Being A Christian Is Awesome

John 6.48

I am the bread of life.

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The disciples must have scratched their heads a lot. I mean… Jesus can be pretty obtuse. “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…” “One must be born again…” “I am the bread of life.” When we read Jesus’ words today, we are blessed (and cursed) with anachronism. Which is to say, we read backwards from our own frame of reference, and it makes it very difficult to hear the words as the disciples heard them.

We know from Sunday School lessons and half-decent sermons that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed because only a tiny amount of faith is necessary to transform the entire world – The disciples’ fledging faith following the crucifixion (and resurrection) was enough to turn the world upside down.

We know from randomly exploring the bible during mediocre sermons that being born again does not mean a literal re-birth from our mother’s wombs. However, we find new life, redeemed life, in and through the person of Jesus Christ.

And we know through regular journeys down the aisle to the altar that Jesus is the bread offered to us as the spiritual food necessary for this strange thing we call life.

But how confusing was all of this to the first disciples? We have the benefit of knowing how the story ends, but they had to hear all of this for the first time, without a lot of context.

Years ago, after a worship service ended, a number of us were standing around enjoying the fellowship when I overheard a grandson talking with his grandfather. The young boy looked puzzled about something when his grandfather finally inquired as to what had happened.

“So let me get this straight” the boy started, “when we have communion, everyone is invited?

“Of course,” the grandfather remarked casually.

“And did the pastor really say that when we do this we are eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood?”

The grandfather hesitated for a moment but then confirmed the question. The boy, of course, stood silently for a moment, and then all of the sudden a huge smile broke out on his face and he declared, “Being a Christian is awesome!”

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That young boy’s encounter with the strange and beautiful mystery of Jesus as the bread of life is as close as I’ve ever seen someone come to how the disciples must have felt. It is perplexing and wonderful and awesome. But even more perplexing, wonderful, and awesome than the truth that Jesus is the bread of life is the fact that people like you and me are invited to it! Regardless of our failures and shortcomings, in spite of our desires and desertions, beyond our anachronism and any other isms, Jesus offers us himself, the bread of life.

And it is enough.

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What Did Jesus Do? > What Would Jesus Do?

1 Corinthians 11.23-26

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat of this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

 

Years ago I was in Michigan helping a church out for a summer. The church was massive in size and in ministries. They had hundreds of people in worship every week and were deeply involved in their community.

I did my best to help in every area of the church, including worship and preaching. However, they had plans for everything, including who would be preaching on what every Sunday six months in advance. So some shuffling was done, and I, the faithful intern, was given an opportunity to preach.

It so happened that I would be preaching on the first Sunday of July, and there would be communion.

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As I said, this church had everything planned out. But not only the text, and the sermon subject – they had metrics and data for worship attendance going back ten years and they used this information to provide necessary items in the sanctuary. That had it so fine-tuned that they were able to print an accurate number of bulletins +/- 10, they knew how many parking attendant workers they would need, and finally, they knew how many pieces of bread would need to be pre-cut for communion.

Here at Cokesbury we serve by intinction, in which I tear off a piece of bread from a common loaf and offer it to every person in worship. But at that church, years ago, they pre-cut every slice of bread, and had them stacked in baskets for people to pick up on their way to the altar where the single cup could be found.

And so I preached, and we moved to the table, the elements were blessed, and then the congregation was invited forward. However, no one thought to augment the numbers of bread pieces, and, as the shiny new intern, more people came to hear me preach than they anticipated.

As the gathered people lined up in the center aisle and walked forward to receive the body and blood of Jesus, it was abundantly clear that we were going to run out of Jesus. So, when the last piece was picked out of the basket, I walked back up to the altar where the actual loaf we blessed was, I ripped in in half, and I started giving Jesus so people.

And while I was standing there one of the lay leaders from the church leaned over and whispered into my ear, “Are we even allowed to do this?”

Are we even allowed to do this?

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For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you. So Paul writes in his letter to the church in Corinth. I gave you what was given to me. That on the night in which Jesus was betrayed he took a loaf and he took a cup and he said do this in remembrance of me.

Memory is a funny thing. It connects us to the past, in both good ways and bad. We can all reflect on those positive moments from our lives, and we can also remember the visceral pain we have experienced.

We cannot escape our memories. Memory is everything.

Paul cherished the memory he received, but he was concerned with the Corinthians ability to remember how transforming the meal was for their community. Like counting the number of bread pieces to such a degree that they no longer gave life, the Corinthian church was partaking in the meal without remembering why.

On any given Sunday, or even a Thursday night, at best the church is called to remember. Remember what God did for God’s people. Remember Jesus’ words to his disciples. Remember how God has showed up in your life.

Remembering our memories is strange, particular in the time we are living in. Many families and groups are separated in ways impossible in the past – we are separated by geography, estrangement, or even through dementia. And because of all these weird divisions, the art of memory sharing is dying. Memory, however, is the glue that keeps us together, and without it we don’t know who we are.

I’ve had to do a lot of funerals as a pastor, and whenever a family and I sit down to discuss the arrangements; I will ask questions to get the conversation going. “What was your mother passionate about?” “What stories did your grandfather tell you about his childhood.” “What’s a the story about your wife that you’ve told the most?” “How did your husband pop the question?”

