July 5: “When to Dance, When to Mourn”

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

I began a series in the last two weeks that I planned to continue, but I think I’ve said all that needs to be said. And it didn’t seem like a good idea to me to preach a series so internal to our congregation when our friends our joining us. I made my point and am ready to move on.

And to get back to the beautiful weirdness of the Bible. There are beautiful, easy to love sentences here. Who doesn’t love: “Come, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (We all seem to feel weary, don’t we?) “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Well Amen to that.

Then there’s some things earlier in the passage that we might not be so comfortable with. In fact, our lectionary just skips over a bunch of verses that we’re not sure what to do with. This is when Jesus condemns whole Jewish cities who did not respond to his message and works of power. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! … It will be more tolerable for the land if Sodom than for you.” I guess we’ve decided that these don’t apply to us.

But what about those first verses, do they apply to us? That’s what I want to talk about. These verses have always perplexed me. First of all, Jesus is talking about “this generation,” the people he has encountered in Israel in his own time. He is critiquing his culture. Let’s not assume it applies to us directly. We may have to take responsibility for critiquing our own culture. But let’s figure out what Jesus is saying in his time and place and what we can learn from it.

This generation is like children sitting as we are, out in the market-place, out in public. And they tell one another: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” Ok. Whom are they talking to? Jesus explains further that they are talking to the prophets of God that have visited this generation—a generation exceptionally blessed with important prophets. He means John the Baptist and himself. “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they saw, ‘He has a demon.’ the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard!’” (Jesus often refers to himself as the Son of Man.)

Now as is often true with the Bible, this gets really interesting, the more sense you begin to make of it. Jesus and John are opposites. John is the abstinent messenger of repentance. He lived in the wild, and ate only the food of the wilderness—locusts and honey. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” he warned. So John calls each of us individually at the right time to personally examine ourselves and renounce the falsehoods and foibles of our existence. The right time for us to do this all together is Lent, but it could be any day for us individually. But for the generation Jesus finds himself frustrated by, John was an annoyance. They played the flute for him and he wouldn’t dance. “Lighten up!” they jeered. We have the temple, which sits at the very heart of Jerusalem! The Kingdom of God is ours already! Let’s just sit back and enjoy it. Even if there are all those Roman thugs bearing down on us.

But Jesus looks like a real contrast to John. He celebrated the Kingdom in our midst, happening now. But even though it looks the opposite of John, Jesus knows that they belong together. He just spent the first half of chapter 11 praising John: “Among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” But greater than repenting and preparing for the Kingdom is inaugurating it, declaring it in effect, here and now: Blessed are the poor in spirit, and those hungry for justice, and the meek, for there is the Kingdom. And so Jesus represents the feast, the banquet to which all the outcasts and downtrodden people have been invited by God.

If Jesus came to Granby, I don’t think his first stop would be our church. (And not Immaculate Heart either, with all due respect.) He might pay a visit to the Phinn’s Hill neighborhood, or some of the less illustrious streets where the houses are small and need a little work, and the lawns aren’t sprawling and immaculate. Or he’d go hang out with the immigrant labor working at Red Fire farms. (I don’t know this for sure, but based on the people we see him hang out in the Bible, that’s my guess.) And he’d gather them together into a new community. He’d challenge them, sure—to abandon their prejudices, to give up bad habits, to reconcile with their spouses and children. But he’d feast with them, and go down to Bruso’s for something to enliven the party. I think he liked the people for whom, what you see is what you get. I think he felt sad and frustrated with the pretentiousness of the Pharisees (and that would be me, I’m guessing)—those who are all about appearing a certain way, showing themselves to be the right kind of person, setting themselves apart from the rest. Perhaps by manners, or erudition, or by espousing enlightened political views. Jesus preferred to lift up those who had been put down by such people. But he didn’t exploit them for political gain, either, like the populists of our day; he rejected power and its egotistical machinations. Instead, he would simply want to get down to real life with real folks.

But back to Jesus’s day: when he came among the unsavory types and celebrated the Kingdom of God among them, the stuffy sorts, instead of humbling themselves and joining in the party, “wailed, and [Jesus] did not mourn.” ‘Why are you eating and drinking with those people,’ they said. A friend of tax collectors and sinners, indeed. And they got all self-righteous on him: a godly man doesn’t drink Budweiser while munching on beef jerky! (Drinking from a can, no less.)

Sorry—that’s not “this generation.” It’s awfully tempting to go back and forth, isn’t it?

The ones who wailed and complained that Jesus didn’t mourn were probably the Jewish elite. They complained about Roman oppression, and how hard it was to fulfill our religious duties at the temple, and how all this oppression cramps the purity of our lifestyle. About how it’s more important than ever to maintain pure worship, especially when those common people in their ignorance muck everything up. We have to be the bearers of propriety, good taste, right thinking, good morals. We have to preserve our noble tradition against those Samaritans and impure types who can only live in the present of their own needs. So they wailed.

And Jesus didn’t join them in mourning. He said this is not the time to get all into our personal, individual purity, separating ourselves from the people that our prejudices tell us are impure. No this is a time to get off our high horse, drop our pretenses, and get together to celebrate. And so when “this generation” zigged, John the Baptist zagged; and when they zagged, Jesus zigged.

Notice that “this generation” rightly understood that there is a time to dance and a time to mourn. They just had the wrong rhythm. But they still made a serious mistake. They sounded all the right notes, and so unfortunately they thought they had it right, but they ended up playing exactly the wrong tune. So John wasn’t dancing, and Jesus was not mourning with them, he was mourning at them.

Our generation is in no better position. What makes the things we say and do right and good? It’s not just what we say and do, but how, and when, and to whom, and in what context. Jesus spoke very differently and partied more joyously and forgave more bounteously among the neglected and disdained. But he spoke soberly and critically to the powerful, those with prestige, and those who supposedly knew better. We must each consider for ourselves how our attitudes and our social standing would map onto the generation to which Jesus spoke, if we desire him to speak to us.

And we find ourselves at an extraordinary time in which we need to ask: is this a time to dance? Or time to mourn? Do we gather together and celebrate our victory over covid-19, or keep practicing the mood of quiet repentance and isolation? And on this July 4th weekend, already knocked off kilter by the restrictions, do we boisterously celebrate our nation’s greatness? Or practice a quieter repentance, taking stock of why we have failed the covid test; repenting the continuing legacy of racism; and confessing the unfinished nature of what we call the American dream? Let us pray for the wisdom to discern the answers to these questions, because Jesus wasn’t talking to this generation—was he?

