A One Hundred and Fifty-Fold Cord

4 years ago, today, I presided over one of my first weddings, and it was for my sister and my (now) brother-in law. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more nervous leading worship than I was that day (so nervous that I forgot to invite my then fiancé (now wife) to offering one of the scripture readings), but we all made it through to the other side. I am grateful for my sister and her husband, I am grateful they asked me to participate in their holy ceremony, and I am grateful that God has so blessed their marriage. Below is the homily I offered 4 years ago…

1 John 4.9-12

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us to much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Ecclesiastes 4.9-12

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

1498071_10151977138149016_1228625660_o

28 years. 28 years ago my parents, JT and Sarah Lynn Mertins, stood in the same position as both of you. Haley, I don’t know if you will remember all of this, but we used to watch their wedding VHS tape when we were growing up. Truly I tell you, it is a miracle that the wedding ceremony happened at all. When we would watch the tape, it appeared as if the cameraman had decided to smother vaseline all over the lens in order to achieve some sort of effect that left the viewers nauseous and confused. As my Aunt Laura made her way up the steps toward the altar she stepped on, and ripped, her dress. My uncle Bill Hanff and a friend stood over by piano the prepared to sing a wonderful rendition of “On the Wings of Love” though the pianist started the song in the wrong key and uncle Bill had to match accordingly. And then there was the hair and the dresses. There must have been enough hair spray in this church to light the whole thing on fire, but somehow, by the grace of God, our mother and father were married on this exact day 28 years ago.

And here we are now, ready for the two of you to enter into the holy state of matrimony. As I have looked back over the totality of your relationship, and all of the little steps that led you to this altar on this day, I am convinced that I will never marry a couple that I know as well as both of you for the rest of my life. So before I continue I want to show you something.

(Turn around, look out at the sanctuary. Gathered together in this room are the people who have made you, you. Family, friends, both the foolish and the fun, but more importantly, when you look out I hope you see faith. So soak up this view for a moment, you rarely get to see anything as glorious as this)

Faith, the people gathered together today are indicative of the kind of faith-lives that both of you are living. Everyone here has faith in both of you as individuals, and also as the married couple you are about to become. They have been there for you in every aspect of your lives, and today two families are joining together as a testament to the faith that you have in each other. They say a threefold cord in not quickly broken? Well neither is a one hundred and fifty fold cord.

However, for as much as everyone gathered together in this room are responsible for your relationship, no one can take more credit than God.

21427285_10209512982332426_5944900731650115605_o

When I found out that Matthew was moving to Africa for a year, I knew that the only thing that would be able to sustain your relationship was a resounding faith in the triune God. I know it wasn’t easy. Even with the notebook Matthew left behind, even with the commitment to read through the entire bible while you were apart, even with the advantages of technological communications such as Skype and email, you would not be standing here today unless you had tremendous faith in God, but more importably God has faith in you.

1490681_600936009974464_683923270_o

One of the things that I love most about you two is that, even with all the planning and the suits and dresses and decorations, today will not be the greatest day of your lives. Both of you strive to discover all of the joy in life and share it with one another. You earnestly love the lives that God has given to you, and you hope to share that love with everyone with ears to hear and eyes to see. Thats what it means when we say, “If we love one another, God lives in us.” The two of you have made a commitment to loving one another so that God abides and manifests himself in the world.

Matthew Logan, I have waited 23 years for a brother, and today I’m finally getting one! You are a remarkable man with compassion, faith, and hope. I have been privileged to watch you grow up, in a way, I’ve seen the way that you create and nurture friendships, I’ve seen the way that you have selflessly served others, and I have seen the many ways that you have committed yourself to my sister. Marriage will not be easy. There will be mornings that you wake up and wonder how such a beautiful woman can drive you so crazy. There will come a time when all the love that Haley can give you will not be enough, but you will never be alone. Beyond the multitudes that have gathered here today, God almighty is with you in all that you do. As a husband, literally, you have been called to love Haley with all that you are, live into the life that God is calling you toward, and to have your relationship shine as a beacon of hope and love to all the world. I have nothing but profound respect, enduring faith, and unending love for you, my brother.

