Can’t believe that over the past few months in the midst of this COVID pandemic, I have been so silent. My apologies.
Sunday is Mother’s Day, which leads to some reflections. I had a good mother, who was as loving as she could be, on most days. I have no idealized concept of her, for I know her reality. She did the best that she could, but some days she fell far short. Despite that, the God I worship loved her and so I do too.
Over the years as a local pastor, I have given Christian council to far too many who were physically, emotionally, and mentally mangled by their mothers. So Mother’s Day is a painful experience for them. Some had been physically struck multiple times by a drunk Mom filled with vile hatred for herself and any issue from her womb. Some had always been an extra mouth to feed in the house, or an emotional and mental punching bag whenever their own poor esteem got the best of them. Some were abandoned for long periods of time while their Moms fulfilled their lives at the expense of their children.
I also have sat with mothers, who have known the falseness of the sentiment of Mother’s Day. Many do not receive phone calls, cards, or chocolates. If they do, it is the first time they hear from their children in months. There are mothers who have suffered years of physical, mental, and emotional abuse at the hands of their children. For such, Mother’s Day is a day of false hope.
So this Mother’s Day I think of my Mom. She was no saint, but I love her and think of her fondly. I give thanks for what she got right, and I forgive where she fell short. I grieve in solidarity with children and mothers for whom Mother’s Day is a day of pain and sorrow. I offer them the hope of Christ for healing and restoration.
The lectionary reading for April 26, 2020, was Luke 24:13-35. It is a very familiar story for Christians, a story about two persons traveling to their hometown, Emmaus, from Jerusalem, when they encounter a stranger who joins them. I guess because the story is about traveling, it made me think about journeys, which led to thinking about how the entire Bible is one great journey of faith, from the election of a people called Israel to the anointed one, or Messiah, who came to represent Israel, redeeming them all the nations, and us too through his death and resurrection. And how Christian folk gathered as the church continues that journey.
As we know from reading the Bible, the journey of faith does not always go well, mostly due to the failure of Israel to be faithful to their God and lack of trust in God’s will. So the journey is often through difficult times, like the wandering of Israel led by Moses through the wilderness for forty years. (By the way, did you know that the root word of quarantine means “forty”?) And we know that from the story life has not gone well for Cleopas and his companion. Their hope of a savior for Israel had just died a cruel death on the Roman cross. And now his body has gone missing from the grave.
This led me to think of our own current journey as people of faith. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted and greatly inconvenienced our lives. For many, of course, it has been more than an inconvenience. Many have become very sick, and many died horrible deaths. A cloud of unknowingness, despair, and hopelessness has settled upon us.
All of the above lead back to the arrival of the stranger in the midst. Luke tells us the stranger is Jesus. His identity is hidden from the two confused and frightened travelers. They catch Jesus up on the events of the past few days, then Jesus rebukes them. And gives them a Bible study about the Messiah. It is only when Jesus breaks bread at the supper table that they recognize Jesus as the Risen Messiah. So of course, they must rush back to Jerusalem to tell the others.
Back to our times, in the midst of our current woes and troubles around COVID-19, can’t this story of Jesus being with us still be true for us? After isn’t he the Risen Christ? Think for a moment over the past six or eight weeks of how you might have your heart warmed by opening your Bible or have a family member or friend, or even a stranger shine light into a dark moment of your life. If so, I invite you now to pray that God opens your eyes to Jesus’ presence in the Spirit in your life.
Welcome to this space and time in the name of Jesus Christ. Jesus tells his disciples that where ever two or more are gathered he would be there. I believe that is true today. We are gathered in are physically separated spaces, but I believe that the Spirit of Christ resides with each of you as we worship this morning.
We are in difficult times. We all can testify to it. So far in Henry County, there are no reported cases of the coronavirus COVID-19. Yet, we also know that there can be cases among us, and the gives us pause before we leave the house to go out into public space for any purpose. So we mostly stay at home.
We also know that it is even more challenging for those who going through tough times that have little to do with the virus.
My best friends are a couple by the name of Andy and Ann. In the past month, Ann’s sister has been the center of their lives as her husband laid dying in a hospital bed. Six weeks ago, Andy and Ann drove from their home in Ft Washington, MD to drive to Delaware to be with Ann’s sister and the rest of the family. So, for six weeks they have provided support and care for Ann’s sister as they journeyed through this ordeal of the dying.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the process of finding a space for hospice care outside of the hospital was excruciating slow for the family. As they waited Andy and some of the family took on the arduous task of cleaning and repairing the couple’s home which had suffered neglect after many years of illness.
Ann’s sister refused to leave the side of her dying husband not wanting to be away when he finally left this life. It so happened that the one evening that she went to get some much-needed sleep, he died at 1:00 am in the morning
It was a terrible ordeal for this family, much as it must have been a terrible ordeal for the family of Lazarus.
