Sacred Space, Holy Ground

(sermon 8/30/20)

Exodus 3:1-15

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

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Yesterday, as part of its Week of Action centering around anti-racism, the Presbyterian Church held an event that took place both in person and online. People gathered in front of the Presbyterian Center downtown, and heard several speakers, and then the people gathered there marched from the Center over to the square directly across Jefferson Avenue from Metro Hall – officially, Jefferson Square, but in recent days, maybe better known by its unofficial name, Breonna Square, in honor of Breonna Taylor. Members from a number of local congregations took part, as well as many denominational leaders and staffers. It was good to see a few Springdale people there, and I hope others were participating online by watching the live stream from home. When the marchers arrived at square, they circled around its focal point – an ad hoc memorial to Breonna – and offered a moment of silence for 8:46, the length of time that George Floyd was placed in a lethal neck hold and suffocated to death by a Minneapolis police officer.

It was a shame that due to the rain that had just come through shortly before the march, the Breonna memorial was mostly covered with a protective tarp when the marchers were there. If the tarp had been removed, they would have seen a large and impressive display of personal contributions to the memorial – posters, signs, paintings, poems, sculptures flowers – all an outpouring of compassion, condolence, support, and empathy, for Taylor and her family in the wake of her killing. The space is carefully, almost reverently, guarded from damage on a nearly 24/7 basis. On previous visits I’ve made to the square, I’ve seen the creators of objects come to the square and place their contribution to the memorial, and while they’re there, recognizing the special nature and significance the space has taken on.

The actual meaning of the word “holy” is to be set apart, something entirely “other” than the normal ebb and flow of human existence; something that has a special, deeper significance, and especially, somewhere where even the presence of God might be felt more fully or immediately. A place where God, and God’s deeper truths, might be encountered. On some of those previous visits to the square, I’ve seen people walk around the Breonna memorial and see the artwork, and read its words of pain and sorrow, and comfort and hope, and I’ve heard some of them, particularly people of faith, comment that in that space, it was easy to feel the Spirit of God there, the presence of Christ – the Christ who himself was unjustly killed at the hands of people supposedly upholding the law and administering justice. For many people, it has become sacred space, holy ground.

It wasn’t in the middle of a city park, but out in the countryside, where Moses had his first experience with being on holy ground. This encounter with God by way of the burning bush – in Hebrew, sen eh, the origin for calling the mountain in question Mount Sinai. An encounter where God tells Moses to remove his sandals before coming any closer, as a recognition that he’s in the midst of something different, something wholly other, something set apart from the norm – someplace sacred and holy.

It’s there, on this holy ground, where we hear God’s first direct speaking in the Book of Exodus, and where God lays out all that’s going to come in the story. God tells Moses:

I have seen the misery of my people… I have heard their cry on account of the people oppressing them… I know their suffering… And in response, God lays out an action plan – “I will deliver them from their oppressors, and their suffering. I will deliver them – make no mistake. And then, God calls on Moses to be the spokesperson to Pharaoh for the Israelites, to be the one to lead them out of Egypt and oppression and to the Promised Land. Honestly, it’s hard for me to read this story about the ancient Israelites living under oppression and injustice at the hands of the ancient Egyptians, and hearing God’s response to that; and to not see the parallel between it and the situation faced every day in this country by black, indigenous, and people of color in our own white-dominated society, and to consider – and frankly, to worry –  about the implications of where I, and other white people, fit into that parallel.

The entire story of Exodus begins with Moses encountering God and receiving assurances from God, and a call from God, in this sacred, holy ground – this place where Moses was really only expecting to find some grass for his flock to eat, not the transcendent, eternal God of all time and space. And yet, unexpectedly and unbidden, God still was present, and it was just by virtue of that someone has called that “preemptive presence” that this ground, which was just a bit of ordinary dirt five minutes before and would be ordinary again five minutes after the fact, had become a place of holy encounter and awakening.

