Ostriches and jackals

(This Lenten meditation for the daily series from the Diocese of Ohio was composed before our part of the world was turned upside down by COVID-19; but God’s mercy endures forever.)

Lenten Reflection – April 3
The Rev. Rosalind Hughes
Church of the Epiphany, Euclid

The ostrich does not enjoy the reputation of a particularly spiritual creature. She is not counted like the sparrow, nor is she the object of projected piety, like the pelican. In fact, the Bible describes the ostrich as cruel, foolish, and wanton, while popular culture has made her a symbol of willful ignorance, burying her head in the sand.

The jackal, meanwhile, is rendered in an earlier authorized translation as a dragon: the foe and prey of the saints.

It is precisely these wild and unpromising creatures that God woos with oases in the desert. It is their praise that God invites as a sign of a new relationship between creature and Creator.

It is as though we have a God who answers our carelessness with cool water, our fire with soothing shade, our cruelty with kindness, our ignorance with attention, our wilderness with the profusion of life.

All the devotions this week are inspired by this passage:

Isaiah 43:18-21

Do not remember the former things,
    or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
    the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
    rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
    the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

Image: Greater rhea head with eyes closed, by Vincent Lamy, who has placed it in the Public Domain, per wikimedia commons / CC0

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Early in the morning, we would
wipe our hands with grassy dew,
gather field mushrooms sprung up
overnight; only
the wise old wives knew
whether their white canopies shed
spores of health,
or of the other thing.

Featured image: Scottish Women’s Hospital, A Group of Tents at Ostrovo (detail), by McLaren, Eva Shaw / Public domain, via wikimedia commons

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The question of Lazarus

“Tell me, mortal,
can these dry bones live?”
Lazarus, coughing and blinking
replies, or would
if breath permits,
“You know, O Lord.”

He is remembering forward
and backward; eternity
has infected him. He lies
among dry bones, rattled
by the breeze, scenting
the air with the horror
of war. He sits
vigil inside an empty tomb,
wondering whose
winding cloth is folded
at his feet while his tongue
still tastes cotton.

“Tell me, Son of Man,”
he replies,
“what is bone
what is breath
what is life?”
his lips susurrant
with echoes of the trials
that precede resurrection.

The readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A include:

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” (Ezekiel 37:1-3)

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:38-44)

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Chasing clouds

Not as children naming
animals in a fluffy sky; nor
yet storm chasers, seeking secrets
funnelled from heaven to earth; more
refugees from understanding,
lost in bewilderment, following
clouds across the wilderness
desert dry-mouthed –
when darkness falls
like fire consuming everything
beneath it, then we see most nearly
the shape of things to come:
oceans cleft open,
sand and stone melted
into window glass,
the stark light of eternity.

They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The LORD went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (Exodus 13:20-22)

The LORD is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!
Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteous and justice are the foundation of his throne.
Fire goes before him, and consumes his adversaries on every side.
His lightnings light up the world; the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. (Psalm 97:1-5)

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Why did this happen?

A sermon broadcast during worship gathered through virtual means at the Church of the Epiphany, Lent 2020.

Last week, one of our young people asked me why God would not simply reach in and end this new coronavirus. I gave him the answer, roughly, the answer that I learned during Science and Theology class: that God has created a marvelously complex yet comprehensive and comprehensible world, and us as part of it. That God rested on the seventh day – refrained from continuing to tweak and refine and tinker. That if God reached in to catch us every time we fall, then we could not rely on gravity to keep our feet on the ground at all.

It’s an answer that I believe makes sense, but it is not the whole answer. It tends to leave out a crucial part of the story: that God loves us so much as to send Jesus to us. That God’s heart aches for our pain and sorrow. That God is with us, even in the fall.

When Jesus and his disciples come across a blind man begging, the disciples ask a question that the sages have answered in various ways throughout the ages: why is there suffering in the world? Why do even the unarguably innocent – babies and children – suffer? Why do we live with these questions from birth and throughout our lives, even in the midst of joy, even in the midst of love, even with Jesus walking right next to us?

