On Glimpses of Love…

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It finally happened.  We had established a weekly routine for this bizarre time, and the kids seemed to have adjusted to the new rhythm.  But this week, something finally broke.  From sunrise to sunset the day was full of arguments, timeouts, tantrums, and tears.  For the life of me, I cannot recall the content of the conflict, but I am still recovering from the rollercoaster of emotions from that day.

Late that night, once the house was finally quiet, I tried to figure out what in the world had happened.  After my own frustration and fatigue began to settle down, a moment from the day percolated up in my mind.  During our midday quiet time, I was working diligently, trying to maximize my precious work time.  My older daughter had asked to quietly read beside me, and I had hesitantly agreed.  Soon, I realized her breathing had become regular and her booked had slipped down.  She was sleeping, something she never does midday at her age.  In that brief time, without her anger, arguments, and attitude, her peaceful face reminded me of how very fragile she is.  Just for a moment, I was able to remember that as much as our children are resilient, creative, and strong during the new reality this pandemic has created, our children are also frustrated, confused, and lost as they try to make meaning out of the chaos.  All of my anger about how the day had unfolded evaporated in that moment, and a wave of sympathy consumed me.  In seeing all of the “fight” leave my daughter’s body, I was able to see the fragile child left behind.

As I processed the day with a fellow parent that night, I began to wonder if that moment of insight is perhaps the way God sees all of us in this time.  We adults are struggling too – trying to make sense of this terrible time, trying to control the chaos enough to function, trying not to be overcome by the grief of all we have lost in this time.  Most days we succeed, being resilient, creative, and strong ourselves.  But we too have our days where we lose it – lose control over our carefully constructed hold on this new normal.  I imagine God journeys with us in those strong days and those weak days, overflowing with love for us – loving pride for the ways we are trying our best, and loving sympathy for the fragility of our humanity.  And although I only got a glimpse of that love on that rough day this week, that glimpse was just a tiny portion of the massive well of love God has for us.

I do not know what kind of week you are having.  I do not know what stressors are creating small chinks in your armor or big cracks in your façade.  I do not know whose burdens you are carrying in addition to your own.  Whether you are hitting your stride, or stumbling along the path, know that you are loved this week.  Know that God is right there with you, offering grace, mercy, and fortitude whenever you need it.  And if you have it within your capacity this week, or next, I invite you share that same love with those you encounter this week – whether with your family, the essential workers you encounter, or your neighbors.  Getting a glimpse of how God loves you makes it a lot easier to see others with God’s loving eyes.  And we could all use a dose of that love today.

Sermon – John 14.15-21, E6, YA, May 17, 2020

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We have been spending a lot more time together as a family since this pandemic began.  All that together time has meant moments of joy and laughter; but that time together has also meant a lot of correcting of behavior.  One would think by now, we have figured out how to perfectly love one another.  Instead, we have been working on perfecting apologies.  I never knew how much of our apologizing could show so little remorse.  There have been the angry, shouted, “I’m sorry!”s, there have been the resistant, mumbled, “I’m sorry”s, there have been the sarcastic, eye-rolling, “I’m sorry.”s  And parental requests for our children to “mean it” when they say, “I’m sorry,” are almost comical.  How can anyone expect anyone else to apologize by force, command, or as a condition for something else?

I think that is what is so strange about today’s lesson from John’s gospel.  Jesus says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” and “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.”  The commandments Jesus is talking about are those instructions to love God, love self, love neighbor.  In John’s gospel, they are the only commandments Jesus gives.[i]  And who would protest such commandments?  Of course we should all want to love God, love self, and love neighbor.  But there is something strange about the way Jesus presents his command to us – if you love me, you must do these things.  If you love me, you must obey my way.  As lovely as love sounds, there is something that harkens to those forced apologies about our text today.  I am pretty sure Jesus is not asking us to love others with a sense of bitterness, resentment, or obligation – and certainly without shouts, mumbling, and eye-rolling.

