Devotional – Exodus 20.1-3

Devotional:

Exodus 20.1-3

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. 

Weekly Devotional Image

I love football. Every fall I look forward to the change of seasons with particular excitement because football becomes an exciting, and weekly, obsession. During the week I check up on certain players and decide who to start, and who to bench, on my fantasy football team. Before I leave for work I rely on the updates from ESPN to keep me informed for the coming conversations about football that I will have on a regular basis. After church on Sundays I quickly put on my throwback Redskins jersey and prepare to scream and cheer for a team that has recently left me disappointed.

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Football season is fun, thrilling, and all encompassing. Before worship starts on Sunday mornings I can count on having at least 5 conversations with particular church folk about college and professional football. It has created allegiances that people are proud to display via jerseys, hats, bumper stickers, flags, and even tattoos. The obsession with football is so prevalent that it has now become nearly impossible to do anything in our culture with football sneaking its way in.

I love football, but sometimes I worry that I love football too much. When God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites in the wilderness, he commanded them to have no other gods. Today, many of us worship other gods with greater vibrancy and devotion than we worship the triune God. Football is just one example of how we begin to worship other gods in our lives to the point that we lose sight of the incarnate God in Christ who still moves and speaks in the world today.

Can you imagine what the church would look like if people supported, adored, and loved it as much as they love football? Think about how many conversations you would have on a daily basis about what God has done for you, how visible your faith would be if all your jerseys were replaced with shirts covered in scripture, how church would be the true highlight of Sundays rather than a football game.

For me, football is a god that I sometimes put before our God. I catch myself having more conversations about how my team played last week than I do about the abundant grace and mercy of the Lord our God.

What gods have you put before the Lord? How different would your life look if you put the Lord of heaven and earth above all things?

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Authorized for What? – Sermon on Matthew 21.23-32

Matthew 21.23-32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to the, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

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Jesus does what Jesus wants. He has gone all over Galilee proclaiming the Good News, bringing sight to the blind, and healing to the sick. He has fed the multitudes miraculously, walked on water, and calmed the storm. He entered the holy city of Jerusalem on the back of a derelict donkey, charged into the temple and drove out the money-lenders while overturning the tables. Radical and revolutionary, Jesus does what he wants, and now the chief priests and the elders want to stop him in his tracks.

“Who in the world do you think you are? Who gave you the authority to do these things?” Of course, “these things,” refer to him cleansing the temple, curing the blind and lame, feeding the hungry, providing for the poor, listening to the weak, and giving hope to the hopeless. The question has been posed to Jesus before, but never has the question been more ominous; Jesus is in enemy territory and those asking the question will constitute the court that will later sentence him to death by crucifixion.

What gives you the right to come in here and tell us how we are supposed to understand the world?” They do not really want an answer to their question. Instead, they are seeking an opportunity to trap Jesus by means of his response. So Jesus does what he wants: He ignores their question for the moment and proposes a counter-question that they too cannot answer without getting in trouble.

“I will ask you a question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” The chief priests and the elders argue among themselves about how they can answer. This is a classic Catch-22; “If we say his baptism was from heaven then Jesus will ask why we did not believe him and have him beheaded, and if we say it was an earthly thing the crowds will revolt against us because they all regard John as a prophet.” Caught in a dilemma of their own making, they recognize that there is no way they can answer the question without putting themselves in a worse position, so they answer with the answer that students have relied on for centuries, “We do not know.”

I imagine then, that Jesus smiled while saying, “neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Rev. Dr. Warren Smith

Rev. Dr. Warren Smith

When I was in seminary a professor named Warren Smith led my class through the great wonders of Church History. We studied some of the greatest theologians and mapped the various trajectories of theological positions that have brought our church through the centuries. After a semester of heavy reading and writing, Dr. Smith ended his final lecture with a story…

When he was a young pastor he was appointed to a church fresh out of seminary and did his best to proclaim the Word, serve those in need, and live into God’s kingdom on earth. For months the church listened deeply to his sermons and prayers, and grew in their love of God and neighbor. However, there was one older woman who never spoke to Dr. Smith after worship. She would sit patiently in her pew, unaffected by his words and gestures, and would return to the parking lot without saying a word to the young pastor. That was the typical routine until one Sunday she made her way in the receiving line following church.

