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Moment of Truth

Moment of Truth

Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey
Jan. 10, 2020

Isaiah 43.1-7
Psalm 29.1-11
Acts 8.14-17
Mark 1.1-11

Our country has just lived through a moment of truth. Fomented and abetted by President Trump, the legitimacy of the election of the 46th President of the United States Joe Biden has been contested in the courts up to the Supreme Court, and judges and justices, both Republican and Democratic, have validated resoundingly the work of state and local election officials. “Stop for a second and think about how awesome this election was,” marvels The New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman. He elaborates further:

“In the middle of an accelerating pandemic substantially more Americans voted than ever before in our history—Republicans, Democrats and independents. And it was their fellow citizens who operated the polling stations and conducted the count—many of them older Americans who volunteered for that duty knowing they could contract the coronavirus, as some did. That’s why this was our greatest expression of American democratic vitality since Abraham Lincoln defeated General George V. McClelland in l864—in the midst of a civil war.”

All day last Wednesday and into the late hours of the night, our democracy lived through what may turn out to be the darkest moment of truth we have ever experienced as a republic. What happened at the Capitol and the White House has been called many things: protest, the right of lawful assembly to present a petition, insurrection, riot, act of sedition. Looking at my television screen, I had the same feelings of revulsion and anger as I had when St. Stephen was vandalized and burned. I prefer to see what happened on Wednesday in all its surreal aspects as a crossroads, as a crux, as a moment of truth. Will this be the final death rattle of an era of extreme partisan politics and structural disparity between the rich and the left-behind? Will something better come of it? Or will the storming and desecration of the Capitol be the labor pains of the emergence of an America where the only thing that matters is who has power?

We all have our moments of truth, times when there is no more room for delay, dilly-dallying, and dissembling. Times when the options are clear and squarely before us, and we must act or face the consequences. Will we be changed for the better by this moment of truth?

It was to that kind of moment, that moment of truth, that the preaching of John the Baptist drew crowds into the chalk wilderness of the Dead Sea. It was a moment not unlike ours today, where options are clear and square, a moment to act or face the consequences. John held church in a barren, inhospitable, hostile place—the wilderness. People go hear John preach in a place where the old and familiar is wiped away and replaced by stark moments of exposure and the challenge to rise to the occasion.

The message of John is the opportunity for a new birth, a new chance at life. The demand of John is that you face into your moment of truth and confess that you need this new chance, this new birth of life. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The people who came to John faced into their moment of truth. They confessed that they were sinners and that they desired to put their old lives behind them. Their baptism signified their desire to wash themselves of their old lives, and they looked to God to free them from their pasts, by forgiving them their sins.

I can picture a line of people shuffling slowly toward John as he stands in the waters of the Jordan. In their moment of truth, they have pierced into themselves deeply and asked of themselves, “How have I measured up to what God looks at me to do and to be.” The answers come back at them: Screw-ups, losers, inadequate, pathetic. In their pain they cry out: Can I have a fresh start? Can I have a new chance?

But look, my friends, Jesus himself is standing in that line with a bunch of sinners. Jesus is there, not saying much to anybody, just shuffling forward for his turn. No one recognizes him, not even John who is his cousin! When it is Jesus’ turn, John looks him in the eye; they speak, but no differently than anybody else. Jesus goes down into the waters with the sinners, looking every bit like a sinner.

Here is his moment of truth: When Jesus went down into the waters, he showed us that there was enough sin to go around for everybody to come to their moment of truth. Loser, screw-up, inadequate, pathetic, deplorable. But that’s not the whole truth. Upon coming out of the waters, a voice from heaven proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” When Jesus heard, “You are my beloved Son,” he heard words that promised an intimate fellowship with his heavenly Father. Think of it! God promises intimate fellowship with someone who identifies with deplorable people. That means God promises intimate fellowship with us!

As the beloved Son, Jesus knows the heart of his heavenly Father. As the one who went down into the waters with John, Jesus knows our hearts and heartaches, too. Jesus brings together in his big heart the heart of his heavenly Father and our hearts and heartaches. Do you have any idea what that means for you? It means this: Jesus shows us how much his heavenly Father loves and cares for us, by how he, Jesus, is so touched in his heart by who you are and what you are going through. Indeed, what makes us so want to be a part of Jesus is how he can be so sensitive to us.

Baptism is your way of saying, “I want to be a part of Jesus. I confess that Jesus has found a place in his heart for me. The wonder of it all! The joy of it all! The awesomeness of it all!” When we remember our baptisms, we say again and again how grateful we are to be a part of Jesus and how grateful we are to be a member of Christ’s body, the Church.

When we remember our baptism into Christ, we remember that he opens his heart to bring us close to him. His sensitivity to us gives us the new-found ability to be sensitive to each other. Because of our baptism, Christians will stand out by our ability to be sensitive to the hopes and the hurts, the dreams and the depressions, the aspirations and the angers, the affirmations, and the aggressions of all of God’s children.

This election has been a moment of truth. It has shown us at our best and at our worst. Extremism tears up a republic. The inauguration of our 46th President Joe Biden is ten days away. More moments of truth await us; but they are not the either-or kind of moments of truth. They must be the both-and kind of moments of truth. Because of our baptism, we must insist on that.

Both finding a way to re-divide the pie and grow the pie. Both reforming police departments and strengthening law and order. Both saving lives in a pandemic and saving jobs.

Both demanding equity in education and demanding excellence. Both strengthening safety nets and strengthening capitalism. Both celebrating diversity and celebrating patriotism. Both making college cheaper and making the work of non-college-educated Americans more respected. Both high-fiving the people who start companies and supporting the people who regulate them. Both having an essential reckoning with white supremacy and understanding the other stories that people feel are driving their lives.

It is an awesome task to know when to support and when to resist, when to stand on principle and when to compromise. We will not always get it right or perfect. But if we stay close to Jesus who has opened his heart to us, we can always listen to our brothers and sisters and try again.

Christmas Mystery

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Dec 24, 2020

Psalm 139: 1-12
Ephesians 1: 1-10
Matthew 1: 18-2:12

Ever since my dad died, I have often had these moments where I’ll think of something, especially about the family, and think, “I know: I’ll call dad!”

And then I remember, I can’t.

Likewise my mom, who died nearly thirty years ago. She was an artist, and I have her paintings throughout my house. They are beautiful, bold, abstract. My mom could see things I couldn’t see. The more I look at them, I think of the depths I didn’t really understand or appreciate, the way too often I simply label her one way or another or make all my assumptions about her entirely based on me—what I liked, what I didn’t like, me, me, me. Her paintings are the expression of her soul, and her soul is a mystery to me.

As is my dad’s. As in many ways are my wife’s soul, my children’s souls—even my own soul. Each of us has depths within depths, and we really don’t even know ourselves very well.

This year has been an uncomfortable direct confrontation with the mysterious. First we are confounded by the Coronavirus. It has hemmed us in behind and before, to quote the psalmist, and done it literally, as we’ve been on lockdown in our own homes.

Then the death of George Floyd has forced us individually to examine our own souls and corporately to look honestly at the uncomfortable reality of implicit bias and institutional racism. This is the sort of thing that forces us to see ourselves through the eyes of others, and likewise to look at others in new ways, through new eyes. This is a reckoning with how poorly we know one another, and poorly we know ourselves, a confrontation with the mystery of one another.

It can expand us to acknowledge our ignorance and what we don’t know. Or it can cause us to shut down because we don’t want to see our shortcomings and be forced to change; such knowledge is too wonderful for us. We’d prefer to be ignorant.

Historian Yuval Noah Harrari writes in his book Sapiens that “The scientific revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the scientific revolution was the discovery that humans do not have the answer to their most important questions.” (53%)

Harrari says that the recognition of human ignorance transitioned us out of the Age of Faith and into The Scientific Revolution. Prior to that humans throughout the world operated on the assumption that “everything that is important to know about the world was already known.” Largely, this is because this is what their religions told them. Whether Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism, the great religions of the world told their believers that if it isn’t in our great book of faith, then you don’t need to know it; and furthermore, to delve into such things constituted faithlessness. It was dangerous and could even, ultimately, turn the world upside down. And we can’t have that. So don’t explore your own ignorance. Don’t seek to know what you don’t know. Stick with what you know, because ignorance is dangerous.

And it’s true. After all, ignorance nearly killed the wise men.

They were looking for the Christ child and they got lost. So they thought, “Well, this is the Jewish messiah, so let’s go to Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jewish world, and talk to their leader, Herod the Great, and his advisors, and maybe they can tell us where to find him!”

But then they make a big mistake: they call this mysterious baby “the King of the Jews.” “Where is the child who has been born the King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in its rising and have come to pay him homage,” they say.

Now Herod was touchy about that. Because, you see, HE was the King of the Jews. There were some people who contested that—namely, virtually every Jew on earth—but Augustus Caesar had appointed him King of the Jews, and so therefore Herod was the King of the Jews. End of the story, and keep your mouth shut if you want to keep your head on your shoulders.

