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Heroic Dysfunction

People didn’t know about the heroic actions of Walter Suskind until after the war. Jewish survivors of concentration camps made their way back to Amsterdam to find their children who had been secreted away to safe houses. As these reunions took place Walter’s name began to surface as the hero. Walter was a German Jew who moved to the Netherlands in 1938 because it seemed safer than his home country. He was an actor who gravitated to the theater in Amsterdam. When the Nazi regime forced segregation, the Holland Theater became the Jewish Theater, the only place where Jews could go for their entertainment. At first Hitler’s men played nice after their surprising arrival in Holland. Dutch residents were on edge but believed that the Nazi occupation would be manageable. In actuality the soldiers were establishing relationships with Jewish Council members to learn the identity and address of every Jew in this metropolitan area. When their persecution began, they knew right where to go.

amsterdam jewish theater street
The Jewish Theater became the clearing house for Jews who were arrested and on their way to concentration camps. Walter was an easy talker and could readily communicate with the Germans. So he was chosen as the director of operations at the theater, keeping track of who arrived and when they left for particular camps. He was likable and earned the trust of the local members of the Third Reich. What they didn’t know is that Walter had a heart for his own people. He was a young husband and father to a little girl. He didn’t believe the soldiers’ promises that these Jewish neighbors were being sent to nice camps with pleasant amenities. He was determined to save as many of the children as he could.

amsterdam tram
We took a tour of the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam when we were there several years ago. Our guide pointed out that the handsome theater building was across the street from a preschool. There was a tram that traveled up and down the street all day, every day during the war. The tram provided a visual block for the Nazi soldiers stationed outside the theater building. Working with Henriette Pimentel in the preschool, they found creative ways to transport small Jewish children out of the city into safe houses in the countryside. Jewish parents were secretly asked if they wanted this for their children, often with only an hour or so to decide. Most thought they would be able to come back after the war to find them. But, sensing imminent danger, many made the unthinkable choice to allow their small children to be carried away from them and into the homes of trusted strangers. Some left the preschool in the backpacks of older children who carried them home. Others were hidden in laundry baskets carried by women who got on the tram. Others were seated next to a parent figure on the bus who traveled out of town. Walter’s very small group of trusted conspirators was so discreet that the Nazi soldiers positioned at the theater never knew what was going on just across the street. In his engaging manner, with fluent German, Walter conversed with the soldier on duty each time a child was moved from the nursery and into the tram. His distractions allowed for somewhere between 600 to 1100 children being spared from almost certain death in two nearby concentration camps: Auschwitz and Theresienstadt.

amsterdam canal shot
The usual ending to stories of heroes in Jewish resistance circles is one of sacrifice. Walter, his wife and small daughter were ultimately sent out of Amsterdam along with their neighbors. Walter could have been spared since he held a trusted position but he refused to be separated from his small family. They all three lost their lives in Auschwitz. The wife and child were sent to the gas chambers upon arrival but some uncertainty surrounds Walter’s death. One plausible story was that Dutch prisoners at the camp killed him because they believed he was a traitor to his people. They only saw his easy conversation with German soldiers on the street corner of the theater. They could not imagine that he was working against this occupation force. They had no way of knowing that he had a clever system that destroyed records of Jews brought to the deportation center so that they could escape unnoticed. He had contacts who made fake IDs for escaped Jews. Other theater staff miscounted when loading a bus destined for deportation so that fewer prisoners were shipped off to camps than the soldier believed. Walter schmoozed with the soldier in charge while another trusted Jew did the head count aloud: 36, 37, 38, 39. 50. 51… Those resisting a powerful and evil regime became masters of heroic dysfunction that saved the lives of thousands of innocent people over the course of the war. But the cost was still great. Walter Suskind died an unsung hero at the age of 38. It was only when people came back from the war, looking for (and finding!) their children, that the name of Walter Suskind was redeemed from traitor to hero. Today there is an arts school in the theater building. One staff member explained, “Suskind is used as a model for the lesson that we must care for each other. Everyone is as important as another. Even in the worst of circumstances, it is worthwhile to think of other people and to help other people and in whatever way we can do that and think about what he did, we will do it.”
Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day and we remember the heroic dysfunction of Walter and countless others whose clever scheming and great love for their people cost them their own lives.
We meet Thomas in John 20. Thomas doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead. And who could blame him? He had witnessed the public execution of Jesus as a dissenter of the government. Who could survive the murderous plot of the Roman Empire? They had powerful ranks of soldiers at the ready. They demanded obedience and practiced their own ethnic cleansing. No one survives that! Yet here stood Jesus among them. Something about Jesus was different. Thomas had doubts that it really was his beloved teacher. So Jesus showed Himself to this disciple who is remembered as a skeptic. Through His wounds, Thomas recognized Jesus. He was the same yet different.
We understand that right now. Many aspects to our lives appear to be very much the same while others are wildly different. Kids aren’t riding along our neighborhood streets on their bikes together. Schools are shuttered. Shops are closed. Church bells are silent. In urban areas some buildings have been refitted and are being used for lifesaving purposes now. We put on masks when we go out. We feel isolated and bored. Those in hospitals tell us stories that we find hard to believe. Some of us are terrified that we are losing a loved one who is diagnosed with Covid 19. Things seem the same and yet they are so different. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the risen Christ is near.
In this resurrection account, John stresses that it is the first day of the week. It’s a fresh start. Jesus re-enters the world of His startled disciples, the same yet different. What Jesus started, He wants them to continue. They are horrified. They understand all too well that they could end up on a cross as despised traitors. So Jesus equips them. He breathes on them. They discover that they are not alone in battling the corrupt empires of the world. Christ’s Holy Spirit will empower them. Even doubting Thomas is given what he needs to become an impassioned apostle of a resurrected Messiah!
On this season after Easter we remember that, no matter the world around us, regardless of who is in power and how many are suffering, Jesus is resurrected from the dead. The stone is rolled away and Jesus is out of the box. He asks us to serve as His Body in out-of-the-box ways. Are we up to the job? Of course not! He tells the 11 men hidden away in a corner of Jerusalem that they have the authority to forgive sins—or not! Who, me? I do the pardoning or I continue to hold someone accountable for their sin?! We don’t think we are ready but Jesus does. In fact, He commands us! We act on His behalf no matter how unpopular our words may be, no matter how unrecognized our good deeds may go. On that First Day of the week, the disciples are charged with continuing the work that Jesus began whatever it might cost them.
We see that the challenges are great in our present circumstances. We wonder how we can best serve when we are told to stay away from others? How do we use our talents when our world has narrowed so greatly? Do we meet for worship in defiance of a governmental decree or do we trust that staying apart for a much longer time than we can imagine is our best and most loving course of action? Protests in cities across America this past week demonstrate that we are on edge and not in agreement with how to best respond to a killing virus. I am moved continually by the out-of-the-box ways folks are responding to the dire needs of our community. We remember that the Apostle Paul escaped a threat to his life by being lowered over the city walls in a basket. When it is hard to believe that Jesus is near, we are called to serve compassionately in His name in ways that bring peace.
Paul understood that our actions within the Body of Christ can be viewed as either traitorous or heroic. Persecuted and ultimately dying for his faith in Jesus, he wrote this to his beloved congregation in Corinth: “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?”
The answer is that not one of us is able to pick up where Christ left off on our own. So we celebrate that the risen Christ equips us through the power of His Spirit. We preach boldly in everyday pulpits where some will greatly oppose what we say and others will find our message lifesaving. We act out of love but may even go to the grave unheralded for our goodness. Many, like Walter Suskind, have done that before us. But we do not lose hope because we are a resurrection people. In the makeshift hospital rooms where people are struggling for breath we see compassion by people who put their lives on the line for complete strangers. We keep away from each other so that we don’t inadvertently infect others whose systems cannot fight the virus. We share our love for each other in new and creative ways. We find the peace that Jesus offered those fearful disciples in a Jerusalem hiding place on the First Day of the week.
Christ has risen. He is calling us into service in the power of His Holy Spirit. Let’s go!

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Preaching Resurrection on Good Friday

This year Easter felt like an unfamiliar celebration. There’s no manual for how we’ve been living in the past month. There were no lilies adding familiar fragrance to our sanctuaries. We didn’t raise our voices together in triumphant song. You didn’t host extended family members for a ham dinner. You probably didn’t even leave your home all day! The backdrop to each day is heavy. Reports of sickness and death that are overwhelming our health care systems are continually before us. The threat of contracting the Corona virus has us on paranoid lockdown and is robbing us of sleep. How do we celebrate the high point of our Christian faith in such somber circumstances?

