They moved from enslavement to liberation through a parted sea across a wilderness and a river. Miram played her timbrel then. They packed up what they could carry while the blood of lambs dried on lintels and God passed over. Miram placed her timbrel then. They left behind every thing - everything predictable and familiar oppressive days and captive nights. Miriam didn’t leave her timbrel then. Step by step Egypt faded into memory manna and quail fell from heaven water flowed from rock Miriam’s timbrel jingled in her pack then. The timbrel traveled for forty years waiting for that last river crossing to be remember, played as Miriam danced before the whole assembly. How many timbrels lay at the bottom of packs through the hunger, thirst, and anguish, Through the wandering days and the bleakest nights? Tens, hundreds, thousands? Timbrels waited. The women trusted, knew days of praise would come again when the wandering ended and the Promised Land was underfoot for the first time in generations. Miriam’s timbrel, the other women’s timbrels played, then. We’ve traveled far and long since those ancient days. Do we still follow the prophets (old and new) with timbrels in our packs, quiet reassurance of praise-filled days yet to come? Are we brave enough to do as Miriam did? She inspired the other women to make room for timbrels, room for future songs and praises knowing wilderness lay between now and then. We are held captive by pharaohs, all who endorse White supremacy, White nationalism and proclaim God’s whiteness. There is a wasteland between captivity and liberation. Pack now for the journey. Leave behind fear, hatred, and distrust of neighbors. Listen to the Prophets (ancient and new) who call us into new life. There is enough blood drying in our streets. God has not passed over us; we have passed over God who holds the bleeding and dying and grieving waiting for us to notice God is only in the love. We need the timbrels, jingling on the journey, waiting for the days of freedom and praise. I am Miriam’s child. Are you? The quiet sounds of my packed timbrel guide me. It will be hard for you to join the praise later, after the journey, if you leave your timbrel behind. We need the secret sounds of promise now if we are to sing and dance and praise then. We do not go into the wilderness alone. Miriam’s timbrel echoes there still and the pillars of fire still burn the ground is as sacred now as it was then. Join me on this journey into all that is possible – Love your neighbor as yourself… Repair the breach… Sing praises right out loud. Let’s not wait until then is now. Let’s begin in this moment, timbrels at the ready. Miriam waits…
Healing stories are fascinating, let alone the raising from the dead stories. Our 21st Century minds try to rationalize and minimize the power of such accounts. I know I spent years wishing I could touch Jesus garment and be healed from sickness. Truthfully, I’ve also, on occasion, wished Jesus were around to call a person back from death if not grant me the power to do it myself. However, this kind of thing doesn’t happen often in the modern world. Whether or not healing happened the way the Bible tells us it did, we will never know. Today I want to set these questions aside and explore the story of the woman who touched Jesus robe and the girl raised from death in a more metaphoric sense.
Truth be told, I’m not sure if the Church universal is more like the woman with uncontrolled bleeding or the girl Jesus called back from death. If I think of the Church as a whole, the Bodymind of Christ, then I think of the ways in which we are bleeding out. Our strength is being diminished by fear and hatred. White Supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and much more keep us from being healthy and whole. We have bought into the lies of the Empire and it is killing us. It doesn’t seem that we even know we need to reach for the garments of Christ, reach for healing. So many of us are entrenched in protecting tradition and reluctant to change. What happened to seeking Jesus in the midst of the crowd, trusting that we will be made whole?
On the other hand, the more we cling to our nostalgic recollection of the past and our outdated modes of worship and governance, the more we risk sliding into death. The past is not the perfection many of us recall. Church has always been riddled with the wounds of the Empire. When we made our traditions more important than following Jesus, we cut deeper. When we chose to follow social norms instead of seeking Jesus, we became sicker. When we decided who was in and who was out, we laid down on our deathbed. When we elevated our politicians over God’s holy ways, our breathing became labored. Will we hear Jesus call us to new life?
