Morning Praise and Prayer | Fifth in Lent

FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT

The first part of this post includes a short order for Morning Praise and Prayer with your family or friends.
My sermon and the text on which I wrote it follows the liturgy.

CALL TO PRAISE AND PRAYER
O Lord, open our lips.
And we shall declare your praise.

MORNING HYMN
If you don’t want to sing, you may read the text as if you were saying a prayer.
Come, Christians, Join to Sing (Hymnal #158)
IMG_20200329_100933
Or
The God Who Stays by Matthew West

PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING
New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world. Stir up in us desire to serve you, to live peacefully with our neighbors, and to devote each day to your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.

SCRIPTURE LESSONS
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

SILENCE & DISCUSSION
Take five to ten minutes to meditate upon the Scriptures that have just been read. Some find it helpful to write their thoughts and questions on paper or in a journal.
After the time of silence, you may share your thoughts and questions about the Scriptures with those who are with you.

SONG OF PRAISE: PSALM 100
Shout triumphantly to the LORD, all the earth!
Serve the LORD with celebration!
Come before him with shouts of joy!

Know that the LORD is God—
he made us; we belong to him.
We are his people,
the sheep of his own pasture.

Enter his gates with thanks;
enter his courtyards with praise!
Thank him! Bless his name!
Because the LORD is good,
his loyal love lasts forever;
his faithfulness lasts generation after generation.

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Following each petition, anyone may offer a brief prayer or intercession. After each prayer, the leader may conclude: Lord, in your mercy, and all may respond together: Hear our prayer.
Together, let us pray for:
the people of this congregation…
those who suffer and those in trouble…
the concerns of our local communities…
the world, its people, and its leaders…
the church universal—its leaders, its members, and its mission…
the communion of saints…

THE LORD’S PRAYER (Hymnal #10 & #894)
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time or trial, and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and forever. Amen.

BLESSING
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us. Amen.

THE PEACE
Signs of peace may be exchanged.

 

Sermon Video:


 

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The LORD’s power overcame me, and while I was in the LORD’s spirit, he led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones. 2 He led me through them all around, and I saw that there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?”

I said, “LORD God, only you know.”

4 He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the LORD’s word! 5 The LORD God proclaims to these bones: I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. 6 I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the LORD.”

7 I prophesied just as I was commanded. There was a great noise as I was prophesying, then a great quaking, and the bones came together, bone by bone. 8 When I looked, suddenly there were sinews on them. The flesh appeared, and then they were covered over with skin. But there was still no breath in them.

9 He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The LORD God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.”

10 I prophesied just as he commanded me. When the breath entered them, they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company.

11 He said to me, “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ 12 So now, prophesy and say to them, The LORD God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. 13 You will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people. 14 I will put my breath in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the LORD. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the LORD says.” (CEB)

You Will Live

This is arguably the most well-known text in Ezekiel. Everyone who attended Sunday school or church camp as a child probably sang the song about how “Ezekiel connected them dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord.”

We know this text. Or, so we think. The problem with such familiarity is that we can stop looking for something new, whether it’s insight, or wisdom, or some revelation about God that we simply didn’t see before. It’s a little ironic that familiarity can dry out our bones and render us unable to hear or to see such newness in God’s revealed word.

Ezekiel’s vision was certainly something new to the Jewish people who were living in Babylon. They were stuck. They were in exile. They were cut off from home: their land, their city, and their temple. They were a conquered people, and they had no way out of their situation. In every way, they felt cut off from God. Even abandoned.

The exile lasted longer than the Exodus. But, unlike the Exodus, there was no pillar of fire and smoke to offer guidance. There was no cloud shrouded mountain to reveal God’s presence among them. There was no tabernacle at which they could worship. The people in Babylonian exile surely felt like they were dried out.

With all that’s happening in the world right now with this pandemic—the real possibility that COVID-19 could hit our community, worry for our elderly family members and friends, being stuck inside our homes, a disruption in our lives that we’ve never experienced in living memory, the fear that there might not be enough toilet paper for everyone—we might wonder how we’ll ever recover the lives we had before the month of March began.

We’re certainly in uncertain times. It’s unnatural for human beings to be isolated. We’re made in God’s image, which means we’re designed for relationships and social community. We’re made to be with each other. For two-thousand years, we Christians have gathered together to offer God our worship, our praise, our prayers, and our tithes. We’ve gathered together to eat, to serve, to study, to offer care.

But we haven’t gathered together as a congregation since March 08. And we won’t gather again until some indefinite date after Easter. Even as we try to find creative ways to stay connected through our social distancing, we might feel a little cut off. Maybe lonely or abandoned.

