Valhalla United Methodist Church’s Sunday morning Worship Services normally at 10:00am have been cancelled until further notice. We have posted excerpts from the service we would have had last Sunday below. Welcome to church in the age of Coronavirus!
Sunday, March 15, 2020 – Third Sunday in Lent
Readings Exodus 17:1-17; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
THE CALL TO WORSHIP:
L: Come and see the ambassador of God’s friendship for us.
P: We will find Jesus waiting to meet us: in classrooms, at a shopping center, in all the common places and moments.
L: Come and hear the One who speaks of God’s joy in us.
P: We will listen to Jesus, whose words of grace and peace raise the rafters of our hope.
L: Come and know how much God loves you.
P: We will discover Jesus, who offers us the gift of reconciliation.
THE CALL TO RECONCILIATION:
L: Walking the dog, reading a bedtime story, recycling newspapers – in every moment, in every place, God is there. Let us confess how often we do not see God in our lives, especially in how we live them. Join me, as we pray together, saying,
THE LENTEN CONFESSION:
God of eternity, you know how often we travel down the rocky roads of doubt and fear. We pester others with our worries; we hurl bitter words at those we love. We have chances to offer ourselves in service, but only give our contempt to those in need. We could share the living waters with the world, but want to store it in jars for safe-keeping.
Fountain of Grace, you turn towards us, to meet us wherever we are. You break open our rock-hard sin, so we might be made whole. In Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, our thirst for hope and joy is quenched.
WORDS OF ASSURANCE:
L: God does not disappoint us. Our sins are forgiven, our lives are made whole, we are sent forth to serve.
P: In Jesus Christ, living water breaks through the roof of our hearts, in such abundance that we don’t have enough buckets to hold it all. Thanks be to God. Amen
– acknowledgements to the Rev. Thom M. Shuman
THE LORD’S PRAYER
PRAISE SONGS: “God of Wonders” No. 3034
“Falling on My Knees” No. 3099
Pastor Kevan’s fireside chat (The Lesson):
Welcome to church in the age of Coronavirus! Check back for more videos this week.Posted by Valhalla United Methodist Church on Sunday, March 15, 2020
Closing Hymn: “Fill My Cup, Lord” No. 3093
Back in my youth pastor days, I used to play a game with the kids called “Would you rather?” It’s one
of those no win scenarios that we as children speculated upon during boring lunchtime periods when
it was too cold or rainy to play outside. You have to choose one or the other, however, there’s no option for non-participation. It goes something like this:
Would you rather die in 20 years with no regrets or die in 50 years with many regrets?
Would you rather have a horrible short term memory or a horrible long term memory?
Would you rather lose the ability to read or lose the ability to speak?
Would you rather be forced to dance every time you heard music or be forced to sing along to any song you heard?
Would you rather have no fingers or have no elbows?
Would you rather lose your ability to speak, or be forced to say everything that is on your mind?
Would you rather have no one show up at your wedding, or no one show up to your funeral?
Would you rather lose your sight, or your hearing?
Would you rather have hiccups for the rest of your life, or always feel like you have to sneeze, but not be able to?
Would you rather always be a little too hot, or always be a little too cold?
Life is filled with choices, from the insignificant daily decisions of what to eat for breakfast to the relatively substantial ones that potentially determine the course of our future existence. Do you want a Pepsi or Coke? Should I marry this person or that one? Not all our choices carry the same burden of importance, yet we cannot escape the consequences of even our smallest decisions. And we are confronted on an unprecedented level with a myriad of choices.
