Devotional – Isaiah 55.1-2

Devotional:

Isaiah 55.1-2

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 

Weekly Devotional Image

I stood behind a table filled with enough food for a feast. We had completed our service and work in Beckley, West Virginia and now we were hosting a community meal for the many families that we had worked with during the week. The room was full of exhausted middle-schoolers sitting next to the children they had been reading with all week in addition to the parents and relatives that were invited as well. The meal was free for all in attendance and there was a steady line for 45 minutes as we served and ate together.

Offering food and drink without a cost is a remarkable gift that the church has to offer to our communities. In two weeks our church will be hosting a Community Cook-Out for the people in our neighborhood for free. Like the prophet Isaiah we are inviting everyone who thirsts to come to drink from our waters, to eat what is good, and delight themselves in rich food.

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However, we recognize that (as Paul said) “food will not bring us close to God” (1 Corinthians 8.8). Without a willingness to build relationships with the people we serve and dine with, food will remain an ordinary element of life. When we served the food to the people in Beckley, West Virginia it would have remained a simple and nice gesture unless we were willing to sit side by side with our brothers and sisters and foster new relationships. Even with all the greatest and most delicious food it would have meant very little without our youth sitting down and laughing with their new friends. It is my hope and prayer that everyone in attendance that night will remember the joy of conversation rather than the food that we provided.

Offering food and drink is a wonderful thing to do as Christians. Hosting a meal at our homes for neighbors and friends reflects the goodness and abundance that God has provided in our lives. Yet, if we are not willing to offer our friendship with our food than we have neglected to take the necessary step to live out God’s Word in the world.

This week I challenge you to think about someone in your life who could benefit from receiving a free and delicious meal. Perhaps you have someone that you could take out to lunch, or invite over for dinner. But more than that I encourage you to think of how your willingness to love them and offer your sincere friendship will have a greater impact than any food or drink you could ever offer.

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Stuck With God’s Love – Sermon on Romans 8.31-39

Romans 8.31-39

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these thing we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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I sat in the back of a room filled with sweaty and smelly teenagers. Between the superabundance of Axe Body Spray, the overly-exaggerated expressions of trying to outshine everyone else, and the constant hum of giggling, sighing, and hair flipping, I finally realized what I had gotten myself into: A middle school mission trip to Raleigh County, West Virginia.

We left immediately following worship last Sunday; after talking about Jesus’ parable of the weeds and the wheat I changed out of my robe, rushed home to grab my bags and eat lunch, to return to our parking lot to disembark for West Virginia. Standing by my car I was less than thrilled to discover that our youth were limited in their enthusiasm for our week of service and prayer. Then again, who could blame them? We were about to leave the comforts of Staunton, our families and friends, to sleep on the floors of an old elementary school, preparing all of our own meals, leaving for the bulk of the day to serve the needs of the community, and then to gather every evening in a room full of hormone wrestling middle schoolers.

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Jesus is our demonstration” was the theme for our week. The first night we read about Jesus’ final evening with his disciples when he knelt on the floor and washed their feet. While our youth were nervously creating new friendships with the 60 other youth in attendance, we discussed what it meant for Jesus to do something like that for his friends.  As we learned about the conditions of the first century, how dirty the disciples’ feet must have been, I scanned the room to see how the information was being received. Honestly, most of them weren’t paying attention. It was our first night, many of us had been traveling all day to get there, and the idea of washing someone else’s feet can be terrifying to a middle schooler.

The evening concluded with individual church time as we further elaborated on the ideas we had discussed that evening. When it became clear that the evening’s theological reflections were not completely cemented in our minds, I decided to change the subject and ask a question of everyone from our group: What are you most excited about and what are you most nervous about this week… Our kids were all excited about serving God and neighbor, but almost every person in that room expressed reservations about mixing together with the other churches; our group was much smaller than the others and our kids were mostly introverted. In their responses I heard, beneath their words, a fear that even with their desire to help, God might not be with them. So, before heading to bed we prayed together for the coming week and for our ability to be in ministry with others.

If God is for us, who is against us? 

That first night, it really felt as if God was not with us. In the boys’ room the smells and sounds were already becoming nauseously palpable when I finally had to shout, with vigor and volume, that it was now time for bed. I learned in the morning that the girls’ room was just as bad if not worse; between the gossiping and giggling our females were unable to sleep through most of the night.

However, throughout the first real day of work that question of God’s presence quickly moved from our limited perspective, to the reality of the people we were serving. Where was God in all of this? As the boys helped organize a Salvation Army Thrift Store and the girls sat with underprivileged children attempting to help them read, we all experienced moments of wondering about the goodness of God. I saw youth stand in silent and frightening awe before a warehouse filled with trash unlike they had ever seen before, I saw youth watching the people who filled the Thrift Store the moment it opened to examine the new items that had come in during the weekend. Were these people really blessed by the grace of God?

