“A Chicken in Every Pot” Stevie, our rooster didn’t understand the irony when he climbed into this old pot.
Love After Love Derek Walcott (1931-2017)
The time will come when, with elation you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat. You will love again the stranger who was yourself. Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart. Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes, peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life.
The purpose of a proverb," writes Susan E. Vande Kappelle, "is to gain a hoped-for result through a verbal medium." There are many common, folksy, proverbs we've probably heard before:
• "A bad workman always blames his tools." • "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link." • "Actions speak louder than words." • "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." • "An apple a day keeps the doctor away." • "Absence makes the heart grow fonder."
The last one feels a little too on the nose these days, but we get the idea. A proverb is meant to make us act or think in some way by employing easy to remember imagery, rhyming pattern, or declarative, even provoking statements. Proverbs are a type of memory device for passing on wisdom.
Cultures throughout place and time have employed proverbs that speak to larger truths. Many of these are new to us:
• "The spoon maker's children often have the worst spoons" (Icelandic). • "Hunger is the best sauce" (Ancient Roman). • "A dog bitten by a snake is afraid of sausages" (Brazilian). • "The honey only sticks to the mustache of he who licked it" (Iraqi).
The book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) is a collection of ancient sayings that were written down so they could be passed down from generation to generation. Most often, individual proverbs take the form of a couplet, triplet, or short aphorism. There are long lists of short sayings in the book of Proverbs, with occasional expositions about wisdom interwoven. Today's lesson is one of those interwoven accounts.
Wisdom, in the Hebrew Bible, is something that all folks can achieve. Proverbs 9 depicts a great meal hosted by Wisdom. Wisdom invites anyone willing to come and is hospitable, preparing a great feast. Wisdom is a learned virtue, something that is taken in like a meal and used as nourishment.
One proverb that you will hear in our household, especially these days, is, "It is what it is." Some parts of life are out of our control and must be endured or overcome. Saying this short, if somewhat glum saying, helps us cope with those things we must work through.
I wonder, what proverbs, sayings, mantras, or aphorism you are using these days? Have you found yourself returning to one from childhood? Are you making up news ones for these strange times? If you have any worth sharing, send them along to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Blessings, a remember, "He who laughs last thinks slowest!"
“The Supper at Emmaus” Rembrandt 1654. Public Domain.
The Half-way House Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
Love I was shewn upon the mountain-side And bid to catch Him ere the drop of day. See, Love, I creep and Thou on wings dost ride: Love it is evening now and Thou away; Love, it grows darker here and Thou art above; Love, come down to me if Thy name be Love.
My national old Egyptian reed gave way; I took of vine a cross-barred rod or rood. Then next I hungered: Love when here, they say, Or once or never took love’s proper food; But I must yield the chase, or rest and eat. – Peace and food cheered me where four rough ways meet.
Hear yet my paradox: Love, when all is given, To see Thee I must [see] Thee, to love, love; I must o’ertake Thee at once and under heaven If I shall overtake Thee at last above. You have your wish; enter these walls, one said: He is with you in the breaking of the bread.
I’ve been missing people a lot this week. I’ve noticed this as I lingered on a video call with my family in Ohio, never quite ready to hang up. I’ve been on the phone a lot with folks from our church and other churches this week. I even reconnected with a childhood friend, one that I hadn’t spoken with for a few years, having two long conversations on consecutive days. And I’ve missed the kids and parents in our youth programs and our times together.
One of the things I miss about the youth program at the United Church of Hinesburg is the epic meals we make together whenever we are in session. An old adage of youth programming is that if you feed them, they will come. I’ve found that if we make the food together, we also have better conversations, and young people, who can sometimes be picky eaters, are more willing to extend their pallets. On Sunday evenings, the parish hall is filled with talking, chopping, movement, and wonderful smells like sautéing garlic, citrus, and ginger. Our meals are gluten-free and vegetarian friendly, which has made us creative in our menus. We’ve worked together to make homemade hummus, cardamom cookies, fragrant Israeli rice, falafel, and stuffed squash and had fun while doing so.
In the book “The Omnivorous Mind,” author John S. Allen describes how the smell and taste of food is such an effective trigger for memories. The hippocampus is a region in our brain that has evolved to be vital for holding memories, specifically autobiographical and spatial memories. But the hippocampus is multifaceted. It also has strong connections to parts of our brain that process emotions and smells, and has direct access to our digestive system, containing receptors that regulate appetite and eating behavior. Finding food was such an essential task for our hunter-gatherer ancestors that their brains developed to associate food reward with specific game trails, types of plants and berries, times of the year, and feelings of safety and contentment, or scarcity and sickness.
