On Reading Sermons Online

I preach from a manuscript in the pulpit every Sunday. During the week I carefully craft the words that will be proclaimed and I humbly pray that the Lord will show up through, and even in spite of, my sermons. Personally, preaching from a manuscript allows me to articulate how I believe the Lord continues to speak through scripture without going off on tangents in the middle of the proclamation. Because I use manuscripts, I have a copy of every sermon I’ve ever preached from the first one as a teenager at Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria, VA to the one I preached at St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA last Sunday.

By my cursory calculations I have preached over 200 times including Sunday sermons, special occasions, funerals, and weddings. Each of these sermons contain, on average, 2,000 words, which added together, comes to about 400,000 words on God’s holy Word. With the exception of funerals, all of these sermons are available to read online at any time via www.ThinkandLetThink.com

And the sad thing is, more people read my sermons online than come to worship on Sundays.

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I spent some time today going over the data points and statistics for the blog and I realized that on any given day nearly twice as many people read my sermon from Sunday than were in attendance in worship. Moreover, if the number of people who read the blog every week attended church on Sunday, I would be leading one of the larger churches in the entire Virginia Conference of the UMC.

I want to be clear that I am humbled by this kind of readership and I hope what I have posted has been fruitful for the people who view this blog. But I also want to be clear about another thing: reading a sermon online is not a substitute for gathering in worship.

Throughout the last century, the American Protestant Church has elevated the role of the sermon to the highest of worship elements. Just look at any bulletin on Sunday morning and the whole service usually builds up to the proclamation, and then people are sent home. More than prayers, and hymns, and God forbid the Eucharist, the sermon has come to define what it means to worship.

On one hand, sermons are important. They are the moment in worship whereby the Word of the Lord is proclaimed in a new and exciting way and becomes incarnate in the way that we live out what we hear. But the sermon is unintelligible without the rest of the service. The prayers and the hymns and the silences are what lend light to the words striving to resonate with God’s Word. What we preachers offer from the pulpit mean little, if not nothing, without the other parts of the worship experience.

Additionally, the sermon should not be the pinnacle of worship, but instead one of the integral parts that make the totality of worship life giving and fruitful. To equate all of worship with a sermon prevents the Holy Spirit from moving among the people in such a way that they can respond to God’s great word. To equate all of worship with a sermon implies that our words about God are more important than God’s Word about us. To equate all of worship with a sermon makes the preacher the focus of the worship rather than almighty God.

I am grateful that thousands of people have read this blog over the last few years. I am hopeful that the words found here have given life and meaning to the people who read them. But more than that, I hope these words have inspired people to gather with other Christians at least once a week. What we do, and who we are, is made incarnational in the practice of worship, not by reading sermons online.

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Yes!

Psalm 16

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight. Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the pit. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Romans 12.2

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

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Years ago there was a young man, fresh out of seminary, ready to start serving at his first appointment. He had taken all of the right classes, learned from gifted professors, and even volunteered in the local community. After he finished packing his bags, he loaded up the car and made his way to John Wesley UMC. The novice pastor was anxious and excited about what the church would be like, so before he unpacked any of his belongings he drove out to the church property.

He found the location on the map, went to the listed address, but there was no church to be found. So he turned around and drove to the spot once again only to discover that the church was blocked by the oldest and most decrepit looking tree he had ever seen. The roots were stretching all over the property and the leaves blocked the building and the marquee from being visible on the road.

He couldn’t believe it! No wonder he had heard that church attendance had decreased over the last few years! The young pastor was convinced that if only people could see the church from the road, it would grow and grow and grow.

So, before unpacking any of his important belongings, before even working on his first sermon, the young pastor unpacked his chainsaw and went back to the church. It took him most of the afternoon, but by the time he was finished the tree was gone, the sign and church were visible from the road, and he just knew that the church pews would be filled to the brim on Sunday.

