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This sermon was originally preached at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Herndon, Virginia.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
As of this Sunday, I can personally attest that I have attended church services twice inside a church building since March 14th of this year. That’s two times in four months. Twice, in roughly one hundred and twenty days. For someone who is about to be ordained into the ministry, it feels surreal not to have been physically in church or performing services for that long. But this is the “new normal” in the age of coronavirus, with its social distancing and quarantining. I imagine that most of us have not had the opportunity to be in a church at all during this time. This pandemic has forced us to be separate from one another; from friends and family; from our coworkers; and from our church families. And just when things seem to start getting better, and it appears as if we’re returning to “normal,” the number of cases flares up and we discover that the virus is still a threat to us and our loved ones and neighbors. Our return to normal is put in jeopardy and we have to figure out how to live with the new change in circumstances. Already a number of states have rolled back reopening plans or have instituted new quarantines on out-of-state arrivals. Social distancing, separation from those we love, separation from our church family, separation from the sacraments–it seems like it’s going to go on forever.
But, thanks to the wonders of this modern age, we’ve been able to “do church,” and do it pretty well–extremely well here at Good Shepherd!–with the help of internet streaming services, Zoom Bible studies, group calls, and now, parking lot services. We can hear the word of God and receive His absolution through online and outdoor services. We can study the word and experience that wonderful thing, “the mutual consolation of the brethren,” when we have our online meet-ups and Bible studies. And God does indeed work through these things. But it’s not ideal. It’s not the same. We are not together in the same place, as we are meant to be. And I don’t know about you, but physical separation from our friends and family and from the medicine of immortality can feel unbearable. Even though we can talk and experience life together in a virtual medium, we’re still alone, and a flat image of another person is no replacement for physical contact. A blown kiss cannot replace the real thing. An emoji of an embrace is not a hug. We can enjoy the connection that the digital world brings, but it’s no substitute for the real joy that comes from being together.
And separation–loneliness–paired with the invisible threat of death by a disease that fills one’s lungs with blood clots, can lead us to feel despair and fear. Christians have been in this place before. In 1793, the city of Philadelphia was struck by an outbreak of yellow fever that killed four-thousand, thirty-one people. That was eight percent of the city’s population. Among the dead were six-hundred and forty-one members of Pastor J.H.C. Helmuth’s Lutheran congregation. Helmuth believed that the epidemic was God’s judgment on the city of Philadelphia, but as the epidemic wore on, he wrote in his journal, “The sickness and death are all around us. Lord Jesus, help us. Do not leave us alone.” Pastor Helmuth, watching his flock die, was afraid. He feared that he and his people would be abandoned to suffer God’s wrath, so he called out to our Lord for help, imploring Him to stay with them in their distress.
That was in 1793. In the present of 2020, it’s not all that different. I can only imagine what some of our brothers and sisters around the country and around the world have felt these last few months, or even what some of you have experienced with your family and friends who live in areas hard-hit by the virus. This week, I will be driving up to East Setauket, Long Island to begin my call as the senior pastor at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church. Suffolk County, where my congregation is located, was one of the most heavily affected areas in the country when the pandemic began. But now, other parts of the country are suffering, and no doubt people in Suffolk, and now people in Florida and Texas, are asking in the midst of all the turmoil and conflicting information: “Where is God in all this?” “We’re dying–is He there?” “Lord, I’m so afraid to go out right now when ten-thousand people have been diagnosed positively today.” “Lord, am I trusting you enough in all this chaos?” “Am I being faithful by wearing a mask? Lord, give me a sign!” “Lord, save us, do not leave us alone!”
Certainly, the people of the early church felt this way at times. Almost from the time of its birth, the Church has experienced all kinds of tribulations, chief among them persecution, and I am sure that when Paul, the writer of today’s epistle reading, was still Saul the Pharisee and leading pogroms against the Christians in Judaea, his victims asked these same questions. Certainly, after Paul’s conversion, more persecutions would come from other corners of the world–Christians would be famously persecuted in Rome in AD 64, and at other times in the following centuries until Constantine became the Roman emperor in 312. Plagues affected the early church, too; for example, the Antonine Plague of the late-second century AD killed some five million people, and the Plague of Cyprian in the mid-third century likely killed as many. Christians are no strangers to calamities, both natural and man-made, and I am sure that, just like us and just like Pastor Helmuth, those who suffered in those persecutions and plagues, cried, “Why is this happening to us, God? Where are you? Do not leave us!”
