Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.            

CHRISTMAS AND FATE

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.

AND…

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.

To Live Is To Be Slowly Born

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Oct. 25, 2020

Many of us know Antoine de St. Exupery as the author of The Little Prince. He was a man of many talents, and certainly a brilliant writer and illustrator. But he was also, and in his mind primarily, a pilot; he was shot down by a German fighter late in World War II and was never found.

Much of his writing was about war. In his book Night Flight, St. Exupery tells the story of a man he witnessed dug out of a bombed-out building. Blinded by the light, confused and wobbly, he tries to answer awkward questions from the crowd: What was it like, what were you thinking about—pedestrian questions. And the stunned, dehydrated man, answers in a simple, pedestrian manner—he heard a tearing sound, his back hurt, he worried that his watch that was a gift was broken.  Neither the questions nor the answers got at what St. Exupery thought must be the most important one: “Who were you? Who surged up in you?” What St. Exupery wanted to know, and what the crowd wanted to know, was who was he, now that he’d been through this traumatic, life-changing event? But they didn’t know how to ask, and the man didn’t know how to answer. If he answered such a question he’d likely say, “I was only me, myself.”

Time, St. Exupery says, time would be needed to answer that question. Time would allow “him little by little to build up the legend of himself.”

“No single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us,” St. Exupery writes. “To live is to be slowly born.”

St. Exupery says these thoughts came to him as he was flying a solo night mission in the freezing cold with his guns jammed, his oxygen bottles low, and his rudder frozen. What is he learning from war? He wonders. How does this make me a better person?  He cannot know now the person this experience is making him. Even if he does gain some new insight, he says, it will not be because of a single moment, but because “I shall have carried my heavy stones” of experience accumulated over years “toward the invisible structure” of who he is becoming. “There is nothing that I may expect of the hazard of war except this slow apprenticeship,” he says.

It seems to me that St. Exupery’s thoughts apply to the challenges we’re facing in the multiple crises that are just part of 2020. Who are we in this time? Who are we becoming? At the present moment, the only answer we’re likely to give is, “I’m only me, myself, my usual self, coping with an unusual situation.”

Most likely, like the bombing victim, we’re more concerned with every-day matters that have been completely upended by the pandemic.  I want to go back to school or to church. I’m tired of Zoom. I miss my relatives on the other side of the country.

We don’t recognize the new and, God willing, better person we are becoming because we’re in the process of it happening. As time passes, as experience accumulates, we’ll have time to build up the story of this new person, to bear our heavy stones toward the invisible structure of who God is making us–as long as we don’t remain mired in the past. “There is nothing that I may expect of the hazard of war except this slow apprenticeship,” Exupery writes, and that is true for us as well. But an apprenticeship ends in a skill. If we are open to it, we are learning new ways to survive and thrive and to be better people in this time. But it is slow and patient and hard work, because to live is to slowly be born.

Our passage from Deuteronomy today is the story of the death of Moses. Moses dies tragically unable to enter the Promised Land that he spent forty years of his life leading the people of Israel to inherit. This is the very end of the Books of the Torah, the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. It ends with these words “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” God’s unique, special knowledge of Moses is the counter-balance to another observation in the passage: “Moses was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-Peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.”

Torah scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg points out that the whole theme of Exodus is “’to know that I am God.’

The revelation on Mt. Sinai provides that transcendent knowledge. But at the same time the motif of ‘not knowing’ pervades the book, indeed the whole Torah. From Pharaoh’s ‘I do not know God’ mirroring his original description as ‘not knowing Joseph’ to the final description of Moses’ death (‘no one knew the place he was buried’), the consciousness persists of ‘a cloud of unknowing:’ of another world, perhaps adjacent to this one, partially intimated, not mastered.

One of the things for which I am grateful to my college, Hampden-Sydney in Virginia, is the fact that I received a classical education. In that education, I learned some of the ways classicists interpret myths and legends. For instance, it is not uncommon to read the story of a famous classical hero and have the story end with “his burial place is unknown to this day.” Most classicists would understand that to mean that the great hero probably actually didn’t exist—otherwise he would have a grave.

