The Gifts of God – Truth

Psalm 25.1-10

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my soul or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

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Happy New Year! As I mentioned last week, today is the beginning of our year as Christians. We have reset the calendar to rediscover the love of God in our lives and in this place. From now until Christmas Eve, we will have a sermon series on the gifts of God. This is particularly fitting considering the fact that Advent is usually a time when we fret about what we will be purchasing for everyone else. However, this Advent, we will be reflecting on what God has given us. Today we begin the sermon series with God’s gift of truth.

Make me to know you ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.

 

One of God’s greatest gifts to us is truth. God provides for us a way and a path for Christian living and they all point to the truth. The psalmist confesses the beauty of this truth and pleads for God to maintain the truth in all times and in all places.

Advent is a wonderful and strange time for us Christians. In four short weeks we, as a church, are expected to make time and space to prepare our lives for God’s indwelling. All the while, many of us want to quickly break out the carols to accompany the dizzying whirl of parties and purchasing the usually precede Christmas. We want Christmas morning to be here so badly, that we forget about the anticipation of Advent.

True confession: My Christmas lights were up three weeks ago. We had a particularly balmy day and I decided that I might as well get outside and string up the lights, even if I was wearing shorts and a tee shirt. I have almost purchased all of my Christmas presents. I keep a notebook with me throughout the year and whenever Lindsey makes mention of something she likes, I make a note of it so that I will be prepared for Christmas. And even this morning, while I was praying in our sanctuary and on the front lawn, I caught sight of a particularly beautiful Christmas tree that I will probably bring home this afternoon.

I am impatient. I get so excited about a particular time and event that I often lose sight of the time leading up to it, precious time to be savored and enjoyed. But here’s a truth that God provides for us impatient people: the anticipation is just as important as the thing itself.

If couples went from engagement immediately to the wedding they would not have the important time of really learning what their in-laws are like.

            If young people were given a driver’s license without having a learner’s permit for nine months there would be a tremendous amount of fender benders in Robert E. Lee’s parking lot.

            If we jumped straight from Thanksgiving to Christmas morning then we would believe Christmas is more about gifts under the tree than God’s gift of Jesus for you and me.

The anticipation is just as important as the thing itself.

The psalm describes a profound trust in the Lord, a trust in the Lord’s paths, ways, and truths. God reminds us of these truths through different people and events, and when we confront them we can’t help but admit how true they really are.

The psalm also proclaims an important truth that we all need to hear right now: God is the God of our salvation.

In our contemporary culture, people often use the language of salvation when referring to politicians. President Roosevelt was considered by many to be a savior as was Kennedy and Reagan. Today we still look at our politicians with a messianic lens.

I was walking down Beverley street a few weeks ago when I overheard a couple in front of me discussing Donald Trump’s political astuteness. One of them said, “If only he was president, he would fix all the problems that the democrats started!” I couldn’t help but laugh when I heard what they had to say and I kept on walking. But then when I got in the car and started to drive back to church I heard someone call into NPR to claim that Hillary Clinton has the power to unite all people and will bring us, as in Americans, to the Promised Land. And then I got an email from someone who asked me to use the pulpit as a means by which to convey to all of you that Ben Carson was handpicked by God to bring about infinite prosperity and a return to Christendom here in the United States. And then someone sent me a picture that said, “We should elect Bernie Sanders as a socialist Jew, because we worship another socialist Jew every Sunday in church.”

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In a matter of hours, I heard about how four different political candidates would bring about a peace and wholeness in America that sounds impossible. Politicians cannot save us. They can advocate for us, they can institute law that can help us, but they cannot save us. Donald Trump cannot save us. Hillary Clinton cannot save us. Ben Carson cannot save us. Bernie Sanders cannot save us. Only Jesus saves.

This is one of God’s truths: only God can save. Yet, we all fall to the temptation of believing that political leaders are like messiahs who should be the ultimate objects of our trust and allegiance. Just drive around Staunton for an hour and look at all the political bumper stickers and yard signs covered in red white and blue. Countless Americans will contribute untold sums of money to political campaigns, they will use their precious free time to attend rallies and knock on doors, and they will jump at the first chance to get into an argument with someone who has a difference in political opinion.

