No Heebie-Jeebies Here

Today in our gospel text we hear that when Jesus went on shore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured those who were sick.

Compassion… and sympathy… and empathy… often get confused with one another.  And they are cousins, but there are important differences.

You might like spiders.

I happen not to.

They creep me out to be honest. 

And not only do I not like the big hairy ones that could bite you and make you sick, but I don’t even like the daddy long legs that I have heard eat other bugs and make our life better and definitely would never actually hurt us.

There’s a good chance that if you’re like me and spiders also give you the heebie-jeebies, and you saw someone with a spider crawling up their neck and into their hair, you would have a reaction.  You would probably jump and feel your skin crawl.

If you did have that kind of reaction you would have felt what is called “empathy.” 

Science tells us how empathy works…. Scientists say that something called “mirror neurons,” rise up in our brains when we witness someone in pain…or someone laughing or smiling…and because of these mirror neurons we actually feel what that other person is feeling…

which is a really powerful thing… 

its more powerful than what we call sympathy.

Sympathy is when you don’t actually feel what the other person is feeling but you can understand it.  You can think about what it might feel like and you can relate in a certain kind of way.

So there’s sympathy and there’s empathy…

But compassion is different.  It goes deeper. It ventures further.

Compassion actually means “to suffer with,” so when a person is compassionate, they don’t pretend the suffering of another doesn’t exist or run away from it, but they stay present with the person and their suffering

Compassion means to recognize and feel the pain of another person, but then to also take the step of trying to alleviate that person’s suffering and act to do something to help.

And we hear that Jesus had compassion for the crowds in the wilderness around the Sea of Galilee…

…which really is remarkable

because Jesus had just found out that his cousin John, who was a friend, and in some ways a mentor, had been murdered in a terribly grotesque and ultraviolent way – John had been decapitated and his head displayed at a party for people who I imagine celebrated and laughed and jeered at the spectacle. 

And I don’t know about you but when I’m grieving or when things are difficult in my own life, I find I am not always in the best space to be there for other people.  

It can be easy to be blinded by my own grief and to get stuck in my own head and it’s hard to see the needs of other people and harder still to take action to help.

I find myself more often being like the disciples in this story.

The disciples can’t really be described as compassionate.  

They come to Jesus to present him with the need of the crowd, but rather than bearing with them and being with them…

Rather than entering deeply into the experience of the peoples’ need… 

They would rather send them away to fend for themselves…

But Jesus, even in his personal grief, looked on the crowd with compassion.

He saw their suffering. 

He was emotionally moved by their suffering,

AND he wanted to see their suffering end so he acted to help relieve that suffering.

Jesus took the time to connect with the people.  

He didn’t want them to be sent away.  

He wanted to be with them.  

And he cured those who were sick, and he fed those who were hungry. And Jesus still comes to you and me.

Jesus still comes to those of us who are sick and hungry – to heal and feed us.

As I look around our country and world today, it seems there is not only less compassion, but less empathy or even sympathy in the relationships that play out in person and online.  

Certainly, in the media and in politics and on facebook there is a lot of dismissing of people that see things differently than we do….and we turn away from those who are

Suffering. 

Because Suffering of any kind can be difficult to endure.  

It can be especially difficult to enter into the suffering of another person because you don’t have to, because it is uncomfortable and dark and unpleasant and scary – 

but Jesus doesn’t get the heebie-jeebies to enter into our suffering with us.

God enters into life with us – all of us.

And God doesn’t send any one of us away to fend for ourselves. 

Instead, God has compassion for us.  

God Sees us, bears with us, and has acted to help us.

On the cross, Jesus has entered fully into our pain, fully into our despair, fully into our loneliness, our sickness and our suffering.  

He doesn’t just listen with a sympathetic ear or offer empathetic advice…

he enters into our suffering and makes it God’s own.

God is with us…

bringing us into community, feeding us with love, calling us to serve in his name and to act for the sake of our neighbor.

By the Sea of Galilee, Jesus redirects his disciples toward compassion and points out the need of those hungry women and men and children and says to his disciples, 

YOU give them something to eat, 

and then he gathers what they have – five loaves and two fish – meager though it seemed and blessed it and broke it and, miraculously there was enough….and there was an abundance ….

In Jesus’ hands, what his disciples can scrape together is more than enough.

And what we have, placed in Jesus hands is multiplied…

This is commonly seen in and around the Holy Land, which is where we got this plate.

It is a reproduction of an old, old, mosaic that tells the story of the feeding of the five thousand, but with a twist.

Here you can see the two fish and the loaves of bread…but there are not five, 

There are four loaves…

The fifth loaf of bread is the one that the community places on top to become the body of Christ and bread for the assembly that gathers TODAY.

Like the disciples and the crowd by the Sea of Galilee, WE also gather in the wilderness, we also are hungry, we also depend on God…

We are reminded that we are a part of this story…

Just as two fish and five loaves placed in the hands of Christ became exponentially larger, feeding 5,000, leaving 12 baskets of leftovers….

So whatever we bring to God, God will exponentially bless and multiply…

In planning for ministry, we often talk about actionable steps.

Not just feelings, not just sentiment, not even just hope, but action born of God.

I came to record this week and ventured into Price Hall to see piles of school supply kits that disciples of Jesus in our congregation have made with loving hands… maybe it was the banjo that caught my eye… 

but not only do they have pencils and paper in them but the package is put together in a handmade cinch sack made by one of our quilters… 

thread and fabric placed in the care of Jesus…has been multiplied and will be used to nurture those hungry for learning… 

This week we are collecting detergent for ACTS House, which ministers to people experiencing homelessness in our community.  

These gifts will be given to people and families who are in transition in the most difficult time in our living memory.  

And we continue to collect food and give food to neighbors through our food panties.

We place these things in the care of Jesus and watch as he multiplies them for those in need…

Our rising seniors, the class of 2020 and our Epiphany Youth Group leadership team imagined a way to reach out to the youth of our congregation 

– youth leaders and adult leaders this week and next will be delivering care packages with an EYG directory, candy and scripture verses, to remind our youth 

that nothing can separate us from the love of God and nothing can separate us from one another.

We place paper and things in the care of Jesus and watch as he multiplies them…

Jesus’ compassion towards the crowds – and for you and to me, led ultimately to his passion itself, and to giving his life away for us on the cross.

As his Body we are called to the same action – we are called to give ourselves away.

And, like the bread that fed the multitudes, Jesus takes our lives in his hands…

Like bread, our lives in the hands of God, our bodies and souls, our money and resources, our desires and hopes, and we are more than enough…

Like twelve baskets of extras, God makes us more than enough to nourish and feed and extend his care to those who are hungry and in need in of hope,

May you know yourselves to be bread for the world in the hands of Jesus, full of compassion.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The Mystery of the Seed

Let anyone with ears listen and hear a mystery.

Let anyone with ears listen and hear the recipe for a miracle.

Let anyone with ears listen and hear of something that is real… but borders on magic.

A seed, under the right conditions, through the process of germination, will cease to be a seed and will become a larger plant with the power to continue to reproduce on and on, for all we know, for generations going on indefinitely.

A seed needs a lot of things: soil, water, oxygen, sunlight, and the right temperature…but if you put all that together in the right combination, something magical happens.

If you think “magic” is too strong a word or think I’m being hyperbolic, have an heirloom and Duke’s mayonnaise sandwich on good bread and get back to me.

One of the first science experiments many children get a chance to take part in is the process of growing a seed.

I remember, what seems like a long time ago now, hearing the bell ring for the end of Sunday school and seeing kids filling the hallway of our sunday school wing, probably on the Sunday we read this story…

…all of them being picked up by parents or grandparents or loving adults and I remember a child lifting a little paper cup filled with soil, a seed hidden deep inside, declaring in a loud voice, “I’m gonna grow a plant!” with wonder and awe in their voice.

It would be unfortunate for the adult-in-us to be hardened to the mystery, to miss this great sign of God’s love for us, because the power of the seed and the possibilities it holds secretly inside itself are at the heart of Jesus’ parable.

Jesus’ story about seed and soil and fruit and growing features a Sower who I think we can agree flings his seed somewhat haphazardly into four different kinds of soils.

And the story does beg the question from the outset: what are we to make of a sower who throws seed but isn’t careful enough to keep some from landing on a path? And on rocky ground?  And in a briar patch?

But Jesus tells us what he means: God scatters the seed of God’s word lavishly…

God means to spread the seed of his word widely!

In fact, the technique that sowers use to scatter their seed is actually called “broadcasting”…which literally means to cast broadly, and I do find it interesting that this term for seed-spreading technique has come to be used for technological broadcasting, as in TV and radio, meaning that ABC channel 8 is always available at your house… it is always being broadcast to your house and all over this area …even if you never tune in.

And so it is with God’s word – God’s word is broadcast to all, wildly and lavishly, with abandon…

Because that’s who God is…always coming to us…always reaching out to us…

But sometimes, Jesus says, the seed of God’s word can land on something like a path – in a moment where a person hears the word but doesn’t understand it… the radio is on in the background but no one is really listening… Jesus says the evil one snatches the word away…maybe like a path the person has been walked over, has beaten down, has laid low by life…they aren’t in a position to hear so the word doesn’t take root.

