Sermon by Pastor Bill Chadwick | April 19, 2020
I think of myself as a pretty positive person generally. I hope others perceive me that way, though I am not entirely sure. I have a friend a little older than I am who has a T-shirt that reads: “I never thought I’d be a crabby old man/But I’m killin’ it!” Gosh, I hope that I don’t earn one of those T-shirts.
I think that I am generally positive, even-keeled, optimistic. But I confess that this coronavirus has thrown me for the proverbial loop. I have been cranky and anxious too much of the time. I even broke down last week and had my first Mountain Dew in a year and nine months and three weeks and two days. (But who’s counting.) Even that didn’t help. Much of the time I’ve been anxious. And I’m embarrassed about it. Because I am well aware that I am personally less affected by Covid-19 than about 7 billion people on the planet.
I don’t want to waste my days (and nights) in anxiety and feeling depressed. And I’m sure you don’t, either. How can we redeem this time?
Listen to these words from the apostle Paul. Now, some of what Paul has written in his letters I really struggle with, (and, if I may be so bold, I think he actually got some things wrong, like women keeping silent in church.) But wow, his dedication is impressive. Think about all the things he went through in his journey of faithfulness to Christ. As he writes to the congregation at Corinth: Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in (every kind of) danger …, in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. II Corinthians 11:25-27.
Sheesh! And yet Paul is able to write the following words of comfort to the church at Philippi:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. Let your patience be known to everyone, for the Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but pray about everything. With thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:4-8)
And, remember that Paul was writing those words from prison! “Rejoice always…don’t worry about anything…”
I want to start with us thinking together about a couple of versus. But I do not mean biblical verses (v-e-r-s-e-s), but versus, as in “against,” v-e-r-s-u-s.
The first is control vs. trust
My wife’s older brother, Dr. Mark Jacobson, has been a medical missionary with the Lutheran Church in Tanzania for almost 40 years. He wrote this in his most recent newsletter: As I contemplate the impact of COVID in Africa, I wonder if Africans might… survive this newest catastrophe better than we in the west. Their familiarity with not being in control has deepened their faith and reliance on God while we in the west are being devastated, not only by a virus, but the realization that we are not in control of our own destinies. Anybody out there have control issues? I don’t personally have control issues, but I know some people who do. In developing countries our wealth and technology allow us to control so much of our lives in ways that previous generations could not even imagine. We control the temperature of our surroundings. For most of us, our pantries and refrigerators are never empty. Safety rules, nutrition, hygiene, antibiotics, vaccines and the medical community help most of us to live decades longer than could have even been imagined two centuries ago. All of this gives us the illusion of control in our lives.
But now this microscopic, invisible virus has shattered all illusions of control. And we are anxious!
Again, as Mark wrote: Africans’ familiarity with not being in control has deepened their faith and reliance on God.
So, we control what we can control, and then we trust in God for the rest.
Second, optimism vs. hope. Famed Catholic theologian and author Henri Nouwen noted: While optimism makes us live as if someday soon things will get better for us, hope frees us from the need to predict the future and allows us to live in the present with deep trust that God will never leave us alone. Henri Nouwen
“Hope frees us from the need to predict the future.” We don’t know when the sequestering and social distancing will be over. The virus—and potential vaccine—will tell us that. For now, we live in the present with “deep trust that God will never leave us alone.”
Control vs. trust…Optimism vs. hope…
Now, my main point for today. In a previous congregation one of my parishioners was a master gardener. I had planted a flowering crabapple in my front yard a couple years earlier, so I asked Harold about pruning it. He told me the basics: obviously, if there is a goofy branch, trim that back; where two branches are crossing each other, cut one off. And most important, prune more than you think you should, for the best results. “If in doubt, cut it out.”
So, I trimmed my tree. Then I stepped back and cut off some more branches. And one more time, remembering his admonition, “Prune more than you think you should.” The tree looked vastly different than when I started. I was satisfied that I had done a good job.
The next day I see Harold pull up in front of my house, unannounced, in his little Toyota pick-up. I walk outside to greet him. He hops out of the cab, grabs his pruning clippers out of the box, wanders over to my crabapple tree, looks up at it and then at me, “Is this the tree that needs pruning?”
“Well,” I stammered. “It’s the tree that did need pruning, but I already did it, following your instructions.”
He looks at the tree, back to me, then back to the tree. “Pffft!” Wordlessly, he starts into pruning the already-pruned crabapple tree. Snip. Snip. Snip. Snip. The pile of branches below the tree is growing. The volume of the tree itself is rapidly shrinking. Snip. Snip. Snip. Snip. I am alarmed. Very concerned. In two minutes there is a huge pile of branches on the ground. And just a few branches left on the tree. I am absolutely sick. I no longer have any confidence that Harold knows what he’s doing. I’m sure this tree is going to die from that very major surgery.
I force myself to be pleasant and thank Harold, though I don’t mean it AT ALL. Harold says, “Glad to help,” and climbs back into his pickup and drives away, leaving me to deal with the huge pile of branches.
What do you think happened? Over the next few months that tree developed into an amazing specimen and in the spring produced a bounty of blossoms. I became a believer. In pruning.
With sequestering, we have had pruning forced on us. There are a lot of things we can’t do any more. I’m sure many of you have seen the photo of a church sign which reads: “I hadn’t planned on giving up quite this much for Lent.” Of course, people with young kids have MORE to do than usual. I totally get that. But a lot of things have been pruned out of all of our lives. My heart just aches for people who can’t hug their grandkids, and worse, for people in care centers and hospitals that can’t have visitors.