I’ve noticed that during these last five weeks, while we are at home during the pandemic, I am making meals that take me back to childhood. Cheeseburgers and French fries, Pot Roast, and Chicken and Rice have been everyday dinners. We’ve also had Bazooka gum in our house, the gum I would get after swimming lessons during the summer when I was in elementary school. Likely, during this time of stress and uncertainty, I am reaching for memories of childhood, when things were a little less complicated, and thoughts of a global pandemic were nonexistent.
Our gospel story is one of the more famous ones, often called the “Walk to Emmaus.” It could just as easily be called the “Meal in Emmaus.” In our lesson, Jesus joins two people, likely two of his followers, as they walk from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. The three talk about the previous weekend, the festival of Passover, the uproar over Jesus of Nazareth, the crucifixion, and rumors of his resurrection. Jesus goes about explaining the meaning of these events, all the while going unrecognized by his traveling companions. As they near the village, the two invite Jesus for dinner. When they sit down together, Jesus grabs the bread, blesses it, and breaks it, and immediately the two recognize him.
It’s interesting that this story tells us something about Jesus, but also gives us insight into our shared humanity. Perhaps it’s hard to recognize certain truths in life unless they are experienced. Jesus takes several hours to explain the history, theology, and meaning of what had just transpired in Jerusalem. And still, his companions fail to recognize him. We’ve all sat through classes, speeches, and sermons, that I’m sure were written and performed with great inspiration and insight. Maybe these expositions even answered some of life’s biggest questions thoughtfully and succinctly, but we left the classroom, the rally or the church none the wiser.
But then, at a meal, Jesus picked up a loaf of bread, and he prayed, thanking God for the provision. And he broke it and gave it to his companions. And I can imagine that they held the broken bread and could smell it and when they took that first bite, memories and emotions returned.
Perhaps these travelers were at the Last Supper in the upper room a few days ago. Or maybe they were present at one of the miraculous feeding events in Jesus' ministry. Perhaps they had shared a meal with him previously when he had done the same, simple movements: he picked up the bread, offer a short prayer of thanksgiving, and passed it around. They remembered who this person was, how he made them feel, and what all of this could mean.
We are living in a time when the basics of life are appreciated differently. Some of us are going on walks every day to stay moving and get a change of scenery. Perhaps we see things we’ve never noticed or feel the ground under our feet in some new way. Many of us are cooking more, some even finding proficiency in the kitchen or realizing that cooking can be enjoyable. Maybe the smells and tastes bring back memories, or we know that memories of this strange time will be triggered by the food we are eating now.
Talking is a little different these days too. We are using the phone more, connecting with people in different ways. Early in the pandemic, some folks in our church took on the big task of calling or connecting with everyone in our contact database. The feedback has been interesting. Some have noticed that they’ve gotten to know fellow parishioners better as a result of this exercise. For some, these phone conversations have gone much deeper than the cordial small talk often associated with coffee hour or even small groups. People have been invited into the lives of others and have felt a desire to share life with others. In a new way, something wonderful is being revealed.
Even now, during a pandemic, something beautiful is being revealed. Even now, we are experiencing truths that are changing our lives and our communities forever. The unfolding of God’s divine light and call for renewal is happening even today, in our homes, in the breaking of bread, over the phone, and in the early signs of spring.
May our eyes be opened so we can bear witness to what God is doing today. Amen.
Illuminated “S” with Saint Peter Liberated from Prison. 14th century Italian. Public Domain.
Isaiah 25:1-5 (6-9) Contemporary English Version
1You, Lord, are my God! I will praise you for doing the wonderful things you had planned and promised since ancient times. 2 You have destroyed the fortress of our enemies, leaving their city in ruins. Nothing in that foreign city will ever be rebuilt. 3 Now strong and cruel nations will fear and honor you.
4 You have been a place of safety for the poor and needy in times of trouble. Brutal enemies pounded us like a heavy rain or the heat of the sun at noon, but you were our shelter. 5 Those wild foreigners struck like scorching desert heat. But you were like a cloud, protecting us from the sun. You kept our enemies from singing songs of victory.
6On this mountain the Lord All-Powerful will prepare for all nations a feast of the finest foods. Choice wines and the best meats will be served. 7 Here the Lord will strip away the burial clothes that cover the nations. 8 The Lord All-Powerful will destroy the power of death and wipe away all tears. No longer will his people be insulted everywhere. The Lord has spoken!
9 At that time, people will say, “The Lord has saved us! Let’s celebrate. We waited and hoped-- now our God is here.”
Isaiah 25:1-5 (6-9)
The context for our reading from Isaiah is awful. The Babylonian empire destroyed the city of Jerusalem in 586 BC and carried off many of its inhabitants into forced exile. These exiles were settled on the outskirts of the great city of Babylon. Some were sold into slavery. Others lived on the periphery of society, having little legal rights and treated as outsiders.