But there is an advantage to being such a hero. That hero is no longer bound by human laws and expectations. That hero is no longer bound by history, the real things that really happened to him. He can become whoever is needed to fit the moment. A hero who doesn’t have a grave could walk into your door at any moment—maybe she’s not really dead! A hero not bound by history can have any story told about her you want to believe. She can be what you need her to be.

Now there are plenty of reasons to believe Moses existed. But his unknown grave raises interesting questions about knowing who Moses was and who Moses continues to be. His unknown grave opens for us the possibility not that Moses is less than what history tells us, but far more. It means there’s so much we don’t know about him and may never know. It makes him never-ending.

But, we are assured, even if we don’t know those things about him, it doesn’t matter: God knows.

God knew—and knows—Moses face to face. Part of what makes Moses such an intriguing and compelling character is that scholars and rabbis and preachers and bible readers throughout the ages have plumbed the depths of his character, the character of this man who knew God face to face, and yet in three thousand years we’ve never reached the bottom. He is still fascinating, surprising, mysterious, and intriguing. Here is a man who came face to face with the numinous, who entered that cloud of unknowing—of another world, perhaps adjacent to our own, partially hinted at, but never mastered. If we can’t know the depths of Moses, we can’t know the depths of God: but if we can at least explore his depths, we can possibly understand both him and God better.

And this is just as true of you and me. You and I have depths unexplored. You and I are never-ending. In a way, we don’t have a grave either, because like Moses, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ we live eternally with the God who knows us better than we know ourselves.

We have selves we have been and selves we are becoming. We are a mystery even to ourselves: we can’t know who we are becoming. Each of us in our own way is a unique portal to the infinite, unknown even to ourselves, but fully known by God.

I imagine Moses, like you and me, dealing with each crisis as it comes. He didn’t believe in Yahweh, the Hebrew God–did not have faith–but faith was demanded of him, so he had faith.

He was not a leader, but leadership was demanded of him, so he led.

He had never had the responsibility of providing for the needs of a nation, but that was required of him, so he figured out how to do it.

He’d never been a mediator before—in fact when he was younger, and witnessed a quarrel between an Egyptian and a Hebrew slave, he killed the Egyptian, which isn’t exactly mediation—but there was a need for a mediator between the people and God, so Moses became that mediator.

At every point, if you’d asked him who he was now, he might very well have answered, “I’m just me, doing what circumstances require of me.”

But the sum total of all these responses to each emerging crisis was that he became perhaps the greatest human who ever lived, the role model for Jesus himself. It was a slow, day-by-day process–and one day he awoke, a complete stranger to the person he was forty years before when he was a shepherd in Midian investigating a strange bush that burned but was not consumed. A person he could never have imagined.

Because to live is to slowly be born.

This is as true for us as it is for him. Each crisis we’ve addressed is adding an experience that is shaping the person that by God’s grace we are being born to be. And it’s important in that process to recognize what Moses’ story tells us: this birth is larger than the experiences that we have, or the world that we live in, or the crises that we face, or the person we are right now. Right now, in 2020, with Covid-19, racial justice protests, unemployment, and the election, and so much more, right now in the midst of these very material and very concrete and very worldly challenges, heaven is knocking on our door. There is a great cloud of unknowing, a world that exists beyond this one, partially hinted at, never mastered.

That world is knocking on the door of this one.

To the extent we open that door, that other world will enter our lives and shape and re-shape us into the person that we cannot predict, but that God knows us to be. We don’t know who we will become. But if we see in these crises not simply the earthly, often frustrating and even frightening concrete experiences of the moment—but the hinted at, the intimated, the hidden-just-around-the-corner godly possibilities—the emergence of the eternal into the every-day, the extraordinary into the mundane, the divine into the worldly—we will discover a new person, someone totally unexpected, is born within us—a person who is a little closer to knowing God face-to-face.

Knowing How to Lose

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
October 18, 2020

Exodus 33: 12-23

Torah Scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg sets the story of God revealing God’s glory to Moses in the larger context of the aftermath of Israel’s heretical worship of the Golden Calf. If you recall, while Moses was on Mount Sinai forty days and nights receiving the tablets of the law, the people despaired that he would ever return and thought themselves abandoned by God. So they constructed and worshipped a Golden Calf. When Moses returned he caught them doing it and in anger broke the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Both he and God are outraged.

