One Body, One Spirit…Wherever We Are

black and white eagle
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

a reflection on Acts 2 for the Feast of Pentecost 2020

For this morning’s video prelude, click here. 

I hope you’ve had a chance to watch this morning’s video prelude. If not, you can find it by clicking on the link above. I’m not sure which I love more: the sight of that huge, beautiful body of starlings, or a chance to use the word “murmuration.” This is a murmuration of starlings: tens of thousands of individuals moving, swooping, turning, flying as one body. 

And the really amazing thing is that nobody knows exactly how they do it. We humans have tried to explain it, but no one has yet figured out exactly what invisible force of connection transforms thousands of birds from a collection of individuals each going its own way into one larger body, moving as one: a murmuration. 

It turns out that the Bible also has a name for this kind of phenomenon. Of course, when it happens in the Bible, we’re not talking about a group of starlings that begins to move and live as one body. In the Bible, we’re talking about a group of human beings who decide to leave their individual lives behind and live as one body known as “the people of God.” In the Bible, when a collection of individuals suddenly becomes animated and connected by a powerful, invisible force, we call that invisible force the Holy Spirit. And it is this Spirit whose arrival we celebrate each year on the day of Pentecost: the day when a collection of friends and neighbors and strangers suddenly receives a Spirit that transforms them into the Church, also known as the Body of Christ. One deeply connected, living, breathing Body. 

This year, in all kinds of new ways, we are learning that we ourselves are deeply connected. This year, in every conceivable way, we are learning that we are one body, not only spiritually but physically as well. This year, the invisible connections between us have been dramatically revealed by a virus that is moving between and among us, binding our lives together in very tangible and very dangerous ways.

At the same time, we are remembering this season that we are also connected in millions of beautiful and life-giving ways. As we bring all our resources and ingenuity to the work of caring for one another this season, we are remembering, together, that just like God’s Holy Spirit, our own acts of love, patience, and self-sacrifice have the power to gather us into a vast community of healing and new life. A virus and a wild, Holy Spirit of Love, both showing us that we are always deeply connected. Which one of these invisible, connecting forces will win the day? That will depend on the choices we continue to make in the months ahead.

Beloved, I miss you. I miss seeing your faces. I miss laughing and crying with you with you in person. I especially miss singing and praying with you on Sunday mornings. I know how hard these past few months have been for you. I see it in your faces on Zoom; I hear it in your voices when we talk on the phone. For a congregation that loves being together, this season of  physical distancing can feel interminable, and sometimes unbearable. 

Over the past few weeks, there have been a lot of confusing messages coming over the airwaves and the internet about what activities are safe, what activities are dangerous, and what churches should be doing here in our third month of social distancing.

But if the day of Pentecost has anything to say to us this year, it is to very clearly remind us that, appearances notwithstanding, we are one body. A body that we share not only with our fellow church goers but with all of humanity. The choices that we churches make about gathering or not gathering, closing or reopening our church buildings, will affect not only our own health and the health of our congregations, but the health of our entire community and, especially, the health of the most vulnerable among us.

The past three months have been extraordinarily difficult for all congregations, and particularly for church leaders and ministers. What I want you to know is that as the public health situation evolves, this congregation’s Board of Directors is continuing to have ongoing conversations about how to protect the health and safety of congregants, staff members, building renters, and the Salem community. As part of its deliberations, the Board is bringing in the latest information from state public health authorities; best practices gleaned from universities and other institutions; and recommendations from the national settings of the United Church of Christ and other denominational bodies.

For the past three months, I myself have been in daily conversation with other clergy here in Salem and far beyond. Along with clergy members in our own Central Pacific Conference and the wider United Church of Christ, I am attending Zoom gatherings in which we share resources and information necessary to keep our congregations and communities as safe and healthy as possible. In addition, I am working with a group of interfaith clergy here in Salem to share information and best practices for our particular community.

At this time, based on our current knowledge about the novel coronavirus, we understand that the things we all love to do together in church are among the behaviors most likely to spread the virus. Gathering indoors; gathering in mixed-age groups; sitting in pews that cannot be moved; and, especially, singing of any kind, even at a distance — these activities provide ideal conditions for the spread of the virus. For this reason,  national and local UCC clergy and denominational leaders are urging churches not to gather in person until all safety concerns are addressed. 

