I speak to you in the Name of Jesus Christ, who reconciles us to God in one body (Eph. 2:16). Amen.
Over these past 7 months, I think we have learned at least one important lesson from this pandemic: we are not alone. There is really no such thing as an isolated individual.
The 17th century Anglican priest and poet John Donne famously said that ‘No man is an island’ - and that has never seemed truer. Public health authorities have told each of us, in effect, to be an ‘island’ by practicing social distancing and self-isolation - and we have found it very hard to do so. Maybe you’ve not quite kept the full six-feet apart when meeting a friend; perhaps you’ve travelled out-of-town to be with family, maybe you’re wanting to do that again at Thanksgiving. I’m not recommending it, my point is simply that it’s difficult, if not almost impossible, to be marooned on your little island.
How many people do you think are actually keeping to their social bubble of ten people? Some are, but not many, I suspect. Through all of this we have learned how badly we long for each other.
So you see, the pandemic is proof that there is such a thing as society, that we are social creatures, that we need one another – and not just virtually, but in the flesh. The virus has spread - and despite all warnings, the second wave of the pandemic has come - precisely because we are all connected. We all belong to one great body of humanity – a body that is now not only infected with a virus, but also broken and torn apart.
These wounds and divisions have been exposed in this year’s other major development: the international protests for racial justice following the death of George Floyd and other African Americans, most recently Breonna Taylor. Sadly these protests were used by some as an occasion for rioting - and in response we saw violent aggression on the part of both law enforcement and vigilantes - but nonetheless out of this chaos could still be heard a cry for the healing and unity of the great body of humanity.
And this is not only a problem south of the border. Just this week in the news here in Canada we heard of the very disturbing mistreatment and death of an indigenous woman, Joyce Echaquan, in a Quebec hospital.
By drawing our attention to systemic racism, these stories have raised the question of collective guilt, even inherited guilt. To what extent are privileged people, white people, responsible for the perpetuation of these injustices? To what extent are we responsible for the crimes of our ancestors? No doubt you’ve heard these questions raised and answered by various political commentators.
We might recoil in anger from this, and get a bit sensitive and defensive, saying, ‘How can I personally be held responsible for evils over which I have no control?’ But you see, that objection comes from a limited perspective of individual rights and responsibilities. It assumes that the individual is the primary unity of analysis.
The Bible takes collective and inherited guilt with the utmost seriousness. According to St. Paul all of humanity sinned and was condemned in the sin of our forefather Adam. Again, ‘No one is an island.’ As Paul would say, we are one in Adam. No individual is isolated, insular, or immune – be it from the coronavirus, or in this case, from a historical, social, and political kind of virus – that is, racism. (And the same logic applies to environmental issues and others as well).
And so as Jesus says at the end of today’s Gospel, we ought to humble and not exalt ourselves. To exalt yourself is precisely to assert yourself as an individual separate, distinct and above others, to deny guilt and responsibility, to say you’re immune from the evils and injustices of the world. On the other hand, to humble yourself is to be aware that you are not alone as an individual, that you are no better than any other, but one part of a greater whole, with responsibilities to the other parts.
As someone once said, ‘Everyone is really responsible to everyone for everyone and for everything’ - because we all belong to one great body of humanity.
In our first reading today from his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul reminds us that There is one body. There is one body. He’s talking about the Church specifically. But the mission of the Church is to be a foretaste, sign and instrument of a new humanity, the means through which all peoples will be reconciled by the one Spirit and brought together into a new society of peace and love. As Paul says, earlier in Ephesians, Jesus Christ has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile and between all peoples (Eph. 2:14).
This new society, the new Jerusalem (the city of peace), will be a place of perfect shalom – a Hebrew word and rich biblical idea meaning harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility for all. That is ultimately what almost everyone in our hurting world is longing for today. This new creation will be a place of eternal Sabbath rest – to reference the name of today’s liturgy and one of the themes from today’s Gospel.
So the Church is to be one body and our God-given and inspired mission is to make the human family one body. This is God’s plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth (Eph. 1:10). That is the one hope of our calling we heard about in our passage today – a hope built on the foundation of one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Our hope and calling here at St. James is to do this in our little corner of the world here in Caledon: to be agents of reconciliation and healing in this community. And I hope that over these next months we can discern and implement how God is calling us to do just that at this time.
So again the phrase I quoted at the beginning: ‘No one is an island’ - an isolated, insular individual. Nor is the church to be an island. We can not be inwardly focused at this time, easy though it would be.
You’ve may have also heard a more recent saying that although ‘we are all in the same storm [of this pandemic and chaotic world], not all of us are in the same boat.’ This is a way of saying that the most poor and vulnerable in our society – and racial minorities - have been disproportionately affected by the virus, its economic consequences, and of course issues of injustice and discrimination more generally. Friends, this reveals how urgently necessary it is for us to bear one another’s burdens. And that is particularly how I would like to see St. James reach out to our local community at this time: to help bear the burdens of others - to identify a need, and meet it. To find a hurt, and heal it.
In our Gospel story today, Jesus meets a hurting person. And as we’ll see, his particular condition is one borne by others – they share it in common. And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. The Greek word used here for dropsy is hydropikos, literally ‘internal water.’ So this man was suffering from what we would now call edema, a medical condition in which the body retains fluid and so becomes swollen and sensitive. It can also cause an insatiable thirst. Edema is not a disease in itself, but a symptom of an underlying condition, often heart failure.
And in the ancient world, dropsy was seen as an outward sign of a proud heart, because pride make us puffed up, with a bloated ego, a swollen sense of the self, sensitive to criticism, with an insatiable thirst for honour and privilege.
But the point of the story Luke tells us is that the poor fellow suffering from dropsy is not the one with the proud heart - rather the Pharisees are! The scene takes place at a dinner party at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees – the devoutly religious people of the day. It’s surprising that someone with dropsy would be at such an event because he would have been considered unclean.
But the Pharisees use the man with dropsy as a kind of prop to trap Jesus into violating Sabbath restrictions on doing work (in this case even the merciful work healing). In doing so, the Pharisees reveal themselves to be the ones who are truly unclean because of their malice, self-centeredness and lack of mercy.
Medically, dropsy is not a contagious condition, but in this case it sort of is: the Pharisees are the carriers and vectors of the disease of pride.
Jesus embraces and heals the man with dropsy, but the question is: would the rest of the guests at this dinner be healed of their inner swelling, their spiritual pride, their hardened heart?
And friends, that is a question for all of us.
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
In other words, you are not alone. You are not an island. You are not an individual exalted above others, or immune from the burdens and problems of others and our world as a whole. We are all part of one great body.
And itoday Paul tells us how to be a part of this one body, how we as individuals can help to bring about the healing of humanity, how we can serve others with a foretaste of Sabbath Rest: Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called [following the example of Jesus Himself] with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
To walk in this way is first, to be reconciled to Jesus and to receive His forgiveness from all our guilt – individual, collective and inherited; and with that forgiveness, to be renewed by His humility, grace, and mercy.
And friends, that is what happens this morning right here in this Holy Communion.
And now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling [on your walk] and to present you blameless [without guilt] before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24–25)