Sometimes the seed of God’s word falls on something like rocky ground and the person who hears the word doesn’t understand that life with God doesn’t just mean blessings, friends, and eternal life – though it means these things – but also, sometimes, to follow God means rejection, the hard work of forgiveness, the call to serve others, to fight a lifelong battle against the sin within ourselves and the very real forces of evil all around us…and a person picks up the remote to search for a different station.

Sometimes the seed of the word of God arrives in a person and finds itself among thorns – how easy it is to let our worry ping pong around in our brains like a pinball game until we can’t hear anything but the sirens and buzzers, can’t see anything but the flashing lights of our anxiety and fear, and all that sound choking out our clear thinking and our trust in God…and we just turn it off.

But sometimes Jesus says, the seed of God’s word finds good soil – good, pleasant, beautiful, useful soil and the seed does that thing for which it has been designed and intended; the soil, water, oxygen, sunlight, and the temperature are just the right combination, and something miraculous happens – the person who hears the word UNDERSTANDS…the broadcast of God’s word reaches the heart.

Sometimes we hear and understand that the heart of God, the heart of the seed, and the heart of God’s intentions for our life is to give oneself away in love.

God, in Christ, gives himself away in love for you and me and for the whole world,

Just as the seed gives itself away in love to become something new and bear much fruit,

Just as we who are joined to Christ in baptism, lose our life and find a new life in God

And are called to give our self away in love,

Like the seed, becoming something new and bearing fruit and yielding exponentially, beyond our imagination, bearing more and more of God’s abundance into the world.

Sometimes I think we all look back at the last four months and think this time has been wasted. 

Even as our prayers are with those who have been sick and those who have died, we also grieve that, even if we have not gotten sick ourselves, we have missed things that were really important to us, things on the calendar that died like a seed thrown on a rocky path, scorched away, never to be, and that feels like a waste.

I’ll say this, my friends: I know that seeds can and do grow in secret, when it seems like nothing’s happening.

Deep in the ground, seeds are doing what they do while we sleep.  But even if that’s good news, that’s hard to bear.

My friend John gave me some tomato plants months ago and we planted them in our garden out front.  John planted some too at his house and he and I have been texted pictures back and forth comparing notes about whose flowers were going to become fruit first, but all these months as I have thought about how sweet those tomatoes are going to taste, sometimes the plant’s imperceptible growth has be maddening.

But seeds grow and plants grow and God’s word grows…

During these four months, even if it hasn’t been widely visible, even if its been like seeds deep in the ground, God’s work through the ministry of our congregation has gone on…

HHOPE Pantry and LAMBS Basket Pantry have continued to give out food.  Even when I mistakenly reported that they has put a hiatus on giving out food (because I had the conversation about the ongoing nature of the ministry with someone while we were both wearing masks and it can be hard to hear and understand one another in these things)…they have continued on…and they still persist in giving out food to those in need.

During this time the seed of God’s word has been growing.

Our plans for our blood drive have continued and we will collect blood in August.

Our Vacation Bible School team has created a virtual 3-day program families can do at home.

Our quilters have made 80 quilts during this time to send to refugee camps and places of disaster.

All this time seeds of God’s words have been growing.

The heart of God, and the heart of the seed, and the heart of our life is about giving away oneself away in love.

And Jesus shows us what this means with his life.

Jesus told this story, as we heard, with so many people who wanted to hear him standing around that they were crushing in on him so that he had to get into a boat to get enough space to broadcast the word…

…but in most cases, his word wouldn’t take root in them and by the time Jesus arrived at the cross, the crowds of his admirers had disappeared, even his disciples deserted him, and all that was left were a few faithful women and a crowd of bystanders who hung around to gawk at the spectacle.

BUT Jesus, the Seed of God, died in order to bear much fruit…

Like the seed in good soil, Jesus gives up his life, but with his death God has also brought the yield of his resurrection, the sprouting of God’s life and the fruit of God’s mercy and love and joy and healing repair and merciful forgiveness are now let loose in the world for you and for me and for all humankind.

This life is given to us.

We are seeds scattered by the Sower, thrown far and wide, sent to die and to be raised to new life for the sake of a world in need.

Here in the Epiphany Garden seeds grow into plants that produce fruits and vegetables that members of our congregation pick and wash and share with HHOPE pantry, with neighbors, with friends…raw tomatoes and cucumbers, zucchinis are made into zucchini bread, the abundance is right here to see…

These are all signs of people sharing food, sharing space, sharing stories, and scattering the seed of friendship and faith.

My friends, we belong to God who is the sower, who is faithful to his identity and purpose to scatter seeds far and wide, with prodigal, over-the-top, wonderfully-wasteful extravagance… 

So, may the seed of God’s word find in us good and rich, beautiful soil. 

And may the seed of God’s word be planted deep within us.

May we trust that God’s seed is growing in the darkness of the night and in the brilliance of the day.

And may we trust God’s promise to bear fruit for a hungry world in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 

Amen.

All About Your Heart

I have to say, the promise of rest sounds pretty good right now.

You probably already know that we make these recordings ahead of time and through the possibilities afforded to us by video I toyed with the idea of filming this while resting in a hammock under the shade of tall trees… or maybe beside a pool with a drink in my hand.

Both those scenarios do sound pretty relaxing to me.

And right now many of us are thinking about relaxing, and pondering and planning for safe ways to take a vacation and get some much-needed rest from the reality of this worldwide pandemic in which we find ourselves, a reality that has left us exhausted and longing for a pre-Covid existence.

Even if this summer looks very different than we had envisioned that it would way back in the cold months of November and early December when we initially began making summer plans, we probably all would benefit from finding some way to vacation or staycation or simply take a little break and just “be.”

Jesus promises us rest – but crucially – he doesn’t promise us a time to “chillax” and get away from reality, but a whole new reality that is restful, balanced, and sustainable. 

He promises that precisely in the midst of all the busyness and chaos and struggle of life, no matter what it throws at us, he offers a way that he calls easy, and which literally means a way that is “good” and “pleasant.” 

And this is a wonderful promise.

The image Jesus uses to invite us into this good and pleasant life is an agrarian one from the first century. 

Life with him, Jesus says, looks like a yoke:

a common, wooden instrument that was used widely in Palestine at the time to tie two beasts of burden together – two oxen or donkeys – and to keep them in step with one another in their work as they pulled a cart or a plow.

An ox or a donkey, I’m sure, would rather have a partner to pull a load in the heat of the day, than to work alone; and Jesus invites us to come to him with our burdens – with the things we are carrying: work and relationships, worry and anxiety, fear and fatigue – and to let him help us carry the load. 

He invites us to fall in step with him and keep pace with his gentle mercy and lovingkindness… and to allow him to share in our daily tasks so that we find the good and pleasant life God intends for us. 

Rather than carrying our burdens alone we have in him a partner and friend in Jesus.

And Jesus’ invitation is all the more meaningful because Jesus’ words come in the midst of his own very real struggle –

Jesus speaks these words “come to me” – which I sometimes have thought of as a invitation but are actually upon closer examination a COMMAND – just as he was meeting his first real opposition.

Welcomed by those he taught, healed, and visited with up to this point NOW Jesus meets the beginning of resistance.  The cities and peoples are like children that refuse to dance to the music Jesus is playing and refuse to mourn with the wailing of John.  They find fault with John’s perceived asceticism because he speaks of repentance and they find fault with Jesus’ perceived gluttony because he makes no distinction about who he gathers with.

But in the midst of his own troubles and the looming disaster and ultimately the cross on the horizon, Jesus doubles down on his commitment to offer rest and help to all who come to him.

We are still very much in the struggle of life together in this pandemic. 

As of Thursday, of this past week, when this video is being recorded, some states and cities of our Nation that had begun to reopen are now walking that back, and we are realizing again that we are in this for the long haul.  

And I have realized in a new way, I think, this week, is that empathically, we carry the hurt of the whole world, literally, all the time. 

We are asking ourselves, as a species, we have come to a critical juncture.

There are questions hanging in the balance: Can we pull together as a nation?  Will we be able to work together?  What are the implications if we cannot?

The possible answers to these questions burden me and perhaps burdens you.

We want and may need to celebrate our Nation – the United States of America!

In our neighborhood we’ve already heard the crack of fireworks, which are selling more and faster than ever before, and surely, popularly, as we mark this holiday with celebrations of our nation’s strength, power, and independence – and yet Jesus message is that we ought to acknowledging our dependence.

Jesus says, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

We are dependent on Jesus, who reveals and brings the love of God to us and to the world.

Only this love can bring us life, rest, and health.

Only Jesus offers deep peace, ultimate well-being, shalom: real and true balance with ourselves, one another, and creation.

From Jesus we learn don’t have to search the world over for vindication, acceptance, or accolades, we have already received vindication, acceptance and love from the highest authority that exists.

And yet I sense in us as individuals and as a Nation a sense of rugged individualism, a do-it-yourself ethic, and perceived exceptionalism. 

We are surrounded by an ideology that says: “be cut loose from any yoke, be your own person.”

Jesus suggests we are dependent and I think implicitly, dependent on one another and yet we want to be the center of our own life…and that’s called sin. 

