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.