Preach Until You Get It

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Lamentations 1.1-6, Psalm 137, 2 Timothy 1.1-14, Luke 17.5-10). Drew serves as the senior pastor at Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including bad segues, Capon’s The Youngest Day, good/bad cries, the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, singing psalms, rekindling gifts, the Gospel as treasure, Last Week Tonight, and killing mustard seeds. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Preach Until You Get It

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Believing Is Seeing

Jeremiah 32.1-3a, 6-15

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself” Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. 

We will be watching you.

This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet, you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words, and yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

For more than thirty years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away. And come here saying that you are doing enough when the politics and the solutions needed are still nowhere in sight. You say you hear us and understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I don’t want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and kept on failing to act then you would be evil, and that I refuse to believe. 

You are uncomfortable with all the figures because you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is. You are failing us. But young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generation are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you. 

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16 year old Greta Thunberg addressed the UN Climate Action Summit this week and spoke those words to leaders from across the globe. She did so passionately and unflinchingly for all to see and hear.

The next day Robert Jeffress, a megachurch pastor in Texas, got on the radio to express his disappointment in Thunberg’s address. He said, “Somebody needs to read poor Greta Genesis Chapter 9, and tell her the next time she worries about global warming, just look at a rainbow. That’s God’s promise that the polar ice caps will never melt and flood the world again.”

The text read to us today from the prophet Jeremiah is long and full of interesting details. There is a lot regarding the legal rights to property to be held within families, there’s the proper procedure for procuring said property, there is even the naming of particular places and people that feel almost too specific, even for the Bible. 

But the entirety of the passage boils down to one simple thing: Jeremiah was a foolish realtor.

I mean, the whole scripture is bizarre. Jerusalem is under siege, and Jeremiah has already noted that Jerusalem will fall to Babylon and that King Zedekiah along with the people will be exiled as strangers in a strange land. Also, for what it’s worth, Jeremiah is in prison! He got locked up for declaring the time had come to put down the weapons and surrender to Babylon. Which, when the ruler was as megalomaniacal as Zedekiah was, was treated as treason. And Jeremiah chooses this moment, weird as it may be, to buy piece of land that is quite literally in the process of being taken by someone else.

So, I guess it really isn’t all that simple.

Jeremiah for reasons often beyond our ability to understand maintains a tremendous faith in the God who first called him to the task of being a prophet. While everything screamed the contrary, Jeremiah declared the steadfastness of God and implored people to see what exactly was going on. 

What Jeremiah could see, and what so many others couldn’t, was that while the destruction of Jerusalem would mean the end of all they knew and understood, it did not mean that God had abandoned them or that God had lessened God’s connection with God’s creation. 

They would always be God’s people no matter where they were and no matter how bad things became. Later Jeremiah will write a letter to the exiles as they begin seeking out what it will mean to live in a strange new world and the prophet will give them simple instructions: till the soil, marry and bear children, worship the Lord and celebrate together, for God is still God no matter what.

But what about the land that Jeremiah bought? What good was his money on wasted soil?

Redeeming the land, as scripture puts it, was not an act of foolish hope or ignorance of the obvious. Procuring the land was a sign act to the faith Jeremiah had for the future of God’s people and God’s promises. And that even in the present, God is present in catastrophe.

Which, in the end, is what the life of faith is all about. It’s about believing in impossible things, and then seeing they weren’t really impossible to begin with. It’s about believing in things not yet seen and being part of something that helps those unseen things become seen. 

In short, it’s being able to look out at a bunch of powerful and wealthy individuals knowing that their own interests have led to the imminent destruction in their midst and hoping against hope that they will hear what you are trying to say, that they will begin to shift their lives around, and that something new and beautiful can come out of their nothing.

Faith gets knocked around in the world a lot, and often for good reason. Christians have, at times, acted in ignorance of facts and figures to be moved instead by charismatic individuals who, notably, Jesus warned about during the gospel narratives. Christians have absolutely been responsible for reprehensible behavior in the world and we often brush it aside as if nothing happened.

But one of the things about the life of faith we often ignore or forget about is the willingness to open our eyes, as Jeremiah would have us do, to what has happened and is still happening with a willingness to accept responsibility. We can, of course, always look to the past and deny any wrongdoing on our own part. It’s become an all too common refrain these days, “It’s not my fault that my ancestor owned slaves,” Or, “I shouldn’t be punished for what happened to the native peoples in this country.” And yet scripture reminds us again and again and again that we, today, are not paying for the sins of our parents but for our own. This problems of the world are as much on us as they are on anyone else, now or ever.