My friends, the Bodymind of Christ is sick, perhaps near to death. Isn’t it time we sought healing, healing that goes deep into the heart of the Church? I’m not under the illusion that all denominations will come together as one, though, if we were honest with ourselves, we might all get a bit closer as we reach for those garments of Christ. Are we as individuals, congregations, and denominations willing to ask the questions that will enable our spiritual hands to reach for those healing robes?
Who is welcome in our congregations and who is not? Who is welcome in our pulpits and who is not? What is essential to embodying Christ in the world today? What is not? What is our primary illness – worshiping tradition? White supremacy? homophobia? transphobia? literal interpretation of scripture? misogyny? other fear? Answering these questions honestly just might stop the flow of blood or enable us to hear the call to new life.
However, recognizing the symptoms of illness isn’t always easy. Ignoring them, though, won’t make us any healthier. Acknowledging that we are unwell is the beginning of the journey toward health. While sickness may weaken us, there is no shame in sickness itself. If we continue to deny the sickness and act as if we are healthy and whole, this is shame; this is sin.
May we repent of our insistence on wellness and denying our sickness. May we have the courage to reach for the garments of grace and listen for the voice calling us to new life. May we be honest with where we are now and where Jesus would rather we be. May the Bodymind of Christ be made well by God’s grace and through our words and actions…
RCL – Year B – Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – June 27, 2021 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 and Psalm 130 • Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24 or Lamentations 3:22-33 and Psalm 30 • 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 • Mark 5:21-43
The failure to recognize the obvious always catches me by surprise. Long, long ago Samuel told the people of God that no good could come from the rule of kings. They insisted on being like all other nations. And along came the kings who took their children for soldiers and servants, their goods and grains for self-serving purposes. Still, they did not learn. What is our excuse? We still fall under the rule of kings and presidents, queens and congress, to what avail? Our children are still taken as soldiers and servants, dying to preserve our sense of safety and superiority. All is an illusion. Jesus sat with a crowd of misfits and miracle-seekers and called them his own – siblings in body and spirit. Yet, we side with those in power, ignoring the needs of our neighbors, sanctioning state violence against those we fear, huddling just this side of status quo, ignoring the distance between this existence and the realm of God. When will we learn? Samuel’s wisdom still holds truth: there is no need to be like other nations. We can turn our attention to the greater good, the needs of our neighbors. Soldiers and servants need not be the future for anyone’s children if we consider what God requires. Where is that holy highway for all to travel in peace accompanied by mercy and justice? Jesus showed us the way. All that is required is to recognize siblings where the world labels “other.” Can we serve God with more than our lips? Can we shatter the illusions of difference and division created to keep us under the control of death and violence? Can we let go of fear to make room for justice and love our neighbors as ourselves? For the love of God and all things holy, may it not be too late to save us from conformity, fear, and destruction.
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Pentecost is a fabulous story. It has all the marks of a story well-told, complete with special effects. In fact, it is not hard to picture the disciples gathered together in a room, possibly the same upper room of the Last Supper. They gather, huddled together, trying to sort out what’s next. When, all of a sudden, the entire house is filled with the sound of rushing wind. Then tongues of fire appear above their heads. The next thing you know they are preaching about Jesus and every person hears in their own language. It’s remarkable, exciting, and mysterious. So much so that I think we sometimes miss the point.
Wind, flames, and many languages were evidence of the Spirit’s presence that day, a day that shifted the direction of the newly emerging church. As much as I would love to see what would happen if the Spirit showed up in the same way to any of our congregations this week, if we are really listening to the story, it isn’t necessary for the Spirit to repeat herself. The greatest gift of the Spirit is not in the flames of passion or fierceness of conviction. Nor is it the ability to speak and be heard in any language. The greatest gift of the Spirit is how she connects us one to another, and, thereby, to God and Creation.
