“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.

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.”

The Walking Dead. . . and Divided

Earlier today, the United Methodist Judicial Council upheld several parts of the controversial “traditional” plan adopted at their conference in February 2019.

It also struck down several other parts of the plan, but that is likely only to be a road bump on the way to a final church split.

It is widely expected that the final rupture (that’s almost a pun) will come next year, when denominational representatives meet in a regularly-scheduled general conference.

When last rites finally are pronounced over the denomination, it is likely that scores, if not hundreds or thousands, of progressive and moderate churches will leave to form a new denomination.

Between now and then, leaders of the respective factions—progressive, moderate and conservative—will meet internally to plan their strategy. Following that, it is likely that a set of leaders representing each faction will meet to see if they can reach an amicable divorce, which is a polite way of saying “agree upon a church schism.”

A church schism, or split, is not an unusual path in either Protestantism or Methodism, notwithstanding Jesus’ great prayer in the John’s gospel that the church be unified. As he says in John 17:11, “Holy Father, protect them. . . so that they may be one as we are one.”

Well, so much for spiritual integrity, even though all sides of the Methodist mess claim that scripture is on their side.

In truth, though, the Christian church has never been “one.” Instead, it has always been a lively, messy, prickly, argumentative conglomerate of people and churches with largely similar beliefs on major issues, who will then divide like angry amoebas over lesser matters.

For example, most Christians throughout history would agree that Jesus is Lord. However, Christians have killed each other over other issues, such as whether infant baptism is scripturally sound or whether Jesus’ blood and body is physically present in the communion elements.

Today’s dividing issue is LGBTQ equality. Thus, if you believe a man can love a man or a woman can love a woman, and that God is okay with that and maybe even celebrates it, well, many Christians believe you to be a heretic, damn you!

And, a good number are willing to persecute you or discriminate against you for that belief (see “evangelical” in your dictionary).

Similar to the global church, United Methodists seem to agree that Jesus is Lord, but they break down bigly over LGBTQ issues, which even the most fervent, fire-breathing conservative agrees is mentioned or alluded to in only a handful of the Bible’s over 31,000 verses.

Of course, the American Methodist church has split over civil rights issues before. Prior to the Civil War, it divided into northern and southern churches over the issue of slavery, and did not reunite until 1939.

Meanwhile, today’s conservatives pooh-pooh any suggestion that they are making the same mistake as their southern forebears, who insisted that some people are entitled to more civil rights than others.

That is hard to maintain when they are, indeed, insisting that some people are entitled to more civil rights than others, but there you go. . .

In their defense, humans have never been much for consistency, but are quite adept at denial.

Unfortunately, the handwriting seems to be on the wall for people who love the United Methodist church and had some hope that the church would stay united despite differences. They will need to find grace in their grief as the denomination hurdles toward division and death.

Fortunately, irrespective of our views on these issues, we can learn from the resurrection verses in Matthew: Jesus is alive and going ahead of us.

Our task is to follow him faithfully and prayerfully as best we can, even in hard and fractious times.

Burning Christians Illuminate Administration’s Immorality

Donald Trump can end his “Rip Families Apart” policy by calling his Attorney General and ordering him to stop.

There are at least two reasons he will not do this.

First, he likes the results. Dislike, if not hatred, of “other” people, especially those of a different skin color, seem to be embedded deep within his bones.

Second, he finds the children and their parents useful to him in a devilish sort of way. They are living and breathing human bargaining chips he can use both in his ongoing War Against Immigration and his drive to fund the border wall.

Jesus, while taking a child into his arms, once said, “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me.” (Mark 9:36-37)

Unfortunately, instead of receiving children in any way remotely resembling Jesus’ desire, or in any other humane and moral manner, our nation’s leadership has embarked on another course.

They receive children in the name of a man who would do them harm and leave them at his mercy.

The result is that Trump has chosen to show “zero tolerance” to immigrant families appearing at the border even to present legitimate claims of asylum.

