Proper 20C – September 18, 2022
St. Paul’s, Bellingham – Proper 20C – September 18, 2022
The Rev. Rachel Endicott
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
In our secular world, I am aware that fall is here. School strikes in the state have transitioned into kids going back to school. Leaves are starting to pile up in the Memorial Garden and in houses’ gutters. For the first time this past week, I reconsidered the wisdom of wearing sandals as I became aware that my feet were actually cold!
For me personally, I started back to the second year of my class to become an intentional Spiritual Director. While I’ve journeyed with folks in their spiritual lives as a priest and pastor for over two decades, being a Spiritual Director is different in that it is a long-term one-on-one relationship in which a spiritual director meets with directees once a month to reflect, support, invite insight as the individual works to listen to what God is saying to them and as they do work around discernment. So each Wednesday for this coming school year, I will go back to three hours of online class and learning how to be in this role. Last year was mostly good old fashioned “book learning” and a lot of role play. This year, we move into a more internship model of learning with not only class time, but conducting spiritual direction sessions with real live people looking to do real live work of journey and discernment.
But one of the first questions asked by some potential directees, especially those who are considering spiritual direction for the first time, is “What is allowable for discussion in Spiritual Direction?” Most people think they will come and talk about “God stuff”, so prayer, relationship with God, their faith community, vocation, temptations, perhaps their failings, and ministry. But all of us as Directors in training were reminded that you can’t simply talk about that without talking about what you enjoy in the world, what you dream about at night, how the relationships in your life are going, what gets you down, where your challenges in life are, how you are creative, and more. God is with you and even communicating and teaching you through relationships, struggles, dreams, experiences (good, bad, and indifferent). God delights when we are delighted, is distraught when we are grieving, hurt, or suffering, and encourages us to be co-creators with God.1
I was reminded of this all-encompassing nature of our relationship with God in hearing the oracle from Jeremiah. Although coming from several millennia ago, I realize that what we find here is all encompassing. It is not a simple statement of questioning about God’s apparently deserting God’s people, but it includes aspects of all that makes us human: spiritual questions, emotional distress, mention of relationship, symbolic reference to the cycling seasons of the year, and mention of physical hurt and ill health.
As it stands, we don’t actually know much about the Prophet Jeremiah. The writer doesn’t share about himself. While the text tells us some basics, like much of the book making reference to the attacks by the people of the north, we aren’t entirely sure if it is always the Babylonians as a reference, perhaps the Sythians, perhaps others.2 And this passage we hear today fits into much of the early part of the book with the repeated theme being, “how do we cope with disaster”. It’s important to note that “No hope is expressed that, if the people repent, they can avoid catastrophe.”3
I’m wondering if that dominant theme of “coping with disaster” isn’t also part of our needed experience today. I think about the disasters we are facing now as a broader community: among them the ongoing impact of Covid, continuing violence and racial tension, social ills, and certainly the noticeable issue of climate change. Last week at church a number of us noted that we needed masks while inside due to Covid and yet also outside due to the particulates in the air due to wildfires raging elsewhere.
So Jeremiah asks “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why the has the health of my poor people not been restored?”
I wonder if we sometimes feel that way? Tired that we may be, we may be weighted down by the burdens that come our way. If we look at Covid, for instance, I think I can say with 100% assurance that we all would like to get things back “to normal” whatever normal actually was and is. Yet, parishioners, staff, friends, and those we only know from afar continue to come down with Covid and occasionally die from Covid. One of our parishioners and a medical doctor, Ken Bachenberg, periodically sends updates which has informed the staff and vestry about the progression of the Covid epidemic. On the 13th, he forwarded – as he has several times before – the recent newsletter article from Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, MPH PhD—an epidemiologist and biostatistician who works at a nonpartisan health policy think tank.
Although the WHO recently shared some positive news overall in regards to the Covid pandemic, in her September 13th newsletter, Jetelina starts off with the sobering statements that “We are losing ~400 Americans a day. In the last 7 days, we have lost 2,299 people. During August 2022 alone, we lost 15,284 Americans to COVID-19. This means COVID-19 remains the third leading cause of death in our repertoire of threats. And it’s largely preventable. In the U.S., death rates are not back to pre-pandemic times; excess deaths are still 10% above “expected.” This is changing our average life expectancy. In fact, the U.S. experienced the sharpest two-year decline in life expectancy in nearly 100 years.”4
Her article does go on with some good news in that due to hard work in reaching out to underserved groups, the excess deaths among some minorities have decreased relative to non-minority whites.5 But the overall take-away from her update is that it is super important to stay current or catch up with vaccinations and boosters as “there is a clear dose response with vaccines: the more vaccine doses one has, the more that person is protected from death. According to the CDC, vaccinated people with one booster had 3 times the risk of dying compared to people vaccinated with two boosters. Unvaccinated people had 14 times the risk of dying compared to those with two boosters.”
So, I bring this up because I care about not only your spiritual lives, but your physical lives. As opposed to people in Jeremiah’s day who could do nothing about their disaster, there are things we can do about our various disasters. We can take care of our health, especially in staying current with our boosters. We can work for more just laws and structures in our country. We can work to reduce the footprint we have on the earth.
And last, but not least, we can work to reduce homelessness on our front doorstep. Many of you know that one of the unhoused men who slept in the Courtyard of the church died on our premises a week ago Tuesday. If nothing else does, I would hope that would prod us to find the political will to push the Bellingham city council – as they work with state and government programs – to provide more housing. It would push us to support not-for-profits that do this work. Further, I believe that this also forces us to look closer to home – what can St. Paul’s, perhaps the Alms Ministry, do to support more options for housing people? How do we, as the hand of God, keep others from dying amongst the cloisters here.
Friends, this may not be the most eloquent or put together of sermons I’ve ever preached – I suspect not – but like many of the prophets of old, I feel called to verbalize that which I see before us. If nothing else, I would hope that we would think about how we might change that which can be changed in our time and community life. Can we find a balm for those things which ail us, physical, social, and spiritual? As one of my favorite mystics, Julian of Norwich, reminds us, there is always hope and “All will be well”. In other words, the balm we find is that which we help make paired with the blessings given through God’s love.
1 Thomas Hart, “What to Expect in Spiritual Direction”, Presence Vol. 13, No. 1, March 2007, various pages.
2 James L. Mays, ed., Harpers Bible Commentary, San Francisco: Harper, 1988, pg. 599, 602.
3 James L. Mays, ed., Harpers Bible Commentary, San Francisco: Harper, 1988, pg. 615.
4, 5 Katelyn Jetelina, email blog “400 Americans are dying each day. We cannot accept this reality.” newsletter “Your Local Epidemiologist”, September 13, 2022.