Discussion Notes || Sunday, April 26, 2020

These discussion notes were written by Pastor Jacob and used to lead the conversation on Sunday, April 26, 2020 during our virtual service of Worshipful Conversation and Fellowship. Feel free to use these notes to start a discussion with your small group, family, and/or friends. This conversation is based on a reading from Joel 1.


Finding a New Normal:
The Crisis Now

By Rev. Dr. Jacob W. Juncker

I spent the better part of the last few weeks searching the scriptures to try and find a biblical book or story that might ground our discussion about the current novel-coronavirus pandemic that has so drastically changed all our lives.

To be honest, it was tough going.  While I won’t pretend to have perused all of the Bible in the last few weeks, I did search and skim and read significant hunks of it.  The fact of the matter is, the Bible speaks nowhere of global pandemic.  In a few places great sickness comes across the land, generally in a very localized context (think the plagues on Egypt), but the problem with those stories is that these sicknesses come at the direction of God.  God causes the sickness.

In my own thinking about the current global pandemic, I refuse to believe that God has inflicted a sickness on our world that has, to date, infected over 2.9 million people and resulted in over 203,000 deaths[1] worldwide including over 2,700 deaths here in Massachusetts.[2]

It is inconceivable, to me, that the God who created and wills life would impose a global pandemic, sentencing death on thousands, to make some divine point.

For sure, there are people who believe this.  There are those who believe that God is using this virus to cleanse the world of people who had it coming for one reason or another.  Such thinking is bullshit dangerous.  I once heard it said that those who believe in hell often think they know who should go there.  I think the same may be true of those who think that God works through global crises, including pandemics: if you think God works through divine retribution, harming people who have offended God, then you probably have certain people in mind who you think have offended God and stand under divine judgment.

Let me be clear—I do not believe that God has caused the current global pandemic.  I do not believe that those who have died have offended God any more than I have.  And, I do not think that we, as people of faith, should try to be reading into this global pandemic some sort of divine judgment or apocalyptic end.  Such thinking is bullarkey.

So what, then, are we left with?  How can we understand what’s going on?

It is at this point that I thumbed through and found the book of the prophet Joel.  Joel’s writing is found in the part of the Hebrew scriptures known as the Twelve Prophets, or the Minor Prophets.  It was written approximately 2,500 years ago (between 500 and 350 BCE) and is comprised of a series of poetic oracles.  Unlike other prophets in the Hebrew canon, Joel leans heavily upon a wide array of Hebrew prophets and writings using images and phrases from Obadiah, Malachi, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zephaniah, Nahum, Exodus, and others.

Prophetic writings in scripture follow a pretty standard rubric.  Something is happening, the people are disobeying God, and the prophet calls them to change their hearts and lives (repent!)and return to God.  What is unique about Joel is that he does not follow this familiar formula.  The book of Joel does not call out God’s people for a specific sin.  He doesn’t accuse them from wandering away from God. Instead, Joel is trying to make sense of a devastating crisis that has occurred.  He uses the scripture he has at his disposal to make sense of what is going on around him.

In the opening chapter (our reading for today), we do not find Joel calling out the people’s sin.  Instead, he is calling the people to look around and acknowledge the devastation: to bear witness to the crisis that surrounds them.

Pay attention, everyone in the land!  Has anything like this ever happened in your days, or in the days of your ancestors?

Joel 1:2b, Common English Bible

It is hard to underestimate how devastating the locust swarm was on Joel’s community.  It decimated all the crops, the vineyards, and the grain in the land.

Be shocked, you farmers; howl you vinedressers, over the wheat and the barley, for the crops of the field are destroyed.  The grapevine is dried up; the fig tree withers.  Pomegranate, palm, and apple—all the trees of the field are dried up.  Joy fades from the people.

Joel 1:11-12, Common English Bible

Joel tells the people to pay attention, to acknowledge the crisis that is right now; and, he calls them to mourn what was lost.  Joel recognizes that the normal they had all gotten used to—the fruitful land and the full barns—is no more.  There would be no return to “normal.”  The people would have to find a new normal.

To begin the process of finding a new normal, we must first acknowledge what we are going through now.

How do you understand what is going on?

We are each experiencing this pandemic differently based upon our family structure, economic status, where we live, and what resources (medical and otherwise) we have access to.

This global pandemic is (we hope and pray) a once in lifetime experience.  What has been your experience of this pandemic?  What will you tell your children and have your children tell their children, and their children tell their children?

Do you find yourself mourning during this time? about what?  What have you lost?

These are challenging times. Now is not the time to hide your head. We need to be aware what is going on around us, if we are ever to get through this crisis and find a new normal.

Amen? and amen.

