Devotional – 1 Thessalonians 2.9

Devotional:

1 Thessalonians 2.9

You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.

Weekly Devotional Image

All Saints’ Day is a strange celebration in the worship life of church. As United Methodists, we will gather together next Sunday to remember those who have gone on to glory; we will honor their lives, deaths, and promised resurrections. For a young pastor the celebration of All Saints is one that I look forward to in order to help the still grieving families mourn appropriately, but it is also a sacred day of privileged preaching that cannot be taken lightly.

I have been a pastor for 1 year and 4 months. It has been a tremendously rewarding experience thus far, and I continually feel that I am exactly where God has called me to be, and doing what God has called me to do. Throughout the first year, no one died in our church community. (They tell you in seminary to prepare yourself for a funeral your first week in the church; but for me that did not happen) We celebrated some incredibly special moments together in worship: baptisms, professions of faith, weddings, confirmation, the Eucharist. But we did not gather together for a funeral. While so many of my clergy colleagues felt fatigued under the tidal wave of death that was striking their local churches, I felt guilty for making it through a year without having to do a funeral.

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Over the last few months, however, we have lost 6 church members in quick succession. While sitting with families in the deep and dark moments of planning a funeral after the loss of a loved one, I was also worried about someone that had just entered the hospital, or received a bleak diagnosis. Death, it seemed, had caught up with us.

Church is often made out to be a place of sacred happiness where people can discover an element of joy and grace that they might not otherwise find. Yet at the same time, the church is one of the last arenas of reality. It used to be that people feared having a quick death. They did so because they feared dying without having the time to be reconciled with their enemies, who were often members of their family, the church and God. Today we fear death. They feared God.

All Saints is a time for us to remember the great promise that God made with us when Jesus was resurrected from the dead: that we are not alone and that Christ has defeated death. This does not mean that we will not die, but it means that death is not the end.

As we prepare for All Saints’ Sunday, let us remember the “labor and toil” of those who have gone on to glory, those who “worked night and day, so that we might not be burdened while we learned about the gospel of God.” Let us remember our own finitude and give thanks to God for not abandoning us. And let us praise the Lord who defeated death so that we might have life.

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What’s Love Got To Do With It? – Sermon on Matthew 22.34-40

Matthew 22.34-40

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

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Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?

What a great question. The bible is full of teachings, so many in fact that a number of passages contradict. It details the history of God with God’s people from the beginning of creation, through the patriarchs, politicians, and prophets. The law is complex and detailed at times with provisions for how to treat one another, and behave faithfully. Are we to live by all of the commandments equally or is there one that stands alone? “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?

Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment, the one that stands alone as a beacon under which all the other laws pale in comparison. The lawyer is looking for a solitary answer, yet Jesus refuses to name only one; for Christ the love of God and neighbor are inseparable.

Jesus said to the lawyer, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

What I want to know is this: What does it actually mean to love God and neighbor?

A number of years ago I was flying back from Guatemala after a week-long mission trip when I had one of the strangest encounters with love. In order to save money the church had purchased tickets from all over the aircraft and none of us were sitting together. Frankly, after a week of building stoves in the remote highlands of Guatemala I was perfectly fine sitting away from everyone; we smelled, we were irritable, and we were tired. When I boarded the plane all I could think about was the thrill of falling asleep and waking up back at home. My seat was located toward the front of the coach section on the left side, the middle of three seats. I arrived before my seat-mates, and when it was clear that they were a married couple, with me in the middle, I offered to move to the aisle so that they could sit next to one another. Big mistake.

Don’t get me wrong, they were remarkably kind and in good spirits. They had been vacationing together in Guatemala at a resort and were full of joy and happiness. I think they were in their early sixties, and though they had been probably married for a few decades, they looked like the trip had helped them to fall in love all over again.

From what I remember our conversation was pleasant, they told me about their resort, I told them about the stoves we built, they talked about the exquisite food, I told them about my Peanut-Butter and Jelly sandwiches. They asked me about my calling to ministry, and I asked them about their family. Without a doubt the funniest moment occurred when the steward came by and asked what we would like to drink; I was prepared to ask for a ginger ale but they insisted on purchasing me a glass of wine. When I told them that I was not yet old enough to drink alcoholic beverages they giggled and and exclaimed, “well sweetie, we won’t tell anyone,” right in front of the steward. Needless to say: I did not have a glass of wine.