At different times in our own lives, most of us – maybe all of us – have found ourselves unexpectedly within sacred space, in a sacred moment, on holy ground. We’ve found ourselves in a situation, not through any of our own efforts, where we suddenly and unquestionably feel the presence of God, of the divine, within our midst – fully present, surrounding us; the veil between our existence and God’s, between earthly existence and eternity, has become so gossamer-thin that it almost doesn’t exist at all; leading to moments where everything else fades away, moments of intense focus on God and God’s presence – moments of inspiration, of peace, of calm, of challenge, of call. Moments of intense love, and acceptance. Have you ever had a moment like that? If you have, you know that whatever the moment might have offered you, the moment itself, and recognizing the holiness of it, is truly unforgettable.

In this week’s email, I asked people to think about their own lives, and if they’ve ever been in a special, sacred space, on holy ground like that. I invite you to think about that again this morning. Can you think of any holy ground in your own experience?

The actual, physical location of holy ground can be anywhere. In September, I’ll be leading a few Adult Ed sessions on Jesus’ parables, drawing heavily on the brilliant scholarship of Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, one of the foremost New Testament scholars living today, who, maybe somewhat ironically, happens to be Jewish. There’s an old story about a similar situation to Christians learning about their sacred texts from a Jewish person, but in reverse. A number of Jewish seminary students in a certain large city were known to travel across town to attend lectures given by a remarkably gifted Old Testament professor, who was a Christian teaching at a Christian seminary. Sadly, the professor died one year mid-semester., and the Jewish students, in a sign of love and respect, showed up at the plain, unimaginative, off-white painted classroom with the vinyl tile floor and the inexpensive plastic chairs. And they removed their shoes and left them outside, and went into the classroom room and offered prayers to God, thanking God for the life of this good man, in this place that to them had become holy ground. It had become a place where they’d encountered God in an undeniable way, and in a form that for them must have been as unexpected as Moses’ burning bush was for him.

Many people over the years have sensed that they were in a sacred moment, on holy ground, in places like this – in church sanctuaries. But at least as often, as in the example I just mentioned, the holy ground is somewhere else. A lot of times, it’s somewhere in nature. On a mountaintop. In a forest, along a lakeside. Other times, it might be in places like Breonna Square. Or these days, God could make holy ground out of sitting at your kitchen table, or just sitting with a loved one in your living room. Wherever you might find it, recognize that God is still drawing us into those sacred spaces, onto that holy ground, to help us see God more fully, to hear God more clearly, to be called by God more directly. So this week, where will you find God? Where do you imagine you’ll unexpectedly find sacred space, holy ground?

Amen.

The Paneas Confession

(sermon 8/23/20)

The grotto at Paneas

Matthew 16:13-20

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

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The ancient city of Paneas got its name because the Greek god Pan had been worshiped there. A temple to Pan had been built into the entrance of a cave where there was a spring, and water flowed out of the mouth of the cave. Before that, and under a different name, the city was the center of the cultic religion that worshiped the pagan god Baal. After it was known as Paneas, Herod the Great replaced the temple dedicated to Pan with a new, bigger one, dedicated to the Roman Caesar where he was worshiped as a god. And Herod’s bootlicking son Philip went even one step further, renaming the city again, this time naming it in honor of both Caesar and himself. It was there, in this city now named Caesarea Philippi, where the Roman general Titus and his army returned after they’d overrun and basically obliterated Jerusalem and scattered the surviving Jewish people to the four winds in 70 AD, not long after Jesus’ earthly ministry and just a decade or two before Matthew’s gospel was written.

In last week’s gospel text, Jesus himself had to learn something. This week, the Sunday before our own children and youth are about to begin school again, it’s Peter’s turn to learn something – or at least, it’s when he finally puts the pieces together and puts into words what he’s gradually learned with God’s help though his having experienced living with and learning from Jesus during their time together. Beyond the significance of Peter’s profession that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, the very spiritual Son of God, is the additional bit that Matthew is telling his now-defeated, dispersed, and demoralized Jewish audience that this all happens in this particular place, the seat of power of the Roman Empire, the temporal superpower that had destroyed them. Here, in this place, Peter, and Matthew, are proclaiming that Jesus is Lord. There is only one Son of God, and it isn’t Caesar, or any other earthly power or empire.