What does this mean in practical terms? While there are some very small churches (50 members or fewer) in rural counties (where there are no known cases of COVID-19) that may be able to gather this summer with extreme safety restrictions, most churches will not be able to safely gather again until there is an effective and widely available vaccine. 

This could change, of course. As I mentioned, clergy are in constant communication right now as we strive to stay abreast of new scientific and public health developments. But our denominational and ecumenical leadership bodies are urging churches not to gather in person until it is safe for everyone — including the most vulnerable among us — to do so. If we were to convene church gatherings of any size before there is a vaccine, it is likely that vulnerable people (those with health challenges, those with suppressed immune systems, and individuals over the age of 60) would, out of obligation or great love for their church, be tempted to attend. This would put many lives at risk.

Our own denomination, along with other church leadership bodies, is continually updating its recommendations. Among the most helpful resources is a document prepared by the Wisconsin Council of Churches, which is currently being shared by the national setting of the United Church of Christ.  This document translates state reopening mandates into guidelines for church gatherings. Based on these guidelines, churches of our size will not begin to reopen until very late in Phase 3 reopening plans. As is the case in many other states, Phase 3 of Oregon’s own reopening plan requires an effective treatment or vaccine to be widely available, a development which is still many months away.

What does this mean for our congregation and for the body of the church in the months ahead?

First of all, it means that we will continue to find more and more beautiful, new ways to be the Church. Beloved, I have no doubt that God is doing a new thing (and many new things!) among us. Over the past few months, we have seen, right here in our congregation and all around the world, that the Holy Spirit is winging among us, flying over Zoom connections and telephone lines, teaching us how to gather in Spirit and in great love, even at a distance.

In the months ahead, First Congregational Church will continue to offer many opportunities for online gatherings, including regular open mic nights, Zoom garden tours, adult education, Sunday school, youth group, crafternoons and an All-Ages Summer Camp at Home during the week of July 6 – 10th.

Of course, we will also continue to worship in all kinds of ways. So far, our “Worship Where You Are” service has been a big success and has become a model for other congregations around the country. While many churches jumped right into live-stream worship services, we are finding that a self-paced email worship service (with live links to music) is accessible to more people than Zoom or Facebook Live. In addition, each week, we are sending a paper version of this worship service to those in the congregation who do not have internet access at home.

Despite the success of this self-paced worship model, I am feeling the need to offer some kind of live-stream worship service on Sunday mornings. As you may have guessed, churches that were already live streaming their weekly services before the pandemic found it easy to continue broadcasting their worship over the internet when their churches shut their doors. Because FCC Salem  was not live streaming before the pandemic, it has taken us some time to assemble the necessary technology and expertise. We began offering live worship during Holy Week, and now we’re ready to do the same for Sunday worship. I hope you’ll plan to join us on the church Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/UCCSalemOR) on Sunday, June 7th, for our first live Sunday worship service. This will be a simple service, with shared prayers, communion, and the weekly sermon. As our staff and volunteers get more comfortable with this format, we will do our best to include music as well. Through the “comments” section of the page, you’ll be able to say hello and see who else is joining you for worship that morning. No need to have a Facebook account: the live stream is public and available to all. Please note that this will not replace the current “Worship Where You Are” email service. I will continue to provide both options every week, so that you can choose the worship experience that works best for you…or join us for both!

Beloved, these are challenging times for our neighbors, our families, and for the worldwide church. I hope you’ll remember that even on days when you are feeling lonely, you are never alone. Friends are only a phone call away, and as always, you’ll find a link to the  church directory in every weekly email. Please also remember that I am just a phone call away. I love hearing your voices every day! There are also several Zoom gatherings each week (which are also listed in your weekly e-newsletter), which you are welcome to join.

Best of all, God’s wild Holy Spirit is among us, friends. She is brushing her beautiful wings against our cheeks and whispering songs of healing and hope for us, for all creation, and for this whole world that God so loves. Amen.

An Everlasting Covenant

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a reflection on Isaiah 24:4-11 and the tradition of prophetic lament 

The prophet we know as Isaiah, whose words we read this morning, lived nearly three thousand years ago, somewhere in the 8th century BCE. And yet, his words speak intimately to our life today. It’s not hard to imagine someone like Isaiah standing on a street corner downtown, maybe out in front of RiteAid, holding up a cardboard sign that says, “The earth is polluted beneath its inhabitants, for they have violated an everlasting covenant!” I’m pretty sure I saw that guy downtown last week! 