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

You see, the church was called John Wesley UMC for a reason: nearly two hundred years earlier a man named John Wesley had planted that tree while he was in the community. The gathered people decided to build a church right where the tree had been planted in honor of the man who planted the seeds that started our church, and that young pastor had chopped it down.

Apart

I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved,” says the Psalmist. What kind of faith would we have to have to be able to faithfully affirm these words? “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places… You show me the path of life.” Who do you imagine speaking when you hear these words? Perhaps you picture one the great prophets from the Old Testament like Elijah, and Isaiah, and Jeremiah speaking about their faith, or maybe you immediately connect these words with a saint from your life, or perhaps you recall one of the wonderful pastors who served this church in the past.

I want to be able to faithfully proclaim these words, I want my life to reflect the kind of trust and assurance present in the psalm, I want to say “yes” to God over and over, but the problem is, I usually say “no.”

That, in a sense, is the great story of scripture. God offers us a path, he offers us a way, he offers us a “yes” and we respond by saying “no.” I have given you everything you will ever need here in the Garden of Eden; your lives will be perfect forever so long as you don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. “No thanks God, we know what we’re doing and we’d rather try the fruit.”

I will deliver you out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt and bring you to the Promised Land. Follow my servant Moses, adhere to my commands, and everything will be wonderful. “No thanks God, we’d rather go back to Egypt, at least we had food there.”

I will make of you a great nation, you will grow in prosperity, but you must not worship any other gods instead of me. Listen to the prophets, give heed to my Word, and you will have life. “No thanks God, it’s easier to worship a golden calf and ask for prosperity than it is to live a life according to your law.”

Take up your cross and follow me, give of yourself to those who are suffering, pray for your enemies, worship the Lord, believe in the Good News. “No thanks Jesus, we’d rather hang you on a cross than start living our lives for other people.”

In scripture, whenever people stubbornly say “no” to the will of God, God declares, “Yes.” Like a parent with a child, it happens over and over. And this paradoxical relationship between God and God’s people bleeds out from scripture into our lives even today. God starts calling us to live a new kind of life through the words of a friend, through a profound experience, and maybe even through a sermon and we think “No thanks Lord, I know better.”

God calls us to sacrifice our time and money, to gather regularly for worship and be transformed, to believe in the power of grace and mercy, and we say, “No thanks God. I’ve got better things to do.”

God says to a young pastor, “I am calling you to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Preach the Good News. Serve the last, least, and lost. Plant seeds of faith. Remember the tradition that brought you here.” And he says, “No thanks God. I know what I’m doing, and I’m gonna chop down that tree.”

The truest and most faithful words we can ever pray, are words that we pray every week in church: “Thy will be done.” Those words are at the very heart of what it means to be Christian: submitting ourselves to the will of the Lord. And even though they are the truest and most faithful words we can ever pray, and even though we say them every week, they are the hardest to live by.

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Today marks the beginning of our 4th year together in ministry. And, I have to admit, I didn’t want to come here. I was utterly convinced that I needed to be an associate pastor at a different church right after seminary. I even contacted all the churches in Virginia hiring associates that year and had scheduled interviews. But then the Lord decided this is where I was supposed to be. I knew what I wanted, I knew where I thought I should be, and I was pretty nervous about coming here. Even though I continued to pray, “thy will be done,” I was really saying “my will be done.”

And, I’ve come to find out, that some of you didn’t want me to come here. Members of the staff-parish relations committee wanted a younger pastor to come to St. John’s, but one with experience. They wanted some new and fresh energy, but definitely not someone right out of seminary. And one of you told me that they first time I walked into the church, all you could think was, “he’s a baby.” But God sent me to you. You knew what you wanted, you knew what kind of pastor the church needed, and then I showed up. Even though many of you were praying, “thy will be done,” you were really saying, “my will be done.”

It happens with pastors being appointed to churches, it happens when we start wrestling with a call to a different career, it happens when children enter the picture and new priorities erupt, it happens when someone proposes a new way forward. My will be done versus thy will be done.

