Saturday, April 18, 2020

“God Sightings” - April 19, 2020

Text: Luke 24:13-35

Last Sunday we gathered to celebrate resurrection.  Confined to our homes as the disciples were, we heard the story of the women going to the tomb and receiving the news that Christ was risen.  And the service was punctuated by Patricia’s dog Ziggy running in circles and barking in joy to the Hallelujah Chorus.  We are not likely to see anything like that again.  Bravo, Ziggy! 

But while Ziggy was celebrating, the women at the tomb were amazed and terrified, and not saying anything.   

This morning Jacelyn read for us about two travelers heading away from Jerusalem.  They are on their way to the village of Emmaus.  Why are they going to Emmaus?  It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out why.

They had put their hope and trust in Jesus.  But now he had died a humiliating death.  Their hopes were crushed.  And for Jesus’ followers, the safe thing, the prudent thing, was to get out of Jerusalem.

As they walked to Emmaus, they talked about what had happened in the last week.  What a week.  It had begun with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  That energized and hopeful beginning had morphed into Jesus’ betrayal and arrest after the Passover meal on Thursday night, and finally his crucifixion on Friday.

After that, the disciples had stayed in hiding, behind closed doors.  But then on Sunday morning some of the women in the group had shown up with an amazing tale about Jesus’ body missing from the tomb and angels saying that he had risen from the dead. 

Cleopas and his companion were discussing all of this when they were joined on the road by another traveler.  The traveler asks what they were talking about.  And they just froze in their tracks for a moment.  They were filled with sadness, and finally Cleopas says, “Are you the only person around who doesn’t know all the things that have taken place?”

The traveler, of course, is Jesus.  And he plays dumb.  “What things?” he asks.  And they proceed to rehash what has happened, telling them about Jesus of Nazareth, and saying, “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.”

That has got to be one of the saddest lines in the Bible.  “We had hoped.”  These are the words of people whose dreams have been shattered and for whom there seems to be no future.  “We had hoped.” 

Jesus has been listening to their story but can’t hold back any longer.  He proceeds to go through the scriptures and what the prophets taught about the Messiah.  About himself.

They arrive at the village and Jesus acts as though he is going to continue.  But it is just sort of a head fake.  Cleopas and his companion plea with Jesus to stay with them, as the hour is getting late.  “Stay with us,” they say.  So Jesus stays and they sit down to a meal. 

If “we had hoped” are three words of great sadness, “stay with us” are three words brimming with hospitality.  Despite being wrapped up in a world of their own sorrow, these two disciples’ hearts remained open and they had room for the grace to share hospitality with a stranger.

At this point they still do not recognize that it is Jesus.  How could this be?  Well, part of the explanation is that we see what we expect to see.  If we are not looking for something – or someone – we are a lot less likely to see it.

Several years ago a musician, a violinist, set up to play in a Metro station in Washington DC.  He wore jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap.  He set up at a station where thousands of federal employees get on and off the subway.  He took out his violin and put a few bills and some coins in his case to prime the pump – seed money, which is always a smart move.  This musician then faced the pedestrian traffic and started playing.  It was 7:45 in the morning, right in the middle of rush hour.  

This wasn’t just any musician.  This was Joshua Bell, an internationally acclaimed virtuoso.  He was in town to receive the Avery Fisher prize as the greatest classical musician in America.  But here he was as a street musician, playing in the subway.  His instrument was a 1713 Stradivarius violin, which he had purchased for a reported $3.5 million. 

The Washington Post had arranged this performance as part of an experiment.  Would people notice this acclaimed musician?  Even if they didn’t know who he was, would people stop and listen?  Bell played difficult, intricate, beautiful pieces.  He played splashy, attention-getting pieces and threw himself into the music.  Some were drawn to the music, including every single child who walked by, some of whom had to be dragged away by their parents.  But over 45 minutes, a total of 7 people stopped to listen for a minute or more while around 1100 walked on by.

Bell made a total of $32.17, $20 of which came from the one person who recognized who he was.  This is someone who regularly makes well over $100 a minute.

For commuters that morning, Joshua Bell was just another guy trying to make a buck in the subway.  They didn’t really stop to look and listen, because we don’t see what we don’t expect to see.  And we don't expect to see one of the greatest musicians in the world playing in the subway at 7:45 in the morning.

That afternoon on the road to Emmaus, Jesus was the last person Cleopas and his friend expected.  They didn’t expect to see him - and they didn’t.

But then they sat down with this stranger at the table.  Jesus took the bread and blessed it and broke it, just as he had done so many times, and they recognized him.  In the hospitality offered and in the meal that was shared, their eyes were opened.

It is striking what they do when they understand that they have seen Jesus.  They had implored this stranger not to travel any further because it was getting late, but when they realize they have been with Jesus, they immediately head back to Jerusalem, never mind the hour.  Rather than putting as much distance as they could between themselves and the authorities in Jerusalem, they head right back into the thick of it.

When they found the other disciples, they shared the news that the Lord had risen indeed, and how Jesus had walked with them on the road and had been made known in the breaking of the bread.  And then later that evening, Jesus appeared to all of them.

One person wrote, “Emmaus didn’t just happen; Emmaus always happens.”  We can find ourselves in this story.  Cleopas’ companion is not named, but you might just insert your own name there for that second traveler.  We all have our own Emmaus, that place we go when we get the wind knocked out of us.  It’s the place where we head when grief and pain make our spiritual compass go haywire.  The road to Emmaus is the road of deep disappointment, and we have all traveled that road.

