About methodistmel

It is not at all lonely in the middle, but most of us do lack passion. The less kind might even call moderate Christians the "frozen chosen." I plan to show some passion-- but with thought. This blog hopefully will speak from the heart and the head. I'm a soon-to-be-retired Methodist pastor and former lawyer and lobbyist for the University of Texas System. I also served as a staff person in the Texas Legislature for about 10 years. My wife is the best, my step-children are great and my daughter-in-law and grandchildren are wonderful.

“Bridging Divisions”

A Pentecost Sunday sermon from Acts 2:1-21

Back in the middle ages, the church became expert at celebrating Pentecost Sunday.

It helped that, first, they built breath-takingly huge cathedrals with dramatically high, vaulted ceilings symbolizing the distance between earth and heaven.

Second, our church fathers and mothers painted sacred scenes on the ceilings of many of those cathedrals.

The most famous is the artwork Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. It features scores if not hundreds of biblical scenes, such as God reaching out from heaven to create Adam.

If you go to one those old cathedrals today and glance up at the ceiling, you are likely to see biblical history unfolding overhead in living color.

But what in those cathedrals most causally related to Pentecost was a third innovation very few people are aware of.

Sometime around the end of the first millennium, congregants began cutting holes in the ceilings of these cathedrals. They actually drilled small openings in the ceilings all the way through the roof.

During the Pentecost worship service, some of the church members would ascend to the roof. At the appropriate time during the Pentecost service, they released live doves through those holes.

The doves dove and swooped out the holes and into the cathedrals, symbolizing the Holy Spirit descending on the people below.

And when the doves appeared, cathedral choirs joined in with the whooshing and drumming sound of a holy storm— wind blowing, cymbals clashing, drums pounding. Thunder, lightning and wind filled the sanctuary.

Finally, as the doves flew and the winds blew, those on the roof poured bushels upon bushels of rose petals through the holes to drift down upon the congregation. Those red petals floating upon on the worshippers symbolized the tongues of flame which came upon the disciples that first Pentecost morning.

You must admit that it sounds like quite a production!

But for my money, at least, it was nothing to compare with the very first Pentecost.

You might remember that before that day came, Jesus had told the disciples several times that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, would be given to them. He also told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Spirit.

I doubt it was any surprise to the disciples when the Holy Spirit did show up, but the specifics must have shocked and awed them.

Certainly, the Spirit made an immediate impact.

The disciples were all together in one place, probably in the same upper room where so much had already happened.

The book of Acts tells us that suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the house.

Then, each of the disciples saw what seemed to be tongues of fire coming to rest on them.

Acts tells us that all were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them the ability.

Now, you might want to pay attention here.

When people hear this part of the story about disciples speaking in other languages, they often confuse it with what is known as “speaking in tongues.”

That is not what happened.

The Apostle Paul tells us that “speaking in tongues” is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but also that “speaking in tongues” is unintelligible to almost everybody other than the speaker.

Having heard people speak tongues and had a few pray over me, I can verify that. They were all very sincere, but I had no idea what they said.

That is not what happened Pentecost morning.

In fact, it was quite the opposite. What did happen is, I think, the miracle of Pentecost and a miracle we need repeated in our lives today.

What happened is a miracle of communication, understanding and connection.

First, these illiterate disciples of Jesus started talking in foreign languages, languages from a number of countries and regions around the Mediterranean Sea.

Let me tell you why that was important.

While the Holy Spirit was transforming Jesus’ disciples inside the upper room, outside of the upper room, Jews from all over the world had gathered in Jerusalem that week for a big festival.

Many of those foreigners heard the commotion going on inside the upper room, and heard these disciples speaking in their own language. More importantly, they understood them. And they came to be drawn into the Christian community by the power of the Holy Spirit.

If we think about it, that is a wow moment.

Things that divided them were bridged by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

It is like human community and harmony and peace are God’s will.

Unfortunately, we have become so used to our divisions in the United States—and their bitter results— that it is even hard for us to hope and pray for unity.

How hard it is to bridge our differences and communicate well with, and understand, each other! And it is even harder to connect despite those differences.

But that morning, even better, as this communication, understanding and connection was happening, Peter stepped it up a notch.

He stood up, cleared his throat and preached a sermon so powerful that three thousand people came to Jesus that day.

All in all, it was quite unforgettable.

The Holy Spirit blew in with power, with gale force winds and something like tongues of fire and filled the disciples with divine power and purpose.

The Holy Spirit then empowered them to speak in languages unknown to them;

empowered others to hear and understand what was being said;

empowered Peter to stand and offer words of hope, mercy, forgiveness, life, love; and,

empowered thousands there to see, hear, understand and respond to the message.

The story of the early church after Jesus ascended is the story of the Holy Spirit working in and through those first disciples to help build God’s kingdom.

Surely, in those early days, the first disciples needed a pick-me-up, a bit oomph, and a lot of purpose and direction.

They had experienced quite a couple of months since the night Jesus was arrested.

First, they scattered like a covey of quail when he was arrested.

