Why does God let this happen? Thoughts on living in an imperfect world.

Why does God let this happen?

Here is an experience many of us have had.

Our child is engaged to be married.

The happy couple wants to have the “perfect” wedding.

And these days, they usually have a couple of years to plan it.

The list of things to plan is long.

Where will the wedding be?

Who will officiate?

Who will be invited?

Where will the reception be?

What food will we serve?

Who will provide the music?

What will be the on play list?

Who will video?

Who will photograph?

What will everyone be wearing?

What about the flowers?

Meticulous planning begins.

Each of the betrothed has a vision, a mental picture, of the perfect wedding.

But here is the problem.

Those visions often clash.

Each one asks, “Why can’t it be the way I want it to be? That would be perfect!”

But what is perfect for one is not perfect for the other.

So, a compromise is made.

Neither thinks the wedding is perfect, but both accept it is as good as it can be.

Good enough.

This is kind of the way we all deal with God.

Our relationship with God is like a wedding.

We plan for it to be a particular way.

We all have a belief, a vision perhaps, of what would make it perfect.

Until God says, “No, it cannot be that way.”

We protest.

“Why can’t the world be the way I want it to be? That would be perfect!”

But it cannot be that way.

So, we need to compromise and accept it as it is.

That it is good enough.

Can we do that?

How are we to live in a world that is just “good enough” from our perspective?

A world where bad stuff happens?

Like COVID-19?

That brings us to our scripture reading.

Luke 4: 16-30

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Let’s set the stage.

Jesus has been baptized and tempted in the wilderness.

Now he is ready to get his ministry started.

He heads back to Nazareth and shows up at the synagogue as was his custom.

He is the reader for the day and reads a passage from Isaiah describing the anointed one.

The Messiah.

Emanuel.

God with us.

Jesus says, “That’s me!”

Folks get pretty excited because they have heard about Jesus’ activities up in Capernaum.

While Luke does not describe these things, Mark does.

Jesus has cleansed a leper, healed a paralytic, calmed a storm, exorcized a demon, raised a dead girl, and cured a bleeding woman.

Here is the one who takes away all the bad stuff in the world.

Now the folks in Nazareth want some of that.

And Jesus tells them, sorry, that’s not the way it works.

“Eliza did not feed all the starving widows.

Elisha did not cleanse all the lepers.

And neither will I.

I did not come to make the world perfect.

I came to be you in the imperfect world.

I came to tell you that there is a perfect world, but that is not here.

While you are here, I want to teach you how live in this imperfect world.

That will have to be good enough.

But like them, I offer hope and the comfort that comes from God’s presence with you here.”

Apparently, that was good not enough for some folks, because they try to throw Jesus off a cliff.

They wanted the Messiah to take away all that bad stuff.

Why would God let that stuff happen?

Isn’t that the way we feel in this pandemic?

Why is God letting this happen?

And the answer is particularly unsatisfying.

It is a mystery.

God’s ways are beyond our best understanding and are not always the way we would like them to be.

Which brings me to Gottfried Leibniz.

He was a German philosopher, known for his optimism.

He considered the question of theodicy – why the world was not perfect.

Leibniz envisioned God as thinking through all the worlds God could create and chose to create the one we inhabit – the best one.

Leibniz’s argued that the world, having been created by God, must be the best of all possible worlds.

Leibniz then says it is pointless to complain about the imperfections of the world.

No world without suffering and injustice is possible.

So, we should take comfort that the world is as good as it can possibly be.

Leibniz is not alone in this.

Samuel Wells and Abigail Kocher wrote this in their book “Shaping the Prayers of the People”.

“The fact [is] that creation is deeply good, despite the fall, and the truth [is] that mundane, ordinary existence is profoundly valuable and suffused with God’s glory …”

So, the world is not only good as it is, but is valuable and filled with God’s glory, despite its faults.

Maybe so, but wouldn’t it be better today if there were no COVID-19?

Maybe.

But I have to tell you, as a person with a degree in biology, I do see it as rather extraordinary.

I do see a design in it.

Creation is doing what creation does.

Did God create COVID-19?

Apparently.

But why?

Only God knows.

