Devotional – Proverbs 22.2

Devotional:

Proverbs 22.2

The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.

Weekly Devotional Image

The way a community responds to a particular event demonstrates where they place their priorities. In the wake of the shooting at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a group of Christians gathered in Staunton to pray and mourn for the lives lost. After a fire that broke out in an apartment complex on the other side of town, the community rallied together and raised money for the families that had been displaced. When a community, regardless of theological differences, can join together in harmony it is a reminder of the power of God’s kingdom here on earth.

However, many of us are often quick to respond to certain events with: “What does it have to do with me?”

I remember hearing a wonderful sermon from a peer of mine about our overwhelmingly insatiability during the holiday season, in sharp contrast with Mary and Joseph making their way toward Bethlehem. Yet, while people were departing from the sanctuary, I listened to numerous Christians making quick comments about all the Christmas presents they had already purchased, or were looking forward to receiving.

Scripture constantly reminds us, and implores us, to look at one another the way God sees us. Yet, more often than not, those of us with stable economic futures look down upon people of lower socio-economic statuses. We do things like avoid the particular streets corners with people begging for money, or we are quick to assume that if they only worked harder, they would be able to pull themselves our of their current situation.

The writer of Proverbs has a good reminder for all of us: “The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” We, whether we like it or not, are caught up in this great mystery called “life” together. As human beings we are part of God’s great community regardless of socio-economic situations, races, genders, sexual orientations, and any other identifier that we use to divide, rather than celebrate.

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John Donne, the famous English poet, puts it this way: “No person is an island, entire of itself, every person is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… any death diminishes me, because I am part of humankind…”

This week, let us remember that God has created us in God’s image, that we are all connected in the body of Christ, and when something happens in the world, it has everything to do with you and me.

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Who Are You? – Sermon on James 1.17-27

James 1.17-27

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act — they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

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The small town sheriff was frustrated when he received a phone-call from the station that interrupted his Sunday supper. A report had come in that a group of young boys were throwing water balloons at strangers walking along Main Street. Reluctantly, the sheriff changed out of his Sunday best into his uniform and went to find the hooligans.

Just as the report noted, a group of young boys were standing on a street corner with a bucket of water balloons and were striking anyone within distance. As he approached in his patrol car, he expected to hear the boys laughing and hollering, but they were rather silent as he inched his way forward. He recognized all the boys from his local church, and dreaded the phone calls he would be making to all of their parents, but he knew their behavior had to stop.

The boys were smart enough not to throw a balloon at the police car, but the sheriff was still nervous to roll down his window in case a wayward throw made it inside. “What do you think you’re doing?” he yelled to the boys. In unison they all solemnly replied, “we’re working for the Lord.” He was mystified by their response, after all how could throwing water balloons at strangers be equated with the almighty? So the sheriff sat in his car with one eyebrow raised and motioned for them to explain.

The ringleader then stepped forward and said, “Didn’t you hear the preacher this morning sheriff? He told us to go out baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We’ve got Holy Water Balloons and we’ve done already made 45 Christians.”

Every good thing in our lives, every generous act of giving, every perfect gift, every blessing, every compliment, is from above.

Throughout our days, the Lord nurtures, guides, and provides all that we need. More often than not, God uses the people around us to do so, but nevertheless God supplies the goodness in our lives.

The letter of James is beautiful, and it begins with a quick assessment of the discipled life and what it means to live into this identity.

James knew how to notice the small things, because the small acts of life are the nuts and bolts of existence. It is the little things, the small actions and the tiny compliments, that hold together the fabric of our lives and give us the power to build and shape community. What we say and how we act are more important than we can possibly imagine.

The Lord has given us new life by the Word of truth and the power of scripture so that we would become a kind of first fruits. We have been given the great blessings of God’s presence, scripture, and Jesus Christ and now we have the responsibility to let those blessings bear fruit in our lives, and in the lives around us.

We must understand this, children of God, we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, because our anger does not produce God’s righteousness. How many times have we jumped to a conclusion, or said something without thinking it through and immediately regretted it? How valuable is James’ advice: be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger?