Can you imagine what our community would be like if we actually worshipped Jesus like we worship our politicians? Can you picture what Staunton would look like if we put crosses on our cars (letting everyone know what we are supposed to act like) instead of political bumper stickers? Can you imagine what it would be like if we put up mangers in our front yards letting everyone know we worship the kings of kings instead of political banners?

We need politicians for our country. But we only need God for salvation.

That’s what God’s truths are like. On some fundamental level we know them to be true, but life tries to convince us otherwise. Getting excited about Christmas isn’t a bad thing; it’s only when we let the material become more important than the spiritual that God needs to remind us of the truth. Wanting politicians to make substantial and important changes isn’t a bag thing; it’s only when we start worshipping politicians like we are supposed to worship Jesus that God needs to remind us of the truth.

On Thursday evening I was sitting around the table at my parents house in Alexandria, VA for Thanksgiving. Family members had worked all day to get the food exactly the way we wanted, decorations had been set up across the house, and we were finally about to go around the table and share what we were thankful for this year. One of my cousins got the waterworks flowing as he shared that he was thankful for the new life that Lindsey and I will be bringing into the family in April. Both of my sisters expressed thankfulness for our family that has supported them throughout their lives. But then my grandmother started to share.

She told us about a family that lives across the street who has been through the ringer over the last few years: Divorce, unruly children, uncertain employment, etc. The mother of the family has grown close with my grandmother and they were out in the street talking a few weeks ago. The woman asked my grandmother what she would be doing for Thanksgiving and she described the very feast and fellowship that we were currently enjoying. The woman listened patiently to all the things my grandmother described and then said, “Do you know how blessed you are?

My grandmother began to cry and she exclaimed how she takes so many of her blessings for granted: Good health, a family that loves one another, food on the table, her faithfulness. The joy and exuberance of the day quickly transformed into a brief time of silence as we all pondered about the blessings that we take for granted.

Want to know one of God’s truths that we miss the most? We are blessed. Amidst spinning truths and impending threats we have a God who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. Amidst all of our fears and frustrations we have a savior who was willing to die on a cross to save us. Amidst all of the uncertainties and hypocrisies we have a Spirit that breathes new life into us each and every day. We are blessed.

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Good and upright is our God. He patiently instructs us through his Word in the way that leads to salvation. God leads the humble in what is right and teaches each of us the path to follow. All of the Lord’s ways are steadfast love and faithfulness so long as we remember the truth.

In a moment I’m going to invite us to encounter and confront one of these truths. Some of us will still wish it was Christmas day today, some of us will still worship politicians like we should worship Jesus Christ, but one of the things all of us can do is be thankful for the blessings in our lives. I would like each of us to pair up with someone in the church, someone that we don’t normally spend time with, and I want us to just have a conversation about how God has blessed us this year. Take a few moments to share, perhaps like you did on Thanksgiving, what you are thankful for right now.

One of the gifts of God this advent is the truth. The truth of God’s love made manifest in a baby born in a manger, a baby that embodied the Good News, a baby that carries the promise of transformation of life from sin to salvation, from slavery to freedom, from injustice to peace, and from death to resurrection. We are blessed. Amen.

Devotional – 1 Thessalonians 3.12

Devotional:

1 Thessalonians 3.12

And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.

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God loves to surprise us. We will be worried about a particular event in our lives when God will use a friend or family member to speak a word of hope that we need to hear. We will have anxiety over a relationship when God will speak through the words of scripture to remind us about what we are called to do. We will be afraid about a current event when God will use a pastor to proclaim bold words about the power of God’s grace and mercy. God loves to surprise us.

As I was preparing for worship last week I knew that I needed to make an announcement about the importance of inviting someone to discover God’s love at St. John’s. We have embraced this as a congregational goal for the year and I put little inserts in the bulletin that anyone could use to invite someone to church. But on Saturday afternoon, I did not know how I would share this endeavor with the church, short of holding up the insert and asking people to invite others. And then when I was walking the dog on Saturday night, she got out of her harness and bolted into the darkness.

I went home to grab the flashlight, hiking boots, and a fleece cap and went searching. I looked and looked all over the neighborhood, I got in the car and combed the surrounding blocks, and I called out her name with as much love as I could muster. When I finally found her behind a neighbor’s house I quickly grabbed her and (because I forgot the leash) I carried her all the way home.

God loves to surprise us. As I carried the dog in my arms I was struck by how God loves me the same way. God will never stop searching for me when I am lost, God will use others to redirect me to the right path, and God will always be ready to carry me home. When I finally got home and the dog nuzzled up next to me on the couch I realized that I had my illustration for inviting others to discover God’s love.