In the great battle of “No” and “Yes” in scripture, the final movement came in the cross and the tomb. God’s people continually rebelled against God’s love time and time again, even to the point of delivering God’s son to the cross. But after the three days of silence that followed the crucifixion, God declared the final and triumphant “Yes” in the resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Because of the good news of the resurrection, the final “Yes” to every “No” we’ve ever offered, we are reminded of God’s unwavering faithfulness in every circumstance. Even when we push back against the will of God, the Lord’s love remains. We say that in baptism we have died with Christ and therefore we have already seen the worst. Since we have also been raised with him in his resurrection from the dead, we can live in confidence that God has already saved us from all that might destroy us, even death. Because of the resurrection, because of Easter, we can be people who actually pray those hard and beautiful words, “thy will be done,” and mean it.

Last week I gathered with thousands of other United Methodists from across the Virginia Conference for the Service of Ordering Ministry. For the last three years I have worked on demonstrating my effectiveness in ministry, which culminated in being ordained as a full elder. I made my way up to the front of the arena with my two pastoral mentors and Lindsey with Elijah, I knelt before the bishop and the conference, and I was ordained. While each ordinand knelt they were invited to choose a particular section of scripture to be displayed on the screens for everyone to see. I chose Romans 12.2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Those words were the first we ever shared together in worship 3 years ago, and they have come to define the ministry to which all of us are called. And as I felt the bishop’s hands upon my head, I thought about those words from Romans and I was overwhelmed by the Spirit’s persistent reminder, through YOUR faithfulness, I have seen the path of life. I felt convicted by the deep and profound truth that this is not a one-way relationship whereby I teach you, or I pray for you, or that I share God with you. Thanks be to God that we are in this beautiful and messy thing called church together.

Every week WE gather in this place to be transformed by the renewing of OUR minds. Through OUR worship we have worked to discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

            We are becoming the kind of people who can faithfully say, “the Lord is our chosen portion and our cup.” The communal Christian experiencing here, is about choosing Jesus again and again and again. It is about coming back to the Lord knowing that he will welcome us. It is about hearing God’s triumphant “Yes!” even when we want to say “No!”

And right now, the world wants us to believe that we have every reason to say “No.” Annual Conference is a reminder of the death that is possible in the church, we hear about all the churches closing this year, we learn about the lack of new and younger generations attending church, and we are reminded of the most frightening statistic of all: The average United Methodist invites someone to church once every 38 years.

But that doesn’t have to be our story. Desiring our will to be done is what got the church to this point in the first place. Can you imagine what would happen if we actually lived by the words “thy will be done”?

The time has come for us to declare “yes!” to the will of God. “Yes Lord, we know that through you all things are possible.” “Yes Lord, crucify our hearts so that they might be resurrected to your glory.” “Yes Lord, convict our souls to invite someone we know to experience your love here at St. John’s!” “Yes Lord, remind of our baptisms and of who we really are.” “Yes Lord, fill us with your Spirit till all shall see Christ living in us.” “Yes Lord, give us the grace and strength to take up our crosses and follow you.” “Yes Lord, let thy will be done!” Amen.

Devotional – Galatians 6.2

Devotional:

Galatians 6.2

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

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One of my friends has incurable cancer. He’s in his 30’s, married, has two kids, serves as a pastor, and his cancer will never go away. When he shared the news of his diagnosis, I was speechless; as far as I could tell he was in perfect health and it felt like I was smacked in the face. And then I did something that I’m ashamed of: I avoided him.

The days became weeks, and the weeks became months, and every time I picked up the phone to call him just to check in, I couldn’t muster the courage to dial the number. As a pastor, I spend time in hospitals and rehab centers almost every week with people from the church community who are suffering through cancer, or a major surgery, or depression. But when it came to Jason, I just couldn’t do it.

