|Has there ever been a time like this?|
Our well-being is so exquisitely and critically communal. It always has been.
Now, we daily are made aware of the life and death ways our behavior impacts others.
An unrestrained cough can kill. Sharing communal song is dangerous. Aerosols travel.
The simple act of protecting others from harm has become politicized.
Somehow the COVID virus and our response to it has become a litmus test for our faith in God and our political affiliation.
Cooper and I were hiking at Itasca State Park. We went down a path to be by Lake Itasca in order to dip our feet in the lake and savor the beauty of a perfect summer day.
The area where we were sitting was visible from the path above. The area where we were sitting was small.
A man and his party came down the path, clearly wanting to access the water. We shared concern that there was not a six foot margin in that small space. We asked for space and the time to put on our masks. None in his party were wearing masks. There was no safe place for us to go. We were trapped.
Rather than wait and rather than see the sense of our request that they either not access the space or wait for us to safely vacate it, the man snarled at us, and the child with him – maybe six? – chastised us for being so afraid.
And I wondered: When did following scientific guidelines become a sign of fear?
When did a simple request become a gauntlet thrown?
The irony of being two pastors branded as contemptibly fearful (by a six year old!) was not lost on me. Somewhere along the way the young girl learned that to practice safety measures in order to contain COVID is to lack faith in God.
Who are we?
I share the interchange above not to stir up yet more anger or side-claiming.
I share the interchange above because I am, in fact, fearful.
I am afraid.
I fear that somewhere in the past months and years we have lost our call to practice exquisite care for one another.
Scripture says not one word about our God-given right to endanger others.
Scripture teaches us that our care for the most vulnerable bespeaks our commitment to our God.
We witness to our faith by the ways we are fierce in the way of loving our neighbors as ourselves.
This pandemic is not a short-lived test of our character; It is exhausting heartbreaking messy character-refining challenge.
The ways we live faithfully in and through this time of pandemic is writing our future.
What does the Lord require of you?
Over and over in Scripture we hear that the Lord requires kindness, mercy, justice and humility.
We don’t have the answers to so much.
But we do know that the ways we comport ourselves – the posts we share on Facebook, the emails we forward and the conversations we have in front of and with our children – bears witness to our faith.
I am longing for the agony of the 160,000 lives lost and countless lives upended to lead us to deeper reverence for the power of our Holy God and the beauty of connected human being.
Humility. Mercy. Kindness. Justice.
The prophet Micah and Jesus and all of creation is calling to our hearts.
We are called to live our faith in a time like this.
I am trying to live in the present.
I am trying to live in the present while living social distancing and pandemic caution.
I am trying to live in the present while taping worship services days ahead of when they will be shared.
Maundy Thursday was taped on Tuesday and Good Friday was taped two days before Good Friday.
The joy of Easter was taped on Good Friday.
I am trying to live in the present and my soul is so confused because the rhythm of Holy Week has become scrambled and I am feeling it all at once. There is no time for my soul to pause and digest.
As I have gone about this whirled week, I am feeling the grief of the so-much of this.
I ache for the community that stories my life.
I ache for my children and grandchildren and friends and I ache for the people whose lives are twined into my heart. I miss my church. I miss the varieties of ways people show up and I miss the connection that happens through and among us and I miss laughter and tears and I was distracting myself through these first furiously busy weeks of setting up this pandemic life and the grief was kept at bay.
Until this Holy Week.
This week, we who follow Jesus long to kneel at the feet of our friends.
This week, despair and betrayal are named and the visceral need to share the communion of grief finds no catharsis in community.
This week, the Holy Saturday grief and stagger of those long ago disciples lives so fully in our souls.
This Holy Week I am trying to live in the present.
Whatever – and all – that it is.
John 9: 1 – 41
Christ UMC, Rochester
Preached on March 22, 2020
Someone asked me an honest and heartfelt question:
Did God send the pandemic?
Are we being punished for some kind of sin or badness?
Why is this happening?
Have you asked this question?
