Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Luke 10.25-30a

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…”

I drove into the church parking lot on the 5th of July, got out of my car, and walked across the asphalt toward the sanctuary. The light of the early morning sun was shining through one of the stained glass windows, and everything looked beautiful. It was peacefully quiet, so I knelt down by the altar and prayed for God’s will to be done.

And then I got up and walked to my office to get working. I checked some emails, made a few phones calls, and eventually opened up my bible to start working on the Sunday sermon. Some time passed before the phone started ringing, my caller ID said that it was the church secretary calling for the other side of the building.

“What is it?” I answered.

“Umm,” she began. “I’m not sure how to quite put this, but, did you happen to see the woman in the bikini lying down in one of the church parking spaces on your way in?”

And that’s how it began.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

From the safety of the secretary’s office we peered through the blinds and assessed the situation. All the way in the furthest spot away from the building, the one closest to the main road, was a young woman on her back, wearing nothing but a bikini, and she wasn’t moving.

The secretary promptly elbowed me in the ribs, “You’re a pastor, aren’t you supposed to do something?”

“Of course I’m supposed to do something.” I said as I waited for someone else driving by the church to do something.

Now by chance a priest was going down the road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 

I felt pitiful as I reluctantly made my way across the parking lot, unsure of what was about to happen. Car after car came flying down the road while the woman was curled up on the asphalt, and not one of them so much as slowed down to see the scandalous scene. 

As I got closer I thought about picking up a stick, in order to poke her to make sure she was still of this world, but then she slowly rolled over on to her side and looked me right in the eye. She smelled like the basement of a fraternity house, the little clothing she had on had tiny little rips and tears in it, and she looked utterly perplexed.

For a time neither of us spoke, and then I remembered that I’m a pastor so I said, “Can I help you?”

“Honey, I could use a ride,” she said with a hiccup and a twinkle in her eye.

I slowly offered her my hand, and as I picked her up from the ground she said, “You’re wondering how I got here. Well so am I. The last thing I remember is being at the park for the 4th of July, partying, having a lot to drink, and then I woke up in someone’s yard over there. I tried to walk home, but I lost my phone, my wallet, and I think I’m still drunk, so I decided to take a nap here in this nice parking spot.”

“Okay” I said, “I’ll drive you home.”

Goodnews word on vintage broken car license plates, concept sign

The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 

We wobbled across the lot arm in arm and I could feel the eyeballs of everyone in their cars silently judging me as they drove by. It took an inordinate amount of time to make it from her napping location to my car, and we had to stop no less than three times for fear that she was going to empty out what she had put in the night before.

Eventually, I struggled to get her buckled safely in and asked if she would be able to guide me to her house. To which she replied, “You should have been there last night! The lights and colors were just like illuminating.”

So I asked again, and she responded by pointing with her index finger toward the main road.

“Wonderful,” I thought, “directions by charades.”

We reversed out of the parking lot and I followed her finger across town. 

At one point, as we neared the top of a hill, she slowly raised her hands up above her head and shouted, “Woooooo I love this part of the ride!”

When we passed by the police station, she sank as deep as possible into the seat until her feet were up on the dashboard and she let forth a burp that smelled of stale beer, hotdogs, and regret.

When we came to one of the stop lights on the journey, I looked across at my cargo and saw that she had fallen asleep so I gave a little tap on the horn to wake her back up.

We had a time finding her house as we went up and down streets which she either could not read or remember. But eventually, we pulled up in front of a nondescript house and she let out a sigh of acceptance.

The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you what more you spend.” 

We sat in the car in uncomfortable silence while she looked out the window at her future with a strange and detached look on her face.

“So, are you a pastor or something?”

“That’s what they call me on Sundays.”

“Do you do this kind of stuff a lot?”

“Honestly, not enough. What about you?”

“All the time.”

And with that she opened up the door and fell out of my car. She promptly picked herself up and staggered across the lawn and up to the front door all the while whistling a strange rendition of what I only realized later was the Star Spangled Banner.

She made it to the front door, and patted down on her non-existent pockets for her keys that she didn’t have, and began banging on the door until someone let her in. 

And then I drove back to the church.

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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Jesus ends his parabolic encounter with this great question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

And immediately we know how this story is supposed to work. The Samaritan is the good neighbor, and we are supposed to be the good neighbor to our neighbors. But, who really wants to be like that?

