What Would You Do? – Sermon on Mark 3.31-35

(Preached on July 1, 2012 at the Shine Service at First UMC in Birmingham, Michigan)

Mark 3.31-35: Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

The afternoon heat was unbearable. I kept trying to find patches of shade as I walked across Duke’s campus, but it wasn’t doing any good. I had purposefully picked out my clothes that morning: khaki pants, a long sleeve button-up shirt and a bowtie, and now I regretted it. As streams of students slithered past me I quickly glanced at my watch again and again hoping that something was wrong with the ticking arms; it was as if they were looking back up at me perfectly content to say with every tick: you – are – late. Taking a moment to regain my bearings, I promptly increased my pace towards the edge of campus. As the number of students decreased, the number of men and women in white coats with stethoscopes around their shoulders took their place. Finally my feet bridged the dividing line between the university and the hospital, and I took a moment to inspect myself- My mouth was parched from panting across campus, my bowtie had become loose and looked pathetic dangling from my collar, and my shirt had turned into a darker shade of blue thanks to my perspiration.

I felt calmer knowing that I had finally arrived at the hospital, but when I took the damp map out of my pocket, I knew my adventure was far from over. The building I needed to be on was sidewalks, stairways, and parking lots away from my present location. As I unnecessarily folded the map back into my pocket I departed once again towards inevitability.

Fifteen minutes later, after going into the wrong building and finally asking a security guard, I found myself sitting in the office of the Clergy Supervisor of Duke University Hospital, who was late. Immediately upon entering the room I felt uncomfortable – the man had accolades and degrees hung on every available surface, he had manifold worn books perfectly placed behind his desk, and his Air-Conditioning was on full blast. I tried to make myself comfortable in one of his chairs, but the brisk air coming from the window unit continued to build the tension inside, and outside, of my body. During the moments of waiting I pulled out my phone and checked my emails, I glanced at the man’s books with curiosity, I flipped through my bible to find comforting passages, and I tried to pray my way out of my own anxiety until he entered the room. It was about to start, my interview for a position at Duke University hospital as one of their on-call chaplains for two semesters, a necessity for completing ordinations requirements for the United Methodist Church.

“Tell me a little about yourself,” he said after sitting down across from me. “Tell me about why you think God has called you to be a minister.” Immediately I relaxed – you see I’ve answered that question hundreds of times – but as the interview moved on from my own narrative it was clear that this wasn’t going to be easy. “Tell me more about your father, what does he do for a living, is he proud of you, would you say you’re an embarrassment to him, if I asked him would he tell me that he loves you, do you love him?” “And what about your mother, does she have confidence in you or she ashamed of your calling?” The pointed questions were relentless, and after an hour and a half I had had just about enough. Finally he looked up at me, putting down his list of questions and taking off his glasses he said, “Taylor I only have one more question to ask you, this one is situational. Two weeks ago we had a beautiful young couple come to the hospital. I remember seeing them both smile as they came in, this was the day they had been waiting for, the birth of their first child. A few hours later after a successful delivery the couple were now parents to a beautiful baby girl, but something was wrong, something had happened to her shortly after her birth and within ten minutes she was dead. The young woman was in shock, sporadically calling out for help, and the young man sat weeping in the corner. The nurse, who was with the couple throughout the entire process, called the on-call clergy and informed him that he needed to come down to baptize the dead baby girl; Taylor, what would you do?”

I imagine that when the crowds had gathered around Jesus that morning they must have felt similarly uncomfortable. They no doubt had been following Jesus around Galilee: sweating from the heavy heat, and anxious about what this man had to say. After what had to have been a prolonged session inside of the house, someone interrupted Jesus’ teaching to inform him that his family was outside beckoning for him. Mark’s gospel also tells us that his family was searching after Jesus because they thought he had gone out of his mind with all of his developing popularity and proclamations about the kingdom of God. So after having already healed people and developing a considerable following, his family has come to call upon him, and yet he turns to the crowd with a question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”

The answer, to me, seems pretty obvious right? “Um, Jesus your mother is the one who brought you into the world, I believe her name is Mary, and your brothers are the others she brought into the world.” Yet, the crowd remained silent; they sat possibly perplexed by the ridiculousness of such a simple question. Without receiving a response Jesus looks out at the crowd sitting around him and declares, “All of you, here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

When I read this story in Mark’s gospel, I immediately think about Mary the mother of Jesus. How must she have felt to learn about Jesus’ declaration? The woman who brought him into the world, raised him, hid him from Herod’s destruction, went back for him at the Temple when he was only a boy, had now been passed over for the crowds. However, I think this story is not about a rejection of his biological family, but a redefining of what it means to be family in the kingdom of God. Jesus looks out at the crowd because everything is going to be different. Familial ties will no longer be written by blood or tradition, but by doing the will of God.

