Devotional – Jeremiah 31.14

Devotional:

Jeremiah 31.14

I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty.

Weekly Devotional Image

I still feel full. More than Thanksgiving, the days following Christmas are filled with such bounty that I never stop feeling full. Family and friends gathering together require an abundance of delectable foods, an assortment of particular presents, and time for catching up with stories and laughter. The wake of Christmas leaves me reminded of how much my “cup runneth over” with a tremendous number of blessings.

Our house was recently filled with family for the holiday and it was when I was cleaning up wrapping paper and doing the dishes that I was struck with how much God has blessed us. The crumbled bits of paper and the empty plates signified, more than the actual gifts and food, how much God has provided for us. Each ripped wrapping paper and each plate conveyed the fullness that we received from one another, leaving us stuffed for days to come.

When the Israelites were exiled from their homeland, God promised that they would be returned and would rejoice. Everything would be turned upside down after a great period of suffering; young women will dance, the men shall be merry, mourning will turn into joy, and sorrow will be replaced with gladness. Even the priests will be given their fill of fatness (something I can connect with right now) while God’s people will be satisfied with God’s bounty. The time after Christmas reminds me of the great promise that God made to the people regarding their exile, and the promise God made good on when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. In Jesus the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Similarly, we are reminded of the great gift of Christ through the gifts of family, friends, food, and gifts during the season of Christmas.

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However, we must be careful to not let the presents overshadow the value of presence. There is a great temptation to so deeply root ourselves in the tangible and material that we neglect to value the beauty of being. The great gift God gave was not so much that he provided a fleshly human being, but instead provided a human to dwell among us, to stand by our sides, to hear our prayers, to know our weakness, and to love us in spite of it all. You could wake up on Christmas morning and open every earthly thing you’ve ever wanted and it would still pale in comparison to the gift of God humbling himself to the form of a slave to truly be Emmanuel, God with us.

As we prepare to take steps in 2015 let us remember that the gift of presence outweighs the gift of presents, let us look to the ways that Jesus came for us to learn how to be there for others, and let us be truly thankful people for all the things that make us full.

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C.O.G. – Sermon on Galatians 4.4-7

Galatians 4.4-7

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

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The sermon title this morning is C.O.G. which, if you are unfamiliar with the acronym, stands for Child of God. Made popular by the evangelical movement, COG is an identification with those who are part of a Christian community. For me, the use of child of God, happens whenever I baptize an infant or an adult. After going through the entire liturgy, blessing the water, and baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit I always announce that they are a child of God. There is just something incredible about receiving a new identity and a family through baptism that orients one’s priorities toward the divine and the new family that is the church.

Other than baptisms, I use Child of God when referring to our little preschoolers that gather here during the week. It has been strange recently, since they are on Christmas break, the hallways and building have been significantly quieter, and I have gotten a lot more work done! Nevertheless the COGs in our Preschool are one of the most important elements of our church and I believe in sanctioning my time in such a way that I can be with them and communicate the gospel in as many ways as possible.

This has taken place from being present at the basement doors every morning to welcome the children and families, to inviting them for regular church functions. But the way that the gospel is best communicated is during our weekly chapel time here in the sanctuary. While many of you are at work or home, studying in school or day-dreaming about the future, all of our COGs make their way to the choir loft and they sit in eager anticipation of a new story. We began in Genesis and have made our way to the time of David, we have made Chicken Noodle Soup, and gone through obstacle courses, we have drawn our own technicolor dream coats, and we have pretended to be our favorite animals on Noah’s Ark.

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The most profound Chapel Time experience, for me, took place when we prepared to wrestle with God. The kids lined up in the center aisle and did push ups and sit-ups in order to gain some strength, and then one by one I wrestled each of them by the altar in the same way that Jacob wrestled with an angel on the banks of the Jabbok river. Each of them came forward, we would go back in forth, I would let them think they would beat me, and then I would pick them up over my head and spin them around as they giggled and screamed. When our last four year old, Jack, made his way forward I began to bring the lesson home…

I got down on my knees and we grabbed hold of one another and I said to the kids: “This is what God is like. We can wrestle with the things that happen in the world, we can question and be angry and upset, and no matter how confused or frustrated we become God will never let us go. That’s how much God loves us. He can put up with all of our tantrums and yelling, He is patient with us when we no longer have patience. God loves us no matter what.

