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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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.

Weekly Devotional – 2/24/14

Devotional:

Psalm 2.10-12

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all those who take refuge in him. 

 

I love working on my sermons in any place other than my office. When I sit at my desk I become easily distracted by the many other responsibilities that I have in ministry, and I discover that my focus is not on the words before me. So, whenever I have the opportunity, I work on my sermons at local coffee shops in and around Staunton.

One of the greatest advantages of working on a sermon at a coffee shop is that most people see me sitting with a bible and a computer and they see me as someone strange, and therefore leave me alone to work diligently. (However, sometimes this backfires because people see the bible and begin to confess to me their most recent and devastating sins…) I enjoy working on proclaiming God’s word outside of the church building because it helps to inspire and remind me of the totality of God’s grace beyond the walls of his churches.

This past week I was sitting in one of my favorite coffee shops, writing about the Sermon on the Mount, when I began to notice that two other patrons were talking about faith and Christianity. Being in a public place, I do not feel bad for overhearing their conversation, and, frankly, once it started going I couldn’t stop listening. (It was clear that the two gentlemen were talking about running for political office; one had already served, and the other was looking for advice about beginning a political campaign.) This is what I heard:

Candidate: Should I start attending church?

Politician: Well, do you believe in God?

Candidate: No.

Politician: In this town, you should start attending whether you believe or not. If people here believe that you believe, they’ll believe in you. So, yes, start attending (he then listed some of the prominent and most well-attended churches). When you give speeches you need to talk about how you feel God calling you to this office even if you don’t believe it. The religious folk will be more likely to support you if they think you’re religious.

Candidate: Okay, I think I can do that.

Politician: Good. I’m going to coach you: I’ll teach you hold to hold your hands when talking, how to dress for debates and fundraisers, and how to talk about God being on your side of this campaign.

Gods-Politics

The psalmist warns the rulers of the world: serve the Lord with fear and with trembling. Our God is not one to be messed with. To frivolously throw around the call of the Lord on one’s life is to invite chaos and tribulation. As I listened to the politicians discuss how to play into the religious sensibilities of the people of Staunton I began to wonder about all of our desires to attend church. Do we worship God so that other people will think better of us? Or do we worship because God so loves us that there is not other way to respond?

So, as we prepare to begin a new week I caution us to remain committed to the life of discipleship that we have been incorporated into. If our faith hinges on the approval and expectations of others it cannot be fruitful for our lives. Faith can only become real when our hearts are set aflame for Christ.

Questions: I Believe; Help My Unbelief! – Sermon on Mark 9.14-24 & Ephesians 2.8-9

Mark 9.14-24

When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able! — All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Ephesians 2.8-9

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

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Today we begin the first part of our sermon series on “Questions.” After requesting responses from all of you regarding your questions about God, Faith, and the Church, we have come to the time where I attempt to faithfully respond to those questions. Today we are talking about faith, being saved, and doubt. So, here we go…

In 1962 one of the greatest theological minds of the 20th century visited the United States on a lecture tour. Karl Barth was a product of Western Theology who actively spoke against the Nazi regime rejecting their un-Christian allegiance to Adolf Hitler. His writing and influence spread throughout the world to a degree beyond his expectation.

So during the early 1960’s Barth found himself in his later years, touring around the American landscape lecturing to young, and old, Christians about the importance of God being God.

Karl Barth is my theological hero – his books line my shelves and I believe he put forth a remarkable understanding of scripture.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth

However, Barth is remarkably difficult to understand and was very longwinded in his writing. He was once approached by a young theologian declaring, “Professor Barth, you’re my hero! I’ve read everything you’ve ever written!” To which Barth replied, “Son, I haven’t even read everything I’ve written.”

Karl Barth, intellectual and as difficult to understand as any theologian I’ve ever read, lectured at Princeton, the University of Chicago, and Union Theological Seminary. After one such lecture, no doubt filled with theologisms beyond the capacity of comprehension, a young man bravely decided to ask a question.

Now, at the time, evangelical theology was beginning to take off in the United States. Churches pushed for “personal relationships with Jesus Christ.” Altar calls were all the rage. And everyone wanted to know when you got saved.

The young man, with his hand shaking in the air, waited to ask his question. I imagine that Barth was getting tired of answering the foolish questions from the audience but decided to offer one final answer. “Son, what is your question?”

“Well professor Barth, I was wondering, when were you saved?”

The young man, obviously caught up with the personal stories of individuals who accepted Jesus Christ in their hearts, moments where folk learned that they were saved, wanted to know when Barth had discovered this momentous occasion in his own life.

After responding to questions about the ineffability of God, the diminishing role of the third member of the Trinity, and the self unveiling to humanity of the God who cannot be discovered by humanity simply through its own intuition, Barth was finally asked a question with a simple answer.

“Hmm, when was I saved? Oh yes, thats easy, it was… 2,000 years ago on the cross.”

“How will I know when I’m saved?” A question I have heard time and time again. When will I know, with assurance, that heaven is my everlasting reward? How will I be able to tell that I have been saved and what happens if I ever have doubts later on, will I still go to heaven?

In many churches, being “saved” is equated with a moment when an individual accepts Jesus Christ as their “personal Lord and Savior.” We look at it as a check-off list, an accomplishment to be met in order to go to heaven. A time when they let their old self die, in order to be clothed in Christ forevermore. This often takes form in an altar call, that moment after the sermon when a preacher stands right where I am, calling out to the congregation, calling out for those who feel the call of God on their lives to come forward during the final hymn to give their lives to Jesus Christ. Sometimes it takes place in baptism, when water is used to cleanse a child or an adult from their broken ways and save them. Sometimes it takes place in the bread and wine of communion, nourishing someone’s faith in a way previously unexperienced.