But these well-intentioned but politically naïve so-called “wise men” didn’t know that. They were ignorant. And Herod would use that ignorance to his advantage. He would use it to find this mysterious child, this upstart that people might think was the true Messiah, the true King of the Jews, and kill him.

So Herod pretends to be a nice, good person and sends the wise men the right direction in hopes that they will return and tell him where to find the now toddler Jesus so that Herod quote can pay him homage unquote.

And so they go, and they find the Christ Child, this boy Jesus, with his parents in their home in Nazareth. But before they can in their ignorance return to Jerusalem to share their knowledge with Herod, God sends an angel to instruct them not to trust Herod and to go home by another route. And so they do.

The Bible stands in wonder at the wise men. We are told they come from the east, probably what today would be Iraq and Iran, and most scholars believe they were Zoroastrian. Zoroastrians believed in one God called Zoroaster and studied the stars for signs of what Zoroaster was up to. Zoroastrianism was another monotheistic faith and by this time had been around for centuries, as Judaism itself had been.

But when these Gentile Zoroastrian scholars saw this mysterious star in the sky, they did something interesting. They broke out of their comfort zone, their shell of certainty that told them that their religion was the only standard by which to judge what happens in the cosmos. They acknowledged their ignorance. This star in the sky, this mysterious sign, meant something was happening that they could not easily explain without turning to a different religious tradition entirely. They decided, of all things, that this was the work of the God of the Jews and that the star must indicate that the Jewish Messiah had been born.

And they were so excited about discovering this new world of things that they did not know, things they’d been previously ignorant of, that all they could do was joyfully prostrate themselves before a poor Galilean child and give thanks and praise and honor to Yahweh, the God of the Jews.

These wise men, who probably were the closest thing to scientists in their day, didn’t approach life from the perspective that they already knew everything they needed to know about the most important topic of life: the cosmic, the mystical, the transcendent. In a lot of ways they are reminiscent of the Medieval Christians Mystics, people like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, who spoke of God as “the Great Cloud of Unknowing.” God is wrapped in mystery and shrouded in what we don’t understand. The wise men are our guides in this.

But they are terrible guides. Really! They get lost. They ask for directions from the wrong people—see, this is why you should never ask for directions! Their journey constantly teeters on the edge of disaster. Their joyful, childlike wonder and willing naivete as they explore these new ideas leads them to take ignorant risks for themselves and for others, as well. And such terrible risks are exactly why you and I are often so afraid to explore the unknown, to risk venturing off the set paths of orthodoxy and convention. It’s dangerous. That’s why everybody tells us not to do it, and our own souls tremble at the thought, the idea of daring to venture into new ways to see God and the world.

But this story is all about the willingness to take risks—to step off into the unknown—to get lost in that great cloud of unknowing because in that dark and uncertain place, that place filled with risks and dangers, is mysterious and wonderful knowledge beyond anything we could discover on our own—knowledge of God. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it,” says the psalmist. Yet even so we are invited to try to attain it. This story invites us into mystery; in fact, as the psalmist says, it hems us in behind and before, so that there is no escape from mystery.

From the very beginning, we are forced down the dangerous and wonderful path of mystery. Joseph, Mary’s fiancé, is invited by the angel to abandon all his worldly and understandable assumptions about the pregnancy his soon-to-be bride. Forget honor and shame and convention and conventional wisdom, the angel tells him. Stay by Mary’s side and follow this mystery to its very unconventional and unpredictable end.

We then meet these wise men, people who by rights should be completely ignorant of who Jesus is and what God is up to; but then it turns out that they know more than all the Biblical sages who advise King Herod. Their ignorance is a doorway to God, whereas the sages’ wisdom is a hindrance and an obstacle.

Mystery shrouds this story, but also wonder, awe, joy and appreciation for the true depth and meaning of things. The wise men leave the home of Mary, Joseph and Jesus as better people, and they carry this new insight into the world far beyond Nazareth, far beyond Galilee, far beyond Palestine, and into the whole world.

Our epistle reading from the Book of Ephesians tells us that at last in Christ, the great mystery of the universe has been revealed to us. It is the mystery of God’s plan from before time began that in the fullness of time, all things would be united in Christ. The mystery revealed in Christ is the promise of hopes fulfilled, the assurance that love and grace and mercy are the core of God’s being and the axis around which the cosmos spins. It is a mystery that is so mysterious that it seems counter-intuitive: how does God become human? How can this world, in which Herod will soon kill hundreds of children under the age of two, possibly also be a world ruled by a God of grace and love and mercy? How is it that the end of this story, the death of God on a cross, is actually only the beginning of the story of God’s triumph over death for us all? How is it that we in this divided world will somehow find unity and wholeness and fullness in Christ?

God has revealed to us the mystery of God’s will and in the process has only raised more questions and revealed to us the many new and exciting ways we are still ignorant.

Albert Einstein wrote that “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” In our knowledge-focused world, we don’t like the mysterious. We like knowledge; we like certainty. And there is something we can know about the unknowable; there is a mystery that has been made known to us.

It is that God was in Christ, reconciling the world. It is that in the fulness of time, whatever that is, all things will be united in Christ, whatever that means.

This is good news. Good news that is meant not as the end of wisdom, but only the beginning. It is the door opening to knowledge of God. It’s like the first clue of a mystery story: it’s the beginning of the story, not the end.

In this time of pandemic and lockdowns and political division and racial unrest and unemployment and frustration and disappointment, this story invites us all to let go of our certainties and also our desire for things to get back to the way they were, and instead take bold and willing steps forward into the unknown new reality that is before us. It invites us, instead of rejecting this reality, to immerse ourselves in it, to accept it for what it is, to explore its unknowns and uncertainties and mysteries, and find the mysterious God of Grace who is certainly hidden in them. It invites us to see every moment as a doorway to the mysterious, to the unknown, to the awe and wonder and joy of finding God at work in God’s usual mysterious way. It invites us to a hopeful ignorance: we don’t know what God is up to, but we trust that God is up to something, and is guiding us on this path to discover what it is.

God has shown us a star. We can either just stare at it in wonder, or, with the Wise Men, make the star the beginning of our journey, assured that what awaits us at the end is still more wonder, still more mystery, still more awe and still more joy—the joy of God among us.


The Undercurrent of Our Lives

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Dec. 20, 2020

Luke 1: 39-56

Recently a friend, who is non-religious and a social worker, posted something on Facebook which caught my attention. He wrote that it always meant a lot to him when, after he helped out a client, that person said, “God bless you!” But that he felt unappreciated if they said instead, “Thank God!” I’ll help you as best I can either way, he said, but I notice the difference.

I think as much as anything my friend was expressing the frustration and exhaustion of folks on the front line of social and medical services. They were already bending over backwards to help out their clients through the myriads of problems they faced and the labyrinthine maze of bureaucracy that needs to be navigated. Add to that the increased pressure of COVID-19, with its added economic and medical stressors that have brought even more folks to a social worker’s virtual cubicle, and those in helping professions are feeling stretched thin as paper. Everyone and anyone who is in social work or medicine or a first responder deserves our gratitude and probably also needs it, because we all need those occasional expressions of appreciation: they fuel our own optimism and inspire us to keep going even in the face of overwhelming odds. We shouldn’t take these folks for granted.

Nonetheless, I pushed back gently on my friend’s comment. “I’d like to suggest a different way to think of that,” I wrote. “The person who says ‘Thank God’ isn’t unappreciative of you. It’s the opposite. You’ve proved to her that though she was despairing and beginning to think the universe was aligned against her, she has reason to hope. You’ve renewed her faith. You’ve renewed her ability to keep going despite the odds. You’ve become a doorway to God for her. She is grateful to you, but what you’ve done for her transcends you, it transcends even the service you gave her. It gives her faith to keep going. It’s the ultimate appreciation—you’ve given her transcendent hope. Seems like a pretty good achievement in my humble opinion!”

In these recent days, we’ve been hit with binary and opposite types of news. On the one hand, we have just passed 300,000 dead of COVID-19—as several have pointed out, a number larger than all the Americans killed in the Vietnam War. 

On the other hand, the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine has been approved and has just arrived in Texas; and another company’s vaccine is soon on its way. England got to administer the vaccine just before we did. They started with elderly patrons of a nursing home. The second person to receive it was an 89-year-old man named William Shakespeare. I kid you not. Don’t tell me that was an accident. The British tabloids were calling his shot “The Taming of the Flu.”

Though we wish that life was always a wonderful walk through the park, it often seems more like it’s hiding in a ditch during a tornado. The truth is that life normally hands us a bit of both. There’s rarely the clarity that we long for. It is easy to feel so overwhelmed and weighed down by the crises and troubles of life that we can’t see or appreciate the good when it happens; and if we do see it, sometimes it just doesn’t feel like it’s enough. And even if we aren’t particularly troubled or pessimistic, it is just so easy to be distracted by everyday stressors and troubles and pressures that we become irritable, reactive and tense. It’s not that we don’t have hope: it’s just that we can’t see the forest for the trees. Immediate problems distract us from the big picture.

