Devotions in the Time of COVID-19
In these uncertain times, let us be connected in the ways we can, even if we are Please visit here for devotions based on the weekly lectionary readings for the Sundays.
8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 26th
What is this Kingdom about?
Here’s a question for you: what is the kingdom of heaven like?
We may think of the “kingdom of heaven” as someplace far away – like heaven, right? Or maybe it’s about something that’s going to happen in the distant future, like at judgment.
In this week’s gospel we have several short parables where Jesus tells us what the kingdom of heaven is like, including perhaps the most famous one, where he compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed.
Black mustard seeds are tiny little things that grow up into large plants that no farmer would want growing in a field of good plants. They were considered weeds. A few mustard seeds hidden in a big bag full of good seeds could cause a lot of trouble when they were scattered on the soil and then sprouted up. What does this tell us about the kingdom of God?
Maybe the disciples who heard Jesus’ stories were shocked to hear him say, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.” An unexpected mustard plant in the field would be an unwelcome surprise – not to mention if it grew up into a tree! Usually a mustard plant would only grow as big as a bush. But according to Jesus, these mustard seeds can grow into a tress so large that birds can nest in it.
So – it that really what the kingdom of heaven is like?
Maybe the disciples had assumed that the kingdom of heaven wasn’t at all like that – hidden, unplanned, unpredictable, invasive, growing up to be huge! They might have thought that the planting and cultivation of the kingdom of God would be orderly and predictable, like a garden that’s been planted in neat rows, like a field of wheat, or like beautiful rows of flowers or cotton or grapes. It would be understandable and orderly. It would give them the results they planned for and expected. The kingdom of heaven wouldn’t be some unpredictable weed that grows up when and where no one is expecting it. Is that kind of what we also might assume?
Would we perhaps like the boundaries of God’s kingdom to be a little more clearly defined? We don’t want some hidden weed changing the whole story. We don’t want to be unhinged by the sudden appearance of what we didn’t expect.
For instance, who are the people who make up the kingdom of God? Are they like us? Or can they be people who are so different from us that we never thought we would ever understand what makes them tick? Are there people in the kingdom of God who exist outside of our comfort zone? And are these God’s boundaries – or are they our own boundaries?
In fact, the mustard seed might be a tiny symbol of how God is always invading our orderly sense of things. The kingdom of heaven just hides there – in the sack of seeds, in the hand that plants them, in the world around us, in the mind of God – like a mustard seed, like a treasure hidden in a field, like a pearl of great value hidden among all the ordinary ones, like the tasty fish hidden among the whole catch.
When our ministry is vibrant and alive, it’s the kingdom of God making itself known, like an unexpected plant growing out of control. Our creativity and our ideas are a tiny mustard seed that may well grow up into a large plant. And how about if we, the people of God, are like the birds that nest in its branches when it has grown into a tree?
Now the world is in a very unpredictable time, this time of Covid, this time of renewed passion about social justice. How is God breaking into this situation? What can possibly happen next? Who knows? But let’s be ready! Ministry means opening our hearts and being present for the unexpected wonders of the kingdom, the hidden, surprising works of God, to come and stir up our lives.
The kingdom of heaven, like a tiny mustard seed, invades the cultivated soil of what we thought we were sure about, invades the boundaries that we understood, and creates something new out of it all. Hidden in what we think we see and understand so clearly, the kingdom of heaven just might be as subversive as that little mustard seed.
We know what we expect – yet that’s not always what happens in God’s kingdom. How is God shaking you up, invading your boundaries and sense of order, doing unexpected things? How does God’s rule show itself in your life and my life? What is God doing among us today?
-- Pastor Janet Blair
3rd Sunday after Pentecost, June 21st
Journeying with God
In our gospel, we have some famous – yet confounding – words of Jesus. He speaks to his disciples, and the author of the gospel of Matthew relays the message to Jesus’ followers some 60 years later. Now it is here for us to try to grasp. Jesus says, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
What does it mean to take up our cross to follow Jesus? What could make us worthy of Jesus? In one sense, we will never be worthy of Jesus. We are human, inherently limited, and sinful to boot. But still, we are called to take up our cross. Each of us has our own cross to take up, our own path to follow. Maybe that will lead us places we never expected to go. Maybe we will be called to new frontiers, new ways of thinking, new ways of living.
