Bonus Sermon – The Bad Shepherd

I try to have my sermons finished by Thursday afternoon before being preached on Sunday. This allows me to truly experience Sabbath on Fridays and forces me to think about the scripture throughout the beginning part of the week rather than procrastinating until the end. But every once in awhile, something will take place during the week that necessitates a sermonic change.

Last Friday morning I woke up, read over the sermon one last time and it just didn’t feel right. With everybody online going crazy about the executive order for religious liberty and the House voting on a bill that would repeal and replace most parts of the Affordable Care Act, I felt like God was calling me to trash what I had written and start over. So I did (You can read that sermon here: “The Politics of the Church.“)

But I had already written an entire sermon and crafted a whole worship service around a central theme! So I asked the congregation to pray for me as I offered the new sermon, written later than usual, outside the normal connections through our whole service. And, because I wrote two sermons last week, I have included the sermon that wasn’t preached below…

 

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

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“Pass the wine.” The party was getting on into the wee hours of the morning, and everyone was having a great time. The food was good and plentiful. The wine flowed profusely. The stories kept bubbling forth. “Remember that time we walked into town and everybody just kept staring at us, waiting for something to happen?” “Or what about the day we ate by the beach and talked about the future.” “I’ll never forget the looks on everyone’s faces when we walked out of town that one time and wiped the dirt of our feet.”

It was a great party.

There’s something about the stories and the food and the wine that help blind us from the reality of what is to come. On Thanksgiving we fill our bellies in denial of all the money we are about to spend during the Christmas season. On New Years Eve we clink the champagne in ignorance of all the mistakes we made and we believe that this year will finally be the one we get it all right. On Easter we tell stories about the resurrection in hopes that hope will not fade in the weeks that follow, but the normalcy of life slips in and our hallelujahs don’t have quite the force they did a few weeks ago.

But what did the host think during the party? While the friends were passing around the bottle and giggling with memories of the last few years, what was going through his mind? Was he buzzed with the joy of his compatriots as he walked around the table filling their glasses? Was he nostalgic about all they had been through and in denial of what was going to happen in just a few hours?

Did he think about the words to Psalm 23?

Throughout the gospel narratives Jesus is forever quoting and referring to the Old Testament, and in particular the Psalms. The psalms, it seems, are his prayers. They are familiar and well known and comforting. But while he sat at the table that night, that last night, when he told them the bread was his body and the wine his blood, I wonder if he thought about the 23rd psalm when he looked across the table and into the eyes of his friend Judas: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Full disclosure: I don’t enjoy preaching on well-known texts. Give me some obscure passage from Zephaniah or Joel and I will get up here and proclaim it with everything that I’ve got. In fact, I rather enjoy preaching on the passages we don’t know because we can all come to the text with a fresh perspective. But when we read a passage that everyone knows, a passage that we’ve all heard more times than we can count, the challenge becomes that much greater.

Like John 3.16 – For God so loved the world… As soon as the words hit the air most of us immediately wander in our minds to black tape under the eyes of sport figures, scratched notations in bathroom stalls, and college evangelists trying to save souls. And because of this we forget that John 3.16 is part of a much bigger story of Jesus meeting in the late hours with Nicodemus.

Instead, I could randomly flip open the bible, pick any verse, and I think we would receive it better than the well-known texts because we would not bring any of our own baggage to God’s Word.

But today we’ve got one of the most well known, perhaps the most well known passage in all of scripture: Psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

And already most of you have tuned out whatever I’m about to say. Because the moment we hear these remarkably familiar words, our minds jump back in time to memories of this passage. We start thinking about the last time we read the passage out-loud at a funeral. We remember sitting down on our Grandmother’s lap and hearing her repeat the words without looking in her bible. We are transported back to our childhood Sunday school classrooms where many of us were forced to repeat the psalm, out loud, from memory, in front of our peers.

Perhaps for some of us, the mere mention of the psalm elicits a feeling of joyfulness and peace. We think about the green pastures and the still waters and whatever stress we’ve got going on in our lives starts to fade away.

And maybe for some of us, the mere mention of the psalm elicits a feeling of strange and bizarre reflection. The green pastures and still waters are nice, but why in the world is God preparing tables for us in the presence of our enemies? Our cups are overflowing with many blessings, but why can’t we dwell with the Lord forever, and not just while we’re living?

