When I announced, the week of February 9, that I would have four more Sundays with you, I did not know that the coronavirus would become what it is today. None of us did. I did not know that it would be so unsettling to so many, including me. I am usually quite cavalier about just about anything in the news cycle, especially health scares. It is an awkward time to say goodbye; my priestly instincts and my maternal instincts are intersecting pretty powerfully. (They don’t call me “Mother Sara” for nothing.) I’m grateful to Fr. Walt Knowles, who in his homily yesterday morning talked about avoiding both foolishness and fearfulness, and about remembering that we are a people of love, not a people of fear.
Most preachers, more than will admit it, are beset with a chronic desire to find just the right words for everyone, every Sunday, the words that will do justice to the scripture for the day, justice to the Holy Spirit that blows where it will, and to each person in the pews. This is perhaps especially true when one preaches a farewell sermon, virus or no virus. And I know some of you have mixed feelings about my leaving. Some of you have let me know that you are angry and hurt to be saying goodbye so soon. Others are sad. Others of you have been so gracious as to share in my gratitude for the chance to have shared ministry here in this place. Some of you are worried about St. Paul’s. Others, merely curious, or even hopeful about what fruit a long honest look at the next chapter will yield.
I can’t say just the right thing for all of you and so, when in doubt, let’s see where this morning’s texts lead us.
In his 1998 book The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill says something to the effect of “The most revolutionary words of all scripture are ‘So Abram went.’” By this Cahill meant that Abram—who becomes Abraham—in answering the call of this strange God was himself a revolutionary. Abram went, leaving his country and his kindred and his parents’ house to go to a foreign land. To do this was to break the laws of his culture and his community. He left a people whose lives revolved around the cycle of the seasons, the whims of gods of planting and harvest, fertility and death. In answering God’s call, Abraham went from this O to this →. You cannot make that kind of choice out of fear; in spite of all its uncertainty, I believe Abraham’s going is an act of love.
Nicodemus was also on the move, in his own way. In visiting Jesus by night he upholds a long scriptural tradition of venturing forth in the dark. Nighttime is the time when angels appear in dreams and provide instruction and encouragement. Nighttime is when leaders sneak out to consult unlikely people with unlikely questions. Nighttime is often the time when people do things they wouldn’t do during the day, the time when people step out with as much courage as they can muster to do what they think God asks them to do. It was not cool for a wealthy Pharisee to tell Jesus he sees God in him. Perhaps nighttime is when some people summon the courage to act with love instead of fear.
These Lenten themes of movement and risk certainly apply to me as I venture forth, heading to a parish very different from this lovely place, where there is much to risk, and abundant opportunity for me to remember that my call, like yours, is not to fear, but to love.
Lest any of you have a shred of doubt, now or in the time to come, there is much to love in this parish. As many of you know first-hand or can only imagine, it is a hard place to leave. You all will be a gift to whoever comes next to lead and pastor you. I pray that you will greet them as a people of love.
In God’s world, in the world of love over fear, stasis is not an option. Communities of Jesus-followers need to be attentive and responsive, all the time, to the new thing God may be doing. I want to repeat what I said last week: this is the season to resist the temptation to be comfortable, the very natural temptation to grasp at what is familiar.
Even this COVID 19 thing—as unsettling as it is—presents us with an opportunity to be on the move, to find new ways to stay connected with one another, especially those among us who are either self-quarantined because of symptoms or encouraged to stay home because of medical vulnerability. Consider sending people cards, picking up the phone and calling them, and praying, especially praying out of love, rather than fear.
You, too, are on the move. You may be staying right here, but in the coming months each one of you will be invited, like Abram and like Nicodemus, to venture into new territory, and to be responsive to the spirit that blows where it wills. I would be lying if I said my time here has not been complicated. And so it makes sense that my leaving is feeling complicated because of the coronavirus. Things change, every day, and we are called every day to live as people of love, not people of fear. Virus or no virus, it all may be good practice for the time to come, for all of us, wherever we are as we live out our call to serve Christ in this world God so loves.
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Last week, someone gave me a collection of poems by Jan Richardson. I’d like to close with one she wrote for this second Sunday in Lent. It’s called “Rough Translations.” In it, I hear her speaking for Abram and Sarai, for Nicodemus, for Jesus, for me, and for you.
by Jan Richardson
Hope where we had ceased to hope.
Hope amid what threatens hope.
Hope with those who feed our hope.
Hope beyond what we had hoped.
Hope that draws us past our limits.
Hope that defies expectations.
Hope that questions what we have known.
Hope that makes a way where there is none.
Hope that takes us past our fear.
Hope that calls us into life.
Hope that holds us beyond death.
Hope that blesses those to come.