Set Free from the Contagion

This sermon was preached to the virtually gathered congregation of Paris Presbyterian Church on March 22nd, 2020, amidst the quarantine due to the COVID-19 virus.

Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Luke 13:10–17 (NRSV)

When we hear this story, our minds make an immediate translation from the world of the 1st Century to the 21st. When we hear that this woman was oppressed by “a crippling spirit,” and we hear the description of her illness, our modern scientific brains kick into gear, wondering what this woman’s affliction could be.

It turns out, through the power of Wikipedia, that this woman had Ankylosing spondylitis. (I am extremely grateful that Wikipedia will also pronounce things for you!) It’s an arthritic condition in the spine—inflammation causes a progressive fusing of the vertebrae that causes one to hunch over.

Without that translation, this story is almost unintelligible to us. How could a “spirit” cripple this woman? In what sense can “Satan” be accused of holding her in bondage? Can you imagine going to the orthopedic doctor today and being told, “ah, I see the problem. You have a spirit that is attacking you, pushing you down, causing you to hunch over. I can’t help you, but maybe your therapist or Pastor can help set you free from that spirit.”

We would quickly seek out a second opinion. We might even report that doctor to his credentialing board!

If we take the spiritual nature of this woman’s affliction seriously, and I think we should, we’re in danger of falling into another trap. Since this story implies that this woman has a spiritual rather than a mere physical condition, we might incorrectly assume that this woman has done something wrong, something to deserve her affliction!

Some have accused this poor crippled woman of being stuck in personal sin and “lax in [her] efforts toward piety” (Cyril of Alexandria). If that were true, she wouldn’t have needed anything more than to pray, be made right with God, and be healed. If that were true, it was a personal problem, not something to deal with publicly. If her spiritual condition was caused by an error in her individual behavior, Jesus would have identified the ailment’s source as a personal transgression.

In order to avoid the complex snares of the spiritual, we think we’re better off with our modern, physical translation of the story that foregoes all the spiritual baggage. This woman simply has a medical condition, she needs a doctor, and in lieu of modern medicine, Jesus and his miraculous healing ability is her best option.

We don’t tend to believe in the “spiritual world.” Honestly, it’s because it’s hard for us to see any evidence of it. Our eyes and minds aren’t programmed to see it. We look for scientific causes and effects for everything we observe. In premodern societies, belief in God was assumed, and with that assumption came a general understanding that there was a supernatural cause behind everything. Today, our default response is to assume a physical cause for every incident.

In this congregation, we try to intentionally reprogram ourselves to remember that God is living and active in our world by sharing “God sightings.” Every week in worship, we have a brief, open time of sharing in which we are asked to share what God has been doing in our lives and where we have seen God’s hand at work.

It’s a hard thing to do, because our minds are trained to be skeptical. And so, more often than not, when someone takes a risk to share a place where they have seen God at work, someone in the congregation lets out an audible groan. It’s not the same person. Many more groan silently, it’s just that one or two slip and let it out.

“This is not what the Sabbath is for,” our inner skeptics scream in our minds. “We are here, as good Presbyterians to rest from our labors by singing, praying for our list of concerns, hearing a talk about a passage of scripture, and leaving the building no more than one hour after the start of the service!” That is why we are here. It’s simple, physical, observable, understandable.

Isn’t it ironic that right now we’re forced to change that rhythm due to the Coronavirus? Our lack of spiritual sight causes us to assume that because our physical church doors are closed, because we cannot meet in groups of 10 or more people, the “church” is therefore closed. We’re forced, instead, to remember that there is something more than our physical presence that connects us.

The problem with our obsession with the merely physical is that it leaves us without any understanding of the nature of the human condition and the condition of creation. And if we don’t know the cause of our situation, how can we possibly be delivered from it?

If the physical is all that we have, then there isn’t any true salvation for any of us. We’ll just be stuck relying on beneficial, but incomplete, physical remedies. Nothing can save us from the reality of our eventual, physical death. And if the personal is all that we have, then an individual’s condition must be a result of their own personal choices and impiety.

What could be done for this bent-over woman today in modern medicine? We like to imagine, as 21st century moderns, that we have all the answers. We see the problems and we have a solution. But this woman’s condition is just as chronic and incurable in the 21st century as it was in the 1st. To this day, we can only treat symptoms of the disease. Modern medicine has a different name for this woman’s condition, but no silver bullet, no cure.

This woman represents all of us with chronic conditions that have no complete cure. Even when their condition is well-managed, the disease hides in the background, ready to appear again. From psychological conditions such as depression to degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease, to the constant fight against cancer­­—our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, friends, enemies, and ourselves cry out for a cure. But many live with conditions for which there is no cure, like this woman with Ankylosing spondylitis.

So, what do we do when an individual has an infirmity that cannot be “cured” in the full, embodied sense of the word?

Or, in this time especially as the world is infected with the Coronavirus, we might ask what we should do when the world is infected by a contagion, a virus, for which there is no readily available physical inoculation.

Now we’re on to something.

Turns out, we’re as helpless today in the 21st century as the desperate and downtrodden were in first century Palestine. We are as in need of a savior to heal and save us from our infirmities.

I wish I could simply say that Jesus can offer healing of a kind light-years ahead of what medicine can currently provide, that the power of Jesus that healed this unnamed woman 2,000 years ago can cure you of arthritis, cancer, depression, or whatever else affects you today. That somehow, a sprinkling of holy water or some oil will inoculate you from the Coronavirus. 

I wish we could say one simple prayer tonight and send the Coronavirus into the pit of hell. Some people might be willing to still make those pronouncements and put on a grand spectacle and sell you some snake oil, but medical cures are way above my paygrade.

Even if there is no easy cure for our chronic condition, the message of the Gospel is that there is healing for us and a Savior who can save us. As long as we focus on our individual infirmities, we’re doomed to suffer and fail under the weight of the human condition. But our Scripture tells us clearly and decisively that there is something behind this painful chaos that kept this woman hunched over on the Sabbath day.

The Bible paints a word picture of this multifaceted reality: Sin, Death, Satan, the Powers and Principalities, the Spiritual Forces in the Heavenly Realms (Ephesians 6:12)

In the beginning of it all, the book of Genesis tells us that God’s desire for the world was a lush garden of beauty and wholeness. But because of one transgression, out of a desire for personal autonomy, that picture was shattered. Sin, a contagion, a virus with an untreated 100% fatality rate, had infected the world. And thus, as we know, husband and wife turn on one another, brother rises up against brother, human relationships are broken by transgressions, yes. But the problem is really much deeper.

Scripture tells us that individual transgressions, those sins we commit, are not the only problem. No, the whole system of being is infected. Our behaviors are caught up in a wider web of pain and suffering that we can’t control. Try making one purchase, one personal decision that doesn’t have a negative effect on another human being. You can’t do it! It’s like trying to go about your day without spreading the Coronavirus. The reality is, just like with Coronavirus, you’re spreading the infection of Sin and Death wherever you go, even if you’re not currently symptomatic.

The power of Sin has cut us off from the Tree of Life, it’s affected our DNA, it dwells within us like a virus, cutting our time short, subjecting us to suffering and pain.

With this woman, with our fragile Earth, with the entire cosmos, we groan out for redemption! We’re bent over. We’re resigned to our fate. Except that we have the hope of Paul in Romans 8 “that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

It’s not that this woman has suffered because of her sin. Yes, we face the consequences of our actions on a daily basis, but God does not consign us to suffering because of them. We suffer because all creation suffers. We suffer because all of us, as Ephesians 6:12 says, struggle not against flesh and blood, but against the “spiritual forces of evil” that attack our bodies and beat us down as children of God.

As St. Augustine put it, “the whole human race, like this woman, was bent over and bowed down to the ground.” Together, we cry out against this enemy to God.

As St. Paul asks in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

On that Sabbath day 2,000 years ago, the Lord Jesus released that woman who had been crying out for 18 long years from her bondage. Yes, Jesus did have the supernatural power to cure her. But more importantly, Jesus saw her and healed her. He restored her. He gave her the freedom of the children of God from her captor.

As Romans 8:2 declares, “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”

The woman who was in bondage in knows the reality of the human condition and the condition of the cosmos far better than the synagogue leader does. The synagogue leaders sees this incident as a simple act of physical healing. It’s “work.” It’s what those of you who are medical professionals do at your day jobs. But Jesus sees it as something far more.

The synagogue leader doesn’t know his own brokenness, his own wounds, the way this cosmic story of Sin and death has kept him in bondage. He doesn’t know the he too is bent over to the ground. Otherwise, he’d be begging for freedom too!