Anyway, when the inflight movie started up on the headsets in front of us, I was dismayed to discover that the entire plane would be watching the romantic comedy “P.S. I Love You.” Now even if you’ve never heard of the movie, thats fine, suffice it to say that it is a romantic comedy with apathetic acting and a very limited narrative; within the first five minutes you know exactly how the movie will end. I decided to rest my eyes and catch some Zs but the couple next to me were hooked. With their headphones plunged deep into their ear canals they kept asking each other questions out loud, “Wait was he her husband?!” “Oh poor thing, what will she do now?!” “Do you think he’s right for her?!” Try as I might, I was unable to fall asleep. When the movie finally ended I muttered a quick prayer to God, thanking him for delivering me from the captivity of the couple sitting next to me, but that’s when the kissing began.

I’m not talking about your simple peck on the lips of affection, but full-on “sitting in the back seat of a car at a drive in movie” kind of kissing. All I can remember is forcing myself as far away as possible in my seat in order to clear myself from being hit by a wayward arm or leg. It was awful. I tried listening to music, I tried reading from a book, but there was nothing that could distract me from the love fest happening to my left. Suddenly however the husband stopped kissing his wife, pulled her away from his face and said with completely sincerity, “PS I Love You honey” and they commenced kissing to an even higher degree.

How are we supposed to love God and neighbor? Are we called to be filled with the Romantic-Comedy-kiss-your-spouse-on-an-airplane kind of love?

Love, in my opinion, is one of the most over-used and underwhelming words that we use on a regular basis. We teach our children to be careful with their hearts and affection unless they are in love. We wait to value a romantic relationship as something with a future only when we love and feel loved by the other. Even in our preschool I witness our children hugging one another and talking about love as if it is a prerequisite for friendship.

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In the church, sadly, the call to love God and neighbor has become so routined in Christianity that we have become numb to it, or only view it superficially. When we hear that we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, we don’t ask what it means to love, we just want to know who are neighbors are supposed to be!

In a time when the word “love” is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the fundamental component of biblical love is not affection, but commitment. Warm feelings of love and gratitude may fill our souls as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not a warm and fuzzy feeling that Christ demands of us. Instead, love for God and neighbor is a stubborn and unwavering commitment. We do not have to feel affection for our neighbor, nor for God; to love our neighbors is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously.

It is true that God loves us in an affectionate and sweet way. He has called us by name and breathed life into us. But most of God’s love for us can be summarized as putting up with us in spite of all our faults and shortcomings. God has stayed with us when we no longer deserved his presence.

Pre-marital counseling is a privilege in my profession. I must admit that in the beginning I was afraid of pre-martial counseling sessions, but now I really enjoy them. I used sit with couples without having been married myself, but now with 6 months of married life experience, I am an expert! There is something indescribably precious about getting to meet with a couple before their wedding to talk about the deep realities of life-long commitment. When we gather together, it is a time of holiness and vulnerability that, I hope, will help them in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.

I also greatly enjoy those counseling sessions because I get to ask questions that would otherwise be completely inappropriate in any other circumstance. If I’m feeling particularly gung-ho I begin with the zinger: “tell me about your last fight.” Couples upon stare back at me in disbelief, or claim that they have never fought. Or I begin with a standard question turned upside down: “Why in the world do you want to get married in the church?” I inform them that we could get in the car and drive down to the courthouse and they could be married that afternoon; it would be easier and cheaper. So what is it that makes you want to get married in a church?

All of the questions I ask are aimed at trying to get them to start thinking about life beyond love. Because when I ask why they want to get married, I almost always hear “because I love her” or “because I love him.”

Love is nice, but love is not enough.

At least not the kind of love that we have been habituated into through Hallmark, Romantic-Comedies, and Trashy Novels. Love, to us, often has more to do with lust and affection than it does with commitment and patience.

