Devotional – Psalm 32.5

Devotional:

Psalm 32.5

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

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There is a shop in Alexandria, VA called “The Variety Store” that truly contains a variety of items. Some of my earliest memories are of walking up and down all the aisles with my mother struggling to take in all the strange things I was seeing. There was an aisle full of ribbons, an aisle of ceramic dinnerware, an aisle of candy, and much more. It was a treat to witness the enormity of “The Variety Store” as a child, though it feels a lot smaller now than it did then.

Once, when my mother brought me into the store for some light shopping, I made my way to the toy aisle and just stood in awe of everything. And, as was my custom, I picked up a yellow smiley-face bouncy ball and bounced it all around the store with my her while she collected her items for purchase. We went through all the necessary aisles, my mother waited in line to pay for everything she found, and then we got in the car to go home. All in all, it was a relatively uneventful journey to the store until I put my hand into my pocket and discovered the bouncy ball. I can remember my entire disposition changing in an instant when I realized that I (accidentally) stole the yellow smiley-face bouncy ball.

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For the next few minutes, which felt like hours, it burned a whole in my pocket as I walked around my house. Were the police on their way to arrest me for shoplifting? How severely was my Mother going to punish me for stealing a plastic ball that cost a quarter? The fear I experienced was palpable and when I finally mustered up the courage to confess my transgressions to my mother I’m sure that I was in tears.

But the strangest thing happened: As I explained my predicament, and I confessed my wrongdoing, the fear and terror faded away. My mother’s calm demeanor and response comforted me as she forgave me for what happened. Even when we returned to the store and I handed the smiley-face bouncy ball back over to the cashier I experienced forgiveness in a way that I would never forget.

When we can muster up the courage to confront and acknowledge our sins, it relieves us from the burden that comes with the weight of sin. When we have those opportunities to express our shortcomings to one another and to God it allows us to start moving in the right direction in discipleship. This week, let us take time to properly and faithfully acknowledge our sins to God, let us repent our transgressions, and let us rejoice in the forgiveness of our sins.

Unity in the UMC

Psalm 133

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

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I love meeting people in our community and introducing myself as a pastor for the United Methodist Church. I love doing this because I never know what people will say in return.

“Oh, you must be that pastor who encouraged his church to start wearing hardhats to worship because God has a knack for tearing down walls…”

“No, you’re thinking of Clayton Payne at Cherryvale UMC.”

“Oh, you must be the pastor who loves shouting things like ‘Mercy!’ and ‘Praise the Lord!’ in the pulpit”

“No, you’re thinking of Bryson Smith at St. Paul’s UMC

“Oh, you must be the pastor who is forever mentioning apple butter and its many uses and applications.”

“No, you’re thinking of Sarah Locke at Christ UMC.”

“Oh, you must be the pastor who is absolutely obsessed with the Washington Redskins and even had the office painted burgundy and gold.”

“No, you’re thinking of Bob Sharp from Marquis Memorial UMC. Though I wish my office looked like his.”

“Oh, you must be the pastor who loves using objects in sermons, like handing out mirrors for people to remember the need to shine Jesus’ light.”

“No, you’re thinking of Janet Knott at Jollivue UMC.”

“Oh, well you don’t look Korean…”

“No, you’re thinking of Won Un at Central UMC.”

“Oh, you must be the pastor everyone raves about with a particular gift for preaching, handsome features, and can get congregations to shout ‘Amen!’ with feeling.”

(Sigh) “No, you’re thinking of John Benson at Augusta Street UMC.

“Oh, well then who are you?”

All of us pastors, and all of our churches are known for a variety of things. We’re known for our community engagement: Fish Fries, Apple Days, and Christmas Tree Sales. We’re known for the ways that our pastors like to preach and pray. We are known for a variety of things. We are known for how different we are from one another.

But the one thing I wish all people in Staunton knew about the United Methodist Church is that we love and worship the living God.

 

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!

The psalmist is right. We all know, on some level, the beauty of a community in unity. When we are working in one accord, when we harmonize with one another, it is very good and pleasant. But then we grimace at the way the psalmist talks about the beauty of unity. Can you imagine what would happen if I pulled John Benson up to the front of the sanctuary and poured extra virgin olive oil all over his head? And what is it about heavy dew that it supposed to elevate the blessing of unity?