The kids were silent and listening attentively. I don’t remember anything else I said, even though I went on for awhile, because I was distracted by something else. While I was holding Jack in my arms, I could feel his heartbeat through my hand. This precious and vulnerable little child, who I was wrestling with, was gripping me so tightly that I could feel his little heart beat. In an instant the lesson I was trying to communicate took a different form for me as I realized how fragile this child was in my arms and the kind of ways that we strive to take care of other children. In a fraction of a second I felt afraid of letting him go, out of fear of what could happen to him. Though not even a father, I felt responsible for him, and was terrified of what might happen if I let him go.

When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son in order to redeem us so that we might receive adoption as children. The world was a strange place when Jesus was born in Bethlehem; indeed the fullness of time had come. Between the Old and New Testaments a lot had taken place and changed. For a while the Jewish people flourished as their culture continued to grow and spread until Antiochus Epiphanes brought about a horrific wave of persecution. The Jews were hated and tortured for their faith and were driven to armed rebellion.

People, for the first time, were traveling beyond the cities and towns of their birth to see greater parts of the world.

During the time of Christ’s birth, the world was full of change and excitement. Add to that the Roman network of international highways over which the first Christian missionaries traveled, and the Greek language that united many different people under one tongue.

For Paul, writing the letter to the Galatians, the timing of Jesus’ birth was remarkably important. We too celebrate this event in such a way as to date everything that happened BC (Before Christ) or after his birth AD (Anno Domini) “in the year of our Lord.” (Now known as BCE “Before Common Era” and CE “Common Era”)

This was the specific and the right time for God’s new intervention in the world. Long anticipated through the Old Testament, the time of the Lord’s favor had begun.

Born into the rude stable that so many of us display on our coffee tables and mantles, God’s Word became incarnate in a baby born to a virgin. By becoming like us, by taking on our flesh to be just like us, God adopted us into his heavenly family so that we might become heirs and children of God.

Paul is then writing and pleading for the very thing that makes Christianity unique; the change that Christ can make in someone’s life so that they can possess and exercise total freedom.

Being Christian is all about freedom. God came into the world to free us from sin, and to free us for a new life.

However, this incredible gift cannot be brought about by unquestioning adherence to a book of rules. Otherwise we choose to break the rules, or we let the rules break us.

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Too many of my friends have left the church, and left the faith, because it was made into a rule-system by which they were required to follow. Like the child I held in my arms during chapel time, the church refused to let them go and experience the freedom to question, doubt, and explore. Perhaps when they were younger the church had been life-giving and exciting, but as they grew older it felt suffocating and demanding. They heard about the “freedom” that Paul wrote about, but they certainly didn’t feel it in their own lives. They were taught to so fervently keep the faith whenever they doubted, even just a little, that when they had a crisis of faith their entire discipleship fell apart and they left the church.

Paul’s thoughts to the Galatians opens up a new vision of what it means to be a Child of God, and how we can, in turn, nurture other COGs around us.

I held on to Jack and I felt his little heart beat in my hand. I began to play in my head all the terrible things that could happen to him once he was released from my protective bubble. I thought about what I had shared with the children: God loves you so much that he will never let you go. But that’s not exactly true.

God loves us to such a degree that He will not abandon us, but at the same time God gives us the freedom to question, to raise our clenched fists in the sky in frustration, and to wonder about what all of this faith stuff actually means. 

In that profound moment kneeling on the floor of our chancel I recognized that, like God, I had to let him go. That God’s love was so great and incredible that no matter what happens to him, God will never abandon him. That we have to give our children freedom to make mistakes and explore the world, because that’s the only way that they will come to know our God as “father.” They cannot experience God’s divine loves through a book and moral expectations alone. They will discover God’s majesty in those moments when they begin to doubt, and recognize that God’s love remains with them anyway.

Only a bible like ours would contain the psalms, a tremendous source of writing that has almost every single human emotion, most of them directed at God.

Only a faith like ours would gather in grieving people for funerals and triumphantly declare that death has been defeated in Jesus Christ even when the loss of a loved one feels so horrifically overpowering.

Only a God like ours would let us wrestle and walk away and still see us as his children.

Years ago I was lamenting with one of my friends about the ways certain Christians give others Christians such a bad name. It felt like every time I turned on the TV there was a report of some pastor abusing power from the pulpit, some church spouting off with heretical theology, or some Christian organization bashing anything and anyone that did not look or sound just like them.

I remember feeling beaten by these rogue Christians. How could we ever make the church appealing again if people like that are getting all of the attention from the media? Why don’t we share information about all the good the church is doing in the world? Why don’t we ever hear about the food pantries and clothing drives that are saving communities?

My friend listened patiently as I went on and on listing my complaints. She smiled politely whenever I went off on another tangent and waited for me to finish.

She said: “They’ll figure it out someday Taylor. When? No one knows, but at some point they will see how far they have moved away from God’s commands.

What makes you so sure?” I demanded.

