In these times we are living in it is easy to lose faith, but I want to challenge you not to!
We live in times of uncertainty, political uncertainty, economic uncertainty, and even religious uncertainty, so I understand that it is challenging to keep the faith. It is hard to know who to trust, do we trust the government or the media? There are deep divisions in our country and the Church, so it can be challenging to know who to trust.
Jesus used parables when he taught. Parables are stories using familiar images to reveal truths to those listening or reading can understand. Jesus painted a picture, using words to explain a spiritual reality. The Hebrew and Aramaic word for parable also means “allegory,” “riddle,” or “proverb.” The images used in the parables come from everyday life od those listening. Those of us reading the parables today may struggle a bit with images, but we are not first century people, so we need to dig a little to find the meaning.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed appears in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew and is a good illustration of why it is essential for us not to lose faith, even in these distressing times.
“Jesus said, ‘What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.'” (Mark 4:30-32)
Alongside my driveway, I have a small garden that has some large plants in it. I do not always see these flowering plants because they are behind the cars in the driveway, but I know they are there. Two of these plants grew taller than I am and came from a ridiculously small seed. I am always amazed at the size of this plant, and it’s coming from such a tiny seed.
I have never seen a mustard seed, so I will take the word of Jesus that it is the “smallest of all seeds on earth.” I get what Jesus is saying here, faith starts small and grows, some years are good, and some years not so good it all depends on the conditions around us and how well we tend to our faith.
Further, in the Gospel of Mark is a story of a man who brings his son to Jesus for healing. The boy has seizures, and no one can help him. Jesus says to the man, “if you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” The man looks at Jesus and says, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” Jesus healed the man’s son even though the man had trouble believing. You see, Jesus said, “If you CAN believe.” All Jesus asks of us is that we try.
We are not required to believe all the time; we can doubt, question, walk away, change, rethink, and all the rest Jesus makes allowance for that. The bottom line is, do we have the capacity to believe, do we have the ability to have faith? If we do, all things are possible.
In his book The Cost of Discipleship, the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about what he calls Cheap Grace:
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living, and incarnate.”
In many 21st century churches, we have forgotten that the call to discipleship is costly and comes with great responsibility. For some, we have turned discipleship into church membership, and we require extraordinarily little in the fear that people will not join; in other words, will not put their donation in the collection plate each week. Now, I am a realist and understand that we need money to function, but let’s put that aside.
As we continue our look at the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith, we turn our attention to the sixth declaration, which lays out some requirements.
“You call us into your church to accept that cost and joy of discipleship, to be your servants in the service of others, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil. To share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.”
For now, we will lay aside the question of baptism and Communion as we will address those in a future sermon, but for now, we turn our attention to this idea of discipleship and the cost, and the joy associated with it.
Many churches spend too much time being church and not enough time doing church. What this pandemic has shown us is that we do not need a building to be the church. Sure, it’s nice to have a space to come together and worship, but we continue to worship God even though the building is closed. We continue to be the church even though the physical manifestation of that church is not available. We can no longer hide behind the four walls of the building; we are church out in the open just as it was for those Christians of the first century.
In his book, Confessing our Faith Roger Shinn writes about what the role of the church is in light of the sixth declaration. “God calls the church to a mission in the world. The covenant community is a mission community. The word mission comes from a Latin verb that means “send.” To have mission is to be sent.” (Shinn pg 85)
But before we can be sent, we must be prepared.
The stories of Jesus calling his first disciples are short. For some, he simply said, “Follow me,” For others, the invitation was a little more elaborate, but the call is only the first step. Jesus taught his disciples first by his example, the example of love and compassion for all, and then he taught them how to pray.
The great monastic founder Benedict wrote in his rule for monasteries that the day should be evenly divided between work and prayer. He desired his monks to learned people but also people of prayer. They studied the Scriptures and other writings and spent half the day in prayer, some of it silent and some of it spoken. If we are to be disciples, then we must be learners and prayers; if we are neither, then we are not disciples, we are just going through the motions.