Exodus 20.12: “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” And what about Colossians 3.20: “Children obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord.”

These proclamations of scripture hold up in Jesus’ new reality, only we must redefine what it means to be mother, father, sister, and brother. Jesus looks out at the crowd to help reorient their connections with one another. My mother and sisters and brothers are those who do the will of God.

“What would you do?” the interviewer asked me. “What would you do about baptizing the dead baby girl?” I remember looking down at my hands in my lap and realizing that I had no idea how to answer the man’s question. But I took a deep breath and closed my eyes for a few seconds and then I opened my mouth to respond:

“I would begin by walking down the hallway to the room where the family was waiting. While walking I’m sure that I would begin thinking to myself, “Am I even allowed to do this? I’m not even ordained yet, so I’m pretty sure that I shouldn’t be baptizing anyone. And what about the fact that the baby has passed away, are we allowed to baptize those who have already died?” I know that the theological conundrums would weigh heavily in my thoughts, I would recall passages from great theologians, and pin them against the Word of God in scripture, over and over until I would finally stop. I would take a breath and I would realize that this has nothing to do with me. God is going to do whatever God wants with the baby regardless of me placing water on her head or not. If God chooses me to be a vessel of God’s grace, that pales in comparison to God’s power to act on behalf of that infant. God’s will for that child has already been enacted, and she is now being cradled in the arms of her heavenly father. My responsibility is no longer to that child, but to the parents. So I would walk into the room and I would embrace the couple. I would wrap my arms around them and let them weep into my shoulders. I would let them lament the loss of their child, and I would mourn with them. And when the time became appropriate I would look them in the eyes and explain what I am about to do. I would tell them that baptism is a visible sign of an invisible grace. When I place water on the baby’s head she would be baptized into the body of Christ becoming a child of God. By participating in this sacrament it is not only for your daughter, but also for both of you as parents. From now on when you gather at your church you must realize that all the children present are as much your children as they are to their biological parents. That you are to be paternal and maternal to each of them, as you would have been to this baby girl. Baptism is our way of redefining what it means to be family. Baptism means we are all made new. Then I would take the child into my arms, and cupping water in my hands I would baptize her in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. That is what I would do.”

My interviewer nodded and thanked me for my answer and I asked if would be okay for me to ask a question. I wanted to know what the on-call clergyperson did that night when this actually took place. The interviewer sighed and his gaze fell to the floor before he responded by saying, “The young man walked into the room, looked at the baby and the parents and said, ‘my religious convictions will not allow me to baptize babies,’ and he walked out of the room.”

Now I am not standing here this morning to debate the efficacy of infant vs. adult baptism or full immersion vs. sprinkling, but what I am here talking about is how we are supposed to remember that baby girl. How we are supposed to relate to one another.

I think what took place that morning in Galilee when Jesus addressed the crowds would have been important for the young couple to hear. Jesus changed everything, he helped turn the world upside down, he advocated for a provided a new reality by which we are truly connected as family through Christ.

Last week when Chad preached I loved his message. When he talked about how busy we have all become and as parents we are responsible for relational connections I thought it was remarkably appropriate. However, I do not have any kids, and a lot of what he talked about felt like it did not have any bearing on my life. And then I started to wonder about the other people at the service; what about those of us who do not have a family, what about those of us who are unable to having children, what about those of us who have lost their children? That’s when I started to think about Jesus addressing the crowd about what it means to be family in the Kingdom of God, and I realized how important Chad’s message was last week. We do need to relearn how to relate with our families, but our family is no longer defined by biology. Families who put others first are the ones who are taking part in the kingdom of God. They are the ones who realize that the church has become the new family.