And we have to accept it as part of God’s creation of the best possible world.

A world that we have to accept as good enough.

So, we need to learn how to adapt to it and live in it.

That is what Jesus tells the folks in Nazareth.

I am here to walk you through it.

So, this I think we know.

Even though creation is not as we might have planned it, we can appreciate it because God is with us.

And that should be good enough.

Catastrophes will happen and people’s lives will be destroyed.

Not because anyone deserved it, but because creation does what creation does.

Lives are destroyed in natural disasters.

Others from disease.

Others by accident.

Others at the hands of other humans.

It seems kind of random.

Yet the fact remains that God created everything and said it was good, it is the best of all possible worlds and is valuable and filled with God’s glory.

Sometimes God will intervene with a miracle, but only when it serves God’s purpose.

That does not happen often.

Jesus came to tell us how we can best live in such a world.

He teaches us that we don’t just sit back and watch it all happen.

We do what we can to help each other manage it.

A couple of years ago, Wayne Fast, Nancy Page, Emilee Little and I went to Andrews, South Carolina to rebuild homes damaged in the floods from a 22-inch-in-one-day rainfall.

These were people whose lives had been catastrophically disrupted.

I expected to hear that question:

Why us, God?

But we didn’t.

What we heard was this:

We needed a miracle.

And God sent you.

Lives were being rebuilt by many who came with tools, money or just themselves.

We were the miracles.

We helped people manage their lives impacted by the world around them.

These damaged lives become opportunities for people to love each other by lending a hand in times of need.

Jesus taught us that this was the way we are to live in a world that is just good enough.

The Jesus way.

If we are to do what Jesus taught us to do, we must be compassionate to those in need, from any misfortune, whether catastrophic or individual.

When we do this, God’s love erupts out of nowhere.

The kingdom, that perfect place. becomes is very close.

But we can be paralyzed by the thought that we cannot “save” everyone.

Because there was another thing we saw in South Carolina.

Abandoned homes.

Closed businesses.

People who were not getting a rebuilt life.

People we could not help.

We were overwhelmed.

So many people.

So much need.

Kind of like what we see today with COVID-19.

But we should remember that even Jesus did not give everyone a miracle.

He does not expect that from us either!

Jesus did acts of individual charity, not global reconstruction.

We are called to do the same.

When we help just one person in need we are living the Jesus way.

We are bringing the kingdom just a bit closer.

That is what we need to do in our current COVID-19 world.

So many folks are suffering.

Physically.

Emotionally.

Spiritually.

Financially.

What can we do to make their world a bit better?

One thing we can do is feed them.

We are doing that through our Serving from the Stoop food collections.

And we are doing whatever is required to contain the virus so that people can go back to work safely.

And lastly, we need to be patient. The world might not be the way we want it to be, but we have hope – because God is with us.

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church (April 26, 2020) What does God have to do with this? Sermon Series part one. Why does God let this happen?

Well, it’s election season. I want to get a t-shirt that says, “If I have but one year to live, let it be an election year. They last forever.” This year we have had a dozen or more candidates and each one wanted an opponent to get asked a question he or she couldn’t answer. And every TV talking head wanted to be the one who asked that question. The question every candidate fears. The kind of question that embarrasses a candidate. That one question that ends a campaign. Pastors have been dealing with that kind of question since Jesus. The question that can’t be answered. The question on which the faith of the asker depends. The question every pastor fears.

Here is how it comes up.

“Pastor Jeff, I want to ask you about the COVID-19 pandemic (or the tsunami in Sumatra or the hurricane in New Orleans or the floods in South Carolina, or the earthquake in Haiti). Why does God let these things happen? Is God trying to tell us something? Do the people suffering from these natural catastrophes somehow deserve it? Do we deserve it? Are they being punished? Are we being punished? If so, for what?”

These are not new questions. There is even a theological term for it. Theodicy.

If God is all good and God is all powerful, why is there pain? If God is all good, he would eliminate pain. If God is all powerful, he could eliminate pain. Because there is pain, God is either not all good, or not all powerful, or neither all good nor all powerful, or does not exist at all.

