Only With Jesus’ Help

Hey, Jesus?

Eric! My friend, what’s up?

Jesus, I don’t know how I’m gonna get through this week.

Oh really? Why?

Well, you see, it’s Controller Briefing Week this week for the 2022 budget we’re working on in my day job, and there’s about three other projects burning there too. I can’t seem to stay on top of everything.

That doesn’t sound too unmanageable…

Yeah but that’s not all. I’m w-a-a-y behind in my reading for both classes this term, haven’t even looked at the discussion board for World Religions, and I have that paper on Christian responses to the political system due Friday morning in Christian Ethics. And then another one due right behind it, next week, and you know how tough a grader Dr. T. will be. And I’m preaching this coming weekend, and I don’t have much of an outline yet, and I wanted to get that done and off my books so I could focus, but I can’t, and…

You sound really stressed. Why?

Why?!? Because I have all this I have to do!

Why do you have to do it?

Well, because…because if I don’t stay on top of the budget, my bosses will get mad. And if I can’t keep up with the reading I won’t do well in class. And if I don’t spend a lot of time on the paper, the professor will think I’m not paying attention. And if I don’t make a good sermon, people will say “Hm, he’s losing me already, has been here barely a year…”

Hm.

Hm?!? That’s all you can say? I’m drowning over here!

Eric, did you hear yourself just now?

Of course! I’m swamped and I can’t do this!

Eric, let me ask you, with all the love in my heart: who cares if you don’t do those things?

Jesus, weren’t you listening? My bosses, my professors, my mentor and my parishoners…they’ll all think less of me!

Isn’t there someone you’re forgetting?

I…I don’t think so? Who else expects something from me this week? Lord, who have I forgotten now?

How about me, Eric? Where am I in your week?

Oh.

Oh, I see what you mean. I’m too busy being busy, I forgot who it is I’m doing all this for. It’s you, Jesus. It isn’t me. It’s not about how I look to people, it’s about how they see you in me this week.

Now you’re beginning to get it.

But the sermon, and the Master’s program, they’re all for you, Jesus! And I have to do all this!

Yes, and did I ever tell you you had to do it all perfectly? Did I ever demand a 4.0 GPA or standing ovations at your sermons?

Well…no, but…

But? There’s no but. I love you, Eric, but man, sometimes you just don’t get me. I never asked for anything more than your heart. I never asked you for anything more than to follow me. Yes, I’m leading you through this season of graduate school, and yes, there’s work to do there. And yes, I am leading you to learn what it means to be a pastor in my name. But I never expected perfection.

I just feel overwhelmed, Jesus. I can’t do this alone.

No, you can’t. And I never expected you to do it alone. Let me. Let me guide you, let me help you, let me hold you and give you peace. Let me do it with you.

You’re right, Jesus. I’ve been a fool. Forgive me for getting in your way. Forgive me for thinking I have to be something you never asked me to be. Let me rest in you, and let me do this with you, so that your glory truly can be achieved.

Of course I forgive you. It’s what I’m good at.

Thank you, Jesus. Let’s you and I get started on your sermon, then, shall we?

First Things First

Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount that we’re to”seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and then we’ll be taken care of. And I love how the Greek word translated as “seek” can have a slightly different meaning, one that helps us in our own discipleship walks even more. We’re not just to seek the kingdom, we’re to find a sage who can walk alongside us and help us in the journey.

This sermon was part of our livestream for today; click here and then click on the July 12 livestream event to see our worship. Then leave a comment–how is it you are seeking the Kingdom?

Rod Smith, 1945 – 2020

When I was very young, my Uncle Rod seemed intimidating: big man, loud voice, perhaps a little gruff sometimes. When I got older I came to know some of the depth of the man behind the facade.

I came to know someone fiercely proud of his family, even of his sister’s nerdy kid; someone with eclectic interests from computers and IT to fire engines to fine Scotches. Someone who loved traditions like the Fourth of July picnic that he kept going for 65 years. Someone who lived every moment and was happy to share those moments with you.

