Saturday, April 18, 2020

Locked Homes: The Unpreached Sermon

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

But Thomas (who was called the Twin ), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.--John 20:19-31

This Sunday, I was scheduled to preach at my contextual ministry site in DC.

Instead, I will be tuning into online services from the comfort of my home in Florida. Such is the demise of the spring semester of my Middler year.

It's just as well. What I would have probably said about the reading from the Gospel of John pre-COVID-19 would be so meaningless in this time of pandemic. I do see something for us in this story that is relevant for our present time, and so let's see how I might shuffle the pieces of this passage and lay down some appropriate preaching cards.

I think we all know what it means to be locked away right now. We are in fear of a virus that could be riding on the air droplets from anyone. The people may not appear to be sick but who knows who they've been around?

Where have they been?

How completely has this person washed their hands?

The federal government has done little to alleviate our paranoia. We simply don't know how many people are sick or potential carriers because we have not been aggressively testing. The states have been left to their own devices to find ways to meet the demands made on hospitals. For many of us, the order to stay at home seems the best way to avoid getting deathly ill.
But we are also, admittedly, going a little stir crazy. One wonders if all those in First Century Palestine who locked themselves away were ready to climb the walls, too?

Suddenly, without the door ever opening, Jesus appears to them. Well, most of them. Thomas wasn't there for the initial visit. And Jesus says, "Peace be with you."

Peace. What a concept! Trapped inside a locked house in fear of what is on the outside, Jesus defies the barrier to bring greetings of peace. And unlike the accounts from our synoptic gospels, there's no mistaking who this is standing in the middle of the room because he still bears the scars of his brutal execution. His marks of suffering are visible to the eye, but he is not in pain or showing any signs of worry. Instead, he arrives in the midst of fear and anxiety in his marred body to say, "Peace be with you."

I've been telling people this week that this time of unknowns and great fear has highlighted for me that my faith in God is even more real, more present, and more important than when things were "normal." I don't have a Eucharist to re-member me into the Body of Christ every week. I don't have the physical community surrounding me and praying and singing with me as we put aside any differences we may have to unite in "one hope, one faith, one baptism." Being stripped away of the "things" of my faith leaves me with the one thing that is important: my trust and belief in God who has an intimate understanding of what it means to feel lost and alone because he has "been there, done that, got the wounds to prove it." I'm experiencing the God who abides with us, in us, and around us as we stay physically distant from one another.

And so what about Thomas, one of my personal favorites of the Bible? We can, and I have heard many a sermon where the preacher has scoffed at Thomas for having "doubts" about the veracity of the story from the other disciples that Jesus showed up in their midst. I don't blame Thomas. I relate to Thomas. I think the initial loss of Jesus was traumatic enough that he was highly skeptical of what his clearly delusional friends were telling him.

And I think if we were honest, we are just as skeptical today. We doubt God is present with us as we thrash about trying to figure out how to get churches open or businesses going rather than honoring the advice of our scientists that we have to wait. We fail to believe in God when we can't see how wearing a mask in public  right now is the most Christian way we can express love for our essential worker neighbors. We doubt God when we protest stay-at-home orders and insist on congregating in large groups. Basically, the more we try to impose our will on the circumstances of this pandemic, the more we are tapping into our doubt that we can make it through this rather than trusting in our faith that our medical researchers are using their God-given skills to help us.

Jesus said "Peace be with you." He says it three times in this passage. This is the message he delivered to the believers and the doubters locked in the house. That is still the message being delivered as we are encouraged to stay at home during this pandemic. Peace is with you...peace has been with you...peace will be with you. Trust and believe.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday in the Pandemic Wilderness

This entry is going to be short. I feel as though I have seen and read and been exposed to countless musings about this Good Friday and what it means to be experiencing Good Friday when we are (start the list of all the losses, the fears, the doubts, the despairs) that we are experiencing. And, just like other people's blogs, I am not discounting any of those feelings. They are real and legitimate. 

But long before there was a pandemic to plunge us into the spiral of feelings we're in, I have been thinking about this day and this night and the terrifying and unjust torture that happened to Jesus. I had been connecting it to the Scripture passages that I have preached on this academic year. If you aren't familiar with my Christ the King Sunday sermon or the one for the First Sunday in Lent, you might want to pause and go check them out. You see, I think that part of the reality of Jesus being fully human is that he fully suffered as we did and still do. And I believe that his fully divine nature was not unnaturally divided and untouched by that human suffering. But I believe what the miracle and the victory of Easter shows us is how God...through Jesus Christ's first-hand, up-close-and-personal experience of being human...can take all the broken parts and transform them into a resurrected self. 
And this is how Love wins and defeats Death, and the forces of cruelty and injustice that attempted to kill Love, and the temptations that thought their allure could deceive Love, are thrown back down and Love becomes the victor and standard-bearer for us all. 

I've been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Meditations on the Cross this Lent. This snippet from a letter to the Leibholz family, written in 1942, seems fitting for our time:

"There are so many experiences and disappointments that drive sensitive people toward nihilism and resignation. That is why it is good to learn early that suffering and God are not contradictions, but rather a necessary unity. For me, the idea that it is really God who suffers has been one of the most persuasive teachings of Christianity. I believe that God is closer to suffering than to happiness, and that finding God in this way brings peace and repose and a strong, courageous heart."

And so, as I think about this time of uncertainty and this wilderness moment, I am also believing in the God who is actively at work in this moment of suffering to bring about a transformation. If I can express hope in all of this, it is that as we emerge from the cloud of COVID-19 and all the holes it has exposed in our social safety nets, we might turn back toward being a more loving people than what we have been. Maybe we'll see the need to take care of our infrastructure, our health care system, our economic disparities. In this way, I diverge from Bonhoeffer. If we actually cared for the sick, took care of the widow and orphaned, really loved one another, I think we would see God in that happiness. 

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Tridiuum in Trying Times

Tonight, we are entering into that special sacred space we call the "Tridiuum." It's a fancy way of saying the three days leading up to the Feast of the Resurrection, commonly called Easter.

Normally, Episcopalians would gather at their churches tonight, sometimes to share an agape meal, but always to have a foot-washing, a Eucharist, and the sobering moment of watching the things that make our altars beautiful and identifiable get stripped down to nothing. As I remarked in a sermon once at my sending parish, St. Thomas has some of the altar linens fastened down with Velcro. When the altar guild removes them in the silence of the sanctuary with us watching, the ripping sound sends a chill down my spine. It is the reminder of the humiliation and violence Jesus endured when the Roman soldiers stripped him, beat him, and mocked him.

These days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday have served as the opportunity for me to stand before a cross, draped in black, and reflect upon those last moments in Jesus' life and what that brutality and violence means for me and the world. These are the days when I enter deeply into the Christian narrative and have been a time which is both intensely personal and transformative.

I have had these moments of theological reflection both as  a devout member of a faith community and even when I was not a member of a church.

I have been thinking a lot lately about my faith in God, and my faith in God as the Trinity (I have to do this anyway as part of a class in seminary). Since Palm Sunday, I have been reflecting on a conversation I had about Ash Wednesday with the late Father Lee Graham, a Virginia Theological Seminary graduate. Lee challenged me to stand outside St. John's Episcopal Church in downtown Tallahassee and protest Ash Wednesday. I was curious what prompted this 90+ year-old Episcopal priest to be so anti-Ash Wednesday. He explained that he "ain't dust!" and insisted that he was a "child of God" and that the church was using Ash Wednesday as a way to make people feel guilty. And then he turned the tables on me.

"What do you think? Do you think you're dust?"

I didn't have an answer. I had never thought about the question. He smiled and shook his head.

"You need to question your faith!"

Here enter a pandemic that has cancelled Holy Week and Easter services in churches around the globe. People are long-faced and despairing.

How can they celebrate Easter when it feels as if Holy Week is never-ending?

How can they know that they are members of the body of Christ if they are unable to celebrate the Eucharist?

I find myself returning to Fr. Lee's examination of me at his dining room table, and I turn the question around: is our faith in God so dependent upon the rituals and liturgies of Holy Week? Is our faith in God only to be found in the breaking of the bread? Is it only Easter if we are gathered in a church full of flowers on a particular Sunday in the Spring?

Again, I remember that I spent years of my life not associated with a church community in large part because the only church community I had ever known, the Episcopal Church, was a toxic and harmful place for a queer person in Tallahassee. And I had known enough, and had enough of an experience with God, to know that I did not need to subject myself to homophobic rantings from a pulpit to be in relationship with God.