Haley Lynn, precious sister of mine, you are a beautiful woman who has truly come into her own. I have been privileged to watch you mature into your truest self as you now prepare to enter into marriage with Matthew. I love how your willingness to serve others is so central for understanding who you are and what you do. Whether its helping out your students at school, or volunteering your time and energy for church, or helping your idiot brother match his clothing when we were in high school, serving and loving others is what you do. What a blessing you are to all of us, and what a blessing you will be to all the lives you touch in the future. Marriage will not be easy. There will be mornings when you wake up and wonder how such a funny man can drive you so crazy. There will come a time when all the love that Matthew can give you will not be enough, but you will never be alone. Your family, your friends, and your father in heaven are with you in all that you do. As a wife, you have been called to love Matthew with all that you are, to live into the life that God is calling you toward, and to have your relationship shine a beacon of hope and love to all the world. I have nothing but immeasurable respect, enduring hope, and unending love for you, my sister.

Matthew and Haley, God’s love was revealed to all of us through the incarnation in Jesus Christ. In his willingness to take on human flesh, God humbled himself to be just like us, in order to help transform us. God did not mount the hard wood of the cross because we loved him, but instead he came to die and live because he first loved us. Above all things, your marriage should, and will be, a testament to God’s love in the world through the redemptive acts in our Lord Jesus Christ.

In giving yourselves to each other, you are mirroring that great act of God coming to be with us.

And so, as you prepare to take these first steps into wedded life, I call both of you to hold fast to the people that love and support your relationship, hold fast to the faith and hope that you have in one another, but most importantly, hold fast to the good God whose joy knows no bounds, whose grace extends beyond our imaginations, and whose love was made known to all of us in the gift of his Son.

Advertisements

The Johns – Sermon on John 15.9-11, 1 John 2.15-17, and Revelation 21.1-5

John 15.9-11

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

1 John 2.15-17

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.

Revelation 21.1-5

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

IMG_0058

“Taylor, the bishop is appointing you to St. John’s United Methodist Church in Staunton, Virginia. We believe the church fits with your gifts and graces and we are excited to see what the Holy Spirit can do through you there.” Those were the words used to let me know where I would be spending the next few years of my life. I remember how I felt with the phone next to my ear and Lindsey by my side when I found out that I would be coming here to serve this church.

Obviously, for the next few days all I could think about was the church and the community. What would you all be like? Would we enjoy living here? What would we do for fun? How would you respond to me as your pastor?

Of course I Googled the church, searched the church name in the local newspaper databases, and even looked up the address of the parsonage. And for as many things as I could discover, more questions began to develop to the point where I had to just stop and accept that this is where I was going.

However, one question remained in the back of my mind during the months leading up to my first Sunday. I was fine letting everything else go, I was content with the unknown, except for one thing: Why St. John’s?

Now I don’t mean why this church out of all the churches in the Virginia conference, though I have wondered about that at times. What I mean is this: Why is the church named St. John’s?

Do any of you know? Church naming often carries an interesting history. Like when a group of people from a Baptist church grow frustrated with another group and decide to leave and start a new church with the ironic name of Harmony Baptist.

Or like what we have here in town with 1st Presbyterian, 2nd Presbyterian, 3rd Presbyterian, etc. I would love to know the story behind that.

Anyway, why are we called St. John’s?

The story goes that a long time ago there was a particularly advantageous District Superintendent who dreamed of 4 new churches in the Staunton District. The population was booming in the valley and he believed it was time for the Methodist Church to start breaking ground and forming church homes for new people. He wanted 4 new churches and he wanted them to be named after the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Though only two of them ever came to fruition: Mark and John.

Now, is that really how we got our name? I have no idea, but thats the story everyone seems to tell.

I want to know if thats the story we want to tell. That the name of this blessed house of the Lord got its name from some guy in the past who wanted to leave his mark in Staunton. Or do we want to take ownership of our name, and live into the reality of what it means to be St. John’s?

Our name is part of who we are, it is a part of our very identity, for better or worse. If we were First UMC I would expect that we were the first to break ground in Staunton, that we would be leading the community in what it means to love one another. If we were Harmony UMC I would expect a church full of people who agreed on everything all the time, no matter what. If we were Wesley UMC I would expect that John Wesley would be fundamental to our mission and work in the kingdom.

But if we call ourselves St. John’s, then who are we?

IMG_0063

On the right side of our sanctuary we have three stained glass windows that I call The Johns. We have John the Evangelist, John of Patmos, and John the Presbyter. Do they represent three different and distinct men? Are they in fact all the same person, just being shown throughout the different decades?

