Essential Work

Fourth Sunday of Easter

 

 

Psalm 23

John 10:1-11

Every year, employment agencies and worker advocacy groups publish lists of the most dangerous jobs in America. Usually, there is little variation among these lists. At the top are occupations in which people are exposed to some of the harsher, untamed elements of the natural world, like commercial fishermen and loggers, or those who labor in precarious worksites, like roofers and steel-beam construction workers. Using our imaginations, we could probably come up with some other vocations that carry with them the likelihood or inevitability of danger—firefighters, police officers, members of the military. Few people would argue that these are dangerous jobs.

Lately, though, as the COVID-19 crisis has caused us to think about a lot of things differently, I can’t help but be struck by just how dangerous some other jobs have become, jobs that we normally wouldn’t think of as particularly hazardous but which have come to carry an inescapable element of very real danger. Health-care workers, from doctors and nurses to respiratory therapists, pharmacists, chaplains, and various other hospital support staff, have been on the front-lines of this situation. Each day, so many of these brave workers don their masks and gloves and take their health into their own hands, caring for those who are suffering greatly.

But beyond these heroes in the medical profession, we can look to others whose work we so often have taken for granted—grocery store workers dedicated to providing people with the food they need, deliverymen and women who make it possible for people to stay at home and still receive essential items, janitors and custodial staffs committed to keeping environments clean and safe for others. We don’t often think of these jobs as dangerous, but in these times, when we need them most, they certainly can be. We don’t often think of these people as heroic, but our current situation has driven home the point that so often, it’s those we’re most prone to overlook who are the truly essential members of our communities. Read more

Two Versions of the Resurrection

Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

1 Peter 1:17-23

Luke 24:13-35

One way to tell a story about the resurrection is the one we find in Luke’s gospel. The disciples on that road to Emmaus seem to have been in Jerusalem through the whole week-long events that took place: the parade on Sunday, the crucifixion on Friday, the attempt to anoint Jesus’ body with spices on Sunday.

When the spice-bearing women return with a report of angels proclaiming Jesus was risen, these two Emmaus disciples appear not to know what to do with this information. They must be thinking to themselves that the women’s account can’t possibly be factually true. Some other disciples go test the theory, but apparently see no angels, but no body either. Read more

The Witness of Scars

Second Sunday of Easter, Year A

John 20:19-31

I’ve been going outside a lot lately, finding my kin and connection with the creation that I can embrace with no worry of shared infection. I’ve been watching birds, many now migrating to their Summer homes from far south to far north. I’ve been learning to identify butterflies and exploring their fascinating interconnections with plants. And I have been paying attention to trees, watching a wide variety of oaks sprout in my yard from the places they were planted by squirrels and jays.

One of the beautiful things I’ve come to recognize about trees are their scars. Look closely at any of them and you will see some evidence of the life they’ve lived–a branch shorn off by a browsing deer, a crown pierced by lightning, the enclosure of bark around an insect attack. So much of the experience of a tree is there, evident on its body, available as a witness that life keeps going.

The witness of trees has been helpful to me in this time when COVID19 has kept me away from so many I love. What a strange Holy Week, to worship in an empty church and preach into a webcam! I usually come to Easter Monday worn out, but this year I felt more depressed than tired. I missed the many bells and alleluias ringing out on Easter vigil and it just wasn’t the same lighting the Paschal fire, when its flame could not be passed, candle to candle, throughout the church. This time is like a cut on a tree trunk, a damaging pain with sap oozing to the surface. Read more

A New Story

Easter Sunday

Acts 10:34-43

Matthew 28:1-10

It would be a vast understatement to say that the moment we’re currently living through has a certain strangeness to it. At least once a day, I am struck by the thought that I’ve never experienced anything quite like this, and I suspect I’m not alone. In a matter of weeks, we’ve been collectively immersed into a new vocabulary, a new set of practices, and maybe more than anything, a tsunami of information that threatens to overwhelm us. Individuals in power, journalists pursuing an angle, researchers armed with data, and conspiracy theorists with an agenda—everyone has a chart to display, a forecast to project, a meme to share, a cure to hawk, and an axe to grind.

