Are you worried? If you are, you’re not alone. Let’s face it. These are worrisome times.
We are feeling worried about COVID-19. The Franklin County Health Department says that we have thirty-nine cases of COVID in Harrietstown this morning and fifty-six in Tupper Lake. Those are our highest numbers of the pandemic. While most of us are fully vaccinated and not at risk for severe illness, we worry about our senior seniors and friends with immune system compromises who face greater risk. We have concern for our kids who are still getting shots in arms. We think how tough this must be for our healthcare professionals—the hospital staff, nurses, and doctors who have spent the past twenty months on the front lines.
We’re also feeling a worried resignation that we’ll be dealing with the new coronavirus for a long time. Worldwide in the past week, cases have increased in 72 countries, with twice as many new cases reported here in the states in the past 28 days. In fact, the only two countries in the world that did not report new cases last week were the Vatican and Oceania—that’s a small cluster of south Pacific Islands. We don’t like what the experts have to say. Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, warns that COVID-19 won’t go away. It will simply become one of many viruses that cause infections, and there will always be a baseline number of cases, hospitalizations, and even deaths.
Related to the pandemic, we are feeling stressed about economics. The US consumer price index has surged 6.2 percent from a year ago in October. That’s the highest rise in thirty-one years. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said last Sunday that quashing COVID-19 is key to lowering inflation. If we can get a handle on this acute phase of the epidemic, then the surge in the price of commodities, like crude oil, should abate in the second half of 2022. But in the meantime, we are feeling the spike in prices at the grocery store and the gas pump. We may have also noticed a phenomenon that has been named “skimpflation.” Businesses can’t keep enough employees to deliver the experiences and customer service that we previously enjoyed, and so we are paying more for less. Service is slower at restaurants. Airline flights are being cancelled. Businesses have cut hours. To complicate matters, COVID has created supply chain issues. Santa might give us a raincheck this year as imported goods don’t make it to store shelves or we balk at the exorbitant price of the latest gift fads. Am I making you feel worried in writing about this?
As Jesus shared today’s words from the Sermon on the Mount, his friends and followers had worries of their own. Many people in the Galilee were subsistence farmers, always one crop failure or drought away from hunger. Some of Jesus’ friends were fishermen. The fish in the Sea of Galilee belonged to Caesar, but you could pay a pretty shekel for a license to cast your nets and earn your living. That licensing fee was substantial—the cost of about a third of your catch. A night when your nets were empty wasn’t just a waste of time, it was a threat to your livelihood. First century financial failure didn’t land you in bankruptcy court. It led to debt slavery, consigning yourself or your family to a period of conscripted labor. That sounds worrisome to me.
Jesus and his friends also contended with the constant anxiety of foreign occupation. Client kings, like Herod, were appointed to rule locally in the emperor’s stead, and they typically did so by living large at the expense of the people. Every major city in the land garrisoned Roman soldiers. The Pax Romana (Peace of Roma) was secured with an iron fist, and the law was swift and harsh in responding to civil disobedience. Jesus and his followers lived with the terror of crucifixion and public execution.
Beyond the poverty and the politics, there were religious problems. Even the Chief Priest in the Jerusalem Temple was a Roman appointee. Factions like the Pharisees and Sadducees divided communities with competing understandings of the Torah. It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to see that these factions were lining up in opposition to Jesus. Already, his cousin John had been arrested in an effort to silence his prophetic voice. Already Jesus was anticipating his journey to Jerusalem and the rejection that would await him there. They may not have faced COVID-19, but Jesus and his friends had plenty to worry about.
Jesus’ words in our reading from Matthew 6 are a response to those worries. “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” Jesus called his listeners attention away from their worries. He invited them to instead attend to the present moment: the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. He pointed to pelicans skimming above the surface of the sea and to storks spirally slowly up from nests in the marshes. Jesus gestured to fields of anemones, bright blooms bobbing in the breeze that swept across the hills.
