Devotional – Ezekiel 2.3

Ezekiel 2.3

He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day.

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God loves to send people where they least expect. Moses was shepherding when God spoke to him through the burning bush and told him to go back to Egypt in order to lead the people out of captivity. Jonah was minding his own business when the Lord told him to go to Nineveh. Paul was in the middle of his campaign against the early Christians when God told him to go see Ananias in Damascus.

In the United Methodist Church pastors are appointed (sent) to serve different churches. Rather than being interviewed and examined by every individual placement, a bishop (and cabinet) discern God’s will and send pastors accordingly. This style of appointments allows for churches to be challenged by their pastors (and pastors by their churches) because neither of them have a choice in the matter. Yet, I can’t help but imagine that some UM pastors feel like they are being sent to “a nation of rebels” whenever they are reappointed.

Yesterday marked the completion of my second year serving the needs of St. John’s UMC in Staunton, Virginia. I can still recall the first phone call I received detailing my appointment, and I will freely admit they I felt a little uncomfortable about where I was being sent. After all, I knew nothing about the town, the people, or the church.

I can also recall the feeling in the pit of my stomach two years ago when I approached the pulpit to preach for the first time (Between the nerves and the excitement we were lucky that I even made it through a sermon at all). I looked out from my vantage point and saw the people of God gathered together to hear the Word and respond accordingly. To this day I still thank God for blessing us with the Holy Spirit that morning who allowed us to listen, laugh, and love.

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In the beginning of my time at St. John’s I foolishly thought I was bringing something to the church that they previously lacked. I believed that I was the one who could turn the ship around. I expected that I would grow the church, have us start paying our apportionments (in full), and preach in the midst of the rebels. For a time I thought I could be the savior.

I quickly realized that my expectations were way off. Instead of being a prophet sent to the rebels, I myself was a rebel in the midst of rebels. To believe that I could save the church meant that I was putting faith in myself, rather than the Lord. To believe that I had the power to make the church start paying its apportionments meant that I did not trust God to provide. To believe that I could be the savior meant that I forgot that only Jesus is our savior.

If we have done anything to please the Lord over the last two years, it has only come because God gave us the power to do so, and only secondarily because of us (me).

We are all called to go and be Christ’s body for the world in different ways, but it is vitally important for us to remember that we have just as much to learn as we have to teach; that no matter where God’s sends us, we will be transformed just as much as we transform others; and that in the end Jesus is Lord, and we are not.

This week, let us reflect on the places the Lord has sent us to be Christ’s body, and on the people who have been sent to be Christ’s body for us.

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Ready To Die – Sermon on 2 Samuel 1.17-27

2 Samuel 1.17-27

David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. (He ordered that the Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said: Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult. You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty. Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you in crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. How the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle! Jonathan lies slain upon you high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. How the mighty have fallen, the weapons of war perished!

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Funerals are strange, difficult, and at times, beautiful. I usually receive the phone call from someone in the family, or from a funeral home, that someone has died and they were hoping that I would preside over the service. No matter who the person is, I am immediately filled with sadness knowing that someone, anyone, is now gone. Regardless of my personal connection to the individual, there is a sense of loss that comes with death and not even I can avoid it.

But then I have to get to work. I have to take that grief and hold it for a moment while I help others properly grieve their loss. I have to balance the proper amount of mourning with hope, sadness with peace, and death with resurrection.

When I receive that first phone call I have to start taking care of the logistics: Where will the funeral take place and when? Do they want someone to play the organ? Are they hoping for a particular soloist? Does anyone from the family want to speak on behalf of the dead? And only after the plans are made can we begin talking about the person, making sure that I know everything I can in order to properly proclaim their life, death, and resurrection.

Most of the time funerals take place in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. Friends and family have to take time off from work, or take their children out of school, in order to attend the service. Yet, funerals are not meant for immediate friends and family alone. The entire community of faith is called to witness to the life of those who have died so that we can continue to live out their witness regardless of how well we knew them, or not.

So, this morning, as I mentioned before, we are doing something a little different. A few weeks ago one of our church members named Dick Dickerson passed away. He had only been coming for a few years, but he was a staple in worship. He always sat in the back of the church on the right side, he flirted with every female that crossed his path, and he was incredibly sweet.

When I found out that his family would be having a private service in Kentucky at a later date I knew that we still needed to do something here in order to say goodbye. I knew that we needed to praise God for putting Dick in our lives. And I knew that we were going to have our own little funeral for him on a Sunday morning.

