On Being Still

Screen Shot 2020-08-18 at 8.57.11 AMBe still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations; I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. – Psalm 46:11-12

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

This past spring, my two daughters begged me to watch an animated film with them. “This one is different!” they promised me, “You will like it!” I was not so sure, but they refused to give up. This is how I found myself watching a movie called Frozen II.

To be honest, all I can remember about the original Frozen are three things: the talking snowman, the song “Let it Go,” and the refreshing fact that the heroes are female instead of male. So, armed with a serious lack of information, I sat down to try to enjoy the sequel to a movie I barely remember.

It was wonderful.

There is one scene in particular upon which the entire movie pivoted. It takes place early in the film when everything is falling apart and there seems to be no way out, no hope whatsoever, when the bad news seems insurmountable. It is then that a minor character, a troll named Pabbie, names how terrible the situation is before delivering the best line in the film, saying “When one can see no future, all one can do is the next right thing.”

In Psalm 46, the psalmist only describes future calamities after first describing a present reality: it is God who is our refuge. It is God who is our strength. It is God who is our very present help in our times of trouble. Psalm 46 does not imagine a shaken world set apart from God’s help. Instead, it promises God’s presence with us, even when everything else is falling apart.

Psalm 46 it is not a psalm about what we have done or what we can do. It is a psalm about what God will do, even when everything around us is shaking. Still, the psalm asks one thing of us, right near the end, and that one thing is to be still and know that God is God.

Stillness is more difficult than it sounds. We want to do things. We want to fix things. We want to change things. Against the backdrop of “doing,” being still sounds like an indulgence, an extravagance, a luxury that none of us can afford. We can see no future, and we wonder, if all we can do is “the next right thing,” well, what is the next right thing?

The thing is, being still is not the same thing as doing nothing. If anything, being still can simply mean that we heighten our awareness of God’s presence in our mist. It can mean that we do the difficult work of admitting our powerlessness and trusting in the providence of God. Sometimes what feels like “nothing” is the most important “something” we can ever do as our redeeming God uses even our stillness for the purposes of holiness.

I was once crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel when I noticed the bay was filled with about a dozen immense container ships, all just sitting there, none of them moving. The stillness was amazing; ship after ship after ship, all unmoving, all still.

It was not until I thought about it later that evening that I realized what was happening. While it looked like the ships were doing nothing, they were actually doing all they could: they were waiting for the tide to change so that they could do what was next.

“When one can see no future, all one can do is the next right thing.” As recently as a couple of months ago, I thought the “next right thing” for me was going to be spending time getting to know so many of you in person, not merely through email or Zoom meetings. Now, this time of holy stillness has enabled me to think in more granular detail about what the next right thing truly is for the Roanoke District.

Perhaps the “next right thing” is being mindful of how I properly wash my hands, while giving thanks for the gift of clean water or giving thanks for clean mountain air when I put on my mask. Perhaps the “next right thing” is holding my family a little closer, while giving thanks for their life, health, and the additional time I have been given with them. Perhaps the “next right thing” is for us to elevate our awareness in regard to who represents the most vulnerable in our community, and what it would mean to care for those people in very specific ways. Perhaps the “next right thing” is a renewed realization of what a holy gift it is for us to gather for worship, study, service, and fellowship; a realization of how incomplete we are when we are apart, a renewed realization of the sacred gift of community.

What if the “next right thing” is to learn to let go of trying to control everything all the time, and to trust our lives, families, church, community, nation, and world to the one who stops the shaking of the mountains and “breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; [and] burns the shields with fire?”

What would your days look like if you were able to listen for God in stillness to show you your “next right thing?”

One day, by God’s grace, the tide will rise again, and the journeys of our customary round will continue. We will somehow, by God’s grace, get through this, and it is my prayer that when we do, we will emerge from it even more willing to be connected to God and neighbor, more grateful for the blessings of this life, more mindful of others’ needs, and more appreciative of the simple gifts of gathering together as the Body of Christ, weaving our voices together in song, sharing and bearing one another’s joys and concerns in prayer, and being God’s witness to the world.

In Christ,


Both Sides, Now

What follows is my July 2020 newsletter article to the Roanoke District of the United Methodist Church. 

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, Screen Shot 2020-07-16 at 7.42.53 AM“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” – Acts 17:22

          A few years before I was born, Joni Mitchell composed a song titled “Both Sides, Now,” a song inspired by a novel by Saul Bellow. The song includes the lyric “I’ve looked at life from both sides now.” I have to say that this lyric speaks to my life in this time and place as I learn to inhabit the ministry of Roanoke District Superintendent.

It is a strange and difficult time to be in ministry, as of course, you already know. When Bishop Lewis approached me about joining her Cabinet, I had no idea how much of the work would not be serving as “missional strategist” as the Discipline envisions, and I knew not how much of the work would be directed, if not dictated, by COVID-19. What I imagined would be numerous drives on backroads to churches and pastors across the Roanoke District has been replaced by things like Zoom meetings and reading reports from Healthy Church Teams.

I realized the other day that I have been a pastor for 1,196 Sundays, and a District Superintendent for two. Prior to moving to Roanoke, I served as the lead pastor of Reveille UMC on the Richmond District, and for my last quarter-year there, ministry was largely dominated by filming worship, editing video, uploading services, forming a Healthy Church Team, and learning how to do ministry in what felt like a distant, disconnected, bleak new landscape, as I partnered with anxious staff and anxious laity, all while trying to manage my own coronavirus-induced anxiety.

And yet, as difficult as it was, I give thanks for this local church experience. I am one of five active clergy in the Conference who have experienced ministry as both a pastor and D.S during this pandemic. and without this experience, I do not see how I could regard this odd and holy work God has called us to share from “both sides now.”

All of this is to say that I believe that those experiences at Reveille have helped me to read what you ask and send to me as a local church pastor as much or more than I do as a Superintendent. I find myself thinking, “Who would I have stand at the door to make sure masks are being worn? What would I say to someone anxious to complete a health form? How would it feel for me to preach wearing a mask? How would I help assure that the people in my charge were safe?”

I remember worrying about apportionments and waiting to see what kind of offering would come in for the week. I remember checking YouTube analytics to see how many views the service received and how it compared to the week before.

In Acts 17, a greatly distressed Paul stands in front of the Areopagus in Athens and speaks the words at the top of this page, greatly destressed because the idols were so many and the job seemed so large, if not impossible. So, what does he do? He simply starts where he can and he does his best: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way…”

It is a profoundly difficult time to do ministry in an already post-Christian world. Even before I became your District Superintendent, I was convinced that at no time in the history of this land have clergy and laity had to work as hard we do today. And yet, as I read documents sent to me from so many of you, I find that they are not the dry safety manuals I thought they would be. Instead, they read like love letters written by the church to the people, members and neighbors, saying simply “We love you and want you to be safe and well,” all in the name of the One who described faithfulness as loving God and loving neighbor as oneself.”

Thank you for all you are doing. I know it is not easy. None of us are alone. God is with us, and I am grateful to the God of life for allowing me to be in this time and place together with you.

Grace and peace,




IMG_6098Back in 2003 or 2004, I volunteered to write a couple of reflections for a Virginia Conference devotional called A Summer Read. One was a hymn about the sabbath called “On the Seventh Day God Rested and the other was a poem titled “Daughter.” When I wrote it, I had only been a father for a short while after the birth of my oldest daughter Ellen. Based upon Mark 7:24-37, it imagines the unfolding of Ellen’s life until she leaves home, a day that I thought at the time would come much, much less quickly than it has. I offer this as a meditation for Fathers’ Day.

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Transitions: More Than This

Fresco paying tribute to George Floyd, Brussels, Belgium - 04 Jun 2020Reveille United Methodist Church

Trinity Sunday – June 7, 2020

Amos 5: 21-24

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

There is a temptation, in a sermon like this one, preached on a day like today, for a white pastor like me from a mainline Protestant denomination like ours, to a white congregation like Reveille to follow a very well-trod path. This path typically begins with a quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and then makes a left-turn somewhere around a quote from the Epistle to the Galatians, where Paul speaks of how in Christ there is “no longer Jew nor Greek, no longer male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The path continues towards a vague statement of Jesus’ commandments to love our neighbors, and how this commandment is inextricably linked to his commandment to love God, all before the white preacher reassures the white congregation that hearing all of these non-specific entreaties on love and unity are all the gospel requires of us, and as such, that everything is going to be all right.

I should know. I am sure at some point I have preached this sermon.

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Transitions: A Tale of Two Churches

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAReveille United Methodist Church

Pentecost Sunday – May 31, 2020

Acts 2:1-21


Today, May 31st, is Pentecost, one of the high holy days of the liturgical year. If you ask most anyone who plans worship for this day, they will likely tell you that this is one of their favorite Sundays of the year. One could argue that of all of the Sundays in our liturgical journey, Pentecost is perhaps the brightest, most vibrant, kinetic, colorful, bombastic days of worship. See the bright red/yellow/orange tongues of fire alight above the heads of the disciples. Feel the mighty rush of the Spirt/wind across your face, filling the upper room. Hear the cacophony of different languages from all over the world calling out in praise of the wondrous deeds of God, diverse languages spoken from the lips of the Galilean disciples. Imagine the scent of fire and smoky mist as Peter preaches so boldly of a darkened sun and a blood-red moon.

Were things like they once were, today would be the day of confirmation for our eighth graders, as they stand before the congregation who, in so many cases, has raised them and who will be their witnesses when they stand in our majestic chancel and say words of salvation: “I believe.” This would be their day of a reception at noon and photographs on the steps of Reveille House after a service where names spoken into the mystery of worship at their baptisms so long ago now reverberate again amidst the marble and the pillars and the red paraments and the words proclaiming “peace on earth and goodwill to all” as these young people kneel and receive a new name, the name we all have: Christian.

This is a day that would have included a sequence hymn and this morning’s text proclaimed from the center of the worship space, this text with all of those difficult-to-pronounce nationalities, this text that tells of three thousand people becoming believers and giving birth to that which God has chosen and set apart as both a sign of God’s grace and as an outpost of Heaven on earth: the church.

This is the second-to-last sermon I will ever preach as your lead pastor, and since today is the birthday of the Christian church, I would like to use this sermon to give glory to Christ by discussing his church, his bride, his body on earth as scripture attests by giving voice to the choice that stands before this church, today, and in all of the days to come, and I will do this in the bright, colorful, flickering light of Pentecost. I believe that doing so will help explain several facets of our relationship as pastor and parish over these last six years.

In the grandest sense, perhaps without meaning to, churches tend to situate themselves in to one of two broad categories in regard to how they understand themselves and how they relate to the world, and those models are known as the Attractional Model and the Missional Model. Now, let me be very clear from the outset in saying that there is no purely attractional church just as there is no purely missional church. Every church, regardless of doctrine, has elements of both. However, churches also tend to lean more in one in one direction than the other, and it is that which I am speaking to today.

The self-image of the Attractional Church trends this way: our predominant purpose is to “bring people in,” and we do this through elements such as beautiful worship, elegant facilities, and large, attractive, popular programs. “If we can offer these,” Attractional Churches believe people will come, and the house of God “will be filled,” to use an image of the Lord’s in Luke 14. The Attractional Church understands its primary mission to bring people in.

By contrast, the Missional Church understands its purpose to be going out. It asks questions that attempt to locate the pain, the need, and the injustice in their community and world, and measures success not as much on how many people it brings in as much as how many people it sends out, and how many people and situations are ministered to though the congregations’ living out of its purpose. These churches often like to quote the Epistle of James, chapter two when they say “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead,” as well as  “Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”

Again, let me be clear when I say that all churches have elements of both of these models, they just tilt more in one direction than the other.

For most of its history, Reveille has tilted on the side of the Attractional Model, which makes perfect sense. We have the most beautiful building and grounds of any church in the city, if not the Commonwealth. I have loved showing Reveille’s sanctuary to people seeing it for the first time because to a person, I always hear them catch their breath. Throughout its history, Reveille has taken pride in offering the very finest music to be found anywhere in the Conference, a large and amazing youth group, and profound youth performances. You have had pastors like Bishop R. Kern Eutsler preach from that mighty pulpit, thirteen steps above the nave. You offered studies and classes that many people wanted to join. The Reveille Weekday School was so popular that I have heard stories of women learning they were pregnant from their OBGYN and driving directly from the doctor’s office here to secure a spot for their yet-unborn child.

And anytime we did something grand and people came, we felt successful. Reveille has been throughout its history a very, very attractive church, not without important missions, but a very attractive, and attractional church.

Yet what I think explains so much of the relationship between pastor and parish during my tenure here over these last six years comes from the fact that I have worked to push Reveille, in our life together and in our programming in a more missional direction. This is why I have spent so much time in Swansboro while encouraging you to do the same. It is why I preach on things like social justice and inclusion. It is why I have challenged us to not only serve those in need, but to be in relationship with them as well. It is why I have always tried to challenge you, why I feel so connected to our early Methodist roots. It what informs everything about how I think, pray, and lead.

And as I have pushed, you have understandably pushed back, especially in the fair questions you have asked of me, questions such as “Help me understand how doing ministry in Swansboro gets people to come to Reveille?” and “Why are you always telling us to do things?” and comments I have received when I have preached challenging sermons on prophetic texts asking why I could not, in essence, preach on topics more lighthearted and encouraging, and why you hear so many sermons and prayers about God’s pervasive sense of justice, and how the church should reflect that sense of justice.

This is all fair. If I am going to enter into an established community and question fundamental assumptions you hold dear about who you are, about your identity, I should absolutely expect you to ask “Why?” Likewise, it would be an abdication of my role as your pastoral leader if I failed to respond to these queries.

Everything I have done since I landed here in 2014 has been done with an eye to two things. The first is asking how Reveille can grow in grace and be the embassy of the Kingdom of God that God calls all congregations to be? In other words, how can we live and love such that we resemble a glimpse of heaven, such that the world will see the Christ in us? The second thing is to ask how Richmond and how the world are different because we are here?

In Matthew 11, John the Baptist is in prison for speaking out against King Herod and he sends messengers to ask Jesus, in essence, if he is indeed the messiah, or if they should wait for someone else. Jesus’ reply is telling when he says “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus, like the Epistle of James envisions an active, visible faith that transforms lives and communities as God utilizes them for nothing less than the salvation of the world.

Through it all, the conviction that I have carried with me in regard to our life together has been this: a largely attractional church can often survive for a season without being very missional. However, there is little more attractional than a truly missional church, for no other reason than we are actively in the world into which God sends us, living what we believe, resembling the one who saves us, showing them the Christ in us. Throughout my life I have met many, many people who gave up on God because of the actions of Christians. However, I have yet to meet anyone who lost their faith because of the grace, acceptance, compassion, and love of Christ. To be like Jesus, and to prioritize in our life what was most important to him, is to be attractional.

It is how, in a world of doubt, we earn the right to be heard.

A year ago, it was Holy Week, and our Director of Children’s ministries Tammy Tipton-Nay and I were in the chapel having worship with large groups of children from our Weekday School. When the oldest group arrived, the children who were on the very cusp of kindergarten, I told them the Easter story, and when I was done, a little boy spoke into the silence and said “He is not alive. It is just a story.”

Friends, I believe that Reveille has the God-given ability, with all of our gifted people, talent, creativity, and resources to work towards creating a beloved community here and world around us that we can partner with God in fashioning a world where that boy grows up and changes his mind, where he, too stands one day in our chancel on Pentecost, amidst the marble and the majestic columns and words on the reredos promising peace on earth, and that he, too can one day stand before the congregation and say the words of everlasting life: “I believe.”

On Pentecost, when the tongues of fire descended and the wind of the Spirit began to blow and people from all over the world began to hear the disciples from Galilee speak words of praise to God in foreign tongues, in their tongues, the Spirit did not tell the disciples to hold tight and await the arrival of the crowd in their upper room, but instead, the Spirit sent them into the crowd, into the community in Jerusalem, to go where the people are.

When John the Baptist sent messengers to essentially say to Jesus “If you are the Messiah, please start acting like it,” Jesus replied with stories, missional stories about changes being wrought in the lives of real people in real communities. Even Luke 14, where Jesus envisions the Master’s house being filled, he tells his disciples to go out to where the people are, find them, and bring them in to make it so.

Now to be clear, nothing I have said precludes beautiful buildings, beautiful music, attractional programming, or the importance of excellence in worship and preaching. And yet, in the world in which we find ourselves today, the church, unempowered by the culture around us, must regain the right to be heard, and we do that by walking the talk, embodying the message, reflecting the light of Christ into the dark places, living the words of the prophets by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. This is how the infant church lived in the immediate aftermath of Pentecost towards the end of Acts chapter two. They loved one another and they loved their community in a way that was attractional because it was missional, and as such, our faith is the descendent of their life and witness. Acts tells us that as they lived in this visible, missional way, “the Lord added daily to the number of those being saved.”

Does Reveille have the courage and the will to live as Pentecost people? I believe we do. I believe Reveille can live and love and serve out loud, in a way that makes the love of God in Jesus Christ real, tangible, and believable, such that children like the little boy in the chapel can grow into young adults who regard the Kingdom change wrought by this church in your life and in our witness to the world in a way where he will someday say “It has to be true. Christ must be alive. How else can I explain these things I have seen done by these believers who claim to know him?”

Over these last six years, I have preached the word to you. I have broken the bread of life for you. I have baptized your babies, married your couples, and buried your dead. I have visited in your homes, sat beside your hospital beds, and heard your most private confessions. I know you and I love you, so hear me when I say this to you: Transitions are indeed difficult and change is rarely easy. And yet, Jesus says we gain our lives by losing them, and that this loss is the very first step towards gaining them forever.

Living as an authentic missional Christian witness in the world is not only how Christ’s kingdom comes to bear in this realm, it is also the means by which, in a time of change and doubt, Reveille saves its very life, for the sake of Christ, for the sake of this community, for the sake of generations yet unborn, and for the sake of the world Christ died to save.

The Spirit of Pentecost is moving. God’s voice is speaking words we can understand. Do we have ears to hear?


Gloria In Excelsis Deo.







Transitions: Protect Them in Your Name

trowelReveille United Methodist Church

Ascension Sunday/Aldersgate Day – May 24, 2020

John 17:1-11

I remember that it was one Saturday last November. Specifically, it was the day of the University of Virginia/Virginia Tech football game, which I listened to on AM radio while it happened. The irony was that I remember thinking, no saying aloud that it was going to be easy, that despite having no experience whatsoever, I knew what I was doing, and everything was going to turn out fine.

I rehearsed these assurances in my mind so that they might sound plausible when I shared them with my wife, who I knew in this little one-act play would inhabit the role of the skeptic, and as I expected, she did not disappoint. She knew better than to believe me; she had simply seen too much evidence and had been disappointed far too many times.

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Why Your Pastor Cannot Come Back


SYCAMORE-UMC2It was only my second day in the parsonage of my rural, three-point circuit of churches when the phone rang and a voice on the other end of the line informed me that John Ben Varga had died. John Ben was, in many ways, a patriarch of that small community, and his death in the middle of the week meant that my first sermon in my new pastoral appointment would be a funeral sermon for someone known across the county, just not by me.

Almost immediately after I received the phone call regarding John Ben, I received another call from the pastor who was my predecessor in that appointment, offering to return and help in any way I needed, or to allow me to handle things myself. I told him I appreciated his generous offer but felt comfortable handling things myself.

So, I drove up the long, dirt road to the old farmhouse that had been John Ben’s, where his widow and children awaited, and the process I have known a hundred times began: experiencing the life of a saint of God through the eyes and stories of those who loved him the best as together we began the sacred work of planning worship to glorify the God who had given and redeemed this life so well lived.

It is difficult to overstate how important experiences like the one I just described are in forming the critically important relationship between pastor and parish. As time passed in that appointment, I was able to witness those three congregations accomplish frightening yet heroic tasks, ministries I am to this day proud to have experienced with them, humbled by the trust they placed in me, trust which began to be cultivated on a cloudy summer evening in an old farmhouse with sisters and brothers in Christ on the worst day of their lives.