I realize many of you may be thinking, “What’s so hard about loving others?  Why would I resist that?”  One of the things I appreciated about the beginning of this pandemic was the way we all pulled together.  People immediately worried about our elders being able to safely procure food and supplies; we pitched in to make sure the hungry were fed with free school lunches and restocked food banks; we sewed face masks and donated to charities to help protect the vulnerable.  Our collaboration, care, and support of one another was a breath of fresh air.  But we have not taken long to remember our demons.  As hard decisions have arisen about reopening businesses to buttress the economy, making cuts to make ends meet, or laying off employees to help businesses survive, we have reverted to our divided, vitriolic ways from before the pandemic, not only disagreeing, but attacking the character, intelligence, and dignity of one another.  So when we ask, “What’s so hard about loving others?” my response is, “This.  This is what is hard about loving others.”  As one scholar puts it, “It is NOT sufficient (or even meaningful) to profess love for Jesus while we hold ourselves apart from our fellow human beings.  To love Jesus is to love others.  All others.  The lover, the friend, the neighbor, the companion.  But also the alien, the stranger, the misfit, and the enemy.  The ones with whom we agree, and the ones with whom we emphatically disagree.  The ones we naturally like, and the ones we don’t.”[ii]  Our love of Jesus is only as authentic as our love of all others.

So how can we possibly love that way?  The good news is Jesus says we will have help.  Just as Jesus has been an advocate for his disciples – “guiding, teaching, reminding, abiding, witnessing, interceding, comforting,” so they will have the Holy Spirit.  “What they have known in Jesus, and fear losing in Jesus’ impending absence, they will always know in the promise of the [Holy Spirit].”[iii]  What Jesus promises today is big.  Now, I know some of us get a little uncomfortable talking about the Holy Spirit – either the Spirit’s presence just seems too amorphous to be of any value, or the Spirit seems to do weird, dramatic things that scare us more than comfort us.  But Jesus is not simply saying the Holy Spirit will be ambiguously hanging around when Jesus is gone.  The Holy Spirit will be, and is, accompanying us.  As scholar Karoline Lewis says, “Accompaniment is not simply having someone beside you.  Accompaniment is not a mere ministry of presence.  Accompaniment means active and assertive abiding—an abiding that enters into places of fear and discomfort, uncertainty, and troubled hearts, and speaks the truth freely.”[iv]

Now I don’t know about you, but that sounds like some really good news.  On those days when loving seems hard, when obeying Jesus’ command to love feels impossible, the Holy Spirit is here to accompany us, to walk with us in fear, discomfort, uncertainty, trouble, and guide us into lives of love.  The Spirit is with us to enable us to be agents of love even when we doubt we can.  That promise today makes the invitation to love as Christ has loved us not only doable, but desirable.  That promise today helps us loosen our grip on resentment, anger, and fear, and open our hands to love and collaboration.  That promise today makes obedience to love feel like a gift.  Thanks be to God.

[i] Debie Thomas, “Love and Obedience,” May 10, 2020, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2640, as found on May 15, 2020.

[ii] Thomas.

[iii] Karoline Lewis, “A Time for Accompaniment,” May 10, 2020, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5433, as found on May 15, 2020.

[iv] Lewis.

On Teachers, Nurses, and Grandmas…

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One of the things my grandmother instilled in me from an early age was the importance of thank you notes.  She taught me how to write them, how quickly to send them, and the significance of being a person who reliably sends them.  These days I fear she would be sorely disappointed with how those carefully honed skills have deteriorated over time – not that I do not know how to write them or understand their importance, but how my overflowing plate often means the list of thank you notes to be written makes it to the bottom of my “to do” pile.

