COVID truth and GOD’S truth

Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”[1]

The Globe and Mail recently reported that Canadians who have already received the vaccine have ambivalent feelings about it.[2] And it’s not about being anti-vaccination. It’s about realizing that individually having the vaccine does not change much in the way of social interactions. The land borders are still closed. Travel restrictions continue indefinitely. Wearing masks, limited access to public buildings, social distancing – these all continue.

We’re sad, even when we get the vaccine because the vaccine doesn’t wipe away all our losses. We still need to grieve.[3]Why? Because we realize that the vaccine isn’t a silver bullet solution to dealing with the emotional, spiritual and physical pain in our lives today. 

At the molecular level what is happening inside our body is significant when we get our vaccine, in building immunity against a deadly virus. But, outside of us, nothing really changes in the social, material world. “My frustration at this point is outweighing my happiness,” confessed someone who just got their first dose. “Because when I go outside, I’m still in a COVID world.” 

Have we fooled ourselves into fantasizing that once we get the vaccine, everything at the snap of the fingers will be like it used to be? Here we touch on a truth, dare I say, a truth that reflects the way of Christ. And perhaps a way through the grief.

During the torturous hours leading to Jesus’ death on the cross, the Passion stories from the Gospels depict Jesus appearing before various authorities who stand in judgement over him: Judas who betrays him, the soldiers who arrest, beat and mock him, Peter who denies him, Caiaphus who questions him, Pilate who cross-examines him, the crowd who condemns him. 

And in all these scenes, Jesus appears by himself. The disciples have abandoned him. It seems Jesus’ Passion revolves around just one individual.

But he is not alone. That’s the truth. Throughout his ordeal, Jesus appeals to God. The Gospel of John, especially, emphasizes how connected he is to God the Father through it all. Multiple times in the midst of his suffering, Jesus mentions the heavenly realm, and the kingdom of God to which he belongs. “Yet I am not alone,” Jesus says, “because the Father is with me.”[4]  

Even when Jesus cries, “O God why have you forsaken me?”[5] he identifies with the words of the Psalmist, words that unite him to the expansive community of faith spanning centuries. Jesus identifies with his humanity in those words of grief, through which he connects our humanity to his, and to all the saints of every time and place.

We are not Jesus. I am not saying that because Jesus, Son of God, did this we also should, easily. I am not denying our own human limitations nor uniqueness. I am saying that we are in Christ, and therefore in his consciousness we too can appreciate the pattern of our own renewal and path to new life. That is, we don’t face our crisis alone. That our salvation is tied to a larger truth beyond our own individual perception.

On Reformation Sunday we often will read the words of Jesus from John’s Gospel: If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.[6]

On Good Friday we confront the truth that we are not alone. No one is free until everyone is free. No one is safe until everyone is safe. The effects of COVID will not be subdued until eveyone is vaccinated.

The truth is, Jesus came to save all people. Not just the rich. Not just the privileged. Not just those who have political, social clout. Not only those who live in developed countries.

The truth is, Jesus came to save – using the Old Testament formula – “the stranger, the orphan, and the widow” which is code for the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable, the weak.[7] The cross of Christ represents God’s love even for the enemy, those for whom you would not give the time of day.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…[8]

Our existence, our living and our dying, is not an episodic, indivualistic event. We are connected all to one another. The virus, if anything, is certainly teaching us this truth. The virus knows no human-made divisions. And any one individual who wishes to engage the community at any level, won’t be ‘free’ until everyone is.

Because at the end of the day expressing grief is recognized in the presence of another. The act of grieving allows us to see beyond our own, private interests. The tears of loss make room to see and strengthen the bonds of mutual love that connect us to a larger community in the reign of God. While our grief is our own, our healing comes in expressing it in the presence of another.

The cross cannot be the cross unless both directions are bound together as one. The symbol of the cross reminds us that we are not only in an up-and-down/vertical relationship (“me and Jesus”), but in a side-to-side/horizontal relationship (“me and you”). May the truth of the cross of Christ fill our hearts today.