Paul says it like this;

“I do not understand my own actions, because even when I know the good I want to do, nexause  of the sin that dwells within me, making me captive to the law of sin.”

Through and through we are captive to sin that takes over our whole being. Or another way to say it might be like this:

This past week I was with my family and Sarah and I were trying to get our older kids to listen to us.  They are incredibly good at tuning us out and going on with whatever they are doing that is more fun than washing hands, picking up, coming to the table to eat, or whatever the case may be.

I was exasperated and I said something to the kids which I shouldn’t have said, without thinking – but I didn’t think they were listening anyway.

I looked at my son and said, “Samuel.  You have a problem!  And its not a problem with your ears.  The problem is with your heart!”

I meant that his desires were currently misplaced, but he looked at me in a shock, burst in to tears and said, “Somethings wrong with my heart?!?”

Well something is wrong with our hearts.  And truth be told, we should all be in tears (as God is) when we can’t or won’t listen to Jesus’ invitation to life with God.

But who will rescue us from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord that he has invaded our hearts with forgiveness and grace and love.

He invites us into the truth that we are dependent on him, the invites us to listen to and to care for one another realizing our dependence on one another, and he invites us to let the yoke of Christ guide us into the rest God prepares for us.

 “Take my yoke upon you;” Jesus says, “for I am gentle and humble in heart.  Learn from me.”

We are able then to acknowledge our sin and therefore be free of that yoke and receive a new yoke from Jesus – to be in step with him and to go where he goes and do as he does.

In baptism we are yoked to Jesus forever, so that our life belongs to God.

We are joined to Jesus, who on the cross has pulled us in tandem with him through death and loss of everything to the other side and to resurrected, eternal life with God.

In baptism we are yoked with Christ, who carries us along when we are weary, who teaches us how to trust God, and who prospers our work.

This yoke is easy because God claims our whole life.

Like Albert Einstein who reportedly had a closet full of 7 grey suits, one for every day, we don’t have to spend our days parsing with and searching for who we are – we know that every day, all the time, we belong to God.

One of the worst feelings is the last night of vacation.  If its been a good time away, and especially if you have to travel home! You have to come home and you’re tired, and when you get there you have to unpack, you have a mountain of laundry, mail to read, grocery shopping to attend to, email and work that’s backlogged, and a bad case of the vacation hangover – its hard to let it go.

But God’s rest isn’t a vacation from everyday life but God’s presence with us in the details of home, work, relationship, conversation, and the decisions of every day. 

God doesn’t take a vacation from loving us and caring for us and the good and pleasant life Jesus brings to us to isn’t an ultimately-unsustainable getaway that dissolves away. 

It is reality. 

May you know that you belong to Christ, who is rest for your soul.

May we all experience Jesus’ friendship with us happening in and through the daily tasks and relationships of our life.

May we see God is with us…dancing with us when we are making the music and mourning with us when we wail, offering us rest that is all-present and eternal, from sea to shining sea and to every contentment and community and person around the world.

Thanks be to God!

Amen

A Common Ministry, Mission, and Message

My friends, we live in a world that is weary. And many of you, I know, are weary.

With words like “zoomed out” and “screen fatigue” entering our lexicon, we’re finding our work is harder, takes longer, and often leaves us depleted.

The home school and virtual classroom meetings which finished this past week for many students and parents-turned-teachers have left families worn out.

Many of us admit that we haven’t really gotten much better, despite all the practice, at the mental and emotional calisthenics it takes to manage our new hybrid, virtual/physical distanced lives.

In cities across our country and in countries around our world, since Memorial Day, there have been marches, protests, and gatherings of people carrying signs and shouting slogans to give witness that white supremacy and unapologetic racism is evil and must be named as the central, critical issue of our time, and many of us are waking up to this reality even as our brothers and sisters of color could’ve told us the sad truth that they have been living for a lifetime with systemic racism that has left them exhausted.

Our text from Matthew’s gospel today tells us that after ministering to people in his hometown Jesus went to all the cities and villages around Capernaum proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and when he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Literally, the text says, he looked at the crowds and saw that they were “weary.” The people were tired and worn out.

Collectively and as individuals we are weary…and scared and frustrated and grieving.

And, my friends, there is a danger in a climate such as ours, where in addition to all this, news is filtered to support one’s already held biases, where our critical institutions have become suspect, and where people seem more divided than ever…

There is a danger that we could turn on one another.

I have noticed this past week more posts on Facebook than I have ever seen before that essentially say, This is what I think and if you don’t agree, unfriend me because I don’t want you in my life anymore.

We may all feel the desire to check out at points, and to lash out at each other…but, because God never stops loving us, never stops caring for us, and never stops sending us into a larger mission, which is to bear witness to the Kingdom of God, and the peace, the healing and the compassion that Jesus intends for the world God loves… we would do well to remember that Jesus calls us to love one another and to bear with one another even and especially in our differences and especially in difficult times.

It is God’s larger mission that holds us together…

…just as it held the first disciples together — people who, in some ways, couldn’t have been any different from one another:

You have Matthew the tax collector, with ties to the Roman Empire and Simon the Cananaean (also called the zealot) who was a part of an anti-Empire movement,

You have the redeemed (Peter), on whose confession the church was built and who was prominent in the ministry of the church after Jesus’ ascension and the betrayer (Judas), who actively did what he could to ruin Jesus,

And you have James and John, (who at least according to Mark’s gospel) were at each other’s throats fighting over who was higher in the pecking order of the group.

These twelve would never have found themselves collected into one mission, with the same message, and a shared ministry, except that Jesus is at the center of this little ragtag band.

For all their diversity and differences, Jesus calls them TOGETHER and gives them authority so that they are able to do the exact same ministry as Jesus: just as he preached the kingdom come near, they are to preach the kingdom come near. Just as Jesus healed and took care of the sick, they are to heal and take care of the sick, even while enduring the stress and chaos of persecution and the opposition they were facing.

Like Jesus and these disciples, we are called to a ministry of healing and reconciliation, and I wonder if part of our healing ministry these days could be, in our relationships and friendships, to remember that everyone else is just as weary we are.

What would it look like for me to acknowledge that everyone else – even people who frustrate me – are just as weary as you are and as I am, and to make space for that, allowance for annoyance, to give some grace, and see the giving of that grace as an opportunity to remember Jesus words: “you have received without payment. Give without payment”?

This past week Sarah and I watched the film “Just Mercy” and I recommend you watch it and talk about it and I hope to read the book in the coming weeks as well.

The film depicts the life of Bryan Stevenson, a young African-American Harvard law school graduate who moves to Alabama and takes up the case of Walter McMillian, who goes by the nickname Johnny D: an African-American man who has been wrongly convicted in the murder of a young white woman and sentenced to death.

The film follows Johnny D and his lawyer, Mr. Stevenson, as they work and fight together against the wrongful conviction, as they encounter microaggressions and systemic racism, and as people blockade them and are unwilling to see them, because of their dark skin, as fully human.

These two men fight these powers and fight in court until their case is taken to the Supreme Court, which overturns the circuit court’s decision and grants Johnny D his retrial, where the charges are ultimately dismissed entirely.

In a touching scene just before that final session in court, Stevenson, who is Johnny D’s lawyer, drives to the home of the prosecuting attorney, a white man, who has fought to keep Johnny D in prison even though he knows of his innocence, and stands on his front porch and tries to convince him to join the motion to free Johnny D, but the attorney angrily ejects him from his property.

But in a shocking moment, in the courtroom at the final day of arguments, when Stevenson appeals to the judge as he has throughout with compassion and dignity, asserting Johnny D’s innocence, the prosecuting attorney is swayed to join him in his motion after all, realizing there is no evidence of Johnny D’s guilt.

With a look on his face as if to say, what else could I choose, the prosecuting attorney who has supported racist policing and knowingly helped keep an innocent man in jail, has a change of heart.

And the case is dismissed, and Walter McMillian, Johnny D, after six long years of being wrongly incarcerated is finally given his freedom and reunited with his family.

God sets us free.

That is grace.

But… we are not like Johnny D.

We are *guilty* of the crime of selfishness, loving comfort more than justice, wanting the best for ourselves and being slow to help others,

And yet, as Paul says, while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person— (and you might say rarely will someone actually put their body and money and reputation on the line for someone else) But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

And so we are justified by faith, and we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.

These are words from the man who was the greatest persecutor of the church, who had Christ-followers jailed, stoned, and watched as they were killed.

These words are proof of how God can take our worst and transform it through the power of the cross.

Paul’s heart is changed because he knows he’s been set free.

And you are set free. You are forgiven. You are united with a family – a family scattered to homes across Richmond and beyond, a family held together by the love of Christ, a family sent to a weary, weary world in need of the reconciliation Jesus gives.

Jesus sends us out, not to judge but to bring peace, not to say “Never talk to me if you don’t agree,” but expecting to be disagreed with or worse, not to push our own agenda but with a ministry of grace.

You received without payment, give without payment.

God calls us to be gracious with each other, not because people deserve our grace or kindness but because God has been gracious and kind to us.

And remember Jesus says, “I am with you always even to the end of the age.”

And remember Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful.”