Love is not enough because she is not going to look that good in ten years, and nor will he. Whatever physical love you feel for each other, it will change. You think you know each other? You think that love is enough? Just wait till you wake up next to them every morning for an entire year, or he starts snoring every night, or she forgets what you asked her to do week after week.

Are we supposed to love God and neighbor the way we are called to love our spouse? Yes, but it is a type of love that we often lose sight of. It is not the way the world tells us to love, but a love that we learn from God.

For centuries Israel disobeyed the God who brought them out of Egypt, the God of their ancestors, yet God’s love remained steadfast. For centuries the church has disobeyed the Word of the Lord and let sinfulness run rampant. When we act on behalf of the Lord for our own selfish purposes, when we make a mockery of this beautiful thing called the church, when we refuse to go to God in our prayers, we neglect to love the God who loves us in spite of what we do. God has put up with people like you and me for centuries, he has be stubbornly present with us, and thats what love is all about.

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Christ calls us to be stubbornly loving with our neighbor, who, by the way, is everyone, with unwavering commitment. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Agnostics, Catholics, and even Baptists. Blacks, Whites, Heterosexuals, Homosexuals, the rich, the poor, the strong, the weak, the elderly, and the youthful. Loving the neighbor must teach us how to love God. Jesus has radically pushed us into a way of being where we are told to love all our neighbors, even our enemies, and we can only do so when we imitate the kind of love that God has for us.

Someone this week put it this way: It is often easier to love someone than to like them.

Truly to love God is to love the neighbor; truly to love the neighbor is to love God.

You might not like what God is doing in your life right now, you might want to cry out with clenched fists in anger about God’s presence, you might feel that God has abandoned you. You don’t have to like God to love God.

You might feel like the people closest to you have ignored your needs and have stopped listening to you, you might feel like the outcasts in our community don’t deserve any of your time or energy, you might feel like your neighbor has done something to you that is beyond forgiveness. You don’t have to like your neighbor, to love your neighbor.

It sure is a strange thing to follow Christ. How bizarre is it that he has turned the world upside down and called to the first to be last and the last to be first? How weird is it that he has shattered the world’s vision to be replaced with God’s imagination?

My friends, let us be stubborn with our patience, unwavering with our commitment, and radical with our love toward God and neighbor. 

Amen.

Devotional – Leviticus 19.18

Devotional:

Leviticus 19.18

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love you neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. 

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A few weeks ago I found myself sitting at a table in a buffet style restaurant surrounded by other Methodist clergy from the local district. We had been called to meet that morning to discuss challenges facing the local church and a group of us had decided to get lunch immediately following the gathering. With mounds of mashed potatoes, fried chicken, and gravy spread out between us, we began to converse and enjoy one another’s company.

For a little while we talked about the meeting and some of the comments from our peers. Later on we talked about the change in season and how beautiful it was starting to look in the valley. But, as with all clergy gatherings, the conversation moved toward a discussion of metrics:

“How many did you have in worship last Sunday?”

“Is you church paying their apportionments?”

“Are you receiving any new visitors?”

These questions drive me crazy. The commodification of the church is sinful temptation that many Christians, particularly clergy, cannot resist. I was sitting with my peers, fellow shepherds for the kingdom of God, when a string of questions immediately put up divisions between us. Instead of viewing one another as colleagues and peers, we saw competition and comparison. The questions were divisive, but the answers were even worse:

“We hit 130 most Sundays.”

“We’re not even close to paying our apportionments, we can barely keep the lights on.”

“We’ve had a lot of young families start to try out our church.”

We could have spent a wonderful time of food and fellowship discussing different ways to be Christ’s body for the world, we could’ve prayed for our peers and their ministries. However, our lunch was focused on numbers and many of us left either feeling defeated about our dying church, or high and mighty about our growing church.

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For the budding nation of Israel, God was insistent on calling them to work together and not bear grudges against any of the people; “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In a sense they needed to know they they were in this together and to stop putting up walls between themselves. Similarly, we all fall to the temptation of holding grudges against people in our lives, and in particular with those who are closest to us. Clergy often compare their churches and ministries with their peers and forget that they are all working for God’s kingdom. Others will compare their marriages, jobs, children, salaries, families, etc. with the people around them instead of loving their neighbors as themselves.

