COVID-19 Sermon

The novel coronavirus has gotten into my extended family already, and I was asked for a message specifically about living through this horrible time right now. The Scripture passage that came to mind first is Jesus praying with his disciples in Gethsemane, found in Mark 14, among other places.

First, a word about what I will NOT be saying, what should not be said about this story, because it would be a distortion: To those who are currently showing symptoms of COVID-19, you may indeed be praying for this cup to pass from you, but you are NOT Jesus in the Garden, and it is NOT God’s will that you suffer in this way. If anybody’s “helpful” comments start to stray in that direction, stop listening. The Gospel-writers tell of Jesus’ last days like this so that people would believe he was fully human yet fully god, and even though those things conflicted inside of him, he submitted to follow the path that led to self-sacrifice, defeating death for humankind with God’s overpowering love for us. You are not asked to do that. You do not need to plead with God for your survival or submit to this disease, because IT IS NOT GOD’S WILL that you be sick. No way. God loves you so very much and doesn’t want you to suffer.

The message I would like to share is for the ones surrounding those who are suffering, like my cousin, whose husband is sick. Your loved ones have it, so not only might you have it too, but you are deep in fear and worry for the ones you love. Like Jesus’ disciples on the night they prayed in the Garden, you are carrying the mental, emotional and spiritual anguish of what is already in motion. Jesus’ life is at stake, and maybe so are the disciples’ lives for being associated with him. What does Jesus ask of them? To watch and pray. Instead, they sleep. And I cannot blame them. Look, it is physically and emotionally exhausting to be this worried, for our loved ones, and for ourselves. To have no idea what is going to happen, not only in the long-term, but in the near-term. I know you are worn out, your brain is foggy, you have no filter. You do not have the capacity to deal with people who send you a nasty-gram e-mail or burst out in anger because you came into contact with them last week, before you knew. So don’t open those e-mails. Block the trolls indefinitely, because – God knows – all you can handle right now is to watch and pray. God knows that, and God holds you too, along with your beloved one who is suffering. The Spirit intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words to express (Romans 8:26). That is a promise of love. Let the Spirit do her work; we can only do these 2 things right now, if even that: watch and pray.

Now I realize that Jesus sounds supremely frustrated when he repeatedly finds the disciples asleep, while he’s pouring out his heart to God. “Could you not keep awake one hour?” he says, “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Well, that’s the voice we are hearing in our heads right now. You who maybe are not facing the threat directly, why can’t you get it together and do what needs doing? Rise to the challenge! Be the one Jesus can lean on! When the reality is that our strength right now is severely limited by grief and fear. This moment in Scripture foreshadows the rest of the Jesus Movement. All God has for spreading the good news – that God is for us even when everyone else is against us – are human beings who are going to mess it up a lot. We cannot even manage to stay awake, to watch and pray. Yet somehow, God will work. Through all the tiny things one or the other of us manages to do right in the coming days, God will work. Through supporting and listening to those like medical and public health professionals who have trained for this. By sticking to the two things we can – maybe – manage: watch and pray. We deserve the rebukes, certainly, but also know that Jesus is going to keep coming back for wake-up calls. He’s going to keep checking in, like we are trying to do right now for the people we know who are scared and maybe symptomatic or worried they might be. It might indeed be frustrating, and we keep speaking sternly to our elders telling them to STAY HOME, for heaven’s sake. But like Jesus, we keep circling back out of love. We are all trying to navigate this fear and sadness and uncertainty together. And God is with us. God hears you and holds you, while you watch and pray. We will watch and pray with you.

Worship-At-Home for March 15, 2020

All Saints worship-at-home resources for March 15, 2020:

1. Listen to or sing along with Wade in the Water, sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock

2. View this video devotion by Pastor Lee Ann, and comment below it to have a discussion.

3. For more commentary on the Gospel, here is an excellent piece by Debie Thomas

4. Pray this prayer together:

God of love and mercy, comfort us in our anxiety.

Call forth from us faithful expressions of your love for our neighbors.

For those whose health is fragile, we pray for creativity in reaching out.

For the burdens of isolation on those who already experience loneliness, depression or anxiety, we pray to be a blessing.

We pray for the needs of our congregation:

 

Into your hands, O God, we commend all for whom we pray, trusting in your mercy through Christ our Lord. Amen.

5. Listen or sing along to Great Is Thy Faithfulness

Check out this resource for more spiritual practices, and call a friend! If you need phone numbers of folks from the congregation, e-mail Pastor Lee Ann.

Of Course I Will Help With Your Book Launch

No, I do not really have the time. But yes, I will absolutely help with your book launch!

I will show up to your launch events because I know how much it means for people to show up. Especially in a care-giving profession where the “ministry of presence” is part of both my roles as pastor and mother, being there for people at significant moments is something I do, but others rarely do for me. I know you are in the same boat, so let me be one who flips the script for you.

