Unbelievable – A Wedding Homily

Mark 12.28-34

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and beside him there is no other’, and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ – this is much more important than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

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I can’t believe you two are getting married! Don’t get me wrong – I think you should get married, I am grateful to be here for your wedding, it’s just kind of hard for me to believe that it’s actually happening.

Why is it so hard for me to believe? When I was sent here as the pastor over a year ago, one of the first things you ever said to me, Marian, was that you needed prayer because you had a man who wanted to marry you and you hadn’t answered him. 

I thought I misheard you. There was man, who wanted to marry you, you didn’t answer him, and he was still hanging around? 

I can’t believe you two are getting married. When I saw you two sitting in church together, or upstairs in the fellowship hall, or outside in the parking lot after worship, and I observed your body language, and joyful expressions, I assumed that you were already married.

I can’t believe you two are getting married. When you finally told me the whole story, and I discovered that you dated thirty years ago in Liberia only to come together now after decades and other marriages, it sounds unbelievable.

And for as unbelievable as it might appear to me, and maybe even to some people here this evening, there is someone who truly and deeply believes in your getting married – God.

So, let’s paint a picture shall we? Like a movie, the scene opens with a young Liberian man and woman who are quite smitten with one another. They go on little dates, they continue to flirt back and forth, some of their friends even think that eventually they’ll get hitched. 

But, as it turns out, the teenage boy likes the company of other teenage girls. A lot of girls. So many, in fact, that Marian eventually say, “no no no, I can’t go for that.” And the relationship ends.

And again, like a movie, the next scene is thirty years later, in Atlanta, at a funeral.

The once young teenage boy now sees his old girlfriend across the room, and when he goes to shake her hand, she doesn’t recognize him! Thirty years have passed, and other relationships, and children, and yet there is something there. They get reacquainted with one another, John even has the gall to invite Marian over for dinner at his house.

The next scene is the interior of John’s kitchen where, for some time, he’s cooked all his food on the weekends so that he can have copious amounts of leftovers during the week, and he decides to serve Marian some old soup.

Marian takes note and decides to take some initiate.

The next scene is back in Virginia in Marian’s kitchen where she is cooking food just to send it all the way to Georgia for John to eat, and thus she wrapped him around her finger yet again! 

We then jump ahead in time to when the old love birds have rekindled their relationship, John asks Marian to be his wife, and she says nothing! Time passes and she remains steadfastly stubborn until she inexplicably comes to the realization that yes, YES, she wants to marry this crazy man!

And now here you two are. 

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You can see, from the story I told, and all the in between that will remain untold, for this marriage to work, you two are going to need a lot of help! Don’t take that as a statement against your individual abilities to be a married couple, but marriage is hard – it is complicated, it is messy, and it is confusing.

But, of course, that’s why all of us are here! We have been gathered by God to pledge our presence and our help. You two are about to make unconditional promises to each other, and we are going to hold you accountable to those promises. It is in the making of those promises, yours and ours, that we become the full vision of the church God has for us.

Because, our help, no matter how good willed and well-intentioned, would be futile if we were just another human gathering. But we are not just any ordinary gathering. We are the church of Jesus Christ!

We are a people whose stories have been given new meaning in the life, death, and resurrection of a 1st century Jew who was God in the flesh. And your story, that strange decades long dance of being brought together, pushed apart, and brought together again is what we, in the church, call grace.

A few weeks ago the three of us sat down for some premarital counseling, and I hope you appreciated the irony of a thirty year old pastor offering bits of wisdom to two people who have known each other longer than I’ve been alive! But toward the end, I asked you to consider what marriage really means to both of you. Not the churchy definition, not what other people think, but what do you think marriage is.

Marian you said marriage is a commitment, it is an eternal bond making the other feel connected to a new way of being. And John, you said marriage is simply loving the other as you love yourself.

Jesus was once doing his Jesus thing and arguing with a bunch of the Jewish leaders when a scribe stepped forward and asked about the greatest commandment. And Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

The scribe took in the answer and realized that what Jesus said was more important than all of the sacrifices and laws described in the Old Testament. And Jesus, seeing the scribe’s new understanding, said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

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When I asked you about what marriage really looks like, you responded like Jesus! For according to the two of you, marriage, at its best, is what we might otherwise call discipleship.

