“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Jesus speaks these words to a group of scribes and Pharisees who bring to him a woman caught in adultery. The scribes and Pharisees pose a trap to Jesus: “the law of Moses says we should stone such a woman; what do you say, Jesus?” Jesus’ response about casting the first stone silences them, and the woman goes on her way with these parting words from the Lord: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and sin no more” (8:11).
That line, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” has become a rhetorical chestnut. We use it to caution against judging someone’s sins and mistakes. The impetus is, “don’t judge So-and-So because you’re not perfect either.” It’s a fine sentiment, as far as it goes.
In our polarized political climate, the equivalent is something like, “Both sides are wrong!” Instead of refraining from judgment all together, we prefer the other side of the coin: giving a watery condemnation of both sides of a conflict. (There are always two apparently.) We say ‘both sides are wrong!’ as though this is wisdom, as though we are offering a mature and nuanced moral perspective.
We are doing no such thing. We are Christians; we know humanity is broken. Right now in the United States “both sides” are groups of sinners who are angry and afraid. To say they are both in the wrong to some degree has all the substance of, “Looks like we’re having weather today.” To focus on the mere fact that both sides are wrong rather than the context and degree of that wrongness is an abrogation of our responsibility to form reasoned moral judgments. It also misses the point of Jesus’ words in John 8.
Jesus intervenes between the woman caught in adultery and the crowd of scribes and Pharisees precisely because both sides are not equally in the wrong. One is a woman caught in adultery; the other is a mob of would-be murderers. Surely both adultery and murder are sins, but they are not equal. When Jesus says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” he is intervening in opposition to the scribes and Pharisees so as to save the woman’s life.
Jesus intervenes to save the life of the person who is socially, financially, and culturally weakest. He does not pretend adultery is okay; after all, his final words to her are “sin no more.” Jesus saves sinners—there’s no one else for him to save—but the focus is the saving.
It is worth noting that in his final words to the woman, Jesus doesn’t reference adultery at all. Perhaps this is because the very definition of ‘adulterous woman’ was written exclusively by men like the scribes and Pharisees. It is possible that her alleged ‘act of adultery’ was her being assaulted by a man and then not crying out loudly enough for help. (Deut. 22:23-24.) Perhaps Jesus does not reference the adultery at all because the very law she stands accused of breaking is fundamentally biased against her. The condemnation of scribes and Pharisees is the product of centuries of devaluing women’s lives, privileging male perspectives, and disproportionately punishing women for their sins.
Even if we assume that this woman’s adultery is what we usually imagine that word to mean, it is still not equivalent to murder. One is the sin of passion out of control; the other is the sin of ending human life.
When Jesus says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” he is not saying ‘both sides are wrong.’ He is not flattening the two sins so that they have the same moral weight. In the drama of John 8, Jesus is condemning oppressors for the sake of saving human life that has been systematically devalued. Only then does he call out the sin of the oppressed party, and even then it is not clear that her sin is the adultery of which she stands accused.
The point is not that we’re all sinners, but that the stoning of ‘adulterous’ women is an acute evil embedded in centuries of history leading up to that moment.
These same dynamics are at work in much of our commentary on the violence erupting in our nation. We say in one breath that the death of George Floyd was a grave injustice and that the violence of rioters/looters/protestors are no better than his killer, etc. We say, “Both sides are wrong!” (Again, it’s odd that we always seem to assume there are only two sides.)
That all sides are wrong is true in an obvious way, but both in John 8 and in the contemporary United States, this sentiment has all the importance of observing the wetness of water. What is important is that, as we saw with the woman caught in adultery, the very laws persons of color are so often suspected of breaking are the products of a legal and cultural system which has for the vast majority of our history excluded them from meaningful legislative and executive decision-making.
The protests we are seeing now that turn to rioting, looting, destroying property, lighting cars on fire, throwing rocks—these are at worst sins of passion violently out of control, whereas the knee on the neck of George Floyd and the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery are at best isolated sins of ending human life. More likely, they are part and parcel of centuries of racial violence that devalues black lives, privileges white perspectives, and disproportionately punishes black women and men for their (suspected) sins.
In this context, does Jesus say, “both sides are wrong?” If John 8 is any indication, our answer is a resounding no. We should instead expect to see Jesus intervene to save the lives of those who are socially, financially, and culturally weakest. Once they are safe from worldly oppression, then he names their own sins as such. “Both sides are wrong” as a perspective actually prevents justice by flattening all sins into artificial equality. Especially now, our moral discourse must resist this kind of naiveté and make reasoned judgments which account for context and degree.
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” With this phrase Jesus reveals the hollow justice sought by the scribes and Pharisees for what it actually is: reinforcing the status quo to which they are accustomed; ensuring the winners continue writing history; another grab at domination.
But convicting the scribes and Pharisees of the injustice upon which their power to condemn rests is not enough, either. We must go further. The goal is not to figure out who is most in the wrong; the goal is reconciliation.
As we read elsewhere in the New Testament, whatever guilt Jesus conjures in the minds of the scribes and Pharisees is not an end in itself. As St. Paul writes, “Godly sorrow produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret,” (2 Cor. 7:10). The point is not for them to stay silent and ashamed, but for them to repent and amend their lives. Their penitent silence is instrumental: it allows for a new conversation to begin, one in which the woman gets to speak on her own terms.
Jesus words descend like the Holy Spirit at Pentecost: they are the precondition for those who have been most afraid to gain the power to speak, and they are the precondition for those who have been most in power to receive the humility of listening. This dynamic of God’s humbling the proud and exalting the lowly is all over the scriptures. As we read in the Magnificat, for example, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:46-55.) It is the dynamic of reconciliation.
The story of John 8 remains unfinished. It stands to reason that the woman in the story is part of the same town or community in which the scribes and Pharisees live. They must somehow continue to live together after the drama of Christ’s intervention. This is no less true of the United States today. Black people. White people. Police officers. Civilians. Whenever the immediate drama of our cities dies down, we must continue to live together.
I am heartened by the actions of so many protestors, clergy, and police officers throughout our country. Officers kneeling in solidarity with peaceful protestors, church leaders and other public figures helping fill the massive vacuum of moral leadership we have in the White House, and most important, the conversations I’ve had with law enforcement officers who are members of our own church. Not a single one of them has succumbed to the temptation of oversimplifying what is going on right now; not a single one of them sees this as a conflict between police and some other monolithic group; not a single one of them believes what happened to George Floyd was just; and in my conversations with them not a single one has spoken sarcastically or spitefully of all the angry people in the streets. They have too much compassion and imagination for that, and each of them takes with the utmost seriousness the badge they wear and all that it represents in the moment we are in.
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” A final thought on this phrase: it changes if we capitalize “He.” When we imagine the sentence in this way, the speaker is God and the stone is the Incarnate Christ: Let He, the LORD who is without sin, cast the first stone. Hearing it in this way gives us a kind of monologue in which God authorizes His own overthrow of injustice. God, our Judge, the Holy One, holds in His hand the cornerstone of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the conflict we are witnessing in the aftermath of the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery is God’s hurling the Rock of Ages through the storefronts of our principalities and powers, breaking our assumptions and shattering unearned privileges. God is the Sinless One; this is His prerogative.
What I mean with that image is simply this: we are going to get through this, but it’s going to hurt. The dynamic of reconciliation always does for folks like me who are used to being on top. Things that are dear to me will get broken. Assumptions, subtle privileges, patterns and categories of thought, types of influence. It will mean God’s taking my well-meaning questions like, “Why are they rioting? What good does it do?” and breaking them so that I can ask better ones: “What would it take for me to riot like this? How tired and afraid and out of options would I have to feel?”
Once those of us in power receive the gift of Godly remorse, once we put down our rocks and listen, once we are willing to hear from those who have been most afraid speaking by the power of the Holy Spirit, once we have stopped condemning black bodies to constant suspicion and death, then maybe God will turn to the rioters and say, “Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and sin no more.”
And then, little by little, the anguished cries and taught silence will give way to conversation. Telling stories. God-willing, even affection. Little by little, we will be reconciled to each other. Little by little, we will become the One Body we were created to be.
As many of you know, Bishop Reed’s formal suspension of public worship for the whole diocese expires at the end of Sunday, May 24th. Some of you have reached out to ask about what’s next. I want to say a little about what you can expect, particularly about a congregation-wide survey that will go out this weekend. I’ll address this first.
As many of you also know, Lucy graduated from seminary this week, and we’re moving to San Marcos soon! Several of you have reached out with your congratulations (thank you!) and have asked about our move date, her ordination, etc. I want to say a little about that, too. I’ll address this second.
Next Steps for St. Liz
The suspension of public worship for the diocese expires after May 24th. This is permission to resume while abiding by extensive guidelines; it is not a mandate that congregations resume in-person worship. You can find Bishop Reed’s most recent communication here.
Because resuming public worship will not be a simple return to how we worshipped together before the pandemic, there’s work to be done and a lot of variables to consider. For the safety of our community, and for our loved ones at home, when we do resume public worship, we will abide by the extensive guidelines linked above. Please read them; they are covered in pages 5-9 of the document linked above. Social distancing, masks, no nursery or children’s chapel, no choir sitting together and singing—these are difficult but necessary and non-negotiable pieces of what public worship will be like for a time once we resume.
How is St. Liz getting ready to resume public worship? First and foremost, your Bishop’s Committee and I want to hear from you. To that end, I ask that your household complete a simple survey that will go out this weekend as its own email. We need to know if and how many St. Liz folks are ready to resume public worship, and what your concerns are. This is pastorally and practically important. For example, if we have tons of responses of folks saying they’re ready to return to worship on our physical campus, we need to make sure everyone can fit in our space while also remaining socially distant. Will we need one service? Two? Three? A rotating schedule? We just don’t know yet. If no one says they’re ready, then there’s no sense doing work we don’t need to do. Please complete one survey per household.
Second, if we’re going to worship on-site, we need to identify our volunteer pool. Who is comfortable being onsite, cleaning and sanitizing before and after, helping make sure folks are socially distant, wearing masks, etc.? St. Liz runs on Holy Spirit and volunteers. We’ve still got tons of Spirit, but this requires a new volunteer pool. Please reach out to Wanda at email@example.com if you’re able and willing to serve. To the few of you who have already, thank you.
