Please read with me from the Great Litany, in the prayer resources shared here and on Facebook:
P: From all sin, from all error, from all evil; from the cunning assaults of the devil; from an unprepared and evil death:
Let us pray.
Almighty God, we pray that you would deliver us from every evil, those known to us, and those we do not see. Help us to know and do your will in all things. Through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Around March 13 it became clear that celebrating Holy Communion in church at all--even distributing only the host, as we had previously indicated we would do--would not be wise or safe under the circumstances. We have a provision for non-Communion liturgy, but simply cutting it out seemed inadequate. It occurred to me that we could do the Great Litany to conclude the service. So we ad-libbed and had everyone present in the sanctuary open their copies of Evangelical Lutheran Worship to that curious, under-used piece of our history and we prayed it together. It was a powerful moment.
I don't know much about the Great Litany itself. I believe I first encountered it when I visited Wicker Park Lutheran Church in Chicago for the first time in 2005 (I wrote about that day, and that church, in an essay several years ago). It was the first Sunday in Lent, and the pastor explained that the Great Litany was traditionally recited on that Sunday as the congregation processed around the sanctuary. It's a powerful text but not easy to chant, for leader or congregation, and over the years it fell out of use even at Wicker Park.
From what I've read, this litany (or some version of it) has always been part of Lutheran liturgy. Litanies of all kinds are a big part of Christian worship (if you pray with us on Wednesday nights you've participated in a briefer, less elaborate litany), a haunting drone of call and response, often chanted in procession, plumbing some very severe depths of human fear and need. But for whatever reasons, it tended to disappear from American Lutheranism.
I wonder if this disappearance had something to do with the severity of its language. Over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st, our worship texts became softer and vaguer on the evils we prayed against and the supplications we made to God against them. The historical roots of American Lutheranism are in Europe, among regular folk subject to terrible turns of fate, and among immigrants to America who were largely poor. But by the time we developed the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) and Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), along with a whole warehouse of online supporting material, we were a largely suburban and middle-class denomination. The spiritual battles in our prayers are about apathy and compassion, acquisitiveness and simplicity, altruism and hard-heartedness. The was still a world of plague, famine, and civil strife out there but our role was to be helpful.
As it turns out, being helpful is not enough.
Reflect: What is your or your family's most recent experience of famine, crop failure, or civil unrest? What does that experience mean to you now?
For at least forty years our prayers didn't take much account of the possibility of drought and famine, fire and flood, or an "unprepared and evil death." That's the phrase that stood out to me when I first heard the Great Litany and it's stayed with me ever since. Like it or not, all this stuff is real. It never stopped happening, it happens now, and we should pray about it together.
And while this can be alarming and intense, I've found it oddly comforting as well. You have to face the worst things in order to pray for help with them. You have to acknowledge that the grave sorrows and evils of the world are not just "out there" waiting for our resources and good intentions but very close at hand in order to invoke God's aid in enduring and defeating them. One great gift of our Christian faith (and certainly not just ours) is that it gives us language for fears and dangers that we might otherwise struggle to articulate. One thing we discover in a crisis is the extent to which our world runs on wishful thinking and denial, and how far those things have reached into church itself.
So join me in appealing to God with this words. I can't claim that they will speed the end of this epidemic (though I certainly will not claim that they won't). But they are fitting words. They will help us face our world honestly.
For the sick and those who care for them
for the lonely and isolated
for all pregnant women and new mothers
for those who come before God's throne today
for all who have no one to pray for them
Lord, have mercy
Christ, have mercy
Lord, have mercy
Our Father, who art in heaven...
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”
So Jesus tells his disciples today, on encountering a man who blind from birth. His disciples have asked a theological question about the man’s condition: is it the man’s own sins or his parents’ sins that account for his blindness?
This may sound like a heartless question to us but it does not sound that way in the world of Jesus. These things require an explanation that preserves the justice of God. So if God is just, someone must have deserved this condition. Either God knew in advance the sins the man would commit, or the man’s parents transgressed and this is the consequence. That wasn’t the only way people looked at this question but it was a common and urgent one.
But Jesus turns the question around: What is God’s work here? And what will we do?
To answer his own question, Jesus does a small, intimate homage to the original Creation. He spits into the dirt and like God forming Adam out of the mud, gets himself dirty. He puts the spit-mud on the man’s eyes and tells him to wash. His eyes are opened. Let there be light.
Today in our series on What Are We Doing Here? We come to Martin Luther’s fifth “holy possession” of the church. The first is the Word of God, the second is the sacrament of baptism, the third is the sacrament of the altar, the fourth is confession and forgiveness. Each of these, Luther claims, are signs by which the true church of Jesus Christ may be known in the world.
The fifth holy possession, today’s topic, is ministry. During the Reformation there were many arguments about what ministry was and even whether it was necessary. Luther insisted that the church needed people to serve on behalf of the whole community: to preach, to baptize, to celebrate the sacrament and so on. Otherwise it would be chaos. So the church sets apart ministers for the work of God in the community of faith.
Now this in no way diminishes the vocation of the baptized people of God to serve each other and the world. Every Christian has a religious vocation in their work, their homes, the community, and the church. And it is in no way to say that the people who do what I do are special people. We are not set apart because of our holiness. Rather we are set apart for holy tasks that are given to us by God.