And then I will sit back and listen.

And throughout all of the funerals I’ve prepared, and all of the families I’ve listened to, there are two things that have happened every single time.

No matter what the person was like, or how old they were, or even where they lived, at some point some one in the room always says, “I never knew that.”

Children make the comment about one of their parents, a brother will make the comment about his sister, and I’ve even heard a wife make the comment about her husband.

Something is shared, a deeply personal and important memory, and someone’s response is “I never knew that.”

Either we don’t remember these important things, or the memory of them was never shared. It is always a troubling and difficult moment to process in my office in which someone realizes they didn’t know the person as well as they thought they did, and now it was too late to do anything about it.

In addition to the “I never knew that” comment, there is always a moment in which someone shares a funny story about the person we are about to bury, and 99% of the time, the story takes place around a dinner table.

I don’t know what it is exactly, but there is something mysterious about the dinner table. Perhaps it’s the one place where entire families gather together for a finite period of time, maybe it’s the sharing of food that compels us to share stories, or maybe it’s just the wine that get passed around. At the table memory is shared unlike anywhere else.

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As disciples of Jesus, we believe that whenever we gather at this table, or dare I say any table, Christ is with us breaking the bread and pouring the wine so that we too can be his body redeemed by his blood.

When we break bread, when we pass the cup, when we tell stories, we are connected with the signs and symbols that tell us who we are and whose we are. It is around the table the particularity of bread slices, or the shame in admitting “I never knew that,” disappear. Because at the table things begin to change.

At the table signs of memory are everywhere. In the water we remember our own baptisms, we remember the great stories of scripture where God’s people were delivered through water, we remember the living waters Jesus offers us. We see wedding bands are reminded of a couples’ promise, and God’s promise to us.

            At the table, all sorts of ordinary things become extraordinary.

We break bread, we share the cup, and we remember and retell the story of Jesus death, and resurrection. But it is more than just passing on a story – it is contemplating a mystery.

For years it has been fashionable in certain Christian circles to wear a bracelet with the acronym WWJD on them. WWJD of course meaning: What Would Jesus Do? It is used like a talisman, a final reminder of Jesus’ morality before we make a choice or a decision. And for as helpful as the WWJD reminder can be, it is also inherently problematic. It is problematic because, at the end of the day, we fundamentally can’t do what Jesus did, and that’s kind of the point.

We don’t gather to contemplate how Jesus would respond to a certain situation, we don’t wonder about what Jesus would do, instead we ask ourselves What Did Jesus Do?

Because that question, and the struggle to answer it, is at the heart of the mystery we call faith. This night, tomorrow night, Easter Sunday, every Sunday, they’re not about what we should do. It’s about what Christ did.

The Christian life is predicated on a story handed to us, a story about a poor Jewish rabbi named Jesus. It is Jesus’ story that re-narrates and re-navigates our story. We repeat it again and again and again because is not only reinforces our memory, but it also becomes a proclamation, it is a witness.

We do not gather here tonight for ourselves. We are here because at the table we discover God’s story for us, and not the other way around.

            So, what did Jesus do?

On his final night, while surrounded by his closest friends and disciples, one of whom who betray him and another would deny him, he took an ordinary loaf of bread. He gave thanks to God, and then he broke it. He looked at his friends and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he then took the cup, and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Let us then remember…

Devotional – Psalm 118.1

Devotional:

Psalm 118.1

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

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Holy Week is easily the busiest week in the life of most churches. While the palm branches are still resting on the floor of the sanctuary, pastors and lay leaders are frantically putting together the last minutes items for Holy Week services. Meanwhile, families are frantically planning Easter Sunday meals, and making sure they have enough eggs and goodies for all the children. And because we are so busy this week, we often forget to think about, and reflect on, Jesus’ final week:

It was early in the morning when Jesus sent two of his disciples to a village atop the Mount of Olives to find a donkey. The day had come for Jesus to enter the holy city of Jerusalem during Passover, a time when the city’s population would balloon up to 200,000 people entering to celebrate. On a Sunday morning, while the crowds gathered with palm branches, Jesus entered Jerusalem. Five days later he would be killed on a cross.

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The two disciples procured a donkey and Jesus prepared to make his triumphal entry. Riding on a donkey was a richly symbolic act, one that can be traced back to the time of David. To arrive in the holy city on a donkey calls back to the prophet Zechariah who declared, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”

As he rode toward Jerusalem, droves of people arrived on the streets and they began to waves palm branches while he passed. They were so enraptured by Jesus that they took off their cloaks and placed them on the road with their palms in order to create a royal pathway for their king. They shouted things like “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “Hosanna!” which means “Save us!”

At the same time, on the other side of the city, Pontius Pilate (the Roman Governor of Judea) entered Jerusalem with at least 1,000 soldiers to demonstrate the power of Rome during the Jewish celebration of the Passover. It was a show of force to prevent the people from revolting against their imperial rulers while they remembered that time when God had delivered them from captivity in Egypt.

But with Jesus, there was no show of force. Instead of armor and swords, the people took off their cloaks and waved palm branches. Instead of cowering away in fear they rejoiced in the humble man on the back of a donkey.