But Paul reminds us in today’s epistle reading that our feelings of separation and fears are misplaced. God knows exactly how we feel and what we fear, and he is with us through all of it. In fact, in the person of the Holy Spirit, he speaks for us; Paul says:
The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Ro 8:26-27)
The loneliness we feel, the hopelessness, God feels it all, and he articulates our pain and our worries far better than we ever can. And how could he not? The Son became one of us, after all–he humbled himself and took on human flesh and experienced the ultimate suffering of torture and a slow death on the cross for our sake. When he cried out from the cross, he cried out the pain and suffering of all the ages, and he took the consequences of that pain and suffering with him into the tomb and buried them. Our God knows what the pain and fear we experience is. He knows it all too well.
But isn’t that a great thing? That our God knows and articulates our fears and pains for and with us when it seems too great for us to bear? There’s a great comfort in that, that he knows our loneliness and worry better than we do. But there’s more to it than that. Not only does God empathize with us and know and feel the pain and fear we do, he has also promised never to leave us. Though we may fear abandonment when the evil powers of this world close in on us, God in Christ Jesus has promised to be with us always, never to be separated from us. Paul reminds us:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ro 8:35-39)
Do you hear what he’s saying? Nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. When we feel alone, Christ is there with us–his love is with us. When we are tempted to despair, he embraces us. When what we read in the newspaper or watch on television or see in our Twitter feeds becomes too depressing, he encourages us and reminds us of our hope. When we fear to go out because the wolf is at the door, he tells us that we have nothing to fear. We are more than conquerors in Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the Devil–nothing can separate us from his love and the life he gives.
So, though the SARS-CoV2 virus still forces us to socially distance and isolate from our friends, loved ones, and our congregation, we should remember that, in Christ Jesus, we are not alone. We are all together in him, regardless of where we are physically located. We are all members of his body, the Church, and if nothing can separate us from him, we, as the Church, cannot be separated from one another. So as this epidemic rages on, as the world seems more divided and partisan every day, take heart knowing that you are not alone. You will never be abandoned. Your Lord who loves you will never leave you, and even though you may feel as if you are apart from everyone and everything you know, you are not. The Church–the body of believers everywhere in every time and every place–is one in him, and nothing can separate you, the Church from his love, and from the love of one another.
This is something that I will keep in mind when I make my drive north tomorrow to East Setauket and the people at Messiah. In Christ the Church is one. In a way, that means I’ll be taking all of you, who have taught and supported, and inspired me over the last nearly thirty years at Good Shepherd, with me. Going to the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic while the pandemic still rages to begin my ministry is a very daunting task, especially because I’ll have to quarantine in place for two weeks upon arrival. But I know that I will carry with me all of the love you have shown to me over the years to my new congregation. It’s been a long journey to Long Island, beginning when I was a small child here at Good Shepherd’s preschool, continuing through the only kindergarten class we ever had, going through Sunday school, Confirmation, and youth group all the way through adulthood, university, graduate school, and seminary. I’m so blessed that you all have been a part of my life and my formation, and that we have been sojourners together, bound in the body of Christ by faith and the promise that Christ gave us in baptism: that we will always be in him and he in us. So from the bottom of my heart, I thank you for all your love, support, mentoring, and prayers. I hope to see you in Setauket someday soon. Thank you.