We should make ourselves vulnerable enough to one another that we can treat everyone as our brother, sister, mother, or father. Think about what the church could be like if we stopped acting as if the rows of chairs were dividers, but rather branches of the great family tree that is the body of Christ.

In a few moments Chad will be inviting all of us forward to receive Communion. I can think of no better response to the story of Jesus’ redefinition of family than by coming to the communal table and receiving the bread and juice as the family of Jesus Christ. There is one table, there is one cup, there is one loaf, there is one body, and there is one family. As you walk up this morning I want you to take the time to look around at everyone that walks up with you. These people are no longer your neighbors or your friends, they are not your enemies or your competitors, but rather they are your brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers.

It is my hope and prayer that this church is the place where that family from the hospital could come home to. Where they could walk in on a Sunday morning and see their father and mothers walking to their seats hand in hand, where they could hug and speak with their brothers and sisters in fellowships, and where they could see all of their children playing gleefully.

Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” – We are.

Amen.

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Following Christ Does Not Fix Your Problems: Sermon on 2 Corinthians 5.11-17

(Preached on June 10, 2012 at Cass UMC in Detroit, Michigan)

2 Corinthians 5.11-17

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything has become new!

Prayer

The night was cold. My mother had remarked earlier that I was foolish to not bring a coat with me, and I knew she was right, but for some reason the frigid air was a welcome relief to my body. My footsteps stretched forth into the evening air hollow and empty, and I knew that I was alone. The sidewalk squares kept moving underneath my feet until I suddenly became immobile. The moving images of the late cold night abruptly stopped and I saw my breath in front of me. Unaware of what was about to happen, something pulled me down to my knees on the cold hard concrete and I began to pray like I never had before.

Earlier in the week Anna Ringer had died in a car accident. She was a beautiful and loving teenager who had the majority of her life still in front of her when it was taken from her. That cold night when I found myself walking alone, my friends and I had been mourning the loss of Anna. The evening had felt like a blur to me, it was Christmas time so everyone was wearing red and green, but I can barely remember who was there, or what we had talked about. What I do remember was that everyone came to me asking about what was going to happen to Anna now that she was dead. Though I had grown up in the church, I was ill equipped to answer the question, but I tried my best over and over again.

I had left the gathering that night without really saying goodbye to anyone; I floated out of the back door consumed in my own thoughts before I realized that I was actually going anywhere. And when I found myself on my knees under the cold blanket of the night, I began to pray to God.

I remained motionless as long as I needed to express everything to God that I needed him to know, and when I stood up I knew that God was calling me to the ministry and everything in my life would change.

Have you ever really felt transformed? Have you ever felt as if everything had been stripped away and you were a completely new person? Have you ever woken up one morning and everything was different? Maybe you felt that way when you got your first paycheck, or when you had your first child, or when you fell in love for the first time. There was clearly a moment, putting that first paycheck into your wallet, or cradling your child in your arms, or kissing your love for the first time, when you knew that nothing would ever be the same. It’s that feeling that Paul is talking about in his second letter to the Corinthians.

Written around 55 AD, 2nd Corinthians is filled with appeals, exhortations, threats, attacks, self-defense, self-praise, and irony. It is a confusing letter and presents a difficult argument to follow through continually. In the passage read this morning however, Paul is blunt and straightforward with his thoughts. The first point he makes is that…

“If we have been acting crazy, or ridiculous, or strange it is for God”

Being a Christian means willing to be considered crazy. Just think about it… We gather together regularly to partake in a meal of Jesus’ flesh and blood, we pray for our enemies, we serve the poor when we ourselves are often poor, we believe that because Jesus died for us we will be raised into eternal life. I can assure you that Paul was indeed crazy, or at least as crazy as any Christian is supposed to be. He insists in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians that there has only been one motive in all his work – to serve God and to help those in Corinth. When I think about Paul’s life, it makes sense that he would need to defend his sanity and motivations to the church. Remember, this is the man who had a stable and comfortable living persecuting the Christians, who then dropped everything and began to propagate the message that he was trying to destroy… there was a time when he had judged Jesus Christ by human standards, and in those days he had set out to blast the followers and to eliminate the Christian faith from the earth. Now his standards have changed. Now, having been in Christ the man who sought to rid the world of Jesus Christ was transformed to live his life to glorify the Lord. He had his own moment like I did on the sidewalk, where we both knew that nothing would ever be the same.

