Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
3745 Kimball Avenue
Memphis, Tennessee 38111
901 743 6421
holytrinitymemphis@yahoo.com

MARCH 15, 2020- THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT

A NEW/OLD NORMAL
A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent
Almighty God,
you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves:
Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls,
that we may be defended from all adversities
which may happen to the body,
and from all evil thoughts
which may assault and hurt the soul;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
AMEN.
~ The Collect for the Third Sunday of Lent
Soon after I began to serve as the rector of an historic downtown church in
another state, the husband of one of the parish matriarchs died. He was a retired
military officer, someone well-known in those parts. The Bishop, whom I had
met during my interview process just a few months earlier, was asked to preside
and preach at his funeral. My only job was to be a pastor to his widow.
As has often been my experience, she was a pastor to me. She had come to
grips fairly quickly with the untimely death of her husband. My sense was that
she was someone from whom I, still relatively new as a priest, might learn some
lessons. Before the funeral she told me she had been considering what life
without her husband might be like. She declared, “This is my new normal.”
On that day, a grieving wife gave me some wisdom for the ages. Since then,
I’ve often heard and used the phrase “new normal.” I don’t know about you, but
I’ve had several seasons in my life during which a new normal began. I’ve also
learned there’s something my new normal moments and seasons have in
common: for me, they always seem to have something to do with grief and loss.
We may be shocked at the arrival and presence of this novel Coronavirus
called COVID-19. We may be looking forward to things getting back to “normal,”
whatever that normal was or is for us. A local columnist recently came to a
different conclusion: “Just because we’re...using sanitizer and bumping elbows
doesn’t mean we won’t be affected in the Mid-South....This is the new normal for
now” (Bruce VanWyngarden, Memphis Flyer, 3/12/20).
Whatever this season of our common life becomes, I believe it is our new
normal, at least for now. It feels hard, if not impossible - borrowing words from
the Serenity Prayer - to accept this thing we cannot change. So many of our old
behaviors have been turned into new warnings (“Don’t touch your face! Keep
your distance!”). At least for now, we have lost the ways we’ve been used to, ways
in which we have lived, moved, and had our being in the world.
I believe that as a church, a nation, a world, we are in grief, and in the days
to come, we do not know what else we may need to grieve. We do know we don’t
have to go it alone. We can and we must care for one another in our grief. (I’ll
have more to say about grief in the April Tract newsletter.)
Throughout the New Testament, people misunderstand Jesus when they
first encounter him. The story of the woman at the well in John’s Gospel (4:5-42)
is not unlike the stories about the disciples when they met Jesus. His friends had
a certain belief, a theological understanding of who their Jewish Messiah would
be and what he would do. The Samaritan woman also thought she knew how this
strange, Jewish man would behave - until he says, “Give me a drink” (4:7).
She replies, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of
Samaria?” By the way, John says that “Jews do not share things in common with
Samaritans” (4:9). But Jesus is not your normal Jew. He explains that he can
give her a new kind of water, living water, that “will become...a spring...gushing
up into eternal life” (4:14). His water is also not “normal.”
The Samaritan woman asks Jesus for that living water, and he does give it to
her. But here’s the catch: First, he tells her everything she’s ever done - including
the fact that she has been married five times. And the fact that the man she’s
with currently is not her husband. No fake news here.
Now, she knows Jesus is a prophet, and yet, once again, Jesus is not offering
normal prophecy. He is also the Christ, the One who heals in God’s name.
Suddenly, the disciples appear, astonished to find him speaking to a woman. She
returns to the city, and exclaims, “Come and see a man who told me everything I
have ever done!” Then she asks, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
Once the woman’s Samaritan friends hear her share this Good News, they
start catching what she caught. “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him
because of the woman’s testimony” (4:39). Jesus is not a virus. But Jesus is
definitely contagious. Fear is also contagious, but God’s highly contagious love
casts out fear. When we encounter Jesus, he invites us to let go of our losses, so
we can catch something liberating and life-giving: a new/old normal called love.
In these trying times, how does Jesus want to be caught now? How is he
inviting us to follow him into a new/old normal? What if this season of Lent is
about those old practices - prayer, fasting, and self-denial - done in a new way?
Poet and minister Lynn Ungar wrote a piece about COVID-19 last week.
Perhaps her words have some answers for us:
PANDEMIC
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love--
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
~ The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
March 14, 2020

 

    

A NEW/OLD NORMAL A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent 


Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. AMEN. ~ The Collect for the Third Sunday of Lent 


Soon after I began to serve as the rector of an historic downtown church in another state, the husband of one of the parish matriarchs died. He was a retired military officer, someone well-known in those parts. The Bishop, whom I had met during my interview process just a few months earlier, was asked to preside and preach at his funeral. My only job was to be a pastor to his widow. 


