The Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan, Associate Minister and Director of Administration in the Memorial Church. File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
By the Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan
Associate Minister and Director of Administration
The Memorial Church of Harvard University
(The following is a transcript from the service audio)
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our rock and redeemer. Amen.
Our long time congregant, Joan Howard, shared a "New York Times" article with me this past week about COVID fatigue. Now, I suspect this is something that many of us might be experiencing right now. And COVID fatigue can take many forms. A couple of days ago, I spent much of the morning trying to find my glasses only to discover they were on the top of my head the entire time. I chalked it off to COVID fatigue. And when the pandemic set in over 18 months ago, my family took a batten down the hatches approach. We moved up to Vermont to be with my parents. For what we had initially planned to be a two week visit, we ended up staying five months. We went into lockdown mode with purpose. We set new rhythms to our day, and priorities for our behaviors. And each of us has a story about how our lives have been upended over the past 18 months.
And certainly, there have been glimmers of hope and reprieve along the way; the arrival of vaccines, the return of worshiping and being in class together, seeing friends and family again. But friends, we are far from where we wanted to be months ago, and we would be in denial if we acted like we were on the other side of this. And more questions and unknowns emerge each day; will there be another variant? Will there be a vaccine mandate? Will our kids be able to stay in school or will the school shut down again? Will I be asked to work from home indefinitely? Will we be able to be with our family for the holidays? Will we be able to partake in the Lord's supper with one another? Will we be able to sing without masks?
After a year of death and arguments with neighbors and family members who have refused to mask or get vaccinated, the continual unpredictability and disappointment are exhausting. To borrow a phrase from civil rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer, "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired." We are ready to move on. But every social interaction becomes a calculation of risk and a negotiation with others. And at times, it feels like a test of fortitude or endurance. And in our exhaustion, we easily fall into making judgements about one another's choices, about where the deployment of vaccines should be in the world, about whether we wear masks outside, whether we should be getting together with family, whether we should be getting booster shots. In the article that Joan shared, the author observed that fatigue can produce either impatience and anger, or gentleness and kindness.
But add disappointment to our fatigue, that sense that we cannot go any longer, and we thought we wouldn't have to. We then can become the worst versions of ourselves. So when we are not or cannot be our best selves during this weary time and in this fragile state, what is the wise thing to do? I was struck by how James attempts to answer this question in our epistle lesson for today. James posits the question, "Who is wise and understanding among you?" He then goes on to answer his own question, by saying, "Show by your good life, that your good works are done with gentleness borne of wisdom." For James, a wise person does not demonstrate wisdom just by thinking wise thoughts or uttering wise phrases. Wisdom doesn't come from knowing the right answer or even being enlightened. It comes about living ethically.
Wisdom is about action, not me only thinking; practice, not just theory. And as we have learned over the past few months, we are not going to intellectualize ourselves out of this pandemic. In fact, even science cannot produce the winning solution alone. Just because vaccines exist, it does not mean that this virus will be eradicated. How we treat one another, how we stay in relationship with one another, become essential elements to this solution. And James goes on to share how divine wisdom tells us how to treat one another; it is with gentleness. Now this maybe come as a surprise to us, because James is almost urgent and harsh in his tone. Yet it reveals how hard it is to be gentle with one another and how easily we can fall short.
For James, gentleness borne of wisdom is first pure, then peaceable, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without trace of partiality or hypocrisy. Another way of translating these qualities could be innocent, peaceful, tolerant, obedient, full of compassion, with good fruits, non-judgemental, without hypocrisy. Simple, right? Much easier said than done. This gentleness of which James speaks is not weak, it is certainly not about being a doormat or a wimp. And gentleness is not preoccupied with good manners or politeness, or even being nice. As St. Francis de Sales said, "Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength."
And I imagine how trees have evolved to survive storms. Instead of standing firmly against the wind, like a bridge or a skyscraper, trees bend and sway to weather the storm while remaining firmly rooted to the ground. And James also notes that often our conflicts with others come from conflicts within ourselves. It's one of the reasons we're extra hard on our loved ones when we're tired or angry. We treat them like an extension of ourselves. And being gentle with others also means that we have to be gentle with ourselves. How you show mercy to yourself often extends to how you share grace with others. Gentleness calls forth gentleness, and gentleness is how we can be both human and humane.
A family friend once shared this story with me. He was coming home from a conference in Miami and he needed to make it home because he was leading worship at his church the next day. And his flight was the last one departing for his hometown. And when he arrived at the airport, he had learned that his flight had been canceled and there were scores of other anxious fellow passengers trying to make alternative travel arrangements. There was a long line of people arguing with the flight attendant at the check-in counter. And when my family friend finally reached the counter in his panic at the prospect of being stranded, he made a comment about how inconvenient this was and the flight attendant snapped at him a bit in return.
He then took a breath and realized that she had not made the decision to cancel the flight. She was only doing her job. So he pulled himself together and apologized. He said he was sure that she was having a difficult day. It was then she burst into tears and told him it was her first day back at work after the death of her husband. Philo, a Jewish philosopher and contemporary of Jesus, is attributed to saying, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." And comedian, Robin Williams expressed much the same thought. He said, "Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind, always." At any given moment, we only see a fraction of someone else's life. What we see at the surface cannot reveal all that lies beneath.
A pastoral care professor once told me, "You should always be listening for two things when speaking with someone; what is the presenting issue and what is the underlying issue? Rarely are they one and the same." And that has always stuck with me. As my favorite TV character, Ted Lasso put it, "Walt Whitman once said, 'Be curious, not judgmental.'" Now, I'm not sure if Walt Whitman actually said that, but Ted Lasso did, that's enough for me. James and Paul often are compared for how they approach the good news of God and Christ differently. Yet how James describes divine wisdom, echoes Paul's description of divine love from his first letter to the church in Corinth.
"Love is patient, love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." They may come at it from different angles, but both saints arrive at the same proclamation; those who truly love God cannot fail to live in peace with one another. Friends, this certainly is an anxious and weary time, when we are being asked to constantly reassess our actions and decisions. And at such a time, we need the wise counsel of our saints. The Apostle Paul says we must love one another. James says we need to be gentle with one another. Two very different teachers using different words to describe what is required at such a time, and yet saying much the same thing. May we have the ears to hear, and the hearts to respond. Amen.