I am not a big fan of college basketball but I hear from those who follow the sport this year is all about upsets. The 2021 NCAA tournament, known more affectionately as “March Madness,” has witnessed a fair share of surprises. Brackets are being busted across the board as some of the unlikeliest contenders advance to playoff berths no one dared dream they would ever achieve. Of the 16 remaining teams, four were ranked 11 or higher going into the tournament. “Madness” indeed, and perhaps even more to come as college basketball delivers surprises, and delight, to its fans.
There’s another surprise brewing, this one in the season of Lent. The carpenter from Nazareth, who many in his day surely viewed as “mad,” enters into the capital city of Jerusalem riding a donkey’s colt. He is greeted by an adoring crowd who welcome him with shouts of “Hosanna!” and praise to the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Days later, on a Friday afternoon, he is hanging on a cross. The crowds who cheered him turned and called for his death. The Roman governor, who saw no guilt in him, stilled the mob by signing his death warrant. By the end of the week, Jesus was dead and in his grave, another would-be Messiah consigned to the dustbin of history. Score one, as always, for the Roman Empire.
But God had other plans. On the third day, a Sunday morning, some women go to the tomb. They find it empty and hear the words of the angels: “He is not here, he is risen.” They run to tell the disciples, who refuse to believe, until Jesus appears before them alive and better than well. The Resurrection of Jesus was God’s “yes” to the world’s “no.” It is the ultimate “bracket busting” move that triumphs over the old enemies of sin and death. What was a surprise to disciples, Jewish religious leaders, and Romans alike is a delight to all who come to faith in God’s gift of eternal life given through the life, death, and new life of Jesus Christ.
This week, we travel a path that begins at the high point of Palm Sunday and passes through a valley of darkness, betrayal, and death. We must walk this pilgrim path in order to understand what Love has done for us. For at the end of the path is Life; at the end of the trail, we find a new beginning.
“No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” (Matthew 5:15)
Today, I am thinking about light. I love the light. I especially love the sunlight in the morning as it hits the mountains behind my neighborhood. The effect of the light is different in each season. We’re in the middle of winter now and the illumination of the morning sun sometimes come in hues of red and orange that tint the hills with a beautiful luster. I like the light of the evening as well, when the sun sets, and the mountains become shadow-casters well before the official moment of sunset. There is still light in the world; a light that fades to dusk, then darkness, and the long night. I am glad the hours of darkness are growing shorter now. Because I really love the light.
The scriptures, too, are filled with light. God created the light in the beginning. The light of God’s glory—a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night—shows the Hebrew people through the darkness of the Sinai nights. In the Psalms, God is said to be a light to His people. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1). And in the New Testament, God’s light comes into the world in the form of the Son, Jesus Christ. “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
The theme of light and life is woven throughout the gospels. This is most apparent in the Gospel of John. In John, we find the direct connection between Jesus and light, and Jesus as the life of the world. Speaking about John the Baptist, the Apostle John writes: “he himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:8-9). And Jesus himself said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). Wait a minute. “As long as I am in the world?” What about afterwards? What about when Jesus is no longer in the world, what then? Is there no light from God?
Well, yes, there is light. Jesus remains the light—he is the source of light and of the life that comes from God, the Father, Son, and Spirit. And we play a role in sharing this light of life. From Matthew we hear Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount as he told his followers to be a lamp to the world. “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house” (Matthew 5:15). From this we understand we are not the light; we are the lamps, set on tables wherever we may be, in whatever settings we find ourselves, to reflect the light of God’s love into the darkened world around us.
Being a lamp is an honorable thing. Lamps give light to their surroundings, they make it possible for others to see, for others to see things that need seeing, and to do things that need doing. Lamps do not have an endless supply of power to shine their lights, though. They need refueling from time to time.
All this is true for us when we are lamps for Jesus. We shine the light of God’s light when we call out injustice in the world. When we are at God’s best for our lives, we show others, by our example, how to live in love with God and with each other. And we refuel by immersing ourselves in God through reading the Bible, worshiping God, prayer, fasting, and living in community with one another.
Presidential inaugurations are impressive displays of our nation’s commitment to government of, by, and for the people. The speeches that are given frequently draw on biblical imagery to inspire us, as a nation, to seek the greater good for all. One speech, a poem actually, that achieved this and more was the reading by Amanda Gorman of her poem “The Hill We Climb.” I loved the way she used the imagery from the prophet Micah of a society where there is justice, where every person has what they need: “Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.” (You can find the passage at Micah 4:4).
