Return to "Normal"?
There’s a quote that’s been going around social media:
Cheers to being in a place where you're simultaneously wondering how the hell you're going to ever feel normal again while also questioning what normal even means anymore while also feeling afraid to feel at all because it's so overwhelming sometimes while also being grateful for the capacity to feel while also trying not to bypass what's true while also dreaming of the future while also trying to stay present while also crying and laughing on and off. You're not alone.
This is how most of us feel: ask me any given moment of any given day how I am and you might get very different answers. And I know I’m not alone in that. It’s the truth for most of us. But it’s not the whole truth. The whole truth is that even in the midst of suffering, of chaos, and of crisis, comes moments of peace. At times, those moments of peace are experienced as moments of grace, because they happen when we’re in need and we can’t see a way out, or a way through, and we’re left wondering if we’ll be able to breathe normally again – literally as walks outside, or even opening windows, become a challenge, at the same time our hearts breaking open in compassion for our neighbors who have evacuated, lost homes, or even loved ones.
Those moments of grace come freely, and in all shapes and sizes; at times in the form of other people, friends, or strangers, the kind word, or polite gesture, the reassurance or unexpected phone call. Grace can show up in a bird outside the window, the moon, or even a reassuring memory that opens our perspective and reminds us that we’ve trusted God to carry us before and we can again. Because our God of grace is endless in God’s expression of love and mercy.
I would never want to romanticize suffering or minimize the suffering of so many, so let me be clear: we’d all prefer this virus never happened. But it has, and we’re in it. And if we’re paying attention, God is at work in it – with us, beside us, and within us, and transforming us through grace – as we move from fear to compassion, from fear to trust, from fear to distraction, from fear to reassurance. And each time we do that, we journey back to God, and that journey brings growth and wisdom, and that ultimately changes us. Individually and collectively we cannot walk in darkness back to light without becoming something new, fundamentally by a god who is always creating, and re-creating that which was seemingly dead back to life again.
Many people keep asking whether this time in history is the apocalypse, and in the true sense of that word alone it is. Remember the meaning of that word: to unveil, to uncover, to reveal. So, yes, this is a kind of apocalypse, and the uncovering of inequities, of privilege, of corrupt power, and our failure as stewards of this planet, all of which was at play long before 2016, but in the past few years have risen to the surface and been uncovered. And we are all of us wrestling with God, which is not a bad thing to be doing.
In the past few months we’ve listened to scripture that bears witness to God’s ability to redeem us through the timeless stories of those who struggled long before us. We’ve listened to Jacob wrestle with God and come out with a new identity. We’ve witnessed Elijah in a kind of dark night of the soul, the Israelites get angry and complain multiple times, only to be given the grace and mercy as needed and promised. We’ve listened to Jesus break open people's understanding of life in relationship with God and God’s inclusive justice into new ways of living.
And in this morning’s scripture God presents God’s commandments: ways of living in relationship with God in the first four, and with one another in the following six. And as a whole they are all about relationship, which is ultimately what any of this – this church, this nation, this world, this life – it’s all about relationship, and living in ways that would have us reflect the peaceable kingdom here on earth as God’s beloved children.
Too often we think of the commandments as rules we have to live by or else, to be obeyed or suffer the consequences. But there’s another way to understand them. God has brought God’s people out of slavery and now presents to them ways that they can now live into that new–found freedom:
[Y]ou are free not to need any other gods. You are free to rest on the seventh day; free from the tyranny of lifeless idols; free from murder, stealing and covetousness as ways to establish yourself in the land.
And on this World Communion Sunday, we reach more than ever towards that ideal, remembering that we are one people, coming to the table that humbles us into remembering who we belong to, who we freely follow, and who we become at baptism. This is not a day of pride, as in “see how many Christians all over the world are uniting in ritual.” This is a day of humility and a plea to God to bring us to our knees as we throw all power over to God to transform our self-interest into the interest of our brothers and sisters in need, with confessions that we don’t always get it right, and vows that we can and will do better, with God’s help.
As I mentioned in the weekly email, my inspiration for this sermon came on Monday when I had the pleasure of attending Yom Kippur worship at Rodef Shalom, virtually, with my friends the Epsteins, who were at their home, and every once-in-a-while we’d text one another to say how much we enjoyed the service.
If you recall, Yom Kippur is a day of atonement, time for spiritual cleansing that which gets in our ways, past mistakes, ways we’ve gotten it wrong, and in doing so we make room for new ways of living – not unlike our entire season of Lent.
At one point they showed a video of different members answering a question. I don’t remember the question verbatim, but it went something like this: What have you learned or how has your life changed in ways that you’d like to hold on to when we “return to normal?” “Return to normal” is in quotation marks because ,in truth, we can’t come out of this COVID experience without being changed by it.
We are, like the Israelites, being given an opportunity to live into new life as we shed what no longer serves us, what has kept us in a kind of spiritual stunted and embrace now – new ways of living together – which can, one life at a time, transform our world.
God gives us ways of living in relationship with God and one another. So my question to all of you is what new commandments can you give yourselves? Commandments are a kind of promise to live freely in relationship, towards wholeness. We are, like the Israelites, being given an opportunity to live into new life, as we shed what no longer serves us, including ways of living which keep us spiritually stunted. Instead let us embrace now, new ways of living together, which can, one life at a time, transform our world.And can you offer it as a promise to God, as part of a covenant to live into the grace that God so freely gives us in this challenging time?
I gave you an example in my weekly email, promising to continue to move slowly, to keep zooming with my mother and sisters, to take in the morning curling over my bed instead of the phone. And in a few moments I’ll ask you to share some of your own as we practiced this in Bible study (and I never stop being amazed at the wisdom of those who share in that space).
But in finishing up this sermon, there’s one more and it happens daily and goes something like this:
Thank you God for the evenings, when dinner is ready and Morgan and I, or sometimes, Eric and Morgan and I, sit down to watch a silly show called “Impractical Jokers” and laughter fills the room. And for those 30 minutes, the sadness and frustration of the day and this historic time are graced instead by joy felt so deeply that it does not erase the pain of those suffering, but brings me back to you, brings me strength to enter back into relationship with compassion for those who are hurting. This is what I promise, my new commandment to myself: O God, that I never take for granted the moments of grace, given freely by you, but instead cherish them as the transforming power of journey. Grace that carries me back into service from exhaustion, back into compassion from self-pity and back into trust from fear – trust that you are here. And when this is over, instead of looking to return to what was, I will instead embrace that all journeys take us forward onto new ground, and new life, when they return us to you. And as we continue to journey with you, no matter how dark or difficult the roads ahead may be, there is nothing that you can’t do with us, as long as we live into the transforming power of your grace.
 Lisa Olivera
Thomas G. Long, Christian Century, 2006