By Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy
View the worship and sermon here.
During this time of Pandemic, we pray in our weekly litany “for those who are ill and those who are frightened, for medical personnel caring for the sick and workers who provide support to us everyday in their communities, for scientists seeking treatments and prevention, and for those officials who bear the weight of decision-making for the common good.” If we look back in history we see many examples of similar heroic service, those who followed Jesus’ call on the beach that night, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and raise up the dead.
Today I’d like to draw your attention to the Martyrs of Memphis. In August of 1878, yellow fever invaded the city of Memphis Tennessee for the 3rd time in 10 years. This was a time in the practice of medicine when germ theory was still a controversial idea. It would be another 25 years before it was discovered that a mosquito carried the disease. Living conditions and working conditions in large industrial cities were typically dirty, overpopulated and unsanitary, forcing residents to battle life-threatening diseases.
After a month, quarantine was ordered. 30,000 people had fled in terror, and 20,000 remained to face the pestilence.
Jeannette Keith has written a fascinating book about this time in history called “Fever Season, The Story of a Terrifying Epidemic and the People who saved a City.”
As Keith wryly points out, these saviors weren’t exactly who you might expect. …“Neither heroism nor villainy could be predicted by public standing, gender or race. Upstanding citizens abandoned their families, and prostitutes and sporting men stepped up to care for the sick. White elected officials deserted their posts, but black militiamen stood fast as guardians of the city.”
The cast of characters who rose to the crisis were an unexpected crew united by a single impulse: like Jesus feeding all those folks on the beach that night, they could not turn a deaf ear to those in need. Among them were the editor of the city paper, the Memphis Daily Appeal; a nurse and teacher who had already lost most of her family in Texas to the disease as a child; a wealthy merchant and veteran of the Union Calvary, who “risked his life to help people he had fought against only a few years previously”; the only white Baptist minister to remain in the city; a madam who transformed her bordello into an infirmary; and, in the aftermath of the epidemic, a former slave who became the richest African America in Memphis and would lay the foundations for Memphis’ reputation as the home of the blues. His name was Robert Church. Also notable among them, was Constance, Superior to the Sisters of St Mary, six of her fellow sisters, three physicians, two of whom were Episcopal priests, two matrons and several volunteer nurses from New York.
In the Episcopal Church we dedicate September 9th to Constance and her Companions. The Cathedral buildings were located in the most infected region of Memphis. Here, these men and women gave relief to the sick, comfort to the dying, and homes to the many orphaned children. Only two of these workers escaped the fever. Among those who died were Constance, Thecla, Ruth and Frances, the Reverend Charles Parsons and the Reverend Louis Schuyler.
Let us pray:
“We give you thanks and praise, O God of Compassion, for the heroic witness of Constance and her companions, who, in a time of plague and pestilence, were steadfast in their care for the sick and dying, and loved not their own lives, even unto death: Inspire in us a like love and commitment to those in need, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, then, now and forever. Amen"
Excerpt from Holy Women, Holy Men
“Fever Season: The Story of a terrifying Epidemic and the People who Saved a City"
By Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy
In today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew, we hear from Jesus at his most demanding. Jesus says “To follow me in the true way of love, to go all the way with me, you will be uncomfortable, confused, and even sometimes frightened. Jesus says: If you wish to walk the way of love with me, expect to be upset and confused, even cut off in a way from those you love. And through thick and thin you have to forget about yourself. This forgetting is freeing and it opens you up to find God.
There are times of life when I appreciate expert, no-nonsense advice. For me, this is one of those times. In the midst of a devastating pandemic and a crisis of injustice in our country, some straight from the hip advice gives me comfort. As a member of the leadership team here at James and Andrew I have been reassured by the expert advice from the CDC, the World Health Organization, state and local public health experts and our clergy and church leaders. Our data is not perfect, but it’s the best we have.
Jesus gives pretty straight forward advice about justice, he says that everything eventually will be out in the open, everyone will understand how things really are, so don’t hesitate to go public about God’s love…even if you are uncomfortable or confused. Don’t let anyone (even you), bully you into silence. Nothing can hurt you, the real you of body and soul, if you are motivated by God’s way of love. This love belongs to everyone: student/teacher, laborer/boss, those who are strong and healthy and those with weak immune systems, those who have, and those who have not.
We are instructed to stand up for love against world opinion, or anyone’s opinion, in spite of our discomfort. In the midst of a devastating pandemic and an uprising for justice, can we set aside our comforts? Can we remember the “greater good” and set our hearts on the hope that another, better world is possible?
The expert advice we hear from Jesus is that living out this love might cut like a sword.
Jesus did not come to make life cozy. Being comfortable is nice, but I recognize that it doesn’t always help us to get anywhere. If we stay inside a cozy domestic relationship with the world, or with a church institution, there’s no forward movement, no growth, no life.
