Saturday, June 6, 2020

“No Trifling Matter” - June 7, 2020

Deuteronomy 2:46-47

            Today I am going to diverge from the lectionary, the set schedule of readings for worship that guide us through a three-year cycle.  I’m doing it because all kinds of schedules have been thrown off recently anyhow, but the guidance we get from the scriptures is constant.

            It comes from the book of Deuteronomy, the book that Jesus quotes most often in the gospels.  The book is written as a goodbye speech that is put into Moses’ mouth.  He has led the people of God out of Egypt and across the wilderness for forty years.  He will climb up on a mountain and see the Promised Land, and have the satisfaction of a job well-done, but his time is closing.  Just before Moses gets that news, he finishes his summary of the past forty years and a recitation of God’s laws for them in the new world ahead, then says this:

“Take to heart all the words that I am giving in witness against you today: give them as a command to your children, so that they may diligently observe all the words of this law.  This is no trifling matter for you, but rather your very life; through it you may live long in the land that you are crossing over Jordan to possess.”  [Deuteronomy 32:46-47]

I take that as a text for two reasons. 

One is that we want to recognize the new graduates among us today.  Let me call out their names:

Jack Thompson                       Alyssa Dobrischkin

Madison Readman                  Logan Davison

Jeremy Kohn                          Nathanael Bryant

Juliana Haas                            Rachel Arp

Tim Eisenhauer

Their experience this spring has been a little like that of the Israelites who were told, “Drop everything.  We’re leaving Egypt in the morning.”  For them it was, “Take what you need and can; you may or may not be back in the classroom again.”  Now, like the people about to cross the Jordan, they are headed into a world where God is leading them, and it’s both exciting and intimidating.

            The other reason is that we – First United Methodist Church – may be headed back to in-person worship shortly and it will require us to follow new rules and adopt new practices for our own safety and well-being.  That is just one aspect of picking things up again after about three months of sheltering.  Like the people of Israel, we may have learned things that we need to know or relearned things that we had lost track of while we were in that time of wandering.

            Moses told people as they headed into the new situation across the Jordan, never to forget what they had discovered and never to forget what God had taught them.  That is a message for us, too.  Slowing down, whether by choice or when forced by health or pandemic or job loss or anything that takes someone out of their routine, gives an opportunity to ask searching questions and to find serious answers.  Becoming well, starting a new job, restarting routines and so forth carries the danger of forgetting both those questions and those answers.

            We give our graduates a gift every year, and recently it has been a copy of a book by Bishop Reuben Job that is called Three Simple Rules.  It’s a short book and there’s nothing new in it.  What’s good about it is the way that it sets out or restates a way of living such as God set out long ago and that can easily be called to mind.  He begins with setting out some of the questions that I believe a lot of people have had time, once they slowed down, to ask:

“Do others look at us and see God at work in our life together?  Is our way of living life-giving rather than life-draining?  Is our way of living one that will enhance the quality of life for each of us for as long as we live?”[1] 

I hope and pray that a lot of the things that people were busy with before the shut-down will not return.  To be blunt, when I look at my own life as well as the lives of people around me, I see a lot of activity that does not bring a lot of life in return.  Instead of choosing one or two life-giving activities and realizing that they may be enough, there is the constant temptation to try to be in more than one place at once.  Have you never seen someone at a ballgame trying to read whatever is on their phone, or someone at a concert sneak out into the lobby to check the score of a ballgame?  What a gift, on the other hand, simply to be in the moment!  How good it is to go for a walk without a screen in front of my own nose!

            So, too, churches can get caught up in programs or activities and forget that they are meant to bring people closer to God and one another.  It has been a gift, a real gift, to hear people say how they have missed one another and how they have found ways to connect, and to know that it is the connections established over a cup of coffee or a plate of barbecue rather than the quality of the potato salad that really matter.

            There are times when, like Moses at the edge of the Promised Land, we are forced to try to summarize the wisdom that God has taught us, and the summary necessarily leaves out so much.  Bishop Job, however, does a pretty good job of it, taking off from a pattern that John Wesley had suggested, and in a short way that doesn’t take much to memorize:


1)      Do no harm.

2)      Do good.

3)      Stay in love with God.

