The Oval Office Of The Universe

Acts 1.6-14

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

 

On Tuesday afternoon I went into the Preschool and sat on the floor of the yellow room with our Preschoolers. In mere minutes I would be walking with them into the sanctuary for their end of year performance and graduation, but for the moment we were sitting crisscross applesauce on the alphabet carpet.

Some of the kids were visibly nervous, rocking back and forth on the floor knees tucked into their chests, others were focused and practicing the words to the songs under their breath, and others were completely oblivious to what we were about to do and instead were making faces at one another and then cackling from the depth of their hilarity.

When I got the signal from our director that the time had come to stand, line up, and make our way into the sanctuary I bounced off the floor and called for attention. I said, “My friends, whose ready to have some fun?!” To which they responded with a conflated and cacophonous scream.

“Well,” I continued, “Before we go upstairs I want everyone to take a deep breath. Good, hold it, now blow it our slowly and listen carefully. I want you all to know that no matter what, this is going to be great, because your families love you, I love you, and Jesus loves you.

One by one they lined up in the hallway in their specific order and just before we started to move one of our boys grabbed me by the pant leg. “But Pastor Taylor, I have a question.” Figuring he needed to use the bathroom or some such thing, I got down on my knees and said, “What is it Keller?” He said, “I know my parents love me because they’re here, and I know you love me because you’re right here, but where’s Jesus?”

I said, “C’mon Keller! We’re seconds away from the program beginning and you want to know where Jesus is?! I don’t have time for this theological nonsense!”

Just kidding. But in the moment I thought about how to answer the question, what would satisfy his longing and curiosity. Where is Jesus?

I thought about placing my one hand on his shoulder and using my other hand to point toward his chest and saying, “Keller, Jesus is in our hearts!”

I thought about grabbing a nearby children’s bible to show him a picture of the Ascension, but of course, children’s bibles only contain stories like Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the Big Fish, and an Easter Sunday that has more to do with budding flowers than a dead man being raised back into life.

So I settled for this: “I’ll tell you where Jesus is after we finish the program.”

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When the disciples came together they asked Jesus, “Are you now going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” After years of listening to parables, watching miracles, and being fed out of nowhere, after encountering their resurrected friend, they still didn’t get it. Jesus replied, “There are some things you are not meant to know. But you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”

When he said this, the disciples watched as he ascended into the sky and a cloud took him out of their sight. And two men in white came by and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand with your eyes in the sky?” The disciples returned to Jerusalem and they devoted themselves to prayer while they waited.

The Ascension is important. Sadly, however, it is one of the Sundays that gets lost in the liturgical year and is overshadowed by the likes of Pentecost and Christ the King. This story of what took place 40 days after the first Easter answers our little preschooler’s question about where Jesus is, but it also does so much more.

The Ascension is not about where Jesus is, but where Jesus rules. In the Ascension, Jesus takes his place at the right hand of the Father and becomes the King who rules our lives here and now. In this spectacular moment, a vision that would keep our eyes in the sky, God brings full circle the incarnation that took place in Mary’s womb. God became what we are, and as Jesus returned to the Father the humanity of our existence was brought into the divine.

Far too often we use the Ascension story to explain Christ’s absence from our lives, we use it as the means by which we calm the questions of preschoolers, and comfort those who are in the midst of suffering. But the Ascension loses it’s beauty, majesty, and power when we limit it to the physical location of the Son of God.

When Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father he received the authority to rule here and now through a particular people called church; people like us.

Today, we throw the word “heaven” around like we throw around the word “love.” We use it as a filler or a descriptor to such a degree that it no longer means anything. And therefore when we say that Jesus ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, we no longer know what we are saying.

In the Ascension, Christ is exalted to the Oval Office of the universe to rule forever and ever.

I use the Oval Office specifically because the Oval Office means something to us, it embodies power and gravitas and even a little bit of fear. It is the place where things get done, where decisions are made that have an effect on our lives, it is where our leader rules.

But of course, our real Leader doesn’t reside in a White House, nor does our Leader work in an Oval Office made by the hands of morals.

Our Lord is Jesus Christ who rules from the Oval Office of the Universe.

