Devotional – Romans 7.15

Devotional:

Romans 7.15

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate. 

Weekly Devotional Image

While I was in seminary I became fascinated with the way particular theologians lived their lives. I would read the great treatises and reflections from the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Wesley, and Barth and have my mind opened to the great wonders of God’s interaction with creation. Their words became life-giving for me as I found myself persuaded by how they understood the world and their critiques of human behavior. However, for as much as I loved their writing I became frustrated with the ways they lived out their faith. With every wonderful theologian I discovered a dark and dangerous life of sin that appeared incompatible with what they were writing about.

Church Dogmatics

Church Dogmatics

For example: Karl Barth, my theological mentor, wrote the massive collection of Church Dogmatics which have slowly become earmarked and absorbed throughout my brief career in ministry. Barth engaged a new theological perspective focused on the paradoxical nature of divinity while at the same time opposing the rise of the Nazi party and Adolf Hitler in Germany. Barth’s thoughts have greatly shaped my understanding of God and church and I am thankful for his witness to the divine in the realm of theology. But like all Christians, Barth was both a saint and a sinner.

vonk

In 1924 Karl Barth met the young and gifted Charlotte von Kirschbaum after he had been married for 12 years. They quickly hit it off and became enamored with one another to the degree that she was invited to live with the Barths beginning in 1929; a relationship that would last for 35 years. They worked together on Barth’s work and were indispensable to one another while creating the Church Dogmatics. While Barth’s wife, Nelly, took care of the children, he and Charlotte would take semester break vacations together. The relationship caused incredible offense among many of Barth’s friends and colleagues and Barth’s children suffered from the stress of the relationship.

After I learned about Barth’s academic and perhaps physical affair, it was hard for me to respect his writings. The dialectic theology that had been so compelling quickly collected dust on my shelf. It took a long time for me to return to Barth’s work, only after I reflected about the sins in my own life.

Sin is unavoidable. Paul reflected on his journey of faith and the temptation of sin in his letter to the church in Rome: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” What an incredible reflection on sin. We know, those of us who have been raised in the faith, what not to do. We have been taught how to recognize the sinful temptations in our lives. We want to be good and make the right choices. But sin is unavoidable. We choose they very thing we hate and sin continues to creep into our lives with disastrous consequences.

I wonder how often we reflect on our sinfulness. We might hear about what to avoid from the pulpit or from scripture but do we admit our sins to ourselves? I will freely admit that for me it is far easier to reflect on the good things of my life than to admit my short-comings. Perhaps today is the day that we should join Paul and begin to wrestle with our sins. We can begin by admitting the inner conflict within us and then recognize that, like with Barth, God has come in the form of Christ to redeem even our greatest sins so that we can live into a new life of faith and forgiveness.

 

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On Regretting My Vote

Psalm 13.1-2

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 

psalm-13

Annual Conference always elicits an assortment of emotions for me. At one moment I can feel renewed spiritually and theologically as I listen to some of the great preachers from our conference/denomination as they proclaim the Word of the Lord. At other moments I can feel socially fulfilled as I rekindle friendships with other clergy and laity from Virginia. And still at other times I can feel elated and jovial as I did recently when I witnessed our bishop dancing to Pharrell’s “Happy” after we voted to support “Imagine No Malaria.”

However, at other times I can feel deflated and frustrated with our church. Traditionally Annual Conference has been a time of Holy Conferencing when the leaders of the church gather together to have their faith reignited for the kingdom of God. In the beginning of our denomination’s history annual conferences were held to maintain the theological convictions of our connection as the circuit riders were spread other a vast geographical area. It also served to maintain the relationships with fellow disciples as well as a dynamic and life-giving relationship with God. As the decades passed, annual conferences began to focus more on the polity of our church while still providing avenues for spiritual growth. In our contemporary period annual conference is a time when we hear about the focus of the denomination, recommit ourselves to spiritual disciplines, and vote on resolutions that have been put forth for our consideration.

After spending Saturday afternoon deeply entrenched in the reports from various agencies within the church (Report from the Common Table, Report of the Site Selection Committee, etc.) it was time to begin our holy conferencing around the resolutions. We were running behind schedule, as is typical at Annual Conference, and only began speaking about the resolutions at 4:30 pm (thirty minutes before a recess for dinner until the Service for the Ordering of Ministry at 7:30 pm).