And remember Jesus says, “Come to me all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”

God is so compassionate to us.

God doesn’t get “prayer fatigue” from listening to us call out in need, asking for guidance.

God is patient with us. God delights to take the energy we would waste in castigating and reprimanding one another and bend that energy to listening, to accompanying, to healing, and to supporting one another.

God does not grow weary of being present with us. God is coming to us again and again in word and sacrament and gathered community.

God gives us this gift of peace we need so desperately right now and which needs so desperately to be shared right now.

So, may we take up the cross of Jesus and give witness to the peace God has for the world.

May we see as God sees, that black and brown and white faces belong to bodies that stand in the grace of God.

May we know that we are in the presence of God when we gather with another people, because in each person who stands before us, we see a sinner who has been forgiven, an imperfect person who God loves perfectly, and someone for whom Jesus Christ gave up his life and breath, just as they see all these things in us.

And may we share the hope of God’s glory filling our homes, our congregation, the city of Richmond, and the whole world.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Eight Days A Week

This past week I was asked to write a recommendation letter on behalf of a young man in our congregation to the Henrico County Parent Teachers Association.  I love this young man and as I wrote, doing everything I could to craft the best letter possible, I imagined trying to find the details to the zoom meeting of the board that makes these kinds of decisions and doing what we’ve heard so much about recently – crashing into their zoom meeting in order to say, “You have to give this scholarship to this young man.  No matter who else applied! He deserves it.  Give it to him.”  Of course, that would probably do more to hurt than to help his chances.

But every time I get to write one of these recommendation letters, I recall all the wonderful people along the way who wrote letters like this for me.  People who took the time to think of every possible good thing that could be said about me, and to carefully put it down on paper, and send it along on my behalf. 

To be completely honest, I remember thinking about the possibilities of the different people who could write a letter for me and trying to think whose letter would carry the most weight and be most impactful.

We have someone who advocates for us with a power and an authority that is unmatched in all creation.  Jesus gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit as an Advocate, who pleads our case and assures we receive the gift of God’s mercy and love.

No doubt you have had mentors, teachers, and coaches to write recommendation letters for you on your journey, because you can’t recommend yourself. Someone with authority has to advocate for you. 

In the Holy Spirit we have an advocate who makes a way for us, and who opens doors we couldn’t on our own.  In the Spirit we have a helper and a rescuer who comes alongside us to be with us, guide us, and bring us Jesus’ presence and promise.

The promise of this advocate came first to disciples in an upper room who were terrified about what the future held for their teacher and for themselves, and this promise comes to us today who are also unsure what is ahead.

We look around and see that there’s not one national plan to move forward together, even as we see governors and states make different plans for different places on different timelines for next steps, when it feels like everything disjointed and unknown.

But Jesus promises us that in the Holy Spirit we have an advocate who abides with us in the unknown, remains with us in our fear, and stays with us to help us through. We have a friend who holds us in God.

God is at work connecting us in new ways as the Spirit continues to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify us.

The Spirit advocates for us, is making a way for us, is helping us take life in these strange times step by step, day by day, knowing we walk and live and exist in God’s love.

The Holy Spirit makes a way for us by showing us what love looks like.

Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” and “those who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me, and those who love me will be loved by my Father and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

This commandment – this law of love Jesus speaks about — is his command that we love one another as he loves…

And Jesus’ love looks like washing the feet of the friends who deserted him, dying on the cross for those who betrayed him, rising again in order to continue to be with them (and us), so that he can continue to advocate for us, so that he can continue to make a way for us no matter what the obstacles, even if when they seem in insurmountable.

Today is May 17th …and on this very day, sixty-six years ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously and finally that racial segregation of our public schools was unconstitutional.

Prior to that day, racially segregated public facilities were completely legal and widespread.  So long as the facilities for blacks and whites were “equal,” African Americans could be made to ride segregated buses, go to segregated schools and were made to use segregated public facilities.

But… a father by the name of Oliver Brown, in 1951, with love and devotion for his small daughter Linda filed a class action lawsuit against the Board of Education in Topeka, KS, after she was denied entrance to Topeka’s all-white elementary school.

In his lawsuit, Oliver Brown stated that he believed schools for black children were not equal to the white schools, and that segregation violated the 14th Amendment, which says that no state can “deny to any person the equal protection of the laws.”

Mr. Brown argued that segregation had a “detrimental effect upon children [of color]” and contributed to “a sense of inferiority.”

So, the case went before the U.S. District Court in Kansas, and ultimately to the Supreme Court, where Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first African American Supreme Court justice, served as chief attorney for the Brown Family.

In a unanimous decision, issued on May 17, this day, in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education, established the precedent that “separate-but-equal” education and other services were not, in fact, equal at all and that they have no place in our country.

The decision became one of the cornerstones of the civil rights movement, and made a way for Linda Brown and children of all races and backgrounds to attend school together.

Linda had an advocate in her father.  She had an advocate in Justice Marshall. And she had an advocate in the power of the Supreme Court.

A law of love was handed down that made a way for Linda, for African Americans and people of color of all ages, and for us all to live in a better, freer, and more beautiful nation.

We have an advocate in the Holy Spirit who stands up for us. 

We have an advocate who transforms us to see that all are included in God’s mercy and care.

We have an advocate who has the authority to guarantee us what God desires for us and to confer upon us the kind of life he intends for us.

And we have an advocate that comes from God to us to remind us that we can trust God’s goodness, even in these terrible times. 

Even in these times I have seen you and heard you advocating for others, continuing to write cards, continuing to make phone calls, sharing stimulus money that seems like it could be better used by others in greater need, continuing to pray, and give blood, and collect food, and make masks for others…

I have seen and heard about God our advocate at work in you to advocate for others…

I am here at our baptismal font in the sanctuary of our church because it is in baptism that we receive this advocate. 

In baptism God holds us all together in the love of Jesus and pours his Spirit out on us.

And I wanted to show you something. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but our baptismal font here has 8 sides.

It wouldn’t have to, of course, it could be designed some other way, but it does have 8 sides and this isn’t a mistake or a coincidence.

The eight sides of this font are intended tell us something about who God is and what God is like.

One of the meanings is recalled at every baptism, when we pray what we sometimes call the “flood prayer”…when we recall that Noah and his family… eight of them in total, were saved through the flood, when the flood washed away the sin and wickedness of the world and God gave his people a new start, and we remember those 8 people who saw in that rainbow a sign of God’s covenant and his determination to save humankind.

But a deeper meaning of the eight sides of the font is that we say in the church that we live on the 8th day…that we now live in a new time….because Jesus was crucified on a Friday, the penultimate day of the week, then he rested on the last day of the week, the sabbath day, in order to fulfill the command of God, and then early on the first day of the week, he was rose from the dead…

…but we say that even as it was the first day of the week, it was also the eight day….a new day beginning not just a new week but a new creation on par with the first day of creation in the very beginning. 

With Jesus’ resurrection a fundamental shift, a new epoch began, because God had destroyed the power that death and sickness and sin have in this world and began a whole new creation.

In baptism, we are born into this new creation.  

We receive the advocate who reminds us that each day we die to ourselves and are raised with Christ to live in a new age, so that we all live on this eighth day forever…

This gift of baptism holds us all together in God, keeps us in his law of love, and washes us in the Spirit who guides us, keeps us, stands up for us, helps us, and makes a way for us.

By now you know me well enough that most everything makes me think of music…

This promise of the eighth day reminds me of the gospel according to John, Paul, George, and Ringo…reminds me of the song “Eight Days a Week”…

In baptism, God says to us:

I Love you every day,

You’re Always on my mind

One thing I can say

I Love you all the time…

Yeah, I ain’t got nothing but love….Eight days a week.

God’s love for you is bigger than you can imagine…

It breaks the calendar,

It is more and it is better than can be described.

God’s love has burst the gates of heaven and God’s love has come down to us in Jesus

Who gives of himself totally and completely,

Who even on the night of his arrest and betrayal is thinking of us

Promising to send an advocate,

who will not to leave us orphaned, and who Promises to hold us and love us…so…

May you know that we have been given Jesus’ promise in baptism…

May you know the help, the guidance, and the care of the Spirit who remains with you forever…

May you know that Christ’s law of love will keep us together in God…

May you know we have an advocate who prepares the way ahead for us…

May you know that God holds you and loves you and always will

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 00000000

Together on the Road

Today in Luke’s gospel we hear Jesus encountering two disciples on the road.

These two disciples are walking along the road, when Jesus comes up and goes along with them as they travel from Jerusalem, where he has just been raised from the dead, to Emmaus a little village a few miles away.

This is a road trip like none other and it makes me think of all the road trips I have taken with my family and of all the road trips you have been on with the people in your life, and then I immediately think of the question from the back seat.

Sarah is so good when we go on trips – she packs books to read, games to play, snacks to eat, songs queued up to listen to and sing along with – but from the back seat, inevitably, comes the question: are we there yet?

And children can make the one syllable word ‘Dad’ four syllables…

Da-a-a-d… are we there yet? 

From the perspective of the kids, it’s gotta be uncomfortable to be strapped into a seat and not know how to make sense of miles and speed and distance and time.  Are we there yet?  How much longer? When are we going to be there? 

