Devotional – Jonah 3.1-2

Devotional:

Jonah 3.1-2

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

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Sometimes, we don’t want to say what God wants us to say. All of us have a little Jonah in us, and all of us have faced a Nineveh at some point and decided to run in the opposite direction.

However, there are times when God gives us the strength, courage, and wisdom to say what God commands us to say.

On Saturday morning 600 United Methodists from all over the Northern Virginia area gathered for a day of spiritual renewal and theological reflection. At the beginning of the event, the District Superintendent from the Alexandria District stood up and said, “By now you have all heard what our President said about the kinds of people he doesn’t want coming to our country. Well, last night I was driving home from church and I was listening to the radio when person after person denounced what the President said and the words he used. But there were three people in support of the President’s message: A member of the KKK, a member of the Neo-Nazi movement, and a pastor. Thank goodness it wasn’t a United Methodist Pastor, but most people outside the church do not differentiate between us.”

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The DS then went on to express his gratitude for our denomination, and in particular for our Council of Bishops, who publically condemned President Trump’s recent remarks against immigrants.

It’s not easy saying what God wants us to say. There are always people who will be angered by what the church has to say, and frustrated by the path of discipleship that calls for others to be better. But our Ninevehs are always waiting, and God has given us something to say.

Below is the statement from Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, on behalf of the whole council:

“We are appalled by the offensive, disgusting words attributed to President Donald Trump who is said to have referred to immigrants from African countries and Haiti, and the countries themselves, in an insulting and derogative manner.  According to various media accounts, President Trump made the remarks during a White House discussion with lawmakers on immigration.

As reported, President Trump’s words are not only offensive and harmful, they are racist.

We call upon all Christians, especially United Methodists, to condemn this characterization and further call for President Trump to apologize.

As United Methodists, we cherish our brothers and sisters from all parts of the world and we believe that God loves all creation regardless of where they live or where they come from.  As leaders of our global United Methodist Church, we are sickened by such uncouth language from the leader of a nation that was founded by immigrants and serves as a beacon to the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Thousands of our clergy, laity and other highly skilled, productive citizens are from places President Trump has defamed with his comments.  The fact that he also insists the United States should consider more immigrants from Europe and Asia demonstrates the racist character of his comments.  This is a direct contradiction of God’s love for all people.  Further, these comments on the eve of celebrating Martin Luther King Day belies Dr. King’s witness and the United States’ ongoing battle against racism.

We just celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, whose parents during his infancy, had to flee to Africa to escape from the wrath of King Herod.  Millions of immigrants across the globe are running away from such despicable and life-threatening events. Hence, we have the Christian duty to be supportive of them as they flee political, cultural and social dangers in their native homes.

We will not stand by and allow our brothers and sisters to be maligned in such a crude manner.  We call on all United Methodists, all people of faith, and the political leadership of the United States to speak up and speak against such demeaning and racist comments.

Christ reminds us that it is by love that they will know that we are Christians. Let’s demonstrate that love for all of God’s people by saying no to racism; no to discrimination and no to bigotry.”

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There’s No Time To Waste

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Wil Posey about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Epiphany [Year B] (Jonah 3.1-5, 10, Psalm 62.5-12, 1 Corinthians 7.29-31, Mark 1.14-20). Our conversation covers a range of topics including Duke Divinity School, the Greek exegesis of Mark, bad nicknames, scripturally shaped imaginations, economics, the privatization of faith, the cost of discipleship, and the word that appears in the Bible more than any other word. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: There’s No Time To Waste

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All Things To All People

1 Corinthians 9.19-23

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

All of us have questions. We have questions about what it means to be a Christian, what the bible is all about, and how to make sense of it all in the ways we live. In November I compiled a list of questions from the congregation and created this sermon series in which I will attempt to answer some of the questions that vex us in regard to our faith. Today we continue the series with, “How do we share the Good News?”

“When did you last speak to someone about your faith?” Throughout John Wesley’s ministry, this was a question to be answered by all people within the Methodist movement. And it’s a question most of us would rather avoid today.

It we’re honest, we don’t want to appear too evangelical (whatever that means). We don’t want to be confused with the kind of bible toting people who seek to win others for Jesus. We don’t want to leave church with tracts to pass out to people in public warning them about their imminent doom unless they accept Jesus as their Lord.

And yet, that question, the one we want to avoid, the one that makes us squirm in our pews, is perhaps one of the most important questions we can ever ask.