Well, in the world of the psalmist, oil and dew were signs of God’s blessing. Like manna in the wilderness and the anointing of the prophets, these images speak to something greater at work than mere mortals. Yet, we are so removed from the time of the psalmist that these images no longer carry the weight they once did. Perhaps we need a new way of imagining the beauty of unity in community.

About a year ago, we started putting plans together for a community wide Trunk-or-Treat. Many of our churches had participated in some sort of Halloween celebration over the last few years, but we began imagining how much of an impact we could have if we worked together.

By the time October came around, all of the pieces were set and we were ready to host the Trunk-or-Treat at Gypsy Hill Park. On the day of the event I arrived super-early with hopes of setting the area up and organizing volunteers. We really had no idea how many people would show up but we were prepared for whatever would happen.

We handed out extra candy to all of the trunks, we set up safe areas for children to wander around, and we passed out orange vests to volunteers. The whole afternoon honestly felt like a whirlwind as we were trying to get everything together.

At the height of our preparations I noticed a small family off to the side of the parking lot watching us run around. They must’ve been standing there for ten minutes when I finally walked over to introduce myself.

What are you all doing?” the mother asked while keeping her three young boys close.

I said, “We’re calling it a Trunk-or-Treat, it’s a safe way to celebrate Halloween. We’ll be finished setting up in about an hour and we’d love it if you’d come through.” And with that she smiled shyly smiled and left the park.

Hours later, after 3,500 people came through the Trunk-or-Treat I was exhausted. Some of the last families were making their way through the few trunks that still had candy when I noticed the small family from earlier standing by the edge of the lot. The boys were not wearing costumes, but each of them held a bag full of candy with huge grins across their faces. I started walking over to find out if they had enjoyed themselves, but as I got closer I realized that even though the children were smiling, the mother was crying.

Is everything okay?” I asked.

With a wipe of her sleeve she tried to cover her tears and then said, “My boys have never had a Halloween before. All these people gave them candy and talked to us and asked us questions and they don’t even know us. You invited us to come earlier and you don’t even know us.

I replied, “You’re right. I don’t know you. But God does. And God loves you.

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How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity. It is like a mother all on her own, trying to raise her boys, who is treated with love and dignity by a strange community called the church. It is like the tears of a young mother rolling down her cheeks in recognition that she is not alone, and that she is loved no matter what.

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity. It is like a group of people striving to be Christ’s body for the world through acts of grace and mercy. It is like volunteers giving out candy to countless children for no other reason than the fact that they too are children of God.

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity. It is like a church that no longer treats other churches as competition, but instead sees them as brothers and sisters in Christ. It is like a group of people who believe that need trumps greed, that there can be unity in community, and that by the power of God’s grace the world can be transformed.

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 63.3

Devotional:

Psalm 63.3

Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
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When we saw the article in the newspaper we knew we had to do something; the local Valley Mission was in desperate need of items for young children and babies. They were thankful for all of the food and adult clothing they had received over the years, but what they really needed were diapers, toys for toddlers, and an assortment of other items.

Two couples at St. John’s are currently pregnant and we decided to harness the excited energy the church is feeling about new life and channel it into blessing the children at the mission. For weeks we have talked about the items needed during worship, we have sent out email reminders, and it has been an integral part of our prayers. Yesterday was the conclusion of the “baby shower” drive and we encouraged everyone to bring their items into the social hall and enjoy some food and fellowship as we prayed over the items before dropping them off.

Honestly, when we make pleas like this from the pulpit, they can often fall flat. It’s not that the congregation is unwilling to bless others; it just falls in among the many needs the community faces. When we hear about how much someone needs something on a weekly basis, it is very easy to just assume that someone else will take care of it.

Therefore, when I entered the social hall after worship yesterday and saw the tremendous amount of items donated I was shocked: Diapers were falling off the tables, crayons and coloring books were stacked on the floor, baby clothes were neatly arranged, in addition to all the other things that were brought in. It was a holy moment seeing all of the material that had been generously donated to bless others.

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When we can connect a need with something tangible, (when we see pregnant women in the sanctuary and imagine how badly other people might need baby supplies) it encourages a profound generosity within us. When we can remember how badly we needed those types of items for our children, it encourages us to do more than usual. When we can truly proclaim that God’s steadfast love has changed our lives, it encourages us to use our lips and our lives to change others.

