May 24, 2020
Some of the most intelligent, compassionate, young people in the world call my husband. I’ve been listening to his side of the conversations, as students have questions about pursuing their Masters at the #1 School of Public Health in the World, Johns Hopkins. These are brilliant, brilliant people who are pursuing a degree that will help them, as the saying goes, ‘save lives millions at a time.’
And regardless of what other questions they ask my husband, whatever else they want to know, the #1 question they ask is: Will there be classes on campus this summer, like there always have been? And if not, when?
Do you know the answer to that? Because he doesn’t. No one does. It’s unanswerable at this time, just like the questions of when we will go back to sitting next to each other in the same room for worship. These very very smart people think my husband, who is smart, but not THAT smart, knows the answer to the question we’re all asking in one form or another, and it’s the same question the disciples are asking Jesus: This is all going to turn out okay now, right? Now it will be the way it was, when King David was in charge and everyone feared us and we didn’t have to worry about anything or anyone, right? Israel will be good now, right?
Jesus tells them it’s not for them to know. Which makes me wonder if that’s a gentler way of saying, “It’s unknowable.” And that’s the time we’re in right now.
We know there’s no going back. If we were to open the church doors next Sunday and hold worship there, raise your hand if you’ll be staying home instead. Yes. Because you are smart. Because you know, there’s no going back to how it was. This is what, the 9th? The 10th? Video we’re watching to lead worship? Yeah – those were the olden days. It’s funny, because now as I watch tv shows presumably set in the present, I think – Wow. Right. That’s how things used to be. Wasn’t that quaint.
We thought it was a blizzard, so we stocked up on toilet paper, milk, bread, peanut butter, ice cream. You know, the essentials. Then we looked around and realized – O, this isn’t like a weekend blizzard – This is like winter – And we shifted our understanding of what it would take to get through this season – You might want to go swimming, but if it’s winter, you know you’ll have to wait. You might want to go to the beach and lay on the sand, but if it’s winter, you know you’ll have to wait. You might want to plant tomatoes, but if it’s winter, you know you’ll have to wait.
So we started waiting. And that’s where the disciples end up, too – Jesus tells them to go back to the Upper Room, gather together, hang out, and wait for the Holy Spirit to show up.
But will the Holy Spirit show up soon in our time? Or soon in geological time? We’re past thinking “blizzard” – that is, short term functioning, and we’re obviously in “winter,” that is, several months’ long functioning, but maybe we need to start adjusting to “ice age.” That is, this may be a couple of years.
How do we mourn what we’re never going to have the same way again, and how do we look ahead trusting the Spirit of God will give us the power to make it through? How do we do both? We’re still looking back at what we’ve lost. At the same time, those white-robed men are pointing the disciples to turn their eyes away from where Jesus went, and the past, and turn to the future, when they will be given the power of the Holy Spirit.
And in the meantime, those two white-robed men send the disciples back home, back to the Upper Room where they celebrated Passover and the Last Supper with Jesus, back to the Upper Room where they hid from the authorities.
They may be heading back to the same place, but they are not the same. The whole world is different. They are different. There is little that is the same.
But the disciples remember: They still have each other. They still have prayer. They still have Jesus’ promises. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is back in that room, waiting for them. She was there at the very beginning of this whole adventure, with the birth of Jesus. And she was there at the end of how things were, at the crucifixion. And she was there at the resurrection, when something new started. And now she is here at the beginning of the church, because that’s what is happening in that upper room.
The disciples. The women. Mary. A tiny little congregation, beginning church, beginning faith, beginning hope and waiting in a new way. Just like us.
We’re at the end of one thing and the beginning of another. No one knows what this will look like, or what kind of timing we’re looking at. Over and over we’ll ask, “When will it go back to normal?” and then we’ll be filled with sorrow all over again because it won’t. Not ever. That normal is over. And that is sad.
And, at the same time, we’ll be looking ahead, wondering, what’s next? If we aren’t going back to how things were, what’s coming? And in this time of uncertainty – It’s the same uncertainty the disciples were facing: mourning the past, while the future isn’t here yet – This is what draws them together: The promise they will be given the power of the Holy Spirit. The coming together in faith. The reminder to pray.
