After a couple of weeks away on holidays, it is good to be back – well, sort of.
As some of you may know, our family ventured west for the first time since June 2019. It had been nearly 3 years since our family had made our pilgrimage to see extended family across the prairies. It was incredible to see just show much our kids loved seeing various relatives. they marvelled at all the people they were related to. At 8 and 5, I think they felt like they were meeting many folks for the first time.
The purpose of our trip a this time of year was to attend an important family funeral, but the opportunity to see family was something we all needed after 3 years of staying home.
After two weeks of visits, of recreating missed birthdays, family dinners and just spending time together, our hearts were full of something we had been desperately missing. It almost felt normal at times, being around people we love and have missed so much.
Finally, close to the end of the second week, we began the long drive home.
In the weeks before we set out on this holiday, in the midst of Holy Week and Easter, I did my best to keep up on the pandemic situation. I knew that COVID was spreading widely, but seeing family, particularly because of this family funeral, was important at this point.
In the middle part of the second week, we began feeling some symptoms: Runny noses, coughs, plugged ears. While there were stories of COVID cases all around us, we initially attributed it to seasonal and pet allergies (so many dogs and cats!). But still we took rapid tests, we were always wearing masks in public, and compared to a normal whirlwind family tour, we reduced contacts and limited household visits substantially.
Still, we were feeling pretty crummy as we came home. Before going out into the world once home, we decided to rapid test again.
And after a week of symptoms, our tests finally showed two lines.
We were positive for COVID-19.
The thing that we had been working so hard to avoid for over 2 years had finally made its way into our house all the way from across the country.
We let our family and anyone who visited us know.
For us, it has been very hard to be so far from family during this pandemic. But I also know it may have been one of the things that has kept us safe from infection. If we lived closer to family, I am sure we would have been gathering and visiting when the public health orders allowed. I am sure our contacts would have gone way up.
And looking back it is easy to see why we were infected with COVID-19. In two weeks we were in more homes, and spending more time with people unmasked and close contact than we have in the two years previous. We thought we were careful enough, but every visit was a risk.
It is a reminder of just where this pandemic has hit us hardest. It speaks to why we are all so beaten down and struggling. COVID-19 has robbed us of the most important activities that help us stay healthy and grounded. Gathering together with the family and friends who are most important to us. Two years of FaceTime and Zoom calls every other day was nothing like just once sitting around the dinner table with those that we love.
The pandemic is far from over. We continue to balance finding ways to connect with and be close to those people who are most important to us – family, friends, neighbours or siblings in Christ – with staying safe, preventing illness and disease.
And I cannot help but come to the realization this is our new world. The realities that we are struggling with today are not going anywhere anytime soon, and so we continue to struggle together. We continue to follow God’s call together. We continue to adapt and change and seek out ways to be community, to care for each other and to walk together in faith.
So far COVID-19 has been like a bad head cold for us… and hopefully I will start testing negative soon and be able to re-join our local community not long after that.
John 12:1-8 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Of all the stories of Jesus’ ministry that we have heard until this point during the pandemic, this scene may feel the most unsettling. Not because the story itself is strange or off-putting. But because of where we currently find ourselves. Having lived and continuing to live cautious lives and only considered careful measured forays into social settings.
And the thing that sticks out to me more than anything is that it must have been almost hard to breathe.
The smell of the perfume would have stuck in the room. It would have overwhelmed the noses of all present at the celebratory meal. In the before times, we all know someone who wears too much perfume or cologne, whether it is that strange aunt in the family, or teenage boys wearing too much body spray cologne. But I cannot remember the last time that I smelled someone else that doesn’t live in my house. Masks and social distancing have had the incredible effect of isolating us from the smells of being in community.
Smells can overpower us like no other sense can. And certain scents can immediately recall memories long buried to time with incredible vividness. They can remind us more powerfully than a picture of past events, places or persons than just about anything else. The smell of chlorine can take you right back to that first time swimming in an indoor pool. Or the smell of pine trees can take you back to beloved Christmas memories.