Look at the story from 1 Samuel today: God does not speak to David or David’s father Jesse directly. God sends the prophet. And the prophet does not speak his own word, but the Word God gives him to speak. The prophet does not choose David, but declares God’s choice of David. God chooses David, but it is the prophet’s hand that anoints him.
The prophet here is serving as God’s minister. He is God’s means for accomplishing God’s work. Just like ordinary human words, ordinary water, and the bread and wine that are the work of human hands all serve as means for the grace God wishes to give us. God calls ordinary people to fulfill a work that is not of our choosing or design. We are simply trying to do the work of the one who sent us while it is day.
That, anyway, is how I try to look at it. I have tried to preach God’s Word, not Ben’s word, even if it means people get mad. I have pronounced forgiveness when I doubted the sincerity of repentance and administered the sacrament to those whose faith was invisible to me. But that is the job. Samuel would have picked a different son of Jesse to anoint as king if it had been up to him.
But I have to admit, I have never done what I am doing right now. And I never meant to.
In fact, in the past I’ve been very hard on churches that pipe in a message from one site to multiple locations or into multiple sanctuaries. I get why they do that. You find an especially gifted preacher and you want to make sure that he or she can reach as many people as possible, even if you can’t be in the same room together. But to me, that’s not what the role is.
A pastor, I always said, was supposed to look his or her people in the eyes. If I’m going to offend someone or test their faith, I have to look them in the face while I do it. A pastor has to endure the only polite form of protest available to a worshiper: watching them stand up and walk out while we’re talking. Ask me how I know!
We were not supposed to be talking heads. Pictures on a screen dispensing wisdom from afar. We were not supposed to be gurus. We are supposed to be servants. We are supposed to be present. The Word we preach is supposed to be God’s Word for you, the people of Dallas, Texas in 2020. If I don’t do that as well as the pastor down the street or across the country, at least I am doing it for you.
Jesus spits into the dirt and makes mud and touches it to the man’s eyes. That is how it goes sometimes. You have to be face to face. I think of those moments where I have laid my hands on the head of someone kneeling for absolution on Maundy Thursday. Of the many hundreds of foreheads I have marked with ash on Ash Wednesday. Of the times I have held someone’s hands and prayed with them. I am not an especially demonstrative, touchy-feely person but those moments are some of the most powerful in my ministry.
And yet here we are. You’re out there but I can’t see you. I don’t know if you’re nodding appreciatively or politely chuckling at my jokes or falling asleep. Our building was designed for people, not for cameras. I miss you.
But all the same: we must do the work of the one who sent us while it is day. I give thanks to God that we can meet like this. When we can’t do what we expect to do, we focus on what we can do. When we can’t do what we think is best, we look for the next best thing.
So what I want you to hear, today, if nothing else, is this: I am still here for you. I am praying for you every day. I will pray for you over the phone or by Facebook or by Zoom or however else we can do it. If you are anxious or lonely or your life or relationship is in crisis or you are burdened with guilt, I am still here for you. And this is not because I am an especially kind or generous person. I assure you I’m not. It’s because God never quits on God’s people. God never closes down for the night or the week or the duration. We ministers of the Word and Sacrament are frail creatures who make mistakes and need rest and lead people astray without meaning to. But our only purpose--the only reason anyone bothers to put on these vestments and stand in a pulpit and speak into an empty sanctuary--our only purpose is to bring you God’s grace and mercy by whatever road is open to us. Amen.
Please read with me from Paul's Letter to the Romans, chapter 13:
"Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers."
Let us pray.
Almighty God, whom heaven and earth adore and glorify: open our hearts to love you and our mouths to bless, praise, and entreat you. Grant us patience and steadfastness in our prayers. Give us words when we lack them, and hope when it is far from us. Guide our words and our works toward you and each other, today and always. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
Christ Lutheran Church celebrates its 75th anniversary this year--though for obvious reasons the "celebration" has been rather muted so far. So much of history, locally and globally, has been experienced and prayed through by our community: the end of the Second World War, the movements for civil rights and gender equality, the assassination of President Kennedy, the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the financial crash of 2008. And yet even our congregation is too new to have experienced the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Late in 1918, churches in Dallas (and many other cities) were closed along with many other public spaces. I would love the chance to read the thoughts of clergy and lay leaders at the time. Even more, I'd love to learn more about what people did during that time, when the city (and the whole world) was ravaged by a public health crisis and churches could not gather for public, communal prayer and worship.
There is, to be sure, a special power in praying together. The times when I hold the hands of someone having a crisis or waiting for surgery and pray with and for them are some of the most powerful moments in my work. The feeling in a small gathering or even a full sanctuary when we are concentrating together can be quite intense.
Likewise, individual prayer can be an intense experience too. When I'm on retreat or have the opportunity for relatively extended silence and solitude, I find myself praying more deeply and reaching places in my own need, or praise, or grief that I am not normally aware are present. If prayer is, first and foremost, an offering to God of ourselves, whether it is our needs or fears or gratitude, the more we give, the more powerful our prayer will seem to us.
Reflect: When do you pray? Where do you pray? Does prayer feel different when you're alone and with others? What do you "pray for"?