And that’s what united them, and that’s what unites us. Okay, sure, we’re not “together” in any way our grandparents would recognize – My father when he was around 15 was the first house on the street to have a tv, and that’s because his father, my grandfather made it from a kit. And now? Now maybe your pastor is showing up on your tv. But we are still together. This is what it looks like right now. You know others are watching this same thing, and caring about the same people you care about, and singing – or humming – or listening – to the same hymn you are. You know others are joining in your prayer, and you are joining their prayer.
And so, we are united, because: We are together. And we trust God’s Holy Spirit will give us the power to make it through this time. Because we will, you know. We are. Each day, each hour, we are making it. How do eat an elephant? One bite at a time. We’re eating this elephant, as much as we may not like how it tastes, one bite at a time. And, we are joining in prayer. This, what you are doing right now, this is what prayer looks like.
And prayer looks like neighbors collecting food for those choosing between rent and dinner. And prayer looks like packing lunches for those people with hungry kids and no paycheck. And prayer looks like taking care of the church property because even though not many people will see it now, they will in the future.
We are people of faith. To quote the children’s book, Green Eggs and Ham: We are people of faith here and there and anywhere. We are people of faith in a house and with a mouse, in a box and with a fox, in a car, or a tree, in a train, in the dark and the rain, with a goat or on a boat.
Because we are God’s children, during peace times and war, during plagues and health. We are God’s children when we’re scared and when we’re not, when we’re happy and when we’re freaked out. Because God’s love doesn’t change. And that is what unites us, and gives us strength to trust the promise of the coming Spirit, and gives us hope to pray with our hands, our hearts, and our voices.
So, we’ve done faith during wars, and during peace, and we’ve done faith before we were parents and after those kids arrived. We’ve done faith single, married, divorced, never married, widowed. We’ve done faith when everyone went to church on Sundays, when it seemed almost no one went to church ever. We’ve done faith with good presidents and bad, our people have done faith with dictators and kings, in slavery and free, in cozy homes and in the wilderness.
Now, now we’ll do faith in a pandemic. No one’s done faith in a pandemic, at least not for a very very long time. Now it’s our turn. And as people of faith, longing for how things were, longing for answers we know we aren’t going to get, standing right here in this odd, weird present moment, we are nothing more and nothing less than God’s beloved children.
And so, we wait. We come together. We pray. The power of love will not just carry us through, but will remind us of what we’re called to do: Love God. Love neighbor. Love self. Love illogical person who insists it’s a hoax. Love frantic person screaming at everyone to wear their masks. Love conspiracy-theorists. Love those who say we’ll never see each other face to face live again. Love the people you live with. Love the people you hate. Maybe that means you’ll just try to hate them a little less today than you did yesterday.
We are a people of God powered by divine love in a house and with a mouse, in a box and with a fox, in a boat and with a goat, in a train and the dark and the rain. We can do this. Because God is with us, and nothing stops the God of love.
May 17, 2020
Okay, don’t worry if you are a little lost after listening to Dot read the scripture. It’s a confounding one, that’s for sure. Maybe you recognize the line, “In God we live and breathe and have our being,” but other than that, not much stuck. I was the same first time I read through these words of Paul. Paul’s always confounding me. But I dug in, and Paul is showing us a way to be in this world – Yes, our world right now, with everyone that’s going on.
This is Paul’s third, maybe fourth try at this – He got thrown out of Thessalonia and Berea, and now here he is in Athens: The Princeton NJ or Cambridge Massachusettes of Greece, home town of Plato and Aristotle. These are smart people here; some real deep thinkers.
And his approach to the Athenians is so relevant to us today, in this season of – Gosh, I don’t know even what words to use. This year of a presidential election AND a pandemic AND multiple approaches to how to keep us safe and economically viable, AND an incredibly unpredictable future. When nothing is sure, our communication gets fueled by the worst in us, and turn into off-the-cuff remarks & jabs, criticizing, maybe some name calling. No one has much patience right now; everyone is a bit jittery.
I read this one article in the Washington Post featuring 75 year old Gloria Jackson’s experience so far. She’s fed up with everyone, and she finds herself spending too much time on facebook, “writing comments … for hours: ‘To hell with you, then.’ ‘You idiot.’ ‘How dumb can you be?’ ‘Moron.’ ‘Racist.’ ‘Selfish pig.’ ‘Idiot.’” Not that she likes this about herself, not that she recognizes herself right now, She says, “I don’t like feeling this way.” And she knows she’s not alone – Maybe you hold back from telling people what you REALLY think, but maybe some of those thoughts sneak out on occasion.
