The Gift of Presence
For nearly two weeks, those of us in the Saint Paul Area Synod have been blessed by the presence of ou[...]
Grace and peace to you in the name of the Most High God. AMEN.
It has been quite a year. Do you remember gathering by Zoom on April 7th for our ministerium last spring? How little we knew then that we know now about the course of the COVID-19 virus.
“There is a lot to worry about,” I said to you in that sermon a year ago. “There is a lot to worry about. The health and well-being of those we love. The financial toll on the congregations we serve or the institutions where we work. The long-term commitment of the people we depend upon to sustain the mission of the church. Will we endure amid the changes, the stresses, the challenges all around us for weeks and weeks yet to come?” I said it – weeks!
For many of you this has been the longest year of your life. There have been tragic COVID deaths to mourn. There has been amazing generosity and kindness to celebrate. If there is one word I use to describe what I have learned from all of you, it is “creativity.”
You have pivoted, stretched, bounced back, sighed, groaned, recommitted to learning yet one more new skill; you have endured. But I love the honesty of the pastor who said to me recently – “I am so darned tired of being creative.” I’ll bet you can relate.
In Mark’s Gospel account, the twelve return to Jesus, brimming over with stories of all that happened as they were sent out for the first time as missionaries. What did Jesus hear in their voices and read in their faces? He couldn’t help but notice the eagerness with which they wanted to share their stories all at once. But he must also have recognized just how weary – exhausted – they were from the busyness of this work, from the press of the crowds, and all the demands on their attention. This time in which “there was no leisure even to eat.” (Mark 6:32)
And though Mark doesn’t name it directly, if we imagine ourselves as those early apostles, we know that Jesus gazed upon them with the same compassion he showed over and over to the anonymous crowds who sought his help. These were his closest friends and Jesus invited them to do what he so often did himself. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest while.” (Mark 6:30)
I doubt that many of us will rest much in the next 10 days, but it will take even longer to recover from this past year unless – unless – we have learned how to lean into sabbath rest during this pandemic. Sabbath-keeping is God’s prescription for all human beings. Work and rest; full attention and time apart.
Today’s text reminds us of two patterns in Jesus’ own ministry which we are called to embrace in our own. One is compassion for others and the second is taking time to rest. I suppose we can even flip those and say one is freeing others from our own frenzy of expectations and the second is compassion for our own self as a real, incarnate, sometimes stretched too thin, finite human being.
This Lent, I have found it very helpful to read Pastor Lee Ann Pomrenke’s book, Embodied: Clergy Women and The Solidarity of a Mothering God. This is not just a good book for women but for all of us to read, particularly as we continue to deal with the blurred lines between family life and public ministry, home and office.
In a chapter on “Divided Attention and Loyalty,” Lee Ann writes – “There are certainly times when those in our care need our undivided attention” (page 79). The initial days of this pandemic season were certainly that a year ago. Our full attention was needed to guide and lead just to get through those first days.
Add to that the urgent reckoning with racism that has pressed upon us since the death of George Floyd. Whether or not all those we serve with appreciate our attention to addressing racist practices and privileges, we know there is no avoiding these tough, urgent issues in our calling. Nor can we be silent about anti-Asian hatred, fear of those who do not share our Christian identity, or as we were tragically reminded again on Monday evening, the terrible toll of gun violence across this country and within our own neighborhoods.
Yet, in her book Pastor Pomrenke reminds us that having a life beyond one’s work can be life-giving to the congregation. Showing up as real people with families, outside interests, and other responsibilities is a better model for the godly life than giving undivided attention to the demands of others, 24/7. The truth is we don’t have to do it all.
So many of you have told me how much you have benefitted from the wise leadership and the broader insights of a re-opening team. Others of you have testified that “the village” needed to prepare and present worship this past year – online and outdoors – drew in people with gifts, who had never been tapped before. The adage – we are in this together – is not only about enduring a pandemic, addressing systemic racism, or changing a culture that is too much at-home with violence; it describes how we serve together as deacons and pastors in the rich company of lay leaders and diverse community members.
And yet, we gather as a ministerium today, fully aware that there are unique responsibilities we have been set aside to bear for the sake of the Gospel and the well-being of the church.
Some of you know the narrative of the Gospel of Mark well enough to know that Jesus and the twelve did not make it to the place of solitary rest before the crowds intercepted them. Before they could even disembark from the boat that carried them across the lake, the crowds had anticipated where to find them and beat them there. So much for their planned day-off.
St. Mark doesn’t record the look on the faces of the disciples but tells us that, seeing the crowds, Jesus “had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (6:34) I think we can guess that all the disciples may not have felt the same.
Friends, we still do not know all the twists and turns that will occur before we are safely on the far side of the worst ravishes of this virus, but we already know the cacophony of varied opinions and demands people will continue to place on us. Get us back to the familiar … forward to a new normal … open now … go slow … run here … race there. We stand in the middle of multiple agendas and often competing demands.
But we gather together today to remind one another that we do not stand alone; not a single one of us needs to go it alone no matter how isolated we have felt on our lowest days. There have been some low times for me as there have been for you. Jesus draws us together so that we will collectively have the strength and the vision to lead those we serve to what they truly need.
This Holy Week and Easter some of you are meeting in person and some of you are not. Most of you are nervous about the choice – wondering if you are going too fast or too slow. In time we will all be able to look back and assess our choices better than we can in the midst of the fray.
Tempting though it may be, this year don’t preach pandemic realities as the last word. Preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This glorious story of the God who has come to us, in living and breathing reality. God so present in suffering that even the worst forms of hatred are not beyond God’s redeeming. God so alive that resurrection interrupts even our worst nightmares and despair.
The blessing – the privilege – of our vocations is to be the bearers of that life-changing, death-trumping, hope-giving Word of God. Friends, we bear that Word not only with our voices, but we hold each other up so that we can bear that Word in our very bodies. In all the ways and places where we show up. By God’s mercy and grace, this is who we are called to be.
Thank be to God. AMEN.
Bishop Patricia Lull
Read more messages from the Bishop at https://spas-elca.org/category/blog/bishop-blog/.