Different

1 Samuel 16.1-13

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

True terror is waking up one day and realizing your high school senior class is running the country.” That’s one of my favorite quotes from Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut is known for books like Slaughterhouse 5 and Breakfast of Champions, and other quotes quotes like, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” And yet, for a pastor to love the writing of Vonnegut is saying something, considering the fact that he was an outspoken agnostic humanist.

Or to put it a little more concretely, another one of his more famous quotes is: “If I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, ‘Kurt is up in heaven now.’ That’s my favorite joke.”

I hope the joke was on Vonnegut though, and that he’s now rejoicing in the glory of the Lord, lapping up the Supper of the Lamb that has no end.

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Anyway. When I was younger, I came across another quote of Vonnegut’s that, for obvious reasons, has really stuck with me: “People don’t come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.

To me, this quote resonates right now particularly since we can’t actually go to church with the threat of the Coronavirus looming over public gatherings. The church is a people who gather together who cannot gather together right now. And still, the sentiment of the quote rings out whether we are meeting in-person or not. People don’t come to church to hear a preacher ramble on about a particular Biblical text, or offer up droning announcements, or even to say the prayers that they could say on their own whenever they want. 

People come to church because they want to discover something about the Lord.

At times, this hoped-for-discovery is concrete – in the midst of uncertainty, people look for solid ground – in the midst of a diagnosis, people look for hope – in the midst of sorrow, people look to the Lord who will hold them when it feels like they can’t hold it together.

But at other times, it’s a little different.

Whether we would be able to articulate it or not, many of us gather as the people called church with one question on our minds: “What is God like?”

And, scripture does not disappoint.

This is, perhaps, why so many people flock to Jesus’ parables; they are all attempts at encapsulating the character of God in a story, such that upon hearing it we might catch a glimpse at the answer to our question.

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In today’s passage, the choosing and anointing of David, we encounter the Lord who cares more about one’s heart than one’s outward appearance. If any line from this scripture is known by Christians it is that one. That particular line was even reappropriated famously by Martin Luther King Jr.: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

God, strangely and rather bizarrely, chooses David as the next King of Israel. To bask in the audacity of such a call is difficult for us, because we know what will happen to this shepherd boy. We can’t hear about his calling without already conjuring up the defeat of Goliath, the dancing before the Ark, and the domination of the territories that would result in the power of Israel.

And, more often that not, when we hear this story (if we hear this story at all), the boys of Jesse are paraded before the prophet Samuel and it’s all about David, and why David was selected, and how he would become King.

But this isn’t a story about David.

It’s a story about God.

A God who see more than we could possibly ever see.

A God who delights in making something of our nothing.

A God who delights in choosing the people we wouldn’t, to change the world.

So, why are you tuning in to this livestream? Or, why are you listening to it later? Are you here to hear my preachments? Or are you here because you want to hear something about the Lord?

God still speaks all the time. God speaks to us through Word and through Sacrament. God is made manifest in the means of grace and the hope of glory. God is there in the waters of baptism, with us in the bread and the cup, and with us in our each and every breath.

But God is not like how we so often think.

I mean, imagine God in your minds for a moment… What do you see? Is it an old man with a long flowing beard resting on some puffy clouds? 

That’s Hallmark, not the Bible.

God is, for lack of a better word, different. 

God is foolish, according to the ways of the world, because God sees something in David, something that no one else could see, not even Samuel.

And that’s because God is different.

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God is like someone stuck in between being a teenager and being a full adult. For those of us in the throws of adulthood, I know this can sound a little off-putting, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. God seems to make a whole bunch of mistakes, always trying out the wrong people for the wrong job, always seeing the world through a too glass-half-full attitude.

And yet we love to make God into our own image all the time, whether it’s in our art or in our words or in our preachments or prayers. Albert Schweitzer once said that every time we go looking for God, it’s like we’re peering down deep into the bottom of a well, and though we think we see something down there, what we’re really seeing is a faint reflection of ourselves. 

But if you are brave enough to jump down into the well, down into the strange new world of the Bible, you will find a God who rebukes our desires to make God into our own image.

God is God, and we are not.

Think about it, God is like someone stuck in this never-ending youthful time of idealism even though everything in the world is screaming the contrary. 

Who would be the best person to put in charge of the budding nation Israel? Surely a major modern general, or a lifelong diplomatic politician? “No,” God says, “I want that ruddy boy out wandering around with the sheep. The one who keeps whistling without a care in the world. I want the one who will throw it all away because of a rooftop peeping session. I want the one no one else wants.”

Are we sure we can even trust God?