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Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica and prayed for the Lord to “make [them] increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” It is a good and right thing to grow the church because it allows us to bear fruit in the world and seek out the lost. If we believe the church has done some remarkable and transformative things in our lives then we should naturally want to share that gift with everyone around us.

This week, let us pray for God to give us the strength and courage to invite someone to discover the love of God in church. Let us seek out the lost and offer to bring them home. And let us increase and abound in love for one another and for all.

 

What Is Truth?

John 18.33-38

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

During the celebration of holy mass in the chapel of the Carmelite Monastery 6 members of the OCDS community made promises to the Order.  Dr. Jason Bourgeois and Judy Hawkins professed their temporary vows for 2 years and David Travers, Suzie Megown, Kathryn Theobald and Wendy Corbella professed their Difinitive Promise to the Secular Order.  Fr. Lawrence Herzog, OCD celebrated the mass which was attended by the Carmelite Nuns and families of the OCDS community.

 

Christ the King Sunday is the New Year’s Eve of the Christian calendar. Many of us might celebrate the New Year beginning on January 1st, but in the church the season of Advent is the beginning of our year as we wait for the coming of the Lord on Christmas. For centuries the church has celebrated this rhythm where we start a new year in anticipation of Jesus’s birth, we proclaim Jesus’ life and teachings, and we mark his death and resurrection with Holy Week. Then we look forward to the celebration of Pentecost when God’s Spirit was poured out on the first disciples, and we have a long season of what we call ordinary time to learn more about the stories from scripture.

The Christian year is built the way it is so that we retell the greatest story ever told, every year.

But just like with the celebration of New Years Eve we need a big party to mark the end of our year, we need to pull out all the stops and look back over where we’ve been, and get excited about where we’re going. We need our New Years Eve, but for us we call it Christ the King Sunday.

Since the foundation of the early church, disciples have worshipped Christ in his three offices: Prophet, Priest, and King.

Throughout the Christian year we learn about Jesus as Prophet whenever he shared a lesson with the disciples, whenever he told a parable, and whenever he spoke out against the injustices of the world. Like a true Prophet Jesus spoke the truth in love. He went out to the last, least, and lost and helped to speak words that gave them value. Jesus confronted the hypocrisy of society and challenged the world to behave according to the way God would have us to behave.

Throughout the Christian year we learn about Jesus as Priest whenever he healed the sick, fed the hungry, and clothed the naked. Like a true and holy Priest Jesus shared his final meal with his friends and told them he was offering his body and blood for their sake and for others.

Jesus atoned for the sins of the world by sacrificing himself and dying a terrible death on a cross.

Throughout the Christian year we learn about Jesus as King whenever we hear about the kingdom of God, whenever we discuss what it means to take up our cross to follow him, and whenever we confess Jesus as Lord. Like a true King Jesus watched out for the people of his community, fed the multitudes and offered a new way of life. But perhaps one of the greatest insights into what it means to worship Christ as King comes from Jesus’ interaction with Pontius Pilate.

It was early in the morning when the Jewish elders brought Jesus to Pilate with death on their minds. Of course, according to the Law, they could not kill him but they knew that the Roman leader could. So Pilate entered the headquarters and asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Are you asking because you want to know, or did other people tell you about who I am?” Pilate replied, “I’m not Jewish! Your people, your chief priests, your nation handed you over to me. So, what have you done?”

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If it were from this world, my followers would be fighting to the death to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?

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What is truth?

Pilate wanted to know. Christians have wanted to know. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we want to know as well. What is truth?

Seeing as how today is our New Year’s Eve, I thought we would do well to look back over the last year and examine what we have learned to be true…

In Advent we learned about how everyone is given a new beginning in Jesus Christ. That when God came into the world it changed everything, and when you discover Jesus in your heart it changes everything. It changes the way you think, the way you speak, and the way you act.

During the winter we asked tough questions about are faith like “Is it better to be cremated or buried?” and “Is it appropriate to have an American Flag in our sanctuary?” We talked about how being a Christian means sacrifice, how food will not bring us closer to God, and how God strengthens the weak.

During Lent we spent the season praying for God to cleanse us of our sins, and heal our brokenness. We got back to the basics of our faith by looking at the Ten Commandments, admitting that we cannot save ourselves, and that God is God (and we are not).

