Sunday, April 5, 2020
"When the Earth Shakes Beneath Us"
Rev. Dr. Scott Landis
It was April 4th 2010 - almost exactly 10 years ago to the day. I was sitting in a restaurant at the San Diego Zoo celebrating Easter with a group of friends from my former church. These Easter gatherings became a tradition we kept each year – after all the worship services were complete. We met at Albert’s restaurant named after a famous gorilla who was once a main attraction at the zoo. The restaurant had an African “tree house” décor and was, in fact, on huge steel stilts which added to the sense of being nestled in the trees. I think it may have been the stilts that added to the sway as suddenly a 7.2 magnitude earthquake – whose epicenter in Mexicali (nearly 200 miles away) – shook the earth beneath us for about 45 seconds.
If you have ever experienced and earthquake, you know that 45 seconds is a very long time – much longer than is typical of most earthquakes. At first, we really didn’t know what was happening. Contrary to popular belief, earthquakes (at least ones you can feel) are not all that common in southern California. But we certainly felt this one. When I saw the waitstaff running for the doors, I knew we were in trouble. Needless to say, our dinner ended rather abruptly. It is an experience I shall never forget.
It’s a weird feeling – when the earth shakes beneath your feet. Suddenly all that had previously felt so solid and permanent vanished and we felt terribly vulnerable and very insecure. Everything I had previously taken for granted – a relaxing meal in a lovely restaurant that I had been to many times before, with friends gathered to celebrate an important occasion in our church year – very quickly took an abrupt shift.
I now noticed the amount of glass that surrounded me in all those beautiful windows that offered amazing views of the zoo, pictures that were rattling and falling. As I scouted the room to determine the quickest way to get out of there – I wondered, where would I go if I did get out? For 45 seconds – nothing seemed certain any longer. [Pause]
Today is Palm Sunday. It’s sometimes referred to as Passion Sunday depending on which aspect of the story of Jesus’ final week you choose to emphasize. I love Palm Sunday with its procession of folks waving palm branches while singing a resounding hymn. I enjoy watching the keiki, who lead us as we sing or shout “Hosanna,” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” These are all fond memories, but they seem strangely out of place given our current world situation. I don’t want to sound fatalistic or without hope, but a parade seems to fly in the face of social distancing and orders to shelter in place – not to mention the more than 50 thousand victims worldwide who have now succumbed to the pandemic. A celebration seems insensitive at best.
Instead, I am drawn, this year, to a Savior who seems to understand struggle and uncertainty – one for whom everything changed in short order. And one whose followers saw everything going up in smoke as Matthew describes, “the earth shook, and the rocks were split” when he died. This year Passion Sunday seems an appropriate focus for the challenging time in which we live – as things seem to keep changing for us on a daily basis.
The story (and this Sunday given to celebrate the events surrounding it) has always been one of contrasts. Jesus rides into the holy city of Jerusalem not on a horse indicating that his authority was through the power of human strength, but on a donkey – a lowly beast – suggesting his power was not of this world. While he was originally revered with shouts of “hosanna,” in just a few days he would be reviled with shouts just as loud as the crowds cried, “let him be crucified.”
Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday begins a week where we have a clear sense of what is coming – a reality, I believe, Jesus was deeply in touch with – and a foreshadowing, I have a sense, that may speak to us a whole lot more deeply this year, more so than anyone I can ever remember – as the earth moves beneath our feet – and rocks are split – and we are left with nagging questions of what to do – for a whole lot longer than 45 seconds. In short, we don’t currently know where things ARE going.
That uncertainty can really damage our confidence. We could become paralyzed with fear. But what brings me an abiding sense of comfort in all the uncertainty is the undeniable fact that – while it may not seem so at the present moment – God IS with us, and understands our questions, and our fears even more than we do. We may sense abandonment – Jesus certainly did – but God hears our cries, listens to our prayers, and comforts us in both subtle and remarkable ways if we pause long enough, and listen carefully for the voice of God which is sometimes straining to get through.
Now, I couldn’t do that while I was in the midst of the earthquake itself. When the storms of life come our way and tragedy strikes – the shock can be overwhelming. When the swirl of voices are shouting “hosanna” OR the condemnation of “crucify him” it’s difficult to sift through the distraction and really hear the voice of God.
Similarly, when we feast ourselves to a steady diet of the news each day which reports the numbers of rising death tolls and statistics of a plummeting stock market – it’s hard to be still and know the presence of God.
Having said that, it IS important to be aware and to attend to the suffering of the world around us. As Brian Mahan reminds us in his excellent book, Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose, he says, “But that is almost impossible to do when we are too busy, or held hostage in the grip of fear, or preoccupied.” As I listen and observe our society at large I sense that too many of us are glued to the constant stream of information as it appears on our televisions, our computers, and our phones – and that can detract from what NEED to pay attention to.
It’s vitally important to be aware. It does us no good to bury our heads in the sand. But I want to encourage you to limit your intake of the constant stream of news which can become an assault to your soul. We cannot ignore the facts as they are important to our understanding of reality. BUT – we MUST balance all that with times of spiritual nurture, and healing, which opens the door to a deeper and more informed reflection on reality.
The crowds surrounding Jesus in his last week – what we refer to as Holy – had become so preoccupied, so fearful, that they could not see the love and compassion that was right in front of them. Their actions brought condemnation on their own lives – which should give us pause – leaving us space to ask the question or reflect on our own mistakes.
How might we do things differently? How might we effectively pause to notice the love of God in this very difficult time? For each one of us this may be different. And, how might we embody that same love even as the earth appears to shake beneath our feet?
Most mornings I walk the short distance from our condo to the ocean and take a nice long swim. After getting past the rocks and murky waters that the breakers leave in their wake, I get to a lovely reef. As the sun filters down the coral and rock formations, I get a feast for the eyes. The fish, vibrant in color, swim around me and I feel a peace and a closeness to Holy Presence that I get nowhere else. God and I have great talks out there. The other day honu greeted me and we swam together for a while. That’s important because honu is my spirit animal and she always seems to find me when I need her the most. Swimming with honu for me is like swimming with God.
You may think that odd – and the scene may or may not speak to you. But, friends – the earth is shaking beneath our feet – rocks are splitting. Our future is not certain or sure. But we ought not to fear. Instead, I encourage you, find your place where you draw near to God. When you do, God will draw near to you. She will find you and you will be comforted.
Love and compassion are right in front of us. Let’s not miss the opportunity for grace.