Who are you holding a grudge against because of numbers? Which neighbor, friend, or family member do you need to start loving as you love yourself?

Devotional – 1 Thessalonians 1.6-7

Devotional:

1 Thessalonians 1.6-7

And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 

Weekly Devotional Image

There is a burden that comes with being a Christian leader (or as the Spiderman comics would put it: with great power comes great responsibility). Just as in the day of Paul, we, as Christians, are expected to imitate the Lord through our actions, so that we can be examples to all other people. The great challenge with this responsibility comes with the temptation to use the power we have been given for ourselves, rather than for God’s kingdom.

For too many years some Christians leaders and preachers have tended to elevate their ministry to such a staggering degree that they become more important than the living God whom they claim to follow. I have seen churches that have no images of Christ displayed in the sanctuary, no cross to remember the great act of the incarnate God, and nothing else that would lead anyone to know that the gathered people were Christians. I remember visiting a church when I lived in Harrisonburg, Virginia that looked like a music venue and by the time the service was over I realized that the triune God was not mentioned even once. It seemed that doing church, for them, was more about living a good life based on the standards imposed by the leaders rather than a profound commitment to discover the living God and follow Christ.

Grunewald's Crucifixion

Grunewald’s Crucifixion

When the great theologian Karl Barth was a pastor in Basel, Switzerland he discovered Matthias Grunewald’s depiction of the crucifixion and kept a copy of it on his desk throughout his ministry, from his days as a young pastor until his death. Barth believed the work of art was a worthy metaphor for Christians; John the Baptist stands off to the side holding an open bible while pointing away from himself to Christ on the cross. Christians, at their best, are called to be like John and point away from themselves to the incredible Christ who is the only one worthy of our imitation. We point toward Christ through our words and actions, while also remembering the distance between us and Christ; we will never live exactly like him, but we nevertheless strive to imitate him in our living.

When I learned about Barth’s affection for the Grunewald piece, I made sure to find a copy for my office. It is the first thing I see when someone enters my office, and the last thing I see before heading to the sanctuary for worship. It hangs at eye sight right next to the door as a constant reminder about my responsibility to point toward Christ and not myself.

How do you imitate the Lord in your daily life? Where in your life can you point to Christ so that others can come to know the love of God?

What’s Right With The Church? – Sermon on Philippians 4.1-9

Philippians 4.1-9

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

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What’s right with the church? Easy sermon topic… I thought. I was having lunch with a some friends a few days ago when I casually mentioned the theme for our worship service this week, and shared with them my desire to accentuate the positive aspects of communal Christianity. I realized that this sermon was going to be very difficult to write when I asked them to share their ideas about what the church is doing right, and the table remained silent for an uncomfortable amount of time. What’s right with the church?

Two weeks ago Sue Volskis walked into my office before our lectionary bible study and in addition to the crossword puzzles that she so graciously gives to me, she handed over a manuscript. The title read: “What’s Right With The Church; a sermon by Zig Volskis; May 17, 1987.” She had been going through some of Zig’s things and found a sermon about the state of the church that he had preached the year before I was born. Whatever I had planned to do for the rest of the afternoon was placed on the back burner and I dove straight into his writing.

It is a beautiful sermon, and I wish that I could have been there to hear it in person. Instead of focusing on all the negative elements of church life, of which there are plenty, Zig dedicated the sermon to looking at the positive and life-giving elements of the body of Christ that is the church.

Zig proclaimed that as a child he would have responded to his question with the church bells and music. They both represented the energy and depth of the worshipping community through sounds and music. The music of church reassured the people that God was the one in control, even if the world claimed the contrary.

As an adult, Zig claimed that his answer had changed over a career of serving the church for thirty years. The first and foremost thing that is right about the church is that it endures! Empires come and go, churches are destroyed by war and exodus, yet the body of Christ endures.  With all its blindness, and plundering, for all its refusal to use its enormous resources, the church, nevertheless, has sought to minister to human need in a thousand different ways. And for untold numbers of persons the helping hand of the church has been a life-saver.

Zig ended the sermon with a call to those who love the church: make more room for it, bring to it your best and highest devotion. And to those who are not sure about the church: you will not find perfection here, but come in anyway, and help us make it better. There are so many things right about the church that the things that are wrong don’t really matter that much anyway. Amen.

