Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Weeping Lord: John 11:1-45 - Fifth Sunday in Lent

1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. (NRSV)
Forsythia by Anne on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As if being a medical professional wasn’t already difficult and dangerous enough in these times, one job I imagine to be absolutely grueling is that of triage.

There is a shortage of hospital beds, face masks, ventilators, and medical professionals to tend to all the sick. Because of this, someone must decide who will get immediate treatment, who will wait, and God forbid, who will not receive treatment at all.

The problem is that there is no perfect way to determine who should be given priority. Regardless of whatever decision is made, or how good the criteria is that we create, someone will cry out, “that’s not fair!

In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus doing a kind triage. Jesus receives word from his friends Martha and Mary that their brother Lazarus was ill. But Jesus stays two days longer in the place where he was.

We don’t why he chooses to stay. Knowing what we know about the situation, Jesus comes across as rather dismissive of his friends. Eventually, Jesus arrives in Bethany—and by the time he arrives, he knows what’s happened: Lazarus has been dead for four days. In those four days, Martha and Mary buried their dead brother in a tomb. When Jesus finally shows up, these women do not hold back their feelings from Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

You can feel the sorrow, the disappointment, the anger in these words. Yes, Martha makes a beautiful confession of faith in Jesus as he speaks to her words of promise and life. But Lazarus is still in the tomb. The pain is still powerful. Death has struck—and Jesus wasn’t there to stop it.

Just before Jesus goes with the sisters and the mourners to the tomb, he is overcome…and begins to weep. When they arrive, the stone is in place. The stench of death is overpowering. What will Jesus do?

What we see here in Martha, Mary, and the mourners is the tension that exists between faith and disappointment; hope and despair. Because death has struck—and Jesus was not there to keep it from happening.

Today, we find ourselves in a very similar situation—because death is running amok, with Covid-19 being its sword. As it both sickens and kills God’s children, it’s destroying a whole lot else with it: all sense of normalcy and routine; our safety and security; our economy and our businesses, jobs, livelihoods, and life savings. You can’t even come to church because of the danger. Going out in public could potentially kill you and the people you encounter. And we don’t know how long this will last. We don’t know when the stock market will hit bottom. When the number of infections and deaths will subside. When we will no longer be sequestered in our homes.

What I find particularly troubling is that some will sail through this crisis and come out unscathed—while others are living in fear for their lives; scared that a simple trip to the supermarket will result in deadly germs coming home with the groceries. There are people who were already ill, who were already struggling to get by, whose lives were already in turmoil—and now, all hell has broken loose. How do you keep faith when death and destruction are a clear and present danger??

This is a time to really pay attention to Martha and Mary’s courage—they don’t hold back their sorrow, disappointment, and anger from Jesus. It doesn’t make you a strong Christian to conceal what’s in your heart. It makes you a dishonest Christian. To cry out to Jesus is an act of faith. Sometimes, it’s the only act of faith—particularly now, when you don’t know when this ordeal will end, or how bad it will get. The temptation is strong to give up faith, give up hope, give up on living. Death can kill the body, but it can kill the spirit just the same. Jesus is not expecting you to be okay with all this—because he certainly is not.

I’m not okay with the ways that the pandemic is unfairly impacting the poor and vulnerable.
I’m not okay with the fear-mongering, shaming, and blaming; the misinformation and disinformation, the hoarding and the stealing. I’m not okay with a worker’s job being labeled “non-life-sustaining” when it’s the worker’s life it sustains. I’m not okay with how all this chaos is impacting our children. I’m not okay with us being a scattered church.

But Jesus is the resurrection and the life. In Christ, the way to go is forward. We go into the future, knowing that death and pain, disappointment and loss are likely waiting for us there. But so is Jesus! When you present our doubts and disappointments to him, he speaks words of promise and hope. You respond by doing the works of resurrection in the world. You unbind your neighbors from fear and pain, loneliness and shame.

Thanks be to God that new life is already happening—in our strengthened relationships, in the outpouring of love to one another, in the creative adaptations are making to be church in these scary times. We may still be at the beginning of the Pandemic, but we are only at the beginning of resurrection—and the resurrection will continue on when Covid-19 is a distant memory.