Maybe we even feel distanced spiritually because we’re distanced socially. Are we thriving, merely surviving, or hanging by a fraying thread? How is it with our soul? In the season of Lent, we’re invited to consider that question and to stop for a moment to seriously consider our dry bones. When we’re made to walk through our own dry valley, what are the dry bones scattered around us? What can we learn from them?

Ezekiel tells us that the Lord’s hand came upon him and brought him to the middle of the valley, which was full of bones. There were a great many bones. And they were very dry. And God asks Ezekiel, “Human one, can these bones live again?” (Ezekiel 37:3 CEB).

I wish I could hear the tone of Ezekiel’s voice as he answers. Was it a powerful and confident reply: Lord God, only you know. If you say they can live, then they can live. Let’s get this resurrection party started!

Or, was the prophet’s reply a timid, uncertain whisper: Lord God, only you know. Everything is so bleak that even life doesn’t feel like life. I don’t know anything anymore. I don’t know how anything can live again. I feel as lifeless as these bones. Only you know.

I kind of feel like Ezekiel’s tone was closer to the latter simply because it’s not easy to give confident answers when life has taken so much from us that we’re dried out and barely hang on. When we’ve suffered for any length of time, it wears on us and grinds us down.

If God were to ask us this question right now, how would we answer? What would our voice sound like as we uttered a reply? And I don’t mean only in light of the present pandemic because I know that life was happening before we even heard of COVID-19. Some us have stared down and struggled with seemingly insurmountable difficulties long before this present crisis. There have been deaths and diagnoses, problems at work and within families. There have been real, fearful, and life-altering events that have weighed on us to our breaking point. Though quite serious and concerning, COVID-19 is merely one new worry among many that have the potential to desiccate our joy, our faith, our hope, our very life.

Can these bones live again?

In this scene, God first told Ezekiel exactly what God would do. God told Ezekiel beforehand, so when it happened, he couldn’t say: Well that was surprising! God always accomplishes what God says, which proves God’s word to us is true every time. Sometimes God does surprise us, but that’s usually because we weren’t listening. Like, when Peter learned that God doesn’t show partiality to one people over the rest of the world (c.f. Acts 10:34). Peter shouldn’t have been surprised. Afterall, Abraham was blessed so that he could be a blessing to all the families of the earth (c.f. Genesis 12:2-3, 18:18). We can trust God will do what God says.

All Ezekiel had to do in this valley was speak the words God told him to speak. “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the LORD’s word! The LORD God proclaims to these bones: I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the LORD” (Ezekiel 37:4-6 CEB).

We might wonder why God didn’t simply raise the bones to life. Why did God need Ezekiel to do anything? The reality of the matter is that God didn’t need Ezekiel. Yet, God chooses, time and again, to work alongside and in concert with human beings because God is a God who desire relationship. We build relationships by being with others, working with others, conversing with others.

We don’t build relationships by having another person do everything for us, or by doing everything for another. That’s called servitude, not friendship. God deeply desires a relationship with each of us. God knows what we need before we ask, but we’re still told to ask through prayer (c.f. Matthew 6:8-13). Relationship is found in the asking: in the conversation. As three Persons, loving relationship is at the heart of who God is. God wants a loving relationship with us. That’s another one of those matters that, if we were listening, shouldn’t surprise us.

Ezekiel prophesied just as he was commanded. And what I find interesting is the divine impatience going on here. God didn’t even wait for Ezekiel to get all the words out. As soon as Ezekiel starts to speak the bones rattle and quake and come together, bone by bone. Then, suddenly, Ezekiel looked up and there was sinew on the skeletons, then flesh, then skin covered the bodies. But there was still no breath in them.

And here, there seems to be a pause in the text. Ezekiel stops speaking. Maybe he was so amazed at what he saw that words failed him. Ezekiel knew that these bones weren’t just bones, they were cursed. The Hebrew of verse 9 tells us that these bones belonged to people who had been killed and left to rot in the field. That fact, alone, marked these slain as cursed (c.f. 1 Kings 14:11, 21:23-24; Jeremiah 16:4, 34:20; Ezekiel 24:6-8). Yet, God took the dry bones of those whom Ezekiel would have understood as cursed and rebuilt them so that they could live. This was amazing!

Maybe that little seed of doubt in the back of his mind… haven’t you experienced that same seed of doubt where you want to believe, but God help our unbelief? I have. I still do at times. Maybe Ezekiel’s little seed of doubt was as surprised to discover—as we often are—that God meant what God said. In this moment of pause, where Ezekiel stops to watch what’s unfolding before his eyes—God rebuilding the bodies of the cursed from dry bones—it’s in this moment that we can hear God’s excitement, God’s unbridled anticipation, God’s profound desire to give life to the dead so that they’re no longer cursed but living.