Burning with a passion to serve God is pointless without a deep appreciation for our kinship with one another, especially with those whom we call “other.” Being moved by the power of conviction is only as good as our ability to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. The gift of tongues diminishes without compassion for those with whom we share this planet, let alone for the planet itself. On that first Pentecost, the Spirit wove us together with unbreakable bonds, with sighs deeper than our understanding, with a love beyond our imagining. Without the Spirit blowing through that house so long ago, I’m not sure we’d experience much more than the groaning of the world around us.
Think about it. The Spirit blew through that house with some serious force. I know the text only mentions the sound of winds. However, I like to imagine the doors and windows being blown wide open. Sometimes I even picture the roof being blown off. It is a symbolic removing of barriers between us. Then the flames appear, identifying the ones who followed Jesus most closely, the ones with something powerful to share. Those tongues of fire are an apt metaphor for those moments when we are aware of our place in something much larger than ourselves, those moments of deep insight that we are compelled to share. Then comes the language thing. At first it was a cacophony of sound. And then people realized they could understand; each person heard in their own language. This was a moment of connection made with words, harkening back to the Word who’d become flesh and lived among us. At the end of that first Pentecost, the church took shape because the Spirit bound people together who would never have come together otherwise. Bound in deed and word.
Do you see how we don’t need the audio and visual effects? We don’t need them because the lessons taught, the gifts given that day have come down through the centuries to us in the here and now. How can we read or hear this story without recognizing how intimately bound we are to one another? We aren’t bound just to those we know and love. We are bound to everyone who has ever felt the power of the wind, the heat of the flames, the pull of the words. We are bound to the impressive ones who preach in public places with their whole lives. We are bound to the hidden ones who seldom speak and, yet, always show up. We are bound to the broken ones who yearn for us to see their wholeness. We are bound to the doubt-filled ones who can’t quite feel the heat of the flames. We are bound to the messy ones and the angry ones and shy ones and all the “other” ones, even the ones who call God by other names.
Do you see it now? Do you see how impossible it is now to dismiss or devalue or deny or exclude any human being from the church? We are connected by the Spirit to the spirit in every human being, like it or not. And you know, these cords cannot be broken. And it’s a good thing, too. Because if they could be broken, there would be no church, no embodiment of Christ in the world today. And that would be a loss beyond imagining…
In the United Church of Christ, this Sunday is Mental Health Sunday. Many congregations won’t choose to observe it at all, while a few will have Mental Health Sunday at a different point in the year. However, it isn’t something that should be overlooked or avoided. Church can be helpful or harmful, and our history indicates that we have harmed more than we’ve helped when it comes to mental health. Too many people, even in progressive congregations, still believe that mental illness is a punishment for sin, a character flaw, or evidence of insufficient faith. Isn’t it time we tell it like it is? Isn’t it time we end the silence and shatter the stigma surrounding mental illness in our churches?
Jesus said, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11-12). He was speaking about his disciples then and now. He didn’t make any distinction among them. And, I’d bet that some of them had diagnosable mental health conditions. Think about Peter and is impulsiveness…
Anyway, Jesus claimed all who followed him as his people, given to him by God. In this prayer during the Farewell Discourses in John’s gospel, Jesus asks God to protect them and create wholeness among them – make them one. I wish this had happened then or was happening now. It isn’t a failure on God’s part to answer Jesus’ prayer. It is a failure on the part of the church to live as we have been called. We make judgments and live in fear, separated one from another when we don’t have to.
In biblical times demon possession and punishment for sin were the only way to understand mental illness. However, we know better now, or we should. Mental illness takes place in the brain. The brains of people with mental illness function differently and some differences are observable in brain imaging. We generally don’t say that cancer or heart disease are a punishment from God, though many might feel this way. We also don’t tend to blame people who are diagnosed with physical illness for their condition. Yet, we do when it comes to mental illness. Why is that?