That is why I am thankful for the ways in which our country has designated this week as appreciation weeks for two powerful vocations:  teachers and nurses.  Left to my own devices, I regularly forget to show my appreciation for the teachers in our lives.  But this annual week always reminds me that for thirty-five-plus hours a week, teachers are the people who are with my children – teaching them, shaping them into thoughtful citizens, helping them grow into their unique identity, and generally helping them feel loved and valued.  I have always thought of teachers as part of our “village,” who are helping my husband and me raise our children.  And this year, more than ever, I am amazed at the ways teachers are pivoting, learning new technologies, figuring out different ways to engage children in a pandemic, and showing love to our kids while socially distanced.

Likewise, I am grateful for a week to show our gratitude toward our nurses.  My most powerful experience with a nurse was in childbirth.  I had been laboring for the better part of twelve hours when I finally elected to have an epidural.  Everyone left the room, and as I leaned forward for the anesthesiologist, I could not stop shaking – whether from exhaustion or fear, I am not sure.  But the nurse took my arms firmly, looked me right in the eyes, and instilled in me a trust so deep I can still feel it palpably ten years later.  Nurses do this every day – take our lives into their hands, guide us through healing and wellness, and comfort us in ways that build confidence, trust, and care.  And in the midst of this pandemic, they are literally putting their lives on the line to do this often-overlooked work.

I’m not sure this is enough of a thank you note to meet my grandmother’s standard.  But what I can tell you is our teachers and our nurses are doing sacred work every day of the year.  They love us, care for us, and show us the light of Christ every day.  If you have a teacher or nurse in your life, neighborhood, or circle of friends, please be sure to thank them personally for the ways in which they are changing our lives today.  I invite you to return God’s blessing they have been to you back to them.

Sermon – John 10.1-10, Acts 2.42-47, E4, YA, May 3, 2020

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It could be that having been ordered to stay in our homes for almost two months, with no real end in sight, has made me a bit cranky.  It could be that the tidal wave of illness, death, and suffering bearing down on us has birthed rising anxiety and fear.  It could be the slow realization that having lived in this “new normal” will mean our old “normal” will be forever tainted and will never fully be restored has brought a sense of grief or despair.  Whatever the feelings and emotional responses we are having to this pandemic, they are creating a lens or a filter through which we interpret everything – including Holy Scripture.

For me, the initial lens or filter through which I have been reading Holy Scripture has been one of bitterness, resentment, and grief.  Take today’s lessons.  This Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is colloquially known as Good Shepherd Sunday.  The lessons on this Sunday every year give us images of pasture, protection, and pastoring.  And yet, this year, my initial response to the readings were resistance.  I am not emotionally ready to be cradled in the arms of a Good Shepherd.  I am not mentally ready to hear that Jesus wants us to have life, and have life abundantly.  I am not spiritually ready to hear about the post-Pentecost community gathered, breaking bread, spending time together in person in the temple and in homes, growing in numbers day by day.  I am not emotionally, mentally, or spiritually ready because hearing those wonderfully affirming things makes me realize how far from reality those things feel right now.

Of course, Church has not always been that way.  In fact, Church used to be exactly those things.  Throughout my life, Church has been the place where the Good Shepherd, where Jesus, has been the comforting figure who brings me into the fold, who knows me by name, whose voice brings assurance and confidence.  Church has been the place where I have found a community of people who make my life whole – a people who teach me about love, about calling, and about what family really looks like.  A little over a week ago, when over thirty of us gathered around our cars, seeing each other’s faces for the first time in months, as we prepared to drive to parishioners’ homes to sing Happy Birthday wishes, I was stunned at how powerful the feelings were of just seeing those beautiful faces, of having a glimpse of why this community has been so incredibly meaningful in my life, of remembering the comfort of being together.  The experience was a shock of love, care, and affection that opened up the gaping hole in my life I had so carefully covered up to protect myself from thinking about what I was missing in this pandemic.