What follows is a long, long process of God, Moses and the people dealing with the aftermath of this outrageous behavior. The people are humiliated; the worst offenders are executed. Repentance is ritually enacted. But neither God nor Moses is fully satisfied with these responses. Moses and God argue back and forth, both of them angry and hurt, God ready to be done with the Israelites forever and to start over again. Moses responds that God would be betraying God’s own nature to destroy the Israelites and God accedes to that argument, to a point.

These discussions, these negotiations if you will, all take place on the mountaintop, far from the people. The Israelites have seen the fury of Moses and have seen him dramatically turn his back on them, as if to renounce them, as if he was done with them, and ascend Mt. Sinai again, to be lost in the overwhelming storm and darkness of the mountaintop, where they know God’s fury resides. They wait at the foot of the mountain, filled with dread, to see what will result. Their fate, their destiny is out of their hands.

Unknown to them, at the top of the mountain, the Moses who was justly angry at the people begins a process of shedding himself, of letting go of himself and his self-interest, and identifying himself with the people, with their helplessness, their loneliness, their hopelessness, and their fear. Moses stops thinking of himself either as Moses the individual, or as Moses the leader of the Israelites, but as the Israelites themselves. God has said, “Those who have sinned against me, I will erase from my book. Moses responds (32: 32) “Then erase ME from your book.” He has not only identified himself with the people’s sin, Zornberg points out, but “he offers to sacrifice his own personal destiny, his narcissistic interest in his own narrative.” 

In our passage today, Moses no longer distinguishes any difference between himself and God’s people. He says to the Lord, “How shall it be known that your people have gained your favor unless you go with us, so that we may be distinguished, your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?” It is at this point that Moses pushes God an amazing extra mile: “Oh, let me behold your presence!” It sounds like Moses is asking for something for himself, but the truth is that at this point, Moses and the Israelites have become inseparably one. Moses is asking that God extend the favor God shows to Moses to ALL the people. He’s asking that God not simply show Moses God’s presence: He’s asking that God show the people God’s presence.

Zornberg sees the Israelites as a nation struggling with a deep depression. They are a people who imagined themselves able somehow to build their own God who was willing to do their bidding. They have imagined themselves omnipotent. But the fiery storms that emerged as a result of this imagined power have confronted them with both the arrogance of their assumption and the reality that they are indeed quite far from omnipotent.

Zornberg says their depression consists of

Not knowing how to lose… [They become] ‘painfully riveted to the object of their loss; fascinated by that object, they disavow its loss…. The connection between people becomes calcified, as does the connection between people and God…. [They become] radical, sullen atheist [s].’’

At this point it might be well for us to do as Moses did, and identify ourselves as individuals and as a nation with the distraught, depressed Israelites. I think that all Americans at some level have imagined ourselves as omnipotent, as all-powerful. I know for my generation, at least, that came with the unconscious baggage we carried in being the post-War democratic Superpower who dominated the late 20th Century. That self-image began to crumble with 9/11. Events of the last few years, and especially of the last year, have undone that self-identity still further.

As Zornberg says, we are painfully riveted to the object of our loss, and so we continue to disavow the loss of our omnipotence. But it’s real. And since at some level we have imagined our national omnipotence to be a sign of God’s favor, we have begun to wonder where exactly God is right now, and to fear that God has abandoned us: hence, Zornberg’s observation that the people have become ‘radical, sullen atheists.’”

With an election coming up, we look to our political leaders to offer us a return to the good old days, that sense of national omnipotence, when we could do no wrong and no wrong could happen to us. We are in danger of looking at our political parties and their leaders as Golden Calves who offer us false power, when in reality the events of the past year are a wake-up call: No one is all-powerful, no nation is all-powerful, no one has all the answers, and seeking somehow to control the world in which we live is only an exercise in frustration, disappointment, and fear.

Our only hope, Zornberg says, lies in knowing how to lose.

I was an avid runner for several years in my youth. I participated in my first race my sophomore year in college, when I was nineteen. It was the Hampden-Sydney/Longwood Minithon, a 6.2 mile race between my small college of Hampden-Sydney in Virginia and the campus of Longwood College in nearby Farmville.  A lot of my friends from the fellowship group we were in, the Canterbury Episcopal Campus ministry, participated as well. Not only that, but Canterbury’s avuncular, gentle, but not exactly in-shape priest, the Rev. John Emmert, decided to race as well.