Jesus does not give his disciples the whole answer. He doesn’t explain the suffering of Job nor address the philosophical problem of crime and punishment. Perhaps we don’t think that he is saying anything particularly useful to our situation, except to say that it was not the man’s fault, nor his parents’ fault, that affliction found him. But, Jesus says, “because of this, you will see God’s power at work in the world.”

This is not to say that it is necessarily a good thing that the man was born blind, although I defer to his experience to define how this circumstance has affected his life and identity; but it is to say that God’s goodness is present everywhere, and that every encounter, even every obstacle, is an opportunity for God’s grace and glory to shine. God’s glory is always to have mercy, and Jesus heals the man of his congenital blindness, and demonstrates God’s goodness in the moment. Because Jesus has that power.

There was more that I left out of my answer to our young member last Sunday. I forgot to add that God has given us the tools that we need to intervene and interfere with the suffering that this coronavirus spreads. There are the obvious ways – the heroism of the healthcare workers and the impressive wisdom of the vaccine developers and the planning of the policy makers, all striving to put an end to the pandemic. But there are other ways that the grace and glory of God are revealed. A visitor who had only met this community a handful of times took the opportunity to reach out and offer help with grocery shopping for anyone who needs it. Other members have spent the week calling around, keeping connected, offering prayers and an open ear. Still others have considered how we might still meet the needs of our community, its children and its older people, our Community Meal guests and our 12-step neighbours. There is much to consider, but the answer to all of it lies in the love of God, the love of neighbour, the grace and mercy that continues to be revealed when all else is laid bare and only love is still working.

Yesterday, Brad Purdom, Canon for Congregations in our Diocese, provided the daily Lenten meditation. He wrote it before we had wind of these troubles, and yet his words remind us that it is always the right time to rely on God’s mercy. He wrote,

Here [in Isaiah 42:14-16] God seems almost unable to keep from responding wrongly or too soon. God gasps and pants in restraint, like a woman in labor before she begins to push. But when that moment comes, when the time is right for everything to become new, just as that mother’s release brings life into the world, God’s release brings light to the darkness, levelness to that which is broken and rough.

We are past the midway of Lent. The moment is not yet right for new birth, but hold on. It is coming.

From all that we have seen and heard, we are not yet past the midway of this latest crisis. The moment is not yet right for the new normal. But hold on. It is coming. God’s restraint, like all else of God, is born of mercy; and even in this time of restraint, love is active, love is undefeated. God’s mercy endures forever.

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The longest Lent

I wonder if it was like that in the wilderness: a few days of fasting, hunger and thirst. The rasp of a throat full of sand singing aimlessly aloud to stave off the fear of aloneness, uniqueness, isolation. A moment of panic, a dream of clarity, then the morning filled with terrifying sunlight and an endless, empty horizon, without so much as a mirage to offer direction. The day he knew he was in it for the long haul.

After forty days, he was tempted to give it up: the faith, the fast, the body, lay down among the dry bones. But after that defeat, how much longer did he stay, licked over by the wild beasts for the salt of his skin, loved by the angels for the breath of his spirit? One does not dare to say.

By the time he returned to the river it might look like life or death: slaking and cleansing, cooling and roiling, submerging and subduing. He might have been tempted to stay there three whole days, lying on the river bed, the water winding him in weeds, drinking in the opposite of desert.

Instead, he returned to Galilee and its green hills, its grounded fishermen, their families and their fevers, their foolish hillside hunger, their desolation, and their devotion. He loved their humanity, his humanity, after all, even after his longest trial yet.

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Sermon from the edge of a pandemic

This morning we gathered for one last Communion before retreating from in-person meetings for a time – hopefully a short time, global pandemic permitting. The Church of the Epiphany will meet virtually for worship during the coming weeks. A decision about Holy Week and Easter services will be made after March 29th. The Gospel lesson for the Third Sunday of Lent was Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well.