As time has passed, I have only grown in my appreciation for the space provided to me by my colleague and predecessor in that appointment; space to begin forming the relationships that enabled those frightening and heroic tasks to come to fruition. Had he not, everything could, and likely would have been different. He humbly and graciously enabled me to begin my ministry in that context in the best way possible.

This is why, in our United Methodist tradition and practice, your pastor cannot come back.

So much of the relationship between clergy and the people we are charged to serve is forged in exactly the kind of settings for which we hope former pastors will return, settings which include baptisms, weddings, and funerals. And yet, allowing your new pastor to walk these sacred paths with you is in so many ways the means by which they truly become your pastor, not in title alone, but in reality.

When that rural appointment ended, one of the people I felt closest to was Jon Ben’s widow. In so many ways, the pastoral care I was able to offer when that pastorate was in its infancy set the trajectory for everything that followed, as did the hours I spent in hospital rooms, funeral parlors, living rooms, and my study, hours God used to bind our hearts together in Christian love.

As someone who has lived half of his life under the obligations of our United Methodist itinerant system, I can attest that this is not easy. Not long after I became Reveille’s pastor, I returned to my study after Sunday worship to find the voicemail light blinking on my phone. The message was from a member of my former pastorate immediately prior, a woman who was one of three generations of a family in that church. In her message, she told me that her father, also a member of that church, was dying and was calling out my name, asking for me. “Could you please come to the hospital and pray with him? Please?”

And I confess to you that it took every dutiful bone in my body to call her and assure her that her new pastor would gladly come and minister to her and her mother and father in their time of need, and that he would do so with great love and grace. I truly wanted to go.

That is, until my mind went back to a dusty road on a summer evening that led to an old farmhouse where the Varga family awaited the arrival of a young pastor who they did not know but who they would graciously allow to walk with them through all that was to come.

I say all of this to tell you that when I am gone, I am not creating space for its own sake, and I am certainly not doing so because I have stopped caring for you. Instead, I am doing so because I am making space that the Rev. Dr. Peter M. Moon will ably and lovingly fill as he walks with you through all that is to come. When the end of June rolls around, he, along with the Revs. Stephen Coleman and Kelley Lane will be your pastor, your prophet, and your priest. As you come to know one another, I invite you to give him the grace to inhabit that space in your life created by the joy and heartbreak of this life, for it is in that sacred space that he will become your shepherd, your guide, and a caretaker of your soul.

Grace and peace,



Surprised by Joy: The Empty Tomb

jobsEaster Sunday – April 12, 2020

John 20:1-18

Video is here.

I believe that one of the most gifted presenters of our time had to be Steve Jobs, the co-founder and CEO of Apple, Inc. For over a decade, he gave keynote addresses at various annual or semi-annual trade shows in which, he unveiled Apple’s new products. These keynote addresses were eagerly anticipated by the tech world. People would line up for hours to enter the auditorium where the presentation was to be made. Websites would post in real time each and every little announcement that Steve Jobs made. Those presentations were broadcast over the internet, and then made available for download, which people did thousands of times.  Jobs’ abilities in those presentations have been described as a “reality distortion field.” An associate of his once remarked that Jobs could convince people to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bluster, exaggeration, and marketing. If that associate only added perspiration, a top hat, and butterscotch ripple, Jobs would be a real life Willy Wonka. Each time he spoke, he affected the stock price of his company.

A trademark of his presentations for over a decade came at the very end, when it appeared that everything had been said and everything had been done, all of the good news had been shared, all of the stories had been told, all of the new products have been announced, all the guests have been thanked for their attendance, and all of the good-byes have been said, almost as an afterthought, Jobs would would say, “Wait: there is one more thing.”

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Surprised by Joy: The Cruelest Month

Palm-Sunday-Call-to-Worship-Website-Block-bPalm Sunday – April 5, 2020

Matthew 21:1-11

Video is here.