I realized last Monday that I would actually be preaching my Easter sermon and leading a joyful worship service on Good Friday. In order to have time to put the service together we met in the sanctuary on Good Friday, the most difficult day in the Church calendar. I wondered how I would preach resurrection joy on the day that marks a public lynching. That’s what crucifixion really was: state-sanctioned public murder. And I’m supposed to sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”? As the Psalmist moans, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

I have this image of standing in a swamp up to my knees in murky water. We have a swamp just down the hill from our home. Around Garrett’s birthday each year, March 31, we hear the first courageous voice of a spring peeper who has surfaced from the primordial ooze of dark water. Each evening new voices join in until there’s a continual chorus that assures us that Spring has arrived! I imagine standing knee deep in waters that are teeming with life but also filled with decay and death. The rotting organisms in brackish water nourish the life that lives within. Even as I stand in that swamp I can look up to see a blue sky and green grass. The sun shines overhead. No matter where we are standing, hope can be found if we look up expectantly for God!

The minor prophet, Habakkuk, laments in chapter three that the usual yield of the land isn’t happening. The crops upon which they are dependent have failed. There are no flocks in the fields. Something has gone very wrong with the prophet’s world yet…. the prophet makes a decision of faith. It’s as if he is singing, “Even though my circumstances don’t warrant it, I will praise God. I will be joyful in God who is our Savior for He is our strength. God will give me the energy to run like a deer across the hills.” He ends with resurrection praise in spite of a Good Friday growing season.

I had to preach Easter on Good Friday this year and I wasn’t sure I could do that.

photo of person skiing on snowfield
Photo by Melvin Wahlin on Pexels.com

Beverly Courrege writes about a terrifying moment when her family went on a ski trip with their church family. Their 11-year old son was a fantastic skier and spent the second half of a day on the black diamond slopes with her husband. At the end of the day they each assumed that he was with the other and ended up at the lodge together—but without him. They panicked. The slopes were a 20-minute drive away and had closed by this time. The mountain would soon be dark. Her husband stayed at the lodge in case he arrived in one of the last shuttles. A church friend offered to drive Beverly back to the slopes. Her mind was racing, imagining her boy on the mountain alone. Was he hurt? Certainly he was scared. As she and the friend started the journey back to the ski slopes, the woman suggested that they pray. Oh yeah. Pray. Beverly realized that she hadn’t thought to turn to God first. Her impulse was to assume that she alone had to remedy the crisis and the thought was overwhelming. In the 20-minute ride to the mountain, her friend prayed aloud with Christian music playing in the background. Beverly closed her eyes and sank into her seat. The peace of God came over her and she knew, by the time they parked the car, that all would be well. There was one ski patrol in view in an otherwise abandoned site. He pointed to the lift house with a smile. Beverly’s 11- year old son came running out at the sound of her voice and they embraced, weeping. “I knew you’d come back for me, mom,” he cried. Their day started at a high point, with excitement amidst church friends. But the boy realized in the last run that he was increasingly alone. He was scared and abandoned. But, in the valley, the reunion was sweet. The friend quietly drove them back to the lodge as they sat intertwined in the back seat. (The Joy of Resurrection by Beverly Courrege, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000)

The resurrection account from John’s gospel begins “Early in the morning while it was still dark…” Mary Magdalene’s feet are in the swamp. She pushes past the fears (which immobilized the disciples) and heads to the tomb, hoping to anoint Jesus’ dead body. She and the disciples haven’t slept well. They are disturbed by their profound loss. She doesn’t know how she will gain access to His body since it’s behind an enormous boulder. But her love for Jesus compels her to move forward in faith. She knew Him at the high point of His popularity. She experienced the excitement of His healing and teaching. Now it was her turn to honor Him at the bitter end of His life, whatever it might cost her.

Mary had reason to be fearful. She had been traumatized by the crucifixion of three men just two days earlier. She could still hear Jesus’ voice, conversing with common thieves on either side of Him. She heard Him call out forgiveness for His enemies. She witnessed the jeering of the crowd, some of whom Jesus fed to their full on a mountainside just a short time earlier. To be associated with a man who was murdered as an enemy to the Empire put a mark on her. Jesus’ disciples stayed hidden but Mary set out in the dark of dawn in the big city of Jerusalem where she did not belong. For a woman to walk alone in a strange place was unwise. Perhaps she prayed as she navigated the path in darkness, making her way to Jesus’ burial place. To her utter amazement she saw that the stone had been rolled back! Her heart skipped a beat and she raced back toward the place where the disciples were hidden. Like the prophet Habakkuk described in his oracle, the power of God restored her energy. She ran to share the news. The two disciples who were closest to Jesus followed her, running to see for themselves that the enormous boulder was moved. There is more running in this passage of scripture than there is in the rest of the gospels combined. What they discovered was illogical but John was moved by the Spirit. “He saw and believed.” Biblical scholar, Tom Wright, describes what broke open within this beloved disciple: “He believed that new creation had begun.” Peter and John returned to the other disciples with unbelievable news of a second genesis!

Mary remained. There was a mystery to what she found in the tomb. Like the mom whose son was left alone on a mountainside, Mary may have begun this journey with fear, guilt and confusion. Perhaps in her panic she forgot to pray, to trust that God was already at work in this tragedy. So we take a moment to stand with Mary as she weeps. Time stands still as we join our tears to hers, remembering those who have experienced great loss this week. We dare not rush the moment because Mary’s sense of loss prepares her heart for the good news to come. We lift up to God those for whom we have carried burdens in the past weeks of sheltering in place. We offer to hold their tears and know that we must fully entrust them to the God of new beginnings. At the right moment Mary’s weeping is interrupted by One who calls her by name. She recognizes Him when He says “Mary.” In that moment she understood that Jesus was alive and rejoiced at His resurrection from death.

This is a familiar passage to many of us. But something stood out to me in reading it this year. Mary’s instinctual response to Jesus’ appearance is to touch Him or hug Him. But Jesus holds her at bay. We have this yearning to hug our loved ones, hold our grandbabies, sit with family members who are in care facilities. We miss being together as a church family but we keep our distance to minimize the threat of a deadly virus. Mary could not hold on to Jesus as she wished. We imagine the embracing of loved ones when the quarantine is lifted. As Habakkuk broke into a run when reassured of God’s presence, I am certain there will be stories on the news that show reunions between medical staff who have distanced themselves from their families for weeks. Older couples who have been separated, one in a nursing facility and the other at home, will clasp frail hands together again. Children will reunite with their playmates, picking up where they left off. They will throw a ball or walk to the Rockford dam together to go fishing. We will reenter our world with resurrection joy—but we will be changed.

I had to preach resurrection on Good Friday. But I wasn’t alone. St. John the Divine Church did not hold services in their Manhattan neighborhood this week. Instead they chose to become a field hospital and readied their sacred space for a congregation of medical workers and Covid-19 patients. Military personnel with medical skills have been sent to New York City hospitals to bolster the exhausted and sickened staff. Emergency workers have received standing ovations from neighbors on balconies and in driveways for their sacrificial service. We rejoiced in the good news that more people were discharged from New York hospitals in Holy Week than were admitted. I preached the resurrection on Good Friday which seems very appropriate this year given the mix of emotions we live with on a daily basis.

Tom Wright, in his commentary on John’s Gospel, points out that Jesus has broken through the exile and made His way back from death to life. Jesus tells Mary, “Go to my brothers and tell them, ’I am returning to my father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” The barriers between Jesus and His followers have been bridged by His death and resurrection. The disciples are no longer His students. They are His brothers. Jesus’ Father, who watched over Him on the cross and resurrected Him from death, is now our father and God as well. The resurrection brings rejoicing, particularly in Good Friday times, that nothing separates us from the love of God. At our mountain top experiences and in the anxiety of dark valleys, God is with us. When we feel like we are quagmired in a mucky swamp, unable to move forward, Jesus comes to us. In the dying and the healing, in a global pandemic and the bright days of summer ahead, God brings new life.

Christ has risen. He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!

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The Bread of Life

I wonder what food shortage you have experienced during this Corona Virus pandemic? For several weeks we have encountered emptied shelves in grocery stores where the most highly prized items have been bought in bulk and squirreled away in private homes. As I walk through the grocery store I see plenty of food but not always what I would like. The bread, milk and meat sections are wiped out. Recently the ice cream freezer was almost completely depleted. And, of course, we’ll never look at a 6-pack of toilet paper in the same light again!

Bread is a basic staple in most of our homes. Even with the outrageously broad menu of items available to us in our 21st century American homes, we still appreciate our daily bread. In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls Himself “the bread of life.” The crowd is comprised of many of the same people who witnessed His miraculous multiplication of five loaves and two fish to feed an outdoor classroom of 5,000 people a day earlier. They ate to their full and came to Him again, looking for magic tricks and a free meal. They hounded Him, asking in essence, “What are you going to do for me today?”

