In Defense Of The Revised Common Lectionary

Crackers & Grape Juice is an interview-driven theological podcast about faith without using stained glass language. My friends Jason Micheli, Teer Hardy, and Morgan Guyton started the podcast over a year ago in order to remain connected to one another while also continuing to explore theology. Near the beginning, I was asked to help with editing specific episodes and quickly became part of the team. Since the inception, Crackers & Grape Juice’s audience has grown tremendously thanks, in part, to interviewees such as David Bentley Hart, Stanley Hauerwas, Will Willimon, Rob Bell, and others. We are committed to producing and providing faithful content with faithful theologians, but we have also added a new podcast to the mix.

Strangely Warmed is a new lectionary-based podcast designed to address the weekly church reading without using stained glass language. The Revised Common Lectionary is a wonderful resource for churches and one that has come to shape the Christian experience over the last few decades. The RCL is a three-year cycle of four readings for each Sunday and special days throughout the liturgical year. There is always a reading from the Old Testament, the Psalms, an Epistle, and a Gospel (with a few exceptions). At the heart of the RCL is a desire to bring churches through the great narrative of scripture without being limited by the subjectivity of the preacher.

However, the Lectionary is something unknown in many churches even if the preacher follows it weekly. Therefore, I have created the following Top Ten List in defense of the Revised Common lectionary for pastors and lay people who are interested in following and subscribing to Strangely Warmed. (You can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, and Spreaker)