It’s also not difficult to picture the reaction of those who are casually walking by: all the good citizens of Salem averting their eyes as they hurry on their way.

Letʼs face it: a prophet like Isaiah is not the guy you want to run into while you are doing your weekly errands. This is why guidance counselors never suggest that students choose a career as a prophet. Talk about a lonely and thankless job! The job of the prophet is to stand in the midst of our busyness, in the midst of our preoccupation, and call our attention to the painful things we’d rather not think about. 

In Isaiahʼs case, the message is that the kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, have been destroyed by the Assyrians and that the people of Israel have been subjugated by these invaders. Now, if it’s true that your homeland has been overrun and devastated by an invading army, it’s not immediately obvious why you’d need a prophet to stand in the middle of the marketplace and announce this event. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that everyone listening to the prophet Isaiah prophet already knew about the great tragedy that had befallen God’s people.

But while Isaiah might at first glance look like some ancient version of the tabloid press as he stands there shouting out apocalyptic headlines, it turns out that the prophet is not standing in the marketplace in order to share a news story. On the contrary, Isaiah is asking the people of God to take a closer and possibly difficult look at the tragedy they are already experiencing. And it seems to me that here, in the midst of our own difficult and tragic season, it might be helpful for us to take a closer look at what our friend Isaiah is up to, and to see whether he might have some advice for our own spiritual practice in this painful and frightening time. 

It turns out that Isaiah, as he stands on the street corner shouting out a list of sorrows, is calling us back to an ancient and paradoxical tradition of prophetic lament. The collection of writings we know as the Bible offers several different types of lament: there are psalms of lament; there are books such as Job and Ruth that are filled with personal lament;  there is even an entire book of Lamentations. Has anybody cracked the book of Lamentations lately? I haven’t either! We tend to skip over these texts in our yearly cycle of scripture readings because they are so very painful to read. But our tradition is filled with cries of the human heart in the midst of painful situations. And when a cry of lament comes from a prophet, as it does from Isaiah today, the prophetʼs job is to help us cry out in the midst of our own painful catastrophes: a cry that opens our hearts to the healing presence of God. 

The deep wisdom of our biblical tradition—a wisdom that has become rather unpopular in our day—is that when we resist the urge to distract ourselves with entertainment and busyness; when we hold still long enough to let our hearts break open in pain, then we become vessels through which the healing presence of God pours into the world. And I believe that this spiritual practice—this practice of lament, this practice of holding still and crying out in the midst of our pain—I believe this is a spiritual practice that the world needs us to reclaim, and to offer, today. 

So. How might we do that? How might we access the ancient spiritual wisdom of prophetic lament in response to a global pandemic, catastrophic climate change, and growing income inequality, just to name a few painful situations? How might we harness the power of this ancient spiritual practice to help us respond to our current predicament with compassion, and justice, and hope? 

To answer this question, I want to talk a little bit about pain. I want to revisit some deep truths we know about pain – from our spiritual ancestors, from our modern-day prophets, and from modern neuroscience and physiology. Because the way we respond to pain has everything to do with how we respond to the dangerous and difficult problems that face us today. 

Human beings, of course, are wired to perceive and respond to danger. We see an oncoming truck and without even thinking, we leap out of the way. We feel a burning sensation, and we automatically pull our hand away from the fire. This ability to perceive danger and instantly respond is essential to our survival as individuals and as a species. 

But there’s a catch. Our ability to respond appropriately to danger depends on an unblocked connection between our perception of pain and our ability to take immediate action. If we donʼt feel the pain, we will fail to act. If our hand is numb, and our perception of heat is therefore blocked, we wonʼt pull our hand away from a flame. In the same way, if we ourselves have not personally been affected by the coronavirus, if we happen to live in a city where we ourselves do not see the destructive force of this pandemic, then we may not act to protect our most vulnerable neighbors. Human beings cannot respond to a pain we do not feel. 

The problem is that today, our perception of danger is often blocked. Because the dangers facing our world are so enormous, and because we receive distressing information from so many sources all the time, we can easily feel overwhelmed. The very pain, the very prophecies, that should make us leap into collective action on behalf of the earth, and on behalf of our neighbors, instead make us want to numb out and run away. We turn off the news; we pull down the blinds; we distract ourselves with work, with entertainment, with alcohol or food, with online shopping, with anything that will take our minds off the pain of the world. 

