Sunday, July 5, 2020

Rest in Restless Times: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 - Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

"But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.' For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon'; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds."

At that time Jesus said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (NRSV)

Carry that load by Carsten ten Brink on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

One of the biggest mysteries surrounding Covid-19 is: why do some persons test positive, but not get sick?

 

Two weeks ago, the director of the CDC estimated that for every single person who tests positive, there are ten more who are infected. That means that a significant portion of the population that is spreading the virus to others, even though they don’t feel sick.

                                                                                                              

Yet I would argue that we’re all sick: sick and tired of Covid-19. So when Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” I’m asking, “how can there be rest in such restless times? How do I rest when the things I count on for rest are closed off to me?”

 

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we are not living as God intends. This is why Jesus says, “take my yoke upon you and learn from me.”

 

The quickest and easiest route out of the pandemic is to love the neighbor as the self. Tens of thousands of deaths can be easily prevented if everyone would just wear facemasks, wash their hands, practice social distancing, and exercise basic self-control. We can keep businesses up and running without putting people’s health risk. But we need to be taught. And we need the will to act.

 

Racism, riots, poverty, injustice, and division are all man-made. And we can unmake them.  But we need to be taught. And we need the will to act.

 

We are distressed—and rightly so—that the Coronavirus has wreaked such havoc on church life. We just need to be taught how to be church in this new reality. And we need the will to act.

 

Jesus can’t teach you if you’re not willing to learn. People dismissed Jesus as a glutton and a drunk because they were convinced that they already knew what was right and wrong. In their minds, they didn’t need Jesus to teach them anything.

 

One of the biggest reasons why our souls become so weary is because we want life, work, play, and rest to be on our own terms. But that’s not how it works. You cannot dictate your desires to Jesus and expect that he will grant your wishes.

 

At the same time, you are not strong enough to bear your burdens alone. You need Jesus’s help. You must lay your burdens down: the burdens you take up willingly to satisfy your wants and desires; as well as the burdens that are thrust upon you apart from your choosing. Lay your burdens down, and learn…

 

Jesus bore the yoke of sin and death for you on a cross. Whatever burdens you bear, you do not bear alone. You bear them with the strength of Jesus. Some burdens you will abandon for good, with the strength of Jesus.

 

Jesus teaches that love is more than feelings. Love means bearing one another’s burdens; laying yours down and sharing the burden your neighbor can’t bear alone. The number one way you know Jesus is with you is when another person is with you, helping you to bear the weight. There is no greater gift than to give someone rest and relief from their burdens.

 

The true strength of our church is revealed in the burdens we help one another to bear. We must work harder to strengthen the bonds of caring between ourselves and the neighbor. If we can’t care for people in here, we must take God’s rest out there.

 

It’s ironic for Jesus to define discipleship as rest—but that’s what it is. When you are in the presence of Jesus, you find rest. Come and lay your burdens down. Rest at the feet of Jesus who will teach you to live well in these restless times Come to Jesus, and learn be true to who you are created in Christ to be, to both rest and give rest, and journey into the future with hope.


Sunday, June 28, 2020

Living Bound: Romans 6:12-23 - Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (NRSV)
monday breakfast on the patio by Indabelle on flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0

Sadly, Aunt Jemima is a byproduct of a tragic legacy of 250 years of slavery, a century of Jim Crow Laws, and the racism still embedded in our economic, educational, and political systems.  

Yet slavery is not something we like to talk about, and I see two reasons for that: the first is that it’s unthinkable that such evil happened in our country for so long. It’s unthinkable that human beings could do this to other human beings, call it good, and even be willing to die for it. 

The other is that it is inconceivable to think of ourselves as not being free to exercise our own will and be in control of our destiny. But these are truths you and I cannot deny.

As sinners, we rebel against God, and do unto others what we did to Jesus at the cross. We visit death upon each other and upon God’s creation, to gain wealth, power, and glory for ourselves. You can accumulate all the power and riches the world has to offer, but you will still die. 

You didn’t choose to be a sinner; you didn’t choose to be mortal. You were born into it. “I confess that I am captive to sin and cannot free myself.” Like it or not, you are enslaved. All of your striving and hard work cannot make you righteous or immortal. 