Third, we will continue to be guided by data as much as possible. We will continue to be guided by our bishop and diocesan staff, as well, in addition to local and state authorities. (This means our reopen will likely move more slowly than Texas broadly). As I said in a video a couple weeks ago, a two week window of continued decline of COVID-19 cases is a significant and much hoped for indicator. On Wednesday, May 6th, for example, we saw a bit of a spike in Hays County with twelve new cases reported. In the days following, that number dropped fairly consistently, but this week they’ve gone up again. Per the data linked above: fourteen new cases on Monday of this week, and another twelve on Wednesday. In my mind, when a spike like that happens, the two-week clock resets.
I say that to remind us that we’re not out of the woods, and that all the plans we’re making right now are necessarily contingent on external forces. For example, when the survey goes out, you will notice that one question asks if your household would be comfortable attending worship on-site on June 7th. That’s not an official start date; it’s just the soonest date which seems to me to be practical given the work we need to do. (Volunteers, a Sunday morning plan, internet upgrade, troubleshoot technical issues, etc.) It could be later for any number of reasons, including a spike in the spread of the coronavirus.
I wish this were not true but it is, and I love you too much to pretend otherwise. My primary concern is the same as it always is: that we remain faithful to our call to love God and our neighbors. Right now, loving our neighbors can actually mean remaining apart. In regards to our physical well-being, if all that was at stake was our health as individuals, deciding when and how to reopen would be a simpler task. Let folks self-select knowing the dangers of gathering, etc. But this is not only about our individual well-being, but the well-being of everyone with whom we come into contact. Unless I am very much mistaken, it remains true that I could be a carrier, either pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic, and spread the virus for days without knowing it. It remains true that my physical presence could be dangerous to others, including people I love. So, for now, we continue to remain apart.
In the meantime, continue to pray for each other, for me, and for our community. Read the guidelines linked above to get a sense of what is required of us to be safe when we begin to reopen. And maybe cut yourself some slack when you start to feel guilty about all the ice cream you’ve been eating!
Next Steps for Lucy and Me
Lucy graduated from seminary this week! We did our best to celebrate the occasion within the confines of our apartment. As I think I’ve mentioned, we’ve watched a great deal of Great British Baking Show over the past couple months, and so we celebrated by having Lucy’s Great British Graduation. (If you’re not familiar with the show, please indulge me for this next bit as it’s largely frivolous.)
I don’t cook much, so this was all very intimidating. But it was fun. For each baking treat we had the show’s theme song playing and a ‘gingham altar’ and everything. On Monday, for our Signature Challenge I made classic American blueberry pancakes from scratch, which went pretty well. On Tuesday, we had the dreaded Technical Challenge: Mary Berry’s classic Victoria Sandwich. This one was so intimidating I asked Wanda to do it ahead of time, and it was amazing. (Star baker material!) Wednesday morning was Lucy’s actual graduation, and I had planned to make homemade blueberry scones for breakfast as our Showstopper Challenge. The scones, however, were just awful; they ended up in the trash can; and Lucy watched her graduation service on an empty stomach. “It’s a shame,” as Paul Hollywood would say. Hopefully, it was the thought that counted. (We had Franklin’s bbq for lunch that day, so it turned out alright.)
What’s next? We get the keys to our new place in San Marcos on May 29th, and the movers come on May 30th. We’re looking forward to settling in and exploring our new neighborhood. Lucy’s ordination to the diaconate will be in Montgomery, AL on Saturday, June 13th. The service will be much smaller than we’d like, and will lack almost all of the music Lucy picked, but we’re excited about it nonetheless and our families will be able to attend. I believe it will be live-streamed, so I’ll make sure you have the info when it’s available.
Lucy starts officially at St. John’s in New Braunfels on July 1st!
Before the pandemic happened, we were spending a lot of time with the psalms. Thom Rock was teaching a class on them, and at Diocesan Council in February Bishop Reed had challenged the diocese to read the psalter together this year. I encourage you to continue reading them. Last week I had one of the most powerful experiences with a psalm I’ve ever had. I want to share it with you. Fair warning: Easter Season or no, it was a Good Friday kind of experience.
Our psalm last Sunday was Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16. The first verse of that passage is this:
In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; deliver me in your righteousness. (Ps. 31:1)
These are beautiful words, ones in which the speaker beseeches God to save him. Not an abstract, spiritual kind of saving, but a real, tangible saving from mortal danger. I read these words early last week as part of my usual weekly rhythm, and then a couple days later, I learned of the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery. (If that word “lynching” seems inappropriate, I commend the link to you.)
If you’re not familiar with his death and would like to read more, here’s a news link which includes links to other sources. I watched the video of the whole thing that swept the internet. It’s harrowing and I do not recommend it, though I will describe parts of it here. I remember the gunshots, the shouting.
Incline your ear to me; make haste to deliver me. (Ps. 31:2)
The video was taken by someone driving a car behind Ahmaud, who was out running. In front of Ahmaud there is parked a white truck. In it there are white men with guns shouting for him to stop.
Behind Ahmaud, the video and all of us watching. In front of him, the men with the guns and the shouting. He tries to veer around the truck, but there is nowhere to go.
Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe, for you are my crag and my stronghold; for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me. (Ps. 31:3)
There is nowhere for Ahmaud to go. In front of him, there is a white truck where men with guns are shouting for him to stop. They have pursued him and now they are waiting. They are parked in front of Ahmaud, and they are waiting for him.
Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me, for you are my tower of strength. (Ps.31:4)
There is a fight. Ahmaud Arbery fights one of the men who were waiting for him with their weapons in their white truck. He is unarmed. He wrestles one of the men; he punches him. There is a gunshot, and then another.
Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth. (Ps. 31:5)
Ahmaud and the man release each other. The man with the gun walks back to the truck. Ahmaud tries to keep running but cannot. He is bleeding. He stumbles, he falls. His body is broken.
They say he was a burglar.
My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies, and from those who persecute me. (Ps. 31:15)
Ahmaud is dead, and the weeks go by. There are no arrests. There is no outcry. There is a pandemic. We delay. We are delayed. We are slow in justice and slow in grief. Mothers like his are reminded that their fears for their sons’ lives are well-founded.
The day I heard about Ahmaud’s death I had gone for a run through many neighborhoods. I cut through a school, a construction site, a gas station parking lot, and the corner of someone’s yard. People waved. Their dogs wagged.
No one yells at me. No one assumes I must obey their commands. There are no armed men waiting in trucks.
The voice of Psalm 31 is not my voice. It is the voice of Ahmaud, and it is the voice of Jesus.
Make your face to shine upon your servant, and in your loving kindness save me. (Ps.31:16).
Please, God, save him.
I have said the words of Psalm 31 probably more than any other psalm. They are part of the Order for Compline, which I said every night at summer camp growing up. I have meant them, and they have been my own. But this week they were not mine. They were tragic, horrifying, and strange.
They were the words of all the people we continue to crucify. The voices of those crushed by the powers and principalities of this world, by systematic racism, by vigilantism and the will to dominate.
I was reminded that in the Passion of God and humanity, we usually count three basic roles: the one on the cross, the crowd calling for blood, and the rest of us, standing far off, watching, discomforted, afraid.
But maybe that’s just how it looks from where I usually count myself, out on the pious edge, wringing my hands. This week, reading Psalm 31, I began to wonder if maybe there aren’t three roles at all. Maybe the point is to see things the way a person on the cross would see it. From there, it’s probably just the Crucified One and everybody else.
Maybe proclaiming Christ Crucified means viewing the world in this way, with the eyes of the one on the cross. It is only God’s perspective that matters, after all, only Christ who will judge the world.
It was a Good Friday kind of week because we were reminded that this is still a world where crucifixions happen. On Good Friday, the one who is on the cross is the One Who is our Judge. I found myself wondering what he sees from up there, from the place where he still hangs, and I prayed that Easter would come for the mothers of black sons.
Not that long ago, in a time innocently unaware of social distancing and self-isolation, Zoom was barely on my radar screen. Now there’s hardly a day that goes by when I’m not looking into the screen of my computer zooming something with someone, somewhere: the last few remaining seminary classes, clergy check-in calls, virtual worship with my sending church in Vermont. One night last week my classmates and I even got together by Zoom for a virtual party and game of truth or dare. If not Zoom, there’s Facebook. If not Facebook, there’s texting with friends and family. If there’s not texting, there’s Facetime. Today I started a new volunteer position as a tele-chaplain working remotely from Vermont at the facility in New Hampshire where I interned two summers ago. Well, not at the facility, but you know. There’s so much technology we have at our fingertips, and at this moment in time when it is so important to stay home, stay safe, and stay connected, I thank God for that—even if my eyes do go a little wonky by the end of the day. I mean, really, can you imagine riding out this temporary formation as “church dispersed” without such technology?
Think of Saint Paul, for example, traveling between communities of believers dispersed all across the Mediterranean that were days—if not weeks—apart by land or sea. Saint Paul, the great letter writer. There was no Zooming to Thessaloniki, or first-century Facetiming with the folks in Ephesus. There wasn’t even a Priority Mail option—because, well, there wasn’t even a post office. Paul’s letters made their way across the miles by faithful couriers like Tychicus and Timothy who walked them from the sender’s hand to the receiver’s. Once delivered, the letters were often read aloud by those who carried them to the communities for whom they were intended. It isn’t difficult to imagine that those letters were perhaps read in a hushed voice, for there were surely times when it was also not safe for the members of the house churches in Corinth or Philippi to gather together in one place, albeit for different reasons than community spread virus.
But have you ever noticed that Paul’s letters don’t start off as we would expect, with a salutation of something like “Dear So-and-so”? Different from our letters today, and certainly from text messaging, in Greek letter-writing format the name of whoever was sending the letter was mentioned first: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus…” After the salutation, the typical Greek letter of the time would contain a short blessing; Saint Paul characteristically wrote some version of “grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. Next in the epistolary, or letter-writing, style of the time, there would be a thanksgiving. Only then, after what appear to be merely introductory formalities were out of the way did the letter writer get down to the real business of what needed to be communicated. At the close of the letter the writer might convey additional greetings and conclude with a final blessing or benediction.
