An Incarnational Moment

Because there is one loaf, we , who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ. (United Methodist Hymnal, Word and Table Service 1, page 13)

Some of my favorite memories from my teenage years were those where I spent an entire day and night reading a book. My clearest memories of these nights involve books written by Stephen King. Once I started them, I was compelled to get to the end even if it meant spending a sleepless night and garnering my parents wrath the next day. There was either something so scary that it had to be resolved or my imagination was so taken by the narrative that I had to finish in order to rest. Either way, I would give in to the compulsion to read.

There are a lot of things on my “to do” list for today. I had hoped to finish and record my Sunday sermon this afternoon. (Not going to happen.) I still have some work to do to prepare for a Zoom Bible Study this evening. (Will definitely happen somehow.) We are recording parts of the Sunday service today so I can edit them tomorrow. (That’s scheduled…so it should happen.) And yes, I still have hopes of doing some recorded mid-week meditation for the people of First Church. (This one is still unknown.)

Some may say that I don’t know how to prioritize, and that may be the case. However, over the past couple of weeks I have had so many conversations about Communion and the “Pandemic Virtual Church Time” we are now immersed in, and I have read some thought provoking articles about the topic, that I find myself compelled to put some words down as well. Priorities or not, I’m at a point of compulsion here.

If you didn’t watch the video that I posted last week of a conversation Rev. Jennifer Williams and I had, I would recommend it as background for this. She’s an incredibly insightful pastor. I also cannot recommend enough a blog post by Rev. Hannah Bonner found here. Rev. Bonner references several other pieces that have been done about the subject of Holy Communion in this time, and if you like, read those as well. She treats them fairly from my perspective. She also gives a much deeper sense to the social justice aspects of Holy Communion than I have experience in giving.

An observation that I have taken from both the conversations and the reading is that parts of the Church have, from time to time, taken respites or fasts from celebrating Holy Communion. Sometimes for a season of discernment. Sometimes from the necessity of having someone available to serve. And sometimes, like right now, when we cannot possibly partake of the Sacrament in person without risking the spread of a disease. Granted, the disagreements about what Communion means – and whether you should even capitalize it – are as varied as the regularity it is celebrated, even within the same denomination.

One thing I can say for certain about the Sacrament – it must be a mystery because we sure as hell can’t figure it out.

Yet, despite the mystery and the problems we have right now with snow in May, murder hornets, COVID19, and the general failure of nerve among our national leaders, I am, as the pastor of a real community of faith wrestling to figure out how to lead as the one who presides over the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

With all the wrestling I have been doing in heart and mind, I finally came to the place where I have found peace about what I am going to do. During worship – both while we remain apart and until we can safely partake of the Sacrament again – I am going to set the Table with both bread and juice. It will be there as a reminder to us of the moment in which we live. It is not a moment where I believe we are “giving up” or “fasting” or “hoarding” (for those who are performing virtual communion). For me, it is a token of the Incarnational Moment for the community of faith to be the Body of Christ, broken and shared.

When I had this thought of it being an incarnational moment, I thought, “Cool! I’ve come up with something new!”

Alas.

I was beaten to this centuries ago by none other than my own favorite crazy Dane, Soren Kierkegaard. Although he is not speaking about Communion, per se, the idea of an incarnational moment seems to have originated with him as he wrestled with some of the Pauline letters. He writes:

The moment is that ambiguity in which time and eternity touch each other, and with this the concept of temporality is posited, whereby time constantly intersects eternity and eternity constantly pervades time.

and

A moment as such is unique. To be sure, it is short and temporal, as the moment is; it is passing, as the moment is, past, as the moment is in the next moment, and yet it is decisive, and yet it is filled with the eternal. A moment such as this must have a special name. Let us call it: the fullness of time. (Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin, ed. Reider Thomte and Albert B. Anderson (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980), 89ff)

I believe that we as a Body have arrived at an Incarnational Moment – where past, present, and future have come together – so that in that confrontation with the elements we are allowed the honor to live out the brokeness of both loaf and body because we cannot partake of the Sacrament that embodies them for us. In the absence of the Sacrament, we are confronted even more plainly with becoming that Sacrament. We need to be confronted by the broken loaf and be that incarnate body for the world as we safely find ways to both be the church and someday(?) gather in someway(?) to celebrate that which we have been living out. But only in the fullness of time. (And right here, I call on us to define that “world” as my colleague Rev. Bonner does with a full understanding of who is not at the Table with us.)