As has often been my experience, she was a pastor to me. She had come to grips fairly quickly with the untimely death of her husband. My sense was that she was someone from whom I, still relatively new as a priest, might learn some lessons. Before the funeral she told me she had been considering what life without her husband might be like. She declared, “This is my new normal.” On that day, a grieving wife gave me some wisdom for the ages. Since then, I’ve often heard and used the phrase “new normal.” 


I don’t know about you, but I’ve had several seasons in my life during which a new normal began. I’ve also learned there’s something my new normal moments and seasons have in common: for me, they always seem to have something to do with grief and loss. 


We may be shocked at the arrival and presence of this novel Coronavirus called COVID-19. We may be looking forward to things getting back to “normal,” whatever that normal was or is for us. A local columnist recently came to a different conclusion: “Just because we’re...using sanitizer and bumping elbows doesn’t mean we won’t be affected in the Mid-South....This is the new normal for now” (Bruce VanWyngarden, Memphis Flyer, 3/12/20).


Whatever this season of our common life becomes, I believe it is our new normal, at least for now. It feels hard, if not impossible - borrowing words from the Serenity Prayer - to accept this thing we cannot change. So many of our old behaviors have been turned into new warnings (“Don’t touch your face! Keep your distance!”). At least for now, we have lost the ways we’ve been used to, ways in which we have lived, moved, and had our being in the world. 


I believe that as a church, a nation, a world, we are in grief, and in the days to come, we do not know what else we may need to grieve. We do know we don’t have to go it alone. We can and we must care for one another in our grief. (I’ll have more to say about grief in the April Tract newsletter.) 


Throughout the New Testament, people misunderstand Jesus when they first encounter him. The story of the woman at the well in John’s Gospel (4:5-42) is not unlike the stories about the disciples when they met Jesus. His friends had a certain belief, a theological understanding of who their Jewish Messiah would be and what he would do. The Samaritan woman also thought she knew how this strange, Jewish man would behave - until he says, “Give me a drink” (4:7). 


She replies, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” By the way, John says that “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (4:9). But Jesus is not your normal Jew. He explains that he can give her a new kind of water, living water, that “will become...a spring...gushing up into eternal life” (4:14). His water is also not “normal.” 


The Samaritan woman asks Jesus for that living water, and he does give it to her. But here’s the catch: First, he tells her everything she’s ever done - including the fact that she has been married five times. And the fact that the man she’s with currently is not her husband. No fake news here. 


Now, she knows Jesus is a prophet, and yet, once again, Jesus is not offering normal prophecy. He is also the Christ, the One who heals in God’s name. Suddenly, the disciples appear, astonished to find him speaking to a woman. She returns to the city, and exclaims, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” Then she asks, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 


Once the woman’s Samaritan friends hear her share this Good News, they start catching what she caught. “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (4:39). Jesus is not a virus. But Jesus is definitely contagious. Fear is also contagious, but God’s highly contagious love casts out fear. When we encounter Jesus, he invites us to let go of our losses, so we can catch something liberating and life-giving: a new/old normal called love. 


In these trying times, how does Jesus want to be caught now? How is he inviting us to follow him into a new/old normal? What if this season of Lent is about those old practices - prayer, fasting, and self-denial - done in a new way? 


Poet and minister Lynn Ungar wrote a piece about COVID-19 last week. Perhaps her words have some answers for us: 

PANDEMIC 

What if you thought of it as the Jews consider the Sabbath— the most sacred of times? 

Cease from travel. Cease from buying and selling. 

Give up, just for now, on trying to make the world different than it is. 


Sing. Pray. Touch only those to whom you commit your life. Center down. 


And when your body has become still, reach out with your heart. Know that we are connected in ways that are terrifying and beautiful. (You could hardly deny it now.) 