The smell today, the perfume that anoints Jesus’ feet cannot be taken lightly or be overlooked. A pound of perfume is not a delicate scent, and that seems to be Mary’s point. On this day, Jesus, his good friend Lazarus, and the disciples are being treated to a celebratory meal. Lazarus has been raised from the dead and this is the first time that Mary, Martha and Lazarus have seen Jesus since the miracle. Martha, as usual, is serving the dinner. She is giving thanks in her way. But Mary decides to give thanks in a different way. She wants to express her deep gratitude and her love for Jesus. It is the kind of emotional display that makes most of us uncomfortable, like two lovers passionately kissing in public. As Mary anoints Jesus feet, and then wipes them with her own hair, the rest of the guests at the party were probably feeling awkward. Washing feet was something that servants do. And using one’s hair as the cloth… well, that was just strange. Mary’s act is as extravagant and wild and passionate as it seems. Probably something that should have been saved for a private moment with Jesus.
In the midst of this beautiful moment, this act of love and gratitude that Mary is giving to Jesus, Judas pipes up. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?”. The moment is ruined. Judas has re-interpreted this lovely scene to his own ends. Perhaps he was uncomfortable with the display of affection, or perhaps as John suggests, he has other intentions for the money. Whatever Judas’ reasons, he wants to disconnect from the intimate and personal moment. He tries to make it about the impersonal and distant and abstract idea of how money should be used. Judas tries to make the moment about practicality and he almost steals away Mary’s extravagant love, diminishing her by rebuking her feelings. Judas tries to dismiss Mary’s love and gratefulness with his distant and impersonal righteous indignation.
I can very much get Judas’ discomfort, you probably do too. Having a display like Mary’s can intrude in our space and feelings and sense of what is appropriate. And like Judas, we can seek to create distance, through power and manipulation, between ourselves and this deep display of affection. We fear what Mary is doing. We fear letting go of ourselves to God’s love and call for us. We fear the ways in which we might be changed, we might be vulnerable and unsafe, the ways in which our world and lives may become uncertain.
And at the heart of our distancing, is our desire for control. We want to be in control of where we begin and end, to protect our bodies and feelings and tribes from risk and hurt. And we use whatever power we can. Money, judgement, shame. Mary’s act is not safe, it is wild and untamed. It is extravagant and passionate. This is not the way we think the world should work. “Don’t waste the money” we declare because we are uncomfortable with risk. “Don’t be so emotional” we cry out because we know loving so deeply can lead us to getting hurt.
Our fear of being close, our need for control, gets in the way of opening ourselves to God’s love and call. Our discomfort puts practicality or pragmatism before others, before people. Judas only sees dollars being poured on Jesus feet. We often get bogged down by the resources being expended on our family, on our neighbours, on the church, on ourselves. Judas doesn’t see that what Mary is doing for Jesus is worth more than any amount of money. Often we find it hard to see that the families, friends, neighbours and ministries that we give our time and passion as being worth of the expense. It can be hard for us to let ourselves take the risk being close, the risk of following and loving Jesus, the risk of being people who care about God’s mercy for the world too much. We know that all of that is very uncomfortable.
For five weeks we have been immersed in the season of Lent. Immersed in this journey exploring the relationship of power and love. We began with the powerful reminder of our mortality on Ash Wednesday. We hear the stories of temptation, lament, another year of grace, and prodigal love. We have kept from singing Alleluias, we have sung Lord have Mercy, Christ have Mercy, Lord have Mercy instead. And on this final Sunday before Palm Sunday, the deep symbol of death enters into our sanctuary.
There is a pound of pure nard on Jesus feet. This perfume is one meant to keep the smell of death at bay. It is suppose to disguise the smell of a decaying body while it waits to be buried.
Yet, so often the thing meant to distance and disguise, to protect us from reality comes to symbolize the very thing it is trying to hide. The perfume becomes the smell of death.
Jesus does not miss the symbol. Mary has anointed his feet with the smell of Good Friday, the day that we are slowly building to as we get closer to Holy Week.