Now, we all loved John, whose kindliness, humility and lop-sided grin gave the impression of a modern St. Francis. But he was not what you’d call an athlete. I admit we both appreciated it but also, you know, joked about it. But John was there, and we loved him for it.

At the gun, the runners were off. All of us Canterburiers were in a pack together, but we soon separated each according to our ability. As I ran the country miles, a great source of both frustration and inspiration was the college librarian’s dog, a small sweet mutt with only three legs whose nickname was Tripod, who took off with us and kept excitedly running to the head of the pack and then to the back all the way through the race. He must have run three races to our one and it drove me crazy that he was so often ahead of me!

I put on a last burst of speed as we crested the hill at Longwood and was satisfied with my run. Some of my friends had already finished and others were not far behind me. But as the race dragged on, the crowd of runners became smaller… and smaller… and smaller… and we started to worry about John. Had something happened? Had he quit? Become dehydrated? Had a heart attack? Keep in mind that to us twenty-year olds, John’s nearly forty years just seemed impossibly old.

Finally, John came trundling up the hill among the last stragglers. He was sweaty, grim and determined. But he made it. We ran out and embraced him and celebrated. We loved that man. We knew he would do anything for us.

In many ways John has always symbolized for me how to lose. He didn’t care about his pride or his priestly dignity or straggling in among the last (though to this day he bristles that we still joke he came in “last”!). He wanted to be with us, to be part of us, to do what we were doing. That was more important than anything.

In our biblical story, the Israelites learn how to lose. They let go of their false sense of omnipotence and, Zornberg says, “initiate the ‘work of mourning.” God’s people are willing at last to recognize that they aren’t omnipotent, that they don’t have all the answers, and this “avowal of loss” leads them to “shift from a specious impotence to ‘humility and prayer.’ In the move, the people find a nexus with God”… This creates the “’time of favor’, a mysterious modulation of human experience that attunes them with God. Since they have chosen relationship over omnipotence, God, too, is moved to mercy and for the first time in the catastrophic episode calls them, ‘the children of Israel.’’

There is a need for us, as a nation, to acknowledge our losses, to recognize that we can’t overcome every problem, that sometimes we must just accept the cards we are dealt and play them as well as we can, rather than imagining that we can overcome every problem by hard work or by magical thinking. But Zornberg points out that such humility creates a time of favor, a modulation of human experience that attunes us to God. We often don’t give that thought credit—we like to think that it’s in winning that we are closest to God. But often we are closest to God when we acknowledge that we are losers, that we can’t get everything right, that we don’t have the answer to every problem, that we aren’t strong enough to overcome every obstacle. What matters then is that instead of striving to win, we instead strive for relationship. That’s what made me think of John Emmert running that race. He wasn’t trying to win, he was demonstrating that a relationship with us matters to him more than his pride, priestly dignity, or being the best runner. And so really, it’s true, he didn’t win—we did. We won because that relationship was so important to us, and it was important to him, too.

As I said, when Moses finally asks to see God’s glory, he is no longer asking for himself. He asking it for the whole nation of Israel—a nation that has been beset by trouble and loss, that has lost its way, that has followed false gods of national omnipotence. And God grants it—God shows Moses, on behalf of the whole nation of Israel, God’s back, some aspect of God’s glory. It is not all of God’s glory. God doesn’t show us everything, the answer to every question, the solution to every problem, the way to right every wrong. To show us all that, we are warned, might consume us. The Bible says that we cannot see the face of God, or we will die; but what that really means is that for us to know God as fully as we are known, to have all answers and to know all things, would mean that we are fully one with God, fully and completely, and that can only happen in death, in the eternal life after death.

So for now we’re granted a relationship, the hope and the challenge of trusting in God in times of powerlessness—times of pandemic, national crisis, unemployment, racial and political division, confusion. God wants us to give up the omnipotent self-indulgent delusions we have of omnipotence and just huff and puff and drag ourselves up the hill as best we can, not for the sake of winning, but for the sake of true and right relationship with each other and with God.