Well, these are all the questions we’re asking.  I am, for sure.  I hear them from you.  We don’t want to be so uncomfortable as we are on this journey and this road trip (of sorts).  We want to be there: and ‘there’ is that place and time when all this is over and we can return to life as usual and get out and stretch our legs in the world.

We want to be to the place where we have a vaccine, where we have testing, where people can get e the medicines they need, where the economy is good and trading and flowing, where we are able to be together in person.

Right now, these are all just hopes.  Things are not as we want them to be.  And right now, we are struggling, I think, to believe that our hopes can become a reality.

These disciples – Cleopas and his friend – they had hopes. They had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel; the one to restore not just the economy but restore the entirety of their beloved nation that lay dormant and in ruins – but with news of Jesus’ death these hopes shriveled up and died too. Their hopes had been dashed.  Their hope was shattered. Their hope was squashed.

Little do they know, Jesus is the one who is on this road trip with them, the one they’re talking to as they travel – and as they travel he does more than appease and distract them with some silly games sent to the backseat – he opens the scriptures to them and helps them understand what it means for him to be messiah…

Its too bad we don’t know exactly what Jesus said as he unfolded the scriptures, but he might have said:

Like Moses led the people out of slavery to freedom, I have freed humankind from sin and will bring you into the promised land of joyous friendship with God.

He might have said: like Jonah rescued from the belly of the fish, like Daniel rescued from the lion’s den, like Joseph brought up out of the pit – God redeemed me from the pit of the grave – and now I will hold your hand and bring you out of the pit with me to new life.

We don’t know exactly what he said, but we know Jesus unfolded the scriptures for these disciples and how they point to his life, death, and resurrection, and then Jesus comes into the home of the disciples – a powerful word to us, as we are seeing that, in the same way, Jesus is with us in our homes as we worship this morning.

And then Jesus is makes himself known to the disciples as he breaks bread with them – a powerful word to us as we remember that in the same way he has made himself known to us in the breaking broken of the bread — and as we hope that he will again when we’re together in person…

So Jesus is present in the home and in the meal, but what I think is the best news for us today is that Jesus is with these disciples on the road… when these disciples look back on all that happened on this surprising day, what do they say to each other?

“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road.”

Jesus was with them on the road, and he is with us ON THE ROAD: In this time of journeying through all this — in our times of being stuck on a road-trip we didn’t choose, in our hopelessness, in our questions, in our turmoil.

God is with us.  God is with us in this place of being uncomfortable, as we as we fumble with attempts at distract ourselves – videos and jigsaw puzzles – and all these things that can be pleasant, but in most cases, are not what we actually want to be doing. God is with us as we continue to ask ‘when are we going to be there?’

God is with us on this journey, speaking his word to us, caring for us.

And we can talk about getting back to normal, but the truth is God’s people have always been on the road…

They were on the road fleeing a famine when they arrived in Egypt, Moses led the people on the road though the brutal wilderness, they were on the road, taken to be slaves in a far-away land during exile, and in Jesus’ time the famed roads of Rome came and cut through Palestine bringing occupation…

Through the generations God’s people have lived through plagues, the rising and falling of kingdoms, favorable and unfavorable times, with all their accompanying turmoil, persecution, and danger…

And through it all, God has been faithful.  Through it all God has been our hope, our strength, our guide.  He has heard out prayers and our cries whenever we called.

As the psalmist says:  our lives are precious to God, as are our inevitable deaths, when we lay down this life to rest in God and await the fulfillment of the promise that all this perishable life will be raised imperishable, and that all creation will follow in the footsteps of Jesus, held by his loving hand — we will be born anew through the living and enduring word of God.

This Jesus, who was destined before the foundation of the world, holds our destiny – to be with God after the foundations of this world have fallen.  We stand on God’s eternal love, we travel in his grace, we are accompanied along the way by his faithfulness.

And the truth is we might long to return home to a kind of normal before this pandemic hit, or we might long to arrive to a new normal where we can forget this time of being strapped in so uncomfortably to our immediate surroundings, (but we can’t know about timetables and outcomes)…

We do know that God is with us on the journey.

This is a promise.

And I just wonder if it maybe that we could begin to think about how we are going to tell about this time after it’s over.

The two disciples Cleopas and his friend – after Jesus comes alongside them and appear to them – we hear that same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem and they told what had happened on the road…they told about how Christ appeared to them and accompanied them.

I hope that in the midst of this, we can tell about what God is doing during this time. And talk about how Jesus has accompanied us.

I hope one day we will tell how God used our congregation members to provide masks and refine the design for these masks with each new batch made getting upgraded features – elastic on the back and a snugger fit over the nose.

I hope one day we will tell how God used our congregation to continue to give food through HHOPE pantry and how we wrote grants to secure finds and prepare for renewed ministry beyond the quarantine.

I hope one day we will tell how one member of our congregation decided to throw a Thanksgiving feast for his family – even though its wasn’t November – just because he wanted to thank God.  So he made a turkey and all the trimmings and had thanksgiving, and that was inspiration to us all that we can all ask:

How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things God has done for me? I will lift the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all God’s people.

I hope one day we will tell how, during this time, God inspired us to worship him in our homes, creating new pathways for reclaiming our homes as the primary place we worship God day by day. 

I hope one day we will tell how God gathered us three times a day online through the many weeks to pray together for each other and the world.

I have all these hopes…you have so many hopes….

Jesus is our hope, and holds all these hopes we have and many more and carries them to the heart of our Father, and, in the meantime, even as we wait, Jesus is one the road with us…  

So that even now, because God is faithful, we can give our witness, we can tell the story, we can come together to live for the one who saves us, loves us, and accompanies us thorough it all…

May you take comfort in the faithfulness of God…

May you know Christ is with you on this road…

May the Spirit set our hearts on fire with love one another and the world God loves…

And may all our hope be found in the one who is the hope of the world, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Palm Sunday

We are told in this Gospel text today that the people in the city of Jerusalem were in turmoil.  Literally, though, the word used is “shaken…”

A better translation is: When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken, asking “who is this”?

Rocked to its core, jostled to its foundation, totally upended and knocked off its axis.

Sound familiar?

Today I would say that we could describe ourselves the same way.  We are being shaken to our core.

You and me, our congregation, our community and beyond,

We are all upended with worry for loved ones, for ourselves, for our nation, and for the world.

We are shaken by this ongoing pandemic so that formerly mundane tasks like shopping, getting a haircut, and getting groceries seem insurmountable and we have to reconsider whether doing them is worth it, and if so how can we do them safely. 

People we know are working on the front lines in healthcare, putting themselves and their families at risk.  People we know and love have become sick.  People we know and love have died.

Life has changed for everyone: We can’t be with the people we love, we can’t go the places we want, can’t do the things that usually give our life shape and meaning, we can’t see how all this ends.

Every year of my life, and maybe of yours, I have been with the community of Christ that holds up palm branches on this day.  Every year on this day we sing have sung “All glory laud and honor,” together, in the assembly, with lots of voices raised in unison. 

Every year this powerful palming of the processional cross carried into our very midst, has drawn together the connection between us and the crowds in Jerusalem on the day Jesus rode triumphantly into the Holy City to declare himself long-awaited king and promised messiah for a world in need.

Normally the connection between that crowd and the crowd that is us gathered would be clear.

But today we are not together in person as we usually have been and we may feel disconnected from one another and from that crowd in Jerusalem…and in one respect we are very different from this crowd that lined the dusty road from the mount of olives to the towering stone walls of the City of David.

Of course, this great crowd of people were jammed together as we remember having been jammed together at different times and places — at a Nationals baseball game all heading to the seats with hotdogs and sodas, or at Kings Dominion all trying to get in line to ride the rides, or even just at church together as we passed the peace with everyone around us using handshakes and hugs and even holy kisses.  And I know that, like me, you can you still remember what it was like.

Today, in this one way we are different from this Jerusalem crowd. We can’t gather like they were gathered. Everyone right up in each other’s faces. Jostling and passing palm branches, smelling each other’s breath, no one wearing a mask or gloves as they throw cloaks into the road, hugging and slapping one another on the back to celebrate the new King has arrived.

In that one way we are different — but we are the SAME as this crowd in that just as Jesus rode that beast of burden through the streets and into crowd, Jesus comes right into our midst.  Jesus is unafraid to come and be with us.  Jesus is at the center of us all.

God is with us in the midst of our physical distancing through the word that creates faith, through our baptism into Christ where we are joined as one body even though we scattered to our own homes, and through the Holy Spirit that unites our hearts and minds before God in worship.

And we are a crowd, gathered together.  I know we are separated but we are still worshipping publicly, you could even say, as a crowd.  The names of all of us gathered are out there for the world to see.  Anyone can watch this facebook and youtube post.  Your faces will be displayed today saying “Hosanna!”  In some ways we may be MORE publicly gathered than ever before as this video lives on beyond this moment.

Make no mistake – it is different than it has ever been before – but the Spirit persists to gather us together to publicly proclaim for a world in need that:

Jesus was unafraid to come into the shaking world of those dusty streets, to ride into the heart of the quake, and to fix his eyes on the very people who would betray him and turn him over to die, and this same Jesus is unafraid to come into our midst in the shaking world all around us.  God’s ability to unite us and uphold us is not limited by physical distancing, and 6 feet limits in contact, or school and office closure, or even the necessity of worshipping together from a multiplicity of physical locations.