Our contemporary conversations are filled with “uhhs” “buts” “likes” and other verbal bridges because we are afraid of silence. Rather than actually listening to others, or at least giving them the chance to speak, we fill up every ditch between our words out of fear that someone else will jump in with something else to say. Imagine how much our relationships would change if we only heeded James’ words in our conversations? Can you picture how different our identities would be if we were quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger?

If we have the strength to change the way we converse, then we will begin to welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to change the world. Instead of relying on our own words at all times and places, with patience we can remember the great Word of God in Jesus Christ and put all our trust in him. Instead of believing that we are alone in the world and in our situations, we will come to see that God is with us, and has carried God’s people through this before and will again.

But it’s not just about the words we use and speak, as Christians we are invited to be doers of the Word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

Have you ever departed from church on a Sunday morning, after hearing a particularly convicting message, only to believe that it had nothing to do with you? Have you ever picked up the bible and started reading only to think about the other people the scripture should apply to instead of you?

For if we are hearers of the word and not doers, then we are like those who look at a mirror and as soon as we walk away immediately forget who we are. Our identities are rooted in the scriptures we read, and in the water of our baptism. But too often, we leave from church, or we put down the bible, or the water dries from our hair, and we immediately forget who we are and whose we are.

If church is supposed to accomplish anything on a regular basis, it is to act like a giant mirror so that we catch a glimpse of who God is calling us to be, and then never forget what we have seen.

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It was New Year’s Eve 1999 and Javier was afraid. For months news pundits and writers speculated about the “end of the world” coming with the year 2000. In addition to some strange and warped biblical prophecies, technologically proficient workers warned about the change that might come with the digits 99 changing to 00 and the blackouts that could ensue. For weeks people throughout the world prepared for the worst, and the rhetoric about the end times increased.

So Javier found himself getting ready to attend a worship service with his family and friends in El Salvador on the eve of the new millennium and he was afraid. The service itself was fine; it proclaimed the word of God’s faithfulness in spite the warnings about the new millennium, yet Javier could not rid himself of the fear that was shaking him to his core. Before the service came to a close, Javier stood up, walked to the front and asked to be baptized. He did not know what the New Year would bring, he did not know what would happen to the world, but he figured that a little water on his head couldn’t hurt.

Except, that simple affirmation that God was bigger than himself, that simple humbled moment of reverence to God’s power to save was enough to change Javier’s life forever. Of course, the year 2000 did not bring about the end of the world, but it did bring about Javier’s new identity in Jesus Christ. From that night forward he saw himself as a disciple and has lived into that ever sense.

My own baptism took place when I was 19 days old. Other than some strange blurry photographs of my mother and father standing at the front of the church, I have no idea what it was like or what happened. But it came to shape my very identity. The people who were present in worship that day 27 year ago took seriously the commitment to raise me in faith, and helped me hold on to my identity in Jesus.

The Sunday before I became the pastor at St. John’s I stood before my home congregation and thanked them for nurturing me in the faith all these years and said goodbye. But while I stood in the narthex shaking hands after the service, a much older woman came up with a very worn bible in her hands. Without saying much she turned to the back inside cover and showed me my name and the date of my baptism. For decades she had written down the name and date of every person baptized in her presence and made a point to pray for every single one of them, every single day. Her prayers shaped me into who I am.

Those of us to look in the mirror and remember who we are when we walk away, those of us who are doers of the word will be blessed in our actions. Our religion is pure when we, like the disciples from long ago, actually live into the Word of God and start caring about the people in our midst. Our religion is pure when we clasp our hands together and pray for the world. Our religion is pure when we remember our baptisms and are thankful.

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Who are you?

What defines your identity?

Perhaps we’ve forgotten who we are and whose we are. Instead of seeing disciples of Jesus Christ in the mirror, we only see fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters. Instead of holding on the image of God in our hearts, we turn away from the mirror of church and we immediately forget what God is speaking into our lives.