You see, when we can truly love the other as ourselves, when we can see that person standing before us and know that they deserve every bit of love, and joy, and hope that we do, then we begin to see each other the way God sees us. And that, is what makes the unbelievable covenant of marriage believable.

Marian, you are a deeply caring individual, not just toward John but toward all people. And your ideas and intellect are what draw people like John, and the rest of us, closer and closer to you. You give so freely of yourself to other people that it becomes infectious and people want to start living like you. And even though you can be downright feisty and stubborn, I think, in a weird way, it’s what John loves most about you. In you he encounters the joy of the dance that he doesn’t even know he is doing!

John, your love and passion for Marian is exactly what she needs. As someone who can too often fall under the temptation to believe she is not as wonderful as she really is, you help to reminder her day after day that she is truly worthy of love. And, in a paradoxical way, she provides the same to you. We all accept the love we think we deserve, and you deserve so much more than you have experienced, until Marian walked back into your life and showed you a new reality of your existence. 

And, John, you know I have to say it. You are also a deeply patient man, to a fault! Let’s be real for a moment, after asking her to marry you, some other men would have walked away after the non-answer, but you remained steadfast! But your patience in the relationship really is a beautiful thing. While all of us try to keep up with the frantic and frenetic pace of the world, you will often wait up in the late night hours just to greet Marian when she comes home from work. 

Now, I know you two are lovingly looking at me, and hanging on every word that I say, but I want you to turn around for just a moment and take in the scene before you. So much of weddings are focused forward such that the bride and groom don’t get a chance to take in the view that I have. Because for as much as I can attest to the love you share the commitment you hold for one another, these people can too. Look at all these people smiling back at you. They believe in the unbelievable thing you are about to do. 

But now look back at me for a moment, because God believes in you too. There is a reason that Jesus’ response about the greatest commandment begins with the love of God before the love of one another, because it is in loving God we learn what it means to love our neighbors, including the ones we marry. 

God’s love for us, in spite of us, is the paradigm through which the marriage of two people becomes intelligible. God looks at each and every one of us, with all of our faults and failures, and says, “You are my beloved.” And it is then, in the recognition of God’s unbelievable love for us, that we may begin to take steps to a place like this, by the altar, and look someone in the eye and say those unbelievable words, “I will.”

I can’t believe you two are getting married. Your story is just too good to believe. Your love for one another is just too good to believe. All of these people here on your behalf is just too good to believe. 

But it doesn’t really matter what I believe, or even what you believe, but that God believes in you.

So may the believing God, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, the one who came to show us the greatest commandment, bless you and your marriage such that you can truly love the other as you love yourself. Amen. 

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What We Believe Shapes How We Behave

Mark 1.29-39

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

After a month of answering your questions during our January sermon series, I am happy to be moving on. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy tackling different topics, but I always look forward to getting back to the rhythms of scripture in worship. The problem with taking time every week to answer specific questions from a biblical perspective is the temptation to do what we pastors call “proof-texting.” It is the practice of taking verses or passages out of context and re-appropriating them in whatever way helps to craft the argument.

Perhaps the best, and by best I mean worst, example of this is from Ephesians 5.22: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as you are to the Lord.” As soon as those words just left my mouth, the women perked up and the men grew smug smiles on their faces. But this verse has been used again and again to subordinate women in terrible and horrific ways. And what makes it all the worse is that we take it out from the whole of the bible and use it like a weapon.

But the verse immediately before “Wives be subject to your husbands,” says, “[Everyone] be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” And just three verses later we can read “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loves the church and gave himself up for her.” The love that Paul writes about is not the Hallmark version of love, Paul isn’t saying that husbands need to buy flowers and chocolate for their wives every once in awhile (though it’s a good idea), but that husbands must sacrifice, even their very lives, for their wives just as Christ gave up his life for us.

But we don’t get that when we just pick and choose the verses we want to use.

The beginning of today’s scripture is another prime example: “As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.” Wait, what do you mean, “as soon as they left the synagogue”? What were they doing there? What happened? Is that important to know?