The previous day, after the miraculous provision, they had been ready to make Jesus their king. So He fled. He knew He could never be the kind of ruler they expected. What mattered then and now is not what He can do for us but who He is. The Passover meal that His ancestors celebrated was fulfilled in Him. So, as He sat at table with His disciples the night of His arrest, He broke bread with them and drank from the Passover cup. But He assigned new meaning to these two staples to their diet. From that time forward His followers would have a way to connect with Him even after His earthly departure. In the bread they would remember His body and that they were part of it. In the wine they were invited to remember His willing sacrifice for them and the world. They were His companions, which means one with whom you share your bread.

baked pastry on plate on top of table
Photo by Dan Gold on Pexels.com

We miss each other’s companionship during this quarantine. We long for the familiar faces in beloved sanctuaries where we are nourished by traditions in our worship. So, in these unnerving times, we look for new ways to connect with each other—and Christ gave that to us! We are so enamored with the gifts of our five senses. But He gave us a sixth sense that attunes to spiritual realities than cannot be proven but are undeniable to those who experience them. In that sixth sense we know Christ’s presence that is lasting and limitless. Jesus was a remarkable healer in that He could heal from afar—without touch or being in sight of the patient. So, as we gather around tables, separated by physical distance this quarantined evening of Maundy Thursday, we celebrate that we are made a commun-ity in Christ’s communal meal. We are perhaps more unified than we have been in a long time for we yearn for each other’s presence, sadly keep safe distances from each other and listen intently to each other’s words.
In the safety of our homes, as we share a meal together, we pray for those who, even now, are in hospitals—for the exhausted caregivers, the sick, and the dying. We pray for those who are unable to visit their loved ones who are in a care facility. We lift up those who are alone in the quarantine, yearning for companionship. We pray for those in strained relationships who must share close quarters with each other. We thank God for the companionship of Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, who ministers from afar yet enters us mysteriously in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup. So we echo the prayer of that early crowd as they pressed in on Jesus: “Master, give us this bread—give it to us always!”

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His Place is Assured

My dog is not stressed by the shelter-in-place mandate. On his typical pre-pandemic morning the members of our household leave him, one by one, for our work places. He sits in the hallway, watching as we swig down the last of our coffee and head toward the door. He is both heart-broken and disbelieving: “So you’re ditching me again today?” I’ve learned to get down to his level to share a litany that confirms his worst suspicions: “Mama goes bye-bye. Hunter’s a good boy. Mama comes back. Hunter, stay!” His head droops and I head off to work wracked with guilt. Of course, our abandonment is magnanimously forgiven when we return hours later to a ridiculously joyful reunion.

With the shelter-in-place decree, we are all slogging around the house together now. In fact, one son decided to camp out with us rather than stay with a housemate in Ann Arbor. So there are four family members now who dote on him. He has three levels of the house to visit and often there are snacks tossed his way in each room he enters. He has known that he is an equal to us; that we, in fact, are privileged to be part of his pack. He sits on a chair at the dinner table and might even be fed table scraps at our level. I know. Canine disciplinarians, look away!

Hunter at table
I wasn’t raised with dogs so I didn’t understand them. It doesn’t help that a dog bit me when I was a little girl. It wasn’t a deep bite but the lasting effect was a mistrust of dogs. My husband wished for a dog for many years. We finally struck a bargain 25 years ago when we were going to move. If I could purge some of our possessions so as to lighten our load before relocating, he could get a dog. A staff member at my farewell party negotiated the deal and Garrett and I actually shook on it. It was a big concession on my part but I was excited to dump off—I mean, donate—a bunch of our stuff to Goodwill!
Hunter is our third dog. I have figured them out. I am his mama and we love each other very much! My youngest child and I chose him at the Kent County Animal Shelter the day after we returned from our final vacation of the summer in 2009. We were ready to put down roots for the school year. We had “interviews” with four dogs but he was clearly The One. He was a 25-pound cocker spaniel, about 2 years old, who had been a stray long enough to have a matted coat. He wore a bandana with his name on it: Hunter. This was in the downturned economy when lots of folks had to downsize. Apartments didn’t allow pets so dogs and cats were either surrendered to local animal agencies by grief-stricken owners or let loose to fend for themselves.
We don’t know Hunter’s story for the first couple years of his life. We know he was loved because he was trusting. We know he was trained because we kept discovering words that he understood. Maria and I invited the rest of the family to a dinner where there would be a surprise guest. They all made bets but no one expected our visitor to come eagerly trotting in on four legs. We remarked that he walked right in as if he owned the joint. There was no looking back. He was ours and we are his. To honor his past we kept the name Hunter.

I talked with a friend about a year ago whose grandmother was not doing so well. She had been a very active person, contributing to her community and the life of her church. Like many of us she was accustomed to being on the giving end of things. But now she needed support after a stroke. She felt guilty that she relied on her family’s help and lost her sense of purpose. My friend tried to reassure her grandmother that this new stage was OK. In reflecting on this woman’s changed circumstance, the image that came to my mind was of an older dog who has faithfully served the family. He has protected them against intruders, mostly imaginary. He has swept the squirrels from the bird feeders and accompanied the family “pack” on countless walks. But now he is older and contented to be inside. His fur is patchy and his hearing impaired. But his place in the family is assured! We love him for who he has always been.
I shared this image with my friend but insisted that I was not comparing her grandmother to a dog exactly! She had dogs so she understood how a beloved member of a family is allowed to age with grace and support. Perhaps her grandma could be invited to settle into this new dependency with contentment rather than fighting her physical diminishment. She could role model for the younger generations what it looks like to raise your family with such devotion that your future is secure.

So Hunter’s place in our family is assured. He was the preferred confidant for our kids during their teenaged years. He never questioned them. He wagged his tail when they entered the room and looked into their eyes with trust. He’s got a place on any of our beds at night and sometimes migrates from one sleeper to another. He now needs a ramp on the side of our bed to get up to our level. He needed surgery to repair a torn ACL (the dog equivalent). Now he wears a brace on his back foot that endears us to him all the more. He still bolts out the front door several times a day. He’s sure that our home is under attack unless he patrols. He forgets his aches outside…until he hobbles back inside to a comfortable spot in the sun.

Hunter with leg brace
Our house burned to the ground on August 14, 2007. Our Brittany Spaniel, Freckles, had died suddenly just ten days before the fire. The best guestimate for Hunter’s age when we adopted him was that he was almost two years old. We like to think that he was born about the time of our fire but it took us two years to find each other. The summer of the fire we moved into a family cottage for a year while rebuilding our home. We happily claimed our new space the summer of 2008. I was considering a dog a year later but anxious about having one who would chew our new furniture (that had happened) or shred our couch cushions (that too). We hadn’t reinstalled an electric fence since the fire so I was worried that a dog could run into the road and be hit by a car (the death of our first dog). So I prayed. I don’t know that I actually articulated a request for the perfect dog. But, in my heart, I prayed for the next right furry companion.
God heard my prayer. Hunter was about two years old by then so he no longer chewed indiscriminately. He doesn’t shed. Because of the trauma of being homeless for a time, he has never strayed from us. We never had to reinstall the electric fence. He has worked with me in the garden, helping himself to stalks of asparagus. In the fall he bounds out the door to find pears or apples on the ground as a never-ending supply of juicy snacks. He has lumps and bumps but then, I’ve aged too! His life has been rich–is rich–and so is ours!
So sheltering-in-place? That’s just another chapter of our lives we share together. In this time of great uncertainly, his wagging tail gives me hope! Thank you, God, for our furry friends!

