Devotional – 1 Corinthians 15.57

Devotional:

1 Corinthians 15.57

But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Weekly Devotional Image

Favorite Thanksgiving food? Mashed Potatoes (or as we call them in my family: Mashed-for-Taylors). Favorite Thanksgiving tradition? Getting together with a number of friends and family the day after thanksgiving for a giant kickball tournament (Kids vs. Adults, and I’m still young enough to be considered for the kid team!). Strange Thanksgiving memory? The year my grandmother kept praying for God to take care of the people in Siberia, when she really meant to say Syria, and none of us could figure out why she was so adamant with her prayers. Favorite Thanksgiving pastime? Standing outside with my Dad in the cold while he prepares to fry one of our turkeys.

I love Christmas and I love Easter, but Thanksgiving is equally wonderful in my opinion. There is just something so special about all the traditions coming into focus with incredible people on an annual basis. I look forward to this week with eager anticipation because I will get to see family for the first time in a long time, I will get to laugh with my sisters at the expense of our parents, and I will get to enjoy my mother’s incredible cooking.

Of all the Thanksgiving traditions, my favorite is the moment after the prayer, once we have finally sat down in our seats, when I have the privilege of inviting everyone to go around the table and share what they are most thankful for this year. At our house, tears are always inevitable. During the time of thankfulness I witness my cousins maturing to an age when they can truly appreciate some of the blessings in their life, I witness family members break down in the recognition of how wonderful their lives really are, and I witness friends and acquaintances truly become part of the family. Expressing our thankfulness at the table is, without a doubt, my favorite moment during the Thanksgiving experience because you get to share in God’s glory made manifest in the lives of those gathered together.

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Over the last few months we have had too many funerals at St. John’s. Too many times have I stood in the pulpit and proclaimed the life, death, and promised resurrection of someone in our community while friends and family wept in the pews. For every funeral I have used the words from Paul: “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Even in the midst of horrendous suffering and loss we give thanks to God for the gift of those persons we have lost, we give thanks to God for His continual and abiding presence, and we give thanks to God for the great victory over death through Jesus Christ.

No matter who we are and no matter where we are, we have something to be thankful for this year. It might not be a new job, or a loving spouse. It might not be a lucrative career, or perfect children. But there is one thing that we can all be thankful for: the gift of God in Christ.

May God’s grace and presence be with all of you this week as we give thanks back to God for our blessings.

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Devotional – Psalm 95.6

Devotional:

Psalm 95.6

O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!

Weekly Devotional Image

Do you ever have times in your life that feel spiritually dry? You hear all the words in Sunday worship, you read your bible during the week, but when you pray it feels empty and lacking life? Before I entered seminary I felt that I had a robust spiritual life and was committed to daily prayer and the reading of scripture; I felt most alive when I was reminded of God’s Word during the week and when I was in communion with the Lord. However, after entering Duke Divinity and being bombarded with the amount of work I was required to do, I stopped praying and reading scripture outside of my weekly requirements. Reading the Bible went from being a life-giving experience, to a tedious chore.

Around that time my best friend, Josh, encouraged me to start attending Morning Prayer with the Anglicans and Episcopalians. Every morning before classes started a faithful group would gather in Goodson Chapel and go through the Book of Common Prayer in order to orient themselves for the day ahead. In the beginning I reluctantly made my way into the sanctuary every morning with Josh by my side and we went through the motions of Morning Prayer. As the token Methodists, we were not used to the constant physical movements of worship but we quickly caught on: We knelt on the floor during the confession, we stretched our palms facing upwards during the pardon, and we made the sign of the cross whenever the trinity was mentioned. For months we were there everyday and before I recognized it, Morning Prayer became essential to my way of life; I needed to pray with others to start my day, I needed to commune with the Lord before I dove into his Word for class. Additionally, Morning Prayer began to manifest itself in my life outside of that early service — I found myself making the sign of the cross at church on Sunday mornings and I was the only one at my United Methodist Church who would kneel on the floor during confession before communion (I got a lot of stares for that).

