Sunday Sermon in a Pandemic: Bishop Michael Curry and Jim Wallis in Conversation

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As the nation tries to slow the advance of the coronavirus pandemic, we are all engaged in responsible social distancing. In this first episode of the Sunday Sermon in a Pandemic series, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Jim Wallis discuss making connections to faith and worship, spiritualty and justice, in the digital and social media age.

Full transcript below:

Rev. Jim Wallis:

Hello this is Jim Wallis, and you’re listening to a special edition of The Soul of the Nation, a podcast about how our faith should shape our politics and not the other way around. Today, I am speaking with my dear friend, Bishop Michael Curry, about how faith, our church, and our worship practices can adapt during a period of social and physical distancing. Bishop Michael Curry, of course, of royal wedding fame, is Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Together with 20 other church elders, we launched Reclaiming Jesus, a movement to redefine the importance of a life and love of Jesus Christ amid our current crisis. Thank you for joining us my friend.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry:

Thank you, my friend. Glad to be with you. You know I’d do anything I can for you.

Wallis:

Well let me first . . . how’s your spirit in the middle of all of this, how’s your spirit?

Curry: You know, I have to admit, my spirit is good and okay. But we’re all being buffeted, if not buffeted by the COVID-19 itself, by all of the collateral impacts – both spiritual, physical. Isolation is not really good for the spirit, but there’s a way that the Holy Spirit can get to our spirits and refresh us even in the midst of that.

Wallis:

How are you adapting? As the leader of a denomination, a convener of bishops and leader of thousands of pastors, what are you learning about worship and the Church from this new reality?

Curry:

Well you know, I have to admit, it’s really interesting. I was just talking to a young person who is in South Africa right now. I told her one of the things I think is beginning to happen, is that some of the ancient wisdom is beginning to speak more clearly to me in this particular context where we actually are experiencing roadblocks to the living out of our faith, which are causing us, at least causing me, to have to go back and say, now what’s the essence of that faith and how have people in times past engaged that faith in Jesus and in God? And, what I’m finding, is that some of the ancient wisdom actually has a profound contemporary voice.

I’ll give you a quick example, just in terms of me personally, one of the things that I’ve gone back to is looked at the ancient rhythm of Hours of Prayer. It’s there in the Hebrew scriptures, in the Psalms, in the morning, midday, and night, the various hours of prayer are there. It’s in the ancient monastic tradition of early morning prayer, whether it’s Lauds and Matins, and then midday prayer, and then evening prayer, and then late-night Compline kind of prayer where the day was marked not by numbers on a clock but was marked by moments of prayer. That’s deep and ancient in our traditions. And so, I’ve gone back personally and started following the pattern hours of prayer. And they’re not all long but letting that define my day or create the context for what I have to do during the day.

The other thing I’ve done, I was reading something about working from home, dealing with the liabilities of working from home, and one of the things that the author mentioned was because you’re at home, what is work can easily morph into time that ought to be recreational – time for recreation, time for rest, time to eat, time to do nothing, time to read. And so, I’ve kind of marked off on my calendar time to rest during the day, and then other times in the evening, that’s family time, and what that is, is going back to the ancient wisdom of having times that are marked off intentionally for God. It’s actually little sabbath times during each day. That’s been a personal learning for me. We’re early in this, but I’ve kind of adopted that for myself. I have a feeling something like that is going to be true for us as Church, which is to say that in this moment when we are all physically separated, which is the right thing to do—that is for the common good and everyone’s health, and especially for the health and well-being of those who are vulnerable—one of our bishops refers to this as a fast from gathered worship, and that’s right, it’s a fast in the spirit of Isaiah who said, what is the fast that God desires? That you break the bonds that bind people. That you set the captive free. In other words, that you actually show love for the neighbor. That’s the fast that God wants. And so, we in the church have been called to fast, not just us in the church, but all religious people, are called to fast from public gathering, even for the sacred moments which we treasure—and rightly so—of worshipping our God, of being in Christian community. Well, that’s a fast. That’s not just not going to church, that is an intentional fast. And again, to begin to reframe what we’re experiencing … having to go from simply isolation to actually a fast so that others might live.