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Maybe it was my own selfish need to believe that nothing was wrong with him; I wanted to keep the image I had of him in my head, instead of seeing his bald head and weakening body. Or perhaps his cancer hit too close to home and made me fear for my own health. Or maybe his cancer was just another frightening reminder of the fragility of life.

While I was ignoring him, my little sister was doing the opposite. When Jason needed to go for chemotherapy treatments, Laura-Paige volunteered to drive him and sit with him through the whole procedure. She told me that she never felt pressured to talk or console him, because the only thing he really needed was for someone else to be there.

Paul wrote to the church in Galatia and called for them to “bear one another’s burdens.” For by bearing the burdens of the people around us we can fulfill the law of Christ. It took me a long time to finally pick up the phone to call Jason and apologize for my lack of presence during his treatments and I still feel guilty for abandoning him in the midst of his pain. But I give thanks for my little sister and the countless others who bore his burdens during his fight against cancer.

In church we like to pretend that we’ve got everything together in our lives. So long as we can get on the right outfit, sit in the right pew, and offer the rights prayers we can appear however we want toward the people around us. The truth however, is that we are all broken and suffering through something. This week, let us take the time to reach out to just one person in our lives and start bearing their burden. Maybe we can attend an AA meeting with a friend who suffers from alcoholism, or we can sit with a neighbor going through chemotherapy, or maybe we can just ask how we can be present for someone in the midst of their life right now. And in so doing, we will fulfill the law of Christ.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (of Annual Conference)

Every year the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church meets for holy conferencing. This is an event whereby lay and clergy representatives from the entire conference meet to discuss pertinent matters facing the denomination in our particular geographic locality. Additionally, the Conference has a memorial service for clergy and lay representatives who have died in the previous year, we learn about campaigns and initiatives like “Imagine No Malaria”, we celebrate the licensing, commissioning, and ordination of clergy, and we worship together.

Every Annual Conference is filled with moments of holiness in addition to sinfulness. We are a church of broken people; therefore we fall prey to our own desires and forget to pray for God’s will to be done. At times, our “holy conferencing” brings out the best in us and the worst in us. Below are three categories of experiences I had from last weekend. And let’s go backwards…

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The Ugly

After joining together in one voice to proclaim the powerful and dynamic hymn “And Are We Yet Alive” (The traditional first hymn to be used since nearly the beginning of the Methodist movement), we jumped right into the business of Annual Conference: The presentation of the Rules Committee. This makes complete sense of course, we need to re-establish the rules of conference every year before we get to the important stuff, but this year we spent the first 45 minutes of our time as a denomination arguing about the color of our name badges.

Depending on one’s conference relationship, there are areas that are forbidden from being voted upon. For instance: last year I was a provisional elder which meant that I could not vote during the clergy session, or on constitutional amendments. But now that I am “an elder in full connection” I am granted to the right to vote in the clergy session and on constitutional amendments. In order to streamline who can vote on what, different name badge colors were distributed. And this resulted in chaotic responses in the forms of Robert’s Rules of Order. Specific representatives (both lay and clergy) were livid not about their name badge color, but that the conference did not trust them to know what they could and could not vote on. (even though it took ten minutes for the clergy to figure out where they had to sit in order to vote during the clergy session [something we do EVERY year]).

During the name badge debate I was sitting next to a couple that were attending Annual Conference for the very first time. I witnessed them shaking their heads in astonishment and disbelief for most of the 45 minutes and when all was said in done I heard them say, “No wonder people complain about coming to this every year.” What does it say about our church to new people when we can go from a beautiful hymn to an argument about name badge colors in the blink of an eye? What does it say about the future of our denomination when our first priority becomes the color of our name-tags?

