Sermon: The Holy Spirit is Calling

Acts 2:1-21

I stand here this morning, searching for the right words to say. It is at times like these that people turn to religious leaders for guidance, and I do not seem to be able to come up with any. I am angry, and I am sad, and I am sick of being both. A large part of my job is writing and speaking and cannot seems to find the right words. One would think I would be used to this by now, I mean, this is not the first time a white Cop has killed a black man, and this certainly is not the first time black people have protested, and white people have complained about it.

Now I know that all Cops are not bad; in fact, the vast majority of them a good, and they go about their jobs every day without incident; however, it only takes one, or in this case, a few to stain the bunch. The more significant issue we face is silence. Silence in the face of atrocity equals acceptance of that atrocity. The good have a moral obligation to speak out, act out, protest, or whatever it takes when faced with atrocities. Remaining silent is no longer an option.

I am a white, heterosexual male who grew up in a privileged family. Now let me define what I mean by privilege because this is important. Privilege does not mean I was handed the things I have or the positions I hold; on the contrary, I worked extremely hard to get where I am to have the things I have. Privilege means I was not denied any of those things, housing, education, healthcare, employment, equal rights, etc. based on my race, gender, or sexual preference.

For example, although I get nervous when pulled over by the police, I do not have to worry about being beaten or even killed because of my race. On average, I get paid the same amount as other white men in similar positions with similar qualifications, but at a higher rate than women with the same skills. I can walk into any bakery in America and order a wedding cake without having to worry that the baker will not want to bake the cake because they disagree with my lifestyle and who I have chosen to fall in love with. Basically, as a white man, I do not have to worry about much, the laws were written for me by guys who look like me.

Again, I am not saying that I did not have to work hard for what I have and where I am, but my race, gender, and sexual orientation did not prevent me from obtaining any of that. This cannot be said to be true across the board.

Now I do not know all the facts of the case that lead to the death of George Floyd, but I do know that a handcuffed man that posed no threat to police or other bystanders had his life squeezed out of him on a street in Minneapolis. I also know this, no human being, created in the image and likeness of God, should be treated that way, no one. Racism, plain and simple, is a sin and is incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I have a confession to make. In my lifetime, I have told jokes that one would consider racist I have also laughed at jokes that one would consider racist, and I am sure, if we are honest, we have all done the same. I am sorry for all of it. I do not make excuses about the times were different or any of that, the jokes I told and the jokes I laughed at were racist and incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and I have to strive to do better.

You see, racism, sexism, and all of the other “isms” begin with us they begin with the joke, with the laugh and all the rest, and yes, it will eventually rise to the level of a white Cop murdering a black man in the street like he was some animal. While we go about our relatively sheltered lives, people are being killed in the streets. This must come to an end, and our silence must come to an end.

I would like us to think about a pond where the water is very still. The surface of that pond is so still that it looks almost like a glass. In your hand, you hold a pebble at about the height of your waist. You open your hand and drop that pebble into the vast body of water in front of you. The calmness of that water is now disturbed as ripped move outward from where you dropped that pebble. The order of the water has changed; its essence remains the same, it is still water, but everything around it has been disturbed and the large to pebble or stone, the more disturbed that water will be.

We are that pebble, and we need to allow ourselves to be dropped into that water to disturb it, but before we can hope to make a difference, we must be changed ourselves. We cannot change or influence what happens on the other side of the country. Less than 100 people will hear this sermon, so the influence of my words will not be that large. But if we change what is in our hearts, we will begin to make a difference. If we start to change the way we feel about others, we will start to make a difference. If we genuinely love our neighbor, and that means all our neighbors without qualification, then we being to make a difference in the world, but it must begin with us.

Today we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost. Some call this feast the birthday of the Church, I am not so sure about that but what I am certain about is this is the feast that celebrates the boldness of the people that would go on and found what we now call the Christian Church.

The story of Pentecost is about the Spirit of God coming upon a small group of people assembled by a charismatic teacher to try and change the way things were done. Keep in mind that this charismatic teacher was killed for political reasons by people that had abused others for generations and were afraid of losing power and influence. Sure, we talk about it in theological terms but, Jesus was killed for political reasons.

