Sunday, April 12, 2020

Year A, The Resurrection of our Lord, John 20.1-18

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Risen Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Entering the subways in St Petersburg, Russia can be frightening.  The escalators are some of the longest in the world as they descend down, down, and even farther down.  One passes through the turnstiles and steps onto the escalator before you can actually see how far down the down escalator goes.  And then as the steps go over the edge you finally get a glimpse of the depths to which you are descending and the only choice you have is to ride it to the end.

Imagine, riding a ski lift down the mountain, in the dark, with no idea how far down it is, but only the sensation of the descent into the darkness.

There is a spiral stairway, of which you cannot see the ending.  If you dare look over the edge, you see nothing but stairs, one after another, each one a little lower.  Desperately, you'd like to turn around but it is as if there is an unseen force pulling you down the staircase and all the energy you can muster does nothing more than slow the descent.

Its as if one is chasing the sun, hoping to stay ahead of the darkness that is coming, and yet, try as you might, you cannot run fast enough, and the darkness always descends, and one has no choice but to wait out the night.

It is an all too familiar path.  Perhaps, if one is lucky, there are landings along the way that provide a place to rest awhile.  It might be a distraction such as a recreational activity, a good conversation, or a good meal.  But it is short lived.  As with an escalator, one can turn around and try to walk up the down escalator for awhile.  If you are capable of walking up faster than the steps are carrying you down, you can reverse the descent.  But only for awhile, a moment, for the relentless downward momentum of the escalator is more powerful than the ability to climb the stairs.

Sensory perceptions dim.  The world goes black and white, and shades of grey.  (I realize this dates me, as there are many today who have never seen a black and white TV screen.)  It becomes hard to hear.  Sound becomes jumbled.  People seem to drift away, out of one's reach, isolation becomes overwhelming.  And then, as though cruelly planned, the force of gravity increases and your body becomes heavy, incredibly heavy, making it difficult to walk, impossible to move freely, and even while resting, it is though one is pulled forcefully into the bed.

Lying alone in the darkness, one waits for the dawn.  No effort on your part can hasten the rising of the sun.  One voice in your head screams out in despair that the sun is gone forever, another calming voice speaks of faith, and that the light will return in the morning, once again, after the night has run its course.  But first the night must run its course.
Five years ago I wrote these words about my experiences of depression, that deep darkness that envelopes one’s life.
Darkness.  And waiting for the dawn.  It’s not a good place to be.  And yet in the waiting there is hope.
In Psalm 130 we read:
5 I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
6 my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
We sit in darkness, waiting for the morning.
Our world languishes in darkness, a darkness brought on by a virus, COVID 19.
It’s like we are on that escalator in St. Petersburg, descending into the abyss, unable to see the ending.  We don’t know how long the virus will be among us, how many will get ill, and whether we will be the ones who die. 
We sit in darkness, waiting for the light.

It was in the darkness that Mary walked to the tomb.
It was not just that the sun had not yet risen, it was that death hung over her world like a dark blanket that cut out the light.
And having witnessed the death of Jesus there undoubtedly was a fear that another shoe might drop, a fear that all the disciples shared, and that was that death might strike again.
It was Thomas that had voiced this fear when Jesus decided to go up to Jerusalem to raise Lazarus.
"Let us also go, that we may die with him."

Times of darkness, yet we wait for the dawn.
More than watchmen for the morning,
More than watchmen for the morning.

And in our darkness we cling to the promise.
The promise that God’s eternal light will conquer the darkness and even death itself.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.
The Prophet Isaiah declared:
2 The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
And Jesus said:
"I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life."
And in Revelation we read:
And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.
Though we sit in darkness, we wait for the light.

Waiting, though, is hard for we are an impatient people.
When we first decided that we could not gather for worship, following the advice of the public health authorities, we cancelled worship until Easter.
Well, Easter is here, and still we each remain in our homes unable to gather together to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord.
We are like Mary, standing alone in the darkness that first Easter, not yet able to see beyond her tears to the joy that was to come.
And we are like the disciples who gathered behind closed doors, out of fear.
You know why we wait.
We wait so that death might not claim us.
We wait out of loving concern for one another.
We wait because we are not yet out of this ordeal.
We wait upon the Lord, like watchmen for the morning.
But we wait, knowing that the night will pass and the day will dawn.
This Easter is different than any I have ever experienced before.
I, like you, long for the full sanctuary, the fragrance of lilies, the bright colored dresses (I remember when all the women would get new dresses for Easter, and the men a new shirt and tie) and of course, the Easter breakfast with which we celebrated the end of the Lenten fast.
I long for the day when we can look back at the COVID 19 virus as a disease that we long ago have overcome.
But that is not today.
That is not where we are at this Easter.
This Easter, we walk with Mary in the darkness to the tomb, not yet aware of the future that God has in store for us.
We wait for the dawn.
We long to hear the voice of Jesus.
I offer to you at this time of waiting, a song particularly dear to me through times of trouble.

