Devotional – John 15.1-2

Devotional:

John 15.1-2

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 

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Sometimes I speak before thinking. The Bishop had come into town to address a gathering of clergy about upcoming initiatives and events in the life of our Annual Conference. We spent a significant amount of time addressing the metrics that all United Methodist Churches are required to measure and report on a weekly basis including: Worship Attendance, Weekly Offering, Professions of Faith, Christian Formation Groups, Mission Giving/Persons in Mission. When the presentation came to a conclusion, the Bishop opened the floor for questions. A few timid hands rose from the pews with standard questions about particular theological issues that the church is still wrestling with, and before I knew it I had my hand sticking straight up in the air and the bishop asked for my question.

I thanked the bishop for taking time to speak with us and then I launched right into my question. It went something like this: “I can appreciate the need to log our metric data every week as we seek to be better stewards of our churches and continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. However, what are we doing about the churches that are no longer fruitful? Are we addressing their negative data? Because I seem to remember a time when Jesus said ‘I am the vine, and my Father in the vinegrower, and he removes the branches that no longer bear fruit.’” At that moment a number of the clergy in the room began to laugh nervously and I continued on, “I’m not kidding around. If we’re serious about living into God’s kingdom here and now, then are we willing to cut off the branches that are no longer bearing fruit?”

The silence that followed was palpable.

The Bishop took his time to address my question and explained that we need to mourn the loss of any church, but the coming reality is that some churches are no longer bearing fruit and we will have to do something about it eventually. I recognize now that I could’ve articulated my question in a gentler fashion, but I still stand by Christ’s words.

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In our faith journeys, and in our churches, we tend to desire change by addition while Christ articulated an alternative. If something is not bearing fruit in our churches or in our lives, what would it look like for us to cut them away? The future of our faith and church is largely dependent on our willingness to sacrifice the branches that have continued to wither away while other branches are bearing fruit in other places.

This week, let us take a good look at our lives to see whether or not we are bearing fruit. Let us pray to the Lord for guidance about how we can be better stewards of our churches and bear fruit for God’s kingdom.

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What Is Love? (Jesus Don’t Hurt Me) – Sermon on 1 John 3.16-24

1 John 3.16-24

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater that our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

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1 John is a letter written by a wise, old, veteran Christian leader who continues to help those who are new and young to the faith by addressing the challenges of discipleship. What we have read this morning encompasses John’s understanding of love, Christ’s love, and the need for Christians to find this same love in their lives. Now, to be clear, I am not like John. I am not a mature Christian leader, with years of experience to rely upon. I cannot pull from the wisdom of leading churches throughout the decades to help those who are struggling. I am not like John. In fact, I’m the kind of person that John wrote this letter to in the first place.

Yet, knowing I am not qualified, I decided to write my own letter this week as if I were John to our contemporary church…

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Dear St. John’s,

What is love? Do you ever find yourself asking that very question? Love seems to be one of those things, those words, that we tend to just throw around without really thinking about what it means. I love your outfit! I love what you’ve done with the place! I love eating frozen Kit Kats! I love you!

Love, as a word, has the power to mean everything and nothing. For instance: when we start dating and we grow closer and closer to someone else and they say for the first time: “I love you” it can mean everything in the world. Time can slow down and we can remember the way we felt when we heard it for the first time. However, years later, “love” can become routine, that word we use to end conversations rather than to declare how we feel in our heart of hearts. Love becomes a filler rather than a feeling.

What is love? Is it something that we can only experience in a romantic way? Can we love our friends and family? Can we love our church? Can we love the Lord?

This is how we know what love is: that Jesus laid down his life for us – and we ought to do the same for one another. Now, stay with me if you can, I know that as you read this letter you might already start to grow weary of this thing called love. How willing are we to really lay down our lives for other people? Frankly, most of us will never have to come that far, we will never be martyred for our faith. For as much as we talk about lifting up our cross to follow Christ, it is unlikely that we will ever find ourselves hanging on that cross for what we believe.

Yet, as Christians, this is how we know what love looks like. That a man, fully God and fully human, delivered himself to die for us even when we did not deserve it.

St. John’s, how can the Lord’s love abide in us when we are filled with the world’s goods, but we refuse to help our brothers and sisters in need? Is it possible to love without sacrifice?

Most of us want to love and be loved so long as it doesn’t hurt. We want to know all about love, and we are ready to follow the Lord’s commands so long as it won’t cost us anything.

