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Category : Sermons

In Which Hand

Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
May 17, 2020

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Psalm 91 – John 14: 15-21

“On his right hand Billy’d tattooed the word love and on his left hand was the word fear,
And in which hand he held his fate was never clear.”
—Bruce Springsteen, b. 1947, American Singer/Songwriter, “Cautious Man”

Wendy Larmour sent me a video a friend of hers made early in the lockdown. Her friend, a devout Christian, was responding in frustration to an evangelist who has gotten a lot of publicity for asking that people send her $91 to indicate that they trust the promise of Psalm 91: “You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in the darkness…” (vv. 5-6). This psalm is meant to be an assurance that God is with us even, and especially, in the worst of calamities; but it has often been misinterpreted to mean that it’s okay to defy calamity, to walk boldly into needless risk, because God will miraculously protect you. Obviously, it’s the “pestilence” part that matters right now, since a pandemic is a perfect illustration of that quaint, old-fashioned word. “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you; no scourge will come near your tent.”

The specific verses that many point to as assurance of God’s miraculous intervention are 11 and 12: “For God will command the angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”

In the video, Wendy’s friend points out that this exact verse is the one that Satan uses to tempt Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple (e.g., Matthew 4: 5-6). To this temptation—and she emphasizes, this is what the Bible calls it: A temptation—Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3: “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’ (Matt. 4:7). She concludes with a warning to her fellow Christians to watch out for people like the Psalm 91 evangelist, who because of their misuse of Scripture play the role of Satan tempting us to do dangerous and unnecessary things—like relaxing our guard during a pandemic.

That temptation is upon us now, and in force. We are all tired of sitting around waiting; and beyond that many of us have lost jobs or income because of the economic effects of Covid-19. Many public figures, including prominent religious leaders, are saying, “It’s been long enough! It’s safe now, or at least safe enough!” As I’ve mentioned in other contexts, that is a perspective I don’t share, but I promise you that the session and staff continue to do our best to figure out when it is safe. We all miss gathering together. We miss worshiping together and fellowshipping in the narthex afterwards. We miss the handshakes and the hugs. I know that when we are at last able to gather together again, there will be a lot of tears and joy and laughter, and I look forward to that day. That day will surely come, and when it does, it’ll be a foretaste of the joy we’ll know when the Kingdom of God arrives at last.

Psalm 91 was written as a promise that God is with us and caring for and protecting us even in the most extreme of circumstances. The line about the angels “bearing you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone”—the one that Satan tempted Jesus with—is actually meant as a reference to the Exodus, when the Lord led the Israelites out of slavery, into the desert, and at last to the Promised Land. At that time, God was described as a mother eagle who, when her young are ready, bears them out on her wings and then drops out from under them so that they start to fall and basically learn how to fly the hard way. But she is always there to catch them so that “you will not dash your foot against a stone.” In the same way God’s angels watch over us.

This is an image of tough love teaching us strength and independence through hard times. That’s why this is a word of hope in a time of pandemic. God is not abandoning us, nor have we abandoned God. We are growing into a new way to be ourselves in relationship to God and one another. But like the children of Israel wandering in the desert for forty years, it involves a lot of waiting and we get frustrated with it. This psalm assures us that putting our trust in God and waiting to see what God has in store for us is a good decision. The time of waiting leads to something new and gracious. But we have to trust God.

In our Gospel, Jesus’ disciples are, like us, trapped in a liminal time, a borderline time in between what was and what will be. They are caught between the “what was” of Jesus’ groundbreaking ministry, of which they were a key part; and the “what will be” of whatever may lie ahead after Jesus’ death. Like us they feel disjointed, confused, uncertain, disconnected. And fear. If they don’t feel it now, they soon will: they will be locked away in secret, “for fear of the Jewish leadership.”

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus is giving them the antidote to that fear. The antidote is love: love of Jesus, love of God, love of each other. And by extension, love of others: neighbor, stranger, enemy. Love is the antidote to fear.

I am struck by this awareness. It was a commonplace in my own seminary training, for instance, to say that faith is the opposite of fear, and that makes sense: faith tells us that even though it doesn’t always seem to be true, nonetheless God loves us and the future rests in God’s good and loving hands. This helps ease our fears and anxieties by assuring us that God loves us. That is faith, yes. But the key element of that faith is love. After all, you can have faith—that is, believe that there is a God—and find no comfort in that at all. The Deists, for instance, many of whom crafted the United States Constitution, believed in God the Great Watchmaker, who created all things and then set it going like a watch on a Quartz battery, so that it’s always at work, but doesn’t need God’s interference or intervention. The Deist God doesn’t love us or hate us, but is largely indifferent to us, though the Deists might argue that there is a long arc toward justice and human rights that’s built into the way the universe functions.