While the distance between the Lord and the city grew closer and closer, while the crowds were dancing and shouting, he began to cry. He looked out over the holy city and he wept for Jerusalem. He wept knowing that he was entering as the prince of peace, and within the next few days the very people who were begging for his salvation with their palm branches would reject him and call for his crucifixion.

And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

On Monday, Jesus made his way to them Temple with countless other Jews. With the episode that had transpired the day before, all eyes were on the humble man with expectation of deliverance. As his feet walked over hallowed ground, Jesus encountered the moneylenders and changers who were taking advantage of all the Jews in Jerusalem. The prices for clean animals necessary for sacrificial rituals were vastly inflated to the benefit of the merchants and the religious elite.

Jesus, who had spent the better part of three years berating the elite for taking advantage of the poor and outcasts, Jesus, who had told the rich young ruler to sell everything he had and give it to the poor, became incensed when he saw the poor being ripped off in the name of God. He walked straight over to the tables and he lifted them off the ground and disrupted everything in the temple. He threw the merchants out of the Temple and declared that his Father’s house had been turned into a den of robbers.

The elite and powerful, who had heard about this mysterious man claiming to be the Son of Man, now had their attention on Jesus. It was one thing to have a crowd with palm branches welcoming him into the city, but to disrupt the economic scheme they had established was going too far. From this point forward, the tides began to turn against Jesus. The leaders started looking for a way to discredit him, or to remove him completely. For as long as Jesus stayed in Jerusalem, their power would be in question, and they would no longer make the money they had planned on.

And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

On Tuesday, Jesus once again entered the Temple and he began to teach. If people were excited to see him after his entry in Jerusalem, they were now even more eager to listen to the one who had throne the merchants out of the sacred space. The Pharisees and religious leaders began to interrupt his teaching and demanded to know whom he thought he was to speak with such authority. Jesus, the one who shared parables with his disciples and followers, used parables to respond to their accusations. Over and over again he used examples to show how the powerful and lost sight of their responsibility to take care of God’s creation and he labeled them “hypocrites.”

He accused them of neglecting to practice what they preached, he called them “snakes” and a “brood of vipers” and he told them they had failed to do the one thing required of them which was to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbors as themselves.

Jesus had a following, he had entered with a display of peace, but he had removed the leaders’ economic disparity, and now he had called them hypocrites. They tried to trap him in his words, but he continued to point to the love of God in all times and in all places.

And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

On Wednesday Jesus left the arena of the Temple and continued his teaching on the Mount of Olives. Some of the disciples made comments about the beauty and the magnificence of the Temple and Jesus responded by foretelling the destruction of the temple and his own body. He revealed images of God’s cosmic plan for the world made manifest in Jerusalem and called for his disciples to stay vigilant no matter what.

He used parables to describe the call of his disciples and ended by saying that his followers would be blessed in the end if they had fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoner.

Word about Jesus continued to spread fast throughout Jerusalem and the leaders learned that he was now prophesying the end of their rule and the destruction of the temple. Gone was the joy the people felt on Palm Sunday. Fear was present with the leaders and the elite.

And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

On Thursday Jesus continued to teach and gathered with his twelve disciples in the upper room for the Passover celebration. Around the table they remembered God’s great work in the delivery of the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt to the Holy Land; they remembered God’s actions in the lives of God’s people including themselves. But before the supper was over, Jesus did something radical. He took a loaf of bread, gave thanks to God, broke it, gave it to his friends and said, “This is my body, and I’m giving it for you.” Later, he took the cup, gave thanks to God, passed it to his friends and said, “This is my blood, and I’m pouring it out for you and for the world.” Even though he knew that in short time his disciple Judas would betray him he still shared this incredible meal and gift with his friend.

Later that evening, they arrived in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus urged his disciples to keep awake while he prayed. He knelt on the ground and he communed with his Father and prayed about what was about to happen. But he ended the prayer by saying, “Lord, with you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” In essence he prayed, “Let thy will be done.”

When Jesus finished praying, Judas arrived with soldiers. They grabbed and arrested Jesus. The disciples fled into the distance. Jesus was dragged back into the city to be tried for blasphemy.

And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

On Friday Jesus was brought to the Roman leader Pontius Pilate. The leaders demanded that he be crucified and executed, but Pilate could find no fault with Jesus. He then brought Jesus before the Jewish people and they chanted with loud and bellowing voices, “Crucify him!” The same people who had gathered on the road with palm branches yelling “Save us!” were now demanding Jesus’ death. In order to appease the crowds and the Jewish leaders, Pilate sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion.

The soldiers whipped and beat Jesus nearly to the point of death and then, to mock him, they placed an opulent robe on his soldiers, and they made a crown of thorns for his head. They forced Jesus to carry his torture device, a cross, on his shoulders all the way to the place called The Skull. The crowds berated him on either side while he marched forward to his death. “If you really are the Messiah, save yourself!” “Where are all your disciples now?!” “Some King of the Jews you are!”

He arrived at the top of the hill and the soldiers nailed his hands and feet to the cross and hung him in the sky. For six hours Jesus’ life slowly slipped away while the crowds continued to mock him from the ground. With some of his final breaths he offered a prayer that has haunted the world ever since, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” With two thieves on either side hanging on crosses, while some of his disciples watched from the distance, he died.