Jesus actually says he has come to the earth to bring a sword! Even though we long for peace, perhaps following Jesus is not just a matter of maintaining a peaceful existence or a peaceful heart no matter what the cost. What if we are called to take risks, to plunge into new adventures? What if there are new adventures calling to us now, in this unusual time we’re living through?
Or maybe we will have new understanding about what God’s purpose for us could be. God is full of surprises! Who knows where the path we follow, when we follow Jesus, will take us? We are called to follow, even without knowing where we are going.
You know, God led me here, to be with all of you in this time, in the ways that are now possible to be together. Now every day brings a new adventure. God calls us all in new directions. But it’s not always easy to do new things or to follow Jesus to unknown destinations. And wherever the road takes us, as we follow it, we may find that not everyone in our life approves – which was certainly the case for Jesus’ disciples. We may not get into a fight with our family members, as Jesus says might happen, but there may be struggles within our own hearts or those of others. We may just want to give up and go back to where we started. This is all part of the way, part of following Jesus.
At the end of our gospel today, Jesus says a very radical thing. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Now I don’t think Jesus means we should just give up and die for his sake. Jesus also said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jesus wants us to live. I think Jesus was saying that when we cling to this earthly life, filled as it is with darkness and the desire for possessions and pleasures and power, we are not following him. Well, to lose that life is not an easy thing, is it? It is in our nature to want those things. It is a lifelong journey to walk away from them toward Jesus.
Jesus calls us each to reflect upon what it means for us, individually, to follow him. To find the courage within ourselves to be willing to change and grow, to give our hearts and our lives to him. To follow him down that road, to live into our own individual journey, to be brave and open and honest.
So what does that mean
for me? What does it mean
for you? We may not be
sure yet. But we do know
that God is in the journey.
God is in the process.
We are now living out God’s
purpose for us. We don’t have
to be anxious or afraid,
because God is watching us.
Remember that old hymn,
“His Eye Is on the Sparrow?”
Whether or not we are more
important than the sparrows,
God’s eye is on us, and we can
trust God to bring us through it all safely.
-- Pastor Janet Blair
2nd Sunday after Pentecost, June 14th
Hearts of Compassion
In our gospel, Jesus sends the disciples into the world as missionaries – to proclaim, heal, and cast out unclean spirits. For centuries, Christians have found in his words an understanding of what it means to be called to mission.
But we see with this passage that mission grew out of Jesus’ compassion for the crowds. He sees they are lost and suffering, “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” The people’s lives under Roman oppression were difficult. Many of them were very, very poor, with no one to lead them or to guide them into new hope or faith. Jesus’ compassion inspired the missionary activity of the disciples – and of the church.
Perhaps through the ages some Christian missionaries may have more easily taken to heart the tasks of healing and proclaiming the good news than casting out demons and raising the dead. In any case, throughout the ages, being a missionary has not just meant being sent overseas, into the dangers of jungles and deserts and other foreign mysteries, but a call to all Christians – including you and me.
You and I are probably not going to a foreign land to preach and cure the sick. But remember where it all started – with the compassion of Jesus for those “harassed and helpless” people. And aren’t many people today the recipients of Jesus’ compassion? Sometimes we are slow to see suffering people around us. But Jesus sees them.
And when Jesus told the disciples to “ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest,” isn’t that a message for us too? Jesus expected the disciples themselves to be laborers in the harvest. And he expects it of us too. Why? Because many, many people are deserving of compassion in today’s world, especially, I think, during these days of so much trouble – injustice, violence, hatred, even the physical wellbeing of those around us.
But maybe we resist thinking of ourselves as missionaries. Maybe it’s just too much to expect, maybe we’re having enough troubles of our own. We all know how that is. Sometimes it’s just too much to expect any more. And yet – there is that compassion – the compassion of Jesus. What do we do with that?
Remember what Jesus said about loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. To Jesus, love meant how we behave to everyone, treating everyone with respect and fairness and justice. I think “love” for Jesus was always about both compassion and action. We can put ourselves in that person’s place. We ask our compassionate hearts, what did that person experience today? How will I respond, what will I say, what will I do? And we pray.
Perhaps that’s what being a missionary is all about. Even the smallest, kindest act, or the smallest prayer that arises out of what we perceive as Jesus’ compassion for someone who suffers, is the act of a missionary. And so we are all missionaries.
This is not easy. In fact, perhaps the wolves that Jesus sends us out into the midst of are the resistance and anger and lethargy of our own hearts. Perhaps the wolf is the strong spirit that holds us back and puts us in front of the TV set rather than having us do something that makes a difference. We all suffer from these wolves! But Jesus gives us hearts of compassion and courage, calling us to be missionaries, to use our gifts to the glory of God – to act.