Going back to the Bonhoeffer quote above, what is the cost of discipleship? Well, for starters, there must be a cost and not a financial cost, but a cost. We understand that God forgives, but do we seek that forgiveness? Do we seek penance? Do we seek reconciliation? All of these are directed toward God as they are to our fellow human beings.
There is a double dimension to sin, the part the separates us from God and the part that separates us from our fellow human being. The ancients believed that before someone partook of Communion, they had to be “of the right spirit.” They had to be reconciled with God and with their fellow human. Many ancients wrote about leaving your offering in the church, going, and seeking out the brother or sister that you are in a disagreement with, reconciling with them, and then coming back and taking Communion. How many of us willing partake of the elements on Communion Sunday knowing that we are not reconciled to others?
The sixth declaration continues; “to be servants in the service of others.” A servant is not a word that most of us like. A servant is somebody who does a job for somebody else.
I am a big fan of the Television program, Downton Abbey. In the program, we see a definite line between those upstairs and those downstairs. The Lord and Lady do not even know the names of most of the people that wait on them, and even though the Butler and Housekeep interact daily with them, they are still servants. We must be servants in the service of others.
In biblical times a servant might be either a slave or a hired worker; the language used does not always distinguish between those two terms. But the word carries with it a special meaning.
The Book of Isaiah uses the image of the Suffering Servant, and we Christians equate that Jesus. Jesus’s followers recognized him as the Messiah who was supposed to be a heroic king, but we know that he dies on the cross, and this was contrary to what the belief was of the Messiah. Being a servant requires humility; God humbled God’s self to become human. Jesus humbled himself to die on the cross. We must humble ourselves to serve others, even those that don’t look like us, act like us, and believe like us.
Quoting Shinn again:
“The Statement of Faith declares that we, following Christ, are called to be God’s servants in the service of others. The mission of the church is not seek honor and authority for itself; it is to enter into the suffering of human life, to work for justice among the nations, to bring healing and forgiveness to a sinful humankind.” (Shinn pg 88)
Everything we do as “church” needs to be with this in mind. Each decision we make as “church” needs to be with this in mind. We need to be servants to humanity, or we are nothing more than a club.
But it all starts with our preparation, education, and understanding of our mission in the world. I challenge each of you to begin a discipline of Scripture study, prayer, and an understanding of what is necessary in the world to “enter into the suffering of human life, work for justice among the nations, and bringing healing to a sinful humankind.”
Discipleship means more than church membership, and it must cost us something. Let us pray that we can take the time to truly understand what this means for us in our world today.
Very often, we miss the profound theology contained in the hymns we sing in church. Sometimes we sing the words that have become familiar to us, without really thinking about what we are singing. The Scriptures contained in the Bible, is our first and most important place to search for the way that Jesus left for us, but coming in right behind that is the hymnbook that is present in most of the pews we used to sit in a church. There is a profound, rich theology contained in those hymns.
One such hymn and a favorite of mine are Judson W. Van DeVenter’s “I Surrender All,” written in 1896. The theology contained in the refrain and follows along with the passage we just heard from the Gospel of Matthew.
I surrender all, I surrender all; All to Thee my blessed Savior, I surrender all.
This is the response I imagine Jesus hopes to hear from us following his invitation to discipleship in the closing lines of today’s passage:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30
Before this invitation, Jesus has been rather clear that divine wisdom is proved right by its results and that Jesus has a special relationship with God, and Jesus chooses to share that relationship with us. There are many marks of this call that Jesus has given us to discipleship, but one of those is that we understand the profoundly theological nature of the quest that we are on and the concrete ways we live out our faith.
I have mentioned before that God loves each of us and longs for our salvation, but it is a personal decision. God has given us the freedom to make that decision and loves us regardless of how we go. Although God loves us, that love is a tough love that must come through the struggle of faith, love, hope, and justice. If we accept the call to be a disciple of Jesus and follow in his way, we must accept the struggle that may not always be popular.