In fact, we may be on that road to Emmaus right now.  These are hard days.  This is a difficult time.  We have been physically separated from family and friends.  We increasingly are aware of people we know who are sick, who are fearful, who are facing crises.  And that might be us.  Reality is setting in as we realize that life is going to be different for some time to come. 

It is such a strange time, such a difficult time.  But it was in a strange and difficult time that Jesus appeared to these two travelers.  By the grace of God and through the light they allowed in through their hospitality and welcome, they experienced the Risen Christ.

In this uncertain and unsettling time in which we find ourselves, God is at work.  And God may be found if we have eyes to see.

The challenge for us is to have the faith and the vision to look around us and to see all of the ways God is present with us.  The challenge is to be open to the other, to pay attention to one another, to have eyes that are ready and willing to see.

Where do you see God at work?  I would invite you this week to be on the lookout for God sightings.  Pay attention to those moments when, like Cleopas and his friend, we may feel our hearts being stirred.

It may be a small thing, a small gesture, a small reminder that God is with us.  It may be an unexpected sign of hope and joy.  

And when we have experienced Christ in our lives, our response, like the two on the road to Emmaus, is to turn around, to head back to Jerusalem, back to the place where we can bear witness to resurrection.  In other words, look for signs of God at work in our midst, signs of new life, signs of resurrection, and be ready to share those signs with others.  Amen.

“Jesus is Going Ahead of You” - April 12, 2020, Easter Sunday

Text: Mark 16:1-8

A Happy Easter to all of you, gathered from New Hampshire to Colorado to New Jersey to Washington state to Illinois to Minnesota, and of course to all of you at home here in Ames.  Lucky me, I became a televangelist just in time for Easter!

When we think of Easter, we think of Easter egg hunts and gathering with family and friends.  We think of Easter breakfast with Barbara running the kitchen, John Whitaker’s biscuits and gravy, and of course Wallace Sanders’ grits.  (I recommend cheese and hot sauce on your grits, by the way.)

We may think of the church filled with lilies and tulips and daffodils.  When I think of Easter, I think of great, stirring choir anthems and the church filled with people and filled with sound.  And I have to admit that I also think of going to a nice Easter buffet after church, and then a big nap after the exhaustion of Holy Week.

With the possible exception of an afternoon nap, hardly any of that will happen this year.  This Easter is unlike any we have experienced in our lifetimes.  Around the world, Christians are staying away from churches on Easter Sunday.

We are used to Easter being a big production.  We are celebrating that Jesus rose from the dead, that Christ is alive.    We are celebrating new life.  We are celebrating resurrection.  This is at the core of our faith, and if we can’t make a big production out of that, we have a problem.

But the celebration is different this time around.  It is not going to be flashy.  But I would dare to say that this Easter may be more like that first Easter morning than any we have experienced before.

This morning we read Mark’s account of the resurrection.  Compared to the other gospels, it’s very short - only 8 verses.  It is sparse.  There is not a lot of detail.  It is uncertain.  We are left with a lot more questions than answers.  It is not a big production.

But we are living in a sparse time, an uncertain time, and maybe this is exactly the word we need for today.

We are told that three women head to Jesus’ tomb early on a Sunday morning: Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of James.  Mary the mother of James may have been Mary the mother of Jesus – Jesus had a brother named James and maybe Mark was underplaying the fact that this was Jesus’ mother - but we don’t know for sure.

Jesus was buried in a stone tomb.  This was generally the way that wealthy people were buried; poor people were buried in the ground.  But Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council and a person of means, went to Pilate and boldly asked for the body.  This no doubt raised some eyebrows.  It was Joseph who provided the tomb.

The women had gone to the tomb early that morning to prepare the body for burial.  They would wash the corpse and prepare it with spices.  This was a very tender, very personal and intimate act of caring.  Of course, by this point the body was already buried, so what was the deal?

Well, the circumstances dictated this.  Jesus died on a Friday afternoon and was hastily buried before the Sabbath began.  The Sabbath did not end until Saturday evening, and they would not do this at night, so early Sunday morning would have been their first opportunity.
Besides the timing precluding such preparation before the burial, there was also the not insignificant fact that Jesus had been executed as a criminal, guilty of sedition against the state.  What these women were doing was potentially dangerous.  But preparing a body for burial in this way was an important practice in Judaism, and this was a final act of love. 

So the women went to the burial place early that morning, as soon as they could after Jesus’ death.  But they had not thought through everything.  On the way they worried about the stone that closed the tomb and how they would move it.

But when they arrived, the stone had been moved.  They entered the tomb and saw a young man dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed, to put it mildly.  I mean, you would be too.  He says to them, “Do not be afraid.”  This is nearly always the way that angels address people.  “Do not be afraid.  You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here…  Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 

We continue reading: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

That is the way that the Gospel of Mark ends.  Right there.  Just like that.  “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

It is no surprise that Mark is probably the least read gospel on Easter Sunday.  Things are just left up in the air.  And in fact this was such an unsatisfying conclusion to Mark that early Christians added some explanatory verses.  Your Bible probably has in brackets a so-called shorter ending in verse 9 and then a longer ending that goes on for 11 more verses.  These verses are not found in the earliest manuscripts we have of Mark, and the original ending was apparently verse 8.  “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Today, we see Easter as a great celebration.  We celebrate because we know the rest of the story.  We know the meaning of the empty tomb and its promise for us.

The women did not have that.  They were unsure.  The last few days had been a nightmare, and all they had was an empty tomb and the word of a young man, possibly sent by God, telling them that Jesus had been raised.  They were at the same time filled with hope and scared to death.