We need to be like Moses in two vital ways. First we must want to see God, to be in relationship with God, more than we want to view ourselves as omnipotent or to have back what we’ve lost.

But secondly, we have to be like Moses in no longer identifying ourselves as individuals out for ourselves, but as one with the whole nation, with all the people who make up this diverse and complicated nation—no matter what their economic or social strata, no matter rich or poor, no matter race or nationality or ethnicity or religion or political view. To focus on the healing of all these relationships, to make these relationships with God and our fellow Americans be the impetus, the purpose, the desire that moves us up that hill and gets us to the finish line, to let that desire to be united to one another and to God be our driving force and motivation.

Let go of omnipotence. Seek relationship. That’s how Moses pleases God and heals a nation. And that’s how we can, as well.

Anger

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
October 11, 2020

Exodus 32: 1-14

 

In December of 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Boazizi, frustrated and furious over the way that police harassment and bribery and government disinterest kept him in the depths of poverty, set himself on fire in front of a Tunisian government building. When he died, his funeral was attended by thousands equally enraged by injustice, who swore to avenge him. Within a few days, the protests spread throughout the country leading to the resignation of the president ten days after Boazizi’s funeral. The movement spread beyond Tunisia’s borders and became what came to be called “The Arab Spring.”

Many researchers point to Boazizi’s act and its response as a classic illustration of the evolutionary purpose of blinding rage. “Rage acts as a signalling device,” one researcher says. One person’s act of rage may be harmful to that person, but “it has a galvanizing effect” on the larger society and is “an effective means of changing other people’s behavior.” An individual act of anger is very often actually quite harmful to that person, and we might wonder why they would do it. But evolution seems to have planned t that way—that sometimes an individual is so enraged she forgets self-interest and even self-preservation in a way that signals to society as a whole that something is wrong—something needs to be fixed. An act of individual anger, researchers say, “can spread and become communal or collective anger.” So, strangely, blinding, irrational rage is actually part of our internal, evolutionary corporate logic.

I find this fascinating because, of course, nearly all of us have a visceral reaction to rage, which is that it is both scary and irrational. And while we can point to examples of rage producing good results, we can also just as easily point to examples of rage emerging for the wrong reasons and creating pointless pain, terror, and havoc.

All this is worth noting because we are reading some passages of the Bible today which tell us about God’s rage. In Exodus 32 God is so blindingly angry at the Israelites for building the Golden Calf that God threatens to destroy them and start over. In Matthew 22, Jesus tells the parable of an “enraged” king who kills those who killed his servants. The king of course, is meant to represent God.

We don’t like to read about or hear about God being angry. Our instinct is immediately to explain it away with “Well, that’s a human view of what happened,” or “We know better about God today than they did back then.” A common assumption today is that God is loving and docile to the point that God comes across as a milquetoast. We Christians like to believe that we represent a more “enlightened” God than the one of the Old Testament. The God Jesus represents is loving and kind and so non-judgmental as to have no opinions at all. We forget or explain away the many times we see Jesus himself angry—as when he is frustrated with the short-sightedness of his disciples, as when he calls religious leaders “blind fools,” as when he overturns the tables at the Temple crying, “This temple should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves!”

But our scriptures today challenge those assumptions. In the story of the Golden Calf, God is so furious that God engages in almost classic “rage” behavior. A furious God actually forgets God’s own self-interest and needs to be reminded of it. This is often a feature of blinding rage—engaging in self-damaging ways. In the Lord’s case, God is ready to wipe out the Israelites, whom God had been cultivating for hundreds of years from the time of Abraham and Sarah and create a new nation through Moses. Moses is by this point is over 80 years old and perhaps dreading all the hard work God would expect of him and his wife Zipporah to MAKE a new nation. But even more than that, Moses challenges God to be true to God’s own nature. You are supposed to be great and powerful God who loves Israel and treats her as a favored child, Moses argues. What will the world think if you then wipe them out? It’s not said, but what’s hinted is that the world might then think God is capricious, untrustworthy, even evil. Apparently, God takes the hint, and the Bible tells us that this argument “changed God’s mind.”

