Archive for May, 2020

Between the Ascension and Pentecost, Jesus’ followers sat together in uncertainty.  The promises Jesus made to them hold for us in this uncertain time.


Photo by Christopher on Pexels.com

This Time In Between

A Sermon on Acts 1:1-14, with Allusions to Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Jesus’ followers were like people on a long journey, wondering when are we going to get there.  Since the resurrection Jesus had been coming to them and patiently instructing them about the kingdom of God.  But when was something going to happen?  Finally somebody got up the courage the ask the “Are we there yet?” question.

“Lord, is this the time when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Jesus’ followers were imagining that this journey with Jesus was going to take them back to the golden years of the kingdom of David, a time they remembered as the high point of the nation’s history.  No more Roman oppression! Freedom and self-determination at last.

But Jesus made it clear that there would be no return to the way things were.  What’s more, the timetable is God’s alone.  They could not know how much longer this in between time was going to last.

Nobody knows how long this in between time is going to last.  Many are anxious to get back to normal, but nobody knows what the timetable on this virus is.

Time itself feels somehow different.  My sense of time is really off.  I don’t have a good sense of what day of the week it is.  One day is pretty much like the next.  There’s almost nothing on the calendar.  One of biggest questions for me right now, and I imagine you, too, is not just what our steps towards safely gathering in person should be, but mainly when.  How will we know when?

We don’t know that time yet, but there are some things we can say about this time.  For some it has literally been a time to plant, and it is a joy to see gardens coming along.  We look forward to harvest time, which is also sharing time.  For others it has literally been a time to sew as they work hard to make sure everyone is equipped with a mask.  It’s a time of preparation for the baby who is joining us in September.  Now the the official school year is ended, students and their families must figure out what to do with this time.  One parent in our congregation said the other day, “It feels like summer is already half over.100515881_10152332401219999_6715839918926462976_o

This is definitely a time to refrain from embracing, except inside our households.  It is also a time to mourn with deaths in the United States approaching 100,000, almost a third of the world’s total.  This morning’s New York Times is covered with the names of 1000 of the victims, along with something about who they were.  So Lord, when are we going to get back to something approaching normal?

Jesus’ followers asked, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?”

Jesus replied, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know.  Instead, you must stay put in Jerusalem and wait.  Then you will receive the power of the Holy Spirit, and then you will be witnesses for me everywhere, starting at home, and moving out to the very ends of the earth.” With that, Jesus was lifted up from their sight.

Jesus did not give them a detailed timetable, but he did give them a promise and a mission.  Wait patiently: the Holy Spirit is surely coming to you, giving you power.  And then you will take action.  

The Holy Spirit will give them the clarity and the power to take their first step towards the ends of the earth.  But for now, they had to wait.

Jesus’ followers returned to Jerusalem and spent a lot of time sequestered together in the Upper Room, perhaps the same room where they had experienced the last supper.  The roll call of those gathered included the apostles, along with a number of women, perhaps those same women that followed Jesus from Galilee and provided for him along the way; plus the roll included Jesus’ mother, Mary, and his brothers.

They didn’t just twiddle their thumbs while they waited.  At the top of their agenda was prayer.  They also took care of people’s needs, and the needs of the congregation.  The Apostle Peter took the lead and recommended that the fellowship choose someone to fill the place among the twelve that had once belonged to Judas Iscariot.  When the Day of Pentecost arrived, it found the church faithfully, prayerfully, actively waiting, just as Jesus had instructed.

As we wait, we cannot safely assemble in person inside, and yet we surely are together in heart and mind; and we’re not twiddling our thumbs, either, as we wait.  Morton Church is not closed.  We’re just not in the building.  There’s a bunch of praying going on.  As always prayers flow on in loving support of people in need, and of a world in need.  But our prayers are also searching, questioning, opening to what God will say to us and teach us in this time in between.  We listen with our minds, our sense, as well as our hearts.

During this time in between, we have the time to think about what we want a new normal to be like.  A writer named Dave Hollis put it this way, “In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.”  (On Being Newsletter The Pause , May 23, 2020.) The pandemic makes our society’s problems even more glaring.  I don’t want to go back to a normal where millions and millions of Americans cannot afford health and dental care.  This is a moral issue.

Between the Ascension and Pentecost, Jesus’ followers sat together in the uncertainty, but they weren’t passive.  They waited prayerfully, expectantly, for the Spirit to show the way and empower the way.  Maybe they weren’t out in the open, but they were most certainly open: open to God through the Spirit.

On Friday one of my colleagues, Ed McLeod, the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Raleigh posted this reflection:

Our church is already open. 

We are open to the Spirit’s leading.

We are open to new opportunities for mission.