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  1. Our Time is NOT God’s Time
    1. Christians, whether they know it or not, follow a different year than the calendar year. We might write February 28th on our checks and important documents, but for us the day is actually defined by being part of the season of Epiphany (until Ash Wednesday when we enter the season of Lent). To follow Jesus Christ implies a willingness to have our expectations (taught to us by the world) uprooted and flipped by the living God. The RCL helps guide us through the Christian year in such a way that our identity first rests with our discipleship, and then everything else secondarily. Moreover, following something like the RCL is a reminder that our time is not the same thing as God’s time. We might feel wearied by the weight of the most recent political development or social event, but the stories of God’s interaction with God’s people transcend time; they are in fact timeless. There is a great comfort that comes when diving into the strange new world of the bible through the RCL because it provides a sense of perspective that Christians regularly need.
  2. Habits/Discipline
    1. As Stanley Hauerwas has said on a number of occasions: What we believe shapes how we behave. Following the RCL informs our beliefs and necessarily shapes our behaviors, choices, and actions. The lectionary is a habit and requires discipline for both pastors and lay people. I will be the first to admit that there are plenlty of stories in the Bible that I would rather not preach, and when a particular event occurs I often know which story from the Bible would be effective to use from the pulpit in which to address the event. However, only picking and choosing the stories that we are familiar with, or the stories we are comfortable with, furthers the sinful idea that we can fit God into a box. Psalm 23 is a beautiful text and brings comfort to many people, but it cannot be the only thing that we Christians proclaim on a weekly basis. We need the Psalm 22s just as much as the Psalm 23s and the RCL provides that disciplined exposure to the canonical narrative of God’s grace.
  3. Limited Imagination
    1. Similarly, following the RCL, whether in preaching or in a bible study, forces us to proclaim scripture we would otherwise ignore. God can, and does, speak through scripture, even if we can’t imagine how upon first glance. And when we limit the passages on Sunday mornings to, say, the Gospels, we are limiting God’s Word being proclaimed in worship. There are definitely weird and strange passages in both the Old and New Testaments, but committing to them (rather than ignoring them) challenges us to have scripturally shaped imaginations. At the heart of the RCL is a commitment to be under the obligation of the text to say what God wants said for God’s church rather than what the preacher want to say about God to God’s church.
  4. Biblical Literacy
    1. We don’t know our bibles like we once did. Period. I could go on and on about the many times I’ve encountered someone who has gone to church for most of his/her life only to not know about the story of the bible. For instance: I was recently asked if Moses was in the New Testament, another person had no idea who Isaiah was, and another shared her utter shock that when we have communion we are living into the last time Jesus gathered with the disciples. All of those interactions came from people who have been going to church longer than I’ve been alive! Now I’m not say that we need to memorize the entirety of scripture, or get lost in the weeds, but the RCL is a tool to help us reclaim our biblical literacy.
  5. The catholic (universal) church
    1. Preaching and reading from the RCL connects us with the church universal. There is something profoundly beautiful about the fact that two churches, from completely different denominations, can read the same scripture on the same Sunday morning. Personally, this connection with the catholic church has been made manifest in a Lectionary Bible Study I participate in at the church I serve where more than half of the people in attendance attend other churches on Sunday morning. Yet, the same scriptures we read during the week are the ones they encounter on Sunday morning. In a time when there seem to be almost more denomination than there are Christians, the RCL connects us to the united church that Christ prayed for in John 17.
  6. Scripture Interprets Scripture
    1. The bible is cyclical, and you can miss this if you read it in isolation or with the strange collaboration of something like the RCL. For instance, the story of Christ’s Transfiguration on the mountaintop is a powerful one in and of itself, but it takes on a whole new meaning when we read it in light of the similarities between Jesus and Moses. Both were born into situations where their lives were in peril, both heard the voice of the Lord in pivotal moments before their ministries began, both proclaimed the law from a mountain, and both had their faces shine in the light of God’s presence. Scripture helps interpret scripture, and the RCL does a pretty good job at pairing readings from throughout the bible that connect with one another.
  7. Christological Focus
    1. Jesus Christ is the lens by which we read scripture. We Christians have the benefit of knowing the “end of the story” when we are reading passages from the Old Testament and we should remember Christ’s role throughout the canon. However, we don’t simply read the New Testament into the Old; we also need to read the Old into the New. The New Testament is filled with scriptural references to the Old Testament that fall flat when we, as preachers and readers, do not draw the connections between the two. And Christ is the glue that holds both Testaments together. The RCL implores those who adhere to it to see the connections between all four readings and how Christ is the means by which they relate to one another.
  8. Inexhaustibility of Scripture
    1. God always has something to say. Now that I’m in my fourth year of ministry, I am making my way through Year A of the RCL for the second time and I am blown away by how much the same scripture I preached on just a few years ago still have so much to say. The way I read John 1 my first year in ministry has changed dramatically and has therefore transformed the way I preach that passage. Similarly, I have been in bible studies and read enough theology over the last few years that I will never look at certain passages the same way again. The RCL allows we preachers to reflect on how we looked at, and preached, a text in the recent past and how we can use in again in the present.
  9. Room for the Spirit
    1. As previously mentioned, there are some difficult passages in both the Old and New Testaments. Passages about the wrath of God or the judgment of God are not easily preached or taught in church. However, using the RCL compels the preacher to rely on the Spirit’s guidance when handling a difficult passage which is something that should be done for every sermon regardless of difficulty. When I was first appointed to St. John’s and was planning worship for the coming months, I made a habit of reading all for lectionary texts for each Sunday and the one I wanted to preach on the least was the one that I picked for the particular Sunday. This simple practice forced me to rely on praying for the Spirit to guide me and for God’s will to be done in a way that made my preaching better, more faithful, and more fruitful.
  10. Being Shaped by the Word
    1. In our current cultural clime (the Reign of Trump), the lectionary helps us negotiate the world in which we find ourselves. Rather than reading into scripture what we want to say, the RCL allows us to proclaim what God wants to say. If we are willing to stand under the text (rather than above it) then we can let the text narrate our lives and we can be faithful. For example: On election day, the gospel lection was about Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple in three days. Stanley Hauerwas was tasked with preaching that week at Duke Divinity School, and he preached about how Jesus just didn’t get it; you don’t tell the Jews the Temple is going to be destroyed in three days if you’re running for office. He then went on to address how the assumption that elections are the means by which just societies are established is an illusion; in the New Testament we learn about how democracies work in the one moment where there is an example of a democratic election… the crowd chose Barabbas. Hauerwas easily could have picked any number of passages from the Bible to preach during Election Day, but he was held accountable to the lectionary, which told him what to preach rather than the other way around. Following the RCL, whether in preaching or in teaching, grants us the freedom to be shaped by the Word.

 

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Devotional – Matthew 4.1-2

Devotional:

Matthew 4.1-2

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

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In a few days churches across the globe will begin the season of Lent through Ash Wednesday services. Countless disciples will have ashes in the shape of the cross on their foreheads at school, at work, at the gym, and everywhere in between. The season of Lent marks our journey with Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem that culminates in the empty tomb on Easter.

