(The following is an edited version of a sermon by Bishop Mark Lawrence, given on Palm Sunday, 2020 at St. Michael’s Church in Charleston, SC)
I received an email last week that included a brief message that I’ve been ruminating on ever since. It was from an acquaintance of mine, Bishop James Wong, who is the Anglican Archbishop of the Indian Ocean. Let me share part of it with you.
“In three short months, just like He did with the plagues of Egypt, God has taken away everything we worship. God said, “You want to worship athletes, I will shut down the stadiums. You want to worship musicians, I will shut down Civic Centers. You want to worship actors, I will shut down theaters. You want to worship money, I will shut down the economy and collapse the stock market. You don’t want to go to church and worship Me, I will make it where you can’t go to church.”
I imagine he could have mentioned others: You want to worship health; I will empty your gyms and fill your hospitals. You want to worship recreation; I will close the Magic Kingdom and gate your parks. You want to worship travel and exotic places; I will dock your cruise liners and ground your planes. You want to indulge in the nightlife; I will close your restaurants and bars and shutter your cities.
Well that has the ring of truth to it—mostly! Yet not entirely. It could be understood to mean God sent this coronavirus as a judgement on the world. Yet I for one am not ready to say that. I am inclined to say it is a judgement upon our idols. It reveals to us how frail life can be and how vain at times our pursuits. You will remember the first two commandments of the Decalogue. “God spoke these words and said: I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods but me. You shall not make for yourself any idol.” The reformer John Calvin said, “The human heart is a factory for the making of idols.” When we give ourselves to idols, embracing God’s good gifts separate from Him they invariably turn empty and let us down—whether as individuals, communities, or even nations. “Claiming to be wise they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man….” (Romans 1:22-23)
The Judeo-Christian scriptures teach us that life is meaningful and good. That evil, which is parasitic, brings disorder into the healthy and good order of God’s creation. This evil includes destructive infectious disease like the coronavirus and non-infectious disease like cancer. It includes moral corruption such as human trafficking as well as the moral corruption that most of us partake in whenever we willfully choose to turn away from God and from what He has declared as good. This happens often in our daily lives. In big ways and in small ways.
Some years ago, when our children were young I was playing Monopoly with them. I understood strategy well. I purchased all the “green” property on the board as well as Boardwalk and Park Place and put up houses and hotels. I bought the railroads. Soon my oldest daughter close to bankruptcy left the game. Then my son Joseph landed on my hotels, and after mortgaging all his property, said, “Dad, I’m going up to bed.” I said, “Joe, I’ll loan you some money.” “No, Dad I’m sleepy.” That left only our daughter Emily. Soon she was left bankrupt. “Well, Dad, I’m going to bed.” “Please, Emily, here’s some money, stay in the game.” No, it’s late. I’m tired.” Left alone with my money, my property, my hotels and houses, I collected it all, folded the board and faced the fact that it all goes back in the box.
All too easily, we can live our lives without any reference to God. Yet as Dr. Christopher Wright notes, we do not live life without him. “He is the source of our lives, of our health. It is God’s creation that gives us the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe.”
Whether it is the work we yearn to get back to, the sports we miss, the recreation, or travel we are presently denied, it is God who is the source of it all. The beauty in art and music; in the sunset over the creeks and marsh of the low country; the glow of the moonlight through the pines; the glistening of the gas lamps on a misty Charleston street at night; the surprise in the rush of a covey of quail flushed from the bush; the warmth of handshake, or the voice of a longtime friend who greets us from behind—God is the author, giver and invigorating power behind all that makes life worth living. The question this virus and quarantine forces upon us is what happens when we do return to “normal” life. Will we enjoy the gifts of a gracious God with or without a relationship to him?
Every blessing and every sorrow that comes our way is used by God to draw us to himself. The God who in the wonders of creation dazzles us with beauty comes to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is through him that we come into the eternal life of the Father—the giver of all that is true, and lovely and gracious.
When loss and sorrow break our hearts, he who wept at the death of his friend invites us with the words: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
When life’s path seems obscure, the way ahead most foggy, faith brings us under the Lordship of Jesus Christ assuring us that the hands, which hold the future, are the same hands that touched the leper, healed the blind, and bore the nails upon the cross.
When our goodness fails, as it always does, the forgiveness of the cross washes us, heals us, and shall ultimately transform us. And when our lives draw to an end, or we close the eyes of a loved one at a bedside, he is the one who comforts us, “Let not your hearts be troubled, you believe in God believe also in me…I go to prepare a place for you that where I am you may be also.” When all other gods fail: when all our idols are shuttered—He who is the beginning and the end will remain.