Autumn Equinox

In our backyard, a gorgeous, expansive oak hovers with a regal grandeur, providing shade and scurrying space for the squirrels, chipmunks, blue jays, and goldfinches. The last few weeks, the oak has been dropping thousands of acorns, which plummet to the earth with a powerful velocity. (One does not want to be sitting under her branches when there is any wind, lest an acorn drops with forceful precision on an exposed head…) It’s clear that autumn is arriving as the boughs sigh with relief as they lighten with each released acorn.

Tomorrow marks the autumn equinox here in the northern hemisphere of Planet Earth. In Madison, the weather has subtly shifted with the days still (mostly) bright and warm, and the nights cool and breezy. In this threshold between seasons, the earth reminds me to prepare for the winter ahead. The annuals and perennials alike are shifting their focus, nudging me, too, to let go of those things that were wonderful for a season, but now need to be put to rest…perhaps until next spring, or perhaps for good.

O Spirit of Change,
prepare my heart for the winter ahead,
but not before I have celebrated the fruit of summer.
In this Great Transition Time,
as the earth continues in its path,
may I sense, like the Mother Oak,
a lightening in my body,
as the gifts of the long summer days
drop to their earthen womb below.
Amen.

Prayer of Remembrance

For a Year of Distanced Worship

Today at Madison Mennonite, we round out a full year of worshipping distanced–a sobering, disappointing, and often discouraging reality…while also a testament to the Spirit’s faithfulness in all circumstances.

We are taking some time today and in our Koinonia Groups next week to hold the tension, grief, and anxiety of the last year. It feels important–necessary, even–to mourn the pain that the pandemic has caused: bodily, relational, emotional, economic, spiritual pain.

Then there are the divisions that have emerged or grown more obvious: cracks within familial relationships, extreme othering within political discourse, racial inequity.

Yet I think it’s important, as the church, to recognize that some of the divisions, like physical distancing, have emerged for the sake of community and the love of neighbor.  This purposeful distancing is counter-intuitive for Christ-followers, and yet it aligns with the call to think bigger, beyond ourselves, from what’s good for a few to what’s good for the collective.

These are complicated, contradicting, and disorienting realities.  I am hoping that our world grows a little gentler this week, as we hold space for ourselves and for one another. So many are dealing with pandemic-inflicted wounds that are still tender to the touch. I pray for God’s grace to abound.

A Congregational Prayer of Remembrance
Eternal Presence,
This has been a strange year.
Disorienting and isolating for some, 
liberating and full of opportunity for others,
our experiences are disparate.

As we look back on this year, O God,
help us be gentle with ourselves and with one another.
Draw us together in curiosity and compassion.
Unite us in our common commitments,
to loving our neighbors,
extending the tables piled high with grace,
as we continue to seek your reign in our midst.

We give you thanks, Abiding Spirit,
for journeying with us,
renewing our spirits
through the generosity of this Beloved Community.
In Christ’s holy name we pray. Amen.

Psalm 125 in Post-Modern Madison

An Advent Prayer for God’s Intervention

Those who trust in the Eternal One
are like the Wisconsin River,
confident in their current,
but consistent and insistent.

As the hills of the Driftless area stand steady in their rolling ridges,
so the Divine supports her people,
from this time on and evermore.

For the reach of invasive injustice will be too short
to wrestle and uproot the native rhizomes of shalom,
so that the native rhizomes will not be beguiled,
becoming aggressive and violently-minded.

Reward Goodness and Truth, O Holy One,
to those who seek goodness and truth,
and to those who are overlooked by earthly powers.

But those who seek to dominate and oppress,
the Divine Name will lead out
in the shackles they constructed for others.

Peace be upon Turtle Island!

[A post-modern postscript:
And those who vacillate
between seeking goodness and seeking to dominate,
Eternal One, redirect with Mercy.]

Originally published in the 2020 Advent Devotional by Madison and Milwaukee Mennonite Churches.

