“Strange” – a Facebook Live sermon preached for First United Methodist Church of Orlando, on Sunday, March 22, 2020

Alongside Babylon’s streams,
there we sat down,
crying because we remembered Zion.
 We hung our lyres up
in the trees there
     because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
our tormentors requested songs of joy:
“Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
But how could we possibly sing
the Lord’s song on foreign soil? (Psalm 137:1-4, CEB)

As you know, for Lent, our theme has been “Cross-shaped Community: Forty Days of Presence.”  And, for Sundays, we’ve had a series of sermons to correspond with that theme.  Today, I was going to preach about “Unity in Diversity,” which is a topic I’m VERY passionate about.

I was excited about that sermon.  I’ve been working on it.  But, given our “coronavirus” situation, I felt like I needed to save that message for later, and to talk about this situation – this strange situation – we find ourselves in.

We all have to admit, this is a strange time – unlike anything I’ve ever experienced or imagined.  Strange.  Strange to be quarantined in our homes.  Strange to not be able to go out and do whatever we want.  Strange to have the kids home for an extended time.  Strange to be working from home.  Strange to not be at church together.  Strange, indeed.

I have to say, preaching to a camera and a mostly empty room also feels pretty strange.  Preaching is typically something you do “publicly:” to and for “live” people. A preacher connects with the faces in the congregation. I notice whose smiling, and nodding… or nodding off!  I know who is engaged, and who isn’t.  I know when I “have” the room, and when I don’t.  But, this is different. I know some folks are watching this “live” and that others will be watching the video later.  But, still, after 25 years of preaching to crowds, this feels pretty strange.

And, I suspect this feels strange to you, too.  Is it really worship, from home?  Is it really worship, if you’re still in your pajamas?  Is it really worship, if you haven’t brushed your teeth or combed your hair?

This feels strange, because it IS strange.  I’m willing to bet, in the very long history of the First United Methodist Church of Orlando, we’ve only been closed on a Sunday a few times – maybe for a hurricane, or something.  Maybe never!  I don’t know.  But, here we are, for the second week, with more Sundays to come.

It’s strange – so strange.

If you’re watching this, I suspect you’re someone who values coming together for worship, in person.  You value the community.  You value this place.  You probably value the live music and singing, the prayers, the liturgy, the sacraments… maybe even the sermons.  And, I suspect you enjoy experiencing worship in person, with people, face-to-face.

Strange.  That really is the word for it.

As I was reflecting on the “strangeness” of this situation, I was reminded of a passage from Psalm 137.  In the year 587 BC, the Babylonian army destroyed the city of Jerusalem, including the Temple, and carried away many of the Jewish inhabitants as slaves to Babylon.

Most of the inhabitants of Jerusalem had only, ever, lived in Jerusalem.  They’d only known worship at the beautiful Temple, built by King Solomon, many years before.

But, now they were in a foreign, strange place, surrounded by foreign people and strange customs, very far away from the Temple, which had been reduced to rubble.  Where was God, now?  How can you worship God, when the place you always knew to find God wasn’t available?

The Psalmist writes,

Alongside Babylon’s streams,
there we sat down,
crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up
in the trees there
 because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
our tormentors requested songs of joy:
“Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
But how could we possibly sing
the Lord’s song on foreign soil?

If you normally attend the Modern worship service, have you ever worshipped in the Sanctuary at the Traditional service?  Did it feel kind of strange? Different?  Maybe, uncomfortable?  Or, vice-a-versa?  If you normally attend the Traditional worship service, have you ever tried worshipping in the Modern service?  Strange?

Or, have you ever visited a church of a different style or denomination, and not known what to do, or not been familiar with the songs?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “I didn’t like it!  I didn’t like the organ.  I didn’t like the drums.  I didn’t know the songs.  I didn’t know when to stand, sit or kneel.”

Or, have you ever been in a season of life when worshipping just felt difficult?  Maybe you were struggling with God.  Maybe there was a church conflict.  Maybe you were experiencing depression.  Maybe you were sick, or hospitalized.  Where was God then?  How did you worship then?  Did it feel strange?

Many of you know, I was the pastor of First Church Coral Springs, when the mass shooting happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  We were the closest Methodist Church.  I lived around the corner from the school.  Everyone in my congregation was affected in some way by it.

That tragedy affected me deeply – deeper than I’ve ever found words to explain.  For a long time, I had difficulty worship God in that new, strange reality – even as I was trying to lead my congregation through it.

The captives in Babylon were struggling.  To make matters worse, they were harassed by their captors.  They were told, “Sing us a song about your great Zion (which is another name for Jerusalem); the Zion you loved so much, and we destroyed.  Sing us a song about the God, whose Temple we destroyed.  Sing us a song about the place you’ll never see again.”