Only God is true freedom. Yet God in Jesus Christ traded that freedom for enslavement to a sinful, fallen humanity. He was crucified with your sin and your mortality, and God set him free by raising him from the dead. And God’s desire for you is to be set free, every single day, from enslavement to sin and death through your baptism into Christ. But there’s a catch: you are not free from God. You are not free to exercise your will, to the exclusion of God’s. To seek freedom apart from God is to sin. To seek freedom apart from God is to die, even if, for a while, you feel very much “alive.”

In Christ, you are both free and not free. As Martin Luther famously said, you are a slave to none and a servant to all. Sin and death have no dominion over you—but Jesus is not your slave to satisfy your needs and wants. Jesus is not your “pal;” he is your Lord.

The challenge for you is to cede your will; to consider your hearts’ desires along with your greatest fears; and surrender them all to God. This may sound disheartening… Yes, God’s righteousness demands a righteousness in you that will cost you the wealth, the success, and the glory others appear to be enjoying. Yes, you will be surrendering battles you could’ve both fought and won. Yes, your priorities will be reordered to put God’s kingdom and neighbor’s need above your own. But you are also seizing the promises of God.

The reason why we speak of peace that passes understanding is because the world can’t give it—but God sure can! God’s life and love will reign in your heart and in your soul—and nothing in the world can take it away. Isn’t it good news to know that you’ll never be free of God, because God refuses to be free of you, even when you rebel against God?

Freedom isn’t about doing whatever you want. Freedom is the gift of right relationship with God and each other. To be bound to God is to be bound to the other in mutual love. 

To enjoy God is to love righteousness. Christ has bound himself to you—so live bound to him. Claim his righteousness. Be alive. Be free.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Saving Sword: Matthew 10:24-39 - 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

[Jesus said to the twelve:] 24“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
26“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
32“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
34“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35For I have come to set a man against his father,
 and a daughter against her mother,
 and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (NRSV)

Bible & Sword by Eden, Janine and Jim on flickr. CC BY 2.0 


Is Jesus a uniter or a divider? The answer is yes.

 

None of us would be worshipping right now, had Jesus not united us in a common faith and purpose. One of the greatest gifts of being a Christian is that we are the Body of Christ, and that we have each other through good times and bad.

 

Most of us work very hard to ensure cooperation and harmony within our families, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and even here in church. Most of us will do anything to avoid a fight. So why then does Jesus say, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”? Why does the Prince of Peace disturb the peace? How can someone so full of grace, mercy, and forgiveness cause the members of your own household to become your enemies?

 

Truthfully, it is because Jesus is so full of mercy, grace, and forgiveness that he causes division.

 

The issue here is one of loyalty.

 

In Jesus’s day, you were required to be loyal to Rome, to the religious establishment, and to your family patriarch. Loyalty means honor, submission, and obedience.

 

Jesus, on the other hand, was loyal to God—while much of the religious establishment was not. It was only a matter of time before they clashed with Jesus.

 

You have loyalties as well—and a lot in your life rides on those loyalties. Loyalty will mean the difference between moving upward on the corporate ladder versus being knocked off. Several of you have shared with me that your loyalty to God and God’s commandments cost you your jobs. Loyalty will mean the difference between belonging versus being an outcast. Some of you have even been rejected by your parents or your own children because of your loyalty to Christ and your congregation.

 

This happens because it is impossible to be loyal to Christ while at the same time loyal to human beings. Human beings are sinners, and as such, our loyalties lie in ourselves and in the gods of this world. Therefore, division is inevitable. But is it evil?

 

Unity can easily become an idol or a false god. Churches, organizations, and teams often fail because their members avoid conflict and disagreement at all costs. Unity comes at the expense of progress and growth. Problems remain hidden; challenges are avoided; innovation is stifled; dysfunction is enabled.

 

Even worse, many of history’s most effective unifiers of people have also been some of history’s greatest monsters. They inspire loyalty through promises of wealth, power, and glory for their followers; but not everyone. First, there’s a common enemy that must be vanquished if the “chosen people” are to realize their destiny.

 

Meanwhile, leaders who are effective in unifying people towards noble purposes are vilified in the worst possible ways; their foes resorting even to the most violent means to silence them and crush their movements into oblivion. In the history books, this would be Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.; in Scripture it would be the Old Testament prophets; Stephen, the first Christian martyr; ten of the original disciples; and, of course, Jesus.

 

Like it or not, every Christian lives amid the tension of divided loyalties. You can’t love Jesus and expect everyone to love you. You can’t follow Jesus’s ways of grace, mercy, and forgiveness, and expect to come out on top. You aren’t going to change the world without ruffling a few feathers.

