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Today at Grace we are starting a new series of sermons on faith and fear. Over the last year, there’s been a lot of talk about having ‘faith over fear’ but the reality of our lives isn’t that simple.
Reasons for fear are all around us, and if you aren’t aware of anything to be afraid of, let me know – as a fan of true crime I can tell you all sorts of situations that you should terrified by. Fear is all around us but reasons for faith and hope are all around us as well. We are not helpless spectators of our lives, we have the strength to confront and counteract the terrors of this life. There is a drive within us that says the worst thing does not have to be the last thing. As Christians and followers of Jesus, perhaps we could say that in our lives it can feel like Good Friday, but we know Easter Sunday is coming.
Even when we trust that Sunday is coming, it can feel like we’re stuck in Good Friday, and the fear that comes with that is anything but good.
With that, let me tell you a couple of things about this week.
This week, I spent a lot of time getting ready for the first Sunday since last March that I haven’t been alone in the sanctuary. For nearly 16 months, I’ve been by myself on Sunday mornings, and for much of this pandemic I’ve been my own production crew, recording and editing the services. I’ve had to learn how to be a cinematographer, editor and producer, none of that was covered in seminary.
I am eternally grateful for the volunteers that we have that are streaming the service and helping with all the audio/visual aspects of the service this week. Y’all have no idea how excited I am to be done with being my own production crew. I didn’t have to set up lights, microphones or a camera, I can’t tell you how good that feels. Most weeks, recording the sermon would take around 3 hours. At least for myself, because I knew I could edit and fix things in post, I would record take after take and eventually edit out all of my errors so the three hours of the sermon recording would only feel like three hours. Editing took 15 to 20 hours a week and the whole process was about 30 hours if not more. It is a huge relief to not be doing that.
But, because I’m not alone, I’m not in complete control. I trust every one of our volunteers and I am thankful that I’m not alone, and yet, when I was alone, I was in control of everything. If I messed something up, there was always another take and I could edit out every mistake.
For the past year, I’ve had a very clear deadline, Sundays come with regularity. I knew what needed to be done by Sunday morning and if that meant recording a service on Saturday and staying up all night to edit it, only to have the service uploaded to Facebook and YouTube at 6 in the morning on Sunday, so be it. I was exhausted, but I made my deadline and could start working on the next service. I found myself in a pattern and routine that wasn’t healthy or helpful, but it was a schedule, it was a routine, it was a new normal, but all that changed this week, it’s a change for the better, but it’s still a change.
Years ago, a mentor of mine told me all change is grief. At that point in my life, I was getting ready for what was a good and healthy and necessary change in my life, but I didn’t feel good about it, the closer the change got, the more I dreaded it. That’s when my friend said all change is grief. They went on to tell me that it doesn’t matter what the change is because every change is an entrance into the unknown and what are we more afraid of than the unknown?
We can find ourselves in a fearful and unhealthy situation, and the longer we’re stuck in that disfunction and dis-ease, the more we become used to it, and the easier it is to be prepared for. It becomes a habit, it becomes a way of life, which is why co-dependency is as common as it is destructive. Change, however, means entering into the unknown, and the unknown will always be fearful to us.
I did not have an extra 30 hours this week to record and edit a service, but multiple times throughout this week I told myself how much easier life would be if I could just did everything on my own.
On one hand, the level of isolation that we’ve had in the past 16 months hasn’t just been healthy, it’s been necessary. For the sake of loving one another as we love ourselves, physically distancing necessary. Now, as we can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel, our distancing habit is hard to break, which is why, on the other hand, we have to recognize that we’re holding together our faith and our fear. We are not in an either/or moment, we’re in an era where it can feel as if we are struck by everything at once. If we ignore that, we can’t deal with it.
The Biblical scholar Walter Bruggemann noticed a pattern in the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. Once you know this pattern, you can recognize it all around you.
Here’s the pattern:
We start with a certain orientation in our lives, there’s a direction that we find ourselves in and there is a normal that we are used to. In the scriptures, Jospeh being the kings favorite prisoner in Egypt, it’s Moses knowing the Pharaoh is going to refuse the freedom for the people but still demanding it, it’s Jonah not wanting to go to Ninevah. There are all these moments in the scriptures that normal, it’s the way things are because it’s the way things.
We all live with a certain orientation in our lives, but then something happens that brings about disorientation. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Joseph finds their way into freedom only to be unrecognizable by his siblings, Moses leads the people into freedom only to have the people complain about how freedom is harder than the life in slavery that they once knew, it’s Jonah being stuck in the belly of the fish. Bruggemann noticed that in the Hebrew Scriptures and in our lives things are not always as simple or as easy as we want them to be.
Its kind of like this – sometimes a river is just a river, but every now and then something ends up in the river that shouldn’t be there. All of a sudden the river isn’t just a river, it’s an eco-system, but it’s not just an eco-system, it’s a polluted eco-system that needs to be protected, and if they river is going to be protected than we need to know what’s polluting it. We need to see how the river isn’t just a river, our orientation, our normal, shifts.
The brilliance of Bruggemann is that he saw disorientation as the invitation to reorientation. We have those moments where a river is just a river, and then it’s more than a river, only so it can be back to being a river again.
As Bruggeman wirtes, “Our life of faith consists in moving with God in terms of:
(a) being securely oriented;
(b) being painfully disoriented; and
(c) being surprisingly reoriented.”
I don’t know where you would find yourself in this movement, but I think a lot of us are on the edge of being surprisingly reoriented. We’re still a bit disoriented, but we can see hope on the horizon.
It’s as if our lives have been like Psalm 13 where it begins, “How long will you forget me, Lord?”
If you have ever felt forgotten by God, remember that this feeling is a verse in the Bible. We, like the Psalmist wonder, “How long will [God] hide [their] face from [us].
And yet, even as our lives often have moments that feel like the beginning of Psalm 13, things don’t end in disorientation. Psalm 13 moves from isolation and fear to a new reorientation in the life of the psalmist where they write, “My heart will rejoice in your salvation. Yes, I will sing to the Lord because [God] has been good to me.”
If the hope of Psalm 13 is true, here’s what we don’t believe, and can’t believe about God – if we rejoice in God’s salvation and will sing to the Lord because God has been good to us, then we don’t believe and can’t believe that God caused this pandemic or that God made this happen to teach us a lesson. God created a cosmos filled with freedom, potential, and possibility. Evolution witnesses to the beauty of God’s creativity. At least for myself, evolution points us towards the endless potential that is not just within the cosmos but within us.
The hope and the promise of Psalm 13 is not that God caused or causes our disorientation, rather, and better, the hope and promise is that God sees us though our disorientation so that we might find our way into reorientation.
I see this hope in the life of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement that we are a part of at Grace. If you were with us last month, you learned a lot about the life and faith of John Wesley but one thing that I didn’t tell you is that even on the other side of John’s Aldersgate experience where his hear was strangely warmed, John didn’t always believe that he believed.
When John Wesley was in his sixties he wrote a letter to his brother Charles and said, “I do not love God. I never did. Therefore I never believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore I am only an honest heathen…And yet, to be so employed of God!…I am borne along, I know not how, that I can’t stand still. I want all the world to come to what I do not know.”
On Wesley’s death bed, his last words were, best of all God is with us. Throughout all of John Wesley’s life, he had questions and doubts, even on the other side of his Aldersgate experience, and yet Wesley was certain that God would alway be with us, no matter our uncertainties.
It’s this promise that God will always be with us that brings us to our reading today. It’s a reading about coming to faith, but it’s also a reading about living with questions and doubts and fears.
One of the first things to notice in our reading from 2 Kings is that Naaman is a part of the nation of Aram. Aram isn’t in Israel, in fact, Aram would have been an enemy and a threat to Israel, but the author of 2 Kinds writes that Aram, this foreign military leader and enemy of Israel, was given victory by the Lord.
Do you think that God does good things in the lives of the people you don’t like? Can you believe in a God that cares for your enemies and even brings them into victory?
That’s the kind of God that the author of 2 Kings wants to tell us about.
Naaman has some sort of skin disease, we’re not really sure what, but it was a noticeable ailment, likely eczema, but it also could have just been extremely dry skin or a bad sunburn. When the Bible writes about leprosy, all sorts of various skin diseases are included in that, not just Hansen’s disease.
We’ve got to remember that 2 Kings was written centuries before germ theory. People had a decent idea of how plagues spread, they could observe a disease moving from one person to another, but they didn’t really understand the how or the why. This is why people with obvious skin ailment, like Naaman, we’re often shunned and forced into social and physical distancing.