Collect: Psalm 85

A prayer for the second Sunday of Advent, Year B, based on the lectionary text of Psalm 85:1-2,8-13.

O Steadfast Love,
you are the source of goodness and grace,
and you delight in the sweet embrace
of righteousness and shalom.
Speak your peace to us, your people,
that our faithfulness might be restored;
through Christ we pray,
Amen.

A Prayer for Peace and Nonviolence

Author of Life, Painbearer, and Peacemaker,
we long for you.
As the sunlight diminishes each day, 
the shadows seem to overtake our world.
Chaos, confusion, and uncertainty threaten to spill
into every vacant space in our minds and hearts.

We long for your presence.
All: Loving God, be our peace.

As we move through this election season,
   we pray for inner peace.
We pray for an awareness of our belovedness,
   of the Spirit’s empowering presence.
Center us in our true, whole selves.
Give us clarity of mind and a discerning heart.

We pray for inner peace.
All: Loving God, be our peace.

We pray, too, for the peace we share with the world.
In the midst of harsh and hateful language,
   may we speak words of healing.
In the midst of hypocrisy and hyperbole,
   may we act with integrity.
In all the ways we live and move this week,
   may we be bearers of justice, mercy, and nonviolence,
   modeled on the way of Jesus.

We pray for our peace witness in the world.
All: Loving God, be our peace.

We pray for the peace of the world.
We pray for those in power,
   that they will use their power for unity and not for division.
We pray for each election site in our communities and nation,
   that intimidation and fear-mongering will be absent,
   and safety, wisdom, and a commitment to just process will flourish.   

We pray for our communities, that neighbors will reach out to 
neighbors in recognition of our common humanity.

We pray for the peace of the world.
All: Loving God, be our peace.

We long for your presence and peace, O God,
   in all people and all places,
   this day and everyday.

All: We ask this in the name of the Creator, Incarnate Wisdom, and Inner Breath. Amen.

Lord, have mercy

A sermon on Matthew 15:10-28; Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

Lord, have mercy.
“Lord, have mercy.” It’s one of those phrases that suits so many situations and can be taken so many different ways.  Sometimes we utter it in exasperation, in disbelief or sarcasm, with an eye roll for good measure.  Perhaps more often these days, we say it in grief, shock, or surrender.  It’s a line for when we are at a loss for words or when words are simply insufficient.

The Canaanite woman of Matthew 15 yells this phrase at the top of her lungs.  “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented.”  Jesus doesn’t answer, but we know that he heard her, for the disciples sidled up to Jesus and urged him to send her away.  “She keeps shouting.  Her voice is shrill.”

Jesus weighs the situation, doesn’t say she can’t be there, and sort of diplomatically says, “Sorry, can’t help. You’re not in my constituency. Not my responsibility.”

The woman, of course, persists.  She jostles forward, using her body to block his forward progress.  “Help me, Rabbi.”

Again, with the excuse that the healing salve he has developed only works in certain cases, Jesus denies her access – he doesn’t have enough to spare, and it won’t work for her type.

Yet she remains, unmoving at his feet.  “Yes, Lord, yet even my type are healed by a drop of this balm for which we would scour the rubbish heaps at the edge of town.”

Jesus, whether in mock or true surprise, responds, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Her wish, the desire of her heart, in contrast the Pharisees earlier in chapter 15, is pure and life-giving.  What comes out of her mouth is the hope of her daughter’s healing.  And her daughter is healed instantly.

Healings in the Gospel of Matthew
Looking at the Gospel of Matthew as a whole, healings like this are commonplace. Generally, you can separate the healing stories into two themes or categories. 

The first category is the smaller of the two. These healing stories are grouped because they’re the ones where Jesus is the proactive actor.  There’s Peter’s mother-in-law in ch. 8, who is ill and Jesus goes in to heal her.  She does not, in the text, ask for healing and yet receives it.  Or there’s the man with a withered hand who Jesus encounters upon entering the synagogue in ch.12.  Again, the man does not ask for healing but receives it.  The healing of these stories reflects a proactive grace or proactive salvation – these are the people whom Jesus seeks out or whom he seems to just encounter along the way and offers healing.

