In the opening verses of our passage from Ephesians this morning the author is probably utilizing an early baptismal credo; very simple but sufficient to emphasize what Christians share in the common heritage of their faith; one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.
When I was serving our Cathedral in Buffalo, NY I had three close friends who were all Roman Catholic priests – Butch, Duke, and Jimmy. If you remember the old TV series “Hell Town” you can get a picture…I had been in Buffalo several years and one day I confessed to them I had never tasted any Buffalo wings – so central to Buffalo’s identity; they were shocked and whisked me off to the Anchor Bar, which is allegedly where wings were created. So there were fun times. Jimmy’s father died and the funeral would be held at the parish Jimmy served – and he invited me to vest and process with the diocesan priests. Ultimately I said no – I was deeply moved but I never knew Jimmy’s father and the last thing I wanted to do was create a controversy on that day. I told Jimmy I would wear my collar and sit near the front. I did so, and because I was early there was no one else was sitting particularly close to me. It turned out that the priests came in before the service began rather than processing, and sat in the first couple of rows just ahead of me; there were probably about 25 people. Suddenly, I saw some of them turn around and then start whispering to each other – they’d look at me again – and whisper again; I thought, “oh, no!” Suddenly to a person they stood up and came over to the place where I was sitting and filled in the pews all around me; I couldn’t have moved unless Scotty had beamed me up. The priests remained with me during the service, in full view of the RC bishop, until they needed to go up to the altar for the liturgy of the table. Needless, to say, I was stunned and overwhelmed. The priests came together in solidarity – something in that moment transcended individual opinion and we were knit together in ways we intuited more than knew. At that moment, at least, I was at the center of their circle. What has taken me longer to realize is that with the exception of a few people – Butch, Duke, and Jimmy, and a few others I had worked with on ecumenical projects – I didn’t know this group of people – and they didn’t know me, but came together as a supporting community, nonetheless. The memory lives inside me as a stellar example and image of Christian witness; the experience was nourishing and enduring; it did not create unity but confessed it. I can’t speak for the other priests of course, but I continue to find new meaning in this memory, and have gained fuller understanding of the implications of this action.
What we remember or choose to remember and carry forward is not a given…
Recently I bought a bracelet with a bronze-looking charm; it wasn’t until I went home that I realized there were words inscribed on the charm reading “Delete 2020”. You’ve probably seen the commercial that describes 2020 as a “long, long, Norwegian winter.” This past year has been challenging for all of us, to say the least. Sometimes I get confused about when it started; it seems incredible to me that it’s been about a year and ½ we’ve been struggling with COVID in one way or another. I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels like they fell down the famed Rabbit Hole of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; looking at my surroundings on the way down, but unable at that point to make any sense of what was happening…
Many people felt like we had entered another world, and discovered a landscape we had never imagined. Perhaps, this landscape is most like a desert, with its own kind of beauty, but also with unexpected, unprepared for challenges, or even, danger. With imagination and intention this landscape can also be a place of revelation.
How each person has experienced the pandemic differs, of course; COVID-time has varied depending upon who you are, where you were, and what you were doing, what responsibilities you had when things ground to a halt. Our COVID-times to some extent resembled our “normal” times in a similar way to how fun house mirrors reflect what we really look like.
I’m not sure how many of us initially understood the seriousness of what was happening all around us. At first I took the lockdown on as a challenge, getting up and dressing as if I was going out that day; doing projects I might not have considered otherwise, learning for the first time there was something called “ZOOM”, which would become all too close of an associate; I’d never even had Netflix before so it was fun to be able to binge-watch shows such as “Call the Midwife”, “Schitt’s Creek”, etc. with my husband Dan without feeling any (or much) guilt about doing so. After a while, I began to take many walks, and I was finally learning how to make quality Vegan dishes. To my surprise I liked getting up to arrive at the grocery store by 7 am; being part of that privileged group (!) afforded special times to shop.
In various ways we found coping mechanisms to help us through this weight of death. In addition, each of us, though, probably had a personal touchstone keeping us grounded in the understanding that COVID is a serious matter, a personal reason (other than ourselves) for wearing a mask or receiving a vaccination. Any positive feelings I had about my ability to address the COVID experience was always tempered of course, by the obscene number of deaths…but personally by the fact that my father is 93, homebound, and I visit him regularly. A reality that loomed large for me continuously was the fear that somehow my already compromised father would become ill –that he would be given COVID by one of his medical caregivers – or by me.
It became imperative for any of us to find ways of making the time matter; finding not just “fillers”, but intentional times of value; virtual lectures and classes, sometimes learning new skills. One of the best opportunities about this past year is it provided time and space to listen, read, consider, “sit with”, “catch up”, spend quality time with family.
