Let God Speak – Sermon on Genesis 1.1-5

Genesis 1.1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

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I was sitting in a room full of pastors and priests when I made a promise to myself: Before I finish my first year of ministry I will preach on Genesis 1. Today is the day that I make good on that promise.

I had been helping a church in Bryson City, North Carolina when I was invited to participate in a weekly lectionary group. Every Monday morning the clergy people of Bryson City would get together to talk about the readings for the following Sunday. We met at the large local Baptist Church, ordered breakfast to be delivered, and then we would take turns reading the scriptures and share what we thought we would preach about.

Without a doubt, this was one of the most profoundly rewarding experiences of my life. Week after week I heard from clergy of all different denominations (Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, etc.) as they wrestled with God’s Word and how to proclaim it from very different pulpits to very different people.

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It came to pass that one hot morning in the middle of July I found myself surrounded by pastors as we read the texts out loud. The lectionary always has four prepared readings for each Sunday on a three year cycle: a reading from the Old Testament, the Psalms, an Epistle, and a Gospel. I don’t remember what the other readings were that morning, but I do remember that I was asked to read Genesis 1. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…

When I finished, as was our custom, we waited for individuals to speak up about what they planned to do with the text during worship. Silence filled the room. So I decided to ask the obvious question, “Is anyone preaching on Genesis 1 this week?” The silence remained. I remember thinking “How strange is this? We’re talking about the first lines of scripture in the bible and no one is preaching on it in Bryson City this week.” It was clear that some of the clergy wanted to move on to a different reading but I felt compelled to ask another question, “Have any of you ever preached on Genesis 1?” One by one they confirmed my suspicion; not one of those pastors, priests, ministers, or preachers had ever delivered a sermon on the beginning of Genesis.

Now I know that they quickly propelled the conversation in another direction but I silently began calculating from my chair. In that room we had over 100 years of preaching represented. Over 100 years of preaching, more than 5,200 sermons, and not one of them had ever proclaimed the beauty of God’s creation from Genesis.

So I made a promise to myself that very morning: Before I finish my first year of ministry I will preach on Genesis 1.

Why do you think they chose to ignore Genesis 1? What makes this text so unappealing to proclaim in church?

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The main thrust of the text is contained within these first words: In the beginning God. Here we discover our faith in the foundation of all life, that God and God’s creation are bound together in a distinctive and delicate way. This profoundly simple yet unimaginable claim is the bedrock for everything that follows throughout the rest of the Bible. God and his creation are connected powerfully together for all time.

How does God bind creation together? The text is clear: In the beginning the earth was formless and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Notice: with this description of creation we need to see that this text is NOT a scientific description, but instead a theological affirmation. It has been urged for centuries that Genesis 1 is a historically analytical account of what “actually happened.” But that kind of scientific, descriptive, and forever definitive reporting is foreign to the text and to the world of the Bible.

God’s Word is not a textbook. The bonding of creation cannot be explained or analyzed. It can only be affirmed and confessed.

Many who have struggled with their faith want to know the answer to “how?” But, when reading from Genesis, we discover that the convictions expressed in the scripture did not come from sight, recordings, and measurements. Whoever wrote about the creation in Genesis 1 was not standing by when God created. Our Lord is not an object to be perceived and measured like other objects in the world. It is by faith that we affirm this creation, not because we saw it and observed it and measured it, but that our lives and relationships with God affirm that goodness and interconnectedness of our lives with the God who created life.

Perhaps the pastors reluctance toward preaching this text was born out of the fear that comes with reconciling Genesis 1 with scientific claims about the beginning of the universe. Maybe they ignored this text because they were unsure how to explain the way God created. However, the job of preaching is not to explain, but to proclaim

At the heart of Genesis 1 is mystery, and sometimes mysteries cannot be explained. Yet, in proclaiming the mystery, in faithfully acknowledging the text, we can have our eyes and ears opened to the great question not of “how?”, but of “why did God create?”

The words ‘create’ and ‘make’ are used prevalently here in Genesis 1. God created the heavens and the earth, God made the dome and separated the waters, God created the creatures in the water and the birds of every kind, God made the wild animals of earth, God created humankind in the image of God, etc. The actions are important but the dominant mode of creation takes place in speech. God spoke creation into existence. The way of God with his world is the way of language. God speaks something new that never was before. God is the author and orator of life.