At this point, Jesus’ followers were on lockdown.  They were in quarantine.  They were afraid to venture out.

What if the women went and spread the news?  Who would believe them?  And more to the point, would they be likely to suffer the same fate as Jesus?  Would the same guards who arrested Jesus come and arrest them?  No, they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. 

What kind of a way is this to end a gospel?  Maybe it is exactly what we need.  It ends in uncertainty.  The story is unfinished.  But if we go back to the very first sentence of Mark, which we read back on the first Sunday of January, this is what we read: “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Those words are not just describing the first couple of chapters of Mark.  This is a subtitle for the entire gospel.  The whole thing is just the beginning.  And in a sense, what comes next is up to us.

The young man in the tomb told the women that Jesus had gone ahead of them to Galilee, and that they were to tell the others.  The message is, “Get yourself up to Galilee and Jesus will meet you there.”

In two thousand twenty, the year of quarantine, the year of the coronavirus, on this Easter Sunday as we, like those first disciples, are gathered in our homes under lockdown, the message for us is this: Jesus is not to be found in the grave.  He has been raised.  He has gone ahead of us.

“Jesus has gone ahead of you to Galilee.”  I wonder – where is Galilee for us?  Where is Galilee today?

Jesus has gone ahead of us - to nursing homes where families visit loved ones by waving through a window

- to intensive care units where patients struggle for life

- to clinics and hospitals where staff lacking proper protective gear care for patients

Jesus has gone ahead of us to homes where those out of work wait on hold on the phone for hours, trying to sign up for unemployment

- to children who miss school and miss seeing their friends

- to young people who can’t take the test for their driver’s license or have a senior prom or a commencement ceremony

Jesus has gone ahead of us to be with those who are suffering and yet having to put off medical procedures

- to grocery stores where teenagers and employees who can barely make ends meet are keeping the country running

Jesus has gone ahead of us to factories and warehouses and job sites where folks are doing essential work, but social distancing is a foreign concept

- to homes where parents are trying to work, children are trying to do lessons, and everyone is stressed

Jesus has gone ahead of us to communities of color where people are dying from the virus at alarming rates

- to rural communities – places like Galilee – where health care is lacking and ICU beds are few and far between

Jesus has gone on ahead – even to people like you and me.  Jesus has gone to all of those places and all of those people who are desperately in need of hope. 

And because Christ arose, because God’s love is greater even than death, we have the promise of new life, abundant life, beyond all of the hurts and pains and disappointments and injustices and heartaches and deaths of this world.

You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here… he is going ahead of you. 

Christ is Risen.  Christ is Risen indeed.  Alleluia!!  Amen.

“Improvising the Kingdom” - April 5, 2020, Palm Sunday

Text: Mark 11:1-10

This is week three of our live streaming worship experiment, and it really is an experiment.  It reminds me of what we always said back in the chemistry lab: “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be research.”  We have had a somewhat different setup each week and we are learning a little each time. 

But we have given up any illusions of trying to recreate a “normal” worship experience.  But this unsettling season has provided some wonderful opportunities.  It is good to have people join us who may live far from Ames and could not be with us on a “normal” Sunday. 

And so we have joined together again this morning on one of the great days of the church year.  Many churches have a palm parade for children on Palm Sunday, but I love it that we have folks of all ages participating and waving palms as we process to a great hymn.  When it is nice outside we have assembled outside for this.  When it is cold and rainy or possibly snowing – which is most years – we have all started in the narthex, which is not exactly social distancing, but it works.  And then this year we had our first virtual palm procession. 

Along with the joy and excitement and just plain fun of Palm Sunday, we usually read a portion of the passion narrative, which tells of the arrest and trial and crucifixion of Jesus.  It can be a jarring experience to go from the joy of the triumphal entry to facing the reality of the cross, all in one service.  We are reminded that crowds that welcomed Jesus with “Hosanna” wound up shouting “Crucify” later that same week.

This year I decided not to read from the passion narrative this morning.  For one, it feels like we have been living in a Good Friday world these past few weeks.  The world feels heavy with loss and pain, and we are experiencing it in real time.  But maybe more than that, I expect that a good number of folks will want to join in our Maundy Thursday service, where we will be reading some of these passages.

And so this morning we will look at the Triumphal Entry itself.  As I read this familiar story, something stood out this time.  A small thing, a small detail maybe, but it stuck in my mind.  Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed colt. 

He sent two of his disciples to get it; we’re not told who exactly.  But they would find this colt as soon as they entered the village ahead, and if anybody asked about it, they were to say, “The Lord needs it and will bring it right back.”  We will come back to this in a minute.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was filled with meaning.  Pilate, the Roman governor, came to Jerusalem during Passover week to personally make sure that order was kept.  Passover, of course, was a celebration of the Israelites’ escape from bondage in Egypt.  It was a perfect time for revolutionaries to talk about overthrowing the Romans.  So there was Pilate with his entourage, along with large numbers of Roman soldiers there to keep the peace and enforce Roman law.

Someone like Pilate would have likely entered Jerusalem in a chariot pulled by impressive stallions.  A king would have rode in on a powerful horse draped in finery.  Roman soldiers entered Jerusalem on horses armed with displays of power.  And then there is Jesus – riding on a colt, or a donkey as reported in other gospels.  Jesus is on a young donkey – what do you call that, a donkling? – a donkling outfitted not with finery but with the coats of people who stood along the road.

