Making the World New: A New Purpose
April 26, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Genesis 1:26-31; 1 Peter 1:10-16
She was twenty-two years old and she had lost her purpose for living. For some of us who are a bit older, this might seem like an exaggeration, yet it wasn’t. Kelsea had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. She had been working in a school improvement program and was just about to help them install their first hand washing station. The station was intended to help improve the hygiene of the children in the school and in the local community. Then came the email, followed almost immediately by a phone call, telling her that she needed to pack up immediately and make her way to the capital for a flight home. The U.S. government, for the first time in history, was bringing home all of the more than 7,000 volunteers from 60 countries. The coronavirus was spreading and the last thing that the leadership wanted was for some of its volunteers to become infected overseas, or to get caught in-country when all travel was shut down. For someone like Kelsea, it was as if everything she had ever dreamed of being and doing had been taken away from her. She had lost her purpose. And she is not alone.
I say this because in times of disruption, people often lose their purpose. In fact, the question, what is my purpose is probably the question I have been asked more times than any other question. It is asked of me when people retire, when the children leave home, when a loved one dies, when someone loses a job, when a marriage comes apart; or when people are stuck at home disconnected from family, friends, jobs, volunteer opportunities or simply our regular routine. It is asked in those moments when everything we thought was secure turns out not to be so. It may be that many of you watching this morning, caught in the covid-19 shelter in place world, are finding yourselves asking about your purpose. If this is where you are, or if you have asked this question, then Peter is here to help. He is here to help because in this part of his letter, Peter is offering new believers a crash course in discovering their purpose, because they too were feeling disconnected and disoriented. I say this because the early Christians to whom Peter is writing are Gentiles, whose purpose had been clearly defined for them from birth. It was to obey the Emperor and sacrifice to the gods. Those two actions bound all Romans together and gave their lives purpose. But when they became followers of Jesus, they were disconnected from those purposes and were struggling to find a new one. And Peter tells them that their purpose is to be holy even as God is holy.
According to Peter the purpose of every Jesus follower is to be holy as God is holy. For many of us, this is a very disquieting purpose statement. It is disquieting because over the years, being holy has gotten some bad press. Holiness has been portrayed as a legalistic, fundamentalist, intolerant, rigid manner of life. Composed of all sorts of rules that stifle human flourishing and restrict one’s enjoyment of life. This understanding of holiness, which is one I once leaned toward, is, in my opinion, misguided and simply wrong. So what is holiness? I believe holiness is nothing more and nothing less than reflecting the character of God out into the world. My understanding is based on the opening chapter of Genesis where human beings are created in the image of God. In Hebrew, the image of God is the person who represents the king in a foreign land. These persons are to act just like the king would act. So we are to reflect God’s character out into the world. And so if God is loving, gracious, forgiving, compassionate, long suffering and desirous of healing the world, then that is what we are to reflect. Holiness then, is representing God to the world around us. Realizing that this purpose can be an overwhelming task, Peter offers us a process for living our purpose.
Peter begins by calling us to passionately prepare for our purpose. Peter writes, “Therefore prepare your minds for action.” The image he offers us is of an athlete preparing for a race. What a Jewish athlete would do in the first century was to take the bottom of the long robe, pull it up and tuck it between their legs and then tie it with their rope belt. This would allow them to run freely. A more modern image would be of a sprinter preparing for a race. They set their blocks, crouch into position and tense their muscles. They are ready to launch. What these images imply is that we need to be intentional about preparing for our purpose. Peter wants us to understand that this purpose is not something we wander into, or take lightly. Being holy is in fact a great responsibility; to be those who reflect God’s love, grace and forgiveness into the world. We must prepare because our response will define who we are and shape our future as those who have the potential to change the world by reflecting God’s character into the world.
Peter continues by calling us to passionately pursue our purpose. Peter puts it this way, “discipline yourselves.” The image is of someone staying the course; of a runner on a track staying centered in their lane, as they run, not veering one way or the other. I say this because the Greek word for discipline means to be sober, not inebriated. In other words someone who is sober is capable of walking a straight line rather than wandering off course. The implication is that of a laser like focus on reflecting God’s character into the world. This is critical to us living our purpose because along the route of our “race” there will be those who call out to us, offering us other purposes which they claim are more important than holiness. Perhaps it will be wealth, power or fame or something else. But voices will call to us, hoping we will leave the lane and join them. This is why we are to be passionate about pursuing our purpose…so we can continue to show God’s character to the world.
Finally Peter calls us to passionately persevere in our purpose. Peter puts it this way, “Set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed.” Peter is showing us the finish line; our ultimate encounter with the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ. What this image tells us is that the race is not going to be a sprint, but a marathon. Peter understands that practicing our purpose of reflecting God into the world is difficult. As a less than perfect people, we easily forget our purpose and wander away. These lapses can be discouraging; yet Peter reminds us that we are not to give up or be discouraged. Last week we talked about Jesus as the living hope; the one who reveals himself in his ongoing presence of life and love within us. As such we get to experience God's presence and power. Peter wants us to understand that even if we fall short, even if we are less than perfect in living our purpose, it is ok because what awaits us is the grace of God in Jesus Christ; what awaits us is the love and life of Jesus fully revealed. So we persevere.