John tells us that Lazarus was a friend of Jesus. The family had sent for him because Lazarus was sick. Jesus delayed for a day or two then headed out to go to Bethany to see his family and the friend. He did so despite the opposition to the idea by the disciples for they knew Jesus was a marked man in Judea where Bethany was located.
When Jesus arrived, Lazarus has been dead for several days. The sisters of Lazarus Martha and Mary accuse Jesus. “If you had been here…” How much is this like what some of our own feelings about God in this time of stress. “Why haven’t you done something?” “Where are you God when we need you in this world?”
Ann’s family are devout Catholics. Ann herself is a cantor for the church. But I can imagine in their pain and hurt and confusion they would have said to Jesus too, “If you had been here…”
Jesus in response wept. He wept for his friend. And he wept for the family and their disbelief. He weeps for us, for our pain, and too for our disbelief.
Even the crowd was saying “if he had been here…he healed the blind but could not keep this man from dying.”
We know what happens next. The stone is reluctantly rolled away. Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb. Lazarus walks out wrapped in strips of cloth. They are told to remove the cloth, to unbind him, to make him free.
We can speculate on why the delay, but I think that Jesus states it clearly “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Then Jesus makes it clear that the glory of God is the glory of the Son, so that they may believe that the Father had sent him.”
In the many conversations over the phone and by text with Andy over the past six weeks, I have wondered where the glory of God would be seen in the story of the unraveling lives of this family.
The brother-in-law died last weekend, and now they had to have a funeral with the restrictions brought by the current pandemic. No more than 10 could attend the funeral and burial. Where was the glory of God
It occurred to me that the glory of the Father and the Son had already been revealed. It is in the gospel story. It is in that Jesus, the anointed Son of God, not only wept for us but died that we had a means of grace in reconciliation and restoration to life eternal in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as told by prophets of the Hebrew Bible.
It is the same for all of us. The story of the gospel, which is the story of Jesus revealing God’s love through his death and resurrection is true for all of us. That we have not been able to meet in the buildings on Patrick Ave and Mount Bethel Circle does not have any effect on the work of Jesus through the cross and in His resurrection. It is still true. It cannot be changed.
And I think the glory is also in Andy and Ann being present for the sister and the rest of the family. They put their lives on hold for six-plus weeks in order to do this. They made a sacrifice. They lived the gospel out for Ann’s sister, and for the world too.
In the end, this is the best we can do. We are to be carriers of the Gospel, which is the story of Jesus Christ, in word and deed. We do in the best and worst of times. This is the Christian story.
I’m working my way through Philippians with an online course with N.T. Wright. The letter is written by the Apostle Paul when he was imprisoned. It was not the best of circumstances for Paul, however, as he writes it was not going to stop him from sharing the good news story of Jesus as Messiah, Savior, and Lord overall. And it wasn’t going to stop Paul from continuing to bolster up and support the churches of Philippi.
Paul writes “It’s right for me to think this way about all of you. You have me in your hearts, here in prison as I am, working to defend and bolster up the gospel. You are my partners in grace, all of you! Yes: God can bear witness how much I’m longing for all of you with the deep love of King Jesus.” (Kingdom New Testament)
This makes me think about our current time when most of us are imprisoned without jailor being the coronavirus COVID-19. It is not the best of circumstances for the Church, however, we should be like Paul not allowing it to stop us from continuing to tell the story of Jesus as Messiah, Savior, and King, while also bolstering up and supporting each other.
We are blessed to have available a variety of means to share in this grace that Paul did not have. His means was word of mouth and letters. Today we have the postal system, telephones, the internet, smartphones, tablets, and computers that allow us to share the good news of the story of Jesus as Messiah, Savior, and King, and staying in touch with one another, sharing our stories.
Let us share the gospel too as we give a glass of water to someone who is thirsty, as we feed the hungry, as we clothe those who are naked, support to children who need internet connections to keep up with their homework during this extended time away from the physical classroom, and in so many other ways of caring. Do it the name of Jesus and it will bear much fruit.
There are many of you who are already at it. I am astounded by many of my clergy colleagues who are continuing to lead their congregations with every means available to them. I give thanks to all the people of the church who call, write, email, and message others of the churches, as well as their neighbors. And those who are on the front lines of doing battle with COVID-19 whose hearts are full of compassion and love.
Thanks be to God, thanks to all of you already serving King Jesus.
Love God, Love Others, and be safe.
During these days of waiting out the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, I and others are working our way through an online course on UDEMY with the distinguished scholar and teacher, N.T. Wright. It is my hope to write from my own reflections on the questions that are asked through the study.
In these few verses of Paul’s letter to the churches of Philippi, we learn that Paul is in prison. According to Paul, he is in prison for his allegiance to Jesus as Lord, as opposed to Caesar. Paul does not say this directly, but Wright thinks that way and I agree with him.