The synagogue leader has become so defensive and antagonistic with Jesus because he is unwilling and unable to find healing from the spiritual wounds in his heart.

Like those who go about their days as normal right now, denying the danger of the spread of the Coronavirus, the synagogue leader adopts a deadly “everything is fine, we don’t need saving” mentality.

This moderator of the Sabbath assembly doesn’t know that he, like all of us, is deeply wounded, broken, and infected. And if he knows it, then he’s trying his best to hide it.

None of us can escape the contagion of Sin. We’re all infected. And like the bent over woman, we can all be liberated from the powers that hold us in bondage.

Now is the time for release from bondage! Now, on this Sabbath day, is the time of our healing.

The thing that keeps us from deliverance and healing from the twin powers of Sin and Death especially in the Church is that we refuse to acknowledge and take up our afflictions. And if we don’t acknowledge our common sickness, we’re certainly not going to create the space for healing.

In our minds, Church is a recue raft for those who aren’t infected by the contagion, the virus of Sin and Death. And so, sometimes we get caught up in putting on a religious show during a season like Lent! Our life isn’t hard enough, so we find ways to voluntarily suffer to show how good and religious we are. Or to earn our place as one of the good-religious-sabbath-keepers.

But as it turns out, all of our false piety has been stripped from us this Lent. There are no more Fish Fry’s left to convince us that we’re doing our religious duty by eating fried food. There are no more gatherings of people in which to adopt a sullen expression and show people how terrible our fast is making us feel!

Right now, there’s no way to deny that we are ALL infected by the contagion of Sin and Death. Look at the empty supermarket shelves, decimated by those who are hoarding supplies for themselves. Look at the fragility of our lives—we carry viruses within our bodies, without knowing, that can bring death upon those who are most vulnerable.

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In this season of Lent, our local ministerium decided that “Take Up Your Cross” would be the theme of our gatherings together. Those mid-week services may be suspended by the virus, but what an opportunity we have together now to take up the crosses that are before us, to pick up our pain and suffering, to pick up the sign of Sin and Death, and to ask Jesus to take that weight from us.

Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). “Take up my burden. It is the burden of the whole world and it will be a light burden. Take up my yoke and it will prove to be an easy yoke.” (Matthew 11:30; “Following Jesus,” 79).

Reflecting on that passage, the great Christian Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen writes, “This is the mystery of the Christian life. It is not that God came to take our burden away or to take our cross away or to take our agony away.” (As I’ve been saying in this sermon, Jesus did not come to cure us of our fragile humanity.) “No. God came to invite us to connect our burden with God’s burden, to connect our suffering with God’s suffering, to connect our pain to God’s pain.” (“Following Jesus,” 80)

When we hear that we are to “take up our cross and follow Jesus,” we often believe that we need to make a cross to follow Jesus. That we somehow need to take on some external suffering on ourselves and be hard on ourselves. Nouwen reminds us, “we have a lot of problems [already]. We don’t need more.”

Church, we do not need to make a cross. We don’t need to cause ourselves pain. Our cross is already in front of us.

There is no one watching this sermon who does not, in some way, carry the suffering of Sin and Death in their bodies. The only thing that separates us is that some of us have chosen to pick up that suffering and acknowledge it, while others have tried to hide the virus that lives within them.

The bent-over woman who went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day took up her cross! She could hardly hide it! She could not have not taken up her cross. It was visible on her body for all to see.

But the synagogue leader didn’t have a visible cross, and so he felt no need to take up his suffering, his infection of Sin and Death. The synagogue leader cut himself and others off from the healing and true joy that was so desperately needed on the Sabbath day.

We don’t take up our cross to show off how much we can suffer. We take up our cross so that we will be healed and set free!

That’s exactly what the bent-over woman did. She participated in the Sabbath, the gift given to the people of Israel as they were set free from the bondage of Sin and Death in Egypt. The Sabbath reminded her and reminds us that “we were once enslaved in Egypt.” We were once infected by Sin and Death.

The thing that kept the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt is the same thing that bent over this woman. It’s Cancer. It’s Chronic Illness. It’s the Coronavirus. It’s Sin and Death. It’s what we call the “human condition.”

And we all need healing.

Today we need to ask ourselves, “what is our unique suffering? What cross do we bear?” And then, like the bent-over woman, we need to take up that cross, and follow––bring that suffering to Jesus.

Henri Nouwen writes that, “this is what Jesus means when he asks you to take up your cross. He encourages you to recognize and embrace your unique suffering and to trust that your way to salvation lies therein. Taking up your cross means, first of all, befriending your wounds.”

Taking up our cross means taking up our unique part of the human condition. It means taking up our unique bondage to Sin and Death and bringing it to Jesus, not for a quick cure-all, not for Jesus to take that cross from us, but for the healing that comes through dying to ourselves and being raised up with Christ.

As the Lord told the Apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” And as Paul said in response, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

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I want to end with a story about a boy who needed to take up the cross of his pain and suffering to follow Jesus. C.S. Lewis, in the Narnia story “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” writes, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

Eustace was an insufferable boy, a child who bullied other children and adults alike. He was “better” than everyone else, and he knew it. He had the right opinions. He knew all about what was physically possible, and he knew that his cousins who spoke of the Land of Narnia were full of it. There was no such place and there could not be.

The boy Eustace’s cross to bear, the wound from which he was operating, was his jealousy of his cousins Edmund and Lucy and their sibling bond. It was a cross that he needed to take up, a wound that he needed Christ to heal.

Everything changes when Eustace is pulled, kicking and screaming, into Narnia––that “impossible” world that “could not” exist.

As the story continues, Eustace eventually wakes up to find he is not a boy at all. Instead, he looks down and sees the claws and scales of a dragon. The boy Eustace, in this realm of Narnia, now shows his Sin, his infection, on the outside.

Unable to hide from his pain anymore, Eustace cries out for help and Aslan, the Christ figure in Lewis’ allegory, comes to him saying, “follow me.”

In front of Aslan, Eustice tries desperately to free himself from his dragon form, this Sin, by scratching and clawing himself. He tries to shed the outside layers of his condition by inflicting pain to free himself. (How often do we do the same?)

But under the outside layer of the scales of Sin is another, and another, and another. The boy Eustace seems to be a dragon all the way down. But Aslan the lion tells him, “you will have to let me” take off those scales.

Aslan, the lion who is not-safe but good, tears into Eustace’s dragon flesh—layer upon layer of the Sin and Death that has been suffocating the boy Eustice is removed in one fell swoop. Aslan picks up the raw, healed freed-boy Eustace and drops him into the pool.

After this, those who see and interact with Eustace can’t believe their eyes. They can’t believe it’s him. Eustace was never so kind and understanding. But this freed-boy Eustace, unchained from the shackles of Sin, rescued from the mouth of the dragon of Death, healed from the virus that has infected humanity, is now more himself than he has ever been.

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If we take up our suffering and share it with Christ, what pain must we endure to be healed? The pain of acknowledging our sins to a friend, relative, or our accountability group. The pain of stripping off our false self for the truth that lies beneath. The pain of removing ourselves from toxic relationships and negative influences. The pain of faith and trust, knowing that things really are uncertain and there’s no security in this life. The pain of acknowledging a chronic condition for which there is no cure. The pain of acknowledging that none of us will get out of this infected world alive.

Son of Adam, Daughter of Eve – are you suffocating inside the oppression of the dragon of Sin and Death? Come to the healer, let him cut into the lies and false self that you might be set free. 

Child of God – are you bent over from the weight of the burden you carry? Stand up. Take up your cross. Be set free to follow Jesus, that we all might rejoice in what God is doing. 

There may not be a cure for the task of cross-bearing, but thanks be to God who gives us the victory of healing through Jesus Christ, sent by the Father, and with us always through the gift of the Spirit. Amen.


As I was writing this sermon, Mockingbird posted an article in the same vein that highlights a quotation from C.S. Lewis, addressing life in the “Atomic Age” and drawing the connection to the Coronavirus.”

The problem is, we are already infected. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, “Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before [the coronavirus began to spread].” As we scramble to save ourselves from this earthly ailment, the creeping virus of sin continues to infect our hearts with greed and fear and a whole host of other strains of itself. Against this disease, quarantine won’t help — it grows even when we’re isolated, just as it can grow when we gather together, multiplying as it passes from person to person.

Kate Campbell, Mockingbird – https://mbird.com/2020/03/wash-your-hands-you-sinners/

Angels and Demons (A Sermon)

This message was delivered on the First Sunday after Christmas 2018 at Eldersville United Methodist Church.

