|“Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”Luke 10:25b, 27|
|In the midst of a crisis beyond our imagination, it’s good to go back to basics:|
Love God | Love your neighbor | You will live
Jesus doesn’t say that if you do this you will not get the Coronavirus or that if you get it you will not die. Jesus says that, no matter what happens, if you live your life in love with God and neighbor, you will experience the blessing of living life in all its fullness. I pray this for all of us who try to walk in Jesus’ footsteps.
LOVING GOD WHILE PROTECTING PUBLIC HEALTH
Suspension of In-person Worship and Other Gatherings through April
As your bishop, I am charged to lead and oversee the spiritual and temporal affairs of The United Methodist Church. For the love of God and of our neighbors in every place, today I am directing continued suspension of in-person worship through April 30, 2020. This directive is in effect for United Methodist Churches across the states of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington and anywhere in the Greater Northwest Area served by United Methodist clergy under my supervision. This suspension of worship includes Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter. It applies to both indoor and outdoor worship, weddings and funerals and to all days of the week. Please continue to conduct worship, bible study, prayer groups, and fellowship groups if you can do so remotely.
The virus is spreading in every state in the country in an invisible, vicious cycle. When a person becomes infected, symptoms don’t appear for up to two weeks. If they don’t follow hygiene and social distancing guidelines, they will expose others, who won’t show symptoms for two weeks, while they, in turn, expose others. In order to slow the spread of the virus, and to protect health care systems from being overwhelmed, each of us must take precautions to protect ourselves and others as if we are carrying the virus ourselves and as if the people around us are infected. This is what loving ourselves and our neighbors looks like for the foreseeable future, no matter where you live or whether you know anyone who has been diagnosed with the Coronavirus.
Holy Week and Easter
For churches that are unable or choose not to lead worship remotely, I am working with a team to produce an Easter Sunday worship video resource that can be accessed by local churches at any time and in any place with internet service. It will include a variety of voices, faces, and landscapes from a wide variety of people and places across the greater northwest. We will encourage groups to organize watch parties on Facebook to share Easter together/apart.
The bishops in the Western Jurisdiction are issuing a letter regarding the online celebration of Holy Communion when we are not “congregating” for worship. This guidance will be available tomorrow.
Closure of Church facilities to all except essential services
All United Methodist church buildings and other facilities are to be closed, effective March 28 to all but essential services and only to the extent allowed by state and local government restrictions or advice. Protective cleaning and hygiene practices are mandatory for all exempt essential services held in United Methodist facilities:
1. Sanitizing cleaning of the building before and after every use
2. 6 feet social distance among participants
3. Handwashing with soap and water or hand sanitizer
4. Coughing and sneezing into tissues which are discarded into closed containers
God loves the faithful, so the faithful can love God’s vulnerable children. This pandemic is putting many people at dire risk of disease, isolation, hunger, unemployment, mental illness. Protecting people from the virus is just the beginning. Our calling is to form life-giving relationships with people who are poor, homeless, outcast, unemployed, abused, despised or forgotten. In every place, I challenge you to think creatively about how your church can hear the cries of the needy and respond in ways that offer dignity, self-determination, and hope. Gift cards to grocery stores, drive-through food pantries, volunteers to purchase and deliver food to people with compromising conditions, phone calls, hygiene kits for homeless. If you ask people in your community what they need, they will tell you.
SHARING THE BURDEN IN CONNECTION
We know that this crisis will create hardships for local churches. Church budgets will be strained as people are laid off from their jobs, struggle to buy food and pay rent, and watch their retirement savings plummet. Your conference leaders are planning for reduced income in local churches and at the conference level. My priorities, as we make adjustments are
1. Finding ways to lighten the burden on local churches,
2. Protecting income security for clergy and staff in our churches and conferences,
3. Re-directing resources to relieve financial strain among the most vulnerable
We recognize that funds saved for a rainy day, are needed now. Watch for concrete plans.
LET’S MAKE IT A STANDING DATE…
Every Wednesday morning through April, clergy and lay members of the Annual Conference can join a Zoom webinar with me and other conference leaders at 9 am PDT (10 am MDT, 8 am AKDT). If you want to be part of these gatherings, mark your calendar now for this hour every Wednesday and watch for the links.