It has been no secret that Resolution 1 was one of the most anticipated conversations to take place this year (as was also made evident via the conference hashtag #vaumc14 where many people were anxiously awaiting the resolutions). Resolution 1 was as follows:

 

Resolution 1: “Change Book of Discipline Reference to Homosexuality”

Whereas, as stated in the opening sentence of ¶161F in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.” Whereas we declare that the following statement found later in ¶161F in the Book of Discipline “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” is inconsistent with the first statement. Whereas medical science has established that homosexuality is a state of being and not a choice and therefore homosexuals are part of God’s creation. [See Amicus Brief filed by American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and other related organizations, Hollingsworth vs Perry.] Whereas Scripture is not referring to the loving, consensual, victimless relationships we speak of today. Whereas the words used by Paul as applied to homosexuality are the result of translations and interpretations, these passages are therefore open to alternative interpretations. Whereas Christian marriage is offered to sinners, even when the sin is extreme, but we do not offer it to homosexuals who are living out their lives in love as created by God. Whereas the General Conference has failed to explain why a loving, monogamous relationship is inconsistent with Christian teaching. Whereas the current policies, laws, doctrine and practices of the United Methodist church as documented in the Book of Discipline relating to homosexual relationships creates a double standard thereby promoting discrimination and creating the circumstances that lead to the very behaviors among homosexuals that are abhorred in the Bible, both of which are in direct conflict with Jesus’ teachings. [“Judge not lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1); “Let the one without sin among you cast the first stone” (John 8:7); “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”(Matthew 22: 37-40); and many other references.] Therefore, be it resolved that the Virginia Annual Conference petition the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church to expunge the sentence “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” and the attendant references to and penalties for homosexuality detailed in ¶¶341.6, 2702.1 and 304.4 from the Book of Discipline and all people be accepted into The United Methodist Church to truly embrace “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” as Christ would have us live.

 

When it came time to hear the resolution, a representative stood before the Annual Conference and explained their position in a way that accurately reflected the above written resolution. As is commonly practiced, the bishop then inquired if anyone would like to speak for or against the resolution. In response a leading elder from our conference offered a motion suspending conversation on Resolution 1 indefinitely so that we, as a conference, could gather in small groups over the next year to begin having conversations about how to move forward regarding this “issue.” Two people then spoke in favor of the motion, and two spoke against it.

When the bishop called for us to vote on suspending the conversation, I raised my hand.

As I sat there listening to the murmuring of the crowds while various lay leaders and clergy spoke into the microphones I was overwhelmed by the vitriolic responses from the people both for and against the resolution. It frightened me to see and hear Christian disciples speak so harshly against one another publicly and privately as we gathered to be the body of Christ for the world. When it came time to vote on whether to suspend the conversation or not, I believed that the right and true and faithful thing to do was vote to have the conversation stop. In so voting, I was implicitly hoping and praying that over the next year we, as a church, can faithfully respond to this resolution in such a way that it represents the will of God, not just to be decided by the people gathered at conference (who, in my opinion, disproportionately represent the church).

However, over the last two days I have begun to regret the vote I cast. While reading from the lectionary texts this morning I was struck by the first two verses of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” It seems to me that, as a church, we have been having a conversation about homosexuality for a very long time. People have raised their opinion for the continued language in our Book of Discipline, and others have spoken against it. Moreover, Annual Conference is supposed to be the time that we gather for holy conferencing to experience the will of God and attempt to make it incarnate in the way we live our lives. I have begun to regret my vote because I now believe that I participated in a continual and perpetual denial of the value of the LGBTQ community by putting the language of homosexuality from our Book of Discipline on the back-burner.

This week the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow gay marriages. While we methodists continue to ignore the need to address the growing concern of the LGBTQ community, debating whether or not we can officially (which is to say “by Discipline”) regard homosexuals as fully Christian or not, the Presbyterians have moved to grant homosexuals the theological and sanctifying grace we understand as marriage. We have continued to ignore the issue over and over again to the point that we are now more aligned with the Southern Baptists than we are with the Presbyterian and Episcopalian traditions from which we came (more on this at: http://tamedcynic.org/are-methodists-really-mainline-anymore/).

I regret my vote. I believe the time is now for the UMC to faithfully and finally address the language regarding homosexuality in our Book of Discipline. But, as a conference, we voted to push the decision back, yet again.

It is my prayer that the Holy Spirit abides in us over the coming year as we continue to have holy conferences. And it is my deepest and sincerest prayer that soon, we, along with the LGBTQ community, will no longer have to cry out like the Psalmist: “How long, O Lord?”