Dividing the bible into discrete units is a pretty strange practice. However, it’s hard to imagine it as strange, because we’ve been doing it all our lives, but we don’t do it with any other text. Think about your favorite book for a moment, perhaps you could repeat a really moving line but can you remember what chapter it was in, or what page it is on? Probably not, but I bet if I asked you what your favorite passage from the bible is, you could not only quote it, but also provide the book, chapter, and verse.

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So here were are with this incredible story. It’s a day in the life of Jesus. After leaving the synagogue they go to Peter’s mother-in-law’s house, Jesus makes her whole, he cures everyone who gathers around the door, then he retreats to a deserted place for prayer, and finally they all depart for the next town to do it all again.

But what happened before?

Jesus brought his first disciples to the synagogue, and he taught as one having authority. While he was there, a man with an unclean spirit cried out, and Jesus made the man whole again. And his fame began to spread through Galilee.

What has that got to do with the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, and the curing of many people, and praying in a deserted place, and moving on to the next town?

            Jesus’ teaching cannot be separated from his healing.

            He practiced what he preached.     

            What he believed shaped how he behaved.

Last Sunday I stood right here and I invited the congregation to stand for our final hymn, My Hope Is Built. We were coming to the conclusion of our service after spending an hour reflecting on how God is the one who saves us, not the other way around. The first notes began to harmonize throughout this space and I did what I usually do, I closed my eyes and listened. It’s a beloved hymn of mine and I love hearing the faithful sing it together. But for some reason, as we neared the final verse I opened my eyes, and I looked out at all of you.

In the short amount of time it took to get through the last verse, one of our congregants collapsed and was clearly not doing well. I walked forward while most continued to sing, and immediately two of the nurses from our church rushed over to check on him. The words were still bouncing off the walls as we checked on him together, and one of them ran out to call for an ambulance.

When the song ended I offered a rushed benediction, in order to clear out the sanctuary as quickly as possible and I went into what I call “boy scout” mode. I assigned tasks to different people and tried to encourage others to give him space as we waited for the ambulance to arrive. Once the room was mostly cleared, I looked out our doors to see the ambulance and fire truck pull into our lot, and I walked back into the sanctuary to pray for him before he left.

But as I walked into the room, a group of eight people from the church were already huddled over him with hands touching his head and shoulders praying fervently to the Lord.

And it stopped me right in my tracks.

No one asked any of them to pray, they were not ordered to do so, and it was as natural to them as just about anything else.

By the time I got over the holiness of the moment I witnessed, I walked over and he was smiling while a group of women were fanning him with their bulletins. I said, “I know these beautiful women are making you feel like a king right now, but try to not let it go to your head.” And with that he chuckled, and winked at me.

Friends, I felt God’s presence in our worship last week as surely as I ever have. Through the hands and the prayers that surrounded Don, I experienced a moment of profound holiness where what we believe shaped how we behaved. It was powerful, and it was faithful.

For what its worth, Don is doing well, and he and his family are grateful for all of the support and prayers.

There is a healing power in touch and in intimacy. Over and over again in the bible we read about Jesus bringing restoration to people through his willingness to meet them where they were and offer them a new way. Jesus is an intimate Messiah who found individuals in the muck of their lives, who finds us in the moments of our deepest frustrations, and says, “follow me.”

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From the very beginning of scripture, up through the end, we see again and again that it is not right for human beings to be alone. We are at our best when we join together even while all the odds are stacked against us. We are the truest form of God’s dream for us when we gather together rather than trying to do it all by ourselves. We are the faithful vision when we congregate as a congregation.

No one can do it all on their own.

And when you’ve had a taste of what the healing power of community can do, it changes you forever.

Jesus took Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. I’ve seen depictions of this scene from the beginning of Mark’s gospel where the mother-in-law is feverishly sweating under a blanket, with a thermometer sticking out of her mouth, but after receiving the touch of the Lord, she pulls our a pitcher of lemonade to make sure all the men are refreshed. But that portrayal of the scene diminishes the truth of what happened.

We read that she served them, but a better translation might be she ministered to them. Not unlike what the pastor is supposed to do for a church, gathering them together attending to their needs, challenging them to be better. In some churches we call this the work of a deacon, a service ministry to the community.

In many senses, Simon’s mother-in-law is the first deacon. She was touched, and it changed everything. Not only did it restore her to health, not only did it bring about a sense of wholeness in her being, it propelled her to minister to those nearby.