They’re children of God, just like you and me.

Part of what makes our faith so beautiful is that we have been brought into God’s great family as children. We have been adopted into a new identity because God came to be Emmanuel by our sides. As God’s children we have been given the freedom to love God with our hearts, minds, and souls, and we have been given the freedom to question and wonder.

The future of our faith will largely depend on how we continue to nurture the spiritual questions of people young in the faith. We might want to grip those around us with structured rules of how to live and behave, but remember that God came to be with us to adopt us as children; our heavenly Father has given us the freedom that brings about true faith.

The world was a strange place and full of new and exciting things when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The world is still a strange place and full of new and exciting things. It will take a tremendous amount of courage to see others as Children of God just like you and me; to give them freedom to doubt, to be patient with their foolish ways, and to not abandon them. But if God is willing to do it, shouldn’t we?

Amen.

Christmas In The Room – Christmas Eve Sermon on John 1.1-5

John 1.1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

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Merry Christmas! To me, there are few things as wonderful as gathering together to celebrate the birth of Christ. This is what church is all about; a community coming together to rejoice in our Savior.

Have you noticed all the lights around the neighborhoods? The different decorations throughout Staunton? Have you seen all the wonderful manger scenes displayed in front yards and on coffee tables?

One of the things I love most about Christmas is that every year we try new things to make Christmas real again. Many of us are very familiar with the story; we can imagine the angel Gabriel appearing before Mary, we can picture the manger scene with all the animals gathering close to baby Jesus, we can almost hear the angelic host proclaiming the Good News to the shepherds. This story has so captivated our hearts, minds, and imaginations that every year we gather to remember it in new and exciting ways.

This year our Preschool chose to remember the story by putting on a Christmas pageant. Now this wasn’t your simple and typical pageant; almost every one of our students had a line to perform in the microphone in front of a packed sanctuary. We practiced for weeks in the chancel area, rehearsing our lines, standing in our spots, and getting the story exactly right. On the morning of the big show, the kids and I were all here going through every bit one last time. However, this was the first time that they were all in costume.

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Some of our precious three years olds were sheep, though they looked more like pillows as they walked to the microphone and quietly whispered: “I shared my wool with baby Jesus.” We had a manger mouse with big ears and a tail who said with a smile: “I peeked at baby Jesus!” We even had an angel choir of two-year olds who started from the back and walked all the way down carrying electric candles to guide the wisemen.

When it came time for Mary and Joseph to appear I was so pleased with how well everything was going. This was going to be a great performance for all of the friends and family. Our little Mary came up to the microphone to sweetly say, “A baby will soon be born.” And then Joseph, one of our most precocious four year olds, said with loud emphasis: “I MUST FIND A PLACE FOR US TO STAY!

Everything was perfect. The kids were sitting quietly in place, they had all nailed their lines, and I could just imagine all of the tears that would be spilt watching these precious lambs of Jesus Christ. I even found myself getting emotional. I remember thinking: “this is what Christmas is all about.” Look at these children retelling the story centuries later. They embody the sweetness that just have been felt in the manger. Their child-like innocence is why God came into the world for us. Those little kids made Christmas real for me.

That was, until I noticed our little Mary fidgeting around by the crib. We continued with the pageant but Mary was far more focused on the little baby-doll Jesus than anything else. “Well,” I thought, “she’s just being attentive like any good mother would be” when all of the sudden she picked up Jesus by his ankle, dangled him back and forth and then dropped him on his plastic head!

The realness of Christmas was quickly replaced with the reality of Preschoolers being dressed up like animals and adults acting out the story.

Every Christmas we strive to reimagine the story so that we can reconnect with it’s incredible message.

There is a church somewhere in the midwest that REALLY believes in retelling the story. On Christmas Eve they invite people from the community into their sanctuary, but they don’t just listen to a pastor in the pulpit, they don’t just pray in their pews, they bring in all sorts of animals and actors to make it come alive.

Animal trainers help guide the donkeys and sheep into the space and lead them up to the altar near a newborn baby being cradled by his mother. The church has a full orchestra and light show to go along with the actors and animals; they have no limitations when it comes to fully immersing the people in the story.

However, a few years ago the church became responsible for a viral video that made its way across the internet. At the height of the production, as the human-angels were hung by wires to sing Hallelujah, as the majestic magi were making their way up to the altar, as people were completely captivated by the story, a camel was being led down the center aisle.

It was at that precise moment, at the paramount of the Christmas production, the camel decided that he no longer wanted to be part of the story. The video shows the trainer in the middle of the church struggling to guide the camel forward, the camel ignoring his suggestive movements, and deciding that he should take a break on top of all of the people sitting on the right hand side. Like a tree falling in the woods, the camel fell to his side and quickly buried a few people under his girth.