Then the Persia empire destroyed the city of Babylon and carried off many of its inhabitants into forced exile in 539 BC. This is a classic example of the cycles of violence on large scale. As a result of Babylon’s destruction, the Jews living outside Babylon were liberated and were able to return home.
Isaiah 25 captures these events in poetic form, but it does so with the belief that God will break the cycles of violence between empires and nations.
The poem begins as poetry in the Hebrew Bible often does, by praising God. Here, God is praised for delivering the people out of the humiliation of exile. The powerful who cruelly oppressed the poor and needy have been knocked out. For the writer, justice has been restored.
Then, the cycles of violence are broken. Instead of another desolation, God invites all the nations to Jerusalem for a great banquet. The poor and needy of every nation will be invited, even those that have already passed away. God’s care and hospitality for the poor and needy extends even beyond death.
We are mindful of the different ways people in our communities are experiencing this pandemic. Age, family unit, health, geography, and wealth all play deciding factors in whether we are making do or not. Around the world, others entered the pandemic in awful situations. Wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, and violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mexico, and South Sudan, had already destabilized economies, affected families, and caused great suffering. The systemic racial injustice that preceded the pandemic in the US means non-white Americans are more likely to be adversely affected by the pandemic and more likely to get sick and die from the COVID-19 disease than white Americans. In our communities, some are now stuck at home with violent people without the safe havens of school, job, and extended family.
Our lesson from the book of Isaiah reminds us that the God of our faith cares especially for those in awful situations. Regardless of difference (our text the inclusive language of “all nations”), our scriptures imagine a world where the vulnerable are protected, and God hosts a great banquet for those most affected by violence and oppression.
We cannot forget the suffering of others during this pandemic. We also cannot forget those that continue to bring about justice and healing during this time. May we think of others, continue to work for justice, even now, and pray for deliverance.
“Baptism” by William P. Chappel (1870s). This scene depicts a congregation gathering at a beach on Corlear’s Hook for a service of baptism. Public Domain.
Psalm 114 New Revised Standard Version
1When Israel went out from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, 2 Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion.
3 The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back. 4 The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs.
5 Why is it, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? 6 O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs?
7 [Dance], O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob, 8 who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.
Psalm 114 is part of Hallel, a Jewish prayer that is recited on Jewish holidays as a sign of praise and devotion. In Matthew 26:30, the gospel mentions that Jesus and his disciples sang a psalm after the last supper. The psalm was likely the Hallel.
The psalms that comprise Hallel (chapters 113-118) praise God for bringing the Hebrew people out of Egypt and into the promised land, among other mighty acts. Today’s psalm is a wonderful example of this overall theme with a few interesting wrinkles.
The noted 18th-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder called Psalm 114, “one of the most beautiful odes in any language.” Part of its beauty lies in the psalm’s reinterpretation of two concepts: “sanctuary” and “divinity.”
Ancient near eastern Gods lived in sanctuaries and temples. Some believed that gods literally dwelled in these holy sites. Others thought that they lived in those sacred places metaphorically while actually living on top of mountains, in the heavens, seas, or underground. Regardless, these sanctuaries, temples, and shrines were physical, they could be located on a map, and they were made of stone, metal, dirt, and wood. Psalm 114 challenges this concept. God’s presence is always with God’s people, so the community is never separated from the blessings, guidance, protection, and providence of their God.
Ancient near eastern gods were also depicted as showing their power through the subjugation of the natural world. Often, gods are described as bringing mountains low, causing rivers to dry up and blotting out the sun. It feels like our psalm is moving that direction: rivers flee, and mountains tremble. But the end of the psalm turns this notion on their head. The waters and mountains are dancing in the presence of God, skipping around like baby lambs.
If the pandemic did not feel like an old hat weeks ago, it’s feeling that way today. Small protests are taking place in front of state capitol buildings across the country because people feel restless and worried about returning to work. Many of us with children are on April break this week, which means the same togetherness, but with less structure. Some folks are sick and worry about recovering while others have a sick loved one or have lost a loved one to this illness. All of us are wondering when everything will open back up and what precautions we will have to follow over the next several months. Even if we sense that the worst is possible over, there’s anxiety in not knowing what’s coming next.
It is interesting to note that Psalm 114 was written late, after Judah’s exile to Babylon. When the exiles were free to return to their homeland, many did not. For some, it was better to live in the subjugation they knew than the complete unknown. Today, Biblical scholars like Marc Zvi Brettler see this psalm as a type of travel brochure to encourage Jews living in Babylon to return to Judah and its holy city, Jerusalem. Those living in exile need not worry about being away from their houses of worship in Babylon. God is not in them. God is in the people. Instead of showing power through cycles of violence and conquest like other regional gods, the God of Israel shows power by bringing joy and dancing to the natural world.