Across a vast array of platforms, a dizzying collection of narrators are telling us their disparate versions of a common story, and it’s not an easy story to digest. When we cut through all the details and all the data and all the differences, it’s ultimately a story of sickness and grief and loss that spans from China to Italy to points closer to home. It’s a story about our limitations, a story about mortality, a story—as much as we hate to say it—about death. And in this respect at least, despite the profound strangeness of the moment, we can find some common cause with generations of people who have lived before us. Because from the beginning, in one form or another, we have been telling and living stories about death. Read more

A Holy Week Like No Other

Palm/Passion Sunday

Matthew 27:11-54

Palm Sunday breaks the monotony of the season of Lent. And what a Lenten season it has been. One for the books, with social distancing, enforced quarantine, empty churches, no, I mean EMPTY churches, toilet paper fasts, all underlaid with a gnawing sense of unease, and in many parts of our neighborhood and world, fear of disease and death. The title of a recent blog post echoed my sentiments exactly: “This is the Lentiest Lent I Ever Lented!”

 And now we prepare for Palm Sunday and Holy Week, knowing that this year there will be no gatherings at the church door, no procession of palm-wavers singing their way down the center aisle, no “Hosanna in the highest!” will be heard on the streets of Jerusalem or any other city street, no sudden hinge that leads the church into Holy Week.

The skeleton crew that gathered last Sunday in our church to livestream the service talked over plan for Palm Sunday. “Maybe four of us waving palm branches could circle the camera twelve times and no one would notice all the people were missing.” What will Palm Sunday be like without our annual dramatic reading of the Passion of Christ? What will Holy Week be like without our gatherings with other churches, without foot washing, bathrobe dramas, shadows and candles, stations of the cross, without real flesh and blood people? Sometimes it seems like we’re living in an Avengers movie and a quarter of the world’s population has just disappeared.

In another sense aren’t we living what we always wished for? We have definitely experienced a break from the busyness of life, from the diversions that pulled us in a hundred directions. Things have simplified; our needs have been clarified; even as our fears have been amplified. I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but this Palm Sunday doesn’t feel like any other. It feels like we’re perched on the edge of a precipice. It feels like those few seconds when the roller coaster comes to the highest point of its ride and stops, just before it plunges over the crest of the hill.

In a way, the strange silence on our streets today reminds me of the silence of Jesus on that last day of his life. Jesus had a lot to say in a three year ministry. We read his words and teachings each week. We have pieces of his sermons, transcripts of his public protests, remembrances of the fights in which he participated.  He spun stories for huge crowds; he whispered the secrets of the kingdom to his disciples.  He talked to people he wasn’t supposed to talk to—untouchables, women, foreigners, sick people, sinners. 

Jesus was still talking when he came to Jerusalem, even though his mouth had placed a target on his back.  He taught large crowds in the Temple by day, and spoke privately with his disciples at night.  Time was running out, and he wasn’t quite finished. “I have much to say to you, but you cannot bear it now,” Jesus told them.   He spoke with urgency through that last supper and we even have a record of the last prayer he prayed for the disciples and the private words of agony he poured out to God on his own behalf in the garden of Gethsemane.  But when the hour of darkness finally caught up with him… when he was handed over to those who sought his life, Jesus quit talking.  He went utterly silent, letting his actions speak rather than his words.

This Holy Week will be like no other. For one thing, it’s going to be a lot quieter. But the story is still there. Jesus’ actions still speak as loudly as they ever have. And, who knows, maybe with the enforced separation and the buzz dialed back…with the shadow of danger and even death lurking over the whole scene, maybe we are ready to hear the story of Jesus’ last days in a way that we haven’t heard it in a long time.  This year, as the days lengthen, as the drama heightens, as the crisis grows, as our anxiety squeezes us, the Son of God makes his way to the Mount of Olives, riding on the back of a donkey. The drama begins. With words. With silence. With heart-wrenching passion and action. With acts of betrayal and acts of mercy. This year, may Holy Week be a week like no other.