Jesus does not see waste, Jesus doesn’t need to distance himself from Mary. Jesus sees love, lavish, wild and untamed love. Jesus sees the future. “Leave her alone” he says, ”She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial”. Mary is not anointing a king, or prophet. Mary is anointing a friend, teacher and son, who will be soon prepared for burial on Friday evening, and Jesus is reminding his disciples and friends one more time of all of this. The ministry, the parables, the miracles, the teaching in synagogues, the traveling the countryside. None of it is about the bottom line, none of it has been about being practical with money, none of it was about God staying distant and safe from creation. This moment is a foretaste of God’s imminent future.
When the time comes for Jesus’s body to be put into the ground, God will be accomplishing something new, something never seen. Something glimpsed as Lazarus stepped out of his tomb. God is accomplishing something new before the women even have the chance to anoint Jesus’ body on that Easter morning. God is about to turn the world upside, to bring new meaning to creation. Preparing for burial will no longer be preparing for death, but preparing for New Life.
Here in this perfume filled room, where passionate and impulsive Mary has shown her love and thanks in her way, Jesus gives the whole world a new sign. God’s future is now about us. Jesus burial is about us. On Good Friday Jesus will be anointing the world with New Life. And God is bringing us all right into the middle of it, God crossing the bounds of our discomfort in order to love us.
What a contrast the walls and obstacles we put to protect ourselves, to our seeking to distance from God’s wild and untamed love. We try to protect ourselves by appealing to power, money, and supposed morality all because we are uncomfortable with God’s love. God risks it all, even death, to come close, to take on and wear our flesh, so that we will know love.
Judas is uncomfortable with the perfume filled house, he wants to step back and distance himself. Make things about money, or poor people, or whatever else that is safe to feel. But Jesus stays present and near for Mary’s gesture of love, and then Jesus tells us that God is only coming closer. Coming in the familiar smells of Holy Week.
Like any powerful perfume, there is no distancing ourselves from God’s love after this. Today God’s Love comes near to us in perfume that anoints Jesus feet, it will come on palms branches next week, it was waft from the table at Maundy Thursday. And it will comes so close on Good Friday, we will nail it to the cross to distance ourselves from it.
But after three days, God’s love will burst forth, uncontrolled, untamed, wild, passionate, extravagant. And it will be love that we can see, touch, taste and of course, love that we can smell.
I have always found the juxtaposition between Lent-Holy Week and Spring a little odd-feeling.
Lent walks us through a somber and solemn season toward the darkest point in the Christian story. Meanwhile our season is changing as winter ends, snow melts, days get longer and, if we are lucky, the greens of spring start to appear. Mid-week evening prayer services in particular start out in dark evening settings but often by the end of Lent and because of the time change are taking place in full daylight.
Now this is a particular feature of the Northern Hemisphere, as our Southern Hemisphere siblings experience Lent and Easter through fall into winter (and Christmas in the middle of summer!). For my seminary cross-cultural component, we travelled to visit CLWR projects in Peru. It was odd to arrive on January 1st – the middle of summer – to Christmas Lights, Santa displays and many, many nativity scenes and Feliz Navidad signs during the 12 days of Christmas.
The way that our local contexts impact our experience of faith can change how we practice being church together. Most church folks don’t really notice however because you have to move from church to church to see it.
My first congregation in a rural farming community told me that the best time to have bible studies, meetings and other programs was after harvest in November and before seeding in April.
With all the cottagers here in Manitoba, I know some churches have just cancelled summer Sunday worship altogether or tried mid-week services.
And of course these past two years, the way we have practiced our faith has been deeply impacted by the pandemic and all the measures we took to keep one another safe.
I began to realize this after almost a year of worshiping online, sometimes attentively chatting and liking and humming along, sometimes watching on my phone while Arsenal FC flickered on the big screen, sometimes listening while riding my bike. I wasn’t worshiping; I was going through the motions. I began to realize that my pastor was no longer a mediator but more of a proxy. As long as she was doing the work, I didn’t have to.
I wonder if this is one of the scars or fears or possibilities COVID has laid bare. Stripped of the presence of people, we are left to ask questions of what we believe and do and are beyond the simple act of showing up at a building on Sunday.
