A Prayer for Today: A New Normal

Lord, help me to stop using the phrase “return to normal.”  Erase it from my vocabulary.  For that sense of “normal” is the killing of people of color by police and white supremacists, lynched before our eyes again and again and again without us taking action to stop it.  That sense of “normal” is the tolerance of poverty for some, inadequate medical care for some, housing discrimination imposed on some, which we ignore in our comfort.  That sense of “normal” is racism, heterosexism, xenophobia, sexism, of discrimination and violence against our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters.  That sense of “normal” is us divided.

O God, truly we don’t need a return to normal.  We need what was normal to be shattered, broken, a thing of the past.  We need your strength and wisdom and courage to do the shattering, to break from the old normal, to make it a thing of the past.  And we need to not grieve its loss, even as we feel our shame and confess our sin at letting it happen for far too long.  We need a new world order.  We need new systems, just systems for all.  We need just institutions for all.  We need opportunities for all.  We need equal protection under the law, for all.  We need safety, and liberty, and life, for all.  We need dignity and respect for all.  We need to make this all happen.  With your help, merciful and gracious God, we can make it happen, if we can see others—your beloved—through your eyes and your heart.  Help us, we desperately pray.  Amen.

from Pastor Leslie

Love One Another…Please!

This isn’t a sermon, it’s a modern-day lament.  These are some thoughts on a difficult night.

Like the psalmist as of old, I cry out to God “how long,” knowing full well that it is we humans who are choosing to perpetuate evil in our world, by things said and done, and by things unsaid and not done.  How long, how long will we devalue human life (at least some human life, especially human life that comes with skin of color)?  How long, how long will we choose not to love our neighbor by denying that our personal actions and inactions can literally mean the difference between the life and death of another?  How long, how long?

Tonight our country reached a horrific milestone, over 100,000 dead from COVID-19, and each day we will be adding more and more to the total.  My heart breaks for each life lost.  My heart breaks for each person mourning the loss of a loved one.  My heart breaks for what the world has lost with each life lost.  We didn’t create the virus, but our actions can help keep it from spreading.  Yet picture after picture from this past weekend showed people gathering in crowds, not keeping 6 feet apart, not wearing masks.  How many in those pictures were sick without knowing it and infected others?  (I was going to say “unintentionally infected others,” but when you know there are risks involved, is it unintentional?)  How many of those people, or the people they encounter since, will die?  On average about 1,000 people have been killed by this virus in the US since the first victim in February (or was it January?).  I used to live in northwest Wisconsin in a city whose population was about 3,400 people – I think about how with an average death rate of 1,000 people per day, it is like that city being wiped out in about 3.5 days, and I can’t imagine it.  I think about those lovely people—mothers, fathers, daughters and sons, sisters and brothers—gone.  They are people.  Their lives matter.  Why can’t we love one another enough to wear masks, and socially distance, and wash hands to protect one another?  Why don’t we love our neighbors enough to say that we will take the vaccine when it becomes available (yes, a recent poll found that only 51% of Americans say they will take the vaccine if/when it is available!).  Why can’t we love one another enough to insist that our government (President, Congress) do their job of protecting us, providing sufficient PPE for frontline workers, getting enough testing and contact tracing done?  Researchers say if we had just started responding sooner, if we had just taken this more seriously, we could have saved tens of thousands of lives—why don’t those lives matter more to us that we aren’t more outraged at the lack of leadership, the lack of guidance, the lack of action?

But, as one TV commentator puts it, COVID-19 is not the only virus leading to preventable deaths in our country right now.  Racism is like a rampant virus in our country.  We proclaimed slavery abolished almost 150 years ago, we have laws that claim that discrimination on the basis of race is illegal, yet our actions show that the virus of racism is still very deadly.  Racism recently took the lives of Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, two more lives that should have mattered more added to a much too long list.  Racism was the virus at work in Central Park that thankfully did not cost an African American man his life, but it could have.  Racism is the virus at work that compounds the COVID-19 virus by targeting people of color and Native Americans because racism has led to poverty, unequitable distributions of healthy food and medical care.  Racism is the virus at work that leads to families separated at the border, that leaves children incarcerated at the border without medical care.  Racism is the virus at work when the land of a native American tribe is taken away from it by order of the American government so that a competitor can put up a casino.  Apparently we do love one another, but only if they are white.  It is not up to people of color to “cure” the virus of racism—the only people who can do that are the perpertrators, us white people.

