Tag Archives: Pandemic

WIlderness and Pandemic – Doubting the Promise with Sarah and Hagar

Genesis 21:8-21
8The child [Isaac] grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” (Read the whole passage)

My son, with all the gravitas that a 6-year-old can muster, frequently refers to the COVID-19 Pandemic as the “Time Period.” 

“When this time period ends,” he will say, “we can see our friends again.”

While his confusion with pandemic terminology is smile inducing, there is a heartbreaking earnestness as well.

I also think there is something to his unintentional term… While many others have referred to this pandemic experience as an extended Lent, an extended time of sacrifice, I am not so sure that is what we are experiencing. 

Not all experiences of sacrifice and loss are the same, and this pandemic isn’t a short, defined time of sacrifice with a known end point like Lent is. 

It is a time period, a new way of being people and being communities and being society that we are going to have to live with for quite some time to come. A time period indeed. 

This is a transitional time period, a time when everything is being changed around us, whether we agree or not. 

Last week, we set out into the Wilderness with Abraham and Sarah. Their journey was not a short one. In fact, they began a journey that kept on going for generations, as Sarah laughed at the prospect of giving birth, yet then saw the fulfillment of God’s promise in Isaac. 

This wilderness journey of Abraham and Sarah feels like it is a story that is telling our story today. When so many of the familiar stories we hear on TV or in books or in movies fail to speak to this pandemic yet, this story of faith is an ancient version of our current reality. 

No, they weren’t trying to avoid a plague, but they were people who were set out into the unknown with no map, no instructions other than occasional updates from God, on what to do and where to go. And things that they never imagined possible happened to them. It was messy and complex and things often didn’t go right and they often showed a lack of trust or faith in the covenant, the promise that set them out on their journey in the first place. 

Their story sounds a lot of like ours doesn’t it? A story where we can see the same feelings, emotions, fears and anxieties that we are bearing. An immediacy that they were forced to live in… not knowing the plan for the future means you have to live in the moment. And living in the moment, just surviving day-to-day can make it hard to trust God.

Today, as we hear the next chapter in their journey, we are reminded that the promised Isaac who arrived last week was not, in fact, Abraham’s first son. Ishmael, whom Abraham conceived with Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar, was Abraham’s first born. 

And Sarah who laughed at the absurdity of bearing a son in her old age, is fearful that the child of promise would not receive God’s promise made. 

So she implores her husband to send Hagar and Ishamel away. 

Which Abraham does by God’s direction. 

And so cast out in the wilderness, Hagar and Ishmael go. But it isn’t long before they are in dire trouble… and facing an impossible choice, to die with her son, or to at least have one of them survive, Hagar leaves her son under a bush and walks away. 

Filled with unimaginable grief at her impossible choice, Hagar implores God to least spare her watching her son die. 

Two women in the wilderness discover new complications, new unimaginable circumstances, new impossibilities, new absurdities. They are in not just in the wilderness, but wilderness upon wilderness, complication upon complication, mess upon mess. 

How could either Sarah or Hagar be expected to carry on in faith, to trust that God’ promises would hold true? They were both human beings. 

Like Sarah, we too have been living in wilderness upon wilderness. Even though it seemed like the whole world was put on pause in the early stages of this pandemic we soon discovered it was not. Violence, house fires, gun shots and a shooter dressed like the RCMP in Nova Scotia cracked open the heart of a nation. George Floyd was murdered underneath the knee of a police officer, causing protests to erupt around the world. Accusations of racism and discrimination have tarnished the reputation of one of the crown jewels of our city at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. And the one party leader of colour in Canada was kicked out of the house of commons after he called another MP a racist after that MP scuttled the passage of bill declaring the existence of systemic racism in the RCMP. 

Wilderness upon wilderness. Complication upon complication. Mess upon mess. 

Even though Sarah had been given a child of the promise, she couldn’t keep up the faith. She was human after all. 

Even though Hagar had been given a child of the promises she couldn’t keep up the faith. She too was human. 

And even though we are made children of the promise in the Waters, even though we are given a new identity and belonging in the bread and wine, even though we are given forgiveness and new life in the Word, we too cannot believe the promise, day after day, week after week, year after year. It is simply not in us to keep the faith that way…. The wilderness gets us every time. Ever since the garden of Eden, ever since Adam and Eve trusted themselves above God. We hear the promise, but cannot keep up the faith. 

