Choosing the New Normal – April 26, 2020

John Spicer
April 26, 2020

Choosing the New Normal – April 26, 2020

Sermon for April 26, 2020
1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

In the news recently, we’ve seen and heard a lot about “flattening the curve” of COVID-19, with diagrams showing the rise and eventual fall of the disease’s incidence.  This morning, I’d like to share a different curve with you.  This one comes from Episcopal Relief and Development, the church’s disaster-response agency, and it gives us a picture of a disaster’s emotional lifecycle – whether it’s from a hurricane, or an earthquake … or a pandemic.

So, what does a disaster’s emotional lifecycle look like? You begin with the “predisaster” period, of course, when life is normal.  Then, the event happens.  Right after that, emotionally, things are pretty good.  There’s a heroic period when people go above and beyond the call.  This heroism and sacrifice bring us to a point of community cohesion, a honeymoon time when we find our emotional footing again, and we cheer each other on as we rise up against the common threat.  You might notice that this stage of a disaster’s emotional lifecycle is pretty short.

Then, the curve heads south.  That’s the stage of disillusionment, and I would say it’s  where we’re heading now in the coronavirus pandemic.  Thousands have died, and millions have lost their jobs, and the economy is tanking.  And in that pain and fear, old conflicts manifest in new ways.  Bitterness poisons the sweetness of honeymoon.  It’s a long journey to the bottom of that curve.  But eventually, we work through our grief, coming to terms with what’s happened.  And finally, a new normal arises.

 As I said in this week’s newsletter, more and more I’ve been getting the question, “When do you think church will return to normal?”  If that means, “When do you think we’ll worship together again,” I don’t know.  But if we ask the deeper question – “What will our new normal be?” – I think the answer is, “We get to choose.”  This crisis is an opportunity for us to choose to live in resurrection.

That choice is where we find two of Jesus’ disciples in today’s Gospel reading.  We hear this story two weeks after Easter, which makes it seem like it must be two episodes later in a Netflix series.  But the Emmaus story happens on Easter day, just a little while after the women tell the other disciples that Jesus has been raised, which the guys write off as just “an idle tale” (Luke 24:11).

So, these two disciples are walking to a nearby village later on Easter day when they meet a stranger.  The stranger asks them what they’ve been talking about – what’s their story; what’s their narrative of the events they’ve witnessed.  Well, the narrative they’ve chosen is a narrative of death: hopes raised but dashed; powers challenged but finally having their way.  Even though the women have seen angels who say Jesus is alive, that’s just an idle tale.  For these disciples, it seems pretty clear that death wins in the end.

And I imagine Jesus doing a head smack.  The Gospel writer probably cleans up his response, too, having him say, “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe…!” (24:25).  For years, Jesus has been teaching them how their tradition points to God coming to save them not through political victory or military might but through suffering and sacrifice.  Plus, at least three times in the Gospel story Jesus looked his friends in the eye and predicted precisely what would happen: that he’d be betrayed, and delivered to the authorities, and be killed – and then be raised.  And, by the way, that prediction was confirmed by angels standing by an empty tomb.

As the stranger gives them this new narrative, this narrative of life, the two disciples find their “hearts burning within” them (24:32).  But they don’t make the jump to actionable belief, belief that turns you in a new direction – and that’s what Jesus is looking for.  He’s shown them resurrected life in the flesh, but he wants them to want it, too.  Faith isn’t about divine spoon-feeding; it’s about God filling our deepest desires.  So, once the disciples and the stranger get to Emmaus, at the end of Easter day, Jesus says good-bye and heads off toward the next village.  But the two disciples do want more.  They’ve had their hearts strangely warmed, as John Wesley would have said.  So, they ask the stranger to stay – and that desire gives Jesus enough longing, enough hope, to work with.

So, as they sit at dinner together, Jesus brings them an intervention – a moment of loving reality so vivid they can’t miss it.  He takes the bread, and blesses it, and breaks it, and gives it to them.

Now, hit the pause button and take a moment to remember, because that’s precisely what Jesus is asking these two disciples, and all of us, to do – to remember.  When have we seen Jesus take bread, and bless it, and break it, and give it to people?  In two different but deeply related settings.  First, this is the storyline for his feeding miracles.  With thousands of people who have no food, Jesus takes some bread, and blesses it, and breaks it, and gives it – enough to feed everybody and leave 12 baskets of leftovers.  Second, this is the storyline for the Last Supper.  With his closest friends, Jesus takes the bread, and blesses it, and breaks it, and gives it – a small amount in their hands but enough to feed them with life that never ends.