But gathered in the Upper Room were regular people that Jesus had assembled, and the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them and emboldened them to preach a message of love and forgiveness that had never been taught before. The Holy Spirit did not come upon the whole world; it came initially upon those gathered in that room. Sure, God could have converted the entire world in one shot, but God gave us free will at the moment of creation; we are the ones in control; we are the ones who decide our destiny, not God. Some heard the message and converted, but there were many more that did not.

Just as a footnote, all of those gathered in that Upper Room that day save the Gospel writer John would be killed by people who did not want to give up power.

But the fuse had been lit, and no matter what, it was not going to go out.

For the last several weeks, I have been mentioning that I believe that the Church, and by that, I mean all of us, is being called to a new mission in the light of the COVID-19 lockdown. We have found new ways to be Church that we must carry on with. We, the Church are reaching more people now then we could have ever hoped to have reached before. We have taken the message of love and forgiveness out past the walls of the Church and into the streets to the people that need to hear that message.

But we are being called to more than that we are called to be the voice of the voiceless and to speak for those on the margins; we must do this we have no choice. We can no longer sit on the sidelines and wait for someone else to do it; we are that someone else. We have to stand up to a system that places less of a value on some people than others. We have to fight racism and all of the other isms at the root, and that starts with our hearts. We have to be able to see another human being and see the dive spark in them, the very breath of God in them, and love them for that. If we cannot, then we need to find a way to do that because hatred and discrimination are incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and has no place in the life of people that call themselves Christian.

When I started this, I told you that some of you might be mad at what I was about to say. If you were, I want you to think about that anger, are you angry at what I have said because you disagree? Are you made because you agree? Or are you mad because I am forcing you to see what you believe and think of other people? You are the only one who can answer those questions, and you have to answer them.

Pentecost is here, the Holy Spirit is here, and she is calling us to be bold in our message of love and forgiveness all we have to do is listen and accept that we are forgiven, and we are loved then, and only then, will we be ready to change the world.

Sermon: Enduring Witness

John 14:1-14

As bad as these last few weeks have been, there have been some beautiful learning moments coming out of all of this. I think we have learned that the Church is not just the building, and, as much as we love it, we do not need the building to provide worship. We have also learned that we can create a community in a virtual world, sure, not a good as in-person contact with people but, it can be done, and it will be vital moving forward.

But one of the greatest gifts we have been given in all of this, for me anyway, is the conversations I have had with my fellow clergy in various forums. We have shared ideas, fears, dreams, and technological challenges. We have gathered in prayer for each other and our communities. And we have shared theological ideas and had fantastic discussions.

One of those discussions was the idea of hope. A question was raised about the difficulty of preaching about hope during a pandemic. “Do we find it difficult to continue to preach hope amid pandemic?” I had to take a long pause and think about this, and my response thankfully was joined by others. “As difficult as it may be to preach hope, I have no other option than to preach hope. Hope is what the Gospel and faith are all about, and if we lose hope, if we give up on the idea of hope, we give up everything.”

In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, we have Jesus talking with his disciples for the last time. Jesus knows what is coming and, in some way, his disciples also understand what is happening. Jesus had told them that he will die, and they are anxious. Maybe they are anxious for him; maybe they are anxious for themselves. But regardless of their anxiety, Jesus says to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

Anxiety is our body’s natural response to stress and stressors, so, understandably, we all might feel a little anxiety these days. However, if anxiety builds, it can turn into trauma, and that opens a whole different set of problems, so we need to be vigilant in our task of keeping our anxiety in check as best we can.

So, Jesus is bringing what comfort he can to his disciples. He tells them that he is going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house that has many rooms. Jesus tells them that they already know the way. Of course, they think this will be a physical journey, but this is a spiritual journey. Jesus tells them the way, and Thomas questions Jesus about the direction.

Jesus tells Thomas, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

Jesus tells Thomas that he is the way, what is this way?  In my way of looking at it, this is not “the way” in the physical sense as in, “You need to follow me, personally,” but rather, Jesus has left us a way to follow, and that is what he is speaking about here.  So again, I ask, what is that way?