The Samaritan is not a very good example, at least he’s one that we should be careful of imitation. He’s a fool! He wastes his good money on a no good stranger in a ditch, gives him his own ride, and then has the gall to put him up in a swanky hotel without receiving anything in return. 

Moreover, Samaritans were outcasts. He is a loser who comes to deal with another loser. His actions are crazy and reprehensible. He lays down whatever his life might’ve been for someone he doesn’t even know, simply because he, as an outcast, has found solidarity with another in the dump that life has offered him.

The loser has found his truest neighbor, another loser.

Which, incidentally, is what the whole gospel is about – Jesus came to save a lost and losing world, by becoming lost and defeated. But in this world of ours, populated by losers, all of us are hopelessly committed to a version of the world dictated by winning, by being the best, by looking out for ourselves.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. But it is tragic, because grace works only in the midst of being able to recognize how badly we need it.

Or, to put it another way, if Jesus wanted to be a better motivational speaker he would’ve ended the parable thusly: Don’t be like the Samaritan; it will ruin your life. You will become a mockery among your friends, you will be a loser.

But Jesus isn’t a motivational speaker, he is the Lord.

Which bring us back to the question posed at the end of the parable: Which person was the neighbor to the man in the ditch? But what if there’s a better question… and what if that better question is this: Which person in the story is Jesus?

As we have said again and again the parables are primarily about Jesus and only secondarily about us, much to our disappointment. 

The central figure, contrary to just about every version of this story ever told or ever preached is not the Good Samaritan. He is simply one of three people who actually figures out what it means to be a properly good neighbor.

Jesus in the story, the one who demands all of our focus and attention, the one to whom the three are either neighborly or not, is the one down in the ditch.

Jesus is free among the dead – He is the one who, again and again, is with the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead.

If we want the parable to tell us to imitate the Good Samaritan, which it certainly does, then that’s fine.

But if that’s all the Good Samaritan is good for, then it isn’t very good.

Instead it leaves people like you and me feeling fine and guilty. We feel fine in terms of thinking about times we have been neighborly toward our neighbors, or it can leave us feeling guilty about the many times we haven’t.

When, in fact, the whole story is about how Jesus is the one down in the ditch. That he, the Lord of lords, has condescended himself to our miserable existence and can be found in the place of our own ditch-ness and suffering.

This story is but another resounding reminder that we don’t have to go looking for Jesus, or even that we have to be like the Good Samaritan to earn Jesus.

It’s that Jesus was willing to do for us what we could not, and would not, do for ourselves or our neighbors.

Jesus has moved in next door knowing that we, his neighbors, are a bunch of losers.

And that’s good news. Amen. 

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Unbelievable

Luke 24.1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stopping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. 

Ah, the beautiful and confounding day we call Easter. All of the Bible, all of the church, all of Christianity hinges on this day: Easter, Resurrection, out of death into life. If this story were not in scripture, we would’ve thrown out our Bibles away a long time ago. If the Bible does not tell us this story, it tells us nothing.

Easter is the one day when the hopes and fears of all the years are made manifest in the here and now. Today we are the church, and we have people who are firmly rooted in their faith, we have people who are filled with doubts, and we have people scratching their heads with questions. 

So, what should I say to all of you today? How might I meet each of you where you are and provide words of wonder, and challenge, and grace?

All that we’ve said, and all that we will say, today is found in these three words: He Is Risen!

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The tomb was empty and the body was gone.

All four gospels report the beginning of a strange and new reality. 

It is a wondrous and beautiful declaration, and yet, in a sense, this is the most difficult day of the year for Christians because it is impossible to talk about the resurrection.

The resurrection is impossible to talk about because it utterly baffles us. It was, and still is, something completely un-looked for, without precedent, something that stuns and shatters our conceptions of everything even all these years later.

It was on the first day of the week, a Sunday, when the women arrived at the empty tomb. 

Have you ever had to bury someone?

If you haven’t, you will. You will come to know the deafening clasp of death. You will come to understand the grief and pain of entering into a new world without someone in it. You will come to know death in a thousand different ways: the deaf of a friendship, or a job, or health, or happiness.

It will feel like every bit of your hope has been buried in that tomb.

Which maybe gets us a bit closer to how the women were feeling when they walked to the grave at early dawn. We are compelled to get near to them on their journey because even though we know how the story ends, sometimes we cannot quite see how unprepared they were, and all us are, for the Good News.