God says, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The LORD God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live” (Ezekiel 37:9 CEB).

God’s like, Why are you stopping, Ezekiel! Prophesy to the breath! Keep going! We’re almost there! Don’t quit now, we haven’t even gotten to the cool part yet! So, Ezekiel prophesied just as he was commanded. The breath entered the bodies of the dead and they came to life. They stood on their feet. An extraordinarily large company.

Then, God speaks another promise to Ezekiel. “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ So now, prophesy and say to them, The LORD God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. You will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people. I will put my breath in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the LORD. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the LORD says” (Ezekiel 37:11-14 CEB).

There is a wordplay going on here that you can’t see easily in English. The Hebrew word for breath, which is found nine times in this text, also means spirit or wind. God tells the people, I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live. Just breathing isn’t enough. We need God’s life-sustaining Spirit. We need God’s breath within us. That’s what God promises us. That’s the gift that God offers to everyone.

One thing Ezekiel’s vision reminds us of is that God holds the last word over everything. God gives life. God restores life. Bad things still happen, even death still happens, but those things don’t have the final say over us. God does. God is with us even when we feel dried up and abandoned.

Even when we feel as broken and desiccated as the bones Ezekiel saw, even when the hardships of life have us feeling like we must be cursed, nothing will stand in the way of God’s promise to restore us and give us life. Restoration is what God wants for us. That’s the promise we have in Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Jesus is representative of that promise. Jesus, God’s Word-Made-Flesh, is the one who said, “Because I live, you will live, too” (John 14:19 CEB).

“Can these bones live again?”

Yeah. They will.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

First United Methodist Church, Mount Vernon, Indiana; Sunday, 29 March 2020, online: COVID-19.

Morning Praise and Prayer | 4th in Lent

FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
This is a short order for Morning Praise and Prayer with your family or friends.

CALL TO PRAISE AND PRAYER
O Lord, open our lips.
And we shall declare your praise.

MORNING HYMN
How He Loves by David Crowder Band


Or
Holy God, We Praise Thy Name (Hymnal #79)
img_20200319_185115
If you don’t want to sing, you may read the text as if you were saying a prayer.

PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING
New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world. Stir up in us desire to serve you, to live peacefully with our neighbors, and to devote each day to your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.

SCRIPTURE LESSONS
1 Samuel 16:1-13
1 The LORD said to Samuel, “How long are you going to grieve over Saul? I have rejected him as king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and get going. I’m sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem because I have found my next king among his sons.”

2 “How can I do that?” Samuel asked. “When Saul hears of it he’ll kill me!”

“Take a heifer with you,” the LORD replied, “and say, ‘I have come to make a sacrifice to the LORD.’ 3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will make clear to you what you should do. You will anoint for me the person I point out to you.”

4 Samuel did what the LORD instructed. When he came to Bethlehem, the city elders came to meet him. They were shaking with fear. “Do you come in peace?” they asked.

5 “Yes,” Samuel answered. “I’ve come to make a sacrifice to the LORD. Now make yourselves holy, then come with me to the sacrifice.” Samuel made Jesse and his sons holy and invited them to the sacrifice as well.

6 When they arrived, Samuel looked at Eliab and thought, That must be the LORD’s anointed right in front.

7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t selected him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the LORD sees into the heart.”

8 Next Jesse called for Abinadab, who presented himself to Samuel, but he said, “The LORD hasn’t chosen this one either.” 9 So Jesse presented Shammah, but Samuel said, “No, the LORD hasn’t chosen this one.” 10 Jesse presented seven of his sons to Samuel, but Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD hasn’t picked any of these.” 11 Then Samuel asked Jesse, “Is that all of your boys?”

“There is still the youngest one,” Jesse answered, “but he’s out keeping the sheep.”

“Send for him,” Samuel told Jesse, “because we can’t proceed until he gets here.” 12 So Jesse sent and brought him in. He was reddish brown, had beautiful eyes, and was good-looking. The LORD said, “That’s the one. Go anoint him.”

13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him right there in front of his brothers. The LORD’s spirit came over David from that point forward.

Then Samuel left and went to Ramah. (CEB)
Psalm 23
A psalm of David.

1 The LORD is my shepherd. I lack nothing.

2 He lets me rest in grassy meadows; he leads me to restful waters; 3 he keeps me alive.

He guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name.

4 Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me.

Your rod and your staff—they protect me.

5 You set a table for me right in front of my enemies.

You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over!

6 Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the LORD’s house as long as I live. (CEB).

