Fourth Sunday of Pentecost
Brian J. Cowley
June 19-20, 2021
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, and his mercy endures for ever” (Psalm 107:1).
Rowan Williams, the 104th archbishop of Canterbury, was sent an article from a conservative religious journal during the worst levels of Covid 19. The author urged the readers to look death in the face and not bow to measures mandated by secular imagination for our protection. The article then maintained that with faith we should not be fearful, have our eyes on eternity, and go to church. Archbishop Williams determined there was a lot wrong with this approach but indicated there was a relevant question in there to which we will return. As I read this article, I was reminded of a childhood memory.
When I was 10 years old my father purchased my first horse. A small chestnut colored mare that was 3/4 Arabian and ¼ Shetland Pony. For those who know horses realize that this was a sturdy, sure footed, very independent, and energetic animal. Unfortunately, the first day I rode this horse, my step grandmother had to rev the engine of her car to make it through the mud in the pasture and startled the horse. Before I knew it, we were hurtling through the field at breakneck speed. After having passed over a marshy field of mud and water, I fell off on the old train track that though devoid of rails and railroad ties, was hard dry ground. As I picked myself up off the ground with a bloodied nose my dad finally arrived with the horse in tow. He then explained to me that I needed to get back on then and there or I would likely not get on again. I trusted my father and got on. To his credit, he did not relinquish the animal to my control. My father was right, it was easier to get back on afterwards and I spent many an hour riding through the beautiful Rockies on horseback and/or chasing my grandfather’s cattle. It wasn’t all paradise. Since my first fall I have fallen from a horse twice and I have jumped from one on two occasions. If you are wondering “who in their right mind jumps from a moving horse?” see me after. This idea of facing fear with faith is a powerful one. We even heard examples of it in the readings today.
We heard Paul tell the Saints at Corinth that they have commended themselves to God by facing afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger. Paul does not ask the people of Corinth to face these calamities without fear only. He exhorted them to face these afflictions with great endurance. He also used words like: purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, power of God, and righteousness.
In the Gospel (Mark 4:35-41) we heard Christ tell his disciples that they lacked faith after showing great fear when a storm came upon them as they crossed Sea of Galilee threatening to sink their boat. As Christ called for peace on the waters, he did not ask the disciples why they feared. He asked them why they were afraid.
So back to the journal article that calls for church attendance in the middle of a pandemic in the face of death where we had been advised to shelter, wear masks, and socially isolate by the political and health care leaders of our society. As a professor of psychology, I regularly teach a Lifespan development course that I refer to a my “womb to tomb” class. Each semester I stand before my students and tell them that they can count on two things, being born and dying. They always look uncomfortable and there is always one who says, “you have to pay taxes”. I always respond that they do not have to pay taxes, but by being born they will die. Our western culture is uncomfortable with death. We fear death. We do not like to talk about it, we try to make it a clinical experience, we buy products, and engage in behaviors to make us look young. Archbishop Williams said of this topic: “…denying death ends up denying birth”.
The pandemic creates fear for a lot of reasons, but death is one of the primary fears. We have behaviors and rites that help us with someone’s passing, but the pandemic has prevented many to sit with their loved ones during their affliction, covid 19 related or not. It has also impacted funeral participation and attendance. This has added to the pressure concerning our fear of death.
Archbishop Williams points out that an oft used strategy we use in our fear of death is to lie to ourselves. We think we can protect ourselves from harm and avoid death by denying its existence or engage in acts of heroism focused on feeding our own egos. When taking this path we come to believe we can change the whole world. Archbishop Williams recommends wherever we are in our journey that we strive to make a difference within our reach and recognize the existence will go on as it will. So clearly, the Pandemic around the world is completely out of our control. We must let that go and focus on what we can do in the face of this angst-ridden event.
Archbishop Williams called the pandemic our journey in the “valley of this current shadow”. He then endeavors to examine what has been communicated to our culture and turn it back to the gospel so that our community and theology can be better informed. Of the Covid 19 Pandemic he said:
“Willfully risking the health of others to demonstrate my courage or my faith doesn't only increase their danger of death. It also increases the risk of that wider range of traumas and losses we noted earlier--the pain of bereavement in abnormal circumstances, the bewildering disruptions of our life in society, the strain on those working in public utilities and healthcare (whom we have suddenly discovered to be heroic in ways not demanded of most of us), and much more.”
Archbishop Williams is suggesting that that within our realm of control is to become aware of others and their welfare. This can help with our fear of things we can’t control and is a sound gospel principle.
Now, I can imagine some our surprised by the sermon topic today. Afterall, archbishop Williams wrote this article in August 2020 at the height of U.S. and British losses to Covid 19. I can hear some saying, “but the pandemic is almost over”. It certainly appears that way as we start to return to pre-pandemic patterns. We are meeting in church, going to restaurants, to public events, etc. Just Friday night I sang the national anthem with members of The Heartland Men’s Chorus at Kaufman
Stadium to a live audience. I do want to be clear, this is not a call to start wearing masks again or calling you all back to quarantine. We will continue to adjust to this pandemic for some time. I also believe it is important to realize that we are still under the “shadow” that Williams talked about. Infections still occur in the U.S. and in certain parts of the world people are experiencing the devastation we were suffering last Summer. Many of us and our neighbors have lost loved ones and have been unable to grieve together in ways to bring comfort. Healthcare workers are still recovering from the onslaught we have just experienced. I believe it is important to take this final quote by archbishop Williams to heart:
“A summons to faith, courage and energy in the face of death isn't a call to heroics for the ego. It is an invitation to attend, to be absorbed in value, depth and beauty not our own. It is to recognise the gentle insistent pressure of a shared reality which tells us to make room for one another.”
As we continue to adjust to the fears and post traumas of the Covid 19 Pandemic we must do as archbishop Williams urges “make room for one another”. We must also remember that as Jesus faced his death, he supped with his disciples, he washed their feet, and as he acknowledge his betrayal he called on them to love others as he loved them (John 13) and so must we.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (5th
Ed.) (2018). New York: Oxford University Press.
Williams, R. (2020, August 21). Into the valley of shadows: The pandemic has forced us to confront the issue of mortality: how do we think about death, and what does it mean for how we live? New Statesman, 149(5534), 34.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!