Sermon preached by Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar on March 8, 2020
These days many of us are praying to be saved from the Coronavirus.
Stores are selling out of hand sanitizer as people try to save themselves from infection.
We greet one another with a nod or I saw a video of people in Japan shaking “feet”.
Cases are multiplying rapidly across the United States and even here in Connecticut.
Households are stocking up on basic goods in the event of a quarantine,
Which are happening in more and more areas.
The fear is fed by great uncertainty and a degree of powerlessness.
We can, and should, wash our hands more thoroughly
We can limit contact with others.
And yet, the rapid spread across the world leads me to wonder
if most of us will be infected and our bodies forced to fight it off.
Such prospects strike fear into many,
especially those whose health is not strong at the moment.
We can attempt to find the silver lining or look on the bright side –
The great majority of those infected do indeed fight it off and are stronger for it.
And yet, who is to say we – or someone we love – will not be able to fight it off?
Such uncertainty and powerlessness spark panic at worse and anxious caution at best.
The Coronavirus is not the first thing in our lives which invokes uncertainty, powerlessness, and fear.
Will I get a job and be saved from poverty or homelessness?
Will I find a partner or friends and be saved from loneliness?
Will I have children? Will I have grandchildren?
Will I have enough resources to retire?
Will I be cared for when I am unable to do so on my own?
Where will I go after I die?
With each of these scenarios, as with so many illnesses,
We have limited control.
Our actions can, perhaps, take us part of the way.
The rest of the way is left up to factors beyond our control.
At such times we often turn to prayer.
We turn to one more powerful, one we believe or hope is in control.
A popular prayer at such times involves a bargain with God –
I’ll go to church every Sunday if you save me from the Coronavirus.
I’ll give all my savings away to charity if you get me that job.
I’ll be really good if you give me eternal life.
The trouble with bargaining is that God isn’t really that into it.
Our God is not transactional.
And it is a good thing God is not interested in a bargain, for
If God was transactional, we would never be able to pay the price.
God’s gifts – wholeness, love, eternal life – they are simply too great for us to earn through volunteer hours or acts of kindness or money in the offering plate.
It’s like being at Chuck E Cheeses or some arcade –
You know, where you play games and win tickets or points to exchange for prizes at the end.
As a kid, I would work so hard at those games, trying to win as many tickets as possible.
But, whenever I got to the prize counter, I would almost always want a prize that was way more tickets than I had earned.
God’s gifts are like the HUGE teddy bear worth 100,000 tickets at the prize counter.
All our hard work can get us maybe 74 tickets which basically buys us the cheap temporary tattoos and a finger trap.
We can’t earn enough tickets to “buy” God’s love or God’s grace or Eternal Life.
Moreover, there is a huge ongoing debate about how to win tickets anyway.
Some traditions say you got to pray this way, dress like that, and avoid every vice there is in order to win God’s approval.
Some say you can’t eat this and others say you should.
Some say dancing is a sin and others, thankfully, say dancing is a holy endeavor.
We don’t even agree on how to win tickets to God’s love and eternal life.
Back in the Middle Ages you could pay money to get your deceased loved one closer to heaven. While that practice of indulgences is no longer a thing, trying to use money to win God’s favor is still a spiritual trap for those with wealth.
In fact, this idea of winning God’s gifts through proper prayer, proper actions, and the like has a long history.
So if you find yourself bargaining with God when you are afraid, you have good company.
However, the father of the Protestant Reformation, the one who ignited a whole new way of thinking that eventually lead to our very own United Church of Christ, spoke of a God that wasn’t into bargaining: a God of grace.
In the early 1500s Martin Luther read and preached on today’s scripture from Romans (Romans 4:1-5, 13-17)
What he saw clearly was that Abraham was made righteous, good with God,
Not by his actions –
not by circumcision, nor by leaving his home, nor by following God’s law
Abraham was made righteous and saved by God, based on his faith.
Saved, Justified by Faith alone, not works.
Martin Luther looked deeply into scripture and saw a God that did not give the gift of eternal life, health, wholeness, or anything else on the basis of works, but on the basis of faith.
Justified by Faith alone, not works.
Is the statement that would define the Protestant Reformation
This truth is proclaimed loudly, although in different words, in the popularized verse of John 3:16
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son
that all who believe in him will not perish,
but have eternal life.
The great gifts of God – eternal life, love, wholeness – are given not based on the number of works or tickets we have acquired, but on the basis of faith.
This is not to say our actions do not have consequences.
Please, do not go coughing your germs on everyone
and proclaim that God will save us if we just believe.
To believe in Jesus Christ is not simply a nice thought that will ward off evil.
Belief in Jesus is not some magic wand.
However, when we truly believe in Jesus, our actions will necessarily change.
To believe in Jesus is to believe that God would come and dwell with us in our human suffering.
To believe in Jesus is to believe in a Divinity that is not lightyears away, but among us and with us.
So when we truly believe in Jesus,
We trust that God is with us and we are strengthened to face the tumult of the world,
For we have a constant companion and friend who is right there with us.
To believe in Jesus saves us from isolation and separation.
To believe in Jesus is to believe that God loves the world enough to be present with us.
To believe in Jesus is to believe in a Divine love that transcend every barrier –
Every social barrier, every emotional barrier.
So when we truly believe in Jesus,
We are less afraid of reaching out to others,
Even those across barriers.
To believe in Jesus saves our world from discord and hate.
To believe in Jesus Christ is to believe God breaks through not only social barriers,
but even the barrier of death.
To believe in Jesus is to trust that God is with us, loving us, through this life, through death, for all time.
To believe in Jesus saves us from perishing – Saves us from destruction and death.
To believe in Jesus is to trust that even when our current bodies no longer breath,
God breathes eternal life and love into our souls.
We are saved, here and now and forevermore.
On one hand it sounds simple –
Just believe you will be saved! Just believe and you win the huge teddy bear!
And yet, faith is more difficult to grasp.
In Mark 9 the father of a boy with an unclean spirit cries out to Jesus,
“I believe, Lord help my unbelief!”
Jesus does heal the boy – even with his father’s paradoxical faith.
Our unbelief – or even simply our shaken faith – can be strengthen with the spiritual practices that have built up disciples for centuries:
- Reading or remembering stories of faithful people in scripture, devotionals, or in conversation with friends
- Practicing gratitude and generosity often open our eyes to the work of the Divine
- Taking time to pray – sitting or walking, singing or speaking – time to talk with God, even if you are unsure God is listening
In AA they say all you need to come to a meeting is the desire to be sober.
I believe the same is true for God –
We need not be unwavering in our belief in Jesus – I know few who truly are -Rather, we are asked to simply have the desire to believe in Jesus.
Perhaps that desire for faith in God’s love is the first step,
Or maybe our God is gracious enough that the simple desire to believe in Jesus is enough.
While fear, uncertainty and powerlessness whirl around us,
May we strengthen our belief in Jesus,
trusting in God’s presence and God’s love through it all,
Trusting that we will be saved one way or another,
For God is indeed with us.
While we should still wash our hands, let us not be afraid, but rather turn to God in prayer. Amen.