What this was, was prophetic and political speech.  Jesus as well as many in the crowd would have been familiar with the prophecy of Zechariah chapter 9:  “Behold, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 

Jesus is offering a clear alternative to the power of Rome.  The crowds did not necessarily understand the kind of kingdom Jesus was bringing into being, but they were filled with hope and excitement.  They respond by shouting “Hosanna,” which literally means “Save us now.”  

But for Jesus to make this dramatic statement - for the triumphal entry to work - he needed a young donkey.  And you know what?  He did not own a donkey, or a horse, or any other form of conveyance – not even a scooter.  Apparently, neither did his immediate circle of followers.  If Jesus was going to enter Jerusalem on a donkey, he would have to borrow one.

So what we have here is Jesus challenging the religious and political powers that be, announcing that a new kingdom was coming.  And he challenged the powers of this world by means of a borrowed donkey.

We shouldn’t be surprised.  This would not be the first or the last time Jesus depended on something borrowed.  It has been noted that Jesus was born in a borrowed place and laid in a borrowed manger.  As he traveled, he had no place of his own to spend the night.  He rode into the city on a borrowed donkey.  He ate his final meal in a borrowed room. He was crucified on a borrowed cross and when he died, his body was placed in a borrowed tomb.

Jesus didn’t own a lot.  He traveled lightly and lived simply.  After he was arrested and condemned, the soldiers threw dice to see who would take his clothing.  That seemed to be all that he had worth taking.

He asked the same of those who followed him.  You may remember that we read the passage from Mark chapter 6 several weeks ago.  Jesus sent out his followers and ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money, just the clothes they were wearing.  

Jesus knew that what he needed most, and what we need most, are not things that can be purchased.  What we need most are gifts of God: love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, joy, patience, power, grace.  God would provide what he needed and God will provide what we need.  The rest of it, we can more or less improvise.  We can borrow a colt, or we can figure it out with what we have.

If you are like me, there has been a whole lot of improvising going on lately.  Figuring out how school is going to work.  Figuring out how working from home is going to work.  Facing the reality that we are pretty much stuck at home for now.  Figuring out how the family budget is going to work, given new realities.  We have been kind of improvising church every week.

Faith, I think, so often has to do with improvising in the moment.  And in some ways, we have been improvising, figuring it out along the way, all along.  We have to improvise because the world around us is always changing.  The phrase “What would Jesus do?” is basically a guideline for improvising in the moment. 

Do you remember Chesley Sullenberger?  He was the pilot who landed his plane in the Hudson River after it was hit by a flock of geese.   He has just taken off from New York with 150 people on board, and his engines go out.

What does he do?  Well, this is not the moment to get cute or try to be clever.  And it is not the time to panic.  It is the time to fall back on your training and what you know, what you have practiced hundreds of times.  So he improvises.  He looks around, sees the Hudson River, and he thinks, “I can put it down there.  I might hit something, but it’s a lot better than landing in the middle of Manhattan. I’m going to give it a try.”

Faith is like that.  We don’t know what each day might bring.  There are moments we could not possibly prepare for.  All we can do is fall back on what we know to be true: God is with us and God loves us and God will sustain us. 

Jesus traveled light and he urges us to travel light, so that we may be reminded of our dependence on God.  Jesus says that the people who are truly blessed are those who don’t have much: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who are hungry for food and thirsty for righteousness.

The blessed ones, says Jesus, are those who hold on lightly to all that they have, for they know that everything in life depends on the generosity of God.  Those are the people who have everything they need.

Again and again, Jesus was faced with challenges, questions, problems, massive need, and he had to figure out what to do and how to respond in that moment.  The way that works is that you focus on what you know.  And what Jesus knew better than anything else was the deep, deep love of God.

Filled with that love, Jesus gave himself for this world.  On this festive day, he rides a borrowed donkey into the city that will ultimately reject him.  A person with few possessions, he empties himself of all that he has.  And it is all for us.  Amen.

“The End of the World As We Know It” - March 29, 2020

Text: Mark 13:1-8, 24-37

I don’t know if you have noticed, but Lent has kicked it up a notch in the last few weeks.  It has taken it to the next level, as they say.  This has become the Lentiest Lent in our lifetime because basically, whether we chose it or not, we have given up people for Lent.  We have given up handshakes and hugs and hanging out.  Who would have thought that we would give up going to church for Lent?

Our scripture reading long planned for this morning is either terrible timing or perfect timing.  Mark chapter 13 is sometimes called the Little Apocalypse.  You’ve got devastation, you’ve got suffering, and the world goes to hell in a handbasket.  It’s the end of the world as we know it.

To be real honest, this is not my favorite kind of scripture.  You may remember that we did a series on Revelation a few summers ago.  It was kind of fun - we played a Johnny Cash song and dug up some old hymns based on passages from Revelation - but when we finished, after about 7 weeks of it,  I said, “That went really well, and in 25 years I might want to do that again.”  I was being just a little facetious, but this is hard stuff.

And it is doubly hard this morning, because we have read about an apocalypse when it feels like we are living in the midst of an apocalypse.

Jesus’ disciples were not big city people.  They were mostly common folks from Galilee – from the sticks, as they say.  They were wowed by the sights and sounds of Jerusalem.  The disciples see the temple complex and comment on the massive, impressive structures.   And Jesus says, “You see these great buildings?  It’s all coming down.  The place is going to be leveled.  Nothing will be left standing.”

This theme continues throughout the whole chapter.  There will be false prophets.  There will be persecution.  There will come a time to flee and head for the hills, say Jesus. 

The immediate situation had to do with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, which took place in 70 AD.  This had to do with the persecution and suffering that Christians were facing and would have to face.  It is a vision of a world turned upside down.

