Well, it’s officially been a year. I still remember the last day I received communion here in Ottawa, not knowing it would be my last time to be in community. It was March 8th. Our National Bishop, Susan Johnson, preached the sermon at St. John. March break was being extended. The virus was around, whispering everywhere, but you could still ignore it, if you really tried. Then March 11th. People got really obsessed with toilet paper, which was weird. Masks were the shortage we really needed to worry about. Our kids were thrilled by an extra long March break. Within a week, Plexiglass windows greeted us at the grocery store. Within weeks, there were signs in the windows of homes to honour the health care workers. People stood at the windows of their loved ones at Long Term Care homes. Hugs stopped. Hand-holding stopped. Family dinners stopped. Worshipping stopped.
So where was God in all of this? Where is God now?
In our gospel this morning, we are reminded of the reasons for Jesus’s walking among us; the reasoning behind the gospel was not to condemn us. God’s plan was not to bring judgment on our ways, but to show another way, a way that might save us. At the time of Jesus’s life, the world was not great: with unequal, corrupt leaders who took from the poor, and poor who could not change their fortunes. Yet, the focus of the ministry of Jesus was good works rather than bad deeds, celebrating healing and learning, rather than punishments. Jesus understood what the gospel today tries to remind us about: people who do evil usually hide in the shadows. But the acts of the gospel shine bright in the day and inspire.
During this past year, it was not hard to see places where God felt absent, and where at the very least, we might feel angry that God was not more present. We lost friends and family and were unable to say goodbye to them as we wanted. We missed important events we can’t get back. Our mental health suffered. The poorest among us, forced to keep working, were at the highest risk of getting sick. We lost our sense of community.
And yet, we also gained a community – a community of humanity trying to survive the same foe. Around the world, their stories were the same as ours. So when we heard the Italians singing beautifully from their balconies, it wasn’t just a cool viral video – it reached out to us, our community of people living through lockdown. When our churches might have been focused on money and paralysed by analysing the impact on the institution, our communities of faith came together and raised close to $15K to help feed the most vulnerable in Ottawa. When humanity managed to pull off one scientific feat after another, improving survival rates from COVID-19, sharing findings worldwide, and finally fast-tracking a vaccine solution, there was a community of scientists and health workers coming together.
We messed up lots of times; we weren’t always nice to one another, or generous either. Not all evil acts hid in the shadows, either, despite what the gospel says. They found a crack, and pushed their way into the open, and so we also saw terrible acts of racism and violence.
But each time, a counterforce of kindness and truth pushed back.
The gospel in John can read as stern and inflexible. That’s the kind of guy we imagine John to be, unwavering to the end, and harsh when humanity went wrong. John wanted people to be honest with themselves, not so they felt bad, but so they would then be more open to seeing how they might change for the better. So while this morning’s gospel has often traditionally been seen as us against them – the good Christians and the bad ones – it is not about that at all. Jesus didn’t see the path to victory dividing people. The gospel is not about us and them; it’s just about us. We are the ones who do good and inspire; and we are the ones who act badly and hide with shame in the dark about it. The gospel is really a constant reminder to do what is true. To ask ourselves, each and every day: where do we want to be? Who do we want to be? What do we want to be doing? The grace of God, as our second lesson points out, takes care, giving us another day to ask the same questions, and another day after that. As many as we need to get it right.
When we reflect on the year, we must see all these moments of the gospel at work: the kindness shown strangers, the people working overtime to help, the volunteers who called lonely people, or delivered food, the way we learned to value small moments over big ones. If the virus has always been whispering around us, with its threats and dangers, the gospel was also whispering, protecting us, lifting us up, sending us out.
We are not done; I want to urge all of us to keep following the physical distancing guidelines, especially with the variants spreading quickly. It is hard, and we have been doing this for so long. It will be hard, too, when some people get the vaccine first, or when line-ups are long. Then we need to do what is true and be a presence in the world that inspires others, rather than condemning them. Truth has faced many challenges this year, but there is the gospel test to decide things once and for all. What is true does not always mean what is fact: for facts can be very selective and usually stop and begin where the provider decides. The gospel’s measure of doing what is true returns to the purpose of Jesus’s appearance on earth. Jesus came to save us, to deliver us from our wrongdoing, to inspire us to goodness. That is, perhaps, our challenge for Lent this week. To think of all the good we have seen this past year, to consider what actions and events inspire us to do what is true, and to hold on to them. When all this is over, there is a lot we will want to forget. But there will also be things that we will need to remember. Amen