For a long time, Lent has been a season in the life of the church focused on personal piety and repentance. It is an opportunity for Christians to confess their sins and spend a number of weeks turning back to the Lord in spite of their previous choices. And this emphasis on repentance has been made manifest in the popular decision to “give something up for Lent.”

We are told that it is good and right to give up a temptation during the season because it allows us to focus more on God and because it allows us to mirror Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by the devil. When done faithfully, giving something up can be a truly fruitful activity; fasting has always had a place in the life of disciples. However, the season of Lent is about a lot more than personal piety, and when we limit our participation in this important season to “giving something up” we neglect to remember that Jesus’ temptation is not our temptation.

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When Jesus was hungry the devil challenged him to turn stones into bread and yet Jesus refused. When the devil enticed Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the temple to put God to the test, Jesus refused. And finally, when the devil offered Jesus all the governments of the world in exchange for Jesus worshipping the devil, Jesus refused.

The devil offers things to Jesus that only the devil can offer to the Son of man. We, like Jesus, can be tempted by hunger, contractual prayers with God, and with a desire to control our lives through things like government, but they are not offered to us in the way that they are offered to Jesus. Jesus’ temptation marks the beginning of a ministry that will upset the expectations of the world and eventually result in his death on a cross. As the Son of God, Jesus is offered, and tempted, with the devil’s way out but he refuses. He refuses because he is God incarnate and cannot deviate from the path that leads to resurrection.

If we want to give something up during Lent in order to grow closer to God, by all means we can. However, perhaps a better thing to give up is not a physical and tangible item like chocolate or watching TV, but instead we can give up the false notions that we are the central characters of scripture, that we can earn our salvation, that we are more important than we really are.

Instead, maybe this Lent we give thanks to the Lord our God who came to walk among us, be tempted like us, yet be totally unlike us, and save us from sins, from death, and from ourselves.

Devotional – Exodus 24.15

Devotional:

Exodus 24.15

Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.

Weekly Devotional Image

I like having a plan. Whether Lindsey and I are preparing to travel with Elijah, or the church is hosting an event, or even just putting together the order of worship for Sunday mornings, I like having a plan. This need for structure and planning probably began during my time in scouting (“Be Prepared”) and it has continued to manifest itself throughout my life over and over again.

When I felt God calling me to a life of ministry as a teenager, I started planning with my home church pastors about where to go to school and how to follow the guidelines of the United Methodist Church to be ordained one day.

When I experienced God calling me to spend the rest of my life with Lindsey, I started planning the perfect way to propose to her while we were dating.

When I received the call to serve St. John’s UMC, I started planning all the ways I could help move and nurture the church even before I set foot on the property.

I like knowing where the road of life is leading me. Yet, for most of the people in scripture, the way forward is more like walking into a dense cloud covering the mountain.

Abraham was told to go to a strange new land and he did not have the advantage of Googling it before he arrived. Noah was told to build an ark and fill it will animals without really knowing what life would be like on the other side of the flood. Moses’ mother placed him in a basket and let him float down the Nile River without knowing what would happen to her precious baby boy. And Moses went up on the mountain to encounter the Lord while a cloud covered everything he could see.

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When I read these stories in scripture, they make me anxious. I think they make me anxious because in the characters I encounter a faithfulness that I rarely experience in my own life. Again and again, God’s chosen people are ready and willing to walk into the cloud of the unknown, while I insist on patiently preparing for any and every contingency.

Part of the strange and beautiful mystery of following Jesus Christ is that we do not know where He is leading us. We might have an idea based on stories from scripture and the experiences of the disciples, but the road that leads to life eternal is one that is often covered with a thick and dense cloud.

Or to put it another way, a biblical way: Do not worry about what tomorrow will bring. Rejoice in cloud of the unknown and the comfort of the living God who surrounds you with hope and grace and peace. Celebrate the mystery of not know what is about to come, but that God is with you in the midst of it. Enjoy the strange and beautiful thing we call life; a life that is strange and beautiful precisely because it is not under our control.

Less Preaching, More Praying

Psalm 119.33-40

Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain. Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways. Confirm to your servant your promise, which is for those who fear you. Turn away the disgrace that I dread, for your ordinances are good. See, I have longed for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life.

 

I’ve mentioned The Circle in a number of recent sermons, and for good reason. Every week, our youth gather together as a witness to the loving nature of God made manifest in their lives. While others their age are consumed by that which they consume: the Internet, social media, attention from co-eds, false identities, and even politics, our kids are consumed by another thing they consume: the body and the blood of Jesus Christ.