Because I pre-recorded worship for much of the past two years, I was also watching worship in my PJs with a coffee on Sunday mornings. Even though I was the one presiding and preaching, I could feel that watching worship was missing the essential element of being active and engaged. That person on the screen was doing my faith for me.
(Don’t hear this knocking down online services. They were essential during the past two years and continue to be essential means of making church accessible in ways that we weren’t before).
Without an ounce of judgement, I also know that as a pastor, becoming a proxy for faithfulness has been happening for years if not decades. I know that the line between helping people grow in faith and practicing faith on their behalf has been an ever blurring line. Reading the bible, praying, serving the community and telling people about God’s love has been shifting from something that pastors help people to do into things the pastor does for people. There are a lot of complicated reasons behind this, from the clericalization of the church to a world that doesn’t know Christianity as it once did.
The result is that even as life-long church goers, it is becoming more and more difficult to make space and room for the practices of our faith to shape and form our lives. Because there is this other direction that things can and should go on this two-way street of faith. Yes, things like geography, history and culture, local traditions and community affect how the church goes about its day to day, season to season ministry.
Yet there is also the way in which the rhythms and patterns of our Sunday to Sunday lives, our season to season journey of faith changes and shapes how we live the rest of our lives. Whether it is finding time to read the bible, pray or watch a devotional on YouTube each day. Whether it is giving something up for Lent. Whether it is joining a small group, signing up to give rides to church, volunteering to bake cookies for the Urban, or to be a sponsor for the splash program. Incorporating faith into our day to day lives takes on many shapes.
But there is also the way in which our faith reminds us how God’s loves makes us worthy, God’s grace and mercy reconciles us, God’s Kingdom has room for us, the Body of Christ needs us. And that this changes how we are in the world with family, friends, at work, in the neighbourhood and beyond.
We are in a place of destabilization and deconstruction as individuals, as a society and as a church. As the structures that undergirded our lives are stripped away, we are left to start again building up our world and our lives. And that begins by understanding anew who we are – our identity.
In Christ the foundation of our identity is assured – beloved children of God. Now figuring out what it means to be beloved children of God in this Northern Hemisphere, spring has sprung, zoomed out, extremely online, pandemic weary world as Winnipeggers (or people from wherever you are from) trying to live this life of faith together in 2022 and beyond.
I am excited to find the answer to where God is leading us together.
Human beings have this habit of thinking that the things that just happened will keep happening forever. The official name for it is called recency bias. (Forgive me if I have talked about this before.)
Your favourite sports team wins the first game of the season and you feel like they will go 82-0 the rest of the season.
Gas, housing prices, inflation etc… goes up and we think they will go up forever.
Peace breaks out in substantial parts of western world, and we think it will endure forever.
Then the sports team loses, the stock market crashes, prices change and fall, war breaks out and our recency bias is disproven – often causing consternation.
We know the best strategy is to buy low and sell high, yet we keep selling low and buying high.
And so too it is the case in the church. For close to 50 years churches followed a steady trajectory of growth. The population boom of the 1950s and 60s turned into a frenzy of church planting and building, into growing staffs and budgets through to the early 2000s. But then things start to level out, some congregations even started to shrink a little.
And it seemed impossible. After seemingly endless growing, of adding more and more staff members, calling additional pastors, renovating church spaces to hold more people and allow for more programs, adding worship services to accommodate growing crowds, churches who were planning for more of the same were not prepared for something to contradict their recency bias.
If you went back in time to 1962 to a church and told the folks then that within their lifetime churches would age and shrink and begin to seriously struggle, they would have laughed at you!
But here is the thing. If you took a 1962 person back to a church in 1912 and described the church of 1962 to that 1912 person, they would laugh too! In 1912, you would likely find a hastily constructed barn serving as a church on the corner of a farmer’s field. There might be a pastor who was riding a wagon or train around the countryside preaching at several congregations a Sunday, being paid in eggs, milk and chickens. Churches would be struggling to keep up, putting out herculean efforts just to gather together for worship. That person from 1912 would recognize the church of 2022 more than the church of 1962.
Christianity and local congregations have been enduring boom and busy cycles for hundreds of years, and what we are living in now has been more of the norm for most of history. The golden ages of the middle 20th century was the blip.
