God With Us – Homily on James 5.13-20

I was recently asked to speak to a local group of ICM Chaplains about the importance of carrying our faith into the workplace. It was an honor and a privilege to speak with such great chaplains and enjoy an evening of fellowship together. Below is the homily I preached for the occasion.

James 5.13-20

Are any song you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

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She walked with a limp and was struggling under the oppressive humidity. Employed by the church as a custodian, the older woman largely kept to herself but you could tell that she was remarkably lonely. I had taken the time to express kind greetings throughout the summer but they never developed into a conversation. I was serving as an intern at a rural church in the deep recesses of Western North Carolina and I spent most of my days exploring the Great Smokey Mountains instead of sitting in my stuffy office reading over my sermons for Sundays.

Her loneliness was palpable enough that I finally decided to do something about it, and one Thursday morning toward the end of my time I invited her to come on hike with me along a creek right outside of town. I had been part of the church long enough to know that the building itself often casts a shadow over the lives of the people who call it home, and if you really want to get to know someone, you’ve got to go somewhere else.

She walked with a limp and was struggling under the oppressive humidity. I offered her my water bottle while we sat along the creek and let our feet cool off in the water. While sitting side by side I realized that I knew nothing about her outside of her name, but over the next thirty minutes I learned more about her than anyone else in town. Without prompting, without asking any questions, she started to spill forth details that had remained buried for a long time. I learned that she had been a writer in Chicago pursuing truth wherever possible, I learned about her desire to have children but had a husband who felt otherwise, I learned about the husband’s pension for physical punishment, I learned about the night he had one too many and beat her so bad she wound up in the hospital with a limp and brain damage, I learned about how she fled to escape his wrath to North Carolina, I learned about how she could only find work as a church custodian because of her physical problems, I learned that she felt alone, afraid, and empty.

We prayed. We prayed and prayed out in those woods. We spilt tears into the creek and we asked for God’s peace. Before we returned to town, my curiosity was too strong to not ask the question on my heart: “Why did you tell me all of that?” I asked. “Because you didn’t ask, you just listened.”

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He came to the prayer meetings but never said a word. Every Wednesday morning the family men would sit in one of the parlors at the church and pray for one another before leaving for work. 40 such men had grown to value their time spent with God and one another to help them through the day ahead. We all listened about the problems at home, the children who refused to listen, the bosses who ignored their hard work, the financial struggles, and the crises of faith. It was a time of great vulnerability for us to share our doubts and frustrations without a sense of shame or judgment.

He came to the prayer meetings but never said a word. He never shared his frustration, never offered to pray. He just sat silently in the corner, sipped on his coffee, and left silently at the end of the meeting. That was the routine until one morning when he approached me and asked if he could take me out to breakfast. 20 minutes later I found myself sitting at the Birmingham Country Club in Birmingham, MI with a man who made more in a year than I will make in my entire life. He told me he had cancer, that he had not told anyone else, and that he didn’t know what to do. We prayed together while our coffee grew cold and asked for God’s grace to rain down on us in all things. Before we returned to our cars, my curiosity was too strong to not ask the question on my heart: “Why did you tell me all of that?” I asked. “Because you’re not the pastor, and I felt I could trust you.”

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Icicles were beginning to form in my beard. The Christmas trees stood brilliantly arranged on the lawn of St. John’s UMC, with snow caught on the branches while families perused the plentiful selection of White Pines and Frasier Furs. I located one such family with two young children examining a tree near the end of the row. I offered to pull it off the line so they could examine from all angles and imagine it in their living room. We began talking about Staunton and what it means to be a true Stauntonian when they shared with me their desire to find a local church community. “We just moved here,” they said, “and we were hoping to plug in and meet some new people.”

“Well look no further than St. John’s” I began. “We’ve got services on Sundays, a wonderful Preschool, and people who are full of love. However, the pastor isn’t worth a can of beans.” They leaned in closer and asked with a whisper: “Well, then why do you come here if the pastor is so bad? “Because he is me. What makes our church wonderful are the people who attend, not the one who stands at the front.”

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ICM: Industrial Commercial Ministries. Your mission is to be a caring presence in the workplaces you serve. You bring faith to the people as a sign of God’s love and presence. I love what you do, because you are called to be just like me, which is to say, you are called to be pastoral in the places that matter most. One of the failings of the modern church is the relegation of faithful living to one hour a week on Sunday mornings. We have diminished the role of Christian discipleship to the worship of God alone, which has allowed us to forget that we have put on Christ Monday through Saturday.

