Stranger God

Stranger GodI mentioned the book Stranger God: Meeting Jesus in Disguise (Richard Beck) in a recent sermon. It is a book that a friend recommended to me a couple of years ago. She said it was life-changing. And while I trust this friend’s judgement, I never made time to purchase or read the book until recently. And my friend was right. It is—or could be—life changing.

Beck’s premise is that God/Jesus comes to us in disguise, often as the stranger. He references the story of Abraham entertaining the three strangers (who are called “The Lord”) and the story of Lot protecting these same three strangers from the mob in Sodom. He also uses the story of the walk to the Emmaus in Luke’s gospel. In this story, Jesus is literally the stranger who accompanies the two disciples along the road.

Beck’s challenge to us is to view every “stranger”—regardless of the nature of their strangeness—as potentially being Jesus in disguise. In encountering the stranger, that is, people who are different from us, we are constantly being given the opportunity to treat them with Christ-welcoming hospitality.

But for me, the key takeaway in the book is Beck’s discussion of beginning this work of hospitality on a small scale. Most of us do not have time in our schedules to add anything else. While many people of faith desire to do something big for Christ, most just feel defeated by the idea. Doing something grand for Jesus sounds good—being a Mother Teresa or a Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Max Lucado—but most of us simply can’t do it. We do not have the time, gifts, or abilities.

So Beck suggests we adopt St. Teresa of Lisieux’s “Little Way.” St. Teresa was a cloistered nun who chose to go about her daily life doing little acts with great love. Other than joining the convent, she did nothing showy or grandiose for God. She simply tried to do everything with love and patience. She was kind to the sisters that were unpopular, she performed her duties with integrity and faithfulness, and she even strove to transform irritating events into opportunities to practice acceptance and learn patience.

As we seek to be more hospitable towards others, especially the strangers we encounter in our daily lives, Beck suggests that we engage in little acts of compassion and kindness. Rather than seeking to engage in grandiose acts of faith, we should seek to do our daily tasks with love, patience, and integrity. When we encounter the irritated store clerk, we offer a smile and a greeting and perhaps a silent prayer for whatever that clerk is experiencing. When we weed the garden, we do it with an attitude of gratefulness for the bounty of the earth and the resilience of God’s creation. When we get tired of waiting in line at the BMV, we see it as an opportunity to practice patience and be an example to others around us. After all, getting angry does not shorten the wait or change the circumstances. It only puts us in a poor frame of mind for when we do engage with the BMV employee.

Doing little things with great love. Doing little things for strangers with great love. This is how St. Teresa encountered Jesus every day. And in these little acts of great love, St. Teresa also became Jesus for those around her. And so can we.

A New Way to Pray

Like many of you, I am a bit tired of everything COVID-19, so I have decided that I will try to return to “normal” blogging a few times a month. And while I can’t promise to never mention the pandemic in my blogs, I will try to focus on other issues as well.

DailyText2020Each year, the Bishop’s office gifts Synod leaders with a devotion book called Daily Texts. The Daily Texts come out of the Moravian Church, a church with whom the ELCA has a full communion agreement. The Moravians have been offering some form of the Daily Texts since 1731.

For each day of the year, the authors have chosen an Old Testament verse at random. Based on this random verse, a New Testament verse about the same or a related subject is chosen. Both verses appear in the devotion for the day, along with a prayer. It is a simple way to engage in daily devotion and you can take as much time as you wish pondering or praying over the verses and how they speak to your heart.

The prayers that are published follow a format that is patterned after Martin Luther’s way of praying. It’s call the TRIP form of prayer: Thanks, Regret, Intercession, and Purpose.

Thanks is an obvious one, but specifically the method invites the reader to give thanks to God for what the texts reveal to him/her. Regret is a time to reflect and confess the ways that you might not fulfill what God is asking of you in the texts. Intercession is a time to pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to help you with the inner change needed to deal with our regret. And Purpose is the time to ask God to show you what you can do this day to move towards the change. The Daily Texts prayers follow this format, but they also suggest that the devotee write their own TRIP prayer to reflect the impact of the Bible verses on their particular life and faith.

The TRIP method for the Daily Texts is focused on the two Bible verses, not on our lives in general. Of course, the TRIP method also works for one’s life in general. But in the context of the Daily Texts, the TRIP method focuses on one insight gained from the texts and how we might be called to act on that insight today. Even experienced pray-ers might find this TRIP format to be a new way to pray and could enrich their own prayer life.

Even Jesus’ disciples, who were constantly in his presence and who were faithful Jews, asked him to teach them how to pray. Jesus’ response was to give them the Lord’s Prayer. Even those who lived in the presence of the Holy One of Israel were looking for a new way to pray.

Here is the Daily Texts devotion for today, June 29, 2020:

Daniel said: “My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me.” Daniel 6:22

We are persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. 2 Corinthians 4:9

My God, you protect me from the evil one, even when I am unaware. Though I often fail to see them, you send angels and messengers to care for me. Though I may feel struck down, you never forsake me. I am your beloved child, marked with the sign of your cross. Therefore, I have nothing to fear. Amen.

You can get your own copy of the Daily Texts here.