Who do you think you are?” she began. “To come into this church and tell us how to live our lives. I have been a Christian longer than you have been alive. What could you possibly teach me about what it means to follow Christ?” And with that, she left.

Her words struck deep in Dr. Smith’s soul. Was she right? What could he possibly teach someone who had been following the Lord for decades when he had just graduated from seminary? Dr. Smith however, is not one to go gently into the night.

The following Sunday, Dr. Smith made his way to the pulpit and began to preach with words that resonated throughout the sanctuary: “I know I may look young from this pulpit. I know that some of you might be concerned with my ability to preach and teach in this church considering my age. But when I stand in this pulpit I AM 4,000 YEARS OLD. I speak with the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before me. I am equipped by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Good News of Christ because the Lord is with me even to the end of the age.”

“So too,” he said to my class, “remember that you have been authorized to do incredible things and you are older than you think.”

When Dr. Smith’s authority was challenged he responded by recalling the great tradition of the living Word that is brought forth into new life on a regular basis. He looked back in order to look forward. He validated his responsibility by acknowledging his earthly youth while at the same time affirming his divine wisdom through the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus’ authority was challenged by the chief priests and the elders he responded with an unanswerable question, and then with a parable. The parable becomes the lens by which they can see their error and envision a proper understanding of God’s reign in the world.

What do you think? There was a man with two sons. He went to the first and asked him to work in the vineyard. The first son refuses, but later he changed his mind and went to work in the field. The father went to the second son and asked him to work in the field as well. The second son agrees to work, but never went to the vineyard. Which of these two sons did the will of his father?

The chief priests and elders respond in unison, “the first.” It is obvious that even though the son refused to work, the fact that he did, in the end, is far better than the son who agrees to work and never enters the vineyard. Jesus then uses the parable to draw the unmistakable conclusion that they, the chief priests and elders, are the second son who has failed to do the father’s will. “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. John came in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but they did. Even after you saw what he did, you did not change your minds and believe. You preach and preach, but you never practice the words you proclaim.

Jesus responding with a parable is typical of the gospels, and helpful for bringing about new understanding. He uses a story in order to open up the kingdom of God to show that it works in a way that is approachable and livable.

What do you think of the parable? In your faith journey do you feel like the first brother? Was there a time that you rejected the calling of God on your life, refused to believe, only to find yourself caught up in the grace of God and working in the vineyard of the kingdom? Is your faith vibrantly alive and fruitful?

Or do you feel like the second brother? Was there a time that your faith was so alive that you were willing to say “yes yes” to God’s call on your life only to find yourself apathetic to the work of the church in the kingdom? Is your faith stagnant and fruitless?

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Individually, we can respond to God’s call in faithful ways by reaching out to others in our community and letting God’s love abound in their lives through our actions. But collectively, as a church, it can be quite difficult to be Christ’s body for the world.

This week I met with a handful of other Methodist clergy from the valley and we discussed our local churches, some of the challenges facing our congregations, and the fruit that has come forth during our time of service. We talked about new ministry ideas that might help share the Good News with people in our communities while also affirming the many challenges of being the church for the world today. But, to be honest, most of the conversation was a time for the leaders to complain about the lack of enthusiasm in their churches, their inability to see the call of the church and the mission of God in the world. At one point a friend of mine shook his head and said softly, “It can be so depressing to hear that most of our churches are far more concerned with maintenance, than mission.

