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Letter from Pastor Jeff

 

Christ Our Hope Lutheran Church

P. O. Box 961690

Riverdale, Georgia 30296

(770) 997-7117 (770) 997-3312

Jeffrey M. Halenza, Pastor

April 3, 2020

Dear Member,

Attached is a sermon I wrote a number of years ago but did not preach in its entirety. Rather, I delivered an abridged version of it because it turned out to be rather lengthy and I was afraid too many eyes would be closed by the time I got to the “Amen”. At any rate, I wrote it to help people gain a better understanding of Palm Sunday and why things happened the way they did in the days that followed. I am passing along the full version because I hope it will give you a better sense of those days and how they speak to our days. Also, to be honest, the full sermon is better read than heard – the odds of nodding off are not so great!

Tomorrow we will email you a link to a video of a reading of the Passion Narrative I did. For years now, our tradition has been to read the story in parts on Palm Sunday with members assuming various roles, but that won’t be possible this year. I hope the reading will do instead.

I hate the fact that we won’t be together on Palm Sunday or Maundy Thursday or Good Friday or even Easter, Easter hurting the most. Recorded or live-streamed sermons and services serve a good purpose for sure but, still, it’s just not the same. Worship, for me, involves gathering with others in person, seeing each other, welcoming each other, talking with each other, communing together, praying together, singing together (well, kind of singing together). It’s hard to be apart and truly worship. And the special days, like Palm Sunday

and Easter, make it only harder. Needless to say, I miss seeing you and can’t wait for the day we can at last come together again!

Concerning announcements, here’s an update:

 Even though we won’t be able to serve at Calvary Refuge Center this month, we will provide the usual food items. We have attached the sign-up sheet listing what is needed and ask that you either email (coh@bellsouth.net) or call (770-997-7117) the church if you can provide any of the items. But please do not put yourself at risk shopping for any item. Do so only if you’re comfortable going to the stores.

 

Redeemer Soup Kitchen does not currently need volunteers and so we will not serve in April. The staff is preparing box lunches which are served outside to those who need them. There may, however, be a need for a fill-in on a last minute basis and if you would be willing to serve in that way, please contact Sylvia McCullough (770-460-1001). You would not be in contact with anyone other than staff members.

 

 Since we won’t be able to hold an Easter service, there is no need for lilies. If you have already paid for a plant, we will reimburse you.

 

May the God who is a very present help in trouble continue to be your refuge and strength,

Pastor Halenza

JMH/nvn

Sermon for Palm Sunday

 

Sermon                                                                                                                                            The Reverend Jeffrey M. Halenza
April 5, 2020                                                                                                                               Christ Our Hope Lutheran Church
Matthew 21:1-11                                                                                                                                                                    Palm Sunday
Matthew 27:24-26, 33-54                                                                                                                             Sunday of the Passion

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, 'The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately." This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, "Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey." The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." Then the people as a whole answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!" So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, 'I am God's Son."' The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way. From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "This man is calling for Elijah." At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him." Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, "Truly this man was God's Son!"

 

 

When I was in high school in the early 1960s, one of our field trips for English class was to attend a play at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. The theater was founded by Tyrone Guthrie, the Canadian director who was widely known for his controversial productions of classic dramas. He was one of the first to give the plays of William Shakespeare a modern setting. He would stage Hamlet or Macbeth or King Lear not in the 16th century but in the 20th century complete with contemporary language and costumes. King Lear was no longer a king of long ago but suddenly a CEO running a major corporation, and Romeo and Juliet were transformed into star-crossed young lovers attending high school in the sixties. It was a wonderful way of bringing the plays alive, making them more understandable and having them speak to today's world.

And I got to thinking.

What would Guthrie have done with Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and the events of the final week of Jesus' life?

How would he have staged it? How would he have set it in today's world?

As someone has suggested, it's like watching a famous tragedy, a famous drama.

Hearing the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and his suffering and death that we heard today is like watching a famous drama. 

But it is a drama set long ago and far way in a whole other world, and so we might wonder what does it say to us today, how does it speak to us today?


So I got to thinking.

If we could set this story in today's world, perhaps that would help us understand.

Understand what happened, why things went so terribly wrong, and what it might say to us today.

So, if you were in a theater watching a contemporary version of this story, what do you suppose the opening scene would be?

Maybe there would be a backdrop with downtown buildings painted on it, buildings we would recognize as the skyline of Atlanta. And off to one side there would be a street sign and it would read "Peachtree Street."

Then Jesus would enter stage right riding in a borrowed, battered old convertible - a one car motorcade. His followers would be jogging alongside like Secret Service men as a small crowd pressed in on the car to see Jesus and try to touch him. Some in the crowd would be waving and cheering, others would be tossing flowers or even trying to make a red carpet for Jesus by tossing their coats on the street in front of the car.

Picture that.

Jesus riding into our own city.

But what about the crowds - how are we to portray them in today's world, who would they be?

And the disciples - who would they be? 

 

And Caiaphas the High Priest and the Pharisees?

And Pilate - what do we do with him?

And Jesus - what about Jesus?

Well, let's start with Caiaphas.

Caiaphas is often portrayed as the villain of the piece, an evil man who condemned Jesus to death, pressed Pilate to have him crucified, and worked up the crowds to call for his crucifixion. But is that fair or accurate?