The simple answer is that we are afraid. We are afraid that it could happen to us. Or we believe the misinformation that is out there that people who have severe and persistent mental illness are violent. Or we are fearful of saying or doing the wrong thing. As a result of our fear and, maybe, some ignorance, too, we remain silent and separated from our siblings who live with symptoms of mental illness. This is where stigma comes from. This is in direct opposition to how Jesus told us we are supposed to live – as one, one whole Body of Christ.
I can’t help but wonder if more people would find welcome in our congregations if we stopped being fearful and started to foster a sense of unity with all of our neighbors. If we endeavored to learn more about mental health conditions and stopped ignoring that 1 in 5 U.S. adults is diagnosed with a mental health condition, how might this change church? Wouldn’t the Body of Christ be healthier if we were to fully embrace all of our members, friends, and neighbors who live with mental illness?
Recently, I’ve learned about the term “bodymind” and I think Jesus would be a fan. Bodymind eliminates the dualism that Western traditions have created. Bodymind is all about the mind and body as a single unit and eliminates the distinction between physical health and mental health. Imagine the Body of Christ becoming the Bodymind of Christ… We would not longer have the option of pretending that mental illness isn’t part of the church. The silence would be broken and the stigma completely shattered, not to mention the sense of wholeness that this understanding could foster…
Isn’t it time that we work together to embrace the unity that Jesus prayed for among his followers? That they may be one… The Bodymind of Christ…
It’s been quite a week here in the Twin Cities, and in my life. The verdict of guilty on all three charges in the Chauvin trial shifted the mood considerably. There is now hope where there was none. However, this hope is mitigated by the killing of Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, and Ma’Khia Bryant. So much work is before us still.
On a more personal note, I received my second vaccine with minor, though annoying, symptoms, completed a three-day training on the IDI (Intercultural Development Inventory), and observed the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death. As I said, it’s been a week.
Through all of this I’ve been thinking about the “Good Shepherd” passages. Psalm 23 is a popular favorite and Jesus’ claim to be the Good Shepherd in John’s gospel makes us generally feel good. It’s easy to picture God or Jesus as a good shepherd. We feel watched-over and protected. However, if Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we who are church members are the embodiment of Christ, then we are to be the Good Shepherd in the world. And this is where the challenge is. We are to follow and to embody all at the same time. We aren’t doing very well at either, most days anyway.
Jesus said he was the Good Shepherd who would lay down his life for his own. And, of course, he did. Jesus died at the hands of those who could not tolerate Love Incarnate, those who were enamored with the power, position, prestige, and promises granted by the Empire. Jesus challenged the authorities (both Jewish and Roman) of his day at every opportunity. He sought to literally re-member (connect or reconnect) the outcasts with community. He sought to empower the people to live into their relationship with God.
Jesus was a threat to those with power and a friend to the oppressed. We are called to embody those qualities – challenge the Empire and befriend the oppressed. This is the Good Shepherd we say we follow. Are we willing to lay down our lives for the benefit of those who are oppressed, cast out, dismissed, devalued, or dehumanized? If not, how closely do we follow this Shepherd? How do we embody the Love the Good Shepherd demonstrated for the whole of the cosmos?
I’m not saying we all have to go out and risk our lives in a literal way. I’m suggesting that we have to more actively put our lives on the line. You know, take risks to ensure that these modern day lynchings of Black and Brown adults and children come to an end. The conviction of Chauvin is a good start. It is not enough, though. We need more. We need to keep advocating for murder charges to be brought against police officers who shoot and/or kill Black and Brown people with no good reason. We who identify as White progressive Christians need to learn how to amplify the voices of those calling for the abolishment of police and the dismantling of the criminal legal system, and all the other systems that thrive on White supremacy and racism. Can we say we follow the Good Shepherd if we continue to remain on the sidelines in silence? Can we say we embody Christ if we are seeking justice for all people?