The second thing that Paul tells the Corinthians, and us, is that “Christ died, and therefore all have died.”

Let me say that again, Christ died, and therefore all have died… This is the plainest sentence in the bible that fully embodies the consequences of Christ’s death. Just as in the one Adam all have sinned, so Christ as representative for humanity died and therefore we have all died. So if we have all already died, what happens now? Paul tells us, that Christ died for all that those who live might live no longer for themselves. As 2nd Timothy 2.11 tells us: If we died with him, we shall also live with him; If we endure, we shall also reign with him”

We, as human beings, have value because Christ died for us. Whether or not people have responded to the grace of God, whether people pray at their beds at night or not, Christ died for everyone and are treasured by God. Everyone has value. Right now in this room I am standing here to assure you that you have value, that God has breathed into you the breath of life, that God truly loves you, and that we must all love one another. It is in our commitment to live for one another, just as Christ lived to die for us, that the new creation comes into being.

The final and third point Paul makes is that “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”

Many Christians have heard this sentence over the centuries and have believed that it is referring to a personal change in Christians. That if you accept Christ you will be made anew. However, just because you accept Christ you are not guaranteed a better life. Being in Christ does not mean that you will be given a job, or that your sickness will go away, or that suffering will cease. Paul does not say, “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation,” instead he says “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” This is not just about a personal change, but a transformation of the entire created order.

I know that I began this morning by talking about my personal call, the beginning of my walk with God toward ministry. In many ways it is very similar to what happened to Paul, but it is not what Paul is talking about in 2nd Corinthians. It is instead the reason why he and I feel called to the ministry at all.

If we are in Christ there is a new creation; when we gather together this morning we are participating in the new created order of the kingdom of God. We are affirming that Christ has offered us a place where the entire world can be, and has already begun to be, transformed. CASS United Methodist Church and CASS Community Social Services are responses to the new created order established by Christ. When you take down this cross above my head and drag it through the streets of Detroit you are initiating the new creation. You are participating in the greatest gift ever given to humanity. You are making possible the existence of this reality.

I have to warn you again that being in Christ will not fix all your problems; it will not give you a lucrative career, it will not provide you with a home, nor will it cure your diseases. Instead, being in Christ helps to create a new community, one like CASS, where the new creation can take place. That cold night when I prayed on my knees and responded to God’s call on my life, I did so because I believe in the good news of Jesus Christ. That the new creation is possible: where those who suffer can be taken care of, where the homeless can be given shelter, where the hungry can be given food, and where we can learn to live for one another.

Amen.

What Does This Babbler Want To Say? – Sermon on Acts 17.16-32

(Preached on July 15, 2012 at the Traditional Services at FUMC Birmingham)

Acts 17.16-32

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicureans and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

The weight of his own soul dragged behind him as he made his way through the city. It was now impossible to avoid the insults that were being relentlessly flung toward him: “What does this babbler want to say?” he heard them whispering behind his back, “He must be one of those who proclaims the foreign gods!”

He had spent the better part of the week waiting for his friends, and had had his soul crushed by the prevalence of idols strung haphazardly throughout the area. So, as was his custom, he made his way to the local synagogue to argue with the leading men. Beyond the walls of the synagogue he continued to debate with the elders of the city, many learned and important men, and he preached that which he knew to be true; as a result the city began to gossip of his proclamations: “What does this babbler want to say?”

He continued to wind his way through the curving corridors of Athens with his favorite story bouncing around his mind: Remembering every detail as it had been passed onto him – the way the water reflected the sun the day the heavens opened up, the stunned faces of family and friends after he had brought sight back to Bartimaeus, the feeling of cool water on their feet went he bent down to wash them… the same story that had gotten him in trouble again. After some time his fame spread around Athens in such a way that he was taken to the Areopagus to explain the new teaching he had been proclaiming.