Christians have had a lot to say over two thousand years about when, how, why, and for what purposes we pray. I wrote about this in a magazine a few years ago and revisited the question in chapter six of my book. Those are all good and interesting questions (I promise!), but for now I want to focus on Paul's exhortation to the church in Rome to "persevere in prayer." In 1 Thessalonians (possibly the oldest text in the New Testament), he tells the church to "pray without ceasing." When I first read Romans it was in the King James Version, whose translators rendered "persevere in prayer" as "continuing instant in prayer." That phrase caught my imagination. It's as if prayer is an ongoing, maybe eternal moment and we step into and out of it.
Paul tells his hearers to pray all the time. I don't think he does this because prayer is a sort of incantation or shortcut that gets otherwise difficult or impossible things done. At least I'd warn anyone away from thinking that. These exhortations to prayer come in the context of lists of things Christians should be aspiring to do and to be: showing honor, not lagging in zeal, and so forth. Prayer is supposed to form us as believers. It's a dialogue with God in which the first step we take is to ask, often without knowing or saying it, to be the kind of people who trust God and come before God with all we have and are and wish for.
This is why we are not just told to pray fervently or passionately or earnestly but continually and with perseverance. We should, in fact, lay our cares and needs before God with as much earnestness and openness as we can manage. There is nothing wrong with urgent or emergency or last-chance prayer. But one important lesson from Paul's guidance here is that prayer changes us over time. The tedious times of showing up and saying our prayers with cold hearts do not, in the moment, feel very gratifying or effective. But it's by persevering through those times--when we really don't feel like praying--that we truly grow in our faith and in the oft-discussed "power" of prayer.
Reflect: When do you least want to pray? What are your go-to, default prayer practices? When was the last time you did one of them?
For years now I've tried to keep a regular schedule of Morning Prayer from the Episcopal version of what we call the Daily Office. This is a daily cycle of prayers, consisting of psalms, Scripture readings, and common prayers that is meant to make each day holy. And the truth is that over many years of keeping this schedule I've missed it about as often as I've kept it (maybe more), and of the times I've kept it, I've often felt bored or resentful.
But here's the thing: I never, not once, have regretted taking the 10-20 minutes I spend on doing it. It's remarkable how high a hill those twenty minutes can look from the bottom. And I've at times been glad when it's over. But if I had another chance at the last four years, I'd only try to do it more often.
So for this season of shutting down and staying in, I've decided to try to do the Daily Office every day. Right now that's on Facebook Live through our church page (please like or follow if you haven't already, and remember that if you wisely avoid having a Facebook account you can still watch the page without logging in). I already missed morning prayer once but we will keep it up as much as we can. And we've made a resource for you to download and use to follow along or pray on your own. One of the hardest aspects of prayer for people is the sense that they can't find the words. But the truth is you don't have to. The words are there for us. All we have to do is join ourselves to them.
Please pray for:
those in prison or immigration detention
those who have lost income
people struggling with anxiety and depression
children home from school and their parents.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Our Father, who art in heaven...
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This week I did not have the chance to participate in our new national obsession: trying to find toilet paper. I saw pictures online, though, along with shelves emptied of canned goods and other paper products. As someone pointed out, with the COVID-19 outbreak, we have to imagine those shortages but for masks, respirators, and hospital beds. If we don’t reduce our social contact and lower the rate of transmission, a shortage of toilet paper will be the least of our worries.
It’s hard to think about this. Few things in life are harder than changing our minds. Few things are harder than envisioning the possibility that the future could look fundamentally different from the past--the possibility that the world as we know it will not just keep chugging along as it always has.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at the well. It’s a meeting that challenges assumptions in the world of Jesus and that woman: assumptions about men and women, about Jews and Samaritans, about God and the Messiah.
The historians tell us that wells, in this world, were predominantly female spaces. Women hauled the water and congregated there together. Jesus showing up there would perhaps have been unusual. Maybe even threatening. And in general, it was not appropriate for unrelated men and women to be alone together. The woman knows this. The disciples obviously know this.
Moreover, Jesus is a Jew and the woman is a Samaritan. These are stable groups in their world. They are both descended from ancient Israel, but long before this their communities became distinct. They worship differently, as the woman points out. Samaritans worship on a sacred mountain while Jews worship in the holy city.
I think it’s fair to say that neither the woman nor the disciples of Jesus can really imagine a world where the relationship between men and women, or between Jews and Samaritans, is different. These things have been for a long age and will be until the end of the world. Moreover, as Jesus points out, the woman is in what might be called an irregular domestic relationship. She has been married several times and either divorced, widowed, or both. Her current partner is not her husband. If her relationship was the object of gossip and disapproval, it may account for the fact that she comes to the well alone in the heat of the day instead of coming in the cool morning with a large group of women.
Jesus promises her living water, and just like Nicodemus in last week’s story, she thinks very literally about this. She doesn’t want to keep hauling water alone every day. But of course the water Jesus offers is the spring of the Holy Spirit, which bubbles up into eternal life. It turns out she needs this, too. And when she acknowledges that her partner is not in fact her husband, Jesus does not shun or reprove her. In fact, the woman becomes the first messenger of the Gospel to her community--one in a long line of Biblical figures who are plucked from the less reputable part of society to bring God’s message to the world. (some believe her, some need to see Jesus for themselves--some things never do change). He tells her that the hour is coming and is now here when the true worshippers of God will worship not on the Samaritans’ mountain nor in the City of David, but in spirit and truth.
