By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
This is the fourth sermon in our Lenten series on “Spirit and Power.”
Over the last week elders have been on my mind. Elders who are made vulnerable by the spread of COVID-19. Elders in San Francisco who Faith in Action is organizing people to call. Elders in my family and in the families of friends. I’ve also been thinking of elders who have passed on and what wisdom they would have for us right now.
The title of the sermon today comes from a quote by the late Grace Lee Boggs, who was an elder and visionary movement leader from Detroit. In the midst of challenges and insurmountable odds she would say, “This is the time to grow our souls.” I feel that and I know I need that.
The words of Elder Vincent Harding have also been rolling around in my head. Specifically the words he shared with Mennonites way back in 1967 when he asked: where are we? Are we huddled behind the barricades of the status quo, praying the storm will soon be over so that life can continue undisturbed?
There are moments when I want to huddle and count up the resources I have at my house and calculate how to make them last until the storm is over.
But then I remember that this is no fleeting storm and that life will not go back to the normal we’ve known. And I can’t ultimately find security in my stocked pantry. Furthermore, I don’t want the world to go back to the “normal” we have known, because it was insane.
In a talk earlier this week Rev. Dr. William Barber noted that this pandemic shows us how connected we are, how frail we are, and how easily our lives can be disrupted. We are finally really feeling our interrelated humanity, and we cannot go back to business as usual.
This is the time to grow our souls. This is the time we need to abide deeply in the love of God and be nourished by Spirit. We need our connection to Spirit now more than ever, and I admit it has been hard this week to stay connected to Spirit. I notice that under stress my ego wants to problem-solve away the chaos and plan ahead and get things organized. But I can’t really do that when life has been turned upside down. It’s humbling. It’s humbling to see my own frailty and to realize that on my own I have no idea how to find the way forward. So much has been stripped away so quickly and I think I’m still reeling.
But that’s not the end of the story. Although I will probably keep reeling for awhile, there is a deeper source than my own ego strength and can-do attitude. There is a deeper source in which I can abide. There is a Source that has always been available to those who call out in their pain and frailty and fear. There is a Source that is rooted in love and holds us in love.
In the passage we’ve been using for Lent that Source is described as a vine and a vine-tender. We are sustained by their love as we live in love. Verses 10-14 say: If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Abba’s commandments and abide in God’s love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
So what is the commandment?
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
As we live in love and share love with others we are held in God’s love. Abiding in the love of Jesus is not possible if we’re not loving our neighbor. The focus for this Sunday of our Lent series is on the outward movement of the Spirit. So what does it mean to love our neighbor during a time when we are separated from each other, when it is impossible to show up in the world like we used to, and when everything is upended?
Suffice it to say that the sermon I imagined I’d preach when we envisioned this Lent series is different than the one I’m sharing today. At the same time, my first point on how we live in love is something that the Spirit brought to my attention in the weeks leading up to the crisis in which we now find ourselves.
One way that we live in love… one way that we love our neighbor is through grieving. Based on a conversation coming out of discipleship group last month I read a book by Martin Prechtel called “The Smell of Rain on Dust,” which focuses on grief and praise. In this book Prechtel, who is a spiritual teacher, writes, “If we do not grieve what we miss, we are not praising what we love. We are not praising the life we have been given in order to love. If we do not praise whom (or what) we miss, we are ourselves in some ways dead. So grief and praise make us alive.”
Our grief at what is happening in the world, especially to those who were already economically dispossessed and physically compromised, is an expression of love. Our grief flowing from all the unknowns in our lives and the lives of our oldest and youngest generations, that is an expression of love. Our grief at the harm done to our planet, allowing for pandemics to manifest is an expression of love.
The grief that Prechtel encourages is a grief that wails and makes a scene and is disturbing to the stoicism of Western society. It’s a grief that we feel in our whole bodies as we open ourselves to it. He calls it a spiritual enzyme that is secreted into our souls, not to soften our losses but to utterly change and metabolize them. “Whether we know it or not,” he writes, “human beings are relegated to the fact that without grief we can never grow ourselves into real people.”
Our grief is praise for that which we have loved and lost. Our grief deepens our capacity to love that which is still with us. Grieving is one way through which we grow our souls.
In these coming weeks and months, I believe that our world needs people who can grieve. This is a spiritual resource I know I need. I am just at the beginning of my journey, so I seek companions and teachers to guide me.
In addition to grieving, I believe that we join the outward movement of the Spirit by imagining and committing to a transformed world on the other side of this crisis. As we become real people through grief, we can be part of creating a real world. We know that going back to business as usual leaves everyone vulnerable to the mess we are now experiencing. There’s no going back. But what is the way forward?
I don’t claim to have the answer, but I believe that our tradition has much to say about plagues and the possibilities for societal change. The prophets spoke the truth to unjust leaders about their violent exploitation of people and the land. They said there will be consequences if you don’t turn from your wicked ways. But the oppression continued and there was a price to be paid. Plagues were a natural consequence of violence done to the earth and its inhabitants. War and exile were a natural consequence to relying on military might for protection. And today COVID-19 is a natural consequence of rapacious global capitalism.
And to clarify, all of humanity is not equally responsible. There have been and are people still committed to living together with the earth and other creatures in mutual and caring ways. They are the voices in the wilderness. They are those whose communities and cultures have been assaulted by the interests of global capitalism, and many are suffering, but they are here to guide us in the fight for creation.
In addition to judgement, the prophets in our tradition also held up visions of what a world ordered by Divine Love could look like. Listen to these words of Jesus in Matthew 5:
3 “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
So we are living in love when we reject the solutions of the powerful, who got us into this mess, and join with others who are already holding the vision of the world we need. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, put it this way:
“Amid the shroud of crisis, people are taking great risks to help each other survive, like the homeless families who’ve taken over vacant government-owned houses in Los Angeles to protect themselves and the city at large from exposure, and those working to treat the sick, deliver food, care for children, and check in on the elderly.
“We must take extreme measures to respond to this crisis. But the lesson from our sacred traditions is that these measures, where they align with the basic demands of justice, cannot be temporary. Plague in the Bible is not a storm weathered before a return to normalcy. It’s a call to come together in new ways in order to survive, hold the powerful responsible for their unjust policies and the lies they’ve told to cover up [oppression], and rebuild on foundations of love and justice.”
We join the outward movement of the Spirit through our grief, through our honoring of all that we love that has been lost. And we join the outward movement of the Spirit when we demand a radical structuring of society. We join the outward movement of the Spirit when we follow the lead of those who have been fighting for creation all along.
Because now more than ever we know that we are only as strong as the most vulnerable people. We know that our healing is connected to the healing of all. We know that an economic system that allows for people to be discarded in prisons and on the streets will be the death of everyone.
May the Spirit empower us to maintain this clarity of vision and deepen our commitment to embodying the kindom of God. This is the time to grow our souls.