“Folio 2v, The Pentecost” – The Four Gospels in Armenian, Armenian (1434-35). Tempera on gold and paper.
John 7:37-39 New Revised Standard Version
37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” ’ 39Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
Acts 2:1-21 New Revised Standard Version
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
I took the better part of last week off to get the garden in at our new home. My wife and I have kept a garden every year of our lives together with a few rare exceptions.
I see the planting of the garden as an essential marker in the year, a ritual of sorts that announces the arrival of our warm season here in Vermont, when we spend more hours outside, made happier by the warm sun. Where we live now, in the mountains, spring comes a little later, but when it happens, it seems like everything turns green overnight.
This year with new land, more space, and more wildlife, we’ve spent a great deal of time together clearing, digging, putting in fencing, planting, chasing away chipmunks, and watering. I find all of this exciting and hopeful, a reminder that even during these strange times of pandemic, there is a cadence to the natural world that goes mostly uninterrupted.
Throughout human history, the planting and harvesting of crops have been celebrated with festivals and religious rituals, acknowledging the deep connections we have to the land. A festival celebrating the harvest is the context for our Pentecost story.
It is the first century CE, and you live in the Judean countryside. You have been busy these last seven weeks. You have gone up to Jerusalem recently for the Passover feast. And this year there was a lot of commotion. Jesus, a prophet from the sticks of Galilee, has caused a ruckus in the temple and emboldened a crowd. He was arrested and crucified. You heard rumors about his body disappearing from the tomb he was laid in, and some even said they saw him, that he was resurrected.
But you didn’t have time for your own investigation of events. The barley you had planted last autumn was ready for harvest. So, you rush home and for the next three weeks, its barley, barley and more barley. Cutting and gathering, threshing, winnowing and sifting, and putting away for the year, a good harvest for sure. And after the barley is finally done, around the middle of May, you look on your other fields, and the wheat that you also planted last autumn is ready. It’s a stressful time because most of your year’s earnings come from the work done during these seven weeks. So, you go out again and cut and gather, thresh and winnow and sift. And you put away the grain. And you are tired, but you are thankful for a good year.
And out of gratitude and because of your religious tradition, you load your donkey or maybe a cart with some barley and some wheat, and you go up to Jerusalem again. When you get to Jerusalem, you make arrangements to stay with a friend, and you take some of your grain to a baker – who mills the grain and makes two loaves of bread. And in the early, early morning on the day of Pentecost, called Shavuot, you join the procession and festivities.
People from all over the known world are waking up in the city. Parthians and Medes, Elamites, and people from what was once Babylon are there. Folks from Cappadocia and Pontus and from the far east and from places in Modern day Turkey and from Egypt and further south in Africa and from Western Africa make the journey as well. And people from the Mediterranean islands and even people from the capital of the empire, Rome are there to celebrate the harvest.
It’s loud, and people are talking in different languages, and it’s such a busy place. Farmers like you take baskets woven with gold and silver and fill them with wheat and barley, grapes and figs, pomegranates, olives and dates, all symbols of the bounty of the land. This is the start of the festivities. They load the baskets on oxen whose horns were gilded and laced with garlands of flowers, and who are led in a grand procession through the streets toward the temple. There is music and laughter everywhere – a time for merrymaking. When the procession gets to the temple, the baskets are taken in, and everyone follows with their two loaves of bread as an offering of the first fruits of the harvest. In the temple, there is preaching and readings of the Holy Scriptures. And the community sings the Psalms and other hymns together, and people go out of the temple and enjoy the festivities.
After the ceremony, you are sitting down for a late breakfast, enjoying the company of friends, when you hear something, a loud wind like a tornado, and in Jerusalem! You run out of the house and see a great commotion just down the street. People are gathering to see what has happened. Among the gathered crowds, some are talking about the deeds of God and the work of Jesus, the prophet that was killed a few months ago. They say that he has risen and that the spirit of God has fallen on them. And one of them speaks, and the others translate and the speaker who calls himself “Peter” a weird name you think meaning “Rock,” but not like Dwayne Johnson, more like “little rock” or “pebble” talks about a faith that is available to all people, one where everyone has the spirit of God in them. Someone says that these guys are drunk – but Peter says that that’s not the case. It’s too early in the day for that. That makes the crowd chuckle.
“What about it?” you think, “Imagine a God that is always with me, and not just here in the temple. Imagine a God that is with me in my fields and in my home, in my travels and in my planning. In my community and in the world.”
I love the story of the day of Pentecost because the Holy Spirit is described as the full presence of God that meets people where they are. The charismatic gift described here allows Jesus’ disciples to speak to people in their own language. They didn’t need to learn Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, or Latin to have access to God. And the Spirit of God, described here by Peter, is for everyone – children, and the elderly, free men and women and those in slavery.