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Just as we throw around the term “heaven” today without knowing what we are saying, the same thing happens with “the mission of the church.” Ask any good United Methodist about the mission of the church and they will tell you that we are here to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. However, the church is already the better place that God has made in the world.

It would seem then, that perhaps the real mission of the church, particularly in the world we live in today, is to reclaim the understanding and belief that Jesus is Lord.

            Because we either live under that reality or we don’t.

After my brief theological conundrum in the basement, I walked up the stairs with the kids and we entered the sanctuary for the program. The kids stood attentively as I welcomed the families and friends, they belted out the songs with such volume that they drowned out the sound system with the backing music, and then we came to the final song.

It’s really simple and it goes like this: “I like to jump every day, I like to jump every day, I like to jump every day because I know He loves me, Jesus loves me, Jesus loves me yeah, yeah, yeah, Jesus loves me, Jesus loves me yeah, yeah, yeah!” And of course, I popped out into the chancel area and jumped with the kids while we were singing. The second time through its all about clapping, so we did that. And then the third time through we sing about dancing, and we did that as well.

While performing with the kids I could hear the parents laughing and clapping along as I made a fool of myself with a bunch of 3, 4, and 5 year olds, but the thing is, they really meant it. The kids threw every bit of themselves into the three verses of that song and they jumped, clapped, and danced with reckless abandon.

After the last song I announced the graduates of the Preschool, those who are going to kindergarten in the fall, and then I dismissed everyone from the sanctuary for a meal in the fellowship hall.

While the families and children were milling about I went to go find Keller to finish our conversation about the location of the Lord. I scanned through all the people and thought about what I might say, what story I could tell, how I could make it intelligible to a 4 year old when I felt another tug at my leg.

Keller was standing there with a huge smile on his face. I said, “Keller, you did a great job and I have my answer for you about where Jesus is.” And he just stood there grinning from ear to ear and said, “I know now Pastor Taylor, I felt him up there when we were dancing!”

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Our Christ is a cosmic King who rules and reigns over us. In the ascension Jesus broke forth from the chains of being one of us, among us, into a freedom to rule with authority and power at the right hand of God. We are now his witnesses in Staunton, Augusta County, and to the ends of the earth. As Christians we believe that Christ is with us in the midst of being this strange, wonderful, and beautiful thing called church. Jesus makes himself manifest with us when we break bread, when we pass the peace, when we encounter the stranger, and even when we’re dancing in the sanctuary.

The story of the ascension is transformative for us Christians because in it we recognize our inability to go it alone. The first disciples met together, traveled together, worked together, prayed together, wept together, and rejoiced together, and even danced together all in Christ’s name. Just like them, we need each other’s witness and support, challenge and care, love and grace, to live into the reality that the church is the witness to Jesus Christ.

Jesus reigns from the Oval Office of the Universe at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. But for as much as Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, Jesus is also with us, the resurrected Christ is the one who makes possible our resurrection, who brings forth reconciliation in our lives, who offers us a story when we have no story, who dances with us, who weeps with us, who is our Lord. Amen.

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.

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.

Weekly Devotional Image

“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.

Babbling Grace – Karl Barth and Genesis 11.1-9

Professors in seminary can make all the difference. Some can call you into the strange new world of the bible through their passionate lectures and you will never be able to look at scripture the same way again. Some can refers to moments of history in the church that decisively reshape the way you understand the church today. And still yet others can turn your entire understanding of the kingdom of God upside down through just a few lines in one lecture.

Stanley Hauerwas is one of those professors.

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In 2013, I had the good fortune of participating in his last ethics class before he retired. In it, he did his best to make us Christians more Christian. By highlighting problems that the church is facing, and has faced for a long time, he helped to provide a better grammar for what it means to be a Christian in the world.

During one of his lectures on the remarkable importance of the gathering community, he briefly mentioned a sermon he once wrote on the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11. At the time, the story of Babel was one that I remembered from my youth; the pictures we drew of people attempting to build a tower to God, the lesson it conveys about why there are so many languages on the earth. But I honestly hadn’t thought about it having much to do with my life as a Christian.

Dr. Hauerwas said, “The divisions at Babel are healed and reconciled at Pentecost. The language divisions were still present, but within the gathered communal identity of the church was a common Lord in Jesus Christ. Pentecost was a new day of creation, not unlike those we read about at the beginning of Genesis.”