She was given a job to do.

This is exactly how Jesus lived his life, it’s what he called his followers to do, and I caught a glimpse of it last Sunday here in the sanctuary.

Fair warning: “practicing what you preach” is no easy thing. There will come times when the last thing we want to do is gather with the people whom we call the church. Whether it’s because they stand for different political realities, or they speak the truth in love (and it hurts), or they simply remind us too much of whom we really are, it is not easy being a faithful community together. Even Jesus needed time alone.

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After the episode with Simon’s mother-in-law, word quickly spread through the town and the first disciples brought to Jesus all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door (a reminder that all are struggling whether we can see it on the surface or not).

But in the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. After emptying himself to others, Jesus had to empty himself to God before he could go to the next town to do it all over again. It’s a dance of being filled by the Spirit, to share the Spirit, to need the Spirit again. And in this wonderful story, a story beyond the scripture we read this morning, we experience a day in the life of the Lord, a day like any other day, a day perhaps like today.

When I was ordained, the bishop placed his hands on my head and shoulder and said, “Take thou authority. Go and comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” It’s not an easy task, but it’s one we all get to experience right now. In just a second I’m going to invite all of us to comfort someone in the church who is afflicted, and it’s going to be so uncomfortable that you’re going to feel afflicted while you’re comforting. It’s so much easier to pray for someone than to ask someone to pray for you. To say, “I am broken, I need help, I am not the whole vision God has for me.”

But if we can’t do that for each other as the church then we are not the church. So… sorry that I’m not sorry. Go find someone you don’t know, and pray for each other.

Devotional – Matthew 28.16-17

Matthew 28.16-17

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.

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Doubt has been with the church since the very beginning. Even after the resurrection while the disciples were worshipping Jesus on the mountain in Galilee there was doubt. This is a particularly interesting note in scripture considering the fact that doubt is so ridiculed and berated in parts of the church today.

In some so-called “prosperity gospel” churches if someone gets sick or loses a job the rest of the church blames the occurrence on the doubt of the individual. In other churches you might hear a sermon that makes it plainly obvious that doubting the Lord is a sign of weakness and it needs to be dismissed from the mind (or the heart). And still yet in some churches the “d” word is never mentioned because of it’s supposed negativity.

But doubt was with the disciples from the beginning! How else could a group of finite human beings respond to the infinite wonder and grace and mercy of God made manifest in the flesh?

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Doubt is not the opposite of faith. In fact, doubt is often the prerequisite and part of the cyclical nature of faith.

Two summers ago I took a group of people from the church on a mission trip to War, West Virginia and while we were there serving the needs of the community one of our members expressed doubt in God’s love and compassion when confronting the destitute poverty of the people in the community. One afternoon, while working on the floor of a house, he said, “It’s hard to believe in a God who could let something like this happen.” At that precise moment the homeowner walked around the corner laughing and said, “Honey, you are the proof that God is not done with us yet!”

Oftentimes when we are in the midst of doubt, whether a particular event has led us to begin questioning the Lord or it comes out of nowhere, it usually takes another person to show us back to The Way. In West Virginia is took a poverty-stricken homeowner to show my friend what the grace of God really looks like. When I begin questioning aspects of the kingdom or scripture or any number of things it usually takes a word or phrase from our hymnal to knock me back into the reality of God’s reign. For some people they need a friend or relative to reach out and ask to pray together. For others it takes something close to a miracle to show how God still rules this world and is the author of our salvation.

Regardless of what we doubt, or even if we doubt, the Good News is that God is not done with us yet!

Devotional – Job 19.23-25

Devotional:

Job 19.23-25

O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.

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Last Thursday, while my wife, son, and I were visiting family in Alexandria, I received a phone call about one of St. John’s long-time members having died. Ruth Cassidy joined the church weeks after it formally began back in 1954 and while it was still meeting in a basement down the road. Ruth was easily one of the kindest people I ever had the chance to spend time with, and she will be greatly missed by our church community, and by her family.