We are not perfect – but we know are called. Lord Jesus, sow in us the seeds of your compassion, raise up in us the fruits of your love.
-- Pastor Janet Blair
Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 17th
In God we live and move and have our being
[Paul said:] “Indeed he is not far from each of us. For ‘in him we live and move and have our being.’” (Acts 17:27-28)
Here we have Paul speaking to the Athenians in front of the Areopagus, a place on a hill where the people gathered to hear and discuss new things. These men had asked Paul, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” The text says, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new,” and other ancient writers described them in the same way. They were interested in hearing what Paul had to say about this Jesus of Nazareth – they were curious.
So Paul has a captive audience. And he is an effective missionary. But he’s a missionary in a way we might not expect. We might expect an attitude that those people needed to be converted, to be changed. They needed to become Christians because that’s the right way to be. Many missionaries have approached non-Christians that way. But that’s not Paul’s approach to these Athenians who worship other gods and know nothing about Jesus the Messiah.
Paul doesn’t hit them over the head with his message. Instead, he meets them where they are. He talks to them about one of their altars that he has observed: “You Athenians are very religious, and I see that you have an altar with the inscription ‘To an unknown god.’” He tells them that when they worship this “unknown God,” they are actually worshiping the God of all Gods, the God who created everything and all persons and arranged everything about their lives. This was, Paul says, “so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each us.” Paul quotes one of their own poets– “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’” An amazing message: this god is, in fact, GOD.
I think what Paul says here is so relevant to our lives today. Aren’t there many, many people who are searching for God, trying to “grope and find him”? Isn’t that kind of what we all do? And wouldn’t it be amazing to hear, if your experience was trying to grope and find God, that God was in fact already very, very near to you? And in fact that in everything you do and in your living, moving and being, you were actually IN GOD? This seems to me something that even we church people could be reminded of – in God, we “live and move and having our being.” We exist only in God. We live only in God. We move only in God – even when we are not aware of it.
Are we so different than those Greeks? They lived in a golden age of philosophy and learning. And we also live in a golden age – of amazing electronic devices, techniques in medicine the world never dreamed of, engineering and technological feats never thought possible. Witness our weekly video worship! We are apart – yet we can talk to each other, see each other’s faces, rejoice or grieve together. Yet we are always looking for what will satisfy that God-shaped longing in our hearts, and sometimes we look in the wrong places. But the presence of God is so near we can almost touch it – if only we could grasp how close God really is.
That presence of God is the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, that Jesus sends. In Sunday’s gospel he says that when he comes, his followers will know that “I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you.” We no longer need to approach God as if God were far away. God is here, in the air we breathe, closer than our own breath to our bodies. God is right here where we live.
Jesus says he will send what is called in Greek the Paraclete. The word can mean Comforter, Helper, Counselor, or Advocate. It literally means “one called to your side.” That’s what the Spirit does for us. We never face our troubles alone. In these words, Jesus is saying God is near. Jesus will not leave us orphaned. In Matthew, the resurrected Jesus tells the disciples, “Remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.” What could be more wonderful than that? Our Lord Jesus has sent his Spirit, our Paraclete, to walk next to us – forever.
God be praised! Jesus, our Immanuel, is truly God-with-us.
-- Pastor Janet Blair
Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 10th
God's Marvelous Light
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:1-3)
At Zion, we lost two people this week, and that makes three – Barbara, Eleanor F, and Angus. And Trinity Bogota also recently had the sad passing of Raymond.
Losing our loved ones at this time, to Covid-19 or another cause, is very difficult. We are all doing the best we can to process our grief, in addition to the anxiety and discomfort of these times, until we can meet again, in peace and hopefully more ease, to remember our loved ones and celebrate their lives. Part of the grief being experienced is not being able to gather in person with friends and family, for hymns and prayers and a proper funeral – but that will come, hopefully soon.
I’d like to share with you this beautiful adaptation of the 23rd Psalm, the words of which we all know so well:
O my Beloved, you are my shepherd,
I shall not want;
You bring me to green pastures for rest
and lead me beside still waters
renewing my spirit,
You restore my soul.
You lead me in the path of goodness
to follow Love’s way.
