September 20, 2020: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, The Rev. Candice B. Frazer

There is nothing like a hurricane to put our collect this morning into perspective—“Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure…” Many along the Gulf Coast went to bed Tuesday night expecting a Cat One hurricane that would hit the shore and quickly break up into a tropical storm.

Instead just hours before she came on shore, the rain event strengthened and settled on the coast for several hours as a Category Two hurricane that barely moved. Trees fell on homes, ripped out of the ground by their roots. Piers were lost, boats flipped over or were pushed by the winds and water to roads and beaches foreign to their owners. Roofs were peeled off, water rose in the streets and into kitchens and bedrooms, power lines went down, fences fell over, homes burned—many lost possessions and some lost everything.

Though many will be without power for a while, wildlife has been displaced, and a lot of boat owners get to play scavenger hunt—the area will bounce back. The gulf will clean itself up, the birds and bees will rebuild their nests, the alligators will find their resting places, the water will recede, power will be restored, people will clean up and repair their property and the boats will be recovered. And the fear and terror of a night of fierce winds and rolling waves breaking on homes in which people prayed and read their Bibles throughout the night, will eventually diminish until it is forgotten. In the midst of the storm, when anxiety is the highest, our attention will always go to heavenly things—God, prayer, creation, nature. When the powers of things beyond our control threaten us, we turn to the power beyond all control for help and hope.

That is exactly what the Israelites did in the wilderness. They weren’t threatened by hurricanes, but the threats to their existence through starvation and the fear of the unknown have infected their hearts with anxiety and led them to worst case scenario thinking in playing the “what if…” game. These are a people who were enslaved and though they have found salvation it was not an easy path. There were plagues and famines, water turning to blood, locusts, death of the first-born males and now they are wandering in the wilderness after being chased by Pharaoh and his army—barely escaping through a wall of water that closed over their enemies. They have been on an emotional roller coaster of fear and joy, threat and escape. Though they may be free of their oppressors in this moment, now they are facing a strange landscape, carrying their homes on their backs, and their prospects of food and the amenities of the life they once knew are limited—if they exist at all. They’ve escaped the storm—the night of chaos—only to see their loss in the light of day.

In times of pandemic, hurricanes, wildfires, racism, neo-Nazism, and all the other things that have knocked our lives askew and heightened our anxieties in what is already an anxious country our attention in the moment is to hold fast to the divine, to love things heavenly. But as the time stretches from hours to days to months with no relief or clear path before us, our faith begins to diminish. So we complain. We complain about our governments inability to lead in times of crisis. We complain that the Weather Channel got it wrong. We complain about the decisions our schools have made be it on-line teaching or in the classroom. We complain about the inadequacies of our health care. We complain that our rights are being violated because we have to wear a mask. We complain against Moses and Aaron.

The Israelites, wandering in the wilderness, are hungry and are having to learn a new way of life. They may be free from their oppressors, the Egyptians, but their life is still not an easy one. They seem to think that freedom equates to ease and security believing freedom to be the opposite of oppression and servitude. So they complain that they have nothing to eat, that the journey is hard, that life is not what it was. “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt, sitting by our fleshpots and eating our fill of bread, instead of dying of hunger in this wilderness.”

We, too, know those complaints. We find ourselves in the midst of change be it wearing a mask and social distancing or a loss of property and home. It doesn’t matter the extremes that brought us to this place, we are all here, all of us trying to figure out how to live in this new world. Our complaints vacillate between why the need for social distancing to herd immunity through exposure to our governments doing more to protect us like creating a vaccine. “Would that we just all be exposed and let God’s grace cover us than have to live and work and go to the grocery store wearing a mask.” We have equated freedom with the ability to do anything we want without having to know or understand the repercussions and certainly not have to suffer for them.

Freedom is not the opposite of servitude and oppression nor is it the ability to do anything we want without consequence. Freedom is about identity. For quite some time, American identity has been tied to the way we looked, the things we owned, the people we were associated with, the clubs we belonged too, the work we did. COVID-19 has changed a lot of that. The individuality of our looks has been diminished by the commonality of our face masks. We may relish in our possessions, but for many of us they have become at best a distraction in these days and at worst a burden. With social distancing, our belonging to a group or a club has become less than satisfying. The work we do has become compromised or significantly changed due to conditions of health and safety that have forced many to work from home via technology or if coming to the office, it is an office experience much different from the way it used to be. Our complaints are not about oppression or not getting what we want—they are about a changing identity and a fear of what we may become even if it is something better than what we are now.

Most of us think freedom means getting to do whatever we want whenever we want—within certain limits, of course. Or, at the least, not being enslaved or imprisoned. That seems to be what the Ancient Israelites were thinking as they wandered in the wilderness far from home and not sure where their next meal was coming from. That seems to be what we believe when we complain that our rights are being violated if we have to wear a mask in public places. But freedom is not the opposite of slavery or imprisonment, nor is it simply getting what you want. Freedom is about identity. And our identity is wrapped in in the province of God. As Christians, to be free, is simply a matter of claiming that identity and with all that we have and all that we are—loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. That can be a hard thing to do and we will always yearn to go back to the way things used to be even if they weren’t that great simply because it is our nature. But Christian identity is wrapped up in resurrection and renewal and is never static. It means loving heavenly things more than earthly ones. And clinging to the mystery of life rather than allowing ourselves to be satisfied with half-truths. It means the preferential option of the other—whoever that might be. That is our identity. That is what it means to be free. Amen.

16 Pentecost 20A: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, September 20, 2020
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer

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