In my experience the most transformative moments in Christians’ lives take place somewhere other than church. My role as a pastor is to equip the people of God to be the body of Christ for the world. As chaplains you have the distinct privilege of sitting and praying with people in the midst of terrible valleys and incredible mountaintops. You, more than pastors, are deeply entrenched in the true mission field of 21st century Christianity.

The end of James contains one of the most beautiful calls for Christians to act like Christ: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” Being a Christian is not just about coming to church. Being Christian requires a commitment to confessing our shortcomings with one another, seeking help for the struggles of life no matter where we are and no matter what we do. Being a Christian requires us to be God’s loving and forgiving presence for people who feel they had been abandoned to the cruel fates of the world.

I give God many thanks for the work that you do as chaplains. You get to sit along the creeks of life, soaking your feet in the water, while listening to people open up about their pasts in a way that can be healing and transformative. You get to pray with people who have been dealt heavy blows regarding family issues, hopeless diagnoses, and financial burdens. You get to make Christianity wonderful by being the body of Christ for the world in the world.

I believe the Holy Spirit is moving through all of you. I believe God has done some incredible things through your willingness to meet people where they are. I believe the future of Christianity will be largely dependent on people like you who make the world become flesh in the way you live your lives.

This season of advent is perfect reminder for those of us called to be chaplains. We wait for Emmanuel, God with us, so that we can share that incredible good news with others: God is with you.

Amen.

Devotional – 1 Thessalonians 5.20-21

Devotional:

1 Thessalonians 5.20-21

Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good. 

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“But that’s the way we’ve always done it.” This is perhaps one of the most common phrases used throughout regular church life. Whenever someone has a new idea or a suggestion, a vision for the future, or even just a simple dream, it is not uncommon for someone to say “But that’s the way we’ve always done it.” After all, the church has been doing some of the same things for centuries: we break bread with one another and partake in communion, we celebrate Advent and Easter, we pray the Lord’s Prayer together. However, one of the things that makes the church truly vibrant is our willingness to experiment, to test everything, and seek new ways to interact with God’s grace.

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There is a church outside of Durham, North Carolina that celebrates Christmas Eve in a local barn. While other Christians are sitting in the warmth of their sanctuaries, listening to the beautiful message of a baby being born into the world, this church stands together in the frigid cold, singing hymns through chattering teeth, while the stench of animals wafts throughout the barn. I can imagine the first time someone brought up the idea for barn-worship, only to be met with “but we’ve always had Christmas Eve in the sanctuary!” Somehow or another the vision became a reality and it is now integral to the life of the community. The barn-yard service has given a new dimension and depth to the Christmas message to people who had become numb to the repetitious practices of the past. Through the willingness of someone to test the system, to propose a radically new idea, the message of God’s love in Jesus Christ has been spread to a group of people who otherwise might’ve have missed the Good News.

There is a church in Virginia that has a bluegrass band come to the sanctuary to play their Christmas Eve music. After years of hearing the same hymns from the organ, the pastor proposed a new musical style to relight the flame of faith. Though some were enraged by this new idea, it brought in an entirely new set of people who previously saw the church as a lifeless congregation. The bluegrass service is now one of the most highly attended during the year primarily because of the new musical genre. Through the willingness of someone to test the system, to propose a radically new idea, the message of God’s love in Jesus Christ has been spread to a group of people who otherwise might’ve have missed the Good News.

Paul encouraged the church in Thessalonica to “test everything” by what was good for the people. If something in your life has become flat and lifeless, let it go and seek something new. The beauty of church comes from our willingness to experience God’s wonder in a myriad of different ways.

This advent season, I encourage you to “test” and explore your faith in vibrant ways. Seek out opportunities to catch a new glimpse of God’s glory from the people around you. And remember to hold fast to the good so that others might see the Good News through you.

The Advent of Samuel – Sermon on 1 Samuel 3.1-10

1 Samuel 3.1-10

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

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Today we continue with our Advent Sermon Series on “New Beginnings.” These few weeks of Advent are integral to the life of our church in the sense that we are preparing our hearts, minds, and souls, for the coming of God in Christ on Christmas day. Last week we looked at Abram and his call to go to a new and strange land, a call for a new beginning. Today we continue by looking at the Advent of Samuel.

Chapel time is the best. Every week our little preschoolers gather here in the sanctuary to a hear a story from the bible and how it can relate to their lives right now.