For me, it is quite simple, love God with your entire being and love your neighbor. This is not always an easy bit for me; it is central to the life of a Christian, and it is central to the Gospel. The entirety of the Gospel message is about love. God so loved the world. Love God. Love your neighbor.

As many of you know, I have been on deployment with the National Guard providing Chaplain services for the members of the National Guard as well as the staff of several centers treating COVID Patients. Every day I have witnessed extreme acts of love toward neighbor. The medical folks will tell you they are not heroes; in fact, many of them bristle as the very idea of being called heroes, but these folks are going above and beyond what their jobs require them to do.

I have heard stories of nurses and doctors sitting with patients so they will not be alone when they die. Police and firefighters risking their lives to transport COVID positive patients and then needing to be separated from their families in quarantine, but they continue to come to work each day. And these are just a few stories. These are regular folks rising to the challenge of loving their neighbor without question and qualifications.

Friday was the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the ending of World War II in Europe. Europe had been devastated by the war that had ravaged those nations, and the world for years. Everywhere people looked, buildings, including Churches and other cultural institutions, had been destroyed. There was rubble in the streets of every major city and town, and it all seemed rather hopeless. But people started to rebuild, one brick at a time. People began to clear the streets, one brick at a time, and before long, those beautiful cities rose from the ashes. Do not let your hearts be troubled; trust in God.

The way of love is the way to know Jesus and to know God. The way of love is our judgment, have we done enough to show that love toward others as a church and as individuals? The way that Jesus is talking about here is the way of love, and it is that love that will bring comfort and peace to his disciples and us in our anxiety.

I have said this before, and I will continue to say this, there is nothing we can do, nothing that will ever separate us from the love that God has for each one of us. The love of God is unconditional; God does not even require us to show that love in return for God to love us. God loves us in good times and in bad times. God loves us in the highs and lows of our lives, and there is nothing that can change that.

I know things might look bleak and uncertain during these days, and I know what the anxiety level of many of us is higher than it usually is, but I also know that we will get through this, together. I am very hopeful about the future. I am looking forward to the next chapter. I believe the Holy Spirit is calling the Church to do something more significant than we have done before. I think that a new, fresh wind is blowing through the Church at this very moment and that Pentecost is right around the corner. I am so very hopeful, and we cannot let despair take over, we must remain steadfast to our call.

The enduring witness is the words that Jesus spoke at the start of the Gospel passage this morning, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Yes, we are concerned, and yes, the future is very uncertain, but my heart is not troubled because I know that God loves me and that God loves you, and it is that love that will see us through to a brighter day.

Sermon: Powerful Witness

Psalm 23

Apart from the most quoted verse of Scripture, that of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that all who believe in him may have eternal life” I think the 23rd Psalm is the most famous. Some have called the 23rd Psalm the Mona Lisa of Scripture; at some point in our lives, we have all heard this passage. But what does it have to say to us today?

This is a Psalm about someone under a great deal of stress, but we are uncertain of what that stress might be. In response to this stress, the Psalmist is reminding us of who the Lord is, what the Lord does, and who we are.

What pressure, what stress does the Psalmist face here? We are not sure, but we are given a few clues as to what might be going on in his life. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Maybe there is the pressure of lacking for something – enough to eat, plenty to drink, enough safety or shelter, enough money to pay for what is necessary.

The Psalmist also writes, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley…” The wording is ambiguous here and may refer to deep distress, extreme danger, or even the world of the dead. There is no clear meaning, but there is a clear inference – the pressure of difficulty and uncertainty that has the potential of turning deadly.

In the end, the Psalmist writes, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” The word enemy here carries with it a sense of someone who is a foe, someone who may be harassing. So, the Psalmist is facing stress from several sources.

Stress from several sources is what we are all facing in this present situation. There is the stress of those on the front lines working with patients.  There is the stress felt by their families and friends. The stress on patients and their families. The stress on the regular folks worried about jobs, food, shelter, and their won health. We are probably under the most stress we have even been under as a society. Stress is everywhere, wielding its insidious power. Many of us are drowning in stress.

