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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!

AMEN.

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To find our way into the future it is critical to ask questions, in the spirit of Thomas.

Probing Questions

A Sermon on John 20:19-31

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Let’s get something out of the way right up front: what Jesus actually said to Thomas is very difficult to translate into English.  “Stop doubting” is not a good translation.  The words that Jesus uses here for faith and unfaith are adjectives, not verbs.  A more accurate translation is, “No longer be untrusting, but trusting.”  The root of the adjective means trusting, having faith, believing.  Trusting and not trusting are about relationships.  Jesus is inviting Thomas to move towards trusting him.  A trusting relationship is what this is about, not whether or not Thomas has the correct beliefs, doctrines, or creeds and is sufficiently sure about them.

We don’t know why Thomas was not with the group that first Easter evening.  But sometimes people want to be alone when their hearts are broken.  It’s likely Thomas isolated himself in shock and grief, especially those first few days after the crucifixion.  Bless his friends.  They didn’t want Thomas to remain in isolation, so they reached out to him.

They shared their experience with Thomas.  In response, he trusted them enough to be real with them: “Until and unless I see and touch his hands and side, I don’t trust,” he said.  His friends continued to hold him in their fellowship nevertheless.  They accepted him as he was, and so he was with them the next Sunday night when the congregation of Jesus’ followers gathered.

That’s the way Thomas was: he was too honest to pretend he understood when he didn’t, or to pretend he trusted and believed when he didn’t.  He’s the one who asked the questions the others probably wanted to ask when Jesus told his followers he was going away, and they knew where he was going.  Thomas immediately piped up, “But Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?”  Even though others had seen Jesus after the resurrection, Thomas was too honest and sincere to pretend that all was well when he was still struggling hard inwardly.

That next Sunday night the community was once again gathered behind locked doors, fear still hanging over them.  Once again Jesus quietly slipped in among them and greeted them all with amazing, comprehensive grace and peace, Thomas included.

Jesus then proceeded to offer Thomas the same gift he had given the others the week before: the sight of his hands and side.  He welcomed Thomas to come and see and touch.  “Probe my hands.  Put your finger there.”  Jesus welcomed Thomas just as he was, questions and all.  He understood Thomas’ need to probe the situation.

Did Thomas actually touch Jesus?  The text doesn’t say.  The story moves immediately to his exclamation, “My Lord and my God!”  Maybe hearing Jesus’ welcome, experiencing Jesus’ grace was all it took to move him in the direction of trust.  Simple, powerful, real: “My Lord, and my God!”  If this isn’t the climax of the Gospel of John, it is certainly one of the high points.  It was a revolutionary declaration in those days when the empire declared that Caesar was lord and God.  Once Jesus’ followers went public with that statement of faith, Jesus is Lord and God, it was going to put them at odds with the empire.

Thomas needed to ask questions on his way to a more trusting relationship with Jesus.  But sometimes Christians and churches don’t take kindly to questions or to the people who ask them.  Your beliefs have to be correct.  You should be able to accept and repeat what you were told and not ask questions.  How you understand what Jesus has done for us has to be nailed down and certain.  If it’s not, keep quiet about it.

This week I heard yet another story about someone who was rejected by fellow Christians when he started asking questions.  He was a pastor in a tradition that has a very rigid system of beliefs.  For a long time he wholeheartedly subscribed to this system and preached it himself.  He remembers when the questions started.  He described a night when he was on retreat with some other men in the church.  As the others slept peacefully, he found himself wondering, “Where did the idea come from that God’s mercy towards a person stops the moment that person dies?  Doesn’t scripture clearly say God’s steadfast love is forever?”  And that sleepless night was the beginning of many.  It led to a painful journey out of that tradition, but into a deeper relationship with Christ. (See Colby Martin, The Shift.)

Jesus understood that Thomas needed to ask questions.  Thomas couldn’t draw closer and move forward with Jesus if he couldn’t be honest and say what was really in his heart.  Doubting and questioning are not the enemy of faith.  They are essential on the road to deeper faith.