This is understandable, of course. Particularly in this extremely frightening time. It is a natural human instinct to want to protect ourselves from the pain all around us. No wonder we want to run the other way when we see that prophet on the street corner.

And yet, our tradition offers us an alternative response. Through the ancient practice of lament, our tradition offers us a path that can help us learn to bear the pain of the world in ways that are healing for everyone. Through this practice—through a Christ-like practice of bearing the pain of the world—we become ready to respond in the ways God calls us to respond. As we allow the practice of lament to break our hearts open, we invite the presence and power of God to pour into the world through us. The wisdom of the prophets is that in our pain, in the breaking open of our hearts, we ourselves become the doorway through which the current of Godʼs love is now free to flow into the world.  And what a beautiful gift that is to a world that needs us. 

I’d like to invite you to join me now as we experiment with this ancient practice of lament. As you’ll see, this practice takes place in four distinct movements. Four movements that can open us to the healing presence of God in this and in every difficult time. If you’d like to settle into a comfortable place for prayer, I’ll lead you through this practice.

As we come into this time of prayer, I invite you to turn your attention inward to your own heart and to notice any pain, any painful situation that is calling for your attention this day. It might be something in your own life. It might be something in the life of the world. See if you can call this situation to mind.

The first movement in our prayer of lament is to offer an honest, unvarnished statement of this pain you are facing. I invite you to go ahead and speak this pain out loud, knowing that the naming of this pain is the first step in opening yourself to God.

And now that you have named the pain that is on your heart, see if you can invite the presence of God to enter into this situation. There is no need to tell God what to do; you can trust that God knows what type of divine action is needed. Simply invite the Divine Presence, whatever that looks like or feels like to you, to infuse this situation that you are praying about. See if you can picture this in your mind in as much detail as you can.

When you are ready, enter the third movement of this prayer of lament, which is to remember times in the past — in your own past or in the collective past — when you have felt or seen the presence of God healing and blessing a painful or broken situation. See if you can recall this healing, this blessing, in all its specific detail.

And finally, the fourth movement of our prayer of lament is to thank God in advance for God’s healing in this situation. You can speak this prayer aloud if you like: a prayer of thanksgiving in anticipation of God’s healing and redeeming presence…a healing presence that even now is flowing in and through our hearts…a healing presence that even now is flowing into the world.

Beloved, I hope you will remember that you can return to this practice of lament as often as you like. Remember that this ancient practice is meant for the healing of your own heart, and for the healing of this beautiful, broken, always-holy world that God so loves. Amen.

 

 

Hard Times

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a reflection on Exodus 17:1-7 for May 17, 2020, Sixth Sunday of Easter

Recorded Sermon and Guided Prayers:

It’s quite a scene that takes place out on the rock at Mt. Horeb this morning. A rock that might have remained anonymous were it not for the fact that Moses decides, at the end of a really long, crummy day, to name that place “Massah and Meribah.” Which translates pretty well as “Testing and Quarreling.”

Imagine for a moment that you are Moses. You’ve just struck the rock with your staff, and all of a sudden, clear, miraculous water has come pouring out. All around you, God’s thirsty people are leaping for joy, drinking deeply of that sweet water. You, Moses, are wiping your brow because — whew! —  it looks like the people aren’t going to stone you after all! (Or, at least, not today…) And now it’s time for you to name the place where this great miracle has happened. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I would have named that place “Testing and Quarreling.” I think I would have been tempted to name it something like:  “Water from the rock!” Or, “Wow, Look what God has done!” Or maybe, “Hooray! We’re not thirsty anymore!”

But Moses doesn’t pick any of these names. Instead, Moses names that place “Massah and Meribah.” “Testing and Quarreling.” This is something like what would happen if, instead of celebrating the anniversary of our nation’s independence every year on the 4th of July, we decided to throw a picnic to commemorate the arrival of COVID-19: the date the first case reached our shores, or the date the unemployment rates reached a record high. Can you imagine writing down that date and throwing a party to commemorate it every year? We don’t do this! We humans do not usually choose to commemorate our most terrifying times. We like to remember the joyful, triumphant moments of our lives: the first day on a new job, the day a child is born. But the times when we are sorely tested? The times when we quarrel with God? The long months or years of unemployment and despair? The long weeks of being trapped in the house with restless kids who grumble about their schoolwork? It is unlikely that we will be throwing a party every year to commemorate these. Most likely, we will try and forget these trials as soon as new life begins to arrive. 