In the heat of all of this, the Psalmist comes along and offers a cool, refreshing peace that is found in knowing and celebrating who God is and who we are. God makes me lie down in green pastures. God leads me beside still waters. God restores my soul.

In our culture that preaches individualism and the idea that we are self-made, the Psalmist comes along to proclaim the truth that we are not self-made, nor are we individuals. We are God made by a God who loves us, and what the Psalmist is trying to make us understand is that we are dependent upon God, as sheep are dependent upon the shepherd. Sure, we work, we study, we plan, but it is God who ultimately meets our needs, spiritually. God is the one who makes us rest. God is the one who slows us down. And God is the one who restores our very being.

The Psalmist continues, “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” We learned from the Holy Week story that God is a vulnerable God, God is a crucified God, but God is also a powerful protector. Yes, God suffers with us in our pain and our sorrow and our loss, but God is also walking with us and will protect us as a shepherd protects their flock. So great is this power that the Psalmist boldly proclaims, “you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” We are invited to imagine entering a room filled with our enemies. God says to us, “Right this way, I have a place for you.” So, we take our seat and eat the feast that God has prepared for us. But if that is not enough, God anoints our heads with oil and fills our cup to overflowing.

The Psalm ends with, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” The literal translation of this is that goodness and mercy will dog us, will hound us all our lives. Imagine that every moment of every day, God is in pursuit of us because God loves us and cares for us.

What kind of God is this? We use the image of the shepherd caring for their sheep and leaving the 99 to go in search of the one. Now, this might sound crazy, leaving the 99 behind to go off and find the one, and you are right it is unless you are the one. I hope you feel that God is present with us, suffering along with us and in some way, bringing us peace.

I am often asked where God is in the midst of things like what we are going through, and my response is, right here with us, walking with us and yes, sometimes carrying us. God loves us and cares for us and will never abandon us. God leads us beside the still waters and will refresh our souls.

Amen

Sermon: Breaking Bread

1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

Under normal circumstances, I must remind myself that we are still in the Easter Season. Usually, by this time, the lilies have all gone away, the candy is gone, the Easter basket has been put up for another year, and life has returned to normal. But the Easter season lasts until Pentecost, still many weeks away.

Today we travel with two people as they are taking a journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Scripture tells us that this is a seven-mile journey that would take part of a day to complete. We know one man’s name, Cleopas, who we hear about during the readings of Holy Week. Cleopas is a disciple or a follower of Jesus but not one of the twelve. Tradition tells us that the other person is Luke. It was a standard literary device not to include the author’s name if they appeared in the story.

The assumption is that this story takes place after Pentecost when the Holy Spirit comes upon the Apostles, and Peter gives his sermon. We will hear more about that in the coming weeks. But now, for Cleopas anyway, he must get back to work and to his family, and his life. But he has this seven-mile journey to take.

Everyone is trying to figure out what they had just witnessed. For three years, they traveled around with Jesus and listened to him speak. They were overjoyed to be in his presence as he taught them, ate with them, and just hung out with them. But now they are dealing with the events that had taken place leading up to his death, and when they thought it was over, they hear this tale that he has risen from the dead!

Although Luke only gives us one line of their conversation, I can only imagine what the conversations must have been like along this journey as they tried to figure it all out. But they have seven miles to talk and talk they do.

Along comes a stranger and asks them what they are talking about, and why are they sad? The author tells us that it is Jesus, but they cannot see him for who he is. The resurrected body is so different than the one they knew, and so Jesus is not immediately recognizable. Scripture tells us that they were “kept from recognizing him.” Jesus does this intentionally so he can hear what they are honestly saying. If they knew it was him, their story would change, and he wants to listen to what they are thinking.

Jesus knows that his followers have doubts; he just dealt with Thomas, so Jesus is going to use this opportunity to teach them the Gospel message.

I love the sarcastic question Cleopas asks, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem, and have you not known the things which happened in these days?” The translation of this is, “have you been living under a rock?” I am sure we have all come across folks like this. Something big is going on the world, and you are speaking with someone who has no clue about what is going on, this is what they think is going on here.