There’s a reason why Paul’s letters comprise a good deal of our lectionary we read through each Sunday. The message that Paul conveyed in the main body of his letters—selfless regard for others and unwavering love of Christ—is certainly foundational to our faith. But I’ve been thinking lately, in this strange time of Covid-19, that perhaps those formal introductory salutations and closings, the benedictions and blessings and thanksgivings for each other, are not merely formalities, but just as important and something not to be glossed over. For they are the bits where Paul’s love for the communities with which he was communicating—and his longing to be with them again—is most apparent:
“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you” (Philippians 1:3-4)
“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” (1 Thessalonians 3:9)
“For I am longing to see you so that . . . we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Romans 1:1-2)
“Without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers” (Romans 1:9)
I have avoided writing this letter for some time. Then, when I finally sat down to write it, I had no idea how to begin. The first time I made my way to St. Elizabeth’s was a little over two years ago—on a Sunday in February in the year of our Lord, 2018—when I was greeted by a couple of Dave’s. My friend and fellow seminarian Phyllis Bess invited me to visit her field placement; she thought I would like it there. I did. The following Saturday I met with Father Daniel over smoothies at Juiceland, and—well, that’s how I became your seminarian. And how all of you became the community that will always be remembered in my prayers. Unceasingly. I give thanks for all of you, not only for your faith in Christ Jesus, but for the gift of allowing me to live into my ministry and calling. For encouraging me to stretch beyond my comfort zone. For teaching me not only the correct pronunciation of “y’all” but its true meaning. Along the way there have been tender and light-hearted moments; forgiveness and Acts and listening to the heartbeat of the Psalms together. One time there was even lollipop cake!
When I left Austin for Spring Break this year, I could not have imagined that we wouldn’t be able to gather together in person for two months or longer. Harder still to wrap my mind around the fact that I will graduate seminary without a commencement gathering, and that my last Sunday with y’all as your seminarian has already come and gone without our knowing it. But I take heart in what Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, after having to leave that community abruptly, that while for a short time we have been separated from each other, that separation has only been in person, not in heart (1:17). Paul’s letters communicated so much more than correspondence; they sustained those who were temporarily separated from each other. His written words were food for the soul. As Christians, this ought not be difficult for us to imagine: the word as sacrament, as holy, as embodying presence.
And so, let me finally begin and end here with what I have been trying to say all along in this meandering epistle: Thom, a follower of Christ, to all the faithful, God’s beloved in Buda. Grace to you and peace. I thank God every time I remember you.
One of the most common reasons folks reach out to me to talk or to pray is when they can tell something significant is on the horizon, and they’re unsure what to do about it. Sometimes it’s a joyful something; sometimes it’s a matter of discerning a needed change at work or at home; sometimes it’s just putting into words the hard decision they know they need to make. What these have in common is that they’re about preparing for a future she or he knows will be different, even though it’s still largely unknown.
This week I’ve spoken with a couple different folks whose lives are at the cusp of a big decision or transition of some kind, the kinds of unknowns that have a great deal of gravity even without a pandemic afoot. As I talked with and prayed with them, I found myself returning to words I’ve used a lot in different pastoral conversations. They boil down to this: God has already sent the Holy Spirit before us into all possible futures, and already Christ is preparing a place for us there. That ‘place’ could look like repentance, like joyful fulfillment, like any number of things—the particularities of that future aren’t written yet. What is already true is that Christ will be with us there, and we will not be alone.
I want to be clear: this is not God has a plan for you language. I never say that to people because I do not believe it. I’ve seen too much of human suffering and the realities of human agency to believe that each of our lives unfolds according to a plan devised by the God Jesus calls Father. God is too free, too creative, too in love with us for that. To recall Holy Week: it is not God who decrees Christ’s crucifixion, but us and Pilate. It is God who is sovereign even over death and so raises Jesus even after we crucified him.
In short, we human creatures cannot create a world in which God ceases to be God. This is what we see play out between Good Friday and Easter morning, and this is perhaps the very best news.
So: when I say God as sent the Holy Spirit before us into all possible futures, I really mean that the future is unknown and that any number of things are possible, even really bad things. But I also mean that God is so utterly free that, no matter how the course of things goes, God can and does always respond to us with the Truth, the Love, the Way back home given to us in His Son. Neither this pandemic, nor the future it is creating, is part of a script God is willing upon us. (The entailments of that are appalling.) But into whatever future we are headed, God is already sovereign over it. God is already working resurrection there. God is already rolling the stone away.
All these things I say as your priest, and I believe them. As your friend and fellow befuddled and sometimes anxious pilgrim in the time of the coronavirus, I have to do extra work to believe them and also act as though I believe them. Lucy and I are at the cusp of her seminary graduation, moving, getting her ordained, beginning life as a two-clergy household, etc. Even without the pandemic, much would be unknown.
This is a long-looked-forward to transition for us, and it is not happening as it should. I’m angry about that, and beneath the anger is sadness. I’m mourning the fact that I won’t get to see Lucy graduate from seminary. We’ll celebrate it as best we can given the circumstances, but whatever the future holds, it won’t hold pictures of a proper seminary graduation day, of her and Thom and the rest of her classmates in their gowns and academic hoods, smiling and a bit dizzy and ready for a big brunch.
I don’t hold this up as any more or less significant than anything else; it’s just what is mine to carry. It’s one of the pandemic particulars that makes faithful living more difficult than it usually is. I imagine you have your own.
Part of our task right now is to carry our griefs, anxieties, angers and hopes with honesty and faithfulness, for Christ is preparing a place for them, too. What I mean by that is to pray, and to pray from the life you’re actually living, not the life you think you’re supposed to have. Here is an example: when I pray about being sad or angry that Lucy’s seminary isn’t ending with the celebratory bang it should end with, I don’t say to God, “Now I know I shouldn’t feel bad because there are so many other who have it worse off,” etc. This does me no good, and it’s usually a way of diminishing, and therefore trying to escape from, the unwanted emotions I am actually having.