But I don’t want to lay it on too thick. I love our youth, but they can be miserable at the same time. I have never been more self-conscious about my balding head than when one of our boys insists on bringing the subject up every single week. (Honestly, I think he does it not because he cares about my lack of follicles, but because he enjoys watching my reaction to his provocation.)

Another one of our youth will miss a meeting (too much homework, play practice, or some other obligation) only to have her brother tell me that she’s not at The Circle because a recent sermon I preached made her lose her faith.

Another one of our youth will purposely pretend like he can’t find a particular book in the bible, forcing one of us to flip through and declare the page number only to have him smile diabolically in return.

Like I said, we’ve got wonderful and miserable youth at this church.

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions, we follow the same formula every week – we gather around the table for communion, fellowship, and bible study. Communion looks a lot like it does in this room whereby we pray together for God to pour out the Holy Spirit on us, and on the gifts of bread and the cup. And after we feast we go to the box.

The box contains a random assortment of questions designed to get all of us to share and reflect on what it means to be faithful. An example: “Who do you trust the most and why?” The question propels us to think about the value of our friendships, and implores us to be thankful for the people we trust.

One of the more frustrating questions is: “When was the last time you shared your faith with someone?” Everyone always sighs deeply when that one is pulled, but one by one they’ll each struggle to share a moment from the last week or so when they talked with someone about their faith.

But recently we read a new question: “If you could change one thing about the church what would it be and why?” Without hesitation, my follicle-conscious friend said, “I’d get rid of the preacher!” Another youth however, took the question seriously and said she would make the youth group larger so we could share the stories of Jesus with more people.

One by one each youth got a chance to reflect about a particular change to the church, and we ended with our adult volunteer for the evening. You see, everyone has to answer the question from the box whether you’re in the sixth grade of you’re sixty.

After giving the question some deep thought she said, “I’d get rid of the preaching… I’ve always thought that preaching in worship was okay, but it’s not the most important part of what we do. Sometimes you go on a little too long. But I would definitely increase our prayer time. In fact, what if all we did was pray?”

I got burned.

The preaching on Sunday is a little long? Seriously? You all should be grateful! I get you out of here before the Baptist churches in town every week, and we want to talk about the length of the sermon?!

I’m only teasing. But maybe she’s on to something. What if we prayed more, and I preached less?

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The psalmist, at least the author of Psalm 119, was a praying poet pleading with God. No preaching, no pontificating; only praying.

Teach me Lord, give me understanding, lead me in the path of your commandments, turn my heart to your decrees, turn my eyes from looking at vanities, give me life.

Where does this life of prayer come from? Praying like the psalmist requires an awareness of God’s presence. We can pray like the psalmist when we poetically plead with God, not to show that we are above anyone else, not out of arrogance, but with remarkable humility and hope – we ask God to give us what only God can give us.

And we can dispense with polite trivialities. No more do we need to start our prayers with a listing of God’s divine attributes, no more do we need a long list of adjectives before we begin to converse with the Lord. We need only pause, breathe, and then declare our faith in the Lord who hears and responds to our prayers.

Teach us, O Lord, your ways and we will follow on the path to the end. Give us understanding God, so that we can observe your will here on earth with our whole hearts. Lead us on your paths and we will delight in traveling the way that leads to life. Turn our hearts to your commandments, and not to our own selfish and arrogant ambitions. Turn our eyes from looking at vanities, the things that fade away, the things that do not give life, and instead give us life in you. Confirm to us your promises God because we are worthy when we fear you. Turn away the disgrace that we are ashamed of, for you are forgiving. O God, we have longed for your will; nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. In your righteousness, give us life.

When those words become our words, when we can utter them with true faith and humility, when we can ask for God’s will to be done and mean it, then our prayers will always mean more than my preaching. As Karl Barth said, when we clasp our hands together in prayer, it is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.

Because this is what we need God to do for us. We need God’s help to empower our uprising against the disorder of the world. We need God to teach us, to lead us, and to turn us. We cannot do this stuff on our own.

God, thank you for gathering us together in this place, at this time, with these people to call on you to make us into your people. Come to us now! Awaken us! Give us your light! Be our Teacher and our Comforter! Speak to us through the scriptures, through the prayers, through the hymns, through the sermon, so that we may hear just what we need and what will help. Preserve us by your Word; protect us from hypocrisy, error, boredom, and distraction. Give us knowledge and hope and joy.