Good questions. But difficult, if not impossible to answer. But this Sunday Pastor Jeff will take a shot when he preaches, “Why does God let this happen?” as the first in a four part sermon series, “What does God have to do with this?” Tune in (is that still a description of what we do in Facebook Live?) Sunday at 9:30 to worship with JMPC online. If you can’t make it, tune in later for the recorded service on Facebook or YouTube.

He is Risen — Indeed! Thoughts on how we know and what it means.

Let it Go: Death

Matthew 28: 1-10

28After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

In 2018, NBC broad cast a live presentation of the Andrew Lloyd Weber/Tim Rice rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar.

It was well done.

One of the things that always troubled me about Jesus Christ Superstar is that it ends with the crucifixion.

The resurrection was intentionally left out.

Rice did not believe it and Weber could not convince him.

So, no resurrection.

While Weber and Rice did not include the resurrection as part of the musical, most of the audiences expected it and so seemed to accept the curtain call as the resurrection event.

The last actor to return to the stage is always the one who plays Jesus.

In 2018 it was John Legend, right?

It was a pretty spectacular curtain call!

A standing ovation!

Loud cheers and applause that went on for a while.

Wouldn’t it have been cool if Jesus real resurrection was like that?

A return to Pilate, Herod, the Temple – alive!

Loud cheers and applause from those who followed Jesus into Jerusalem?

That would have made it all much easier to accept, right?

Yeah, but it did not happen that way, did it?

The resurrection of Jesus was actually a pretty quiet affair.

Sure, Matthew reports an earthquake, an angel and a bunch of fainting Roman soldiers, but there was no spectacular curtain call reported.

Only a few brief gatherings of Jesus and his disciples.

How did we get to our Easter morning annual shout, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!”

It is our faith that allows us to proclaim what to many at the time (and still) believe to be a fanciful addendum to the end of Jesus life.

Where do we get that faith?

We get it from what the resurrection means.

What does it mean?

Wolfhart Pannenberg, who was a 20th Century German theologian made this observation:

“The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.”

It means we have to change the way we live.

We have to live in a new reality.

One that we don’t fully understand.

Here is what that might look like in more recent times.

Seth Shostak is an American astronomer and currently Senior Astronomer for the SETI Institute.

You know, SETI – Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence.

Made famous by Carl Sagan’s book “Contact” and the movie of the same name starring Jodie Foster.

Read the book, watch the movie.

They are both excellent and raise interesting questions about faith.

Shostak has spent a good portion of his life trying to find intelligent life – out there!

And he had one experience in 1997 when he thought they did.

There was a signal from “out there” that was not random.

Meaning it was likely caused by some form of intelligence.

This signal generated a great deal of excitement.

Could this be confirmation that we are not alone?

The SETI team ultimately found out that the signal was actually interference from a satellite signal that was bouncing around the SETI antennae.

The folks at SETI were profoundly disappointed, needless to say, but they are still listening, 20 years later.

Shostak was recently interviewed and made an interesting comment.

He said this:

Suppose sometime in the next few dozen years we pick up a faint line that tells us we have some cosmic company. What is the effect? What’s the consequence?

And the answer absolutely is we don’t know the answer. We don’t know what that’s going to do, not in the long term, and not even very much in the short term.

Get that?

Who knows how such a discovery will change us?

What I find funny about this event is Shostak’s initial response when he thought that “ET”, as he put it, had been found.

What I did feel was very nervous because I thought, you know, this is going to wreck up my whole week. I’ve got dinners planned and, you know, meetings and so forth, and now suddenly we found E.T.

Wow.

Finding out that intelligent alien life exists was going to ruin his plans for the week.

ET doesn’t really have much to do with how we are going to live, I guess.

What does any of this have to do with Easter?

Compare it to Shostak’s comments on SETI.

But first, let’s hear the Easter story:

There was a man named Jesus who lived about 2000 years ago.

He was an itinerant preacher of something called the Good News.

That Good News was that God’s Kingdom was near.

And that people could be part of God’s kingdom if they lived the way Jesus told them to live.

Love God and love each other and care for those who could not take care of themselves.

And once in the Kingdom, they would live there eternally.