So what makes our faith so critical and life-affirming is that we don’t have faith in just any version of God: we have faith in the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, the God of Love. It is because of love that Jesus can comfort his disciples by telling them that “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” In times like these, when we might well feel orphaned and abandoned by Christ, our faith is that this isn’t true. Jesus loves us too much to abandon us; and his love is from God, because Jesus and his heavenly parent are one. God’s love is Jesus’ love and vice versa.

It’s not always easy to tell the difference between faith and fear. The people who believe so firmly in Psalm 91 that they are willing to take risks in the coronavirus crisis and go shopping and eating out and socializing without any sort of protection or social distancing believe they are acting on their faith. I am in no position to judge their faith or how sincere it is, but I don’t advise what they’re doing and don’t view it as the best way to show your faith at this time.

But if we understand that the opposite of fear is not foolhardiness or even bravery, but love, then we realize that rather than daring the world to make us sick, our faithful response should be something quite different. Because love is the antidote to fear, one way you can tell if your faith is true is if it inspires you to love.

Unfortunately, we can all too often see how much fear is influencing us in the way fear causes us not to love. For instance, prejudiced mistreatment and assaults has led to hospitals and medical associations seeking protections for doctors and medical staff of Asian descent. This sort of thing is hardly unique to the present crisis. There were upticks in violence and hate speech directed at black people during the Ebola Crisis and against people of Middle Eastern descent after 9/11. All these attacks were not based on any legitimate concern, but on fear. Fear causes us to retreat into our most primal behavior.

In contrast, consciously seeking to act and react in love both demonstrates and enlarges our faith in a loving God. When we can find ways of acting generously to others, especially strangers, we are actually growing our own ability to love more fully as well as demonstrating our faith in a loving God to people who feel abandoned or orphaned by God. It can something as simple as showing patience with someone who is serving you when you’re tempted not to; giving the benefit of the doubt to the people who you think “just don’t get it;” or in these days being extremely conscientious about keeping 6 feet between you and others in the grocery line; as well as more proactive things like finding ways to serve the needy, the unemployed, the ill, the lonely, and others most affected by this virus and its fallout. Such conscious choices to affirm love in the face of fear shape or reshape our confidence in God’s love and presence with us.

In times of crisis, we must be on our guard not to allow our fear to shape our reactions. And the simplest way to tell if that’s happening is if we are identifying enemies for whom to blame everything. Sometimes it really is the case there are enemies to blame, but this really isn’t one of them; and even if there is some real culprit to identify, casting aspersions on people we associate with them is still an act of fear, not of love. In contrast, Jesus wants us to see that love is the opposite of fear. He teaches us to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us; he teaches us to love, rather than fear, the stranger. Right now is the time for cooperation, whether between nations fighting the coronavirus or between me and my neighbor in making sure that we don’t infect one another or other people. In a real sense, the solution to the coronavirus crisis is love—love made manifest in doing inconvenient things like wearing masks and keeping out of crowds and keeping a safe distance even from our friends. But that kind of love will bring the solutions we need, because it will diminish the power of the virus and bring us to a place of health. Local communities need to identify those populations most at risk, who are often minority communities, and make a special effort to get testing and medical care to them, because for the sickness to be anywhere is for it to be everywhere. Love will bring the solutions we need.

Just as love is the opposite of fear, so is it true that love is the cure to the Covid-19 crisis.

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Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
May 10, 2020

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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

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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.

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Moral Compassion and The Virus

By Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey
Moral Compassion and The Virus

Exodus 16:4-8, 13-21, 27-30   Luke 4:1-4, 13-15   Galatians 6:1-10

I am truly thankful for the capabilities of technology which allows us to reach out to each other across the barriers we have imposed upon ourselves in order to stay as well as we can and not to add to the number of our fellow citizens who have become sick.  Mary and I are fine as we hope all of you are. 

If you crave human connection, this social isolation becomes a bit of a challenge.  I heard of a guy who managed his problem by starting up a conversation with a spider.  He found out that he was a web designer. 