And there was evening and there was morning, the final week.

Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey proclaiming and inaugurating a time of humility and peace. Jesus rebuked the elite for preying on the poor and weak. Jesus confronted the hypocrites in leadership. Jesus called his followers to love God and neighbor. Jesus shared his final meal with the one who would betray him. Jesus was crowned with thorns and enthroned on a cross in the sky. Jesus forgave his murders from the moment of his death. And Jesus died so that we might participate in his kingdom and salvation.

Why Remember? – Maundy Thursday Homily

Mark 14.22-25

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

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Why is this night different from all other nights?; A worthy question for any of us who took the time to gather in this place to remember Jesus’ final night. But the question is also asked of Jewish children who gather together for the celebration of Passover. Why is this night different from all other nights?

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God brought forth all forms of life, which culminated in the creation of humankind. God made a covenant with Abraham to be his God, and for his descendants to be more numerous than the stars in the sky. Abraham eventually fathered Isaac who grew to father Jacob. Jacob wrestled with an angel of the Lord on the banks of the Jabbok river and was renamed Israel, which means: “you have struggled with God and prevailed.” Israel fathered Joseph who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his other brothers. But during his time in Egypt he became prosperous and eventually brought the gathering of Abraham descendants to live in the new and strange place.

At first everything was great in Egypt, the Hebrews lived comfortably, they had food to eat, homes to live in, and opportunities abounded. But over time, as it happens, the Egyptians grew jealous of the Hebrews and began to subjugate them. They were forced into labor, and eventually every male child born to a Hebrew woman was killed for fear that they would grow to rebel against the Egyptians.

Moses was born during this time and was saved by his mother by placing him in a basket to float down the Nile River. Moses grew in strength and wisdom and was called by God to lead God’s people out of captivity in Egypt to the Promised Land.

God commanded Moses to have the people to slaughter lambs and use the blood to mark their doors; this was to be a sign for the Lord to pass over their homes while slaughtering the firstborn males of Egypt. While waiting in the night, God implored the people to gird their loins and prepare to depart because their time of delivery had come near.

Passover is a night different from all other nights because it is a time set aside to remember the sacred and holy moment when God delivered God’s people out of slavery.

Jesus had gathered in the upper room with his friends to celebrate Passover. They sat around the table to remember what God had done long ago and be thankful. While they were eating Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”

While they were remembering God’s actions from the past, Jesus said, “I am doing a new thing. I am delivering my body and my blood for you and the world.”

He took the Passover celebration, and assigned it to the great sacrifice he was about to make. Not only would the meal be a remembrance of God’s mighty acts, but also a testimony to God’s actions in Jesus Christ. The disciples would remember God delivering the people out of bondage in Egypt, and would now remember Jesus delivering the people out of bondage to sin and death. Whereas God brought the people into the holy land through the waters, God was now about to bring the people into resurrection through Christ’s sacrifice.

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This is Good News for us, but it is also heavy news. Many of us buckle under the weight of knowing that Christ would give his life for us, but then we remember that Peter and Judas were at the table that night as well. We remember that in short time, the disciples who received the bread and cup would abandon Jesus to his cross and death. But he gave his life for them and us anyway.

So here we are, millennia later, remembering Jesus’ give of body and blood in the bread and cup. We remember God’s mighty acts of deliverance for the Hebrew people. But God’s power is not limited to the distant past. It is made available to each of us here and now.

At our tables, we are going to remember what God has done for us before we feast. With the people next to you I want you to discuss the following questions: What has God done for you? How have you seen God at work in your life recently? And what has God delivered you from?

 

I have seen God at work with our youth. Each week the youth of our church gather for an hour to share communion, fellowship, and bible study. We have examined some of the great moments from both the Old and New Testaments, we have learned about one another’s lives, and we always take time to remember Jesus’ final night with his disciples. Over the last year I have seen the youth transformed by the grace of God. Whereas they began meeting sheepishly and nervous to share about their lives, we now know each other well enough to check in on everyone without have to be prompted. Whereas they might have giggled during the first time we celebrated communion, they now respectfully and faithfully outstretch their hands to receive the bread and the cup.

Through the work of this church, God has delivered our youth from lives of selfishness to lives of appreciation. They have been delivered out of isolation into a community that genuinely cares about their well-being. They have experienced God’s love and it will stay with them forever.

Whenever we gather at God’s table, and particularly on Maundy Thursday, it is a time for us to confess where we have fallen short, recognize our forgiveness, share peace with one another, and give thanks to God for our deliverance. We remember where God has showed up in our lives, and the lives of others, because it retunes us into God’s frequency. We remember Jesus sharing the bread and the cup because he has shared it with the world. We remember in order to transform the world. Amen.

Crumbly Faith – Sermon on Mark 7.24-37

Mark 7.24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying in the bed, and the demon gone. Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

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Brandy had high expectations for Staunton, Virginia. When she moved here with her adult son Verney, who suffers from Cerebral Palsy, she knew that one of the best ways she could get connected with the community was finding a church home so she went looking. Each Sunday she would get herself ready with just the right outfit, she would put Verney in his wheel chair, and they would worship with a different church. The days between Sundays were spent in prayer about whether or not it was the right fit.