6/28 (“Welcome Back? Welcome Forward?” series): “My Vision of What the Church is for”

What a pleasant time we had out on the Common! As I ask below, please use the “comment” feature at the bottom to register your agreement or disagreement–but either way, your interest and passion to enter into a conversation. I believe in my vision for the church; it’s not just opinion, but comes out of a careful consideration of Scripture, our current cultural situation, and the considered opinion of many scholars. But if we as a congregation are just not prepared to rethink what we are for, then I’m prepared to drop it. 

Jeremiah 28:5-9; Romans 6:12-23

I explained last week that in this sermon series, I will be presenting briefly, without commenting much on Scripture, and as clearly as possible, what my vision is for the future of our church. I will never speak so personally again. If you want to hear more, even though you might disagree, let me know on my blog. If I don’t hear from many of you, then I’ll take it as a vote that you want this church to continue as it’s been, or you have some other vision for it. But I want this slow transition back to normal to be a time for us to think about what we want normal to look like here.

When I look around at other churches in our denomination, I see two prominent visions or models of what the church is for. A survey put together by our Region asked a question that nicely gets at these two models: “Which of the following statements would your congregation think best describes the mission and ministry of the church?

  1. The mission of the church is to save souls.
  2. The mission of the church is to redeem society.”

Now, if you answered B, then you probably fit into what I call the Progressive Christian model. The progressive Christian model is popular in the churches in Northampton, Amherst and the bigger cities, and with our Conference and National church leadership (as those who’ve gone to Regional meetings can attest). It says that the church is for transforming society in a politically progressive direction: fighting poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, military aggression, authoritarian values, and disregard for the environment. It hears in the Bible—and it is hard to dispute this—a message promoting justice and love, protection for the vulnerable, and liberation for the oppressed. Today the Progressive Christian movement is growing in reaction to the daunting power of the much more powerful Religious Right, who want to transform society in a very different direction. Between the two of them, they are pushing the church toward political polarization, so that, like your choice of friends, of where to live, and whether to wear a mask or not, your choice of church will also reflect your pre-formed political ideology.

And that is a serious problem with the Progressive Christian movement (and the Religious Right, of course). On my careful reading of Scripture, I think they make a better claim to Scriptural authority than the supposedly bible-believing Christian Right. But among other problems, there is a danger of self-righteousness here. For the Progressive Christians, it seems like sin, if anything, is a matter of other people being on the wrong political side of things. But I want to stress that they really stand for something; their faith gives them a way to look at and do something about the world around us—it embraces the whole world. And I respect that.

By contrast, the other popular model is all about not necessarily saving souls, but what I’d call “soul repair.” On this model, Christian faith is purely an individual matter; it is about your soul and God. What does Christianity do for your soul? Well, it might help reinforce good morals, or give the consolation of life after death, or provide a friendly social atmosphere where people are accepted as they are, or promote the values of Granby citizenship, or deliver an upbeat message—“God loves you;” “everything will work out for the best”—that can help you get through the rest of the week. What is common in all this is that the church is here to serve individuals and fit their needs. There is no community calling us to be transformed—like what Paul is saying. In fact, the community or church is nothing much apart from the individual spiritual needs of those who make it up. The benefit of the Soul Repair model is that it avoids conflicts over politics or even fundamental values—although I’m not so sure it actually succeeds in that. But the idea is, we all just accept one another, and do our own thing, but in the same room.

Now, which model informs who you think we are? I think a few of you are open to the Progressive Christian model, but a good number of you would balk. I’m guessing the Soul Repair model fits many of us. Some of us see the church as an expression of town or national identity; others are seeking basic moral values, most likely for your kids; some are looking for a place to pursue your spiritual journey. These can all be good purposes; but they represent pretty different goals, and they sometimes conflict. But to me it’s all the same basic model.

And the drawbacks of the model are severe, in my opinion. We can talk about accepting one another, but when the inevitable personality conflicts and behavioral problems and political disagreements arise, the church has no resources or power or authority to bring reconciliation and healing. More on that some other time. Moreover, in this model the church stands for very little. All we can say is that all are welcome here, but welcome for what purpose? Just to hang out with us? To enjoy our pretty building? If the church as a unified community doesn’t stand for much, it will tend to attract people who expect very little from their church; who really want to be left alone, but to do so in pleasant company. People who, on the other hand, come to church to be taken somewhere, to grow, to learn, to do great, God-sized things—will be disappointed and go elsewhere, or sullenly stay home. Because what they find at such a church is just a jumble the personal preferences of the old-time attendees: their favorite hymns; whatever message that they are comfortable hearing from the pulpit. And all of that reflects the interests particular to the generation dominating the church. It’s really hard to attract young people to a Soul Repair church, as you might imagine, and to keep our youth in it. I’m sorry but I just don’t know anyone under 50 who likes “In the Garden.” (I’m 50. So I’m not giving away my preference.)

And the final problem with Soul Repair Christianity is that it’s really not very Scriptural. The Bible is almost never about personal spirituality, but is throughout centered on God’s establishment of a Holy People. Soul Repair reflects the individualism that has always been potent in American culture, but has become an indomitable force in the last 70 years—many of you lived through this—thanks to the development of our middleclass, suburban, consumeristic culture, and then the Baby Boom generation’s turn inward. That’s why we have all this “spiritual but not religious” business, as if God were a purely private God, rather than the Lord of all creation. The most troubling thing about Soul Repair is that it shrinks down the Holy, awe-inspiring Lord of the Bible into an accessory for our middle class lifestyle.

But there has to be a third way—another model of what the church is for. Fortunately, lots of theologians are with me on this, but not as many folks in the pews. For the third model, church is for binding my life to something much bigger than me. God is the one who ultimately is bigger than me. Bigger and better than my political opinions and my private spiritual experience. Really placing myself naked and vulnerable before the God who sees all and is absolutely holy—like we are here under this infinite sky—makes me question everything about my personal preferences and opinions.

So church is for binding my life to something greater than myself. God claims us by grace and takes us in, but we have to be ready to let go of ourselves. And if I am serious about belonging to something greater than myself, then I can’t possibly want to contain God just in here. I need a larger container for God. And the community of you all is that container. But there’s more: we are in communion with our UCC denomination, who is also in communion with other churches and other religions—that’s a worldwide, universal container for God. That makes us a people who are genuinely local, but also universal—something our national identity cannot do for us.

But what we are for, primarily, is not to celebrate nor transform our national society. It is to be the people of God right here, face to face. (And I don’t think community based on face-to-face responsibility and love is ever going out of style. I think we need it more than ever.) We become a people by dying to ourselves—to our personal preferences and opinions, and rising as one in Christ. The more we embrace the cross as a dying to my ego, the higher we rise as the body of Christ together.