hunter--full face

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Parade of Palms

Today is the culmination of a long journey. The beginning of it is reported in Luke 9: 51: “As the time approached for him to be taken up into heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.”
At this point in his gospel, Luke is just over one third of the way into his account of Jesus’ life. Already Jesus has His sights set on the cross. There’s no time to waste. He hits the campaign trail, speaking at each gathering as if it’s His last lecture. He has an electric energy that draws followers. So who can be part of the campaign caravan? Not those who prioritize burying their dead parent over hitting the road with Jesus. Not the guy who wants to first go kiss his spouse goodbye before leaving home. No one who needs a soft bed and a shower at the end of each day. Just the folks who have the stamina to complete an arduous trip.
Jesus is hot! He’s red hot. If you have a red-letter Bible, go to Luke 9:51 and check out how much red you see between the beginning of his trek and His arrival in Jerusalem in chapter 18. He is preaching, teaching, healing and exorcising demons. Word is traveling like wildfire and the fan base is exploding. There aren’t a lot of geographical details given about where He is on any given leg of the journey. Nor are names given very often about who is in Jesus’ company. The 12 disciples are regulars, the real insiders, but no one else’s identity seems important to the story. There is an urgency to His message. He breaks Sabbath rules to express compassion to the suffering. He continues to deflect any comments that don’t conform to His core teachings. One woman is so moved by His outreach that she yells out a compliment to Jesus’ mother: “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” Jesus could have taken a moment to sing the praises of His blessed mother. Instead He keeps His followers on task by responding: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” With that startling reply, Jesus is off to the next town, urgently drawing people to a life-saving relationship with God. The only hint at geography is in 13:22 when Luke writes, “Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.” It was a long trip and Jesus poured Himself out for the good of others. By the time Jerusalem was spotted on the horizon, the Nazarene carpenter must have been running on fumes!
On Palm Sunday we stand at the city gates, joining the crowd of witnesses who have gathered for the last week of Jesus’ life. I like the picture painted by the Psalmist in Psalm 118: “Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord….The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine upon us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession…”
Do you remember the start to our Lenten journey? It began with Ash Wednesday on February 26. Our congregation worshiped with three others, our singers combining to form a fantastic 25-voice choir! We had ashes smeared across our foreheads, reminding us of our mortality and of the fleeting nature of our earthly lives. We had no idea how clear that lesson would become during this Lenten season! Like Jesus’ final march to Jerusalem, we have passed through this heavy church season gaining momentum with a mounting sense of dread. We started in a crowd of people from four congregations but have ended up sequestered in our homes with our most trusted companions. Jesus ended up on the cross alone. Only His mother and just a handful of His closest followers kept a vigil until the bitter end. Does it seem like an eternity ago that we walked about freely in crowds and hugged and ate each other’s food and sat next to strangers at concerts? It seems like ages since we set the alarm to take our shower and go into our workplace where we tackled a set of duties to which we were accustomed. We are less than two weeks into a mandatory shelter-in-place decree and it feels like we have fallen into a warp where geography doesn’t matter because, as a country, we are all in this together. Our best hope is to stay at a safe distance from each other. We were a different people as we so blithely walked forward to have the gift of ashes imposed on our foreheads: “From dust you came and to dust you shall return but praised be the name of the Lord.”
Each day as we churn toward Jerusalem with Jesus we lose just a bit more of our innocence. The ashes have long since rubbed off but now we are reminded of our mortality by refrigerated trucks that serve as makeshift morgues in New York City. As we resolved to make certain sacrifices to honor the Lenten season, we could not imagine that a woman would forego a visit to her dying husband’s side so as to not waste one facial mask on herself. She knew it might save the life of one of his faithful caregivers. Somehow giving up chocolate or hours on social media pale in comparison to the price our medical community is making to stay apart from their loved ones for weeks, keeping them safe from this invisible enemy. We didn’t know it on Ash Wednesday but we were babes in the faith who were anointed with gritty ashes to prepare us for one of the greatest battles we have fought as a nation. Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem because the residents didn’t recognize that God Almighty had sent Him to save them. They were quagmired in their daily routines, fixated on trivial concerns so they missed the Love Letter sent to release them from captivity. We entered Lent with certain priorities and we have had to closely examine whether the foundations we have laid will uphold us. Will those stones support our loved ones, our communities, our nation, our world? Like Jesus on His journey toward Jerusalem, we have witnessed untold suffering, felt powerless over the forces that threaten our very lives and cower before the threat of death that seems only a handshake away.
Luke was known as the social justice advocate so he doesn’t hesitate to name the sin of the religious authorities. In 16:14 Luke offers an aside: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.” They were privileged. Their sense of entitlement convinced them that they would never have enough. They were the hoarders whose fiercest instinct was to protect what they assumed was rightfully theirs. So when Jesus came riding into the back door of Jerusalem to the frenzied cries of a growing crowd, their instincts kicked in. Without even thinking they cried out, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” The emotional response of the crowd was an embarrassment to the authorities but, truthfully, they were jealous. Jesus’ body moved with the slow gait of a humble donkey. He called out to them, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” It was a clash between the Way and the Establishment. Jesus never mentions Rome. He lived His life under the oppressive rule of a government whose seat was in Rome. But place didn’t matter. Names weren’t important, one more than another. His fervent message was still the same as what he told the woman who tried to compliment Mother Mary at the beginning of His Jerusalem journey: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” The priority is the same for residents of Rome or Nazareth, the same for Judas or John the Baptist: hear God’s word and obey it. Social distinctions are meaningless. No wonder His disciples cried out to Jesus in chapter 17, “Increase our faith!”
This is the first time in our country that we have united in fighting an enemy that is faceless. We seek to defeat an enemy that can only be seen under a microscope. So we have wasted no time stirring up hatred for a human enemy. With our highly scheduled lives put on hold we have waded into choppy waters, unsure if they will overtake us as they have already for thousands. We are mindful of each easy breath we take. We gaze upon our loved ones realizing how precious they are to us. We dig deep to hear God’s word and respond with a willing “Yes!”
Our heroes have changed. The Establishment salutes the highest-ranking commanders. Followers in the Way sing the praises of doctors and nurses who are pouring themselves out in an effort to send patients home to their loved ones in restored health. We offer our profound thanks to emergency responders who enter into circumstances that put their own lives at risk as the invisible enemy infiltrates their bodies. We share our love through closed windows. Our children draw pictures to bring joy to seniors in sequestered quarters. Neighbors make palms available on their mailboxes for all to remember that Jesus the Sovereign rode humbly into Jerusalem, ready to take down the enemy. If the crowd of common folks like us hadn’t sung His praises, there would have been a ruckus from the rocks. Inanimate objects recognized Christ’s authority when the religious bigwigs could not!
The beauty of today is the memory that, in Jesus’ lifetime, for a brief moment, folks could see that Jesus was the Son of David, the Savior and Messiah. They sacrificed their only overcoat to fashion a red carpet reception in the place of an ill-prepared city government. They rejoiced because the stone that the builders rejected had become the cornerstone on which the whole structure of their corporate spiritual life would be established. It didn’t matter that the Establishment rejected Him. For a moment, Rome didn’t control them. Waving their palm branches in that exuberant parade, their voices combined with the rocks and stones. They sang to their hearts’ content: “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna and glory in the highest!” Amen.

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Stumbling Stones

Some friends were on vacation in New Orleans, walking down a sidewalk to find a good restaurant. All of a sudden one of the men found himself on the ground. He had tripped but didn’t even know how. His friends were surprised at his sudden disappearance from view. The man is 6’2” so his rapid descent was noticeable! He brushed himself off, confirmed that nothing was broken and they continued on their way. But curiosity gnawed at the stumbler. So the next day, as they walked along the same sidewalk, he checked out the scene of the fall. He noticed a slight rise in the sidewalk that was higher than the surrounding cement. It was subtle enough to not be noticed or repaired by the city. But it was enough of a change in landscape that it felled a grown man in a flash!

When we toured in Europe two summers ago I learned about stumbling stones. In Amsterdam and Munich we saw small metallic placards screwed into pavers on old walkways. The names of people who lived on the street more than 70 years ago were engraved with the date of birth and death and the concentration camp to which they were sent. German artist, Gunter Demnig, designed many of the “stolpersteins” in his native Germany and also in Rome. He conceived of these memorials in 1993 and now there are over 60,000 of them across 21 countries in Europe. The intent is for passersby to take note of these shiny markers that sit aside non-descript bricks, begging for our reflection. One definition for stumbling stone is an obstacle to our progress.

As we sit in the thick of a global pandemic, hearing ever-more startling statistics each day, I suspect we feel as if an obstacle has been put in place. It blocks our progress and trips us up from the daily routines we took for granted. Most of us are secure in our housing. We’ve stocked up on food. Perhaps we’ve even hoarded some items that make us believe that we still have some control. The corona virus has served as a stumbling stone across the nations, felling the weak and the strong. It forces us to reflect on what keeps us grounded.

We read of an encounter with Jesus in Luke 12 (13-21). A man approaches Jesus, the traveling Sage, and asks Him to arbitrate inheritance issues between himself and his brother. Jesus is disinterested in serving as judge over matters of material gain which typically bring the worst out of people. But He uses the interaction to teach a lesson. In the parable He presents a rich man who enjoys a bumper crop. He assumes the season of prosperity will keep going. Time to expand! Invest! Build! He has so much of his crop to store that he has to redesign his storage facilities! He tears down the old barns and builds bigger ones. Servants load the new structures full of food as the owner watches from the sidelines, making retirement plans. With his wealth hoarded, his self-talk reveals that he is only looking out for number one. His faith is in his wealth and he is sure that nothing can take that from him.

scenic view of landscape against cloudy sky
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

But the joke is on him! Jesus brings God into the story and God tells this smug businessman that all his wealth will be distributed to others because he will die the very night that he has christened his overflowing barns! The language is strong: “You fool!” That’s not what you want to hear from God! I imagine a moment of terrified awareness when the rich man responds perhaps in Homer Simpson style: “D’oh” and smacks his forehead. “I got it wrong! My stock portfolio isn’t my Savior after all!” It’s important to notice the accusation. God exhorts him that this rapid fall is what happens to someone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.