While this might seem like a very good message, the Romans and Jewish religious leaders were threatened by it.

They had Jesus killed.

They crucified him.

Jesus knew that was inevitable.

In fact, he predicted it.

But he also predicted he would not stay dead.

After he was crucified, some friends of his took him down from the cross and put him in a tomb and left.

For Tim Rice, the end.

For Shostak, satellite interference.

For the Romans, it was best to be careful.

The Romans posted guards at the tomb to make sure no one could steal the body and then claim Jesus was alive.

An abducted body would be the only explanation if Jesus’ body turned up missing, right?

Because dead people don’t come back to life, right?

The order of life did not work that way.

We are born.

We live for a few years.

We die.

And we stay dead.

But Jesus did not stay dead.

Remember what Matthew reported?

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb.

An angel tells them, “Jesus is not here. He has been raised.”

Wait … what?

Jesus alive?

Not possible.

Jesus was dead.

He had been crucified, stuck with a spear, and sealed in a tomb.

He couldn’t be alive again.

I think it likely that the two Marys had those same thoughts Pannenberg had.

First, this would be an unusual event, right?

Second, if this unusual event did happen, what does it mean?

Does it screw up our week?

Or does it change our lives?

Let’s talk about the first question.

To put it in 2018 terms, is the resurrection fake news?

Did Jesus really return from the dead?

According to Paul, he did indeed.

Paul’s writes about it in 1 Corinthians 15 which was written decades before Matthew’s Gospel!

And what does Paul say?

That Jesus was crucified, died and was buried.

That Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day.

That Jesus appeared to Peter, the twelve, more than 500 others, most of whom were still alive and so could verify what Paul was saying.

That Jesus appeared to his brother James, who had thought Jesus was crazy.

And then to Paul, himself.

The post resurrection appearances reported by Paul were, to him, recent historical fact that could be confirmed by talking to 100’s of people.

But this is the 21st Century.

This event happened over 2000 years ago.

Is that all we got?

Is there anything else?

Well, that sort of takes us to Pannenberg’s next observation.

It changed the lives of all who believed it and ultimately changed the world.

This view is best summarized in these words from Pinchas Lapide, Israeli diplomat from 1951 to 1969, Jewish theologian and Israeli historian.

“I accept the resurrection of Easter Sunday not as an invention of the community of disciples, but as a historical event….”

In his book The Resurrection of Jesus he says:

“…as a faithful Jew, I cannot explain a historical development which … has carried the central message of Israel from Jerusalem into the world of the nations, as the result of blind happenstance, or human error, or a materialistic determinism….. The experience of the resurrection as the foundation act of the church which has carried the whole Western world must belong to God’s plan of salvation.”

Lapide says that we have no other way to “explain the fact that the hillbillies from Galilee who, for the very real reason of the crucifixion of their master, were saddened to death, were changed within a short period of time into a jubilant community of believers.”

A community of believers who were willing to die rather than say it wasn’t so.

Really, look at the timeline!

Jesus died virtually alone on the cross.

All his disciples deserted him.

Then, within a year, there were thousands of disciples.

Following the “way”, as the early church called the Gospel, swept over the ancient Middle East like a brush fire in dry grass.

Within three hundred years, it was the Roman religion.

Something happened that made that happen.

The testimony of the disciples was that they saw the resurrected Jesus.

Those who witnessed the risen Jesus could not go back.

Their lives were changed forever.

They had to remain in this new reality of a resurrected Jesus.

And so do we.

That is what resurrection means.

It changes everything.

What does it mean for us?

How does it affect the way we live?

The same way it affected those first followers.

Jesus has the power and the authority over death itself.

Jesus is the ultimate life giver.

If we want that life, we need to live it the way Jesus lived it.

Loving and caring about life.

Feeding the hungry.

Giving water to the thirsty.

Clothing the naked.

Welcoming the stranger.

Caring for the sick.

Visiting the prisoners.

Loving each other.

Loving God.

Living the Jesus way.

Unlike Shostak, we do know exactly how the resurrection changes our lives.

It gives us life and a way of life.

Which also proves the truth of it.

This is not “fake news”.

This is the Good News!

Believe it.

Live it.