In the gift of the moment, Jesus called his listeners to remember their place in God’s good creation. The empire might be Caesar’s, but the world and all that is in it belonged to God. God, who brought the world into being, continued to care and provide for the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, and those worried first-century Israelites. Jesus reminded his friends that beyond Caesar’s empire there was a holy Kingdom all around them, like a treasure hidden in a field or a pearl of great price. Long after Caesar’s empire would crumble, God’s Kingdom would prevail. It was to this eternal and unstoppable Kingdom that they belonged.
I like to imagine that as the crowd that followed Jesus listened to his words and attended to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, they felt better. Those worried furrows in their brows lost their crease. They took some nice deep breaths. Their hearts began to beat a little slower and their blood pressure fell. As they saw God at work in creation with beauty and power, something shifted within them. They remembered the eternal Kingdom that they served and the Holy One, who had brought them into being and would one day welcome them home. Heads nodded in agreement. An occasional “Amen” broke forth from grateful lips. Everyone went home that day feeling a little less worried and lot more thankful.
We, too, might feel less worried and more thankful if we took Jesus’ words to heart. I’d like to help us do just that.
First, we can make some time in the coming days to attend to the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, and the goodness of God’s creation. Stretch your legs with a favorite neighborhood stroll. Take to the trail. Park your car at Lake Colby and watch the sun set. Watch the rolling flight of the pileated woodpecker. Let the Grey Jays on the Bloomingdale Bog eat from your hand. Ponder the blooms on your Thanksgiving cactus. As we attend to God’s presence and providence at work everywhere all the time, we can trust that God is at work in and for us. We can know that God is with us, even in the dark valley of pandemic. God’s Kingdom always prevails.
Next, we can spend some intentional time with the Lord this week. Carve out ten minutes to sit with God in silence. You can begin by reading today’s gospel reading. Then, do some holy listening. In the quiet of the moment, you can count on your worries to rise up and greet you, as they often do when we actually sit still. Instead of allowing your cares to hijack your quiet time, hand them off to God. Use your imagination to put them in Jesus’ hands. He promises to take our burdens and give us rest. Take some deep breaths in that quiet space, and remember that God, who has worked in the past, will work again in your future.
Finally, once we are reoriented and centered in God, it’s time to get busy in service to that holy Kingdom that calls for our ultimate allegiance. Lace up your sneakers and run to raise money for neighbors in need with the Saranac Lake Turkey Trot. Find a nice, sturdy cardboard box for your Reverse Advent Calendar, adding a canned or dry good daily in December to benefit the Food Pantry. Serve the church in this Advent season by sharing your dramatic or musical talents to help me with a pre-recorded Christmas Program for the children and those feeling a little childlike.
I suspect that as folks travel for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, our COVID numbers won’t improve. We’ll still be wearing masks and minding our social distance. We’ll pay more than we should for that Christmas gift for someone special. When we get a gander at the price, we’ll trade our Christmas roast beef and Yorkshire pudding for ham or turkey. And yet, I have hope that in the coming weeks we may also feel less worried. We’ll consider the birds of the air, the balsam in the forest, and the billion stars in the Adirondack night sky. We’ll remember who we are and Whom we belong to. Thanks be to God.
Steven P. Eason. “Pastoral Perspective on Matthew 6:24-34” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
Sabbath Day Thoughts — Mark 10:2-16 “When Dreams Die”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on our health—and hard on our marriages. As employers furloughed workers or businesses went virtual, couples found themselves spending more time together and lots of it. That round-the-clock intimacy has been complicated by other factors. Lay offs and job loss have meant less income and greater economic pressure. Social distance has stretched the limits of our family and friend support network. If you have kids, closed schools and quarantined daycares created impossible challenges of childcare, homeschooling, and distance learning.
Studies show that during the first seven to eight months of the pandemic, the divorce rate surged. That spring, a survey of 1,277 couples found that 29.9% of them said they were in serious trouble and headed for divorce. Ken Jewell, a New Yok City divorce lawyer, related that when his office reopened after the shut-down in June 2020, he saw a 48% jump in requests for counsel. A further dark consequence of the COVID crisis has been an increase in domestic violence and substance abuse. Apostles’ House in Newark, a shelter for women and children, reports that their beds have been full throughout the pandemic.