“We Shall Overcome,” sung by The Aeolians (Oakwood University, Huntsville, Alabama)

[1] information pulled from the Johns Hopkins University and Medicine “COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU).”  Accessed April 26, 2020, at 8:35am.

[2] information gleaned from “Massachusetts Department of Public Health COVID-19 Dashboard—Saturday, April 25, 2020” (https://www.mass.gov/doc/covid-19-dashboard-april-25-2020/download).

An Easter Proclamation || Matthew 28:1-10

Read Matthew 28:1-10 (CEB, NRSV, MSG, KJV, Compare)


A Hope in Hell

AN EASTER PROCLAMATION DURING A PANDEMIC

By Rev. Dr. Jacob W. Juncker

It was a hellish scene.
After being betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, and condemned to death, Jesus hung on the cross alone.  The whole earth, records Matthew, was dark (Matthew 27:45). At about three o’clock, Jesus cried out in desperation, “My God, my God, why have you left me?”  It was a hellish scene.  Christ was isolated and alone.  Jesus felt like he’d been abandoned by God.

Some commentators have pointed out that Jesus in this moment quotes from Psalm 22 where the Psalmist declares: “My God! My God, why have you left me all alone?  Why are you so far from saving me—so far from my anguished groans?”  The commentators point out that Psalm 22 ends with God’s deliverance and a hymn a thanks.  So, as Jesus stands there and asks the question—my God, my God, why have you left me?—he must have known the outcome.  Afterall, these  commentators note, God “didn’t despise or detest the suffering of the one who suffered—he didn’t hide his face from me.  No, he listened when I cried out to him for help” (Psalm 22:24, Common English Bible).  What these commentators fail to recognize is the shear desperation of Jesus in that moment on the cross.

The cross is not a sign of victory, but a symbol of complete alienation.  Jesus, in that moment felt completely abandoned by God the Father.  And, the God-forsakenness of the Son plunges Jesus to the most solitary and lonely pits of Hell.

Mark Twain is attributed as saying that you “go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company.”  But, the truth of the matter is, hell is a solitary place.  It is a place of absolute abandonment and isolation.

It was Jesus’ experience on the cross.  It was the experience of the disciples as they cowered in fear behind locked doors after Jesus’ crucifixion.  And, to some extent it is our experience through this pandemic as we are asked to “social distance.”

Many of us are fearful to leave our homes for fear of passing the coronavirus.  While that fear is warranted; and, indeed, we should all be limiting our contact with those outside our immediate day-to-day social circles, it is still a hell of sorts as we sit at home isolated from personal contact with others.

We were not made to live life alone, isolated and secluded from others.  Indeed, one of the first observations God makes about humanity is that “it is not good for the human to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  Sure, we have things like computers, phones, and mobile devices to keep us connected, but its not the same as personal, in-the-flesh, encounters with one another.

E.M. Forster—in his futuristic short story entitled “The Machine Stops,” writes in 1909: “I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you.  I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you.”  While technology can give us glimpses of reality, its not the same as being together in person.  It works for now.  We need to be physically distant today (and, undoubtedly, for many more days to come in order to protect the most vulnerable around us); but, make no mistake, live-streaming and face-timing are nothing like being together in-person.

I don’t know about you; but, I find myself on this Easter morning yearning to be gathered together with you and others.  I long for the day when we can safely gather again.  Those feelings of wanting to be together, but not being able to be together, must have laid heavy over that first Easter morning.

After the Sabbath, around dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb of Jesus.  In Matthew’s telling of the story, they were not carrying spices.  They were not preparing to bury Jesus’ body.  In Matthew’s gospel, the women come simply to look.  I tend to think that they came because the hell of isolation was too much.  In their grief, they had to see.

Just as we visit the graves of our loved ones in order to find some sort of connection with them, so too these women came looking for a connection that had been lost to death.  They were grieving, feeling disconnected from their friend, the one they’d come to believe was the Messiah.  All that they had believed in seemed lost.  With all they had hoped in buried in a tomb, they found themselves wandering in hell.

As they approached the tomb, the ground began to shake.  The guards ordered to protect the tomb from thieves ran away in fear as the stone sealing the tomb rolled away.  As the women approached they saw an angel, he told them not to be afraid, but how could they not.  Matthew records that “with great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb.”

Jesus intercepted them.  He “met them and greeted them. They came and grabbed his feet and worshipped him.  Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid.”

And therein lies the good news for us on the Easter as we sit in isolation, separated from one another, and those we love—Don’t be afraid.  Jesus meets us behind our closed door.  He comes to us in whatever hell we may find ourselves in.

The good news of Easter, the promise we bear witness to in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is that when all else seems dark, when we feel alone, when we’re isolated and estranged, God comes to us.  For “nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created” (Romans 8:38-39, Common English Bible).  “God’s steadfast love lasts forever” (see Psalm 136, Common English Bible).

Indeed, it comes to us even when we’re socially distant.  So do not be afraid.  God does not abandon us or leave us as orphans.  Indeed, Christ will go to hell and back, he will traverse death and God-forsakenness, to remind us just how much we are loved.

So hear the good news, dear friends, Christ is risen!  He is here.  We are not alone.  Do not be afraid.

Amen.

Discussion Starter || Matthew 21:1-17 (18-46)

Read Matthew 21:1-17 (18-46) (CEB, NRSV, MSG, KJV, Compare).


Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem to the waving of palm branches and shouts of hosanna (Save us!) is attested to in each of the four gospels.

Have you heard this story before? If so, when you think about Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, what comes to mind?  What images do you think of?

On Palm Sunday, what traditions do you typically look forward to?

Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem is unique in at least two ways.  These adaptations (some might even claim contradictions with the other gospels) in Matthew’s story continue to move Matthew’s argument forward: Jesus is the long awaited Messiah.  Just as Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ birth is laced with prophecy, so is his entrance into Jerusalem.

On what does Jesus ride into Jerusalem?  Unlike kings and soldiers, Jesus rides on a donkey in Jerusalem.  Or was it a colt?  Or was it both?  In Matthew, Jesus rides on both a donkey and a colt.  While the logistics of this are hard for me to wrap my head around, Matthew’s Jesus rides both a donkey and her colt (or foal) into Jerusalem in fulfillment of the scriptures (see Zechariah 9:9).

His arrival “stirred up the city” (21:10).  The people were “hootin’ and hollerin’” around him, cutting down palm branches and laying them before Jesus.  The crowds caused such a raucous that people began to ask, “Who is this?”

In what ways do you celebrate (make a raucous about) the arrival of Jesus into your life?  Does your celebrating lead people to ask what or who you are celebrating?

Upon arriving in the city, Jesus entered the temple.  And, in a fit of furry (reminiscent of the prophets of old—Isaiah and Jeremiah), Jesus overturns tables, disrupts the commerce going on, and proclaims, “It’s written, My house will be called a house of prayer.  But you’ve made it a hideout for crooks” (21:13).  This too aligns with the scriptures (see Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11).  With commerce stopped, Jesus welcomes the blind and lame into the temple (from which they were normally barred from entering) and he heals them.  So often we think of Jesus cleansing the temple as being about commerce.  It might be better understood as a removal of barriers to worship.  By cleansing the temple, Jesus makes God’s house that which it is supposed to be.  God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, declares: “My house will be known as a house of prayer for all peoples says the Lord God, who gather’s Israel’s outcasts.  I will gather still others to those I have already gathered” (Isaiah 56:7d-8).

Is there anything we do that keeps people from participating in God’s house?  How can we help make God’s house, a house of prayer for all?

Sunday, March 29, 2020 || Discussion Starter

Today’s Reading: Matthew 18:1-14 (CEB, NRSV, MSG, KJV, Compare)


In 1999, Kenny Rogers released the song, “I Am the Greatest.”  It is about a boy who believes himself to be the greatest baseball player ever.  He tells himself over and over that he is the greatest.  He picks the ball up and pitches to himself, expecting to hit the ball out of his imaginary field.  He ends up striking himself out.  The song ends with:

Now it’s suppertime and his momma calls,
Little boy starts home with his bat and ball.
Says, “I am the greatest, that is a fact,
But even I didn’t know I could pitch like that!”
Says, “I am the greatest, that is understood,
But even I didn’t know I could pitch that good!”

from “I Am the Greatest” by Kenny Rogers

The little boy wanted to be the greatest, but his definition of what it meant to be great had to change.

In today’s reading, Jesus does much the same: he redefines greatness for the disciples.

How do you define greatness?  How is greatness defined in the culture around you?

Greatness is often defined by wealth, power, money or access to other resources.  These things very often define what it means to be secure and successful and powerful.  Jesus challenges this idea of greatness by pointing to a child and saying, “those who humble themselves like this little child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (18:4).

What does it mean to be humble?

In 1733, John Wesley published a small book entitled A Collection of Forms of Prayer, For Every Day in the Week.  The book offered daily morning and evening prayers and reflection questions about one’s spiritual and relational health.  The morning questions were consistent throughout the week.  The evening questions changed daily.  The questions for Tuesday evening related to humility.  Here are a few questions, written by Wesley, for you to consider as you seek to be the greatest in God’s kingdom by being humble:

  • Have I labored to conform all my thoughts, words, and actions to these fundamental maxims: “I am nothing, I have nothing, I can do nothing?”
  • Have I ascribed to myself any part of any good which God did by my hand?
  • Have I desired the praise of [others]?
  • Have I taken pleasure in it?
  • Have I despised any one’s advice?