He is risen.

He is risen indeed.

Happy Resurrection Day!

JMPC Lenten Devotional: Messages of Hope — Good Friday

Messages of Hope

Lenten Devotional 39

Good Friday

April 10, 2020

Today is the day we remember as the day our Lord was crucified. Hung on a Roman cross. Rejected by his own people for blasphemy. Convicted by Pilate for sedition. Killed in the most painful way imaginable. And according to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus recited a Psalm while dying. Psalm 22. It is the Psalm we recite to close our annual Tenebrae service on Maundy Thursday. If you watched, you heard it last night. This is a song of lament on steroids. And while we do not hang on a cross, don’t we feel a bit like the Psalmist these days? Where are you, God? But read the whole Psalm, and maybe you will see the hope that the Psalmist had, which is also the hope that Jesus had.

Psalm 22

To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
   Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
   and by night, but find no rest.


3 Yet you are holy,
   enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted;
   they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried, and were saved;
   in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.


6 But I am a worm, and not human;
   scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock at me;
   they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8 ‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
   let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’


9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
   you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
10 On you I was cast from my birth,
   and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
   for trouble is near
   and there is no one to help.


12 Many bulls encircle me,
   strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me,
   like a ravening and roaring lion.


14 I am poured out like water,
   and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
   it is melted within my breast;
15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
   and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
   you lay me in the dust of death.


16 For dogs are all around me;
   a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shrivelled;
17 I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my clothes among themselves,
   and for my clothing they cast lots.


19 But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
   O my help, come quickly to my aid!
20 Deliver my soul from the sword,
   my life from the power of the dog!
21   Save me from the mouth of the lion!


From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
22 I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
   in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
   All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
   stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For he did not despise or abhor
   the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
   but heard when I cried to him.


25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
   my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
   those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
   May your hearts live for ever!


27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
   and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
   shall worship before him.
28 For dominion belongs to the Lord,
   and he rules over the nations.


29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
   before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
   and I shall live for him.
30 Posterity will serve him;
   future generations will be told about the Lord,
31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
   saying that he has done it.

Things are bad for the Psalmist. They are certainly bad for Jesus. But when we read the entire Psalm, we see that the Psalmist, and Jesus who is reciting this Psalm from the cross, trust God to deliver them from the darkness in which they find themselves. And when that happens, the Psalmist, and Jesus, will appear before the congregation and testify to God’s salvation. And that happened. The testimony? God hears our prayers and answers them. What is the prayer? “Deliver us!” This is what happens through Jesus on the cross. We are delivered. Thanks be to God indeed. That is our hope and our reality.

JMPC Lenten Devotionals: Messages of Hope

Messages of Hope

Lenten Devotional 37

April 8, 2020

The Dr. Seuss book “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a fitting illustration for COVID 19 days. We are at the beginning of spring. The weather warms and everything seems to be coming back to life after the winter season. Easter is coming with all the traditional celebration. Our students get ready for year-end activities. Sports, dances, graduation. Some things we always look forward to each year. Then … COVID 19! It takes all the joy away. Or does it? In Whoville the Grinch has stolen all the trappings of what he believes Christmas is all about and is stunned that the Whos still celebrate. That is because the Whos are not celebrating tradition, they are praising God, whose presence is enough. So maybe we should do the same even as our spring traditions are cancelled or dampened.

Psalm 147

1 Praise the Lord!
How good it is to sing praises to our God;
   for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.
2 The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
   he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
3 He heals the broken-hearted,
   and binds up their wounds.
4 He determines the number of the stars;
   he gives to all of them their names.
5 Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
   his understanding is beyond measure.
6 The Lord lifts up the downtrodden;
   he casts the wicked to the ground.
7 Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
   make melody to our God on the lyre.
8 He covers the heavens with clouds,
   prepares rain for the earth,
   makes grass grow on the hills.
9 He gives to the animals their food,
   and to the young ravens when they cry.
10 His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
   nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
11 but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him,
   in those who hope in his steadfast love.