In many places, being “saved” like this is worth celebrating as a rebirth, a reawakening of the soul, a definitive shift in the life of a Christian. Some of my friends celebrate their “saved” birthday every year with a cake and presents. And even though some of those people are dear to me, and even though I can trace back to a moment in my life where I committed my life to Christ, I still wonder about what it really means to be saved.

This is what I do know: The saving of anyone is something which is not within our power, but only of God. No one can be saved – by virtue of what he/she can do. Everyone can be saved — by virtue of what God can do.

After coming down from the transfiguration on the mountaintop, Jesus met back up with the disciples only to be surprised to see them arguing with scribes. Upon arrival the crowd surrounded him overcome with awe. Someone from the group stepped forward, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak, it makes him seize up and crash to the ground. I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they were unable.” Jesus then responded to everyone present, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

So the crowd brought the boy forward but he immediately began to convulse when in the presence of the Lord and he rolled on the floor foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” “Its been happening since childhood,” the father responded, “but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”

Jesus then responded, “If you are able! — All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

unbelief

I believe; help my unbelief! The father’s reply demonstrates for us the nature of faith. It seems so paradoxical and contradictory, yet, how often has that father’s cry been the prayer on our lips? The father has shown a bit of faith by approaching Jesus in the first place, yet the move stemmed from desperation rather than confidence; “if you can do anything” shows his doubt and his faith at the same moment. The father holds his disbelief and faith in tandem with one another.

Haven’t we all had moments where, like the father, we can hold both our faith and disbelief at the same time? Periods in our life where we know that God loves us, yet our doubts begin to percolate at the same time. Perhaps confronted with a disappointment we call out to God  begging to know his ways, wondering if he’s even listening at all, yet we still call out to God. Like the father we take our burdens to God, we have enough faith to go that far, faith the size of a mustard seed, but then we struggle and limp along unsure of what God can do.

Prayer does not work like magic. Prayer is not a manipulation of God to get what we want. God does not simply grant all of our requests when we kneel and bow before him. That puts far too much power on our side of the equation. Like “knowing” we are saved because “we” have accepted Christ, it puts the burden on us to accomplish something that we cannot do on our own. If salvation can be decided on our acceptance of Christ as Lord, then God would never have had to come in the form of flesh, die on the cross, and then be raised from the dead. Prayer is more like wrestling alone in the middle of the night with a God who refuses to let go.

God is the one who saves us through Jesus Christ, God is the one who healed that father’s son through Jesus Christ. Prayer and accepting Christ is not magic, yet we are always called to pray, like that father, for more faith. We pray for more faith as trust in God’s love, grace, and power so that God in Christ can work his healing power and presence through Christ in our lives.

The story of the man bringing his son to Christ is powerful for all of us gathered here, because like that father we are fallen people incapable to saving ourselves and our loved ones. This story offers us a great glimpse of God’s glory: All things are possible to those who believe. But even greater than that is the fact that beyond our faith or prayers, God is the source of healing and salvation in our lives. Jesus is the one who calls us to brings our burdens to him, we are not left alone to try and save ourselves.

So, how do we know when we are saved? What does it mean to be saved? Are we allowed to doubt?

I like Barth’s answer to that young man, “I was saved 2,000 years ago on the cross.” I like his answer because its true and it puts the power of salvation back on God’s side of the equation. We cannot save ourselves by virtue of our own devices, but it is only God who can save us. Yet, there is something remarkably powerful about accepting Christ at the same time. Barth’s response is appropriate, but it still misses a fundamental element of what it means to follow Christ.

If being “saved” can be compartmentalized to that moment on a cross 2,000 years ago, then there is little need for us to follow Jesus in the present. Without a commitment to change our lives in accordance with the kingdom, discipleship falls to pieces. When we come to know Jesus Christ in our hearts, when we have that moment, whether its at the altar during one of our favorite hymns, or in the water of baptism, perhaps in the wine and bread of communion, its not so much they we are accepting God, but more the fact that for the first time we are realizing that God has had us the whole time. 

Faith, at its purest and deepest form, is not about “letting God into your heart” but discovering that God has been there the whole time. Being saved is not about making a choice to become a Christian, but a willingness to let God be the Lord of our lives, and not the other way around. Doubts are not something to be feared and dismissed, but to be embraced and wrestled with. Even after John Wesley felt the assurance of God’s love in his life when his heart was strangely warmed, his doubts crept back in within days.

Faith is that great dance between us and God, faith is knowing and unknowing, faith is being able to cry out “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Thats exactly why we need elements of worship such as baptism and communion. We need patterns and practices that remind us of that great event where Christ died and was risen, that incredible moment where we were saved, but we also need food and habits for our faith journeys. We need to know that we have been saved by grace through faith, not by our own doing, but by the gift of God. Yet at the same time we have to hold the mystery of salvation like the father did, we have to recognize that we continually need Christ to be the one from whom all blessings flow, we need Christ to hear our prayers and grow our faith, we need Christ to be our Lord, not just in the past but in every moment of our lives. You have been saved, and are continuing to be saved everyday.

I believe; help my unbelief!” is our confession of faith in the God who continues to breathe new life and new faith into all of us.

In a few moments we will celebrate the two great sacraments of our church. Hattie Myles Markham will be brought forth to the water to be baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. She will be incorporated into God’s kingdom through the redemptive power of the trinity. And likewise all of us will then be invited to feast at Christ’s table letting the bread and the wine nourish our souls.

Here we find the gospel, in baptism and communion we find the good news of God in the world. No matter what you do, God will never love you any more, and no matter what you do God will never love you any less. God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. Nothing can ever separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ mounted the hard wood of the cross to save you and me from having to try and save ourselves. Salvation is here. Thanks be to God.

Amen.