But some pruning of the activities in our lives may be a helpful thing, which leads to growth.
Let me tell you about Amy, one of my all-time favorite people.
I love being a parish pastor for a lot of reasons, not just the big money. I absolutely savor the opportunities I have to deal with all kinds of people, all ages of people, in all sorts of situations in life. Two of my favorite groups of people are folks in memory care, and middle school kids. I’ve had the privilege of working with hundreds of each. My all-time favorite youth was Amy from decades ago in the Stillwater congregation. She had a 300-watt smile and a wicked sense of humor and amazing joie di vivre. Brilliant, compassionate, hard-working. She went on to graduate from Duke University Law School, and then went to work protecting God’s Creation through the Environmental Protection Agency and lived for years in Washington, D.C. Four years ago, at age 49, I believe, Amy was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It didn’t take long for the medical folks to realize this was not going to end well. But she started in on a regimen of chemo and other medical procedures.
Two years after the discovery of her cancer, one of her friends was also diagnosed with a terminal illness. He asked her for advice on coping with such a prognosis. She emailed back a powerful letter with the heading: “Strategies for living under a dark cloud.”
I will read you portions of it.
“Start with gratitude. Enumerate your many blessings. 50-plus good years, loving family and friends, excellent medical care, insurance that pays for it, and on and on…” Let me interject here and remind us of Paul’s words: beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Let us not focus on the “what ifs” of the pandemic, all the things over which we have so little control, but think about all that for which we are grateful
Make the most of every moment.
It is undeniable logic that the less time you have, the more you should value it. For me, that doesn’t mean cramming tons of activity into every day. I don’t have a bucket list; I am just grateful for every day that I feel good. But I am more intentional about prioritizing. (Here’s the key I am wanting us to get.) I have a ‘rhymes with bucket’ list: I have dropped obligations that were not a good use of my time. I focus on just being present in every moment. Taking the full enjoyment of every little thing. A great cup of coffee, a sunny day.
Remember your job
Just like before your illness, your job is to be the best person you can be in every moment…everyone dies, but “you win” if you live your life with grace and dignity and face your death the same way…
When that anxiety creeps up to your throat, and you find yourself unable to choose your own thoughts? Exhale, and keep exhaling, deeply. Relax the muscles that are tensed. I find singing and laughing also help dispel anxiety.”
She finished by including a cartoon: Charlie Brown and Snoopy are sitting on a dock, looking out at a lake. We see them from the back. Charlie Brown says: “Some day, we will all die, Snoopy!” Snoopy replies, “True, but on all other days, we will not.”
A “rhymes with bucket” list. Things we will stop doing; that are not worth our limited time and energy.
I love that. I think challenging times like we find ourselves in might inspire us to make our own list of things to prune. Perhaps now would be a good time to let go of that ancient grudge we’ve been clinging to for all these years. Perhaps now would be a good time to forgive our self for that long-ago mistake. Perhaps now would be a good time to let go of trying to control our adult children. (Ooh, that one hits close.)
For myself personally, and this was the impetus for today’s sermon, one thing I’ve decided is not to spend energy staying angry over what the government is doing right or doing wrong. After the first week or two, I decided to quit spending time on sputtering. I’m spending my energy in prayer and holding people in the light, and doing whatever I can to be helpful.
What in your life needs pruning? I invite you to make your own “rhymes with bucket list.”
And I’m going to finish with two prayers. First, once more the wonderful poem by Rabbi Naomi Levy.
We are frightened, God.
Worried for our loved ones,
Worried for our world.
Helpless and confused,
We turn to You
Seeking comfort, faith and hope.
Teach us God, to turn our panic into patience,
And our fear into acts of kindness and support.
Our strong must watch out for our weak,
Our young must take care of our old.
Help each one of us to do our part to halt the spread of this virus.
Send strength and courage to the doctors and nurses
In the frontlines of this battle,
Fortify them with the full force of their healing powers.
Send wisdom and insight to the scientists
Working day and night across the world to discover healing treatments.
Bless their efforts, God.
Fill our leaders with the wisdom and the courage
To choose wisely and act quickly.
Help us, God, to see that we are one world,
Who will rise above this pandemic together.
Send us health, God,
Watch over us,
Grace us with Your love,
Bless us with Your healing light.
Hear us, God,
Heal us, God,
Finally, a prayer about control, the original full version of the Serenity Prayer:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Again, from Paul’s words to the Philippians: “With thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” And in I Thessalonians Paul wrote: “Give thanks in all circumstances.” And Amy’s advice was to start with gratitude.
As I have shared with you before, I start my morning devotions with a gratitude journal. I have to fill a column of thanksgivings in my journal before I go on with the rest of my devotions. And choosing an attitude of gratitude makes a huge difference in the start of my day.
I invite you to join with me in an alphabet prayer of thanksgiving. I’ll give you a moment or two to think of your answer and then I’ll offer mine. These can be related to the pandemic or not.
Farmers Faith Fathers Friends
Getting fatter, not hungrier. Green Grass
I Ice out. Ice cream. I miss you!
Sewers of masks
Taxes. What a privilege to owe taxes. Truth
Vitamins. Ventilators. Vaccines
X-rays. X-men for some of you
Zoom. Kris and I were supposed to be heading for South Africa in two weeks for my niece’s wedding. That, of course, is not going to happen. But Sarah and her Parisian fiancée Stephane still got legally married at the courthouse, and their families, and people from four countries were able to view it through Zoom.
Give thanks in all circumstances.