 

Jesus does not unite people in things outside of himself. That’s why he’s divisive. This is why Jesus comes bearing the sword—because some loyalties need to be crucified. Otherwise, how can you experience God’s loyalty to you?

 

Unity in Christ (and unity with Christ) does not happen without struggle and sacrifice. You can’t be obedient to God without encountering some resistance—from others, and most especially, from yourself. Some days, your union with Christ will make you the loneliest, weakest, most despised person on the planet. But the story never ends that way.

 

You belong to the Body of Christ because the Holy Spirit’s working since the dawn of creation to make it happen. The Holy Spirit has worked through ordinary people who love you, support you, and who inspire you in the Christian faith. Your union with Christ will invariably bring you together with others, because that’s the way God wants it to be! As living beings, we are naturally drawn to that which nourishes and sustains life!

 

Do you dare to welcome Christ’s sword in your life—for him to crucify the loyalties that consume your life rather than renewing it? Like the farmer prunes the fruit tree or the surgeon employs the scalpel, do you trust Jesus to separate you from everything and maybe even everyone that keeps his life and love from flourishing within you? Will you bear the cost and make sacrifices so that you and your neighbor, and the people you don’t like can be one in the Lord?

 

Power, riches, and fame may be how we picture the good life, but you can’t take these things to the grave. Like so much in this world, they are here today and gone tomorrow. They don’t promise to never leave or forsake you. Only Jesus can make that promise, and ultimately keep it.

 

 


Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Relationship Mission: Matthew 9:35-10:23 - 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Think of a nearby town, suburb, or city that begins with the first letter of your first name…

Once you’ve identified it, ask yourself: how would you feel if Jesus sent you to there?

If this is a place you’ve lived (or want to live in), you may feel totally at ease. On the other hand, if you see that place as populated by pretentious snobs, you may feel intimidated; or, if that place has a reputation being dangerous, may feel scared.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is sending his disciples into the surrounding towns and villages to “seek out the lost sheep of Israel.” Relationship is the goal—because it is in relationship that God’s love is spread.

At the same time, Jesus demands that they travel light, taking nothing extra along for the journey, and instead rely on the hospitality of the persons they will meet. If that wasn’t difficult enough, Jesus is practically guaranteeing that they will face rejection, persecution, and even violence due to their participation in his mission.

So what would motivate a human being to do something so difficult and dangerous with no promise of earthly rewards? Why are these disciples eager to go—and why will they be glad they went?

It feels outrageous to talk of seeking new relationships when we’ve spent the last three months social distancing. The Coronavirus devastated lives and livelihoods, and we are bitterly divided over how we should respond to it. And now we are at war with each other over racism. Given the way things are in the world right now, I’m not feeling eager to seek new relationships, unless they are of the same mind as me.

It’s not nature, as human beings and as Americans, to seek out new relationships with people who are unlike ourselves. We are individualists, and our priority is always the self: personal growth, personal success, living a life that other people envy. When it comes to Jesus, we speak of a personal relationship with a personal savior. We seek relationships and community only to better ourselves. We form cliques and flock to factions, political parties, and every kind of association in order to use the power of numbers to advance exclusive interests.

But I wonder if this habit is one of the why the Christian faith and the Christian church are on the decline in this country—and a reason why our society is so bitterly divided.

For the Christian, your relationships with others and your relationship with God are inter-related.

Right relationships with God lead to right relationships with others. Right relationships with others strengthen right relationships with God. Conversely, broken relationships with God lead to broken relationships with others, and broken relationships with others inhibit relationship with God.

The reason why these disciples were so eager to go on a seemingly impossible mission was not to prove themselves to Jesus. They went because Jesus’s dying love to be in relationship with others was fully alive within them. They went believing that new relationships would increase both their knowledge of God and their experience of his life transforming love.

Bear in mind that the twelve disciples Jesus gathered around himself could not have been more different from one another. Jesus and Judaism were all they had in common. Simon was part of the Zealot movement, which was violently opposed to Roman occupation of the Holy Land. I certainly can’t picture him getting along with Matthew, who collected taxes for Rome. We also know that Peter, James, and John were quite outspoken and boisterous—and likely got on the other disciples’ nerves. And yet, Christ’s love united them in faith and purpose.

