The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, Bishop of Maryland
5.3 million dead. As of today, over 5.3 million souls have died of Covid-9, with over 833,000 in America alone. Can you imagine it? Covid is now the third leading cause of death among Americans 65 and older, after heart disease and cancer. It’s responsible for about 13 percent of all deaths in that age group since the beginning of 2020, more than diabetes, accidents, Alzheimer’s disease, or dementia. All in less than two years.
More Americans have now been killed by COVID-19 than the number of people who died in the Civil War (750,000)—the deadliest war in American history and one in which more Americans died than during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, the Korean War, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the Afghan War combined.
If you had asked someone about this time two years ago that one little virus would ravage our nation with over 800,000 dead, they would have said that you were just being alarmist, given our advances in medicine and public health. Those massive public health crises happen in other less-developed nations, not here.
We are in a wilderness, my friends. That’s why I’d like to go back today to John the Baptist, who we hear from every year about this time in the season of Advent. He is that voice crying out in the wilderness, preaching repentance; that is, “turning around” in a different direction than the one you individually and the world collectively have been traveling that leads to destruction.
“What should we do, John?” they asked him. “You live in the wilderness, and we’re beginning to think that even we city folk are living in one, too?” (Speak of the images of the Judean Wilderness imprinted on my mind from the pilgrimages I’ve led to the Holy Land.)
The term “wilderness” is rather unfortunate; Greek word heremon, meaning desert, or better “a deserted place.” It’s not the desert as we commonly think of it; rather, it’s the lonely place.
Isaiah 40:3 says, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” This is where the good news begins?
John the Baptist knew all about the wilderness, and he knew a way out of it: hope. Hope conquers the deserted places in your life. The French word for despair, desespoir, literally means to “un-hope” (de-aspire). When one loses hope, then all the joy of life flies out the window.
Three weeks now into the Advent season, we are anticipating how joyous Christmas will be this year. Given all that’s going on in the world today, don’t you wince a little when you that greeting card you get begins in large letters, “Happy Holidays”? I’m not against happiness, believe me, but I need something deeper than that to get me through this season. I need some joy.
(Shows copy of “The Book of Joy” by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.) Both of these authors are recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize for their work for nonviolence and peace in their countries and throughout the world. I’ve had the privilege of meeting both of these men when I was at the National Cathedral in Washington, where they have visited several times.
We all know Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of the Anglican Church of South Africa; he blessed me by coming to our diocese shortly after my consecration as bishop to help me raise money for our reconciliation agenda – an effort which finally birthed our Sutton Scholars program to change the lives of students in the Baltimore Public School system. Archbishop Tutu and President Nelson Mandela are generally recognized as the most prominent leaders in the struggle for justice and racial reconciliation in South Africa. In 1994, Tutu was appointed Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission there which pioneered a new way for countries to move forward after experiencing conflict and oppression.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, still living in exile in India, is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and of Tibetan Buddhism. He travels the world promoting a message of kindness and compassion, interfaith understanding, respect for the environment, and world peace.
These two spiritual giants have survived more than 50 years of exile, violence, and oppression. Despite their hardships – or, as they would say, because of their hardships – they are two of the most joyful people on the planet. They spent a week together in April 2015 to look back on their long lives to answer a single burning question: how do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering?
Folks, you need to get this book. Go online now or to your favorite local bookstore this week and grab a copy. If you find yourself this season dealing with stress, frustration, anger, grief, despair or loneliness, these guys address each of these issues. I’ll give you a “sneak peak” into their insights: they talk about the importance of having “The Eight Pillars of Joy” in your life and how to practice them – perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity. And then they go dancing!
These two men “have seen a great light” as was prophesied in Isaiah 9. They may name that light differently – one is Buddhist and one is Christian – but have no doubt that in their common humanity they are talking about the same light. We name that light in our tradition as the Living God who came to this earth 2,000 years ago to dwell among us in the person of Jesus Christ, the holy Son of God. This was the birth that the prophecy of Isaiah foretold many centuries before that. It’s the light of peace, the light of hope, the light of life, the light of joy! It’s because of that light that we can say “Merry Christmas” to each other – not because everything’s so cheery and bright in our lives or in the world, but because no matter what we’ve done, what we’ve experienced, or what has been done to us, the light that God gives can never, ever be extinguished in us.
Through it all, I’m planning on my upcoming sabbatical being a true pilgrimage of joy – despite, or maybe because of – all the challenges of life. That’s what I’m learning from these guys. That’s my prayer for me and my family, and that’s my prayer for you my sisters and brothers, in our beloved diocese, this community of love.
Have a blessed Advent, and a very Joyous Christmas in weeks ahead!