Leader: Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
All: Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves with rich food.
Gathering Prayer (Unison)
Holy God, in a place of so much wealth, why is there so much need? In a land that affords every available comfort, why do we find ourselves uncomfortable, discouraged, depressed? What is this food you spoke of through your prophets? Where is this promised land of milk and honey our ancestors sought? Open our hearts to the only true satisfaction our hearts will ever know: your boundless love.
As First Church and South Church face another autumn season with the coronavirus I’m reminded of a time someone jokingly said, “These are the good old days.” This is an important reminder both for us personally and for organizations in transition. As meditation teacher Ram Dass famously said, “Be here now.” Jesus said, “Keep awake!” (Mk. 13:35). Human beings have a tendency to cling to the past and fantasize about the future. Meanwhile, our lives are happening right here, right now.
When the Israelites were journeying through the wilderness they longed to go back to Egypt even though it meant enslavement. They complained to Moses about his leadership. Moses, in turn, complained to God. Yet, generations later when the prophets found themselves facing the decadence aarnd corruption of an established Kingdom of Israel, they wrote with longing about the simpler times when the Israelites wandered through the desert and worshipped in a tent. “Oh, how close our ancestors were to God!” So, if we find ourselves in a bit of a wilderness time, remember, these are the good old days!
How can we “be here now” in the midst of the pressures and pulls of transition? In a recent article “It takes faith to resist the attention economy,” by Rev. Katherine Willis Pershey writes about the search for groundedness in the midst of a sabbatical in the midst of a pandemic. Her answer is to return to those practices that keep her attention on Jesus, worship being one of them, even when there might be more exciting alternatives to give her attention to. In fact, in this “attention economy” in which social media companies have developed sophisticated algorithms to capture our attention and sell it, devoting our lives to the simple practices of prayer, Scripture, song, and service are courageous acts of resistance to a culture that incentivizes exploitation for profit. Worship, devotion, prayer, and meditation in their many forms can return us to the present moment. Let’s enjoy the good old days while we’re living them!
It’s a bit of a risk writing a piece scheduled to publish two days from now. A lot could change and likely will change in the intervening hours.
This morning I listened to the New York Times podcast “The Daily,” which I find helpful because the host, Michael Barbaro, usually takes one current issue and goes a bit more in depth than most news broadcasts.
Today’s podcast was an interview with New York governor Andrew Cuomo on his state’s response to coronavirus. I appreciated Governor Cuomo’s frank and honest assessment of the situation in his state and the clear actions New York is taking to “flatten the curve,” that is, slow the spread of the virus so that the healthcare system isn’t overhwhelmed, which will increase the chance that deaths can be minimized.
At the end of the interview Governor Cuomo made a direct appeal to everyone in his state to set their desires and self-interest aside for the good of the whole. He particularly appealed to those whose risk of serious health consequences from the virus is low to nevertheless observe social distancing protocols. He recognized that for many the closing of bars and businesses would have serious economic consequences but that in this case, saving lives comes first. As long as we have our lives, Governor Cuomo argued, we have an opportunity to figure out together how we will get through the economic consequences of this crisis.
I find myself strangely moved by the interview. I think the reason is that it reflects my values and my understanding of Christian values. You personally may not like Governor Cuomo. You may disagree with his policies and political positions on other important issues. The point of this piece is not to argue politics. The point is that the rhetoric of caring for one’s neighbor–”loving one’s neighbor as oneself”–as the Bible puts it, has been so absent from our politics for so long. I found it deeply moving to hear a politician calling for that kind of moral action.
The Old Testament Scripture for the fourth week in Lent is 1 Samuel 16:1-13. It tells the story of how God sent the prophet Samuel to find a new king for Israel. The new king didn’t come from the ruling class. He wasn’t rich, famous, or endowed with other conventional qualifications for the job (except, perhaps, that he was male, which is another “What’s Up” for another time). That future king, who was named David, turned out to be the greatest king of ancient Israel and the ancestor of the one Christians would come to recognize as Savior of the World, namely, Jesus.