Naaman, however, hears the hope for a cure. A slave girl from Israel tells Naaman that Elisha might be able to heal him and Naaman thinks why not give it a shot. The king of Aram sends a letter and what seems like a downpayment to the king of Israel, and the king of Israel thinks he’s being set up for a fight. The king of Israel doesn’t think that Elisha can do anything to help, Naaman is going to come to Israel sick and is going to go home sick. The king of Israel is certain that Aram is trying to start a fight, but Elisha tells the king to have faith, which is an easy thing for Elisha to say, his power and position isn’t on the line, but the king trusts him and Naaman comes to Israel.
When Naaman arrives at Elisha’s home, Naaman expects the red carpet to be rolled out, but Elisha doens’t even answer the door, he send out a messenger. Imagine if the president needed a favor from you. You were told that a member of the president’s cabinet was going to come to your home so you could help them, but instead of answering the door, you put a note in your dogs collar and sent them out the door because you can’t be bothered.
That’s kind of how Elisha reacts to Naaman. Naaman thinks they are going to get the royal treatment, but Elisha barely takes notice of them. More than that, all Elisha tells Naaman to do is take a bath. It’s the simplest of instructions, it’s like being told all we’d need to do as a nation to get past this pandemic is wear masks, be physically distanced, washing our hands and getting vaccinated. It all sounds way too easy and simple. Shouldn’t healing be harder than that? Shouldn’t we have to climb Mount Everest so we can meet with the healer that will send us on a journey to collect rare ingredients that can be turned into a potion?
Naaman thinks it should be hard, but Elisha knows the answer is almost always more simple than we want to admit.
Sometimes all you need to do is take a bath.
Naaman wants to give up, but his servants talk him into trying, after all, if Elisha would have told Naaman to start an arduous journey, Naaman would have started right away, so why not give the easy solution a try?
Naaman is healed, Elisha and the grace of God, brought healing and wholeness to Naaman’s life, not merely because their no longer diseased, but because without this obvious disease, Naaman can be a part of the community again. He’s no longer shunned, he’s no longer told to keep his distance, he can find his way back to the table with friends. Naaman has moved from disorientation to reorientation, which is why he’d really like Elisha to send him home with two mule loads of dirt.
The two mule loads of dirt are a bit like a souvenir. If you’ve ever been on a vacation and brought home a cheesy t-shirt, it’s kind of like that. But it’s also a reminder of just how special and holy this moment and this place was for Naaman. He doens’t want to take his new life for granted, he needs to carry this healing and hope with him, so he’s going to literally take the land with him.
As Naaman is gathering their things and getting ready to head home, he’s living with faith, he’s felt God’s grace in his life, but now he’s afraid. Naaman has some questions and fears because Naaman’s boss doesn’t believe in the God of Israel, Naaman’s co-workers have all sorts of different beliefs and practices and Naaman knows that life is going to get complicated, it might get so messy that when Naaman’s boss goes to bow before their god, Naaman is going to have to bow as well, because otherwise their boss is going to be stuck on the ground and you’ll never get promoted if you boss has fallen, can’t get up, and you just walk away from them.
We all know what Elisha, the prophet of God, is going to say to Naaman, right? Turn or burn, Naaman. You can either stand for something or fall for everything. Of course Elisha, the prophet of God in the Old Testament is going to say to Naaman, how dare you compromise your faith in God by bowing in devotion anywhere else!
Elisha says to Naaman, “Go in peace.”
It’s as if Elisha says to Naaman, I know you are afraid and you’re anxious and you have all kinds of fears, but you can hold that fear if you remember the faithful peace of God. Elisha says to Naaman, go in peace, enter into the awkwardness, the confusion, live into the disorientation and reorientation of your life, because the God of peace will always be with you.
As you think back over the last year, what’s the dirt that you want to carry with you? What do you need to remember? I love that Naaman wants to bring dirt because, fundamentally, dirt is dirty. It’s not clean, it’s not all that easy to carry, but Naaman still had gratitude for the unexpected gift they found in the dirt.
Maybe the dirt that we need to carry with us is remembering that we can be reoriented, that just because something is normal, doesn’t mean it’s good. Maybe the dirt that we need to carry with is the hope that we can endure, we can preserver. That dirt isn’t easy, and it’s hard to carry, but even when we’ve been distanced, we haven’t had to carry it alone.