So, does Scripture have any chance with us to be redeeming, restorative, and refreshing when our emotions are so raw?  Is there Good News today?  I have begun to realize in order to allow Scripture to have that power for me, I have needed to switch glasses.  On the Fourth Sunday of Easter in almost every year in memory, this Sunday has been about rose-colored glasses.  We talk about the Good Shepherd romantically and abundance superficially, we sing our favorite psalm, and we gather round and cozy up together.  But today, I hear Jesus inviting us to take off those rose-colored glasses (which he would have hated anyway), and slip on some clear glasses.  In those clear glasses, we can look at the community gathered in Acts and not imagine a loving community gathered and growing and peacefully breaking bread together.  Instead, scholars remind us the post-Pentecost community represents “different regions, speaking different dialects.  Some may not have shared the native languages of others, in spite of a shared Jewish faith.  There would have been distinct food preferences and different levels of financial security.  There would have been different prejudices to navigate, different interpretations of Torah and different political proclivities.”  And for those in charge of making the bread, those numbers growing day by day represented increased stress and strain, not jubilant joy.[i]  I imagine the chaos of that time was not unlike the chaos of sheep gathered into a fold – a noisy, messy, resistant bunch that the loving Shepherd had to prod, yank, and shove into said fold.

With new glasses, we no longer look with jealousy on that early gathered Christian community or that chaotic, smelly sheep fold, but instead begin to see commonality.  Just like the early Christian community trying to make her way through the chaos, we too are making our way through chaos.  We are overcoming technological hurdles, welcoming strangers from all over the community and the globe in our worship, and finding community even in our isolation.  Our gathering now is weird and awkward and frustrating.  But our gathering is also encouraging and life-giving and hope-making.  And as we watch people’s names pop up on the screen and as we see comments of reassurance, we see beauty in this particular community, we see hope percolating up despite us, and we see that even as life feels stripped of all goodness, the Good Shepherd is indeed offering us life in abundance.  This week, the Good Shepherd is not some picture-perfect stained-glass version of a Shepherd with a lamb gently hanging over his shoulder.  This week, the Good Shepherd is standing beside us, his arm cocked over our shoulder, shaking his head with us at the immensity of this crazy reality, and simply giving us a reassuring, unspoken smile, and a nudge into some abundant life this week.  Thanks be to God.

[i] Jerusha Matsen Neal, “Commentary on Acts 2:42-47,” May 3, 2020, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4443 on May 1, 2020.

On Grief, Grace, and God in a Pandemic…

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This week, I hopped in the car to pick up an order of food from a local restaurant.  We’ve been trying to support our local businesses, and this has become a weekly treat.  On my drive there, I suddenly felt a sense of freedom.  I was totally alone in the car, I was blasting music only I like, and I was free from the confines of our home.  The whole trip was probably only 20 minutes round trip, and I have been out of the house many times, as I am the designated person to pick up necessities, but something about this particular drive was so gloriously freeing that the release of blissful emotion almost made me cry with longing.

As I thought about the drive later, I began to understand the surprising surge of emotion.  Intellectually, I know we as a world are suffering a tremendous amount of grief.  But I had not fully acknowledged my own grief – grief over seemingly small losses.  In my case, the loss of freedom to structure my day, create space without children around for contemplation or accomplishing work, to go about daily rituals (work, shopping, dropping off kids), or even the ability to just hop in the car and go wherever I want.  I suppose I had not acknowledged my grief because there is much bigger grief all around me – grief over the death of loved ones whose funerals are indefinitely postponed, grief over lost livelihoods and the threat of financial ruin, grief over the incapacitating of the body from this virus, grief over lost milestones, such as graduations, weddings, and baptisms.  In the face of such enormous grief, my feelings felt petty or unmerited.

I have counseled more families than I can count after a loved one has been lost.  We talk about how important having a funeral as soon as possible is so the grief process can begin.  With church members, we send a series of four books over the following year to help them as their grief evolves.  But in the midst of a pandemic, grief is a strange animal.  There are ways in which we are hesitant to acknowledge or give credence to our grief.  There are ways in which we stuff our grief because we are just trying to survive.  And there are ways in which our grief simply cannot be processed because of the elimination of our normal rituals.