Ephesians 5:8-14
8 You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord, so live your life as children of light. 9 Light produces fruit that consists of every sort of goodness, justice, and truth. 10 Therefore, test everything to see what’s pleasing to the Lord, 11 and don’t participate in the unfruitful actions of darkness. Instead, you should reveal the truth about them. 12 It’s embarrassing to even talk about what certain persons do in secret. 13 But everything exposed to the light is revealed by the light. 14 Everything that is revealed by the light is light. Therefore, it says, Wake up, sleeper! Get up from the dead, and Christ will shine on you. (CEB)

John 9:1-41
1 As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. 2 Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?”

3 Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. 4 While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. 7 Jesus said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (this word means sent). So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.

8 The man’s neighbors and those who used to see him when he was a beggar said, “Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?”

9 Some said, “It is,” and others said, “No, it’s someone who looks like him.”

But the man said, “Yes, it’s me!”

10 So they asked him, “How are you now able to see?”

11 He answered, “The man they call Jesus made mud, smeared it on my eyes, and said, ‘Go to the pool of Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

12 They asked, “Where is this man?”

He replied, “I don’t know.”

13 Then they led the man who had been born blind to the Pharisees. 14 Now Jesus made the mud and smeared it on the man’s eyes on a Sabbath day. 15 So Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.

The man told them, “He put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I see.”

16 Some Pharisees said, “This man isn’t from God, because he breaks the Sabbath law.” Others said, “How can a sinner do miraculous signs like these?” So they were divided. 17 Some of the Pharisees questioned the man who had been born blind again: “What do you have to say about him, since he healed your eyes?”

He replied, “He’s a prophet.”

18 The Jewish leaders didn’t believe the man had been blind and received his sight until they called for his parents. 19 The Jewish leaders asked them, “Is this your son? Are you saying he was born blind? How can he now see?”

20 His parents answered, “We know he is our son. We know he was born blind. 21 But we don’t know how he now sees, and we don’t know who healed his eyes. Ask him. He’s old enough to speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they feared the Jewish authorities. This is because the Jewish authorities had already decided that whoever confessed Jesus to be the Christ would be expelled from the synagogue. 23 That’s why his parents said, “He’s old enough. Ask him.”

24 Therefore, they called a second time for the man who had been born blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know this man is a sinner.”

25 The man answered, “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. Here’s what I do know: I was blind and now I see.”

26 They questioned him: “What did he do to you? How did he heal your eyes?”

27 He replied, “I already told you, and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”

28 They insulted him: “You are his disciple, but we are Moses’ disciples. 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know where this man is from.”

30 The man answered, “This is incredible! You don’t know where he is from, yet he healed my eyes! 31 We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners. God listens to anyone who is devout and does God’s will. 32 No one has ever heard of a healing of the eyes of someone born blind. 33 If this man wasn’t from God, he couldn’t do this.”

34 They responded, “You were born completely in sin! How is it that you dare to teach us?” Then they expelled him.

35 Jesus heard they had expelled the man born blind. Finding him, Jesus said, “Do you believe in the Human One?”

36 He answered, “Who is he, sir? I want to believe in him.”

37 Jesus said, “You have seen him. In fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

38 The man said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped Jesus.

39 Jesus said, “I have come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don’t see can see and those who see will become blind.”

40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard what he said and asked, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”

41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains. (CEB)

SILENCE & DISCUSSION
Take five to ten minutes to meditate upon the Scriptures that have just been read. Some find it helpful to write their thoughts and questions on paper or in a journal.

After the time of silence, you may share your thoughts and questions about the Scriptures with those who are with you.

SONG OF PRAISE: CANTICLE OF GOD’S GLORY
Glory to God in the highest,
and peace to God’s people on earth.
Lord God, heavenly King,
almighty God and Father,
we worship you, we give you thanks,
we praise you for your glory.

Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father,
Lord God, Lamb of God,
you take away the sin of the world:
have mercy on us;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father:
receive our prayer.

For you alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High,
Jesus Christ,
With the Holy Spirit,
In the glory of God the Father. Amen.

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Following each petition, anyone may offer a brief prayer or intercession. After each prayer, the leader may conclude: Lord, in your mercy, and all may respond together: Hear our prayer.
Together, let us pray for:
the people of our congregation…
those who suffer and those in trouble…
the concerns of our local communities…
the world, its people, and its leaders…
the church universal—its leaders, its members, and its mission…
the communion of saints…

THE LORD’S PRAYER (Hymnal #10 & #894)
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time or trial, and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and forever. Amen.

BLESSING
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us. Amen.

THE PEACE
Signs of peace may be exchanged.

Sermon Video:

To See

The story of the man born blind reveals the struggles of the early church which was, by and large, a Jewish group. Verse 9:22 tells us that those who confessed Jesus as the Christ were being expelled, or cast out, of the synagogue. Now, this was no small thing. The synagogue was, in many ways, one of the centers of Jewish life.