It is remarkably difficult to approach this text with open eyes because it already means so much to so many of us.

But what did it mean to Jesus?

That night before he gave himself up, the evening of the Last Supper, did he think about the table being prepared before him with an enemy? Did he still believe that his cup overflowed with grace and peace and mercy even though one of his closest disciples was about to betray him for a couple pieces of silver?

In the midst of stress, fear, and anxiety the psalmist offers a strange alternative: the refreshing peace found in the Good Shepherd.

But is the Lord really a good shepherd? Yeah, God will set us down in the green pastures, and will lead us beside the still waters; whatever that means. God takes us down the right paths for his name’s sake, and even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil.

Really? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I have the kind of faith such that I could walk through a place or a time in my life described as the valley of the shadow of death and not be afraid. I get afraid every time I get a phone call from an older member of the church on their way to the hospital, every time I hear my son fall to the ground with a loud thud, and even when I’m hear at night in the sanctuary and all the lights are off.

And the rod and the staff? Those aren’t meant to be tools of comfort like a quilt or a duvet. Rods and staffs are meant to wring us and knock us back on to the right track when we’ve gone astray. And where does God eventually lead us? To a table prepared just for us in the presence of our enemies.

We love this psalm, we pray it and read it and hear it all the time. But sometimes, God sounds more like a bad shepherd than a good one.

Sometimes we hold it so close that we don’t think about what it really says, or even what it might’ve meant to the one we call the Good Shepherd.

I want to have the faith of the psalmist, I want to be able to look at the darkest valley, and the rod and the staff, and the table filled with my enemies with hope and joy. But this psalm isn’t really about me or us, nor is it about what we think of the Shepherd. It’s a psalm about who God is, and what God does for us, his sheep.

God’s protective power, God’s immense grace, is so great, so unimaginable, that God has the audacity to prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies. A good shepherd would prepare the table in the presence of our friends and our families; not with the people who want to destroy us. God’s table, provided for us, is not the table we would choose for ourselves. Like a middle school cafeteria, we would rather sit with the people we like than with the bullies eyeing us from across the room.

We read in the psalm that God transforms every situation. But we take that to mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. A good shepherd, we think, would protect us from every type of evil. But no, our bad shepherd says there will be deathly valleys and enemies galore; the difference is that our shepherd has done something that prevents them from destroying us.

We will absolutely experience hardships, and fear, and stress, but the bad shepherd is with us in the midst of them.

Our shepherd is only a bad shepherd in that we think we know what God should do for us. We abstract this psalm from the reality to which it speaks and make it out to be some kind of shield to protect us from everything in life. What makes our bad shepherd a good shepherd is that our shepherd will never abandon us.

Being a disciple is a way of life that we cannot know outside of being converted to it. For taking up our cross to follow Jesus changes every little thing about the way we live. It means that even though we talk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil because Jesus has defeated the very death that casts a shadow in our lives. We cannot live without that fear unless we’ve been converted to a way of life that constitutes knowledge of the bad shepherd who takes care of us.

Sitting down with the very people who hate us is not something we could do without being converted to it. All of us, sinners that we are, would choose the other table. But God in Christ chose to sit down at the table where his betrayer sat, offered him the same bread and cup that we are offered here in church knowing full and well what he was about to do.

Being a Christian is possible only through the grace of God empowering us to follow His Son on the way. We cannot do it on our own accord, and it cannot take place without a radical restructuring of what we know and what we believe. We cannot follow Jesus without sitting at the table, elbow to elbow, with the people who would rather betray us.

And, again, that makes God sound like a pretty bad shepherd. What kind of God would willfully send a child to the table with bullies? What kind of God would use a rod to knock us back into line? What kind of God would ignore the rest of the guests to make sure our cup was overflowing at all times in the middle of a party?

The very same one who was willing to take on our flesh in the incarnation. Our ­bad shepherd really is the good shepherd because Jesus came to live and to die and to live again for the sheep. Christ is the one who makes possible the goodness and mercy that follows us all the days of our lives such that we can sit at the table with hope, because Christ did the same thing for us. Amen.

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Devotional – Psalm 31.5

Devotional:

Psalm 31.5

Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

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It is such a blessing to work for a church with a preschool because I get to interact with children who are beginning to learn about God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This takes place weekly during chapel time in the sanctuary as I help to share stories from the bible with the kids, and it also takes place on special occasions like when we celebrate communion together and when we talk about the waters of baptism. Our preschool represents a great diversity of families and religious convictions (including a few kids whose mother or father is the pastor of a different church) so I have to make sure that whenever we talk about scripture I’m not doing it in such a way that it will undermine what a child has been taught at his/her home church.