 And, being a United Methodist, he turned it into a song – or at least a chorus.

“Do no harm by any word or deed;

do good wherever there is need.

Remain attentive to God’s word.

Stay in love with God,

stay in love with God.”

             A lot of us are hitting the reset button soon.  You might want to close a window or two.  You might want to open another.  Consider your criteria carefully.


“Take to heart all the words that I am giving in witness against you today: give them as a command to your children, so that they may diligently observe all the words of this law.  This is no trifling matter for you, but rather your very life; through it you may live long in the land that you are crossing over Jordan to possess.”  [Deuteronomy 32:46-47]



[1] Reuben Job, Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 13.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

“What Does This Mean?” - May 31, 2020 (Pentecost)

Acts 2:12        

      Here’s part of a note that I received from a friend this week:

“How are you doing these days? I hope all is as well as can be in these days and circumstances. The Smiths are good. Betsy has decided that she will not continue working at Kroger when things open up to the yellow stage. She's fully aware that people can be stupid now. Yellow just means more people being even more stupid in her mind. I'm perfectly okay with her decision. I'm really good after reading a news story from yesterday. A guy in an Acme up there in Feasterville went wacko after an employee told him to please put on a mask. He shoved stuff off shelves and threw a bottle of hot sauce at an employee before walking out.  

All of this causes me to wonder what happened to American citizens in general. Where did the sense of community go that I knew growing up? Where did the sense of being helpful to other people go? It's truly a puzzle to me. It's affecting people that I've known for a life time and I don't understand. Sigh”

Here’s part of my reply:

“What has happened to the country?  I wish I knew.  I miss it.  There are a lot of ways that I don't feel connected to much of it anymore.  When I read about some bunch of partiers in the Ozarks or an anti-whoever rally in Kansas or the yahoos waving their guns in Lansing, part of me just wants to say, ‘Let them take the consequences themselves.’  Of course, it's stupid of me to think that it doesn't bounce back on all of us in some way, but I keep falling into the we/they trap.”

That is exactly why I pray for a new experience of the Holy Spirit for all of us. 

  The first gift that the Spirit gave was the ability to communicate across human boundaries.  It came about on that day, Luke tells us, that the disciples suddenly

“began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.”  [Luke 2:4]

That let them connect with people who were, like them, Jews, but who did not share a similar cultural background or even a common language.  I don’t know about you, but there are huge numbers of people I don’t seem to be able either to talk or to listen, to anymore.  All it takes is for someone to use the wrong buzzword and something switches off.  Instead, what I hear is a warning voice saying, “This is one of them.”  This is one of the

“Parthians, Medes, Elamites,”

This is one of the

“residents of Mesopotamia, Judaea, Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia.” [Acts 2:9]

This is a Democrat, a Socialist, a MAGA-hat-wearing Texan.  This is a snowflake, a racist, a boomer, an immigrant, a deplorable.  Whoever they are, they aren’t one of us.

Whoever “us” is.

The very questions we ask go right past one another and come with an edge of suspicion.  “Why do you need an assault rifle?”  “Why do you want to take my gun away?”  “Why do you think you can change the definition of marriage?”  “Why do you want to deny us the same rights you have?”  Even when there is some actual good will and a desire to understand, the similarities in the way we speak about things can itself get in the way.  It’s like trying to go from one language to another and making the mistake of thinking that if words sound similar then they must mean the same thing.  So an English-speaker wants to ask a Spanish-speaker if his shy daughter is embarrassed, and inquires if she is “embarasada”.  The Spanish-speaker gets upset, wondering why they want to know if she’s pregnant.

Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit, is the gift of the divine presence that hovered over the moment of creation, the moment before everything was divided into land and sea, day and night, morning and evening.  The first thing the Holy Spirit did when given to the disciples was to provide a bridge across the divisions that keep human being from understanding one another, so that they no longer are speaking about themselves, but

“speaking about God’s deeds of power.” [Acts 2:11]

Just by speaking to one another at all, they show what God can do.

One of the most harmful things we do, and I know myself guilty of this, is to give up on one another.  I may not know where the sense of community and willingness to help one another went.  But I do know that if it is ever to be real, it will come about because Jesus’ followers are speaking a language given to them by the Holy Spirit, not the language that comes to us from the world in which we live.  That would be the language that talks about God’s deeds of power, not about our own pride. 