God speaking life into existence cannot be explained by the ways of the world, yet we are all here because God spoke life into all of us. Genesis 1 makes the great and wonderful theological claim that a new word has been spoken that transforms reality. The word of the Lord that shaped creation is an action which alters reality forever.

God created all things through God’s word, and his creation did not stop with the creation of humankind. God continues to speak new words into existence every single moment. Every infant child is a word spoken by God, every new blooming flower, every river that flows, every sun rise and sunset are caught up in God’s continued commitment to speak to us, through us, and for us.

God is always speaking something new and fresh into the world, we need only stop and listen to let God speak.

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276 years ago yesterday, John Wesley’s life was changed forever. Wesley spent most of his young life believing that nothing could save him from God’s wrath other than strict obedience and keeping all of God’s commandments constantly. He read voraciously, served unconditionally, loved immeasurably, and somehow he never felt or experienced God’s love in his own life. He traveled to the British colony of Georgia to serve the needs of the Anglican church and wrote about his experience later saying that after two years of spreading Christianity he still was no closer to discovering the love of God. He wrote: “Why that I went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God?”

When Wesley returned to England he was no closer to finding what he had been searching for. He continued to fill his life to the brim with service and preaching to the point that he shut out any other influence.

However, on May 24th, 1738 Wesley unwillingly attend a Moravian society meeting in the evening when Martin Luther’s preface to the letter of Romans was being read. While the reader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, John Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed. He experienced for the first time a trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation. An assurance was given to Wesley that Christ had taken away his sins and saved him from death.

Wesley had a difficult time explaining exactly was happened to him that day; it was beyond his ability to describe in such a way that it could be measured and known. But to him, it was as real as life could get. From that moment everything changed in his life and his commitment to the love of God in the world was the seed that blossomed into what we now call the United Methodist Church.

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When I was in Boy Scouts I had the opportunity to hike throughout northern New Mexico at a place called Philmont. Toward the end of our 100 mile hiking adventure we gathered one evening in a white pine forrest near the top of Mount Phillips. We spread apart to spend time in silence to reflect on our time in the wilderness. As I sat there with the wind blowing the grass I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and wonder of God’s creation. I had already witnessed perfect sunsets and flowing rivers, but for whatever reason that night was the first time that I began to witness the depth of God’s love through his creation. 

Like Wesley, I believe that I was opened to the wonder of God because I had finally stopped trying to fill my life with so many other distractions. It was only when I stopped to let God speak, that I heard God’s calling of creation.

We can fill our lives with distractions and information. We can read all the magazines and books that explain how God created the world, whether in seven literal days or in seven ages of time. We can listen to pastors and preachers explain away the creation of life with simple metaphors and memorable one liners. But the truth of God’s creation can only be discovered in letting God speak.

Creation was not a one time, one moment, event. Creation continues to take place every moment of every day. God’s word is alive and filling all things with glory around us.

In the beginning, God. Can you think of anything more comforting than the fact that God has been at the beginning of all things? Not just the creation of life, but God was there when you came into being, God sits at the very beginning of each and every one of us. At the inception of every relationship, every idea, every belief, every smile, and every laugh God is there.

God is, and because God is, we are.

It took me a long time to learn to let God speak. And frankly, I’m still not very good at it. But until I began to try to quiet myself, to learn to listen, God’s Word was limited to words on paper. Creation came alive for me when I stopped long enough to realize that God’s love for us, in creation, is beyond my ability to fully grasp, comprehend, or explain. There is an immeasurable beauty in standing before something that you cannot fully know. There is wonder in letting God speak something new and fresh into your life. There is peace that comes in hearing the Word become incarnate in the way we live.

Genesis 1 is powerful and beautiful. It is strange and unknowable. It conveys the depth of God’s love in a way that we can never explain. It refuses to be compartmentalized, rationalized, and sterilized. Instead, its delightfully mysterious, curious, and glorious.

In the beginning God spoke life into creation, and God continues to do so every moment.

Amen.

 

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Devotional – 1 Peter 5.6

Devotional:

1 Peter 5.6

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. 

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I got the phone call on Thursday afternoon letting me know that Mrs. Betty Lancaster had passed away. Sitting on my couch at the parsonage I realized that I have been at St. John’s for nearly a year and this phone call meant that I was going to preside over my first funeral. I got to the Lancaster’s room at Brightview Baldwin Park as quickly as I could and I sat with the grieving family as they accepted the fact that Betty was gone.