God’s steadfast love is revealed in the people around us. Whenever we need something and a friend steps up to help out, that is God’s love in action. But God’s steadfast love is also revealed in scripture through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. This week, as we continue on the way that leads to life, let us look for ways to act like Jesus so that others may experience God’s steadfast love through us.

The Healing Ministry

Luke 4.14-21

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
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This morning we continue in the season of Lent. Christians throughout the world will use this time to repent of sins and seek renewal in their commitment to follow Jesus Christ. We are exploring and examining Jesus’ life from baptism to resurrection by walking in his footsteps on the way that leads to life. We are using Adam Hamilton’s book The Way to guide our weekly services because it follows Jesus’ life in a way that is important for us to rediscover during Lent. Today we are looking at Jesus’ healing ministry.

 

 

Have you ever listened to a sermon that made you so mad you wanted to kill the preacher?

Jesus, after his baptism by John and his temptations in the wilderness, was filled with the power of the Spirit when he returned to Galilee. He began teaching in synagogues and people were praising him left and right.

When he came home to Nazareth, the place where he grew up, a town of no more than 200 people, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his custom. The place was filled to the brim with people who had known him his entire life, filled with friends who were more like family, filled with people full of expectation.

He stood up to read, and the scroll of Isaiah was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and started to read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus then slowly rolled the scroll back up, and sat down to begin his lesson. Everyone was glued to Jesus. They sat around him and waited to hear what he had to say. When he opened his mouth, he said these words, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The people could not believe their ears. Who in the world does this son of a carpenter think he is? The Messiah? They began to murmur among themselves regarding his audacity and some even wondered if he would perform miracles like they ones that were rumored.

Jesus, however, cut through the air, “I’m sure that some of you want a sign, you want me to do some quick healings. But the truth is, prophets are never accepted in their hometown. Prophets get rejected all the time. I am here for bigger things than Nazareth. Do you remember what happened during the time of Elijah? There was a severe famine across the whole land, but God only sent the prophet to one widow in Sidon. And do you remember what happened during the time of Elisha? There was lepers all across the land, but God only sent the prophet to cleanse Naaman the Syrian.”

When the people in the synagogue heard his words, they were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

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Have you ever listened to a sermon that made you so mad you wanted to kill the preacher?

Jesus spent the majority of his ministry looking for the sick and the oppressed. Rather than showing up at the palaces of the wealthy and powerful, Jesus looked for the people living on the margins of life and made them whole.

Healing, at least the kind of healing Jesus did, was not limited to physical health. He cleansed the sick, and brought sight back to the blind, and helped the lame to walk, but he also did so much more.

He proclaimed that he came to bring good news to the poor. He did not give them money to reverse their socio-economic situations. Instead he pointed out how, in the kingdom of God, the last would be first and the first would be last. He gave meaning to their lives by giving them the time and attention they deserved.

He proclaimed that he came to bring release to the captives. He did not go around encouraging insurrections against prison guards and corrupt politicians. Instead he reunited broken families, forgave wrongdoers, and encouraged the downtrodden; all that were held captive by the power of sin.

He proclaimed that he came to recover the sight of the blind. He did not go around healing individual’s eyes and leave them to their own devices. He healed them and sent them back to the families that had disowned them, to the friends that had abandoned them, and to the towns that had forgotten them.

Jesus’ ministry of healing went beyond biology and into the realm of relationships. He brought newness to people’s lives and then expected the culture to change at the same time. Jesus came to heal the sick of body, and of spirit, all at the same time.

And while Jesus loved healing others, he also loved disrupting contentment. He showed up in his hometown, proclaimed an incredible and powerful message, and then basically told the people that they needed something more than cheap grace. The kinds of people who really needed Jesus’ physical healing were not in the synagogue that day. They were the ones forced out of town, abandoned by friends, and disowned by families. By withholding his physical healing ministry from their gathering, he implicitly told them to start healing their brokenness first.

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Have you ever listened to a sermon that made you so mad you wanted to kill the preacher?

Let me tell you, Jesus is a tough pill to swallow. You think the message in the synagogue that day was bad? Wait till you hear some of the other things Jesus told his followers.

Full disclosure: What I am about to say are not my own words. If, while you’re listening, you start noticing that your fists are clenched, and you start wondering about where the closest cliff might be to throw me off, just remember that these are Jesus’ words and not my own.