In just a few sentences, Hauerwas jumped from Genesis 11 to Acts 2 and it blew my mind. Now it seems so obvious, that the Lord would bring together God’s people through the power of the Holy Spirit therefore redeeming what had happened at Babel. But when Hauerwas connected them in that lecture, it was like I was given a new lens by which I could read scripture.

For a time I attributed this new way of thinking and reading to Dr. Hauerwas, and it was only later that I realized he got it from Karl Barth.

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In Church Dogmatics III.4 Karl Barth uses the story of the Tower of Babel to evaluate the problem of nationhood in the modern period. For Barth, Babel contains every bit of the human desire to remain self-reliant and focused on pride, which has resulted in our divisions as a species. It is a story, not unlike Adam and Eve’s first sin, that reminds us of the brokenness in our world.

I have always seen Babel as a kind of means by which we can teach a lesson to children or young Christians about the dangers of pride. I have seen Babel as a shadow of what the church is supposed to be. But for Barth, Genesis 11 is all about grace.

Barth is quick to note that, “A Christian people is one in which heathenism and national egoism are broken, judged, and purified by the Spirit of Christ… As we are warned in Genesis 11, rebellion against God leads to the forceful disintegration rather than the organic development of national identities.”[1] Babel should frighten us, as a people, about what happens when we rebel against the Lord to such a degree, but the story is about much more than the Lord’s “punishment” at the end.

The Tower of Babel, for Barth, contains elements of both divine wrath and divine blessing. The story begins with: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (Gen. 11.1). As a unified people, they settled into the land of Shinar and decided to use bricks to make themselves a city and a tower, “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11.2-4). In response to this, the Lord goes down to examine the city and tower and eventually confuses humanity’s language to remind them of the divide between Creator and creature.

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Barth immediate questions the supposed sin within the story: What is inherently wrong with building a city or a tower? The constructions of such objects were not completed against God; attempts at civilization are never formally wrong.[2] For Barth, the thing itself, the object built, is not the fault but rather when a people want to create something for themselves in order to reach an attempted equality with God there lays the sin. The depth of humanity’s sin is the “arrogance of thinking that man himself can and must take himself as he takes the brick and mortar, and make himself the lord of his history, constituting the work of providence of his own work.”[3]

In light of humanity’s over-determined arrogance, God must respond with punishment. If God let humanity build the tower to completion, just as if God had let Adam and Eve stay in the Garden after eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, humanity would further perpetuate itself as a sinful people. The scattering of the nations at the end of the story is an example of God’s divine wrath, and usually where I would let the story finish, but for Barth (and Hauerwas) we cannot understand Babel without the rest of the Bible.

Barth sees grace at Babel through, of all things, Jesus’ parable of the sower: “The constant sowing of the seed of the divine Word will always find soil even if there is no true harvest in one place. Even in this passage we must not fail to see the Gospel in this sense. Even in the terrible decree of v. 7 (“Come let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”) we must not miss His grace.”[4]

Important for Barth’s understanding of God’s grace in his exegesis is the fact that God could have easily used an earthquake or another divine miracle to achieve God’s condemnation. But rather than destroying creation, as had been done through the flood in Genesis 7, God merely divides humanity and confuses their language. Instead of raining destruction upon humanity, God limits the punishments to linguistics.

Additionally, God does not abandon humanity to their own devices even after their construction. Regardless of the self-righteousness employed by humanity, God will remain faithful even when we are not. Babel could have been the end of the relationship between the Creator and the creature, but God remained steadfast.

Morever, Barth’s final move regarding the babbling grace of Genesis 11 comes in the recognition that, as Christians, we are aware that God has more in store for his creatures than the end of the story in Genesis; we know what happens at Pentecost. What transpires at the end of the Babel narrative is not the ultimate decree on the matter but rather, “only a penultimate word, and that the curves of the separated ways are so ordered in advance that they will finally come together again.”[5] Here is where Barth shines the light of God’s glory the brightest: even though the main emphasis of the Tower of Babel in on how the separation and division of people was right (at the time), God’s original desire is for humanity to be in unity.

