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Archive for March, 2020

Words from Paul in this time of pandemic….

We Can Do This Hard Thing

A Sermon on Philippians 4:4-14

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Paul was isolated not due to a virus, but because he was in detention. He could have been in an actual prison, but he also could have been under house arrest. We know that he experienced both these forms of imprisonment. It was a scary place to be. Paul had a possible death sentence hanging over his head. What’s more, he had to depend on other people to bring him food and supplies from the outside. He had reason to experience anxiety, and I am sure he did experience it and that he looked for ways to cope with it.

And Paul didn’t think only of himself. He was deeply touched by the expressions of support that he received from the church at Philippi, and he was deeply concerned about them. There they were, VERY out of step with the world around them. Philippi was a Roman colony, a place where being patriotic meant proclaiming that the emperor—caesar—is lord, something they could not do and still be true to their faith. The church proclaimed that Jesus Christ is Lord, and they longed for the day when every knee would bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord. Paul understood that the body of Christ at Philippi had their own struggles with worry and discouragement. He also knew that they wished they could support Paul even more than they had been able to so far. As he thought of this church with loving prayers, Paul wanted to write something that would lift them up and help them persevere.

Now that the COVID-19 virus is isolating us, I am amazed at all the ways people are reaching out to support one another. Musicians are recording at home and posting uplifting music. Last weekend Neil Diamond posted a video in which he urges people to sing. Then he plays a soft acoustic version of “Sweet Caroline,” and he changed the words to “hands washing hands,” adding some comic relief to the seriousness, too.

Good writers are posting their thoughts about how to stay safe and healthy in body, mind, and spirit. My cousin who is a school psychologist passed along a good list from one of her colleagues of mental health wellness tips, like keeping in touch with people, finding ways to be helpful, taking time every day to get outside if you can, limiting how much news you expose yourself to, and doing creative projects you enjoy. One of her tips is to, quote, “Find something you can control, and control the heck out of it,” like clean out that closet, or organize your toys.

Yesterday a colleague posted about being forgetful, and I get that. I’m having trouble remembering what day of the week it is. This is what stress and making big adjustments does to the brain. She speaks a word of grace about it. We should cut ourselves some slack when we need more rest and when we can’t get as much done as we do in normal times. (https://achurchforstarvingartists.blog/2020/03/28/trauma-brain/#comments)

Daily I am seeing people trying from a distance to help one another persevere, which is what Paul was trying to do for the Philippians from a distance. He did not have much to work with except parchment and a pen, but he made good use of them to put his thoughts into words. All the way through the letter you can hear how thankful Paul is for all of them, and for their faithfulness. They were gospel partners for Paul, and he didn’t take them for granted.

One thought that really struck me from the first chapter is this one. He says, “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel.” Even under lockdown, Paul recognized that God was up to something, and that God could do something productive with this experience. I latched on to that because that is one of my biggest prayers and hopes for the situation that we are in, that in the end it will help spread the good news of Christ. I think it will if we are open to all that God can teach us through this; if we are willing to take what we learn forward into our future as a church. For example, what if there’s a way for us to continue to welcome people from afar into our worship remotely even after we are able to get back together at the church house. I also hope this COVID-19 season provides the push we need to make our culture, our ways of living more equitable and just for everyone. I hope God will use it to help mend some of our flaws as the song “America the Beautiful” says.

But the most important thing that Paul keeps coming back to all the way through the letter is to keep the focus on Christ. He got to the point where he felt safe with Christ regardless of how things turned out, but this didn’t come without a struggle. We can see that struggle in another letter, for example, when he writes about begging God to take the pain away, and finally being comforted by the word that God’s strength is enough. Paul rested in safety with Christ. Just give him Jesus. That is why early in the letter he said that living means Christ, but dying means Christ, too. And that is why our Brief Statement of Faith says right up front, “In life and in death we belong to God.” Period.

In the passage I just read, Paul reassures the church in Philippi that it is possible to change the focus from despair to joy, from fear to faith, from worry to prayer. “Turn your minds to prayer and thanksgiving” he wrote. “Turn your minds to all that is good and lovely. Focus on what is true, honest, just, and pure and worthy of praise.” All of these things are gifts from God. All of these beautiful things are gifts from the God who loves us. There is much to give thanks for, not the least of which is this community of faith. What Paul said of the Philippians, I say of you. I thank God every time I remember you. We give thanks every time we remember one another. Amen?

And, Paul adds, it is possible to persevere in all circumstances. “I’ve learned the secret to hang in there through plenty or want. I can do it through Christ who strengthens me,” he wrote. The strength comes from Christ. When we start to think, “I can’t cope,” we can join with Paul to say, “With Christ I can.” With Christ I can face what is happening. With Christ I can face tomorrow.