Then they went into hiding when he was crucified, died, and buried. After all, any hope they had for the future had melted and evaporated like an ice cube put on a sidewalk during a Texas summer day.

But then God intervened, and brought life out of death, light out of dark, hope out of despair— and raised Jesus from the dead.

Now he was gone again.

But he had promised the disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit.

And sure enough, the Spirit roared into their lives, giving them the real meal deal of God’s power and purpose moving and directing them in life.

Wow.

We would like some of that, wouldn’t we?

As a matter of fact, we need that Holy Spirit power.

Our nation needs that Holy Spirit power.

The world needs that Holy Spirit power.

Remember, God can move through believer and atheist and anyone in between those poles, including those of other religions.

We do need to need something or someone to get us through.

There is no lack of major problems that need fixing and transforming.

Those ill with coronavirus across the world approaches 6 million.

In the United States, we are approaching 2 million cases.

About 105,000 of our fellow citizens have died.

That is about one-third of the world-wide total.

Caseloads and deaths are increasing and not decreasing in a number of states and nations.

Meanwhile, about 40 million of our fellow citizens are out of work.

There are long lines at food banks across the nation.

And of course, continuing racial injustice in America seen in the sudden, horrific murder of a black man has led to peaceful demonstrations, which have grown into relatively widespread conflict, violence and even death.

And this all comes at a time when we are deeply divided politically, many are seriously alienated from their fellow citizens and have no desire to bridge the gap, and the political leaders of our nation seem to be at a standstill about what to do.

We need some Pentecostal power, particularly some Pentecostal power of communication and understanding and connection.

We need bridge-building.

We need our common humanity to come to the fore.

That is what happened that day in Jerusalem.

People of different nations, languages, cultures, subcultures, as well as different family, economic and educational backgrounds were drawn together by the power of God.

Understand well that they were drawn together by God who appreciated and honored this diversity of nations, languages, cultures, subcultures, family, economic and educational backgrounds.

God had made them different and loved all the differences.

And I note that God used some hicks from the sticks, some people from the notoriously backward area of Galilee, mainly illiterate fishermen, to be His vehicles of reconciliation and growth.

It is an astonishing story that only God could produce and direct.

I know we in the Hill Country often feel far away and almost insulated from what is happening in other parts of the nation and world.

But we are not. We are part of this nation and world. God calls us to do his work in them.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we need to call upon God to help us be his agents of reconciliation and connection. In II Corinthians, Paul tells us to be those kinds of agents.

We can build bridges right where we are today.

It starts in our hearts and minds, our thoughts and prayers, our words and action.

I am a boy of the Old South. Born in Austin and raised in Houston.

My daddy was born in 1916.

He grew up as a tenant former in an area just east of Waco.

Those cotton fields around the little towns of Marlin, Chilton and Lott looked a lot like the cotton fields in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.

He was a good man in many ways but also burdened with the racial biases of the Old South.

Early on in life, he began passing them to me.

I remember, though, something that happened when I was about 10.

Our next-door neighbors had a fishing cabin on a river northeast of Houston.

They asked me to their cabin for a weekend of fishing.

To there, we had to pass through a number of African American neighborhoods in Houston.

As we drove through one, I said what I had once heard my daddy say, “Well, doesn’t it stink around here.”

It was one of the more shameful moments of my life.

Mrs. Bowers turned around from the front passenger seat and barked at me to never say that again.

She said blacks were no different than anybody else, that she had black friends, and that they apparently had more love in their hearts than I did.

If I had known than then what I know now, I would have thanked her for the lesson.

But she shut me up, open my eyes, change my heart and put me on a different path—not a perfect path but a different one, that was at least less racist than before and more open to black lives mattering.

Friends, we are all affected by these divisions, which include not only racial and ethnic divisions, but also conservative-liberal and Republican-Democrat divides, as well as rich-poor, urban-rural and other divisions as well.

It has been said by many that a nation divided against itself cannot stand. If we continue on the present path, we will end tearing ourselves apart.

Even worse, if we harbor ill will for other people or groups, we are sinning and failing God, who creates us all, calls us all to be his children, and seeks us to join together in doing his work in world.

God’s main work on earth may be just to keep creation going, but among human beings, God’s main work is love. That includes reconciling differences and bridging divisions.

As we get ready to leave and do our work in our Lord’s world, let us all remember:

God calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves.

            God calls us to pray for enemies.

            God calls us to do good even to those who persecute us.

God calls us quite simply to love.

And in this marvelous story of the coming of Holy Spirit,

            God calls us to reach out and understand

that whomever we are

            and whomever they are,

            we are all His children,

called to follow His will and his ways.

Bless God’s holy name. Amen.

Let us join in prayer.

Good and gracious God, pour your Holy Spirit upon us today because we need a Pentecostal miracle. Our country and world are divided; strife, violence and injustice abound; lives are lost, property is destroyed, and fear has spread. You call us to be your agents of reconciliation in the midst of this division, to be builders of your kingdom and spreaders of your divine love. Send your Spirit to lead and direct us on these paths and teach us to cherish our differences as precious gifts from you. Amen.