What gratitude do you have for the unexpected gifts of the past year?
For me, it was learning that I really could preach through a book of the Bible, one verse at a time. The letter to the Philippians is endlessly fascinating to me, every time I read it, I see something new and I didn’t think anyone else would be all that interested in a sermon that looks at the meaning of Greek words, but I was wrong, and I’m grateful for that.
The dirt that I carry with me, the gratitude and the unexpected gift that I never want to lose is the reality of our adaptability. We can change, we can make mistakes, we can try again, and we can press forward.
What’s the dirt that you are going to carry with you? As we head into yet another new normal, there is something that you need to take with you, there is a gratitude that can help to shape the reorientation of our lives on the other side.
Even more than the gratitude that will guide us forward, there’s something else we need to remember, go in peace. With our fears, with our worries, with our doubts, with our questions, we go in peace. And that’s why, whatever our new normal will be, we will always get there by the grace of the communion table.
During Christ’s last meal, he was at a table filled with worries, fears, doubts, questions, betrayals and anxiety. At that table, Christ was there with peace, extending and offering the grace of God no matter what. Everyone, always, has a place at this table, and it is the welcome and the hospitality of this table that reminds us how we can live with peace, how we can have faith even in the midst of our fear. So let us come now to the table together…
June 7 – 12, 2021
Click on the day to expand the guide.
Read – Psalm 18:1-16, 46-50
Notice – 2 Samuel 22 takes place near the end of the story of David’s kingship and it also recorded Psalm 18, with a few minor variations. But before David was fully accepted as Israel’s king, David faced King Saul’s jealous hatred (see 1 Samuel 18:5-18, 23:14-15). Looking back, David compared God’s care over him to a thunderstorm. God’s power awed David, and he praised God for it. David used a simple, straightforward phrase: “I love you, LORD, my strength” (verse 1). Do you ever struggle to pray, alone or with others, because you fear you don’t know the “right” words? How can David, the great poet/king, encourage you to just tell God directly, in language as simple or elaborate as you choose, what is in your heart?
Pray – Lord, thank you for faithfully loving me, “warts and all,” just as you faithfully loved David. Keep deepening my understanding of your ways all my life long. Amen.
Read – Exodus 15:1-3, 34:5-10
Notice – The song in Exodus 15 came after God gave the Israelites, trapped between the Egyptian army and the sea, a dry path. When the army tried to take the Hebrews back to slavery, the waters returned and the pursuit ended. Scholar John Goldingay wrote, “Miriam and Moses don’t wait until they can get to church before declaring God’s praise…The great power’s leader thought he was the preeminent power in his world, and that made him think he was god, but God has shown who is God.” * Scholar Maxie Dunnam wrote, “The meaning of the story is not found in the drowning of the Egyptian soldiers. No one should rejoice at the death or defeat of another human being. Rather, the story symbolizes the death of evil—God’s victory in ‘the struggle between good and evil.’” ** How can you, like Jesus, learn to rejoice in the defeat of evil without hating or rejoicing over the bad fate of people who’ve gotten caught up in evil?
Pray – God, you call me to be faithful. I really want to be. But I thank you that I can trust your faithful love and grace more than you can trust my strength or determination. Amen.
- John Goldingay, Exodus and Leviticus for Everyone. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 67.
- Maxie Dunnam, The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Volume 2: Exodus. General Editor: Lloyd J. Ogilvie. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987, p. 163.
Read – Psalm 66:1-12
Notice – Scholar John Goldingay wrote that this psalm “issues from a time when [Israel] has come out the other side and is flourishing. It can now look back and see that it was being tested or refined. Such a crisis shows whom you can really trust, where your security lies, and whom you recognize to be in control of the world. Crises reveal character.” * We aren’t fully on the other side of the coronavirus crisis, but we at least hope the other side is in sight, so this psalm can speak to us. What lessons do you believe you’ve learned (if any) during the last year about “whom you can really trust, where your security lies, and whom you recognize to be in control of the world”? Do any of your previous answers to those questions seem more hollow or inadequate to you now? In the wake of this testing, refining time, how would you now define where your security lies?
Pray – God, many times I wished you’d just wave a magic wand and make the virus go away. But you don’t quite work that way – yet you work. Help me learn the lessons you want to teach me as we emerge from this pandemic. Amen.
