Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.            

Of Two Minds

Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
June 28, 2020


Click Here to View This Service

Romans 7:15-25a  – Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30

SILENT REFLECTION

“The greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions and not on our circumstances. We carry the seeds of the one or the other about with us in our minds wherever we go.”

  –Martha Washington, 1731-1802, First “First Lady” of the United States of America

 

One of my favorite scenes from any movie ever made is the end of Casablanca. Remember the story. Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart, is a cynical former freedom fighter who now runs a highly popular bar in Casablanca, Morocco, before the United States has entered World War II. He walks a careful line between the law and illegality, but has no intention of setting himself against the Nazis. But the crisis comes when Czech resistance leader Viktor Lazlo arrives in Casablanca after escaping Nazi imprisonment, bringing with him his wife, Ilsa. Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman, is not just any woman, it turns out: she and Rick were once madly in love with each other in Paris when she thought her husband was dead. The end of their relationship is the cause of Rick’s ennui. She is deeply committed to Viktor Lazlo, but she still loves Rick. Rick tells Captain Renault, the police captain, that he intends to hand Lazlo over to the Nazis and run off with Ilsa. But at the last minute, on the airfield, he turns the tables on the police and the Nazis and helps Lazlo escape. Ilsa turns to Rick as Lazlo ascends the airplane ramp and offers to stay but Rick says, “Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor.  You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going.   If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it.   Maybe not today.  Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” It’s a great speech. And Ilsa gets on the plane with the noble Viktor Lazlo and Rick and Captain Renault run off to join the resistance.

It’s a great moment in part because we know that this is not what Rick really wants. What he really wants is just to run off with Ilsa and escape all of it. And we’ve been with him as he’s struggled with the moral quandary he has found himself in. In the end, we celebrate because Rick has allowed his better angels to guide him to make a decision that hurts him but is the right thing to do. In many ways that makes him a better hero than the ones we often see on the screen, the ones who are always certain what the right thing to do is, the ones who never have any doubt or uncertainty.

Rick is the better hero because he’s like you and me. He’s torn about what is right and what is wrong; he’s torn between doing something that might truly benefit him and damn the consequences; or doing what’s right even though it rips his heart out. We understand that struggle. We understand being conflicted and uncertain because it’s the human condition.

That’s what Paul is writing about today in our scripture from Romans. “I do not understand my own actions,” he writes. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

Paul is writing about what my philosophy professor in college called “primary volition and secondary volition.” Primary volition is what we instinctively want to do and often is what we end up doing. Secondary volition is what we might wish we would do, or at least what conscience or training or moral values tell us is the right thing to do. What Paul is writing about is the truth most of us know: That even though we all have higher values and principles we have learned and that we like to think we abide by, the truth is that often those principles get tossed to the wayside when we are making decisions on the ground. If most of us have to choose between Ilsa and Viktor Lazlo, we’ll choose Ilsa every time, and we might not even feel bad about it, even though we know that it’s the wrong choice.

Paul is writing from the perspective of a faithful Jew, who knows that the moral Law, the Torah, is good, but somehow finds himself doing the opposite every time. There’s some debate in scholarship about whether Paul is writing autobiographically or whether he’s playing the preacher’s game of setting up a straw man, an imaginary person, to make a spiritual point. I suspect it’s something that is from his experience though, from the time before he became a Christian. He was philosophically a Pharisee, taught to believe in the importance of moral purity and personal piety. As with any moral code worth its salt, it would often put him at odds with the world around him and there would be times when it was just easier to conform with society, or there were just clearly more pleasures to be found doing the wrong thing than the right thing.

I’m not sure it’s any easier if one is Christian, either. There are times when we genuinely aren’t certain what the right thing is or the wrong thing is, but there are also times when as Christians, if we are honest with ourselves, and honest with God, we know what the right thing is but do the wrong thing anyway. Maybe we justify it by saying it doesn’t really matter, or it doesn’t really hurt anybody, or that I really need to do this and God won’t mind, or that God forgives me anyway. A good trick we like to play on ourselves is to say, sure I know this is wrong, I know Christ is against it, but this is an unusual situation; the rule doesn’t apply in this case. Now, I’m not saying that’s never true. I do think that there are all sorts of situations where what might seem an absolute law does not apply. But if we are honest with ourselves, we can probably find within ourselves that in those times we designated as exceptions, our own good was probably served better than the greater good was served.

Paul is trying to make a point about sin. He’s saying that sin is such a powerful force in our lives that even knowing the right thing to do isn’t enough to overcome it. He’s saying that sin is really good at rationalizing our behavior and telling us we’ve done the right thing even when we know we’ve done the wrong thing.

And while he’s using an individual example, his point is that this is a universal problem. “No one is righteous, no not one,” he says in another place, quoting the psalms; “but all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Sin is insidious; sin is ever-present; and sin, he reminds us, is subtle, slick, smooth—it can convince us that bad is good, low is high, evil is good. And the human problem, he tells us, is that we can’t overcome it on our own. We are in desperate need of the grace of God to transcend this problem. And thanks be to God in Jesus Christ, we have that. The grace of God is able to cleanse us fully and make us new people with an orientation to do the right thing, the Godly thing, the Christlike thing.

But we have to at least acknowledge the wrong, and our own inability to correct it. And most of us know that as Christians, we spend our lives discovering new, creative and interesting ways we’ve fooled ourselves into believing that bad is good, low is high, and evil is good.

I have struggled a lot these last few weeks with my own heritage as a Southerner. I grew up in South Carolina where the Civil War began in Charleston harbor. I admired Robert E. Lee and drew pictures of the Army of Northern Virginia in elementary school. They always beat the dastardly Yankees, of course. My great-great grandparents were friends of Lee and Mary Custis Lee, his wife. My dad donated letters from the Lees to the University of Virginia, his alma mater. I went to college in Virginia and seminary in Richmond. Margaret’s family lived a few blocks away from Monument Avenue in Richmond. I knew my heritage, even as I also knew that it was built on a fallacy, on the morally repugnant proposition that white people had the right to enslave black people. Even as I was aware that in the South we were celebrating the values of people who committed treason against this very nation we swear allegiance to every time we say the Pledge of Allegiance. I have black friends throughout the South and throughout my life, and for all my life I have believed in and stood up for Civil rights. My greatest moral hero as a teen was Martin Luther King, Jr., another Southerner. Though I was committed to Civil Rights and repulsed by slavery, I nonetheless found myself somehow able to be of two minds, and to hold Robert E. Lee guiltless and the South as somehow flawed but admirable.

I just can’t see that now. I can’t hold such contradictory values in tension without acknowledging the terrible toll it has taken on black Americans and the way it has made our nation’s soul smaller and pettier and mean. I can’t hold myself guiltless and somehow frame my Southern pride as innocent and naïve anymore. And as a Christian I just can’t see being two-minded about this anymore.

But also, as a Christian, I believe that God’s grace can transcend and transform our flawed and damaged racial heritage. I don’t believe for a minute that we are trapped in this ongoing dynamic. The grace of God can certainly empower us who call ourselves by Christ’s name to overcome barriers, to reach across racial divides, to create a new sense of mutual understanding and community and to do the ongoing work of healing a wounded society so that we can live together as sisters and brothers and not perish together as fools.

But what it takes is the courage to acknowledge that the stories we white people have told ourselves are not true, and that by telling those stories we have continued a shameful heritage that started in 1619, the day the first slave ship arrived in Jamestown.

And it’ll be a challenge for us white southerners, because we love our heritage. But our pride needs to take a serious back seat to the higher good, to what is right, and to the Gospel itself which we all know tells us that we should tear down all our idols and put Christ on the pedestal.

But the Gospel is this: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” If we put our trust in Christ, we will find this path may not be as rocky, difficult, and dangerous as we fear. This is something that in truth we all want, all Americans, all Christians, and know is right, but we fear is difficult. We can’t pretend that it’ll be easy. There are social and economic inequities to address and long-standing policies, beliefs and assumptions that are just baked into who we are as a nation. But all Americans of good will want this, regardless of race, color, creed, or heritage. It is no small thing to find new allies, a new and worthy cause to stand up for, a great and transcendent good to motivate us and build community around.

And best of all, this is the right thing to do, the Christ-like thing to do, and the thing that will leave a real legacy to all of America’s children in the future of a nation that is living into what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

At the Right Time

Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
June 14, 2020


Click Here to View This Service

Genesis 21:1-7  –  Romans 5:1-8  –  Matthew 9:35-10:8

 

I am a big fan of the book Generations by Neil Howe and the late William Strauss. I have often used their theories to teach incoming officers of the church. Basically the theory maintains “that American history unfolds in boom-to-bust cycles of roughly 80 years.” They say that four generations of Americans cycle through that period and each generation has specific characteristics that are shaped by their place in the boom-to-bust cycle and also by the characteristics of the generation that preceded them. I know it sounds kind of mechanistic and deterministic, but many of us, once we hear the characteristics of the generation of which we are part, go “Wow—that describes me!” or “That doesn’t describe me—but it sure sounds like a lot of my peers.”

The book has had vast influence since it was published in 1991. It is from Strauss and Howe that we get the term “millennials” to describe the generation who came to age in the year 2000. And since it claims that American history follows this “boom and bust” cycle, one test of it is, “How well does it predict the future?”

And so you may be shocked to discover that in 1991 Strauss and Howe predicted what they called “the Crisis of 2020.”

As a recent NYT story describes it, the Crisis of 2020 is “an unspecified calamity that ‘could rival the gravest trials our ancestors have known’ and serve as ‘the next great hinge of history.’ It could be an environmental catastrophe, they wrote, a nuclear threat or ‘some catastrophic failure in the world economy.’”