Wallis:

I remember in our faith leaders call last week, we talked that about this is not a time to wait, or pause, or stop, or hope this is over soon, but a time to go deeper. And here you are reviving the ancient wisdom in a time like this. I remember in our call, we said we must distinguish physical distancing from social distancing with our vocation perhaps as faith leaders is to not let the social distancing create social and spiritual isolation. And what does that mean for us here trying to lead a whole church? What, practically, does that mean for us to bring that vocation and that ancient wisdom to our present moment?

Curry:

You know what it does mean? Finding points of contact that were there easily by physical proximity and now finding them in other ways. For example, in conversations with other bishops who have been working with parish clergy, one of the bishops said to one of the clergy who was kind of fussing over how to worship online, he said, well that’s important, believe me, but has it occurred to you to just pick up the telephone and call your parishioners? Make visitations by telephone? Or make visitations by email? Or make visitations by Zoom or by Skype or by FaceTime or by WhatsApp? The technology is there for you to make those visitations. And everybody may not have all of that, but most people have a telephone of some sort and most people have email. So why not make visitations or send little messages out to your congregation that way? And then, points of human contact as best we can without the physical proximity, but we can stay in touch with each other. And then for worship, to make use of all of the platforms and the means and modalities that we have and to use them to the max. You know when we were on the call with faith leaders, we were scheduled to have our House of Bishops meeting in Texas, in Camp Allen in Navasota, Texas, which meant everybody had to fly into Houston and then drive about an hour and a half out of Houston, and we were scheduled to do that in-face meeting, which we do every spring either there or at another conference center, and that was on the schedule like normal. And then the worry of the pandemic was beginning to surface, and while we didn’t know what this all meant—in fact it wasn’t even being called a pandemic at that point, even the media wasn’t even using the word epidemic yet—but we had to make a decision because we had contracts and we had made commitments We had to make a decision about a week ahead of time before all the food was ordered for 130 people and everything. And so, we made a decision that we couldn’t do the physical meeting, that we would have to do it virtually. And we were able to have between 130 and 140 people on at any one time. And we did plenary sessions, and then actually had small Zoom meetings of what would have been table groups of seven or eight people. Everybody put their minds together, and once we put our spirits together, and the Holy spirit came on, and we had the technology, it happened and we were able to make contact with each other, to pray with each other, to listen to scripture with each other, and to kind of hold a community as best we can in this particular context.

Wallis:

That’s a wonderful parable and it’s a great story. I love what you said before, how the Holy Spirit is engaging with our spirits right now in ways that are creative, innovative, and practicing our faith in a moment. I was struck on March 17, you called your churches, here it says, to suspend in-person gatherings for public worship during the sacred time of Holy Week and Easter Day. Clarifying that suspension of in-person gatherings is not a suspension of worship. And on a call, you said, we will observe lent and celebrate Easter virtually.

Curry:

You know, I don’t know if Jesus had this in mind specifically in John’s version of the Last Supper, but it sure feels like it applies. You remember at the Last Supper, at one point, Jesus says, there are many more things that I can tell you, but you cannot handle them right now. I just wonder, what was he thinking about? And you know, and you really do wonder. But then in that same context, he says, but the spirit will lead you, the spirit of truth will lead you into all truth. I’m gonna send my Spirit on you, the Advocate, and that's going to take you in worlds and ways that you never even imagined or dreamed of. I mean, I'm seeing that as being true for us right now, that that spirit will go ahead of us if we will summon the courage to follow. And we'll make mistakes, you know, we won't get it right all the time. That's fine. But if we're following, that living, life-giving Spirit of Jesus—of God—that Spirit can lead us into all truth.

