Year A, Lent 3
March 15, 2020
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Is the Lord among us or not?”
Good morning everyone! I hope your Lenten practice is picking up steam, or that your consideration of taking one up is. It is never too late and right now that prayer wheel needs turning, it needs some strong backs leaning in to it.
If I were to give titles to my sermons, I would call this one “Love in the time of Corona.” This is serious. This is scary. I was on a long Zoom meeting with the Bishop and the parochial clergy of the Diocese on Thursday night, and the vestry and I are in the process of defining our response here on the Blue Hill Peninsula. It is a fluid moment, so things will certainly change.
A parish church is an outpost, an embassy, or as one rather church militant colleague of mine calls it, a beachhead of the Kingdom, the Commonwealth of God. We the Church have a role in the world, be it on any given late winter morning or today in the midst of a pandemic, we have a role, we can help. In fact we are most important in moments just like this, because as God’s ambassadors, as people ordained by nature of our Baptisms into the priesthood of all believers, we are called to be servants of the world, of all the world. The Church was born in times of trouble and throughout history the Church has been at our best in times of trouble. (Well, besides the times the Church was causing the trouble, but that is another sermon). Our mission in this very moment is to determine how to serve the world, our local community, and each other in this trying moment.
I hope you saw the special eClare that went out on Friday. In it, I laid out the trajectory of our response. Milissa and I have been talking, but things are changing so rapidly, and logistics of meeting are becoming more complicated, that the Vestry has not been able to gather yet to discuss it, but I want to go over those points so we can stay together. We have three areas that the St. Francis community will address. The first is doing our part to slow the spread of the virus, as they say flattening the curve. The second is our response to local community needs, how can we help the Blue Hill peninsula in this moment. Finally, and this is our primary charism as a parish church, caring for each other.
We are doing our part to flatten the curve of the spread of COVID-19 right now. I am one of the growing number of religious leaders in the confusing position of thanking people for NOT coming to church. The Pope just canceled all public observance of Holy Week at the Vatican. I am all but certain that this will be the last time the building will be open for public worship for a while. That is the wisest and most effective thing we can do to help the Big Cause of slowing the spread of the virus, so let’s not even waste time talking about the doctrine of concomitance (why just bread at eucharist counts) and cancelled coffee hours.
Now, and this is very important, the Mass is the beating, bleeding, sacred heart of the church. Everything we do stems from us gathered in common prayer, everything. Our identity, our strength, our relationship with God is all tied up with our leaning in together towards the Mystery of the Sacraments, and that is not going to change. How we do that, though, will. No matter what, even if it is from my kitchen table in Cape Rosier, St. Francis by the Sea Episcopal Church will celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord together at least via live stream at 10:00 each Sunday. I can’t promise good hymnody, but scripture will be read, prayers will be offered and the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ will be broken, shed and shared. Even just knowing that that is happening matters. Maybe just slightly, but it does matter. So that is what we are doing for the big picture, changing how we work as a community.
And then there is our work as a community in the community, our community. Now this is complicated as the majority of us here at St. Francis are in a higher risk category, being over 60 or having underlying health conditions. Our demographics will help define what we can do. Again, as a church, our sweet spot is not acting the social service agency, it is being a house of prayer for all people. So pray! Open your hearts to the suffering of our neighbors, to those feeling the fear and loneliness of pending isolation, the fear of getting ill, the suffering of being ill. Keep your hearts and minds open to the fullness of what is happening, what is actually happening. That is prayer. And does prayer change God or what God is up to or what happens in the world? All I can do is offer the Anglican smug-shrug, “Who am I to say?” But what I am absolutely sure of is that prayer changes us. As Pope Francis said, “First we pray for the poor, then we feed them. That is how prayer works.” Indeed. Prayer changes our relationship with each other, it softens the hardest hearts and lets the love of God soak in. Times of fear, fear of getting infected, fear of the stranger, the other, those times are upon us. That fear could destroy us. As Frank Herbert wrote, “Fear is the mind killer.” Prayer flat out cures that. So the first thing we can do for our community is pray.
With hearts transformed, courage buoyed, there is work to do here. The outreach committee is contacting the local schools as see if there is anything they need. In particular, can we augment the backpack programs, or use our shiny new kitchen to help fill in the gap for families in the free and reduced lunch program. We also have this space. It is big. Heated. Has that lovely kitchen… Is not in downtown. Especially since we will likely not be worshipping here for bit, maybe local authorities could use this space. Dennis DiSilvey is asking at Northern Lights. If they are good, I’ll contact Hancock County public health and the sheriff’s office.
Since it might not be safe for many of us to be involved in direct service roles, one of the ways everyone can lend a hand is to keep supporting this church through prayers, just as concretely, financial support. Money to the church will help us help others. Money to the rector’s discretionary fund will do the same, very directly, as there will be major financial hardship on the already economically vulnerable in our community, who invariably take the biggest hit in times of trouble. Lost business, lost hours, lost jobs, having the kids at home, lack of resources to buy ahead. If you eat pay check to pay check, how can you stock up a month’s supply of food? Stay tuned as we discern the greatest needs that we can help with. If you have ideas about needs in the community or resources that we might bring to bear, please get in touch with me, our Senior warden Milissa, or Sue Grindle who leads our Outreach Committee.
Lastly, and this is our most special purpose, we can take care of each other. We must. We are. Again, this starts in prayer. I know when I am praying for a church, in this case us, the most discernable result is that I remember people, remember that I should check up on them, send them a card or give them a call. Keep each other in the forefront of your mind. Many of us have family, some of us have that family right here around us, but for some of us, some couples, this is it, St. Francis, or this is it within 1000 miles. So the first thing we can do is to pray and follow that pray where it takes you, follow up on that prayer.
There are other practical ways we can help each other in this moment. As we move into a place of necessary isolation, fear, loneliness and boredom can be very destructive. Now I am of a certain age where phone trees were replaced by ConstantContact by the time I was ordained, so I’m not sure of the best way to start one. But if you were part of a phone tree in the past, let us know how to do it! This will be a great way to check in on each other, and is a great way for folks who are forced to stay home and want to help to do so. Stay tuned for that.
But we don’t need a system to reach out to people in need. If you know that someone is struggling, or your suspect they might, or they could, call! If you are bored with the crossword puzzle – call someone. If you are flipping through your phone reading another devastating article about whatever, call someone! We exist only in relationship. Our social bonds are what make us us, and in this moment, we need to make extra efforts, creative efforts to keep those bonds strong.
Another practical offering we can make is to ramp up the new home shopping ministry. Now many of our shoppers are in a high risk category, but we will reorganize so that folks able to go to the store for others can. If you need something from Tradewinds or Walgreens, or even the library, boredom is a real threat, get in touch with Nancy Doane or myself and we will do our very best to get you what you need. And if you are interested in being a shopper, especially if you are not in a high risk group, please let Nancy and I know.
When it comes to pastoral care, I am here. I will continue with my get to know you visits, but please let’s reschedule f that makes you more comfortable. The diocese has directed us to cease visits to care facilities and hospitals. If you are in either place, I am very happy to talk on the phone or a video call. The one exception to that rule is that I will attend to deaths. That is a priest’s place and I will continue in that ministry.
And then there is you. How are you? This is nerve wracking. The Pacific Northwest, where we just came from, is a few weeks ahead of us in the outbreak and it is pretty scary, like the city of Eugene, a city of 160,000 is out of soap and Windex and vinegar is running low. The not knowing is hard, and as this pandemic deepens, what we do know is scary. Being scared is not an un-Christian response to what is sometimes a scary world. Fear is not an unfaithful response. Jesus was scared that night in Gethsemane. St. Paul was scared as he made his way towards Rome. So were Perpetua and her companions as they neared the arena, and the shipwrecked slaver John Newton as he clung to the rock that led to Amazing Grace, and Bonhoeffer was as he ascended the Gestapo scaffold, and St. Oscar Romero as he said the Mass the fateful day of his assassination. Fear is a healthy and natural response to scary things. It is in our response to that fear that our faith comes in. The Christian, the faithful Christian response to fear is not denial or despair, it is not panic or hostility or anger, it is not wishful thinking that God is our hand sanitizer and so long as you believe enough you will be just fine. No, God blessed us with memory, reason and skill so that we invented hand sanitzer and soap and have the wherewithal and wisdom to use it. That is where God is in all of this. That is where our confidence in Christ manifests.
God does not keep bad things from happening. There is no reason for the pandemic (well, no God caused reason, just as lesbians and witchcraft didn’t cause 9-11 regardless of what Jerry Falwell said). Tragedy is not a consequence of God’s will, that is terrible, non-sensical theology. God doesn’t punish or reward, not with pandemics or lottery tickets. “The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike” saith the Lord. Bad things happen to good people, and to lousy ones. God in Christ doesn’t cause the situations that lead to suffering, but God in Christ very much is there to relieve our suffering, to help us bear the burden of suffering that we all feel or will feel. This is especially true right now. God loves us in the time of corona that we may love others. Christ is with us in this time of corona that we may be with others. The Holy Spirit strengthens us in this time of corona that we may bear the burdens we have to bear. God can and does and will strengthen us to bear the suffering that life invariably brings.
These fears are as old as humanity. As they languished in the desert, lost, tired and thirsty, scared, second-guessing everything, even their departure from slavery in Egypt, Israel asked Moses “Is the Lord among us or not?”
The water that flowed from the rock is a metaphor for the presence of God. It is like the living water that the outcast woman received from Jesus at the well, life, love, God comes to us in the most unlikely ways in the most unlikely times. A rock in the desert. The bucket of someone a socially conscious person of the time would not even be seen speaking to, let alone receive water from. That is where God is for us in troubled times.
It is ok to be scared right now, because this is scary. But don’t stay there. Open you hearts and minds to Jesus Christ. As Lent draws us spiritually and ritually closer to the Cross, ponder what was going through Jesus’ mind as each step He took took Him closer to His terrifying fate on the Cross and His reward at the right hand of God. Pray for others. Prayer opens your heart, and open hearts, though they are more vulnerable, are more brave, are more resilient. Serve others, as helping others helps them and us. And think beyond these four walls, beyond the rocky coast that defines our peninsula as we make sacrifices for the good of the whole, as we try on new ways to be the church right now, in this very moment, in this very place. God’s blessing is upon you, go forth and be a blessing to the world. AMEN