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. 

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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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Church People Are Gonna Church People

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with John Carl Hastings about the readings for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28, Psalm 14, 1 Timothy 1.12-17, Luke 15.1-10). John Carl serves as one of the pastors of Bluff Park UMC in Alabama. Our conversation covers a range of topics including College Football message boards, hot winds, discomfort for the Lord, pretending all is well, colloquial liturgy, praying for others, the sneakiness of works righteousness, and the impracticality of grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Church People Are Gonna Church People

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Exegete This!

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with John Carl Hastings about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 18.1-11, Psalm 139.1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1.1-21, Luke 14.25-33). John Carl serves as one of the pastors of Bluff Park UMC in Alabama. Our conversation covers a range of topics including story time with Bishop Willimon, throwing on the wheel, difficult verses, being known, predestination, Philemon, reading outside the text, hating the family, kingdom catching, and uncomfortable fellowship. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Exegete This!

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The Gospel Is Fun

Devotional: 

Hebrews 13.16

Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. 

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Years ago one of my seminary professors lectured about how the church survived the first few centuries when Christians were being regularly persecuted for their faith. He first noted that the resurrection of Jesus was so powerful and transformative that the early disciples could not help themselves but stay committed to such a thing. But then he said something else that has stuck with me ever since, “And the gospel is fun!”

On Sunday afternoon I was running around in my “Church Can Happen Anywhere” shirt across out parking lot and thanking God under my breath for the beautiful weather. We had people from all over our local community spread out with more food than they knew what to do with and I was trying to make sure that everything for the celebration was going smoothly. The moon bounce on the other side of the pavilion was a huge hit, the drinks were nice and cold, but for some reason the slip and slip was remaining un-enjoyed over on the hill.

I promptly made my way over to make sure the water was flowing properly when a few kids followed closely on my heels. “Is it working?” “Am I allowed to go on it?” “How cold is it?” were the murmurings behind me and I assured the children that all would be well. 

After checking the hose connection I encouraged the closest child to try it out and before I could talk her through how the whole thing worked she was racing down the hill cackling with joy. Within the new few minutes a small crowd of kids and adults had gathered around the slide and it became abundantly clear the time had come for me, the pastor, to slip and slide down the hill as well.

So I did.

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I spent the rest of the celebration continuing to check in on people as was necessary and when we started cleaning up I overheard one of the little girls exclaiming to her mother (while drenched from head to toe), “This church is fun!”

The church is supposed to be a lot of things: faithful, holy, transformative, contemplative, etc. And sadly, one of the words least associated with church is fun. But on Sunday, we had fun.

The writer of Hebrews notes that doing good and sharing what we have is pleasing to God. Which, when considering the fact that Jesus spent his final evening with his friends doing exactly that, it makes a lot of sense. However, it strikes me that many churches and church-related activities have lost their sense of fun. And if the joy of the gospel was enough to sustain the earliest disciples, why aren’t we seeking that same kind of fun today?

No One Listens Anymore

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chris Corbin about the readings for the 12th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 2.4-13, Psalm 81.1, 10-16, Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16, Luke 14.1, 7-14). Chris is the Missioner for Leadership Development for the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota. Our conversation covers a range of topics including humidity, Remembering The Future, the economics of parsonages, idolatry, Sunday morning choices, Episcopalians vs. other Christians, competing narratives, angels, lawful freedom, and dinner party theology. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: No One Listens Anymore

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Unfair

Luke 18.9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” 

60 years.

That’s a long time.

Basically double my life.

It is a really remarkable thing that this church is celebrating its 60th anniversary. And yet, the entire Christian tradition is 2,000 years old. 60 out of 2,000 sounds a little less impressive. 

However, to live, and survive, in a time such as this is truly worth celebrating. The last 60 years have been marked, much to our chagrin and disappointment, with the decline of the church in America.

But here we are!

And not only are we here, but we are celebrating our being here! We have much to celebrate – not just the anniversary of the church, but also the gospel being made manifest in a place like Woodbridge to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

Seeing as its the church’s anniversary, we can’t really know who we are without knowing where we’ve been.

Cokesbury began in that strange and picturesque time we call the 50’s. In the 50’s everything felt right – we were on the other side of the greatest war ever waged on the earth, and we won. Hawaii and Alaska were added to the union. The Barbie Doll was first introduced.

A gallon of gas only cost 25 cents!

We are inherently a nostalgic people and it is very easy to look back and remember what we might call good. We can turn on an old movie, or remember a particular politician, or even a fashion trend from the past and think fondly of each of them.

However, the 50’s, for whatever good they might’ve introduced, there was an equal number, if not more, of what we could certainly call the bad.

In the late 50’s the first Americans were killed in Vietnam. The Civil Rights movement was spreading across the country and black churches were being regularly bombed on Sunday mornings. And the scapegoat of Communism was causing us to ostracize and at times imprison some of our own citizens.

I once heard someone describe the fifties as a time when everything was black and white and everyone knew right from wrong. And yet, if you just look at a list of major events that took place the year this church started it feels more like a time of gray, when everything was confused.

60 years ago a handful of people from our community started meeting and called themselves Cokesbury Church. To those individuals, the time was ripe for the gospel and the sharing of the Good News, so they did.

But then something changed. It’s not possible to pinpoint exactly what happened, but we all know that we live in a very different world than the world of 1959. In 1959 everyone assumed that you would grow up, get married, have 2.5 children, pay your taxes, and go to church. Business were closed on Sundays because everyone had a church to go to and it was a major moment of the week for all sorts of communities.