In our Gospel lesson, Mary, pregnant with a child who is Jesus Christ, pays a visit to her Aunt Elizabeth, further along in her own pregnancy with the child who is John the Baptist. If they lived in our day, Mary and Elizabeth are exactly the sort of people who could end up seeing my social worker friend. Mary is of course a teenaged unmarried mother from a poor community with no independent means of support. Elizabeth on the other hand is an older woman well past the age when we think pregnancy is a possibility, and by rights could have many fears like the increased risk of Downs Syndrome or birth defects, the health risks of a difficult pregnancy, the stress of taking care of a child when you yourself and your husband are advanced in age. 

In everything in life, there is the ongoing balancing act of hope and fear, frustration and optimism, the things we think of as “good” and the things we think of as “bad.” Whichever one wins out in the end could be determined by something simple, like a social worker who finds you some unemployment benefits, or the doctor who tells you your treatment is going well, or the teacher who tells you how proud you should be of your kid, or the job interview that goes well, or the relief check that comes in the mail, or a phone call from a friend.

These things remind us of our faith. They remind us of the undercurrent of hope that keeps us going even when we’re down and frustrated and all options seem limited or nonexistent.

Mary’s story is the story of that faith. We read today her famous song, come down to us in tradition as The Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” she says. This song is her affirmation of the hope that we often forget, or get distracted from, but which we share with her:

“God has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant,” she says, and in one sentence reminds us that each of us, each one of us, no matter how low we feel, no matter how low we actually are according to the world’s standards, each of us is loved by God uniquely and individually and fully for who we are.

God’s sympathies and attention are especially on us when we are low and downtrodden, she assures us, when we feel weak and helpless; so even if—in fact, especially if—you are low and weak and overwhelmed and downtrodden, God loves you, God is with you, God is your savior—and God is worthy of your praise.

That hope is the undercurrent of our lives as people who have put their trust in Jesus Christ. It is especially easy to forget it in times of trouble and crisis, but Mary’s point is that especially in those times of trouble and crisis we should remember that hope and praise God for it.

My friend the social worker has an amazing job—he gets to remind people of that hope just when they’ve just about given up on it. We all are tempted to give up on that hope every now and then. Other times we just get distracted and forget that hope. And other times when things are well, we take it for granted.

But it’s that hope that keeps us going when times are bad, and raises us up when we are low, and gives us the spirit never to give up. It’s always there and it sustains us.

But that hope empowers us and drives us and makes us able to do more even than we can ask or imagine if we acknowledge it—if we thank God. If we affirm openly that it is thanks to God that I can keep on keeping on. It is because I trust God that I trust life, too. It is because of my faith in Jesus Christ that I always believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and so I keep moving forward even in the darkest night. It is because I know that God is good and that I am a beloved child of God that I keep pushing the rock up the hill over and over again, even though it rolls back down, because I know that one day the rock will go over the cliff and I will be free.

Thank God that hope is the undercurrent of our lives—but how much more we can do, how much more confident and hopeful we feel, we really acknowledge it and give God the credit. It’s our affirmation that life itself is on our side, that the cosmos is working in our favor, and that the Sovereign of the world loves me, me personally.

There is suffering and loss, there is hardship and travail, but there is also the courage and determination to keep going on, and the ability to discover joy and hope in the midst of hard times. These are a gift of God.

Right now we are saddened and angry and should be by the loss of lives and the rough road still ahead. We are also grateful for good news of vaccines and of a possible Congressional relief package. Take care of those in need and grieving. Thank the doctors and researchers and politicians (yes, even them). Keep taking precautions because we aren’t out of the woods yet.

But do all these things with the conscious affirmation of your very soul that God is your strength, your savior, your rock, your fortress, your healer, your comforter, and your hope. Even in your lowest low, God’s love never lets you go. Let your soul magnify the Lord and your spirit rejoice in God your savior. 

Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to the gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—  to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.  


Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Dec. 13, 2020

John 1: 6-9, 19-35

“Seek not the favor of the multitude; it is seldom got by honest and lawful means. But seek the testimony of few; and number not voices, but weigh them.”

—Immanuel Kant, 1724-1804, German Philosopher

“Consider the source.” We’ve all heard that expression. A lot of times we use it as a put-down, like in, “So-and-so said such-and-such!” “Well, consider the source.” In that case, it’s a way of saying, “This person is not a reliable source of information.” If we want objective or factual information, we shouldn’t believe something just because that person said it, but look for other, more reliable sources of information, sources who’ve got a proven track record.

These days it seems like all sources are viewed as questionable by somebody. Many people view the press and other independent, or seemingly independent news sources as prejudiced toward a certain view. And then the news has competition these days, heavy competition, from social media. Increasingly social media is capitalizing on what’s known as “confirmation bias,” the fact that when you and I already have an established opinion, we are more likely to believe information that confirms our opinion. If I am already inclined to believe that guns are a threat, I’m more likely to read or listen to stories that confirm my prejudice and disregard stories that indicate otherwise. If I’m already inclined to believe that democrats are running a child abuse ring out of a pizza place in DC and eat children for breakfastas apparently QAnon says–I’m more likely to pay attention to stories that confirm that bias and disregard information that might indicate otherwise, like how many children of democrats grow up whole and healthy and their parents never even bit them once even if they deserved it.

Many fake news outlets depend on confirmation bias and deliberately write false stories to capitalize on our gullibility. These fake stories play on liberal and conservative prejudices but turn them up to eleven. No one—neither liberal or conservative—has any room to feel superior about this. A major reason for the extreme partisan divide afflicting our nation now is our tendency to believe false stories about the other side that confirm our own biases.

It may come as a surprise to you that confirmation bias, fake news, and the reliability of sources are hardly 21st Century inventions. It could be argued that things were even worse hundreds and thousands of years ago. As Judas says in Jesus Christ Superstar “Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.” Two thousand years ago news not only travelled slow, it played out like that game we used to play in school where you’d tell a story to the person in the seat behind you and then they’d pass it on until everyone in the class heard it. By that point, the story would likely be changed almost beyond recognition.

The problem, of course, was that there really was no mass communication. One reason there are four gospels, for instance, is that as Christianity spread, it took on regional overtones. Different Christian groups had different assumptions and biases and were early on unfamiliar with the way other Christians might understand their faith. Matthew, for instance, is written with a Jewish Christian readership in mind, whereas Luke is written for a Gentile non-believer readership who would not understand or be interested in things that matter to Matthew’s Jewish audience. Mark was the first gospel and was apparently unfamiliar with the Christmas stories of Jesus’ birth. Those stories appear in the later gospels, Matthew and Luke, but apparently Mark had no idea of them.

Likewise the Gospel writers had to respond to their versions of “fake news.” The Gospel of Matthew reports a rumor going around that Jesus’ disciples stole his body from the grave in the dead of night. Matthew attributes this to a ‘cover up’ by Pilate and the Temple elite, who didn’t want the story of the resurrection to get out. As Christianity spread into the Gentile world during the Biblical period, a Greek philosopher claimed that Mary was actually impregnated by a Roman soldier. Later Jewish scholarship named this soldier Panthera. No doubt these in turn reinforced long-standing questions surrounding Jesus’ mysterious birth. The fact of this fake news influenced the emphasis that Matthew and Luke put on the virgin birth.

The radical and controversial nature of the Gospel made it especially important for the Gospel writers to find an unimpeachable source for their news that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. The source they chose was John the Baptist.

For a Jewish audience, John carried all the right credentials. The First Century Jewish historian Josephus tells us that John was admired and hero-worshipped throughout Galilee and Judea. He writes:

“…[T]his good man … commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God. For only thus, in John’s opinion, would the baptism he administered be acceptable to God, namely, if they used it to obtain not pardon for some sins but rather the cleansing of their bodies, inasmuch as it was taken for granted that their souls had already been purified by justice.”

Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words. Herod, [the Jewish King of Galilee] who feared that the great influence John had over the masses might put them into his power and enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best to put him to death. In this way, he might prevent any mischief John might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late.

Josephus writes that it was widely believed that Herod suffered an embarrassing military defeat because God was punishing Herod for executing John. John in short was viewed by Jews throughout the Middle East as having a unique and powerful relationship with God, and he was greatly respected for standing up to Herod. In fact, John was easily far better known, even decades after his death, than Jesus was. Writing after 70 AD, Josephus writes extensively about John the Baptist but only makes a throwaway remark or two about Jesus. John was a First Century Jewish hero.
This made John the Baptist’s testimony about Jesus extremely important to the Gospel writers and to Christians in general. He was easily the most credible source they could imagine.