The question people asked the disciples was

“What does this mean?” [Acts 2:12]

Peter, quoting the prophet Joel, said that the miracle they were hearing meant that a new age was begun, a time when the accepted order would see some serious changes. 

The Spirit’s presence still means that things get turned upside-down and inside-out.

“Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
             in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
                   and they shall prophesy.” [Acts 2:18]

What does it mean for us?  What does this gift of the Holy Spirit mean to people living in a society torn apart into factions and proud of its divisions? 

To us, it might mean not talking so much at all, but listening.  We might need to say, “Tell me why you feel that way?” or “What has been your experience of people on my side of the argument?”  It might mean saying, “Could you put that into your own words?” when you hear somebody using another person’s talking-points. 

It might mean standing your ground without fighting, learning to say, “I disagree but I still like you.”  It might take the courage of saying, “I am truly offended, and don’t think you even know what I just heard.” It might take the honesty of saying, “I think I want to drop this subject right now and come back to it when I’m not so angry.” 

Of course, it might mean admitting that we could be wrong about something sometimes.  It might mean saying, “I’m sorry.”

These things, too, are among God’s mighty deeds of power.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

“A Meditation on a Mug” - May 24, 2020

I Peter 4:12-19

            There’s a great story behind this coffee mug, and I want to tell it. 

I ordered it from a website started by Charlie Baber, who is a deacon in the United Methodist Church.  He serves as a minister to youth and families at a church in North Carolina and on the side he does cartoons about theology.  The main characters are John and Charles Wesley.  The original Wesley brothers were part of a renewal movement in the Church of England in the 1700s but Baber updates them to our own time.  The character on the mug is John, who always got more of the attention. 

            When he first started out as an Anglican priest fresh from Oxford, he decided that the American colonies needed him.  He made arrangements to go to the new colony of Georgia where he was going to convert the natives in his spare time while he was serving as the only Anglican clergyman in Savannah.  I’ll skip all the really juicy details, but he got into an off-again, on-again romance with the governor’s niece that didn’t end well.  She married someone else and John Wesley had to leave Savannah in a canoe under the cover of darkness and then find a ship in South Carolina that could take him back to England in a hurry so that he could tell his side of the story before the governor’s report got there.

            No matter whose version was told, it was clear that he had left a mess behind him.  Nobody knew that better than he did.  That left him in a serious depression, because for all his faults and all his pride, he really and seriously loved the Lord and felt like he had let him down.  John Wesley was one of those people who demanded the most from everyone around him, but not in a hypocritical way because he never let himself off the hook, either.

            Back in England, he dove deeper all the time into a crisis of faith.  If he had failed, it was his own fault.  Maybe he really didn’t have true faith.  Maybe he had been fooling himself and all of his religion was a matter of wanting to look good to other people or, even worse, trying to impress God with a false picture of who he was.  He was sure that God could love the person he wanted to be, even the person he projected to the world (at least the world outside Savannah).  What if that wasn’t really the true John Wesley, though?

            He asked for help from a few friends, including his brother Charles and a Moravian pastor named Peter Bohler.  They did what they could for him, and they may have kept him from giving up altogether, but he hit a low point on the afternoon of May 24, 1738 (two hundred and sixty-two years ago today) when he was sitting in St. Paul’s cathedral in London and the choir was singing the psalm that says, “Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice.” (We know this because he kept a journal very carefully.) 

            In that journal he was able to pinpoint the moment when he bounced back from the depths where he had been living (if you could call it that), and what had made the difference.  He wrote,

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate-street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans.”
God reaches out to all of us where we are and as we are.  Remember, this was a man who was a serious theology nerd, and what happened spoke to him in a way that was true to who he was.  This time, though, it was more than what the words said, it was what the words meant – and there was nothing academic or abstract about it.

“About a quarter before nine, while he [Luther, or the man reading his words] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.  I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation: and an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Wesley’s spiritual struggles had not ended, but the crisis was past.  Despite the italics he put on the words “my”, “mine”, and “me” he had finally learned it was not all about himself.  The center, the very center of his life shifted, and the strange warming of his heart was a result of the friction that comes when a great weight is lifted. 

