Billboards In The Kingdom

1 Thessalonians 5.1-11

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and the sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

I have a love-hate relationship with church signs and billboards.

Every once in a while I’ll pass by a church with a sign that just knocks me back with laugher. I’ll never forget the time I was driving, soon after receiving my driver’s license, and I passed a local Presbyterian church with a sign that said, “The Church isn’t full of hypocrites… there’s always room for more!”

And then there are the witty signs that are biblically accurate and memorable. For instance: I was lost driving through the middle of nowhere Virginia and I saw a handwritten sign in the front yard of a very small chapel that said, “Quick, look busy, Jesus is coming!”

Or there are those that just hit a little too close to home: “Having trouble sleeping? We have sermons. Come hear one!” or the equally pastoral: “Do you know what hell is? Come hear our pastor.”

And then there’s those signs where you can’t help but wonder what led someone to put that up for everyone in the world to see. Like: “Don’t let worries kill you, let the church help” and “God answers our kneemail” and “Can’t take the heat outside? This church is prayer conditioned.”

But there is one church sign that takes the cake, one sign that was so poignant that it has stuck with me over the years. In big blocky letters it said, “To whomever stole our AC unit. Keep it. You’ll need it where you’re going…”

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And for every funny, and witty, and strange church sign, there are an equal number of terrible, shameful, and problematic church signs.

I can remember driving with my family years and years ago when I saw a church with a sign that said, “No gay marriage: it was Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve.”

There was quite a controversy a few years ago in a small southern community where a few teenagers died in a car accident and a local church put up a sign the next day that said: “Honk if you love Jesus! Text while driving if you want to meet him!”

And last weekend, while I was driving down to Durham, NC, we passed a huge billboard in Richmond that said, “The End is near! Accept Jesus or go to Hell.”

These billboards and church signs shout at passing cars and pedestrians about the brokenness of the world and the desperate need to change here and now. They play into our fears and frustrations, they tap into our emotions, and they make it all about us.

Notice, the signs I described, they’re almost all about our experience, and our need to change, and our sin. Very few church signs are actually about God.

How strange.

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And, because we take our lessons from the world around us rather than from God’s Word, we’ve let this slip off the billboards and into the church. So much of what we do on Sunday mornings has become primarily focused on our experience.

We ask questions like, “What did you get out of church today?” when it’s actually about what God gets out of us.

We preach and hear sermons that end with “let us now go and do likewise” instead of reflecting on how God is the one moving in and through us.

We make church all about us, instead of about God.

Our text from Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica is apocalyptic. Apocalyptism is one of the frightening words we tend to avoid at all costs. When we hear the word our minds immediately flock to frightening movie scenes, and fire raining from the sky, death and destruction all around. We think about the people wearing signs on street corners or the not-so-subtle church billboards near the highway.

But apocalyptic writing is nothing more than the revelation of God. It is an experience of the presence of the divine that breaks down every barrier for humans in the universe.

These kind of writings and reflections rise to the surface whenever Christians feel pressured by the world; when oppressive regimes like Rome, or slavery, or the system itself rises to power, they put all of life’s choices into the binary of God or the devil. And hope for God’s in breaking, God’s revelation, may be all that keeps us going when everything feels like it’s falling apart.

It should come as no surprise that considering what has taken place across the American landscape over the last year, many people, Christians in particular, believe we are in the end times.

Evangelicals feel attacked and belittled by the federal government for just about everything under the sun.

Pastors lament from the pulpit about the so-called war on Christianity or the war on Advent and they strive to frighten their people into recognizing the apocalypse at hand.

Even Roy Moore, the current Alabaman Republican candidate for a Senate seat, in light of all the accusations coming in for sexual harassment and misconduct, he has denied them vehemently and labeled them an attack on his Christian identity and virtue.

Fear is a very powerful tool. Manipulation always takes place when individual fears are tapped into.

That’s why political races are won by showing what’s wrong with the other candidate rather than addressing what a particular candidate wants to see happen.

It’s also why children are experiencing the highest levels of anxiety in modern history because they feel pressured to perform well, rather than being celebrated for what they’ve accomplished.

And it’s why churches put up big billboards with slogans like “Accept Jesus or Suffer The Consequences” rather than “Jesus loves you.”

Today, there is so much going on that there is plenty of pressure for us to forget that we are citizens of the age yet to come.

Fear is powerful.

And even here in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonicans, he appeals to their fear:

You all of all people know that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. The world might seem nice and good, but that’s exactly when the sudden destruction will arrive, like labor pains in a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!

            But unlike the billboards that speckle our American landscape, unlike the 24-hour news cycle that is almost entirely devoted to political fears, Paul raises the issue of revelation not for fear mongering, but for encouragement.

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The world might be falling apart, but we are not in darkness. We are children of the light and children of the day. We cannot become blind to who we are and whose we are, we must remember our truest identities and what has been done for us. So, let us clothe ourselves with the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet we shall wear the hope of salvation. For God has destined us for greater things; not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, do the good and right work of encouraging one another, and build up each other.