“Woe to you that are rich, for you have already received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you that are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” (Luke 6.24-25)

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6.19)

“You have heard that it was said an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone want to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to anyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5.38)

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10.24-25)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate you enemies.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5.43-44)

Feeling angry yet?

Jesus loved disrupting people’s false contentment. He came to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Even today, Jesus loves gathering people in a place like this and then turning our heads around to the people we are supposed to be healing.

What we often fail to realize is that God uses people like us to accomplish his will on earth. We are the instruments of God’s peace to deliver healing to the people around us.

Healing for others and ourselves can only come when we are willing to get uncomfortable in church and start living like Jesus outside the church.

When we catch ourselves mocking the people begging for money on the streets, Jesus wants us to know that if we ignore them, we are ignoring him.

When we catch ourselves serving the master of money and losing sleep over how much we have in our bank accounts, Jesus wants us to know that we are supposed to be using our blessings to bless others.

When we catch ourselves cursing the people fleeing their countries out of fear, Jesus wants us to remember that he once had to abandon his home out of fear.

If we want to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, if we want to be part of his kingdom on earth, then we need to start healing our broken understanding of reality and start healing others.

Have you ever listened to a sermon that made you so mad you wanted to kill the preacher? When it happened to Jesus in Nazareth, he was able to sneak back through the crowd and continue his ministry. But when it happened to Jesus in Jerusalem, they nailed him to a cross. Amen.

Baptism and Temptation

Mark 1.9-13

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.

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This morning is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. Christians throughout the world will use this season to repent of past sins, and seek renewal in their commitment to follow Jesus Christ. Throughout this season we are going to explore and examine Jesus’ life from baptism to resurrection by walking in his footsteps on the way that leads to life. We are using Adam Hamilton’s book The Way to guide our weekly services, because it follows Jesus’ life in a way that is important for us to rediscover during Lent. We begin with Jesus’ baptism and temptation.

 

Before I became your pastor, I helped a number of churches with their ministries. One such church is nestled in the Great Smokey Mountains in the far reaches of western North Carolina. Bryson City United Methodist Church has a beautiful building right in the center of town. They have services every Sunday that are often interrupted by the sound of motorcycles during the summer. They have a dynamic choir that rivals choral groups from cathedrals. And it is within walking distance of one of my favorite restaurants: Bojangles.

I spent an entire summer doing everything I could for the church, but honestly they didn’t have many expectations – so long as I showed up on Sunday morning with something to say and checked in on people during the week, I was encouraged to spend my time exploring the local area by hiking and whitewater rafting. (It was a great summer).

I will never forget some of the characters that would show up on Sunday mornings. There was Ralph, the church organist and music minister, who had a ponytail and always wanted to talk more about fly fishing than the hymns we would use during a worship service. There was Mr. Outlaw who knew his bible better than the seminarian that had shown up for the summer. And there was Ben Bushyhead. I will never forget Ben Bushyhead, not just for his incredible last name, but because after I preached for the first time he walked right up to me and said (rather declaratively), “Son, you using too many of them big seminary words.”

On one particular Sunday morning, toward the end of my time at the church, they were going to have their first baptism in a long time. A member of the church’s grandson was visiting and they all thought it was the right time and the right place to have him baptized. The excitement in the congregation that morning buzzed through the pews. This was what the church was all about: Welcoming visitors with signs of affection and love; returning to the great sacrament of baptism; and seeing young people standing near the altar.

The service built up toward the baptism at the end and the pastor invited the family to join him around the baptismal font. He spoke with conviction about how God had moved across the waters in creation to bring order out of chaos, he reminded us of the Israelites’ journey through the water on their way out of Egypt, and he even compared this sacrament to the baptism that John shared with his cousin Jesus at the Jordan River.

It was a holy moment seeing the congregation preparing for the baptism and a few of the older members were doing their best to cover up the tears that were slowly falling down their faces.

The pastor then motioned for the baby. He held the young boy with one hand, took of the top off the font with the other, and his eyes went wide. The beautifully and intricately carved baptismal font was empty; there was no water for the baptism.

The pastor looked up from the font and we locked eyes in the middle of the sanctuary. Without being told what needed to be done, I jumped up from my spot and ran to the kitchen. I frantically searched for any vessel that could hold water and settled on an old and chipped coffee mug. Using the sink, I filled the cup to the brim and then ran back to the sanctuary spilling a fair amount of water on the way.