One of the issues with the sources we hear from these days is anonymity. We don’t know who they are or where they get their information. QAnon especially capitalizes on this. He, she or they are anonymous source supposedly in some government inner circle who can’t reveal who they are for fear of retaliation. That should be a red flag right there. They claim some kind of credibility they can’t prove. We don’t know who they are.
The Gospel writers don’t start their story with a quote from a source they can’t attribute. They go to someone with proven credibility: they go to John the Baptist.

And it’s important to note the way John gives his testimony about Jesus. Listen again to what he says:
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”[g] 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 

He then says that his job is to point away from himself, and toward Jesus, the Lamb of God. So despite his fame, John doesn’t toot his own horn. He doesn’t claim that he’s something he is not. This is the first thing we should note about credible testimony: It isn’t raising itself up. One thing we should always ask is, Does the testimony this source gives only serve to further its own ends?

The proof that John isn’t in this for glory is proven in our reading today when immediately after John calls Jesus “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” two of John’s own disciples abandon him to follow Jesus. If John was out to promote himself, he wouldn’t want that to happen. But he’s not out to promote himself. He’s out to promote something much larger than himself and is glad to fade into the limelight so Jesus’ light can shine. 

Of course we are two thousand years out and our sources on John the Baptist are mixed. We cannot know for sure what John said and thought of Jesus. It is striking that all four gospels indicate that John knew and respected Jesus and his ministry. John put his own credibility on the line when he spoke out for Jesus. That is often true of people who give testimony about a truth larger than themselves. It’s a risk.

This should be another red flag on someone like QAnon. He’s anonymous. What risk is he taking? None, really. He says he’s at risk but we only have his word on that. On the other hand, is he benefiting? Most definitely, as his fame continues to spread and his opinions influence those of people in powerful positions.

You have probably noticed that I’m not filming this service in the usual way. I’m in my office after hours because I am quarantining. I have been exposed to COVID-19 and I don’t want to affect the health of other people. I have a test first thing in the morning tomorrow and will find out if I have it. If I do, I’ll have to quarantine for the next seven to nine days. Hopefully, I won’t have to. But I have to say that this has been an object lesson for me. I have tried to be cautious, and I advise everyone to be cautious, but even so, here I am. I am experiencing firsthand what the health experts are warning us about. The virus is more virulent now than it has been during all the last nine months. I can’t give more details, but I can assure that I am not the only church person who has gotten this. The virus hasn’t had a serious impact on our congregation before this, but now it most definitely is.

I have to tell you I am inordinately and irrationally angry at Covid-19. Not so much because I might have it. More because of the terrible effect is having on everything that makes being a church and being a minister matter. We can’t have proper funerals when someone dies. Hugging someone could make them or you sick. Singing is a no-no. I hate this disease’s inhumanity that I have to advise lonely or hurting people to stand six feet apart and make sure they are wearing masks and that we all have to live in fear that doing the things that make us loving and empathetic, the things that make us human, could actually hurt the people we love. I hate that despite good news of a successful vaccine, we will still have to wait months and months until we can relate to one another in the fully human way that all of us so desperately need right now.

I hate this disease. But even so, from the bottom of my heart, I beg you, please, take it seriously right now. The spread is particularly virulent right now. The risk has never been higher. I know you want to spend holidays with family or go caroling or attend some sort of live event. I know we’re desperate for those human connections. But please, I’m begging you, do not believe the people who lie and tell you it is okay not to wear a mask or that the vaccine is a way to implant microcircuitry in your body or that the threat is exaggerated or unreal. Do not believe them. I don’t know to what extent I have any credibility with anybody, but if I do with you, please listen to me. I WANT it to not be true that COVID-19 is a risk. I hate it and its effects on me and you and the world with all my heart. This disease undermines everything I went into ministry to do.

Except one. The most important thing I went into to ministry to do was to tell the truth. The truth about God, the truth about Jesus, the truth about the Gospel and the truth about the world.

And I’m telling you the truth now. Believe science. Believe Dr. Fauci. Wear a mask. Stay home. If you aren’t worried about yourself or the people you love, think about our hospital system strained to the breaking point, the numerous health care workers in our own congregation who could be stretched to the breaking point and in many cases already are, as numbers of infections increase at alarming rates. Think about the many people in need of some sort of surgical or medical procedure whose treatments are having to be postponed so hospitals can deal with increased COVID-19 volume. It’s misleading to call these “elective” surgeries. A knee surgery when you can’t walk or a test to find out if you have cancer is not the same as getting a nose job. Postponing such surgeries and procedures extends misery and increases risk. 

Please don’t believe the self-serving lies out there to promote false notions that COVID-19 is fake or some kind of conspiracy. Consider the source. And also just look at the evidence all around you.

But also trust in this truth: God is with us. God loves us. God is with us in suffering because as Jesus Christ, he suffered just the same as we do. God is with us in grief, because God grieves when we grieve. As the psalmist says, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” 

Hold out. Hold out and trust God. Joy will come with the morning.


Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey
Devotional for the 2nd Week of Advent
Dec 8, 2020

Ecclesiastes 9.1-12

Galatians 3.23-4.7

Luke 1.57-79

In November 1944 a new musical opened on the New York stage called “Meet Me in St. Louis.” It starred among others the legendary Judy Garland, and it was a smash hit. Over time “Meet Me in St. Louis” was made into a movie several times over, and it has entered the Library of Congress list of 100 movies that have become a classic. The plot is simple enough: three daughters of marriageable age finally get their guys. But the uplifting songs and the fresh hope displayed was just what the American public needed to see and hear in November 1944.

In the midst of costly battles across the seas and, at home, heartache and worry and loss, “Meet Me in St. Louis” opens on Broadway. People came night after night to be transported back to a different time at the turn of the 20th century. Maybe the weight of their troubles could be lifted even for a couple of hours.

The show contains many memorable tunes. “The Trolley Song” was an Academy Award nominee for example. But the one song that has lasted the best over the decades, the one the Fort Worth Symphony plays every year during their Home for the Holidays concert, the one you will find in every book of Christmas songs is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light.
From now on,
Our troubles will be out of sight.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay.
From now on, our troubles will be miles away.
Here we are as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more.
Through the years we all will be together,
If the Fates allow,
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

You may not have thought about it before, but this is the only song I know that talks about Christmas and Fate. Do you know any carol that talks about Christmas and Fate? I don’t. But this song had the right words to speak to the hearts of those who night after night came to be whisked away by the theatrical magic of “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

You will recall that the D-Day landings had occurred only five months earlier. While Allied forces were making steady progress in taking back Europe from Nazi Germany, the eventual outcome was still very much in the balance. Germany still had robust military power and was desperate enough to take large risks in stopping the Allied push toward Berlin. The Battle of the Bulge would be fought with tremendous loss to American forces less than a month after Judy Garland walked on the stage. In the Far East American and Commonwealth forces threw themselves at bitterly entrenched Japanese defenders.

In the midst of these dark days of trouble, the song invites us to put our troubles far away. We are to imagine ourselves back “in olden days, happy golden days of yore.” Look at all the faithful friends gathered near to us! the song claims, confidently. Through the years we all will be together.

But then the lyrics bring us up short with an important condition, “if the Fates allow.” A shadow of fate falls upon Christmas, and the horrors of war suddenly intrude again. At that point, the nostalgia of yesteryear is invaded by the present brutal reality of war. However, in the face of Fate, the song ends with a defiant call “to hang a shining star upon the highest bough,/And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”

If the Fates allow. How that resonated with folk in 1944! How it resonates with us today! The sober observer of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “one fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and unclean…As is the good person, so is the sinner…This is an evil in all that is done under the sun; that one fate comes to all…that is why human hearts are full of evil and madness…for their only [fate] is to die.” The writer of Ecclesiastes may not be the happiest person in the world, but he surely is the most honest. “[T]he race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance [that is, fate] happen to them all.”

How we know there is no one-to-one correlation between effort and result! You may know a friend beset by a terrible disease. You may have been kicked out of a good job. You may be an unemployed college graduate. You may have a troubled child. And you can think of nothing that you did to cause this. You thought you knew the rules of the game and were playing it fairly. You put your trust in a Providence that assured you a secure future. But Fate has other plans. Judy Garland had it right: “Through the years we all will be together if the Fates allow.” That’s the big IF of Fate.

Living under Fate can do two things to us. First, it makes us live under the tyranny of the Now. Remember that the last phrase is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas now.” Here we are together now, but I can’t say for sure in the future, so if everything is up for grabs, then I am going to grab everything I can right now. Here we are together now, but I can’t say for sure in the future, so I have to make this Christmas RIGHT NOW the best, the most perfect time. So we get very uptight and demanding and touchy. Our lives may be taken from us right now, so we will throw caution to the wind now and act blindly on impulse. “We need a little Christmas, right this very minute/Candles in the window, carols by the spinet….We need a little Christmas now.”