The first week I had them gather in the choir loft with the lights turned off. We talked about the beginning of creation and how God spoke the world into existence. I then encouraged the kids to scream, “Let there be light!” as loud as possible, and only when the volume was sufficiently over the top, I cut the lights on in the whole room. Another week we made chicken noodle soup together and talked about Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for a cup of stew. Another week, I had the kids do push-ups and sit-ups in the center aisle to build up their strength for a wrestling match. One by one they came forward and wrestled with me, just like Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the Jabbok river.

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On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I gathered with the children in the basement in preparation for their Thanksgiving feast. Chapel time that week was going to be all about communion. The kids made their way into the yellow room, and I sat down with them on the floor next to a table with the bread and the cup.

“Good morning my friends! Over the last few weeks you have been learning about the first Thanksgiving with the pilgrims and the Native Americans, about how they shared their food and ate with one another. We remember that great meal this week as many of us will sit around a table with our families and friends to share what we were thankful for. But a long time ago, way before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, there was another very special meal.”

“Jesus had been with his friends for a few years and this was going to be his last night with them. I’m pretty sure that they spent time that night talking about what they were thankful for, especially for Jesus. And when they were done talking, Jesus took a loaf of bread and gave to his friends to eat, and then he took a cup and shared it with his friends to drink. He said that he was giving himself for them, so that they would always know how loved they were.

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At the moment I couldn’t believe how well the kids were paying attention. Usually someone gets distracted, and therefore distracts the rest of the kids, but that morning they were all listening and hanging on every word.

I then asked the children to pray with me over the bread and the cup and I shared communion with them. I tried very carefully to limit the amount of times I called the cup Jesus’ blood, but of course I let it slip and one of the kids shouted: “Are we really drinking blood!?” “Well, yeah, but its also grape juice” “Oh man I love grape juice!” One by one they came forward with their hands outstretched to take a piece of the bread and then dip it in the cup and then received it. For every child that came forward I looked at them in their eyes and whispered, “God loves you.”

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After we finished the kids made their way to the red room to begin their feast when I discovered that Debbie, our Preschool Director, was crying. Worried that I had done something wrong I went forward to comfort her and was shocked when she shared why she was so upset: “Taylor, that was beautiful. You have no idea how precious it was so see those children line up for communion. This might be as close as some of them will ever get to understanding that God loves them.

This might be as close as some of them will ever get to understanding that God loves them.

Years from now I can imagine one of our Preschool students entering college. Though fully endowed with the knowledge of scripture and the willingness of this church to be there for him, he never enters our doors after he leaves the Preschool. High School is tough for him as wrestles with understanding his identity. Try as he might his grades are never good enough, his friends are never close enough, and no matter what he does he feels empty. Without having a true sense of direction, he applies to college and leaves home without looking back with the hope that this new beginning will be better than high school.

Sadly, it is not. College life is filled with even more people, and he feels less and less important. He falls through the cracks of campus life and spends most of his time alone in his dorm room. He still has the bible that we gave him so long ago, but it remains unopened on his shelf. One night, however, one of his roommates invites him to a campus ministry service. Reluctantly he attends, and is underwhelmed by the service.

The music is okay, and the message is all about spreading the Word of the Lord, whatever that means. He sits and listens attentively but he knows that he will never come back. But before the service ends, the pastor brings out the bread and wine and starts talking about communion. Immediately the boy is brought back to that morning sitting on the floor of the yellow room listening to a young bearded pastor talking about communion. While his mind is flooded with memories from the past he makes his way up to the make-shift altar and stretches out his hands to receive the body and blood of Christ while the pastor whispers, “God loves you.

I can imagine that even after that incredible service the knowledge of God’s love didn’t stick. The boy meets his wife in college, gets married, graduates, and moves to a new city for work. Yet, even after his family grows through the arrival of a few children, even while he is secure in his work, he still feels like something is missing.

He tries different things to find fulfillment in his life: he joins a civic organization, he volunteers at a local soup kitchen, he even helps a boy scout troop. But nothing seems to fill the void he feels in his life.

One day, however, a neighbor invites him to the community Methodist church. He laughs while responding about how he went to Preschool at a United Methodist Church but the neighbor insists that he comes to worship.