 

Devotional – Romans 6.22

Devotional:

Romans 6.22

But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 

Weekly Devotional Image

Over the past few years our church has made a concerted effort to welcome first time visitors to worship with radical hospitality. I stand outside and introduce myself to anyone here for the first time, we have greeters waiting by the entrance to the sanctuary, we send around a pew pad to gather addresses/phone numbers to follow up with people later, and we give away a travel coffee mug with our name, address, and phone number. All of these things are done in a hospitable way in order to demonstrate our love for others, and our desire to continually share the message of the Lord with them.

welcome-first-time-visitor

Some churches go far above and beyond what we do to entice first time visitors to return; I have heard of churches that give away bags of candy, others welcome visitors with coupons to local restaurants, still others give away books, DVDs, and further promotional material. Some churches have committees dedicated to training members on how to speak to first time visitors and invite them to return for another aspect of church life. In the last few years “radical hospitality” has been a major focus of the mainline and non-denominational churches to retain worship numbers.

radical-hospitality-2-web

Yet, sometimes, when I read scripture I am reminded of how unappealing Christianity can be. When Christ went ou among the multitudes he did not say: “here is some promotional material about what our movement is doing, we hope to see you next week!” Instead he brought people into his fold with some of the worst PR I have ever read: “let the dead bury the dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God… whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me… whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all…”

I fear that today we attempt to make the gospel so appealing that, according to the ways of the world, we water it down. It is a joyous and wonderful thing to have been freed from the power of sin, but we must not forget that we are now enslaved to God. The advantage of discipleship is our own sanctification and eternal life but it comes at a cost. Christianity is not some other wonderful way of thinking about life, it is a demanding and difficult call to live radically transformed lives where the ways of God are more important than the ways of the world.

So, this week I challenge us to reflect on our faith and the ways that we try to share it with others. Are we inviting people to church because it makes us feel good, because a full sanctuary looks better than an empty one? Or are we willing to admit the paradox that being enslaved to God is is the most wonderful and powerful thing we can do with our lives?

Go and Lo – Sermon on Matthew 28.16-20

Matthew 28.16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

with-you-always---web

I disliked the orthodontist. Every month I would see the appointment on the calendar and I dreaded moving closer and closer to the date. I often thought of excuses that could get me out of going, but I would inevitably have to return at some point to have my braces examined, shifted, and adjusted. Going to the orthodontist was dreadful because I knew, no matter what, I would walk out with my mouth hurting. Going to the dentist was fine, you get you teeth checked and cleaned, but the orthodontist… he was going to put pliers into my mouth and adjust all the little metal bits that were stretching all over my teeth.

When I think back on the orthodontist, it wasn’t so much the pain that I dreaded, but the entire experience. I can vividly recall the frighteningly exaggerated images of people smiling with dreadful teeth in a “before” image alongside of the perfectly straight and whitened smile in the “after” picture. I remember the orthodontist doing magic tricks in the waiting room in order to calm down the terrified children that only went to further their anxieties. But most of all, I remember the poster on the wall by the chair I sat in every month.

When it was my turn to take the seat, I would be propped back and told to wait for a few moments. From that position I could only see one thing, month after month, mocking me from the wall: The popular poem “Footprints

I am sure that many of you are familiar with the poem; the text is often set above an image of a beach or a sunset. But in case you’ve never been lucky enough to experience the poem I will share it with you now…

footprints-in-the-sand

Footprints-

One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand; one belonging to him, and the other to the Lord. When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life. This really bothered him and he questioned the Lord about it, “Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times of my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why, when I needed you most, you would leave me.” The Lord replied, “My precious, precious child. I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

I disliked the orthodontist, but I loathed this poem. Month after month it sneered down from the wall as if it was mocking me and challenging me to accept my fate. What kind of twisted orthodontist places a poem about being carried through suffering on the wall by the chair with knobs, pliers, and wires with a bright light hanging above as if to interrogate you? But there was the poem. Even when I closed my eyes I could still see the text, the badly cropped image of the footprints in the sand, never leaving me alone.

As I grew older I continued to resent the poem, perhaps because of my mental association of the words with the orthodontist, but I also came to dismiss the poem in light of its cliche and trite claims. To me, it always sounded like the type of thing that an incompetent and bored pastor would offer a grieving family in the wake of a loss.