Religion, true religious faith, is to be lived out every day in a wide variety of expressions and experiences. And this day, Pentecost Sunday is celebrated in Christianity as the birth of the church. It serves as a reminder of the diversity and inclusiveness of God’s Holy Spirit. When we gather, we are made better by each person’s talents, gifts, perspectives and understandings, drives, and causes. We are better because God is in our lives in a variety of different ways, and when we gather, we get to share our lives with one another.
I also think that it is vital for us to understand the context of Pentecost and it’s roots in an agrarian festival that celebrates God’s provision at the harvest. The COVID-19 pandemic has gotten many people thinking about our food system and how we interact with our environment. This year, people in the US are planting more vegetable gardens than in previous years. Seed companies are seeing a spike in sales, and some garden centers around here are running out of starts.
During World War II, governments in the US, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Germany encouraged people to plant vegetable gardens to supplement rations and boost morale. These “victory gardens” or “war gardens” were used to help relieve some of the pressure a long and drawn out war placed on the country’s food systems. The government posters from this era are worth googling and have catchy phrases like “Dig on For Victory” and “Your Victory Garden Counts More than Ever!” It is often assumed that planting vegetable gardens is done only by people with land, but little gardens popped up all over cities during World War II. There are images of Londoner's growing vegetables in bomb craters, turning a scare into new life. Today, with the growth of community gardens and the rise of guerilla gardening, many folks can plant a few vegetables.
The pandemic has also helped people get out in nature. I know my family and I have spent a lot of time outside exploring woods, taking walks, and visiting trails. We often see others, too, making sure to keep our distance, which is easy to do when you’re outside. The outdoors have been a reprieve for all of us who have had to stay at home, a way of breaking out of our four walls without endangering ourselves of others.
During the crisis of the Great Depression, The WPA, or Works Projects Administration, hired unemployed artists to make paintings, murals, and other graphic art to promote everything from museums to public health. Perhaps the most iconic posters, though, are the National Parks posters. Chances are, you’ve seen at least one of them before. These wonderfully crafted prints encouraged folks to explore the National Parks and advertised the free services provided by the Department of the Interior.
During times of human crisis, upheaval, and uncertainty, it can be difficult to find gratitude, or be thankful. It can be tricky to see God as always with us, providing and supporting us along the way when we are isolated, jobless, or hungry. These feelings are not new to humanity, but are, perhaps feelings we are experiencing these days to some degree. Yet, on this day, when God’s presence in everyone is announced, and in the context of harvest and nature, we might do well to remember the long game. Seasons change. The earth produces what we need for nourishment and beauty. And there is still a bright future.
May God bless you and keep you close to the land this week.
“Bible and Book of Common Prayer” Printed by Robert Barker ca. 1607. Satin worked with silk and metal thread.
John 17:1-11 New Revised Standard Version
1 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you,
2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.
3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.
5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
6 "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.
7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you;
8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.
9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.
10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
Within many Christian faith traditions, reciting the Lord’s Prayer is considered a vital part of regular worship. It can be found in two forms in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. In Luke’s gospel, the prayer is prompted when Jesus’ disciples watch him praying one day and ask how to do it.
Today, there are several variants of the Lord’s Prayer, but a standard version goes like this:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
This prayer is often taught to children in Sunday School. As kids learn the prayer, however, they can often create their own variants:
One father remembers his twin girls reciting the prayer before going to bed one night, saying, “Give us this steak and daily bread, and forgive us our mattresses.”
Another parent remembers her child saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, how didja know my name?”
Another parent had to explain that God’s name wasn’t “Howard” when her son prayed, “Our Father, who art in heaven. Howard be Your name.”
There’s really something wonderful about this prayer. After 2000 years, we might say that it has staying power because it hits on core aspects of faith. It is short and concise, announces that God is awesome and that we want that awesomeness to be closer. It petitions God to continue providing the necessary provisions of human life. It prays for reconciliation and the courage to reconcile. And it asks for protection.
Many of us are comfortable praying this prayer and other prayers that have already been written. I continue to return to Pádraig Ó Tuama’s short book called Daily Prayer for morning, midday, and evening prayers. Others might turn to Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, the Hail Mary, 23rd Psalm, or Prayer of St. Francis. Some have remarked to me, however, that praying on the fly, without a script or prayer committed to memory is difficult. When we try to make up the words, it becomes clunky and mumbling. Folks worry that they are doing it wrong by not including all the right parts or a specific beginning and end.
First, I can reassure you that there is a lot of grace in this spiritual discipline. Prayers are not rescinded if the “amen” is left out, or you start with “Hey, You!” Likewise, God listens to the prayers that are selfless and selfish and hears the prayers of all people, saints, and sinners alike.
As far as the content, however, John 17 might help further the graciousness of our prayer lives.
Jesus has wrapped up his farewell discourse, a type of cram session with his disciples before his impending arrest. He then launches into his longest recorded prayer, which consists of all of chapter seventeen. It has given the title the “High Priestly Prayer” because much of the content has to do with prayers of providence and protection for his disciples. Today’s gospel lesson covers the first part of this prayer, verses 1-11.