“O people of Athens,” he shouted without trepidation, “it is clear to me how very religious you are in every way. I have spent much time exploring the detailed objects of your worship, and I was pleased to discover an altar dedicated to an unknown god!” The men of the Aeropagus smiled smugly with the approval of this young foreigner. But before they could truly congratulate themselves the man interrupted their musings – “What you choose to worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you! The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, he who has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead!” Immediately when the men of the Aeropagus heard of the resurrection of the dead some began to ignore him; but others said, “we will hear you again about this.” From his proclamations in the Areopagus some people from Athens began to join Paul and his quest to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.

What is it that makes a good story? Is it the abundance of detail, allowing the hearers to fully immerse themselves within the narrative? Is it live-action, or incredible irony, or beautiful love, or merciful forgiveness? Is it that little something that can resonate within every human being? Is it the way you tell it, or the simple facts of what happened? What is it that makes a good story?

One of my favorite things to do when I meet people for the first time is to ask them to tell me a story – a particular story, the story about how they met their spouse. Immediately upon entering Birmingham I put my favorite question into practice and quickly learned a lot about a lot of you. I have had the privilege to hear about a man, who working in a busy firm, called the cutest secretary, the one with the nicest legs as he put it, to go out on a date with him and she replied, “sure, but which one are you again?” Or there was the story about the girl who was shy in college and sitting with all her girlfriends at lunch watched transfixed as the most popular guy at school walked across the cafeteria to ask her out to dinner. The couple that had been friends for so long, in fact they rather enjoyed going on double dates with other people, until they eventually realized they had been in love the whole time. Or the man who was looking to worship at a Presbyterian church and accidentally walked into this church and met his wife that first morning when she poured him coffee in Fellowship Hall. Or the man and woman who after high school, met at a high school basketball game because there was nothing better to do in their town. Or the couple that met in a spousal grief group here at the church after having both lost their first partners.

I love to ask people to tell me this story, because they always tell it so well. They can remember the outfits they were wearing, the weather outside, and the other people who were present. They can describe the most vivid detail about that lovely first smile they saw, or the way their fingers felt when they wove them together for the first time. I have greatly enjoyed witnessing people laugh, cry, argue, and agree on these stories.

But sometimes I think about the Gospel story and I wonder how that connects to us. I freely admit that when I ask how you met your husband or wife I am not expecting anyone to start talking about Moses or Abraham or the Holy Spirit or Jesus or the Areopagus. But the Gospel story should be one that we know just as well. Many of you have been coming to church for your entire lives, and even those of you who have only recently begun to attend church, we gather together every week to retell the gospel story. Every Advent and every Easter we gather in such a way as to retell the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We cannot escape the story because it is our own.

I ask people about how they met, because it teaches me about whom they are. It helps to reveal parts and aspects of personality that would otherwise remain hidden, it sheds light on what brings people joy and how they connect to everything around them. But in the same way, the Gospel is who we are. It is as much a part of our personalities and joy and interconnections as the story about how we meet our spouses.

When Paul was called before the Areopagus in Athens, he was charged to tell the elites about “this new teaching.” This was nothing new for Paul. Acts tells us that after his conversion on the road to Damascus he stayed with the disciples and immediately began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues saying, “He is the Son of God.” He went from a Christian-oppressor, to Christ-proclaimer. He was confronted by Jesus on the road and traded in his weapons of death, for the instruments of faith. The change in vocation from persecutor to apostle resulted in Paul dedicating the rest of his life to serving Christ. Just as with the Disciples, Jesus turned his world upside down. Paul quickly immersed himself into the life of Jesus and spread the story with vigor and passion. He later traveled to Jerusalem to learn from the apostles and continued to speak boldly about the Son of Man. The Holy Spirit then called Paul to Cyprus, Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Athens, Corinth, and Rome all while he continued to spread the good news. It eventually became impossible for him to go anywhere without living out the story of Jesus Christ through his interactions and proclamations.