On Monday morning I read through our scripture lesson for today, part of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, and I kept hearing Zig’s words in my mind. Paul, like Zig, could have listed all of the things wrong with the church and then implore the people to be better. He could’ve listed their sins and talked about the importance of temperance and self-control. But he didn’t. Like Zig, Paul instead calls the people to focus on the goodness in their church lives. Let your gentleness be known through your living. Remember that the Lord is near, and don’t worry about the trivial moments of life but instead go to the Lord in prayer and the peace of God will guard your minds and souls. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

This is not a call to ignore the negative, nor is it a command to turn a blind eye to the problems of church. Paul is instead offering the church a way of understanding the world through the beauty and joy of what church can be.

Take it from a young pastor – there are plenty of problems in the church; from here at St. John’s to the global church. Churches are broken because they are filled with broken people. I could stand up here this morning and outline the depth of our depravity, I could talk to you about the problems facing the Middle East, we could talk about the Ebola Crisis, I could share with you the remarkably inappropriate comments I heard other clergy make this week about homosexuality. We could spend our church service focusing on all the negative but we already do enough of that.

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It is nearly impossible to turn on the television, open a newspaper, or get online without being bombarded with the problems of the world. And if the media is so inclined to mention something about the church is it almost always a controversy or a reminder of our brokenness.

So today, I want us to be different from the world. I want to follow Zig’s example, which is to say I want to follow Paul’s example, and talk about what’s right with the church.

I never had a choice about being a Christian. There was a never a time in my life where my family was not part of the church. Some of my earliest memories are of Church services, living nativities, and sitting at the altar during children’s messages.

As a kid I would have answered the question by saying the church is fun! Where else do we get to spend time on a weekly basis hearing about the incredible stories of God with God’s people? Where else will adults make fools of themselves for the sake of sharing the Good News with young people? For me the church has always been fun and I therefore had no reason to choose something else to do. The continued presence of the church in my life, and its influence over my actions and decisions, is a reminder that (unlike the popular American perspective) the choices made for us and in spite of us are often of more lasting consequences than the choices made by us (Willimon, What’s Right With The Church, 35-36). We like to think that we choose God, when in fact God is the one who chooses us.

What’s right with the church? The church is the place where people discover and live-into the reality that God has gone looking for them. I might experience God in the middle of the woods, or in the loving embrace of a friend, but church is the place where I learn the language to articulate those experiences. My eyes are opened by the church regarding how to experience God in this place, and in the world. The community of faith proclaims the Word so that we can absorb it, and live it out in the world. The people who gather as Christ’s body reach out to us in love through God’s will to call us in.

As I got older I might’ve answered the question by saying that the church’s music is awesome! Whether singing the incredible hymns from the hymnal, or wailing on the drums during a contemporary worship service, I have always loved church music. The words and tunes that we rely on every week articulate the faith of scripture and the value it plays in our lives.

I love those moments when I find myself whistling a tune, or mumbling through the lyrics of a song only to realize that it fits perfectly with my present moment. Sometimes the music of church gets the better of me and my emotions runneth over. Some of you might not realize it, but I stand behind this pulpit when I sing the hymns, so that, just in case I start crying, none of you will see it.

The music of our church is awesome because it can bring us to tears, bring smiles to our faces, reignite the flame of faith, and give us goosebumps. I love the music of church because it is so unlike the music we hear Monday through Saturday; it encourages us in our faith.

While in seminary I might’ve answered the question by saying the church is a radically alternative community. This place in unlike anything else you can experience. The church at its best is a place where everyone can belong regardless of anything else in your life.

Paul calls the church “a colony of heaven.” We are like an island of one kingdom in the midst of another. We exist communally because we could not survive on our own, we need others to help us stay accountable to the grace that God has poured on our lives. We work through our faith and live together in harmony as an alternative community where the world, for us, has been turned upside down.

We are a strange group of people who are more focused on others than ourselves, we believe the first will be last and the last will be first. In this alternative community we are habituated by love for love. In baptism we take vows to raise children in love and faith, in marriage we take public vows to help the new couple remain accountable to God and one another, in funerals we offer honest and truthful words about someone’s life, death, and promised resurrection.