Humor aside, there is a sickness we all are fighting right now, beyond the scourge of the virus.  There is a shredding going on, a choking, of the bonds of community and trust.  That’s what pandemics do.  In an opinion piece David Brooks said it well: “Dread overwhelms the normal bonds of human affection.” He provides some descriptions from history.

Consider this comment made by Giovanni Boccaccio from his book The Decameron about the plague that hit Florence in 1348: “Tedious were it to recount how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbors was scarce found any that shewed fellow-feeling for another, how kinfolk held aloof, and never met…nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate.”

Daniel Defoe, well-known author of Robinson Caruso, also wrote A Journal of the Plague Year, on the 1665 London epidemic.  This is what he reports: “This was a time when every one’s private safety lay so near them they had no room to pity the distresses of others….The danger of immediate death to ourselves, took away all bonds of love, all concern for one another.” 

Recent studies of the aftermath of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 underscore the way people emerged from it physically and spiritually fatigued because of what harsh things they had to do to stay alive.  It was a shameful memory that had a sobering and disillusioning effect on the national spirit.

This pandemic is forcing us to realize how just little we control our lives.  The coronavirus is like a giant mirror held up to let us see who we really are.  How will we behave in the situation of possible imminent death?  Will our behavior come with a double wallop of fatalism that paralyzes our moral compassion?  Will be become abusive, greedy, or downright evil?  Or will our behavior show just how much we need one another?

The Bible welcomes us coming to it with these questions.  The stories of the Bible are there to speak to what is on our hearts.  They want to be interpreted to help us see that our situation, however dire it is, is still answers to the sovereignty of God.

Look at the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. You could say that social distancing was the way Jesus started his public ministry.  After his baptism, Jesus spent almost 7 weeks in seclusion.  He was led by the spirit into the wilderness for his 40-day withdrawal from society. 

He ate nothing in his period of self-exile.  How he survived, I do not know.  But it is plain to see that when the time was up, he was at his wit’s end, he was crazy with hunger, and he would do anything to find something to eat.  Satan reminded him that he had the power to create bread from stone.  That he could turn all the rocks in the wilderness into loaves of bread.  That he could become known as the Mrs. Baird’s Bakery of the world. 

Why didn’t he do it? we want to know. Jesus fends off Satan’s temptation by saying, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  Jesus, of course, is using “bread” in its most generous symbolic meaning of all the stuff that we must have for our livelihood.  Even in the pangs of desperate hunger, Jesus will not make bread—all our stuff—take the place of God.  Jesus answers to God. 

This painful decision has real time consequences for us.  There are preachers in our day who want to make a buck off the virus.  They preach a prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel puts stuff in the place of God.  One of the most prominent preachers, Paula White, who leads President Trump’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative, is now linking her prosperity gospel with our pandemic.  She asks followers to send her “seed” money of $91, promising that a prosperity harvest will then be returned to the giver.  “Maybe you’d like to send a $91 seed,” she suggested, “that’s just putting your faith with Psalm 91.” Look it up and you’ll read in that psalm a promise to be saved from “deadly pestilence” and “plague.”  For $91 given to Paula White you can buy a charm, a fetish, an amulet.  Is this the way the Trump administration has chosen to send a message of comfort to a scared American public? 

When Jesus emerged out of the wilderness from Satan’s temptations he had a clear vision that God is sovereign and will not let any one of us become lost.  In our wilderness, this is the Jesus we need to hold on to with both hands.  As this pandemic is making unmistakably clear, we just cannot know and control and expect.  To privilege God over bread is to embrace the uncertainty of our days under the certainty of God. There’s a strange uptick that comes with that recognition.  David Brooks comments insightfully, “There is a humility that comes with realizing you’re not the glorious plans you made for your life.  When the plans are upset, there’s a quieter and better you beneath them.”  When plans are ripped away, there remains you, a beloved child of God.

As this pandemic stretches on, more and more temptations will present themselves promising a quick fix, or a spell to ward off the contagion.  We will be egged on to go rouge, to take matters into your own hands.  To stop thinking about your neighbor.  We will be beset by beguiling conspiracy theories; fingers will be pointed at our political opponents in order to help us escape from taking responsibility. Telling the truth in the time of the pandemic will struggle against the desire of looking good.  Moral compassion will be discarded.