This morning, that feels a little too close to home.  It feels like our world has been turned upside down.  This is not a normal time.  This is a frightening moment.

But I find comfort in knowing that we are not the first people to live through challenging times.  The disciples and the early church lived in fear that Rome would destroy the church and destroy their society.  People lived through the devastating plague in the Middle Ages.  I have an ancestor who like others was hunted down and arrested in Switzerland because he was an Anabaptist. 

We survived World War I and the flu epidemic of 1918, which took more lives than the war.  My grandparents lived through the depression – my grandfather had a WPA job to help feed his family of 10 children, and my parents were born in the depression – as were some of you.  People have endured brutal racism, even in what many may have thought to be prosperous times. 

Challenge, upheaval, and disruption are not new to human experience.  We can take some comfort in knowing that, but that does not lessen the reality of the moment we are in. 

If you are like me, it is hard to keep from just checking on the news all the time.  And a lot of news is heartbreaking.  A 12-year old girl fighting for her life on a respirator.  A 48-year old nurse dying in a New York hospital that was reduced to using Hefty trash bags as protective gear.  Children unable to be with seriously ill parents and parents unable to be with seriously ill children.

Meanwhile there are numerous photographs of large cities – Chicago or San Francisco – where major thoroughfares and popular tourist destinations are completely empty.  The images are surreal.  We are in what feels like an apocalyptic time. 

In the middle section of Mark chapter 13, which we did not read, the text warns about siblings betraying one another, about parents turning on children and children turning on parents.  I would think that families who have been cooped up in the house together day after day are probably starting to understand how that might happen.

Now what may not be obvious is that apocalyptic passages in the Bible such as Mark 13 are actually meant to bring hope to beleaguered people. 

Where is the hope in this?  Where is the gospel in this?  Well, for starters, Jesus does not sugar-coat the situation.  It can help enormously to name things as they actually are.  Jesus speaks about “wars and rumors of wars.”  Why do rumors get equal billing with wars?  Maybe because there is so much false and misleading information circulated out there, and the rumors – the false information - can be dangerous.  Keep in mind that Twitter was not a thing in first-century Palestine, but they still managed to get rumors out.  Jesus lays out in no uncertain terms the depth of what lies ahead.  He is honest and direct about it.  While “hopeful” may not exactly be the right word, it is at the very least helpful.

And then there are Jesus’ words to “Be awake.”  This is an admonition to live each day faithfully because we don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.  In the midst of uncertain times, there are things we can do.  We can choose to pay attention.  We can choose to act compassionately and faithfully.  We can be faithful.  That is hopeful-ish, at least.

But where I really find hope is in Jesus’ words in verse 8.  After speaking of the difficult times to come, he says, ”This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

Jill and Dale Grauman and Fern were in worship with us last Sunday from Chicagoland, and on Thursday evening Jill gave birth to Clara Ilene Grauman.  Labor was induced in order to get in and out of the hospital before the pandemic gets worse.  What a joy and what an answer to prayer.

Now I cannot speak personally to this as many of you can, but giving birth is painful.  But through that pain comes new life.  The moment we are facing right now is painful, but it can lead to new life.  This time of upheaval and anxiety and worry can lead to new and life-giving things.

We may be seeing the beginnings of this.  On Thursday afternoon, a teacher parade drove by our house.  Teachers from Fellows school, just down the street, formed a parade of vehicles.  They drove by with signs on their cars, waving and honking to let students know that they missed them and cared about them.  Before this pandemic, we would not have fathomed the idea of a teacher parade honking its way through town. 

This year, I decided that for Lent, I was going to tip double what I normally would as a way to remember those working in service industries who really depend on tips for their livelihood.  When this started, I had no idea of how the importance of such work would be brought home.  God bless the restaurant workers and barbers and hair stylists and dog groomers.

We are realizing how important grocery employees are – along with day-care workers and truck drivers and folks who fulfill orders at Amazon and garbage collectors.

And then, of course, there are health workers, serving on the front lines, putting their own lives on the line to care for others.  God bless them.
In routine email exchanges I have had with people I do not know – customer service people and the like – we have replied to one another with messages expressing care and concern for each other.  Maybe you have had that same experience.  The sense that we are all in this together is just in the air.

Maybe, the time we are in will awaken us to the worth and the value and the contribution of every person.  Maybe it will help awaken us to our shared humanity, as we realize that we are truly all in this together.  Maybe it will awaken us to Jesus’ teachings to love our neighbor, to be servants to one another, to care for the least of these. 

Such a challenging and destructive time can help bring about the Kingdom of God.  As our comfort and security are challenged and we lose the illusion of control over things, we are seeing new empathy and openness and compassion and sharing.   Perhaps a deeper sense of community is being born.

The pain we are feeling can the beginning of birth pangs.  And as the prophet Bob Dylan once said. “Whoever isn’t busy being born is busy dying.”

In these difficult days, we find hope in knowing that God is God and we are held in God’s hands.  So I invite you to look for how God is at working birthing new ways of being church, birthing new ways of being in the world, birthing new life in us.

My hope and prayer is that the birth pangs we are feeling in this uncertain and unsettling time might bring forth new life.  May it be so.  Amen.  