All of that is to say, I hope that you can use this time to give yourself the same amount of grace and lovingkindness that our Lord gives us.  This time is unlike anything most of us have faced, and our normal coping mechanisms may not be sufficient.  And that is okay.  The good news is that Christ is walking with us in this time, holding our fragile selves together (and staying nearby with the fragility shatters).  Our invitation is to accept that tenderness for ourselves, and, when possible, extend that tenderness to others – our loved ones, our neighbors, and strangers.  As always, you are in my prayers.  Today I especially pray that you can feel God’s loving arms surrounding you on every side.

Sermon – Luke 24.13-35, Acts 2.14a, 36-41, E3, YA, April 26, 2020

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To say we have been operating in crisis mode here at Hickory Neck would be an understatement.  We went from normal operations, to heavy restrictions for gathering and receiving communion, to entirely closing our buildings, to moving all worship online, to virtual learning, fellowship, and pastoral care.  All of those changes happened rapidly, and with an eye to whatever was next.  Once we figured out some semblance of a new rhythm and “normal,” Holy Week came, and we had to figure out how to make our most sacred week of the Church Year meaningful despite our inability to gather physically.  Baptisms and confirmations have been postponed, our Bishop’s visit has been delayed, and farewells and celebrations have been canceled.  And yet, here we are, about half-way through a stay-at-home order, with infection and death rates at astronomical levels, and the Church finds herself in the third week of Easter, still proclaiming her alleluias.

I am not sure I could pull myself together and proclaim those alleluias without the lessons from Holy Scripture we have been journeying with these last Sundays.  In a normal Eastertide, we are more carefree, reveling in Easter joy, making bold proclamations about resurrection and eternal life, and listening to the early Easter stories like the walk to Emmaus with a sense of endearment – as if saying, “Bless their hearts!” as the early Christians try to figure out what in the world is going on after Jesus’ resurrection.  But this is not a normal Eastertide.  In fact, Biblical scholar Matt Skinner refers to this time as “Pandemic Easter.”[i]  For the first time in perhaps most of our lives, we can more deeply empathize with the disciples during these early days of resurrection.  The modern Church has used Eastertide as a bold proclamation of the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  But the first disciples of Christ are not boldly doing anything.  In fact, they are bereft, confused, scared, given glimpses of hope followed by bouts of despair and doubt.  They are not sure what to believe, even having seen the risen Jesus themselves.  Even those who receive the teaching from the disciples in our Acts lesson are overcome with emotion and can only ask, “Brothers, what should we do?”

Somehow, living in Pandemic Easter has made our Eastertide lessons much more powerfully relatable.  I do not know if I am ready to boldly proclaim, “The Lord is Risen Indeed.”  But I am willing to say to fellow Christians, and to God, “What should we do?”  I am willing to talk with a fellow person of faith, or even a person of no faith, walking with them (either metaphorically or at least at a distance of six feet) as we make our way through this mess.  Those disciples on the walk to Emmaus look different to me this year.  Those two people who thought they knew what they believed, who are confused by testimony of Jesus’ resurrection, who walk away from the protective hideout with fellow disciples, are trying to make sense of life, death, and Jesus.  They are not people to be pitied or seen as adorably unsure of their faith.  They are us.  They are people in a life-altering crisis, trying to make sense of death and defeat, wondering where hope may be, and a bit lost.

And here comes the best part.  Now, I have always thought the best parts of this story are where Jesus teaches the disciples unawares, shares a meal with them, or their hearts becoming strangely warmed, allowing them to become the second set of witnesses after the women at the tomb.  But in Pandemic Easter, the best part of this story might just be what happens on the walk to Emmaus.  Jesus invites these two followers to talk about what has happened to them.  He literally walks with them as they share their shock, their grief, their sadness.  Perhaps in Easters past, I thought Jesus was being coy or trying to trick the disciples in some way.  But in Pandemic Easter, I think Jesus is doing what we all need:  Jesus listens, he lets the disciples share their reality, he makes space for the human response to a new normal.    Jesus makes space for questions like, “What should we do?”