Returning to the church, being part of the Christian community, has certainly deepened and strengthened my relationship with God. One of the ways these roots have sunk so far down is that I have developed friendships with others who, through their baptisms, are in a covenanted bonding with me through Christ. This is why Christianity is a communal religion and why it has been painful for many of us to have to resort to Facebook Live and Zoom in order to worship together. But that's the thing: we are able to worship together through the means of technology. We are able to text and talk on the phone and have Skype and FaceTime and other means of being in touch during this time when we cannot touch each other.

All of this reminds me of the scene in Matthew's gospel where the disciples are in a boat, and they see Jesus walking on the water toward them. They cower in fear because they presume he's a ghost. He assures them that it's really him and they shouldn't be afraid. That's when Peter pipes up and asks Jesus to invite Peter out onto the water with him. Jesus tells his disciple to come. So Peter steps out of the boat onto the water:

But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.--Matthew 14:30-32

These are trying times right now. But I believe that it is in our moments when we are feeling ourselves sinking into despair about social distancing and mourning the loss of liturgy that we are called upon to trust in God and not be afraid. Easter will happen. Love will conquer death. And we, too, will rise from this figurative death as well. Keep the faith.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Proceeding with Palm Sunday

There are a lot of things that I was looking forward to this Palm Sunday. 

I was planning to work with a group of readers from St. Monica and St. James to present the Passion Gospel. I had visualized a situation where our Jesus and narrator would occupy the ambo and the lectern while our other readers popped up from their the altar, in the middle of the sanctuary, and in the choir. It would have been, I think, a powerful way to place the Gospel with the people and made them feel a part of the story. I had been thinking through some talking points that I would have liked to have had with my readers, making sure they understood some of the evil that has been the unfortunate outgrowth of the Matthew Gospel account of Jesus' death. There are verses that some have used to justify their anti-Semitism. The whole idea of "blood libel" comes from Matthew's Gospel, and I think it is a point worth addressing with people charged with reading so they understand the importance of being careful with the language. Especially in our American culture today where hatred of "others" is running rampant. Add the fears generated by the pandemic, and I fear what hateful thing might happen to Jewish people this week. 

But, the pandemic put a halt to my participation at my CXM site. And now I find myself learning the ways of Facebook Live as I bring my services to an Episcopal Church in Bainbridge, GA. And rather than take an active part in Palm Sunday, I was in the place of passive observer over the internet. 

And guess what? It was not devastating. 

I don't know if it's that I have been exhausted from worry about school, how to pack my room (which a classmate very helpfully did for me).  I don't know it's that we had a week of trying to find a home for a stray kitty who followed us home on a walk (we did find a home for him!). Maybe it is that I have been carefully folding bandannas into masks between wandering in and outside the house in an effort to force myself to sit down and engage in my school work which feels so meaningless at this point. But whatever it is, I was OK not being physically involved in the liturgy of Palm Sunday. Instead, I could really take a moment to worship...and witness the innovative ways in which churches in the diocese of Georgia were using the lemons of this COVID-19 moment and making the lemonade of meeting the worship needs of Episcopalians. 

One of my favorites was the procession of palms on video from my sending parish, St. Thomas. We were asked to get any green branch, and take a photo of ourselves holding it or showing it hanging on our door. The organist had the choir members record themselves singing "Ride On, Ride On in Majesty" which she mixed together. That soundtrack played as the video showed the photos of parishioners and their homes bedecked in palms and other green branches. It was a simple and beautiful way to process palms while honoring the need for physical distancing right now. And we got to see each other and our homes! 

The diocese has also been honoring the physical distance requirements, but not letting that disrupt our communal and social media connection. The Palm Sunday celebration today featured a sung Gospel with a woman singing Jesus in one place, the narrator in his own locale, and a third male singer sitting in his room somewhere else in the diocese. The intercessors were a family in another part of the diocese. Music was from two of the diocesan seminarians and their husbands. No, there was no Eucharist, but there was communion through the internet. And some of these little churches in Georgia are suddenly seeing an uptick of visitors to their web and Facebook pages. 

In this time of such discombobulation, what I am seeing for the churches is an opportunity to lean evermore on our faith in God, deliver us from fear, and raise pleas to the Almighty to bring wisdom and persistence to our scientists and medical researchers to find a way to deal with COVID-19. We need our political leaders to rise to the occasion of calming fears, while allowing their knees to knock as they guide us through this uncertain time. And the church needs to remember that our origins and our existence are not tied to buildings but to the mission to keep being a voice proclaiming the Gospel and reminding people that we are not alone. We can emphasize the importance of working together to protect our neighbors and ourselves by following recommendations to stay at home, wearing a mask in public, and practicing thorough hand-washing. We each have a place and a job to do to help flatten the COVID-19 curve. 