We are open to the stirring challenge of the call to discipleship.

We are open to anyone who wants to join us on the journey of faith.
We are open to learning new ways to tell our old story.
We are open to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue.
We are open to criticism when we fall short.
We are already open.
We just happen to be worshiping in our homes, for now, as a way of promoting safety and mitigating risk, as an expression of the love we have for our neighbors, and as an acknowledgment that any reckless behavior on our part could have a devastating effect on others. And we are grateful for the technology that makes this possible, aware that we are richly blessed.
But we are already open. (Ed McLeod, facebook post May 22, 2020.)

Open to the Spirit and wait patiently, beloved.  You’re doing a good job.  Hang in there.  The Holy Spirit is on the way to give us clarity, to show us the next steps ahead, and to give us the power to be Jesus’ witnesses.  It will come in its time.  It will come in God’s time.  



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We are in a time when love means keeping our distance in order to help protect people from getting sick.  This sermon imagines how someone like the writer of Acts might summarize life in the church during the pandemic. The focus is not on asserting our rights but on caring for the wellbeing of others.

The Wellbeing of OthersIMG_0244

A Sermon on John 15:1-17, Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37

The song “Blest Be the Tie” would not be written for another 1700 years, but had they known it, the early church would have loved it.  The people of the Way, as the early church was called, cherished their life together.  They were glad to join together for learning, fellowship, prayer, breaking bread together around their dining tables and around the Lord’s table. 

In describing their blessed ties, one thing the writer of Acts makes clear is that the people of Jesus were motivated by a profound concern for the wellbeing of others.  They understood that their resources were not just for their own benefit, but meant to be a blessing for all.  Sharing was a core community value.  Those who had assets such as real estate that they could liquidate did it, and brought the proceeds to be used to address the needs of others.

The people of the Way were trying to embody the way of Jesus, following his commands, and doing what he himself did.  “You are my friends,” he had said.  “You live as my friends by loving just as I have loved you.  Love means laying down one’s life for one’s friends.”  This is just what Jesus did.  He put himself on the line for them, even though it meant laying down his life on a cross.

The profound love of the people of the Way made quite an impression on the world around them in those early years as they sought and cared for the wellbeing of neighbors beyond the bounds of their own fellowship.  One Roman Emperor, Julian, who was otherwise hostile to Christians, remarked, they “feed not only their poor, but ours also.” (http://www.thenagain.info/Classes/Sources/Julian.html.) 

Embodying this way of love is always challenging, and now the COVID-19 pandemic is posing challenges that none of us has ever experienced before.  Just like the church in Acts we cherish our time together, that until now meant much time literally spent physically together in worship and prayer, learning and fellowship, breaking bread at the table and at the Lord’s table.  But right now as Jennifer Copeland of the North Carolina Council of Churches put it, “We love our neighbors best by keeping our distance from them.” (https://www.wral.com/lawsuit-filed-to-block-n-c-governor-order-on-churches/19098285/)

This is because we have learned that the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads most easily when people are together in an enclosed place breathing the same air over a sustained period of time, like an hour of worship or choir practice.  We also know that a person can become infected with this virus and spread it around without ever experiencing any symptoms.  That’s because the virus is projected into the air with every breath, not just through coughing and sneezing.  Talking and singing and preaching project even more virus particles into the air.  Activities where people congregate and stay grouped together for a sustained length of time are tailor made for virus transmission.  Yet these gatherings are among those we cherish the most.

But as we heard Paul say earlier in 1 Corinthians 13, love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.  Gathering together physically is not the only way in which love can be lived out.  Love is hopeful.  It finds ways to make itself known in changing and challenging circumstances.

Imagine how someone like the writer of the Book of Acts might describe life in the church during this pandemic when love means keeping a distance.  Imagine if someone wrote a summary like the ones we read in Acts 2 and 4.  It might read something like this:

In those days, the believers were one in heart, and mind, and soul.  But though their arms ached to embrace one another, though their laps felt empty, missing dear children, and though they grieved because they could not go in person to comfort their frail folk in facilities, their love endured.  They missed one another’s faces, and they missed singing together, but they did not insist on their rights to gather as they pleased.   They trusted God, and they found other ways to live out their concern for the wellbeing for each other and the community around them.  They humbly welcomed the guidance of scientists and public health experts, grateful for their work, and especially grateful for the efforts of medical personnel putting themselves on the line for others.  Therefore, the believers put aside their own comfort and preferences, and did all they could to protect others.  They found new means to praise God, to nurture their faith, to care for and support one another, no building required.  Because they were willing to let go of what they wanted and liked best, lives were saved.