Matthew 2:13–18, 14:1–12

I appreciate the dedication that has brought you to worship today, even on the Sunday after Christmas. The Sunday after Christmas is a time for us to consider the consequences of the Christmas message.

On Monday and Tuesdaywe celebrated the good news that a child has been born to us! The King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Word on which all creation was spoken into being has come into the world. Hallelujah!

It’s appropriate for our celebrations to continue. After all, the Christmas season continues all the way up to Epiphany on January 6th. Don’t put your Christmas decorations away yet! Today is only the 6th day of Christmas!

Yet, as we worship in reduced numbers on this awkward Sunday between Christmas an New Years when many people are still traveling and thinking about everything except church, today is an appropriate day for a little reality check.

What did Jesus’ birth at Christmas really accomplish? How did the world react to the good news we’ve been spending our week celebrating.

We all know what ultimately becomes of this little child born in a manger—he’s baptized, he teaches and heals, he calls 12 disciples to participate in his mission, and then… he’s killed by the Romans on a cross. Not exactly what we would expect to result from the grand entrance at Christmas. This baby is, after all, the prince of peace, the mighty God himself!

But anyone who has spent any time with Matthew’s verison of the Nativity knows that death doesn’t even wait that long to rear its ugly head into the story.

After the small child escapes with his young parents to Egypt as a refugee from Herod’s evil power, all the male children under two who remained in Bethlehem were massacred.

A “reality check” alarm goes off in our heads. We can remain in our cheap-joy filled sentimental Christmas celebrations no longer. Evil is on the move right as the story beings.

It may be uncomfortable for us to deal with so soon after the celebration, but Fleming Rutledge explains it this way: “The great theme of [this season] is hope, but it is not tolerable to speak of hope unless we are willing to look squarely at the overwhelming presence of evil in our world. Malevolent, disproportionate evil is a profound threat to Christian faith.”

So let’s do it. Let’s take our eyes off the cute baby in the manger for just a second to shoot a piercing glare at the forces of evil in our world and scream in their faces: not today, Satan.

We don’t have to look far.

We can meanacingly on the number of mass-casuality events this past year that have only deepened our divisions while silencing the voices of the dead. We can look at cancerous growths in the bodies of those we love with fists held high and our battle faces on. We can stare down those who have abused and created harmful work environments for God’s children. We can look at those who have used their power to cause human suffering rather than alleviating it.

Not today! We exclaim, but our voices fall on deaf ears. There’s always a new evil in our world for us to condemn. And evil seems far more organized than the resistance. The forces of sin, death, and every kind of evil hold seats in congress. They entertain us. They tell us how to think and who to hate. They sit in executive suites and oval offices. They hold the innocent in prison and serve as judge, jury, and executioner on the street. Evil is well organized in our world!

And, oh yes—let us not forget—the forces of evil even hold a place in our hearts.

Yes, the forces of evil have killed worshippers in the Tree of Life synagogue. They have taken out journalists like Jamal Khashoggi. They have left children to die of hunger and thirst while celebrating a job well done. They have sown discord in families and divisions in churches. In big things and in small things, evil has accomplished a lot just in 2018!

The Gospels remind us that this is nothing new. Evil killed a multitude of children while it was trying to extinguish the hope given by baby Jesus and evil took John the Baptizer’s head and nailed Jesus to the cross.

We know some of the names that perpetrated this evil. We know the name of the gunman at Tree of Life. We know the leaders of the Saudi Government who silenced their critic. We can point fingers at border patrol agents and world leaders and bring any who abuse their power to justice. We can convict those who have abused children and harassed adults.

The problem with all this finger pointing is that, eventually, we will have identified a lot of evil without recognizing anything about the enemy. We will get stuck identifying human enemies.

And if we’re in the business of identifiying humans who commit evil by comission or omission, we’re going to identify basically every living person on this earth.

Pointing our fingers at people like King Herod, like we could reasonably do in this story in Matthew 2, would only get us so far. You know why? Because that Herod was followed by another one. And another. And another.

Our Scriptures attest, this battle is so much bigger than any one person. If we spend our time trying to identify human enemies, we’re going to miss a lot of them. Uncover one agent of death and a million more will wait in silence for their moment to pounce.

There is a bigger cosmic drama at play, bigger than any Herod of this world and any one tragedy.

Behind all the evil that we can identify in our world is the one cosmic reality that the Scriptures call by many names.

Put on your 3D glasses and see in a new dimension what is hidden from our eyes.

Go back and look at the nativity scene with spiritual vision and see what surrounded the pregnant Mary, in the process of giving birth, (Revelation 12) “a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born.”

One woman in Louisiana became an internet sensation, and the object of her neighbors ire, a few weeks ago when she put up inflatable dragons in her yard for Christmas. One neighbor spoke for the whole neighborhood when she said, “your dragon display is only marginally acceptable at Halloween. It is totally inappropriate at Christmas. It makes your neighbors wonder if you are involved in a demonic cult.”

I understand what the angry neighbor was trying to express, but I think they got it all wrong. We need to put the inflatable lawn dragons back in Christmas! John the visionary tells us the dragons were right there at Jesus’ birth, hovering over our little nativity scenes ready to snatch the Christ child alive.

This cosmic reality has many names when it appears in the story of Scripture. John sees it as a dragon. Ephesians 6:12 calls these forces, “the rulers, against the authorities, the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” We might also call this spiritual reality sin, death, satan, the accuser, the adversary, the prince of darkness, or the devil.

In the face of all this evil, Jesus taught us to pray, “deliver us from evil…”

And this is why the Christ Child has come—to bring power and glory that will wipe out evil for good!

Philip Yancey writes, “From God’s viewpoint—and Satan’s—Christmas signals far more than the birth of a baby; it was an invasion, the decisive advance in the great struggle for the cosmos.”

Jesus came into our world to fight a war that’s been a long time in the making.

It was this mission that led Jesus from the manger to the cross, where the forces of evil thought they would dispose of him for good.

Our world is full of little crosses, marking the deaths of infants, young men and women at war, families fleeing violence, and all who suffer under the weight of death’s rule. And Jesus came to join them by dying on that big cross, suffering along with all of us. That’s why Matthew juxtaposes Jesus’ birth with the stark reality of sin, death, and evil. This is why Jesus came!

The nativity begins the great war between the worlds.

On Christmas Day, we celebrated the birth of the savior. We celebrated the birth of God among us to take a hands on approach to sickness, sin, and suffering. And now, as we wake up from our sugar comas into the reality of the world, we come face to face with the enemy that Jesus came to deal with.

The dragon of evil is on the prowl, even if its only visible in some lady’s yard in Louisiana.

The good news for us now that we’ve had our reality check is that Jesus doesn’t just deal with these enemies one-by-one. Fighting against evil is, for us, a never-ending game of wack-a-mole. But Jesus came to uncover the whole thing. Jesus came to overthrow the power of sin, death, and evil once and for all. This evil is bigger than any of us. We can’t do anything about these forces alone. But Jesus has come to shine a bright light, to release us all from our bondage to sin and the weight of the fear of evil.

The dragons might appear menacing in the dark, illuminated by their own light, but when the big light comes on and the power behind the dragons is switched off, we’ll see this evil for what it really is.

The difficulty we face is that while the birth of Jesus at Christmas and the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter are significant and decisive moments in this conflict between the worlds, the battle still wages on.

The struggle continues. Herods still sit on their thrones. Children are still massacred and abandoned. Families just like Mary, Joseph, and Jesus still flee from their homes to escape a life under the rule of evil’s latest embodiment.

The decisive turning point of the conflict has come, but evil still lurks everywhere we turn.

So what do we do?

Paul, in Romans 12:15, tells us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” We rejoice when evil is exposed and sin-sick souls find redemption. Any day when sins are confessed and pardon is given is a great day for us and a terrible day for Satan.

And yet, the other part of that call is to “weep with those who weep.” We weep with Rachel for God’s children who are killed and who suffer in destitution. Yet, as 1 Thessalonians 4 puts it, we “do not grieve as those who have no hope.”

When tragedy strikes, as it did last year and will in the next year, let us see it for what it is—the latest appearance of the powers at work for the destruction of the world. When tragedy strikes, we will grieve and weep as those who know human pain. But we will also celebrate the work of Christ on our behalf in birth and in death. We will look to the heavens with our heads held high, knowing that the day of the Lord will come, bringing an end to the rule of evil, sin, and death in our world. We will sing the songs of salvation today and every day, remembering what Christ has done, Christ is doing, and Christ will do for us and the whole world.