One of the hardest things to admit, as a church, is that we are more often like that second son than the first. After all, here we are sitting in the vineyard, preparing to go out to harvest the grapes. But as Christians, we can become blind to what God is doing in the world around us. How sad is it that “church work” can quickly degenerate into conversations about maintaining our building, with no excitement about what God’s living Word and grace are doing in our community? How sad is it that the majority of our conversations and budget are focused on making sure that the church will still be here next Sunday instead of focusing on the renewal of the church and the formation of disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? Like the second brother we say that we are going to work in the vineyard, but instead of harvesting grapes we spend our time rearranging the stones along the path. 

I’ll admit that our church is changing, we are slowly moving away from the maintenance model and are becoming lively and excited about the ways we can be Christ’s body for the world. We are no longer content with just being a building where people can sit together on a Sunday morning. A church is not a building. A church is the work of the people for the vineyard, for the kingdom.

Jesus was authorized by his father in heaven to do the will of God on earth. To overturn the tables in the temple, to call out the leaders of the people for their hypocrisy and limited vision, to seek out the last, least, and lost, to bring them a sense of wholeness, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to make disciples.

In the same way, Christ has authorized us to be his body for the kingdom of God. Today we have the remarkable responsibility of acting like God’s son, and the first son from the parable; even when we doubt our responsibility to the mission of God we are needed in the vineyard.

What are we doing as a church? Are we giving our tithes and offerings to God so that the church will stay open, so that we can hear an articulate and thoughtful 15 minute sermon every week. Are we content with letting our discipleship look like maintenance?

What are we doing as Christians? Are we radical people who believe that God continues to do amazing things in the world? Do we hope and pray for God’s will to really be done here on earth among us?

We have been authorized to do great and wonderful things in the world. Let us remember and believe that the Lord will provide, that nothing will ever separate us from God’s love, and that we have been called to work in the vineyard.

Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 25.7

Devotional:

Psalm 25.7

Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! 

Weekly Devotional Image

When I was in seminary Will Willimon used to talk a lot about how strange it was to serve communion to the parishioners of his church when he truly knew what was going on in their lives. He told a story once about how he was asked by the police to help settle a domestic dispute between some of his parishioners. Apparently the couple would have a big brawl and fight every spring and the police were used to the annual fight and debauchery. Will did his best to bring about a calm solution but he was shocked to discover the couple sitting in the pews the following morning, as if nothing happened.

Since the beginning of the church broken families, miserable relationships, and struggling sinners have gathered at the table and received the body and blood of Christ. What became important for Will was the understanding that he was not the one to judge their pasts, but that Christ “invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another.”

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Some of the most precious conversations I have on a regular basis are with people who have not been to church in a very long time, or they have never entered a church at all; everything is new, exciting, and mysterious. I remember in particular a Sunday evening during college when a number of my friends, including non-church goers, came to support me when I preached at a local church. They listened carefully to the sermon, struggled to sing along with the songs, but when it was time for communion they sat there stunned. I motioned for them to go up to the front, if they felt comfortable, but they looked at me as if they were unworthy. In their faces I could tell that even though they did not fully grasp the significance of the table, they held a respect for it and were worried that the sins of their youth negated their invitation to receive the body and blood. In my life there have been few moments as wonderful as when I was able to look at my friends and tell them that they were invited, that God loved them no matter what they had done, and that God goodness knows no bounds.

It is an incredible thing that God does not judge us by the sins of our youth or the transgressions of our pasts, but remembers us according to God’s steadfast love. As we prepare to take steps into a new week, let us give thanks to the God whose love is beyond all things, to the God who remembers us for who we truly are, to the God whose table is always open.

Interrupted Salvation – Sermon on Mark 5.21-43

Mark 5.21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a women who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

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This Sunday marks the conclusion of our sermon series on Women of Faith. Over the last few weeks we have focused on women from the Old Testament who lived our their faith in such a way that it continues to speak to us in our faith journeys. The point has been to explore some of the great females from scripture, particularly those who are not regularly mentioned from the pulpit. We began by looking at Rahab the harlot before the fall of Jericho and talked about how our pasts do not define our lives. Last week we looked at Deborah and Jael from Judges and talked about how women are powerful and being faithful is complicated. Today we conclude by looking at the unnamed hemorrhaging woman from Mark 5. So, here we are, may God bless out time together as we look at one more woman with profound faith.