All of this tears at the fabric of our already highly polarized country just at the very time we need solidarity.  And we are going to get solidarity whether we want it or not.  The pandemic is the giant leveler, it is the great income transfer agent, it is the respecter of no one’s station or age.  Is this the way God is saying to us how much we need to do the right thing by each other, how much we need to be in solidarity even as we are in solitude? 

Think about it!  How downright silly and pointless are our pompous polarities!  How absolutely essential are the establishment folks, the deep state folks, the institutional folks, the experts to combat this disease!

The tribes of Israel certainly had to learn this lesson of solidarity.  Israelites entered into a massive social distancing in the wilderness as they were escaping Egypt under Moses.  They ran out of food—something that scares the be-jesus out of each us and drives binge shopping and hoarding.  The Israelites were all reduced to one level.  God gave them food in the form of manna.  God gave them food under very careful restrictions.  The purpose was to make them learn to operate in solidarity. 

How did they behave?  Most did what was required for all to stay alive.  They took only what was they could eat that day.  But some tried to hoard their manna.  Maybe they thought they had to take matters into their own hands.  Maybe they thought they could corner the market and make a lot of money.  What their surplus did, though, was to rot in their manna bowls, and the stench revealed to their neighbors just how anti-solidarity they were.  Most did what was required to stay alive.  They gathered on the sixth day double portions and it lasted throughout the next day, the Sabbath.  But some went out to look on the Sabbath.  Maybe they could get a little more.   Sabbath shoppers stuck out like sore thumbs, and they were scolded.

There is only one outcome to this story.   God is sovereign and no one will get lost.  Therefore, take your share, look-out for your neighbor, and stay in solidarity.  And finally, rejoice and take your rest on the Sabbath as we move through this wilderness.  Prepare to be a changed person when we emerge from this wilderness.  God will still be in charge, and we will have a renewed sense that life really does depend on our being morally compassionate people.    

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Isolation, Fear, and the Future

By Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey
A Lenten Meditation

John 20:19-23

We are all pretty much in lock-down.  With movement severely discouraged and the chance for interaction within our communities reduced to almost zero, we are left pretty much to our own devices.  If we do not like to be alone, if we are not comfortable in our own skin, if “bowling alone” doesn’t scare us, this can be a terrifying time.  Being quarantined, either voluntarily or forced, can seem like solitary confinement. 

The futures we had planned all out in front of us are now either wiped out or seriously impaired.  It looks like there won’t be that long-anticipated graduation on Mother’s Day week-end.  It looks like there won’t be that looked-forward-to cruise.  It looks like the place where I have a good job may go out of business.  It looks like I won’t be able to retire as I had planned or sell my home.  It looks like…but we really don’t know what it looks like, because the situation keeps getting worse by the hour. 

The virus has swept away our futures and rendered us immobile, unmoored, and off-balance.  Nobody likes this.  But our Bible provides a way for us to engage our situation and use our experience to understand the message of Scripture like we have never done before.  I invite you to look at your self-quarantineing in the light of that first Easter Sunday evening.

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (NIV)

Before Jesus died his disciples had heard him say, “Let not your hearts be troubled….I will come again and take you to myself that where I am you may be also….I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you….The world will see me no more, but you will see me.”  (John 14.1ff.)  Why, then, did they not remember and trust his words?  Why were the doors locked that first Easter evening?  Why would they want to sequester themselves? 

Well, you remember the reason why.  The text says that it is because they feared agitated religious rulers who strong-armed the Romans into killing their leader.  What was to keep those rulers from coming after them, now? Fear kept them from remembering what he had promised.

With the head cut off, the body is for the pickings.  With the head cut off there is no more future.  There are only memories to mull over, but these memories are of events and experiences that were building step-by-step toward an outcome which seemed reasonable, attainable, doable, within our control.  So, even when you go through the act of reminiscing, when you go through the act of rehearsing or reliving what’s gone before, all you are left with is the bitter taste of a hoped-for future that just will not be. You are locked inside an emotional space where the blinds on all the windows are pulled down tight. 

Night was beginning to fall that first Easter day, and the shadows were extending themselves over the holy city by the time ten men arrived at the upper room and the door was bolted for the final time.  But now shadows were not only stretching over the holy city.  With the fall of night each man came up against the shadow-side of his own soul.  These leaders—smothered up in a fog like a bunch of turkeys, with doors bolted, shades pulled, wagons circled.  It was like they were in a submarine resting on the bottom of the ocean where they sit very still and talk in hushed tones, and they have to put a name on what it is that they fear. 