On Monday I got to the office here at church and decided that I had waited far too long to change the letters on our church marquee. For the last month or it contained the simple message: All are welcome at this church. But with Easter approaching, the time had come to display the times for our Easter worship services.

So, I wrote out the message on a little notepad, just to make sure it would fit on the sign, and then I pulled out all the necessary letters and, rather than carrying all the equipment down the hill, I decided to throw it all into the back of my car and then I drove across the lawn down to the corner.

It took about 10 minutes to pull the old letters out and replace them with the new message. I stood back from the sign to make sure it was all even and level, and then I got back in my car to drive across the lawn toward the parking lot. 

And, right as I passed by that window, a police cruiser flew down our long driveway and turned on his red and blues.

It took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize that I was getting pulled over inside of our own parking lot.

I promptly put the car in park and stepped out of the vehicle and the officer approached quickly and demanded to know what I had been doing on the lawn.

“Were you vandalizing the church property?”

“No,” I calmly replied, “I’m the pastor.”

“Really?” He said incredulously.

That’s when I looked down and realized that I was wearing jeans and a tee-shirt. 

I told him that I was changing out the letters for the church sign, and I even pulled a few of the letters out of the car to prove my case.

“Well, what does the sign say now?”

I couldn’t tell if he was genuinely interested, or if he was going to go down and look at it to make sure I wasn’t lying.

So I told him that I put up the times for our Easter services.

For a moment he didn’t say anything. He kept looking back between me and his cruiser, and then, out of nowhere, he said, “Do you really believe all that?”

“All of what?”

“Easter, resurrection, the dead brought back to life. Do you really believe all that?”

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The women go to the graveyard in grief. They felt the same way many of us feel when we are surrounded by tombstones. Some of us go to graveyards to lay down flowers as a sign of love upon the grave of those now dead. Some of us go to find connections with those who came before us. Some of us go because cemeteries feel spooky and we like the idea of the hair standing up on the back of our necks. Some of us go without even knowing why.

But absolutely no one goes to visit a grave because they expect someone to rise out of it.

Luke, in his gospel story, wants us to know that this new reality was totally inconceivable. The women are perplexed by the empty tomb and brought down to the ground in the presence of the angelic messengers. 

And there is this powerfully pregnant pause while the women bow in silence. 

That silence contains all of their questions, and our own. How is this possible? What does it mean? 

And then the messengers cut through the silence with the question to end all questions: Why do you look for the living among the dead?

Easter is a terrifyingly wonderful reminder that God’s ways are not our ways. God constantly subverts what we expect and even what we believe precisely because God’s ways are not of our own making. They are totally other.

Why do you look for the living among the dead? 

That question continues to burn in our minds and souls all these centuries later because we know the question is also meant for us! 

We too want to tend the corpses of long dead ideas. 

We cling to former visions of ourselves and our churches and our institutions as if the most important thing would be for them to return to what they once we. 

We grasp our loved ones too tightly refusing to let them change. 

We choose to stay with what is dead because is is safe.

But the question remains! Why are we looking for the living among the dead? God is doing a new thing!

And notice: the women do not remain at the tomb to ask their own lingering questions. They are content with the news that God has done something strange, and they break the silence by returning to the disciples to share what had happened. 

And how do these dedicated disciples respond to the Good News?

They don’t believe it.

To them this whole transformation of the cosmos is crazy – and they are the ones who had been following Jesus for years, they had heard all the stories and seen all the miracles, and yet even they were unprepared for the first Easter. 

Throughout the history of the church we have often equated faith and belief with what it means to be Christian. We lay out these doctrines and principles and so long as you abide by them, so long as you believe that they are true, then you are in. 

One of the problems with that kind of Christianity, which is to say with Christianity period, is that it places all of the power in our hands. We become the arbiters of our own salvation. Moreover, we have used the doctrine of belief to exclude those who do not believe.

All of us here today came of age in world in which we were, and are, told again and again that everything is up to us. We are a people of potential and so long as we work hard, and make all the right choices, and believe in all of the right things, then life will be perfect.

The resurrection of Jesus is completely contrary to that way of being. It is completely contrary because we have nothing to do with it. Jesus wasn’t waiting in the grave until there was the right amount of belief in the world before he broke free from the chains of Sin and Death. Jesus wasn’t biding his time waiting for his would-be followers to engage in systems of perfect morality before offering them the gift of salvation. 