The loneliness is getting unbearable. She lives in Staunton, has a full time job, while also maintaining the aspects of home life. Her husband largely ignores her, never asks about her day, and expects dinner and the laundry to have been taken care of by the time he gets home. The children are involved in such a high number of activities throughout town that she can barely keep track of who is supposed to be where and when. Though she won’t admit it to anyone, her life feels empty, as if its being drained from her slowly and decisively.

Twice a day she finds herself driving up and down Augusta street and whenever she passes St. John’s she struggles to keep her eyes glued ahead. She has admired the witty marquee in the past, and she feels something drawing her to the building, but church is the last thing she wants in her life.

For months this goes on, and every time she passes she catches herself glancing more and more at our building. She sees the children during preschool walking on the front lawn looking for insects and leaves for projects, she observes the Christmas tree sales with families giggling as they explore the various options, she witnesses a number of older adults laughing manically as they fall down the 18 ft. inflatable slide during the Community Cook-Out. On certain Sundays she finds herself getting in the car and driving to the parking lot but she never leaves the vehicle; she can’t explain why she’s here and she’s too afraid to come inside.

One morning, when the emptiness and loneliness has become so frighteningly palpable she drives to St. John’s on a typical Sunday and bravely makes her way from the car to the sanctuary. She hopes against hope that something incredible can happen here.

But we’re in the middle of something else, worship has already started and I’m up here in the pulpit going on and on about the grace of God, or the service has yet to start but most of us are greeting our friends and asking them about their weekends, or worship is already over but most of us are solidifying plans for lunch. We might not even notice the woman who risked it all to be here with us.

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Jesus was beckoned by Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, to come and heal his daughter. “Please Lord. My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.” So Jesus, doing his Jesus thing, went with Jairus to heal his daughter. Like worship on a Sunday morning, Jesus going to heal someone is typical and part of his routine. He is prepared to meet the young girl and heal her as he has done so many times before.

However, on the way to Jairus’ house a strange thing happens. A woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years, who had been isolated from her family and community, sees the Messiah that she had heard so much about. Building up her courage she stepped forward, reached out her hand and touched his clothes, hoping that it would cure her. And immediately she felt in her body that she had been healed. But Jesus will not leave it at that; feeling the power go out from him he turns to the crowd and demands to know who touched his clothes. With fear and trembling the woman stepped forward and told Christ the whole truth, and he responded by saying “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

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Jesus was interrupted on his journey to heal Jairus’ daughter by a hemorrhaging woman, and in so doing the young girl died at home. He took too much time with the other woman’s problems, and now an innocent girl has passed away when Jesus could have done something about it.

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The woman sits in one of the pews of our church alone and afraid to speak to anyone. She has never been in a church before and so much of what we are doing is strange and bizarre to her. She is thankful for the bulletin directing her to the hymnal with tunes she has never heard, and prayers that she has never uttered. Most of it means nothing to her but she continues to worship with the hope that something will help. 

Our service ends and she follows the people around her as they file out toward the back of the sanctuary. She keeps her head low and whispers thank you as I shake her hand, I thank her for being with us today, and she walks out, perhaps never to return again. She came looking for something life-changing, hoping for something to heal her and make her well, and all she got was a strange youth message, a mediocre sermon, and more loneliness.

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When Jesus arrived at Jairus’ house, even with the young girl dead, Jesus comforts the father, “Do not fear, only believe. Your daughter is not dead but sleeping.” And the people in the house laughed at him, but he put them all outside and took Jairus and the child’s mother and went to the girl. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Little girl, get up!” and she immediately got up and began to walk around, hungry for something to eat.

Jesus allowed the interruption in the street by the unnamed woman knowing that he would be able to still make it to Jairus’ house and bring about the healing and salvation that was needed. He might have been content with merely allowing her to touch his clothing and be healed but he took the extra time for personal touch and contact.