Walk into the condiment aisle at Stop & Shop. How many different kinds of salad dressings are there from which you can choose? Do we really need 110 different kinds of sauce to put on our lettuce? Are our lives more satisfying than our grandparents’ lives because they only had five dressings from which to choose? How many television channels are programmed into your cable access box? Think back to the first television you watched as a child. My family only had three channels on our TV–ABC, NBC, and CBS–and you actually had to get up off of the couch to change the channel! And then you go to the doctor’s office and receive a diagnosis. “What should I do, doctor?” And the physician answers, “Well, we could begin treatment A and here are the upside and downsides, or treatment B might offer you some relief, or I could prescribe this drug–and here are the 13 side effects.” Yes, you answer. But which one should I choose? Doc, what would you do? And the doctor says, “Well, I’m not you.” They may call it patient autonomy, which sounds like a good thing, but it actually is shifting the responsibility from the expert (the doctor) to someone who is ill and may not be in the best shape to be making profound decisions. Not to mention the fact that most of us didn’t go to medical school, either.
But perhaps the most important decision that is now left up to us is this one: Who do you want to be? You see, each morning we have the potential to reinvent ourselves. We can dress in a new style, pierce ourselves, tattoo our bodies, obtain a degree online, move to a new city, joined the armed forces, stop bathing our bodies, get married, get divorced, quit our jobs, join a gym, buy a sports car, dye our hair blonde, go to church, give up church, or sit in front of the television with 150 channels from which to choose. This is a profound cultural shift from the lives of our ancestors. Think about life in a Nebraska farming community in the year 1850. Do you actually believe that an 18 year old young man–or even more improbably, an 18 year old young woman–could wake up shivering one winter’s morning and say, “I want to change my life!”? You worked, hard, from morning until night. You often didn’t choose who you would marry. You didn’t ask yourself, “Do I want to have kids?” “Want to order out Chinese tonight?” “Think I’d look younger if I shaved my beard?” Life was so much simpler because there were fewer choices. Sure, some Nebraska kid (out of a thousand) went to college and became a banker or a politician, but most people didn’t have the resources and time and opportunity or even the awareness to make those kind of life altering decisions or that something else was even possible.
Ah, life is so much better now, isn’t it? Well, it can be in many ways, but you have to know that there are downsides to having so many choices. The first downside is that having too many choices can paralyze us. When we have too many options from which to choose, human beings will usually choose none of the available options. We become frozen with indecision. Want to retire to Florida? Or stay here? Vermont’s nice. But the winters. South Carolina? Too humid and the people aren’t that smart. Greater choice doesn’t translate into decisive action.
And the other downside of living in a society with a multiplicity of choices is that even if we overcome the paralyzing amount of choices that are out there and we make a decision, the result is that most of us will be less satisfied with the choice we ended up making. Has that ever happened to you? You set out to buy a new car. You analyze all the available models in your price range. You select the interior and exterior colors, the trim package, and the engine horsepower. The maze of financing options are set before you and decided upon. You sign the paperwork after an exhausting four hour session at the dealership and drive your new car down the parkway. You’re relieved that the ordeal is over but there’s a nagging little voice in the back of your head, wondering whether you made the right choice. Won’t a white exterior show up the dirt more easily? Didn’t the Honda have a better review in Consumer Reports? Did you really end up with the Kelly Bluebook price? You made your decision out of hundreds of options, but it doesn’t satisfy you. You could have made a better choice, couldn’t have you? And even if it was a pretty good choice, you are left with less satisfaction about it. All these choices escalate our expectations.
Barry Schwartz, who wrote a book on the subject, The Paradox of Choice, said he went into a store to buy a pair of jeans. “There was a time when jeans came in one flavor, and you bought them, and they fit like crap, they were incredibly uncomfortable, if you wore them and washed them enough times, they started to feel OK. I went to replace my jeans after years of wearing these old ones, and I said, “I want a pair of jeans. Here’s my size.” And the shopkeeper said, “Do you want slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit? You want button fly or zipper fly? You want stonewashed or acid-washed? Do you want them distressed? You want boot cut, tapered, blah blah.” On and on he went. My jaw dropped. And after I recovered, I said, “I want the kind that used to be the only kind.” Now, Barry said the jeans he bought turned out to be great, but why didn’t he feel great? Because, when he only had one choice, his expectations were low. But when he had 100 choices, he expected his blue jeans to be the best pair he ever wore. So Barry concluded that everything was better when everything was worse!