This story shows us that while knowledge gained through experience isn’t the only thing that brings about faith, but, through the work of the Holy Spirit, it is a bedrock part of it. Because of that, God continually draws us toward increased knowledge and understanding, in all things. We’ve been designed for it, really; our intelligence and intellectual curiosity are important aspects of our having been created in God’s image. And increasing, and deepening, our intelligence and understanding with regard to our spiritual lives, our lives of faith, our lives together in the Kingdom of God, s precisely what Christ established the Church to do. To help create an ongoing continuity, a repetition of the understanding that Peter had at Caesarea Philippi, across all generations, all places, all times.

This passage has been the starting point for a lot of theological and doctrinal wrestling within the church. To Roman Catholics, it’s seen as proof that the Church’s earthly authority rests of Peter and is transmitted in a direct line to whoever is his successor as leader of the Roman church; that Peter’s role is a repetitive thing that in some mystical way always descends directly down the line from him. That doesn’t seem to be right to me, and I don’t think that’s what Matthew’s original point really was. To protestants, the passage has been interpreted as meaning that there wasn’t anything particularly special about Peter himself, and that the “rock” that Jesus would build the Church on wasn’t him as a person, but rather, on the faith that he’d just shown. Honestly, that doesn’t sound entirely right to me, either; It’s pretty clear that Peter was a unique person, a foundational person, in the origin of the Church, but his role wasn’t repeatable through some mystical and exclusive way always necessarily descending from him. The Church itself, through Christ its creator and cornerstone, would call and ordain leaders in the Church himself, by way of the faith enabled by God and instilled and nurtured in people by that very Church.

And that slides into a third way that I think this passage might be misapplied. Many people within the faith see the primary point of this passage to be the importance of the Church evangelizing; of “bringing people to Jesus,” having them get right with God; getting them to that place where “every eye is closed and every knee is bowed,” reciting the Sinner’s Prayer and making a decision to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Well, I think that knowing Jesus as Lord is important, and proclaiming and sharing that faith is definitely an important mission of the Church, I don’t think that kind of unilateral decision is what Peter lived, or what he actually did in this passage, and I don’t really think that was Jesus’ primary point here, either, at least based on his own words as Matthew has given them to us.

Hearing Jesus’ words, it seems to me that at least here, Jesus is more concerned with saying something about the nature of the Church, rather than something about Peter. Yes, Peter will be a founder of the Church, and yes, faith in Christ is the goal of the church and the glue that will hold it together, but the most important thing Jesus says about the church here is that he himself will establish it, and build it, and grow it; he himself is the cornerstone, not Peter or any other human. And having established it, it will prevail, so powerfully, Jesus says, that the very gates of hell aren’t strong enough to stop it or hold it back. The Church, established by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, will always be on the move, always advancing, always moving forward, and successfully. Nothing will keep Christ’s Church from surviving and thriving, and adapting however it needs to in order to succeed in its mission of instilling and nurturing that faith seen in Peter into more and more people, which just keeps the Church moving still further forward.

We can take real assurance, and have real hope, in Jesus’ words here. There is nothing that will defeat the Church – at least, not the Church as Christ wants it to be, which could be something different from what we might want it to be; what it’s been in the past, what’s been familiar to us. Think about that – nothing will stop it; nothing can stop it. Not changing demographics. Not declining denominational numbers. Not cultural or social shifts. Not pandemics – cancelling church services during the Spanish Flu pandemic didn’t kill the church, and now, in the Covid era, temporarily shifting from in-person worship to online services – something they could only have dreamt of in 1918 – won’t kill it either. It’s true, for any number of reasons, the Church is currently in a time of change. But it isn’t a time of death; it’s simply a time of reformation, ultimately being led by Christ, in order for the Church to successfully be what it needs to be, and do what it needs to do, in our time and place.