The believers found ways to address the pain and economic devastation caused by the pandemic.  Those who had resources did not consider them as their own only.  With generous hearts they constantly looked for ways to share, addressing needs whenever they could.  People who did not need all of their economic stimulus checks shared with others who had greater need. 

They prayed constantly, joining the longings of their hearts together with the longings of God’s heart.  Their lives testified to the living Christ.  Onlookers saw their witness, their love so creatively and selflessly lived out in this trying time, and they thought, “Love is real.  Jesus is real.”

Signs and wonders occurred among them, and great grace was upon them all.

Dear friends of Jesus, thank you for being so profoundly concerned about the wellbeing of each other and of neighbors all around us, near and far.  We are the people of Jesus’ Way, and we can continue practicing his Way in this and all circumstances.

We will do it in the name of the God who did not withhold his only Son, but gave him up for us all.

We will do it in the name of the One who calls us friends, Christ Jesus, who laid down his life for us all.

We will do it in the name of the Holy Spirit, the powerful healing breath of God, everywhere at work—in and through and among us all, and all around us—seeking the wellbeing of everyone.  Always.  AMEN.

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Even When

A Sermon on Psalm 23 and John 10:1-15

The situation in John chapter 9 makes what Jesus says in John 10 even more precious and beautiful.  In John 9, Jesus gave sight to a man who had never been able to see, and along the way, the man came to deep insight about who Jesus is and about how much God loves him.  But Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, which was a grievous sin in the eyes of the man’s spiritual shepherds—his pastors, you might say.  Instead of celebrating the healing, they were accusing and argumentative; and by the end of chapter 9, they had condemned Jesus and kicked the man out of the congregation.  Even the man’s parents didn’t come to his defense.  They were afraid they might get kicked out, too.  

Maybe those pastors actually did the man a favor in that it got him out of a toxic situation.  Some religious people and groups are toxic.  But the man was more than okay.  He was safe with Jesus.  By the end of chapter 9, Jesus was his lord and his shepherd.  “Lord, I believe.” he said.

In chapter 10, Jesus describes what kind of shepherd he is.  He is the one who knows each sheep by name, the one whose voice they know and follow.  The one who supplies nourishing pastures and protects them.  The one who gives them life abundant.  The one who lays down his life for their sake.  He is the one who embodies Psalm 23.

Which follows the trauma and struggle of Psalm 22.  The situation in Psalm 22 makes Psalm 23 even more precious and beautiful.   Psalm 22 starts, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from helping me?  Why don’t you answer me?”  Psalm 22 is turbulent, swinging back and forth from cries like those, to expressions of hope when the hurting person remembers God’s faithfulness in the past.  Psalm 22 is what sprang to Jesus’ mind and lips when he was suffering on the cross.

But then comes quiet, peace-filled Psalm 23.  The Lord is my shepherd: the one who provides good pastures and restful waters, guidance, a safe haven, protection, when there is danger all around.  The one who sets and a full table even in the middle of the danger, and pours a cup that’s never empty.  The one who makes a home, and who is a home always.

Notice the verse that is right in the heart of the psalm, verse 4.  Suddenly it’s not talking about the Lord any more.  The psalmist is talking to the Lord directly:  Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me.   You, beloved, faithful, dependable shepherd, you are with me.

Even though I’m in a dark and dangerous situation, you are with me.  Fear is not going to stop me.  I will trust, because you are with me.

Jesus Christ is risen, and he is the Lord.  He is that shepherd, and he is with us even when we are in the valley of the shadow, even when we are afraid.  He is with us.  Even when we are out of step with others, and with the world around us.  Even when we have been rejected like the man in John 9 who was shunned by his parents and thrown out of his congregation.  Even when we experience deep desolation as in Psalm 22.     Even when we are on that kind of roller coaster.  Even when we can’t see or feel that the Lord is near, he is still near.  Even when we can’t hear him, he is still there, as the sun is still there even when we can’t see it.

Even when a dangerous new virus threatens us and the whole human family, even then fear will not paralyze us, for YOU, beloved, faithful, dependable shepherd are with us.  You make a shelter for us in the middle of this crisis, even then.  You set the table and pour the cup for us, even then.  Your goodness and mercy are all around us, even then.  You are our home, even then.

You are with us.  Even when…even then…even now.

Thanks be to God! 

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Ordinary and Holy

Ordinary and Holy

A Sermon on Luke 24:13-35


Sunday, May 3, 2020

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Emmaus is probably where these two followers of Jesus lived.  One was named Cleopas, but no one knows who the other one was.  It might have been Cleopas’ wife, or another family member.  Some people suggest that the author deliberately left the second disciple unnamed as an invitation to us to picture ourselves in that spot, walking alongside Cleopas.