While COVID 19 has ostensibly taken away the trappings of spring, it has not. What do we praise God for? The flowers bloom and the trees burst forth. Life does, in fact, return. But there is more this year. Maybe we should praise God for the outpouring of social media togetherness we are experiencing. Look at the posts of mutual support. Watch the video collages of singers, musical instrumentalists and dancers who bring us inspiration and joy. Listen to our own Marielle Brown sing her own songs and cover others. It will all make you smile.

Then there is this. With everyone in lock down, we are seeing the environment react in amazing ways. Air pollution disappears. The waters of Venice are cleaner than they have been in a very long time. Animals are on the move. We have new hope that we might become good stewards of God’s creation and make it a bit more habitable than it has been. Maybe we will realize that our continual business is less important than our time with our loved ones and … yes … a bit of Sabbath.

Jesus changed the world for all creation. Maybe we can make some small changes based on our experiences during this pandemic.

Yes. Maybe we should praise the one who created all things this Easter for a whole bunch of different reasons.

This Holy Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church: He is Risen Indeed!

Holy Week has a new meaning for me during this COVID-19 pandemic. While I do not think that COVID-19 is some sort of judgment from God, I do believe that it provides an illustration of why we need hope in what, at times, seems to be a hopeless world. Jesus is our hope. But we are like his followers as he entered Jerusalem. We want Jesus to do things our way. To work a bit of magic and make all this virus go away. To demonstrate his ultimate power over the world and make it the way we want it to be. But Jesus does not work that way. Jesus did not become King, and Jesus does not magically make our lives just the way we want them. What Jesus does is make a promise. That he knows what we know. Feels what we feel. And walks with us through the darkest valleys and the highest mountains. This week, we try to understand that.

Like most churches, we at John McMillan Presbyterian Church traditionally experiences Holy Week in many ways. I say “experience” because we try to put ourselves in the shoes of those who were there with Jesus as he traveled to the cross – and then returned alive.

We start our Easter journey on Thursday evening at 7:30 with our Tenebrae Service. A service of “shadows”. The world gets dark as the disciples have their last Passover with Jesus. Someone betrays, others sleep, they all run away in the end. We listen to the story of Jesus’ last 24 hours with scripture readings and reverential music. It all ends in darkness and silence.

Next, we gather at noon on Good Friday for a vigil where we hear the story of the crucifixion and try to understand what it has to do with us.

Saturday is silent, as we, like the disciples, are … well … speechless.

Then! Then! It is Resurrection Day! We gather at 9:30 for a worship service and celebratory that same old story. The one that we never get tired of. Jesus Christ is risen today. He is risen indeed.

But of course, this year we will do all these things online – Facebook Live. Tune in with us here at John McMillan Presbyterian Church as we walk with Jesus from death to life. We will look forward to virtually being with you.

Check out our webpage: http://www.johnmcmillanpc.org

JMPC Lenten Devotionals:Messages of Hope

Messages of Hope

Lenten Devotional 35

April 6, 2020

As we enter into Holy Week, we realize we can’t participate in the passion of Jesus in the way’s we traditionally have. So, we try to figure out what we can do to glorify God for the sacrifice God made on the cross. One of the things that frustrates me is that my son is working on the front lines in the emergency room at a hospital in Milwaukee. I would love to join him there, but I can’t. I’m not a nurse. So, what can I do? I need to read Paul.

1 Corinthians 12: 4-6

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.

Look at the gifts people have demonstrated so far. I see people working at businesses that are truly “life sustaining”. Grocery store workers, police, firefighters, EMTs, utility workers, waste management workers, gas station attendants … and many others. These are the folks we need to praise and thank – often. These people are also on the front lines in this pandemic. They are the ones who give us a lot of continuity and routine in our daily lives. I heard something this week that caught my attention. The main reason we have been able to manage this current pandemic is because we still have water, and power, and food, and medical care, among other things. We need to thank God for the people who have kept this part of our society going. These people are using their God given gifts for the betterment of us all. Make sure you thank them.

Let it Go: Popularity: Thoughts on doing things because they are good, not because they make you popular.

Let it Go: Popularity

In the program for a 1968 exhibition of his work, Andy Warhol wrote, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”.

The idea was that it is easy to become famous, but that fame is fleeting.