But here’s Moses this morning, watching his people splashing around in the miraculous spring of water, and he decides to forever name this place “Testing and Quarreling.” So that for generations to come, people will say to their children, “Look, here it is: the place where we almost stoned Moses!” “Check it out!” they’ll say. “Here’s the very place where we actually wished we were slaves again in Egypt. Remember that day?” they’ll ask each other. “This is the place where we wondered out loud if God was with us or not. This is the place we named after our time of trial and despair—as if those things were holy. As if that hard, thirsty time deserved to be remembered forever.”

It sounds like a pretty crazy thing to do. But I want to think about this for a minute. Just in case maybe our friend Moses knew what he was doing out there on that rock. Just in case he has something to offer us as we live through our own time of testing and quarreling and wondering if God is with us.

What if somebody wrote down this ancient story of testing and quarreling because they knew that one day, we might need it? What if our spiritual ancestors knew that one day, we too might come to a dry and thirsty time? A spring and summer when the swimming pools and beaches and river trails remained closed because of a new and deadly virus. A summer when we would be so thirsty for healing, so brokenhearted for the hungry and homeless sleeping in the streets that even slavery in Egypt —where at least everybody had a roof over their head and three meals a day—even slavery in Egypt doesn’t sound much worse than a land where the most vulnerable have no access to health care and there are children in every city and town who are going to bed hungry every night. 

Here’s what I think. I think our spiritual ancestors knew a thing or two about despair. And that’s why they wrote down this story for us. Those people out there in the wilderness were at the end of their collective rope when they cried out to God. Those people knew what it feels like to wander in the desert of despair for so long that you forget what hope feels like; what it tastes like. And I think they knew that one day, we would need to hear the story of what happened to them in their hour of deep despair. They knew we’d need a story like this one, a story that whispers to us: “Even now, even here in this time and place that seems God-forsaken…even  now,” the ancestors whisper. “The waters of God’s healing are beginning to flow. Maybe you can’t see them yet,” they tell us. “Because those waters are still deep within the rock. But trust us,” they say. “Even now, the waters of healing are rising, and they will flow again.”

What our ancestors knew is that it’s not only water we need in a thirsty time. We need the right story.  A healing story. When we’re in the middle of our own wilderness time—when we feel like crying out, “Hey, God! Are you with us, or not?”—this is precisely the kind of story that can save your life. It might even be the kind of story that can save the world.

Here’s the thing. Everywhere we turn, we will find a story. Every headline, every news feed, every neighbor is telling a story about what is possible and what is not. About what is hopeless, about who or what is God forsaken. And the power we have—the God-given power that no one can take from us—is the power to decide, every day, which story we will live into. And you can bet that if we fail to intentionally choose our own story, then Wall Street and the tabloid press and every power-hungry cynic with a microphone will be more than happy to choose our story for us and to feed that hopeless story to us sound byte by sound byte.

Friends, It’s up to us, together, to decide whether we’re going to keep on swallowing, and retelling, a story of despair. A story of, “There’s nothing we can do.” What would happen if we pledged, just like our ancestors did at their darkest, thirstiest hour, to start telling a story of wild hope? A story of almost unimaginable healing and grace springing like water from the hard rock of this desperate season?

I think you already know which story the world needs. I bet you already have that story in you. I’m pretty sure that if you look back over your own life, you’ll find your own story of a desperate wilderness time. Maybe it was a time in your own life when you thought you could not take another thirsty step. Maybe it was a time in the life of a congregation you loved that was going through a difficult season. Maybe it’s a story about a community you loved that was fighting for human justice and dignity—I know you have that story in you because I’ve seen how you pack up sack lunches and how you make sure that our unhoused neighbors have a hot meal and a porta-potty. I bet some of you have a story about marching arm in arm with your sisters and brothers, singing freedom songs through dangerous streets even though you were not at all sure you would survive. I bet you have a story of a time in your life, a time in the life of the people you love, when right in the midst of your despair, the waters of change, the waters of new life, began to flow again. 

That, my friends, is the story the world needs to hear from you right now. It’s the story your children and grandchildren need to hear from you as you watch the news together this season. A story about how you came through your own time of Testing and Quarreling. A story about how badly you wanted to just give up. A story about how just then, somebody—out of desperation or frustration—picked up a stick and struck the melting asphalt and somebody else plucked a note on a guitar and at that moment a song, a freedom song, came gushing out like water from the rock. This is the story you need to tell: your own story of wild, determined, crazy hope. 