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Sometimes the physical routines of prayer, the embodiment of time with God, can help us through those times of dry spirituality. Even if I can sense that I am not fully invested in my prayers, when my knees hit the ground and I kneel before the Lord I am drawn back to the importance of what I am doing. Even if I can sense that I am distracted during worship, when my fingers make the sign of the cross I am drawn back to the intense gravity of all who have crossed themselves in reverence throughout the centuries. There is just something incredible about physically embodying our prayers that helps to keep me focused and thankful for the Lord our Maker.

This week I encourage you to try something new in your prayer life. Instead of sitting in the same chair at your home, or kneeling by your bed, trying praying in a new way. Experience kneeling on the ground to praise the Lord, or bow down and physically move in a way that helps to enhance your spirit. Try to live out your prayer life in a way that is different, faithful, and physical.

The Talent Show – Sermon on Matthew 25.14-30

Matthew 25.14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave, you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

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I have an idea. We are going to start things off in the sermon a little differently this morning. Instead of sitting patiently and attentively while I spout off about theological ideas and anecdotes, we are going to do an activity…

In the parable of the talents, the master gives to the first slave five talents, the second slave two talents, and to the third slave he gives one talent. During the time of Christ, a talent was worth more than fifteen years of wages for a daily laborer; therefore this was a tremendous amount of money. So, here’s our activity: I want us to imagine that we are the modern equivalent of the master’s slaves, and we are going to discuss what we are going to do with the talents. If you’re sitting in the front third of the sanctuary I want you to imagine that the master has given you $50,000. In the middle third I want you to imagine that the master has given you $20,000. And the back third I want you to imagine that the master has given you $10,000. (If you remember anything from worship today, let it be this: It pays to sit near the front!) Anyway, I would like you to break up into groups of three or four and discuss what you would do with the money for the benefit of the kingdom of God. Begin.

Okay. The master would like to know what you are planning to do with his talents…

Of course, in the parable things work out a little differently. The master has decided to go on a great journey, and entrusts an incredible amount of money to three of his slaves. He provides them with five talents, two talents, and one talent, to each according to his ability. After the master leaves the five talent slave goes off and works hard with his talents and makes five more. Likewise the two talent slave goes off and works hard to earn two more talents. However the one talent slave went off and dug a hole in the ground to hide his master’s money.

The master returns and is greatly thrilled with the first two slaves. He rewards their trustworthy and hardworking nature by placing them in charge of many things, and then invites them into the joy of their master. But with the one talent slave, the master is very disappointed. The third slave was afraid of his master and saw that he was harsh, so he hid the talent in the ground. To which the master replies, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own interest.” The master takes away the one talent and orders the slave to be thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Out of all the parables that Jesus shared with his disciples, this one has probably been more abused and misused than any other. Once any parable is abstracted from the proclamation of the kingdom, misreading is inevitable. Jesus shared a story about a shepherd who goes after the one sheep that is missing – God rejoices in seeking out those who are lost, even if they appear insignificant. Jesus tells another story about a young man who squanders his inheritance and comes back to his father begging to be welcomed as a slave and the father throws a great banquet for the return of the prodigal – God, though harsh, is a loving, reconciling, and forgiving presence.

Parable Definition

The parable of the talents however, has been twisted around to fit the arguments of many pastors and theologians throughout the centuries. For instance, this passage has been cited, in prosperity gospel churches, as a defense for why God wants us to become wealthy; God blesses us money so that we can make more money! Additionally this scripture has been used to claim that the poor are poor because of their own faults and problems, God gave them all the opportunities in the world to become rich, but they failed to pull themselves up by their boot straps and make something of themselves.

Jesus is not using this parable to recommend to his followers that we should work hard, make all the money we can, to give all we can. Instead, the story is a judgment against those who think they deserve what they earned, and a judgment against those who do not know how precious is the gift that they have been given.

The slaves did nothing to earn their five, two, and one talents. They were given as gifts! What becomes crucial is how they regarded the gifts and what they did with them.

A professor of mine in seminary named Stanley Hauerwas is widely regarded as a radical ethicist in the church. He has made some stunning proposals throughout his career about the need for the church to be the church and reclaim a sense of its radical nature in order to return to its mission for the kingdom of God.

Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas

He argued that we, as pastors, should never perform funerals in funeral homes because the services of death and resurrection should always take place where baptisms happen. He argued that we, as pastors, should never marry strangers off the street but take the time to know them intimately before bringing them together in holy marriage. He argued that we, as pastors, should remove American Flags from sanctuaries because the flag’s presence blurs the line between what our country expects of us, and what God requires of us. But one of the strangest proposals he ever made has to do with money and the church.

When we receive new members we often have them stand up here in front of the church like Tom and Linda will do a little bit later and take vows of membership. They promise to serve the church with their time and gifts for the glory of God. We then applaud them and shake their hands after the service.

Hauerwas believes that we should add a new requirement to membership. Whenever we receive new members, they should stand in front of the entire gathered body and announce how much money they earn in a calendar year… (pause for dramatic emphasis)

“Hi, I’m Taylor Mertins. Born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia, I am a transplant to the Staunton region and I really enjoy the pace of life here. I serve as a pastor in the United Methodist Church and I make $36,500 a year.”

His reasoning behind this is two-fold: It would allow the church to have greater transparency regarding the wealthy during times of need. If everyone knows who the bigger earners are, they can seek them out when someone in the community is in dire straits, or if the church needs immediate help with something.

It would also allow the church to recognize the great gaps of wealth within the local congregation regarding the rich and the poor. When a family joins that make very little during the year, it would allow us to know who it is that we can truly help by consolidating our resources. We, as Americans, do such a good job at trying to cover up our socioeconomic status that we are blind to those who are in need in the pews next to us. 

What do you think? Should we adopt his plan here at St. John’s?

I’m not so sure. I understand his idea on principle, but I believe that it would result in us abusing one another and it would prevent us from viewing everyone as part of the body of Christ. If you discovered that one of the humble women in the church was a millionaire wouldn’t you treat her differently? If you discovered that one of the men who appears very wealthy has no money at all, wouldn’t you treat him differently?

Yet, at the same time, I really like Hauerwas’ idea. It would push us to be more vulnerable with one another about what we have to offer, and what we need. So I’m going to offer a slightly different proposal. What if, when we received new members, we required them to share their talents with us?

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Jesus’ parable of the talents uses money, but in the big picture it has nothing to do with money at all. God, as the master, has given each of us unique abilities and talents that we have been tasked to use in the world for the kingdom. To some he has given more talents than to others, which is to say the hand is not the foot, nor is the arm like the leg, in the body of Christ. Yet everyone has been blessed with some talent that is beautiful, wonderful, and incredibly important. 

Jesus’ disciples are called to do the work that Jesus has given us to do — work as simple and hard as learning to tell the truth and learning to love our enemies. Such work is the joy that our master invites us to share with him.

The slaves that earned more with their talents did so because they worked with what they had. No effort is made to describe how the slaves doubled their talents, but that they worked hard with the talents the master had given them. However the one talent slave rationalizes his failure to do anything with the talent entrusted to him by blaming the master! How often are we guilty of the same thing? —Blaming God for the failures that are indeed our fault.

Since the beginning of the church is has been a routine for Christians to excuse themselves by protesting that their gifts are too modest to be significant. How can little ole me possibly do anything for God’s kingdom?

Let me assure each of you of the contrary: You have been given gifts, wonderful and unique talents, that are begging to be used in the church for the world, and in the world for the church. You might not recognize them as such, you might feel insecure about whatever they are, but God has endowed you with the gifts so that they can be used. If you hide them inwardly, if you dig a hole in the ground, you fail to make good on the investment that God has made in you.

Jesus insists, through the parable, that the talents that God has provided us are to be used and implemented to their full ability. Christian discipleship is not something that we can just hope our pastors or churches can carry us through, but instead requires hard work. It demands that we take a good look at our lives and talents and ask how we can put them to use for God’s kingdom.

What talents do you see in your life? Are you a teacher who has the gift of sharing the Good News of God’s Word with others? A carpenter who has the gift to repair and shape shelters for others? A prayer warrior who has the gift to pray for our church, our community, and our world? A financially savvy individual who has the gift of helping others learn how to manage and invest their money? A nurse or doctor who has the gift of healing and presence?

I see a church full of Christians who have gifts that God has given.

Church should be like a great talent show where we share with others what God has given us, so that we can them employ those gifts for the kingdom. What are you doing with your talents?

Amen.

Devotional – 1 Thessalonians 5.9-11

Devotional:

1 Thessalonians 5.9-11

For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. 