Beyond the social science and the statistics, we all know couples whose marriages have become fraught, embattled, or failed over the past year and a half. Young couples with children, middle-aged empty-nesters, and even retired folks with years of marriage under their belts are calling it quits. There is a lot of heart-ache out there. Weddings are among the most hopeful and joyous moments in our lives. When those dreams die, they take a piece of us with them.
The Pharisees put Jesus to the test with a question about divorce, “Tell us, rabbi, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The fact that the Pharisees knew by heart what the Torah had to say about divorce reveals that there was a larger controversy brewing. Deuteronomy 24 instructs that a man my write a certificate of divorce if his wife commits an “erwat dabar”—an indecent thing. The two great rabbinic traditions of Jesus’ day disagreed about what an indecent thing might be. The Hillel School taught that it was up to the husband’s discretion. A poorly cooked meal, childlessness, failure to observe the Torah, sexual immorality, or inability to complete household tasks, all could be grounds for divorce. The Shammai School allowed men to divorce wives for only one reason: serious infidelity. The Pharisees anticipated that Jesus’ response, one way or the other, would make him enemies.
It is likely that Jesus’ answer offended everyone. It certainly left the disciples scratching their heads and asking more questions. Instead of weighing in on what indecent thing would be grounds for divorce, Jesus called his listeners to re-think their understanding of marriage. Jesus turned to the creation stories of Genesis in which humanity is created male and female in God’s image. Something sacred is stamped upon each of us, and we are given to one another in the covenant of marriage. Two become one with God at the center of the relationship. In that union, we find a wholeness and completeness that was part of God’s plan right from the start. “What God has joined together,” Jesus teaches, “Let no one separate.”
Behind Jesus’ words lies a deep pastoral concern for women. According to Jewish law, a woman had no right to divorce her husband on any ground. It is hard for us to understand, but in first century Israel, women were a little like sexual property. Young women passed from a father’s household to a husband’s household in an arranged agreement that had monetary and social benefit for the father. The husband had every legal right to dismiss the wife at his discretion, like bad goods that failed to live up to their anticipated benefit. The impact of divorce upon a woman could be catastrophic. She might be able to return to her kinfolk. If not, she had no safety net—no alimony, no property rights, no home, no right to even parent her own children. She depended on the charity of neighbors or was forced to beg or resort to prostitution.
Jesus’s teaching about divorce contradicted this prevailing notion of women as property. Indeed, Jesus’s suggestion that women could divorce husbands would have sounded deeply shocking and offensive to the Pharisees. Jesus invited his listeners to see women as beings created in God’s image, whose equal footing was essential to wholeness in marriage. Marriage—this shared sacred identity and need for wholeness—was at the heart of God’s best hope for humanity. Jesus’s words were—and still are—a radical, counter-cultural, deeply truthful lesson.
Despite God’s original intent and Jesus’ provocative teaching, divorce persists. Presbyterians have been debating it since the Westminster Assembly of the Divines met in 1647. They allowed for divorce by husbands or wives in cases of adultery and willful desertion. The aggrieved party could later remarry “as if the offending party were dead.” Our denomination’s current stance on divorce is best expressed in a 1981 revision of the Westminster Confession. We acknowledge God’s holy intent for marriage, yet we also recognize the frailty and sin of humankind, “The weakness of one or both partners may lead to the gross and persistent denial of the marriage vows so that the marriage dies at the heart and becomes intolerable.” When dreams die, separation and divorce may become acceptable and permissible. That same guidance applies to traditional unions and to our refined definition of marriage, adopted in 2014, between “two people.”