But if you asked me today, right now, “What’s right with the church?” My answer would be: it’s incarnational. In the incarnation God took on our human flesh in Jesus Christ to be both fully God and fully human. Our church is incarnational. We gather together to hear the Word of the Lord and let it become flesh in the ways we live our lives.

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The church is the fundamental location for discovering and receiving the peace of God. This peace is something that is beyond my ability to describe with words, but it is a peace that the world cannot give; money cannot by it, nor can we earn it through social positioning. The peace of God comes from God as a gift, peace which surpasses all understanding. It is a comfort that soothes every fiber of our being, while at the same time electrifies our existence into something new, bold, and incredible. In church we confront the living God who first breathed life into us, who walks along the paths of understanding with us side-by-side, and will stay with us no matter what.

The incarnational church refuses to be moved by the expectations of the world, and instead remains committed to the love of God in our daily lives. We who have been Christians for any reasonable amount of time can remember others who have lived before us a life that was full of incarnational joy, people who heard the Word and let it become flesh in their lives. We are better, stronger, and fuller Christians for having known and watched such fellow disciples. And now we have the same opportunity to be a source of incarnational joy and life to others with whom we come in contact.

What’s right with the church?

In spite of its obvious corruptions and imperfections, it is the church that reminds us about the love of God that will not let us go, as it points us toward the true home of our souls.

So, let me say to you who love the church: make more room for it, bring to it your best and highest devotion. Pray fervently for its renewal and commitment toward being Christ’s body in the world.

And let me say to you who are not so sure about the church: You will not find perfection here, but come in anyway, and help us make it better. Help us open our eyes to the way the living God is moving and speaking in the world so that we can continue to be the body of Christ for the world.

There are so many things right about the church that the things that are wrong don’t really matter that much anyway.

Amen.

Devotional – Isaiah 25.1

Devotional:

Isaiah 25.1

O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.

Weekly Devotional Image

I felt very stressed during church yesterday. When I arrived in the morning I was dismayed to discover that the boiler was not working properly and we had no heat in the sanctuary. I must’ve gone into the basement five times in order to figure out what was wrong before the worship service began. Instead of taking the proper time to be in prayer and rested for worship, I spent the morning running around with thoughts of pilot lights and water pumps rather than Psalm 19 and God’s presence. Moreover, as the service began I noticed that the sound system was not functioning and I realized I was going to have to use my big preacher voice; instead of entering the sanctuary and singing the opening hymn faithfully, I worried about the lay people who rely on hearing assisted devices that would not be working.

When our service ended I felt drained. Carrying the burden of worship is often enough on its own, but to have the added stressors yesterday was almost too much. (Both the boiler and the sound system have now been fixed, in case any of you were worried). After shaking hands with everyone as they left, my wife, Lindsey, wrapped her arms around me, and told me that she was taking me out to lunch. Without having to explain to her everything that I had been through in the morning, without even mentioning how drained I felt, she read me like a comic book and offered to take care of me.

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We all have many blessings, even when we feel like we are in one of the deep valleys of life. While Lindsey and I drove to lunch yesterday I thanked and praised God for having done so many wonderful things for me: for bringing Lindsey and I together, for appointing me to a church with such loving and caring people, for bringing us to Staunton, for being present with me even when I let the stress of church overpower me. There are times when I find myself praying for others in our church and community, and I forget to thank God for all that he has done for me. It is sad how often I take for granted the incredible grace and mercy of the Lord that has been poured onto my life and I would do better to remember the words of Isaiah while I pray: “O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.”

What are some of the wonderful things that God has done for you? Have you thanked God today for the blessings in your life?

Let us be thankful people who praise the Lord for his faithful presence.