Later during the conference a motion was made from the floor to propose a resolution regarding the recent tragedy in Orlando, Florida. The resolution called for all churches in the conference to be in prayer for the victims and their families from the shooting, to pray for the greater LGBTQI community, and to pray for our Muslim brothers and sisters so that they might not be lumped into the violent identity of the shooter. While the majority of the conference voted in favor of the resolution, there were a decisive number of people who vehemently opposed it. We might not think alike about the LGBTQI community or the Muslim community, but the least we can do is pray for them in the midst of such a horrific tragedy. So what does it say about our commitment to loving others the way Jesus commanded while some of us would rather remain silent?

Finally, our conference had the good fortune of hearing the proclaimed Word from Rev. Eun Pa Hong who is the senior pastor of Bupyeong Methodist Church in Incheon, Korea. Rev. Hong is one of the most dynamic leaders in Korean Methodism and under his leadership for the past 35 years his church has grown to include 5,500 people most Sundays. Rev. Hong spoke in his native tongue and was translated into English while he preached. And while I walked around later in the day, I overheard delegates complaining about having to listen to someone speak in Korean. What does it say about our church, when some cannot stand to witness the diversity that makes us who we are? What does it say about our future when we’ve forgotten the most beautiful part of the Pentecost story?

 

The Bad

The church continues to decline: Lack of new professions of faith, lowering numbers of baptisms, and more churches closing. Or to put it the way I heard someone else reflect on it: “Annual Conference is all about death.” The report of the Conference Statistician offers bleak prospects for the future and causes anxiety for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. At the same time we were reminded over and over again about the power of fear, and how is has limited us as a denomination without offering hope for new vitality. The frightening statistic that the average United Methodist invites someone to church once every 38 years was mentioned on more than one occasion without any examples of how this statistic is being combatted.

Moreover, fears about the recent General Conference were made apparent through muffled conversations, uncomfortable responses to the General Conference report, and the apathy toward institutional change. More than ever, Annual Conference focused one what we have to fear, than what we have to be hopeful about; it felt more like crucifixion, and less like resurrection.

 

The Good

There is nothing quite like singing together in one voice with thousands of other United Methodists. As Garrison Keillor has noted, singing is part of our DNA. And so, when at the beginning of Annual Conference, thousands of us joined together with those faithful words: “And are we yet alive, and see each others face? Glory and thanks to Jesus give for his almighty grace!” you can’t help but feel the Spirit’s presence. When we mourned the loss of life over the last year, when we sat in profound silence in memory of the victims in Orlando, when we watched as new pastors were licensed, commissioned, and ordained, we felt the Spirit’s presence. Worship is always part of the “good” of Annual Conference. In worship we remember that God is God and we are not. In sermons and prayers and hymns we hear God saying, “Yes!” even though our hearts say “No.” In worship we let our baggage and preconceived notions start to fall away and we truly become Christ’s body redeemed by his blood.

Additionally, we celebrated the fruits that came from our commitment to “Imagine No Malaria,” we rejoiced in new faith communities that are planting seeds of faith across Virginia, and we recognized the 20th anniversary of the Order of the Deacon. All of these events witnessed to our commitment to serve the needs of others and the ways that we are making God’s kingdom manifest here on earth.

On Thursday night, before Annual Conference officially began, a group of United Methodists gathered for Pub Theology led by the minds behind the podcastCrackers & Grape Juice.” We met for an informal conversation about theology, toxic Christianity, and the future of the denomination. During that gathering a number of young people made it clear that they believe in the future of the United Methodist Church even while some of us remain anxious. In their willingness to articulate how their local churches helped nurture them in the faith, their witness blessed us all. Later we heard from voices largely missed at Annual Conference and all of us were reminded about the strange and beautiful diversity of this thing we call “the church.” As I was leaving, a young man told me (with a smile on his face), “This is what Wesley must have felt like when he gathered with his friends.” It doesn’t get a whole lot better than that.