The day my mother dreaded had arrived. My father was going to retire. He had spent 35 years working for Chevron Oil Company and he loved almost every minute of it, which my mother said was a great gift. Her fear, and my fear, was that my father would be lost without work; that he would have no purpose in life. What we discovered was that he had no trouble finding things to do. He took up being the family genealogist, even writing his own software. Then he became my mother’s caretaker through some difficult health issues. Then after her death he became a faithful choir member and money counter at the church, as well as a math tutor at the local elementary school. It seemed as if he continued to find purpose. But it was only after his death this past week that I realized that he had fooled us all, that he had always had purpose and it was not his work, or family or hobbies. His purpose had always been reflecting God into the world. When dad retired, people talked about how he had been the best boss; fair, supportive and encouraging. My cousins surprised my brothers and I when they said that he was their favorite uncle, because he deeply cared about them and their families. Church friends and choir buddies emailed to tell us of the acts of kindness and friendship he had shown. My dad got it. He knew his purpose, practiced his purpose, and persevered in his purpose with hope throughout his life. No, my father was not perfect, but he knew his purpose.
My prayer this morning is that we will do the same. That we will live into this amazing purpose of reflecting God into the world, so that when each of our days are over, and the grace of Jesus is revealed to us, we will know that the world is better because we knew and lived our purpose of being holy even as God is holy.
Making the World New: A New Hope
April 19, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Isaiah 9:1-7; 1 Peter 1:3-9
I want to begin this morning with a quiz. And the quiz has a single question, which is, what do the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the Matrix and the original Star Wars trilogy have in common? I’ll give you a few seconds to think about that. Those of you on Facebook can send in your responses. I realize that there are probably a number of answers, but, the answer I am looking for, is that they are each based on the archetype of the chosen one; the chosen one who will face off against the great evil, give the people hope and then defeat the forces that oppress the world. Frodo Baggins, is mysteriously chosen by the ring to bring hope to Middle Earth. Luke Skywalker is chosen by the Force to bring order and justice to the universe. Harry Potter is chosen by fate I suppose, to defeat Lord Voldemort. And Neo in the Matrix is seen as the one who was to come. In many ways I believe that this myth is one of the reasons for their popularity because people are always looking for hope; hope in the midst of difficult and trying times.
Lest we think that this myth is something new, it isn’t. It is as ancient as our story out of the prophet Isaiah. Let’s set the scene then for this text. The nation of Judah was in need of hope. The great Empire of Assyria, an empire as brutal as anything conceived of in works of fiction, was moving across the landscape of the near East. It was destroying and annihilating any nation that stood in its way. For those who surrendered, they were brutally taxed and oppressed. The people of Judah watched helplessly as their neighboring states, though banding together were crushed. Would that be the fate of the people of God? Would that be the fate of those whom God had called and convenented with? Was there any hope? The answer from Isaiah was no, they were not forgotten and yes, there was hope. There was hope because there was a chosen one whom God had called. Listen again. “The people who walked in deep darkness have seen a great light…the rod of their oppressor you have broken as on the day of Midian…For a child has been born to us, a son has been given to us… his authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace.” The chosen one has been born, so have hope. It was a moment of hope, but ultimately one that proved to be short-lived. Yes, the Assyrians did not conquer Judah then, but Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, allied himself with the Assyrians and worshipped their Gods. Later Judah was conquered and oppressed by Babylon, Greece, Egypt and Rome. Once again then by the time of Jesus and Peter, people were again asking, Is there any hope? When will the chosen one arrive? The answer for Peter and the early church was yes, there is hope and the chosen one is already here.
We can see this response in the opening to Peter’s first letter. His language makes it clear that the people can have hope because the chosen one has arrived and has already won the victory over the powers and principalities of the world. Listen again,“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefined and unfading…”. Let’s unpack this. First the church, and the world have been born again. I need to be clear at this point that what Peter is talking about is not some individual experience here. Instead he is declaring that the old era has passed away and the new era has begun. This belief in two eras, one of the world and the other of God, is part of Jewish theology. Peter believes that in Jesus being raised from the dead, the old era is gone and the new one has been initiated. Thus we have experienced a new birth. And not only that, but this new era would last forever. It would last forever because unlike the Jewish kingdoms of old, it could not be defeated by force of arms, meaning it is imperishable. It cannot be made unclean like Judah was under Manasseh, meaning it will be undefiled. Finally it will not fade away over time, as did the Kingdom of Judah, meaning it is unfading. In other words this new era is here to stay. Second Peter tells his readers that they have been given a living hope…notice present tense. This is not a hope for something that will happen, but it is a hope that is existing in the present, because Jesus is in the present. Jesus is not a was, Jesus is an is. So Jesus is the hope, the living hope. And this is an amazing declaration. First it is amazing because Peter is saying that this itinerant, apocalyptic, wonderworking, miracle offering, always forgiving Galilean, named Jesus, is the chosen one of God, and through his death and resurrection a new era, a new creation, has arrived and that this risen Jesus is still present offering hope to the hopeless. But there is a second reason this is an amazing claim, and that is, that nothing appeared to have changed.