When I was in college, I became the de facto cook for my house. There were five young men all living under the same roof, and I tried my best to make a home cooked meal once a week so that we could all sit down and break bread with one another. When we sat around the table for the first time, with our assortment of hand-me-down plates and silverware, I asked my friends to pray with me, and they just stared at me as I bowed my head and asked for God to bless the meal and us.

Week after week we sat around that table, and the longer I prayed for them, the more they adapted to it. Such that, one night, when I inexplicably forgot to pray, they stopped me from eating and said, “Aren’t you forgetting something?!”

Around that same time I was invited to guest preach at one of the local United Methodist Churches. I, of course, invited all of my roommates to attend and they all sat together in the furthest back pew.

The service was fairly typical, and the sermon was a definite B-, but then we moved to the communion table and the pastor prayed for the Holy Spirit to make the bread and cup into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And while the whole congregation began lining up in the center aisle, my roommates did as well with bewildered looks on their faces.

I realized, as they were walking closer to me, that none of them had received communion before, nor did they have any idea what they were doing.

When they made it to the front they all stood in front of me with wide eyes and nervous ticks. I quietly whispered, “take the bread, dip it in the cup, eat it, and I’ll explain everything at home.”

And so, they did.

There was a time in the life of the church, when we could expect new people to show up on Sunday mornings no matter what. When Christianity was Christendom, which is to say, when Christianity was normative, the majority of people in a community could be found in church on Sunday morning. This meant that for generations, great scores of people were born into, and raised through a church, such that things did not have to be explained or proclaimed, and the work of evangelism was nothing more than standing in front of one’s own church to share what God had done.

But that time is long gone.

And because churches can no longer expect that, “if you build it they will come,” the work of evangelism has increased sharply. Congregations are told that they are in the business of saving souls, and that they must do everything within their power to share the Good News. But more often than not the good news sounds like bad news.

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Fear mongering tactics with threats of hell and eternal damnation are hung over individual heads with hope that it will scare them into church.

            The bible is used as a weapon to attack people for the way they are living in order to shame them into coming to church.

            People are treated as numbers and objects to be placed on a worksheet and empty promises about heavenly rewards are used to get people to come to church.

            And people wonder why the church is shrinking…

When I asked for questions in November, a lot of people asked about ways to share the Good News. Behind those questions was the desire to grow the church. Growth is a good thing, I mean: Jesus sends the disciples out to make disciples of all nations, but growth for the sake of growth is problematic.

If we want to fill the sanctuary up every Sunday we could do raffles, and giveaways, we could provide financial incentives to get people to invite more people to church, but it wouldn’t be faithful. The only way the church grows is when we believe the church has something so incredible to offer that we’re willing to invite others to discover it.

The point is this: we can no longer just wait for people to magically appear on Sunday morning.

In addition to the questions we received about sharing the good news, there were an equal number of questions about why I participate in a podcast. For the last year and a half I’ve been working with two other United Methodist pastors to produce weekly podcasts (a podcast is a downloadable audio file that you can listen to on your phone and computer). We started it as a way to have conversations about theology and scripture, and as we made the episodes public, they started reaching a lot of people. And by a lot, I mean A LOT. By the end of the month, we should hit our 200,000th download.

But we didn’t start the podcast to become popular. We started it to reach the people who no longer felt comfortable in church. We wanted to provide conversations with zero commitment on behalf of the people listening so that they could encounter the church from a new perspective. Because for as much as this thing we do called worship is what being the church is all about, for some people it’s not enough.

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We were taking a break from a live podcast event back in December when an older man walked across the room and stood right in front of me. He stared at me with a curious look and said, “You sound different in person.” Unsure of whether or not he meant it as a compliment, I inquired as to how. He said, “You sound a little more confident on the podcast than you did tonight. But I think that’s a good thing. I appreciate your vulnerability.”

We talked for a little bit about the guests we had that night, and the challenges of doing a live recording, and then before returning to his seat he said, “I left the church years ago because I felt burned. Too many sermons about what I had done wrong, too many people suffering without anything changing; too many pastors abusing their privileges. But then I discovered the podcast, and I started listening. And the more I listened, the more I heard God, and the more I realized I needed to give the church another chance…”

We live in an ever-changing world where people consume information so quickly that the church can appear archaic and irrelevant. But I believe this is a sad misjudgment. Rather, I believe church has the most important thing to offer of all, the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, like Paul, we do well to do whatever we can, by whatever means we can, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. For Paul that meant being a Jew to the Jews, and outside the law to those outside the law, and all things to all people.