The Christmas Carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” puts this response into song:

God rest ye merry gentlemen

Let nothing you dismay

Remember Christ our Savior

Was born on Christmas Day

To save us all from Satan’s pow’r

When we were gone astray

Oh tidings of comfort and joy

Comfort and joy

Oh tidings of comfort and joy

Truly, Jesus has come to set us free from Satan’s power. What better comfort could there be?

Return to Sender (A Sermon)

This message was preached on December 29, 2019 at the Paris Presbyterian Church, where I serve on staff.

Matthew 2:13-23

As we gathered for our Christmas Eve service on Tuesday and celebrated with our families the rest of the week, we reflected on the Charlie Brown Christmas version of the story. Angels and Shepherds, Mary and Joseph, Wise Men from the East. We sing Silent Night. We light the candles in the darkness. But we do our best not to dwell on the darkness that makes our little candles visible.

If our retelling of the Christmas story last week was like a Charlie Brown holiday special, today’s Scripture is more like a horror movie. A vision in the middle of the night, waking Joseph up from his stupor. Immediately hearts start to pound as we follow this young, vulnerable family on the uncertain journey to Egypt, hiding at every suspicious noise. Looking behind themselves constantly, hoping that one of Herod’s men was not close enough to catch them.

Our hearts are torn in two by the cries of the mothers and fathers who lost their newborn children at the hand of the despotic Herod. We feel relief that baby Jesus is not among them, that God has protected this fragile hope through his brave parents. But what about all the collateral damage in this cosmic battle? Surely none of those grieving parents would find an ounce of reassurance in the news that one newborn baby survived.

For the month or so preceding Christmas, we found ourselves in the season of Christmas preparation. Gifts were inquired about (“what is it that you would like to receive?” we asked friends and family). Gifts were purchased, and if you’re like most American households, your front door was surrounded by packaged you ordered from Amazon.com. These gifts were taken out of their shipping boxes and covered with wrapping paper or stuck in a bag with tissue paper, and lovingly placed under the tree, ready to be opened.

At the same time as these preparations for the more “secular” holiday of Christmas were going on, we in our worship and devotional life were preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ once again. We engaged in similar preparations. We considered what we needed to do to draw closer to God and we pondered the ways that God could appear among us this year and truly answer our prayers.

As our gifts were placed under the tree, waiting to be opened, we all waited with eager longing and expectation for the gift of God’s son Jesus.

We were all pretty sure what we were going to find in this “box.” This is one present we all knew about ahead of time. This isn’t our first Christmas. We’ve opened this gift before. We know what to expect. Even still the expectation was building because we really needed Jesus this year.

We all experienced sorrows and struggles this year that we needed Jesus to come into and make right. In 2019, all of us have had some combination of stress with our job (not being appreciated, not making enough money, not having enough time outside of work), conflict within our families (strained relationships with our friends, our parents, our children, and our partners), struggles with our health (diagnoses we were not expecting or recurring problems we thought had been addressed), and more.

In our worship on Christmas Eve, we got exactly what we were expecting. Our prayers were answered. We celebrated once again the birth of Jesus Christ, meek and mild. A precious baby. A sign of hope! We went home Tuesday night with our hearts full of joy. And maybe on top of all that celebration, we’ve also gotten an answer to prayer.

We all felt that prayers were answered when we heard that Mike Morra was returning home for Christmas. And maybe we experienced some of our own personal miracles last week.

The gift of Jesus, this box that has been sitting under the tree all season, this hope we were expecting has been opened.

Inside that box we find the tiny baby.

But lest we’ve forgotten already, this gift of hope also comes with its polar opposite. It’s a mixed bag. Our Christmas Eve service was filled with light, but it’s also surrounded by darkness! Inside the gift we’ve opened this season, we receive both baby Jesus and the tyranny of King Herod.

We should have expected that the answer to our prayers would be this way. After all, the story of the coming of Jesus into the world bears remarkable similarities to the situation surrounding the captivity in and Exodus from Egypt.

As the book of Exodus opens, we hear how God’s provision for the Hebrews in the land of Egypt had been undermined by a new king, one who saw the resident alien population of Hebrews in his land as a threat.

And so, this new king in Egypt decided to put slave masters over the Hebrews to “oppress them with forced labor.” As the people God had chosen to be a blessing to the world continued to grow and become fruitful, as God had promised, they were oppressed more and more.

Eventually, the population became so large and the king of Egypt, the Pharaoh, was so threatened that he declared that “every Hebrew boy that is born, you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”

There are rulers like Pharaoh and Herod in every generation, willing to sacrifice little children for the sake of the “greater good” or their own narrow political interests. It is always the weak and vulnerable, like the Hebrew babies in Egypt, the children in Bethlehem, and the young migrants at the borders of the nations of this world who suffer at the hands of power.

There is nothing new in this story. We shouldn’t be so surprised by it.

But there’s something else that strikes me about the Exodus story and the Christmas story. See, for years and years, “the Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out to God.”

The Hebrew slaves waited in a season of Advent-like expectation for the one who had made a covenant with them.

They cried out for God to appear in their midst, as we did for the four weeks of Advent.

And finally, if you remember the story, God did respond. He called Moses at the bush that was on fire but would not burn up! There was a sign of hope, an appearance of God anticipating the day when God would appear directly to us through his son.

But what happened? The pain and suffering on the Israelites from their Egyptian rulers increased. They were ordered to make bricks without straw, without reducing their quota.

In response the people said to Moses and Aaron, “May the Lord look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”

The deliverance the slaves had asked for and been promise turned out to be much harder than they anticipated. And in that moment, they would have done everything to reverse course, get rid of Moses, and suck up to Pharaoh for better treatment.

This pattern continues throughout that story. The people of God cry out to him pleading for rescue. Deliverance comes. And things get harder.

Once the Israelites reach the desert wilderness, the same wilderness Mary and Joseph traveled through with baby Jesus in the opposite direction, they cry out to God, “why did you lead us out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness? In Egypt we at least had food! Here in the wilderness we have nothing. This promised deliverance is anything but. They would much rather have no deliverance at all, thank you very much.

I imagine that many of God’s people, living in Bethlehem praying and hoping for a better day, had a similar reaction. Their prayers were answered. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Son of David, the one who was to redeem Israel had come. But along with his coming came suffering caused by an evil that would do anything to oppose this work of God’s deliverance.

Yes, the promised redeemer had come. But along with that gift from God came the reaction of an evil King who killed all the babies of Bethlehem.

How many in the days of Jesus would have looked at what God was doing and how evil was responding and thought, “we would all be much better off if we left things alone.”

How many of those who received the gift of deliverance, the gift of the newborn Jesus, just wanted to wrap baby Jesus back up and send him back to God where he came from, thinking he was more trouble than he was worth.

Sure, the gift of Jesus is great. But is he really worth the trouble?

The parents of Bethlehem who had lost their children weren’t the only ones who would have wished to make a return on their Christmas gift.

The story, from the ministry of Jesus, in Matthew 8 of the demons and the pigs strikes us as much more humorous. It’s hard to take pigs seriously. But we read that Jesus went into the region of the Gerasenes and freed two men who are possessed by demons, sending them into a herd of pigs. What happens as a result? Well, two men are very happy from being set free, but an entire village comes out to Jesus like an angry mob and “pleads with him to leave their region.”

The gift of Jesus in that case means the loss of an entire town’s way of life. They want to make a return.

Jesus himself says in strong terms, “if anyone comes to me and is not willing to disregard mother and father, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even their own life… such a person cannot be my disciple.”

It seems that Jesus is the present that no one really wants to get because it means letting go of everything else. We might all be tempted to join the Christmas returns line with a large, Galilean-sized gift. Up at the counter, we place Jesus on it and say, “I’d like to make a return. I thought I really wanted this gift, I was excited when I received him, but it turns out he’s far more trouble than he’s worth.”

The truth of the matter is this: when we see evil active in the world or in our own lives, it’s much more likely a sign that God is doing something and evil is trying to snuff it out than it is a sign that God has abandoned us.

When we get more than we bargained for from this gift of Jesus, we might be tempted to make a return. The gift of Jesus is going to upset the status quo and turn our lives upside down and inside out. But when we fully make the decision to follow Jesus wherever he’s going and live in faith and trust that God will provide, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Following Jesus is often going to mean abandoning the safety of what used to be for the assurance that God will be with us wherever we go.

But if we’re going to accept the gift of Jesus Christ, we can’t choose safety and comfort. We have to be willing to live on the margins with Jesus and Joseph and Mary or with the Israelites leaving Egypt—fleeing evil at every turn, trusting in God for everything.