In our current times, many of us are imprisoned in our homes due to the coronavirus that is threatening the health and well-being of just about every people group in the world. So this passage offers some meaty reflection about our own allegiance. None of us in the Western world are imprisoned for proclaiming this Jesus as Lord. Unfortunately, quite to the contrary. We are pretty free to go about our business because of our reticence to proclaim such a bold allegiance.
Somewhere in this world, some are imprisoned for their Christian faith and their allegiance to the Christ as Lord. This is the persecuted church that thrives in places like China, India, and in many Islamic countries. Are they better models of allegiance for the Westerners? Would such allegiance perhaps bring about more trouble for the Western church in a secular world of commerce and busyness?
It is something to think about.
Many are the paths that can be suggested by people for leadership in the church. Will Willimon wrote a book entitled Lead With a Sermon. Besides being an interesting sermon, he offers an interesting take on leadership. He writes that pastoral leadership begins with a proclamation from the pulpit. He has specific reason for this, as he states below.
Christianity is a “revealed religion”; it happens when humanity is confronted by a loquacious God. We are unable to think about a Trinitarian God on our own. The truth about God must be revealed, spoken to us as the gift of a God who refuses to be vague or coy. It is of the nature of the Trinity to be communicative, revelatory—the Father speaking to the Son, the Son mutually interacting with the Father, all in the power of the Holy Spirit, God speaking to God’s world.
I’m uncertain about what I remember of my early years in the church. I do not have a strong early memory of singing hymns, but I do remember at the age of five, when I was staying with my grandparents, I would act as if I was playing the organ on a stuffed chair in their living room. I also know for a brief season, I sang in a children’s choir at a nearby Presbyterian church. After that I know I was not exposed very frequently to Christian hymns for the thirty years I was not in the church.
So in the late 1990s when I returned to the church, began to attend weekly, and eventually took a role in weekly Sunday worship I felt it was an absolute necessity to learn something about hymns specifically, and music in the church in general. It was only in this manner I came to not only realize the importance of hymns but to grow in appreciation of music as a means of grace for worship and praise of our Lord.
Hymns originated in ancient times, having been found in ancient Greek and Roman texts. Thomas Aquinas described hymns “as the praise of God with song; a song is an exultation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, bursting forth in the voice.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hymn#Development_of_Christian_hymnody] Centuries later during the Reformation, Martin Luther and some other reformers produced numerous hymns for the church, including Luther’s “A Might Fortress is Our God.” Luther and his followers understand hymn singing was a means of teaching the people the tenets of the faith.
Charles Wesley, one the most prolific hymnists of all time, successfully spread Wesleyan theology (the basis of theology for not only the Methodist Church but also for numerous other denominations) throughout Europe and the United States.
Choirs are late edition to worship, appearing in the 1860s when reformers were attempting to refine hymns. This would have been something foreign to reformers like John Wesley and the founders of Methodism, who exhorted congregations to “sing lustily and with good courage.” He also admonished them to “beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.” Finally, Wesley wrote “Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.” [The United Methodist Hymnal, vii]
Stanley Hauerwas frequently clarifies my own muddled thinking, as he does in these words:
The gospel is the proclamation of a new age begun through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That gospel, moreover, has a form, a political form. It is embodied in a church that is required to be always ready to give hospitality to the stranger. The gospel is a society in which difference is not denied but used for the discovery of goods in common. It is, as Yoder observes, a society called into being by Jesus who gave them a new way to live.
He gave them a new way to deal with offenders – by forgiving them. He gave them a new way to deal with violence – by suffering. He gave them a new way to deal with money – by sharing it. He gave them a new way to deal with problems of leadership – by drawing on the gift of every member, even the most humble. He gave them a new way to deal with a corrupt society – by building a new order, not making the old. He gave them a new pattern of relationships between man and woman, between parent and child, between master and slave, in which was made concrete a radical new vision of what it means to be a human person. He gave them a new attitude toward the state and toward the “enemy nation.”
That is the politics begun in Christ. That is the “good news” – that we have been freed from the presumed necessities that we inflict on ourselves in the name of “peace,” a peace that too often turns out to be an order established and continued through violence.
In response to some comments I saw on Twitter and Facebook after the Nationals win of the World Series. I’m a fan of baseball, and I liked the determination of the Nationals as a team that banded together as a community seeking to win baseball games. But, some of the comments sounded idolatrous to me. So I responded in this way:
I appreciate that a number of the players of the Washington Nationals are professing Christians. I also appreciate that many of MLB teams have professing Christians on the team. I appreciate the witness of the Gospel that they provide to others in the team and the larger community. The humility and generosity in their deeds and speech is refreshing. That said, God does not support one team over another. Nor does He need their victory to add to His glory. His glory is in the sacrifice on the Cross, in the triumph over death through the surrender of Jesus. Humanity’s games can not bring glory to God, no more than human works.