Caiaphas was High Priest and he was caught between a rock and a hard place. He was the spiritual leader of his people, the Jews, and as such he was responsible for the scripturally mandated sacrificial rites at the Temple and he himself represented the people before God to secure their forgiveness and God's blessing. The Temple was at the very heart of Judaism, symbolizing the presence of God with the people, and Caiaphas was responsible for protecting it and protecting his people as well. He was a man who wanted to preserve the identity and uniqueness of God's chosen people and assure the proper piety of God's chosen so that God would continue to look upon them favorably. He was a devout man who cherished both Scripture and tradition and took both as his guide. But Caiaphas served at the pleasure of Rome. For seventy years Rome had been appointing High Priests in order to guarantee that the High Priest would do whatever Rome deemed necessary to keep the notoriously rebellious Jewish people in line and maintain peace in the province. The High Priest served two masters - God and Rome - and Rome made sure that it exerted as much influence and control over the High Priest as did God, if not more. So when it came to Jesus, Caiaphas was caught between a rock and a hard place. Jesus seemed to be a troublemaker, filling the heads of people with new and even radical ideas, and that could bring Rome down on the heads of all Jews. If Caiaphas supported Jesus, it could mean hundreds of Jews on crosses; if Caiaphas didn't support Jesus, it could mean condemning to death the very Christ of God and bringing the wrath of God down on the people. So what was he to do? Caiaphas studied Scripture, prayed, considered Jesus and his teaching, and in the end concluded that it was better that one man should perish rather than many - it was worth the risk. So not a villain at all, not evil at all, but caught between a rock and a hard place, wanting to protect the Temple and the people he held dear.

So who do you think Caiaphas would be in today's world? Before you answer, consider this: Caiaphas was High Priest of Judaism and Jesus was himself a devout Jew, so you can't place Caiaphas outside of Christianity in today's world. On the contrary, Caiaphas would be at the very heart of Christianity. And he would be a member of the clergy. So what do you think? A bishop maybe - a bishop in a mainline Protestant denomination or Catholic Church, or maybe a spiritual leader of one of the evangelical churches, or a televangelist or pastor or priest? (Well, a pastor of a large congregation, not a small one like ours!) Caiaphas would be a major religious leader, a devout person who was dedicated to protecting Christianity and its institutional life and who took seriously his responsibility to maintain Christian piety and practice. Scripture, for him, would be God's clear word revealing God's will and he would also cherish tradition. Yet, Caiaphas would also be someone who is perhaps compromised by his desire for success and more controlled by cultural and political forces than he cares to admit.

So, any thoughts? Any names come to mind?

 

 

And now, the Pharisees.

Here too the temptation would be to cast them as villains, but as with Caiaphas, that would be neither fair nor accurate.

The Pharisees were lay people, not priests. They were good people who were deeply concerned that the hostile Roman culture was threatening the identity and distinctiveness of Judaism, sometimes pressuring, sometimes seducing Jews to turn away from what made them Jews. Like the High Priest, they too were committed to preserving the holiness of the people, preserving what made Jews God's particular, peculiar people. Culture was the enemy and their answer was religious law. The law defined what was holy and good, what constituted righteous behavior in the eyes of God, and made Jews God's people. They believed both Scripture and rabbinic teaching spelled out clearly what was expected of Jews. Based on this, the Pharisees set very high standards for themselves and their fellow Jews and followed very strict regulations regarding behavior and association. These standards and regulations defined in great detail right and wrong, righteousness and sinfulness, what and whom were acceptable and what and whom were not. Cleanliness laws, Sabbath observance and tithing were all vital to their lives. They expected their fellow Jews to live up to their standards and follow the regulations and if they did, they were acceptable to them. Those who refused or failed were not to be associated with. Any lowering of the standards would serve to only further dilute Judaism and lead to even more moral confusion. Commandment, absolute moral standards, strict adherence to Scripture, was the only way and many Jews admired the Pharisees for their religiosity, their clear values, their strong moral stands.

So how do you picture the Pharisees in today's world? Here again you must be careful: as with Caiaphas so too with the Pharisees - they would not be outside Christianity but at the center of it. As they were lay leaders of Judaism of which Jesus was a part, so today they would be lay leaders of Christianity. So who might they be today? Perhaps good, devoted members of Christian churches of all kinds who are very disturbed by what is happening to Christian belief and morality in our culture. They would find religious commandments and Scriptural teaching to be the answer to the lack of clear values and the moral confusion of so many. They would believe in living up to very high standards and that right and wrong can be clearly defined. Judging others would be important in order to guide people and keep them away from harmful and dangerous associations. Some might even take pride in their knowledge of Scripture, their understanding of God's will and their spirituality.

So how would you cast the Pharisees in today's world?

 

And then there are the crowds.

Who were these people who had heard Jesus teach and preach, perhaps even saw one or two of his miracles, welcomed him into Jerusalem with such great hope and yet finally turned on him?

In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky describes the masses as seeking bread, miracle and authority. And maybe many in those crowds fit that description. Perhaps there were those who expected Jesus to literally provide bread, increase their economic security, improve their lives in a very real, material way - or at least to give them bread enough to keep them content. And perhaps there were people who wanted miracle after miracle, expected miracle after miracle not only to cure themselves but also help them believe – believe that Jesus really was from God, had the power, was truly the Christ. And maybe there were people who wanted to hear authoritative answers, wanted someone to tell them what to do, someone who would remove all doubts and confusions and make them feel secure in their belief. But also among the crowds were perhaps those who saw Jesus not simply as a spiritual hope but a political hope as well – the one who would start a movement to set the people free from Rome's oppressive rule, establish Israel as a nation again, set up a kingdom on earth. And also among the crowds were those who couldn't live up to the Pharisees' standards and thus were outcast and rejected, or those who found Temple worship empty and the Pharisees' emphasis on rule and righteousness to be suffocating - people who found the religion of the day a deadly thing and were searching for something different, seeking something that gave them a sense of hope and life and being near to God. So many different people in those crowds.