            There are some folks who just kind of float along and really don’t notice what’s going on inside themselves or around them, and they are to be pitied as well as blamed.  Yet it’s my belief that everyone who seriously engages in life at some point hits a moment where they go through a time of testing which can mold them in the most amazing ways and shape their lives for the better.  Rarely is that a pleasant experience, but always is it necessary.  You don’t make steel or refine gold without fire.

For some people it may be a time of external emergency like a pandemic.  Consider what people – maybe you – have before you right now.  You are faced with a choice to think of others or to think of yourself.  You are forced to ask and answer the question of what you are willing to sacrifice for the common good.  How wide or how narrow will your heart be?  Will you care for yourself alone?  Will you care for your family, but no further?  Will you show consideration for your neighbors?  If so will it be all of them, or just some?  Who is your neighbor, anyway?

For some people the testing might be a personal crisis, brought on by a pandemic or arriving in the course of regular life.  It could be the experience of becoming powerless after years of being in charge of everything.  Perhaps they lose a job and its income, or they get sick and become the one who needs help and has to ask.  Perhaps someone dies, and the weight of grief is too heavy.  Or it could be the hurt of rejection. 

In all of this, remember Jesus.  What did he not lose?  What did he not give up?  And when it was all gone and soldiers had gambled even for his clothing, when he lost his life itself and his body was buried in a borrowed grave, what did God not restore to him? 

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.”  [I Peter 4:12-13]
Not everything that happens is good.  Some of it is very, very bad.  That’s one reason I personally don’t believe that God is a puppetmaster behind the scenes manipulating every moment.  But I do believe that God’s love, the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, turns even the bad parts into an opportunity for goodness and holiness and reconciliation and even joy at some point to spring up where they were missing before that.  And I believe that faith gives us the strength to wait for the full brightness of the day to come.

            So as you await that day, may God open your eyes and keep them open to his mercy and his grace, which is the love that looks for us before we know what we ourselves are looking for.  As the mug says, “May your heart and coffee be strangely warmed.”

Saturday, May 16, 2020

“Common Heroism” - May 17, 2020

I Peter 3:13-18a

            People of faith sometimes suffer for doing what is right.  For us, it is not common.  We tend to identify it with heroic actions of the past.   Because of that, there are some people who misidentify inconvenience with suffering.  But first let’s recognize what suffering for just being a Christian, let alone for taking a dramatic stand really looks like.

            Hinduism teaches that everyone is born over and over and over again, and that only when you get things right do you eventually escape the endless round of rebirth and enter a state of peace.  Your place in the world as a cockroach or an elephant is tied to how you did in your last life, and if you did well enough to become human you still are destined to a high or low social standing based on your deserving, your karma.  It is a matter of divine justice that some people are powerful and privileged and others are impoverished. 

            At the lowest end of this human pyramid is a group called Dalits, who are assigned all the worst jobs and are shunned, socially and religiously.  A long time ago, many Dalits heard the gospel and believed the good news that Jesus came to save everyone; that we all stand the same in the eyes of the One God, and that we are loved so much that he left that state of perfection and joy we call heaven to be born here, on earth, among the lowest of the low, to make all human life holy, not just that of the privileged classes.  Many Dalits became Christians, and thought that, outside of Hindu ritual, they would then be free from the oppression that defined their lives.

            It was not to be.  It turned out that not only the Hindus, but the Muslims who also rejected the caste system would continue to look down on them and mistreat them terribly.  When Pakistan separated from India and became an independent, Muslim state, the Dalits – the Christians – continued and continue to this day to be denied any form of equality.  Just last week there was an article in the New York Times by Zia ur-Rehman and Maria Abi-Habib that said,

“Although India has outlawed caste-based discrimination with mixed success, in Pakistan it is almost encouraged by the state. In July, the Pakistani military placed newspaper advertisements for sewer sweepers with the caveat that only Christians should apply. After activists protested, the religious requirement was removed. …
Doctors often refuse to treat the sweepers, who are seen as unclean and untouchable.
Officially, Pakistan denies the existence of caste-based practices in the country. But across the country, the discrimination persists.