What I mean by this is that Rome was still in charge. The minions of Rome still ruled and taxed the people. There was still disease and death and persecution. If Jesus were the chosen one, what had actually changed? How could the church say, yes he is the living hope and there has been a new birth of a new era? And we might ask the same thing. After all, we are only 20 years removed from one of the most brutal centuries in the history of humanity. In the 20th century more than 170 million people were killed either directly or indirectly from war and political oppression. Millions more died from the Spanish flu. Even now, with our amazing technology, we are struggling to defeat a new and deadly virus and all around us we see this time being used as a jumping off point for ancient prejudices and a reemergence of racism of all kinds. Granted, Peter tells his readers that they will have to suffer various trials. He acknowledges that life will still be difficult. Life will come with hard times. Even so, how then can he and we affirm that Jesus is the chosen one of God who is giving us, and the world a new hope and a new birth, into this new era of creation? The answer for Peter comes in our experience of the love and life Christ is giving us.
He begins with these words. “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now you believe in him and rejoice.” What Peter is appealing to is our experience of the love of the risen Christ. The essence of his proclamation is that we are not merely following the teachings of a great Jewish rabbi, or remembering a life of someone who loved those around him. Instead Peter calls us to remember that we love Jesus; not the idea of Jesus, or a memory of Jesus, but we love the living Jesus, and by extension, we love the living Jesus because he loves us. The Greek word used here for love is the same word Jesus uses when he tells his disciples to love each other as he loves them. This is a word for love that is used to describe ongoing relationships. And by trusting that Jesus is an is and not a was, we can find our living hope in this love that we receive and give. This is also true of the word for believe, which is not about believing that something is true or false, but it is about making a commitment to something or someone. Here Peter says, because we experience the love of Jesus we can commit ourselves to the one who gives us hope.
The second reason we know Jesus is our hope comes when Peter tells his readers that they are receiving the very life that Jesus has to offer. This is the meaning of that somewhat cryptic verse nine. This is a verse I never understood fully until now, when I think about it in terms of the whole story of the people of God and not just about getting to heaven. It is the verse when Peter says that we are receiving the outcome of our faith, the salvation of our souls. What the modern evangelical world has done with this phrase is to make it a reference to life after death. That we get to go to heaven. This is not what the phrase means. The soul in Greek and in Judaism, is the breath of God that is within us. It is that life-giving essence that God breathed into the first human beings that animated them and allowed them to be those living in the image of God. What happens when we lose hope is that this breath leaves us. We become depleted and struggle to find the life of God within us. The image here is of God doing heart to heart resuscitation on us. Through the living Jesus, the very life of God, the breath of God is being restored in us and we become capable of living as hope-filled people. We are receiving the life of God.
We are living in a time when it would be easy to give up hope; when it would be easy to find ourselves spiritually depleted and run down. When we look at people lining up for food, and maybe we line up for food. When we see hospitals overflowing…and maybe one of our loved ones is in there. When we read of millions applying for unemployment, and maybe we are among them. When we are ready to give up hope, my hope is that you will remember that there is hope because the chosen one is here, and he is not Frodo, or Neo, or Harry or Luke, but he is Jesus, the risen one who is an is, and that in Jesus we are being offered both love and life; love and life that can renew us for our journey in this new age. My challenge to you this morning is this, to spend a few moments each day, in the quiet with the news turned off, and allow yourself to feel, yes feel, the presence of Christ within you. And then allow the love and life to flow.
A God of Blessing
Easter Sunday April 12, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Exodus 14:21-27; Matthew 28:1-10
The sanctuary was beautiful. It had white stucco walls and gorgeous stained glass windows. The ceiling was made up of dark oak and the whole thing was tied together with large dark oak beans that spanned from one side of the sanctuary to the other. The hue of the pews blended with all of the dark oak to present a marvelous place in which to worship. The only issue was that it was dark. The lights hanging from the ceiling were contained in very attractive and intricate brass cylinders. And because of the lack of light, I could watch people cluster close together under the dim illumination coming from high above them. As the new pastor of this church I was hesitant to say anything about the lack of light. But after having been there a while I decided it was time. So, at a session meeting, I raised the issue and asked if the church had ever considered changing the lights. At first there was silence, then came the very serious answer. Those lights had been hand made by a member of the church and they were deeply cherished by everyone. Well, I continued, couldn’t we put in brighter bulbs? No, the wiring would not allow it. At that moment I realized I would get nowhere. It reminded me of the old joke about how many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? The answer? Change, what do you mean change? That bulb was given by my grandparents! It was the best bulb we could ever buy in its day. If we wait long enough it just might work again. And who needs light anyway.
