Thanks for coming. Wherever your life seems to be taking you, we are glad you're here. We are doing what we can to continue worshiping and serving in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic!
Since late August, we have been open for limited "in person" worship with COVID-19 precautions. We are at our traditional time of 10 am Sundays. As circumstances change, we will post updates both here and on the church Facebook "page."
If you hope to come on Sunday please contact the pastor so we can be sure to set up enough sanitized and socially distant chairs, and set out enough communion sets on communion Sundays (first of month). Like just about every public place during the pandemic, we ask that you maintain distance and wear a mask while at church. If you arrive without your mask, we can provide one.
During the time of "social distancing" during the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to offer
16-24 minute worship on the church's (Rondout Valley United Methodist Church) Facebook page and on the pastor's also (RVUMC). Starting with July 12th's worship you can also find it on YouTube, at RondoutValley Methodist. These services are available at our "usual" worship time of Sunday at 10, more or less; and remain available for later viewing. If you'd like an order of worship emailed to you with the prayers, hymns and readings contact the pastor; best email for this is email@example.com. You can find us at 25 Schoonmaker Lane in Stone Ridge, NY, at the corner of Schoonmaker Lane and Route 209.
RVUMC is no longer a satellite pickup location for RV Food Pantry Emergency Bags; if you are in need of food call the RVFP directly at 687-4013. Church phone is 845 687-9090. Watch this space and Facebook for updates; stay safe, stay in touch with others by phone and email; and let us uphold each other and our world in prayer. See below for text of some of Pastor Caroline's brief Sunday reflections from spring and summer. Please note that Sunday, June 14 worship was provided via the Annual Conference: www.nyac.com.
Reflection for August 2 "Don't mess with blessing"
Both of today’s readings--the one about Jacob wrestling with an unidentified “man” as he camps alone, separated from his family and belongings, on his way to a long-dreaded meeting with his twin Esau, and the one about Jesus’ feeding the multitudes [note: MORE than 5,000 as that’s just the number of MEN specified, not yet counting in the women and children, who—call me extreme!—I believe should be counted]—have to do in some way with blessing. As I mentioned in this week’s Midweek Moment, we have a way of “taming” this whole blessing business, reducing it to our response to sneezes or the saying “bless your heart.” (?!) We’ve also become kind of casual about defining “blessings” as material things, financial solvency, and emotional comfort: our families, friends, homes, food, and stuff.
But if you look at what’s happening with Jacob when he receives blessing and with Jesus when he blesses…it is obvious that a blessing is nothing to mess with. It will mess with you, to be honest. Jacob at least gives his real name to the anonymous wrestler here—which you may recall he did not do when he finagled the blessing meant for Esau from their blind father Isaac. With mother Rebecca’s collusion, Jacob went in to Isaac—who thought he sounded an awful lot like Jacob—wearing Esau’s clothes, and bringing the sort of dinner Esau would have brought. He thus receives his father’s irrevocable blessing under false pretenses, and “runs with it”, quite literally, to establish himself and a family with his uncle Laban. The gist of Isaac’s blessing was for abundance and power over nations and family, with the capstone being (Gen. 27:29 CEB) “.. Those who curse you will be cursed, and those who bless you will be blessed.” No wonder Jacob ran. The blessing wrestled at the Jabbok also does not leave Jacob unmarked: he is given a new name—Israel—and a limp. Abundance of descendents and power and possessions, yes; but a searing recognition that to be a Responsible Patriarch with all of these things will not be a walk in the park.
Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes gives you a front-row seat to a miracle that also involves blessing. The context is sobering: Jesus has just learned of the death of John the Baptist, his kinsman and the fore-runner for his ministry. Grief-stricken, He gets into a boat to be by himself. But the crowds, too, are mourning, they are wounded, they are hungry. He gets out of the boat not to a solitary walk on the beach that He probably could have used right then, but to the hurting crowds. Did he pretend not to see? No. Did he pretend to be on a Very Important Call? No. he had compassion for them and healed those who were sick. (14:14) He doesn’t just say some pretty words and tell them to “have a nice day, be blessed”; He has a full-bodied, gut-wrenching, heart-pounding compassion. And then in a move that must have triggered deep panic in the disciples, He told them to give them something to eat. Who? THEM. The crowds. The five thousand men, plus the incidental women and children.
The disciples, realists after my own heart, were the ones making sense at that point, and I quote:
17 They replied, “We have nothing here except five loaves of bread and two fish.” That seems like a pretty strong case to send everyone home, to me. But funny thing about Jesus: He doesn’t want their excuses, He wants what they bring to the table, literally. Again, I quote: 18 He said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. He took the five loaves of bread and the two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed them and broke the loaves apart and gave them to his disciples. Then the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 Everyone ate until they were full, and they filled twelve baskets with the leftovers.
Jesus TAKES the miserably inadequate bread and fish. He LOOKS to heaven. He BLESSES them BREAKS them and GIVES them. (Sounds suspiciously like Holy Communion, if you ask me!) And what do you know…? It is enough, and more than enough, to satisfy everyone. When you look at this incidence of blessing, on the surface it looks tamer than Jacob’s blessing…but there is some seriously disruptive power at work here. Jesus is involving Himself, and His Father, in human life in an intensely “hands-on” way, and no one who is a disciple can be an un-involved bystander. You may know that you don’t have enough to take care of the massive hungry crowd in front of you, but still: whatever you do have, hand it over. The Lord’s blessing upon what you bring to the table, along with what everyone else brings, changes everything. And seeing that transformation—from no way enough to everyone satisfied, with leftovers—you start to understand some of the weird things Jesus said in the sermon on the mount about blessed people: the poor (in spirit), those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the humble, the peacemakers, the persecuted… and you start to understand that the Kingdom of Heaven operates with some very different standards from what we’re used to. Jesus’ compassion, and blessing, absolutely transform the hurting and hungry crowd and the resigned disciples that day. If nothing else, I’d hope for ALL of us who try to follow Jesus to realize that what He did with and for everyone that day, He still does with and for us and the world today. He doesn’t want our excuses about what we DON’T have and CAN’T do. He wants us to give, and do.
This past Thursday, Georgia Rep John Lewis was buried in Atlanta. One of the last surviving giants of the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, he had begun his work of non-violent advocacy as a teenager, and he never ever gave up. I listened as many of the speakers at his funeral as the eu-logized—blessed!—him and was struck by how all of them described a man of integrity and patience and determination, who nevertheless took the time to reach out to children who came to the events he was at. Former Presidents of both parties were there and Barack Obama said: And yet, as exceptional as John was, here's the thing: John never believed that what he did was more than any citizen of this country can do. I mentioned in the statement the day John passed, the thing about John was just how gentle and humble he was. And despite this storied, remarkable career, he treated everyone with kindness and respect because it was innate to him – this idea that any of us can do what he did if we are willing to persevere.
He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage, that in all of us there is a longing to do what's right, that in all of us there is a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect.
Obama realized that some would criticize him for bringing “politics” into a eulogy—but as some of that “politics” was John Lewis’ life’s work for justice and equality, it seemed appropriate.
Now, I know this is a celebration of John's life. There are some who might say we shouldn't dwell on such things. But that's why I'm talking about it. John Lewis devoted his time on this Earth fighting the very attacks on democracy and what's best in America that we are seeing circulate right now.
He knew that every single one of us has a God-given power. And that the fate of this democracy depends on how we use it; that democracy isn't automatic, it has to be nurtured, it has to be tended to, we have to work at it, it's hard. ....We don't have to do all the things he had to do because he did them for us. But we have got to do something. As the Lord instructed Paul, "Do not be afraid, go on speaking; do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people."
For his part, Lewis submitted an opinion piece to the NYT shortly before his death to be published the day of his funeral, which ends with these words:
When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.
He is calling each one of us, to persist with love in living and standing and witnessing for justice for all…a bit like Jesus’ call so long ago to just bring the bread and the fish you’ve got, because until you do no one will be fed. May it be so; may we too bless and be blessed as we surrender our brokenness. Amen.
Reflection for July 26 "At a loss for words"
I have to admit I am stunned by how easily the first hearers of Jesus’ rapid-fire series of five parables about the kingdom of Heaven answer “Yes” when he asked 51 “Have you understood all this?” Granted, His audience does seem to be whittled down to the disciples, those who should understand better than the large crowds Jesus taught earlier. My hat’s off to them, at any rate: if you understand it all just like that, you’re firing on more cognitive cylinders than I am! Because Jesus packs a whole lot of substance into a few sentences.
The general subject here—what’s the Kingdom of Heaven like—is pretty big. Maybe because it is hard to grasp its enormity, Jesus takes care to describe it in simple terms that anyone should get. The Kingdom of Heaven is like: Mustard seed growing exponentially. Yeast causing dramatic expansion in dough. Hidden treasure, and discovered pearls, changing lives. Oh, and it’s also like a fishing net full of all sorts of fish, good and bad, the ones you want as well as the ones you’ll just toss out. Huh?! That has echoes of the weeds in the wheat, from last week…and remember the crazy sower the week before that? To cap it all off, Jesus tells his all-understanding listeners: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Ah. Hmm. Jesus sure wasn’t at any loss for words; I confess I am at a partial loss of understanding all of the points He’s making. Through it all, He seems to be saying that the Kingdom of Heaven arises from sometimes tiny and hidden beginnings, and all sorts of characters—the good, the bad and the ugly, if you will—have a chance of making it in.
The apostle Paul understood what it was to be at a loss for words. If you recall, in describing the contrast between the troubles of today and the glory that we have yet to experience, he depicts the Spirit coming to our rescue in prayer, interceding “with sighs too deep for words” [NRSV]—other translations have “wordless groans” [CEB]. Paul works hard to make sure that we appreciate God’s work in Christ spanning the past, the present, and the future. Paul’s language exhorting us to faith is more poetic and dramatic than Jesus’, but the overall message comes through: God has not, is not, and will not let you down, no matter what.
And as you well know, there ARE a lot of “what”s. As of this moment, there have been over 140,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the US;
Out of 4.1 million confirmed US cases, 15.7 million worldwide…and NYS is hoping to “quarantine” people who enter the state from 31 other states where the virus is now rampant. Congress is still deep “in the weeds” of another relief package. Politicians…and commentators…and “influencers” are still at each other’s throats. Unemployment is still stunning. [15.7% in NYS in June per BLS] The environment is still under assault. And the surge of protests touched off by the brutal police killing of George Floyd—following so closely upon Breonna Taylor’s and Ahmaud Arbery’s killings—has brought a number and a variety of people to the recognition that racial injustice is not just a thing of the past, and if we expect to have a more just and hopeful future it is up to US to address this NOW.
The trials of the past…and the hopes for the future: as Jesus, as Paul recognized, we too must understand: It’s on us, to work toward and live into the future, in the here and now. There’s the brilliance of Jesus’ “Kingdom of Heaven” parables for you—they are all about simple, everyday stuff! But simple is not the same as “easy”: neither Jesus nor Paul was naïve about the fact that a faithful life involves more hard work and suffering than it does gold fixtures and private jets.
