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Worship for Sunday, March 22, 2020

julian of norwich

new link for audio file

This week’s learning time is the last in a series of 3 based on the story of Jesus’ Temptation in the Wilderness. This story from early in Matthew’s Gospel is traditionally read in church on the first Sunday of Lent. It  is so rich in content that we could easily spend a few months on it.

The link above (the red or pink words) will open an audio file that begins with the Gospel text, continues with the Learning Time, and ends with a following prayer, written by Carol Penner, a professor at Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ontario.

If you would rather read than listen, the text is printed below. (In the second half of the learning time I talk about Julian of Norwich,  whose image is seen in the picture of the stained glass window.) Following the text of the learning time and prayer there is a link to a hymn suggestion.

Take a moment to get comfortable, to breathe, to unclench your hands and heart, and place yourself in God’s hands. Know that you are held by God, loved by God.

My plan for the Sundays in Lent was to look closely each week at the story of Jesus alone, out in the wilderness. It seems now like a totally appropriate text to sit with in Lent, and in this strange season, as we grapple with isolation, social distancing, and things over which we have no power, and about which we know so little. These days we may be even more aware of what has always been true: Our lives have always been in God’s hands.

Matthew 4:1-11 from the New International Version

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a] by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[b]

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[d]

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’[e]

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

Jesus was not alone in the wilderness, when he took that 40 day and night retreat, before he began his public ministry. God was with him.

Last week I spent some time exploring what we mean when we talk about evil, and about the personifications of evil that are well known in our culture- Satan, or the Devil. In the gospel story, this character is also called the Tester, or the Tempter, depending on the translation. I mentioned that we actually get most of our ideas and information about the devil from places other than the Bible.

This is also true when it comes to angels, the holy messengers that are mentioned in this story. Our mental images of what angels look like, and what they do come as much from cartoons and movies as they do the Bible.

Angels are mentioned twice in the story of Jesus in the wilderness, but they are never described.

The first happened when the Devil challenged Jesus to jump from a high tower, with the assurance that, because God would not allow him to be harmed, the angels would catch him before he hit the ground. Jesus rejected that challenge.

The other mention of angels comes at the end of the wilderness story, after Jesus faced the last of the Devil’s three tests, and had successfully told the Devil to leave him alone, the Gospel account says that Jesus was attended to by angels.

It’s a nice ending to a scary story- which is something we may appreciate even more these days, when we are hearing one pretty big scary story every time the news is on, and most times we look at our phone, or computer. There is a big scary thing happening in our world. Where is God in all of this? Where are the angels?

When I read that part of the story in which the devil challenged Jesus, to jump off the tower and just trust that God would save him- the most scared parts of me kind of wish we could call upon God to simply save us, rescue us, or send an angel squad to catch us before we fall too far. But Jesus says no to that, and our experience in life also says no to that.

God does not seem to work that way, for the most part. Our faith, our loyalty, our good works in God’s name, do not seem to earn us protection from pain, or sickness, or tragedy, or even pandemics.

Is there some consolation in knowing that according to this story, Jesus was subject to the same trials and issues as we are?

There was pain, and illness, and tragedy in his world. He was human, like us, and suffered. People he knew and loved, suffered. He healed some, and helped many, and offered words of hope, and taught people to find meaning in their lives- but he did not sell them holy umbrellas under which they could hunker down, safe from all that comes with being human, with being finite, mortal beings.

So if we cannot expect God to send angels down to wave magic angel wands and eliminate the things that currently place us in peril, what can we expect?

Most of the time, when angels appear in scripture, they bring a singular message- be not afraid. God is here.

I have been thinking a lot this week about a woman named Julian of Norwich. She was a woman of prayer, who experienced spiritual visions of God. Her most famous quote is:

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

She was often ill in her own life, and even when she was physically well, experienced a life of isolation, and great privation. She lived from around 1342 to 1416. Five times in her lifetime, Europe was ravaged by the Bubonic plague. They called it the Great Pestilence, or the Black Death. Historians think that about a third of the people in England succumbed to the plague, and that in Julian’s area, Norwich, the death toll may have been closer to half the population.