This was one of those powerful reminders that nine times out of ten people will choose stability over blessing every time. And I say stability over blessing, rather than stability over change, because sometimes change is not better than stability, but blessing always is. Blessing meaning enhancing the life of others, such as bringing more light to the sanctuary. And not only will people choose stability over blessing, they will actively oppose moving from stability to blessing. Any of you who have worked in a corporation, school or been part of a family have probably experienced the opposition that comes when a change, even a really good change, is being proposed. People will either try to sabotage or threaten in order to keep the community from being blessed. In this moment one of those examples is of churches who are still having in person services today because the stability of being together is preferred over the blessing of keeping their people safe from the Coronavirus. And these churches will defy the government in order to have their way. Why this matters this morning, is that this desire to choose stability over blessing forms the back story for both of our lessons.
The first has to do with the enslavement of the Hebrew people. The children of God had ended up in Egypt because of a famine. When they arrived they were given a territory in which they could live out their lives as shepherds and essentially bother no one. They were successful and prosperous and through that blessed the Egyptian Kingdom. They added to the GDP of the nation if you will. Over the course of time however, the Egyptians began to see the success of the Hebrews, as a threat to their national identity making them a target for the Egyptian government. The Egyptians feared the Hebrew might one day overwhelm them. So the Egyptians enslaved them. Then the Egyptians moved to extinguish them. Stability for the Egyptians was so important that they were willing to annihilate an entire people group. The Romans were not much different. They too desired stability over blessing. We can see this in the story of Jesus, who was someone who was bringing blessing to Galilee and Judea. Both of these places were hotbeds of revolution and resistance to the Romans. One would think that Jesus’ message of loving and forgiving one’s enemies, paying taxes, and talking about his kingdom not being of this world, would be welcomed by the powers in Jerusalem. That they would have seen this as offering blessing to the people and bringing peace. Yet they didn’t. Any talk of a kingdom and a king other than those authorized by Rome was seen as destabilizing and in need of a severe response. Let me be clear, Jesus was no threat to the Roman Empire. He had no army. He had no massive following. All he had was a rag-tag group of Galilean peasants. But for Rome, that was enough. They executed Jesus as an example to anyone else foolish enough to challenge the stability of Rome. Both of these Empires as Empires often do, chose stability over blessing. What neither of those civilizations understood however, was that God, YHWH, was not a God of stability, but was a God of blessing and just as importantly, would do whatever it took to secure blessing for the world.
The Egyptians were the first to learn this. After Pharaoh finally agreed to let God’s people go free, he changed his mind. Chasing after them he had them, cornered against the sea. It was an easy takedown. The best army in the world against a defenseless and frightened group of former slaves. As far as Pharaoh was concerned, order and stability would soon be restored. But then, the unexpected happened. The waters of the sea parted, the Hebrews walked through on dry ground and then when the Egyptian army followed, they were swallowed by the waves. It turns out that the God of the Hebrews was not a god of stability but a god of blessing, meaning that God intervened to use God’s people to bless the entire creation; to bless all the nations, including Egypt. And God would protect them in order for that blessing to become a realty. The same is true with the Romans. When they nailed Jesus to the cross they believed two things. First they believed that they had enhanced the stability of their Empire by ridding themselves of a wanna-be king. Second they believed that by so doing the fear of death would stop anyone from following in his footsteps. Again, they misjudged the God of the universe. This God was not a god of stability, but a god of blessing. This God was one who was going to bless the world by defeating the powers of sin and death in order to make the fullness of blessing available to all of creation. Which is why Easter matters so much.
I realize that this may not make a lot of sense. It may not because often what the church has done with Easter is that we have seen it as a one time event that allows us to gain eternal life. And as such what many of us have done with Easter is that we have put it in a box, put it on a shelf in our spiritual closets, only taking it down for memorial services or when we might be facing the end of our lives. In other words, while Easter matters, it only matters in certain moments. But Easter matters all the time. Easter matters because it is the unleashing of God’s blessing of life and life abundant. It is the unleashing of God’s love into the universe so that it can transform lives and families, and communities, and nations and all of creation. Think of Easter as ground zero for the spreading of a virus of blessing. And the only thing standing in the way of the spread is stability, meaning the unwillingness to reach out in love in new ways in new times. Which is why, I will repeat again, I love you all and I love this church. I do so because you all have chosen to be a church of blessing over stability. You have embraced worship on line…not a single criticism of our not meeting together. You have embraced giving online so that we can not only support the church but we can support hungry families in Pontiac. You have embraced calling one another and looking after one another in new and creative ways. You have, as Pastor Bethany said in her sunrise sermon, overwhelmed us with offers of help. You have chosen to make Easter more than a singular event to be boxed up and put away. You have made it a living reality in every day of the week.
So what happened with the lights? Well I worked with Ricky who was the the head of the property committee and a licensed electrician, to secretly install halogen lights, tucked tightly to the beams that spanned the sanctuary. Then one Sunday we turned them on before anyone arrived. No one said a thing. We did this two more weeks. Each week we watched as the people began to no longer cluster under the individuals bulbs; as they no longer squinted at their hymnals and bulletins. Then on the third Sunday I asked Ricky to turn off the new lights. People asked why we had turned out the lights. I replied that we had not turned out the lights, but that this was how they had been worshipping for the past 40 years. This is what choosing blessing over stability does. It banishes the darkness and allows new life to flourish.
My challenge for you this Easter Sunday is simple, to continue to be those who choose blessing over stability that we might let the virus of God’s blessing spread around the world.
