As I write these reflections, my arm is throbbing from my second dose of the Moderna vaccine. It has been a year, since COVID-19 shifted the Church’s mission to online worship—a year of contending with masks, social-distancing, sheltering-in-place, and increased travel and business constrictions. A year ago, most of us never had our groceries delivered or brought out to our cars. With the roll-out of vaccines, which several of us have now received, there is the promise of life getting back to normal, albeit a new normal. Things are not quite the way they were.
As our County numbers for COVID-19 decline, we are busy making plans for in-person worship (Starting March 7). I am excited about the prospect of gathering once more with you all, even as I grieve the elements of the communal life that are still off limits to us— coffee hour, congregational singing, holding hands and hugging one another hello. Our Palm Dinners continue as to-go meals, meeting a need for those who need a meal, but without the robust hospitality and fellowship which happens when we gather around a table. These things will follow at some point, but for the moment I am happy for the opportunity to just be together.
Throughout this pandemic, the question I keep asking our Church Council and asking the church is this: What kind of Church do you want to go back to? It is an important question to consider. COVID-19 has put certain restrictions on how we gather, but we alone get to decide to be the kind of church we want to be. What does it mean for us to be the church in Klamath Falls in this season? How will we deepen our connection with one another? How can we promote healthy community and heal the deep wounds we carry? How will we stand for justice and the hurting and vulnerable in our neighborhoods and city? What are the practices we can do which will nourish faith in God in this season?
None of these questions are new. These are the sorts of things the church has always wrestled with as it has sought to live out the message and mission of Jesus Christ in every place and in every age. But perhaps the gift of the Corona-virus closures has been its interruption of business-as-usual. We get to decide whether we want to tenaciously cling to our misty watercolor memories of the way we were or to press on together toward becoming all we can be as a church. I for one, am excited about what God has in store for us together in the days ahead!
February marks the twelfth month since we have been dealing with the fallout of the Coronavirus as a country. It was mid-March, and midway through the season of Lent, when we first went into lockdown. One of the things we’ve mourned during the last year, are the ways in which we have not been able to be physically present with the people we love. We have been stuck at home, or had our travel restricted, we have been discouraged from group gatherings, and we have not been able to gather inside the church building for worship. I felt the loss of congregation throughout this year, but especially during the Advent and Christmas season. That is such a joyful and hope-filled season in the life of the Church, and it was hard not to be with you all!
Here we are, almost a year later, getting ready to begin Lent again. With the vaccines rolling out, I have renewed hope that we will be together in the not-too-distant future! Hopefully Lent will give way to Easter hope, and we will gather to celebrate Resurrection (Christ’s and ours!). I can’t set a date on it, but I know we are getting closer! And I can’t wait! I am grateful for the opportunities we’ve had to connect with one another online, or on the phone, but there is nothing quite like being together! And like you, I can’t wait for the life to get back to normal!
Of course, the new normal will be different. When we are first back in worship together, we will have to wear masks and socially distance (like we did when we gathered for worship outside in October), but we also have an opportunity to go back to something new.
We have been in a long season of social deprivation. I am mindful that Lent is a season of fasting, and when we fast (from food or from an activity), it enables us to see the things we are hungry for. As we dream about being together as a church again, what are the things you have been missing that you want to get back to? What are the things that you have grown hungry for as you’ve waited out this virus at home? What new direction do you feel the Spirit moving?
Jesus once told his disciples that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church (Matthew 16:18). We have been through a hard season together and many of us wonder what the future holds. But the Christian story is always one of resurrection and new life. Let’s press on together, knowing that God has good things in store for us!
As the New Year dawns, we find ourselves (again) in the land of fresh beginnings. This is the time of year when we make New Year’s resolutions, embark on new diet plans, or exercise routines. This is when we get up the gumption to quit our bad habits and try to do better. Yet, as the weeks roll on, we find it much harder to follow through.