Courageous questioning is essential for finding the way into the future.  Bold questions are essential in the service of the truth.  Raising questions is how we discern what’s true from what’s not, what’s truly helpful and what’s quackery.

Raising questions is essential as we move through the COVID-19 pandemic and find our way into the future.  We are not going to be able to return to a settled past, relying unquestioningly on former ways of doing things.

On one level there are practical questions.  The other day our governor outlined a multistage approach to returning to more normal activities.  It will unfold over time, and being able to move forward to a new phase will depend on accurate data about what’s happening.  For example, new cases of the illness will need to start falling and continue to fall, while our ability to test and determine who actually has the virus must rise.

Congregations will not be able to gather in person for activities for some time yet, and when we do, we will still need to be super vigilant, and our practices may need to be altered.  For example, passing an offering plate from hand to hand may not be wise.  We will be asking procedural questions, but also we’ll be asking questions such as, “Is there a way to maintain a connection so that people can continue to join the congregation for worship remotely?”  I really like having friends and family joining us from far away.  And think of what this could mean for people who are shut in in general.

And then there’s the whole question of where is God in all this.  People are asking, and some are quickly offering answers that are not helpful, and even harmful.  As they do whenever there is a disaster, a few are quick to proclaim that God is punishing somebody, usually blaming particular groups of people.  How will we answer that question?  Where do we discern the presence and activity of God?

If we’re going to call Thomas anything, we should call him “Honest Thomas.”    Be like honest Thomas.  His example is one to follow.  Be fearless questioners.

Jesus held out his hands to Thomas, welcoming him just as he was.  Welcoming Thomas’ searching, questioning heart.  The next thing you know, Thomas was entrusting that heart to Jesus.  

See, Jesus is holding his hands out to us.  Welcome, beloved.  Just as you are, questions and all.  AMEN.

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Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

Lockdown

A Sermon on John 20:19-23

Sunday, April 19, 2020

In spite of Mary Magdalene’s testimony, Easter was not a day of overwhelming joy for Jesus’ first followers.  Joy was overshadowed by overwhelming fear.  The authorities had done the unthinkable to Jesus, and now anybody associated with Jesus was in danger.

To guard against people bursting in on them, Jesus’ followers hunkered down behind locked doors.  They were still too shocked to begin discerning what their next steps should be.  And if what Mary Magdalene said was true, and Jesus really was risen, what might he say to them if they did see him?  The memory of their faithlessness haunted them.  Easter evening found the church in lockdown.

A different danger has put us in lockdown.  The enemy we hope to keep out can only be seen through an electron microscope, and the best we can do is try to keep our distance from it by keeping our distance from each other.  One of the most heartbreaking things about this is that some people truly are locked in in institutional settings, and their loved ones cannot get in to see them.  People are doing their best to care and connect by phone and computer when possible.  They feel fortunate when their loved ones’ rooms are on the first floor.  I saw a photo yesterday of two brothers standing up on stools so they could see into their elderly mother’s room from the outside.

The fear is about more than the virus itself.  There are fears about finances.  How are we going to pay our bills?  What about our retirement funds?  What are we going to do when no job means no health insurance?

One of my big fears is that we won’t learn anything from this as a national family, and that we will go right back to the situation as it was before the coronavirus hit us: when millions and millions of Americans were already living just one paycheck away from disaster.  When a minimum wage job is not enough to be able to afford basic, decent housing anywhere in the country, and with many working two and three jobs and still being unable to afford insurance and basic medical and dental care.  With people at the top of the economic ladder accumulating more and more, indeed watching their bonuses and stocks and all their perks soar, at least until recently, while taking less and less civic and public and tax paying responsibility for the wellbeing of other Americans.  So critical functions like public health and critical maintenance are chronically underfunded.  As a character in a book I was reading yesterday put it, “Why is it that those who have the most want even more?”