I will absolutely find the time to write you a blurb for a book proposal, be part of your FB group hashing out the idea, introduce you to my contacts and send out photos of me holding the book, recommending it to my friends on social media. If members of your launch team get free advance copies, I’ll buy extras to give away to friends, especially in other denominations or spheres of influence.

I will write you book reviews: on Goodreads and Amazon and anywhere else you want me to. You say human effort has to massage the algorithms for your book to become a “recommendation” to those who could really use it? And timing is crucial – it needs to happen in a rush on Day 1? Let me at those algorithms. Which of the online platforms I have written for could use a thoughtful book review? I am on it. Would you like me to introduce you to anyone I write for, to publish an excerpt? Consider it done.

Yes, to the cynics, there is a little bit of quid pro quo in supporting other writers. I do hope that when it is finally my turn to launch a book into the world, they’ll remember and be willing to help me out in their networks. Yet for the writers I know personally who do this, that it is about so much more than trading favors.

Going out of my way to join a launch team without being personally asked is also about the collective good, in my mind. Women’s voices and progressive voices of faith especially need to be amplified. I want people to know we are here, instigating conversations that everybody really needs to have. In spreading the news about your book, I am starting conversations I want to shape the public discourse, for churches I serve to discuss, for faithful-but-not-particularly-church-going friends to know exist. I want there to be smart, loving, insightful takes on adoption that influence how people think about our adoptive family. I want to interact with colleagues and congregants who can appreciate the beauty of pithy prayers that read like poetry for adults or children. I want my relatives who live in “red” states to have a source I trust, to read about faith and politics instead of disengaging. I want MORE influences showing the power of girls leading and busy people claiming sabbath and talking about the end of life in healthy ways. So I will promote Rosalind, Meta, Tracy, Angela, Ellie and Dana’s books like it is my job, to help however I can to launch them into the world.

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

“The Law” for a snow day (Sunday)

Sometimes during MN winters, cancelling worship is the right thing to do. Here’s the sermon I would have preached, if it hadn’t have been for the snowstorm.

Isaiah 58:1-12

Matthew 5:13-20

The Law gets a bad reputation, but perhaps unfairly so. The Law can include the Ten Commandments, more minor ordinances, or just be shorthand in our minds for “God’s authority to tell us what to do.” It can feel oppressive or judgmental to we who are already burdened enough by the judgment of this world and ourselves. But if Jesus is, as he says, a fulfillment of the Law, then God giving us Law is an act of love. The Law of God is meant to give us order, the safe parameters in which all people can thrive. We cannot thrive if we are constantly caught in the back-and -forth of being victims or oppressors in dangerous power dynamics. The Law shows us not only how to live with one another, but how to live in relationship with God. When we are confronted with the commandments, for example, we know that we are not capable of keeping them. We realize that God is worthy of awe and gratitude for creating, redeeming and loving us, when we clearly are not able to do any of those things for ourselves.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” Jesus says, “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

So what might it mean to us, that Jesus became one of us in order to fulfill the commands of the Law and the warnings and promises of the prophets? I don’t think it is that awful paying-the-price-to-an-angry-God-in-place-of-us “atonement” theory; because that is not the kind of God Jesus embodies in any thing he does on this earth. That doesn’t seem to be how Israelites saw sacrifices either. In Leviticus, for example, Aaron was commanded to give a sin offering and a burnt offering of atonement for himself and the people. But listen, the command is given with these words: “so that the glory of the Lord may appear to you.” Sacrifices were not a way to appease or manipulate the God of Abraham into forgiveness or a better mood – as if human beings have that kind of influence. They were to orient us towards God so we could see God’s glory. The Law does not demand a sacrifice in order for God to love you. God is already there. The Law is another expression of that love.

So, how does he do it? Jesus fulfills the Law and prophets, by interpreting them, showing that they are not dead words to be followed by habit, but living words to engage with as we relate to other people. He interpreted them in his teachings, in his public acts of protest and healing, and even in how he faced own death. Jesus constantly pushed the boundaries of what was clean or unclean, allowed on the sabbath, or with whom you should eat. He often taught in parables, tricky stories that could be seen from multiple angles, and in fact need to be wrestled with to get meaning out of them. He made his hearers engage with God’s messages, instead of just memorize by rote. He was living testimony that a dead, flat interpretation of Scripture is not what God desires. Jesus modeled a flexible engagement with the Words of God that we must interpret for our own time and situations. This is how he fulfills the Law, by taking it into his life in all its meaning, and history and reverence for God, with the real life people surrounding him as a major factor in how he interprets the Law and Prophets.