And like I said, we will . . . can I read you a quote? I don't know if you know Verna Dozier, well in her book, The Dream of God, she has a quote that I've been reading every day. It's in this one. She says, “Kingdom-of-God thinking calls us to risk. We always see through a glass darkly and that is what faith is about. I will live by the best I can discern today, tomorrow and may find out I was wrong. But since I do not live by being right, I am not destroyed by being wrong. The God revealed in Jesus, whom I call the Christ, is a God whose forgiveness goes ahead of me and whose love sustains me and the whole created world.” And then she adds, “That God bursts all the definitions of our small minds, all the limitations of our timid efforts, and all the boundaries of our institutions. There are many more things that I could tell you, but you cannot handle them right now. But the spirit will lead you into all truth.”

Wallis:

When he said that to his disciples, I'm recalling the next thing he did was to wash their feet.

Curry:

Yes, yes. You got it brother.

Wallis:

So back to, these are things that we do, who we are. You're calling us to be our best selves here. And then all of a sudden, on the political front, what do we do with President Trump's invitation to ignore all that? To call us back to reopen our churches, to kickstart the economy, and perhaps aid his re-election campaign. What do we do with that?

Curry:

Well, I think we have to, in all things, listen to the health authority. They're going to give the guidance. And a lot of that guidance, to be very honest, happens on a more localized level, whether it's state or local, where the impacts will vary to some extent. But I think we have to listen to the public health people for guidance as to what is the right thing to do and what not. And that the political leaders, we certainly listen to them, but when I have a medical condition, I will talk to my banker, but I want to talk to the doctor and the nurse. In this context, we have to pay attention to our public health leaders as well as our civic leaders. But the public health people because our concern is the public health. And hopefully, our political leaders and our public health leaders will be in sync. But if they are not, I'm going to listen to the public health leaders.

Wallis:

You know, I'm reminded in this kind of time you lifted up the words about how we gather or don't gather, how we connect at this point. You said, I'm mindful of the words of Jesus when he said, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Maybe that's a framing for how to celebrate Easter this season. In fact, I'm wondering of Easter, just given all that’s going on, if this might be one of the most important Easter celebrations in our lives despite our physical distancing.

Curry:

You know, at its heart, I believe Jesus rose from the dead for real. I really do. And I respect other people, everybody having a different way, that's fine. But I'm just one of these folk . . . look, if the brother didn't get up from the grave, why am I doing this? You know? I mean, so I really do. But what I also know is that the resurrection, Jesus was made new. It was the real Jesus. I mean, you know it was the real him. But he was made new that somehow this was a resurrection to life that death could not destroy anymore. And if the message of Easter is about that, then for us to fast from gathering for worship is our following the path of new life, new life for those who we might hurt by gathering together and new life for us by learning to live not for self alone, but for others and for God – that's resurrection. That's what Wendell Berry said, that’s practicing resurrection.

Wallis:

So, what else strikes me about this sort of call to use, or I would say, abuse Easter, is Easter has never been a time for us to call to go back to normal. It's the opposite. We don't go back to normal. We make all things new. Easter is not, let's restart our normal life, as being suggested. No, it's the contrary. It's, how do we renew and redo and start life afresh? Which we need more than ever in a time like this. How can Easter help us to start things new? All it's been revealed about what's wrong with normal, the inequities in our healthcare system and all our systems, Easter's not a time to say, Let's go back to that. Easter isn’t saying Let's reopen our economy. Easter is saying, how do we learn what we're learning here and go new, go new afterwards?

Curry:

How do we create a world where the Jesus who said, I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly, and that's not about acquisition and consumerism, that is about having life in its fullness as God intended, how do we make that possible for ourselves, but not for ourselves alone, but for every child of God? How do we do that? That's new life. That's about how do we live as the body politic in such a way that children do not go to bed hungry? You know, that every child gets an education? You know, that everybody is treated as a child of God, not only in the eyes of God, but in the eyes of the law that . . .you know what I mean? How do we create a society in a world where everybody can have the abundant life that God has intended since God said, let there be anything else besides God?