We should know the story of Jesus Christ in the same way Paul proclaimed it in Athens. I wonder if instead of asking how each of you met, I asked you to tell me the story of Jesus. Now I appreciate the loaded quality of that question because I am a seminarian and I’m supposed to know the scriptures. But if we take seriously our calling as Christians shouldn’t we be ready to stand before our own Aeropagus ready to proclaim Jesus? When Paul stood before that council he told them his favorite story – the same story we tell here every week:

That Jesus Christ was brought into the world as God incarnate; Born to the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem; reared in Nazareth; Baptized by John in the River Jordan; Called his disciples to drop everything and follow him; performed miracles by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, casting out the demons, clothing the naked; Told parables and stories about the kingdom of God; Turned the world upside down; Preached in Galilee; Prayed in Gethsemane; Suffered on Cavalry; and raised triumphantly; The good news of Jesus Christ.

You know this story, you’ve heard told over and over again. The challenge with the gospel is not one of knowledge. I have been so impressed with the amount of biblical and theological clarity in this church all summer – you know the story. The challenge with the gospel is that it requires us to reorient how we think and how we live. Confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and proclaiming the good news means that all other competing loyalties and practices must be set aside in order to begin a new life with him – That is why we gather together every week. We pray and we listen and we sing and we worship to help reorient our lives to God: “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great redeemer’s praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumphs of his grace! My gracious Master and my God assist me to proclaim, to spread through all the earth abroad the honors of thy name!

This morning as we gather together I want to be very clear with you, that I am not asking us to take up a modern Evangelistic agenda. I am not asking you to go knocking you on the doors of your neighbors to tell them the story of Jesus. I am not telling you to sit your children down and talk to them about ancient Palestine. But, I am asking us to think about how we should live our lives in such a way that the Gospel is fundamental for understanding who we are, just as fundamental as the story of how we met each other.

 

How would anyone know you are a Christian?

 

Maybe you have a cross on your necklace, or you pray together before you eat your meals at restaurants. I want people to know we are Christians by our love, by the way we talk and move and live. Paul tells us today that God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. I want to show that in the way that I live my life.

If we take seriously what the scriptures tell us, the gospel is part of the very fiber of our being, it is inseparable from us the moment that God breathed into the breath of life. We are connected to it through the water in our baptism, through the bread and wine in our communion. It is in the hymns we sing and the prayers we pray. It is in our offerings and our service. It is in the mission programs and the committee meetings. The gospel is who we are!

Paul was willing to walk before the Areopagus in Athens because he believed in the good news. He understood the necessity of taking up the story of Jesus and living into it himself. It was his hope to show how God is not far from each one of us, that from our one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and that God has given assurance to all by raising Jesus from the dead.

Walking into this building is itself an act of faith and courage, being a Christian is no longer revered as it once was. It is often mocked through the media and considered naïve by many. Coming to church now carries with it a stigma unknown throughout the history of Christendom. Truly I tell you, living out the gospel as you own story requires more bravery than anything else I know. It requires us to stand before the Areopagus every day of our lives.

What does this babbler want to say: Jesus the Christ preached in Galilee, prayed in Gethsemane, suffered on Cavalry, and was raised triumphantly. That is our story.

Amen.

Leaving The Cave – Sermon on 1 Samuel 24.1-7

(Preached on July 18 at the Wednesday Morning Service at FUMC Birmingham)

1 Samuel 24.1-7

When Saul returned from following the Philistines, he was told, “David is in the wilderness of Engedi.” Then Saul took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel, and went to look for David and his men in the direction of the Rocks of the Wild Goats. He came to the sheepfolds beside the road, where there was a cave; and Saul went in to relieve himself. Now David and his men were sitting in the innermost parts of the cave. The men of David said to him, “Here is the day of which the Lord said to you, “I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it seems good to you.” Then David went and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul’s cloak. Afterward David was stricken to the heart because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s cloak. He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed, to raise my hand against him; for he is the Lord’s anointed.” So David scolded his men severely and did not permit them to attack Saul. Then Saul got up and left the cave, and went on his way.

The cave was cold and dark. His fingers tapped lightly on the pommel of his sword in rhythm with his beating heart. The man who had threatened his life sat frighteningly vulnerable before him in the shadows. It would take only the simplest move, the slightest flick of the wrist and everything would change. As he unsheathed his sword his eyes fell upon the thinning hair of the man; he was close enough to sense the shaking anxiety within him and he brought his sword above his head to strike him down.