In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah today, the Lord God is irate over people doing thoughtless fasting, presumably because that is what the written Law prescribes for how to act righteous. “As if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.” God doesn’t want those fasts. God wants us to fast from injustice, to cut out of our lives the exploitation of others, until the void it leaves aches like a hunger. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” What does that look like today? What would we be fasting from, if we were going to painfully cut out exploiting others? Interpret the Law in your own context, and live it out to the extreme, exhorts the prophet!

“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn” Isaiah promises. And Jesus repeats, but changes the verb tense: “You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth.” Not in the past tense: “Back in the day, people were faithful, had integrity, cared for each other. They were the salt of the earth, light of the world.” Nope. Neither does Jesus say it in the conditional tense: “Do this, and then you could be the light of the world” Nope. He is declaring the truth in the present to those listening: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”

You, interpreters of God’s Word in your own lives, responding to injustice and sharing what you have, you are here to enliven the whole earth. To change the flavor of the conversation, to show people there is way more to see than ominous shadows when looking towards God. You change the equation, with your saltiness and your shining a light from different angles and into neglected corners. It is our Christ-like job to re-interpret how God’s love stretches to the margins, in fact, it is a fulfillment of the Law. Interpret away; it’s what Jesus would do.

 

A Prayer for the Annual Meeting in an Interim

God of love and promise, we bring our full selves and many emotions to this moment in the life of this congregation.

As we gather for the annual meeting, we pray for honesty and hope in equal measure, that we might acknowledge to one another how our hearts are responding to a long-time pastor’s leaving, and the anxiety we hold before the future comes into view. Nudge us to tell our stories, so we might work through our responses together. Reveal seeds of hope and give us the confidence to try new ways of growing together in faith.

As we elect new Council leaders, give us confidence in your ability, O God, to multiply the gifts we bring. Open our imaginations about whom we might become, as we equip all the saints for ministry in daily life.

Holy Spirit, sharpen our focus during this time together. Although the concerns of our families, communities and world are always with us, quiet their demands so that we might think and listen and speak with this faith community in the forefront of our attention during this time. In your name we pray.

Amen.

Grand Gestures and Everyday Care

I walked into a room covered in rose petals, with bouquets of roses in containers placed all around the room. My love – whom I had been dating for about 2 months but already knew I would marry – had invited me to the Medicine Ball, a fancy affair for students at his medical school in Richmond, Virginia. Yet I hadn’t thought his dorm room, our short stop on the way to the big event, would be so…decorated. I learned then what has been reinforced regularly over our 13 years together so far: he shows love through grand gestures and over-the-top generosity. The tree house he built our daughters last summer is epic. When we met with our pastor about the congregation’s capital campaign, we left having pledged more than twice what I anticipated. For my 40th birthday, he planned nearly 3 weeks vacation in Hawai’i for our family, including my birthday and Christmas with my dear friend who lives there. When we discussed buying a hybrid car, we ended up with an all-electric Tesla. My husband sees opportunities aligning as fraught with meaning, recognizes a chance to make a significant difference, and makes grand gestures. It is one of the things that I love most about him.

I am more of a detail person. The ordinary maintenance of keeping us alive and connected must be done too, and sometimes I think I am the only one who sees the needs. Someone must notice what we need from the store, obtain the next size of clothes and shoes for the children, put the ethnic holiday celebrations on the calendar, remember relatives’ birthdays, and write the check for the offering plate. Afterward, I sort through the (literally) thousands of pictures my husband has taken, and organize our memories into blog posts, a calendar and photo books from our many adventures. This is my specialty. I sometimes find myself at an impasse in the face of major purchases or donations, having learned from childhood to be frugal and cautious, but I know exactly what must be done to get everyone out the door in the morning with lunches packed, and how to curate our memories of the significant days later.

For abundant life, this family needs both of us. Both of our tendencies have positives and negatives, and believe me when I tell you they can cause friction. Yet this Advent season, I find myself wondering about our different gifts and related hazards and how God manages to do and be both or all of those things for us. And I marvel, at how our life-giving abundant faith depends upon it.