But look, I’m not trying to make us into a cult. And I’m sure not trying to make you all think like me. My job is to lead us into a conversation in which we discern God’s truth in each other’s words, and in Scripture, and the wisdom of Christian teachers. And it’s on me more than anyone to constantly question myself, and to listen to you. And I’ve learned much by doing so. When I came, I understood well that God is our Redeemer in Christ who transforms us into a new human people, living in imitation of Christ’s cross of self-giving. But you’ve taught me that God also remains our Creator, who freely gives life and daily bread and love to us, and asks us only to share what we receive. So in the Spirit of God the Creator, we do well to celebrate the ordinary joys of living, and share is sorrows; to receive with thanks the gifts of food and friendship, and also encourage one another in health and success; to celebrate our identity in common with our fellow townsfolk and fellow Americans, while encouraging our children and each other through moral principles that God shows to all in creation, regardless of faith. And anyone who wants to join us to celebrate creation and seek its just sharing is welcome here.

But that can’t be all the church is here for. The heart of what we are for is to be a community of redemption by Christ’s cross (which remains our only symbol). Our authority as a community must reside in our goal to be transformed into disciples of Jesus, to be “slaves to righteousness for sanctification.” That goal should govern who we are and what we do. Now, maybe at this point in your life, you are not pursuing discipleship. But even so, if you confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, you also confess that discipleship is what the church is for. If there is some other purpose you want to come before discipleship, be it socializing, or promoting conventional values, or being a good citizen of Granby and America, or doing the things we’ve always done, or advancing a progressive agenda—then my job is to challenge you to back it up by the Word of God. Otherwise, we can easily become no church at all.

June 14 (Almost) Live-streamed service: “Ethnicity Then and Now”

There are many things that need to be said, as people of faith grapple with the uprising going on after George Floyd’s death. If my audience were activists on the front line, I would want to thank them, but also ask questions about how useful it is to call for abolishing the police (although that’s not what everyone means by the suddenly popular slogan, “Defund the police”). But my audience is our congregation. What I think we need to think about, to be able to hear the anger and wisdom coming from the protests, is to understand and acknowledge the reality of institutional racism. That’s my real point in this sermon. 

Romans 3:28-30

I’ve commented only seldom on race and racism; and this week I’m feeling ashamed about that. Our denomination puts out powerful messages about it, and offers training in anti-racism; I’ve done such trainings and they are really illuminating. I have friends and colleagues who work in anti-racist advocacy or have published anti-racist scholarship. I was ordained by an African American congregation. I have no excuse: for a white person, I am well-equipped to talk about race.

Perhaps I’ve been held back by our fear of political issues in church. Surely it’s not too political to denounce racism and to work as a congregation to counter racism in our community. I think you will agree that there is a need for this in Granby, and I’m not sure what other institution in town can lead the way on this issue. We carefully came to a consensus that we are an Open and Affirming congregation. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that being Open and Affirming is a promise to all people, especially people of color, that we are committed to being a refuge from racism and an ally in the struggle against it.

I think we can all agree racism is a sin, something to be excluded from God’s kingdom. Thank goodness it’s still not ok to be pro-racist in America. But what kind of sin is racism? What does it mean to be racist? I think that’s where we still have a ways to go to find unity.

I’m a biblical preacher. Usually, I would try to find an answer to a question like the one about racism in Scripture. And if we take our brief reading in Romans, we see that for Paul and the New Testament, what we call “race” is a major issue. He puts it in terms of Jew and Gentiles, literally “ethnics;” the Greek word for Gentiles is ethnon. Paul is saying that Jesus provides an answer to the ethnic issues of 1st century Rome. And no doubt Jesus still provides an answer to our issues of ethnicity (we might also say “race”) in 21st century America.

But the terms and problems are so very different that turning to Scripture does as much to confuse things as illuminate. We prefer to talk about race, which is a term full of problems itself. Race is as much a human invention as it is a biological reality. It certainly cannot be boiled down to black and white. But we almost have to look at it that way, because we took various peoples from Africa and made them into a single commodity—chattel slaves. We tried to, anyway. And so we made an absolute legal distinction between free white people and enslaved black people. And the effects of that are sadly still very much with us. You can tell so much about who is likely to succeed, to receive better or worse treatment, to be punished in school or by the police, by ignoring all the interesting details about our individual identity, and just looking at whether someone is white or black (if those words really mean anything). You see, race is not real; but it functions in America as if it were real.

Paul’s terms don’t fit our terms, but not because ours are better, or worse. He sees in Jesus an end to the idea that God privileges one extended family of people—the Jews—over others. (Keep in mind, God was by no means easy on the Jews!) Like our words white and black, Paul’s word “ethnon” or gentiles lumps all these different non-Jewish peoples and religions into one vague group—pagans.

Of course, Paul is saying that now, these pagan peoples have access to God through Christ. But that doesn’t necessarily help us with our ethnic problems, either. When we hear that God justifies both Jew and Gentile on the basis of faith, we are likely to hear this: our God is a race-blind God. Our faith is a post-racial faith. God doesn’t look at our race; God only looks at what’s on the inside, at faith, at my heart. God treats us all as individuals. That’s actually not what Paul means, although there’s some truth to it. But on that shaky basis, we might then go on: So why are we still talking on and on about white and black? We should be race-blind too! We should just accept everyone as individuals.

Well, that is to misunderstand what Paul means by faith, and to misunderstand the whole scope of biblical teachings. I could say much more about how to rightly apply Bible teachings to our problem with race, but that would take lots of time and work. It’s good work which we should do, but we don’t have the time today.

So I want to set aside the bible for now, and make just one point about race and racism that might help us today. Hopefully you’ve heard this before. When most Americans, especially white Americans, hear “racism,” they think bigotry. We think about people who hate black people. We think about our bigoted Uncle Gene, or whoever: “Oh he’s such a racist. But I’m not like him. I don’t hate black people.” And so when we hear people denounce “racism,” we get defensive: “So why are these protestors talking about racist this and that? That may be some white people, but not me. It’s not my problem.” We even try to make bigotry inevitable or natural: birds of a feather flock together, right? So if I’m a racist, everyone is racist—that is, a bigot.

But what activists and scholars and leaders in our denomination mean by racism is not in the first place “bigotry.” What we really mean is “institutional racism.” In the first place, individuals are not racist. Racism is a social sickness, an institutional disease. Racism exists whenever one identifiable group of people does not enjoy the same success and privileges as another identifiable group. This might happen without any one individual ever hating people of another group, or intending bad to them.