Judged by the King

Matthew 23:1-12

1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

My foray this week into Matthew’s account of Jesus’ final days has had an unintended side effect— I see the same shortcomings in myself which Jesus saw in the Jewish leaders.  Not good!

Like the leaders who had fallen prey to corruption, whom we read about on Monday, I can see myself falling prey to the same temptations, if given a chance. Help me, Lord, help me!

Like the leaders who were not bearing fruit, whom we read about yesterday, I have lived too many of my days bearing no fruit. Lord, forgive me! Have mercy on me!

And, like the leaders we read about today, I fall far short of consistently living either humbly or with a servant’s heart. Change me, Lord, change me!

In these verses today, Jesus is not directly addressing any of the leaders. Instead, he is talking to the “crowds” and his disciples about the leaders. He has a good reason to do so—he is telling them what their relationship with the leaders should be.

Surprisingly, he begins with a compliment.

He says, “[D]o whatever they teach you and follow it.”

In other words, “Do as they say.”

Here was something which Jesus had in common with most of the Jewish leaders—they were dedicated to fully, thoroughly and accurately teaching Jewish law.

However, he quickly added, “[B]ut do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”

Instead of following their own teachings, Jesus said, these leaders mostly loved to posture, preen and be seen in public.

More bluntly, he said that they were “hypocrites.”

Even worse, Jesus said that the leaders were neither true servants nor humble people, which all of God’s people are called to be.

He said, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

And I wonder, “Do I say one thing and do another? Am I a hypocrite?”

Sometimes. May God forgive me.

And, what about having a servant’s heart, giving to others, putting their needs over mine, living humbly?

Well, I surely fall short here. May God forgive me.

What about you? How are you living your life? Is today the day you need to rededicate yourself to following Christ and his ways?

Prayer: Holy and Almighty God, forgive us for those times we fall short. The times we fail to love our neighbor, turn away from you or exalt ourselves over others. Put in us new and clean hearts, hearts of servants, hearts always seeking to be true to you. Amen.

A Divine Judgment . . . and Call

Matthew 21:33-46

33 ‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time came, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’

42 Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
   and it is amazing in our eyes”?

43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’ 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Matthew tells us that after the confrontation in the Temple courtyard, Jesus left the city and spent the night in the neighboring village of Bethany.

He returned to Jerusalem in the morning. On his way to the Temple, he saw a fig tree on the side of the road. He was hungry and went to pick figs for breakfast. Seeing nothing on it but leaves, he cursed the tree for not bearing fruit. It was not fig season, but that did not matter on that day. This may sound odd or harsh to us, but we need to understand that part of Holy Week was about God’s people being fruitful. Jesus was in Jerusalem, in part, to announce God’s judgment upon the Jewish leaders. And, this fig tree was a symbol of Israel’s leaders falling away from God and failing to produce fruit for God’s kingdom.

The next events of the day bear this out.

When he arrived at the Temple, the chief priests and elders were waiting for him, seething with anger.

They demanded to know, “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?”

Jesus refused to answer, but proceeded to tell them three parables, including the one quoted above. Each of the three have something to tell us, but it is this second parable that drew my attention, because it also contains a challenge for us.

The parable’s point is easy to grasp. Some tenants are working land for a landowner. Come harvest time, the landowner sends some of his servants to collect his share. The tenants, though, beat one, kill another and stoned another.

Then, the landowner sent another group of servants, but the same thing happened.

Then, the landowner sent his son. The tenants killed him, too.

It is clear to see what is happening. God is the landowner. The tenants are the religious leaders, those responsible for stewarding the people of Israel and ensuring that they live their lives faithfully and fruitfully. The servants and the son are the early Jewish prophets and Jesus himself, who are calling the religious leaders to be faithful to God. And, the tenants (or leaders) fall woefully short, abusing or killing any who call them to account.

Just to make sure they get the point—and understand God’s divine judgment upon them—Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22-23 about the rejected building stone that becomes the cornerstone, a cornerstone “that will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

Jesus also pointedly tells the chief priests and Pharisees of God’s fierce judgment upon them, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

The chief priests and Pharisees wanted to arrest him but bided their time until a more opportune moment.

I have always thought this story stopped there, but our Savior is a brilliant man, because I realized this week that this parable also applies to his church, to us. We are now the tenants. We are called to bear fruit for God’s kingdom. We are responsible to God for the harvest.

Are we, or will we be, such a people? Are you, or will you be, such a person?

Prayer: Good and Gracious God, you who call us to be your people and to bear fruit fitting for your kingdom, equip us and enable us to bear fruit each day. You know that we grow weary, though, so grant us passion and energy. You know we become selfish, so grant us selflessness. You know we sometimes turn away from you, so always, always turn us back to you, that we might be your gracious servants, always intent upon glorifying you and being part of your kingdom. Amen.

Making a House of Prayer

Matthew 21:12-17

12Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13He said to them, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer”;
   but you are making it a den of robbers.’

14The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, they became angry 16and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read,
“Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
   you have prepared praise for yourself”?’
17He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.