The second thing living by Fate does is to fuel the “so-what” kind of life. Cheating, stealing, lying. So what. Once upon a time you could find more examples of people who acted out of conviction instead of trying to avoid conviction. “Just say No” has been replaced with “just say nothing.” The standard response is the shrug. Living by Fate lets you can talk calmly about the deaths of primary school children and call them “planned losses” which are necessary to protect your rights under the 2nd Amendment.

“If the Fates allow” puts all life under the big IF. Christmas is God’s confrontation with Life by Fate. Christmas means liberation from a Life by Fate. Christmas means: God has something better than Fate in store for you and me. Christmas means: God has a better attitude to give you than being a slave to the tyranny of the Now. God wants to relax your shoulders from the perpetual cynical shrug.

Jesus was born under the big IF; he was subject to time and chance. He was only days old when he just barely escaped Fate catching up with him when Herod’s soldiers killed all the boy babies in Bethlehem. During his adult life, he played the game of life the best of them all. He chose 12 followers and put his trust in them. And what did he get for it? Time and chance caught up with him. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He got betrayed and crucified, and under his religion that meant he was cursed by God. The mocking laughter of the big IF of Fate rang all around the one who hung on Calvary’s cross. The cruel hand of Fate sealed his body in a tomb and walked away pleased with the evil and madness it had caused among his followers. One of his followers committed suicide. Another bailed out and went home a defeated man. A third was plagued by doubt and depression. My friends, Jesus knows exactly how Life by Fate runs its course. Jesus knows exactly what Fate does.

But God has another future in store for us beyond the worst of what Fate can do. So, God raises Jesus from the dead, liberating him from the seal of Fate. God takes him to a realm beyond the reach of Fate. In the Apostles’ Creed we call that “the right hand of God the Father.” Now God makes it possible for you to hang a shining star from the highest bough. Here’s why. Because Jesus in his life on earth so identified with us in our situation, he now carries us with him into his new situation. Beyond Fate and into the safe haven of love, peace, joy, kindness, and generosity.

That’s what Christmas is all about. Time and chance may catch up with us, but Fate does not define us. We have a new floor put under our feet that lets us face the uncertain future with confidence. We can be relaxed, unwind, not be so uptight and fretful over perfection. Give yourself a Christmas gift of time to play, to love, to dream. God backstops our feeble efforts to do the right thing with power to resurrect goodness from the dead.

The Medium is The Message

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Dec. 6, 2020

Isaiah 40: 1-11
Mark 1: 1-8

Our first child Sara Caitlin was born in October of 1991. Barely a week later my mother died in a sudden and shocking fashion.

You can imagine the emotional turmoil that beset Margaret and me at that time. It was time of joy and grief, exhilaration and anger and confusion and hope and despair and loss and gain and exhaustion, just plain exhaustion. We felt tossed on an emotional sea.

Thankfully, there was George Goodman. George was the associate executive presbyter in the Presbytery of the Peaks, which was where I was serving at the time. George’s focus was pastoral care of the pastors, and he was good at his job. George showed up almost right away. George didn’t say any wise things that stuck with me or changed my life. He didn’t grab me and say, “Get a grip!” or tell me, “I feel your pain.” He didn’t pass along theological platitudes or comforting bromides. I can’t recall that George said anything at all, though I’m sure he did. And it was probably very wise. But what I remember is his calming presence, his kindness, his obvious sympathy and care. I just remember him sitting with me. It wasn’t his words; it was his presence that exuded comfort. Like philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously observed, the medium was the message. George didn’t bring a message of comfort; he was the message of comfort. That was his gift. He helped center me and give me the strength needed to manage that challenges I was facing.

I hope that when I am providing pastoral care I convey something like what George did for me then. In seminary, we were taught to call that ministry of presence. Our old pastoral care professor, Dr. Oglesby, used to say, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” We are all tempted, when we’re trying to comfort or support someone, to try to figure out how to say or to do the right thing; but Dr. Oglesby’s point was that often our actions and our words get in the way of what really matters, which is just that we are there. In fact, Dr. Oglesby would tell us that our job was to get out of the way and let the presence of Christ shine through our presence. That’s what George Goodman was and is so gifted at—sharing the presence of Christ through his presence. The medium becomes the message.

One of the interesting and fun biblical challenges of the Gospel of Mark is that right from the opening words that we read as our Gospel today, we are presented with an interpretive conundrum. Listen again:

The beginning of the good news[a] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.[b]
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,[c]
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,[d]
    who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.’”

You and I have been taught that “the messenger who will prepare the way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” is John the Baptist. We are taught that the message he is to convey is that Jesus is coming. But actually, if you read this the way it’s presented in Mark, the messenger who will prepare the way is Jesus; his message is to prepare the way of the Lord—that is to say, that God is coming; the apocalyptic “Day of the Lord” is at hand. Luke and Matthew definitely think the messenger is John the Baptist. But Mark, which is the very first Gospel, says that Jesus is the messenger.

But what is the message that Jesus is bringing? It is the Gospel: As Mark calls it, “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” So in Mark, Jesus is both the messenger—and the message. He proclaims the Gospel and is the Gospel. Once again, Marshall McLuhan is right: the medium is the message.

In Wednesday Bible Study, we are beginning the study of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. One of the important messages of this letter, says commentator Richard Hays, is for the Corinthians to view “Paul as a model for ministry.” “Paul explicitly offers himself as a model to be imitated,” Hays says. Now to many of us, this is just more proof of Paul’s arrogance, that he would dare to hold himself up as a Christlike model for the entire Church at Corinth to follow! But consider: these were new Gentile Christians, completely unfamiliar not only with Jesus and his ministry but also with the whole history and tradition of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism, living in a culture that didn’t present any sort of model of how to be a Christian and whose models of how to be a good person were highly suspect. They didn’t know any Christians but Paul. How were they to know how to be Christlike if Paul and his disciples didn’t show it to them in their lives? I don’t think Paul was saying, “look at what a great person I am, so act like me!” My guess is Paul viewed his whole life as a process of getting out of the way and letting Christ shine through him, because otherwise many of those he taught wouldn’t have any concept of what Christ was really like.

The most critical thing for us if we are striving to live Christian lives is for us to remember that “the medium is the message” and that “the messenger is the message.” The reason that this matters is that Christianity is an embodied faith in an incarnate God. Embodied means literally “in a body;” and to call God ‘incarnate’ means that Jesus was God in human form, with a real actual flesh and blood body. The Advent message, the message of the season of Advent, which means “coming,” is not that we are going to heaven to join God, but that God has come here to earth to join us. Our job, daunting and overwhelming as it is, is to demonstrate to the world that God is actually present here, in this crazy world, with all of us. God and we are in this together. And somehow we need to show this with our lives. We messengers have to be the message.

This is an embodied faith in an incarnate God. It is a message about something real, something concrete, something materially present in this the actual world in which we have a cup of coffee in the morning, go to work or to yoga class, see people begging on the corner, wear masks to protect ourselves from the coronavirus, and get frustrated with squabbling irresponsible politicians. This is a material message about a child born to poor parents in an occupied country in which children are slaughtered by an authoritarian ruler; about a savior who may not have been able to read and write and whose followers didn’t have two pennies to rub together and who was ultimately executed by the state as a matter of political expediency.

If the only way you can imagine a godly human walking the earth is if he or she is rich and successful and educated and sophisticated and the darling of the media, then Jesus doesn’t fit the bill. But if you live in the real world where there is suffering and uncertainty and joy in simple pleasures like light shining through a leaf or summer lightning or a child’s laughter, where the answers aren’t simple and pleasure is ephemeral, and where we learn meaning and purpose through dealing with and often failing at the unexpected challenges of life, then this savior is the right savior. Instead of coaxing us out of this world, he comes and meets us here, he is present among us, he is real, and even though he may not say anything in that moment, his very presence in complex, confusing world makes us feel what Isaiah means:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

By the grace of God, we, God’s people, get to convey this message to the world, and our challenge is to get out of the way and let the message speak. It’s a daunting task, because we know that we are flawed messengers. Ironically, and by God’s clever and sometimes mischievous intentions, that’s part of the point. If you think that God made a mistake to expect you to be the messenger, that’s part of the message. God’s living message entered a flawed and needy world, and so naturally we messengers are flawed and needy people. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need to hear words of comfort from someone who’s never suffered, or words of hope from someone who has never known despair. I don’t have any use for good news from someone who hasn’t had bad news. I have never heard a perfect word from someone who didn’t stumble saying it, and I’ve never seen a perfect example of Christlikeness from someone who didn’t mess it up as often as not.