For us today, that might take on different meaning, we might be tasked dropping our political identities in order to reach people across the political spectrum, or crucifying our prejudices in order to reach people who do not look like us, or repenting of our judgmental attitudes in order to reach people who frighten us.

As Christians, we are necessarily evangelical. Evangelism means, by definition, sharing the Good News. So much of what we do and who we are is wrapped up in the story of Jesus, recognizing how the story has changed our lives, and the hope that it can change the lives of those around us.

            But, sadly, being evangelical these days often comes off like being a bad and annoying used car salesperson. When the tactics of fire insurance, and bombarding strangers is the best we have to offer others, when winning souls becomes more important than loving others, we cease to be evangelical, at least the way the word is meant to be used.

Last year, I drove up to Cokesbury on a Sunday afternoon to meet a handful of people from the church before it was announced that I would be your new pastor. We sat down in the conference room upstairs, exchanged pleasantries over fruit and cheese, and then we went around the table to introduce ourselves and describe how we are connected to the church. One by one I learned about some of you for the first time, how long you’ve been here, what you like, what you want to change, all of that stuff. And one of the last people to share was Emmett Wright, and all he said was, “I’m an evangelist.”

And, because being evangelical can be so misconstrued these days, all I could think was, “that’s just great [sarcasm].” So I asked him to elaborate and he said something memorable like, “just wait and see.”

On any given week Emmett will invite a score of people to come to experience God’s presence at our church. But he does not evangelize by attacking strangers with threats or empty promises. He meets people where they are and he gets to know them. He sees his evangelism first as a call to friendship, with all people, long before inviting them to church. And because he fosters friendship first, the people he invites to church always want to see what it’s all about.

Emmett is a lot like Paul in that he becomes all things to all people. He never presents the gospel in some stuffy forgotten way; it is always alive and exciting and friendly. Emmett meets people where they are, instead of sitting around waiting for them to show up.

Paul’s ministry was one of evangelism. Over and over again he won people for the sake of the gospel. Not to fill pews, not to frighten them, not to shame them, but because he believed the story of Jesus Christ was the most important story they would ever hear. He believed the message of salvation would change everything about the way they lived. He believed that following Jesus would make all the difference.

Paul became all things to all people because that’s precisely what God was willing to do for us. God became all things to all people in Jesus Christ. God humbled himself in the manger and took on flesh. Though God was free to as God pleased, God made himself a slave to all in Jesus in order to free us from slavery to sin and death.

            Evangelism always begins in friendship, in the intimacy of two people sharing life together. Evangelism takes place in the trust when listening becomes more important than talking. Evangelism comes to fruition when saving and winning others is more about them than us. Amen.

One Crazy Year

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Last week Jason Micheli, Teer Hardy, and I sat down to review the interviews that we put out through Crackers and Grape Juice in 2017. From what started as a fever-dream, we’ve created and cultivated a weekly podcast (with two offshoots) that is approaching its 200,000th download. On Crackers and Grape Juice we interview guests about recent books, articles, or current events. On (Her)men•you•tics we pick one theological term per week and unpack it without using stained glass language. And on Strangely Warmed we spend thirty minutes every week talking about the four lectionary readings for the following Sunday to help preacher prepare and to help lay people tune in their ears to the language of scripture.

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2017 was an incredible year for the podcast in which we started Strangely Warmed and (Her)men•you•tics, we held a number of live events for people to experience a recording in person, and we produced conversations with a range of guests including (but not limited to), Stanley Hauerwas, Will Willimon, Amy Butler, Bishop Sharma Lewis, Robert Jenson, Rod Dreher, Fleming Rutledge, David Bentley Hart, Walter Brueggemann, Brian Zahnd, Tripp Fuller, and Diana Butler Bass. If you would like to listen to our recap episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: 2017 Year In Review

Devotional – 1 Samuel 3.1

Devotional:

1 Samuel 3.1

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

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It’s mean, but one of my favorite games to play is called, “Is it in the bible, or not?” I could be in the middle of a mission trip with middle school students, or in a nursing home with residents, or in a preschool surrounded by 4 year olds, when I will start the game and relish in the responses.

I’ll usually start with something tame like, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and the participants will nod their heads in affirmation. But then I’ll up my game a little bit with something like, “With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement.” People will usually scratch their heads wondering why I brought out something so unpleasant, but it’s there in Deuteronomy 23. By the end of the game I usually drop something like, “God helps those who help themselves.” To which people often express their agreement when in fact it’s definitely not in the bible.