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Betty Lancaster

Over the weekend I met with the family on different occasions learning more about the kind of life Betty lived in order that I might do justice to her life during the funeral service on Monday afternoon. The family shared with me particular stories about her life; her love to travel, her expertise in the kitchen, and her dedication to instilling important family values. I heard about how she and Ray met on a Greyhound bus on their way to Radford/Blacksburg, and how their marriage of 63 years began in a service station here in Staunton when a clerk from the court met with them to preside over their martial vows.

I made phone calls to a few of Betty’s friends that still live in the community who confirmed the family’s belief that she was one incredible woman, ready to do whatever it took for others. The more I learned about her life, the more I wished I had been able to spend more time with her myself. 

But the one thing that stuck out among all the other details was a simple comment that Ray made as soon as I made it to his room after Betty died. Sitting in his chair, barely looking up from his lap, he softly said, “To us, Betty was always a star, but she never went in for all the glitz and the glamour.

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Humility is a lost art in our current culture. With the need and the drive to outshine everyone else (whether for employment, college applications, or just selfish desire) we no longer appreciate the importance of remaining modest. Life, at times, seems like one giant competition where we have to make sure that we come in first place. However, the kingdom of God is not like the world we live in. Instead of cutthroat competition dominating everything we do, we are called to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt us in due time. In life we will have opportunities to shine for God, but we must remember that when we do our best, we do so for the kingdom of God and not ourselves.

The call of discipleship today is to live like Betty Lancaster did, which is to say we are called to live like Christ did; ready to listen, prepared to love, and humble in all that we do.

Getting Stoned With Stephen – Sermon on Acts 7.54-60

Acts 7.54-60

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. When they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

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I was standing in front of a packed lecture hall, talking about Jesus according to the gospels, when I began to notice that the crowd was turning against me. For the previous three weeks I had stood in the front of that same room, a brilliantly bright powerpoint displayed on the screen behind me, making my way through the original Greek text of the gospel according to St. Mark. Each week we focused on a different element of Mark’s writing, comparing his gospel with the others, and generally reflecting on how this gospel still speaks fresh and new words into our lives.

It had seemed as if everyone was on board with what I was talking about, until the conversation moved to the cost of discipleship. I recognize now that I probably went to far, but at the time I felt the truth was worth exploring.

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This is what I said: “In the gospels, particularly Mark, Jesus makes it very clear that following him, taking up our own crosses, being a disciple, will cost us our very lives.” Many people in attendance nodded. But then I continued, “Most of us here have no idea what that means. We sit in the comfort of our homes here in Michigan, sure we hear about all the bad things happening in the world, and even the bad things happening down the road in Detroit, but our lives will never be taken for our faith. We exist in such comfort with our faith that we can no longer even imagine what it would mean to give our lives for Christ, the cost of discipleship for us doesn’t cost very much at all.” “Well excuse me young man,” one of the women began, “but I go into downtown Detroit every week to serve food and give away clothing. My life is on the line for Christ every seven days. Don’t lecture me about the cost of discipleship.” This is when I should have stopped, apologized, and moved on, but I couldn’t help myself. So I asked her, “Do you go downtown every week because you believe thats the most and the best you can do as a disciple? Or do you go downtown with food and clothing every week because you feel guilty?

 

The early church had a problem. While the disciples were increasing in number, an argument developed over the distribution of food. Like us modern Methodists, a major conflict erupted not over proper theology, or reverence, but instead who was getting the appropriate amount of food. The twelve got together and asked for seven leaders to come forward in order to help with the organization of the early church, and to faithfully distribute the food among all the people. Stephen, described as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, was one of those chosen seven. 

In a short amount of time Stephen began to do great wonders and produce signs among the people. Once he stepped into the limelight of the early church, he rested under the microscope of many leaders and elders of the synagogues who argued with him. The leaders instigated some others to raise charges of heresy against Stephen and he soon found himself standing before the high-priest in order to defend his words and actions.

What followed is one of the most concise and deliberate retellings of the entire salvation story of God with God’s people. Stephen’s speech contains remembrances of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and the prophets. He weaves the story in and out of the major moments; the beginning of the covenant, the flight to Egypt, Moses’ calling, the delivery from slavery to the Promised Land, the commandments being given on Sinai. In just a few short paragraphs Stephen perfectly encompassed the Old Testament for the high priest.