As the two companions walked they went back over the details of all they had witnessed: the shocking violence and cruelty of Friday, and the moment when Jesus took his last breath, when all seemed lost.  But now, since the report of the women who visited the empty tomb that morning, there was confusion added.  Maybe all wasn’t lost after all.  Was it worth it to get their hopes up?

At some point Jesus himself drew up beside them, but they didn’t recognize him.  He looked like another ordinary traveler.  Nothing stood out about him. “What’s this you’re talking about back and forth as you walk along,” he asked.

Cleopas and his companion stopped in their tracks, their faces full of sadness.  How could this stranger not know what had been happening!  The people of Jerusalem could talk of nothing else.  It was like somebody now being totally oblivious to what’s going on with the COVID-19 virus.

“You must be the only stranger in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have been happening,” Cleopas replied.

“What things?” Jesus asked.  And then he listened patiently while the two companions poured out the whole story.

“Um, um, um,” Jesus replied.  “How slow you are to trust the words of the prophets.”  He went on to show them what he meant.  He took them on a walk through the prophets, starting with Moses, and showed how all the pieces of what had happened to him fit together with the scriptures.  The two found themselves hanging on Jesus’ words.

The afternoon flew by, and evening fell as they reached their destination.  Jesus appeared to be going further, but the two companions insisted, “Look! It’s going to be dark soon.  Come in and stay with us.”  I wonder if they remembered Abraham welcoming the three angels of God back in Genesis.  In any event they were eager to show hospitality to this new friend they had made along the way, and he accepted. 

At the supper table their new friend took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them.  Wait!  They had seen this before.  They had seen Jesus do this before when he shared the bread with the crowd, and then again at the last supper.  In a flash it was clear.  This wasn’t a stranger.  This was the risen, living Christ himself, and he had been there with them the whole time.  And in that same instant, he vanished from their sight.  “That’s where the fire in our hearts came from while we were talking on the road,” they exclaimed.

Jesus had made his loving presence known in such an ordinary, everyday way, nothing at all big or showy.  Just walking and talking and listening together on the way home.  Just breaking bread at the supper table.

What is holy can be experienced in the ordinary and everyday.  On Friday I read a facebook post from a mother who experienced this while out on a walk with her son that afternoon.  She wrote, “At one point, my 9-year-old and I were holding hands and talking quietly.  Suddenly I felt God show up with us.  I asked my son, ‘Do you feel God with us right now?’ He said yes in a definitive tone.  I asked him if he is just feeling God with us now, or all along.  He said, ‘Just now.  I know God is with us all the time, but I just felt Him now.’ I asked him how it feels to him.  He said, ‘Like someone standing right behind us but is invisible!’  (This was exactly how I was experiencing God, too.). Then I told him about a friend of mine who really needs prayer, and suggested we pray for her.  We continued walking together, holding hands, as I prayed out loud for my friend.

“God is so good,” she continued. “My faith has been dry lately.  God showing up, and being experienced by my son at the same time as me, was a real gift.”  (Jessica Hetherington, facebook post on the RevGal BlogPals page, Friday, May 1, 2020.). Sounds like they were on the Emmaus road, with Jesus walking right alongside.

The simplest situations and the simplest actions can become a place where Jesus’ loving presence is known.  Two friends opening their hearts to one another, and the next thing you know, they realize he is there with them.  Grownups taking time for children, to listen to them, to read with them, or to watch them stretch their wings, and there he is.  

There he is, holy and loving, when someone uses skill and kindness to ease another person’s suffering, to help in the healing.  Tired, sad travelers open the door, and there stands someone with a plastic container of food.  There Jesus is again.

Right now we can’t get physically close to one another as we spend time walking around in the scriptures and share Christ’s meal together at the table, but we are continuing to do those simple things as best we can.  And Christ is with us.  We are still close in heart, and he is using the simple means we do have to kindle the flames of hope in our hearts. His love burns in our hearts.

The holy One was present yesterday, sanctifying a joyous moment for Elizabeth, Daniel, Raylee Jean, and all of us who love them.  I wish every child, everywhere had that many people loving them and rooting for them.  And I believe God is working on that.  I’m glad we can help. (Note: the congregation was able to share the moment when our expectant parents learned that their baby is a girl.)

The wonders of our living, holy God are all around and among us.  The heavens declare God’s glory, the creatures declare their maker’s praise, the elements of the earth point to their creator.  Our creator.

We do not always see or feel Christ’s holy presence with us, but we trust him to be there all along.  Not just in the extraordinary, but in the everyday and ordinary, filling our hearts with his love, covering our lives with his grace, everywhere on this road.  We certainly are walking alongside those two on the road to Emmaus.  But even more importantly, the risen Christ is walking alongside us.  Thanks be to God!


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