A story from the Jewish scriptures recalls how Joshua, in the eponymous book, the 24th chapter, tells how the man who finally leads the children of Israel into the Promised Land sets before them a choice. They can follow the God who brought them out of slavery into a land flowing with milk and honey, or they can go the way of false gods and lose their blessing. Joshua says God will make a covenant with
his people, a promise to never abandon them and to always keep God’s hand upon them, but they must make a choice. He poignantly states: “Choose this day whom you will serve … as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
I still believe in the profundity of free will. That our lives are not determined by genetics or happenstance. C. S. Lewis, the Oxford don and author, penned: “Every time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with another creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”
Our choices matter to God. They matter to the people we love. They matter to us. I watched, one late evening this summer, a nominee for the Academy’s Best Foreign film, entitled The King’s Choice. The king in question is Haakon VII of Norway and the movie tells a little known story from the beginning of World War Two. Norway has just broken ties with Sweden to become an independent country. A prince from Denmark is invited to be the ceremonial king, and he is crowned Haakon VII. 35 years later, the Nazis are encroaching on sovereign European nations. They tell the Norwegian government that only they can protect Norway from the British, but what the Nazis really want is Norwegian iron ore for their great war machine. They send ships and troops to invade Norway, but also ask their diplomat to negotiate a peaceful takeover. But the government is in shambles; the Nazis occupy all major cities. If Norway agrees to be ruled by the Nazis, no future bloodshed will occur. But if they fail to negotiate a surrender, the awful power of the Third Reich will fall upon them. Haakon has a moment of reckoning. Either he will become a puppet king, manipulated by the Nazis, or he will consign his people to hardship and war and certain domination. It is the king’s choice. And he chooses freedom for Norway–even if that freedom means death and destruction.
There’s one more problem with having so many choices these days. When you have so many choices, and you make one and aren’t satisfied with it, who is to blame? There is only one answer: you are. You make a bad choice and now you have to live with it. That might be why the incidence of clinical depression is so high in this country. If some choice is better than no choice, is more choice better than some choice? Not necessarily. The answer to improving our lives isn’t necessarily more choices from which to choose.
Because, in the end, there is really only one choice that matters. “Choose this day whom you shall serve”, said Joshua. Or in the words of the Psalmist, “I had rather spend one day in the house of the Lord than a thousand elsewhere.” Choose this day. And then choose the next day. And the day after that. Keep choosing because God has chosen. He already and always chooses us. Now it’s our turn.
I’ve only received two tickets in the course of my driving career, and both of them I can blame on church. One Sunday morning, I hopped in my sister’s lime green Plymouth Fury III and made a beeline to church. Driving east on 275, the ring interstate around Cincinnati, I saw that I was going to be late and put the pedal to the metal. Too late I saw a state trooper and he pulled me over for doing 71 in a 55 mile an hour zone. I told him where I was headed, but he showed no mercy. It cost me $50 bucks and I never told my parents. I was just 16.
But a few years later, I was in college in Indiana. I had just preached at a little Friends Church outside of Orestes, a tiny farming community northeast of Indianapolis. Back in the day, I drove a 1972 Dodge Charger with a 318 cubic inch engine, just enough power to get a college boy in trouble. Church was over, the parishioners had greeted me and were now headed for their dinner table, and I turned to a friend from school and challenged him, “I’ll race you back to college.” College was about a 20 mile drive north on straight, flat Hoosier farm roads. He took up the dare and 15 minutes after stepping out of the pulpit, I was driving a cool 110 miles per hour.
Now, do you remember a song called “Hot Rod Lincoln” by Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen?
Yes, it is just as obscure a tune as it sounds. The tagline was “Son, you’re going to drive me to drinkin’ if
you don’t stop drivin’ that hot .. rod .. Lincoln”. Still doesn’t ring a bell? But there’s a narrative in the lyrics where he’s racing a Cadillac and Commander Cody describes the action:
Now the fellas was ribbin’ me for bein’ behind,
So I thought I’d make the Lincoln unwind.