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We no longer know the story of God like we once did. I don’t mean to sound overly harsh, but it’s true. During the time of Jesus, young men grew up having most (if not all) of the Psalms memorized. Today we’re lucky if we can get through the 23rd Psalm. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was able to quote scripture left and right. Today we need bible apps and Google searches to find the right verse. Even preachers like me fail to love the Word of the Lord in a way that is comparable with the preachers of the past.

Perhaps our lack of love for scripture is due to the fact that we have other things to distract us constantly, or that we have tools that can give us scriptural answers whenever we need them, or that we no longer revere the text for what it is. It’s impossible to particularly pinpoint the reason for the bible’s fall from grace in our contemporary world, but it’s something we are called to combat.

Because, unlike the days of Samuel, the Word of God is not rare today.

We live on the other side of the resurrection, we have churches with more bibles than they know what to do with, and we can jump into the strange new world of the bible whenever we would like to.

If you want to hear the Word of the Lord, if you want to receive a vision about what is to come, if you want to encounter the living God, you need not look further than the bible.

Keep The Mystery

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Epiphany [Year B] (1 Samuel 3.1-10, Psalm 139.1-6, 13-18, 1 Corinthians 6.12-20, John 1.43-51). Our conversation covers a range of topics including Wesley Theological Seminary, the need for repetition, submissive liturgical postures, the rarity of the Word, mystery, metafiction, baptism, communion, sex and fornication, and the challenge of preaching on difficult passages. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Keep The Mystery

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Kicking and Screaming

Mark 1.4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful that I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you will the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of 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.”

All of us have questions. We have questions about what it means to be a Christian, what the bible is all about, and how to make sense of it all in the ways we live. In November I compiled questions from the congregation and created this sermon series in which I will attempt to answer some of the questions that vex us in regard to faith. Today we begin the series with, “If Jesus was dunked, why do we only sprinkle?”

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The parents stood next to me by the baptismal font, each trying desperately to keep their sons under control. Abe and Archer had never been up at the front of the church, the stained glass windows were mesmerizing, but more than anything, they just wanted to get down and run all over the place.

So I grabbed some of the water in the bowl and let it drip onto their hands as I read the words that countless Christians have heard before their baptisms. It was nothing short of God’s grace that as the water moved from hand to hand, both boys froze in their parents’ arms, and they almost prayerfully joined me in the sacrament that would change their lives forever.

I took them one after the other into my arms, lightly sprinkled water onto their heads and baptized them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Afterwards, I carried them out into the middle of the sanctuary and you could hear a pin drop as the congregation took in the beloved sight of two newly baptized boys moving down the aisle. For them, the church, it was the first baptism in a very long time, and in those two boys they saw their future.

It was a beautiful baptism, and one that I will cherish till the end of my days.

Years later I stood with two different parents, one of whom is another United Methodist pastor, and two different sons, in a very different place. Instead of standing before the church in a church, we had, as the good ol’ hymn goes, gathered by the river. And by river I mean creek.

The crowd of people snuggled closer together as the wind howled through the trees. I came prepared with waders and got appropriately bundled up before stepping into the current. And the closer we came to the moment of baptism the more frightened the two boys looked about a moment that would change their lives forever.

However, I believe it was the fear of the water’s temperature that made them quake in their baptismal gowns more than the disruption the Holy Spirit was about to make real.

I grabbed the younger one first, carried him across the waters to the deepest part of the creek, and his mother and I thrust him completely under the frigid waters three times in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And he was kicking and screaming the entire time.

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I honestly tried to focus on the holiness of the moment, doing my best to make it right, but all I could think about was whether or not the older brother was going to hightail it out of there as soon as I tried to pick him up.

But when we made it back to the shore, I deposited the one brother for the other, took him out and did the same thing. He cried the whole way back to the shore.

It was a beautiful baptism, and one that I will cherish till the end of my days.

If Jesus was dunked, why do we only sprinkle? It’s an interesting question, and frankly one that has vexed the Christian church since nearly the beginning. In the account of Jesus’ baptism by John in Mark’s gospel, it says that Jesus was coming up out of the water when he heard the voice of God, therefore implying that he had been completely under the water. Yet, in many churches when baptism takes place it is done so with the pouring of water over someone’s head, or the sprinkling of water on the forehead.

Answering this question, the one about why we baptize, is at the heart of why there is no universal church. Just take a drive through Woodbridge and you will encounter just about every flavor of church there is and one of the things that divides us is our inability to answer the question.

