Sermon: Good Friday 2020

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on Good Friday, April 10, 2020.  The text was the passion of St. Matthew.  (Matthew 27:11-54)


Friends, we turn to the difficult fact of Good Friday. Here, God's beloved dies before the jeering crowd. Betrayal, cruelty and falsehood triumph. Hope burns to ashes, and light and color drain from the world. We are left with questions, grief and silence.

Good Friday so becomes a spiritual challenge. In good times, we might have to specially direct our spirits to be receptive to this horror and grimness; so when the sun shines and the air is warm, it can seem a strange thing to try and be sad. And when times are bad, well, who needs more sadness? That's this year, and I’m sad and anxious enough, and don’t like it. The trope, well-shared in social media, is that this Lent has been far more Lenty than anyone expected, perhaps too much to bear. Nevertheless, Good Friday prepares us for hard times, at least giving us familiar concepts to interpret them.

Perhaps we can identify the losses that come from the COVID-19 pandemic, and try to set them directly in a framework that Good Friday presents. It is a natural thing to do: tying Good Friday to the suffering we're experiencing collectively. There’s a risk, though. It's a collective hardship, but not an even or fair one. It is not a leveler. Those who suffered before, will suffer more — including the loss of health and life, and anxiety and depression, not to mention the economic impact. Millions of people will be pushed beyond breaking, into lasting or deeper poverty and unemployment. Its results will follow us for many years, perhaps for the rest of our life. Most hardships don’t end in redemption.

Instead of comparing the pandemic to the crucifixion directly, I think about what the disciples must have asked themselves that Friday when all their hope died: where do we go from here?

If Easter's resurrection brightness is hard for us to conceptualize now, after centuries of meditation and interpretation, it surely must have been unthinkable for the disciples: not even an option to consider, much less weighing the up pros or cons of its likelihood. But Easter did come, and those who survive this crisis will have to decide what we will do next.

The trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate is remarkable for any number of reasons. We know so little of individuals from that period, and what little we know of Pilate is that he crucified a lot of people. I’m not prone to read him as the antihero, swayed by the mob. (Passages which have been used for centuries to justify violence against Jews, I should add. And this scene from Matthew is less troubling that the one from John.) And another odd thing was the choice of the crowd in letting one condemned man go, a practice that has no independent confirmation. So what follows is not an original thought, but one I picked up in college (I was a religion major) about thirty years ago. Consider that there were not two criminals, one of whom might be set free, but one man with two names, Jesus the Messiah, the anointed one, and Jesus Barabbas, Jesus “son of the Father.” The first tinged with triumph and the power of the governance; the other pointing to mystical connection with God. Which seems backwards, doesn’t it? Because Barabbas is described as a bandit, but well, we know not to take one-sided charges too seriously. After all, the man who died on the cross told us, “they know not what they do.” We know he was innocent.

We might have two names, too. Which will we chose? We must seek the good impulse, and live into it, but that won’t protect us. We may not escape hardship, but might, just maybe, choose what we suffer for. For goodness and for the common good. To defend the helpless, and to overcome domination. To chose life in its fullness, rather than to concede to bitterness.

How will we be known? And will that name be a blessing to those who come after us? Challenged by the experience of the Resurrection, the disciples went out to ends of the world, to share the gospel that the world might not despair, because on the cross we saw that all is not as it seems and that God’s purpose and blessing come to those, however grieved and confused, do what is good, and right and true.

Let us pray:

Eternal God, before the cross we stand in awe and trembling. Comfort and console the mourners this day. Confirm in us that mind and spirit you put within Jesus, our comfort and our strength. And lead us from this place, to go forth with your blessing, and to live without fear, waiting in hope.

Communion and COVID-19: the remaining options

So, communion. I'd better start writing down these thoughts before the pandemic chips all the options away. I'd like to show there are options for regular, Maundy Thursday and Easter communion services.

My thinking has gone from we can be especially hygienic, to perhaps we can hold the service outside, to perhaps we can have walk-by distribution with social distancing and now I don't think any public, in-person service is likely to be safe by Easter. Safety in distribution has long been a communion ethical concern, especially among Protestants, so this isn't exactly a new thought. And even if we (collectively) don't refrain, it's possible civil authorities might stop any meaningful gathering.

If I can, I'll show some of my influences later, but as of March 26, 2020, I think these are the best options for a communion service to minimize risk for communicants and presiding ministers. Please comment, because I'll spell out the effective conduct for those options that grab your attention.