A couple years ago I received a phone call about Ruth’s husband Howard, and it was clear that he was close to the end of his life. And so, I made my way over to their retirement home and when I walked into the room Ruth was sitting next to her husband, she was lovingly holding his hand in hers, and he had just taken his final breath. I, not wanting to intrude on the holiness of the moment, slowly started to back away but Ruth insisted on me sitting down with her on the couch. She immediately started asking me questions about my family and St. John’s and I was still in a state of shock; I was overwhelmed by the totality of the moment, and the fact that Howard had literally just died. Ruth continued to ask me questions, but I wanted to acknowledge what had just happened. It took a couple minutes, but I finally mustered the courage to ask: “Ruth, are you okay? I mean, Howard just died…”

She looked right into my eyes, smiled, and said, “Oh, everything is fine; I know where he really is.”

Rarely have I encountered such faith, such hope, and such love as what I regularly experienced through Ruth Cassidy. Like the biblical character of Job, she had an assurance about the way things really are. In that holy and profound moment immediately after her husband died, I could almost hear the words of scripture floating in the room with us: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.”

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Ruth’s assurance, her blessed assurance, was one worthy of our emulation.

Do you know that your Redeemer lives? What words or thoughts would you want to engrave on a rock forever? Can you feel the Holy Spirit moving and breathing into your life? Are you filled with an assurance about who you are and whose you are?

O that my words were written down and engraved forever! I know that my Redeemer lives! And that at the last he will stand upon the earth!

Let’s Talk About Doubt – Sermon on Isaiah 7.10-16

Isaiah 7.10-16

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”

 

What a strange promise. The Lord will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. The promise sounds nice and sweet, after all its part of a lot of the hymns we sign during this time of year. We read these verses and our minds immediately jump to the manger scene with Mary and Joseph carefully cradling the baby Jesus with the animals remaining perfectly quiet and still. But this promise is made to a particular person in a particular moment, and that’s what makes it strange.

At the time of Isaiah’s proclamation, forces were gathering and attempting to attack and invade Jerusalem. The King, Ahaz, is deeply afraid. And it is in the midst of his fear that God offers the King a sign, any sign that he wants, let it deep as hell or high as heaven. God offers Ahaz any sign he wants so that the king will remember to trust the Lord. Ahaz, appearing quite faithful, says he will not put the Lord to the test (the same thing Jesus says during the temptations in the wilderness), but the Lord ignores Ahaz and proclaims the coming sign nonetheless.

So it is while King Ahaz is shaking in his boots, while troops are gathering at the gates, that he receives a sign of God’s promised presence: A young woman will bear a son named Emmanuel.

Now, let’s be real for a moment: God’s promise of a baby is weird. And it’s rather ambiguous. God does not say, “I will destroy the invading forces with terrible violence” nor does the Lord promise that Ahaz will survive. Instead, God says that a baby is coming to save the world.

I don’t know about you, but Christmas, to me, always seems full of happy go lucky faith without any doubt or questions. Lights are hung up on all the houses, people tune their radios to the Christmas stations, and parents want their children to behave themselves in the Christmas pageants.

But doubts and questions are there, perhaps just barely below the surface of the façade we wear around during these weeks we call Advent.

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Do we doubt? Are we allowed to? What happens to us if we do? More than a few of us will be sitting in the pews on Christmas Eve singing Joy to World and celebrating the Christ-child while we’re really wondering what it means to believe.

King Ahaz doubted. While surrounded by enemies, and offered a miracle by God, he insists on not putting God to the test. This might sound really faithful, but God offers something incredible and Ahaz turns it down. His pious response is more a dismissal of the Lord being able to actually help.

Moses doubted. When the Lord asked him to go and deliver the people from the tyranny of Egypt, Moses quickly listed off the excuses for why he shouldn’t be the one to go.

Jeremiah doubted. When the Lord called him to be a prophet to God’s people his response was quick, “I am only a boy! Surely I can’t speak on your behalf”

Jonah doubted. When the Lord commanded him to travel to Nineveh he traveled in the opposite direction in order to avoid what he had been asked to do.

Zechariah doubted. When the Lord spoke to him and told him that his wife was going to become pregnant he did not believe the Lord could perform such a miracle.