Well, that compulsion is done. It’s not the most scholarly assessment, but hey, that’s not my way. I’ve put some thoughts out there, folks, and you are welcome to comment. I’m just on the journey home and would love to have your company.

 

Holy Disruptions

Reader…the following is a sermon manuscript that has had an interesting life. It started as a few notes for a Good Friday video devotion and then became a hopeful blog post for Holy Saturday (I hate that name), until finally becoming a sermon. If you can’t find all the pieces in this post, I will be shocked. I don’t like the messiness of posting a manuscript because the oral art of preaching transforms even sentence structures. But I share it with you anyway. (If a good editor wants to make some notes on it and send it back to me, no offense will be taken!)

Based on Matthew 28:1-10

At the beginning of the COVID19 outbreak, I had high hopes that I would find a lot of time that I could devote to writing and maybe even making my blog “alive” again. But alas, the learning curve on technology that I have had to master over the past few weeks, the new ways I have had to learn to adapt as pastor, husband, father, brother, son, and friend during this time just seemed to eat away what little creativity I had left. I started this in several forms, several times and failed.

But it kept building up this past Holy Week and I have to share it on Easter Sunday.

Matt was my best friend in first grade and for the first half of our second year of school. We were in the same class but first met during the walk home from school. Matt lived closer to Barrackville (there is no “s” in that, folks) Elementary, but it was on the same route I took home, so we would often walk together and talk. It wasn’t long till the friendship spilled over into school and recess. Our friendship would grow deeper because of the time after school. Occasionally, we would pass by his house, walk half-way to mine, and stop at a little “Mom and Pop” store to get some candy. Then we would go our separate ways.

Eventually, my mom and dad gave me permission to stop at his house and play after school. And we did the things first grade boys would do – climb trees, play games, and make stuff up to do, and, oh yeah, break things. Imagination and creativity in our 6 and 7 year old selves wasn’t limited by what other people might think of what we created or thought, or even by how much the other laughed at some silly creation, it was only limited by the time we had and the materials that we had at hand.

Boxes became spaceships and racecars.

Clouds could be anything.

We even took the time, perhaps in the summer between first and second grade, to come up with an entire new monetary system which we called “Funny Money”. We made billions and billions of “Bucks” on that idea. The only problem was that no one else would accept it as legal tender. We always had hope that it would catch on some day, but just didn’t know how to manipulate the system to make that happen. Our parents would not even buy in.

Somewhere near Thanksgiving of that second grade year, my Dad let us know that the temporary job that he had been working in Beckley was soon to become permanent. We would move over the Christmas holiday.

I went to Matt’s house for the last time on the day school let out for Christmas break. We made sure we had each other’s phone numbers, addresses, and exactly half of the Funny Money each. We promised to stay in touch with one another. There weren’t any tears, because, first of all, we were boys and we didn’t do that sort of stuff. But deeper still was the overriding belief that this was just some little interruption to our friendship. We’d be back at it in no time.

My family moved what was at that time six hours away. You can do that drive in half the time now that I-79 is complete and the bridge over the “Big Ditch” (I’ll explain why I call the New River Gorge that some other time.) are complete and Route 19 is basically a four lane highway now. But in 1972, the trip took six hours.

I remember talking to Matt one time after that. It was a phone call. I can’t even remember what we said.