So, in the meantime, keep crying out until you see the Lord’s salvation. Jesus weeps with a weeping world. Jesus suffers with the suffering; he dies with the dying. But it is resurrection that keeps us going and moves us forward. You are alive in Christ, and death is running scared. Believe, and you will see the glory of God.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Blinded by Our Might: John 9:1-41 - Fourth Sunday in Lent

1As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”
18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

By NIAID -, CC BY 2.0 
Over the past week, I’ve seen things I never thought I’d see: store shelves emptied of merchandise; desperate people hoarding or even stealing toilet paper; restaurants and malls shut down; churches (even the big ones) empty on Sunday morning.

“I’ve never seen anything like this” is what everyone’s saying—even those who lived through the Great Depression, World War 2, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the oil embargos, Disco Fever…

What I find so stunning is that for all the ways science and technology have revolutionized human civilization, you can’t come to church without putting yourself or someone else at risk—all because of some virus! Something that you can’t even see.

I believe that we 21st century Americans have been blinded by our might; absolutely convinced of our invincibility. Even as we watched hundreds of thousands of people fall sick in China and Western Europe, we still believed it would never happen here. Not in America. But here we are.

Still, many individuals believe: I won’t get sick! I’m too strong. I’m too healthy! The experts are over-reacting. The government’s trying to run our lives. The media is feeding hysteria.

Blindness is not exclusive to those who lack eyesight; nor is vision restricted to those who see perfectly.

In our Gospel, we are introduced to Bartimaeus, a man born into blindness. He was also born into the widespread belief that a disability was a consequence of sin. This is what Jesus’ disciples believed, until Jesus tells them that they’re wrong: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Is Jesus saying that Bartimaeus was born blind so that Jesus could come along and give him sight? I ask that, because it would be wonderful to be able to tell everyone with a disability or disease that God gave it to you so that God could cure you of it. I’ve heard many folks say that God sent the Coronavirus to give everyone a wake-up call to return to the Christian faith.

Bartimaeus may have lacked eyesight, but the blind people are those who believe that what they see is all there is to see, and that everyone else sees as they see. It’s the blind who are sure they have it all figured out, who say with absolute certainty EXACTLY what God is up to.

Before we make Bartimaeus into a hero, remember that he didn’t say or do anything heroic. He didn’t even ask Jesus to give him sight; Jesus put spitty mud on his eyes, and he washed in the pool of Siloam. This wasn’t a big leap of faith. He just did what Jesus told him to do. Even with the religious leaders interrogating him like some criminal, he tells them the simple truth: “Jesus put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see. He must be from God if he could do such a thing.”

The story ends with Bartimaeus not merely seeing but believing that Jesus is the Son of Man. The religious leaders, on the other hand, are blind to who Jesus is because they are so certain that what they see is all there is to see. Since Jesus’ healing of Bartimaeus didn’t fit into what they were convinced was true, Jesus had to be a liar, lunatic, or both. They, too, were blinded by their might.

I know many persons with blindness and other disabilities who amaze me with their might. They are extraordinarily talented, tenacious, passionate, and hard-working people. They are an inspiration to all of us to believe in ourselves, trust in God, and rise above adversity. But a person with blindness can’t drive a car. A person with paraplegia can’t go up and down stairs as easily, or as safely, as I can. A person with deafness can’t enjoy music like I do. Maybe, just maybe, their strength lies in the fact that they know that they are vulnerable. They know they are dependent on others to get by. They know they cannot control everything.

One thing that can be said about the Coronavirus Pandemic is that it has shattered the illusion of control. What we see now is chaos. But chaos is not all there is to see.

God is present in the crisis. We know this because of the people who are stepping up and reaching out to make sure our children don’t go hungry. We know this because of the brave healthcare workers, store workers, janitors, delivery drivers, emergency first responders, and other everyday heroes who tend to the sick and make civilized life possible. We know God is here because we are reaching out to each other and caring for the neighbor. We are finally becoming church for the sake of the world

There’s nothing good that can be said about Covid-10. It’s evil. But it is by God’s grace that our delusions of grandeur are being shattered, because they weren’t doing us any good even before the virus hit. It is by God’s grace that we are finally taking seriously are dependence on God and each other.

This is only the beginning of a wilderness experience that’s going to change you, the church, and the world in ways we cannot possibly imagine. I wish I could tell you that the worst of this is behind us, and that you won’t experience any pains, losses, or hardships. I wish I could tell you that the situation really isn’t as bad as the experts say it is. The fact that you don’t want to see something will not keep it from happening.

Listen to the Words: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.” Listen, because it’s not the chaos you will see. It is God you will see.