There has been a lot of press in the past week looking at the significance of the lives and work of the Rev. C.T. Tindall and Rep. John Lewis—himself also an ordained Baptist minister—after their deaths on July 17th. Both men deeply understood their work advancing civil rights in this country to be a response to the gospel. As the Rev. William J. Barber II said in an interview this year “There is not some separation between Jesus and justice; to be Christian is to be concerned with what’s going on in the world.” [https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/10421/john-lewis-and-ct-vivian-belonged-to-a-long-tradition-of-religious-leaders-in-the-civil-rights-struggle] Concern with “what’s going on in the world” put Vivian and Lewis into discomfort, distress, and danger again and again; it would have been a lot easier for them to philosophize about streets paved with gold in the great by-and-by than to get beaten and arrested in the not-so-great here and now. But it was the here and now that needed fixing, and that’s where they were. Some of the actions for which we remember them shouldn’t be memorable at all: walking into a courthouse to register to vote. Sitting at a lunch counter. Riding a bus. Walking across a bridge. What made those actions powerful was the violent response they provoked from segregationists and white supremacists, which in turn was made visible through witnesses including the press until the nation could no longer look away. In a 2004 interview, Lewis explained: “In my estimation, the civil rights movement was a religious phenomenon. When we’d go out to sit in or go out to march, I felt, and I really believe, there was a force in front of us and a force behind us, ’cause sometimes you didn’t know what to do. You didn’t know what to say, you didn’t know how you were going to make it through the day or through the night. But somehow and some way, you believed – you had faith – that it all was going to be all right.” [ibid.]
Our “here and now” is different from theirs, but also not as different as it should be. It’s our turn to bear witness to the gospel with our words and our actions. Ordinary people who do not look away have been bringing the truth to light, again and again. Like Lewis, we may not know exactly how we will get from here to tomorrow; with faith in the Lord who will not let us go, we must live forward.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” [Psalm 44:11]
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Reflection for July 19 "Had any good dreams lately?"
(Genesis 28, Matthew 13)
Had any good dreams, lately?
It has been reported that during the past months of pandemic/quarantine and international anxiety many people have been having unusually numerous and vivid dreams. There are various reasons suggested: sleep schedules disrupted, alarms off as people work from home or are out of work; and a global fear of the virus. Apparently giant bugs and different kinds of masks are quite common features of these dreams, in addition to the generalized fears of big threats. The dreams I can remember myself aren’t especially iconic; they mostly involve people I know or am related to acting in ways that are a weird combo of their usual and customary selves, with some totally uncharacteristic stuff thrown in. All in all, nothing to stake my life on.
In today’s reading from Genesis, Jacob has a dream that is, as they say, a doozy. You may recall that Jacob is under significant stress: on the run from his justifiably furious twin Esau, he is in a betwixt & between place between home and his uncle Laban’s in a distant land. He stops for the night and with a stone for a pillow has this amazing dream. There’s a staircase or ladder or graduated levels leading from earth to the sky, with messengers of God (angels) going up and down, back and forth; and then the Lord’s thunderous promise of returning Jacob & his innumerable descendants to the land, whence every family on earth will be blessed. It’s heavy stuff! Jacob’s reaction is to recognize that this was truly an awesome vision:
Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel [which means, “house of God”] Gen. 28 NRSV
I have to believe that as he went forward, Jacob held fast to the memory of that dream, and the promises that God revealed to him that night. Living into that dream for Jacob meant living with the recognition that God was in fact with him, and that his life on this earth was deeply rooted in his eternal relationship with God. That is some powerful kind of dream!
I must confess that I get kind of queasy this time of year when the commencement speeches start to come out, many with trite exhortations along the lines of “if you can dream it you can do it.” Well, maybe yes and maybe no! There is a company* that spoofs the rampant motivational posters including some pointed ones about dreams: “GET TO WORK: you aren’t being paid to believe in the power of your dreams.” And “Dream Small. It’s your only hope for success, really.” “Dreams are like rainbows. Only idiots chase them.” Actually I don’t think that is true: but I DO think it matters, and matters a lot, what dream you chase. Jacob lived into a dream that was based on his understanding of GOD’s plan for him, which as it turns out is a powerful and transforming thing. But living into that dream took, well, a lifetime; with plenty of joys and sorrows and years and years of hard work.
And those are the dreams that ARE worth living for, aren’t they? The ones that shape and orient a life directed to something beyond yourself and your comfort in this moment…Probably the most vivid example of such a dream is of course the Dream that MLK articulated at the Aug. 1963 March on Washington. I won’t repeat it! But I think sometimes we are so taken by the exalted words and images of that speech that we overlook the fact that Dr. King’s was just one of a number of speeches that day. Among the speakers at that event was John Lewis, who died just this weekend [7/17/20]at the age of 80 after representing Georgia in Congress since 1987. In 1963 he was 23, leader of the SNCC. The son of sharecroppers, his speech that day was remarkably rooted in the “nitty gritty” of the civil rights struggle. He named names and places and specifics of proposed legislation. He really “got down into the weeds”, if you will, of what it would need to look like to live into the exalted dream that King articulated.
The dreams worth remembering, and the dreams worth chasing with every muscle and breath we can summon are those that remind us that God is with us, and that what we do and say here and now matters. This year, 57 years after that March on Wash, people are again in the streets and public places of not only our nation but of the world, protesting for some of the same things that were on the agenda in 1963: Justice. Equality. Living wages. That’s a pretty clear message, I think, that living into a dream can take a lifetime.
May we all live with grace into the dreams that GOD gives us.
*despair.com sells “demotivational” posters and such
Reflection for July 12 “Sow What?”
Romans 8: 1-11, Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
Pastor Rick Warren’s 2002 bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life begins with the sentence “It’s not about you.”…“It” being your purpose. In contrast to most of the “self-help/self-improvement/-enrichment” books and programs that populate American bookshelves, Warren’s starting point for finding true purpose in life is not your personal comfort,& pleasure but recognizing God’s purpose for you. Though it’s nearly 20 years old, the book continues to sell by the millions. So it’s reasonable to imagine that many millions of people have read that first sentence: It’s not about you. And that to me is a refreshing change of pace in a culture that more often urges self-indulgence than restraint, where the “Me generation” is most everyone!
The focus on ME is not just a contemporary American thing; the Apostle Paul wrestles with it in Romans among other places, and translators and theologians have been wrestling with Paul’s wrestling for close to 2000 years. In verses 2 and 3 of today’s Romans passage, Paul emphasizes how human lives transformed by the Spirit of Christ are liberated: For the law of the Spirit[a] of life in Christ Jesus has set you[b] free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin,[c] he condemned sin in the flesh...The CEB translation, I think in an effort to be more explicit about just what the problem with “the flesh” [Gk sarx] is, translates the Greek that NRSV renders “flesh” throughout this passage as: selfishness. I think that’s kind of a stretch—to equate flesh with selfishness—but I get the point that one of the things that Paul and all of us struggle with is the human tendency to default to Me First. An unfortunate side effect of equating mortal bodies with selfishness, though, has been a tendency for “spiritual” and “physical” to be considered antagonists, and for those who want to be “spiritually mature” to deny the very real conditions of human bodies. But: it is still important, as Jesus reminds us, to care for the bodies of God’s children even as we tend their souls too!
Right now, some of the strongest push-back against the Me First mentality is coming in responses to people who refuse to wear a mask over their noses and mouths in public places. Call it the anti-anti-maskers. One sign “As an American, You have a right Not to wear a mask… But…just like you, Businesses have a right to NOT let you in, Not serve you. You can’t have it both ways…You are free to make a choice, but that means accepting the consequences of your actions…Screaming at employees and businesses for protecting their workers and customers does not make you a patriot…it makes you an [Expletive] Don’t mistake inconvenience for Oppression” And: “Attention If you or a loved one has been refused entry to a private business for not wearing a mask and you would like to explore legal options to protect your constitutional rights, our law firm is happy to explain just how [Expletive] stupid you are.” [seen on Buzz Feed] Finally: [per Chicago Tribune, @ Chicago Bagel Authority]: “To accommodate anti-maskers,” it says, “we have provided a space 40 feet west where you can stare at your reflection in the window since apparently you’re the only person you care about.”
So…into this atmosphere of pushback against Me First, walks Jesus and His parable of the sower. At least, that is what most bibles over the centuries, in many languages, have flagged this as: Parable of the SOWER.
NOT of the seeds, the soil, the birds, the weeds, or the path. But a funny thing happens to a lot of us when we read this...or hear it…or start to try to preach it. You start to wonder: what kind of soil am I? What are the weeds in my life? How can I keep the birds away, the weeds under control, ensure adequate water? What spiritual disciplines that I can DO will improve the chances that the seed flung my way will thrive? And you see what’s happening there?!—we’ve made it about ME, and what I can control.
But back to the parable as Jesus told it: “A sower went out to sow.” Maybe we should put at least as much effort into appreciating what the SOWER is doing as we do into figuring out how to control what happens when the seed hits the ground.
And just what is the sower doing? The sower is sowing, but not in a sensible or cautious way. Seeds may be small, but they ain’t cheap. (see packets) Though there are thousands of seed companies—including the Hudson Valley Seed Company right in Accord—it’s estimated that 60%+ of the global market is controlled by FOUR corporations. It is seriously Big Business. If you’ve ever planted ANYTHING according to directions, you know that you don’t just grab these precious little seeds by the handful and toss them any which way. If you’re an uptight, control-freaky sort of person .... you put them one by one by one by one exactly where you want them. But not so, the sower. He tosses the seed out like crazy. One pastoral website with ideas for how to illustrate this parable to children—in the good old days when you could actually gather with children in church!—suggested pastors have a big bowl of confetti, representing the seeds, and with the children gathered, toss handsful of confetti on them. Okay. So maybe this pandemic distancing thing is not an entirely bad idea, especially from a parent’s or sexton’s point of view! Even without my coating you or your loved ones in confetti, I hope you get the picture: the sower has been, to any reasonable observer, irrationally exuberant in the distribution of precious seeds.
What if that is on purpose? What if Jesus really, truly, means that He has come to share the Word of the kingdom with everyone? What if He is saying He’ll share good news even with the people who don’t follow the directions, whose parents didn’t enroll them in the right preschool, who aren’t behaving the way we expect our neighbors to behave? What if Jesus is saying that He knows that plenty of grace will land on deaf ears, or rocky ground…but it’s not going to stop Him from doing it?
Seeing the Sower as extravagant on purpose is both terrifying and liberating to me: Terrifying, because it means I am pushed to understand that the abundance that I say I believe God bestows is in no way under my control, no matter how many boxes I check on the Responsible Pastor list; Liberating, because it means that it is not My Job to control how everyone will respond to the Word. And I think we all can use a combination of assurance and challenge to face a world that we are not the boss of.
It is clear that for individuals, churches, and the world at large, the past few months of living in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has put us all on our “growing edge.” I’m trying—sometimes it’s even working!—to view this all as a “learning opportunity.” So the Sower comes on the scene, tossing seeds everywhere. We know some won’t work, and others will. But we don’t know which are which, yet.
I hope that I, and all of us, can accept this uncertainty as a gift, and rejoice that it isn’t all about us, all the time. In the words of one of our Affirmations (887) taken from later in Romans 8:
“We are sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.” So be it!
