy to act during this time is “tied to our country’s longstanding agenda to eliminate communities of color. COVID-19 is accomplishing their long-held desire for this country. The expendable is now disposable.”
These words from Canon Spellers took my breath away. The expendable is now disposable. If God really dwells within us as Stephen proclaimed to the Sanhedrin 2000 years ago, we need to act like it.
Jesus says we will come together through him to do great things. He is the way. He is the life. Jesus is this point of connection for all of us – where we gain strength, hope, grace, and so much love to go out and do these great things. To go out and BE the church.
We are connected. We are tied together through the bonds of God’s love, through the truth of Jesus Christ. The disproportionate suffering of people of color, must be our suffering too. We can no longer turn a blind eye to their pain.
In the midst of all the pain and suffering which we are trying to avoid, we are drawn to the cross of Christ. God’s own self experienced the pain and suffering and redeemed it through the resurrection.
The central claim of Easter, of our entire faith, is that the rejected, crucified, resurrected Christ, is the way, the truth and the life for the entire world. Jesus established a new way of living, a new way of connection.
Jesus’ way of life is not a gated community. It is a way of life in which the lowly are lifted up and the outcasts are welcomed to the banquet table. This way of life welcomes home wayward, prodigal children and even welcomes the very people hung Jesus on the cross. This way of life cherishes black and brown lives, because they truly matter.
We are in the midst of pandemic only a dozen or so generations have ever experienced. It’s bad. I find myself emotionally, physically, and spiritually exhausted, and I’m a privileged white person with economic security. It’s so much worse for so many people. And yet for all of us, Jesus is the way. He’s the way to strength, hope, grace, and so much love. That’s what Easter teaches us. Even while living through a pandemic, we can also live Jesus’ way of life.
We have an extraordinary opportunity before us to embody Jesus Christ to people who are hurting most. We are able to be Christ’s Church, to live into his way of life by standing in solidarity with those disproportionately infected by COVID-19.
- Order takeout from local restaurants owned by people of color.
- Rather than hoarding an excess of resources, share them with communities who are the most vulnerable and economically impacted.
- If you have the means, make a financial contribution to a non-profit led by a person of color, knowing that these organizations are traditionally underfunded, less likely to have reserves and more likely to go under during this economic crisis.
- Check in with people live and work in your own community – the elderly, the freelancers, the contract workers, the underemployed, those working on the front lines in grocery stores and hospitals.
- Contact your reluctant legislators, asking them to fight for polices that support the least of these.
- And even when our state opens back up for business, stay home if you are able. Stay home as a way of protecting not just yourself, but the very people who don’t have that luxury.
This is our call to action: Live out the interconnectivity found in Jesus Christ by embodying him to people who are suffering. Even in the face of disillusionment, even when we feel discouraged and depleted, hold fast to the assurance that Jesus offers. God does not dwell in houses made by human hands. God dwells in us. All of us.
65 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice compiled by Corinne Shutack for Medium.comhttps://medium.com/equality-