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The women returned to the disciples to tell them the good news and the disciples did not believe them. The story seemed an idle tale, and they went about their business.

But Peter, ever eager Peter, had to see for himself. He had to go to the tomb to see with his own eyes what had been told to him. And when we looked into the empty tomb he saw the linen clothes by themselves and he went home amazed at all that he had seen and heard. 

That might be the message of Easter for us today: Not look at the empty tomb and believe. But look at the tomb and be amazed!

The police officer stood there in the parking lot with his question about belief hanging in the air.

I said, “Yeah, I do believe it. All of it. Otherwise all of this would be in vain.”

And he left. 

I do believe, but the story is pretty unbelievable. I can’t prove the resurrection. I can’t make you or anyone else believe anything.

But I see resurrection everyday.

I see it when we gather at the table in anticipation of what God can do through ordinary things like bread and the cup.

I see resurrection when we open up this old book every week knowing that Jesus still speaks to us anew.

I see resurrection in the church, this church, through a whole bunch of people who can’t agree on anything but know that through Christ’s victory over death the world has been turned upside down. 

I see resurrection in the people who come looking for forgiveness and actually receive it.

I see resurrection in the crazy gift of grace offered freely to people like you and me who deserve it not at all.

The Good News is that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead.

But the even better news is the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead whether we believe it or not. Amen. 

Devotional – 2 Timothy 2.8-9

Devotional:

2 Timothy 2.8-9

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David – that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.

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A few of my friends recently embarked on a new venture into the world of podcasting. They call themselves “Crackers and Grape Juice” and they regularly interview people about their faith in order to share the conversations with others through the Internet. One of their regular interviewees is Fleming Rutledge, a retired Episcopal priest, who truly has the gift of preaching. In a recent interview they asked Fleming about her love of scripture and her response was powerful: “If I love scripture, it is because my grandmother read me those stories when I was a child. The role of someone we love, loving us enough to read us scripture, makes all the difference.”

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What do we think of the bible? Is it a text that we are called to master like a subject from school? Should we memorize the facts and dates like a work of history? Should we analyze the literary techniques like a famous work from Shakespeare?

Today, in the lives of Christians, the Word of the Lord is often chained to the realm of the church. If we want our children to learn about the bible, we send them to a Sunday School classroom. If we have a friend grieving the loss of a spouse, we recommend that they go speak with a pastor. If we are unsure about how to encounter a troubling topic, we ask to hear a sermon about it in worship.

But, as Paul reminds us, the word of God is not chained! The bible demands our attention and our affection. It yearns to be read and savored. It should not be relegated to the confines of a church building and should instead sit at the heart of what it means to be a family and what it means to be a community.

Can you imagine how all children would feel about scripture if someone they loved took the time to read them the stories? Can you imagine how differently you would feel about the bible if someone took the time to read it to you when you were younger?

The call of Christians, all Christians, is to remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead. We remember the great stories of the bible when we gather together in worship on Sundays, but that is not enough. We remember the greatness of the risen Lord whenever we share his gospel with the people we love: our families, friends, and neighbors. We remember the acts and grace of God whenever we sit down with one of our children and grandchildren to tell them about how Jesus changed our lives. We remember the resurrection when we believe the Word of God is unchained and worthy of our time.

Earthquake! – Easter Sermon

Matthew 28.1-10

After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

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It was dark but I felt invincible. I was seventeen years old, with a fresh driver’s license in my wallet, and we were driving to the church in the middle of the night on Easter Eve. My friend, Will, and I had come up with a plan on how to make this particular Easter one that no one would ever forget. We were young and dumb.

For as long as I could remember, the church always set up a tomb on the front lawn of the church during holy week. It was the size of a small shed and it stood out like an oppressive eye sore to remind everyone what Easter was really about. From Good Friday through Saturday, volunteers would stand guard by the tomb wearing Roman centurion costumes and would try to look stern while also waving at people that drove by. It was the church’s attempt to reexamine the greatest moment in the history of the world, but after years of seeing the same men stand by the same tomb, it had lost its impact.

On Easter Sunday, someone was always tasked with getting over to the church before anyone else to roll back the stone on the front of the tomb. That way, while people were scrambling to find parking spots before the service started, they could remember how the stone was rolled away when the women and first disciples discovered Jesus’ resurrection on the first Easter.