So who would they be today? Well, there are certainly people today who expect Jesus to give them bread, increase their prosperity, make life better for them - who believe that faith should work, that faith should lead to tangible rewards, that faith should make life better. And there are people inside and outside churches who need miracles to believe, who need God to do something to prove that he is there and has the power. And certainly there are many today who crave authoritative answers, who want some authority figure to tell them what to think and do and thus remove all confusion and doubt. And there are also those who want God to establish his kingdom in America, who want God back in schools and courtrooms, who want their political platform to be adopted by God. And of course there are a number of people who find churches and organized religion to be empty, lifeless, and are seeking a new spirituality, seeking purpose and meaning. And there are those who feel outcast by Christianity, judged and condemned.

So can you picture the crowds in today's world? Can you put some faces on them?

 

And now Pilate.

Pilate was Rome's man in Palestine who was charged with keeping the Pax Romana - peace as Rome defined peace - in a land far from the glitter and glory of Rome, a land known for insurgents and revolutionaries and general troublemakers.

By all accounts, Pilate could be ruthless and brutal, a true law and order man. But then that's the way Rome kept the peace, kept the roads open and trade flowing, the economy strong and the empire flourishing: by force, violence, killing anyone who dared threaten the peace. But Pilate also upheld Roman justice and protecting the innocent, though he was not above the occasional sacrifice of the innocent for the sake of order and the public good. Pilate was a consummate politician who knew how to work the various factions and keep them in line. He kept an eye on the public opinion polls and knew which way the wind was blowing, knew what would please the people and keep Rome off his back. Pilate was probably also very good at self-preservation – protecting his position and his pension. He would have had to have been, given the job he had. 

So who would Pilate be in today's world? A politician of most any stripe would probably fit, but in particular, I think, a politician who has compromised his or her original high ideals of public service in the midst of the nasty game of political survival - someone who has come to be ruled by the polls, who understands the need to keep big contributors happy, who is willing to sacrifice justice at the altar of political expediency. Perhaps position and pension have come to mean everything to him or her. And power.

Here too perhaps you can put a face on Pilate.

 

 

And finally, the disciples.

Fishermen and laborers and a low-level government official or two, and beyond the inner circle of the twelve, single women and housewives, farmers and carpenters and trades-people and business owners, most of them poor but a few rich ones too, and some broken-down wrecks and misfits and outcasts.

They were everyday people, some of whom had left everything to follow this Jesus. Most of them didn't know their Scripture very well (evidently, they didn't pay attention in Confirmation classes either!); many of them couldn't even read and had to rely on religious teachers for interpretation and understanding. Something about this Jesus had attracted them like no one else had. There was a power to his presence and words that was almost irresistible, a sense of life about him that made them feel alive like never before. He said things they didn't fully understand and did things they couldn't really comprehend. He had a compassion about him that seemed to encompass everyone. He didn't seem to be so concerned with religious doctrine and ritual as he was concerned with people, with them. They came to believe in him, believe that he was the Messiah, their hope and salvation, yet still they had a lot of questions about what that meant exactly and at times they felt that they had gotten in way over their heads, especially when Jesus talked about suffering and dying. They didn't like that. They had their own personal agendas of course. Some hoped that Jesus would finally give them some status in the world, make them successful as the world measured success. Others saw him as a political figure and pinned their hopes for freedom from Rome on him. Others saw a chance to escape their old lives for a new life, some adventure and excitement. But all of them, in one way or another, came to fall in love with this Jesus and had to be near him and feel the life and hope he put in them.

And in today's world who would they be? Certainly believers both inside and outside the church, people who are deeply committed to Jesus, people who love him, put their faith in him, want the life only he can give, follow him and try to live out the Gospel even though they still have questions. They would be different from one another, have diverse views, have different social and political agendas, and yet find commonality in their love for Christ.

And so maybe you should put your own face on a disciple in today's world, put yourself in their company.

 

 

And now back to Peachtree Street and Jesus entering the city.

Bishops and televangelists and clergy are there, though they watch from a balcony and do not look pleased. And lay people are there, leaders of various religious groups, but they too are at a distance and look upset. But the crowds are not upset - they are waving and laughing and pressing in on Jesus. And deeply committed followers are there, staying close to Jesus, enjoying it and yet overwhelmed by it too. The mayor and governor are not there, but they have people present who will report back to them.

The atmosphere is electrifying. There is such hope in the air - the hope that everything will change, God will draw near, peace and joy will fill the very earth. But in a few days Jesus will be dead - dead at the hands of Caiaphas, the Pharisees, Pilate and the crowds; and the disciples will have uttered no word of protest, will have kept silent and abandoned Jesus.

So what happened?

Well, the first thing we need to understand is this: it was not outsiders, not "them, out there," not some enemy of God, not atheists, not evil godless people who killed the Christ of God; it was insiders, believers, good, serious, wellmeaning religious people, leaders and everyday people. In today's terms, it was "Christians" who killed the Christ of God.

It's the way it was and still is.

But why?

 

To understand that we need to understand Jesus.

And the way to understand Jesus is to see him as God's radically new thing.

The Christ of God is a Christ who was beyond Scripture, could not be confined within Scripture, even seemed to violate Scripture. And he was a Christ who could not be entombed in doctrine or tradition, a Christ who shattered every neat and tidy summary of him. He was a Christ who refused to be reduced to rules and commandments, who refused to live according to standards and morality of human devising, who reinterpreted Scripture in a radical way. He was a Christ who turned the world upside down, who endorsed no political agenda, who blessed no personal agenda.