May 31

I have been most remiss at posting my sermons as I said I would do. Apologies. I will endeavor to be more consistent. Here is the sermon from Pentecost.

elvis_has_left_the_building_tElvis has left the building. And when I say “Elvis” I mean Jesus. Jesus has left the building. By which I mean, Jesus is no longer in the building. But then, he never was in the building. Exactly. Jesus is always leaving the building. OK, I’m confusing myself. Let me start over.

We all know that the phrase Elvis has left the building is a sort of punchline for when someone has exited, often in a dramatic fashion. It can also mean that someone has left permanently—as in dying. I was curious and decided to look up the origin of the phrase Elvis has left the building, using the source of all knowledge and truth—Wikipedia. And I discovered that it was first used by a promoter in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1956 to calm down a crowd after Elvis had performed. Elvis was a middle act in a series of acts and other groups were waiting to go on stage. But the crowd kept calling for Elvis to come back on stage. So the promoter, a Horace Logan, told the crowd that Elvis had left the building, so they would calm down and the show could continue. And a legend was born. Since then, of course the phrase Elvis has left the building has been a part of our lexicon, found its way into songs and sports, and has been parroted by other singers using their own names. Frasier has left the building comes to mind. All that is just an amusing sidebar, but my first statement remains true.

Jesus has left the building. Jesus left this building when all of you left this building. After all, are you—are we—not the body of Christ? We are Christ in the world and we are not in this building—well, some of us are, but not most. We are not in this building and so we can rightly say that Jesus has left the building. Jesus has left the building before. In fact, Jesus leaves this building every time we leave it because as I said already, we ARE Christ in the world. We ARE the body of Christ in the world. Jesus doesn’t live at St Peter nor inside any church or any building. Jesus lives inside of us. So when we leave this building, so does Jesus.

I say that in part because of the push by some in our society and government to open churches so that—the say—we churches can get back to praying and doing our work. That’s nonsense, spoken by people who do not understand the concept of church. We are always the church, gathered or not. We are always the face of Christ, in this building or not. We are always the body of Christ. And we do our work in the world—Christ’s work in the world—no matter where we are.

Now the disciples didn’t have the advantage of our 2000+ years of faith in Christ upon which to call. So when Jesus left the building—that is, left them—they were likely afraid and confused. Last week we heard about one of those “Jesus left the building” moments when we heard the story of his ascension, 40 days after the resurrection. I told you last week that the disciples had gone back to Jerusalem where they waited and prayed and waited and prayed some more. And then, the Holy Spirit came on the 50th day—Pentecost—which we celebrate today. We heard that story in our first reading from the book of Acts, a story most of us know well.

And kudos to Michelle who drew the short straw and got to read all those fun place names.

Interestingly, in today’s gospel, we have a different version of the coming of the Holy Spirit. It’s not 50 days after the resurrection; it’s the very day of the resurrection. In John’s gospel—which often differs from the other gospels—the  disciples were locked in the upper room where they had been hiding since the crucifixion. Just that morning, the women had claimed that they saw Jesus alive, and Peter verified that the tomb was empty. Thomas was who knows where in the city and suddenly Jesus appeared in that locked room. He blessed the disciples and he breathed on them, giving them the Holy Spirit.

It’s a little different story of the coming of the Holy Spirit from what we are used to hearing. In John’s version, there’s no rush of wind or flames on heads or speaking in foreign languages. There’s no ten days of waiting and praying and no sermon from Peter and no 3000 people who are converted. Ok, so John’s version of the coming of the Spirit is a LOT different from the version in Acts.

Still, the outcome is the same. Jesus promised the disciples the Holy Spirit, Jesus gave the disciples the Holy Spirit, and then Jesus went away, this time for good. Jesus left the building. And by building I mean the earth.

Jesus has left the building. But the very Spirit that was given him in baptism, the very Spirit that gave him the courage to face the cross, the very Spirit he gave to the disciples is the very same Spirit that Jesus gives to us. Jesus may have left the building—he may no longer be physically present on the earth—but he is here on the earth because we are here on the earth. And Jesus has given us that same Holy Spirit which works in and on us so that we might continue to be the face and presence and love and mercy of Jesus in the world.

See, you and I, we can’t just decide to be like Jesus. We can’t just decide that we want to be the body of Christ. It is the Spirit—given to us by Christ himself—that enables us to declare that we believe, that we can forgive, that we can love, that we can make peace, that we can be the body of Christ.

That wonderful analogy that we heard in our second reading from First Corinthians reminds us that we are all the body of Christ. Not just me—I’m not the body. Not just you—you’re not the body. We—we—are the body of Christ. We look different, we have different functions, we have different gifts, but all of it comes from the Spirit, all of it is animated by the Spirit, all of it is possible because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in us.

It is the Spirit that makes us one. It is the Spirit that makes us the body of Christ. It is the Spirit that makes us Christ in the world. And it is the Spirit that makes it OK that Jesus has left the building. Because the Spirit ensures that Christ is still here, in us, working through us for the sake of the world. It is the Spirit that makes us the church.