The realness of Christmas was quickly replaced with the reality of what happens when you bring the zoo into a church.

Every Christmas we strive to reimagine the story so that we can reconnect with it’s incredible message.

Years ago I went to church on Christmas Eve and experienced a service unlike any other. Instead of a typical sermon, the pastor decided to make it into a drama with particular characters acting out the story.

Mary and Joseph stood on opposite sides of the altar, wearing robes from the days of old. The gazed off into the distance pondering the incredible messages the the angel Gabriel had shared with each of them.

While the pastor described the man named Joseph, he began to remove his robes, shedding the costume from the past, and revealed a middle age man wearing a business suit. The pastor was attempting to make the story real again by showing what it would look like if it happened today. Joseph was a respected man and much older than Mary. Can you imagine how he would have reacted when he found out that she was pregnant? Can you picture how embarrassed he must have been by her?

While the pastor described the woman named Mary, she began to remove her robes, shedding the costume from the past, and revealed a teenage girl wearing a cheerleading uniform. Mary was a young woman with future full of potential. She was much younger than Joseph, and was told by the angel that she would conceive a son by the power of the Holy Spirit while still a virgin. Do you think she believed this was Good News? Can you imagine how her family would have regarded her for becoming pregnant before getting married?

There stood Mary and Joseph, not the couple from the manger scenes kneeling quietly over the new born king, but a business man and a cheerleader who would be ridiculed by the community.

The realness of Christmas was quickly replaced by the reality of social relations that develop when an unwed teenage girl becomes pregnant.

Every Christmas we strive to reimagine the story so that we can reconnect with it’s incredible message.

I always look forward to this season because it affords me the opportunity to ask others what they love about Christmas. I often hear about the joy of opening gifts, the wonder of putting up all the decorations, and even the changed behavior of children in response to the elf on the shelf. Yet all of those things don’t make Christmas real. Yes they make it feel like Christmas, but they do not fully convey the depth of what it means for God to have come into the world as a baby in Bethlehem.

For me, Christmas is at it’s realest when we light our candles as we sing Silent Night. Some of my earliest memories are standing in a dark sanctuary on Christmas Eve while people around me are singing. In mere minutes the darkness is replaced by a brilliant light, made remarkable by the God who took on our flesh to dwell among us, to be God with us.

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Jesus is the light of the world who shines in the darkness. Whatever that darkness might look like for you, whether it be an uncertain future, fears about your children, frustrating family members, the loss of a loved one, a heavy diagnosis, or the lack of love in your life, Jesus stands in stark contrast as the one who brings the light into our lives.

Christmas Eves always mean the most and convey the most when we feel the depth of the  darkness. Because new life always starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark. 

At the end of our service we will turn out all the lights, from the one candle, the Christ candle, we will light all others as we sing Silent Night. As we do so let us open our eyes the different forms of darkness in our lives and give thanks to the light of the world who shines in the darkness.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we hear the familiar words that have been sung for centuries exclaiming the great joy of the newborn king.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we gather as God’s table to feast on the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we see the light of Christ shining in one another.

Merry Christmas. Amen.

Devotional – Isaiah 9.2

Devotional:

Isaiah 9.2

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them has light shined. 

Weekly Devotional Image

This Wednesday (at 3pm and 7pm) our church will welcome a number of people for whom church attendance is limited to Christmas Eve and Easter. In the church community these people are often referred to as “Chreasters” or the “C and E crowd.” I can remember as a child how wonderful it felt to be at church on Christmas Eve and see all sorts of people from the community worshipping together who never attend for any other occasion. Christmas Eve is one of the profound worship experiences that brings all sorts of people together to praise God for coming into the world as a baby in a manger.

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One of my friends, and former pastor, Jason Micheli has this to say about the “Chreasters” who only attend church on a limited basis: “The dirty little secret is that often the way preachers and church people talk about ‘Chreasters’ makes them sound like the bad guys, like we want to make them feel guilty for not being regular church-going people. Which doesn’t make any sense to me because I gotta think ‘Chreasters’ are exactly the sort of people Jesus would prefer to hang out with… So rather than looking down on them with guilt-inducing contempt. We should, like the Lord we adore, simply welcome them in the thrill to be with them.” (you can read more of Jason’s thoughts about ‘Chreasters’ here: Tamed Cynic)

For this one night, we have the privilege to sit beside weary travelers on the roads of life who, for whatever reason, have decided to worship the Lord. It is nothing short of a blessing to find churches filled with people on Christmas Eve because it is a time for us to proclaim that wonderful and great truth: God is with us. Many will come because they feel suffocated by the darkness of life’s burdens, and we will be there with them as they experience the light of the world.