We can pray like that. We can pray like the psalmist. We can do it from the comfort of our bedrooms when we wake up and right before we fall asleep. We can pray from the depths of our souls in this holy place whenever we gather together. Our prayers can be as long and as profound as the entirety of Psalm 119, or they can be as short and as simple as: Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.

Praying to God is a good and right thing because it actively makes us participate with the divine. Praying calls us to question the status quo, and to wonder about what could be. Praying challenges us to see ourselves for who we really are and to ask for God’s help to be better. Prayer changes things, and more often than not the thing that prayer changes is us.

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But sometimes we need to be prayed for, more than we need to pray for ourselves. Do you hear the difference? It is good and right for us to pray to the Lord like the psalmist, but at the heart of being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a willingness to share our burdens and needs with others, and to receive their prayers for us when we cannot pray on our own.

Years ago, I helped lead a mission trip to Costa Rica. We went for a week, and I was responsible for keeping track of the youth at our different work sites, and led devotions each night. A large focus of the trip was partnering with the local community in order to empower them, rather than helping with something only to disappear a few days later.

Every day, whether we were working on construction for a new school building, or we were helping young children in a day care program, the whole trip was about creating relationships with people.

Of course, for some of us, myself included, this was quite a difficult task since there was a language barrier. We quickly learned to speak with our hands and with the few words we knew of each other’s languages, and we did the best we could.

At the end of the trip I asked the youth to each pair up with someone they connected with during the week, but not someone from our own team. The kids quickly dispersed to find the friends they made over the week and I watched my sister Haley walk over to Jose. Haley and Jose were the same age; both had wonderful and loving personalities; but they couldn’t have been more different.

One grew up with all the advantages and privileges of an American who grew up outside of Washington D.C. The other lived day to day without a clear understanding of what the future held.

And yet, even though they spoke different languages, and had different hopes, and different dreams, they sat down together and prayed for each other. Haley went first, she prayed for Jose and lifted him up to the Lord. I only later realized it was the first time that Haley had ever prayed for another person out loud. And after Haley said “amen” Jose grabbed her by the hands and prayed for her.

Haley could not understand a word he uttered, but she wept as Jose prayed for her.

I know this is going to drive some of you crazy, but I am here not just to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable. So, in just a moment, we are going to pray for one another. You will feel tempted to find one of your friends in the congregation, someone you are comfortable with, but we all need to resist that temptation. We are going to stand up, and move about the sanctuary until we find someone we are not as familiar with, and they will be our prayer partners. And we’re going to talk to them. We’re going to listen to them. We’re going to pray for them. And they are going to do the same for us.

Remember, God does not need ornate and complicated prayers; God only needs our hearts. Pray for one another as you feel led, and then I will lead us in a congregational prayer. So, let us pray.

We are afraid, God, and we believe we can and should hide ourselves from you. We did it in the Garden, we did it in the wilderness, and we still do it today. We even think we can hide from ourselves. For better or worse, usually for worse, our desire to hide scatters and shatters our identity in you. As a result, we begin to hate ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and even You. We hate ourselves, and one another, because You refuse to believe that we are the masks we wear. God, help us learn to trust your love. Help us to learn we do not need to pretend to be something we are not. Help us accept that we are who we are because of You. Forgive us God. And as forgiven people, help us follow your Son in this world shaped by lies and deception. As your forgiven people, make us your salvation, that the world might see how good and great it is to be who we are, your children. Amen.

Devotional -Leviticus 19.1-2

Devotional:

Leviticus 19.1-2

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Weekly Devotional Image

Before I became the pastor of St. John’s, I had a meeting with other clergy from the Virginia Conference who were all about to start at their first appointments. We represented a number of different seminaries and all of us were nervous in some way, shape, or form about what we were about to embark upon. A few of us were about to serve as deacons connecting the church to the world through youth ministry positions and hospital chaplaincy, a few of us were going to large churches as associate pastors, and a few of us were being sent to serve a church all by ourselves.

After a few ice-breakers designed to build bridges between us, we were all asked to answer the question: “What are you most worried about?” I remember someone jumping right in to say, “I am terrified of having to do funerals.” Another person said, “I have no idea what it takes to create and implement a church budget.” Another person said, “I’m nervous about being single and whether or not people will respect me for who I am.” And my friend Drew ended with, “I just want to be holy.”