Do you remember your baptism? Can you recall the details of what eventually led you to yearn for the water of a new identity? Were you, like Javier, led to baptism out of fear? Were you, like me, led to baptism before you even had a chance to know what was happening?

Baptism is not about quantity; we’re not interested in throwing Holy Water Balloons at everyone within distance. Baptism is instead about discovering our fullest identity in Christ through a covenant by water and the Spirit.

Today, we are all invited to remember our baptisms and be thankful. In a few moments I will pray over our baptismal font, and everyone may come forward to remember and give thanks. The mirror behind the water is there for us to take a good look, so that when we turn around we will not forget who we are.

Disciples of Jesus Christ: Remember that every good thing is from above, that God has given us the word of truth so that we may bear fruit in our lives. Remember to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Remember that we are called to be doers of the Word. Remember your baptism and be thankful. Remember who you are. Amen.

Devotional – Deuteronomy 4.9

Devotional:

Deuteronomy 4.9

But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and you children’s children.

Weekly Devotional Image

Rev. Tom Berlin stood in front of a room filled with pastors in the midst of the ordination process and asked us to consider this important question: “How is your church transforming the world?” He asked us to briefly write down the stories of transformation that we had heard since we started at our appointments, and whether or not we had shared them with the congregation. When we felt like we had enough time to answer the question, we broke up into small groups and debated how the stories could be used to help grow the churches we serve.

Rev. Berlin then told us his favorite story from Florris UMC. Long before he arrived as the pastor, on a typical Sunday morning, a new couple from the community decided to try out the church. The husband sheepishly stood in the middle of the congregation during worship, but when the hymns began he could not contain his operatic and beautiful singing voice. When worship ended a couple from the choir beelined over to the new couple to introduce themselves and invited the man to join the choir. A few days later they called him on the phone and reminded him about choir practice. In the weeks that followed they made sure to check in with the couple in church and ask about their lives in the community. And after the new man had practiced with the choir for a few weeks, the couple baked a pie and brought it over to the new couple’s house to show them how valued they were.

“I know it sounds like such a simple story,” Rev. Berlin said, “and I’m sure each of you have a story just like that one from the church you serve. The point is to keep telling that story over and over until new people start living into it as well. The people of Florris are probably sick of that story, but it has truly shaped the ways we reach out to people even today.”

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We read in scripture about the importance of remembering who we are and whose we are. We learn about the value of taking hold of the moments that have shaped our lives and share them with our children and our children’s children. When we remember what shaped us into the disciples we are today, we are caught up in God’s great story that will continue to unfold into the future.

This week, let us each take time to reflect on the ways the church has shaped our lives: How have you been transformed by your church? What important stories are you telling to you children and your children’s children?

Too Blessed To Be Stressed – Sermon on Ephesians 6.10-20

Ephesians 6.10-20

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of there, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

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Friends, I want to share with you the secret of being too blessed to be stressed. Have you felt yourself crumbling over the demands of life? Are you frustrated with your children and their inability to actually listen? Are you worried about your loss of independence? Well then, this sermon is for you.

I know that it might seem impossible to get to a place where being blessed wipes away all the stress of our lives, but we can do it!

Here are my top five tips on how to be too blessed to be stressed:

1) Walk away from the problems! Life is too short to worry about other people. When you start to feel that stress bubbling in your gut, just walk away. We are not our brothers’ keepers. We don’t need to let other people bring us down with their worries, so just walk away.

2) Read or watch something funny! Laughter is the cure to stress. The purpose of life is to be happy all the time, so it is time for us to start embracing the hilarity of life. Instead of complaining and being stressed, we need to turn on our TVs to that witty sitcom and let the laughter loose.

3) Stop procrastinating! Seize the day. Don’t put off to tomorrow what can be done today. Avoid procrastination and stress will disappear.

4) Give your money to church! You just have to plant that little seed, and you will be rewarded one hundred-fold. Money is the root of all evil, but the point of life is to prosper. If you give you money to church, you will start to receive even more blessings than you can imagine. Give your money to the church, and you will really be too blessed to be stressed.

