No More Rings to Count

Sometime over the summer Sarah and I decided to start our son, who is five, in Kindergarten this year.  It was a hard call because with an August birthday he is about as young as you can be and still be eligible. 

But we asked a lot of friends for advice.  And many of you gave us wisdom about your experience. And we decided to go for it.

We told our son that he would be starting Kindergarten and he was thrilled. And then came the news that his new teacher was actually going to come to our house to meet him. 

With a smile a mile wide and light in his eyes he asked how long it would be so we looked at a calendar and told him the number of days he’s have to wait to meet her and he ran to our playroom where we have an art supply box…

…and he dumped out the pipe cleaners and began fashioning a countdown to the day he would meet his teacher  – a ring for each day he would have to wait, made into a long chain hung from the doorknob on the back of the front door.

And each day the first thing he would do in the morning was to take off another pipe cleaner chain-link and announce how many days until the visit.

To me it can sometimes feel like we have a pipe-cleaner chain for the days of this pandemic that stretches out of sight. 

As we count the weeks and the months of this liminal season of waiting that the pandemic has thrust upon us, complete with digital school for many and only very small in-person gatherings for our congregation, it feels as though each day we take off another ring in the chain, only to see the chain stretching out to the horizon with no end in sight.

And yet, Paul says in his letter to the Romans, salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers, and we know that with each passing day we are one day closer to the passing away of this pandemic. 

This season will end.

It is not forever. 

And God promises to be with us in the midst of it.

We sometimes like to remember the words of Jesus that we hear in today’s gospel as a simple promise that where two or three are gathered in his name he is present. 

In other words, we can trust that if only a handful of people can come to an outdoor service, we are assured our Lord is with us just the same as if there were 400. 
If you are with a small group this morning, maybe just one another person, or if you are physically alone and only able to be connected to our digital community, God is still present.

And these words of Jesus “where two or three are gathered in my name I am with you” do assure us of this.

But there’s a lot more to Jesus’ promise because he speaks it in a specific context, which is that of serious turmoil. 

He takes for granted that his followers will not always get along or see eye to eye…

…and it is actually when his disciples disagree with each other, hurt each other, get off on the wrong foot with each other and stay out of step with each other and yet persist to remain in relationship with each other for the sake of the community, that he is present. 

Jesus is in the bearing with one another.

Jesus is in the hard conversation. 

Jesus is in the forgiveness and mutual understanding that is hard-won. 

Jesus is in the act of loving the neighbor as one’s self not because the two people at odds necessarily feel emotional pleasantries toward one another, but because they choose actions that respect and uphold the other as a fellow child of God beloved in God’s sight.

Paul echoes Jesus’ command for us to love our neighbor as ourselves and continues, adding a helpful clarifier.

He writes “Love does not do wrong to the neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

As an example of the law, you and I follow the laws of Richmond or Henrico or Hanover or Chesterfield counties, the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the United States of America, not because we sort out on a case by case basis how we feel about what they prescribe, but because we live under the law. 

Driving 45 miles an hour by our church is the law, so that we are bound to that behavior.

Loving our neighbor, according to Paul, isn’t about our personal feelings on a case by case or a person by person basis but it is God’s law, which is illustrated and fulfilled by Jesus on the cross.

And Jesus’ footsteps out of the tomb under his own power on Easter morning show God’s determination to love us.

Because Jesus lives, it is the time for us to wake from our sleep and see that night is far gone, to live in the day, and, as Paul says, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

I know, at least in past years, some young people among us have put on brand-new clothes for the first day of school.

Take a scroll down Facebook lane and you’ll see that some of our youth started school this past week and posted first-day-of-school pictures,

 and I imagine and hope we will see a whole lot more this next week too.

In our baptism, we are clothed in the new clothes of Jesus’ love, his forgiveness, his kindness, and his mercy. 

We put on Christ when he claims us in the waters of promise.