We Americans like to compartmentalize things. For us, there’s religious life, work life, and family life. There’s personal time, entertainment time, etc. If you’re a kid or youth it’s simpler: it’s just school life, and not-in-school life.

There are probably a few more categories in there, but you get the picture. We compartmentalize these things as if they’re separate from each other. That was much less the case in first century Judaism. There was less a sense of compartmentalization of work, family, and religious life because faith and religion defined those things and how you did them. They were a part of your religious faith.

The synagogue would have been the center of your community. It was an extension of your family. Everyone was part of the local synagogue. To not be part of the synagogue meant you didn’t have the connection and protection of the people around you. So, for a Jew to be cast out of the synagogue would have been devastating. It would have expelled such a person from everything.

There are two possible reasons behind these expulsions. If we want to give the synagogue leaders the benefit of the doubt, we might consider that it was meant as a tough love kind of thing for the good of the person being expelled and for the community of faith. Much like excommunication, which the church practiced later on, expulsion from the synagogue may have been intended to make the expelled persons repent and come back to the kind of life, correct belief, and faithfulness the synagogue leaders expected. The idea of excommunication from the church was that, if we refuse to allow this sinner to be in communion with us, they’ll realize what they have given up by choosing their waywardness over our community, and they’ll want to come back.

It was an oddball way of taking care of both church members and the faith community through forced separation. There’s little evidence that excommunication was particularly successful, and I doubt Jesus—the one who welcomed prostitutes and other sinners into the kingdom community and demanded that we forgive seven times seventy—would have particularly approved of the practice by the church, but the church did it anyway.

The other possibility is that expulsion from the synagogue was meant to squash the spread of Jesus’ teachings and discipleship-making through fear. Unfortunately, in the context of John’s Gospel, exercising control through fear was exactly what the synagogue leaders were doing. We’re told that the parents of the man born blind, feared the Jewish authorities… because the Jewish authorities had already decided that whoever confessed Jesus to be the Christ would be expelled from the synagogue.” (John 9:22, CEB).

So, even if the authorities meant for the expulsions to be an oddball way of caring for their members and faith community, the result was that people were afraid. The practice of expulsion forced people to choose between their community whose leaders refused to believe Jesus is the Christ, and belief in Jesus as the long-held Messianic hope that their religion had been expecting since the days of Moses. (c.f. Deuteronomy 18:15).

It’s not entirely unbelievable that the authorities dismissed the man born blind and his testimony. One of the prevailing theologies of Judaism was Deuteronomic theology. It’s the idea that there is a reason for everything. And let me tell you, it’s not a Methodist theology. It was not a theology to which Jesus subscribed.

As the disciples are walking by the man born blind, they asked Jesus to explain the situation. “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2 CEB). You see, according to this kind of theology, there had to be a spiritual explanation for the man’s blindness. Deuteronomic theology does not allow for happenstance. Someone had to have sinned for this to have happened. The Jewish authorities assumed the man born blind was a sinner who was being punished by God with blindness. His blindness was evidence of his sin and probably that of his parents.

So, they assumed someone was at fault for the man’s blindness. It’s similar to the question we ask every time there’s a bad diagnosis or when some terrible accident happens: What did I, we, he, she, or they do to deserve this? It’s the same theology of Job’s friends. They insisted that Job must have done something terrible, and that he somehow deserved all the horrors that came upon him.

The answer Jesus offers is: Nothing. No one’ sin caused the man’s blindness. The difficulties we face in life are not contingent upon how bad we are. I don’t have diabetes because I’m a sinner even though I am a sinner and I have diabetes. They aren’t corelated.

Sin is something we can do, but sin is also an infection that affects the whole world. The whole of creation has been disfigured by sin, and that’s what led to sickness, maladies, and death. The effects of sin touch each and every one of us—whether we actually do sinful things or not—because we’re human and we live in a broken creation. Bad stuff just happens because of the adverse effects of sin. Sin, along with the effects of sin, is what Jesus has come to fix. This bad stuff won’t exist in the restored creation where we’ll be gathered together in a new heaven and a new earth.

To prove his point, Jesus spit on the ground and made mud, which he applied to the man’s eyes. Then, Jesus told him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. The man obeyed, and he could see. Can you imagine his amazement at being able to see for the first time in his life? It should have been a joyful moment, a moment of restoration to a full life in the community. He could see! And no one would be able to hold him at arm’s length because they assumed he or his parents were sinners whom God was punishing with the man’s blindness.

But that’s not what happened. What’s interesting is that the neighbors and people of the city no longer recognized him. They asked the question: Isn’t this the guy who used to beg? And he kept insisting, “I am the man” (John 9:9, CEB), but the people weren’t convinced. Some of them suggested it must be the guy’s doppelganger. I mean, these people must have walked by him for years and never actually looked at the beggar sitting in their midst.