I can’t stand the poem. But what drives me craziest about it, is the fact that its true. Even with its overly simplistic explanation, with its trite metaphorical conclusions, with its cliche affirmations, it is absolutely true. In the midst of our sufferings it can be very difficult to experience God’s presence, but when we look back, when we reflect on the troublesome moments of life, we can see that it was God who carried us through. “My precious, precious child. I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

Make-Disciples

The end of the gospel according to Matthew. Mark ends abruptly with the women running from the tomb say nothing to anyone because they were afraid. Luke ends with the people constantly praising in the temple for all they had seen and witnessed. John ends saying the gospel could not contain everything that Christ said and did. But Matthew’s gospel ends with the promise of the never-failing presence of Christ. 

The eleven disciples went to Galilee, as they had been told to do, and there on the mountain the saw the risen Christ and they worshipped him, though some doubted. And Jesus told his friends, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Even though they were in the presence in the resurrected Christ, even though many of them worshipped him, some doubted. There will always be those who question what they worship. Faith is never as perfect and clear as we like it to be; our ways our cloudy and the ways of God are a great and deep mystery. With worship and reverence, doubt is almost always waiting in the shadows, prepared to creep in at our most vulnerable moments.

However, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Show me a person without doubt and I will show you their lack of faith. Doubt helps fuel our faith because it encourages us to question and ponder. Doubt cannot be overcome with arguments, logic, speech, sermons, and reason; the best bible studies and preaching cannot erase our most fundamental doubts. Instead, we need to bring our doubts out of the shadowy recesses of our minds, and venture with them toward God in prayer.

And while some doubted, Jesus gave them their final commandment: Go therefore and make disciples. The church that is not going out, the church that is not on the move sharing the story, is not the trinitarian and believing church that Christ is talking to. We were not told to build a nice and beautiful church in the Shenandoah valley, show up for an hour on Sunday mornings, remember the same story over and over, surround ourselves with people who look, act, and talk just like us, and then return home until the following week. We have been told to GO! Share this incredible story with people who have ears to hear and eyes to see.

We often treat this building/sanctuary like our home. We find comfort here. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard some of you say, “When I sit in these pews, when I see the Good Shepherd stained glass, it feels like I’m home.” But my friends, if we hear anything that God is saying today it is this: home is on the go, home is where we meet God in others outside of this place. 

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Even when you feel like God is gone, when you feel lonely and abandoned by your Creator, God is still there. There are always days of faith, and days of doubt; days of peace, and days of war; days of joy, and days of sorrow. The end of Matthew reminds us that Jesus is still Emmanuel, “God with us.” Even when we share the story with someone and feel as if we have failed to convey the gospel, we are not alone. God is with us, even to the end of the age. We have been baptized into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we have been brought into the protection and possession of God, we are incorporated into the church and have been surrounded by a new family that has vowed to keep us close, raise us in faith, and nurture us in love.

The disciples’ journey to share the good news with the nations was not an easy adventure. The books of Acts reminds us again and again how often the disciples were harassed, ignored, and persecuted. I am sure that, at the ends of their lives, many of them wondered why God had abandoned them at their worst moments. Perhaps some of them were fortunate enough to hear those familiar words: “My precious, precious child. I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

Many years ago a man named Samuel Morrison spent 25 years of his life as a Christian missionary in Africa. Maybe, while a younger man, he had heard the words that we read today: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. Maybe he felt the call of God to do exactly that and left behind the familiarity of home to be Christ’s body for the world.

After 25 years of giving it his all, it was time to return home. There had been days of great success where Samuel had brought many to the knowledge and love of God, but there were also days of great suffering and fruitlessness. When it came time to go home, he boarded his ship and bid farewell to his missionary field of Africa.

And so it came to pass that Teddy Roosevelt was on the same ship with Samuel Morrison returning from a three-week hunting adventure in Africa. Whether they knew about one another’s presence or not, they both sailed across the Atlantic back to the United States.

When the boat arrived in New York City, Samuel was thrilled to discover countless individuals who had gathered at the port with banners and signs echoing cries of “welcome home!” He even noticed a band playing on the dock in celebration of a successful voyage. Samuel’s spirits were high and he truly felt the love of God in his soul.

However, when Samuel made his way down the steps off of the ship, he was disappointed to discover that the crowds, and the signs, and the band were all for Teddy Roosevelt. Thousands had gathered to welcome home a man who had been hunting and killing animals for three weeks; Samuel Morrison had spent 25 years sharing the Word of God, and no one was waiting for him.

