Message for May 10, 2020
Texts: Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 and John 14:1-14
During the first week of the “shelter in place” order here, Jeff Johnson, who is one of my favorite Christian musicians, announced the early release of an album he had been working on for some time, with the title Lauds. As a gift to all around the world who were sheltering in place, Johnson offered downloads of the album on a sliding scale, so people could get it for free if they wished. I listened, then hungrily snatched it up, and shared the news with some in our congregation whom I thought might like the music, as well. The collection, which runs less than 20 minutes, makes for a wonderful contemplative worship experience (lauds means “morning prayer” in the monastic tradition), and I have listened to it many times over the past several weeks.
One piece, entitled Home Again, has also haunted my nights. It was the one piece in the collection which, on the first hearing, caused tears to spring to my eyes, and it still does that.
The song is both a call to confession and an invitation to return “home” to the awareness of God’s grace and protection, which is always available to us, but from which, due to our humanness and the everyday pressures of life, we tend to wander away and get lost.
(I’m going to invite you to put this sermon on “pause” and go listen to the full song, which you can do here on Johnson’s website: https://jeffjohnsonarkmusic.bandcamp.com/track/home-again-2)
The line that gets me most is this one:
I have lived my life as if these days would never end,
But I was wrong, I was wrong.
Like the grass I wither here beneath the blazing sun,
And fly away…
This COVID-19 pandemic has put our lives on “pause,” and made us consider our own mortality and the fragility of life — ours, that of those we care about, of the human race, and the rest of the planet.
Over these past weeks, in addition to learning new ways to stay in touch with and in support of the members of our congregation, I have been coping with increasing psoriatic arthritis pain, and like many of you with ongoing medical issues, I’ve been weighing the risks of seeking medical attention. I remember reaching out to some of our most shut-in members back during the 2017 wildfires, and noticing how little concerned some of them were about the news that was consuming the “headspace” of others in the community, because the world had, in a way, shrunk down to size of their house, or their room. I have observed, as one becomes more and more frail, each day is occupied, and then filled, with the most basic of tasks, and the most important of relationships, and everything else falls away. And on some days, lately, I’ve felt a little of that happening to me, and I’ve listened (compassionately, I hope) to others for whom this also has been the case.
When our world shrinks, those matters that remain grow larger in our consciousness, taking on a significance that before was taken for granted, inviting us to focus, and, if we lean in and receive a season like this as a gift, can help us grow deeper in our relationship with God, as we practice gratitude, letting go, and mindfulness.
For Jesus and his disciples, at their last meal together, the world also, as I read the accounts, seemed to shrink down, to this small circle of intimate friends, and in that space, Jesus’ words seem to take on heavier weight, greater significance. It was all the more so because Jesus knew what was coming. He knew the trials that not only he, but his companions, would have to face. So he boiled things down to the most important kernels of teaching and comfort, words they would remember and assurances of love.
Among the words he spoke that night were these: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me… I am going to prepare a place for you in my Father’s house, so that where I am, you will be also” (John 14:1-3, adapted).
As on that Maundy Thursday, Last Supper evening, there is much that threatens to trouble our hearts. Every day we are beset by news of death tolls, unemployment statistics, precautions we are to take, with no end in sight. And on this Mother’s Day, I’m willing to bet that more than the usual numbers of people will not have the opportunity to be physically present with their parents or their children, because of forced separation, illness, or death. At the same time, those who will be with their parents or children today may have had far more time together lately than is typical for them, and they may be experiencing the strain of constant caregiving and taking on roles that are usually shared by others — roles like teacher, coach, entertainer, nurse, shopper and cook.
How do we live as Easter people in times like these?
David Émile Durkheim, a French sociologist who studied human behavior in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coined the term “collective effervescence” to describe the rare and positive phenomenon when people come together to contribute to something larger than themselves. In an article I read this week from the Ministry Matters blog, Jill M. Johnson reflects on the many expressions of creativity that have come out of the shelter-in-place experience — ways that we are “being little Christs to one another,” to coin a term from Martin Luther — sharing humor, hope, and solidarity. In these expressions, I believe, we are creating a sense of “home” for one another — not just making being physically “at home” more bearable, but reminding one another that we share a common “home” in our humanity, and in our mutual belovedness in God’s sight.
I am so encouraged by the willingness I see, among the vast majority of our populace, to take on personal sacrifice for the sake of people they will never meet — who are willing to limit their personal “freedoms” so that their elders and other vulnerable people might not get sick. By their actions they acknowledge that the contributions of older generations still matter to them, that their wisdom is valued. And I think many are witnessing the faith that has carried their grandparents through many a tough time, and are taking courage, and learning patience.
I don’t need to look far to find evidence of Jesus’ “Let not your hearts be troubled” in action in our community. And on this Mother’s Day I am reminded of the many, many ways this lesson was passed on to me in the distant past, as well. I remember climbing into my grandpa’s lap and his playful nuzzling me with scratchy, unshaven cheeks; my grandma’s quiet Oklahoman drawl as she answered a question, sitting in a rocking chair, reading a devotional book or working at a cross stitch. I remember my other grandmother with her heavy German accent, puttering in her farmhouse kitchen, and my grandpa out working with the pigs or on the tractor. I marvel at how memories can be both distinct, triggered by aromas and tactile sensations, and blurred into a general sense of being loved by these hard-working people who trusted in God to see them through, and who taught me, through their example, to work hard and trust in God, too.
Perhaps you will take time today to remember and cherish someone who has taught you about the refuge of God, who has said to you, in word or action, “Do not let your heart be troubled.” Perhaps you will take time today to share that message with someone else.