We do well to remember that the God of our faith promises a presence in community and creation and that we are never left alone from divine blessing, protection, and care. Even in this anxious time, we are called to travel on, trusting that God goes before us and with us and behind us all along the way. There will be joy and dancing again. And gatherings with hugs too.
"The Incredulity of Saint Thomas" – Caravaggio c. 1601-1602. On Display in the Sanssouci Picture Gallery, Potsdam, Germany. Public Domain.
John 20:19-31 New Revised Standard Version
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Among some communities of faith, the label “preacher’s kid” has negative connotations. Preacher’s kids are too often defined by their relationship to their pastoring parent in some disparaging way. Sometimes they are portrayed as smug and self-righteous; other times, they are depicted as little hellions.
It’s a strange moniker in that perhaps outside of teachers, kids rarely get a label from their parent’s occupation. There are no working and pervasive stereotypes of a dentist’s kid, auto mechanic’s kid, or relator’s kid.
As a pastor and parent of three children, I worry about the label “Preacher’s kid.” I strive to give my children a normal childhood, and one of my greatest worries in life is that they will be treated differently because of my profession.
I want them to make friends of their own, and I don’t want parents to worry that if they drop their kids off at our house, we are going to try to baptize them or offer them communion after supper.
But my children have grown up in church and around faith, and there are beautiful moments when this upbringing shines.
A few years ago, we were running late one Wednesday morning – late for school and daycare, late to get the day going. In the mad rush, I was taking orders from my children.
“Can I have cereal – no, not that cereal, the other one – no not cereal, a bagel… “
“Can I have orange juice? Actually, I don’t want orange juice, I want milk.”
“Daddy, I don’t want that packed in my lunch. Dad, can you get me socks from upstairs, I forgot them? Dad, Dad, Dad…”
“Guys! Back off! I only have two hands! Be patient! And lower your voices “– I yelled, of course.
I then proceeded into my weekly lecture about getting up when you are supposed to, about being kind and patient with one another in the morning, and taking care of your responsibilities – all with a raised voice.
There was silence… And then my young daughter stood up on her chair and yelled… “Peace be with you… And also with you… Let us pass the peace!”
Those words – put out the fire that morning. “Peace be with you…” It’s still a running gag in our household. Whenever family time gets a little tense, especially in the morning, someone will yell, “Peace be with you. And also with you. Let us pass the peace!” These words have been said a few times these last several weeks during the pandemic.
In today’s gospel lesson, the disciples are hiding in a locked room after the crucifixion of Jesus and rumored resurrection. For them, the resurrection is still just a rumor because they had seen the empty tomb, and they had heard a report from Mary but had not yet seen Jesus in the flesh.
The disciples are hiding in this room because they are afraid. Perhaps they were fearful of the authorities; after all, their leader had just been rounded up and killed. Maybe they wondered if they where they next.
Some Biblical scholars think that they were afraid of Jesus. If he was alive, the disciples could be in trouble. When Jesus was arrested, they scattered, and denied, leaving their leader and friend to face death alone.
But then, amid his disciples in this locked room, Jesus appears. And his first words to them are, “Peace be with you.”
And our text says that he breathes on them, and they receive the Holy Spirit, like a little Pentecost, and he talks to them about forgiveness of all things.
I think of Jesus breathing on his disciples as a big sigh. Jesus and his closest friends have been separated and undergone pain and grief. Jesus sighs in relief, the type of sigh we have when we see loved ones after time apart. The kind of sigh our bodies will naturally express when we can see loved ones in person after the pandemic has lifted, and we can hug one another again.
Jesus then leaves his stunned and hopeful disciples.
But Thomas is not there to witness the events. When the disciples tell him about their experience with the risen Christ, Thomas states that he wants the same experience as everyone else, to see Jesus in the flesh.
Later, Jesus appears again with the same words “Peace be with you.” Thomas believes. The gospel concludes with a nod to the rest of us that believe something important happened after Jesus’ death by saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
We get the phrase “Doubting Thomas” from this passage. Likely though, our story has very little to do with faith and doubt. Instead, it’s about this mini Pentecost, this holy sigh, where the disciples receive the Holy Spirit and holy orders. If the disciples were hiding because they feared Jesus, this is important. How would the risen Lord meet those that had abandoned him in his greatest hour? He meets them with words of blessing, “Peace be with you.”
Those words laid to rest the worries of Jesus’ disciples that evening. It was an offer, “you are forgiven,” and a challenge to “go, forgive others.”
In verse 23, Jesus tells his disciples that, “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus is teaching here. Forgiveness is a choice. It can be given or withheld. He does not ask his disciples to forgive everyone every wrong. Instead, he tells them to offer forgiveness like he offers forgiveness.
Many of us today are in situations where “Staying Home, and Staying Safe” means being family all the time. There’s something incredible in this, and I’ve found moments of pure joy and experiences that will stay with me forever. But being together all the time limits outlets for personal space, play, and decompression. Boundaries, personal and other, are often trespassed, stepped on, or popped when we are together this much. Something small like not replacing the toilet paper roll (if you have toilet paper these days) can set off a cascade of frustration, anger, and rage aimed at the only people around.
The parallels abound. The disciples, too, had locked themselves in, fearful of what lay outside. Imagine the smelliness of eleven first-century men in one room and the Odd Couple arguments about Peter’s sandals being left in the middle of the floor and Andrew leaving the milk out again. More to the point, imagine the stress and anxiety moving through every person there. Would they make it out of the city alive? How would they return to their jobs and families? Imagine the finger-pointing and the second-guessing that erupted from time to time. Even if they had grown to love one another, there were times when irritations boiled over into harsh words, sulking, and threats.
The Greek word used in our passage for forgiving and forgiveness is interesting because outside of our Scriptures, the term was used to describe the action of releasing something or letting something go. Because most of my media consumption is Disney related these days, the song from Frozen called “Let it Go” comes to mind as one way of understanding this concept.
Finding ways to be more forgiving is a vital tool during this time. Ask for to be forgiven more often. Life is altered, and our usual routes and rhythms are gone. We are all learning how to make the best of this situation, but we are all still learning what those best ways are. Be gracious with one another during this time and forgive often. Acknowledge those moments when frustration is building and sigh a holy sigh.
Peace be with you. And also with you. Let us pass the peace. Amen.
“Life of Nichiren: A Vision of Prayer on the Waves” by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, ca. 1835. Nichiren was a 13th century Buddhist priest and iconoclast. In this image, Nichiren has a vision of a prayer that would serve as a cornerstone of his group’s devotion. The prayer begins, “Praise to the Sutra of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma.” Public Domain.
"The Prayer" By Rudyard Kipling
My brother kneels, so saith Kabir, To stone and brass in heathen wise, But in my brother’s voice I hear My own unanswered agonies. His God is as his fate assigns, His prayer is all the world’s, and mine. --- “Prayer is a small fire lit to keep cold hands warm. Prayer is a practice that flourishes both with faith and doubt. Prayer is asking, and prayer is sitting. By Pádraig Ó Tuama, In the Shelter
Anthropologists believe that the earliest intelligent modern humans practiced some form of prayer dating back at least 20,000 years. Archaeologists have found written prayers dating back at least five thousand years. Throughout the millennia and present in nearly all religions today, the ritual of prayer is practiced in some form. Depending on one's religious tradition, prayers can be addressed to a deity, ancestors, spirits, lofty ideas, or powerful people.
The Bible contains many prayers. It also has a lot to say about prayer. In the first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul exhorts the faith community to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
In Abrahamic faith traditions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), there are different types of prayers:
Petitionary prayers ask God to do something.
Prayers of supplication asking God for something.
Prayers of thanksgiving thanking God for something some benefit bestowed.
Prayers of praise and adoration praise God for being God.
Prayers of Confession acknowledge sin or injustices in our world and ask for forgiveness.
Prayers of invocation invite God’s presence into a situation or life.
Most of the time, when we pray individually or in community, several of these types of prayers are woven together.
In the last few weeks, some have asked by about praying during the pandemic. Specifically, they’ve asked, “How do we pray during the pandemic?” It’s not lost on me that the disciples asked Jesus how to pray as well. His response was what we today call the Lord’s Prayer.
Perhaps the question of “how” is a symptom of how many of us think about prayer. Depending on the faith tradition of your upbringing, prayer could be very ritualized or very personal, so confusion abounds. Maybe we believe prayer is done by the very spiritual, and well trained. Perhaps we think that prayer is wasting the time we should be using to act. Maybe we read “pray without ceasing” or sing “sweet hour of prayer” and think we don’t have time for this form of spiritual devotion.
A 2014 Psychology Today (linked here) focused on five scientifically supported health benefits of prayer.
Prayer improves our self-control.
Prayer makes us kinder human beings.
Prayer makes us more forgiving.
Prayer increases our trust.
Prayer offsets the adverse health effects of stress.
These are a few reasons why we pray, but we are still left with the question of “how?” There are many ways to pray. We can follow a prayer book or use our stream of consciousness prefaced with something like “Dear God” and ending in “Amen.” Here one way, the way I often write prayers for congregational worship and think through my private prayers:
Adore. Start by saying something good about God. Many prayers in our Scriptures begin in adoration and words of gratitude. Describe some way God is active and present in your life or the world.
Confess. Mostly, my confessions right now are about being a grump with my family during all of this togetherness. I sometimes confess a social injustice here as well. The pandemic affects people very differently, and we do well to remember that folks on the margins are affected the most and that we (human beings) have created those margins.