One form of abuse commonly meted out on Pakistan’s religious minorities has been to accuse them of blasphemy, a crime that is punishable by death in the country, and that at times has been used to settle personal disputes.”[1]

            There is a long and honorable list of Christians who have suffered under tyrants and who have stood up to people who were seeking to destroy the faith or to use it as a tool of control.  There are many who have stood up for their sisters and brothers in Christ, and who have stood up for human beings in general regardless of their faith, knowing that God’s love has always been and will always be there for all people.  I John 4:10-12 says,

“In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
So people like Lawrence of Rome stood up for the poor in that city, and Oscar Romero did the same thing for the people of El Salvador seventeen hundred years later.  In the 1300’s, Catherine of Siena called for the Church to stop getting involved in wars in Europe.  In the 1960’s, Dorothy Day was confronting the Vietnam War.  In the fourth century, Christians were killed for opposing the worship of the emperor.  In the 1930’s Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were standing up to the Nazis in Germany.

            That said, it is not just the heroes that we know of, but the people who accept that sacrifice and the possibility of suffering arise as part of Christian living who keep the world from becoming an endless scramble for prestige, power, pleasure, and profit.  It’s what enables someone to say that their dignity has nothing to do with what anybody says of them.  Their worth comes from above and is kept safe within.  Again, we have the words of a hero that we know of, but who spoke for a whole lot of others in a speech the night before he was shot.  (Incidentally, he was in Memphis in support of a garbage workers’ strike – people who do here what the Dalits do in Pakistan and India.)  Martin Luther King, Jr. said,

“I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land.  I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.  So I’m happy tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man.”[2]
He was following the words of I Peter 3:14-16,

“Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.  Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands of you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
            As for us, most of us have never come anywhere near that point.  There are people, however, people we know well, who face down other fears – and sometimes opposition or criticism – for the ways that they consciously live out their Christian commitment. 

I often think back to a friend from college who was in medical school and after going on a mission trip to Sierra Leone chose to go into public health because she said she could make a real difference there.  (Her parents were not all that happy about that choice.  They were even more unhappy when she returned to West Africa after her graduation.)  I have no idea where she is now, but I am sure that her service is more apparent than it was thirty-four years ago.

            I think of a woman I knew in the Virgin Islands who raised a large family.  It included not only her own children but also several who, through difficult circumstances, just sort of ended up with her.  There wasn’t always room in the house, but there was always room on the porch.  As she would say, “None of these children are mine.  They’re all God’s.”  So sometimes she did without, but the kids had a home.

            These people allowed insecurity and hardship into their lives.  They didn’t seek it, but they accepted it as a condition of something more important, which was following Jesus. 

“Do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.”

Maybe the more we trust him with the important parts of our lives, the more he trusts us with the truly important assignments, large or small, that bring life to his world.

[2]     Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, April 3, 1968.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

“You’ll Grow into It” - May 10, 2020 (Mothers' Day)

I Peter 2:1-3

It’s Mothers’ Day, so I’m going to start with a memory not of my mother, but my grandmother.  She grew up as a coal miner’s daughter and she raised two daughters on her own during the Depression, after my grandfather died.  So she was thrifty.  She made a lot of the family’s clothing.  When I was little, she made me a suit coat that I loved.  It was Black Watch plaid and had gold buttons.  Before I was twelve she must have made about four or five editions of that same jacket, each one always just a little too big for me at first.  So when I would put my new one on every year or two, she would tell me, “Don’t worry.  You’ll grow into it.”

It’s her voice I hear when I Peter talks about growing into salvation.

“Salvation” is such a big term.  It means being saved from sin and death, receiving forgiveness from God for the sake of Christ and having the promise of eternal life beyond the grave.  That part is the most straight-forward aspect of the Christian faith.  The Apostles’ Creed that gives us an outline of the faith talks about the work of the Holy Spirit says,

“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

            “Salvation”, like I say, though, is a big term.  It also refers to a process that is ongoing.  It may reach its fulfillment at the completion of our lives on earth, but salvation is also something we grow into.  It’s bigger than we are, and even if it’s prepared for us ahead of time by someone who both knows us and loves us, there may be a bit of growing to do before it sits just right.

