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With Coronavirus – We’re All in the Belly of the Fish Now

Face of a large, dark fish

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/22/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Jonah 2. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

We’re in the belly of the fish now. We’re deep down at the bottom of the ocean, where there is no light to see.

We’re in a place of waiting. Waiting on God. Waiting on people. Waiting to see what the course of this virus will be.

We’re waiting to see who will live and who will die. Who we will see again, and who we have embraced for the last time.

We’re waiting to see what kind of people we will be. Will we be those who hoard, or those who share? Those who hope, or those who panic? Those who protect, or those who expose? Those who love, or those who judge and blame?

This moment is one that reveals character. When the heat gets turned up, how do we respond to crisis?

The prophet Jonah was tested, too. God commanded him to go on what must have felt like a suicide mission. To go preach a word of judgment to the Assyrians, the biggest, baddest, most dangerous empire the world had ever known up until that point. God said, “Jonah, go and let those Assyrians know that they are in big trouble for all the terrible things they’re doing.” And Jonah says, “actually, I think I’m gonna take a boat ride to the ends of the earth in the opposite direction!”

God wasn’t willing to take “no” for an answer, though. And so we end up with this situation where a big storm swamps the boat he is riding on. Jonah is thrown overboard, into the raging waters – right into the mouth of a great fish. God sends a fish to swallow Jonah and keep him alive, under the sea, for three days and three nights.

Assuming it’s possible to live in the belly of a fish – assuming you had enough space and air to avoid suffocation – what would it be like to spend three days in the belly of a fish at the bottom of the sea?

It would be dark. It would be cold. It would be lonely. It would be an experience that tears you away from everything you’ve ever known. It would leave nothing but silence and expectation. It would be like you were already dead and buried. Nothing to do but wait. Contemplate. Pray.

So Jonah’s prayer is coming from the most intense place possible. Right on the borderline between life and death. His prayer reads like one of the psalms. It’s a real, whole-wheat prayer. It’s got all the roughage and fiber you need for good spiritual digestion. Written at 20,000 leagues under the sea, Jonah’s prayer has depth.

Jonah’s prayer is simultaneously one of thanksgiving and lament. Life is hard right now, and Jonah doesn’t sugar coat that. His prayer begins with a declaration of distress. “I cried out of the depths to you, God! Out of the pit of death!” Yet in the same breath, he continues, “and you heard my voice.”

We are in distress – and God hears our voice. We are in the pit, unable to escape – and God takes our hand.

The waters have closed over us. The deep surrounds us. Weeds are wrapped around our heads at the roots of the mountains. The land is closing up over us, burying us; we’re goners.

And yet, God is bringing us up out of the pit. God is raising us up from the dead. “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

Can you say that with me right now? Deliverance belongs to the Lord!

We are in this thing very deep. There’s a chance that not all of us will make it through this year. That’s a sinking feeling.

We’re descending into the tomb. We’re sinking into the depths of the earth. And yet our God is lifting us up from the pit. God is walking with us, no matter what happens – even into the depths of death. He walks with us through it all!

Just like Jonah, Jesus suffered and spent three days in the heart of the earth. Jesus went far deeper into the depths than even Jonah, and God raised him up. God delivered Jesus from the depths of the pit and vindicated him.

That is God’s promise to us, too. We will be raised with Jesus.

As the apostle Paul testifies in his letter to the Romans:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

We suffer with Jesus so that we may also be glorified with him. We face the waves and the depths and the weeds wrapped around our heads. We endure all these things, but we are not alone.

We know that God is with us. We know that he is trustworthy. We know that just as he raised our brother Jesus from the dead, he will also raise us. We don’t have to be afraid!

We don’t have to be afraid, but we are called to respond. When the fish spit him out upon the dry land, Jonah didn’t run away again. He knew he had to go to Nineveh. He had to do the scary thing. The faithful thing. The course of action that ran contrary to his desires, but which was his calling from God.

What is that thing for you? We’re living in a moment that reveals character. Who will we choose to be? Will we be the hands that help? Will we carry the good news to people who are in despair? Will we feed the hungry and comfort those in prison – even those who at present feel imprisoned in their own homes? Will we be the healing presence of Christ to others, even as we ourselves face the possibility of death?

When Jonah was in that dark, cold fish belly, he didn’t know whether he was going to make it. Three days is a long, long time when you don’t know whether you’ll survive.

Fortunately for us, our homes are much more comfortable than Jonah’s fish-hotel. But on the other hand, we’ve got a lot longer than three days to contemplate this situation. We’re going to be in the belly of the Coronavirus for quite some time. This unprecedented global crisis calls for faithful endurance.

One the several advantages that we have over Jonah, is that we are in the belly of this beast together. We may be socially distanced, but we are not alone. I hope that we as a community will take this crisis as a chance to go really deep. It’s an opportunity to evaluate what it is God is calling us to. Because we could die. And that means anything is possible.

Do you know what I mean? Do you feel that?