Know that our lives are in one another’s hands. (Surely, that has come clear.) Do not reach out your hands. Reach out your heart. Reach out your words. Reach out all the tendrils of compassion that move, invisibly, where we cannot touch. 


Promise this world your love-- for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, so long as we all shall live. 


~ The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg March 14, 2020

     


FROM THE DESK OF FATHER MOMBERG-VICAR OF HTEC
        This article is taken from a special newsletter
March 27, 2020


 

 

From the Desk of Rev. Tom Momberg

 

 

Care and Prayer in Our Time of Crisis                                           March 27, 2020

A Special Newsletter from the Vicar to Holy Trinity Members and Friends

 

God will take care of you / Through every day, o’er all the way...      

~ old Baptist hymn text

 

 

         Recently I asked Jeane Chapman to give me a list of all the professional healthcare providers who are members of Holy Trinity.   In light of the global crisis of health and life we are all now facing and living, I wanted to be sure I did not forget any of these people in my prayers.

 

         By the way, that list, consisting of doctors of medicine and pharmacy, as well as nurses and a psychologist, adds up to ten (10). Right now, we can add to the list our deacon-in-training, Debbie McCanless, who is a nurse. I thank God for the blessing of all these agents of healing in our church, especially now!

 

         In case you’re wondering, this is a large number and percentage for any congregation, any size. Social work professor Brene Brown is right when she says “stories are data with soul.” This piece of congregational data caused me to write to Jeane. I had some questions: “What’s the story here? Why are there so many professional caregivers in this little church? What is God up to at Holy Trinity?”  

         Jeane’s simple, profound answer was: “God is taking care.”

 

       It seems every organization and individual on the planet has issued some kind of e-mail or e-dict about how we need to be taking care during the pandemic caused by the new (“novel”) coronavirus we now know as COVID-19. One African American advocacy group reminded me of those old, familiar words from James Weldon Johnson: “Let us remember...the ‘God of our weary years (and the) God of our silent tears...who has brought us thus far on the way’ is now, and always has been, our first line of defense and protection” (sdpconference.org)

 

         We who claim the faith of Jesus say that God defends us and protects us, because “God loved the world so much...” We believe God cares for us. We say God will take care of us. We even sing about God taking care. Oh, how we need to hear this, to sing this, to believe this - now, more than ever!

 

         By the time you will read this, Governor Lee, Mayor Harris, and Mayor Strickland have all issued executive orders for us to “shelter in place,” to be “safer at home.” Bishop Roaf has issued the same kind of request for our diocesan faith communities. We know all too well that, in addition to Holy Trinity, countless other churches, schools, theaters, stores, and restaurants have closed or altered the way they operate, for a time that is truly uncertain. Local, national and global events, including NCAA March Madness, have been postponed or cancelled.

         We’re living in what can feel like a new kind of March Madness. But, as I said in the first sermon I e-mailed, what if this is not just madness, but some kind of a “new normal?” This new-normal season will definitely be lasting longer than we would like, and it is normal to be upset, angry, and afraid right now. If we’re honest, we’re also going to be sad and even in grief about all this (“Go, Tigers!”).

 

       Our new normal includes a phrase now deeply embedded in our collective consciousness: “social distancing.” Social distancing - or to be more accurate, physical distancing - means we need to keep a healthy (six-foot) physical distance from others in our society, in our own, personal worlds, so that any contagious disease is less likely to be communicated by or to anyone. Physical distancing is part of a “new normal” way of taking care of one another. What if God is inviting to get and stay in touch differently?

 

           That’s easy to say, but this new kind of distancing is hard. It means we will not be seeing those people we truly care about, the ones with whom we want to be together, in a face-to-face, in-person kind of way. We can still be in community, we can still be the church, but we cannot and will not be a faith community in the same, easy, familiar ways. Because this is and will be hard, this change in being God’s “beloved community” may lead, for some of us, to a tendency toward an unhealthy kind of isolation.

 

         In his article “The Christian Response to the Coronavirus: Stay Home,” a professor at one Christian college writes, “The data suggests that what the world needs now is not our physical presence (at church or anywhere else), but our absence” (Dr. Esau McCaulley, The New York Times, March 13, 2020). Yet we remember Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20).

