So let’s just state the obvious: life feels strange! I have never preached to an empty sanctuary knowing that our people will be brought together through virtual technology. We have cancelled worship services in the past but have always assumed it would just be for one Sunday. We are making history right now as a country, mandating quarantines and voluntarily suspending activities that bring large groups of people together. The corona virus lurks so we retreat to our homes for an indefinite period of time. While it felt strange for us and thousands of other churches to worship remotely, I am thankful for the options we have to stay connected even while physically separated from each other.
There are lots of firsts right now. We are seeing what our priorities are in times of crisis and surprised by the national run on toilet paper! Who knew that TP topped the lists of so many people! A shop in Ann Arbor was selling small bottles of Purell, misspelled in their on-line advertising, for $20, $40 and $60 per bottle, depending on the size. And they sold out! Bottles of water have flown off the skids, never making it onto the shelves. Costco shoppers in Las Vegas found many of the shelves empty but still had to wait in line two hours to check out. The corona virus is giving us a new window into our world and it’s alarming!
I went to our local grocery store yesterday, more to experience the mood of our community than to shop. The parking lot was as full as I’ve seen it in preparing for holidays. But people were considerate of each other. Folks yielded their carts for others to pass, offering a weary smile. One young guy rushed down the center aisle wearing what looked to be a gas mask that covered most of his face. He was on a mission. But he was the exception. The good news, as with many crises, is that people reach out to each other with kindness. We look for the ways to be unified even when urged to stay apart.
A church member posted a moving video on Facebook on Friday. The footage was captured in the town of Siena, Italy, where the whole town—in fact, the whole country—is on mandatory lock-down. The camera was aimed out an upper level window, looking down a dark street with three-story buildings on both sides. One lone bass voice begins to sing a song. Very shortly another voice joins in, then another. Soon the whole neighborhood has turned into a choir, lifting the spirits of those who cannot be physically near each other. They are singing out their windows in harmony in a time of quarantine. There is beauty in these frightening times!
We could not have known as we started the Lenten season how “Lenten” it would feel. The mood in Lent is heavy. We choose to walk alongside of Jesus, who is voluntarily offering His life for the well-being of others. The nearer He got to the cross, the greater the isolation. Out of fear, even His closest disciples quarantined themselves to stay safe from those who opposed Jesus’ ministry. We will remember this Lenten season as being uniquely different. But, I hope, we will look back and remember how intentionally we reached out to others whose safety net is much smaller than our own. We need to keep that image of singing God’s praises in solidarity with each other, even as we remain physically separated. Like the disciples, we will discover what is most precious to us in this historically difficult time.
The scripture for today comes from Matthew’s Gospel, the seventh chapter. It is familiar to many of us: 24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
28 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
The wise person builds their house upon the rock because the home that is set upon a foundation of sand will fall. Several of you are hearing a Vacation Bible School song in your heads from an earlier generation, right?! My family built a house on the shores of Lake Michigan in 1974. Perched high up on a bluff that overlooks the big lake, it fulfilled my parents’ greatest dream. A decade later we had to move it back because of rising lake levels. We were blessed with lowered lake levels since the 1980’s but that ended dramatically last year. With lake levels surpassing those of the 1980’s my siblings and I have watched, horrified and powerless over the forces of nature that have ravaged our bluff. Huge chunks of our real estate have fallen into the lake below. Angry storms have taken down ancient trees and destroyed the habitat of various woodland creatures. What is our foundation made of? You can tell a lot about a house by its foundation. An old farmhouse will have stones piled on top of each other and held together with mortar. Ancient ruins remain because foundations were made of stone. In this challenging time of Covid 19, we will discover as individuals, as a nation, as a global community, the foundation upon which we have built our lives!
I enrolled in a Spiritual Direction course nearly two years ago. Each student was asked to choose one spiritual giant to study. We have been asked to share with each other what we have learned about our person and how their life has impacted our own. I chose Julian of Norwich. Honestly, it seems as if she chose me. Norwich, where Julian spent her life, is just 20 minutes south of the small town where I lived in England from ages 1-4. I feel like I know her world as part of my earliest childhood development. My daughter, Maria, gave me a coffee mug several years ago that has an upbeat line printed along the inside upper rim of the cup: All will be well. The mug has yellow flowers painted on the outside of it. This mug cheers me up, especially as I sip my morning coffee in the dark of winter. I learned, as I got to know Julian, that this is her line. She is remembered for her affirmation: All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well. What an optimist I chose!