The second category is the bigger group: healings that occur because people have sought out Jesus.  If the first group shows the proactive healings of Jesus, these stories show the responsive grace of Jesus.  Certainly, the Canaanite woman of Matthew 15 falls in this camp, but this group also includes the crowds who are constantly following Jesus around. Who materialize instantaneously as he walks into towns, or gets off a boat, or comes down a mountain.  Many are healed or cured because they have sought out Jesus.

As a whole, the Gospel of Matthew encapsulates both proactive and responsive healings and grace. There are those who seek Jesus out and those whom he encounters along the way, and the end result is the same: healing.

Seeking Jesus Out
Given today’s text, I want to take a closer look at those who seek Jesus out.  The story of the Canaanite woman connects closely with three other healing stories in Matthew.

Two of them involve two blind men – so four blind men in total – and the third is a father who advocates for his epileptic son.  In each of these four stories, the ones-seeking-healing enter the story with the same line: Lord, have mercy!  And they all do so with equal gusto and persistence, for they are portrayed as speaking this line, “Lord, have mercy,” while “crying loudly,” or “shouting” or jostling through a crowd.  All, inevitably, find healing in Jesus’ response.

But the Canaanite woman’s story diverges here.  The first distinction is that while all experience some level of marginalization because of being affected by illness, the Canaanite woman has two additional stigmas. She’s a woman, of course, an unfortunate gender in that context. And the fact that she makes herself known in public through shouting is serious faux pas.

And, she’s Canaanite. The ethnic backgrounds of the others are not mentioned, from which we can infer that the men were Jewish.  She’s a woman…from the wrong tribe.  So the first divergence is that she should not be there; or, if she’s going to be there, she should know her place and stay in the background.

The other detail that is unique is that she is the only one who meets resistance from Jesus and the disciples when she cries out for mercy.  The disciples–silent in the other three stories–openly voice their desire for her to shut up and go away.  Not only is her voice not welcome, but they also want her to leave.  Jesus also puts up a barrier for healing that he does not construct for the others.

She did nothing different from the others who approached Jesus for healing, crying out, “Lord, have mercy!”  Yet she encounters resistance.  The relevance of how this still plays out today–even at the highest rungs of social and political power–should not be overlooked.

The “Foreigner” of Isaiah
Commentaries pitch a variety of hypotheses on what is happening between the Canaanite woman and Jesus.  In drawing in Isaiah 56, my sense is that the Canaanite woman is the example par excellence of the “foreigner” in Isaiah 56, whom God has committed to “gather in.”  Her body and her embodiment of covenant faithfulness bridge the good news of the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ teaching.

Hear again the words of Isaiah 56:6-7:

And the foreigners who join themselves to me,
Ministering to me,
Loving the name of YHWH and worshipping me–
All who observe the Sabbath and do not profane it,
And cling to my Covenant–
These I will bring to my holy mountain
And make them joyful in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
Will be acceptable on my altar

The Canaanite woman persistently joins herself to the Son of David, who shares Canaanite blood with her through their common foremothers Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth.  She ministers to Jesus with her wisdom and tenacity, acknowledging Jesus’ authority, and throws herself at Jesus’ feet like a servant.

She is committed, in her own way, to the law of the Sabbath, setting aside her daily labors to seek restoration, renewal, and healing for those in her care. The desire of her heart is a worthy offering.

She knows that she is one who, while an outcast of Israel, deserves a welcome at the house of prayer.  In fact, she will not be kept from it, even if she has to scour the rubbish heaps at the edge of town or sweep up the crumbs from the communion table.  I Am Who I Am has promised to gather all those in – the outcasts who seek the Holy One and the ones the Holy One encounters on the way.

Have Mercy, O God
For what or for whom do you seek healing?  When have you received healing as a gift? 