There are four likely options:

  1. The pastor, and perhaps any other ordained ministers of the church, presiding over communion at home, praying for the congregation and informing them of this.
  2. The church having a service of spiritual communion by phone or video conference; that is, a guided visualization which expresses the desire for communion, using the rite (text) for communion, but without the elements or any physical artifacts. It may also take on elements of a eucharistic fast, paradoxically, to stir desire and make the consummation (the return to normal communion practice) that much richer.
  3. The church having a "purely symbolic" communion service, by video conference where participation by the laity in by observation and prayer. The presiding minister (who might broadcast from home or church) might or might not commune by mouth.
  4. The church having a distributed service where communicants provide their own bread and wine, and are led remotely by the minister. More akin to some prayer breakfasts, but with people at home. This assumes the "lowest" ecclesiology of any option.

#1 needs no special technology as such. Only #3 absolutely requires a video broadcast. #3 and #4 are not mutually exclusive.

I can hear you saying "I don't like any of those." Fine, but these are the options I can think of, unless you count "don't do it" or "risk infecting your people" as good options, and I don't.

Please comment and, as I said above, we can work though the details. (Don't comment minimizing the pandemic because I will delete those.)

Sermon: on healing

mosaic
UNMC chancel mosaic

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on March 23, 2020 using lessons for the common of Healers of the Sick from the 1963 Book of Common Worship of the Church of South India.  These are from the second Book of Kings (5:9-14) and the Gospel of Mark (1:40-45).


Good morning, and thank you for welcoming me into your homes. As far as I know, this is the first time a service from Universalist National Memorial Church has been broadcast to you, instead of being held at the church. We all know why; there’s no reason to rehearse the endless stream of COVID-19 news. But, given the occasion, I’m going to depart from my usual practice of preaching from the lessons of the Revised Common Lectionary, but instead use a set of lessons from the 1963 Church of South India Book of Common Worship for special days commemorating the Healers of the Sick.

At one level, this is an act of thanksgiving for all those who practice the arts of healing, including not only nurses, physicians and pharmacists, but therapists, medical researchers, nutritional staff, chaplains; and by extension administrators, cleaners and engineers. We thank those working double-time to produce masks and ventilators, and develop new vaccines and therapies. And I will remember those who care for the sick at home, and those who keep food and other supplies available, and those who watch out for their neighbors. Indeed, there are too many people to name even by category. May God bless and protect those helpers of humankind, today and always.

In our first lesson today, Naaman, “commander of the army of the king of Aram” suffered from a skin disease. His wife’s servant was an Israelite, and so he went to Elisha the prophet for healing. But Naaman was unimpressed by what little the prophet seemed to do in order to heal him.

In the second lesson, a leper asked Jesus (who knew about Elisha and Naaman) to heal him, which Jesus did. And Jesus asked the healed man to keep this a secret, but he proclaimed it openly and so people flooded to Jesus to be healed also.

So, from what exactly were Naaman and the unnamed man healed? After all, today we expect to have information about disease. How many days can you be contagious? Is my cough COVID-19 or just allergies? What kind of alcohol should I get? And so on and so on. If never see another one of those spiky ball graphics of the virus it’ll be too soon.

Which makes the diseases in today’s lessons that much more unusual. They were obvious to those who suffered them and to other people, but were evidently not life-threatening. And they assumed to know the cause. Back then, they thought illness depended on sin: either their own, or sin inherited from their ancestors. In other words, bad things happen for a reason, so clearly you are at fault for your own misery. This confuses personal responsibility over what we have control, with responsibility for those things we cannot control.

I’d like us to keep that in mind whenever it seems plausible that persons get what they deserve. Are they really? But I digress.

Now, we know that this “leprosy” wasn’t leprosy in the way we use the term today. Naaman and the man Jesus healed may have had psoriasis, a condition where the skin overproduces and comes off scales. It can be painful, embarrassing, debilitating. And while we no longer think it’s punishment for sin as they would have, it does attack one’s sense of self. In Jesus’ world, it was a sign of impurity, and so kept its sufferers from fulfilling their religious duties.

That is, it was an illness that kept sufferers away from away from God. So when Jesus healed the man and told him to go to the priest, it was so the priest could certify his re-inclusion into the community, and allow him to fulfill his religious obligations. The disease wasn’t, at root, about the skin, but about the soul. It may not be medicine as we know it, but the soul needs healing, too. I tell you: I think the secret that Jesus was trying to keep in that moment was that none of that blaming is true, and none of it from God, the rules about purity included.

