Devotional – Mark 1.28

Devotional:

Mark 1.28

At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Weekly Devotional Image

In a place the size of Staunton, you quickly begin to recognize people all over town. It only took six months for trips to the grocery store to extend in length because there was a good chance I would run into someone that I knew and a conversation would naturally develop. Moreover, when your vocation includes serving the general public, people begin to talk about you with friends and family outside the context of church.

For instance: There was the time I was playing drums in a band concert at Gypsy Hill park when a stranger introduced himself and asked if I was “the strange pastor who carried a giant cross around Staunton.” Or there was the time that I was helping out at another United Methodist Church when a stranger introduced herself and asked if I was “the young pastor who made the youth do all sorts of strange things during worship” (and promptly walked away as soon as I confirmed her suspicions!). Or there are the numerous times when I am somewhere in town and a random person will say: “Oh, I’ve heard all about you and the things you’re doing at St. John’s” and I can never tell whether or not that is a good thing.

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Frankly, you don’t have to be in a place like Staunton for words and gossip to spread around like wild-fire; people thrive on receiving and sharing information that excites and dramatizes individuals in the local community. Many of us are guilty of perpetuating this cycle whenever we begin a conversation with: “Did you hear about ______?” or “Can you believe what ________ did?” Sometimes we sadly choose to focus on the dramatic successes and misfortunes of others so that we don’t have to confront the reality of what is actually happening to us in our lives.

Before the end of Mark’s first chapter, words and stories about Jesus have begun to spread all over Galilee; He called the first disciples, He cleansed a man with an unclean spirit, He healed Peter’s mother from her fever, and He cured many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many demons. Jesus recognized that he would have to be publicly active in his willingness to proclaim God’s Good News through his words and actions.  He went out to find people in order to bring about God’s will on earth. Important for us to remember is the fact that Jesus did not let all the rumors prevent him for doing his ministry on earth.

Wherever you live and whatever you have done, there is a good chance that people are probably talking about you in a way that is spreading your “fame” (for better or worse) in the community. Remember this: In God’s eyes you are defined by what you do for the kingdom and not by what people say about you. Therefore, let us be people of courage who do not let the words of the World break us down, but instead firmly root our hope in faith in the one whose fame continues to spread throughout the world: Jesus Christ.

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Actions > Words – Sermon on Mark 1.14-20

Mark 1.14-20

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fisherman. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

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When did I last share my faith with someone?” The paper with the question stretched across my lap in the parlor. I had been meeting with a discipleship circle once a month for a year. Our typical routine is to gather, celebrate communion together, engage in a short devotional, and then ask some of the traditional Wesleyan questions as a group. For instance one of the questions is: “Do I pray about the money I spend?” We would then take turns going around in a circle and answering the question honestly, and practice being vulnerable as we seek to grow in love of God and neighbor.

The evening began with a simpler question: “Did the bible live in me today?” Some of the answers were beautiful, some were simple, and others stretched the definition of living out God’s Word. But then it was my turn to draw one of the random questions from the bag, and I read the words out slowly and deliberately: “When did I last share my faith with someone?” All eyes in the room fell on me to answer the question.

To be honest: I hate that question. I hate how Christians have overemphasized the importance of evangelism to the point of events such as the Crusades and the Inquisition. I hate how sharing faith has been boiled down into trying to make other people into Christians. I hate the flyers I find in public bathrooms, and the desperate pleas for people to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior or face eternal damnation. Yet, there I sat and it was my turn to respond.

I began: “I last shared my faith on Sunday when I was speaking from the pulpit. We had a number of people here in worship and as I preached, I shared my faith.” The room was silent, and it was clear my answer did not satisfy the group. “That doesn’t count” one of them muttered, “answer it truthfully.

I shivered and felt ashamed because I realized that I could not remember the last time I shared my faith outside the context of serving as a pastor.

Following Jesus means sacrifice and bringing others to him. Simon and Andrew were in the middle of fishing, participating in their careers, when Jesus called them to fish for people. They left their nets, which is to say they left their ways of life, to follow this strange and compelling man. So too, James and John were mending their nets when Jesus called them to follow and they left it all behind. The life of discipleship for them, and for us, is not easy; it requires a commitment unlike anything else, and it will cost us our very lives. 

As I sat before my friends and peers with the question weighing heavily upon me, I began to wonder: If I believe Jesus is the light of the world, that God is the author of salvation, that the Holy Spirit gives me life, then why am I so afraid to share that with others?