How can we say we love one another, when the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, when we live in cities where there is not enough affordable housing or access to medical care?  How can we say we love one another when we exploit people in low paying service jobs while not giving them a living wage?  How can we say we love one another when we allow billionaire bailouts during this pandemic but won’t decry the lack of support for small business owners and the poor and the immigrant?  How can we say we love one another when our actions threaten the very planet we all have to share, not just with one another but with future generations?

I turn to Jesus’ great commandment, to love God and love one another (each a part of the other) because it is his key teaching for those of us who call themselves Christians. Or at least it should be, from what he said; we Christians in general have a lot of work to do to make this teaching a reality.  It is not a teaching exclusive to Christians, but shared with Jews and Muslims, and other faith traditions have a version of its close relative, the so-called Golden Rule, among their teachings.  It is something easy to say, but complex and challenging in putting into practice, as the history of humankind has shown us.

The deaths due to the coronavirus and the virus of racism and our other human-caused ills are causing me to lament tonight, as they should.  Maybe my feelings are heightened right now because I am missing our in-person gatherings at church.  We are trying to keep one another and our community safe, and that is a good thing.  But when we gather, not just for worship but for the conversations at coffee hour and over meetings (I’m glad we have ways to connect electronically, but its not quite the same over zoom), we share stories, and I get to hear about the ways in which good is being done in our community, and it reminds me that God’s Spirit is at work in the world, that yes, there are people loving their neighbors.  I know we hear of this with the sacrifices being made by frontline workers, and parents who have found themselves being not just parents but also teacher and social director.  I know we hear of this with the stories of generosity of many giving to COVID relief efforts, and the stories of people working together to end racism and other forms of discrimination.  Sometimes one just feels overwhelmed by the horror stories, and one needs to lament.  This lament will not solve all the problems of the world, heck, it doesn’t even begin to describe them all.  But it helps keep the fires within me burning to do something about the problems, to work toward being part of the solution and not part of the problem.  I hope it does the same for you.

That is the thing about those lament psalms—the psalmist starts off in lament, but eventually remembers that there is another side to what is going on in the world, that there is indeed reason to trust in God’s steadfast love, that it endures forever, in spite of what we do or don’t do, because God intends good for all creation.  God loves us, this is why we can love one another.  God made us in God’s image, which means we were made to love one another.  We don’t do it often enough, there is so much more work we need to do in our world to show love to all, but we can do it.  I think…I hope…I pray.

Pastor Leslie

“The Personal is the Communal”

Well, this morning was “interesting,” to say the least, with a Zoom outage thwarting our worship gathering.  This is the message I would have given, and it is a scriptural response to those who say we don’t love or trust God enough if we choose to take precautions by wearing masks, keeping distance, and not opening our building up too soon for worship.  Blessings, and take care.  Pastor Leslie

The WI State Supreme Court ruled this week against Gov. Evers’ “safer at home” extension.  It was not long after the ruling was reported that people began gathering, many without masks or social distancing, in bars and restaurants.  Some counties, including ours, has instituted their own “safer at home” public health orders.  As we seem to be speeding (quite unprepared, at least here in Wisconsin) toward reopening the economy, there is much discussion going on, not just in businesses but also among faith congregations, about if, when, and how we should gather in our buildings, in person, in groups.  Friday afternoon was the latest in a series of conference calls that our Lt. Gov. has been having with faith leaders, and the questions asked of many faith leaders was not when, but how we can gather in person.

Yes, I would like us to gather in person – to see people, talk with them, sing together, pray together, drink coffee afterwards and get to know their story a little better – those are some of the blessings of this thing we do on Sunday morning.  The Dane County public order states that places of worship are “essential” services, but has restrictions on how we can gather.  And if we listen to the health experts, we are not at a point where it is safe to do so.  This week our Church Council will begin discussing what our policies will be concerning when and how we will gather in person in our church building, and there will be opportunities for congregational input as well.  But at least through May we will not be gathering at the corner of Atwood and Ohio – it is not safe to do so yet.

