There is a lot to be addressed today. We are eight months into COVID chaos—a time fraught with higher and higher numbers of cases and deaths, arguments about wearing masks and whether a vaccine is around the corner. We are in the midst of possibly the most contentious election year in our history—with unprecedented numbers of early voters, limited places to vote, and fear about safety and security at those places, not to mention anxiety about the outcome, delays in a final count, and potential violence no matter who is elected. We have just embarked on a stewardship sermon series that challenges us to consider our relationship with money—our fears, our hopes, and our expectations. And today is All Saints Day—the day in the church year when we lift up the names of those who have died in Christ.
So, perhaps it’s wise to begin with prayer. Gracious and loving God, you know our fears and anxieties. You know those things and people we hold to for security and stability. And you continue to promise your abiding presence no matter what happens—no matter how we give, no matter who our leader is, in both death and life, for both the lonely and the content. We pray that your presence becomes palpable in these days of discord and grief. May we find its joy in the goodness of all you are and all you do, in the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.
I think it’s quite fitting that today’s stewardship theme is “Remember”—because it covers a great deal of these concerns that weigh on us at this time. Remember when? Remember when we were getting things together for decorating the building for Christmas—planning when FEAST would put up the big tree, deciding on a menu for midweek dinner church, making plans for a Christmas program? Remember when not having a Christmas program was a deal-breaker?
We often remember the days when…the days when pews were filled, when the budget was flush, when Sunday School rooms were overflowing, when families were able to gather for holidays, when malls weren’t closing left and right. We remember when political debates were civil. We remember when our loved ones no longer here had once giggled or told stories or hugged us hard or held our hand.
Remembering better days isn’t a new thing. We did it long before this year. But sometimes we also remember the past with a slightly skewed lens. The Israelites did it while they wandered in the wilderness. We tend to remember these times especially when we’re going through tough ones. The wandering Israelites were hungry, and cranky, and afraid. They went to Moses and Aaron and chastised them for taking them out of Egypt. In Egypt, they knew where they stood. In Egypt, they had food and water. In Egypt, they weren’t doomed to die. You might notice their memory had become a bit fuzzy after roaming the desert. They seemed to have forgotten that in Egypt, they were enslaved. In Egypt, their sons were being killed. In Egypt, life was anything but a sure thing.
But that’s how memory works. It filters the less appealing things—especially when the present is challenging. Surely, things weren’t this bad back then. Why would anyone want to go through the wilderness when there was at least food back there?
God’s response isn’t to dismiss the complaint but to listen and recognize the need. In the wilderness, God heard the peoples’ cries and provided. God the Liberator became God the Provider. And God rained down nourishment in the manna every morning and the quail every night. And the people went and collected what they needed—for that day only. For whom they were responsible only. Anyone who gathered more ended up with only what they needed. Anyone who gathered less ended up with as much as they needed. Everyone had what they needed.
Now, what happens next is, of course, an explanation of the nature of humanity. Many people were afraid that God wouldn’t provide for the next day, so they would hold on to a bit…just in case. And the just in case turned gross overnight. But they kept trying to hold some back. They lived in fear because they knew what it was like to not have enough, and they didn’t want to live like that ever again. But it didn’t work.
And then, eventually, as year led to year of the same thing every day, the people got bored with it. And they complained again to Moses, saying that they were tired of God’s provision. They wanted something different. Something better. Something more than what they had. Isn’t that just like us? Always looking for something we don’t have? Always in fear of what might happen—planning for the just in case?
In fact, fear seems to be what drives many of us these days. We engage in political arguments—it’s no longer fair to call it discourse—out of fear. More of us are voting against what we fear than for what we hope. We fear what might happen if this candidate or that candidate wins. There are legitimate fears on both sides—whether they are fears about law enforcement changes or immigration changes or women’s rights or LGBTQ rights or gun control or open racism. As far as I can tell, we are all afraid of what happens next.
And fear feeds the anxiety we have about COVID, as well. Some fear they might die before the crisis is over—that they won’t get to touch and hug their loved ones ever again. Some fear those who put communities in danger with their own actions. Many fear what further challenges we will face in education as teachers, parents, and students. It seems so much is up in the air, and we are crying out to God. “Take us back to where we were. At least then we knew how to deal with the difficulties before us. Take us back to what we know. Take us back to what we’re comfortable with. Take us back to a better world.”
Except, like the Israelites, the before isn’t necessarily a better world. It just held a different set of challenges. I think about the Jewish people living in Nazi Germany in the 1940’s. Those lucky enough to have someplace to hide knew better than anyone the seclusion and fear of sheltering in place—and the risks of letting their guard down for even a second. I think of those running from their homes in the Middle East, in Africa, in South and Latin America—people whose very lives are threatened not only at home but all along their way to hopeful safety.
This isn’t to minimize the pain we are experiencing now but to put in perspective the reality that we can’t go back. We can’t go back to the times when we lynched people of color for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We can’t go back to back-alley abortions. We can’t go back to the horrors experienced by Matthew Shepard and other members of the LGBTQ community. We can’t go back to thinking that what we do as individuals doesn’t impact those around us.
Instead, God calls us forward. God challenges us to find new ways to be—new ways to find connection, new ways to build community, new ways to show love, new ways to offer comfort, new ways to feed and be fed. These days aren’t an end to everything we knew but a new beginning for what we have yet to learn. God turns our heads to see that in all things—especially when we are in the middle of the wilderness—God provides what we need.
Maybe a hug sounds like a favorite song played from your front porch. Maybe worship is curling up with family and discussing the sermon during the prayers, and communion looks like breakfast. Maybe how we give feels like a release of what was and an embrace of what could be. Maybe being blessed looks like someone struggling with their faith; maybe being filled tastes like manna on the tongue and looks like an empty bowl waiting to receive; maybe mercy looks like reserving judgment until you hear the story behind the anger; maybe seeing God looks like another zoom meeting for Sunday School but with kids from all over the world; and maybe the kingdom of heaven looks like doing what is inconvenient and uncomfortable for the sake of those who need it more than you.
I’ll close with the words of theologian Howard Thurman from his “Meditations of the Heart.”
“The old song of my spirit has wearied itself out. It has long ago been learned by heart so that now it repeats itself over and over, bringing no added joy to my days or lift to my spirit. It is a good song, measured to a rhythm to which I am bound by ties of habit and timidity of mind. The words belong to old experiences which once sprang fresh as water from a mountain crevice fed by melting snows. But my life has passed beyond to other levels where the old song is meaningless. I demand of the old song that it meet the need of present urgencies. Also, I know that the work of the old song, perfect in its place, is not for the new demand!
“I will sing a new song. As difficult as it is, I must learn the new song that is capable of meeting the new need. I must fashion new melodies that have never been mine before, that all that is within me may lift my voice unto God. How I love the old familiarity of the wearied melody—how I shrink from the harsh discords of the new untried harmonies.
“Teach me, my Father, that I might learn with the abandonment and enthusiasm of Jesus, the fresh new accent, the untried melody, to meet the need of the untried morrow. Thus, I may rejoice with each new day and delight my spirit in each fresh unfolding.”
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church