God persists to equip us with hope, enters into the shaking world around us, and by grace gives us the mind of Christ that Paul sings on in his letter to the Philippians.

God helps us see as Jesus sees, think as Jesus thinks…

Jesus became God’s servant, humbled himself, became obedient even to death on a cross, trusting that God would raise him up, trusting that God would not forsake him, trusting that ultimately God could and would overturn suffering to bring victory, overturn violence to bring peace, overturn death to bring life. 

Jesus was unafraid… and remains unafraid… to be with us in the midst of our shaking, upturned lives and our unmoored and traumatized world and shows us what it looks like to trust God.

Most of our connections have moved online and to the phone…and I have talked with lots of parents of young children this week.  Many children we know and love want to know what to make of all this.  Our own daughter, so excited to be a big kindergartener and loving her teacher and her friends at school has been so sad, like so many student and teachers of all ages to find out we won’t be going back to school this year.  After tears and tantrums about the littlest things that would never set her off, she was able to say said that when she hears about the germs and when she thinks about not going back to school it doesn’t feel very good inside.

I think the hardest part for those of us who are not on the front lines, even as we pray for doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and all essential workers, is feeling like we can’t help beyond staying home and offering prayer and staying connected.  Ultimately that’s what we can do and in the midst of this we live with not knowing how all this will turn out. 

We don’t know what will happen with all this.  But we are told that Jesus knew all that was to happen to him.

He knew where the donkey and colt would be in the little village outside Jerusalem, he knew the person who would relinquish them to the disciples for his use, and he knew that this crowd that celebrated him with shouts and songs would turn on him and yell CRUCIFY HIM!

And still, Jesus set his face like flint, still Jesus persisted, because Jesus came for just one reason.

For just one reason he mounted it to ride up the slope to the Holy City.  For just one reason he entered into the crowd.  For just one reason he endured the worst life has to give.

Jesus came to suffer with the world that suffers.

My friends, Jesus persists to be with us when our world is shaken, when our cries of celebration turn to cries of disappointment, when our expectations of our own self-reliance dissolve into awareness of need, when our supposed self-sufficiency falls away and we realize our weakness.

Jesus persists to be with us in our grief.

Jesus comes for just one reason: to be with us.

And today, wherever we are God calls forth from us our praise to Jesus, even as the world shakes.

The crowds were just working with what they had…hey we don’t have anything here for a real parade, lets just tear some branches of a near by tree, lets just throw our coats in the road for him to ride on, lets just use the simple sound of our voice.

We are just working with what we have here…computers, cell phones, facebook, youtube, but even in this, God calls forth our praise, even now we lift up the name Jesus, the name that is above every name, the name of our crucified but exalted Lord, the name at which every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, the name all creation will confess to the glory of God our Father.

May you be carried by this song.

May God call forth our praise and join it with the praise of all the saints and all creation.

May God fill us with trust in his goodness and graciousness.

And may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, keep our hearts in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Connections

My moment of recognition was this past Thursday.  I was in my study at home and trying to focus and get some work done and all of a sudden, I was completely engulfed in sadness.  It just hit me and I was overcome with emotion and I just wept.  Perhaps you have had a moment like this, where it all kind of hits home.

Because it all rolled in slowly: first we heard of a virus that was far away and then that it was coming here, and then our schools closed, then that closure was extended, then our national borders shut down, all non-essential tasks completely stopped and now most in-person life has been shuttered.

Waves of grief come as we realize what we have lost and are losing and I think I was stunned and couldn’t process it and all of a sudden it just hit.

We are grieving the outbreak of this pandemic and those who could contract it, and we grieve not being able to be together, and we grieve what it brings out in us: desires to horde, anger that we have seen at supermarkets as people’s emotions can’t be contained, feelings of being depressed, feelings of not being able to do anything to stop what’s happening.

In all this – God sees you.

God is present with us to lead us through the dark valley.  God is in the midst of the city to be its light. God sees us and God has compassion on us.

Our gospel lesson is rich today…and also long…but I believe we could have read only the very first verse.  We could have simply read:  “As Jesus walked along, he saw the man blind from birth.”  And I could’ve said, “This is the Gospel of the Lord” and you could’ve said, “Praise to you O Christ” because Jesus sees the man.  There is gospel in that.

Jesus says, I see you.  I know you.  You are mine. You are loved.

Many people…most people…had seen this man, nothing but a beggar, decided who he was, nothing but a drain on society, come to believe that he was inconsequential, so that they had ceased to look at him.

Jesus SEES him and knowing who Jesus is we could say – the whole story is written in that verse.

God sees you, brother and sisters.

I can’t see you…I just see a phone on a tripod and you can’t see one another…although you can message each other and connect through social media…but God can SEE you and he showers his compassion, his care, and his love on you…and God will rescue us.

And, in the midst of it all, Jesus invites you and me to be apart of the works that he is working in the world…and right now I think that is the work of the church, our work, is the work of connection…shining the light of Jesus Christ into the world…

I hope you have seen glimmers of the light of Jesus Christ even in the midst of all this…

In Rio De Janero this week the statue of Jesus, “Christ the Redeemer” with open arms was displayed with all the nations of the world as a witness to how God sees and cares for the world he has made.

We have seen Italians, where the virus is so bad, come out on their porches at 6pm to sing and dance together.  To connect.

We have seen the story of Idle Hands Bakery giving out free bread even though the owner doesn’t know how he will support himself or his workers.

Two distilleries in Richmond have stopped making spirits and are instead using their machinery to make hand sanitizer because there’s not enough to go around.

I have seen you connecting with one another…

I received a beautiful handwritten letter from a friend in the congregation. His family is writing old fashioned paper letters as a way to connect with people.

Two brothers, pretty close in age, I don’t know that they fight but my kids do…built a multi-hole putt-putt course in their home as a way to connect…

Our online devotions are so wonderful…even though your pastors clearly aren’t tech savvy…good medicine as a friend calls them…because they give us all a way to connect and pray together.

Our council had the idea to take pages from our directory so that every member is contacted in the coming weeks…so we can pray with you, find out how you’re doing and check in.

The work for the church ahead of us now is staying connected…even creating connections.

Jesus and this man born blind in John’s gospel are connected…

About everyone else is practicing social distancing of the heart…and missing the miracle…

The disciples are too busy asking technical questions

The neighbors have watched too much CSI and are busy playing detective

The pharisees are too busy clinging to their authority and power and privilege

But this man born blind but given sight by Jesus have a connection with one another.

And through this ongoing connection, the man’s faith grows.

We hear his witness to Jesus grow and his words about Jesus become more exact and trusting as he is questioned again and again.

First, he calls him “the man Jesus”

next he calls him a prophet, showing a growing awareness of Jesus’ identity

next he says he is “from God” (now we’re getting close to the truth),

and finally he calls him “Lord” and says,

“Lord I believe you are the Son of Man” and he worships Jesus.

Through our connection with Jesus, his light illumines our understanding of who he is and our connection with him grows.

We are a lot like this blind man — our eyes have been opened in the last two weeks.

And I have to say personally, I had always assumed that going from being blind to being given one’s sight would be wholly wonderful.

Think of all the delightful things you can see with your eyes, look at the faces of the people you’re with, think of how sight allows you travel, marvel, read, and take in the creation of God.

But this week I happened upon a book by Annie Dillard, who lives in Roanoke Virginia, called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in which she talks some about people who were formerly blind and then given their sight…

She writes about when surgeons discovered how to perform safe cataract operations, and how, full of hope and excitement, they ranged across Europe and America offering their operation to men and women of all ages who had been blinded by cataracts since birth. As they went these doctors collected accounts and histories and the patients’ perceptions.

One patient called lemonade “square” because it pricked on his tongue as a square shape pricked on the touch of his hands.

One newly sighted girl saw photographs and paintings, and asked, “‘Why do they put those dark marks all over them?’ ‘Those aren’t dark marks,’ her mother explained, ‘those are shadows.

All these accounts help us imagine what it might be like to be given sight for the first time.  But he also writes about a phenomenon I wouldn’t have expected…

In general, she writes, the newly sighted see the world as a dazzle of color-patches.  They are pleased by the sensation of color, and learn quickly to name the colors, but the rest of seeing is tormenting difficult.

The mental effort involved in the reasonings involved in color and shape proves over-whelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable. And a number of people who had been given their sight closed their eyes for comfort and didn’t want to open them again.

In the last two weeks our eyes have been opened and it has been overwhelming and tormenting difficult to realize how fragile we are.

We are realizing how dependent we are on medicine, food, and healthcare systems that are out of our hands.  We have wondered will the economy and will the structures of the world hold up under the weight of this shutdown.  We have seen our vulnerability and our powerlessness.

But much of the world lives this way everyday…I have become aware of many schools near us where 100% of the students are eligible for free breakfast and lunch; where classes can’t go online because families don’t have internet access.  There are many people who don’t have access to trustworthy medical care and medicine, much of the world lives from day to day.