And yet, the promise does not depend on us. 

When Sarah laughed, God still brought new life into a barren womb. 

Almost casually, God waltzes into Sarah and Abraham’s wilderness and declares that the promise will be fulfilled. 

When Hagar was at the limit and prepared to give up, God answers Hagar’s pleas with gentle assurance, with water and the renewed covenant.  

When these women cannot keep the faith, God’s promise does not rely on their ability to believe it. 

Instead God’s promise holds true, God promises includes wilderness moments, wilderness upon wilderness moments. God’s plan for Sarah and Hagar, for Isaac and Ishmael extends beyond their present wilderness into future generations. God’s plan for these first families of faith begin in wilderness, in transition, in wandering through the unknown. 

And the convent extends through generations, through kingdoms, through exodus and exile, from judges and prophets, all the way to Messiah. And Messiah’s promise of Good News comes through fledgling communities to empires, institutions and faithful generations upon generations to us. 

And even with all of that. 

Even as we laugh at the absurd promise that we are God’s Body, knit together in water, bread and wine, when we cannot even be in each other’s presence, let alone share these things… God comes into our wilderness with the Word, the Word of promises given for us, week after week. 

Even as we are prepared to give up, unable to keep the faith in the face of pandemics, and shootings, and police brutality. In the face of generations of racist systems, and hypocritical institutions, hypocritical leaders who do not get it… God deals gently with us, granting promise  in the word, relief for parched and cracked souls nearing death. 

And in the wilderness that keeps us from seeing beyond the present, God’s declares that God has plans for our future, plans that span generations and that include multitudes more numerous than the stars in the sky. 

God promises that God is not done with us, wether we believe it or not, whether our wilderness upon wilderness is more than we can bear or not. 

And in this wilderness, this transition, God reminds us again our story is being told again, told in ancient stories of faith, told in the present moment that we can see today. 

And so like Sarah and Hagar we fail to keep the faith…

We cannot help it. 

But God can.

And God does. 

And God declares that God’s promises will bring us through the wilderness, through the wilderness upon wilderness, to when this Time Period is over and we will see our friends again. 

In the meantime, God’s promises will still hold true, even when we don’t believe them…

Promises that will carry us through the wilderness to the promised land. 

So your church is opening up after COVID-19 closures? It won’t be what you are hoping for.

*** Guidelines and public health orders for opening up churches are sometimes hard to follow as the long lists can make your mind go numb. The following is a way of trying to put the guidelines in narrative context, to help picture what “going back to church” might look like in these COVID-19 days. ***

Sample Guidelines

It’s been months of isolation, months of mostly staying home to stop the spread of COVID-19. But active cases are going down (or maybe not), and politicians and business leaders are worried about the economic impact of social distancing. And so, for a few weeks now, things have been opening up. Playgrounds and hair salons, dentists and restaurant patios are letting people come back. 

And things seem to be going well enough, so the government announces the next phase of opening, which includes increased gathering sizes. And one of the places you have been missing the most, your church, sends out an email telling you that they are going to re-open for an in-person service on Sunday. 

You heard from a friend that your Pastor was against it, but enough folks were pressuring the council because of freedom of religion, people are getting tired of staying home and surely church should be a safe place right? Plus you are missing your friends, the folks you love to see on Sunday mornings, the other couples that you often go for brunch with following worship. 

Finally, the big day comes, you wake up excited to get back to this important part of your life, to something that feels little bit like normal, seeing familiar faces, hearing  familiar music, being in familiar community. 

You hop in the car with your spouse and make the well worn drive to church. You notice that the streets are even deader than usual for a Sunday morning. 

When you arrive at church there are few cars parked around building. You go to your normal parking spot, just down a side street, half a block from the church. 

You start walking up to the building, but before you get too close, a masked volunteer stops you. They are standing on the side walk. 

“Please stay there.” they stop you about 6 feet away from where they are standing. 

Okay… you think you know who this is, but they have a mask on their face and you aren’t totally sure. 

“Have you had any of the following symptoms recently: Cough, fever, body aches, difficulty breathing?”

“No, not that I know of,” you say.

“Are you over the age of 65 or have underlying health conditions?”