While I stood in front of the congregation, I tried to make it look as liturgically appropriate as possible as I poured the water into the font, and the baptism went on as planned.

Bryson City UMC

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The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ. John was preaching and proclaiming in the wilderness when Jesus arrived to be baptized. This important and sacred event revealed the voice of the Lord identifying Jesus as the Beloved, while also setting in motion Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Jesus, as the Son of God, did not need to be baptized to be cleansed from his sins, but in going down to the water with the masses, he demonstrated his willingness to identify with sinful people. Jesus believed in doing ministry with others, rather than for others. In this scene we see God, in Christ, starting to bridge the great chasm between the earthly and the divine to inaugurate a new reality.

Yet, just as the baptismal scene comes to its conclusion, the Spirit of the Lord drives Jesus out to the wilderness where Satan tempted him for forty days.

During this time Jesus fasted from food and spent most of his time in prayer, though Satan was not inclined to leave him alone. He tempted Jesus with bread, with praise, and power. And Jesus remained steadfast; he resisted the temptations, and came out on the other side of the forty days strengthened and ready to begin his public ministry.

Again, in the temptations, we see Jesus’ willingness to identify with sinful people. All of us have moments where we wrestle with the devil.

We might feel helpless to resist the call of abundant and unhealthy foods. While countless people die of starvation everyday, few of us actively work to end hunger in the world.

We might feel helpless to the temptation of empty relationships and abusive power dynamics. We settle for the easy route so long as it benefits us completely, and few of us live selflessly instead of selfishly.

We might feel helpless to resist the urge to spend money on lottery tickets, or we cheat on our taxes, or we pretend to be something we’re not in order to further our quest for financial gain.

All of us are tempted one way or another. But chief among our temptations, is the temptation to forget what it means to be baptized.

In the small church in the Great Smokey Mountains, they had lost sight of the value of baptism; it had been so long since anyone was baptized that the font was empty and held no water! When we let the wells of baptism run dry in our churches and in our souls, we forget who we are and whose we are. When the identity we receive in baptism is forgotten, we quickly fall prey to the devil’s many temptations.

Baptism is a defining act. Through the sacrament of baptism God claims us, we are anointed with the Spirit, and we are set aside for God’s purposes. During baptisms in worship, the entire congregation makes a public commitment and covenant to raise the baptized person in the faith and become a new family. In baptism we receive the power of God’s Spirit to resist temptations through unending grace.

But when we forget who we are, when we forget how far God was willing to go for our sakes, our baptismal identity fades from our minds and is replaced with insatiable desires and temptations.

On Wednesday, many of us were reminded of our baptismal identities while ashes in the sign of the cross were marked on our foreheads. Wherever we went on Wednesday we were met with strange looks regarding the smudges on our skin, and whenever we glanced at our appearance in the mirror, we came face to face with our baptismal identities. But if you take a quick glance around the congregation, you will notice that all of the ashes have faded away.

Like empty baptismal fonts, and clear foreheads, we can fall to the temptation of forgetting who we really are.

In a few minutes all of us will be invited to remember our baptisms. We will use similar words just like the ones that have been used for centuries, we will pray over the water, and we will ask God to give us the strength to remember who we are each and every day. Whether we can vividly remember the moment we felt the water on our skin long ago, or it was done to us while we were babies, we will take time to give thanks for the people who surrounded us in those moments. We will give thanks for the congregations that promised to raise us in the faith, and do the same for others.

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But just in case this baptismal remembrance is not enough, we are going to take it one step further. After I take water and mark your forehead with the sign of the cross, you will receive a little plastic card with these words: “Lord, as I was my hands, I remember my baptism. Cleanse me by your grace. Fill me with your Spirit. Renew my soul. Amen.” Our challenge is to take these cards and place them near a sink in our homes. That way, whenever we go to wash our hands we can offer this prayer to God and remember who we are. That way, the baptismal font of our souls will never run dry. That way, we can resist the temptation to forget our baptisms.

Remember your baptism and resist temptation. Remember your baptism and receive strength. Remember your baptism and be thankful. Amen.

Return to the Lord – Ash Wednesday Homily

Joel 2.12-17

Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the people, ‘Where is their God?’”