To be fair, the date 2020 was meant more as a marker rather than absolute prediction. It was based on the fact that 2020 was about 80 years after the last ‘great hinge of history,’ the Depression and World War II.  And the key here is their prediction that it would be a “generation-defining crisis that would force millennials into the fire early in their adulthood.” This crisis forces millennials and their younger siblings, Gen Z, to become who they are in the cycle of generations. They are what Strauss and Howe call “the civics.” The civics are the innovative and creative community-minded people who reshape our nation in a positive way as a result of the crisis they faced. The last generation of civics was the World War II Generation, who built not only post-war America but also the post-war world through programs like the Marshall Plan. The civic generation, say Strauss and Howe, is “outer-fixated”—meaning they care about community interests rather than self-interest—“grows up as increasingly protected youths…comes of age overcoming a secular crisis; unites into a heroic and achieving cadre of rising adults;” and “sustains that image while building institutions as powerful mid-lifers.”

Strauss and Howe’s prediction that we would reach an inflection point about this time seems to be bearing out in the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic crisis it’s created, and in the Black Lives Matter movement, which is a distinctively young adult-based movement. In theological terms, we might call this a “Kairos time.” Kairos, says Wikipedia,  “is an Ancient Greek word meaning the right, critical, or opportune moment.” Jesus uses the term early in his ministry when he says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). For us Christians, Kairos means a pregnant moment, a moment that, if met with faith in the goodness of God, can give birth to the Kingdom of God.

Our lectionary scriptures for today are strikingly appropriate. In the Genesis passage, we hear about Sara, the wife of Abraham, giving birth in her extreme old age. You remember the story: one day Abraham and Sara were visited by three mysterious men whom they do not realize are some sort of divine creatures, like angels. Abraham and Sara show them hospitality, and in gratitude the divine men promise that Sara will have a child, just as God had promised them years before. Sara, hiding behind a curtain, laughs at the absurdity of the idea. “After I have grown old, and my husband has grown old, shall I have pleasure?” But one of the angels hears her laugh and confronts her. “I didn’t laugh,” she lies. And later, when she gives birth, she names her son “Itzak,” which means “laughter.” It’s kind of like she’s saying, “The joke’s on me.” I like her for that, for her ironic self-awareness. She’s like a lot of us older folks, looking on the protests and wondering “How will this possibly do any good?” And then at some point later in our lives—one hopes—we can look back on how history was shaped in this moment and laugh at ourselves for not believing that God can bring good out of any crisis.

And I like God in this story, too. When the angel confronts her that she laughed, and she lies, the angel isn’t judgmental. God doesn’t see a need to punish or even make fun of Sara for not believing. God allows her room for self-discovery, to learn the lessons of life, to grow in new ways even in her old age when you’d think all the growing is done. She has experienced a Kairos moment, a moment of supreme crisis that she misinterpreted, but at the end it comes out for the good. It strengthens her trust in God, about whom the apostle Paul says, “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose” (Romans 8:28).

I think I understand Sara a little better these days. I’m an older person, and there are times when I think, “I really am tired of changing, tired of dealing with new ideas. I’ll just rest awhile and leave all that changing to the young people.” But especially in these days of outrage over the death of George Floyd, I’m being forced to discover new things about myself, about my own racism and privilege, that in many ways are turning my world upside down. But I believe it is all to the good. A new birth at an unexpected time, whether of a baby or of nationwide societal change, will inevitably change us, too, hopefully for the better, and cause us to look upon our old ideas and old perspectives as at best quaint and at worst unconsciously cruel. Thank God that God does not judge us by our worst moments but by grace and mercy. As the 19th Century American poet Emily Dickinson says,

Not that We did, shall be the test
When Act and Will are done
But what Our Lord infers We would
Had We diviner been –

When we hold on to this grace, the grace that views us not as we are but as we are meant to be, we keep coming closer to becoming who God intends us to be; and holding on to that gives us the courage to meet both the outward and the inward challenges of this Kairos moment. We don’t need to fear honest self-appraisal. We can be honest with ourselves about our failures and the often unconscious but very real ways in which our prejudices have shaped us, because we trust in God’s mercy and grace.

The Apostle Paul speaks to this in our reading from Romans. Paul tells us that instead of having an attitude of gloom and doom in times of crisis we should instead boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.

For while we were still weak, at the right time—at that Kairos moment is what he means—Christ died for the ungodly. In other words, at the very worst moment in human experience, at the crisis point of all of history, when everything looked as bad as it could possibly get—that’s the exact moment that God sent Jesus to save us.

Paul is telling us that it is at the worst times, the times when we are suffering, the times when we are fearful, the times when our world seems to be falling apart, the times when we are at the end of our rope—that time is in God’s eyes a Kairos time, that time is the right time for God to act and bring about a great good. And so he tells us that the Christian attitude toward the worst times in our lives is to have faith in the certainty that God will use that moment to bring about something good. Maybe the world will benefit from this moment. Or maybe it’s simply that we ourselves grow and change, become stronger in our faith, develop new insights that make us better people. And so we know in these times when things seem their worst that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and that hope doesn’t disappoint us because we know that God loves us no matter what. Our hope in God enables us to know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel even if where we are it is pitch black. Our hope in God enables us to engage in the hard work of self-examination, of fearless self-inventory, because we know that to struggle with our own demons is the best way to reach a new level in our relationship with God and our fellow humans. Our hope in God is unquestionably tested when it seems like the world is turned upside down, as it is today—but according to Paul such times are the right time, they are the Kairos moment that gets us closer to the Kingdom of God, in our lives certainly, but perhaps by the grace of God for the world as well.

I know it isn’t always easy to believe this. I know protests can look like chaos. I know that these stories of police violence can make us fearful. I know that calls for defunding the police make some fearful of disorder and chaos. I know that a lot of us thought racism was solved and it’s frustrating and disturbing that it’s still an issue. I know that living in a time of pandemic is stressful and uncertain. And I don’t want to be pie-in-the-sky and say, “Oh everything is going to fine in the end.” I want to be careful not to say that.

But I do want to remind us that Strauss and Howe can look back on all the every- eighty-years boom and bust cycles as net positives for our country, times when we’ve leapt forward in human achievement and self-understanding, times that have made our nation better. I do want to remind us that we hope in God, and that hope doesn’t disappoint because it assures us that no matter what, our lives are in the hands of God, and God loves us. I do want to assure that scripture demonstrates time and again that God takes the worst of times and uses them for good. The worst times are the right time. When we were sinners, that’s when Jesus died and rose again to save us. When Sara was ninety years old and past all hope of having that child, Isaac was born. The worst time turned out to be the best time. I imagine Sara going through the worst pregnancy imaginable—after all she was ninety!–and then holding that baby in her arms and laughing. The new thing God had done obscured all the pain and doubt that preceded it. She was laughing at herself, at all her distrust and doubt, and how God proved her wrong, and she should have known better. You can always trust God.

I pray that there is a time in our not-to-distant future when we too will be laughing at ourselves. We will be embracing some newborn reality and laughing at ourselves and saying, “I should have known better. You can always trust God.”

Zoom Meetings and the Day of the Lord

Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
June 21, 2020


Click Here to View This Service

Psalm 85 has always been one of my favorite psalms. What stands out about it the most is its passionate imagery:

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

Kissing is a metaphor for something often talked about in the Hebrew Bible. There will come a time when humanity will “know” God. This term know is a term that is also used for sex, as in “a man knowing a woman.” There will come a day when the relationship between humanity and God will be as intimate as the relationship between lovers. On that day, that glorious day when the Kingdom of God is fully realized, says this psalm, the four key attributes of God will “kiss each other.” Love, faithfulness, righteousness and peace—the highest values of God’s kingdom—will be realized and humanity will live at one with each other and with God. This is the promise.

We in the religion profession call this our “eschatological hope”—our hope that though it seems like we can’t seem to get things right here during this time, there will come a day when God will make it right and that even though we ourselves are flawed, we’ll get to be a part of that and to rejoice on that day when:

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

It’s always nice to know the promise. It’s nice to know that lies in the future. But a good question to ask eschatology is: So what?

Are you saying that while we’re on this earth, living in this time before the return of Jesus, there’s just nothing we can do about making the world a better place? That it’s all up to God? There are certainly people who’d say that—who’d say it doesn’t matter what we do here on earth because only God can fix it. In fact, in our reading from Romans today, Paul is addressing precisely those people. There were people in his day who said, “Let us sin, that grace may abound!” In other words, since we can’t stop being sinners, and are always in need of God’s grace to save us, then why bother to stop sinning? What’s the point? If we believe in Jesus, we’re saved no matter what, so the more we sin, we’re actually doing God a favor by proving how much God saves us over and over again–so let’s just sin away!

You could think some version of the same thing today. Look at the state of the world. Confusion, coronavirus, racial tension, protesting, selfishness, injustice, abuse of power, tension between nations, the list goes on and on. If only God can fix it, then why do we bother to try? Let’s just look forward to the day of the Lord, when God will straighten everything else, and in the meantime let’s crawl into our little hole and hope for the best.

So let’s talk about eschatology by talking about our present situation.

I think most everybody out there in Internet-land is really looking forward to the day when we don’t have to abide by all these Covid-19 precautions. And one day that day will come, the day when all this is done. One day there will be a cure and the world can be open for business again. We don’t have to wear masks and social distance when we’re in public, and we can actually be in public, rather than having to relate to everybody via Zoom. For us church people, the day will come when one day not only can we worship in the sanctuary again, but we’ll actually be able to sing as loud as we want without fear of spreading a virus. We’ll be able to come forward and take communion from the hands of a server and dip it in the common cup of wine. And like the psalmist says, we’ll be able to kiss. Oh, it’ll be a “holy kiss” as the Apostle Paul advises, but it’ll be a kiss; it’ll be hugs for friends we’ve missed and the comfort of physical expression of our love and longing for each other.

I think more than anything this virus has taught us that there is nothing more inimical to being human than the lack of physical touch, that lack of human physical interaction. No wonder the psalmist describes the Day of the Lord with such visceral, almost erotic language. We humans must have human contact. We have to have touch. No wonder countless biblical passages describe the day of the Lord variously as a wedding party or a great feast. These deeply physical, tactile sensate experiences are part and parcel of what it means to be fully in relationship, to each other, to God, to ourselves. That day will happen. That day will come. We can’t wait for that day.

So what do we do in the meantime about church? There is a perfect day coming when we’ll have everything just the way we want it again. So why bother with anything less? Obviously video worship isn’t as good as real worship. Zoom meetings—well, arguably they could be better than real meetings—but anyway, a Zoom Bible study or Zoom Sunday school or Zoom Thursday morning breakfast or Zoom Women’s Circles, they clearly don’t give us so much of what we need and crave, that community, that deeply physical, sensual connection to the people we love. These things are so much less than the perfect. Why do we do them?

I have worked with local and state and even higher office public figures over the years, and one thing they will say a lot is “Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.” Don’t let the fact that the solutions you come up with may not be perfect stop you from doing something that is at least a step in the right direction. Yes, all these various solutions we’ve come up with to provide worship and study and fellowship and service are not ideal. But we all know we need them. We know that even if our worship is imperfect, we still have to worship God. Even if our discipleship is imperfect, we still need to try to follow Jesus. Even if our fellowship is truncated, viewed through a two-dimensional screen, we still have to have fellowship. And even if our service to those in need loses its personal touch, even if we can’t sit down to the feast of the Kingdom with our homeless guests, they still need our services, and we still need to serve them.

One day all of that will return to what we want and need, and we look forward to that day. But in the meantime, this day, this moment, still needs all those things. This day still needs our worship, our discipleship, our fellowship, our service, even though it is imperfect and far from what our vision is. That perfect day is coming, and in the meantime we do our best to provide some semblance, some shadow of that perfect ideal.

That is the point of eschatology. It defines our hope. And it also defines our work.

Take for instance our psalm today. The psalmist raises up four characteristics of God’s wholeness, of God’s holy day, that are the most important priorities of the Kingdom of God, but which are also apparently missing in what he’s seeing happening in Judah at that time. Those missing, all-important qualities are steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace. Apparently, at the time it’s most needed, those who shout out how much they love everybody, red or yellow black or white they are precious in my sight, suddenly turn out NOT to love everybody, after all. Apparently, those who parade their faithfulness to God loudly and proudly at the public megaphone are those who are most blatantly and shamelessly hypocritical. Apparently, those who are supposed to be righteous are actually moral and spiritual disappointments. Apparently, because of all this, peace has gone out the window and people are shouting at each other about politics and values and social status and race and who gets what.

Steadfast love and faithfulness and righteousness and peace are what God desires for God’s people, and they are what’s missing.

But we wouldn’t know that’s what God desires if we didn’t have the vision of the Kingdom. We wouldn’t know God desires steadfast love and faithfulness and righteousness and peace. Without the vision of the Kingdom of God, we might think that we should love our friends and hate our enemies. After all, that’s the way the world works, right? Without the vision of the Kingdom of God, we might take it for granted that religious leaders and political leaders and those who have a lot could be corrupt, and in fact that to live a corrupt life is a great way to succeed in life. Without the vision of the kingdom of God, we might say “Peace is fine—for me. But if that means we have to treat other people like dirt so I can have my peace, then I guess that’s okay.”

But we have the vision of the Kingdom of God before us, and it shows us that what we really want—what we really need—what we were made for and what most truly defines what is divine within us—are steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness and peace. The vision of the Kingdom shows us what we most want, what we most need to be most fully human, what we were created to be. What makes us live most into our divine potential are steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace.

Steadfast love means steadfast—we love even when it’s hard to love.

Faithfulness means we do the hard work even when the odds are stacked against us and we do not give up.

Righteousness means that we have to take care of those who suffering, those who are crushed down by life, those who don’t get the equal share in life we all deserve.

And peace means that we have to be peacemakers, and we never stop being peacemakers, because as soon as you solve one problem another erupts and the only way to have peace is never to fully be at peace, but just keeping working on it and working on it.

But steadfast love also means the amazing, indefatigable, always forgiving, always gracious love of God. Faithfulness also means that God is faithful and will never desert us. Righteousness means that God applies God’s perfect righteousness to us and builds a bridge of relationship between us flawed humans and God. And peace means God’s perfect peace, God’s shalom, when at last all of creation, all of humanity, all of nature, will live in perfect harmony with one another and with God.

We know what God wants, and the vision of the Kingdom of God shows us how it should look. And we know that as humans, made in the image of God, we can’t do without those things. So we keep pursuing them, even though the result is imperfect, because they get us closer to who we are and whose we are and who we have been made to be. We keep at it, even though it’s sometimes difficult and often unsatisfying and we are unlikely to fully achieve it in this life, but that’s okay.

Because the day is surely coming when steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; and righteousness and peace will kiss. And when it happens, we’ll be there. And so will everyone whose lives were touched by the witness that by God’s grace we were able to convey. We will kiss and we will dance and we will hug and we will rejoice on that great and glorious day.

Trinity, Humility, and Black Lives Matter

Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
June 7, 2020


Click Here to View This Service

II Corinthians 13: 11-13

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will.

 –Sam Cooke, (1931-1964), American Civil Rights Activist, Singer/Songwriter

Our children have gotten very involved in the Black Lives Matter movement in New Orleans. The other day they confronted us. They challenged us to step up more boldly to stand up for black people in their fight for justice. They told us about how where they are, in New Orleans, they’ve been forced to confront their own prejudices, assumptions and fears. What really struck us was that they have done this willingly. They’ve gone to protests and been told they aren’t radical enough, they aren’t sensitive enough, they don’t recognize their own micro-aggressions and privilege and that if they really want to stand with black people they need to know them better, to stand in their shoes, to hear their pain and frustration and not take it personally;  and they also need to know themselves better.

What amazes me is they listened. They want to understand. They want to change. At first I kind of thought they were being arrogant, but then I realized they’re actually being humble. They’re willing to learn things about themselves that make them uncomfortable and even a little ashamed of themselves. And they still come out and are on the front lines protesting.

Margaret and I listened. We were humbled by their maturity. “Out of the mouths of babes and infants,” King David says. It rubs us the wrong way when the time has come for our children to teach us. But that time has come.

We should not be surprised to hear that the justice system is deeply flawed when it comes to the treatment of people of color. We Christians believe in the problem of sin—a systemic corruption that afflicts all of humankind, a corruption so severe that the only way to address it was a radical, world-shaking change—God had to come down to earth and die. It should not surprise us that this corruption is everywhere. It is in our institutions as well as in our hearts. The mistake we make is our refusal to recognize that it’s there—our stubborn insistence that there is nothing wrong when clearly there is. Those of us who are invested in our institutions naturally want to defend them; but right now the moral challenge is radical institutional change.

Think for instance of the pedophilia problem in the Roman Catholic church right now. We’ve been talking about this for four decades now. After all these years, how in the world is this still a problem?—but it is. Individual predators have been punished; bishops have gotten fired; dioceses have paid immense amounts of numbers in damages. Yet the Roman Catholic Church still refuses to admit this is a systemic problem that is reinforced by centuries of history and corrupts the church’s ministry in the entire world. And because they won’t acknowledge the depth of the problem, the problem continues and becomes even more entrenched. Church leaders put out fires on the edges and claim they’ve solved the problem but their refusal to acknowledge the extent of the problem has simply made it worse; and now the whole forest is on fire.

That is the problem we’re dealing with in our justice system now. We’ve been putting out the fires on the edges and thinking we’ve solved the problem and now the whole forest is on fire. Until we have the humility to acknowledge how deep the problem is we’ll just keep having incidents that some of us write off as one-offs, while others of us feel more terrified, angry and alienated.

But what to do about it?

I was in a Zoom call with other local religious leaders this past Monday. We all wanted to talk about the protests, and how we all want to support black people in their call for reforms in the justice system. But we kept running into a brick wall because we didn’t know what to do. Something unusual happened in that Zoom call, something that never ever happens when you get a bunch of preachers together. There were a lot of long silences. It was that rara avis, that rare bird, a bunch of humble Southern preachers. We had some ideas, but ultimately what we all realized is that we ourselves need to change.

The Trinity is in many ways about humility. If you recall, the Trinity is that Christian theological concept that God is one, but God is also three. God is the one true God, but God is also God the Creator, God the Son who walked the earth as Jesus, and God the Holy Spirit who is the living presence of Jesus active in the world today. The Trinity has often been depicted as a triangle. But these days you’re more likely to hear theologians talk about the Trinity as a circle. I have a copy of a well-known Eastern Orthodox icon that depicts the three angels who visited Abraham as sitting around a round table together. It’s an excellent metaphor for the Trinity—three beings each co-equal with the other sitting around the round table. No aspect of God is better than the other.

This is the reason I say that the Trinity represents humility. In many ways our concept is that God is a community, with distinct personae in distinct roles—but also somehow that community is one, the one God, united fully in will and purpose and being. No one personae is ascendant over the other: they are co-equal partners, and also miraculously one being and whole.

And of course there’d be no concept of the Trinity at all if not for a tremendous act of divine humility. As Paul says in Philippians, Jesus, though equal with God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. The fact that Jesus is also God is why we even discuss the idea of the Trinity. And so humility is at the very heart of the Trinity, which means it is at the very heart of God, which means that humility is what is expected of us humans, made in the image of God.

The Trinity indicates to us that God is all in all, that God is everywhere and, in all things, and among all things. But what it tells us about ourselves is that whether we like it or not, what affects one of us affects all of us. We are a whole and each of us is part of a whole; and until we overcome the things that hurt and divide us we are not living into the image of God.

That requires humility. We know this because God in person chose the path of humility. God took the form of a human being, walked among us as one of us, became just like us, bore the same burdens as we do, shared the same joys, suffered the same terrible fate. It was that willingness to bear the human cross that empowered him to overcome the cross with the victory of resurrection.

I say with a great deal of sadness that I have not been willing to bear the cross of my black and brown siblings. I have consciously and unconsciously created barriers that have allowed me successfully to avoid seeing the anxiety that grips them, almost to a person, when they see a police car in the rear view mirror; or the frustration they feel when they get turned down for a loan that they could have gotten if they were white; or the way that we white people so often react with fear or suspicion when we see them.

