3 LENT A, 2020: The Fast of Social Distancing

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We have a great big, juicy gospel story in front of us
but the elephant in the room
is the bad-boy with slurping the corona.
I am going to give the elephant a drink and
then take a bath in the story.

So let’s just say it, this is a weird time.

Someone I know
who is a lot older than me
texted this week
to say she has never been through anything like this.
I didn’t say what I was thinking: 
“Well honey, if YOU haven’t,
I sure haven’t.”

But this pandemic does remind me a bit
of when HIV and AIDS arrived on the scene.

While the severity of AIDS and the coronavirus
is a pale comparison in relation to their effect on most people,
the social anxiety,
uncertain protocols,
and need, with sudden urgency
to change behaviors,
are similar.

With HIV/AIDS, it was several years before
we got a grip on what was happening,
how and why,
and then finally understood enough
to navigate through the crisis.

There was also, in those dark days,
the echo of grief from every direction.

There were some life-saving
and tremendous social transformations
that happened as a result of the AIDS epidemic
and I wonder what they will come from this one.

The whole concept of social distancing
is about as repugnant a practice as I can think of
for Christians and those sharing spiritual community.
It is anathema to Jesus’ open table.
in our present situation
under the pall of a pandemic,
it is exactly the right thing to do.
It is a fast,
a severe Lenten fast
that we are all called to practice for now.

Fasting is unpleasant, and
as the Exodus story indicates,
something that can make us humans
downright angry and resentful.
The practice of fasting
puts us in touch with our hunger and thirst,
and holds the promise of teaching us something
we need to know about ourselves.

A FORCED fast,
whether it is from meat on Fridays
or that awful liquid diet and fast
before a colonoscopy,
makes us all the more resentful.

If I am not mistaken,
fasting is the most universal spiritual practice,
one that is primal in every major religion.
While Americans and Episcopalians
do not embrace fasting much any more,
it is one of those spiritual heirlooms
we might want to take out,
dust off, and put back in front of us.

Either way, we are now, like it or not,
in a time of fasting.
We need to remember that the practice
of social distancing
is a gift of social conscience.

We do it for others
if not for ourselves.
Personally, because I am not otherwise vulnerable,
I am not concerned about contracting the virus.
But I am now hyper aware
that I could unwittingly
be carrying it and spreading it,
and that could be a death sentence
to both those I know and don’t know.

I often say at funerals
we need to have a sense of reverence
about how much we do not know
about the person who has died –
how far and wide the gifts of their love
actually ripple out across time and space.
We can be certain though, their influence and impact
travel farther than we can possibly imagine.
Likewise, our germs.
We may be conscious and careful
about not spreading a cold to someone we love
whose health is compromised in some way,
but we rarely think about spreading it
to a stranger at the grocery
who then unknowingly gives it
to their 97 year old mother.
Or multiply that by three
and soon our influence, in this case dreadful,
travels well beyond our consciousness.

So, together with other Christians
and atheists alike,
we will be fasting for Lent
by social distancing.

There is much we can do
to enhance our fast
and today the vestry will be coming up
with some practices for the congregation to share.
So mostly, I just wanted to give us a frame
for the time we are in
and the practice we will be sharing.
We are fasting, together,
and when we come out on the other side,
we will know some things
about ourselves and each other,
we did not know before.

Okay, now the bath in this great old story.

That Gospel
is a story about the other side of good.
We’ve all been there,
some have lived there,
and all of us visit there
on a regular basis.

The woman at the well
wants to know why Jesus,
a righteous Judean,

would drink from a common cup.

Why, she wants to know,
would someone who thinks
he is from the ‘good side of good’
be willing to talk with her,
sit next to her,
and drink from her cup?

The ‘other side of good’
is where we live within ourselves sometimes,
and of course,
where we place a bunch of other people
all the time.

The ‘other side of good’
is a rotten, debilitating,
lonesome place to be.

I have sat there
and I have no doubt
you have sat there too –
maybe you are sitting there right now.

The ‘other side of good’
is just over the border
from what we believe to be right
and moral and good.

Because you and I are not perfect –
is anyone here perfect?
Because you and I are not perfect,
we have betrayed
our own notions of rightness,
and goodness.

We haven’t just betrayed them,
we have flattened them –
left our footprints all over them
as just kept walking.
And unless we are psychopathic
we feel awful about it.
We don’t just feel awful,
we judge ourselves.
We may even hate ourselves
for what we have done, and left undone.

We know exactly
where the ‘other side of good’ is situated –
and I bet that right now,
you could even point to the place
where the ‘other side of good’ lives
in your body –
in your head, heart or stomach.

It is almost an actual place
where we feel it, when we feel it.
But we also banish other people,
and entire peoples,
to the ‘other side of good’ too.