Dick Dickerson

Dick Dickerson

Dick Dickerson called me “honey.” I know that this might’ve bothered other young pastors, but to me it was endearing and precious. I would walk over to visit Dick next door at Brightview/Baldwin Park and the moment I entered his room he would always say something like “Come on honey and sit down with me.” For months I cherished this identification, it made me feel special that Dick felt so connected to me. It was only later that I learned he called most of the people in his life “honey”!

My wife Lindsey would stop by to say hello before a church service started and he would hug her while calling her “honey,” Grace Daughtrey would smile and politely nod her head as he greeted her with a “good morning honey,” and even Marshall Kirby would start to blush when Dick would refer to his Sunday driver as “honey.”

Dick Dickerson was a man of profound love, who deeply appreciated all that God had given him from the very beginning till the very end.

Dick grew up in Kentucky with a family in the midst of financial struggles. Living through the depression was, as he put it, one of the hardest things to witness. But at some point there was a family in the community who saw Dick’s potential, and they brought him under their wing and helped to provide for his education. He always maintained a connection with his biological family, but in his quasi-adoptive family he saw the Christian commitment to loving others, something that would affect the rest of his life.

Dick was a man of stories, stories that shaped his life and the lives of others. When he served as a quartermaster in Patton’s army during World War II he used to offer whisky to his fellow soldiers so long as they affirmed the beliefs of the Republican party. He told me that at the beginning of the war most of his friends were Democrats, but by the time they got home (and enjoyed the whisky) they had become staunch conservatives!

He, unlike others who served in World War 2, was ready and willing to share reflections on his experiences precisely because he did not want anyone to have to experience what he did. He often told a story about an evening that took place in the middle of the war on Christmas Eve when he found himself resting for the night in a bombed out church building. He could remember the wax dripping from the candles, the hole in the roof letting in the tiniest of snowflakes, and all the soldiers huddling together for warmth.

He asked a question of the men that night that he only later attributed to the Holy Spirit. He asked if the men wanted to pray for anything. One soldier prayed for his family back home, another prayed for warmer weather, but one of the youngest said something that would stay with Dick the rest of his life: “I seem to remember Jesus saying something about praying for our enemies, so tonight I would like to pray for the men we’re fighting against. I pray that God would be with them as He is with us.” Dick said that while other men might have grown angry or dismissed the prayer, all of the men joined together in that tiny church on Christmas eve, and prayed for their enemies.

Prayer was at the heart of Dick Dickerson’ life. He spent most of his free time going through a list of people that he lifted up to the Lord and regularly invited me to join him in his prayers. He once told me that prayer was the only thing that got him through the war, and that prayer was the only thing that kept him together once he returned home.

Dick lived a wonderful and blessed life. He married his sweetheart Mildred, had two children, and eventually began working for Madison College in Harrisonburg. Dr. Dickerson, as he was known to his students, made himself available to everyone all all times because he saw the value in other people. Whether in the classroom or at home, you knew that he would make time for you no matter what.

I spent a lot of time with Dick over the last two years, we talked about a great number of things, but the one thing we talked about the most was death. In fact during our very first and our very last conversations he said the same thing to me: “Honey, I’m ready to die.

In the beginning of 2 Samuel we have a song that David wrote in memory of Saul and Jonathan. After giving their lives for the Lord and the people, David called the nation to weep for their loss: “O how the mighty have fallen.” In life David and Saul were seemingly opposed, but in the experience their death David wept and mourned.

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Many of us take the people in our lives for granted. We grow so accustom to their presence and persistence, that we rarely think about what life would be like without them. It is only when someone is truly gone that we can really appreciate what they always meant to us. It happened to David after Saul died. It happened to the disciples during those three days before Jesus rose again. And it has happened to me with nearly every person that I have buried while I have served this church.

But friends, resurrection comes into its fullest meaning when we lose someone we love.

Can you imagine the exultation the disciples experienced when they saw their Lord again after he broke free from the chains of death? Can you picture the joy on their faces when they were able to sit again with their teacher and friend? Can you imagine how David would have felt if he knew that one day someone from his family tree would eventually hang in a tree for the sins of the world so that we could all rise again in the resurrection?

Dick Dickerson was ready to die because he trusted the Lord. His trust was evident in our many conversations, and in is interactions with others, but it was most present while he prayed at this altar.