It is humbling to try to describe that last week in Jerusalem, the final days of Jesus’ mortal life. Things of far greater import occurred than I can understand. However, perhaps two of the most important things for us to know are that God’s radical grace was always at work and that His Son was resolute and courageous throughout, unwavering in living out his call.

It was a week when the powers of heaven and earth engaged in a great cosmic war. Roman forces and Jewish leaders were battling against the Forces of Heaven in trying to kill the Son of God. For a few days or weeks, they may have thought that they did. But Jesus was alive. He had risen. And, in not too many years, the Temple was destroyed and the Jewish leaders killed or scattered. Later still, Jesus came to conquer the Roman Empire around 325 A.D. when the Emperor Constantine came to call him “Lord.” God’s radical grace had triumphed.

Matthew tells us that Jesus went to the Temple immediately after entering Jerusalem that week. The Temple was the center of action for most of the week, but what unfolded that day is one of the better-known gospel stories. Jesus entered the Temple courtyard and immediately drove out all the money-changers and all who were buying and selling there. At the same time, he overturned their tables and chairs. It was quite a scene, with Jesus knocking over furniture and scattering the offenders!

Thousands of pages of sermons and commentaries have been written about on this drama. But, if we read on, we discover that more was at stake than the buying and selling of money and doves. The Temple’s very purpose was at stake. This also meant that the doing of God’s will on earth was at stake.

Turn your eyes to what happened following the courtyard drama: the blind and lame came into the Temple and Jesus cured them. Then, little children cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” They were shouting out to the Messiah, saying that the One who was supposed to come had come.

Did you notice that it was at this point that the chief priests and scribes became angry and the tension between them and Jesus increased? They did not like what he was doing or the recognition he was given. He was threatening their standing in the culture.

Jesus had his reasons. You see, about twenty years earlier, the sole function of the Temple was to be the center of Jewish worship, as it had been for centuries. However, Rome then ordered the chief priests to make the Temple the center and collection place of all taxes, both Roman and local. Soon, the chief priest compounded the problem by setting up shop in the Temple courtyard, exchanging foreign currency and also selling animals for Temple sacrifices. This, in turn, undercut businesses on the Mount of Olives that had been doing the same thing for years. With all that money sloshing about the Temple, corruption followed. The Temple became a place not of worship, but a “den of thieves.”

The Temple’s very purpose had been perverted. God’s will had been denied. Jesus had come to restore the Temple’s purpose and do God’s will.

Moreover, there is evidence that the blind and lame—and other disabled, unwanted or rejected Jews—were not welcome in the Temple. Now, Jesus not only welcomed them but also healed them. At the same time, children were of little value back then. Now, they were both welcome and were praising Christ.

Yes, Jesus had come to restore the Temple to be a “house of prayer for all peoples” and a place not only of prayer but of grace and healing and, dare we say, love for all humankind. And, also a place where great truths, divine truths were declared by the innocent and uncorrupted, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”

Prayer: Holy and Almighty God, we are awed by your sacred purpose and your relentless power. Just as Jesus was true to his calling, help us be true to our calling. May our churches—and our individual bodies, souls, hearts and minds—be places where your will is done, your people are loved and valued and your great and eternal truths are declared and cherished, all to the glory of your name. Amen.

Swamped at Night

Mark 4:35-5:1

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?  1They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 

Last night, my eyes popped open sometime around 2 or 3 a.m., and I found myself wide awake, anxious and worried about the virus and its effects. Questions and uncertainty echoed and re-echoed in my mind: How long will it last? Whom will it affect? How many will die? Will I be one? Maurie? Our children or grandchildren? It didn’t take long before I was quite worked up.

Then, these verses came to mind.

In Jesus’ day, bodies of water were considered to be places of danger. People were afraid of them because demons and evil spirits were believed to dwell in the depths. Even worse, on that night, Jesus and his disciples were on the Sea of Galilee, which was famous for sudden, intense storms that swamped boats and drowned their occupants. Jesus’ disciples, most of whom were fishermen, were keenly aware of the threat.

Sure enough, a sudden storm whipped up while they were still at sea, and winds and waves began swamping the boat as Jesus slept peacefully in its stern. The disciples, gripped by fear, cried out, “Don’t you care that we’re dying?”

We are living in a time like that stormy night on the Sea of Galilee. Christians are not exempt from the winds and waves of the times. And, it is quite human for us to be afraid and anxious about it. After all, the coronavirus has changed most of our daily and weekly routines, the news is rife with tales of life-and-death, and an invisible threat is on the loose. We are well outside of our comfort zones. In these uncertain times, it is almost natural to worry about ourselves, our family and friends, our country and our future.

But, as I soon remembered early this morning, now is also the exact time to claim our faith.  Indeed, if we find ourselves frightened enough, it is even a good time to cry out in our fear, “Jesus, don’t you care?!”

So, I did, and I began to pray. Soon, peace came to me and I drifted back to sleep.

Mind you, I don’t claim here that Jesus takes away all fear. That night on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples’ fear did end as Jesus calmed the storm. However, our storm still rages. The winds and waves of the time still threaten us. But my point is that claiming our faith does take the edge off and allows us to face the night and the day. As I found out last night, that is more than good enough. Amen.