Though very descriptive, Stephen committed no blasphemy in his speech. He fairly repeated that which we have detailed for us in the scriptures, but before he finished speaking he had one final message to deliver: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that have received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.

It was only after hearing these words that the people became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. While they began to torment him, he looked up and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing along the right side, and he declared this triumphantly to the people. But instead of listening, instead of looking up to see what he could see, they covered their own ears and with a loud shout rushed forward to grab him and take him out of the city. While they stoned him, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And with his final breath he cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

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Stephen’s speech to the high priest and those gathered sealed his doom. Did he speak the kind of blasphemy against Moses and God like he was accused of? Nope. But Stephen went too far when he claimed that Jesus was at the right hand of the Lord, ready to rule. Stephen merely affirmed the same thing we claim every week when we stand and affirm the Apostles’ Creed, yet when he did it, it cost him his life. 

Some scholars and theologians claim that the climax of this episode in the book of Acts is Stephen’s death, when in fact the defining moment is the exaltation of Christ. Surrounded by his accusers and killers, Stephen continues to assert that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God, that he is the long awaited Messiah already changing the world.

Jesus is there with Stephen at the final moments of his life, and how fitting considering the fact that Stephen utters the same words that Christ did at his own death. While the stones were flying through the air, Stephen’s prayer was not for deliverance, but a declaration of trust. Not, “Lord, save me!” but “Lord, receive my spirit.” His prayer is one that looks forward, not backward. His prayer was for his enemies, and not himself.

At his death, Stephen did what all of us are called to do in every moment of our lives: he acted like Jesus. He was serene while everyone else was going crazy; he was forgiving while the crowds were vindictive; he prayed while the people acted as if God was not among them; he loved when he saw nothing but hate; he trusted the Lord when everything was claiming the contrary; he kept on hoping when there seemed nothing left to keep hope alive. All of this to tell the truth to the high priest and the crowd. All of this to die for what he believed in. All of this as the cost for his own discipleship.

What happened to Stephen is paradigmatic for what the church was like. Thousands upon thousands of Christians have given their lives in order to speak the truth of God’s reign in the world.

In the United States we have “freedom of religion.” This was instituted during the foundation of our nation and has secured the right to practice religion, regardless of orientation or denomination. For Christians, the freedom of religion means that we are free to exercise our faith in whatever ways necessary so long as we do so within certain limits, as long as we do not become fanatical. We can pray as a family at public restaurants so long as it is not too loud to disrupt the other patrons. We can teach our children to turn the other cheek and love their enemies so long as we are still willing to let them serve in the military. We can talk about controversial issues in church so long as we limit those conversations to this building.

Yet the story that we read today, the remembrance of Stephen’s final moments, reminds us practitioners of polite, civil, and calculated religion that once there were Christians who readily and joyfully parted with possessions, family, friends, even life itself to remain faithful.

Some might call Stephen fanatical and crazy (after all he was willing to give his live for his faith) but he is presented as a very rational person who died for the same faith by which he lived.

When I stood in front of that crowded lecture hall, talking to the Methodists of Birmingham, Michigan, I could sense their desire to be affirmed in their faith. They wanted me to believe that they were willing to give their lives for Jesus, but the truth is, most of them, and most of us here, will never be in a situation like Stephen’s. Christianity has become so complacent and accepted within our culture that we no longer feel the need to be radical and controversial when considering the ways of the world versus the ways of God.

Our faith used to be a movement. The early church used to be attacked, arrested, and silenced for their dedication to the Word. The first methodists used to be ridiculed for their methodical dedications to spiritual disciplines, feeding the poor, and befriending the outcasts.

What would it take for someone to ridicule you in your faith? I’m not saying that we are all called to stand trial for our God and give our lives like Stephen, but instead we need to ask ourselves if we are living up to the potential of faith that God sees in us.

Not all of us can be Stephens, but we can all be Christians. We can all speak the truth of what God has done for us. We can reclaim our commitment to changing the world for the kingdom of God. We can discover our faith in God by opening our eyes to the kind of faith that he has in us. How far would you go to demonstrate your faith in the world? What would it take to start ruffling people’s feathers here in Staunton by living as Christ’s body?