At some point she felt that she had found her church home and she approached the pastor about whether she could join. The conversation was great, she immediately felt loved and welcomed, she learned about Sunday school options, and different opportunities to serve in the church. But before the meeting was over she asked another quick question. “When do you think you could baptize my son Verney, and when will he be able to start taking communion?” The pastor stared back at her with a puzzled look on his face. “Ma’am,” he began, “I will not baptize your son, nor will I offer him communion. He can’t understand what they mean. And honestly, there would be no point.”

Jesus entered the house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet, word about him had spread so quickly that he could not escape notice. A woman, whose daughter had an unclean spirit, heard that Jesus had entered the town and she went to bow at his feet.

Up to this point Jesus, as a Jew, had been ministering to the Jews. He had read to them from the Torah, he had proclaimed God’s reign like one of the prophets from old, and he lived according to the law. This woman who came to beg at Jesus’ feet was not Jewish, she was a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin.

The woman was prostrate on the floor begging the Lord to cast out the demon from her daughter. And Jesus said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Imagine a homeless person banging on your door to ask for a favor, or a mother with a handicapped son asking for her son to be given communion, and you can get a sense of what was taking place in front of Jesus.

The unnamed Syrophoenician woman was driven by something more than proper etiquette and expectation; she was so desperately afraid for her daughter’s life that she was willing to beg at the feet of Jesus, a man from a completely different culture and way of life. Yet, Jesus’ response to the woman is one that many of us would rather overlook. We don’t hear Jesus immediately proclaim the grand scope of God’s kingdom; Jesus doesn’t reach out with his hands for a blessing. Instead he calls the woman a dog, and tells her that his mission is for the Jews alone.

The Syrophoenician woman, with no worth or status, does not go quietly into the night. She holds her ground and pushes the point back to Jesus and says: “even dogs eat the crumbs from the table.” When I read this story I imagine a sly smile stretching across Jesus’ face, a smile of recognition that this woman understands the way God’s upside-down kingdom is supposed to work, she believes in God’s goodness, she yearns for the kind of love than goes beyond all borders of culture and race.

So in response to her declaration, Jesus blesses her daughter, and rids her of the demon.

But the story is not over yet.

Jesus continues on his way, and people brought him a deaf man with a speech impediment. The deaf man was brought into a private place away from the crowds and Jesus used the power within him to open the man’s ears and release his tongue. In response Jesus ordered the people to tell no one what he had done, but the more he ordered the more zealously they proclaimed it.

This was radical.

During the first century, the time of Jesus, people who were blind, people who were deaf, and even women had little or no status at all. They were consistently removed from populated areas of life and were largely ignored. In those days people were afraid of anything that was different than the status quo; Jesus embraced it.

The story of the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man are intricately linked because they demonstrate Jesus’ willingness to upset the expectations of the world and welcome all into God’s love.

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After Brandy’s meeting with the pastor, the meeting where he told her there was no point for him to baptize or share communion with her son, she abandoned the church. When I met her for the first time and she told me her story, she couldn’t remember what eventually brought her to St. John’s, but when she got here she was afraid. She was afraid that this church would be like the first. She was afraid that this church would see her son as worthless, invisible, and unworthy of their time.

There is something about our own sinful nature, perhaps our deep insecurity, which pushes us to institute rules that give certain people an elevated status while denigrating others. These divisions can take place over differences in physicality, economics, race, gender, sexual identity, and an assortment of other identifiers. Even today in our modern contemporary world, there is a sense that we are supposed to avoid people who are unlike us, that we are entitled to brush past the people in need in our community and in the global community, and that we have no need to embrace the things that separate us.

Jesus’ actions in the two stories from Mark 7 are worth our careful consideration and emulation. Jesus shows how a worthless unnamed gentile woman and an ignorable deaf man are actually vital and worthy people in the kingdom of God. This story forces us to reopen our eyes and ears to the fact that there are no barriers between God and humankind. Nothing can ever separate us to from God’s love in Jesus Christ, not race, class, gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, or physical condition. And if there are no barriers between God and God’s people, then there should be no divisions between us.

Brandy was afraid of how this church would respond, but this church knows the stories of Jesus. All those years ago this church community welcomed Brandy and Verney with open arms, he was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and was always reminded that he had a place at God’s table. This church knows that the best kind of faith is crumbly faith; you only need a little taste for the world to change.

When God came in the form of flesh in Jesus Christ the world was turned upside down. Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus time and again demonstrated that all people are worthy of God’s love. His work and words testified to the fact that the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love. Jesus did everything he could to embody how the Lord is good to all, God’s compassion is over all creation. Jesus even went so far as to carry a cross on his back, hike under the ridicule of the world, and die to defeat death.

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We remember and experience how far God was willing to go for our sakes in the bread and in the cup of Communion. When we are invited to this table to feast on the crumbly bread of Jesus’ body and partake in his blood we are like the Syrophoenician woman, we are like the deaf man, and we are like Brandy and Verney. We all come with our shortcomings and brokenness, we all share disappointments and failures, but when we stand before the throne we are all made new in God’s love.