[1] John 18:37-38



[4] John 16:32

[5] Psalm 22:1

[6] John 8:31

[7] Deuteronomy 24:19-21, Psalm 94:6;146:9, Jeremiah 7:6;22:3,  Zechariah 7:10

[8] John 3:16-17

The Rock rolls on

12On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’ 13So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, 14and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” 15He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.’ 16So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal. (Mark 14)

In our pre-recorded service for Good Friday later this week, we will sing: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble ….”

Trembling happens in response to shock. Trembling happens as visceral reaction to something that shocks us, dislodges us, from long-standing, seemingly immovable positions.

Like a rock. Bedrock. Tectonic plates have shifted deep within us, far beneath the surface of what we normally perceive. And it changes everything. The death of Jesus changed everything. The Passion of our Lord causes us to tremble, tremble, tremble. The Passion of our Lord causes the world to tremble.

The changes were incredible and unexpected. The people, and even Jesus’ disciples, expected a mighty ruler to upend the Roman military and political dominance in their land. Despite Jesus’ humble yet triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, his followers still imagined a way forward that evaded defeat at the cross. Jesus’ death didn’t upend the Romans. But it did upend everyone’s expectations.

The large rock that enclosed his body in the tomb symbolized the final seal on Jesus’ death. There perhaps isn’t anything more final, more terminal, than standing at the tombstone of a loved one. The end of the journey. “Oh, sometimes, it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”

A little bit over a week ago, an earthquake struck just south of Ottawa, near Kemptville. It was a minor, magnitude 2.7 earthquake, lightly felt from Ottawa to Cornwall and into New York State.

In the Passion story from the bible, an earthquake rocked the ground around the time of Jesus death. “The earth shook, and the rocks were split.”[1] And again, at the time of Jesus’ resurrection, there was another earthquake.[2] When the women looked up at the tomb, “they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.”[3]

The Psalmist often sings of the God who is the “rock” of our salvation.[4] Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “the rock was Christ.”[5] And even Peter referred to Jesus as “a living stone … a cornerstone.”[6] A living stone is, as Diana Butler Bass puts it, a “rock that rolls”.[7]

On the surface, we may perceive rock as immovable. But, truth be told, rock isn’t really static. Geologically speaking, rocks move – slowly – but sometimes even suddenly. And when the rocks move, get ready! “Oh, sometimes, it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”

We have a habit of domesitcating God. But Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter shock us out of our comfort zones. We like to turn Jesus into a static figure, the one who is ‘the same yesterday and today and forever.’ Perhaps the thundering rock is too much for us. 

Yet, God remains the One who “shatters”, as C.S. Lewis once remarked. “Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of God’s presence?”[8] Because to read the Bible fairly is to discover a God who is always on the move. Always changing things.

The Passover Meal, for Christians, has not only become a practice of remembering the great acts of God from history. The Holy Meal has become a practice of celebrating the living presence – the living stone – in our midst today. Over the course of the bible, the Holy Meal is a practice infused with layers of meaning, from Passover to Real Presence. Evolving in practice and meaning.

And continues to do so even during the COVID pandemic. We have adapted. We have changed in how we do things. We have felt uncertainty during our worhsip practice of the sacrament of the Lord’s presence during the pandemic. We have mediated the sacrament through the internet. And believe you me, “Oh, sometimes, it causes me to tremble …”

At the same time, I am not the only one who has felt the initimacy, love and deep connection with those of you who have shared in this imperfect yet holy means of experiencing true presence together. We have been irradiated by Jesus’ love and presence beyond the boundaries of physical space.

Perhaps in doing these ‘temporary measures’ of responding to the pandemic restrictions, the church has done some good – to continue worshipping and seeking ever-changing ways of receiving the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. A grace of which we partake “in all times and in every place.”[9]

Thanks be to God. 