Over the last few years we’ve had two brothers attend the preschool whose mother is the pastor of another United Methodist Church in town. Pastor Sarah and I are very close and I’ve greatly enjoyed talking with her boys about the bible because they know it so well (though it has made chapel time sessions a challenge since they are forever answering the questions before the other kids get a chance). Her boys, Charlie and Jed, are what I hope my son, Elijah, will be like as he grows up.

Months ago I was having a conversation with Sarah at a clergy event when she shared with me that her boys were not baptized as infants and that they had recently decided to commit their lives to Jesus AND that they wanted me to participate in their baptisms. To be asked by another clergy person to take part in her children’s baptism is quite unlike anything I’ve ever been blessed to do in my life.

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And so yesterday afternoon, Sarah’s family and friends gathered together with her boys by a river just outside of Staunton for their baptism. I offered a little homily to reflect on how God has already moved in and through their lives and then it was time to go to the water. The river was moving at a good pace and was so cold that I was worried if the boys slowly walked out into the water they would have high-tailed it in the other direction, so one-by-one I carried Sarah’s sons over the water and together she and I baptized them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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For what it’s worth: the Spirit got a hold of them real quick and they were both screaming as they came out of the water!

 

Being there are the water’s edge, and then in the middle of the river for the baptism, was one of the holiest experiences I’ve had in a long time. And when I looked at Jed and Charlie, when I saw their utter dedication to what they were about to do (even with the water as cold as it was), and I was reminded of Psalm 31.5: “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” Jed and Charlie made a choice yesterday afternoon to offer their lives to Christ, something that most of us have done whether we made the choice or someone made it for us. And today I am grateful that I was there to participate because their faithfulness has challenged me to be more faithful like them.

The Politics Of The Church

Acts 2.42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

On Thursday President Donald Trump signed an executive order titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” This brought to fruition one of his many campaign promises that he would give “our churches their voices back.”

The order was designed to dismantle the Johnson Amendment that bans tax-exempt organizations, like churches, from endorsing political candidates and activities or they run the risk of losing their tax-exempt status. To be clear: fully repealing the Johnson Amendment would require congressional action, but the order certainly takes a step in that direction.

Basically, churches and other tax-exempt organizations are now on a path that will potentially lead to a time where preachers like me can stand in pulpits like this and tell you how we think you should vote according to the Lord. It means we, as a church, can give money from our tithes and offerings to specific political individuals or campaigns if we believe they match our religious convictions. And we can do all this without fear or retribution from the federal government.

Freedom.

On Thursday, the same day the executive order regarding religious liberty was signed into action, the House voted to approve legislation to repeal and replace major parts of the Affordable Care Act, another one of President Trump’s campaign promises. It still faces an uphill battle in the Senate, but the people who represent us in the House approved it.

In the wake of the vote, people on either side of the issue have been going ballistic. Some are thrilled that the bill would eliminate tax penalties for people who go without health insurance. Some are terrified that it would roll back state by state expansions of Medicaid, which covers millions of low-income Americans (40% of which are children).

Freedom.

So here we are, days after the executive order and the House vote, and I can’t help but imagine how many pastors are standing up in places like this one this morning, with a new found sense of freedom to speak either for or against what our government is doing. I can already imagine what a lot of the posts on Facebook and Twitter are going to look like this afternoon from either side of the political spectrum.

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In the early days of the church the disciples devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers. And during this time awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles’, perhaps most spectacular was the fact that the Lord was adding to their number those who were being saved. And what makes that spectacular? All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

Who signs up for something like that? Come join our group, we’d love to have you! And once you start participating all you have to do is sell everything you have so that we can take care of everyone. We believe in recognizing the inherent blessings of God in our lives and we don’t really believe in personal property. So join us on Sundays at 11am and don’t forget to sell your stuff!

That sounds a whole lot more like Communism than Capitalism.

            Where’s the freedom in that?

And here’s the point: Religious figures on the right and left have come out in droves about what the government has done as of recent, as is their right, but inherent in their declarations is a grave sin: idolatry.