It is Empty
Sunrise April 12, 2020
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
An empty tomb. The women left that morning with a task. They expected to find death here but instead found an empty tomb. In some telling of this morning it takes Mary three encounters with this empty tomb before she understands what has happened. The first time she encounters the emptiness with her eyes. She sees the cloths left behind and the once tightly wrapped body gone. She thinks someone must have stolen the body. It’s the only logical explanation for what her eyes are seeing. Someone must have wanted Jesus to be gone so badly they would stoop to robbing a tomb of its occupant. The second time Mary encounters the emptiness with her ears. Two angels meet her at the tomb entrance and tell her Jesus is risen. Her face must have given away her confusion because they try to remind her of lessons Jesus taught about this day. While she remembers the words Jesus said she can not fully hear the conclusions the angels are guiding her towards. The third time Mary encounters the emptiness with her heart. She is crying in the nearby garden and a man comes to comfort her. He asks why she is crying and she bears the grief of her soul to the stranger. When she is finished describing the emptiness she has seen and heard the man say her name, Mary.
Her ears know that voice. She looks up and her eyes know that face. She relaxes, her heart knows it is Jesus. She suddenly realizes empty didn’t mean something bad had happened. In fact it was the sign of something great God had done. Mary had a hard time understanding what was happening because emptiness had always been a bad thing. In her experience, empty jars meant no food to eat. Empty wells meant no water to drink. Empty pockets meant no money to purchase what was needed. Emptiness was not something to rejoice over. So when she saw an empty tomb she assumed the worst. What made the most immediate sense were thieves motivated by politics or religion stealing Jesus’ body for their own gain. When she met angels telling her the truth she still could not fathom how this empty tomb was good news. Except that is exactly what it is, this emptiness is God’s great news for the whole world. When Jesus arose that morning, he infused emptiness with possibility. Sins no longer left God’s people empty, forgiveness rushed into the void. The world was no longer empty of an active God instead God was brought near to remain with us. Death no longer had the final say over an empty body, souls were freed to join God in eternal life. Emptiness no longer meant the end, it held the possibility for a new beginning.
While thinking about emptiness this week I tried to think of where in our world emptiness was a good thing. Hoping to find how that first Easter morning had inspired us to rethink emptiness, but I had a hard time thinking of something. The only empty thing that brought me immediate joy was to think of an empty laundry hamper, because it means I don’t need to do laundry for awhile. But the realty Mary lived in is still very much our reality. Empty things are not awarded. Empty things are not generally great news. We have all experienced an increase of emptiness these past few weeks. Empty shelves at grocery stores. Empty classrooms. Empty manufacturing plants. Empty churches. Emptiness has caused us a lot of distress but there is a hope even for these times in what happened that morning Mary went to the tomb and found it empty.
That Easter morning redefined what empty can mean. I have heard people encouraging others to redefine how they talk about sheltering in place. Instead of thinking we are stuck at home, we can see ourselves as safe at home. This redefining of the situation is what Easter morning did to emptiness. It takes an empty tomb and says, “If Jesus is not here, it does not have to mean his body is stolen, it can mean he is risen and out in the world.” Before Easter the only logical explanation is devious theft, after Easter it means Jesus is resurrected.
We can apply this Easter redefinition to all the emptiness in our lives. Empty shelves don’t always mean hoarding. They also mean neighbors taking care of neighbors and communities filling the shelves of food pantries. Empty classrooms can mean teenagers aren’t fighting their natural sleep patterns to get up at 6 am for school. Empty classrooms can mean children learning to live with attention issues aren’t forced to be attentive for 7 hours a day. Empty factories mean businesses were willing to value the health of their workers above potential profits. And empty churches…WOW. Empty churches mean the members are living more fully into their call to bless the world.
The things we have seen you all doing is truly astonishing. You have not stepped a foot in the building of the church in three weeks but have been the church in so many creative ways. Usually my job is to find volunteers and support for mission projects but because the church is empty my job has been redefined to fielding calls and making connections for people who are LOOKING to help. It really has been mind boggling. Emptiness after Easter holds so much possibility.
My hope for the future of our currently empty church is that we take extra care when we refill the pews. We will need to think about what we go back to and choose some things to be left behind. In our opening I mentioned some of the things Jesus left behind in the empty tomb. Things like fear and shame, old ways and our old selves.
Emptiness is also a sign that it was time to move on from something. That first Easter morning changed God’s people and the world forever. It was scary, it was confusing, it was frustrating. But they worked through the redefinition one step at a time. Learning what to take with them, what needed to be left behind and what possibilities had opened up. When it is safe to refill our pews on Sunday mornings our church will need to do the same thing. It will be scary, it will be confusing, it will be frustrating. There may be things we have done that we realize can be left behind. But it will also reaffirm the practices we keep as we relearn why traditions like worshiping together are so powerful. We will be reenergized by the innovations you have all made these past few weeks and continue some of them into our future together.