All that is part of the message of a savior who has joined us here in the real world. The message of hope comes in broken vessels. Like Leonard Cohen once said, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light get in.” The message is grace. The message is unconditional love. The message is forgiveness. That amazing message makes the best sense in messengers like ourselves, who aren’t perfect and who don’t get it right as often as not. We messengers, with all our flaws and shortcomings, our overblown egos and our deep secret shame, the ways we get it wrong as well as the ways we get it right, our doubts and failings and misdirected goals and unexpected graces; we messengers are the message. Yes, we messengers all have a crack in us; that’s how Christ’s light got into us in the first place, through the holes in our lives that have made us realize how much we need Christ in the first place. And that’s how the light gets out, too. Through the cracks.

We, messengers, are the message. And nothing proves the grace and love of God better than that.

Wounded By Grace

Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey
Advent Devotional
Nov 30, 2020

Luke 2:22-35 Luke 11:27 Romans 5:3-5

How does grace wound? We typically think of God’s grace as something positive, helpful. “saved by grace.” What does it mean for God’s grace to cause pain? Why should it?
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a central figure in Christian thought. “Hail Mary, full of grace…” She is the exemplar of the trusting, faithful disciple. Annunciation: Behold I am the handmaiden of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to your will. We should follow Mary’s example of faith.

Jesus is God’s grace personified. We say, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” Jesus is a force for good; he does gracious acts; he responds to us with unmerited favor. How could Jesus hurt someone, wound someone?

But the Bible surprises us with the fact that Mary is the first one to become wounded by Jesus, and he was just a baby. When she brought Jesus to the temple to be presented as her first-born, the prophet Simeon said to her: “This child is destined…to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner (hostile) thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” In this prophetic warning, Jesus is pictured as wielding a scalpel that cuts through all the pretension and bluster we camouflage ourselves with so that nobody will see what we really are. Jesus calls it out and no one, not even his own mother, escapes the sword of his grace through her soul.

Certainly, Jesus caused many a sword to be pierced through Mary’s heart.

  • Her heartfelt the sting and barb as she and Jesus were maligned and slandered when Jesus was called illegitimately born.
  • When he went missing on the return trip from a visit to Jerusalem and his parents exploded on him when they found him in the Temple, he floored them by saying, “Didn’t you know that I would be in my father’s house?”
  • He left home, never to return, and established his own independent life.
  • He was a sign that was spoken against. He was the target of hostile thoughts. No mother likes to see this or hear this about her child.
  • Mary watched helpless his being tortured to death through crucifixion, knowing of his innocence.

But there is something more cutting to Mary. Later in the gospel of Luke, Jesus makes a comment about how he feels about his mother that is most revealing. At the conclusion of one of his marvelous teaching episodes, a woman in the crowd shouted out a warm and sincere compliment: “Blessed,” she said,” is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” The words may ring rather odd to us; it’s not something that I would say in public to your mother about you. But it was a sincere compliment spoken in the idiom of Jesus’ world from one mother to another, meaning something like, “How proud you must be of your daughter, or of your son! How lucky you are to have such a child!”

But what Jesus says in reply you must hear as a rebuff, a deflection of this compliment. “Blessed, rather, are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Jesus is pushing back with these words. Jesus does not want his mother to be remembered that way. Jesus does not want his mother to be complimented that way.

Here is the way Jesus wounds his mother. Jesus does not want to be tied to Mary at the fundamental level through her body, through her maternal function, through the natural bonding of mother and child. Jesus will not allow Mary to have access to him through the natural avenues of womb and breasts, of gestation and nurture. Jesus will not allow Mary to be fulfilled through her mothering.

Jesus’ sharp words are a sword that pierces through her heart. Jesus makes the doing of God’s will into a sword which cuts Mary off from the most natural and easily used ways of reaching out to her son. He is more impressed with the doing of God’s will. That is the deciding factor. Jesus will acknowledge his mother as she, along with him, does God’s will. It is the joint doing of God’s will that will bond them together, as mother and child, not their natural ties of womb and breast. She can be blessed directly as a follower of him, not merely as the mother of a great and controversial figure of history.

It is not that Jesus is ashamed that Mary is his mother. It is rather a question of getting our priorities straight. Jesus will be Mary’s teacher, Mary’s Lord, before he is Mary’s son. Mary will be Jesus’ disciple, Jesus’ servant, before regard can be paid to her as his mother. To her must go the very same question that Jesus puts to every woman, to every man, to every child. “Whom do you say that I am?” And she had better not start off by saying, “You are my son.”

Maybe you could say that Jesus was trying to protect his mother against the trauma she would suffer by watching her son die on the cross. Remember his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will, but thine be done.” Mary will not understand in her head how this could be the case, but in her heart of pain Jesus asks her to support him in the doing of God’s will, as strange and dark as it seems to be.

Rather than being related by blood, we are related by obedience. Rather than being related by skin color, we are related by doing the will of God. Rather than being related by political party or identity politics or ethnicity, we are related by doing the will of God.

So it is that suffering and the bracing call to discipleship looms over the soft and warm feelings of the Christmas story. But this is precisely where new birth happens. The Apostle Paul grasped this uneasy truth when he wrote: “We boast in our suffering because suffering leads to endurance, endurance leads to character, character leads to hope, and hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us.” When grace wounds, suffering is tied to hope that you can sink your teeth into it because your heart is full to bursting with God’s love.

Risk Assessment

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Matthew 25: 15-30

In our parable today from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is speaking, parabolically, of the end times. He tells the story of a master who goes on a long journey and asks three of his slaves to invest his money while he’s away. He gives them each an enormous amount; a talent is the equivalent of 6000 days’ worth of wages. Two of them invest the money and double the investment. But the third buries the money and returns it to the master. His reasoning is telling:

‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;  so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’

The master is uncontrollable and unpredictable. He goes where he wants and does what he wants and no one can stop him. Rules don’t matter to him. And so the servant is terrified of him and decides the best thing to do is just hide away in a bunker and hope for the best. Just hunker down until it’s over.

Let me tell you, I get this. I understand the slave’s desire to bury his talents and hunker down until the pandemic is over—I mean, until the master returns. It seems like every choice right now is fraught with risk. Go shopping, go out to eat, go to the gym, go out to vote. As your pastor I am constantly weighing pros and cons. When do we return to live indoor worship? We were on a path to that in December but advice we received from medical professionals and public health officials was, don’t: December is likely to be the worst coronavirus spike yet. We were even warned to be careful of outdoor events, but at that point we have to weigh the physical health of our congregation over against the spiritual health, which is our unique charge as a Christian church. We’re entering Advent and Christmas. We need each other and we need to spiritual message of hope and promise and peace that this season offers. So we are still going to have outdoor events.

Likewise some people have questioned why we’re continuing to prepare for a capital campaign in the midst of a pandemic and economic crisis. Let me say first that we don’t know ultimately whether we’ll even have a campaign when it comes down to the wire. But to just crawl into our hole and hide until this is over is unacceptable. The needs the campaign is addressing are real. Handicap access, overdue for seventy years; day school security doors, at a time when schools are increasingly at risk; vans for our programming for youth and the homeless when our present vans are a hazard; a chance to radically improve our organ which has been needed for years and even as our music program is thriving under Jordan’s leadership. All these things and more pave the way for our ministry to continue to thrive well into the 21st century. It would be irresponsible for us to let this opportunity slip from our fingers because of pandemic fatigue.

The same can be said of the incredible emergency lunch ministry that the Mission Committee has established and that so many of you contribute to. Our homeless friends and the agencies we support are in a massive crisis. It’s hard now to remember the potential good reasons we shouldn’t have tried to help. How can we be sure we aren’t spreading COVID-19 by how we prepare these meals? Isn’t it risky gathering church people together to get this work done? Maybe our volunteers would be safer if they just stayed home. But to all those problems, faithful and disciplined determination provided solutions. Burying our talents was just not an option.

Both our scriptures are dealing with a God who does the unexpected and the unpredictable and what we’re supposed to do about it. In the Parable of the Talents, an unpredictable master who reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he did not plant goes away and then shows up again out of the blue. This capricious master is an allegory for God. In First Thessalonians, Paul is writing to Christians who have been expecting that Jesus will arrive within their lifetimes because Paul himself had told them he would—after all it was a common belief among early Christians that Jesus would return within a generation of his resurrection. But now too much time has passed and too many people have died waiting and Paul himself has needed to rethink his beliefs about this capricious, unpredictable savior he has met in Jesus Christ. It’s kind of a Dr. Fauci moment for Paul. Just as Dr. Fauci first said that masks were not helpful and then had to take that back, Paul has to take back his predictions that Jesus will arrive in a certain time frame. But like Dr. Fauci, he doesn’t lose sight of the big picture. For Dr. Fauci, the message changed because the health of the nation was paramount. For Paul, the message changed because the hope we have in Jesus Christ has to remain paramount. So Paul now assures folks that Jesus will return, just not on the predicted timeline. The details are different, but the hope remains the same.

But Paul is raising this because he’s concerned about how people will act if Jesus’ return isn’t right around the corner. He doesn’t want them to lose hope, and he doesn’t want them to think, While the cat’s away, the mouse will play! They still need to live faithfully and ethically. They can’t rest on their laurels. They can’t hunker down and say, we have time. We can do that later.