Today we worship our government the way we once worshipped the Lord. We follow the never-ending political news-cycle like we once checked in on our brothers and sisters in faith. We read and repost articles about votes in the house and senate and executive orders like we once shared the story of Jesus Christ.

And I am guilty of this sin too; hence the great number of sermons as of recent that have revolved around the current political climate.

This story about the budding church sounds so weird and bizarre because we are so far removed from it. Instead of looking like this idyllic church community we’ve been co-opted by the assumption that our government is supposed to be the church, or at least it’s supposed to act like the church. Therefore we support political candidates who agree with our personal beliefs regarding issues like abortion rather than attempt to be present for women who wrestle with the fear of having an unplanned child. We spend more time talking about how our government should vet political refugees than pooling our resources together to bring them out of their war torn areas. We verbally attack people on the Internet for being politically opposed to our position instead of realizing that we often sit shoulder to shoulder with them in our church pews and that we have far more in common than we think we do.

Christians in America have played this political game for so long that we can almost no longer differentiate between America and God, something that scripture and Jesus call idolatry.

The church does not exist to serve our political aspirations, nor does the government exist to serve the needs of the church. The church does not represent a particular partisan agenda to be made manifest on Capitol Hill.

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The church itself is a politic. We do well to remember that we are a politic and that there are many ways for the church to be political. But the way to be the church is not synonymous with pursuing democratically elected representatives who can therefore represent our personal political opinions. As one of my former professors recently noted, “There’s only one instance of democratic voting in the gospels, and the people chose Barabbas.”

Gathering with others around the body and the blood of Christ is one way for Christians to be political, and it is the original way. For it is in gathering around a table such as this one, particularly with people who do not necessarily agree with us politically, we live and lean into the strange mystery that we call the kingdom of God. For us, this table is an ever-present reminder that we are not the authors of our salvation and neither is our government.

Here in America we greatly celebrate our freedom, and in particular our freedom of speech. But honestly, we are mostly only concerned with our freedom to say what we want. And the moment we hear someone speak from the other perspective we either cover our ears in anger, or we rush against them with vitriol.

For far too long we’ve limited our imagination of the church to being the mechanism by which we can develop strategies that can, to put it in political terms, Make America Great Again. But that is not the task nor is it the mission of the church. The task of the church is to be a community of character that can survive as a witness to the truth.

All of this is not meant to be a critique of the policies of the political right or the political left. Nor is in meant to be an endorsement of policies representing either side of the political spectrum. No, this is about our captivity to the presumption that our politics determine our lives more than the living God.

And that is why we worship, it is why we gather together to tell the stories of scripture and break bread and say the prayers. This is why we still do what they started doing back during the time of Acts. We gather together in witness to what the risen Christ is doing in and through our community. And in so doing we respond to the risen Christ by doing strange things like freely giving of our income to bless others who are in need, like giving of our time to work down at the Trinity Kitchen so provide food to those who are in need, like showing up in a different community every summer to help with modest home repairs for those who are in need, like breaking bread with people we disagree with to create meaningful relationships for those who are in need.

We’ve come a long way throughout the centuries as the strange community we call the church. You can tell how far we’ve come, or to put it another way how far we’ve moved, by how much we bristle when we read about selling our possessions and distributing the needs to all as any have need. That doesn’t match with what the world has told us life is all about.

Instead we’re captivated by a narrative that tells us to earn all we can and save all we can, that freedom is more important than faithfulness, and that the world is ruled by politics.

No. God rules the word. Faithfulness is more important than freedom. It is better to give all that we can rather than to gain all that we can.

And so we worship. We listen to the stories of scriptures, we enter the strange new world of the bible, and we learn to speak the truth. Worship id where we begin. In worship we develop an imagination capable of forming us into the people God is calling us to be, a people who can live into the difficult reality of Acts 2, who can be political, even more political than our government, by recognizing who we are and whose we are.

As Christians, we know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we do not need executive orders to grant us freedom to speak truth. We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we believe in taking care of our brothers and sisters regardless of whether or not our government does. We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we are not captivated by political policies geared toward keeping us “safe.” After all, we worship a crucified God and we seek to be in fellowship with the One who mounted the hard wood of the cross.

Being a Christian is not about freedom, denying responsibility, or being safe. Following Jesus is all about challenging the presumptions of the world with the truth of the lordship of Christ that often puts us in a place of danger. Because, as Christians, we believe in loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves, which is not the same thing as being a Democrat or a Republican. We believe in serving the needs of those on the margins, which means helping those who cannot help themselves.