There at the table in Emmaus, I believe Jesus is showing us eternal life in all its fullness:  life we live now, as God satisfies our hunger with overflowing blessing; and life we live forever, as God feeds us for eternity with divine love.  Don’t forget this, Jesus is saying to these two friends.  Don’t forget that eternal life is yours, now and forever.  The word for this in Greek is a word we usually define as “active remembering” – anamnesis, the way the Eucharist brings Jesus actively into our midst, and that’s exactly right.  But the word in Greek is more of an imperative than a description.  Anamnesis means “not amnesia” – not forgetting.  In the midst of “normal” life, be sure not to forget what our new normal is: resurrection, a new birth to life that never ends.

So, go back to that emotional-response curve I showed you a few minutes ago. In the time of initial response, we band together and rally to meet the challenge.  We honor healthcare workers, and first responders, and people keeping grocery stores stocked.  We reach out to each other, and think creatively, and take risks to try new things.  But once the crisis begins to subside, disillusionment sets in.  We long for what was normal because it’s comfortable and comforting.  But the curve shows us we’ve left the old normal behind.  And as we long to return to it, we also risk returning to our divisions.  We’re tempted to buy into those divisions because they’re comfortable, too.  But if we do, we’ll let uncertainty, exhaustion, and fear deepen wounds that already divide us.  Is that what we want to choose?  Is that the life of resurrection, the life Jesus tells us we must not forget?

Here’s another choice.  We could choose a new normal – the new normal of loving one another.  We heard it in the first reading this morning, from 1 Peter.  Jesus dying and rising for us gives us nothing less than a “new birth into a living hope” (1:3).  Because Christ was raised, we can trust that God wants to give us that same reality of new life, both now and eternally.  If that’s true – if life really is eternal, as we claim – we’d better be figuring out now how to live it for the long term.  And how do we learn to do that?  The reading gives us a simple answer:  “If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds … [if] your faith and hope are set on God … love one another deeply from the heart” (1:17,21,22).  Choosing to love the people around us now, in the practice round for eternity – this is what trains us to live with them forever.  Forever is a long time, after all; so, it’d be good if we got ready for it.

Here’s a case study from our descent into disillusionment on the disaster-response curve.  Not surprisingly, now that we’re in this stage, we’re disagreeing with each other about how and when to open our lives back up for business and social interaction.  Just yesterday, it seems, we were watching people take to the streets to cheer on healthcare workers.  Now, we’re watching people take to the streets to protest for and against getting the country back to work.  And – no surprise – here come the media, highlighting the conflict to serve their own agendas.  Welcome back to our old normal.

Or, not.  I think this a time for anamnesis, a time for some intentional not-forgetting what eternal, resurrected life looks and feels like.  In our lives before COVID-19, where did we see people loving one another deeply from the heart?  Well, we came together to share bread and wine in restaurants, and in our homes, and at this altar.  We served people in need and tried to build relationships with people we didn’t know.  Some of us were learning to listen to people we disagree with, seeking to understand problems rather than yelling about them.  So, remember that, raise it up, and build on it.

And now, in our lives with COVID-19, where do we see people loving one another deeply from the heart?  We see news reports of people serenading each other from their balconies.  We wave to neighbors we’ve always ignored.  We thank people for the work they do.  We wear masks to put others’ well-being ahead of our own inconvenience.  We drive by and honk in front of people’s homes to wish them happy birthday or happy graduation.  We see restaurateurs serving people who can’t afford food.  We see companies making hand sanitizer instead of whisky (only temporarily, thank God).  Think about it: What has left your heart strangely warmed in this peculiar time?  Remember that, raise it up, and build on it.

It’s been said this is our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment.  Maybe it has been.  But now, we’re moving toward a different moment – perhaps our Marshall Plan moment.  Because out of the death and chaos of World War II, we chose not to return to the old normal.  We chose a new normal, one that both rebuilt Europeans’ lives and built up Western economies.  So now, in a time of disillusionment, we have the chance to think about which “normal” we will choose.  How will we answer Jesus’ call to love one another deeply from the heart?

Like the disciples on Easter afternoon, we can either choose a narrative of isolation, fear, division, and death – or we can remember a different narrative, the story of resurrection.  We can live as though we actually believe life is eternal and already begun among us.  If the Easter story tells us nothing else, it makes us remember that God can take isolation, fear, division, and death, and use it to heal a world aching for hope and common purpose.  We must choose not to forget it.