by Rev. Dr. Kristin Philipson
Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 14, 2021
Here’s a question I might ask if we were all together in the sanctuary – I’d get you to turn to your neighbour, to share your answer – “What is possible for you this year that wasn’t possible for you one year ago?” This week marked the one-year anniversary of Covid-19 being declared a pandemic and I think all of us have been looking back, thinking about who we were then and who we are now. Living through a pandemic has changed a lot of things for us, many aspects of our lives closed down, but other parts of our lives have opened up. We’ve been able to see things we couldn’t see a year ago. What has become possible for you now, that wasn’t part of your reality one year ago?
Maybe you couldn’t imagine being as connected as you are now to your friends and family. I used to phone my parents semi-regularly, but now my brothers and my parents and I have a set Zoom call, every two weeks. And I never used to talk with my oldest friends from when I was growing up or my friends from university more than a couple of times a year, but conversations with them have become a regular and expected event now. A year ago you might never have thought you could work from home and maybe now you’re considering doing this permanently, or maybe the possibility you couldn’t have imagined is that you actually appreciate your office. Maybe you didn’t have time in your life for hobbies and that’s become possible for you now – you’re planning to grow vegetables this summer, you’re painting again.
Other new realities for you might be more painful. Perhaps you’re considering a move and that wasn’t something you’d thought about a year ago, or maybe you’re in the midst of ending a relationship and you hadn’t thought that would ever be a possibility for you, but living through this year has revealed what wasn’t working anymore. Perhaps an experience of loss has left you alone in way that you weren’t a year ago. Or maybe the possibility you couldn’t foresee a year ago is that you’d be going back to school, to make a career change. In a year filled with impossibility – it’s been impossible to do the things we used to do in the way we used to do them still, so much possibility has opened up. So many people are doing things and considering things and changing things they wouldn’t have considered possible a year ago – even Harry and Meghan, in their conversation with Oprah, talked about this being the beginning of a new era for them.
One year ago today I don’t think I would have considered it a real possibility for this congregation to dedicate the entire season of Lent to talking about white supremacy and its expression in our own building. I don’t think I considered it a possibility that we would name our focal stained-glass window as an example of white supremacy and dominant culture in our midst – I would have considered this an unspeakable subject, and besides, what could we do about it? But living through the pandemic the effects of structural and institutional racism on the health and wellbeing of People of Colour have been hard to ignore. What do I mean by the phrase, “structural racism”? In a paper for the Lancet, Germain Tuyisenge and Shira Goldenberg define structural racism as “the macro-level systems, social forces, institutions, ideologies, and processes that interact with one another to generate and reinforce inequities faced by racialized communities.” This year has revealed the systems that in are plce that leave People of Colour more exposed and less protected and disproportionally affected by Covid-19. I think one of the reasons this conversation about racism and white-body supremacy is possible for our church now is that, after living through this past year and witnessing the out-sized effect of Covid-19 on People of Colour because of macro-level systems and institutions in our society, we don’t want the institution of the church to be party to propagating this system. The “God-light has streamed into the world,” to quote today’s scripture reading and it’s affect our sight; we can see things we couldn’t see clearly a year ago and now we’re asking ourselves, as an institution, as a church about what’s been exposed in us, through this light, and what we’re going to do about it.
Lent is a season that reconnects us to God’s Spirit, and to this notion of “covenant,” that is, seeing ourselves as people in a relationship with God, with the Divine. That’s what Jesus is talking about with Nicodemus. Jesus is saying to Nicodemus (and all of us) that our spirituality and spiritual practice are living things – it’s a living relationship. We commit to God and God commits to us. Earlier in their conversation Jesus said this to Nicodemus, “when you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch – the Spirit – and becomes a living spirit,” Jesus says.
One of the premises of Christian spirituality is that God’s Spirit is active in the world. “God-light streamed into the world,” we heard in our reading, helping us to see, to make connections, to gain insight, and to be transformed. These conversations we’re having about race, and racism, and white-body supremacy and how it shows up in our church and what we can do about it – I believe these conversations have become possible for us because of the work and active presence of God’s Spirit. The Spirit is working in us, influencing us, transforming us – we’re in a relationship with God’s Spirit. Sometimes what the Spirit reveals to us is painful to contemplate. “But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is,” Jesus says in our reading. It’s the conviction of our faith that new possibilities and opportunities have emerged for us this year because God’s Spirit has led us to see new possibilities and ways of being we hadn’t considered and that’s tremendously hopeful. With this in mind, let’s move on to today’s conversation.
We’re moving now in these conversations from acknowledging racism and white-body supremacy in ourselves (if we’re part of the dominant culture) and in our institutions towards what we do with that knowledge. God-light has streamed in, and now that we are seeing ourselves differently, what will we do, and how will we be, what changes will we make in our church? My hope is that we begin to embrace a new identity as allies and a new opportunity: becoming an anti-racist, intercultural congregation. The spiritual practice that helps us in this work is “commitment.” Those of you who are in long-term relationships know that making a commitment to your relationship isn’t just something you do once but a conscious choice you make daily that influences your actions again and again and again. We are people in a covenant relationship with God and our commitment to that relationship means making choices again and again and again that align with our deepest convictions as covenant people and with the Spirit’s revelation to us. Does our window align with our values as a covenant people? Do we need to adapt it or reimagine it as a sign and symbol of our commitment?
What other actions could we take to show the Spirit’s influence on our hearts? What else needs changing as we live out our commitment? The Spirit is leading, now where will we go from here?