Christ’s Church will continue. To borrow from Gloria Gaynor, it will survive; or, if you prefer to borrow from Clint Eastwood, it will improvise, adapt, overcome. Through ongoing teaching and proclamation of Christ and the kingdom of God, and through our shared experiences on our walk of faith together, it will continue to help all of us, and others who will join us on the journey, to develop and deepen our faith – In short, let’s let the same faith expressed by Peter all those years ago in his “Paneas Confession” Be our Louisville Confession as well. Amen.

Stay in the #@$%&! Boat

(sermon 8/9/20)

photo used with permission – pexels.com

Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

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Last week, I started and ended the service wearing a wild print, multicolor coat. This week, not completely coincidentally, we heard the story from Genesis about Joseph and the coat of many colors that his father, Jacob, gave him. In our time, parents say that they love all their children equally; differently, maybe, but equally. Jacob doesn’t seem to have gotten that memo, since where my own coat was just a sign of silliness and fun and hoping for a time when we call all gather and socialize again, we’re told that Joseph’s coat was a sign that Jacob favored Joseph, the baby of the family, over his older brothers. And as if it wasn’t enough for the brothers to have to endure seeing that coat every day, that constant sign of Jacob loving Joseph more than them wasn’t enough, Joseph, being either too naïve or too obnoxious, tells his brothers about his dream that obviously meant that they would all have to bow down to him, the kid, in all his fancy-coat greatness. Honestly, one almost sympathizes with his brothers selling him into slavery to get rid of him.

Joseph would probably have avoided an awful lot of trouble if he’d just kept his mouth shut. And you could say the same thing about Peter in today’s gospel reading, too. Really. I mean, there are Jesus’ disciples, working their way across the Sea of Galilee in their boat, because Jesus had told them to get in the boat and go on ahead of him. And yes, they’re definitely having some difficulties because the wind in against them. And when they see Jesus coming toward them, walking on the water, they’re afraid until  Jesus reassures them it’s really him – which they’re going to see anyway as soon as he gets to the boat, and he must have been pretty close to already or they wouldn’t have been able to be talking to one another. But still, despite that, Peter makes this outrageous demand – if you’re really Jesus, command me to come out there to you on the water.

Now at this point, I can imagine Jesus shrugging his shoulders and just saying all right, if that’s what you want me to say – come over here. And Peter, in his infinite wisdom, gets out of a perfectly good boat in the middle of a very deep lake, and actually expects to be able to walk on the water like Jesus.

Well can you imagine anyone being surprised that Peter ends up sinking – maybe not like a rock, we’ve all got some natural buoyancy, but still sinking; he’s definitely not just strolling along the surface of the water as he’d hoped. Maybe the others in the boat were as fed up with Peter for all his outrageousness as Joseph’s brothers were of him, and maybe in both cases, the others figured Joseph and Peter had gotten what they deserved.

Most importantly though, I imagine Jesus having a pretty good laugh over the whole incident, and after pulling Peter up out of the water, saying hey, you just said for me to command you to come out here to me; nobody said anything about you walking on water. What did you think was going to happen?

Most, if not all, of the stories in the Bible can be understood, and preached, in multiple ways. Some of them can even be understood in completely opposite ways, and oddly enough, both those ways can be equally good. I think this gospel text is one of those. Because more often than not, sermons about this text will encourage us to have strong faith, and courage, to step out beyond our comfort zones into new, different, maybe uncertain directions that God is leading us. That is an excellent, reasonable, and important way of understanding this story.

But today, I’m going in the completely opposite direction.