And, of course, I don’t have any Funny Money. Not even sure what I spent the last of it on. Probably used as a bookmark and eventually threw it away. It may be buried in a box somewhere near the house in Mt. Hope where I grew up. I might have used it to paper some creation or another. Maybe I burned it all. I just don’t know.

Something has been churning in my head for a while now. I’ve talked about it with a few trusted friends. I’ve tried to give voice to the words in a video recording that I could share, but somewhere in the midst of talking, my thoughts got jumbled from the notes I had made. So, I tried to use my blogging muscle, but even that got distracted. In the end – it is this, a sermon for Easter. The story of my short friendship with Matt and the way he and I both looked at my family moving away from Barackville as an “interruption” to our friendship is just a way that I’m able to imagine what I want to say.

COVID19 is not an interruption to our lives. It is a disruption of life itself. Or, at least, it could be. I feel quite certain that there will be powers at work to try and get everything back to just the way it used to be, but in my heart of hearts, I both think and hope that they will fail miserably. I hope we come out of this thing not just shaking off the dust and going back to making Funny Money or whatever it is that we do but instead we step out into a world made new by the disruption of some respiratory virus that is so novel that it makes everything novel.

An interruption is a phone call from some sales person during dinner. I might be irritated a bit, but it doesn’t spoil a good meal. A disruption is a phone call from the hospital telling you that “You need to come now. Your son was in an accident.” Life isn’t the same, the world isn’t the same after a disruption.

And COVID19? This little bug has disrupted everybody. Think about it. Even the President of the United States, who was never very fond of the press, has spent extended periods of time with them every single day. Think about it. There was a time when if you heard two people in a grocery store, one of them passing gas and the other one coughing, you’d have kept your distance from the former rather than the latter. Think about it. I walked outside about a week ago and I could smell the aroma of baking bread coming from the Heiner’s bakery that is over a mile away. (Go ahead, Southsiders…give it a try. It’s wonderful!)

Think about it. This is no mere interruption. This is a disruption.

Forgive me, but I have to remanence again. This time, I’m not going quite so far back.

When I was in seminary, I actually took a course on Preaching. Yeah, they offer those there and despite what my congregations are subjected to on a regular basis, I took one and passed. I didn’t get an “A” but I didn’t fail either. But, I did come close.

We all were assigned passages to preach on that appear in the Lectionary. I lucked out and got the gospel lesson for Easter that just so happens to be the same passage that comes up this year in the Lectionary, Matthew’s account of the women coming to the tomb. That had to be the luckiest draw in preaching that anyone could get in seminary – the equivalent to winning the lottery. I mean, come on! Preaching on the Resurrection? Piece of cake.

Well, I found a way to screw it up. Somewhere in the midst of my sermon in front of classmates and professor, I started referring to the “miracle of the Resurrection” and made repeated mentions of it throughout the sermon. I noticed the first time I said the phrase that my professor shifted in his seat and I thought, well, that got his attention.

Oh, it did.

When I got my sermon manuscript back, it was marked with a big ugly letter grade that rhymes with the letters “C and B” but has a much harder sound at the beginning, and underneath it in very legible writing, that really didn’t need the double underlining to draw attention to it, were the words, “The Resurrection of Jesus IS NO MERE MIRACLE! IT IS AN ESCHATOLOGICAL EVENT THAT CHANGES EVERYTHING!!” (Now, I could tell you what eschatological means. I do know. I even knew it then. But I’m gonna have more fun imagining you at home Googling it. E-S-C-H-A-T-O-L-O-G-I-C-A-L) The fact of the matter is that my professor was absolutely right. The Resurrection wasn’t about some miraculous event. It. Did. Change. Everything.

Or at least it is supposed to change everything. The problem is that we have to realize that it changed everything and like good little humans, we can choose not to do so.