The man sits with his family in church, stands when he’s supposed to, sings when he supposed to, he even prays when he’s supposed to. He listens attentively to the announcements and the sermon, but most of it feels lifeless and repetitive. The pastor then moves to the table and invites the congregation to partake in this beautiful and precious meal that Christ has offered us without price. She says: “This table is the one true place where we can find fulfillment because in the bread and wine we see what Jesus gave for us on the cross, we see his truest and deepest act of grace. We are living in a time when the word of the Lord is rare, but at this table you can find what you’re missing, because here you discover the glory of God.

With tears in his eyes, the man walks forward. He remembers that day so long ago sitting on the cold floor in the basement of our preschool, he remembers that night in college when he walked up toward the altar. The emotional wave is almost overwhelming and as he stretches out his hands the pastor whispers, “God loves you” and for the first time, he believes it.

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People have heard the call of God in many different ways. Samuel heard it while he was sleeping in the temple and it took him three times to recognize that God was the one calling his name.

The word of the Lord was rare in those days, and it took an incredible act of faith to recognize that God was planning to do something incredible. Samuel did not identify his call when he first heard it, it had to be repeated and it had to be interpreted for him by the old priest Eli. 

Only when Samuel was able to respond with: “Speak, for your servant is listening” would he embark on a new beginning to be a prophet of the Lord. Part of the incredible beauty in this nighttime calling is the fact that God does not give up on Samuel. Though he clearly misses the location of his communication, God continues to call to him in an intimate and loving way.

One of the hardest things in the world to accept is that God loves us. In our heart of hearts we know, more than anyone around us, what we have done wrong and how we have fallen short of God’s glory. We see the mirrored reflection of our brokenness and we see someone unworthy of God’s love. Sometimes it takes more than a simple affirmation, it takes more than just a preacher babbling from a pulpit, it takes more than a bumper sticker or a billboard to remind us that God loves us. We need to hear it over and over and over again because it is true and remarkable.

I believe we are living in a time, just like Samuel, when the word of God is rare. We attempt to fill the emptiness in our lives with superficial commodities, we assume that money, power, and importance can make us feel whole. We foolishly hope that we can root our identity in a culture that ignores the outcast, in a country that neglects to embrace the democracy that we so worship, in a socioeconomic system that punishes the poor while rewarding the wealthy.

Now, more than ever, do we need to recapture that spirit of wonder and joy that a young man felt in the fuzzy hours of the morning when he heard his name being called in the temple. We need to discover the truest new beginning that comes when we remember that our identity is rooted in God. We need to let our discipleship be a living witness to others so that they can feel God’s love through people like us.

It was during another time when the word of God was rare, a time when governments oppressed the people they claimed to fight for, when a poverty stricken couple was forced to travel to a strange town for a census decreed by the emperor. In Bethlehem, when visions of God’s glory were not widespread, Mary and Joseph huddled together for warmth, believing the world had abandoned them to an awful fate. In the depth of their loneliness and fear, God came in the flesh to remind them that they were loved.

This table, where we gather, might be the closest you ever come to knowing that God loves you. When you feast on the great gift that was first given on Christmas, you are just like that child from our preschool, just like that questioning college student, just like that empty parent, and just like Mary and Joseph in the manger. This is where God makes all things new.

So if you remembering anything from today let it be this: God loves you. God loves you. God loves you.

Amen.

Devotional – Mark 1.7

Devotional:

Mark 1.7

He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”

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I was in the middle of a short homily when I started worrying about whether or not the water would be too cold for the baptism. You never can tell how a child will react to the living water; some laugh as if it is tickling them while it trickles down their hair, some scream in fear as the cold water seeps into their clothing, and others remain stupefied by a grown man wearing a long white dress pouring water onto their head. I stood in front of the local community hoping that this baptism would go smoothly, rather than be remembered for the blood curdling cries during the sacrament.

I had picked the beginning of Mark’s gospel for my baptismal homily; John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan. I love the text because it is concise and too the point while remaining profoundly theological. I shared with gathered body John’s ability to bring in the crowds for the repentance of their sins out in the wilderness when Sawyer began to squirm around in his mother’s arms. Without really thinking about what I was doing, I walked over to the family in their pews, reached for Sawyer, picked him up, and continued preaching. For a few moments I continued with whatever I was saying but it felt as if everyone had disappeared and Sawyer and I were the only ones remaining in the sanctuary. I was unsure why I had felt God push me to pick him up, but as I held him close I felt the words of John come alive for me: “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” Here I was holding a precious baby boy, who kept smiling as he stared at the hair growing on my face and I was struck by his preciousness. When I baptized him with the living water I felt unworthy to do what I was doing, and then became profoundly thankful for God’s presence in that beautiful moment.