Some churches believe that you can only baptize adults who have made the choice for themselves. And when they are baptized it has to be “living water” which is to say it cannot be contained in something made by human hands, and has to be in a creek, river, lake, or even the ocean.

Others say you can fully immerse someone in a pool or large baptismal font.

Some churches believe that you can baptize babies, with the consent of their parents, and can do so in a great number of ways, from dipping them in the font to sprinkling water across their foreheads.

And still yet in some churches, they believe that using water in baptism is unfaithful and will instead only baptize by the Spirit without any physical object being used.

And because we have no single answer to the question, there are an almost limitless number of Christian denominations throughout the world.

Do you want to know a secret? The amount of water used doesn’t really matter. Bring a kid to a creek, or a baby to the font, or an adult to the pool, all you want, baptism isn’t about what we do, but instead about what God does to us.

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Baptism, like communion, is what we call a sacrament. It is an outward sign of an invisible grace. It is one of the ways we experience the grace of God here and now through something we can touch, feel, and experience.

It is good for us to practice baptism as such because the whole of the gospel is done to earth, it takes place in the real, tactile, fleshy world. Whenever the Spirit is mentioned in scripture it is tied to the material – real water, real bread, real flames. The Spirit fills us in church when we gather, and sends us out from the church to be in the world.

The Spirit is not something meant for our hearts and souls without the bodily experience.

That’s why the story of Jesus’ baptism has all these great physical details… The people were gathering out in the wilderness at the behest of a radical man named John dressed in camel’s hair with a leather belt, perhaps with locusts and wild honey dripping out of the corner of his mouth. John declares that the one more powerful is coming, and that even he, John, would be unworthy to untie his sandals. And then Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan, he comes up out of the water, still dripping with the experience, and the heavens are ripped apart as a voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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Baptism is not some concept that we can relegate to our minds and our philosophical reflections. It is a defining act that grabs us out of who we were and pushes us into who we are.

Churches, for centuries, have fought battles and excommunicated Christians for their differing beliefs on how much water should be used for baptism. But more important than the amount of water, is the fact that baptism is a violent, disruptive, and transformative change that takes place in our lives.

When I first baptized the boys in the sanctuary, it was picturesque; it was everyone’s dream baptismal experience. But the baptism that took place in the cold creek was more in line with the theological conviction of what it means to be baptized.

            It might bother our modern sensibilities to think about children, or even adults, kicking and screaming on their way to baptism, but when we consider the truth of what we are doing to them and for them, it might be the most proper response.

Immediately following Jesus’ own baptism, the heavens were ripped apart. This was no happy-rainbow-spewing-splitting of the heavens, it was a violent rendering of the cosmos such that the earthly and the divine were coming into contact with one another. We might, in our minds, imagine a beautiful scene where sunshine broke forth from behind the clouds to surround Jesus with a glow, but the language of the gospel beckons us to imagine a scene more akin to the violent rendering of the bomb cyclone the east coast just experienced.

Baptism, whether it’s Jesus’ or our own, is a moment of profound transformation. When we baptize someone in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are, as Paul puts it, baptizing them into Christ’s death so that they can be raised in new life with Christ.

That is no easy thing.

Baptism is the radical reorientation of all things. Whenever we bring someone to the water, whenever we remember our own baptisms, the heavens are torn apart again and God meets us where we are.

It is radical because in the sacrament we affirm that God’s kingdom is more powerful and life changing than anything else in existence. We proclaim that the water washes away every bit of who we were such that we can become the people God is calling us to be. We move into a way of being that is intimately connected with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

I was baptized nearly thirty years ago when I was 19 days old. I have no memory of it at all. I don’t even know who was there or what was said. But it made all the difference. It made all the difference because a group of people who gave their lives to Jesus believed that in giving me to God my life would be about more than me. In baptizing me into the death of Jesus, and raising me into the new life of resurrection, I began a journey that has reshaped my understanding of the world and what it means to love God and neighbor.

Baptism doesn’t promise a perfect life. It is not a cloak of protection that we can drape over those we love. It should shake us that we do something so radical to the people we love. We baptize those whom we love because we want their lives to be about something bigger than themselves, we want them to know what it means to love God and neighbor, we want them to experience resurrection here and now.

I have brought infants, and toddlers, and even teenagers to the waters of baptism again and again because what God does through the Spirit is the most wonderfully disruptive thing that can ever take place. In those moments, God speaks from the torn open heavens, just like on the day Jesus was baptized to say, “You are my child.”

            And we are who God says we are. Amen.