He was a Christ of God who invited people into relationship with him, not into relationship with an institution or doctrine or ritual, and invited them to follow his way of serving and being in the world.

And thus to be in relationship with him was both a wonderful and terrifying thing: he gave life to his followers, and yet called them to give their lives away for his sake; he gave freedom to his followers, yet called them to yoke themselves to him; he gave hope to his followers, yet called them to abandon their meager hopes for themselves and live with an extravagant hope for the world.

To fall in love with this Christ of God was to be changed forever and live in disturbing, wonder-filled, terrifying ways.

He was God's utterly new thing, utterly new way of bringing salvation and life.

 

 

And now perhaps you begin to understand.

Understand why.

Caiaphas acted to protect the institution of the Temple and the people themselves. And he felt justified in doing so because Jesus didn't seem to value Temple worship or respect Temple tradition and even threatened to destroy the Temple itself. No true Messiah would be like that, Caiaphas believed, based on his reading of Scripture. The Pharisees also acted to protect and preserve believers and true faith and practice. Jesus, to the mind of the Pharisees, had few, if any, standards - he violated Sabbath law, violated the dietary and cleanliness laws, associated with sinners and outcasts. On the basis of both Scripture and tradition, it was clear to them that Jesus was not the Messiah and even more, a dangerous teacher who had to be stopped. And the crowds? They felt let down, disillusioned. Jesus did not give them what they wanted and in the end he didn't even have power enough to save himself, let alone anyone else. No Messiah would allow himself to be crucified like a common criminal. And Pilate? He acted to keep the peace, maintain order. He knew the charges against Jesus were trumped up, but there was something he couldn't ignore. He kept hearing words like "king" and ''kingdom" and that was enough to justify his action. There was only one emperor or king and he was Caesar, and there was only one empire or kingdom and that was Rome. Pilate would not and could not allow any rivals. Politically speaking, he did the prudent thing: he pleased the people, kept the peace, and did away with a threat to the empire. And the disciples? They acted to protect themselves, save their own skins. So they ran. No cry of protest from them, only fear and betrayal and silence.

And it's no different today: insiders, Christians themselves, continue to kill the Christ of God, and he is killed in the same ways.

Christ is killed whenever Scripture is used to protect believers' images of God and their institutions and to close themselves off to the new thing God is doing. Christ is killed whenever Scripture is used to justify cruelty toward others, condemning and excluding others from the family of God. Christ is killed whenever Scripture is used to confine God within personal opinion and prejudice and belief, rather than open us to the God beyond the God we believe in. And Christ is killed whenever we seek to entomb him in tradition and doctrine and institution. And he is killed by legalistic morality - religion that suffocates love and compassion. And he is killed by political expediency and by allowing no threat to our own little empire and by turning him into a Jesus who supports political agendas and cultural values. And anger and disillusionment kill him. And fear and silence - the silence of believers who do not protest him being killed by believers themselves.

It was the sad, hard truth of Palm Sunday and the days that followed, and it is the sad, hard truth of today.

 

And will the story ever change?

Or will the same, sad, drama be played out year after year, century after century?

Well, the story can change, if we will change.

We must allow Christ and the Gospel to change us. 

We must enter truly into relationship with him and let go of our precious opinions and views and even beliefs and allow him to give us new beliefs, new views, new thoughts and wants and wills, new hearts and minds.

That is our hope and the hope for this world as well.

And it is a hope that depends not on what happens "out there" with "them", but what happens in here with us and in millions of other churches.

Christians must stop killing the Christ of God.

And start being Christs themselves.

 

Christians must start allowing Christ and the Gospel to take center stage again in their lives.

And write a new script.

A new story that ends in hope and great joy!

 

 

 

 

 

A Pastoral Prayer (after F. Buechner)

O Christ of God who comes,
                          you are the hope of the world -
                                                                                       give us hope!

                 Give us the hope that beyond the worst the world can do there is such a 
                  best that not even the world can take it from us, the hope that none 
                   whom you love are ever finally lost - not even to death.

O Christ who died,
                   who suffered loneliness and pain for our sake,
                                                                                                                forgive us!

                    And let die in us all that keeps us from you and from each other and
                     from what we have it in us at our best and bravest to become.

O Christ who rose again,
                                    Holy Spirit of Christ,
                                                                            arise and live within us!

                          That we may be your body, that we may be your feet to walk into the world's 
                           pain, your hands to heal, your heart to break, if need be, for the love of the world.

                                      O Risen Christ, make Christs of us all!

And we pray too, O Lord, that you would comfort and strengthen the sick, the hospitalized, the suffering and the hurting. Be not far from those who are dying, those who grieve. Especially do we pray for all who are ill with the coronavirus, both in our nation and around the world. And we pray for Carolyn Herche, Michelle Bryant, Ralph Turner, Barbara Hellwig, Harold Finney, Linda Keyser, Justin Markham, Martha Ratzman, Kay Douma, Judy Cable, Annette Flanigan, Ryland Jones, Joanne McGee, Sharon Allison, Barbara Gordin, Walt Sternke, Bill Dixon, George Pringle, Carl Berkobin, Sandy Tiedemann, Genelda Clinton, Eleanor Gibson, Sarah Fields, Kristi Gordin, Winifred Pernell, and Roberta Lecour. And for all those family and friends so dear to us.

And cast out our fears by your love, O Lord. Calm the storm of worries within. Create within us hearts that trust in you.

And help us to give thanks this day, O Lord - for your love which sustains us, for all your gifts to us, for the healing and hope with which you grace us. And thanks for all the healthcare workers and other workers who risk themselves to keep us healthy, keep us fed, keep us going in one way or another.

And let us always be a friend to the lonely, the frightened, the hungry, the helpless, the homeless.

And peace, 0 Lord, peace on this earth! Teach us the things that make for peace, teach us again your way. Guide our nation, guide our world, along the path that leads to life and hope for all your creation.

And now in the silence, O Lord, we pray our most personal prayers and listen for the word you speak to us...

Silence

O Lord, help us now to go forth with praise and joy! Grace our days with laughter. Give us the faith that trusts that all shall be well.

Amen.

Letter from Pastor Jeff 4/1/2020

 

Christ Our Hope Lutheran Church

P. O. Box 961690
Riverdale, Georgia 30296
(770) 997-7117                                    (770) 997-3312

Jeffrey M. Halenza, Pastor

April 1, 2020

Dear Member,

     Attached is the prayer we would have prayed tonight had we been able to hold a Lenten service at church. As I have reminded you these past few weeks, I wrote the prayers in mid-February when I did my preparation for Lent and thus they were not written with the coronavirus in mind. I do hope, however, that the attached prayer does speak in some way to what we are going through.

     I have also attached some thoughts on what a member once said to me when she was hospitalized. Even though it was thirty years ago, it has stayed with me and it often comes to mind just as it did a few days ago. Perhaps it will get you to thinking as it does me.

     Please remember that we will have a conference call tonight from 7:00 – 7:30 PM. The phone number is 877-853-5257 and the ID code is 404 176 812. If you wish to participate via Zoom please refer to Pastor Flanigan’s email sent out yesterday and click on the link. We encourage you to join in on this chance to talk with other members.

                                                           May God continue to strengthen you and shield you,

                                                             Pastor Halenza

JMH/nvn

 

 

     The other day something came to mind as I was listening to news about what people are doing in response to the coronavirus crisis. What came to mind was what a member of the congregation said to me many years ago when I visited her in the hospital. She was recovering from a serious illness and what she said to me was this: “I just don’t know what people do without a church!

     What she meant was not church in the sense of institution or dogma or ritual, but church in the sense of being church to others: supporting them, caring for them, being there for them, praying for them, helping them through whatever they are facing. The member was in her late seventies, had never been married, lived alone, and had no family except for a brother in Baltimore. Without the church, she would have had no one to turn to, no one to be there for her as we had been. And so she said: “I just don’t know what people do without a church!”

     And what do people do?  Well, we’re finding out because the majority of people in our country are unchurched, have no connection to a church. And the irony is that what many of the unchurched are doing is being church to others, church in the best sense: they are actually noticing and meeting their neighbors for the first time, checking up on them, being a good neighbor; they are showing support for health care workers and all who are at risk as they work to keep us well and safe, fed and supplied with what we need; they are finding ways of caring for the isolated and alone and lifting their spirits; they are being there for strangers; they are trying to help one another make it through. People are discovering that that they need each other, what a difference kindness makes, and all that people can do when they come together for the sake of what is good and right.

     The sadness is that it takes a crisis to remind us of this and bring out our best selves. When people are healthy and the stock market is on a roll and everything is going their way, many will believe that they really don’t need anyone else and are actually proud of it. It’s a lie, of course, but it takes a crisis to see the truth. The truth is that we need each other, that nations need each other, that only together can we make it through the crises that come. In other words, our hope lies in being church in the sense of being human one to the other, being the real human beings we were created to be and Christ calls us to be.

     But before we who are still connected to a church start patting ourselves on the back, we need to take a good look at what’s happening and ask if the unchurched are being more church than the churched. Are we truly living our belief and being Christ to others both in the congregation and beyond? I think we as a church truly are being Christ to others, are a church in the best sense – praying for one another, supporting one another, checking up on one another, being there for one another, serving others in whatever way we can. 

     But still we need to ask ourselves the question again and again because at times we fail others, fail them miserably. According to Jesus, the odd thing is that sometimes people who don’t know him are more him to others than people who do know him. So maybe the unchurched can teach us a thing or two just as we can teach them a thing or two and together we can be Christ to others in ways that Christ would recognize, no matter what we believe or they believe, and together be hope, the very hope that is Christ.

     “I just don’t know what people do without a church!” she said. And years ago it got me to thinking about how important it is to be church to others. Perhaps it will get us all to thinking and help us continue to be church in the best sense, and be the best church we can be!

A prayer for Lent, April 1, 2020

 

A Prayer for Lent

(April 1, 2020)

O Lord, given all that we face,
                                                     all that happens,
                                     all that we go through –
                             the illnesses and pain,
                     the troubles and losses and grief –
         it’s so easy to get all wrapped up in ourselves,
                 to think about ourselves,
                                   talk about ourselves,
                                               tell others about ourselves,
                       with every post, every text, every call,
                                                        until at last
                there’s hardly room
                           for the thought of others,
                                                                     for others themselves,
                                                       for no one but ourselves.
                And to be all wrapped up in ourselves like that
                       is to be the smallest package in the world
                                and that is the last thing
                                                          you need.
                                                    You need people
                                                                                    who are big,
                                                                            big on love and kindness,
                                           large enough to have room for others,
                                    great in serving others.

O Lord, this day, every day, give us the strength,
                                                        the discipline,
               to do the hardest thing you ask of us:
          to deny ourselves,
                                             to deny that
                              we are more important than everyone else,
                       that our needs, our wants, our feelings
                                          are more important,
                                  that our troubles and pains are greater;
                   to come out of our pre-occupation with ourselves,
                            forget ourselves enough
                                                                       to be there for others
                                                               and actually be able to listen to them;
                        to look for you not within ourselves
                                        but out in the world,
                                                  there in all who need us,
                                                            there in the hurting and hungry,
                                                                     he lost and alone,
                                                                                    those far from home.

O Lord, we live in a culture
                 in which it seems that there are more and more
                                         really small people.
                                                                                 Let us
                                not add to their population
                        but offer a model of what it means
        to grow up
                                  into the fullness
                                                  of the measure
                                                          of the stature of Christ.

Amen.

Announcements and Sermon for 3/29

 

March 27, 2020

Dear Member,

      Attached is the sermon for this Sunday. It was not composed with the coronavirus in mind. For a good while now, I have been preparing sermons in advance because these days I never know when there will be an emergency or other situation to which I need to give all of my attention. I did think about altering the sermon in light of the current crisis but decided not to so that it would stay closely tied to the Gospel reading and speak to the situations and questions it was originally meant to. Also, I thought that as it is it could still speak in some way to what we are experiencing.

      In addition, I want to mention two announcements that would have been in the bulletin today:

      Even though we have temporarily stopped having worship services, the grass has not stopped growing! And so, if you have not yet signed up to mow, please consider doing so. Please contact George Dietz, (George.Dietz@Woodward.edu) and he will give you all the information you need to know and be happy to put you on the crew.

        We are also continuing to take orders for Easter lilies, even though we are not sure if we will be able to have a service. The price will be $12.50 per plant rather than the previously announced price of $10.00. However, the plants will be the larger 10-inch pot. If you wish to order a plant, please call (770-997-7117) or email (coh@bellsouth.net) the church office.

 

     The sympathy of the congregation and the strength and hope we share in the resurrection of Christ is extended to Lynn Carroll and her family upon the death of her mother.

 

May God continue to grace your days with the laughter that helps us make it through such days, the love that casts out all fear, and the peace that calms our anxiety.

God be with you,

Pastor Halenza

JMH/nvn

 

Sermon                                                                                                                                                                                          The Reverend Jeffrey M. Halenza
March 29, 2020                                                                                                                                                                      Christ Our Hope Lutheran Church
John 11:1-6, 17-45                                                                                                                                                                                               Fifth Sunday in Lent

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “1 know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “1 am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 2

 

And so today we hear the story of Jesus and Lazarus.

The story of Jesus calling Lazarus back to life.

It’s a powerful story and yet a disturbing story too, a story that raises some tough questions, and a story that gets us thinking about the whole issue of life and death and life beyond death.

Lazarus was Jesus’ best friend.

And Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, were great friends of Jesus as well.

As one commentator has described the relationship, Jesus would drop in on them whenever he was in the neighborhood.

Maybe because their home was the one place Jesus felt at home and could relax, although it’s hard to picture Jesus ever relaxing, just sitting back and being himself — always the demands, the unending needs, everyone approaching him because of what he could do for them but never once thinking that there might be something they could do for him. And so maybe that was it – maybe Lazarus and Mary and Martha didn’t make demands on him but just allowed him to be himself for a time. Maybe Lazarus was the one person Jesus didn’t have to be the Messiah with, and the one person he could talk with about what it was like being who he was.

And if that’s the case, it’s easy to understand why Jesus loved going there, loved Lazarus, and Mary and Martha too.

And they loved him and so when Lazarus became ill, they immediately sent word to Jesus.

But Jesus did not drop everything and go to the side of his best friend, and you have to wonder why he didn’t.

One answer, of course, is that the note said that Lazarus was only ill, not dying, and so there was time to delay, time to complete his work in the region where he was. 

 

And anyway, how do you know exactly when to go? When you receive word that someone you love who lives some distance from you is ill, do you drop everything and go or do you wait for further word? Sometimes you go immediately only to discover that the person is doing better and then later, when you’re back home, you receive word that the person has had a relapse, but you can’t go back and be there when the person really needs you. It’s hard to know when to go. And sometimes you just can’t drop everything — family and job obligations can make it nearly impossible. So we anguish over when to go, if we can go, how we can manage it.

And maybe Jesus felt some of that very same anguish.


And yet a little later in the story Jesus does seem to know.

He seems to know just how sick Lazarus truly was and exactly when Lazarus dies.

Jesus even tells his disciples that he was glad he wasn’t there because now he can call Lazarus back to life and the disciples will believe even more. And suddenly Lazarus seems to be merely a prop in some divine drama and Jesus seems to be not much of a friend to Lazarus at all.

And you have to wonder about that too. Was it really Jesus’ plan all along to delay, or was he just trying to make the best of a bad miscalculation and rationalize away his failure to be there — as we ourselves often do in such situations?

But whatever the reason for his delay, the fact remains: Jesus wasn’t there for his friend when his friend needed him the most.


And that’s all that mattered to Martha.

That’s what hurt: his absence.

When Jesus finally does arrive on the scene, Martha immediately demands: Where were you when we needed you?

“Lord, if you had been here,” Martha says, “my brother would not have died.” And while some might not take that as an accusation, it is. As another commentator has put it, “There is such love in that greeting, and such blame.” Martha knows that Jesus is a lifesaver, a life-giver, so where was he?

And Martha’s pain and questioning is often our pain and questioning at such a time. Like Martha, perhaps we blame God for not being there, not working the miracle we so want.

For Martha, Jesus would have made all the difference, only he wasn’t there.

And now it was too late.

 

But in her grief Martha clings to one last hope.

“But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him,” Martha says to Jesus.

For a moment Martha hopes beyond hope that somehow Lazarus can be returned to life, but in the end it’s beyond imagining for her, it’s just too much to believe.

She and Jesus talk of resurrection and it’s clear that for Martha it is only a future thing, not something that can be worked in the present. But Jesus tells her differently, tells her not that he has the power to work resurrection but that he is the resurrection and the life — that to be hooked up to him means that even though we die, we shall live; that to believe in him is to start eternal life right then, right now.

But it is all too much for Martha.

And Mary too. For when Mary greets Jesus, she expresses the same anguish and blame, and all she can do is weep with grief and hopelessness.

And this time Jesus makes no attempt to say anything — he is deeply moved and asks only to see Lazarus’ tomb.

 

And when he comes to the place, Jesus weeps.

It is the only recorded instance in the New Testament where Jesus breaks down and sheds tears. And why does he weep? Certainly because he has lost his best friend. But there are other reasons as well. Those standing nearby make a devastating accusation: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept his man from dying?” But as one author has pointed out, they said nothing that he hadn’t already said to himself. If he really was the resurrection and the life, wasn’t there something he could have done to keep Lazarus alive? The blunt fact of it was that he had not been there and Lazarus died, and the blunt answer to the question of the bystanders was no, he could not keep his friend from dying. And so Jesus weeps because of death itself, the frailty and grief and pain of life. But weeps too because for all he has said and done, still no one understands, no one believes — believes that death is not the end, that to follow him is to somehow outlive death, that eternal life begins this side of death.

But Jesus not only weeps, he also becomes angry.

The Greek word that is translated “deeply moved” means more than that. It suggests anger, someone ready to explode. And Jesus is angry – angry at death, angry at the randomness of things, angry because everyone has given up on Lazarus, given up on life.

And so it is with both love and anger that Jesus calls Lazarus back from death, calls him to life again. And while it is not a resurrection in the truest sense — because Lazarus will die again — this much is clear: death does not have the last word.

And that’s what Jesus wanted people not only to see but to believe: that to be connected to him means to have life.

Life now, life in the midst of death, life beyond death.

 

Now how you take the story of Lazarus, I do not know.

It may leave you with more questions than it answers or stretch belief to the breaking point.

All I can do is proclaim what for me is the truth of the story.

And the first truth of the story is a hard, painful truth: the truth that there will be times when Jesus will not be there when we need him most, at least not in the way we want or need. It is the hard, painful truth of the absence of God, a truth the Psalmists knew, Israel knew, and Christ himself knew on the cross. The Bible is very honest and blunt about it, much more so than we are. But Scripture also tells us that in their sense of abandonment the Psalmists and the people of Israel and Jesus kept crying out to the absent God, kept turning toward God, kept holding fast to God. And it is in such moments that faith is truly faith and love for God is truly love for God. In those moments when God is absent and no miracle comes, to keep trusting and loving God are faith and love at their deepest and truest.

And there is another truth of the story: the truth that God knows the frailty and pain and grief of life and anguishes with us. And God also knows our anger at all that happens and feels that anger as well. Our bodies fail us sooner or later. Illness strikes without warning or reason, sudden accidents sweep us away, terrible things happen in this violent, chaotic world, and neither God nor we ourselves can make our lives immune from all that threatens. The Bible is honest about that too — what life is like. And God anguishes with us and knows the power of death not only to take life from those we love but also to take the life out of us who watch helplessly.

But God does more than anguish with us. God answers all that happens with a power more powerful than death: God answers with life.

That is the deepest truth of this story, a truth I cannot prove or explain but only proclaim: the truth that to follow Christ and live in him and allow him to live in us is to know life that is stronger than death. And the life he gives is not only life after death but life now, before death. Jesus called Lazarus back into life, back into the life he had known before his death. It wasn’t a resurrection but a being returned to life, life before death, life in the midst of death.

And maybe that’s what we need to hear more than anything. Like Martha, most of us probably believe in a resurrection after death — eternal life. Believing in life before death, in the midst of death, is the problem. But as Jesus was calling Lazarus back to life, he was also calling Martha and Mary and all who grieved for Lazarus back to life — to come out of the death of despair and grief and disillusionment and live fully again. And he calls us to do the same: to come out of the death before death we often find ourselves in and discover life that is a match for death.

It is the deepest truth of this story: in Christ there is the power to put the life back into us - before death, in death, beyond death.

 

And maybe it’s all a bit too much for us.

But then it will be, as it was for Martha and Mary and the original disciples and even Lazarus himself — until they lived with that wild faith day after day. 

The same wild faith that connects us to the One who is the resurrection and the life.

 

 

 

Prayers: 3-29-2020

Prayer of the Day

Pastor: The Lord be with you.
People: And also with you.

Pastor: O Lord our God, life is the miracle you work — life now, life in death, life beyond death. Grace us with such faith in Christ that the miracle of life would be worked in our lives and we would see that set next to the abundant life you give, death would scarcely fill a cup.
People: Amen.

 

Prayers of Intercession

Pastor: O Lord, you are the resurrection and the life! And we pray that you would so live in us and we in you that we would have life now and forever. Call us each day out of all that seeks to take the life from us, raise us up each day in hope, grant us the wild faith that trusts ourselves to you, now, and at the last, and beyond. Work the miracle of life each and every day! Lord, in your mercy,
People: hear our prayer.

Pastor: And we pray too, O Lord, that we ourselves would be life-givers. Often we speak such deadly and deadening words to others, put on them the deadness we feel inside, take the life from them with our moods and bitterness and anger. Heal us, release us from our tombs, fill us with new life, that we would give life to others day after day. Lord, in your mercy,
People: hear our prayer.

Pastor: But if we are to feel anger, O Lord, let it be the righteous anger that you yourself felt. Let us be deeply moved and greatly disturbed by what poverty does to people, what hunger does, what violence and abuse do. Fill us with an anger that moves us to help raise people out of poverty, to provide bread and shelter and comfort, to bring an end to violence and abuse. Lord, in your mercy,
People: hear our prayer.

Pastor: And move us as well, 0 Lord, to stand with those who grieve and hurt. When everyone turns away after a few days, let us remain. Let us weep with others, continue to hold them, be a friend who helps them find the way to life and joy again. Lord, in your mercy,
People: hear our prayer. 

Pastor: And we pray too, O Lord, for those risking their lives to protect our lives. But as we support them, let us also support every effort to undo the conditions that breed despair and lead people to do violence. Let us never become arrogant as a nation, but even more dedicated to building up peace and hope in our world. Lord, in your mercy,
People: hear our prayer.

Pastor: And we pray, O Lord, for those who are shut-in, those who are ill or hospitalized, for those who are suffering and hurting, those who are dying, those who are grieving. Comfort them! Heal them! Be with them! Especially do we pray for those who have contracted the coronavirus and are struggling to live, for their families who fear the worst, and for all the healthcare workers treating them and risking their own lives and we pray too for Carolyn Herche, Michelle Bryant, Ralph Turner, Barbara Hellwig, Harold Finney, Linda Keyser, Justin Markham, Martha Ratzman, Kay Douma, Judy Cable, Annette Flanigan, Ryland Jones, Joanne McGee, Sharon Allison, Barbara Gordin, Walt Sternke, Bill Dixon, George Pringle, Carl Berkobin, Sandy Tiedemann, Genelda Clinton, Eleanor Gibson, Sarah Fields, Kristi Gordin, Winifred Pernell, Roberta Lecour, and Lynn Carroll and her family upon the death of her mother. And for all those relatives and friends so dear to us. Lord, in your mercy,
People: hear our prayer.

Pastor: And now in the silence, O Lord, we pray our most personal prayers and listen for the word you speak to us...

Silence

Pastor: Lord, in your mercy,
People: hear our prayer.

Pastor: O Lord, as we go out into the day, help us to lift up our hearts in thankfulness and praise. Guard and guide us. Grace our days with laughter. Grant us the faith that trusts that all shall be well.
People: Amen.

Letter from Pastor Jeff 3/25

 

Christ Our Hope Lutheran Church

P. O. Box 961690
Riverdale, Georgia 30296
(770) 997-7117                                               (770) 997-3312

Jeffrey M. Halenza, Pastor

March 25, 2020

Dear Member,

We continue to honor the restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus and thus there will be no worship service tonight, March 25, nor this Sunday, March 29. All other activities, including Bible Study remain on hold. We will update you next week concerning Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter. I have attached the Lenten prayer I was going to pray tonight. Once again, please keep in mind that I composed this prayer six weeks ago when I did my preparation for Lent and so it doesn’t speak directly to the crisis we face. On the other hand, given the stress and frustration and even anger many people are feeling, perhaps tonight’s prayer will speak to you or others in some way. I hope so.

Finally, I wanted to let you know I have spoken with or been in touch with nearly every member of the congregation and to date not one has contracted the virus and for that I am very thankful. But many others beyond the congregation have, and so please continue to pray for all who are ill in our community and state and around the world.

God be with you and see you soon!

Pastor Halenza

JMH/nvn

Wednesday, March 25

A Prayer for Lent
March 25, 2020

O Lord, help us to tame our tongues,
                                                 to watch our mouths,
                                                                 to guard what we say,
                  because words matter,
                                                           names hurt,
                                                                             what we say
                                              can destroy a person.
                And if ever there has been a time to bridle
                                        our tongues,
                                                                  it is now
                                                                                because
                        mean and cruel words are the new entertainment,
                                 and many people,
                                                           including many Christians,
                                                     find name-calling funny
                                             and enjoy people being demeaned and
                                                                                                       degraded,
                                                                                        and many Christians
                                                                          act as if
                                                                  there is no connection
                                                          between what they say and how
                                                                                             they are seen,
                                                                                     seen by others,
                                                                              seen by you,
                                                     seen to be hardly Christian at all.

O Lord, give us the strength this day, every day,
         to resist the temptation to join the chorus of derision,
                                                                              culture’s choir of cruelty,
                                                               that fills the air,
              to think before we speak,
                                to consider the feelings of others,
                                                   to speak words you would have us speak,
                                                          language that heals,
                                                                   and gives life.
                    And help us to see that every encounter we have,
                                           no matter how brief or insignificant,
                                                           will be an encounter
                                                  that will build up or tear down another,
                                   that will make someone glad he met us
                                                                     or sorry that he met us,
                                 that will make someone’s day or
                                                                 ruin someone’s day –
                                                                                                   the checkout clerk,
                                                                                            the child,
                                                                                     the husband or wife,
                                                                   fellow worker or fellow member,
                                                           the stranger on the elevator,
                                                    the bum on the corner,
                                            the kid who just handed you your burger
                                                                                                     and fries –
                                                                                    because
                                                                  of the words we speak.

O Lord, remind us each and every day
                that to say we are Christian
                                         means nothing
        unless what we say as Christians
                                                        means everything.

Amen.

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