Once you see yourself as vulnerable, not in control, dependent on God and other people, and accept this as your reality, you will see the faithfulness of God. Once you see the ways the pandemic is affecting your neighbor, particularly those facing greater hardships than you, you will see the face of Jesus as you do for them whatever is in your ability to do. If we stick together as the Body of Christ, holding fast to God’s promises, committed to the cause of hope instead of the chaos of panic, we will see a resurrection and rebirth.

God didn’t send Covid-19. But God’s works will be revealed in the world, through the Body of Christ, and in the awesome ways God acts through the entire human community.

All will work out to the glory of God.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Evening Devotions for Wednesday, March 18

A reading from Mark, chapter 2:
When [Jesus] returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home.  2 So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them.  3 Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them.  4 And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I’ve learned more about communication technology in the last three days than I have in the last ten years. I’d never used Facebook live or moderated a videoconference. Now, I have.
And it’s brought me incredible joy to be connected with you in these ways, even though we must be absent from each other for a time. We are still going to have worship, bible studies, committee meetings, children’s activities—all because of technology.
But there’s a problem: not everyone is tech savvy. Not everyone has a high-speed internet connection at home. Not everyone uses Facebook or Zoom. Not everyone has a computer or a SmartPhone. Yet those persons still long for connectedness. Those persons still want and need to experience church. And we need them to be whole and well as the Body of Christ.
I’m reminded of the time Jesus was preaching at his home, and so many people were gathered around him, that there wasn’t room for everyone.
Four persons from town were carrying a man with paralysis on a mat. And because they couldn’t get him close to Jesus, they dug a hole through the roof of Jesus house—and lowered him down.
That’s what we must do for the persons who lack the resources and the knowledge to experience connection electronically: we must be creative and persistent in connecting with them. And this isn’t exclusive to church members; this includes neighbors, relatives, and friends who aren’t part of this church or any church.
The best way to start is with a phone call. My hope is that every person in our church who isn’t able to connect to these online resources will be contacted at least once a week by someone from this church; just to say hello and make sure they are well. You may very well be a lifeline for someone who can’t risk going out in public or who has nothing but the television to keep them company (and TV is lousy company, if  you ask me).
Think about the people living in nursing homes who can’t be visited by their friends and family. We are going to have names of nursing home residents so that you can send cards and encouragements.
If not you, then who?
I know many of you are still scrambling to adjust to this new reality, and you haven’t had a moment’s rest. Your busy looking after your loved ones; helping your kids get through their schoolwork packets. Many of you were already facing health concerns before Covid-19, and now you don’t know if you’re even going to be able to go to your appointments.
Jesus is in the chaos, the uncertainty, and the worry. But he will not keep you in a place of panic. He wants to be in the hope. And the best way to live as people of hope in these times is to do whatever good you can do, safely, to care for each other. Together, we will magnify the presence of Christ to one other.
Our Good Shepherd allows not even one of his sheep to be lost, forgotten, and left behind. Let us make sure no one is deprived of love, prayers, personal connections, or daily bread.
Let us pray.
Almighty and most merciful God, we call to mind before you all whom it is easy to forget: those who are homeless, destitute, sick, isolated, and all who have no one to care for them. May we bring help and healing to those who are broken in body or spirit, that they may have comfort in sorrow, company in loneliness, and a place of safety and warmth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 79)
And for ourselves and the world, let us pray:
Be our light in the darkness, O God, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.

Almighty and merciful God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless, preserve, and keep us, this night and forever more. Amen.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Evening Devotions for Tuesday, March 17