To be honest, this prayer is a bit of a mess. The first five verses have to do with glory. Jesus rambles a bit about the glory of God while asking God to glorify him now. He throws in something about eternal life as well for good measure. Then, Jesus prays about for his disciples, but describes them as those God has given him several times, I think. After this, he gets to a prayer of protection and unity.
There are reasons why we don’t recite this prayer in worship services or learn it as children. We would need diagrams to help us understand what’s being said. It’s clunky in its wording. “It doesn’t fit well in the ear,” as one of my professors would say of bad sermons.
Perhaps that’s part of the grace imparted in this passage. Sometimes, when deeply troubled and praying on the spot, Jesus also mumbled his prayers, meandered a bit off-topic, and sometimes got lost in the weeds. Even the words of our savior lacked elegance sometimes, and perhaps especially during prayer. It’s a very human experience, after all, to know what to say but have it come out a little sideways.
Nevertheless, with some work, we can figure out Jesus’ prayer. First, Jesus realizes that his life’s work and ministry are culminating in these final moments. Jesus asks God to glorify him now. The word “glory” is something like “weighty, significant, sacred, and powerful.” Jesus will not be just another failed and forgotten rabble-rouser killed by the Roman empire. Jesus wants all of this difficult work and suffering to be remembered and made significant. On the other side of this story, we know that his arrest, trial, death, and ultimately his resurrection will be significant. People will talk about him and remember him and tell stories to their children about him for generations.
Second, Jesus is still worried about his disciples. Even after the cram session, his disciples remain confused, sad, and frustrated with Jesus’ words. If everything goes as Jesus reports, and he is arrested and tried, his disciples will be stuck in the city during a violent crackdown by the Roman Empire. They will be in peril and leaderless. Even after the resurrection, he imagines a harsh world where they will be in danger, persecuted for what they proclaim. “Father, protect them,” is the culmination of verses 6 through 11.
I feel that a switch went off in me this week. For these two months, I’ve longed for the future day when everything returns to normal. At various moments I held out hope that normal life might be a few weeks out or a month out. School would return, and so would jobs and gatherings and the regular cadence of normal life, however hectic. I would be able to get out of my basement office/laundry room more, and everyone would be excited and happy at getting back to life as usual. My prayer was something like, Loving God, deliver us soon and very soon.”
But normal is probably a lot further out then I expected, and the lives we eventually return to will not be the same one’s we halted because of the pandemic. Every nation, community, and person will live differently because of this pandemic. So, my prayer has changed to something like, “Loving God, make this time matter.”
Jesus prays that his suffering matters for something. After his death and resurrection, things do not return to normal. Something has fundamentally changed. His disciples betray him, deny him, scatter, and hide, and are forgiven for it. The use of coercive power and violence, even death itself is overcome. New missions are planned. Disciples become leaders in a new day.
Today, our prayers could echo Jesus’ sentiment. “Make this time during the pandemic matter.” We are learning more each day about inequality in our communities, nation, and world. What new avenues of justice, love, and mercy are being created today to make this world better? As we consider different ways of structuring our lives, what new practices, hopes, and priorities have we identified in the last two months that we will carry with us into the future? How will this time matter in the future?
We can also remember that, when Jesus was reflecting on his own suffering, he prayed for his disciples. He remembered that other people live and suffer too. Rev. Kira Schlesinger writes that
Praying for others puts us in solidarity with those with whom Jesus was in solidarity: the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the forgotten. We pray to remember. We offer intercession to be in communion with them, and we pray for the grace of God to inspire us and strengthen us to be the body of Christ, to make our thoughts and prayers into concrete actions.
Praying for others helps us to be more empathic people. Remembering to be concerned for others during our trials places our experiences in the wider context of a human community. In this community, we can see our own difficulties more clearly and better identify ways to help those who bear the brunt of suffering during this pandemic.
John chapter 17 reminds us that there are no magic words, right words, or even correct word order when it comes to prayer. It’s okay to mumble, ramble, retread, wander, and take a really long time to get to the point. Jesus did it. Nonetheless, he prayed that these moments matter and that his disciples receive a little extra help during their difficulties. That’s a pretty good prayer if you ask me.
8 Finally, all of you should agree and have concern and love for each other. You should also be kind and humble. 9 Don’t be hateful and insult people just because they are hateful and insult you. Instead, treat everyone with kindness. You are God’s chosen ones, and he will bless you. The Scriptures say,
10 “Do you really love life? Do you want to be happy? Then stop saying cruel things and quit telling lies. 11 Give up your evil ways and do right, as you find and follow the road that leads to peace. 12 The Lord watches over everyone who obeys him, and he listens to their prayers. But he opposes everyone who does evil.”