Why Do We Pray? – Sermon on Psalm 19.7-14

Psalm 19.7-14

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgressions. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

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There were two men. The first lived his life perfectly and blamelessly; everything was coordinated and examined. He never wasted a moment and did his utmost to plan for every contingency and minor catastrophe. If he could live his life in consistent repetition, he believed he could achieve perfection. Every morning he awoke to eat the same breakfast and spend precisely 15 minutes reading from his bible, offering up the same lifeless prayer. He wasn’t sure that he actually believed in God, but he wanted to be safe. He took the same roads to work, ordered the same lunch, used the same pencil brand. Everything was accounted for. He made his money, invested in the right companies, provided for his family. On the surface he had everything you could want. Except he did not have life.

The second man lived a life of apparent chaos as he tried desperately to cling to something solid as the world continued to spin around him. Every morning was a new and exciting, though sometimes terrifying, adventure. He would often oversleep leading him to rush off to work without his breakfast or morning coffee. He was a faithful Christian, he somehow was able to make it to church every week, his bible was often found in different places throughout his house with ear marks and underlined passages in the Old and New Testament. He believed deeply that God was a living and loving presence in his life and looked forward to his moments of silence during the day when he felt he could best commune with the divine. Speaking with God was not about rhythm or repetition, but a life-giving and humbling experience. He made his money, tried to invest, but believed that spending time with his family would be more rewarding than a large portfolio. On the surface he was missing some of the things that make up the American dream. But he had life.

It has taken me a long time to learn how to pray; and I’m still not satisfied with my prayer life. I go through waves of devoting time everyday to sitting in silence and talking with God, and then there are days when I have realized that I felt too busy to pray. I have spent weeks praying prayers that have been written in books, and I have spent months praying extemporaneous prayers from my heart and soul. I have experimented with numerous spiritual disciplines, and I’m not sure that I have found the one that is just for me, perhaps I never will.

Prayer is one of those things in the life of Christian discipleship that we expect, but rarely talk about. Whenever we get together as a church, before an activity begins, all eyes fall on me to lead us in prayer so that we can start. Sometimes those prayers feel life-giving, but oftentimes they feel like an expectation. When I am asked to pray before a meal, there are times that I feel truly genuine in expressing my thankfulness to the Lord, but there are also times when I feel that I am just going through the motions.

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There was a long period in my life where I felt like the first man. I would wake up early and ride my bike to Duke Divinity School just so that I could be there for Morning Prayer with the Anglicans and Episcopalians. I even started to lead the daily worship service. But there was a time when in meant very little to me. It became so routine that I stopped listening to the words, and felt that it was more important for me to be there in body, than it was for me to be there in heart and soul.

Last week I asked us to examine a simple, yet profound, question: What is the point of Church? Why do we spend time each week gathering in this place? I attempted to proclaim God’s Word in such a way that we could begin to move away from a maintenance model of Church, to a missional model where we live as Christ’s body for the world.

Today I would like to ask an equally simple, yet profound, question: Why do we pray and read scripture? Why do we take the time to halt the busyness of our lives to read God’s Word and commune with him?

The psalmist writes that the law of the Lord is perfect, it revives the soul, it makes us wise, it allows us to rejoice in our hearts. The commandments are clear, they open our eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure and endures forever. The ordinances of the Almighty are true and righteous. The psalmist even goes on to claim that the Word of the Lord is to be desired more than gold and sweeter than honey.

You could give me a biscuit with honey on it right now, and I would tell you that is the sweetest thing in the world. Yet, as I have grown older, as I have spent more time deep in God’s Word, its sweetness has been revealed to me. In a conversation with someone during bible study, or deep in prayer about someone’s life and suffering, a new vision and understanding is presented to me out of God’s Word. It truly is a sweet gift, one that speaks to us, even today, from God.

The difference between the two men, is that the first saw his responsibility to prayer and scripture as simply that – a responsibility. He sets aside the time to read and pray, but the words on paper and the words on his lips are lifeless. He believes the first part of the psalm but expects that so long as he maintains his regular practice it will be enough. The second man, however, recognizes that he can do more, that speaking with God can be different and casual and faithful.

Psalm 19 begins to answer our question: Why do we pray and read scripture? It refreshes our souls.

When we spend time reflecting on God’s Word and going to him with our thoughts, desires, hopes, and fears we honor the living Lord who refreshes our souls for a new day. It simplifies the way we envision the world, and reminds us who we are following and why. It humbles us and rewards us.