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Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

As the week continued and we spent more time with people in the local community it became harder and harder to see God’s love in their lives. My group, ironically named Mountain Mamas after a line the John Denver song about West Virginia, served a man named Robert whose house was situated in an abandoned neighborhood surrounded by houses that were being taken over by the local vegetation. The first two days we were unable to spend time with him as he had many errands to run but he nevertheless trusted our youth to paint his interior walls and ceiling. Would any of you trust a group of 12, 13, and 14 year olds to paint the inside of your house?

Robert had fallen on both hardship and distress. After years of a seemingly decent marriage his wife had abandoned him to live a life of solitude in a house paradoxically filled with pictures of his entire family. When we finished the ceiling in his kitchen, and began to paint the walls of his living room, Robert was finally able to spend some time with our group as we worked in his house. He often quietly observed from the corner letting the kids do their own thing, but at certain moments he would remove himself from the work space and retreat to his yard.

On one such occasion, toward the end of the week when I felt that I could leave the youth with the paint cans unsupervised, an act of immense trust, I followed Robert outside. I discovered him standing in the front yard looking at the patchy grass between his feet unaware of my presence. “Robert, is everything okay?” I asked. He slowly looked up from the ground and I saw tears welling up in his eyes as his lip began to quiver. “You all don’t know how much this means to me,” he began, “I feel like I’ve been given another chance. It hasn’t always made sense to me, but it seems like I had to fall to the very deepest pit before I could see the light again. You all have given me hope, a new claim on life, and I am so thankful.

When he felt abandoned, when the hardship and distress had brought him to the lowest time of his life, God sent us to serve Robert. God sent a bunch of crazy young Christians to Raleigh County, West Virginia so that we, like Paul, could triumphantly declare a resounding NO. In all these things, in the tremendous valleys of life, when we feel abandoned and alone, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For a few brief moments, we got to be Christ’s body for Robert reminding him of his worth, his value, and his importance.

Paul wrote to the church in Rome to remind them that God is for us. Whatever happens to us that we might imagine as God’s rejection – trials or tribulation, persecution or hunger, hardship or distress – have lost their power to mean that, because God is for us.

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Suffering and destitution are not God’s last Word. God raised Christ from the dead reminding us forever and ever that death is not the end, we are not abandoned by the God who breathed life into us. God’s care for people like us is shown in the power he gives, through his love and grace, to overcome all dangers, all feelings of loss, and all loneliness.

It was our privilege to be Christ’s body for Robert this week. I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity we had to serve his needs, to serve the needs of the children in the reading program, and remind all of them of their worth.

However, a strange thing happened during our trip. Even in the midst of helping love on the last, the least, and the lost, I discovered that some from our group were wrestling with some of these things in their own lives. Every evening while we gathered as a church group I was given glimpses of the struggles and valleys in the lives of our people. They might not have the same physical struggles as the people we served, but it was clear that they were unsure of God’s love in their lives.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

On our last evening together our church group gathered in a small conference room, sitting in a circle on the floor with the lights dimmed while contemporary Christian music lightly played in the background. A chair was placed in the middle of the circle with a basin of water waiting near the legs. One at a time I invited every member of our group to sit in the chair and we took turns washing one another’s feet. Truly I tell you, there are few things in life as humbling and life-giving as washing, and having your feet washed, by a brother or sister in faith. One by one every member in our group sat in the chair and after their feet were washed we surrounded them and placed our hands on them and prayed for them.

Almighty God, thank you for the gift of Chris in our lives. It has been a tremendous joy to see the way you have moved through him this week as he lead and guided us. For the many ways that he serves you as a father, a husband, a teacher, and a friend with give you thanks.

Great God thank you for your wonderful disciple Luke. We praise your name for this young man that you have shaped. His faith is so real and tangible that it gives me hope for your kingdom. He is a blessing to my life and I give you thanks for sending him here this week.

Father of mercy, thank you for your loving servant Tucker. He has so selflessly served the needs of others this week from scrubbing the floor of Robert’s house to befriending some of the outcasts from other churches. He lives out his faith in wonderful and amazing ways. This week could not have been as incredible without him and we are so thankful for all that you are doing through him.

God of grace thank you for Courtney. As she has served the needs of this community we have seen you at work through her. We are blessed by her honesty and willingness to address the truth of our lives. She works hard for the needs of others and so faithfully lives out the call to love you and her neighbor. What a blessing she is to me and my life, thank you for calling her to lead the life that she has faithfully followed.

Most merciful God thank you for the gift of Willow. As a young woman she has so captivated our hearts this week through her commitment to your kingdom. She is so full of light and vibrancy that she changes every life she touches. Our lives would be so dim and lifeless without her and it has been a joy to watch you work through her this week. Thank you for sending Willow into our lives.

