Pilgrims in a Pandemic

Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Sunday, September 20, 2020.

My wife, Mims, and I recently walked in the Babcock Preserve with her new Corgi puppy, “Josie,” named after the American entertainer, Josephine Baker, who lit up Paris in the 1920s, aided the French Resistance during World War II and supported the Civil Rights Movement. Josie is strong and pulled my wife unmercifully through the forest, chasing chipmunks and squirrels and constantly tangling herself around trees and plants.

I followed behind, observing the lush, green canopy overhead and wished that I could read a forest better. Then I took out my cell phone and used an app called “Picture This” to identify the trees along the trail. Suddenly, I could distinguish Chestnut oaks from Tulip poplars, which are not actually poplars but sturdy trees that Native Americans carved into dugout canoes, Norway spruces and Pin oaks, whose rugged bark is distinctly different from the Northern red oak. The forest came alive.

In his book Learning to Dance, my favorite spiritual writer, Michael Mayne, who is the former dean of Westminster Abbey, has a chapter devoted to each the month of the year, like the medieval Book of Hours. Each chapter starts with a focus on the flora and fauna found that month in Salisbury, England, where Mayne spent his final years. In his chapter on July, he notes that the American writer Henry James found “summer afternoon” the two most beautiful words in the English language. Mayne writes:

“For a brief spell no birds migrate and birdsong is hushed: blackbirds will not sing again until February. On Laverstock Down the pyramidical orchids are in bloom; and the colorful burnet moths are feeding on the wild briars, their backs a bronze-green, with six scarlet spots on their wings… red admirals and peacock butterflies are feeding on the fluffy strawberry-colored hemp agrimony…”

Mayne could read a landscape to paying close attention, which allowed him to see the miraculous in the mundane. It made me think of Frank Wade, an old friend, who served for many years as the Rector of St. Alban’s Church in Washington, D.C. He wife took a six-month sabbatical and spent a month of it at St. George’s College in Jerusalem, taking a course called “The Bible and the Holy Land.” As part of the course, he spent four days in the Sinai Desert and four days in Galilee.

Wade admits that he was not prepared for the impact that the wilderness would have upon him. His only previous knowledge of the desert came from watching Lawrence of Arabia twice. He was surprised that there were no sand dunes, the ground was mostly gravel and there were massive rock formations. He writes, “There is a vast openness and enormity to the Sinai Desert that was beyond my understanding, beyond my expectation. There is a sense of timelessness… limitlessness.”

Their class visited the 5,500-year-old burial huts in the desert that were tourist attractions when Moses and Aaron passed through some 3,000 years earlier. Wade writes:

“I have been in high places such as buildings and airplanes where people look like ants; but I had never been in a place where I felt like an ant as I did while inching across the vastness of that landscape. The darkness at night was so complete that the Milky Way looked like smoke. The daytime brightness was truly humbling in that it required a bowed head and covered eyes.”

Certain moments and places and moments allow us to see things differently. You and I are in such a place right now as we inch like pilgrims through this pandemic and the political and racial tensions that divide our nation and horrific fires that have scorched a land mass the size of New Jersey and news the diminutive but towering Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died. Many of us worry about Climate Change, our democracy and our economy, and we grieve for the 200,000 persons who have died in just over six months from Covid-19. The number of those who have died is almost four times the number of US soldiers who died during nine years of the Vietnam War. Their bodies would fill Yankee Stadium three and a half times.

Yes, we are in a very different landscape from the one that we traversed last fall. Sports events are played in empty stadiums. Office buildings sit vacant. Travel is greatly limited. Most of us are working remotely, and almost all of us wear masks. This is a time that requires patience and humility for we have been thrust into a wilderness. But there are things to be learned in the desert, if we will open our eyes and pay close attention.