And that is why Jeremiah is called the weeping prophet. He knew and saw and believed the truth about the people in his midst in ways that we still deny and ignore and disbelieve. It brought him to tears knowing that the people willfully choose to disobey the one in whom they moved and had their being. He wept as mothers and fathers and children were dragged off into exile leaving behind the city of Jerusalem in ruins. He wept because they refused to believe the truth.

For many years I affirmed the common expression “Seeing is believing.” And why not? I wanted proof and evidence before and prior to making an assertion of something’s relevance. And for most of my life that’s been fine to some degree. But we are all now living in a time when seeing isn’t even part of the equation. 

People and pastors like Robert Jeffress can speak of people like Greta Thunberg as if they are the ones who are ignorant of God’s movements and motives in the world. And people lap it up! They show up week after week to receive more of it because it grants them permission to keep closing their eyes to the truth around them. They are like staff on a boat telling everyone they have nothing to worry about even though there’s a gaping hole in the bottom of the boat taking on water. 

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And then people like Greta Thunberg stand with the courage like Jeremiah to say and do what others can not and will not. When I watched her speech this week, with all of her passion and energy and conviction, the thing that stayed with me most was her unwillingness to see others as evil. Talk about faith!

Because many of those people, and the people they represent, are categorically evil! They choose profits over people, they care about the short-term instead of the long-term, and they have drunk themselves silly with deniability about what they have done to the world. 

Greta Thunberg knows what those people do and what they care about. She knows they’ve denied the truth going on 3 decades, she knows that their interests and beliefs do not match her own, and she knows that many, if not most, of them will return to business as usual as if nothing happened.

She, like all prophets, know what we human being are really like. We choose the things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing the things we know we should. At the end of the day, for most of us, it doesn’t matter how many numbers and figures are placed in front of us, whether it has to do with racial profiling in this country, or the overwhelming advantage of white privilege, or CO2 emissions, we will continue to see whatever it is we want to see.

Or, to put it another way, we will act according to whatever narrative requires the least of us.

But Jeremiah believed what he could not see! He didn’t wait until the people changed their behavior, he didn’t delay until the right statistics started showing up. No, Jeremiah believed in impossible things. He believed that God would make good on God’s promises. He believed that when the time came the people would see how far they had strayed from the Good News of God’s purposes and would return to the Promised City a renewed people. 

That’s the difference between the prophet Jeremiah and someone like Robert Jeffress. Jeffress believes that God will not flood the world again like God did during the days of Noah. And we shouldn’t either. God hung up that rainbow as a promise that God would never do that to God’s creation again.

But that’s exactly the problem! God isn’t doing this global warming to us, we are doing it to ourselves! We’re drunk with petroleum and fossil fuels and unmonitored emissions. We’re writing checks that our ecosystems can’t cash. We’re walking around blind to how much our actions are fundamentally rewriting the very fabric of the planet. 

But God has not and will not abandon us. God lifts up ordinary people like Greta Thunberg and speaks a prophetic word through her to all with ears to hear. She has no reason to believe that the people listening will heed the call and change their ways. But she keeps going anyway. Christ too had no indication that the words he used and the actions he offered were dramatically reshaping the lives of the people who followed him. In the end he was all alone. But Christ still died for the ungodly. 

Faith is believing in things you cannot yet see, and then one day seeing what you believe.

Amen. 

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Devotional:

1 Timothy 6.17-18

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.

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My family, like a lot of others, grew up watching Disney movies. To this day I have the entirety of the Lion King memorized, I can whistle along to all of the songs from the Little Mermaid, and I still laugh at all the bits from Robin Williams in Aladdin.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I owe a great deal of ice breakers to that movie. For, whenever a conversation is in need of beginning, or restarting, one of the easiest questions to ask is as follows: “If you had a magic genie, what would your three wishes be?”

There’s something quaint about the idea. It’s not just one stand alone thing you could want, and the availability of wishes don’t go on forever either – it forces the person answering to really consider what he or she would ask for. And other the years I’ve asked that very question A LOT and I can say with assurance that the majority of answers have been about money, comfort, and fame.