It’s easy in our society to get caught up in DOING our lives away. We don’t know how to sit still. God puts stumbling blocks in our paths, hoping we will take time to reflect on what matters most. But we walk past them. Our nation is trying to figure out what carries over from the lives we led just two weeks ago and what is no longer possible. I heard this week that sports gamblers are at a loss for how to spend their time (and money!) absent all professional sports. What a crisis! I saw in a groupon ad that I can buy eyelash extensions at a reduced rate. I’ll place my order today so that I can look my best on my zoom meetings! Some crafty sales reps are marketing their wares as if it’s business-as-usual. But an invisible enemy has ground our labor to a halt. Covid 19 has ceased our social interactions, and sent us scurrying to safe places for refuge. For thousands, it has sent them to the hospital in a desperate fight for their lives. It is easy to choose works over faith but a killing virus demands that we examine the foundation on which we have built our lives.

There’s a passage from Romans 9 that names Jesus as the Stumbling Stone sent by God:

“31 but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. 32 Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as it is written,
‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall,
and whoever believes in him[a] will not be put to shame.’”
(Romans 9: 31-33)
Without Jesus, our values are different. We are untethered to anything lasting or holy. The ways of the world very easily become our ways and we wander down paths that promise safety only to be disappointed and lost. With Christ we spend our lives learning to trust God deeply. We look to Jesus to learn how to love our neighbor. All the more in a crisis we need to anchor ourselves in Christ’s Truth so that we can be of help to those who are fearful. Covid 19 brings the Lenten season into sharper focus this year. We are called to love. I have been moved by so many stories about people honoring the significant moments in their neighbor’s life even while quarantined. There was a parade of cars filled with teachers, going through their students’ neighborhoods with honks and waves. Since 4-year old Aiden’s birthday party had to be limited to his home, his parents put a sign up in their front yard, inviting people to honk a birthday greeting to him. He stood at the front window, smiling as people made some noise for him. A young girl returned home after her final chemo treatment to see her street lined with folks who cheered and waved from the safe distance of their driveways. She was overcome with emotion. There are people putting their own health at risk by driving friends to doctor appointments, waiting in their car since only patients are allowed into medical facilities now. People are making medical supplies in their homes. Companies are putting their usual product line on hold and morphing into producers of medical masks, gloves, and ventilators. Breweries are churning out vats of hand sanitizer instead of specialty beer.
Even more powerfully, we witness loving actions between patients fighting for their lives in medical facilities. Don Guiseppe Berardelli, the 72 year old archpriest of Casnigo, Italy contracted the corona virus. He was a beloved figure in his community, known for his broad smile flashed from his red motorcycle. As he headed into the hospital for treatment, his parishioners purchased a ventilator for him. He gave it to a younger patient whose life stretched ahead. He died shortly thereafter. A colleague tweeted, “Don Guiseppe Berardelli, patron saint of those who suffer from coronavirus and all who care for them, pray for us.”
When we build our lives on the stumbling stone that God sent to our troubled world, our values change. We stop our pursuit of worldly goods and reflect on the great gift of having Jesus as our Savior and Friend. When a complete stranger trips and finds herself on the ground, we stop to help her up, even if it means possible harm to us. In the Italian priest’s case, we are even moved to lay down our life for another. Christ’s love knows no limits.
The greeting that Don Guiseppe called out to his townsfolks from his red motorcycle is “Pace e bene.” This means “Peace and all Good.” It’s an Italian greeting that traces back to Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi. It’s a blessing that offers hope and acknowledges the sacredness of all those we encounter on our journey.
There’s a way to avoid tripping when we run across a stumbling stone. In times of crisis we anchor ourselves by nourishing our faith. We don’t panic, hoard, or look out for number one! If we are looking at our world through the eyes of Christ, we will be vigilant. We will expect opportunities to arise that urge our compassionate service. We will share from the wealth of our barns. We will pray.
We will pray.
Pace e Bene.

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Weighed Down

Folks were clutching their rocks, ready to pound a woman brought into public view as an adulteress. It’s scary how quickly a mob can turn on someone. We see that in our world today. I would never run for office, given the vindictive scrutiny that magnifies tiny details from the past. Opponents distort truth to promote their agenda. Crashing the Bible Study, men grabbed rocks while women and children moved to safety. They were anxious to be spectators but not victims of flying stones. They stood at the ready, waiting for the green light from the Temple staff.
In chapter 8 of John’s Gospel, Jesus meets a woman in unlikely circumstances. She’s brought before Him because of a crime: she had committed adultery. This was especially unfortunate given that, in her culture, her punishment could be death by stoning. It’s unthinkable that she is dragged into the Temple courts where Jesus’ Bible Study is interrupted with the mandate of capital punishment. But it’s tragic on another level. The Pharisees, who were the keepers of the Jewish Law, weren’t at all interested in her or her sin. She was a pawn. The Pharisees wanted to bring Jesus down and she became the public example that would test His faithfulness to the Law. It’s a turf war deciding who has jurisdiction over the spiritual development of a people. Jesus is on their turf: the temple grounds. He has a crowd of people hanging on his every word. I imagine the Pharisees having a closed-door meeting with the goal of identifying a legal conundrum that could get Jesus in trouble. It’s dangerous to engage in public service successfully! Status quo advocates surface with their fists up!
The religious elite use language that distances them from the accused. “This woman was caught…Moses commanded to stone such women…” They looked past her to the One they really wanted to stone to death. Jesus didn’t start the fight. They foisted it upon Him. But they underestimated their opponent. They should have known better from other skirmishes. Jesus the Teacher has no projector, no power point, no chalk board. He casually traces letters in the dirt where He has been teaching. But His opponents keep at Him. The woman stands there, heart pounding and thoughts racing. Perhaps she is aware that the man with whom she had the affair is not held accountable. She alone is carrying the guilt. Finally, Jesus stands up. He commands attention. He looks straight into the eyes of these mobsters and throws out a one sentence challenge: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Game over. We don’t know whether His challenge was received with complete silence or if they talked among themselves. Did the last to leave stand his ground in self-righteousness before finally giving up? What we read is that they left, one by one, not in a mass movement. Those who first confessed their own sinfulness were the elders. They had lived enough life to know that stones could come flying their way if folks scratched just beneath the surface of their past. “Best to leave before someone distorts facts about my life and broadcasts them to an audience!” Jesus pierces the hatred that was so easily encited in this mob and they disperse after just one challenge in this power play.
Paul wrote a letter to the believers in Galatia. In the first ten verses of chapter 6, he stated that sin happens. Accountability is needed. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are called to live in holiness together so that the Body of Christ is enriched, not destroyed. He tells this fledging congregation how to proceed if someone among them has sinned. Act with gentleness. That stands in stark contrast to the scene of the woman in John’s gospel. Don’t cast this person out of the congregation. Rather work to restore them but only if you can do this without being tripped up by their sin. Don’t hurl stones at each other. Rather, heap your stones in a wheelbarrow to clear the confessional landscape. Then help the weak person to push her load. Heave that wagon full of sin to the edge of town and drop it off for good. Do it for the person who is unable to do it for himself. The only way you’ll be able to do this is if you confront your own sinfulness. Otherwise, your ego will lead you to pounce on opportunities to bring someone else down with judgmental rhetoric. That’s much easier than doing the more difficult work of restoration!


Paul instructs these early Christians to start with themselves. Examine your own actions, the thoughts in your hearts and the words you use. Don’t compare yourselves to others in giving yourself a grade. Look within. Know yourself so that you understand when you have acted to the best of your ability as a disciple of Jesus. When you have done that, no one else’s evaluation of your actions matters. Don’t worry about God being duped into thinking that the schemers are heroes. God is not deceived. God observes how we each sow through our speech and actions and it’s going to boomerang right back at us, good or bad, blessing or curse, depending on what we dish out.
The stakes are high because sin is highly contagious. It only takes one screamer in a crowd to get the whole group riled up with murderous intent. Life has always been hard so we, like this early congregation, are barely keeping it together with the pressures of daily living. Like the corona virus that has spread from one person to another, floated invisibly through cruise ships and airplanes, locker rooms and Wall Street, the sickness of sin sucks the life out of us. The innocent get hurt when we refuse to do the hard work of introspection. If we aren’t willing to admit the ways we carry sin on us, others will get hurt.
In February, a funeral was held in the chapel of a psychiatric ward in Cheongdo, South Korea. Several of the mourners attending the service were infected with the corona virus and they left their germs behind. 111 residents and four nurses were infected. Sin spreads and brings down those who are least able to defend themselves. On morning TV, a world map is increasingly colored in with new and startling statistics about where the plague has shown up. Our world has become a petri dish that is rife with disease. People are desperately trying to distance themselves from each other. As a global community we are suspicious. We are lonesome. We are weary. We are weighed down.