Early Christian tradition held that John was one of the original 12 disciples who actually lived a long life and was not killed for his faith like the others. It is believed that he was responsible for writing the gospel according to John, the letters 1-3 John, and the final book of the New Testament Revelation. Of course modern scholars debate as to the particular authorship and whether or not one man was responsible for all of these different writings.

What is important for us is the fact that we affirm all of the writing as canon and life-giving, that Christians for centuries have come to discover the living God in the words attributed to John, and that we will continue to live into our discipleship through them.

Our first window displays the young John as the Evangelist. Today when we hear the word evangelism we tend to picture people converting others to follow Christ, but in its most simple meaning, an evangelist is someone who shares the Good News, and in this case, it came through a written account of Jesus life and ministry.

We see a young John holding a chalice and the image of an eagle. The chalice serves to emphasize the importance of the sacrament, and the pouring out of Jesus blood for us. Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is a particular focus and theme. Reflecting on Jesus life later, John could remember everything through the lens of the resurrection, and we see the importance of Jesus’ life here in the chalice.

The other detail, the eagle, is very interesting. In Revelation, a book we will talk about shortly, there is a brief section where John describes four winged creatures from his dream. Each of them have come to represent a specific gospel and it’s respective author: Matthew is a man with wings, or an angel; Mark is a lion; Luke is an ox; and John is the eagle.

Whenever our eyes fall to this window we are called to remember the Father’s love in Christ Jesus. Like the winged eagle flying high in the sky we look up to the kind of love that Jesus exemplified and strive to live accordingly. The great sacrifice was made so that our joy could be complete in and with one another as we look on eternity without flinching as we journey toward the goal of communing with the Lord.

John the Evangelist wrote what he did to remember for us what his master taught him: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.

Our second window, the one to the right, contains John as the Presbyter. Presbyter comes from the greek word presbuteros which means “elder.” As John grew older and continued to play an integral role in the formation of the early church, it became necessary for him to write letters concerning the faith.

In the window we see a mature John with a quill and parchment. Like we still do today, whenever we encounter the struggles of fellow disciples, we strive to help them through their trials and tribulations. For John, having lived with Christ and experienced the true power of the resurrection, he devoted himself to the early Christians and helped them to understand the importance of love.

He wrote things like: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” Only a man speaking from a life of wisdom could make such a statement. The desires of flesh and the prides in riches only serve to destroy us because they wither away. All of the false things that we put our faith and hope in are passing away, but the love of God endures forever and ever.

Whenever we glance to this window of John as the Presbyter, we are called to remember the value of wisdom and what it means to grow together. Being Christian is not something that can be done in isolation, but instead can only be fruitful and life-giving if we disciple as a community. John wrote letters to encourage and remind the faithful what it means to be faithful. As disciples we have the responsibility to build one another up for kingdom work.

John the Presbyter wrote to Christian communities about what faithful living was all about: those who do the will of God live forever.

The third window, in the middle, contains John on Patmos. After a life of faith, John was exiled away to Patmos, a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea where he wrote about his visions. The book of Revelation contains fantastic imagery of the way God has, is, and will move  in the world. Our final John is older with a fiery city at his feet, and the new Jerusalem above his head with the lamb.

The Lord gave John certain visions and told him to write them down because they were trustworthy and true. Our window displays the height of the revelation when God will make all things new. A holy city, the new Jerusalem, will come down from heaven. This is where God will dwell with the people, God will wipe away all of our tears. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. The first things will pass away because God will make all things new.

In our window we see the former things, the earthly passions of the world at the bottom passing away. But God has not, and will not, abandon us to our own devices. The new city at the top will reign and the kingdom will be forever. 

Whenever our eyes fall upon this window we remember that the Lord is with us now and forever. That even in our death we will come closer to the new heaven and the new earth that the Lord has promised. In the midst of our grief and suffering now we can still give thanks to the Lord for that day when he will make all things new. This window calls us to trust the Lord just like John did throughout his life.

John on Patmos wrote down the visions the Lord had provided so that others would come to know what the future holds: The Lord will dwell with us and make all things new. 

St Johns logo

Who are we? A group of Christians who get together week after week to rediscover what it means to follow Christ? A ragtag collection of disciples who need to find a little more light in our lives?

If we want to live into our name, then we need a better story than being named by a District Superintendent. If we want to be the St. John’s that God is calling us to be, then we need to reclaim what that name means for us.