They say that resolutions fail for several reasons. Perhaps our goal wasn’t realistic, maybe we don’t have an actionable plan or good time management, or possibly, we just get distracted. But the making of resolutions is good. It signals a willingness in us to transform something we sense needs to change. No, good intentions don’t get us there, and we need stick-to-itiveness and follow through if we are going to see real fruit, but it begins simply with the desire to see something different in ourselves and in our world.
There were a lot of things that happened in 2020 we will be happy to leave behind. Politics and pandemics, school and business closures, anxiety about the economy and our health, have not been good for the soul. I am eager to see some return to normal life. I don’t think I want to hear the word unprecedented again for quite some time! But I also sense things in myself I want to grow into. I want to be in better shape, read more, and deepen my relationship with others and with God. Will I be able to live into everything I want to see in my life in 2021? Probably not, but I’m going to try anyway.
The Psalmist instructs us, “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things for me” (Psalm 98:1). Singing a new song means moving beyond the same old song and dance. Singing a new song means another world is possible, another us is possible. But singing a new song is hard work. We must learn the tune and work out the words before we can sing it with any confidence. We won’t sing out, until we learn how.
The hope for personal life transformation is at the heart of Christian spirituality. New years and new songs remind us that transformation is possible (especially if we trust the One who has done marvelous things for us!). Yes it will require effort, intention and a plan of action, but I am eager to see what the new year brings, what newness I can live into and what new song God’s Spirit will teach me.
What about you? What hopes to do you have for 2021?
Advent begins and we are reminded to wait: wait for the child of promise, wait for the freedom of God’s people, wait for the light to break our darkness. We wait, and as we wait, anticipation and hope grow. Jesus is coming. Again. You can count on it.
This is one of my favorite seasons of the year because for me Advent is a stay against our tendency to settle for the way things are. Celebrating Advent means to awaken to the possibility that a new world is not only possible, but it is on its way. Jesus is coming, and the powers, structures, presidents and presidents-elect, economic institutions, and nation states do not have the final word. We can rest assured that Christ comes with his kingdom and:
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors. (Luke 1:50-55, from Mary’s Magnificat).
This year, we are more ready for Advent than ever. We have heard the songs of the disenfranchised and the dissatisfied: the fear of COVID-19 and economic collapse; the continuing violence against people of color, immigrants and LGBT communities; the counter-violence against law enforcement; and distrust of our media, our political systems and structures. If there was ever a time when the message of Advent resonates with people, it is now. We get it, we do not need to settle for what is. But we can dream. It is time to imagine what possibilities Jesus brings in his wake.
This isn’t a time to wait and see, what our political transition may bring. This is a time of actively seeking Christ’s coming and all it means for life today:
When we are lonely and feel cut off from our communities because of a pandemic, we cry, Come Lord Jesus. Can our isolation become a cloister where we meet the coming Christ?
When we are overwhelmed by fears of losing of livelihood and economic well-being, we cry, Come Lord Jesus. Do we dare prepare the way of the LORD?
When immigrants fear that they or their loved ones will be deported and their family will be torn apart, we cry out, Come Lord Jesus. Can we invite Jesus into this reality?
When abuse and sexual assault is overlooked, excused because of expediency or we hear victim blaming, we shout, Come Lord Jesus. Will we extend Christ’s mercy to the broken?
When our fear of violence and terror causes us to reject the poor, widowed, and orphaned and the refugee, we sigh, Come Lord Jesus. May we meet Jesus in the vulnerable?
When we hear about ongoing injustice, the racial bias of our criminal justice system, or police violence against People of Color, we dare pray Come Lord Jesus. Will those that hunger for justice be satiated?
Waiting for Christ’s coming doesn’t just mean that we wait for some final cataclysmic event when all that is wrong is made right. Christ is coming but he also has already come. Bring him with you in your waiting so together we may be the change we want to see in the world.
Come Lord Jesus, Come.
Monday, Nov. 30 Blessed Are the Wait-ers!
Waiting is the thing we do between the things we wish we were doing. We wait in traffic during our daily commute. We wait in supermarket lines and for an open parking space at the mall. We wait to be seated at our favorite restaurant. We wait because we have to, but we don’t like it. When we don’t have to wait, we feel blessed.