My boys suffered from what we called growing pains in their preteen years, those years of rapid physical and emotional growth; they complained frequently of achy legs that bothered them mostly at night. Scientists will say that there’s no evidence that growth hurts, but I believe there’s much about the body/mind connection we do not understand. A broken heart surely hurts, and we now know that it can lead to changes in the heart muscle similar to a heart attack. We also know that the damage can heal.
The pain of lost comfort is real, but maybe that pain is a sign that we’re on the threshold of something new. Our EFM book group is reading Esther de Waal’s book “To Pause at the Threshold” She has wonderful things to say about how a threshold can be a sacred place, a place of openness and receptivity. The threshold leads to something new, something of greater fullness. It is good to remember that God is always with us, at our center and our comfort and also (as Heather says), at our raw and growing edges. Rachel Held Evans, in her book about Loving the Bible (for which Dan Carew will lead us in a Zoom discussion today at 11:30), Rachel says that scripture should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
So, even if we are dwelling in a place of discomfort or confusion, I hope we are dwelling in a threshold place, and that we can equip ourselves for change and growth. Jesus says it plainly: don’t be intimidated, don’t be bluffed into silence, stand up for me, forget about yourself and look to me, learn from me. So here is my plan: I will accept my discomfort, I will accept my growing pains, I will read and seek the truth, I will listen and talk it over, I will walk forward and I will try not to be afraid.
And I will pray for your plan too. Amen
Tonight we hear the moving story of Jesus’ and the disciples’ last meeting and meal. It is the story of ordinary actions; washing the dust off and sharing food, ordinary actions done with extraordinary love. That night the disciples gathered with Jesus, rumors about Jesus’ arrest were in the air. Jesus, of course knew what was about to happen, and, I think, perhaps the disciples did too. I expect they ate quickly and quietly, and on this most holy night, Jesus chose this everyday action of washing to teach us a most important lesson, a lesson about love. Jesus knew that Peter was about to deny him and that Judas had already conspired to betray him. In spite of this, Jesus stood up, wrapped a towel around his waist and bent down to wash the feet of his friends and enemies alike; a gesture of Love, the ordinary kind, given freely to everyone.
Such an ordinary action, foot washing, on this extraordinary night. Jesus teaches us about love in ordinary ways; a drink of water and a conversation by the well with a Samaritan woman, or a meal at Martha and Mary’s home. We know he breaks all the rules of the society of his day, but I think that on Holy Thursday Jesus also wanted to teach us that love, given through ordinary actions, with awareness and mindfulness, can be the most powerful love of all, the kind that passes all understanding. Ordinary expressions of love: the casserole you bring to a grieving neighbor, the therapy dog who visits nursing home patients, and the prayer shawl or comforting quilt.
It’s risky, isn’t it, this love freely given? Risky, because the more we open to love, the more we risk betrayal or loss or pain. We risk security and stability when we open to love. But it’s a beautiful and worthy risk, because without it we are stuck, stuck not moving forward, stuck without growth, without opening to the possibilities of the future.
Ordinary actions make up most of life. Excellence is wonderful, isn’t it, and who doesn’t want to pursue it, who doesn’t want to change the world? But life is really made up of one ordinary action after another, get out of bed, make your bed, show up on time and prepared for school or work, say thank you, help a neighbor, cook, clean, do it again. Washing the dishes might not just be a mindless task. If we are fully awake and aware, we can find God in the kitchen as well as in the chapel.
The ancient Celts understood something about this. Esther de Waal, in her book, “Every Earthly Blessing” describes it as an approach to life in which God breaks in on the ordinary, daily, mundane and earthy. It is the sense that God informs daily life and transforms it, so that any action can become the time and place for an encounter with God. She says, “nothing is too common to be exalted, and nothing is so exalted that it cannot be made common”. The Celts everyday actions were infused with images of the way God interacts with his people. For a blessing on a journey they would pray: “May the road rise to meet you” or St Patrick’s beautiful litany: “Christ be with you, before you, behind you, when you sit down, when you arise.” A blessing was spoken as the fire was laid and as the children went out the door. A Mother would commend her new- born infant to the Trinity. The baby would be handed across the hearth fire three times and then carried sun-wise three times around the fire with the help of the neighbors who had assisted at the birth. Three drops of water would be placed on her forehead and then the prayer spoken: “And I beseech the Holy Three to bathe this child and to preserve it to themselves. All the people in this house are raising their voices with the watching-women, giving witness that the child has been committed to the Holy Trinity.” This was called the “Mother’s Baptism”. It preceded the formal “clerical” baptism when the child was received into the church.
Washing is a very ordinary activity, and my hands are in the dishwater many times each day. I have washed countless baby parts and wiped many baby noses. A cool cloth on a feverish brow is very ordinary, but when I have looked down on the beautiful faces of my kids and grandkids, and when I’ve been awake and fully present in the moment, I have felt indescribable love and the presence of Holy Spirit.