5) Praise the stress away! Give thanks in the midst of your troubles and peace will start to slip right in. Just look at your problems and say to yourselves, “I am thankful for this” and everything will change. But what if your too stressed to even say a praise? Try holding your arms out to your side and take in deep breath, and as you breathe out, slowly lower your arms. Once you pushed out all the air, breathe in and out 5 times in quick suggestion. I would check with your doctor before trying this, because it might not be safe for everyone, but it sure works for me!

If you follow my five easy tips, you will be too blessed to be stressed!

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Ok, let’s be real for a moment. Everything I just said, from the praising your stress away, to breathing in and out in repetition, I stole from other sermons. In just a quick search on the internet I found a seemingly limitless amount of prosperity-gospel sermons aimed at ridding stress, by being blessed. From the likes of Joel Osteen and others, I created a list of five bits of advice that I had found that guarantee to turn your life around.

Here’s the problem: All these promises of wealth, health and happiness by following a simple list, a guaranteed better life by blind faith, do not resonate with scripture.

The praise service had been hitting all the marks. The band was in sync, people had their hands up in the air thanking the Lord, and a few were even dancing in front of their fold out chairs. The gymnasium had been transformed into a space of worship, and they were quickly running out of room.

The sermon was delivered with a never ending smile, encouraging people to look on the sunny side side, celebrate successes, and praise God in all time in all places. Coffee was passed around to all the worshippers, and whether it was the caffeine or not, people were jazzed up for God.

Following the service, as was customary, the preacher waited by the door and shook hands with people as they exited. His smile had remained bright and white from the sermon throughout the whole service, and was now shining upon families as they departed. However, one woman paced back in forth at the back of the line before finally throwing up her hands and walking out.

Worried that he had done something wrong, that pastor apologized to the couple in front of him and chased the woman out the door. “Ma’am,” he shouted as she stormed off to her car, “Don’t forget to praise God!

She stopped dead in her tracks on the asphalt, made a quick 180, walked right up to the preacher, and put her finger up to his nose. “I’ve had it up to here with you and all your silly happiness and praise. I can’t stand coming to a church that won’t let me be angry.

As Christians, and as human beings, we are often told to “go with the flow” “chill out” and “relax” but Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus are a reminder to stand firm. Not with antiquated and backwards beliefs, but firm in our convictions. That woman stomped out of worship because her life was in shambles, and the preacher was telling her to be joyful and praise God. In not so many words he was telling her that being a Christian is easy, and requires us to be happy 24-7-365.

Paul’s words to the church were unpopular. We would rather hear from the prosperity preachers, and the praise preachers, that tell us how easy life can be if we only have faith in God, if we only “walk away from the problems”, if we only give our money to church.

Friends, being a Christian is not popular, nor is it easy.

Paul’s words are still unpopular because they are a challenge to such a secular society, particularly the one we live in.

Be strong in the Lord in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God. There will come times when the wiles of the devil tempt us at the very heart of our being. Our truest struggles are not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against rulers, and authorities that strive for injustice at every turn.

Following Christ means standing firm in defense of justice and love. Taking up our crosses means that we will suffer for the love of God, and if we are too blessed to be stressed, then we are not working hard enough for the Kingdom.

So, take up the whole armor of God and stand firm. God has provided us with the power of truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, the Spirit, and prayer. These are our tools to work against the evils of our world, we shall adorn them over our bodies for our lives, and we can remain steadfast in our convictions.

If we walk away from the problems of life, then we are not following Jesus’ command to minister to the last, least, and lost. Ignoring the stresses and injustices of life means that we are not loving our neighbors as ourselves.

If we give our money to church with the expectation that it will solve all of our problems, it will not! The offering plate of worship in not a cash register for a commodified exchange. We give as a response to God’s goodness, not as an expectation of blessing in return.

And if we try to praise the stress away, if we only want to hear about the joy, then we will continue to ignore the truth of reality and what it means to really follow Jesus.

Put on the whole armor of God because you will need it.

For a long time being Christian was just what everyone did. Most people were born into Christian families and went to the same church their whole lives without ever giving it a second thought. We lived in a Christian culture.