There is a similar phrase dating back to Elizabethan England that describes such fame as a “nine days’ wonder”.

Author Henry Miller puts it very well:

“Fame is an elusive thing / here today, gone tomorrow. The fickle, shallow mob raises its heroes to the pinnacle of approval today and hurls them into oblivion tomorrow at the slightest whim; cheers today, hisses tomorrow; utter forgetfulness in a few months.

The same thing can be said about popularity.

It is an elusive thing.

Here this minute, gone the next.

Thrown into oblivion.

Most of us have had that experience in one way or another.

But the best description I know of is presidential politics.

When I was a kid, I was somewhat of a political junkie.

I watched both the Republican and Democratic national conventions in 1968 and 1972.

Maybe because there were only three TV stations and there was nothing else on.

But I also thought they were cool.

Not so much the speeches.

I was a kid and really didn’t understand what they were talking about.

But I liked all the chaos, all the weird campaign apparel, all the signs and all the buttons.

People would march around inside the hall.

Then the vote.

State by state.

Finally, Pennsylvania!

“The Great Keystone State, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania proudly casts all of its votes for the next President of the United States …”.

And that little speech would be proclaimed at both conventions by both Pennsylvania political delegations.

Each was voting for the next president.

Then, out would come the nominee, to thunderous applause and standing ovation!

Then he – it was always a “he” in those days – would speak – often interrupted with wild cheering.

Finally, when the speech was over, music would blare from the speakers.

Then balloons and confetti would fall from the ceiling as the entire convention erupted with enthusiasm for their candidate.

Hailed as the savior of the country.

Then the march to November.

Two groups of people promoting their candidate.

But only one can win in November.

What happens to the loser?

There have been 45 losers, right?

I will give you five seconds.

Name three.

These folks are lost to history.

Their popularity was indeed fleeting.

This comes to mind when I think of Palm Sunday.

Let’s hear the well-known story.

Matthew 21: 1-11

21When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ 4This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 ‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
   humble, and mounted on a donkey,
     and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
   Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ 11The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

Jesus ride into town was very much like a political campaign to the people who watched.

Let’s set the stage.

It’s Passover.

Every Jew who could came to Jerusalem to do what?

Celebrate their freedom from slavery in Egypt.

Throwing off the chains of Pharaoh!

The beginning of the Exodus.

Not the kind of celebration the Romans wanted.

If you are Pontius Pilate, appointed governor of these troublesome Jews, you are worried.

This could always turn into an attempt at revolt.

Don’t want the Jews to think they can cast off the chains of Roman slavery.

One way to squelch such activity would be a nice show of Roman power.

So, every year Pilate would do just that.

He traveled from Caesarea, where his palace was, to Jerusalem.

He would then enter the city in grand splendor.

Leading his legions of soldiers and his adoring court while riding a white stallion.

Pilate would then parade through the streets of Jerusalem so that his entrance could not go unnoticed.

Pilate’s message?

Rome is in charge here.

Don’t think that is ever going to change.

Then Jesus came riding in.

And he is popular.

They think he is some kind of new king.

His entrance certainly says that.

He uses images that the Jews understand.

Jesus rides into Jerusalem looking like the king described by the prophet Zechariah.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Jesus knew that prophecy.

“That’s me!” he seems to say.

They are singing Jesus’ praises and making a statement, too.

They are crying out the words of Psalm 118.

26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

They get it.

They are nominating the next king.

They don’t have confetti, but they do have their coats and palm leaves which they lay at Jesus’ feet.

Competition for the allegiance of the people.

Jesus and his followers.

Against the powers that be.

The Romans, the Temple Authorities, and Herod.

And Jesus rides right into the middle of it all.

At the peak of his popularity!

Seemingly ready to take them all on.

But here is the problem.

Jesus is not there to conduct a political campaign.

He is there to complete a mission.

A mission that has nothing to do with popularity.

Jesus does not want fame.

Jesus does not want popularity.

He did not need or want a cheering section to do what he had to do.

Jesus came to die.

Alone.

When it becomes clear that Jesus is not going to do what the people expected, they desert him.

But Jesus knew all this was inevitable.

It had no impact on his task.