The Age of Coronavirus

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalms 42:1-9; Matthew 11:2-7

I planned to continue our Sermon on the Mount series today and by Wednesday night had almost finished a sermon on the portion of the SOM which include the Lord’s Prayer.

God knows that we need prayer and a lot of it right now. However, by Thursday morning, it seemed that the earth had shifted under our feet and we found ourselves living in a different age than the one in which we began the week.

As I watched the early news that day, it seemed that something other than a sermon on the Lord’s Prayer was needed because we have entered the Age of the Coronavirus.

May it be short-lived and its consequences only minor. . . but experts are not predicting that will be the case. As you know, most predict serious consequences and some are saying that they will be long-term.

Truthfully, though, I guess the Age of Coronavirus arrived two months ago and I only noticed it this week.

Jesus tells us to pay attention to the signs of the times, doesn’t he? I had failed to do so, but woe be to us if we do not pay attention to them now, for the signs of the time ring out loudly around us.

The times are dangerous.

I checked some statistics in preparation for this sermon. The following are all from the Center for Diseases Control website.

At the end of January, the coronavirus was reported to be in China and 20 other countries. In those countries, a bit over 8000 cases had been reported. The death toll stood at 150.

As of yesterday (3/14/20), some six weeks later, the virus had spread to 130 countries and the total number of cases had climbed from that 8,000 to over 150,000. The death toll, meanwhile, increased from 150 to 5614.

All of these are increases along the lines of four or five hundred per cent, at least according to my rather shaky mathematical abilities.

And, it also was last week when the WHO declared the virus to be a pandemic.

Around mid-week, we started hearing of cancellations, closings and delays.

The NCAA tournament, the Masters, the NBA season, the rest of spring training and the first few weeks of the regular season for Major League baseball.

Some cruise lines shut down trips for at least one month. Others shut down for two months

Disneyland, Disneyworld, Six Flags, Sea World and other theme parks went dark.

School districts and universities cancelled classes and/or extended spring break.

And, it was Thursday morning when a case popped up in Austin. It was a man over 60 who had been transferred from a rural hospital somewhere in the Central Texas region. That hit home. It could have been one of us.

I also was surprised Thursday morning to open an email from our district superintendent in Kerrville saying that the decision to hold services would be left up to each church.

You are probably aware by now that many churches in the United States and across the world have cancelled services or are having online services only.

These include churches not just in so-called virus “hot spots” but also churches which are exercising precautions, not so much in worshipping God as in hosting a public gathering that might threaten the health of those in attendance as well as the health of those who might come into contact with someone who attended.

Please note that I am not asking that we cancel our services right now because of our small size. However, as we talked about last week, we need to exercise the recommended social distancing and hygienic precautions.

In addition, many churches that are still holding services have suspended celebrating the Lord’s Supper or have begun using prepackaged communion sets.

Consistent with this, I have ordered 250 prepackaged sets for us. However, these will not ship until Tuesday at the earliest. Hopefully, they will arrive in time for the first Sunday of April. If not, we will need to make other plans that may include suspension of the Lord’s Supper.

So that is a quick summary of coronavirus news and how the ground shifted under us this past week.

However, I also did an internet search to see how other churches, theologians and pastors regarded the coronavirus. I looked at the websites of the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian church, Episcopal church, Church of Scotland, United Church of Christ as welll as that of others.

They all excelled in listing the hygienic and social contact considerations and other related matters, but at his point, I was more interested in theological and spiritual issues.

I had two main questions rolling around in my mind.

The first was, “Where is God in this?” I wanted to find out how our Christian brothers and sisters saw God moving in these times.

I had a tentative answer in mind. That is why these verses from Exodus were read today.

That question, “Where is God?” was stated a little bit differently in those verses. You might remember in verse 7, the question was stated, “Is the Lord still with us or not?” However stated, the thoughts come from essentially the same point of view: where is God in hard times such as these?

You might remember the background to these verses. God had delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and led them across the Red Sea.

That put them in the desert portion of what today we call the Sinai peninsula. In that desert, there are two main seasons. There is the dry season and the very dry season. Surprisingly, there are also times of the year when it can get quite cold at night but, not so surprisingly, there also are times when it can get very hot during the day.

We don’t know the time of year it was, but we do know in these verses that the Israelites were thirsty.

That is not surprising. According to Exodus, there were several hundred thousand of them, each needing water. And they had no water and no immediate prospects of finding any.

Even in good conditions, a human can only live about four days without hydration. If the temperatures are hot, that period might shrink to one or two days at most.

The Israelites might have been in life-or-death situation. Whether or not that is true, we do that a wail went up from them to Moses, “Are you trying to kill us?”

And, in my words, “Where is God?”

Or, as the verses say, “Is the Lord with us?”

The quick answer is that God was with them. In fact, God was going to lead them to water and quench their thirst.

Just so, I think God is with us now, that God is with all people affected in the outbreak of this evil and that God will see us through these times.