However, even with the benefits and warnings in scripture, we cannot completely avoid hidden sins and mistakes nor can we control others around us and prevent them from doing the same.

God’s Word operates as a warning about the transgressions of life. It has not only the green light of “allowed”, and the red light of “forbidden,” but also the yellow light of “caution.” Ordinary and humble people do not normally go plowing through the red lights of life. Deliberate and precise sins come with practice and committed degeneracy. But we are all constantly taking chances with the yellow lights of behavior.

That is why the end of the psalm is so important: Who can detect all of their own errors? Who can look at their life and faithfully say I was wrong? Great God, cleanse me from my hidden faults, keep me from those who would do harm to my soul.

The greatest test of our faith is found in our willingness to seek forgiveness from our sins, particularly those no one knows about except us. When we have committed a wrong against someone, and everyone else knows about it, I believe we are more inclined to seek forgiveness. But when we do something wrong in secret, when we sin while no one is watching, I believe we are less inclined to ask for forgiveness, because it is entirely on us. God’s word and a life of prayer are therefore the ways by which we might have the strength to admit our faults, as we read about so many who have sinned before us, and seek forgiveness as we commune with the Lord in prayer. Reading and praying are as essential for us as are eating and breathing – they all give us life.

If you want to become a United Methodist Pastor, there are a number of requirements you have to meet. One of the most stressful is planning a full worship service, leading it, preaching, and having the entire thing videotaped. I was still in seminary when I asked my home church if I could “take over” for one Sunday in order to film the service and send it off to the people who would determine whether I should become a pastor or not.

I fretted about the service, overanalyzed the bulletin, worried about the hymns I selected, stressed about the scripture, and never felt the sermon was good enough. After all the weeks of planning and communication I showed up at my home church Sunday morning, and prepared to put it all on the line. I remember standing in the back, and giving my father the “thumbs up” to start recording when Jason, my friend and pastor, walked ahead of me to address the congregation.

“For those of you that don’t know,” he began “we have one of our very own here this morning to lead us through worship. Taylor is applying to be considered for an appointment in the United Methodist Church and everything we do this morning is being filmed. You and I all know that he is not really that funny, but if you could try to laugh at his jokes, I’m sure that it will help him out with the Board of Ordained Ministry.

The service was oriented around a reading from the end of James about sharing our sufferings with one another. The role of disciples in the church is to rejoice with one another at times of happiness, and weep together during times of sorrow. We are called to love one another through the good times and the bad, but we can only begin to find healing and reconciliation if we share our struggles.

When I was finally able to offer the benediction at the end of the service I breathed out a huge sigh of relief, a sigh that was so loud that you can hear it in the recording! I had made it through the whole thing without tripping and embarrassing myself, without stuttering through the scripture reading, and I even got a few laughs during the sermon though I could never tell whether they were genuine or not…

I made my way out of the sanctuary proud of the service and hopeful that it was good enough for the Board that would be viewing it. But while my mind was caught up in my own selfish reflections about the service, I saw a member of the church, someone I knew very well, crying in her pew.

She shared with me that her daughter had been suffering with bulimia through the last six months and she had refused to share it with anyone. She was embarrassed that she had failed as a mother and she felt as if she was carrying the whole world on her shoulders. She said that after hearing the scripture read, and the words of the sermon, she prayed in her pew, and she realized (for the first time) that the church was the place that she could share her burden. And while others were preparing to leave she reached out to the stranger in her pew and asked if she could share with him her struggles and pray together. With tears flowing down her face she said that this was the best she had felt in months.

prayer-bible

The Word of the Lord is greater than gold and sweeter than honey. In the moments of our reading and praying we are opened up to the strange new world of the bible and of faithful living that can change everything.

We pray and read to cleanse our souls and to give us life. It is not something that has to be strictly observed with militaristic expression, but instead something that we believe can change our lives.

The final line of the Psalm 19 is a beloved and permanent aspect of worship; they are the words I pray before preaching every single Sunday. If our words and thoughts are acceptable in the Lord’s sight we are on the path toward renewed spirits and discipled living. When those words become our truest prayer and hope then we are speaking and thinking as if Jesus was at our elbow which, after all, is the whole point of prayer.

Amen.