Even though I walk through the
valley of the shadow and of death,
I am not afraid;
For You are ever with me;
Your rod and Your staff,
they guide me,
they give me strength and comfort.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of all my fears;
you bless me with oil,
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy will
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the heart
of the Beloved
(Nan Merrill, from Psalms for Praying)
Today’s gospel from John is often read at funerals – I read it at pretty much all the funerals. Jesus tells the disciples he is preparing a place for them – for each of them – in that very big house of the Father’s mansions. We know our loved ones who have died are now at peace, beyond any struggle or pain. May we have that peace as well, the peace of Jesus, the peace that passes all understanding – knowing that we are loved, we are treasured by Jesus, and we have a home – for forever, but starting now. We belong to Jesus.
As our second reading from 1st Peter says, we are called out of darkness into God’s own marvelous light. We know who we are – we are God’s people. Our hearts may well be troubled, or sad, or impatient. We may feel a bit lost. Yet God will bring us through and – true for our loved ones as well as ourselves – we are on our way into God’s own light.
Jesus, we thank you for walking with us always. We know you are here. Amen.
Third Sunday of Easter, April 26th
Stay the Night, Lord
Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. Luke 24:15-16
In this Sunday’s gospel, two disciples of Jesus, saddened by the events of Good Friday, meet a stranger as they journey on Sunday night to their lodging in Emmaus, a walk of several hours. Their hope that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel has been dashed – yet they are still astounded and intrigued by what they learned from the women who visited the tomb of Jesus early that morning. The stranger asks them what they are talking about, and they just stop in the road, looking sad. One of the disciples, named Cleopas, says, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” When the stranger says, “What things?” they tell him the whole story.
Someone has said that this passage contains the saddest sentence in the New Testament: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” BUT WE HAD HOPED. Don’t we know that feeling of having our hopes raised, then being so disappointed when we find that things are not what we had expected? They had put all their faith in Jesus – then he was killed, leaving them feeling crushed and defeated. And many of us, in these Corona days, are also feeling a bit crushed and defeated.
But the stranger comforts their bruises, sharing their journey of grief and sorrow, listening to their story. He pushes back the darkness of their souls as he enlightens them. He makes them once again confident in their hope that Jesus was someone who was really going to be there for the long run.
And when they invite him in for a respite from the dangerous road, to a place to eat and be together, they are shocked – he blesses the bread, breaks it, and suddenly their eyes are opened. The stranger was Jesus! And then he vanishes. They say to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
“Stay the night” had been their invitation to this stranger who was able to bring light to the events of the past few days. They were really asking him to stay until the night was passed, until the darkness dissipated. I think they felt in their hearts that he was someone special, and they wanted to hold on to how they felt, really to hold onto HIM. Their hearts burned within them. They sensed the presence of the holy.
How desperately we too need Jesus to be with us as we tread the valley of these shadows. “Stay the night,” we say to Jesus. There is another meaning to the word “stay.” It means to stop something from happening. Stay the night. Hold the darkness back. Protect us from the night.
Sometimes we implore God to keep the darkness away, to prevent us from being beset by adversity. But God never promised to keep the darkness from our doorstep. We are not protected from difficult, challenging, painful things happening to us. We are not in a bubble that guarantees a Coronavirus will not enter our world. It has. But God promises to share our darkness, until the day breaks. And it will.
Even if Jesus doesn’t STOP the night, we can ask him to stay the night. And just as he accepted the invitation from Cleopas and his friend, Jesus will stay with us too. At the end of Matthew, Jesus appears to the disciples and tells them to go out there into the world and baptize and teach. Then he says, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” We don’t always recognize him – but he’s here. A promise from Jesus’ own lips.
Some of us are living a sort of nightmare right now. And the only thing that anyone can say to them that might be helpful, other than that we care, is that Jesus said, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” You have me – and you have Jesus.
Jesus, stay the night. Calm us and comfort us with your own presence. You are the promised one, the light that pushes back the darkness of suffering and death. Abide with us, Lord, until the night is over. Amen.
Second Sunday of Easter
Seeing isn’t believing
Thomas wasn’t the only one. Over and over again in Scripture, people who encountered the resurrected Christ had their misgivings. And their fear.
It seems that they just couldn’t accept what their senses were telling them. On Easter Sunday, the women who went to the empty tomb were shocked and afraid. An angel told them, “Do not be afraid.” But the gospel says “they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.” Yes, great joy – but on the other hand, they were SO afraid.
Last night I met my book club friends on a video call, some of whom I hadn’t seen for years. (Videoconferencing is bringing people together in new ways!) A couple of the women said, “With what’s going on, it’s so frightening now.” Many of us are afraid.