Love is never really love unless it has the power to harm us.

Discipleship is never holy unless we are willing to sacrifice and be deeply honest with ourselves and others. Trust is never fully possible until we know what’s its like to have our trust broken. Love is what it is because it can both build us up and tear us down.

We might never have to die for somebody else like Jesus did for us, but to love others implies a willingness to lay down our needs and desires for someone else’s needs and desires. What is love if not a willingness to be vulnerable with another?

So, if we want to love, let us do so not with words or speeches, but in truth and action. Anybody can say “I love you”; it is far harder for our lives to match our words. Do we practice what we preach? Are our feet and tongues in alignment? Do our actions match our professions?

Love is hard. It requires dedication and commitment, vulnerability and sacrifice, honesty and attention. We would rather love with our words because we do not have the strength to love with our actions. This is why we pray; We pray for the Lord to give us the strength to love the unlovable because we cannot do it on our own.

Have you ever noticed the covenants made at a wedding? The couple consents and promises to love one another in the sight of God and witnesses, but then the entire congregation makes a promise to nurture that couple in love. Romantic love and a promise between two people is not enough to sustain a life-long marriage. We need others to hold us accountable to the promises of love, and in particular to the love between partners.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes, in fact many times, the Lord does not answer our prayers? Or at least not the way we would want to the Lord to answer them? We know that the Lord is greater than our fickle hearts and that he answers our prayers, but sometimes we ask for the wrong things.

How often do we pray for the Lord to fix this or that, to make our children better, to rid us of our sickness when we could be praying for the Lord to give us the strength to address our own problems, the courage to be honest with our kids, and the endurance to bear the pain?

The Lord is greater than all of our selfish desires and trite fixations. The Lord’s love knows no bounds and continues to seek us out even when we turn away. This is the truth of the Good News, that God’s love remains steadfast even as ours falters. We will never be able to love others in the exact same way that God does, but our challenges is to strive for it nonetheless.

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St. John’s, our church needs some encouragement so despair will not take root. We need to love and feel loved. We need to lift one another up with this sacrificial love so that we might know and experience God’s love right now through each other.

If we fail in our own eyes, if we feel that we have been a disappointment, be assured that God knows our hearts better than we do. We might look in the mirror every morning and see regrets, failures, and short-comings, but the Lord sees hope, beauty, and wonder. We might replay in our minds the hateful words that have been shouted at us by our bosses, friends, and spouses, but the Lord wants us to hear only one thing: you are loved.

Do we know that we are loved? Do we feel it in our lives on a regular basis? Do we experience a feeling of worth from the Lord through others?

The Lord has given us a worthy commandment: we should believe in the power of his Son Jesus Christ, and we should love one another. 

I asked the children of our preschool about love and they were able to describe it in a way that many of us forget by the time we grow up. They want to love because it makes them happy, they feel love through hugs and snuggles and time well spent. Yet, when I asked one particular boy if he feels loved, this is what he said: “I feel loved by my mommy and daddy whenever they hug me and sit with me. But I don’t know why they love me.

It is so sad that we believe love can only exist when it is deserved or warranted. We live in such a commodified society, that we expect that love only accompanies good behavior.

God’s love is unconditional, and ours should be to.

You might not know it, or even believe it, but I have seen this love made real and tangible through the people in our pews.

When we learned about the needs of a community in West Virginia, men from our church volunteered to shave their faces just so we could raise money for the mission trip. They literally put their faces on the line for God’s kingdom. At the same time, everyone that contributed financially sacrificed from their lives so that we might bless and love on others in need. We responded in love not because of what people deserve, but simply as a reaction to need.

When we learn about someone’s recent diagnosis or loss of a loved one, we gather together to nurture them and surround them with care. We write cards and offer prayers, we drive to homes and cemeteries, we sit and we listen. We respond in love not because they once did the same for us and we believe that we owe it to them, but we do so because living by loving is the only way that makes sense as Christians.

If love is real, there is no “why?”

What is love? God is. We love others because God loves us. God was willing to humble himself to the form of flesh, to know what we know and feel. God was willing to walk among the people and listen to their needs and hopes, to lift them up and offer them worth. God was willing to carry death on his back and hang there for all to see. God was willing to die for you and the world. God was willing to love us, and continues to through every moment of our lives.

Do you know that you are loved? Whenever you look at a cross, remember that Jesus died on one for you. Whenever you look at a loaf of bread, remember that Christ’s body was given so that you could live. Whenever you look at another person, remember that Christ died for them just as much as he died for you. 