Imagine with me that in our quarantine we are in the room with the disciples. This virus creates insecurity about who we are and what we are worth and where we are going.  It is a shadow that falls darkly over our lives.  We are locked in with fear.

  1. When we are convinced that the world in which we have made our way is essentially hostile to us so that we cannot trust anyone—that’s enough to make us bolt the door.
  2. When we are haunted by the ghost of shame for looking bad when we fail because we believe that it all depends on “me”, we run and hide like pathetic creatures who can create but cannot control. 
  3. Any thought of having to re-write our business model, of having to shift the paradigm, of having to own up to a mountain of lies and deception and face a future unknown and chaotic brings out in us the urge simply to go limp.   

Jesus comes through locked doors.  He steps into the midst of his fearful disciples and says, “Peace is with you. Do not fear.”  He keeps his promises that he will return.  He knows that for the sake of avoiding their own crucifixion his disciples are hiding.  So he shows them the marks of his death, proving that he is living despite his dying. 

Nothing can stop Jesus from being present in our sheltering-in-place.  We may be prevented from coming to church, we may be prevented from coming to partake of Jesus’ broken body and shed blood, we may be prevented from singing God’s praises, we may be prevented from being strengthened by the fellowship of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Nevertheless, nothing can stop us from hearing his command, “Peace be to you; do not fear.” 

Welcome this time of self-imposed solitude in the spirit of “an open heart and an appetite for the liberation that will surely come,” as a wise friend, Teresa Argenbright, wrote.  She explains, “What if we used this quiet time to play games with our children, send hand-written notes of gratitude and encouragement, take inventory of our blessings and rid ourselves of literal, psychological and spiritual clutter?  What if we balance every aggravation with a prayer for those who are truly struggling?”  In a word, even behind closed doors Jesus leads us to put into practice the potentialities of his words, “Peace be to you; do not fear.” 

One day this home-bound exile will be lifted.  Jesus will call us out again into the world.  It undoubtedly will feel like a different world than what we have known.  We will be different persons.  It will be scary in that it will be unfamiliar.  But we follow the One who said, “Behold, I make all things new.”  We follow, trusting that he will show us how to put into practice his words of peace and confidence.

  • We will take up again the stewardship of a good creation.  We will create

sturdy and buoyant families that pulse with the glad give-and-take of the


  • We will take delight in our lives in all their irony and angularity; we will make something sturdy and even lovely of them.
  • We will be even more keen to show hospitality to strangers and to express

gratitude to friends and teachers.   

  • We will take up our assignment to seek justice for our neighbors and wherever we can, to relieve them from the tyranny of their suffering.

The presence of Jesus in our quarantine brings the beginning of a new future.  Even now in isolation we can feel and express joy.  Our story concludes this way: “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.”  Easter re-writes our definitions of joy.  That Jesus should materialize in their presence was incomprehensible but true. Though he shows them his hands and side to prove that they are seeing a body of substance and not a ghost, he is no longer bound by the rules that govern the rest of us.  Joy that’s worth talking about happens when you are in the presence of the incomprehensible.  “It is the incomprehensible and yet the true, the real, the alive that ignites joy,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  May that kind of joy well up in the place where you are waiting behind a closed door and make you ready to act in peace and confidence.

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Who Only Stand and Wait

By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch


John 9: 1-41

“They also serve who only stand and wait.” John Milton, 1608-1674, English Poet and Civil Servant, from the Poem “On His Blindness”

Somebody contacted me the other day and asked, did I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic was the fulfillment of Revelation 15, which predicts the coming of seven angels with seven plagues, a sign of the coming of the End Times. I wrote him back, no, not at all. There are have been terrible plagues in history than COVID-19. Think, for instance, of the Bubonic Plague, the Black Plague which killed some 50 million people in Roman times, and which occurred again in the Middle Ages, decimating half of Europe’s population. In the 20th Century, the world was devastated by the Spanish Flu. Twenty-seven percent of the world was infected and the dead are estimated anywhere from 17 million to 100 million. Admittedly, it’s hard to know what the ultimate outcome of the COVID-19 crisis will be. But science is far advanced from the time of the Spanish Flu, and governments cooperate more than they ever have before. My hope and prayer is that those things—with our cooperation—will keep the coronavirus far short of those disastrous numbers.