We are an instant society. We (re)heat our food in 2-4 minutes. We have instant access to information via the internet, text friends, share photos, Skype family, Zoom each other. We have smart phones with us at all times so we can instant message and instagram selfies of us eating instant ramen. We stream video, download books and music. All our favorite retailers have one day shipping. Wherever we can we eliminate waiting from our life.
On another level we hate waiting because we wonder if we are just wasting our time. If we are stuck in traffic or in a queue, we feel we are missing ‘real life.’ Or worse, what if our waiting comes to nothing? Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting For Godot (1949)and Christopher Guest’s brilliant mockumentary Waiting For Guffman (1997) both name in their titles characters who never showed up (oops, SPOILER ALERT). And what about all those ways we wait and watch for God to break into our life and circumstance but we just don’t see Him? Cancer. Racism. Violence. War. We cry “How Long O Lord?” and pray we aren’t waiting in vain.
Advent is a space each year where the church is invited to wait. In one sense this waiting is counter-cultural. Our culture says blessed are the activists, the go-getters, the movers-and-shakers, the innovators, those-that-git-er-done. Of course we all know waiting is sometimes necessary. People who have not mastered the skill of waiting make poor financial and life choices. Delayed gratification is a sign of emotional intelligence and if you wait to eat your marshmallow you may get two. We know this, but we dislike passivity and honor those who make things happen.
And yet when we open our Bibles we are called to wait, to watch, to press eagerly in to God, anticipating what He will do. I read the Beatitudes this morning (Matthew 5:1-12) and was struck how many of those Jesus called blessed occupy liminal spaces– the stuck in the in-between places:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit. . .” –the poor wait (the purview of the wealthy is they don’t have to).
” Blessed are those who mourn. . .” –those longing for comfort and joy while stuck in the land of grief
“Blessed are the meek. . .” The passed-over, last-picked, the unobtrusive. Not the-movers-and-the-shakers; nevertheless they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. . .”- -those hungry and thirsty waiting to be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. . .” -those who show the mercy they long for through chronic injustice and ongoing wounds.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. . .”–the ones who learned to hear God’s voice despite the cacophony of competitors.
“Blessed are the peacemakers. . .”–those taking stands against the systemic violence and apathy of our age.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted. . .” -those suffering for holding out faith in cultures antagonistic toward it.
Blessed are those that wait! The poor, mourning, meek, hungry and thirsty, the wounded healers, the longsuffering saints, the peacemakers and the persecuted! Jesus is coming! Wait for Him! He calls you blessed and blesses you as you wait!
In what ways does waiting make you feel anxious? In what ways do you experience God’s blessing as you wait?
Tuesday Dec 1, “Blessed are the Waiters”
One of my favorite Advent songs is the Taizé song, Wait for the Lord, from the ecumenical Taizé community in Taizé, Saône-et-Loire, Burgundy, France. It is a short, meditative call to wait, drawn from Psalm 27:14:
Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord: keep watch, take heart!
When I use this song in Worship in Advent, I occasionally get some push back. Some think the minor key mournfulness sounds too sad. We want more celebration, having mentally already moved on to Christmas. Who wants to be sad in church?
But beyond our inability to make space for lament in contemporary worship, the song presents another difficulty. We are exhorted to wait for the Lord whose day is near. Near? Really? If you look at the state of things in the world, the day of the Lord feels a long way off. Everywhere we look we see deceit, division, abuse and assault. We cry come Lord Jesus but live through days where our rich people are violent; and all the people are liars (Micah 6:12). There doesn’t seem to be any relief in sight.
Do we believe Jesus is coming back and when he does he will repair our broken world? How we answer this question will determine how well we keep watch and wait.