Black novelist James Baldwin once made a scathing but true observation:

“Every white person in this country — I do not care what he says or what she says — knows one thing. … They know that they would not like to be black here. If they know that, they know everything they need to know. And whatever else they may say is a lie.”

I wish this weren’t true. But people who call Jesus our Lord and Master need to be people willing to face uncomfortable truths about ourselves and to be willing to go through earth-shaking spiritual and moral change. Conversion, if you will. I need to go through the kind of conversion that honestly looks at how I willingly put on moral blinders—how I willingly avoid facing the pain of black people—how I benefit from injustices and unfairness that have been heaped on black and brown people from the day they first arrived on our shores in chains—how I am myself complicit in allowing a broken and unjust system to stay broken and unjust.

I don’t expect I’m always going to enjoy this journey. In many ways I dread it. But I don’t know what else to do. One thing I’ve learned in life is that if you don’t know how to change something, you can always change you. Or better—you can allow God to change you. I keep hearing a song in my head: Sam Cooke singing “A change is gonna come.” We pray for a change in our society because justice for one is justice for all. But what I know is that the change has to start with changing me.

Unashamed

Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
May 10, 2020


Click Here to View This Service

Psalm 31 – John 14: 1-14

“Shame is the irrepressible memory of disunion from [our] origin. It is the pain of this disunion, and the helpless desire to reverse it. Human beings are ashamed because they have lost something that is part of their original nature and their wholeness…. Human beings are ashamed because of the lost unity with God and one another.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Theologian and Martyr, 1905–1945, Ethics

When my sister Lise and I were kids, she used to receive one of those teen magazines that were so popular back then. They’d have articles about make-up and dating and boy bands. Lise was a charter member of the Bobby Sherman Fan Club. Who was Bobby Sherman, you ask? Exactly. There was a letters section whose title I’ll never forget. It was “Was My Face Red When…”. Girls would write in about something that caused them embarrassment. Let me say first I never read those letters. My own face is red even admitting I know the contents of those magazines. I think it was stuff like hair and makeup disasters and wardrobe faux pas.

But of course all of that is really about shame. Our faces turn red when we’re ashamed. We know the feeling—blood rushes to our faces so that everyone knows you’re embarrassed. You look down rather than looking at someone to see how horrified they are at what you did. You want to run and hide, and maybe even you do it.

In scripture the first appearance of shame is in Genesis 3, when after Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit they realize that they are naked and run and hide from God, who to that point had been kind of a trusted companion. Shame is the first symptom of their alienation from God.

Recently I heard an NPR story on the topic of “The Corona Virus Guilt Trip.” In South Korea, NPR reports, “People who are stigmatized say they’re made to feel that they are the disease themselves,” because the government publicizes personal data on COVID-19 carriers. This is a deliberate strategy on the part of the government so that people will feel ashamed if and when they don’t practice social distancing.

But for many of us, we don’t need the government to make us feel ashamed of something like Covid-19. This is exactly the sort of thing that we naturally feel ashamed about. We often feel ashamed about things over which we have no control, and a pandemic is a perfect example. It emphasizes our inadequacy, and one of the main causes of shame is our sense of inadequacy. People with any sort of illness can feel it, but especially if you discover that you are a carrier and may have unknowingly infected others, that can be enormously shaming.

The late theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer viewed shame as an important theological category, and he writes about it in his Ethics. For him, shame is a deeper matter than the things that make our faces red. He writes:

Shame is the irrepressible memory of disunion from [our] origin. It is the pain of this disunion, and the helpless desire to reverse it. Human beings are ashamed because they have lost something that is part of their original nature and their wholeness…. Human beings are ashamed because of the lost unity with God and one another.

Shame, says Bonhoeffer, should not be confused with guilt or remorse. Guilt or remorse are associated with our consciousness of wrong doing, something over which we have power. But shame is not about sin—it’s about inadequacy and alienation, things that are part and parcel of the human condition. We were made to be in union with one another and with God and our souls long to return to that state of union. So in Psalm 31, our Hebrew Bible reading for today, when the Psalmist David asks God not to “put him to shame,” what he really means is not, “Oh God, don’t embarrass me,” like all of us used say, or will say about our parents when we are teenagers. What he means is that because of his persecution he feels alienated from God, and he desperately, desperately wants to feel that sense of unique union with God that seems always to have been a characteristic of David. He wants reassurance that God has not abandoned him—which is a feeling we can all relate to, especially in times of trouble.

Shame, Bonhoeffer points out, is not only not about sin, it is also not entirely a bad thing. Shame often serves a good purpose. Bonhoeffer for instance believed that every Christian should have a fellow Christian who is their confessor, the person they tell their secret sin to. But the point there is that it’s a secret sin. He didn’t believe we should just advertise our failings around to everyone; in fact, quite the opposite. He believed we must tell someone and that we must not tell everyone. Shame is not for public consumption.

The world we live in today seems to illustrate the reason why—showing it to all the world creates a kind of shamelessness. So much of our celebrity culture is fed by shameless behavior—people who do their bad deeds out in public and dare you to call them bad. That kind of shamelessness reinforces in us the idea that everything I do is right and okay, I am complete and whole in myself, and I don’t need other people and I don’t need God. It’s a type of narcissism and it doesn’t allow shame to play its important role in making us aware of our need—our desperate need—for others and for God. Shame is a manifestation of the restlessness that St. Augustine talks about in his Confessions: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Shame is our soul crying out its need for God: shamelessness is our self-centered defiance that cries, “I’m fine; I don’t need anyone or anything!”

Having said that, it’s worth noting that there are a lot of things of which we are ashamed, and which we keep secret, that are only shameful because we ourselves or our society makes them so. So many of those things that would have appeared in the “Was my face red when…” letters are exactly the sorts of things that should not cause us shame but do. How we dress, our personality traits, our loves and likes—if we lived in a different culture or time, we might be ashamed of entirely different things. They don’t really matter, except to us, because at some level they illustrate our sense of alienation. A teen worries about wearing the wrong shoes because he knows he’ll be made fun of: that’s really about his awareness of alienation and his desperate need to have friends.

Likewise the ways that we or society label things as shameful can do more harm than good. Until recently, for instance, to have a mental illness or to have a family member afflicted with mental illness was a matter of intense shame and also of secrecy—the kind of secrecy that made problems worse instead of better. Employers might fire you or friends might desert you or you’d never get needed treatment because you wanted to keep it all a secret. These days our attitude about these matters is much healthier. It wasn’t always the case, for instance, that people could admit to having depression or ADHD or being bi-polar, but now people feel freer to be honest about it. On the other hand, not everyone needs to know about it either. It’s wise to make sure that such delicate information is in the hands of the right people, doctors and family and good friends, and not those who are fearful, cruel, or exploitive.

Likewise sexuality used to be a subject of shame, to the point that people closeted themselves fearful of others but also fearful of their own bodies and their own identities which society told them were evil. Again, today we can be far more honest about these things; but society in its clever way can corrupt that too with pornography and an “anything goes” attitude that leads people to do foolish, cruel or dangerous things. We shouldn’t be ashamed of our sexuality, but we shouldn’t be “shameless” about it either. A lot of people, especially when they are young or lonely, have fallen for that myth of shamelessness and ended up hurt, damaged, or hurting other people.

Bonhoeffer observes that the “shame contains both an acknowledgement of and a protest against disunion, which is why human beings live between concealment and disclosure, between hiding and revealing themselves, between solitude and community.”

There is something very human in our need both to reveal ourselves and to conceal ourselves, he says. To have friends and loved ones to whom you can tell your deepest secrets is essential, it heals disunion, as also praying to God about it heals disunion; but also keeping these matters in the hands of God and a trusted few is also essential to avoid painful misunderstandings, abuse and further alienation.

A few months ago I received an email from someone in Dallas. He asked me what I knew about a certain big steeple pastor here in Fort Worth who was no longer their pastor but no reason was shown on the church website for why he was no longer there. “I don’t ask out of malice,” he said, and you should know that I go on high alert when anyone says, “I don’t ask out of malice.” “I and a few friends just want to know why a prominent pastor at a prominent church is no longer there and the entire thing is shrouded in secrecy.”

Well, that got me angry. The pastor has a sad personal reason he is no longer there. Nothing maleficent happened. There was no ethical breach, no betrayal, no wrongdoing of any sort, just a tragic turn of events. People all over Fort Worth know what happened. But the church and the pastor aren’t making a public matter of it. It’s hardly “shrouded in secrecy.” Some things aren’t secret—they’re just not anybody else’s business! I wrote back to the correspondent that sometimes things are not secret, but they are private, and sometimes other people should respect their privacy. “If people aren’t telling you the reason, then my guess is they don’t think it’s your business.”

Bonhoeffer observes that “To anyone who reads the New Testament even superficially, it must be apparent that here this entire world of disunity, conflict, and ethical problems seems to have vanished out of sight.” The NT, he says, maintains that “Instead, the rediscovered unity, the reconciliation, has become the ground, ‘the point of decision of specifically ethical experience.’ There is nothing problematic, tortured, or dark about the living and acting of human beings, but instead something self-evident, joyous, certain and clear.” His point is that this sense of disunity has been overcome through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Peter puts it in our epistle today, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” God has overcome disunity and made us God’s people again. Reconciliation and restored relationship are the heart of the gospel. Jews have a concept called tikkun olam, the healing of the world. The world is broken, damaged, shattered; our relationship with God is shattered. But tikkun olam is the whole work that God is doing to heal that damaged relationship and restore us to oneness with God and one another. We Christians believe that tikkun olam is accomplished through Jesus Christ, who restores us to union with God and one another.

In our Gospel, Jesus is telling his disciples about the characteristics of that restored relationship. We don’t know how to get there on our own; all we know is our shame because we feel so alienated. So we stand with Thomas when he asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” We long to get there, Lord, to that restored relationship; but how do we do that?

And Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” He tells us he is at one with God the Creator, and because of that they can also be one with God the Creator. The pivotal line in the scripture, the one that has been subject to so much understanding, is when he says, “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” People have interpreted this to mean, if you ask God for money and riches and fame and happiness and do it in Jesus’ name, you’ll get it. But such selfish requests are signs of our disunity with God and our fellow human beings. What Jesus means is specifically that we’ll be able to do his works—meaning his ethics, his teaching, his healing, his mercy. To ask in Jesus’ name is to ask for what Jesus wants—to ask for forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with neighbor and enemy, the ability to serve others in their need, playing a healing role in the world. Jesus is telling us that such prayers mean that our will has been knit together with his will, so we’ll be able to do what Jesus was able to do, and more even than that. I’ve seen that throughout the recent crisis. At the beginning people were wondering, “What in the world can we do to help all the people in need during this pandemic? We can’t touch anybody, we don’t want to infect anyone or get infected, but we want to help. How?” And because that is a heartfelt desire to do what Jesus would want us to do, somehow by the grace of God we’ve found ways to do those things, to provide for the needs of the sick and the homeless and of agencies that work with them. You’ve heard the expression, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” We Christians can modify it to say, “Where there is Christ’s will, we’ll always find Christ’s way.” The fact that we have been able to do such things is proof that what we’ve been praying for is also the will of Christ.

So in Christ, we have union. But we still feel shame. We still live in that dynamic tension Bonhoeffer identified, between disunion and union. In this life the union is never perfect, but by the grace of God we can continue to strive toward it. And in the life to come, the resurrected life in eternity, that union will be complete. Disunion will be defeated, and we will be fully united with humanity and with our Lord. At last, our restless hearts will rest in God.

Watch all our videos, including this worship service on our YouTube Channel.

A Second Chance

Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
April 26, 2020


Click Here to View This Service

John 21:15-25

“A second chance doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. In many ways, it is the more difficult thing. Because a second chance means that you have to try harder. You must rise to the challenge without the blind optimism of ignorance.”         ― Ling Ma, 1983-present, American Novelist and Professor

A lot of us are getting antsy. We’re wondering, “When do things return to normal?” It’s a question that has no easy answer. Some governors are considering starting to phase out social distancing restrictions in May. A lot of health experts are warning that these restrictions need to stay in place through the summer and there might be a “second wave” in the fall. Experts warn that making America “open for business” again will likely only lead to a Covid-19 relapse unless three key things are in place: Number one, that communities have been provided with enough reliable tests that anyone who wants can get a test easily; number two, that in every community there is a “contact tracing” team that can trace all the people that someone with Covid-19 has been in contact with; and number three, that a community can claim authoritatively that the number of Covid-19 cases has flattened out or begun to decline. All of those prospects are far off for most communities, including Fort Worth and Tarrant County. Even if all three of those are in place, the process for returning to “normal” will be phased. The national plan unveiled last week has three phases, gradually moving to something that is almost, but not quite, what just last month we were calling normal. 

But this “normal” won’t be the normal we knew. For one thing, until there’s a cure we have to remain vigilant. For another thing there are now dozens of millions who have been adversely affected by the virus and the economic shutdown, and we’ll have to figure out how to address their needs while also keeping ourselves safe and our nation vibrant.

What is important to understand is that we are not going to return to find the world we knew before the Corona Virus is completely intact. We are hoping for a second chance, and we’ll get it. But a second chance is a quite different situation from what preceded it.

Ling Ma’s recent satirical novel Severance tells a surprisingly prescient story of a worldwide pandemic and its aftermath. It raises questions like, “How do you rebuild the world? How should you rebuild the world?” At one point a character comments, “A second chance doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. In many ways, it is the more difficult thing. Because a second chance means that you have to try harder. You must rise to the challenge without the blind optimism of ignorance.”

Much of our conversation around our upcoming second chance sounds like we want to return to the blind optimism of ignorance. We just want everything the way it was. It reminds me of a joke we used to tell when I lived in Virginia: How many Virginians does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Seven. One to change the bulb, one to hold the ladder, and five to talk about how good the old one was.

We want the blissful naiveté of the pre-pandemic world when we didn’t think something like this could happen. And whenever anyone mentions Covid-19 we wish we could just put our fingers in our ears and say “Na na na” ‘til it goes away. So it’s important to take Ling Ma’s advice to heart: A second chance doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. In many ways it is the more difficult thing, because we have to rise to the challenge without the blind optimism of ignorance.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus’ disciple Peter has been given a second chance. He sees the resurrected Lord walking along the shoreline while they fish. It’s a throwback to the old days, as if they are starting all over again, when Jesus walked along the shore while they fished and invited them to be fishers of people. Maybe Jesus’ resurrection means that we start all over again! He longs for the innocence and excitement of those early days of following Jesus, this radical new teacher, the feeling of being special because Jesus had hand-picked him to be one of only twelve people in the whole world who would be privy to God’s plan to save the world. He is so excited that he puts on his clothes and dives into the Sea of Galilee, as if to symbolize how ready he is to dive back into the way things were in the good old days.

Standing on the shore, Jesus sees Peter dive into the water; but he also sees the other disciples in the boat struggling to haul their net in and clearly resentful that Peter has shirked his responsibility and left them to their own devices. Jesus shakes his head, perhaps with a sad smile. Clearly, Peter still has some lessons to learn.

After they eat together, Jesus takes Peter aside. Three different times, he asks Peter if he loves him. Each time Peter, stunned and hurt by the repetitive question, answers yes. And each time Jesus tells him “feed” or “tend” my sheep. And he concludes, “Follow me.”

Peter is shamed by this because he knows that Jesus asks him if he loves him three times—because on the night of Jesus’ arrest, Peter had DENIED him three times. Peter had thought that the resurrection meant that the past was forgotten. He thought that his slate was wiped clean. Like you and me, he wanted to think that since he was forgiven of his sins, and since Jesus had given him a second chance, then it was as if the whole thing hadn’t happened. But it had happened. Jesus may have forgiven it, but he hadn’t forgotten it. Forgive is not forget. Forgiveness is a second chance, but “a second chance doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. In many ways, it is the more difficult thing. Because a second chance means that you have to try harder. You must rise to the challenge without the blind optimism of ignorance.”

When Peter had first become a disciple, so long ago, and had responded to Jesus’ call to “Follow me,” he had been ignorant of what Bonhoeffer calls “the cost of discipleship.” Discipleship requires sacrifice. It requires a clear-eyed understanding of yourself and of the reality of the world in which we live. Peter has seen Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. He’s seen Jesus arrested, tortured, and crucified. He’s seen himself fall short when the time of testing came. He cannot be naïve, no matter how much he wishes to be. The new reality, the resurrected reality, brings with it a clear-eyed honesty about ourselves and the world we live in. To follow the resurrected Jesus requires taking responsibility.

Friends, we are already in a changed world. What we have experienced has left a mark, and it should. We can’t go on naively wishing for a pre-COVID world. A lot of us aren’t going back to the same job, or any job. A lot more of us will be homeless and providers will have to adapt to a new reality. A lot of people will not be with us, and a lot of people will experience life-long health issues, and a lot of people will be grieving for the one and supporting the other.

But most of all, our myth–that as Americans living in the modern world, we are immune to the plagues that afflict the rest of the world–that myth will need to bite the dust. We need to expect our governments, local and national, to adapt and take these things seriously. We ourselves will have to be more cautious for our own health but also for the health of others. The great mistake will be to think this is an anomaly, a one-off, that it won’t happen again.

Critically, we need to take science more seriously. If there is any universal lesson to be learned from this crisis, it is that science offers the best hope of keeping us safe when Nature arms itself against us. Over the past twenty years or so, science has been discredited, criticized, made fun of. Scientists have been painted as partisans out to get rich via research dollars, which frankly is absurd on its face. The reason this happens is that science is warning us of issues like climate change that seem to challenge the basis of our economy, and so science has become politicized. Funding has dried up. Cities like Fort Worth have shuttered their public health departments and counties like Tarrant just don’t have the resources they need when the time comes.

Now a crisis has come where doctors, medical professionals and research scientists need every resource to battle it and to provide a cure, and we’ve been caught with our pants down. It has been heartening to hear the president, governors, and local leaders all say that any decision they take to “re-open” the economy will be made with the guidance of science. As your pastor, I want to assure you that any things we do to “reopen” St. Stephen will be informed by the guidance of public health experts.

But once science has gotten us out of this mess, we need to support the science needed to make sure that this never happens again. We’ll have been given a second chance and that requires us to learn the lessons of the past. It will be harder, because we can no longer have the blind optimism of ignorance, but the clear eyes of responsibility.

Our story about Jesus’ new commission to Peter there on the Galilean shore gives us hope because it is set in the context of resurrection. Peter is not being told you need to be realistic and clear eyed because things are looking bad. On the contrary. Peter is hearing this call to responsibility directly from the mouth of the Risen Christ. He is called to take responsibility in the new world that Jesus’ resurrection has created. This is a world, as the Apostle Paul says in Romans 8: 28, where “… all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” 

We can and should grieve what’s been lost and fix what we can. But we Christians believe that in the post-resurrection world, change can lead to new life and new possibilities. And so we face the future not with dread, but with hope.

We don’t have to look that far back in St. Stephen’s own history for an example of that. After our education building was vandalized in 2017, we were all in a bit of a panic. It was, as now, during the season of Lent and Easter. How were we going to do our ministry and properly celebrate Easter when we have to leave the education building for months? But clear-eyed, creative lay leaders figured things out. We moved everything to the sanctuary building—something that once would have been unthinkable. Homeless people sleeping in St. Stephen’s magnificent sanctuary? No way! But we did it without blinking an eye. We figured out how to use the crisis to advantage by clearing out old junk, getting better equipment, and reorganizing the upstairs offices. Everyone who could found a way to contribute. When we were done, it was like we had a new lease on life. The seemingly negative publicity actually raised our profile in the community, meaning we had tons of community support and also many new folks found their way to St. Stephen and became part of our community. Social media and the website became essential resources. And the congregation itself experienced renewed enthusiasm. Yes, the vandalism created difficulties and unpleasantness—but we emerged stronger for it.