When Jesus advises people to invest the talents they are given, he means that how we live in a time of unpredictability and uncertainty is even more important than how we live when everything is copacetic and relaxed. He’s saying, how we live when we don’t think God or other people are looking over our shoulder really matters. He’s saying that how we live when we think that everybody would give us a ‘bye and a reason to slack off is more important than how we live when everyone expects us to be productive. How do we invest our time and energy when there’s no one to tell us what to do or how to do it? That’s the issue for the three slaves. In our parable, the master only gives the three slaves his money; he doesn’t tell them what to do with it. He doesn’t even tell themn to invest it. They could do whatever they want with it. They have to make those choices themselves.

In some ways that’s been the frustration of this time of pandemic. We have different people telling us different things about what to do or else not telling us what to do at all. What we’re left with is the choices only we can make. The question is, will we in this time live faithfully? And if so, what does faithfulness look like? The safe course is always to just bury our heads in the sand, hunker down and wait it out. The riskier choice is to invest—to dare to do things that take us out on a limb, but to do them in the name of faithfulness, of justice, of love, of service to others, in the name of furthering the goals of God’s kingdom on earth. As with any investing, we are taking a risk. We might get it wrong. And it’s a balancing act. Too much risk and you lose a lot, and it may not be worth it. But as Jesus points out, if we take no risks, we lose even what we have.

I know some of us feel like the church is already taking too many risks; and others think not nearly enough. I get it. I struggle with this every day. I wish there was a playbook that explained clearly how to be the church in a time of pandemic. But the only playbook is the one we’ve always had, the Bible; and the assurance we have now is the assurance we’ve always had, that Jesus is with us. We make the best decisions we can, but guided by the same standards that always guide us: faithfulness, service and sacrifice, love of God and neighbor, love of each other, proclaiming the gospel, caring for our church and our community, seeking to demonstrate the Kingdom of God to the world. That’s how we are always to live anyway. But it’s now when it really matters. In these times such faithful investment will, by the grace of God, give us the return we seek, which is always the Kingdom of Heaven, for us, for our community, and for the world.

Why Do You Want the Day of the Lord?

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Amos 5: 18-24
I Thessalonians 4: 13-18
Matthew 25: 1-13

“…The day of the Lord can generate the confession that even in the midst of terror God prompts or releases words that become the pathway to the restoration of life within the community and between community and God. Such a community plainly admits of its inability to know how to walk the path of faithfulness and gladly looks forward to God as a teacher of God’s ways. Yet, those who stand in the way of God’s intent will finds themselves moved to exclaim over their undoing.”

–Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey, Living in the Language of God.

As I write this, it is Wednesday, the day after the 2020 election. I and most Americans have probably spent the day on the edge of our seats, waiting to hear the final results of the election. We are hoping and probably praying that our candidate wins and may even be fearful or frustrated or angry if the other fellow wins. The fear, of course, is that the other fellow will bring on the apocalypse.

On the other hand, if my candidate wins, happy days are here again, to quote another long-ago presidential candidate’s slogan (and also a Volkswagen ad). It’s the beginning of a new age of bliss and hope, or perhaps the continuation of an age of bliss and hope. Perhaps it is even in some small measure the arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth.

To sum up: Either the apocalypse or the Kingdom of God. Heavens to murgatroyd, the 2020 election in the United States of America must be the most consequential event in all of human history!

Just the same as the last election. And just the same as the next election.

And so Amos brings us up short with this disruptive, upsetting reminder:

Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
    Why do you want the day of the Lord?

It’s a good question. Why do we want the day of the Lord? What I mean by that is why do we infuse so much cosmic meaning into certain events? Why does it seem to us that certain events, in our lifetime, events that either affect us or that in some way we cause, must be so fraught with meaning that they must be consequential for all time? And why is it that in some way, we long for those events—we want them to happen in our lifetimes—in this particular way—in this particular event?

Perhaps it’s inevitable human egocentrism. At some level we want history to be all about us, so we expect the most cosmically important things to happen in our lifetimes. We laugh at the people who believe that Jesus is returning right now, at some predictable time within our lifetimes. It always cracks us up when the Hal Lindseys of the world get the date wrong, but then we’re mystified by how quickly he and his followers can just adjust their message to prove that even though they are wrong, they are right. But really, how are we any different? We infuse cosmic meaning into events in our lives, imagining them to be harbingers of the in breaking of the Kingdom of God, for good or for ill. If it doesn’t go the way we predict, then we just adjust our thinking in a way that still means it went the way we predicted. It is the apocalypse, just like I said. It is the Kingdom of God on earth, just like I said. We want it to be the day of the Lord, and no one can tell us otherwise.

Really, in many ways, our perspective about the Day of the Lord is skewed by our deep, very human desire to control history, to control destiny, to control God. Yes, to control God.

It is that narrow, blinders-on, it’s-all-about-us egocentrism that is exactly the target of God’s ire in the book of Amos. What you think, God says, is that the Day of the Lord will prove that you are right. It’ll be the big “I told you so!” you get to shout to the world. What you think is that it’s about you, or about human destiny. What you miss is that it isn’t about you at all. It isn’t about your political party winning or losing or your supreme court justices or whatever it is you think makes all the difference. It isn’t about this moment being some pivot point in all of history.

It’s about the Lord. It’s about what the Lord wants.

Our scriptures today are about perspective. In Jesus’ parable, for instance, ten bridesmaids are all going to meet the bridegroom at the gate. I don’t need to give you a primer on Jewish wedding practices in the First Century. The parable is self-explanatory. The bridegroom could arrive at the venue at any time, and the bridesmaids are supposed to have their lamps ready and lit when he arrives, probably also ready and lit. But as it stretches into the night, they burn down the oil in their lamps, and suddenly it becomes clear who had the big picture and who was sort of wrapped up in the moment. Some bridesmaid brought extra oil. They came prepared for anything. Some bridesmaids only brought enough for the moment, but since it didn’t happen on their timetable, they were unprepared when the bridegroom actually arrived. After all, the wedding wasn’t about them, and their job wasn’t to get their way. Their job was about the bridegroom. They forget that.

We forget it, too. At some level, it’s inevitable. The consequential moments of our history matter a great deal to each of us personally, because our time is limited on the earth. Our personal sense of history runs about a hundred years, and it’s done, so it seems to us that all the events of our history is all there is to history. But thinking that way is only bringing enough oil to light our lamps for the moment. Scripture reminds us that we are, by the grace of God, involved in a much larger and far more cosmic sweep of history than our mortal five-score years; and it both invites us and warns us to be prepared for the long haul. After all, history is not about our moment on this earth. It’s about the Lord, who transcends all moments, whose work is far larger than the most important events of our lives and the most important thing the most important one of us living in this important moment right now will ever do.

It isn’t about us, it’s about God.

One of the ways that our own apocalyptic way of thinking is clearly evident and plays out in our national conversation is the way we have aligned so severely to one side or the other. It’s an illustration of black and white thinking. Black and white thinking is a hallmark of apocalyptic. Always we believe we, represented by me, what I believe is right and true and godly, is aligned against the wrong, the untrue, and ungodly, represented by them, on the other side. Apocalypticists have to have a demon to fight, someone or something we can point to as the embodiment of evil. We’ve done that to one another.

But a true “Day of the Lord” is unlikely to confirm how right I am. A true “Day of the Lord calls us to humility, to an humble knowledge of our inadequacy, our arrogance, our failure to truly be God’s people. As our parish associate Warner Bailey puts it in his book “Living in the Language of God,” the day of the Lord creates a community that…

… plainly admits of its inability to know how to walk the path of faithfulness and gladly looks forward to God as teacher of God’s ways. Yet, those who stand in the way of God’s intent will finds themselves moved to exclaim over their undoing.

This community admits that we don’t even have the words, much less the actions, to honor God, to live according to the Lord’s command in Amos to

let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Let me humbly suggest that the closeness of this election, whoever wins, is a call to humility for all sides and for all of us. There’s no clear uncontestable winner in this supposedly apocalyptic battle. It seems that our black and white thinking has proven to be pretty gray. Let me suggest that it is quite possible that no matter how absolutely fixed and certain I am that my side is right, God may consider my side just one marred side of the same bad coin.

Perhaps it is time for all of us to admit that none of us really knows what God wants–and to turn in humility to the Lord that God would give us the words and the actions that are needed in this time to heal our nation, not only of our very real health and economic and social justice illnesses, but of our deeper national spiritual malaise. Instead of insisting so hard that we are right, to confess our inability either to know the right or to do it, and ask that the Lord give us the humility to admit we’re all in the same boat and need God’s wisdom to do what is best for ourselves, for each other, for the world, and to God’s glory.