My point is, if a plague predicts the end, any one of those earlier plagues could fit the bill at least as well as coronavirus. Think too of the ecological and economic disaster of the Dust Bowl and the Depression. Those events, too, were viewed by some as the sign of the end of time. I hope and pray this is a different situation. According to the scientists, it could be very different, if we all do what we’re supposed to do—social distancing, washing our hands, avoiding groups. We have to take this guidance very, very seriously, no matter how much it hurts. If we don’t, well, all bets are off.

When large scale disasters strike, we often go to large scale explanations, like God bringing judgment on all humanity. But that may be using our faith the wrong way. Could there be another way to have faith in the face of COVID-19?

Jesus is in Jerusalem and he meets a man blind from birth. His disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was blind from birth?” They’re standing the presence of the blind man saying this, the way we often do; people who are in wheelchairs often complain that people talk right over them, as if they weren’t there. I can just imagine this man yelling, “Hey, I’m right here! I’m blind, not dead!”

Jesus tells his disciples that neither is true. Sin didn’t cause the blindness. This terrible natural disaster, this poor man blind from birth, or this new and dangerous coronavirus, is not meant as judgment. It is meant that “God’s works might be revealed through him.”

Now that sounds awful, like God causes suffering just to test us to see how we’ll respond. That would be despicable. So, are those our choices? Either that God is punishing us or God is testing us? Either makes God look manipulative and cruel.

But let’s step back for a minute. The fact is that, whether we are good people or bad people, whether faithful or unfaithful or somewhere in between, which is where most of us are, we all have to deal with suffering. It’s a part of life. Ultimately we have to give up on looking for an explanation or an answer because any explanation is unsatisfactory and also quite shallow. Asking, “Why?” when it comes to suffering is what theologians call “theodicy.” Past a certain point, theodicy is pointless. It’s chasing rabbits. Suffering simply is. Why did God allow COVID-19 to happen? Why will some die and some live, some suffer and others not? What does it matter? It’s what we do about it that counts.

And that is Jesus’ point. I’m going to call the blind man “Frank” so that I don’t have to keep calling him “the blind man.” When Jesus says that Frank “was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him,” what he means is that God will be glorified in how Frank will respond to the crisis he faces. His blindness is not a punishment and his healing will not be a sign of God’s special favor. It’s how Frank responds to those facts that will determine whether he will glorify God or not.

On the tenth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, a radio reporter interviewed two Merrill Lynch employees who had narrowly escaped the collapse of the World Trade Center. They were in a bar remembering the 10-year anniversary. The two of them told the story of how they escaped disaster; how they helped one another out of the offices, down the interminable flights of stairs, and out of the building. It was a moving story.

But it was also ten years later. Since then the 2008 Stock Market crash had happened. The government had bailed out Merrill Lynch and whole lot of other financial industry big shots. The reporter asked them why Merrill Lynch had survived both 9-11 and the stock market crash. “Because we’re better and we’re smarter,” they immediately said. But, the reporter asked, isn’t it true that Merrill Lynch tanked in 2008 because of high risk housing loans that led to a $15 billion loss when the housing bubble burst? And isn’t true that your losses then nearly brought down Bank of America when it was trying to buy you out, and the only thing that saved either institution was the US government’s $45 million bailout? So isn’t true that it wasn’t your smarts that saved you, it was the US government?

The men shook their heads and argued. “We’ve survived because we’re smarter than everybody else,” they stubbornly asserted.

It left me with a question: how can people who’ve experienced so much disaster on the one hand, and blessing on the other, not look at life with more humility? How can they not take more responsibility and do more with their gratitude than just go out and celebrate at a bar?

One hopes that these gigantic moments in our lives would affect us deeply. They should humble us. They should call us to accountability and responsibility. As much as anything, they should be a big billboard dropped into the middle of our lives that reminds us that we are not the center of the world. When we’re confronted with these events, they are a question that life is putting to us: how will you live in this new reality?

Whether God intends them as a test I can’t answer. But they are a test, regardless. How will our faith sustain us in this hard time? How will we live faithfully in this hard time? How will we show Christ to the world in this hard time? How will we trust Christ in this hard time?

Or is our faith only good as long as the good times remain good?