When we love we abide in the Lord and he abides in us. Loving others is the closest we can ever get to really being Christ’s body for the world. When we love with our actions we allow the Holy Spirit to live and move through us. Whether we love with a hug or a letter, a smile or a sacrifice, a commitment or a vow, we are abiding in the Lord.

St. John’s, loving is the greatest thing in the world, but it can also be the hardest. Love can build us up and break us down. Love can inspire majesty and travesty. Love can bring us closer to God and drive us away.

Love is hard, but if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be worth it. Amen.

Devotional – John 10.16

Devotional:

John 10.16

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.  

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“What is the greatest challenge ahead for you?” This question is asked on a regular basis between myself and a number of clergy colleagues who live in the same community. Whether we are meeting for a cup of coffee, bumping into one another at a grocery store, or during an assigned clergy gathering, this question has helped us to grow as pastoral leaders and offer advice to our friends.

When I arrived at my current appointment, I assumed that other pastors would reach out and welcome me to the community. For the first few months I waited and waited and heard nothing. So one afternoon I pulled out a map and decided to visit all of the nearby churches and introduce myself as the new United Methodist pastor at St. John’s. I will never forget the look of shock on a number of pastors faces when I showed up at the door with my hand outstretched; for some of them I was the first pastor they met in our community even though many of them had been here for a number of years.

At the foundation of the United Methodist Church is our connectional system. By way of polity, and theology, we are (supposed to be) intimately connected with our brother and sister churches. We rely on one another for kingdom work and sharing resources to better live out God’s will on earth. However we also have a responsibility to connect with other churches outside of our denomination. After all, there is one true shepherd and we are all part of his one flock.

Over the last two years I have formed strong bonds with other clergy in Staunton and I believe that our willingness to grow in faith with one another has been a blessing to the greater community. Every church is different and faces unique challenges. Yet, when we spend time working with other leaders it allows us to learn and glean from one another, rather than trying to do it all on our own.

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Jesus told the disciples there were other sheep that did not belong to that particular fold, but there would be one flock and one shepherd. Today, many communities are peppered with varying churches and denominations representing a number of traditions. If we cannot learn to work with, and appreciate, one another then we are preventing the Church from being led by the Good Shepherd. If churches continue to view others as competition, rather than brothers and sisters, then the Church will continue to decline and no longer bear fruit in the world.

We are in this great and cosmic thing called discipleship together. We can learn from other traditions and denominations because we are all part of God’s flock and Jesus, as the shepherd, will always be here for the sheep. This week, let us challenge ourselves to really see fellow Christians as Christians, instead of seeing them as Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Anglicans, Episcopalians, etc. Let us learn to ask good and important questions so that we might all grow in faithfulness together.

 

Reality Check – Sermon on Psalm 4

Psalm 4

Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer. How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him. When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord. There are many who say, “O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!” You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound. I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.

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He was resting in the bed when I entered the room. Like many people suffering from a terminal illness, the living room had been reimagined as a bedroom with medical equipment spread throughout the space. The older man’s son stood next to me, trying not to cry while he watched his dad sleeping in the bed. The son gently nudged his father to wake up and introduced me as the young seminary intern. He then left us alone.

After his son left the room, the older man sat up from his bed with a smile that left me feeling disoriented. I could see his physical discomfort, but there was a sense of joy and peace that emanated from his whole person to anyone around. Unsure how to begin our conversation, I just sat there trying to come up with something, when he interrupted my thoughts by saying, “Taylor, this cancer has been the best thing that ever happened to me.

Rev. Willie Mac Tribble was dying of a brain tumor. He had spent the majority of his life serving as a United Methodist Pastor in the North Georgia Conference. He had pastored 10 different churches during his 40-year career, but now he was stuck in his living room talking to a young seminarian about his life and ministry. Though simple movements sent lightning bolts of pain throughout his body, and he was nearing the end of his life, he claimed that his suffering had been a blessing.

Psalm 4 is often overlooked in the life of faithfulness, but it conveys the depth of what it means to rely on the Lord and have the right perspective. Upon first inspection we might label it as an evening psalm, something to be prayed before our heads hit the pillows: I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety. It sounds like a prayer that we hope the leaders of our community would utter up to God recognizing they have endured shame for the betterment of the people. It is selfless, hopeful, and faithful. 

