This is the week the quarantine ate our family.
I can’t really explain why. For six weeks, we did okay. Dana and I both had hard moments of stress, concerned about the uncertainty of it all. The kids missed their friends and even going to school some. But mostly, we played games, enjoyed increased family time, did some projects we’d been meaning to get to for a while, and made the best of it.
But since late last week, there’s been a shift. We’re all more emotional. We’re all struggling more. We all have shorter tempers. We’re more isolated from each other, less likely to hang out, play games, or do other things as a family. We’re retreating into ourselves more in our own ways.
Why now? In week seven of this quarantine? Hard to believe it’s been seven weeks.
Dana pointed out on April 26 that we’d hit 40 days at home. Forty days: the biblical number of the season of Lent, the number of days Jesus spent in the wilderness before beginning his ministry, the number of years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, the number of years some prophets report for the exile.
Peter writes to those in exile; to those experiencing suffering from being socially distant.
Let’s hear our scripture for this morning: 1 Peter 1:1-9
We’re in a kind of social exile.
We’re separated from each other and from meaningful contact. Even extended families are separated from each other. It’s been long enough now that a significant number of us have gone through birthdays, anniversaries, or other special occasions without being surrounded by friends and family. That separation puts us in a kind of social exile.
And gradually, we grow depressed. That longing, that missing, gets down deep in our bones. We feel captive in our own homes, boxed in by regulations and social expectation that we be distant. And this is not to mention the great uncertainty that lies before us: how much longer will this go on, how much longer will we suffer financially; will our families, our businesses, our church, make it through this?
The people to whom Peter writes could relate.
They’re living in social exile all over the Roman Empire. This is a circular letter, one written to several different churches to encourage them to keep the faith. And they need the encouragement. They’re suffering, they’re struggling, under the weight of being social exiles.
They might as well have a deadly disease the way people treat them. To become a Christian at this time, around the year 90, is to decide that you’ll no longer have the same friends you once did, you won’t be greeted at the local bath house the way you once were, your business relationships will change and you might even lose business, and in the street, you’ll get the side-eye. All because you decided to follow Christ.
There’s no widespread persecution at this point; no systematic, legal, effort by emperors to stamp out Christianity from the empire. None of that; just the punishment of no longer being part of the in crowd.
In the Bible Belt, we don’t experience this. With rare exception, everyone in Dodge County at least affiliates with a church, even if they don’t go regularly or haven’t gone in decades. Christianity is the norm and, to not be a Christian is to be on the outside. So imagine if it was the reverse. The reverse of our norm is what Peter’s audience is experiencing.
Christians were social trouble makers. They didn’t go to temple to pay their homage to the Roman gods and, thus, to the empire. They were thus seen as unpatriotic, unsupportive of an empire that kept them safe and provided for them in manifold ways. Just like America today, the peace of Rome and the stability of its government ensured that commerce could flow freely across the empire. People got rich, a middle class grew, and most enjoyed a high quality of life.
So why wouldn’t you go to temple, pay homage to whatever god the emperor favored at the moment, to show your appreciation for the empire? Those outside the church, nonChristians, couldn’t understand. So, instead, they got even by ostracizing their Christian neighbors, business partners, and friends; putting Christians into a social exile.
We can all attest: social exile is hard. We’re all suffering under the weight of it, not because of our faith, but because of this virus. And what are we to do about it? We face the same challenge as the people of Pontus, Galatia, and Cappadocia: there’s no end date to our exile. We are suffering like the people of Asia and Bithynia, knowing the loss of relationship and the longing for the old order.
What are we to do in the midst of that suffering?
This was the week that the quarantine ate our family. It chewed us up and spit us out. For this was the week that all my activity collapsed.
For the last seven weeks, I’ve been very active. I’m always active; that’s just what I do. But I’ve been extra active, trying a whole host of different activities as I relearn my job. A big part of being a pastor is being present with others and being present virtually just doesn’t cut it. I have colleagues who welcome this turn to virtual existence because they’ve wanted the church to move there all along and are comfortable in that environment. That’s not me. There’s no replacing being in your hospital room, standing by your bedside; there’s no replacing exchanging greetings and conversing on Sunday mornings; there’s no exchanging gatherings at your homes or special events like the Easter egg hunt; and there’s definitely no exchanging the power of breaking bread at communion or holding your babies for baptism or even just being in the same room while preaching.
We have also made friends here and I miss them. I miss seeing Jackson ride up and down the street with his friends in the neighborhood. I miss the social activity, both for myself and my family.
Professionally and personally, there’s a sense of loss.
And I’ve been trying to make up for that loss with activity. That wasn’t a conscious thought; it was a reaction. I’m experiencing loss, I’m grieving, and so I’ll make up for it by doing as much as I can. I’ve tried a whole host of different ideas, some of which many of you have seen on social media, some of which only a few have, all in an attempt to stay busy, unconsciously reacting against the stress and loss I feel.
Because what I’m experiencing, and what all of us who resonate with this sermon are experiencing, is grief. Grief comes not just when someone dies but anytime we experience a sense of loss.
And when we’re experiencing loss, when we’re grieving, when we’re suffering, all we can do is wait.
That’s what I hear in Peter’s language in our scripture. He speaks of an inheritance, of suffering for just a while, of not yet seeing Christ; all language of waiting. Right now’s experience is tough, it’s laced with grief and suffering, but it’s only temporary, for soon you’ll see Christ and know the fullness of the blessing that is our rightful inheritance as brothers and sisters of God’s Son.