I don’t know what you might be going through in your life right now. Many of us are remarkably reluctant, if not downright afraid, to share where we feel broken in our lives. We don’t want to admit our shortcomings or fears.

But remember the people from God’s word, remember the strong and resilient faith of the Syrophoenician woman who gave voice to God’s power in the world. Remember the deaf man whose life was forever changed as he was welcomed back into the heart of the community. Remember Brandy and Verney who were given hope in the midst of fear. And remember that you are always welcome at Jesus’ table, where the crumbs of eternal life are waiting. Amen

Christmas In The Room – Christmas Eve Sermon on John 1.1-5

John 1.1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

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Merry Christmas! To me, there are few things as wonderful as gathering together to celebrate the birth of Christ. This is what church is all about; a community coming together to rejoice in our Savior.

Have you noticed all the lights around the neighborhoods? The different decorations throughout Staunton? Have you seen all the wonderful manger scenes displayed in front yards and on coffee tables?

One of the things I love most about Christmas is that every year we try new things to make Christmas real again. Many of us are very familiar with the story; we can imagine the angel Gabriel appearing before Mary, we can picture the manger scene with all the animals gathering close to baby Jesus, we can almost hear the angelic host proclaiming the Good News to the shepherds. This story has so captivated our hearts, minds, and imaginations that every year we gather to remember it in new and exciting ways.

This year our Preschool chose to remember the story by putting on a Christmas pageant. Now this wasn’t your simple and typical pageant; almost every one of our students had a line to perform in the microphone in front of a packed sanctuary. We practiced for weeks in the chancel area, rehearsing our lines, standing in our spots, and getting the story exactly right. On the morning of the big show, the kids and I were all here going through every bit one last time. However, this was the first time that they were all in costume.

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Some of our precious three years olds were sheep, though they looked more like pillows as they walked to the microphone and quietly whispered: “I shared my wool with baby Jesus.” We had a manger mouse with big ears and a tail who said with a smile: “I peeked at baby Jesus!” We even had an angel choir of two-year olds who started from the back and walked all the way down carrying electric candles to guide the wisemen.

When it came time for Mary and Joseph to appear I was so pleased with how well everything was going. This was going to be a great performance for all of the friends and family. Our little Mary came up to the microphone to sweetly say, “A baby will soon be born.” And then Joseph, one of our most precocious four year olds, said with loud emphasis: “I MUST FIND A PLACE FOR US TO STAY!

Everything was perfect. The kids were sitting quietly in place, they had all nailed their lines, and I could just imagine all of the tears that would be spilt watching these precious lambs of Jesus Christ. I even found myself getting emotional. I remember thinking: “this is what Christmas is all about.” Look at these children retelling the story centuries later. They embody the sweetness that just have been felt in the manger. Their child-like innocence is why God came into the world for us. Those little kids made Christmas real for me.

That was, until I noticed our little Mary fidgeting around by the crib. We continued with the pageant but Mary was far more focused on the little baby-doll Jesus than anything else. “Well,” I thought, “she’s just being attentive like any good mother would be” when all of the sudden she picked up Jesus by his ankle, dangled him back and forth and then dropped him on his plastic head!

The realness of Christmas was quickly replaced with the reality of Preschoolers being dressed up like animals and adults acting out the story.

Every Christmas we strive to reimagine the story so that we can reconnect with it’s incredible message.

There is a church somewhere in the midwest that REALLY believes in retelling the story. On Christmas Eve they invite people from the community into their sanctuary, but they don’t just listen to a pastor in the pulpit, they don’t just pray in their pews, they bring in all sorts of animals and actors to make it come alive.

Animal trainers help guide the donkeys and sheep into the space and lead them up to the altar near a newborn baby being cradled by his mother. The church has a full orchestra and light show to go along with the actors and animals; they have no limitations when it comes to fully immersing the people in the story.

However, a few years ago the church became responsible for a viral video that made its way across the internet. At the height of the production, as the human-angels were hung by wires to sing Hallelujah, as the majestic magi were making their way up to the altar, as people were completely captivated by the story, a camel was being led down the center aisle.

It was at that precise moment, at the paramount of the Christmas production, the camel decided that he no longer wanted to be part of the story. The video shows the trainer in the middle of the church struggling to guide the camel forward, the camel ignoring his suggestive movements, and deciding that he should take a break on top of all of the people sitting on the right hand side. Like a tree falling in the woods, the camel fell to his side and quickly buried a few people under his girth.

The realness of Christmas was quickly replaced with the reality of what happens when you bring the zoo into a church.

Every Christmas we strive to reimagine the story so that we can reconnect with it’s incredible message.

Years ago I went to church on Christmas Eve and experienced a service unlike any other. Instead of a typical sermon, the pastor decided to make it into a drama with particular characters acting out the story.

Mary and Joseph stood on opposite sides of the altar, wearing robes from the days of old. The gazed off into the distance pondering the incredible messages the the angel Gabriel had shared with each of them.

While the pastor described the man named Joseph, he began to remove his robes, shedding the costume from the past, and revealed a middle age man wearing a business suit. The pastor was attempting to make the story real again by showing what it would look like if it happened today. Joseph was a respected man and much older than Mary. Can you imagine how he would have reacted when he found out that she was pregnant? Can you picture how embarrassed he must have been by her?