In case it isn’t clear, I’m really wondering what it means to be Christian in the U.S. in this moment in history. I know that my own views have radically changed over the last decade or more, particularly in the last 6.5 years I’ve lived in Minnesota. My shift in perspective is due in part to Black Lives Matter and participating in marches, rallies, and protests and really listening to POC in my community. If Jesus is Divine Love Incarnate and the church is the embodiment of that Love, then we have a lot of crap to clean up before we can claim that it is true. Silence is compliance, and White progressive Christians have been silent for far too long. We have also created the illusion that we “welcome all.” Most congregations don’t welcome all. My friends, if one member of the Body of Christ is a White Supremacist, then the Body of Christ is a White Supremacist. If one member of the Body of Christ has benefited or continues to benefit from White supremacy, then the Body of Christ benefits from White supremacy. If one member of the Body of Christ is racist, then the Body of Christ is racist. This is not what Jesus would want for his followers. This is not what it means to be the embodiment of the Good Shepherd.
If we want to be led to those green pastures and still waters, then we must do our part to remove everything that has prevented the grass from growing and everything that has polluted the waters. Isn’t it time we do better? Isn’t it time we actively participate in mending and healing what we have broken?
The Shepherd waits.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. Psalm 139:7-14
This selection of verses from Psalm 139 underscores the need for congregations to engage in conversation around mental health and mental illness. The psalmist clearly states that there is no place we can go where God is not already there – externally and internally. God is present when we are filled with hope and when we are mired in despair. God accompanies us in the heights of mania and depths of depression. God bears witness to our wholeness and to the fractures in our psyche. There is no human condition outside of God’s reach. Every human being is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” There is no exception, and it is time that the church stop acting like there is.
Mental illness has long been a taboo conversation in Christian churches of every variety. This is mostly due to unexamined, archaic theology. The traditional church view on mental illness ranges from demon possession to punishment for sin to character flaws and lack of faith. None of this is true any more than cancer, heart disease, or diabetes is caused by these things. Mental illness is brain disease that can be caused by genetics, trauma, or brain injury among other things. It is biological and has nothing to do with demons, sin, or faith. God is not the cause of mental illness. In fact, mental illness knows no bounds. Everyone is vulnerable and no one is protected by race, gender, economics, education, ability, or faith. Our bodies and our brains are fragile and finite. In fact one in five adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness each year.
This is why it is essential that congregations engage in conversation on mental illness and mental health, especially in this time of pandemic. Church can be a place of healing or a place of hurt. The more we continue to avoid the conversation on mental illness, the more we contribute to suffering and, possibly, death of those who live with mental health conditions. Jesus was all about saving lives and re-membering (literally reconnecting) people to community. Community of support and acceptance promotes wellness and recovery. Church can become this for those who have often been unwelcomed and unseen. Breaking the silence and ending the stigma surrounding mental illness allows for people to be re-membered and find a place in a community that names them beloved.
May is mental health awareness month. Now is an excellent time to plan for your congregation to join the conversation and save lives. It isn’t as difficult as you might think. There are resources to help get you started. The United Church of Christ Mental Health Network is an excellent source of information for congregations of any denomination. You don’t need to be UCC to begin the WISE process, the process to become W elcoming, I nclusive, E ngaged, and S upportive for persons living with mental health challenges. Use the resources to start a conversation in your congregation so that your church may become a safe, lifesaving, and healing place.
There are many ways to begin. The easiest is to include mental health conditions in the prayers of the church. Offering educational opportunities and, eventually, inviting people to share their stories are great ways to engage in the conversation around mental illness. We are all touched by mental health conditions – either we ourselves or someone we love. The church can no longer afford to remain silent. Please begin this conversation so that the Body of Christ continues to embody the Love, Hope, and Healing Jesus lived and taught.
I love the story of Thomas. He wasn’t going to believe what he had not seen with his own eyes or touched with his own hands. History has labeled him “Doubting Thomas.” It’s a bit of a misnomer. Thomas represents all of us who have come after him. We might long to believe Jesus is risen and, maybe, some days we do. However, if we are honest, we have a lot of doubt about the whole story. We struggle to believe what we cannot see, hear, feel, smell, or touch. We can minimize it, dismiss it, ignore it, rationalize it, or turn away from it. We do this with so much in our lives, not just Resurrection.
