MARCH 29, 2020 / REV. JACK D. COOK, PASTOR

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Worship for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (A)

GREETING
“There’s a song in every silence, seeking word and melody; there’s a dawn for every darkness, bringing hope to you and me. From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”

(NCH, 433, 2)


CALL TO WORSHIP(based on Psalm 130: 1, 2, 5)

L: Out of the depths we cry to you, O Lord.

P: Lord, hear our voice.

L: Let your ears be attentive to the voice of our supplications.

All: We wait for the Lord; our souls wait; and in his word we hope.


HYMN
NCH#473 Blessed Assurance
https://youtu.be/yuyf1YQvcwY


INVOCATION
We praise you, O God of the living. You show us life where we see only death. You fill us with your Spirit when we gasp for breath. And you give us the hope of the resurrection when our despair entombs our souls. We lift up praises to you, all in the name of the Christ, Amen.


FIRST SCRIPTURE LESSON
Ezekiel 37: 1-14: “The valley of dry bones”


PASTORAL PRAYER
O God, as your people in this time and place, in this community of faith, we bow in prayers of gratitude. We give you thanks for this good world in which you have set us, praying that we may become even better stewards of its riches. We thank you for the gift of Jesus the Christ, for it is in and through him that we see the true religion of the heart you inspire us to seek. And we give you thanks for the gift of your Holy Spirit, inspiring our worship, guiding our thoughts and meditations, leading us into paths of sacrificial service, and blessing us always.


But, O God, especially in this Lenten season when we are particularly mindful of the suffering and passion of Jesus, and of so many of your children, we confess that all too often we shrink from the thought of suffering for you or others. We do not wish to feel pain when we know sin. We seek to deny our guilt when we ignore injustice or pass the needy by unheeding. We absolve ourselves for any responsibility for the pollution, violence, ethical confusion, all of which contribute to the ruin of your creation. We are eager to leave peacemaking to the politicians and diplomats. In the words of the prophet, forgive our iniquity and remember our sin no more.


And finally, O God, as we seek to be instruments of your healing and reconciliation, inspire us to oppose injustice and oppression, and to work for peace and liberation for both the oppressed and the oppressors. Inspire us to pray and hope for the day of your kingdom come on earth. Hear our prayers for those in need. We place in your loving care the sick, in body, mind, or spirit; those anticipating surgery or recovering from it; the dying; the grieving; those who despair; the hungry and the homeless; those trapped in the terror of abuse and violence; the imprisoned; and, as always, those nearest and dearest to us. Especially this day, we pray for healing and comfort for all those suffering from the impact of this current pandemic that grips the world. Strengthen all of your children; may your will be accomplished in all of our lives; and help even us to be ministers of your healing and support.


All this we ask in the name of Jesus the Christ, Amen.


OFFERING PRAYER OF DEDICATION
O God, accept these gifts as tokens of our love for you, for one another, and for your entire creation. In Jesus’ name we give and pray, Amen.


HYMN
NCH#517 I Need You Every Hour
https://youtu.be/kKAVtsNg5Iw


SECOND SCRIPTURE LESSON
John 11: 1-7, 17-35: “The raising of Lazarus”


SERMON: The Weeping of the Christ

“O Christ, the healer, we have come to pray for health, to plead for friends. How can we fail to be restored when reached by love that never ends? Amen.” (NCH, 175, 1)

Hear once again the tragically conflicted words that both Martha and Mary spoke to Jesus--”Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Were they words of complaint, bitterness, resentment, even anger—or were they words expressing the sisters’ confidence in Jesus’ healing powers—in fact a confession of faith in Jesus as the long-awaited messiah? Regardless of how we hear those words, the reality of the Biblical situation was that Jesus had not been there, and Lazarus died.

After all, Jesus’ first response to the notice of Lazarus’ illness was simply and incorrectly, “This illness is not unto death.” And then he added, “It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.” Did God then cause Lazarus’ illness for the purpose of revealing his own glory or the glory of his Son; or did God merely allow the illness to occur for the same purpose? In either case, Lazarus was first sick and then died; and both God and Jesus were implicated in the tragedy.

Surely then, it makes perfectly good, ordinary, everyday, common sense for Martha and Mary to interrogate and even accuse God by interrogating and accusing their friend Jesus. They both say, and reasonably so, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And at least Martha’s continuing confidence allows her to add--”And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”

She negotiates with God by negotiating with Jesus. She does not understand why or how her brother became ill and died. She does not know why or how God would cause or allow such a thing to happen. She does not understand why or how Jesus waited two days before coming to Bethany. But she does believe that even now, after her brother’s death, if God and/or Jesus so wills it, Lazarus will rise again. She is confused; she even doubts the motivation of God; yet she still believes.

Interrogating and even accusing God is always a fully human response to the reality of tragedy. Whenever disaster of any kind strikes, like for example, this current pandemic and all the physical, emotional, social, and financial challenges it presents, we believers especially want to know why. As in last week’s scripture lesson about the man blind from birth, everyone wanted to know why and even asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" 


Especially in our own modern, technological, scientific age, when we have answers for almost every human problem, we feel we have a right to know why, when bad things happen, especially to good people like us. We want to know once and for all if it’s true that God purposefully causes or allows certain things to happen in order to reveal his own glory, or if things just happen in life because of chance or randomness or human error or human sin or perhaps even the presence of the devil himself in our lives.

Maybe we are just imperfect creatures living in an imperfect world; and illness and death and every other human tragedy including COVID-19 are simply symptoms of our imperfect condition. These are, after all, the ultimate questions of life; and we, as well as Martha and Mary, have a perfect right to ask them. Why are so many people all over the world suffering and dying from this disease? Why did some loved one of ours suffer and die?

How then did God in and through Jesus respond to Martha and Mary’s questions, so filled as they were with pain and even anger, yet filled too with confidence and faith? “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” To which Jesus responds with what is probably the single most difficult action for us to understand and explain in all of his public ministry. John says simply and powerfully, “Jesus wept.”

This weeping of the Christ was the absolutely crucial response to Martha and Mary’s concerns then and there, just as it remains the absolutely crucial response to our own concerns here and now. Because this unique answer to all of our human questions is the very basis of our fundamental comfort and hope as believers.


Jesus responds to them and to us by weeping—weeping with them and weeping with us. He did not provide a long, complicated, theological explanation of why their brother Lazarus died, or why people in general must suffer. He didn’t even offer a prayer of comfort or assurance. He simply wept; he simply suffered with them. And it seems to me that this weeping of the Christ is a powerful pastoral image of how God deals with all of us, here and now, and all the pain we suffer in the living of our lives, and how we might deal with others in the midst of their pain and suffering. Sometimes all we can do is weep! Sometimes the very best we can do is weep!


For this Jesus who wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus was the same one who came to live with the suffering ones on the fringes of society: the poor, the naked, the hungry, the homeless, the hookers, the addicts, the drunkards, the frauds, the prisoners, the mentally tormented souls of human existence. These were the outcasts among whom Jesus lived and wept as well.


And this Jesus who wept with his friends Martha and Mary was the same one who died no fine death, no calm, serene, and saintly death, but the one who died instead a criminal’s death on a cross.


And this Jesus who wept over a loved one’s death was the same one who wept also in the garden that night before his own execution and who, on the cross, that hideous instrument of torture and destruction, uttered that very same unspeakable and unanswerable question that every human being shouts in times of tumult--”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”


As an old hymn in our New Century Hymnal puts it, “When Jesus wept, the falling tear in mercy flowed beyond all bound...” (NCH, 192, 1a)


My friends, within this weeping of the Christ lies, I believe, our fundamental comfort and hope. When we suffer, God suffers with us. When we weep, Christ weeps with us.

Now, I grant you, this does not solve the problem of suffering and evil. It does not answer our questions as to why our loved ones suffer and die, or why we suffer all manner of atrocities and injustices in life and eventually die ourselves. It does not answer why we don’t have a treatment or vaccine for this Corona Virus. But what it does do is see us through to the other side.


My friends, the great assurance of our faith is this—God is here with us, wherever we are, whoever we are, however we are—as the old prayer puts it, “in whatsoever ill estate or condition”--knowing and even sharing our sorrow, guilt, and anger. This is our comfort. This is our hope. This is our faith. And this is enough—just enough to see us through to the other side. The weeping of the Christ is, as we say in the funeral liturgy, “our hope and comfort, our very assurance that life is ever lord over death and that love can never ever lose its own.” Thanks be to God!


Let us pray...Dear God, “In ease or pain, in life and death, to you our fragile lives belong, and so we trust you in all things. You are our hope, our health, our song.” Amen. (Glory to God, 807, 4)


HYMN
NCH#570 We Shall Overcome
https://youtu.be/QhnPVP23rzo

 

BENEDICTION
Hear again Jesus’ words to them and to us--”I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die...” Amen. (John 11: 25-26)


HYMN
Go Now In Peace
https://youtu.be/mefNCtwjp2M

march 22, 2020 / rev. jack d. cook, pastor

Worship for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (A)

  

GREETING

“I heard the voice of Jesus say, ‘I am this lost world’s Light, look unto me; your morn shall rise, and all your day be bright.’” (NCH, 489, 5)


CALL TO WORSHIP (based on Ephesians 5)

L: Let us come to walk in the light.

P: God will show us the way.

L: Let us come to worship our God.

P: The Spirit has called us here.

L: Let us come to listen and learn of God’s love.

All: We come to worship the light of the world!


HYMN

NCH#489 I heard the voice of Jesus say
https://youtu.be/7By4WPIX5uE


INVOCATION

God of life: your light shines in every corner of the world, and there is no night that is night to you. Bless your church today and fill all of us with the light of Christ, that we too may reflect your glory, through the same Jesus our Lord, Amen.


FIRST SCRIPTURE LESSON

Ephesians 5: 8-14: “Children of light”


PASTORAL PRAYER

Great are you, O God, and greatly to be praised. Sought first by your Spirit, now we seek you. Loved first by you, now we would love in return with all our lives. Receive us, and our sins to forgive them; our praises to purify and enlarge them; our obedience, to strengthen it.

Most loving God of all humankind, who encourages us to give thanks for all things, to dread nothing but the loss of our confidence in you, and to cast all our cares upon the waters of your Spirit: we praise you for all your goodness and loving kindness to us and to all persons. For all the blessings of this life, for the promise of greater service and adventures beyond even these, for your holy church and our place in her ranks, for the love and security of home and for all friendships, for all the kindliness and goodness that abound in the earth, we thank you. For courage in times of danger, help in times of temptation, victory over evil, and the fortitude to witness to you in our daily work and recreation, we thank you. And for your leading of us through life, and your guidance of us through death, we thank you, O God.

O you who love all and forget none, and yet urge us to pray for other members of your great world family: we pray now for those who watch and wait and weep, for those who are sick or hospitalized, for those who are anticipating surgery or recovering from it, for those who have lately left our side to be with you and those grieving family members and friends they leave behind. We pray for all who have lost hope, for all who are afraid of being left alone with no one to care, for those who feel that nothing matters any more, for those who are nearest and dearest to this church family.

We pray that all these persons and countless others, either more or less fortunate, might remember the Christ, who was himself rejected yet accepted; who knew agony, and yet forgave his enemies; who endured dying, but with undying faith in you.

Answer these our prayers, O God, according to your loving kindness, in Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.


OFFERING PRAYER OF DEDICATION

Loving God: you shower us with more than we earn or deserve. All the good gifts around us come from your hand. Receive now these symbols of your generosity to us, and grant that we might be living sacrifices given to your service. In Christ’s name we give and pray, Amen.


HYMN

NCH#551 Pass me not Oh Gentle Savior
https://youtu.be/-lR0ecJfnS0


SECOND SCRIPTURE LESSON

John 9: 1-25: “Jesus manifests himself as the light of the world: a man born blind receives sight”

SERMON Blindness

“O radiant Christ, incarnate Word, eternal love revealed in time: Come, make your home within our hearts, that we may dwell in light sublime. Amen.” (NCH, 168, 1) 

I hope we might all agree that there are many varieties of blindness in our contemporary society and world.

And our morning gospel lesson is all about blindness, as it identifies several different forms of the disease, only one of which is, of course, physical blindness. That’s the most obvious kind and was in fact the disability that plagued the beggar who was brought to the Temple that day. John says he was “a man blind from birth.” He was obviously, then, the victim of some genetic disorder or some birth accident.

A second type of blindness identified in our Biblical story is what we might call theological.

Popular religious opinion in that day and age decreed that suffering was always the result of sin, either one’s own or some sin committed by one’s parents or even earlier generations of ancestors. The God of these faithful ancient people was a God of justice, not of mercy.

Even Jesus’ own disciples obviously believed that children inherit sin and even guilt from their parents. So, when confronted with the beggar at the Temple door, they asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” What even they missed, obviously, was the compassionate, merciful nature of God that Jesus had been trying diligently to teach through his repeated references to God as loving Father. 

Jesus had labored to teach his followers about divine mercy and grace, rather than about divine judgment, and how theirs was a God who wished only good for his children, whether they deserved it or not, whether they earned it or not. 

In short, at least at this point in our story, the disciples were indeed theologically blind.

A third variety of blindness which our scared tale underscores is what we might call prejudicial.

This type is demonstrated by the neighbors and worshipers who had seen the poor beggar at his post every day over many years and simply had decided that he was who he was, that he could never possibly change and become different. Even after he was touched and healed by Jesus, even after his eyes were opened and he became a brand new person, those same prejudicially blind folks engaged in an especially narrow conversation--”’Is not this the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’”

These persons who were blinded by their own prejudice were, to the very end, unwilling and unable to change the opinion they had formed of this beggar, this man born blind.

There is also an emotional brand of blindness illustrated in John’s drama. That was the disability suffered by the parents of our blind beggar.

Recall how they responded to his miraculous healing. The son himself gave credit where credit was due. Even though he certainly did not know precisely how, he did know that it was Jesus who had opened his eyes and given him a new lease on life; and so, he proclaimed to all who would listen--”He (i.e., Jesus) is a prophet.”

But the Pharisees, who were always seeking to discredit Christ and his works, challenged the blind man’s parents to offer an explanation for what had happened. They must have wondered just how much it would cost them if they told the truth, how much they would stand to lose by being simply honest. After all, they knew the Sabbath laws; they knew that the healing had occurred on the Sabbath and thus Jesus had broken those laws. They knew that their son’s standing in their traditional, orthodox religious community was seriously compromised by his praise of Christ. And they knew that they too would be ostracized and cut off from their friends, family, and community of faith if they assumed any defense of this man Jesus and his powers.

So then, these emotionally blind parents offered the coward’s response to the probing investigation by the Pharisees. The authorities asked, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” And mother and father responded, “...this is our son...he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes.”

In short, they lied, simply because they were afraid of the Jewish officials. They were blinded by their own self-centeredness. They could see only as far as their own interests, their own security.

The final kind of blindness presented in this story of the man born blind is what we might call the spiritual variety.

This blindness is especially evident in the actions of the Pharisees in our tale. Jesus had become a threat to them and their standing in the community. He was saying things they had not said and was doing things—good things—they simply could not do. And in many quarters, people were beginning to pay more attention to Jesus’ words and actions than to theirs.

Increasingly, then, the pious, devout Pharisees were coming to realize that Jesus just had to be silenced. And since it was the Sabbath when Jesus healed the blind beggar, even more ammunition was provided to those legalists who were more concerned about rules, regulations, and orders than they were about healing love.

The Pharisees were so bound by their adherence to the Law that the pain and disability of a beggar at the Temple door was simply ignored. Ritual took precedence over compassion. They were in fact spiritually blind.

Blindness seems to come then in many different forms.

How easy it is for all of us to look at other persons, just like that man born blind, and not see them in their true light. How easy it is to misjudge others because of external issues like age, race, ethnicity, religion, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, or even things as trivial as fashion choices.

And sometimes, we blind folks do not even see ourselves in the proper light. Are we guilty of prejudice, greed, insensitivity, arrogance? Whatever we are, we tend to become comfortable about being that way; but we tend to see ourselves otherwise—more positively. In fact, it is all too easy to become virtually oblivious to the truth about ourselves until someone else comes along to open and enlighten the eyes of our hearts, that we too might not just see, but also observe, perceive, and understand.

So then, what is the point of today’s Biblical story about blindness? What does it say to us, here and now, in our own time and place? Quite simply—all of us human beings have been, are, or will be blind in some way or other. But we can all take great comfort in that powerful testimony of faith that concludes our tale--”One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” All of us could say the same! Whether our blindness is theological and/or prejudicial and/or emotional and/or spiritual, new vision can come to us in the very same way it came to the blind man in the Temple court that day—with the touch of the Master’s hand.

Jesus simply encountered a man born blind, touched him with divine power and infinite love; and the man proclaimed in effect (using John Newton’s famous words of “Amazing Grace”), “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

My friends, what Jesus, the light of the world, did for that beggar, our faith can do for us, if we just give it a chance. It can open the eyes of our hearts that we may no longer stumble through the world’s darkness but at last might truly see who we are, who others are, why we are here, and where we are going.

Let us pray...”Lighten the darkness of our life’s long night, through which we blindly stumble to the day. Shadows mislead us; Father, send thy light to set our footsteps in the homeward way.” Amen. (PH, 386, 1)


HYMN

NCH#547 Amazing Grace
https://youtu.be/-neFHyfUvKA



BENEDICTION

Hear again Paul’s blessing—”Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Amen. (Ephesians 5:14)


Go Now In Peace
https://youtu.be/mefNCtwjp2M 

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