During Holy Week we went from the joy of the last supper with a foot washing on Maundy Thursday, to the shadow of the cross on Good Friday, to the glory of the resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Before Pentecost we looked to the stained glass windows in our sanctuary to learn about the faith attested in the Good Shepherd, the Methodists, and the Johns. On Pentecost we listened to two of our youth proclaim that the church is not a building but a people.

Throughout the summer we retold some of the greatest and strangest stories from the Old Testament, we even had a donkey preach one of the sermons, and we spent time praying for one another.

And this fall we addressed why we do what we do. Why we worship, why we give, why we serve, and why we pray. (All of them bring us closer to God)

What is truth? Every Sunday that we gather in this sanctuary is an attempt to answer that very question. Every sermon, every prayer, every hymn is all geared toward discovering the truth in our lives.

As we look forward to a new year in the Christian calendar we anticipate more services attempting to answer Pontius Pilate’s question and the question that rests in our hearts. We will have sermon series and bible studies, we will have prayer vigils and fellowship events, we will have baptisms, and we will have funerals, all striving to answer “What is truth?

For us today, sitting here in this worship service, Jesus has a simple and profound answer: My kingdom is not of this world.

In the wake of the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, the French community continues to mourn and grieve over the fragility of life. For days, Parisians have gathered from across the city to place flowers and light candles in memory of all the innocent people who lost their lives.

A French interviewer recently caught sight of a father and son who were kneeling by the flowers and the interviewer asked the boy if he understood what had happened. The four year old said, “bad guys who were very mean did something very bad. We need to be very careful and my family has to move out of France.” The father quickly interrupted and said that they did not need to leave because France was their home but the son, with a quiver in his lip reminded his father about the bad guys who have guns and can shoot us because they’re really mean.

The father took a moment to think about what his son said, and then he replied, “Yes. They have guns. But we have flowers.”

The son was incredulous, “But flowers don’t do anything!”

“Of course they do,” said the father, “look, everyone is putting flowers here. It’s to fight against guns.”

“It’s to protect us?” “Exactly”

Then the son asked, “And the candles too?” “Yes. The candles are to remember all the people who are gone.”

The boy, who had clearly been distraught the whole time, finally began to smile as he took in the abundance of flowers and candles in the square and looked right at the interviewer to say, “The flowers and the candles are here to protect us.”

We live in a remarkably tumultuous world that feels like it’s on the brink of something terrible. Just turn on the television or open a newspaper and you are immediately bombarded by tragedy after tragedy. But when a young boy discovers the power of a flower, something dismissed by so much of the world, we are reminded that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.

It is not easy thing to be a Christian, to live our lives in such a way that Jesus is our king. Because our king asks us to do some strange things like: pray for our enemies, turn the other cheek, and give away our clothing and possessions to help those in need. But Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world, it does not harmonize with the expectations of the world.

The world tells us to gain all we can.

            Jesus tells us to give all we can.

            The world tells us to seek vengeance.

            Jesus tells us to seek forgiveness

            The world tells us to destroy our enemies.

            Jesus tells us to love our enemies as ourselves.

            The world tells us that we are the center of the universe.

            Jesus tells us that God is the center of all things.

            The world tells us ignore the weak.

            Jesus tells us that the meek shall inherit the earth.

            The world tells us that death is the end.

            Jesus tells us that death is the beginning.

What is truth? The answer to the question is our collective effort to know who we are and whose we are, to remember the stories of scripture so that they shape our lives, to live out the incarnation so that the world can be transformed.

The whole Christian year is the attempt to answer: “What is truth?

But today Jesus gives us one response: “My kingdom is not of this world.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Devotional – Revelation 1.8

Devotional:

Revelation 1.8

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

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Services of Death and Resurrection are sacred moments in the life of the church. For a brief time we gather together in our grief, we praise God for the life of a friend or family member, and then we proclaim the hope of the resurrection. Dozens of people will fill the pews, some of who have not entered a church in years, and sing those beautiful hymns like “In the Garden” and “Blessed Assurance.”

As a pastor, it is a humbling thing to be tasked with leading the services and preaching a faithful word about God’s love and the life of the dead. I try to find the right stories and scriptures that shed light on the individual and pray for God to speak through my words so that they resonate with God’s Word. I try to lead the service in such a way that we can experience tears and laughter. And I try to ensure that the experience is one of profound holiness.