Carrie Newcomer’s song, “You Can Do This Hard Thing” has meant so much to me this week. Listen to it here:

You can do this hard thing. Paul wrote, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” In, with, and through Christ, I can do this hard thing, and you can, too.. Beloved, in, and with, and through Christ WE can do this hard thing!

AMEN.

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We Can Do This Hard Thing

I am posting this during the COVID-19 pandemic while we are altering our lifestyles in order to try to slow the spread of the virus, protect the vulnerable among us, and care for our medical personnel who are struggling to care for all the sick.  This song, “You Can Do This Hard Thing,” by Carrie Newcomer spoke to me this week.  We can do this hard thing.

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As we find our way into an uncertain future individually and together as congregations, as communities, and as a nation,  seemingly easier but dubious, devilish ways will suggest themselves as means to the ends we hope for.  Like our ancestors in the wilderness and like our Christian forebears who sought the power of the state for Christian ends, or who put protecting themselves first, we are vulnerable to making deals with the devil, and we find ourselves worshiping something other than the living God.

Making Deals with the Devil

A Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11 and Exodus 32:1-14

Believe it or not, the deals the devil offered Jesus truly were tempting.  Why?  Because the devil’s proposals all appeared to offer sure-fire ways to accomplish an awful lot of good.  Imagine all the good Jesus could accomplish if the powers of the world were concentrated in his hands.

These deals were all the more tempting because Jesus was vulnerable.  Here Jesus was, about thirty years old, already well into middle age for that era, and he still wasn’t launched on his mission.  He had already been waiting such a long time and now the Spirit of God had taken him into the wilderness to wait some more.  Forty days and forty nights was a long time!  It was a time of great uncertainty.  Jesus didn’t know what the way forward was.  Jesus did not arrive on this earth with detailed plans, agendas, and timetables for ministry, and none was handed to him later.  That meant Jesus had to discern what to do and discern when the time was right.

What’s more, this extended time in the wilderness had left Jesus worn down and hungry.  Who could blame him if he just wanted to get some decisions made already.  Let’s get on with this!

A voice came to Jesus, a voice that sounded so reasonable. It wasn’t obviously the voice of evil.   It seemed to speak sense.  “Since you are the Son of God,” it said, “Turn these stones into bread and eat.  Look!  There’s an unlimited supply!  Just think of how many other hungry people you could feed.”  If Jesus wanted to attract lots of people to himself, that would certainly do it.  Jesus could literally have people eating out of his hand.

“Or what about this,” the voice of the devil continued.  “Come with me to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down, proving that what the Bible says is true: that God will order his angels to hold you up so you won’t even hurt your feet on the rocks.  Psalm 91:11-12, quote!  Not to mention the people, no religious leader will be able to object.  They’ll be forced to accept that you are who you are.”  The crowds will swell even more.

Then that voice beckoned Jesus even higher, to the top of a very high mountain.  “Look,” it said.  “Spread out before us are all the kingdoms of the world.  See how splendid they are.  My power is what makes them great.  Kingdoms run on my kind of power.  This power is what the world understands.  Worship me, and this power will be yours.  Make a deal with me and take charge!  Deal or no deal?”

When people are stressed and uncertain, they are vulnerable to voices that say, “I have the answer.”  They are vulnerable to making deals with the devil.  They are like the God’s people the Israelites in the wilderness, tired of all the struggle and uncertainty and waiting, anxious to get moving forward.  

“Aaron,” they exclaimed, “We don’t know what on earth has happened to this man Moses who led us out of Egypt.  We’re tired of waiting.  We’re tired of this wilderness.  Let’s get this show on the road.  Make us gods to lead us on to the Promised Land.  Make something we can see and rally behind.”

They didn’t get any argument from Aaron.  He, too, must have been anxious to get going.  So Aaron told all the people to turn in their gold jewelry, which he proceeded to melt down, pour into a mold, and shape into a golden calf, a bull.  Why a bull?  In the ancient Near East the bull was a common symbol for power, and in particular, for military power.  This is what the gods of the great nations around Israel looked like.  Actually, Wall Street power is still pictured as a bull. 

When the people saw the bull, they agreed, “Look, Israel, these are our gods that led us out of Egypt, and THIS is the power that is going to get us to the promised land!”
What an irony!  While Aaron and the Israelites were busy concocting this golden calf, imitating the world around them, settling for the gods of the world, God had something much better in mind.  God was busy describing to Moses plans for using that very same gold to make beautiful vessels, instruments, and furnishings for God’s moveable sanctuary and for the ark of the covenant, the golden box to hold the tablets of God’s covenant law.  This sign of the covenant was what God wanted at the head of the procession to the promised land, not some bull.  The result was disaster.