Here in the Twin Cities we are in the midst of the Derek Chauvin trial. You likely remember the video that went viral of this White police officer kneeling on the neck of a Black man, George Floyd, until Floyd died. This public murder resulted in uprisings here and around the world. Now Chauvin is on trial and the defense is blaming everything on George Floyd and/or the crowd of onlookers. It’s honestly more than I want to watch or listen to. I can only imagine the pain and trauma for Black folx who are following this trial…
What does this have to do with Thomas and Jesus? Well, in my mind they are intimately connected. White folx in this country (and around the world) have willfully ignored White supremacy, racism, and White privilege. We have refused to see them, feel them, hear them, touch them, or smell them even though we are surrounded by them. While they may be the opposite of Resurrection, admitting that they exist and have caused immeasurable harm for centuries would lead to Resurrection for countless people. If we confront the truth of White supremacy, racism, and White privilege, imagine what could be fostered instead. Imagine the changes that would take place. Equality and justice would grow from honest and necessary reparations to all BIPOC folx. Resurrection would take the form of dismantling all systems of oppression, beginning with the entire criminal legal system and moving through to all the others – education, housing, healthcare, mental healthcare, etc.
With this trial, I feel like White folx are Thomas on week two, or should be. Many of us have been able to deny reality and the ways we have benefited from White supremacy, racism, and White privilege, even though countless people have said we have seen them, we have touched them, they have killed us… How can any of us deny the reality of White supremacy that allows a police officer to murder a Black man by kneeling on his neck in public when we are confronted with a trial that wants us to believe the officer was right and justified in his actions?
So what do we do? When we have seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled the truth, what comes next? Look at Thomas. He proclaimed his newly experienced truth right out loud. From that moment on his life was radically different. We aren’t told a whole lot about what Thomas
did next, but we do know that neither he nor the other disciples went on the same as before. They all were instrumental in creating the church. In those early days, according to Acts, the church was communal in the best sense of the word; they took care of one another. This is a clue to what comes next for those of us who see the truth, know the truth, of White supremacy and its ugly friends. We begin to take care of one another, leaving out none of our neighbors.
Begin by not turning away from the truth of this trial. Begin by recognizing the traumatizing and retraumatizing of every Black person who is witnessing the trial. Then offer prayerful support, honest prayers for change, for a better understanding of how you’ve been complicit in racist systems… And then look for ways to make reparations in anyway you can. Support BIPOC businesses. Donate to BIPOC causes. (And remember that when you make donations to BIPOC causes it is not charity and you shouldn’t look for tax write offs; it’s reparations and leads toward Resurrection for all peoples.) Advocate for systemic changes. Educate yourself on the realities of all the very real challenges BIPOC folx face on a day to day basis.
We may begin in doubt, like Thomas. However, when confronted with the truth, we must work to make Resurrection a reality for all people. If we ever want to glimpse the Realm of God, we have much work to do. If we want to know the peace that Jesus breathed on his disciples, we must work to ensure that peace is accessible to every person on the planet. It is possible to overthrow and dismantle oppressive systems. If you don’t believe me, then ask Jesus…
A sense of Resurrection hit me early this year. Yesterday I was able to get a vaccine sooner than I had anticipated. I needed to be in a hospital setting because of my medical conditions and the possibility of an allergic reaction. I have been on all kinds of waiting lists for a few weeks and had to turn down one place because it wasn’t a hospital. Yesterday, though, my wife came home from a morning appointment at the VA (she’s a veteran) and told me that if I went there right then, I could get a vaccine. Good news, indeed. I have had to keep my exposure to the world so minimal over the last 13 months because of my high risk. Now I am imagining what I can do five weeks from now when I am fully vaccinated. It won’t be anything exciting by most people’s standards. Just things like the dentist, the ophthalmologist, a mammogram, and in-person PT for my frozen shoulder. I might be brave enough to go to the Asian market for somethings that aren’t available on Instacart, though I won’t go in if it’s too crowded. I also like to dream about having friends who also vaccinated over this summer – outside, masked, and distanced, of course. It feels like a bit of resurrection is on the horizon.