For Barth, we cannot read Genesis 11 outside of, or in spite of, Acts 2. These two different stories, separated by thousands of years, though different in form and content, contain the beginning and the next step of God’s action toward creation. God intended for humanity to remain in unity, and through our own self-righteousness were have rejected the divine unity for our own division. And yet, according to Barth, we are to remain grateful to God’s out-pouring of grace which simultaneously remaining discontent until there is a total reunification of God’s creation.

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Barth, time and time again throughout Church Dogmatics, refuses to read particular texts as isolated witnesses. To read the bible is to read it canonically. Narratives from different places help to inform one another and the Old Testament reads into the New just as much as the New reads into the Old. Babel and Pentecost are connected. Eden and Revelation are connected. David and Jesus are connected. Exodus and Acts are connected. And so on.

As Christians reading scripture, we have the benefit of knowing how the story “ends.” We know that in the person of Jesus Christ the previously divided nations have come together. In the Holy Spirit of Acts 2 the conclusion of Genesis 11 takes place: “The miracle of Pentecost tells the us how the decision is take to look and break out from the nations to the one people of God, how the divine disposition of Genesis 11 is rightly understood as a teleological divine purpose, and how it is recognized in the form of the corresponding orientation from the near to the distant, the narrower sphere to the wider.”[6]

Barth’s reading of scripture, and in particular his exegetical work in the excurses of Church Dogmatics has directly influenced the work of Stanley Hauerwas and a whole mosaic of theologians over the last century. To be a Christian is to read, and to read well; to look for the connections from book to book; to identify the thread that God pulls through seemingly unrelated stories; to see ourselves as characters in God’s great narrative.

And for Barth, the story of Babel is not one for us to leave for children’s Sunday School rooms and flannel-graphs. It is one that we must read with conviction knowing full and well how the story ends. Just as with the construction of Babel, humanity still consistently places brick after brick of our own presumed infallibility in direct contradiction to the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Barth’s work reminds us that we have divided ourselves against God’s original and good intentions, and to complete the end of the story we must take seriously God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, desiring for humanity to one day be made perfectly one.

 

[1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III.4. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 306.

[2] Ibid., 314.

[3] Ibid., 314.

[4] Ibid., 316.

[5] Ibid., 317.

[6] Ibid., 323.

Devotional – Acts 2.2

Devotional:

Acts 2.2

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

Weekly Devotional Image

By the time we arrived at the hospital at 10 pm, my wife had been experiencing contractions for more than 12 hours and they encouraged her to walk around the unit in order to speed up labor. We walked in a circle around the labor and delivery unit at the hospital, taking breaks every few minutes to let a contraction pass, when it started to really sink in that we were about to have a baby. Perhaps it was the professional photographs of newborns adorned on every conceivable wall, or maybe it was the audible hum of all the medical machinery, or maybe it was the cry of babies from the nursery, but the time had definitely come for us to enter into the strange arena of parenthood.

When 7am rolled around, it was time for Lindsey to start pushing. With every breath and grimace the last nine months of preparation flew through my mind. I thought about finding out she was pregnant and the joy of sharing the news with our families. I remembered standing in front of the entire congregation and announcing that we would be adding another member to our flock. I thought about all the items we purchased for the nursery. I thought about the well-worn and earmarked edition of What To Expect When You’re Expecting sitting on the table next to our bed. I remembered all of the tips and tools we were taught in our birthing class (and promptly forgot all of them). And before I knew it, Lindsey had given birth to our son Elijah Wolf and the doctor placed him on her chest.

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The moment will forever remain etched in my memory as I watched Lindsey wrap her arms around Elijah and spoke the first words he ever heard: “We love you.” Like the disciples sitting together on the day of Pentecost, it felt like a gust of wind swept through the delivery room and filled the entire area. The sounds of the doctor and nurses disappeared, the anxiety had evaporated, and it felt like the Holy Spirit was circling our son and us. While my eyes filled with tears, Lindsey continued to nurture Elijah with her sweet voice when he opened his eyes for the first time, stared deep into his mother’s gaze, lifted out his arms, and placed his fingertips on her lips.

The Holy Spirit is with us always: In our delivery rooms and at our dinner tables, in our conversations and with our prayers, in our relationships and in our churches. I have experienced the Spirit’s presence over the last nine months in your willingness to surround Lindsey and I in your prayers. Thank you.