Why are the women at the empty tomb afraid? Because they can’t altogether accept the outrageous idea that Jesus has risen from the dead. Even when Jesus meets them on the path and they grab his feet and worship him, Jesus says, as the angel did, “Do not be afraid.” He only says that to them because in fact THEY ARE AFRAID. How can they grasp what Jesus’ resurrection means if they are so scared?
In this Sunday’s gospel, the disciples are locked in a house because of their fear. Even though Mary Magdalene had told them, “I have seen the Lord,” they’re still scared. Jesus has died, and fear has put a vise on their hearts. The events of the past few days have completely shattered their hopes and unnerved them. They don’t know what to think about what has happened to Jesus, and they’re afraid of what’s going to happen to themselves.
We know fear right now. But then … as with the women at the tomb, how can we grasp the resurrection through our fear?
Jesus comes through the locked doors and says to the disciples, “Peace be with you.” He knows they need his peace, because of their fear. The gospel says that they rejoice when they see him. But is seeing him enough to make them really understand that Jesus is risen from the dead? Is seeing believing?
It’s no wonder that Thomas is reluctant to believe it. He wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to the other disciples. They tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord,” an echo of Mary’s words. But Thomas says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” I remember a friend who preached on this gospel years ago, saying that Thomas is kind of like a scientist. He wants proof, he wants to see and touch.
Scientists are so important to us now! We have to trust THEM to see and touch, when we cannot even see (except by videoconferencing!) or touch each other. We have to trust scientists to find for us a way out of this disastrous situation we’re in. God is with them!
And in the meantime, in this time of NOT seeing or touching – what do WE do? Where do we turn?? Well, there is more to believing, more to the faith and trust of our hearts – which is what “believing” in John is about – than seeing and touching. When Thomas is with the disciples a week later, Jesus comes again to stand among them. He invites Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Did Thomas poke his finger in Jesus’ side? We don’t know. All we know is that he responded, “My Lord and my God!”
Something had happened – Thomas had come to truly “believe.” He recognizes Jesus as his own Lord and God. He has been transformed … from a doubter to a believer. He has made this great leap of faith, a leap that he could only make with the help of God. By God’s grace, he realizes that Jesus is God FOR HIM, died FOR HIM, and rose from death FOR HIM. God has touched his heart, and he believes.
After his words to Thomas, Jesus says to them all, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus’ words had special meaning for the people John’s gospel was written for, at the end of the first century. Then, as now, not everyone even believed in life after death. And those Christians were at a disadvantage because they had not known Jesus themselves. To them – and to us – Jesus says, “You are blessed even when you couldn’t see or touch.”
Let’s face it – believing is hard. Especially believing that someone has come back to life after being dead.
But listen: if we can’t accept it – if we can’t believe it – then what do we have? What good to us is a Jesus who isn’t risen, who isn’t alive for us today? How can we face this time, our difficulties, our challenges, our living and our dying, if we don’t believe in our hearts that to know Jesus means to know life itself, to be saved from darkness and death?
We want to believe – yet our unbelief lingers. We need the faith of a Thomas. But he couldn’t have undergone such a complete transformation unless he had been touched by God and given that insight. It seemed that he was the least likely one to believe, because his unbelief was so strong. But God surprises us.
Carl Jung, the psychologist, when asked whether he believed in God, said, “I know … I don’t need to believe, I know.” We too long TO KNOW. We also, in a sense, are scientists. But Jesus says we are blessed when we COME to believe. It doesn’t happen overnight. As we are all trying to adapt to this time of coronavirus, some days it may seem we lack belief altogether. Yet God continually brings us back. We learn new things, we come to know – to grow in knowledge of Jesus as our Lord and our God. It’s not what WE do … it’s what God does. God is with us, even in our fear and our doubt. Jesus walks with us on this rocky road to belief.
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
It Is Not Finished!
Alleluia! Christ is risen indeed!
We had wonderful video worship this week on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. On Good Friday, various members of our churches shared the reading of John’s Passion, when we heard Jesus’ last words on the cross: “It is finished.”
Now the last words attributed to Jesus differ in the various gospels. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus cries, in the words he knew from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That seems so sad, doesn’t it? Mark shows us a very human Jesus, and it seems he felt at the end that God had abandoned him.
In Luke, Jesus seems more spiritual and hopeful. He says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” He turns himself over totally to God.