Interestingly enough, today following Christ means being counter-cultural. Imagine how strange a thing it is that we come back week after week to learn about being humble and risking unpopularity. We hear stories about how suffering and ridicule, if not worse, are part of our identity.

I like to joke that Jesus could use some new PR, because the stuff church offers doesn’t sell. There are no quick fixes and simple schemes. There are no “five easy steps to happiness.” Even in during Jesus ministry, the crowds grew to an incredible degree, but by the end, he was all alone marching up the hill with a cross on his back.

Jesus speaks to us through the words of scripture today calling us to be counter-cultural, to stand firm in the strength of God’s power.

“I am too blessed to be stressed” is such a strange thing for a Christian to claim. Having faith implies struggle. Discipleship is a journey filled with wonder, joy, and hardship.

This is the kind of thing that we are bold to proclaim. That God came in the form of Christ to walk among the people and turn the world upside-down. That Christ offered stories and commands that help to shape our lives so that we can shape others. That Jesus went to the very limit of his life dedicated to the profound power of love and it got him killed on a cross. That three days later he rose from the grave, defeated death, and offered salvation to the world.

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We are not too blessed to be stressed. If we are anything we are too blessed to be content. When we remember all that God was willing to do for us and for the world, it ignites a desire in our hearts to start transforming the world. When we feel God’s love in our lives through a friend, we are given the strength to do the same for someone else. When we break down and raise our clenched fists in the air at God, when we pray from the depth of our being, God shows up and starts to reorient our lives through change.

We are too blessed to be content. The world is full of rulers, authorities, cosmic powers of darkness, and spiritual forces of evil. God has blessed us to stand firm against the injustices of life and say “no more!” We will not sit idly by while the world tells people they have no value, we will not participate in a system that perpetuates economic disparity, we will not give in to the evil powers of prejudice and presumption.

We say, “no more!” and we clothe ourselves with the whole armor of God and we go marching against the evils of the world. We wear the belt of truth and open our eyes to what is really going on. We strap on the breast plate of righteousness and live according to love rather than hate. We put on shoes that allow us to get on the move and declare the gospel of peace. We brandish the shield of faith, holding on to the promises of God. We adorn our heads with the helmet of salvation, hold the sword of the Spirit, and we persevere in prayer.

We say “no more!” to the rulers, and the authorities, and the cosmic powers of darkness because we are too blessed to be content. Amen.

Devotional – John 6.60

Devotional:

John 6.60

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

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We have a great lectionary bible study at St. John’s. Every Thursday at 10:30am a dedicated group gathers to pray for one another and then read and discuss the four lectionary readings for the week. The group was started with a simple suggestion, and has grown to become one of the most life-giving teaching ministries of St. John’s.

The group is made up of both members from church, and from other churches throughout the community. With such a diverse background in church experiences, we have come to grow in faith by learning from other traditions, as well as our own.

A few weeks ago, after reading through the week’s Gospel section, one of our most faithful attendees threw up her hands and declared, “How can anyone do all this stuff?” I think that after weeks of hearing Jesus’ commands to the disciples, she was overwhelmed by how much is expected of discipleship and how consuming it can really be.

Her question is one that Christians have been asking themselves since the very first disciples. After a particularly long discussion on being the bread of life (John 6), the disciples throw up their collective hands and say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

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In our contemporary culture, many of us want grace without expectation, we want to leave church on Sundays feeling good about ourselves, and we are ready to commit so long as the commitment is limited. We, like the first disciples, are confused by Jesus’ words when we are asked to start living accordingly. We feel good about sacrificing our time at the Food Pantry, but we refuse to forgive that person in our pew who started a hurtful rumor. We feel good about seeing children in Sunday School, but are easily annoyed by the cries from babies during worship. We feel good about the scriptures that affirm our lifestyles, and use other passages to persecute and oppress those who are different according to our world view.

Jesus’ teachings are difficult, and ask us to sacrifice nothing short of our very lives. But Jesus also offers us something greater than any political promise, social status, or monetary moment; Jesus offers us eternal life.