Speaking the truth can be the most difficult thing in the world, but at the same time it can also be the most faithful thing in the world. Perhaps you know someone who has, for too long, relied on alcohol to fill an emptiness in their lives but you’re too afraid to saying anything. Maybe you know someone who treats their spouse horribly and you’re unsure how you can help the situation. Perhaps you’ve seen someone embarrass or harass their children in public. Or maybe you need to be honest with yourself about something you need to change in your own life.

Stephen was willing to speak the harsh truth to a people who desperately needed to hear it. Stephen was prepared to give his own life for a man he barely knew that died on a cross and was raised again. How far are you willing to go? Amen.

 

Devotional – John 14.18-19

Devotional:

John 14.18-19

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 

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Two of my favorite people in the world made the choice to adopt two Guatemalan boys and raise them as their own. I don’t know a lot about the conversations and planning that took place before both of the adoptions, but I do know that they would tell you it was the best decision they ever made. Gabriel and Alexander are two of the finest young men that I have the privilege of calling my friends; Jason and Ali (their parents) are responsible for their strong and dynamic character. Whenever I travel home to Alexandria I make a point of stopping by their house just to catch up with the boys and have my mind blown by how much they have grown and changed.

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When Jason and Ali first brought each of the boys home they had to make the deliberate effort to spend as much time as possible with the boys. Though only children, the parents could sense that they were afraid of being let go and sent somewhere else. Without the mental faculty to fully grasp the depth of their adoption, they could experience the fear of being abandoned. For many nights Ali and Jason would stay with their boys in their rooms just so they would know that they were loved, that they were known, and that they would never be abandoned. I love those two boys more than I can describe. I love their parents more than I can describe. (Jason presided over Lindsey’s and my wedding ceremony; Gabriel was our ring-bearer; Alexander did the Old Testament reading)

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Before Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection he assured his disciples that he would not leave them orphaned. Even though he knew he would have to leave them, the Holy Spirit would be poured out to never leave them. Much like Jason and Ali staying with their boys night after night, God in Christ has not left us to be orphaned. Our Father is with us so that we can know we are loved, that we are known, and that we will not be abandoned.

The call of all Christians is to combat the plague of loneliness in the world. It is through many of our actions that God’s love is manifest in the world so that people may know what it means to come within God’s loving embrace. Do you know someone who feels abandoned right now? Have you noticed anyone retreating into their own isolation? Our challenge today is to reach out to those who feel orphaned and help them to see God’s presence in their lives.

My Cup Runneth Over – Sermon on Psalm 23

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

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The 23rd Psalm. Many of you know that I am far more eager to preach on the lesser-known texts of scripture, than I am to preach on those that are remarkably familiar. I decided months ago that after my wedding and honeymoon, Psalm 23 would be the first text I preached on, precisely because it was familiar. All things considered, I have been very busy the last few weeks, and I thought that it would be easy to prepare a sermon on this beloved text; I was so wrong.

When we proclaim one of the best known texts from the Bible, there is an incredible amount of baggage that comes with it. If I wanted to preach on something from Obadiah or Nehemiah, I could say a whole lot about whatever I wanted because so many of us are unfamiliar with the texts, myself included.

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But when you hear Psalm 23 read aloud, many of us immediately have a memory or a determined understanding of what the text means. Its familiarity makes it challenging to proclaim because we’ve all heard it before; The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…

What is it about this psalm that makes it so beloved? Perhaps many of us were taught to memorize the psalm when we were younger. Maybe some of us can remember our mothers and grandmothers whispering it by their bedside before they went to sleep. Is it the simplicity, the ease for memorization? It the use of this psalm in contemporary pop-culture? Besides the Lord’s prayer and John 3.16, this is perhaps the best known of all the Christian scriptures.

I believe what makes this psalm so compelling is not so much its brevity, but instead its realism. This is no happy-go-lucky, “everything is awesome,” kind of passage. Rather, it faithfully faces the dark realities of what life is really like, while at the same time calls us to honestly remember the delights of life. It has become so popular and beloved that many of us can recite it from memory, but have lost touch with what the passage is saying. Every verse contains a wealth of theological treasure waiting to be uncovered and enjoyed.

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The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. We of course remember immediately that Christ is the good shepherd, as our wonderful stained glass window portrays. God in Christ is the guardian of the church. The great I AM shepherded the Israelites through the wilderness, delivering them from slavery and captivity to the promised land. The Lord was the shepherd to the prophets who proclaimed the Word to the lost Israelites. God helped shepherd Christ throughout Galilee, even to the cross. Our Father was the shepherd to the disciples as they spread the gospel throughout the world. The great shepherd is now with us, guiding and keeping watch over all that we do as we witness to God’s love in the world.