Reflection for July 5 (Romans 7, Matthew 11)
Another week, and I have yet another observation on a well-known song.
This week, it’s partly spurred by the gospel reading, and Jesus’ annoyance that so many of those who purported to listen to Him actually couldn’t be bothered to repent and accept the gift—and the work—of a living relationship with God. He compares his listeners to children in the marketplace who are willing neither to dance to a joyful tune nor to mourn to a sad one: there’s just no pleasing them. And I realize that it’s a pretty human trait not to want to compromise unless you get everything on your wish list, including in personal relationships, faith communities, or politics. But: perfect is the enemy of good, and you can’t always get what you want (that’s kind of catchy—maybe it would make a good song?), and if you’re going to make any progress you have to at least start moving somewhere.
I said this week’s song peeve is partly spurred by the gospel reading. The other thing spurring my peeve is current events. I’m talking about the Star-Spangled Banner. Not, mind you, about any of the current anthem controversies. [sports teams “taking a knee” to protest racial injustice and police brutality] I’m basically weighing in, feeling a bit like Jesus’ peevish never-satisfied children, on the song itself. As in, what the NY Herald Tribune once wrote: “words that nobody can remember to a tune that nobody can sing.” [per Politico.com article by Ted Widmer, 9/2014] The words include three other verses penned by Francis Scott Key, and one additional one by Oliver Wendell Holmes during the Civil War. There’s some controversy about who exactly the “hireling[s] and slave”s of the third verse are—British mercenaries of uncertain provenance—though Key himself was a slaveowner and as it happens the brother in law of Chief Justice Roger Taney, who wrote for the Supreme Court majority in the Dred Scott decision some years later. The song actually did not become the National Anthem until Herbert Hoover’s administration, in 1931. Few if any people ever get around to singing the second, third, or fourth verses, which to be honest is okay by me. Basically they take the image of the still-waving,battle-surviving, flag and repeat that, tossing in praise of military might overwhelming the wretched foreign enemy, and vengeful gloating at the debasement of the vanquished. No being gracious in victory, here. And the tune! It’s a British (let that sink in) drinking song! …as well as crazy to sing well, at least if you’re sober. So, I’m not a fan.
But I also don’t want to give the impression, especially on this July 4th weekend, that I don’t want to celebrate the United States of America—its ideals, its vision, its promise, the freedoms it upholds, including my and your freedom to express our opinions and to worship as we believe. In my opinion, a much more appropriate patriotic song is America the Beautiful, to which both the words and tune were actually written by Americans. The verses describe both the physical impressiveness of the nation, and ideals beyond shock and awe and vengeance: brotherhood, selfless service, mercy, love of country, far-sightedness, and the final line: America, America, God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law. Wow. A moment of humble recognition that we are not perfect-yet- and it will take self-control on our part, and grace on God’s part, to get us there.
And the grace of God in Christ Jesus is what the apostle Paul rejoices in after lamenting how “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate….21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” [Rom. 7: 15, 21]
“24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” The final half of the last verse of Romans 7 was not included in the lectionary portion but it is telling:
So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin. There is no question which law—God or sin!—Paul prefers to be a slave to; but no possibility apart from Christ of his actually living up to God’s standard of righteousness. But notice also that Paul, a free Roman citizen, basically assumes he will be a slave to something…and his rejoicing comes at recognizing that he will only be free by yoking himself to Christ.
Which brings us back to Jesus’ most familiar words from this morning’s gospel reading: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Of all the Sundays to advise Americans to “take a yoke” upon themselves—basically, to submit to be a beast of burden!—July 4th weekend seems like the wildest one possible. As in, what part of “land of the free” does He not understand? But maybe “freedom” isn’t “freedom from connections”. Maybe “freedom” in the “home of the brave” means the liberty to choose what connections we make: with God, with neighbor.
Friday’s “Upper Room” devotional was particularly pertinent this week. The author, Perla Iveth Murillo Zapata (Colombia), wrote of being part of a group on an “environmental cleanup campaign, [approximately 70 people showed up] to clean a very contaminated mangrove swamp.” She continued:
When we took a short break, I asked Nicolás, a young man on our team, how this experience had been for him. “At first it was just gross,” he replied. “But as I got used to the smell and surroundings, I was able to pick up even the most disgusting things. In a way, this rubbish around us is like the sin in my heart.”
His comment reminded me of how easily we become accustomed to our own sin or wrongdoing. When sin or wrongdoing make us uncomfortable, we are disgusted. However, doing nothing about it seems to lessen its impact on our conscience. In the end, we become accustomed to living with it or spend the rest of our lives complaining about it — convinced that we cannot confront it.
I kind of wish there were “before & after” pix of that swamp. That number of volunteers, joining together, would effect a mighty change. Rather than submit to despair at the hugeness of the task, Perla Zapata and the dozens of others on that project “yoked themselves” to one another to do what none of them alone could accomplish. And so it is with us. Our freedom is a very precious thing, but it is not freedom from all connection to everyone. We DO have the freedom to choose, though. As citizens, & as Christians, we must choose who and what our connections are.
When Elaine and I went on NYAC team 61 to Biloxi some years ago, we were there on MLK weekend. I got a shirt at one of the several parades that has Dr. King’s declaration “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” He said that in 1963, in the “I have a dream” speech. 57 years. The most important jobs—what the prophet Micah summed up as “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God”—are not done, yet. You and I are free to choose what, if anything, we will do to make real not only the promises of democracy, but the vision of God’s kingdom, here and now. I pray that we choose to do work of grace, together with our mighty, humble, Lord.
Reflection for June 21 Genesis 21, Matthew 10
"Keeping an eye on the sparrows"
Do you have some music that always reminds you of a particular time or place? Some years back, when I was at Annual Conference, I was in a stall in one of the large women’s rooms in the athletic center where the sessions were held. There were just two or three of us in an extensive room, and one of the other women was singing joyfully in her stall. As it was a tiled room, and she was likely a Methodist choir singer, the melody carried:
“His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”
Of all the moments that I didn’t want the all-seeing eye of Almighty God upon me, that’s pretty close to the top. Why she couldn’t have sung “Immortal, Invisible” , I don’t know. As a reminder that God sees us and does not abandon us even at our weakest and most vulnerable moments, that hit the mark, though.
The readings today from Matthew and especially Genesis emphasize God’s powerful abiding presence in the lives of the faithful. In the verses you just read/heard from Matthew, Jesus explains that faithful discipleship will almost inevitably lead people into conflict with members of their own households, but with the cryptic promise that “those who lose their lives because of me will find them.” In Genesis there is the heart-rending account of Abraham’s sending the slave Hagar and their son—Abraham’s firstborn!—Ishmael into the desert. Abraham trusted in God’s assurance that his lineage would live on through Isaac, who was born to Abraham and Sarah, and that a great nation would also arise from Ishmael. So Abraham gets points here for trusting God’s promises…even in the midst of a wrenching family saga of jealousy, selfishness, and the horrific treatment of Hagar: made to bear a child to Abraham when Sarah couldn’t, only to be expelled to the wilderness when Sarah finally did have a child, Isaac, whom she didn’t want to have to share the inheritance with his half brother. If you look at artistic renderings of the scene over the centuries, most artists increase the pathos of the scene by making Ishmael look about 8 or 9 years old, tops. According to the biblical account, though, he would have been about 15. However you count, it’s an awful chapter in the life of the Patriarch and Matriarch Abraham and Sarah, and it’s just one of the things that makes me very uncomfortable when people start to preach about, or lobby for, “biblical family values.” To be blunt, biblical families embody “dysfunction” that makes most reality TV look bland in comparison.
The good news in the Genesis episode is that God does indeed hear “the boy’s cries”; in fact the name Ishmael means “God hears.” Though the bible doesn’t go into great detail, it does tell us that Hagar—herself Egyptian—finds an Egyptian wife for her son, and they and their descendents establish a new life near Egypt. Chapter 25 alludes to Ishmael’s returning and helping Isaac to bury Abraham. So: God DID hear, and their lives did continue in a different place. In spite of the family dysfunction. In spite of the wilderness. In spite of the forces that gave all social and economic power to some, and next to nothing to others.
That hard journey to a new life suggests a way forward from our current “dysfunction.” (pandemic, racial injustice….) Looking around right now there is confusion about just what our social and economic “new normal” will be, taking the coronavirus into consideration; and at the same time the worldwide demonstrations protesting pervasive racial injustice and affirming that Black Lives Matter insist—rightly!—that what we as a nation have accepted as “normal” has been profoundly unfair, unjust and often unlawful.
For followers of Jesus, we have work to do. That work must be more than “thoughts and prayers.” We need to change what we expect of ourselves and of one another. Melody Cooper, sister of the now-famous birdwatcher Christian Cooper who video’d his encounter in Central Park with a woman who called 911 to report that her life was “being threatened” by a Black man, in concert with her brother has responded helpfully and gracefully to the uproar, seeing an opportunity to work toward positive change. In a NYTimes opinion piece less than a week after the incident she wrote: (following are highlights)
Lots of people keep asking me what they can do....We need to fight together wisely, boldly and unflinchingly, while staying aware that our passion and actions can and will be used against us. But we must not stop. This is the time. It will not be easy. It will often be messy, but it must be done. ...Stand with us. Bear witness. Continue the discussion and support legal action. Refuse to accept racism in your midst, even in small ways — call out a cruel joke or rude behavior. ...You can transform your own world through how you teach your children, and how you speak to your neighbors and co-workers. It is up to you, not to a leader nor any single protest or petition...Start small, step forward and let your action join with others’ to become a rising tide that cannot be stopped.
Many people, all making the small but necessary steps, will add together.
You may not believe that you are significant enough to make a difference, but many voices joined together are powerful. I had a lively reminder when recording last week’s Midweek moment, outside. We had to record it twice, because the birds had a lot to say, too: they were lifting every voice and singing. God’s eye is on the sparrow, and God watches over us.
Reflection for June 7, 2020
"Easier said than done"
Today is Trinity Sunday, which pops up every year right after the intense excitement of Pentecost, on the cusp of a long stretch of what is sometimes termed “Ordinary Time.” [doesn’t “ordinary” sound terrific, right about now?] It is the only Sunday I can think of that is named for a theological doctrine—rather than events in the life of Christ—and as such I kind of feel as if I should preach a deeply doctrinal, theologically astute, comprehensive explanation of the Trinity. But a few nice deep breaths and sips of cool water, and I was able to back away from that abyss. When you get down to it, none of the common concrete objects that have been used by Christians earnestly trying to explain the Trinity—eggs, water in its various states, shamrocks—really do it justice, and can tip you towards any of an assortment of popular heresies, so it’s best to tread with care, here. Too stingy or stubborn to subscribe to a service that sends me an email each week tempting me with the prospect of “professionally written” or “freshly written” sermons, I googled around this week in an effort to procrastinate but look busy. I searched for: How do you explain the Trinity? Can you guess how many results popped up in half a second? “About 44,800,000”! Sorry, but I didn’t dive in to that pool. It’s probably best for all of us if I simply remind you that our “Triune” God is One God, while also being Three Consubstantial Coeternal “persons”: God the Creator, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit, or in traditional terms, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The frustration of trying to come up with a simple, elegant, timely and timeless explanation leads to the conclusion that it is, deeply, a Mystery. Easier done by God, than explained by us.