But it was the closing lines of the poem that brought up the promise of the light:
“When day comes we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid, the new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light, If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
I hope we can allow the light of God’s love to shine through us as we reflect the Divine Light of Jesus Christ into our world. Look around. See who in your “orbit” needs a good word or a kind action to help get them through then day. Then, be the light they need to see. For there is always light in Jesus Christ. Let’s be brave enough to share it.
This is not my normal kind of letter for our newsletter. But this is not a normal time.
Like you, I am still reeling from the sights and sounds of yesterday’s violent assault on the U.S. Capitol. Watching the Capitol police bravely try to protect the building and our Congress, I thought of another day of terror—9/11, when foreign terrorists attacked the Pentagon, and I, along with thousands of others, were forced to evacuate. Yesterday I watched as rioters forced their way into the building that stands at the heart of our democracy to run rampant, destroy, property and threaten lives. And yesterday, I watched and witnessed among the many flags carried by rioters the symbol of another insurrection—a confederate flag, now used as a symbol of racist hatred—being carried through the halls of Congress.
January 6, 2021, is a day we will all remember as a day of tragedy for our nation. Four lives were lost. We pray for them and for their families. Hundreds were terrorized. We pray for them and for their safety. Law enforcement officers were injured. We pray for their recovery. Our nation and its democratic ideals have been traumatized. We pray for our nation.
We must be very clear about the events that unfolded at the Capitol. This was an insurrection against the duly constituted government of the United States. Its purpose was to overthrow the will of the American people as expressed through last November’s free and fair election. Those who dislike the results of elections in the United States have two ways to express their disagreement: through the ballot box at the next election, and through peaceful protest. Those who protested yesterday crossed the line when they broke into the Capitol, ransacked offices, and threatened lives. This violence was totally inappropriate and must be condemned. Among the rioters, some carried banners with words like “Jesus” and “Jesus Saves.” To quote our Bishop from her response to the violence: “This is not what Emmanuel came to earth to embody. This is a perversion of the Gospel. This should drive all of us to our knees.”
There is one other thing we should be very clear about as well. We, as a nation and even as a people of God, have come to this point through faults of our own. This did not happen overnight. Over the course of several decades now, we have willingly engaged in language and dialogue that purposely demonizes and denigrates people with whom we disagree. Social media is often blamed for this, but social media is a tool. It can be used to connect people to one another, or to cut them down. It has been used as a megaphone to amplify our own opinions, and as a cudgel to batter, beat, and berate anyone who disagrees with us. Sadly, this is just as true among Christians as it is with those who express no faith in God.
Here’s the important thing: words matter. What we say to one another about one another makes a difference. As one writer observed, “Words create worlds.” For Christians, we believe words brought the universe into existence: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light…’” Words can create or destroy, build up or break down, it all depends in how we use them. The Apostle James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, warned us of the danger:
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire….but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so (James 3:5-6, 8-10).
What brought us to this place are the worlds our words have created. We have “made worlds” wherein we are right, where others are wrong, and where the divide between us is a ditch of our own digging. The comic strip character Pogo was right: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Let me repeat the words of James here: “My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”
We are the people who follow Jesus Christ. We must not engage in talk that demeans, disparages, or vilifies others. To do so is to shred the image of God born by every human being. To do so is sin of which we must repent.
At the same time, we must condemn the language and ideology of hatred in whatever forms it takes. Whether it is the language of white supremacy, extreme self-centeredness, religious hatred, gender discrimination, social superiority, or exploitive power, all of it is sin and must be rejected.
Despite what has transpired and what will happen in the days ahead, we Christians remain a people of hope. There is difficult and courageous work ahead as we seek to embody the ideals of our Savior that commit us to love one another as God loves us, and in the words of the Prophet Micah: “…to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). We hope because the One whose birth we just celebrated brings the light of God’s love into this darkened world. We hope because hope is born of Jesus Christ, and we are born anew in Him.
Let us pray for the future of our nation. For the peaceful succession of one presidency to the next, for the restoration of order, and for equal justice for all.
May the God of all Grace be with you and sustain you, now and always.
