Service for the Lord’s Day
March 29, 2020
Prelude What Wondrous Love is This arr. Sarah Douglas
Hymn Beneath the Cross of Jesus (vs. 1 and 3) St. Christopher
Beneath the cross of Jesus, I fain would take my stand, the shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land; a home within the wilderness, a rest upon the way, from the burning of the noontide heat, and the burden of the day.
I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place. I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of his face; content to let the world go by, to know no gain or loss, my sinful self, my only shame, my glory all the cross.
Confession and Pardon
Response Grace Greater Than Our Sin Johnston, Towner
Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that is greater than all our sin.
Prayer for Illumination
Sermon “Lifted UP”
Hymn There Is a Balm in Gilead (vs. 1 and 3) African-American spiritual
REFRAIN – There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.
Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain,
but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. (repeat refrain)
If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul,
you can tell the love of Jesus and say “He died for all.” (repeat refrain)
Response A Grateful Heart English Folk Melody
A grateful heart is what I bring, a song of praise, my offering.
Among the saints, I lift my voice. In you, O God, I will rejoice.
Prayers of Intercession
Hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (vs. 1 and 4) Hamburg
When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain, I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.
Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.
Blessing and Charge
Postlude What a Friend We Have in Jesus arr. Donatello Noboddi
Lately, some things in the Bible that seemed so foreign to us have become disturbingly relevant. Like plagues. The story we read this morning from the Old Testament tells about an epidemic that infected the Hebrews in the wilderness. Their affliction wasn’t carried by a coronavirus but by snakes, yet they felt the same helplessness and vulnerability, the same fear that grips us any time we’re faced with a threat that seems beyond our control.
Moses prayed for his people, and God told Moses to make a replica of a poisonous serpent out of bronze and lift it up on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten by a snake, they were to look up at the bronze serpent and they would live.
Oh, how we wish we had that cure for our generation’s plague. People are working around the clock to find it. And their symbol is two serpents wound around a pole – the caduceus, the symbol of the medical profession and the doctors and nurses and researchers who are mobilized to find a vaccine and a cure.
The plague that struck the Hebrews was not just a physical affliction. It grew out of the resentment and anger that infected them the longer they had to endure the hardships of the wilderness. As they grew weary of the manna that God provided them day after day, they thought back on what they had in the old days, back in Egypt. They remembered the fish they used to eat, “the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic…” (Num. 11:5) Yes, it had been the fare of slaves, but at least it had flavor, and they weren’t hungry all the time. And they remembered when they could have all the water they wanted. Granted, they drank a lot because of their forced labor in the burning sun, but now they were in the desert, and they didn’t know where their next drink was coming from.
Our pestilence does not grow out of spiritual sickness. It comes from a microscopic virus surrounded by crown-like spikes that jumped from a wild animal to a human being and afflicts good and bad alike, just as the rain falls on the just and the unjust. But in a mirror image of the sickness that afflicted the Hebrews, whose spiritual disorder led to physical sickness, this pandemic can run the opposite direction. We have to make sure that our physical sickness doesn’t lead to spiritual disorder.
David Brooks, in an essay that was published on Friday, observed, “It can all seem so meaningless. Some random biological mutation sweeps across the globe, murdering thousands, lacerating families and pulverizing dreams. Life and death can seem completely arbitrary…. Without the inspiration of a higher meaning, selfishness takes over. This mindset is the temptation of the hour.”
On Tuesday I took part in a conference call for pastors with the Pennsylvania Secretary of Health, Dr. Rachel Levine. During the call, Dr. Levine emphasized several times how important churches are in fighting the pandemic. She reminded us that churches are not included in Gov. Wolf’s order to close all non-essential services. She reiterated that just as doctors and researchers have crucial roles in fighting COVID-19, churches have their essential part to play.
Eastminster is discovering its part. Deacons have been staying in touch with the members in their care groups. We can all reach out to each other. A phone call doesn’t have to be long to be effective. Just five minutes to let someone know you’re thinking about them reminds them, and you, that we’re still connected and that we matter to each other. We’re learning how to use technology so we can worship together while we’re apart. We’re finding creative ways to continue our mission to the community and the world. This year Easter food baskets to struggling families will consist of gift cards. Thanks to your continuing generosity, we’re maintaining our support for organizations that feed the hungry and comfort the lonely, including the broader church. Donegal Presbytery has approved no interest loans to small churches that can’t meet their bills, and grants to churches that don’t have the resources to record or stream worship to their members.
In the passage we read today from John, Jesus compared himself to the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness to heal the sickness of the people. Jesus said, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” That’s our part in this pandemic. We tell a different story, one that is not about fear and despair, but one of life and hope. We point to the one who was raised up for us.
pointing to the one who has been lifted up for eternal life so that all can see him.
Jesus carries with him to the cross all of our anxiety and our fear. Jesus wept when those he loved were stricken with disease. He trembled when faced with death. He cried out when he felt abandoned. He lifts us up with him and takes us to the Father where we find healing and redemption and life.
But true healing goes deep. It doesn’t treat the symptoms. It gets to the root of what ails us. Jesus shines light on the depths of our souls so we can see ourselves for who we are and come to his healing grace. David Brooks observes, “This particular plague hits us at exactly the spots where we are weakest and exposes exactly those ills we had lazily come to tolerate. We’re already a divided nation, and the plague makes us distance from one another. We define ourselves too much by our careers, and the plague threatens to sweep them away. We’re a morally inarticulate culture, and now the fundamental moral questions apply.”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve learned some things about myself over these last two weeks. I tell myself that I care for everyone, but I noticed how tempting it was to horde extra toilet paper when it was available before anyone else could get it. I tell myself that I trust God to provide, but it’s tempting to cut back on my giving to charity, not because I don’t have the money that’s desperately needed for immediate needs but because maybe I won’t have as much later on. I always thought I had sympathy for people whose lives have been upended by circumstances beyond their control, but I’ve gotten a little more empathy for refugees in Syria whose homes were destroyed by somebody else’s war, for people in Puerto Rico living in shelters whose towns were wiped out by a hurricane, for families that are going to be coming to our local foodbanks because the pandemic has wiped out their jobs. Jesus told Nicodemus: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil….But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Again, David Brooks: “We learn more about ourselves in these hard periods. The differences between red and blue don’t seem as acute on the gurneys of the E.R., but the inequality in the world seems more obscene when the difference between rich and poor is life or death.” Lifted up on the cross and shining on us, the Light of the World exposes how much we need healing, and he draws us to himself, for God so loved the world – not just me, not just the people I care about, but the world.
And that light also exposes graces that we would never see, signs of healing that give us hope and draw us to the one who gives life. In the light of Christ, small graces are revealed to us. Our presbytery is holding twice weekly Zoom conferences for pastors to check in with one another, and I’ve learned just how gifted and loving so many of my colleagues are. I’ve been in touch with friends and relatives I haven’t heard from in decades. Many of us have had conversations with loved ones, in person on the phone or through a social medium, where we’ve learned of fears and hopes we never knew they had. Words of love have flowed more freely. We’ve seen the dedication and sacrifice of so many people who are making sure the elderly and those with compromised health conditions have what they need, and our confidence in the human spirit has been boosted.
One day things will get back to normal. And one day we’ll be absorbed in doing whatever absorbs us in that new normal. But the Son of Man will still be lifted high over us, calling us to the light. And we’ll know more surely than ever, from our time in the wilderness, that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
 David Brooks, “The Moral Meaning of the Plague,” The New York Times, March 27, 2020, p. A26.