May 31, 2020

Sunday of Pentecost

Scripture Reading: John 20: 19-23

Jesus Appears to the Disciples

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”


Sermon:

COVID-19 has shown us how quickly what we once thought of as “normal” can vanish. That said, we shouldn’t lose sight of what COVID can’t change.

  • Love, compassion, and generosity still endure.
  • Spring will give way to summer.
  • Our gardens will grow.
  • People will fall in love.
  • Babies will be born.
  • Summer, in turn, will eventually give way to fall.

And this fall, just as it has every fall since 1966, ABC will air “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!,” which includes this scene.

Clip

Lucy hatched scheme after scheme to send good old Charlie Brown flying through the air and landing flat on his back. Each and every time, he gave her another chance.

Today’s scripture lesson is about second chances, too—as, in fact, is much of the Bible. Here’s a mini-roll call of just a few of the people through whom God worked.

  • Moses murdered a man.
  • Jonah ran from God’s call.
  • David committed adultery and had a man killed.
  • Zacchaeus cheated and swindled his neighbors.
  • Peter denied ever knowing Jesus.
  • Saul the Pharisee was a relentless persecutor of the church before he became Paul the Apostle.

All of them, and so many more, are monuments to God’s second, third, fourth, and fifth chance-granting grace.

As disruptive and hurtful as COVID-19 has been, it gives us a second chance to build a better, fairer, world from the ashes of what the virus burned away.

Politico recently asked 34 experts in a range of fields to hazard their own predictions about the changes that COVID could or would bring.

Mark Lawrence Schrad, an author and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Villanova University, hopes this crisis will help us broaden our definition of heroism and patriotism.

“America has long equated patriotism with the armed forces,” he writes, “but you can’t shoot a virus.”

Those on the frontlines…are our doctors, nurses, pharmacists, teachers, caregivers, store clerks, utility workers, small-business owners and employees….Perhaps we will recognize their sacrifice as true patriotism…saying, “Thank you for your service,” as we now do for military veterans.
 

  • Eric Klinenberg from New York University writes, “The coronavirus pandemic…will force us to reconsider who we are and what we value….[I]n the long run, it could help us rediscover the better version of ourselves.”
  • Matthew Continetti of the American Enterprise Institute hopes we will come out of our COVID quarantine with a new sense of what’s possible and what we can change.

We’ll see. Right now, we have our hands full just making it day to day. According to the Census Bureau, that’s not going so well.

  • A full third of Americans are showing signs of clinical anxiety or depression.
  • Those who said they felt down, depressed, or hopeless for several days or more has doubled since 2014, from 25% to a full 50% of the population.
  • Young people aged 18-29 have had the hardest time coping. Forty-two percent report symptoms of anxiety, and 36% report symptoms of depression.

Researchers warn that, unless we take steps now, the country is on the verge of a rise in suicides, substance abuse, and overdose deaths.

We’re a traumatized, hurting people. That gives us a powerful connection with Jesus’ disciples on Easter evening.

Sure, they’d heard Mary say, “I’ve seen the Lord.”

What proof did she have to back up her claim? Zero. Zilch. Nada.

Had they seen Jesus with their own eyes? Nope.

All they could see was a scary, threatening future. After Jesus died in such a horrible, brutal way, who could tell what those in power might do to Jesus’ followers? Odds of a second chance seemed slim to none.

Suddenly, that second chance stood in the room with them. Brushing aside locked doors, Jesus said, “Peace be with you.”

He was just getting started. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” he said.

The disciples barely had a chance to catch their breath before Jesus pushed them back out into the world. But Jesus couldn’t do that without first giving them what they needed to change the world in his name.

And so, in John’s version of the Pentecost story, Jesus breathes on his disciples and fills them with the Holy Spirit.

With that gift came the power and authority to share with others the second chance that they themselves had just received. “If you forgive anyone’s sins,” Jesus said, “they’re forgiven.”

The risen Jesus sent his disciples on a mission, filled them with the power of the Holy Spirit, and gave them the gifts they needed to share God’s second chance with others, restoring people’s lives to health and wholeness.

 Health and wholeness look a long way off just now. But, John reminds us, we’re people not just of resurrection hope, but also of Spirit-filled ministry and mission.

As the world slowly climbs out of the hole that COVID dug, what are we willing to let God do through us?

 I am, as Paul Simon once wrote, “Older than I once was and younger than I’ll be.”

That said, never in my life have I seen our country like this: over 100,000 of our fellow citizens killed by a raging pandemic, unemployment at Great Depression levels, cities across our country burning, filled with those protesting a history of racial discrimination that goes back to the earliest days of our nation.

We cannot condone violence, bloodshed, and looting, nor can we support a system that relegates someone to second class citizenship because of the color of his or her skin.

Here’s what we can do as we build on the ashes of what COVID and rage burn away.

  • We can protest the reigning vision of every person for him or herself, and offer in its place one that seeks healing and justice not just for a few, but for all.
  • We can praise God for once again calling forth servants willing to risk their lives in the midst of a terrible pandemic to be about God’s work of hope, healing, and new life.
  • We can give the until now overlooked heroes of this moment the recognition they deserve, and also pay them a living wage with decent benefits.

The risen Christ sent a traumatized roomful of his followers into the world filled with the Spirit. As Pentecost people, they braved persecution and hardship, suffering and death, and turned their world upside down.

With God’s help, we can do the same, starting now, right here where we live.