The message of Scripture is that God raises up leaders from unexpected places in times of crisis. Our world is now in a time of crisis. Our politicians are calling for moral leadership. Now is our time as a church–one that professes to follow Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself”–to provide moral leadership for our town and the wider world.
This Sunday will feature the first in a “My Favorite Scripture” worship series. We’ve invited individuals in the congregation to identify their favorites Scripture texts and share what makes them their favorite. Then I design a worship service around that text.
This week’s favorite Scripture, Psalm 121, comes from Nancy Rodney. Nancy chose Psalm 121 in part because of a revelatory experience she had with the text. Nancy went to high school at Northfield-Mount Hermon School, an idependent boarding school in the Berkshires. At that time Scripture study was included as part of the curriculum at NMH. When she first encountered Psalm 121 at NMH, Nancy understood the famous first two verses of the Psalm as pointing in the same direction: God.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills–
From where will my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.”
The conventional reading, the one Nancy learned in high school, goes something like this: A person is wandering alone in the wilderness looking for help. Perhaps she is discouraged or downcast. She looks up and discovers that her help is found in God.
But later in life, Nancy learned another reading. She made a tour of the Holy Land led by a group of pastors. While on the tour she saw with her own eyes the Judean hill country: barren wildnerness hills not unlike the ones the Psalmist might have looked to for inspiration. She learned from one of the pastor-guides that in ancient days the indigneous people of this land would set up shrines to the various local deities on the tops of these hills. She learned that another, more historically informed reading of Psalm 121, might be an anitphonal one that points in two different and contrasting directions.
One voice says, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills–from where will my help come?” This voice is pointing the reader to the hilltops where the local deities reside: the conventional gods of the day, the familiar places we turn to and the small comforts we cling to for security and help. Our 401k, the cup of coffee in the morning, the voices from our phones, TVs, and computer screens that reinforce our political and cultural biases, our job titles, our Instagram feeds, our social circles. The question: “From where will my help come?” The answer: Not here! There’s a note of despair: look at these hills surrounding me on all sides, more than I can count, stretching to the horizon, each one with its little god dancing on top, begging for my attention and loyalty and not one of them can help me! Not one can heal the depth of the wound in my soul.
The second voice (maybe another voice in the same person’s consciousness?) shifts the gaze from the hills and their small, ultimately powerless, idols and toward God, who is God not only of the high places, but of the low as well and every place in between. Question: “From where will my help come?” Answer: The Creator of heaven and earth who is not limited to this place or that, to this group or that one, to this political party, to that nation, to this religion, belief system, lifestyle, tribe, race or tradition. Either God is God of all or no God at all.
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently gave an emotionally vulnerable TED talk about what he describes as a “time in the valley” following his divorce in 2013. During that time he went through many changes and developed some profound insights into what he calls “the lies our culture tells us about what matters.” These include: 1) Career success is fulfilling; 2) I can make myself happy or “the lie of self-sufficiency”; 3) the “lie of the meritocracy” or you’re worth more if you accomplish more. I imagine these lies and others as those idols dancing on the tops of those ancient Judean hills tormenting the Psalmist to the brink of despair. As an antidote to our culture’s lies, Brooks proposes devoting oneself to deep, authentic relationship. He calls folks who do this sacred work “weavers” and has founded an organization called “Weave” that supports this kind of holy community building.
In this time of tribalism and disaffection when people cast about for this silver bullet or that one, this savior or that numbing drug, when powerful corporations and noisy political leaders have unprecedented power to capture our attention and sell our identities, I wonder what would happen if we shifted our gaze from the “high places” to the every day places. I wonder what would happen if we devoted ourselves to our neighbors–the real flesh-and-blood people who live right next door or just down the street? I wonder what would happen if we took up the unglamourous work of looking closely, listening deeply, and making a genuine, human connection. My guess is that we would find the maker of heaven and earth right now, right here.