Now, if someone from 2052, maybe even 2032, had shown up in our pews in 2019 and told us that the church of the future will be lively and vibrant and growing in surprising ways, we would have laughed at them too.
But today in 2022 with the world in as uncertain and topsy-turvey as it has ever been in most of our life times, maybe a vibrant future church doesn’t seem entirely out of the question. If the Ukraine way keeps escalating and further threatening our own safety, if (when) another variant of COVID-19 emerges causing widespread illness, hospitalization and death, if our economic troubles create even deeper hardship, if climate change continues to streek our infrastructure… it is easy to imagine people turning to religion for hope and support.
Change is upon us, and what has just happened to us is extremely unlikely to continue on forever. In fact, knowing what we know about the cycle of history, a vibrant and growing church in 2032 is more likely than a church that fades completely into nothingness. It is hubris for us to think we are going to be the last generation of the faithful. But our recency bias is often so strong that we cannot believe it – more of the same decline “feels” like our future.
However, the church of the next 10 to 30 years will be a church dramatically changed from even what we know now. As different as my grandfather spending Sundays riding the train across the country side in 1948 to 1951 to preach at small rural congregations to growing multi-pastor, multi-staff program corporate churches of the late ’60s to early 2000s.
This week we will hear the story of the Prodigal Son which (spoiler alert) is not so much a warning against dissolute living, but a story about undoing expectations. The younger son expects condemnation and the older expects vindication. Neither gets what they expect. Instead God provides something else entirely.
I don’t know what the church of the next 10 to 30 years will look like (I have lots of ideas!) but I do know that it will not be what we expect. Instead, at the guiding of the Spirit, we will be transformed for this new and changing world again. God has always been changing and making us ready for the world we find ourselves in, even when we have no idea what that will look like.
‘We’ meaning civilized society broadly, North America and Canada more specifically.
I think Omicron broke us.
Human beings are usually quite responsive in a crisis. That’s why we open our wallets, send food and clothes, volunteer where we can. Earthquakes, forest fires, tornados etc… House fires, robberies, floods etc… Terminal illness, accidents, tragedies etc…
So when COVID first hit us last year, it was relatively easy for us to adopt a crisis mentality. Especially during a time when we were all affected, when so much was unknown and there was plenty to be afraid of.
In short order, COVID-19 hit us hard. People got sick and some people died.
The reasons to follow public health orders seemed obvious then.
Now, there were those early on who struggled making personal sacrifices for the sake of the many. Most notably the entitled and wealthy, celebrities and politicians (who couldn’t seem to stop having parties, travelling for holidays and generally breaking the rules that they set in place for the rest of us).
There were also the chaos agents. People who had meltdowns in grocery stores. People who threw big house parties. People who could not bring themselves to follow any restrictions but instead starting casting about for conspiracy theories and deniability of reality.
But for the most part, it seemed that the majority complied with the effort to reduce sickness, hospitalization and death.
Of course, as time went on, the segment of those who have been resisting and breaking restrictions during the past two years has grown and shifted from group to group. Some loudly protested and unexpected people turned into chaos agents, but we sort of had the masking, social distancing thing figured out.
And then came the vaccines. Salvation. The end. Back to normal.
While the majority couldn’t wait to roll up their sleeves fast enough, the chaos agents started banging the anti-vaxx drums. We all know how that went by the fall of 2021 and the Delta wave.
More people got sick and more people died. Mostly unvaccinated people.
Meanwhile, the vaccinated were getting back to a new normal.
It seemed like the narrative that we had heard all along (though with plenty of caveats from health experts) had come true. The crisis arc, though long, had come to pass. There was a pandemic, the scientists raced against the clock to find the cure (vaccine), and then we rolled it out as fast as we could. The lingering nature of the pandemic was hard, but there seemed to be natural arc that we had figured out and the crisis was ending.
And then Omicron showed up.
And it broke us.
Or more accurately, Omicron turned the pandemic from a temporary crisis into a systematic problem. It felt like March 2020 all over again. The same problems repeating themselves, the cycle was restarted – so it seemed.