Jesus wants nothing less for you than to be able to regard someone who’s different from you in every possible way as a beloved child of God. When you do, Jesus’s gracious love for you becomes powerfully real. To affirm God’s love for someone who’s hard for you to love—particularly in the face of their rejection of you—you can’t get any closer to the heart of Jesus, beating inside your own heart.

God is relationship. That was Bishop Eaton’s message to us last week as we contemplated together the mysteries of our One God in Three Persons. In seeking new relationships to give and receive Christian love, you both seek God and find God. You get a very incomplete knowledge of who Jesus is if your family of faith never grows beyond those who are most unlike yourself.

Yes, our world is divided, and yes, people are afraid. But almost all of us can agree that our broken world needs healing, and we can minister that healing to each other, in Jesus’s name, and find in each other a love that is erases all the bitterness of division. For it is the love of Jesus Christ, poured out at the cross, that gives us life in the midst of death and sends us into the future full of hope.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Reboot the Mission: Acts 1:1-11 - Sunday of the Ascension

[Luke writes:] 1In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (NRSV)

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to lead a team of explorers up the Mississippi River to survey the Louisiana purchase and locate the fabled Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean—which would open up lucrative fur trading with the Western Native American tribes.

But there was a big problem. There is no Northwest Passage. The maps were all wrong! Eventually, they ran out of river. To continue the mission, they were forced to abandon their boats and journey across the Western Continental Divide otherwise known as the Rocky Mountains.

Ultimately, their mission was successful because they adapted and overcame. Another key to their success is the guidance of Sacagawea, who helps them navigate the terrain and negotiate with Native tribes for supplies and safe passage. For her part, she was unexpectedly reunited with her brother, who was a Shoshone chief—whom she hadn’t seen since being kidnapped by a rival tribe during childhood.

Over the last two years, the leaders of our Synod have been studying a book called Canoeing the Mountains, which likens the circumstances of the modern-day church to the Lewis and Clark expedition running out of river. To put it bluntly, churches like ours have been sailing on the currents of 20th century realities. But the world we’re living in has changed dramatically. The future before of us looks nothing like the past behind us. We’ve run out of river.

And for any of us who may have been in denial about the significance of these changes and their impact on the church—the Coronavirus has been a dreadful wake-up call. But our present situation allows us to see God’s work and God’s promises in a whole new light.

Take today’s first reading from the book of Acts. Jesus is taken up into heaven. No longer will Jesus be with his disciples to teach them, lead them, and accompany them. No longer will Jesus be there to perform miraculous signs and works. Yet, Christ’s mission is going global. When the disciples are baptized by the Holy Spirit, they will be doing even greater works than even Jesus had done.

The mission—and their calling into that mission—are expanding far beyond their horizons. And yet—if Jesus had given them the ability to choose between living into these promises, versus going back to the life they’d known before and having him there with them, I’m sure they would’ve chosen the latter. Wouldn’t you?

It’s not an exaggeration to say that we’re standing at the crossroads of history right now—as individuals, as Americans, as a global community, and especially as the Body of Christ. I truly believe that life will never again be as it was before Covid-19. Much of the change will be tragic and traumatic, and the pain of it is going to stay with us for a long time. That’s especially true for the families of 350,000 people around the world. But we believe that Christ brings new life out of death. I believe that Covid-19 is a catalyst to bring about a radical transformation of our common life so that we and the people of our world will be blessed by Jesus’s love in new and powerful ways. The mission hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. But the ways in which God is calling us and equipping us to carry out the mission is changing.

Ascension is what happens when God acts to takes you from where you are to where God desires you to be.

Did you ever think that we could survive as a church for ten weeks or more without being able to gather in a building, while at the same time caring for one another, reaching out to those in need, and increasing participation in Sunday worship? If that’s not ascension, I don’t know what is! But we still have a long way to go from where we are to where Jesus calls us to be. And the transformation isn't exclusively for the church. 

God will be changing what you define as important and valuable in your life. Things that were once so important to you will be set aside for new priorities and new urgencies. Neighbors will be connecting with neighbors, instead of being isolated in their own lives. The church will arise as God’s answer to the politics of rage, division, and conquest. The Holy Spirit will awaken the better angels of our nature to fight against Covid, poverty, hopelessness, and despair, as opposed to fighting each other.

Ascension is when God lifts you out of the dark and deep places you’re living in, and draws you into new life and new ways of living.

