June 20, 2021
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
AFTER THE MASKS COME OFF
It’s been fifteen months now since everything shut down. Including church. We worshiped as usual on March 15, 2020. Attendance was down, because you were aware of the coronavirus and knew that staying home was probably a really good idea. I announced that day that worship was cancelled for the following Sunday, March 22.
I didn’t tell you then, but I was actually breathing a sigh of relief. We already had plans to be in Portland the weekend of March 22. It was the birthday of our daughter and granddaughter. We knew travel was discouraged, but we were going anyway. And I was also bound and determined not to miss Sunday worship here on March 22. So it was looking like an all night drive – not my favorite thing – but thanks to this virus, I had Sunday off.
One Sunday. That’s what I figured. I was sure we would be back in church at least by Easter. I was sure. I was sure wrong. We almost missed two Easters.
Early on, Susie Myers sent me something clever. I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to use it in a sermon, and I almost waited too long. Here it is:
Wash your hands, and say your prayers,
‘Cause Jesus and germs are everywhere.
We should still be washing our hands and saying our prayers. Because Jesus and germs still are everywhere. But when it comes to masks, you have reached your own conclusions. Long before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave us their new guidelines, you had made up your minds.
Today I am going to be talking about life “after the masks come off.” I am not suggesting that the time for caution is past. It’s not. People are still getting sick and dying and the situation is worldwide. We hear about India, but there are other places where the danger level is high. It is way too early to get complacent.
There is an Old Testament professor who has been around for a long time. As they say, he’s so old, he can remember when the Old Testament was new. His name is Walter Brueggemann. He has a useful way to understand Old Testament history. There is this pattern that keeps repeating itself. (See image 1)
It starts with orientation. Life is good. Things are going pretty well. Then something traumatic comes along to shake things up. We call this disorientation. Nobody likes disorientation. It seems like disorientation will last forever, but it never does. Eventually you come out on the other side. You experience a reorientation. Sometimes we call this a “new normal.” It’s not comfortable. Not yet. But eventually it is. Eventually you return to “orientation.” The “new normal” has become an “old normal.” And you never would have believed it could have been possible when when things were so awful, but you are actually in a better place now than you were before. Life is good once again. Better than it was before. And then – guess what? – another disorientation.
That’s the way life works. That’s the way it worked in Bible times. And I also think this circle helps us understand what we’ve been through with COVID-19. Also, what lies ahead. We’ve been through a major disorientation. Big time. It’s been really hard, and really disruptive. But finally, we seem to be transitioning from disorientation to reorientation.
You might say it’s been a long dark night. It has been. It seemed like the night would never end. But the Bible has it right: “Though weeping may tarry for the night, joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
Pope Francis wrote a book that came out last fall (Let Us Dream, Simon and Schuster). It’s a book about his personal life, but it’s also about the pandemic. Here’s a passage:
In the trials of life, you reveal your own heart – how solid it is, how merciful, how big or small . . . The basic value of a crisis is that you don’t come out of it the same . . . you come out better or worse, but never the same.
One reviewer summarized the book with this one sentence. “Don’t let the pain be in vain.”
Pope Francis understands the scripture we read this morning. “We rejoice in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3). Why? Because good things can come out of suffering. Things like endurance and character and hope. These qualities might not become part of who we are in any other way.
Count it all joy when you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2-4).
The pain does not have to be in vain. Hard times will come. That’s life. We can’t do anything about that. But when the hard times do come, we are the ones who choose either to become bitter or better.
Stanford University has done some interesting research. A thousand adults, ages 18 to 76, from all over the United States were interviewed during the month of April 2020. That might have been the scariest time of the pandemic. Things were really bad and getting worse. Everyone was affected. Everyone was suffering. But what this study found was that how old you are had a lot to do with how well you were dealing with it.
The findings show that older people report better emotional experience than younger people, even during a pandemic that is placing them at greater risk than any other age group. They were more likely to report experiencing positive emotions such as feelings of calm, interest, and appreciation and less likely to report negative emotions like anxiety (Linda Carstensen, “Stanford News,” October 27, 2020).
Isn’t that interesting! Older people were the ones who were much more likely to get extremely sick or die. And yet older people were the ones who dealt with this better than younger people whose risk was almost negligible. Why do you suppose that was? Maybe older people have been around this circle (orientation/disorientation/ reorientation) a few times before. This wasn’t their first rodeo. They have lived through hard times. So adversity does not freak them out. They have experienced that verse we sing in “Amazing Grace”:
Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come.
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
That book by Pope Francis includes a personal story I had never heard before. You may know he was a priest in Argentina before he was elected Pope. His name was Jorge Mario Bergolio. You probably didn’t know that. I didn’t either until I looked it up. It was around 1990 that he ran afoul of his superiors and was demoted. It was a very hard time for him. But good things came out of that experience. Here’s what he says:
It gave me a greater tolerance, understanding, the ability to forgive, and a fresh empathy for the powerless. And patience. A lot of patience . . . I learned the importance of seeing the big in little things. It was a period of growth in many ways, the kind of growth that happens after a hard pruning.