This Christmas Eve, wherever you worship, I encourage you to open your eyes to ALL who gather to celebrate the new born king. Do not look down on the “Chreasters” with contempt for their limited worship, but instead give thanks to God for putting them in your life. Above all, be fully present with those around you and rejoice knowing that the light of the world shines in the darkness.

Merry Christmas.

Faith Hall of Fame – Hebrews 11.32-40

Hebrews 11.32-40

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

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Today we conclude our Advent Sermon Series on “New Beginnings.” This is the final Sunday leading up to Christmas day, and over the last few weeks we have prepared our hearts and minds for the coming of God in Christ. We began with Abram being called into a strange land. Next we looked at Samuel being called by name in the temple. Last week we explored Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. This morning we conclude by looking at the Faith Hall of Fame from Hebrews 11.

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And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Fletcher Swink, Sam Stanley, Zig Volskis, Patricia Meadows, and the other pastors — who through faith endured frustrating congregations, proclaimed God’s presence, fought for justice, became mighty in honor, and brought people to the Lord.

Hebrews 11 contains what I call the “Faith Hall of Fame.” The entire chapter is devoted to the great leaders and prophets from the Old Testament and their willingness to stand up for God even when it meant certain doom. They so fervently believed that God was with them, that they were willing to embark on new beginnings when others refused to obey.

The closest thing we have to a Faith Hall of Fame here at St. John’s can be found in our parlor next to the narthex. Inside you will discover a picture of every pastor that has had the good fortune to serve this church since 1954. From Fletcher Swink to yours truly, every pastor has been framed and dated, hung with care, and honored with a spot on the wall.

Have you ever taken the time to look through the pictures? It was one of the first things I did when I was newly appointed, and frankly the room terrifies me. Whenever I sit in the parlor with a group of people, I feel the heavy gaze of the pastors, they look down from their Faith Hall of Fame, and I can’t help but wonder what they think of me.

Marshall Kirby begged me my first week to give him a picture so that he could put me up with everyone else. I hesitated. For weeks he bugged me about getting the picture, about having it be just the right size and tint to blend in with the others. But I continued to put it off. I kept making excuses about how busy I was, or about the priorities I needed to focus on, but the truth is, I didn’t feel worthy of going on the wall. I had been here for such a short amount of time and felt that I hadn’t done anything that earned me a spot in the Hall of Fame.

When I’m in the parlor, when I experience the St. John’s Hall of Fame, I think about all the things they must have gone through to bring this church to where it is. I think about Fletcher Swink starting the church down the road at the Auto Parts store. I imagine that it required a tremendous amount of faith to believe that God had call him from Durham, NC to Staunton, VA to start a new church; to make something of nothing. How many nights did he pray for God to send him people, how many afternoons did he spend worrying about the new building project, how often did he confront frustrated parishioners about his sermons?

When I’m in the parlor, when I experience the St. John’s Hall of Fame, I think about Patricia Meadows being appointed as the first female pastor. I wonder about how hard she had to work to gain the trust of the people, what lengths she had to go to to reignite the flame of faith. I imagine the deep prayers she offered to God about sending new sheep to her flock, the lonely days of sermon preparation, and the terrifying moments of standing by the graveside with friends and family from the church. How often did she wrestle with her call when she felt persecuted, how many days did she spend praying for the people of our community when they were no longer able to offer their own prayers, how did she feel standing up against the injustices around her?

I wonder about all the pastors of this church, and what they went through for God’s kingdom. What was it that set them apart? What did they do that helped to grow and nurture faith in this community?

Last week I was standing in the parlor, admiring the past, when I realized how similar our Faith Hall of Fame is to the one listed in Hebrews 11.

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The people of Israel’s past were not of special value. Gideon was hesitant and timid when he was called by God; Barak had to be shamed by Deborah into fighting for the Lord; Jephthah is remembered mostly for his rash oath; Samson was weak of mind and conscience.

Similarly, there is nothing particularly special about those who have served our church. Though undoubtedly unique, they contained no special powers that set them apart from other clergy. Each of them had strengths and weaknesses that became manifest while they served the church.

Our pastors, and the heroes from Israel’s past, were set apart because they did all things “through faith.” They worked knowing that the real significance of what they had done would never be seen in their own time, but something that would come much later. They suffered through persecution and injustice because they believed in God’s goodness even when the world claimed the contrary.