Great God thank you for Grace. She is so clearly not a weed but a wheat of faith. Firmly rooted in your love and mercy she has been your Son’s body this week for others and for us. She is a constant reminder of the way you love us, because she places other people’s needs in front of her own. What a joy it is to call her my friend. We are so thankful for all that you have done and will continue to do through her.

It was through tears, through the water of foot washing, and through the faith of prayer that we told everyone in our group what Paul was trying to tell the people in Rome: You are magnificent and God loves you.

Do you know how magnificent you are? Have you ever been able to see yourself the way God sees you? Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Not our doubts, not our failures, not our shortcomings, not our sins, not our disappointments; we are stuck with God’s love. 

You are wonderful and unique, full of grace and glory. God has done, is doing, and will continue to do marvelous things through you. My friends I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

You are loved, you are wonderful, and you are magnificent.

Amen.

God’s Garden – Sermon on Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to come one who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned with fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

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The best sermons reflect their scripture. If you preach on a Psalm then the sermon should be poetic and prayerful. If you preach on a genealogy then sermon should be historic and cover the breadth and trajectory of time. If you preach on a narrative, then the sermon should contain stories to help enlighten the scriptural narrative. And if you preach on a parable, then the sermon should leave people scratching their heads on their way out of church.

Jesus put before his disciples yet another parable: The kingdom of heaven is like a gardener who planted good seeds in his field. However, while others were sleeping someone else came and planted weeds among the wheat. So when the plants began to grow the weeds appeared with the wheat.

The workers of the garden were confused and worried, “Master, what kind of seeds did you plant? Where did all these weeds come from? Would you like us to go out and remove the weeds from the field?” But the gardener replied, “No; if you remove all of the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Instead, let both of them grow together until the harvest.

Parables are strange things. They are often found on the lips of Jesus, told in such a way that a point of a lesson can be illustrated from the narrative. For those of us familiar with Jesus’ parables we might think of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan or The Mustard Seed. In the parables, Jesus uses a simple and memorable story to convey a deeper and important theological point. He refers to common and everyday things that can find connection with the crowds as he shares with them the beauty and mystery of God.

Though told with a simple style, parables often left the disciples scratching their heads while Jesus addressed the crowds. In our scripture today it was only when they retired to the house that the disciples were finally given the opportunity to ask Jesus what this parable was all about.

The gardener is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seeds are the children of God; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who planted them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.

The beauty of the parable, its mysterious quality, has been explained and presented to the disciples succinctly and clearly. 

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This morning we are going to do things a little differently. Instead of just standing up here proclaiming the Word, instead of just sitting our there absorbing the Word, we are going to live it out in our worship. 

Let us pretend that this sanctuary is God’s Garden and all of us are the crops. At first we are planted by the Son of Man and are nurtured in this place to grow into disciples of Christ. Whereas a true garden needs sunlight and water, we are sustained through the Word of God and through the Bread and Wine of communion. As we make it through the weeks, months, and years we continue to grow into our faith and become the beautiful wheat of the field. So, as you are able, would you please demonstrate this growth by standing up.

As any good gardener I am now going to inspect our crops… It is clear that we have some incredible wheat this morning!

Leah Pack! I see your growth and am reminded of your dedication to our lectionary bible study, feeding those who are in need at the free clinic, and your willingness to visit those from our church community.

Marshall Kirby! I see your stature and it is definitely clear that you are strong in your faith! I am reminded of your willingness to serve the needs of our church through your leadership with the men’s club, your stupendous diction while reading the scriptures for worship, and your chiseled muscles from years of Christmas tree sales.

Grace Daughtrey! Though still young and maturing into a wonderful wheat it is clear that you are full of faith. I see you standing and I am reminded of your challenging questions during confirmation, your desire to serve our church by carrying in the light of Christ for worship, and the future of our church as you blossom into a remarkable Christian.

Brothers and sisters we have a garden full of God’s wheat, full of faith and trust! To God be the glory! (You may be seated)

But you know, the more I think about it, maybe I wasn’t looking at God’s crops close enough…

Leah Pack, for as strong as your faith looks on the outside I know that you become frustrated with others in the community who do not live out the tough calls of our faith, I know that sometimes you wish you could ignore certain parts of the bible. Leah I’m sorry to say this, but when I look closer it seems that you appear more like a weed than a wheat (Remove Leah from the pew and bring her to the front).

Marshall Kirby, who could argue with your faith? But I know that sometimes you listen to the voices of the world more than the voice of God and you might be too weedy for our garden. (Remove Marshall and bring him to the front)

And Grace, sweet sweet Grace, still so young in your faith, I know that there are times when you would rather sleep than come to church. I’m not sure we can let you stay in our garden (remove Grace and bring her to the front).

