It was November 2019, months before we had even heard of COVID 19 or what we now know only so well as the isolation and wilderness of the pandemic shutdown.
At the time, schools were open, kids were in classrooms without masks, and most of us had no idea what distance learning was all about. As a volunteer in the St Paul Public Schools, I was sitting in a small room with a group of four 1st graders, helping them with their sight words. Sight words are those words that students are expected to be able to recognize “by sight” without sounding them out. There are about 100 such words for 1st grade. Words like “come,” “on,” “has,” and “your.”
Our routine was that we would practice saying the word out loud a few times; then we would write it on our dry erase boards; and then we would use it in a sentence. For instance: HAS – A zebra has stripes. ON – I am sitting on a chair. YOUR – Your name is Tyrone.
We got to the word “with.” W-I-T-H. We practiced saying it – with, not “wif.” We practiced writing it, making sure it was a lower case “i” with a dot and that we wrote the “t” before the “h.”
And then it was time to use the word “with” in a sentence. I opened my mouth and the words that very nearly spilled out were “The Lord is with you.” But I quickly caught myself and instead said “I am with you.” To which Tyrone replied, “I am with you, Ms. Holly.”
This encounter with kids, months before the pandemic, is what came rushing to my mind when Jered called and asked me to preach and reflect on the question of what I learned during the pandemic. What do I want to remember? He said “It’s like the story of Joshua leading the people out of the wilderness, across the Jordan River, bringing stones to remember that time.”
After hanging up the phone with Jered, I pulled out my Bible and looked up the Old Testament story to refresh my memory…. After the death of Moses, God calls on Joshua to lead the people of Israel out of the wilderness, into the Promised Land. As they cross the Jordan River, Joshua instructs them to take a stone from the middle of the river. And after they cross, the stones are piled up at their camp in Gilgal and Joshua declares “When your children ask their parents in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ you shall let your children know ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.” In other words, the stones are intended to be a remembrance of the wilderness, the journey out of it, and God’s faithfulness.
So the question is … what do you want to remember from the pandemic wilderness and your crossing over? What did you learn? What did you find? What did you lose? What is the stone you want to bring out of the wilderness with you?
For me, it is the all about that word WITH. My yearning during the pandemic was to be “with” others. Living alone I felt particularly isolated. Even as many couples or families were trying to cope with spending every minute of every day in the same familiar space together, I was craving the physical presence and touch of others. And yet what does it mean to be “with” one another, especially when we cannot be physically present?
During my pandemic isolation, I relied on many of the same ways of staying connected as I suspect many of you did. Zoom meetings staring at my computer screen with people stacked in boxes like the old Hollywood Squares game show; talking on the phone for hours like I remember doing as a teenager; Skype calls with friends; outdoor gatherings with neighbors in frigid weather we wouldn’t tolerate under other circumstances; and YouTube worship, where I could count how many of you were watching, but couldn’t hear your voices singing hymns or saying the Lord’s Prayer in unison. I had to imagine worship as I once knew it, singing and reciting the words by myself, hoping you were out there doing it with me.
I was also still volunteering at school… But now it was what they call “Distance Learning” or “Virtual Learning.” I met each week online with a class of 25 first graders, sometimes reading to a small group of 4 or 5 kids or sometimes teaching art to the entire class. My computer screen would be filled with 25 little boxes, each with a little face. Well, sometimes it was their face, but sometimes other body parts, their kitchen ceiling, or their stuffed animal or baby brother in bed with them.
All those faces, places, and voices are what I want to remember from this pandemic. Not how lonely I felt or even how I was was able to survive by the magic of technology; but how I was with people in new, strange, and often uncomfortable ways.
Because being “with” people in all these ways gave me new insight into being “with” God. Throughout scripture we hear the assurance that God is with us:
- Do not fear for I am with you (Isaiah 43:5)
- Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you (Luke 1:28)
- I am with you always to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20)
We even acknowledge it when we say the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm: “I shall fear no evil for Thou art with me…”
The Scripture lessons we heard this morning are no exception. Sometimes the assurance of God’s presence is proclaimed by others, as in today’s Old Testament lesson when the prophet Nathan says to King David: “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”
And sometimes God speaks directly, as in today’s Psalm when God says of David: “My faithfulness and love shall be with him.”
And then there’s today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus says to the apostles, ”Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves… And they went away in a boat to a deserted place by themselves.”(It sounds a bit like our pandemic wilderness, doesn’t it?) But wait; the story continues… “when he went ashore he saw a great crowd…” He. I guess the apostles weren’t really by themselves at all. He (Jesus) was, in fact, in that boat and on that shore, with them. Apparently, the Gospel writer Mark thought it simply went without saying.
But with all these Biblical assurances of God’s presence, how is God with us? What does it mean to have God with us?
In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World, she has a chapter entitled “The Practice of Encountering Others.” In it she writes, “encountering another human being is as close to God as I may ever get – in the eye-to-eye, the in-person thing – which is where God’s Beloved has promised to show up.”
And that is how God showed up for me during the pandemic. In all those crazy, often frustrating and uncomfortable ways that I was with human beings – with school kids in distance learning, with friends on Zoom and Skype, with you all in YouTube worship – in all those ways God was reaching out and was with me, showing me God’s self through my fellow pandemic pilgrims.
You listened and shared my pain and struggle by telling me about yours; the kids taught me joy and gratitude and gave my days meaning and purpose; we were all wise and witty for one another. We were WITH one another.
That’s what I want to remember. That’s the stone I want to carry into the Promised Land. That God reveals God’s self through us! That God’s peace, challenge, comfort, inspiration, comes through us mere mortals as we minister to one another in ways we may not even recognize, much less intend.
One of my favorite Bible stories is the Old Testament story of Jacob’s Dream at Bethel, or perhaps you know it as Jacob’s Ladder…. Alone and on the run, Jacob lays down for the night and has a dream. (And get this… he takes a stone from the place and puts it under his head as a pillow to sleep!) He dreams there’s a ladder on earth reaching to heaven. And Jacob sees angels traveling up and down the ladder, making their way back and forth from earth to heaven. And God comes to Jacob in his dream and says: “Know that I am with you.” God doesn’t just say “I am with you.” Instead, he tells Jacob to KNOW that truth. KNOW that I am with you. And then Jacob wakes up and says “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it… How awesome is this place!”
How awesome indeed! See it in those angels!
May the Lord be with you.