We were asked to preach a sermon series on the public church at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Roseville, MN during Lent. The remaining services have since been canceled to allow for social distancing. This sermon was the last sermon we preached on Wednesday March 11, 2020. We wanted to share it with you, our partners, because we think it speaks to the tension and anxiety we find ourselves ministering in these days.
There is an irony in asking a congregation to “be public” when the times call for social distancing. The purpose of the Public Church Framework is to move us into a humble relationship with our neighbor for our neighbor’s sake. And sometimes the best thing we can do for our neighbor is disengage and physically distance ourselves. At times like this we must find new ways to be public, new ways to proclaim God’s mercy in the midst of fear.
Fear & Mercy
March 11, 2020
“Going on eastwards with a cord in his hand, the man measured one thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the waist. Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed.”
We continue our tour of Ezekiel’s vision as an invitation to follow the flow of God’smercy as it moves out into the world and your neighborhood. Last week we wondered why this text is so concerned about directions – the water flowing to the southeast of the temple – and we learned it was to show us how the water was flowing over the threshold towards the wilderness, towards the dry and wild places. Ezekiel reorients us to look and move towards the places where God’s spirit is pleading for us to be.
This week we move out beyond the threshold with Ezekiel and his tour guide. They travel four-thousand cubits down river, just over a mile. The river grows deeper and wider the further it flows from the temple. Rivers, and water of any sort, symbolize life and hope in the biblical narrative. This makes sense given the story takes place in the middle east where freshwater is sparse.
Kristina and I (Jeremy) knew when we began our work helping congregations become more engaged with their neighbors, we would need to root this work in the biblical narrative. We needed to know how our work fit into Christ’s work in the world. I was familiar with this Ezekiel text so I introduced it as a possible text that could give our work some shape and direction. The river metaphor was rich for me and I absolutely loved the image of God’s mercy growing deeper and wider the further it flowed from the temple. I remember first moving to the Twin Cities to attend the University of Minnesota. Between classes I would sneak down to the banks of the Mississippi Rivers where I had found a flat rock where I could sit and watch and listen to the river. It calmed me. It was gorgeous to the eyes and the ears. And it reminded me of how quickly life flows past but also how quickly new moments present themselves. It was a place of solace and peace for me. But Kristina had a very different experience with this text, so we think it is important to acknowledge sometimes where there is mercy, there is also fear. This is her story.
Wading in can feel risky.
The first time I (Kristina) read this text with Jeremy, I had an opposite reaction to his of this ever widening and deepening river. A river I could not cross sounded potentially treacherous. When I was in 3rd grade on a family vacation to Montana, I wanted to go white water rafting. My dad agreed to take me on what was supposed to be a beginner level trip. We boarded the sturdy inflatable raft with a dozen others, including our river guide. The sun was warm in the summer sky, the water was rushing bubbly and beautiful, the picturesque mountain river scenery was plush with trees and wildflowers along the banks. Of course I was just along for the ride, sitting between my dad and another kind, older lady as the rush of adventure began. We started off smoothly, enjoying the fits of speed and the slower sauntering at various points along the river. But then we hit a quick patch and the raft violently jostled us, tossing three people overboard. They floated behind the raft through the white caps until the water grew calm again. A bit shook up but uninjured, they climbed back in the raft. All was well for a bit until the raft gathered a rush of speed facing head on towards a large rock. Before anyone could react, the raft was stuck. The guide shouted steering commands to the adults with paddles and barked orders at the rest of us to move to one side of the raft. The back end was getting pulled under by the current and the raft was filling with water, fast. The nice lady who had been sitting by me was now holding me tightly while the water krept up to our ankles. My dad worked with others to simultaneously fight the current pouring water into the boat while also trying to dislodge the plaible raft from the rock it was slowly wrapping itself around. There was a lot of confusion and a lot of water. I was afraid, but barely had time for the fear to erupt in emotion because, just as quickly as we got stuck, we became dislodged and floated, albeit a bit bloated, along the current to calmer waters. We got out and emptied the raft of its extra water before climbing back in and coasting down stream to our final destination…
When I read the Ezekiel text I can feel the water rising – first to my ankles, then my knees, then my waist and then I can feel it kicking my feet up from underneath me, pulling me along the mysterious dark current – to adventure or to danger – I’m not sure and therefore it leaves me on edge.
Our two different reactions to this abundant and vast river of God’s mercy has left me (Kristina) wrestling with the question: What does God’s mercy actually look like? Will the power of its surge overcome me or help me rise above? Will I know the difference? If my experience of it stirs fear, can I still trust it to be God’s abundant and life giving mercy?
Theologian Phylis Trible teaches that the Hebrew word for mercy is the word for womb, only with different vowel points. She would define mercy as “womb like mother love” – the capacity of the mother to totally give oneself over to the need and reality and identity of her child. This kind of love tenaciously embodies God’s deep desire and intention for creation embedded in the promise of life. If God’s mercy is like a womb, and this mercy is as vast as a river that cannot be crossed, then I think we can begin to imagine that God’s mercy not only moves through creation like a river but also holds us closely and intimately with the very source of life itself.