Ask anyone who has made a significant life change—overcoming an addiction to drugs or alcohol, adopting a healthier lifestyle with nutritious food and exercise, recovering from a mental illness, leaving a toxic or abusive relationship. All these things are undeniably good.

We would never tell someone that staying in addiction or in an abusive relationship is a good thing. The comfort offered by that kind of status quo is deadly. But we’d also be lying if we didn’t acknowledge that adopting a new way of life is going to mean catastrophic change to friendships, finances, and daily routines.

New life is, quite often, surrounded by death.

The path to healing through Jesus Christ is hard.

The whole world cries out at the pain that comes as the forces of evil in our world are opposed.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better. Rulers like Pharaoh and Herod and Addiction and Illness and Abuse and Sin and Death are always going to do their worst.

Like always, we have a choice.

Will we let evil rule and keep Jesus wrapped up in his nice little box? Will we return Jesus to his sender? Will we choose safety and comfort, even if they come at great expense and undermine the foundation on which we stand?

Or will we open this complicated, holy, transformational, and troublesome gift of Jesus Christ and let him live in every part of our life, challenging and vanquishing the forces of sin wherever he finds them at great cost?

The waiting of Advent was and is hard, my friends. But the true way of Christmas is even harder. This gift of Jesus Christ might just mean that we lose everything else.

Mary and Joseph lost all opportunities for a peaceful, calm, ordinary life. And we will too if we take this Jesus seriously.

But the word of assurance and comfort is this: whatever we face in this journey of discipleship, the best news we have is that God is with us

God is with us as he was with the Israelites in Egypt and the wilderness

God is with us as he was with Mary and Joseph seeking refuge in a foreign land.

God is present today with all who today call upon the name of the Lord for help.

The way is hard and uncertain. Foes wait around every corner. But God has never and will never abandon us.

It is in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit that we receive this word and trust it in faith. Amen.

Of Former Times (A Sermon)

This post continues a periodic series of sermons preached during my time as Pastor of the Eldersville United Methodist Church.

Delivered January 17, 2016

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions. Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun. Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: Wisdom preserves those who have it. Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future.

Ecclesiastes 7:10–14

How many times have you heard someone, perhaps even yourself, look back at some ideal point in history and sigh, saying “Why were the old days better than these? It seems like the world, our country, and our church are only getting worse.” Certainly, no one can blame us for having such thoughts given the state of Christianity in the United States. In the United Methodist Church, our average attendance has decreased at a rate of about 52,383 people per year. Since 1974, our worship attendance has gone down by 18 percent and the number of churches has declined by 16 percent. Surely, we seem a long way away from the thriving Methodist church of early America and the peak of Christian public influence in the 1950s.

Those were the days, we reminisce, when about half of Americans attended church services on Sunday morning, and most of the rest of them were probably on the membership rolls somewhere.

Why were those days so much better than these?

Certainly, with church attendance numbers at their peak, Christianity had more of a central role in our political system. These were the early days of public preachers like Billy Graham, who filled stadiums with people eager to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. He preached against the evils of disease, snakes, and union dues, denouncing government restrictions as socialism.

In 1952, Rev. Graham visited Washington, DC and brought God to Congress.[1] Soon after, as a result of his influence, he the United States established a National Day of Prayer. In 1954, Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and placed “In God We Trust” on postage. The next year, the motto was added to paper money. Just as Rome had once declared Christianity as its state religion, with the election of Eisenhower, the United States had adopted the language of the Church. 

That was the height of Christian influence in the public sphere, an influence that seems to have all but vanished. God is still referenced in our pledge and on our money, but we lament our nation’s apparent decline from Christian morality. We long for the good ol’ days when there was prayer in schools, when our Sunday School was full of young children, and when all the important people in town came to church.

This desire to return to days of old is not new. Even in the Methodist glory days of the late 1700s, John Wesley was surrounded by those who thought Christianity, and civilization in general, had reached its peak long ago. In those days, the rationalism of the enlightenment had given rise to Deism and a drift away from Christianity as a public religion. Many cried out against the apparent declining morals and rise of luxury and profaneness.

Yet, Wesley remarked of the “goodness of God in the present age.”[2] He spoke of the rise of benevolence and compassion, the foundation of more hospitals and places of public charity, and he decried those who believed that the people of former ages were more virtuous. He agreed with the writer of Ecclesiastes, who asks us to “consider what God has done” and is doing in good times and in bad.

Some of Wesley’s day would have looked at the American experiment and lamented the government’s indifference to religion, but Wesley did not. In fact, he considered it pure joy, for the indifference of the American government on the issue of religion left room for the rise of true scriptural faith.[3] It freed Christianity from the whims of the state and allowed for the tremendous growth of Methodist Christianity among small groups of lay people who were devoted to the teachings of scripture.

May it be, as was true in Wesley’s day, that the indifference of our government on the matter of religion may lead to the growth of what he called true scriptural Christianity? May it be, that the Church is on the brink of a new revival?

Perhaps not.

Future days might continue to usher in the decline of Methodism in America and Christianity in the Western world. Our denominational leadership believes the time when such a revival can occur is running out. From a statistical perspective, if our rate of decline doesn’t change by 2030, our connection will have collapsed by 2050.[4]

I don’t say any of this to frighten us, but I think that all of us who love God and were transformed by God’s work through the Church are longing for a scriptural response to the apparent decline of Christianity. We’re longing for hope.

Ironically, it is the often pessimistic book Ecclesiastes that offers us a true, hopeful scriptural perspective. We should not say “Why were the old days better than these?” for it truly is not wise to ask such questions. Rather, we should praise God, for God has been faithful to us.

God has made the good times, as well as the bad. We may not know what the future holds, but we are given the hope that God will continue to be faithful to us. No matter what the future holds, may we likewise be faithful to God, who sent Jesus Christ to live among us, teaching, dying, and conquering death that we may have life. May we be faithful to the One who sent his Holy Spirit to work in us, that we may be enabled to do the work of the God who created us.

Church, do not bemoan the challenges of the current time, but respond to God’s call with joy. Not all are called to be pastors, but all are called to a unique mission of service to God. In my case, I was called to pastoral ministry at a young age. I remember one occasion in particular when God gave me a nudge and asked me to respond. As a youth, I was at a conference where an adult mentor was presenting some research on the future of the church. He told us what we already knew to be true: that our generation was largely disassociated with the Church and religion in general. I felt the call of God to respond, and I am by no means the only one. 

There are amazing people out there of every generation who are doing the work of the kingdom. There are people called to serve oversees, in the inner city, and in rural America as pastors, counselors, teachers, and professionals of every kind. No matter their vocation, they bring the light of Christ to dark places. No matter our age, occupation, or surrounding culture, God can and will use us in whatever way we are equipped.

So, I ask you to respond to God’s call by continuing to pray for our church, our denomination, and our world. Pray with the hopeful knowledge that God will send his Holy Spirit among us to breathe new life into our ministry. Pray with the knowledge that we have a future full of hope. Pray with a willingness to respond to God’s call upon your life to do whatever God may be calling you to do.

In Charles Wesley’s hymn “A Charge to Keep I Have,” we sing that all of us, young and old, have a charge to keep and a calling to fulfill. Bemoaning our current situation will get us nowhere. Instead, may we truly use all of our creative energies and skills to the glory of God, for every day is a day that God has made. 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, let us pray:

Lord God, sustain in us the flame of your Spirit. Help us to continue to carry the light of your Son to every dark corner of our world. Help us in times of darkness to remember what you have done on our behalf and what you continue to do among us. Help us to not be ashamed of your testimony, and give us the wisdom to present your good news to others with grace. Remind us of the faithfulness of people like Paul, who was willing to die for his faith, and the faithfulness of John Wesley, who rode on horseback to proclaim your message to every corner of society. Help us likewise to deliver your message to the sick, the imprisoned, the poor in spirit, and all who are our neighbor. Inspire us to greater service and faithfulness, as we continue to pray for your kingdom to come, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen


[1] Kruse, Kevin M. “A Christian Nation? Since When?” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/opinion/sunday/a-christian-nation-since-when.html?_r=1.

[2] Wesley, John. Sermons III. Edited by Albert Cook Outler. Vol. 3. The Works of John Wesley.

[3] Ibid. 452

[4] Hahn, Heather. “Economist: Church in Crisis but Hope Remains.” http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/economist-united-methodist-church-in-crisis.

Mixtape Theology: World Communion (Year C – Oct 6)

Welcome to the first edition of the (not necessarily) weekly series I’m calling Mixtape Theology — reflections on the texts and themes of the Revised Common Lectionary inspired by (secular) music.