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Through the waters of baptism Sawyer, and all of us, experienced a new beginning. Like the event of John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan, everything would be different from that moment forward. We covenanted to raise Sawyer in the faith, to pray fervently for him, and to be abundantly present for him in times of need. The church is at its best when we make good on the promises we make to the children we baptize, something I look forward to participating in during Sawyer’s life.

In this season of Advent we are reminded of the new beginning that took place in Bethlehem in a manger. Moreover, in our baptisms we had the privilege of being incorporated into God’s cosmic story to be God’s children. While we prepare for Christmas, I encourage all of you to be thankful for your baptisms, and remember that God came in the form of a baby, just like Sawyer, to dwell among us.

 

The Advent of Abram – Sermon on Genesis 12.1-9

Genesis 12.1-9

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abrams took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord apprised to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

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Today we begin our Advent Sermon Series on “New Beginnings.” Advent comes from the latin adventus which means “coming.” These few weeks are integral to the life of our church in the sense that we are preparing our hearts, minds, and souls, for the coming of God in Christ on Christmas day. This season lends itself to new beginnings, not just in our church, but in each of our lives. This morning we begin with the Advent of Abram.

Wow,” he exclaimed a little too loudly as he began gripping deeply into my shoulder. I found myself staring at one of the groomsmen from the bridal party. We had spent the better part of an hour attempting to line everything up for the wedding during the rehearsal and were now at the Mill Street Grill for the rehearsal dinner.

Wedding rehearsals are crazy; a conflation of friends and family gather together in a church they have never seen, and listen to a pastor they have never met, telling them where to stand and what to do. In no other aspect of ministry is the metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep more appropriate than when I plead with the groomsmen to pay attention and start acting appropriately. Things would go so smoothly if the groomsmen would act like the bridesmaids.

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Anyway, I was staring at the groomsmen when he began to lay on the compliments about how well the rehearsal went and how impressed he was with my disposition. “I can’t believe you’re a pastor! I mean, dude, you’re younger than me! And the way you pray, it sounds like you’re actually talking to God, and for real that was awesome.” I will admit that people are rather honest with me, particularly when the rehearsal dinner has an open bar.

A little later another young person from the bridal party came forward to introduce herself and began opening up about her faith. “It has been a long time since I was in a church, but hearing you speak and seeing how serious you are about all this has reignited my faith; If I lived around here, I would want to worship at St. John’s.”

Still later another young man from the wedding walked over and began speaking to me through jovial chuckles and slaps on my back. “Now man I have got to ask, that good looking girl with the blue eyes, are you two together? Cause if not I would love to get her number.” To which I replied, “Till death do us part” and I walked away.

Conversations as a pastor are often one sided: people bring their own sets of questions and baggage about the church and they are looking for me to confirm their suspicions. “Are you really allowed to be married?” “I never knew pastors could be so young” “What do you think about the Catholic church?” are all frequent elements of dialogue.

However, toward the end of the night, after the last call had been made from the bar, yet another groomsmen came forward. At this point I was getting tired of the same trivial conversations about how I knew the bride, what it takes to become a pastor, and how long had I felt called to the ministry. I am sure that I sighed as he came forward, but his question was unlike any of the others…

“How long have you been serving here?” “It’s been about a year and a half” “Is it still everything you thought it would be?” 

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To follow a call from God may be a costly matter, particularly when it leads to a lonely road. Abram was tasked with following the call of God to leave everything based on God’s Word.

One day, an ordinary day, the Lord told Abram to go from his country and his family to the land that God had prepared with the promise that God would make of him a great nation, he would be blessed, and his name would become so great that he would be a blessing. So Abram went.

The simplicity of “so Abram went” is one of the most deceptive phrases in all of scripture. The extraordinary nature of those three words are lost in Genesis 12 if we gloss over it too quickly. Abram was free from indecision, self-doubt, or stubbornness. His willingness to go is the opposite of what took place in the garden of Eden, and demonstrates a radical dependence on the providence of God.

Abram must turn his back on what had been the familiar and the friendly to go out toward the unwelcome and the unknown. His life would be forever changed in his decision to respond to God’s simple push, something that changed the history of humankind.