Maybe the most hopeful, radical thing you can do this season is to tell the story of your own testing. Maybe the most healing thing you can do this season is to find a way—pick up the phone, write a song, start a blog—find a way to tell your own story of wild hope to somebody who is dying of thirst and despair; somebody who even now is crying out, “Is the Lord with us or not?” That person needs to hear your story of a time when you were tested. That person needs to hear you say, “The Lord was with me in that terrible, lonely place, and that’s how I know the Lord is with you, too. And so am I.” 

And if it turns out that right now, you are the one who is thirsting for a new story, I hope you’ll pick up your church directory, dial a phone number, and ask your friends for a story that will quench your thirst. 

And if you find this week that your own spring of hope is running dry, I encourage you to look just a little farther than the easy headlines that come at you all day long. In desperate times, it matters—it matters a lot—which stories we feed ourselves and our kids every day. At a time like this, I don’t believe we can afford to feast on poisonous stories of despair. Because our kids are looking to us to show them what kind of story we will live, what kind of people we will become, in our own time of Testing and Quarreling as we wait for the healing waters of new life to flow once again. 

And so we pray to know, as our ancestors knew, that our most challenging places are also holy. May the stories of our lives, and the stories of our most difficult, holy trials, become living water for a thirsting world. Amen.

God Only Knows

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a reflection on Hosea 11:3-4 for Mother’s Day 2020

Sermon audio with guided prayers:

When I was growing up, my grandma had a wooden sign hanging above her kitchen sink. It read: “God can’t be everywhere, so He made grandmas.”

I did not grow up in a particularly religious family. In fact, that sign is one of the very few places I can remember where God was mentioned at all. But even as a very small child, I knew that sign spoke the truth. Because from the time I was born, it was my grandma who reliably loved me the way  a tender, mothering God loves God’s own children in our scripture reading this morning. All through my childhood, it was my grandma who over and over again plucked me out of harm’s way, who carried me to safety, and who embodied for me the very presence of God. 

I don’t know who gave my grandmother that sign, but it lived there above her kitchen sink for decades. And every time I saw it,  that sign gave me the words to name what we might call the incarnation: the mysterious truth that the presence and power of God come to us in and through our own human bodies and through the very body of this world.

In church, we tend to  talk a lot about the incarnation during the Advent and Christmas seasons, when it’s all sweetness and light: a tiny baby arrives to embody God’s love among us. During the Christmas season, we discover that it’s fairly easy to talk about the idea of incarnation when things are going pretty well. Sure, there’s a close call when Herod finds out about the Christ child, but for the most part, that little baby is safe and whole all season long. For a few weeks as Christmas approaches, the incarnation seems like a pretty safe bet. 

But then we come to Lent and Holy Week, and that little baby grows up and heads into some very difficult, very dangerous places. And as he goes there, he asks us, always, to follow. All through Holy Week, all the way to the cross and beyond, the Christ of God walks right into the heart of the most difficult things we human beings ever encounter: abandonment, rejection, doubt, excruciating pain. And it turns out that in fact, this is the wild proposition of the incarnation: that God is willing to go all the way for us. That the Christ of God is going to be with us no matter what. That there is nowhere we can go and nothing we can experience, no matter how terrible, that can separate us from the love of God. 

Now, I’m not going to ask you to take my word for it. Sure, I could remind you that God’s tender, mothering love is here for you even in your darkest moments. I could promise you that even now, God is lifting the whole world to God’s own cheek as millions suffer the pain and grief of a worldwide pandemic. But I think you already know this. I believe that if you are reading this today, somewhere in your life you had a person — maybe a grandma, an aunt, an uncle, a big brother or sister — who embodied God’s tender, mothering love for you. If you are here today, I’m willing to bet that at your own most terrifying moment, someone showed up to embody the love of God for you. In that moment, when you weren’t sure you wanted to go on, someone — maybe your roommate, maybe your great aunt —  someone showed up and embodied for you the unconditional, mothering love of God. 

And I wonder if you can remember who that was. Can you remember a moment when someone who might have looked the other way instead took you by the hand and stayed beside you through your darkest days?  Can you remember one who, in the midst of your brokenness and pain, looked into your eyes and saw you not broken but beautiful, and holy, and whole?  