Friday night, Rod lost a brief battle with pneumonia after the collective effects of 85 years of smoking on his 75-year-old body won out. He was the last of my parents’ generation in my direct line; his death leaves a huge hole not only for his own family, but for anyone who knew Smitty. He truly was both irrepressible and irreplaceable and the world is a poorer place today because of it.

I am ashamed to say I don’t have very many good pictures of him; this is him at his sister’s and parents’ gravesites last June, scarcely a year before he would join them in death. But in a way it doesn’t matter whether I have scads of photos. What matters is the impact he had on me and the rest of us, and the stories that David and Sarah will tell of this man.

And so 2020, you’ve done it again. This has to be the most “2020” thing you’ve done all year. I will truly miss being able to visit him, to hear stories of my parents and grandparents, and his unique view on the world. And once again we say with those who have mourned for centuries, Requiem in pacem et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Always With Us

In Matthew 26, Jesus makes the comment that “you will always have the poor with you.” That line always grated on me a bit: what do you mean by that, Jesus? Is it an indictment of our Christianity, that we aren’t going to be able to (willing to?) care for everyone? Of our economics, that we always have poor people because of systemic inequities? Additionally, it sounds kinda harsh, uncaring–you’re Jesus, after all, why won’t you just take care of that and snap your fingers and fix it all?

And while you’re at it…let’s talk about the other things you should just snap your fingers and be done with, like racism, like rioting, like police brutality, like humanity’s inhumane treatment of itself?

This past weekend was Peace With Justice Sunday in the United Methodist Church, and so I had the chance to preach on this topic–of what it means to say the poor (and any oppressed) are always with us, and what our responses as Christians should look like. The video is part of our livestream page, click on the link for the June 7 worship to view that. And the audio is here, if you just want to listen. But check it out, and let me know what you think!

Holy Spirit, Heal our Broken Land

This weekend is Pentecost, when we who follow Christ celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit upon humanity at large: the ability to receive God’s spirit as part of the promise of Jesus (John 14:16). This Pentecost, we need it all the more.

This weekend we also see America melting into even more rage, stoked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which has spawned not only protests but riots across the country. My heart breaks to see it all.

My heart breaks to see what happened to George Floyd. My heart breaks at the lack of caring for another human being that precipitated his death. We’ve seen the allegation that Floyd had passed off a fake $20 bill; even if so, that is not a capital crime and the police are not also judge and executioner. Even if Floyd needed to be restrained, where is the humanity in kneeling on his neck so as to cause his death? I have had the privilege of working among law enforcement for almost three decades; the use of an unsanctioned restraint technique isn’t good police work, it’s abusive, it’s terrible, and it caused a man–a human being–to lose his life.

My heart breaks at the frequency with which this happens in America, and among the non-white population. My wife asked the smart question the other night: why aren’t we seeing this happen more among white arrestees? Kinda makes me wonder.

My heart breaks at any system that we as people have set up that devalues the essential humanity of anyone else, because that flies in the face of what God teaches us. Jesus told us there were only two commandments that matter: love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:29-31). Any system we create, any system we defend, that does not honor the command to love our neighbor is ungodly and cries out for reform.

My heart breaks at rioting. My heart breaks when people wantonly destroy property, when small shops that people have spent a lifetime creating evaporate in a cloud of hate. My heart breaks when people not only take up bricks, but arrange for pallets of bricks to be trucked in ahead of time. That shows not a planning for a protest, but a planning for destruction, which comes not from justice but from retribution, not from justice but from a heart at war. My heart breaks here for the exact same reason: this does not honor the command to love our neighbor.

In the end, my heart breaks at all of the vitriol, the hatred, and the inability to listen to one another that are pervasive in the land today. I don’t know where it started, and I don’t rightly care: I just pray, Lord Jesus, send your Holy Spirit that it may end. Send a spirit of peace and reconciliation, send a spirit of love into our land. Let that be the legacy of Pentecost, where a spirit of truth and peace and love spreads its dove-like wings over America, and we come to know the powerful truth behind those two commandments: to love God entirely, and to love our neighbors in the exact same way.

Come, Holy Spirit. Amen.