What teachings do you struggle with? Where do you need support in following the call to discipleship? We can grow in faith by joining bible studies that allow us to wrestle with difficult teachings in community. We can grow in faith by reaching out to the seasoned Christians in our lives and seeking their advice. And we can grow in faith by bringing our struggles to the Lord, and praying for wisdom.

Devotional – 1 Kings 3.5

Devotional:

1 Kings 3.5

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.”

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When I go on mission trips, I love asking youth a familiar set of questions. For instance: After a few days of cold-cut sandwiches for lunch at our work sites, I always ask them to share what would be their ideal meal. In a matter on minutes, strangers become best friends over their intense bonds with the likes of Gummi Bears, Big Macs, Snickers Ice Cream Bars, etc.

Occasionally I will ask them to share their favorite movie or book, and I always wind up asking about their favorite story from the bible. The questions are a mechanism by which conversations will begin to flow, but it also helps to create friendships over shared interests with people that never imagined they could be friends.

A few weeks ago while I was serving with a mission team in McDowell County, WV I asked the group one of my go-to questions: “If a Genie offered to grant you one wish, what would you wish for?” Some of the answers were hysterical: “I would ask for a swimming pool full of chocolate syrup” “Definitely a basketball court as my bedroom” and “french fries; lots and lots of french fries.” The question got the conversation flowing and we all began to debate the merits of our particular wishes compared with the wishes of our peers.

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Later on that afternoon, while we were cleaning up our tools before heading back to our main site, one of the younger boys from my crew approached me with a strange look on his face. He stood next to me for what felt like a long time before he finally spoke. “I’ve been thinking about your question, you know the one about the Genie, and I finally got my answer: I would wish to be more patient.” In all the quick responses to the initial Genie question, I neglected to ask this young man what he would wish for, and when he finally shared his answer, it hit me deep in my soul.

After his father David died, Solomon was approached by the Lord and was offered anything he wanted. Solomon, though given the opportunity to request anything in the world, asked for wisdom. That young boy on the mission trip, rather than being led by selfish desires for wealth and power, told me that what he really wanted was patience.

When we go to God in prayer, what do we ask for? Are we treating God like a Genie who will give us our greatest wishes? Or are we seeking the Lord’s power to help shape us into the disciples God knows we can be?

Strange Stories From Scripture: A Week In The Word – Sermon on Judges 3.12-23

Judges 3.12-23

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord strengthened King Eglon of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the Lord. In alliance with the Ammonites and the Amalekites, he went and defeated Israel; and they took possession of the city of palms. So the Israelites served King Eglon of Moab eighteen years. But when the Israelites cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The Israelites sent tribute by him to King Eglon of Moab. Ehud made for himself a sword with two edges, a cubit in length; and he fastened it on his right thigh under his clothes. Then he presented the tribute to King Eglon of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man. When Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent the people who carried the tribute on their way. But he himself turned back at the sculptured stones near Gilgal, and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” So the king said, “Silence!” and all his attendants went out from his presence. Ehud came to him, while he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber, and said, “I have a message from God for you.” So he rose from his seat. Then Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into Eglon’s belly; the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out. Then Ehud went out into the vestibule, and closed the doors of the roof chamber on him, and locked them.

Today marks the second part of our series on Strange Stories from Scripture. As a church we are taking time to look at those wonderful moments from the bible that they never talked about during Sunday school. These are the stories that make us blush, raise our eyebrows, and leave us scratching our heads.

Many of us are familiar with the well-known stories of Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness, we know all about King David and his kingdom, we can even recall the miracles of Jesus, but the bible is also full of tales that are just begging to be used in worship and our daily lives.

Our first story was from the book of Numbers regarding the foolish prophet Balaam and his talking donkey. We explored how the donkey attempted to steer Balaam in the right direction, and pondered about the donkeys in our lives.

Today we are talking about Ehud and King Eglon from the book of Judges.

Ehud-and-Eglon (1)

Monday.