1 Peter 3:8-12
The disagreement started at 6pm when we were both hungry and tired from a long day. The idea was simple. - Let’s move the fence, so the goats and chickens have more green stuff to munch on during the day. - That’s a huge task. - But the goats are bored. - But we agreed to wait. - But the goats are eating up all of the chicken’s food too. - But we agreed to wait. - But if we move it into the woods a bit, they will have plenty to eat. - But we will need to clear a path for the fence. - That shouldn’t take long. - But we agreed to wait. - But it will just take 20 minutes… Besides, I can order pizza.
Because pizza was now on the table (it’s an Achilles heel), it was decided that we would move the goat fence that evening. But the fence did not move easily. And it did not take 20 minutes. And we could not move it where we wanted. I was already disgruntled, tired, and hungry. I was now frustrated and angry. And the pizza place was closed.
I wish I had been more kind at that moment.
We’ve all had these experiences. Something is not going as it should. The problem could have been avoided. The timing could have been better. Why are we doing this again? And anger moves from the pit of our stomach up. On its way, it tightens our chest, then ejects out of our mouths, looking to assign blame for the present condition. Mark Twain said, “When angry, count four. When very angry, swear.”
But what are people of faith to do with anger?
Early Christianity was influenced by the philosophy of the Hellenic world. Plato writes, “There are two things a person should never be angry at, what they can help, and what they cannot.” A few years later, Aristotle beautifully describes the predicament of anger: “Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.”
In today’s reading from the epistles, the recipients of the letter entitled “1 Peter” are encouraged to let go of anger and its outcomes. The reason is that kindness and humility are characteristics of people of faith. Even when insult and shade are thrown in our direction, our response is to be loving and kind. (“Ugh,” said the pastor after reading scripture about being kind after being angry). In the Christian faith, this is not done to conquer someone with kindness, or to be submissive or all sorts of evil. It is done with the idea that God blesses the loving and kind path. Some of us are together with our families a lot more than we have ever been. Walking the loving and kind path these days will undoubtedly save a lot of heartaches.
People of faith should always work at how they treat others and how they respond to situations. We may never get it right, but we can practice how to handle frustrating situations better. And we can work to treat others with the same respect that we would hope to receive, or even more, as our lesson suggests.
May you slow down when anger arises. May you never be tempted by pizza. And in all things, may you be loving and kind.
“The Intercession of Christ and the Virgin” att. Lorenzo Monaco ca. 1402. Public Domain.
John 14:15-21 New Revised Standard Version
15”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
18”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
Imagine being a frontline soldier in some war at the beginning of the 19th century. It’s night, and you receive a message from command. But there is no moon. There’s no way to read the message without lighting a lamp that will expose you to enemy fire. In the early 1800’s French artillery officer Captain Charles Barbier was inspired by this predicament to create something called “Night Writing.” It was a code consisting of raised dots poked onto a piece of paper. The code used combinations of twelve dots to stand for different sounds. Over time, Barbier thought that the invention might be useful for people who were blind, so he took his papers to the Royal Institute for the Blind. There he worked with a 13-year-old boy, teaching him to use the system.
The young boy was excited by the opportunities it offered but thought that the system might be too complicated. He offered Barbier some ideas to improve and simplify the system, but Barbier became furious. He did not welcome the suggestions and was insulted that a mere boy would offer corrections to his system. When the boy tried to explain further, Barbier simply picked up his things and walked away from the entire project.
The boy, however, did not lose heart. He took the system and incorporated his own ideas by cutting the number of dots in half to 6 and making them stand for letters instead of sounds. Louis Braille was just fifteen when he completed his system of writing for the blind, a system that is used today in schools all over the world with 10’s of thousands of books, magazines, and journals translated into his system. I enjoy stories like these, stories about something new being accomplished despite resistance. We can imagine a young boy becoming too discouraged by Barbier’s harsh treatment and simply dropping the project. Likewise, we can imagine the young boy going with the old soldier’s systems, despite its difficulties, and that it would have been too difficult to really catch on. But today, the world is better because a blind, teenage boy was not discouraged by Barbier’s arrogance.
I think about what was handed to Louis Braille and what was taught to him. And I think about how he was able to take this system, adapt it, and create something that meets the needs of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. This creativity in the face of great difficulty is perhaps a central theme in today’s gospel lesson.
The first half of John’s Gospel has been a great adventure for Jesus and his followers. His troupe has traveled around Judea and Galilee – modern-day Israel/Palestine - healing and teaching, even raising people from the dead. And because Jesus’ message was so odd, and because he claimed an unsanctioned authority, Jesus has been rejected by the religious leaders at every pass and has begun to raise eyebrows with the oppressive Roman occupiers. Now, everyone is in Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover. After making a fashionable entrance, Jesus sneaks away from the crowds with his disciples. He washes their feet and gives them a new commandment to love one another. And he also talks about his death.