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When the woman comes to St. John’s we could happy with letting her experience worship on her own, free to return to the life of loneliness and emptiness, but if we are to act like Christ we have to go one step farther. The terrible disease of loneliness is something that we have the power to fight against, we just have to be open to interrupted salvation.

Mark 5 is an incredible reminder for all of us, for the teachers who are so often interrupted by students, parents harried by the demands of their children, and even preachers that are stopped while working on a sermon, that interruptions are important. Someone once said, “You know… my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.

I was having lunch on Thursday with a clergy friend, talking about the ways that we are trying to serve our churches, when a man casually mentioned something about his cancer and we invited him to join us for lunch. He interrupted our conversation to share with us his struggles and fears. I was preparing for worship two weeks ago, running around the building just trying to make sure that everything would be ready, when Steve Wisely scared me half to death. He interrupted me in the midst of my work to tell me that his father, Russ, was dying. Every Sunday I stand at the back of the church, thanking all of you for being with us in worship when I am often dealt a hard and frightening truth about someone’s struggles, I am interrupted while doing my job with a difficult diagnosis, a struggling marriage, or a lonely woman.

What do we do with our interruptions? When the stranger arrives at church, sitting alone in the pew near us while we are in the middle of a conversation, how do we respond? Are we content with introducing ourselves, shaking hands, and then going back to our routine, or do we act like Christ and take the extra step to offer them not only a smile, but wholeness? When your child struggles with a decision in their life, do you offer a few bits of wisdom, or do you drop what you are doing to demonstrate that you deeply love them? Do you see interruptions as interruptions, or do you see them as opportunities for salvation?

That woman with the hemorrhage has more faith than I’ll ever have. She, in the deep recesses of fear and disappointment, reached out to the Lord with the hope of receiving something so improbable, that we would mock it today. Her faith is so real and palpable because she lived it out, she took those frightening steps to the Lord and believed that he could do something incredible with, through, and for her.

That unnamed woman who arrives at our church and sits in her car unsure of whether to enter has more faith than I’ll ever have. Though deeply rooted in the fear of her own loneliness and emptiness, she bravely enters the church with the hope that the Lord, with the people inside, can do something so improbable that we often ignore it. Her faith is so real and palpable because she lives it out, she takes those humbling steps to the sanctuary and believes that the God of Christ can do something incredible through us for her.

Showing up to church is wonderful. When it becomes part of the routine of life it begins to habituate us toward a new understanding of discipleship where we can truly act as Christians without having to overthink what we are doing.

But believing that God can actually do something for you, that the church can bring about a sense of salvation in your life is what faith is really all about. 

The woman walks out the main doors and makes her way toward the parking lot. Frustrated by her foolishness in believing that the church could actually change anything about her circumstances she is surprised when she hears a person hurrying up behind her. Someone from St. John’s, one of you, tries to catch up with her to apologize for not introducing yourself earlier. You tell her that you saw her sitting by herself and you felt God pushing you to do something more and you ask if she would like to get a cup of coffee sometime this week, just so that you can get to know her better. “I would love that” she says with a shy smile.

The final few steps to her car are filled with the brightness of hope, something she has not experienced for a long time. Still smiling from the invitation she hears a soft voice, as light as the wind, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.

Amen.

The Tent Peg of Doom – Sermon on Judges 4.4-9

Judges 4.4-9

At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Behtel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, brining ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’” Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh.

Jael and Sisera

Today marks the second part of our Sermon Series on Women of Faith. Throughout the last year or so I have been excited to hear questions in, and outside of, church regarding the role women play in both the Old and New Testaments. This series is focused on exploring some of the great women of faith from the Bible, particularly those who are not regularly mentioned from the pulpit. So, here we are, may God bless our time together as we explore two more women with dynamic and powerful faith.

Deborah was a judge over Israel. She had a wide range of responsibilities with her position; deciding controversies, announcing verdicts, and implementing judgments. For her to have been given, and honored with, this responsibility is exceptionally rare for a woman in the Old Testament. Moreover, she is remembered as one of the finest rulers: she is sought out for her counsel, she is referred to as a prophetess and mother of Israel, she boldly proclaims the Word of the Lord, and there are no controversies surrounding her rule.