The believers to whom Paul addressed his letter were weighed down. They were pawns in the impressive machinery of the Roman Empire that didn’t hesitate to crush those who stepped out of line. The masses were over-taxed and undervalued. Roughly a third of the population in Paul’s time were slaves. They had no reason to hope that they would ever get out from under the debt they owed their master. They had to content themselves with the crumbs that were thrown their way. But Paul breathed a new mission into this congregation by urging them: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

We may be weary but there are folks who need our help. It may feel impossible to push our wheelbarrow of burdens any further but there are people willing to use their strength to assist us. If we don’t waste our energy getting caught up in modern versions of stoning, we will have the strength to carry each other’s burdens. That, as Paul writes, fulfills the law of Christ.

The Pharisees dragged the sinner before Jesus, using her to bring Him down. They didn’t care about her and they certainly didn’t care about Jesus. Sin clouded their vision. If they had done the hard work of looking within and evaluating their own lives through the lens of their faith, they would have fallen before Jesus. With their faces in the very dust where Jesus traced His lesson, they would have confessed their own lengthy list of sins. They were jealous. They were self-righteous. They coveted Jesus’ popularity. They had made gods of their own power and forgotten the One they were called to serve. They most certainly had learned to turn a blind eye to the suffering of their neighbor and victimized the innocent to promote their own political campaign. But Jesus unmasked their sin. I wonder what they talked about at their dinner tables that night? Did they confess the shame they felt for being exposed as one who breeds contempt for a living? Did they get honest with their God? Or did they push the shame down deep and return to business as usual the next day?

At the end of the encounter just Jesus and the trembling woman are left. Even the people in the Bible Study are so shaken that they flee. Just Jesus is left alone with a woman who is still standing, stones strewn about. There are no words that give us a hint of her emotions. It almost sounds like a calm conversation that wraps up the story but we know it could not have been. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” Her eyes are wide with terror, having faced her own mortality. She responds, “No one, sir.” Jesus is merciful but He is still a teacher. He is still a priest. “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

The rules stand. She had sinned. Jesus holds her accountable for her guilt but He understands the penitence she feels in her heart after this near-death experience. Jesus knows that she, like all of us, is in process, struggling to live a holy life in a brutish world. Jesus forgives her but exhorts her to change her ways. She picks her way through the heavy rocks that were never hurled. She goes home. The burdens she had carried with her were left at the feet of her Confessor. She has journeyed from death to life. She is weighed down no more. Hallelujah!

(Artwork by Noel Skiba. Painted in our worship service in June, 2015)

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Two Windows

So let’s just state the obvious: life feels strange! I have never preached to an empty sanctuary knowing that our people will be brought together through virtual technology. We have cancelled worship services in the past but have always assumed it would just be for one Sunday. We are making history right now as a country, mandating quarantines and voluntarily suspending activities that bring large groups of people together. The corona virus lurks so we retreat to our homes for an indefinite period of time. While it felt strange for us and thousands of other churches to worship remotely, I am thankful for the options we have to stay connected even while physically separated from each other.

TP and purell
There are lots of firsts right now. We are seeing what our priorities are in times of crisis and surprised by the national run on toilet paper! Who knew that TP topped the lists of so many people! A shop in Ann Arbor was selling small bottles of Purell, misspelled in their on-line advertising, for $20, $40 and $60 per bottle, depending on the size. And they sold out! Bottles of water have flown off the skids, never making it onto the shelves. Costco shoppers in Las Vegas found many of the shelves empty but still had to wait in line two hours to check out. The corona virus is giving us a new window into our world and it’s alarming!
I went to our local grocery store yesterday, more to experience the mood of our community than to shop. The parking lot was as full as I’ve seen it in preparing for holidays. But people were considerate of each other. Folks yielded their carts for others to pass, offering a weary smile. One young guy rushed down the center aisle wearing what looked to be a gas mask that covered most of his face. He was on a mission. But he was the exception. The good news, as with many crises, is that people reach out to each other with kindness. We look for the ways to be unified even when urged to stay apart.
A church member posted a moving video on Facebook on Friday. The footage was captured in the town of Siena, Italy, where the whole town—in fact, the whole country—is on mandatory lock-down. The camera was aimed out an upper level window, looking down a dark street with three-story buildings on both sides. One lone bass voice begins to sing a song. Very shortly another voice joins in, then another. Soon the whole neighborhood has turned into a choir, lifting the spirits of those who cannot be physically near each other. They are singing out their windows in harmony in a time of quarantine. There is beauty in these frightening times!
We could not have known as we started the Lenten season how “Lenten” it would feel. The mood in Lent is heavy. We choose to walk alongside of Jesus, who is voluntarily offering His life for the well-being of others. The nearer He got to the cross, the greater the isolation. Out of fear, even His closest disciples quarantined themselves to stay safe from those who opposed Jesus’ ministry. We will remember this Lenten season as being uniquely different. But, I hope, we will look back and remember how intentionally we reached out to others whose safety net is much smaller than our own. We need to keep that image of singing God’s praises in solidarity with each other, even as we remain physically separated. Like the disciples, we will discover what is most precious to us in this historically difficult time.
The scripture for today comes from Matthew’s Gospel, the seventh chapter. It is familiar to many of us: 24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
28 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

bluff 2

The wise person builds their house upon the rock because the home that is set upon a foundation of sand will fall. Several of you are hearing a Vacation Bible School song in your heads from an earlier generation, right?! My family built a house on the shores of Lake Michigan in 1974. Perched high up on a bluff that overlooks the big lake, it fulfilled my parents’ greatest dream. A decade later we had to move it back because of rising lake levels. We were blessed with lowered lake levels since the 1980’s but that ended dramatically last year. With lake levels surpassing those of the 1980’s my siblings and I have watched, horrified and powerless over the forces of nature that have ravaged our bluff. Huge chunks of our real estate have fallen into the lake below. Angry storms have taken down ancient trees and destroyed the habitat of various woodland creatures. What is our foundation made of? You can tell a lot about a house by its foundation. An old farmhouse will have stones piled on top of each other and held together with mortar. Ancient ruins remain because foundations were made of stone. In this challenging time of Covid 19, we will discover as individuals, as a nation, as a global community, the foundation upon which we have built our lives!

bluff 1
I enrolled in a Spiritual Direction course nearly two years ago. Each student was asked to choose one spiritual giant to study. We have been asked to share with each other what we have learned about our person and how their life has impacted our own. I chose Julian of Norwich. Honestly, it seems as if she chose me. Norwich, where Julian spent her life, is just 20 minutes south of the small town where I lived in England from ages 1-4. I feel like I know her world as part of my earliest childhood development. My daughter, Maria, gave me a coffee mug several years ago that has an upbeat line printed along the inside upper rim of the cup: All will be well. The mug has yellow flowers painted on the outside of it. This mug cheers me up, especially as I sip my morning coffee in the dark of winter. I learned, as I got to know Julian, that this is her line. She is remembered for her affirmation: All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well. What an optimist I chose!


This rosy optimism might not grab our attention until we learn about the great challenges that faced Julian. Born in the 14th century, England endured several waves of the black plague. Between 1348 and 1349 in Norwich 7,000 people died out of a population of 12,000. More than half the population of Europe died from the plague. When Julian was 20, there was a flood in East Anglia (her hometown) that brought storm surges 30 feet above ordinary levels. The winds sometimes reached more than 100 miles per hour. Villages were washed away overnight with tremendous loss of cattle, homes, and human lives. The Hundred Year’s War broke out in her life. The disarray and crumbling of the papacy happened during this time, leaving folks to rely on spirituality from mystics and personal experience rather than formal ecclesial sources. Julian was one of many who went deep in her faith life rather than turning to traditional models of church authority for inspiration. There was nationwide rioting in the peasants’ rebellion that resulted in their movement being crushed and folks witnessing unforgettable violence. Famine was a continual companion for Julian and her contemporaries. In her writing, Julian made references to death, dying, flood and disease which were based on her personal experiences with these crises. She taught that loving and praying are done with the will, not the emotions. With the continual swirl of crises that surrounded her, this was a central tenet to sustain her prayer life. One biographer stated that death was so familiar in her life that it had an image, smell, sound and touch to it. So her strong affirmation of faith that “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well” can only be the result of Divine revelation and a profound intimacy with God. This statement of faith pointed to a conviction that our daily trials need not consume us for God shall triumph over all that is created in a glorious manner. Nothing else matters!