[Norwalk Ministerial Association video–see it here: https://www.facebook.com/stpeternorwalk/videos/1014103719011120/%5D

Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the church. And whether you like John’s version of the coming of the Holy Spirit or you prefer the version from Acts, today’s the day when we commemorate and give thanks that we are who we are and what we are because of Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit to us. So happy birthday, church. May the Holy Spirit fill us with peace and hope and faith; and may we seek always to be the body and presence of Christ in the world. Even—actually, especially—after we have left the building. Amen.

 

 

May 3 Sermon

171107-sheep-recognize-faces-feature1OK, so who’s on first? Or, actually, who’s in the sheep pen, who’s the shepherd, who’s the gatekeeper, who’s the gate, who’s the thief, who’s the stranger and what in the world is Jesus trying to say here? And which one is Jesus? Is he the gate-keeper or the shepherd or the gate or all of the above? Seems like a lot responsibility for one guy.

One thing that’s abundantly clear, however, is that we are the sheep. We’re always the sheep. That’s one part of the story everybody gets right. We are always the sheep. Ba, ba, ba.

Here’s part of why this gospel is a bit confusing. There are two metaphors included in this one teaching with two different messages, so we are going to have to unpack them separately. With a bit of luck good exegesis on my part, maybe we can make some sense out of all the different people and roles in these two metaphors.

But first, let’s talk some background. Some of it may be familiar to you, and maybe not. In ancient Palestine, shepherds were considered among the lowest of career choices, barely above thief or leper. Therefore, most shepherds were dirt poor. So in most villages, shepherds shared a communal sheep pen on the edge of the village. At the end of each day, each shepherd brought his sheep from the pasture and dropped them off at the communal sheep pen. One of the shepherds served as gatekeeper/ guard for everybody’s sheep that night. The next morning, each shepherd went to the communal sheep pen, called his sheep, and the sheep would follow him out of the pen to go to the pasture. Mind you, the sheep were not tagged or branded or marked in any way. They knew their shepherd by his voice and he knew his sheep by sight and by their response to his presence.

Before this teaching, Jesus had just finished healing the blind man and telling the Pharisees—who treated the blind man very badly—that they were the blind ones. Jesus then turned to the disciples and began this teaching about sheep and shepherds.

In the first metaphor, Jesus talks about someone who enters the sheep pen by a way other than the main gate. Jesus calls this one a bandit or thief. Since Jesus has just rebuked the Pharisees, and he starts his metaphor with the  remark about the thief and bandit climbing into the sheep pen by another way, it is commonly assumed that the thief or bandit refers to the Pharisees. They were the ones who were trying to steal or harm the sheep. The one who enters by the gate is the true shepherd, who is, of course, Jesus. Jesus enters the sheep pen, calls his sheep and they follow him.

But remember, this is a communal pen. Suppose a rival shepherd entered through the main gate and tried to steal some of the flock of another shepherd? On the surface, this shepherd appears to have every right to be in the sheep pen—and who’s to say which sheep are his and which are someone else’s? Remember, no ear tags or brands on the sheep.  In the metaphor, Jesus calls this rival shepherd the stranger. Jesus went on to say the gate keeper opens the gate for the shepherd and the shepherd calls his sheep and his sheep follow him because the sheep know the voice of their shepherd. Sheep may be pretty dumb, but they are smart enough to know and trust the voice of their shepherd. The sheep do not listen to the voice of the bandit or the thief or the stranger. The sheep trust their shepherd’s voice and it is that trusted voice they follow out of the safety of the sheep pen.

Since we are the sheep, we get the point of this first metaphor, right? We are supposed to listen for Jesus’ voice and follow only his voice and not the voice of the thief or the stranger. I hear you bleating at me—as sheep do—Preacher, how do we know which is Jesus’ voice and which belongs to the stranger? There are, after all, many voices out in the world, all calling us to follow their way.

 Truthfully, I do not think that it is all that difficult to tell which voice belongs to the Jesus the shepherd and which voices belong to the stranger or thief. If someone says “think only about yourself, look out for number one, disrespect others” that is the voice of the stranger. The voices that tout violence as the answer, the voices who think little of hurting others, especially the vulnerable, and the voices which encourage us to hate or discriminate against others—these are not the voice of our shepherd. Jesus never said such things. Quite the opposite.

But the voice says, “love one another as I have loved you” and “love your neighbor as yourself” and “what you have done to the least of these my brothers and sisters you have done to me” and “forgive as you have been forgiven” and “pick up your cross and follow me,” is the voice. We know that voice. It is the voice of our Shepherd, calling us to follow. And like good sheep, so we should, no matter how alluring the other voices may be. Those other voices should not be trusted, for they are the voice of the stranger. Only the voice of Jesus can be trusted. And let’s be honest: we DO know the voice of our shepherd even when it calling us to do the hard thing—like loving our neighbors by staying at home.

Now Jesus’ listeners didn’t get the point which quite frankly, since I do, makes me feel like a pretty darn smart sheep. So Jesus switches up his metaphor and gives them a second one: Jesus as the gate.