I have always heard their conversation as a moment of grace and assurance. And it’s only this last time that I have had to hear the deeper challenge here: the woman, the disciples, and the people of the village need to change their minds. They have to go through the painful liberation of seeing their world in a new way. A man and a woman conversing innocently together. Jews and Samaritans united in the true worship of the Living God. The hour of the Messiah not being in a safely distant future, but right now. Now. No time to waste. It is a moment of grace, to be sure. But it is also a moment of disorientation. It is a moment that challenges them to embrace a new reality. A moment to change their minds.
Today in our sermon series on “What Are We Doing Here?” we’ve come to Martin Luther’s fourth “holy possession” of the Church: Confession and forgiveness of sins. Or as Luther called it, “the office of the keys.” This is a practice with deep roots in the Old Testament, as the worship of Israel was oriented partly toward the forgiving of the peoples’ sins. In the New Testament we hear Jesus tell Peter that he is given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, that whatever he looses on earth is loosed in heaven, and whatever is bound on earth is bound in heaven. At the end of John’s Gospel he says the same thing to all the apostles. Forgiving sins became an important function of the church’s ministers. Christians who were guilty of notorious sins were excluded from the fellowship of the Eucharist--the were “bound.” If they underwent a public process of repentance they could be absolved at Maundy Thursday and restored to the sacrament of the altar.
This is why so many Lutheran churches begin worship with the brief order of confession and forgiveness, as we did today and most Sundays. Naming and owning our sins and having forgiveness declared is an integral part of sharing Communion. Lutherans didn’t even abolish private confession, though we pretty much let it lapse by accident.
Where Luther changed the doctrine of confession and absolution was on the idea of repentance. Two things were required for confession to work: you had to repent of your sins and you had to have faith in the promise of Christ to forgive them. You had to change your mind, in other words. That’s what repentance means.
And that is hard. One way that sin dominates us is by convincing us that things can’t be any different than they are. That we can’t be different. That the world can’t be different. In a more subtle way, sin convinces us that things don’t need to be different. That we’ll be all right. That we can keep playing this hand out forever.
When I wrote about this in my book, I wrote about it in terms of smoking. I loved smoking. I knew it was bad. And it was hard to quit because it was hard to see beyond it. You’ll always want this. You’ll always do this. You can always be this person, a smoker; you don’t know who you’ll be if you quit. And you’ll probably be ok.
It took a pretty frightening case of bronchitis to get me out of that mindset. Because everything was ok until it very suddenly wasn’t. And all the lies I’d told myself came home to roost.
The woman at the well had to change her mind. She had to think of herself and her world in a new way. The things we think can go on indefinitely reach an end some time. And then we are confronted with the moment of the Messiah: the one who calls us away from the world we think we know into a new way of being, a new way of seeing God and each other, a new way of walking as people whose sins are forgiven and put away.
This is a challenge we will all have to face, in different ways, in the weeks to come. Much will have to change in our world and many things we take for granted will turn out to be very uncertain. In Italy they have been on severe lockdown for a week as hospitals have to practice battlefield medicine--choosing who gets a life-saving intervention and who doesn’t. I pray every day that we avoid that fate. But to do that requires us to change our minds. It involves doing things we don’t want to do, and refraining from things we do want to do. I struggle with this as much as anyone else.
But we can learn from this. We will be obligated to help each other in new ways and protect each other in new ways. We will find ways to worship together at a distance for the time being. We have to refrain from sharing the Sacrament today and for perhaps several weeks. But we will join together across time and space to pray for God’s blessing and mercy.
And here is the truth: we are rightly told to stay home and avoid public spaces as much as we can. But we are still, like the woman at the well, the emissaries of Christ in the world. We have words of blessing and peace to speak. We have cynicism and denial and despair to combat. We have neighbors to love and care for. In Spain last night at 10 p.m., a whole quarantined nation paused to open their windows and applaud to thank the health care workers who are risking their lives--some of whom will die--to care for the sick. In a world of many needs, the well of eternal life already springs up within you. Time to put it to use. Amen.
Greetings, friends. I'm going to experiment with some specific online content for this time when we are being strongly encouraged to minimize our in-person interactions. Hopefully we'll get the hang of worship-by-Zoom and making little videos soon, but I'm starting out where I'm most comfortable: the old-fashioned written word. So please join me in hearing the words of Paul the Apostle from his letter to the Galatians (6:2):
Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, you give us each other to love and to serve; you set our neighbor before us so that we might find you through her; and you set your Word and Sacrament before us so that through you we might see our neighbor. Open our hearts to the burdens and needs of our neighbors and give us the strength to help bear them; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.
Paul's words in his letter to the Galatians are a lovely expression of Christian life: bearing each other's burdens. It is so broad as to be impossible to complete--a burden can be anything, at any time--and yet it is perfectly specific. It is our brother or sister's burden, even if that brother or sister is not close at hand or is even unknown to us.
