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?

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!

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.

This Is Not The End Of The World

With Virginia now under a stay-home order by the Governor, we have had to move to entirely online worship, and to staying connected with one another through newer means. At church, Pastor Don and I have undertaken a series of video devotionals, meant to help and to uplift in these difficult times.

This one that I’m sharing with you is one based on an interaction I had with a cashier at a store the previous weekend, who asked if this coronavirus outbreak represented God’s judgment–whether we are in the End Times, in other words. Here’s what I had to say, and I hope it brings you some peace. Because despite all this, God’s love reigns!

And let me know what you think, and how we can be praying for you!

Prayer For Today

A good friend of mine shared this with me today, and I loved how it spoke to me in the midst of the current pandemic. I hope it brings you peace too.

Let us pray:

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us 
Our minds are consumed by a virus that threatens our bodies 

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us 
Our band-with is stretched thin as we try to gain control  

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us 
Our minds are filled with fear about how we will pay the bills 

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us 
Our brains are tired of seeking answers to unknown scientific solutions 

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us 
Our attention is devoted to 24-hour news cycles while our families still need us to see them 

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us 
Our minds are overcome with worry about how bad things may get 

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us 
Melt our fear 
Mold our faith 
Fill us with hope 
Use us to share the good news that you are the source of life and peace. 

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us 
Draw our attention to new life budding in the trees and flowers outside our windows 

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us 
Focus our minds on gratitude for breath that sustains us 

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us 
Shape our instinct to find you in everyone we see in a Zoom meeting 

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us 
Set our thoughts on what is pleasing and good 

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us 
Cultivate our creativity to find new ways to connect with our community 

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us 
Make space in our brains for meditation on your presence in us  

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us 
May it be so  

 
(By Rev. Erica Robinson-Johnson, New England Conference, United Methodist Church)

Coronavirus: Coming Closer

This coronavirus pandemic is beginning to inch closer to home.

This past week one of my friends was told he should consider himself to have it, after spending a day at the ER the weekend before with pneumonia. (He had that pneumonia treated, but apparently picked up the virus as a bonus while he was there.) About five days later, he said, he just fell off a cliff: suddenly felt terrible, with shortness of breath. Then this weekend he was back in the ER because of that shortness of breath. A very scary time for him and his young family.

Last week we began full-scale telework at the office, and my wife did as well for hers. David’s spring break got extended so his professors could turn the rest of the term into online-only classes, and Sarah was laid off because there won’t be any more performances in her theatres, and the kind of work she does can’t be done remotely.

But even with those discomforts, whatever anxiety they may bring pales beside not being able to breathe, and not knowing what is going to happen next. Fortunately, they were able to get my friend stable and send him home with a nebulizer that he can use to help breathe better.

Yet what had been a major news story, what had been a source of some annoyance at disruptions in our daily lives, became a whole lot more real for us this weekend. It’s a reminder of how blessed we really are, and how this illness has the ability to turn our world upside down in an instant–and that even our friends aren’t immune: this isn’t something happening overseas, or to others, but right down the road.

It’s also a reminder, as if we needed it again, that our faith has to be in Jesus. The One who said He was the light of the world, is bringing light to us in these dark days. When we put our faith in Christ, we turn away from the negativity that threatens to drag us down. And in the midst of bad news like this, it’s what we need most: the stability of Jesus, knowing He will never abandon us.

Be Not Afraid: Scarcity

Pastor Don suffered the loss of a good friend and mentor in late February; his funeral was this past weekend, so we hurriedly switches places in the calendar. This is one of those times I think he’s glad to have someone like me around, because it’s Communion weekend, and that would’ve been a difficult thing to handle without a licensed pastor around!

It also meant that I got to kick off our Lenten sermon series, “Be Not Afraid,” which will look at all the ways the world wants us to be afraid–and the singular response God has every time. This particular weekend I talked about a fear of scarcity, and how to live into an abundance mentality instead. We have some challenges at Sydenstricker–we have a new building we want to build, and ministries to grow for the community. But we also have passionate people who are putting God in charge, like the young Hawthorn sisters whose story I tell. And in that I see a lot of hope.

Here’s the link to the livestream page, click on the 11am service for March 1 and go from there. Or if you prefer just the audio, click here. And let me know what you think!

Sabbath and Surfing

Last month I wrote about the challenge of committing to a Sabbath, and how difficult I felt it would be. The more I push into 2020, though, the more I am coming to think that is God’s word for me for this year–Sabbath. How God wants me to develop habits of rest in the midst of the crashing waves all around, how I can learn to surf all the things I need to do while still coming to a place of renewing rest.

I had a little taste of it this weekend, when we were visiting family for the long holiday weekend. While there’s certainly things to be done while visiting–helping around the house, going places, etc.–there was also welcome time to just sit, to sleep in, to rest. I know I nodded off at least once in the rocking chair while “studying” for class. (Don’t tell the professor.) And I don’t think we got any less than 8 hours’ sleep each night, which means easily 2-3 hours more than usual. It was wonderful to get away, to see family and friends, and to have a real chance to disconnect and recharge.

At the same time, I am working to stay atop the various waves of this season. We started school again at the beginning of the month, and so far I’ve been able to keep up with the work. One of the classes, my first Mentored Ministry class, invites us to update our Rule of Life that we developed in a previous class. Mine contained a pledge to begin honoring a sabbath, to do more physical exercise (time for longer walks with the Ferg), and to not obsess over getting A’s this term–to accept “good enough” and to move on.

So how’s that coming?

The weekend’s sabbath time was much appreciated and needed. I am also keeping a commitment to more social time by having dinner with a friend tonight on the way home to a church meeting (yay me for fitting it in!), and I’ve struggled to not obsess over the posts I’m making in classes–and still doing well, it appears. I have work to do in our Connect ministries this month, and will need to carve out some time for that. But for now, I feel I’m able to keep on the surfboard and ride the waves, and I am learning that in part it’s down to how much I am able to set aside time for sabbath.

I had mentioned that Saturdays would be my sabbath day; how are those coming? Wellllll….  The first one was taken up by a required on-campus class, so, insert irony here. The next, though, was the weekend away visiting family, and I do feel I was able to make use of it. This coming Saturday has very little on it as well. Check back with me on how this develops.

Amazing Grace

Last weekend I had the second of my “graded” sermons–ones in which the Senior Pastor has to take notes and let me know if my theology is sufficiently correct as a United Methodist. This time, the topic was on God’s grace, and our distinctly Wesleyan understanding of it.

I’m really enjoying our livestream option; click here and look for the February 2 11am service. Let me know what you think!