Yesterday, after concluding a Service of Death and Resurrection for a long-time member of St. John’s UMC, I gathered in the social hall with friends and family for a reception. Like a high school reunion, I saw groups of people gathered together to share stories and offer condolences. I spent some time wandering about the room in order to check on the members of the immediate family when someone stuck out his hand and asked to speak with me. I had never met the man before but he explained his connection to the man that had died and he thanked me for my words. He described his fear of funerals because they always remind him that death will come for him one day as well. But then he said, “However, my favorite thing about funerals is the fact that I learn so much more about a person I thought I knew so well.”

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Funerals do teach us so much more about the people we love. We hear from friends and family members willing to offer witness to the particular life and often we hear a pastor who is able to share a new vision of the life of someone close to us. It is in our willingness to listen that we discover something new.

Whenever I perform a funeral I am re-struck by the scripture: “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” I have said it before groups of people more times than I can count, but each time it reinforces the fact that I still have so much more to learn about God. Every day is a new opportunity to open up scripture, pray deeply to the divine, and discover the Lord’s work in other people. Similarly, it brings me great comfort to know that God is the beginning and the end, that our lives are gifts from God and that death is not the end.

This week, let us take time to learn more about the people in our lives and to learn more about the God of life. Maybe it means picking up the phone and calling a dear friend, or opening up our bibles to read a familiar passage. Maybe it means praying for the people in our local and global community, or listening for God’s still soft voice in the words of a hymn. Whatever we do, let us do so with the hope of learning more about one another and our Lord who is the beginning and the end.

This Is Not The End

Mark 13.1-8

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

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The temple in Jerusalem was something to behold. It captivated the hearts and imaginations of countless Israelites throughout the centuries and was the pivotal focus of their faith. During times of strife and warfare the Hebrews would pray for the foundation of the temple. When uncertainties remained in the air, the temple was the place to offer sacrifices. It stood as a beacon to all with eyes to see regarding the power and the glory of the Lord.

It is no wonder therefore why the disciples couldn’t help but marvel at the giant stones when they were walking with Jesus. After spending a considerable amount of time ministering to the last, least, and lost in Galilee, Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and brought his friends to the temple.

“Look Lord! Look at the large stones and large buildings!” Like the dwarfing power of a modern skyscraper the temple kept the disciples’ eyes in the sky. But then Jesus said, “See these buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.

I can almost imagine the disciples rubbing their hands together in anticipation; “Finally Jesus is getting ready for the revolution! He keeps talking about the first being last and the last being first, now is the time to strike!”

Later, when Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, the inner circle of disciples gathered close and asked Jesus privately, “Tell us, when is it going to happen? What will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”

Then Jesus began to teach them, “Beware that no one leads you astray with empty promises about the end. Many will come in my name declaring change and messianic power, and they will lead people astray. When you hear about wars and destruction, do not be alarmed; this must take place, the end is still to come. There will be earthquakes. There will be famines. This is just the first part of the birth pangs, the beginning of the end.

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We call this an apocalypse. Commonly understood to mean the destruction of the world, it conveys much more than that. An apocalypse is a revelation from God; it is a vision of a timeless reality. It is the past, the present, and the future. Jesus’ friends saw the temple as the end-all-be-all of faithful living, and he quickly brushed it aside to say that even bricks and mortar will fall away. Don’t put your faith in the buildings and in the structure but in the Lord who reigns forever.

But then Jesus takes the time to warn his friends about the coming days, things that we are still experiencing even now. Watch out for the deceivers who claim to know when the end of the world is coming, beware of the preacher who proclaims words in Jesus name that don’t match what Jesus said, keep guard when you encounter the Christian as sales-rep and instead look for the Christian as servant.

Jesus’ words are tough to swallow in our comfortable contemporary condition. We would rather hear about the miracles or the ethical teachings of Jesus. But today we hear about the devastation, the destruction, and the death that will come before the end. When you look out at the world and it looks like the very fabric of life is unraveling, the end is still to come. When you feel lost and alone deep in your soul, unsure of your future and welfare, the end is still to come. When you lose a loved one to death, and you feel like you can’t go on, the end is still to come.

Only a Messiah like ours would dare to proclaim the end as the beginning, the fear as the new birth.