It’s vital to remember this. In the post-resurrection world, when things change, or when we need to change, this is not the end. It’s a new beginning. It is new life. And this is so because this isn’t our world—it’s God’s world and we’re just living in it. It is Christ’s world, and in that world, resurrection never stops—it is always going on.

Watch all our videos, including this worship service on our YouTube Channel.

Living With a Gracious God in a Random World

Living with a Gracious God in a Random World
Dr. Rev. Warner Bailey
April 19, 2020

Ecclesiastes 9:7-12, 17-18  Matthew 16:1-4   1 Peter 1:3-9

April 19, 2020

We are all looking for a sign of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel, a glimmer of something to hang on to.  We are all looking for a sign that we’re going to be safe, that a vaccine will be found so that graduating college seniors can pick up the pieces of their shattered futures and start again, that we can return to work safely.  We are all desperately seeking a sign from heaven. 

Where is that something to staunch the flow of strength draining out from us as we are tossed about by a current of dread running rampant?  Something that is clear, simple, direct, and not confusing.  Something that puts a stop to the chaotic random world in which we are caged. 

As a teacher of the Bible who is also a pastor, I am very sorry to disappoint you.  The Bible assumes the fact of a random world.  How clearer could the preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes be? “Again I saw that under the sun the 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 happen to them all.”

Jesus himself recognizes the randomness built into our world in several instances – his comment on how a man’s blindness cannot be traced to either his sin or his parents (John 9:1-3), for example, or how those who perished in the fall of tower of Siloam were no more nor less sinful than anyone else (Luke 13:4).  God’s sun shines on the just and the unjust; God’s rain does not pick and choose where to fall (Matthew 5:45). 

Jesus refuses to grant a sign from heaven.  We will have no sign from heaven from him that we can use to outwit the way our lives are encompassed by random uncertainty, no sign to give us inside knowledge.  I know this seems cruel to hear, but Jesus is simply acknowledging the fact that he is not going to change the world God created out of a soup of chaos; that world has hard-wired into it chance and uncertainty.  It is this very world, which has wild cards of randomness baked into it, this very world that God pronounced as very good. 

A moment’s reflection would tell you that the coronavirus—for all of the monstrous devastation it is causing—is part of that good creation.  The virus has been here all along “biding its time” until this current eruption has brought it to prominence.  It is simply “doing its thing.”

It is true that we have some measure of control over this earth, yet, we are inextricably part of the entire web of creation and are affected by the natural randomness of all its parts.

I want us to sit with this reality for a moment.  I want us to let it sink in, because quite a number of folk hold to a different view of chance and uncertainty.  They believe that the realm of sin and evil are responsible for the chance and uncertainty that catches us off-guard.  This includes the virus which causes us so much pain. In the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on March 26, 2020, Michael Quinn Sullivan, leader of the influential and conservative Empower Texans organization tweeted this: “We live in a fallen, sinful world. One result of which is we get sick and die. It’s either going to be from some crazy virus, or a distracted bus driver when I am crossing the street. Either way, are we so scared of dying we are willing to give up living?”  He is making this statement in reference to his displeasure over the state’s closure of businesses.

Here he claims that random and arbitrary sickness and death do come from living in a fallen and sinful world, and we cannot do anything to change it.  Yet, all is not lost, he says.  Because our fate is so inevitable and because we cannot do anything about it, Sullivan says we should stop wasting our time trying to prevent it.  Instead embrace your helplessness, and in an act of defiance, do whatever you want to do.  He reports that a lot of people agree with his position of let us be free to live like we want to until we get caught by chance or bad luck.

Sullivan’s position is at odds with what I have shared with you out of the theology that informs the Presbyterian Church.  Our church does not subscribe to a never-ending battle between good and evil in which we are caught up as fish in a net.  Our church does not subscribe to the view that this virus is evil and can be exorcised out of our lives.  Our church does not advocate a devil-may-care attitude when it comes to being a neighbor or a citizen.  Our church looks to Jesus for how a gracious God lives in a random world.  And Jesus gives us a clue on how God does that in our gospel lesson for today.  “I give you,” he says, “the sign of Jonah.”

Jonah, it may be remembered, was the prophet who didn’t want to fulfill his mission to warn the citizens of Nineveh of God’s wrath to come if they did not repent.  Jonah balked at his commission because he thought God ought to destroy Nineveh for the way it oppressed his own country of Israel.  He fled from going to Nineveh by boarding a ship to take him in the opposite direction.  But a storm came up, and in order to save the ship, Jonah was thrown overboard.  He was swallowed by a giant fish and after three days vomited out alive on the shore of Nineveh!

Properly chastened, he went on to fulfill his mandate of warning Nineveh, and he was thoroughly chagrined by instant and unanimous repentance.  This caused him to “pitch a fit”, to become petulant and argumentative with God, and he spat back in God’s face how disappointed he was in God. (Jonah 4:2-4)

“Isn’t this what I said, Lord, [would happen]? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

By calling up the sign of Jonah, I do not think that Jesus is referring to Jonah’s three-day captivity in the belly of the great fish and subsequent depositing on dry land.  Jesus is not giving us a tip-off of his coming death, descent into Hell, and subsequent resurrection.  Rather, Jesus gives us the sign of Jonah as a pointer to who he is as God who comes to live with us in this world shot through with chance and uncertainty. Look at what I am showing you of our powerful God! Jesus is saying.  Look at how I am gracious, compassionate, abounding in forbearance and love.  The sign of Jonah is God who in Jesus Christ wants to free-up all who are lost.  God penetrated the hearts of the most hateful of persons in Nineveh, as well goaded the innards of a giant fish, as well as got to what was eating at the heart of his prophet. This God softens the hearts of the most hateful as well as sickens the stomach of a giant fish as well as gently remakes the spirit of Jonah by asking, “Why are you so angry?” 

The randomness of life and the powerful graciousness of God are the two poles Jesus lived between, and we live between all the time.  In the midst of a world whose DNA contains randomness and uncertainty, Jesus enacts the sign of Jonah.  Jonah points to him as God on earth who puts power into practice by being gracious in the midst of uncertainty.   The sign of Jonah reveals Jesus Christ, the God who is full of grace and power to save from the abyss, to offer another chance, and to remake us, starting with that which is the hardest to reach, our anger.

Oriented by this sign, we launch out as Presbyterian Christians in full trust in God whose graciousness, compassion, forbearance and abounding love knows no limits.  Trusting in that God, we do what nature always does in order to survive, that is, to practice adaptation.

Adaptation is fundamental to survival.  To be sure, adaptation means the search for a vaccine in order to counter the harmful aspects of the virus.  Fortunately, a world-wide web of research is vigorously engaged in that search.  However, we do not know when that tool will become available.  But before that day comes, other challenging adaptations will be required of us.  Here are some examples:

As a mark of our trust in a gracious God, we will have to change our ways and become a nation much more tightly bound together by practicing social behaviors that are caring for the common good.  That means social distancing, not hoarding, and insisting that there be a safety net for everybody whom this monstrous disease has harmed.

We will have to set aside, at least temporarily, the way we think long-term about our careers and focus instead on what we are situated to do at this moment in order to help.

We will have to re-apply ourselves to naming and engaging fundamental moral questions within our lives.  Trusting in God, can you say you are content with the life you have lived thus far if this virus kills you?  Does your trust in God give you spiritual and relational resources to get you through the traumas of this virus?  If not, what steps will you take to shore up your trust in God’s graciousness, compassion, forbearance and abounding love that knows no limits.?

Holding on to Jesus, we embrace living in new ways in these times of testing.  We are connecting with great creativity across distancing with song and dance.  Our relationships are being forged tighter under the twin pressures of mutual dread and mutual help.  Can you imagine emerging with a stronger self out of the death throes of the anxiety and trauma of these days?  How deep does your anchor go into the deep structures of life which provide you stamina like you have never used before?  Can you see with searing clarity how everyone is at risk if everyone does not have access to health care?  What can you do to keep the blue sky over our heads?  When we come out of this, it is possible that by taming this invisible monster of coronavirus we are giving birth to a better world. 

Watch all our videos, including this worship service on our YouTube Channel.

Their Eyes Were Kept from Recognizing Him

Their Eyes Were Kept from Recognizing Him
Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
Easter Service • 2020

Luke 24:13-53

It is Easter day, but it’s actually not for me and this team prepping worship for you today. For us today is Thursday, and Easter Sunday is still ahead of us. Technically speaking, we are recording this on Maundy Thursday, the day of Jesus’ Last Supper, arrest and conviction. Tomorrow he will be executed. There are several days of bad news ahead, but we are recording this service with confidence that even though we haven’t seen it, and there’s a lot of bad news in between today and Sunday, nonetheless Easter will come on Sunday.

It is Easter day, too, for the two disciples walking the road to Emmaus in our Gospel, but they don’t know it. They are walking in the shadow of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. As our reading from Isaiah says, there is a

“shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations.”

That shroud is death itself. The death of Jesus has for them only confirmed the power of death over their lives, over the world. So they are walking a path by themselves on Easter day, possibly not just leaving Jerusalem but fleeing it out of fear; because there aren’t any Easter church bells ringing, and there aren’t any Easter worship services going on anywhere, and everyone they know is hunkered down in their homes and afraid. It seems like Maundy Thursday and Good Friday have won the day.

Along the way, they meet a stranger. They actually know this so-called stranger, but they don’t recognize him, because social distancing makes it so hard for them recognize others in those difficult days, or even to look at them too closely.