This doesn’t give me license to unfettered drama or self-pity or whatever else. It just means that I’m trying to offer to God—to surrender to God—my heart as it actually is and not the heart I think I should have, which does not exist and is therefore no offering or surrender at all. Giving back to me, little by little, a heart that is more grateful and more peaceful and more steadfast and more holy, that is God’s job, not mine.
“The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit;
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Thus the Psalmist (51:18). What is unsaid is that returning to us hearts that are more loving, more faithful, more peaceful, more grateful, more holy even in the midst of pandemic—that is God’s prerogative in all possible futures, no matter what the present is like. The end is always God’s.
 Those beautiful verses in Jeremiah 29 where God says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” occur in a prophetic book premised on the fact that things in Israel have not gone according to plan.
Today we begin the holiest days of the Church year, from Maundy Thursday into Easter. While we won't be able to gather together this year, I hope you and your household will set aside time to pray together and with your Church family (however dispersed we might be) via our social media outlets. As a reminder, our Maundy Thursday service will be available this evening by 7pm at our YouTube channel and on our Facebook page. Good Friday will be available by 7pm tomorrow evening, and Easter by 8:45am Sunday. However else you choose to mark these holy days--whether by preparing a special home altar or having a particular meal or listening to the various pieces of music Mark and Wanda have put online or observing other rituals, both solemn and joyful--I pray you feel God's Holy Spirit moving among you and yours. Finally, I ask that on your hearts' altars you keep two candles burning in the coming days: one for those who are acutely burdened or afflicted during this pandemic, and the other, with gratitude, for those you hold most dear. Both are ours to hold in prayer.
Finally, on Easter morning, please remember to do something at least a little bit silly. It's the conquering of sin and death, after all. We should behave accordingly when the time comes. Laughter is an appropriate response.
Needless to say, this Holy Week will be different, and not in a way any of us would like. There’s much more to say and to reflect on about all of that, but the time will come. Today, just the facts of what you can expect for Holy Week and Easter.
We will observe Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter morning. We will not hold a Vigil, nor will we gather on our physical campus for any services. Sadly, neither will we celebrate the Eucharist on Easter morning.
Videos for each service will be available on our Facebook page and YouTube channel. I will preach for each service, and bulletins will be provided via email. Wanda and Mark Slater have begun recording some musical pieces to be included with each service. For my part, I have been working to better my online movie making skills, and I am happy to report that our Holy Week services will include faces other than mine on the screen.
Palm Sunday will be up by 8:45am this Sunday, April 5. The service will include the traditional Palm Sunday opening with the appropriate Gospel passage. (You are encouraged to bedeck your doors with branches of any kind!) Our Palm Sunday celebration will combine elements of Morning Prayer and Stations of the Cross.
Maundy Thursday will be up by 7pm on Thursday, April 9. The service will mostly follow the order for Evening Prayer given in the Book of Common Prayer. I will miss observing the stripping of the altar and holding our traditional foot washing. Households with multiple persons are encouraged to wash each other’s feet as so moved.
Good Friday will be up by 7pm on Friday, April 10 (though I hope for it to be available earlier). The service will follow the traditional liturgy appointed in the Book of Common Prayer as closely as possible. I will miss seeing our cassock-clad lay ministers bringing in the rough wooden cross. I am somewhat surprised to notice that I will also miss hammering the cross and hearing it hammered by you. The long silences, at least, we may still observe.
On Holy Saturday, I encourage you to observe your own private devotions as much as possible. Fasting from meat, extra silence, read John18:1-19:37, etc. Or, if it better suits your piety and household, begin decorating or making ready for Easter! Both approaches are acts of faith. In a more regular time, our physical church campus would be bustling with flowery activity on Holy Saturday.
Easter Sunday will be up by 8:45am on Sunday, April 12. The service will (mostly) follow the order for Morning Prayer given in the Book of Common Prayer. As a reminder, I’m inviting the kids of our congregation to tell jokes! (Parents, send videos to me via email. Depending on how many we get, we may sprinkle them in throughout Easter Season.) I’d also encourage the congregation to display the word ALLELUIA! prominently in your home beginning on Easter Sunday, and if you can manage it, get that big beautiful word out onto the lawn or on your front door or on the sidewalk, too, where people can see it. We need it more than ever. Personally, I’d like to shout it right into the face of COVID19.
One other Easter treat to look forward to: our Godly Play team has been hard at work despite the pandemic, and in the days following Easter, Godly Play videos will be available online as well. They are great for kids, but for the adults out there, if you’ve never seen one done, I recommend it.
I look forward to walking together through Holy Week. Remember that the together part of that sentence takes extra work and creativity right now.
It’s confession time: this past Monday I went to the church office, and there wasn’t any reason for me to go. Everything I needed to do (and was able to do) could have been done from our apartment. I knew other church members were taking care of the garden; I had been in touch with both the Scouts and Meals on Wheels; Wanda was checking the mail; all our onsite meetings and services are suspended for now. St. Liz’s physical campus didn’t need me to go. But on Monday, I showered, trimmed my beard, put on a nice shirt, and drove to Buda anyway.