How could she live through such terrible times, and still say, and believe that,

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Julian was a mystic. The gift of such people is the reminder they offer the rest of us, that our true peace, our true solace, our true sense that all can be well, is found, not in what we can do, or even in what is happening in the world around us, but with God.

Mystics invite us to quiet ourselves, to find the slow, unhurried part within us, that connects with the eternal, unchanging presence of God. With love. With our true hope.

It’s a bit like a line from the United Church creed, that says:

In life, in death, in life beyond death,

God is with us.

We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.

These words from our creed remind me:

There is more to us than our fear.

There is more to God than solving the problems of the moment.

There is more to our existence than the present.

God is with us in life, in death, and in life beyond death, or as Julian said,

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Julian’s confidence is one that I can trust, because she came to it in prayer, while she lived through immense pain and suffering, but she saw through, and beyond those things to gaze on the compassionate face of God. And she knew that God gazed back, and that the trials of her present time were not the end of the story. Amen

Pandemic Prayer, by Carol Penner of Conrad Grebel College

Great God,
you are an ever-present help in times of trouble,
and that’s why we’re praying now.
We are troubled and we’re worried things
are going to get more troubling.
This virus is spreading around the world:
so many are seriously ill
or will be seriously ill,
so many health care systems are stretched
or will be stretched.
Be with front line medical workers,
give them courage to do their work
and keep them safe.
Be with public health officials
as they make decisions for the common good,
and politicians as they roll those decisions out.
Help us to be kind to one another,
because anxiety can make us snappy.
Help our communities to be resilient
and expansive as we reach out to help
all who are isolated and afraid.
In these times of shutdowns and slowdowns,
when travel is restricted or banned,
as routines are disrupted and we spend
less time together or more time together,
help us zero in on what is essential.
Thank you that love is also contagious
and stronger than any virus.
You will be with us,
and we will be with each other
in sickness and in health.
Amen.

Link to Prof. Penner’s page

A good hymn for today might be “Come and find the quiet centre” which is Voices United 374. Here are the lyrics:

If you click on  this link it will take you to a youtube video that plays the accompaniment, and also shows you the lyrics, so you can sing along. Come and find the quiet centre

Come and find the quiet centre
in the crowded life we lead,
find the room for hope to enter,
find the frame where we are freed:
clear the chaos and the clutter,
clear our eyes, that we can see
all the things that really matter,
be at peace, and simply be.

Silence is a friend who claims us,
cools the heat and slows the pace,
God it is who speaks and names us,
knows our being, face to face,
making space within our thinking,
lifting shades to show the sun,
raising courage when we’re shrinking,
finding scope for faith begun.

In the Spirit let us travel,
open to each other’s pain,
let our loves and fears unravel,
celebrate the space we gain:
there’s a place for deepest dreaming,
there’s a time for heart to care,
in the Spirit’s lively scheming
there is always room to spare!

 

2 comments on “Worship for Sunday, March 22, 2020

  1. Very insightful, Darrow. I’m especially touched by your line: “Julian’s confidence is one that I can trust, because she came to it in prayer, while she lived through immense pain and suffering, but she saw through, and beyond those things to gaze on the compassionate face of God.” Makes us sort of wonder (worry?) that a comfortable life isn’t what God wants for us!

    • Thanks for your comment! In an earlier phase of my career I was called upon 40-50 times a year to lead funerals for folks who had no active connection to a community of faith. I met a lot of folks who seemed genuinely surprised to have hardship, sadness, tragedy intrude on their lives, because they saw themselves as “good people”, and had lived with the untested idea that God takes care of good people, protect them. I looked for ways to say that God is not “above” us like a cosmic shield, but with us, in the mess, complications, and grief of life. I find hope and meaning in God who sorrows with us, and loves us in, and through our fear.

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