Jesus decides he is going to play along. He wants to know their version of the story. We all hear what we want to hear, and we all see what we want to see. All of us listening right now to the words I am saying if I were to ask all of you after I was finished, what I said I would get some vastly different responses. It would also be a test to see who is listening. All of us color what we hear with our images and prejudices and knowledge. We bring our past understanding of issues to the table, and sometimes, we do not want our position to change, so we dig our heels in and hold fast to our understanding.

Cleopas tells Jesus his version of the story, including this line, “But we were hoping it was he who was going to redeem Israel.” In other words, Cleopas was hoping that Jesus was the military Messiah they were expecting to free them from the Romans. Cleopas, and many others, completely miss the point.

Jesus says to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the Prophets have spoken.” But he did not leave them there; he taught them starting with “Moses and the prophets.” Their hearts were burning when they came to the end of their journey so much so that they asked him to stay with them, and he did. Jesus stayed with them and broke bread with them, and that is when they recognized him.

Right now, we are on the road to Emmaus. Something has happened that we are trying to figure out. Like the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, Easter has passed, and we are trying to figure out just what has happened. Our lives have been turned upside-down, and we are wandering down the road, discussing and trying to figure it all out. We are huddled behind locked doors, many afraid to go out. We have been cut off from our support system and our Church community. But we are not alone on this road, and although we may be “kept from recognizing him” by our stuff, Jesus is walking with us at this very moment.

Our world today is so vastly different from what it was just a few weeks ago, and my guess is, it will never see the same again. We have an uncertain direction in many ways we are like the apostles in that ship in the very first sermon I preached here, we are desperately trying to cling to the ship whilst the storm rages around us not knowing what to do. And you know what, it is okay. The road to Emmaus is seven miles long and will take some time to walk.

When I was a hospice chaplain, one of my patients has been a marathon runner. It was hard to believe it by looking at him in his present state, but he would show me pictures of the races he ran. He and his wife traveled the world to run in various marathons, each one a little harder than the previous one. We were discussing his training regiment one day, and I asked about the mental side of it all. He said the physical was not that difficult; it was the mental that used to get him, especially at the halfway point.

So, he let me in on his little trick; he ran the marathon one step at a time. Each time his foot hit the ground, he would tell himself he was one step closer to the finish line. He could not think of the marathon as a 26-mile race or whatever. He could not even think of it as a mile at a time; he needed to think of it as one step at a time.

A person in recovery is taught to think of their recovery as a life-long process that we take “one day at a time.” Friends, I cannot tell you when this will all be over, and we can get back to what we once thought of as normal, but I can tell you that Jesus is walking with us along that Road to Emmaus and if we ask him to stay with us, he will.

We may not always be able to recognize him, but he is there in small acts of kindness. In the smile from behind the mask, Jesus is with us and will never leave us. It is okay to doubt; it is okay to be afraid; it is okay to grieve what we had and what we might never get back; all of this is fine. But listen for the voice in the storm that will bring you some peace. Ask Jesus to sit at the table with you and break bread and let us return to the place where our hearts burn within us.

Developing Spiritual Resilience

A farmer hired a man to chop down some trees on his property.

On the first day, the woodchopper chopped down five trees, and the farmer was pleased. The next day, the woodchopper chopped only four trees. And the following day, just three trees were chopped down.

The farmer approached the woodchopper and said, “The first day you chopped five trees, now you are only chopping three. What has happened?”

The woodchopper replied, “I could still chop down five trees a day, but my ax has become dull, and I’m so busy that I don’t have time to sharpen it.”

How are you keeping your ax sharp? It is easy during these days of the pandemic to get distracted; in fact, one of the results of being in lockdown is a distracted mind that had trouble focusing on the task at hand. So, if this is happening to you, you are not alone.

Without maintaining our spirituality and keeping it healthy, we risk compromising our performance and well-being. Just as the woodchopper needed time to maintain his tools to keep his production up, we need to make time to tend to our spirituality and work at it to keep it resilient.

As part of the United States Army, “Total Force Readiness Plan,” teaching spiritual resiliency is an essential part of overall soldier health. As part of the plan, these activities, if practiced regularly, can help develop and strengthen your spiritual resilience.