Took my foot off the gas and man alive,
I shoved it on down into overdrive.
Wound it up to a hundred-and-ten
My speedometer said that I hit top end.
My foot was blue, like lead to the floor,
That’s all there is and there ain’t no more.
Now the boys all thought I’d lost my sense
And the telephone poles looked like a picket fence
They said, “Slow down! I see spots!
The lines on the road just look like dots.”
I had the same sensation. When the telephone poles started looking like picket fences and the lines on the road looked like dots, I came to my senses. “This is crazy”, I thought to myself and I eased off the accelerator. When you’re going 110, it takes a few seconds to slow down, not long, but long enough for an Indiana State trooper to cite me for speeding. It was that magic number once again: 71 miles per hour in a 55. When I saw the ticket didn’t read 110 miles an hour, I practically got down on my knees and thanked the officer.
But that was 40 years ago. I don’t drive like that anymore, thank the Lord. Although, we were on a Midnight Run to distribute food and clothing to the homeless a couple years ago and I was driving the lead car into the city. Ryan was sitting beside me and my cell phone rang. It was one of the cars behind us. “Will you please tell your dad to slow down?”, they pleaded.
Why in the world, you might wonder, are we talking about my driving history on the first Sunday of 2018? I can think of several rationales: it’s New Year’s and we are making resolutions. Slowing down and becoming a more mindful driver is something we should all resolve to do. But the primary reason I thinking about how we drive comes from a sermon that Pope Francis offered on New Year’s Eve. He said that the people who have the most influence on society aren’t the rich and famous, the movers and shakers, the politicians or social media stars. No, they’re the ordinary people of the world, kind, thoughtful, generous, giving persons that Francis named “the artisans of the common good”. They don’t get credit for their good works, they don’t give speeches, they don’t expect recognition; they just do the right, good, civic-minded things that they do because they are good people.
But Francis particularly singled out drivers. Those people “who move in traffic with good sense and prudence”. In other words, the opposite of those who drive so fast that telephone poles look like picket fences. But seriously, how we drive molds the culture of our communities, it has an impact on the greater good of us all.
David Brooks of the Times put it this way:
“If you speed up so I can’t merge into your lane, you’re teaching me that the society around here is basically competitive, not cooperative. If, on the other hand, you give me a friendly wave after I let you in, you’re teaching me that this is a place where a kindness is recognized and gratitude is expressed.
If you feel perfectly fine doing a three-point turn in the middle of a busy street, blocking everybody else going both ways, you teach me that people here are selfish and feel entitled. But if you get over to the right and wait your turn in a crowded highway exit lane, rather than cutting in at the last moment, that teaches me that there’s a sense of fairness and equality, and that people feel embedded in the group.”
You see, how we drive shapes our community, our society, our communal identity. When I moved to New York from the Midwest, I learned fairly quickly that one couldn’t expect other drivers to just move over if you needed to merge. Sometimes you had to drive more aggressively to create the space you needed. But perhaps that’s not a positive thing. We tend to drive like those around us. Kindness breeds kindness, but aggression breeds aggression.
Having been raised in fundamentalist Christianity, my Sunday School teachers and youth leaders often asked us young people questions like, “If Jesus were here today, what kind of clothes would he wear? What kind of job would he have? What kind of car would he drive?” That last one always provoked a good debate. Would Jesus drive a BMW? Or a Volkswagen Beetle? A sensible Ford or a sporty Alfa Romeo? But the question we never asked was “How would Jesus drive?” How come we never talk about that in church?
My oldest, Nate (or Sean), was home for the wedding and he reiterated his belief that the worst drivers in the United States reside in Maryland. And we thought they lived in New York! But the insurance company, Allstate, has determined that some of the most accident prone drivers do indeed live in Baltimore and the Washington, D.C. area. The least aggressive drivers live in Honolulu, Seattle, and Portland.