There is a wonderful Biblical assumption here that is worth noting. Our sophisticated modern theology maintains among other things that God is “unchangeable,” and that if God changes God’s mind that is a sign that God is capricious or really not in charge of the world and of history. Our Exodus story doesn’t care about that. For the Biblical storyteller, it is vitally important to illustrate that God can change God’s mind because it means there is always hope of redemption and salvation with the Lord. “God’s anger is for but a moment, God’s favor is for a lifetime,” Psalm 30: 5 tells us. This is the point. Anger doesn’t determine how God ultimately deals with us. When we read in Scripture that God “changed God’s mind,” it’s almost never in a negative way—it’s almost always in a positive way, where God changes from anger or disappointment or judgment to salvation and promise and grace. For the Biblical authors, the fact that God could change God’s mind was always a sign of hope—that no matter how bad we get, and how frustrated we make God, and how angry God may get with us, yet God can yet be persuaded to save.

But let’s return to the earlier point about the logic of rage. According to evolutionary scientists, rage sends a message to the larger society that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. God is apparently so angry with the behavior of the Israelites that God is nearly sacrifices the divine self-interest in having Israel as a Chosen People. That’s a pretty strong message that something needs to change. And it’s not the only time we see such a message in scripture. More than once God refers in frustration to God’s “stubborn and stiff-necked people.” The prophets portray God as a potter ready to destroy all God’s pottery. In more than one of Jesus’ parables, God is portrayed as angry. In our Gospel today, God is a king who wages war against a city of murderers who mistreat and kill his servants when they have come to invite them to a wedding banquet. There are many more like this.

This representation of the anger of God serves a number of purposes. At its most basic level God’s rage acts as a signalling device, challenging us to see what exactly is wrong with what we’re doing and that we better change it. At another level it reminds us that God is in fact and in reality the sovereign God and judge of the universe, and of each of us personally, and so to do things that displease God puts us in serious risk of judgment.

But at the highest level, God’s anger is a signal that we must change. And so, ironically, God’s anger is actually a sign of hope. If God wanted, God could just wipe us out—be done with us. Instead what God does is make it clear in no uncertain terms that what we’ve done is wrong, and that we better change or else. AND THAT IS A WORD OF HOPE. We still have a chance. And we see this over and over again in the Bible. God’s people cross the line, often pretty badly. God is furious, even depicted as in a blinding rage. And yet, somehow, the people are given another chance. No, it doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes God follows through on God’s anger. But far, far more often, God gives us yet another chance—and another—and another.

For God’s anger is but for a moment;
    God’s favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
    but joy comes with the morning.

We of course don’t live in the world of the Bible, where it sometimes seems that it’s quite obvious whether we’ve offended God or not and where it seems like God or the prophets are always telling us clearly and unequivocally how God is feeling and what we need to do about. Things are just not always that clear in life. Today, for instance, we are dealing with a lot of blinding rage that has led to various movements for change. These movements call out injustices but often they are angry about entirely different and even opposite things. How we listen, and who we listen to, and what we choose to do about it, says less about them and more about us. It is not always clear to us what is the right thing to do or what it is that God most wants.

But here are some things to think about. First of all, we need to get over our fear of rage as such. People responding angrily and emotionally to something that affects them is a part of being human. In fact, based on what we see from Scripture, God in person can be subject to fits of abject, emotional rage. Rage in itself shouldn’t so terrify us that we refuse to listen to the message it’s trying to convey. Rage conveys the message that to those who are angry, things have gotten so unjust and unfair that an emotional response is all that’s left. To them, something needs to change and badly. Whether that feeling is justified or not, that’s how they feel. We need to try to understand the source of this and not allow our fear of their rage to overwhelm the larger message of justice or injustice.

Second of all, we need to understand that God is a judge. I think it’s pretty clear we don’t want to be on the wrong side of God. We know that God cares about injustice, and we have plenty of evidence from scripture that injustice itself can send God into a blinding rage. So let’s not dismiss frustrated cries for justice and fairness as outrageous. We have plenty of evidence that God has used outrage at injustice to provoke positive societal change. To make the wrong decision on such critical matters can put us on the wrong side of God, and we just don’t want to go there.