Now, many shepherds lived with their sheep in the wilderness, as in Luke 2, the Christmas story which says that there were shepherds living in the fields, watching over their flocks by night. There were no sheep pens in the wilderness like there were in the towns. So these shepherds in the wilderness would cobble together some brush, maybe back up against some rocks and create a makeshift pen for the night. Or they would find a cave and put the sheep in there. After the sheep were secured for the night, the shepherd would lie across the entrance to the pen or cave to keep out predators. The shepherd became the gate.

So in the 2nd metaphor, Jesus says he is the gate to the sheep pen. With him, the sheep are safe. With him, the predators are kept at bay. With him there is life. Without him there is death and destruction and wolves waiting. Jesus is the one who became the gate for all of humanity. He is the one through whom we go out and come in. He is the one through whom we have life. He is the one who defeats death, who overcomes all predators, and who offers not only eternal life, but abundant life now.

Mind you, when Jesus talks about abundant life, he’s not talking about having lots of stuff, no matter what those TV preachers may say. Anybody who tells you that God will give you stuff is the voice of the stranger. No, when Jesus talks about abundant life, he is talking about a life that is rooted and grounded in his goodness, in his teaching, in his life, in his love. Abundant life is Jesus-life. A life filled with Jesus. And that’s an abundant life we can experience right now, even in a time of pandemic.

But let’s be clear: Jesus being the Gate does NOT mean that we will never suffer or that we will always be safe from bad things or people. Again, pandemic. But it does mean that the bad stuff will not be faced alone and that it will not last forever. Jesus will bear it with us and will, in the end, bring us into the safety of the sheephold.

Gate and shepherd, Redeemer and Savior, Son of God and Son of Man, Jesus does it all. Compared to that, our job is simple: to be good sheep, following his voice, trusting in his protection, and living our lives in him. We can do that.  Amen.

April 19 Sermon

I am a little behind publishing my sermons. Sorry. Here’s a second post for today. ALM

When it was the first day of the week on the third week of Dr. Acton’s stay-at-home order and the doors of all our houses were locked for fear of the novel coronavirus, Governor DeWine came into our living rooms and said, “Peace be with you. Although the CDC has sent me, I am not sending you until at least May 1st and even then, it will only be a gradual transition. If you keep your social distance from others, they will keep their social distance from you. And if you cough on others, they may also cough on you and you may retain COVID-19.”

But the people who thought the novel coronavirus was a government hoax did not believe Governor’s wisdom, and they doubted him. They said “Unless we see masses of people actually dying or you can prove that social distancing is flattening the so-called curve, then we will not believe.”

 A week later, when we all were still locked in our houses, Governor DeWine came into our living rooms and said “Peace be with you.Then he said to those who doubted, “There are not masses of deaths because we have practiced social distancing. And the curve is flattening because we have closed non-essential businesses. Do not doubt, but stay six feet away from each other!”

 The doubters answered him: “Our governor and our hero!”

The Governor answered them: “Aw shucks. I’m just doing what the CDC told me to do. Now if only those people in Michigan could also come to believe…”

 I’m probably going to be condemned as a heretic when my bishop hears how I misappropriated that text, but I thought we needed a little laugh. And just to be clear, I do NOT believe that Governor DeWine is Jesus.

But still, are we not locked in our houses for fear of the coronavirus? And are there not doubters among us who want proof before they will believe that there IS a coronavirus—proof being seeing for themselves that people are dying in masses? And are we not blessed for believing in the wisdom and recommendations of our leaders even though we have never seen the coronavirus and few of us know anyone who has it? Well, maybe we are not blessed, but we are safer for the believing.

As recent days have shown us, it is often difficult to trust in the witness and wisdom of others when our own experience does not bear it out. After all, Thomas didn’t want anything more than what the other disciples had already received. He wanted to see for himself. He wanted proof. He wanted his own Jesus experience.

Maybe if everyone knew someone who died of the coronavirus, then maybe everyone would believe what we’ve been told, for our experience will have proved the truth of what we’d heard. But of course, such proof in our circumstances would mean the deaths of many people and surely no one would wish for that just to banish their personal doubts.

Yet my comparison still holds some water. All those who doubt the virulence of the coronavirus can point to the fact that there have been less than 500 deaths and less than 10,000 cases in our whole state. Those who believe that COVID-19 is as bad as the CDC says, can point to the staggering statistics in New York or Italy or China as their proof. And yet, for many people, without direct experience of someone with the virus, doubt about the danger is still strong.

I think that much of this so-called doubt is probably less about disbelieving than it is about how this situation has decimated people’s lives. The loss of jobs and income, the stress of staying home, the absence of activities and goods that we have taken for granted is fueling discontent with the stay-at-home and social distancing orders. And the mixed messages from our leaders certainly do not help people feel confident or comforted. And the result is fear, turned into frustration, turned into anger.

Yet at the root of anger one will usually find fear. Fear of losing what is most important to us; fear of where we will be when all this is over; fear of what our lives will be like in the future. I think fear was part of Thomas’ doubt as well.