These last few weeks, my whole mindset has started to shift. There were lots of things that felt super-important: Work. Personal projects. Money. Elections. My ideas about myself, how others judged me. I was spending a lot of time thinking about how to “win at life.”

In the face of this global crisis, so many of these concerns have faded into the background. It’s not that they’ve gone away, but they’re relativized now. They matter, but they don’t have priority.

So some things are moving to the back burner. And other things are moving to the front. Being present with my kids. That’s really big. I’m a little bit like Jonah in that I don’t really have a choice! Schools are not in session, and I’m spending a lot more time with George and Francis these days. And suddenly that seems way more important than how much I’m exceeding expectations at my job, or whether you think my sermons are awesome. I want to be there for my kids.

This crisis is encouraging me to extend outside of myself. I’m volunteering at the Berkeley Food Pantry, which I’ve never felt able to do before, because it happens during the work day. And even in the midst of all the shock and horror, I’m finding myself really grateful for this opportunity. It’s so powerful to help make food available to those who are hungry in our community. Especially in times like these when we are all feeling anxious, to some degree, about where our next meal is coming from.

I feel so blessed to be your pastor in this historic moment. More than ever before, I’m how important the shepherding role that Faith and I share with Ministry & Counsel is. We’re working to care for the people in this community in the midst of an unprecedented situation. I believe that this experience is going to make our community stronger, and better able to show God’s love to others.

But right now, I know that we’re anxious. We need to be reminded of the strength of God’s power that we stand in. We need to be reminded of the power of the resurrection that is ours as children of God. We need to know that we are all held in God’s hand, that he is mighty and reigning over history. He is the good shepherd who will seek us out when we are lost. Even in the depths of the sea.

If there’s only one thing that you take away from worship this morning, I want it to be this: God is with us in this crisis. We are not alone. We are a community in Jesus, and we will leave no one behind. You are cared for. You are valued. You are loved.

We’re all going through a tough time right now. But the good news is that we don’t have to face it alone. We have the resources to make it as a community.

God sent the fish for Jonah. He sent the angels for Jesus. He is sending this church for you.

We are in a very dark season right now. This is the deepest, darkest Lent that we have ever known. We are in the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus. We are praying that this bitter cup might pass from us. We are shedding tears of blood. And we know that this is just the beginning. Crucifixion is coming. The tomb awaits.

But after the tomb is Easter. No matter how deep the darkness, the dawn is unstoppable. We will see it together.

These Are The Weeks When Decades Happen – How Will You Respond?

Sunset on the Estuary near Alameda, California

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” ― Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Lenin is not a person I would normally look to for an example, but this quote fits.

Things are moving fast. The San Francisco Bay Area is on a shelter-in-place regime until further notice. In Kansas, they’ve closed schools until the fall. More Italians have already died from COVID-19 than the number who died in the 9/11 terror attacks. The markets are reeling. Nearly one in five American households have lost work due to the outbreak. We’re looking at a global recession.

Yesterday at the Berkeley Food Pantry, I was struck by how well they are handling this crisis, despite having to change their entire process for distributing food. Before, they could allow individuals to pick out their own items, food is now delivered in pre-assembled packages. (This avoids spreading the virus.) Despite all this change, the pantry is operating with great efficiency and care for our neighbors.

Folks visiting the Berkeley Food Pantry are just like any of us going to the grocery store right now. We’re anxious. We’re not sure what’s happening. There’s fear that maybe the food will run out. That was the vibe yesterday, but I was impressed to see the way Aram Antaramian, the Pantry’s manager, handled the situation. He was both reassuring and firm. COVID-19 has changed the rules, and we’re all adapting. Nevertheless, we are committed to feeding everyone.

I had worried about that. With all the panic-buying happening at regular grocery stores, would there be nothing left over for the Pantry? At least for now, that fear is not materializing. If anything, there was more food than we could distribute. It reminded me of the loaves and fishes that Jesus blessed and shared. Despite the fragility of our economy and supply chains, there is still great abundance available to us if we will release fear and continue to share.

Things are moving fast. As I spent time working alongside other volunteers at the Pantry, I grew even more certain that now is the time to push for fundamental changes to how our society operates. Just as the Berkeley Food Pantry must adapt to meet the needs of hungry people in this post-COVID reality, we must demand change across entire economies and governments.

Now is the time for big, bold action. Now is the time to mount a full court press for a Green New Deal, Medicare For All, worker control of the economy, and guaranteed income for everyone.

This is something that Lenin understood. It’s something that many in the Republican Party seem to grasp. This is what all people of good will need to understand and act on right now:

In times like these, those who are ready seize power.

Now is not the time to retreat and allow ourselves to be made spectators. This is a moment of action. A moment for great imagination and bold steps. We are in a window of time where massive change is possible.

These are the weeks where decades happen. We must not cede this moment to those who would crush the poor and choke out the last gasps of democracy. In this present darkness, we must be the light.

Now is the time to enact everything we believe. On the grassroots level. At the workplace. In our families. In government. Now is the favored time. We must seize it.