As we live into this struggle, we must remember that we, and everyone, is created in the image and likeness of God. This creation not only includes those who look and believe like us but also those who do not. It is not our job to decide who is worthy of God’s love, for God has already done that through the words that Jesus spoke, love God, love your neighbor, and love your enemy. Again, we do not have a choice in this. One of the requirements, the central requirement I would say, of being a disciple of Jesus Christ, is to love everyone without conditions.
God’s love comes to us without condition, and that is how we are to love. This unconditional love is a paradox through which God demands that we share that love, that grace and that mercy with others in our circle and beyond. Through all of this, we are to love through our potential and not our mistakes, and we are to answer yes when God says, “what if?” Once we can do this, the love of God revealed in Jesus’ witness moves us to grow in compassion, understanding, and acceptance of each other.
But, we must also remember that being a disciple of Jesus Christ requires us to live our lives with integrity and faithfulness to God. Integrity is something that seems to be lost these days. Why is it that we cannot have a simple discussion about issues without the conversation devolving into a character attack? Why is it that we can brand someone a liar if we disagree with their message? Why is it we accept lies and misinformation from those we put in positions of trust? What has happened to our moral compass when we are more concerned about statues of metal and stone than actual human beings?
As we become more self-aware, as we find our identity in God, we realize we are developing markers of our faith as we deepen our theological understanding of this call to discipleship. This discipleship we are being called to will not only provide rest, as Matthew points out, but it will also guarantee us persecution. We must live lives of conviction that we are being called into a new vision, not a vision of some faraway place on a cloud, but a vision of heaven right here on earth. If we proclaim that we are followers of Jesus Christ, we must understand that we will not always be on the popular side of issues, but if we follow the way of Jesus, we will always be on the right side of those issues.
Our discipleship, our theology, must be living, not some arcane way of living that we only find in dusty books on our shelves. I heard a saying once, live your life as if you are the only Bible someone will ever read. When we speak, when we act are, we do so with the love of God and the understanding of what Jesus taught and preached? Are we genuinely seeking answers to questions according to God’s word for our lives, or do we base those on what other people say is God’s word for our lives?
The motto of the United Church of Christ is “God is still speaking,” The symbol of that motto is the comma. God is still speaking and revealing to us constantly. Each generation is tasked with taking the word of God and making it fresh for the next generation. We do not, and we cannot live as the first century Christians did because we are not first-century Christians. Scripture and theology speak to us through the lens of current events. Someone once said we should “preach with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” I guess we would have to modernize that for today by saying, “we need to preach with the bible and one hand and Twitter in the other.”
God is still speaking because God is not finished yet; we are not finished yet; in fact, I think we are just getting started.
Today we celebrate the birthday of the United States, the grand experiment as it has been called. America’s greatness is that we are not finished; we continue to adapt and change as time dictates. The men who wrote the Constitution of our great nation realized that the words they were writing, Although fitting for their day, might need to be changed and adapted. They gave us a way to do that, we are not finished yet, and I believe, although we are struggling right now, our best days are still to come.
If you have one handy look at the backside on the one-dollar bill. On the right-hand side is the great seal of America with the eagle clutching the olive branch and the arrows in her talons. But on the left side is the unfinished pyramid with 13 rows of building blocks and on that first row, in Roman Numerals 1776. The pyramid is unfinished that signifies strength and duration, but hovering over that pyramid is the ever-knowing eye, the watching eye of God, not an eye of judgment but an eye of love.
Friends, we are just like that pyramid, we are unfinished, and God is watching and loving and guiding our job is to listen to that still small voice and take up the challenge of discipleship.
For the last several years I had the honor of reading the Declaration of Independence from the Pulpit at Christ Church in Boston (Old North Church) This year, due to the pandemic, I was unable to read the Declaration on the 4th. I was able to record my reading. I hope you enjoy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.