The Israelites are once again in bondage in their own land, and they beg God to deliver them from oppression. For the past 20 years the people have suffered under the vicious hand of Jabin and his general Sisera. The Lord then moved Deborah to call upon Barak, an Israelite general, to go to war with 10,000 men against the mighty Sisera. Barak, however, is reluctant to do so, even with the promise of the Lord’s presence, he knows the kind of weaponry and army that Sisera has, and feels that this might be a suicide mission. Barak refuses to go to war unless Deborah goes with him. 

One of the great generals of God’s people is afraid to follow the Lord’s command unless a woman goes with him.

So Deborah agrees to travel with Barak but warns him that the battle will not bring him glory, because the Lord will deliver the evil Sisera into the hands of a woman.

Thats where out scripture reading ends for the day, but of course that is not the end of the story. If you keep reading Judges 4 you learn that Barak summoned the 10,000 warriors and traveled to Mount Tabor. When Sisera learned of Barak’s movement he called out all his chariots of iron and all of his troops to go to war. The battle ensues and the Lord threw Sisera and all his army into a panic before the Israelites. Sisera retreated from the battle, but the entirety of his army fell at the hand of Barak and the Israelites.

Sisera fled to a nearby village and was met by a woman named Jael outside of her tent. She implored him to come inside where she would hide him and take care of him. In the tent she covered him with a rug and offered him milk to drink. After he fell asleep she took a tent peg in one hand and a hammer in the other, went softly to Sisera, and drove the tent peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground and he died. Only later did Barak arrive in the village surprised to discover that Sisera had been killed, still stuck to the ground by the tent peg.

It would seem to me, therefore, that the message from our scripture today is to be very careful about accepting invitations into the tents of strange women, particularly if they have extra tent pegs lying around.

I offer this in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen…

 

Just kidding.

What a crazy and awesome story. It plays out like a movie; Barak is told that he will receive no glory but he heads into battle anyway. Deborah promises him that the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman, and we assume that means the Lord will hand the evil general over to Deborah.

The scene then shifts from the giant battlefield to the interior of a small tent with the candles burning in the corner. Perhaps still nursing his wounds from the battle Jael offers Sisera comfort and safety. Under the warmth of the carpet, filled with the cool milk from the caring woman, Sisera drifted off to sleep.

When suddenly Jael drives the tent peg through his skull leaving his lifeless body stuck to the ground like a tent in a wind storm.

So what are we to make of these dynamic women of faith, both Deborah and Jael? What do they teach us about our faith today?

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Women are powerful.

The story begins with Deborah and Barak, the female is obviously stronger than the male. As I mentioned before, the assumption of leadership by a woman is extraordinary during this time and something that we should not overlook. Deborah is a priestess and a judge over God’s people, she contained insight, perspective, and knowledge far beyond the average person, and held an awareness of the movements of God’s spirit. Though it is not written in scripture, she appears to be a woman of prayer, regularly in communion with the divine, someone who let her faith lead her, rather than the other way around.

Deborah was not the domestic type of woman that so many women are made out to be today. Yes she was married, but she committed herself to God’s people, to helping, guiding, leading, and shaping them. She was not relegated to a sphere of domicile power, but was intimately involved in the lives of others, respected for her wisdom, and sought after for judgment. It is no small thing that when she tells Barak to fight for God’s people, he was unwilling to do so without her. Women are powerful, and therefore deserve more respect than is often given. 

Without Deborah, Barak would never have had the confidence and courage to lead the army into battle. This is not the same thing as “behind every great man is an even greater woman.” Deborah was a great woman. Her role was not to make men look better, or stay hidden at home to take care of other responsibilities, she was a profound individual full of power and glory, one who stands as an example for how we should view women today.

