Devotional – Psalm 86.10

Devotional:

Psalm 86.10

For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.

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Yesterday, while the United Methodist Churches in the Virginia Conference gathered for worship, clergy and lay representatives were at the Hampton Convention Center to hear Bishop Sharma Lewis lead worship. In her sermon she brought together many of the ideas from the weekend of Annual Conference particularly regarding the fact that God is in the business of doing new things. And she concluded with our new ministry focus: “to be disciples of Jesus Christ who are lifelong learners, who influence others to serve.”

But there was another line from her sermon that has been playing over and over in my mind more than any other: “Laity, do not say to your Clergy who bring fresh ideas, ‘But we’ve never done it that way before.’”

I count myself blessed that over the last four years St. John’s has largely responded positively to new ideas. Working together with the leadership of the church has resulted in new ministries and ways to serve the community that have allowed us to accomplish God’s will. But just as we embarked into new territory during my time as the pastor, you (and I really mean you) need to continue to have open eyes and open hearts to the new ideas from your new pastor.

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Just because we did something a certain way while I was here does not mean that’s the way you have to do it forever. Frankly, you should probably change almost everything because that would be a better way of allowing the Spirit to move in new and bold ways. And that is what is at the heart of what Bishop Lewis said and at the heart of churches that are currently fruitful; a recognition that new ideas should be embraced because they ultimately come from God.

The psalmist boldly proclaims that God is the one who is great and does wondrous things. Pastors can do good things for their churches, they can help to point to what God is doing in the world, but God is the one doing the things in the world! God is God alone and a church can only be fruitful when it knows and believes that God is the one from whom all blessings flow.

So when you hear about a new idea, whether it comes from your new pastor or even from yourself, know and believe that God is the source of the idea, and prepare yourselves to be surprised by the wondrous majesty of our God who is in the business of doing new things.

I will miss all of you and all of the remarkable things we’ve done together over the last four years, but I am grateful that God will continue to do even more for you in this new chapter of the church’s life.

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Devotional – Luke 17.5-6

Devotional:

Luke 17.5-6

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea.’ And it would obey you.”

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We are a people consumed and captured by the power of instant gratification. We want the greatest reward for the smallest effort. We post a picture online and we expect people to like it right away. We show up to church on Sundays and we want to be rewarded for our effort. We pray and we assume that God will answer us quickly.

But we, if we are anything, are slaves to God’s will and that requires patience and hardwork.

We have a church member at St. John’s who wears just about every hat you can think of; Dianne Wright is the lay leader and so much more. On Sunday afternoons she walks across the front lawn with a bunch of letters from the alphabet under her arm to change the marquee. On any given day she is writing cards to, and off visiting, the shut-ins from the church community. And she is forever on the look out for “churchy” objects and images that will help others grow in faith.

A couple months ago Dianne brought a sign over to the church and hung it against the refrigerator in the kitchen. She does things like this all the time but from the moment I saw this sign, the words have percolated in my mind: “Faith can move mountains, but don’t be surprised if God hands you a shovel.”

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Faith and discipleship is hard work. The disciples once asked Jesus to increase their faith, as if he could snap his fingers and it would just happen. But Jesus responds by telling them that faith the size of a mustard seed could pull a mulberry bush out of the ground move it to the sea. Have you ever tried to move a mulberry bush? The roots go deep down into the earth and make the work of replanting quite difficult.

Being a slave in God’s kingdom, yielding to God’s will, means that we have to do the right kind of work to increase our faith. We can’t just ask for it and expect everything to change immediately. It takes the habits of prayer, scripture reading, and communal worship to increase our faith. When we work to follow the commands of Jesus, difficult though they may be, our faith will increase.

God owes us nothing, and yet we are still loved. God’s invites us back into the realm of grace over and over even when we do not deserve it. Christ still loved us while we were yet sinners. And God gives us the power to move mountains and uproot mulberry bushes, but only if we’re willing to work for it.

Devotional – Holy Week

Devotional:

Psalm 118.1

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!

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Prayers for Holy Week:

Maundy Thursday

O Lord, we confess that when we pray before meals, we do so out of habit rather than faith. We look out over out tables filled with food and we forget to remember those for whom such a meal is rare. We feel the presence of our friends and families in the seats next to us and we forget to remember people who are alone. We eat our fill and we are content. God of Life, afflict our comfort in our meals so that we will really remember that all of these gifts come from you. Work in our hearts to remember that whenever we eat, and whenever we drink, we are called to give thanks for the great gift of your Son so that we can be more like him between our meals. Use the bread and cups of our tables to make us appreciate the Bread and the Cup at your table. Amen.

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Good Friday

Great God, why did Jesus have to die on a cross? Why do bad things happen to good people, and why do good things happen to bad people? What will happen to us when we die? Where are you in the midst of the suffering in our lives and in the world? We ask questions like this, O God, because we want explanations. We see our churches like courtrooms and we want to hear your justification. We believe that we are entitled to know the ‘why?’ to every question we could possibly ask. So Lord, replace our selfish desires for explanation with ears to hear proclamation. That instead of looking for the meaning behind every little thing, we might be content with giving thanks for what you have done whether we can understand it or not. After all, how could we possibly comprehend, with our finite minds, the infinite wonder of your grace? Amen.

