November is one of my favorite times of year. It is the time before the hustle and bustle of Christmas, Advent and holiday cheer. Sure, i is the time when the days get colder (and shorter!) but the forests around us are still a kaleidoscope of color as winter settles in to the Klamath Basin.
As we enter this month, we are still dealing with the reality of COVID-19 (the Governor has extended the state of Emergency at least until January). We feel the COVID fatigue even as we are still adjusting to the new reality of social distancing and mask wearing. In the first few of days of this month, we will have the most contentious election in our modern history and the divide between Right and Left appears worrisome. And Southern Oregon is still reeling from the reality of wildfire that destroyed homes and scarred the landscape.
But November is the month we celebrate Thanksgiving. Over turkey with all the trimmings, before our minds are a fog in a tryptophan haze, and dull roar of the game on TV lulls us to sleep, we will pause and remember the ways in which God has taken care of us. And we will return thanks.
In 1 Thessalonians, Paul exhorts us, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thess. 5:18). Paul doesn’t tell us to give thanks for all circumstances, but to give thanks in all circumstances.
This month, as we turn our hearts in gratitude toward God, we do so, noting that a lot of what we have carried through this year has not felt like a gift. National turmoil, the threat of political and racial violence, a global pandemic, and the isolation of social distancing has taken a toll on all of us. Many of us have also weathered person storms—worries about finances, failing health, the death of a loved one. These things are not gifts to be thankful for. And yet, in even these circumstances God has remained our constant companion, our refuge, our comfort.
Were there moments this year, when you felt anxious and turned to God and felt a sense of peace? Were the times that you felt the Spirit invite you into deeper communion with God? Were their friends and family members who reached out to you because they knew of the hard times you were facing? Did you experience God’s provision for you in ways you didn’t expect or imagine? Were there times that you felt loved? By God? By others?
Life has been difficult, and we don’t know all that lies ahead for us. But this is precisely why this is a good time to focus on the things we are grateful for. God has taken care of us and will continue to do so!
One of my favorite poems is The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats. In church we think of the second coming as the time when Christ will return with shouts of acclamation, but this poem is not joyful or hopeful. It talks about something bad on the horizon, some rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. It was written about a hundred years ago, during a time of political unrest and in the wake of a global pandemic. The poem opens with these words:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? We are living in a time where the divisions between people feel intense and the lines have hardened. We are divided racially, culturally, socioeconomically, and politically. There is an election coming up, and it is a contentious one. Many of us worry that there might be an outbreak of violence in its aftermath regardless of the outcome. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. We are in an age where conservatives and liberals are increasingly unable to find common ground. Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase “alternative facts,” and increasingly, depending on our political persuasion, we go to different sources to find information we consider reliable. We don’t get our news from the same place and different media outlets paint very different visions of the world. The Washington Post and the New York Times does not report the same news as Breitbart and Fox News So we each are left with alternative visions of race, criminal justice, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. We are not talking to each other, not even talking past each other. We increasingly only talk to ourselves in our own echo chambers.
Jesus also lived in divisive times. Of course, the Roman empire controlled the world, but first Century Israel was divided in how they ought to relate to Rome. The two most influential parties in Jesus day were the Sadducees and the Pharisees, and these are the two groups most prevalent in our New Testament. They didn’t agree on much. The Sadducees were the religious conservatives. They were the party that the Jewish High Priest belonged to, and thus were the overseers of temple worship. They were compromising and colluding with Rome to stay in power and keep the Temple open for business. The Pharisees on the other hand were religious reformers. They didn’t like how compromised their Jewish leaders were and tried to enact a program of faithfulness to Torah so that God would renew God’s covenant relationship with Israel and free them from their oppression. The Sadducees and Pharisees had completely different theological and political visions. But both groups did feel threatened by Jesus.
In Matthew 22 where our passage is found, both groups try to trip Jesus in his words. They ask about taxes, and they ask about marriage in the resurrection. And then, an expert in the law, one of the Pharisees asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was and Jesus gave him two: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. This is a good summary of Jewish ethics and spirituality. In fact, in Luke’s account, it isn’t Jesus that gives this answer but the legal expert himself. It draws together two scriptures. The first is the Shema, so called because that is the first word of the passage in Hebrew: Hear O Israel that the Lord your God is one and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength. The second commandment mentioned comes from the latter part of Leviticus 19:18. The whole verse reads, “You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people, instead, love your neighbor as yourself.” This exhortation to love your neighbor like you love yourself is the Judeo-Christian version of the golden rule, and one of the things we have in common with the other world religious traditions. We know that all true spirituality boils down to just this: love. As the four evangelists—John, Paul, George, and Ringo once said, “All you need is love, love is all you need.” And on this hangs all the law and the prophets.
