Harrowing Of Hell
April 12, 2020

Easter in a Time of COVID 19

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To listen to the sermon click here.

Happy Easter.

It is great to see you. I know we are joined fiber optically, and it is strange to be gathering this way. It is not our regular pattern. Usually we have candles, and timpani, and trumpets; being led by an extraordinary choir, 40 persons strong…it is worship, it is praise, lifting our hands in the air, doing all the things we do when we come together to say: This is the day; the most extraordinary and important day, because it does something remarkable – It moves us, in our minds, from a place of limitation, a place where we are confined by our capacity as human beings, to a place where we are liberated, where we are eternal, because of the Resurrection of Jesus. 

I promise you that when we can gather again, and we will gather again, we will worship in a transcendent, spectacular way, because that is what we do here, but now is no time for grand things in this time of uncertainty. Everything has the pause button pushed.

I was talking to a buddy on the phone and he started running through the litany of all of the things that had been canceled in his life, and he went on and on. Finally, I just sort of jumped in, and said, “The Church hasn’t stopped.”  And he chuckled: “Yeah, church hasn’t stopped. Church can’t stop.”

The Church continues on and maybe even finds its best self in times of crisis, because we confront uncertainty and the anxiety of society with mystery and the revelation of joy.

I’ll give you an example from my own life. Most of you probably don’t know this, but after Ash Wednesday I got pretty sick: high fever, dry, hacking cough, the kind that makes your brain bounce around in your head. And I was terribly tired, and all I could do each day was answer a few emails and sleep. I even missed a Sunday service for the first time in my 12 years at Epiphany.

Now at the time, Kristin, my wife, was in Boston for two weeks, and so, it was just Desmond, my sturdy and steadfast 16 year-old, and myself at home…and our two dogs. He took care of the animals and made the meals. I even caught him mopping the kitchen floor, and that was before quarantine, now he mops it all the time because there is nothing else to do. That set up worked for about five days, until Desmond got sick as well. Then we just muddled along, taking turns walking the dogs, and heating up food left at the front door by the church. Thank you, friends.

Now one thing that didn’t leave my life during this time of convalescence was my morning prayer routine. No matter what time I got up, I’d go to my sacred sitting place and pray. As those of you who hear me preach regularly know I talk about prayer requiring three things: showing up, listening, and synchronicity of heart to soul.

The Desert Fathers taught that we can achieve this synchronicity by matching the words of our prayers to the beating of our hearts. So, over time, I’ve gotten into the habit of matching a short mantra to the beating of my heart. It is my morning prayer pattern, but often when I wake in the middle of the night, I pray this way as well. There is something about it that is orienting, sort of like a superpower…unless you have a high fever, and then it is terrifying–because as my temperature rose my heart beat faster.  At night my chest pounded, and the words of my mantra, meant to evoke equanimity, now raced through my mind like a jumble of rubble rolling down a hill and there was nothing I could do. I just lay there, Kristin gone, Desmond upstairs sick himself, and my superpower of prayer caught, as if by kryptonite. My sure foundation now acted as a megaphone announcing to me the failing state of my own body.

I was ill, and that exacerbated my anxiety, but there are a lot of things that are causing anxiety right now, aren’t there? Being stuck at home, maybe, with a partner or children or parents that are difficult to be around. Maybe you are lonely, and you can’t see the people you love. Maybe you have a friend in the hospital you can’t visit. That is hard. I even know people who have loved ones who have died, and they can’t be there at their grave site when they are laid to rest. That is really hard.  

At first the whole corona ordeal might have felt like a little break, all the obligations that you didn’t want to oblige yourself to could be pushed off and ignored. I get that. But now, as things go on, we begin to look down the road toward a future that doesn’t look like the world we just left. The stock market erratic; and then there is the unemployment. There is anxiety about losing your job or finding a new job, or if you are getting out of college what kind of job are you going to get? 

There is shaking and quaking in all sorts of ways. I get that. There is fear, and if you think that fear isn’t real, you’re not paying attention. It is real. 

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary experienced real fear when they went to visit Jesus’s tomb. They went just to mourn, to be there and to weep and to grieve and to remember their friend. It wasn’t easy sitting there, because they were not alone, there was a Roman centurion there, guarding the tomb.

