Who knew that we were going to have to give up going to church for Lent? Whether or not we have ever before taken on the spiritual practice of giving up something dear to us for the 40 days of Lent, in the interest of public health, we are giving up in-person worship now – if not for exactly 40 days, then for the near future.
I was grateful to Bob Purssell for teaching me that the word “quarantine” comes from the Italian “quaranta giorni,” or 40 days – just like the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, which inspired early Christians to fast for 40 days each Lent. In Italy in the 1600s, ships suspected of carrying plague from a foreign port were kept in quarantine for 40 days, to be sure all aboard were free of disease.
How is your faith holding up, in your time of quarantine, as we fast from our church family’s physical presence? Few of us in our lifetime have known the terror that so many previous generations before us have known during disease outbreaks like this. And yet the writer of Psalm 91 proclaimed hope in a God who cares:
1You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, 2will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.
3For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; 4he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, 6or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
Miriam, a faithful “greatest generation” member of my last church, went through a hard childhood, caring for her bedbound mother. Since the 1920s, her mom had been sick from tuberculosis, and yet Miriam believed that her life of caring for her dying mother had strengthened her faith. She told my Confirmands that as a teenager, her mom had her memorize Psalm 91. Miriam recited it at her mother’s funeral, and I read it at Miriam’s. Since then, I turn to its calming words to strengthen my faith, as I hope it strengthens yours.
I always celebrated March 21 as the birthday of my childhood best friend (as well as J.S. Bach) and the first day of spring, but the vernal equinox came early this year, March 19th, the earliest it’s been since 1896.
No matter what the calendar date, the arrival of spring feels very different in 2020. Not much to celebrate. As the world settles into Pandemic Lockdown, we hunker down in our homes and steal quick walks in the sunshine when we can, keeping 6 feet from friends.
So in times like this, I wanted to share a hopeful word with you from this poem, “Lockdown,” from Irish Franciscan Brother Richard Hendrick:
Yes there is fear. Yes there is isolation. Yes there is panic buying. Yes there is sickness. Yes there is even death.
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise You can hear the birds again. They say that after just a few weeks of quiet The sky is no longer thick with fumes But blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi People are singing to each other across the empty squares, keeping their windows open so that those who are alone may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman I know is busy spreading fliers with her number through the neighbourhood So that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples are preparing to welcome and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way All over the world people are waking up to a new reality To how big we really are. To how little control we really have. To what really matters. To Love.
So we pray and we remember that Yes there is fear. But there does not have to be hate. Yes there is isolation. But there does not have to be loneliness. Yes there is panic buying. But there does not have to be meanness. Yes there is sickness. But there does not have to be disease of the soul Yes there is even death. But there can always be a rebirth of love. Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Today, breathe. Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic The birds are singing again The sky is clearing, Spring is coming, And we are always encompassed by Love. Open the windows of your soul And though you may not be able to touch across the empty square, Sing.
~ Richard Hendrick, March 13, 2020
I am so thankful for our wonderful church. Your love and care for each other over this first week that our church offices and meetinghouse have been shut down has been inspiring. I am also grateful to Pastor Jen and our talented IT team for getting our worship on line so quickly last Sunday. Let us remain connected to our loving God, and to one another as we walk through this particular “Valley of the Shadow” together.
In our Gospel reading for March 8th, from John 3, we heard the Pharisee Nicodemus come to Jesus with many questions. He was struggling to understand what it means to be “born again” of the Holy Spirit – and so we also struggle with that terminology today, in our very literal and pragmatic world.
As I said in my sermon, “Journey with Jesus: Into the World of Spirit,” it is hard to name spiritual truth. And yet we often seek out the world of spirit – sometimes by going to church, or other times going on a hike, or visiting with loved ones, or just listening to music as we do the dishes. And when God meets us there, in those moments, I think we often struggle to find the right words to describe what happens – what spiritual renewal we feel inside.
Most often, I fear we don’t share our spiritual moments with anyone – I suspect we keep our stories inside so others don’t think we are either religious nuts or just completely crazy. And yet those experiences of awe and wonder connect us in our humanity – and also in our divinity, in that we are made in the image of God. They connect us to new life in Christ.
In my sermon I described a beautiful sunset I watched one evening with a complete stranger, a UPS driver who pulled over beside me at a scenic overlook. We recognize these “mountaintop moments” when they happen, but like Nicodemus, we don’t know exactly how to name them – much less get ourselves there again.
But Jesus invites us to follow him – and accept his gift of new life, walking closely with him – and not just once or twice, but daily. He calls us to step out with courage and conviction into this very earthy world – and yet call out, name, and live in this other, amazing world of grace and spirit. But the Good News is that if we believe in Jesus, we will find the courage to follow him and discover miracles and wonders together.
So when the next opportunity comes to you to pull your car over to the side of the road or to otherwise connect with God, when that next happens to you, I hope and pray you won’t be like Nicodemus and limit yourself to what you know is possible. Believe in Jesus enough follow him into the world of spirit.
As we began the season of Lent yesterday with our modest little Ash Wednesday gathering at 7am, I was struck again by the palpable, joyful movement of the Holy Spirit in our church these days.