We should each learn to inspect our own experience for evidence of institutional racism. I have many such stories. Here’s one that is not terribly harmful, but is still very instructive. I am a member of group of theology scholars. Like most scholarly groups, we are committed to be inclusive—to not be just white and male, as we were in the past. And now we are nearly equally male and female. Well, every year we nominate young scholars to be new members. Recently, we had several well-qualified candidates from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. The members discussed them, but no one knew them personally, because we all belonged to schools dominated by white folks. I bet most of your friends and contacts are white, too. So the group was having a hard time figuring out who to vote for. Then someone mentioned another person who was not high on the list: a white woman. She went to school with some of us, and others knew her from their circles. Guess what? People started to say: “Oh, I know Jane! Sure, let’s invite her.” They didn’t stop to think: this is how white privilege happens. This is how white people end up helping other white people, even when they are committed to being inclusive and even to affirmative action. There wasn’t one bigot in that room, I can assure you. But what happened in that room that day among good-hearted, progressive, smart scholars, was racism.

We white people naturally want to scapegoat a few bigots—who are, to be sure, sad, sinful, and sometimes very powerful, even well-armed, individuals. We want to imagine ourselves innocent of racism. But racism is deeply inscribed into our society. We are all either victims of it or perpetrators, and sometimes both. It’s not just a few bad apples. Just ask yourself: is it easier to grow up white or black in America today? You know the answer. Until the answer is genuinely: “It’s just the same either way,” then we are living in a racist society. Take a look at poverty levels, quality of schools, covid-19 vulnerability and other health problems, average total assets, as well as all the studies of situational discrimination, and then try out saying to yourself: America is a racist society. That doesn’t mean every white person is a bigot, far from it. It doesn’t mean we haven’t tried in some ways to address it. But we should be able to confess that, regardless of what’s in people’s hearts, our society still discriminates against people of color.

White Christians should be equipped to lead the way here. We should be used to confessing our sinfulness, rather than trying to exclude sins like racism from our responsibility. One of the great joys and paradoxical strengths of our Christian faith is never having to be defensive. Because we know Christ brings God’s mercy to all, we know for ourselves that we have sinned; none is innocent. This is the real meaning of Original sin. Of course I am a sinner. And as so many leaders and preachers have confessed, Racism is like America’s original sin. So of course our law enforcement institutions are racist. Of course our housing system is racist, and our schools. We white Christians should be models for others by the way we can without anxiety take a critical look at our society and ourselves, without becoming defensive.

And again, it helps to realize that racism in America is first of all an institutional reality, not a matter of bad apples. But without being bigots, this does involve us personally. The benefits that not all, but many white people receive as Americans are tainted by racism. None of us is innocent or untouched. But as individuals, we know by our faith that we are not powerless against sin. By confessing and calling on God, we can resist it, even though we never defeat it. To resist racism, we need confront it in ourselves, in our society and institutions, and adopt a consistent spiritual practice to repent and reform racism. We need to do this as individuals, and better yet, as a church community. Let us confess our need for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Don’t deny the sin of racism is real. Confront it, take responsibility, and let us become God’s agent in dismantling it.

2nd in Easter (April 19): “Re-grounding Ourselves in the Resurrection”

Available also on my Youtube station.

1st Peter 1:1-9

We’ll be holding church online for many weeks to come, it seems. My dream is that restrictions will be lifted in time for Pentecost (May 31), when we celebrate the birth of the church by the Holy Spirit, but I’m not counting on it.

The Letter of First Peter points us toward Pentecost. Peter later calls his readers to be “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God.” We’ll be thinking about First Peter, one of the most beautiful and sometimes troubling letters in the New Testament, during these next six weeks of Easter. I encourage you to read the whole thing through. There are limits to how much we can be this people worshipping together now, loving one another and loving others, when we are stuck at home. We are looking for volunteer opportunities for those who seek them. Right now, we have nonperishable food in our Parish House (get it?). The Desrosiers found a great deal on eggs and Missions distributed dozens—thanks, Marion. Encourage those who need food supplements to call Marion or a deacon to get access. And consider contributing food items for that purpose.

While we take these little actions, we can prepare ourselves during this home time for returning to being the full-strength church. The strength and integrity to be a people of God have to come from deep within each of us. Each of us must ground herself in the risen Christ. Each of us must identify with Jesus, recognizing that sometimes Jesus is our example to be imitated; other times Jesus is our substitute who is and does what we can never individually be and do.

If we don’t have that integrity, that personal grounding in God through Jesus—and by the way, it is inevitable that to some extent we will fail at that integrity—if we don’t have that inner integrity grounded in a transcendent love, our church will be plagued with problems of ego. I will throw my weight around and manipulate. You will carry around resentments, and speak ill of others behind their backs. You and I both have to be constantly vigilant against these temptations, these weaknesses of human nature. Peter knows this. Later on he instructs us to “rid yourselves of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.” Wow, he is right on with that, just as right today as 2000 years ago. Peter has much to teach us.

Here is what we can do from our homes: We can embrace this time for spiritual discovery, discernment, deepening. That’s better than just listening to bad covid-19 news or binge-watching Netflix. We can discover the risen Christ within us, within myself, and reconnect what that means for my life, especially when we can see so clearly see in this crisis how vulnerable, how “futile” in Peter’s words, is everything that I get lulled into thinking is so solid: my health, my safety, our economy, our national sense of invulnerability. A virus too puny to see has reminded us that our world can be quickly and easily shaken. We need to figure out how to again embrace and find joy in that world, and moreover, how to love it by bringing to it the Word and love of God, the healing and righteousness that God promises to it. But for all our commitment to belong in and love the world, we also need to realize that we belong ultimately to God, not to the world. Our lives do not stand and fall by the fate of the world, which as Silas has been reminding me, will be engulfed by the sun in a bunch of billion years. We don’t have to claim to understand what exactly Peter means by our “imperishable inheritance”; I am comfortable saying that I don’t. But I know that whatever it is, it lies with God and only with God. Peter will tell us that it is this imperishable inheritance, hidden with God, that gives us the hope to act in the world and work toward a future, but also to endure suffering and face everything that perishes.