I left the meeting that night with a heavy heart. The conversation had moved to a new direction but I kept replaying the question in my head over and over again. Had I grown content with just assuming that people will keep showing up to church on Sunday mornings? Or am I willing to be a fisher for people?

I made a promise to myself in the car that night: For the next two weeks I was going to take nothing for granted and I was going to explore fishing for people; I was going to share my faith with others.

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Two days later I was sitting in a McDonalds in Orange, VA. I had wandered around in the cold while Lindsey was busy with a visit and decided to warm myself up under the glow of the golden arches. The place was packed. Friends and families took up the majority of the seating, and though I wanted to just grab my soda and sit alone with a book, I remembered the promise I made and began searching the joint. Near a television that was showing reports on CNN I discovered a middle aged man sitting all alone with a Big Mac, fries, and an extra large Coke. I sat down beside him, and though I felt the Holy Spirit pushing me to speak with him, I couldn’t figure out where to start. A few awkward moments passed until I blurted out, “How’s your dinner?” The man slowly looked up from his food and shrugged his shoulders. “It’s McDonalds” he said, as if returning my question with a question. Again, I was at a loss for what to do next, but he decided to pick up the conversation. He motioned toward the television:

“What do you make of all these terrorist attacks in Europe?”

“I think it’s terrible, and I will never understand how people believe that death can accomplish what they want.”

“If we catch them, how do you think they should be punished?”

“I guess they should be charged, and put in prison if found guilty. Maybe they’ll even turn their lives around.”

“If I had it my way, I’d string ‘em up in the center of town for everyone to see while they suffer and are killed for what they’ve done.”

At this point I should have just stopped talking and gone back to my book, but I couldn’t help myself. I should have at least thought about what I was about to say, before I said it:

“You know, a group of people once hung a man on a tree to die for a crime that he did not commit, just so everyone could witness his suffering.”

“Oh really? Who was that?”

His name was Jesus.

The rest of our time together at McDonalds was filled with silence. Did I share my faith with him? I think so, but sometimes people aren’t in a place to hear it and respond.

This is the view from an airplane.

Later that night I was in line to board an airplane with Lindsey as we were preparing to make our way to visit her parents in Florida. Due to an oversight with the airline, they overbooked our flight and bumped one of us to first class. I pleaded with my wife to take the ticket, to enjoy the flight from the comfort of high society, but (like the true disciple she is) she insisted that I take the upgrade and stretch out my legs.

I had never been in first class before and was excited and nervous about the experience. When I found my seat I discovered that I would be sitting next to a man who was already watching an episode of South Park on the screen in front of him, jovially chuckling to himself. I got comfortable, and while the rest of the common people were entering the plane, a stewardess came by to take our drink order. I said that I was fine and went back to my book when my seat-mate looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “Son, getting a drink is the best part of flying first class!” and proceeded to order a Jack-and-Coke.

Four Jack-and-Cokes later we were in the air and I had my laptop open and my bible in my lap when the man leaned over to talk. I thought, “this time the person is coming to me” and I quickly prayed that God might give me something to say.

“What are you working on?”

“It’s a sermon for Sunday; I’m a pastor.”

“Well then, what are you reading?”

“It’s the Bible?”

“What do you think of it? Any good?” (Like he was asking about a John Grisham novel)

It’s the living Word of God for the people of God.

He paused and looked as if he was trying to figure out if I was serious or not, and slowly brought his headphones back to his ear, and drink to his mouth.

Did I share my faith with him? I think so, but sometimes people aren’t in a place to hear it and respond.

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Lindsey wasn’t feeling well when we returned from Florida so we decided to hit the Minute-Clinic at Walmart to find out if she needed a prescription or not. Remembering that she so graciously volunteered for me to ride in First Class, I thought it only appropriate that I drive and stay with her during the appointment. The waiting area was rather crowded, so I saw Lindsey to her seat and decided to sit on a bench outside of the room. I had a book with me and was looking forward to some light reading when I noticed a very disheveled man sitting on the bench all alone.

His mullet was knotted and unkempt. His smell was palpable from a few paces away. His clothes were stained and ill-fitting. His skin was blotchy and unhealthy. And I knew that I needed to share my faith with him. 

Unlike the previous two attempts I did not feel the pressure of the Spirit nagging me to do something, and I did not have a bible with me to spark a conversation, so instead I just decided to be myself, rather than someone else.

I introduced myself and sat down. He kept staring off into the distance, clearly focused on other things and remained unfazed by my presence.

Do you mind if I ask you a question?

He shrugged as if to say “I don’t care”

How are you doing?

He slowly turned his head to look at the stranger sitting next to him and he began to answer the question. I learned about how he and his wife had fallen on hard times and could no longer purchase anything other than food. He shared with me his own personal frustrations with not being able to provide for his family. He talked about how people are so blind to the needs of others in our community because they just assume that everyone is fine. He vented about employment opportunities and the lack of fairness in the hiring process because businesses are only looking to hire people who think and look just like themselves. And he told me that he was at Walmart so that his wife could walk around the store and feel like she was shopping even though they would be going home empty handed.

The conversation went on and on and I let the man speak, I let him go wherever he needed, and I just sat there and listened. When the time came his wife found us sitting on the bench and he told me that it was time to go. I could tell that he was in a better place than he was before the conversation, perhaps because he was finally able to get some of his worries off his chest, and before he left he turned around to shake my hand and said, “Thanks for listening -nobody else does.

Did I share my faith with him? I think so, but sometimes our actions speak louder than our words.

I don’t know for sure what compelled the first four disciples to drop their nets and follow Jesus, but I imagine it had a lot to do with his actions. Jesus loved to eat among the poor and the outcast, he loved to seek out the last and the lost, and he was known for listening to people in the midst of their trials and tribulations.

Sharing our faith is a difficult task because it requires us to be vulnerable and step into situations that might blow up in our faces. It implies a willingness to believe that faith is something so important and life-giving that it is worth sharing no matter what. Sharing our faith means we have to start acting like Jesus outside the walls of church to meet people where they are and listen.

When was the last time you shared your faith with someone? Amen

Devotional – Jonah 3.2

Devotional:

Jonah 3.2

“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

Weekly Devotional Image

The phone buzzed while I was still asleep. I fumbled with it as I attempted to read the number in the dimly lit room when I discovered that it was from an unfamiliar zip code. On any other morning I might’ve just ignored the call and let it go to voicemail, but for some reason I answered it and began with a sleep-ish “Good Morning.”

“Good morning to you!” the too bright voice on the other end began, “Taylor, I am the District Superintendent from the Staunton District in Virginia. I know you were thinking about pursuing an appointment as an associate pastor, but the bishop and cabinet have prayed over you and we believe that you gifts and graces fit best with a church in Staunton. You are being appointed as the pastor of St. John’s UMC. Have you ever heard of it?”

In a matter of seconds I had gone from resting soundly in a bed, to learning where I would be serving for the next few years. I remember rapidly thinking: “Staunton? Have I ever been there? I know it’s south of Harrisonburg, but that’s about it. Did they just tell me that I’m going to be pastoring by myself? What are the people like? What if they don’t like me? etc.”

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After finishing the conversation, and making sure that I wasn’t dreaming, I looked up the church online. I used google maps to see what it looked like from the sky and from the road. I used the church website to learn about all the pastors who had served in the past and what the church was currently focused on. I used local newspaper archives to see if the church had been in the news. A few weeks later I got in the car and drove to Staunton just to see what the church looked like from the outside and what the surrounding community was like so that I could see if I  could picture myself there.

God said to Jonah, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” Staunton is definitely not my Nineveh, but I can relate to the feeling of unease that Jonah had regarding his divine message; Going to a strange city with the task of proclaiming God’s Word is a frightening thing. How will the people respond? Will they hear what God is saying and believe? I still feel that uncomfortable feeling each week as I take the steps up into the pulpit and pray before the sermon begins.

Jonah was tasked with sharing a message with the people in a way that is similar to pastors preaching from pulpits. Similarly, all of us are given opportunities to share God’s message with the people around us: You might see someone alone at work and feel God pushing you to check on them. Perhaps you’ve been putting off a phone call to your son or daughter about how you want your relationship to change. Maybe you’ve been praying for a friend to start coming to church and now is the time to put your prayers into action by inviting them to come with you.

We all have difficult things to share with others around us. We can run away from the Ninevehs in our life like Jonah did or we can be brave and walk into the situations that God has given us a message to proclaim. The choice is ours.

Devotional – Psalm 139.4

Devotional:

Psalm 139.4

Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. 