He weaved his way in and out of the crowd, disappearing into the shadows, and was quickly lost in the multitudes. Samuel Morrison felt abandoned by God. He found himself walking through the empty streets and alleys of New York praying and disappointed in God. “Why God? Why have you left me alone? Where are you now? I did what you called me to do. I left everything behind to follow your Son and this is what happens when I return home? I gave 25 years of my life for your kingdom! Where are you!?”

Silence. Samuel Morrison walked in silence after screaming out to the Lord and demanding to know what had happened. He continued to walk alone until he heard a small voice, as light as the wind: “I am right here my Son, and you are not home yet.

Amen.

Devotional – Romans 6.8

Devotional:

Romans 6.8

But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.

Weekly Devotional Image

Starting Friday afternoon, I will gather with thousands of United Methodists from all over the Virginia Conference. This is our annual meeting to discuss current challenges facing the church, celebrate the ordination of new pastors, and grow in our faith and love of God. Holy Conferencing sits at the foundation of what it means to be part of the UMC and traces back to the time of John Wesley.

To be perfectly honest, Annual Conference has its ups and downs. There is nothing quite like the Service of Ordination that will take place on Saturday evening; ordinands will kneel before the Bishop and take the vows of serving our church will all that they have and we will sing those great and familiar hymns as we pray over these new ministers and their churches. The episcopal address, made by our Bishop, seeks to encourage the lay and clergy leaders of our conference while at the same time faithfully address the concerns and challenges of the future.

2014ACLogo

But there will come a time when the Annual Conference will descend into petty arguments, oversimplified generalizations, and frustrated ramblings. We will be asked to vote on resolutions regarding a wide-variety of issues facing the church including the possibility of changing the language regarding homosexuality in our Book of Discipline. The roller-coaster of Annual Conference will move up and down and many of us will have our faith restored in the church, only to have it completely erased after a few arguments break out.

As I reflect back on the previous Annual Conferences I have attended, and prepare for this coming weekend, I wonder if our Holy Conferencing is more about us, or more about Jesus. We need to ask ourselves why we gather in the first place: Are we here to pat ourselves on the back and congratulate one another on a productive year in ministry? Or are we here to learn more about God, nourish ourselves through worship, and find renewed energy to be Christ’s body for the world as we return to our churches?

Sometimes, things must be crucified in order for resurrection to take place. We have to be prepared to let something die and end so that we can find new life and discover new opportunities for our great church to be what God has called us to be. Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” Annual Conference is a perfect opportunity to remember that all of this (the church, ministry, serving the community) is not about me but its about God. If we let our old selves die and put on Christ we will be able to faithfully participate in a weekend dedicated to the renewal of our church. However, if we continue to talk and act as if Jesus isn’t in the room with us we will fail to grow and be fruitful for the world around us.

So, as you prepare to enter a new week I challenge you to confront the areas of your life where Christ is not at the forefront of your being. How are you still holding onto the old self? How can you let a part of your life be crucified so that something new and beautiful and wonderful can be resurrected?

How Did You Two Meet? – Pentecost Sermon on Acts 2.1-13

Acts 2.1-13

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pntus and Asia, Phyrgia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Acts 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.

I had spent an entire week with countless young Christians from all over the world at a monastery in Burgundy, France. For most weeks during the summer, Taize attracts upwards of 5,000 young Christians dedicated to exploring their faith through prayer, service, and singing. Waking up in a tent every morning, I would trudge across the dew filled grass passing neon tents filled with 20-somethings snoring away as the sun came up over the horizon. Each little campsite held clues as to the nationality of the residents: the occasional German flag, a water bottle covered in French writing, an abandoned tee-shirt with a hispanic wrestler flexing on the front, I even saw a cricket bat one morning. As the crowds made their way to the sanctuary, it was impossible to eavesdrop or understand what anyone was talking about because no one was speaking English.

Just past the interior door to the incredibly large sanctuary, there were buckets filled with hymnals organized by language. On our first morning I was surprised to discover that there were more “English” hymnals left in the buckets than any others, because Americans were part of the minority of the gathered body.