Essential

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42

There’s been a lot of discussion in social media lately about those who are essential and those who aren’t. I deeply, deeply appreciate the grocery workers and medical workers and restaurant employees and delivery people and others who are still at work, still facing the public, and still supporting us all. There seems to be a tension between those who are essential, and those who are not, over the question of when and whether we reopen fully. I had a few thoughts about that, that I shared in a video devotional: let me know what you think.

https://drive.google.com/open?id=11cbbC5APgaj1N4wLThIOoaXh9-Bh5kUW

Unfinished Business

On May 7, Mary and I officially became the parents of a college graduate, as David handed in the last assignment of his undergraduate career. Four days later, Mary and I took a day off and drove down to help David move out of his college apartment. No ceremony, neither pomp nor circumstance, no craning to see David among 2,500 other gowned graduates amid the red and white azaleas and the green of the Lawn at Radford University. This year the Lawn is empty, the buildings dark, and the only ceremony attached to the end of his four years at Radford was his surrendering his apartment keys at the landlord’s office…into a locked box, because no one is working.

He will not admit it, but I think there is a piece of him that mourns the lack of closure. He’s never been one for ceremony, but after seventeen years of formal education, some piece of him was looking for that final moment. I know his mother and I were. Is this all there is?

Others are perhaps in a similar place: graduations from high school, college, or grad school that are deferred, rescheduled, or not to be held, denying closure for the student and for the families. Similarly, for all those moving up from elementary school to junior high, or junior high to high school, there is no final ceremony, there is no final week of joy. Or even those just moving up a grade, there is a sense of unfinished business about the year that I sense in talking with people: is this all there is?

God’s people have seen unfinished business before. On March 16, 597 BC, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, captured Jerusalem. He destroyed the Temple, the center of Hebrew worship, and carried off most of the nation of Judah into captivity; we read of the fall of Jerusalem in 2 Kings 24, and we see the weeping of the people, and the confusion. The city has fallen, the Temple is in ruins, and the people have been led off into captivity…now what? Is this all there is?

God, of course, had other plans for God’s people. Jeremiah was a prophet at the time of the Captivity, and in Jeremiah 30, we read God’s promise for the future: “For the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people” (Jeremiah 30:3).

I truly believe that same promise is at work today. God sees all the heartache and distress, and hears the cry of “Is this all there is?” God’s transformative work is already at hand, as we begin transforming towards reopening churches this month. The days are surely coming, when our fortunes as a congregation will change, and we can worship God once again in person as we are comfortable.

And as we do re-emerge, for all those finishing either just a year of school this year, or making a major change such as graduating, know that the same promise holds true for you; God will make everything whole. All you who are students, know that as this school year ends you are being held in prayer by your church family, for the joys of graduation and the sorrows of unfinished business. To all the graduates, God bless you on your next journeys. To all the continuing students, like me…blessings on your summer, and I’ll meet you in class in September.

The Prospect of Travel

I don’t think I’d realized how much the quarantines were getting to me until Asbury un-cancelled the on-campus portion of one of my summer classes this week.

Asbury Seminary, along with the rest of higher education, cancelled all on-campus classes for the rest of spring term this year. They had set May 4 as the next date they would reevaluate their condition, including decisions about the summer. As a student in the Virginia Annual Conference, I have to have no more than one-third of my credits be fully online, so I am continually looking for on-campus courses so as to save my online credits for later in the process.

Early in the week, though, they announced that all June campus classes would also not meet, and be entirely online. That certain took out my World Religions class that was due to meet in Orlando the week of June 22. No hope there for an on-campus time. And, I also had an e-mail announcing that my Christian Ethics class would also be online only–despite it meeting June 29 to July 1 in Kentucky.

I don’t think I was entirely surprised, but I was disappointed. I did want to be on campus, and I was really hoping to do that for both classes this summer. So I cancelled my JetBlue reservations for Orlando…but something (someone?) told me not to cancel my Delta reservations for Lexington.

At the end of the week, I had a second message, this time from the Registrar herself: my Christian Ethics class would meet on campus after all. And I was elated.

I don’t think I’d realized how much I want to travel again. I don’t think I’d realized how much I look forward to being able to go on campus: to get on the road, to be among others studying for their own career changes, to fly, to focus…all manner of things I get to do during residential weeks that I miss.

