Hope in Lent

From the Preamble to Worship

Dear friends, We are a family of faith formed by hope and love. But this morning, we gather under a cloud cast by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like me, I imagine you are shocked by how quickly things shifted last week. First, it was the decline in the price of oil; then a stock market crash; then attempts to try to “flatten the curve” of infections by the COVID-19 coronavirus so that our healthcare system wouldn’t be overwhelmed; then the news that sports events, schools, and other activities were being suspended so that social distancing could slow the virus. You could probably add to this list.

Thank you, Carol, for your words a few minutes ago about how Mill Woods United is responding. Please stay tuned for more after a working group meeting tomorrow.

So much of the power of a community like Mill Woods United flows from the spirit generated by our in-person gatherings. But as we heard in a passage from John last week, the Spirit blows where it will, and so I pray that we will keep our hearts and minds open to whatever changes the working group suggests.

Until yesterday, I was planning on making this service an Affirm United celebration called PIE Day. Every March 14, this justice network within the United Church of Canada encourages us to focus on how our churches can become more welcoming and inclusive of sexual and gender minorities. But as we start a new week, celebration no longer seems appropriate to me. We will return to the materials distributed by Affirm United and to a reflection on the blessings of diversity at another time. But this morning I want to focus on how we can stay in touch with faith and hope in the face our fears about COVID-19.

Today is the third of six Sundays in Lent, a time in which we imaginatively travel with Jesus and his friends to their fate, and ours, in Jerusalem. This year, the challenges we face in Lent might seem bigger than in others. But as always, we journey with confidence that it is one from darkness to light, from ignorance to enlightenment, and from death to rebirth.

We don’t know what the next days, weeks, or months will bring us as political, medical, scientific, and faith leaders grapple with the pandemic. But we do know we are being asked to pause in our busyness as students, workers, sports fans, and perhaps as congregational members. This call for social distancing reminds me of the Jewish concept of sabbath.

And so, as we prepare to begin worship, I now offer a poem written four days ago, and which Ethel Ray brought to my attention on Friday. Called Pandemic, it was written by Lynn Unger

What if you thought of it as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
a sacred time?
Cease from travel
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those to whom you commit your life.
Center down.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils of compassion
that move, invisibly, where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love —
for better or for worse, in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live. Amen.

Reflection

Text: John 4:5-28 (Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman)

Every crisis can also be an opportunity.  A family crisis can become an opportunity to learn how to name our feelings and to communicate them non-violently. Climate disaster can become an opportunity to rebuild our cities so that they are walkable again. Economic crisis can become an opportunity to imagine ways of producing goods and services that don’t destroy natural habitats. A church crisis can become an opportunity to revisit sacred values and see how we might better live into them.

No one looks forward to such crises. But one of the lessons of Lent is that crises inevitably come to us. This is just the nature of the human and social condition. Given the inevitable problems of life, the key becomes what we do in the face of them. How do we stay on a path of faith, hope and love even when a loss or crisis has left us feeling scared, despairing, or angry? Responding to this question is a yoga that we practice every Lent. It is the dark but gracious background that highlights the joy of every Easter celebration.

This morning I wonder what opportunities might lie within the COVID-19 pandemic? This virus has led to more than 5,000 deaths and threatens so many more people. Trying to slow its spread has upended much of life here and all around the world.

When I last spoke about COVID-19 on February 2, it was still mostly confined to Asia, and I hoped that it might not become a pandemic. But that hope lies in the past as Europe has become the locus of the spread of disease and as numbers tick up every day here in Canada and in many other places.

Armies of researchers are amassing mountains of new evidence about the disease and compiling best practices for containing it. I hope and pray that political, medical, and community leaders will learn from what has worked in places like South Korea or Hong Kong and from what has not worked in places like Italy and the United States.

Leadership is key in times of crisis, and so I am so grateful for the leadership of our Church Council. I trust that the COVID-19 Working Group, which will meet tomorrow afternoon, will help us to manage how we operate as a church in the midst of all the other stresses facing us as families and individuals.

Some of us will probably get COVID-19. Most of us who do, it seems, will recover well. A few, unfortunately, may not. In the midst of it, we will work to slow its spread. We will care for the sick and advocate for a distribution of resources that will give everyone a chance for a healthy and happy life even in the face of infectious diseases like COVID-19 and so many others.

Last month, if you had asked an average person in Edmonton if the world should devote more resources to cruise ships or intensive care units who knows what the answer would have be. This week, the answer will have changed.

If you had asked an average person last month if they preferred to spend their money on an All-Terrain Vehicle or on more emergency medical personnel and equipment, who knows what the answer would have been. This week, the answer will have changed.

The work of the church is to care for each other and our neighbours near and far. The health of one is utterly dependent on the health of all. When Tom Hanks and Sophie Gregoire Trudeau get a dangerous infection that started in poverty-stricken food markets on the other side of the world, our interdependence becomes clear.

But beyond providing food and clothing to the needy and working for a saner distribution of social resources, we also give thanks for the Living Water that Jesus mentions to a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in today’s reading. He describes a Water that refreshes our souls with a love that is eternal.

In the face of COVID-19, we don’t offer Living Water as a fake cure for the disease. Instead, we can use it to bolster our outreach and advocacy work. We can proclaim the good news that there is more to life than just survival. There is also a deep core of well-being that no disease or social disorder can disturb.

Living Water is not an excuse to withdraw from the daily life of work and family or from the effort to respond to a threat like COVID-19. Instead, I see it as liberation from our fears. Focusing on the Living Water of Love can provide the calm we need in the face of chaos. It can provide the gracious space from which we can reorder our thoughts and organize our efforts to make a better world. It can become the empty tomb out of which a new life of love arises.

Sometimes churches advocate for a retreat from life into spiritual fantasy. But this is not how I see Living Water. It doesn’t do away with our need for clean H2O, for adequate food and health resources, or for leaders who work from a global and human context instead of a national and anti-human one. Living Water can give us the courage, equanimity, and strength to persist in compassion and love in the face of this crisis and to work for a world in which such crises don’t only expose the foolishness of our economic and political structures but help us create better ones.

In the face of COVID-19, may we find new ways to be a spiritual community in which we can find our purpose and place. May we continue to reach out in care, to join in to mourn and celebrate, and to make a difference within ourselves and in the neighbourhood. May we advocate for a world that takes seriously our interdependence.

This Lent as we walk with Jesus towards our fate amidst the gloom of viruses, social imbalance, and national obsessions, let us look forward in hope to an empty tomb at Easter out which will flow an endless fountain of God’s Living Water.

May it be so. Amen