Falling back…

This is my sermon from July 25, 2021, the Ninth Sunday after the Pentecost. You can read the lectionary here.

This gospel is chockfull of nuggets to preach It’s one of those weeks when you read it and think, “Oh! That’s a good idea.” And then you think, “Oh, but maybe this is a better idea,” and then it just keeps going on and on. I have to say, usually those gospels kind of drive me nuts. Nuttier than I am on any other given day. But this week, I realized as I was sitting with a number of pretty heavy emotions, how grateful I was for the multiple messages that we have. And I’m going to share just a little bit of where my head and heart space are because perhaps some of it will resonate with you.

One is, I feel like I came crashing down, in terms of COVID. I don’t know that I was fully aware I of the depth or the scope of the toll the long-term nature of the pandemic and resulting restrictions have had taken on me. I don’t think so much in my daily life apart from the church, if a priest can ever have a life apart from the church, because I got to tell you, I’ve been enjoying my time and my study with my knitting and my books. There have been some parts of COVID that have been liberating. But mostly, I have felt the absence of community, or at least the absence of all of you in-person. I have felt deeply the absence of all of you and the way I had come to know us as a faith community in the 14 months I was here before we went into a lockdown.

I also had an experience this week that kind of crept up on me. And I was sitting on Zoom, yet again, in Spiritual Direction, which in some ways feels really bizarre. I was kind of in a little bit of a funk and my spiritual director -as a wise man -and I noticed something felt off. And I happened to look down and there on the date on my computer, I realized that today is the fourth anniversary of my brother’s sudden death. Which means tomorrow is the second anniversary of the death of my dear friend, Hank. Some of you have heard about Hank. I used to travel to Massachusetts every 10 days to take care of him. So there’s kind of let down of thinking we were moving forward in COVID with some very real, though unconnected, grief attached to it.

And as I sat after Spiritual Direction, looking again at this gospel, I was so much more aware of the abundance of grace and love that I have experienced in my life. The loaves and the fishes – just when you think life is as hard as it’s going to get, something happens and you realize there’s always a next thing, which then reminds me that with God, all things are new. So there’s always a next thing. And for me, being in Spiritual Direction yesterday, two days after saying we can’t have communion, we can’t sing together, we can’t have coffee hour, all of those things that help us to know who we are. I was reminded of the community of faithful that I’m a part of, and that is such an abundant blessing.

Then there’s the second part of this gospel: Jesus needs to go and spend some time and be in prayer. And the disciples, they get in the boat and they go across the sea and there’s Jesus.They realize that even in the midst of this crossing, which is dangerous, Jesus is with them. They know this. And he says, “It is I, do not be afraid.” If you look back to the language and translation that is more in keeping with the original Greek, it would be, “I am.” The great, “I am,” hearkening back to the Hebrew scriptures. And once they realize that they have only to open their hearts and have faith and trust, they’re at the other side.

And this message today for me, in the context of us, this beautiful, faithful community of St. Stephen’s, is that we have had so many blessings during this time. Even though we’re an older congregation than some, we have not had a single death resulting from COVID. We have not had a single extended ICU stay resulting from COVID. I’m not aware that we have had any ICU stays. I know we’ve had a couple of hospitalizations. We have been able to gather, whether online or in person, literally with one week of no worship, since COVID began. We have continued to have music, not the congregational singing we love, but we have had music, which in our parish is such an important part of who we are. We have had a preschool that has been open and loud and joyful for most of this time. (We closed for a little over a month.) We have been so blessed.

And so as we think about this, it really feels like a step backwards to be officiating a worship service that is a Liturgy of the Word with no Communion and no congregational singing. Some of us had this conversation, we’ll know we’re getting through it when we celebrate the Eucharist and share Communion again. We’ll really know we’re getting through it when we can sing together again. We had this idea of what it would take for us to feel like the people we know ourselves to be, beloved of God and loving God. It now feels like we are stepping backwards.

But the image I have in this moment is that we are on the sea. We are right there in the boat with the disciples. Now look up. This is called the nave because what does the ceiling look like? The keel of a boat, right? We’re kind of upside down. We’re in the boat. And as we take this step back, we are not falling off into the abyss. We’re stepping back into the presence of Jesus, who loves us and who is with us and will carry us along in this time of uncertainty, in the time of ups and downs and the craziness of COVID. We are stepping back into those loving arms, that grace-filled presence, to be held with all the hope and all the promise that has always been ours. Hope and promise that has been ours in God, through the love and relationship with Jesus, felt by us through the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright 2021 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Entering in…

I came across this sermon from last year. One of the realities for me is that Covid has disrupted so many of my routines, such as they are. It’s from the Fourth Sunday of Easter (May 3, 2020). The county I live in: Essex County, NJ, is experiencing losing ground in the management of Covid, which is so immensely discouraging. I found this reminder of how and what I truly believe to be helpful to me as I sit with the disappointment and frustration of these days. Perhaps it will be helpful to you, too.