Establish a regular time for meditation, reflection, or prayer. I heard that while we are under the lockdown, keep to a schedule is essential. So, try, as best as you can, to maintain a schedule as if you were going about a typical day, and that should include a scheduled time for prayer and meditation.

Find a quiet, peaceful place for your prayer or meditation. I am not sure how easy this one will be but, now that the weather is getting better, perhaps a place in your garden or maybe you have a quiet room in your home. If you live with others, let them know of your scheduled time and ask them not to interrupt you if possible.

Perhaps you find yourself with more time on your hands, so this might be an excellent time to develop a habit of reading. Reading anything is good, stay about from the news for a while, but focus on some sound spiritual reading or try reading a few verses a day from Scripture. It is not about the amount that you might read; it is about the quality of what you read.

Focus on your relationships with family and friends, and do not forget God. Reach out to folks that you have not spoken with in a while, email is ok, but an actual phone call might be better. Maybe you can set up a family Zoom time or something similar. Do not forget about God. Perhaps you and God have not spoken in some time, and that is fine, God understands. Reach out and re-establish a connection.

Find happiness in everyday occurrences and be thankful. In other words, stop and smell the roses. I know it can be depressing to not come into physical contact with people, but there is still a lot to be thankful for. Try and focus on those positive things happening right now in the world.

Write in a journal about your daily life, your feelings, and your thoughts. Historians have been urging people to write about their experiences during this pandemic, so generations from now people will be able to look back on how we survived. But writing also helps you transfer your thoughts and helps you to release those thoughts. If you are new to journaling, it might take some time to get used to doing it.

The goal of all of this is to help us get through difficult times. Although I mentioned limiting the use of the internet, there are some tremendous resources available for bible study as well as yoga and other meditative practices. Take some time each day to keep your ax sharp, and you will be able to keep cutting down those trees.

Funerals – the Unintended Casualty of an Outbreak

My father died in December of last year, and like most families, we gathered at the funeral home for the wake and funeral. We stood in line and greeted family and friends and shared stories of our dad with those that came to honor him. After the funeral we all attended a meal in his honor at the local Masonic Hall and told more stories, hugged each other, and helped each other with the start of the healing process after his death.

My way of thinking – wakes and funerals are for the living. Healing begins while we stand in line and greet people and share time with them. We never “get over it,” but we begin to heal during the wake and funeral. If that process is not available to us, then healing will take longer. Everyone experiences grief in their way, and everyone deals with that grief in their way. Grief is a very natural response to a loss, any loss even if those around you do not acknowledge that loss. Grief can be debilitating, and the symptoms can manifest at any time. Coping with that loss is one of life’s biggest challenges.

The other side of that same grief coin is our loved one’s final moments. As a family, we were able to be with my dad when he drew his last breath. This time of quarantine and shelter-in-place orders does not allow us to be present during those moments. Under normal circumstances we would not have to deal with feelings surrounding the abandonment of our loved one, during their final moments. These are all unintended casualties of an outbreak, such as what we are experiencing now.

The Congregation I serve as Senior Minister has developed a new policy regarding funerals. The new policy states that, while the Emergency Order to keep assemblies to ten or under is in force, we will not hold funerals in the Church building. We will offer a graveside service with the option of Memorial Service in the Church later. Still, for now, the Church building is closed. The policy to close the church for funerals was not easy to write or to enact. Nevertheless, we felt it was necessary to protect the Congregation and those that might attend.

As the death toll continues to rise from this Virus, it is easy to lose sight of people amidst the statistics and the partisan wrangling that takes place in State Houses and on Capitol Hill. Behind every death number reported is a real flesh and blood person who has a family that loves them. These death numbers are grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, friends, and all the rest. We may get lost in the numbers game until we start seeing the faces behind those numbers.