“No,” you say.

Technically, you and your spouse are 67 and you take blood pressure meds. But it’s no big deal.

“Have you been travelling recently, or spent any time with someone who has travelled recently?”

“No,” you answer again.

You don’t mention the socially distanced backyard BBQ you had with your neighbours the other night, including one neighbour who is a long haul trucker. 

“Have you been in contact with anyone who has been exposed to COVID-19, such as health-care workers?” 

“I don’t think so,” you murmur.

The babysitting you do for your son and daughter-in-law, who is a care-home nurse, doesn’t count. Family doesn’t count, right? 

“Please maintain social distance while you wait in line here.”

The volunteer gestures ahead, where you see a few dozen folks lined up – all space out according to markers along the side walk.  

Usually when you arrive at church, you come early to visit with folks before the service, but as you stand in line, people just whisper amongst households. Even though you can see many familiar faces ahead, you cannot help but feel suspicion and fear when you look at the others. You try to shake the feeling, but this pandemic world has affected you more than you want to admit.

Another couple lines up behind you and then you hear the masked volunteer turn another family away. 

“Sorry, we are at the max group size we are allowed. Maybe try again next week.”

The church stays closed right up until the time of the service. Then finally with 5 minutes to go, the door opens and households begin entering, one at a time. Another masked volunteer is letting people in. 

Slowly, you shuffle up to the door. When it gets to your turn, the volunteer waves you in. There are two surgical masks and some hand sanitizer laid out on a table.

“Please clean your hands and then put these masks on.”

You comply.

“Please follow the taped line to pew number 23 and take your seat. Please don’t stop to talk to anyone, and please remain seated for the duration of the service.”

You follow the taped line into the sanctuary, everyone is sitting down in space-out pews by household. The church is eerily quiet, kind of a like a funeral with a masked pianist playing quietly. 

Finally when everyone is inside, the doors to the church are closed. 

Instead of processing in from the back, where the pastor is usually visiting with people before church, the pastor slips in from the front of the church through a side door. The pastor then greets you from behind a mask… which makes them hard to understand. The pastor then explains that there will be no singing in worship, and no praying together or communal responses to the liturgy. You then notice there are no hymnbooks, offering envelopes or welcome cards in the pews. They are just empty. You also didn’t get a bulletin on the way in. 

Listening to the pastor, they don’t sound like their normal self… forced, stressed, tense? You can’t quite put your finger on it. 

The pastor then goes and stands in front of a phone on a tripod at the front of church and starts talking to it, welcoming all the people worshipping online. The pastor explains where the bulletin can be found on the Facebook page, how to share the peace and greet others also watching online. Then the pastor picks up the tripod turns it around and asks you to wave at the phone… which feels pretty silly and weird. 

Worship begins.

The pianist plays the hymns, but no one can sing. So you just sit and listen. It felt awkward to sing along with the hymns at home, but this feels even more strange. 

The pastor then begins worship, and every time you want to say “And also with you” or “Amen” you have to stop yourself. Instead, there is just silence while the pastor imagines how long it would take the folks watching online to give the responses. 

The first masked volunteer goes to a mic and music stand on the other side of chancel to read the lessons. You can’t say join in the psalm responsively, so again you just sit quietly and listen. 

Finally it comes time for the sermon. The pastor preaches about Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, encouraging you (but mostly the folks at home) to keep the faith. The pastor says that the time will come when the spirit will send us out into the world – but that time isn’t quite yet. And that even though we are apart, the spirit ties us together into one.

It doesn’t really feel like the pastor is preaching to you, but mostly to the those still at home.  

After listening to the hymn of the day, the creed and the prayers, it comes time for the peace.

The pastor offers the peace, but tells you that today it has to be virtual sharing only. The pastor uses their iPad to share with the folks online, and talks a bit to the phone again saying hello to people watching at home and commenting. 

Then it comes time for communion. Something you have missed for months now.  

The pastor puts on a face shield and changes their mask before the Thanksgiving at the Table. You notice that they don’t lift the bread or the wine. After the Lord’s prayer, which you say along with the pastor in your head, one of the masked volunteers steps up to the mic to instruct you on how to receive communion. 