Jeremy asked me when we were preparing for tonight’s message, if I have ever encountered God’s mercy cloaked in fear. My immediate thoughts went to my earliest moments as a parent, 13 years ago, looking at my fragile and beautiful newborn, counting his tiny toes and fingers, absorbing his heavenly smells all while simultaneously feeling my heart sink to the floor. Never, ever, in my life had I been so uncomfortably aware of how vulnerable I was, how fragile life was, how sure I was that I would be a complete waste if anything ever happened to this new miracle in my life. God’s womb-like-mother-love, in the flesh, in my arms – eliciting both fear and awe, simultaneously and overwhelmingly.
But even as I share this joyful part of my own story, I am aware of our human tendency to find it easier to see God’s mercy in the good things, in the happy endings. It’s easier to see God’s mercy where there is life. But we all know, where ever there is life, there is also death. What about the painful parts of our stories? Does God’s mercy flow there? In the places where fears are realized and nightmares are reality? Where the life we hoped for answers us with de
ath instead? Where the rafting trip ends with more than a few close calls, but a tragedy?
My womb has known life. It has also known death. Three miscarriages, five little blessings in total carried in my womb, all too tiny for this world. It was a time when my husband’s and my world were saturated with grief and fear and anger. Grief at the loss of these small promises of blessing. Fear that my body might not be able to participate in new life. And anger at God for seeming to remain silent and at the world that seemed to go on around me without skipping a beat. During this season of loss, I struggled to find my footing. I was in over my head. The waves were crashing around me and no matter how hard I tried to find a landing to catch my breath, I could not. With our humble raft quickly taking on water, neither my husband or I had any energy left to search for glimpses of God’s mercy.
I shared this heartache with a rabbi friend of mine and would like to share with you the good news he offered me during this time. He said that the rabbis would teach that the root of the Hebrew word for blessing is the same root word in the word knee. And so, they asserted that God’s blessing is anything that brings you to your knees. God’s blessing is with you in the moments you drop to the ground, hands stretched towards the heavens in praise and thanksgiving. And God’s blessing is with you in the moments life completely bowls you over, and you sink to the floor in despair.
God’s blessing is God’s presence.
It is the blessing of God’s mercy present in the womb love surrounding the particular joys and sorrows that make up your story. This gentle truth offered by a good friend, reminded me to look up and out and peak through the grief, fear and anger to a world of loved ones and strangers who were in fact by my side. Some offering an embrace, some offering to help scoop water out of the damn raft, others pointing out signs of life along the river, still present even with the sting of death lingering.
God’s mercy brings life and accompanies death. We can trust this promise because we know Jesus. We can trust God’s womb like love is deep and wide and has room for all that life offers and all that death denies. We can trust that God’s mercy seeps from the very center of God’s being into the places where hope seems extinguished and the promise of a future seems unfathomable. Sometimes we just need help to remember to look for it.
I (Jeremy) love this idea of mercy as “womb-like-mother-love”. Throughout scripture we often come across the number 40. It means “long enough”. The average length of human gestation is 40 weeks. So, the number 40 in scripture means long enough for something new to be born. Many of these stories of 40 in scripture are book-ended by the river, or by water in some form or fashion – a watery rebirth.
- Noah’s family and the 40 days of rain
- Israel crossed the Red Sea, spending 40 years in the wilderness, then crossed the Jordan River into the promised land.
- Jesus crossed the Jordan to spend 40 days being tempted then crossing the Jordan River to return.
- Lent is 40 days not counting the Sundays on which we gather to remember our baptism.
These moments of something new being born are both moments of mercy and of fear.
If you were to walk along the banks of the Mississippi River you would see a deep and wide river. But this river does not simply create life. It creates an entire ecosystem. And in an ecosystem you will always have life and death. You can’t have one without the other.
When God’s mercy flows into the world it doesn’t only flow to you. It doesn’t only relieve your drought. It creates an ecosystem of flourishing. An ecosystem of interdependent life. So our text tonight is a call to walk alongside God’s mercy as it flows into the world. To see it. To measure it. To be in awe of it. To fear it. To trust it. And to possibly wade into it.
Poet Mary Oliver says, “Attention is the beginning of devotion” so we invite you to pay attention and look for mercy and fear this week. The Awareness Examen is a very old spiritual practice of prayerfully reflecting on your day, looking for places where you have encountered hope and despair or mercy and fear. It is a habit that can help you learn to see God at work in your daily lives. Find time at the end of each day to reflect on these two questions.
- Where did you encounter mercy today?
- Where did you encounter fear today?
God’s living water is flowing into our world, into our neighborhoods, it grows deeper and wider as it goes. We believe this water is the source of life and hope and healing. But it does not mean life lived along the river is easy. It is full of fear and despair. Yet, we are invited to follow it, to measure it, see how wide it grows, to learn from it, and to witness it bring life and accompany death.
From dust. To dust. Amen.