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Easter Sunday

God of Grace and God of Glory, we give thanks to you for you are good, and your steadfast love endures forever. We remember this day that you have not abandoned us to our own devices, you have not abandoned us in the midst of trials and tribulations, and you have not abandoned us in death. Through the resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ, we see a glimpse of our future resurrection with you in the new kingdom. So Lord, as we gather with friends and strangers alike to celebrate your victory over death in Jesus, give us glad and generous hearts to rejoice in the knowledge that your love truly knows no bounds. Shake our sensibilities like you shook the earth when the tomb was opened. And resurrect us here and now to walk in the ways of Jesus and transform the world. Amen.

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Devotional – Mark 9.47

Devotional:

Mark 9.47

And if your eye cause you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.
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I was sitting in a classroom at James Madison University when one of my peers raised her hand to ask a question. The lecture had been focused on the reliability of the New Testament writers/witnesses and a debate had erupted over whether or not to take the bible literally. I sat patiently near the front of the class watching the comments fling back and forth like a ping pong match between the students and our professor when the girl finally raised her hand.

She said, “I just want everyone to know that I take the bible literally because Jesus is my savior.” The rest of us stared at her and then slowly turned to watch our professor’s rebuttal. “Really? You take the entire bible literally all the time?” he asked rhetorically. The silence was palpable. He continued, “Well then, let me ask you this: Are you a sinner?”

With an obvious look on her face, she said, “Of course I am, but Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins.” The professor responded, “Yes yes, but do you sin, even though Jesus died for the world?” “Duh,” she said, “everyone sins, and that why we need to let Jesus into our hearts.”

The professor then sighed and brought the point home, “So you say you’re a sinner, but I notice that you have two hands, two legs, and two eyes… Jesus told his disciples that if their hands or feet cause them to sin, they should cut one of them off, and if their eyes cause them to sin they should pluck one out. So you see, I’m having a hard time understanding how you take the bible literally, affirm that you’re a sinner, and still have both your hands, both your feet, and both your eyes all at the same time.”

I don’t remember the girl’s name, but I will never forget the way she looked as she slumped back down into her chair thinking about what our professor had said.

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The bible is full of different literary forms that give it life. There are epic poems that retell the great story of the past in order to teach a lesson to the present. There are long genealogies that connect different characters throughout the centuries. There are parables of everyday situations that are meant to leave us scratching our heads in wonder. There are metaphors used (just like we do) to convey meaning in a way that is memorable and effective. There are proverbs, psalms, and poems that contain wisdom beyond their literal words.

The bible is not a historical narrative to be analyzed and redacted like a modern textbook. It is not a perfect collection of rules to live life. The bible is not a text to be read literally all the time in every situation; otherwise we would all be stumbling around with missing appendages.

The great beauty of scripture is that it opens up the strange new world of what it means to be in relationship with God and with our fellow human beings. The greatest moments in our lives cannot be conveyed in simple words to be taken literally, but are in fact so profound that we must use differing literary forms to even begin conveying what our experience was like. The bible is full of wonder and that’s why we keep coming back to it every day and every week to learn more about who we are, and whose we are.

This week, let us open up our bibles to discover the strange new world of God’s kingdom, and start letting it become incarnate in the way we live.

Marked and Cleansed – Ash Wednesday Homily on Psalm 51.1-12

Psalm 51.1-12

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore me to the joy or your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

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How would someone know that you’re a Christian? I think this is a very important question for us to ask ourselves on a regular basis. During a normal day, how would anyone know that we affirm Jesus as Lord, that we pray to God the Father, that we believe the Spirit is with us in all things? Maybe you wear a cross around your neck, though even that symbol has become so innocuous to the general culture around us. Maybe you bring your bible with you to work or public places and you are not afraid to spend some time reading from the good book in front of other people. I personally like to wear my clerical collar when I’m out in town because it helps to show others who I am, and frankly it forces me to act like a Christian in public.

When I became a pastor I was so excited to wear my collar for the first time, to walk around Staunton, and let it speak for itself. I imagined the conversations that would begin at one of our local coffee shops: “Sir, would you please pray for my wife, she just received some tough medical news.” … “Do you mind if I pull up a chair and ask some questions? I’ve always wanted to ask a pastor about the miracles from the gospels.” … “I’m new in town, would you be able to help me find a church community?” However, after being here for some time, I can share that most of the time no one notices. I’ve gone to a local bar with the expectation that people would hide their beer bottles behind their backs, but they just keep talking like normal. I’ve been shopping at the grocery store and prepared myself for random questions, but people just keep scanning the aisles on their own. I’ve sat down at a coffee shop with my collar on, and bible open, and almost no one has made mention of my vocation.