For years, I’ve had little good to say about social media. After today, I’m ready to take back everything bad I’ve ever said—because I’ve experienced much-needed connections with you that wouldn’t have been possible before.
This morning, I participated in two conference calls: the first was with Bishop Kusserow and nearly six dozen rostered leaders from our synod; the second was with the Lutheran Pastors of Armstrong County who usually meet Tuesday mornings in our church.
What a gift those hours were, because I wasn’t worrying or stressing about the situation and all the uncertainties that lie ahead of us. There was just the Holy Spirit, comforting us and calling us forward in faith.
God knows how much we need connection with each other, so that we can experience connection with God.
I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul and his letters that make up much of our New Testament. Many of these letters he wrote while in prison.  You can feel his longing for human connection in his words. I read from Philippians 1:3-8
I thank my God every time I remember you,  4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you,  5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.  6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.  7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.  8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
We are all feeling that longing and that need for connection, now that we are deprived of it. I have never experienced a time when the commandment to love thy neighbor has required me to be absent from them. But that is where we are.
Yet God built this need for connection into you: connection with others, and especially, connection with God. That means that God is going to make a way when there is no way.
With this crisis comes the opportunity to care for the neighbor in ways you never have before. With this crisis comes the opportunity to see how all the pleasures and creature comforts of modern life are hollow and empty, compared to the all-surpassing goodness of trusting God and serving Christ. With this crisis comes the opportunity to live out our faith in ways that meet people in their needs and in their fears, and be living proof that God is in the midst of this crisis.
I invite you to log onto our website, and look for a button that says, “how can I help?” There, you will find a link to a survey where you can make yourself available to serve in whatever ways you can. You don’t need to leave your home to make a difference. You can do that just by picking up the phone.
Please remember that the church cannot weather this season without your financial support. You are encouraged to give online or mail your offerings to the church.
You will also find a link to some wonderful prayer resources that come from the ELCA website.
And finally, I want to thank each of you for your prayers, your kind words, your phone calls, and everything you are doing in Christ’s name. Covid-19 is no match for the power of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, who is living through you.
Let us pray for all those who work in healthcare:
Merciful God, your healing power is everywhere about us. Strengthen those who work among the sick; give them courage and confidence in all they do. Encourage them when their efforts seem futile or when death prevails. Increase their trust in your power even to overcome death and pain and crying. May they be thankful for every sign of health you give, and humble before the mystery of your healing grace.

Let us pray for ourselves and our world:
Gracious God, we give you thanks for the day, especially for the good we were permitted to give and to receive; the day is now past and we commit it to you. We entrust to you the night; we rest securely, for you are our help, and you neither slumber nor sleep; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Almighty and merciful God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless, preserve, and keep us; this night and forever more.

Pastoral Message to the First Lutheran Church Community

This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Psalm 118:29

I must admit that it feels a little bit awkward to speak those words, given the situation we find ourselves in today. So much of what brought normalcy to our lives is suddenly gone from us, leaving only questions, uncertainty, and anxiety. I haven’t experienced times so scary since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

On Sunday, we had an impromptu congregational meeting to decide how we were going to deal with the realities of this pandemic—in light of our community’s need for our ministries, and our need to gather together around Word and Sacrament.

Yet, the more I learn about Covid-19, the more it scares me. I’ve come to appreciate that we’re taking these precautions to not merely prevent ourselves from being inconvenienced. Covid-19 is most dangerous when you don’t respect its danger. You can’t fight it by digging in your heels and going your own way. What’s worse is that you can spread it to someone else and not even know it. This is a perfect example of how one person’s pursuit of happiness can cost another person their freedom from harm.

However, you can’t fight Covid-19 with panic. The panic that’s emptying store shelves of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and surgical masks can be every bit as deadly as the virus itself. Fear is good only when it makes you respect danger. It’s deadly when it overwhelms your reason—and human decency. And fear can be just as toxic to your faith.

But when I turn to God’s Word, the power of fear is broken.

It is written in Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God.” God is in the midst of this crisis. I know this because of the love and generosity I see all around us. Is it not beautiful how our local restaurants are giving away free lunches to school children? These small business owners are about to take a hard financial hit, and yet they are reaching out. That’s a God sighting right there.

You will see God when you reach out to someone who’s especially vulnerable to the sickness and who can’t go out in public for its dangers. They will see God in you, just the same. Now’s a great time to reach out to that person you’ve been thinking about. They may need groceries or supplies. You can’t spread germs through a phone call. Even leaving a voicemail can brighten their day.

If you suddenly find yourself with extra time on your hands, volunteer opportunities are opening up all over. You’ll hear about them on the news, in the paper, and on social media.

And there has never been a better time to dust off that bible; open that devotional book, and let your soul be at home in the promises of God.

Know this: we are still church, even while we are absent from each other. This was true even before Coronavirus. A vast majority of the ministry we do as church happens in daily life.

And tonight, at 7 p.m., we are going to gather for prayer and devotions. Right here on Facebook.

I’m reminded of the United States Marine Corps slogan: “Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome.” With the Holy Spirit’s help, this is what we’ll do.

In the meantime, if you need prayer or pastoral care, I am here for you. Our church is here for you. Please call. A number of you have called to check in with me. Thank you for your love and prayers.