This is an example of a community failing to be what it should have been for this man when he was a blind beggar. They didn’t know him. To not know this man when he could see means that they so completely ignored him in his blindness that he was never really a part of their community anyway. Who are the people in our community whom we ignore like that? Who are the people we don’t see?

Then, enter the religious authorities. (People like me!). When the man born blind was brought before them and had relayed his story of his restored sight, some of them got bent out of shape because Jesus healed this blind man on the Sabbath. Jesus didn’t follow the rules. Therefore, Jesus could not possibly be a faithful man of God or one who does works on behalf of God.

Others questioned how a man who is a sinner (because he didn’t follow the rules) could perform a sign like this. So, the authorities defaulted to not believing the man born blind really had been born blind. Talk about cognitive dissonance! These leaders, it seems, had been no better than the neighbors who never really saw this man in his blindness and never took the time to get to know him. He was born blind, but every day that he begged for alms in their midst, everyone else was unseeing.

They had to call his parents in to verify that this really was the same person who used to beg on the street. Can you imagine? The ridiculousness is beyond belief. But the possibility of its reality makes me ask myself who I might be ignoring in the same way.

What follows is this wonderful conversation between the religious authorities and the man born blind where he uses their own logic against them. They declare that they know Jesus is a sinner, so the formerly blind man sings Amazing Grace. They demand to know again what Jesus did to him, so he, interprets their quest for knowledge as a desire to become disciples of Jesus.  He said, “I already told you, and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?” (John 9:27, CEB). It’s the “too” that tells us this man has already chosen to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The authorities had nothing left but insults and arrogance. They said: “You were born completely in sin! How is it that you dare to teach us?” Then they expelled him” (John 9:28-34, CEB).

They expelled him, but he was never really a part of their community anyway. How does our Christian community at First United Methodist Church measure up to that one? We are called to be disciples of Jesus Christ who live in community that seeks out and welcomes everyone. If there’s any judgment of who is in or out that needs doing, we can trust God to take care of it in God’s own time. Our response to God’s acceptance of us is to accept others. A community that confesses Jesus Christ can do nothing less than open our eyes to see the people that the world treats as if they were invisible.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Morning Praise and Prayer | 3rd in Lent

THE THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
The first part of this post includes a short order for Morning Praise and Prayer with your family or friends.
My sermon and the text on which I wrote it follows the liturgy.

CALL TO PRAISE AND PRAYER
O Lord, open our lips.
And we shall declare your praise.

MORNING HYMN
Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee (Hymnal #89)
If you don’t want to sing, you may read the text as if you were saying a prayer.

img_20200315_081405

PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING
New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world. Stir up in us desire to serve you, to live peacefully with our neighbors, and to devote each day to your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.

SCRIPTURE LESSONS
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

SILENCE & DISCUSSION
Take five to ten minutes to meditate upon the Scriptures that have just been read. Some find it helpful to write their thoughts and questions on paper or in a journal.
After the time of silence, you may
share your thoughts and questions about the Scriptures with those who are with you.

SONG OF PRAISE: CANTICLE OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS (Hymnal #205)
We look for light but find darkness,
for brightness, but walk in gloom.
We grope like those who have no eyes;
we stumble at noon as in the twilight.

If I say, “Let only darkness cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you,
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.

 Blessed be your name, O God, for ever.
You reveal deep and mysterious things;
you are light and in you is no darkness.
Our darkness is passing away
and already the true light is shining.

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Following each petition, anyone may offer a brief prayer or intercession. After each prayer, the leader may conclude: Lord, in your mercy, and all may respond together: Hear our prayer.
Together, let us pray for:
the people of this congregation…
those who suffer and those in trouble…
the concerns of our local communities…
the world, its people, and its leaders…
the church universal—its leaders, its members, and its mission…
the communion of saints…

THE LORD’S PRAYER (Hymnal #10 & #894)
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time or trial, and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and forever. Amen.

BLESSING
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us. Amen.

THE PEACE
Signs of peace may be exchanged.

Sermon Text – Romans 5:1-11

1 Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory. 3 But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, 4 endurance produces character, and character produces hope. 5 This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

6 While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people. 7 It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. 8 But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us. 9 So, now that we have been made righteous by his blood, we can be even more certain that we will be saved from God’s wrath through him. 10 If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life? 11 And not only that: we even take pride in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one through whom we now have a restored relationship with God. (CEB)

Boasting

For most of us the notion of boasting has little more than negative connotations. While we might briefly put up with a friend or co-worker’s boasting about how good looking or how smart their children or grandchildren are, or we might listen politely to the story about the big fish that he or she caught at the lake was, for the most part we get annoyed at people who brag.