[1] Matthew 27:51

[2] Matthew 28:2

[3] Mark 16:4

[4] Psalm 18:2,46; 28:1; 31:2; 62:6; 89:26; 95:1; 144:1 

[5] 1 Corinthians 10:4

[6] 1 Peter 2:4,6

[7] Diana Butler Bass, “The Rock that Rolls” in The Cottage (March 13, 2021).

[8] Cited in ibid.

[9] Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2008), p.108.

Memory and Promise

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

The annual meeting today reminds us that the clocks turn regardless of all that has happened in the past year. We do certain things at the same time every year. Anniversaries are like that. Every year, we will celebrate birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and occasions that call us to pause, and remember.

Remember, what happened a year ago. Two years ago. Ten years ago. Anniversaries signify, in the passage of time, the truth that our lives and the world has changed and will continue to do so. 

The prophet Jeremiah is born right into the middle of major changes in the lives of the ancient Israelites. Throughout Jeremiah’s life, much of the Middle East was at war. The situation in which Jeremiah spoke God’s messages was one of disaster and uncertainty. Those were not happy times. Observing anniversaries at that time would have been difficult events.

The passage from Jeremiah given to us this fifth Sunday in Lent in 2021 is nevertheless a word of hope. How so? What distinguishes, in our time, a posture of faith? What distinguishes, in our time, a people of faith? Because everyone will confess the many ways the pandemic has challenged our ways of life in the past year. But what sets the person of faith apart?

Two qualities of the spirit emerge from Jeremiah’s words: Memory and Promise. First, Jeremiah appeals to the people, to remember. Remember what God did to save God’s people: How God brought the people out of slavery in Egypt. How it was to try following the letter of God’s law in the wilderness and entering the Promised Land. How God led the people “by the hand” through challenging times in the past.

Some say that having faith is like looking in the rear view mirror when driving. People of faith today will pause to remember the gifts of the past. People of faith are grounded in the memory of good and bad times. They will hold and honour what has happened, and where they have been.

They understand that they are not just individuals living an episodic, disconnected experience today; rather people of faith are part of something larger. They are connected to a long lineage and history that continues to bear fruit, and bring value and meaning to their existence today. Even in the tough times. Memory.

The prophet also gives his words in the future tense. God will accomplish good things some day. “I will make a new covenant …”; “I will write my law on their hearts; “I will be their God …”; “I will forgive their sins …” 

The people of God trust the promises of God. Our faith looks up to Thee. We turn towards a future we cannot yet grasp. It’s just beyond our reach, on the horizon of our vision. Despite the difficulties we face, we continue to strive in the direction of the promise. We live and lean into the good that surely awaits.

The promise is true. People of faith know this. Not with their heads. Not with the calculating mind. But with their hearts. And hearts know love. The promise of God is given out of love, with love and for love. That’s why we can believe in the promise.

We hold our memories, in loving regard. We look to the future of God’s promise knowing that God looks past our failure, our sin, our fear and anxiety. God looks upon our hearts of love.

And because our memories and promises are held in hearts of love, we can live this moment. Because our past and our future have love as their genesis and final goal, we can rest inbetween memory and promise. We can be present and stay in touch with our actual situation and ourselves now, just as things are, and just as we are. Thanks be to God. Amen.

When Sabbath never ends

19Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ 20The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.[1]

When Jesus was visiting the temple in Jerusalem shortly before he died, he said the most curious thing. His listeners, of course, took his words literally, which was a problem. Because it took forty-six years to build that temple and it still wasn’t completely done. But Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They couldn’t believe him.

The disciples believed him only after he died and was raised to new life. They had to experience for themselves the loss and grief of their Lord’s death. They had to experience for themselves the joy of the resurrection. 

Neither literalism nor metaphor could ultimately help his disciples believe what he was talking about. Only experiencing—being there—in the moment of his dying on the cross and three days later rising to new life could they finally come to believe in Jesus.