I will be honest, that as important and as central as the love command is, it comes across as vague and a little Pollyanna-ish to just say love is the answer. Sure there are lots of popular songs about how love is a many splendor thing, but it seems a little cliché. I mean, yes, love is the answer: Love God and love people, do that and you will be living the abundant life God has for us. It is always the Holy Spirit’s invitation to us to be people who love. But what does loving God and people really mean? And what does it mean in an age of political unrest and COVID-19?
First let me say what love isn’t. Love does not just mean tolerance. We need to be loved more than we need to be tolerated. Love does not necessary mean being nice and polite. When there is injustice happening, and people are wounding one another, real love can feel downright rude to the powers that be because it will speak up on behalf of the downtrodden, and the oppressed. Protest may be an act of love and civility and politely propping up the status quo may be an act of unlove.
So how do we love God and love our neighbor? This is an important question that followers of Jesus will return to again and again, and there is not one simple answer to it. But if I can highlight one part of loving God and loving our neighbors, it means giving to them our full attention. When Jesus says love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind, he was saying turn every part of your being toward God. Cultivate an attentiveness toward God. Meditate, pray, look and see what God is doing around you and give God thanks and praise. Ask what God is doing and pay attention to what answer reveals itself. Ask what God wants you to do. It is the nature of the life of prayer that when we clutter our mind with images and activities God is crowded out, but when we call our attention to the Divine we begin to see God everywhere and we are drawn into the love of God.
Similarly, loving your neighbor as yourself starts with giving to them your earnest attention. We are living through a widening gyre where things fall apart and the center cannot hold. Loving others means not retreating to our own echo chambers but giving our attention to our neighbor, even when we don’t understand them or where they are coming from. It means listening to their words and not just for your opportunity to talk. Love means being present with them. Yes, this much harder to do in a time of pandemic with social distancing and wanting to keep one another safe. We aren’t just divided. We feel isolated and alone. Love can look like a kind word. A card sent to let someone know you are thinking of them and that you appreciate them. Loving your neighbor right now could just be a phone call or a text. To have someone reach out to you when you are drifting and feeling disconnected is so meaningful. A small gesture communicates volumes. I know because I’ve been privileged to be God’s loving presence for others, and they have been that for me. But it starts with our paying attention to who God puts in our path or calls to mind.
This contentious year and the global climate have changed a lot of things, and I feel like we will go through a lot of changes before we are done, but the constant call of Christ’s spirit to us remains: love God with all your heart, with all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Yes, these are tumultuous times but what the world needs now is love, sweet love. It is the only thing there is just too little of. Let’s find a way to love God and love one another well.
One Thursday afternoon, as I was leaving the church, I struck up a conversation with a man in our parking lot. He was in the neighborhood when I arrived in the morning, now he was sitting in the shade of our building, enjoying a respite from the afternoon sun. After visiting for a few minutes, I realized I left my face mask in my study and explained to him that I needed to go back in to get it. I told him I needed to walk around the building to the front door. He asked me, “How many doors does a church need?” I asked him back, “How many walls does a church need?” (more…)
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason, the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (Romans 8:1–11, NRSV)
Romans 8 is the high point in Paul’s Epistle to Rome. It begins with this remarkable statement, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
These are beautiful words and they provide a good summary for us, on why we find the gospel such good news. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. If you hear nothing else I say today hear this, because it is good.
But to really get the force of what Paul is saying, we need to read these words as the culmination of everything he has been trying to lay out for us in Romans so far. Here is my quick 50 cent tour of everything that I think Paul has been saying so far in Romans:
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So, I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.” (Romans 7:15–25, NRSV)
This is not the way that I envisioned my first sermon for Klamath Falls United Methodist Church. When I first started talking to the Church Council about our July 5th service, we envisioned a return to corporate worship within safe parameters and with limits but with us being together. I have not met most of you yet, though I’ve spoken to several of you and I am conscious that in uploading today’s service, you are meeting me but I have yet to meet most of you. Uploading my first sermon and service to YouTube sort of feels like I’m uploading a profile to an online dating site with the hope that you all swipe right.
It is a strange time for a pastoral transition. A few of my pastor friends have called the last several months in the life of the Church, Covidtide. And indeed, the pandemic has marked this season of church life. We have been kept from gathering and our services have moved online. Even as we plan to reconvene for corporate worship as we know, it will be different. For the moment, our bishop and conference has constricted our large gatherings to outdoor worship, with masks and social distancing and no singing. This will be quite different from the church you gathered in, way back in mid-March. And on my first couple of Sundays with you, we will be worshiping online again, and so you will meet me, but I will not have met many of you.
But Covidtide is not a season on the Church’s Calendar. When our cessation of worship began, we were midway through Lent. Then came Easter and Pentecost and now, the season we are in is called “Ordinary Time” or “the season after Pentecost.” I think both ways of marking time are instructive for us. After Pentecost is our Ordinary Time in the church. (more…)