Let me say first what I say every year—for we always have the story of so-called Doubting Thomas on the Sunday after Easter—Thomas got a bad rap. This so-called “doubter” is the same man who urged his fellow disciples to accompany Jesus to Jerusalem so that they could all die together. That took guts. And Thomas is the first of the disciples who recognized that the resurrection of Jesus was not the same as the raising of Lazarus. No, Thomas was the first one to confess that Jesus was both his Lord and his God. And tradition holds that Thomas spent the rest of his life witnessing to Jesus, going as far as India to do so, where an Indian king had Thomas stabbed to death for refusing to worship an idol. So Thomas may have had his moment of doubt, but he more than compensated for it with the rest of his life.

Yet I maintain that Thomas’ doubt was not so much doubt as it was fear. I think that Thomas may have been afraid to believe that Christ had been raised. Afraid to believe what he had not seen with his own eyes. Think about what he and the others had seen and had been through in the previous week.

They marched into Jerusalem hailed as heroes. Within five days, their master, their Messiah, who they were certain had come to save Israel—within 5 days he was arrested, tried for heresy, tortured, and executed. All Jesus’ friends fled, including we assume Thomas and they went into hiding. They were devastated by their loss, filled with grief, confused as to what the past three years had been all about. They were afraid for their lives—what if the Jews or Romans came after them next? They probably were afraid to leave the city and go home in case they were arrested as they tried to leave.

And then on the 3rd day, the tomb was empty, Mary Magdalene claimed to have seen Jesus alive, and they don’t know what to believe. And then, suddenly there was Jesus standing before them, showing them that he was indeed alive. He gave them a mission and granted them the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish that mission. Imagine how joyful and relieved they must have felt! Probably still a bit confused, but filled with hope and joy. Jesus was not dead but alive and their lives had purpose once more. It wasn’t the purpose they might have thought, but it was still a holy purpose from God.

And then Thomas came into this joy-filled group and they told him this ridiculous story about Jesus being alive and Thomas refused to believe them because he was afraid. He was afraid to believe, he was afraid his life would have no purpose, and maybe he was afraid that Jesus purposely came when Thomas was gone, leaving him out of everything. So Thomas expressed his fear as doubt, as a demand for proof.

Which Jesus gave him. A week later. Imagine Thomas’ frustration and fear growing as the other disciples continued to talk about their encounter with the risen Lord and Thomas was left out in the cold. And notice when Jesus did appear again, there is no word of chastisement, no blame for Thomas’ fear and doubt. Just an invitation to believe. And Thomas believed. He believed more than almost anyone else. He gave his life to the mission Jesus gave them, to proclaim salvation in Christ’s name.

To return to my analogy, we are in a time of belief and disbelief—at least about the coronavirus. There is little I can say to convince you to change camps. If you believe what our government leaders are saying, you believe and if you doubt, you doubt. I do not have an MD after my name that I might convince you otherwise.

But I do have an MDiv after my name and I can speak to what it means to have doubts regarding faith.  And I trust that you know that having doubts is a normal part of faith and that we should never be embarrassed by our doubts. Like Thomas, we should be honest about our doubts. We should not be afraid to ask for our own Jesus experience. We should expect Jesus to come to us as well. And we can do this, knowing that Jesus understands our doubts and our desire for our own spiritual encounter with him. We can trust that Jesus will not chastise or condemn, but will come to us in the ways we need in order to believe.

And our task, in the midst of doubts, is to remain faithful—that is, to continue act faithfully—and to be patient. Jesus will come to us at the right time. After all, Thomas had to wait a whole week, surely an eternity when everyone else was already sure. And Christ will come to us. He comes to us in our prayer, he comes to us in holy communion, he comes to us in one another, he comes to us in our gathering—something I hope will happen for us soon. For I miss seeing the Christ in you and I think you miss seeing the Christ in each other.

Yet we are still the body of Christ in the world, still those called to bear witness, still those who seek to have life in his name. As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us—doubts and all—to tell the world that through Christ, they—and we—may have life in his name. Amen.

Easter Sermon

CHRIST IS RISEN! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

           For more than 20 years, I have started every Easter sermon with that shout of acclamation and victory. Our service begins and ends with it, this declaration of Christ’s victory over death. This is the Good News of Christ—that he has risen from the dead. Alleluia!

And if that was all we said, if shouting “CHRIST IS RISEN! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” If that comprised the entirety of my sermon, it would be enough. It is the only message for this day. Anything else I might say is truly unnecessary. In fact most of the time I suspect, the sermon isn’t all that necessary. Usually, the scriptures, the music, and the liturgy give us all the Good News we need about Christ’s victory over death and about God’s love and mercy for all.

But I like to preach and you probably have tuned in—listen to me—tuned in—what is this, the 70’s?—you have tuned in expecting a sermon, so a sermon you shall have, no matter how unnecessary it might be.

So here’s something you may or may not know about me. I’m a perfectionist. I’m not proud of it, and for some reason it often irritates other people, but it’s the truth.        And I don’t think I’m alone in this. In fact, in the tiny congregation present in this room, I think there are a few more people afflicted with perfectionism, yes? And some of you listening and watching are also perfectionists, aren’t you?

We perfectionists get quite disgruntled or frustrated when things don’t turn out like we’d imagined or hoped or worked for. Like, for example, our Good Friday service. If you ‘tuned in,’ you may have noticed that there were a couple of glitches, a few missed steps. Yet in spite of these glitches, we managed to get the story of Jesus’ passion told, we heard some excellent music, we sang some appropriate Good Friday hymns, and we got Jesus to the tomb—with a few extra flourishes at the end.