Beyond the words of scripture, the teaching of Jesus, and the guidance of the church, is the uniquely painful reality of divorce. It feels like something dies at the heart. On the day in 2004 when I accepted this church’s call to serve as your pastor, I stood in the pulpit and shared that I was divorced. A brief, early marriage to my college boyfriend had come to a sad end, more than a decade earlier. My ex-husband’s adultery and “willful desertion” might have ticked all the boxes for the Westminster Assembly of the Divines, but it didn’t make me feel any better. I had felt profound grief, shame, rejection, and a visceral pain that told me that part of my heart was dying. I know that many of you in your own experience have felt the same, whether you have been through divorce or experienced the end of a long-time committed relationship, whether you are children of divorced parents or your adult children have suffered through divorce.
That collective pain of divorce is so great that it is tempting to not preach about it at all. Jesus, we hear your beautiful vision of marriage that is sacred and deeply reverent with God at the very heart of it. We freely acknowledge that there would be a whole lot less divorce, and many more happy marriages, if those relationships were entered into in the spirit of your teaching. But Adam and Eve have left the garden. We live in a frail and fallen world where we regularly disappoint you and one another. Lord, have mercy upon us.
It’s significant that Jesus followed his tough teaching on divorce with the blessing of children, those most vulnerable and lowest status members of the Hebrew household. Although the disciples wished to turn the children away as a waste of Jesus’s time, the Lord welcomed them and blessed them. Jesus welcomed the children, the outsider, the vulnerable, the rejected, the leper, the Pharisee, the low-status-second-class citizen. It’s safe to presume that Jesus welcomed the divorced. It’s safe to say that Jesus continues to welcome those who are divorced. The grace of Jesus Christ is always sufficient for us. Thanks be to God.
The most recent studies of marriage have shown that as the pandemic has continued, the divorce rate has levelled and begun to decline. Some of the reasons for that may not be good. The economic strain of the pandemic may have forced couples to remain together. The lack of childcare has put plans for separation on hold. Closed courts and a backlog of cases may be causing a temporary lull. Five states that make divorce rates public are showing a drop in the number of couples rushing to the courts. A recent survey of 2,429 couples found that 17% of those questioned now say that their marriage has been strengthened by the pandemic. They began to communicate better. More time together deepened their appreciation for one another. They spent time with the kids, exercised together, cooked together, and cultivated new shared hobbies. Their feelings changed for the better. Perhaps they began to glimpse in their spouses that sacred image that each of us bears. Perhaps they are now finding in one another that wholeness and completeness that God originally planned.
Mallozzi, Vincent. “Divorce Rates Are Now Dropping: Here Are Some Reasons Why” in The New York Times, March 24, 101`. Accessed online at nytimes.com.
Staniunas, David. “Marriage, Divorce, and Mariners” in Presbyterian Historical Society Newsletter, June 26, 2014. Accessed online at pcusa.org.
Wall, Robert W. “Divorce” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Meyers, Ched. Binding the Strongman. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988.
The phone calls started at about 2PM. It had been Youth Sunday at the church. As the Pastor for Youth and Children, I had worked with the kids for weeks to plan their special day. They were liturgists. They acted out the scripture reading with a skit. In place of a traditional sermon, a few high school students had shared reflections about their latest mission trip. Then, the crowning act of our worship had been communion. In a departure from the norm, four youth had been servers, passing the bread and the grape juice along the pews for all the worshipers to partake. It had been a lovely Sunday, so I wasn’t surprised that members might want to check in and celebrate.
My first caller, who I will name Fred, often stopped by the church. He was a widowed WWII veteran, and I suspect that a church office visit was always on his weekly “to do” list. On that Youth Sunday, our conversation started pleasantly enough, but it took a sharp turn when it came to the Lord’s Supper. “Who was that tall girl you had passing the plate?” Fred wanted to know. “You must mean Jenna (not her real name),” I answered. Jenna was a striking teen with long, dark hair and big brown eyes. I had been feeling particularly self-congratulatory about Jenna’s participation in the service. Her parents were going through a rough patch and I’m sure that things weren’t easy for Jenna at home.