We had more time to notice what is going on. Because of the pandemic we have been taken into places most of us have never seen before; because of our technology we viewed a landscape filled with ERs and chaos, we saw the pain, the fear, the commitment and sacrifices of these essential workers. We also the essential workers who have long been in the background of our vision AND our appreciation; they have come into view in new, and God-willing, lasting ways.
This certainly has been a time when the best of humanity and the worst of it have been fully in view. Whoever thought we’d be fighting over whether to wear masks or not, or to take a vaccine? I confess I had days when I never wanted to hear the words individual liberties again. Where was the recognition that the common good lifts us all up? That what’s best for the greatest number of people is what’s best. We are called to move outside our own pain to feel other’s experiences. James Baldwin wrote, “If I love you I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” We have to do that for one another.
One of the most bewildering pieces was becoming even more aware of the deep divisions within the Church as to what actually constitutes being a Christian; sometimes when I listen to or read what a particular Christian has said I have no idea what they are talking about, or where they got the idea, and I know that other people are looking at me in the same way. Many Christians these days seem to know each other only through soundbites and not through our common heritage; there is disregard of how when different parts are working properly, the body’s growth is promoted. Christians have long differed and often strongly, but the polarization in our land is so great, the differences feel cavernous. I have long felt when at ecumenical conferences there should be more time spent inviting and attempting to speak with folk who are not mainline Christians.
COVID provided an opportunity to reflect upon our place in the world. There are many ways to consider our place; in my case I think about how we relate to animals. Some of you know about my volunteering with Soul Space Farm Sanctuary in New Richmond, WI, a place where 55 abused farm animals have found their forever home. SoulSpace was closed to most people last year in order to protect the animals. It was natural for me to become very aware of the place of animals in all of this turmoil. At first I loved the footage of sheep or other animals wandering into towns with empty streets because humans were indoors; the penguins at the Chicago Zoo being allowed to roam because there were no visitors. At first this footage seemed delightful, and on one level, it certainly is. Further reflection led me to the sobering reality that it was only the cessation or reduction of our usual level of activities that had given room and space to animals, had allowed for the clearing up of bodies of water, which fish could again inhabit, etc. The change was not by an act of will or change in thinking. It is so humbling to think of how many of God’s creatures could thrive without us… Although there are certainly happy instances of people adopting animals during the pandemic and falling in love with them there is also the issue of adopting animals from shelters and then returning them….as if they were things without feelings or needs themselves.
When I reflect upon this past year it feels filled with many fragments. It will take what could be a long while to sort through these experiences, until we choose or are able to interpret events and embrace these fragments as part of our life stories, to give them some sort of coherent meaning, although that process is never complete… of course, this reality is not only true about COVID.
Memories can be vivid and multi-dimensional. The fact that the Feeding of the 5,000 is remembered in all four gospels means it was significant and “read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested” by a number of early communities over time. That there are some differences between the accounts could mean that various communities found different points to emphasize and preach. Today we hear from John, who has created narratives so rich they beg us to continue mining them for understanding. Even the early Church thinkers and writers could not agree on what these bread passages ultimately mean; so they, too, add to the evolving conversation.
Yes, John ”sets the stage” and provides build up to the revelation of who Jesus is – but although we don’t often think about it, the Evangelists were members of believing communities just as we are and were formed by them. The words of John also reflect the faith and life of the Johannine community and the thread running through the last few gospel lessons may be his narrative way of showing how the community itself grew in understanding; about increasing circles of compassion, about feeding and who continues the work of feeding, that it is God’s heart that nothing should be lost, and that the Church is to be a fragment-gatherer. Finally, the community is led to those choices making for life, and sacrament. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures…”
Recently I learned of a worship committee’s proposal to their vestry that they create a service acknowledging the experiences of their community members around COVID. The service is not yet fleshed out but they will seek to embrace areas of grieving, healing, and gratitude. It is a liturgy to gather up these memories so nothing will be lost. How fitting, as liturgy serves as a primary source of how we make sense of our world, envision a renewed future, and participate in that renewal.
Will we continue to reflect and learn from this past year? And will those reflections lead to consequential action? Do the things we have learned remain “filler” – or do they become agents of change? Which ones that lead us to sacred actions?
What differences do the questions we have had, and the insights we have gleaned, matter for how we live? Do the troubling new cases mean we are going “back in?” Are we more prepared? How might any insights help us live in this not-yet-ending situation? What are those things we have decided to keep with us as we move forward?
Our rabbit holes can be where everything begins; a new world, new thoughts, a new page. Amen.