 

         That is why many congregational gatherings are now taking place through 21st century technology platforms, such as online video conferences, “ZOOM” being one of the most popular. We may not be able to gather in person with others in our actual church buildings right now. But we can still pray, each in our own way, knowing we are never truly alone. Jesus has promised to be with us “even to the end of age,” whether it’s the end of the age of this coronavirus or any age.

 

         As your priest, here are questions I have been praying over: What does it mean when we, the church, for safety’s sake, cannot and will not gather on a Sunday morning, for the time being? How can we become and be the beloved community Jesus calls us to be...now? How will we care for one another...now?

 

           For me, seasons of “new normal” always seem to have something to do with grief and loss. We are now in a season that requires us to care for one another in new and old ways. We need especially to care for others who are suffering any kind of loss or grief.

 

           Richard Rohr, a global spiritual guide, recently wrote, There are only two major paths by which the human soul comes to God: the path of great love, and the path of great suffering. Both finally come down to great suffering, because if we love anything greatly, we will eventually suffer for it. When were young, (this is hidden) from us. We think it wont have to be true for us. But to love anything in depth and over the long term, we eventually must suffer.

 

         Our losses - yours and mine - may be obvious ones, such as a death in the family.   Losses can take many other forms. In 2014, I stopped working for a church - any church - on a full-time basis. I had spent more than a quarter of a century doing that. Retiring from full-time church work was both exciting and, frankly, scary. I had now lost my old, familiar way of being in the world, serving God and serving with God’s people. I learned that I needed to know there were other communities of people who cared about me, people for whom I could also care in a new season of my life - especially people who “got it” about grief and loss. I needed to belong to new communities that take care.

.

       My friends, I believe we, the people of God called Holy Trinity, have a new opportunity to take care, to care for one another in this season of sickness, loss, and grief. It makes me sad to write this: You and I can’t visit anyone who is homebound or hospitalized right now without putting them or ourselves at risk. And yet...we still have our phones. We can call one another. We still have the U.S. Postal Service. We can send “old-fashioned” greeting cards. And we have all of our new, electronic ways, such as e-mail, text-messaging, audio and video conferencing, to be and stay connected.

 

         New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently said, "We have to be socially distant but spiritually connected. That last part: I don't know how to do that." Here’s what a Facebook friend said in reply: WE KNOW HOW TO DO THAT, CHURCH! We are uniquely gifted for a time such as this. Staying connected online, by phone, in writing, and, above all, in prayer for those we love, those unknown to us, those seeking help and seeking to help in this time, and yes, even our enemies. Pray without ceasing and be present with others in whatever you may do, while still holding virus-free space.

 

         Soon, you will be contacted by someone from Holy Trinity. They will ask you two questions: How are you? What do you need? I hope you will give some thought to answering those questions and to keep praying over them. These are questions for life. It is more than OK for you to have different answers each day.

 

           It continues to be my privilege and pleasure to serve as your priest. You are, for me, a community that knows how to care and to take care. My prayer is that we will become the beloved community of care and prayer to which Jesus is calling us NOW.

 

In the love of Christ,

Tom+

 

 

P.S. If you would prefer to receive my weekly e-mailed sermons by “snail mail,”

         please contact Ty Legge (901-412-2388 or holytrinitymemphis@yahoo.com).

 

fathermom1949@gmail.com

301.825.2846



 





MARCH 22, 2020 - FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT


BLINDNESS AND THE GRAND REVEAL                                              The Rev. Tom Momberg


I love to take a walk. Before my so-called “active retirement” years, just after I finished my indoor morning routine - reading, writing, praying - before I ate breakfast, before I got ready to go wherever I needed to go on any given day, I almost always took a walk. (Before I turned 60, I would run. But I’ve learned that a walk will do just fine.) 


When I retired five years ago, my routine changed. Suddenly, I had leisure! I could sleep in! Most days, I no longer had to get out and go somewhere for church work. I had freedom! In the words of a Tennessee Ernie Ford song I used to sing when I was a kid, I did not “owe my soul to the company store” any more. 


But now, I had a problem. Here’s my Lenten confession: Now, my daily routine, my daily disciplines, what I prefer to call my daily practices, had become harder to make happen. Now, they didn’t work as well, or more accurately, I didn’t work them, because I’d allowed myself to get distracted with what are now called “screens” (smart phones, computers, television). The first thing to fall by the wayside on a daily basis? Taking a walk. That’s also when my belly began to bulge more than a bit.