All of those things smack us across the face with our relentless pursuit of happiness. We open up Instagram to discover perfect looking people with their perfect lives and their perfect homes and their perfect possessions. We pass by the magazine rack at the grocery store, we turn on the television, and it goes on and on and on.

It seems that the American Dream, however we might define it, has been commoditized to consist of wealth and possessions with a profound emphasis on the idea of more. Without thinking much about what we are doing, we work more hours and we pour out more effort into a never-ending desire for more money, more success, more comfort, and more of anything that money can buy.

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I’ve heard it thousands of times that “money can’t buy happiness” but rich people seem to look pretty happy!

And then we read from Paul’s first letter to Timothy and things take on an ominous tone: As for those who are rich, command them to stop pursuing their wealth and instead focus on the Lord – the rich are supposed to do good, to be generous, and to share what they have with others. 

It’s right there in scripture and yet when we think about or talk about money it is almost always in the sense of accumulating more for ourselves, even at the expense of others. 

A friend of mine from seminary recently started his own church in North Carolina and part of their whole ethos is, of course, worshipping the living God but by doing so through paying off the debts of the congregation collectively. 

And, to be clear, not the church’s debts! The people who participate in the church willfully contribute money each and every week dedicated to the sole purpose of paying off one person/family’s debts at a time. 

And when the church’s program was announced it was ridiculed by people from other Christian communities as being antithetical to the American Dream.

Which leaves me wondering: When did the American Dream become more important that God’s Dream?

Thinking In Hymns

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with T. Bryson Smith about the readings for the 16th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 32.1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91.1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6.6-19, Luke 16.19-31). Bryson serves at Good Shepherd UMC in Richmond, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including ministry mistakes, wrestling references, theological mortgages, singing our faith, unknown words, deliverance, using the right tenses, cultivating community, ridiculous love, money, and the end of the game. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Thinking In Hymns

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Why Go To Church?

Jeremiah 8.18-9.1

My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in here?” (Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”) “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!

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Inviting people to church can be a strange endeavor.

It’s strange enough if you’re a lay person and you approach someone in your life, whether a friend or stranger, and say something like, “I’d love to bring you to my church on Sunday.” Or “We’ve got this crazy pastor and you’ve just got to see the strange stuff he comes up with every week.”

It’s another thing entirely when you’re the pastor inviting someone to church. It takes on a whole new level of self-righteousness when it comes off as if I’m inviting people to wake up on a Sunday morning, drive over to the church, to listen to me hammer on about grace until it finally sticks.

But we do invite people to church, or at least we feel like we’re supposed to do it whether we actually do it or not.

I know that on several other occasions I’ve shared this rather ominous statistic, but I can’t help myself from bringing it up again: The average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone else to church once every 33 years.

That’s crazy.

It’s really crazy when we consider how the overwhelming majority of us are here because someone either invited us or brought us to church. Very rare is the person who just decides to go check out what all these Christians are up to in whatever worship is supposed to be.

So we invite people, or we don’t, but we know there’s some reason we should be doing it, even if we can’t fully articulate it.

Sure, the gospel of Matthew ends with this great charge to go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But doing it just because Jesus tells us to never really feels adequate enough.

I have the occasion to invite people to church on a regular basis simply from having to describe what I do all the time. It’s the go-to ice-breaker when you meet someone for the first time, “What do you do?”

If I say something like, “I’m a reverend.” It conjures up all sorts of things that can be good or bad or true or untrue. Therefore, for awhile I tried out different responses to the question.

What do I do? Well, I work for a global enterprise. We’ve got outlets in nearly every country in the world. We’ve got hospitals and hospices and homeless shelters, we do marriage work, feeding programs, educational opportunities. We’re involved with a lot of justice and reconciliation things. Basically we look after people from birth to death, and we deal in the area of behavioral alternation. 

And then people will always say, “What’s it called?!”

And I say, “The Church.”

But that usually rubbed people in a way that did not endear them to whatever it was I was trying to do, so now I just tell people I’m a pastor and leave it at that.

And therein lies the regular opportunity for invitation because people will start asking questions about the church I serve and then I’ll encourage them to join us on Sunday.

Just this Friday, I was working at a local Panera with my Bible out on the table in front of me and a random stranger came over and struck up a conversation. And within the first few minutes the question was asked and the invitation was made, and the man’s response to the invitation was rather interesting. He said, “I’ve got a lot of difficult things in my life right now, but once I get them sorted out I’ll come check it out some Sunday.”