You may feel like a fool to believe that the future is brighter than the past behind us. The magnitude of disruption and loss lends great credibility to despair. But God keeps promises. And because it is God who is calling you, empowering you, and sending you, the mission will be accomplished, and the promises fulfilled—if you but trust in God. This change will bring you closer to Jesus and each other—and ultimately to the Kingdom of God.

And today, we are all ascending from who we were to who God wants us to be.

Grace has brought us safe thus far. The mission continues—and God will provide everything you need for the journey toward the fulfillment of God’s every promise.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Today's Outlook: John 14:15-21 - Sixth Sunday of Easter

[Jesus said to the disciples:] "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them." (NRSV)

At Bethesda Lutheran Services, there’s a saying: “there’s no such thing as a bad kid. Just kids who need love and support.”


And that saying was their answer to those who saw Bethesda as the place where the bad kids go. But nothing could be further from the truth. Bethesda began 101 years ago as a home for orphans. Since then, it has expanded its programming to serve children faced with all kinds of difficulties and special needs.

From cover-to-cover, the Scriptures make it very clear that the righteousness of an individual or of society of a whole can be measured in terms of how it treats its orphans—along with widows, strangers, and aliens. Moses started out life as an orphan. Old Testament Israel was basically an orphaned people, enslaved in Egypt, until it was adopted by God (cf. Ezekiel 16:5, Hosea 1:10). It’s no wonder why orphans matter so much to God. The care and compassion they need from others is, for them, a matter of life and death.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is preparing his disciples for a matter of life and death: his death and how that will impact their lives. Jesus knows that this will be devastating for them, and understandably so. Their lives are rooted in relationship with him. They’ve given up everything to follow him. They’ve listened to his teachings; they’ve witnessed the miracles; and they believe him to be God’s Son. But what will happen when he is no longer with him—and not just after his death, but after his resurrection and ascension?

He knows they will feel like orphaned children without him there to love them and lead them. But Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you.” When Jesus returns to the Father, he will send the Advocate, the Spirit of truth, who will both abide with them and in them. This will be a dramatic change in their relationship—but one that will bring them closer to God and each other.

It is the promise of Jesus’s presence that gives them—and ushope. Right now, we’re all feeling a little like orphans, in that our lives have been disrupted, we cannot be together as a family, and we’re facing an uncertain future made all the more terrifying by a pandemic that is still not under control, a faltering economy that is devastating lives and livelihoods, and people who care more about their personal freedoms than the health and safety of others.

Right now, it isn’t hard to feel as though you’ve been cut off from God and cut off from everything good. And that’s no way to live. That certainly isn’t how God wants you to live. You need something other than dread to look forward to at the start of the day. Thankfully, Jesus’s promise stands firm and secure: “I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you.”

How, then, does this promise affect how you face the day?

For starters, it’s a promise that gives you hope—because no matter what you will face, Jesus will meet you in it and accompany you through it. You will not be without his mercy and care.

When your outlook on life is one of dread, you become lost inside yourself. One of fear’s greatest powers is that of isolation and division. You feel like you’re totally on your own to face a dangerous and hostile world. Your only real purpose is your own survival.

On the other hand, when Jesus promises to come to you, how is he going to do that? One of the biggest ways is through people. You will encounter people who will show you the care and mercy that only Jesus can.

But Jesus will also come to you in and through your acts of faith and devotion. So often, we treat prayer and devotion as obligations we must meet before Jesus will act graciously in your life. The thinking is that you must initiate the relationship… But these acts of faith are born of Jesus’s promise: I am coming to you!

Jesus’s promise also gives you purpose. Jesus says, “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.” It is by loving one another that you are at your readiest to welcome Jesus when he comes. Your acts of faith to prepare you to meet Jesus in the people you serve in love. There is no better way to experience the power of Jesus’s love than for that power to be working in you. Faith and obedience are what put fear and despair on the run.

Remember: Jesus’s promises are only empty when people don’t act on them. The power of God’s love lives in you—a power that joins you together with others to work together for a better world and a more promising future.

The troubles you face are not going to get the best of you. Jesus will meet you within them and accompany you through them. Every act of faith is an act of hope.

What a way to end the day to know that God’s love exercised more power over you than fear and despair.

What a way to begin a new day than to know that Jesus will be coming to you, wherever you go.

Renew your commitment to his promise and his purpose.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Living Stones: 1 Peter 2:2-10 - Fifth Sunday of Easter

2Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—3if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
4Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6For it stands in scripture:
 “See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
  a cornerstone chosen and precious;
 and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
7To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
 “The stone that the builders rejected
  has become the very head of the corner,”
8and
 “A stone that makes them stumble,
  and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
9But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
10Once you were not a people,
  but now you are God’s people;
 once you had not received mercy,
  but now you have received mercy. (NRSV)
Cornerstone of First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Leechburg. Photo by author

Our main church building is constructed out of what is known as Hummelstown Brownstone. Go to any city or college campus in the Northeastern United States—and you’re going to find plenty of structures built of it—including schools, courthouses, prisons, office buildings, churches, and even bridges. It was quarried by near the town of Hummelstown, Pennsylvania—just outside of Harrisburg—and was valued for its beauty, strength, and the relative ease by which masons shape it into building stones. This stone, unlike other kinds of stone, doesn’t break apart when it’s carved or chiseled.

The fact that our building is 117-years old and that it survived the devastating St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936 proves that our forebears built it right. But it isn’t Hummelstown Brownstone that makes us a church.

In our second reading for today, the writer of 1 Peter describes the Body of Christ as a spiritual household built of living stones, laid upon the cornerstone of the crucified and risen Christ.

I find great comfort in this imagery in a time when this church building and others like it have been empty and lifeless for eight weeks.

Not only that, people are scared stiff by the devastation and death happening all around. Lives have been shattered, broken, and reduced to rubble. Worse yet, some people’s hearts are stone cold, as they disregard the warnings, deny the dangers, and put their neighbor’s lives at risk—in the name of profit and personal freedom.

And yet, when death knocks down what you’ve built up, God’s “reconstruction work” will soon be underway. The death and resurrection of Christ make this abundantly clear. Every day, you are a new creation. We are a new creation. Even though we are a scattered church, we are no less a church than we were when we worshipped and served here. And Jesus is no less present. In fact, God is doing something entirely new—and entirely necessary—in our common life. We are becoming a new spiritual household.

Considering the challenges of being a 21st century congregation based in a building built before the advent of the automobile, we know that this spiritual household of living stones requires updating, renovating, strengthening, and beautifying if God’s children expect to be at home here.

At the same time, you need Jesus to do the very same in your personal life if your desire is to live in daily in God’s goodness and love. Daily life has a way of pulling you out-of-sync with the rhythms of God’s working in the world. It is our human inclination to build our lives upon our achievements, our reputations, and our ability to control circumstances and conform them to our will. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that lives built upon these things are like houses built upon the sand.

Human sin is the refusal to lay one’s interests aside to care for the neighbor. It’s why, in the face of a pandemic, our society is striving to protect what matters most to it: power and profit. But stones must support each other if the house is going to stand. Otherwise, what you get is a pile of rubble.

Every one of our lives has been disrupted. Every one of us has experienced loss and hardship; some much more than others. But God’s reconstruction work has never ceases. Now is an ideal time to loosen your death grip upon your own interests and your desire to be in control, and trust in the new creation God is bringing.

The phrase “living stones” is a beautiful metaphor for what God is doing. What is stone? It is basically dust that has been formed into something solid and enduring with pressure and time. And when it is taken from the ground, it is shaped to build beautiful structures that bring life to the world—and stand the test of time. But living stones move. Living stones are animated by God’s love. Living stones embody the truth that Jesus does not dwell in structures made of human hands, but instead dwells with God’s people on earth—particularly the poor, the powerless, and the suffering. Living stones don’t so much build a house as they do a household—a family where all God’s children can shelter in God’s mercies.

What we are in right now as these living stones, is God’s work of reshaping, reforming, and restoring what death has knocked down. Your call and mine is not to tell Jesus how he ought to rebuild us. We’re the stones—not the architects. Your call and mine is to become the household of living stones that God desires us to be. God accomplishes this through the time you spend in God’s presence and through the good you do for the neighbor. Your acts of faith ultimately pave the way for the new creation that will be revealed at the proper time.

So be of good courage—because despite the chaos and loss happening all around us, a new spiritual household is being built. You are a new creation. You, as living stones are being formed, and strengthened into a people who bear the beauty of God’s love to the world. You, as living stones, are a household where all the weary and broken can shelter in God’s mercy and love.