I quickly see two things for us to learn from the pruning of God’s Garden:

Before too long I’m sure that we would be able to find a sin in every person sitting in the pews this morning, and eventually we would have to remove all of the weeds. We might have good days, even months, or perhaps years where we can fully live into our discipleship of Jesus Christ, loving God and neighbor, serving the needs of the community, but all of us eventually fall short of His glory. We look at someone and we lust for what they have, we lie to protect ourselves, we love our possessions more than God; whatever the sin is we quickly move from being one of God’s wheat to one of God’s weeds.

God’s Garden is imperfect. Even with all of the proper nurturing, good preaching, splendid teaching, and holy eating, it will never be enough to prevent us from sinning. We can have mountaintop experiences here at church but before long we are tempted to fall back into the familiar rhythms of evil. On the outside we want to look like God’s perfect crop of wheat, fully matured, and ready to be harvested for the kingdom, but in reality, when we look inwardly, we see that all of us at some point or another appear more like one of the weeds in God’s Garden.

The other element of this Garden that strikes at our hearts this morning is that we are not the ones who are called to judge. Lets pretend for just a moment, if we can, that Leah, Marshall, and Grace truly were weeds within this community of faith. Can you imagine what would happen to us if we uprooted them? 

Leah has taught so many over the years about the way God has interacted with God’s creation. If we removed Leah, all of her students in the ways of faith, myself included, would begin to wonder what this thing called faith was all about. At some point many of the people connected to Leah’s life would stop coming to church at all when they realized that she was the one who embodied the love of God for them and their lives. Without Leah being here, they would miss getting to experience God’s grace.

Marshall lives out his discipleship everyday. He it absolutely committed to following Christ here at St. John’s and in the community. Even with his big and tough exterior, he is one of the sweetest men I have ever met. If we removed Marshall, our community would suffer. All of us that have been encouraged by Marshall over the years would lose our sense of identity when he is no longer able to affirm our worth. Without Marshall being here, many of us would miss getting to witness God’s grace.

Grace sees the world the way that God wants us to see one another. Without judgments, without preconceptions, without fear, Grace loves the people around her with a pure heart. Even though Grace is very much a part of the church right now, she also embodies for many of us the hope of the church in the future. If we removed Grace, our vision would suffer. All of us that have been touched by her singing, or her discipleship, or even just her smiles, would no longer see the joy of worship and faith. Grace gives us the hope for committing ourselves to the ways of God. Without Grace being here, we would fail to enjoy God’s grace.

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I’m sure that God’s Garden would suffer if any of them were removed, and I am sure that God’s Garden would wither and disappear if any of us were removed. We are not the gardener, that role can only belong to the triune God. When we look out on the abundance of produce in this church we are called to see one another the way God sees us, as the great grains of discipleship.

In Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds there is a tremendous emphasis on patience: let them both grow together until the harvest. Our church is made up of sinners and saints, weeds and wheat, and God has called us to grow in faith with one another. As we make our way through the years of communal living, we must be patient with one another.

On the surface level, Jesus’ parable can sound frightening and even disconcerting. The idea of the weeds being gathered at the harvest to be thrown in the fire scares me. But when I look out on God’s Garden here in our church, I am reminded that this is a story all about grace. In the strange world of the parable, in the strange world of being a Christian today, God prohibits our separation and calls us to live in love.

In the strange world of faith it may even be possible for weeds to become wheat.

Thanks be to God that Jesus Christ is the risen Lord who sows the good seed that becomes the church. Thanks be to God that we are nurtured and fed by the Word and the Spirit growing everyday in our fruitfulness for the kingdom and one another. Thanks be to God that we have been raised in faith, surrounded by such a wonderful community of witnesses, and rooted in the deep and rich soil of God’s grace.

Be patient with one another. Do not judge by outward appearance, or inward behavior. Look around at God’s Garden this morning and see the good seed that is growing, see the wheat of faith, see your fellow disciples that will one day shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father!

Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 119.135

Devotional:

Psalm 119.135

Make your face shine upon your servant, and teach me your statutes. 

Weekly Devotional Image

St. Augustine once wrote, “There are three types of life: the contemplative, the active, and the contemplative-active. People can live the life of faith in any of these but everyone must make time both to seek the truth through contemplation and perform the actions that charity demands” (City of God, 19.19) I would slightly change Augustine’s language to say that there are three types of life for Christians: the prayerful, the server, and the prayerful-server. It is a tremendous element of our faith that we get to be in communion with God not only through our prayer, but also in our service of others.

St. Augustine

St. Augustine

Even with this threefold understanding of faithful living there is a temptation to elevate one over the other without seeking a balance of both. No one should be so totally committed to prayer that they neglect the needs of the community and no one should be so absorbed in serving others that he/she gives up praying to the Lord.