I want to close with a prayer that comes from the ELCA website, for when congregations are advised against gathering:

Gracious God, it is good for us to gather as your beloved in community. We treasure your presence with us in word and meal, song and prayer. Be with us in these days when gathering together as often as we would like is not possible. When we must be apart for reasons of safety, we trust that you surround us with your sheltering wings. Encourage us in connecting as we are able, reaching out to our neighbors in need and being persistent in prayer. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our constant companion. Amen.

May the Lord bless and keep you, the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace. Amen.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

God's Love in a Time of Coronavirus: John 4:5-42 - Third Sunday of Lent

5[Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30They left the city and were on their way to him.
31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” (NRSV)
By nakashi from Chofu, Tokyo, JAPAN - Shibuya, CC BY-SA 2.0

Thanks to the Coronavirus epidemic, life has taken a sharp turn into the surreal.

Entire countries are under lockdown, including Italy and Spain.

The stock market went into freefall this week, due to concerns about the economic impact of the pandemic.

Here at home, our attendance last Sunday was about half of what it had been just two weeks prior. And good luck trying to buy hand sanitizer or disinfecting wipes at the stores.

How do you live life in a time like this? The line between prudence and hysteria is becoming impossible to define. We should always wash our hands for twenty seconds, and we should always feel free to stay home when we’re sick. However, I fear that the public hysteria will outlast the virus.

Long before Coronavirus was a thing, we were already keeping ourselves in quarantine.

I’ve lived in a townhouse complex for almost nine years—and I don’t even know the names of the people living opposite my walls.

If you engage in casual conversation with a stranger in public, they may look at you like something’s wrong with you.

And nowadays, if you sneeze, you’re more likely to hear the words “get away from me” than “God bless you…”

It’s not hard to imagine the social taboo Jesus confronts in today’s Gospel. Jesus was in the Samaritan city of Sychar, and he was resting by Jacob’s well. He asks a Samaritan woman, “give me a drink.”

She’s stunned—normally, Samaritans and Jews avoid each other like the plague. But she opens herself to him.

And she certainly needed Jesus’ love—because she was no stranger to tragedy. Jesus knows she’s had five husbands. Perhaps she’s buried five husbands; perhaps she’s been divorced by five husbands. But in a world where women’s lives were devalued and their bodies were treated as property, she is in a very desperate place. Please understand that Jesus isn’t saying that she’s sinned. He’s speaking truth about the tragedy she’s suffered—and loves her in her pain. Through her open wounds, Jesus poured in the living waters of his love.

But isn’t it ironic that she leaves her water jar behind and goes back into the city? Jesus quenched her thirst for living water with relationship. Because Jesus loved her and taught her, she will never be thirsty again. Subsequently, she goes and tells her neighbors about Jesus, with the result that many Samaritans believe in him, because her testimony led them to him.

Before there was faith, there was relationship. Before there was relationship, there were barriers that had to be broken. That’s the challenge for us.

Before Coronavirus, we were already living isolated lives. It is our habit to pay more attention to our devices than to the people around us—even when those people are our own kin. Anymore, a good neighbor is one who minds their own business and stays out of your way. What’s worse, you are culturally conditioned to be suspicious of your neighbor—if they don’t believe what you believe. If they don’t look like you do. If they don’t vote like you do. We are far more likely to perceive the neighbor as a threat than a fellow child of God.  As long as Christians continue to quarantine themselves in the safety of their church buildings, and the love of Jesus Christ will be the Church’s best-kept secret.

Jesus, on the other hand, meets you in your basic needs, your deepest questions, and your most painful hardships. The cross shows the extent to which Jesus lovingly enters your fear, shame, and disgrace. And there, in your open wounds, Jesus makes the waters of God’s love to flow, to make you alive again.

As the living water flows into you, it will also flow out of you—because your neighbor is thirsty, and the world is a parched place. So often, we think of ministry as preaching to the neighbor and fixing their problems. But ministry is about relationship. Relationships are the rivers through which the living waters flow. The first expression of Christian love is to see beyond labels, judgments, and suspicions, to behold the image of God in the other. And it is in relationship and community that the power of Jesus’ love becomes undeniably real. All it takes is to lovingly enter the space of another’s life; hear their story; acknowledge their pain; and simply be with them. If you are willing to go that far, the Holy Spirit will take care of the rest.