We are waiting to celebrate the grand gesture of God bringing into the world a human incarnation of the divine. Yet that big event, and the staggeringly generous action of God becoming human, produces a human Christ child who needs holding and nursing and raising into adulthood. Jesus enters into our daily scramble for survival and search for love. Since God the Creator is not present in the same way as human parents, God made sure that Jesus would have Mary and Joseph for his human family. Almighty God would be in Jesus’ life for clarity about his identity. At the end, God would bring Jesus alive again after death, the grandest gesture of all. But for the daily life, God counts on people like Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and later the Holy Spirit working through Jesus’ followers. Without the Incarnation and the Resurrection, what would Jesus’ life mean? It is not enough for Christ to simply be a good teacher who preached peace and love. But a human embodiment of God, who makes solidarity and new life real is who I need. Yet at the same time, the repeated compassionate actions, shocking teachings and passionate outbursts of God-in-the-flesh made the grand gestures trustworthy. The God who became flesh and blood like us is invested in healing our bodies, or protecting them from those who try to self-righteously stone us. The God who can raise Jesus from the dead brings healing and hope in this life when we are agonizing over the death of a relationship or our autonomy under an oppressive power. We need God’s everyday care to trust in the grand gestures, and vice versa. So God did both for us.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Editing

For the last month, I have been editing my book. I’ve added about one and a half chapters of new material to what I had, but the majority of the work to get my manuscript ready for its deadline has been re-working what I wrote last spring. This work has revealed much about my initial way of putting words on paper/computer, and how writing a book doesn’t necessarily resemble the shorter writing I have done in the past.

So Many Words

First, a book is long. I needed a minimum of 50,000 words because that was the book size I had promised, that all departments of the publisher are preparing to design and produce. The chapters I had that were more or less “finalized” already were between 5,000 and 6,000 words each, so multiplied by 9 chapters, I should have been right there. But some of the chapters were significantly less polished than I had remembered leaving them before my summer of full-time parenting and frequent travel. I managed to write some short pieces for publication during those summer months, but there were no periods of time for focusing on the overall arc of my manuscript. Plus, not having heard anything from a publisher in months, I was feeling a little deflated about the project, and gearing up to send it elsewhere when I heard from Church Publishing in mid-July. So the editing did involve one entirely new chapter, and significant work on one that was more of an outline than a readable chapter.

I regularly write short pieces between 500-2000 words, so 5,000 words that all hold together somehow are a challenge. I broke each chapter into about 3 sub-sections to make it manageable. I prize being concise and pithy, but trying to reach that word count for each chapter means that I sometimes indulged tangents or left in less insightful explorations. The dynamic of going into enough detail to be meaningful, while applying broad enough strokes to paint big ideas is one I am still trying to navigate. In the editing, I had a bigger problem: the big ideas of each chapter are related – as they ought to be in a book – and kind of bled into each other after awhile. Since writing a chapter at a time over multiple months last spring, alongside shorter pieces for publication on the subject (to build my “platform”), and even teaching an adult Sunday School class on the topic, I reached a point this month when I could not sort through in my brain whether a particular story or biblical reference sounded familiar because it was already in the book, or because I had used it elsewhere outside the book. My husband Stefan was a great help there. Reading the full manuscript with completely fresh eyes, he could point out several instances of overlap (once within the same chapter!).

Writing Is Not Preaching

Besides the online pieces I write, I am a preacher, and while that can transfer to writing skills, it is also a very different form. I’ve been preaching weekly now since mid-September while serving as a “bridge” interim pastor. I have been surprised by how many of the new sentences (in those 1.5 new chapters, but also new paragraphs here and there) I have written would work better for preaching than perhaps for reading. When I’m preaching, I can pause for emphasis between multiple clauses in a run- on sentence, and get my point across just fine. I can begin multiple sentences with “But” or “Because” and it is emphatic, not poor form. I can use the passive voice without losing the hearer’s interest because of my delivery, whereas on the page I have had to re-route all the passive voice to active instead. When I preach, the italics or underlining or exclamation points are made by my voice! The style guidelines from my publisher actually specify: no italics, underlining or ALL CAPS and “no more than 2 exclamation points in the entire book.” I have had to work out alternative methods of exclaiming and emphasizing strong statements.

A Writer Needs Readers

Other readers have been a very helpful part of the editing process. First Stefan read the book in its entirety, offering encouragement and constructive criticism. I sent out half of the chapters (the ones I was most concerned about) after editing for grammar, to friends who are themselves clergy mothers. They offered suggestions too, from details like: “Who is the ‘we’ you are referring to in this part?” all the way to big picture responses like, “It doesn’t smell like super-sessionism to me.” Feel free to Google that one. It was very helpful to have additional readers who could let me know if something is clear, even if one is not inside my head. The book is designed to be read by clergy women with their congregations – with discussion questions for each chapter – so readers’ own anecdotes will add to the content.

It has been a challenging, thoughtful month. Somehow, working very part-time at the bridge interim congregation (preaching, officiating at funerals, visiting people and encouraging the leadership) has dove-tailed well with this editing process. It gave me the break I need to come back to the manuscript fresh, and the permission to not say “yes” to too many other things during this month. I also suspect that turning in my manuscript is not the end of the edits. In the informational packet from the publisher, the time-line includes 8 weeks of editing, following the deadline. But my contract stated I would turn in a complete, polished manuscript, so I have. Stay tuned for more adventures in publishing!

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash