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.  


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.

Even When

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! 

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!


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.


Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter


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.

This choral piece by Pepper Choplin is one of the songs that is sustaining me through this uncertain time.

While It Is Still Dark

A Meditation on John 20:1-18

Sunday, April 12, 2020

photo of moon during night

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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.

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.


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!