So besides grounding us in the Resurrection, 1st Peter is also important for us because he addresses himself to “the exiles of the Dispersion;” later he calls us “aliens and exiles.” Does this label fit us today? Are we exiles, are we aliens? I think that can fit us. We certainly feel dispersed today, and we are all exiled to our homes. But even beyond the current crisis, we Christians may feel exiled, or like aliens. Not in the same way as the Christians of Peter’s day. But we may feel exiled by a secular world on one hand; and like aliens next to some of our narrow-minded and judgmental fellow Christians. Maybe 60 or 70 years ago, we did not feel like exiles or aliens in Granby. We felt respected and at the center of things, didn’t we? Maybe we felt better that way. But the Bible is more inclined to address us as aliens and exiles; and reading Peter will help us adjust to our new reality, and perhaps find a more authentic faith.

So, briefly, what does Peter have to say to us in today’s reading that will sustain us in a time of trial, in our dispersion, in our experience of exile and alienation? What do you say to someone feeling frightened, alone, abandoned? You might assure them: it will be all right. Everything will turn out fine, just wait. How about: It’s not as bad as it seems. There’s a wonderful word for these attempts to soothe: “bromides”—phrases we repeat to make a bad situation seem not so bad. We use them with good intentions. They may work; or they may not go deep enough. Of course, not everything will get better. Some things are as bad as they seem.

Maybe that’s why Peter doesn’t start that way. He begins with thanksgiving. Instead of saying to the people hurting, Take another look around, it’s not so bad! He says: look up. Look up to God! “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” Remember and give thanks for who God is and what God has done. Peter’s message is an Easter message: “By God’s great mercy [she] has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” Our new birth and living hope is the risen Lord Jesus, the Christ. We have this new birth now. Our life is a new life because it is lived in God. The point of life is not uncertain; we are not aiming in the dark. Our sacred plans and intentions are not just a guess. He’s talking about something more than just a personal salvation for you. It is a “salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” He’s talking about God’s goal for all history; what the whole universe is here for in the first place. In Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, we have the key to all existence. Because we understand that, or are on our way to understanding it; because even though we do not see him, still we believe in him and love him, therefore we “rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.” Even now, in our dim vision and confusion, we are now “receiving…the salvation of our souls.”/

I know. This is hard for us to accept. How many among us get that excited about this Easter message, about simply proclaiming “Christ is Risen!” We like Easter; we love egg hunts and oh do we love chocolate. But the message behind it all? Confessing that everything Jesus was and did is not lost but is being “kept in heaven for us,” as a permanently valid source and guide for the salvation of our souls? We might shrug and say, yeah, that’s great too, I guess. But we’ve got these pretty, chocolate eggs; each color is a different kind of filling. Even the cream filling is fabulous! Hard to beat that. Would we describe having Jesus Christ as our imperishable, undefiled, and unfading object of faith and source of meaning as “an indescribable and glorious joy?”

Maybe our faith is not as keen as Peter’s. But I sense something particular to our times that holds us back. We aren’t comfortable claiming too much for the particular knowledge and wisdom and truth available to us in our Christian faith. We’re embarrassed by such an exalted claim. In the verses following our reading, Peter described the good news we have received as something “into which angels long to look!” We are embarrassed to claim that the one we worship and love could be such a singular source of truth, partly because we don’t want to take away from anyone else’s truth, especially the truth of other religions.

It’s a fair point. We are especially sensitive to it because of the Christian arrogance of our past, which is still around today in some circles. It is a task and burden lying upon us to figure out how to affirm the truth of our faith in Christ without becoming arrogant and “holier than thou.” For now I’ll just assure you, not to fear! We’ll see next week that Peter won’t pat us on the back for our amazing faith. Instead he’ll call us to holiness and responsibility.

So go ahead, shout, “Christ is Risen!” Don’t be embarrassed. Bless God for this Easter gift of faith and hope grounded in the risen Christ. Let that carry you through your woes, anxieties, boredom, whatever. Let it give birth to a love in you that knows no bounds, a love that will also give a new birth to our church.

 

 

Wonderful Reflection Piece

This was in the Times this morning; a powerful Easter call.

The World Is Empty Now. How Should We Fill It?

The void created by this crisis may be an unexpected gift.

By Steven Paulikas

Mr. Paulikas is an Episcopal priest. April 11, 2020

My church is empty this Easter. In lieu of greeting the usually joyful parishioners this day, my clergy colleague and I celebrate the ancient rites of our religion six feet apart from each other, as an iPhone live-streams to self-isolated viewers at home.

Like so much else in this bizarre time, the emptiness is foreign and unsettling. Yet we all know the urgency of this disruption. The church, like every other gathering place, has emptied itself so that we may live.

The images of empty public spaces around the world are shocking outward signs that reflect the interior emptiness so many feel right now. Millions are being deprived of the chance to work, socialize and support one another in person. Physically isolated and emptied of our usual lives, we are being forced to face ourselves in a way that few alive today ever have before.

Yet the void created by this crisis may be an unexpected gift. This emptiness presents to us

a mystical and uncluttered view of life as we have been living it until a few weeks ago. Life will never be the same. Each day, it becomes more apparent that this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to consider a fundamental question about the spirit and morality of our way of living: Having emptied ourselves, what do we really want to fill our world with once it is time to rebuild?

Now on Sundays as I look out over a field of silent pews, I am reminded that self-emptying is, in fact, a divine virtue. Christian tradition calls it kenosis, the Greek word taken from the famous passage of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, in which he writes, “Your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus, who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself.”

Early Christian thinkers viewed Jesus’ kenosis is a sign of divine supreme power, not the loss of it. The sight of Jesus’ empty tomb was the first sign of his resurrection, believed by Christians to be God’s greatest act. Now that I have adjusted somewhat to the emptiness, I

find myself keeping vigil with the opportunity of this time, hoping that something better will be on the other side.

The Christian contemplative Cynthia Bourgeault writes that we can emulate Jesus’ self- emptying love in our own lives by practicing letting go of the things, thoughts and feelings we cling to. This insight is more often associated with other religious and spiritual traditions.

The Tao Te Ching teaches that the usefulness of the clay vessel lies in its empty hollowness. Mahayana Buddhists use the spiritual discipline of meditation to cultivate an acceptance of emptiness, or sunyata, using the famous Heart Sutra: “Emptiness is form, form is emptiness.” The lesson transcends religious divides; emptiness is not something to fear but to explore as a spiritual reality that leads to detachment from self-interest and greater compassion for the world.

It is notable that the most dangerous places in America right now are the ones filled with people we are refusing the right of empty space. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has used his surging popularity amid the crisis as an occasion to roll back bail reform even as the virus is endangering prisoners and prison workers. The 34,000 people held in ICE detention centers are “sitting ducks” for infection, according to experts. The hypocrisy of homelessness in the world’s wealthiest country is being laid bare.