This year, during this season of Lent, something has changed - big time. What has changed is my world, your world, our world. Christian educator Debie Thomas writes: 


How quickly the world changes. When I started working on this essay a couple of weeks ago, the children in my town were attending school, local businesses were open and thriving, the shelves in my local grocery store were well-stocked, the church I attend was gearing up for Holy Week, my daughter was enjoying a semester abroad in Ireland, my husband - an E.R. physician - was experiencing fairly normal workdays, and I had never heard the phrase, “social distancing.” Welcome to life in the shadow of COVID-19. Like I said, how quickly the world changes. 


Maybe, Debie says, change isn’t the best word. I've heard people use the word “apocalyptic” to describe what life feels like right now. I'm wondering if that's the better word. An apocalypse...is an unveiling, a revelation of things previously unseen or unknown. Maybe the world hasn’t changed so much as it has been...uncovered, made plain, laid bare. Maybe we were blind before, and the time has now come to see. (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2570): 


In the Gospel text for the fourth Sunday of Lent, Jesus sees and heals a man blind from birth (John 9:1-41). Jesus does something unexpected, as he so often does. He spits on the ground, makes some mud, and spreads it on the man’s eyes. Jesus tells him to “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (9:6-7). The man obeys Jesus, and then, he sees. 


This story is not just about a man who was blind but now sees. It is also a story about how the community responds to the man’s miraculous sight. Or, I should say, how all the various communities respond.

First, there are the man’s neighbors: “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”...He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ I went and washed and received my sight” (9:8-11). 


Then, there are the Pharisees. His neighbors brought the man who had been born blind, but now can see, to the Pharisees, the religious leaders. Jesus had healed the man on the Sabbath, a violation of religious law, and the leaders were ready to grill him.

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet” (9:16-17). 


Finally, his parents’ respond: “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself” (9:20-21). And the man does: “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (9:25). 


The Pharisees, those religious leaders, respond to the man’s healing with utter contempt and self-righteousness. “We know...this man (Jesus) is a sinner....You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” (9:24,34). Actually, their understanding of who God is and how God works in the world - their theology isn’t much different from the theology of Jesus’ disciples. When the disciples see the man, they ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (9:2). 


In the eyes of the disciples, the Pharisees, and the neighbors, this is a man who is ruined, contaminated, expendable. Wherever his blindness may have come from, whoever was at fault, they saw him as sin incarnate. And once he is no longer blind, they can not see him for who he is. Now. 


Now, he is a man healed of his lifelong disease. This man is someone who proves that God does not make people sick in order to punish them or their children for doing wrong, bad, or sinful things. Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (9:3). What Jesus does, what this man receives, is a revelation. It is, in the original meaning, an apocalypse. His world has been changed. Forever. 


In the age of COVID-19, our world has been changed. Forever. It has not been changed in the way the blind man’s world was. But what if the change, the apocalypse, the revelation for us is about having been lost, but now found - blind, but now we see? 


By the way, have you taken a walk lately? Even a simple opening of the door and going out to look at the Spring flowers and trees can be a real revelation. No matter how many times we have seen how Spring has sprung, it is new every morning, again this year. Amidst all that now feels dark and deathlike, there is light and life, waiting for us in God’s creation.

Here’s how one of my Facebook friends put it in a post this week: 


In the midst of all the pressures and anxieties I commit myself to tending and nurturing my inner resources. I am keenly aware of the fact that my feeling space, in refreshing ways brought on by COVID-19, only exists because of my privilege. And yet there it is.... what will I do with it? We will see. Yesterday it was a hike in the forest, an intentional search for beauty inside and out, a commitment to changing my consciousness through the power of visualization and ritual. 


Today I am grateful for fresh air, fresh perspective, and signs of new life brought by spring. May we all discover new ways of being human together at a distance. May we strengthen our longing for the healing peace we deserve. And may one day, on the other side, may we claim this as a time we chose to listen for the wisdom of our ancestors, of the earth, of all enlightened beings to guide us home. We have been lost for a long, long time (Virginia Murphy). 


How might you and I have been lost, and now we’re found? Blind, but now we see? One local church has been planning and advertising for some time the unveiling of their newly renovated worship space. They have been calling it their “grand reveal.” 