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We all listened and offered advice to one another, but Drew’s comment has always stuck with me. While the rest of us were nervous and anxious about specific and practical matters, Drew was thinking about his holiness. How in the world can pastors lead people to holiness when they feel unholy? What does it even mean to be holy in the first place?

Some might say that to be holy means going to church every Sunday. Others might say that holiness comes with reading the bible every morning. And still yet others might say that you can only be holy if you pray to God every night before you fall asleep.

Holiness, however, is about living a life of total devotion to God. That might manifest itself in showing up to church, and reading the bible, and talking to God, but it also entails a fundamental commitment to the Lord in everything we do.

It means that when we encounter the stranger we see them as a brother and sister in Christ. It means that when we spend our money we reflect on whether or not it is bringing harm to someone else. It means that we strive to take nothing for granted because tomorrow is never promised.

Being a Christian is not a hobby, or something to be turned on and off whenever we choose. Being a Christian is about living a life of holiness and being totally devoted to God.

So then we must ask ourselves: What am I currently doing that is unholy? What relationships are preventing me from being totally devoted to God? What idols am I being consumed by instead of committing myself to the Lord? How can I be holy?

The Mission Of The Church

1 Corinthians 3.1-9

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now, you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

 

When I lived in Harrisonburg, I played drums for a worship service that met every Sunday evening. On Sunday mornings the sanctuary would be packed with individuals and families from the community who would listen to the organ, sing from the hymnal, pray from the pews, and worship together. On Sunday evenings however, we would set up for a very different type of worship service: we had two electric guitars, a bass, a drum set, and a couple singers. Instead of suits and dresses most people came as they were, and instead of the sanctuary being packed, we were lucky if there were more people in the pews than in the band.

The basic worship formula included playing four or so songs, reading scripture, hearing a sermon, celebrating communion, and then playing one more song. Which meant that I spent most of the evenings sitting behind a drum kit looking out at everyone else. From this vantage point I quickly learned who always came late, who refused to sing certain songs, who let themselves go and put their hands in the air to praise, and who pretended to pray while they were actually texting someone on their phone.

I had been playing with the band for a while when I started to notice a young man, probably about my age, who walked in during the first song, and left during the last song every week. We had other people show up for one Sunday a month, or would be there for a couple weeks in a row only to disappear for a months at a time, but this guy was there EVERY WEEK.

Week after week I watched him arrive only to depart before I had a chance to talk to him. But, even though we didn’t talk, his faithfulness was palpable. As a college student, he came to worship week after week while others were choosing to put their allegiances in other places.

When the academic year was coming to a close, the leadership team for the service met to discuss changes for the future. It was abundantly clear that we were not growing and we wanted to make more disciples of Jesus Christ so we started discussing ways we could get more people to join us.

I suggested that we speak to the young man who snuck in and snuck out; after all, he showed up more than anyone else, and I thought he would have some ideas for us.

So the next Sunday, we purposefully ended with a song that did not use the drums so that I could talk to him before he jettisoned out of the sanctuary. We met by the doorway and I introduced myself. I explained that I saw him come in every week, and apologized for not doing more to make a connection. I then launched into a dense theological reflection about why we need more people to come to the service and that all of us thought he would be a great person to speak with. He listened as I went on and on until he raised his hand and said, “That sounds nice and all, but I’m not a Christian.”

            “Not a Christian? What do you mean you’re not a Christian? Why have you been here every week if you’re not a Christian?”

            “I don’t feel like I belong anywhere else, and I don’t have any friends.”

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We, as human beings, want to belong. We want to belong in the worst ways whether we’re in preschool, high school, or it’s been a long time since we’ve been in school. Out of this desire for belonging we join communities: neighborhood associations, sport teams, civic organizations, and even scout troops.

But they tend to disappoint us. We hope for a sense of identity and purpose and community to magically erupt soon after we begin participating, but because people are so focused on themselves, or someone forgets our name, or someone else argues with us over a matter of opinion, we become disappointed and disillusioned. And before long, we fall back into that pit of loneliness.

The same human desire for belonging was apparently true of the folk in Corinth. The church that Paul helped to inaugurate was struggling. The people wanted desperately to belong, to be part of something. And they joined the church, but then (like we always do) they broke up into factions: I belong to Paul, I belong to Apollos, or some other leader.