Burden-bearing is an important spiritual practice for many people, including me. For clergy, we are often "bearing" the sins of our people (through confession) or of the world (as revealed in the preaching of the Word)--not in the sense that we become guilty of them, but that we must hear, face, and take a kind of responsibility for them. In his treatise "On Whether One May Flee a Deadly Plague," Martin Luther includes pastors among those obligated to stay behind and care for the souls of the sick and dying, at the greatest risk to our own health. We worry about our people, even between pandemics. We think about challenges for the church or the community that are necessarily not front-and-center for almost anyone else.
But it's hardly just us. Parents are bearing burdens all the time. Family breadwinners. People in "serving" or "caring" professions. The fact is that a lot of us get our identity from what we do for others--what burdens we bear. If I am perfectly honest with myself, part of my negative reaction to the thought of restricting or even closing down church services is that I am not entirely sure who I even am if I am not serving in this particular capacity.
Reflect: Whose burdens do you bear? What roles or tasks in your life are important to your identity?
One challenge--and hardly the only or greatest--of this season will be to talk ourselves into doing less. We may feel that we can take risks on our own account. We may even be exhilarated by the thought of risking illness or even death for the sake of our duties. But the very hard truth is that our task, as Christians and as neighbors, is to keep ourselves safe for the sake of our neighbor. To be careless of one's own health may be foolish (please, please don't listen to people who say this is just the flu, or just like a cold; the symptoms often overlap but this virus is much more deadly) or it may be courageous. But in this case, by protecting ourselves we are also protecting the people we might otherwise infect, and whose resilience in the face of a disease may be less than we imagine ours to be.
Just a week ago I heard someone say "this is just the flu and it only kills 90 year olds." Unfortunately, this disease kills plenty of people who are younger. But what I wish I had asked this person is: "Do you not come into contact with any 90 year olds? Do their lives (or their suffering) not matter to you?" Not to mention the cascading danger that comes from hospitals being overfilled with acute cases, not all of which will be fatal but which will compromise care for many other diseases as well.
Bearing one another's burdens means, first and foremost, taking their own needs and welfare as seriously as we take our own. And sometimes that means letting something wait, or reaching out by phone, or taking additional precautions for ourselves that we do not want to take. It most definitely means not pushing through that minor dry cough or slight fever to do what we feel we are obligated to do.
It also means looking for ways to help people who are more greatly threatened or inconvenienced by these disruptions than we ourselves may be. Can we get groceries for a friend or neighbor who is (correctly!) advised to avoid public places? Can we share information when someone falls ill? Can we help with childcare during school closures? None of these things is risk-free, of course, and not everyone can or should do them. But bearing one another's burdens consists both in what we do and what we don't do.
It also helps to remember that the one thing you can always do is pray. That, too, is a real and legitimate way of bearing each other's burdens. Pray for those at the highest risk for this disease. Please, please pray for the medical and emergency professionals who are being exposed to it many times every day. Pray for everyone who is losing income or critically valuable social contact. And don't forget to pray for people to be prudent in the midst of dangers that are unfamiliar to almost all of us.
In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; *
Let us pray for:
those who care for them
those in prison, detention, or awaiting trial
those who will become ill
those who have none to pray for them
ourselves in our daily needs and responsibilities
the church, her ministers, and all the faithful
Lord, have mercy
Christ, have mercy
Lord, have mercy
Our father, who art in heaven...
Dear Christ Lutheran Church family,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Starting last week we took some additional precautions in worship. We asked anyone at heightened risk from the new coronavirus, or anyone having any respiratory symptoms, to refrain from the chalice at communion or from coming to church altogether. We refrained from shaking hands, put out easily accessible hand sanitizer, and took the bowl of water out of the baptismal font. Some of these steps were emotionally difficult to take (at least for me) but I felt they were prudent, if not overdue, given the growing but also not fully known threat of a new illness for which there is yet no immunity, vaccine, or treatment. St. Paul the Apostle reminds us that we fulfill the law of Christ when we bear one another’s burdens, and that includes refraining from things we love in order to help others stay safe.
This week I have been following the news closely as the case for extreme caution has only gotten stronger. As I write, there are at least six confirmed cases in North Texas, just since Monday. A severe shortage of test kits has made the spread of the virus and its current prevalence unknowable. I have paid attention to the responses of church bodies in areas with more confirmed cases than ours as well as to statements from national church bodies. Clear and direct guidance from public officials at the state and federal levels has been lacking. I have been reading up on the advice of public health professionals who are urging public and private changes to “flatten the curve” of what appears to be an uncontained outbreak, including increased attention to hygiene and “social distancing” to spread out the incidence of the disease and prevent sudden shocks to the health care system. This is especially important if, as the head of the National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci reports, the fatality rate from the new illness is ten times higher than the seasonal flu (some credible estimates are higher).
While I hope and pray that these preliminary estimates prove to be too high, and that this event will somehow resolve itself soon, communities and households have to prepare themselves for a difficult season in which our lives are constrained in new ways, both for our own safety and for the good of people we have contact with.
With that in mind, we are making some adjustments to our life together to make participation in this community as safe as we can.
Surely we all wish that this were not happening, and I invite all of you to pray with me fervently that the sick be protected and healed. But we know that the Church of Jesus Christ has endured epidemics and worse than epidemics, and that the gates of Hell cannot prevail against it. We will pray for each other and our world, protect each other, and come through it with each other.
Please be in touch with me directly if you have questions, if you are experiencing anxiety, or if you know of cases of illness that we should be lifting up in prayer.