I think some of us, myself included, often confuse what the church is all about, or what it is for. We make this weird assumption that we come to a place like this to feel better. Which makes sense when you think about it, because that’s why we really go anywhere. We show up in particular places with the hope and expectation that we’ll feel better on the way out than we did on the way in.

And yet, at the same time, we also weirdly feel like we have to have it all figured out before we get here. Or, at the very least, we have to make it seem like we have all our ducks in a row before we sit in one of these rows.

But if we read from the prophet Jeremiah – Jeremiah doesn’t seem like he wants us to feel better. In fact, I think he wants us to feel worse.

Or, to put it another way, if we can’t really feel what we’re feeling here, where else can we?

Let me be clear for a moment: you all look good. Best looking church this side of the Mississippi. But I know, and you know, that some of us here are going through some really tough stuff. Some of us are dealing with depression such that it feels like a dark cloud is following us wherever we go. Some of us are struggling with anxiety that keeps us awake at night while we fret over a host of subjects. Some of us are afraid, or are going through a period of grief, or loneliness, I could go on and on.

And the message of scripture today is this: God knows all of those things and grieves over them.

Woah. 

God, the God we worship and praise and adore, weeps for our weeping. Jeremiah describes God crying a fountain of tears because of the plight of God’s poor people, us.

And even if you want to pretend like your life is perfect, just look at what’s happening in the world…

Millions are marching right now in an effort to combat the devastating effects of climate change and they are largely being led by an 11 year old girl because for some reason we live in a time when adults are acting like children and the children are being forced to act like adults.

Yet another major politician is struggling under the discovery that he wore black face to a party as a twenty something.

Saudi Arabian oil facilities were allegedly attacked by Iran bringing a host a major world nations into the possibility of a conflict the likes of which haven’t been seen in decades.

And here’s one of the craziest things about all the news. We might try to block it out, it might feel simply too overwhelming, but even if we can’t avert our eyes and ears it doesn’t matter much because so many things keep happening that we just move from one horrible thing to another. 

It’s no wonder people show up on Sundays with the hope and expectation that whatever happens here will make them feel better on the way out.

However, for the overwhelming majority of the church’s history, people showed up in places like this with people like us for one reason: to make things right with God.

Christians knew deep in their bones their own sinfulness and they knew they had wronged the Lord.

And we don’t really know that anymore. We avoid the s-word (Sin) like the plague. We fear that we might run off the newcomers if we mention it too much. 

We come to the church to feel better, not to feel worse.

In other words, we’re all looking for a balm.

We were singing the words just a few minutes ago, and we read them from Jeremiah, the balm of Gilead. Gilead was known for its commercial and medicinal success with a simple apothocaric venture with balms that could close wounds and keep them closed. And Jeremiah uses this culturally known and available remedy to poke at whether or not the illness of God’s people can be handled by a spiritual balm.

God’s laments that God’s people feel deserted. And yet, it is their own behavior that has them trapped in this paradoxical feeling of isolation. It’s hard for anyone to realize how trapped they are by their choices or their decisions or their prejudices. We no longer know we are a people of sin because we’ve grown so accustomed to seeing and naming the sins of other people.

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During the time of Jeremiah the temple was responsible for making sure the people of God upheld the covenant made with God. It was at the temple where the nation Israel was told the unvarnished truth about their behavior and the consequences of their never-ending self-interest.

But for some reason the temple stopped doing its job. The priests neglected to speak truth to power and truth to people. 

They had failed and there was no balm.

Imagine if all we ever did was pick and choose the people outside of these walls as the scapegoats for all of our problems.

Imagine if you came to a place like this, a church, week after week and all you were told is that the world is perfect, that your lives are perfect, that all is well.

Imagine hearing that knowing that all is not well, in fact it often feels like all is hell.

Today we are no less lost than the people were during the days of Jeremiah. Our own self-interests blind us to the harm we are doing to others. Greed increases because our insecurities are overflowing. Fear pushes us into such rigid postures of defense that we are no longer listening to the people we really need to be listening to. We rarely recognize how often we place other things from our lives on the altar of our worship as if those things can save us when the only hope we have in the world is a God who weeps for us.