Yet even though our Good Friday service was less-than-perfect, today we can still declare that “CHRIST IS RISEN! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” And we can shout this joyful declaration because God does not need us to be perfect, which is really good since there is no way that any of us—including me—can be perfect. Ever. Only God is perfect.

And God’s perfection is shown in Jesus Christ, whose life and words, whose death and resurrection show us the only truth that matters: that God knows us—imperfections and all—and still loves us and forgives us calls us his own beloved children. This truth about God’s love and mercy and promise of eternal life is what should fuel and comfort and uplift us even in these days.

Even in a time of pandemic, Christ is still risen.

Even when worship services are not perfect, Christ is still risen.

Even when the sermon is unnecessary, Christ is still risen.

Even when we cannot be together, Christ is still risen.

Even when we are afraid, Christ is still risen.

Even when there is no toilet paper, Christ is still risen.

Even when our jobs are at risk or gone, Christ is still risen.

Even when our families are driving us nuts, Christ is still risen.

Even when our dear Pastor Fred is nearing the end of his life, Christ is still risen.

Even when 10’s of 1000’s are dead or dying, Christ is still risen.

O my beloved people, no matter what else happens, Christ is always risen, the mercy of God is always ours, and the love of God will always hold us up. And none of that depends on our perfection or our actions. It depends solely on the mercy of the Almighty God, who wants us to remember that no matter what: CHRIST IS RISEN! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

          And that, as they say, is that. Amen.

March 29 Sermon Text

I don’t know about you, but I could use a little resurrection right now. A lifting of the veil, a rolling away of the stone, an unbinding of that which is restricting us! I could use a little resurrection about now! Can I get an amen to that?

Our Lent theme has been change —an unexpectedly appropriate choice on our part for these days.

On the first Sunday of Lent, we heard of Jesus’ temptation, in which Jesus refused to change into the person Satan wanted him to be.

On the 2nd Sunday of Lent, we heard of the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, in which Jesus invited Nicodemus to change his beliefs about God—to believe that God loved the whole world and desired to save the whole world—not just the Jewish people.

On the 3rd Sunday of Lent, we had the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at a well, in which Jesus invited her to change her ideas about her people’s faith, to realize that the Messiah had come to change them all.

Last week, the 4th Sunday of Lent, we had the story of the man born blind being healed by Jesus, a reminder that healing is always God’s desire, healing of bodies, minds, spirits, relationships. That healing is one of the ways that God changes our lives on a regular basis.

And this week the marvelous story of the raising of Lazarus, when Jesus restores his friend to life. Talk about a changed life! From dead to not-dead! That is by far the most dramatic change of all.

One of the ironies of this story is that in John’s gospel, the raising of Lazarus is the final straw that leads the Jewish leaders to decide that Jesus needs to die–and Lazarus too. Jesus restored life; then others decided to take his life and Lazarus’ life away from them.

Truly, we could not have picked more appropriate gospel texts for this time than those that we have had for this Lent. And just so you know, these are the readings that were assigned in the 3-year lectionary that we and many other denominations use every week. These are not chosen at random. These would have been our readings without COVID-19.

As I said in one of my video devotions this week, we are in the process of being changed by this pandemic, whether we like it or not. The truth is, we don’t always get to choose the changes in our lives. And this is one of those times. We didn’t choose, but we are being changed.

We are being changed by this experience. And while most of long to return to “normal,” by which we mean everything goes back the way it was before, the truth is that there is no going back. When things get back to ‘normal,’ they may look the same on the surface—we may look the same on the surface—but we are not. We will not be the same. We will be changed, like it or not.

I read recently that human beings shed our cells on a regular basis, with old cells being replaced by new cells. The writer was making the point that we are genetically engineered to change—to be in a constant state of change, right up until we cease to breathe. And then, of course, comes the greatest change, from death to life—not restored life like Lazarus—but eternal life like Jesus.

So if we accept the premise that, whether we like it or not, we will be changed by this experience, then consider this: Who do we want to be when it’s all over?

When COVID-19 is just a bad memory, a story we will tell our children and grandchildren about the time when all the toilet paper disappeared and people stayed in their homes for weeks and children got to skip school and parents got to go a little bit crazy. When it’s all over, when it’s all just a part of history, how will we have changed? Who will we be? Who do we want to be?

We know we cannot always control change. We cannot necessarily control the changes that are being forced upon us that this time. But we can decide who we will be in the midst of these enforced changes, in the midst of enforced stay-at-home orders, in the midst of fear and anxiety about the future. We can decide who we will be both in this time of change and in the time after. I would invite you consider how God is working in you now, to change you. And think about who you want to be after COVI-19 is past.

I hope, as I have said quite often in the past weeks, that we are striving to become more like Jesus: more compassionate, more generous, more loving, more merciful. Let this challenging time make you into one who is more like Jesus.

We never hear about Lazarus again after Jesus raises him from the dead. We don’t know if he lives many years, or dies a few months later. Perhaps the Jew leaders were successful in their plots to kill him.