Just minutes before, he was sitting patiently with his cohort of loyal men surrounding him, yet the sight of a frail man’s body at the lightened end of the tunnel was enough to make the sweat begin to bead on his forehead. “Is that really him?” he thought to himself. His men crept closer and whispered to him, “Here is the day of which the Lord said that he would give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it seems good.” When the king finally sat down to relieve himself, near the entrance of the cave, David tightly gripped his weapon in one hand and began the quiet crawl towards his enemy. While he deliberately dragged himself across the cold damp floor, the memories of the past materialized in his mind.

He remembered the day so long ago that the prophet Samuel came to Bethlehem and poured the oil over his head and he felt the spirit of the Lord come upon him; that particular moment where his life took on a new path leading him eventually to the cave. He pondered about the first time he met the king who was now silently waiting in front of him- Saul was tormented beyond comprehension until the call went out for someone to come and play the lyre to sooth him. “I was the one,” he thought to himself, “I was the one called to help Saul and now look at what he has done to me! – Or the day of the great battle between the Israelites and the Philistines, I was the one who went forward to fight the mighty Goliath, I was the one who saved Saul and the kingdom from destruction!”

David’s pace continued slowly until the figure of Saul sat sharply before him. The days of flight had taken their toll on David. He had done so much for Saul and the kingdom, yet nothing could quench the wrath of Saul and David was forced to live as a fugitive. With his hand gripped tightly around Saul’s certain doom, David took his last step toward inevitability. Yet, in that moment, looking down upon Saul’s thinning hair, David was unable to do it. He crouched slowly down, and instead of taking Saul’s life; he took the corner off of his cloak with his sword and returned to his comrades.

After Saul finally left the cave, David made his way out into the brilliantly blazing sunlight. “My lord the king!” David cried out while prostrating himself on the ground. “Why do you listen to the words of those who say, “David seeks to do you harm? This very day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you into my hand in the cave; and some urged me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, ‘I will not raise my hand against my lord; for he is the Lord’s anointed.’ See, my father, see the corner of your cloak in my hand; see this and know for certain that I have not sinned against you, though you are hunting me to take my life. May the Lord judge between me and you!”

“David?” Saul questioned. “You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. Now I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand.”

Although I doubt that many of us will have our enemies delivered before us in a damp dark cave, I think this morning’s passage from 1 Samuel truly resonates within us. How many times in our lives, perhaps in our careers or within our families, have we felt like David? I think it is so easy to commiserate with him in this story because we have all had moments where it seems like there is nothing we can do to fix the past.

If you will permit me to tell another story… When I was a sophomore in undergrad, my maternal grandfather came to visit me at school. While growing up he had always lived far away and we rarely spent time together, so knowing that he was coming to see me at school was a real treat. Upon his arrival we went out to a nice restaurant in Harrisonburg, Virginia in order to catch up and enjoy one another’s company. I was anxious in excited anticipation, but it became apparent that my grandfather had a specific purpose for our reunion. After we ordered our food, my grandfather made it very clear to me that he was disappointed in my desire to pursue a vocation in ministry. He claimed that Christianity had done more evil for the world than good, and that if I followed through with my education I would be wasting my life.

Ever since that night I shamefully admit that I have avoided my grandfather. Our little communication dropped to basically nothing. And we are at the point now where I think we are both too proud to admit that we have handled the situation terribly.

Just as with the relationship between David and Saul, my grandfather and I are in a difficult place. As I read the scripture over the last few days all I could think about was calling my grandfather and apologizing, apologizing for not loving him even though he doesn’t love what I do. So a few days ago I reached out, I made contact, and I apologized. I confronted my Saul in the sunlight beyond the entrance to the cave.

In giving his Son up to the cross, God reconciled humanity unto himself. God reached out to us, and beckoned us back within his saving embrace. Through the death and resurrection of his Son, God also reconciled each one of us to each other. For through one man, all will be saved; if Jesus forgave those who betrayed him, if David could forgive Saul, think about what we can be capable of. As you leave this morning I want you to think about the Sauls in your life. What would it take for you to reach out to that person? What would it take to confront that thing in your life that you cannot get past? As with Saul and David, and my Grandfather and I, it’s up to us to take the first step out of the dark cave and into the brilliant sun.

Amen.