But, they couldn’t do it.  They didn’t know how to worship God, so far from home.  “How could we possibly sing the Lord’s song on foreign soil?”  I actually like the old King James Version better, in this case.  It says, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

For years, I’ve been trying to learn a native Mayan dialect called Quiche, to communicate better with my Mayan friends in Guatemala.  One day, we were drinking Cokes and eating bread, during a construction break.  The foreman, who liked to teach me knew words in Quiche, told me that the Quiche word for bread is kaxlan wa.  Wa is the Quiche word for tortilla, which was the closest thing Mayans had to bread before the Spaniards invaded their land.  When they were introduced to bread, they called it kaxlan wa, which basically means, “strange” or “different” tortilla.  My friend then told me I’m a kaxlan achi.  Achi is the Quiche word for person.  I’m “strange” or “different” person.  He thought that was pretty funny.

Different.  Strange.  How do we worship God when everything is so strange, so different?

The Jewish slaves wanted to know, how are we supposed to worship God in a strange land, all the way over here in Babylon, with no Temple?  How do we even know God is with us?

So, they just hung up their harps, sat down, and wept.  Have you wept lately.  I did, just this morning, as I thought about the immensity of this moment, and not knowing what the future holds.  I wept.

We might ask, how do we worship God in the strange land of coronavirus?  How do we worship God, on Facebook – the same place we post family pictures, and recipes, and political junk, and selfies, and silly memes?  How do we worship with a computer, instead of a church bulletin or hymnal?  How do we worship, looking at a screen, instead of a person?  How do we worship without a choir or a band?  How do we worship, when the people we usually worship with are currently socially distanced from us?

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

I’ve heard a number of people say things like, “I can’t wait for things to get back to normal!”  I’ve probably said that!  We all want that.  We all crave some degree of normality.  Personally, I can’t wait to be able to tell you that we can all come back to church!

But, notice the word “back.”  “Back” to normal.  There really isn’t a way to go “back.”  Time always moves forward.  Whatever a future “normal” might be, it has little to do with what is behind us.  The question is, how do we live in to this new normal?

And, even in the best of circumstances, we can’t always have “normal,” can we?  Obviously!  Sometimes, we may have to move away, and find a new church in a new place – I know many of you have done that.  Sometimes, a new pastor shows up, who you have to get used to.  Sometimes, we get sick, and can’t be in worship for an extended time.  Maybe the church changes its worship style or times.

Where is God when things aren’t normal?  Where is God when things are strange?

The story I’ve told you today, about the Jewish slaves living in Babylon, is often called the Babylonian exile or captivity.  You can read more about that strange time period in the books of 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, and others.

As time passed, many grew increasingly restless, and desperately wanted to go home.  There were some so-called prophets, telling the people they’d go home soon.  But, God spoke the Prophet Jeremiah, saying,

“ The God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare. The God of Israel, proclaims: Don’t let the prophets and diviners in your midst mislead you. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I didn’t send them, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 29:4-9)

Notice: God didn’t send a message saying, “I know you’re tired of this.  I know you don’t like it there.  I know you want to back home. Go ahead, pack your bags.   It will all be over soon.”  God doesn’t say that.  Instead, God says, “Build houses.  Settle down.  Grow gardens.  Get married.  Pray.” The captives lived in Babylon for about seventy years!

 In essence, the challenge is for us to learn how to find God, experience God, be faithful to God, and worship God, and adapt our Christian lives and experience, right in the middle of the mess, in the strangeness, when everything feels weird and foreign.  God isn’t only found in the familiar, the normal, the preferred.  God is with us, even in a very strange situation like the coronavirus.

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It seems to me, THAT is the whole point of the cross – God is with us in our mess.  God enters our strangeness, to save us from it.  When we were estranged from God, lost, and slaves to sin and death, God came to us and for us, in Jesus.  And, there is no stranger place than the cross.  And, that’s exactly where we find God.

Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “God simply keeps reaching down into the dirt of humanity and resurrecting us from the graves we dig for ourselves through our violence, our lies, our selfishness, our arrogance, and our addictions. And God keeps loving us back to life over and over.” 

There’s a lot that strange and unknown at this moment in history.  How bad will the virus be?  How many people will be infected?  How many will die?  How many people will lose jobs?  How bad will the economy get?  How many events will be cancelled?  How long will this last?  When can we come back to church?

We don’t know.  At this point, we don’t know.  There are just so many unknowns.  Some want us to believe it will be over quickly.  Some are saying this could go on for a long time.  Who are we supposed to believe?

Either way, I believe God’s message is the same.  I’m with you.  No matter how long, or how bad this gets, I’m with you.  I’m with you in your social distancing.  I’m with you while you work from home.  I’m with you in your phone calls, and texts, and social media.  I’m with you in your unemployment.  I’m with you if you get sick.  I’m with you in your fear.  I’m with you in your uncertainty.  I’m with you in your not knowing.  I’m with you in the strangeness.  I’m with you.

I think God wants us to know, God is same God today that God was two weeks ago.  God is the same God we worship at First Church, or at home.  God is with you no matter where you are or what you’re going through.  God is with you.

Yes.  This is strange.  All of this is strange.

God is with us, in the strange.

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