Both serving and prayer are intimately connected in the life of discipleship. Throughout my years of faith I have met delightful prayer-warriors that are committed to bring their joy and concerns to the Lord but as soon as they are asked to serve those in need they quickly receded into the shadows. Likewise I have had the pleasure of going on a number of mission trips with young and old Christians alike who worked tremendously hard for the kingdom but as soon as they were asked to pray about their experience they also quickly receded into the shadows.

It is a difficult challenge to keep both types of life together in such a way that we can be prayerful-servers. A balance of the two allows us to avoid burnout, on the one hand, and self-indulgence on the other. It is through the love and commitment of prayerful-servers that the kingdom of God becomes real and experiential for Christians.

When the psalmist calls for God to shine upon the servant and teach the statues they are calling for God to help them with their life of prayer (face shining) and service (teach me your statutes). It is a difficult challenge, but one worthy of our focus.

As the St. John’s mission team spends this week in Raleigh County, West Virginia it is my hope and prayer that we can balance both of these callings in all that we do. Moreover I hope that we can continue to keep both of these in tandem when we return back to Staunton.

As you embark on a new week I ask you to consider whether you are more attracted to a life of prayer, or a life of service. What could you to do to start living as a prayerful-server?

Ten Things I Learned My First Year of Ministry

I recently celebrated the completion of my first year of ministry for St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA.  Throughout my first year I experienced numerous mountaintop experiences as well as deep spiritual valleys. I baptized infants and adults into the body of Christ, I presided over the table and shared the body and blood with the people of God, I brought couples into holy matrimony, and I gave witness to the life and death of faithful Christians. I have learned a lot and am continuing to grow. Below are 10 of the biggest lessons I learned from my first year in ministry.

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1. Every Church Is Different 

I was blessed to grow up (theologically) under the tutelage of great mentors in Dennis Perry and Jason Micheli. Until I left for college I worshipped at Aldersgate UMC for the majority of my life and had very little experience outside of my home church. I learned very quickly throughout seminary, and particularly while serving at St. John’s, that all churches are different. What I preached at Aldersgate would never work at St. John’s and vice versa. Every church has its own context and collective narrative that must be learned before the rhythm of worship and preaching can begin to be fruitful for both the pastor and the congregation. It takes time, but it is time well spent to learn the story of the people.

 

2. Being New Can Go A Long Way

When I was commissioned last summer I became the youngest pastor in the Virginia Annual Conference and would become the youngest pastor to serve at St. John’s since 1955. The church had grown accustomed to their pastors retiring from this appointment and were excited to receive a new and fresh-from-seminary pastor. Being new has gone a long way. I have been given certain freedoms to explore different ways of worship, teaching, and discipleship purely because I am still new to this. The laity have been particularly forgiving of my preaching because, I hope, they recognize that I am continuing to learn our collective narrative every Sunday from the pulpit. The atmosphere in church has been exciting over the last year which has encouraged our members to invite others to worship, something that all churches need in order to share the Good News.

 

3. It Can Be Lonely

Jason Micheli has previously written about the loneliness he experienced in his first church because there were very few people around his age. In a similar way  my wife and I have had a difficult time in Staunton meet and making new friends outside of church. Part of this stems from the fact that there are simply not very many young people in Staunton. However it is challenging to make friends outside of the church when some people immediately put up a wall when they learn that I am a pastor. It is remarkably important to maintain friendships that began in, and before, seminary but it is challenging when the geographic divide makes it difficult to stay in touch. All pastors need community; their church and people outside of it.

 

4. Committee Meetings Are Hard

Seminary cannot prepare you for committee meetings. I was never asked to serve on a committee before I became a pastor so I had to quickly learn the functions of each and their patterns of serving the church without any prior experience. Though the Book of Discipline outlines the roles of the committees, every church lives out these responsibilities in different ways. There have been many nights where I come home thrilled about the direction of the church I serve, and other nights where I have felt defeated by what had taken place during a committee meeting. It is so important to remember that all of this, doing church and being the body of Christ for the world, it about God and not myself.

 

5. It’s Important To Be Involved In The Community

When I met with the SPRC for the first time I asked what they wanted most from their pastor. The collective response was that they wanted a pastor who would be known in the community. I made a concerted effort to make that come true during my first year. For example: I have been quick to introduce myself to people in town as the pastor of St. John’s, I joined the Stonewall Brigade Band (performing continuously since 1855!) and play drums with them every Monday night as we perform free concerts in Gypsy Hill Park, and I sent hand written letters to the immediate community surrounding the church introducing myself and asking if there was anything I could do for them. The church is not just the people who gather on Sunday mornings; we are intricately connected with the people in the community. It is therefore important to establish a presence within the community outside of the church.