Weekly Devotional Image

When I arrived at church yesterday morning I had a lot on my mind. We had a rough and busy week here at St. John’s and the events from the previous days were weighing heavily upon my heart. After having the funeral service and burial for Chris Harris on Monday afternoon, I was surprised to hear on Wednesday that her husband and now widower, George, was rushed to the hospital and passed away shortly thereafter. Moreover on Thursday I received a phone call informing me that Howard Cassidy had been placed on Hospice care, and by the time I got to his room next door, he too had passed away. Our church quickly became the location for a tremendous amount of heartache and grief, and I was tasked with entering into that suffering and proclaiming the hope of the resurrection.

While I stood in the pulpit yesterday morning, talking with the gathered people about the importance of telling the great story, Marshall Kirby stood up from his pew and walked to the front. The sanctuary became silent as all eyes were on Marshall as he made his way up into the pulpit and wrapped his big arms around me in a hug. In the midst of our embrace Marshall said, “You do a great job telling the story for those who have died, and we are praying for you.” Up until that moment I had neglected to realize how much the recent funerals had taken a toll on me, and how badly I needed to be encouraged by the church through Marshall’s hug and words.

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Therefore, readers of this devotional, I task you with the same responsibility that Marshall exemplified yesterday in worship. The gathered body of Christ is tasked with encouraging one another and building up each other for the betterment of the community. Whether you know it or not there are people in your lives who are suffering and need some encouragement. It can be as simple as a phone call, an email, or even a letter. All it takes is that extra effort to ask how someone is doing, and then truly listen to their response.

I needed Marshall’s embrace and kind words yesterday. I needed to be reminded of my calling and feel the support of the people I serve during this difficult time. Moreover we are now called to encourage and build up the families who have lost their loved ones in the midst of death. We gather to support them at the funerals, but our support cannot end there; it must transcend the walls of our church into the great bounds of our community so that we can be Christ’s hands and feet for the world.

Who needs encouragement and building up in your life? How can you show them a glimpse of God’s love through your actions this week?

Think of the Children! – Sermon on Psalm 78.1-8

Psalm 78.1-8

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open in my mouth a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. He established a decree in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children; that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children, so that they should se this hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.

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I love when scripture is straight-forward. With the amount of passages in both the Old and New Testaments that remain ambiguous, it is remarkably refreshing to encounter a text that is so simple with its claims and expectations.

Listen up! Open your ears to what I’m about to say regarding the mighty acts of God. I will remember for us the forgotten sayings from the past, we will not hide them from the children, we will share with them all the wonders of God. The Lord commanded our ancestors to teach our children, so that they would indeed teach their children, so that none of us would forget what God has done. Above all, let us not fall back into the rhythms of our distant ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, nor was their spirit faithful to God.

What follows our reading from this morning is a record of history in song. The psalmist sets up his challenge: to remember the mighty acts of God for the future generations; and then declares the history of God with God’s creation. The tradition, the narrative, is so strong that the psalmist will not depart from it, since his purpose is to instruct rather than to entertain. That old old story has become so important to him, that he will tell it to the best of his ability for the sake of God’s people.

As I read the words to Psalm 78 this week, I couldn’t help but wonder about what we are teaching our children. If our desire to instruct the future generations regarding the mighty deeds of God is as strong as this Psalm claims, then how are we living that out today in our faith and in our church?

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On Tuesday morning, with the words from scripture percolating in my heart and soul, I made my way down to the Preschool to welcome our children into the building. I’ll admit that opening the door for our students is one of the things that I look forward to most during the week. The children are always so excited about entering the classrooms for the activities and learning that will enrich them. Whereas many parents have to drag their high-school students out of bed, banging pots and pans, even dumping water on them to wake them up, the Preschool students see school as something worth celebrating and waking up for!

It brings me so much joy to see their smiling faces every morning, to hear them shout “Pastor Taylor!” and run over to give me a hug as if they thought that they had lost me forever, to see them walking with their parents or guardians hand in hand hopeful for the day ahead. When I look at them in the morning I can’t help but think about the future generations of the church, and our community. In the basement of our building, we have the privilege of shaping, molding, and nurturing those who will one day take care of us.