This is especially so when the person in question seems to utterly fail to recognize that the rest of the world has little interest in their latest, greatest, towering achievement, or whatever their topic of personal greatness happens to be at the time.

Given these negative connotations of boasting in our modern world, it’s difficult to imagine a preacher summing up the significance of the gospel of Jesus Christ with the claim that Because of God’s actions in Jesus Christ we can now make grand boasts! But that is exactly what Paul does in Romans 5:1-11, and that is exactly what I am going to talk about in this sermon.

It is interesting that Paul suggests that we can make such grand boasts because, earlier on in Romans 2, he lashes out against those who boast of their own accomplishments. He does the same in two places in First Corinthians. But here in Romans chapter 5, boasting is not only tolerated, boasting is an accepted and expected part of the response to the Good News of Jesus Christ. The difference between the kind of boasting Paul rails against in Romans 2 and First Corinthians is, of course, drawn from the basis on which the boasting is made.

Paul denounces those who boast in themselves because boasting in oneself ought to be completely rejected. Those who boast in themselves, who fail to acknowledge that God makes all things possible, are acting like fools because they don’t recognize who it is that made their accomplishments accomplishable in the first place.

Luke 5 tells us that the Disciples went fishing. They were out all night and caught nothing. Jesus told them to row out into deep water and cast their nets. When they did, they hauled in so many fish their nets were starting to break. But did they get to shore and brag about the big catch they managed to haul in? Did they boast to their fellow fishermen at the docks about how great they are at fishing?

Nope.

Boasting in God’s actions and in the consequences which God’s actions have for the whole human race is a way of proclaiming the Gospel.

The Disciples recognized from their fishing experience that God is involved in even the most mundane parts of our lives, including our workday. God provided the fish for the big catch. God makes everything we accomplish possible. Peter fell down at Jesus’ feet and could only say, Leave me, Lord, for I’m a sinner!” (Luke 5:8 CEB). Jesus’ reply to Peter and the other Disciples was this, “Don’t be afraid. From now on you will be fishing for people” (Luke 5:8 CEB).

The fishermen then left everything and followed Jesus. They proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world, and their proclamation—their boasting in what God has done—has been handed down to us. Boasting in God’s actions and the consequences of that action is proclamation of the Gospel. It’s what Christians are supposed to do.

In this passage of Romans 5, Paul identifies three ways in which believers may boast: the first is in hope, the second is in suffering, and the third is in God.

When Christians boast in hope, it is in our hope of sharing the glory of God, that is, our hope in God’s final triumph as anticipated in Romans 8. And if you don’t remember what Romans 8 says, read it! To boast in hope will sound very odd if hope is understood as the equivalent of wishing. When a child “hopes” for mint chocolate chip ice cream for dessert, the child expresses a wish—a preference. That wish for ice cream may or may not have a happy outcome.

For Paul, hope is not merely wishing or relishing the idea of something that might come to be. Rather, to have hope is to earnestly expect that which is certain to occur. Because of his absolute confidence in God’s justification of “the ungodly” for whom Christ died, Paul can be certain and without a doubt that humanity will share in God’s glory. In this kind of hope, one may and, indeed should, boast until your heart’s content and then a little more!

If the first reason for boasting lies still in the future, the second reason is altogether too close at hand. Believers boast in their suffering—an idea that few would find appealing and that Paul knows will require explanation. He doesn’t glorify suffering in and of itself, as if suffering were itself an act of piety or a reason for boasting. Yet, suffering can lead to endurance, endurance to character, and character leads again to hope.

Verse 5 makes it clear that boasting in suffering does not mean boasting in one’s own achievements, because those who endure suffering do so as a result of God’s love: “This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5 CEB). So understood in this way, even boasting in one’s own suffering is boasting in God.

Only at the very end of the passage, in verse 11, does Paul identify the third way in which believers may boast; that we may boast in God because of the reconciliation we have received through Jesus Christ. But before he can name it in a few words, he identified the significance of Jesus’ death and its results. Verses 6-10 present a tangled web of assertions to us modern readers who are not accustomed to the logical principles with which Paul wrote. Paul can, at times, be very confusing. But the principle he uses is arguing from something lesser to something greater.

The lesser in this case is the death of Christ, in itself an object of amazement because Christ died for the ungodly. Verses 7-8 elaborate on this point. Paul says, “It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8 CEB). Perhaps someone might die for a truly good person, but Christ died for sinners! His death resulted in the justification of the ungodly.

The greater, by contrast, is the life of Christ. If the lesser thing, Christ’s death, ushered in the justification of the ungodly, then the greater thing, Christ’s life, ushers in much more assurance of salvation and reconciliation.