Proverbs 13:12 tells us, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” If waiting for Jesus is like waiting for Godot—a fruitless exercise with no hope on the horizon—then to hold out hope is to torture our souls. If we believe Jesus will come and fulfill our deepest longings than we can bear up under almost anything. Delayed gratification only works if the awaited One proves true. But, do we have the mental space and spiritual imagination to believe in the promised One? Too often, we settle for lesser goods. Our hopeful imagination only takes us as far as what presents are under the Christmas tree. Our commodified Christmases, invariably disappoint. The sweater unravels, the toy breaks, our iPhone overheats. We are haunted by ghosts of Christmas past: petty disappointments, bruised feelings and broken relationships. Do we dare hope another world is possible? Can we yet hope?
Wait for the Lord, his day is near. Wait for the Lord, keep watch, take heart.
Wednesday Dec 2Waiting vs. Not Waiting.
As we parse what it means to wait for the Lord, I am reminded that in Jesus’s returning, God’s blessing is with the wait-ers–those of us stuck in the in-between. The Kingdom of God’s future in-breaking should affect our lives in the present. Our waiting is not passive but an eager watchfulness for signs of the Kingdom. We live into what we anticipate.
To wait is to be dissatisfied, to long for more and kick against the status quo. This is Advent. It isn’t piously and passively biding time. We wait and we groan for restoration and justice, for reconciliation and wholeness, for peace on earth and good will towards humanity, for a new heaven and a new earth. These things are bound up with the God revealed in Jesus—the one born in a stable and nailed to a tree. Because of Christ’s coming we were given hope. When he returns all will be restored. This is why we wait.
Here is our choice: we can wait or we can ‘not wait.’ To wait for the Lord is to admit we are in trouble and to long for His salvation. To not wait means to settle for what is or to rely on our own resources to solve our own problems. This could mean reliance on technology, politics, philosophy, spirituality, science, or whatever. Whatever we make so we don’t have to wait.
Revelation, the last book of the Bible, closes with these words, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen” (Rev. 22:20-21).
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. If we are honest, we have real problems and no good solutions. If ever there was a time we need a savior it is now:
As Christians we are people of hope, dissatisfied with the status quo who hurt with those who are hurting. To not wait, means we simply settle for what is and try to make the best of it. Christian hope drives us to discontent as we eagerly anticipate a kingdom where all injustice, war, victimization, poverty, violence, sorrow and grief will end. For you we wait Lord Christ.
Amen, Come Lord Jesus
Thursday, Dec 3 The Old Woman Waits
Paula Gunn Allen’s poem C’Koy’u Old, Woman describes waiting:
old woman there in the earth/ outside you we wait/ do you dream of birth, bring/ what is outside, inside? old/ woman inside/ old/ woman outside/old woman there in the sky/ we are waiting inside you/ dreaming your dream of birthing/ get what is inside/outside” (Skins and Bones: Poems 1979-87, West End Press, 1988).
Allen had in mind the sacred feminine, which underpinned her Native American, and feminist spirituality. Highly critical of colonial Christendom, much of Allen’s work was aimed at recovering the place of the feminine in Native American Traditions, believing that western beliefs in patriarchy blinded them to the significance of women in Native religion and culture. But the waiting and longing in her words bring me to Advent. I am reminded of Elizabeth, the old woman who had given up dreaming of birth, finding herself pregnant in her old age. She would give birth to John, the forerunner who would prepare the way for the coming of the promised Messiah
And I am reminded of Paul’s words in Romans:
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (Romans 8:19–24, NRSV)
Advent is the season of waiting, not just for a boy wrapped in swaddling clothes who was laid in a manger, but for this Old Woman Creation who groans and longs for the Kingdom of God to come to fruition in our midst, who longs to be free from bondage and decay but fulfill her divine purposes.
Jesus’ advent is not just a backwards glance at a historic event but a cosmic hope that all that is wrong with the world will one day be put right.
Luke’s gospel hints at this cosmic scope:
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”(Luke 22:25-29).
We are in a season of hope, of longing, and of waiting. Waiting not just for us, but for this old woman who dreams of birth and longs for the day: New Creation.
Friday December 3 Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow
Advent is always a three-storied affair. We rehearse the ancient story of Christ’s coming—the angelic visitations, visions and John’s voice crying in the wilderness. We look ahead to Christ’s return when all our brokenness and pain will cease, and when He will wipe every tear from our eyes. But Advent is also now. To celebrate Advent is to inhabit the in-between, to remember and to hope, we wait, but our waiting is active. There is work to be done.