Jesus was not great at social distancing. Wherever he went he attracted crowds that pressed against the lake shore, against one another, against him and the hem of his garments. Once, he filled a house so full that they had to take the roof off to fit one more person in.

Even out in the sticks, he managed to find the one woman next to a well, and asked her for a drink. His disciples were shocked that he got so close to her. She was surprised herself. And lo and behold, after their meeting, she went back to her town and spread the gospel like a virus to all who came into contact with her. She transmitted Jesus all over.

No, Jesus was not such a great model for social distancing. Except when he was – when he withdrew into the wilderness, or to the mountaintop, even the middle of the lake, seeking space, seeking silence, seeking time to rest and recoup his spirits. Once, after a long desert retreat, the tempter came and suggested that it would not matter if he threw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple – if he took no safety measures for himself – since the guardian angels would catch his fall. Jesus told the devil to go socially distance himself for that one.

More often, he spent time in the company of his friends, of his disciples. Like them, we long to draw near to him, to spend time with him, to touch him, to be with one another. The distance between us hurts, our separation is painful.

Our separation is painful.

We are faced with a time of withdrawal, of wilderness, in our own spiritual journey. In the face of a public health emergency, emergency measures present themselves. After this morning’s service, we will continue to meet for prayer remotely for a time, using technology to cover the distance between us. There will be opportunities to call in and hear the service, to log in and see the service, to answer in the echo of our own hearts, Amen, amen.

We will continue to take care of one another, making sure to check in by phone, by email, by notecards, by any means necessary to continue to share our love, God’s love, Christ’s love with one another through this wilderness fast, to heal the distance that hurts.

Because yes, the distance between us hurts.

Yesterday morning, I woke to the news that Barbara Harris, the first woman to be ordained and consecrated a Bishop in the entire Anglican Communion had died, and I wept. I never met the woman, to my profound regret; but her death brought me to tears. The distance between us hurts.

I remember seeing film footage of her consecration on the BBC. It was February 1989. I must have been visiting my parents the weekend after my birthday, because I distinctly remember watching the news on their tv. I was in the final year of a theology degree, under the supervision of a man who was unfailingly gracious to his female students, but adamantly opposed to their ordination. I was in a country, in a church that would not ordain women as priests until well into the next decade, nor as bishops until safely into the next millennium. And here was Barbara Harris, in my parents’ living room, a Bishop in Christ’s holy, catholic, and apostolic church, Episcopal division.

She was surely one of the great cloud of saints and witnesses that led me here, although I never met her. The technology that bridged the Atlantic and brought her into my parents’ home played its part in healing the distance between us, and even the distance between my priestly vocation and my college supervisor’s Synod vote.

The distance between us hurts. My father still lives in that home where I saw Bishop Harris ordained. I know that I will need to postpone my post-Easter visit to see him. There is something hard, but there is something hopeful, too, in postponing a trip to visit an octogenarian with chronic asthma. This, too, shall pass, and we will be reunited.

Christ can and does heal the distance between us. We will fast for a little while here from meeting together in person. We will retreat, but we will not remain separated for too long. In the meantime, we will talk, we will pray together, we will share our joys and sorrows by all means. In Christ, there is no east nor west, no social distance. We will not be too far apart.

At the well, the woman asked for living water so that she would no longer need to care about the chores of daily living, the drawing and the drinking, but that was not what Jesus meant. Whether we receive his body and blood today as physical food and drink, or whether we make our spiritual Communion, receiving him in spirit and in truth, as God allows us, we are not released from the obligations of everyday living, everyday love of God and our neighbour. We are reminded of them, and strengthened for them.

Look, the woman told her neighbours. He knows everything about me – my hopes, my fears, my preexisting conditions, the state of my heart. Could it be that he is God with us, even here, even now? And her story spread mouth to mouth, person to person, throughout the town; and the good news, the gospel of Christ went viral.


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