Last week, during the fifth week of Easter, Jesus began his farewell discourse, which starts at the beginning of chapter 14. The discourse is a prolonged speech from Jesus. We can imagine it to be something like the last will and testament of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus’ speech is filled with hope and fears, with concerns for his closest friends and reassurances. Last week we heard his words – “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” This week we hear, “I will not leave you orphaned.” Jesus continues to console his confused and grieving friends. He reminds them that to love him is to do what he did and follow what he taught. Among the many things Jesus said and did, this passage appeals back to chapter 13: “A new commandment I give you this day, that you love one another. And love one another just as I have loved you. By this everyone will know that you are mine if you truly love one another.”
But it seems that Jesus is leaving more than this command as an inheritance. Another will come to help the disciples, an advocate. In Greek, the word is paraclete. Often this is rendered as advocate, helper, or intercessor. It originally has a technical meaning like a lawyer or attorney. In John’s Gospel, it is generally used to mean “one who appears in another’s behalf,” like a representative.
Later in chapter 14, Jesus expands on what this Advocate will do for the disciples. In verse 25, Jesus says, “Now I have said these things while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom God will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
In verse 27, Jesus adds these famous words: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.”
The beginning of the Farewell Discourse centers of two themes. The first is Jesus’ wish that his disciples continue his work. The second is that they take his work into new areas.
Jesus knows that he will soon be taken into custody, but wants his followers to continue his message and mission. He wants his disciples to continue to bring light to the world, and to love those around them by bringing healing and transformation.
But Jesus also knows that if his followers continue his work, they will not be bound by the same geography as Jesus, or the same audience, or the same issues. They will encounter new difficulties and challenges, and they will be required to adapt. Jesus wants his followers to take on their own missions – through the support and direction of the Holy Spirit. This is not a dogmatic movement, one that moves around the known world, applying the same cultural and ethical norms regardless of location. The movement is adaptive, local, and creative. It’s a movement led by the Spirit.
One of the United Church of Hinesburg’s three historic denominations is the United Church of Christ. In the UCC Constitution, it states that “God’s people… are called in each generation to make this faith our own.” It’s this “still speaking faith” that says that God’s work to spread hope and justice is not finished. It’s this “still speaking faith” that reveals new avenues for God’s own compassion, guidance, and truth. It’s this “still speaking faith” that says, “Our faith is over 2000 years old. Our thinking is not.” And it’s a “still speaking faith” that calls both the very faithful and those new to the faith to imagine what might be possible.
I think of Louis Braille here, taking something handed to him, rally a tool for warfare if you think about it, and making something new for the betterment of the world. If God is still speaking to us even today, what’s being said that might challenge the way we’ve always done things? What new ways are we learning that might make a positive impact in our world today?
I am mindful of the ways churches around the world have hopped on a steep technological learning curve in these last few months to live stream, video chat and podcast worship services, support groups, and Bible studies. Folks in pulpits and pews, who previously considered themselves unteachable, are logging on, calling in, and supporting one another. It will be interesting to watch how these learnings are adapted to the ongoing support of those that cannot regularly gather in person.
I am also mindful that for many, these last two pandemic months have been a reset of sorts. Without all the running around to youth events, yoga classes, and late-night meetings, priorities are coming into focus, and some feel more grounded in family, faith, and the outdoors. I know that we are reading more, playing with children and animals more, exploring the woods, and eating dinner together every evening.
Perhaps this pandemic will also better expose the areas of injustice in our societies that the church is called to challenge and correct. Inequality among the very rich, and everyone else is more apparent. The lack of green spaces and issues with our food system have been exposed. The friction between human wellbeing and an unregulated free market is no longer an economic or political issue, but an everyday, main street issue.
Even in this time of pandemic, God is still speaking, calling on us to create something new that can breathe new life into all of creation.
May we listen for God. May we consider our part in Christ’s ongoing work. For the sake of the world. Amen.
A prayer of one afflicted, when faint and pleading before the Lord.
1 Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to you. 2 Do not hide your face from me on the day of my distress. Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily on the day when I call.
3 For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace. 4 My heart is stricken and withered like grass; I am too wasted to eat my bread. 5 Because of my loud groaning my bones cling to my skin.
6 I am like an owl of the wilderness, like a little owl of the ruins. 7 I lie awake; I am like a lonely bird on the housetop. 8 All day long my enemies taunt me; those who deride me use my name for a curse. 9 For I eat ashes like bread, and mingle tears with my drink, 10 because of your indignation and anger; for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside. 11 My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass.
12 But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever; your name endures to all generations. 13 You will rise up and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to favor it; the appointed time has come. 14 For your servants hold its stones dear, and have pity on its dust. 15 The nations will fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth your glory. 16 For the Lord will build up Zion; he will appear in his glory. 17 He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and will not despise their prayer.
Sleep is a wacky event in the Hamilton household, a combination of musical chairs and utilitarianism. Often Leah or I lay down in our children’s room to help them fall asleep only to fall asleep on the floor. Other nights, we make it to bed, only to be joined later by one or more of our children. Anywhere is more comfortable than the sliver of bed I end up with when this happens, so at some point a few nights ago, I ended up on the couch.