Last night I participated in a Zoom post-election prayer session led by my friend the Rev. Jack Crane of Truevine Baptist Church. Our prayer group was mostly a mixed-race group of men from Truevine. To help us keep perspective, Jack shared ten things that will still be true after the election is over. Among them:

God will still be on God’s throne.

Jesus will still be Lord.

The tomb will still be empty.

The cross, not the government, will be our salvation.


God will be with us always—God will never leave us or forsake us.

These are the truisms that transcend every supposed “Day of the Lord” we experience and that always define God’s TRUE “Day of the Lord.” The Day of the Lord is the day that God is proven sovereign, that Jesus is proven Lord, that the cross and the resurrection are clearly posted as the true and only crisis point of history, and that God is shown to be always with us and will never leave us or forsake us. Any day of the Lord that does less than that isn’t the ultimate day of the Lord. Anything that distracts us from those truths isn’t a day of the Lord.

The only day of the Lord that matters is the one that teaches us that this day, and every day, is always and only the Lord’s.

The Future for All the Saints

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Nov 1, 2020 ~ All Saints Day

Revelation 7: 9-17

In this time of pandemic, as much as anything else, we’ve been inevitably caught up in a conversation that has a lot to do with death. It’s a conversation we’re all familiar with so today we won’t talk about that. What we’ll talk about is life. Eternal life. The thing that makes us cry out with Paul, “Death, where is thy victory? Grave, where thy sting?”

Often we look forward to eternal life after death, the day when at last we are in eternity with God who loves us and knows us fully and completely and we live into the fulness of who God has created us to be. We look forward to it because we know our limitations in this present life and we are aware that our lives are short, and also because we long to be with our Lord.

But today I’d like us to look backward from it—to look at our lives from the perspective of people who are guaranteed eternal life after death. We who believe, and very likely many who do not believe, are guaranteed everlasting life in God’s Kingdom. That guarantee is unshakeable. It is not based on anything you or I do, and it can’t be undone by anything you or I do. It’s not based on our virtues or vices. It is based on the infinite, overwhelming, unchangeable and eternal love of God.

Our passage from Revelation gives us a short but important list of the qualities of that eternal life. In the Kingdom, we stand before the throne of the Lamb. That is symbolic language that means we have direct access to God.

We’ll be worshipping the Lord day and night in the Temple. Heaven knows that sounds boring. I often think of the scene in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Aunt Polly is trying to convince Huck to follow the straight and narrow. She tells him if he does he’ll go to heaven. He asks her what that means and she says he’ll have angel wings and play a harp and that heaven will be like church. To which he replies, “If that’s the way heaven’s gonna be, I want to go to the other place!” Which doesn’t please Aunt Polly much but given her answer, you can understand his perspective.

But the way that the Bible means “worship” is a reminder of what worship on earth is supposed to be, but can only hint at. Worship in God’s Kingdom is two things: It is directly being in the living presence of God and being one with God. Even the best of human worship can only hint at these things. We try to attain something of the living presence of God through the Lord’s Supper and through the overall atmosphere of the sanctuary and worship itself. For instance, at St. Stephen our magnificent sanctuary and music can do a really good job of conveying the awe, wonder, and majesty of God. Awe, majesty and wonder are definitely what you and I will feel standing in the presence of God in eternity. But even our best effort here on earth is

barely even a hint of the measure of awe we will REALLY experience in that eternal day.

It’s the same with the idea of oneness with God. Oneness with God the true virtue and meaning of life after death. God longs for deep, passionate relationship with us. And though we often don’t know it, and often life distracts us from it, you and I long for the same deep, passionate relationship with God. The Bible directs us to what that relationship is meant to be like through beautiful metaphors: father or mother to child, an eagle to its nestlings, a married couple or two people in love, and so on. Likewise the real-life experiences of those very things point us to the even deeper true and fulfilled experience of God as parent, lover, and friend.

Again, worship tries to get at those things through the fellowship we experience, through the metaphors of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, through words and music that touch our soul. It may be that at moments, we experience something close to oneness with God in worship. More likely, worship lays the groundwork for our experiencing closeness to God in other ways.

If we were to take a poll right now of the times you and I have felt we were closest to God, the answers would be as varied as the audience for this webcast. Worship in church lays the foundation for how we worship beyond the church’s doors, in our lives.

Some of you have felt especially close to God at times of loss and suffering—this our scripture hints at when it assures us that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” and “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” We find a sense of closeness to God through the comfort God provides, or through feeling we are one with Jesus in his suffering.

Others have felt closeness to God in times of joy. For me a distinctly memorable moment was the birth of our first child, Sara Caitlin. I was awed by Margaret’s courage and joy and the whole process of mothering and birthing, and by watching the whole thing happen, and then by this small amazing creature we’d produced together. That combination of awe, appreciation, oneness with Margaret in parenting, and the joy of this amazing new creature was an incredible fraction of the tiniest hint of what being in the living presence of God will be like.

Others have felt that closeness in times of prayer, meditation or reflection. Still others have experienced it in times of deep fellowship and communion with close friends. I know many people who were part of strong fellowship groups at some point in their lives and for them these groups were an amazing experience of the love and grace and fellowship and oneness with God that we were made for and will experience fully in the world to come.

Still others experience a sense of closeness with God through generosity and self-sacrifice. This directs us toward

the unique witness of the life of Jesus Christ, because Jesus shows us how to live in close relationship to God even while we’re still just bone machines walking the earth. He told us that the key way to follow and find oneness with God is through losing ourselves to find ourselves, through putting selfishness on the back-burner and loving neighbor as if our neighbor was ourselves.

This isn’t the same as just submerging one’s personality and self into what others want. I have a friend who runs a non- profit. She said that when she started in the business, she was often too self-effacing, too conciliatory, too worried about hurting other people’s feelings or acting like a know- it-all. This is often true of service-oriented people—they have such a servant attitude that they can become pushovers.

But over time she found that her commitment to the larger cause of serving those most in need forced her to submerge her self-effacing nature. She might be the sort of person who would never say a harsh word to a service person doing work on her house—but as a non-profit CEO she would rake a negligent vendor over the coals if his negligence affected the well-being of her clients. Likewise she may have shivered and shook to assert her opinion over someone else’s—but if she felt like it served the larger good of those she served she’d find the nerve to do it. In the process of shedding her self-negating tendencies, she discovered how to really live into her larger purpose of serving the needs of others rather than herself. “I had to lose myself to find myself,” she said.

In the Kingdom of heaven, in oneness with God, this is what we will experience. We will lose ourselves to find ourselves. “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord,” said St. Augustine, “And our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” It is in union with God that we find the self that we were meant to me. When we allow ourselves to be subsumed into the highest good, the highest purpose, the highest love, the highest wholeness and the highest holiness, then we find
our greatest good, our highest purpose, our highest love, our highest wholeness and our highest holiness.

Having said all this, I want to return to Huckleberry Finn’s concern that heaven is boring. He’s not the only one worried about that. I’ve heard people say that one of the key things that drive human life is a sense of challenge and of adventure. They wonder if, once we’ve attained the total fulfillment of eternal life, we’ll just be eternal boring bumps on a log. Good question!

There are two primary and persistent images of the Kingdom of God in the Bible. One is the return to the Garden of Eden. The other is the image of the eternal heavenly city. The return to the garden of Eden is a very personal image of God. Remember Adam and Eve walking with God in eve of the day. It is our souls experiencing oneness with God, with one another, and with all of nature.

The heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, is a corporate image. The heavenly city is the primary metaphor of the Book of Revelation. It is a lively, diverse place, full of people from

every corner of the world, from every race, of every sort. It is an all-inclusive place. It is about community, about energy, about excitement.

The Garden of Eden is a peaceful image, but it is not a boring image. I imagine that if Adam and Eve had never eaten the forbidden fruit, they’d spend their days communing with the animals, with each other, and with God. They’d always be learning new things about one another. They’d explore the world beyond the garden. They’d climb Mt. Everest and white water in the Grand Canyon. They would not be bored.

As to the heavenly city—there we’d get to know intimately people who are entirely unlike us. We’d be fascinated by and appreciative of difference rather than fearful of it. We’d try new things and find new adventures. We’d never be bored.

What we will not be is afraid. Fear will be done. It will be over. Fear would not block us from experience. Fear would not block us from one another. And fear would not block us from God.

And finally, and most importantly, we would be doing what we were made to do, what is the truest fulfillment of our truest nature. We would be living into a deep, passionate love of the one who loves us more than anything or anyone, God.

Here’s a question worth asking: Why do we have eternal life? Why do we need it? What purpose does it serve?

And the answer is: We have eternal life because God is eternal. And it takes an eternity to know an eternal God.

And likewise God’s love for us is eternal: and so we will spend eternity discovering the height and depth and width of God’s great love for us, always in new and unexpected ways.

So will we be bored? No. Not even close. We will be complete. We will be joyful. We will be whole. And we will be one with one another and with God.

We will, at last, be who we are meant to be. Thanks be to God.