Too much is made about the not-yet-ness of the Kingdom of God. We may look around at all the violence, victimization, suffering, disease, racial hatred, and distrust and say “God’s Kingdom has not come in fullness. When Jesus comes again, life will be different.” True enough, but to speak like this is to forget. We become passive fatalists and fail to re-member the One who declared to His beleaguered and downtrodden people that the Kingdom of God was at hand. The Christian hope is that although the Kingdom of God is not yet, it is now.
The first Advent inaugurated the reign of Christ. To live in light of Christ’s coming means to be his agents of shalom, participating in all the ways Jesus’ flips the script of empire and challenges systemic injustice. But if we don’t also have a vision of the consummation of the Kingdom, when injustice and violence cease, we will succumb to despair.
Christmas is coming and if you believe in Jesus, you know his first coming matters. Jesus is coming again, one day. To believe this is to hope in the faithfulness of God to fulfill his promises. In 1923, Thomas Chisholm wrote the words to Great is Thy Faithfulness (reflecting on Lamentations 3:22-23). His fourth stanza reads:
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide; Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow captures our Advent hope. We have the strength to face the brokenness, pain, and injustice in our world, to become change agents and subversives because we trust what God has done in Christ, and what he will do again. We also have not been left as orphans (John 14:18). The Spirit of Christ indwells us, we have his presence to cheer and to guide as we strive to welcome Christ’s kingdom more and more.
Jesus is the Spirit of Advent Past, the Spirit of Advent Present, and the Spirit of the Advent Yet to Come.
Saturday December 5: Hope is the Thing with Feathers
Emily Dickinson was a recluse. She spent most of her adult life in seclusion, at her Amherst family home. Publishing only a few poems during her lifetime, she made her sister, Lavinia, promise to burn her papers after she passed away. Had her sister kept her promise, the world would never know her short lines and slant rhymes.
Eschewing Second Great Awakening revivalism and the rigidity of New England Presbyterianism, the Transcendent yet haunts her poetry. I hear it in poems like ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers:
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers— That perches in the soul— And sings the tune without the words— And never stops—at all—
And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard— And sore must be the storm— That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm—
I’ve heard it in the chillest land— And on the strangest Sea— Yet, never, in Extremity, It asked a crumb—of Me.
Dickinson describes hope as a bird, that never quits singing despite storms and cold and roiling waters. This is a poignant metaphor. Hope, for her, was resilient, irrepressible. The bird perches in the soul and “sings the tune without the words—/And never stops—at all—.” Hope is the stubborn songbird whose song is carried by the breeze, all the sweeter in strong winds. A melody that warms us through the storm.
Hope, this buoyant birdsong, doesn’t quit. It persists. Despite the weather, sometimes despite the evidence, “in chillest lands—/and on the strangest sea.” Can hopes be dashed and destroyed? Dickinson allows for the possibility, “and sore must be the storm . . .” but the emphasis here is on the constancy of this birdsong in our souls.
Advent is the season where we turn our ears toward the bird singing in our soul. In terms of the Christian story, the song she has been singing, does have words. For two thousand years, she sings, “the kingdom of God is at hand. (Mark 1:15).” This song is resilient and the songbird keeps singing despite wars, and rumors of war, families being torn apart and placed in detention centers, environmental degradation, disease, the fear of economic collapse and personal bankruptcy, poverty, trumped-up legal charges and the wrongfully convicted, death and the raw experience of grief. Through wind and storm, in tundra and tempest, the song rings out, “the kingdom of God is at hand.” Dare we hope that God’s redemption and righteous reign would break into our broken worlds?
Dickinson’s final two lines indicate that the song of hope is not coercive. :
Yet, never, in Extremity, It asked a crumb—of Me.