Our friend Frank responds to his healing with extraordinary bravery and courage and gratitude. The pharisees confront him about his claim that Jesus healed him. Frank sticks to his guns. Here is something interesting to note. Though Frank had no control over either his lifelong blindness or his unexpected, and by the way, unasked for healing, he is now claiming full responsibility for his own life. He is not a helpless victim of circumstance. His gratitude has given him agency. It’s spurred him to take a critical stand, to speak out when it is clear that the authorities want him to shut up. This man who once begged for his living now demands the respect of those who used to give him alms. This man who was once talked down to now speaks with authority to those who think of themselves as his superiors. We don’t know if he had faith before, but he sure has it now. he is that all-important figure in the Gospel of John—someone who gives testimony. Someone who bears witness.

Witness is a funny word in Christian parlance. We talk about witnessing to other people and what we mean is telling or showing them the truth of Jesus Christ. It’s a word from the legal world. If one is a witness, if one is giving testimony in a trial, they are not supposed to be telling people their opinion, but simply reporting back to the court what they saw or experienced. It is in many ways a passive thing. You didn’t do it; you’re just reporting it. And that’s what we mean by witnessing. We are reporting the mighty acts of God. We are reporting the grace, love and mercy of God through Jesus Christ. We’re telling the world not about what we have done, but what God has done, and what God is continuing to do.

I don’t know that any of us have experienced anything like this pandemic. I wonder if anyone has, exactly the way we have. Unlike those other pandemics I spoke of earlier, we live in an age of science and global networking. We know what it is that we are supposed to do in the face of this menace.

And what we’re supposed to do is nothing.

We’re supposed to sit around the house. Not go to work. Not go to restaurants. Not travel. Not get closer than six feet to one another. Not go to church or women’s circle. Not go to your gym or your tennis match. We are called to do nothing. Nothing could be so against our nature—as human beings, as Americans, as Texans! And even as Christians, because Christians tend to be doers, because as James says, “Faith without works is dead.” We like to do.

But now we have to wait. Nothing could be harder. But waiting is one of the most important of the biblical virtues. How many times does the Bible say wait? “Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” “My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength…”.

Wait. Waiting for God takes faith. It takes confidence that God will act. It takes the humility to recognize that I have to resist the temptation to do something, because if I do something, I might actually make things worse. So like it or not, I am in a situation where I am a passive participant. There’s just not much I can do. I have to trust that while I am waiting, those who know what they’re doing will be acting; and more to the point, God will be acting. And so I have to wait.

So what I hope we will all do is take responsibility for our waiting. Let’s not view this as something enforced on us from the outside. Let this be a faith choice, a choice we make from within, a deliberate, responsible choice to trust God and to love our fellow human beings by waiting—by doing nothing. Don’t view this as a burden. View it as a responsibility. No, more than that—view it as a blessing: it is a way that we can participate in what the Jewish tradition calls the tikkun olam, the healing of the world. How often do we get such an extraordinary chance? And all we have to do is the hardest thing in the world—we have to wait. So rather than feeling burdened by waiting, let us choose it. Let it be an act of faith and Christian discipleship.

Right now waiting is the most responsible thing we can possibly do. Because if we wait, we will save more lives than we would if we were superheroes. If we wait, our health infrastructure will not collapse, but will be able to manage the threat of this pandemic. If we wait, we are doing the most important thing not just for our own health, but for the health of the whole world.

Though our whole nature rebels against it—though we have legitimate long-term fears about how this crisis and our inability to act will affect the economy and our own personal plans and goals—we have to wait. And so this calls for a huge amount of faith. It is a huge test of our character. It challenges us to do the things that Christians are called to do when we wait: to pray without ceasing—to engage in self-examination—and most of all, and most importantly, to remember the many times in our lives when God has been there for us when the chips were down. Read your bibles. Re-read the story of the Exodus. Think of other crises you have experienced in your life and how you weathered them—personal crises like a death or an illness or national crises like 9-11 or the Kennedy assassination. In this season of Lent remember that when the chips were down, Jesus Christ lived, died and rose again. Think about how the greatest crisis that humanity faced—the death of God—was miraculously turned into the salvation and hope of all humankind. Take some time to journal and consciously reflect on the ways that God has blessed you unexpectedly, and think about how you can live with gratitude for God’s grace.

And at the end of all this waiting, we will be able to be witnesses to future generations of the way that God sustained us in this pandemic. We saw science at its best, we saw governments and leaders and our neighbors respond with patience and self-sacrifice. And we saw suffering too but in spite of it we maintained our hope. We will tell future generations that, like those who were in the Exodus, like those who witnessed the resurrection, during the COVID-19 crisis we were witnesses to the mighty acts of God.