This is much more than an enthusiastic celebration of the reconciliation of God and humanity. Paul asserts that God both saves the ungodly, people who in no way whatsoever merit salvation. And God pours out an excessive assurance of that salvation on those who recognize their reconciliation. It is in our reconciliation—accomplished by God alone—that Christian people may and ought to boast.

John Wesley believed that we could have an assurance of our salvation: that we can know without a doubt that we are saved and will inherit the kingdom. We can have this assurance because of what Jesus did for us: he died, and he rose again. Through God’s actions we have received the gift of reconciliation with God. That is something to boast about! That’s something to shout from the mountaintops and brag about in the grocery store!

Paul wrote, “I’m in trouble if I don’t preach the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16 CEB). Sometimes it’s translated, “…woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel” (NRSV).

Put another way, Paul is saying, Woe to me if I don’t brag on Jesus!

And, perhaps, woe to us if we don’t brag on Jesus too.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

To Mount Vernon First UMC re: COVID-19

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

I am concerned about the current pandemic with COVID-19. Throughout this week, I have had conversations with doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals about the situation. I have also kept a close eye on information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and the Indiana State Department of Health.

After consulting with local health professionals last evening and this morning, I have made the decision to cancel our worship services at First United Methodist Church for Sunday, 15 March 2020. We will continue to evaluate the situation in the coming weeks, but we will remain closed for the foreseeable future and only reopen when it is safe and responsible to do so.

I realize this decision may upset some people in our congregation, and some might claim that I am overreacting. I need you to understand that I made this decision neither lightly nor out of panic. While there is not yet a confirmed case of COVID-19 in our area, all medical professionals agree that COVID-19 is coming and, by the time a local case is confirmed, the virus will already have infected multiple persons. At that point, cancelling worship services would be reactionary and too late. Cancelling now, before the virus hits, is preventive and responsible.

The people of our congregation are my primary concern in making this decision to cancel. The demographics of our congregation include a large number of people in high-risk age groups. The CDC website currently states this: “More cases of COVID-19 are likely to be identified in the United States in the coming days, including more instances of community spread. CDC expects that widespread transmission of COVID-19 in the United States will occur. In the coming months, most of the U.S. population will be exposed to this virus.”

These are serious times, and the spread of this disease is not something any responsible person can ignore or downplay. We owe it to each other to take reasonable precautions and care. I intend to work with FUMC staff to determine how we might stay connected to each other as a congregation in the coming weeks. God is bigger than our building, and we can be the church to each other even in the midst of this exile from 601 Main Street.

As it is the season of Lent, I encourage you to focus on your Lenten Spiritual disciplines, individually and with your family. Pray. Study Scripture. Use this time in Lent to deepen your relationship with God.

Also, make it a point to check in with each other, especially those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19.

My sermons will be available for study on the web at https://pastopher.wordpress.com/.

I also encourage you, as I will do, to mail your regular financial contributions to the church office each week. Our congregation depends on your support to keep going even if our doors are not open for public gatherings. Generosity, also, is a Spiritual discipline.

We are not shutting down our ministry to each other. I will still be working and available. We will continue to function as a church, albeit in a different way. If you need to contact me, Pastor Ricky, or our Secretary, Cadie Morrow, our contact information is listed below.

We will get through this crisis, and we will do so together as a church. Resources and information about COVID-19 are listed at the bottom of this letter.

Yours in the service of God,

Rev. Christopher Millay

 

Cadie Morrow, Church Secretary

Office: 812-838-2640

Email: cadie@firstumcmv.com

 

Carol Collier-Smith, Chief Operations Officer at Echo Community Healthcare, has provided some practical information which I have added below.

*Frequently wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

*Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or the inside of your elbow.

*Clean frequently touched objects and surfaces with disinfectant and paper towels (not cloth rags).

*Stay home when sick.

*Avoid large gatherings.

*Stock your home with extra prescriptions medications, general food and supplies; a thermometer, fever-reducing and cough medications. All will come in handy if you need to stay home for a prolonged period of time.

*Beware of false information. The Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, and Johns Hopkins websites are reliable sources of information.

*Most people with COVID-19 recover without medical intervention. Those that are high risk are over age 60, those with existing medical conditions, or those who are medically compromised.

*812-450-6555 is the Deaconess 24-hour COVID-19 nurse triage line that is available if you develop a fever over 100.4, cough, and shortness of breath.

*Call 911 if you are in distress, and inform 911 if you are concerned you might have COVID-19.

Informational websites:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov

World Health Organization: www.who.int

Indiana State Department of Health: www.in.gov/isdh/

Johns Hopkins Medicine: www.hopkinsmedicine.org