Jesus knew what was coming.

Spectacular entrance.

Humiliating rejection.

Brutal death.

Whether people know it or not, this would change the world.

And it did.

Does Jesus week in Jerusalem teach us anything?

Maybe this.

If we do what we do in mission and ministry for fame, we are not living the Jesus way.

If we do what we do in mission and ministry for popularity, we are not living the Jesus way.

That makes us like the athletes who are all about personal statistics and really don’t care about the team.

We need to be willing to do what we do without applause for the good of the Kingdom.

God’s team.

Doing our small part to change the world.

Doing our small part for the Kingdom.

Doing our small part in gratitude for the really big thin Jesus did for us.

One of those things, is coming to the table of the Lord to share in his meal of remembrance.

It’s a small thing, but I think it means a lot to Jesus.

He did not want fame or popularity.

But he did want us to remember him.

Every time we come to this table.

JMPC Lenten Devotional — Messages of Hope

Messages of Hope

April 1, 2020

It is difficult to be thankful in difficult times. Human beings tend to focus on their troubles and fears in troubling and fearful times. We all do it and we see it particularly in the Psalms. But the we come to Psalm 100. A prayer – a hymn? – praising God joyfully, confessing the sovereignty of God, thanking God for God’s protection, and declaring God’s goodness and faithfulness to all generations. Ours and those to come. This last part is important. Ours and those to come. God is good and faithful to humanity. It is easy to focus on the present, but God is eternal. God’s faithfulness is eternal and so it is eternal to us, now, and to our descendants. That is how we can praise God even in hard times. So read this Psalm and then read something our own Caitlin Smith posted on Facebook that I think says what this Psalm is all about.

Psalm 100

A Psalm of thanksgiving.
1 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
2   Worship the Lord with gladness;
   come into his presence with singing.

3 Know that the Lord is God.
   It is he that made us, and we are his;
   we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
   and his courts with praise.
   Give thanks to him, bless his name.

5 For the Lord is good;
   his steadfast love endures for ever,
   and his faithfulness to all generations.

“Delayed post, but on a super nice day last week, after a hill workout challenge laid down by @grace_bogdon I took a moment to rest. Kicked my shoes off on that holy ground and just relaxed, and took life in that moment in. I looked out over the hill and beyond, and thought of community, though currently distant physically, has been closer than ever in the effort to provide safety and healing for the sick. And it’s easier to rest and just be on those nice days, rather than windy, rainy, and colder days… but.. light and warmth can come from more sources than the sun. “The value of a smile… it costs nothing, but creates much.” Hope everyone is okay and finds that holy ground daily. #createthewarmth #bethelight #holyground #smiletogether #latenightthoughts

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church (Palm Sunday)

And every time I read the Palm Sunday story about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, I think of Rudyard Kipling’s story, “The Man Who Would Be King”. Kipling’s story is about two former British soldiers on an adventure. Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan have decided to become kings. They have cache of modern rifles and plan to find a king or chief in some remote location, help him defeat his enemies, and then take over. That is exactly what they do. They find Kafiristan. The tribal chief is having a dispute with a neighboring community. Danny and Peachy offer their support. They have fair skin that makes them seem a bit mystical. They are brave warriors. And they have rifles. With the rifles, the conflict ends quickly. The Kafiristanis are delighted. All is good. They make Danny and Peachy the kings of Kafiristan. But then Danny and Peachy are found out. They are only men. There is nothing mystical about them. And despite their well-earned popularity, their new subjects revolt. Danny and Peachy are not who they claimed to be. Despite all they have done for the people, they are denounced as frauds. Daniel is killed. Peachy is driven insane and for the rest of his life carries Daniel’s head around in a burlap sack. Popularity can be cool, but it has its limitations and risks. Perhaps it is better to let it go? That is what Jesus did when he came to Jerusalem. Go to the John McMillan Presbyterian Church Facebook Live broadcast on Palm Sunday at 9:30 and hear Pastor Jeff preach, “Let it Go – Popularity!” based on Matthew 21: 1-11. We will be celebrating the Lord’s Supper – ONLINE!! Set out your own bread and cup, or just observe. This is how we remember Jesus.