Anyway, when the children arrived on Tuesday morning they came in with their normal excitement and made their way to their respective classes. I usually try to sneak back down around snack time for the selfish purpose of receiving some carrots with ranch dressing, or pretzel sticks, and I often ask each of the children what they had been learning about that morning.

“Pastor Taylor, I learned about the letter “G.” Goofy, Girl, Grass, and Grapes!”

“Pastor Taylor, I learned that spiders have eight legs and make a web to catch their food!”

“Pastor Taylor, I learned that we stole the land away from the Indians and forced them to move across the country!”

On Tuesday morning, every one of those children looked at me when I walked in, and shouted, “Pastor Taylor, we learned how to vote!” The teachers had set up a voting booth in the yellow room, and each child had the opportunity to vote on their snack for the day: Pringles Chips, or Oreo Cookies (obviously Oreos were victorious). Every child had the opportunity to go behind the curtain, place their vote in secrecy, and then received an “I Voted!” sticker.

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Downstairs in the basement we work on educating the future generation on the important things: Letters, Shapes, and Numbers; Animals, Plants, and Weather; Hygiene, Responsibility, and even Civic Duty. However, sometimes we get so caught up in the education of our youth, that we lose sight of what God has called us to do. Because right now I know that every child from our Preschool can tell you why we vote, and how we vote, but I know that only a few of them can tell you who Jesus is, and what he came to do. What does it say about our culture when more people now recognize the McDonald’s Golden Arches than they recognize the cross of Jesus Christ? What does it say that we train our children regarding voting procedures, but we do not teach them how to pray?

I have very fond memories of growing up in church. I loved the change in the liturgical seasons, and the different colors around the altar. I loved getting invited up to the front of the church once a month to receive communion. I loved getting to hear the choir sing with passion on a regular basis. I loved church because it was fun.

Yet, I can’t really remember what I learned. I know that when I was much younger, we, the kids, were only allowed to stay in the sanctuary until the “children’s sermon” and then we were escorted out of the sanctuary to the classrooms to work on arts and crafts as if whatever was happening in worship was for adult audiences only; Aldersgate UMC Rated PG-13

I remember learning about the big stories, the ones that everyone knows: Noah and the Ark, David and Goliath, Jesus and his disciples. But there are so many things about church that I never learned. 

My grandmother remembers her mother placing a coin in her hand every Sunday so that she would place it in the offering plate. From a young age she was habituated into the practice of giving back to God out of the abundance that she had. But by the time my mother came around this was not something that was instilled in her, and therefore it was not instilled in me. I have no idea whether or not my parents ever gave money to the church because it was not something we ever talked about.

What I do remember is a story that one of my pastors told about receiving a letter from a young boy in the congregation. The boy had been mowing lawns in the community and his parents had talked to him about the importance of tithing so that boy collected 10% of his lawn-mowing earnings, and placed them in the offering plate inside of a ziplock bag. The way my pastor told the story was so powerful that it got many of the adults crying. Look at the faith of this young boy and his willingness to give back to God!

Photo of a Collection Plate

But when I think about that now, I don’t see it as something special, in fact I see it as something rather ordinary. The fact that it was something so deeply celebrated as a rarity is another testament to the fact that we have neglected to tell the story of God’s mighty acts to the coming generation. They recently did a study at my home church and they discovered that only 25% of the people who attend worship give money to the church. That means that 3/4 people in the pews let the offering plate pass right over them. What are we instilling in the future generations that allows them to witness the incredible acts of God in the world today? How are we sharing the story with others so that we remember who we are and whose we are?

Instead, we hope and expect that others will just figure it out on their own and that they will know to give 10%, that they will know how and when to pray for their enemies, that they will place their hope in the resurrection in the midst of death. We so desperately want to privatize everything in our lives that we don’t want to talk about our prayers, we don’t want to talk about how much we give to church, and we don’t walk to talk about when and how we doubt.

When I was in seminary we were required to take a class on preaching. For weeks we gathered in the basement of the Divinity School listening to our professor lecture on the importance of proclaiming the Word, and then we were asked to preach in front of our peers on assigned texts so that they could critique our style and form. One day however, our preaching class went on a field trip to one of the local funeral homes in Durham, NC. The point of the visit was to help prepare us for the sermons that we would be preaching at funerals, offer advice on how to interact with funeral home directors, and talk about the theology behind death.