“And now may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you perfect in everything good, working in you that which is pleasing in His sight. Amen.”
Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben Dueholm
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is Spirit."
“Flesh” and “Spirit”: these are simple words with big meanings.
There is a way of understanding these words that goes back before the time of Jesus. On the one hand you have the flesh, which is identified with the physical body. On the other you have “spirit,” which is thought of as an immaterial essence or soul. The flesh is the site of our passions—our suffering and desire—while the spirit is the source of our reason and understanding. Our flesh is mortal, our spirit is eternal. Our flesh is the lower part of our being, the spirit is the higher part. The flesh may not be bad, but it is just a vehicle or a house. The spirit may not always be good but it is always the driver, or the occupant of the house.
As I said, this understanding of flesh and spirit goes back before the time of Jesus and it has been influential within Christianity. But does that mean Christianity is a “spiritual” religion? Does it mean that the “flesh” is bad, as we might think from today’s Gospel?
In the Bible—here in John’s Gospel and especially in Paul’s letters, these two words have a somewhat different meaning. “Flesh” does not mean our physical body, but our worldly or rational mind. It is, so to say, our merely human understanding. It is human existence without illumination. The Spirit is the breath or wind that comes from God and animates not just our bodies but our minds. The Spirit is what makes us into a new creation.
So when we hear “flesh” and “spirit,” we should look beyond “body” and “soul.” A soul can be “fleshly,” and not just because it craves popcorn or an extra hour of sleep. Jesus is not using the term “spirit” in a way that excludes our bodily existence. Our bodies and souls are not like two Legos stuck together that can just be pulled apart. Each of us is one whole person, with our bodies and minds deeply intertwined.
And so our faith has to be embodied. The word of God is not downloaded into our brains; we hear it with our frail human ears.
Baptism is not only words of promise but a promise with water and oil touching our bodies.
We do all kinds of ritual physical actions: We shake hands, we reverence the altar, we dip our fingers in the baptismal font.
Somewhere along the way I picked up the habit of bowing my head slightly when the name of Jesus is spoken in prayers, not because I am so darn in love with Jesus and in awe of him but because I would like to have more love and more awe. Bodily acts shape our souls. They are the things that make us “spiritual.”
Nowhere is this more true than in the celebration of Holy Communion. In third week of our series on the question “What are we doing here?” we are thinking about this most powerful and intimate act of the church. Luther calls it the Sacrament of the Altar, the third “holy possession” of the church.
How we should understand this “holy possession” was a major point of dispute during the Reformation. Luther insisted that Christ was truly present, body and blood, under the bread and wine. The whole creation is transparent and permeable to Christ, like air. Everything is present to him all the time, and he simply makes himself available to us in a special way in the Sacrament.
He made this argument against the view of a guy named Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli thought it was impossible for Christ to be present in the Lord’s Supper because his human body had ascended into heaven. Luther actually quoted today’s Gospel on being born a second time, saying, in effect, “too bad, you big baby, try harder to have faith.” It was Zwingli’s view that the bread and wine could only symbolize an absent Christ.
I know this is a controversial and difficult topic but I have to say I have never really understood the view of the sacrament as a symbol. I don’t understand how coming together to eat pretend body and drink pretend blood is a more reasonable thing to do. And I don’t understand looking at the whole creation and saying “wherever Jesus Christ is, it’s not here, in the bread that he calls his body and the cup that he calls his blood.” Jesus appears to be absent from so much of life. It seems that we should try to humbly embrace him where he promies to meet us.
So it’s important that this is not just a story, not just a memory of a past event, not just an image of an absent Savior. It’s a real thing we do together. We really do bring our gifts to the altar and kneel together and eat the bread that is Christ’s body and share the cup that is his blood, under these simple and human forms. We step into the moment of Christ’s sacrifice and we unite our lives to his sacrifice.
Luther said that the benefits of this sacrament are forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. It shows us how our flesh and our spirit are deeply united. And it shows, as we do this thing together, how enmeshed we are with each other.
The Sacrament gives us the body of Christ and then makes us into the Body of Christ, together. The body is there on the altar, then it disappears as we eat it, and then when we turn around, here it is again in all of us, sent forth into the world.
We do this together. We bless and uphold each other by our presence. We help each other up. We serve each other. We weep together.
We can get each other sick.
This has always been part of the Sacrament. One of the reasons early Christian worship was so powerful was because it broke down barriers between people who would not normally have eaten together. We have always lived with the fear that eating with the wrong person would subject us to the risk of “catching” whatever social or religious or physical ailment they bring to the table with them. Long before we knew anything about germs, we knew that we could “catch” ritual impurity or social stigma from the people we eat with.
And now, because we know about germs, we have a new way to express that old fear. And that’s the problem: fear of a virus can become fear of each other. We can’t live without each other, we can’t even be Christians without each other. But being together, eating together, sometimes even breathing together involves risk. It involves leaving the imaginary shell of our individuality and encountering each other and everything we bring, good and bad.
It is difficult to withdraw from each other. It is hard to stop shaking hands. It is hard to refrain from the Sacrament. We crave it, body and soul, just like we crave each other. I feel so sad and ripped off when I sit through a whole church service and there’s no Sacrament.