I don’t know about you, but the very real, vulnerable, human interactions between Jesus and the disciples in Scripture today has been a tremendous balm to me.  More than perhaps any year, the Church is not telling us how to embrace and proclaim a certain and sure faith.  Today the Church is simply inviting us to hover in the actual experience of Easter – days of confusion, sadness, fear, and grief.  We are able to tarry there because Scripture reminds us today that Jesus walks with us.  When we cannot yet understand, when we perhaps cannot even believe, Jesus walks with us on the journey.  Jesus listens to our real human response to crisis and walks with us.  Someday – maybe today, maybe in a week or month, or maybe in a year, we will be able to hear Jesus’ teaching and understand, and our hearts will be strangely warmed with conviction.  Until then, Jesus walks with us where we are, acknowledging the fullness of our weakness, and staying with us and loving us through it all.  Thanks be to God.

[i] Matt Skinner, “The Road to Emmaus Feels Longer This Year,” April 19, 2020, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5428 on April 24, 2020.

On Finding Family…

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Families are a funny thing.  We are born into them, and have no choice about their makeup.  Some of us are blessed with large or small families that nurture and care for us.  Some us are born into hurtful, abusive families.  And some of us navigate our way as we age, realizing who in our immediate and extended family build us up, and who we can minimize time with or avoid altogether because they do not know how to love us.  As we age, we redefine family – perhaps with friends and lovers who love us better than the family members we were born into, or perhaps with groups of people who understand us and create a sense of “home.”

For some of us, that group is Church.  Now I know churches have been some of the worst offenders – places of pain, abuse, or just meanness.  But Church can also be the family you choose – the place where you are loved unconditionally, feel a sense of belonging, and discover a sense of purpose and meaning.  Church is the place where an unrelated elder can offer care and wisdom you have longed for, where a child teaches you what joy, laughter, and love feel like, and where a once (and maybe still) stranger can pray for you in ways that reaches your soul like never before.  The people of Church can be the vehicle through which we experience the unconditional love of Christ.

What has struck me about this time of separation is how much the separation has made it easier for us to invite people into that family of Church.  Whether a neighbor sharing about their seriously ill parent leads us to invite them to join us for online prayers; whether a friend is struggling with their children and finds our invitation to enjoy online Godly Play or accessible teaching materials; or whether someone who has not been able to step foot on a church property feels less threatened by a Sunday online worship service – we are finding invitation to be a much more organic, genuine experience – because we need that sense of family, we need that love of Christ.

But what has struck me even more deeply has been the shifting dynamic within our Church “family.”  Instead of inviting people “in” to the church, this has been a beautiful time of us being invited “out” – finding how much malleability our family has.  Invitation during this time has not simply been about inviting people into “the family” so that they can experience the blessings we have, but has also been about inviting people into the family because our family is not complete – there are people we did not even know could make us feel whole who we are meeting because Church looks so different right now.  That kind of role reversal can create a sense of imbalance and vulnerability – but it can also create a richer sense of family and loving community.  In our separation from the body of Christ, we are learning just how vast the body of Christ really is.  We may not have been looking for it, or even realized we needed it, but I am grateful for the ways this crisis is growing our family, and expanding the ways we can experience Christ’s love.

Sermon – John 20.1-18, ED, YA, April 12, 2020

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I have to confess to you, I have been dreading preaching this Easter.  My dread has not been because I do not think we need some joy.  Lord knows, we could use all the joy we can get!  But there is something that feels off or forced about saying, “The Lord is risen indeed!” or singing “The strife is oe’r” or even, “Jesus Christ is risen today!” because, well, the strife is not over.  Death rates are on the rise, cases of Coronavirus are expected to surge here soon, our overburdened medical professionals and essential works are already strained with anxiety, and we have at least two more months to go in our stay-at-home order in the Commonwealth.  This strife is far from over.