Since we’re starting this playlist series on World Communion Sunday, I figured it would be appropriate to look for songs focusing on world peace, unity and diversity, tearing down walls, and sharing table fellowship. (I also figured it would be a good chance to throw some world music inspiration in the mix, but I mostly failed. Leave your suggestions in the comments!) Some of the songs below hit on those themes, but when I opened up the Old Testament lection (Lamentations!) and started reading chatter about Greta Thunberg’s speech to the UN, I knew I (or the providence of God) definitely picked the right week to begin this series.

For those who don’t know, World Communion Sunday got its start right here in Pittsburgh at the Shadyside Presbyterian Church in the period between the two World Wars. During the Second World War, the practice was adopted by the Federal Council of Churches as a way to unite Christians in the US with their brothers and sisters around the world.

Prelude:

We begin our service with a musical tableaux of the wind blowing through the “amber waves of grain” of the countryside.

Opening Praise: Praise God in his sanctuary! Praise God in creation! Let us join together in appreciating the sights of God’s work.

“Oh, what a world, I don’t wanna leave
There’s all kinds of magic, it’s hard to believe
Northern lights in our skies
Plants that grow and open your mind
Things that swim with a neon glow
How we all got here, nobody knows
These are real things
Oh, what a world, don’t wanna leave
All kinds of magic all around us, it’s hard to believe
Thank God it’s not too good to be true
Oh, what a world, and then there is you.”

Scripture:

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! 

(Addition: How forsaken lies the earth, once full of species.)

How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! 

She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. 

Lamentations 1

The global church is splintered and fractured, unable to even eat at the same table. The American church is a vassal of a corrupt government. The earth is a slave to human self-interest. The cosmos groan for redemption (Romans 8:22). Hear what God is saying to the Church. The children are watching.

Proclamation (of Judgment):

As one who has been criticized for my passion and conviction over issues people would rather be complacent and nonchalant about, can I say GO GRETA! Nevertheless, she preaches!

This is what conservatives mocking and scolding liberals for the attention they’ve paid Thunberg don’t understand. Thunberg isn’t being applauded because she’s being taken seriously. She’s being applauded because she’s not.

This is an iteration of the guilt suffused throughout liberal politics, which often seems better suited to producing tears and slogans than genuine change. 

OSITA NWANEVU, New Republic

As the people of God, liberal and conservative, Greta and her aftermath give us a lot to think about. Are we more capable of causing others guilt than we are inspiring real change in ourselves and others? What would it mean to abandon our lifestyle in pursuit of lasting, systemic change? What would it mean for us to come before God and our systemic sins in a true spirit of repentance, as people who are in exile.

Prayer of Confession: We build walls, not bridges. We squander the world’s resources rather than stewarding them. We stand idly by in the face of injustice. We cannot do this alone, O God.

“And you know
The oceans they connect us all
No one can just build a wall
We have to work together
We can’t do this on our own
To think that you can stand aside
Is nothing more than foolish pride
‘Cause everyone’s a libertarian
‘Til the brown water floods their home”

Prayers of the People: A Lament for the perceived absence of God.

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? 

Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 

Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? 

Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 

So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. 

The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgment comes forth perverted. 

Habakkuk 1 (NRSV)
From a fellow Houghton alum, Laura Johnson, bringing a hauntingly beautiful description of what it is to look for familiar sights in a sea of unknowns.
Some days God feels close and familiar, other days God’s presence can only be sensed through the “echoes” seen in “foreign faces and places.”
We feel alone, O God. We do not see you–we only see wrongdoing and trouble. Come to our aid. Make haste to help us.

Proclamation (of Gospel): God offers life-changing forgiveness for all of us. The Gospel declares “change is coming, whether you like it or not.” In communion, the change comes through “a box of wine,” that mysteriously is the blood of Christ.

I feel a change in the weather I feel a change in me. The days are getting shorter and the birds begin to leave. Even me, yes, yes, y’all. Who has been so long alone I’m headed home. Headed home. The nights are getting colder now. The air is getting crisp I first tasted the universe on a night like this. A box of wine, an alibi. And the hunger in her eyes. In a place where the tree of good and evil still resides. Still resides.”

Offertory:

“All creatures of our God and King, 
lift up your voice and with us sing 
alleluia, alleluia! 
Thou burning sun with golden beam, 
thou silver moon with softer gleam, 
O praise him, O praise him, 
alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!” – Assisi

Eucharist:

This Sunday, I will receive the sacrament for the first time since my conscience led me to abstain mid-Summer during a time in which I was estranged from some of my brothers and sisters in the faith (Mt. 5:24). The wounds have not yet healed, but I look forward to Christ’s broken body and spilled blood reminding me of the reconciliation that was, is, and is to come.

If you are able, find an opportunity to receive the sacrament of holy brokenness this week. Our country is broken. “The body of Christ, broken for you.” The equilibrium of our global environment is crumbling. “The body of Christ, crumbling onto the floor, yet given in abundance to you.”

I can’t offer the sacraments online (Methodists who remember that dispute will hopefully chuckle at the suggestion), but I can offer some sacramental suggestions from Wil Wheaton that might offer a glimpse of the Gospel for those of us suffering from Ecological (or otherwise) anxiety.

Take a shower.

Eat a nutritious meal.

Take a walk outside (even if it’s literally to the corner and back).

Do something — throw a ball, play tug of war, give belly rubs — with a dog. Just about any activity with my dogs, even if it’s just a snuggle on the couch for a few minutes, helps me.

Do five minutes of yoga stretching.

Listen to a guided meditation and follow along as best as you can. (Editor: Can I recommend Pray as you Go?)

Wil Wheaton

(As a survivor of intense, crippling anxiety at various stages of my life fueled by fears as myriad as nuclear bombs and saxophone recitals, I would also recommend to all of my human readers that you find a trusted therapist for your mental health. Even if you just need to talk through something you can’t tell anyone else. Everyone has mental health. Care for it.)

Song During Communion:

In communion, we remember that the body of Christ is beautiful in its interlocking brokenness:
“And I have to speculate
That God Himself did make
Us into corresponding shapes
Like puzzle pieces from the clay”

In the ecstacy of perceiving the divine mystery of Christ revealed to us, in the sursum corda: (‘lift up your hearts / we lift them up to the Lord’)
“They will see us waving from such great heights
Come down now, they’ll say
But everything looks perfect from far away
Come down now but we’ll stay”

Praise after Communion:

Song of Songs is a text between two lovers that’s also an allegory for the relationship between Christ and the Church. We know well of that love. But what if we sang this kind of love song about other members of the body of Christ?
Yet, this song also reveals the holy but broken nature of the relationships within the church, saying ‘it don’t mean we’ll stay together.’
Plus, nothing says World Communion like the album cover!

“We go together like sound and sight
Black and white, day and night
We go together like left and right
Oh, we go together
We go together like give and take
Pains and aches, real and fake
We go together, don’t be opaque
It’s clear we go together
We belong together
We belong together
Baby, there’s no use in being clever
Baby, it don’t mean we’ll stay together.”

Benediction:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 

The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. 

Lamentations 3 (NRSV)

It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. 

It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth, to sit alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it, to put one’s mouth to the dust (there may yet be hope), to give one’s cheek to the smiter, and be filled with insults. 

For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone. 

Lamentations 3 (NRSV)

Go in Peace. Amen.

Sunday Sermon – World Communion Sunday (Ephesians 2:11–22)

This sermon was originally preached on October 7, 2018 at Eldersville United Methodist Church. The text appears in the Lectionary earlier in Year B (Proper 11), but it’s a great text to pull out for World Communion, focusing on the themes of unity in diversity.

Scripture Text: Ephesians 2:11–22

Key Verses: For [Christ Jesus] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.

One of the first projects I remember from elementary school was a report on ancestry and family history. Some of the kids in my class came back with a detailed report from their parents, while others reported some uncertainty in their family’s background. When I asked my parents about our origins, I found out that my paternal Great-Grandfather immigrated to the United States from Sweden and that my mother’s family roots are English. These days, if I wanted to know more, I could easily pay $99 to have Ancestry.com analyze my DNA and trace my genetic heritage. Maybe some of you have done that. These services are popular because our cultural heritage and family history are important to our sense of identity. As you well know, there are a plethora of ethnic groups represented in our area, many with cultural heritage festivals where people can gather together and strengthen that identity which would otherwise be lost.