And then there’s great uncertainty about when we will be able to relax the restrictions, and what our next steps should be so as not to unleash another wave of sickness.  What we are experiencing at Easter this year does resemble what Jesus’ first followers experienced that first Easter.

Locked doors didn’t keep Jesus out, however.  The risen Lord quietly slipped in among his followers, and the first words out of his mouth were gentle and gracious: Peace be with you.  Then, before they had a chance to respond, Jesus was already showing them his hands and his side, assuring them that he was real, not a figment of the imagination; and what’s more that he was one and the same as the Jesus they knew and loved.  That’s when joy started coming over them, John says.

Jesus then repeated the word of peace, that powerful word that was so full of love, healing, justice, and wellbeing, and he gave them a new sense of purpose.  Whatever their next steps turned out to be, they would serve the purpose of continuing Jesus’ own life and work.  “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you,” he said.  The gifts of peace and purpose were wonderful in themselves.  But Christ Jesus wasn’t finished yet.  He breathed his Holy Spirit on them.  As we’ve observed before, the word for breath and spirit are the same in both Hebrew and Greek.  Just as God breathed life into humanity in the beginning, now Christ Jesus breathed new life into his people, new life, and spirit power.

If we read on in scripture, a few chapters and a few weeks later, these same frightened followers had come out from behind locked doors and were boldly sharing the good news of Jesus any way they could.

No barriers are a match for Jesus now.  What he did for his followers that first Easter he does for us now.  Wherever crisis and pain have chased people’s peace away, Jesus slips in among them.  He speaks the word of peace, and brings the peace of his presence.  He opens his hands, those same wounded healing hands to us, encircling us with those same strong, everlasting arms.  He breathes his Spirit on, in, and among us.  Right here in my study.  Right there where you are.  He sends us to continue his life and work.

By the power of his Spirit, we will continue to be his body now, prayerfully sharing his good news any way we can even though our movements are limited right now.  And then, when next steps start to become clear, we will move out in power.  Yes, power!

We who pray over and over, “thy kingdom come, and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” will have the opportunity to practice our king’s way.  We can be a part of the healing, of making things better in all the communities of which we are a part, from the local to the national and the world.  We know our God is the one who can change things so that we don’t have to just snap back to the same business as usual and the same injustice as before.  

May the peace of the risen Christ be with all who suffer this day, and with all who are fearful for loved ones or for themselves.  May the peace of Christ be with all who are waiting on him, all you with longing hearts, all needing comfort and strength.  May the peace of Christ be with all of you who are heavily burdened, and give you rest.

Beloved, may the peace of Christ be with you all, holding you near to the heart of God, now and always.  AMEN.

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While It Is Still Dark

A Meditation on John 20:1-18

Sunday, April 12, 2020

photo of moon during night

Photo by Rok Romih on Pexels.com

Easter

Mary Magdalene and all those who loved Jesus were trying to find their way through the darkest time they had ever experienced.  They had watched helplessly as the state—urged on by the religious authorities—tortured Jesus to death.

They had pinned all their hopes on Jesus.  They saw him ushering in the kingdom of God, where things are the way they should be, with peace, healing and wellbeing for all.  The kingdom of love and light.  They had experienced it.  Mary Magdalene had experience great healing.

And now this.  Horror!

It was still pitch dark as Mary made her way to the grave.  She couldn’t wait even until sunrise.  She must go now.  But when Mary got there, the stone covering the entrance had been removed, and there was nothing inside but the burial wrappings.  Jesus was gone!  Somebody must have stolen the body—as if the crucifixion weren’t enough.  Mary grew even more distressed.

There is much to distress us in this present darkness.  The illness that has brought ordinary life to a stop is only part of the suffering.  We mourn the loss of life and livelihoods and more.  This week unemployment rose to levels our country has not seen since the Great Depression that began in 1929.  This crisis is making it impossible to ignore the fact that vast numbers of Americans live close to the edge even in so-called normal times.