Prejudice and bigotry,
as well as just plain old hatred
and resentment,
usher other people
right over the border
into the ‘other side of good.’

Most of us do not like to admit
that there are barren reservations
in our hearts
where we have re-located
a whole lot of folks – just banished them.

But every one of us here
has a place on the other side of good
where we keep
those herded up groups of somebodies.

Perhaps the worst thing we could do
is deny that we do it.

If we deny our prejudices
and our bigotries
then no one
and nothing
can help us subvert them.

If we deny our prejudices
and our bigotries
then there is almost no possibility
of ever healing from them.

Of course,
the minute we acknowledge them
then we will be on the ‘other side of good’ again –
which is why we deny them in the first place.
We do not like the way it feels
to be on the ‘other side of good.’

one of the truly amazing things
about the Bible,
both Hebrew and Christian testaments,
is that it is so unvarnished.

I mean really,
it does very little
to make its characters look good.
In fact, the best of the biblical heroes
have stories of moral failure told about them.

In the Gospel of Mark, for example,
Jesus has his own bigotry confronted
by a Syrophoenician woman,
and personally, I suspect this story in John
was written to make-up for Mark’s story.

But I really like the fact that the Bible
doesn’t sanitize its heroes.
They are fully human
and their humanity shines through,
and we learn from them –
in the same way
we are able to learn from our failures
when we don’t live in denial of them.

In the Exodus story we heard,
you would think that those recently escaped slaves –
a miserably vulnerable people
carried by God as if on eagle’s wings –
would be more grateful.
BUT NO…they are surly, grumpy,
mad as hell,
and they aren’t going to take it anymore.

Clearly, being ingrates and rebellious
against God and Moses,
they are on the ‘other side of good.’

But they are supposed to be the good guys in the story,
and so, this is a story about the good guys
being bad guys.
No hiding it.

The more we know the Bible
the wiser and more profound it is.
I know the Bible doesn’t have a lot of credibility
with sophisticated, 21st century folks like us,
so let it be our dirty little secret
that the Bible is wise,
and amazingly fresh
all these years later.

Now as soon as I say that,
there will be objections
about the many parts of the Bible
that belong on the other side of good too.

There is no denying those parts, to be sure.

For example, we know there are
two sentences in the Bible
that condemn homosexuality.
There is no hiding those two Bible verses
because those who want to place GLBTQ folks
on the ‘other side of good’
endlessly prosecute them with those two sentences.

Of course, those same people
also take the Bible literally,
as if it is an ancient digital recorder
that has captured every important thought
that God ever had about human beings.
But in order to do that,
they have to manipulate and mangle other sentences
about those things they care about,
so that the logic in their little Lincoln Log house
doesn’t come tumbling down.

Fortunately, we are not burdened with that dogma.
We understand
that the Bible, among other things,
was also the product of its culture –
its time and moment in history.
What is the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman
if not a story about transcending culture?

Jesus is transcending his culture’s boundaries
about ‘good’ in this story from John,
whereas he failed to do so initially
in the story I referred to in Mark.
The Bible reveals both experiences –
times when we get trapped
within our own moment of history
and place others and ourselves
in a prison
on the ‘other side of good.’

But also, the Bible holds up
and points to
the many times
when we are able to transcend
our cultural prejudices and blinders
and, almost miraculously,
escape our prisons.
The Bible shows us both –
and sometimes we have to guess which is which.

In the Bible, there seems to be a scratch
that makes the CD skip.
It is a voice
that comes to us over and over and over again.
It begins in the Creation story
when day after day
the disembodied voice of God pronounces
that this cosmos is, “good,”

and sometimes, “very good.”

It continues even as Adam and Eve
are forced to leave the garden
when God continues to offer them help.
It both leads and follows Abraham and Sarah.
It both leads and follows the slaves out of Egypt.
It both leads and follows Israel in and out of Exile.
It both leads and follows the prophets.
It both leads and follows Jesus.
It both leads and follows Jesus’ friends
who survive his death.

It is a voice that reassures,
sometimes directly
and sometimes indirectly,
through story and metaphor.
And here is what that voice reassures:
God loves mercy more than justice.

God clearly desires justice –
a fair distribution of resources and
fidelity to our relationships – but God loves mercy.

Christian tradition has fixated on God’s judgment –
the divine unhappiness with injustice.
But God stutters over mercy.
Our fetish for everyone getting
the same number of green beans on their plate
keeps us from noticing God’s devotion to mercy.
And I think that is the punchline to today’s Exodus story,
and today’s Gospel story,
and to our practice of social distancing
until we can be altogether again.
When we can practice justice, do it.
When we can advocate for justice, do it.
When we can make justice roll down like a river, do it.
But always find a way to practice mercy –
indeed, to love mercy
and be merciful to one another and ourselves.