During the next few weeks, as Lindsey and I settle into parental rhythms with Elijah, I will continue to keep all of you in my thoughts and prayers. Until we are reunited in worship, I encourage you to look for those sacred moments when the Spirit shows up, and give thanks.

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We Are The Church – Pentecost Sermon on Acts 2.43-47

This Pentecost we celebrated the outpouring of the Holy Spirit by handing over our worship service to the youth. The following sermon was proclaimed by Clinton Fitzgerald & Danielle Hammer.

Acts 2.43-47

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.

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Clinton: Would you please pray with us?

Danielle: May the words of our mouths, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Clinton: Honestly, preaching a sermon on Youth Sunday, on Pentecost, is really intimidating. For years, I have sat in this sanctuary and listened to countless people describe what it means to be faithful in the world, and now I am one of those people. What does it even mean to preach in the first place? Why do we gather in a place such as this week after week? We spend so much time talking about what the church should be doing, that we rarely talk about what the church is in the first place.

Danielle: Yet here we are. For one reason or another God has called us to be here in this place on this day. We have faith that regardless of what we say, the Lord will use our words in spite of ourselves to share something life-giving with everyone in worship. Which makes preaching all the more strange: Clinton and I are here to tell you what God is saying to us this day. We are both far more used to being the ones sitting in the pews, than being the ones standing in the pulpit, but we’re going to preach anyway.

Clinton: When Taylor asked us to preach, we suspected that he had something up his sleeve, but if you want to know the truth… he’s just lazy and wanted to spend this Sunday listening from the pews.

Danielle: We’re not even really sure if he’s cut-out for this whole “being a pastor thing.” We’ve heard him preach a lot of sermons and offer a lot of prayers… we keep praying for him to get better, but he kinda just does the same thing every week. The poor guy always looks so nervous while he rocks back and forth from one foot to the other while he’s preaching.

Clinton: And have you noticed that he never really knows what to do with his hands? They kind of wander all over the pulpit, and sometimes it looks like the pulpit is the only thing holding him up at all. But hopefully, with enough prayer, we can make him into a good pastor one day.

Danielle: Emphasis on “hopefully”

Clinton: Anyway, we’re not here to bash Taylor. Even if it is fun to make fun of him.

Danielle: We are here to proclaim what it means to be the church, what it means to celebrate Pentecost, and explore how we can be better disciples in the world. In preparation for this sermon, Taylor began polling certain people within the church about why they come to church.

Clinton: Many of the adults had wonderful responses to his question. They described how much they love coming to a sanctuary on Sunday mornings that has such beautiful stained glass windows. Others said that the minute they saw the exposed wood in the sanctuary they knew they would worship here for the rest of their lives.

Danielle: Some of the adults went on and on about how much they loved knowing that we sing traditional hymns in a traditional service. They described how the words of the old hymns reconnect them with the Lord and so long as the church used the hymnal, it would be the church for them. Others shared reflections about how St. John’s has always put an emphasis on prayer in worship. They attend and support this church because they believe in the importance of communing with the Lord.

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Clinton: Pretty good responses. But did you notice something missing? Taylor didn’t even notice until he started asking the youth what we love about St. John’s. The adults all described physical and worshipful aspects of our church whereas the youth focused primarily on the people. Now, don’t get us wrong, we like the way this church looks, and we like the things we do in worship. But we love this church because of you.

Danielle: In Sunday School last week, this is how some of us described our love for St. John’s: I love coming to this place because it is God’s house. Sometimes we don’t take the time to pray in our own lives, but the people here encourage me to be a better Christian during the week when we’re apart. I love the fellowship with others. When we read the bible on our own we often have questions that we can’t answer on our own, but here, in this community, I know I have people that can help me.

Clinton: I love this church because the people give me strength. I have a hard time standing up for what is right, but when I’m here I learn that God gives me all the strength I need to be faithful. All of the people here are so nice, how could I not love it? They notice me, they care about me, they ask me questions about what’s going on in my life, they make me feel important and significant. I love the people and how they care about me.

Danielle: What is the church? The church is the body of Christ for the world, which means we are the church! We could have the most beautiful building in the world, we could have the best music in the world every Sunday, but without people, this church would be nothing. Shepherds are nothing without their sheep, and churches are nothing without their people.