I want to share a few thoughts about our current national obsession: the elections. Early voting is already underway (have you voted yet?) and in a few days, the polls will open to receive the final votes of this election cycle. Voting is like a sacred rite and a sacred right guaranteed under our form of government. I hope and pray everyone who reads this exercises her or his right to vote. Your vote is important because there are issues of tremendous import to be decided this year that will determine how our counties, states, and nation meet the challenges of the future.
As your pastor, I do not publicly endorse candidates for public office. I will, however, endorse what I believe is a biblical viewpoint on God’s priorities for society: the care for the most vulnerable among us. We can find a number of verses in both the Old and New Testaments that demonstrate God’s preference for the poor, the widowed, the sick, the alien in the land. For me, these are summarized best in a passage from the Hebrew prophet Micah:
And he has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
When I vote, I look for candidates who have the greatest potential to fulfill this biblical priority of seeking justice. It’s true that no candidate or political party will ever perfectly meet this criteria. Jesus Christ is not running for any public office this year, or any other year for that matter. So I choose the people and parties I judge best able to promote equal justice, who care for the most vulnerable members of society, and who do so with humility and respect for the innate value of each human being.
Every person is made in the image of God. Every person deserves respect accorded to one made in that image. That is true regardless of race, creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, social or economic status, or political party. That remains true whether we agree or disagree about the policy prescriptions on offer to address the issues of the day. No matter your opinion, everyone deserves to be treated with respect.
As we are all too painfully aware, that R-E-S-P-E-C-T is hard to find nowadays. And the reason is all too apparent. For the past 30 years, we have engaged in a dialogue of demonization that denigrates the humanity of people who disagree with us. Radio and television and social media have amplified this, but the root cause is our willingness to go along with the invective of talk show hosts, opinion makers, influencers, trolls, and others who like nothing better than to shout down and insult folks who are different, folks don’t agree with them.
While the cause of our diminished dialogue—and this is true not just in politics but in other areas of our life, including the church—is known, the solution is less apparent. We have done this to ourselves; only we can undo it. In the prophetic words of the cartoon strip character Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” We need healing. We need reconciliation. And we need to begin to work toward it soon if we want to live and work together to solve the huge challenges that face us as a nation and as a world.
As one step toward healing, I’d like to suggest we work on the notion of respectful disagreement. Here’s a quote from John Wesley that has circulated on social media in the past few elections (although I’m not seeing it in this election cycle, which may just be another indication of how our national divisions have grown). I think it has some good advice for us today:
October 6, 1774:
I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them
To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy,
To speak no evil of the person they voted against, and
To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.
The Journal of John Wesley
I’m going to admit it, number 3 is going to be a challenge. But it is vital, along with the other two, if we hope to come together as a people to solve the problems we face.
No matter the result of this year’s elections, one thing will remain true. God will still be God, and God will love us still. So let me leave you with one more quote, this one from a former Archbishop of Canterbury by the name of William Temple: “If we choose wisely, god reigns. If we fail to choose wisely, God reigns.” I hope you will find some comfort in that no matter the outcome of all of next week’s elections.
May the grace and peace of Jesus Christ be with you and yours, now and always.
Lord, listen to your children praying, Lord, send your Spirit in this place; Lord, listen to your children praying, Send us love, send us power, send us grace.
My friends, I am certain that many of you are disturbed and dismayed by the recent events surrounding the brutal killing of an African-American man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis. Our TVs and other electronic devices brought us video of that killing on Memorial Day.
In the days that followed, we witnessed demonstrations in dozens of cities with tens of thousands of people protesting police brutality and the systemic racism that infects our criminal justice system and our society.
Most of the demonstrations have been peaceful but in some places, small numbers of agitators have looted stores, destroyed businesses and public buildings, and attacked law enforcement officers.
And in other places, police and demonstrators have marched together, prayed together, and acknowledged together the accumulated pain of generations of racial discrimination and injustice suffered by African-Americans and people of color. They have done this, together, in the hope that our communities, and our nation, can work together to bring about a more just society.
In my message on Sunday, I observed that as we celebrated the Day of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, we remember that the Spirit is sent from God to be our advocate, guide, and comforter. But the Spirit can also be a holy dis-comforter in a time of injustice.
After watching the tragic and historic events of the past week, my heart is breaking, and I am discomforted by the Spirit.