Taize Altar

Taize Altar

We sat on the floor surrounded by other young people who were still half asleep fumbling through our hymnals before the service began. Suddenly, up at the front of the massive building, a simply lit sign displayed three numbers “312” and as if we were being controlled by a single operator we all flipped our pages to the corresponding hymn. Without any musical accompaniment, without any choral direction, the hymn began. I, of course, sang the hymn in English as the words were displayed on the page, but when I made my way to the end of the song, everyone continued singing. We were not told how many times to repeat the hymn, but it went on and on until in ended naturally at the same moment. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced. When I had finally caught on to the rhythm of our singing, I closed my eyes and began to hear all of the other voices singing faithfully in their native tongue. Without a doubt, that moment as I sat on the floor of a enormous sanctuary in France, was the closest I have ever been to experiencing the day of Pentecost in my own life.

 

The community of faith had recently witnessed Jesus’ ascension into heaven and then retreated to the upper room in Jerusalem to devote themselves to patience and prayer. For ten days they waited, as they had been told to do, waiting for something to happen. We are given very little in Acts about what they did those ten days but we do know that rather than taking matters into their own hands, instead of getting organized and venturing forth with pamphlets about “what God can do for YOU”, they waited for God to make the next move.

The day of Pentecost, what we celebrate and remember today here in church, was the first big thing to happen to the disciples after Jesus had left them. Like the start of any life or story, the beginning has major ramifications for how the rest will turn out. Just as with Jesus’ birth in the manger in Bethlehem to a virgin, so too the details surrounding the birth of the church would come to define the rest of the story for Jesus’ followers.

CELPentecost[1]

As the morning broke, while the disciples were all together in one place, an eruption of sounds and a wind from heaven filled the entire house. Things were coming loose and breaking open, new realities were taking shape, and the life of discipleship was changed forever. The wind swirled around the gathered people, the same wind which on the very first morning swept across the dark waters and brought order out of chaos. The wind of Genesis was again bringing something new to life.

Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and each of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. What a strange and profound moment this must have been! After days of waiting in prayer God had showed up and quickly put things into action. Though the Spirit brought order out of chaos in Genesis, this must have felt like the opposite. I imagine the disciples running about within the house exclaiming great things in languages they themselves had never heard before. Something this incredible and inexplicable could not be contained to one house alone, and a crowd quickly gathered and was bewildered by the indescribable moment.

Jews from all over had gathered in Jerusalem when this took place and they began to hear these nobody disciples speaking in the native languages of all the people. Amazed by this, they questioned how it was possible, and quickly decided to blame it on an excessive use of alcohol.

The crowd’s demand for an answer was a cue for one of the disciples to stand and speak. And who, among the disciples, could have imagined that Peter would have been the one to do so? Peter is the first, the very first to lift up his voice and proclaim proudly and faithfully the word that he was unable to when Jesus had been arrested. The man who had been so quick to deny Christ three times, is the one who stepped forward to share the glory of God’s kingdom with all who questioned this miracle.

Peter preached a sermon, he shared the story of God in Christ, all by the power of the Spirit: “listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, winds, and signs that God did through him among you, and you yourselves know — this man, who was handed over to be crucified and killed, was raised by God, having been freed from death because it was impossible for him to be held in its power…” Peter told the story that he had witnessed and thus helped give birth to the church that we now participate in today.

 

I have been here at St. John’s for almost a year. The last twelve months have been filled with changes, excitement, new life, and joy. I give glory to God for sending me to a place with such faithful people who have helped me to see God in new and wonderful ways, while also allowing me to do the same. 

I knew that, upon arrival, one of the most important things I could do would be to learn the collective story of the church. I have met with many of you to learn about your lives and your stories in such a way that I could learn about our community that gathers here for worship. When I meet with couples I almost always ask the same question: How did you two meet? I ask this question because how two people met says a considerable amount about their relationship, and most people love to tell that particular story.

I can tell you with joy this morning, that many of you met in wonderful and joyful ways. I have had the privilege to hear about a couple who met on a Greyhound bus traveling to Radford, VA over 65 years ago. We have a couple who met at a brewery when the young woman complimented the young man on his beard. Or there’s the couple who met in a spousal grief group after having both been divorced. We even have a couple who met here in church and the boy asked his brother to the get the number of the girl so he could ask her out later.

I love asking how a couple met because people can tell the story with all the important details. They can remember the outfits they were wearing, the weather outside, and the other people who were present. They can describe with vivid clarity that first smile they saw, or the way their fingers felt when they wove them together for the first time. And frankly, I love asking the question because it is hilarious to watch men and women argue about the details of a meeting from their own perspectives.

