Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd May 17, 2020
Winnipeg Free Press Editor, Bob Cox wrote last week that Manitobans are hitting the pandemic wall. I’ve felt it. As we begin to look towards a gradual re-opening of our society, we still have a grind of weeks left before we might move to Phase 2 in Manitoba. Worse, we are seeing stories of countries that had flattened the curve begin to see outbreaks again. Bob Cox refers to the “third-quarter phenomenon”—a term used in prolonged space missions, when researchers observed that mood and morale bottomed out some time after the halfway point of the mission. The same phenomenon has been observed in marathon running.
So what is the recommended treatment for this third-quarter phenomenon? The first is to become more strict with diet and sufficient fluid intake, remembering that alcohol counts against our daily water quota. Researchers also recommend keeping our sense of humour as another antidote. John Putman, a space researcher, wrote, “Being in touch with the ludicrousness of one’s predicament is vital, and even revitalizing.” Last week, Peter Sim creatively suggested that we record congregants riding their bikes past our church for a blessing. You will see this in next Sunday’s worship service that celebrates the Blessing of the Wheels. We had congregants from the ages of 9 through 89 ride past our church to record a blessing. While there is a serious message to this, it was also something fun to do that brought a few of us together with appropriate distancing. Spending some energy on creative, fun activities is worth it.
But the last recommendation that researcher John Putman recommended was troubling. He said that we should find scapegoats to reduce our tension. We should fire off blame and castigation against anyone who happens to be in our line of fire—health officials who enforce restrictions, youth who violate them, governments for not providing sufficient PPE or supervision for long-term care homes and China for the outbreak. Bob Cox concludes that healthy venting is good. Is it? What determines whether or not it is healthy?
I’m reminded of the WWJD bracelets that were popular some time ago: what would Jesus do? We all know that Jesus set before us a high standard of love that embraces everyone, including our enemies. We also know that Jesus frequently called the authorities to account for their hypocrisy and deception. In fact, he used some strong, derogatory language for those who abused their power and privilege. So how would Jesus respond to what is happening today?
I think he would do two things. The first is that he would be vigilant for any abuse of power that would target marginalized people. I’m pretty sure that Jesus would condemn any government policies or actions that benefit those who are privileged, while ignoring, or even further oppressing those who live in poverty or in restricted settings such as care homes. The second thing that he would do would be to call out those who denigrate minorities. Venting in the form of scapegoating and conspiracy theory has historically threatened minorities. They have not experienced venting to be healthy. Most recently, Muslims, Asians, Indigenous people and Black people have suffered from scapegoating and conspiracy theory during this pandemic. I’m pretty sure that Jesus would have some strong words to say to those of us who are privileged and sometimes put down those who are marginalized by race or religion, even if it’s in a joking manner.
Last week, we heard some disturbing stories about Asian people being attacked in Vancouver, along with a bystander who tried to defend them. Just a few days before that, a local anti-racism initiative was launched. It was headlined with the phrase: “COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate. Nor Should You.” The United Church also just released a new analysis of how the curve of racism in Canada is rising with the curve of COVID. It reads, “While there is presently no vaccine against either…COVID-19 will eventually be eradicated. Racism will continue to mutate unless we make collective efforts to stop the spread.” The report then lists a number of concrete actions we can all take to slow the spread of racism. I found these suggestions helpful and informative and have linked this report in last week’s congregation email for your reference. I’ve also footnoted it in this sermon, which you’ll find our website. It concludes by stating, “The curve of non-judgemental love is one curve we can escalate exponentially together.”
This takes us to our gospel lesson where Jesus, in his farewell speech to his disciples, tells them, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And what are Jesus’ commandments? Just prior to this passage, Jesus tells the disciples that his new commandment is that they should love one another, just as he loved them.
And what is love? I Corinthians 13 provides a fine description of both what it is and what it is not: “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous, nor boastful, nor arrogant nor rude. Love does not insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all thing. Love never ends.”
Every single one of us falls short of this list. But it’s a wonderful guide towards which we can aim with each new day. Richard Rohr describes this type of godly love as expansive. When we are in this kind of space, we will feel our energy flowing outwards. When we are not in this kind of space, we will feel our energy sucking in. And that’s when we will feel like blaming and scapegoating others—I was wronged, I don’t like those people, so and so is an absolute jerk. We’ve all been in those energy-sucking spaces and it doesn’t feel very good. Well—it might feel good momentarily to blast a driver that just cut you off, but even if you blast them from inside your car where no one else can hear, it is still an energy sucker. Richard Rohr explains that we have ingrained negative thought patterns to such a degree that they are like Velcro—they stick in our brains—while positive thoughts seem to be more like Teflon—they keep sliding off.
It takes concerted spiritual discipline to train our brains into positive thinking. Richard Rohr writes that you have to hold onto a positive thought for at least 15 seconds for it to imprint on your brain. You have to deliberately, consciously choose to love over hate.” He suggests that our spiritual practice should include taking our own energy temperature every day to see if our energy is expanding out with a loving flow or sucking in with a negative vibe. The first step in our spiritual growth is to simply observe what is happening. Know what your energy is doing. The next step is to find ways that help you to move this energy and not be stuck. There are many techniques to do this each person needs to find what best works for them. If you would like to look at some of these, let me know and I can send you some resources. These two steps of recognizing our energy and then helping it to move will help to keep our hearts open to love—especially when we’re feeling like we’ve hit a wall.
This is incredibly difficult to do. That’s why Jesus has sent us an Advocate. He doesn’t call the Holy Spirit a Comforter in this passage. Rather, he uses a legal term that implies courage and strength. Jesus knows how difficult it is to keep one’s heart open at the best of times. And so he gave us a constant companion who gives us courage and strength to love where we would not think possible.
Richard Rohr then writes that if we don’t learn to cultivate a spiritual practice that keeps our hearts open, by the last third of our lives, all we will have left is negativity and we will be rather unpleasant in our older years.
There was a minister who was visiting a parishioner in a nursing home. Beside them was a woman who kept saying over and over again, “I love you a little. I love you big. I love you like a little pig.” After his visit, he went over to a nurse to ask about this woman and why was she saying this strange rhyme over and over. The nurse explained that she taught first grade for more than 30 years. Every day, as she helped her students remove their coast, she would whisper this into their ears. It was her way to let them know that they each held a special place in her heart. In her last years, with her mind ravaged by dementia, this woman was able to hold on to this memory, whispering love to the shadows of each of her students.
When we hit a wall and we’re tempted to fall back into energy-sucking blame, know that you have a choice. Remember that our Advocate is standing by, infusing us with the impossible love of Jesus. Let’s power forward into the next part of our marathon with an open heart in this closed-down time. Amen.
 “COVID-19 and the Racism Pandemic We Need to Talk About,” Resources in the time of COVID-19 Pandemic Shining Waters Regional Council, The United Church of Canada, April 2020. https://shiningwatersregionalcouncil.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/COVID-19-and-Racism-Pandemic-SWRC-revised.pdf?mc_cid=67e7b99f7f&mc_eid=aa4c07e07f
 Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations, “Love Never Fails,” Dec. 29, 2016.
 Mark Ralls, Sunday, “May 25, 2014 John 15:15-21” The Christian Century, May 13, 2014.