We walked through the facility from the basement where they did the embalming to the chapel where they held smaller services. And when we passed through one of the rooms, I noticed that a coffin had been prepared and opened for a viewing that would happen that afternoon. I stopped to pay my respect and offer up a brief prayer when I saw one of my friends frozen in place with her gaze locked on the casket. At 27 years old, she had never seen a dead body. Even with all the training and reading, the practice and focus, she was completely shocked by the sight, and I had to physically help her out of the room to continue the tour. I can remember her muttering under her breath as if she was unaware that she was actually speaking “death is so real.” I learned later that she had never been to a funeral and seeing that embodiment of death for the first time came as a frightening and almost overwhelming dose of reality.

What does it say when we keep our young people from experiencing death through funerals? Are we so afraid of death that it blinds us from the hope of the resurrection? Are we so concerned about how it might affect the coming generation that we neglect to instill in them the story about how God conquered death through Christ on the cross?

Of course, this isn’t just about teaching children the stories. It’s about all of us, whether we’re nine or ninety. We gather here in this space to remember, over and over, the great acts of God in the world. We move from creation, to redemption, back and forth, to remind one another what God did for us, and what God continues to do through us.

The psalmist, so long ago, believed in retelling the story to help shape the people of God. The psalmist believed that in going back to their origins, by remembering who they are and whose they are, they would always find the living God. When we retell the story we become a people of habit and pattern, we become shaped by the Word to be Christ’s body in the world today. 

We tell the story to open our eyes to how God has provided us with so many blessings that we respond by giving back to God our tithes and offerings. We tell the story so that we can open our hearts to the ways that we can love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. We tell the story so that we can open our souls to the great cosmic victory over death and remember that we have the hope of the resurrection.

If we want the coming generations to be steeped in the Word of the Lord, if we want them to remember the glorious deeds of God, and his might, and the wonders that he has done, if we want them to be a people of hope, then its up to us to share the story with them.

Amen.

Devotional – Amos 5.23-24

Devotional:

Amos 5.23-24

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  

Weekly Devotional Image

For me, music makes the worship service. I can listen to a mediocre sermon, but if the organist has been hitting all the notes perfectly I can walk away feeling filled with the Spirit. I can be ignored as a first time visitor, but if the gathered body sings with full vigor I can leave the service feeling that I have encountered the living God. I can witness borderline heretical theology in a bulletin, but if the musicians are truly glorifying the Lord through their instruments, I can believe that the service has been redeemed.

I started playing drums for contemporary worship services when I was in 9th grade. I played all through high school, college, and seminary for a variety of churches in a variety of places. It is difficult to describe the doxological feeling that I experience when playing drums during a service, but suffice it to say that I feel closer to God in those moments than many others. Contemporary services are not for everyone, even I will admit that I enjoy playing for those services rather than experiencing them in the pews, but they help connect a large portion of Christians to the living God in a way that shapes, molds, and grows their faith.

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When I was in college I began playing for the Crave service that was a part of the Wesley Foundation at James Madison University. Every Sunday afternoon the band would get together at Asbury UMC to practice for a few hours before the service began in the evening. We would play songs that got people placing their hands in the air and praising God. We would play songs that got people dancing in the pews. We would play songs that were so familiar and catchy that I could actually hear people singing the words over the volume of the drum-kit.

However, even when we were playing at our best, our music paled in comparison with the one night that we left the church and wandered around downtown Harrisonburg. Instead of gathering for the typical service (3-4 songs, prayer, sermon, communion, 1 song, benediction) we met on the steps of the church and walked downtown to pray for our city. We stopped at specific locations and joined hands to prayerfully lift up our community, and in particular we prayed over the local courthouse so that “justice might roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

You can have the best music in the world at your church, but when the music becomes the only life-giving part of your discipleship formation, when acts of justice and righteousness have gone missing, we limit the depth and beauty that we can experience. Music is most powerful when it points away from ourselves to God, and when it inspires us to be righteous outside of worship.

This week, let us look for the moments when we can let justice roll down like waters for others around us. Let us truly listen to the words of our Christian songs and live them out so that our righteousness can be like an ever-flowing stream.