Dick rarely missed a communion Sunday. Even while his bone cancer was spreading throughout his body, he would make the long and slow journey to the front of this sanctuary to pray on his knees to the Lord. After feasting on the body and the blood, Dick would lay all the worries of his life out for the Lord, he would pray for God’s forgiveness over his sins, and he would thank the Almighty for surrounding him at every moment throughout his blessed life.

Are we ready to die? Every death in this church community is a constant reminder that the bell will toll for us all, and that tomorrow is never guaranteed. Are we ready to die? What kind of faith would it take to be ready to give our lives over to the Lord?

Dick Dickerson certainly had that kind of faith, a faith born out of prayer, presence, and praise, a kind of faith shaped by World War 2, and a kind of faith made real through the witness of Christ’s church.

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As we prepare to take steps toward this altar, to feast at Christ’s table, we do well to remember all who have gone before us to eat and pray. We remember Dick Dickerson and his willingness to lift us up. We remember the saints before us, in our midst, and those who will come after and discover God’s grace in a moment like this. And we remember that Jesus came to die so that we would all live, so that death would be defeated, so that the resurrection would be offered to us all.

So, thanks be to God for the great gift at this table and for the life of Dick Dickerson, a man who lived by faith, prayed with every fiber of his being, and was ready to die. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 130.1

Devotional:

Psalm 130.1

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.

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When I heard about the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina I was shocked. The initial details conveyed a frightening scene: a lone gunman had attacked and killed 9 individuals who had gathered together for prayer. But perhaps the most frightening detail is the fact that he had participated in their prayer meeting for an hour before he began shooting. The attack at Emanuel AME is harsh reminder of the powers of evil that are manifest in our world.

The day following the shooting I knelt in the sanctuary at St. John’s and tried to pray but the words would not come. What good are words in the midst of such tragedy? How can we pray to our God when our emotions are so devastated by the events swirling around us? How can we be faithful and angry at the same time? So, when I was invited to a prayer vigil that evening at Allen Chapel AME in Staunton I knew I needed to go.

When the service began, the pastor invited all of his fellow clergy to surround him in the pulpit because “the only way we can get through this is in community.” While he prayed for the Good Lord to strike our hearts and calm our fears and frustrations, he was surround by pastors from a myriad of denominations, the sanctuary was filled with faithful disciples spanning the great mosaic of Christianity, and we all struggled to pray in the midst of such tragedy.

There was no order of worship. There was no list of scriptures to be read. There was no attendance pad being passed through the pews. Instead we called for the Holy Spirit to guide us, shape us, and nurture us throughout our vigil. As the Spirit led us we read words from the psalms and each pastor took a turn leading the congregation in corporate or silent prayer. Our responses ranged from lifting our fists in angry frustration to singing together “Thank You Lord.” At times we stood and held one another and at others we prayed on our hands and knees. We did as the Spirit commanded and we discovered the Lord in our midst.

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One of the most faithful prayers we can ever utter starts with the words from Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” Prayer is not something that has to be precise and perfect, it does not need to be all lovey-dovey, and it does not have to be filled with theological and academic language. The truest prayers are the ones that come naturally and really affirm where we are while we pray. It was from the depths of human suffering that we all prayed to the Lord that night, and the Lord listened.

This week, as we pray for the people in South Carolina, let us all remember that it is good for us to pray from the depths of our souls, that it okay for us to be angry with God while venting our frustrations, and that the only way we can get through this is in community.

If you would like to know more about the prayer vigil that took place at Allen Chapel you can watch a video about it here: Staunton Prayer Vigil

10 Things I Learned From My Second Year Of Ministry

Last year my friend, peer, colleague, and theological-hero Jason Micheli (The Tamed Cynic) asked me to write a post on ten things I learned my first year of ministry. Next week marks the beginning of my third year as a United Methodist pastor so I decided to write another post on ten things I learned during year two.

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1.       The Church Is Huge

How do you measure the size of a church? Is the church as large as the Sunday worship attendance? The membership role? Throughout the last two years I have realized that the church is almost always larger than I think it is. I’ll be out somewhere with my wife when a stranger will ask if I am the pastor of St. John’s. Between our preschool and missional involvement, the community of faith (also known as the church) has connections with people all over the place. It is always important for me to remember that I have been called to serve the needs of the community, which is usually larger than I think it is.

2.       Praying Is As Important As Breathing

The Bishop for the Virginia Annual Conference, Young Jin Cho, is known for saying “No spiritual vitality, no vital congregations.” And he’s right. Prayer, and other spiritual disciples, are immensely important for the work of ministry and the local church. I strive to begin every morning in the sanctuary with time dedicated to prayer. If I neglect this discipline it has a negative impact on the rest of my day. Like feeling short of breath, I am not as active nor am I as attuned to the Spirit’s work in my midst. Regular prayer is as important to discipleship as breathing is to living.

3.       Collaboration > Competition

There are a lot of churches in the community I serve (I can see four different steeples from my front yard). I have heard on a number of occasions that there are more churches in Staunton per capita than anywhere in the United States. I have no way to confirm whether or not this is true, but just driving around town leads me to believe that it could be true. Over the last two years I have had the privilege of working with other pastors to help live into the kingdom of God here on earth. When we work in collaboration, and stop seeing each other as competition, we participate in Jesus final prayer: “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17.23) If the church wants to thrive, then we need to realize that we are all in this together, regardless of our denominational affiliations.

4.       Weddings Are Hard

Compared to some of my colleagues I have done a high number of weddings during my short time in ministry. At the age of 27 I meet a lot of people who are nearing their wedding and I am often asked to officiate. I love celebrating the covenant of marriage, but it can be very hard. What an average person experiences during a wedding is a beautiful thing, but it requires a tremendous amount of planning and work to go well. Not only do I have to take the time to meet with the couple ahead of time for premarital counseling, but I want to make sure that I give them all that I can to make their day worthy of God’s blessing. The metaphor of a shepherd with sheep finds its fullest meaning during weddings when I feel like I am primarily a people-mover. Weddings are great, but they can be hard.

5.       Funerals Are Harder

I once heard a pastor say, “I would take a funeral over a wedding any day.” That comment confused me when I heard it for the first time, and still confuses me to this day. During my first year of ministry no one passed away within the community of faith, and I therefore was not required to preside over a funeral. During my second year of ministry I had 14 funerals. Most of the people had lived long and full lives, but that does not diminish the amount of grief that our community has experienced over the last year. It is such a privilege to be invited into the midst of such uncertainty in people’s lives, but it is also incredibly difficult. I spend a tremendous amount of time preparing for every funeral because I believe in the incredible importance of celebrating every life, death, and resurrection.

6.       Trust Happens

Over the last two years I have lost track of how many times I have heard someone say, “You’re the first person I’ve ever shared that with.” It happens on a regular basis that an individual will come to my office, share a vulnerable story, and then slowly realize that they had never shared that with anyone. Regardless of what I say of Sunday mornings, or even how I pray, people trust the office of pastor. There is an acceptance of confidentiality and a comfort of confession that takes place in my office that I am rarely prepared for. Trust happens all the time and it is at the heart of what it means to be in relationship with others.

7.       Change Happens

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Just because something worked the first year, it doesn’t mean that it will work the second. And just because something failed the first year, it doesn’t mean that it won’t succeed during the second. For example: During my first Good Friday I carried a cross on my shoulder through the greater Staunton community and received almost no response. People avoided me on the streets, averted their eyes, and acted as if I was invisible. This year I did the same thing on Good Friday and people would not stop talking to me! People wanted to know what I was doing, offered to pray with me, and I even shared the story of Jesus with a woman who started crying when she saw me on the street. Change happens in ministry and that is a good thing! If doing church was just about maintaining the status quo year after year, we would cease to be fruitful for God’s kingdom.

8.       I Am My Own Worst Enemy

I know of few vocations where someone has to produce something on such a regular basis and is met with immediate feedback. In two years I have written and preached more than 104 sermons. Every Sunday, within 30 minutes of preaching, everyone lines up to shake my hand and tell me what they thought. I have discovered that the sermons I worried about the most are the ones that were the most life-giving to the congregation, and the sermons I was most confident about meant very little to the gathered body. I am my own harshest critic when it comes to ministerial responsibilities and I have to constantly remind myself of who I am, and whose I am. If I put too much weight on my inner-monologue, I neglect to remember that I am working for the kingdom, and not for myself.

9.       Numbers Are Important [And Dangerous]

Every week churches in United Methodism are required to log their statistical data and send it along to the conference. Though I actively worry about how the measuring of statistical data is negatively affecting God’s church, it is important because numbers represent people. Whether we like to admit it or not, Jesus commanded his disciples to “go and make disciples.” If we are serious about being disciples of Jesus Christ, then we have to be willing to go outside of our comfort zones to welcome people into our church and help to grow the kingdom. However, even though numbers are important, they are also dangerous. I have caught myself, on a number of Sunday mornings, counting the number of heads in worship before the opening hymn. And sometimes I let that number have too much of an impact of what takes place after the opening hymn (both positively and negatively). Doing ministry is about living in the tension between growing the vineyard, and nurturing the vines. Numbers are important, but they are also dangerous.

10.   I Still Have The Best Job In The World

Stanley Hauerwas once said that “doing ministry is like being nibbled to death by ducks.” There are days in ministry that affirm his comment, but most of the time it is the greatest job in the world. Where else could I spend time deep in God’s Word? What job would give me the opportunity to preside over something as precious as the water dripping on a child’s head in baptism or breaking off a piece of bread for a faithful disciple? What vocation would bring me to the brink of life and death on such a regular basis? It is a privilege to serve God’s kingdom as the pastor of St. John’s and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

Devotional – Mark 4.37-38

Devotional:

Mark 4.37-38

A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

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In a few days thousands of United Methodists will gather in Roanoke for Annual Conference. Once a year clergy and lay representatives throughout the state meet for a couple days of holy conferencing in order to prayerfully discern the future of the denomination. Annual Conference provides opportunities for clergy peers to reconnect, lay people to learn about our organizational structure, and helps to reignite the flame of faith in our churches.

The first time I went to Annual Conference was years ago and I was completely overwhelmed. I was a lay delegate for my home church and was supposed to vote on matters of church polity that made very little sense (I didn’t even know what ‘polity’ meant at the time). When I think back on that first conference it felt like a blur and I hope that I voted according to the Lord’s will. However, the one thing I do remember with accuracy was the Statistician’s Report.

Every year the Statistician from the Conference announces our net gain or loss of members over the last 12 months. During my first Annual Conference the Statistician announced that we had grown by ~200 members to which the entire arena erupted with applause. I remember thinking, “200? That’s all? And why is everyone celebrating such a low number for the entire state of Virginia?” I only learned later that it was the first time we had a positive growth in a very long time.

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Sometimes when I am sitting at Annual Conference I feel as if the great windstorm is rolling and the waves are beating us down. I listen to report after report pleading for more money, more resources, and more volunteers. I witness people approach the microphones to make comments about other human beings that should have been left in the 1950’s. I meet people from churches that will be closing their doors in the next few years and see the tears welling up in their eyes. I feel like one of the disciples on a boat that is already being swamped.

But then I remember that after the disciples woke Jesus up, he quickly calmed the storm, and then questioned their faith. When we am confronted with the waves of conference we need to remember that Jesus is the one who controls the wind and the sea. When we witness events that make us feel like the ship is sinking, we need to remember that Jesus is the one who walks on water. So long as we keep believing that we control the church, Jesus will keep sleeping in the stern while we run around in fear. We need a change of heart and perspective to remember that Jesus is Lord, not us.

This week, let us pray for the renewal of the church. As delegates gather in Roanoke, let us pray for wisdom and discernment of God’s will rather than our will. And let us all remember that even when the ship of life is being attacked by waves, Jesus is the one who calms the storm, and puts our faith into perspective.

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Stranger In A Strange Land – Sermon on Ezekiel 17.22-24

Ezekiel 17.22-24

Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.

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During my first year of college I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I grew up in a family that believed in sitting together for dinner every night. I was raised in a church that took the baptismal vows seriously and helped me pursue my vision of ministry. I had friends that supported my belief systems, and wanted me to be happy. I was strongly rooted in my home, and when I left I felt like I was wandering around without a map.

In the beginning, college was completely unlike home. Instead of eating with my family, I was lucky to eat a meal in the dining hall with anyone. Instead of a supportive church, I tried out a number of campus ministries that made it clear that if I wasn’t converting my heathen classmates I had no business being a part of their group. Instead of friends that loved me, I had surface level connections that were based on a system of consumerism more than genuine friendship.

The things I had grown to love (the comforts, the familiarity, and the rhythms) were gone and I felt like a stranger in a strange land.

Imagine, if you can, the prophet Ezekiel sitting by the river among the exiles. They had been taken from their homeland, uprooted, and planted in a new place. Families were separated, homes were lost, and they no longer knew how to worship their Lord. But the Lord continued to call prophets to proclaim the truth, even in the midst of the unknown.

Ezekiel, a prophet to the exiles, declared what the Lord had said. The Lord will take a branch from the full top of a cedar tree and will set it apart. Then the Lord will break off one of the most tender pieces of the young twigs and plant in on a high and grand mountain. The Lord will plant this piece so that it would produce boughs and bear fruit and become a noble tree unlike any other. Under it, in the protection of its shade, every kind of bird will live and find comfort.

All the rest of the trees will know what the Lord has done. Because the Lord brings low the high tree, and makes the low tree grow. The Lord dries up the green tree, and helps the dry tree flourish. The Lord has spoken, and he will do it.

The message is beautiful and hopeful. The poetic language of God’s creation helps us to imagine a mighty cedar giving life and shade to all who are in need. We can almost smell the scent of the cedar wafting through the air as we hear the words. We are reminded of God’s great power in upsetting normal expectations.

But when we remember who the words were for, when we remember the exiles in captivity, the passage becomes all the more powerful.

The remaining faithful had been carried off into captivity in Babylon. Their suffering was great and their questions were many. “Why has the Lord abandoned us?” “When will we return to the great city of Jerusalem?” “Where is the Lord in the midst of our suffering?”

The foundations of their religion were laid waste by a rampaging army. Those who survived would have witnessed the destruction of the temple, they would have smelled the burnt scrolls in the air, they would have heard the screams of fear and suffering.

The new home of Babylon brought subjection, and powerlessness. The people were small in number, weak in strength, and limited in faith.

They were strangers in a strange land.

Yet, in all of the great stories from scripture, a small people, of little account and worth, are the ones chosen by God to do something incredible. Though insignificant by the world’s standards, they were extraordinary in the eyes of God.

In the midst of the unknown, while their fear was real and palpable, Ezekiel shared this tender message from the Lord. I, the Lord your God, am the one who turns things upside down. I will have the final say about what it going on in your lives. You see the powers around you and you believe they have prevailed, but I will make things new, I will plant the seed that gives shade to the tired, strength to the weak, and life to the dead.

Today we are celebrating our graduates, those who have mastered their present set of educational expectations and are moving on to new horizons.

We have graduates from high school that will be entering the new area of the university. We have graduates with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees that will be entering the new area of the so-called “working world.”

In a few minutes they will stand before the congregation and we will pray for God’s blessing on them in all that they do. But before we send them off, we need to help open their eyes to the truth.

Soon, and very soon, you will feel like strangers in a strange land. No matter how confident you feel taking the next steps in your life, there will be things that happen that shake the very foundation of what you know and believe. You will encounter new and strange ideas. You will miss your friends, and your family, and hopefully your church.

Moments will come that you will ask the same kinds of questions that the exiles did in Babylon: “Why has the Lord abandoned me?” “When will things get back to normal?” “Where is God in the midst of all this?

So, this message from the Lord through Ezekiel is meant for you as much as it was meant for them. God’s message of love and presence and growth is directed to you in a time of new beginnings and uncertainty. Whether you are about to start at a new school or a new job, let these words be comforting and full of life.

The Lord God almighty took a sprig, a tiny and powerless little thing, and planted him in a place called Bethlehem. He grew up as the son of a carpenter and was ignored by most people until he started to give shade to all the birds of the air, when he started inviting the multitudes into the kingdom of God. Through his words and actions Jesus Christ gave hope to the hopeless, strength to the weak, and life to the dead. Through him the people began to know and experience the love of God and the world was turned upside down.

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Doesn’t all of this sound familiar? The Lord will plant a new tree… just like the sower who goes into the field… just like a tiny mustard seed become the greatest of all the plants. The Lord will make high the low tree and make low the high tree… just like the first shall be last and the last shall be first… just like the poor being welcomed into the kingdom of God and the religious elite were left scratching their heads.

This kind of inversion has been part of God’s great cosmic plan all along and we are still being swept up in it. The Lord calls on the strangers in a strange land to give hope for the world. The Lord uses the weak and least of these to show how the great tree of life in Jesus Christ gives shade and comfort to all of God’s children.

To those who are about to embark on something new: take heart and know that the Lord is with you. Even when you feel lost and alone, you are not. We, the gathered people, are praying for you and will continue to so long as we have life. But more importantly the Lord has faith in you to do incredible things, to help continually turn the world upside down.

To those who remain: look upon these graduates with hope. Because just as the Lord planted Jesus Christ to be a source of hope, the Lord is about to do the same thing with all of them. He will scatter them like seeds in the earth, he will nurture them through the power of his Spirit, and they will stretch out their arms to the world and will be a source of light in the darkness. Wherever they are planted, they will bear fruit for the world.

During my first year of college I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I wanted to cry out to the Lord like one of the lost exiles in Babylon. I felt abandoned, I felt alone, and I felt afraid. Weeks passed and nothing changed, my relationships started to suffer, and I started putting in the minimal amount of effort necessary in my classes. But it was also when I really learned how to pray.

I didn’t read about it in some book about faith, but I read about it in the book of faith. I looked for the times that Jesus prayed. It helped put things in perspective about what I was going through. It didn’t change my circumstances, but it changed me.

Because true prayer is not about asking God to fix something. True prayer is the gutsy willingness to let God be God in your life. So I gave it over, I prayed less like myself and more like Jesus, I prayed for God’s will to be done in my life instead of for my life to get better. But it did.

When we really pray, its not important what we say, but that we let God have time to speak. Prayer is far more about listening than it is about speaking. Prayer is not listing what we want, but a risk of being exposed to what God wants.

Prayer really changes things, and sometimes what prayer changes is us.

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So, whether we are about to embark on a new experience in a new place or we are still spreading our roots here in Staunton; whether we are confident in our faith, or filled to the brim with doubt; whether we feel surrounded by discipled witnesses, or feel completely alone. We are all strangers in a strange land.

As Christians we are called to see the world through the resurrection which means we will never feel comfortable where we are. We love our enemies and turn the other cheek. We offer a tenth of our income and pray for the weak. We listen for the Lord and lift up the meek. Being Christian is about living in the tension between what the world explains and what the Lord proclaims.

But with prayer, by taking time to be holy, we start to see the world turned upside down, we experience the beauty of God’s kingdom, and we find rest in the shade of God’s great cedar tree: Jesus Christ. So let us pray:

O Lord, let your will be done, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

O Lord, let your will be done, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

O Lord, let your will be done, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

Amen.

Devotional – 2 Corinthians 5.15

Devotional

2 Corinthians 5.15

And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

Weekly Devotional Image

I’m a people pleaser. Ever since I was a young child I have felt the need to do whatever I can to make other people happy and feel affirmed. In elementary school I would make sure that everyone was invited to play together on the playground, in high school I listened to my peers and would quickly change my plans if it made things easier, in seminary I spent time complimenting my classmates on their comments particularly when professors were doing the opposite. Even now, I catch myself paying people compliments in the midst of a conversation with the hope that it will brighten their day.

Pleasing other people is important. We live in a world that consistently breaks us down and makes us question our own worth. So, if I can do anything to help build self-esteem, I’m going to do it. However, if I limit my actions to only pleasing others, I start to water down the gospel and limit the power of transformation in worship.

On Sunday I preached a sermon that many people did not want to hear. I felt convicted by the Holy Spirit to preach about the demons in our lives that prevent us from acting according to God’s love. I focused on the demonic power of homophobia, but the same sermon could have been focused on racism, materialism, sexism, etc. And honestly, I was afraid to preach it. In the days leading up to Sunday, I started thinking about scrapping it for something else because I was worried about how everyone would react.

I know that some of the people from St. John’s are not happy about what I said because they told me so on their way out. As I listened to their comments, and saw people shaking their heads in disagreement, I started to take it personally and felt defeated. Thoughts bounced around in my head like: What happens if they don’t come back because of me? What will they tell their friends about what I said?

But then I read 2 Corinthians 5.15.

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If I only worry about how people see me, and hear me, and react to my words, then I am only living for myself instead of for Christ. If I spent every Sunday only affirming the faith and actions of the congregation, then we would never feel challenged to be better.

One of the greatest challenges of being a disciple is learning to let go of our selfish needs and desires. We are called to live for the one who died and was raised for us. If we live for Christ then we will have the strength to preach the truth at all times in all places. If we live for Christ we will learn to both praise and challenge the people around us without fear.

This week, let us take a step back and remember who we are and whose we are. Let us pray for the Lord to give us the courage to be honest with the people in our lives. And let us truly live for the one who died and was raised for us.