Through the centuries the people of Christ have certainly made deals with the devil, sometimes for selfish ends, but often in the name of  some hoped-for GOOD goal, aiming for the promised land.  For example, this week I studied some of the history of the church in Germany during the Nazi era before and during the second world war.  History shows why the church didn’t take a stronger stand against what Hitler and his henchmen were doing.  In 1933, for example, the pope signed an agreement with the Nazi government, before the worst of the atrocities got started, with the goal of making sure the church could keep on doing what the church does, or what they believed it should do.   Honorable goal, right?  Hitler’s government agreed to permit Catholics to observe the sacraments and make pastoral appointments without interference, it agreed to state support of Catholic schools, and it agreed to permit religious instruction in public schools.  This looked like a win for the church, especially given some of the earlier history of persecution against Catholics in the region.  In exchange, however, the clergy could not engage in political activity or hold political office, they had to swear an oath of loyalty to the Hitler’s Third Reich, and they agreed to sponsor only organizations that strictly did charitable works or social activities.  The pope’s purpose in signing that agreement was to protect the institutional church.

But this muzzled the church’s tradition of speaking out on matters of human rights and justice.  The church was strangely silent, at least publicly, when Hitler started purging and murdering his political opponents, and when the government instituted boycotts of Jewish businesses, and started destroying synagogues and imprisoning Jews.  Eventually some found ways to resist, especially when it became clear that the Nazis’ goal was to eliminate everybody deemed weak or undesirable.  Some paid the price for resisting—imprisonment and worse.

Protestants made their own deals, going along with a policy of coordinating Nazi beliefs and policies with church theology and practice, beliefs about homeland and patriotism, and racial purity.  There was a Protestant movement called Deutsche Kristen, German Christians, who did things such as teach that Jesus was not Jewish, and bar Christians of Jewish background from being leaders.  There were many who thought Hitler was sent by God to save the German people and nation economically, culturally, and spiritually.  Cooperating with Nazism appeared to them to be the way to promote patriotism and traditional family values.

Other Christians who disagreed with the German Christian moment founded their own movement called the Confessing Church.  One of its documents, the Barmen Declaration of 1934, is in our Presbyterian Church USA Book of Confessions.  It declares that Christ alone is Lord of the church.  But even the Confessing Church had a spotty record when it came to resisting. 

The most poignant article I read this week came from a writer in the Seventh Day Adventist tradition, one of the smallest Christian groups.  It was a very small group in Germany.  The author, Harold Alomia, wrote, “It seemed that the church found itself being pulled from three different directions: the desire to carry out its mission, the need to please the state and avoid its demise, and the wish to keep its organizational structure intact.”  (Harold Alomia, “Fatal Flirting: the Nazi State and the Seventh Day Adventist Church.” Journal of Adventist Mission Studies, Vol. 6 [2010], No. 1, Art. 2, p. 11.) (https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1042&context=jams). He added, “The church seemed eager to seek power from the state to carry out the proclamation that God has entrusted to the church.”  Let me repeat that: the church seemed eager to seek power from the state to carry out the proclamation that God has entrusted to the church.

Those statements apply to much of the church in that era.  Seeking power and protection, trying to preserve its life, particularly its institutional life, the church made deals that seemed to be to its advantage, but turning a blind eye to evil.  And so the church ended up worshiping something other than Jesus Christ.   Deals with the devil.

On Jesus’ way to his own promised land, the devil offered Jesus deal or no deal.  “No deal, Jesus answered.  “Scripture says that humanity cannot live on bread alone, but must feed on every word that comes from the mouth of God.  No deal!  Scripture says, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.  No manipulating God!  No forcing God’s hand!  No deal!  Scripture says worship only God, and serve only God.”

As far as Jesus was concerned, no matter how hungry and impatient and eager for success one is, the will and way of God comes first!  There are no shortcuts to the Promised Land.  The humble, difficult way is the way.  The way of the cross is the way.  Some things are more important than protecting and saving ourselves.  Some things are more important than winning.

Christians are as tempted to make deals with the devil as ever.  As the Seventh Day Adventist writer put it, the church is still sometimes eager to seek power from the state to carry out the proclamation that God has entrusted to the church.  The church sometimes seeks the power of the state to fulfill its mission and meet its goals.  But when we unconditionally support someone who promises to deliver the power of the state to us through laws or directives, or in the form of seats on the Supreme Court, we are in grave danger of making deals with the devil.  And this will not end well.  Just ask our Israelite ancestors.  Just ask our Christian forebears who made that mistake.

The primary question for the Israelites, for Christ Jesus himself, and for Christ’s people today is not what is the most expedient, efficient, quickest way to make it to the promised land.  The question is not how can we MAKE what we want happen, INSURE it happens, however good it might be.  The question is not which way involves the least fear and the least pain, or what will please people and make us look good in others’ eyes, or draw crowds.  The primary question is “What is the will of God?”  We must think it through, guided by scripture just as Jesus did.  We must wrestle with it. We must discern it.

As we find our way into an uncertain future individually and together as congregations, as communities, and as a nation,  seemingly easier but dubious, devilish ways will suggest themselves as means to the ends we hope for.  What will it be?  Deal or no deal?

AMEN.

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