And household by household you go forward. There is only bread to receive today. You have to hand sanitize again at the front. The pastor is using a set of kitchen tongs to put the wafers in the hands of each person. 

“The bread of Christ given for you.” you hear from behind mask and shield. 

This is not like communion you have ever received before. You aren’t allowed to eat until the pastor has moved away, and then after you put the wafer in your mouth, you have to hand sanitize again (also knowing that pulling off your mask has compromised it, because your daughter-in-law gave you a lecture in mask wearing). 

The service concludes with another hymn that you listen to, a blessing and some announcements. 

And then just like you came in, you have to follow the tape straight out of the building, one household at a time. The pastor isn’t greeting people on the way out, in fact there is no one. Just the the voice of the masked volunteer in the PA system announcing pew numbers. There are signs that tell you to leave the church straight away, no lingering. 

You walk back to your car with your spouse. 

You get in for the drive home. 

You have no idea what you just experienced. You were at church, there were other people there, there were hymns and prayers, the pastor preached, you received communion (kind of)… but that wasn’t church, and it certainly wasn’t what you imagined when you thought of things opening back up again….

You drive home in silence… realizing that just maybe the world has changed more than you figured before now. 

It might take some time to get used to this. 

+++

Three days later you get a text from your neighbour, one of the ones you have had a few socially distant BBQs with. 

“You are going to get a call from the public health nurse,” it reads.

“I am so sorry.”

A few minutes later the phone rings. 

“Hi, I am calling from your local public health agency. I am calling you today as a part of COVID-19 contact tracing.”

Your heart drops and the nurse’s voice starts to sound like the teacher from Charlie Brown. You make out something about a testing appointment, the nurses gives you a time, date and address. 

Then the nurse says, “I am going to need to you to tell me all the people you might have come into contact with in the past two weeks. Especially, any groups in indoor spaces for prolonged periods of time, like doctor’s offices or someone else’s home, or maybe a church…”

Not Knowing Our Own Easter Story on the Way to Emmaus

GOSPEL: Luke 24:13-35
Now on that same day [when Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene,] two [disciples] were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him… (read the whole passage)

Even before the Pandemic, I was a pretty voracious reader of news. Local, national, international, political news, as well as articles and opinion. And of course as a pastor and blogger, I have been reading and writing about the issues facing Christianity and the church today as well.  

A lot of us these days are news junkies, I am sure, consuming as much as can about every bit of news. And so as this pandemic lockdown extends longer and longer, we know that the question of when and how things are going to start opening up is starting to bubble to the surface. Even as case numbers increase in some jurisdictions, in those experiencing any kind of plateau, the question of returning to “normal” life is front of mind, whether is it governments, business, schools, leisure and of course churches. There are countless articles to read about opening the world back up, not post, but mid-COVID-19.

Yet, plans to re-open while there is no treatment of vaccine for COVID-19 involve slow, socially transformative steps. Everything about the way we interact will be on the table, from how many of us can be together, where we can be together, and how we will need to adjust some of the basic things we long took for granted like handshakes. 

As we arrive on the 3rd Sunday of Easter, I cannot help but feel like we have been hearing a similar story in the gospels. The story of a community that experiences a traumatic, life-changing event – the death and resurrection of Jesus. And this event requires the slow yet undeniable transformation of a community, there is no going back to normal for the disciples and followers of Jesus. Rather, the Easter season story is one of a community transformed by the Holy Spirit for the new reality of an an Easter World. 

For the 3rd Sunday of Easter, we go back again to that first Easter Day, the day of the empty tomb. 

After the women had gone to the tomb and Jesus met the disciples behind locked doors, two disciples are on their way to Emmaus, a town near to Jerusalem. 

On the way, these two are met by another traveller. This travelling companion seems not to know about what has just happened over the past week in Jerusalem, yet then proceeds to explain to them how the events of holy week fit into the Scriptures. These two disciples don’t recognize that the one travelling with them is Jesus. 

It seems a bit absurd that these two wouldn’t be to recognize their teacher and master. Was Jesus wearing a disguise? Were they blinded by their grief? Did God close their eyes to seeing?

I think there might be another explanation, one that relates to us and this moment in time. 