On Saturday evening I was privileged to join an Ordination class of some of the most gifted pastors and deacons I have ever met. We submitted ourselves to the yoke of a stole over our shoulders and covenanted to serve the church with all of our hearts, souls, and minds. I witnessed countless people rise when names were read before the conference and I was reminded about the great communal effort required in identifying effective clergy. In the ordination service I saw the bright future for our church; not in our bureaucratic commitments to Roberts Rules of Order, not in our debates about nametag colors, not in our frightening statistics, but in the local church where the heart of God is revealed each and every day.

I have hope for the future of the United Methodist Church because the new clergy leaders believe in the power of the gospel to radically transform the world. They recognize that the local church is where disciples are formed (not Annual Conference). They see the bread and the cup of communion as our spiritual food necessary for the journey of faith. They have given their lives over to this strange and wondrous calling and will bear fruit for years to come.

But most of all, I have hope for the church because it does not belong to us. It belongs to God. The more we remember that we serve the risen Lord, the more we learn to pray for God’s will and not our own, the more our church will become what God is calling us to be: the body of Christ.

 

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Devotional – Luke 9.57

Devotional:

Luke 9.57

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

Weekly Devotional Image             It sounds easy. Jesus is walking along the road with his disciples and someone says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” In a sense, this is the same declaration we make each and every Sunday that we gather for worship; we want to follow Jesus wherever he goes. But do we really?

If we assume that Jesus is revealed to us in the sanctuary then it makes sense that we will follow him there. Sunday morning worship is a comfortable arena where we can feel good about our Christian identities; we can sing together from the hymnal, we can pray for the world to be a better place, and we can hear a sermon that makes us laugh and reminds us that God is love. But what about the end of the service? Are we willing to follow Jesus wherever he goes between worship services?

If Jesus walked into a Hillary Clinton rally to demand more honesty from our politicians, would we follow him? If Jesus wandered into a Donald Trump rally to demand an end to racism and bigotry, would we follow him? If Jesus marched against the NRA to boldly request better gun control laws, would we follow him? If Jesus made his way into the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando to spend time with a marginalized community, would we follow him? If Jesus asked us to take up our own cross and follow him to Calvary, would we follow him?

To follow Jesus is a radical thing. It means putting the needs of others before our own. It means seeking out the last, least, and lost in addition to the people who make us comfortable. It means we need to strive for mercy instead of sacrifice, communion instead of correctness, and Kingdom instead of nation. It means following him into the places of life that we would otherwise avoid.

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Many of us have grown comfortable with our Christianity because it does not ask much of us. So long as we can be present for an hour on Sundays, we believe we are covering our spiritual bases. In turn, the church has become another civic organization and no longer the life-giving arena of grace, mercy, and love.

And honestly, this makes sense. Throughout the gospel narratives Jesus’s followers and disciples continued to grow in number until he set his face toward Jerusalem. The closer he came to the cross, the more the people started to fall away. As the expectations and costs increased, the level of commitment dwindled.

At the end, while he was hanging on the cross with only a few faithful disciples remaining, it was a thief who wanted to follow Jesus wherever he went. And Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Following Jesus comes with a cost, but the reward is beyond all measure.

Devotional – Galatians 3.28

Devotional:

Galatians 3.28

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

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Yesterday, while countless Christians were gathering across the country to worship the Lord, reports were coming in about the horrific and tragic attack in Orlando, Florida. While Christians were sitting in the pews with their families listening to sermons about things like love and grace and mercy, families in other places were frantically calling their children hoping they were not at the club the night before. While untold sums of people continue to believe that arming the nation will prevent further attacks and loss of life, Christ speaks from scripture: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

While the nation mourned throughout the day at the news became clearer, flocks of people flew to social media in order to call for prayer. While people stretched for miles in line to donate blood, members of the LGBTQ community were prevented from offering their arms. While media outlets were quick to blame the rise of Islamic terrorism, people changed their profile pictures in solidarity with a battered community. While 50 children of God were murdered for nothing more than their sexual identity and physical location, the UMC still believes that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

While Christian communities wrestled with how to respond to this tragedy, politicians and public figures quickly deleted online comments like “you reap what you sow” implying the victims got what they deserved. While the world watched the most powerful nation in the world fall to its knees in sadness, many Americans have grown numb to the seemingly endless onslaught of gun violence across the land. While emergency responders and police returned home to hug their children, details about the victims were made available to the public.