At the same time as we have those cultural identities as people who at one point in history came to the United States from another place, we have a new identity which often supersedes the old. We are citizens, or at least, residents of the United States. We are residents of West Virginia or Pennsylvania. This identity shapes our values and it gives us a voice in local issues that have meaning for us. We might not understand the importance of this new identity, as the newness has long worn off for us. But we can see the excitement in the faces of those who take their vows of citizenship and take on this new identity. Just this past week, the Pittsburgh Seminary community celebrated that the associate director of the World Mission Initiative was sworn in as a new US citizen. He was beaming with excitement.

We may be relatively sure of our identity in the geopolitical sphere, but when we turn to the Old and New Testaments we might be confused. There’s no mention of Swedes, Serbians, Italians, and Germans. Instead we see only two markers of identity: Jew and Gentile. As we read the Old Testament, we read the cultural and religious history of this first group. We hear how God called Abraham and promised him a great nation. We read how the Israelites were caught in slavery in Egypt and how God delivered them through Moses. We trudge through the long and complicated history of the establishment of a Jewish nation under David and how it was subsequently lost to a long line of invaders. 

At the same time, we hear mentions throughout the story in the left-hand of our Bibles of the Gentiles. Well, actually, the word Gentile is Latin, but we see mention in the Old Testament of the people called Gentiles in references to the “nations” or “foreigners” and “aliens.” The Gentiles, those whose ethnicity is not Jewish, are mentioned in terms of both separation and eventual unity. God warns his people not to associate with those who might lead them religiously astray, but God also promises through the prophets a day when all nations would worship God together. 

As we read the Old Testament, we should realize: none of this story is ethnically ours. No matter where our family came from, as long as we’re not Jewish, we belong to the second category: Gentile, one of the “nations,” a “foreigner” or “alien.” 

If that terminology makes you uncomfortable, that’s understandable. None of the Gentiles of the New Testament whom Paul evangelized would have identified themselves as such either. They thought of themselves as proud Romans, Greeks, or Scythians. But Paul, as a good Jew by heritage, reminds them that in spiritual terms they are Gentiles.

Or, rather, they were Gentiles (and so were we). Those Paul speaks to in Ephesians used to be Gentiles. They were by birth. They were Roman, Greek, or Scythian Gentiles. But now, because of the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit after the resurrection (Acts 15), these Gentiles had been given a new identity, along with Jews, like Paul, who confessed faith in Jesus as Messiah. They began to be called those who are “in Christ,” or as we say today, “Christians.”

Paul reminds the Gentiles that, in God’s kingdom, we used to be aliens and foreigners. We used to be part of the out-group, those who were excluded. We used to be, as Paul says in verse 12, those who lived “without hope and without God in the world.” The word for “without God” in Greek is atheoi, the root of our modern word atheist. Paul is saying that we used to be atheists, those without God. We used to not have hope! But now, because of Jesus, we have been brought near to God. We have been given hope and peace even though we were once hopeless and distressed. 

Despite their national identity as Romans, despite our identity as citizens of the United States, Paul says we are all given a new identity, an identity that supersedes even though it doesn’t erase ethnic heritage. We are given the identity of being in Christ.

How do you think it would feel to be the group on the outside of God’s covenant? How would it feel to be strangers and aliens to God’s kingdom? We should know, we were once strangers! In the great temple in Jerusalem, there was literally a wall dividing the court of the Gentiles from the place where God’s chosen people could worship. Yet, because of Jesus, we have been grafted into God’s people. We have been brought near. We may be called Germans, Italians, Swedes, Americans, West Virginians, Pennsylvanians, and all sorts of other (sometimes crude) things. Yet, because of Jesus, we are called Christians above all.

Do you think, if we probed our spiritual DNA, if we ran a spiritual Ancestry DNA test, that our Christian identity would shine through? Or, would someone probe into the recesses of our soul and find a different identity at our core?

The first limitation with talking this way is that we often have a very limited picture of what being a Christian looks like. For some of us, being Christian may be synonymous with being a white American. After all, most of the Christians we know probably look like us and live near us! We don’t think of the multitudes of Christians that live in South and Central America. We don’t think of the growing number of Christians who worship in African languages across the world from us. And we don’t necessarily think of all the immigrants that come to the United States from these countries, bringing their vital Christian faith with them. 

Yet, we know that because of the apostle Paul and the many missionaries that followed his lead, there are Christians in every corner of the world. It’s because Paul didn’t just reach out to his own people, the Jews, with the message of Christ. He didn’t just go into the synagogues, what we might think of as Jewish churches (Acts 17:1). No, Paul went out to the “pagan” places where the Gentiles were (Acts 17:22), where we were. Paul and the people who followed him went to the educational institutions, the centers of political power, the bars and pagan temples, the highways and byways, and promised them a new identity in Christ!

So, just as we who were far off from God were pulled into Christ’s body and given a new identity, so were people from every nation of the world. Even while our pews may be half empty and Christianity seems to be on the decline in our country, new believers come to faith every day in South America, Africa and Asia.

Today, on what is called “World Communion Sunday,” we celebrate the fact that though these Christians may not look like us, they are our brothers and sisters and we are their brothers and sisters. When we gather at this table for this most holy of meals, we remember that we are “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry in all the world.”

We may not see those believers physically present with us this morning. It’s a shame. But the Gentile Christians Paul wrote to in Ephesians didn’t have much contact with their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters either. They were sectioned off, just as we are. Yet, Paul encouraged them to recognize their global unity with Christians everywhere. We may be far off from our brothers and sisters in Christ, yet we are one with them.

The second limitation we run into in our thinking is that we forget that though we were Gentiles, part of the out-group that was cut off from God, we are now part of the in-group. We don’t worship in homes or in community centers, but we worship in a church, a building like a synagogue. And we’re so comfortable in our worship space that we forget that God made the effort to include we who were not previously included. We come to imagine that we were always part of the body of Christ, forgetting that God reached out to us and brought us into this covenant. We begin to assume that the love of Christ is just for us and not for anyone else.

Friends, we need to remember today that just as we were once alienated from God, just as we were once atheists (in Paul’s language) without God, there are many in our community who are without God, without hope, and without peace.

Now, don’t get any ideas that we’re trying to differentiate ourselves from them and erect a new wall to keep them out. No, the hopelessness of our world should inspire us to reach out, to patiently reach out and bring others into Christian fellowship.

Our world is changing and has changed. We can no longer expect people to come into our church looking for God. Rather, we need to once again take up the call of Jesus that wherever we go, we should be telling others about the hope that we have in Jesus! When we encounter people who are without hope, who are in bondage to addiction, pain, illness, or anger, we need to tell them that we were once in the same position! We were once without hope, but God came near to us. God accepted us and loved us so that we would be free from our sins.

This is what the church is for: proclaiming hope in every place so that those who most need hope will find it.

It’s often been said that the church is the only institution that exists for the benefit of people who aren’t part of the church. And it’s true! Or, at least, it should be. 

Instead, we build dividing walls like that one Paul mentions in verse 14. We build physical walls to bring temporary peace, we build walls of animosity between groups based on race or national identity. We build walls of judgment between cradle Christians and those new to the faith. We wave these divisions like battle flags! These invisible walls are made visible by the ways we only talk about our hope within the walls of the church. 

God, through the apostle Paul, calls us to a better way. God calls each of us to listen to those who are without hope, to listen to those who are far off from us. God calls us to see others as ones who have been created by God! Remember, we were once like those without hope! Like our prayer of confession said, we could very easily be the one who thinks church isn’t important, who thinks Sunday mornings are for rest. We could easily be one who lives without God!

But we’re not.

We have been given hope through Jesus. As ones who are included in God’s love, our hearts are full of love for one another and for God! Why wouldn’t we share that? Why wouldn’t we tell others about the way we were once far off from God but how God came near to us.

I’ve heard your stories! I know you have them. You’ve encountered all sorts of adversities. And yet, God rescued us. God healed us. Thanks be to God. Now, let’s tell someone else about it.

As we conclude our reflection on God’s word this morning, I want us to take a moment to reflect. Who in your life is far off from God and God’s love today? Who is lonely, hopeless, or stuck in destructive behavior? Who has God uniquely equipped you to reach? Take a moment. Write down a name. And I want to challenge you to listen to that person’s story. Tell them what God has done for you. And offer a space for God to work in their life.

Let’s take a moment now to write down the name of someone we know who is far from God’s love today. Who is without God in our world today?

We have faith that God who has done a great work in us will work through us to do a great work in the lives of others. We have a sure and confident hope that the God who gave us a new identity will do the same for countless others.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, may it be so. Amen.