St. Mark’s gospel says at the beginning of Jesus’ good work, he went to his cousin John where he was baptized in the Jordan River. Now John, says Mark, was preaching a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. And all of Jerusalem went out to seek that forgiveness. There are times, we have to admit, when we could use some forgiveness for the way we drive, the way we interact in public, the occasions when kindness could trump aggression, but we choose the less socially good choice.
Listen to Brooks again:
“Driving means making a thousand small moral decisions: whether to tailgate to push the slowpoke faster, or to give space; whether to honk only as a warning or constantly as your all-purpose show of contempt for humanity.
Driving puts you in a constant position of asking, Are we in a place where there is a system of self-restraint, or are we in a place where it’s dog eat dog?
Driving puts you in a constant position of asking, Are my needs more important than everybody else’s, or are we all equal? BMW drivers are much less likely to brake for pedestrians at crosswalks. Prius drivers in San Francisco commit more traffic violations. People who think they are richer or better than others are ruder behind the wheel.”
How would Jesus drive? What if, instead of being baptized, our driving records determined whether we could become a member of this congregation? What if, when people cut us off in traffic, our response determined whether we could be called “Christian” or not? What if, instead of telling us to “turn the other cheek”, Jesus told us, “Don’t be a jerk when you’re behind the wheel of a 4,000 pound vehicle.”
How would Jesus drive? Not like me, I imagine. But if we want to be “artisans of the common good” as Pope Francis called kind, giving, civic-conscious people, I’m going to have to do better this year. I’ll need a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. And when I screw up, when I’m the idiot (instead of the guy who just cut me off in traffic), I’ll also remember that I am–like Jesus–beloved of God, who in spite of everything, who, in spite of my driving, is well pleased with you and me.
“A minute is a funny amount of time.” We say, “Give me a minute.” “It’ll only take a minute.” “Do you have a minute?” “He arrived at the last minute.” “Don’t wait till the last minute!” Unless you are holding your breath, we rarely consider individual minutes. A minute isn’t enough time to eat, isn’t long enough to read anything of significance, is too short for a catnap, and isn’t long enough for a substantive conversation. But yet, you and I are given about 500,000 of them every year.
What can happen in a minute? How many really significant minutes do you remember in your life?
The Atlantic magazine created a video some time back that was called “In the Last Minute”, and it included some compelling statistics. In the last minute 25 Americans will get a passport; 58 airplanes will take off; 116 people will get married; 144 people will move into a new house; 255 babies will be born; 11,319 packages will be delivered by UPS; 83,000 people will make love; 243,000 photos will be uploaded to Facebook; 5.4 million pounds of garbage will be created; 136 million pounds of carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere; 7.1 billion human hearts will beat 500 trillion times and create 858 quadrillion new red blood cells. All in the last minute.
Three days before Christmas, 1849, the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky was led before a firing squad. A court had sentenced him to death for allegedly taking part in anti-government activities. The author was the son of a wealthy physician; his father owned land and serfs. But those connections would not save him. He stood facing the end of his life. But for some inexplicable reason, reprieve arrived at the last minute. His life was spared and Dostoevsky was shipped to a Siberian labor camp, where he would work for the next four years. When he was released, he married, founded a magazine, and resumed writing such classic works at Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. But he never forgot that he had been seconds away from death. He was saved at the last minute.
It is not just any minute that brings us to a story from the Jewish scriptures. Because the old patriarch Abraham trundles his son Isaac all the way up the top of Mount Moriah for a date with a fire, a knife, and a very demanding God. Isaac, bless his heart, seems to be the not-quite-bright son in this story. He keeps asking his father where the lamb for the sacrifice is, never catching on to the fact that he’s the guest of honor at this horrific ritual. They reach the mountaintop, Abraham binds Isaac and lays him on the altar, the knife is raised upright to slit the boy’s throat, and then and only then–at the last minute–does an angel of God intervene. “Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham passes God’s “test”.