The church hopefully will not be the only thing currently standing empty that gets redefined. There is a lot of work to be done when possibility is unleashed on the world. It may be hard to grasp now because we are still somewhere between good Friday and Easter morning when it comes to the coronavirus. But even that Easter morning is coming. When that happens we will set out with a task to “get back to normal life” and find emptiness in many places of our former lives. In those moments I want you to hear the angels asking “why we are looking for the dead among the living” “why are you focused on getting back to the past when the future has been thrown open.” We can choose to see emptiness or we can see possibility. We can sit in an empty tomb or we can leave behind the old ways and resurrect ourselves and our world into something new.
Emptiness after Easter does not mean something terrible has happened, it means possibilities are alive. Jesus is alive, and so are we.
Good Friday 2020
April 10, 2020
Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
John 18:1-12, 15-18, 25-32; John 19:1-20, 25-30
In the week leading to Jesus’ death things began to break around him.
A jar of precious perfume was broken over Jesus’ head and anointed him.
The Passover bread was broken and blessed and shared among friends.
A friendship broken as Judas kissed Jesus and turned him over to the soldiers.
The adoration of the crowds broke down into cries for his crucifixion.
The promise of loyalty broken three times before the rooster crows
These cracks left Jesus:
Broken – in body and spirit,
broken – and crying out in anguish,
broken – and far from home,
broken – and giving up his life,
In front of friends and family and strangers Jesus dies,
The veil in the temple breaks.
The hold of sin and death on the world breaks
The power that oppresses breaks
From all life’s broken places we remember this night the lengths Jesus was willing to go to make us whole again.
Let us join in prayer:
God who created us suffers because of us
God who died upon the cross suffers for us
God who dwells with us suffers with us
And in God’s suffering we find hope
God, your suffering brings us salvation
Without you the horrors of human suffering would be unbearable
Your story of life, death and resurrection gives life meaning
Your suffering frees us from our prisons
Because of your suffering a new world is breaking into ours
May we live this day in the knowledge of your pain
May we live this day in the assurance of your love
May we live this day in the hope of the resurrection.
Maundy Thursday 2020
April 9, 2020
The Rev. John Judson
He zipped right across the street. He was in motion and nothing was going to slow him down. He was about six or seven years old and cruising on his bike. Behind him were his dad and little sister in a stroller. As the boy rode across the street, I heard his father call out, “Did you slow down and look both ways before you crossed?” The immediate answer was, “Yes Dad.” Now I had been watching this whole thing, including the boy crossing the street without turning his head or his eyes one way or the other, meaning, no, he had not looked either way and had not slowed down. So why the lie? Perhaps because that’s what most of us do at one time or another when asked a question whose true answer would bust us for not doing what we were supposed to do. I often did this when my mother would ask me if I had cleaned my room. The immediate answer would be yes, then I would hurry to my room to actually clean up before she got there to check. In fact in some cultures it is considered impolite to tell an answer in the negative, even when the negative is the truth, such as, “Can you have this done by the end of the day?” and the answer will always be, “Yes” even if it is impossible.
So I have to say this is the excuse I always wanted to make for Judas, that when he, along with the rest of the disciples asked Jesus, “It’s not me is it,” he was simply doing what we all do. Yet the longer I have lived with this story, the less I want to offer him an excuse. In fact, I have come to believe that Judas, rather than simply replying as we all do, was mocking Jesus. That if we could hear what was going on inside Judas’ head, we would have heard something like this. “Jesus, I’ve got you now. You never brought in the kingdom. You never got rid of the Romans. You never made me rich, or famous or powerful. And so now I am getting the wealth I deserve, and you are getting the punishment you deserve. I’m glad you’re going down and I am glad to be part of it. So Jesus I’ve got you now.” And I think that Jesus knew this. I think Jesus understood that Judas had betrayed him and was still not surprised by Judas’ answer. So what does Jesus do? Does he confront Judas? Does he tell the others that Judas is the betrayer? No, he doesn’t. All he does is invite him to have dinner. All he does is share this last meal with the one who betrayed him.
This response should come as no surprise to us for two reasons. First it should not because the Passover meal was a commemoration of the initiating event of the Exodus; the freeing of God’s people from slavery. And for those who know the story, the people God freed from slavery. The people God fed with manna. The people to whom God miraculously offered water from a rock…they betrayed God. The first chance they got they created a golden calf that was to become their god. Yet, God did not abandon them. Instead God fed them, led them and gave them a land flowing with milk and honey. Chances are while God was hurt by their betrayal, God was somehow not surprised. In the same way, Jesus knew that the betrayal was coming, and not only from Judas, but from all the disciples. They would all run away. They would all pretend they did not know him. Peter would in one of the great betrayals of history, deny Jesus three times. So Judas was not alone in his betrayal. They were all in on it. Yet Jesus still invited them to the table. Jesus still gave his life for them. Jesus still loved them in spite of what they were about to do.
My friends, this is one of the amazing things about Jesus and about this table. It is that Jesus invites all to come and feast. Jesus does not invite only those who are perfect or nearly so. Jesus does not invite only those who have never betrayed him by saying or doing something of which he would not approve. No, Jesus invites all of us. Jesus invites us to come regardless of what we have done or not done; regardless of our flaws or failings; regardless of our past, present, or future. Jesus invites us to this table where all are welcome and where all are invited to eat and drink, to be fed and refreshed. I once had one of my good friends not come to the table because she thought she was not worthy…and so I told her this is not how it works. It works like that first table, where all of those who were going to betray Jesus were welcomed to eat. And so in a few minutes I hope you will all come…come to the table where all eat.