But for Will and I, it was time to up the stakes and make it an Easter worth celebrating. We were tired of the same resurrection stories, we were tired of people entering and leaving much the same on Sunday, and we were tired of the familiarity that had become Easter.

So we snuck out in the middle of the night, much to the later frustration of our parents, and we drove over to the church. Under the cover of darkness we rolled back the stone that covered the entrance to the tomb, and we carried it across the church lawn to the main sanctuary entrance. There is a slanted roof above the main doors that everyone can see, and we decided it was the perfect place for the stone. Of course, we hadn’t planned on how difficult it would be to lift the wood framed faux stone that was as tall as us on to the roof, so we had to back my car up under the gutters and toss the stone up onto the shingles.

It was perfect, and I can still remember how quickly we peeled out of the parking lot with proud looks on our faces. We were going to recapture the power of Easter for our church.

Much like Christmas Eve, I couldn’t sleep. I was so excited to see the faces of all the people in worship when they noticed the stone on the roof, I couldn’t wait to hear our pastor make a comment about God’s cosmic power to roll back stones, even onto the church roof, during his sermon, but mostly I was excited to see people excited.

I arrived with my family in our perfectly coordinated outfits with a lot of expectation. I could not keep back a permanent grin on my face the whole way to the church, and when we got to the parking lot I couldn’t believe what I saw.

Nothing.

Sure enough the stone was still on the roof of the entrance, it was in clear sight for everyone to see, but not a single person had noticed it. They were all walking in and talking like it was like every other Sunday.

Even worse, during the time before the service started, I moved around the sanctuary to eavesdrop on all the conversations and not a single person mentioned the miracle on the roof. I don’t remember a word for the sermon that year because I sat disappointed in my pew with my arms across my chest.

The joy of my expectation had been replaced with frustration at the lack of reaction from the congregation.

When the service ended, my family got in line with everyone else to shake the pastor’s hand. We slowly made our way forward until I lazily offered my hand and the pastor grabbed it and pulled me close.

He said, “I was praying in the sanctuary this morning, and I heard God speak to me.”

“Oh, really?” I said dismissively.

“Oh yes, and he told me to tell you that whoever put the stone on the roof better have it back down by tomorrow morning. Happy Easter!”

Have we become so content with Easter that it no longer shakes us? Are we so entitled that we have accepted the gift of eternal life without recognizing how transformative it is? Does Easter still shock us the way that it should?

The women got up early and made their way to the tomb. They were expecting it to contain Jesus’ dead body, they were still grieving over the death of their friend, but they knew what they had to do. And suddenly there was a great earthquake! An angel of the Lord descended from heaven and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was frightening and he scared the Roman guards to such a degree that they became like dead men.

But then the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid! I know you’re looking for Jesus, but he has been raised! Go tell his disciples the good news.” So the women made haste with great fear and joy to share the gospel and suddenly Jesus met them on the road and said, “Greetings!” The women ran to Jesus and knelt to worship at his feet, but he said, “Don’t be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

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This is shocking stuff. Jesus, dead on the cross, was placed in a grave, and three days later he rose. An angel appeared with an earthquake to roll back the stone at the tomb and proclaim God’s love through the resurrection of his Son. And at the end, the women respond in fear, joy, and worship.

Easter is an earthquake the shook the entire world, and more than that, it shook time itself. No more would God’s created beings be limited to the confines of earthly life, no more would the grace of God be limited to a particular time and place, no more would death have a sting.

This great gift of resurrection, the gift of Easter, shakes the very foundations of existence.

But does it still shake us?

We like Easter to be easy on the senses and on our consciences. Many of us like to dress up in our best clothes, and wear the right colors, and have an Easter egg hunt. Some of us are like the church of my youth who experienced Easter like any other holiday. Others are like the first disciples who were ready to get back to their lives after their Lord died, but then he showed up on Sunday and shook the world.

On Friday I came to church at about noon to take up our sanctuary cross and drag it through Staunton. This has been my holy week tradition since becoming a pastor and it always yields interesting results. The first year I carried the cross I was largely ignored; no one spoke to me or even acknowledged my presence. Last year was totally the opposite, people honked at me and waved their hands; I even had a few people yell curse words toward my direction.