Traditions—that is, unverifiable sources from ancient times—suggest that Lazarus was about 30 when he died and lived another 30 years.

Another version says that Lazarus fled the Jewish leaders and went to the island of Cyprus, south of modern day Turkey. There, Lazarus where he witnessed to Jesus the rest of his life and was eventually made a bishop, and served faithfully in this office for 18 years before dying.

Other sources say that Lazarus met up with St. Paul and Barnabus and traveled with them for a bit before settling down in Cyprus.

There’s a story that Lazarus asked an old woman at a vineyard—on Cyprus again—for some grapes and she refused, so he turned the vineyard into a salt marsh which is still there today.

One story I read said that Lazarus was sullen and never smiled or laughed after his resurrection, and this was due to what he saw while his soul was in Hades for four days.

Most of the traditions agree that Lazarus spent his final years on the island of Cyprus. At the traditional site of his tomb, there was engraved on his sarcophagus: Lazarus of the four days, and the friend of Christ.

 I think I’d like that on my tombstone. Maybe you too? Even better, though would be if people thought of us as friends of Christ now. Can I get an amen? Amen.

 

Devotion March 26

Greetings, dear people of God.

Our scripture text for today is from Romans 5:3-5

Suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has given to us.

Honestly, I wouldn’t call it one of my favorite verses, but I remember it because it offers an uncomfortable truth—that hope finds its origin in suffering. Without suffering, Paul seems to be saying, there cannot be hope. And while I might wish that were not true, I think it probably is. Hope comes from suffering—from enduring suffering, that is. After all, who needs hope when everything is good?

And our endurance creates character—that is, helps us to grow. And I think that’s true too. If you think about the times that you “grew” spiritually or emotionally, that growth most likely came from a time of challenge or change or suffering. Only when we walk through those times of challenge, change and suffering can we appreciate the power of hope.

While I would not go so far as to say that we are suffering right now—although some certainly are—we are most definitely in a time of challenge and change. Ah, that Lent theme of change.

Here’s what I want you to consider: when things get back to “normal” we will all have been changed by this experience. What are the changes that are taking place in you right now that you will take with you into life on the other side of COVID-19? Who do you want to be in the world when all this is ended?

Some of you may b thinking—I just want to be NORMAL again–I want things to go back to how they were before. And that’s certainly a possibility. BUT you can also be changed by this experience—changed for the better, hopefully. Here’s a chance to consider who you WANT to be when all this is done.

Know that whatever you decide, whatever changes you make, whatever challenges you face, whatever suffering you are enduring, God is with us to strengthen, heal, and bring hope.

Let’s pray together.

Lord God, we know that you are the source of all hope. Help all who are enduring suffering, who are afraid, who are sick to know the hope that comes only from faith in your promises. Use this time to change us ever more into disciples of Christ, that we may bring his light into this world of fear and darkness. And now hear us as we pray as Jesus taught us: Our Father…

Don’t forget to worship with us at 10:30 this Sunday on WLKR 95.3 and on Facebook Live.

So dear people of God, stay safe; stay well; and stay at home. And may the peace of Christ be with you.

Sermon from March 22

Here is the text from my March 22 sermon. You can also listen to it from the March 22 worship video posted on the St. Peter Facebook page.

unnamedWhat a difference a week makes!

That’s how I started last week’s sermon and it seemed like a pretty on-point thing to say this week too. Last week I lamented the closing of schools and restaurants and the lack of sanitizing gel and toilet paper.

This week, almost everything is closed, we went from groups of 100 to groups of 50, and now to groups of 10 or less. You can’t get a haircut or a manicure or go to a fitness class. Or still find anti-bacterial gel or even much toilet paper

And for what is likely a first for reasons other than weather, we have suspended in-person worship services here at St. Peter, as have churches around the country.

Oh…and the COVID-19 virus has found its way into our community. It has been a week.

And we are told it will get worse.

But in the midst of all the craziness and change for the worse, we, the leaders of St. Peter, felt you needed some normalcy in your life, so here we are, doing our “normal” worship service with a few tweaks to make it more usable for you at home.

We also know that you need to hear the hopeful Word of God—we all do—more than ever. In the midst of what may the health crisis of our lifetimes, we need the hope that comes only through faith in Jesus Christ.

And to illustrate the hope that comes only through faith in Jesus Christ, today we have one of my favorite stories in the scriptures. The story of the man born blind, healed by Jesus. It’s one of the longest stories in the gospels, with multiple characters, conversations, tense situations, a miracle, and oh, yeah, a guy has his life changed permanently. Pretty good stuff.

The action begins with the disciples asking Jesus if the man born blind was being punished for his sins or for the sins of his parents. Rather a horrible question, I’d say, but that’s the way they all thought in those days. Disease or disability was a sign of God’s wrath directed towards you or a member of your family for some sin you had committed. The disciples were products of their age. They believed that someone must be to blame for this situation.

Jesus names this viewpoint for what it is: nonsense. Instead, he says that this is an opportunity to show the power of God. And without the man ever asking him, Jesus cures the man’s blindness. And then Jesus disappears from the story for a while.