Petition, Supplicate, and Invoke. Ask for God’s blessings, actions, and presence in this world. I usually work from big to small, praying for world needs, then going down the line to church, nation, community, family, and friends, and my individual needs and desires.
Be Silent. Make some space where your mind can slow down and wander a little.
Wrap it up. Prayers do not need to be lengthy. Even if you pray several times a day, saying “Amen” provides closure to a time that could be difficult.
May God bless you and keep you safe and healthy during this time. And may you find time for prayer.
Shepherd and Shepherdess Making Music Ca. 1500-1530. South Netherlandish.
Above the Shepherdess it reads: “Let’s sing a tune or two, on the grass, with your bagpipe.” The Shepherd responds: “Her voice is fair when she sings, but I do not get work done.” Public Domain.
Colossians 3:12-17 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
12 God loves you and has chosen you as his own special people. So be gentle, kind, humble, meek, and patient. 13 Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you. 14 Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together.
15 Each one of you is part of the body of Christ, and you were chosen to live together in peace. So, let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts. And be grateful. 16 Let the message about Christ completely fill your lives, while you use all your wisdom to teach and instruct each other. With thankful hearts, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 Whatever you say or do should be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, as you give thanks to God the Father because of him.
“Without music, life would be a mistake.” - Fredrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
I think I’ve had enough. Not of my family. Not of work. Not of staying home and staying safe. I think I’ve had enough of Taylor Swift’s Lover album. Since the pandemic began, Lover has been playing several hours a day in our household. Our kids listen to it in the background while doing school work. It is playing on repeat from our daughter’s room. Music videos for “You Need to Calm Down” and “The Man” are streamed on every device in the house. And when it’s not playing, any of my four housemates can be found is singing or humming one of the tunes.
The problem is that the Lover album is absolutely fantastic and way too catchy. I go to sleep with “The Archer” stuck in my head and wake up to “Me!” stuck in my head for good measure. Sometimes I sing along, without really noticing until a family member stares at me.
I miss singing hymns together while we’ve been separated during the pandemic. I am a poor singer, but I’ve sung hymns with other people of faith at least weekly for as long as I can remember. I miss my favorites like “Be Thou My Vision” and “Simple Gifts,” and I missed singing “Now the Green Blade Riseth” on Easter morning. I am rarely moved by spoken or written words, but music can get me into my feelings in a heartbeat.
There are countless references to singing in our Scriptures. The first Jesus followers sang at their first gatherings, so congregational singing has existed for a few thousand years. Singing together can give a theology and can even connect communities that struggle to be together otherwise. It seems like one of a few core elements for worshipping together. Worship services that do not have music feel like they are missing something. Worship services with mediocre music feel like they’re missing an opportunity.
Recently there’s been a really cool movement to pull together singers online and perform as a virtual choir. While this cannot replace what we do together in person, it is pretty special. Below are a few offerings.
Plaque with the Holy Women at the Sepulchre. Northern Italian, early 10th century. This image of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary at the tomb of Jesus on Easter Morning was probably part of a decorative cover for a liturgical manuscript. Public Domain.
Matthew 28:1-10 Contemporary English Version
1The Sabbath was over, and it was almost daybreak on Sunday when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 Suddenly a strong earthquake struck, and the Lord’s angel came down from heaven. He rolled away the stone and sat on it. 3 The angel looked as bright as lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards shook from fear and fell down, as though they were dead.
5 The angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid! I know you are looking for Jesus, who was nailed to a cross. 6 He isn’t here! God has raised him to life, just as Jesus said he would. Come, see the place where his body was lying. 7 Now hurry! Tell his disciples that he has been raised to life and is on his way to Galilee. Go there, and you will see him. That is what I came to tell you.”
8 The women were frightened and yet very happy, as they hurried from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and greeted them. They went near him, held on to his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid! Tell my followers to go to Galilee. They will see me there.”
We’ve used our microwave a lot more than usual since the COVID-19 pandemic began. While working from home with three children, my wife, Leah, and I are continually rewarming coffee and leftovers, making popcorn, warming water for tea and hot cocoa, and softening butter for cookies. Last Wednesday, we were working in the garden when our kids started their first fire in the microwave. The culprit was an aluminum-wrapped quesadilla. We heard screaming from the house but tried to block it out. To be honest, some of our days during the pandemic have been filled with screaming and crying, sour moods, and grumpiness. Last Wednesday had been one of those days. So, we didn’t respond to these screams until our daughter came out to tell us there was a fire. Everything was fine by the time we made it in. The fire put itself out, and a few scorch marks are all the remain.