There are feeders outside the living room window, so bright and early I woke up to the sound of birdsong. Goldfinch, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Tufted titmouse, Black-capped Chickadee, and Northern Cardinal are common these days. I laid there for a while, listening to the different sounds. I looked out and was amazed at the number of birds all in one place.
Birds play a role in the imagery of Psalm 102, but the initial scene isn’t as hopeful. Our psalmist is experiencing social isolation, likely because of illness. The feeling of social isolation is like a solitary owl. We can clearly understand what is being conveyed, perhaps especially now, during our own experiences of social isolation.
Today’s reading from the Psalms is a lamentation or cry to God because something awful is happening. The subject is wasting away and feels lonely. The early church read this psalm metaphorically, categorizing it as one of the “penitential” psalms (along with 6, 32, 38, 51, 130, and 143) that describes the sinner’s dilemma. Recent scholars have noticed other themes, including poverty, imprisonment, and physical starvation.
Perhaps today, this psalm hits closer to home. While we long to be the songbirds that arrive in spring and congregate around the feeder, we are more like the lonely owl. But this psalm does not pile on more grief to our lack of social engagements these days. Owls were venerated in ancient times, associated with meditation, wisdom, and immortality. The “Owl of Minerva/Athena” was a symbol used in schools of philosophy across the ancient Mediterranean world. In medieval Christianity, owls were observed as staying in one place during the entire day. As such, monks in the middle ages used the owl's symbol for folks that devoted themselves to uninterrupted study. The sixth-century Byzantine writer Johannes Lydus noted that the owl, “days awake all night to signify the human soul which is never lazy, always in movement by its very nature, which is immortal.” Even in the darkness of social isolation and pandemic, we can use this time to grow in wisdom.
There is also an abrupt transition in this psalm at verse 12. Despite the psalmist’s awful predicament, there is still complete trust that if God hears this lament, God will respond favorably. Taking complaints, petitions, and urgent requests to God through prayer is done with the belief that God acts in this world in good and favorable ways today.
There is still something for us in our loneliness and social isolation. Because of this unusual time, we are gaining different sorts of wisdom and understanding about ourselves and the world. It’s hopeful to think of ways these insights will stay with us once we exit the pandemic.
I also remain hopeful that God is/will respond to the cries of so many around the world that long for playgrounds, jobs, and community once again. If you haven’t already, this would be a good week to join in the worldwide chorus of lament, trusting that God hears us and will show up.
“A Rest by the Way” Thomas Gainsborough, ca. 1780. Public Domain.
John 14:1-14* New Revised Standard Version
Jesus said to his friends, “Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too. You know the way to the place I’m going.”
Thomas asked, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. You come to the Father through me. If you really know me, you also know the Father. From now on you know him and have seen him.” 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus said to him, “Philip, I’ve been with you all this time, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.
12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
This world’s not my home, I’m just a passing through My treasures are laid up, somewhere beyond the blue; The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door, And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
I remember singing this hymn a lot during worship services at the small bible church in Ohio, where I grew up. The lyrics were written by Albert Brumley, a prolific southern gospel shape-note composer in the Churches of Christ tradition. Likely, the hymn was written with 2 Corinthians 5 in mind:
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
The ideas that our bodies are temporary vessels, and the world is a brief stop for our eternal souls is perhaps part of the context of today’s gospel lesson. John chapter 14 is a common reading at funerals. In it, Jesus is speaking to his disciples with words of reassurance. If he goes away, he does so to prepare a permanent place for them in his father’s house. For many, this language evokes thoughts of heaven.
But this passage is a dynamic one, located within the larger story of John’s gospel. And at this moment, a lot of trouble is brewing.
By this time in the story, Jesus’ life is in danger. What seems to instigate the plot to kill Jesus is the resurrection of Lazarus in chapter 11. Jesus is gaining power and influence among the crowds, and some leaders worry that an insurrection will take place, resulting in another violent response by the Roman occupying forces. In chapter 12, Jesus enters Jerusalem with much fanfare but sneaks away to talk privately with his disciples. In these private moments, Jesus tells his disciples about his impending death, washes their feet, and gives them the new commandment to “love one another,” as he has loved them.
But this time is also filled with tension. Jesus accuses one of his disciples of betraying him. Judas then sneaks away to do just that. Jesus then tells Peter, his most devoted follower, that he will desert him once he is taken into custody in the following days.
We can imagine that our passage takes place in the upper room after dinner. Judas has left. Peter is sulking. The rest of the disciples feel awful. They don’t know whether to believe Jesus about all of this. After all, it’s terrible news. Maybe escape plans begin to form in their heads. “If Jesus really gets arrested, how do I get out of dodge before the authorities find me?” Maybe their thoughts are more machismo, telling themselves that they would never let anything like this happen, that they would fight for Jesus to the death. All of this, of course, takes place within the safety of the locked room. Perhaps they’re simply shocked. All the good that took place is about to come to a screeching halt.