We believe the greatest freedom we’ve ever received did not come with the Declaration of Independence but through a poor Jewish rabbi who was murdered by the state.

And as Christians, we know that we can act politically: we can vote, we can march, we can lobby all we want. But we also believe that gathering together to do this thing we call church is the most political thing we could ever do. Amen.

On Listening For The Shepherd’s Voice

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The team from Crackers & Grape Juice recently spent an afternoon interviewing Brian Zahnd (founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a nondenominational congregation in St. Joseph, Missouri) for our lectionary podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for the season of Easter during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary. For the fourth Sunday of Easter, Brian challenged us to make it all about joy (again) while the world struggles under the weight of the current political climate. If you want to hear the conversation and learn more about adding 3,000 people from just one sermon, the challenge of preaching the most well known passage in the bible, the exclusivity vs. inclusivity of the church, spirit animals, and what it means to pray the prayers, you can check out the podcast here: Easter 4A – Brian Zahnd

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Devotional – Acts 2.42

Devotional:

Acts 2.42

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

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“Why don’t you offer the prayer?” This is one of my favorite questions to ask in order to make someone uncomfortable when they least suspect it. I’ll be out at dinner, or some sort of communal function, and the moment right before the host inevitably asks me (as the pastor) to pray, I’ll lean over to someone and say, “Why don’t you offer the prayer?”

The question is often met with a blank expression that quickly morphs into terror. Some people feel like they can’t say no when a pastor asks them to do something so they start to pray; others begin to quake under the anxiety of publically praying though they muster something together; and others just sit there silently waiting (and perhaps praying) for me to start saying something instead.

But the more I’ve done this, the more I’ve realized how harmful it can be. And not just on an interpersonal level regarding the manipulation of the pastor over and against a lay person, but also because it leaves people feeling like they have to be able to make up a prayer and offer it on the spot in order to be a Christian.

Spontaneous and extemporaneous prayers can be difficult and problematic things. Instead of sitting silently and listening for the Spirit we often fill the void with our own words that may have nothing to do with what it means to pray in the first place. We assume that praying has to be original and new every time it happens, but it was not so for the first Christians.

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In the wake of Pentecost, the new coverts “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Notice the definite article: the prayers. They were given prayers to pray and this is entirely different than assuming that everyone can and should be able to make up their own prayers on the spot.

It is a great gift in the church to have prayers from the saints, to be able to look back and use the words that have been used so many times (and will continue to be used long after we’re gone) because sometimes we don’t have the right words to pray. Rather than struggling to come up with something on our own we can use the words from the Psalms, or reach for the Book of Common Prayer, or even read the words from a beloved hymn. Those words are our prayers, they are the prayers, and they have been given to us. Thanks be to God for providing the words of prayer when we cannot find them on our own.

What Things?

Luke 24.13-19

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?”

 

We only know what we know. Though, perhaps a better way to put it is this: we only know what we have been told.

On my first Sunday as the pastor here I stood up in the pulpit and I said that we are the stories we tell. The narratives we tell ourselves and our friends and our families reorient our lives in a way that we often can’t see unless in retrospect. This can be a good thing when our lives are determined by the great narrative of God with God’s people, but it can also become problematic when the only story we tell is our own.

As children we learn by stories. We teach our young about George Washington chopping down his cherry tree as a way to teach the virtue of telling the truth. We tell stories about Jesus teaching his disciples to treat one another the way they wish to be treated in order to instill a sense of the so-called “golden rule.” And perhaps the story we tell the most, the lesson we hope to share on a habitual basis, is this: don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

The “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” story is made manifest in a number of ways from literally not judging a written book by it’s cover page to not judging people because of their clothing. We tell that story over and over again to our children.

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And here’s the great irony: we judge books by their covers all the time.

We are told to love the street beggar, but we only see them for their shabby clothing, putrid smell, and most of the time we just walk straight past them.

We are told to love the wealthy, but we only see them for their perfectly pressed shirts, their obscene jewelry, and we assume they have no sense of how the world actually works.

We are told to love people from the South, but we limit our understanding of them to Confederate Flags, Country music, and repressed racism.

We are told to love people from the North, but we only see them for their entitlement, their inability to empathize, and we label them Yankees.

