I don’t need to tell you that we are going through a time of rapid, disruptive change, and that this produces a lot of anxiety. Sometimes though it helps to name what is obvious. Only a week ago we still hoped we would be able to gather for worship if we took some basic precautions. A day later as more information from health experts came in, the session decided it was wisest to cancel worship. A few days later we were all ordered to “shelter in place”, with the exception of those who provide “essential” functions, to try to prevent a tsunami of COVID-19 cases that could overwhelm the capacity of our health care system. To mitigate that potential health disaster we are all working together to “flatten the curve” through social distancing and diligent hand washing.
But we wonder, at least I do, how long will this last? How bad will it get? And what can we do to keep our lives going and minimize the damage to our families, our neighbors, our church, our community and our world? The problem is that there are few certain answers to these questions which only adds to the stress we feel. All we can do is take it one day at a time.
As God’s people have throughout the ages, especially during difficult times, we turn to words from scripture for comfort, hope, guidance, and strength. This Sunday I will record and post a message on our church website titled Nothing Can Separate Us. My text will be one of the greatest passages of the Bible, Romans 8:18-39. I invite you to read and ponder this passage. May you hear God’s Word of grace spoken to you!
Following the recommendation of the Contra Costa Health Services that group meetings of 50 or more people should be cancelled to slow the spread of COVID-19 through our community, the Session has decided not to hold worship services at St Andrew’s for the next few Sundays at least.
This was a difficult decision to make because gathering for worship is so important, but we want to protect the health of those in our congregation, families, and community who are especially vulnerable to deadly complications from this virus due to age or underlying health conditions. I believe that in such a situation, temporary social distancing, is a way of loving our neighbors as ourselves, as Jesus commanded us to do.
We will be reassessing the situation regularly as well as looking for ways to support our members during these challenging times. We value your feedback and input. With faith, hope, and love, we will get through this together.
Our second Encounter with Jesus this Lenten season takes place in the dark of night between Nicodemus, a leading member of the religious council and Jesus. (John 3:1-17) “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anothen,” Jesus tells him. (v. 3) That Greek word anothen can be variously translated, as “from above”, “anew”, or “again.” Assuming the later meaning, Nicodemus is confused, and so he asks Jesus, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (v. 4) Jesus replies, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (v.5) What does Jesus mean by this? What does it mean to be Spirit Born? Think about that.
During this Lenten season I will be preaching on Encounters With Jesus based on the texts suggested by the lectionary. On this first Sunday in Lent, we begin where Jesus began his ministry, in the wilderness of Judea (see Matthew 4:1-11). Led there by the Spirit immediately after his baptism, Jesus faced his Wilderness Test, and passed. What can we learn from his example? What is the wilderness? What are we to do with the times we find ourselves there? Think about that.
In our scripture for this week the apostle Paul thanks the Philippians for their generous care and support of his ministry. And then he shares: “Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13)
The practice that undergirds and supports all the other practices we have been exploring is Extravagant Generosity. Bishop Schnase says “generosity supports the other four practices, helping the church fulfill its ministry to make disciples of Jesus Christ in robust and fruitful ways, opening the message of God’s love in Christ to more people now and for generations to come.” (p. 150) Being able to give freely and generously is a joyful experience. And this ability comes from the secret Paul shares above, the contentedness that God provides us with all we need. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us!
This Sunday we will baptize my grandson Callen, and my message, Baptized for Service, will highlight the connection between our baptism into Christ (see Romans 6:1-14 and Galatians 3:27-29) and our calling to practice Risk-Taking Mission & Service. It has been rightly said by many that “The Church does not have a mission. The Church is a Mission.” As those who have been baptized into Christ we are called to share his light and show his love through acts of caring and service, large and small. Schnase writes, “Never underestimate the transforming power of small actions. God uses caring and effective people in every circumstance to improve other people’s lives in a multitude of ways. We are each made to serve the other.” (p.107) Think about that!
The second essential practice of fruitful congregations Bishop Schnase describes is PASSIONATE WORSHIP. So this Sunday as we gather around the Lord’s Table, we will reflect again on how and why we worship, and what worship is meant to do to us. Authentic worship, practiced over the course of a lifetime, has the power to transform our lives. In preparation, ponder these verses from Romans 12:1-2, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
RADICAL HOSPITALITY – “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Mt.25:35)
Last fall we began exploring the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations suggested by Bishop Robert Schnase in his book by the same title. This year we will continue to work on strengthening each of these vital practices. It is not enough for us to just know about them; we must incorporate them in our lives, in what we say and what we do, both as individuals and as a congregation. This Sunday we will focus again on Radical Hospitality, specifically on how we can Welcome the Stranger as scripture bids us to do (see Deuteronomy 10:18-19 and Matthew 25:31-40). May God help us grow in the breadth and depth of our hospitality as we welcome people into our church home.
This coming Sunday we welcome the Rev. Mark Burnham to our pulpit. He will preach on the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11) and the title of his message is Abundant Wine, Abundant Faith. In the weeks that follow my messages will explore further The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations: Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk-taking Mission & Service, and Extravagant Generosity. Concerning the last, we thank you for your generous financial support of St Andrew’s. Unfortunately we are experiencing a shortfall in our pledges and running a deficit. If you haven’t yet turned in a pledge for 2020, please do so. And consider if you are able to give more. Every contribution helps sustain our ministry and mission.
This coming Sunday is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. In the church’s liturgical calendar, we just had Christmas, where we celebrated the birth of Jesus. This was followed by Epiphany, where we remembered the mysterious Magi who visited the infant Jesus and gave him gifts. This Sunday we immediately jump from the infant to the adult Jesus, a grown 30 year old man, being baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. We will ponder what that experience was like for him (see Mark 1:4-15), and what it means for our lives.