Similarly, workers in dozens of Amazon warehouses rushing to fulfill the orders of millions of quarantined Americans have tested positive for the virus, yet the company has given them no viable option to stay at home. I have contemplated this news in the sad and persistent knowledge that, as a consumer, I, too, am entangled in a morally corrupt economic web that holds together all these injustices.

What does it say about our economy that it depends on the labor of people whose lives we are willing to sacrifice? Do we want to continue participating in an exhausting economic system that crumbles the instant it is taken out of perpetual motion? And what is the virtue of a desire for constant accumulation of wealth and goods, especially when they come at the cost of collective welfare and equality? These are not just policy questions. They are spiritual concerns that come into view with sharp clarity in the emptiness around them.

If there is anything the collective spiritual insight of millenniums can teach us right now, it is that in addition to the horrors of this current state of emptiness, there is also life to be discovered in this moment. The absence left by the virus’s victims is an unspeakable loss, and the lockdowns and quarantine orders are causing untold suffering that will have the biggest impact on those with the fewest resources. But for those who are healthy and patiently waiting, this space — physical, psychological, social and spiritual — can hold unexpected promise.

This is a powerful moment in human history in which we can examine, individually and collectively, the unnecessary decadence and cruelty of our contemporary society that we have accepted without sufficient scrutiny.

We don’t yet need detailed plans for the future. For now, we can simply examine the emptiness of this disrupted life and take note of the ways in which we might strive to make it superior to what we had before. Sitting with these questions now will determine what we are willing to accept once this crisis is over. Having tasted a simpler life, perhaps we will shift our values and patterns. Having seen the importance of community, maybe we will invest more in the well-being of the collective and not just the individual. Having seen the suffering of others anew, we may find it impossible to ignore it in the future.

And having seen the ease with which the forces Paul called the “powers and principalities” can mobilize to defend entrenched economic interests, maybe — just maybe — we as a people will feel empowered to demand the same urgency of action on our planet’s climate, domestic and global poverty, the health and education of all people, and the myriad pressing problems for which future generations will judge us harshly for tolerating.

The emptiness of this moment is incredibly powerful. Pope Francis has said, “Let us not lose our memory once all this is past, let us not file it away and go back to where we were.”

Life will not be the same next Easter and Passover. Once the world opens back up, we can choose to fill it with the wisdom and insight gained from these weeks — or allow it to be filled with horrors that are even worse than what we had before. The choice will be ours.

Steven Paulikas is an Episcopal priest and rector of All Saintsʼ Church in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

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March 31: Is Online Church the Way to Go?

I’ve heard from a friend who is excited by putting together an online service (using Zoom, I believe). I also have been intrigued by the possibilities. I had a little good feedback about last Sunday. We forewent streaming a service, which would exclude those who are not online. So we mailed an at-home service and a written sermon; and then made mp3 music files and a Youtube video of the sermon available to the tech users.

Meanwhile, we’ve had helpful support from our SNEUCC staff. But there’s talk about how this crisis might mark the turning point when we no longer need our buildings, and when we leave behind ministry as we have known it. The crisis is uncovering hidden desires for radical change.

I welcome this to some extent. The church as we have been is nothing for us to cling to. I’ve said so often. Not that we haven’t done much good; but the kind of good we have done seems to be waning anyway, rather than increasing. And has the church ever been a powerful and central source of meaning and value? Or has it always been relegated to a supporting role, there to boost our lives as they are formed by other influences. Have we really allowed God to be the Lord, and have we worshipped no other but God? Or have we allowed God to rule only when God will fit into our lives built on other foundations?

But many leaders seem to blame the form that the church takes–namely, a parish model in which a church congregation, anchored in a building, gathers for communal worship, which provides the center from which radiates education and mission. Some leaders are attracted to a “mission first” model of church. Others are very excited to attract Millennials with social media presence. The problem with church is the old form or model; new forms promise new life. Online worship is a new form.

I’m not convinced, although there is room for new forms (and they are necessary while contagion is a central concern). But I stand by the importance of the parish model. Here’s why.

Human beings have always been heavily grounded in local, embodied identities. That includes extended families, local networks, trade guilds, etc. Sometimes they were just and good, sometimes they were repressive.

Capitalism has very hundreds of years been dissolving these local networks. First we became much more mobile. People left the country to work in the city. Fast-changing industry needs to quickly reorganize the means of production (workers). And we’ve been made mobile in our consumption also. We are encouraged to pursue our personal desires, and ads try to channel those “personal desires” along predictable and profitable lines.

Seen in this long history, the internet is a further means of liquidating our culture to make it more manipulable. This is not necessarily a bad thing; and the good ol’ days were’t always so good.

But internet church will be a space-less, non-localized replacement. Now your choices of churches will be endless and ever-more flexible. You’ll be able to pop into whatever church group meets your perceived needs and offers the best programming. And just as easily, you’ll be able to pop off and go elsewhere. Identities will become even more fluid and likely temporary. Our identity as choosers and consumers will be greatly enhanced, particularly in the realm of the sacred.

Again, this can be good. There are oppressive and restrictive churches that deserve to be deserted. But we are losing something crucial in our embodiment–the way our physicality becomes a sacrament underlying our identity and commitments. The parish model honors that embodiment. And while it can mirror patterns lacking diversity (the way Granby is bound to be overwhelmingly white, for instance), the parish model remains responsible to the reality of a multi-generational community. It also resists self-segregation along political or ideological lines, which I predict will increase with a greater online orientation.

So I’m not from Granby, and maybe I’m not a perfect fit for this town, but I remain committed to a church model that is rooted to a place. We also remain rooted in our mission and service to the particular constellation of problems and challenges of this place. I’m not in favor of replacing it with a virtual church that exists primarily in the placeless internet.

What do you think? I’d welcome views that make me rethink this.

 

March 29 Sermon: “Life and Peace in Days of Lent and Pestilence”

I couldn’t resist using the word “pestilence;” hopefully another chance won’t come around any time soon! I received several expressions of appreciation for this sermon; I think most people viewed it on youtube. I recorded it using “Photo Booth,” for heaven’s sake, but heck I guess it worked ok. I don’t think the sermon was my best, but I think we’re all very open to a message in our isolation. That’s God’s grace working in us!

Scriptures:    Ezekiel 37:1-14

Romans 8:6-11

When I read these lectionary readings, along with our opening Psalm, the themes of our times were all there, and it all started swirling around in my head. My head seems all a-swirl these days; I’m sure yours is too. But here are the points I meditated on, if you want to join me:

  • Crying out from the depths to God, like those on watch all night, waiting for the morning.
  • Life and Death.
  • Dry bones and new life.
  • The Spirit of life (or breath—same word in Greek), especially in our time of deadly air-born pathogens.