“Love Your Neighbor” - March 22, 2020

Text: Mark 12:28-34

How is everybody this morning?  That’s a rhetorical question, because I have a pretty good idea of how most of you are.  If you are anything like me, this has been a hard week.  Our church leaders met on Wednesday – we met virtually – and to start with, we each shared briefly how our lives had changed in the past week.  We shared stories of having to work from home, of not being able to visit friends, of having to somehow convert the work we do to the online world, of having children at home for the foreseeable future.  People are having trouble finding toilet paper and paper towels and Tylenol, as well as other basic groceries.  I was going to make pizza but there was no yeast at Hy-Vee.  And you can forget about hand sanitizer.

Personally, I have spent most of this past week figuring out how to be a televangelist.  It’s always been a dream of mine.  It feels like I have had a crash course in technology, and unless they were grading on the curve I am not sure I would get a passing grade.  I also know that I am not alone in that.  Over the past few days I have had numerous phone calls and emails and messages with colleagues who are in exactly the same situation we are in.  One pastor streamed a worship service on Facebook live last Sunday, but because he had his phone turned sideways, the service was sideways on the screen.  Well, it’s a learning process.

But others have more difficult issues.  I have talked to people who are out of work, or afraid they soon will be.  There are students whose plans have been completely thrown up in the air.  There is a lot of uncertainty and a lot of fear.  And I would say a lot of folks are just kind of in a daze - it all seems so surreal.  And of course, there are folks, even here in our community now, who have been diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus.

And so we gather together in worship this morning, in this strange, unsettling, and uncertain time, bringing with us these sorts of concerns, looking for a word from the Lord. 

We continue our reading through Mark this morning.  Following repeated questioning and controversy from various factions and groups, all of which takes place in the temple, one of the scribes came away impressed with Jesus and the way he had handled these questions.  And so the scribe asked him, “Which is the greatest commandment?”  And Jesus replies with a kind of 1a and 1b answer – love God with your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. 

It all boils down to love, says Jesus.  Love is the greatest commandment.  And the crowd couldn’t disagree.  It’s pretty straightforward: Love God, love others, love yourself.  It’s simple. 

The problem is that while this is simple, it is certainly not easy.  The problem is in the doing.  Love involves risk and sacrifice and commitment.  It can be just plain inconvenient. 

But you know, there is no time better than right now - in the midst of this unsettling time - to practice love for our neighbor.  There are needs all around us, which means that there are opportunities all around us.

Most of us are staying home.  Some are still going to work, some have to go to work, but are avoiding people as best we can.  We may go to the grocery store, but that is about it.  What this means is that folks are feeling disconnected – and this is after only a week of this.  People are feeling alone and isolated.  And we are all anxious.  What a perfect time to love our neighbors.

A pastor friend in Minneapolis told a story about his childhood in West Virginia.  He and his dad were driving through town and passed Old Man Hulbert’s house.  Old Man Hulbert was out in the front yard, and when he saw Travis and his dad approaching, he started waving.  Travis and his dad waved back.  They drove in front of his house and he was still waving.  They passed his house, and he was still waving.  And then, they looked back in the rear-view mirror, and saw that Old Man Hulbert was out in the street, waving at them.

Travis’ dad though something must be wrong, like he was flagging them down.  So he hit slammed the brakes, put the truck in reverse, gunned it, and went back to Old Man Hulbert’s house.  He rolled down the window.  “Is everything Ok?  Do you need some help?”  And Old Man Hulbert said, “Oh, I’m fine.  I was just giving you a Big Howdy.”

This is a time for giving Big Howdys.  This is a time for friendliness.  This is a time for treating one another with compassion and patience.  This is a time to love our neighbors.

So when you make your foray to the grocery store, keep a safe distance as much as possible but put on a smile.  Treat others with kindness.  Be understanding with employees who are as frustrated with empty shelves as you are, and who did not sign up for working in a crisis like this.  You might call your neighbors who have a little trouble getting out even in normal times and ask if you can get something for them.  And for goodness sakes, leave some toilet paper for the next guy.

Think about health care workers and garbage collectors and police and firefighters and restaurant workers and all of those who are working with the public, some working extremely long hours just now and probably feeling anxiety.  When you see them, express your appreciation.  Find ways to love these neighbors.

We are not meeting in person today.  We would much rather be together physically.  But we are choosing to do this  - not simply because the authorities have asked us not to meet in groups of more than 10, but even more than that because this is what the moment calls for.  This is a way of practicing love for our neighbors. A way to help protect our neighbors.

There are two images from the past week that I am thinking about.  One is of Pope Francis.  There is a photograph of the back of Pope Francis’ head, his hand waving a prayer of blessing over the large, empty St. Peter’s Square. Normally tens of thousands of people would be there for his weekly message and blessing, but the place was completely empty.  He is blessing the air.  The message was live-streamed, and the Pope was at the same time speaking to no one and everyone.

The second image is from a beach in Florida, filled with students on spring break.  Social distancing is obviously not happening.  While St. Peter’s Square was completely empty, the beach is just packed.  One student was quoted as telling Reuters news service, “If I get corona, I get corona.  At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying...”

Now, I don’t want to pick on this poor kid on spring break.  It’s not that he didn’t care about how his actions may have affected others – I think it is more a case of not even considering that actions might affect others.  He was focused on his own life and his own enjoyment.  And that can be true whatever our age.

Loving our neighbors means looking out for them and considering how our actions affect all of our neighbors, neighbors both near and far.  There is a hymn from Ghana that we occasionally sing and were going to sing today before plans changed.  Jesu, Jesu.  The chorus goes: Jesu, Jesus, fill us with your love, show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.

On Wednesday evenings we have been discussing the book, The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers.  Fred Rogers told about when he was a boy and would see scary things on the news.  His mother would say to him, “Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.”   In times of trouble, look for the helpers. 