This year however, I was met with reverence and ignorance. During the first hour or so I lost track of how many people rolled down their windows to shout “Amen!” or “God Bless!” When I walked up and down Beverley Street many people placed their hands into the posture of prayer, or bowed their heads, and even some people made the sign of the cross across their body. It was powerful for me to experience how much the cross was interrupting their lives. I witnessed God’s power made manifest in the cross on my shoulder as it met people and reminded them how far God was willing to go to transform the world.

But as I was getting ready to turn and start heading back, I saw a young family standing on a corner and I figured that I should keep walking. The husband and wife were cautiously sipping on their to-go coffees while their 8-year-old son was jumping to avoid cracks in the sidewalk. As I got closer they all started to notice the strange man carrying a cross on his shoulder, and they remained silent as I passed by.

I was only a few feet away when I heard the son exclaim: “Mom! That guy is carrying a giant ‘X’!”

“No honey,” The mother said, “That’s a cross.”

While I continued up the hill I couldn’t help but laugh at the episode I had just experienced. But then my laughter turned to sorrow, for I realized that young boy had no idea what Christ did for him. He had no knowledge of Christ’s magnificent sacrifice on the cross to open up the gates of heaven. He had no understanding of the earth-quaking good news of Easter.

Every year Easter interrupts ous sensibilities and behaviors. On this day we feel the earth shake beneath out feet because God has conquered death. We are jostled to and fro by the empty tomb because it radically reshapes the way we live.

The resurrection is about power and grace. In it we see how God took something like the cross, a sign of death to the world, and made it into the means of celebration. On Easter, God transformed the tomb in the same way that he did on Christmas in a virgin’ womb; God made a way where they was no way. On Easter, God changed the world.

So come and taste the goodness of God in the bread and the cup. Listen for salvation in our songs and prayers. Witness the power of resurrection in the people in the pews next to you. Hear the Good News, the best news. Hear it and let is shake your lives. He lives! Hallelujah!

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Devotional – John 20.30

Devotional:

John 20.30

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.

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My favorite piece of scripture is Mark 10.45: For the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” I love the idea that, like Jesus, we are called to serve the needs of others rather than focusing on ourselves all the time. One of the verses that has made the most impact in my life is from Matthew 27.46: “And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” Through it I began to realize the depth of Jesus’ humanity and what he went through on our behalf.

There are plenty of verses that make me laugh, like Acts 20.9: “A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead.” And there are some passages that leave me scratching my head in confusion, like Mark 9.50: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?”

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Last Easter my friend Jason Micheli preached his sermon on what he called “the biblical verse that really ticks [him] off, the scripture verse that irritates the you-know-what out of [him] is John 20.30: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.”

And I have to agree with him.

Why in the world would John omit other stories about Jesus’ life? If there were other miracles, other teachings, other divine moments, why wouldn’t he include them in the gospel? Most of the time I read from the bible I feel very fulfilled, but when I read John 20.30 I feel like I got short-changed.

Yet, on some level, I feel like it’s quite appropriate. If Easter tells us anything it’s that the living Lord is still on the move meeting us on the roads of life. John’s gospel could never contain all of Jesus’ miracles because he is still making them happen here and now. Sometimes we believe that we can only find and discover the Lord in the sacred texts of scripture, but that’s when we need to open our eyes to the wonders around us and see how God is still moving in the world.

When was the last time you felt the presence of God? Hopefully you experienced the Spirit of the Lord during your recent Easter service, or maybe you discovered God in the breaking of bread during communion. This week, let us all take heart knowing that we can find God in the words of scripture and in our experiences in the world.

Faith Hall of Fame – Hebrews 11.32-40

Hebrews 11.32-40

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

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Today we conclude our Advent Sermon Series on “New Beginnings.” This is the final Sunday leading up to Christmas day, and over the last few weeks we have prepared our hearts and minds for the coming of God in Christ. We began with Abram being called into a strange land. Next we looked at Samuel being called by name in the temple. Last week we explored Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. This morning we conclude by looking at the Faith Hall of Fame from Hebrews 11.

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And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Fletcher Swink, Sam Stanley, Zig Volskis, Patricia Meadows, and the other pastors — who through faith endured frustrating congregations, proclaimed God’s presence, fought for justice, became mighty in honor, and brought people to the Lord.

Hebrews 11 contains what I call the “Faith Hall of Fame.” The entire chapter is devoted to the great leaders and prophets from the Old Testament and their willingness to stand up for God even when it meant certain doom. They so fervently believed that God was with them, that they were willing to embark on new beginnings when others refused to obey.