While we weep and mourn the loss of life, we remember the words from Paul: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female. Or, to take it further, there is no longer gay or straight; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus. As Christians it is our responsibility to be Christ’s hands and feet for the world, we are called to stop seeing events like the one in Orlando as a call to arms, but a firm commitment to peace. There is no greater time than now to start seeing the LGBTQ community as our brothers and sisters.

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From Diapers to Diplomas

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

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Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said that true terror is waking up one day and realizing your High School senior class is running the country. It’s a great quote, and one often used this time of year during graduation speeches. In fact, ten years ago, it was used by one of my friends at the beginning of her address during my graduation from High School: True terror is waking up one day and realizing your High School senior class is running the country.

Time can be terrifying. We, as human beings, are deeply rooted in time and when it feels like its going too fast, it leaves us shaking. It shakes us because we can wake up and wonder where it all went. I feel like I just graduated from High School; I can still remember the uncomfortable polyester graduation gown that created a frightening amount of static electricity. I can still picture the girls wearing too high high heels and attempting to walk across the stage without toppling over, and I can still remember the beginning of the speech and how true those words are.

We change all the time. It’s at the heart of what it means to be human. We’re born, we grow in size and knowledge, we move, we develop, we transform, we graduate from preschool to kindergarten, and then all the sudden we graduate from high school, and then with the blink of an eye our generation is running the country.

Things change, our lives change, our situations change, and when they do, it feels like the earth shakes under our feet.

Upon graduating from preschool we move on to Kindergarten. After a number of years with the same classmates and the familiarity of one school and one program, we have to move on to a new location, with longer hours, with a whole new set of expectations. I can still faintly remember my first day in kindergarten and wondering where to sit, and if anyone was going to sit with me. And the change that takes place for the parents is even more severe!

During the final months of Preschool here at St. John’s, we ask the parents to wait in the parking lot so that the children can get used to walking to their own classroom by themselves. This is one way of preparing them for Kindergarten. And honestly, on that first day, the children bound up and down the hallway without a care in the world, and it is the parents in the parking lot who are undergoing an existential crisis.

I’ve seen tears well up in the eyes of fathers, and mothers nervously pacing back and forth while their children enter into a new realm of being. I imagine they felt like the world was shaking under their feet and they needed something solid to hold on to.

After graduating from high school we go off to college and enter a whole new strange world. We often pack our belongings and start living with a stranger and won’t be home until the first break at Thanksgiving. For the student it is a time of great excitement and opportunity, whereas for the parents it can be downright terrifying. Will they be okay? Will they get enough food to eat? Are they going to be able to make new friends? Who is going to wake them up for class in the morning? Who is going to do their laundry? It shakes the parents to their core to watch their beloved child go from diapers to diploma in a blink of an eye.

Every graduation leads to a time of change and fear; Preschool to Elementary School, High School to College, Singleness to Marriage, Health to Death. We enter these periods of unknown, and that’s what makes us really afraid.

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When these changes occurs, when we graduate from one thing to another, we often respond in one of two ways; they either push us closer to God, or farther away.

A young couple has a baby and once the new domestic rhythm is established they realize they have no idea what it means to raise a child to be a decent human being so they start going to church it hopes of answers and direction. Or a recent graduate enters a university and is invited to a worship service filled with people who genuinely care about her well-being and she discovers who she is and whose she is. Or a recent widower listens while the church proclaims his deceased wife’s promised resurrection during the funeral and it gives him the strength to discover God’s love in church.

But change can also push us away. We convince ourselves that we can raise a child without the help of a larger community, we believe there is no place for the church in our lives while we are in college, or we grow cynical toward the words proclaimed when someone we love dies.