Fred didn’t congratulate me. Instead, he wanted to know if I had noticed Jenna’s skirt. I wracked my brain, trying to remember. “Hmm,” I puzzled. “I’m not really sure I noticed, but I think it was denim. Wasn’t it?” Next, I could hear impatience in the voice of the normally mild-mannered Fred, “I’m not talking about the fabric. I’m talking about the length. We could see her knees and you had her serving communion.” I was floored. I wish I could say that Fred’s was the only concern that I heard about my judgment, the youth, and our worship leadership. If I hadn’t realized it before, I certainly learned in those first years of ministry that folks have particular notions about what pleases God. Cross those lines, and you’ll find yourself fielding phone calls or receiving anonymous notes.
Our preoccupation with what pleases God is nothing new. The Pharisees and some scribes took exception to Jesus’ disciples, who sat down to eat without first ritually washing their hands in a rite of purification. In first-century Israel, there was diversity of practice when it came to table fellowship. On one end of the spectrum were Jesus and the disciples. They were known for breaking bread with sinners, tax collectors, and at least one leper—all people who might be deemed unclean. When it came to ritual hand washing, Jesus seemed little concerned. When the 5,000 were fed, Jesus did not send the disciples around with water and towels for a little purification before multiplying the loaves and fish.
At the other end of the spectrum were the Pharisees, a Jewish sect whose very name meant “set apart.” The Pharisees followed the Mishnah, the long oral tradition of teachings about the Torah. This tradition of the elders insisted that to be a holy people, pleasing to God, Jewish people needed to follow the same purity restrictions that the Torah mandated for priests while they were actively serving in the Temple. The Torah required priests to ritually wash their hands and feet before presiding at a ceremonial meal, so the Mishnah taught that all Jews should do the same for every meal. That’s a lot of washing. When the Pharisees saw the disciples’ disregard for handwashing, they thought, “This Jesus isn’t a very good rabbi if he doesn’t share our concern for holiness.”
It all sounds like an obscure first century worship war. It takes a lot of explaining just to have the whole reading make sense, just to understand why folks were so hot under the collar. But if we take a moment to genuinely and honestly reflect, most of us will admit that we have had our moments when we have thought that what was going on at church wasn’t pleasing to us or to God.
A local woman, who has never worshiped with our congregation, once told me that she “hates” the responsive liturgy, like the call to worship or the confession, that are part of Sunday mornings in mainline congregations. She prefers the ecstatic praise and tongues of the apostolic and Pentecostal tradition.
A seasoned and gifted female colleague shared with me that a young man told her she could never be a real pastor because she is a woman.
I served as a student pastor at a very large, high steeple church. The senior pastor had a beautiful tenor voice. One communion Sunday, he sang the words of institution: “On the night of his arrest, he took the cup. After giving thanks, he lifted it up. This is my blood, poured out for you . . .” It was lovely and memorable. But after the service, he was accosted by an angry woman, “This is a church, not a Broadway show. Next, I expect you’ll be hoisting up your robe and dancing for us.” In each of these instances, people felt personally offended, yet they also felt that what transpired was an offense to God. They imagined that God was every bit as angry and indignant as they were.
Jesus’ response to his Pharisee critics is among the harshest of his teachings, “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, taking their own words and attributing them to God.’ But you have abandoned the commandment of God to cling to your own human tradition.” The fact that Jesus was quoting the Prophet Isaiah tells us that, even back then, this sort of squabble about what pleases God had been going on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
According to Jesus, if the Pharisees were really worried about being a holy people, set apart for God, then they would be better served by pondering their own hearts—attending to their inmost thoughts and their everyday actions. I’m sure Jesus’ words, and his pointed mention of sins like fornication, murder, deceit, and pride, made his opponents see red. I’m also sure that Jesus’ words eased the shame and embarrassment that his disciples had felt in response to the Pharisee’s public criticism.