The closest thing we have to a Faith Hall of Fame here at St. John’s can be found in our parlor next to the narthex. Inside you will discover a picture of every pastor that has had the good fortune to serve this church since 1954. From Fletcher Swink to yours truly, every pastor has been framed and dated, hung with care, and honored with a spot on the wall.

Have you ever taken the time to look through the pictures? It was one of the first things I did when I was newly appointed, and frankly the room terrifies me. Whenever I sit in the parlor with a group of people, I feel the heavy gaze of the pastors, they look down from their Faith Hall of Fame, and I can’t help but wonder what they think of me.

Marshall Kirby begged me my first week to give him a picture so that he could put me up with everyone else. I hesitated. For weeks he bugged me about getting the picture, about having it be just the right size and tint to blend in with the others. But I continued to put it off. I kept making excuses about how busy I was, or about the priorities I needed to focus on, but the truth is, I didn’t feel worthy of going on the wall. I had been here for such a short amount of time and felt that I hadn’t done anything that earned me a spot in the Hall of Fame.

When I’m in the parlor, when I experience the St. John’s Hall of Fame, I think about all the things they must have gone through to bring this church to where it is. I think about Fletcher Swink starting the church down the road at the Auto Parts store. I imagine that it required a tremendous amount of faith to believe that God had call him from Durham, NC to Staunton, VA to start a new church; to make something of nothing. How many nights did he pray for God to send him people, how many afternoons did he spend worrying about the new building project, how often did he confront frustrated parishioners about his sermons?

When I’m in the parlor, when I experience the St. John’s Hall of Fame, I think about Patricia Meadows being appointed as the first female pastor. I wonder about how hard she had to work to gain the trust of the people, what lengths she had to go to to reignite the flame of faith. I imagine the deep prayers she offered to God about sending new sheep to her flock, the lonely days of sermon preparation, and the terrifying moments of standing by the graveside with friends and family from the church. How often did she wrestle with her call when she felt persecuted, how many days did she spend praying for the people of our community when they were no longer able to offer their own prayers, how did she feel standing up against the injustices around her?

I wonder about all the pastors of this church, and what they went through for God’s kingdom. What was it that set them apart? What did they do that helped to grow and nurture faith in this community?

Last week I was standing in the parlor, admiring the past, when I realized how similar our Faith Hall of Fame is to the one listed in Hebrews 11.

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The people of Israel’s past were not of special value. Gideon was hesitant and timid when he was called by God; Barak had to be shamed by Deborah into fighting for the Lord; Jephthah is remembered mostly for his rash oath; Samson was weak of mind and conscience.

Similarly, there is nothing particularly special about those who have served our church. Though undoubtedly unique, they contained no special powers that set them apart from other clergy. Each of them had strengths and weaknesses that became manifest while they served the church.

Our pastors, and the heroes from Israel’s past, were set apart because they did all things “through faith.” They worked knowing that the real significance of what they had done would never be seen in their own time, but something that would come much later. They suffered through persecution and injustice because they believed in God’s goodness even when the world claimed the contrary.

We remember the ways our pastors have suffered: Angry emails/letters about inappropriate sermons, knowing glances and whispers from the committee members in the parking lot (where the real meetings happen). Shouts and finger pointing during counseling sessions. Years of loneliness serving a church full of people who cannot see the pastor as anything other than pastor. Doubts when preparing funerals for people in the community.

We read about all the ways the faithful of Israel suffered: torture, mocking, flogging, chains and imprisonment. Stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword, wandered about in the skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, and tormented.

This is what evil does to the good. It attacks at the core of our being, shakes our faith, and  encourages us to doubt. Yet, reading these words and remembering our church’s past should bring us courage and hope. We see in them the willingness of people to go and risk it all for God. Pastors who remained brave and faithful when others tried to break them down. Prophets who spoke the truth when others sought to kill them. We see in them the true courage that faith can develop. 

It only takes a moment to see this tremendous faith in the world today, people standing up against injustice when the world argues the contrary. Consider the droves of people standing with their hands up and holding signs that say “Black Lives Matter” in response to Ferguson. Consider the droves of people standing shoulder to shoulder with the LGBTQ community during Pride marches in response to fanatical attacks against sexuality.

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We remember and read and see the ways people suffer for God’s kingdom and we commend them for their willingness to go and be grace for the world. God sends into our confused and cruel humanity his messengers and prophets. God sends them into the midst of the wolves so that we might not be left to our evil ways, that we may see in them hope for tomorrow, and in response turn back to the God of mercy.

Yet all these, though they are commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Whether Gideon, Barak, Fletcher Swink, or Zig Volskis, their completion depends on us. Their faith rested in God who would fulfill his promises. They served the Lord as an anchor cast into the days ahead; faith is built on hope for the future.

Abraham’s faith would have been in vain if his descendants never made it to the Land of Promise. Samuel’s faith would have been in vain if he had not responded to God calling him by name in the temple. Paul’s faith would have been in vain if the resurrected Christ had not appeared to him on the road to Damascus.

Apart from us they cannot be made perfect. The completion of those from the Faith Hall of Fame depends on us. We can fulfill their faith even today by going out and being Christ’s body for the world.

We remember the past of scripture, and the past of our church, but we are not to idealize it. We cannot be blind to the mistakes of those who came before us, or allow the past to fasten its dead hand upon us, binding us down to fruitless ideas, ancient prejudices, and old failures. We look back so that we can look forward. Just because “thats the way we’ve always done it” does not mean “thats the way we must do it now.”

Yet too often we forget how indebted we are to the past. We neglect to remember how faithful Abram, Samuel, and Paul were. We brush aside all the pastors who worked with every fiber of their being to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth. Every good thing that we have and enjoy was consecrated by the sacrifices of the past. We have faith because the people of the past passed it along to us. So today, we in our turn cast our anchors into the future. Without those who are to come after us, without the youth of our church and without the children of our preschool, we shall not be made perfect.

We are who we are because of the past. We will become what God intends for us because of the legacy we pass on to the future. Our new beginning comes when we cast our hope into the future of God’s kingdom, when we stand up for something new and different that breaks from the past, when we take steps in faith knowing that God is with us.

God is with us. In a few days we will gather again to celebrate Christ being born into the world to be God with us. We will look to that lowly manger and remember that God came to dwell among us and encourage us to be brave people of faith who remember the past and cast our hope into the future. Our purpose does not depend on our own power, but on the strength of love that comes from the Lord and in community with one another.

I still feel uncomfortable whenever I’m in the parlor. Sets of eyes follow me from the past, and I see in them everything they went through to bring our church to where it is. I believe in their hope cast into the future. In all of you I see the seeds that they planted long ago that are blossoming into true discipleship today.

I see my picture on the wall and feel unworthy. But that’s when I remember that it’s not about me and it’s not about what I do. It’s about what God does through me. It’s about what God does through you. Amen.

Devotional – Romans 12.2

Devotional:

Romans 12.2

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

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“Taylor,” he began, “I have been attending worship at United Methodists churches nearly every Sunday since I was a child and I have never heard anyone preach on the texts you chose this month.” We were sitting in the church social hall after worship yesterday afternoon when a member of our church made it known that he was still learning something new and church and growing in his discipleship. Georgeanna Driver, one of our members who passed away last week, made a similar comment two weeks ago about not knowing that story (Elisha and the she-bears) was even in the bible. It has been exciting and thrilling over the last three weeks to challenge peoples’ perspective on what the Word of the Lord can still speak into our lives today, even stories we might otherwise choose to ignore.

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When I was at Duke for seminary our Dean, Dr. Richard Hays, reminded us that the responsibility of the Christian is to be constantly transformed by the renewing of our minds. Etched in the marble archway leading into the chapel, Romans 12.2 is a relevant reminder for students of God’s Word but even more so for the people who have been called to follow Christ. In today’s world/society it is too easy to remain complacent with our understanding of faith and overreact when a new person/idea challenges our faith. In stark contrast Jesus was regularly pushing his disciples into new territory with understandings about the kingdom of God.

What we do as Christians is primarily about God, and only secondarily about us. We gather on Sunday’s to hear the Word of the Lord and then live it out in the world. Worship is that time that helps in the transformation and renewal of our minds so that we may discern God’s will for our lives, rather than be conformed to the ways of the world.

Outside of worship we can be transformed through the reading of scripture. Try opening your Bible to a book or a chapter you’ve never read (or haven’t read in a long time), read a set number of verses, and then pray over them. Ask yourself: what might God be saying to me through these words today?

The Word of God is alive and speaking anew everyday, we need only the faith to hear it and live it out.