That world is long gone.

Which leads us to the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.

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I know this seems a strange text to be read and preached upon as we celebrate 50 years as a church, and I will plainly admit that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea, but we might as well listen to what God has to say to us today, even as we celebrate.

The parable ends rather disconcertingly: Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Which seems like I should stand in a place like this and tell people like you to be more humble. But this parable isn’t really about humility at all. If anything, it’s about our futility. It’s about the foolish notion that we can do anything to get ourselves right with God.

Listen: There’s a man who is good and faithful. He’s not a crook, or a womanizer, or an alcoholic. He loves his wife and plays on the floor with his kids when he gets home from work. He evens tithes when the offering plate comes around. He is exactly unlike the tax collector. 

The tax collector is a legal crook who steals from his fellow people and bleeds all the money out of them that he possibly can. He’s like a mid-level mafia boss who skims from the top before sending the money up the chain. He’s got enough cars and boats that he can never drive all of them.

They both show up for worship. The good faithful man thanks God that he’s not like the tax-collector and the tax collector asks for God to have mercy on him, a sinner.

And Jesus presents these two men as the means by which God’s grace is communicated in a completely unfair way because it’s the tax collector who gives home justified.

Let’s think about it this way: Which of the two men would we like to have sitting next to us in the pews on Sunday morning? What would we do if the tax collector was here in our midst? How would we respond if he took a little money out of the offering plate and showed up with a new woman every Sunday?

It’s all wrong, right?

This parable is one of Jesus’ final declarations about the business of grace. Grace – the totally unmerited and undeserved gift from God. And here, with resounding convictions, Jesus tells the disciples for the thousandth time that the whole game is unfair. 

Grace is completely unfair because what we think is good and right and true matters little to God. Ultimately, not one of us matches up to the goodness of God and instead of kicking us out of the party for being unworthy, God says, “I will make you worthy.”

Do you see what that means? It means that the good religious work of the Pharisee is not able to justify him any more than the crazy sins of the tax collector can kick him out. The whole point of this parable, of almost all the parables, is that these two are both dead in the eyes of God, their good deeds and their sins can’t earn them or prevent them from salvation – they have no hope in the world unless there is someone who can raise the dead. 

And even here knowing the condition of their condition, which is also ours, even in the midst of celebrating 60 years as a worshipping community, perhaps we understand what Jesus’ is saying in our minds but our hearts are desperate to believe the opposite.

We might not like to admit it, but we all establish our identities by seeing how we look through other people’s eyes. We spend our days fixing our words and our looks in front of the mirror’s of other people’s opinions so that we will never have to think about the nightmare of being who we really are.

And that’s where this parables stings the hardest. This parable, more than most, is so resoundingly unfair that we can’t bring ourselves to admit the truth: We’re not good enough. 

And we fear the tax collector’s acceptance not because it means we need to accept those derelicts around us, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt. We fear his acceptance because it means that none of us will ever really be free until we stop trying to save ourselves and justify ourselves all the time. And that’s all we do all the time!

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We do it in ways both big and small. We purchase things we shouldn’t all with the hope that those thing will bring us more approval in the eyes of the people we want approval from the most. 

We posture bits of morality and ethics and even politics with some vague hope that it will put us in better standing with God.

And as long as we struggle, like the Pharisee, to do everything perfectly perfect all the time, we will resent the unfairness of God to all of our struggling. 

God is unfair – It’s true. 

But God’s unfairness is Good News. For if God were really fair, fair according to the terms set by the world, then God would’ve closed to the door to the party a long long time ago.

Which leads us back to what we are celebrating today. No matter who we identify with in the story – the good religious liar or the honest tax collector – there is a really strong temptation to thank God that we are not like other people. We pass someone on the street or we see the name on a particular bumper sticker on someone’s car or we read someone’s facebook status and we measure our lives against theirs and we come out on the other side grateful. It’s even present in an anniversary like this, because isn’t surviving in the current marketplace of ideas a subtle form of thanking God we’re not like everyone else?

Christians, at least in the last few decades, have tried to avoid being seen as different from other people. We have done so out of fear of seeming too strange, or too fundamentalist, or too evangelical. We’ve been content with letting our faith become privatized and something we do on Sundays. But because we have tried so hard to not seem different, it has been unclear why anyone would want to be like us, much less join a church that started in 1959.

Or, to make things worse, we’ve established a Christian identity such that only perfect people can be present in the pews. 

It’s no wonder people don’t want to come to church. 

The truth of the matter is that being Christian means being different. But unlike how we so often present this in worship or in the greater cultural ethos, it doesn’t mean being like the good religious man, it means admitting that we are all like the tax collector. 

You see, following Jesus means admitting the condition of our condition – its falling to the floor Sunday after Sunday with the same confession on our lips, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And it’s knowing that before we can even bring those words to our lips God has forgiven every last one of our sins through the cross of his Son. 

That’s what makes us different. Not being able to keep a religious roof over our heads for 60 years, but 60 years of rediscovering week after week how good the Good News really is. It’s why we come to this table over and over again to be made one with the one whose humility on the cross turned out to be a victory that defeated sin and death. 

In the bread and the cup we see how unfair God is. Because, if grace were fair, then none of us would be worthy to come to the table, whether we’re a publican or a pharisee. But thanks be to God that grace is unfair, making room for each and every single one of us. Amen.