While the pastor described the woman named Mary, she began to remove her robes, shedding the costume from the past, and revealed a teenage girl wearing a cheerleading uniform. Mary was a young woman with future full of potential. She was much younger than Joseph, and was told by the angel that she would conceive a son by the power of the Holy Spirit while still a virgin. Do you think she believed this was Good News? Can you imagine how her family would have regarded her for becoming pregnant before getting married?

There stood Mary and Joseph, not the couple from the manger scenes kneeling quietly over the new born king, but a business man and a cheerleader who would be ridiculed by the community.

The realness of Christmas was quickly replaced by the reality of social relations that develop when an unwed teenage girl becomes pregnant.

Every Christmas we strive to reimagine the story so that we can reconnect with it’s incredible message.

I always look forward to this season because it affords me the opportunity to ask others what they love about Christmas. I often hear about the joy of opening gifts, the wonder of putting up all the decorations, and even the changed behavior of children in response to the elf on the shelf. Yet all of those things don’t make Christmas real. Yes they make it feel like Christmas, but they do not fully convey the depth of what it means for God to have come into the world as a baby in Bethlehem.

For me, Christmas is at it’s realest when we light our candles as we sing Silent Night. Some of my earliest memories are standing in a dark sanctuary on Christmas Eve while people around me are singing. In mere minutes the darkness is replaced by a brilliant light, made remarkable by the God who took on our flesh to dwell among us, to be God with us.

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Jesus is the light of the world who shines in the darkness. Whatever that darkness might look like for you, whether it be an uncertain future, fears about your children, frustrating family members, the loss of a loved one, a heavy diagnosis, or the lack of love in your life, Jesus stands in stark contrast as the one who brings the light into our lives.

Christmas Eves always mean the most and convey the most when we feel the depth of the  darkness. Because new life always starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark. 

At the end of our service we will turn out all the lights, from the one candle, the Christ candle, we will light all others as we sing Silent Night. As we do so let us open our eyes the different forms of darkness in our lives and give thanks to the light of the world who shines in the darkness.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we hear the familiar words that have been sung for centuries exclaiming the great joy of the newborn king.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we gather as God’s table to feast on the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we see the light of Christ shining in one another.

Merry Christmas. Amen.

The Advent of Samuel – Sermon on 1 Samuel 3.1-10

1 Samuel 3.1-10

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

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Today we continue with our Advent Sermon Series on “New Beginnings.” These few weeks of Advent are integral to the life of our church in the sense that we are preparing our hearts, minds, and souls, for the coming of God in Christ on Christmas day. Last week we looked at Abram and his call to go to a new and strange land, a call for a new beginning. Today we continue by looking at the Advent of Samuel.

Chapel time is the best. Every week our little preschoolers gather here in the sanctuary to a hear a story from the bible and how it can relate to their lives right now.

The first week I had them gather in the choir loft with the lights turned off. We talked about the beginning of creation and how God spoke the world into existence. I then encouraged the kids to scream, “Let there be light!” as loud as possible, and only when the volume was sufficiently over the top, I cut the lights on in the whole room. Another week we made chicken noodle soup together and talked about Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for a cup of stew. Another week, I had the kids do push-ups and sit-ups in the center aisle to build up their strength for a wrestling match. One by one they came forward and wrestled with me, just like Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the Jabbok river.

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On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I gathered with the children in the basement in preparation for their Thanksgiving feast. Chapel time that week was going to be all about communion. The kids made their way into the yellow room, and I sat down with them on the floor next to a table with the bread and the cup.

“Good morning my friends! Over the last few weeks you have been learning about the first Thanksgiving with the pilgrims and the Native Americans, about how they shared their food and ate with one another. We remember that great meal this week as many of us will sit around a table with our families and friends to share what we were thankful for. But a long time ago, way before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, there was another very special meal.”

“Jesus had been with his friends for a few years and this was going to be his last night with them. I’m pretty sure that they spent time that night talking about what they were thankful for, especially for Jesus. And when they were done talking, Jesus took a loaf of bread and gave to his friends to eat, and then he took a cup and shared it with his friends to drink. He said that he was giving himself for them, so that they would always know how loved they were.

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At the moment I couldn’t believe how well the kids were paying attention. Usually someone gets distracted, and therefore distracts the rest of the kids, but that morning they were all listening and hanging on every word.

I then asked the children to pray with me over the bread and the cup and I shared communion with them. I tried very carefully to limit the amount of times I called the cup Jesus’ blood, but of course I let it slip and one of the kids shouted: “Are we really drinking blood!?” “Well, yeah, but its also grape juice” “Oh man I love grape juice!” One by one they came forward with their hands outstretched to take a piece of the bread and then dip it in the cup and then received it. For every child that came forward I looked at them in their eyes and whispered, “God loves you.”

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After we finished the kids made their way to the red room to begin their feast when I discovered that Debbie, our Preschool Director, was crying. Worried that I had done something wrong I went forward to comfort her and was shocked when she shared why she was so upset: “Taylor, that was beautiful. You have no idea how precious it was so see those children line up for communion. This might be as close as some of them will ever get to understanding that God loves them.