Yet, this psalm is not just for a particular set of people with a specific set of problems, but it is a psalm for all of us, worthy to be prayed throughout our lives.

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Psalm 4 begins by addressing the Lord:

God, when I start praying, please listen and answer me. I know that you are the Lord of my life, and you are with me in all things, but I need you presence now.

In the past you provided for me when I was in need. You placed words on my tongue when I was speaking, you sent the right people into my life when I was lonely, and you provided food from the earth when I was hungry. So Lord, be gracious yet again and listen to me as I pray.

The psalmist then moves to address the people who no longer trust God:

How long will all you people fall short of you potential? Why do you continue to love words that puff up, that make you sound better than you are, that inflate your ego and self-perception? How long will you believe all the lies that surround you? Why are you so transfixed by the rumors and drama? Remember this: the Lord has set us apart to be a holy people who pursue holiness. The Lord listens when we call to him. 

When life is full of disappointment and regret, when you feel like nothing is going your way and the floor is crumbling underneath, when you experience loneliness and fear, do not sin. Instead of venting and taking out your frustrations on other people, ponder your circumstances and be silent. Give up the things that are tearing you down, and put your trust in the Lord. 

Too many people only believe and keep faith when everything is going right in their lives. They only praise the Lord when they are successful, and the minute something becomes derailed they blame the Lord first before looking at themselves. Too many prayers are based upon: “Lord, if you do this for me, I will turn my life around, or I’ll start going to church.”

We are at the peak of our faithfulness when we recognize the gladness the Lord has placed in our hearts more than when all the material things of life abounded. We do well to recognize the Lord’s blessing in all things and trust that God is with us. Because it is only with a deep trust and confidence in the Lord that we can sleep in peace, for the Lord is the one who brings us comfort in our rest.

Why are all of us here this morning? I count it as nothing short of a miracle that God continues to gather people together every week for worship. But the fact that people choose to spend their time doing something like this will always surprise me. With all the competing narratives in our world, we decided to come here to participate in an ancient practice of letting the Lord reorient our lives.

Why are we here? Perhaps the best answer to that question is this: we want to hear something true. All of us are constantly bombarded by the facts of the life, and the subsequent denial of those facts. We wake up feeling sore and then we watch a commercial about a cream that can make all of our pain go away. We struggle through relationship after relationship and then we get invited to an online dating service that promises to find us a companion for life. We wrestle with children who neglect to pay attention at home and school, and a friend tells us about the magic pill that will calm our children, and make them into who they are supposed to be.

And then we come to church and we hear the truth. We learn about our sinfulness and how we need to be better. But through the church there are no cheap fixes, there’s no pill or simple prayer that can turn everything around. Discovering our sinfulness and seeking holiness requires a lifetime of work.

Yet, here we are. I have to believe that even though the life of discipleship is remarkably difficult, we are here because we believe it is worth it. We are here because we hear the words of Psalm 4 and we know that it is speaking something new and truthful into our very lives on this very day.

Church, at its best, is the arena of reality checks. Whether we want to admit it or not, this is the time when we face the truth: The unrighteous often flourish, and the faithful are usually ridiculed and ignored. In fact, godliness tends to make suffering inevitable. Psalm 4 speaks to the deep truth of what it means to follow Christ: if we really act like the Christians we claim to be, we will be persecuted for our discipleship.

So here is the deep reality check of Psalm 4: True happiness and faithfulness is often found in the least likely of places. We imagine that the wealthy and powerful are joyful but what they have cannot make them happy and sleep in peace. It never ceases to amaze me, but I regularly discover happiness in places I would never imagine: hospitals and funerals. The people who are in the midst of pain and suffering are somehow renewing their own lives. They are the ones who are proving that they can face life’s harshness and still stand fast. There is an inner glow in the heart of a disciple who can show such faith in the midst of something so tragic.

Taylor” he said, “this cancer has been the best thing that ever happened to me. For the first time in years people have been anxious to come visit with me. For decades I served as a pastor and was surrounded by people, but since I retired I have never been so lonely in my life. Yet now, my sons and daughter, who used to just call once in awhile, have been driving to see me on a regular basis. I’ve had old confirmands and church members from past seek me out since my diagnosis. Friends from long ago have reached out through letters, phone calls, and even visits. I am ashamed that, for the first time in my life, I am thankful for living at all.