At that moment, when someone embodied God’s tender, mothering love for you — at that very moment, you were not only saved. You were also empowered. In the moment you received that healing love, you were also empowered to go out and heal another; to look another in the eye and say: Your pain is also mine, and I am going with you all the way through it and out the other side. And so is God.

This, friends, is the unconditional, mothering love of God that the prophet Hosea speaks of this morning. This is the love of God that we humans are made to embody, to enflesh, to incarnate for one another and for all creatures on earth. 

And I hope you will remember this day that sometimes, it is precisely in our darkest hours that we learn the truth about how God’s love arrives to save and to heal us. A friend who went through her own dark hours puts it this way: I had a vision about the world, she writes. It came to me one night as if a little door opened and I looked through and eavesdropped on the truth. I saw that the world was constantly falling apart, it was always in a state of little things always falling apart, and then there were these brigades of individual human angels, with kind eyes, apples and stitches, repairing, fixing, mending, patting, bandaging the wounds of the world, and putting it back together, piece by tiny piece. (-Alicia Paulson) 

I wonder if today, on this strangely quiet Mother’s Day, you too might eavesdrop on the truth that lies behind that little door. The truth that the world is filled with those who embody for us the tender, mothering, healing love of God. I wonder if you can name them now as they care for the world. The doctors and nurses donning their masks each morning as they stride bravely into hospital rooms. Grandparents all over the world who are pitching in with extra patience and morning Zoom calls for toddlers who haven’t been to a playground in weeks and for teenagers who have been home from school since March. Teachers who are working around the clock to reassure students who are lonely and sad and wondering when they will see their classmates again.  Artists who are so freely sharing their music, their dances, their songs all over the internet because they know the healing power of beauty and joy. I bet you can see them everywhere you look this day: the ones who make the incarnation real. The humans who even now embody in their very flesh the tender, healing presence of God for us, just when we need it most. 

At the very end of her life, my grandma lay in a hospital that was a good hour’s drive from my home. One night during the last week of her life, after she was asleep, I got into my car to drive myself back to my own house. As I pulled out of the hospital parking lot, tired and sad, I flipped on the radio for company. And all of a sudden, of all the songs on all the radio stations that might have been playing at that moment—there were the Beach Boys, singing, of all things, “God Only Knows.” Remember? God only knows what I’d be without you…

God only knows what any of us would be without the ones who pick us up and save us—save us—with the tender, mothering, unconditional love of God. And so, for the ones who show up, and who go with us all the way, we say, this Mother’s Day and always: Thanks be to God.

They Broke Bread at Home

pita

We are making our way through the Great 50 Days of Easter: the season in which we tend to spend some time with the Acts of the Apostles. In this book, we hear tales of what is often referred to as the early church: the years in which Jesus’ followers are gradually realizing that their spiritual practice is leading them out of their synagogues and into new ways of gathering to name and celebrate the mystery of the risen Christ who walks among them still.

And while the book of Acts does in fact describe the first centuries of the Jesus movement, it can be a bit confusing for us modern folks to talk about this movement as the early “church.” It’s confusing for us because when we hear the word “church,” we tend to think of a building: a structure that is specifically built for the purpose of communal worship; a structure in which people gather in a large group every week. But it’s important to remember that this meaning of the word “church” does not apply to what was happening in the first few centuries of the Jesus movement. It was not until the third century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christian worship that Jesus’ followers were even allowed to own property in common. As far as we know, the first time that any building was devoted to Christian gatherings was in the year 240, and even this building began its existence as a private family house.

So what were Jesus’ followers doing during those early centuries? They were meeting each week in very small groups, often family groups, to celebrate the day of resurrection and to share a simple meal around the table in their homes. In other words, the church began at home. The church began when people gathered around their own dining tables, breaking bread and telling stories about Jesus as they sought to remember all that he had taught them. As we read in the book of Acts this morning: “they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”

And we can be sure that when they gathered around those tables and broke their daily bread, they told the story about how on his last night with his friends, Jesus took a loaf of bread, gave thanks for it, broke it and passed it around, saying, Do this and remember me.