Then the earth begins to shake and quake; as a vision of light came down and sat there in their midst. And Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were flat out petrified. And so was the centurion. Now this centurion wasn’t a lightweight, friends. Pontius Pilate picked him personally. This centurion had seen a lot and had a certain set of skills that he employed to give him his power, his superpower if you will. A superpower that had worked effectively to get him out of tight places; in leading his soldiers into battle and beating back the enemy; even working his way up the ladder of the Roman hierarchy…all of a sudden all of that stuff that worked in the past, gone. None of it worked. He had no reserve. 

He had no back up plan to confront something he had never seen before, something that was mysterious, beyond his capacity, provoking a fear, he just couldn’t even put his finger on, and so, he fell to the ground as if a dead man.

Mary and the other Mary, they were afraid as well. The angel pushed back the rock and turned to them and said: “Do not be afraid. He is not here.”  The Marys heard, in these words, echoes of Jesus; because at the Last Supper, and I’m sure they were at the Last Supper. We know the apostles were, we’ve seen the DaVinci painting (smile), but I am sure the women were there as well. They were devoted followers of Jesus. They were the ones at the cross when all of the disciples slithered away. They were charismatic leaders in the early church, make no mistake about it. They were there when Jesus said: “Let your hearts not be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

So, they got up and followed the angel’s instructions. And as they are going back to tell the disciples what they had just experienced; going in fear, but also with joy…a joy that came from the words the angel gave them, Jesus’s words, the words that I am giving you because he gave them to me, the words the church heralds in times of crisis: “Do not be afraid.”

That is what the centurion didn’t have when the angel showed up; he didn’t have the words of Jesus. The Marys did. They heard the words of Jesus and there was joy in their hearts. Joy. It was Joy. And then, right there in front of them was the risen Lord, and they fell down and they worshiped him. 

Worship is our response to the mysteries that we don’t understand. Worship is our response to the things that are bigger than our minds can imagine. And you ask: What is worship? How can I get a little piece of that? It is simple: it is praise and thanksgiving to God. It can look like singing a song; or getting down your knees and saying thank you to God 1000 times. Or participating in our services.

We have a way of giving thanks to God here at Epiphany; it’s called the Eucharist. It simply means thanksgiving in Greek. That is what we do.  That is all the church does- give thanks and praise to God.

So, why is the church flourishing right now in this time of corona, even on-line? Why are more and more people considering Epiphany Parish right now, maybe more than they ever have in my entire time here? It is because we do something that responds to fear; we worship God, and worship evokes a deep joy. It is a big joy; it is a divine joy; it is an eternal joy; it is a holy joy; it is a Resurrection joy.

I know a little bit of what that joy feels because I have had my greatest strength, my prayer life, my superpower, mugged by fear and anxiety.

So, I’m lying there, sick, at night, and afraid, heart pounding, prayer failing. And then, as if out of nowhere, my soul starts to lighten as I hear echoes of joy coming from a long way away, moving toward me and arriving as a song. It is a song I have sung 1000 times, in fact, we have already sung it today, it is called the Gloria. And I heard that Gloria careening around inside my head, and then moving its way down into my pounding, pounding, pounding heart. “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth….we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory.”

Those words and music moved in a mysterious way reminding me that, even in fear, with my heart still pounding, and my fever still burning, and Desmond still sick, and Kristin still gone…there was joy.

On one side of me was fear, and on the other side of me I praised God, and gave thanks to God. People ask me if I had COVID-19, and I don’t know. There were no tests available at the time, but I do know Jesus reached out to me in joy, and my response was praise and thanksgiving; and I do know he is reaching out to you in the same way, some way, today. My hope for you in this time of corona, this time of COVID-19, is you never forget the joy unleashed on the world by the Resurrection of Jesus.

There is nothing to fear, well, there is something to fear, be cautious, take care of yourself, mind all of the health protocols; but there is also Resurrection, there is joy and that joy transcends fear. Seek that Joy.  Jesus gave us that joy; find it in worship; find it in music, find it in adoration, find it in a special meal you make and as you sit down to eat say: Thank you. And don’t say it once, say it 12 times, say it 144 times, say it a1000 times. Thank you, thank you, thank you, God.

In this time of corona take ownership of the gifts given to us by Mary Magdalene and the other Mary…worship and praise God. God is here, God is near, God is closer to us than the coronavirus could ever be. 

So, give thanks to God, praise God! And don’t forget that you are loved.  You are cared for, and you are not alone. We are here for you, the church, of course, to the best of our ability, but way more importantly and way more powerfully, so is Jesus, our resurrected Lord.

God bless you. I love you. Peace upon your soul, and Happy Easter.