 

6. My Vision Is Not The Same Thing As The Church’s Vision

I have come up with a lot of new ideas over the last year and a number of them have become very fruitful for our church. Recently however, I have begun to realize that my vision is not necessarily synonymous with the church’s vision. The people of St. John’s have been doing church a lot longer than I have; they have an established wisdom about what can and can’t work for our faith community. It has been good for me to lead with a passionate vision, but then at other times it has been even better for me to take a step back and let the lay leadership’s vision guide us.

 

7. Workaholism Is Just One Step Away

Every church has many needs from the pastor: visiting the shut-ins, preparing and leading worship on a weekly basis, ordering the church, etc. Though many might assume that being a pastor is a one-hour-a-week job, it is so much more than that. As someone who is regularly at the church facility there are a number of other jobs that I never imagined would be regular parts of my ministry. I have been a plumber, carpenter, Preschool teacher, preacher, mower, snow-shoveler, counselor, teacher, accountant, therapist, etc. For pastors there is a temptation to let the needs of the church dictate every aspect of your life. It is vitally important to maintain a regular sabbath and share the responsibilities of church with the body of Christ.

 

8. Less And Less People Know Their Bibles

I often take for granted how much scripture is known by the people of church. There are, of course, the prayer warriors and bible study leaders who know their bibles better than I do, but over the last year there have been a number of experiences that had demonstrated a staggering amount of biblical illiteracy. For example: One Sunday I casually mentioned Jacob wrestling with the angel on the banks of the Jabbok river with a bible study class when they all looked up at me and one of them said, “that’s definitely not in the bible.” Or after preaching about the last supper and then going through the entire communion liturgy a longtime church member said, “I never knew that what we do with communion comes from the Jesus’ last supper!” As the greater church looks to the future of the Christian faith we need to be particularly careful about how we return to a love of the bible and nurture scripturally shaped imaginations.

 

9. Reading Makes For Better Preaching

Soon after arriving in Staunton I had more free time on my hands than I had initially anticipated. I was able to make all my visits, have the sermon written by Wednesday and take care of my other responsibilities which freed me for having time to read from both the bible and theological works. By the time the fall rolled around I found myself incredibly busy and lost the time to read outside of what I needed on a weekly basis; my preaching suffered during this time. I relied too heavily on commentaries and personal anecdotes because my own faith walk was suffering under the weight of weekly ministry. Only when I had come to a realization of the way my work was affecting my faith was I able to re-focus and re-prioritize in such a way that I found time to feed my soul outside of my regular responsibilities. We become better writers and better preachers by actively reading and responding to God’s Word beyond the weekly sermon or lesson in our lives.

 

10. I Have The Best Job In The World

A professor of mine from seminary once said, “If you can do anything else outside of ministry then stop right now. Ministry can be one of the least rewarding vocations: spiritually, monetarily, and socially. But if you can’t do anything else, which is to say if you feel so called to ministry that you can’t do anything else, then it will be the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do.” For some this was a big wake up call and a few eventually dropped out of school, but for me it only refueled my fire. And he was right. Ministry is the greatest job in the world. Where else could I spend my time deep in God’s Word? What job would give me the ability to preside over something as precious as the water dripping on a child’s head in baptism or offering the gift of bread and wine to the weary travelers of faith? It is a privilege to serve God’s kingdom as the pastor of St. John’s UMC and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

 

 

(Originally written for the Tamed Cynic blog)

Red With Envy – Sermon on Genesis 25.29-34

Genesis 25.29-34

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

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There was a man who lived a perfect life. For years he did his very best to maintain the commandments of God, love his family, tithe to his local United Methodist Church, serve on the Trustees Committee, and volunteer as a coach for local little league sports. Everyone knew him, and everyone liked him. He was charismatic and hardworking, personality traits that would come to reward him when he started his own business.

He was a shrewd business man who seemed to be able to predict the rise and fall of the stock market, quickly amassing a vast sum of money that he would then reinvest in the right companies. Yet, even with his vast wealth, he never overdid it with his community. He was humble and thrifty, fitting in with everyone else even though he was wealthier than anyone he knew.

As his life progressed he found success in nearly every direction. His company continued to expand and produce wealth, his family was the ideal example of love and compassion, and he had a strong relationship with his church. Near the end of his days God appeared to him one morning in his office. The Lord said, “Do not be afraid! You have lived a wonderful and virtuous life. I don’t usually do this, but I’m going to make an exception for you; when you die you can bring a briefcase of whatever you want to heaven. So think about it while you still can, and I’ll see you soon.”

During the final weeks of the man’s life he thought deeply about what to bring with him to heaven, and when the time came he was confident with his decision.