When Fred called me on that Sunday afternoon to voice his opinion about youthful knees at the Lord’s Supper, I was still so wet behind the ears as a pastor that I didn’t really engage his concern. I listened, and he eventually hung up. It never occurred to me that some of his concern could have been what Jesus might call a “heart problem.” That long-legged, doe-eyed Jenna was not unlike what Fred’s late wife must have looked like, back in the day when the boys were coming home from Europe, war weary after defeating Hitler and his Nazis. Perhaps there was even an unspoken sexual spark that felt unbidden and unwanted as Fred pondered the body and blood of Christ for him. If I had been a more experienced pastor, I might have invited Fred to go deeper, to understand his feelings better. I might have asked him to speak just for himself and not for God.
I suspect that the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic has brought out the Pharisee in all of us. After all, we are Presbyterians and we do like to have things done decently and in order. There we were, liking our Sunday routine, but then COVID-19 swept across the nation in repeated waves that closed church doors and made us worship online. Eighteen months into this, we are wearing masks yet again. We have traded our sanctuary for the Great Hall, singing for a soloist, the pipe organ for the piano, bulletins for a slideshow. It doesn’t feel familiar. It doesn’t feel holy. We are not sure we like it—and we just might think we are speaking for God about that.
Jesus would tell us that it is the perfect time to ponder our hearts. With humility and deep honesty, we might even see our critique and dissatisfaction as a natural consequence of this uncertain time when nothing feels safe or familiar—and we wonder if anything will ever feel safe and familiar again. With faith and courage, we might even begin to speak for ourselves instead of God. We might bring our hearts back home to the Lord, who welcomes sinners and Pharisees. We might open our hearts to Jesus, who loves us, saves us, and dies for us, even though we have a penchant for breaking his heart.
Despite my leadership of Youth Sundays, Fred and I became friends. He genuinely appreciated and generously supported the mission work that the Youth Group pursued in their summer trips to Appalachia, where they made homes warmer, safer, and drier for the rural poor. Fred must have quelled his worship concerns because he never again raised the alarm, even though there were other short skirts and low-slung jeans with protruding boxer shorts and even some cleavage in the services that followed. I hear that a number of years later when Fred died, he left a small legacy to the church, the thankful gift of a holy heart. Amen.
Hare, Douglas R.A. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni. “Homiletical Perspective on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
7:1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” 14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and take courage; wait for the Lord!”—Psalm 27:13-14
“Patience is a grace as difficult as it is necessary, and as hard to come by as it is precious when it is gained.”—Charles Spurgeon
Patience. Perhaps when you were a child, someone older and wiser told you that patience is a virtue. Some of us seem to be born with an abundant store of patience. These are the people who lend us useful perspective and a healthy dose of common sense when we are near our wit’s end. Many of us struggle to have patience. We don’t like to wait in lines. We can’t abide the “traffic” that tourist season brings. We are always eager to move on to the next project. We don’t like to burn daylight.
Even the most patient among us has found the pandemic to be a tiresome challenge. First came fear and uncertainty. Then, there were slow months of waiting for a vaccine. Next, we had to allow time for more and more of the population to be vaccinated. Just when it felt that we were within sight of the finish line, a fourth wave of COVID-19 has us back in our masks and minding our social distance. We are ready for all this to be over and for life to return to “normal,” including our church life.
Like it or not, waiting is inescapable in times like this. The psalms and prophets speak of waiting on the Lord, a posture of faithful, quiet anticipation. Heroes of the faith, like David, Ruth, and Isaiah, were able to see that God was at work, even in the midst of hardship. These role models in the faith might have some sage words to help us in this waiting time.
Trust. When we remember that God has been at work in the past, it’s easier to trust that the Lord is present and active, here and now. Take some time to remember the ways that God has helped and blessed you. Then, consider your life now. Is there goodness of the Lord to be found amid the frustration of this waiting time?
Seek. Come into God’s presence through worship, contemplation, and study. Time constrained by COVID-19 can be time used to deepen your relationship with Jesus. Set aside ten minutes daily for silent, holy listening. Read your favorite devotional and ponder scripture from a fresh perspective. Make a weekly commitment to Sunday worship, at church or at home through gifts of technology.