This means that our country rejects valid asylum claims that it has heretofore accepted. It also means that families are separated, with parents being jailed for subsequent prosecution and children being imprisoned for indefinite periods of time.

The latter results in our government taking children into custody and stashing them in an abandoned and now overcrowded Walmart facility located deep in South Texas.

While this facility is now licensed by the state of Texas, it is only approved to hold about 1100 people. Unfortunately, it now houses almost 1500 children ranging in age from 10-17. In addition, at least thirteen citations have been presented against the facility for inadequate conditions or services.

Meanwhile, as they move into federal jails and detention centers, these children and their parents join DACA recipients in an obscenely unjust pocket of Trump-imposed hell– pawns in his unholy, immoral fight against immigration.

Stunningly, Trump repeatedly brays out the lie that his “Rip Families Apart” policy actually is caused by a pre-existing law passed by Democrats, and that he can do nothing about it until the law is changed.

Rubbish. It is Trump’s policy designed to hurt people.

As such, these families not only are they bargaining chips but are also people the Orange One hurts in the hope that their misery will deter others from seeking asylum.

Shockingly, Attorney General Sessions looks on all of this and claims that it is part of God’s plan designed to bring law and order to the United States.

He even cites verses from Romans 13 to support his contention. In those verses, the Apostle Paul exhorts early Christians to submit peacefully to taxes imposed by the Roman Emperor Nero.

It is odd that Sessions uses this verses. However, he is likely unaware that some of the same Christians whom Paul counseled to honor the Roman government were destined to later become human torches illuminating the Roman night. They had been publicly dipped into tar and set ablaze pursuant to governmental policies set by Nero to discourage the practice of Christianity.

So much for that government’s “law and order” and lack of morality.

We are left to fight against those of our own.

Evangelicals Struggle with Self-Identity

The National Association of Evangelicals issued a statement yesterday aimed at clarifying widespread misunderstanding of evangelical beliefs and practices.

Their longing for clarity arose out of the fact that a growing number of people consider “evangelicals” to be a political grouping rather than a religious one.

The NEA  statement is clear about how they see themselves, “We identify ourselves by our spiritual convictions in the authority of the Bible, salvation through Jesus Christ alone and living out our faith in everyday life, especially sharing the good news of Jesus with others.”

Unfortunately, the NEA is deluding itself if it thinks such statements are meaningful.

No matter whether it is fair or unfair, the vast majority of Americans do not know evangelicals by their spiritual convictions or actions. They do not see evangelicals doing the work of Jesus. They do not see evangelicals worshipping at church, leading foreign missions, feeding the hungry, etc.

Jerry Falwell, Jr. welcomes President Trump to Liberty University.

Instead, they know evangelicals primarily through their well-publicized association with President Trump and the Republican party.

They hear that white evangelicals are the most stable part of the Republican base. They read headlines about 80% white evangelical support of Trump. They see photographs of evangelical leaders clustered around Trump in the Oval Office. They hear about leading evangelical figures giving full-throated support to Trump.

Not surprisingly, they believe what they see and hear—that Trump trumps Jesus and politics trumps faith in the hearts and minds of most white evangelicals.

Evangelical claims of faith are not enough to overcome the overwhelming media coverage—much of it coming from evangelical sources—to the contrary.

God knows, even if evangelicals don’t, that this confusion about evangelical identity was foreseeable and predictable.

Jesus certainly lived his life differently. He did not seek standing with the prevailing powers of the day, he confronted them. He did not seek his own base of power, he gave his life for others. He did not subordinate the gospel to other purposes, he lived it. His priorities were clear and his identity remains clear thousands of years later.

However, white evangelicals chose not to follow Jesus’ path. Instead, they intentionally embarked on a path to gain political power and use it. They have followed that path for decades and show no changes of changing.

They formed the Moral Majority in the 1970’s with the avowed purpose of profoundly impacting public policy. They have given their time, work and money to this effort.

At first, their work resulted in most white evangelicals supporting Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. Over the years, however, their movement slowly became more identified with Republican policies and the Republican party. By the 2016 presidential election, white evangelicalism was seen by most, even themselves, as being fused with rock-ribbed Republicanism.