So many of our ordinary acts of love are on hold right now. There are rituals and routines we miss. We long for the kind of community we have each Sunday, which gives us strength and courage to go out into the world with love. I hope we are trying to remember that it’s not the location or the details that matter, it’s the love that matters. A friend is reading “The Chronicles of Narnia” to her Granddaughter at lunch every day. There is music in the air, the birds are singing more beautifully than ever. There are lots of ways to cultivate new “habits of grace”. Join in for Compline on line before bedtime or listen to sung Compline by the Compline Choir of St Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. It is broadcast on a number of airways every Sunday night. There’s even a “Compline Underground” blog for those of us geeks who want to learn more about the text and the music! Presiding Bishop Curry gives a weekly video message. His expressions of love are moving and timely.
Whose feet can you wash tonight? How can you show extraordinary love to someone in these strange times? Maybe that someone is you? Here is a simple recipe for a calming foot soak: a basin of warm water, ½ cup Epsom salts, and a few drops of an essential oil like lavender. I promise you will sleep better after a 15-30 minute soak.
The ordinary/extraordinary things we need to do in these strange times are pretty clear: Be good to yourself, and be good to your neighbors in creative ways. Find ways to make the ordinary extraordinary, and remember that our great teacher, Jesus will show us the way. Amen.
The Gospel of John sometimes mystifies me. We have been hearing these mystical-miracle stories each Sunday during Lent. There is much controversy about John’s Gospel, when it was written, who wrote it and why, and why it differs so much from the Synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus uses more common language, short simple statements that go straight to the point. The author or authors of John’s Gospel dare to try to describe mysterious things like the incarnation and divinity of Jesus, the divine Logos, the Word that was with God and that is God. Jesus tells us that the man was not born blind because his parents sinned, but so that the works of God could be revealed in him. He tells the Samaritan woman that the water he gives will become a spring of water gushing up to new eternal life, and to Nicodemus, that no one can enter the kingdom without being born again of water and the spirit. I read these passages with a childlike faith, loving the beauty of the words, not really trying to make sense of them and simply believing that Jesus truly is God, man, the bread of life, the light of the world, the resurrection and the life. I try not to make sense of it, but to hear something new.
This morning I’d like to share some thoughts about waiting.
Here’s what I know about waiting:
#1. Waiting is hard.
#2 Waiting is something I’m not very good at. I don’t like to cue up, I’m impulsive and I’m usually in a constant hurry. I can remember being anxious to graduate, then to get that great job and then to retire. (My Mother called this “wishing your life away!”) and..
#3. I know that miracles can happen during the waiting, especially if we wait with hope and keep faith, that the Holy Spirit will help us make something new of the waiting. These are confusing times. There is so much happening that we don’t understand. Someone said that God is not interested in making sense; God is interested in making something new.
How long did the whole House of Israel have to wait? They waited until their bones were dry and rattling. They felt their hope was lost and that they were cut off completely, but they were not. They finally let the breath of the 4 winds blow upon them, and they lived and stood on their own feet.
The Psalmist cries out to the Lord…”I will wait, I will get my hope from God’s word, where there is mercy and redemption, as the Watchmen wait.”
In Biblical terms the 4th watch, from 3 to 6 am comes from the ancient Romans’ way of dividing the military guard hours.
My many years of night shift nursing taught me some things about watching and waiting, most especially that important things can happen in the darkest hours, or perhaps that we can more easily tune ourselves in to those important things. Our hearing and all of our senses are more acute. We are removed from the usual distractions of our light-filled hours. This dark stripped down time can help us to see and hear more clearly. I loved Barbara Brown-Taylor’s book “Learning to Walk in the Darkness”, she says that darkness is divine and that it is where God dwells. In Isaiah 45 we hear “I will give you hidden treasures in the darkness”.
Sometimes Jesus is the Lord of urgent action in the brightness of daytime. He is swift to reach out his hand to save a drowning man, he restores sight to the blind man and he feeds thousands of hungry people on the beach, but in today’s Gospel story, the last miracle story before his own passion, death and resurrection, Jesus shows us how to wait.
In the midst of his own grief over the loss of his dearest friend Lazarus, the Gospel writer tells us: 1st; Jesus waited. He was greatly disturbed and deeply moved, he did not hide his grief and he wept. He raised his eyes to God and He spoke a prayer of thanksgiving, praise and hope, that the Glory of God would be revealed in this dark hour. Here is our great teacher, again, showing us how to be human.
All of Lent is a waiting, and next week, on Palm Sunday, we are privileged to begin waiting and watching with Jesus as he begins the final leg of his journey to resurrected life.
What might come of our present waiting? What is the new thing that God will reveal to us? My 2 year old grandson Zooms in for story time with his nursery school teacher and classmates every morning, and some of our older parishioners are using computer skills that they never could have imagined using. Kids are getting to know their parents in new ways and a teenager in Northampton figured out how to make plastic face shields for healthcare workers on his 3-D printer. We witness many acts of Love every day. What new thing will be revealed for us in our waiting?
I pray that we might tune our senses more acutely to the breath of the 4 winds, to the silence of the 4th watch and to the Word of God, that God’s glory will be revealed to us in our time. Amen.
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