Weekly Devotional Image

I was in the middle of wrapping Christmas presents when my cell phone began to ring. My fingers were covered in tape and I fumbled with answering the phone while keeping the paper pulled tight over the box. Frankly, I’m not a very good wrapper, so I welcomed the distraction of the call with hopes that it would somehow result in me taking enough time away that I would return with perfect wrapping capabilities. The season of Advent and Christmas can be very lonely for pastors as they seek to serve the needs of others so I was greatly pleased when I saw that my friend, and best man, was calling me out of the blue.

Josh and I met in seminary, and when we graduated he went out to Wichita, KS to work for the Apprentice Institute at Friends University while I became a pastor in the UMC. Josh and his wife recently welcomed their first daughter into the world (Isla Rose) and I specifically tried to not overburden him with phone calls and video-chats, even though I wanted to hear and see everything about his family and time as a father. I have known for a long time that he would be a great Dad and I was excited to hear about how things were going for him when he called. However, the phone conversation focused on a topic of conversation that I was not necessarily prepared for.

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We spent the first few minutes catching up about the typical things when Josh’s tone suddenly changed and I knew he was calling for a specific reason. Instead of piling up the preliminary excuses and attempting to justify his decision he put it simply: “I am leaving my work with Apprentice, and going to work in the secular world.” At first I was completely shocked; Josh is one of the greatest disciples I have ever met, he ministered to me while we were in school together, and he would no longer be working for the church. He shared with me his reasons (all valid) and my shock quickly changed to compassion. He told me that he had been wrestling with the decision for a long time but was afraid to share it with me. He was worried that I would be disappointed or react in such a way that it would change our friendship.

I am disappointed that the Church has lost such a great and promising leader, but at the same time I recognize that the Spirit moves in mysterious ways and perhaps Josh can now be even more fruitful for the kingdom of God. I believe that God has moved in Josh’s life for this specific change and it will bring glory to the triune God here on earth. My only wish is that Josh would not have feared about my reaction, and would have known that nothing could change our friendship.

God knows our words and thoughts even before they are on our tongues and minds. God’s love remains steadfast toward us regardless of our decisions and actions. Can you imagine how differently we would interact with others if we trusted them the same way that we trust God? Can you picture what that kind of love and forgiveness would look like in your life?

This week, let us show our friends how much we love them. All it might take is a phone call, an email, or a text message, but it could make all the difference in the world.

Yes, No, Maybe So – Sermon on Romans 13.1-2, John 18.36, and 1 Timothy 2.1-3

(Instead of a typical ~15 minute sermon from the pulpit, I broke the following sermon up into 3 homilies. I preached the first from the pulpit, the second from the lectern, and the third from the middle)

This morning concludes our Sermon Series on Questions. After polling the gathered body regarding your questions about God, Faith, and the Church this series was created. Last week we talked about the ever sensitive topic of forgiveness and whether or not to bury or cremate the dead. This week we finish by looking at the complicated relationship between politics and church. Before we begin I wanted to share with you some the actual questions that led to this sermon: How do we reconcile the divide between what we believe and particular political positions? The Old Testament seems to celebrate violence in God’s name. Jesus seems to permit only peaceful ways; So why do we live ready to go to war with whomever our government says we should? Is it right to have an American Flag in the sanctuary?

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Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 

Is the church political: YES

My office is far away from the main entrance to church. I can sit comfortably in the back hallway room, weeding through emails, making phone-calls, and preparing sermons while unaware of anyone entering the church and walking into the main office. If people arrive and desire to speak with me our secretary, Ashley, will either walk with them down toward my room, or call ahead to let me know that someone is on their way. I appreciate this system because I am rarely blindsided by a visit and can usually prepare myself for whatever enters the room. Usually.

Ashley had already gone home for the day when I heard the doorbell ringing. I have learned that I have to run from my office to the entrance if I want to catch people before they give up and assume no one is at the church. So it was with a bible and hymnal tucked under my arm that I found myself sprinting to the door to welcome whoever was waiting.

She was older, painfully shy, and carrying an absurd amount of political paperwork. She stuttered after I flung the door open and it took a lot of interpretation for me to gather that she wanted to talk about an upcoming election. On most days I would politely smile and decline her invitation, but I was in the mood to debate and argue, so I welcomed her in.

In my office we went through the expected pleasantries about how long I have been here, what the church is like, and other regular questions when the stuttering disappeared, and my shy visitor became extremely passionate about the subject of conversation. “Did you know” she began, “that Christians are voting less than they ever have in the past? While the world crumbles around us under the sinful temptations of the devil, people are neglecting their Christian duty to vote for politicians that can help turn the world right-side up… (of course, all I could think about is the fact that Jesus came to turn the world upside-down) … We need your help pastor. We need you, as the leader of this church, to use the pulpit as a tool to get good Christians back to the voting booths so we can bring our country back to the good old days.” I tried to stifle the sigh that was brewing within me, but before I had a chance to rebuke some of her statements, she dropped a bomb from scripture right on top of me, “remember what Paul wrote: ‘let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God.’ We greatly appreciate your helping our cause.

For as much as I was frustrated with some of her language, and her desire for our pulpit to become a political microphone, she was absolutely right. Throughout history Christians have wrestled with the relationship between church and state, and Paul had to address these growing concerns as a major problem in the first century. Christians, since the beginning, have either granted rulers too much power and latitude, or else have refused to give up what is fully entitled to the rulers (remember give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar?). This has resulted in Christians being too subservient in some periods, while in others they have neglected their duty to the area they found themselves in.

Paul wrote these profound words to the church in Rome because he thought that if we can be good citizens, we can be good disciples. We rely on governments, including our own, to bring order to the chaos of our world. As long as people persist in making our future unpredictable, Paul’s words will remain relevant. Wars will develop, evil will manifest itself in crime and violence, and the state will be here to protect the innocent.

Is the church political? YES. We are political because we are subject to authorities over us that were instituted by God. So, in honor of the woman who begged me in my office to do something I never wanted to do, I say this: “Remember to vote.” Amen.

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Church and State

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Is the church political? NO

I loved my AP Government class in high school. First of all, it was taught by the coach of our football team which meant that he spent more time working on the Xs and Os in his notebook than he did about the legislative branch and he was quick to reward us with stellar grades regardless of our effort. But mostly, I loved the class because it embodied, for me, all of the wonderful and incredible things I was about to experience. As a 17 year old, AP Government displayed the strange new world of our American System that I would soon be able to participate in through the right to vote. I eagerly absorbed our reading material because it was enlightening and it was relevant.

Midway through our year together a serviceman showed up in our classroom, and my excitement quickly dwindled and was replaced with disappointment and fear. The marine stood at the front of our class in his uniform while most of us were still rubbing our eyes to wake up, and began to explain the Selective Service. In mere moments I quickly learned that by no choice of mine I would be registered for the Selective Service along with every other male between the ages of 18-25. The marine attempted to calm the nerves that were developing in the room by claiming that it will probably never amount to anything, but that the government needed to have us on record just in case we were ever needed for war.

I was stupefied. How could our Government expect me to go to war when I believe in the one who calls me to love and pray for my enemies? How could our political system set aside young males, just in case, when it contradicts my understanding of God’s love and grace in the world?

God’s kingdom is not of this world, our allegiances are somewhere else. Doing things liking pledging allegiance to the flag and printing “In God We Trust” on our money draws us away from the one in whom we live and forces us to choose between God and country. Those two things are not the same. Having an American flag in our sanctuary is very dangerous because it, on some level, implies that what the cross represents is equal to what the flag represents. When we let the flag, and therefore the country it represents, come too far into our discipled lives, we run the risk of blurring the lines between God’s kingdom and America. It was not that long ago that a man named Hitler was able to bring one of the most advanced and progressive nations in the world into a war through the use of religious fanaticism that started with a nationalist church structure. That kind of thing still happens in the world today.

Is the church political? NO. God’s kingdom is not of this world, we believe in something greater than our country can represent, and we are held to a higher standard than what our country fights for. When our beliefs and faith go against what America proclaims as normative, we are reminded of the fact that God’s kingdom is not of this world. Our hope is built not on political parities but on Jesus Christ and his righteousness. Amen.

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First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayer, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.

Is the church political? MAYBE SO

I was hunched over the computer with my notes spread out across the desk when the text messages and phone calls started coming through. I quickly hid my phone in a drawer and continued to focus on my studies, my Old Testament Final Exam was in the morning and I felt woefully unprepared. But try as I might to remove the distraction of my phone, it continued to buzz and ring in the drawer when I began to realize that something big must’ve happened. All I needed to do was see the first message for the final to disappear from my thoughts: “We killed Osama bin Laden.

I spent the rest of the evening in front of the television witnessing the reports of our nation’s triumph in killing its greatest enemy, I saw crowds of people gathering in public and in front of political buildings celebrating a great victory while waving American flags back and worth. I even received a phone call from one of my childhood friends who was drunkenly celebrating in front of the White House who wished that I could be there to throw a cold one back with him.

In the days that followed, people continued to celebrate across the American landscape and I felt confused. On some level I kept recalling what it felt like to grow up in Alexandria and really remember the fear I felt when the Pentagon was hit, I remember the devastation that weighed on military families in my neighborhood, I remember the world changing forever on 9/11 and being angry at whoever was responsible. But while I witnessed people celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden, I couldn’t help but wonder if we had accomplished anything.

For weeks I struggled with how to feel and what it meant for our country to celebrate the death of a man who celebrated death. I was lost and unsure of my faith and what it meant to follow the one who died for us. The muslims I was used to seeing on Duke’s campus quickly disappeared from the public areas and were replaced with affluent kids dressed in red, white, and blue. Overwhelmed by everything that had taken place, I confided in a friend from seminary about my struggles and asked, “What are we supposed to do?

His response was quick and deliberate: “We pray.

The problematic relationship between church and politics is complicated by the fact that the Christian always belongs to two communities and has loyalties to both. Our identities are divided between God and Country and both are constantly striving for our allegiance. Sadly, there will never be a time that both of them stand for and represent the same things, and we will always live in this paradoxical struggle.

What are we to do when politicians fight for programs that go against our faith?

What are we to do when our country goes to war with our enemies while Jesus is the one who calls us to love them?

What are we to do with a sanctuary and worship service that displays an American flag while proclaiming the empty cross of Christ’s resurrection?

What are we to do when our country no longer stands for the Christian values everyone believes it was founded upon?

First of all then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.

We pray when confronted with the troubles of our world, when we are met with the political persuasions of our nation, and when we can no longer understand the balance between God and country. Karl Barth once said that “to clasp our hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.

Is the church political? MAYBE SO

We are political in the sense that we recognize that we are in the world, but we are not of the world. That God has called us to be brave and radical people who see the world turned upside down and live into a new reality. That when we clasp our hands together to pray for everyone, our leaders and enemies, our nations and others, we spark the beginning of an uprising against disorder.

The challenge of the relationship between faith and politics will always remain. Since the beginning of the church it has been a concern of Christians everywhere and it will continue to be.  But if we want to truly wrestle with this problem, is we want to take steps of faith into our political culture, we begin by asking: What Would Jesus Do about government?

He would pray for the government, he would listen to all people everywhere treating them with worth, and he would love them with all that he had.

Let it be so with us. Amen.

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Devotional: Mark 1.4

Devotional:

Mark 1.4

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 

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I had been waiting at the garage for longer than I had hoped. I had neglected to take the car in for an inspection during the month of November, and I was running the risk of receiving a ticket for my negligence. I was prepared to speak with my hypothetical police officer about the numerous demands on clergy during Advent, but every time I made the list of excuses in my head, the more pitiful they became. Only after Christmas was I willing to finally bite the bullet and wait for my car to be inspected.

I thought it would be a quick in-and-out appointment, but I continued to sit in the waiting room while my car was being checked out. After thirty minutes, I saw my car coming out of the garage and was re-parked right outside the window. However, when I approached the cashier, she informed me that I still needed to wait. The time passed idly by while I made small talk with the other customers about being a pastor in town and the recent arrival of the holidays, but the repair shop neglected to call my name even while my car was parked outside with a new inspection sticker clearly placed on the front window. I tried to be as patient as possible, but when I could no longer take it I went back to the cashier and explained the situation, to which she apologized for making me wait for nothing, and handed me my keys. She explained that the paperwork had been lost in the shuffle and asked if there was anything she could do. I laughed to myself and then said, “It’s okay, I’m a pastor and I’m supposed practice what I preach, including patience.”

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After church yesterday afternoon, my wife and I were enjoying lunch at a local pizza shop when she brought up the familiar topic of practicing what I preach. The sermon had been about forgiveness and the need to act on the words that we so faithfully pray in the Lord’s Prayer every week, and it was clear the Lindsey wanted to explore the topic further. She spoke in a way that halted and haunted me: “Taylor, you kept talking about our need to forgive. Is there anyone that you need to forgive? Or better yet, do you think there’s anyone out there who might be wrestling with whether or not to forgive you?”

John appeared proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It is too easy, particularly from my side of the pulpit, to neglect the need to repent for my faults, and forgive others around me. It is even harder to open my eyes to the fact that there might be people who have not forgiven me for something I have done. As we take our first steps into 2015, let it be the year we actually practice what we preach. Let us strive to be people of patience, forgiveness, and repentance. Let us be brave with our love, and seek to be truly reconciled with everyone around us.

Forgiving the Dust – Sermon on Genesis 3.19 & Matthew 6.9-15

Genesis 3.19

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Matthew 6.9-15

“Pray then this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

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This morning marks the beginning of our two part Sermon Series on Questions. After polling the gathered body about the types of questions you all have about God, Faith, and the Church this series was created. We begin by looking at two of the most prevalent questions: What does it mean to forgive? Should the dead be cremated or buried?

Strange things are done for funerals. There are people who insist on placing the favorite objects or tokens from the deceased into the casket in order to bring comfort to the dead, after they’re dead. Others take the ashes of their loved ones to have them placed under high pressure and temperature and have them formed into diamonds to be worn on a finger or necklace. In some communities the location of the burial spot has less to do with geology and availability as it does regarding the direction of the grave.

In Western North Carolina almost every cemetery is organized so that the gravestone, and therefore the bodies, are facing east. While I helped a church in Bryson City, North Carolina it was not uncommon to hear stories about families standing at the graveside, deeply grieving in their loss, when a distant cousin or uncle would pull out a trusty compass and declare that they had the body facing the wrong direction. Whether built in a valley or up on a hill, EVERY grave had to face east. Part of this comes from biblical reasons, but I always heard that it was done so that when Jesus comes back with the sunrise, he wants to see smiling faces, and not rear-ends.

Because I work for the church, I have the privilege to be with people at the paramount of their suffering and help guide them through their grief and pain. Whereas most of the world refuses to talk about death and what comes with it, I relish in the opportunity to declare that even though death is real, it has been defeated. We tend to treat death as an unspeakable subject, when it is at the very heart of what it means to be human.

Even with the sorrow that death brings, I must also admit that comedy often comes along with it.

I could tell you about all the truly scandalous things I have learned about the departed when I meet with a family to plan the funeral. We share stories about the person’s life, what they were passionate about, what set them a part from others. But at some point, and it almost always happens, the friends and families begin to share stories that should not be repeated. I sit there with my pen and paper in hand, fighting the urge to write down every perfect bit of gossip I hear, until someone usually realizes who they are talking to and they politely request that I neglect to mention those parts during the sermon.

I could tell you about how nobody knew what to do with the ashes of my grandfather’s brother after he passed so they just kept him around for awhile. And when my great-grandmother died, my grandfather asked the funeral home if he could spend a few moments alone with her after the viewing. Feigning some sort of important spiritual and prayerful goodbye, he quickly walked up once the room was empty, took a gallon size zip-lox bag containing uncle Preston, and  carefully hid him in the casket with my great-grandmother.

I could tell you about how the first time I met Dick Dickerson, he shared with me all sorts of stories regarding his wife Mildred and he kept motioning over toward the kitchen. I thought that this was a sweet and precious habit that was born out of their relationship, and that Dick was habituated into remembering her being in the kitchen, but when I asked him about it, he laughed out loud and told me that he was keeping her ashes in a bag above the sink.

It is important to remember that it okay to laugh after death. That first laugh or smile often comes with a feeling of guilt, but, if I can be so bold as to speak for the people I have buried, they would be happy to know that we are happy.

Strange things are done for funerals. Sometimes they bring the best out in people; a prodigal son returns home to bury his father; a wayward daughter reconnects with her family. But other times, they bring out the worst.

There were two brothers who fiercely loved their mother. Raised by her alone after losing their father at a young age, they worshipped her and were so very thankful for all that she had given them. The time came for them to start their own families, but they never neglected to remember their wonderful mother. It came as a shock to the local community when she passed away rather abruptly, but the wake of her death was truly felt between her sons.

They met with the pastor to go over funeral arrangements when the fight began…

The older son wanted his mother to be cremated. He claimed it was what she desired and had shared the detail with him on a number of occasions.

The younger son wanted his mother to be buried. He respected her wishes, but he was utterly convinced that the bible said you have to be buried in the ground.

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By the time I arrived in the community, no one could even remember what they wound up doing with the mother, but ever since that fight, the brothers had refused to speak to one another.

Both of them had good points when it came to taking care of their mother’s body- we should respect the wishes of the person, while at the same time remain faithful to scripture.

Some believe that we should only bury bodies. Their arguments are based on the concept that out bodies were made in the image of God and will be resurrected when Christ returns. Most of the key people people in both the Old and New Testaments were buried, including the one who was crucified on a cross. It allows us to properly mourn their loss, and even create a place, such as cemeteries, for us to visit and pay our respects to those who helped to shape and mold us. Moreover they claim that burning a body, cremating it, prevents it from being newly constituted in the resurrection.

Some believe that we should only cremate bodies. Their arguments are based on the concept that nothing is impossible with God, that God can most certainly recreate a body for the resurrection. All flesh eventually decays and returns to the earth becoming just like the dust from which we were created. If God can only resurrect those whose bodies are buried, then anyone who has perished under less than ideal circumstances would be withheld from the resurrection. They also argue that cremation can be less expensive than burial and therefore helps families to thrive and serve God and neighbor. They choose to keep the ashes in an urn or scatter them in such a way that it is done in a fruitful and honorable manner.

Bottom line: we are dust, and to dust we shall return. When we die, whether we are cremated or buried in the ground, we are gone. Our bodies remain and eventually return to the dust from which God brought us into being. Nothing is impossible for God. When the time comes for the bodily resurrection, nothing, and I mean nothing, can stop God from forming us into our new bodies, bodies that will not look like the ones we had here on earth, bodies that are brilliant and beyond our imagination. What becomes important for us is the need to be present with the friends and families for those who have died, and be loving in the way that we see to their needs, whatever they are, in order to help them grieve and mourn.

I never had a chance to talk with the brothers about their argument before the funeral. This happened long in the past. I never had a moment for a surprise intervention or reconciliation. I wish I had the opportunity because this is what I would share with them:

“One of the bravest and strangest things we do as Christians is pray the Lord’s Prayer. Asked by his disciples about the way to pray, Jesus taught his friends to say the words that each of us say every Sunday in church. We collectively pray to OUR father, not MY father, or Jesus’ Father, but OUR father. We request that our limited daily means be met, we yearn for the bread that gives us life. And then we pray for God to forgive us just as we forgive those around us. We pray this to God because we are not strong enough to do it on our own and we need the Spirit to move in us and strengthen us for the terrifically difficult work of forgiveness.

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You two lost your mother, you lost the rock that so much of your lives were founded upon. The one who was always there for you, cared for you, and nurtured you was gone and you wanted to do everything you could for her funeral to be perfect. Yet, you let your own opinions get the better of you, and you let your selfishness blind you from the kind of love your mother made manifest here among us. Your mother is gone, I know you might not be ready to hear it, the grief might still be too difficult to bear, but she is gone. She is now with OUR heavenly father. 

What are you two going to do with the lives she gave you, what are you going to do with the lives that God gave you? Will you continue to bear grudges against each other, refuse to speak and commune, ignore the needs of your respective brother? Will you let an argument about funeral practices divide you from the only family you have left?

Forgiveness is the hardest thing in the world; to see the other and look past everything that have done to hurt you and belittle you, and act on love rather than hate. We don’t forgive because God told us to, and we don’t forgive because its what your mother would have wanted, we forgive because its the last thing worth working for. Without forgiveness we are nothing.

God’s love knows no bounds. Neither should ours. Look at each other and stop seeing the old arguments and disagreements, look at each other forgive.”

Strange things are done for funerals and they can bring out the best, or the worst, in us. It is my prayer that funerals might bring out the best in us. Instead of limiting them to a simple worship service to praise God, think about how we could truly recognize the gift of the one who has gone, and strive to live better and braver lives. Let us see those tense and vulnerable moments, like funerals, as opportunities to forgive and start anew with the people in our lives.

Forgiveness is a difficult thing. It is irrational, draining, and frightening. It requires bravery rarely seen, faith rarely developed, and hope rarely witnessed. Yet, if Christ was willing to forgive those who hung him on the cross, if God is willing to forgive us all our trespasses, just imagine how many things we can forgive in our lives, even the dust.

Amen.