Much of the rest of the story is about how no one believed that the blind man had been miraculously cured; or they believed he had been lying all along about being blind. They even questioned his parents about whether this man actually was their son at all and his parents hmm and haw around and avoid the answering the question. Maybe it WAS their sin that cause the man’s blindness.

In any event, did you notice that NO ONE, not even his parents, was happy that he was cured—that he could see for the first time in his life. No one rejoiced with him, no one congratulated him, no one cared. They only wanted to prove that there had been some sort of hoax or evil at work in this miracle—if indeed it WAS a miracle at all.  I have always found that part of the story fascinating and unaccountably sad. Did the poor man have no one, no friends, no family, who cared enough to be happy for him that he could see?

Of course, he didn’t have anyone! He was a terrible sinner, who was punished by God for his sins—that’s why he blind! Although he was blind from birth so what sin a baby in utero could commit is beyond me. But then people’s beliefs are not always logical. They believed he deserved his blindness and they were not happy at his good fortune because that meant that maybe they had been WRONG.

And no one likes to be wrong.

So instead of admitting the possibility that they were wrong in their thinking, it was just easier to believe that the man born blind was a liar, a faker, or in cahoots with evil. They chose to cling to their belief that the man deserved his blindness and therefore did NOT deserve this healing. Regardless of the miracle that he was granted, they decided the man was still a sinner—born entirely in sins is the final word they speak to him. And they drive him out. The very gift that should have restored the man to his community—the lifting of God’s supposed curse of blindness—instead resulted in his being thrown out of his community.

At the end, of course, Jesus swoops in to rescue the formerly blind man, just as Jesus had done at the beginning of the story. The Pharisees resented Jesus’ actions and words and Jesus responded by saying that they may think they understood how things were, how God worked, but in truth, they were more blind than the man had ever been.

Zing!! That Jesus, he sure knows how to make friends, doesn’t he?

Did you notice the evolution of the man’s faith?

The first time they asked him who healed him and how it happened, he told the facts and could not explain the why.

The next time he’s asked the man says that Jesus is a prophet.

The last time they asked him, the man gives a testimony that never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing! So Jesus is a man from God.

And then at the end, when the man finally encounters Jesus again, and Jesus says he is the Son of Man—an ancient Jewish title for one chosen by God. And the man declares I believe! And he worshiped Jesus. He moved from uncertainty to faith that Jesus was from God and had the power of God working through him.

And do you know what made the man’s faith grow and solidify? Adversity. The challenge of others disbelieving him, discounting his experience, and dismissing him from the community. It was the adversity that strengthened his faith.

It has been my personal experience that adversity CAN strengthen our faith—IF we are willing to allow God to do that. Sometimes in the midst of fear or suffering or pain, it can be difficult to be faithful, to feel God’s presence. And yet, if we are willing—for God does not force us to do anything against our will—if we are willing, God can and does use adversity to make us stronger—stronger in faith, stronger in compassion, stronger in love.

This time of adversity in which we find ourselves is difficult. Many of us are feeling afraid, lonely, frustrated, or maybe just inconvenienced. Nobody’s having a good time right now. Yet this time of change and challenge can make us stronger, make us more like Jesus, who after all, experienced adversity beyond any we will likely to experience.

And as I said a few weeks back, isn’t that we all want—we people of faith? To be more like Jesus? This is a time to be more like Jesus—a time for faithful witness. As St. Paul said in our second reading: it is a time for us to live as children of the light and to try to find what is pleasing to the Lord—and to do it.

You are God’s beloved, those who see the light, who live in the light. Let other see that light in us. And let us shine in this time of adversity with the light of Jesus Christ, he who is the light of the whole world. Amen.

Worship Cancelled-sort of

March 17, 2020.

After yesterday’s press conference from Governor DeWine, the new recommendations from the White House, and with Bishop Beaudoin’s strong recommendation to suspend worship, the St. Peter Church Council has, by a majority vote, decided to cancel worship services for the weekend of March 21-22 and March 28-29.

In addition, all remaining midweek Lent services scheduled for March 18, March 25, and April 1 are cancelled.

A small group of us gather on Sunday so that we can still broadcast the 10:30 worship service on WLKR 95.3 FM on their livestream: http://www.northcoastnow.com. We will also be streaming on Facebook Live at 10:30. You can watch the Facebook Live stream by going to St. Peter’s FB page: www.facebook.com/stpeternorwalk.  We hope you will tune in to worship with us.

Most other St. Peter activities and events are also cancelled through April 4, but not all. If you have questions, contact your ministry leader.

We are also discussing other ways to interface with our church family in this time of enforced separation.

For the time being, the church office will remain open Monday through Thursday 8:30 am – 3:30 pm.

We will be using the St. Peter FB page, website, and the One Call system for other updates and information about the status of activities at our church.

If you have concerns, questions, emergencies, or other needs, please contact the church office or call, text, or email me, Pastor Ann, directly.

Fear is a powerful thing. Let us remember that Christ is with us always, to banish our fears and to fill us with hope and peace. Take care of yourselves. Take care of your neighbors. Be kind. Be patient. Be faithful. God always has the last word. The peace of Christ be with you all.