COVID-19 & Travel
Last month we hosted a series of community meetings to share updates from Iringa, review best practice[...]
On Dec. 1, the Rev. Patricia Lull officially began her second term as Bishop of the Saint Paul Area Synod. Bishop Lull gave this message "in person" to our synod's active pastors and deacons during a Nov. 30 Zoom conversation, "The Christmas We Will Never Forget."
If this had not been my first pandemic, I would have turned much sooner to Luther’s story of his 10 months in hiding in the Wartburg Castle to find a point of reference for how we might understand the challenges we are facing as pastors and deacons today. Almost 500 years ago, to save his own life and to give the political climate a chance to cool down, Luther was taken by friends and hidden away in a time of personal lockdown. Only a couple of individuals knew where he was being held in isolation. And how Luther dealt with the challenges of those months offers clues to how we can continue to find our way through these pandemic challenges with grace and courage.
Now, Martin Luther does need to be your role model. If you know someone, who has endured several rounds of surgery and chemotherapy; if you have met immigrants, who fled a hostile situation on foot with only the clothes on their back; if you have weathered times of unemployment and profound disappointment yourself – you may have all the clues you need to set a course for the months that still remain in this COVID-19 ordeal.
But I have found wisdom in paying attention to Luther’s experience from March 1521 to February the following year. I visited the Wartburg Castle once – and perhaps you have, too. It sits atop a hill in a forest outside the German city of Eisenach. Luther occupied two rooms in a far corner of the fortress – a living room where he worked at a desk and a small adjacent room for sleeping. Does it remind you of your dining room that is now a recording studio, an office, and if you have kids, a school classroom?
There, Luther was cut off from what he most loved – his friends, his books, and the public exchange of ideas. The time in isolation was not easy for this reformer. At times he was discouraged, restless, and physically ill. How did he cope? He returned to the daily spiritual practices, which he had learned in his years in the monastery before he became a university professor. Prayer and scripture reading and praise offered to God marked Luther’s life all through the day and night.
He took up writing projects, though his library was a hundred miles away. What he had to work with was the Bible itself. He read it in a new way, no longer in the frenzy of life with all its distractions but now amid the engulfing quiet of solitude. He wrote letters that were smuggled out to friends and occasionally to leaders of church and state. Cut off from preaching – which Luther found to be at the center of the pastoral office – Luther wrote sample sermons for the upcoming liturgical seasons of the year. While he was hidden away in the Wartburg, he translated the New Testament into German, the language of the people, an act which revolutionized Christian life from there on out.
When letters from friends in Wittenberg brought news of social unrest, Luther slipped away in disguise as a knight and spent about 10 days with friends back in the city he now claimed as home. Assured that those who had taken up leadership in his absence were faithful to the evangelical principles he espoused, Luther returned to the Wartburg for a few more months that winter.
From his letters we know that Luther worried that he was not being productive enough. He felt his own faith shaken by doubts about his leadership and his trust in a gracious God. Many of us can relate.
If you want to read something that Luther wrote during that time, his “What To Look For and Expect in the Gospels” will give you the best clue to the conviction that spoke directly to Luther’s unsettled heart, as well as his restless mind.
Here it is that conviction in a nutshell. The kind of God we have in Jesus Christ is a God, who comes to us where we are. Let me say that again – The kind of God we have in Jesus Christ is a God, who comes to us where we are, even if that means coming to find us in the midst of the messiness of this pandemic season and the shameful injustices that have been revealed all around us. As Luther learned deeply from his own time in seclusion, announcing that venturesome faithfulness of God is the single message we have to offer others, speaking it in season and out. It is still God’s good news for us today. The kind of God we have in Jesus Christ is a God, who comes to us where we are, even if that means coming to find us in all the messiness of 2020.
Now, hear these familiar seasonal words from the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah 57: 7-10
7 How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’
8 Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
9 Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
Friends, how do you imagine the dirty, calloused feet of such a messenger, who has traveled barefooted those many miles to bring the news that peace is finally at hand? The feet are not beautiful because they have been well rested and pampered. Beauty resides in their purpose, propelling a message-bearer forward despite weariness and the test of many, many miles.
The messenger arrives on the scene after decades of crises that would have tested the mightiest of nations. Military defeat. Exile. Ridicule. Living in a context of alien cultures, each one an insult to the God of Abraham and Sarah. And now, hope breaks into song in that barren land. Despair and repressed dreams are transformed. Not with the arrival of a mightier army but with a messenger’s voice, announcing the nearness of God.
If I could put my hands on the Advent and Christmas sermons I preached in my first 20 years as a pastor, I suspect that at least half of those would have decried the way that consumerism and a culture of distraction threatened our focus on what should really matters to us as Christians.
Poet Ann Weems captures those intentions in her poem “This Year Will Be Different”.1 She writes – “Who among us does not have dreams that this year will be different? … Who among us intends to get caught up in tearing around and wearing down? … Who among us does not long for: gifts that give love? Long evenings by the fireside with those we love?” (71)
Friends, this is going to be a Christmas unlike any we have known. In part, it is the quieter, stay-at-home version we have longed for through all the years when we pushed ourselves to exhaustion to get everything done just right before Christmas. We have been yearning for a year like this as we once prayed for snow days when we were children.
But in so many other ways, this year’s Christmas is a huge disappointment, a pill that is hard to swallow.
This year, we will not gather in crowded sanctuaries to sing familiar carols. We will try hard to offer one of the best sermons ever but somehow those fall flat when preached to a screen in a bare, empty space. We will not travel long miles to be with one family on Christmas morning and another later in the day. We will not open our doors to dozens of friends to share a glad toast to a new year. The list of those we have lost in this year will be long; long as the list of customs that we have needed to set aside to stay safe in our congregations as this vicious virus continues to spread.
Looking beyond ourselves, we know that all is not right in our world. All charts are askew; charts for unemployment and adequate housing; racial justice and equity in wealth and in health. The world around us is not only hushed and quiet; it is off kilter and ripe for disaster. And the world within us makes us wonder how we will ever find the stamina to stay brave and safe for the months that are yet to come.
On my visit to the Wartburg Castle, for whatever reason, the tour party behind me paused as I moved on ahead. That gave me an opportunity all by myself to look out the window by Luther’s room, to gaze across the treetops where he once studied the same horizon. “The Gospel is not so much a miracle as a marvel,” Luther is to have said.2 And the marvel is that God comes to us; comes as a baby, born in Bethlehem, two thousand years ago.
My most “liked” Facebook post each year, is a prayer my brother Tim Lull wrote, which I annually post on Christmas Eve. We have some weeks yet to go to get to Christmas but hear this prayer today at the start of Advent, as a reminder of who God is and how God is present even in this odd, pandemic year. Present with you. Present with all of us. Present in our weary world.
“Gracious and merciful God; on this day, when Advent is ending and little more can be done by human preparation, I commit to you all my incomplete tasks, my unfulfilled hopes, and my unprepared heart. Lift them from me and give me in exchange peace and serenity to accept the gift of your Word and to hear anew tonight the gospel of the birth of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”3
Yes, friends, amen and amen to the living gift of God-with-us and God-for-us. AMEN.
Bishop Patricia Lull