In ministry women are still facing challenges to be taken seriously and respected in their vocation. In saddens me to hear stories from my female peers who are often neglected and ignored because they are women. Too often I hear about church attendance declining significantly on the Sundays that the female pastor is slated to preach, or funeral directors refusing to believe that a female pastor has been called to proclaim someone’s life, death, and resurrection, or men making inappropriate comments to women in the ministry.

In particular I can remember receiving a page from one of my female colleagues at Duke University Hospital that a patient wanted a different pastor to visit. The patient was an older woman who had recently arrived and when I entered her room I wanted to find out why she needed a different chaplain. Had my friend said something inappropriate? Did she offend the woman laying in the hospital bed? The patient’s response was simple and sweeping: “Women are not meant to be pastors!

Deborah stands in stark contrast to the negative perspectives of women in ministry, and outside of service in the church. Women can be, and are, just as powerful as men. They can live and lead like Deborah with power, respect, and wisdom. We just need to have our eyes opened to the ways that God would have us see one another, neither male nor female, but made one in Jesus Christ.

In addition to the call to see women in a new light, the stories of Deborah and Jael remind us that having faith is complicated. We cannot compress what we believe into a tweet or an announcement on the marquee in front of church. The Good News cannot be compartmentalized onto a bumper sticker or a tee-shirt logo. Our faith is dynamic, organic, and complicated.

Jael striking Sisera dead with a tent peg is a frightening end to an otherwise typical story in the Old Testament. It had astounded faithful people for centuries; even John Wesley expressed his ethical qualms about Jael’s murderous actions in Judges 4 and wondered if this was divinely inspired, or written by someone who was subject to mistake.

However, God’s ways are sometimes like that; they are beyond explanation and justification. Considering the calls to love our neighbor and turn the other cheek, this story from Judges 4 seems contradictory compared with Christ’s commands in the New Testament. Yet we affirm this as God’s Word, that even in this story we receive an element of God’s ways with God’s people.

God, in scripture and in life, works in ways that surprise us. God delivers the people from the murderous Sisera with a tent peg from a deceitful woman. God calls a young shepherd to defeat the mighty Goliath and lead his people, only to fall to the temptation of lust in Bathsheba. God saved the two spies who entered Jericho through a harlot named Rahab who hid them on her roof. And God chose to save all of us through a carpenter who was nailed to the cross.

We affirm many things about God through worship. But one of the things that we neglect to mention, is that God is strange. God’s ways are not our ways. We cannot, and should not, presume to know why God does what God does. 

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A year and a half ago, I thought I was supposed to be an associate pastor at one of the larger churches in the Virginia Conference. After going straight from college to seminary and then into the ministry I believed it might be a good thing for me to follow under the leadership of a seasoned senior pastor who could help me learn the most fruitful ways of doing church. Knowing that I was going to propose to Lindsey, and hoping she would say yes, I figured that working in a larger area would give her a greater opportunity for finding a job in social work. I had it all planned out in my head, exactly how I would follow God’s call on my life.

And then I received a phone call: “Taylor, we’re taking your name off the associate list. We believe that your gifts and graces fit best with serving as the pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Staunton, Virginia. The bishop has appointed you, and we are praying for your ministry.”

As a 25 year old coming straight out of seminary, I never imagined that this would be the church that I was serving. I thought that I had it all figured out.

But God’s ways are not my ways. Our God loves to surprise us and save us in ways that we cannot imagine. I’m still trying to work out why God chose to send me here, but every day that I serve as the pastor of this church is a constant reminder that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. Because whether you know it or not, you have saved me in ways that I cannot even begin to describe.

Women are powerful and being faithful is complicated. Deborah and Jael remind us that the ways of the world are not the ways of God. That we are called to a new perspective on how to view one another: male-female, black-white, gay-straight, young-old, we are all God’s children full of value and worth. That God works in ways that are unexplainable and bizarre, calling people like you and me to serve our community side-by-side.

I’ll admit that its frightening and disconcerting, but sometimes God needs a tent peg to jolt, shock, and knock some sense into us.