Toni’s new children’s anthem last Sunday was so lovely and bright, as was the music of the Jubilate Ringers. Our Stewardship Campaign is on target to meet our bold budget goals for ministry in the new year. And this Sunday, March 1, the First Sunday of Lent, we will receive 6 new members who will be “owning” or entering our church covenant.
The Holy Spirit is doing great things at our little white church at the crossroads. And I say this in spite of having conducted more than 15 funerals this past year, in spite of having some heavy prayer concerns lifted up each week in worship (not to mention the tears shed in my office), and in spite of the multiple threats looming over our hurting world – from gun violence and war, to environmental destruction and natural disasters, to political chaos, to the corona-19 virus epidemic.
In truth, this is the deepest truth of the bittersweet journey of the Lenten season, as we begin with the ancient words of the liturgy: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” In many ways, it is the very frailty and brevity of our earthly lives that makes every day and every human being so precious. Perhaps it is the darkness of grief that draws us most toward the light, and calls us together into worship, as we seek a place to offer our heartfelt, though ordinary, thankfulness.
When we join together in worship and service – bravely entering the wintry, wilderness space of our Lenten journey with caring companions – I find the way gets much easier. I know it did for the 12 of us who gathered in the rain and cold of this Ash Wednesday morning, where we sang, prayed, and even laughed together to begin our Lenten “Journey with Jesus.”
I hope you will also find your way through the barren desert of this world’s troubles to a new place of joy, as we gather to remember Jesus and his deft mastery of his 3 temptations in the wilderness this Sunday (from Matthew 4), as we receive our new members, and as we share our prayers, songs, and the Lord’s Supper together.
25Early in the morning [Jesus] came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I;
do not be afraid.”
In a recent Stewardship message, Jim Sugden pointed out that although the story of Jesus walking on water appears in 3 of the 4 Gospels (Matthew, Mark and John), it is only in Matthew 14:25-32 that one of the disciples decides to try walking on water himself.
But it doesn’t go all that well. Maybe Peter (a.k.a. “The Rock”) was the wrong disciple to try to walk on water, after all – because he didn’t get very far before he began to sink like a stone!
Peter starts out OK, keeping his eyes fixed on Jesus. But the moment he notices the wind picking up around him, he is filled with doubt and begins to drown. “Lord, save me!” he cries out. And of course Jesus immediately reaches out a hand to catch him and help him back into the boat. “Why did you doubt?” Jesus asks.
If you are like me, and others with me in this week’s Bible Study, we can just imagine Peter’s shame at his “failure of faith.” After all, most of us have known at least one moment of doubt in our lives – especially when it comes to facing real life issues like job loss, or marital problems, or even our own church’s financial challenges.
That’s why I salute Stewardship’s choice in taking this passage as a theme text for this year’s campaign – because in the storm-tossed turmoil of our daily lives, especially in the area of our finances, we can easily get discouraged and lose sight of Jesus.
But together, even as we prepare our church budget for the new year, we can trust in the hand ever-extended to us to help. We can be confident that it is safe to step out in faith, with God’s help, to meet the challenges that lie before us.
As we present our pledges and renew our promises to God on this Stewardship Sunday, may we be reminded again of those comforting words of the angels at Christmas, and of Jesus in this story, “Be not afraid!”
Perhaps learning from Jesus’ parables shared with him by the disciples, Paul becomes the master of simile and metaphor as he writes to the early church communities he worked to establish. In this Sunday’s scripture alone (1 Corinthians 3:1-16) he manages to compare the Corinthians’ beginner faith in the Way of Jesus Christ to a garden and a building, and compares the Corinthians to God’s temple. He is writing to them in response to some distressing news he had received about the Corinthians – about their behavior and their division based on choosing sides in what leader they might follow.
As we considered these words in Bible Study this week we couldn’t help but be reminded a bit of today – people divided over who to follow, a willingness to undercut others because of their beliefs, tweets and in-person insults from all sides that disparage others and wreak havoc on the unity of who we are to be as a nation and even as people of faith. So in times like these, much like in the time of the early church, it is important to go back to basics. It is important to remember the lessons for living our faith we have been taught by our example and guide Jesus Christ and who has the real power in the midst of it all.
That is what Paul does in this part of his 1st letter to the Corinthians. He tries to nip the division, dissension, and back-biting in the bud before it has a chance to get greater and, in turn, worse – ruining the community and faith building work for which he had laid the foundation. He reminds the Corinthians that it isn’t about following one person or another, the core of our faith is about following God – God’s guidance, God’s direction, God’s ways. He reminds them that he and Apollos are merely servants, that it is God who gives the growth. He reminds them that he laid the foundation, which Apollos built well upon, but the work didn’t stop there. They now have to continue the building – building on the message of Jesus, building one another up instead of tearing each other down, building a community that could celebrate with each other, withstand challenge, and point toward God and God’s Kingdom as the ultimate goal.
In his letter Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are now the Body of Christ – they are God’s temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells. He challenges them to behave in such a way that people would recognize that through their words and their actions – that people would know God’s presence when they are around. May we accept that challenge too – seeking to build up and build stronger the community that God calls us to be, so that others might know more truly God’s presence and power.