Which leads to the first story of Creation at the very beginning of Genesis, which starts off the whole Bible. Here the creation of the world and everything in it is just as easily done as said by God; in fact, it is presented as having been done AS said by God. The order, the distinctions, the care and the joy build, day after day in this poetic description. I found it rewarding this week to read different versions of Genesis 1, in addition to the CEB which I just read from, itself a pretty recent translation. I encourage you this week maybe to pick up your own Bible, and don’t stop there: open it up and read for yourself what is in Genesis. But take your time. Don’t rush, and savor the pauses day by day as God reviews the progress so far with satisfaction. And, at the end of the six days of creation: a rest. A Sabbath. The Bishop is urging pastors to take the coming Thursday to Sunday dates when we were already expected to be away from our pulpits and day-to-day activities. “ as true sabbath. A time for respite, rest, reflection and renewal….To help make this a truly restful time, on Sunday, June 14, 2020 the Conference will offer a full online worship service for anyone in the Conference and beyond. [mostly quoted directly from NYAC emails] Details should be on conference website very soon, but the conference staff has decided not to put out the worship they had planned ahead in order to respond to the events of the past couple of weeks.
And what a couple of weeks it has been. The demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustices that were sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis have spread not only to other cities from coast to coast but across the globe: London. Lisbon. Amsterdam. Australia. Senegal. South Korea. Kingston. The demonstrations, most allied with the Black Lives Matter movement, have expanded exponentially beyond previous gatherings in both size and number—perhaps aided by the fact that tens of millions of people are unemployed or out of school due to the COVID-19 pandemic—which also leads to concern that the crowds are TOO crowded in a time of contagion. There have been some counter-protests and looting and violence, too; and at this point there is a lot of uncertainty about who’s involved in those things. At the same time, though, there have been scenes of great compassion and reaching out to fellow citizens of good will—from communities to the demonstrators, from police to demonstrators, and random acts of kindness sprouting from outrage and pain. There is hope that maybe FINALLY enough people have seen enough of the systemic injustices we have so persistently avoided dealing with in this nation that we might as a nation deal with them. How? Well, that is probably easier said than done.
But this is actually what the Peace With Justice offering has attempted to do. Some of the projects that it has supported in the past are summer camps to bring together young people from different (and contentious) ethnicities or backgrounds, to find common ground and common interests as human beings…supporting community gardens, or laundry services for the homeless, or afterschool programs for at-risk children; things in real communities around the world that will help sow seeds of justice that will bear fruit in peace, and to do so in the name of Jesus.
Which brings me back to the gospel reading from the end of Matthew, maybe the ultimate “easier said than done” words: “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.” Well, right-o, Lord! We’re on it! My honest response is more along the lines of an “interrobang”, that punctuation mark that mashes together a question mark and exclamation point. You want us to do WHAT?! As John Capen observed in our Virtual Lectionary this week, “tell them to make disciples of all the world and while you’re at it tell them racism is bad.” It is both a big, broad command and a particular one to each of us: Go everywhere and anywhere; and wherever you are, with whomever, invite EVERYONE along…and baptize in the name of the triune God as you go.
We’ve all experienced a lot of “saying” over the years: from school, from church, from politics. And we’ve seen the disconnect between what is said and what is done, the chasm between words and deeds. So much in this world is easier said than done. But by the grace of our Lord, may we be able to live up to the words that we say, in the name of the triune God.
Reflection for Pentecost May 31, 2020 “Surprised and bewildered”
I really, really enjoy Pentecost. Even when it’s a hot day—Pentecost is cool. And, considering what a pivotal event in the life of the church it marks—sometimes it’s actually called “the birthday of the church”!—it’s really kind of too bad we don’t make more of it. The rush of a mighty wind…the tongues of fire on each head…the crowd gathered from all over the known world, understanding one another without language getting in the way…It doesn’t get any better than that, does it? But here we are…or here we aren’t…on Pentecost of all days when we SHOULD be gathered together in one place, and we are at least a month and likely more from being able to re-open the doors of the church to public worship. We’re doing this in accordance with the Conferences guidelines, which in turn follow public health and state guidelines. One of the requirements for re-opening (see the conference website, www.nyac.com, for complete details) is that there will be "no handouts." That will obviously put an end to the "reverse offering" I like to pass out to everyone present. Before I expected that there would be no "in person" church on Pentecost...I thought that a fine idea for today's "reverse offering" would be to give everyone a re-lighting candle--you know, the trick ones that sometimes are snuck onto some poor unsuspecting person's birthday cake? So--here it is Pentecost, and I have a pretty decent supply of the little things. If you would like me to leave you a candle somewhere without getting within six feet of you, or even mail one to you, let me know. I would be de-light-ed. It seems like a small way to commemorate that event that left the first witnesses “surprised and bewildered.”
So much is just not right with this Pentecost. Here we are in NY State, just about 90 miles from NYC in which recent estimates of the number of languages spoken range from “over 600” to “800.” And we’re not gathering. I’m finding myself “surprised and bewildered” by the juxtaposition of Pentecost—that gathering from all the corners of creation!—and Pandemic, which has paused so much of life as we know it. But that is the least of my worries. What really stings right now is the chasm between the concord and oneness of spirit in Acts 2, and the reality on the ground in our state and in our nation. Earlier this week a 46-year old man named George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. He was arrested after allegedly paying with a counterfeit $20 bill. One police officer pinned him to the street with a knee to the neck, for many minutes, while several other officers witnessed this. Mr. Floyd is heard on video taken by bystanders for the first few minutes calling out “I can’t breathe”. And he couldn’t. It almost goes without saying—but I’ll say it anyway: Mr. Floyd was black, and the police officer was white.
Governor Cuomo spoke of this “episode” in yesterday’s briefing on the State’s coronavirus situation. I quote at length:
"...we have to address the inequality in healthcare. If you look across this nation, proportionately many more people of color died from the COVID virus than white people. That is a fact. There is a slight disparity in New York State, nothing like what it is in other states and we are proud of that. But there is a disparity and there is an inequality, especially across the country. That has to be addressed. ...And there is a larger context for this conversation today, right?... . One looks like a public health system issue, COVID, but it is getting at the inequality in healthcare also on a deeper level. And then the George Floyd situation, which gets at the inequality and discrimination and the criminal justice system. They are connected....We have an injustice in the criminal justice system that is abhorrent. That is the truth. It doesn't make me feel good to say that. I'm a former prosecutor.... Rodney King was 30 years ago. We suffered in this city through Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell and Eric Garner. How many times have we seen the same situation? Yes, the names change, but the color doesn't...
And it is not just 30 years. It is this nation's history of discrimination and racism dating back hundreds of years. That is the honest truth and that's what behind this anger and frustration and I share the outrage at this fundamental injustice."
The injustice and racism and casual brutality that led to George Floyd’s death are so deeply entwined with our culture and history and society that you and I could both probably fill in the blanks of what color the dead man was, and what color the police officer. As Gov. Cuomo put it: “How many times have we seen the same situation? Yes, the names change, but the color doesn’t.” Some of the other names, recently: Breonna Taylor, a 26 year old EMT who was asleep in her apartment in Louisville in mid-March when plainclothes police broke down their door, supposedly looking for a suspect who was miles away, unrelated to Ms. Taylor, and already apprehended anyway. Believing they were being attacked (which they were) Ms. Taylor’s boyfriend fired his gun in self defense; the police fired back, killing Breonna Taylor with at least 8 bullets. The boyfriend—who killed no one, but fired his gun—was arrested for attempted murder. No “Stand Your Ground” for him. You fill in the race blanks of those involved. Ahmaud Arbery, out for a jog in Brunswick Georgia in February, shot dead by a father and son while a witness videoed it. Botham Jean, killed by an off-duty Dallas police officer who went into his apartment instead of her own, and was startled to find him…there, in his apartment. And it goes on. And on. And on. And perhaps the most shocking thing is that we are not “surprised and bewildered” by these repeated killings. This, rather than the concord of Acts 2, is the order of the day in the USA. Another day, another murder of a person of color.
Our Bishop, Thomas Bickerton, has sent us e-letters urging all who have “justice and love in their heart” (5/28) to respond to these pervasive wrongs:
In one of his letters (5/23 Pandemic/Arbery), he notes:
"Letters like this have been written for years with little impact. Calls for prayer, while the natural thing for people of faith to do, seem shallow. Stories highlighting the depth of the issue get lost in other, more pressing headlines. The problem is deeper than a letter, a prayer, a news story, or a Facebook post. It’s deeper because it dwells within us.
To confront complacency about racism in all forms and seek the cleansing from God that will enable us to see one another as sacred on the journey is a daily discipline. To find the courage to name racism when we see it and to carry the banner of dismantling racism should be the real content of our prayers. To advocate, in the midst of this constant injustice, for those who are victimized by a history of racism that extends backward through time and has been built up for centuries, should be the pursuit of anyone who calls upon the name of Jesus and seeks to live in the image of God....
Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “pandemic” in this way: “an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population.”
There are more pandemics than just COVID-19. I pray that we can continue to address the pandemic of racism with the same resolve that we address the present one."
Just in the last couple of days you may have seen a social media post by basketball great Lebron James. He juxtaposes two photos. The left side says “This:…” It has a picture of the Minneapolis policeman with his knee down on the pavement on the neck of George Floyd. The righthand picture says “…Is why:”— and it is a picture of the football player Colin Kaepernick kneeling to protest racial injustice and police brutality. That post by Lebron James has rendered some in the media breathless with indignation. How dare he. How dare he NOT? ]
We must as the Bishop says “address the pandemic of racism w/same resolve “ as COVID-19. Right off the bat, that requires us to admit that it is a problem for ALL of us—not just for bad people in other places. We also have to be willing to be open in our resolve to address racism and injustice that these evils are bigger than us and that we need help, and one another, in our quest to become more just and loving. Racism is quite simply in the air we breathe, which makes the “Just Breathe” bracelets the Bishop sent the clergy last year kind of poignant.
Just as you cannot see the Spirit, but can see those moved by the spirit; and cannot see the virus, but can see those sickened and killed by it, you cannot see racism but absolutely can see its effects. Just this week, less than a day after we sat outside our house on a fine spring evening enjoying the Pentecost of birdsong around us and “tweeting” , literally, with the birds through the Audubon app on my phone, a birdwatcher and member of the NYC Audubon’s board of directors named Christian Cooper went into Central Park with HIS phone. He asked a woman who shares his last name to please leash her dog as the park requires. She called the police on him, after telling him that she was going to tell them that an African American man was threatening her life. He had the presence of mind to record this all on his phone. Of all of the “incidents” I have recounted today, Christian Cooper is the only black person to survive the encounter with systemic racism. And he has done so with remarkable grace: "It's not really about her and her poor judgment in a snap second," Cooper said Thursday on ABC's "The View." "It's about the underlying current of racism and racist perception that has been going on for centuries and that permeates the city and this country that she tapped into, and so that's what we really have to address." (nbcnews.com)
That’s what we really have to address, before the vision of Pentecost can become a way of life for Jesus’ 21st century disciples. Like a trick candle on a birthday cake, you and I will have to snuff out racism and injustice again and again and again. I’ll close with a verse of one of my favorite hymns, God of Grace and God of Glory (UMH #577):
Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore;
Let the search for thy salvation be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, serving thee whom we adore.