My second question was, “What, then, are we to do?”

This question came from a number of places in the Bible that describe what God or God-in-Jesus did in response to evil and human suffering, as well as our readings from the Sermon on the Mount and hundreds of other verses that describe how God’s people are to live.

You might recall talking in past weeks that we are called to act like Jesus, who also calls us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

One instance that tells of God’s actions in hard times is described in Isaiah 42 as well as the verses surrounding that entire chapter.

Those chapters all combine to tell us about a great Second Exodus, one of God leading the Hebrews out of exile in Babylon and bringing them back to the Promised Land.

In these particular verses, God talks of one who will be sent in the future to take on human suffering and deliver divine justice.

God spoke and said in part,

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
   my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
   he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
   or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
   and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
   he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
   until he has established justice in the earth;
   and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”

His servant, God said, would not break a bruised reed or quench a dimly burning wick but would faithfully bring forth justice.

And make no mistake, this virus is evil and divine justice needs to address it.

That points to my tentative answer for what we are called to do. Remember, the my tentative answer to the first question was God is with us. My tentative answer to this second questions is that God is in the healing, God is working against virus to bring forth life. And, we are called to join our Creator in that great work.

Part of my tentative answer also comes Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:2-7.

John the Baptist has been imprisoned. He was wondering who Jesus was. Was he the One whom God promised to send? Was this man from Nazareth the Messiah?

So, John sent some of his disciples to find Jesus and ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’

In response, Jesus described his work on earth,

“‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.'”

Again, God is where the and wherever healing is occurring or relief to be found.

A corollary to that is that we are to join God in that great battle with this virus.

But still, I wanted to know what others were thinking. So I checked out some websites. Not surprisingly, there are a variety of reactions to the coronavirus within the world of Christendom.

I first went to the website of John Piper. He is a noted evangelical preacher, author and thinker.

He gave what seemed to me to be a rather classical explanation of how some people understand God to be working in these situations.

In short, he said that God could have stopped this, but in God’s providence and wisdom, God did not stop this. He concluded that whatever else we might say about this, it is a time to repent and turn back to God. https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/how-do-we-make-sense-of-the-coronavirus

This seems to me to be incomplete, but there you have it.

I moved on an quickly found the preacher seemed to get the most publicity for his views about the coronavirus. I will not mention his name. However, he claimed the virus is God’s angel of death sent to destroy LGBTQs and other sinners. Well, may his kind decrease and decrease quickly. https://www.advocate.com/religion/2020/1/29/god-sent-coronavirus-destroy-lgbtq-people-says-trump-okd-preacher

One more prevalent opinion was given on a few different sites. There were some differences on what God was up to but these sites agreed that this is a chance to call non-believers to belief, in other words, a chance to evangelize. https://www.christianpost.com/voices/the-coronavirus-and-evangelism.html

And then there were those who said that the virus is part of the trials and tribulations of the end times. Their point was that the apocalypse is near. https://www.thetrumpet.com/21859-the-wuhan-coronavirus-and-the-bibles-prophesied-disease-pandemics

By my reading, all of these theories seem to tell us that God caused the coronavirus for a particular reason. God had a plan in mind, they might say.

That might be true. Maybe.

I look to other places in the Bible, though, that tell me evil happens and that God is:

with those who hurt and suffer,

with those who are lonely and despairing,

with those who are ill and disabled,

with those who sore and beaten down,

with those who need freedom and liberation.

Just so, God was with the Hebrews in the wilderness.

God told Moses to go ahead and he would be there at Mt. Horeb and that there would be water in the rocks.

In other words, God was there to give drink to the thirsty.

Later, when John wanted to know if he was a Messiah, Jesus didn’t say, “Yes, and I have come to judge all and punish the guilty.”

Instead, in essence, he said, “I am he whom God has sent. I am the one who will not break a bruised reed. I am the one who will not quench a dimly burning wick. I have come to be with those who suffer. I have come to hold their hand; to heal their ills; to lift their oppressions; to grant them new life; and, even to raise the dead.

So, friends, I don’t think God sent the coronavirus to achieve a particular purpose or carry out some kind of plan. Instead, disease seems to be part of the evil of nature that sometimes breaks out.

I do think, however that we see God-in-Jesus at work:

wherever someone is ill or dying;

wherever someone is searching for a cure;

wherever someone is seeking to develop a test to detect the illness;

wherever a healthcare worker lifts a spoon to feed someone who is ill;

wherever a pastor, friend or family member speaks a good word to someone fearful or someone afflicted; or

wherever a local or national official speaks to bring truth, calm and direction.

I believe that Jesus is doing what he has always done, seeking to:

heal the afflicted;

lift people’s burdens;

soothe their fears;

calm their souls;

give them direction in life; and

offer them life and even life abundant.

So, as we go forth today,

let us go forth to live and serve as did our Lord,

let us forth to seek to bring forth life,

let us go forth to love to our neighbor,

to bring hope there is despair, and

kindness where there is sorrow.

We want for our Lord to live through us.