We are told to love the Democrat, but we only see them for their bleeding hearts, tax heavy foolishness, and their thirst for total power.

We are told to love the Republican, but we only see them for their love of guns, dismantling of Government programs, and white superiority.

We are told to love the Muslim, but we only see them for their headscarves, for their Sharia Law that the news channels are forever warning us about, and we blame them for all the problems in the Middle East.

We are told to love the Jew, but we see them as consumed by the pursuit of wealth, always digging up issues from the past, and we assume they are up to more than they let on.

We are told to love the Atheist, but we only see them for their over-reliance on science, their negative attitudes toward religion, and we assume they are going to hell.

We might not fall into all of those generalizations, but each and every one of us are sinners who are guilty of judging books based on their covers. Or, to put it another way, we only know the stories we are told.

            It’s like something keeps us from recognizing Jesus in one another.

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We barely know anything about the disciples who made their way to Emmaus on the first Easter. One of them has a name, Cleopas, but other than that all we know is that they are walking and talking when Jesus shows up. Regardless of their past decisions, or even their faithfulness to the newly risen Christ, their proximity to the Lord on the road has cemented them in the identity and narrative of Christianity forever.

While they were walking and talking, Jesus came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you all talking about?” They stood still looking sad.

            What a telling sentence; from the mere question of a stranger they were stopped dead in their tracks as the reality of what had taken place set in all over again. And then Cleopas realized something strange: how could this man, so close to the city, not know what we have been talking about? Everyone’s been talking about it. And so he asks Jesus, “Are you the only person in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place in these days?” And Jesus replied, “What things?”

            What a remarkably important question. What had taken place in Jerusalem? What had they seen? What had they heard? What’s the story?

How would we answer the question? Imagine, if you can, walking downtown one afternoon, and a stranger walked up and asked us to tell them about Jesus. What would we say?

Would we tell the truth of Jesus’ horrific death on the cross? Would we add our own editorial reflections in order to cast doubt on what we really think? Do we so believe the story that we could tell it?

How we answer Jesus’ question constitutes the very fabric of our lives.

I announced last week that I’ll be leaving St. John’s at the end of June for a new appointment, and in the wake of that announcement I realized I could probably be a little more probing, and perhaps even controversial, from the pulpit since I’m on the way out. Rather than surface level faith stuff, we, and by we I mean me, we can talk about things we would otherwise ignore.

Since I arrived in Staunton four years ago there has been a debate about our local high school. It started long before I got here, and it will be here far after I leave. And it doesn’t have to do with student-teacher dynamics, or accreditation, or any number of other important educational precepts. The controversy is all about the name: Robert E. Lee High School.

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Some, of course, want the name to change: They say it’s a relic of the past, it encourages prejudice among the student body, it’s offensive, it’s archaic, it’s racist, etc.

Some, of course, want the name to stay the same: They say it has a profound history with the community that can’t just be washed away, Lee represents a class of gentlemen almost forgotten to the sands of time, we should be proud of the name. It’s important, it’s patriotic, it’s powerful, etc.

And this fight goes on and on and on.

And here’s the thing: the name of the school is offensive and it does hurt people, just like the Confederate flag does. They see the name and it brings forth all sorts of animosity and resentment and fear and pain. Yet, at the very same time, the name is just a name and changing the name of the high school will change very little. It’s as if we believe that by removing the name we will remove all the prejudice and racism and judgment from an entire community.

It doesn’t work like that.

The name Robert E. Lee will forever evoke positive and negative responses from this community; some will support it and some will oppose it. But the problem is far bigger than a name.

And what do we even really know about Robert E. Lee other than the fact that he was a general for the confederacy during the Civil War? We go on and on about what he represents both positively and negatively, but do we really know who he was? Or are we prevented from seeing the Jesus in him too?

A long time ago, in fact, within a year of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox concluding the Civil War, there was a fashionable church in Richmond, VA filled with white folk on a Communion Sunday. Battered and worn, the South was in quite a state after the war, but these people knew well enough that they should be in church. And on that Sunday, an unwanted black man walked into the church right in the middle of the worship service and made his way down the center aisle with all eyes following him and the preacher stupefied in the pulpit. The black man walked down the aisle under the weight of the prejudice and judgment of the church and he knelt down at the Altar and opened up his hands.

Can you imagine the whispered comments between the pews? Can you hear the hushed hateful words in the house of the Lord?