(Photo Credit: Jill Nicole Photography)

(Photo Credit: Jill Nicole Photography)

But sometimes I think about the gospel story and I wonder how that connects us. I freely admit that when I ask couples about how they met I am not expecting anyone to start talking about Moses or Abraham or the Holy Spirit. But the Gospel story is one that we should know just as well. Many of you have been attending church for your whole lives, and even those of you who have recently started to attend, have heard the story of God in Christ week in and week out. The story that we find in scripture is inescapable because it is ours. 

I ask people about who 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 with others. But in the same way, the Gospel is who we are. It is as much a part of our personalities and joy and interconnected as the story about how we met our spouses.

When Peter stood in front of the crowd on the day of Pentecost he told the story of God in the world through Jesus, his friend and Lord. With confidence and bravery he proclaimed the same story that we tell here in church every week. We should know the story that Peter shared, we should be able to tell it with the same clarity and detail and faithfulness. Imagine how powerful the gospel story would be, if you knew it and believed it and experienced it in the same way you met your spouse.

The gospel is something worth sharing. I don’t mean in the sense that you should start knocking on people’s doors to ask: “Have you heard about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?” But I want to question our willingness to keep telling this wonderful and life-giving story.

After all, how would anyone know whether or not you’re a Christian?

Maybe you wear a cross around your neck, or you pray before your meals at restaurants, or you tell people about what fun activities are going on at your church… But seriously, how would anyone know if you’re a Christian?

We can tell the story of God’s interaction in the world through ways that are both faithful and fruitful. Like those first disciples the Holy Spirit has been poured on to us in such a way that we are now filled with the Spirit and have been given gifts. The disciples were given the power to speak in numerous languages in order to convey the gospel to the multitudes. Today we have been given the power to meet people where they are in order to be Christ’s body for the world.

Imagine the next time someone started to tell you about a recent tragedy, you responded by asking to pray for them. Or the next time you hear about a family thats having a difficult time adjusting to a new life in Staunton, you invite them over for dinner out of kindness rather than expectation. Or the next time you believe that someone has been treated unjustly, you speak up for them rather than expect someone else to do it. And when you’re asked why you have done these things, answer truthfully and confidently: “I am a disciple of Jesus.”

The Spirit that empowered those disciples still empowers us. Like the cacophony of languages that were all singing to the Lord at Taize, we are called to raise our voices, to go public with the good news. As we see with the way Peter proclaimed the story on behalf of the church, we also have something to say, we need only the courage to stand up, open our mouths, and begin.

Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 8.4-6

Devotional:

Psalm 8.4-6

What are human being that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.

Weekly Devotional Image

I was sitting on an elevated deck looking out over the Great Smokey Mountains when I read the words: “Dominion is not the same thing as domination.” I had been placed in Bryson City, North Carolina for my first field-education placement during seminary and most of my ministry that summer took place outdoors. Whenever I met with a congregant for counseling I suggested that we take a hike around Deep Creek, we celebrated worship on Sunday mornings on the banks of the Nantahala River near the Appalachian Trail, and I was staying with a couple who lived on the ridge line of a mountain that overlooked Fontana Lake.

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During the summer, many of us seminarians stayed in contact through email and phone calls as we found ourselves in remarkably different ministerial settings. My best friend, Josh Luton, had been working on a sermon about the creation from Genesis for his field-placement and asked me to read through his first draft before he proclaimed the words. Right there on my computer screen I saw the words that I will never forget: “Dominion is not the same thing as domination.”

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Josh’s sermon would go on to discuss how far we have fallen from the idea that we have been called to be good stewards of God’s creation, because we feel entitled to dominate that which God has given to us. Domination would imply that we have the right to control and have influence over creation. Instead God called us to have dominion over the works of his hands, “human dominion over the earth should contribute to the preservation and benefit of God’s creation. Dominion seeks to preserve and even benefit all of creation; not just humanity.”

Up until that point of my summer I had truly taken God’s creation for granted. I was constantly surrounded by the majesty and artistry of the created world, but my vision was limited by my selfish expectations. Creation is not just for us, but it is for all things. We have been called to be responsible for the remarkable gift so that all of creation benefits from our dominion, not just ourselves.

So, in the words of Josh Luton, “Let us recognize our own place within the divinely created world and let us take on the responsibility that comes with it so that we, with our Creator, may see that it is truly good.” Take a look around at God’s creation today, be thankful, be mindful, and be responsible; dominion is not the same thing as domination.