You see that’s the whole thing right there. It would be all too easy to end a sermon like this one with a resounding refrain about how mad God is at us for all the stuff we’ve been doing and all the stuff we’ve avoided doing. I assure you there are plenty of churches out there that can meet that need if that’s what you’re looking for. But the witness of Jeremiah is not that God wants to strike us down out of loathing. 

Jeremiah reminds us of a bewildering truth that we’ve all but forgotten these days: God grieves for us and God grieves with us. 

The balm of Gilead came from the resin of a tree – cultivated and disseminated for all in need. Our balm comes from a similar place, but from a different tree, the one on which Jesus hung for you and me. 

The great witness of the church immemorial is that we know there is a balm in Gilead! The balm isn’t in us. We know we can’t fix ourselves, much to the contrary of the narrative beat into us by the world all the time. 

All we’ve got in us is sin, is selfishness, is self-righteousness. 

The balm we need comes to us from outside of ourselves. It comes to us through the one who condescended himself to know our miserable estate – he became sin who knew no sin. We might not think about our own sins, we usually don’t, but our lives are ruled by them. Its our sins that keep us awake at night and disconnected from one another and even disconnected from God.

How terribly sad.

But God says come to me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest. The beginning of our transformation comes not in feeling good, but strangely enough in feeling bad. That’s after all why we come to church: to bring our burdens to bring our truths to bring our shortcomings to the one who offers us the things we need the most: grace, forgiveness, mercy. 

And then maybe we do leave feeling better than we did on our way in, knowing God did for us what we could not and would not do for ourselves. Amen. 

The Undeserving Leader

A few months ago one of my church members approached me after worship and said, “I think I need to preach a sermon.” I know from experience that if someone feels the Spirit moving, the best thing to do is get out of the way and let it happen so I responded by saying, “What Sunday works for you?” It also helps that I said basically the same thing to my home pastor when I was 16 years old and it played a pivotal role in my own call.

On Sunday, Andrew Kucharuk, a 23 year-old recent graduate of James Madison University, stood before the people of Cokesbury Church and offered this sermon:

Good morning my brothers and sisters in Christ. If you don’t know who I am, it is because at this time of the morning I am normally just now getting up on the weekends as I normally go to the 11am service. My name is Andrew Kucharuk and I have been attending Cokesbury since I was in the 3rd grade… I am now 23 and like Pastor Taylor I also graduated from James Madison University. 

Some of you may be a little bit more familiar with my father Bob Kucharuk, who is fairly active in the church, but if you don’t, that’s okay. Anyways, if you haven’t noticed, this Sunday will be a little different because although Taylor is here today, he is not going to be delivering today’s sermon. Yes, your guest preacher is standing right here in front of you. And while this may be somewhat questionable or maybe concerning, I’m here to assure you that this is not my first rodeo. In fact about 10 years ago, when Pastor Russ was here. I actually had agreed to lead a youth service with the guidance of Robin B. Miller. And yes, I delivered sermon and while it might not have been the greatest, I’m proud to say that I have indeed done one in the past. 

So I hope you all enjoy the message that I have prepared for you all this morning. However, you all may be wondering how exactly I ended up being in this position today and let me tell you, I’m still trying to figure that out myself too! Strangely enough, it feels like just last week when I asked Taylor if I could stand here and deliver a sermon for the congregation. Except it wasn’t! It was about 2 months or a month and a half ago, one day after service I had approached Taylor and I asked him if I could to give a sermon one Sunday. And while he looked at me very calm, cool, and collective pastor-like way and told me yes, I know that deep down inside that he was jumping for joy and screaming hallelujah in his head that one of us from the congregation was willing to take some of the pressure off his shoulders for a week. I mean let’s be honest here, when we were little we all dreaded doing chores and if someone tells you that they want to wash the dishes or that they want to do another chore, you’re not going to tell them no. 

Anyways, I have developed two theories as to what could have inspired me. The first one is definitely a little bit more acceptable and easier to believe as one Sunday, Taylor delivered the most beautiful sermon I’ve ever heard and I felt the Holy Spirit move me to ask Taylor to do this today. Or on the other hand, Taylor delivered a sermon that just had me shaking my head, leading me to believe that I would do better! Whichever the reason it is, you can keep that your own little secret and I’ll tell you here now that it worked. And in these past two weeks, I have learned a lot. Most importantly, I have learned that leading a church is a not an easy task whatsoever. So with this being said I’d like to take a moment before I deliver my sermon today to thank each and every single person that helps this amazing church amazing, and each and every single one of you that is here today. And now I guess the time I have been waiting for has finally come.