The veil has been lifted for us that we need God.  Much of the time we are able to live with the illusion that our technology, our creativity, our ingenuity, our work ethic can save us.

Our eyes are opened.  We cannot save ourselves.  But we have a God who is determined to save us.  Our God promises us daily bread…Just as he has rescued us in the past, he will rescue us again…

This is not unprecedented.  God rescuing us.  God lead Israel through the wilderness and gave daily bread, God brought the exiles home, God raised Jesus from the dead, God sent the Spirit to scatter the seed of his word across this globe.

God is faithful.

God is at work in this world and it is good news that we have a savior, who doesn’t socially distance himself from us, but walks among us and sees us.

We don’t have a God who hordes the good stuff, but shed his light of love freely on all.

We have a God who doesn’t quarantine himself away from us, but comes among us in the everyday stuff of our life. 

Just as Jesus healed the man born blind with dirt and spit, he took on the flesh of humankind, to die a painful, shameful, sad death on the cross.

This same Jesus, who is now living through the awesome power of God to rescue, is determined to be with us in this and he sees you.

God sees you grocery store workers…overwhelmed by the long hours trying to get food to people. And God sees you sister and brother whose company has had to let them go.

God sees you healthcare workers…putting yourself at risk to care for the most vulnerable.  And God sees you moms and dads…finding a way to teach your children and work remotely.

God sees you…older members of our communities, isolated and feeling lonely for human contact…and God sees you… young people with your questions about the future…

God sees you faithful followers of Christ at Epiphany and beyond… so let us persist in living in the light of Christ and let us persist in connecting with one another, encouraging one another, and reaching out in love to one another in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

A Crazy Scheme

It’s just a joke now, but at least once I bet you took it seriously, if only for a moment.

I remember being in my college dorm room and sitting in front of my gigantic desktop computer when I read the email. Then I read it a second time and I tried to understand.

My roommate, Cory, had his nose in a textbook on the couch. I said, “Dude, you are never gonna believe this. I just got this email from a Nigerian king. He says that all I have to do is send his family some confidential financial information and he has all this money from the Kingdom of Nigeria that he wants to give to me… and it’s like, millions of dollars.”

We thought about it for a second.

I’m not sure if we even had a bank account, but it didn’t matter anyway. It just sounded too good to be true. And of course, now we just laugh.

But if this crazy scheme isn’t 100% true, its not 100% false either —

There is someone, maybe not a king, but someone who really sent that email and really does want your money. There really is an account set up for you to wire to. It’s just that this is about where the truth ends and you are not gonna get what was promised to you!

When these schemes work – and they do work sometimes apparently – they do so by playing on a person’s desire to make a lazy buck and a person’s willingness to convince themselves against their (probably) better judgment, that there’s such an easy way to make so much money… so quickly… by doing so little.

Hanging out in my dorm room, that was the first time I had heard of such a thing, and it’s been a long time since the internet was newish and such a scam could go viral so fast, but there are still an awful lot of empty promises in the world –

There are empty promises we hear – we’re told every day that there are products we can buy to make us happy.

And we make our own. We make empty promises any time we say we’re going to do something knowing we’re not going to do it. And anytime we say we’re going to do something – with the best intentions – and just never get around to it.

We’re surrounded by broken, empty promises.

We’ve been hearing these empty promises so long, and making them ourselves so long, it’s hard to think back to a time when they weren’t a part of our life.

But today we hear the story that takes us way back to the first empty promise.

God created humankind in his image, called humankind good, and set us up with all that we needed to live in holy communion with the creation, with each other, and with God, but the serpent was craftier than any other wild animal that God had made.

The serpent comes to Eve, my guess is because he knows she’s the one who’s really in charge, and begins to sow doubt. “Did God really say you shouldn’t eat the fruit of the trees in this garden?”

…which of course is not at all what God said.

And so, Eve says, “No. There’s just the one. The tree in the middle of the garden is off limits and if we eat of that tree, we will die.”

She knows what she heard and she states the truth.

But the serpent gives this empty promise:

“Oh, you will not die but your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing the difference between good and evil.”

The achingly terrible irony is that Adam and Eve were already like God, they had been made in the very image of God!

And the terrible realization is that what the serpent says is not 100% true…but it’s not 100% false either.

It is true that now they will know the difference between good and evil, but the implication that this is a thing to be desired is false, because they already knew what good was!

With each of God’s creations – sun, moon, earth, water, beasts, vegetation, God said: “This is good!” And upon completing humankind, God said, “this is VERY good!”

So, yes…now they are going to know the difference between good and evil, but they do so by learning what evil is,
which God had previously sheltered them from, and now, having believed the empty promise, Adam and Eve take a bite.

They realize they are naked and they are ashamed.

They hide from God, and when God asks where they are, they hold their tongue, their bones are withered away and they are groaning all day long, estranged from the One who loved them into being.

Ahead for God’s people now, instead of endless days of holy communion with God, in trusting relationships with one another and at peace with creation…

Now instead there will be heartache, now there will be slavery, wandering in the wilderness, exile far from home, defeat at the hands of merciless adversaries,

Emails trying to trick each other out of their livelihood, online bots that try to steal our identity and break into our financial accounts, sinister operations that try to steal elections, politicians that knowingly deceive,

Companies that try to make us feel empty so they can sell us something, a culture of shame, a lack of trust in our institutions and governments, and an ever-increasing sense that we should shrink back from public places and spaces,

Because we come to believe that, you know what, we can’t trust what anyone says, and we should just sew fig leaves, make loincloths, and hide from the danger of being vulnerable and open with one another.

But that would be the easy way out.

It is tempting, and it is absolutely the way the larger culture is going.

The culture around us is ever more individualized and offers us shinier and better ways to dull the wildness of life, to distract ourselves, to make ourselves comfortably oblivious to the suffering of others,and to hide ourselves away from one another.

To interact with one another and to take part in one another’s lives means to open ourselves to each other’s suffering and make it our own.

It is easier to bypass suffering – to find a way to avoid the messy details of other people’s lives – to just focus on taking care of ourselves, which is exactly the nature of the devil’s temptation of Jesus.

Jesus has been in the wilderness 40 days and nights in solidarity with Israel in their failed attempt to be faithful in the desert and the devil approaches him, saying,

“if you are the Son of God, make bread from stones, turn away from your hunger and the suffering that awaits down the road of being obedient to God.”

Or, the devil suggests, Jesus can take the easy way out and announce his messiahship from the pinnacle of the temple where the priests would blow the shofar or rams horn and make religious announcements, rather than announcing his Sonship of God from the pinnacle of the cross, lifted up in agony, and in obedience to God’s desire to rescue humankind.

But the devil sees that Jesus won’t take the easy way out, and so he comes to Jesus with something else.

This time he comes with an empty promise.

If Jesus will only worship him, Satan says, the devil will give him all the kingdoms of the world and all they have to offer.

The only thing is – the world doesn’t belong to the devil

The world belongs to God –

But Jesus is tempted

And Jesus could have decided to go for it.

But the devil’s power and wealth are an illusion and Jesus pushes the delete button on the devil and his empty promise, sending them to the trash folder with the junk of all his other lies, because while you and I set our hearts on ourselves, what we want, and, often, on what we think will be the easiest path to get what we want, Jesus’ heart is set on God’s desire to save you and me.

Here, already, in the wilderness Jesus takes the hard path and accepts his destiny.

Here already, Jesus accepts the cross.

Here already, Jesus accepts his terrible death.

Here, Jesus is remaking the garden episode and the wilderness episode, but with victory rather than defeat.

Because of Jesus, the story of God’s people doesn’t end the same this time.

Jesus is the New Adam who brings justification, life, and righteousness instead of shame, defeat, and estrangement.

Jesus is the New Israel who won’t worship false gods but is faithful to the real and true God of Israel.

We are surrounded by illusions and empty promises…

We live in a hyper-individualized society that tells us that only people with lots of personal accolades and the wealth of the nations can be happy…

that encourages us to believe personal morality is primarily a private matter and we’re all on our own…

that community is best seen as just a collection of individuals who all have something to gain for themselves…

The world is full of EMPTY PROMISES… but our crucified Lord Jesus steps from an EMPTY TOMB
to bring the promise of God that is rock solid.

Jesus is God’s promise that reveals he loves you so much,

his obedience to God is so unshakable,

his solidarity with sinners like you and me is so unwavering,

that no temptations or tests can derail his determination to love God and to love us with all of his heart and soul and mind.

We belong to the Risen Lord and because we belong to Jesus, we are people of the promise.

We are people who have been given the promise of God and who are able to speak the promise of God.

Here Jesus is with us and among us to create a community that can SPEAK promises that last and BELIEVE promises that last.

Here we are given the courage to be a part of God’s crazy scheme to share the riches of the Kingdom of God.

This King’s scheme is to give away his endless mercy as a free gift.

On Wednesday, many of us received an ash cross as a sign of our mortality and the eternal promise of God

One young child, received her ash on Wednesday night. And at home announced she wanted to sleep with it rather than wash it off and wear it to school the next day. And her parents told me that they decided an ashy pillow would be okay.

What a witness!

And God sends you out as witnesses to a divided, lonely world that is captivated by empty promises.