We remember the ways our pastors have suffered: Angry emails/letters about inappropriate sermons, knowing glances and whispers from the committee members in the parking lot (where the real meetings happen). Shouts and finger pointing during counseling sessions. Years of loneliness serving a church full of people who cannot see the pastor as anything other than pastor. Doubts when preparing funerals for people in the community.

We read about all the ways the faithful of Israel suffered: torture, mocking, flogging, chains and imprisonment. Stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword, wandered about in the skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, and tormented.

This is what evil does to the good. It attacks at the core of our being, shakes our faith, and  encourages us to doubt. Yet, reading these words and remembering our church’s past should bring us courage and hope. We see in them the willingness of people to go and risk it all for God. Pastors who remained brave and faithful when others tried to break them down. Prophets who spoke the truth when others sought to kill them. We see in them the true courage that faith can develop. 

It only takes a moment to see this tremendous faith in the world today, people standing up against injustice when the world argues the contrary. Consider the droves of people standing with their hands up and holding signs that say “Black Lives Matter” in response to Ferguson. Consider the droves of people standing shoulder to shoulder with the LGBTQ community during Pride marches in response to fanatical attacks against sexuality.

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We remember and read and see the ways people suffer for God’s kingdom and we commend them for their willingness to go and be grace for the world. God sends into our confused and cruel humanity his messengers and prophets. God sends them into the midst of the wolves so that we might not be left to our evil ways, that we may see in them hope for tomorrow, and in response turn back to the God of mercy.

Yet all these, though they are commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Whether Gideon, Barak, Fletcher Swink, or Zig Volskis, their completion depends on us. Their faith rested in God who would fulfill his promises. They served the Lord as an anchor cast into the days ahead; faith is built on hope for the future.

Abraham’s faith would have been in vain if his descendants never made it to the Land of Promise. Samuel’s faith would have been in vain if he had not responded to God calling him by name in the temple. Paul’s faith would have been in vain if the resurrected Christ had not appeared to him on the road to Damascus.

Apart from us they cannot be made perfect. The completion of those from the Faith Hall of Fame depends on us. We can fulfill their faith even today by going out and being Christ’s body for the world.

We remember the past of scripture, and the past of our church, but we are not to idealize it. We cannot be blind to the mistakes of those who came before us, or allow the past to fasten its dead hand upon us, binding us down to fruitless ideas, ancient prejudices, and old failures. We look back so that we can look forward. Just because “thats the way we’ve always done it” does not mean “thats the way we must do it now.”

Yet too often we forget how indebted we are to the past. We neglect to remember how faithful Abram, Samuel, and Paul were. We brush aside all the pastors who worked with every fiber of their being to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth. Every good thing that we have and enjoy was consecrated by the sacrifices of the past. We have faith because the people of the past passed it along to us. So today, we in our turn cast our anchors into the future. Without those who are to come after us, without the youth of our church and without the children of our preschool, we shall not be made perfect.

We are who we are because of the past. We will become what God intends for us because of the legacy we pass on to the future. Our new beginning comes when we cast our hope into the future of God’s kingdom, when we stand up for something new and different that breaks from the past, when we take steps in faith knowing that God is with us.

God is with us. In a few days we will gather again to celebrate Christ being born into the world to be God with us. We will look to that lowly manger and remember that God came to dwell among us and encourage us to be brave people of faith who remember the past and cast our hope into the future. Our purpose does not depend on our own power, but on the strength of love that comes from the Lord and in community with one another.

I still feel uncomfortable whenever I’m in the parlor. Sets of eyes follow me from the past, and I see in them everything they went through to bring our church to where it is. I believe in their hope cast into the future. In all of you I see the seeds that they planted long ago that are blossoming into true discipleship today.

I see my picture on the wall and feel unworthy. But that’s when I remember that it’s not about me and it’s not about what I do. It’s about what God does through me. It’s about what God does through you. Amen.

Devotional – Luke 1.37

Devotional:

Luke 1.37

For nothing will be impossible for God.

Weekly Devotional Image

Our parsonage is beautiful. One of the many blessings of serving as a pastor for a United Methodist church is the fact that the local church often provides a parsonage for their pastor and family. I’ll freely admit that I was slightly nervous before arriving in Staunton for the first time because I would have no say about where I was living. Whereas other families can pick and choose a residence based upon their proclivities, I would be stuck with whatever St. John’s provided. However, when I began moving my belongings in, I realized how very fortunate I was.

Providing a parsonage is an incredible act of grace and generosity, one that I try to not take for granted. Whenever I pull into the driveway after a particularly stressful day at the church, I give God thanks for the people of our church community and their willingness to provide such a wonderful gift for my family. I am proud of the parsonage and I look forward to the changing seasons as an opportunity to adorn the house with different holiday elements.