As I’m writing this, it’s day ten (I think?) of going nowhere but the grocery store. On Monday when I went to the office, Mayor Adler had not yet issued Austin’s shelter-in-place order, so my drive to Buda was technically aboveboard. But the truth of the matter is that I just wanted some place to go. I wanted to go to a place where I had to get ready to go beforehand. I wanted some place to go that was somehow mine. A place that asks of me that I have my shirt tucked in and a clean handkerchief in my pocket.
Many of us are missing the usual places we go. Work (for some), to be sure, but also to friends’ houses, to visit family, to school for kids, to the nursing home to see our loved one, to gather as Church. Some of us are having to miss being at a family member’s final bedside right now.
Each of us has within us a kind of homing instinct towards community, good work, places and people that feel like ours in some way. When we are thwarted in our attempts to act on that instinct, we get restless, irritable, even depressed. It’s the feeling of not being where we should be, as though we know that we are called to live and move and have our being elsewhere, but are unable to identify what that elsewhere is. Or maybe we do know what that elsewhere is, but we are unable to pursue it tangibly, as so many of us are unable to do now. Love wants to move and to be unhindered in its movement.
Of the thousands of pages St. Augustine wrote, perhaps his most famous line is from early on in his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
At the deepest level, each of us wants some place to go, some place that demands our careful preparation, some place to go that is ours to go to. And we are restless until we abide there.
For Christians, that place has a name: Jesus Christ. What a human life looks like when his or her heart reposes in God is Jesus. A particular person, in a particular place and time, always and only living from the heart’s deep and loving repose in God.
The restlessness that we feel now, the sense of being cooped up, the longing to return to our usual orbits of work and nurture and relationship—whatever the particulars are for us, each is an icon of the human soul’s deep search for oneness with God in Jesus, that unshakeable repose for which we always search and to which we are always called. Invited, even.
Right now, many of us simply feel out of place. Our rhythms are disrupted. We are lonely; our efforts at rest or productivity seem thwarted before they even begin; we feel unable to be still because the future remains unrelentingly insecure.
Maybe our task, then, is to discern how this time of feeling out of place can become a season of preparation to return more fully to the places we miss. In other words, at best this time of being dispersed is a chance for so much beard trimming and folding of handkerchiefs. At best, perhaps, we can try and get our hearts ready to go some place and call it ours.
Maybe. At best. Perhaps. I use these words deliberately. This is a pandemic, after all. While it may present us with certain opportunities for growth and the revaluation of priorities which we may not otherwise undertake, at its most basic this is a time of self-isolation (for many, though not all) so as to prevent the spread of disease and to safeguard human life. Economic, emotional, and relational distress are part of this picture even for those who are at no serious risk of life-threatening infection.
The world for which we are restless is not a world where pandemics happen. In a world where pandemics do happen, however, faithfulness might look like nothing more heroic or gratifying than staying home and trying to befriend our restlessness.
Faithfulness today is what our responsibility is in this. What happens after that is God’s prerogative. I’ve talked to many of you these past couple weeks. Many of us are a bit bored but otherwise doing fine. Some of us, though, have anxieties of various kinds, not the least of which are job security, isolation, and a nagging sense that the normal world we love is gone. Or at least that it’s far more fragile than we believed it to be.
I’m not sure that I believe ‘normal’ is actually gone in any permanent sense, but it can certainly feel that way. Sometimes, if we commit to befriending our restlessness, we discover that what presents as restlessness is actually grief, the wound of having lost something. Big or small, each of us is experiencing loss right now, even if those losses are temporary. Relationships we rely on disrupted. Money we need in jeopardy. A long-awaited surgery yet again delayed. Trying to hug our grandson through yet another Zoom meeting.
Maybe faithfulness looks like naming honestly what we have lost.
Our particular losses are also icons of the human soul. We each have a dim memory of Eden, which we have lost. Each of us has an intuitive knowledge of what unfallen life with God is like, even though we’ve never experienced it. When we see greed at work in the HEB line, or the fear driving us to purchase all the ammunition at Cabela’s, or the suggestion that something called “the economy” is more important than human life, we are confronted again with the fundamental loss—the fundamental fall—with which humanity lives: we do not live in the world for which we were made.
Grief is an appropriate response.
That’s the kind of sentence after which one might try to turn towards something else. A new image or idea or theological chestnut, maybe. But the thing about grief in my experience is that the only way out is through. Even if what is lost is only temporarily so.
So: what have you lost? Maybe naming it is the first step towards that Some Place To Go we’re always looking for.
Earlier this week, Bishop Reed wrote to the diocese on how both we and the diocesan staff at the Bishop Jones Center will respond with love and responsibility to concerns about the Coronavirus. We at St. Liz have already begun adapting our common life to our current environment. Thus, there’s not much that is new for us. The only change from this past Sunday is that, per Bishop Reed’s instructions, St. Liz will only hold Sunday worship online via Facebook and YouTube through the end of March; I will not be officiating Morning Prayer at our physical campus. This will maintain at least through the end of March.