Gloria Jackson says, “And what are we now? We’re mean, we’re selfish, we’re stubborn, and sometimes even incompetent.”
What does this have to do with Paul talking with religious leaders in Athens about the resurrection of Jesus? Well, Paul knows his goal, and he’s meeting them non-judgmentally right where they are.
So often, I don’t think we’re clear about what we’re trying to accomplish when we’re communicating with each other. We aren’t clear with ourselves what we are hoping for out of our interactions. Paul missed the boat at least twice, so he’s figured out whatever he was doing before wasn’t working. He tries something new here with the highly educated, thoughtful, intelligent Athenians.
He starts with what he’s already observed: Statues, objects of worship, altars, temples, art – All in honor of or to worship something sacred and divine. He sees all of that and knows it represents a deep longing for the holy. A deep longing of their hearts and spirits for the divine.
He doesn’t tell them how wrong they are, how lost, how stupid and ignorant and stubborn, misguided they are. He doesn’t start out calling them names or condescending to them.
He starts out by letting them know he sees all this as evidence of a commitment to the sacred, and a deep longing for the divine. He sees what’s behind all those altars and temples and statues.
In this modern-day context, it would be like he reads all the facebook comments and posts and jabs and name-calling and labelling, and instead of lamenting how awful everyone is – The way Gloria Jackson does in the Washington Post article, he hears how angry people are, how anxious and scared and hurting people are. How frustrated they are. How much they long for something that will help. And he knows everyone needs some compassion, some care, some good news, some love.
Unless your goal is to show the world how right you are, what’s going on with us when we spout off? What’s our goal? I’m guessing what we’re doing so far isn’t working
It can be irresistible – I know. An itch we just have to scratch.
CAN”T HOLD BACK ANY LONGER!
MUST RESPOND RIGHT NOW
Paul probably came charging out of the gates like a racehorse hearing the bell back in Thessalonia and Berea – Like “This is good news folks! It’s so clear! I’ve got the answers! It’s right and true and inarguable!” Then got thrown out on his keister. Because that is not how connection, and interaction, and holy faithful love of neighbor and self show up. That’s not what Jesus did.
But it’s what we do – All the time. The truth is so obvious to us, and it’s so frustrating to us when others keep insisting the sky is green, in spite of all the times we show them our blue shirt, ask them what color our shirt is, and when they say, “Blue” we point to the sky, which is the EXACT SAME COLOR as our shirt, and they say, “The sky is green.” And we go through it all over again, thinking “This time, they’ll get it!”
The apostle Paul sees the deep longing behind the altars and statues. He recognizes it, because he knows it himself. Those people insisting the sky is green? They aren’t all that different from those people insisting the sky is blue. Everyone’s hearts are longing, longing, longing for something, and we assume that longing will go away if we’re reassured: – We’re right. There are answers out there. Someone knows the right way ahead. Someone knows how this will all turn out, knows the future. We will be okay. Our loved ones will be okay. We won’t die because we touched our nose. We won’t kill someone because we visited them.
But those reassurances don’t appease that longing. Sure, you can try again and again, and we do, but it doesn’t work, at least not for long. Instead, what if we took that energy and focused on what is needed right now, and what we have to offer right now? What does our call to love God in neighbor and self look like? Because being RIGHT, and lamenting everyone who is WRONG robs us of our faithful energy.
We know better. No argument was ever won on facebook. Or in a tweet. Probably not even in an email. Chances are, few hearts are swayed by facts. And that is a frustrating fact.
Which is why I find Paul’s method here so compelling. Instead of being frustrated at all the gods, the Athenians worship, Paul wonders about what’s behind that. Maybe Paul is inviting us to stop being reactive, and start wondering what is behind all the turmoil we’re seeing on line, on facebook, on the news, in our emails?
That’s when, we get into the heart of it, the hearts of one another. We are all scared. We are all uncertain. In times like these, we’re given an invitation: Instead of spending our passion and our energy trying to set others straight using logic and reason, what if we see our common human longing for reassurance, and safety, and acceptance, and love?