7th Sunday of Easter/Ascension May 24, 2020,
Acts 1:1-14, John 17:1-11
These verses from the 17th chapter of John’s gospel really capture the “betwixt and between” position Jesus is in. He’s almost finished with what scholars call His “Farewell Discourse” at the end of what we now call the Last Supper; Chapter 18 sees Jesus and the disciples go out into the garden, and as you may recall things go downhill—actually, make that UPHILL—from there pretty dramatically. I have to sympathize with the disciples who were still trying to understand what Jesus had told them and was telling them about who He was and what was going to happen to all of them. “I’m no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as I’m coming to you.” (verse 11): what is that really supposed to mean?! It is not immediately apparent.
Fast forward about forty-some days, and that will bring you to the context for the reading you heard first, from the very beginning of Acts. Turns out the “Last Supper” wasn’t actually, and that the resurrected Jesus had been back among his followers, eating together with them and teaching further about God’s kingdom (vss 3-4) Kind of like children on a long trip, asking “are we there yet?” or most of us during the pandemic pause wondering When Will Things Open Up and When Can We Go Back To Church, the first followers ask Jesus: “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”7 Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…And then: he is taken up into heaven, leaving them at least as confused as before. The church calls Jesus’ ascension into heaven 40 days after the resurrection “Ascension”, and the time the Holy Spirit descended upon the gathered fellowship ten days later “Pentecost”, so this puts us—and those first followers!—in a weird kind of limbo, betwixt and between, wondering what will be next. It is not immediately apparent.
I’ve run into that term “limbo” several times this month in reference to where we’re all at with the coronavirus shutdown. Headlines of articles about the UMC in particular note that the postponement of General Conference puts the entire denomination into another year of “limbo” with issues of human sexuality and church affiliations unresolved. But, if you think about it, we are ALL in limbo right now, taking the definitions [dictionary.com] of limbo as: an imaginary place for lost, forgotten, or unwanted persons or things…an unknown intermediate place or condition between two extremes in limbo…a prison or confinement—not the Roman Catholic theological concept. We are stuck in a state of betwixt and between, not sure what contortions will get us out of here—which made me wonder if the West African/Caribbean dance the limbo is somehow connected (“how long can we go??”)…but it isn’t. Nor, apparently, is it related to the adjective limber [per Websters 1977] “having a supple and resilient quality (as of mind or body): agile, nimble” or the related verb “to become or cause to become limber”. And that adjective and verb…limber…seem like we could use that in our time of limbo: resilient! Agile! And becoming more so every day! With all the “zoom” exercise classes out there, why shouldn’t we add Limbering to our limbo?
And, friends, we’ve already added it, if you think about it—stretching to use the 21st century technology that has been all around us but it was just easier for the pre-pandemic church not to use when everything was going on “as usual.” As we look forward to getting “back to church”—I want you to recognize that the church is more than the building, it is the living presence of Christ in our lives wherever we are. Being out of our building has been hard, but it has forced us to practice our faith in ways that probably limbered us up more than if we didn’t have to change anything. That will be good practice for us in the weeks and months to come, as we prepare to go back to church, as in the building. And prepare we must. Despite the assertion from the White House day before yesterday that churches are “essential” and should open “right now”, RVUMC is following the guidance of our Bishop, our Annual Conference, the CDC and the State of New York and is not pushing to reopen for "in person" worship until we can do so in accordance with guidelines that will try to ensure the greatest safety for everyone in our congregation and community.
The guidelines which the Conference has put forth are exhaustive, and in all honesty exhausting; you can find them on the conference website, www.nyac.com. Beyond sanitizing everything and wearing masks and keeping distant, there are plenty of ways we’ll need to be limber: [from the NYAC guidelines]:
Use “no-touch” alternatives with: Passing the Peace; Collection of the offerings; No Use of Ushers or Greeters and; In addition, all Bibles and hymnbooks should be removed from the sanctuary. Congregants will be allowed to bring their own Bibles. Bulletins should not be passed out, but made available upon entry. Bulletins should not be re-used. And Coffee/Fellowship hours should be suspended until further notice.
[Communion is a whole other subject!!!]
...Choirs and the use of praise bands should be suspended until further notice. The use of soloists is allowed, but only with proper social distancing.
... Congregational singing should not be conducted until further notice….
Children’s moments may still be a part of worship. However, children should remain with their families while the children’s message is being delivered. No handouts will be permitted.
As you see, we have more to do than just unlock the door on Sunday mornings and pick up where we left off in March. There are FIVE PAGES of checklist items pertaining to WORSHIP. You and I need to re-think every aspect of gathering, from the moment people set foot in the parking lot to the time we’re off the property. It WILL NOT BE THE SAME AS BEFORE.
In all of this limbo, and in all of our limbering, it will be important to remember that we are not alone. One of the lectionary readings that I did NOT read earlier is from 1st Peter, written to the faithful in early churches that were suffering from unspecified religious persecution/oppression/discrimination. As I read verses 7 to 9 in the 5th and last chapter, I find myself picturing the Coronavirus as the “roaring lion”: 7 Throw all your anxiety onto God, because he cares about you. 8 Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith. Do so in the knowledge that your fellow believers are enduring the same suffering throughout the world.
Thanks be to God, we are not alone here as we limber. Limber on!
“Hidden in Plain Sight” reflection for 6th Easter, May 17
David Levy, whom some of you know, has been taking photographs this winter and spring through a small kaleidoscope. This may sound kind of goofy, but the images are stunning: geometric, deep, gem-like, earthy and cosmic all at the same time. Just what is he photographing? Very ordinary stuff: leaves. Water. Light. Stuff you and I probably don’t think twice about most of the time; but, viewed with intention through a particular lens, amazing. To think that ALL THAT is RIGHT AROUND YOU, even now—inspiring. Which brings us ‘round to the gospel reading, as Jesus at the “last supper” hints to His followers about the imminent granting of “another advocate”, which we understand to be the Holy Spirit, after His imminent bodily departure from them.
And—how do you describe the Holy Spirit? (much less, “catch the spirit”, a denominational slogan of the 80s!) Elusive it is, while also pervasive…both everywhere and hard to pin down.
That may explain the great variety of translations for the Greek in verse 16: CEV Holy Spirit
CEB Companion (footnote Advocate)
NRSV Advocate (footnote Helper)
RSV Counselor ………. Quite a variety…………and if you think about it, maybe that reflects the variety of people who rely upon it!—After all,
a wide variation in those who come to know Jesus is kind of “baked into” Christian faith from the beginning. Paul’s address to the multicultural, multilingual, multireligious crowd in Athens embodies this. Paul himself came to Christ by a somewhat different road (you may recall that in last week’s lectionary episode from Acts 7, he was still a Pharisee going by Saul, and acting as a human coatrack while Stephen was stoned to death). And despite Paul’s being ruthlessly blunt at times, here he is supremely tactful confronting Athenian spiritual bet-hedging. My mother always said you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and Paul serves up the honey. He sees a positive yearning for spiritual connection in the profusion of shrines and temples dotting the city, and it is that positive yearning rather than the lack of commitment that Paul speaks to. Kind of like my daughter’s delicate assessment when I asked her opinion of a particular fashion choice “Well, it’s not the worst look you’ve ever tried to pull off…” Paul opens the door by suggesting that he knows they’re capable of better, rather than shutting it with condemnation.
What Paul is opening the door to is a relationship with a REAL, living, God; an incarnational God who understands and loves real people enough to live a real life. The God in whom we live and move and have our being is a known, real, incarnational God and that is why Jesus’ first followers—and us too, if we’re honest—get worried at the prospect that He won’t be around for them much longer. Jesus’ assurance to his followers here in John 14 touches me more personally right now than sometimes in the past. I feel that I need the reminder that even though “church” isn’t physically “normal” now, what with our stay-at-home orders keeping us from gathering together, we still do have the real presence of our Lord. All of those different translations, from the very legalistic “advocate’ to the soothing ‘comforter”, name important aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives and in our world, and address our current questions:
How are we to know Christ?
How are we to know each other?
How are we to seek God in the real world we’re in right now?
And how are we to prepare our selves and our church for “re-opening” in the months ahead, knowing it’s not going to be “back to the way it was” , but very different?
It is clear that one “different” way of connecting with our community will need to continue to be through online and virtual “platforms” such as Facebook, website, zoom. Our Bishop makes clear when appointing pastors that he is appointing us to the community—and the current Pandemic Pause has made us an offer we can’t refuse, to consider how on earth RVUMC is supposed to embody Christ’s love to our community…which is bigger than we sometimes imagined. Even though we haven’t been to church since mid-March, more people “come” to worship on Facebook than walk in to the sanctuary on a Sunday morning, and that’s even without music, which for many if not most people is the high point!--and more people have “come” to donut time by zoom than ever make it into Dunkin on a Thursday.
Looking at who we are, what we’ve got, and how we might extend ourselves in love to the real community around us: we have a visible and accessible building on a sunny patch of creation, some good gardeners and good cooks and educators. Plenty of churches host community gardens, and with good reason: you grow more than plants in a garden (maybe why Jesus uses so many plant images in His teaching?) but the plants do serve a purpose. People can’t eat Virtual Beans. Offering hospitality and nourishment for body and soul for students and families of all ages and abilities should be on our agenda, whether it be through meals, study breaks, parenting classes, or tutoring. Opening our building to those in recovery groups over the years has helped lots of people in the wider community to live soberly one day at a time; one of the groups that usually meets at RVUMC has been “zooming” during the Pause, but nevertheless sent in a donation to the church as if they had been using the space. Whatever we do, we must remain faithful and honest about who we are and whose we are, loving ALL of our neighbors especially in this destructively partisan time.
When will we get to see the Holy Spirit at work? Whoever has my commandments and keeps them loves me. Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (John 17:21)
“Stonework”, reflection for 5th Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2020
Also Mother’s Day. Acts 7:55-60, Ps. 31:1-4, 15-6, John 14:1-14, 1 Pt 2:2-10
There is a bumper sticker you may have seen: Jesus is coming: LOOK BUSY! I sometimes wonder, if Jesus was right around the next corner, what would I want to be found doing right now?
Jesus makes some amazing promises to his disciples here in John 14, at what we now call “the last supper.” “When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it”?!”whoever believes in me will do the works that I do”?!”I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”? And right at the start: “My Father’s house has room to spare…I’m going to prepare a place for you.” “Room to spare” is how the CEB translates the Greek [“monai pollai”] . The “many mansions” that have captured imaginations in the English-speaking world for centuries are from the KJV translation of the Latin mansiones, which wasn’t intended to describe anything we’d consider a “mansion”, Mc-or-otherwise, today. And I actually like the “room to spare” rendering, as it reminds us of the inclusive, invitational welcome that Jesus prepares for anyone and everyone who will trust in Him.