Bad behavior on the part of some is adding to the distress: distressing news of people trying to exploit the situation to enrich themselves, and of people not even bothering to put their used masks and gloves into the trash, just dropping them in the grocery store parking lot.  Yuck!

Before all this started, many people were already struggling in so many ways, and the pandemic makes things even harder.

Mary Magdalene was so upset she just couldn’t stop crying.  She really couldn’t see anything clearly in the gloom, much less recognize Jesus in the shadows.

With deep respect in his voice, Jesus said, “Woman, why are you crying?  Whom are you looking for?”

She thought he must be the gardener.  “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where, and I will take him away.”

“Mary,” he said. The risen Christ reached out to her in the gloom. She knew that voice!  “Teacher,” she exclaimed.

Realization is like a light.  Recognition is like a light.  The Lord was near, and he was alive!

Think of what this meant!  It meant that while it was still dark the stone was moved.  While it was still dark, God had raised Jesus Christ to new life.  Long before daybreak God was already up and working to overcome the horror of Friday.  God’s work of resurrection got underway while it was still dark.  God overcame death while it was still night. 

Christ was alive before dawn, before those who loved him were able to see him and trust that he truly was there.  In the shadows, he was ready to reach out to Mary and all the rest again.

Surely the God of resurrection is already at work in this present darkness.  Surely the God of light is already working for goodness, love, and life despite the shadows of gloom and despair.  God’s power goes to work even while it is still dark.

In some Christian traditions the first Easter service takes place at midnight, long before sunrise.  People gather outside and kindle a fire.  Then they light a large, long-burning Easter candle from the fire, light their own small candles, and process into the darkened church.  There they maintain a vigil in the night.  They retell the story of God’s faithfulness through all the ages, and they start rejoicing before the light of dawn arrives.

That is because they know God is already at work to bring new life even before it can be seen.  They anticipate it.  They long for it.  They trust that it will come.  They trust that they will hear Jesus’ voice again.  They keep the faith.

Friends, let us keep the Easter vigil in this present darkness.  Thanks be to God for the beautiful flickers of light that we can see, where we can glimpse God’s great faithfulness, mercy, and love in the middle of all this.  Those who keep their candles lit, so to speak, join in the good God is doing.  Thanks be to God for that voice we know and love so well, the living Christ, who calls each one of us by name, inviting us to announce his good news.  Inviting us to live his good news.

Beloved, keep the Easter vigil, until our Savior takes us to the place where there is no more darkness, no more night, and it will be bright Easter forever.  AMEN.

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Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs

A Meditation on Isaiah 52:13-53:4a

Passion Sunday, April 5, 2020

Often when we reflect on the meaning of the cross we think about sin.  Human sin is what put Jesus on the cross, and his death on the cross overcomes sin.  It is the sign and seal that God truly does forgive us.

But the cross means even more.  As the early Christians tried to express its meaning, they found help in the words of Isaiah that we just read: God’s servant was well acquainted with suffering and infirmity.  Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.  Another translation reads, “It was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down.”  The old King James puts it this way, “He was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.  Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.”

Jesus carried the weight of sin on the cross, but he carried much more.  Jesus carried the whole weight of human pain and suffering and sorrow.  He drank the cup of human experience all the way down to the bitter bottom, in total solidarity with us, in total love, in total understanding.  Surely he shares our sickness and our sorrows.  He makes them his very own.

In the early 1500’s there was an artist name Matthias Grunewald who understood this.  The monks of the monastery of St. Anthony in the northeastern French town of Isenheim commissioned him to create a work of art to be used at worship.  They ran a hospital that cared especially for victims of the plague, and for people suffering from skin diseases.  They asked Grunewald to create a work of art that would bring comfort to their patients.   He created what is called an altarpiece, and it consists of several paintings by Grunewald, along with some sculptures that were made by another artist. Crucifixion-centre-panel-Matthias-Grunewald-Isenheim-Altarpiece

The center of the altarpiece is Grunewald’s painting of the crucifixion.   The artist shows Jesus on the cross as a victim of the plague.  Jesus is a plague victim.  He has in his body the very same wounds as the patients at St. Anthony’s.  To the left you can see Jesus’ helpless, grieving mother being supported by the disciple that Jesus loved, along with another grieving woman.  To the right you see John the Baptist emphatically pointing to Jesus.  