God’s call to each of us this morning is to be a helper.  We can all find ways to be a helper.  We can all find ways to love our neighbor.  We can all find ways to practice compassion. 

“Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  According to Jesus, this is the heart of Christian faith.  Love for God and love for neighbor.  And there is no better time to love our neighbor, no better time to be a helper, than right now.  Amen.

“God and Caesar” - March 15, 2020

Text: Mark 12:13-17

The only sure things in life, they say, are death and taxes.  This week we have found that to be true.  The Big 12 Tournament and March Madness are not sure things.  Spring Break Trips to Disney World are not sure things.  Not even toilet paper at Sam’s is a sure thing.  

But taxes, we can count on.  We are deep into tax season, and just the mention of taxes tends to get people agitated.  I may be an outlier, but I am generally happy to pay taxes.  It’s not that I like taxes so much as I like public services.  I am in favor of police and fire protection and good streets and highways.  I like public libraries and I want us to have good schools.  I love our National Parks.  Many of you served in the military, and I want to support our armed forces and our veterans.  I think it is important to have a social safety net, to help care for the poor and vulnerable.  And I have to say that the Center for Disease Control is a wise public investment. 

But imagine if our taxes did not go to educate our children and protect our communities.  What if, instead, our taxes were going to support a foreign power that was occupying our country?  What if our taxes went to pay the foreign troops who were making our lives miserable?

That was life in Jesus’ day.  You think there are anti-tax people around now?  Just imagine what it would have been like in first century Israel. 

We have been in Mark since the first of the year, and you may have noticed that we skipped chapter 11.  Chapter 11 includes the Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem.  We will come back to that on Palm Sunday.  Today we have moved on ahead to chapter 12.  In the first reading, Jesus tells a parable about some wicked tenants who abuse, beat up, and in some cases kill representatives of the vineyard owner.  Finally, the vineyard owner’s beloved son was killed as well.

It is a parable of judgment, and if you go back to chapter 11, you find that this parable is told against the chief priests, scribes, and elders – the religious power brokers.  These are the people to whom Jesus is speaking, and at some point, they realize that Jesus is talking about them.  Don’t you hate it when that happens?  They are just boiling.  They want to arrest Jesus, but they can’t do it while Jesus is surrounded by this large crowd of supporters.

Our second reading involves a different set of people.  These chief priests and scribes and elders send a group of Pharisees and Herodians to question Jesus.  And then in the passage that follows ours, we have some Saducees, yet another political and religious movement, coming to Jesus with a controversial question intended stir up trouble.  So in one chapter, we have a variety of groups from all over the theological and political map working against Jesus and even working together against Jesus.

The Pharisees are pious religious folks, people who followed the law very closely.  The Pharisees don’t have the kind of official power that the scribes and chief priests had, but they are very concerned about righteousness.  Jesus actually had more in common with the Pharisees than most of the groups who opposed him.

The Herodians we know a lot less about; in fact, this is the only mention of the Herodians in the gospels.  They were supporters of Herod, the Jewish king who was essentially a puppet ruler – he ruled only with the approval and support of Rome.  So the Herodians were Jews who collaborated with the Roman overlords while the Pharisees were pious, strictly religious Jews who resented the Roman occupation and wanted nothing to do with the Romans.

Do you get the picture here?  The Pharisees and Herodians are political enemies.  But they have made common cause against a common enemy.  They are brought together by their disdain for Jesus, and they have a doozie of a question for him, one of those questions that no matter how you answer it, you get yourself in trouble.  It reminds me of the questions we would ask each other in junior high, questions like, “Are you the only ugly one in your family?” 

“Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the word of God in accordance with the truth...”  “We know you always speak the truth, Jesus, we know you always have the right answer, so here’s the question: is it permitted to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

They ask Jesus a question about taxes, of all things.  It’s a simple enough question.  And that’s all his questioners want: a simple answer.  A simple yes or no would be great.  Because either way, Jesus would get himself in a mess of trouble.

No matter what Jesus says, he will alienate people.  To say “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor,” would mean alienating the better part of the population, who hated Rome and felt that paying taxes to Rome was intolerable. 

But to say “No, taxes should not be paid to Caesar,” would risk being arrested by the Romans for inciting insurrection.  So it is a perfect question for someone wanting to do damage to Jesus: he either loses credibility with the people, or he goes to jail.  You can’t ask for much more than that.

But Jesus is way ahead of his questioners.  Maybe those nice words helped to tip him off.  Jesus dispenses with the niceties; he is not into games.  “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” he asks.  Because that is all it was, a test.  And to show their hypocrisy, he asks for a coin. 

They brought him a denarius, and he asked, “Whose image and title is this?”  They answered, perhaps somewhat sheepishly, “the emperor’s.”

The Jews considered a coin bearing the image of someone to be a graven image – an idol, specifically prohibited in the Ten Commandments.  A Roman coin bore the image of Caesar and the words “son of the divine Augustus,” a reminder of the emperor-worship of the Roman Empire. 

The Jews considered this to be blasphemous.  In fact, you  could not bring this Roman money into the temple.  If you wanted to make an offering when you went to the temple, you had to convert your Roman money into temple coinage.  When Jesus drove the money-changers out of the temple, this is what they were doing – converting Roman currency into temple currency, and at a tidy profit.

Some Pharisees and Herodians had asked Jesus a question in order to trap him or at the very least to embarrass him.  But now, who was embarrassed?  Those questioning whether taxes should be paid to Caesar were themselves shown to be fully involved in the Roman economy, with its blasphemous money and all.  Whether it was OK to pay taxes to Rome was not a real question for them, and Jesus points this out in dramatic fashion.  