We are St. John’s. That very name carries with it the history of what our church has done for this community. Wherever I go in Staunton I love to tell people that I serve as the pastor here at St. John’s because our name is immediately met with recognition; “My children went to Preschool there!” “My wife and I were married in that sanctuary.” “We buy our Christmas tree from your church every year.”

But we are also more than what we do. Our identity is firmly rooted in the name of John and we should be proud of it. We were named after a man who was called to follow Jesus, remembered the Messiah’s life for other communities, wrote to churches about faithful wisdom, and caught glimpses of future glory. 

Likewise, we are a community of faith that believes in following the Lord, in sharing God’s story with other people, in teaching those younger in the faith about what it means to love, in celebrating the coming day when God will make all things new.

St. John’s; what a perfect name. Amen.

What’s The Point? – Sermon on 1 John 1.1-4

1 John 1.1-4

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

Joy-1

Graveside services makes me nervous.

If we have a funeral at the church, most things can be taken care of and are under control. We can set the temperature, clear the parking lot, and witness to the ways that God moved through the person who we are celebrating.

But when you’re at the grave, things are often out of your control. You might be driving in the sunshine to the cemetery but the minute you arrive clouds appear and rain begins to fall. You might have your bible opened to a particular passage and the wind will begin to howl and when you look down you’ve gone from John to Nehemiah. And personally, I’m usually pretty nervous about getting lost so I always make sure to arrive exceptionally early.

A young pastor was once asked to do a graveside service for an older man from the community who had no friends and no family. The pastor was unable to speak with anyone about the man’s life, but he wrote a funeral sermon nonetheless, and when the appointed day arrived he got in his car and headed out for the country cemetery out in the middle of nowhere.

He drove and drove, and though he did not want to admit it to himself he was lost. He tried searching for the address on his GPS device, and he even stopped at a gas station to ask for local directions and he eventually arrived an hour late.

As he drove across the open landscape the hearse was nowhere in sight, the backhoe was next to the open hole, and he was a group of men under the shade of a nearby tree. The young pastor parked his car and walked to the open grave and discovered the the lid was already in place and dirt had already been sprinkled across the top.

Feeling incredibly guilty for being late the young man began preaching a sermon like he had never done before. He put every ounce of his faith into his words to proclaim all that God had done in the world from creation to resurrection.

When he returned to his car, sweating from his passionately delivered sermon, he overheard one of the men under the tree saying to the others, “I’ve been putting in septic tanks for years and I ain’t never seen anything like that.

When you laugh in church does it feel joyful? Does anything about worship make you experience joy?

When I read through the beginning of 1 John this week I felt particularly convicted by the final verse: We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. I started wondering about how we experience joy in our faith, and if we experience it at all.

So I decided to pick up my phone and start calling people to ask them about church, worship, and joy. I started by calling friends of mine who no longer attend church and I was not surprised to discover that most of them explained that they stopped attending because church stopped bringing them joy. Many of them said that they often left church feeling bad about themselves and they had a harder and harder time going back each week. At some point church was joyful, but now the joy was gone.

Next I picked up our church directory and started making other phone calls asking everyone the same question: What is the most joyful part of worship for you? From the moment you arrive on Sunday morning till you go home, when do you feel joy? Here are some of the responses I received:

“I feel joy when I see people that I know and love. It’s the fellowship, I guess, but at the same time I can be joyful during the music, whether its the choir or when we are all singing a hymn together.”

“There is nothing more joyful than receiving communion and praying at the altar afterwards. Whatever I have going on in my life is remarkably replaced with a feeling of joy when I feast at God’s table and pray at God’s altar.”

“Having a community makes me feel joyful, when someone takes the time to come find me and seek me out to check on me. That’s when I experience joy in church.”

“When I see children in line for communion I am struck by the joyfulness of God’s grace. I remember that Jesus called the children to himself, and when they are invited to the table it makes me so happy.”

“I absolutely love hugging all the people who come to church, if I can make them happy I am filled with nothing but joy.”

“The height of joy for me happens when I get to serve communion. I love to receive it, but when I get to hold the cup I am actually sharing Jesus with another person and we become connected.”

“Taylor, you know that I can’t sing worth a bean, but when we sing hymns together I feel joyful, I find myself smiling simply because I am singing my faith.”