Mac’s faith was not grounded in simple and straightforward theological claims, but was instead rekindled by the recognition of how blessed his life really was. It is so sad that it often takes a profound loss or an unwavering diagnosis to make us appreciate what we have, but for Mac it made all the difference. He recognized the true gladness in his heart, even in the midst of suffering, because God’s love was being poured down upon him during the final days of his life. He could only claim his cancer as the best thing to happen, because he understood that death is not the end, and that God will take care of us when we die.

This room is full of sinners and maybe that’s exactly why we are here. While the world tells us to forget our mistakes and press forward, the church calls us to look upon our short-comings and repent. While we seek to find fulfillment in relationships and passions, the church challenges us to remember that only the Lord can provide wholeness. While we strive to ignore that annoying co-worker, and push off our children’s problems onto someone else, the church tells us to love one another and take responsibility.

This is one of the only places left that actually challenges us with the truth. 

I stand at the front door every Sunday and I see all the sinners gather for worship. I see the broken relationships, the arguments between friends, the bad blood that continues to boil over, the resentments and frustrations, the prejudices and failures. And we stand and sit, we praise and pray, and then the chief sinner of us all gets to stand at the front and talk about what God is still doing in our lives.

My friends, we can’t wait for something bad to happen before we begin to appreciate what we have. If we base our happiness around material success, then we will never feel truly fulfilled. If Psalm 4 is speaking something to us today, it’s to start giving thanks for what we have, and seeking out those whom God has placed in our lives.

But if we’re not at that point, then we can at least begin with prayer. Maybe like the psalmist we can commune with the Lord before we go to sleep, or perhaps we can go to God the moment we awake in the morning. It does not matter how we pray, but that we pray in the first place because prayer leads to trust, a trust in the Lord that even when we die, it will not be the end. Amen.

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Devotional – Luke 24.45

Devotional:

Luke 24.45

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.

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Seminary required a lot of reading and writing. Every week our professors would assign readings from book and articles that we would never complete in time in addition to reflective papers on a variety of subjects. At the beginning of each semester you could almost hear the collective groan from the student body with every new syllabus that detailed the amount of work that would be taking place over the coming months.

During my second year I took a class entitled “Greek Exegesis of Mark.” Throughout the semester we would be translating Mark from it’s original language into English and explore the nuances of the grammar. I remember reading the syllabus on the first day and thinking that I was in way over my head. Yet there was one particular requirement on the syllabus that I was really excited about; every week we would be required to read through the gospel of Mark in English.

At the time I realized that I was spending so much time studying God’s Word that I was no longer enjoying and absorbing God’s Word. So each week two of my fellow students and I sat on the steps of Duke Chapel and read the gospel of Mark aloud. Depending on the week we would trade off chapters and until each of us had the chance to read every chapter multiple times.

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I read more grammar and theological works on the gospel according to Mark that semester than I care to remember, but none of them compared to the importance of just reading Mark over and over again. There were insights from theologians that I never would have discovered on my own, but spending time in scripture alone every week truly opened up God’s Word in a way I had yet to experience.

After Jesus’ resurrection from the dead he appeared to the disciples and opened their minds to understand the scriptures. For the first time they were able to begin seeing faithful discipleship through the lens of the resurrection (which makes all the difference). Today we can purchase commentaries and books about the bible to help us understand what’s going on in the verses but nothing can compare to spending faithful time with God’s Word alone. It is important to remember that every time we read a book about the bible we are actually reading someone’s opinion and interpretation; we can only create our own understanding and interpretation from the source itself.

This week let us challenge ourselves to read one of the gospels out loud. Mark is the shortest so it can be finished quickly, but they are all worth exploring on their own. The point is this: the more time we spend in the Word the more we will begin to understand.

What’s The Point? – Sermon on 1 John 1.1-4

1 John 1.1-4

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

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Graveside services makes me nervous.

If we have a funeral at the church, most things can be taken care of and are under control. We can set the temperature, clear the parking lot, and witness to the ways that God moved through the person who we are celebrating.

But when you’re at the grave, things are often out of your control. You might be driving in the sunshine to the cemetery but the minute you arrive clouds appear and rain begins to fall. You might have your bible opened to a particular passage and the wind will begin to howl and when you look down you’ve gone from John to Nehemiah. And personally, I’m usually pretty nervous about getting lost so I always make sure to arrive exceptionally early.

A young pastor was once asked to do a graveside service for an older man from the community who had no friends and no family. The pastor was unable to speak with anyone about the man’s life, but he wrote a funeral sermon nonetheless, and when the appointed day arrived he got in his car and headed out for the country cemetery out in the middle of nowhere.

He drove and drove, and though he did not want to admit it to himself he was lost. He tried searching for the address on his GPS device, and he even stopped at a gas station to ask for local directions and he eventually arrived an hour late.

As he drove across the open landscape the hearse was nowhere in sight, the backhoe was next to the open hole, and he was a group of men under the shade of a nearby tree. The young pastor parked his car and walked to the open grave and discovered the the lid was already in place and dirt had already been sprinkled across the top.

Feeling incredibly guilty for being late the young man began preaching a sermon like he had never done before. He put every ounce of his faith into his words to proclaim all that God had done in the world from creation to resurrection.

When he returned to his car, sweating from his passionately delivered sermon, he overheard one of the men under the tree saying to the others, “I’ve been putting in septic tanks for years and I ain’t never seen anything like that.

When you laugh in church does it feel joyful? Does anything about worship make you experience joy?

When I read through the beginning of 1 John this week I felt particularly convicted by the final verse: We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. I started wondering about how we experience joy in our faith, and if we experience it at all.

So I decided to pick up my phone and start calling people to ask them about church, worship, and joy. I started by calling friends of mine who no longer attend church and I was not surprised to discover that most of them explained that they stopped attending because church stopped bringing them joy. Many of them said that they often left church feeling bad about themselves and they had a harder and harder time going back each week. At some point church was joyful, but now the joy was gone.

Next I picked up our church directory and started making other phone calls asking everyone the same question: What is the most joyful part of worship for you? From the moment you arrive on Sunday morning till you go home, when do you feel joy? Here are some of the responses I received:

“I feel joy when I see people that I know and love. It’s the fellowship, I guess, but at the same time I can be joyful during the music, whether its the choir or when we are all singing a hymn together.”

“There is nothing more joyful than receiving communion and praying at the altar afterwards. Whatever I have going on in my life is remarkably replaced with a feeling of joy when I feast at God’s table and pray at God’s altar.”

“Having a community makes me feel joyful, when someone takes the time to come find me and seek me out to check on me. That’s when I experience joy in church.”

“When I see children in line for communion I am struck by the joyfulness of God’s grace. I remember that Jesus called the children to himself, and when they are invited to the table it makes me so happy.”

“I absolutely love hugging all the people who come to church, if I can make them happy I am filled with nothing but joy.”

“The height of joy for me happens when I get to serve communion. I love to receive it, but when I get to hold the cup I am actually sharing Jesus with another person and we become connected.”

“Taylor, you know that I can’t sing worth a bean, but when we sing hymns together I feel joyful, I find myself smiling simply because I am singing my faith.”

Now, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed when, after polling a number of people from our community, no one said that they experienced joy during the sermon! But then again, the point of a sermon is not to just make us feel joyful but it is to proclaim God’s Word and sometimes we need to leave feeling convicted, but that’s for another sermon.

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If John was writing to a community for the purpose of making their joy complete, then we should be doing church and discipleship in such a way that our joy may be complete with one another. The church can be many things for many people but if there is no joy in our faithfulness then it will become harder and harder to give ourselves to Jesus.

While phoning people this week I also asked them a second question: Where have you seen God’s majesty?: Here are some of the responses I received:

“The natural beauty in the world. Like, if I’m walking through the woods and I start to see the trees swaying together, it feels like God’s majesty.”

“In creation. Walking outside and looking up at the stars or the clouds. When I run my fingers through a cold stream or drag them across rough bark.”

“When I hold a child in my arms and look into the depth of their eyes I catch a glimpse of God’s majesty.”

“In the sunrise every morning. When I see greenery and new life during the spring. I see God’s majesty through the beauty of the earth.”

Most of the responses were completely beautiful and inspiring. But not a single person said they saw or felt God’s majesty in church.

At first I was frightened by this realization. If people are not experiencing God’s majesty in a place like this then we are in trouble. But the more I thought about it, it began to make sense…

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Most of the time that I discover God’s majesty it is in the world outside of this building at 11am on Sunday mornings. However, it is precisely at a time and place such as this that I learned to speak the language of faith, to look at the world through a faithful perspective, and use my hands and feet to experience God’s majesty. Church, at its best, is the place where we learn a new language to speak truthfully about God’s majesty in the world. If and when we experience joy in our discipleship we begin to remember that God is the one from whom all blessings flow perfecting the saints below.

The whole point of 1 John is to proclaim the message of the reality of God revealed in Christ. As a church we proclaim all that God has done so that we can recognize God’s signature and handiwork in the world around us. Faithful worship equips us to feel God’s majesty during our lives. 

Whatever messages and proclamations we make on Sunday mornings are meant to be felt and experienced on a personal level if it is to bear fruit in the world. If what we do here does not take hold in the days in between services than we are no better than words on a piece of paper. It is our personal experience of God’s majesty that seals the truth of what we hold dear and claim as truth.

I experience God’s majesty whenever I work with youth, and particularly during mission trips. The first days are usually filled with painfully shy teenagers who are wrestling with their own identities and what it means to be in relationships with others. They work and work and by the end of the week they are scattered throughout the larger community with all of their new brothers and sisters in faith. I see how far they move from the first forced conversations to the natural dialogue that flows from their souls.

Yet, I can only claim that as God’s majesty because scripture and worship have taught me to see it that way. I read stories about the Israelites leaving Egypt and growing into a new nation together. I hear about the disciples embarking in a new community after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And then I realize I am seeing the same thing happening again, and that God is the one who makes all of this possible.

I feel the greatest amount of joy during worship when we celebrate communion with each other. For years I dreamt about what it would mean to be a pastor, from the hospital visits, to the funerals, to the weddings, and to worship. But the thing that I was most excited about was breaking bread at the table together. When I see people lining up with their hands outstretched I am overfilled with joy because I see faithful people living out their faith. From those who are young in their faith to those who have journeyed to the table many times before, I feel the greatest sense of joy when we feast together.

Yet, I can only claim that as joyful because scripture and worship have taught me to see it that way. I read about the disciples gathering in the upper room with Jesus the night before he was betrayed. I hear about the new community of faith gathering together to break bread after Jesus was resurrected to continually remember all he was willing to do. And then I realize that I am seeing the same thing happen again, and that God is the one who makes all of this possible.

Joy is supposed to motivate our lives as Christians. Christ sought out people in Galilee who were lost and alone and brought them a sense of newness and joy. It is with thankful and joyful hearts that we may enter into the world to be Christ for others.

Joy is that tingling sensation we feel when we begin to grasp our part in God’s cosmic plan. Whether in the midst of a hymn or a hug we live into the Lord’s divine reality and we witness his kingdom on earth.

Joy is that beautiful moment when our cheeks begin to hurt because we have been smiling so much. As we gather for worship we can reach out to strangers and friends to demonstrate how wonderful they are to us and to God.

We spend time together as a community every week to worship so that our joy may be complete.

Joy is worth working for because if we’re not feeling joy in our discipleship, then what’s the point? Amen.

Devotional – John 20.30

Devotional:

John 20.30

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.

Weekly Devotional Image

My favorite piece of scripture is Mark 10.45: For the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” I love the idea that, like Jesus, we are called to serve the needs of others rather than focusing on ourselves all the time. One of the verses that has made the most impact in my life is from Matthew 27.46: “And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” Through it I began to realize the depth of Jesus’ humanity and what he went through on our behalf.

There are plenty of verses that make me laugh, like Acts 20.9: “A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead.” And there are some passages that leave me scratching my head in confusion, like Mark 9.50: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?”

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Last Easter my friend Jason Micheli preached his sermon on what he called “the biblical verse that really ticks [him] off, the scripture verse that irritates the you-know-what out of [him] is John 20.30: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.”

And I have to agree with him.

Why in the world would John omit other stories about Jesus’ life? If there were other miracles, other teachings, other divine moments, why wouldn’t he include them in the gospel? Most of the time I read from the bible I feel very fulfilled, but when I read John 20.30 I feel like I got short-changed.

Yet, on some level, I feel like it’s quite appropriate. If Easter tells us anything it’s that the living Lord is still on the move meeting us on the roads of life. John’s gospel could never contain all of Jesus’ miracles because he is still making them happen here and now. Sometimes we believe that we can only find and discover the Lord in the sacred texts of scripture, but that’s when we need to open our eyes to the wonders around us and see how God is still moving in the world.

When was the last time you felt the presence of God? Hopefully you experienced the Spirit of the Lord during your recent Easter service, or maybe you discovered God in the breaking of bread during communion. This week, let us all take heart knowing that we can find God in the words of scripture and in our experiences in the world.