Perhaps more accurately, cases exploded, resources for testing and contact tracing couldn’t keep up and the health system began to buckle.
The thing that we had been warned to prepare for since March of 2020 happened.
And again for the zillionth wave of the pandemic, people got sick and some people died.
But in the face of this brutal Omicron wave, government leaders threw their hands in the air and said there was not more to be done. Everyone was going to encounter the virus. They bet on the fact that Omicron was “less severe.”
Meanwhile the chaos agents started collecting followers and the right-wing saw an opportunity.
Making money, living our best lives, looking out of number one…. So many people decided that we just cannot put that off anymore, no matter the cost. No matter how many get sick, how many get long covid or myocarditis, no matter how many die… all of that is okay, as long as won’t have to wear masks in stores, or have smaller birthday parties, or zoom a little more often.
And now vaccinated people were getting sick, it was the justification needed to loudly proclaim that none of the public heath measures of the past to years had done anything to stop the virus but only oppressed the average working person.
Time to go back to normal no matter the cost. Hospitals full, healthcare workers burning out, business and institutions struggling to maintain staffing. Time to abandon the fight – death may come. But at least we can have our hedonism freedom.
Now the pandemic can stop being a crisis. Conservatives governments and their hard right supporters have decided that we can now treat the pandemic like they do all other social problems and issues.
Whether it is climate change, white supremacy’s systems of power, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, poverty, economic inequality etc… It doesn’t matter if people get sick, if people suffer, if people are oppressed or if people die.
The right has declared that hedonism freedom should reign.
People should fix their own problems, the weak, the lazy, the less fortunate deserve what they have. Don’t let their issues infringe on my hedonism rights and freedom.
Now we have Freedom Convoys ejecting conservatives political leaders for not bending the knee to the death cult. We have communities across the country being terrorized by the same kind of tactics that the Black Shirts of Italy and Brown Shirts of Germany used. The kind of tactics that I remember being taught that good democratic people know how to stand up to.
So, given all of this, I am worried about us. Maybe more worried than I have ever been.
We are not okay.
We cannot get our act together on economic inequality, with billionaires more powerful than any feudal king ever was.
We cannot seem to make progress on racism, sexism, and all manners of systematic bigotry.
We cannot seem to make our leaders care enough about climate change to do something meaningful about it (see point about billionaries above).
We keep trying to play political games with a virus, making trade-offs instead of decisive actions.
And now a big chunk of society, the hard and growing right is imposing its death cult on our public health response too.
Poor people can die. Marginalized people can die. The Earth can die. The sick can die. They all can die if they in any way threaten our hedonism rights and freedom.
I think we are sitting at a crossroads as a civilization.
We can continue down the path of death. The one of political appeasement of a small voting base that is willing to hold the rest of us hostage rules the day… (convoys or billionaires, take your pick)
This path leads to more people getting sick and many more people dying because of economic inequality, climate change, white supremacy and a pandemic.
Until… it all gets to be too much for the majority who will begin a revolution. A geo-polticidal crisis in the same lines as the ones we seem to face every 80 or so years (think WWI/Great Depression/WWII about 80 years ago). This is a repeating cycle of history.
We can make the choice to be better and care for each other, not just in the face of the pandemic. But in all things.
We can adopt policies that redistribute wealth more equitably.
No one needs billions, it is a slap in the face of the inherent dignity of human beings for millions upon millions to suffer so that Jeff Bezos can fly to “space” or dismantle historic bridges for his mega-yacht.
We can actually make meaningful steps towards addressing climate change.
We can decarbonize, actually turn to green energy and attend to the earth’s well being.
We can dismantle white supremacy.
We can root it out in every place, and insist on making space for those suffering under its thumb.
We can empower society to weather the still-to-come waves of COVID that will keep hitting us until we vaccinate the whole world.
This means knowing that we will get small as the waves hit, and expand as they subside. Things like Universal Basic Income, expansion of public universal healthcare and its institutions, direct support for more equitable and affordable housing will be our way through.
There is a pathway out of the problems that we face. The question is, are we willing to take it?
The historian in me says that we are doomed to repeat history.
But the Pastor in me has hope that we will find a different way.