Clinton: Personally speaking, St. John’s has played a pivotal role in my life, from the moment I was baptized till right now. I have seen how we support each other through trials and tribulations. Our church is one that, rather than raising our voices or becoming defensive, sits back and listens in the midst of questions and challenges. We leave room for God’s light to shine through us so that we may be more compassionate Christians.

Danielle: While the world continues to spin with competing narratives and organizations vying for our attention, this church with it’s love, support, and community continues to amaze us. In Acts chapter 2, when we learn about the birth of the church, there are no descriptions about the size of sanctuaries, they don’t talk about the order of worship for Sunday mornings, they don’t list out what hymns should be used at what time. It’s all about the people, God’s people, spending time together.

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Clinton: Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. Every Sunday we confront the same kind of wonders and signs the first apostles’ witnessed. We see friends and family who have carried us through the hard moments. We see people who have left their failures of the past to discover new lives in Christ.

Danielle: All who believed were together and had all things in common. We share our life experiences at St. John’s. Whether talking in the narthex or on the front lawn or during the passing of the peace, we share what we can with one another. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. When we pass the plates for the offering, we are redistributing our goods so that those who are in need will receive.

Clinton: Day by day, as they spent time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts. Throughout our lives we have seen this church change with new people coming, and old friends going on to be with the Lord. When we spend our time together, when we break bread and feast during communion, we are living into the reality of what it means to be the church today.

Danielle: And day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. You might not know it, or even believe it, but each of you have contributed to our mission to be God’s church. Whether this is the first time you’ve entered our doors, or you’ve been coming here your whole life, when we are together, we are the church. Through our relationships with the people in the pews next to us, we become Christ’s body for the world.

Clinton: Danielle and I are who we are because of the tremendous witness this church has been to Christ’s love. We love this building and we love Sunday mornings, but what we really love are the people. We give God thanks for putting you in our lives, and putting us in yours.

Danielle: It is truly a blessing to be standing here before all of you proclaiming God’s Word this day. But it is an even greater privilege to know that we are the church together. We offer this to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God now and forever. Amen.

Devotional – Acts 10.44

Devotional

Acts 10.44

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 

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It happens all the time. I’ll be preaching from the pulpit, or leading a bible study, or praying for a family when someone responds later by quoting back something I said, only I never said it. The sermon will be about the importance of loving our neighbors, and someone will bring  up our “obviously similar” political persuasions while we shake hands after the service. The bible study will move through the book of James and the challenge of being wealthy and Christian, and someone will later thank me for my comments about “sinful multi-national corporations.” I’ll be in a hospital room praying with a family for God’s will to be done, when someone will later attribute the cure to my wishing for a miracle.

In ministry, and in life, something happens between our lips and another person’s ears that we can never prepare for or predict. For as much time as pastors put into their sermons/bible studies/prayers it is a remarkable thing that we often lose control over what we say. The exact moment the words leave our lips they wrench themselves free from our dominion and take on a life of their own. The consequences of this lack of control can be both destructive and life-giving.

Occasionally someone will hear something in the sermon/lesson/prayer (that was never said) and it leads to a divisive and frightening argument. The narthex conversations following worship can be nerve-racking because you never know what to expect. But, more often than not, people hear something in the sermon/lesson/prayer (that was never said) and it gives greater glory to God than I could ever do with my own words. People will open up and confess they believed the words were meant for them alone and they experienced God’s abundant presence speaking into their lives.

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Preaching is meant to be a conversation. The pastor stands at the front speaking words about the reality of God and they pick up subtle clues regarding responses: the occasional head nod and the rare audible “amen.” But they also deeply rely on the comments made after the service regarding the proclamation. Just as the Spirit fell upon all who heard the word from Peter, the Spirit shows up in worship, in bible studies, and in hospital rooms reigniting words, rearranging them, and helping them to sink deeply into people’s lives.

It is hard to relinquish control over something as precious as a sermon, but then again the sermon never belongs to me in the first place; it belongs to God.

This week let us take time to really listen to the people in our lives and engage in conversation with them. Let us give thanks to God for providing the power of the Holy Spirit to actually make something out of our words in spite of us. And let us have the courage to be honest with all the pastors in our lives about what they say and what it means to us.