I am discomforted by the first violence, the violence done to George Floyd by those four police officers. It is clear they did not follow proper procedures in the arrest. What’s worse, they did not see him as a human being, someone worthy of God’s love. Everyone is created in God’s image and is worthy of human dignity and divine love. Not all police officers are abusive. But Mr. Floyd is only the latest in a long line of African-Americans who have lost their lives to police brutality and a system that incarcerates Black Americans at rates far higher than their representation in the population.
By the way, in case you want to know who George Floyd was, click on this link to an article from Christianity Today. He was raised in Houston, Texas, where he was admired as a community leader, Christian ministry organizer, and mentor to young people who encouraged them to “put guns down and have Jesus instead of the streets.”
I am also discomforted by the violence and criminal activity that has followed the killing of George Floyd. There is no justification for the looting and assaults on law enforcement officers, who are trying to protect lives and properties while upholding the rights of peaceful protestors to have their voices heard.
There is a holy discomfort in the land, and a holy discomfort in my soul. How can we respond in faith to the events around us? Let me offer the following as places to start:
We can begin with prayer, but we can’t stop there. Prayer is good as we pray for healing the wounds inflicted on people and on communities who live the reality of racial discrimination and inequality on a daily basis. Prayer is good as we pray for peace; but the peace we pray for must be accompanied by justice for our African-American brothers and sisters, and others who experience racism and inequality. Yes, let us pray: God, in your mercy, bring healing to our land through equal justice, equally applied, that all may live in the shalom/peace that you desire for all.
We must name sin, but we can’t stop there. The sin is racism. It is often referred to as America’s original sin. It was built into our social, economic and governing systems from the start. Despite fighting a war to put an end to slavery, racism continued under different guises (“Jim-Crow” that segregated the races, economic policies that prejudiced Blacks, and White supremacy groups that preach racial inferiority). Racism is a sin of the human heart. Yes, let us pray: God, in your mercy, help us to end the sin of racism wherever we find it: in our institutions, in our workplaces, in our churches, in our homes, and in us. Help us to see all people as you see them—beloved children of God.
We must listen to the voices of the oppressed, and then…. There’s an old saying that goes: “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.” That’s hardly possible for we who were born into the privileged majority of White America because we cannot change the color of our skin. What we can do is to listen to the stories of our African-American brothers and sisters. Hear them describe what life is like a black man or woman living in America today. I am educating myself in this area now. One of the books I am reading is called Tears We Cannot Stop, A Sermon to White America, by Michael Eric Dyson. Mr. Dyson is an African-American Baptist preacher. His book is organized like a worship service. His prose is pointed and powerful in its descriptions of discrimination and inequality. And we need to hear his voice, and the voices of others. Yes, let us pray: God, in your mercy, give us ears to hear and eyes to see the pain of our brothers and sisters, so that we may learn and come to understand their hurt, change our ways, and together, work to end systemic racism and bring about the just you world you envision for all peoples.
Despite all we see taking place in our world today, I remain a person of hope—and I pray you do too. That’s because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. As God’s Resurrection people, I pray we can be part of the hard work of healing that can only come through justice and reconciliation.
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good,” wrote the prophet Micah, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
“Lord, listen to your children praying…Send us love, send us power, send us grace.”
Agape, Pastor Bob
 “Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying,” lyrics by Ken Medema, Hope Publishing Company, 1973.
Last week I had a chance to do what many of us are doing as we stay at home riding out the pandemic storm. I watched one of my favorite movies on DVD. I wasn’t able to watch this film in one sitting, so I just pressed pause and left it for another time. I made some more progress the next day but still couldn’t finish watching, so I hit the pause button again. This time, it didn’t work. When I came back on the third day, my DVD player refused to resume where I’d left off. I had to go back to the start and select a scene near where I’d stopped so I could finish the show, then work my way back to where I’d left off.
Life for a lot of us feels like we’ve hit the pause button on a DVD player. We’re stuck in a holding pattern—a well-reasoned and necessary holding pattern—to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 Coronavirus. Most of us are at home and only go out to buy necessities at the store. A few are working in essential businesses (thank you for what you are doing)! We’ve closed the church building and moved online for the duration. I know it’s not the same as meeting each other in person, but we have learned how to worship God and maintain our connections as a faith community through the internet.