Today, I want to point out that even though the disciples were having a tough time rowing against the wind, they were, in fact, still where Jesus had told them to be. They were doing what Jesus had told them to do, and they were going where Jesus had told them to go. All of them, including Peter, were actually doing pretty well in the big picture, and in continuing to do that, they were being obedient and faithful to Jesus. The actual trouble, other than just the headwind, really only started when Peter wanted to change the scenario. He didn’t want to stay in the boat that Jesus told him to be in. Instead, he wanted to call the shots his way; he wanted to make demands of Jesus instead of the other way around.

Again, one sympathizes. Because honestly, most of us have had that same experience in one way or another. God will be leading us, guiding us, drawing us in one direction, calling us to something, closing some doors while opening others, but we want something else. Something different. Something we think is better, something that comes out of our own thoughts. Something that shows we’re the ones in control of our destiny and not God. How many times, in how many different ways, have we known in our gut where God wanted us, and what God wanted us to be doing, but we didn’t like it and like Jonah, tried to go in a different direction? How many of our own fish-bellies have we ended up in like Jonah, how many times have we sunk in the water like Peter, while trying to make demands of God instead of listening to God’s commands to us?

Here, of course, discernment is everything. There are definitely times when God really is calling us to step out in faith and do something different, to step out of our boats, as it were. There are a number of ways that I believe God is calling us to new and different things in the midst of the pandemic and beyond. But there are also other times when God is trying to show us that the best thing for us, the thing that God wants for us, is to stay the course, to stay in the darned boat. To continue on, even in the presence of facing some difficulties in doing so. Maybe in our current situation, just one example of that might be to continue on with social distancing in order to be safe, and to extend compassion and hospitality toward others, as well as to ourselves.

The good thing for us is that in any situation, whatever God is calling us to do, God will give us the ability to have enough faith to be able to do it, and will see us through it. If you know the whole story of Joseph, you know that God still worked good through the tragic part of his story we heard today, and that he and his brothers even eventually reconciled. God did get Jonah out of the belly of the fish, and Jesus was there within arm’s reach of Peter and able to pull him up out of the water, out of the mess he’d created for himself. The good news is that God is with us too, even closer than arm’s length, to catch us, help us, save us from ourselves, when we try to understand whether God wants us to step out of our boat or to just stay in it.  

Thanks be to God.

Getting It Right

(sermon 8/2/20)

Romans 9:1-5

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever.

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A number of years back, when I was in seminary and studying for the battery of ordination exams, I was preparing for the Bible Exegesis exam. This was the exam where you dissected a particular portion of scripture, analyzing it within its original language and cultural/historical context, and interpreting its meaning. I don’t remember all of the details of the exam, but I do remember that in advance, they told all the applicants that it would be based on one of two or three different specific texts, and to be ready to analyze any one of the three. This particular year, one of the possible texts was Romans 9-11, the section of the apostle Paul’s letter that contains today’s second reading. And I really hoped that they were going to select one of the other texts, because I really hated Romans 9-11 – not because I couldn’t analyze or understand it, but because I could. This section of Romans is a summary of Paul’s thoughts regarding why the vast majority of his fellow Jews hadn’t accepted the claim that Jesus was the Messiah; and what their fate in the ultimate history of salvation would be as a result of that rejection. Suffice it to say that it wasn’t anything good in Paul’s estimation. From his own first-century vantage point, honestly maybe a bit too close to the situation to be objective, Paul didn’t paint a very positive picture of the Jews, and his words here set the stage for all the subsequent anti-Jewish sentiment that would plague the Christian Church and European – and American cultures ever since. Theologians have wrestled with Paul’s writing and thoughts here about the Jews for two thousand years. As far as I’m concerned, the best, simplest theological commentary on this section of Romans was offered by Ken Wilkinson, a retired Presbyterian minister in my home congregation in Columbus, who once summarized this passage by saying simply  that “Sometimes, Paul just got it wrong.” Back then, it shocked me to hear a minister say something like that, but after that time, when I started pursuing the ministry and I began to study the scriptures more deeply, I eventually came to realize that Ken was right about Paul sometimes getting it wrong.

