Preached for Introduction to Preaching at The School of Theology of the University of the South in the Spring of 2021. Adapted from a sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Kansas City in July 2020.
Alleluia Christ is Risen!
We’re now entering the 55th week of Coronatide. That is, it really has been 55 weeks since we went into that first lockdown and the churches closed and our lives changed and man oh man has it been a rough 55 weeks. When the Covid lockdown first started I spent a lot of time at home and having been home and not having had a lot to do I watched a lot of TV and watching a lot of TV I inevitably saw a lot of news. Multiple times a day, day in and day out, and every time it came on or I read an article on Facebook it seemed, (and still seems) like there is nothing but bad news. In the past year we dealt with rising numbers of coronavirus cases, an increasing death toll, record unemployment, police brutality, protests, violence, civil unrest, murder, murder hornets (did those actually ever become a thing?), we had locusts in Africa, plague in China, polarization, discord and division an insurrection at the capitol racism here on the mountain, restrictions on our common life and the list goes on and on and on and on…
At first, I didn’t think much of it. Covid seemed to be predominantly affecting places hundreds and even thousands of miles away. But as time went on, the negativity I saw everywhere and the collective anxiety of a society that didn’t know what new horror tomorrow might bring began to get to me. Before long I settled into a bit of a funk and anxiety, depression and fear began to set in, and from talking to friends from near and far, I know I was not alone in those feelings and honestly, a lot of those feelings came with me as I transitioned from life in Kansas City to life here in Sewanee and from some of the interactions we’ve had as a class since August I think it’s safe to say those feelings came with a lot of us. Negativity and anxiety have taken hold of us and don’t seem to want to let go. Sometimes it seems like we’re even afraid to let ourselves be happy.
Given the horrible things going on around us, it’s understandable, and even natural, that it would begin to take its toll especially when it seems as if there is no end. Human beings have what psychologists call a negativity bias meaning that “even when they are of equal intensity things of a more negative nature have a greater effect on one’s psychological state than neutral or positive things.” It is a primal self-defense mechanism, so to speak, but this negativity bias means that the longer we are surrounded by so much sadness, anxiety and fear the more likely we are to lose track of the Good things in life, the things that give us hope for the future. So, as the bad news keeps coming- and we struggle to remember what normal ever was- we need to be reminded that all is not lost and there is still something worth hoping for, a reason to be happy and see the light through the gloom. St. Paul’s message to us is a timely reminder that there is Good News out there, Good news that makes everything we’re going through now seem insignificant.
The section of Paul’s letter that we just heard is a portion of his discourse on the new life of the spirit. In it he tells us that for those of us who have been united to Christ in the waters of baptism there is no longer any condemnation because Jesus has fulfilled the law on our behalf, his obedience has canceled our disobedience and that his death has defeated the power of sin, and death that held us captive. He tells us that we have not given a spirt of fear but of adoption. In baptism we have been adopted as Children of God and made joint heirs with Christ. Everything that is Jesus’s is ours. Paul tells us that there will be suffering, and life will not be easy, but he also says that we will be glorified with Christ, and that that glory will far surpass the suffering. Then almost as if Paul knew about our negativity bias, that the suffering of the present time would make it hard to remember the glory that is promised, he ends the passage by encouraging us to hold on to hope. He says in hope we were saved. Or put another way the things God has promised us will not all be given to us in this life.
This hope Paul speaks of doesn’t really mean hope as we often understand it today as wanting or wishing for something to happen -like how I always hope I’ll win the lottery-. He means rather that we are to have hope as St. John Chrysostom defines it in his 14th homily on the letter to the Romans “as having confidence in the things to come.” This definition is echoed by the catechism as it defines the Christian hope as being “to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life and to await the coming of Christ in glory and the completion of God’s purpose for the world.”
Living with this Christian hope, this confidence in things to come is not easy- it’s honestly counter intuitive- because we’re built to give in to fear to protect ourselves and yet this hope, this quiet confidence that God will fulfill God’s promises, is the life to which we are called. Paul tells us that if we could see what we hoped for it wouldn’t be hope and yet we are not called to hope blindly. We are called to hope because as the last few weeks have reminded us, we have heard Good News and we know the end of the story. We know God became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ to identify with us, sanctify us, and redeem us, we know that he suffered and died for us, we know that he rose again, and that through the Holy Spirit within us God is always present with us and will come again to judge the living and the dead and to restore all things, even the creation, which Paul tells us groans in anticipation for that day when the glory of God will be revealed. We know that when he comes in glory Jesus will wipe away every tear from every eye, take away all pain and suffering, anxiety, sadness, and division, that seems to be everywhere of late and that God will be uniquely present with us for all eternity as the prophet Isaiah foretold and as John echoed in Revelation. We experience a foretaste of this renewed creation, this resurrection life, here and now through the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, and in the life of the church: in our community, in the love we have for one another, and in the sacraments as Leigh reminded us yesterday. It is through this foretaste that we know that we do not hope in vain.
Chances are, my friends, that there will be other dark days ahead, the bad news will continue to pile up in one way or another, death and destruction won’t suddenly stop any time soon and the negativity will continue to get to us if we let it. But when those days come, St Paul reminds us that we don’t have to be a slave to fear, that we have hope to hold on to in the promises of a loving God who is with us, and for us, and that through that God, all things will be made right. Negativity will not have the final word. So, why do we let it have such control now? God’s promises give us hope if we’re willing to take hold of it and because that hope is not simply wishing that things would get better but rather confidence in the things to come, we need to hold on to it for dear life we need to remember the good things we have experienced here and now and in the midst of the negativity that surrounds us we need to act as if we have hope and that God’s promises are true which means not giving in to the fear and anxiety as natural as it may be. We’ve rightly given a lot of space to grief and lament in this last year and as necessary as that has been, I wonder if it has caused us to lose sight of the end of the story. So, I want to challenge each and every one of us we who are joint heirs with Christ and who were saved in hope to share hope with each other and with a world that desperately needs light and happiness, a world that needs to know that things will get better. Don’t get bogged down in the brokenness of the word, don’t be afraid to be happy because we do know the end of the story and I’d be willing to bet that if we shifted our focus from grieving to sharing hope it’d be easier for us to hold onto it ourselves.
 “Five Inspiring Antidotes for Coronavirus Fear and Negativity” William Arruda Forbes Magazine 4/5/20