The congregation sat there completely shocked by what they had witnessed and the buzz of anticipation began to ring.

Sensing the room’s pulse, a distinguished member of the church stood up and walked toward the altar. Some leaned toward friends and spouses with whispers of gratitude for the church member handling the situation, and others sighed with relief knowing that he would take care of the awful interruption. But, when the church member arrived at the Altar, he knelt down beside his black brother, wrapped his arms around him, and began to pray. Within second, the entire congregation stood up, as if transfixed by the Spirit, walked to the front and followed his example.

That church member was Robert E. Lee.

Is that story enough to justify keeping the name of our high school? Or does the history of the South, and the continued prejudice toward people of color necessitate a change of name regardless of what Lee did in that church building? I don’t know.

But what I do know is that unless we are willing to open our eyes to the Jesus in one another, unless we are willing to kneel at the Altar with people different from us, unless we are willing to answer Jesus’ question, nothing will ever change.

We make so many assumptions of people without ever doing the good and difficult work of learning who they really are. We see a bumper sticker, or we hear an accent, or we observe a skin tone, or we read a Facebook post, and we let that dictate who they are to us. When truthfully, what we make of those limited observations says far more about us, than about the ones we see.

“Are you the only one in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place these days?” “What things?”

They talked on the road on their way to Emmaus, they told the mysterious man what they had seen and what they had heard, and the more they walked the more Jesus interpreted for them the scriptures. And when night came, Jesus continued to walk but the two men invited him to stay in the city. So they gathered around a table and Jesus took a loaf of bread, broke it, offered it to his friends and their eyes were opened.

Jesus opened their eyes to the truth of the one they were with. Through the simple and ordinary event of breaking bread the profound and extraordinary reality of the resurrection was made manifest before them.

On the roads of life our eyes are often prevented from recognizing the Jesus within the other. Instead we make the continued assumptions and judgments and ignore them. But when we encounter the other, and take time to sit around a common table, when we let the story of Christ reshapes our lives, when we kneel at the altar beside those who are different from us, Jesus opens our eyes. Amen.

Strangers in the Sanctuary

Last Sunday I announced to my church that I am being appointed to a new congregation at the end of June. I am truly grateful for the time I’ve had at St. John’s and recently I’ve been thinking about the many ways they’ve let me experiment what it means to preach from the pulpit.

Back in 1992, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon published a book entitled Preaching to Strangers. The book includes a number of sermons preached by Willimon at Duke Chapel with Hauerwas’ comments and critiques immediately following. And there is a line in the introduction that has stuck with me during my time at St. John’s:

“A congregation cannot be strangers to one another, not because they know one another well, but because they have all had the same baptism… [However] most preaching in the Christian church today is done before strangers.” [Willimon and Hauerwas. Preaching to Strangers (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991) 6.]

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How is it possible that we can have churches filled with strangers? Perhaps our worship prevents us from seeing the pews as avenues of connection and instead we see them as walls of division. Maybe we spend so much time facing forward that we forget to look left and right. Or perhaps we’ve let our faith become solely about our relationship with God and not about our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Regardless of the reason, I noticed from the beginning of my ministry that there were strangers in the sanctuary.

We did such a good job of welcoming and connecting with one another during the times immediately before and after worship, we even sat down and talked during fellowship events, but we didn’t really know one another.

And I didn’t do anything about it.

Instead, for the first 2 years, I got up in the pulpit every week and preached my sermon. I shook hands with everyone on their way out the door and started the process all over again. And again and again I would have people come up to ask me questions about the family that had just walked out the door, or someone wanted to know the name of the man who sat on the left side in the third pew from the back, or people would ask how long some particular individual had been sitting in that particular spot without knowing their name. But still, I did nothing.

I waited and waited until something happened back in 2015 that forced me to try something new, strange, and bizarre.

One day our secretary discovered a man standing in our parking lot in the middle of the afternoon and approached to ask if there was anything she could help with. Without intending to, the man immediately began to cry and said, “I lost my wife a few months ago and today would have been our 49th wedding anniversary. 49 years ago we were standing in this church with hope for the future… These last few months have been the loneliest in my life.”

I couldn’t stand the thought of being part of a church where we did not know about a man’s 49th wedding anniversary. I didn’t want the sanctuary to be a place of loneliness of Sunday mornings. So I tried something different.