The question of why it is bad things happen is as old as human being.
And it is the question that echoes throughout this morning’s scripture reading.
Let me set the stage:
Jesus has been healing and teaching.
He has told those who love him and follow him that he will die.
He has challenged those around them to live their faith and to open themselves to the wonder of how it is in the beginning was the Word and Jesus IS that Word and he is alive in their midst and the response of those listening to him?
They pick up stones to throw at him.
They don’t want to have to move out of their convictions and into possibility.
So Jesus leaves the temple and walks along and he encounters a man who was blind form birth and do the disciples want to know how they can help this man?
Their first questions is one we – if we are honest – ask, because asking questions about who is to blame keeps our hearts from being engaged.
Rather than allowing themselves to know that the man was forced to beg for his sustenance in the public square, they begin a conversation that will keep them safe from empathy.
So those disciples ask Jesus: “Rabbi, who sinned, the man or his parents, that he was born blind.”
In order to really encounter this human thing that the disciples did and that we do, I can think of no finer teacher than Dr. Brene Brown:
https://youtu.be/RZWf2_2L2v8. (Brene Brown on Blame)
So the followers of Jesus do the human thing of wanting to blame rather than risk empathy but Jesus won’t have it.
He tells them that there is no-one to blame for this man’s struggle.
He doesn’t shame them for asking the question but he teaches them that hiding out in such questions is not his way.
Jesus moves into healing action.
He takes the most elemental things at hand – the dirt below his feet and the spit in his mouth – and he created of them a paste and he puts that paste on the man’s eyes and tells him to immerse himself in the pool of Siloam – which means “sent”.
And the man does that and his sight is given him. A man born blind is made to see because the most elemental things can open the physical and metaphorical eyes of creation is we allow it to be so.
And the response from the neighborhood?
They do not throw a party. The mutter and sputter and drag that man to the religious authorities and they want to know how he received his sight and they seem to be more worried about Jesus breaking Sabbath rules than about what his compassion made possible.
They interrogate the parents and threaten them with expulsion from community if they don’t back up their outrage.
Imagine! The most amazing miracle of the parent’s lives happened and they are instantly immersed not in joy but in fear.
The authorities are terrified and spiteful because of the unlimited expanse of God’s healing power.
(Read John 9: 24 – 40
I laughed to myself as I read this text during the past week.
Spit! Carrier of coronavirus! Mixed with dirt and put on eyes (which would involve touching of face!) and washing in a communal pool and questions about how this happened and who sinned and who should be held reponsible – the man’s parents or, in our day and age, another country or government or God or ??????
We are rightfully afraid in these days.
I am afraid.
This virus is an unseeable foe and it has the power to change our lives in ways we little want to think about but here is what I want for you and for me and for those who follow the teachings of Jesus.
Of course we want to know why this happened and where God is in the midst of all of this.
From this morning’s story we learn that God is in following the lead of Jesus.
Our call as disciples is to lean into the power of how it is healers are a work day after day after day in this city and across the world, sometimes using the most rudimentary equipment – not spit and mud bu inadequate masks and limited tests and food on the grocery store shelves – to offer compassion and life to others.
Living as we do in the midst of a time we could never have imagined, let us look to what it is God’s people are doing because, like Jesus, we see need and we do what we can.
We serve meals on Saturdays in a to-go way so that our guests have a hot meal.
We provide excellent child care at Thrive so that parents can do the work our community needs.
We reach out through phone calls and prayer services at eight PM every night on Facebook and this is a time when we live into this power:
Jesus can open our eyes and our hearts.
There is healing work to be done.
The old certainties are no more.
German political thinker Rudolph Bahro has written an article that contains a line we ought to take to our hearts and ponder.
“When an old culture is dying, the new culture is created by those people who are not afraid to be insecure.” (Cited by Pema Chodrun in her book Practicing Peace in Times of War pg. 88)
It seems we are living in a time when an old culture is dying.
We are living into the birth of a culture where we are poignantly and powerfully aware that:
We need each other.