April 5, 2020
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; John 12:27-36
We started today’s readings with a poem from Ecclesiastes. The section Pastor John read has a few verses of Hebrew poetry that many of us have heard before about all things having a season. Hebrew poetry, like all poetry, has its own rules that when you know them you are able to see the deeper meaning in these few lines. These rules help clue readers into rhythms that are intended to draw attention to details and help us truly understand the text. They help create the image the writer wants the reader to draw in their mind's eye. Since many of us are not native Hebrew speakers the clues in these rules may slip past us and we might not make the right picture when we hear these verses, so I want us to look a little closer at a few things.
In the verses, we can all hear the pairs, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted. If you were looking at the poem these pairs would be emphasized even more because they are all given their own line. A time to kill and a time to heal, next line, a time to break down and a time to build up. The writer wants us to see the structure forming so we can draw lines of meaning between these things.
Another rule that the writer follows is to make comparisons. The pairs are Birth and death. Planting and harvesting. These are opposites which creates a continuum. If these things were set on a line one would be on the far right and one would be on the far left. So we can hear the writer telling us that there is literally a time for EVERY thing under the sun from one end of the line to the other. There is a time for both ends and everything in between. If the writer is drawing a straight line there should be some designation as to which end is which. Which way the writer wants us to travel along this line between these things. From the good end to the bad or vice versa for example. In traditional Hebrew poetry if the writer wants you to prefer one thing and designate it as good over the other they will put the “better” option second so it is fresher in your mind. But our verses today start with a time to be born and a time to die. The second thing mentioned is death, which does not seem like the more desirable of the pair. Surely the writer is not saying death is better than birth. Anyone who has experienced both things will choose birth over death.
So maybe this writer has a reason to break the traditional rule. Poets sometimes do break rules to draw extra attention to the preference they are trying to make. They break the rule to throw off an audience and make us pay attention to the reality they want us to see clearly. So maybe this writer is flipping the pattern on purpose. If that is the case we would expect all the preferred items to be first and the lesser preference to be second. Since birth comes first in its pair we assume everything that comes first should be the writer's preferred state. This works for some of the pairs, plant, seek, and keep all come first. However, not everything we would think of as preferred comes first. Kill comes first too. Break down, weep, and mourn all come first in their pairs.
There is no seeable pattern to set up the preference to which side of the spectrum we should be going towards. By presenting these pairs in a random order the writer takes the two ends of the line spectrum that we thought we were on and connects them to make a circle. We are not on a line spectrum moving towards or away from good or bad things. We are on the line of a circle with no beginning no end no hierarchy. This randomness of the pairs tells us that the writer is not making a moral judgement on these things at all. There is no preference. What is being said is that this is simply the reality of human experience. Some things happen that are preferred and some things happen that are not.
This equalizing of emotion reminded me of a poster that was on the wall of my AP psych class in high school. The poster was titled “Wheel of Emotion” it had three concentric circles with spokes cutting through the circles. In the very center were the six basic emotions. Sad, fear, disgust, happy, anger, and surprise. If you have seen the movie inside out 5 of these were turned into characters and they controlled each person’s brain. Disney Pixar got that straight from psych 101. But we all know emotions get more complicated than just these six. The next circle in the poster breaks each basic emotion into 4-6 more specific emotions. Happy becomes optimistic, peaceful, or interested. Anger becomes hurt, distant, or hateful. Sad becomes guilty, depressed, or bored. Then the third circle breaks them down even more. Guilty is ashamed or remorseful. Optimistic becomes inspired or open. Hateful is violated or resentful. And we suddenly go from 6 emotions to 72. 72 very specific emotions. Remorseful to indifferent, all in the sad spoke. Sarcastic to embarrassed, all in the anger spoke. Inspired to liberated, all in the happy spoke. These verses reminded me of the poster because the wheel layout makes it so that no emotion is better than another. They all sit together like king Arthur’s knights of the round table. No one is at the head and no one is opposite of the other. Not even happy and sad are opposite, they are just different seasons in a person’s life. This is what the wheel of emotion conveys and what the writer of Ecclesiastes is telling us in the structure of the poem. There is no wrong emotion, or bad emotion. They are all equal, and they all have their season to be felt. No season is better or worse than the other. The reality this writer wants us to see is Happiness is not better than sadness. Surprise is not better than disgust. Weeping and laughing are equal in their importance. Sure we may want to be in seasons of laughter more than weeping but if all we ever do is laugh it’s going to be unhealthy for us. We need to cry when the season to cry comes, not rush back to laughter, and ignore the new season.