John Wesley doubted. You know, the guy in the stained glass window right there. He was asked to go travel to a strange place called Georgia and preach the Good News but he did not have faith. And when he told his superiors about it, they said, “Preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

Even Jesus doubted, though only for a moment. When he found himself all alone and nailed to the hard wood of the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Sometimes we feel like if we have doubts it is the complete opposite of having faith. In fact, many leave the church whenever that first doubt starts to creep in and they begin to wonder about the truth and promises of God’s Word.

I know more people than I can count who, at some point, were devout and faithful followers of Jesus Christ. And all it took was a little dose of the dirty word for their faithfulness to crumble. Was there really a virgin birth? Did Jesus really walk on water and feed the 5,000 and bring sight to the blind? Does God really care about our individual lives? Did God really raise Jesus from the dead?

Their entire discipleship hinged on the answer to one of those questions, and when they could not find an answer that was satisfying, they left.

I have friends from seminary who felt called to the ministry but have since left the church because a professor told them something like, “Moses didn’t write the first five books of the bible.” Or “Paul did not write the epistle to the Hebrews.” Or “Some of the psalms attributed to David were not written by David.”

            Doubt is such a dirty word. For a long time it has been shunned from the church and treated like a mortal sin. It has been seen as a weakness. But doubting is often a sign that our faith has a pulse, that it is alive and well and exploring and searching.

            Doubt and faith are not opposites.

            You can’t really have one without the other.

We’re now going to try something a little different, something a little strange, and frankly it might not work. But I’m going to leave this pulpit and come down to you and we’re going to talk about our doubts. Now the point of this is not for you to say something like, “I have trouble believing the virgin birth” and then have me completely remove your doubts with some sort of speech. No, the point of this is for us to be vulnerable and intentional with one another, for us to connect as a community of faith around the fact that we have doubts, but that God is big enough to handle our doubts.

So, what are your doubts?

This week, as I was scrolling through the seemingly endless cycle of news from around the world, I read about Russia’s apparent involvement in the democratic election cycle of the United States, and I read about Apple’s struggle to provide Bluetooth compatible headphones in time for Christmas consumers, and I read and read and read.

But then I saw a picture that still haunts me. In the image, a man and a woman are walking through the city Aleppo, Syria. The woman’s face is covered and her husband is cradling their baby in his arms, while holding up an IV bag that’s running down into the bundle of swaddling clothes.

            I’ll admit that what I should have been struck by most was the violence in the background and the terror in their posture, but what struck me the most was how much it reminded me of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus.

A man carries a child with an IV drip as he flees deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

Over 250,000 people have died in Syria as a result of their civil war, most of them innocent civilians. And while we fret over the incoming president-elect and whether or not consumer goods will arrive on time, modern Marys and jaded Josephs are doing everything they can to protect their babies.

And it makes me doubt. I read the statistics, I see the photos, and I want to know where God is in the midst of all this. How can the God who knows us by name and has counted the hairs on our heads rest easy while innocent men, women, and children are dying at a rate we can barely fathom?

And while this is happening across the world, Christians in our country are worried about Muslims and are seriously considering instituting a registration of all Muslims. And do you know what’s happening in Aleppo? Christians and Muslims are serving shoulder to shoulder pulling children from rubble, consolidating food and resources to share with as many as possible, and are the remaining sources of light in a city under the shadow of death.

I doubt God’s presence in the midst of something as terrible as what’s happening in Aleppo, but then I have hope when I read about Christians and Muslims working together to bring joy to people who feel no joy.

And so I live in this tension between faith and doubt. We all do. We vacillate between the two like a frenetic sphere in a pinball machine. We doubt and we trust. We break down under the tyranny of violence and are built back up by the very nature of love. We weep for the world and its destructive desires, and are comforted by the God who came down to take on our flesh. We lift up our clenched fists in frustration to the sky, and we hear God speak in the still small voice: “Lo, I am with you always.”

Faith and doubt; you can’t have one without the over. Amen.

 

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Devotional – Genesis 15.6

Devotional:

Genesis 15.6

And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
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“If you believe that God exists, and confess Jesus as Lord, you will go to heaven.” So said one of the staff members during our mission trip to Raleigh, NC last week. The youth were all assembled on the floor, they had shared their “Yea God” moments from the day, they had joined together for a few worship songs, they listened to a testimonial, and were now being offered a one-way ticket to glory. During the testimonial a few youth began to cry in response to the vulnerability of the young man sharing his story. The lights were dimmed to just the right degree. And then he hit them with the “If you just believe that God is real, and confess Jesus as Lord, you will go to heaven.”