The two disciples wonder at this stranger who doesn’t seem to have gotten the news about how toxic things have become. They tell him about Death’s victory over hope. They also tell the stranger about the mysterious report of the women who went to Jesus’ tomb and found it empty and claimed an angel had told them Jesus was alive. These two disciples view this as the unkindest cut of all. Silly, empty-headed people running around offering false, made-up hope is the worst thing they can imagine at this time. It only makes them feel angrier and more helpless.

This stranger, though, has an air of expertise. He assures them that they are right to hope, that the promises of Scripture are true, that despite the appearance of the victory of death over life, the opposite is true; that though it looks like Maundy Thursday and Good Friday have won the day, Easter is sure to come. They mustn’t lose hope, because the resurrection is certain. He assures them of the promises of Isaiah,

God will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.

It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for our God, so that we might be saved.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in the Lord’s salvation.

If you have patience, if you wait, that day will come, the stranger assures them. If you have patience, if you wait, you will be saved. God is the God of resurrection.

In our reading from Luke, only one of the two disciples is named, Cleopas. But there is a strong scholarly opinion that the unnamed disciple is actually Cleopas’ wife, who is named Mary. We are told in the Gospel of John that Mary, the wife of Clopas, was with Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross with Jesus. She was right there with him when Jesus died, right by his side. Can you imagine the thrill of hope she might have felt, hearing this stranger’s words?

Excited, they invite the stranger to join them at an inn for dinner, and he accepts.

And then, at that table—in many ways the very same table we have set in this sanctuary today—he breaks the bread and they realize, to their amazement, to their wonder, to their joy, that they’d been in the presence of the resurrected Jesus and they hadn’t realized it. He’d told them that if they had patience, if they waited, if they trusted, Jesus would rise and Easter would come. What they hadn’t realized was that what was to come was already here, and that the resurrected Lord had been with them the whole time. Right then, when they thought that they were trapped in an eternal Good Friday, it had been Easter all along. What they hadn’t realized was that even though there weren’t bells ringing, or Easter egg hunts, or corporate worship services to recognize it, it was still Easter day. And from then on it would always be Easter day.

They told the other disciples later, “Were not our hearts burning within us[f] while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” Their hearts were burning because they knew, deep in their hearts, that even though there was no evidence of Easter around them, it must still be true. They had feared it wasn’t but still hope had burned in their hearts. All the stranger had done was confirm it. They didn’t need an official day on the calendar or a national holiday for Jesus to be resurrected because they knew it in their hearts.

A few years ago, a mom came to me with a story about her four or five-year-old daughter. Easter was coming at the end of the week and the daughter was very excited because she knew that that was the day Jesus would rise from the dead and she’d get to meet him! Mom realized the poor kid had heard all the talk about “Jesus rising on Easter Day,” and had taken it literally. She expected Jesus literally to rise on that upcoming Easter morning.

I’d never thought about that as a problem with the way we memorialize events as if they are happening right now. I am talking as if today is Sunday when it’s literally Thursday; as if today is Easter when in fact as I am recording this, you are likely watching our Maundy Thursday service on your computer. We announce that Jesus has risen from the dead today when historically, literally, that actually happened about nineteen hundred and ninety years ago. Jesus’ resurrection is a literal event but getting too literal about it could actually damage our faith when we most need it. Think of Cleopas and Mary. They are so literal about the fact that Jesus died that they can’t see the risen Jesus right before them.

Right now in this Covid-19 crisis we’re fighting an unseen enemy, and the problem is that this enemy has created quite visible problems—like churches unable to worship, like staying at home distancing us from one another, like millions of people applying for unemployment. It’s also caused thousands of deaths, but we aren’t seeing that so much, at least not yet. There’s evidence that all those literal, visible problems are making us impatient. Covid-19 doesn’t seem real, but all these other problems do. We want to forget all the protections and get back to our lives.

But we can’t give in to that. The enemy may be unseen, but it can kill.

And so it’s vital for us to have an equally invisible, but just as real—arguably more so—hope. Faith, the letter to the Hebrews tells us, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” We gather today at the Table of our Lord. It is the same table as Cleopas, Mary, and Jesus were seated at when it was revealed to them that the stranger in their midst had been the risen Jesus. But of course, we’re not literally gathered—all of us are scattered all over creation and even watching this service at different times from one another. And we certainly aren’t at the literal table where Cleopas and Mary sat, any more than we are literally at the table for the Last Supper, any more than we are participating in the first Passover meal that the Last Supper was commemorating. You are at church but obviously you aren’t because St. Stephen is closed for worship.

Sometimes we become depressed or distressed or angry because these literal manifestations of our faith aren’t the way we’d wish. We all wish we could literally be worshipping in the St. Stephen sanctuary—and we will, again. Deep in your hearts, you know that. In the meantime, you are worshipping at St. Stephen—because St. Stephen is in your heart. You are worshipping with your friends—because your friends are in your hearts. And you are having the Lord’s Supper and sharing its communion with one another and with God, because you don’t need a big building or to be surrounded by your friends to know that it’s true that you are in communion with them and with God. These things are true. They are truer than Covid-19 and will long outlast Covid-19. We don’t need to see the resurrected Lord to know that it’s true. We feel our hearts burning within us.

Isn’t this how it has always been for us? Whenever we are in a crisis—whenever we are tested—we don’t suddenly start demanding that the resurrected Jesus come down from heaven and personally hold our hand. We are satisfied that he is holding our hand when a friend or a loved one is holding our hand. We are satisfied that he is with us when we find the strength to overcome impossible odds; or on the other hand, if we can’t overcome, we are satisfied that he is waiting for us on the other side.

I have sometimes had the oddest experience: people will say to me, “What you said that time meant so much to me, pastor.” Whatever it is, I don’t remember saying it. But they heard it anyway. They heard it because Christ was there, and he knew what they needed to hear. The Christ in me may not have said it, but the Christ in them heard it.

We don’t have to have the church bells ringing and the throngs in the pews to know that Easter is here, and that Jesus is raised from the dead. We don’t need the literal presence of the risen Jesus to know that he will see us through to the other side of this crisis. We don’t need an Easter day in order to be Easter people. We know that the risen Jesus is with us. We know it because our hearts are burning within us.

Watch all our videos, including this worship service on our YouTube Channel.

Washing Hands, Washing Feet

Washing Hands, Washing Feet

Maundy Thursday • 2020
Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch

John 13: 3-15

Probably one of the most iconic scenes in scripture is this, the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. By doing this, Jesus literally does what is said about him in Philippians: he empties himself and takes the form of a slave. It was common then, in well-off ancient Middle Eastern households, for a householder to have his servant or slave wash the feet of his guests before they enter his household. It was an act of hospitality in those days when walking, often through dirty streets, was the primary mode of transportation. Especially for those who’d travelled a long way this foot-washing provided not only cleaning but sensual relief to sore feet. Probably the weary traveler did not think much about the person washing his feet except as a means to an end, and as an expression of the master’s hospitality.

Jesus is doing this on the night in which he will be arrested, less than twenty-four hours before he will be executed on the cross. He knows this, but his disciples don’t. They are mystified and confused by Jesus’ behavior. Peter begs Jesus not to wash his feet, but Jesus tells him that if he doesn’t, then Peter will have no part of him. What Peter and the other disciples don’t get is that Jesus is modelling for them the way they are to behave when he is gone. “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, then you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” This is how we’re to treat one another as Christians.

This foot washing is contrasted with something that happens just a few days before. Jesus and his disciples were at the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany, when “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and washed them with her hair.” Judas is outraged and wonders why she wastes expensive perfume this way when the nard could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But Jesus says, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

Mary’s act is especially striking because even though Jesus washes his apostles’ feet, not one of the apostles washes his feet. They may not like Jesus washing their feet, but even after Jesus teaches them that the act symbolizes their roles as servants, it doesn’t occur to a single one of them to wash his feet in return. Only Mary of Bethany understands this important lesson—that Jesus serves us, but we also serve Jesus. And she understands why we are to serve him: It’s because we have been bought with a price—namely, the death of Jesus. BECAUSE HE HAS BEEN OUR SERVANT, WE ARE CALLED TO BE HIS SERVANTS; AND WE ARE ALSO CALLED TO SERVE ONE ANOTHER.

Now we today of course are busy washing our hands virtually every moment of the day. We’re doing this because it’s the advice we’ve been given by experts of course. The main reasons for it are to keep ourselves safe from the Covid-19 virus, but also to keep others safe. There’s powerful symbolism in this that is worth noting and reflecting on. In the last few years it seems like we’ve become more and more divided—whether by political affiliation or religion or race or gender or ethnicity or sexual orientation—to the point when we feel like we have nothing in common with one another anymore. This virus has been a great equalizer in many ways, because it affects all of us without discrimination. But that would be true even if we didn’t believe it to be true. Hand-washing is a kind of ethical act—it is an acknowledgement that we are all in this together, that my health and your health are inextricably connected, that to take care of myself is to take care of others and to take care of others is to take care of ourselves. It will be interesting to see how, or whether, this kind of thinking carries over when this crisis is over. Will those of us who haven’t lost our jobs feel a bond and responsibility for those who have? Will this shared crisis make us more sensitive and responsive to the needs of people different from ourselves, so that we’ll have a more attentive ear to the concerns of African Americans or Asian Americans or trans people or even our annoying neighbor who lets his dog run loose in our yard? Will JPS, our county hospital, finally see the light and treat undocumented immigrants without charge, the way they treat other residents of our county, because they realize that the poor health of the undocumented affects the whole community? We’ll have to see.

That hand-washing reminds us of another hand-washing from scripture. We read about it only in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator in charge of Judea, caves in to pressure from the high priest to execute Jesus, but wants to make sure they know he’s not happy about it. “So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”(Matthew 27:24).