Now, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed when, after polling a number of people from our community, no one said that they experienced joy during the sermon! But then again, the point of a sermon is not to just make us feel joyful but it is to proclaim God’s Word and sometimes we need to leave feeling convicted, but that’s for another sermon.

joy-of-worship

If John was writing to a community for the purpose of making their joy complete, then we should be doing church and discipleship in such a way that our joy may be complete with one another. The church can be many things for many people but if there is no joy in our faithfulness then it will become harder and harder to give ourselves to Jesus.

While phoning people this week I also asked them a second question: Where have you seen God’s majesty?: Here are some of the responses I received:

“The natural beauty in the world. Like, if I’m walking through the woods and I start to see the trees swaying together, it feels like God’s majesty.”

“In creation. Walking outside and looking up at the stars or the clouds. When I run my fingers through a cold stream or drag them across rough bark.”

“When I hold a child in my arms and look into the depth of their eyes I catch a glimpse of God’s majesty.”

“In the sunrise every morning. When I see greenery and new life during the spring. I see God’s majesty through the beauty of the earth.”

Most of the responses were completely beautiful and inspiring. But not a single person said they saw or felt God’s majesty in church.

At first I was frightened by this realization. If people are not experiencing God’s majesty in a place like this then we are in trouble. But the more I thought about it, it began to make sense…

Holy_Living

Most of the time that I discover God’s majesty it is in the world outside of this building at 11am on Sunday mornings. However, it is precisely at a time and place such as this that I learned to speak the language of faith, to look at the world through a faithful perspective, and use my hands and feet to experience God’s majesty. Church, at its best, is the place where we learn a new language to speak truthfully about God’s majesty in the world. If and when we experience joy in our discipleship we begin to remember that God is the one from whom all blessings flow perfecting the saints below.

The whole point of 1 John is to proclaim the message of the reality of God revealed in Christ. As a church we proclaim all that God has done so that we can recognize God’s signature and handiwork in the world around us. Faithful worship equips us to feel God’s majesty during our lives. 

Whatever messages and proclamations we make on Sunday mornings are meant to be felt and experienced on a personal level if it is to bear fruit in the world. If what we do here does not take hold in the days in between services than we are no better than words on a piece of paper. It is our personal experience of God’s majesty that seals the truth of what we hold dear and claim as truth.

I experience God’s majesty whenever I work with youth, and particularly during mission trips. The first days are usually filled with painfully shy teenagers who are wrestling with their own identities and what it means to be in relationships with others. They work and work and by the end of the week they are scattered throughout the larger community with all of their new brothers and sisters in faith. I see how far they move from the first forced conversations to the natural dialogue that flows from their souls.

Yet, I can only claim that as God’s majesty because scripture and worship have taught me to see it that way. I read stories about the Israelites leaving Egypt and growing into a new nation together. I hear about the disciples embarking in a new community after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And then I realize I am seeing the same thing happening again, and that God is the one who makes all of this possible.

I feel the greatest amount of joy during worship when we celebrate communion with each other. For years I dreamt about what it would mean to be a pastor, from the hospital visits, to the funerals, to the weddings, and to worship. But the thing that I was most excited about was breaking bread at the table together. When I see people lining up with their hands outstretched I am overfilled with joy because I see faithful people living out their faith. From those who are young in their faith to those who have journeyed to the table many times before, I feel the greatest sense of joy when we feast together.

Yet, I can only claim that as joyful because scripture and worship have taught me to see it that way. I read about the disciples gathering in the upper room with Jesus the night before he was betrayed. I hear about the new community of faith gathering together to break bread after Jesus was resurrected to continually remember all he was willing to do. And then I realize that I am seeing the same thing happen again, and that God is the one who makes all of this possible.

Joy is supposed to motivate our lives as Christians. Christ sought out people in Galilee who were lost and alone and brought them a sense of newness and joy. It is with thankful and joyful hearts that we may enter into the world to be Christ for others.

Joy is that tingling sensation we feel when we begin to grasp our part in God’s cosmic plan. Whether in the midst of a hymn or a hug we live into the Lord’s divine reality and we witness his kingdom on earth.

Joy is that beautiful moment when our cheeks begin to hurt because we have been smiling so much. As we gather for worship we can reach out to strangers and friends to demonstrate how wonderful they are to us and to God.

We spend time together as a community every week to worship so that our joy may be complete.

Joy is worth working for because if we’re not feeling joy in our discipleship, then what’s the point? Amen.