Friends, it has been almost four weeks since I went to my first meeting between clergy and public health officials regarding COVID-19. I sat in the sanctuary of Queen Anne United Methodist Church on that Tuesday afternoon and listened to directions about how we had to try new norms at our church, like washing our hands and refraining from shaking hands, and how we should conduct disinfection several times a day, preferably following each group who is in our space. I thought, “Well, this is challenging but it’s practical, so we’ll do it.”
By the time I could share this information with our church staff meeting on Wednesday, one day later, everything had changed. Public Health recommendations had changed. Churches had begun to plan online-only worship. It happened so fast.
And the rest of March has been like that, too. Has this really all happened in the space of one month? Has the way of life that so many were accustomed to really drastically changed in the space of three weeks? We’ve gone from hearing about COVID-19 on the global news to worrying about our neighbors in Kirkland to being suspicious of anyone who coughs in public to self-quarantining to sheltering in place.
Though no one would have wished for these circumstances to characterize our Lenten journey this year, I find myself grateful for the decision to spend Lent with the psalms, the poetic and literal center of our Scriptures that call us to remember our humanity in all of the range of emotions that are possible. And I am grateful for the Scriptures that are assigned to this day, the 5th Sunday in Lent.
The psalmist writes, “I cry out to you from the depths, Lord–listen to my voice!”
How many times have I, have any of us, been in a position to utter these words– “God, listen! This is hard and I am scared! Don’t you hear me? I’m down here, lonely and depressed and isolated and anxious and frustrated, I am crying out to you!”
This is one reason I love the Wisdom Literature in the Bible, including the psalms and proverbs and Lamentations and Ecclesiastes: they are so relatable. If you are feeling something, anything, there is a psalm for it.
However, in the USAmerican Christianity that surrounds us, Martin Marty is right when he says, “Talking about a cry from the depths does not fit into a theology that markets well, as theology is supposed to do today.”
And this is fitting. Because having empty church buildings and having to adapt quickly to web-based virtual church and not being able to be physically present with each other are ALSO not marketable. These things are hard, but they are where we are. And there is a psalm for this. And it’s our text for today.
The psalmist begins in desperate exasperation, almost like they’ve been reading my mind as I pace around my 900-square-foot apartment over the past 15 days. But the psalmist does not stay there…they move into naming characteristics of God. The psalmist says that God is forgiveness, because, let’s be honest, if God kept track of every single sin that individuals (not to mention the collective) has done…we wouldn’t be in such great shape. But “forgiveness is with” God. God is not a punitive God who holds judgments against us forever, but rather, forgiveness is one of God’s characteristics.
And though our Lenten theme at Seattle First Baptist Church has been “turning,” the psalmist does not issue a call for repentance. They do not name their sins and implore God to forgive them, as other psalms do, they simply name that God forgives and claim their hope in God’s promise.
They say, “My whole being waits for my Lord–more than the night watch waits for morning!”
Christians, of course, are used to waiting. During Advent, we have a candle lighting ritual that begins “Advent is a time for waiting. This is not your regular waiting, where you must stand in line for a long time and maybe get bored. Instead, during advent, we wait expectantly. We wait in anticipation of the good news coming soon. We wait to hear again the story that is as old as time, and yet being made new every day.” During Advent, we remember how the mother of Jesus waited to give birth, how Simeon and Anna had waited their whole lives for the revelation of the Messiah, one who would deliver the world into God’s justice.
And Lent is a time of waiting too, as we slowly follow Jesus’ ministry towards his last days in Jerusalem. We have watched Jesus gather the children, feed the multitudes, and even raise a beloved friend from the grave. Next week we will accompany Jesus through the streets of the city as crowds lay down their cloaks and wave their palms. In less than two weeks, we will remember Good Friday, knowing, with the benefit of time, that death is not the final answer.
At the beginning of this Lent, we didn’t know how much we would be waiting, or what we would be waiting for. And with the current COVID-19 situation, we are doing a lot of waiting. Hospital workers and medical professionals wait for their next shift, wondering if there will be enough Personal Protective Equipment. Teachers wait for opportunities to be with their students virtually. Parents with children at home 24/7 wait for moments of calm when they can process the world events and how to talk to their little ones. Grandparents wait to see their loved ones again, even as they quarantine for their own health and safety.
As Christians, we wait expectantly. The psalmist shows us how to do this. “My whole being hopes, and I wait for God’s promise, more than the night watch waits for morning.” They are not getting bored waiting. They are not staying sedentary until someone else comes along to solve their problems. Their waiting is an active waiting. In this waiting, they are hoping, they are embodying hope as they cry out to God.
And our waiting, though we may each be sequestered in our own spaces for much of our time these days, is also active. By staying home in quarantine when it is possible for us, we are actively participating in slowing the spread of this pandemic. Yes, by sitting on your couch and watching reruns of Downton Abbey or Brooklyn 99 or Tiger King, you are taking an active part in ensuring the welfare of our whole global community. And those of you who work in healthcare and utilities and public health, you are also participating actively in keeping our world neighborhood healthy.
Waiting is hard. It can be frustrating. It can be lonely. And right now, as we on the west coast watch COVID-19 spread across this country, as it continues to grow in our region as well, waiting is hard. There are so many unknowns, and in general, humans like to know things. We like end dates. We like control. We like to know we have power to do and be what we want. Right now, that’s not really possible.