But that’s what bearing each other’s burdens means: both accepting our own risks and making sacrifices to reduce the risks of others. Today we’re asking people to refrain if they live with a heightened risk or if they may pose a risk. As the current outbreak progresses, as now seems inevitable, we may have to take more drastic steps. I take the obligation to protect this community very seriously, and I would have no one suffer for being part of the worship of God.
But if the risk we share as human beings, as fleshy souls bumping into each other sharing space and microbes, requires that we refrain, I hope we will all refrain together. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that those who believe might be saved. God did not give us this most precious and powerful and holy Sacrament so that we might harm ourselves and each other, but so that our bodies may be fed and we may be lifted up, in flesh and spirit, to God. Amen.
Someone wrote to me last week asking about Ash Wednesday and our observance of it, despite no Scriptural reference to this particular day and the rite of imposing ashes. Here's my answer:
Regarding Ash Wednesday, almost nothing in the order and structure of Christian worship is explicitly specified in Scripture. Christians did seem to worship on the "Lord's day," i.e. Sunday, but there was certainly no provision for festivals like Easter, Christmas, or anything else. All of these things were developed as ways for the churches to order their practices of worship. The liturgical season of Lent is very old, going back at least to the 3rd century, and the use of ashes in connection with mourning and penitence goes back well before the time of Christ. Ash Wednesday emerged late in the first millennium in the Latin churches as a way to mark the beginning of Lent, which had been a season of fasting and penitence for several centuries by then (Ash Wednesday is not practiced in the Eastern churches, as far as I know). The Lutheran churches retained the seasons of the church year, including Lent, and continued to celebrate Ash Wednesday, though in many places the imposition of ashes itself was suppressed (along with the palm procession on Palm Sunday!). In recent decades, Lutherans have recovered some of these practices which are neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture but which enrich and deepen the experience of worship.
Luther wanted to simplify church calendars but he did not attack the seasons or their major observances. The critical distinction for Lutheranism wasn't between "Scriptural" and "man-made" rules necessarily, but between what is specifically commanded or forbidden and what is optional. Ash Wednesday falls into the "optional" bucket--the Eastern churches never practiced it--so it could be dispensed with for some good reason, but it does not in any way contradict the precepts laid out for worship in the Scriptures.
Some of our Reformed and Baptist brethren go farther than Luther, insisting that only Scripture be used as a source for rules and orders of worship. The problem with that view is that no such rule or order exists in Scripture, and the church did worship just fine for a long time without needing to refer to Scripture for every single practice and custom. Much of what happens in worship is in fact older than the written New Testament, and it's probable that some New Testament passages originated as worship texts or songs.
If you're interested in a very early, fairly extensive picture of early Christian church life, check out the Didache. It's roughly contemporary with the New Testament and has a lot of information about how some churches may have been worshiping and organizing themselves before there was any agreed-upon list of books called "Scripture."
This week in "What Are We Doing Here?", a Christian practice that goes by many names: the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Altar, or Holy Communion. On the night of his arrest, Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples and left them a new act to observe until his return:
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:14-21)
Versions of this event circulated, with variations, before the Gospel was written down (Luke's version is probably not the oldest or most "accurate," it's just the one I chose to quote). Paul heard a slightly different version:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
A very early Christian text called the Didache ("Teaching" or "Instruction"), from roughly the same period as the New Testament texts, includes version still more different:
1And concerning the Eucharist, hold Eucharist thus: The Eucharist 2First concerning the Cup, "We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the Holy Vine of David thy child, which, thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy child; to thee be glory for ever." The Cup 3And concerning the broken Bread: "We give thee thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child. To thee be glory for ever. 4As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy Kingdom, for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever." 5But let none eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptised in the Lord's Name. For concerning this also did the Lord say, "Give not that which is holy to the dogs."
So looking at the different texts it's hard to know what the "original" version of the Eucharist was. What we know from this diversity, however, is that a meal of thanksgiving and remembrance was part of Christian worship from the very beginning. And this makes sense because meals were an important part of Jesus' ministry. Jesus feeds multitudes and sits with friends; around the table he may be the guest of honor or he may be engaged in theological disputation. Meals were at the heart of the life of the church even before Christ's death and resurrection gave those gatherings a new meaning: a Messianic feast anticipating his return and in which his body and blood would be present to us by his promise under the bread and wine.
This is such an intimate and flexible ritual action that it can sustain, and has sustained, all kinds of practices and interpretations. Christians argue over it relentlessly. In the 16th century, some theological writers started having a problem: if, as John's Gospel suggests, "God is Spirit" and "the flesh accomplishes nothing," how can Christ be really present in the Eucharist? This is a question raised by our Gospel passage for Sunday:
[Jesus said to Nicodemus:] What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
To understand this passage, it's important to know that the same Greek word is translated here as both "wind" and "Spirit" (it also means "breath"). This seems to suggest that Spirit/wind/breath is a force that is totally separate from "flesh/body." It is tempting to create a strictly "spiritual" interpretation of Christianity that makes the physical body somehow irrelevant or disposable.
But then what do we do about all those meals in the Gospels? Why is a meal the central act of the early Church? Is the Sacrament we share today just an empty remembrance of an absent Christ? And if that's so, why would Jesus command us to keep this ritual until his return?