However, there is a difference between believing that God exists, and believing God.

In a relatively recent poll, it was determined that 9 out of 10 American adults believe that God exists, and more than 40% of Americans say they go to church weekly. However, less than 20 % are actually in church on Sundays. In the US we have a considerably high number of people who believe that God, or some sort of universal spirit exists, but only a fraction of them believe God enough to gather with a regularly worshiping community.

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Believing that God exists is something that most people are willing to admit. When confronted with the totality of the universe they’ll confess that there might be someone, or something, behind the scenes. When they encounter a question without an answer, they are okay with assuming that “God” might be the answer.

But believing God is another story.

When Abraham was promised descendants more numerous than the stars, he did not simply believe that God exists in reality, but instead believed what God revealed to him. Abraham believed the promise.

When Moses discovered the burning bush, he did not simply believe that God was real, but instead believed what God revealed to him. Moses believed that God was going to deliver God’s people out of bondage.

When Jesus cried out from the cross, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing”, he did not simply believe in the existence of God, but instead believed what God revealed to him. He believed in the power of God’s grace to forgive, even from the point of death.

We can believe God exists without much trouble or hesitation, because to believe God is real requires very little of us. But to believe God, to believe that God works in the world, that God makes good on God’s promises, that the Holy Spirit empowers us to serve and sacrifice, requires us to live radically different lives.

On Reading Sermons Online

I preach from a manuscript in the pulpit every Sunday. During the week I carefully craft the words that will be proclaimed and I humbly pray that the Lord will show up through, and even in spite of, my sermons. Personally, preaching from a manuscript allows me to articulate how I believe the Lord continues to speak through scripture without going off on tangents in the middle of the proclamation. Because I use manuscripts, I have a copy of every sermon I’ve ever preached from the first one as a teenager at Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria, VA to the one I preached at St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA last Sunday.

By my cursory calculations I have preached over 200 times including Sunday sermons, special occasions, funerals, and weddings. Each of these sermons contain, on average, 2,000 words, which added together, comes to about 400,000 words on God’s holy Word. With the exception of funerals, all of these sermons are available to read online at any time via www.ThinkandLetThink.com

And the sad thing is, more people read my sermons online than come to worship on Sundays.

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I spent some time today going over the data points and statistics for the blog and I realized that on any given day nearly twice as many people read my sermon from Sunday than were in attendance in worship. Moreover, if the number of people who read the blog every week attended church on Sunday, I would be leading one of the larger churches in the entire Virginia Conference of the UMC.

I want to be clear that I am humbled by this kind of readership and I hope what I have posted has been fruitful for the people who view this blog. But I also want to be clear about another thing: reading a sermon online is not a substitute for gathering in worship.

Throughout the last century, the American Protestant Church has elevated the role of the sermon to the highest of worship elements. Just look at any bulletin on Sunday morning and the whole service usually builds up to the proclamation, and then people are sent home. More than prayers, and hymns, and God forbid the Eucharist, the sermon has come to define what it means to worship.

On one hand, sermons are important. They are the moment in worship whereby the Word of the Lord is proclaimed in a new and exciting way and becomes incarnate in the way that we live out what we hear. But the sermon is unintelligible without the rest of the service. The prayers and the hymns and the silences are what lend light to the words striving to resonate with God’s Word. What we preachers offer from the pulpit mean little, if not nothing, without the other parts of the worship experience.

Additionally, the sermon should not be the pinnacle of worship, but instead one of the integral parts that make the totality of worship life giving and fruitful. To equate all of worship with a sermon prevents the Holy Spirit from moving among the people in such a way that they can respond to God’s great word. To equate all of worship with a sermon implies that our words about God are more important than God’s Word about us. To equate all of worship with a sermon makes the preacher the focus of the worship rather than almighty God.

I am grateful that thousands of people have read this blog over the last few years. I am hopeful that the words found here have given life and meaning to the people who read them. But more than that, I hope these words have inspired people to gather with other Christians at least once a week. What we do, and who we are, is made incarnational in the practice of worship, not by reading sermons online.

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