When this began, comparisons were made between deaths from the seasonal flu and the Coronavirus trying to prove that the death numbers would be less. As I write this, some are saying “get people back to work” and “grandparents would be willing to sacrifice their lives for the economy” to downplay the seriousness of the situation. In the end we hope this situation will not be so dire, but for right now, consider this: you might not be able to be with your loved one as they draw their last breath. You may not be able to be present for their funeral. I ask you to stop and think how you would feel if that was to happen to you. Then ask yourself, do you still think that the Coronavirus is less severe than the seasonal flu? I refer to funerals as unintended casualties because in all the planning we can do as a community, the idea of delayed grief was never part of the plan, at least not in the plan in which I have been involved. Many unanswered questions remain about the long-term ramifications of the decision to hold or not to hold funerals, or to limit the number in attendance to 10 people, including the minister. I guess all we can do is wait and minister to people in the present moment.

Easter Monday

Collect for Monday in Easter Week

Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that we who celebrate with
awe the Paschal feast may be found worthy to attain to everlasting joys; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings for the Monday in Easter Week

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21
Colossians 3:5-11

Sermon: The Tomb, and the Church are Empty!

John 20:1-18

I think there needs to be a retelling of this story for the 21st century. Somewhat early on the first day of the week, all the parishioners found that the church was empty. But Jesus came to them in their locked houses and said to them, “peace, whether you are gathered in a church building or locked inside your homes to help flatten the curve, I have risen from the dead just as I said I would.” You see, no matter where we are, and no matter when you might be watching this, Jesus is alive, he has risen from the dead.

I know it may not seem like Easter. There are no lilies to adorn our church, and we are not together physically, but we are together spiritually. We are very much like those first disciples that were gathered in that upper room. They were locked in, just as we are, because of real fear and a real threat to their lives. They were sad, and they were in mourning because they had just lost their friend, and they were not sure what was going to happen to them. Some of them, as we heard in the Scripture lesson, went to the Tomb and found that it was empty just as our church is empty this morning. But their sadness soon turned to joy as will ours.

It has been a long, dark Lent this year. We have traveled the road with Jesus as he walked closer to today. We sat with him Thursday night and watched as he washed the feet of his disciples to remind us that we are to be servants to all. I am reminded of the servants in our world who, at this very moment, are caring for those suffering in hospitals and nursing homes. At considerable risk to their own lives, they are washing not only the feet of those they are serving but their entire bodies. They are sitting with their patients because their families cannot and holding their hands.

We watched as Jesus took bread and wine and presented it to those gathered with him and told them that this bread and cup were his body and blood that has been shed for the world. He reminded them and us that each time we partake in the Sacrament of Communion, we are doing so in remembrance of him and for all that he did for us. But it does not end there for we are now the body of Christ, and we are called to be broken and shared in this world as the light in the darkness. We are to show the world that God loves them and cares deeply for them, and we show that by loving and caring for those around us, especially the least of these.

We walked with Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he went alone to pray.  We witnessed Jesus scared and uncertain and bargaining with God to let him find another way. We sat next to him as he prayed so hard that drops of blood formed on his brow and fell to the rock he was using as his altar. We watched as a feeling of peace came upon him as he began to understanding that what he was called to and what we are called to is to obey the will of the Father. “Not my will but yours,” he said. This is not an easy thing to grasp, but to be authentic followers of Jesus Christ, we must surrender our will to that of God’s.

We were there when Judas came, one of his closest friends, and handed him over to the authorities. This must have been difficult for Jesus. Yes, Jesus knew what was about to happen, but he still must have felt that deep betrayal that comes when someone we love lets us down. Jesus went willingly with the authorities, and those that were with him, had walked with him and spent the last three years with him, scattered and left him alone because they were afraid, they might be next.

We were there, although, like those who abandoned him, we were at a distance so as not to attract any attention because if anyone finds out, we are a Christian, we might have to change the way we act towards others. But we saw him, hanging on that cross, an innocent killed by the system to protect the system. Killed for preaching that everyone is the same and loved equally by God no matter where you are from, what color your skin is, what language you speak, what your immigration status might be, or who you chose to fall in love with. He was killed because he preached that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. He taught that if we have an abundance and our neighbor has less, we are to give from what we have been blessed with without condition. He was killed because people could not accept that their privileged position required them to help those less fortunate and that they were not there to be used for political purposes. Jesus was killed because he loved. Everyone. Without condition. And he did this to show us that this is how we are to live our lives.