One need not stretch the imagination to hear the same sorts of declarations in the church today: I’m a Republican, I’m a Democrat. Zig Volskis was the best pastor we ever had. Steve Greer was the best pastor we ever had.

Paul caught word of these divisions and wrote to the church: Who do you belong to? Why are you dividing over issues of leadership? I came to you with the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified, but clearly it did not take root deep enough. So long as you continue to quarrel you will not be ready to be Christ’s church.

Who do we belong to?

We have a book in the United Methodist Church called The Book of Discipline. In it, its paragraph 120 if you’re interested, we have the mission of the church written out plainly for all to read and understand.

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The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Making disciples is at the heart of what it means to be a United Methodist. I mean, its what Jesus calls the disciples to do at the end of Matthew’s gospel: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But making disciples is often confused with filling the pews.

It results in having conversations about how to get more people in the building while neglecting to interact and connect with the people already in the building. It results in infantile discipleship. It results in working for the numbers, and not the kingdom.

And then we’ve got this bit about transforming the world. Is that really our mission? Do we have the church to change the people and the community around us? Should that be our soul purpose? Does the church exist to make the world a better place?

The church is defined by the sacraments of communion and baptism in order to be a community of difference and peace. The church, therefore, is called not to make the world a better place, but to be the better place God has already made in the world.

Of course, the problem is whether or not our experience of the church matches its definition of being the better place.

I suspect that many of you have experienced the church as Paul experienced it: Disagreements, petty arguments, and at times suffocating silence between bickering factions. For some, the pews of the sanctuary are more like walls of division and less like avenues of connection.

If church is the better place that God has already made in the world, then it should, like it was for that young man in Harrisonburg, be the place to cure loneliness. Because loneliness is something all of us have experienced in some way, shape, or form, and is a wound not easily healed.

I spend an hour every week with the youth of our church at our gathering called The Circle. We always have communion and answer questions and study the bible. But we often just talk about what’s going on in each other’s lives. And, without breaking their trust, I’ll tell you: their lives are not easy. There is such a tremendous amount of pressure placed on them by outside forces. They feel compelled and pushed to change their image, the way they talk, the way they think, and even what they believe in order to be accepted.

Some weeks I leave our Circle meeting feeling broken by what they have to endure on a regular basis, only to have a conversation the next day with an adult who is going through basically the same things in a different context.

The world would have us change. Change your image, hide your faults, be someone else.

As Christians, however, we walk with our wounds and our cracks and our brokenness instead of running away from them. We cannot accept who we are until we discover that we are loved by God because of who we are.

The church can be the better place that God has made in the world because the church is the place where we walk with our wounds and loneliness because of Christ and him crucified. The broken and lonely Christ on the cross knows our brokenness and our loneliness. But he also carries our wounds so that we might see the One who truly loves us.

God is transforming the world. God is the one who makes the first last and the last first. God does, and should, get all the good verbs. Our God is a God of action, of change, of transformation. We are the church, we are the vineyard of God’s garden, we plant the seeds, we water the seeds, but God is the one who makes them grow.

You and I, with our sins and our disappointments, with our fears and loneliness, we have a place here. God invites us to the better place where we are welcomed not because we fit the mold, but because we do not fit the mold. We have a place in this better place because we are caught up in God’s great story.

Just look at the cross, consider the waters of baptism. God is made manifest in the world not through the powerful, not through the expectations of the mighty, but through the weak and through the shamed; through babies and wandering Israelites; through tax collectors and fishermen; through a poor rabbi murdered by the state.

This is the better place God has made in the world. And in this place we remember our baptisms, we remember our death to self and our resurrection in Jesus Christ. We remember our baptism and through that water we remember the story of creation, of the flood, of the exodus. We remember that in our baptism we became part of the body of Christ, the church, where we should never be lonely. Where we should never be made to feel as if we are not enough.

In baptism we joined the better place God has made in this world.

Who then do we belong to?

Do we belong to political rhetoric and partisan ideology? Do we belong to church growth programs co-opted by a desire to see more people in the pews? Do we belong to isolationism or interventionism? Do we belong to a world that pressures us to become that which we are not? Do we belong to Paul or to Apollos? Do we belong to the flesh and are consumed by jealousy and quarreling?

No.

            In this better place, we belong to God. Amen.

 

(With thanks to Jason Micheli, Stanley Hauerwas, and Will Willimon)