A young Emily Dickinson rebuffed revivalism when she attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. She didn’t reject the gospel story per se, she did reject manipulative attempts to get her to respond in a particular fashion to the call of Christ. When Dickinson attended church services with her family, she appeared disinterested. She has cemented her place in history as the patron saint of the spiritual-but-not-religious.
It is worth asking here if Dickinson is right. Does hope really ask nothing of us? Not even a crumb? I think she is right to say that hope does not demand, coerce, manipulate us. Definitely not. But does not the songbird, invite us, inspire us, and move us to sing along?
The Kingdom of God is at hand. How may we join in the song?
November is one of my favorite times of year. It is the time before the hustle and bustle of Christmas, Advent and holiday cheer. Sure, i is the time when the days get colder (and shorter!) but the forests around us are still a kaleidoscope of color as winter settles in to the Klamath Basin.
As we enter this month, we are still dealing with the reality of COVID-19 (the Governor has extended the state of Emergency at least until January). We feel the COVID fatigue even as we are still adjusting to the new reality of social distancing and mask wearing. In the first few of days of this month, we will have the most contentious election in our modern history and the divide between Right and Left appears worrisome. And Southern Oregon is still reeling from the reality of wildfire that destroyed homes and scarred the landscape.
But November is the month we celebrate Thanksgiving. Over turkey with all the trimmings, before our minds are a fog in a tryptophan haze, and dull roar of the game on TV lulls us to sleep, we will pause and remember the ways in which God has taken care of us. And we will return thanks.
In 1 Thessalonians, Paul exhorts us, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thess. 5:18). Paul doesn’t tell us to give thanks for all circumstances, but to give thanks in all circumstances.
This month, as we turn our hearts in gratitude toward God, we do so, noting that a lot of what we have carried through this year has not felt like a gift. National turmoil, the threat of political and racial violence, a global pandemic, and the isolation of social distancing has taken a toll on all of us. Many of us have also weathered person storms—worries about finances, failing health, the death of a loved one. These things are not gifts to be thankful for. And yet, in even these circumstances God has remained our constant companion, our refuge, our comfort.
Were there moments this year, when you felt anxious and turned to God and felt a sense of peace? Were the times that you felt the Spirit invite you into deeper communion with God? Were their friends and family members who reached out to you because they knew of the hard times you were facing? Did you experience God’s provision for you in ways you didn’t expect or imagine? Were there times that you felt loved? By God? By others?
Life has been difficult, and we don’t know all that lies ahead for us. But this is precisely why this is a good time to focus on the things we are grateful for. God has taken care of us and will continue to do so!
One of my favorite poems is The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats. In church we think of the second coming as the time when Christ will return with shouts of acclamation, but this poem is not joyful or hopeful. It talks about something bad on the horizon, some rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. It was written about a hundred years ago, during a time of political unrest and in the wake of a global pandemic. The poem opens with these words:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? We are living in a time where the divisions between people feel intense and the lines have hardened. We are divided racially, culturally, socioeconomically, and politically. There is an election coming up, and it is a contentious one. Many of us worry that there might be an outbreak of violence in its aftermath regardless of the outcome. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. We are in an age where conservatives and liberals are increasingly unable to find common ground. Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase “alternative facts,” and increasingly, depending on our political persuasion, we go to different sources to find information we consider reliable. We don’t get our news from the same place and different media outlets paint very different visions of the world. The Washington Post and the New York Times does not report the same news as Breitbart and Fox News So we each are left with alternative visions of race, criminal justice, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. We are not talking to each other, not even talking past each other. We increasingly only talk to ourselves in our own echo chambers.
Jesus also lived in divisive times. Of course, the Roman empire controlled the world, but first Century Israel was divided in how they ought to relate to Rome. The two most influential parties in Jesus day were the Sadducees and the Pharisees, and these are the two groups most prevalent in our New Testament. They didn’t agree on much. The Sadducees were the religious conservatives. They were the party that the Jewish High Priest belonged to, and thus were the overseers of temple worship. They were compromising and colluding with Rome to stay in power and keep the Temple open for business. The Pharisees on the other hand were religious reformers. They didn’t like how compromised their Jewish leaders were and tried to enact a program of faithfulness to Torah so that God would renew God’s covenant relationship with Israel and free them from their oppression. The Sadducees and Pharisees had completely different theological and political visions. But both groups did feel threatened by Jesus.