What if we remember our goal, our call, our invitation, is to love one another? Yes, that means resisting that itchiness to set someone straight. Not responding is hard. It takes practice. The need to discharge the anxiety that builds up when I see someone SAYING THE WRONG THING, saying the dangerous thing, insisting the sky is PINK, is overwhelming. But giving in to it takes me away from my faith in the God of love who calls me to respond with love. Ugh. It’s so hard to let God’s saving love be in charge of me!
But that itchiness passes, and then we see our shared humanity. Then we see what we all are longing for, what we all need: Compassion and love. I know what some of you are thinking, especially you scientists – And I agree. Yes, we need science. But science communicated without love doesn’t do much but rile people up.
Paul, he doesn’t lecture anyone on truth. He says instead: I see your yearning. I see all the ways you are trying to appease your hearts. How’s that working for you, all those deities you’re trying to appease? Because if it’s not working so well, and you’re tired of it and wondering how else to be in the world, maybe try this instead. Maybe consider there is the God of saving love in Christ, which is the only power that will save you, in this life and the next. Save you from fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, disappointment, despair. Well, okay, faith in that God won’t make all the bad feelings disappear, but that love will carry you through all of that.
Yes, it’s cliché. Yes, we’re sick of hearing it. But, I’ll say it again, because as Christians we’ve known for thousands of years how true it is: We are in this together. One day, we hope to be together in person. We’re called to love and forgive friend and enemy alike. Let’s love and forgive the scared kid who sometimes outshouts the still small voice and guidance of the God of love. That way, when we can meet again, we will want to meet again, We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s the same God in whom we all live and breathe and have our being, regardless of what color we insist our sky.
Sermon for: May 10, 2020
Don’t be troubled.
God, I just. God, it’s too late. God, I am troubled. God, am I troubled. Jesus says not to be troubled, don’t let our hearts be troubled, as though it’s under my control. Not today it isn’t. My heart is a 2 year old who missed her nap and lost her blankie. Telling me not to be troubled …. Well. I am troubled, agitated, stirred up. I am troubled in all those ways. And I’m tired of digging deep and looking for reasons to be grateful. I’m tired of gratitude-hunting.
Don’t be troubled.
Not only that, Lord, while I’m at it, I’m tired of grief. I’m troubled by grief. I’m tired of hearing about grief, being told “there is much to grieve,” reading strategies for how to handle my grief and help others handle theirs. I’m tired of being told we’re just at the beginning of what we’ll have to give up. I’ve had enough of grief. Which, I suppose, is the nature of grief – We’re sick of it long before it’s done with us.
Trust in God. Trust also in me.
Lord, I am trying. Lord, am I trying. When the vegetable seeds start to sprout, I’m trying to trust in you. But then, I hear unemployment is already projected at around 15% and I think, how long?
When the rain comes and the cold comes, I’m trying to trust in you, that the sun will come again and warm the earth, and maybe ease my heart. But then, I remember, singing – SINGING! Singing, Lord? Did that have to be something else we have to let go of in this season? We’ve already given up gathering in person, seeing our loved ones in person. We’ve already given up sharing communion – yeah, I know, we share and gather on-line. Not the same. And who knows when – IF we’ll ever get to pass the peace, pass the bread, pass the cup. So I don’t even know what it means to trust in you. I don’t even know what that looks like these days.
Trust in God. Trust also in me.
Jesus, I am trusting you to do, what exactly? Make things better? I’m not seeing how, at least anytime soon, things will get better. I don’t know how I – we – will cope with this for the next month, next season, rest of the year, the start of school, the holidays, the next year???? How long O Lord? I don’t have that much trust. I don’t even feel like I have enough to get me through today.
My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you?
You have room to spare – Do you have room for despair? Room for people who long to be faithful but are too worn out? Do you have room for hopelessness and grief, a gathering place for people who are lost and lonely? Room for anger and frustration? Room for people who are trying to trust you, but you seem so far away? Do you have room for that?
When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too. You know the way to the place I’m going.
Uh, no Jesus, I don’t know the way. No one does. Not for sure. We’ve got the best minds in the world – The most knowledgeable, savvy, informed, experienced, downright smart people on the planet and in our country trying to find a way through when there is no sure way. And what does it matter? People don’t want to listen to them, anyway. So yeah, I’m with Thomas:
Thomas asked, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Because every single path before us comes at a cost, comes at a price. Besides, we aren’t going anywhere. Well, at least some of us aren’t. There’s nowhere to go, to escape all this. Path A opens businesses right away in an effort to save the economy, but that won’t work if people don’t leave home. Path B is to keep people home a bit longer, making sure we have enough hospitals and beds and room in the ICU for everyone, but I’m sick of it. I want to go back, back to 2019, the way things were, when I knew what to expect and where to find you and what trust and faith looked like.
Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
What way? The harder way now in the hopes it will be less painful down the road? The truth for today? The truth that changes as medical professionals and researchers know more, learn more? The truth we tell ourselves about conspiracies because somehow that seems more comforting and likely than the truth of this uncertainty and chaos? And what life? This life? This living history in the making isn’t as fun, or exciting, or even as interesting as we thought – As it seems in books and movies. It’s dreary and boring and exhausting and never-ending. No fun. No fun at all. So, what way exactly am I to be walking, while I’m pretty much standing still, because none of us are supposed to be walking very far at all.
If you have really known me, you will also know the Father. From now on you know him and have seen him.” Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us.”
Yeah, that’s my point: I feel like I don’t really know God. Show God to me! I’m not alone here – while many of us have learned how you show up in hard times - No one alive today really knows how the you show up in a pandemic – Right now, you sure aren’t showing up with a vaccine, or a treatment, or much reassurance it will all be okay. I don’t feel like I’ve got much to go on, here, right now, this day.
Jesus replied, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father?” Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I have spoken to you I don’t speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me does his works. Trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the works themselves.”
O. so maybe I need to look at what I can see, not at what I cannot see? Maybe I need to look for the work of love, the works of love? Maybe you have been with me all this time, and I have been looking for something I can’t see, instead of looking at your works. It’s hard right now to trust. Everything right now is hard: Faith is hard. Words are hard. Hope is hard. Being church is hard. Being human is hard. But when I can’t see you, or I’m having trouble trusting in you, I can look at your works.
I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father.
Well, you are right. I might be struggling to see you, but I see what amazing acts of love and kindness people are doing. People are doing mighty, mighty works, Lord.
People like Barb Bartels, trying to care for and take care of a staff and residents of a large nursing home, without enough supplies or love or strength or hours in the day. And she keeps getting up, and getting up, and giving what she can.
People like our nurses and doctors from Maryland heading to New York, answering the prayers of nurses and doctors and patients there.
People who are going to work day after day after day after day, caring for the sick, even while others in the country insist it is their right to gather, putting themselves at risk of needing those very same worn out and exhausted doctors and nurses and hospital beds.
People who are feeding the hungry, like Dot and Holly heading to Elizabeth House Sunday afternoon.
People like Jason Papanikolas, working long, long hours to help process unemployment filings.
People who are sharing their talents and voices like Ray and Alicia and Tiffany and Natalie, trusting as they sing separately it will come together, like in the hymn they offer, “How Can I Keep from Singing.” And all the ways you remind me, remind us, that You, Love, is Lord of heaven and earth, and nothing will keep us from singing.
I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father can be glorified in the Son. When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.
God, I ask – we ask – in your name - for compassion. For eyes to see what we can, and when we forget how to see love, hearts to know the love behind the works.
Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me.
Okay. Okay. I will try. Today, I will try again. Today I will offer what I can, trusting your love behind it. Today I will try to let your love live aside my troubled spirit. Today, I will try to let my trust in you live aside your love for me. Today, I will walk the path of trust, the way of hope, in this journey of love.
8 March 20
Like everyone else, I am watching the new corona virus, covid-19, make its way across the world, and like everyone else, I’m concerned about everyone I know who is at risk – Those over 60, those with respiratory issues, those with other health complications. And like everyone else, I’m watching our experts – Doctors, public health workers, policy makers – Try to figure out on the fly how best to address this new infectious disease that no one knew about just 90 days ago. Everyone is doing the best they can to make it up on the fly, make decisions and predictions on the fly, and course correct on the fly. Of course there aren’t enough tests. Of course those tests aren’t fool-proof. Of course no one knows the answers to all the questions we have: What is the actual death rate? Can you catch it then catch it again? How long does this little covid-19 live on surfaces? Should we close the borders? Close the schools? Start tele-working? Stop going to gatherings where there will be other people? Stop going to Maryland Basketball Games? Heavens! Not that!
