(Video of sermon available at our church’s YouTube Channel)
It’s just astonishing how Lent has coincided with this period of life and death under the thread of Covid-19. A colleague of mine I went to seminary with who is a pastor in Brooklyn has said “This is the Lentest Lent I’ve ever Lented.”
I don’t think most of us expected to be giving up quite this much for Lent. It’s like we’ve all been forced to take monastic vows.
At its best, this can be an opportunity to draw closer to our souls and to our God. A time to know what’s most important in our lives and to really keep our focus on that, and to let go of what we discover isn’t as important, to simplify.
But there are many who are now facing true impoverishment and hunger, as well as of course illness. And isolation can really bring suffering. All of which good people are workin so hard to help and ease. But there’s a rawness to what’s going on.
Part of what makes this such a Lenten journey is that we are confronted with our own mortality. Confronted with just how vulnerable we can be as creatures of this earth, and even as a human species.
But even more than that: this journey global humanity is one right now has a Lenten tone because in it we are all confronted with the Monstrous.
Because, this virus is a monstrous force. It stalks and spreads with stealth. And when it flares and roars it robs people of their breath and deals death on such a scale that it overwhelms the places that it hits hardest. I’m hearing healthcare workers talking about being “in the teeth of the dragon.”
We’re talking about a massive, monstrous, inhuman force.
But not merely “inhuman” – this thing may not even be a living thing.
I mean, biologists argue about whether viruses are technically alive.
You know, this is the stuff of the Monstrous. Non-dead vampire stuff.
Okay, we’re in a nerdy side bar here. But bear with me:
Viruses can’t produce energy for themselves or even reproduce themselves. They are total parasites – parasites at the genetic level. They’re just shreds of DNA or RNA that can’t actually generate what it needs. In order to live and reproduce they have to highjack another organisms’ cellular dynamo of life. And in the process, they kill those living cells and sometimes the entire organism, the animal, the human being. And then to keep going they need to spread from one host to the other, so they highjack the social connections between us, the life-giving fabric of our lives together.
My point here – and trust me, we’ll get to Jesus – my point here is that this virus for us is an experience of the Monstrous. It can strike that kid of fear.
A life-denying, death-dealing force run rampant.
In the face of such a force, as people of the Way of Jesus, we must claim the Love Supreme.
Our model here, our savior here, is Jesus.
The last week of Jesus’ life which we commemorate this week, is this ultimate story about facing down the Monstrous with a heart full and strong with love:
A heart of Christ, on fire with God’s Love Supreme.
What Jesus faced was a form of the Monstrous that was not a virus, but something very human – all-too-human, and at the same time inhuman. Jesus confronted the powers of crucifixion, the evil that can run rampant in humanity: the fear, the hatred, the greed, the selfishness that can snowball and lead communities to exploit people, and scapegoat, and crucify.
I’m sorry to say that those evil forces are on display these days in this crisis. For the most part people are being awesome and really rallying around each other. But some people are responding to the monstrous by becoming monstrous. There definitely is viciousness, selfishness, neglect, profiteering, at the highest levels. It’s those with the least power who stand the most to suffer.
Jesus in his time faced down those forces with a heart of love, a heart of strength, a heart of mercy, a heart of truth. He embodied the true and divine antidote to evil, which redeems all creation, even what is monstrous. And he did this all at the point in his life when he was the most vulnerably human.
As long as we cleave to that heart of Christ, as long as we open ourselves to God’s Love Supreme, we will have the courage and compassion to sow the seeds of resurrection in the midst of the monstrous.
It is for times like this that our faith has been forged.
So let us hear how Jesus met the Monstrous with Love Supreme:
Gospel of Matthew 5:38-45
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Abba in heaven; for God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
Gospel of Luke 19:29-42, 45-48
When Jesus had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
As Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.
Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, “It is written,
‘My house shall be a house of prayer’;
but you have made it a den of robbers.”
Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard.
Gospel of Luke 23:1-25, 32-34
Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” Then Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He answered, “You say so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” But they were insistent and said, “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.”
When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.
Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.”
Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished…
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Abba God, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Sermon by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg
Pastor, First Congregational Church of Walla Walla.
Sunday, April 5, 2020