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Initially, when I had accepted this opportunity to preach, I was elated and extremely excited to speak in front of all of you today. Let me tell you it is quite surreal to go from sitting in the pews where you all are sitting to go up here and to be blessed to have all your attention fixated on me. And before I make myself blush, I thought about this Sunday non-stop each and every night past two weeks. I was excited, impatient, and eager as I thought of all the possible messages that I could deliver to you all on this day. However, as I thought about preaching for you all more and more, and the days got closer, I began to become anxious and worried of what exactly I was going to do and what exactly I was going to say. And as I thought about it more and more, I began to doubt myself and my ability to speak and entice my audience. 

Every day when I went to work it was all that was on my mind, as I asked myself what exactly did I sign myself up for? I thought to myself that there was no possible way that I could deliver a sermon. I mean look at me. I am arguably one of the youngest members of this church, I don’t have the wisdom that Taylor or you all possess, I have fallen in and out of my relationship with God more times that I can remember, and most importantly I am an immature as a person and in my faith. And dating to about a month ago, I sat at my desk each day at work as I drafted an email that I was hesitant to send. I drafted an email with some fabricated lie, but in reality and in essence said this: “I’m sorry Taylor I can’t deliver the sermon today because I’m unworthy to this church and I’m undeserving to lead and speak about God’s grace.” 

I had left this in my drafts box of email for about 2 weeks, which was about a month out from this Sunday. Finally, on a Monday morning, I decided I would send the email. Although I would have to live in the guilt and shame of telling a tremendous lie to a Pastor, I was fixated on the idea of being liberated from the shackles of this pressuring responsibility. Unfortunately for me and ironically enough, right before I sent that email… I received an email from Taylor a few hours before thanking me and informing me of passages that I could preach on today. Originally, what Taylor had planned to be preaching on this day was Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28. And I want to quickly read that scripture for you all today.

4:11 At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow (win-O) or cleanse–

4:12 a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.

4:22 “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”

4:23 I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.

4:24 I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.

4:25 I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.

4:26 I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger.

4:27 For thus says the LORD: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.

4:28 Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.

And boy, let me tell you, after I read this, my stomach dropped as I thought to myself there was no possible way that I could deliver a sermon on this scripture. After I read that scripture from Jeremiah, I was more than sure that I was going to lie to Pastor Taylor and accept that guilt I mentioned before. 

Foolishly enough, I replied and told Taylor, that basically I did not like the message of that scripture; I said this in order to ease him into the lie I was going to tell. Nevertheless, Taylor replied and basically said “no worries, I got some other scriptures for you.” And in a follow-up email, he sent me a list of different scriptures that I could preach on today. And by grace of God, out of all the passages that were presented to me in that list, there was one passage that completely changed my mindset coming into this Sunday, and I hope it can change yours too.

After confirming with Taylor that I wanted to preach my sermon today on 1 Timothy 1:12-17, I began studying and seeking advice from any sources that I believed could help me in my leadership this morning. One of my sources, was an old friend of mine that I met at Ashbury United Church in Harrisonburg, VA during my time at JMU. Anyways, he provided me a book that he thought would be helpful, a book that he had received from another Presbyterian pastor that was given to him when he sought the same advice as me when he too gave a guest sermon. I didn’t really ask too many questions as I thought I needed all the help I could get. Thus, I kindly accepted the book and took it home with me. 

And later that same day I received the book, I opened the book and read the foreword to get an idea of what I was going to get myself into and examine how exactly this book would help me. And in the foreword of this book was an applicable message that I want to read for you all today. The book is titled From Strength to Weakness by Scott Sauls, however the foreword is written by Joni Eareckson Tada. The excerpt reads:

“Now, if I were God, I would do it differently. I’d pick the smartest men and women to be on my strategy team. I’d draft the world’s sharpest millionaires to finance the operation. My public relations people would be the most effective communicators anywhere. Weak people need not apply. Those with physical defects? Forget it. People who might slow down my progress? Never. Thank the Lord that I am not running the world. He’s in charge. And he opens his arms to the weak and ungifted, the unlovely and unlikely. He opens his arms to sinners. It’s because of his great love. It’s also because this is the way God does things to bring maximum glory to himself.” 