I wonder: When we get up and get out into our beautiful world these days, what grand reveal is God ready to lay on us? How might a simple walk down the street, in the neighborhood, around the park, or in the woods give us a harbinger of hope this Lent, this Spring? While we learn how to keep our distance from people, how can we learn to let God’s grand reveal, in the mud Spring makes, reach out and touch us - and heal us?


 

      

 

   


MARCH 29, 2020 - THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT


Dear Holy Trinity Members and Friends:

 

Here is my sermon for today, the Fifth Sunday of Lent.  

 

But first...

 

Sometimes, we have had enough of words.  

Sometimes, there are no words.  

Sometimes, there is only music.

 

Maybe this is one of those times for you.  It is for me.

 

So, if you like, you can open the sermon, scroll all the way down to the end (RIGHT NOW), and listen to (and watch on YouTube) some beautiful music.  

 

By the way, the Old Testament lesson for today is story of the Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14). 

 

For something musical that’s completely different from what’s at the end of my sermon, you can click on the link directly below (and you can thank Jim Gholson for finding this for us!):

https://youtu.be/mVoPG9HtYF8

 

Meanwhile, let us pray that we might continue to live in the hope of resurrectio

 

With love, prayers, and in the peace of Christ,

Tom

 

 

GIVING UP LENT FOR LENT A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

John 11:1-45 



What did you give up for Lent this year?


On Ash Wednesday, February 26th, we and other Christians around the world were invited to “the observance a holy Lent.” In our own worship that evening, we heard how Christians prepared themselves for Easter. Through church customs crafted down through the centuries, those who follow Jesus have found strength in various spiritual practices of prayer. One of those ancient practices, familiar to people of all faiths and none, is “fasting and self-denial” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 264 ff).


So, allow me to ask you, as a priest of the church and as a fellow pilgrim on this journey Jesus invites you and me to join: What did you abstain from this Lent? How have you been willing to deny yourself during the past month?


Sisters and brothers, this has been a month, a Lent like no other. Who knew? Who knew we would be battling fear, as the news headlines grow darker and grimmer? Who knew that stores, schools, companies and even churches would be closed, that medical professionals would face equipment shortages and their own fears, that the streets would be strangely quiet and empty, that the number of people who have been infected by a deadly virus called COVID-19 would grow, day by day?


I don’t know about you, but for me, whatever plans I might have made to abstain from chocolate, or to fast from spending, or to deny myself some of the luxuries my life of privilege has long afforded me - those plans are long gone. It reminds me of an old saying: “We plan. God laughs.”


Never in my lifetime have I seen such trauma and tragedy. Never, it seems, have so many people throughout the world fallen ill in quite this way, suffered in quite this way, died in quite this way. Never has the human race experienced this kind of loss and grief. This is truly a planetary pandemic, global in a way that could never have been possible had traveling the world not become so possible for so many of us.


Trust me: I have thought and prayed about that first question I asked you - What did you abstain from this Lent? I do have an answer. This year, I gave up Lent for Lent. Seriously, what I actually gave up was something I’ve had to let go of countless times, something I’ve learned to surrender over and over again in my life.


Before I tell you what that thing is that I keep on giving up, I have a question: Have you seen any good movies lately? Eyleen and I have been watching some good ones at home. One of the most powerful movies I’ve ever seen, a film that continues to haunt me, was made in 1999. It’s a psychological thriller called “Instinct,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding, Jr. I couldn’t help but remember it again this week.


“Instinct” examines the mind of anthropologist Ethan Powell (Hopkins) who had been missing for years, living in the jungle of Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest with mountain gorillas. For reasons seen in the movie, he is convicted of killing and injuring several Wilderness Park Rangers in East Africa and is sent to prison. A bright young psychiatrist, Theo Caulder (Gooding), tries to find out why Ethan became violent. But Theo also gets tangled up in a quest to learn the real history and nature of humankind. Ethan confronts him with an idea: civilization has steadily destroyed the natural world.


In a scene lasting little more than three minutes, Theo loses control of a counseling session with Ethan. Ethan manages to grab Theo, securing him in a chokehold, demanding Theo write, on paper with a crayon, what it is that he has suddenly lost. “Control,” Theo scribbles. “Wrong!” Ethan says, because Theo was never truly in control of his situation with Ethan; he just thought he was. Next, Theo writes, “My freedom.” “Wrong again!” Ethan shouts. “Do you think you were truly free?”


