Sermon for New Song Episcopal Church in Iowa on April 19, 2020
Read the Gospel text: John 20: 19-31
Among the many images broadcast during these past few weeks of the pandemic, the one that’s most memorable to me took place on Easter Sunday. Perhaps you saw it too. On that day, the singer Andrea Bocelli gave a live-stream concert from the cathedral in Milan, Italy.
All of the concert was beautiful, full of gorgeous music accompanied by an organist, but its finale was truly stunning. After singing inside the church for the first part of his concert, Bocelli walked out of the cathedral into the open square outside, where he started to sing Amazing Grace.
He began the song very simply, with no accompanying music, and as he sang the camera pulled back so that you could see how small and vulnerable he looked in front of that enormous cathedral. Then the organ came in, softly, and as the song continued the scene switched to views of famous landmarks in Paris, London, and New York, all virtually empty of people because of the pandemic.
I’ve watched that video almost a dozen times, because to me it’s as powerful as any sermon I’ve heard in a long, long time.
I think what speaks to me the most is the contrast between the singer and all those impressive monuments, including the cathedral. Bocelli looks so small, so insignificant, and so alone. And the song he sings, in contrast to the classical music he’d sung earlier in the concert, is so simple. Most of us have heard Amazing Grace hundreds of times, the words so familiar we don’t often think of their meaning.
But one of the gifts of a crisis is that you see things you didn’t see before. As the song says, “I once was lost, but now am found, ‘twas blind but now I see.” Poignant words indeed, especially sung by Bocelli, who’s been bind since the age of 12.
So what do we see now, when our lives are limited by quarantine and laced with fear and anxiety? What do we see when our streets and cities are largely empty?
We see different things, of course, and I don’t presume to speak for anyone but myself. But what I hope is that we can see beyond division, beyond fear, and beyond our doubt.
In some ways, living through a plague is utterly ordinary in human history—it’s just that most of us thought we were beyond such seemingly medieval events. Maybe part of what we can see now is our connection to all the people in the past who lived through even worse plagues. They knew from bitter experience that to be human is to be vulnerable, and that we only fool ourselves when we think we have ultimate control over our lives.
One of those people in the past we can learn from is Julian of Norwich, who in fourteenth-century England lived through the Black Death when a third of Europe’s population died. Her most famous saying comes from one of her mystical visions, in which Jesus tells her: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Strong words indeed, given all that Julian saw and experienced in her lifetime.
And maybe we can learn, too, from the story of Doubting Thomas, which we heard in the Gospel reading for today. It’s always been one of my favorite stories, because Thomas is so easy to relate to. Doubting resurrection isn’t foolish—it’s sensible, at least by the standards of rationality.
I found some insights into the story from author Philip Yancey, who has a beautiful essay on the theme of doubt on the Patheos website. In it he says that a sense of aloneness feeds doubt:
He writes: “For me, doubt works in an inward-curving spiral, much like self-pity. . . I see only the contradictions, the negatives, the darkness.”
So many of us feel alone right now, given the need to maintain social distancing. It’s a condition that causes self-pity, doubt, and despair to grow. All of us are in a sense Andrea Bocelli standing alone in an empty square.
And yet… remember the words of Jesus: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
In these times, we might add that blessed are those who are tough enough, and hopeful enough, to believe that the darkness cannot win. Blessed are those who are fearful, but who keep on putting one foot in front of the other.
And blessed is the blind man who stands alone in front of an empty church and sings of now being able to see. Because it turns out that Bocelli wasn’t so alone after all: his concert was viewed by many thousands of people as he sang, and by millions more in a recording on YouTube.
As you may know, the lyrics to Amazing Grace were written by John Newton, a former slave trader who became an Anglican priest in eighteenth-century London. Because of his personal knowledge of the horrors of the slave trade, he became an influential voice in the abolitionist movement. And one of his parishioners was William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament who led the fight to abolish the British slave trade.
Blessed are those who are lost, and then are found, and those who then tell their story of redemption to others.
Let me end with another image that sticks in my mind from these past few weeks. On Good Friday, Bob and I had the chance to watch a prairie burn at Nancy and Kathy’s place in rural Iowa City. It was marvelous to see their acres of prairie go up in flames, to hear the crackle and snap of the fire and feel the whoosh of air and the heat pulsating from it—all at a safe distance, of course. The prairie had three years worth of dry thatch on it, which meant there was a lot of fuel for that fire.
We watched as the fire raced through the field, leaping and dancing, and then suddenly it was done, leaving a blackened field of stubble behind.
Now if you don’t know much about prairies, a fire like that would seem like a terrible thing. All those plants seared away in just a few minutes. But you would be mistaken in seeing this as a bad thing, because fires are essential for prairies. They release seeds, clear away debris, and allow the native species to flourish. You can’t have a prairie without fire.
Standing there, I thought of the prairie fire we’re enduring right now, one that is leaving destruction and suffering in its wake. I thought of the dry grasses in my own life that need to be burned, and of the dry grasses in our larger world. Much will be swept away by this crisis, but new growth will happen.
Rebirth isn’t easy. We know that as people of faith. And it’s OK to doubt, like Thomas the apostle did, that resurrection is possible.
But it’s also good to remember the profound truths revealed in simple songs like Amazing Grace, and simple things like a fire burning dry grass in an Iowa field.