Georgia looks to be coming up with creative ways to get that message across. Bravo!

Ride on, ride on in Majesty!

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Please: Don't Go To Church

Don’t go to church. 
I know that is not the message that you might expect to come from someone who is in seminary being formed for ordained leadership in the Episcopal Church.
But I mean it.
Even though we are coming to Palm Sunday, and will be entering into Holy Week, the most meaningful and powerful portion of our liturgical calendar culminating in our celebration of the Resurrection of Our Lord….

Please, for the love of Jesus, do not go to church.

I’m writing this because the Governor of Florida, after too much delay, has finally ordered people to stay at home to slow the spread of COVID-19. The death toll in Florida, while not nearly as bad as some other locales, is rapidly rising. The fear is that we will be seeing our hospitals facing the same dire straits that exist in New York City and have devastated Italy. We might end up forcing our doctors to make a horrific choice of who will get a ventilator and live and who “has lived a good long life” and will die simply because there are not enough machines for every person needing one.
There have been letter-writing campaigns and petitions and phone calls to the Governor, pleading with him to close the state down…even while college students chugged their Bud Lites on beaches and mumbled that “if I get Corona, I get Corona,” as they kept wrapping their arms around each other and wandering into cities while resident retirees hid behind their doors.  
The Governor ordered the beaches to limit gatherings to no more than 10 people in a group. He has refused to close them. Local municipalities have had to do that.
He has closed the nightclubs, bars and restaurant dining rooms. But we can still get takeout.
The pressure was mounting on him to get more serious and aggressive in closing down the state. So he started having roadblocks to stop people fleeing New Orleans to the west and New York from the north. 
On Wednesday, the Governor finally issued an order to have people stay at home. With exceptions for essential services…such as gas stations, grocery stores….and your local church, synagogue, mosque, or temple.
Yes. The Governor’s order specifically overrides any local government mandate that bans a religious group from meeting if it has more than ten people present at a time. Some church will use this misguided idea of freedom of religious expression to gather and sing at the top of their lungs, shout for joy, all the while potentially infecting ten people around them. They won’t even know what hit them until days later. And by that time, they will have been around grandma or a person in line at Publix unwittingly infecting them.
They will get seriously ill, be unable to breathe. And unfortunately, some will die.
We know this is true because this is how the virus has spread both here and in other countries. Christianity is a communal religion. It started with a rush of wind through the Upper Room and people babbling in all kinds of languages praising God. But the virus sleuths have found that it's these gatherings of the faithful that have been one of the most convenient ways for the virus to spread.
I have no idea why the Governor thinks religious services are an essential need. Even I, as one in formation, and want people to be curious enough to come to church and experience the presence of the Holy in community don’t like this decision. And I do not believe it is motivated by God. I believe this is a wicked move motivated by love of something that is not God; hence it is sinful and must be rejected. This is pure evil. And nothing could be more evil than to call on Christians to gather in worship of the one who we ask for the saving health of all nations to be the center of infection.
For the president to suggest that he wants to see houses of worship “packed on Easter,” for me sounded like the Tempter had come into our public space to encourage everyone to throw themselves down from the pinnacle of the temple.
“God will save us so what do we have to lose?”
I believe in a loving and creative God who works through the scientists and researchers looking for a vaccine. I believe in a God who sits at the bedside with nurses and doctors treating the sick and comforting the dying. I believe in a God who keeps calling to us to see in this crisis that there are serious problems in our health care delivery system…our political leadership…and our treatment of nature that has exacerbated the problem. I believe this God knows the hearts and minds of those who truly turn toward Love and Life and away from self-centeredness and death. And, much as we love our buildings, God is not found just inside the red doors and the Tiffany stained glass windows of our sanctuaries. Now, God is being discovered through the pixels and data shared over the internet. New life is emerging from the figurative rubble of this age if we keep looking. 
When the day comes that we are no longer wandering through this COVID-19 wilderness, we will gather again in our churches, maybe just a little more cautious and respectful of each other’s personal space. We will share in the breaking of the bread, and pray together again. And we will praise God for helping us get to the other side of a tragic and terrible time. But we’re not there yet.
So, please, don’t go to church.