But the story does not end there because after the darkness of the night after the doors have been locked after the virus has caused us to stay away from each other morning will come, and the Tomb is empty, and love has won and has beat death. Jesus has risen from the dead despite what they did to him. Jesus rose from the dead for the same reason that he died on that cross because he loved. Everyone. Without condition.

During these weeks of isolation, I have been involved in some pretty deep conversations with people about all of this and what is going to happen, and I was reminded that after Jesus came, the Holy Spirit came, and she breathed new life into the church. Just as God blew his very breath into the lifeless body of humanity at creation, the Holy Spirit came and blew her breath into the church that had gone stale. A Church that had lost her way. A church that forgot what it means to be church. A church that built large, beautiful buildings and amassed large endowment funds but forgot that the church exists for the least of these. The Holy Spirit came on that first Pentecost and woke them up and called them out and Church I believe that is precisely what she is going to do when this is all over.

We are locked in behind the doors of rules, regulations, traditions, and laws, and the Holy Spirit is coming to tell us that it is time we get back to what we are called to do, and that is to proclaim the love of God all the world. We are to go out into the whole of creation and celebrate what God has done, what God is doing, and what God is going to do.

I want you to turn to the person next to you, no matter where you are, and say, I am ready. Go on; I am ready. God, I am ready for whatever you ask, Not my will God, but yours.

In this world of uncertainty, there is one certain thing, we can never go back to the way it was our voice is a voice that can no longer just be whispered for fear of offending people. Our voice can longer only be heard inside the walls of the Church; what Coronoavirus as taught us is that the world is our church, and we are going to shout from the rooftops if we have too. What this Coronoavirus has shown us is that the system is fixed for the haves, and it is broken for the have nots and church; we can no longer stand by and remain silent. This is way too important for that.

Church, I hope all y’all are ready because the Holy Spirit is warming up and is fixin to set this place on fire and that fire is either going to burn us up or clear the path, and we need to be ready. We can use this time of quiet to prepare ourselves for the future, prayer, study, and all the rest. We have no time to lose, the time to start is now!

My prayer as we continue this Easter season locked in the Upper Room is that we will hold fast and not lose hope. God is with us just as God was with Jesus in the Garden and on the Cross, God is with us now, as then because God loves us more than we will ever know or imagine.

Amen.

Holy Saturday

The Collect of Holy Saturday

O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of thy dear Son was laid in the tomb and tested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Readings for Holy Saturday

Job 14:1-14
Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24
Psalm 31:1-4, 15-16
1 Peter 4:1-8
Matthew 27:57-66
John 19:38-42

Spiritual Communion: An Ecumenical Outlook

It has been said before, but it needs to be said again, we are living in unprecedented times. Not since the flu epidemic of 1918 have, we witnessed the worldwide closing of Church buildings and the suspension of in-person worship. All of this has led to questions surrounding themes of pastoral care, worship, and the Sacraments.

For some Churches, moving to an online style of worship does not really pose a Sacramental problem but for others there are many unanswered questions. Churches are grappling with the idea of Virtual or Spiritual Communion as a limited substitute for in-person worship.

There have also been some extraordinary developments:

The Bishop of the Diocese of Chichester in the United Kingdom, has suspended English Canon Law to allow for the solo celebration of the Eucharist in his Diocese. See Letter.

Metropolitan of Pergamon John Zizioulas implies that under these circumstances it is permissible for an Orthodox Christian Priest to celebrate the Divine Liturgy with a Congregation present. Read the Interview.

The Presbyterian Church USA has updated its previous guidance given in early March to now allow Elders and Sessions to celebrate Holy Communion. Read the Guidance here.

Although there is a division between some United Methodist Clergy and Bishops there was a study launched in 2013 on this very subject.  More information here.

With all of this in mind, I have asked several pastors and theologians to weigh in on this idea of Spiritual Communion and the issue of Online or Virtual Communion. They come from very diverse backgrounds, Church of Scotland, Greek Orthodox, and United Church of Christ.

The Very Reverend Dr. Derek Browning – Church of Scotland
The Rev. Gregory Nicholas Christakos – Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston
The Rev. Ian Lynch – Old South Church Kirtland, Ohio, United Church of Christ