Whether we have sought out Jesus or unexpectedly encountered him on our journeys, our status as foreigners or even imposters will not be a barrier to the welcome table. 

As we see others drawn in, perhaps throwing elbows and shouting for mercy, may we not stand in their path, or ask them to be quiet and leave. May we instead step out of the way, for all deserve healing and a place at the table.  The Spirit is at work, gathering us to the holy mountain, where there is enough bread and wine for us all.  

Prayer of Petition, in preparation for Communion

Have mercy on us, O God, Son of David.
If we might but taste the crumbs which fall to the ground,
that will be enough to feed our faith,
to make us whole.
Draw us in, we who were once far off,
to your holy mountain,
to your house of prayer –
not only for our healing,
but for the healing of our children,
our siblings, our community,
for the healing of all nations. Amen.


Featured Image: Bazzi Rahib, Ilyas Basim Khuri. The Canaanite Woman Asks for Healing for Her Daughter, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57555 [retrieved August 18, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ilyas_Basim_Khuri_Bazzi_Rahib_-_Jesus_and_the_Canaanite_Woman_-_Walters_W59243A_-_Full_Page.jpg.

God the Good Gardener – Proper 10A

Reimagining God as a creative and uninhibited farmer through the Parable of the Sower.

Background: A few years ago, I reflected on the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13:1-9. This sermon, shared at Madison Mennonite on 7/12 and Germantown Mennonite on 7/19, “grows” out of those initial thoughts, expands them, and builds in the other Revised Common Lectionary texts of the day, Psalm 65 and Isaiah 55:10-13.

God the Good Gardener

Scripture is laden with metaphorical imagery for God and the way God acts in Creation.  Throughout both the Old and New testaments we encounter God in many forms – God is like a rock, a refuge.  God is like a warrior, a sovereign, a potter.  God is our metaphorical father and mother. God is like an eagle, a mother hen. God is a midwife, a bakerwoman. And so on…

As we hear in our scriptures today, God is like a gardener. Psalm 65, which we heard in the call to worship, declares that God “visits the earth and waters it.” In the Parable of the Sower, God scatters the Word on the ground that stretches out before God. And, in Isaiah 55, God waters the earth with God’s word, and the earth erupts with golden grain.

This image of God as a Gardener comes at a good point in our lives, here in the northern hemisphere, for seeds planted in earnest earlier in covid have taken root, and their abundance has begun to spill out and over trellises.  As one MMCer put it, we are approaching the season where gardeners must face the formidable “Deluge of the Green Bean.”

It is in this context, then, that we hear the parable of the sower, making connections as gardeners ourselves or as those who enjoy the plentiful harvests of others’ farms and gardens.

Land acknowledgment

I consider myself an average gardener. Much of my knowledge about gardening is the result of experience passed down through my family. Yet, it’s important to acknowledge that the gardeners and farmers of my family have accumulated that knowledge primarily as settlers on the land of peoples systematically displaced by European conquest and occupation. So, I offer this adapted land acknowledgment today as I share my reflections, a tension I and white folks must hold as we seek transformation and as we interpret biblical texts on the land.

Questioning Easy Interpretations

The parable of the sower is familiar enough to most of us that we know, without even reaching the interpretation of the parable, where the story is headed. The suggested lectionary reading includes the parable’s interpretation, but I left it out on purpose…

If there’s anything gardeners know and can agree to, it is this: one must resist predictable explanations and expectations when it comes to seeds. In honoring that, I resist the traditional, flannelgraph-worthy punch line of this parable: that some people are good because they’re prepared for the Gospel and some people are bad because they squander the Gospel.

As a gardener, I want to resist that dualistic interpretation. I want to resist it because when I reflect where I am in this parable, I see evidence that I’ve got all of these circumstances in me: sure, the fertile soil…but also the thin, rocky soil, the hungry birds, and no shortage of thorns or weeds.  I imagine this is true for most, if not all of us.  Each of these has a purpose for us as we grow in our understanding of who we are as followers of Jesus.