So, my answers to those issues of where God might be and what God might be doing are: that God is with us and seeking to bring about good.

And, we need to join God in seeking that good.

But, let us remember something two other things, as well.

I came across article this week about Martin Luther, who lived during a recurrence of the Black Plague. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/january-web-only/martin-luther-coronavirus-wuhan-chinese-new-year-christians.html

It told of how Luther was asked how Christians should respond and that he wrote a relatively long response to the question. It then described his response.

First, Luther challenged Christians to see opportunities to tend to the sick as tending to Christ himself (Matt. 25:41–46).

We have covered that.

Second, Luther also stressed that Christians needed to take care of themselves.

So, take this seriously. It is a killer. Take care of yourselves.

Luther made it clear that God gives humans a tendency toward self-protection and trusts that they will take care of their bodies (Eph. 5:29; 1 Cor. 12:21–26).

“All of us,” he wrote, “have the responsibility of warding off this poison to the best of our ability because God has commanded us to care for the body.”

He also defended public health measures such as quarantines and seeking medical attention when available.

Each of us has ample information and amply opportunity to take care of ourselves and not take this virus lightly.

We do need to remember, though, that even as we take care of ourselves, there are times we can help others and be useful to each other, at least in some small way.

Finally, we can also remember from our study on prayer that we are called to pray.

So, let us pray,

pray for an end to the virus,

pray for a vaccine to arrive,

pray for test kits,

pray for health to be widespread and robust,

pray for grace to prevail,

pray for those who have died,

pray for those who love them,

pray for those who are ill,

pray for the caregivers,

pray for local, state and national officials trying to cope with this virus,

and pray to in all things to be the salt of the earth and a light to the world,

always trusting in God and God’s good will toward humankind.

Amen.

A [Rare] Act of Courage

Acts of political courage, and especially political courage borne of religious faith, have always been scarce in Washington, D.C.

We are fortunate to have a rare sighting of such courage yesterday when Senator Mitt Romney announced his conclusion that President Trump was guilty of abuse of power. This is a video of his Senate speech.

Of course, one can never know what prompts another person to act in a certain way. But I believe Romney when he says that his decision was impelled by his faith.

He said, “I swore an oath before God to exercise impartial judgment. I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am.”

After laying the foundation for his vote, he stated the question and his conclusion, “The grave question the Constitution tasks senators to answer is whether the president committed an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of a high crime and misdemeanor. Yes, he did.”

What prompts me to think that his vote was based on his oath before God and not other matters is that there is no upside for him in voting to convict. However, there is a decided downside.

And, the downside backlash he will have to endure will have nothing to do with faith or truth but everything to do with the intense partisanship which infects American politics.

Thus, he will face the scorn of fellow senators for not voting “with the team.”

Many of his constituents will turn against him.

MAGA diehards will do their best to make his life miserable.

Conservative talks show hosts will do the same.

And President Trump and his family will lead the chorus.

Indeed, the piling began immediately and has only intensified.

I admire his action, however, and wonder if it is not actions like this that Jesus was referring to in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “ ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ ” Matthew 5:11-12, NRSV.

The rest of us should do so well in giving our main loyalty to God and not to “the team.”

We Are Both Klingons

My wife and I had just finished our afternoon prayers when she said, “Oh, no.”

I turned to see her staring at her phone.

“What?”

“Trump has just tweeted out a warning to Iran against attacking any Americans. He told them we had 52 Iranian sites targeted.”

Oy, vey. The Child President, he of much bullying and bluster, strikes again.

I can see him as a sixth-grader, hair swept back even then, taunting and glowering at the kindergarteners.

The thing is, we can be sure that Iran is quite aware of his hatred and also aware that many Iranian sites are targeted by the American military. It is the way we are. We have targeted hundreds if not thousands of sites across the world. I’m primarily looking at you Russia, China, and North Korea, in addition to Iran.

To be fair, other countries have hundreds or thousands of sites targeted in the United States. See countries named above.

We like to think we are a people of peace, reluctantly drawn into war, but such is not the case. The United States has been involved in roughly 80 wars, give or take, in our short history. We are not pikers when it comes to the war. We are Klingons. We have clearly instigated several wars, most notably the war with Mexico and the Spanish-American War. We also have conducted a genocide. You can ask any Native American about that. Let’s not even get into the violence of slavery.

And if you believe that General Sulimeini was the first leader in another country that we have assassinated, please think again. By most counts, we are well into the double figures. I am including Osama Bin Laden in my list, but it also includes democratically elected leaders, such as Chile’s Salvador Allende.

And, our killing of Suliemani was not the first time we have been involved in having our way, so to speak, with an Iranian government.

In fact, some people date our present discord with Iran as being rooted in our 1953 overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government, thus ending democracy in that country.

Mohammad Mossadegh was elected in 1951 as the thirty-fifth prime minister of Iran. He remained in office until 1953, when he was overthrown in a coup d’état orchestrated by the CIA and Great Britain’s MI6.

His sin against the Western powers was that he had nationalized the oil industry. The end result was that the power of the Shah was solidified and popular rule undercut.