The presence of Jesus can be expressed in our lives and actions. Through our service to the poor and vulnerable. We witness to a new way of living. We present a challenge to the manic domination and bottomless hunger that characterizes late capitalism.

Let us hear the call of the Spirit in this moment. Let all who are thirsty come to the water of life – to find strength to build. A new world of love, peace, solidarity.

For me, right now, I think that will involve continuing to volunteer at the Berkeley Food Pantry. Taking care of our kids. Maintaining social distance to slow the spread of the virus. Caring for Berkeley Friends Church as we experiment with a distributed, digital format.

It’s about staying awake. It’s about being prepared to act when the day of maximum effort arrives. Not being caught flat-footed by the crisis, but being like the wise bridesmaids who had oil in their lamps when the bridegroom arrived. He is arriving now. This is a unique moment in history. Let us be among those who are ready to seize it.

I’d love to hear about how you are seizing this moment. What’s feeling most alive and important to you right now? What’s the hardest? What support do you need to stay awake, alert, and hopeful even as we walk through the darkness together?

San Francisco Bay Area Shut Down – How Will Quakers Respond?

Line of people standing outside Trader Joe's in Alameda, CA

I knew that the grocery stores would be a zoo this weekend, so I didn’t even think about going. But Monday is our regular day to buy groceries for our family of five. So I bit the bullet and drove down to Trader Joe’s in Alameda (near Oakland).

What I saw when I got there freaked me out a little bit. It looked like a scene from Black Friday: A line of 100-150 people stretching from the front door of the supermarket.

I almost turned around. I wasn’t ready to deal with chaos. I wasn’t prepared for desperate clawing at boxes of Cheerios and rolls of toilet paper. But I already had momentum; I found my feet carrying me into the back of the line.

I’m glad I stayed. It turns out, the store was opening an hour later than normal – hence the line. A Trader Joe’s worker came down the line and explained their system to us. They would allow us into the store in increments. This would prevent crowding – which is exactly what you don’t want in a pandemic.

About 20-30 minutes after the store opened, I was inside. And I was shocked at what I found: The most pleasant grocery shopping experience I can remember. Everyone was kind and courteous. It was far less crowded than usual. It seemed that everyone got what they needed.

I’m grateful for the workers and managers at our local Trader Joe’s. They didn’t only care for my stomach, they shepherded my soul. They reminded me that, with good leadership and a little bit of faith, we can pull together. Everyone can get what they need. We can care for one another, even when we’re anxious and uncertain.

Cultivating this sense care is going to be even more important in the weeks and months ahead. This afternoon, our local government announced a “shelter in place” order. This order requires residents to avoid all non-essential activities outside the home. It’s a good decision, one that will slow the spread of the virus. Yet seeing the order in print is disquieting.

How long will this last? How many will die? Where is God in this? What am I called to do, to serve those who are most vulnerable? How will I show Christ’s love to the poor, working-class, elderly, and immunocompromised – people who are least prepared to weather this storm?

I’m tempted to say, “I have a spouse and three kids at home. My responsibility is to them. I’ll hunker down, and let the world take care of itself.” And I wouldn’t be wrong.

But that’s not what I saw at Trader Joe’s today. Those workers cared for me and all the other hungry people, even though I’m sure many of them were afraid. They cared for us, and I want to care for others who are hungry.

I saw the face of Jesus at the supermarket. It reminded me that I live to serve others, not to protect myself. My individual life is nothing. I am part of a greater whole – God’s marvelous creation. I am a member of a web, a fabric, a living body of human and non-human life. It is in this greater life that my individual life finds both survival and meaning.

How about you? Have you seen God in this crisis? Have you felt the Spirit’s presence, even in the midst of anxiety and confusion? Have you seen the love of Jesus in the face of a neighbor, a friend, a worker?

What’s your next step? What is your special contribution to this patchwork community of life we all inhabit? Who will you encourage? Who will you feed? What will you build? Who will you protect?

For many of us, maintaining social distance and praying for those around us may be precisely what God is calling us to now. A phone call or a text to those who have no one to talk to can mean the difference between misery and comfort.

For others, performing our normal duties (as doctors, researchers, engineers, front-line service workers, and many more) will be a way we can contribute to the greater good. For households like ours, caring for children will be a major ministry.

One way that I want to serve others in the coming week is by volunteering at the Berkeley Food Pantry. Many Pantry volunteers are elderly folks. They should stay home and avoid exposure to the virus. For a younger person with better chances of survival, one way I can help out is to take their place on the front lines.

Our neighbors need to eat, and so many don’t have any backup. They don’t have any stockpile or buffer against hunger. They rely on the food pantry for daily bread. We can be the hands and feet of God with them.

I invite you to comment below (or to email me) about what you are experiencing in this time of great upheaval. We’ve never seen anything like this. Staying calm and grounded is itself an enormous achievement.

How is the Spirit faring with thee? What is the ministry – no matter how apparently small or simple – that you feel God calling you to. How will you show God’s love in this panicked world?