“One more chance,” Ethan tells Theo. “Write it down. What have you lost? Do you think I won’t do it?” Ethan squeezes Theo’s neck a little tighter. Theo finally writes, slowly, one letter at a time: “My illusions.” Ethan congratulates Theo and lets him go.

My fellow pilgrims, on our journey with Jesus in this season of Lent 2020, I have been invited, I believe we have all been invited to let go of, to surrender, to abstain from our illusions. The illusion that we are in control of our lives. The illusion that we are truly free. The illusion that we are in charge of this world - and that our God is not.


One of the illusions people sometimes have about Jesus, one of the heresies that has plagued the church, is that Jesus was so divine, he could not possibly be as human as we want or need him to be. That is why the Gospel text for this Fifth Sunday of Lent can speak so deeply to us, especially now. This story, often called the raising of Lazarus, is a complex story about many things. Among those many things, it is about illusions. It is about reality - the reality of loss, grief, death - and how the human Jesus responds.


The shortest verse in all Holy Scripture? You probably know it: “Jesus wept.” In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the one we usually hear on Sundays, it’s translated, “Jesus began to weep” (John 11:35). Either way we translate it, Jesus was fully human. Here’s one helpful perspective on that moment and this story:


I’ll be honest: the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is a hard one for me. At many levels, I don’t understand it. I don’t understand why Jesus dawdles when he first receives word of Lazarus’s illness. I don’t understand why he allows his friends to suffer for the sake of “God’s glory.” I don’t understand why he tells his disciples that Lazarus is “asleep” rather than dead. I don’t understand why he sidesteps Martha’s tortured accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I don’t understand why Jesus raises just one man, leaving countless others in their graves. And I don’t understand why Lazarus virtually disappears from the Gospel narrative once his grave clothes fall off. Why is he never heard from again?”

Debie Thomas, the wise woman who wrote those words since the coronavirus arrived, goes on to say: In many ways, the story is shrouded in mystery. But today, this week, now, I cling to the two words in the narrative I do understand: “Jesus wept.” Thank God - Jesus wept. For me, this is the heart of the story as we live through the COVID-19 crisis: that grief takes hold of God and breaks him down (my emphasis - TAM). Jesus, the most accurate revelation of the divine we will ever have, stands at the grave of his friend and cries (journeywithjesus.net).


Jesus invited the disciples to give up the illusion of their Messiah never dying. Jesus invited both Martha and Mary to give up the illusion that she would never live to see Lazarus alive again. Jesus invited them and all the other Jews who were present for this one, incredible moment to give up any illusions they had about God, so they could believe in the power and the glory of God, so they could believe that resurrection was possible, even in literal death. Jesus invites them - and us - to let our hearts break.


My illusions? Yours? They may include this illusionary thinking: I will not allow the reality of this pandemic into my life. I will distance myself from it - and not just socially. I will not let the heartbreaking stories I hear and see each day break my heart. I am in control, and I will not weep. (Even though Jesus, the God-man, did.)


Sisters and brothers, when it comes to all that has been happening, we scarce can take it in, as the old hymn puts it. It is not healthy for us to watch all the bad news in our world without taking a break from the heartbreak. But it is an illusion to think we can ignore our feelings. When tears come, let them flow. Perhaps our tears are a kind of sacrament, a different way of being in communion with God and each other, for now.


Meanwhile, there are all kinds of good news stories about what different people or organizations have been giving up this month, giving out of their abundance to others. Like Caritas Village, the community restaurant in Binghamton, giving out free lunches for laid-off restaurant workers. Or Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee, releasing more than $3 million to state food banks, with $750,000 going to our local Mid-South facility. Or the heavenly-host-on-earth of musicians, offering all kinds of mini-concerts online.


What illusion is Jesus inviting us to give up for Lent in the few days of the season that remain? Who might help you and me give up our illusions? How might we let go and let God’s healing power and glory be made known, in our beautiful, broken world?


Using the words found in our Prayer Book (page 461), let us pray: This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen. 


The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg, March 29, 2020


Click on this link for some musical love: https://youtu.be/9CDT0cwGKxY