This rosy optimism might not grab our attention until we learn about the great challenges that faced Julian. Born in the 14th century, England endured several waves of the black plague. Between 1348 and 1349 in Norwich 7,000 people died out of a population of 12,000. More than half the population of Europe died from the plague. When Julian was 20, there was a flood in East Anglia (her hometown) that brought storm surges 30 feet above ordinary levels. The winds sometimes reached more than 100 miles per hour. Villages were washed away overnight with tremendous loss of cattle, homes, and human lives. The Hundred Year’s War broke out in her life. The disarray and crumbling of the papacy happened during this time, leaving folks to rely on spirituality from mystics and personal experience rather than formal ecclesial sources. Julian was one of many who went deep in her faith life rather than turning to traditional models of church authority for inspiration. There was nationwide rioting in the peasants’ rebellion that resulted in their movement being crushed and folks witnessing unforgettable violence. Famine was a continual companion for Julian and her contemporaries. In her writing, Julian made references to death, dying, flood and disease which were based on her personal experiences with these crises. She taught that loving and praying are done with the will, not the emotions. With the continual swirl of crises that surrounded her, this was a central tenet to sustain her prayer life. One biographer stated that death was so familiar in her life that it had an image, smell, sound and touch to it. So her strong affirmation of faith that “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well” can only be the result of Divine revelation and a profound intimacy with God. This statement of faith pointed to a conviction that our daily trials need not consume us for God shall triumph over all that is created in a glorious manner. Nothing else matters!
We know that Julian had a near death experience at age 30. During the time that she lingered between life and death, she experienced visions that brought her into the presence of a loving God. She emerged from that sickness with a desire to commit to a more intentional life of faith. She became an anchorite, one set apart from the world. An anchorite chose to be walled into a small apartment, approximately 9’ by 11’, on the grounds of a church. It was a lifetime commitment. Julian chose the cathedral near her hometown in Norwich. The family paid for the support of the person. Julian had two windows in her cell: one enabled her to look into the sanctuary where she could see the communion elements lifted up in worship. The other opened up to the town of Norwich. There was a heavy curtain that separated her visually from folks on the village side. But people would come up to her window to consult her wise counsel on their struggles. In this tiny cell, Julian prayed and read scripture. The priest ministered to her through the window that looked out onto the sanctuary. News of the outside world reached her through the folks who came to her for spiritual direction. She wrote about her visions and those became the greatest source of counsel she could offer others. But the words she became known for in this era of unprecedented suffering and death were the ones written in part on my coffee mug 600 years later: All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.
Really?!? When she had her near death experience at age 30 she had no father or siblings, no husband or children. We assume that she experienced the loss of much of her family—like all of her neighbors. So why didn’t she get stuck on crying out, “Why me? This isn’t fair!”? Because she met the God of Jesus Christ in her own dying and that holy Presence was enough for her. To an anguished population that sometimes traveled long distances to sit at her window, she reassured them of God’s love. And each day, as the mass was offered, she took strength from the uplifted bread and cup, the reminder that Jesus poured out His life for a panicked, bereaved people.
Our lives are narrowing in part because of government mandates and in part, out of our own sense of caution. These are not fun snow days that give us a break from our usual routine for a day or two. We are fearful with the threat of death broadcast continually on the news. We are bored and lonely in our absence from each other. We wonder how long it will go on. We suspect that this will change the way we do business, do church, do social outings in the future.
So I offer to you the image of two windows. As our lives narrow we choose to immerse ourselves in spiritual disciplines. This is the unique challenge and choice of Lent. What do I add to my life to commune with God more closely? We read scripture in our families. We pray together. We read material that will build us up in the Spirit. We reach out to each other in the ways that are safe right now. Through one window we look into the sanctuary, like you are doing this morning. As odd as it feels, we have this option, thanks to technology, to worship together even though we are not physically present to each other. It’s comforting to see the familiar cross hanging in our empty sanctuary with candles lit on the altar. They remind us of Jesus, the Light of the world. We look in on this together through our I-Pad, cell phone and computer screens. The other window is one we have on the world. We see others when we go to work, when we are out in our driveways talking with our neighbor. We overlap with people in lines at the grocery store. We connect with people quarantined in nursing and retirement facilities by phone call and email. We even have the opportunity to drop a note in the mail to folks who might be more adversely impacted by these strange times than others.
There are people who are counting on us nourishing our own faith life so that we have the spiritual strength and optimism to reach out rather than simply hole up. 75,000 children are on free and reduced lunch programs at their schools in Michigan. People are donating food items and time to organizations like Children’s Food Basket to be certain that this at-risk population gets fed. Our Lenten collection is for various food and toiletry items for United Church Outreach Ministry clients. I will encourage our Mission Board to bring these items to UCOM as they come in rather than wait until the end of the Lenten season. For our neighbors in that part of Grand Rapids, there can be no waiting. I am certain that City Impact will have a heightened need to minister to residents of the Cedar Springs Mobile Homes Estates. We are closely connected to the work of North Kent Connect and will watch for their appeals. We will keep you posted of ways we might help them. I will continue to offer pastoral care to our members and I invite you to reach out to others in smaller groupings as opportunity presents itself.
Perhaps we Christians, gathering in unique ways in unusual times, can gain strength from an affirmation of faith that surfaced out of a plague 600 years ago: All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well. Thank you, Dame Julian, for building your deep faith on the rock of Jesus Christ. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for Your healing presence and eternal love for this world. We need You!