And, they got what they wanted. They got political power. They got their Supreme Court nominee. They have the president’s ear and consider him to be their savior, at least in a political sense.

In the process, they have become who many people consider them to be—Republicans seeking and using political power and wanting even more.

White evangelicals should recognize that they have reaped what they have sowed. Any group or organization that lashes itself so completely to the policies, positions and practices of another group or organization loses its original identity. It literally becomes something else.

The NEA and their members may want to insist on their high-minded faith and devotion to Jesus, but no one will pay attention.

Instead of touting things that will be ignored, they might undergo a long needed self-assessment. Perhaps then, they return to the starting point of many Christian journeys  and become like the tax collector Jesus describes in a parable. In Luke 18, Jesus explains that the tax collector went to the Temple, beat his breast and prayed, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

After telling the parable, Jesus said that this man “went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

One thing we Christians always can use is a bit more humility before God and humankind and a bit less lust for power, however alluring it may be.

 

What Would Jesus Tweet?

One of the more disappointing aspects of the fealty white evangelical leaders pay to Donald Trump is not so much that it reveals their potent lust for political power (He talks to us! He does our bidding!). Power’s siren song has lured many irrespective of religious beliefs.

Nor is it their unfortunate over-identification with conservative political policies. They unabashedly remain true to this Caesar not only on matters like abortion and judicial appointments, but also military funding; making and threatening war; harassing immigrants, Muslims and DREAMERS; repealing Obamacare; opening the treasure trove of deep tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy; and on and on.

Like the lust for political power, however, belief in the ultimate truth of personal policy preferences is a common human failing.

No, instead of such things as these, the most regrettable moral failure of these church men is their steadfast refusal to condemn or even mildly criticize Trump’s notable and numerous personal excesses or, as we mainliners might say, and evangelicals used to say, sin.

We can even dismiss the whole sex thing from this analysis, including the infamous ‘grab their pussy’ video; the twenty or so women who have accused him of varying degrees of sexual assault; and, the supposed ‘hush money’ settlement with Stormy Daniels. After all, the video is only thing known to be true. As a result, many conservatives, including these leaders, refuse to consider their veracity.

But what in Jesus’ name would our Lord make of Trump’s ever-lasting pursuit of money; continual attacks on other people; new-found pastime of toying with people’s lives (immigrants, legal or illegal, Muslims, refugees, DREAMERS, etc.); naked bullying of those having less power than him; and, continual dog whistles to racism and white supremacy?

There is no need to beat a drum about the golden rule, drone on about the most important commandment, tell of Jesus’ example of love and sacrifice or cite chapter and verse of the Bible to condemn such conduct.

It simply is clear that a Jesus ethic condemns lusting for money, disparaging others, beating them down, or encouraging racial, ethnic and other types of divisions.

After all, it is doubtful that Jesus would do things like mock a person’s disability (he healed them!); tweet about a woman’s weight or urge watching her sex tape; or, accuse an judge of racial basis because he is a “Mexican.”

Yes, I know. It is hard to see in another person’s heart. However, this president gives the world an up close, 20/20 view into his heart—and it is ugly.

Similarly, some would say that he can confess any sin and all sins. That also is true, but at some point confession needs to include at least a feigned attempt to alter one’s conduct. Trump rarely even apologizes.

It is unfortunate that the failure of leaders like (Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell, Jr.) has ramifications beyond being a mere personal failure.

Indeed, they have not only reaped a whirlwind but a hurricane, tornado and tsunami as well.

They have abandoned the proclamation of Jesus Christ and the Christian ethic.

They have ignored a ripe opportunity to proclaim any type of moral standard for the nation. Trump has everyone’s attention. Calling him out would be a highly publicized event.

Their failure combines with myriad other forces to make it more likely that the United States will continue its slow slide toward abandoning any widely accepted ethic of appropriate personal conduct.

This, in turn, will ensure that the types of excesses Trump so amply displays will be adopted by others and metastasize across American society.