Of no small import is the fact that the United States became the Big Dog in Iran, heavily subsidizing the Shah and his government, which in turn kept the oil spigots open and Big Oil happy. As the Shah become increasingly despotic, general resentment toward the United States increased.

That resentment exploded in 1979 when the unpopular Shah was deposed and the United States embassy invaded and many of its staffers imprisoned. Although they were later released, Iranian-American relations remained poor for decades.

Now, the Child President has precipitously upped the ante and, if possible, increased the hostility between the two.

Openly assassinating the leading general of Iran was an option rejected by both Presidents Bush and Obama.

It is hard to say that those were more prudent times, but such are the days in which we live. Those were more prudent times.

The Child President can kill and disrupt peace one day and threaten to make things even worse the next.

To be sure, Suleimani was a bad actor and present-day Iran openly kills its own citizens and instigates troubles across the Middle East. It is hard to cry for them.

Let us not think in this, however, that the United States has the moral high ground.

My thought is that we are both Klingons.

Woe be to those who get caught in between.

And let us pray that the violence end now. Suleimani isn’t worth it.

Shiny Object Syndrome a/k/a Fiddling While the World Burns

Egad! The bright and shiny objects of the week are, once again, any news relating to Donald Trump.

Trump
Our omnipresent “Bright and Shiny Object”

In the so-called “Age of Distraction,” Trump IS the distraction. From wall-to-wall coverage of the impeachment hearings to breathless headlines about “today’s” tweets to tut-tutting over the latest executive order (He is not anti-Semitic!), Americans glut themselves on all things Trump.

This week is only the latest example.

There is the omnipresent coverage of the impeachment hearings (The Democrats are for! The Republicans against!).

Thursday, we could feast on reactions to his comments about Greta Thunberg being named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” (Trump bullies sixteen-year-old!).

Daily, we could peruse news flashes about his latest abominations (Trump moves to cut disability benefits! Trump cuts food stamps! Trump calls FBI “scum!”).

Unfortunately, almost hidden by this Trumpian avalanche is the most important event of our lifetime, a mere tip of its iceberg visible above the orange-hued snow in which it lays buried.

That iceberg is the climate crisis.

While all government and much of our population chains itself to the latest and greatest, brightest and shiniest Trump revelations of the day, that crisis worsens. . . and worsens.

And nothing gets done.

Sea levels slowly increase, islands get swamped, populations become displaced, animal species grow extinct and our own regional climates warm up, dry up and become less predictable and more volatile.

Climate change is not going to happen. It has happened and continues to happen. . . for the worse.

methane
The EPA is seeking to relieve restrictions on methane emissions like these. Methane is one of the worst producers of carbon dioxide.

Meanwhile, our government does nothing except exacerbate it.

And our citizens remain hypnotized to the point of inaction by the orange shiny things that swing daily across their eyes.

One of the apocryphal stories of history is that of Rome going up in flames while Emperor Nero fiddled.

Rome did burn, but it is unlikely that Nero ever fiddled for the simple reason that there were no fiddles in his day.

However, the story makes the important point that bad things can happen when people pay them no heed and, instead, “fiddle” away their time.

Collectively, that is what we are doing—fiddling while Rome burns.

Democratic office holders, or most of them, would like to act, but we hear precious little from the major presidential candidates who battle instead over Medicare-for-all and the other candidates’ business ties.

For their part, Republican office holders remain in the grossest form of denialism while greedily accepting money from fossil fuel interests.

Even worse, most of the public, no matter whether they identify with a party or are steadfastly independent, pay little but lip service to the issue.

However, if you like your seashores, mountains, existing species and more predictable, calmer weather, you might turn from the shiny orange things that try to dominate your attention and do something to address this crisis. Really, virtually anything.

Below are a number of sources that give different vantage points as to what your options for action may be. They range from running for office yourself to buying more fuel-efficient vehicles to using your washers and dryers more effectively.

The point is to do something because the world does depend, in part, on you.

BBC article 102-what-can-i-do-about-climate-change

https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2016/09/22/climate-change-solutions

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/climate-change-what-you-can-do-campaigning-installing-insulation-solar-panels

Trump in Flight

A chain reaction was set off earlier today when CNN reported that Tuesday’s White House lockdown was due to the sighting of a “slow-moving blob” crossing the sky.

Learning of the report, Fox News broke into regular programming to announce that Donald Trump apparently had gained the ability to fly.

Pat Robertson and the Christian Broadcasting Network immediately followed with a news release proclaiming that God had given this ability to Trump in thanks for “Making America Great Again.”

Hard on the heels of that release, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Robert Jeffrees and Paula White said in a joint statement that the flight proved again that Trump was “The Chosen One.”

They also noted that Barack Obama had flown only with the assistance of airplane.

Trump himself added a final note by tweeting that while it was true God had given him the gift in thanks, it was also true that He had given it in worship.

The tweet also noted that “every one of the heavenly host” agreed that Trump was the greatest leader of all time.

Meanwhile, speaking off the record, national security officials said that the mysterious “blob” was likely a large flock of birds or a drone.