Knowing how hard this day would be, and longing to be authentic about where we are, I went back to where we always go – back to the text – back to Holy Scripture.  Songs and Prayer Book aside, John’s gospel has been especially comforting to me this year. The comfort from John has not been because John’s gospel demonstrates a people ready to celebrate today.  Quite the opposite, three of Jesus’ closest disciples – Mary Magdalene, Peter, and the beloved disciple – have encounters with the risen Lord that are almost comically human.  On the promise of good news, Peter and the beloved disciples race, one beating the other but not going fully in the empty tomb; the other going in but not saying anything; neither understanding what is going on; and both just leaving – just going home without a word to one another or to Mary Magdalene.   Then there is Mary Magdalene, who in shock, runs to the disciples; when left alone a second time, she weeps; angels try to comfort her; Jesus himself speaks to her and she does not immediately recognize him; when she does finally recognize her beloved teacher, she is not allowed to touch him; and finally, finally, she shares her testimony – not what it all means (because I am not sure she knows) – but what she saw.   Nowhere in John’s gospel does Jesus say, “The strife is over” or “Alleluia, the Lord is risen indeed!”  Instead, Jesus seems to be saying, “Hey…calm down…relax…I know you – you are mine.  This is a good thing.   I cannot comfort you in the way you want, because I am not done yet, and some even more amazing things are coming.”

Today’s message from Jesus is certainly good news – but mostly Jesus is promising good news still coming – the promise of eternal life once Christ ascends to the Father in fifty days from now.  Somehow, all of that “stuff” today in our gospel lesson has been oddly comforting.  Disciples running around, not understanding what is happening, going back home without a word, desperate attempts to control the situation, and soothing, knowing words from Jesus despite our lack of understanding has been supremely comforting to me today.  John’s gospel today is not a fait accompli.  John’s gospel is a promise:  a promise of hope that everything will be okay.  And like every promise in a crisis – whether a crisis of health or a crisis of faith – the promise is not the announcement of something being done or accomplished, but a gift of hope that goodness is coming.

And for me, that is what I need today.  Not a worship service that declaratively says, “The strife is oe’r,” but one that gently and comfortingly says, “The strife will be oe’r.”  Not a worship service that says, “The Lord is risen indeed,” but “The Lord’s rising today is a promise for you going forward.”  Our service today is not a service trying to force you to put on fancy clothes (because I imagine some of you are still in pajamas watching from home) or trying to force you into some false happiness.  Our service today is about hope, a quiet confidence, a gentle reminder as Christ calls you by name, that death does not have the final say; that Christ is walking with us through this pandemic, and will be with us to restore us when we emerge on the other end.  We do not know what that other end looks like; but we hear today that Jesus is with us in the midst of this, calling us by name, giving us hope for tomorrow.  The return of our alleluias today is not a naïve proclamation that everything will be okay.  The return of our alleluias today is an invitation to reclaim the hope that can only come from the risen Lord, that can sustain us in our grief, hold us in our confusion and doubt, and embolden us to honestly witness even in our uncertainty.  The church says with us or for us today, “The Lord is risen indeed,” until we can believe those words with conviction for ourselves.  Thanks be to God.

Sermon – John 13:1-17, 31b-35, MT, YA, April 9, 2020

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I have been thinking about this night for a couple of weeks now.  Normally on this night, we wash each other’s feet, we share in what is a “Last Supper” for us until Easter, and then the church goes dark as the altar is stripped of every adornment.  This is a night for intimacy, vulnerability, and community.  But we are in this supremely odd moment where none of those things are allowed.  In this pandemic, we are avoiding the intimacy of touch; we are avoiding making ourselves vulnerable; we are avoiding gathering in community.  There is a way in which this very service, reminds us of the grief of this global moment.

