Guests are no longer lingering at Manna House. They come, usually one by one, to get the meal on Monday night, and the hygiene “hospitality bag” on Thursday morning. There’s no waiting for their name to be called for showers. We are not doing showers right now. There’s no gathering for conversation around cups of coffee. We are not serving coffee right now. This is what hospitality looks like in a time of COVID-19: welcoming people for a few basic services in ways that will not encourage the spreading of this coronavirus.
We practice welcome by calling arriving guests by name, and by asking each as they arrive how they are doing. Occasionally our welcome also leads to meeting a special need, perhaps for a blanket or a hat. And our welcome also means the bathroom is available while Manna House is open. Thursday morning several guests took the opportunity to wash up.
How are the guests doing? Not that well. The isolation of the streets is compounded by the closing and reduction of hours for places for people to go. The library is closed. Fast food restaurants are carry-out only; dining rooms and bathrooms are closed. Meals are all takeout, so soup kitchens do not allow for sitting down together to eat.
“It is always hard out here,” a guest said, “now it’s harder than hard.”
I have been seeking to discern the presence of God in this “harder than hard” time of disease, desolation, and death. I have been trying to figure out “How should we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4).
At Manna House this morning there was time between guests arriving to talk. Fr. Val was there, as he is every Thursday. And he brought up this Sunday’s Gospel. It will be Palm Sunday and the Passion of the Lord is read. This year that means Matthew’s version. In Matthew, Jesus on the cross cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus’ words come from Psalm 22. There is a pattern in this psalm, a going back and forth between cries of being abandoned by God and affirmations of the gracious presence of God.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.”
What to make of this pattern of lament and lauding of God? How might this psalm and Jesus in his words on the cross speak to this “harder than hard” time? Pierre Wolff, in a book titled, “May I Hate God?” writes that when “We think we are accusing God… in reality God is sorrowfully questioning the world through us.” Jesus in crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” affirms his faith that God is on the side of deliverance, not death; compassion, not crucifixion; salvation, not shameful execution.
I cannot question God unless at the same time I trust God wants something different. Put another way, all that is in me that desires life, that desires a better world, that loves, that seeks justice, that aspires for the good of all humanity and the creation, that is God within me. All that is in me that mourns life lost, that sorrows at suffering, that cries out at injustice, that is God within me.
And so, I am left with a choice in this “harder than hard” time. Jesus faced the same choice in his temptations in the desert. Is God with us in our vulnerability, or should we put our trust in the way of control? Jesus faced his vulnerability as a human being as he responded to each temptation; the same vulnerability I face in my humanity. Will we live on the Word/bread of God, or on the economic power of turning stones into bread? Will we trust in God to be with us or will we test God by claiming religious power over life? Will we serve and worship a God at odds with the powers that be, or serve and worship the idol of domination over others?
Jesus chose to embrace his vulnerability, to practice compassion, not control; discipleship, not domination; solidarity, not separation. Jesus chose to be with the outcasts, the lepers, the tax collectors and prostitutes, the foreigners, the blind, the lame, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the sick, the unclean, the ostracized and excluded. Why? Because that is where God breaks in to affirm another way, and where we can sing God’s song of love and justice, while we live in a strange land, where those are in short supply.