julian of norwich churchJulian of Norwich church 2
We know that Julian had a near death experience at age 30. During the time that she lingered between life and death, she experienced visions that brought her into the presence of a loving God. She emerged from that sickness with a desire to commit to a more intentional life of faith. She became an anchorite, one set apart from the world. An anchorite chose to be walled into a small apartment, approximately 9’ by 11’, on the grounds of a church. It was a lifetime commitment. Julian chose the cathedral near her hometown in Norwich. The family paid for the support of the person. Julian had two windows in her cell: one enabled her to look into the sanctuary where she could see the communion elements lifted up in worship. The other opened up to the town of Norwich. There was a heavy curtain that separated her visually from folks on the village side. But people would come up to her window to consult her wise counsel on their struggles. In this tiny cell, Julian prayed and read scripture. The priest ministered to her through the window that looked out onto the sanctuary. News of the outside world reached her through the folks who came to her for spiritual direction. She wrote about her visions and those became the greatest source of counsel she could offer others. But the words she became known for in this era of unprecedented suffering and death were the ones written in part on my coffee mug 600 years later: All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.
Really?!? When she had her near death experience at age 30 she had no father or siblings, no husband or children. We assume that she experienced the loss of much of her family—like all of her neighbors. So why didn’t she get stuck on crying out, “Why me? This isn’t fair!”? Because she met the God of Jesus Christ in her own dying and that holy Presence was enough for her. To an anguished population that sometimes traveled long distances to sit at her window, she reassured them of God’s love. And each day, as the mass was offered, she took strength from the uplifted bread and cup, the reminder that Jesus poured out His life for a panicked, bereaved people.
Our lives are narrowing in part because of government mandates and in part, out of our own sense of caution. These are not fun snow days that give us a break from our usual routine for a day or two. We are fearful with the threat of death broadcast continually on the news. We are bored and lonely in our absence from each other. We wonder how long it will go on. We suspect that this will change the way we do business, do church, do social outings in the future.
So I offer to you the image of two windows. As our lives narrow we choose to immerse ourselves in spiritual disciplines. This is the unique challenge and choice of Lent. What do I add to my life to commune with God more closely? We read scripture in our families. We pray together. We read material that will build us up in the Spirit. We reach out to each other in the ways that are safe right now. Through one window we look into the sanctuary, like you are doing this morning. As odd as it feels, we have this option, thanks to technology, to worship together even though we are not physically present to each other. It’s comforting to see the familiar cross hanging in our empty sanctuary with candles lit on the altar. They remind us of Jesus, the Light of the world. We look in on this together through our I-Pad, cell phone and computer screens. The other window is one we have on the world. We see others when we go to work, when we are out in our driveways talking with our neighbor. We overlap with people in lines at the grocery store. We connect with people quarantined in nursing and retirement facilities by phone call and email. We even have the opportunity to drop a note in the mail to folks who might be more adversely impacted by these strange times than others.
There are people who are counting on us nourishing our own faith life so that we have the spiritual strength and optimism to reach out rather than simply hole up. 75,000 children are on free and reduced lunch programs at their schools in Michigan. People are donating food items and time to organizations like Children’s Food Basket to be certain that this at-risk population gets fed. Our Lenten collection is for various food and toiletry items for United Church Outreach Ministry clients. I will encourage our Mission Board to bring these items to UCOM as they come in rather than wait until the end of the Lenten season. For our neighbors in that part of Grand Rapids, there can be no waiting. I am certain that City Impact will have a heightened need to minister to residents of the Cedar Springs Mobile Homes Estates. We are closely connected to the work of North Kent Connect and will watch for their appeals. We will keep you posted of ways we might help them. I will continue to offer pastoral care to our members and I invite you to reach out to others in smaller groupings as opportunity presents itself.
Perhaps we Christians, gathering in unique ways in unusual times, can gain strength from an affirmation of faith that surfaced out of a plague 600 years ago: All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well. Thank you, Dame Julian, for building your deep faith on the rock of Jesus Christ. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for Your healing presence and eternal love for this world. We need You!

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Inside and Out

In the 23d chapter of Matthew’s Gospel we listen in on a rant! It is the opposite of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Rather than naming as “blessed” those who have labored for Godly purposes, Jesus calls out warnings to the religious elite. “Woe to you, you who think you are bigshots” is not the desired opening for a letter delivered by FedEx to my doorstep! For my spiritual report card I’d much rather read that I am blessed than feel upbraided by a teacher who’s yelling in my direction!

In his commentary on Matthew’s writing, Dale Bruner refers to the Pharisees as “The Serious.” They take themselves seriously. They seek to overachieve in their job description to earn the accolades of their people. The Old Testament Law that righteous Pharisees still followed in Jesus’ day required that people give one tenth—or a tithe—of their corn, wine and oil to the Temple. Those three food items were regular staples in their diet. But The Serious wanted to exceed even the most generous giver with extreme stewardship. Even of their spices they measured out a tenth of what grew in their gardens. With pomp and circumstance, they brought it into the Temple with a great showing of importance. They were SERIOUS about their commitment—and don’t you forget it! But Jesus didn’t take them too seriously. In fact, He was unimpressed! The problem with the Serious in any religion is that they do too much in the wrong spirit and do too little with the really important matters.

Jesus gives a few examples using exaggeration. Can you remember back to summer when there’s a swarm of gnats that seem to hover in place, blocking your path with a thousand weightless bodies? Jesus accuses the Pharisees of straining one microscopic gnat out of their lemonade but then swallowing a camel. This imagery is funny and pointed!

normandy cemetery

On the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Adar, which falls between February and March, the graves were painted with bright white chalk in preparation for Passover. This paint provided a layer of protection against spiritual uncleanness for anyone who might brush up against them. Jews of Jesus’ day were forbidden to come into contact with anything related to a dead body. But the chalk was considered “clean” even though it was a thin coating on gravestones. The cemetery was a bright white as Passover arrived. The whitewashing simply made the stones that marked the resting place of the dead appear clean. You needed simply to dig beneath these stones to come into contact with the bones and decaying bodies of lifeless corpses. The Serious were attentive to appearance and unconcerned with substance. Jesus cried out woe to these religious bigwigs who majored in the production of false pretenses! As someone said at the local ministerial meeting this past Wednesday: The Pharisees knew the stuff but didn’t do the stuff so that was the problem! In Old Testament terms, they were hard-hearted!

A young woman named Meredith grew up in our congregation and is now married with two beautiful children, a boy and a girl. Her picture-perfect life was interrupted when her daughter was less than a month old. Her body didn’t feel right. Initial misdiagnoses allowed symptoms to worsen until she checked into the hospital with fevers, migraines and vision issues. She was diagnosed with endocarditis, an infection of the heart. Doctors moved quickly, performing open-heart surgery on Meredith the very next day. Her mother described the procedure to me. The surgeon had to remove the hard shell that encased her heart, piece by delicate piece. The functioning of the heart had been increasingly impeded by this shellac that was formed by the virus. It took eight hours to surgically attack the infection that had spread to her brain, causing seizures. It had landed on her hip, hindering her ability to walk. Endocarditis can be a death sentence if not diagnosed and aggressively treated. Meredith had to follow up the surgery with a rigorous dose of antibiotics injected into her arm daily.

Meredith has been an athlete her whole life. To find herself in such bodily weakness was unimaginable. She had to surrender her control, allowing doctors to take on the battle for her. She had to entrust her children, including her newborn baby girl, into the loving care of family members. The focus had to be on herself, an unlikely situation for a mom of a tiny baby and a young boy. She had to fall into the loving arms of the God she knew from her childhood, a God that carried her through the valley of the shadow of death until her heart was healthy once again.

Being hard-hearted is a terminal diagnosis unless it is detected and treated. A heart can be encased in brittle layers we’ve put in place to protect us from seeing what we don’t want to see. Jesus called out the Pharisees for layers of self-righteousness and pride that clouded their vision. Their blindness neutralized their leadership as spiritual guides. “Woe to you”, Jesus cried out, warning them that the need for heart surgery was urgent. Though they carefully tended to their outer appearance and reputation, their bodies were infected with diseased morals.

The journey of faith is one of letting go. Do you like the word surrender? Me neither! Jesus was teaching His disciples, who sacrificed their personal lives to follow Him, that they had to relinquish control over their carefully-crafted destiny and fall into the care of God. This story of Jesus’ preaching tells us that it’s a matter of life and death.

Jesus calls us to let go of check mark religion. You know, when we think that we deserve better because we can check off boxes on our spiritual report card that give us top ratings? Perhaps we are guilty of tithing of the herbs in our cupboard but ignoring the needs of our neighbor. I remember a time when I noticed a tiny staple on the floor of my car. I picked it up and threw it out the window. A staple didn’t belong in my car. Mind you, this was my big, red suburban that I drove for 17 years, hauling children from one place to another. This was the car that had a back seat so removed from my driver’s seat that I didn’t notice that one of my kids had spilled an Oreo McFlurry back there until it was dried and crusted on the upholstery weeks (months?) later. This car was not kept in pristine condition by any means. So why did I care that a staple had somehow infiltrated my vehicle? And why, I wondered later, did I think that a staple belonged on the face of this earth? Whether it remained on asphalt or ended up on grassy soil, a staple, tiny as it is, didn’t belong there. I would never consider tossing a bag of McDonalds’ wrappers out my window but somehow I didn’t think twice about throwing a manufactured piece of metal out of my window. Are there gradations to sin? Am I focusing on the wrong thing, thinking I’m justified in the little transgressions? What is the condition of my heart when looking at how I direct my actions from one day, one week, one year to the next?