Standing on the clouds of heaven, right beside the pearly gates the man was thrilled to see St. Peter ready to greet him and let him into paradise. “Welcome” St. Peter began, “we have been waiting for you. But if I’m being honest I can’t wait to see what you brought to heaven! God doesn’t make a deal like that with just anyone and we have been so curious to see what you brought!” The man smiled and proudly passed his briefcase over to St. Peter. As he opened the case he discovered six perfectly polished gold bars that glowed in the light of heaven.

“Interesting choice,” St. Peter said, “but we’ve already got plenty of pavement here.”

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Greed. Our current economic downturn is often attributed the vice of greed, having grown out of control. For many of us, we’re not exactly sure how this actually happened, but we are ready to believe that we are suffering because some became too greedy. Greed has no limits or shame; while CEOs make millions and millions in bonuses, regular people are stuck in debt, unsure of the future, starving for work, and afraid of the consequences of others’ greed.

Greed is seductive and always waiting in the recesses of our minds. It is something that tempts all of us, whether we like to admit it or not. Just like the hypothetical virtuous man who lived an incredible life, he failed to appreciate the goodness of God’s kingdom when he brought gold bars to heaven. We so desperately cling to the materialism of our world that we are unable to imagine a life without greed.

Have you ever heard a sermon about greed? The fact that we do not hear about this particular topic seems strange considering how prominent the temptation of greed is considered to be one of the greatest threats for Christians.

Jesus says you cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6.24). Paul suggests that the love of money is the root of all evil leading some to walk away from the faith (1 Timothy 6.10). James is very blunt about the folly of greed: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts” (James 4.1-2)

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Time and time again scripture frustrates our conceptions about the world: If we are Christian and wealthy or if we desire to have wealth, we have a problem. 

Greed, however, is not limited to monetary gain alone. Greed sits at the root of most of our sins. We become greedy for wealth, power, position, place, people, and programs. We want more than our fair share. We desire the most for the least effort.

Jacob and Esau were born in conflict with one another.

The first born was red and covered with hair so they named him Esau, which means Red. The second born came out with his hand gripping Esau’s heel so they named him Jacob, which means heel-grabber. Esau would grow to become a mighty warrior, skillful hunter, and a man of the field whereas Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau and Rebekah loved Jacob.

So it came to pass one day that while Jacob was cooking a meal, Esau came in from the field completely famished. “Let me have some of that red stuff, because I am starving!” Esau said to Jacob. So Jacob replied, “Sure, I’d be happy to, but first sell me your birthright.” “Are you serious, I am about to die from hunger; what good is my birthright to me now?” “Swear to it” said Jacob. And so Esau swore to his younger brother and traded his birthright for some bread and lentil stew. When Esau finished eating he rose and went away and began to despise his birthright.

Who is the greedy one from our scripture? 

Esau’s greed is evident and obvious. Rather than trust in the Lord’s provision, Esau’s vision was limited to the present and he wanted immediate gratification for his desires. In order to satisfy his appetite, Esau’s greed became so powerful that he was willing to give away his future for the present moment. 

We are a generation of busy people, consistently fighting a battle to determine what to give up and what to continue. When our plates become too full with responsibilities we plan to remove that which is unnecessary and no longer life-giving. So many people give up the important things of life to pursue something that is meaningless because we are consumed by our present needs rather than steadfast in our trust of the Lord. Many of us are tempted to ignore our baptismal identifies when we see someone in need, we are tempted to disown our family, friends, and children when they do something wrong. We are often tempted to sell out for something less than what we are truly worth.

Esau’s greed is obvious because it is so similar with our greed. Forgetting the long-term cost, we are quick to serve our sinful desires and natures right here and right now. What do I have to do to make more money as soon as possible? What do I have to do to get that girl at school to like me? We are captivated by the fast sprint rather than the patient marathon.

Pastors love to chastise Esau for so quickly releasing his birthright, and use him as an example for what not to do. But what about Jacob? Jacob who used crooked and deceitful ways to steal his brother’s birthright. He was no doubt the promised one, but that doesn’t necessarily forgive him for taking advantage of his brother’s need.

Jacob’s greed is subtle and relentless. Instead of offering his brother some food out of kindness he is always looking out for number one. Later in the story, after Esau threatens to kill his brother, Jacob is willing to give away all his animals, wives, and children just so that he might save his own neck. Jacob was blinded by the greed of power, to draw to himself everything he could by whatever means necessary, even letting his brother starve.

We are a generation of individualists who are taught from infancy the importance of a capitalistic world view. When we see ourselves at the bottom of the food chain we are willing to do whatever it takes to amass power. So many people will go against their values, morals, and ethics in an instant, purely to make our lives a little better. Many of us are tempted to forget who we are and whose we are because we have forgotten the true meaning behind “the first will be last and the last will be first.”