And that’s the other part of that particular promise, isn’t it?—that Jesus prepares a place for you. As the events that immediately follow the “last supper” happen, it’s apparent that Jesus’ preparation involves more than setting the table and making up the guest bedroom. Jesus’ preparing for us involves giving His life. The Father’s house may have room to spare…but the key to the house is given only to those who prepare. And that preparation is life-long.
That’s a hard word to hear in our instant gratification society. Life-long?! As in every single day, working at being faithful? Well, yup. I find it interesting that today’s four lectionary readings have an emphasis upon being sheltered by and IN God, a fortress, a rock…including the vss from 1 Peter 2 which I didn’t read: “4 Now you are coming to him as to a living stone. Even though this stone was rejected by humans, from God’s perspective it is chosen, valuable. 5 You yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple. ..... 7 So God honors you who believe. For those who refuse to believe, though, the stone the builders tossed aside has become the capstone. 8 This is a stone that makes people stumble and a rock that makes them fall. Because they refuse to believe in the word, they stumble….” Stones, you see, are excellent for building structures that will really last; but you have to know what you’re doing and it isn’t quick and easy.
When I was about 5 to 8, one of the favorite things for my friend Bonnie and me to do when we were at my house was to build a stone wall. The wall never got very far or lasted very long, probably because it was made from smooth landscaping rocks and a sand-and-water mortar. I searched online this week for How to Make a Stone Wall and now know beyond all doubt that building a REAL stone wall is nothing you send two seven-year-olds out to do with sand and water. According to the “This Old House” site, it is a difficult project, not cheap, and you should plan on “7 days with two people”…AFTER you’ve dug your foundation below the frost line and had the base material delivered. As Thomas Edison observed about “genius”: it’s 1% Inspiration and 99% Perspiration.
Building anything worthwhile or lasting, I’m afraid, takes real time and work, much of it unseen preparation. If you read or watch anything about the National Cathedral in DC you may be struck by how some of the stoneworkers there are the second or third generation in their family to work on the project—which was formally “finished” in 1990 but needs maintenance and repair after serious earthquake damage in 2011. Stones can create, but can also harm: look at the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian faith—a horror done by a group of people, names lost to posterity, hurling stones while others including Saul (soon Paul) watched and did nothing to stop it.
So where does this leave us, in May of 2020, as we consider how to “build ourselves” into the body of Christ, the Church? We are somewhere in the middle of an unsettled and unsettling time of “exile” during the Coronavirus pandemic and what we know so far is that it will be at least through the end of this month that we are not going to be able to worship “in person.” See our Bishop’s “state of the church” address on the NYAC’s FB page for his most recent observations on the matter. Already, there is a lot of thought going into what pastors and congregations need to prepare to do and be when we DO return to “in person” worship; and when you start to get down to it, there are dozens and dozens of things that we will have to do differently, or not at all; and dozens of things that we will have to do that were never relevant before. If you’re watching this on Facebook, or have been part of any of our Zoom meetings in recent weeks, you’re tuned into a couple of the “new” aspects of ministry that are now part of our reality. And—believe me, there is “plenty of room” for us to prepare to build up the church, stone by stone.
I mentioned a couple weeks ago in a group email how it would be nice “ If YOU would be willing to share any of your insights/ruminations/prayers from your pandemic life, I'd be grateful and would like to post such things on the church's FB and website--something along the lines of an in-house Upper Room.” The silence has been deafening! Only a couple people have said they’ll do anything. Maybe that’s because you’ve all been using your time at home to build serious stone walls. But more likely it’s because I didn’t invite you loud enough and clear enough. So consider yourself asked: being the body of Christ, virtually as well as in person, takes preparation and work!
I’ll close today with the words of one of the modern worship songs from TFWS (2164)—John Thompson & Randy Scruggs—Sanctuary: “Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true. With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.” Let’s prepare to build, a living sanctuary.
Meditation May 3, 2020 4 Easter,
Ps. 23; Acts 2:42-47; John 10:1-10 “Herd Mentality”
Another week of Pandemic Home-staying, and here we are: in MAY. In my lectionary group—now meeting by way of “zoom” audio/videoconfernce—on Monday we noted how heavily this week’s scriptures stress being gathered together: for worship, for nourishment, for security. You don’t have to be sheep, or goats, or some other kind of animal to have a “herd mentality”; people obviously want to be together, too. That’s probably a big part of why you’re seeing scattered protests now against the various “stay-at-home” orders. I think it’s more than the economic strain that’s getting to people: it’s the not-being-able-to-get-together as usual strain. Add to that—the trouble of figuring out how to lead, how to follow, and how to know whom to follow through these unsettling days.
In the past, I usually read passages from the Book of Acts and thought “wow, how amazingly those first Christians got along: sharing everything! Going to temple every day! Taking care of everyone!...wonder if that would ever be possible now….” I still think those things, but on top of that I feel a sharp twinge of sadness that we can’t get together like that now, even if we thought we’d give it a try! So the 23rd Psalm and the reading from John remind me that a big part of the work of faith is to learn how to follow the right leader, in the right path, when things are hard.
WHEN things are hard: not “if.” Remember that the 23rd psalm (in CEB translation) puts it: “Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me.” When, not if. And Jesus (in the John reading) is pretty blunt about the fact that the sheep need guarding because of the many dangers that are not only “out there” but can even enter the safe enclosure by Unauthorized Access.
In this part of John 10, Jesus does not compare himself to the Good Shepherd; that starts in verse 11. First, Jesus states that He is the GATE (vss. 7 & 9) The Gate is important for both the shepherd—who legitimately enters and exits through it—and for the sheep: that they might come in through it for safety, and go out through it for nourishment. As D. Mark Davis (“Left Behind and Loving it blog”) puts it: Surprise! It turns out that I “did not understand what the things were which he was speaking to them” either! I would have assumed that Jesus was the shepherd that enters the gate legitimately, or perhaps even the porter who grants access through the gate. As it turns out, he is the gate itself. Didn’t see that coming. And, frankly, I’m not sure that I can make sense of it still. The image of Jesus as gate for the sheep makes it pretty clear that He is the defining feature of the herd, providing the very definition of who they are, by where they are. And it probably makes the shift later in the chapter to Jesus as Shepherd so much simpler to grasp!
And that, after all, is where we find ourselves, in May of 2020: you may know where you are, but who you are and whose you are get seriously challenged by the conflicting imperatives of job/economy/family/health/and the conflicting directions you get from local, state and federal leaders. If every there was a time it was important to be able to discern good leadership from dangerous, it is now. Still—even for those who are charged with leading in these times, there are so many moving parts to every day that all of us have to pause and remember that no matter how many aspects of everyday life have changed so much in the past two months, God’s love in Christ remains dependable: in the KJV words “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
We do have a herd, or flock, mentality, and these days of pandemic shutdown force us to re-define what our herd IS, and how we operate. How do you worship? What does “church” mean? How do you share joys and sorrows and love when you can’t be in the same place? I know that many days lately I have felt like screaming “I can’t take this any more” after too many hours staring at a computer screen, with or without the faces and voices of fellow pastors or church members staring back at me. I am still not good at Facebookery, and I am pretty sure Jesus’ reference to a bad place with “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is about the Internet. But then I try to reframe my frustration as wonder: isn’t it amazing that we can still “get together” even when we’re apart? Isn’t it a gift to be able to call, write, or video-chat, and keep connections with our flock alive those ways? All of us old dogs, and sheep, are learning some new tricks, and that is kind of wondrous.
I’d like to leave you with a couple images to ruminate upon in the coming week. In Wales—like the US, in shutdown mode now—flocks of sheep and even wild Kashmiri goats are taking advantage of parks and tourist streets devoid of pesky humans. In Llandudno, in North Wales, the goats are munching their way through municipal plantings and home gardens; and in south Wales, sheep have discovered the joys of a playground merry go round. I first chalked these reports up to April Fools Day—but they are true. I saw it on the Internet!
And, friends: if sheep can figure out playground equipment, WE can figure out Christian Faithfulness in the Pandemic Diaspora. Things like reaching out by phone, mail, and email to check on people. Things like food delivery—RVFP is serving more families than ever, and delivering; and Project Resilience in the county is partnering with restaurants to get meals out. Things like supporting local farmers AND the hungry. Especially now: celebrate that your cup runs over…even if it means wiping up a few spills. Alleluia anyway!
“Broken hearts and broken bread” meditation for 3rd Sunday of Easter 2020 (4.26)
One of the calming activities easily done at home during weeks of pandemic confinement is puzzles. Sales of jigsaw puzzles in particular have gone through the roof over the last month, but demand for other puzzles and crafts has also risen. I haven’t felt the need to whip out a puzzle but I have continued my pre-existing puzzle habit of the Sunday “Spelling Bee” from the NY Times magazine. It’s a simple word puzzle—and mind you, “simple” is not always “easy.” There’s a honeycomb-like circle with seven spaces: six around the outside, one in the middle, and each space has a different letter of the alphabet in it. Your challenge is to make as many common uncapitalized words of five letters or more using only those seven letters. You can re-use any of the letters as many times as you need and every word must contain the central letter. You know that there will be at least one word using all seven different letters; you get extra points for those. There are weeks when I see a seven-letter-using word almost immediately, and there are weeks when I ruminate for hours if not days without getting it. If it is the second kind of week and you happen to see the seven letter word right off the bat, you had better not tell me right away. It’s hard not to feel incredibly obtuse those weeks: you know that at least one word is staring you in the face…but you’re just not seeing it.
Something like that is going on that first Easter evening on the road to Emmaus—Jesus is walking and talking with Cleopas and the other disciple, as they go over and over in their minds what amazing sad wonderful and dreadful things have just happened with Jesus in Jerusalem. He’s right there with them, but they do not perceive it. Kind of like us at the moment, they are putting one foot in front of the other and trying to make sense of things. It is late in the day on that first Resurrection Day, but they are not in anything resembling a Hallelujah mood: it’s all so sad, so odd, so unprecedented. They have not yet seen the risen Jesus; they have just heard the report of “some women from our group.” The word describing them in verse 17  is one of those Greek words that doesn’t translate exactly. Different English renderings include “downcast” (CEB) “feeling sad” (NRSV), and “sad and gloomy” (CEV). Personally, I’d vote for “heartbroken,”. Christ is risen, He is risen indeed; but they haven’t seen it, and they’re sure not feeling it. Yet. After Jesus joins them on their journey—still not recognized!—and they tell him their sorrow and wonder at “the things that have taken place”, He wonders to them at how “foolish” they are with “dull minds.” (vs. 25) before interpreting the scriptures to them. But it’s more than their minds that are slow. It is their hearts. The NRSV probably comes closest to this: “…foolish…and slow of heart to believe” . Slow of heart. There is an actual heart rhythm, bradycardia, that translates this. In some cases, this can be treated with a pacemaker, that will keep up the heart’s pace. In the case of Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple, the treatment is Jesus Himself. Remember how they described it to each other after Jesus disappeared?-- “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”(vs. 32, CEB) Jesus has touched and healed their broken hearts.