In a related vein, we’re trying to figure out when we can get to Vermont this year, perhaps later this month? But also, what should our next vacation be? I know we can’t go to Europe all the time, and since we just visited the UK in 2019, it’s time for something else. A warm beach sounds really, really good right now. But I can’t even reasonably plan for that, because of the limitations on everything.

I think that’s another effect of the coronavirus lockdowns: the inability even to plan for something that gets us, gets me, out of the house, out of the neighborhood, for the first time in weeks. I think the cancellation of the on-campus classes hit me harder than I had anticipated, and I think it had to do with a sense of “you’re never gonna get out of here, are you” that I think many of us are feeling.

I really wish I knew when all this would end; and I understand the frustration of so many who want it to end immediately. I’m more cautious; I don’t want my own personal desires to get out to contribute to any second round of infections. And right now I’m getting very tired of all the food choices we have for delivery to the house…what I wouldn’t give for a nice dinner out at the Bistro.

I know we have to wait. But little sparks of hope, like the un-cancelling of the campus time for one class, give me encouragement to keep going.

Thirty Years…Still Miss That Restaurant

On February 2, 1990, I asked my boss out to lunch. On February 3, we met at Carbur’s Restaurant in downtown Burlington, and began a thirty-year adventure that has now spanned two millennia, two centuries, four decades, one marriage, and two children.

I won’t wax eloquent here about that adventure, but I did happen to come across an example of an old Carbur’s menu from the period. Their menu was a stitch: funny names for meals, and odd “facts” about Vermont such as the elusive fur-bearing trout. Part of the joy of going there was lingering over the bad puns and political humor in the menu; their off-beat sense of humor ran throughout. The food wasn’t bad either.

I can’t remember when Carbur’s folded, maybe it was around 20 years ago. But coming across this menu was a step back to the days when Mary and I were first dating, and it warmed my heart. That’s one of the places from my twenties that I miss the most. Savor the menu along with us as well.

No Room For This Hate

From the New York Times: “As the coronavirus upends American life, Chinese-Americans face a double threat. Not only are they grappling like everyone else with how to avoid the virus itself, they are also contending with growing racism in the form of verbal and physical attacks. Other Asians-Americans — with families from Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar and other places — are facing threats, too, lumped together with Chinese-Americans by a bigotry that does not know the difference.

“In interviews over the past week, nearly two dozen Asian-Americans across the country said they were afraid — to go grocery shopping, to travel alone on subways or buses, to let their children go outside. Many described being yelled at in public — a sudden spasm of hate that is reminiscent of the kind faced by Muslim-Americans after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.”

This deeply saddens me and angers me on so many levels. I am aware that some use a shorthand description of the COVID-19 coronavirus that maps back to where it originally jumped to humanity. And I am aware of all manner of unconfirmed (and I would say irresponsible) conspiracy theories about the origin of that virus.

But to the extent that that shorthand has allowed a misimpression to form–that Asian-Americans living here for years somehow were responsible for this crisis–then that shorthand is now having an effect on real people, equally deserving of love and respect as children of God, and I am certain God is outraged at that. Our own fears, our own uncertainties, do not need to be projected onto anyone other than Jesus, who alone can calm and reassure us. Chinese-Americans are no more responsible for COVID-19 than were Muslim-Americans responsible for 9/11. This is America: we are bigger than that, or at least we should be; regardless, we in the Christian community are certainly called to be bigger than that.

Recently, Virginia’s Bishop, Sharma D. Lewis, posted a message calling for us to “do no harm” in our relations with each other by refraining from using that term. Here at Sydenstricker UMC, we are proud to partner with and host a Korean-language service run by the Virginia Agape International Baptist Church. In normal times, they are diligent in their prayer services each weeknight; they are faithful disciples who meet in small groups for Bible study; and they are passionate worshipers of the Lord. But they’ve recorded only one online service since the pandemic began, and have been largely hidden away. I would be horrified to think that such pettiness and, yes, bigotry would have driven them from worshiping Christ.

It’s Easter tomorrow. As Jesus’ body lies in the tomb, his spirit fights with Satan for dominion over death, destruction, and evil. Let tonight be the night we bury this kind of division among us as well, and let it never rise again.