It was dusk; the sun had disappeared behind the rooftops of the homes across the wide street from the west-facing house in which I was raised. The neighbors in Ednam Forest had, for the most part, lived in that subdivision since it was constructed on land part of which, in the early 1970s, used to be a plant nursery. Most people knew one another – their children played together, the adults were guests at the occasional neighborhood party or cookout. We trick-or-treated at each other’s houses.

Each Halloween, there was an older man who thought it was funny to answer the door, reach into our bag of treats, grab a handful, and say “Thank you!” before abruptly closing the door. He would pause for a beat that seemed like an eternity, before reopening the door, giving us back our candy, and then asking “Who wants a Mary Jane? Everybody loves a Mary Jane!”

This was always the highlight of Halloween for me.

On this particular night, however, as the horizon darkened and the clouds stood like silhouettes against the sky, my mother called me into the kitchen to tell me that the Mary Jane Man had died. “His adult son is there,” she told me, “You should go over and check on him.”

And just like that, I began one of the most significant parts of my life’s vocation: visiting, gathering with the grieving, listening. Crossing the street, I had no idea what I was going to say. I was probably fourteen years old.

The English professor, novelist, and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis did not marry until he was fifty-eight years old when he was wed in a civil ceremony to Joy Davidman Gresham in April of 1956. The following march, they would be wed in a religious service but not before Joy discovered she was suffering from terminal bone cancer, which went into remission until July 13, 1960, when she died. (1)

After her death, originally under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk, Lewis published excerpts from the diary he kept after her death in a book called A Grief Observed, a book in which he explores his own suffering at this loss in the context of the struggles it created with his Christian faith.

In chapter one, he writes, “An odd byproduct of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t. Some [pass] it altogether. R. has been avoiding me for a week. I like best the well brought-up young men, almost boys, who walk up to me as if I were a dentist, turn very red, get it over, and then edge away to the bar as quickly as they decently can. Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers.” (2)

In this morning’s text, Jesus “crosses the street,” as it were, bouncing on the back of a donkey as he enters the holy city of Jerusalem, where he has come to die. Jesus enters to the adulation of the crowd who we know from years of Palm Sunday sermons is only cheering because they misunderstand exactly why he has arrived. Jesus arrives, not on a colt as a king awaiting his coronation would ride, but humble, on a donkey, a mere beast of burden. As Bishop William H. Wilimon reminds us, Jesus arrives on Palm Sunday as the royal one who comes to rule, yet as one who conquers through obedient, self-emptying love. (3)

Palm Sunday flies in the face of our modern notions of a distant, disconnected God who seldom, if ever gets involved in specific ways in our lives. A month or so ago, I was attending an ecumenical gathering of clergy when we were talking about prayer, and one of us was actually willing to admit how when he enters situations with his congregants, and especially where there is illness involved, he always finds himself praying in a way that, in his words, “gives God an out.” What he meant was that he prayed aloud in such a way that if the prayer was not answered in the way that was hoped for, God would somehow be protected, not made to “look bad:” “Lord we just pray unto you in the name of Jesus that if it be your will for this healing to take place…”

The rest of us knew he was describing us as well.

The fact of the matter is that generally, we are rather comfortable with a vague notion of God, a God of whom we have few expectations and who we believe has even fewer expectations of us, and of our lives; a God we find unconcerned with how we live and the choices we make. This, in many ways, is the difference in being “spiritual” and being “religious.” Spiritual people can roll with the idea of the existence of a deity. Religious people, on the other hand, tilt towards a deity who seeks our attention, craves connection, gets involved, identifies with our pain, holds us to account for our sin, a deity who enters into our own, personal Jerusalems, even to our misguided acclaim, to intrude upon our comfort and ease with our notions of a far-off god.

It is the reason that our scriptures and our creeds are intentionally so specific. Today’s text speaks about our God doing a specific thing (riding a donkey) on a specific day (Sunday) in a specific time in history. It is why in the Apostles’ Creed, we confess that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” This is not to place blame, for the blame is truly on sinful humanity. We instead utter the name of the one who condemned Jesus to remind ourselves that Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death actually occurred at a specific time in history.