But then there is John. Here Jesus is divine as well as human. He is the Word who comes down from heaven and then goes back to heaven, after his death, to be with God. The Word was with God, and the Word WAS God, from the beginning. He is the divine Son of God who is always in control. So at the end, no equivocating. His last words in John are simply, “It is finished.”
What is finished? It is the purpose he came down to earth to achieve, salvation for all through his sacrifice. He is not abandoned by God. He IS God. He is not defeated but victorious. And that is the story of Easter – the story of God’s victory over death and sin. The victory of life and goodness and love over the forces of evil. That’s what we are talking about when we say, “He is risen indeed!”
Now this is an EASTER devotion. But I want to share my Good Friday thoughts with you. Because without a Good Friday, how could we have an Easter? We couldn’t! Without a death how could there be a resurrection? Without now, how could there be forever? Without the dark, how could we ever understand or see the light? Without the winter, how would spring mean anything to us? Without such deep sorrow how could we feel such great joy?
Without Good Friday, there would be no Easter. And even though we are now celebrating Easter, we know that today our world, our nation, our towns and cities, are deep in Good Friday. We are sad for so many reasons right now. And maybe it was difficult on Good Friday to be confronted with how we have often fallen short of what God asks of us – to follow Jesus’ commandment to love the Lord and each other, to do justice in our little lives as well as in the larger world, to take what we need to the Lord in prayer. More sadness.
But enough of this gloominess. It’s Easter! We are not perfect, certainly not … but today, let stress God’s love and mercy. And that does mean joy! It means the presence of Jesus with us. Even as we are so aware now of the costly sacrifices of nurses and doctors, store clerks and delivery people, not to mention our elderly neighbors who are exposed to possible death, even as Jesus’ sacrifice reminds us now of the sacrifice presently happening in our own lives and the lives of those around us – we know that Easter is here. And that means God’s love for us, here and in eternity. It means what I tell children, what I pray when I put my hands on people’s heads in healing services, what we are told over and over in Scripture – that we can depend on God to be always walk with us, when we are sick, when we are anxious or sad or troubled or lonely, when we don’t know what to do next. Jesus is here. God is listening, and God loves us.
Good Friday has catapulted us right into this moment when we celebrate ALL the Resurrections – of Jesus, of those we have loved, of ourselves – perhaps, may we say, even of our world. And let’s allow ourselves to celebrate that! Let’s summon a bright “Happy Easter!” to everyone we encounter – by text, phone, email, video, or with those we may be sharing our living space with. That’s grace. That’s hope. That’s Easter.
Now remember what Jesus said on the cross: “It is finished.” His purpose was accomplished – salvation for you and me and the whole world. That is why his dying words are, “It is finished.”
But for the women in our gospel from Matthew it was not finished. They left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and on the way Jesus greeted them and sent them forth. It was not finished for the women or for the disciples – and it is not finished for you and me.
Easter is only our beginning! Its grace will take us through our lives, wherever we may be headed, for how long we know not. Still, we know that Jesus takes us beyond sin and death. It is finished – and yet not finished. Today we begin anew.
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.
Palm/Passion Sunday (April 5th)
Blessed Is the One!
A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matthew 21:8-9)
Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” (Matthew 27:22)
We travel a great distance on this Palm/Passion Sunday. This Sunday we commemorate both the celebration of the Palms and the story of Jesus’ Passion – remarkably, all on one day.
The procession gospel tells us of the joy and welcome that people gave to Jesus when he came into Jerusalem. On this holy day, under normal circumstances, we would be in church holding and waving the palms while hearing the procession gospel. There would actually BE a procession. In some churches the children would parade while waving their palms, as those welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem did so long ago.
But this Sunday, in the midst of a pandemic, we are worshiping virtually from home – or perhaps spending some time reflecting on our own. If we were not able to obtain any palms to wave, our hands hold imaginary branches. Our imaginations take us back to that day when, as the gospel of Matthew tell us, “the whole city was in turmoil.” We can only imagine how Jesus must have felt! He knew that difficulties lay ahead of him. He had even told the disciples, “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.” He had told them he would rise again after three days – but there was sure going to be a lot of trouble before that came to pass.
But we see him in our mind’s eye – here he comes, into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey – or somehow, according to the gospel, on the two donkeys, the mother and the colt, at once. The people have spread their cloaks and tree branches on the road in front of him. They are treating Jesus like a king! In all that jubilation, did his foreboding sense of what was to come for a moment slip his mind? Did he just revel in the joy, as the people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”?