Do this, Jesus says. Friends, as we gather in our own homes this season, and as we gather around our own tables on this first Sunday of the month, it is important to remember that when Jesus says “do this,” what he has in mind is very, very close to the communion that we ourselves we will celebrate this very day. Not in a church building with special chalices for juice and a lacy cloth to cover the bread; not on a candlelit altar raised up above the pews. No. When Jesus says “do this,” the “this” he refers to is the kind of meal Jesus shared with his friends every day. When Jesus breaks bread with his friends, the bread he breaks is their ordinary, everyday bread. When Jesus gathers with his friends, their ordinary meal becomes a sacrament not because it takes place in a special building or because it is served on a fancy plate. On that last night with his friends, Jesus tells them that everywhere they go, wherever they find themselves, whenever they give thanks to God for the gifts of the earth, then their meal becomes a sacrament: a moment in which we recognize and name the holiness that is already and always present in the very body of the world and in the gifts of the earth.

When we break and bless and share communion bread and juice, our prayers do not wash it off and make it clean; our prayers do not transform that bread from something ordinary into something holy. What Jesus is trying to tell his friends and followers is that the gifts of the earth are already holy. And it is our sacred task, our unique call as human beings with the gift of language, to name — out loud — the inherent holiness of the world and to protect it with everything we’ve got.

Jesus’ insistence on naming this holiness of ordinary bread and wine; his insistence on calling these holy and instructing his followers to do the same makes perfect sense when we remember that Jesus was Jewish all his life. Every day of his life, Jesus was a practicing Jew, as were all the friends and family members he gathered and fed at dinner tables and on grassy hillsides where they broke and shared loaves and fishes and sweet wine. When Jesus blessed the bread and wine, he was continuing the ancient practice of his people: naming and thanking God as the Source of Life; naming every meal as a gift from God; and blessing the God whose living presence in the very body of the world makes all life — every blossom and branch, every fruit and and grain — holy. Already, and always, holy. An invisible holiness that lives in every atom of the world and that we are called, now and forever, to name and to see and to protect.

Even today, observant Jews continue this practice. Not just on holidays. Not just at sabbath tables. Not just for special, ceremonial foods. No. To this very day, Jewish spiritual practice offers specific blessings for each and every ordinary gift of nourishment. I’m not talking about a generic grace or blessing before and after meals, though these, too, are offered. I’m talking about a specific blessing for every food, even the most ordinary.

Are you sitting on your back deck, eating an apple? Then the sacred words to say are: Blessed are You, Source of Life, who brings forth the fruit of the trees. However, if you happen to be sitting on that very same deck eating a raisin, then the words of the blessing are different: Blessed are you, Source of Life, who brings forth the fruit of the vine. Eating a french fry? Well, then: Blessed are you, Source of life, who brings forth the fruits of the earth.

Yes, it’s true. Observant Jews are expected to know whether the snack they are eating grows on a tree, on a vine, or even below the ground. As you might imagine, this requires careful attention. And that’s the whole point! No matter how ordinary these gifts may seem, say the rabbis. Do not take them for granted. Do not forget that every loaf of bread and cup of wine; every fish and ephah of barley is holy, says Jesus. Do this, he says as he lifts and blesses that ordinary loaf of bread. Do this every time you gather at any table: say a blessing, give thanks, and name the invisible holiness that infuses every particle of this world.

Stephen Mitchell, who is a translator of many sacred scriptures, likes to say that “prayer is a quality of attention that makes so much room for the given that it can appear as gift.” Imagine: a quality of attention that makes so much room for what is given that we can see it clearly for what it really is: a sacred gift. Every time we do as Jesus asks us to do; every time we bring this quality of prayerful attention to the gifts of the table — any table, anywhere — then we see bread and wine and fruit and fish for what they really are: sacred gifts from the body of the world that is infused, through and through, with the invisible presence of God. An invisible holiness and grace that we are called to remember and to name every time we receive the food that nourishes our bodies with the gift of life.

Today is the first Sunday of the month; the day when we are accustomed to breaking bread together in a beloved church building, with special chalices and plates. Today, as we gather around our own tables in our own homes, I believe we are called to remember that Jesus did the same, as did his earliest followers. Today, we are called to remember, perhaps in a new and newly tangible way, that when Jesus lifts and blesses that ordinary loaf of bread, he promises that he is right here among us. At every table in every home. In every grain of wheat and kernel of corn. In every rice cake and tortilla. In the first shoots of asparagus and in the tiny raspberries just forming on the cane. Do this, Jesus says. And remember that I am with you in the blessing and sharing of every meal, every gift of this good earth, everywhere. Now and forever, world without end. Thanks be to God!