Wallis:

It might be that the pandemic is revealing things that we have accepted for too long or not paid attention to. And what the pandemic is revealing are the things that we have to indeed make different and make new. And maybe Easter is a time in a pandemic to show us how we say, yes, He is risen; He is risen, indeed, and because of that, we will act in new and different ways to all those around us and for the common good.

Curry:

Yes, Easter is not an invitation to the same ole, same ole – that was Good Friday. Easter is the beginning of a new day.

Wallis:

You know, I love for us to make that proclamation on our Easter Sundays. Easter in a time like this, revealing so much of what is already true and already wrong and already evil, that Easter is a time to announce and begin a new day. I love that. This is a global pandemic and you are a prelate; you are the leaders of one of the churches in this Anglican communion, a global church. So, Justin Welby, our dear friend, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and so many others, you're all trying to figure out what are all the Anglican bishops around the world doing and saying together in response to this global crisis.

Curry:

From what I can tell, and again, I haven't heard everything that they're saying, I think one message is to the churches to be the church possibly in some new and different ways, which in some of the ways that we've been talking about, but also, and I think this is going to be a message coming from Christian leaders and leaders of other faith traditions as well, remember that in the time of crisis and in the time of danger, do not revert to our animalistic selves. Move into our renewed selves that live not for self alone, but for others, so that as governments and as individuals, as we do things, look outside, pay attention to your neighbors, both your immediate neighbors and the ones father away from you and the ones that you don't even know. Find ways to do something for someone else that helps even in this time of pandemic. Don't just get fixated on yourself–and I'm talking to myself as well as anybody else–look beyond self to others. Pay attention to self but look beyond that. It's kind of like, you know, on airplanes, you know when they do the thing about the oxygen in the unlikely event that I'll face mask is necessary, they always tell you, put yours on first and then put it on your child. Cause if you don't put yours on, you may not be able to get it on a child. The point is not just to save yourself, but by taking care of yourself, you're meant to save and take care of others. I think that's a message for us. We must take care of ourselves, pay attention to our bodies and we need to do that because we're needed so that we can help others. We've been blessed in order to be a blessing, not to keep the blessing. And so, I think we as church leaders, as people of faith, can help to share that. I'm beginning to hear other bishops beginning to say that, remember, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Remember folk who are hungry and needy and do something. Find something that you can do. I'm beginning to hear it, The Archbishop of Canterbury and others beginning to say that to our societies. And I think that's going to be the message of the church: Love your neighbor as yourself. Yes, love yourself, but it doesn't stop there.

Wallis:

Which leads to a question I'm getting all the time, and you probably are too, because you and I with 20 other church elders put out this declaration and this video about reclaiming Jesus. It went to 5 million people. So, I'm getting asked, okay, in this pandemic, what does it mean to reclaim Jesus now?

Curry:

A couple of quick things: I think It means paying attention to what he actually taught. The teachings that we see and how do I live that out now? What does it look like for me to live “A Sermon on the Mount” life? What does it look like for me to embody Matthew 5, 6, and 7, and then what does it look like for the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, to inhabit my spirit and for my hands to become His hands? What does that look like in the midst of this pandemic when we are often isolated? See, I really think, one thing I am aware of about my own experience and relationship with Jesus, is that there's a consistent challenge to me, to my higher and better self, that left, I think, left under my own devices, I would be pretty self-centered and it would be all about me. But Jesus says, whoever would save his life will lose it. But whoever would lose his life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, they will find it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul? Jesus calls me to a higher and nobler self that, I think it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said, Jesus is the man for others, that calls Michael [Curry] to be a person for others. Yes, love your neighbor as yourself, but love your neighbor. And I just hear following of Jesus, reclaiming Jesus now in this moment and time, is to dare to live a life that looks something like His: the Jesus who touched lepers who nobody else would touch, the Jesus who said, look, when you're feeding the hungry, you're doing it to me, when you’re caring for somebody else, you're caring for me. The Matthew 25 Jesus. The Luke 4 [Jesus], the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he's anointed me to preach good news to the poor. The Jesus of the golden rule in the Sermon on the Mount: Do unto others as you would have them do [unto you]. The Jesus of the parable of the Good Samaritan. What does it look like for Michael Curry, locked up in his house with plenty of heat, plenty of food, feeling okay at this moment, so am I just to keep that and be satisfied just with being Michael? Or am I supposed to do what I can do even with these limitations in order to help somebody? Like that old song says, if I can help somebody along the way, then my living will not be in vain. How can I help somebody along the way, my own family to be sure, but my immediate neighbors, but my broader neighbors, the neighborhood of the world, the whole of the ‘hood if you will?