I don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like when this over and, let me say, you can be assured it will be over. The pandemic will end someday. Everything I read and hear suggests the “stay at home” orders we are under right now will come off slowly. Getting back to work and travel and church will look less like my successful use of the pause button, where I just press a button and resume playing, and more like the second pause, where I had to search for the nearest scene and put up with some overlap before I could move ahead. I suspect that will be the case with every aspect of our lives. We’ll have some work to do before we get back to something resembling our patterns of living before the pandemic struck.
For now, we remain on pause.
On April 26, I preached on the Emmaus Road story in the Gospel of Luke. As two of Jesus’ disciples were making their way to Emmaus, a stranger joined them on the road. We, the readers, were told it was Jesus, but the disciples did not recognize him. When Jesus asked them what they were talking about, they stopped in their tracks and with sad looks on their faces, they recounted for him the terrible and strange things surrounding the crucifixion of their Teacher, Master, and Friend that took place just a few days before.
This pause in the middle of the story is strategically placed to allow those disciples to paint a picture of the sad reality they were living. Jesus was dead. This they knew. People do not come back from the dead. Despite what the women who went to the tomb that morning told them, those disciples believed the story of Jesus had come to an end. “We had hoped,” they said to the incognito Jesus, “that he was the one to redeem Israel…” (Luke 24:21). “We had hoped.” Three of the saddest words in all scripture.
Unbeknownst to those disciples, God had already changed the script. Jesus challenged their hope-lost narrative of defeat, explaining to them as they resumed their journey how scripture showed the Messiah of God had to suffer in order to redeem. By the time they reached Emmaus and sat down to dinner, they were ready for the big reveal. Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to the disciples. Immediately, their eyes were opened. The stranger at their table was Jesus, who vanished from sight. Astonished and elated all at once, they could do nothing else but rejoice, and they raced back to Jerusalem with the news—Jesus is alive!
The Coronavirus has forced a pause in the middle of our stories. “We had hoped…” for a lot of things this year: consistent work, trips to the shore, graduations, family reunions. All of these have had to be put off for another day. We lament the loss of what had hoped would be this year.
But there is good news. In the middle of our lament, God is working to bring forth something new. What this means for the church is new ways to connect with people.
Since the start of our online worship, we are reaching some people now who we were not able to reach before this. We don’t want to cut off these folks once the restrictions are lifted, so we are now planning to maintain online worship after in-person worship services resume. In-house worship will be limited for a time as we strive to maintain safe social distances. We may only be able to accommodate 20-30 people to begin with. So, online worship is here to stay.
The pause in our lives is also an opportunity for us as people of faith, and as a civilization, to work toward some positive changes in our world. I’m not the first to make some of these observations, but they point a couple of areas where faith and justice intersect, calling for change:
The highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths have been among lower income groups and minorities. They were more susceptible because of poor socio-economic conditions that forced unhealthy lifestyles on them. The virus, it turns out, is not a great leveler, affecting everyone equally—it is affecting poor and Black people disproportionately. Can we do better? Can we make a way for better living conditions and better health for our lowest paid workers?
Earth’s environment is getting a breather due to less human activity. Cleaner water is flowing allowing fish and wildlife to return in places they weren’t seen for years. Air pollution is down 25-30 percent in some places. Climate change threatens to alter the lives of many living species, including our own. Here is clear evidence changes in human behavior can positively influence our environment. Can we do better? Can we begin serious work toward a carbon-free future, a future that will improve living conditions for all God’s creatures?
More animals are being adopted at animal shelters across the nation. This is a good news story. People are discovering the joy of having some furry companions during our extended stays at home. I only hope they don’t start returning them to the shelters as we go back to work.
My prayer is that all of us will use this pause in our lives to reflect on how God is calling us to live out our discipleship in this extraordinary time. What are the places in our lives that need to change? Where are the places in our world that need change? Can we change ourselves and our world? Yes, with God’s help, through the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Let me close with a prayer, one that I’ve used before. It comes from Richard of Chichester, a bishop of the Anglican Church who lived in the 1200s AD. He is probably best known for penning these words that were popularized by a musical, “Godspell,” in the last century. The prayer goes like this:
Day by day, dear Lord, of thee three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly, day by day.
Lord, may we use this pause wisely and grow closer to you in these days.