That was the case until last week.

I was sitting at a table alone working on a sermon when two women came in, ordered coffee, and sat at the table next to me. I’m not ashamed to admit that I often eavesdrop on the conversations around me. It’s not that I intend to, or have a problem with it, but most of the time the place is quiet enough that its impossible not to hear what people are talking about. I went to grab my headphones, in order to drown out their conversation, but I heard something that peeked my interest: “Being a pastor must be the easiest job in the world

I decided then that the sermon could wait, this conversation was too good to miss.

One of them continued, “Seriously! They get paid to act like the rest of us. I mean, how hard is it to write a sermon every week and visit old people? Being a Christian is so much harder than being a pastor. It must be the easiest job in the world.

Without thinking about what I was doing, I stood up, walked over to their table, and said, “You’re absolutely right. Being a Christian is harder than being a pastor. The church has expectations about the way you are supposed to behave, and I get paid to behave appropriately, I am a professional Christian. The only difference is this, everyone knows I’m a Christian, what about you?” I then packed up my things and left.

Today, above all days, is an opportunity for us to be marked and cleansed. In a short while, each of us will be invited forward to have a cross of ashes placed on our foreheads, a sign for us to carry around for the rest of the day. Today, wherever you go, people will know who you really are. 

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Do you know where the ashes come from? We save some of the palm branches from Palm Sunday, and we burn them down into ashes. The same palms that some of us waved last spring to welcome Jesus in Jerusalem have been placed in the fire, and will now adorn our heads. This is done as a reminder that our shouts of “hosanna!” can quickly turn to “crucify!” I can go from being a well behaved Christian, minding my own business at a coffee shop, to walking over to strangers and letting my passive aggressive side get the better of me. We use these ashes to mark and cleanse ourselves for the coming season of lent.

All of us are sinners, the young and the old, the weak and the strong, we all fall short of God’s glory. This season of lent is an opportunity to turn back to God and reorient our perspectives about the way the world truly works. For the coming weeks our prayers should be for wisdom, for God to purge from us all wrong desires and failures. This is the time for us to be bold in our faithfulness as we enter the community around us. Lent is the time for God to create in us clean hearts, to put new and right spirits within us. We begin here with the ashes, remembering our finitude, so that God might restore us to the joy of salvation, and sustain us with a willing spirit to be faithful in the world.

How would someone know you’re a Christian? Today, everyone will know just by looking at your foreheads. But, the ashes will eventually fade away; the cross will disappear. The challenge for us is to act like it’s still there, to live full lives of discipleship so that everyone might know who we are, and whose we are. Amen.

Devotional – 1 Corinthians 12.4-7

Devotional:

1 Corinthians 12.4-7

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 

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After responding to a call of ministry, the United Methodist Church requires candidates to be examined by the Board of Ordained Ministry before they are placed at a church/agency. This is done to ensure that candidates are properly prepared for the many demands of local ministry and that they are able to articulate the doctrines and principles of our church in such a way that it can be conveyed to a variety of congregations.

While many of us prepared for our interviews we heard horror stories about the difficulty of some questions that might await us: “Pretend that I just walked to your office and found out my husband had been cheating on me. How would you respond?” Or “Name the Old Testament justifications for infant baptism…” Or (one of my personal favorites) “How would you explain the Trinity (Father, Son, Spirit) to a middle school student?”

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I was blessed to not have to answer the Trinitarian question, one that regularly knocks candidates out of their comfort zone while interviewing. I know of at least one person who was delayed from passing their board because they were unable to answer the question in a way that satisfied the board. How would you answer the question? If a young Christian happened to approach you after church and ask about the trinity, what would you say?

One of the ways that I have explained it in the past is as follows: “The Trinity is like a band playing music. There are three distinct and unique elements necessary for music to be created. You need musicians, instruments, and written music. Without one the whole thing falls apart. Though they are different, they are all necessary for music to be played and enjoyed.” However, this example, for as much as I like it, is inherently flawed.

I have heard others attempt to explain the trinity as 1) a stool with three legs; with all three the chair can stand upright, but if you remove one the chair will not stand; 2) a woman who is at different times a mother, a daughter, and friend to different people; 3) a bicycle that has gears, brakes, and wheels, in order to propel itself forward. Yet all of these do not do justice to the incredible blessing and mystery that is the Trinity.

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Perhaps we’ve become so concerned with being able to explain how the Trinity works, that we no longer know how to affirm the trinity as mystery. We elevate definitions and details over and against beauty and reverence. I cannot explain the trinity, I cannot explain the infinite wonder of God because I am a finite human being. But, like Paul, I can say, “There are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”

What do you think is more important: Being able to explain the trinity? Or recognizing that the One God has blessed us with different gifts in different ways so that we can be the body of Christ for the world?

Today, let us strive to be people who recognize the gifts that we have been given by the Triune God. Let us look at those gifts to see the beauty of God’s mystery in our lives.