But then, Jesus goes on to answer it anyway – at least, he engages the question.  He says, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  It sounds brilliant, but then upon reflection we realize it really doesn’t answer the question.  It is left up to us to decide - what is Caesar’s and what is God’s?

What Jesus does is to reframe the question.  What is due Caesar, and what is due God? 

This passage is sometimes taken to be Jesus’ teaching on church and state, and while it no doubt has something to say about that issue, that is not the crux of what he is trying to get across.  The state, the government, may have claims on us, but so does God, and we have to weigh this and struggle with this for ourselves.  We have to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” as Paul put it.

The question of the relationship between church and state has always been an important question for Baptists.  Our history and heritage is as a persecuted minority who understood all too well the coercive power of the state and who fought for religious freedom for all people, even those with whom we disagree. 

Jeremiah Moore was a Baptist preacher in Fairfax County, Virginia.  In 1773, the 27-year-old Moore found himself arrested and thrown in jail.  His crime: preaching without a license.  Soon after, numerous Baptist ministers in Virginia were thrown in jail.  The ironic thing was that being willing to go to jail proved the commitment and sincerity of these Baptists and rather than hurting the Baptist movement, it only served to make it grow.

What is due Caesar and what is due God?  The early Baptists answered this question by saying that the state had no claim whatsoever on one’s conscience and no right to regulate religious practice.  We argued that for the state to impose its own brand of religion, whether emperor worship in Rome or Puritan religion in New England or the Anglican Church in Virginia or even Baptist faith in Rhode Island, was to make a claim on individuals that was not the state’s to make.

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and Herodians gives us the opportunity to think on such matters and to consider the competing claims of God and Caesar, but as I said, this is not really Jesus’ main intent here.  The crux of what he is saying goes far deeper than church-state relations.

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”  Jesus doesn’t really answer the question.  It is kind of thrown back at us.  But it is interesting to go back and consider the original question.  Jesus is asked if it is OK to pay Roman taxes.  That’s it.  There was no mention of God at all.

Caesar’s image was imprinted on the Roman coin.  But God’s image is imprinted on us – on every one of us.  The very first chapter of Genesis tells us that we are created in God’s image.  God is Creator of the whole world, the whole universe, every last atom.  Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness therof.”  It’s all God’s.  When we give to God the things that are God’s, there is nothing left for Caesar. 

Next to the Creator of the universe, Caesar becomes small and insignificant.  Caesar’s empire and Caesar’s image just don’t stack up against the greatness of God.  This story is not about taxes, not really.  It is about what belongs to God and what obedience to God looks like.

It is not that the state has no claims on us.  And it is not that we do take those claims seriously.  We follow the laws of the land and even if we might grumble a bit, we pay our taxes.  (At least I hope you do.)  The state has claims on us; it is just that these claims are not ultimate claims.  We recognize a higher authority.

Sometimes we want to pigeonhole the various areas of our life.  We can be really good at compartmentalizing: school is over here, work is over here, family is over here, church is over here.  We divide sacred and secular, public and private.  But this doesn’t hold true in God’s economy.  This doesn’t work in a world in which everything belongs to God.

What does it mean, in a world in which we pledge allegiance to so many things – not just to the state, but work and family and clubs and organizations and friends and school and sports teams – what does it mean that our allegiance to God is ultimate, above all else?

Giving to God the things that are God’s, it seems to me, means remembering that we bear God’s image and acting with God’s love and mercy and compassion and working for God’s justice in all of the various arenas of our lives. 

Marjorie Thompson wrote,
If the word I hear on Sunday has no bearing on the way I relate to my spouse, child, neighbor, or colleague; no bearing on how I make decisions, spend my resources, cast my vote, or offer my service, then my faith and my life are unrelated.  The spiritual life is not one slice in a larger loaf of reality but leaven for the whole loaf.

We are in one of the strangest times I can remember.  There have been years when there was a worse than usual flu outbreak - there was swine flu and H1N1, and we cut down a bit on hand-shaking in church.  But that’s about it.  It was before my time, but some of you remember and some in our church personally experienced the polio epidemic in the 1940’s and 50’s.  And of course I recall financial meltdowns and panics, most recently in 2008.  But I don’t remember anything like this.  It is a really strange time and there is a lot of uncertainty.  A lot of anxiety.

Cutbacks on travel and social distancing mean that lots of folks who work in the travel and hospitality and service industries have had their hours cut back or they are out of work.  Parents are having to figure out child care arrangements while their kids are home from school – or they are trying to figure out how to work from home while their children are also at home.  It is a time of anxiety for those working in the medical field.  We have a friend whose mother is in hospice care in a nursing home in another state.  She had planned to make a trip to see her mom for the last time but no visitors are allowed in the nursing home.

What does it mean in this kind of environment to give to God the things that are God’s? 
God calls us to have compassion and care for one another in this moment.  Share a word of encouragement and care with those whose lives are being upended a bit just now.  Send an email to our students who won’t be back for a while.  Look around and notice those who are not here.  It’s spring break and some are away, but some folks are staying in and some cannot be here.  Give them a call.  Send them a card.  Check on a friend.  Check on a neighbor.  Maybe you could get groceries for someone.  This would be a good time to make a contribution to the Emergency Residence Project or MICA or another organization that cares for people in need. 

God’s claims, and God’s grace, are found throughout all of life – even in the midst of this uncertain time.  May we be faithful in giving to God what is God’s.  Amen.