And just what did Jesus do that had such a powerful effect upon them? Well, not much…beyond conquering death, that is! What Jesus did was walk with them, listen to their grief and confusion, talk about the scriptures with them, and finally—the decisive moment!—break bread with them. It’s interesting to see the conditions that “set up” that moment of recognition. There is a sort of mutual hospitality going on—first, the tired travelers insist that this companion on the journey join them; and once at table, Jesus “took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” (30). Sound familiar? It is absolutely a Last Suppery, sacramental moment, down to Jesus’ leaving them at the end of it. Jesus was made known to them when the bread was broken; and at that moment I think their hearts, already warmed from the deep conversation they’d had with Jesus, were made whole again.
What could this possibly have to say to you and me, two thousand years down the road? For one, look at how and when Jesus comes by them. It’s not while they’re living their “best life” and on top of the world—just about the opposite. Jesus is not waiting for you to Be Perfect before He’ll be your friend! They are vulnerable and heartbroken. Still, Jesus joins their journey and their conversation. Next, look at the risk they took with someone they thought a stranger: they invite him in not only to their hearts but invite him to spend the night with them. Considering how the Powers that Be, both civil and religious, had it in for Jesus, this was mighty risky. But a Christ-like hospitality compels them to extend welcome even to this stranger. And it is in receiving from the hand of the risen Christ that they know Him, and are known by Him. They’ve picked up on Jesus’ “Holy Habits” and see Him at work, sharing life among them—both life as usual, and now life after the extraordinary event we call Easter.
And that, dear friends, should spill over into our lives: a kind of consciousness of Holy Habits, keeping your eyes and minds and hearts open to the presence and power of Jesus in whatever place or mood you find yourself. Maybe we’ll have a sudden AHA moment like the disciples, or maybe just a dawning recognition that He has been with us all along, not only in the happy times but perhaps especially in the hard ones.
I started off telling about puzzles, and the challenge of finding the words hidden in plain sight. During the Sundays of Lent up to Easter, Elaine filled in the blanks on a large “cross/word” in the sanctuary—even when we weren’t here!—week by week. “Hosanna” and “Risen” might be what you’d expect: but the journey also includes thirst…sight…. And wilderness. Take heart. For even if you’re feeling broken-hearted in the wilderness, Jesus will not hesitate to join you on the journey….Thanks be to God.
April 19, Second Sunday of Easter "Where's Jesus?"
Gospel text: John 20: 19-31
Do you know Where’s Waldo?--books that became popular 30-some years ago—drawn by Martin Handford, an English artist, who draws elaborate scenes spread over two pages, each with hundreds of tiny characters…In every chaotic scene, somewhere, is Waldo, the spectacled, red-and-white-striped-shirted, star. It can be really hard to find Waldo, even though you know he is there in every scene. There’s just so much going on around him! Several years ago I was given a calendar that was called “Finding Jesus” that was a similar concept. For each month there was a full page scene teeming with all sorts of characters…and in every scene, maybe on the margin, maybe in the thick of the crowd, was Jesus. As with Waldo, sometimes it was hard to find Jesus; there’s just so much going on around Him…
I thought of that this week, especially after reading the “Easter, continued” gospel where on that first Resurrection Day evening Jesus comes to the disciples where they are, behind closed doors, not quite in the Easter spirit as one would hope. The closed doors are absolutely not a problem for Jesus. He comes among them, shares His peace with them, shows His hands and side, shares more peace, and then breathes on them. Coming in this fifth or sixth week of pandemical pause, and a couple days after everyone in NY State has been ordered to cover our nose and mouth preferably with a mask whenever in public, it strikes me that Jesus is really, really bad with the whole “social distancing” routine. He just doesn’t live that way, does he? Avoiding all gatherings? Nope. Staying put and staying home? Nope. Covering his face? Nope. But the same with-you-to-the-end-and-beyond living that makes Jesus an epidemiological disaster is what makes Him a spiritual rock, a foundation that the disciples—and you—can build on with confidence.
Looking at all that happened that first Resurrection Day through the lens of what is happening here and now, I am struck by how important patience is. Important, but hard. I wonder: why was Thomas not there that night? Was he tired of waiting with the same old disciples after it was pretty obvious their guy Jesus had lost? Had he just stepped out for a moment to pick up a few items at the corner deli, or was he planning to be Outta There? Had Thomas run out of patience for just waiting around fearfully for the next bad thing to happen? Meanwhile, I wonder at the patience of Jesus, coming back eight days later to offer Thomas exactly what he said his requirements for believing were. And I hope that in the days and weeks and months ahead, I will be able to act with the persistent patience of Jesus.
Social distancing concerns aside, I’m thinking that we ought to be able to find Jesus in just about any situation. And Jesus ought to be able to find us, too. The most loving and faithful way to “be” the worshiping church, the body of Christ, right now is not the familiar and obvious way of gathering in our usual place at our usual time. Conference calls, zoom, and Facebook are the main ways RVUMC has been maintaining our connection lately. These things can try the patience. But they also show that our bonds are deeper than a particular hour in just this one place, and our Neighbors include way more people than we conventionally include. In addition to expanding our idea of worship, we must adjust our idea of outreach in these weeks when “hands-on” is something to approach with creativity in this time that is so far from “normal.” Which is…what? Yesterday I woke up to the unsettling—for April 18th—sight of nearly two inches of wet snow on the flowering cherry trees. How wrong is that?! It does seem, as the world will observe the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on Wednesday—and the 10th anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe—that everything and everyone is off balance, and struggling and suffering in both dramatic and subtle ways.
So where will we meet Jesus? I can’t give you the day, time, or place but can encourage you to be patient—with Jesus, and with yourself—in this strange and difficult time. You are allowed to be angry, sad, and scared at what is happening in your life and the lives of those you love and those you don’t even know. This isn’t an ordinary time, after all. We have had “satellite pickup” of emergency food bags from the Rondout Valley Food Pantry the past four Saturdays: the usual hours and place were not equal to the unprecedented need. Be patient as you make connections using the technology that is both blessing and curse. And be patient as you realize that the world doesn’t always work the way it would if YOU were in charge.
Peter Wehner, in a piece in last Sunday’s NY Times (p. 2 of Sunday Review, “How Should Christians Act During a Pandemic?”) concludes his piece by saying: “What the Christian church can provide at its best is the ability to suffer with hope.”.…”The hope of what awaits transforms the experience of waiting. But waiting isn’t always easy. We live in a broken world, and there are moments when darkness feels like our closest friend.” The suffering, and our impatience with it, are real. But through it all, the persistent love of God in Christ Jesus is also very real, and Christians should find ways to embody that love especially in this time of plague. As Martin Luther observed about 500 years ago: “If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbor close at hand. Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him.”
As I put at the top of the worship program for today: It’s still Easter! Easter is in fact a season in the church year, including seven Sundays, fifty days—from Easter right up to Pentecost. So we may get plenty of chances to find Jesus and be found by Him, even in our pandemical exile from Regular Life.
That’s good news for you, for me, for our wounded world. Be patient. Love God, and love one another. That’s the old, old story for these new times. Amen.
Easter 2020 Reflection “The Strangest day yet…”
People have a way of getting nostalgic about the “good old days.”
Exactly what makes days good, I do not know.
Exactly how old they have to be, I do not know. But you better believe that there was a time, long ago, when things were finer and dandier than today. For people who long for a good old fashioned Easter, I have Good News: you’ve got yourself one, right now.
Friends and family scattered?
Everyone sheltering at home, and scared? Maybe even cooking up a storm, while waiting for a plague to pass?
Political unrest? Confusion about whom to trust?
Feeling like there are probably dead bodies awaiting proper burial, if the authorities will let you near?
Well, let’s see: that describes the first Resurrection Day, not quite 2000 years ago. Obviously, if you want to get back to Biblical Basics, back to the good (?) old days, it doesn’t get much more biblically basic and authentic than the first Easter. And if that’s what you’ve been aching for: well, I hope you’re happy now! Because we are having a relatively authentic Easter in 2020!
Call me un-traditional if you like, but there are certain modern Easter innovations that I am really missing right about now: the music! We didn’t have our cantata yesterday, and I know I am not the only one who grieves that. But the hymns, too! And the people—some visiting friends and relatives you don’t get to see more than a couple times a year. And lilies—I did manage to snag a couple of them when I got groceries this week. But if you think about it, none of the things I’m missing this Easter featured in the Very First Easter. No music. No bunnies. No lilies. Not even any Peeps. What there was, was fear. Sorrow. Grief for what had ended, and dread of the uncertainty ahead. Look at those 10 verses again: the words fear/afraid occur 4 times; joy, once—and it is paired with fear, kind of like when, to get the sale price at Shoprite, you have to buy 2. Sorry, you can’t get just the joy this week; it comes packaged with the fear.
Easter is God doing a new and unprecedented thing. And if you happen to be outside the tomb when the stone rolls aside and the angel tells you that death is no longer the ultimate enemy, that God still reigns, and that the powers of this world are not as strong as they told you they were…you are absolutely right to be afraid. Because life will not be the same afterwards.
This shouldn’t really be a surprise, you know. Because from before He was even born, strange things had a way of happening around Jesus. And His effects on people…remarkable. He fed and healed those who were hungry and broken—and the strange thing was He’d help anyone, even lepers, children, Romans, women…He didn’t just hang out with the religious scholars. In fact, it was the scholars and the civil authorities who found Him most upsetting. The crucifixion made that clear. But the stunning news on Resurrection Day was that the Earthly Powers That Be…weren’t, really, all they were cracked up to be. So of course the women, and later the other disciples, were afraid when they started to understand what God had done in and through Jesus. They were first on the scene for the strangest day yet.
King of king, and Lord of lords. Jesus was not the kind of king and lord that anyone expected, then or now. In fact the soldiers who crowned him before His crucifixion, did so with a “crown” of thorns—to make fun of Jesus, who was so obviously not king material. As it turns out, the joke is on them—did you see how on Good Friday the gilded relic Crown of Thorns was brought back to the charred shell of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris from which it was rescued during the fire this week last year? I wonder what Jesus thinks about the veneration given to the treasured relic of a haphazard, careless, taunt? If you think about it, though, the “upgrading” of the thorns into something more regal is in some way the overdue recognition that OH! That Jesus! He IS a king, after all. A king who humbly serves some of the strangest people, including us.
God’s grace in Jesus has never come packaged just how you would expect it. And perhaps this good old-fashioned Easter will give you and me a chance to “pause” as our usual lives are on pause, and take stock of what’s really important. Already our few weeks of pandemic “home confinement” have encouraged some people to evaluate what’s really important. I have a hunch we’ll come out of this awful time realizing that what really matters is more than toilet paper and hand sanitizer. For one, it makes me realize how interconnected and interdependent we really are: we are our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers, and we need to be concerned about what we’re not sharing at least as much as we’re worried about what we are sharing. That goes for economic abundance, and natural resources, as well as for the Coronavirus.