The writer wants us to EXPERIENCE these seasons, and I say that with open arms because I mean experience our emotions. Not just to be able to say them out loud but to notice what is happening in our hearts and minds and body when we feel. What does anger do to a body? My heart races, my vision goes blurry, I can’t formulate the sentences I want to and I can’t process incoming information very well. What does surprise do to a body? Well a lot of the same things anger does which is why it is so important to feel and understand what we are feeling when we are in the season of an emotion so we can better decipher if this is anger or surprise. We have all probably seen videos where someone jumps out to scare someone else. How many times does a person get punched when someone is feeling surprised? Punching is normally an anger response but sometimes it comes out as a surprise response. So emotions can feel like other emotions. Taking time to sit in the season with the emotion helps us know ourselves better and helps us process through what we are actually feeling at the core emotion.
Grief is an emotion that pretends to be all these other emotions. When we grieve, we can act angry, happy, sad, disgusted. That is why it can be so hard to realize we are grieving. That is why it can take so long to process grief, because a lot of the time we literally have no idea what root emotion is causing our behavior to fluctuate too much. Emotions are complicated, but they deserve their season.
I find a lot of comfort in thinking about emotions being in seasons. As someone who has spent her whole life in Michigan I love our changing seasons. I tend to love them more around this time of year because I do have a preference and my favorite season is coming soon. It gets harder to like the changing seasons in September as I prepare for a season of winter. But even in winter I try to experience what I can of it. I take the time to find the good things. The way snow sticks to trees after a wet snow fall. Or the way icicles reflect the light after a deep freeze, and who can complain about a snow day. Even my least favorite season has its benefits.
I also spend a fair amount of time acknowledging the bad things too. Scrapping a car is awful. Bundling up to go trick or treating and covering my whole costume is infuriating. There are things I hate about winter but they deserve to be experienced because they are all part of the season. If I tried to go through winter happy and finding the silver lining, I would be exhausted because I would be fighting my truth. It would get harder and harder to function because I would be spending all my energy finding something positive to say. It’s okay to just feel miserable. Every season has it’s benefits and its disadvantages. I have to stay open to both to really live in that season.
Our emotions are valuable tools for understanding our health. Physical, mental, and spiritual. If we fight them and try to “be fine” the whole time we aren’t honoring the season. I spent this last week calling people on my phone to see how they were. Not a single person said “Good. How are you?” They all gave me a real answer! They knew I didn’t expect them to be good so they gave me the truth. Most of them were “good” but we got to talk about the ups and downs and experience this season more fully because we allowed each other to truly experience it.
These past few weeks have sent me around that wheel of emotion multiple times. Jumping from hope to despair, from disgust to pride, from avoidance to helplessness. Should I find more silver linings? Can I complain about my time at home when my friends have three year olds destroying their homes daily? Is it okay to feel happy that no one in my inner circle is sick yet? All this whirling around me until I finally just asked God to tell me how I should feel. The answer I got was “yes.” Yes you should feel hopeful and yes you should feel despair. Whatever you are feeling is right. It is the exact right feeling to be having for the time we are living in. It is okay to be happy all your plans were cancelled. It is okay to feel angry that people aren’t taking this more seriously. It is okay to be relieved the family vacation was cancelled. It is okay to be proud of your neighbors. It is okay to be distressed you won’t see your favorite teacher again. It is okay to feel bored. Every emotion is worth feeling for its season.
There is one other element of this poem I want us to look at. I think it really drives home why it is so important to honor what you are feeling in the season it arises. The randomized structure of this poem also shows us that we do not know what season is coming next. We are not heading towards something worse and we aren’t heading towards something better. What we are heading towards is something different. We simply do not know what season is ahead of us. There is no pattern. This makes it doubly important to feel what we are feeling now because what we have now is just for now. Emotions get dangerous when they aren’t given their season. When we try to skip past them or spin the wheel for another option. When we force ourselves into another season the original emotion is left to fester in the corners of our being.
But when we give each emotion its rightful time there is a promise in these scriptures that the season will change. Even grief will change and become something different. It may always be with you is some form but it will change. We need to feel what we feel now because this may be the only time we feel this way. It may be the only time to learn what this feels like, to learn what the benefits of this season are and to learn what the downsides too. Whatever is coming next will be its own season.
Jesus understood this on his ride into Jerusalem. Many people point out that Jesus does not seem particularly happy during this festival. There is no grand speech to address the adoring crowd or actions that suggest his enjoyment. In fact, we hear very little about Jesus’ feelings about the festival. He simply is not feeling joyful and does not fake it for the crowd. He lets them be joyful, he isn’t a downer on their parade, but he doesn’t put on an act for them either. I’ll bet that was very comforting to the person who was also not feeling joyful at the parade either.
Sometimes holidays just don’t feel like they should. I can almost guarantee this Easter is going to feel different. But just because this season is going to be different doesn’t mean it is bad. For your introverted friend this may be their favorite Easter of all time. It may become yours because the image of being resurrected from a tomb and coming out alive will hit just a little closer to home this year. It may also be awful. But whatever it ends up being, feel it and be honest about it, because it is only just for a season. When we are honest about our emotions people will feel more comfortable in their own emotional experience around us. Our openness and honesty frees others from the shame of what our world calls “bad” emotions. And we can offer to others the same promise scripture offers us, that this is just for a season.