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While I was growing up, I remember being jealous off all the Christians with ashes on their foreheads every year. I grew up in a church that did not celebrate Ash Wednesday and so it always came as sort of a shock when I would get to school on a Wednesday morning and a whole bunch of people were walking around with smudges on their skin. Part of my jealously stemmed from the fact that they were excused from being on time in the morning and got to miss part of a class. But the depth of my envy came from the fact that they stood out for what they believed.

Of course, at the time, I had no idea what the crosses stood for or why they used ashes, I just thought they looked cool. I can vividly recall the feeling of spiritual inadequacy I experienced because I felt like, even though I went to church every week, I would never compare with the Ash Wednesday Christians. For years I witnessed their piety and was jealous.

When I finally got to an age and a church that celebrated Ash Wednesday, and I sat down in front of a pastor like all of you are doing right now, I was shocked by the words I heard: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

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For centuries Christians like you and I have gathered to mark the beginning of Lent with this solemn and holy service. Lent is a season set apart for renewal and repentance. Lent is a time for us to confront our brokenness. Lent is a time to give thanks for our blessings and stop taking them for granted.

These ashes convey our willingness to confront mortality. We hear, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” as a reminder that the bell will toll for us all. This moment is a public witness to our need to return to the Lord.

The prophet Joel describes our need for repentance and renewal through the voice of the Lord: “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. Return to me, for I am gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

We know not when our days will end, and because of this we need to embrace each and every day for the gift that it is. I’m not saying we should spend the next 40 days contemplating death every single moment, but instead this season should be a time filled with gratitude for all of our blessings.

Ashes are a reminder for all of us, young and old alike, that life is precious. Because when we hear the words, and when we feel ashes crossed against our foreheads, we confront our limited time on earth. These ashes should prevent us from moving through each day without reflection, they should caution us against rehashing the old arguments and frustrations, they should shock us into giving thanks right here and right now.

God encourages us to use this season, a time that begins right now, as an opportunity to return to the Lord with our hearts, with outwards signs like fasting, praying, and reading. Take this time and embrace the gift that it is by doing things like reconcile with people that you have been arguing with, open up your bibles and discover the richness of God’s Word, and resist the temptation to believe that you are invincible.

I’ve been a pastor long enough now to have placed ashes on individual’s foreheads and then eventually place dirt on their coffins as they are lowered into the ground. I have stood in this sanctuary and made the sign of the cross with ashes on people who have returned to the dust from whence they came. So take this sign, take these ashes, and make good with the life you’ve been given. Stop taking your blessings for granted. Love one another. Give thanks for what you have. And return to the Lord. Amen.

 

Devotional – Matthew 6.1

Devotional

Matthew 6.1

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
Weekly Devotional Image

When I was in seminary we called the season of Lent, “The Spiritual Olympics.” For those of us enrolled in higher theological education, we loved competing with our peers regarding our public piety during a season of fasting. Whereas many Christians rightly use the season of Lent to return to God’s way by confronting their finitude, we used the season to show off how holy we thought we were.

It was not uncommon to hear subtle brags throughout the hallways of our esteemed institution: “This year I’m going to give up sweets…” “Sweets? That’s easy! I’m going to give up meat in order to honor the glory of God’s creation…” “Meat? Give me a real challenge! I’m giving up television so that my focus can remain of the Word of God…” And I was there in the thick of it, offering up my own sacrifices to demonstrate my piety for anyone with eyes to see, and ears to hear.

What made the Lenten season so ridiculous was the fact that everyone knew what everyone else was giving up because it became the forefront of our conversations. In those moments of “Spiritual Olympics” we wanted everyone to know how pious we thought we were, and we had lost contact with Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” It was frightening how easy it was for us to turn the gospel around to be more about our own selfishness than the good news of Jesus Christ.

Beware

Resisting temptation is a powerful practice during the season of Lent. When we take the time and energy away from bad habits and give that time back to God, it gives glory to the Lord. But if we take this season as an opportunity to flaunt our piety, it bears no fruit.

This Lent let us challenge ourselves to engage in acts of piety. Perhaps we know of something in our lives that we need to give up this season, a distraction away from recognizing God’s grace in our midst. Maybe we know of a practice that we need to add into our daily rhythms like prayer or bible study. But instead of sharing what we are giving up, or adding, with everyone around us, instead of making this vulnerable season in the life of the church into “Spiritual Olympics,” let us keep our piety to ourselves.

If we can keep our piety in check, which is to say if we can be pious for God’s sake and not our own, we will begin walking down the path that Jesus’ prepared for us.