We certainly pray for medical professionals and researchers to quickly find a vaccine to eradicate this wretched sickness once and for all, so that no more lives are lost. And yet, the number one way to protect yourself is to wash your hands with soap and hot water. And keeping three feet away from a person doesn’t mean you’re avoiding them. No one is going to get better unless without someone else lovingly entering the space of their life to show compassion and mercy. For it is only in relationship that healing and restoration can begin. Only in relationship will the waters of Jesus’ living waters flow and lives will be restored.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Birth from Above: John 3:1-17 - Second Sunday in Lent

1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (NRSV)

The Cross by RomansTenNine on Flickr. CC BY 2.0

We didn’t have cable television when I was young—so any time the family traveled and we stayed in a motel, the free cable was a big treat. We always tuned in to Nickelodeon—to watch Nick at Nite. The programming consisted of old sitcom favorites from the 1970’s and 80’s, which we never got to see in a world before Netflix or DVD.

Preachers call today’s Gospel “Nick at Night” for the Pharisee and Jewish leader Nicodemus who visits Jesus at night.

Jesus meets Nicodemus at the beginning of his ministry—but already, Jesus has caused quite a stir. At Cana, he turned water into wine. Just before Passover, Jesus rampaged through the Jerusalem temple, turning over tables, scattering animals, and driving out the moneychangers with a whip of cords. Jesus quickly became a menace for the powers-that-be.

But for Nicodemus, there’s something about Jesus for which he cannot turn away. So he comes to Jesus, but at night, in secret, so no one finds out.

He tells Jesus he knows that he is a teacher who’s come from God, because of the signs he’s seen him do. But Jesus immediately challenges him: “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Or, translated another way, “born again.”

Nicodemus doesn’t understand. How do you “get born” a second time? What do you need to do?

To be born again means, essentially, becoming a baby again. Nicodemus is a highly-educated man. He has great power and authority. But he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Think about it this way: children have a much easier time learning new languages than adults. A child’s brain is unconsciously absorbing information from their environment. Their natural curiosity, combined with their excitement at mastering something new, makes the learning process much easier—and effective.

It never ceases to amaze me how much little children understand Holy Communion. Even when I come to a toddler in their parents’ arms and I see those two eyes, open wide, taking in everything going on around them, I know they’re learning. Their eyes practically say, “I want to be a part of this!”

But you take a room full of adults and try to teach them about Holy Communion—they struggle to take it all in. It requires tremendous effort for an adult brain to process new information, because it’s trying to reconcile new information with what is already known. I can’t tell you the number of times someone’s said to me, during a bible study or Sunday school class, “the more I learn, the more questions I have!”

Even worse, adults tend to seek out information that confirms what they already know. There’s an old saying: my mind is made up—don’t confuse me with facts.

Nicodemus is right to question, “how can anyone be born again after having grown old?” You can’t do it! But God can do it!

That’s the power of the cross—of God showing who God is in Jesus Christ, taking on all human sin…and dying.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

When you survey the wondrous cross, God’s power is at work to make this promise a reality in you. But before you can be born again of the Spirit, you must die. You have the same name and you’re occupying the same body, but you’re not who you were. And you aren’t in control over what you will become. Believing in Jesus demands nothing putting on infancy.

Learning and growth are full-time jobs for a child. As a child, you need to be taught. You’re coming to Jesus, time and time again, to hear his word, to learn from his teachings, to be conformed to his will. But for everything you learn, there will be much to unlearn.

Are you willing to admit that you don’t have God all figured out? Are you prepared for the Spirit to radically transform what you value and live for? Are you prepared for the person everyone else knows to be strong, powerful, and right—and cast it all aside and put on infancy?

Far too often, we go to God’s word for a pep talk rather than provocation. We look for comfort, not challenge. We look for total confirmation, not total transformation. It won’t always make you feel good to hear from Jesus that you are a sinner and infant dependent on the grace of God for your salvation.

Either way, when you reach a point where you can’t go on living like this—or you can’t go on dying like this—you are ready for rebirth. And this is where God steps in. Whether you are exceptionally holy like Nicodemus or your face is pictured in the dictionary right next to the word “sinner,” God acts through water and Spirit to “rebirth” you. Being born again isn’t the end of the journey; it’s the journey itself—a lifetime of reconciliation and forgiveness; a lifetime of learning and growth; a lifetime of dying and rising again.