People will often take this to mean that we should view Pilate as secretly sympathetic to Jesus and so exonerate him from guilt. But the truth is that this is a feeble attempt to literally wash his hands of responsibility, as if he is helpless before public opinion, when in fact he and he alone had the power to execute Jesus or to save him. His hand washing is an attempt to shirk responsibility, to say “This isn’t my fault!” It is actually just another of history’s countless examples of the sin of Cain in the Book of Genesis, who killed his brother Abel and then said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

London in the late Middle Ages was besieged several times by the Bubonic Plague, the Black Death as it was known. Prominent Anglican priests fled before it in panic, running out to country estates where they hoped they could be far from the contagion. In contrast a Catholic priest, Father John Southworth, stayed in the slums and inner city of London to minister to the sick and the dying. He did this through three different outbreaks, miraculously himself never getting the plague. Southworth’s reward for this was that he was eventually arrested and executed, because to be a Catholic priest was a crime in Anglican England at that time. “My faith and my obedience are the charge against me,” Southworth is reported to have said. Later his remains were recovered by an older and wiser Anglican Church and today he is St. John Southworth and his remains are preserved in the martyr’s chapel of Westminster Cathedral in London. Here was a man who truly understood the meaning of Jesus’ teaching that “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, then you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

Jesus’ act of foot-washing is profoundly important. Foot-washing is an act of responsibility and it is a call to responsibility. By washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus is symbolically speaking for God and saying, “God takes responsibility for you.” At times like these when it is not unreasonable to ask, “Where is God?” this foot-washing is the answer we are given. In an extraordinary act of divine humility, God has become our servant in a time of crisis. By being a servant, God has offered us a different way to understand where God is in crisis. God is not always with us as we’d wish. Sometimes God isn’t healing, but simply staying by our side while we are suffering, holding our hands and wiping our brows and loving us as St. John Southworth did. And many times he is with us empowering us to be servants to one another, so that we are Jesus’ washed hands and feet. And likewise God is with us through the love and concern and care that we offer one another in this time of crisis. This is because just as God is taking responsibility for us, we are called to take responsibility for one another. We have been given the grace to be servants of the servant Lord.

Even as we’re washing our hands, let us remember to wash one another’s feet.

Watch all our videos, including this worship service on our YouTube Channel.

How Can You Tell It’s God? (Lenten Meditation)

How Can You Tell It’s God?
Dr. Rev. Warner Bailey
April 1, 2020

Ezekiel 28:1-19  Philippians 2:1-11   

The Bible is very clear-eyed when it comes to God’s dealing with anyone who claims god-like powers—be they Hollywood producers, CEOs, prime ministers, presidents, kings and princes. The prophet Ezekiel sings a song about the rise and fall of the king of Tyre.  Tyre was a Phoenician city-state founded on an island off the coast of what is now Lebanon.  Much like the present-day island-nation of Singapore, Tyre was an impregnable nation.  It became rich and powerful because Tyre stood astride the shipping lanes in the eastern Mediterranean seacoast.  If you wanted to go anywhere by boat, say from Antioch in the north to Haifa in the south, you had to do business with Tyre. This is what Ezekiel sang: [Read Ezekiel 28:1-19] 

This prince, for all his pomp, comes across as a very tragic figure in Ezekiel’s song.  Initially, he started off in the best place possible.  He had all the markings of a wonderful man.  He radiated splendor and charisma.  His every step was bathed in a glow of light and fire. 

He was shrewd.  There is nothing wrong with being shrewd.  He could see the next big thing coming in trade, and he had built a terrific marketing organization to exploit the advantage before anyone else.  He and his nation became wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. 

And it is fair to say that God was pleased from the start with this king of Tyre.  You’ll not find in God’s Word any better commendation of a ruler than what is said about this businessman-prince.  He had made the island like the Garden of Eden.  This king was God’s earthly representative.  Yes, this businessman-king, this trader-prince used all the gifts of wisdom God gave him to make his island-nation of Tyre into the mountain of God. 

The religious leaders of Tyre were quick to grab onto the idea that this king is an especially divinely gifted man.  I can imagine that they said flowery praises like: “no weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you.” (Isaiah 54:17), or “the Spirit of God is released into your life, and you have made of Tyre the greatest nation”, or “every demonic altar erected against you will be torn down”, and “you will rise high and be seated in the heavenly places.”  Wouldn’t you say that these religious leaders had good reason to say this?  After all, look at the prosperity the king is responsible for.  Prosperity is the  sure sign of holiness, isn’t it?  That’s what these leaders would tell you with a straight face.

And soon enough, the king of Tyre began to say it about himself.  I am a god.  I dwell in the place where god dwells.  My mind is as good as god’s mind.  Whatever comes into my head is a divine thought. I am wise above all my wizards.  Therefore I am accountable to no one.  I am a law unto myself.  I make the law, and I unmake the law with unbridled executive power.   

Ezekiel tells us all this in a sad, sad voice.  You, who have all these fawning courtiers and religious yes-men, you who claim the freedom to mingle personal and public interests at will, you who attack the mountain of God in service to your unbridled instinct—you are such a fool to think of yourself this way.  You allowed your greatest assent become the power that will kill you.  Your wisdom becomes the weapon of your destruction.  Your wealth leads you to violence, your blameless life tricks you into iniquity, your beauty leads to pride of heart, your splendor makes you wallow in corruption, and your temples have become sanctuaries that smell rotten and make people sick.

So this king who once walked among the stars is cast down into the darkest pit, in a place so far from earth that he will no longer be a menace to earth’s peace and beauty.  Ezekiel’s imagination explodes with descriptions of the hell he makes for himself.  The king of Tyre is thoroughly gutted and humiliated.  The king of Tyre internally implodes and becomes dark matter.  The king of Tyre becomes a traitor to his own nation.  Such a sad, sad song.

If you think this sad, sad song is only about certain persons and personalities, you’ve gotten it wrong.  When you look over history, how many revolutionary movements begin in the heavenly heights of the most shining ideals only to plummet into the vilest of regimes!  This is like the coronavirus.  It makes no difference if you are left or right on the political spectrum, live in the southern or northern hemisphere, or how old or young you are.  Every revolutionary mass mobilization rules by majoritarian domination. 

Religious leaders are found to give it sanctification, and that sanctification gives it cover for its culture of rage, bitter and relentless polarization, a demand for ideological purity, and incessant hatred for your foes.  The pandering by adoring religious acolytes gives its charismatic headman the certainty of omniscience.  And when the movement implodes, when it is gutted, as God’s Word tells us it will be, the church that adores it goes down to destruction with it.   

There was another man who walked this earth and said he was the Son of God.  And like the king of Tyre, there was a song sung about him, too.  [Read Philippians 2:1-11]   

Compare, if you will, the subjects of these two songs are—Jesus and the King of Tyre.  Both claim to be in the form of God.  But one thinks equality with God means he can snatch at will. He is a traitor to his nation, and he blasphemes God.   He is cast into the abyss. 

The other thinks equality with God means he cannot snatch at a thing.  And similarly to the King of Tyre, he, too, is accused of sedition and blasphemy.  Like the King of Tyre, he, too, suffers death of the vilest kind.   However, he is exalted to the heavens above every nation as Lord.

As you read through the stories of Jesus’ life, how many times does he equate his divinity with giving, self-emptying but not snatching.   

  • In his temptation by Satan, he is offered all the kingdoms of this world if he would come over to the dark side.  He flat out refuses, and that refusal becomes the germ for the way he prays, “thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” 
  • He calls himself the man from heaven come down to bring God’s rule, but he interprets that royal power as the power to forgive sins and bring people who were crippled back to wholeness. 
  • He commands the wind and the waves in order to bring peace and confidence to those who are in the grip of the storm. 
  • He calls himself the shepherd of the flock—that’s a favorite way kings called themselves while they blatantly fleeced their flocks—but this shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
  • He tells his followers, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them [call themselves] benefactors.  But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.”  This servant-leader leads by being reasonable, welcoming conversation, showing compassion, tolerance, intellectual humility and optimism.
  • He lets the crowd shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” but he rides in triumph on a young ass. 
  • He takes bread, blesses it, and gives it away.  This is my body broken for you.  You can tell he is Son of God because he is always self-emptying.

Finally, this man who claims to be God gives himself away unto death on a cross.  In the eyes of the Romans who prosecuted him, he dies the death of someone convicted as a traitor to the Roman Empire; in the eyes of religious leaders who accused him, he dies the death of someone who had blasphemed God. 

Look, my friends!  May I point out to you that Jesus dies under similar circumstances to the king of Tyre.  And like the king of Tyre, Jesus is thrown down into the abyss, ranked alongside all who have perished and brought nations and church to ruin through their blasphemy and overreaching.  Jesus empties himself into Hell.  But this is so like God.  You see, when Jesus goes into the abyss, God is still searching to be present to the ones most damned to Hell by claiming to be god.  Face to face with the suffering Jesus, they will see who God really is.  In this most hideous place of loneliness, their ears will hear from the very one the Father abandoned on the cross that the Father has never stopped loving them and wants in his abandoned Son to be with them in their misery.

What wondrous love is this!  And what determination!  Good Friday demonstrates that God goes for broke to be in solidarity with all that is locked away.  Easter demonstrates that God gets what God wants.  Jesus gathers up all of Hell and leads out of Hell every tongue to confess; Jesus gathers them all up and leads out of Hell every knee to bow—before this one whose Lordship is rooted in love that knows no ending.  If the sovereignty of God means anything, it means that God will get what God wants to the glory of God. God’s determination to have God’s way prevail is finally for the sake of those who were broken by the wheel of their own hubris.

This is the “love so redeeming, so divine” that “demands my soul, life, my all.” When we celebrate this wondrous love, we mark ourselves as the church of the Lord who does not snatch. In this time of pandemic, God is calling the church of the Lord who does not snatch to lead a divided nation to solidarity in solitude.  God is calling the church of the Lord who does not snatch to proclaim that even though your career plans are wrecked, God has put you on earth to help make it flourish and recover its health and wholeness, and that’s the most important thing about your life.  God is calling the church of the Lord who does not snatch to say boldly in the midst of this morally inarticulate culture what are the fundamental moral questions of this moment and to provide answers that are both honest and hopeful.

Watch all our videos, including this worship service on our YouTube Channel.