Instead of the typical ~15 minute sermon, I broke the church up into 6 groups during worship (each bulletin contained a number between 1-6) and sent them to different rooms throughout the building. I assigned group leaders with instructions (printed below) and provided a list of questions (also below) to help get the conversation flowing.

When I announced what we were doing from the pulpit that morning there were audible groans from the congregation. “Here he goes again,” they must’ve thought. And, begrudgingly, they filed off to their different rooms in silence.

But when the activity was over and they came back to the sanctuary, I couldn’t get them to stop talking!

In the years that followed that weird Sunday I’ve been blessed to see new friendships between individuals and families that had their genesis in those classroom conversations: A group of widows who were previously unaware of one another have lunch together once a month; a new family to the community connected with a long-time Stauntonian family and now regularly spend time together; people formerly divided by age are now connected over common interests like movies, restaurants, and even time travel destinations.

 

Sometimes it’s worth taking a risk from the pulpit, and not just in a daring or controversial sermon. Sometimes it’s good to get out of the way and let the Spirit do what the Spirit wants. Sometimes church can be the place where we combat the terrible forces of loneliness.

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Living in Harmony Activity

Directions for Group Leaders:

Thank you for agreeing to help facilitate conversations during worship. Below you will find step-by-step instructions to guide each group through their time together. In light of your willingness to help lead I will share with you the reason for our activity, but I ask that you do not share it with your group: Many of us attend church on a regular basis, we see the same familiar faces, and yet we don’t have an intimate knowledge about those we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Each group will be asking and answering questions in order to learn more about our community. My hope is that we will begin to know more about one another than just where everyone sits in the sanctuary. The quality of the answers should be emphasized over quantity. I would rather you only get to one of the questions and really learn about each other than getting to answer all of them without really soaking up the answers.

 

  1. Reread the following scripture to set up the activity:
    1. Romans 12.9-18
    2. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
  2. Ask everyone to share his or her name.
  3. Say: “For the next 15-20 minutes we will be speaking casually with one another about our interests. This is not going to be a densely theological conversation about “the last time you experienced God’s presence” or “sharing moments of great sinfulness from your lives.” Instead it will be focused on what makes you, you. By no means is this mandatory, and if there is a question that you do not want to answer, all you have to say is “pass” and let it move on to the next person. However, if you can answer the questions, it will allow for greater growth and fruitfulness in our church and in our community.
  4. Below is a list of questions to ask the group. You may read one aloud and then ask everyone to respond in a circle, or at random (the choice is yours). I have written more questions than you will probably be able to answer in the time allowed but that’s okay. I trust you to know what questions are working and which ones need to be left behind. Emphasis should be placed on giving everyone ample time to respond so that everyone will learn a little bit about everyone else. If a natural conversation begins in response to an answer please allow it to continue so long as it fits with the general nature of the activity. However, if someone becomes long-winded please ask him or her to conclude so that we can move on to the next person.
  5. Questions:
    1. What was the last good movie you saw (on TV or in the Theaters) and why?
    2. What is your “go-to” restaurant in Staunton, and what do you usually order?
    3. What is one of your most memorable birthday presents? How did you feel when you opened it?
    4. If you could have one super-power what would it be, and why?
    5. If you could recommend one book for all of your friends to read, what book would it be and why?
    6. When was the last time you felt pure joy and what were the circumstances behind it?
    7. When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
    8. What is your favorite thing to do in the summer and why?
    9. If they made a movie of your life, which actor would you want to play you?
    10. If you could have an endless supply of any food, what would you get?
    11. Who is your hero (a parent, celebrity, writer, etc.) and why?
    12. What is one thing that you are extremely proud of?
    13. If you had a time machine, where and when would you travel?
    14. If you could have a conversation with one person from the entire history of the world, who would it be and why?
    15. If you had an entire vacation paid for, where would you go and why?
    16. What do you think is the greatest invention from your lifetime and why?
  6. Wrapping Up
    1. At 11:50 we need everyone back in the sanctuary. When your group comes to a time that naturally allows for a conclusion I ask that you pray the following words out loud, and then lead your group back to the sanctuary:
      1. Prayer: “Almighty God, you know us and have called us by name. In the midst of this community, we give you thanks for everyone in this group. We praise you for providing interests, opinions, and observations. We pray, Lord, that you might instill in each of us the beauty of community. Give us the strength to live in harmony with one another, and allow us to be people who can extend hospitality toward strangers. Amen.