And I realize, we are indeed walking through wilderness times this Lent, in a more pronounced and obvious way than usual. This is not a ho-hum Lenten season, where we’d be forgiven for forgetting what Lent is all about – You know, human sin and brokenness, human fallibility and mortality and limitations. Nope, all of that is staring us in the face, every day. But even as I’m with everyone else watching this corona virus unfold before me, I’m also highly attuned to the church calendar, and how covid-19 puts us right there with Jesus in the wilderness, in these uncertain times, when no one knows how to stay safe, or what the answers are, or what the right thing to do is – Other than wash our hands, again and again.
So yes, Jesus, we’re joining in you this season of uncertainty, and darkness, and Lent. A season of wandering in the wilderness, where we don’t have all the information or experience or knowledge we think we need to get through this time.
And when I thought about Jesus in the wilderness, in the darkness, I wondered, where did he found his comfort? What gave him solace? Where did he turn for answers, when he didn’t have enough information or experience or knowledge to get through the dark uncertainties? Because that’s the nature of wilderness and Lent: It’s the uncertainty, and the darkness. If we know how it would all turn out, it’s not wilderness.
In Confirmation Class we’re asking each youth to pick a short scripture to memorize – Because when life doesn’t unfold the way we’ve expected – Say, when a brand new corona virus hits town and everyone is freaking out - it’s good to have a few phrases to repeat to yourself, to help you calm down, to remind you who you are, and whose you are.
I confess I watched the Netflix documentary called “Cheer,” about the number one junior college cheer championship team and I was struck by how often they repeat together all the time this call and response: “We can. We must. We will.” Right before a competition. When something goes wrong. When they aren’t sure how to move ahead. It’s good to have words to lean on, words we know by heart, words that inspire us and comfort us and remind us who we are and what we are to be about. I’m assuming Jesus was the same: That he found comfort and solace and strength in his own scripture. In those ancient words, like we sang in the Call to Worship.
So this Lenten season, for 4 weeks, we’ll take a look at Jesus’ own scripture in the Psalms. The words he would have turned to for comfort and strength in the 40 days of wilderness. The Psalms are words written generations upon generations ago; words that have been memorized and shared, spoken, sung, and whispered for thousands of years. The same words Jesus would have turned to in his time of need. Today, in our time of need, we’ll look at Psalm 121, one of my favorites, and yes, it’s the one we just read together in the Responsive Reading, and the same psalm we sang as our opening hymn, and the same words for the choir’s anthem just a few minutes ago.
“I lift my eyes to the hills – Where will my help come from?”
Psalm 121 is grouped with what are called “Pilgrimage Psalms” that reassure us of God’s protection as we go on this journey. Maybe it’s a journey through the day, or the year, or a season of life – But we’re always on a journey of one sort or another, even if we aren’t leaving our living rooms. You just never know what the next hour might hold. Biblical scholars suggest that these words united the Israelites whenever trhey would begin a journey. They would recite these words together, in a call and response: “I lift my eyes to the hills – Where will my help come from?”
What a perfect question to ask this morning. What a perfect reminder that as we go on this journey, be it through Lent, or this day, or this week, or this election cycle, or this season of grief, or the corona virus, – Where will we get help? Because we know we need help – We need help desperately. This isn’t one of those times when we need to be convinced we can’t do this alone – We know we need help.
I listened Thursday evening to the New York Times’ podcast “The Daily” for their corona coverage update, and I was struck again how this latest health crisis reveals our common humanity. We want information. We expect information. We want someone to be in charge. We expect someone to be in charge. We want answers – It’s hard to imagine there just aren’t any right now. And how quickly we turn to blame, when nothing turns out the way we assumed. Isn’t there someone we can blame? Someone who didn’t do their job, who didn’t tell us the answers, didn’t hand out the tests, didn’t make sure the tests were foolproof. Aren’t they smart enough to know how to handle this? And we forget 90 days ago hardly anyone knew anything about this. And we’re reminded, this season of Lent, how sometimes, we just don’t have many answers, or much information, or the experience and knowledge we want. How sometimes, we’re shocked at how small and vulnerable we human beings are.
“I lift my eyes to the hills – Where will my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
Right. It’s God’s love that ultimately helps us. It’s God’s love that carries us through the wilderness times of uncertainty and anxiety and not enough information or answers.
But what does that mean? What does the Psalmist mean by “God will not let your foot be moved; the One who keeps you will not slumber, nor sleep.