Jesus reads the room. “Don’t let your hearts be troubled,” he says. “We’ll make it through this. In fact, we will come out on the other side of this calamity in a better place. And, even though it doesn’t sound like it, we will even be together again.”
Philip is trying to figure this all out. How will Jesus make it out of Jerusalem? Where did his father live again? What does the guy even look like? “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, how do we get there, where you will be?”
But it’s not about geography. Jesus can’t really draw a map. But he has spent these last few years showing them the way. You start at compassion and take a left at justice. Stay straight until you expose corruption, and then turn right on inclusion. You know you are on the right path if the sick recover and the hungry are fed. The road will be smooth in some places and bumpy in others. Keep moving and let the love you have for each other, for me, and for others guide you.
One of the strangest aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, from my perspective as a young pastor, is the reality that there is no map, manual, or ecclesiastical treatise that explains how to navigate all of this. We did not learn how to navigate a global pandemic in Divinity School, and I cannot call up a more experienced pastor and ask, “So, how did you handle this all when you first experienced it twenty years ago?” This is a novel experience for all of us.
I resonate, then with Philip, who is trying to pin Jesus down a bit during this troubling and chaotic moment. He wants Jesus to answer a direct question with specifics on the route, walking time, and set expectations upon arrival. When Jesus obfuscates the first go around, Philip presses, asking for a guide, saying, “Show us the Father.” But it doesn’t work that way. Instead, what Jesus says is, “You already have what you need.”
We are not at the end of this pandemic by any means, but in many states, we are experiencing the slow and gradual reopening of businesses under specific conditions. Folks need to return to work to pay bills. Companies need to produce goods and services, or they will go under permanently. And there is considerable risk in all of this. In some states, this is happening while COVID-19 numbers continue to climb.
Local churches, too, have felt the pressure to reopen internally and for financial reasons. It’s been difficult to not gather for two months, to cancel or postpone concerts, service trips, and direct-action events. Many of our local churches serve as an unofficial community hub for social and service activities. AA, 4H, scouting organizations, pre-schools, food pantries, book groups, WIC, after school programs run out of our churches. Our local churches serve an aggregate of vulnerable populations from elderly members to young children and people of differing abilities. How do we move forward? What will the church look like when June rolls around? Will everything be back to normal by the fall? What way do we go, and how do we get there?
“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” says Jesus. I wish he could be more specific. I really wish that Jesus had pulled out a whiteboard and developed a solid action plan that assigned responsibilities to each of the remaining disciples with a set of start and end dates, a list of milestones, and clearly defined desired outcomes. But he doesn’t do this. Instead, he reminds his disciples that they can figure out how to move forward when they remember him.
In the coming weeks, we will be working on what church might look like in the coming months. Already, a handful of national denominations have released guidelines for local churches that describe best practices for when churches eventually reopen. Maybe as we localize these guidelines, keeping in mind the specific communities we serve, we can remember this interaction between Jesus and his disciples. Where is Jesus’ concern for the poor addressed in our plan? Are we protecting the most vulnerable? How can our plan speak to Jesus’ inclusive nature and sense of justice? Is there room in the plan to speak out against abuses of power and corruption? Are folks being fed, physically, and spiritually? Is love our ultimate guide?
Perhaps, Jesus has already gone ahead of us. Not to prepare some half-open relic that doesn’t live up to our memories. Instead, Jesus goes to make a new place for us, a church that is a little more agile, a little more hopeful, a little more inclusive – you know, a little more Christ-like.
May we be guided by the way of Jesus in all we do, for the sake of our communities and the health and wellbeing of all. Amen.
“Moving Day (in Old New York)” ca 1827 by an unknown artist. Public Domain. Here’s a short excerpt from the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Beginning in the colonial era, leases in New York City expired on May 1, dubbed Moving Day. This deadline lasted throughout the nineteenth century. On Moving Day, trade in the city stopped entirely as New Yorkers transferred all their possessions from one location to another in a tumult exacerbated by pervasive housing shortages.”
“I hear there are people who actually enjoy moving. Sounds like a disease to me - they must be unstable. Though it does have it’s poetry, I’ll allow that. When an old dwelling starts looking desolate, a mixture of regret and anxiety comes over us and we feel like we are leaving a safe harbor for the rolling sea. As for the new place, it looks on us with alien eyes, it has nothing to say to us, it is cold.”
- Jan Neruda – Prague Tales, 1877
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
It feels odd to say that we’ve been home for two months. The last time we’ve gathered for worship in person was March 8th. Our children were last in school on March 16th. On March 24th, Governor Scott released the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order. For those who are not going into work at hospitals, grocery stores, and other essential service locations these days, being at home all day, all week, all month is the reality.
Perhaps not a lot has changed for those of us that were homebodies before the pandemic. I’ve spoken with folks that have been able to check off the backlog of home fixes and garden plans during this time. Others have found something new in working from home, and imagine that their jobs will include more working from home even after the pandemic lifts. Some people have also talked about this time as a reset, a time when what it means to live a well-balanced life can be brought into view, and changes can be made. Personally, having time with family in our new homestead is welcome. Projects are being imagined, and some are even being completed.