Francine Christophe is an 83-year-old French writer and poet who survived the Holocaust. She was recently interviewed for a documentary about what it means to be human and this is what she said:

“My name is Francine Christophe. I was born on August 18th, 1933. 1933 was the year when Hitler took power… When I was 11 years old in the Bergen-Belsen camp, an amazing thing happened. Let me remind you, as the children of prisoners of war, we were privileged. We were permitted to bring something from France. A little bag, with two or three small items. One woman brought chocolate, another some sugar, a third, a handful of rice. My mom had packed two little pieces of chocolate. She said to me, “We’ll keep this for a day when I see you’ve collapsed completely, and really need help. I’ll give you this chocolate, and you’ll feel better.

“One of the women imprisoned with us was pregnant. You couldn’t tell, she was so skinny… But the day came, and she went into labor. She went to the camp hospital with my mom, the barracks chief. Before they left, my mom said, “Remember that chocolate I was saving for you?” “Yes, Mama.” “How do you feel?” “Fine, Mama. I’ll be okay.” “Well, then, if it’s alright with you, I’d like to bring your chocolate to this lady, our friend Helene. Giving birth here will be hard. She may die. If I give her the chocolate, it may help her.” “Yes, Mama. Go ahead.”

“Helene gave birth to the baby. A tiny, little, feeble thing. She ate the chocolate. She did not die. She came back to the barracks. The baby never cried. Never! She didn’t even wail. 6 months later, the camp was liberated. They unwrapped the baby’s rags, and the baby screamed. That was when she was born. We took her back to France. A puny little thing, for 6 months.

“A few years ago, my daughter asked me, “Mama, if you deportees had had psychologists or psychiatrists when you returned, maybe if would have been easier for you.” I replied, “Undoubtedly, but we didn’t have them. No one thought of mental illness. But you gave me a good idea. We’ll have a lecture on that topic.” I organized a lecture on the theme: “If the survivors of concentration camps had had counseling in 1945, what would have happened?”

“The lecture drew a crowd. Elderly survivors, historians, and many psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists… Very interesting. Many ideas emerged. It was excellent. Then, a woman took the podium and said, “I live in Marseille, where I am a psychiatrist. Before I deliver my talk, I have something for Francine Christophe.” In other words, me. She reached into her pocket, and pulled out a piece of chocolate. She gave it to me and she said, “I am the baby.”

I can’t imagine the fear of being pregnant while in one of the concentration camps. New birth and new life is supposed to be filled with such hope and promise, but to be pregnant in one of the camps was basically a death sentence.

Francine Christophe’s story is a powerful reminder of the power of new life in the midst of chaos and calamity. We see the truth and depth of Jesus’ words, “the end is not yet.

Today, faithfulness and religious observance is either a fanatical or apathetic endeavor. Turn on the news and you will quickly hear about the destructive powers of ISIS, the greed of the Church, or the failure of Christian politicians. The world quickly identifies the people who claim to speak on behalf of Jesus who then rapidly lead disciples away from the truth. They care more about the color of Starbucks coffee cups than they do about children going hungry. They preach intolerance instead of love, they emphasize death over resurrection, and they support destruction above new life.

On the other side, countless churches contain only the blandness of discipleship. Week after week the pews are filled with less and less people as the sermons are filled with more and more trite clichés about living a better life. Cultural Christians might take the time to attend worship and offer up a few dollars and change when the plate comes around but their once deeply rooted faithfulness has been replaced with apathy for all things religious. They have a bible displayed at their homes but it is covered in dust, they go to church simply because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and they only pray when they don’t know what else to do.

Against the fanatical religious leaders of today, Jesus warns us to “beware that no one leads us astray.” Hold fast to the love that has been revealed to you in scripture and in the church, remember who you are and whose you are.

            And against the apathetic churches of today, Jesus announces an electrifying message: the end is not yet!

This kind of scripture might terrify us to the core; we might see the world falling apart and immediately identify what we witness with what Jesus warned his disciples about. From our comfortable vantage point, these verses are more horrifying than hopeful. But for those for whom the present is a terrifying reality, it is a truly hopeful word.

For a pregnant woman in the middle of a concentration camp, “this is not the end” rings true in a young woman with a gift of chocolate.

For a grieving family preparing to gather for a funeral, “this is not the end” takes on a whole new meaning when they hear about the glory of the promised resurrection.

For a city in France that is still mourning the loss of so many innocent lives, “this is not the end” becomes powerful through the global community responding in love and prayer.

For a church that sees fewer and fewer people in the pews each week, “this is not the end” resonates in the commitment to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.

No matter what you are going through in your life right now, hear Jesus’ hopeful words and know that they are meant for you, “this is not the end.” Amen.

 

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Devotional – Daniel 12.3

Devotional:

Daniel 12.3

Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

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Jesus Christ Superstar is one of my favorite musicals. The first time I watched it in high school, I couldn’t get the tune to “What’s the Buzz?” out of my head for weeks. When I was in college I wrote a research paper about the modern imagery of the tank coming down the hill to chase Judas in the wake of his impending guilt/doom. And when I was in seminary I got a lot of my friends to sit down and watch the movie together (many of them did not like the film as much as I do, but I belted out the lyrics anyway).

The musical is unique in its willingness to emphasize the emotions of Jesus and Judas in the days leading up to the crucifixion. Through the melodies and lyrics, the viewer catches a glimpse of the inner turmoil between both men and their choices. The humanity of Jesus shines through in a way that is both powerful and important for modern Christians to remember.

Yet, even with the powerful relationship of Jesus and Judas at the forefront, there is a scene with the rest of the disciples that has always haunted me.

The disciples are gathering in a field for the last supper before entering the Garden of Gethsemane when they begin to sing together: “Look at all my trials and tribulations, sinking in a gentle pool of wine. Don’t disturb me now, I can see the answers; ‘till this evening is this morning, life is fine. Always hoped that I’d be an apostle. Knew that I would make it if I tried. Then when we retire, we can write the Gospels, So they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died.”

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What do we want our legacy to be when we die?

In the quasi-historical musical version of the events leading to Jesus’ death and crucifixion, the disciples want to write down what they have seen and heard so that people will still talk about them after they die. In my work as a pastor I often encounter people nearing the end of life who wrestle with the question of their legacy and what they will leave behind.

We can leave our money to a particular institution and have our name forever etched into a piece of brass. We can write a memoir containing some of the powerful moments from our lives with the hope that someone will read it in the future. But the writer of Daniel tells us that if we can lead others to righteousness, we will shine like the stars forever and ever.

This week, let us take time to reflect on what we would like to leave for the future generations. How do we want people to talk about us when we’ve died? And let us look for the ways in which we can lead many to the ways of righteousness and shine like the stars forever and ever.

Beware of the Church

Mark 12.38-44

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

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The story of the Widow’s gift of the two small copper coins is a favorite among pastors for their stewardship sermons. All of the perfect details are there to entice, and guilt, a congregation into giving more money as they follow the example of the widow. It does not matter how much you make, but what you do with what you make! Pastors will be clear about thanking the rich for making their offering, but they will emphasize how even the poor have money to give.

But the story is much more complicated than that.

Jesus was teaching in the temple when he warned everyone with ears to hear about the religious elite. “Watch out for those scribes and priests. You know the ones who like to walk around in long robes and get all the respect in the marketplaces? You know those ministers and preachers who love to get the seats of honor at banquets? They are the type of people who prey on the widows and for the sake of appearance will fill their prayers with big and long words. They are not praying out of faithfulness but out of expectation and perception. Watch out for them.”

Then he immediately gathered around the treasury and watched as people filed in line to drop off their donations. Many rich people lined up, proud of the donation they were about to make publicly, but then a poor widow came up and put in two small copper coins, coins that amounted to a penny. Jesus pulled the disciples close and said, “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had: her whole life.”

Is the widow an example of profound faith? Of course she is. She embodies the call to witness to God’s faithfulness by returning her gifts to the Lord, recognizing that the Lord will truly provide. She sacrifices deeply and stands as a worthy saint to be modeled after.

But does Jesus point her out to the disciples because of her worthy example of sacrifice, or does he point her out as a tragic example of how religious institutions can fail the people they are supposed to protect?

St. Mary’s Cathedral is a beautiful church in San Francisco that stands as a beacon of beauty and power to the people of the local community. For years its steeple has cut across the horizon as a worthy witness to God’s power. It is the kind of church that is filled with wealthy and put together people who want to hear about God’s love and grace. The parking lot is filled with expensive cars Sunday after Sunday. And they rarely worry about the future of the church because they believe God has a plan for them.

The church is also known for its beautiful and gothic architecture. The alcoves have been carved with deliberate care and focus and you can’t help but marvel when you see the structure. However, the beautiful alcoves create a problem for the church because homeless men, women, and children like to sleep in them to stay out of the rain. For some time the church attempted to turn a blind eye to the homeless who would gather on the property every night, but it got to the point where the lingering smell was so strong on Sunday mornings that the leaders of the church were worried about losing some of their strongest financial givers.

The church decided to install a sprinkler system in the ceilings of the three major alcoves in order to deter the homeless population from staying in them. Every night, from the time the Sun goes down until the early morning, the sprinklers will turn on for 75 seconds every 30 minutes for the pure and simple purpose of removing the people from where they gather. This church, in a state suffering from a tremendous drought, believed that installing the sprinkler system was the right thing to do.

Is that church an example of faithfulness? Or is it a tragic example of how the church has failed the people its supposed to protect?

Can you imagine how strange it would be to hear about this story from the gospel of Mark on a Sunday when the preacher asks for you to give more? I wrestle with how difficult it is to encourage generosity, particularly from those who are already sacrificing so much to the church. To be perfectly frank, the poor and vulnerable are often the strongest givers to the church and if the church fails to be good stewards of their gift, then we are failing our purpose.

Throughout the bible, both the Old and New Testaments, most of God’s anger is kindled against people who preserve their own wealth and power at the expense of the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor. God commands the Israelites to not pick up the crops they drop in the fields so that the sojourner has something to eat. Just about every prophet addresses how the wealthy leaders neglected their responsibility to the poor and underprivileged. Even in the gospels, Jesus specifically references money and the care of it in regard to the last, least, and lost, more than almost any other ethical claim.

What we do with our money is incredibly important, particularly because we are supposed to use our blessings to bless others.

The church can only be a faithful place for the giving of gifts when we heed Jesus’ call to care for the outcast. If we were the kind of church that installed a sprinkler system to remove homeless people from sleeping under our bell tower, then we would have no right to ask for people to give generously because we would have failed to be the church.

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The church has little use for hypocrites; the world already has enough. For far too long we have missed the value of this story from scripture and have perpetuated a system whereby the pretentious and powerful show off their status only to draw more attention to themselves at the expense of the less fortunate.

I know it sounds strange to hear someone, particularly a pastor who wears a long robe, talk about hypocrisy in the church, when I am standing in this high pulpit for everyone to see. I know that it sounds strange to hear a sermon entitled “Beware of the Church,” while you are sitting in a church. But if we aren’t willing to be generous for the sake of God and others (more than ourselves), then we have no business calling ourselves “the church” in the first place.

There was once another church in the midst of a stewardship drive and the finance committee could not stop arguing. They gathered in one of the Sunday school rooms and bickered back and forth about who they could hit up for more money this year. They debated about how much money they would need to bring in in order to buy new brass flower holders next to the altar. They argued about whether the pastor should know who gave what and how much.

The meeting got to such a boiling point that they never came to any conclusions about what to do, and the argument spilled into the parking lot as they prepared to leave. However, sitting on the front steps of the church was a homeless man holding out a cup for donations. He had been there for most of the afternoon, hopeful for any gift, and he could not help from overhearing the church folk arguing in the parking lot.

After some time had passed he stood up from the steps, walked over to one of the older women, grabbed her by the hand, dumped the few dollars and spare change he had received and said, “You clearly need this more than I do.”

In the story from scripture, the widow’s gift is great because of her sacrifice. She is worthy of our attention and focus, but her sacrifice would not have been as much of a struggle if the wealthy and religious elite had done what they could to comfort the afflicted. The whole religious system had become perverted during the time of Jesus. It did not protect the widows, the poor, and the vulnerable. Instead, it lived off of them.

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Giving money and sacrificing to the church is a good and righteous thing to do, but only when the church uses the gifts as Jesus commands us. Feeding the hungry and providing clothing to the poor is an important thing to do, but we have to see that not as just a program or opportunity, but see it as the very life that flows from our worship.

This church is not perfect. After all, it’s filled with broken people like you and me. But we strive for transparency in our finances and a commitment to serving those in need. We believe in the power of the blessings God has given us to bless others. We believe that God can use us to change this community and the world.

Because the truth is, we can’t take our money with us to heaven. But we can use it here and now to make people feel a little bit of heaven on earth. Amen.