But let’s remember the final piece of the puzzle. One of my favorite quotes is from the Presbyterian Confession of 1967: “God’s love never changes. Against all who oppose God, God’s love is expressed in wrath.” This wrath is actually meant not to punish, but to cleanse. This wrath is meant to give us a chance to do the right thing. It is a critique of how we are living and what we are doing and what needs to change. But it’s also a sign of hope that we can change, we can grow, we can become better, that we continue to be loved and to love others better, and that God continues to love us, for God’s anger is for but a moment, but God’s favor is for a lifetime—for us, for our society, and for everyone.

A Place At The Table

October 4, 2020
World Communion Sunday

Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
1 Corinthians 11.17, 20-26, 33-34 Matthew 15:21-28

 

They didn’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the Greek city of Corinth like we do today. For one thing, they came to church in the evening, and the worship service was like a supper that we used to have in Parish Hall before the pandemic. Everybody brought their own crock-pot full of a soup or stew, or a picnic basket filled with fruit or bread or cheese. Everybody, that is, who could afford to buy and cook food, brought it. For the church at Corinth contained both people who had money to spend and people who did not. Both people who had leisure time and could come at the regular supper time and people whose jobs forced them to come after everything in the house had gotten cleaned up. The Corinthian church had free citizens as well as slaves. The people who were forced to work long hours for little or no pay and had to ask permission for time off and so were always late to church suppers and communion.

You might ask how the Corinthian congregation came to have in it such a wide variety of rich and poor, slave and free, people who had lots of time and those who were always at the beck and call of someone else. The answer has to do with the apostle Paul’s way of being a missionary. Paul did not spend every day seeing people in a church office or visiting the hospitals or calling on homebound or meeting with community leaders. The Corinthian congregation could not afford that kind of a minister. Paul had to take on a day-job to earn money to cover his expenses. That day-job was tent-making. Everybody needed the skills and products of the tent-maker, so Paul would come into contact with many people from all walks of life as they came through the tent-maker’s shop. It was there, as a tent-maker, that Paul made contacts with rich and poor, slave and free, the salaried and the hourly wage earner. As Paul talked with them, he was able to invite them to come in the evening to the Christian church he was leading. So, that’s how rich and poor, slave and free, those who worked nine-to-five and those who were at the back and call of their owner came to the congregation.

The Corinthian congregation would gather on a Sunday evening for worship around a pot-luck supper. And this pitch-in meal became the time and the place to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Now here’s how it was supposed to work. Everyone waited until all arrived and found a seat. Everyone: rich and poor, slave and free, those who worked nine-to-five and those who had to get permission to come. Then a loaf of bread would be broken and thanks spoken to God. But right at that moment the minister would also add these words, “Jesus said, ‘This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” After that, the body of worshippers would share in what was brought. When all had eaten enough, then the minister would lift up a cup and say, “Jesus said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” You see, they began with the first part of the Lord’s Supper, then ate a pot-luck supper, then finished with the last half of the Lord’s Supper. Now that’s how it is supposed to have been.

Trouble was, things were terrible. People were simply ugly to each other. There was class warfare in the Corinthian Christian community. The rich people, the free people, those who worked nine-to-five—they could get to church on time, and they would begin right on time to eat. They would begin with Jesus’ words, “This is my body broken for you.” but only a part of the body of worshippers would dive in to what they had brought. By the time the other part of the body would arrive, the poor people, the slaves, and those who punched the clock, all the food would have been eaten, all the wine would have been drunk, all the places at the table would have been taken, and this remaining part of the body would be forced to sit on the outside, tired, hungry, and humiliated, watching the rest of the body behave in drunken ways.

These “Johnny’s come lately” had had neither time nor money to prepare food to contribute. They may even have prepared the food their masters took to eat it all up before they were able to get there. This late-coming part of the body were counting on the patience and generosity of early coming part of the body who lived in more fortunate circumstances than they. After all, Paul had told them that patience and generosity were what being a part of the body of Christ all was about. They were sadly disappointed to find only a mess of crumbs and spilled wine left on the table. And to be looked down upon through the bleary eyes of drunks.

And is this what Jesus means when he says, “This is my body broken for you.”? And is this what Jesus means when he says, “This cup is the new covenant, the new bond between humanity and God and among humanity itself, in my blood.”? Does Jesus mean for us to be so out for ourselves, for our personal walk with the Lord, for our personal salvation and comfort, for our very own intense spiritual experience, that we blindly see ourselves separate from the rest of the world, not having to adjust our own behavior to take into consideration the lives of others who are different than we are?