And now, may the peace that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry” is an excerpted poem from Smart’s much longer (though now sadly existing in only fragments) poem cycle, Jubilate Agno. It is a wonderful poem, at first glance a naive consideration of the poet’s cat, but upon deeper inspection, a joyous reveling in his cat’s creatureliness and a meditation on how a creature lives out its vocation before God. Jeoffry is a cat, made by God to be a cat, and so he lives out his calling by being the best cat he can be, by doing all that cats do, and thus, God tells him he is a “good cat.” There are echoes of Psalm 148 in this poem, and considering that yesterday was Earth Day, it serves as a good occasion to contemplate the various creatures God has given us as neighbors upon this earth, those “other nations,” as Henry Beston called them in The Outermost House, “caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.“
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him. For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way. For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness. For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer. For he rolls upon prank to work it in. For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself. For this he performs in ten degrees. For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean. For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there. For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended. For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood. For fifthly he washes himself. For sixthly he rolls upon wash. For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat. For eighthly he rubs himself against a post. For ninthly he looks up for his instructions. For tenthly he goes in quest of food. For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour. For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness. For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance. For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying. For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins. For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary. For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes. For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life. For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him. For he is of the tribe of Tiger. For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger. For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses. For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation. For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat. For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon. For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit. For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt. For every family had one cat at least in the bag. For the English Cats are the best in Europe. For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped. For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly. For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature. For he is tenacious of his point. For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery. For he knows that God is his Saviour. For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest. For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion. For he is of the Lord’s poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually—Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat. For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better. For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat. For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music. For he is docile and can learn certain things. For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation. For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment. For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive. For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command. For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom. For he can catch the cork and toss it again. For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser. For the former is afraid of detection. For the latter refuses the charge. For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business. For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly. For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services. For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land. For his ears are so acute that they sting again. For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention. For by stroking of him I have found out electricity. For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire. For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast. For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements. For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer. For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped. For he can tread to all the measures upon the music. For he can swim for life. For he can creep.
Originally preached/written for Emmaus Lutheran Church, Dorsey, Illinois.
In the name of Jesus, amen.
“Why is this night different from all other nights?” This is the question often asked by the youngest child at a Jewish Passover Seder meal. Perhaps you’ve attended one or been to a Maundy Thursday Seder service yourself and heard this. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” What makes this night so different from every night of the year? What are we commemorating? What are we celebrating? What is happening on this night, this Holy Thursday?
This night was a night that was different for the Jews. It was night of the feast of the Passover, when the Jews commemorated the night on which God broke Pharaoh’s resolve to keep His people, the Israelites, from leaving slavery, by killing the firstborn of every family in Egypt. The Israelites were spared, however, if they did what God directed them to do: they were told to slaughter a lamb and paint their doorposts with its blood, and then spend the night feasting on it while waiting up, ready to leave with staff in hand. That night, God would pass overhead—pass over their homes—and seeing the blood on the doorposts, would leave them be. Anyone else, however, woke the following morning to find the firstborn of the household dead, both animals and people. This plague on the firstborn, God’s final judgment on Egypt broke Pharaoh, and he let the Israelites leave Egypt for Canaan. It was at this Passover that God effected the salvation of His people from the Egyptians and began leading them out to the land He promised their forefathers. At Passover, the life of the Israelites began anew. God made a new covenant with them following His bringing them out—they would be His people, and He would be their God. And so at the Passover Seder, the Jews recalled (and recall to this day) God’s work in saving them from slavery and delivering them to their inheritance. This night, then, is the night of the Passover and the night of remembering what God had done for Israel.
But it should be said that when God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and slew Pharaoh and his army, the Israelites still needed saving. They did not behave like a people chosen by God when they left Egypt. They grumbled. They complained. They made idols and worshiped them rather than the God who had made a covenant promise with them. They were sinful, and many died as a result of their sin, like Korah and his people, who God condemned to be swallowed up by the earth. Even though they were saved from slavery in a foreign land, they still needed salvation from sin, death, and hell. Indeed, Israel’s history following the Exodus out of Egypt is nothing but a litany of sinful behavior, of infidelity and violence and murder. Their story mirrors the story of all of humanity. Giving into sin, they were unfaithful to the God who saved them, giving themselves over to the worship of strange gods, to child sacrifice, and to forgetting the laws God had given them. They “socially distanced” themselves from their God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and, while they were sometimes coaxed back to Him over the years by the words of prophets and the deeds of kings, they invariably kept turning away, turning inward.
But all the while that Israel was unfaithful and ruled by sin, God was faithful to them. He had a plan that would save them from their continual wickedness and unfaithfulness, a plan to destroy the power of sin in their lives, forever. And that involved His becoming a man, one of us, to die for the sins of all mankind and to rise again, triumphant over them.
And so this night is different from all other nights because it was on this night, some one-thousand, nine-hundred-ninety years ago that the incarnate Son of God, observed this Passover feast, commemorating the work that His Father had accomplished for His chosen people, saving them from slavery and leading them to a place where he made a covenant with them that they would be His people and He would be their God. But this night was very different from those other so different nights. Because on this night, God the Son would make a new covenant with his people, to save them from their sins. He “took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
And it was in this covenant that He foretold the benefit of His coming death and instituted the medicine of immortality, giving His disciples and His whole church a sacrament by which their faith might be strengthened and through which they would receive the benefit of his sacrifice: eternal life, won for them through his death and resurrection. His body and blood would be given up on the cross for the salvation of all people; His body and blood would be holy food for those who trust in Him for that salvation, medicine to feed their faith
You and I have often, like the Israelites of old, socially distanced ourselves from God. We’ve willingly violated God’s laws and rejected His promises toward us, instead seeking out illicit pleasures, following our own wills, and chasing after the false gods of money, possessions, sex, and power. And if we didn’t chase those things actively, we have certainly chased after them in our hearts and in our thoughts. And when we do, we condemn ourselves; we seek our own destruction. In our sin, we seek our own death.
But thanks be to God, He did not abandon us. He came and lived the perfect life we could not. He took our punishment upon Himself and died in our place, and through His death and resurrection, we have received forgiveness of sins and eternal life. And when we trust in his death and resurrection and we receive the Holy Sacrament of His body and blood, instituted for us and the whole church on this night, our faith is strengthened, our souls are fed, and we are given the assurance of eternal life with him. We know our sins are forgiven, and we can live aright. That is why this night, for the church, is different from all other nights. On this night, Holy Thursday, Maundy Thursday, the night when Christ told his disciples to love one another, the Son of God gave us a new covenant and promised to feed us with Himself to strengthen us in body and soul.
And of course, this particular night is different from all other nights, certainly different from all other nights we’ve experienced. This year, during Holy Week of 2020, the SARS-CoV-19 virus has forced us to not be able to meet together to worship God and receive His gifts. The virus and the regulations around it prevent us from coming together for a time, and we don’t know when we will be able to worship God together again. We don’t know when we’ll be able to receive the sacrament together again. But during this time of forced isolation, we can still put our trust in Christ’s work on the cross. We can still trust in the words of the covenant He made with us for our salvation, that by His body and blood the whole world will be redeemed. We can trust in His Word, His promises in Scripture. We can look to our baptisms and trust in them, remembering that we are washed in the blood of the Lamb who died on the cross at Calvary, and that nothing— “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). During this time of separation, we can remember all these things and put our hope and trust in Christ our Lord, who has redeemed us by His blood. We can trust that He will preserve us in the faith and hold us in His hand, regardless of what happens. And we can know that we are His now and forever and rest secure in that knowledge, looking forward to the time when we can come together again to receive His gifts and worship Him. Let us pray that that day comes soon. Christ has redeemed you. Amen.
My friend, Georgie Dee, has put together an online database for Lutheran and religious artists around the world. If you are involved in making ecclesiastical art, or know someone who is, please add yourself to the database or pass it along to your artist friend. It would be great to build a comprehensive database of artists as a service to the global church!
Also, if you’re interested in learning more about this project and some great artwork, or want to talk to some great artists, check out the Lutheran and Religious Art Facebook Group (I’m a moderator, for what it’s worth).
The image here is from the article linked below, but the difference here is quite striking. The Van Eyck’s original lamb had a much more anthropomorphic face, and thus perhaps pointed more to the nature of the Lamb of Revelation 5 than the more naturalistic, overpainted lamb that we assumed was the original for so long. It definitely gives us something to think about with regard to the original intent for the altarpiece’s viewing.