Pray. The Lord is a wonderful listener. Let God know how you are feeling and ask for the gifts of peace and patience. Ask God to help others. From local folks facing big problems to countries with limited healthcare and vaccine access, this world needs prayer. When we make the loving commitment to intercede for others, we are reoriented. Our frustration and impatience are eased as we acknowledge the trials faced by others.
We may feel like we are at the end of our pandemic rope, but have patience, my friends. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and take courage; wait for the Lord.
“The principle part of faith is patience.”—George MacDonald
“But they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”—Isaiah 40:3
We live in an increasingly unchurched world, filled with spiritually hungry people. The Barna Group reports a rapid rise in churchlessness in America. In the 1990s, thirty percent of people indicated that they had no affiliation with a religious community. A decade later, that number had edged upward to thirty-three percent. Four years later, the number of churchless people had jumped alarmingly to forty-three percent of Americans. This year, Gallup reported that, for the first time in eight decades of collecting data on churches, membership has dropped below fifty percent of the population to forty-seven percent. In the northeast, including places like Saranac Lake, the percentage of people who do not connect with faith communities is likely even higher. This leap in people who have no religious affiliation encompasses every demographic: men and women; adults, youth, and children; rich and poor; people of every race and ethnicity; those who identify as conservative, moderate, and progressive.
Despite their departure from church, people are spiritually hungry. They long for a connection to the sacred. They are eager for deeper meaning and holy purpose. Two-thirds of the churchless identify as spiritual people. They believe in God, have a sense that God is at work in the world, and long for an authentic relationship with the Holy. Fifty-seven percent of those who are churchless insist that faith is “very important in their lives today.” The connection they seek with God is right up there with family, vocation, and their social network as the most vital and formative aspect of their daily experience.
It’s a paradox. Traditional religious structures are in decline, but the world is filled with spiritually hungry seekers. We see them everywhere. They dabble in the trappings of other faiths. They hang Tibetan prayer flags. They burn incense and learn yoga. They seek the Creator in the creation. They say they find God on the mountain top or commune with God in the garden. They seek the fulfillment of their spiritual longing in a quest for personal excellence, hiring life coaches and making best-sellers of the latest New-Age, self-help guides. If asked, they will say they are spiritual but not religious, as if religion is something distasteful, like lima beans or liver. But if all the data gathered by the Barna Group and the Gallup poll is correct, those seekers aren’t finding what they need. Instead, they feel an increasing existential longing. All that spiritual seeking has failed to satisfy the deepest hunger of their soul.
Our reading from the sixth chapter of John’s gospel describes Jesus’ encounter with a crowd of spiritually hungry people. Just the day before, Jesus had satisfied the hunger of a great crowd of people, multiplying five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000—with twelve baskets of leftovers to spare. As the spiritually hungry crowd approached Jesus, they were eager for yet another miracle. “What sign are you going to perform?” they asked. They longed to know that God was still at work in the world. They needed to believe that, just as God had once provided manna for their ancestors in the wilderness, God was active and engaged in their lives: loving, caring, and meeting their physical needs and deepest longings.
Jesus invited the crowd to go deeper, to look beyond the manna that was provided in the wilderness and the picnic they had enjoyed the day before. They could eat all the manna, all the barley loaves, and all the dried fish in the world, yet they would still be hungry. The bread they truly needed was the one whom God had sent into the world to satisfy their deepest hungers. When the fourth century pastor and theologian John Chrysostum taught on this passage, he put these words in Jesus’ mouth, “It is not the miracle of the loaves that has struck you with wonder, but the being filled.” In Jesus, God had become the bread of life, entering the world to satisfy their deepest spiritual hunger. Instinctively, the people knew Jesus to be right, demanding “Give us this bread always!”