I can’t help but think of the heavy grief those women carried to Jesus’ tomb along with the anointing spices. They had no idea that they would be greeted by Resurrection. By John’s account, Mary Magdalene mistook the Risen Christ for the gardener. Imagine how much her spirits lifted when she recognized her beloved friend, rabbi, teacher. By Mark’s account the women were terrified by the very idea of Resurrection; they ran away. I get that. If I had been there, I would have dropped my anointing spices and ran for home. No one expects the power of God to change the laws of nature. No one expects Resurrection and when it happens we should be awestruck, if not also filled with fear and trembling.
Even today. Yes, today, when we encounter Resurrection, we must also be open to the awe, or the fear, or the terror. God’s power is so much more than anything we encounter on a day-to-day basis. And, let’s face it, these days we are weighed down by the grief we carry. All of us know at least one person who has died from COVID. Most of us know many. And then there is the loss of “normal,” whatever that meant for us. When we encounter Resurrection this year, will the heaviness of the grief we carry lessen? Will we be able to breathe a little more deeply with the reminder that God is truly with us through everything?
Also, with the Resurrection comes the knowledge that nothing will ever be “normal” again. Encounters with the Risen Christ were not the same as being with Jesus before his death. He was different. He had to identify himself every time he showed up for any of his disciples. New Life means different life. This is good for us to remember as we look at the end of pandemic, whenever it comes. There are things that will never be the same again. Masking in public is likely here to stay. Handshakes are probably a thing of the past. Many of us will never feel comfortable being part of a large crowd again. Some of us will be reluctant to eat in restaurants or even get takeout again. And church will be different, too. We don’t know when or if we’ll be able to sing together again. We won’t pass the offering plate or pass the Peace. We won’t be handing out bulletins or casually hugging each other. Who knows what kinship time will look like. Are potlucks a thing of the past? Church might have to take a cue from the Resurrected Christ and be different in appearance and action.
While most of us resist change and long to “get back to normal,” Resurrection reminds us that this is not how the Body of Christ started out. We, as church, have an amazing opportunity to appear and behave differently, like the Resurrected Christ. Maybe we won’t have to point out our wounds or explain that we are still the church, yet we can embrace transformation. We can emerge from pandemic very unlike we were prior. Yes, it’s scary not to know the future shape we will take. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to take risks. Yes, it seems counterintuitive to intentionally embrace more change when so much has already changed. Some may, in fact, run away in fear. That’s okay. The women ran away at first. Yet, we know they told the story at some point because here we are a couple thousand years later.
With the promise of new life, life after pandemic, on the horizon, may we all embrace the power and truth of Resurrection this Easter. May we move through our fear and welcome the differences that will eventually become normative. May our congregations live into transformation and Resurrection in a way that beckons to those who have yet to find welcome in the church. It’s okay to be anxious or afraid. We have yet to know what resurrection will look like in the wake of pandemic. We are still caught somewhere between Maundy Thursday and Easter morning. We will celebrate Easter in spirit this week. It may be several more months before we get to experience New Life in-person. The key is to be open to whatever comes and give thanks for the promise of Resurrection.
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RCL – Year B – Easter – April 4, 2021
Palm Sunday. During pandemic. Again. I’ve heard too many clergy colleagues asking how to preach this Holy Week during pandemic. Sure, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are comparatively easy. How to preach good news on Palm Sunday and even more so on Easter is the repeated question. What does new life look like when the pandemic has not ended, though an end may be on the horizon? What does new life mean when congregations are failing or haven’t met in person in over a year or many members have died or the doors have permanently closed? Can we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant return to Jerusalem when we are still held captive by COVID? The short answer is yes. Yes, there is new life. Yes, there is a way through grief. Yes, the church is still vital and necessary in the world. Yes, celebrating Jesus’ return to Jerusalem is both possible and important.