But the more I thought about this gathering, the more I realized how well positioned we are this year to honor this night more powerfully than perhaps ever before.  In the course of just a few hours, the disciples and Jesus’ followers will be mourning the absence of his physical touch too.  Although we are not experiencing the intimacy of touch, we are experiencing the intimacy of a community gathered virtually.  Even in our homes, we are all turned to our devices, coming together from afar – creating a sense of community when we may feel like we do not have one.  And although we are not celebrating our traditional Maundy Thursday service, we are experiencing the tradition of Evensong – a service that is offered almost everyday in Cathedrals, Minsters, and colleges in the Mother Church in England.  In that way, tonight’s service brings us the comfort of a liturgical experience that has grounded the church for centuries.

If anything, living in the time of a pandemic, I believe we are beginning to find clarity about the ultimate importance of things – what really matters and what does not.  Jesus helps us see that tonight.  Strip away everything else, and Jesus concludes, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  You may be thinking, “Great!  Another thing to do!”  But relax.  Here’s the good news tonight:  you’re already showing others you are Christ’s disciples.  I see you checking in on your neighbors and fellow parishioners.  I see you advocating for the disadvantaged and the vulnerable.  I see you supporting ministries financially in this uncertain time.  I see you praying for one another.  I see you doing your part to end the spread of this virus – whether you are a medical professional risking your own health, whether you are a healthy parishioner volunteering to get goods to those in need, or whether you are simply self-isolating.  We may be gathering virtually, but we are gathering in love, living as the faithful disciples Christ invited us to be – living as the faithful disciples you can be and are being.

As we journey further into the grief of this moment with Christ, and continue to journey into the grief of this pandemic, tonight we hold onto the life of love.  There is no better way to share intimacy, vulnerability, and community than to do exactly what we are doing in this moment.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

On Holy Week, Distance, and Hope…

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I remember the first time I was a Rector and planning Holy Week.  I was debating about whether to use the reserve sacrament on Good Friday or not.  I spoke to a priest colleague, and he shared the philosophy of the Rector under which he was serving:  on Good Friday, not even the consolation of the Holy Meal is available to us.

When our staff at Hickory Neck first started talking about Holy Week, we were faced with a stark reality:  there was no way for us to celebrate Holy Week the way we traditionally do.  Sure, we could use technology, and sure, we could try to do parts of what we normally do, but so much of Holy Week is physical and intimate – from waving palms, to washing feet, to kissing crosses, to huddling together around a fire, to having water sprinkled around, to gathering close in the dark, to finally gathering in a huge celebration with large crowds, Easter egg hunts, pictures with friends, and brass instruments.  There just is not a way to create that same feel digitally.  And so, Holy Week would need to be different.

For those of you who know me, you know Holy Week is superlatively special to me – it is my favorite week of the year.  So, for a moment, I grieved that loss, adding it to the long list of things I am grieving during this pandemic.  But then I took a deep breath, made room for Holy Spirit as I relaxed my grip on what I falsely imagined was under my control, and let the creativity flow.  Before I knew it, we were trying evensong for Maundy Thursday – a service we experienced daily on a recent pilgrimage in England.  We were creating a simple, powerful Good Friday liturgy.  And, I was trying for the first time a liturgy I had barely noticed in the Prayer Book – a Holy Saturday liturgy.

Holy Week and Easter will not be the same this year.  But, in all honesty, nothing is the same in this season of life.  If our lives are so distinctly different these days, it makes sense that our liturgies would be different too, as liturgies reflect the life of the people.  Somehow, creating this alternative Holy Week has felt like the Church settling in alongside the community and walking in step with them (from a safe distance, of course!).  Somehow, recognizing grief, discomfort, and sadness has made room for creativity, hope, and grace.  Somehow, experiencing a daily life much more in line with the journey of Holy Week is making Holy Week viscerally palpable, and ultimately healing, life-giving, and strengthening.  We still have a long way to go with this virus and its impact, but I am especially grateful for the gift of Holy Week this year.