So I hated Romans 9-11 because of all the harm that it’s caused – and I still do, for that matter – and because I didn’t want to open up that whole can of worms as part of an ordination exam, I hoped and certainly prayed that it wouldn’t be the text for the exam.

So of course, you know what text the exam was based on… Apparently, it turned out OK, since I passed and I’m here today, but still, it was a pretty stressful experience.

The little snippet of this text that we heard today is a fairly mild part of the whole section of chapters 9 through 11. At very least, in its own way it indicates that while Paul thought his countrymen were all wrong and all ultimately doomed to hell, he still had compassion for them – so much so that he says here that he would be willing to give up his own salvation; he himself would be willing to be cursed by God, if in some way it would result in the salvation of his fellow Jews.

Now again, even while I believe that Paul was wrong in his assessment of the Jewish people, his comment here is an impressive thing. It’s a remarkable illustration of the type and extent of compassion and care that he had for them, and by extension that Christ calls all of his followers to have for others. To be willing to put yourself out, to inconvenience yourself, to bear a cost yourself, in order to extend compassion and to help others. To not demand what you might otherwise be entitled to, or have a right to, in order to benefit others.

I’m going to be honest, even in the face of today’s other wonderful Lectionary texts that would have been fun to preach about this morning, it was this snippet from a larger, particularly troubling part of the Letter to the Romans, that most caught my attention. Not because it caused any great new revelation; we all know that what Paul is describing is the kind of self-giving, even costly love that we’re called to as followers of Christ. What caught my attention was the disconnect between being reminded of this radical kind of compassion we Christians are supposed to have for others; and the way so many Christians today are screaming bloody murder about being deprived of their right to assemble in large gatherings to worship, in order to be compassionate to others and not help spread a potentially deadly virus in the midst of a global pandemic. In a time when, as Lora C. pointed out earlier today, we’ve gone back to having a full page of obituaries in the Sunday Courier-Journal.

Think about that contrast: In order to help save others, Paul was willing to give up his salvation for all eternity; a lot of modern-day Christians aren’t willing to put themselves out for a few months.  

Don’t get me wrong. I get the discomfort that these Christians feel. I share their discomfort. I really miss our communal worship, our fellowship, our music, our togetherness. It all nourishes and restores my soul, and I’m definitely feeling the effects of missing that. And I know you are, too. I know it’s hard for you; it’s hard for me, too. But still, we need to stay committed to waiting for just a while longer – truly no time at all in the grand scheme of things – in order to have that kind of compassion, concern, consideration for others. The time will come when we’ll all be ale to gather together again, I promise.

Until then, how can we stay strong? How do we keep our spirits lifted? How do we restore our souls and live with peace and joy? I think we do that by hearing the words from God found in Isaiah – Ho, come to the water, the life-giving water, all you who are thirsty. By holding fast to God’s goodness and wisdom and mercy. By knowing and feeling the joy that comes from Christ dwelling within us, through good times and bad.

We can have that joy, and we can stand strong in that kind of costly compassion, because we know that the eternal, loving God of all creation loves us, knows us by name, considers us precious. Dwells within us, and strengthens us in love. Because this same God doesn’t just call us to those living waters that sustain us; God actively pursues us and leads us and draws us to those waters.

This past week, J. Herbert Nelson, our Stated Clerk, issued a video encouraging all Presbyterian congregations to continue showing compassion and concern for others by continuing to worship online, and continuing social distancing policies as the pandemic continues to harm and kill people across the country. Together, with God’s help, we can and we must continue to express this kind of costly, self-giving, inconveniencing love and compassion to others until it’s safe to be together again.

There’s no doubt in my mind that in Romans 9-11, and in a few other places as well, Paul just got it wrong. The good news for us is that God loves us, and enables us, and empowers us, to do better than Paul where he got it wrong, and to emulate him where he got it right.

Thanks be to God.