Of course, we can also acknowledge that staying at home is not welcomed by everyone. Extroverts are bouncing off the walls. To varying degrees, kids are struggling as this cute “Shelter in Place” video from six-year-old Jack Keet illustrates. Others have had to forgo necessary medical treatments during this time. Some are at higher risk of domestic violence and neglect. And others do not have actual homes where they can stay home and safe.
Today’s lessons call attention to folks that cannot stay home because they have had to move during this already difficult time. We’ve lost neighbors to a recent move. Set up long before any talk of a pandemic, our neighbor was transferred to Oregon. She, her husband, and two small children have spent the pandemic navigating the sale of a house, moving across the country, and finding a place to live while maintaining social distancing practices. Because her job is in an essential field, she cannot defer until a more convenient time. Like our neighbors, many others have had to navigate an already stressful experience – moving – with the added complexity of the pandemic.
Moving in the ancient Near East was also done under stress and at great peril. Family and tribe protected individuals, and few wandered far from their ancestral homes. Forced migration because of violence was the primary cause of movement. Drought, famine, or changes to natural resources were also considerations. But Abram moves from the safety of family and community for another reason. In Genesis 12, Abram is called by God to leave the land of his ancestors and sojourn to a land that God will show him. “Pick up and leave, west-ish” is God’s command. And Abram does it. Risking everything, Abram packs his household and leaves. Later, when the Laws of Moses were developed in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, providing hospitality to sojourners became a precept. “Do not oppress the sojourner, for you were once sojourners” is a repeated command.
Today would be a good day to pray for those that have to undertake a move during the pandemic. Packing, moving, and nesting are more difficult right now. If you have someone in your life that has to move during this time, give them a call and see how they are.
“Shepherd” Félicien Rops (1833-1898). Graphite highlighted with red chalk. Public Domain.
Ezekiel 34:23-31* Contemporary English Version
23 After that, I will give you a shepherd from the family of my servant King David. All of you, both strong and weak, will have the same shepherd, and he will take good care of you. 24 He will be your leader, and I will be your God. I, the Lord, have spoken.
The Lord God said: 25 The people of Israel are my sheep, and I solemnly promise that they will live in peace. I will chase away every wild animal from the desert and the forest, so my sheep will not be afraid. 26 They will live around my holy mountain, and I will bless them by sending more than enough rain 27 to make their trees produce fruit and their crops to grow. I will set them free from slavery and let them live safely in their own land. Then they will know that I am the Lord. 28 Foreign nations will never again rob them, and wild animals will no longer kill and eat them. They will have nothing to fear. 29 I will make their fields produce large amounts of crops, so they will never again go hungry or be laughed at by foreigners. 30 Then everyone will know that I protect my people Israel. I, the Lord, make this promise. 31 They are my sheep; I am their God, and I take care of them.
The author of Ezekiel is looking to explain the reason for a great disaster. God’s holy city, Jerusalem, has fallen to the Babylonians, and its inhabitants have been carried off in chains. Blame gets passed around. Bloody judgments are issued. The book feels raw like it was written during a time of brooding, humiliation, and unconcentrated resentment. Needless to say, it isn’t the book we would read if we are here looking for a few words of hope during the pandemic.
Yet, chapter 34 of Ezekiel is one of the more polished pieces in an otherwise tricky book. The chapter begins with a denouncement of Israel’s previous leaders. The metaphor is shepherding, a trope the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) has been steeped in these last two weeks. Specifically, the leaders of God’s people are depicted as awful shepherds. Here’s a list of their offenses:
- they eat while failing to feed their sheep. - they fleece the sheep while the sheep go cold. - they slaughter the healthy sheep while failing to help the sick and injured. - They have not brought back the lost – even failing to look for them. - They’ve overworked the healthy animals to exhaustion and then abandoned the flock to wild animals.
We don’t have to be shepherds to know that this is no good. But the answer to this judgment is interesting, and the core of today’s reading. God claims ownership of the sheep and promises to place a good shepherd over the flock. The sheep of God’s flock will be genuinely cared for. They will have good food, water, and shelter and will be safe. God, it seems, will take an active role in the health and wellbeing of the flock, too, being present in their lives.
This is really the book at its most hopeful. Not only is justice met by removing the leaders that fleeced their people. Justice is also reached when the community is protected and loved. God’s vision of justice involves a constructive element, one that aims to build a better society.
It’s also interesting that this new arrangement is promised by God, not once but twice in our passage. And we can read this as people of faith have always read these promises. They are here for us, in part, and we work for the day when the promises of God are fully realized for all. The pandemic has allowed us to see the places where our human flock is in trouble. But it has also given us examples of heroism and service. Perhaps even today, we can name some of those ways God’s promises for healthy human life are being realized.