For I can imagine the people in Bithynia grieving. I can hear the women in Asia crying at the loss of their former friends. I can hear the men of Cappadocia longing for that friendly glass of wine with their neighbors. I can hear the marketplace merchants of Pontus lamenting the loss of business. I can hear the children of Galatia asking their parents why they can’t go play with their old friends.
Can you hear their grief? Can you sense the grief around you in our community, just as it was for theirs?
And Peter’s best encouragement is wait.
I didn’t want it to be that way. Monday is the day I research my sermon and start to form thoughts about it. I didn’t like Peter’s language and wanted to twist it into a call to action. Tuesday is the day I review my research and do what my old English teachers called free-write: I just start writing and see where it takes me. That results in a focus and function statement; the thesis and take away for the sermon. Tuesday, I wrote and wrote about taking action, about doing things for the kingdom, justifying it with Peter’s language.
But as is often the case, the Holy Spirit wouldn’t let go of me.
Wednesday is the day I write the first draft of the sermon. On Wednesday, I sat down to write. I tried to write about action, about doing things for the gospel, about moving on toward perfection and being sanctified and how we’re partners with God in our faith; all good Wesleyan things, all ways to illuminate what it means to be Methodist theologically. And I couldn’t do it.
Instead, I went to Macon for my allergy shots. And on the drive, it occurred to me that this scripture is about waiting; waiting through suffering, waiting through grief, waiting.
Scripture is full of calls to wait. How long, the Psalmist asks God over and over again? Psalm 40 is famous for that because of the U2 song 40, the one that ended their concerts for over a decade and is loosely based on Psalm 40. I preached using Bob Dylan’s song “All Along the Watchtower,” where watchmen look out over the night, waiting, just like in the prophet Habakkuk. In scripture, Moses is ready to move and act against Pharaoh and ends up killing a man, running into exile in the desert, where he meets God. David wants to move to overthrow Saul, but he, too, must wait. Prophets from Isaiah to Zechariah have to wait to start their ministry. Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days, waiting for his ministry to begin.
And perhaps most powerfully, as Jesus faces his own death while in the Garden on Maundy Thursday, he calls to his disciples with a simple request: watch and pray. They, of course, fall asleep instead of keeping the night watch with Jesus, but in a moment of deep agony and grief, knowing all that is to come, Jesus doesn’t take action; he watches, he waits, and he prays.
The Bible is full of waiting. For these churches, just as with Jesus in the garden, the prescription from Peter is wait and pray. For us today, the prescription is wait and pray.
Last Sunday, during drop off of food, I heard a Christmas carol coming from a car as food was dropped off. It was Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. In the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, we often miss what’s happening at church: we’re waiting.
Advent means waiting. It means watching, keeping a hopeful lookout for the coming of Christ. During Advent, in the Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, we’re supposed to experience what it was like for those who waited for the coming, the advent, of the Christ child, God’s fulfillment of God’s promises to the world.
So maybe, since it’s not a holiday season currently, we can experience Advent now. We can eagerly anticipate the coming of God’s redemption, God’s healing, God’s recovery of the world. For it will come. It always does. We can keep watch for God’s light, for God sightings as Leigh puts it to the children; waiting and praying for our salvation.
Peter’s language is like Advent; it calls on us to wait, yes, but to wait with hope. We can do so because we know that God wins in the end. God will provide. God did not cause this virus; hear that clearly, this is not some test, not some smiting or consequence of our or the world’s bad actions. That’s not how we believe God operates. This virus and all of its repercussions is the consequence of evil in the world.
But God triumphs over evil. God has the last word. God redeems, which is the fancy theological way of saying that God turns the bad stuff of life into good, somehow. God is the God of great reversals, turning our mourning into dancing, our grief into joy, our isolation into comfort, our exile into peace.
And so, like at Advent, we wait with hope. That means, we wait without fear. I can’t help but think of that line from O Little Town of Bethlehem, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
The hopes and fears of these forty days are met in Christ, who shines in our dark streets. We live and move and have our being in a time of darkness. I run and play with the kids on these beautiful spring days and can’t help but think of the sheer irony; for our beautiful days are the opposite of our lived experience.
Waiting means turning into the darkness, embracing the reality of the moment. All my activity, all my striving, was me running away from the grief, from the loss, from accepting that all I can do, all any of us can do, is wait. All we can do is live in the darkness.
And! And…and keep a watch for the light; wait and pray, with a watchful eye for God sightings.
The light is in our darkness. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The light is in the food we’ve given away and your generosity that matches. The light is in the way we’ve fed the third shift at the hospital and your generosity. The light is in the masks you’ve made and the cards you’ve sent.
The light is in the way you call and check on each other, extending the pastoral ministry of this church in a way I could never do on my own. The light is in the way you offer encouragement to each other.
But look closer still. The light is in our families. The light is in my oldest son, whose endless well of compassion and love amaze me. The light is in my youngest son, whose energy and enthusiasm no amount of darkness can dampen. The light is in my wife, whose tireless dedication to her faith even in the dark moments of grief inspire my faith. The light is in my family, for we have a great one that’s full of love and that exemplifies to me the love of Christ, for just when one of us is weak, the other is strong, and just when one is suffering, the other knows just how to provide.
Where do you see the light?
We wait, but we wait with hope. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. Grief is awful, loss is terrible, and social exile is making us all suffer. But we have a “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading…we who are being protected by the power of God through faith…even if now for a little while [we] have had to suffer various trials…”
We have an inheritance, even though “we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for…we have a delightful inheritance. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives and we shall live in the house of the Lord forever.”
Look for the light. Keep a watch for it. And while you do, wait and pray. No matter the darkness that ensues, yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
In this dark time, the light still shines.
Where do you see the light?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.