Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: I Got Your Back – September 3, 2021

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Look for a letter from me this week explaining our fall offerings starting on September 12th (that is, next Sunday). The reason it hasn’t already gone out is that I’m pretty frustrated right now. You may be too. We all we told and believed that this September would be a restoration of life on the other side of the pandemic. We imagined gathering together without masks, sitting very closely together, breathing the same air, maybe even exchanged the peace with handshakes and the occasional embrace. Instead we are entering into a yet one more new phase of the pandemic with its own rules and ways of doing most everything in our lives.

I’m particularly frustrated by the experience of the impossibility of finishing big projects during the pandemic. We organize, plan, and expend enormous energy to build the new thing here at All Saints and just as we are getting good at it, just as we are gaining momentum, and it is starting feel like a finished product to be proud of, some new thing needs to be build because the virus has changed. All of you have your own version of this going on in your own lives as you debate about which of your own all plans will be cancelled and which ones will be changed in some way. The virus continues to set the timeline and our project here at All Saints’ remain provisional and unfinished, and many of your individual ones do too.

With the current disappointment and frustration, it is possible to turn on each other, to take our fear and anger about the virus spread and deaths out on each other. The important thing here is for us stick together, to have each other’s backs, and to remember that although there are real problems and difficulties in this world near and far, but the problem is not each other. Let’s think the best of and you and me and our neighbors as we struggle together in this new phase of the unknown. In the words of the Epistle of James this morning, remember that “mercy triumphs over judgment”

My letter that goes out this week will be our most positive plan, but any part of it may fall apart because of the new realities. We have a solid plan about how to do church for everyone of all ages, for our vaccinated members and our many young members who are not even eligible for any vaccination, for our members that are comfortable gathering together and singing, and for our more cautious members who are looking for brief services with a few people that have what they most need with the least amount of risk. I have no doubt that even this next strategy will very likely turn out to be yet one more unfinished project. It is not the arrival of the new future and we can just settle down into it. So knowing that, how do we find the joy in it, how do we find the love, knowing that this next way of doing things is just another passing phase in a series of unknown length?

As we do with all our questions and dilemmas, let’s turn to the Bible for help. The help we need right now this morning. Our gospel reading tells us of a Gentile woman with a really sick daughter. He daughter is so sick that her mother becomes so desperate as to abandon her daughter and go out in search of Jesus. The desperation of that woman away from her child searching for help is hard to spend much time thinking about. How long did it take her to find Jesus? We don’t know. We do know that in her search she had resolved that once she found him, she would get on her knees and beg with all she had on behalf of her daughter. We don’t even know that by the time she found Jesus, did she know that her daughter was even still alive.

How many of her life plans had already shattered because she loved this little girl, this terribly afflicted little girl? None of that was anything she had planned. This desperate persistent mother is remembered as a heroic example for us, because instead of being trapped in her own plans and bitter at their loss, she let them go and embraced faith and love as her new life. Jesus heals her daughter. I can imagine her grabbing and holding that healed little girl and knowing that instead of that being the restoration of her life as it was, it was instead the start of something new. And faith, the very faith that brought her to that point in her life, would continue to be what enabled her to live our her remaining days with courage. Because that is what it would take for her to live boldly knowing what she knew, knowing that what she loved most, could be lost again, and remained fragile, remained human. It takes faith to love passing finite things without holding back, without reserve, without protection. And this Syrian woman had it and her breaking heart was as visible as the faith and love that drove her.

We may imagine day to day that our life is a kingdom of our own making that is solid and sure. We may even draw up lists of what is and is not in it, what we’ll make happen, what we’ll accomplish, where we’ll go, but human lives are never really that secure, settled, and predictable. Whatever we do, whoever we are, it all ends at some seemingly arbitrary point in time with whatever projects we may have had going on just stopped, set aside, and well, eventually largely forgotten. There’s a message for you, right? But the Bible says such things all the time, nearly on every page. Take for example today’s Psalm which says, “Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them. When they breathe their last, they return to earth, and in that day their thoughts perish. Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in the Lord their God” (Psalm 146:2-4).

Maybe that constant Biblical truth was what this ancient heroic woman knew and what we can learn about her is the truth about us, and that truth isn’t as oppressive as it may seem. In fact, to know it, could make dashed hoped, our current starting and stopping, our two steps forward and one step back problem, less all-consuming. Or perhaps it could free us and liberate us from the vast majority of our upset and live more fully into the lives we have and not miss out on what remains before us.

With that Syrian woman by our side, we may be able to embrace the truth that, even without the pandemic, our lives have this unfinished, imperfect quality to them that can’t be overcome. And here is the important part, life, the divine gift that it is, remains in all this messiness, even if our experience of life is only as an ache for something more. Another word for an unfinished, unresolved, intellectual and spiritual project of the heart is “faith.” The word for faith as a finished complete project is knowledge. To live in the half light and unsteadiness of the incomplete is the life of faith. That life of faith involves living in the uncertainty, it involves the searching, and the doing. As James tells us today, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17). Or he could have said, “is dead, already.” To not be dead already, is to have a living faith in the succession of changes beyond our control. That is true in any century, pandemic or not.

So as we walk this path together, however we do it, wherever it goes, don’t be overly disappointed and upset with the universe thwarting your plans. That is only human and age old. Also don’t be overly frustrated with one another. Even as the world resists our plans, we should treasure each other and each others’ gifts instead. Know that the gifts we see in each other, the gifts of all the saints, are these beautiful momentary flickers of light that we are privileged to see at all. No, that is not everything, there is no completion in that, but it also not nothing. And the very fact of not being nothing is something. And that there is something, and continues to be, is the most wondrous fact of all.

Be present, O merciful God, protect us, inspire us, and give us faith in the days to come so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.