There are many voices being raised in the public sphere about this issue, and some claim theological reasoning for opening up public gatherings and even doing so without safeguards such as wearing masks and keeping six feet apart.  These voices challenge us: “If you trust in God, God will protect you,” as if to say that wearing a mask means we don’t trust God.  Others judge people’s commitment to God by saying, “If you get sick, you just haven’t prayed hard enough.” They recite “God helps those who help themselves,” as if it is scripture.  And the one I heard this week, as justification for opening up churches for worship: “God is worth taking the risk for,” as if God is only resident within the confines of four walls designated as “church.”

These sayings remind me of the modern parable about the man and the flood.  Its been raining and raining, and a flood is predicted.  A man decides he’s going to stay in his home despite the warnings; “God will protect me.”  The waters start to rise to street level, and his neighbor stops by, “Come, let’s evacuate.”  The man replies, “I’m staying; God will protect me.”  The flood waters continue to rise, and they get up to the front door of the house. A boat comes by with law enforcement personnel, “We’ve come to evacuate you and take you to safety.”  Again the man replies, “I’m staying; God will protect me.”  The water rise some more, filling the house so much that the man has to climb up on his roof.  A helicopter hovers over his house, and a rescuer is lowered in a basket to bring the man to safety.  Again he replies, “I’m staying; God will protect me.”  The flood water rise so much that the house is completely covered, and the man drowns.  When he gets to heaven he meets up with God, and he practically yells at God, “I trusted you, that you would protect me.  Why didn’t you save me?”  God answered him, “Oh son, I tried to protect and safe you.  I sent your neighbor, and the police, and the helicopter.  Why didn’t you take my help?”


Yes, I value the spirit that flows among us when we worship together in our church buildings; I understand why people are eager to do so.  But from what some people are saying, what is more important to them than the worship experience is their sense of liberty, which is not really a value mentioned by Jesus.  Yes, people were free to follow him or not, but he never implied that following him was about freedom.  What he did emphasize, in word and deed, was that following him was about our responsibility toward one another.  Jesus never really talked about a personal relationship with God, but he talked a lot about our relationship with one another, our communal responsibilities.  His teachings emphasized how we were to treat one another, how we should related to one another, how we were to be covenant with one another.

“You have heard me say, ‘It’s going to be bad.’ I’m telling you again—it’s going to be bad—so that when the bad begins and when the bad overwhelms you, you’ll be prepared to hold on to love and remember that you’re not alone.” (paraphrase of John 14:27b-29, by Rachel G. Hackenberg)

Jesus proclaimed that he did not come to overturn the law, but to fulfill the law, the law that was about a faith that was communal, not personal.

Honor your mother and father…Do not lie…Do not steal…Do not kill…Do not covet what your neighbor has…the Ten Commandments were mostly about how we should relate with one another, how we were to live together in community.

“What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.” Micah 6:6-8.  The prophets emphasized how we all, common folk and leaders alike were called by God not to make altar sacrifices to fulfill some sort of personal piety, but that we were called by God to be about the work of doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly.  We are not alone, we are not an island, it isn’t just about us, but about the other as well, especially the most vulnerable.

This is echoed in Jesus’ great commandment, to love God and love one another, both parts of the same cloth.  It is echoed in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, when after telling the story he questions the man who asked “who is my neighbor”: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” – Luke 10:36-37  This is echoed in Jesus’ teaching that “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

And we could go back, almost to the beginning of the Bible, to the story of Cain and Abel: “Then when G-d asks [Cain], ‘where is your brother Abel?’ he arrogantly responds, ‘I do not know.  Am I my brother’s keeper?’”  As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin offers to us in Jewish Literacy, “In essence, the entire Bible is written as an affirmative response to this question.”

So if anyone tries to tell us that we don’t love God enough because we aren’t worshipping in the building at Atwood and Ohio, the we don’t trust God enough because we wear a mask or keep our distance in public, or if they claim these are just political responses, we can confidently say, “no, these are faith responses…we are following Jesus’ teachings, to love one another, to be a good neighbor, to be our brother’s/sister’s/neighbor’s keeper.”  We are doing the sacrifice God requires of us, to do justice for the most vulnerable, to do loving kindness toward nurses and CNAs and doctors and other hospital and nursing home staff, and walking humbly in the face of a dangerous virus with our God.  And if they still give us grief about what we are doing, then our only faithful response is to bless them – “God be with you.”