We are all stressed by the experiences of this last year. Most of us could not have predicted that we’d be facing our second Holy Week of virtual worship. We thought it would all be over by now. Now it’s not. And we are weary on top of the on-going stressors pandemic brings. All the more reason to take a closer look at the events of Holy Week, and to remind ourselves that the week goes from celebration to suffering to death to New Life. This is the story of the human journey. This is the story of our spiritual lives. We move through these stages. We, too, experience betrayal and loss and death. We grieve. We celebrate. We remember. We live. So, let’s begin.
Jesus returned to Jerusalem without a lot of fanfare. He rode a colt, fulfilling prophecy. He was humble and quiet in contrast to Pilot with a parade and a Century of soldiers on horses and wearing shiny armor. Jesus came in humility while the Empire made promises of power and protection that they couldn’t possibly keep. Jesus rode in quietly with only palm branches waving and few shouts of “hosanna!” He promised life to those who would follow him. He rode into town, checked out the Temple, and went to Bethany for the night.
Not much has changed. The Empire doesn’t necessarily come riding into town with soldiers and horses any more than Jesus comes in riding a donkey. However, the Empire is still making promises of power and protection that it cannot possibly fulfill. It’s goal is to keep us separate and powerless so that the status quo may endure even the pandemic. Jesus’ goal, in complete contrast, is to unite and empower so that the oppressed may be liberated and justice may be embodied throughout society. Jesus would have something to say about the ways this pandemic has been managed (or not) by those with power. He would have something to say about the inequity of those victimized and the way the vaccine has been released according to the same old racial divides. Jesus would have something to say about how we have let white supremacy and classism, ablism, and other divisive fears determine who lives and who dies. We need Jesus to ride into town and remind us that there is a better way to face the Empire.
Palm Sunday can remind us that there is another way to be in the face of fear, anger, and oppression. We can humbly remain firm in our love or our neighbors and ourselves. We can be reluctant to let go of the (false) protections of Empire even as we recognize that the way of Love demands an active response. Jesus didn’t ride that colt into Jerusalem because he wanted to; he rode into the city because he needed people to see the Love provides more safety, healing, and hope than might. The God’s steadfast love is the way through all the pain, deceit, and division caused by participating in the power of the Empire. Where is Jesus challenging us to respond differently in this moment, to leave behind the illusions of the Empire?
If we skip ahead to Thursday, we know that betrayal rules the day. Judas couldn’t help himself. In the moment, the money seemed more powerful than Jesus’ love for him. As a result, Jesus was betrayed into the hands of the authorities. Yet, not before some important things happened. There was footwashing to show us that we are all equal before God; not one human life is more important than another, not one is too good to wash the feet of others. And there was, of course, the Last Supper. Here Jesus told us all what he was doing and why. His body would be broken for us to know healing. His blood would be poured out for us to know forgiveness. He would die for us to know that violence and death are not the end. Resurrection tells us that Love always triumphs. How do we move through this week experiencing it all fully and trust the fullness the New Life that is promised and demonstrated?
We know the story. We know that God does not abandon us at any time. God is with us in our moments of being overwhelmed and weary. Holy Week in its entirety can remind us that we are not alone and that the best way to journey together is through all of it – the hope, the despair, the fear, the betrayal, the grief… everything. By going through it all we get to New Life. No thing lasts forever. However, we are changed by our experiences. Life will never be what it was before COVID. As true as this is, there is still hope because we are a people seeking to live into and embody Divine Love. Love that unites and liberates us and instills hope in us for a life that is yet to come. This is the good news. This is the good news writ large this week. May we all have the grace to stay awake, to keep watch, and to bear witness to all that is to come. Blessings on the journey!