Yesterday afternoon, my wife and I invited everyone from the church community for an open house at the parsonage. Part of our decision was born out of the fact that the parsonage belongs to the church, and we wanted to express our thankfulness for their generosity. (The other part of our decision was born out of the fact that Lindsey talked me into purchasing two Christmas trees this year, and she wanted to show off all of our ornaments.) We worked hard last week to clean and organize everything, prepare an abundance of food, and open our house to those near and dear to us.

Youth playing "Just Dance" during the Open House

Youth playing “Just Dance” during the Open House

At some point during the open house, I was struck by how remarkably blessed we are. In such a short amount of time Lindsey and I have been so welcomed into the local community, and to be surrounded by our church family was a humbling experience. I looked around and saw the people I have prayed with, and for, on a regular basis, I saw the children I have baptized, I saw the individuals I have counseled, and I saw God’s love manifest in the gathered people.

I have known for a long time that I felt called to be a pastor, but I never imagined that it would feel this incredible and graceful. I thought that being part of a loving community to this degree was impossible. But nothing is impossible for God.

The feelings that I experienced yesterday were only possible because of the incredible gift that God gave us in Jesus Christ. Without the impossible possibility of God coming in the form of flesh as a baby in a manger we would not have such a loving community. Without the impossible possibility of God’s unending love and grace, we would not see one another as precious gifts.

In these few remaining days of Advent, I encourage you to look around at the blessings in your life, give thanks to God for the gifts that you have been given, and remember that nothing is impossible for God.

The Advent of Paul – Sermon on Acts 9.1-9

Acts 9.1-9

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

paul-road-to-damascus

Today we continue with our Advent Sermon Series on “New Beginnings.” These few weeks of Advent are integral to the life of our church community in the sense that we are preparing our hearts, minds, and souls for the coming of God in Christ on Christmas day. We began with Abram being called to go to a strange land, and then we looked at Samuel being called by name in the temple. Today we continue by looking at the Advent of Paul.

Most pastors love to talk. They spend their Sundays standing before the gathered people proclaiming the Word of God with the hope of it becoming incarnate. It takes hours of preparation, study, and prayer to craft a sermon and many pastors find excitement and fulfillment when they are speaking. Whether they are preaching from a pulpit, leading a bible study, or huddling together in prayer, words are at the foundation of what we do.

Most pastors love to talk, and when you get a group of us together, sometimes the talking never stops…

I was at Licensing School, a required element to become a Pastor in the United Methodist Church, but frankly it could’ve happened at any clergy gathering. The routine is typical, everyone tries to size one another up based upon appearances, we try to guess what kind of churches are represented; Is this their first career, second, or third? What kind of call story do they have? Did she have all that gray hair before she became a pastor? We are usually forced to sit with people who we have yet to meet and then comes the ice breaker questions that will hopefully move us from strangers to friends.

The familiar questions focus on our ability to share our call narrative. I like to call it the elevator speech. In the time that it takes you to get from the lobby to the top floor, can you share how God has called you to ministry?

Here is my elevator speech:

“Born and raised as a United Methodist in Alexandria, VA, I began wrestling with a call to ministry when I was in high school. There were a number of formative experiences that led me to believe that God was calling me to ordained ministry including: being the crew chaplain for a Boy Scout High Adventure trip in Philmont, New Mexico, creating and leading a youth band for my home church, and helping to organize a weekly youth bible study. However, my awareness of the call truly came into focus when one of my dear friends died in a car accident right before Christmas. As we mourned her death I found myself comforting those around me with words that were not my own, and one night I was pulled to my knees on the sidewalk along Ft. Hunt Road to pray. I prayed and prayed and when I stood up, I knew there was nothing else in my life that I could do other than proclaim the Word of the Lord through ministry.

I have had to tell it so many times that I have learned how to include just the right amount of details in just the right amount of time.

For others, this process can take multiple elevator rides. They go on and on about the ways God has called them, and when I was at Licensing School I learned a lot about the people I would be serving with for the rest of my life.

You call that a call story? My husband left me right before the cancer came back. My children had grown up and moved off to different places with their own families and I was all alone. I went to support groups, and tried to keep a positive attitude but nothing was working. It was then that I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior and put my whole trust in his grace. Later, when I beat the cancer, Jesus told me to become a pastor and share the Good News like he had done with me.”

You call that a call story? I was killing more brain cells than Paul was killing Christians when God called me to a new life in Jesus Christ. The bottle was my bible. Jose Cuervo and Jim Beam were my best friends and were with me through the important moments of life, though I could never remember any of them. It was deep in the trenches of one of my worst benders that Jesus told me it was time to live a new life, that he had a mission for me, and I haven’t had a drink since.”