Paul, throughout the centuries, fills our ears with the very words we need to hear: Stay the course, remember we belong to the light, trust God and trust God’s promises, build the kingdom, love one another.

All of those things would be far better on a church billboard than most of the stuff we see on a regular basis.

On Sunday afternoon, shortly after most of us left the church, I received a phone call from our Secretary, Louise. Now, to be clear, Sunday afternoons are holy times for clergy people as they struggle to keep awake after struggling to keep people like you awake during church. So when I receive a phone call on a Sunday afternoon, right after being in this space with all of you, I know it’s important.

I answered my phone and Louise quickly filled me in one what had taken place right after I left… A drunk driver had crashed into our church sign.

When he came down the road he was traveling at such a high speed that when he smashed into the brick and mortar sign, it flipped the vehicle and it flew another 30 feet before it finally came to stop.

Police officers were on the scene and the driver had already been rushed in an ambulance to the hospital. He thankfully only suffered a few cuts and bruises, but when I got on the phone with the first officer he kept saying the same thing over and over again, “He’s lucky to be alive.”

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Thankfully, our sign that now stands broken and cracked on the corner of our property is not filled with any of the hateful rhetoric found on some other billboards. I say that with gratitude because the guy who crashed last Sunday easily could’ve died. He was going fast enough to end his life. And as I thought about what happened this week, as I read through Paul’s letter, I kept thinking about how terrible it would’ve been if those kinds of words were the last he ever saw.

Friends, life is far too short to be filled with negativity and fear and belittling attacks meant to manipulate. There is enough anxiety already in the world today. And when we think that all of this church stuff is up to us, and to us alone, we only increase the pessimism that so controls the world.

Paul writes to the church, and to us, and boldly declares that we have received a great gift in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have been awakened to God’s movements in the world, we have the privilege of living as God’s people in the light, and we get to experience the profound and wonderful mystery of resurrection here and now in and through one another.

We can, like others, spend our days worried about what will happen to us when we die. We can fall prey to the fearful signs that fill the horizons. But Christ died so that we may live.

Therefore, instead of breaking one another down, we build one another up. Instead of using fear to manipulate others, we give thanks for the love of God that has no end. And instead of cowering in the shadow of the cross, we rejoice in the light of the resurrection. Amen.

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Devotional – James 3.5

 

Devotional:

James 3.5

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

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On Sunday morning, during the Sunday school hour, I asked the group if they could remember a mean comment someone had made in the past. I was trying to prepare us for a discussion on the fact that in Mark 7 Jesus basically calls the Syrophoenician woman a dog and what it means to wrestle with the text. I myself can remember of number of negative comments from my childhood, moments when I was made fun of by fellow students, or a harsh criticism from a former Scout Master. But one of the women from the Sunday school class shared that, out of all the experiences she had as a teacher, she will never forget the one boy who waited till the end of the year to tell her that she was mean.

What is it about words that make them so powerful? How strange is it that one of the greatest tools of humanity can both give life and destroy life? The expression “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is a worthy thing to teach young children so as to not let comments destroy us, but the expression isn’t really true; names can hurt, and they can stay with us for years and years.

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Just ask a preacher about the power a comment can make right before or after a worship service. Just ask a teacher about the power a comment can make on an end of the year evaluation. Just ask a student about the power a comment can make during the first few weeks of a new school year. Just reflect on your own life and soon enough you will surely remember a time when the power of words was almost unbearable.

The tongue is a small thing, yet it has great power. James reminds us that even the greatest fires were started with a tiny spark. In all of our actions as Christians, the many ways we demonstrate Christ’s love in the world, the way we use our words might be the most powerful.

This week, let us reflect on the times that we have experienced the harsh reality of the power of words. How have we continued to carry those comments around, and how have we let them reshape our lives? Similarly, let us pray for God to give us the strength to use our words wisely toward others so that we might build people up, rather than break them down.

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Devotional – Ephesians 4.29

Devotional:

Ephesians 4.29

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.

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A few weeks ago Gwen Hammer, a wonderful member of St. John’s, came into my office with a gift. She and her family had been on vacation and she said they found something I “just had to have.” So with eager anticipation and excitement I opened up the package to discover one of the funniest signs I’ve ever read, a sign that is now hanging in my office for everyone to see: “Live your life so that the preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral.”

Whenever I meet with families and friends to prepare for a funeral, I hear wonderful stories about the person who has died. Without having to ask questions, I quickly learn about what it was like to grow up with the person, how they met their spouse, what it meant to them to be a parent, and a slew of other details. I hear the funny stories that have been told and retold countless times at family gatherings. I start to see how God’s grace developed in the person’s life and led them to live the way they did.

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But at some point, stories pop up that I would not want to share from the pulpit; disappointments regarding a grudge that was never settled, failures to communicate what was really happening, and frustrations over choices with larger implications. I always do my best to sit and listen patiently, knowing that it is important for the friends and family to experience their grief in different ways. But when it comes time to craft the words that will be shared at the funeral, I do my best to include the truth about the person’s life, while emphasizing the details that help to build up the community of faith.

Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus about what it means to live in community: “Let no evil come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” As human beings we tend to emphasize and remember our problems, but as Christians we are called to speak in a way that benefits the people around us. In our everyday lives we have opportunities to share kind words toward others such as complimenting their work or affirming their character. Whatever we can do to live in such a way that we build others up, rather than breaking them down, will allow us to fully live into God’s kingdom.

This week, let us speak in such a way that our words may give grace to those who hear, and live in such a way so that the preacher won’t have to lie at our funeral.

Devotional – John 2.16

Devotional:

John 2.16

He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 

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“Now let us exchange signs of Christ’s peace,” the pastor bellowed from the pulpit. In quick and succinct fashion people rotated 360 degrees and shook hands with those closest and muttered, “peace of Christ.” Though it was something we did one a month, the passing of the peace was finished within 20 seconds, and people were ready to get on with the rest of the communion liturgy. For months I attended worship in that church, sitting in the same pew, but I never learned anyone’s name nor did I know anything about what was going on in their lives. I felt invisible even while I was surrounded by people.

That summer I was appointed to help a small church in the shadow of the Great Smokey mountains in western North Carolina. Passing the peace was something they did every week and it took forever. The pastor would casually invite us to greet one another with the love of Christ and before I knew it I was getting hugs from people I had never seen before and others wanted to know my life story. I overheard men making plans to go golfing in the afternoon, women sharing the latest bits of gossip from the community, and kids making fart jokes.

To go from one extreme to the other while passing the peace was difficult. Each week, when we hit the 10 minute mark during the peace, all I could think about was Jesus turning over the tables and rebuking the money-lenders and dove-sellers. Had we turned God’s house into a space no better than a marketplace? Where was the solemn respect for the divine, where was the recognition of God’s holiness?

The weeks passed throughout the summer and I continued to walk throughout the entire sanctuary during the passing of the peace and I began to learn about the people who called that church “home.” I got invited to dinner parties, people prayed for me and my calling while others moved around us, I even had a woman begin to confess her most recent sinful behaviors. I felt confused about what we were doing and how it fit into the worship of God in a church until an older gentlemen spied my discomfort and whispered in my ear: “this is how we build community; we don’t get many chances to check in on one another and this time, for us, is sacred.”

Jesus threw out the money-lenders because they were making a mockery of the temple. In that tiny rural church we shared our lives with each other during the passing of the peace, and it felt like what the church was really all about. Instead of just sitting down and facing the front without interacting with our brothers and sisters, that church made a point to pass the peace by building their community.

What is church like for you? Do you gather each week with the expectation of hearing a few prayers, listening to a sermon, singing a couple hymns, and going back to your regular life? Or do you see church as an opportunity to build your community by getting to love on, and communicate with, your brothers and sisters in Christ?

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Devotional – 1 Thessalonians 5.9-11

Devotional:

1 Thessalonians 5.9-11

For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. 

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When I arrived at church yesterday morning I had a lot on my mind. We had a rough and busy week here at St. John’s and the events from the previous days were weighing heavily upon my heart. After having the funeral service and burial for Chris Harris on Monday afternoon, I was surprised to hear on Wednesday that her husband and now widower, George, was rushed to the hospital and passed away shortly thereafter. Moreover on Thursday I received a phone call informing me that Howard Cassidy had been placed on Hospice care, and by the time I got to his room next door, he too had passed away. Our church quickly became the location for a tremendous amount of heartache and grief, and I was tasked with entering into that suffering and proclaiming the hope of the resurrection.

While I stood in the pulpit yesterday morning, talking with the gathered people about the importance of telling the great story, Marshall Kirby stood up from his pew and walked to the front. The sanctuary became silent as all eyes were on Marshall as he made his way up into the pulpit and wrapped his big arms around me in a hug. In the midst of our embrace Marshall said, “You do a great job telling the story for those who have died, and we are praying for you.” Up until that moment I had neglected to realize how much the recent funerals had taken a toll on me, and how badly I needed to be encouraged by the church through Marshall’s hug and words.

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Therefore, readers of this devotional, I task you with the same responsibility that Marshall exemplified yesterday in worship. The gathered body of Christ is tasked with encouraging one another and building up each other for the betterment of the community. Whether you know it or not there are people in your lives who are suffering and need some encouragement. It can be as simple as a phone call, an email, or even a letter. All it takes is that extra effort to ask how someone is doing, and then truly listen to their response.

I needed Marshall’s embrace and kind words yesterday. I needed to be reminded of my calling and feel the support of the people I serve during this difficult time. Moreover we are now called to encourage and build up the families who have lost their loved ones in the midst of death. We gather to support them at the funerals, but our support cannot end there; it must transcend the walls of our church into the great bounds of our community so that we can be Christ’s hands and feet for the world.

Who needs encouragement and building up in your life? How can you show them a glimpse of God’s love through your actions this week?