Now we can appreciate the full thunder of Paul’s concern for the Corinthians. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?…Examine yourselves…For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.
The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper comes in a package stamped, “Handle with care.” Discerning the body.

What does that mean?
• That body was also broken for poorer Christians whose needs cannot be ignored by richer.
• That broken body was Christ’s self-denial for the benefit of others which we are to imitate.
• Eating and drinking in remembrance of Christ’s death obliges us to die with Christ to our sinful selves so that we can be set free to love others actively.

Discerning the body means doing something as simple but so radical as waiting on each other, feeding each other, including each other. This sacrament comes with a warning, “Handle with care!” But it also comes with a summons: “Shape up! Shape up to the sacrament! Let the body of the Church be the Body of Christ broken and poured out for the world.”

We hear much about “class warfare” these days. Some of it political and self-serving, no doubt. Much of it, though, is absolutely true. The sacrament of Holy Communion puts any kind of class warfare into the strictest and severest judgment. We know our country has immense wealth, military power and cultural influence. Yet, according to the Social Progress Index, the United States ranks 28th among the nations of the world in measures of well-being such as nutrition, safety, freedom, the environment, health, and education. Our founding documents say that people have a right to a place at the table but according to this Index, we are behind significantly poorer countries, including Estonia, Czech Republic, Cyprus and Greece. The contrasts within our borders are striking. While the Index ranks us No. 1 in the world in quality of universities, we sit at No. 91 in access to quality basic education. Our school children are on a par with children in Uzbekistan and Mongolia. While we lead the world in medical technology, we are No. 97 in access to quality health care. Our health statistics make us peers with Chile, Jordan and Albania. Listen to the pain of our own citizens in ZIP code 76104; listen to your own pain.

The Bible is full of stories that insist that everyone have a seat at the table. In our Old Testament lesson, the undocumented alien is specifically called out to be included in the annual feast of remembrance of God’s rescue of Hebrew slaves from Egypt. Israel is to keep the memory fresh that it is a nation of immigrants and be open and inclusive to those who have no legal standing. In our Gospel story, a Canaanite woman, a pagan, pierces right through Jesus’ narrow vision to insist that she have a place at the table of his tremendous power, even if she must eat the crumbs that fall from the hands of his disciples. He readily caved in and granted her equal status.

Why must the richest, most powerful, most religious nation suffer from higher rates of poverty, infant mortality, homicide and HIV infection, and from greater income inequality, than other advanced democracies? Listen to the pain of our own citizens; listen to your own pain. This sacrament tells us that Jesus is in our pain to comfort, to console, to heal, of course. But he is also saying to us in our pain, “Shape up. Shape up to be the body that I gave my body for.”

St. Stephen is listening to that voice and that’s good news to conclude this sermon on. Since mid-March at the outbreak of the pandemic, we have prepared and delivered over 18,000 meals to Presbyterian Night Shelter. Excluding the value of countless volunteer hours, the estimated cost of these meals is $30,000, or approximately $1,000 per week.  This has been made possible by generous donations designated for this project from members and friends of St. Stephen.  Through communication among our Room in the Inn partners, many other churches have also participated in this effort. It’s a big table for all to participate in.

In addition, monetary and food donations were delivered to the night shelter in September along with new or gently used bath towels and twin sheets. Your dollars assure a place at the table for our most vulnerable citizens while they receive services to return to independent housing.

On another front, every Tuesday at 1:00 p.m. a pickup truck is in the church parking lot to receive donations for the Center For Transforming Lives. Your donations secure a place at the table for women and children who are victims of family abuse while they receive the services needed to support their return to independent living. And when you drop off your donations, you can pick up a kit with materials needed to make ten face masks for homeless people.

Moreover, when the call went out to our congregation in the wake of Hurricane Laura for Hygiene Kits for Louisiana residents, the response was over the top, a bonanza of outpouring of material and monetary support.

So when we pray on this World Communion Sunday, “O Lord, make us a world that grows into the shape of your communion table, where all are welcomed and all are fed,” our actions show that St. Stephen means business.