Thin, rocky soil

When the sower sows seed into thin, rocky soil, is it really all for nothing?  The seed sprouts, grows quickly, and then dies. 

But might what is gained in the long run balance the short-term loss?  In other words, while there will be no harvest of grain this year from that seed, all is not lost.  The plant that does grow will return to the earth, amending the soil as it composts. Over time, perhaps with the help of rain and animal droppings, too, seeds flung into this rocky soil will do the slow work of building up the land, until one day, there is a noteworthy harvest. 

The invitation of the thin, rocky soil is to recognize that the places within us where growth feels tenuous or unlikely, those places still hold profound potential.  God the Sower takes the long-view of who we are becoming.   And tosses seed where most other gardeners would leave the ground fallow. 

Weeds

Then there are the weeds. While the source of this quote might be surprising, a character in Jim Thompson’s 1952 thriller, The Killer Inside Me, states something gardeners love to re-quote (without knowing the source). The quote is: “A weed is a plant out of place.’ I find a hollyhock in my cornfield, and it’s a weed. I find it in my yard, and it’s a flower.”

It seems to me that so-called weeds have their own purpose and worth – whether retaining the soil’s moisture or reducing erosion or simply being a native part of an ecosystem we don’t totally understand. What if the invitation is to take the weeds – plants neither good nor bad, just in the wrong place – and move them to where they won’t choke out the fruit of the Spirit?

Birds

Then there are those hovering, hungry birds. I can only imagine that if I were in the crowd when Jesus was mentioning the birds that come and steal the seeds, it would have occurred to me about 10 minutes after Jesus had already pushed the boat off into deeper waters…to remember that there was another time when Jesus said something about the birds, and how they neither sow nor reap, and yet their heavenly Creator provides for them.

Well, how do I know it’s not the same birds from that example that are coming and taking the seeds in my field? Is there not enough grace and love in these good news seeds to share with all God’s creation? The invitation here is to see that God takes into account that all creation relies on God’s generosity. In turn, we are invited to resist our hoarding compulsions and to move instead into a spirit of jubilee – not just for humans, but for the land and creatures, too.

Fertile Soil

Which leaves us with the fertile soil.  One commentator on this text writes that the yield is “exceptional”; yet another says it’s “miraculous.”  These seem like distinctly different descriptions – one is possible, and the other is only possible with God’s intervention.  Both, I believe, are right.

Miraculously, God-the-sower imbues seeds with the most unexpected, unexplainable potential and possibility. That there is any of God’s word scattered in our lives is a gift. And exceptionally, we are created with the capacity to respond to God’s word — we do not rely on grace alone.  We can reflect on what sort of spiritual life we are cultivating.

The invitation of the fertile soil is to celebrate the average and exceptional fruits that we bear.  We are also invited to bask in the harvests borne of mystery and miracle.

The Sower Sticks Around

As much as the parable teaches us about us, it also teaches us about the nature of God…who, amongst other attributes, is like a good gardener.  A good gardener sows seeds in a field and then continues to tend the field.  God does not abandon God’s garden, but nurtures it through the seasons and years.  Listen to these words from Isaiah 55:10-13 (NRSV).

10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12 For you shall go out in joy,
    and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
    shall burst into song,
    and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
    instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
    for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

God the Gardener does not sow seeds that sprout empty promises or empty threats. God the Gardener uses choice seeds, honest in their purpose, true to their description, and imbued with unimaginable potential.  God the Gardener can create growth in spaces where the most seasoned farmer wouldn’t want to waste good seed.

Where God is the Gardener, the land is filled with jubilation, and the trees give a standing ovation. Where God is the gardener, ancient sequoias overshadow the thorns and trees of life crowd out the briers. 

Where God is the gardener, the thin soil and the rich soil will be equally peppered with word-seeds of faith, hope, and love.  Where God is the gardener, the birds and the field mice and prairie dogs will find there is enough for them, too.  Where God is the gardener, plants once thoughtlessly type-cast as weeds will be transplanted into God’s front yard.