After reading this part alone, I shut the book and returned it to my friend. Why? Because I knew that this was all that I needed besides my Bible. When you think about it, this excerpt is very accurate. When you think about all the leaders that are listed in the Bible except for Jesus Christ, there are many who may fit the mold of being a leader by default, but the majority of these leaders were weak and ungifted, unlovely and unlikely, and undeserving of grace in one way or another. And while I thought about focusing the core message around the young Pastor Timothy who I found many similarities with, there was another undeserving leader in the Bible who does not fit the traditional mold of a leader, but fulfills the intentions of God and is saved by His grace. This leader that I am speaking of is the Apostle Paul himself. 

Why focus on the Apostle Paul? Well to give some biblical context to this scripture, 1 Timothy is one of the three last letters that the Apostle Paul wrote… These letters include 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. Together, these three letters are known as the Pastoral Epistles in Christianity, as Paul writes these letters to instruct Timothy and Titus in their journey in missionary. 

In 1 Timothy, the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy as he is given the delegation to correct the false teachers in the city Ephesus. However, if you reread today’s scripture, you will realize that Paul’s message was a self-reflection of encouragement. A self-reflection of encouragement not just written to Timothy but to all of us. Paul in the Bible is a sinner, we know this as he describes himself as a blasphemer and a persecutor in verse 13. This is something that he references over and over as he has not forgotten the actions of his past, persecuting God’s people and resisting God’s will. And when you summarize all this, his following statement in verse 15 makes sense: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost… notice that he does not say I was, but rather I am… and that he remains a sinner before God. That he is chief and guilty of the worst sins.

And while Paul writes and describes himself in this undeserving fashion, there remains this controversy in the New Testament between how Luke describes Paul in the book of Acts and how Paul describes himself in his epistles. Luke writes and portrays this picture that Paul is a man who is highly educated, a man who is comfortable with all different kinds of people, a man who is confident in himself, and most importantly a man who is highly successful. However, if you compare these statements to Paul’s writings mentioned before, you will see another version, a version which is far less than what Luke portrays Paul to be. 

In Paul’s writings, he describes himself to be unsure at times and not always victorious as he struggles with the decisions he makes internally. And although some Christians and/or scholars say that this is a discrepancy… maybe it really isn’t, maybe all it really is, is a matter of perspective. While Luke describes Paul to be this hero and how others see Paul to be this Christ-like figure, Paul describes what he sees when he looks in front of a mirror; a sinner of whom he is foremost. 

Does this sound familiar? It’s like when someone gives you an award that you don’t feel you deserve or when maybe you’ve been recognized for something you didn’t really do. Just like Paul, Paul vividly remembers the harsh reality of his past and realizes that in comparison to God’s greatness and purity, he is nowhere even close; he is imperfect and ultimately he is sinner. 

However, fortunately for Paul, fortunately for myself, and fortunately for each and every single one of you, the story does not end here. Although Paul was a sinner, Paul was a sinner saved by grace. Paul was a sinner saved by grace. Paul does not write this as a person who detached or distant from the faith of the lord, but rather in personal manner. As he states in verse 14 that the grace of our Lord overflowed for me. 

This grace is abundantly poured out for him like the wine in the cup and blood that was shed for not only for him but for us. And even in the previous verse he writes his message in a passive tone that he received mercy. And why is this important? This passive tone implies that Paul wrote this letter knowing he is not the focal point, but rather of how Christ is at work in him and how he is a product of God and grace that saved him. 

Paul did not earn grace nor did he create it. He received in abundance like we all do. It is through this grace, that we can serve no matter how undeserving we may feel, it is through this grace that we are saved, it is through this grace that we can learn to love one another, it is through this grace that we can find the life everlasting. And it was through this grace that I found the courage to speak to you this morning as undeserving as I may be. Amen. 

Real Talk

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with T. Bryson Smith about the readings for the 15th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 8.18-9.1, Psalm 79.1-9, 1 Timothy 2.1-7, Luke 16.1-13). Bryson serves at Good Shepherd UMC in Richmond, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the bottom of the barrel, Gilead’s balms, honesty in church, dancing between time, prayer requests, assumptions, making room for lament, the real Paul, and finding grace in the parables. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Real Talk

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