- John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone, Part 1: Psalms 1–72. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, p. 202
Read – Psalm 30:1-5, 11-12
Notice – Psalm 30 reflected a time of severe trouble. Whatever the specific circumstances, the psalmist’s focus was on how God had driven away the threat and restored joy to life. Difficult times can make God feel absent even for people of faith. (Jesus quoted Psalm 22:1 on the cross.) We sometimes use the phrase “God showed up” to describe times of recovery and restoration. How does joy in our lives grow more from God’s presence with us than from circumstances? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “I read these words: ‘The United States Supreme Court today unanimously ruled bus segregation unconstitutional in Montgomery, Alabama’…The dawn will come…’ ‘Weeping may endure for a night,’ says the Psalmist, ‘but joy cometh in the morning.’ This faith adjourns the assemblies of hopelessness and brings new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.” * Can you think of “dawn” times in world history? How do you look forward to God bringing a joyous “morning” to our world now?
Pray – Lord, as I face hard times where “weeping may stay all night,” I thank you that the worst thing is never the last thing. In the end you always have and always will turn sorrow into joy. Amen.
- A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1986, p. 504.
Read – Psalm 126:1-6
Notice – The first half of this psalm was a journey in memory. The Israelites never forgot the Exodus from Egypt – their “defining story” – nor the jubilation of being set free from exile. “Yes, the LORD has done great things for us,” the psalmist affirmed – God lifting them up from their lowly status was a permanent part of their history. What do you remember as a time when God did “great things” in your life? How do you keep that memory alive? The second half of the psalm became a prayer, based in the confidence that the same God who did great things in the past would do them again. Are there parts of your life in which you echo the prayer, “Let those who plant with tears reap the harvest with joyful shouts”? In what ways can you nourish your confidence that, in the words of Psalm 30:5 we read yesterday, “Weeping may stay all night, but by morning, joy”?
Pray – God, thank you for the times when you did great things for your people. Help me to live in the confidence that, sooner or later, you always act to uplift and bring joy to the lowly. Amen.
Read – John 20:19-22, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Notice – After Jesus was crucified, everything the disciples thought they believed about him seemed lost. He was dead, and if that wasn’t enough, by Sunday his body was missing. The disciples were hiding, afraid the authorities would come after them next. But no one had stolen Jesus’ body. Jesus was their Messiah, in ways that went beyond their wildest dreams. “Jesus…stood among them” and gave them his peace, his purpose (“As [God] sent me, so I am sending you”), and his power (“Receive the Holy Spirit”). And the risen Jesus went on to change the angry young Pharisee Saul into the tireless apostle Paul who won people in the Macedonian city of Thessalonica to faith in Jesus, and later wrote them the succinct counsel about rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks. How did Paul tell the new Christians in Thessalonica to handle pressure? Do you handle stress differently because of your relationship with Christ? “The implication of Paul’s words is that real joy depends on one’s relation to God, which is permanent and unchanging.” * How have you found gratitude in the past year for God’s love and promises even in life’s hardest moments?
Pray – Jesus, breathe your joy and courage into me. Give me ears to hear and strength to live out the part of your mission on which you are sending me. Amen.
- Paul Ellingworth and Eugene A. Nida, A Handbook on Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. New York: United Bible Societies, 1976, p. 121.
In-Person Worship Policies
- Anyone who is not feeling well or has been in close contact with someone with Covid-19 in the past 14 days should not come to church. If you do come to church and test positive after attending worship, please notify the curch as soon as possible so that the congregation can be made aware of potential exposre. Names will be kept confidential.
- Face masks that cover the nose and mouth are required for everyone over the age of 2. Hand sanitizer and masks will be available at the church.
- On Sunday mornings you will be able to enter the church through the north doors or the south parking lot doors. All other doors will be locked, but you may exit using any door.
- Fellowship/Hospitality time will not be provided before or after worship, and we encourage you to catch up with one another outside before or after the service.
- All those attending worship in-person will check in with a volunteer to ensure that we have your correct contact information.
- Your are free to seat yourself in the sanctuary in any pew that is not sectioned off to allow for physical distancing.
- As we will not have Sunday school during the summer, the education wing is closed for the time being.
- The balcony is reserved for volunteers helping to live stream the service and is otherwise closed.
- We ask that you refrain from singing along during the in-person service.
- The church bus and nursery will be available. You must call the church office at 5-5-255-2131 to make a reservation if you require the use of either service.