I’m sitting in my office, going over the emails from the weekend when I pull out the list of all the scriptures from now until Christmas Eve. I reread the plan for the sermon series on Strange Stories from Scripture, I wonder if people felt convicted by the sermon on Balaam and his donkey yesterday. I check the email once again to see if anyone took the time to send me a complaint about the sermon. The only one I receive makes a comment about seeing such a “smart… donkey” in the pulpit, but I file it away for later.

The A.C. is pumping out cold air, and I open up my bible to Judges 3 to read the scripture for Sunday. The story of Ehud and Eglon. As the words flow past my eyes, I can’t help myself from giggling in the office: Ehud stabs him in the belly, and Eglon was so fat that the blade disappeared and the dirt came out. I quickly scan through a number of other translations to see what they do with the vague “dirt” description. Some call it dirt, most call it dung, but at least one calls it poop.

When I see the word poop in the bible, it just makes me laugh.

I wonder if people will let me get away with saying poop from the pulpit on Sunday morning. I quickly make a note to pray about it during the week, before deciding whether or not to put “poop” in the sermon.

This has got to be one of the funniest and strangest stories in the bible, but before I dive into sermon writing, I decide to leave the word document open on my computer, and get to some of my other daily tasks before returning.

Tuesday.

The screen stares back at me empty. So I decide to get the mental juices flowing and rewrite the story in my own words:

The Israelites messed up again. Whether they were grumbling for more food, or worshipping false idols, they messed up, and the Lord decided to raise up King Eglon of Moab against God’s people, because they were continually messing up. King Eglon, with the help of God, went and defeated Israel and ruled over God’s people for 18 years.

But then, of course, the Israelites started to cry out to the Lord for delivery, perhaps they had seen the error of their ways, so God decided to provide their savior, Ehud, a left-handed man.

The Israelites, at the time, were in the habit of sending their taxes to King Eglon, and Ehud used this delivery to make his attack. He fashioned himself a double-edged sword, and attached it to his thigh under his clothes.

King Eglon was a very fat man.

ehud2

When Ehud finished delivering the money, he sent his compatriots away, and teased the King with the promise of a secret message from God. Eglon sent away all of the people from his inner court and invited Ehud to share this secret. But as Ehud leaned in to deliver the precious secret, he removed the hidden dagger and thrust it into Eglon’s belly.

Strangely enough, the further Ehud pushed, more of Eglon fat rolled over the blade until it disappeared from view, and Eglon’s poop came out. Then Ehud snuck out of the chamber and locked the doors behind him.

I rewrite the story, looking for sermonic inspiration that would drop down from heaven like manna in the wilderness, but I just sit in my office wondering what in the world God is trying to say through the text. Throughout the day the phone and doorbell continue to ring at church, and I welcome the distractions.

Wednesday.

I pull out some commentaries on the text, and decide to see what other people think God was saying. A few of them go into remarkable detail about the significance of Ehud being left-handed, while others address how detailed the descriptions were, and a few even propose a sexually metaphorical interpretation.

The more I read, the less the story makes me laugh. Instead of looking at the story like a cartoon with poop on the floor, I see human beings driven by enough anger and fear to conquer a nation, and murder a king.

Reluctantly, I start searching online for other sermons about Ehud and Eglon. Do people preach about this? What in the world do they say?

One of the sermons is titled, “Lefty vs. Hefty” and it is all about the differences between the two central characters. The writer emphasizes Ehud’s cunning against Eglon’s girth.

One of the sermons is titled, “Salvation” and it goes into profound detail regarding how, supposedly, God ordains the killing of people even today who get what they deserve. The preacher calls for the people to commit themselves to a radical system of justice, where they take matters into their own hands, just like Ehud did.

One of the sermons is titled, “The Power of Praise” and it focuses on how Ehud was able to trick Eglon into giving him the opportunity to strike. It ends with a reminder for the listeners to be careful about the promises they hear and the compliments offered their way, because a dagger might be lurking in the corner.

The more I read from God’s Word and from other sermons the more I regret picking the scripture for the series:

Eglon, the fat king, is now less a caricature, and more like the punishment God ordained for the people for messing up.