And that virus….corona-virus, which the CDC website notes is named for the crown-like spikes on their surface …if ever you thought that something you couldn’t see had the power to change the world, I hope you got over that. Do you remember ever seeing the saying “Wash your hands and say your prayers, for germs and Jesus are everywhere”? Cute…funny…and there’s actually some truth in it! I hope for all of us on this good, old-fashioned Easter we will look with fresh joy at the fearsome gift of life, a gift that God continues to give in spite of us; a gift to us even in the strangest times and places.
Palm Sunday in COVID-19 wilderness, April 5, 2020
Hosannas, Handwashing and Holy Week
Well—here we are, wherever we are. Palm Sunday! Even though worship the past couple of weeks has felt weird, today feels weirder. Palm Sunday is a day that runs the gamut of religious experience, from the glorious and joyful all the way to the vicious and despondent. There’s a sort of built-in chaos when we do the dramatic reading of the entire “passion narrative” in parts—accentuated by the fact that often several people end up with more than one part! And it’s a day for children, of ALL ages and sizes, to wave a palm frond and shout “Hosanna!” That’s the happy part. Think about it: there aren’t many occasions to shout Hosanna. It means “Save, Now” and is directed to the Lord as he enters [as in hymn “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna”] “in lowly state”: a humble king, a living oxymoron. The masses greet Jesus with desperate hope and joy. They yearn for and seem to expect the overthrow of the Powers That Be. But—yes, you knew there was a “but”—that isn’t all there is to this day. As the gospel reading continues, you descend from the excitement and optimism of Hosanna to…Jesus dead in a sealed tomb. Trying to do all of this in solitary splendor in our own homes is so UN Palm-Sundayish.
If you’re interested in reading the “passion narrative” that comes between the Hosannas of chapter 21 and the Resurrection of chapter 28, check out Matthew chapters 26 &7. As I’ve reread that stretch this week I’ve been reminded how NO ONE except maybe Jesus ends up looking good. And Jesus—well, he ends up dead. And THAT’s not a good look.
For centuries, there has been disagreement about Who Is Most To Blame for Jesus’ ending up crucified. One persistent interpretation was to Blame the Jews—yes, all of them!—because They were clearly in on this, and Jesus was after all one of their own. Another is to Blame the Romans, because They were the ones ultimately in charge. But as you hear the story unfold in chapters 26 & 7, the distinctions get fuzzier and it’s harder to tell who’s a Good Guy and who’s a Bad Guy. As with most human experiences, it is complicated. The upper crust of the Jewish leadership—the council, the Sadducees—was clearly threatened by Jesus, and were all too willing to be complicit with the Romans if they could just Make Jesus Stop Stirring Everyone Up. The Top Roman Guy, Pilate, is clearly out of his depth in dealing with the combination of imperial subjugation and religious intensity. In the end, he doesn’t handle either well. Both the high priest and Pilate are hyper-sensitive to how their decisions will play with the crowds, so there’s a lot of passing the buck (or the denarius) and manipulating of the crowds. Neither Caiaphas nor Pilate wants to be the one to “sign off on” this particular execution. Pilate famously “washes his hands” of the matter, basically telling the crowd it’s THEIR fault.
A top government official who is clearly out of his depth…religious leadership more concerned with their power than with the well-being of the poor…and crowds of gullible, uneducated, desperate people: what could go wrong?!
Jesus is crucified. Remember that? And crucifixion was the ROMAN way of execution. Pilate—the denarius stops there. As we’ve been reminded frequently during the spread of the coronavirus, there’s hand-washing and there’s hand-washing, and most of us aren’t doing it right or often enough. I’ve thought of that lately with regard to Pilate. He THOUGHT his hand-washing was enough to avoid being responsible for Jesus’ death. But he missed a few spots.
And as far as Blame the Jews or Blame the Romans—in the shadow of the cross you can find Jews and Romans who, despite being in positions of authority, were not afraid to speak the truth, and do the right thing, publicly. Think: Joseph of Arimathea—member of the Council--and the Roman centurion.
There is another direction we can look to for finding Who Is Most To Blame, though. And it is probably the most disturbing, because it’s closest to home. Look at the disciples. His beloved companions. Those who traveled with Jesus, ate with Him, learned from Him, loved Him. Judas, the right-hand man and treasurer. Peter, the rock, who would never ever ever desert Jesus…until the cock crows, and he does. James and John, who didn’t even manage to stay awake with Jesus that last night in the garden. When the going got tough, the disciples got gone. Maybe they, too, had listened to the crowds and heard the Hosannas fade and realized that maybe they weren’t on the winning team any more.
And that’s the hard part of Holy Week, isn’t it? That’s why churches usually get a decent crowd on PS and Easter, but Maundy Thursday and Good Friday…? Not so much. I leave you with a poem, from around 2007 I think, by Carol Cruikshank:
TAKE ME, LORD, TO EASTER BY EXPRESS
Take me, Lord, to Easter
I can’t stand Good Friday—
Take me straight to Easter
And its joy.
I can’t stand to watch them
Kill your Boy.
Child, the trip is local;
All must see
How man’s willful ways
Child, if you would taste of
First you need to know: You
Killed my Boy.
--Carol Cortelyou Cruikshank
Meditation for 3.29.2020, worship in COVID-19 exile. [Ezekiel 37 & John 11]
What absolutely extraordinary readings, and to paraphrase the humorist Dave Barry: I am not the one who chose them for this day. The lectionary, set long before coronavirus had appeared on most of our horizons, provided them. And wow: just, wow.
Wow, why? Well, far from painting a rose-colored glasses, pollyanna-ish image of shiny happy people of faith on a sort of Spring Break of the Soul, these scriptures dare to expose a God who is with us even—maybe especially—when things get bad. And not to put too fine a point on it: it doesn’t get much badder than dead, much worse than exile in a strange land, where there are bones of the past as far as the eye can see. Both Ezekiel and John make sure we get just how bad thing are: the valley is FULL of bones, and they are VERY DRY; Martha, ever the practical one, reminds Jesus that if they move the stone from the grave, there will be a stench—Lazarus has been dead four days.
What might be going on here that has ANY possible bearing on where we find ourselves in our time of Viral Exile, with fear and death and economic hardship all around, when even going to church on Easter Sunday is looking out of the question?? Well—the Good News is that the valley of dry bones and the sealed tomb are NOT the end of the story, and God continues to bring life out of desperate times. And you and I need to be attentive to the ways in which WE are called to help out. “Prophesy to the bones”, Ezekiel is told. And he does, despite how weird and awkward it feels. “Remove the stone,” Jesus tells Lazarus’ friends. And they do, despite their worries. “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Speaking hope, moving stones, and loosening people’s bonds…if those are our tasks, let’s do them, confident that the greater future is in the hands of a God who doesn’t hesitate to come among us to serve. Amen.
Yesterday’s Upper Room (Sat. March 28 2020); see the booklets or you can go daily to upperroom.org/devotionals; this one’s entitled “Beyond the Walls”
“….God wants the church to be a family who cares for one another. We can care for one another by thanking the people around us for the blessings they bring to our lives and by showing concern for the trials they may be facing. We can look beyond the walls of our church buildings to tell those who are heading into “war zones” that they are not alone.” Andy Baker, TN USA
Prayer: Thank you, God, for sustaining us through times of trial. Make us aware of the hurts and needs of those around us, and prompt us to help. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
From March 22nd:
Read Mark 4:35-41: Jesus calms storm (parallels Matthew 8:23-7, Luke 8:22-5)
It’s been that kind of a week, hasn’t it?
When you NEED to know that you are not alone, that God still cares and is still WITH YOU, even when we’re supposed to be keeping our distance—6 feet or more, I hope you’ve got your tape measures with you everywhere!—and I kind of feel as if Jesus is looking at me with some of the exasperation He looked at those storm-tossed disciples with: Really, you’re anxious? Be still, be faithful.
All week long, I found myself humming Hymn # 512 in the UM Hymnal, Stand By Me. I don’t know whether that is partly a reaction to our all being told NOT to stand by anyone too close, but the first verse may ring a bell:
When the storms of life are raging, stand by me
When the storms of life are raging, stand by me
When the world is tossing me, like a ship upon the sea,
thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me.
And then I got to thinking about the great 1633 Rembrandt painting, Storm on the Sea of Galilee. If you look for it online, plenty of images are available. It also has a full page in the “Rembrandt and the Bible” book at church. The painting is remarkable for various reasons: it’s by Rembrandt, his only known seascape; it shows a range of human fear and faith and the calming presence of Jesus; and it was stolen 30 years ago last week from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston. Within minutes of my thinking about that painting, a piece on the radio came on about that awful theft. The theft of that and 12 or 13 other priceless works remains unsolved to this day; if you happen to see that Rembrandt or any of the other items around, please let the FBI know. The museum would still like them back; they have kept the empty frames on display where the paintings used to be.
But—about that storm. One of the things that stands out to me in the painting is how differently people react to a crisis. Several of the disciples are in the front of the boat, fighting desperately to bring the whipping sails under control while the waves crash into them. Others huddle in fear close to Jesus, hoping that He will get them through this but obviously worried. And one poor guy is leaning over the edge, being seasick. And Jesus: He radiates calm, even in the middle of the whole mess. Here Matthew’s version (8:26) reports Jesus saying “why are you afraid, you people of weak faith?” O ye of little faith!
And that passage, that image, has been with me through the week: of a Lord who is right here with us, not keeping a socially-mandated 6 foot distance, as our days and our jobs and our families churn up and down on the waves. Peace, be still. And the waves were still. May we all know that peace, that passes all understanding, today and all days.
Next Second Sunday Supper was supposed to be--you guessed it--April 12th, which is also Easter.
Thank you to everyone who made our pre-Christmas and pre-Thanksgiving cookies-by-the-pound sales successful; we continue to offer Equal Exchange Fair Trade chocolates, coffees and teas.
The cantata "Lead Me Back to Bethlehem" was on Saturday, Dec. 21, at 2 pm.
Saturday, September 21 at 2 pm we were thrilled to host a brief vocal recital by Julia Caster (accompanied by Linda McCarthy). Julia was invited by the Conductors' Club of NY which met at RVUMC that day and we were ALL blessed by this musical offering!
Thank you to the many participants and volunteers who made last summer's VBS (Vacation Bible School) a wonderful experience. There was plenty of noise coming from our hill--almost all of it joyful. The theme was "Who is my Neighbor?" and five local churches joined for this exhilarating, exhausting endeavor. The "responsible adults" were "exhilarhausted" by Friday!
In order to respond to future domestic [including Puerto Rico!] relief needs we continue to assemble"cleanup buckets" and also hygiene kits for UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief). We sent out 36 completed buckets in response to 2017's hurricanes and floods, and we'll keep filling relief kits as long as there are needs we can address. Donations of money and items for the buckets can be brought to the church when we're there; or call to arrange dropoff of items. Monetary donations can also be made online (see "DONATE" above) or via the "Give Plus" mobile app; specify "Bucket List." For updated bucket specifics, click HERE or scroll to UMCOR link below and on the UMCOR page select "Relief Supplies." We now have LOTS of scouring pads and non-cellulose sponges; we most need the heavy duty garbage bags, reusable "handi-wipe" type wipes and sturdy work gloves.
Here are some links to things about us you might want to know: