In the midst of the COVID-19 onslaught, I keep going back to these words from A Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada:
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
We don’t know what will happen in the coming days and weeks. We fear the worst, but pray for the best knowing that either way God will be with us. We are never alone. Thanks be to God.
I thought this quote from Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans was relevant to this morning’s sermon.
Contrary to what many of us are told, Israel’s origin stories weren’t designed to answer scientific, twenty-first-century questions about the beginning of the universe or the biological evolution of human beings, but rather were meant to answer then-pressing, ancient questions about the nature of God and God’s relationship to creation. 
The only thing I would add is that the “then pressing, ancient questions” are still relevant and still pressing today.
 Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2018), 9.
The work of salvation, in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us. If we can get this straight, we will rediscover the historic basis for the full-orbed mission of the church.— N. T. Wright 
We need to get this right for our own sake, for the sake of the church, and for the sake of the world. When they founded the Methodist movement, John and Charles Wesley got this right.
 N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: Harper Collins, 2008), 200.
Augustine of Hippo was a great theologian and biblical scholar. He was a teacher who became the bishop of Hippo (in modern day Algeria). He was born in 354 A.D. and died of old age in 430 A.D. as the barbarian Vandals were besieging the city.
“They [riches] are gained with toil and kept with fear. They are enjoyed with danger and lost with grief. It is hard to be saved if we have them; and impossible if we love them; and scarcely can we have them but we shall love them inordinately. Teach us, O Lord, this difficult lesson: to manage conscientiously the goods we possess, and not covetously desire more than you give us.” — Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 133
Augustine’s influence on the western church was immense. Whether you know of him or not, whether you recognize it or not, how you think about God has been influenced by Augustine. I pray that the way he thought about riches might profoundly affect both your thinking and your living.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. … The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”
— Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
We need to work for justice, but we need to do so with love, not hate. As we strive for justice in our church and in our nation, we must do so with love.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 47.
“We do not bring people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how long they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” — widely attributed to Madeline L’Engle
It’s easy, during the Christmas season, to see the truth of this statement. The trick for those us us who follow Christ, is to hold onto that truth all year round. When someone who is not a Christian has encountered with you, do they see the light of Christ or darkness?
There are a lot of different ways to understand the purpose of the church. This is a great one:
“The Church exists to keep alive in people’s heart the memory that God loves them. It exists to tell everyone, even those furthest away: ‘God doesn’t forget you, He cares about you’.” — Pope Francis on Twitter 
 Pope Francis, Twitter post, November 30, 2019, 6:30 a.m., http://twitter.com/Pontifex.
I’m working my way through The Character of Virtue by Stanley Hauerwas. While doing so, I came across something that I know in my heart to be true, but something I can’t fully wrap my head (at least not yet).
We [Christians] believe that in the crucifixion of Jesus, God refused to defeat our rebellion by crushing us. Instead, the Father’s love of the Son overwhelmed our violence by refusing to end our violence violently. 
 Stanley Hauerwas, “Patience” in The Character of Virtue (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2018), Kindle Edition.
“Evil is our doing, not God’s. We should not, therefore, seek to explain evil by including it in God’s plan. God does not will evil. God does not cause evil. God allows it, temporarily, while God is wooing us toward God’s self. On the cross the death toll for evil was rung, its ending begun. In this time between the times, then, evil roams about like a raging lion, chaotically spilling over the brim, causing destruction, mayhem, and death wherever possible. It does so because it knows its days are numbered. We must endure. We must hope. We must love. We must worship the one who is light and in whom there is no darkness.” — Rustin E. Brian 
 Rustin E. Brian, Jacob Arminius: the Man from Oudewater (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), 109.
A tweet from the theologian Miroslav Volf (there are occasionally some good things on Twitter):
“Repentance is not a mere neutral zone between evil and good through which those who have committed wrongdoing must pass in order to return to the good. In repenting, I am differentiating myself from my wrongdoing; I am embracing the good in renouncing my wrongdoing.” 
We repent of our sins not to dwell upon them or wallow in them; but to confront them head-on, to separate ourselves from the evil we have done, and most importantly to turn to God.
 Miroslav Volf, Twitter post, October 4, 2019, 5:51 p.m., https://twitter.com/MiroslavVolf.
Another good point from James K. A. Smith, this time about the purpose of repetition in worship.
If you think of worship as a bottom-up, expressive endeavor, repetition will seem insincere and inauthentic. But when you see worship as an invitation to a top-down encounter in which God is refashioning your deepest habits, then repetition looks very different: it’s how God rehabituates us. In a formational paradigm, repetition isn’t insincere, because you’re not showing, you’re submitting. This is crucial because there is no formation without repetition. Virtue formation takes practice, and there is no practice that isn’t repetitive. We willingly embrace repetition as a good in all kinds of other sectors of our life—to hone our golf swing, our piano prowess, and our mathematical abilities, for example. If the sovereign Lord has created us as creatures of habit, why should we think repetition is inimical to our spiritual growth? 
 James K. A. Smith,You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2016), 80, Kindle.
My theological book study group recently read You Are What You Love by James K. A. Smith. He makes this important point:
“Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves. Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts.” 
One of the ways worship is a gymnasium in which God retrains our heart is through repetition. Just as repetition is important in learning to play an instrument or mastering a sport, so repetition is important in shaping us as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
 James K. A. Smith,You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2016), 77, Kindle.