1 Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side;
bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
leave to your God to order and provide;
in ev'ry change he faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: your best, your heav'nly Friend
through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
2 Be still, my soul: your God will undertake
to guide the future as he has the past.
Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake;
all now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
his voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.
3 Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
and all is darkened in the veil of tears,
then shall you better know his love, his heart,
who comes to soothe your sorrow and your fears.
Be still, my soul: your Jesus can repay
from his own fullness all he takes away.
4 Be still, my soul: the hour is hast'ning on
when we shall be forever with the Lord,
when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,
all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Year A, Palm Sunday, Matthew 21.1-11, Phillipians 2.5-11

Sermon:  The King they wanted, and the King we got
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
 “Hosanna to the Son of David!
  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
 Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
With these words on the lips of the crowds, Jesus entered into Jerusalem.
And make no mistake about it, to proclaim Jesus “the Son of David” was to praise him as the Messiah, God’s anointed, who would establish his Kingdom in Israel and reign from the palace in Jerusalem.
 “Hosanna to the Son of David!
  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
 Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
That the nation of Israel would be free from the Roman occupation—
That the nation of Israel would be at peace—
That the nation of Israel would once again experience the glory of David and Solomon’s Kingdom—
That the nation of Israel would prosper—
These were the hopes of those people welcoming Jesus as the Son of David.
A victorious King and a land flowing with milk and honey. 
And then Jesus came, humble and riding on a donkey.
A servant King.

There is an incredible irony in this story, and that parade welcoming Jesus as the Messiah.
And that is that the King they wanted was the king they actually had, not the one mounted on a donkey.
Rome ruled.
And during this time, the whole Mediterranean world was united under the rule of Rome, and enjoying what historians would later call the Pax Romana.  The peace of Rome.
It was a time of prosperity and peace almost unknown in the ancient world.
The Romans built a glorious empire.
Remnants of that Empire remain to this day.
There were palaces and ampitheaters.  And of course, the Coliseum. 
But actually two of the most impressive accomplishments of the Roman builders were the roads which united the Empire and paved the way for commerce, and the aqueducts that provided fresh water in abundance and made modern cities possible.
The Glory of Rome.
That’s what the people wanted. . .only they wanted it to be their own Kingdom.  Israel.  They longed for the glory of Rome, but the freedom of Israel.
 “Hosanna to the Son of David!
  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
 Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
And there was Jesus.
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6who, though he was in the form of God,
  did not regard equality with God
  as something to be exploited,
7but emptied himself,
  taking the form of a slave,
  being born in human likeness.
 And being found in human form,
  8he humbled himself
  and became obedient to the point of death—
  even death on a cross.
What we know now, that those crowds did not know then, is that Jesus did not come so that the people might prosper, but that they might be saved.
Fast forward two thousand years to today.
It was in 1992 that James Carvelle, Bill Clinton’s political strategist coined the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid.”
What Carvelle and every politician since recognized is that what the people want is prosperity.
The people welcoming Jesus as the Son of David wanted prosperity.
The people who elected President Roosevelt during the Great Depression wanted prosperity.
The people who followed Hitler wanted prosperity.
The people who voted for Bill Clinton wanted prosperity.
And so it is in our day that every president is judged on the relative health of the economy.
We elect that person we believe will prosper the economy, and their re-election is dependent on whether the economy is thriving or not.
But what is more important?
                That we prosper?
                Or that we are saved?
That is one of the most important questions facing, not only us, but the whole world today.
The economy was great.
Just a few short weeks ago, the economy was great.
Our president, Donald Trump, like all the presidents before him was banking his hopes for re-election on the thriving economy, because, after all, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
And then COVID 19 transformed the world we lived in to a world we could never have imagined.
It is now illegal to gather.
Were I to hold worship services in public today I could be fined $5,000 and sent to prison for up to 364 days.
You could be as well.
We are taking precautions to stem the spread of this virus, and the cost is high.
Two fears dominate our world today:
·         The fear for our  health, and the health of our neighbors;
·         And the fear of an economic collapse.

What a choice.
What a choice we are faced with.
This dilemma is not playing out in Washington alone.
Every congregation across the nation faces this choice as the people of God.
We cannot gather together for worship.  We are trying our best to find other ways of being the Body of Christ, but it is not easy.
We are isolated, not only from each other, but from our families and friends.
And we long for better times.  We want to gather around the Lord’s Table for communion.  We want to sing the hymns of faith.  We want to pray together.  And we are worried about the future of the Church.  Can we weather this storm?  How will our finances fair? 
Our hearts yearn for life to return to normal.
How long will this last?  You’ve asked that question.  I’ve asked that question.  Everyone is asking that question.
The most soul searching question of all at this time is how many lives are we willing to risk for the sake of the economy? 
The second question is like it.  How much suffering are we willing to endure to save lives?
Jesus emptied himself,
  taking the form of a slave,
  being born in human likeness.
 And being found in human form,
  8he humbled himself
  and became obedient to the point of death—
  even death on a cross.
The people longed for a King that would bring glory and prosperity to Israel.
What they got in Jesus was a savior.
One who was willing to suffer and die so that we might live. 
And it is this one who we call Lord.
Jesus said that we should take up our cross and follow him.
What does that mean?  For us?   Today?
It means that we be willing to love one another and to make sacrifices so that lives might be saved.
It means that we stay home and stay healthy.
It means for us as a church that for the present time we will not gather together to worship God, so that in time, all of us, might gather again.
That’s the bottom line.  If we rush back to worship some of you might die.  If we care for one another and accept this time of being apart hopefully all of you will live.
Tough times.  Tough choices.
There are two things that give me hope in the midst of my fears.
First, that healing was such a major part of Jesus ministry.  He cares about our health.  He touched people and made them well.  We need that now.
And second, that throughout history God has led his people through one ordeal after another.  Economies have collapsed.  Empires have fallen.  And lives have been forever changed.
But through it all, God remained faithful to his word, that nothing in all of creation can separate us from his love.
May this peace which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen