Devotional – Psalm 51.1

Devotional:

Psalm 51.1

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

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When I am asked to preside over a wedding, I take full advantage of the opportunity to share the beauty of God’s love. During pre-marital counseling I encourage couples to find a bible verse that relates to their relationship, we discuss what it looks like to pray for our spouse, and we use God’s love as a lens by which we view the love we have for our partner. During the actual wedding ceremony I am unashamedly open about God’s love being at the center of this relationship, and that only with God’s power can all couples live in harmony and peace with one another.

This past Saturday I stood before a gathered community outside under the hot sun for a wedding. With sweat beading on my forehead I shared reflections on the joy of marriage and how God plays an integral role in all of our relationships. I used stories from the couple’s history in order to make the homily approachable, and I even included a number of lines from famous movies because the groom is a self-avowed movie buff. (For example: “Enjoy this time because life moves pretty fast, and if you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it” –Ferries Bueller’s Day Off)

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Following the ceremony I was mingling among the wedding guests when a young woman approached me and said, “I wish my pastor was like you.” Startled by the compliment, I asked her to explain and she described how her pastor “never connects the scripture with regular life” and that she leaves church feeling like she “listened to a lecture.” Our conversation continued for a few minutes, and before we went our separate ways she asked where I was a pastor and told me that she would be joining the church for worship sometime soon.

As I stood there taking in the complimentary conversation, feeling affirmed in my words, and hopeful about a new person coming to church, I was struck with the sensation that I had lost my focus. I let myself get puffed up by her kinds words and I recognized that I selfishly wanted her and her family to start attending the church I serve. I like the idea that she wanted to come to the church because of me. It only took a few words to stroke my ego to such a degree that I forgot my place in the kingdom.

So before she had a chance to walk away and disappear into the crowd I asked her to do me a favor and I said, “Before you come to St. John’s, I think you need to pray for the pastor you have. Maybe God wants you to help him grow and learn what it means to serve your church rather than leaving to just try something different.”

The psalmist calls for God to “blot out my transgressions.” In our daily prayers we thank God for our blessings, and we ask God to intervene in our lives and in the lives of others, but rarely do we pray for God to make us clean, to rid us of our selfishness and false pride. This week, let us take time to be honest about our sinfulness, pray for God to transform us, and begin taking steps into a new way of life.

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How The Dishwasher Taught Me To Pray – Sermon on Ephesians 3.14-21

Ephesians 3.14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

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I loved my college roommates. Some of us knew each other from high school, and others were grafted in along the way, but nevertheless, when we lived together it felt like a little family. We tried our best to communicate needs within the domicile, we kept it quiet when someone had a midterm the next morning, and we quickly learned to share common appliances for the betterment of the entire living situation.

Between us we would come to earn Bachelor degrees in Philosophy, Religion, Biology, Communications, and History. I always kind of imagined that we would be a awesome group Jeopardy team with the wealth of knowledge spread between us. Living together in college was great, but it wasn’t always easy.

There was the time we discovered mice in the house. We did our best to keep the kitchen clean, and spread mouse traps throughout the house, but during the cold winter months they came back like clockwork.

There was the time a huge snow storm came through, trapping all of our cars, and we ran out of heating oil to keep the house warm.

There was the time that we all contracted swine flu at different intervals. As one person became sicker and sicker, those of us who were well shared the responsibility of caretaker, until we started displaying our own symptoms.

Part of the beauty of living with other people was the sharing of life experiences. We celebrated each others successes, and grew to really rely on one another. Part of the challenge of living with other people was learning how to change our habits and needs based upon the habits and needs of other people.

Ephesians 3.14-21 is a prayer. Paul is writing to this new faith community in the hopes that his prayers will be answered by the Lord of hosts. He prays for the congregation because he knows that he cannot give them what they need in order to grow, but through prayer the church will learn to fully rely upon God.

The beginning of the prayer establishes the main focus: Paul prays for the church to be strengthened in its inner being, from the inside out, by the power of God. He hopes that the individuals that make of the community will see the vital importance of letting Christ into their lives and then change accordingly.

If Christ dwells in the hearts of the people, if they are rooted and grounded in love, then they may have the power to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love that surpasses all knowledge.

During college, I was the only person from the house that went to church. While my roommates enjoyed the comfort of their beds on Sunday mornings, I was making my way out the door to worship the Lord. I learned to accept their priorities, and on some level they learned to accept mine.

For instance: I made them pray with me whenever we ate dinner that I had prepared. I felt that if I was willing to go through all of the steps necessary to make a dinner for all of us, then they could bow their heads with me in prayer. So once a week, we would sit in our living room, eating on paper plates with plastic silverware, and they would listen to me pray.

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It is difficult for many of us to hear about God’s unending love, particularly a group of college-age men who just wanted to eat. It may seem so obvious to us that it no longer strikes at the core of our being. We hear “God is love,” and “love is patient, love is kind,” and “Love you neighbor as yourself,” and “God’s love knows no bounds” and instead of that love becoming clearer, it just floats around in the air.

Faithful love is even harder to grasp for those of us who do come to church because we hear about all these beautiful and wonderful things, we look around at a church filled with people who appear to have their lives figured out, when in reality we are all struggling with a myriad of secrets, private disappointments, lost hopes, and frustrations.

It’s hard to hear about love, when we don’t feel love in our lives.

Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus is all about letting Christ in to change lives: I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.

Letting Christ into our hearts is like moving in with a new roommate. At first, we spend a lot of joyful time getting to know one another, discovering common likes and interests. We do a great job putting all the dishes away and keeping the house clean, but then we have to start making compromises, whether we want to or not.

I learned about this type of faithful living the right way through my wife Lindsey. When we were dating, and I was getting ready to ask her to marry me, I dreamed about what it would be like to live together. I imagined the way we would set up our living room, where we would put the record player, and even where we would dance to all of our old jazz 33s.

After the wedding, while we were still giddy from the honeymoon, we decided to tackle the challenge of combining all of our possessions in the kitchen. We debated the value of keeping our plates in one cabinet versus putting the coffee cups near the coffee pot. We worried about the safety of keeping our knives in a drawer or right on the counter top. And we experimented with the location of the microwave in relation to the toaster and whether or not we would blow the fuse if they were both on at the same time.

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The real challenge came to the precipice over the dishwasher. I was of the opinion that it did not matter where dishes and cups were placed in the dishwasher, so long as we could fit as many things as possible. Lindsey was not of the same opinion. For the first few weeks, whenever I put a plate away, she would come behind me and rearrange the dishwasher. It got to a point that I started purposely putting items wherever I wanted because I didn’t think it mattered, but sweet Lindsey would watch me live out my frustration, and then when I left the room, she would bring order to the dishwasher.

I don’t know how long this continued, but I do know when it stopped. Lindsey was working late one night, and the dishwasher was almost full. I saw my opportunity to prove that the dishwasher works fine no matter where the dishes are placed. So with a mischievous grin on my face I rearranged the order into chaos, I started the dishwasher. I couldn’t wait to see her face when she got home, I imagined the apology she would offer me regarding her wrong interpretation of dishwasher etiquette, it was going to be something beautiful.

But when the dishwasher cycle finished, I knew I was in trouble.

How could this have happened? Whenever Lindsey ran the dishwasher, everything came out all nice and clean and ready to use. But this time, there was still food on a few of the dishes, and some of the utensils looked worse than when I put them in!

I was wrong, and I learned to change. Now I will freely admit that sometimes I still place something in the wrong place, but after my passive-aggressive experiment, I have learned to alter my focus because Lindsey was right.

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The incident with the dishwasher taught me that prayer is about change. When I forced my roommates to pray in college, was I doing it because I was concerned about them, or was I doing it because I thought I was better than them? Did I earnestly pray to the Lord during that time, or did I just want them to hear the sound of my voice?

The beauty of prayer comes to fruition when we let Christ in to change us, and when we are willing to give up some of our space for the Lord. The dishwasher taught me that if prayer is only about myself, that if I am only concerned with my thoughts and actions, then I am neglecting to let God in to make some important changes.

Faithful living is about giving up those habits and behaviors that are no longer fruitful, reprioritizing and reorganizing our lives, so that God can make us clean.

In a few moments we are going to end our service not here in the sanctuary, but outside on the front lawn. We are going to gather in a group and we are going to pray.

First we will pray for God to give us the strength to give up some room, and let Christ in. That instead of focusing on just our needs and wants that we will begin to comprehend the love of Christ and the fullness of God.

Then we will face the sanctuary and we are going to pray for our church. So many of us, myself included, get caught up in such a tunnel-visioned view of prayer that we neglect to pray, like Paul did, for the community of faith.

And finally we will turn to face the community around us and pray once more. Prayer is not just about you and me, and it is not just about the church, prayer is about communing with the Lord about the very fabric of life.

If we want our lives to change, if we want our church to change, if we want to let God’s love reign, then we have to be willing to give up some space. We have to learn to rearrange the dishwashers of our lives so that everything can be made clean.

Amen.

Devotional – Ephesians 3.16

Ephesians 3.16

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit.

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Pre-marital counseling is the best. It is one of the few places where I am actually allowed to ask the questions I have racing in my head: What was your last fight about? How do you feel about your soon-to-be in-laws? Why do you deserve to marry each other? Similarly, it is one of the few places I feel comfortable being completely candid about the church’s role in marriage and how the covenant is not just between the couple, but it also incorporates the gathered body and the Lord.

At some point during the pre-marital counseling, I challenge each couple to go back to scripture and pick a passage that reflects their relationship for the wedding ceremony. My one caveat is that (unless they can demonstrate how necessarily important it is to them) they are not allowed to pick the part in 1st Corinthians about love being patient and kind, nor are they allowed to pick the part from Ephesians about wives being subject to their husbands. So it is with those few directions that couple have been forced to go back to their bibles and find something indicative of their relationship.

A few months ago I had the privilege of bringing together Chris and Chelsea Frumkin into the joy of marriage. I challenged them to pick their scripture and they quickly replied with Ephesians 3.16: “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit.” This verse had a particularly special meaning to the couple, because Chris has Ephesians 3.16 etched into the inside of Chelsea’s engagement ring.

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What a dynamic and perfect scripture for a wedding ceremony! When we stood together before their family, friends, and the Lord I made mention of the fact that their relationship had led to such a beautiful wedding precisely because they had prayed for one another. As a couple they were not content with the status quo. Instead, they consistently went to the Lord to discover renewed strength in their relationship.

The longer I spend time in ministry, the more I realize that scripture no longer holds the great value that it once did. Instead of a people defined by the Word of the Lord, many of us are content with knowing a handful of verses that make us smile, or would be worthy of a print that we could hang on our wall or Facebook page.

As we prepare to take steps into a new week, let us reflect on the great gift that scripture is for us: What stories from the bible have shaped who we are? Is reading the bible a priority in our lives, or a last resort? If we had to pick a verse that defined our character, what would it be and why?

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The Upside-Down Kingdom – Sermon on Mark 6.30-34

Mark 6.30-34

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

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Last Sunday our mission team gathered in the parking lot after worship, prayed together, and then set out for the beautiful bounty of West Virginia. I don’t know how the rest of the team felt as we made our way west, but I was excited; we were committing ourselves to a community, we were going to be Christ’s hands and feet, and we were going to experience God’s upside-down kingdom.

McDowell County, West Virginia is nothing short of beautiful. While the roads twist back and forth and the topography ebbs and flows, you are constantly bombarded by the beauty of God’s creation. Sitting behind the wheel, the scenery flies past the window and all evidence of humanity’s presence is gone except for the occasional roadside house and the road beneath the wheels.

By the time we finally made it to Welsh, WV we were ready to work, and we were ready to get out of the cars. But the scenery had drastically changed from the journey; when we arrived in Welsh it felt as if time had stopped. At one time Welch was one of the ten most populated places in the United States. More coal has been found and produced in McDowell County than nearly every other coal mining venture in the rest of the country. The community grew rapidly as the industry boomed, but now it is a ghost town.

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The final moments as we drove up to where we would be staying for the week were met with silence as we absorbed our surroundings. Countless empty buildings littered the streets, handwritten signs adorned the windows begging people and businesses to consider renting the space, and for the longest time we drove without seeing another human being.

The apostles, those first ragtag disciples, had gathered all around their teacher to share with him all they had done and taught. They went on and on about the lives they had changed, the miracles they were able to perform, and moments they had experienced God’s presence. But then Jesus said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

Our mission team had arrived in our deserted place, but we would find little rest. Our church team was divided into two different work groups; the first would be working in a local food pantry, helping them to organize different donations before the weekly distribution on Saturday, the other would be working on painting the floors of house in the small town of War. The time before and after working would be spent in prayer, bible study, fellowship building, and learning about the local community.

From the Food Pantry group we learned that 100% of the children in McDowell County are on Free/Reduced lunch and that more than 50% of the children are considered homeless. From a former coal miner we learned that for a long time McDowell County was one of the wealthiest in the nation thanks to their coal mining, but that now the mines are being shut-down, and more and more people are without work and purpose.

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It would have been easy to show up in McDowell, roll up our sleeves, work hard, and leave feeling good about the work we had done. It would have been easy to make a few friendships, pray for the people we met, and return to our lives in Staunton. It would have been easy to return to the pace of life here without being affected by what we had seen and experienced, but Jesus calls us to live in the Upside-Down Kingdom where our lives are flipped around.

When the crowds were gathering to see this special man named Jesus, many were coming and going and the had no leisure even to eat; what a perfect description of the lives that many people are living today. Far too many of us rush through the mundane aspects of daily living without taking the time to reflect on what we are actually doing.

Kids grab Pop-tarts on their way out the door in the morning, young professionals order the same cup of coffee with urgency before their daily commute, families sit down at a communal table to eat but each member has their nose down in a smart phone in order to connect with others, while actually disconnecting from the people in their midst.

Many of us Christians spend our faith lives just like the crowds so long ago. We treat church not like the precious gift that it is, but like any other commodity in our lives. Instead of seeing it as a vital and life-giving space, we see it as another item on the never-ending check-list of existence. Some of us have so much to do, that church has become an occasional venture, rather than a regular necessity. So many of us are coming and going at such a tremendous speed that we no longer have the time to feast on God’s Word in prayer and in worship.

The mission team, however, abandoned the fast pace regularity of life, and were forced to adjust to God’s schedule. Every morning we woke up to eat and begin our devotions; How were we experiencing God’s Upside-Down Kingdom? Where had we seen brokenness in the community? What is God trying to do through us this week? We began and ended every single activity with prayer, and we devoted ourselves to the people we were serving.

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Now many saw the disciples and Jesus, so they hurried there on foot from all the nearby towns and arrived ahead of them. As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd and had compassion for them, because they were wandering like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

Jesus loved to teach people about the kingdom of God, and he did so with parables. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed; though tiny and small, it grows into one of the greatest plants providing shade and offering life. The Kingdom of God is like a wedding-feast where the least of society are invited to eat at the head table. The Kingdom of God is like a sower who goes out to sow, he knows not how the seeds grow but provides rich soil for the seeds to settle in.

While we settled into the rhythms of mission work in McDowell County, we started to  experience what God’s Upside-Down Kingdom is really like.

The Kingdom of God is like a group of privileged folk from Staunton, Virginia who gave up a week of their lives to serve a community of people they had never met. Time and time again they were questioned by the people about their work. No one could understand why a group such as ours would give up their precious time, give up their vacation, to get down on their hands and knees to change a person’s life. We did not go in order to earn our own salvation, we did not go to make ourselves feel better about our faith, we went because God’s Kingdom is one that has been flipped upside-down by the work of Christ, one that compels us to go and love when the world stands bewildered at our actions.

The Kingdom of God is like a house with plywood floors. Rough around the edges, with splintered pieces jutting out all over the place, in need of a few good coats of paint. The pieces of plywood met in different angles and sizes with the grain of the wood running in different directions, requiring dedicated attention while painting. God invites all to participate in this Kingdom, and we are not meant to be all alike. In fact God calls us to celebrate the things that separate us, so that we can learn to live in harmony with one another in the midst of differing grains.

The Kingdom of God is like a child laughing while running around a tiny yard in the middle of West Virginia with a 6 week old puppy. While adults slaved away in the house painting the floors, young children were laughing in a way that helped us to remember why God called us here in the first place; not to just help someone with their material needs, but share in the joy that comes with recognizing God’s grace in something as simple as a puppy, or as profound as a young family moved to tears because of our sacrifice.

The Kingdom of God is like a foot-washing the night before Jesus died, and the last night of a mission trip. Each of us took a turn in the chair and were prayed over by the rest of the church group. Every person was lifted up to God and we gave thanks for all that they had given, praised God for the witness they were discovering in their life, and asked God to be with them as they were sent forth into new places. Each person was valued, appreciated, and celebrated. In God’s Upside-Down Kingdom, even the smallest of servants, even the tiniest bits of effort, are embraced and lifted up for the true value they contain.

The Kingdom of God is like leaving a mission field, to return home only to realize that everywhere we go is a mission field. That whether we are serving the needs of a community in West Virginia, or living into a new reality of love right here in Staunton, God’s Upside-Down Kingdom is everywhere.

The people we served in West Virginia we hungry for something greater than themselves. Though desperately in need of things like food, clothing, and shelter, they actually hungered for something much more precious: value and worth.

The challenge of the story of Jesus with the crowds, is that we read about a people who were hungry while so many of us are full. We are not like the people who gathered to discover Jesus, we are not like the desperate crowds rushing to meet the Lord ahead of the disciples. Nobody here is so eager to find God that they beat me to this sanctuary on Sunday mornings.

For many of us, church is just one of the many activities that fills our modern lives, rather than the one place where we discover lives worth living.

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Like many mission trips, I think we got more out of it than the people we served. We thought we were going to help them in the midst of suffering, only to discover that we needed to be healed just as much. We needed to stop viewing ourselves as better than the people we were serving, we needed to learn to love them in spite of their behavior and past experiences, we needed to start looking at them the ways God looks at the world: with love.

We went all the way to West Virginia to learn about God’s Upside-Down Kingdom only to realize that we are part of it as well.

When the crowds gathered at the feet of Jesus, when he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, he taught them about things like the Kingdom of God. When we get together every week for worship, we are just like those crowds resting at the feet of the Lord eager and ready to learn. It is through our prayers and hymns, through the people in the pews next to us, and through the words of scripture and a sermon that we discover ourselves in the midst of God’s Upside-Down Kingdom, and we begin living accordingly.

What a blessing to know then, that every day is an opportunity to serve God’s kingdom from the beauty of McDowell, West Virginia to the beauty of Staunton, Virginia. We are called to be Christ’s hands and feet for the world, so let’s get out there and do it. Amen.

God Is God And We Are Not – Sermon on Psalm 24

Psalm 24

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers. Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation. Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.

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Be careful.” That’s what they kept saying when they found out I was invited to preach at a church in the heart of Detroit. I had been living in Birmingham, Michigan (a rather wealthy suburb north of Detroit) helping serve a church for the summer when I received the opportunity to fill in at another church one Sunday. And as soon as I was asked, all the warnings started coming in: “Be careful” “Park as close as possible to the church” “Keep your wallet in your front pocket.

I remember thinking these people were crippled by fear, how bad could it really be? We were talking about driving into Detroit on a Sunday morning to preach at a church…

When the morning arrived I was filled with excitement. I picked out the perfect bow tie to go with my blazer, hoping to assert my authority regardless of my young age, I had a prepared a theologically profound manuscript sermon, hoping that it would get people to shout “amen!” from the pews, and I spent the long drive down Woodward Avenue in silence, hoping to boost my holiness before the service began.

The closer I got to the church, the stranger I began to feel. I hadn’t noticed it at first, but the longer I drove, the less people I saw on the streets. The buildings went from inviting homes and businesses to abandoned shells of carpentry. The streets went from well maintained to pot holes that required a car to drive up on the sidewalk in order to avoid.

In a matter of minutes I had gone from “Pleasantville” to a post-apocalyptic movie set, and my excitement was quickly replaced by fear.

By the time I pulled in the parking lot, I realized that I hadn’t seen another human being for at least ten minutes. The streets had been largely deserted leading up to Cass UMC, and it was strangely silent when I stepped out of my car.

So here I was, standing in the heart of Detroit, in a bowtie and blazer, with a bible and sermon tucked under my arm, completely alone on a Sunday morning.

My footsteps across the concrete reverberated in echoes through the abandoned buildings flanking the church and even though it was a bright sunny day, I felt like I was walking down a dark alley in the middle of the night. The building itself was an architectural masterpiece having been built in 1883 with Tiffany’s stained glass windows, though I could tell from the street that bullet holes had cut through the once remarkable windows.

When I reached out my hand to open the doors, the height of my new fears were realized: It was locked.

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I knew no one from the church, I had no way to contact anyone, and all of the warnings started to really flow through my mind. But I did what any good pastor would do, I sat down on the front steps and waited for someone to open the door.

30 minutes later, a disheveled looking old man, the first person I had seen in a long time, peeked from around the corner, walked up the steps, and unlocked the front door without saying a word. I wandered around the building until I found the sanctuary, searched in vain for a worship bulletin, and resigned myself to sit down in a chair by the altar.

During the next hour, the most random assortment of people started flowing in through the sanctuary doors. The church, once renown in the heart of Detroit, was being filled with people who slept outside the night before, people who had no money to put in the offering plate, and people who were having conversations with themselves at a volume loud enough for everyone else to experience.

A group of 7 older black women arranged themselves on folding chairs near the front, and without really discussing it they all flipped their hymnals to the same page and started to sing. A man with wrinkled fingers was hunched over a piano in the corner struggling to keep up with the singing, and a young man had seated himself behind a drum-set hidden in the corner, and was wailing away to a song that only he could hear.

When the first hymn ended, the women huddled together to pick another hymn and began singing. At some point in the middle of their fourth hymn, with the pianist still planking away, and the drummer smashing the cymbals, a gentleman stood up in the middle of the sanctuary with his eyes trained on me. He walked down the main aisle slowly and deliberately until he was towering over me and then declared, “Son, if you don’t start talking, they ain’t liable to quit singing.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, from the sea to the mountains, from the rivers to the deserts, from the people to the animals; for the Lord has founded life upon the earth. Who then shall worship the Lord in holiness? And who shall stand with the Lord in the holiest of places? Only those who have clean hands, and pure hearts, those who do not lift up their souls to what is false, who do not break their promises. They will receive a blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation. Such is the company of those who seek the Lord.

I stood up after the end of the next hymn, and grabbed the hand held microphone to start participating in worship. I felt like a fool standing in my khakis and blazer, with my bowtie tilted just slightly to the side. I felt ridiculous with my over examined sermon under my arm, and bible in my hand. I felt like I didn’t deserve to stand before the congregation, but all of their eyes were on me. (just like all of yours are right now)

I took off the jacket and tie, rolled up my sleeves, ditched the sermon on my chair, and let the Holy Spirit go to work.

Let us pray” I began, and before I could start praying for our service, the people started shouting out their own prayers. “O Lord, help this boy to preach.” “Yes Lord, show us your mercy.”My God show me your glory!” “Remove our sins, give us your Spirit, clean our hearts!” “Your will be done!” “Have thine own way Lord!” “Help this boy preach, preach preach.

It was only after a few moments of silence that I finally said “amen” without having added any of my own prayers.

I preached on the apostle Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, about the new creation that comes in knowing Christ. I talked about moments that transform our lives. I said things like “there is a new life in Christ, but just because we find Christ it doesn’t mean our life will get better, but that we are called to make other lives better.” And instead of the typical, and silent, congregation I was used to, the people kept shouting at me while I preached. “Ain’t that the truth!” “Yes Lord!” “We know it, we know it” “Lord, give him strength to preach.” “Speak through him God.

When I got around to the close of the service, when I offered a benediction to the congregation, when the final amen was uttered, I heard them say in return, “Thank you Jesus.”

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Lift up your heads, O gates! Open up you ancient doors! the King of glory is coming. Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, merciful and majestic, the Lord. Jesus Christ the author of salvation, the Good News, the Messiah. The Holy Spirit full of wisdom and truth, giver of life, and partner to our prayers. Lift up your heads, O gates! Open up you ancient doors! The King of glory is coming! Who is the King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.

We can dress the part, we can read all the right books, we can memorize all the hymns and prayers, but unless we are looking for holiness in our lives, unless we are ready to bow down to the King of glory, then we are forgetting the truth: God is God and we are not.

Many of us are good Christians, we pray for our friends and family, we come to church, we put money in the plate, but there is a profound difference between believing we are holy, and wanting to be holy.

When I arrived at that church in Detroit years ago, I foolishly thought I was bringing something to them. With my well prepared outfit and sermon, I made the assumption that I was bringing God with me, nice and shiny, like a school project. I became my own main character in the story of worship, and it prevented me from seeing the King of glory.

When I stood up in the pulpit to proclaim the words, the people did not see a young man with a seminary education, they did not see some white fool trying his best to not pass out, they saw a vessel for the Lord. Their prayers were not to me, but for the Lord to work through me. The recognized the great division between God and me, and knew that Jesus was the bridge between the two.

They knew that God is God and we are not.

In our contemporary American culture, we tend to view ourselves as the center of the universe.

We assume that everything revolves around us, and that so long as our needs are being me, then everything else should be fine.

We believe that if we wear the right clothes, and get the right education, that holiness will follow accordingly.

We feel holy for giving up an hour every week to sit in a place like this and sing hymns, offer prayers, and listen to a sermon.

That church in Detroit had something that I never knew I needed: They believed that God was the center of the story, that God had the power to transform their lives, and that God really was the King of glory.

Too many of my friends have left the church because they “didn’t get anything out of it.” They might try different styles of worship and different denominations, but if they don’t get anything out of it, they will rarely return. However, church isn’t about what we get out of it, its about what God gets out of us.

Believing we are already holy limits God’s power to make us holy.

It is in the recognition of the great divide between humanity and the Lord that we can let Jesus get to work on our hearts and souls. It is in the great admission of Jesus as the King of glory we start to see ourselves, not as the center of the universe, but instruments for God’s love to be heard in the world. It is in the words of our worship that we recognize the Holy Spirit’s movement in our midst and our lives start to change.

If we remain in the assumption of our holiness, then our lives will stay the same.

But if we truly desire for the Lord to make us holy, then our lives will be transformed. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 85.12

Devotional:

Psalm 85.12

The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.

Weekly Devotional Image

When I was appointed to serve St. John’s UMC two years ago I asked a number of people about the goals of the church: What do we want to look like in five years? What ministries need greater attention? Where is the church heading? I asked and asked and was surprised to discover that our collective vision did not extend past next Sunday; so long as our doors stayed open, and we had people sitting in the pews, we would be content.

For two years this limited vision permeated everything we did as a church and we have been far more concerned with maintenance than mission. Yet at the same time our church has grown in numbers and faithfulness as we continue to discern the will of God for our lives and for the church. In light of this, I grew so accustomed to the status quo, and the consistent growth, that I neglected to start looking toward the future until I heard a sobering statistic at Annual Conference this year: The average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone to worship once every 38 years.

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In the wake of discovering this frightening statistic, I felt convicted by the Lord so start looking further than next Sunday and create goals for our church.

1) We grow in faithfulness by giving time every day to God in prayer.

2) We grow in attendance by inviting people to discover the love of God.

3) We grow in stability by offering our gifts and talents to the Lord.

If the mission of the church is to form disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then it is our responsibility to pray faithfully, invite lovingly, and give generously. We are called to be Christ’s body for the world and are equipped by the Lord to do so.

Our first goal is to grow through prayer so that we might be transformed into better disciples. By giving time to God every day in prayer we will start to see how true the psalmist really was: “The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.” The Lord will grow our faithfulness, attendance, and stability so long as we are willing to play a part in this mission as well.

As we prepare to take steps into a new week, let us take time to reflect on the church that God has so graciously given to us. How can we be better stewards of this place? Where is God calling us to serve within the community? What goals do we have for the church?

The Story (Chapter 2) – Sermon on Romans 12.1-8

Romans 12.1-8

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorted, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

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Years ago there was a young man, fresh out of seminary, ready to begin serving his very first church. He had taken all the appropriate classes in school, learned from the right professors, and had been prayed over by the bishop. With eager anticipation he had packed his bags and headed out to begin his first appointment to John Wesley UMC somewhere in Georgia. The young man was so anxious and filled with joy that he could hardly contain himself when he arrived that first day, so before he unpacked any of his belongings, he drove by the new church.

He got in the car and went to the listed address, but he saw no church. When he turned around he drove to the address again and realized why he had missed it the first time; there was one of the oldest and most decrepit looking trees he had ever seen stretching all over the ground with roots exposed and the sign (plus the building) were mostly covered by its long branches. The young pastor sat in his car looking at the tree and he couldn’t believe a church would let something so ugly block the beauty of the building.

Before he knew it, he had gone back to the parsonage to unpack his chainsaw, and promptly cut down the tree that was blocking the church. With sweat on his brow, he took a step back and admired his work: the sign and building were now completely visible from the road, and he thought that perhaps a few extra people might be in church on Sunday morning.

A few days later, as the young pastor sat in the study of the parsonage preparing his first sermon, the local District Superintendent called: “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet,” he said, “because you’re being reappointed.

You see, the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason. John Wesley himself had planted that tree more than 200 years ago while he was in that community. The gathered people decided to build a church right where the tree had been planted in honor of the man who started a revolution, and that young pastor had chopped it down.

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Stories are remarkably important. They contain and convey everything about who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another, and how we obtain the collective memories of the past. We tell stories to make people laugh, to teach lessons, and remember the important elements of life.

Today, we live in a world of competing narratives. Every television station, and every website, are vying for out allegiance and attention. We are consistently bombarded with information attempting to tell us who we are, what we need, and where we are going.

We live during a time when more people recognize the golden arches of McDonald’s than they do the cross of Jesus Christ. We live during a time when people spend more time arguing about where they can see the best fireworks on the Fourth of July than they worry about children in their community who have no food to eat. We live during a time when we would rather store up our treasures on earth, than give our gifts to the church.

Right now the world is telling us what is important, and our ears have a difficult time discerning between the world, and the Lord.

The apostle Paul wrote about the world to the church in Rome and convicted their hearts: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Do not listen to the people who try to define you and limit your abilities. Do not diminish God’s ability to radically transform your life and the world around you. Read your bibles. Pray your prayers. Listen to the wisdom of the past. Open your eyes to the beauty of the future. Do not think you are better than anyone else, but give God thanks for placing you within your community.

We are all different and this is worth celebrating! God’s has blessed each of us with unique gifts worthy of use for the kingdom. Some are made for teaching, or preaching, others have the gift of prayer and presence, others have been blessed with financial resources, and still yet others have been given the gift of patience in discernment. Whatever your gift, use it for the kingdom so that we might bear fruit in the world.

Do not conform to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. When we gather together for worship we are retelling God’s great story so that our lives can be transformed. When we are in this place we reject conformity to the world’s expectations. When we proclaim the Word of God, our minds are being renewed again and again.

A few weekends ago thousands of Methodists throughout Virginia gathered together in Roanoke to discern God’s will for our denomination. We prayed over pertinent matters and voted accordingly, we honored those who had gone on to glory over the last year, and we ordained new pastors for the work of ministry. Annual Conference is a time of celebration, but it also a time of facts.

According to the ways of the world, the church is floundering. People are no longer regularly attending worship, tithing is starting to disappear, and many church buildings are being closed each year. Christianity has lost its status in the political arena, we are becoming biblically illiterate, and young people are largely absent from worship.

At Annual Conference this year we discussed a number of statistics affecting the church, but one really stood out to me:

The average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone to worship once every 38 years.

The world tells us that we are nearly defeated. That we’ve got to start pulling out all the stops to get people into our buildings. We have to be willing to do whatever it takes to get people sitting in the pews. We need to cut down the trees that are blocking the church building from the street. We need to abandon the past in order to embrace the future.

I say thanks be to God that we don’t have to conform to the ways of the world but get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds! While others might shrink and wail in fear regarding those types of statistics, imagine what would happen if we embraced them and saw them as an opportunity for transformation? How would our church start to look if we began creating our own vitality through a life-giving invitation to discover the Lord in community? What would it take to embrace the trees and traditions of church to reclaim the story that has already changed the world?

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For those of you with remarkably gifted memories, you will no doubt have noticed that everything we have done in worship today, from the opening greeting to the selection of hymns, from the scripture reading to the words of this sermon, is an almost exact replica of what we did two years ago during my first Sunday at St. John’s.

It brings me nothing but joy to look out from this pulpit and to see how much we have changed in our short time together. Our worship attendance has grown. Our weekly offering has grown. Our commitment to spiritual disciplines has grown. Our willingness to sacrifice for God’s kingdom has grown. Our faith and trust in the Lord has grown. St. John’s, through its prayers and practices, has begun to positively affect those kinds of statistics that frighten the world.

But we can do more.

We can do more because the words of worship today are just as relevant as they were two years ago. With a continued commitment to prayer our church can grow in its vitality. With a consistent connection to the Word our church can grow in its faith. With a calm composure compared to the world our church can grow in effectiveness.

When we retell the story we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. We don’t have worship just to catch up with our friends from the community, checking in on the events of life. Church isn’t just about making sure that we give one hour a week to God. Church is about transformation in our lives and in the lives of others.

When was the last time we invited someone to church? Has it been 38 years? And, as someone put it this week, if we don’t have anyone to invite to church, we are not spending time with the right people.

When was the last time we prayed about the money we give to church? Have we grown content with the same offering each week, or do we really recognize how much God has given to us, and how much more we can give back to God?

When was last time we felt transformed by the renewing of our minds? Are we so consumed by the ways of the world that we no longer trust the Lord?

The stories of scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, help to shape the way we live. They are more than just facts and histories, they are the living Word of God’s actions with God’s people. The stories speak greater truths than any news program or TV bulletin, they convey more than any tweet could ever contain, and they provide transformation for the disciples of Jesus Christ.

If we neglect to embrace the stories for the power they contain, then we are cutting down the great trees of tradition in our midst.

As we embark on our third year together I have some goals for our church, both personal and communal:

1) We grow in faithfulness by giving time everyday to God in prayer. This does not mean that we have to start every morning with our hands twisted together and our heads bowed low, but that at least once a day we take a moment to thank God for our blessings. We can do it before a meal, or in our cars on our way to work. How we pray is not as important as praying in the first place. So, we grow in faithfulness by giving time everyday to God in prayer.

2) We grow in attendance by inviting people to discover the love of God. This does not mean that we need to start knocking on doors and trying to convince people to come to St. John’s, but that we open our eyes to what God has done for us and embrace a culture of sharing that kind of love with others. We can do it by inviting our friends to try worship out with us on Sunday morning, or talking with them about what God has shared with us through this place. So, we grow in attendance by inviting people to discover the love of God.

3) We grow in stability by offering our gifts and talents to the Lord. This does not mean that we need to start a capital campaign or initiate a pledge drive, but that we see our lives as gifts and give back so that others can be blessed as well. We can do it by giving more when the offering plate comes around on Sunday morning, or by offering some of our God given talents for the betterment of this church in the kingdom. So, we grow in stability by offering our gifts and talents to the Lord.

According to the ways of the world the church is in a difficult place. We are told that we don’t have enough time to pray every day, we are reminded of the discomfort that comes with trying to invite others to worship, and we are bombarded with the fear about giving money and gifts back to God. But I’m not worried about any of that, and I’m not worried about anything because my hope is not in me, my hope is not in the ways of the world, but my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus Christ.

Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands, comforting, nurturing, and sustaining us in all we do.

We can believe in the future of our church, we can share the story of the Lord, we can pray with every fiber of our being, we can invite others to experience God’s love, and we can give with glad and generous hearts because our faith is in almighty God!

The Lord is reminding us today, and everyday, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Amen.