Seeing in Perilous Times
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.
Gather Us In
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.
February 28, 2020
Here is what I perceive.
I perceive that the United Methodist Church has for years been willing to look away from the profanity of exclusion practiced toward its LGBTQI+ kindred.
This unwillingness to confront injustice created a culture of collusion.
The system was unwilling to name injustice toward LGBTQI+ children of God in any sort of prophetic and tangible ways.
So it didn’t.
People were silenced and closeted and souls were violated.
Churches and those given charge to lead the churches colluded in this violation.
So when we wonder what happened to the United Methodist Church I think we can say that a church that is/was unwilling to resist evil, injustice and oppression on behalf of all of God’s beloveds; that church harmed the Body of Christ.
The harm persists. The dissipation of Spirit energy is a palpable wound.
There is much talk about how the church must reach out to the younger generation. People the age of my children and younger (age thirty and below) are targeted as those who must hear our message of mea culpa about what has been and they are targeted as those who must know our sincere desire to do better, to love more fully, to embody the Gospel of Jesus in ways discernible and real.
And I hear that fervent desire and I wonder: have we learned?
Is this yet another ploy of an organization aware that the gig is up?
Are we so frantic to replenish the future that we zoom past the wounds that must be named and gentled into newness of life?
Where is the naming of the pain?
Where is the willingness to name the pain of confirmation students told by their pastors that they are damned?
Where is the acknowledgement that there are clergy and laity who have been in this struggle for the fifty years (on paper, anyway) that discrimination has been part and parcel of what it means to be United Methodist?
How is it that courting the young can be done with any integrity while assuming that the “that was then this is now” will play?
The Spirit knows and demands better from the people of Jesus called United Methodists.
I sat at a gathering at Hamline University hearing the hearts of leaders who have given their life-force to a movement that must be dismantled. I heard that awareness named. Thank you, Bishops.
And, I caution us all to stop and consider the time it will take to heal and trust and believe.
There is a near-frantic need to evangelize to our youth and young people. This I understand.
But we cannot build a new and healthy movement without the time it takes to name the wounds and fully examine how it is the people of Jesus the Christ participated in death-dealing.
For that healing to happen, the voices and wounds of the young people and the elders must be welcomed and honored.
In order for the Body to heal we need a healing movement of confession, lament and reconciliation to roll across the souls of Wesleyan Jesus followers.
I am a woman of 62 years.
I have dedicated 24 years of ministry to the United Methodist movement. For all of those 24 years I have been a vocal and public advocate for full inclusion.
I have seen so much pain.
I am legion.
And, I am aware that I cannot much bear to continue as a representative of this denomination unless and until we get to the business of naming and honoring the costs borne by too many for too long.
I am ready for a new day.
And, the new must be built upon the lessons we find the courage to explore, name, and own.
It is needful work.
You know the Edvard Munch painting entitled “The Scream”?
I am feeling it.
I am feeling it each time I try to plan worship or create a sermon in these days.
How to balance? To name truths is to risk rupture. To muffle truth is to risk madness.
The world is literally on fire. Funeral processions are taking place in Iceland for a glacier gone extinct.
Our nation is being led by a man who incites violence and demeans the office of the presidency of a once-great nation and to name the obscenity of his utterances and actions, his misogyny and racism and ecologically debauched ways, is to court cries of partisanship and over-involvement in politics.
As though Jesus was not. Politically engaged.
We are being led in a merry dance by manipulators skilled at their craft while being incited to point fingers at people portrayed as suspect (those immigrants! Those Muslims! Those who are not white and male!).
We are losing our souls.
How to enter a pulpit and preach the good news of Christ Jesus when there is so much that is not to be said?
How to follow in the way of an insistent-upon-the-humnaity-and-sacred-worth-of-every-creature Jesus when it is somehow too political to preach the very gospel that so terrified the powerful that they silenced him?
As though Jesus and the heart of God could be silenced.
I serve a progressive church. They are a people who lean in.
And, every week as I page through hymns in search of communal song that does not implicitly condone violence or triumphalism.
Every week as I consider the scripture text and how it might speak and must speak in a world gone mad with fear.
Every week as I long for the unfettering of my own voice and the joining of that voice with the so many others who are stunned by grief and disbelief.
I feel the scream.
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.