020721 Epiphany 5
Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39
This past week a number of actions were taken that impact the way we live with COVID-19. Gov. Newsom lifted the ban on outdoor dining; the Supreme Court ruled that churches in California could worship indoors at 25% capacity; the Superior Court requires people to come to court for pending cases; and today, no doubt football fans will break CDC recommendations to have Superbowl parties. Meanwhile, a good number of us continue to live as exiles in our own homes, while others go to work every day and expose themselves to the virus. All of this as the number of new cases, deaths, and hospitalizations, while on a downward trend, are still higher than at any time prior to December.
How does this exile-like experience impact our lives over the long haul? How does it impact our faith? We don’t have answers to those questions yet, but we must reflect on them. It can be challenging to believe things we’ve believed for a long time when things are turning out so differently than they usually do.
Something similar was happening for Israel at the end of the exile in Babylon. It’s hard to hang onto hope when our lived experiences don’t correspond to it. For the exiles, their captivity was ending, and they would be restored to their promised ancestral home – a place of comfort and increased freedom. A new day dawned before them; but it’s not easy to hope when present reality is so difficult. They needed encouragement for the transition, and for the new reality they faced, which probably wouldn’t even meet their expectations. Their memories of home were from before the captivity when Babylon reigned over their lives. That world was destroyed. But, while much may be restored, past conditions, and the impact of all that occurred in-between, give way to present reality. The exiles needed encouragement that they would be restored, and that they could withstand the pains of restoration.
That’s why Isaiah had to remind them of what they already knew. His message ran counter to their current lived experience, encouraging and admonishing them to remember what they already knew about God, but may have forgotten because God seemed so distant from their current reality. Isaiah responded to two aspects of their forgetfulness. First, God is great in strength, mighty in power. In other words, God is willing and able to save you in your present crisis. Then, he said, Why do you say, ‘My way is hidden from God? God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. God is also willing and able to empower you for the long journey ahead.
By repeating a series of rhetorical questions, Isaiah drew attention to their forgotten memory and encouraged them to act despite their circumstances. Who is God? And what will God do in the lives of God’s people? They were not powerless to act, because they had God’s power around them. The Argentinian theologian, J. Severino Croatto, connected Isaiah’s words to the political, economic, and social upheaval in Argentina: Hope for Christian people is in the word of God, which does not substitute for human initiative but supports and strengthens it.
God is not distant, indifferent, and uninvolved, but the community needed to be reminded of that truth. Years had passed with no prophetic word to encourage assurance of God’s presence. As they completed their captivity, there was hard work to do. They needed a hope that would not only support them until they reach their homeland, but would strengthen them to rebuild what had been lost, to rebuild a life and a community in a place that would, in many ways, be as foreign to them as their place of exile. So, Isaiah invites them to wait for God. He says the time in exile has not been wasted. It was renewing them for what was to come. The seeming dormancy was a time to recharge and get their strength back, to be restored before returning home to their next building project. Going full throttle exhausts even the young and strong. As one author puts it, Our weariness is all too frequently based on the fact that many of the things that we’re running from are the very things we should be running to. (Craig D. Lounsbrough) Or as Maya Angelou said, Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.
What do we proclaim today in a world with so much gloom and distress? Issues with vaccine supply and distribution continue. Political divisions that did not begin with the ascendancy of one administration were not erased by its departure. Racial injustice that has always existed was legitimated by powerful people, making it a more obviously reality to oppose. Economic insecurity and the emotional toll of living in pandemic continue to weigh heavily upon us. The end is nearer than it used to be, but its projected arrival is unclear. How do we hope for what we’ve never known? How can we hope for what we cannot envision?
Like the Israelites in Babylon, many of us have been exiled to our homes for the past year. Others have had to keep going to a place of work that carries all kinds of dangers. Part of us looks forward to a return to normality and another part wonders what newness we will confront as the pandemic winds down. Whether we want it our not, the pandemic will impact the way we view life after it. Shannon Alder writes, Your perspective on life comes from the cage you were held captive in. True. But reflecting in advance about that impact may give us tools for facing it.
This morning’s annual meeting was planned by a group of folks that has met regularly over the last ten months to plan, coordinate and reflect on our life as a congregation. In these early days of 2021, the group has begun to ask questions about what we have learned about being church through the pandemic. We’re not just thinking of simple questions like how to continue virtual worship after we return to the church. They relate to the very nature of church:
- What does our inability to gather physically for a year remind us about what matters about church?
- What do we need to rebuild: what do we have to learn about the role of sacred places by not being able to gather as we traditionally have?
- How does the increased proximity and experience of death by so many people impact the mission of church, whose message speaks directly to issues of life and death?
Questions about the church are just one area to reflect on as we prepare to transition out of the exile of the pandemic. We must ask what life will be like in a future that carries the constant threat of another pandemic. We must face increasing political division and increased economic inequality. The rise of skepticism about science and public health, and the rise of conspiracy theories spread on social media will be societal forces for years to come. Given the number of families that have lost jobs or income, we have to deal with the lasting consequences in the physical and mental health of children who have experienced increased deprivation, insecurity and traumatic stress.
As we consider these questions, Isaiah invites us to remember what we already know about God and what God asks of us. He reminds us that God has not been absent; that God has unique power to operate in the world; and that God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. What I already know about God is that power is never something I have. It is something available to use when I need it. And the power I had last time never seems to be enough for what I need to do now. But if I keep walking, my strength is renewed. The strength usually comes at the moment I need it, rather than when I am thinking about what I might need someday. What reminders do you need about God and life as you prepare to move beyond the pandemic?