All that Matters (A Sermon)

While I’m on a leave from pastoral ministry, one of my projects is to edit and compile some of the most meaningful sermons from my time in Eldersville. The sermon below was preached on Thanksgiving Sunday 2018. I hope these words are encouraging to you, especially if you are going through a period of disillusionment and rediscovery, as I am.

Ephesians 5

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastes 1

All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. 

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. 

Read more from The Teacher.

One of Jesus’s most powerful and memorable teaching moments was at a time when he was surrounded by children. Parents were bringing their young ones to see Jesus from near and far, seeking his blessing. The disciples were trying to keep the children from Jesus—they wanted to reserve the teacher for adults who could understand and wouldn’t cause a fuss. But Jesus was angry. He said, “let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

If we take a moment to reflect on this teaching, the meaning becomes apparent. Children are not only dependent on their parents, just as we are to dependent on God. The lives of children are also filled with wonder, curiosity, and a perpetual sense of newness. Everything in the life of a child is fascinating to them. They learn seemingly by osmosis, picking up on their surroundings. To a child, everything is new under the sun. Once they learn about something, they’re eager to share their new knowledge with someone else.

If only we could retain such youthful exuberance in our spiritual life!

To children such as these, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes says, “rejoice, young ones, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth.”

Taken out of its context, that sounds well and good. Those with the wisdom that comes with age often say such things to children and youth. We tell them to enjoy their time of youth because we fondly recall some of the same experiences.

The dark side of that, though, is what the Teacher says about such youthful joy: eventually, it fades. The things that once brought us joy become old hat. The causes we were once passionate about begin to look more helpless. We hear someone say, “look, something new,” and we quickly see through the illusion. It’s just the same thing in new packaging.

Like the Teacher, who identifies himself as David’s son Solomon, we seek out earthly pleasures: retail therapy, a good book, or our favorite TV show. We labor to improve our lives and work on projects around the house. We pour ourselves into anything that can give us a momentary sense of meaning. We work long hours, hoping that they will pay off with some reward.

Yet, the Teacher says, even those things are trivial and ultimately meaningless. They’re no more permanent than dust in the wind.

It’s no wonder that many adults either want to return to the days of their youth or are disparaging toward those who are young. They either want to regain their youthful exuberance or hasten the disillusionment of those who see the world with new eyes.

“Vanity, meaningless, absurd is the world,” we say. “Best you learn it willingly instead of being wiped out on your butt by the harsh reality of life.”

Is there anything that isn’t a vain illusion? Is there anything in this world that will last?

I’m not sure I was ever a youth, as Jesus and the wisdom Teacher describe it. Sure, I was a youth in the sense of making bad decisions and generally being an idiot, but I don’t know if I ever had that spark of youthful joy in my eyes. 

This may be news to you all, but I’ve never been a sunshine and rainbows optimist. I thrive indoors on a rainy day drinking tea and contemplating the wisdom that leads to vexation and increases sorrow, as Ecclesiastes says.

I may have deceived you all with the occasional unequivocally positive message that restores your hope and joy. We do have to remember Easter every once in a while.

You don’t often hear out of my mouth the sickly sweet words that “everything is going to be okay” and “God has a plan” without some qualification and presentation of the facts. I’m the first to admit that sometimes life goes wrong, bad things happen, the world loses its luster before our eyes. Meaning is elusive.

But I bet I say something from the pulpit every once in a while that seems to drip with youthful idealism. I see you out there shaking your heads every once in a while. “Oh, that’s Joel. He says stuff like that. One day he’ll learn.”

One way or another, we both wrestle with the same predicament at times: our talk about God does not always describe the world as we see it. Revelation speaks of God making “all things new” and wiping tears from our eyes—but those days are far off. Jesus speaks of having the hopeful joy of little children—but we’ve all grown up. We have our degrees from the “school of hard knocks.”

Let’s admit it—Sometimes the words we share in church are like the sound of a tree falling in the forest. It’s far off from where we are. They pass through our ears, never to be heard again.

Church can feel like a show in which we act as if we have all the answers. We sing the hymns that uplift our spirits, if for a moment. We whisper the amen at the end of the sermon and our prayers, sure that it’s what we’re supposed to do.

And then a question pops up in our minds that we’re too afraid to ask. An experience launches us into a dark night of the soul. A friend or coworker asks us about our faith, but we’re not sure how to answer it. 

Still, we pop into church on Sunday morning and pop out an hour later like a breakfast pastry in the toaster. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn’t—but, it feels right to us.

The Teacher gives us permission to close the curtain on the illusion, on the show.

Ecclesiastes allows us to skip the confident “Amen” once and awhile to sub in the cry, “vanity, vanity,” “meaningless, meaningless,” “these words are absurd!”

We have permission to peel back the illusions of our lives.

What do we have to gain from the daily toil of our lives? Nothing.

Will we be remembered in a hundred years? Probably not.

Will your congregation be remembered after all that time? In the history books that no one reads.

Look! The sun rises and sets day after day, again and again. Streams flow into the sea but they never complete their work, filling the ocean. Last week I wrote a sermon, in two weeks I’ll have to write another one. But the words are just dust in the wind. You won’t remember them on Monday (be honest!). Just like in the summer months—we mow the grass one day only to have to do it again the next week. It’s never ending! Soon that’ll be the case with the snow…

If you think that all this talk of vanity is Old Testament nonsense incongruent with the ministry of Jesus—I hate to disappoint you.

Sure, Jesus doesn’t go around spreading doom and gloom all the time, but he doesn’t pull any punches either.

To the rich young ruler who says, “I’ve followed all the commandments…” Jesus says: meaningless! Give up your idolatry and vanity. Sell what you have and give it to the poor. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God!

Upon entering the temple, Jesus goes up to the salespeople at their tables and flips them over. “All the stuff going on in your church? Meaningless! My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.”

As he left the temple, one of the disciples looked admiringly at the grand structure, but Jesus said, “See this? None of these stones will be left. All will be thrown down.” Stop admiring what will not last.

There are so many things of true importance in the world. Why would we focus on what is meaningless, vain, and idolatrous?

The disillusionment of Ecclesiastes and the ministry of Jesus aren’t any fun. 

We much prefer singing amens than we do unmasking the vanity of things we hold dear. But within the word disillusionment is the key to the good news. Disillusionment is, for sure, a disappointing feeling. But dis-illusionment is also the undoing of our illusions!

None of us, when probed, would consciously say, “yes, I would like to see things incorrectly. I would like to spend my days chasing after things that don’t last.” It would be ludicrous to do so.

Sometimes the exact thing we need is for Jesus, the Teacher, to come in and turn our tables over, wipe the slate clean, start from scratch and build things up from the foundation.

This discontentment and disillusionment with how things are might just be exactly what we need to regain the youthful exuberance of discipleship as children of God.

To be clear, we cannot give into the forms of disillusionment that lead us into the depths of cynicism. We might end up there every once in a while, but we can’t stay there. 

But the disillusionment with the status quo that leads us to self-emptying is exactly the kind we need this Thanksgiving.

Yeah, I said it. We need to be disillusioned with some things to truly give thanks to God.

Too often, we give thanks like the rich young ruler might: “Lord, thank you for not making me like those other people who don’t know you, who don’t have what I have.” Maybe we give thanks like Joel Osteen, “thank you God for helping me live my best life now, thank you for showing me with blessings.”

Such thanksgivings are vanity. They are like a house build on sand, like the bricks of a great temple.

But the promise of God is that not all is vanity. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes couldn’t see it, but he was looking in the wrong places. He’s right—we’ll never find meaning in routine work, in toil and trouble, in pleasures of food or drink. These are vanity.

But what is there that isn’t a vain illusion?

What in this world truly abides?

Paul gives us the answer in 1 Corinthians 13—

“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.”

When we’re busy clinging onto the dust, we can’t grasp any of those things. We can’t have faith in God’s provision for an uncertain future if our future is sure. We can’t have hope if we’re clinging to the status quo of how things are. We can’t have true love when we’re only interested in our own self-importance and self-preservation.

But when everything else is stripped away from our minds, all of those so-called material and comfortable blessings of life, when we become disillusioned like the Teacher—only then can we become filled with the faith, hope, and love of Christ.

To paraphrase the words of St. Paul, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels but do not have love, I am but dust in the wind—vanity! Even if I give away all my possessions and do not have love, I gain nothing.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

“Most of all, though everything else is an illusion that will come to an end, Love will never end. Faith, hope, and love will abide. And the greatest of these is love.”

Love is not an illusion. Love endures even the powers of sim and death. Love abides forever and ever. 

For that we can give thanks to God today and every day. Amen.