Amen.

Devotional – Philippians 1.27

Devotional:

Philippians 1.27

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

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“Church Shopping” is a phenomenon in the contemporary church that I have not quite wrapped my head around. Oftentimes when a family, or an individual, moves to a new community they will try out a number of churches, regardless of denomination, until they find one that fits with their understanding of the way church is supposed to be. They will use their own rubrics and check-lists in order to determine whether the church is a good fit; Was I genuinely greeted and welcomed to church? Is the church full of people around my stage of life? Was the worship authentic and life-giving?

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In Staunton I have been struck by the more particular phenomenon of “Pastor Shopping.” When we have new visitors that become regular attendees I often ask them, in preparation for membership, where they came from and how they arrived at St. John’s. More often than I would like to admit, many of the responses have to do with a disagreement or a frustration with a pastor from their last church: He walked around too much while he preached; She wore blue jeans during worship; He doesn’t preach from the Bible; etc.

I will admit that there are plenty of churches that are detrimental to Christians’ faith. Pastors and congregations sometimes lose sight of the Gospel and become so inwardly focused that they forget to proclaim the Good News of Christ. However, I also believe that as Christians we have the responsibility to “stand firm in one spirit” with our brothers and sisters in Christ at our churches. The fact that so many are willing to leave a faithful community, after years of shared discipleship, because they disagree with a pastor is a frightening reality for the contemporary church.

It is my hope that if we have people at St. John’s who do not agree with what I preach, or how I lead, that they would be faithful enough to share their frustrations with me, and strive to continually serve “side by side for the faith of the gospel.” If we continue to commodify the church, which is to say if we make it into something that people can pick and choose like they pick and choose a cereal brand, then we will continue to have churches that are filled with people who are not challenged in their faith journeys.

Whether I’m your pastor or not, have you shared your thoughts and concerns with your pastor? Are you lovingly honest with them about their preaching? Have you prayed for them?

Perhaps today is the day that we can begin living our lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ with our pastors, with our families, and with our brothers and sister in Christ.

Devotional – Matthew 18.21-22

Devotional:

Matthew 18.21-22

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

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In October of 1735 John Wesley and his brother Charles left England and sailed to Savannah, Georgia where John would be the minister in the newly formed Savannah parish. Part of his religious upbringing had already instilled a desire for holiness of heart and life and Wesley believed that his new appointment provided a wonderful opportunity to hone his craft and enrich his faith. During his time serving as the pastor attendance at the church services steadily increased though he was disappointed by the lack of lived-out faith outside of worship.

John Wesley

John Wesley

Even with the growth in worship, many in the community disliked Wesley’s high church background and it proved to be a continual element of controversy. During this same time Wesley began to fall in love with the young and beautiful Sophia Hopkey. They courted for a period of time but after a brief visit to preach the Good News to the local Native Americans, Wesley was remarkably disappointed to discover that Sophia had married William Williamson. Wesley was devastated by the news and took out his frustration in a rather inappropriate way; he denied Sophia communion during church services.

Wesley, of course, had “reasons” to justify his actions (he believed that her zeal for living out her Christian faith had declined and he followed the guidelines from the Book of Common Prayer in prohibiting her sacramental participation) but he was also fueled by his heartache and anger in withholding the bread and wine. It quickly became quite the controversy and legal action was taken against Wesley eventually leading to him fleeing the colony and returning to England.

One of the highest, and most difficult, callings of Christian disciples is to forgive. When confronted with the question of forgiveness in the community Peter ventured forth the idea of forgiving someone seven times when Christ augmented the proposal to seventy-seven or seventy times seven times. Forgiveness, it would seem, is not something to be measured and checked off the list, but instead something that is deeply entrenched within the life of the community. Wesley let his personal feelings get the better of him, and he foolishly barred a young woman from Christ’s table. Christians, both clergy and lay, are called to the difficult task of everlasting forgiveness, even when it hurts.

Is there someone that you are still holding a grudge against? Who do you need to forgive in your life?