Wallis:

The whole of the ‘hood. My brother, I wonder if you would even now, just offer a prayer for all of us at this time that we would reclaim Jesus. That in a crisis, we'd always say a good time to come back to Jesus. We're in that boat, and the storm is raging, and the boat is shaking, and we're by ourselves and don't know what to do. The disciples saw him, they saw someone, and he said, It's I. It's me. Be ye not afraid. It's okay. Don't be afraid. It's me. And then he got into their boat with them. When I was a kid, I was taught, whenever you're in trouble or in crisis, bring Jesus in your boat and that calms a storm. So, could you, even now, just say a prayer for all of us who are trying to figure out, what does it mean to reclaim and invite back Jesus to our lives right now?

Curry:

Sure, Jim. I sure will. And even as I do that, I give God thanks for you and Sojourners, and for this ministry that you're doing even now.

Oh gracious and loving God, we your people come before you. We love you and we trust you, but we don't always understand. And we have different feelings, and we have moments of doubt and moments of sorrow, moments of deep faith and deep commitment. But through it all Lord, we love you. And we love you primarily because you loved us first. And so, we come to you with all of our stuff, and we offer it to you and ask you to take us as we are and help us to be who you would want us to be. Help us to be like Jesus. Help us to love like Him. Help us to give like Him. Help us to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with you, just like Jesus. Help us to help others just like Jesus. And then use us, ennoble us, and lift us up. Lord, the song says, you got the whole world in your hands, and we just ask you to help us to see and to trust that. For those who have nobody to pray for them, Lord, please intercede for them. For those who are sick and sorrowful, Lord, please intercede. For those who weep, Lord, please intercede. For those who work at some risk, all those hospital folk, ambulance drivers, the folk who clean the hospitals, the nurses, the technicians, the doctors, the administration, for all of them, for the folk who keep the drug stores open, folk who keep the grocery stores open, the sanitation workers who keep our cities clean, for those in the military who are helping out in so many ways, for all the leaders of our governments, for all the peoples of the earth, for the mighty and well known and the little and the unknown, for all of us, Lord, intercede. Hear our prayer, and help us to banish this virus, and help us to help you make a world where all of God's children know the joyful liberty of the children of God. This we ask and pray in the one who is our example, our model, our savior, and our Lord, Jesus, who is the Christ. Amen.

Wallis:

In Jesus' name, amen. Thank you, my brother, and may God bless you and keep you in this time. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Curry:

Thank you, dear Jim. God bless you man.

Wallis:

Bishop Curry. Follow him on Twitter @PB_Curry. For news, resources, and reflections around our current public health crisis, visit sojo.net/coronavirus. If you appreciated this podcast, please share it. Share this episode with your friends and family and your enemies even, as Jesus calls us to love them too. And what better way to love someone than to share words like this with them. We're available on iTunes, Google Play, or whatever you listen to for your podcasts. After you listen, don't forget to subscribe, rate, and review and follow me on Twitter @jimwallis if that's helpful. God bless you all and keep us all in this time. And may we not just survive, but may we go deeper.