Maybe the joyousness of that occasion made it seem an even greater fall to the depths of despair when he cried from the cross, in the moments before he died, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
And what about the people? Who WERE those people who welcomed him into Jerusalem? Maybe they were the people he had helped and healed and taught. Maybe they were people who had known him, or maybe had just heard about him. What they were doing definitely did not please the Roman authorities, who believed in granting this kind of acclaim to the emperor and the gods, not to a human being, a troublemaker who some people were saying was the Messiah.
And another question we have to ask is, were these the same people who later cried out, as Jesus stood before Pilate, “Let him be crucified!”? If so – and I think that’s a real possibility – what does that say about us?
This Sunday is certainly a day for profound reflection. It’s a great distance we will travel from the palms to the Passion. Let us continue on our journey.
5th Sunday in Lent (March 29th)
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany were friends of Jesus. We know he loved them. So his behavior is kind of strange. After getting a message from the sisters that Lazarus is very sick, Jesus doesn’t hurry right over. He waits two days, and he even tells the disciples that he’s not worried about Lazarus dying. Whatever happens, it will be to God’s glory.
Yet Lazarus DOES DIE. Mary and Martha, in their grief, are so disappointed. Why didn’t Jesus come? Martha meets him on the road and says to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
How often do we feel that way? We might want to say, “Lord, if only you had done something, this bad thing wouldn’t have happened.”
Things do happen — in our lives, in the lives of those ones we love. And now THIS — this situation we have in the world. Many people have lost their jobs, many people are sick. People have died. We’re worried about our children. We may know people who have the virus — we may be concerned even about ourselves — and it isn’t good at all. Things seemed to be going pretty well for us, and then why this, Lord?
But Jesus says something to Martha that helps her – and us – understand. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” I AM – Jesus uses the present tense. He’s not just talking about the future, or even about life after death. He’s talking about NOW.
Because of this miracle, the gospel says a lot of people believed in Jesus. They saw his power, and they believed. But the real point of this story is not that Jesus could bring someone from death, incredible as that was. The real point is who Jesus was.
I think that sometimes we’re doing all right, we may even have the sense that, in our lives, we are blessed. Yet when things get bad, we think – well, maybe today I’m not so blessed. When we’re in the middle of a crisis, a time like this, where is the resurrection and the life? Where is Immanuel, God-with-us?
Right now, it may be hard for us to feel very blessed or very grateful – we’re just trying to get through to the other side. We’re asking, God, how could this happen? We’re angry, disappointed, confused. Has God-with-us evaporated?
But hear these words of hope and life – even in the middle of a coronavirus. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Over and over again, the Biblical message is “Do not be afraid.” God said it to the Israelites and Jesus said it to his disciples. We ARE afraid, but Jesus says, “I am here — you are loved by the one WHO IS LIFE.”
I always wonder how this experience must have affected Lazarus. He was brought back to life! Maybe he had a new sense of living in the present. Maybe after that he viewed every day as a gift. An experience like that would have to change you!
God has put us here, in this time and this place, with each other for companions — even if not in the same physical space — and has given us Jesus to walk with us. That is OUR gift. So how will we be changed? Jesus is our resurrection and our life. Where do you see Jesus in all this today?
Gracious God, we thank you for this moment. May we live out your purpose this day, as you walk with us. Amen.
4th Sunday in Lent (March 22nd)
We are children of light!
“For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light — for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord … Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (2nd reading, Ephesians 5:8-14, NRSV)
I think in these days we are looking for a word from the Lord, and here is this Sunday’s word: “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.” In some ways this does seem like a time of darkness, as we are kept mostly at home, and it’s hard not to feel fearful and anxious.
But God says, “now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.” Even now, together in a virtual way from wherever we physically are individually, we are children of light. You are a child of light! And when we connect with those we are separated from, especially with those who are lonely or sick or troubled, in whatever way we can – by phone or text or email – we are sharing God’s light. In fact, I would say that THAT is exactly what our scripture calls “fruit of the light.”
We must not forget that we have God’s light within us, and that God’s light shines in our world, even in a time of darkness.
The text says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” For sure, we might feel like climbing into a hole and sleeping until it’s all over. But our God is a God of life and light. Let’s be here for each other, let’s continue to shine in whatever way we can, even when we’re just having a cup of coffee by ourselves, even when we’re concerned about our loved ones who seem so far away, even when we’re anxious about the world and our own health. Jesus is still shining – and we shine for each other. Even when the world seems dark, we are rising from the dead with Jesus, and his light shines on us.