Ehud, the people’s deliverer, is now less a righteous judge, and more like a murderer.

Months ago I thought it would be perfect and hilarious to use this text during a series on Strange Stories, but now I worry about what I will actually say about it when the time comes.

Thursday.

Sitting in a coffee shop in attempts to begin crafting a sermon, I continue to stare at a blank screen. I have started at least three different sermons but before I am able to start really crafting a deep response to the Word, I highlight the text and pressed “delete.” Nothing feels good enough, all of the attempts feel flat.

How is this story speaking anything into our world today? What does the death of Eglon at the hand of Ehud have anything to do with the life of St. John’s and the community of disciples?

I close the computer and grab a nearby newspaper in hopes to distract myself from the seemingly endless flicker of the cursor on my computer. The top article says “US drops Atomic Bomb on Japan 70 years ago today.

1945-08-07-New-York-Times-headline

Before I realize it, I am sucked into the article, and the sermon floats away from the forefront of my mind. The writer has reproduced the original texts used the Associated Press the day the Atomic Bomb was first reported:

“An atomic bomb, hailed as the most terrible destructive force in history and as the greatest achievement of organized science, has been loosed upon Japan… The atomic bomb destroyed more than 60 percent – 4.1 square miles – of Hiroshima, city of 343,000 and radio Tokyo reported “practically every living thing” there was annihilated… Secretary of War Henry Stimson said, “If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” (From the original AP article http://bigstory.ap.org/urn:publicid:ap.org:3fd267ba7b3c40479382189c99172d61)

I read the article and tears begin to form and fall down my face. Normally I would hide my face from the other patrons, but I am so struck by the words that I forget where I am and what I’m doing. 70 years ago we dropped the most powerful weapon we had ever created on a nation and virtually wiped out an entire city in a matter of seconds.

I start to remember where I am, and the sermon that needs to be written. The connections between the article and the scripture start to form:

Did Ehud leave the sword in Eglon because he wanted the effects to be devastating? Did he want to leave his mark in such a way that death was not the only consequence? Was the Atomic Bomb our sword that we had hidden under our clothes? Did we attack Japan in such a way that death was only the beginning of what we wanted to accomplish?

I wonder what people will think if I try to draw a connection between the anniversary of the Atomic Bomb with the death of Eglon at the hand of Ehud. Did Ehud do the right thing? Did we do the right thing? I have no idea where the sermon is heading.

Friday

I sigh deeply in front of my computer. Picking the Ehud and Eglon story was a bad idea. I explore an idea about dressing up like Ehud with a sword in church but it feels trite, impractical, and vaguely irreligious. I start writing a poem about how the Lord calls people to do extraordinary things during extraordinary times, but then it feels like I’m telling people its okay to murder and steal.

I sit in silence with my hands outstretched praying for the Lord’s will to be done, and for the sermon to be written. And I wait.

Saturday

The Community Cook-Out is going well; children are running around, adults are being fed, and conversations are flowing all over the place. I am thankful for the distraction the cook-out has provided, though I’m also worried about tomorrow morning. What will I say when the time comes? What is God’s Word speaking into our lives right now?

I watch the community in action. Not just the church, but all the people who make Staunton what it is and I think about Jesus. I remember the call to live radically transformed lives based on love and forgiveness, not on fear and retribution. I see people breaking bread for the first time, and I see Jesus in the midst of the people providing hope, the Holy Spirit giving life to our words and relationships, and God making new and lasting connections.

I think about Jesus and the new life he invites his disciples to experience. I think about the lengths God was willing to go to to respond to the cries of God’s people, raising up prophets and judges. I think about God finally offering the most precious gift he ever could, his Son, to die for all the people out on the front lawn of the church, and for the world.

I wonder if the story of Ehud and Eglon isn’t so much about how we react when the world pushes us into a corner, but about the trajectory of God’s gifts to the world. That at one time God would raise up a judge to save Israel, but that now God raised up his Son to save us from ourselves and from death.

Sunday

I stand in the sanctuary before disciples hungry for the Word of God and I say: I offer this to you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.