The resurrection is a disruption – not an interruption. It reverses the power of death. It sets us free from the bondage of law. It changes everything – past, present, and future. (That’s a hint for those of you who both didn’t know the meaning of eschatological and were not willing to Google it because you knew I thought it would be funny.)

COVID19 is also a disruption. Not on the level of the Resurrection, mind you, but it is an incredible opportunity for us as individuals, communities of faith, families, nations, and yes, even the whole world, to accept that things have changed and allow God to introduce new life into these mortal bodies and mortally built systems that we describe as “normal.”

As I wrote earlier, I have been working this out in my brain for a little while. I thought I would write it out on Good Friday, because, the way I see it now, we are still too close to the event of COVID19 to know exactly what will change and what won’t. Lots and lots of people will predict. Lots and lots of people will be wrong. It’s sort of like standing and staring at the Cross of Jesus knowing that this is bad, but the best thing to do is run and hide. Good disciple.

But I finished this out yesterday on the day known as “Holy Saturday” – a name that is further proof that Christianity is woefully disconnected from our culture. A better name might be “Woah! This is the most different Saturday ever!!!” Because, it is the most different Saturday ever. The Son of God is dead and in a tomb. If we thought things were bad on Friday, then the unknowing of this time is even worse.

And that is where I think we are right now as Homo Sapiens. We are at that Saturday mark following a major disrupter of history.

So, what comes on Sunday? What is Easter going to be?

I don’t know for this event. We can let God recreate us and everything we hold onto, or we can blink, stretch, and go back to normal. I don’t want to do that. I want to use this time as a jumping off point into whatever new thing it is that God would allow to happen. I don’t want rescued from this virus. I want resurrected! I want the church resurrected – not just with ‘new people’ but with a whole new way of being church! We are figuring it out now when we have to, why can’t we figure it out in the not so distant post-COVID19 world as well?

We’ve done one heck of a good job fighting back against a “novel” virus. The real question is “Can we fight for a ‘novel’ world in a post-virus age?”

The women came to the tomb, felt the earth quake, saw soldier fall stupid with fear, and then had a angel say to them – “Don’t be afraid. I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said.”

Sometime in the future, we are going to walk out of this social isolation, feel the earth quake, see people around acting strange out of fear, and maybe, just maybe, if we have the faith and grab hard onto the hope that Resurrection offers, we will hear an angel say to us, “Don’t be afraid. I know you are looking for normal that got locked up during this pandemic. Normal is not here. Normal is being recreated by Resurrection people like you, just as Jesus said.”

P.S. – Matt, if by some chance you happen to read this…sorry about the Funny Money. We really should have been bright enough to figure out cyber currency instead. And Dr. Lischer. Thanks. I know better now.

 

Lent 2020 – A Prayer

ashwednesdayLord, as your children, we gathered together and received the reminder of being dust and returning to dust. Do you remember the sight of your children with the smudges of ash on their foreheads? Do you recall the fervor that we entered into a season of turning around, being ourselves in your presence, and promising changes in our lives for good? Do you remember, Lord.

We do. We remember. Many of us can still feel the grit on the ash falling upon our eyelashes. We can recall blinking back tears brought by the invasion of a mark from you that we were freely accepting. We can remember looking at one another – side by side – and wondering if the cross we wore was as neat and tidy as the one we saw on our sister or brother. We remember.

But now we are a lifetime away from a night that was only a fortnight ago. And our eyes blink again, and we feel the grit of an invisible invader bearing down upon us. We long to travel together into this unknown time of change and growth, but our love for your commandment to love one another forces us to chose to be on our own. We wish we could covet the sight of a dirty forehead, of a hundred dirty foreheads of your children together with us.

In this season of Lent 2020, our vision is not perfect and our way is completely unknown. Like the children of Abraham, we find ourselves wandering in a wilderness full of the knowledge of your mercy and shuddering with confidence in your wisdom. It is doubtful, Lord, that we will forget these days of being apart. We pray that we will use them to turn both to you and to our neighbor who may need more than we do. You gave us this season, and the world gave us a reason to lean into the faith for which we lowered our foreheads for a map.