We need to care for each other.
this is an insecure time.
And, in exactly such a time as this,
Jesus has the power to open the eyes of our hearts.
May it be so.
The disorientation is real, isn’t it?
I find myself unsure about what day it is and what it is I should do next and the hum of anxiety is constant companion.
Suddenly those I encounter are potential carriers of harm.
I represent threat to others.
We are all in this together, apart.
So may God grant us the courage and wisdom to learn from this reorientation of life.
Our elders? Our fragile irreplaceable elders? May we always treat them as precious and worthy of cosseting.
Our work colleagues? May we savor the different ways they encounter life and how it is we are wildly blessed to join with them in meaningful work.
Child care workers and grocery store stockers and food service folk and the people who make it possible for our toilets to flush and our lights to be on. May we honor them through the ways we notice and value their work.
Medical personnel who put their lives on the line to swab throats, research cures and dispense accurate information. May we never forget that they are heroic seekers of wisdom that has the power to save lives.
And may we learn, once and always, that what we do and say matters. It matters so much.
We are all leaders.
Stay home. Keep your distance. Practice grace with yourself and with others.
Remember who you are.
Henri Nouwen has this to say about that:
“You are my child.
You are written in the palms of my hand.
You are hidden in the shadow of my hand.
I have molded you in the secret of the earth.
I have knitted you together in your mother’s womb.
You belong to me.
I am yours. You are mine.
I have called you from eternity and you are the one who is held safe
and embraced in love from eternity to eternity.
You belong to me. And I am holding you safe and I want you to
know that whatever happens to yo, I am always there. I was
always there; I am always there; I always will be there and hold you
in my embrace.
You are mine. You are my child. You belong to my home. You
belong to my intimate life and I will never let you go. I will be
faithful to you.” Henri J. M. Nouwen, “Lecture”
That. That is who you are.
This space is soul home.
For decades this space has held baptisms, weddings, funerals, and weekly worship.
The power of prayers and music shared is palpable in this space.
And, due to the practice of social distancing necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, this space echoes with emptiness.
Every Sunday those checkered rugs hold kids crawling and reading and puzzling and being kids during worship. The steps in the chancel are used for children’s lessons and the Littlest of Angel song.
Each pew has its people. Each chair in the ECC has its person.
Every week our organ and band sound out and are joined by hundreds of voices.
Coffee is shared, conversations savored and the sweet goodness of people who make up the collage of our hearts are encountered.
The echoes of what is not are bouncing off of empty space.
And, the church is not a building or a space or a tangible must-have.
The church is each person open to encounter.
The church is the living Body and it is woven together by the power of the Holy Spirit and the church is each person praying and loving and living the anxiety of these days.
Our soul home is blessed yet by the prayers of the people.
Presence will come.
There is a bit of scripture that pictures God as mother hen gathering her chicks. (Matthew 23:37)
I have always felt the power of that image. Chick-gathering is in my wiring in ways fierce and strong.
And I cannot much do that gathering in these days of pandemic living.
You join me in this ache, I know.
My biological chicks have issued the mandate that their “elderly” parents (when did THAT happen) are to stay home.
My church is connecting in ways that don’t involve physical gathering. My gratitude for a staff that can support this frontier of cyber-connecting is immense.
And, leading worship in an empty sanctuary hurts.
How do we live, we who miss the sense of gathering in our body selves?
I find that I have become connection obsessed.
Our church staff is moving into largely distance work. We shared a “Last Supper” of pizza and appreciation yesterday. We will meet via Zoom every day but how to name the grief of not sharing ideas and laughter in the flesh?
My children are reaching out daily. This I like. And, the role-reversal of their concern for their vulnerable parents pierces my heart. After years of being the mother hen I find that my chicks have powerful capacity for tending.
Who will we be when this pandemic loses its power? How will we connect our hearts and passions for the good of all while we shelter in place?
While I cannot open my wings to embrace, the Holy can and the Holy does.