God guards the flock as a whole, the sheep have been brought into the fold. Each of us are one of God’s sheep; we are safer if we stay connected with one another. If the church begins to stampede in one direction, some will be inevitably lost. If the church divides into factions, we will be like a panicking flock of sheep. We listen for the great shepherd who leads us.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. In our modern lives we seem to have lost the power to relax; we no longer know what it means to observe sabbath time in our lives. We succumb to the power of stress that overcomes us regularly, and lose the energy to live vibrant and fulfilling lives. So, God, father of all mercy, bids us to relax, to observe some sort of sabbath in our lives, and to find rest. However, notice that rest is not a end in itself, God restores our souls through rest so that we can continue on our faithful journeys. Life is filled with movement, following the paths of righteousness.

He leads me in rights paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. God leads us, as the shepherd, on the right paths. So much of the vital moments and decisions in our lives do not come from our choosing; we do not determine the time of our birth, the kind of parents that we will have, the culture in which we find ourselves, the opportunities that “come our way.” At times life is beyond our control, and that is a good thing! To so desperately seek control of our lives will eventually end in disappointment. In order for God to be the shepherd of our lives, we have to let him into our hearts to shepherd us and guide us on the paths of righteousness. We need to let God be in control. It is only when we let go that we can faithfully proclaim, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” It is only when we let go that we can know that God is with us.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil. Like any good shepherd, God has brought his flock back home to safety, brought us to his table, just like the table that has been prepared for us here. Some of our truest enemies might be with us here in church this morning, but God has prepared the table for you so that you can feast with friend and foe. 

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And so now we come to an incredible collection of words that encompass God’s goodness in our lives: my cup runneth over

How often do we take time to look back and reflect on what God has done for us? How much time do we spend in prayer thanking God for all that he has done? Can we faithfully declare “my cup runneth over…”?

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Today, of course, is Mother’s Day. I am blessed and privileged to have a mother who has cared for, and loved me, every day of my life. A mother who is still so accustomed to attending swim meets, baseball games, and band concerts, that she will drive two and a half hours to attend church with us here at St. John’s. A mother who participated in my life and activities, but gave me the freedom to grow and experience life independently. A mother who sacrificed her own needs again and again because she loved me. My cup runneth over. 

Some of you might not have had a mother like mine, some of you may have lost your mother, some of you might have grown up without a mother, but look around you. The call of the Christian is to be motherly to all that have gathered here. Though your mother might not have been like mine, I know that each of you have mothers in Christ that are here with us today. Our cups runneth over.

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On April 27th I stood at the front of Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria, VA, waiting for Lindsey Rickerson to walk down the aisle with her father. I cannot tell you how nervous I was. I know that I was leaning from side to side, standing before all of my family and friends, my nerves attempting to get the better of me, but the moment Lindsey appeared at the back of the sanctuary I felt God’s presence surround me with a sense of calm I have rarely experienced. I covenanted with God and Lindsey to love, honor, and keep her with all that I am for the rest of my life. I am blessed to be her husband. Lindsey has changed my life for the better on numerous occasions, she challenges me to be a better man, and lives out God’s call on her life every single day. My cup runneth over. 

Some of you might not have a spouse like mine, some of you may have lost yours, or never felt called to be married in the first place, but today and for all days I get the joy of sharing Lindsey with you. We are all called to love one another in such a tremendously wonderful way that people like Lindsey can be and live for those that have gathered as the body of Christ. Our cups runneth over.

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After the wedding, while Lindsey and I celebrated at the reception. I had countless staff members continually refill my glass to the degree that I literally learned what it meant for my cup to runneth over. I looked around the reception hall and saw joyful faces that conveyed endless memories of how much my life has been shaped by others. In that room I witnessed God’s incredible goodness manifest in the lives of so many that I have been blessed to call my friends. My cup runneth over.

Some of you might not have the opportunity to sit in a room surrounded by droves of friends and family to congratulate you on the newest development in your life. You might feel lonely and isolated in your current life situations. But look around the sanctuary. Being one in Christ means that we discover our newest and greatest friendships here at church. Christian friendship and fellowship is what made the church so appealing in the beginning, and it rests at the very fabric for what it means to be the church today. I look out from this pulpit and I see the friendships that will sustain all of us through the coming years. Our cups runneth over.