May God bless you and take care of you;
May the GOD be kind and gracious to you;
May God look on you with favor and give you peace.
Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky
|For the bread of God…|
comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. John 6:33
|Friends and Colleagues in Christ, grace and peace be with you as we navigate the life-changing and uncertain waters of COVID-19. YOU HAVE BEEN AMAZING! As I surfed a variety of online worship experiences these last two Sundays, I saw people singing, praying and preaching their hearts out. My deep gratitude to each of you who is trying something new in response to new and challenging circumstances.|
At the same time, we know this isn’t going to work for everyone or every place. There’s nothing wrong if your church decides to send out printed bulletins and sermons or joins another church for its online worship. If you try something and it doesn’t work, ask for help or try something different. There isn’t one right answer for all the circumstances and capacities of our churches. Adaptive leaders don’t follow the crowd, they use the resources they have (or can get) to address the circumstance they face.
You have a lot of Unanswered Questions
Easter. You want to know about Holy Week and Easter observances. I promised I’d let you know by Tuesday, March 24 whether I will extend, amend or lift the suspension of in-person worship in our churches. I will keep that promise. I hoped to have a decision today, but in consultation with other conference leaders and crisis response advisors, I am waiting to make a final decision. It is likely that I will extend the suspension of worship through at least Easter, April 12, 2020 and perhaps beyond, so be prepared for this possibility. We are planning to offer an online alternative to local worship on Easter in case in-person worship continues to be suspended.
General Conference. Annual Conferences. Jurisdictional Conference.
We learned yesterday that May’s General Conference will be postponed. Leaders across the Greater Northwest Area, and the Western Jurisdiction, are closely monitoring the recommendations of public health agencies, with the wellbeing of potential participants our utmost concern. I’ll let you know as soon as decisions are made about Annual and Jurisdictional Conferences.
Finances. We know that we are in the midst of a dramatic economic downturn. We don’t know how long it will last, or how deep it will crash. We know that others are experiencing loss of employment or income. We do know that some local churches are already experiencing reduced income. Your conference leaders are exploring ways we can relieve pressure on local churches, and ways in which we can sustain essential conference functions through this time of scarcity.
SOUL WORK: Caring for relationships and spirits as well as bodies.
We know that human beings are vulnerable to insecurity and isolation as well as to the virus. I share your concerns about how damaging fear, scarcity and isolation can be toward maintaining a balance between 1) protecting and preserving physical health and 2) concern for spiritual health and nurturing relationships. At our best, we see and tend and invite the wholeness of the persons we serve to show up in worship, in prayer, in play – in Church. And we know we aren’t really whole on the phone, or online, or with 6 feet of separation.
How do we deepen our confidence in God and each other and cultivate human community while practicing safe distances from each other? One pastor shifted from saying “social distance” to “physical distance,” emphasizing the importance of drawing near to one another socially, despite physical distance. It’s a challenge. But it’s not impossible. I know you are rising to it and sharing creative ideas: from online worship to drive-up food pantries and parking-lot meet ups for neighborhood prayers.
What hope does God offer?
Your faith in God should be a resource for you in these times.
COVID-19 is causing far-reaching, long-term changes in our daily lives and in the human race, globally. We experience the effects in our daily lives: empty store shelves, restricted activities, unusual awareness of every sneeze, throat tickle, morning cough. How many will lose their jobs? Homes? Pensions? How will we eat? We worry for our parents, grandparents, children. Some families are living in tighter contact than usual and experiencing both the blessings and curses of close community.
The Bible acknowledges that life comes with blessings and curses. Full times and lean times. And the Bible also shows us that bad news isn’t the final word. We are living in the imperfect, uncertain, dangerous, perplexing world God reveals in the Bible.
As Christians, we have a relationship with a Savior who comforts the afflicted, rescues the perishing and welcomes strangers. We know him as a man who lived in a world of human misery, and he went out of his way to reach out across social distances of every kind. We know him as God-with-us. And Jesus invites us to be partners in God’s saving grace by being with others. Jesus knows our strength better than we do. Listen for the voice of the Savior, saying, you are living through a time of trial. I see you. I am not causing this disease. It is part of an imperfect world. I am with you, leading you to be a blessing in a world of hurt.
I’ve asked you not to share Communion for a while. But don’t forget the bread and the cup. Life, given for you. Love, poured out for you. Jesus says, this is me: my body my blood. Cup of Salvation. You don’t need the symbols to experience God’s real presence. Remember God’s love for you. God puts you in the world to love one another.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky
We’ll be having Sunday Morning Web-Worship at our regular worship time: 10am. Tune in at Spirit of Grace’s Facebook page. You may have to scroll down a little bit in order to find the video.
At the direction of Bishop Elaine Stanovsky (UMC) and Bishop Laurie Larson Caesar (ELCA), all in-person worship and in-person meetings are suspended through March 28 in the interest of public health. You can find more information here: greaternw.org/category/blog/pastoral-letters/ . We will continue to follow the directions of government officials and our denominational leaders regarding how best to keep our communities safe.
Look for more information regarding online worship and other activities on the church Facebook page and the website: hoodriverchurch.org
The health prescription for COVID-19 is social distancing. However, social distancing has its own negative health consequences, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. While meeting face-to-face is impossible, it is all the more important that we find other ways to connect with one another. On Sunday, I’ll be introducing a new plan to keep us connected.
In the meantime, I encourage you to keep in touch with one another and with your friends and family through telephone calls and video chats. Commit to making at least four calls every day. We human beings need connection with one another. It is part of our ministry in this time to reach out telephonically to make those connections happen. It is an expression of the love of God. It is our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Please know that I am always available to talk with you. Let us all pray for wisdom and safety in this time of pandemic.
Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
Spirit of Grace, ELCA UMC
As concerns grow about COVID-19 and authorities are advising more “social distancing,” we are developing plans for how to stay connected in the event we cannot meet together in person. At this point, worship is still scheduled for this Sunday, March 15, but with extra precautions to limit points of contact. You’ll find the latest updates here and on the church’s Facebook page.
I pray that we will all to act wisely, but not fearfully.
Sunday 31 March 2019
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Today, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, we turn to one of the best known and best loved of Jesus’s parables, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It appears only in the gospel of Luke, and is the third of three parables about things lost and found.
At the beginning of today’s gospel lesson, we hear the circumstances under which Jesus told these three parables. Jesus is attracting crowds of all kinds of people to listen to his liberating gospel. And among those who are coming to hear Jesus preach are many tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors, of course, were despised by most Judeans, because they collected money to support the Roman Empire who controlled their nation and occupied their land. So these sinners and collaborators were coming to hear Jesus.
But this is not pleasing to everyone. Specifically, we are told, some Pharisees and religious scholars are scandalized that Jesus not only welcomed these sinners to come and listen to him, but more importantly that he shared meals with them.
And sensing the disdain that these very religious people have for the way Jesus is conducting his ministry, Jesus tells three parables and how God cares more for sinners than for those who are already close to God. The first is the parable of lost sheep. If a shepherd has a hundred sheep and realize that he has lost one, he will leave the other ninety-nine in the wilderness and go searching for the one that is lost. And once he finds it, he will through a party to celebrate that he has found his lost sheep. Likewise, if a woman has ten coins and she loses one, she search the whole house until she finds it, and when she does she will invite her friends and throw a party because she has found the coin that she had lost. God is like that shepherd. God is like the woman. When someone who was lost in sin is found and brought home to God, God throws a party with the angels to celebrate that the one who was lost is found.
And then Jesus begins to tell a third story, the one we read this morning, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. A father has two sons. It’s a relatively wealthy family, wealthy enough, anyway, to have both slaves and hired hands. The younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance. This is, of course, highly irregular. This son is wishing that his father was dead. In the honor-conscious culture of the ancient Middle East, this would have been absolutely unthinkable. It would have been incredibly shameful. And it would be equally shameful for the father to grant his request. The father divides the estate between the two brothers. You’ll notice that the older brother doesn’t complain about it, either. He seems content to treat his father as if he were dead as well.
The younger son takes his fortune with him to a far-away country. Before long, he has spent it all. Notice what the parable does not say, here, though. It does not say anything about prostitutes. The son simply spends too much too quickly. There is no indication that he used the money for anything immoral. It’s his older brother who makes up the story about him spending the money on prostitutes. As with many people who come upon a great deal of money for the first time, he spent it without thinking much about what was coming next.
But it isn’t just spending his money that gets the younger son into trouble. He doesn’t run into real trouble until the famine comes. That’s when he has to find a job working with pigs. For a good, kosher Jew, this would have been an especially shameful kind of job, taking care of an unclean animal. And despite his work, he finds himself eating worse than the pigs do. He is without any family, without any means of support. He is on his own and desperate.
It’s at this moment that he comes to himself and decides to return home. He has nothing where he is, but if he returns home, he knows that even as a hired hand for his father he would be better off than he currently is. He practices his speech, what he is going to say to his father when he returns in shame. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands” He has sinned against heaven by violating the fifth commandment; he has not honored his father and mother. He no longer deserves to be called son because he has treated his father as if he were dead. He is going to ask to be a hired hand, which is the lowest place in his father’s household. You might think that it is worse to be a slave, and it’s true that a slave may have had a lower social standing. But a slave had a guaranteed place in the household. A hired peasant had no land of their own and no guarantee of work from their employer. Among men who were able to work, this would have been one of the most perilous places in society.
Having practiced his lines, the son begins the long journey home. But while he is still a long way off, his father sees him coming. It’s not one of the servants or slaves who sees him. It’s the father himself, which seems to imply that every day the father is looking, searching, waiting for his son to come home. Immediately, the father is moved with compassion. There is no sense of bitterness or judgment. There is immediate forgiveness, immediate compassion. And at this point, the father doesn’t know anything about his younger son’s circumstances. He doesn’t know anything about what he has done with his inheritance. All he knows is that his son is coming home.
And the father runs out to meet his son. In ancient Middle Eastern culture, this is a shameful act. It should be beneath the father’s dignity to run for any reason. It would certainly be beneath his dignity to run after the son who has treated him as if he were dead. But despite the risk to his honor, he runs out to his wayward son, hugs him, and kisses him.
The son launches into his prepared speech, but before he can finish it, his father interrupts. He never gets the chance to ask to be a hired hand. Instead, his father welcomes him home with a completely over-the-top display. The best robe, a ring for his finger, new sandals for his feet, a huge party, because, he says, “This son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!” Again, it is completely unwarranted. This son has acted shamefully. He has treated the father as if he were dead. He has endangered the survival of his family by taking half of their possessions and frittering them away. But the father acts with no attention at all to propriety. He makes a fool of himself in his ridiculous welcome to his ill-behaved son.
And that is precisely the point, because that is the nature of God’s grace. God cares for us more than God’s own honor. We see it again and again in the story of Jesus, God acting shamefully, acting beneath God’s dignity, in an effort to reach out to us in love. God shamefully sheds the form of divinity and visits us in human form in Jesus. God shamefully appears not in the form of a king, priest, or emperor, but in the form of a poor carpenter’s son from the unremarkable town of Nazareth. God shamefully consorts with tax collectors and sinners, much beneath God’s dignity. God shamefully submits to death, and not just any death, but the particularly shameful and cursed death by execution on a cross. God cares more about us than about honor. God’s love for us is more powerful than God’s sense of retribution.
It’s a sentiment that is captured well in a song I just recently learned, and I’m going to invite Melissa to come up and help share it.
God loves us with a reckless love. It is not something we earn or deserve. It is a grace that God offers us freely. God welcomes us lowly human beings and calls us children, sons and daughters of the Most High.
Like the older brother, and like those scribes and Pharisees who prompted Jesus to tell the story in the first place, there always seem to be some pious religious people who are upset by the radical inclusivity of God’s love. There always seem to be religious people who think they know better than God about who should be in and who should be out. But God surprises us again and again by accepting people we thought were outside of the scope of God’s love. God surprises us again and again with a reckless love that searches out the lost and celebrates when any one of us comes home. Through the grace that is offered us in Christ Jesus, we know that there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. There is nothing that will cause God to disown us. There is nothing that will dissuade God from searching us out. There is nothing that can destroy the identity that we celebrate in the sacrament of baptism. There is nothing that can change the reality that God loves us beyond our ability to comprehend it, that God claims us as God’s own, daughters and sons of the Most High. Thanks be to God.