I pray for us all the creativity and heart to continue to know our connection.
Even as we know the fear, grief and anger of this time, we are profoundly gathered in.
I didn’t grow up in the United Methodist Church.
I made my way through young adulthood and into motherhood. While we were far from home we happened into a United Methodist Church and there I found theological and heart home.
While attending seminary I was appointed to my first church. I have been blessed (mostly!) to serve in United Methodist churches for twenty three years.
But all along I have felt the grinding wrongness of the United Methodist stance on full inclusion.
I organized regional conferences in Duluth and Minneapolis. I twice spoke at the state capital during rallies organized by OutFront Minnesota. I worked with colleagues in the Minnesota Annual Conference to speak out against the (anti) Marriage Amendment in MN and have worked for a day when all people are beheld as beloveds in all aspects of their beings.
I name the above because it helps me assuage my sense of complicity in the existence of an oppressive structure through which I receive benefit.
I cannot do that much longer, that assuaging.
The global church met in 2019 and came away a declared unsafe place for GLBTQI individuals, clergy, and allies.
No place is safe when core identity is perceived as suspect.
So what next?
I am a woman of 61 years. I find myself exhausted by the grief of these days.
And yet, there is new life aborning. Power is rising up from the too-long silenced and this power I seek to support. A conference held here in Minneapolis called Our Movement Forward will center discussion of the future of the UM church in the community of People of Color, Queer and Transgender leaders. I will go to this gathering as an ally. I will go to this gathering to learn and to listen.
I serve a courageous church. Christ UMC in Rochester is leaning into the questions and work of this time. We own the grief and the opportunity of these days. Together, we seek to offer welcome and hope in the way of Jesus.
Yesterday I was in the hospital room of a young mother. We were gathered to celebrate her baptism. Her young son held her as she received the sign of the cross on her forehead.
The song we shared before her baptism is one she loves: We are a Gentle, Angry People, by Holly Near.
And so we are. Gay and straight together, singing (and organizing and witnessing) for our lives.
Author Annie Dillard says this about the urgency of writing:
“Write as though you are dying.”
What then is it to live with that same sense of urgency, to live as though we are dying?
What does it mean to write the story of our days in such a way that we are present to the power and poignancy of being alive?
Today I will have traced upon my forehead the symbol of my intention to be present to the ongoing story of breaking and being reborn. As I inhabit this story called life I join my soul to the eternal community of others who believe and seek to live the power of embodied love taught by Jesus.
The grit of the ashen cross traced on my body is reminder to live as though I am dying.
Because I am.
I am far from home.
Today I was keenly hungry for worship in a United Methodist Church. Knowing that in my home church and in all United Methodist Churches across this world those who were struggling with the General Conference decision would be gathering, I wanted to be in solidarity.
And I needed a good word shared in the midst of connection.
Here is what I heard. I heard a brief note during ain’t-life-swell announcements about the General Conference and an acknowledgment that there were lots of opinions about the General Conference vote and, hey, people are always welcome at that church. Those of us gathered were assured that was so.
Do not speak of welcome for all as though it is happening, truly, when baptized and called children of God are not welcome to preach or marry or be fully folded into community and you are not outraged.
There was no naming of pain. There was no seeming awareness that fluffing over injustice is to condone and perpetrate it.
None. Of. That.
I wanted to leave.
But in the front of the sanctuary was a table with the bread and cup on it and I had come so hungry and I was aware that this deep grief I was experiencing is part of the world I love and so I stayed because I so needed to be fed.
I stayed and prayed for Christ UMC and for all the churches who are doing hard soul and heart and advocacy work on this day. I stayed and tried to keep my heart soft toward the pastor who never once addressed the issue in his sermon. I stayed knowing that there are people who come to the church I serve who feel like they want to leave because of what I do or do not say.
And, I left hungry.
May we create communities through which tears and hungers and delights and questions and insistence upon the sacred beauty of each is celebrated.
No one is fully welcomed unless all are fully welcomed.