And so, we continue to cry out in our waiting. From wherever we are, we can lift our voices to God. We can use our whole being to wait upon God, to hope in God, to call out to God. The psalmist says “faithful love is with the Lord, great redemption is with our God.” It is an act of faith to call out to God from the depths, to be assured that God is present with you and hears your prayers. It is an act of faith to witness to God’s nature as forgiving and loving, even in the midst of situations that cause us to question and doubt.
In our Godly Play story today about Lazarus, Martha tells Jesus “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus responds, “Those who believe in me will live, even when they die…do you believe this?” Now, Martha, is often portrayed as complaining and being angry at Jesus. Here, I think she is actually expressing her deep faith in him in this story. Her faith in Jesus’ healing love is so firm that there is no doubt in her mind that Jesus would have been able to save her brother. Martha, like the psalmist, cries out to God even in the midst of her grief. And then, when Jesus asks her if she believes that death is not the end of the story, Martha, like the psalmist, witnesses to God’s nature, saying, “Yes, I believe you are the Christ.”
Martha’s depths of grief do not prevent her from crying out; her faith leads her to call out, to confront Jesus, and eventually, leads her to a new and great understanding of God’s activity in the world through Jesus.
Stephen Farris, in my favorite Bible commentary, Feasting on the Word, says as long as we can cry out, hope remains. He notes that as the psalm ends, help has not yet come. The psalmist leaves us in the place of waiting, of hoping, of continuing to call out, assured that God’s presence hears us.
And now, here, in Seattle, I wait. I wait actively, trying to adjust to each change that comes with the relentless flood of the news. My best friend Judith said this time is one of recalibrating, because nothing can be taken for granted. Graduations that have been so long in process and so hard-fought are postponed or cancelled. Weddings and funerals dare not occur as planned because of the crowds they gather. Birthdays and retirements are celebrated without fanfare at home. Births and deaths are attended by few, if any, other than healthcare professionals. The big moments and milestones of our lives that we have looked forward to celebrating in community are shape-shifting or disappearing altogether as our scope of vision narrows to our own apartment, house, backyard and neighborhood. We are being reminded that we are indeed a global community at the same time as our immediate daily living becomes much more local, down to the square foot. And we live in this tension, like the psalmist who professes faith out of the depths, like Martha and Mary mourning Lazarus and yet welcoming Jesus.
We are all part of what H. Richard Niebuhr called the “web of creation,” a multifaceted web that is reminding us of our interconnectedness at the same time as revealing that those on the margins are suffering in far more painful ways than those of us in the center of society. At the same time as we are understanding in a new way how actions of others across the globe affect us, we are re-learning that some political leaders easily assign worth to certain lives. As Wendell Berry says in a favorite poem, The Mad Farmer Liberation Front: “When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.” I will not sacrifice the elderly and immunocompromised for the sake of the economy.
In an address to Yale Divinity School in 2005, Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes shared this wisdom:
“lately, we have existed on the almost-true, sometimes-true, and half-true without looking for the true-true
searching for the true-true is what i think we should be after these days
this takes what ethicist Marcia Y. Riggs calls a mediating ethic
this mediating ethic is not one to seek easy reconciliation
it is an ethic, which is a “process of acknowledging seemingly diametrically opposing positions and creating a response
that interposes and communicates between opposing sides. It is living with tension rather than aiming at an
end result of integration, compromise, or reconciliation. These may be outcomes, but mediating as process occurs
whether or not mediation as an end does.”
mediating as process rather than mediation as end
and i suggest that the only way we can faithfully look at who we are
as a nation
and the roles we should and must play
as people of faith or people who hold deep values of respect for others and the rest of creation
who must live our lives not always comforted by the holy
but haunted by God’s call to us to live a prophetic and spirit-filled life
and not just talk about it or wish for it or think about
means that we remain in the tension
in the process of uncovering and working through how we can build faith-filled responses
to meet the needs of those who may be the least of these
or folks just like many of us—blessed with resources and abilities and a divine mandate to use them
with a spirituality that will not let go of that relentless justice that can only come from a rock-steady God”
As we turn towards God in this Lenten time, it may seem like we are being told to turn away from others. This is not only about keeping 6 feet of physical distance and refraining from shaking hands, but some people even report not wanting to meet others’ eyes when out for a solitary walk. This is a reaction born out of loneliness and of fear. But right now, though it is hard, we know that keeping our physical distance is a way that we turn toward the world in love, in compassion and in solidarity. We are all in this together, as Emilie Townes reminds us, writing,
“we are responsible for each other and ourselves
we may not always agree, nor should we expect to
we have to give an accounting of our actions and inactions
we may get tired and need a break, but we must always come back because we do not get out of this life
and we are responsible for what goes on in our names”
So, beloved ones, do not cease your crying out, whether on your own behalf or for the sake of others’ whose voices have become weak as they call against the whirring of industry and the blathering of false prophets. Do not let up on reminding the government of their responsibility to protect the people of this country. Do not refrain from sharing your love with the world. Though we may find ourselves in the depths right now, and we are struggling to make meaning out of these times of physical distancing, let us raise our voices, testifying to what we know: This is hard. This is scary. This is not forever. God is with us.
And for now, these words from Wendell Berry give me hope:
“Be joyful though you have considered all the facts….Practice resurrection.”
So let us embrace the everydayness of mediating in the tension.
Let practicing resurrection become part of this everydayness. The everydayness in which we can remember that God is still speaking and moving and acting in and through nature. That baby squash plants grow out of compost piles from last autumn. That life is bursting forth from the flowers and trees on the streets of our city. That our community cannot be contained in a building, that there are no barriers love will not cross, and that God’s mercy will bring us home.
May it ever be so.
This sermon originally preached on March 29, 2020 via Zoom.