We are in the midst of a plague now, an invisible enemy that is disrupting life, making people sick and killing people on a scale that we haven’t seen in our lifetime, but that earlier generations like Grunewald and the monks at St. Anthony’s certainly saw and coped with, and tried to address.  The COVID-19 plague attacks the lungs, making it very difficult for the hardest hit patients to breathe.  As I thought about Holy Week, and Good Friday this year, I couldn’t help thinking of the Grunewald painting, and I also couldn’t help thinking of how when Jesus died on the cross, he died because he couldn’t pull himself up any more to be able to breathe.  This painting proclaimed the word from Isaiah to the patients at St. Anthony’s, “Surely he has borne our infirmities.  Surely he has borne our griefs.”  The suffering Savior shared their suffering.  And John points to him as if to say, “This is the one who can help YOU.”

This is the one who can help US.  Surely our Savior is bearing our sickness and sorrow as we contend with COVID-19.  Surely he is with us, with supreme love and understanding as the sick struggle, and others struggle to help them.  Surely he is with us in our grief, and as we wrestle with our fears, and as we cope.  Surely our Savior bears our infirmities and carries our diseases.

I am thankful.  But I am also longing for the resurrection.

AMEN.

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Words from Paul in this time of pandemic….

We Can Do This Hard Thing

A Sermon on Philippians 4:4-14

man hands people woman

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

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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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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churchisthebest

“Church is the best ♥”

 

 

As congregations look towards the future, what kind of community do we want to be?  More importantly, what kind of community does Jesus want us to be?

The Beloved Community*

A Sermon on Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-37; and John 13:33-35, 15:12-15

 

Back in June I read an interesting article by New York Times columnist David Brooks.  He started out with some reflections on billionaire Warren Buffet’s Giving Pledge campaign in which he and other wealthy people are pledging to give away most of their wealth during their lifetime.

Then Brooks described what he would do if he had a billion dollars to give away.  He said he would do something to reweave the social fabric of our country.  He said he would use his money to support the formation of small groups of twenty-five people each all around the country.  These groups would meet weekly to share and discuss life.  They would be multigenerational with older members mentoring younger members.  These groups would engage people’s hearts through deep friendships, their hands through service, their heads with reading and discussion to stimulate the mind, and their souls to help them reflect on the purpose of life and orient them spiritually.

Here is Brooks’ reasoning behind this:  He said that people need to grow up enmeshed in loving relationships.  Quote, “Only loving relationships transform lives, and such relationships can only be formed in small groups.  Thus, I’d use my imaginary billion to seed 25-person collectives around the country.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/06/opinion/giving-away-your-billion-warren-buffett.html?_r=0)

I couldn’t help thinking of the 4-H club head, heart, hands, health pledge.  But Brooks reminded me of another group I am even more familiar with.  I grew up in one of those twenty-five person groups, a group of about twenty-five followers of Jesus, give or take a few, and now I am the pastor of another one.

As he walked with his disciples, Jesus patiently formed them into a community of love, a community of beloved people, a community that was itself beloved.  Throughout his ministry, Jesus told them what to do.  He showed them how to do it.  And on the last night before he poured out the last ounce of his love for us on the cross, Jesus summarized it this way.  After humbly washing his disciples’ feet, even the feet of those who betrayed and denied him, Jesus said, “Love each other just as I have loved you.”

The early church wasn’t perfect, but they tried to do what Jesus said, and their loving manner with each other left a positive impression on people around them.  (more…)

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