Several household items, like the microwave, were invited by accident or through a series of unexpected events. Percy Spencer invented the microwave oven after having a chocolate bar melt in his pocket while servicing a magnetron during World War II. Ruth Wakefield invented chocolate chip cookies when she ran out of baker’s chocolate and expected that broken pieces of a chocolate bar would do the same trick. George Crum invented potato chips when a customer at his diner complained that his potatoes fries were too thick. Crum lost his temper and sliced the potatoes super thin, dropped them in the fryer, and sent them out. The customer loved them. John Hopps expected to revolutionize the field of emergency rescue by using radio frequency to restore body temperature to victims of hypothermia. Instead, he ended up inventing the pacemaker. Corn Flakes were created when the Kellogg brothers neglected to clean up a pot of boiled grain for several days. Inkjet printers were invented when an engineer at Canon accidentally rested a hot iron on his writing pen. Thomas Adams was trying to make a new form of rubber when he created chewing gum. 11-year-old Frank Epperson mixed soda powder with water one wintry day but left the cup outside overnight with the stirrer still in by accident. He later called his invention popsicles.
Unexpected events can lead to important outcomes.
Our gospel lesson begins in the realm of normal human experience, at least for religious folks in first-century Jerusalem. Jesus died on Friday in the late afternoon, and because the Sabbath began at sundown, his body was hastily taken down from the cross, wrapped and put in a nearby tomb. After the Sabbath day was over, and at first light on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (Mary of Bethany) went to the tomb to wash Jesus’ body, rewrap it with new linens, and anoint it with perfumes and oils. This was a common practice when someone died on a Friday just before the Sabbath observance began.
The story then takes an unexpected turn. This turn involves an earthquake, an angel, and two fainting guards. The angel then speaks to Mary and Mary, saying:
Don’t be afraid - I know you are here for Jesus. He’s not here because he’s been raised from the dead. You can go in and see for yourselves. Go quickly and tell this friends that he will meet up with them in Galilee.
As if these events were not shocking enough, Mary and Mary encounter Jesus on their way to tell the disciples the good news.
Often, when I read the Bible, I fail to see the characters as real, living human beings that have ordinary human experiences. The gospels often highlight otherworldly events and miracles that fall well outside any of our expectations of an orderly world. Sometimes the world of these stories feels more like Hogwarts, Narnia, or Westeros.
But our Scriptures are different than these tales of fiction. They contain stories of real human beings, probably more like us than different. These folks never encountered angels or walked on water. The waving of hands or a few simple words did not cure sick people in their communities. More than anything, dead people stayed dead. The events in our gospel stories are as strange and unexpected to its characters as they are to us today. That’s why they are always scared when something incredible happens.
On Easter Sunday, Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the most important and unexpected outcome to any story ever told. For some Christians, the message of the angel, that “Christ is risen” evokes a deep and obvious joy without qualification. Others will find a working metaphor in this story. The resurrection is a sign of new life, the message of every spring, or the possibility of renewal. Still, others will find this story to be too alien to be considered but will enjoy the usual festivities of Easter Sunday.
The wrinkle for all of us, though, is that we cannot gather for those usual festivities. Because of the pandemic, it feels like we are still stuck on Holy Saturday, entombed in our homes, apartments, condos, and living centers. Social distancing has saved many lives, but we can also lament with honesty that it has diminished the quality of our lives. We are worried, stressed out, too busy, or bored, all the while disconnected from our usual human interactions. We don’t know when life will return to normal, or what normal will even look like once all of this is over.
“Don’t be afraid” is a continuing theme of our Easter lesson. The angel and Jesus say it when they encounter the two Marys. Their worlds had changed in unexpected ways when Jesus was killed just a few days earlier. And it was changed again in the most unexpected way when they encountered the risen Christ. The resurrection did not, however, return everything to normal. It changed everything. It provided an unexpected hope by reorganizing the way we thought the world worked. It provided a divine call to love one another genuinely and deeply. It started something new, a sacred way of gathering together in community despite human differences.
The lives we live after this pandemic will look different than the ones we lived before it. This unexpected time away from our usual rhythms and relationships will change everything. But “don’t be afraid.” When the stone of COVID-19 is rolled away, imagine what comes next. Imagine how meaningful those first handshakes and hugs will be. Imagine being more intentional about the family schedule or setting priorities. Imagine what new opportunities await us, knowing what we know, and living what we’ve lived.
This is Easter to me: Imagining what good awaits us after the unexpected.
May God bless you and keep you safe and healthy during this difficult and trying time. And may we take courage and hope from this great story of our faith. Amen.
From the central panel of a Triptych. Ca. 1100 Southern Italy. Public Domain.