This cross we carry in Lent 2020, is one that we know that you have already borne. These steps we take, we know are on a road you have already walked.

Give us the courage to look to the very hills around us for our help. May they remind us that our help comes from the one who made not just the hills, but the earth, the heavens, and all of creation. You, O God, are our help.

wpid-PaperArtist_2014-04-01_09-52-38.jpeg

And when we step forth from this journey – crossing whatever river lies ahead us – may we do so with the joy of those who know the presence of Christ’s victory over death. May we step from this journey to celebrate with one another the calling you have placed upon us to be in this time, and every time those who are clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. May we bear one another with love and may we see your very face in the ones we seek to love.

We pray this as those whose only hope is your grace, your mercy, and your faithfulness. We pray as your children who walk through Lent to be changed.

Amen.

 

The Morning After Ash Wednesday 2018

Ash Wed Kids_Moment

As part of our Ash Wednesday observance last evening, I read the following passage from 2 Corinthians 6. Although I used a different version during the service, The Message  spoke to me on the morning after:

“People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly…in hard times, tough times, bad time; when we’re beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we’re telling the truth, and when God’s showing his power; when we’re doing our best setting things right; when we’re praised, and when we’re blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all.”

When I arrived to prepare for the service, I noticed that our children and youth, who usually meet on Wednesday evening for lessons in discipleship of one type or another, were gathering in the building as well. I then learned that both groups would be attending the Ash Wednesday service. I loved the thought of having their energy, their wide-eyed faith being among us as we observed this holy day. As they gathered, I heard one little girl excitedly tell her friend how “Pastor Scott was going to put a cross on our foreheads tonight.” I chuckled as I listened.

I sat on the front pew at the start of the service and little Owen sat beside me. We had words flashing on the screen to help people “set the tone” for the service. I asked him if he needed help reading any of them. He stumbled on “Scripture” and had no idea what “Fasting” meant, although he did a great job reading it. He got “Deny Yourself” and “Pray” very easily as well as “Kneel Now”. It was a good conversation when a great kid. One of a dozen or so young ones…along with the dozen or so youth.

Lord, did it hit me while I was reading that passage above.

I was so joyful just to be in worship with the younger ones that I hadn’t forgotten briefly about the big news of the day. I forgot that there were parents and children in Florida who were dead or severely traumatized by our lack of ability to balance safety and rights once again. I was struck while reading this passage that our witness in the face of such tragedy is to go on as people of hope, to keep showing the love of God even as we fight the good fight of doing what was right.

I was reading the passage and I knew that in just a few minutes, Owen and many other children and youth I have grown to love even as my own would soon join the line of people that walk up to their pastor and have me mark their foreheads with the sign of the cross as I said, “You are dust and to dust you will return.”

There are times that I wonder about Jesus’ words of taking his “easy yoke” upon ourselves. This didn’t feel easy at all. With every wide eyed child and every interested teen that came to me last night, I choked just a little more. I didn’t cry. I don’t think any tears escaped, but they wanted flow like rivers.

And then this morning, I came across this poem by Mary Oliver (from a book I’m reading for Lent) and I was struck with the enormity of the creation God has made in us:

We Shake with Joy
We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

I leave with you a brief image, in video form, of what God might have seen last night…Faithful children…a pastor shaking with joy and grief…the people “immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy.”

To all God’s children in Florida struggling with the unspeakable…
my heart goes out to you in love…
my mind fills with thoughts of prayer for you…
and my spirit longs for hope for us all.

Ash Wednesday 2018

“Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion – do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers — most of which are never even seen — don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”

Matthew 6:28-34 The Message

I Worried
(by Mary Oliver)

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, with the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not, how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

from Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver

 

Yep. I. Needed. That.

Scott Sears, Ash Wednesday 2018