The church is bold to proclaim the words of the psalmist, the enduring truth, that even though the earth should change, even though the mountains shake and the seas tremble, even though kindergarten can be overwhelming (for children and parents), though the unknown of college stands like an undefined horizon, even though people die and we grieve till the end of our days, there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God. This city cannot be moved, because God dwells in the city forever.

God is the solid rock upon which we can stand when the world shakes underneath our feet. When we are filled with sorrow and doubt, God is the source of joy and light. While people push us to and fro with differing opinions, God speaks the truth in love. As we receive our identities in the hurtful comments of friends and foes, God tells us that we are beloved.

There is a great comfort that comes in knowledge that even though our lives will change, God will stay the same. That is the great story of scripture; God remains steadfast even when we fall away. In the wilderness journey of Exodus, while the people chose to worship idols and other gods, the Lord remained with them. After David fell into the clutches of sin, God was with him. After the exile, God called the people back to their homes and back to lives of faithfulness. Even after delivering Jesus Christ to the cross to die, God’s arms remained open to all of God’s children.

God stays the same.

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A few months ago I asked one of our youth who just graduated from high school to share what kind of difference St. John’s has made in her life. Danielle was baptized in this sanctuary, was enrolled in our preschool, and has been in worship nearly every Sunday for 18 years. That kind of commitment to the church shaped her into the remarkably wonderful young woman she is today, and it gives me hope for the role of the church in all of our lives.

This is what she had to say:

“Since I was born, I have been coming to St. John’s UMC. It has always been there for me. Even when I was a small child, and unable to truly comprehend the grace of God, I still had a strong and living faith because of the church. As I grew up, I made many friendships at St. John’s that mean a great deal to me. And honestly, “friendship” doesn’t even do justice to what it has really been like. I grew up with these people, and they took the time to raise me in the faith. Without this church I never would have found God and the power of God’s word. I am blessed because I have a church that loved me the way God calls us to love. Moreover, this church has helped me not only find God, but find myself as well. No matter where I might end up in the future, I will always cherish the memories, family, spiritual growth, and prosperity that I experienced at St. John’s.”

I believe Danielle was able to craft those words because of God working through you. Danielle feels blessed because this church loves her the same way God calls all of us to love: without judgment or assumption, without malice or prejudice. From diapers to diploma, you and the other great saints of this church have nurtured her. You have shown her what it means for God to be our strength and refuge, a very present help in trouble.

When someone from the church died she could have fallen to the temptation of fear and trembling. But you showed up for the funerals, you rejoiced in the promise of salvation, you embodied the hope we have in the Lord who is with us.

When she moved from school to school, while life changed around her each and every day, this place was like the river whose streams mad glad the city of God. Here in this church she learned about the God of creation who brought forth order out of chaos, who called Abraham into a covenanted relationship, who wrestled with Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok river, who delivered the people out of slavery in Egypt, who called prophets and priests to bring the people back, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ and dwelt among us, who died on a cross, who was raised three days later.

Throughout Danielle’s life this church has said every Sunday, “Come, behold the works of the Lord!” Her eyes have been opened to the way God moves in the world, she found her identity as a child of God; she experienced God’s magnificent power and might.

Change can be a terrifying thing. But the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ, is our refuge and strength. Because we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, therefore we will not fear even though our lives change. This church’s work propels a river whose streams make glad the city of God. Through our worship and our work, through our prayers and our presence, through our faith and our fellowship, we remember that God is in the midst of our lives. God will help when a new day dawns. The nation might be in an uproar, kingdoms will totter, but the Lord of hosts is with us.

So come, behold the works of the Lord. God makes wars cease, and peace reign. God makes the weak mighty, and brings down the principalities. God breaks the bonds of slavery, and opens up the doors to freedom. God brings hope to the poor and calls upon the wealthy to serve. God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

Be still and know that God is with us. From diapers to diplomas and even to death, God is with us. Amen.