Jesus cries out, “Woe…” to the religious authorities who didn’t hesitate to put others down so as to elevate themselves. Sounds like politics, doesn’t it? I wonder if any of those Pharisees in attendance heard Jesus message and yielded to the heart surgery that was needed for their spiritual survival? It’s uncomfortable to let go. Whom do you trust when you have to do that? What do you stand to lose? The Serious, Jewish Upper-crust entrusted with caring for their people, were called to cede center-stage and all the perks that come with celebrity status. They were directed in Jesus’ sermon to submit to God’s rule. Jesus assured the people who were as anxious about letting go as we are, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly!” (John 10:10) What matters is the health of our heart not the carefully tailored exterior that we showcase to the folks we wish to impress. Do we believe Jesus’ promise of abundant life? Or are there promises in our world that allure us into thinking that the best is yet to come only if we pledge our loyalty to them? Is our IRA, our job, our physical beauty, our intellect what keeps us anchored? As the DOW plummets and a virus spreads, do we feel like the rug is pulled out from underneath us?

Tombstone--Chapman

Jesus is a prophet of economics. He calls out those whose plates are overflowing because they have taken advantage of others. How people make their money and establish rich lives matters. God sees what’s inside the cup, what’s buried under the gleaming white tombstone rather than being deceived by the exterior.

stones on altar

I love the mystery of geodes. Maybe you’ve been surprised by one before. The exterior looks so bland, so unremarkable. But the interior to this stone, when it is cracked open, reveals crystals stacked on top of each other to reflect back beams of light in a hundred different directions. The exterior of the disciples Jesus chose was not noteworthy. They were fishermen, a despised tax collector, sons and husbands of ordinary people. But Jesus saw that their heart condition was good. They were not so full of themselves that they could not hear the Word of Truth Jesus preached. It’s easy to block out the needs of others when our own needs are abundantly met. But Jesus warned the Serious, the Elite, that they were doomed if they didn’t confess their heart disease and submit to His authority so as to have the truly abundant life.

Dale Bruner challenges us through his interpretation of this passage: “’Clean up the inside of the cup first, and then the outside is clean as well.’ Change your way of earning money and you will clean your house. Clean up your business and you wash your dishes; change your politics of selfishness and you have the house beautiful. First conquer in your inner life your wild lust to possess; then what you do outwardly will be clean.”                                                                                       (Matthew: A Commentary/The Churchbook by Frederick Dale Bruner, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1990)

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…and seven others

Last Monday our nation carved out three hours to join in on a memorial service. It was impossible to miss the celebration of the lives of Kobe Bryant and his young daughter, Gianna. They were heralded through kind words and moving music. Nearly 20,000 guests filled the Staples Center in LA where Bryant had attracted crowds as basketball’s golden child who thrilled fans for 20 seasons. The arena was filled with A-lister athletes and entertainers, each trying to wrap their hearts around the knowledge that a larger-than-life figure died tragically with a daughter who emulated his love for the game. Mourners lined the streets outside Staples Center, grieving the 41-year old athlete who attracted visitors to the city to see him do his magic on the court.
The funeral came four weeks and a day after the horrific helicopter crash that killed nine people. I was struck, as the news spread rapidly that Sunday in January, that the fame of Kobe eclipsed the loss of the other victims. It wasn’t an intentional slight. It’s what happens when two people go through the same experience. If one is a cultural icon, the other person will hardly be noticed. So the news was broadcast that Kobe Bryant and his daughter had died….and seven others.
I wonder if the families of “the seven others” were hurt that their pain was discounted. There were admirable traits among the seven other victims but the press only had energy to focus on the basketball star. I was struck that the Altobelli family lost three family members: a married couple and their daughter, Alyssa. John served as the baseball coach at Orange Coast College for 27 seasons. Two other children survive the loss of their parents and sister, Alyssa. Can you imagine what life feels like for them now? These are two young people who need our prayers.
Matt Mauser was widowed that day when his wife, Christina, died in the crash. She was a teacher and the assistant coach at Bryant’s Mamba Academy. A talented player, she leaves behind three small children. Ara Zobayan was Kobe’s most trusted pilot who chauffeured Kobe countless times between home and court. He was a flight teacher who had been licensed as a commercial pilot for thirteen years. Another one of Gianna’s team mates, Payton, was on the flight along with her mother. The girl’s uncle gave voice to the grief felt by families of “the seven others” in a written message: “While the world mourns the loss of a dynamic athlete and humanitarian, I mourn the loss of two people just as important. Their impact was just as meaningful, their loss will be just as keenly felt, and our hearts are just as broken.”
When someone who has captured the hearts of a nation dies, any other news event falls out of view. Perhaps you remember the memorial service for Mother Teresa in 1997? Maybe not! She died just six days after Princess Diana’s terrible car crash, one day before the royal’s funeral. I suspect there would have been a lot more fanfare over the highly revered nun’s death if it hadn’t happened right as the entire world grieved the gut-wrenching loss of a princess. I was struck at the time that Mother Teresa probably preferred that her entrance into the place of eternal reward was overshadowed and, therefore, modest. With a gentle smile, I can picture her slipping from earth’s bounds and into the waiting arms of Jesus. She didn’t need human acclaim for her beautiful ministry–just the object of her adoration, Jesus.
In the aftermath of the Bryant memorial our church family honored the memory of two faithful servants. In the beauty of our 145-year old sanctuary we remembered the contributions of two individuals who had poured themselves into the needs and joys of our congregational life. On Thursday we grieved the loss of Bill, an 86-year old man who has quietly cared for our church for several decades. He fearlessly took his place at the soundboard each Sunday, making sure the voices of those leading worship could be clearly heard. He never wished for his own voice to be dominant. After a brisk bike ride, Bill picked up the sticky cans and bottles that people deposit in our side entryway. He returned them to the nearby grocery store so that 10 cents per container could be added to our general budget. He would come into my office with an envelope of four dollar bills and a quiet smile. It all adds up to pay the heat bill! Our Tuesday morning bible study is predominantly comprised of retired women who have prepared and cleaned up after thousands of meals in their lifetimes. Bill was a faithful member of the class, coming early to turn up the heat and get the coffee brewing. By the time the rest of us slid into our places, there were ceramic mugs set out next to the coffee pot and he was the one to wash them by hand afterwards. His skills as an electrician were put to the test any number of times as areas of our old building needed some TLC. He was the first one to arrive on Sunday mornings to unlock the heavy wooden doors to the sanctuary. He turned on the lights so that we were ready for business. At a community Ash Wednesday service last week I fully expected him to walk into the neighboring church that was hosting worship. Any time we went off site as a congregation for the lesser-observed services, I could count on Bill being one of those from my flock who smiled up at me as I preached or imposed ashen crosses on foreheads. Our congregation still can’t believe he is gone.
On Friday we celebrated the life of Marilyn. She lost her husband of more than 60 years just over a year ago. She never got over that loss. But courageously she moved forward and reached out to fellow residents in her retirement facility with love and genuine interest. She was part of a generation of women who rolled up their sleeves to take care of their church. She took her place in the church kitchen to prepare meals when the public was invited in for a church bazaar. Remember those? She and the other women spent several days sorting and arranging donated goods for a rummage sale that drew crowds from nearby towns. They lined up early in anticipation of some quality goods at a bargain price. About 20 years ago a younger generation of women made it clear that they didn’t have the time or desire to spend a week pulling off a fundraiser that would make $1000 for our budget. The rummage sale was put to rest and the church dinners became less frequent. Marilyn painted a ceramic nativity set that still adorns the front altar during Advent and Christmas. I didn’t learn that she had made it until her funeral! Like the moms of her generation, she poured herself into shaping a home that was blessed for her daughters and husband. Those of us who are working moms, living on the fly, have lost the ability to sit still in the moment and savor the family moments that flee too quickly and join the stockpile of treasured memories. Conversation with Marilyn inevitably included the latest accomplishments of her grand and great-grandchildren. What else could matter more?
After each of the memorial services on back-to-back days, a new generation of servants prepared ham buns and potato salad so that the community could linger together over a meal. The folks who sat in the sanctuary were not celebrities. Not even the local newspaper was there to capture the event for their weekly publication. It was a pastor who presided over the service, not a nationally-syndicated MC. Bill and Marilyn were commended into God’s eternal keeping with humility and grace which, I suspect, is how the rest of us will be heralded when our time comes. The vast majority of people we know are among the “…and seven others.” In our own sphere of influence we will be missed. We will be remembered when a family member makes our apple cake recipe or rides a bike on the trail where our father rode. The legacy we leave will not be broadcast on national television but carried in the hearts of those who grieve our passing and are grateful for our example. In this loud culture of selfies and selfishness, our greatest joy will be to find ourselves in the warm embrace of Jesus who welcomes us home, face-to-face.