Sinners and Saints – Sermon on Psalm 34.1-8

Psalm 34.1-8

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad. O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together. I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those to take refuge in him.

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Tomorrow will be my 6th funeral. Betty Lancaster, Georgeanna Driver, Brandy Garletts, Russ Wisely, Dick Markley, and now Chris Harris. I can remember the way my heart raced when I got the phone calls when each of them passed, I can still see their families in tears during the funeral, and I can still remember the sensation of the dirt in my hand when I dropped it on the caskets at the cemeteries. Without a doubt, preaching and presiding over funerals is one of the greatest privileges, and most difficult challenges, that I have as a pastor.

I am invited into one of the most sensitive aspects of a family’s life when I find out that someone has died. Those moments in the car on my way to a home or hospital, are filled with prayerful silence as I ask God to use me as a vessel of his grace and peace with a family who is in the midst of grief. You never know what to say, because there is nothing to say. You sit and listen, you provide the loving comfort of presence, and you pray for everyone you can think of.

Today is All Saints’; a day for us to remember those who have gone on to glory over the last year from our church, and from all of our families and friends. It is a hallowed time where we reflect on the ways that our friends and families shaped us into who we are today. It is that precious day when we give thanks to God for putting them in our lives, and then welcoming them back into his eternal arms. All Saints’, like funerals, is a time for us to speak truths about the lives of those close to us, with the hope of the promised resurrection.

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No matter what, funerals are always difficult. Funerals are a remarkably sensitive time for families and you have to be very careful about what you say, and how you say it. Yet even with the fear and trembling that comes with proclaiming someone’s life and death, I do look forward to sharing stories that help to reveal the character of the person’s life that we are remembering.

For instance:

The first time I met Brandy Garletts was early in my time here at the church. She was older and had been moved to a rehabilitation center when I went to visit her. I spent way too much time worrying about what I would say to this stranger for the first time, what her impression of me would be, and how could I speak words of hope in her situation. When I made my way to the facility, after finally finding her room, she motioned for me to sit across from her to lean in closer. Before I could even open my mouth to begin speaking all the prepared thoughts that I had, Brandy asked me a question that I was completely unprepared for: “Are you a registered voter?

There I was sitting across from an incredibly sweet woman, someone that many people from our church have admired and looked up to, prepared to talk about God, faith, and grace, and she wanted to find out if I was a democrat or a republican.

Brandy was a fiercely strong woman and fought for what she believed in. Asking me about my political ideology was indicative of the life she lived; always looking for new opportunities to make the world better for others.

Or I could tell you about a story that Russ Wisely shared with me in my office: “Many years ago,” he began, “we had another young pastor. Fletcher Swink had just graduated from Duke Divinity School and was sent to Staunton for his first appointment, just like you. In the beginning everything was great. Fletcher provided strong leadership, the church was growing, and we started to build the property that we are now sitting in. However, one day, Fletcher called me because he had a problem and had no idea what to do. He had performed a wedding for a young couple in Staunton, his very first, and only after signing the marriage certificate did he realize that he had not filled out the proper paperwork to legally marry people in the state of Virginia. He was at a loss for what to do, so I told him to come with me to the courthouse; I knew the judge and figured we might be able to work something out. When we brought the matter to the judge he looked at me and he asked ‘Russ, what do you think we can do?’ and I told him that we could sign the paperwork and just change the date to have happened before the wedding, to which he replied, ‘sounds like a good idea to me.

I sat there in my office stunned. Here was this older man telling me a story about how he had manipulated the legal system just to cover for a young pastor who had made a mistake. Was he telling me this story to make sure that I didn’t make any mistakes? Was he trying to scare me about the responsibilities of leading the church? I sat there in my chair, unsure of how the story would conclude. Russ then looked at me right in the eyes to finish, “That happened nearly 60 years ago. I helped Fletcher because it was important. I want you to know, young man, that I am here to help you as well. If you need anything I want you to call me.” And with that he stood up and prepared to leave my office. Only then did I realize that I never said a word. 

Russ Wisley sacrificed for others and was willing to work behind the scenes to make things happen. Whether here at church or in the community, Russ would help anyone he could, because he believed in the importance of supporting others.