These call stories went on and on with every new story going deeper and farther than the last. The more I sat and listened, the more I realized that I was doing the same thing, and that we were trying to “out-Paul” one another.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I love the story of Paul on the road, but sadly, we have too often used it to judge what Christianity is supposed to look like.

Flannery O’Connor, the American writer, once said “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse!” Her statement gets at the heart of the matter for Paul’s conversion, but oddly enough there is no horse in the story.

But that helps to show how “well” we think we know the story. It has been told so many time in such a variety of ways. Most of the art depicting this scene has Paul falling off his horse, when this is a detail missing from the scripture. Regardless of equine presence, the story is one that captivates us even today.

The first detail we learn about Paul is that he was a young man who watched over the garments of those who stoned Stephen. But he was not just any young man, not just an innocent bystander. He not only approved of Stephen’s death, but also led a violent persecution of the budding Christian community.

Paul was enemy number one to the church, and God would turn his life around to become evangelist number one.

While he was threatening and murdering the disciples of God, Paul went to the high priest and asked for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any Christians on the way, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. He was not just a concerned citizen, Paul was an active go-getter against the subversive community, willing to go above and beyond his duty.

It was on the way to Damascus that a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Paul’s companions that were traveling stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. After being helped up from the ground Paul could see nothing, so his friends had to guide him the rest of the way to Damascus.

UnappLightGod

Some have subjected this story to psychological reflection about the inner-turmoil bubbling within Paul’s soul regarding his willingness to kill Christians. They see the Damascus road experience as an inward struggle that results in a changed life.

However, the details of the narrative argue the contrary. This is not an account of what was going on within Paul, but rather a story about a man who was encountered by something outside of himself. Conversion has to do with being approached by God, and being changed in the process of the encounter.

Paul was helpless and totally dependent on others after encountering Christ on the road. God, meanwhile, spoke with a disciple named Ananias in Damascus. He was commanded to go and meet the man from the road, Paul from Tarsus, lay hands on him so that he might recover his sight. Ananias hesitated knowing the kind of wrath and destruction that Paul had brought on his fellow Christians, but the Lord insisted “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles, and kings, and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.

So Ananias went and laid his hands on Paul to restore his sight. Paul was then filled with the Holy Spirt, was baptized, and regained his strength. Through the power of God made manifest in Ananias, Paul went from being an enemy to being a brother; his life was completely turned around.

When pastors get together we can attempt to “out-Paul” one another. We strive to substantiate our call stories by comparing it with the one who was confronted on the road to Damascus. I have seriously heard people begin their stories with, “It was like I was on my own road to Damascus when God called me to a new life…” This story has become the prototype for many Christians, and we use it as a lens by which we judge others’ calls to different forms of discipleship.

This is a problem.

It is a problem because we forget that the radical kind of change worked in Paul is something that Christ does, not us. Sometimes we become so concerned with the desire to convert others that we foolishly put all of the responsibility on our shoulders when God is the true agent of change. We can show people the door of faith, but God is the one who gives them the strength to walk through it.

It is also a problem because it is not universal. The story of Paul on the road to Damascus is wonderful and miraculous, but it should not lead us to conclude that every conversion is basically the same.

Different people come to Jesus along different routes. When we consider the wealth of conversion stories from scripture, in addition to the tales of fellow Christians in our lives, it become self-evident that God calls individuals according to his will, not a singular story by which all others should be judged. Paul was called in a way that was proportionate to the life he was living – he needed to be knocked down in order to start a new life. But not all of us have lived like Paul. 

The one thing that is universal regarding the story of Paul on the road is that meeting God changes the way we see everything. When we encounter the divine we become dependent on those already versed in the faith, we need Ananiases to help guide and nurture us when our vision has been turned upside down.

God met Paul on the road to Damascus and changed his life forever. God brought me down to my knees on a cold December evening when I was sixteen years old and changed my life forever. God spoke through Gabriel to a virgin named Mary about her bringing a baby into the world which changed her life forever.

Paul’s story is a great. It is full of beautiful details and demonstrates God’s power to change lives. But his story is not the only one. The Old and New Testaments are filled with stories about people whose lives were changed by God in incredible ways. Our church is filled with people who have encountered the good God in ways that are beyond our imaginations.

Whenever we meet God, whether through a particularly poignant moment, the reading of scripture, or the deep thoughts of prayer we embark on a new beginning. Like Paul, everything gets changed and we see the world a little more clearly, we see God’s grace manifest through the friends and family around us and we realize the deepest truth about Christmas – that God does not leave us to our own devices. Amen.