In Matthew 22 where our passage is found, both groups try to trip Jesus in his words. They ask about taxes, and they ask about marriage in the resurrection. And then, an expert in the law, one of the Pharisees asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was and Jesus gave him two: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. This is a good summary of Jewish ethics and spirituality. In fact, in Luke’s account, it isn’t Jesus that gives this answer but the legal expert himself. It draws together two scriptures. The first is the Shema, so called because that is the first word of the passage in Hebrew: Hear O Israel that the Lord your God is one and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength. The second commandment mentioned comes from the latter part of Leviticus 19:18. The whole verse reads, “You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people, instead, love your neighbor as yourself.” This exhortation to love your neighbor like you love yourself is the Judeo-Christian version of the golden rule, and one of the things we have in common with the other world religious traditions. We know that all true spirituality boils down to just this: love. As the four evangelists—John, Paul, George, and Ringo once said, “All you need is love, love is all you need.” And on this hangs all the law and the prophets.
I will be honest, that as important and as central as the love command is, it comes across as vague and a little Pollyanna-ish to just say love is the answer. Sure there are lots of popular songs about how love is a many splendor thing, but it seems a little cliché. I mean, yes, love is the answer: Love God and love people, do that and you will be living the abundant life God has for us. It is always the Holy Spirit’s invitation to us to be people who love. But what does loving God and people really mean? And what does it mean in an age of political unrest and COVID-19?
First let me say what love isn’t. Love does not just mean tolerance. We need to be loved more than we need to be tolerated. Love does not necessary mean being nice and polite. When there is injustice happening, and people are wounding one another, real love can feel downright rude to the powers that be because it will speak up on behalf of the downtrodden, and the oppressed. Protest may be an act of love and civility and politely propping up the status quo may be an act of unlove.
So how do we love God and love our neighbor? This is an important question that followers of Jesus will return to again and again, and there is not one simple answer to it. But if I can highlight one part of loving God and loving our neighbors, it means giving to them our full attention. When Jesus says love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind, he was saying turn every part of your being toward God. Cultivate an attentiveness toward God. Meditate, pray, look and see what God is doing around you and give God thanks and praise. Ask what God is doing and pay attention to what answer reveals itself. Ask what God wants you to do. It is the nature of the life of prayer that when we clutter our mind with images and activities God is crowded out, but when we call our attention to the Divine we begin to see God everywhere and we are drawn into the love of God.
Similarly, loving your neighbor as yourself starts with giving to them your earnest attention. We are living through a widening gyre where things fall apart and the center cannot hold. Loving others means not retreating to our own echo chambers but giving our attention to our neighbor, even when we don’t understand them or where they are coming from. It means listening to their words and not just for your opportunity to talk. Love means being present with them. Yes, this much harder to do in a time of pandemic with social distancing and wanting to keep one another safe. We aren’t just divided. We feel isolated and alone. Love can look like a kind word. A card sent to let someone know you are thinking of them and that you appreciate them. Loving your neighbor right now could just be a phone call or a text. To have someone reach out to you when you are drifting and feeling disconnected is so meaningful. A small gesture communicates volumes. I know because I’ve been privileged to be God’s loving presence for others, and they have been that for me. But it starts with our paying attention to who God puts in our path or calls to mind.
This contentious year and the global climate have changed a lot of things, and I feel like we will go through a lot of changes before we are done, but the constant call of Christ’s spirit to us remains: love God with all your heart, with all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Yes, these are tumultuous times but what the world needs now is love, sweet love. It is the only thing there is just too little of. Let’s find a way to love God and love one another well.
Jean Freeman gave the message; most of the service was provided by the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area. They put the service together to give pastors a break following Easter. Below is a link to the service.
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Previous worship services are available on our YouTube channel (click on the link below) and on our Online Worship Services page.