What has struck me most about the lives we have celebrated over the last year, the people who we are remembering today, is that they understood the words from Psalm 34; their lives were a reflection of God’s goodness and they lived as saints for others to follow.

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.” Saints are those who can speak and live in such a way as to point to the Lord in all that they do. They give thanks to the Lord their God for the blessings they have received and give back to others from their abundance. Saints recognize the presence of God and do whatever they can to share that experience with others because they know how life-giving it can be.

O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.” Saints do what they can to benefit the greater community and not just their own lives. They are not content with having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” but see the great gift that the community of faith can be. They worship together to praise the Lord of hosts, and exalt his name. At church they sing from the depth of their being, and greet others in Christian love. At home they pray fervently for their lives, for their friends and family, for their enemies, and for their church. They strive to magnify the Lord in all that they do so that others can know how life-giving it can be.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.” Saints understand that God has continued to seek them out throughout the years, and take the time to respond to God’s great calling. Instead of remaining complacent with their faith journeys, they seek out the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with the knowledge that in doing so, the Lord will answer. Instead of just hoping for good things to happen because they live good lives, they take leaps of faith to encounter the living God who will deliver them from fear. Saints believe that going to the Lord reorients all expectations and priorities and they encourage others to go to the Lord because they know how life-giving it can be.

Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.” Saints know that life is not always easy, and that there will be times of suffering. To follow the commands of God, to live by the beatitudes, implies a willingness to see the world turned upside down where the first will be last and the last will be first. They do not let their sufferings get the best of them, but instead they remember that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint. They encourage others to not give in to the suffering in their lives but to firmly place their hope in Jesus Christ because they know how life-giving it can be.

Our saints have lived lives worthy of emulation. The more I learned about their discipleship as I prepared for their funerals, the more I wanted to live like them. I was struck over and over again by how deeply rooted they were in their faith, and how much they worked to live like Jesus. However, that’s not to say that our saints have been perfect; even Jesus’ family tree is filled with broken and battered branches.

On All Saint’s Sunday, we remember the saints, and let us be sure to remember all of them. Not just the wonderful and psalm-like moments from their lives, but the bruised and blemished moments as well. Not just the saints from our church family that have died, but all the saints who have witnessed to God’s love for us.

Who do you think of when you hear the word “saint”? Do you picture Mother Teresa, Augustine, or John Wesley? Do you think about people who lived perfectly pure lives? Or do you think about the people in your life who have simply encouraged you in your faith?

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Those who we remember today were both sinners and saints. There were times that they fell short of God’s expectations, there were times that they did not practice what they preached. There were moments that they neglected to praise and and magnify the Lord. But God has a crafty way of turning sinners into saints.

God almighty, maker of heaven and earth, has done, and will continue to do, some incredible things through the sinners in our midst. You might remember those that have died for all the negative, bad, and embarrassing things that they did, but God saw them in their sinfulness and saw potential. God has used our saints to change our lives for the better by shaping us into the disciples we are today.

The pulpit is a wonderful vantage point. From where I stand I can look out on the gathered body of Christ and take in the view in one fell swoop:

When I look out from here I see a church full of sinners. I see the brokenness that many of you have shared with me, but have refused to share with anyone else. I see the fights, frustrations, and failures that haunt so many of you on a regular basis. I look out and see the doubts that cloud your faith, the temptations that draw you away from God, and the selfishness that drives you away from one another.

But at the same time, when I look out from here I see a church full of saints. I see the body of Christ praising the Lord through prayer and song. I see the humble souls that are thankful for the blessing of life. I see the love, life, and vitality that invigorates so many of you toward wholeness. I look out and see the radiant faces that shine with God’s glory. I see a church that is full of people willing and excited to work for God’s kingdom.

So, like the psalmist says, let us come to the God’s table; see and taste how the Lord is good. Remember all of those who have gone before us to a table such as this, to take refuge in the Lord.

Let us also give thanks to the Lord for putting the saints we remember into our lives. For helping to shape and mold them out of their sinfulness and into saintliness. For their desire to share the Good News with us so that we might know what grace is really all about.

And let us hope and pray that God would continue to give us the strength to be saints for others in spite of our sinfulness. So that one day, God willing, the church will get together to worship the Lord and give thanks for us after we die.

Amen.