“An unbelieved truth can hurt a man much more than a lie. It takes great courage to back truth unacceptable to our times. There's a punishment for it, and it's usually crucifixion.” ― John Steinbeck, East of Eden
This is Good Friday. Below is a prayer of confession modeled after the Solemn Reproaches of the Cross, an ancient antiphon of the Byzantine Church. I found this liturgy moving for the Christian Calendar’s darkest day. I’ve also included link to Thomas Myrick’s cantor of the Reproaches. Finally, the Explore Further section includes a playlist of sacred and secular music for Good Friday.
A Prayer of Confession for Good Friday
The cross that held the Savior of the world. Holy God, holy and mighty, holy immortal one, have mercy on us. The cross that held the Savior of the world. Holy God, holy and mighty, holy immortal one, have mercy on us. The cross that held the Savior of the world. Holy God, holy and mighty, holy immortal one, have mercy on us.
My people, my people, why have you forsaken me? Answer me! I delivered you from captivity through the water of baptism; but you handed me over to my captors, giving me up to die; and you have prepared a cross for your Savior. Lord, have mercy. I fed you in the wilderness with the bread of life from heaven; but you are consumed with desire; biting and devouring one another; and you have prepared a cross for your Savior. Lord, have mercy. I claimed you as my family, as branches of my vine; but you cut off my chosen ones, spilling innocent blood; and you have prepared a cross for your Savior. Lord, have mercy. I spoke to you my Word, the promise of my love for all; but you silence my prophets, refusing to hear my voice; and you have prepared a cross for your Savior. Lord, have mercy. I came to be your light, to overcome the darkness; but you remain in the shadows, hiding your light from the world; and you have prepared a cross for your Savior. Lord, have mercy. I gave you the keys to my realm and welcomed you inside; but you turn away strangers, closing the doors that I open; and you have prepared a cross for your Savior. Lord, have mercy. I offered you my peace and clothed you with compassion; but you divide my garments, tearing apart what I design; and you have prepared a cross for your Savior. Lord, have mercy. I sent my Holy Spirit to empower you with grace; but you trust your own devices, squandering my good gifts; and you have prepared a cross for your Savior. Lord, have mercy. I came to dwell among you as the Word made flesh; but you ignore neighbors in need, failing to recognize my face; and you have prepared a cross for your Savior. Lord have mercy.
Footwashing Scene from a French Diptych ca. 1350-75. Public Domain.
“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” Mahatma Gandhi
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
When I was a senior in high school, I belonged to an informal group of religious nerds. There were twelve of us (think apostles/tribes), all seniors from different churches in Mount Vernon, Ohio. We met once a month or so for bible study, communion, music, and prayer in my friend Clif’s loft (think upper room). This time of year, nineteen years ago, we met during holy week on Maundy Thursday. I grew up in a faith tradition that didn’t observe Maundy Thursday and thought my friends were saying “Monday” Thursday until I was finally corrected. My Catholic friend Austin explained that at his church, there is usually a foot washing service. We then read the passage from John about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Then he said it was our turn.
The feet of high school boys are gross. Some of us had just come from baseball practice. Others had just come from tennis. All I knew is that I didn’t want to get partnered with Matt B. Matt, the resident hippie, rarely wore shoes and walked everywhere. When he was required at school, he slapped on a pair of worn-out, grimy Birkenstock sandals. His mother made him hose off his feet before he could go into the house. And for a good reason. During the summer, he got tan lines on his legs where the dirt on his feet stopped.
It made perfect sense, then, that he was my partner. And there is no way to sugar coat it. The water in the pale got so dirty that I had to change it. I used two towels. The others gathered around to make sure I got in between every toe. It was gross. It was humbling, even a little embarrassing.
I can’t read this passage from John without thinking of Matt’s feet. As bad as they were, they were likely not as bad as the disciples’ feet. Jerusalem had open sewers. Domesticated animals shared the streets with humans. General hygiene in the first century would not meet our standards. And yet, Jesus washes the feet of all of his disciples before dinner, even Judas, who he knows will betray him later.
If you were dining at a wealthy household in the first century, it would be common to have your feet washed before dinner. Meals were often served while people reclined around a short table. Feet were visible and in the shared space. But this job was reserved for household slaves or servants, not the host.
On the night of his betrayal, Jesus leaves his disciples with an object lesson. Leaders in God’s new way serve others, and nothing is beneath them. It’s upside down. Unassuming. Practical. Humble.
Maundy Thursday is one of the darkest days of the Christian Calendar. It is the day that Jesus celebrates the meal and is arrested by Roman officials. Jesus will spend the night in front of different tribunals and will be convicted of insurrection. His friends will abandon him, and he will feel alone. Everyone, it seems, will turn on this humble leader.
At the end of Holy Week, we are called to reflect the life and death of Jesus. We are asked to consider why an injustice like this took place, and extrapolate out by asking what crimes like this continue to take place in the world today.
May you find time to reflect on during this most holy time.