            Clothing got passed along in my family, as well as being reproduced.  A cousin of mine had a sweater that he loved, like I loved the suit jacket, and his mother knitted him a series of them, one larger than the next.  These sweaters were dark blue with a sailboat on the front.  As he grew, these things got passed on to me.  I wasn’t so happy about that.  By the time I was in elementary school, the sailboat was sort of embarrassing and I found myself stretching my arms out sometimes to try to make it look like I was outgrowing whichever version I was wearing, too.

            Growing into salvation means growing out of the ways and the practices that don’t suit us anymore, not if we keep growing into the likeness of Christ.  I Peter says to

“Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.”

There comes the point where some things just don’t suit who you are growing to be. Toward the beginning of “The Wizard of Oz”, there’s a confrontation between Almira Gulch (who later turns into the Wicked Witch of the West) and Auntie Em.  Almira Gulch has been mean to Dorothy and Toto, and Auntie Em comes to their rescue.  That’s when she says,

“Almira Gulch, just because you own half the county doesn't mean that you have the power to run the rest of us. For 23 years, I've been dying to tell you what I thought of you, and now... well, being a Christian woman, I can't say it!”[1]

Apparently, some growing had gone on over that twenty-three years.

            Growing into salvation is shown both by what fits us better than when we first met Christ and what no longer fits us the way it did then.  The apostle Paul became a Christian in response to a vision he had as he was on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus, where he planned to arrest Jesus’ followers in order to derail what he saw as a dangerous and heretical cult.  Years later he told the story to one of the churches he himself founded, neither denying his past nor the changes in himself that he had experienced since then.  He told them,

“I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.” 
[I Corinthians 15:9-10]

We find ourselves living with that tension.  On the one hand, we are totally and utterly forgiven.  On the other hand, God expects us to make good use of the grace we’re given.

            Therein is one of the ways that a human mother may be very like God, where parental love (motherly or fatherly) intersects with divine love.  It is unconditional and free, and it will always be there.  But it also holds us, for our own sake, to grow up, and to put away childish things. 

            If you are there already, praise God.

            If not, keep going.  You’ll grow into it.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

“Not ‘What?’ but ‘How?’” - May 3, 2020

Acts 2:42

            If you think we’re living in chaotic and dangerous times, you’re right.  And so did Jesus.

Right after Jesus was born, a ruler with a shaky claim and an uncertain hold on power heard a rumor that someone else who might be considered the rightful king had been born in Bethlehem, so he ordered the massacre of all boys less than two years old.  Joseph had been warned and had taken his family to Egypt for safety, so Jesus spent his earliest years as a political refugee.  Later, Jesus’ inner circle included a man called Simon the Zealot.  The Zealots were a group advocating war against Rome.  That alone, even ignoring what Jesus was teaching about the Kingdom of God, made him suspect so another disciple, Judas, was bought off by people who wanted Jesus dead and were willing to pay solid silver to see it happen.

From there, things became more chaotic.  His followers insisted that although he had been dead and buried, he somehow returned from the dead.  They insisted that his Spirit, which was not a ghost but his power and presence, was encouraging them to keep on doing what he had done.  Meanwhile, the danger grew with the confused state of the time and place they lived.

            Bitterness and violence turned into civil war and rebellion.  After an uprising that killed 6,000 Roman soldiers, the legions enslaved or crucified people all over Galilee and Judea on their way to starve Jerusalem into submission.  In August of 70 A.D., they broke through the walls; slaughtered the defenders; and looted, burned, and leveled the Temple.

            No Temple?  No sacrifices?  Every Jew in the empire considered as a hostile alien?  What about the followers of someone who had been executed by Pilate, the Roman prefect, with a sign over his thorn-crowned head identifying him as “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”?  We – you and I – have no idea what torment the faithful endured all through that terrible period.  The effect would be far more profound than our temporary arrangements.  They had to meet in locked rooms because they were marked for death.  We are asked not to travel.  They fled for their lives. 

What we do know is that they did endure.  The Zealots were slaughtered, the Sadducees disappeared with the Temple.  The Pharisees developed into modern Judaism.  The smaller group that followed this suspect Messiah/King, Jesus, became us.  Each one of these groups had to ask questions like: now that Jerusalem was gone, now that there was no Temple and there were no sacrifices to atone for their sins, were they doomed to carry the guilt forever? 