What today’s reading does not include is the first thing that Jesus does in Matthew’s gospel after entering Jerusalem. He enters the Temple and overturns the tables of the money changers, and when he does, Matthew tells us, it was only the children who continued the shouts of “Hosanna!” The adults had other ideas. It is one thing to shout “Hosanna” to a god we believe exists on a plane well above lives. It is quite another when Jesus enters my neighborhood and your neighborhood, and when the tables he overturns are ours.

In the passage I quoted earlier from C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, Lewis concludes his paragraph on how he was treated while grieving the death of his wife by saying “Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers.” Bishop Wilimon writes “I remember the mother who, in noting how few church people had made contact with her after her daughter’s death, said, ‘I don’t blame them. It takes huge courage to enter somebody’s pain. Better to say nothing than to be exposed to such pain as mine.’” He goes on to remark, “Besides, sometimes hurting people unconsciously conspire to keep their would-be saviors at a distance. ‘You can’t know what I’m going through,’ they sometimes say. No wonder we hold back.” (4)

And yet, this holding back is not what Jesus does. It is not who Jesus is. Perhaps more than we would care to admit, we enjoy the distance between ourselves and God. A god who does not intervene in human history, who does not get involved in the entanglements that are our lives is a safe god, a mere granter of wishes, a god behind glass with the small, red hammer hanging alongside the all capital letters IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS. As in the closing lines of William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus,” we proudly declare “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul,” or as Don Draper says in Mad Men, “I am living like there is no tomorrow, because there isn’t.”

And into our insular little milquetoast “theocracies” comes the Messiah. The Jesus who bounces atop a donkey into the city where he has come to die is not a distant, uninvolved clockmaker who has abandoned us to our own devices. The Jesus who was nailed to a cross is not some projection of our deepest, unfulfilled desires. The Jesus we encounter in scripture, and especially during Holy Week is the God who is involved, who is invested, who is connected to our lives, at all costs, come what may. And this is why we Christians call it Holy Week: it shows us the kind of God we have and what that holiness looks like for Jesus: unconditional, obedient, self-giving love, self-giving death before rising again and making us whole.

All of which brings us to now, and the situation in our own personal and communal Jerusalems in which we find ourselves today.

T.S. Eliot opens his poem “The Waste Land” saying “April is the cruelest month” and as we begin this April of 2020, unable to even share Holy Communion with one another, the times feel especially cruel. Disease and death surround us. Economic fears refuse to abate. We even find ourselves unable to make plans for the future, for the future is so uncertain. Even leaving the house is subversive anymore. We feel as though we live at the threshold of Dante’s Inferno, abandoning even our hope.

But to our present cruelty, I offer this: the hope of the one who endured cruelty to redeem us, to save our lives, to save our souls. When the waiting seems unbearable, when the fear seems too great to bear, when what we once took for granted has fled or denied or turned against us, when we have built into our present culture a fearful distrust of even our neighbors such that we fear touch, a handshake, a conversation less than six feet apart in the midst of fewer than ten people, we live in a time when there are no easy answers, even from our faith.

And yet, we look towards the horizon and we see an itinerant rabbi, a carpenter’s son, a man born under questionable circumstances into a poor family in an occupied land, riding towards us on a lowly beast of burden, entering into our pain, entering into our sadness, entering into our fear, entering into even our sin, crossing the street to meet us where we are. For the one who rides into Jerusalem on this Palm Sunday, even to the misguided adulation of the crowds is undeterred by our pain, undaunted by our fear, unafraid of our sadness, unafraid of our sin, even when it would cost him his own life. Amidst the palms, we encounter the one who reminds us that God is here, God is involved, God is invested, God is committed, committed to us, to his church, to this world, even amidst the fear and doubt that surrounds us.

We can hole up in our houses, we can watch the markets rise and fall, but we cannot shake this persistent savior who enters Jerusalem in full awareness of what awaits him, in self-emptying, sacrificial love, for you, for me, for us, for the church, for the world. Thanks be to God.

Gloria In Excelsis Deo.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._S._Lewis
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Grief_Observed
  3. William H. Wilimon in Pulpit Resource, April 5, 2020, “Help is on the Way,” Matthew 21:1-11;
  4. Ibid.