The 23rd psalm is filled with such vivid and realistic imagery, applicable for our daily living. The great shepherd tends to his sheep, keeping them close and protecting them from harm. Our God compels us to find rest so that we can continue on our journeys of faith. The Lord invites us to this his table so that we might feast on heavenly food and meet the divine. But today, the Lord asks us to look on our lives and remember our blessings.

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Because our blessings are everywhere; from the tiniest details of a perfect sunset, to a incredible wedding and the joining together of two people. God has blessed our lives over and over again. We have the choice to reflect on his goodness, or remain in our suffering. Today we remember what God has done, we remember our mothers, and the call of the church to be motherly toward everyone, we give thanks to the Lord our God for shaping us through those we call our friends.

It’s only when we look at our lives and faithfully say, “my cup runneth over” that we can begin to proclaim the final verse of psalm 23: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever and ever.” Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 31.3-5

Psalm 31.3-5

You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God. 

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I love making scripture jokes. This is not to say that I believe scripture is a joke, I just love to drop lines from the Bible in daily conversation in such a way that it will make people smile, chuckle, and (rarely) laugh. While in seminary this became commonplace among my friends and we always tried to out-do one another.

For example: I would ask what time a lecture was supposed to start and someone would reply “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13.32)

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Behind every joke was a knowledge of scripture that allowed one of us to use verses whenever we needed to. We did not sit around in the library memorizing specific verses to use as we saw fit, but instead we so steeped ourselves in God’s Word that they naturally became a part of our regular conversations.

Becoming a Christian is like learning a new language. In order for us to learn the language of faith we must become immersed in the cultural practices of lived Christianity. Over the last century scripture has been relegated to the private sphere of our lives, resulting in the biblical illiteracy so very apparent in churches today. To rediscover the vibrancy of faith, we have to return to the beauty of the Word as it becomes our new language; not just by memorization, but by appreciation.

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Jesus knew his scripture. If you read through the 4 gospel accounts it becomes very apparent that Jesus used phrases and images from the prophets and the psalms in his daily life. Moreover, while hanging on the cross Jesus cried out, “Into your hands I commend my spirit” using the same words from Psalm 31. If we are to be a holy people, then recovering the beauty of scripture for our lives rests at the heart of the future of the church.

Perhaps using scripture in ironic and joking ways is not the best way for learning the language of faith, but its a start. Let us all learn to take the time to value scripture, let it soak into the fabric of our lives, and become incarnate in the way that we live out God’s Word in the world.

 

Devotional – 1 Peter 2.21

1 Peter 2.21

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.

Weekly Devotional Image

The argument broke out during a discussion on the Philosophy of Religion with a few of my peers in college. “Dying for someone is the ultimate sacrifice!” someone yelled. “Don’t be such a martyr!” someone ironically interjected. The conversation started politely enough; I made mention of a passage from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and was curious what others thought about it: “I could die for you. But I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, live for you.” Before too long an argument had erupted regarding the necessity of physical sacrifice for others. A few of my friends adamantly believed that our ultimate call was to give our life for others so that we completely mirrored Christ’s life in our lives.

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However, one young woman was unconvinced. She stayed quiet for much of the fight but eventually, with a calm and collected voice, she said, “I think dying for someone else is easy. Not that Christ’s death was easy; but his death is not our death. Christ died for the salvation of the world, so that we would not have to. I think the far greater challenge is to live for one another. Living for someone else requires us to love the way Christ did. It would be so easy to sacrifice my own life for someone else. But to live for someone that I despise? Thats what Christianity is all about.”

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“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” For those of us living in the comfort of Christianity in the United States, our faith will probably never require us to give our lives. Christianity has become such an accepted reality that faith rarely frustrates or disrupts our society. However, we have been called to so much more than just sacrificing ourselves for others in death. The call of Christ on our lives is to sacrifice ourselves for others in the way we live. Just like the young woman proposed during our argument, to love someone that we despise is precisely what being a Christian is all about.

In this Easter season, a time of new faith, new beginnings, and new realities I wonder how we are all sacrificing ourselves for others? Today might be the best day to ask ourselves whether or not we are really following in the steps of Jesus.