This might be as close as some of them will ever get to understanding that God loves them.

Years from now I can imagine one of our Preschool students entering college. Though fully endowed with the knowledge of scripture and the willingness of this church to be there for him, he never enters our doors after he leaves the Preschool. High School is tough for him as wrestles with understanding his identity. Try as he might his grades are never good enough, his friends are never close enough, and no matter what he does he feels empty. Without having a true sense of direction, he applies to college and leaves home without looking back with the hope that this new beginning will be better than high school.

Sadly, it is not. College life is filled with even more people, and he feels less and less important. He falls through the cracks of campus life and spends most of his time alone in his dorm room. He still has the bible that we gave him so long ago, but it remains unopened on his shelf. One night, however, one of his roommates invites him to a campus ministry service. Reluctantly he attends, and is underwhelmed by the service.

The music is okay, and the message is all about spreading the Word of the Lord, whatever that means. He sits and listens attentively but he knows that he will never come back. But before the service ends, the pastor brings out the bread and wine and starts talking about communion. Immediately the boy is brought back to that morning sitting on the floor of the yellow room listening to a young bearded pastor talking about communion. While his mind is flooded with memories from the past he makes his way up to the make-shift altar and stretches out his hands to receive the body and blood of Christ while the pastor whispers, “God loves you.

I can imagine that even after that incredible service the knowledge of God’s love didn’t stick. The boy meets his wife in college, gets married, graduates, and moves to a new city for work. Yet, even after his family grows through the arrival of a few children, even while he is secure in his work, he still feels like something is missing.

He tries different things to find fulfillment in his life: he joins a civic organization, he volunteers at a local soup kitchen, he even helps a boy scout troop. But nothing seems to fill the void he feels in his life.

One day, however, a neighbor invites him to the community Methodist church. He laughs while responding about how he went to Preschool at a United Methodist Church but the neighbor insists that he comes to worship.

The man sits with his family in church, stands when he’s supposed to, sings when he supposed to, he even prays when he’s supposed to. He listens attentively to the announcements and the sermon, but most of it feels lifeless and repetitive. The pastor then moves to the table and invites the congregation to partake in this beautiful and precious meal that Christ has offered us without price. She says: “This table is the one true place where we can find fulfillment because in the bread and wine we see what Jesus gave for us on the cross, we see his truest and deepest act of grace. We are living in a time when the word of the Lord is rare, but at this table you can find what you’re missing, because here you discover the glory of God.

With tears in his eyes, the man walks forward. He remembers that day so long ago sitting on the cold floor in the basement of our preschool, he remembers that night in college when he walked up toward the altar. The emotional wave is almost overwhelming and as he stretches out his hands the pastor whispers, “God loves you” and for the first time, he believes it.

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People have heard the call of God in many different ways. Samuel heard it while he was sleeping in the temple and it took him three times to recognize that God was the one calling his name.

The word of the Lord was rare in those days, and it took an incredible act of faith to recognize that God was planning to do something incredible. Samuel did not identify his call when he first heard it, it had to be repeated and it had to be interpreted for him by the old priest Eli. 

Only when Samuel was able to respond with: “Speak, for your servant is listening” would he embark on a new beginning to be a prophet of the Lord. Part of the incredible beauty in this nighttime calling is the fact that God does not give up on Samuel. Though he clearly misses the location of his communication, God continues to call to him in an intimate and loving way.

One of the hardest things in the world to accept is that God loves us. In our heart of hearts we know, more than anyone around us, what we have done wrong and how we have fallen short of God’s glory. We see the mirrored reflection of our brokenness and we see someone unworthy of God’s love. Sometimes it takes more than a simple affirmation, it takes more than just a preacher babbling from a pulpit, it takes more than a bumper sticker or a billboard to remind us that God loves us. We need to hear it over and over and over again because it is true and remarkable.

I believe we are living in a time, just like Samuel, when the word of God is rare. We attempt to fill the emptiness in our lives with superficial commodities, we assume that money, power, and importance can make us feel whole. We foolishly hope that we can root our identity in a culture that ignores the outcast, in a country that neglects to embrace the democracy that we so worship, in a socioeconomic system that punishes the poor while rewarding the wealthy.

Now, more than ever, do we need to recapture that spirit of wonder and joy that a young man felt in the fuzzy hours of the morning when he heard his name being called in the temple. We need to discover the truest new beginning that comes when we remember that our identity is rooted in God. We need to let our discipleship be a living witness to others so that they can feel God’s love through people like us.

It was during another time when the word of God was rare, a time when governments oppressed the people they claimed to fight for, when a poverty stricken couple was forced to travel to a strange town for a census decreed by the emperor. In Bethlehem, when visions of God’s glory were not widespread, Mary and Joseph huddled together for warmth, believing the world had abandoned them to an awful fate. In the depth of their loneliness and fear, God came in the flesh to remind them that they were loved.

This table, where we gather, might be the closest you ever come to knowing that God loves you. When you feast on the great gift that was first given on Christmas, you are just like that child from our preschool, just like that questioning college student, just like that empty parent, and just like Mary and Joseph in the manger. This is where God makes all things new.

So if you remembering anything from today let it be this: God loves you. God loves you. God loves you.

Amen.