Jacob’s greed is apparent when we realize how similar it is with our own. Consumed with our lives alone, we ignore the needs of others when they prevent us from getting what we want. Why would I give my money to the church when I am the one who earned it? Why should I be responsible for helping to poor when they should be the ones helping themselves? We are captivated by our solitary vision of the world rather than seeing the world through the eyes of Christ.

Years ago I was preparing to help lead a team of youth on a mission trip to Guatemala. We would be serving the needs of the indigenous Mayans in the highlands for a week by building stones, playing with children, and planting trees. In order to go on the trip, as a youth, you had to regularly participate in youth group and fundraising. Throughout the year there were numerous opportunities to plug into the regular programming and this requirement helped to foster strong bonds and fellowship before we left the country.

There was a man at the church whose daughter wanted to attend the trip but had not participated in any of the youth activities, nor was she part of the fundraising. Her father believed that these requirements were frivolous and he was going to beat the system.

One morning he arrived at church and walked straight to the pastor’s office with a smile on his face. He held up a substantial check that he was willing to give to the church with the following stipulations: I will give this money if it directly goes to the mission trip to Guatemala, and if it guarantees my daughter a space on the trip.

Greed. I’m sure that the man felt he was doing a great thing for the church and indeed for the kingdom of God, after all here he was willing to give of his own money to help others in need. Yet, don’t you see how similar he was to Jacob and Esau? Rather than encouraging his daughter to give of her time through participation in youth group and fundraising he, like Esau, wanted immediate results for the minimal effort. Yet at the same time he was willing to challenge the church and, like Jacob, was willing to have his needs met at any cost while foregoing the need of others.

Greed is mighty and powerful. It seduces us and tells us that we are the most important beings in the universe. It fuels our desire for gratification in ways that are even beyond our imaginations.

Yesterday I arrived at our church to do some pre-marital counseling only to discover the church had been broken into and my office door had been kicked in. With a knot in my stomach I walked into my office: all of the drawers had been opened, most of my paperwork examined and scattered. Thankfully nothing seemed to be missing which furthered the mystery of the break-in. I don’t know who did it. I don’t know what they were looking for. But I’m sure that they were fueled by greed.

Jesus, thanks be to God, calls us to a different life. Less is more. We are not the center of the universe, God is. We have more than we will ever need because God’s love and grace abound and our cups runneth over.

In order to break free from the slavery of greed we begin by acknowledging it in our lives, in whatever forms it presents itself. It’s easy to point out the greed in others, but now we have the challenge of looking inward at our greed. We may succeed in our fight against greed only when we learn to trust God for our needs, when we see the world the way that God sees us, and when we are prepared to give our lives for others because Christ gave his for us.

Amen.

Devotional – Genesis 28.16-17

Devotional:

Genesis 28.16-17

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” 

Weekly Devotional Image

Next Sunday, after worship, a group from St. John’s will be leaving for Raleigh County, West Virginia for a week of mission work. Mission trips were foundational for my own faith development and I am excited to share a new experience with some of the youth from our church. Part of our time will be spent doing physical work for people in need, but a large portion of our trip will be dedicated to nurturing and fostering relationships with the children of the community. It is my hope and prayer that the youth will have their eyes opened to the ways we are called to serve our brothers and sisters.

One of the problems that faces many mission trips is the idea that, as the “missionaries,” we will be bringing Jesus to these people. I have seen it happen far too often when a group of privileged Christians make the false assumption that the people they are serving are devoid of God and it is their fundamental responsibility to bring God along as if God was something that they had packed in their suitcases.

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The truth that we often fail to recognize is that God is already in that place! We are called not to bring God along with us, but instead to open our eyes to the way that God is already working in the world. When a mission trip has gone incredibly well, when the proper theology has been outlined for the participants, they come home with a different perspective about their faith; they come home having been helped by the people they served rather than the other way around. God is not something that we can compartmentalize, ship around, open at will, and exchange in a consumeristic program. If that is our idea of mission than we have failed the God we serve because we have wrongly believed that we get to decide where God goes and who gets to experience God’s majesty. God is already in that place! God has gone on ahead of us (just like Jesus went ahead of the disciples to Galilee) and will be made known to us as we serve others.

Jacob, after running away from his angry brother Esau, assumed that he had left everything behind. In a way, he believed that he could not only run away from his family and responsibilities, but that he could escape the God of his father and grandfather. How blessed was he to awake from his dream and discover the truth of God’s grace! “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it! How awesome is this place!”

As we prepare to take steps into a new week let us wake up from the dream that we get to control God and discover the truth, like Jacob did, that God is already in this place! God has been working through the family and friends around you for longer than you can imagine.

Wherever you go this week be assured that the Lord is with you.