The call of Abram is not unlike the many callings that God places in each of our lives. It might not come in the definitive and spoken Word as if from the wind, but there are subtle moves and pushes that God does in order to bring about his will on earth. Many people prefer to stay where they are and as they are rather than to try hard to arrive at something different. Once they reach a level of comfort in their lives, they become content with keeping their eyes trained on the dirt instead of gazing up into the stars.

People of apathy appear throughout the bible, people who might have made their lives significant but never wanted to put their effort in to change. The likes of Esau, Jonah, and Solomon grew complacent with their blessings, and stopped dreaming about the future. Their failure was not generally aiming at anything bad as it was in the fact that they did not aim strongly enough at anything!

Abram could have been apathetic, but instead he responded enthusiastically. He took his wife, his brother’s son, and all his possessions and set forth toward the land of Canaan. When he arrived, God made it clear that this would be the place of his offspring, and Abram made an altar to praise the Lord.

Abram might have accepted the divine message with the momentary enthusiasm of a man who is proud to feel that he has been singled out for something special, but quickly cools when he finds where he must go.

Is is still everything you thought it would be?” As soon as I was asked images from the past year and a half floated through my mind – the baptisms, the deaths, the weddings. The tears spilt in my office, the dreaded phone calls from the hospitals, the shaking hands gripped in prayer. The kids laughing in the Preschool, the palms outstretched for communion, the knocks on the door that carried the weight of the world.

Has my enthusiasm cooled? Is this call to ministry everything I thought it would be? I always dreamed about the sermons that would get people to shout AMEN! from the pews. I dreamt about the people who I would help bring to the light of Christ, people whose lives would be radically transformed through God’s Word from this church. I dreamt about all the positive affirmations I would receive from people at the back of the sanctuary following worship.

The more time I have spent following this call from God, the more that I have realized how similar it is to Abram’s journey. Responding to God is not about the results, packed pews, lots of money in the offering plate, and people lining up to commit their lives to Christ. Responding to the call is about walking the lonely path, standing up for what is right, and calling all of us, including myself, to live better and holier lives. 

Moreover, the call is not just for pastors, but for all of us as Christians. God is not looking for people to say all the right things at the right times, people who will proudly place money in the offering plates, people who have perfect posture in prayer. God is looking for disciples who are willing to say “yes” when the world says “no”, people who fight against injustice, and go into the unknown like Abram.

God tells Abram that he will be blessed in responding to the call. The bible makes it very clear that a person can know and recognize their blessedness not when they have managed to get rid of all the dangers and risks and burdens, but when they have been given great and gallant strength to bear them.

The collective group can only move forward when an individual breaks the path ahead. On every level of life there must be a pioneer. Joseph had to dream dreams that went beyond what his brothers wanted, Moses had to stand before the Lord and plead for the forgiveness of God’s people, and Jesus had to push his friends further and farther than they ever wanted to go.

Only when people are brave enough to rise above the crowd, only when they set out on new beginnings, do they follow the roads of freedom for their souls.

The past week has been filled with frightening examples of our need to start standing up against the crowd mentality of our culture:

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We need a new beginning when it comes to the foolishness of sitting around a family table to give thanks, to then punch one another in the face while wrestling for Black Friday deals. 

We need a new beginning when it comes to a nation flocking to Facebook to express their opinions about what is going on in Ferguson, when they neglect to create real and meaningful relationships with those around them. 

We need a new beginning when it comes to our denomination meeting for a day of “holy conferencing” about homosexuality when we keep talking about it as an “issue” instead of it being about people. 

We need new beginnings all around us, and its up to people like you and me to listen like Abram and start walking down the strange new road.

Wherever Abram went he built an altar to the Lord. While responding to the call of God he recognized the importance of worshipping the Maker in whom we live for the true blessings of life. Having a new beginning implies understanding that worship is important for the cultivation of one’s soul. We gather here in this place week after week to hear the Word of God and respond to it in our lives, we gather to feast on the Word so that we can encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ to take radical steps of faith into new beginnings just like Abram.

Abram left it all for a new beginning in a new place. He traveled as the Lord commanded and wound up in the hill country on the east of Bethel. Many years later a young virgin named Mary and a man named Joseph traveled to Bethlehem for a new beginning in a new place. They traveled as the Lord commanded and wound up in a village without space at the inn, but brought a child into the world who changed everything.

Is it still everything you thought it would be?” the man asked. I thought for a long time before I responded, reflecting on all that has happened to our precious church over the last year and a half. “No, its not everything I thought it would be. It is so much harder. But thats why its worth it.”

Amen.