Something else is going on when we gather around the altar--something big and mysterious and sacred that transforms our relationship not just with God but with each other, and not just "spiritually" or in our minds but in our bodies too. Hear more on Sunday!
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When a virus infects a body, it starts by taking over a healthy cell. That healthy cell becomes a factory for copies of the virus. The copies spread and make the whole body sick. An infected person comes into contact with other people and the virus spreads--through water droplets in a cough or sneeze, for example. Viruses tend not to discriminate. They can use any type of person as host, and so they can spread easily from one community to another.
When a new viral outbreak starts, the first line of defense is to quarantine the sick individuals or the stricken community. That way the spread of the virus to new hosts and new areas can be slowed down or sometimes even prevented, and necessary care can be focused on the people who are already afflicted. When the novel coronavirus started spreading rapidly in and around the city of Wuhan in China early this year, quarantine was the first strategy to slow the epidemic and to keep it out of regions and countries that didn’t have it yet.
But the thing about quarantines is that they usually only work for a while. Once a viral disease starts spreading outside of the quarantine, the strategy needs to change. Once an epidemic is on, public health officials focus on mitigating the inevitable spread of the disease. Instead of isolating and separating ourselves, we need to cooperate. Nations or cities with an abundance of medical supplies need to share with areas that are lacking so that the spread can be slowed and the human toll can be minimized. If people are afraid of being ostracized or stigmatized, they are less likely to seek the testing and treatment they need, and more likely to infect new people. If people are going to be stuck with a huge hospital bill just for getting tested--as has already happened in the U.S.--they are going to have a strong incentive to roll the dice with their own health and the health of their neighbors. A virus doesn’t care if we’re being foolish or if we’re being overprotective. It will use whatever we give it.
Obviously viruses are on many minds these days as the U.S. prepares for our own outbreaks of COVID-19 caused by the new coronavirus. But viruses are just inherently interesting. There’s a way in which a virus understands humanity better than humans do. To a virus, we’re just one big 7.7-billion-person mass of cells ready to be taken over and turned into factories. To each other, we are friend and enemy, citizen and stranger, rich and poor; people we are obligated to care about, and people whose suffering we may ignore. The viruses show us over and over that they are right.
Today our Lent series on the question “What Are We Doing Here?” continues with Martin Luther’s second “holy possession” of the church: the sacrament of baptism. Like everything else in the church, baptism is done in a wild diversity of ways, with a similar diversity of explanations for what it does. Lutherans follow the ancient church in teaching that baptism forgives what we call original sin, or sometimes ancestral sin. Through water and the Word of God, a new believer is washed free from sin and eternal death. Whenever we confess our sins and receive forgiveness in the church, we are returning to our baptism. We are reactivating it.
And in forgiving our sins and raising us to eternal life, baptism also joins us to the Body of Christ. Some of our brother and sister Christians take a different view, that baptism is an individual rite that expresses individual faith. But in our tradition, baptism makes us part of something much bigger than each of us alone. It makes us part of the People of God, the Body of Christ on earth. The apostles and the church fathers said that baptism had created a new nation, a new people called out of every nation and language. It joins us with people who sit across every boundary humans create for ourselves: friend and enemy, citizen and stranger, rich and poor; people we are obligated to care about, and people whose suffering we may ignore. The Body of Christ is everywhere. It is in Wuhan, it is in Italy and Iran and Washington State. Where one member suffers, we are all touched.
This is important because sin wants to separate us. What does Adam say when God asks about the fruit of the free? The woman gave it to me! This is the devil’s greatest trick. God created humans for community and cooperation and solidarity. The devil sows hostility and estrangement and separation. And sin tends to spread like a virus. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent, and nothing has been the same since because we cannot accept and embrace each other as we were created to do.
The devil tries a similar trick with Jesus in today’s Gospel. The devil is inviting Jesus to separate himself from ordinary humanity. Seize the love of the people by fulfilling their hunger. Seize the awe of the people by displaying your power by falling from the temple. Seize the obedience of the world by worshiping me, and receiving my power over the kingdoms of the earth. Break your human fellowship with these miserable sinful creatures and rule them the way they want to be ruled: through need and fear and wonder.
Jesus refuses the temptation. Jesus does not deny his humanity and he does not deny our humanity. Jesus stays in solidarity with us hungry, needy, fearful humans. He does not separate himself.
And Jesus’s solidarity with humanity is repeated over and over in the sacrament of baptism. Every time we baptize a new believer we ask them or their parents and their sponsors to renounce the devil and all his empty promises, the power of sin that draws us away from God, and the powers of the world that rebel against God. If sin can act like a virus, so can goodness. I’ve seen children help bring their own parents to baptism. I’ve baptized people in their sixties alongside six month old babies. Once a seven year old wanted to be baptized but she was afraid, so she asked a friend at the church to stand up with her. And just like a virus, baptism can seem to lie dormant for a long time--for years or even decades. And yet when you come back to Jesus, there it is waiting for you.
This is why baptism is so central to our faith, and why it is such a powerful and universal sign of the Christian community. This is why we celebrate it, every time. It’s why we pray for the newly baptized and why we lift up baptism anniversaries. While the world tries to pull us all apart, Jesus will endure anything to hold us together. Amen.
God's Work. Our hands.