The journeys of our ancestors were often arduous. People died from small cuts that got infected. People suffered from painful illnesses that we think nothing of today. Our ancestors literally walked through deserts, rivers, hills, and mountains, crossed seas, wandered under a blistering sun and a freezing night, left home behind, all looking for a better life. Or escaping danger. Or seeking God. Losing loved ones to illness was commonplace. The feet of our ancestors slipped all the time – Their footing on this journey of life was so much more precarious than ours. We forget – Our footing is precarious as well.
And in the time and place of the Psalmists, it could get hot, exceedingly hot, dangerously hot. Whenever I travel with my husband Paul, and it’s that kind of hot out – He makes me laugh because he always vigilantly, scans the path ahead for the shade. He crossed the street numerous times in Phnom Penh in order to stay in the shade. But the shade is no small thing. It can make all the difference: “The Lord is your keeper; The Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.”
Here’s the challenge: Sometimes, when the wilderness is really, really really bad, whatever sort of wilderness we’re in, we hope that our faith in God will keep us from stumbling. Our faith will keep us on the right path. We won’t twist an ankle or break a hip. We won’t get burned, we won’t be touched by evil. God will keep us safe whether we’re going or coming, for the rest of our lives. “The Lord will keep you from evil; God will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time on and forevermore.”
But that’s not how this journey works. That’s not what it means to be live a human life, with a soft human heart that can break, and bodies that fail us. Faith is not an inoculation against living.
Ooo, we wish it were. It’s so tempting to believe the simple formula – Believe in God, and you’ll be protected from any pain! And when our feet slide out from under us, when our hearts are broken, when the darkness and uncertainty and wilderness threaten to consume us, we’re tempted to let fear infect us. That’s what Jesus was facing in the wilderness: Stop the uncertainty! Take the simple way that seems easier! Let go of God and hold onto anything else!
Right now, there is plenty of fear swirling around. It’s also showing up as anger. Right now, the fear and anger may be more contagious than the actual corona virus. We’re tempted to let anger, and frustration, and helplessness, and fear overtake us. It’s tempting to join the bandwagon of blaming the Chinese government, the US government, the Center for Disease Control, the doctors and hospitals and healthcare officials for not doing a better job – Which they can’t do, because no one knows what that would be.
O yes, there is a LOT of dangerous stuff in the air, threatening our lives. All those emotions and thought patterns are contagious, too. In fact, that’s how God made us. We’re not just susceptible to bacteria and viruses and cancers that make us sick, we’re susceptible to how others are thinking and feeling.
I lift my eyes to the hills – where will my help come from? My help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
Krista Tippet interviewed Sociologist Nicholas Christakis for her On Being podcast, and how timely. Because he looks back in history – And by history, better to say evolutionary history, to see how remarkable it is that we are the only species to consistently show the capacity for friendship, love, teaching, and cooperation. Sure, we all know that violence is part of the human condition, but so too is friendship – Elephants are about the only other species shown to make and keep friends outside family members. We’re one of the only species to show love beyond the mother-child bond. We’re one of the only species to intentionally teach one another. Most other creatures learn by mimicry.
God made us to be in relationship. While public health officials are trying to track the spread of the corona virus – Who did the sick person come in contact with – Nicholas Christakis points out that when people take intentional action in their lives, their acts ripple out – In the same way the corona virus can spread, and the same way fear can spread – So can, as he and Krista put it, “The better angels of our nature.”
This psalm is carried from group to group, from individual to individual, across space and time. This psalm reminds us ultimately it is God who keeps our souls, It is God who keeps our hearts. And because our lives are about trusting that, again and again and again, because we know God’s love, we can be the ones to spread calm and hope, not chaos and fear. Today, we worship God. We fill our hearts with the Spirit of Christ, who knows what it is to face uncertainty, darkness, fear, to walk in the wilderness. And we are reminded – Our help is in the Lord who made heaven and earth. And so we have protection from the contagion of fear and panic. We can be the ones to share God’s love, because times like now reveal this about being human as well: We care about each other, we are in this together, God holds us close. That can be contagious. Leave panic behind. Take a deep breath and remember, in life and in death we belong to the One who Makes us. Claim this antidote to fear and anger: God’s love. Share that with a world desperately in need. Our God in Christ shows us the way.