May we be gifted with ears to hear and eyes to see that as God sows God’s word, holiness and beauty are abundantly cultivated in us and all around us.  May we give thanks to God–the good gardener, the best farmer–for lovingly and faithfully tending the fields of our souls in each and every season.

Call to Worship: Psalm 86:11-17

We continue to worship online at Madison Mennonite Church. It’s been a solid four months of adapting, experimenting, messing things up, and stumbling into surprise successes. We aren’t returning to the physical building for worship anytime soon and I grapple regularly with how to think about how to curate nourishing worship experiences while we continue to meet online.

There are aspects of worship that are simply harder these days. Of course, we all know that robust, resonant communal singing is not possible. Then there are the needs of children and families whose children simply are not interested or willing to “participate” in virtual church. There’s the feeling that worship leaders have of speaking or singing into the void–where we used to be able to feel or observe or hear how people were encountering the Spirit in worship, now there is largely silence, a short in the feedback loop. Worship has become less of an embodied encounter. We rarely stand to sing. We do not reach out to shake hands, or to take the bread and cup.

In Numbers 11, the Israelites are on one of their classic complaining streaks, voicing that they are weary of the manna that they are provided…though it technically sustains them. In their weariness, they cry out to Moses, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11:4b-6)

Like the Israelites in the desert, we grow weary of just having manna to sustain us–we long for the lively, embodied pre-COVID worship that is our custom. To be fair, I have not heard complaining at MMC! Just grief for the loss of what was meaningful for many. Longing for the richness and goodness of what worship can be. A deep desire for a refreshing worship diet that allows us to “taste and see that” our Creator is, in fact, very good.  And a longing to be sustained as we live and serve as God’s people in the world.

The grief and grappling of these days is real and disorienting. And we will be here awhile.  But the sliver of hope that I hold on to is that worship, now when it seems impossible and even futile, fuels resistance against despair, hate, violence, and greed.  Worship – even in virtual spaces – can inspire rootedness, loving-kindness, generosity, and truth-telling.  We are invited to gather whatever worship-manna we can for this day, and let it nourish us.

A Call to Worship, based on Psalm 86:11-17
One: Friends in Christ, we gather to learn, grow, and be shaped by God.
Many: Teach us your way, O God.

One: When we are uncertain or distracted,
Many: Teach us your way, O God.

One: When we feel crushed and hope is crowded out,
Many: Teach us your way, O God.

One: In our work, our play, and relationships,
Many: Teach us your way, O God.

One: And now, in this time of holy worship,
Many: Teach us your way, O God.

A Pastoral Prayer: Psalm 46

The rich, metaphorical imagery of Psalm 46 invites us to meditate on many of God’s attributes: strength, shelter, tenderness, faithfulness, and compassion.

Oh God, our Refuge and Safe Harbor,
Time and time again, you show up.
You are faithful to your people and to all Creation.

As your beloved ones, we look for you and long for you
in the midst of chaos and uncertainty.
The world erupts with anger and grief;
injustice, oppression, and heartache spill over like lava.
We grieve…(offer prayers that reflect the community’s sharing)

God of Grace, we give thanks
for the rivers of joy flowing through our world and lives.
We hear your voice, like the constant flow of a stream, speaking peace;
the earth softens under your tender love.
We celebrate…(offer prayers that reflect the community’s sharing)

Oh God, our Refuge and Safe Harbor,
Time and time again, you show up.
You are faithful to your people and to all Creation.
We offer you these prayers,
in the name of your Beloved Child.  Amen.

Love in the Time of COVID | Part 3: Others

What is the pandemic teaching us about love? This is the third in a series answering this question.  See Part 1  and Part 2 here.

The pandemic is teaching us that the love of others is vital; and it is complicated.

Let’s start with the bad news first: COVID-19 is teaching us that the love of others isn’t as easy as it seems.