Have you noticed how beautiful our rose garden is this year? Every year, when Tom Burgess does his pruning, I worry that this time he got carried away. He cut those rose bushes down too far. They’ll never come back. But he knows what he’s doing. It takes a hard pruning to get the best growth.
The truth is that Jorge Mario Bergolio never would have become Pope Francis without that hard, painful pruning in his life. The basic value of a crisis is that you don’t come out of it the same . . . you come out better or worse, but never the same.
There’s a Greek word for this. “Metanoia.” Every Christian should know at least two Greek words. One is “agape.” The other is “metanoia.” The English translations of these two words are “love” and “repentance,” but the English does not capture the full meaning. “Metanoia” means more than repentance. It means a deep, inner, real change. Really a series of changes – a change of the mind, then a change of the heart, then a change in behavior. We go from head to heart to hands.
Jesus began his ministry preaching “metanoia.” And he meant more than just repentance. He was talking about radical reorientation. He was talking about the good that can come to us as we move through the disorienting part of this circle.
You’ve probably heard the saying: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Well, yes. The problem is, if everything is too wonderful, we never grow.
There’s a famous photograph that comes from the Great Depression. It is called “migrant mother.” It’s a classic portrayal of human suffering. It makes you sad just looking at it. This photograph was used on the cover of “Good News” magazine to introduce a story on suffering. The caption: “God loves you and has a difficult plan for your life.”
Not that God makes us suffer or takes any pleasure in our suffering. But suffering is part of life. When it comes, God helps us through. And as God helps us through, unexpected blessings come our way. Unexpected blessings like endurance and character and hope.
We’ve been through a hard time these last fifteen months. At best, it’s been hard. At worst, it’s been awful. But the basic value of a crisis is that it changes us. We come out of it better or worse, never the same. So my question for you is this: How have you changed? Are you better? Or are you bitter? And if you aren’t sure, that’s OK. There’s still time for God to work on you. We aren’t through this yet.
Amy Oden is an author and also Professor of Early Church History and Spirituality at St. Paul School of Theology. Her pandemic year of 2020 was unusually difficult as her husband, Perry’s early onset dementia rapidly got worse. She wrote about this:
My wilderness has been the journey with my husband through dementia. Moving him into memory care, then unable to go to the facility due to COVID rules, now finally able to go inside and hold his hand, but he can no longer recognize my face, my voice, or my name. I’m walking through the unknown with no map or predictable sense of what will happen. Then she talked about what it was like to be living right between disorientation and reorientation.
Former ways of life no longer work. New ways of life are not yet established . . . Here, before new routines take root, before things become fixed again into new patterns, we are beginners. As I walk with Perry through this time of loss and stripping away, there is also at least sometimes a sense of wonder. I am a beginner . . . Knowing that I don’t know, I am eager to learn from that holy love that holds our lives. I gaze in awe and wonder at the beauty and mystery of life that is both fragile and whole.
On August 2nd of last year I preached a sermon on hope. It was a sermon you had to watch on YouTube. We were barely a third of the way through the full year our church would be closed. Sometimes when I prepare a sermon, it feels like it’s for me as much as for you. That was one such sermon. I knew you needed hope, but I knew I needed hope just as much.
I talked that day about the difference between optimism and hope. It’s an important difference. Optimism means believing things will go our way. Hope means trusting God whether things go our way or not. And I said that hope is contagious. It’s more contagious than any virus. We catch it from each other. But first we catch it from God. God fills us with hope. And God doesn’t just fill us until we can hold no more and then stops. God fills us to overflowing.
Ever since that sermon, I’ve been using a new benediction. It’s Romans 15:13.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I guess you might say that’s become kind of my personal life verse. I didn’t choose it. It’s more like it chose me.
Maybe it’s a verse that has chosen you too. There are lots of disorienting experiences we go through in life. There are heartbreaking ones. The death of a loved one. The loss of a job. A divorce. An illness, physical or mental. And happy experiences can also be disorienting. Graduation. Marriage. An addition to the family. A new job. Retirement.
Just when we think we have things figured out and like the way life is going, something happens. Something always happens. Good or bad. And we enter the land of disorientation. Which we think will last forever. But it doesn’t. There is reorientation. There is new orientation. And then there is some new disorientation. Round and round we go. But here’s the good news: the God of hope goes with us.
Romans 15:13 is also a good verse for our church as we’re about to welcome a new pastor. And a new Kid’s Stuff Director. And a new Praise Band Leader. Then in the not too distant future, as our United Methodist denomination figures out what it’s going to do. And as we figure out how that affects us. We are about the enter the land of disorientation once again. It’s nobody’s favorite place. But the good news is we don’t have to stay there. And the better news is that the God of hope is there with us and will be with us no matter what.
Pope Francis is right. The basic value of a crisis is that you don’t come out of it the same . . . you come out better or worse, but never the same.
So don’t let the pain be in vain.
What a year it has been, O God! A hard year, a heartbreaking year, but also a good year. We’ve learned so much. And we’ve also learned that we are beginners, with so much to learn. We can’t see around the corner. Only you can. We don’t know what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future. And so we trust in you, God of hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because your love, O God is always there. In Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.