Sermon by The Rev. Westley P. Conn, Ministry Fellow, The Memorial Church. (Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
Would you please pray with me? Lord, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, oh God, no matter where we find ourselves this morning. And God, we trust that the meditations of our hearts will indeed be acceptable to you whether we are sitting on a couch in Cambridge, driving in the car, walking in a park, or at home sipping tea. Amen.
Is the Lord among us or not? These few words uttered by the Israelites as they stammered through the desert wilderness have been my prayer this week. Here we are the third Sunday in Lent and the second Sunday of our broadcast only worship. I think we're going to have to learn to get comfortable with long distance worship as the coronavirus continues to make itself known in our country. Campus is no longer abuzz with students. Many have been pulled from their friends, their work, and their routines of learning. Others find themselves with the hard decision of whether or not to return to the place they call home.
Still, other students don't have a home to go to at this time. Seniors at the college have had their year cut short. We have had to tell many of you that you cannot come to church. This is not an easy thing for us as ministers to say. Locking the doors of the sanctuary, barring people from their house of prayer is quite disturbing. And without the celestial voices of the university choir, our hearts are a bit quiet this morning. Is the Lord among us or not? We are fumbling with technology. Some of us who are less technologically gifted have been preparing test meetings on Zoom to hone our skills.
At the church, we're beginning to imagine creative ways to connect with you, some of which I hope we can share soon. Technology allows us to continue our learning and communicating, but for too many of us, it makes our isolation all the more pronounced. These things can't replace the energy of a classroom discussion of Emily Bronte or Michel Foucault. It's hard to console a friend or a congregant without a hug.
Human presence is hard to replicate with a screen or podcast. The sound of isolation is surprisingly loud. Is the Lord among us or not? The frequency of coronavirus updates has sent me into a tailspin. Sifting through notifications, text messages and emails for helpful information is daunting. I've seen way too many hand-washing memes. I continue to expand my vocabulary to include terms like social distancing and contact spread. In familiarizing ourselves with these terms, we've found our schedules hauntingly open.
Disappointment is as common as program cancellations. Fear increases with the number of virus outbreaks in our communities and abroad. Coronavirus has set us into uncharted waters As Professor Anne Brody asked in her morning prayers talk on Wednesday, "How do we support one another when our means of support have become dangerous?" The nature of this virus is as such that we cannot gather. It seems though our Lenten wilderness has become our state of mind, and again I ask, is the Lord among us or not?
In times of trial, when the going gets tough, our memories shortened and our minds catastrophize. In the wilderness, it's easy for us to lose our moorings. It becomes impossible to tell the difference between the good and the bad. The line between our perceptions and reality blurs. The Israelites knew this having discovered the challenge of discerning mirage from oasis as they wandered through the desert to the Promised Land. Isolated and fearful, they traveled alone through dry land with plenty of rocks and sand to tell them of their peril. Their routines and comforts were long gone left in Egypt. Following Moses, they moved day and night without knowing where they would lay their heads next or how their stomachs would be filled or where they would find water to slack their thirst. The end clearly appeared imminent. They were on a seemingly aimless desert pilgrimage with no real end in sight.
The Israelites were neither here nor there. Unable to discern perception from reality, they began to quarrel with God. Their spirits filled with anger and alarm. The Israelites cried out to God, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt? To kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst? Is the Lord among us or not?" they asked each other with heavy hearts. In a strange desert wilderness, the Israelites were sure that the worst was about to befall them. They were thirsty, in need of water, and all signs pointed to God's abandonment. Facing this immense challenge, reality and perception became intertwined. Wilderness conceals reality. It lets fear and chaos scramble what is true and what is right. Our perceptions don't always let us see things or others for what or who they are. For Israel, wilderness ultimately shifted from a place to a state of mind and their images of Moses and God devolved into that of conniving murders.
Rowan Williams in his book “Being Christian” writes that deserts, wilderness forces us to learn discernment, how to tell good from bad. This is exactly what we need to be doing. In our uncertainty and isolation, we must learn and practice discernment. It is imperative that we stay connected to reality. We can let the trembling voices of our perceptions speak, but we mustn't listen to them.
God knew that the Israelites needed to discern the reality of their situation. The story tells us that God told Moses to get out his staff, the same staff that he used to part the waters of the Nile to lead the Israelites to safety. This staff would make reality known. It would make clear that water was trickling through the rocks and sands of the desert wilderness, enough water even to quench their thirst. Moses' staff would show that God wished not to abandon them, but to give them the water their weary throats desired. Wilderness muddied reality for the Israelites. God had already cared for them so many times before. Why would they assume God cannot or will not help them again?
Just before their complaint for water, God provided food in their time of hunger, not once but twice, giving them bread from heaven and quail to eat. And it was God who freed them from bondage in Egypt. Needing to discern good from bad to find reality, God told Moses to use his familiar staff. It was a visual and tangible reminder of God's saving presence. This was the staff that brought them through the Red Sea and back to reality. Like the Israelites, we too must begin to discern reality from wilderness. Lies, rumors, and panic pull us away from the water that flows in the crooks and crannies of the desert. Uncertainty and the threat of isolation send us into a dizzying spiral where reality and wilderness look the same. We must with great seriousness practice discernment. We have got to keep our hearts and minds focused on reality.
If you're like me, you'll need help with the task of discernment. It's not something we can learn overnight or master as we work from home. Discernment takes endless Zoom sessions. Don't fret though. No need to subject ourselves to that. What we need in our discernment is a staff, or at least a metaphorical staff, something familiar to show us how God saved us before. A staff can be a reminder, visual or otherwise to point out the water in the wilderness. Some years ago when I was faced with a great challenge, a wise minister said to me, "You know, you will have more times like this ahead and you will need something to help you." Consider the last time you strongly felt God's presence or experienced God's saving grace. Then write that down. Make for yourself a collection of reference points that you can turn to when God feels absent and life gets hard.
I followed this minister's advice, and this has become my staff in the wilderness, pointing out the water that trickles around the cracks. We are in the wilderness, but it is not a reality. I encourage you now, wherever you are listening to this, to also heed this minister's advice. In the coming weeks ahead, you will need a staff. When were you last wandering alone and frightened in the wilderness? How did God pull you from the clutches of despair? Write this down. Reflect right now on the saving acts of God in your own life. No matter how small, catalog them. This will be your staff. In the desert wilderness, turn to this and feel God's presence. Should you find yourself a bit committed to the wilderness and unsure of where and when God has shown up for you, let me share a few things we can all add to the list.
This week was the last time for graduating seniors in the UChoir to join their voices with their beloved friends. Knowing this, their fellow choristers organize their own service of morning prayers on the John Weeks Bridge to sing and to pray as the sun shed it's morning light along the Charles River.
On the steps of the church, a church school teacher shared spontaneous words of assurance that a congregant and I desperately needed to hear. She mentioned with us that leaving campus and her friends wasn't ideal, but that she could get through it and so could we. "The situation isn't horrible," she said. "We as a community are doing this as an act of care for those around us." She is absolutely right. When else have so many people joined in an act of mercy for the most vulnerable in our community and even country? What else can you add to this list? Add it now. Don't wait. We will need this staff on our journey.
A wilderness pilgrimage is dry and we like the Israelites will need a familiar staff to show us the water. God cared for the Israelites, brought them out of Egypt, gave them life giving water, and fed them. The same is true for us this day and in the days to come. Amen.