All these themes came into focus for me in Paul’s first sentence: “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Isn’t that what we all want right now—“life and peace?” I wish I had more time to catch my breath and try to make sense of it all. It would help if jet lag wasn’t waking me up at 4:30 every morning! But even as we muddle through, we still have each other in this swirling chaos, and our unbreakable bonds are made of divine stuff.

Paul is always a little complicated. Maybe before getting into him, I should talk first about what we can be doing as Christians in this covid-19 crisis. For the younger among us, there probably is not much danger personally. Others of us need to be very careful. But we all need to do our best to avoid catching and spreading this disease. The good news is that our self-care is also care for all. Personally, I’m not worried about myself, but I do worry about people in nursing homes like my mother, people who are immuno-compromised like some in our congregation; and then I think about those crowded neighborhoods we visited in India, and the impossibility of practicing social distancing there.

A deadly disease is a cause for concern. It is also an opportunity for concern, for care, so long as we do not become overwhelmed. From my self-quarantine, I’ve been communicating with our church leadership about how we can reasonably and safely help people in our congregation and town. Right now, my thinking is this: we are in a crisis that is extraordinary but also temporary. We should feel freer than normal to ask each other for help, including financial help—help paying a bill or for an interest-free loan. And if we are doing ok—if we feel safe enough from the disease or secure enough financially to help—let’s commit to helping just one person or family. That’s reasonable and manageable. So here’s how we’ll do it: if you need something, anything, contact a deacon—either your shepherd or our chair, Jeff Dwinell (467-2227). This is a serious crisis; it’s the right time to ask for help. If you are willing to help out one other, email me (wawrigh@gmail.com) or call me (773-955-4034) and tell me if you can deliver things or help people financially. We’ll match those in need with those who can help, keeping it all confidential as much as possible. There are other ways to help, but we can do this as a church.

“O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with God is great power to redeem.” A crisis like this is dangerous and frightening. You may know that I’m not a fan of saying that because God is all-powerful, God must have created covid-19. Instead, our opening Psalm tells us about God’s power to redeem. In a crisis like this, there is a great opportunity for those who “hope in the Lord” to bring God’s steadfast love and redemption into the world.

Crisis opens us to redemption. In our normal routines, we get used to established orders and the status quo, and pretty soon you start to think it’s normal that many of us live in comfort and luxury while so many people are vulnerable to suffering. Our trip to India woke me up to the absurd levels of crushing poverty there, and here too. Likewise, a crisis like covid-19 shakes our complacency, and we start to see needs all around us. We see God’s Spirit working in love and service all around the globe. God does not manufacture covid-19, but God raises up redeeming power right in the midst of danger and death. That’s what God is doing through Ezekiel to the valley of dead bones. Note: God does this through Ezekiel, through his words. God tells Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones.” (Couldn’t God say so himself?) Tell them they will live. God will to bring redemption from death, but has no interest in going-it alone. We are to be partners in God’s redeeming work.

If, that is, we don’t succumb to fear. As Paul in Romans 8 recognizes, and as we all know, our bodies are mortal. Now death is natural; it’s a part of life. But for us human beings, death is a problem not just for our bodies, but for our thoughts. The fear of death affects our minds, and makes us close ourselves off from others.

So when it comes to death, Paul is concerned about where our mind “is set.” For “life and peace,” we need a mind “set on the Spirit.” Let’s go back and re-translate his first sentence. As I’ve done before, let me translate “flesh,” a word that only confuses us, as “ego.” “The mind set on the ego is death.” When death is in the air, we are tempted to live in fear. Influenced by primal survival mechanisms, we are tempted to think only about me—my body, my safety. And I can see others only as a potential threat. Death and the fear of death are a primary cause of war and strife: “I got mine. You go get yours somewhere else. You’re not getting mine.”

That’s why the opposite of “the mind set on the ego” (or the flesh) is not just life, but “life and peace.” To allow ourselves to become consumed by fear and its selfish impulse is the path to strife and war. Life and peace come by letting go of your ego, and seeing others as God sees them—as fellow children, all of us connected and united in God.

This is happening. Despite the profiteering and hoarding and finger pointing, all of which is predictable, we’ve seen so many acts of selfless caring and giving in these few weeks of crisis. We’ve felt a fresh air of unity, blowing tentatively at least. As we did after 9/11; as our elders did after the assassinations of King or Kennedy. Selfless, steadfast love is not found only in the church, for the whole world was created in Christ and for Christ, for this act of loving redemption. Caring is deep in our nature, even though it is often obscured and blotted out by sin.

Christians aren’t much different from anyone else in this regard. But we look to Jesus, and we cannot ignore the reality of this call to love. To ignore it is to deny it. So for us, ignorance is not bliss; it is sin. It is a betrayal of Christ.

I bring that up because it is Lent, after all. And Paul grasps with wonderful nuance how we are redeemed in Christ but still short, perhaps far short, of what Christ has called us to. “But you are not in the flesh, [not trapped in your ego]; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Sure, you are saved. We’re Christians; we’ve been baptized, we’ve confessed our faith, we go to church regularly. Surely the Spirit of God must be in us…right? But Lent is the time when we acknowledge that the Spirit doesn’t always work that way. Death and fear are still powerful; our egos are entrenched. And this virus (or at least the constant media coverage of it) is scary. So we are in the Spirit; but then again not.

So in his wisdom, Paul also speaks to us in what grammarians call “the conditional mood”: “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you [plural, “you all”], he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through the Spirit that dwells in you [all].”

Let me translate this subtle language, briefly. The Spirit is in us, in our church community, because at the center of who we are as a church is Christ and the ego-less love that he stands for. But individually, we don’t all live it, not all the time. I sure don’t. I got scared out of my wits on the flight home by some turbulence. But if I live not in myself and my accomplishments and my needs and wants, then we can find ourselves by working together in our common Christian Spirit. And many hands make light work. I don’t have to do it all; I don’t have to save the world. Maybe you are not in a position to do much for others right now. But some of us are; I am (except for being quarantined). What we can do, we do not for our own glory, but on behalf of the whole church, which is itself only to the glory of God. By the same token, those of us who cannot work right now should by no means feel guilty or lesser for it. Just take care of yourself. It is enough that God gives life to your mortal body.