Where do you see darkness today? Where do you see light? How does God shine for you right now?
Friends, be safe and stay well. You are prayed for, and you are loved. Amen.
3rd Sunday in Lent (March 15th)
The Woman at the Well / Hard Times
“Is the Lord among us, or not?” That was the question. The Israelites had about had enough. They had been traveling for a long time in the wilderness, and they had no water. They were thirsty, and they wanted to go back to Egypt. They complain to Moses, who cries to the Lord, “What am I supposed to do with these people?”
But God gets right on the problem – he tells Moses to gather the elders, take your staff, strike the rock, and there will be water. Now the people can drink. God has spoken to the people’s question: “Is the Lord among us, or not?”
We are asking that today. In this pandemic, we want to know, where is God? Are things going to get a lot worse before they get better? Who knows if the Lord is among us, or not?
In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, the Greek word translated as “endurance,” can mean “patience.” Even though we would OF COURSE prefer to avoid suffering, Paul points out how we grow because of it – in character, hope, and patience. And of course we ARE suffering now – of course we are impatient. This is not an easy time. We are fearful. Church has been canceled. People are asking, should we even go to the store? Is the government doing enough? What will happen with the economy? Is the Lord among us, or not?
When we look to our gospel, we also find questions. Between the Jews and Samaritans there was no love lost. In addition to that, an upright Jewish man would never speak to a strange woman, much less a Samaritan woman.
So Jesus is sitting by the well at noon, he’s thirsty, and here comes the woman. Jesus asks her for a drink. She is astonished, and asks him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Once again, Jesus is doing what people don’t expect or approve of. He is always God’s conduit for those who are considered outsiders.
And who are our outsiders in this moment? Perhaps the people living on the streets in a pandemic. Perhaps those who can’t afford to stock up on groceries, or who can’t get to stores, many of which don’t have a lot of products at this time anyway. Perhaps those who are anxious because their health is compromised, who are already sick, who are isolated from friends and family.
Jesus is the Savior for us when we are outsiders. In our gospel, he knows this woman’s life situation, and he draws it out of her. Now we know her too – we know why she can’t come to the well at the same time women usually would have come, in the early morning. She may have been rejected by the other women as well as by five husbands. Who knows why? – maybe she couldn’t have children, which was an accepted reason for divorce. Maybe there was a health issue, or some other problem. Whatever the reason was, she was an outsider, both to Jesus and to her own community.
Jesus knows everything about her! And then she addresses the issue of the Samaritans, the Jewish people, and God. The Samaritans worshiped on the mountain, the Jews in Jerusalem. Where is God? she is asking. Is the Lord among us, or not?
And Jesus answers her. The Lord isn’t on this mountain or that mountain. The Lord is spirit, the Lord is truth, and that’s how we must worship him.
Then the disciples, returning from their trip to buy food, are shocked that Jesus is talking with a woman, but they’re afraid to ask him about it. The woman leaves her water jar behind and runs into the town. She tells the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” And they all go running out of the city to see what she’s talking about.
The text says that many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of her testimony. This woman, this outcast whom no respectable Jew would ever talk to, becomes the first evangelist. She is the first one to tell others about Jesus and bring them to faith.
I think this story inspires us to think about what’s going on in our own lives now. Despite all that’s going on around us, we must not give up on believing that God is here – the Lord is among us.
In a video from Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, the bishop for the ELCA, she says that this difficult time may be “an opportunity to pause and reflect, to breathe and to think about what it means to be the body of Christ. How do we stay connected when gathering is discouraged? How do we care for our neighbor?” She suggests that our Lenten fast may be a fast from physical touch, and she says, “Absence makes the presence of God more profound.” So perhaps this difficult time can be a time that is more than a period of anxiety and distress. We are still together in many ways. And, as Bishop Eaton points out, Jesus has said, “Remember I am with you, to the end of age.” That is – the Lord is among us.
How will we face this challenge to us and our faith? The people of God, in our Exodus reading, responded with complaints and bitterness. But the Lord of hope is among us. After her encounter with Jesus, the Samaritan woman was given living water, and she was transformed into someone with a message.
Knowing that the Lord is among us, what is God calling us to in this moment? How can we carry on in hope, how can we support those we love?
Jesus, give us this living water always. Carry us forward toward healing, hope, life – and patience. Amen.