Jesus, and prophets before him, healed diseases of separation: the leprosy here, but also blindness and paralysis. He healed those possessed by demons, for what other language did they have for the diseases of the mind. And he healed that greatest separation of all: the separation of life and death. Jesus healed the person or persons depicted, giving them health, function and life. But the people around the healing saw these miracles, and were changed by them.

We, too, hearing these accounts are changed by these healings. We empathize with the people who suffered in these passages, but it’s not at all clear that the people then did. Though empathy, we grow closer to God and to one another. We are also healed from a hardness of heart and a vision that excludes other possibilities. It’s a good lesson for how we regard people too. By not relying on the approval of others to measure our own worth.

This is part of the lifelong path of spiritual healing. In the moment, we could use a little emergency medicine.

Right now, we are physically separated in order to protect one another. That hurts. I’d love to be able to stand close and talk, or shake your hand or give you a hug. But we can’t do that right now. Even though we’re about a month into the pandemic, its effects have just begun. Something that seems easy, even thrilling now, might soon become burdensome, annoying and anxiety-provoking. And the longer we go, the harder it will be to be apart. Tempers will rise and nerves will shake. We’re still in that giddy, novel phase, like the when the winds and rain of a hurricane pick up, but before the power goes out.

So, let me offer some advice. Stay close to the church, even in this virtual form. This is a place of grace and caring, and something you can look forward to if you feel adrift. Keep in touch with one another, and especially pray for one another. Prayer isn’t a kind of magic, but a commitment to that closeness we have with God, and a listening to what God asks of us. And know that others are praying for your well-being. I am, and others, too. If you have a passing thought that nobody cares for you, remember that we not only care, but miss you, and carry you to our God and Creator.

After that, search out wisdom. Read the preaching passages for yourself, and other part of the Bible besides. You may find more in them that speaks to you directly. Read the spiritual classics, because wise people rise up in every generation and this is not the first time human beings have had to cope with epidemics (or economic downturns) in religious terms. Use that wisdom to preserve your health: physical, mental and spiritual. A deeper religious life doesn’t fix all your problems, but it does give you more language to interpret the world around you. Like Naaman, who wondered “is that all there is to it?” let’s accept that little bits of faith can unlock larger resilience and compassion. It’s this way that we find health and peace.

Friends: let us care for the sick, mourn the dead, support the healer, and grow toward health. In this unexpectedly challenging Lent, let us deepen in faith so might live in the fullness of life.

Communion and COVID-19: historical perspective

As bad as the COVID-19 pandemic is shaping up, it's not the first time Christians have had to factor "general sickness" into their church lives, including communion.

That typical low Protestant practice of using individual communion glasses comes from a fear of contagion, but also an ethical impulse, combined with a robust bit of Progressivist thinking.  Protestants of the late nineteenth century and before used a common cup. But fears of communicable disease (typhoid especially I think) prompted a Lutheran minister to serve the wine in individual glasses, and the practice was born. (And no, I won't call them "shot glasses" or deride the practice as far too many high Protestants do. So don't try it here.) Mind you: this is not my original research or thought, but comes from three decades of education and reading. I am probably getting some of the details wrong, but this is really to set the mood rather than recover a well-established field of study. (Also, I'm tired, like most of you.)

And this isn't the first time churches have been asked to close, or else watch members die. The 1918 "Spanish" flu is out of living memory, but only just and was a terrible plague of the twentieth century. The point of our efforts — including a decision and announcement by the Church of England today, to suspend public worship — is to prevent a repeat. Of course, we have technology that we don't. But he have inherited practices, too, including a curious one adopted (and now lost) by the Unitarians. More about that next time.

Communion and COVID-19: limitations and options

So, I was working up the next installment of my series about using a portable communion set when the coronavirus outbreak created a very long and stressful week. (As you well know.) And this was just the beginning for the United States, western Europe and Australia where most of my readers come from.

Churches and temples of all kinds have closed, at least for this weekend, and for many at least through the end of March. We might still be under some kind of restriction through Holy Week and Easter (April 12) now. That's a hard thought, but people have had to manage living with epidemics before, and it's during difficult times that you learn to make alterations and concessions that both keep people safe and fulfill religious desires and duties. This weekend we'll see a new flowering of online services. What's next? Perhaps a renaissance of mainstream religious broadcasting?