God’s Spirit will work in each of us to discern whether this is a time for the risk of helping or the safety of self-care. But God’s spirit can only do that work in us if our mind is not set on the ego; if fear is not ruling your mind. So let the Spirit of God come into you this morning, and do away with your fear of death and, chained between the two of them, your ego. Then you can decide reasonably what you should do in this crisis. If you need help, ask for help. Don’t let your ego make you too prideful to ask for help. Let someone do God’s love to you! If you are doing fine, feel secure, and are feeling restless, step up and offer to help. Contact me; I’ll make sure you don’t take foolish risks. If you are doing fine but are at risk, then it’s ok just to take care of that mortal body of yours. There will be other occasions to be selfless.

Let us thank God that we are in the Spirit; we do not make these decisions on our own; we make them as a church. If you set your mind on the Spirit, God will work work in us as each is called, for the Spirit of God dwells in us together as the Body of Christ. Amen.

“Worship at Home–Together” : Everything you need

Everyone is invited–including “visitors” or folks who don’t usually join us–to take part in joint worship at 10:30 Sunday (March 29). How this works is you download (and print if you want) the “Order of Worship.” It gives you instructions for following along in a pretty normal worship service for us.

Order of Worship

At the appropriate time, you can also sing the hymns, look them up on Youtube, or play the original recordings that Michael made for us. I emailed these out; if you can, email me (wawrigh@gmail.com) and I can send them to you direct. It turns out I can’t post them here.

Then you’ll need to watch a video of the sermon, as indicated in the Order of Worship. It’s finally ready! Go to this link: https://youtu.be/UerF9jTTJ0A

If you’d rather read it, here’s the text: Sermon-Life and Peace

And don’t forget that we are beginning a six(ish) week series, “A Guided Tour of the Bible,” led by me via Zoom. See the earlier post below, but all you need is the guide for session 1: Session 1

 

6-week Class: Guided Tour through the Bible

Dear Church and Those Curious,

Attached is a Guided Tour through the Bible–a presentation of what the Bible is about, with short, specific readings to illustrate that. We’ll run this as a (perhaps) six-week class on Zoom. Please do all the underlined readings at least, and write down your questions and thoughts to share.

Adults will meet at Sunday, 9:30 on Zoom for 45 minutes. I’ll send out an invitation to the all-church list.

Confirmands will have their own session on Monday, probably at 2:00 pm.

Let’s give thanks for this opportunity to keep exploring our faith–it will give us perspective in this craziness!

Session 1 & 2

Sunday, March 22: Children’s message

Parents and Guardians: In the tradition of the New Testament epistles (letters), please read this to your young ones. After, you can talk with them about if they are frightened, and about how faith in God can lift us out of our fears. Then you can close with the 23rd Psalm (in our lectionary readings for this Sunday!) and a prayer, such as: “Loving God, who brought Jesus and all your faithful servants from the shadow of death, be our source of courage in these strange times. Amen.”

Dear Church,

I wanted to send out a special message to our young folk out there. Silas, Jessica and I just got back from India–half way around the world–where we saw camels, elephants, peacocks, and cows–walking in the middle of the roads! We also met some wonderful Indian Christians who spend each day helping people more in need than almost anyone you’ll meet in this country. India has poverty like we rarely see in this country. More on my trip some other time, but here’s a picture of the roofs near our hotel in Jodhpur. See the monkeys?

IMG_2513

Meanwhile, while we were away, you have been having your own adventure! Schools are closed; you’ve probably been staying at home. It’s an exciting time in some ways. You probably have more time than usual to play and do what you want at home. There are a lot of good suggestions out there about creative ways to spend your time; and your school teachers are sending activities to continue your learning and fun while school is closed. We have been taking daily walks; remember you don’t have to be stuck inside all the time!

But this corona virus thing is just plain weird. None of us adults has (yes, “has” is correct, not “have”) ever seen anything like this. It’s as new to us as it is to you. We’ve never seen so many shops, and businesses, and restaurants, and schools shut down so quickly. So far it’s kind of fun–like when the power goes out or there’s a big blizzard. But we don’t know how long it will take for things to get back to normal; hopefully only a few weeks.

So that makes the whole thing a little scary–that is, not knowing how long things will be all wacky like this. Not knowing who might get sick. (You may already know that just about zero kids have gotten seriously sick from this virus; but elderly people you know might be vulnerable.)

But here’s the good news: We have our faith in God to help us through.

What does having faith in God change in your life?  I’ll wait for you to answer, and you can talk about it with your adults…

There are many good answers to this question. You might think that having faith in God means that you always see the bright side of things. That you never have to worry about difficult or sad times. That can certainly be true. Paul says in Romans (8:28): “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

But what I most get out of my faith in God, what gives me power, is the tremendous courage that comes from faith. We don’t always think of “courage” as something faith in God gives us. We might think of being good, or feeling hopeful and loving. All of that is great!

But I think that real Christians are about the most courageous people around. Faith in God allows us to look danger and hard times square in the face. People who don’t know God’s love might not be able to do that. They might have to pretend there’s no danger; or if they see the danger, they get so frightened that they can only panic. Like this:

Image result for panic face

But let’s go back to Paul, who never looked like that! Back in his Letter to the Romans, he wrote this:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s chosen people? It is God who says we are in the right. Who is to condemn us? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed take our side.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’

Yikes! Paul quotes from the Old Testament there. Sometimes God’s people have faced real hard times, but they faced them head-on. Sometimes people have attacked them violently. Paul himself was beaten and thrown in prison many times for preaching the gospel, so he knows what he is talking about. We are lucky–blessed, really, in a way we should always be grateful for–that we can practice our faith in peace and safety. When you think of what some Christians (and other peaceful people) have faced, it makes the corona virus look pretty small. But he continues:

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Nor corona virus! Paul has tremendous courage because he knows that none of those fearful things is (same grammar lesson!) going to break our bond with God. And if God is the source of your courage (rather than your own muscle or brains), then nothing in all creation can overcome it.

So your faith is going to make you brave–courageous! And so here’s what I want you to do during this strange time when we’re mostly stuck at home:

  • Make the most of it! Now that you are no longer afraid, you can see all kinds of opportunities during this time. Do your best to keep learning! And look for creative ways to make the most of your time. Try writing about what you are experiencing–this is a historic time!
  • Be a good model to others–your siblings, friends, and parents–of facing the unknown with courage in God. Some people around you will be frightened. Let people see in your calm and peaceful face an example of courage.
  • Be patient and compassionate with your parents and adults in your life. This is a strange and stressful time for us. Our jobs might be changing in weird ways. And we love being home with you, but that also makes it tough to get other things done. So do your best to keep yourself entertained, to avoid conflicts and fights with others, and to give your adults time to deal with our challenges.

Be courageous! For nothing will separate you from God.

I love you all and can’t wait to see you face-to-face again.

Pastor Bill