Now, I have to be completely honest with you. This is terrible scripture. I know it is beloved and well known to many believers, both Christian and Jewish, and even St. Paul found it to be formulative for his understanding of the atonement of Christ, but I can’t abide the story of a God who would ask a parent to sacrifice their own child–even if God is only testing the person. For many people outside the faith, this episode in Genesis is an exemplar of religion’s barbarity. In a book I read some years ago, The God Delusion, the outspoken atheist, Richard Dawkins, wrote, “this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremburg defense: I was only obeying orders. Yet the legend is one of the great foundational myths of all three monotheistic religions.”
I agree, this story is indefensible. There is not one of us here who would even consider sacrificing our children–or any child–in the face of a demanding deity. Not a year goes by, however, where some deranged mother or father does that very thing; they take the life of a child and then says that is was God who told them to do so. We rightly consign them to the ranks of the mentally ill. We can “get” the purpose of the story as people of faith, that we are to trust God implicitly, that we are not to depend upon anything earthly to secure our place in the world, but when God asks for a child, God is asking too much. Maybe God is asking more than God has a right to.
When Bishop Will Willimon was at Duke University, he and his wife Patsy showed an old film clip of this story to facilitate a discussion with children and adults. “Who knows what the word sacrifice means?” his wife asked the children. A few hands went up; a definition was attempted here and there. “But what does it mean to you?” That’s when the trouble started.
“My mommy and daddy at doctors at Duke”, said one third grader. “They help sick people to be better. Every day they do operations to help people.” “And how is that a sacrifice?” asked Patsy. But the little girl wasn’t finished. “And I go to the daycare center after school. Sometimes on Saturdays too. Mommy and Daddy want to take me home, but they are busy helping sick people–so lots of times I stay at the center. Sometimes on Sunday mornings we have pancakes, though.” Everyone, from 6 years to 11 years old, nodded in understanding.
“But what does this story mean to us?” asked the chaplain. Can this ancient story have any significance for us?” “God still does”, interrupted an older woman, her hands nervously twitching in her lap. “He still does.” “How?” asked Will. Quietly she said, “We sent our son to college. He got an engineering degree, and then he got involved in a fundamentalist church. He married a girl in the church; they had a baby, our only grandchild. Now he says God wants him to be a missionary and go to Lebanon. Take our baby, too.” She began to sob.
The silence was broken again, this time by a middle aged man. “I’ll tell you the meaning this story has for me. I’ve decided that I and my family are looking for another church?” “What?” Will asked in astonishment. “Why?”
“Because when I look at that God, the God of Abraham, I feel I’m near a real God, not the sort of dignified, businesslike, Rotary Club god we chatter about here on Sunday mornings. Abraham’s God could blow a man to bits, give and then take a child, ask for everything from a person and then want more. I want to know that God.”
You and I, we know what it means to sacrifice. We’ve sacrificed to get where we are in life; we’ve sacrificed for our children, and our grandchildren, too. We have loved ones who sacrificed their lives and health for their country. My father lost much of his hearing in the Second World War. As I said last Independence weekend, I am quite certain that no one ever said to him, “Thank you for your service.” Others sacrificed so that they could experience the American Dream–whatever that meant to them. But when we Christians read this story, we cannot help but to see another sacrifice–not of an unwilling or an unwitting son–but of Jesus’ willingness to sacrifice himself so that we might have life.
And yet, we are all a lot like Abraham. We can never know the answers to life and our many questions in advance. All we can do is to act wholeheartedly, even when we don’t have absolute certainty. As much as we say that faith defines our lives, the truth of the matter is that there are no guarantees, no absolute clarity. Like Abraham, we make decisions know that we might be right or we might be wrong. Our sacrifices will be celebrated by some people and mocked by others. And once they are offered, we can’t take our sacrifices back.
So I challenge you to follow a God who asks us risk everything, absolutely everything. That means you should never give up hope, never give up your faith, never follow in your heart what you know to be wrong. You never know, God may come to you in the last minute, saving Abraham, saving Isaac, but more importantly, saving us from ourselves and the hard world in which we live.
All in the last minute.