But with Holy Week (specifically Maundy Thursday) and Easter, you have communion services. Unlike the long-televised Catholic mass "for shut-ins" there's not much of a custom for broadcasting the Lord's Supper, at least not at the Reformed end where we come from. In part because, apart from the Campbell-Stone traditions — it's still a "special service," a break from the normal Sunday preaching service. The Lord's Supper, too, is felt but low Reformed administration of the ordinance isn't much to look at if you're not in the middle of it. You might ordinarily broadcast a sermon, but not the sacrament.

So, what to do without risking the spread of a deadly illness? I wanted to introduce the thought, and in short order review the history and map out some options.  Publishing this, to make some momentum…

Opening the communion kits

As I mentioned last time, I bought two vintage portable communion kits from eBay sellers and this article shows what they contain. Readers who aren't interested in the specifics of these particular items can skip over this article. If I left out a detail you were looking for, ask in the comments.

I ordered the kits thinking they were identical models and while very similar, this was not the case. Indeed, as only one is marked, so I can't be sure that they are from the same maker — Sudbury Brass, which no longer makes a kit like this — but if they are, they must come from different periods of production.

Advertisement for communion kit
From Du Bois, Lauriston J. (Editor), "Preacher's Magazine Volume 30 Number 10" (1955). Preacher's Magazine. 293. https://digitalcommons.olivet.edu/cotn_pm/293

The smaller kit is the model 1215, and from advertisements in ministers' magazines seem to have been sold from about 1949 to 1955, perhaps longer. Other than a mark on the clasp of the case (SB 1215) the only markings are "silver on copper" on metal pieces. The larger case and its contents have no markings at all.

While the cases are different sizes, they contain essentially the same items, or did originally. Each has a shallow silverplate basin with a silverplate disc with six holes; this holds the six glasses. The one in the larger case is slightly larger and the disc lifts off easily, while the disc on the smaller one is more closely fitted: a bit harder to clean, but quieter. There is also a shallow bread plate; these are identical between the kits. (A loaf three inches in diameter would fit on the plate, but not in the kit.)

Both cases, seen from above, with lids open

The smaller case with the purple lining has no bread box, but has a place for where it would have rested. The bread box would be suitable for host wafers, small pieces of bread sold to Protestants and perhaps oyster crackers. The smaller kit has its original wine flask, while the larger kit had the original silverplate cap awkwardly wedged onto a modern plastic bottle; they were not threaded the same. The silverplate on both caps is worn. The box and flask are not interchangable with the other kit, which brings us to the cases themselves.

Each seems to be made of masonite or some other hardboard covered with a coated paper or cloth, similar to what would be used in bookbinding. Each is subdivided into three compartments, lined with velveteen: blue in the large case and violet in the small. The combined glasses tray fits in one compartment; the plate in another, while the flask sits in a "well" under a flange that holds the breadbox. The small case originally had a leather strap, now lost; the larger has a metal handle, like those found on small tool boxes of the period.

There's no room for anything else: candles,  common cup, service book, cross or the like. You might slip in an icon card and a handkerchief, but otherwise what you see is what you can carry here.

I'll be thinking about how you would use it next.

Reviewing the communion kit

A couple of weeks ago, I ordered two vintage communion kits from eBay sellers. This is the first of a short, open-ended series about what I bought, what I plan do with them and (since there's not an endless supply of such kits) what some alternatives are.

Two black oblong hinged cases

I bought two because figured that between them I would have enough parts to have one good kit. But don't go looking for a chalice or linens. These are the communion kits well known to "low" Protestants, and are often used for communion in home or hospital visitation. They typically include small, individual glasses and a way to present them, a vessel for serving some kind of bread and containers to store the bread and wine. Today (and for the two decades I've been ordained) these kits can be quite small: larger than an eyeglasses case, but usually smaller than two combined.

Unfortunately, they're also often quite cheap looking, made of plastic or some other unknown hard material, lined with acetate cloth or molded plastic. These are nicer than most. Some use disposable plastic cups. (I've even seen one that is basically a carrying case for those all-in-one juice and wafer sets. The ones that look like individual coffee creamer cups. Think Keurig for communion; on second thought, don't. My sacramental theology isn't so high, but this form is so ugly, that I couldn't bear it and wouldn't serve it.) The most you can say for the typical communion set is that it's convenient and light-weight, but they cost more than they should.

Contrast this with how beautiful and refined other consumer goods have gotten, and it's clear to me that we can and should do more for worshiping God. The Lord's Supper shouldn't compare poorly in form to a take-out cup of coffee.

Next: what's in the cases.