Two thousand years later, the faithful minority, whom George Barna would call the “churched,” we continue to feed upon Jesus, the bread of life. We worship him with praise and thanksgiving. We feast on him with Bible Study, book groups, and Sunday sermons. We bring our hopes and dreams, our pain and woe, to him in prayer. We seek him in community, whether gathering for a Zoom Coffee hour, walking together in a sermon on the trail, or serving him in the least of these who are our neighbors. When we share in the Lord’s Supper, breaking the bread and lifting the cup, we remember Jesus, the bread of life. We remember his saving death on the cross, and we remember that Jesus lives in those who go forth to be the Body of Christ, the bread of life for a spiritually hungry world. 17th century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal taught that, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator made known to us through Jesus.” We who feast upon the bread of life can testify that God alone can satisfy the spiritual hunger of humanity.
It is likely that when the Barna Group and the Gallup Poll next take the spiritual temper of America, they will find us hungrier than ever. The COVID-19 Crisis has taken a terrible spiritual toll on humanity. Mental health professionals have described this past year and a half as a collective experience of trauma that will have long-lasting effects upon us all. Beyond the deaths of more than 613,000 people, we are experiencing what can only be called a spiritual crisis. 41.5% of us are reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression. We have sought to fill our deep needs with that which does not satisfy. We have been drinking heavily and eating too much, with an average reported pandemic weight gain of more than thirty pounds. We have seen the largest rise in drug overdoses in more than twenty years. A study by Harvard University of children aged seven to fifteen found that, with the stress and social isolation of the pandemic, two-thirds of our kids had clinically significant symptoms of anxiety and depression. Now, more than ever, folks of every demographic need the bread of life. They need to know that God continues to provide manna in the wilderness and bread from heaven and soul food amid the pandemic.
Researchers say that some of the best resources in addressing the present crisis are to be found in places like this, in the churches which people have been leaving in record numbers for decades. It begins with our connection to that Higher Power, who grants us meaning and purpose, but it is more. A rich spiritual life, which features daily prayer and reflection, can actually change our brains. The amygdala is that primal part of our brain that drives us to fight or flee and keeps us in a state of chronic stress. Scientists say that the amygdala actually shrinks with the cultivation of a daily practice of prayerful spirituality; conversely, the pre-frontal cortex, that portion of our brain that drives higher reasoning and problem solving, gets healthier. It thickens and grows. Think about that: being a part of church can actually better equip our brains to respond to crises like COVID-19.
The social engagement of church, the coming together of the body of Christ, is likewise a powerful help in this time of crisis. The church is a network of caring individuals who will love and accept us in all our frailty. Look around. These are people who pray for us amid our troubles. They show up with a casserole when we are too overwhelmed to cook. They forgive us when we are crabby, critical, and hard-to-love. They are in our corner, rooting for us, when we feel most at odds with the world. Caring connections like these are a powerful antidote for our feelings of depression and anxiety. It seems that church is a lot less like lima beans and liver than the churchless 53% of the population thinks. Church, as the body of Christ, can be bread for a spiritually hungry world.
Perhaps today, we can hear in a new and breathtakingly relevant way Jesus’ words, “I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in me will ever be thirsty again.” We may live in a spiritually hungry world, but we have Jesus. We have what is needed to meet that deep need, to fill that “God-shaped vacuum in the heart.” This week, we could do something real and tangible to address the deep longing that sends our neighbors out in pursuit of prayer flags and life coaches. We could tell someone about our friend Jesus. We could pray with a hurting family member. We could come to church, bring a friend, and sit among those who love us like the Lord does. We could tune in for Wednesday’s online communion service and feast, once again, upon the bread of life and resolve to go forth as bread for a hungry world. May it be so. Amen.
George Barna and David Kinnaman, Churchless. Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2014.
Jeffrey M. Jones, “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time,” Gallup News, March 29, 2021. Accessed online at news.gallup.com/poll/3341963/
Sparks, O. Benjamin. “Pastoral Perspective on John 6:24-35” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Morse, Christopher. “Theological Perspective on John 6:24-35” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Guynup, Sharon. “Why ‘Getting Back to Normal’ May Actually Feel Terrifying” in National Geographic: Corona Virus Coverage May 20, 2021. Accessed online at national geographic.com.