On February 26, 2020 Lent began with Ash Wednesday. On February 29, the first confirmed death from COVID 19 in the United States was a man in Washington State. On March 6, at the end of a very difficult week in which a mentally ill man attempted to crawl into our groundskeeper’s bedroom window, a man was stabbed multiple times on the sidewalk outside the Edible Hope Kitchen. He survived due to the quick work of Sara Bates, who called 911 and applied pressure to his wounds. March 9 was the final Sunday we held public worship indoors. By the following week everything had shut down.
My journal from that time reads, “Things are revealed to be not in our control. We can’t control the drug crisis, mental illness, pandemics or politics. It’s not clear who will survive this. How many people do I know who will die – parishioners, elderly mothers, aunts, acquaintances? The church will not be the same. We are learning how to communicate remotely – who will we be when we are not physically present to one another? How will we continue to care for the needy when it’s even more risky? What will our world be like? Will this exacerbate factionalism, nationalism, exclusion, violence, a scramble for resources? Or will we recognize how connected we all are?”
It’s really hard to read these journal entries. Some of my worst fears have come true. My mother-in-law died in September of 2020, not of COVID but because she was isolated and her treatable condition was overlooked. She died alone, only able to see family through a window in a care center. She is one of many who is a victim of this pandemic without ever acquiring the virus.
We may have pulled together for a bit, but factionalism grew and it wasn’t even a year after COVID began that the insurrection of January 6 took place at our Nation’s Capital. Now our world is in the grips of a violent and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine.
It seems as if Lent, 2020 never ended. Now, in 2022, we start this season of preparation for Easter with Jesus in the wilderness once again. Before his amazing teaching, before his first miracle, before he has a single follower, he is compelled into the wilderness by the Spirit of God and there he faces three temptations that encapsulate the breadth and depth of our human weaknesses.
In the temptation to turn stone into bread to meet his immediate need, he faces our desire for immediate relief and gratification. Bread stand in for the object of our need and desire that we think will satisfy us permanently. We look for something from outside of ourselves that will fill our hunger, numb our pain and fulfill our longing. How many of us, during those first unnerving months of lockdown ate too much, drank too much, watched too much TV?
The second temptation reveals the desire for power, not only to wield it for ourselves, but also to abdicate personal responsibility to another. When we align ourselves with power, we also align ourselves against the other. Some thought the President could and should control COVID. Others wanted the scientists in control. And an unsurprising number thought they could make these decisions about vaccinations, treatment and safe practices for themselves.
Over the past two years, various leaders have tried to seize authority, others have taken matters into their own hands and refused to comply with mandates. In example after example, we find that the temptation to power and glory is accompanied ultimately by violence. When the devil offers Jesus power over all the kingdoms of the world, he asks only that Jesus worship him in return. I shudder to consider a Messiah who instead of self-offering love on the cross embraced world power under the banner of evil.
Finally, there is the temptation to turn away from mission and a long obedience in the same direction towards magic and the miraculous. Satan tempted Jesus while quoting from Psalm 91. All he had to do was throw himself off the temple, be dramatically and magically rescued by God and his reputation would be made. No need to spend years in obscurity with fisherman followers, dealing with the least, last and lost. Jesus could prove his divinity with one public spectacle.
Everyone hoped there would be some magic pill, shot or treatment that would deliver us from this pandemic. The long practices of mask-wearing, social distancing and refraining from so many of the activities we enjoy has been exhausting and discouraging. Who wouldn’t want the short-cut to end our suffering? Who doesn’t long for simple fix?
As the pandemic turns endemic, we are beginning to learn to live with the virus. If we are able, we will accept and adapt to the restraints that will not necessarily cure or rid us of disease, but allow for healing and wholeness in the midst of COVID. This virus has revealed our individual and communal mortality. Death is never far from any one of us.
Likewise, the violence of the insurrection and the war in Ukraine have revealed our own fragility. It has been disillusioning to discover that bullies and demagogues are able to exert power and destruction to violent effect.
In the wilderness, alone and famished, Jesus drew deeply on the well of God’s love and mercy. The words and music of Scripture came to him as he faced trial and temptation. It would have been so easy to believe that evil and the devil, in whatever form they take, have the final word, but instead the words of God were able to sustain and bring him through.
During the first year of COVID, Mother Hillary led Compline online weekly on Sunday evenings. Bryon and I continued this practice throughout the week. Psalm 91, the one we recited today is often used during that short service. It took on even greater meaning as we wrestled with the uncertainty and anxiety of our times. “God, you are my refuge and my stronghold.” “No evil shall happen to you and no plague shall come near your dwelling.”
This was no magical protection against COVID, suffering and death. Even Jesus who successfully resisted all temptation, ended his life on the cross. Healing, wholeness and fullness of life is not the same as miraculous deliverance from suffering and death.
Today and during the Sundays of Lent, we will pray for healing and wholeness. In order to do so, we must acknowledge the loss, grief, sorrow and death that we experience. To be healed will not be the same as to be cured. To be healed is to know that God will ultimately deliver us; that God is with us in trouble and that God will protect and hold us in whatever circumstance we find ourselves. We can trust in the Lord because we are bound to God in love, a love that will never fail, a love that has overcome death and the grave.
Throughout Scripture the prayer for healing has been accompanied by the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. St. Luke’s has a long history of this practice and the memory of years of healing. Yes, sometimes that healing was dramatic, but usually wholeness and healing are evidenced in renewed relationship with God and others. Healing brings comfort and strength in the midst of trouble.
At the laying on of hands, the communion of all those who suffer with and pray for you is conferred. You may even feel the palpable presence of God’s Holy Spirit. In the anointing with oil, centuries of tradition, prayer and faith are conferred with oil that has been blessed by the bishop. As the liturgical scholar, Lizette Larson Miller writes: “The Church’s ministry to the sick is to strengthen and restore relationships with God, community and self; to overcome isolation, give hope and strength, and to know oneself in the love and mercy of God.”
In place of the regular Prayers of the People and Confession, during Lent we will offer Healing Prayer. You are invited to come to either the altar or the prayer bench on the side to receive the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. You may request prayer for any need in body, mind or spirit for yourself or others. During the ritual Ivar will be offering music. Those who are seated in the sanctuary can offer their prayers and if you are joining online, you can offer your prayer request in the chat and someone will pray for you there.
Today we will hold with special intention all those who have died from COVID 19, those who grieve and those who continue to suffer with COVID. As we continue this wilderness journey through Lent, we have the hope of Easter and resurrection.
“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” James 5:14-15