Jesus’ people already had an answer.  They looked at the death of Jesus and asked if and how that took the place of the sacrifices in the Temple.  They looked at his resurrection, and saw new life for them as well, as individuals and as a community.  Their faith was not centered on a place anymore, but on a person.

Like him, they began to live a new life.  They came to accept Gentiles – even Romans, the enemy of Israel – as part of the people of God.  They came to set aside or reinterpret huge sections of religious law that talked about how to eat, how to dress, how to organize the family.  They changed their language from Hebrew and Aramaic to whatever the local language was: Greek or Latin or Syrian or Persian.  They developed new patterns of leadership to replace the system that had led to the holocaust in Jerusalem and Judea.

You can see all of that, and more, happening in the letters they saved from those decades, letters that they considered so important, so inspired, that they attached them to the ancient scriptures as a second section, a New Testament.

We have entered a period where the challenges we face are nowhere as great as theirs.  For the next while, though, we have to figure out how best share the good news about Jesus with others and to be faithful to his teaching when the tools we are used to are not available. 

For too long, we’ve seen our mission as a matter of getting people to go to church.  Once that happens, things go onto autopilot.  We have done a great job making our buildings attractive.  We’ve made our music beautiful and inspirational.  We know how to provide age-appropriate educational programming and provide opportunities for people to develop friendships and healthy social bonds that bolster their spiritual development.  We make unequalled jello salads, casseroles, and desserts.

            We look back at the words of the New Testament and see that in the first days, after the coming of the Holy Spirit and before the destruction of the Temple,

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  [Acts 2:42]
When the early Church was scattered, they continued provide for Christian education, fellowship, provision of basic physical needs, and worship.  Under our current limitations, we will be able to do that, too. 

I would caution, though, that some of it is going to be tricky, especially education.  We may need to move toward family-based learning instead of classroom-based lessons for awhile.  In an abnormal time, children both need to be protected and to be prevented from spreading any lingering virus.  What if we provide lessons and supplies for parents to share with their children?  Or maybe we could have teachers go to them at home instead of having them gather in a classroom.

            I want to say that older kids should be able to be more careful, but I have seen even adults do some things thoughtlessly in the past few weeks.  I go back and forth on how to decrease the risk to middle- and high school students without allowing for their naturally expanding independence.

Adult education may mean smaller classes than we have had, offering the same class at two different times to keep groups smaller, or participating online.  This would apply to midweek studies as well as Sunday mornings.  I can actually see some advantages in this, in providing more variety of topics and teaching or learning styles. 

Fellowship will, I believe, emerge stronger from all of this because it has been missed.  That is why people are trying to move faster than is probably prudent.  Weekly coffees and monthly meet-and-greets are out, but Zoom check-ins are a good way to begin.  Over the summer, maybe small outdoor gatherings can take place.  How new relationships develop, though, is still to be seen.

As for the “breaking of bread”, the sharing of basic necessities, I am happy to say that we have managed to keep that going throughout the emergency.  We have been providing takeout meals throughout this time, and people have continued to support the Kitchen Ministry, to provide supplies for PACS, and have been generous in helping one another financially. 

With respect to the “breaking of bread” in the form of Holy Communion, we will be careful in that as well.  In the past, I would squirt some Purell on my hands before handling the bread or cup.  In the future I will wear gloves also, and will ask an acolyte, also wearing gloves, to distribute individual cups of juice.

Worship will need to be conducted with smaller groups at first, spread out across the room.  That means some people will need to move forward.  Passing the peace will mean waving.  To accommodate these changes, we will have to add at least one service or livestream to rooms other than the sanctuary (most likely the chapel and Fellowship Hall).

Some people have asked that we continue to provide worship online.  We will do that in some form.  Most likely, we would switch over from the current recorded format to a livestreamed version.   

            And if none of this works, we will have to do something else.

            What counts is that we do what, when everything else is pushed aside, we have always done, which is tell the story of Jesus, who will always stand out as the light that the world needs.  No matter how confused, chaotic, or experimental things get, keeping Jesus at the center of the way we order our lives is what makes us the Church.

That’s the “what”.  Everything else is just “how”.