It’s easier to deny and avoid the hard learning that comes from living and accepting the life we live, in this moment. It’s easier to say, “we just need to get through to the end of this pandemic, get our vaccines and get back to normal,” before we can be whole again, be true to ourselves and live life. As if what we experience now is too difficult a task, too confusing a time, too frustrating to accept as the moment to live and experience the grace of God. As if it doesn’t have anything of value to teach us, to show us.

A reading assigned for this Third Sunday in Lent comes from the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments.[2] Maybe because it is the third Sunday in the Lenten season, I zeroed in on the third commandment about observing the Sabbath. But I really don’t know why this one especially jumped out at me. Maybe because it feels like COVID time has imposed sabbath for many of us. 

We have been forced—more difficult for some to accept than others—to stay at home, shelter in place, restrict gathering in places of social meeting. It has been more time alone, more time to reflect, more time to rest. We have had to experience what it means to pause the normally hectic pace of life.

Usually sabbath observance, as with all the ten commandments, is what we chose to do if we are wise. But this sabbath has not only been imposed on us, it may also be the longest sabbath ever. What do we do when sabbath never ends?

It may be scandalous for me to say I’m grateful for this last year. 

Yes, I know we still live under the threat of catching the virus or spreading it to vulnerable loved ones. Yes, many have gotten really sick and some have died. Yes, the anxiety levels are high all around, and so much in our work-a-day world remains uncertain. We still live, in many ways, on the precipice. 

And when under threat, our knee-jerk is to get busy, go somewhere, see someone, do something. Anything. But “Be still and know that I am Lord”[3]? Don’t do anything productive? Just, be? Like I said, scandalous. 

So, why am I grateful? 

Last week our sixteen-year-old daughter Mika wasn’t sure what to do one evening. So, she said, out of the blue, “I’m going to make peanut butter cookies.” Eyebrows cocked all around. Silence fell like a huge question mark upon the scene. She hadn’t made cookies in months. In fact it had been a long time since she last baked anything let alone the king of all cookies – the peanut butter cookie.

“Ok! Go for it!” We encouraged her.

These cookies turned out to be the BEST peanut butter cookies EVER. The right balance between firm and soft. The flavour not too strong but peanut buttery enough.  And they were big! For Jessica and me, a bit of a temptation knowing that scoffing down a couple of these would ruin the day’s calorie count and throw off any weight loss plan.

Building on that positive experience, Mika announced a couple of days later that she was going to bake biscuits – a whole tray of them. Only four of us live in our house. What do you do with twenty biscuits? And they, too, turned out scrumptious. Nothing like the taste of some margarine dripping from hot biscuits fresh out of the oven.

Now, I know it’s pure conjecture, but I wonder if Mika would have been so affirmed in her gift of baking if not for this imposed sabbath time. In the past we all told her that she had some gifts for baking. But she either didn’t have time nor the space to develop and experience some sustained success with baking, with all the other things competing for her attention pre-COVID. 

They say that sabbath time is creative time. In order to learn and experience something new, we need to create some space and time for it to be birthed and nurtured. In that sabbath time a great gift of God, a grace, waits to be discovered anew.

For you, sabbath may reflect a different context and yield different fruit. But why is this pandemic and its restrictions taking so long? I don’t know for sure. But could God want each of us to learn something valuable during this time? I mean, really learn it. Have we not yet fully recognized and appreciated that which is ours to learn? There may be a gift waiting for us to accept, and practice. And God wants us to experience it for ourselves.

Because when this is over in the next year, we will no doubt be tantalized, stimulated, tempted and distracted again with all those compulsive activities and intrepid pace that drove our lives pre-COVID. But will we want or need to engage life in the same way again? Without  giving up on what is essential and most important in our lives, which must include social interaction of course, do we need that level of go-go intensity that overlooks our limitations and need for periodic sabbath rests?

God is in this moment. God’s light shines for us in all that is dark in our lives. We don’t have to wait until ‘later’ to discover or experience the fullness of God’s grace. Because Jesus is right in front of us now, trying to get our attention.

[1] John 2:19-22, NRSV; the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL)

[2] Exodus 20:1-17

[3] Psalm 46:10