You are a witness to Jesus Christ who is creating a community where we can trust one another,

where we can be vulnerable with one another without shame,

where we can begin again when our trust does falter because we live together in Christ, where all our best intentions find their home in Jesus’ promise to always choose the hard way, the faithful way, the humble way, the victorious way of unshakable obedience to God.

And at this table we truly receive what God has promised to us.

In this meal, God takes us back into true holy communion with himself,
with one another, and with all creation.

So come to the table and be glad, rejoice in the lord, and shout for joy.

Reconciling Accounts

“Give peace, O God, give peace” are fitting words to sing this morning, because the heart of what Jesus has to say to us today is: “First, be reconciled to your sister or brother.”

Our gospel text comes on the heels of words we heard last week, in which Jesus told us to be salt and light.  Jesus said, we are to be dissolved like salt, to give ourselves away for the good of the world.  We are to go out as rays, sent to give light in the darkness and to show God’s intentions for humankind. 

Jesus prescribes a salty, illuminated life in which our righteousness exceeds the righteousness of even the scribes and Pharisees, that group on whom we often throw shade, but who desired above all to follow God the best they could and, in the midst of a pluralistic Roman empire to present the Lord as the one true God.

These teachings of Jesus are spoken to us as a community, in order to make us a saltier, more illuminated body.  And while the church today is larger and more complex than the gaggle of unorganized disciples in the days of Jesus’ own earthly ministry and in the days immediately following his tragic death on the cross and glorious resurrection from the dead, we still live in a pluralistic world.

We still live in a world with a plurality of truth claims and many competing ideas about what makes for a good life – and Jesus’ words, now as then, are meant to form us into a particular community to give witness to God’s intentions for us. If I had a chance to relive my life, I think one of the tweaks or changes I would make, one of the things I would do differently, is that along my educational path I would have taken a business class or two.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed all the art, history, and literature classes that I took instead, but I have to say that knowing more about spread sheets, investments, and finances would’ve come in handy earlier in my life, because you have to learn about these things too.

I have learned a lot over the years, but I am continually amazed to watch God bring together all sorts of people into his church, people with varied interests and gifts, and especially people who are well-versed in saving, spending, tracking, accounting for and making the most out of resources God has entrusted us with.

Bruce, our financial secretary, Tim, our treasurer, and Debbie, our finance manager, spend untold numbers of hours crunching numbers, allocating fund, tracking down receipts, and reconciling our accounts, and we are blessed to have their hard work and expertise.

From what I can tell, and what I think I have learned from Bruce, Debbie, and Tim is that financial health is centered mainly in account reconciliation – that process of comparing internal financial records against monthly statements from external sources—external sources like our bank and our credit card company—to make sure they match up and to understand what is going on in the organization so you can understand what is possible with your mission going forward.

The heart of what Jesus has to say to us today is: “First, be reconciled to your sister or brother” and this is just what he means. The life Jesus urges us towards is one in which we are trying to crunch the numbers and understand what is going on within us, and comparing the interior life – our heart – with our exterior lives, the people we encounter and work with and live with, to bring it all into harmony.

Jesus is an accountant who means to tally the assets and find the errors in our community and fix them, and he begins with a deep dive into the commandment against murder and uncovers for us that its actually about anger and reconciliation.

Unfortunately for me, and maybe for you, it’s not enough not to murder. Jesus says do not be angry. And listen to this now: when we are angry with another person, according to Jesus, we are guilty of murder. We deserve the same penalty.

Reading this passage with a college student friend of mine recently, she said, “This is like reverse-grace!” I said, “what do you mean.” She said, “grace means we’re all forgiven…this is like saying we’re all guilty!” And I think that’s right.

You can’t read these words of Jesus and think they don’t apply to each of us and all of humanity. Fox News and MSNBC and politicians and pundits and a lot of regular people on the Twittersphere and driving down the road are just angry. And we get angry.

But Jesus wants to free other people from the consequences of my anger. And yours. And he wants to free me of my anger and to free you of your anger.

Reconciliation with those whom we have previously been angry is so important to God, according to Jesus, we should leave worship if we think of someone with whom we have a broken bond and take care of that first, before returning to offer our gift of praise here.

That’s pretty astounding from the Son of God, but the thing of first importance is to be reconciled to a sister or brother, and to make sure my account and your account balance
and that there’s no outstanding grudge. Or in other words, as far as it depends on you, be reconciled to one another.

Jesus believes we can’t be reconciled to a person we are lusting after. This doesn’t mean that we aren’t attracted to people, or even that we aren’t attracted to people that are out of bounds for us because they are married or we are but it means we are not supposed to marinate in our attraction. We aren’t to stoke the fires of our attraction.

And the simple reason for this is that the action of adultery comes from stoking those fires. The final act of adultery comes after many smaller infractions. King David, for example, doesn’t just sleep with Bathsheba, and send her husband Uriah to the front lines to die, out of nowhere.

It all started, you’ll remember, “in the spring of the year, when Kings good kings go out to battle,” but David chose to stay in Jerusalem. He allowed himself to be in a position to produce a very poor decision.

Jesus wants us to be reconciled in our marriages, for those of who are married. It is strange and sad that we sometimes treat the people we’re married to, the people we live with, the person we sleep beside with less respect than total strangers, in the midst of the pressures of daily life, which can be enormous.

But Jesus upholds the value of the promise of marriage. In first century Palestine, only one of the members of a couple could initiate a divorce (I’ll let you guess which one). If you guessed only the man could initiate a divorce, you’re right and if a woman was left divorced she had no way to work or support herself, except perhaps prostitution, so, at least in part, Jesus speaking for women’s health and women’s rights.

That said, I don’t think God desires divorce for us. But I don’t think most couples do either. On their wedding day couples aren’t hoping the relationship will end and at least in my own family and among my close friends who have divorced it was a hard decision with real heartache.

But relationships do end and sometimes it is necessary, especially in cases of abuse. And there is grace for that. Even reconciliation. Wounds can heal. New relationships can bring joy.

Finally, Jesus says that in all our words, our yes should be our yes and our no should be our no. Our speech should be reconciled to the truth always, even though vows were common in his own day. Rob Burger, as so many of us remembered yesterday was fond of the word “candidly.” “Candidly, the first three Star Wars films were a waste of time,” I can hear him say. And he told people, “Don’t say, ‘to tell you the truth.’” If you say, “to tell you the truth,” it implies there are sometimes when you’re not telling the truth!

It never occurred to me until now, but maybe Rob got that strait from Jesus!

I think all these words from Jesus are tough to preach on. Many people may hear Jesus’ words here as an attack on personal freedom. And we could hear Jesus as sounding kinda “judgy” here. There is a lot of “reverse grace.” But there’s also a lot of grace grace.

A tremendous amount of grace actually, and not only because these are Jesus’ words. Not only because here Jesus is showing that his authority is greater than the law, and he chooses to forgive us and bring us God’s peace and forgiveness.

But also, because Jesus’ account of our life is that our words matter, our relationships matter, what we think about matters, how we feel matters – and in his love and for us, it is all accounted for, and no part of our lives are lost, like God has a balance sheet and pencil and wants it all reconciled.

Jesus meets us and helps us come face to face with our mistakes. And Jesus is honest that when we are audited, it’s clear that the math of how we treat each other, how we treat ourselves, and how we treat God doesn’t add up. We didn’t take enough business classes, and we don’t know how to zero out our anger and lust and dishonesty, but God forgives our debt.

Jesus is the CFO, if CFO stands for Christ Forgives Offenses. With love and patience, he pulls us out of the red and into the black, so that there is a surplus of forgiveness, community, connection, and reconciliation…so that we are a people whose bottom line is reconciled.

And Jesus creates a community where we can speak bravely to each other, where the Spirit raises up confirmation mentors, TMs, and Sunday school teachers to help guide young people on the path of a good life and learn to speak candidly about life with integrity.

In our Bible studies, and in seedling groups, and adult education classes, God is providing places to listen deeply to one another, and speak words of wisdom into one another’s lives to provide support and honest conversation.

Where we fall short, Jesus’ own perfect life given on the cross fulfills God’s desire, and this Jesus Christ is at work in us to create a community living toward the kingdom, which transcends our brokenness.

Here God is creating a community which is learning again and again, to pray: “Lord, forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who are indebted to us” and we realize that our reconciliation with God is lived out and tied up with our reconciliation to each other.

Today, in this mean of Holy Communion, we commune with God and we commune with one another and when we eat the meal, God offers us the totality of himself, and we offer God the totality of our lives.

Here we offer God the brokenness and the rightness, the darkness and the light, the salty and the bland and all we are is blessed and broken and healed and returned to us to give to the world, to use as we witness of what the kingdom looks like, so may God reconcile our accounts and reconcile our transactions with one another to produce a reliable, accurate statement of who God is to the world.

And may we be the balance sheet that reflects God’s spending in the world—

May our service be the loan God gives through us to others until others are strong enough to serve.

May our kindness be God’s currency invested though us into the lives of the most vulnerable.

May our forgiveness be God’s canceled debts extended through us to one another.

And may any credit we accrue all go to God for the reconciliation that he distributes like a trust fund kicking off an endless supply of everything we need.

Amen.