Just this past week I had a chance to do baptismal counseling with a young couple who is preparing to have their daughter baptized and they wanted to know the significance of white baptismal clothes that some people choose to use on the occasion of a baptism…

…so I had the opportunity to share that our ancient mothers and fathers in the faith were actually naked for baptism.

They stripped off the clothes of this world and coming through the water and the words of life – You are baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit –

they understood they were now clothed in Christ and so the community would put a white robe over them…

as a visible sign of belonging to the community of faith and as a symbol of Jesus’ light and life now present to cover those claimed by him from head to toe.

For me, the liminal time of this pandemic has revealed that truly we are naked and we have nothing but God to stand on.  We only have the gifts God has given to save us.  Like a garment, thanks be to God, Jesus is with us to protect us, surround us, remains with us wherever the Spirit may send us.

We are clothed in Christ and this promise reorients us to a totally new way of life. 

The words of this promise also once changed the life a young man named Aurelius Augustinius.

Young Aurelius was a North African, born in what is today Algeria in 354 to a mother who was devout in her Christian faith but he preferred paganism and various other fashionable philosophies of the day. 

By his own admission, he led a hedonistic lifestyle full of sexual exploits and adventures, but ultimately this trajectory for his life led to disappointment and anguish. 

He would write later of finding himself at the end of the road and in despair, as chance would have it, in a garden under a fig tree, as he said: with all the misery of his life heaped up in this heart, when a mighty storm of tears brought a deluge of grief.

He was choked with weeping as he threw himself under the tree, and he cried out ot God,

“How long?  Tomorrow and tomorrow?  Why not now?  Why is there not this moment an end to my wickedness?”

He suddenly heard a voice of a child, although no one was there, and the voice chanted repeatedly, “Take up and read,” so he took up a book of the apostle’s writings and read the words:

“Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy, Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

You may know this man by his more common name: St. Augustine.  From that day in the garden, he committed himself to Christ, changed the priority of his life. 

Later he would become a pastor.

Then a bishop. 

And filled with gratitude to God and drawing on his own experience he would become one of the great defenders of Christian faith in a time when it was in need of leaders…

…and write forcefully about our plight as humankind bound to sin from before our birth, but freed by God’s gracious love in Jesus.

And these writings of Augustine would be the primary influence on Martin Luther in his understanding of God’s grace in Jesus Christ as the heart of the gospel.

Truly as pure grace, God comes to you and to me and to the whole world in the gift of a new day, a new beginning, a new reality – as if waking from sleep – brought by the rising of Jesus on the first day of the week. 

We put on Christ and receive his gifts.

Just as you look on the precious faces of your sons and daughters and grandchildren, the small brothers and sisters in Christ of our congregation and want the best for them, want them to grow, to learn, to thrive – so Go looked on the face of his Son Jesus.

God loved him like that.

Treasured him. 

And God loved us so much that he would watch as the darkness of the sin of the world crucified this child of his heart.

And yet, God’s love heals all.  His resurrection power forgives all.  And this same power evident in our living Lord Jesus is at work in us and is witnessed when we forgive one another and wake from our sleep to a new day.

This new day promised by God is already here.

It must have seemed to our five-year-old son that the pipe cleaner calendar he made to count the days until he met his teacher stretched forever, endlessly…

…but finally, a ring at a time it disappeared, until the naked doorknob announced with a shout “the day is here!”  “Today your teacher comes.”

And she did.  And she stood on the porch with him and bent down to him and talked with him and he is more excited for school than ever.

Jesus comes to us, knocking on our door, the Teacher of God’s mercy and love who is meeting us.  In him, God is bending down to us and coming close.

God has looked up our address and has come to stand on our front porch, to welcome us into the new beginning he has prepared for us. To shower us in the light of his new day.

Not only has the day arrived but the day stretches out in front of us with the promise that Jesus is with us where two or three are gathered, in the turmoil, in the questions, in the doubt, in the frustration. 

And that from here to the horizon, because he is with us, there is love ahead.

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