During an interview aired this week in the Festival of Homiletics, Duke Divinity professor, theologian, and sermon guru Will Willimon firmly stated, “I’m telling my students: ‘There’s one sentence you should not utter in a sermon these days. I don’t say it, no preacher should say it: ‘We’re all in this together.’ Don’t say it; it’s not true.’“*

His reasoning? This pandemic is affecting us all differently, and those with greater privilege are not forced to face it in the same way as those who society marginalizes.

First and foremost, white culture swings heavily toward individualism and personal security.  When white folks say, “We’re all in this together,” we often mean it in the sense of, “…only after I’ve taken care of my own, and as long as I don’t have to sacrifice too much.”  In this way of thinking, to be together is possible when it’s convenient, advantageous, or at a minimum, a neutral-sum game.

Confession: I said something very similar to “We’re all in this together,” if not those exact words, to Madison Mennonite a week or two after we first started meeting virtually for worship.  My intent was good, of course, but Willimon is right that such platitudes are not grounded in reality and render majority-white congregations (and their white leaders) blind to the pandemic’s varying effects.

What I meant to do when I said, “We’re all in this together,” was to inspire us all to live into an attitude of mutual aid.  To think of others as equals. To consider how our actions affect others. But, knowing that even I struggle to practice what I preach, I wonder: is it possible to swim against the swollen, relentless river of white, patriarchal imperialism? Is it possible for us to work for a society where we are “all in this together”?

Which brings us to the good news: There are others in the water with us, struggling against the current, resisting the undertow.  We just need to look up and out to see that we’re not alone.

Last fall, I borrowed The Book of Joy audiobook from our local library and listened to it as I transitioned from one place of ministry to another.  The Book of Joy details a delightful and theologically-provoking conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  As the two religious leaders reflected on suffering and what it means in human life, one shared their belief that any suffering we’re experiencing begins to heal when we enter into the suffering of others.  In other words, if we remain focused only on our suffering, our pain, and our turmoil, we will find it difficult to ever heal. It’s like continuously picking at or fussing over a flesh wound.  And, while we are absorbed with our own hurt, we will find it difficult to sojourn compassionately with others.

This teaching is helpful at the individual level as well as the communal level.  As we look up and out, we see that we’re swimming upstream with others, and we can band together in solidarity.  But we shouldn’t stop there.  Sticking with the aquamarine metaphor, our “schools” also need to look up and out and see that there are many, many other “schools” banding together, resisting the impulse to defend only our interests (lest we flounder…).

In the church, we can do this by linking with other faith communities – informally and formally – expanding our networks of relationships and resources and ultimately, compassion.  In an attempt to encourage my church to do just this, a few weeks ago in our virtual worship, I invited congregants (and friends on social media) to name faith communities they wanted us to pray for. The intent was to look up and out, to see that we are not alone in our suffering.  That we are not the only ones who are impacted by COVID-19.  That our decisions and actions cause ripples beyond us and impact everyone else in the water.**

COVID-19 is teaching us that loving others takes proactive courage. It is teaching us that we cannot lie behind the half-truth that “we’re all in this together,” when we’re unwilling to sacrifice for our siblings in our neighborhoods and around the world.  And it’s teaching us that there are others with us in the deluge, fighting to swim against the tide of individualism and self-security, if we just look up and out.  Look up and look out.


*Paraphrased, from memory.

**We prayed for 40+ faith communities around the world.  Here’s what we prayed:
Uniting Spirit, we give you thanks
            for the living, breathing, beautiful web
            of churches and faith communities around the world. 
We pray for them in this time of pandemic,
           when they and their members may feel like exiles,
           passing through strange and hostile lands.
We hold in the Light of Love these churches:
            (churches named)
For each community named tonight, we pray for hope, creativity, and peace.  May they and we be reminded that none of us is alone. Equip and empower us to encourage one another, to empathize with one another, and to learn from one another.
We pray in the name of the One who makes us one. Amen.