Today’s Gospel is, I think, as confusing perhaps as the disciples originally heard it when Jesus was with them. He’s talking to them about being the shepherd who sends them out, then gets ahead of them, then brings them home, and is their safe place to be. And they’re not getting it. Jesus then says, “Okay. I’m the gate. If you come in with my love, through my love, by my love, you will be okay. And I am the only one who can offer that love. It’s not the other people who say, ‘Come and follow me.’ It’s me. My love is different than all love.” And, as far as we can tell, because of the way the Gospel passage ends, they then understand what Jesus has been saying.

So, this week, it’s an interesting Gospel in that if you were to call most people who are familiar with the Christian scriptures and say, “Tell me some of the ways we describe Jesus,” I’m willing to bet not too many of them would say, “The gate.” It’s an odd kind of image. And yet, it’s an image that can make complete sense. I came to that realization just the other day, actually. I went out for quite a long walk and I was praying with, and thinking about, this Gospel. On my way back, I came up the Church Street side of the building, so came around onto Main Street. And right at my side is the beautiful, tall wrought iron gate that surrounds most of our campus. Then there was a big double gate that opens onto the driveway. Next to those gates, we have a rainbow flag that says, in huge white letters, “Welcome.” It also says, “These doors are open to all.”

In that second, I realized that this image of the gate as a place where we can enter and be welcomed regardless of who we are or where we come from, what we’ve done, is an apt image for how we’re invited into this love of Christ. This image of walking through and into it gave me goosebumps in that moment. Then, as I was walking further and I’m going over to the rectory and happen to look back at the gate, because now this image of the gate suddenly made sense to me, I realized that sometimes we close those two huge swinging gates. This is an image of the gate as a defense, an image of protection. We do that usually to keep the preschool children safe when they’re out running around or on their bikes. I realized that that is also a part of what Jesus offers. That when we accept the invitation to enter into this love that is unconditional and beyond our wildest dreams, it is a love that will protect us.

It’s funny, it’s as if the gates close behind us and then immediately open up for the next person. When we wander off, as sheep are wont to do, the gate opens again and we’re welcomed back. This sense of being present and protected, to be safe, with Jesus, in Jesus, because of Jesus, strikes me as image that we desperately need in this time. We need it for ourselves, because we need to know, as topsy-turvy as our life is these days, as frightened as we are because this virus is dangerous, that even with all of that, the love Jesus has for us is unconditional, and it will comfort and protect us, even if it’s not in the ways that we can imagine in any given moment. It isn’t a guarantee that bad things won’t happen. It isn’t a guarantee that we won’t get sick or die from COVID-19. It isn’t a guarantee that the financial implications won’t hit us hard at home, maybe even in our refrigerators.

It’s not that kind of safety. But it’s the safety and comfort of knowing that if we can still our minds, if we can look for a moment of grace, if we can seek an awareness of the presence of God with us, that does change things. It brings us to a place where, even in the midst of whatever is happening, good, bad, or indifferent, quite we can feel okay some place deep inside, knowing that when all is said and done, it’s God’s love for us, it’s Jesus’ willingness to live with us and die by us, that will give us whatever it is we need to deal with whatever it is we face. There’s safety, there’s security in that. It’s like the security of a toddler who knows the safest place to be the most annoying kind of tantrumming and demanding, why, why, why, why, why kind of toddler, is with the people who love you most. Kids know that.

I can remember when my kids were young, people would say, “Your kids, they’re so well-behaved. We love having them around.” I’m like, “You know my kids are Sean, Kevin, and Kathleen, right?” Because my experience of them wasn’t always the same as others’. I love them to death, you know that, and they know that too, thankfully. But the reality is home was the place to bring the fear. Home was the place to bring the confusion. Home was the place to bring the frustration and the bad behavior. Because home was always the place where love would trump everything else.

That is the love God has for us. It is the love that will trump everything. There always comes a time when the nastiness and the anxieties and the frustrations of life settle down a bit and you can look back and say, “Huh. Either it wasn’t so bad, or I had more to get through it with that than I thought.” That is part of what Jesus gives up as the gatekeeper. When we step into this love, when we step into this security, when we step into this safety, we’re stepping into a way of living that gives us the freedom to fight, to wrestle, to be frustrated, to misbehave, to be terrified, and not have that change anything about the love and the abiding presence of God, with us, in, and through all things.

Jesus as gatekeeper, may be my favorite image of him. Before it probably had been Prince of Peace. But now it may be the gatekeeper. I hope that, for you, this image can make some sense, can give you some comfort, that you can visualize Jesus’s arms wide open saying, “Come here. Come be with me. Because wherever you are, I am going with you, I am behind you, and I am ahead of you.” Wherever we go, whichever direction we turn, Jesus is always there for us and with us.

Copyright 2020 The Rev. Paula J. Toland