As I said in my video from Wednesday, my main concerns during this time of ‘Church dispersion’ are to continue our common life of prayer and worship as richly as possible and to make sure that the most vulnerable members of our congregation are cared for. In other words, my concerns are the same as they always are: to help us love God and love our neighbor as fully as possible. To that end, I have some action items for us:
*Tune in for Morning Prayer each Sunday! Videos will be ready by 8:45am, and a PDF bulletin is included in this email. Don’t forget to post a “Pass the Peace” selfie in the comments on Facebook if that’s how you’re watching. And if not, text a selfie to somebody!
*Wanda Slater will be curating a weekly list of prayer requests, birthdays, and anniversaries. I will read the birthday and anniversary names aloud during that portion of our service, and I will read the names of those on the prayer list at the appropriate time. To respect privacy, I will only read first names; I will not read last names or the reasons for the prayer, nor will I include the name of the person who made the request. To add a name, email Wanda at firstname.lastname@example.org We will do a new list each week.
*Pray. If your household already has a daily prayer discipline, keep doing what you’re doing. If not, I encourage your whole household to begin one. A simple way to begin is to pray together each night a prayer on page 134 of the Book of Common Prayer, the prayer beginning “Keep watch, dear Lord….” I encourage you to commit it to memory. It is an old and beautiful prayer, taken from the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo.
*Once a day, reach out to someone from St. Liz or from your community. Call your friends for a chat. Facetime with them for a game of charades. Make a beautiful card and mail it. Watch the same movie on Netflix and then chat about it afterwards. Emotional support and affection offered from afar are important. Yes, physical caution is necessary to prevent the spread of disease right now, and yes, our creaturely needs like sleep and food and brushing our teeth continue like normal. But a human person is not only a body: she is a soul, a heart, a pilgrim spirit in search of companionship on the way. It is in meeting these intangible needs that the Church is at our best.
*Finally, cultivate a little bit of silliness and beauty. Build a fort. Teach your dog to play dead. Kids, do an impression of your mom or dad and put it online so we can see it. (But ask your parents first.) For my part, I’ve been recording songs and putting them on my personal Facebook page. Not just church songs, but other favorites of mine and favorites of my friends. It’s not much. It’s just one way I’m trying to add a little leaven of beauty and joy and humor into what is usually a distressing media mix.
You remain in my prayers, and I trust that I remain in yours. For the foreseeable future, in addition to our weekly email, you can expect online communication from me Wednesday evenings and on Sunday mornings for worship.
Given recent cancellations by the City of Buda (and other bodies), and today’s declarations by Governor Abbott and President Trump, I no longer feel my last communication to our St. Liz family about the Coronavirus to be sufficient. I wrote it Thursday morning, which now feels like a very long time ago. I am writing with yet another update.
Barring unforeseen communications from the Bishop or from other authorities, here is our final answer for the remaining Sundays in March:
*I will officiate and preach at a service of Morning Prayer at both 8:45am and 11am.
This is primarily because I know this communication will not reach
everyone, and that in times of heightened anxiety, many who are not regular members of a faith community are led to seek the comfort of prayer and the proclamation of the Gospel. I intend to keep our doors open on Sunday mornings for this eventuality.
*I will record a video of my leading Morning Prayer and preaching and post it as a
video on Facebook by 8:45am each Sunday morning. You are encouraged to pray from home.
*We will not celebrate communion.
*All Sunday activities and ministries are suspended. This includes
nursery, coffee hour, Children’s Chapel, Godly Play, Choir, Sunday School for adults, and Newcomers Class.
*We will not pass the Peace as this is not an intrinsic part of Morning Prayer. An
alms basin will be available for offerings but we will not pass a basket.
*Our entire Sunday volunteer schedule (MSP) is suspended. BC of the Day, Altar
Guild, Ushers, Greeters, Lectors, Intercessors, Verger, Children’s Chapel, Godly Play, Lay Eucharistic Visitors, coffee hour, etc.
This may sound like a lot. You have heard me say before that St. Elizabeth runs on Holy Spirit and faithful volunteers. I believe the above changes to be good ones precisely because of how faithful you are in your work, both in formal volunteer roles and relationally. Suspending all volunteer work seems to me the only way to guarantee that the whole Body of Christ at St. Liz has the opportunity to rest in the midst of so much anxiety. Your Bishop’s Committee and I are in agreement that these steps are in the best interest of our congregation.
Answers to other questions you may have:
*I will handle pastoral issues, including home communion, on a case-by-case basis.
Please be advised that some hospitals, nursing homes, and retirement communities have taken precautionary measures that may prevent my visiting in certain instances.
*We will continue to pay all of our administrative, nursery, and housekeeping staff
at their usual rates so that none of them are financially burdened during this interruption of our usual community practices.
*Tuesday Morning Prayer will not meet.
*As of my last communication with them (this morning), Meals on Wheels will
continue uninterrupted in the Mission Hall.
*Our various Scout troops will cancel or continue events as they see fit and
will do their own communication. I have asked them to confine themselves to the Mission Hall and to wipe all surfaces and door handles with disinfectant after their gatherings.
*St. Liz is holding no official Life Groups for the remainder of March. However, your
house is your house. If you’d like folks to keep coming over, by all means invite them.
Thank you for your patience as we navigate this uncharted territory together. I remain grateful for all that you do and all that you are. While I do not welcome the Coronavirus or its interruption of our common life, I do pray that we have the grace to receive this as a great Hush from our Creator in the midst of our fevered lives.
I leave you with the words of the Psalmist (46:11-12):
“Be still, then, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.