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.

 

Peace Be With You

354401a245dfc7a9a1d5b61ebb3f2565COVID-19. The topic of nearly every conversation and something that is much on our minds. Some people are panicking, while others think that we are overreacting. Assuming that our officials are likely in possession of information of which the public is not be aware, I tend to trust that the measures being taken by our leaders are appropriate, if inconvenient. For most of us, a little extra attention to cleanliness and self-hygiene will be sufficient. For those who are at-risk, greater precautions are necessary, but we all know that already.

At our Council meeting this past Thursday, we discussed what a faithful response should be to this global crisis. We all agreed that remaining calm and not overreacting was first. We agreed that caring for our families and selves was necessary, but not to the extent of panic or hoarding.

We also talked about the “love your neighbor as yourself” command from Jesus. While it is important to care for ourselves and our families, it is equally important that we concern ourselves with the well-being of others. Do we have family members or elderly neighbors who are at risk and could use some help? Grocery runs or drug store runs or homemade food might be ways that we see to the welfare of our neighbors. A phone call to check on someone, a prayer over the phone, an offer of assistance are other ways we can show love for our neighbors. Volunteering at the food bank or in other emergency aid sites which may be offering extended assistance is another way to serve our community.

It is critical that, as followers of Jesus Christ, we show the world that we (and God) care about our communities and that we will continue to be engaged in the world in spite of the fears of those around us. And we do not do this work alone. Jesus promised to be with us always, to the end of the age—which means all the places in between now and the end of the age.

At St. Peter—as of today, Saturday March 14—we are doing ministry as usual, with a few added precautions. The preschool has been cancelled, in accordance with our policy to follow the lead of the Norwalk City Schools. But for now, that is the only activity that we have cancelled. We are urging our ministry leaders to make their own determinations about meetings and the activities and to communicate directly with their participants. We will allow the groups who use our building to make their own determinations as well. Some of the groups (NA comes to mind) are quite essential to the health and well-being of its members and, until the governor says otherwise, we will continue to welcome our outside groups.

The Soup and Silent Auction scheduled for March 22 has been postponed.

The middle school Mall and a Movie scheduled for Sunday March 15 has been rescheduled to be an “at church” activity, still at 1 p.m.

The sanctuary and narthex have been cleaned and disinfected for worship tomorrow. Our youth will do it again after BOTH services and will continue to do so through at least the end of March. Our CDNS staff is always cleaning their spaces, so the Sunday school/CDNS rooms are already very clean. Our office administrator, Jennifer, has been wiping down all the surfaces in the front office on a daily basis. Anti-bacterial gel is available in the narthex, as it always is. Last week we added additional bottles in the front of the sanctuary for the use of communicants as they wish. All those who serve communion already clean their hands before washing and will continue to do.

I will be recommending no hand shaking in worship, either during the peace or after service ends—although again, this is up to each individual. Our bishop recommends we share the peace verbally and with the peace sign or in American Sign Language.

Those who are at-risk or simply afraid are urged to stay home. We have the gift of the radio broadcast at 10:30 (WLKR 95.3), which can also be live-streamed at www.wlkr.northcoastnow.com. We also will continue to livestream our 10:30 service via the St. Peter Facebook page (facebook.com/stpeternorwalk).

And please don’t forget your weekly offering when you return or use the “give” button on our webpage: stpeter-elca.org.

Watch the St. Peter Facebook page for updates. If anything changes in terms of holding worship or other church activities, we’ll post it on the FB page, and send out a One Call. If you are not on the One Call, contact the church office to get your phone number included.

Use this link to view a message from our presiding bishop Elizabeth Eaton: https://elca.org/publichealth.

Use this link to view a message from our Northwestern Ohio bishop Daniel Beaudoin: https://nwos-elca.church/2020/03/12/covid-19-how-do-we-respond/.

Even as we take these reasonable precautions, we should remember the promises of Jesus: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14:27)

Sheer Joy

happy-elderly-lady-riding-a-mobility-scooter-in-a-park-G21NHFOn the way to work this morning, I passed an elderly woman on her scooter. She was driving north on Benedict Avenue and she noticed me noticing her, and she gave me this huge, happy, ear-to-ear grin and waved at me with great vigor. I was so taken by the sheer joy in her face that I laughed aloud and waved back.

Perhaps she was filled with joy because the morning was warm and the sun was shining. Although it’s been a mild winter, there have still been many cold and gloomy days.

Perhaps this is the first time she’d been able to be outside because of the weather or her health or some other reason.

Perhaps she had gotten good news from the doctor or learned that she had a new great-grandchild on the way or that Walmart had a sale on her favorite brand of shampoo.

Whatever the reason, that woman was the embodiment of joy in that moment. I am smiling right now just thinking about that big grin of hers.

I wonder…when was the last time I embodied joy? When was the last time someone looked at me and felt happy just seeing my countenance? Perhaps more importantly: when was the last time I felt so joyful that it spilled over onto those around me?

In this Lent season, we are in a time of anticipation of the joy of Easter. Yet we already know that Easter is coming, so we needn’t hide our joy just because we are in a time of reflection and repentance. We know the end of the story. We know the joy of God’s promises in Jesus Christ. We know that God has the final word in all our lives and that word is “resurrection.”

I kinda think maybe we ought to be grinning ear-to-ear pretty much all of the time. Joy should be our default setting.

How might you experience and show more joy in your life?

Ashes & Snow

snowIt was nearly 50 degrees today. The sun was shining, the air was crisp. I forced myself to take a break from my confirmation and Lent work to take a walk in the sunshine.

As I was coming back from my walk, I saw the dirty piles of snow pictured above. They are on the east edge of the church parking lot, left over from one of our few big snows this winter. It being only three days before Ash Wednesday, my theological thoughts noted the analogy.

We, too, are white as the snow. Made in the image of God, saved by the love of Christ, we are pure and clean. But we are also stained with sin, with our own cruelties and ugliness and willful disobedience. Christ commands us to love one another as he loves us and to forgive one another as we have been forgiven, yet we often choose to ignore both these difficult commands. So the image of God in us becomes stained and grimed and covered in sin’s muck.

But under it all, we are still who God made us to be. We are still the children of God, the brothers and sisters of Jesus. The mercy of God removes the stain of sin, making us clean and pure again. Until the next time we decide to go our own way—which usually doesn’t take very long.

The ashes of Ash Wednesday remind us of our mortality and the fleeting nature of this life. On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that our lives are limited and that we and all we value will one day be nothing but dust and ashes. After all, those snow piles will one day melt away, both the grime and the snow.

snow 2Given this reality, do we really wish to spend our relatively short earthly lives covered in grime and muck? Or do we wish to shine with the brightness of God’s image in us and show that image to others? Granted, we are incapable of being entirely muck-free (i.e., sin-free), but we know that God can help us to be less sinful if that is what we truly desire.

Whoever we decide to be, we can live in the knowledge that the love of God is stronger than any of our choices and that in the end, the love of God wins.