Moses climbed Mt. Sinai to gain a new perspective, and God gave him the Ten Commandments. Jesus took his three closet followers atop Mt. Tabor, where he was mysteriously transfigured, and they saw our Lord in a whole new way. In each place, a new discovery was made. Things were seen in a new light and from a different vantage point, and what they saw set them free in new ways.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and today’s distinguished forum speaker, writes, “To hear what God is saying we need a degree of stillness – stillness of body as well as of mind or heart.” It “requires… a sort of poise: the attentiveness of the birdwatcher; attention and expectancy… to turn itself with openness to what God in Christ is saying.”

He often refers to the seventh-century saint Francis de Sales who told a lady seeking spiritual direction, “I’ll start giving you spiritual direction when you have begun to walk more slowly, talk more slowly, and eat more slowly.” As pilgrims in a pandemic we have been forced to slow down, listen, see and hear in new ways, and that’s exactly when God can catch our attention.

To hear the Word that God longs to speak to us, to see the new figurations of God, often requires a new vantage point. Frank Wade writes, “We need a listening post, a time and place removed from the predictable clutter of routine where the law can be delivered, where Christ can be transfigured, where the Word can be heard and the truth be seen.”

No wonder Moses climbed the mountain, John the Baptist ventured into the wilderness, and Jesus spent many nights praying alone in the honeycombed caves on the Mount of Olives. We need moments of refreshment in the midst of driving children to school, countless Zoom meetings, reading spreadsheets and grocery shopping to alter our perspective and provide a spiritual reset.

One of our parishioners recently told me over coffee about a sermon where she heard a preacher instruct his listeners that when they arrive at home all wound up from work, they should sit quietly in their car parked in the driveway for a moment, close their eyes, decompress, and let go of their worries and the stress of the day. Then enter the house and begin the work of helping with dinner and homework and putting children to bed. That short pause, he said, will make all the difference to them and to their family.

This pandemic is a very long pause for each of us. It’s a global spiritual reset. We can lament like the Israelites who grumbled why they did have everything that they had back in Egypt, where they were literally slaves being worked to death, or we can grasp this season of time to become transformed by God. The very wilderness where the Israelites craved food and water and feared that they would die became the locus of glory of the Lord and turned out to be far more brilliant than Egypt. Even in the desert places of life, there is holy ground where God is at work and joy can be found even in the mundane and the ordinary.

Many of us have lamented during this pandemic that like the movie Groundhogs Day every day is the same. It is monotonous. Yet, the sun rises each morning, and the artists and poets among us have never found sunrises and sunsets to be boring. God dwells in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. In the Fourth Gospel, Peter and John raced to the empty tomb after the women reported that Jesus’ body was missing. They looked inside and saw his grave clothes neatly folded. It’s as if the first thing that Jesus did after being resurrected was to tidy his room.

All of the Easter narratives read like this. They capture the miraculous amid the mundane. The risen Christ broils fish and toasts bread to feed his followers breakfast on the beach. Jesus walks on country roads, and he converses with friends. If Christ is not active in the ordinary events of our lives, then Christ might as well be dead. Christopher Kimball writes uncommon reflections for a magazine called Cook’s Illustrated. In one of his articles, he wrote:

“My two-year-old daughter bends down to peep through the oven window, hands on knees, saucer-eyes wide with expectation, glimpsing, I am thinking, a bit of the eternal. I stop to watch, realizing that I have forgotten how to see the mystery of life in the rise of the angel food or in the upward push of a baking biscuit. If we could but see like a child, we would set out on journeys never thinking only of destination.”

Like the Israelites, we are tempted to look back to the land of Egypt and recall “when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread” and we wonder why we must endure this Covid-19 wilderness. It’s easy for us to grumble about the monotony of it all, but God provides our daily bread, and we must advocate for those who have yet to receive theirs. We are apt to be faithless, forgetful and ungrateful and to suffer from spiritual amnesia, but our God hears our prayers and provides what we need – freedom, food, water, deliverance, protection and guidance. And like the Israelites we see that the promise of life is not behind us, but lies before us. Thanks be to God. Amen.