Human beings tell stories, in fact stories are how we understand the world. Stories and narrative help us construct meaning. Stories are the vehicles for us to make sense of things. It is why we go back a rehearse in our mind the events of an experience that we cannot make sense of, it is why we rely on eye witness testimony so heavily, it is why we are enraptured by good movies, books, tv shows, songs, artwork or a good story teller. 

So these two disciples on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognize Jesus because they didn’t understand the story of Holy Week yet, they couldn’t see Jesus because they didn’t know or understand the story of how he could be walking with them. 

Not understanding our story yet is the reality that we are living too. As this Pandemic unfolds it has thrown us for a loop because we simply don’t have a story to understand it by. Even as unspeakable tragedy has occurred in Nova Scotia this week, this pandemic story has changed the way we understand that story too. Usually and unfortunately we know the story of mass shootings, and we know how to respond too well. But in a physically distancing world, we cannot follow the same narratives, road side shrines, prayer vigils, neighbours and communities coming together. 

COVID-19 is story that we haven’t figured out how to tell yet. And if Jesus were to try and walk with disciples sorting it out here, he would only find mostly empty streets, empty churches, empty public spaces. This pandemic has given us more questions than answers, even as we are in the middle of living through it. 

As the disciples walk the road the Emmaus, they too have more questions than answers. But rather than just coming out with who he is, Jesus takes the disciples back to the beginning, back to the stories they do know. The stories of God’s people. To the scriptures, the stories of faith. Stories told to children from the moment they are born. Stories told in homes and in the synagogue, stories that help to mark the passage of the days and the years, stories that gave frames of meaning, symbols, images and metaphors that helped them to understand their lives and their world. 

And just as the prophets foretold the coming of Messiah, just as John the Baptist preached out the wilderness, just as Jesus himself preached in the towns and countryside while doing miracles, Jesus begins with the stories they know already. And then Jesus interprets the stories in light of the promised Messiah. 

Yet, still the disciples don’t recognize Jesus. 

So finally when they reach Emmaus, Jesus takes the disciples back to Maundy Thursday. To the breaking and blessing of bread, where Jesus had been revealed to his disciples anew in the ancient familiar meal of faith – the passover meal.  

And all of sudden, these two disciples have a story to tell. They have seen this moment before. They have seen this One breaking the bread before. They know this stranger, they recognize the Christ. The Christ who has come to give them a new story of faith to tell. A story that begins at the Last Supper, that descends to arrest, trial and crucifixion and seemingly ends on cross. But now a story that continues on the Third Day with empty tombs, appearances behind locked doors, and revelations in the breaking of bread. 

Jesus has tied all the events of the last week to their familiar stories of faith, and Jesus has given these disciples a new story to tell, a story that makes sense and meaning of crucifixion, death, resurrection and new life. Just as Jesus brought the two stories of his crucified body and resurrected body into one in front of Thomas last week, Jesus brings together the ancient stories of faith to the story of the crucified and risen Messiah.

The story of faith that we have been telling for 2000 years since: Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again. 

The story that Jesus is taking us back to in this moment, even in the midst of our crisis, our inability to make sense of things and to understand this moment. 

The story of faith that is grafted onto our bones from the moment we are born and then reborn in baptism. The story that is told in homes and at church. The story that helps us mark the passage of days and years. The story that gives us the frames of meaning, symbols, images, and metaphors that help us understand our world. 

And Jesus reminds us that this story of faith has room for us and our pandemic uncertainty. 

The story of the Messiah includes disciples locked away in their homes, fearful of the outside world, unsure of how recent events will change our communities forever. We might not have been here before, but the Christ who meets us on this journey has. 

Jesus walks along side us in our confusion and uncertainty, reminding us that our familiar stories of faith still have room for our unknown stories of our present. And Jesus promises to see us through, to see us all the way to the new reality that awaits us on the other side of this pandemic. 

And Jesus takes us back to our beginnings, to the familiar story of breaking bread that we know so well, that reminds us that Jesus is present and known to us, even when we don’t fully understand what is happening to us and where we are going. 

And so as we search for our story to tell, for the story that will tell us how we move on and move out of lockdown, Jesus reminds that there is a story that we already know. It begins with the breaking of bread, and continues through suffering and death, but surprises us again and again with an empty tomb, new life and a risen Christ. 

A risen Christ who met those struggling disciples on the road.  

A Risen Christ who comes and meets us today.