On Pentecost, the beginning of this strange thing we call church, someone had too much to drink according to some people on the street. Furniture was tossed all around in the upper room, and there was the distinct smell of something burning wafting around in the air. People could barely understand this ragtag group of individuals who tumbled out into the busy streets with nothing to proclaim but the Good News of a free ticket of grace.

That was God’s idea of a good time.

One of the best stories Jesus ever told, a story squarely about God, is about two boys who were terrible to their father. The younger tells his Dad to drop dead and give him his inheritance and the older one resents his father for not throwing him a party even though he lived in his Dad’s basement. And the father, in the end, pulls out all the stops and throws the party to end all parties for the younger wayward son, and begs the older one to just relax and have a good time.

It’s no wonder so many of Jesus’ stories end with parties, often filled to the brim with the lame, maimed, and blind, people with whom many of us wouldn’t be caught dead.

God is all over the place, frenetic in disposition, and often rambling on about new ideas and is constantly inviting us to join the ride. Frankly, God invites everyone to jump on the crazy train that is careening out of the station toward a destination only God knows where. 

And on this trip, God notices all the things that we’ve stopped noticing – blind beggars, and widow’s coins, and children willing to share their lunch. God screams for attention and keeps pointing out the mistakes of the pompous, the self-righteousness of the wealth, and the injustice of the powerful and the elite. 

God even has the gall to proclaim that only kids get in to the kingdom, and that its virtually impossible for a rich person to get in. And, to make it even more confounding, God rounds that one out with the whole, “But nothing is impossible for God.”

I wonder why no one took the time to explain to God how the world really works. Surely, a disciple or a prophet or even a stranger could have informed the Lord how to behave properly and stay in line. Or, at the very least, God should’ve taken a good hard look in the mirror and decided to shape up.

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But no. God just keeps bumbling around hanging out with the disreputable types, spending the morning with the sick and those of ill repute, lunch with the tax collectors, and then late night snacks with the questioning religious authorities. 

God shows up with friends at a party uninvited, encourages everyone to drink the good wine, and then rubs hands together until the wine overflows, only to move on to the next venue where God is similarly uninvited.

And, because God behaves this way, people will often approach the Lord at these parties, words will be said, voices raised, and even faces smacked. But does God ever raise God’s voice, does God bring the smack down on those who lean toward violence? In short, does God act the way we would act?

Never.

God is like someone who wants to know us better and has plenty of opinions for how we should be living our lives. In fact, God wants to know us better than we want to know God. God never stops inviting us to the party and even though we reject the offer more often than not, the offer always stands.

Some of us have even said, “No,” to God as politely or as emphatically as we know how, and God keeps calling us the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.

God is intense, passionate, unbalanced, unfair, and a little too honest. God is always pushing the envelope, testing the boundaries of what we might call “proper behavior.” God is the one who sees a vision of the world that even on our best days we could never properly imagine.

And we wonder, why can’t God just calm down about all this stuff? If God really wants to be the God of all people, wouldn’t it be better it God toed the line and stayed unbiased about the comings and goings of the world? When will God relax and start acting like the God we want?

But, again, the story of scripture is not a story about us. It’s about God. 

The Lord saw David’s heart and choose him, even though David would mess it all up in the future. We would hope that God would make better choices than picking a murderous adulterer to be the king of the nation, but then again, God chose to dwell among us and to redeem us and to save us.

And, though it pains us to admit, even though God came to usher in a new vision of the world, even though God came to set us free from our bonds to sin and death, something about God’s attitude and disposition made us want him dead. 

God is different. But that’s what makes the Good News good. Amen. 

Expecting The Unexpected

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.”

Words are important.

What we say often shapes what we believe and, perhaps even more importantly, it shapes how we behave.

Take the common words we all offer together after the scripture is read in worship: The Word of God for the People of God… Thanks be to God. We say those words week after week, and if you’re like me, you don’t really think about what we’re saying.

But those words are really important, and they say a lot about what we think theologically.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believe in him may not perish but have eternal life. The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters, he restoreth my soul. The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.

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But what about those difficult text from the bible? What are we supposed to do, or say, or believe about the scriptures that make us uncomfortable? Should we be thankful for something that makes us squirm?

But Jael took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the tent peg through his skull, until it went down into the ground and he died. (Judges 4) The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God?

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23). The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God?

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission (Timothy 2). The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God?

What are we communicating to young people, or those individuals who are new to the faith, when we say we are thankful for God’s Word when perhaps we’re not?

Additionally, words mean different things to different people based on a variety of different contexts. What you can say to one individual, and how it is received, is not the same as what you could say to someone else.

I have a long habit of adapting words to particular contexts and individuals. For instance, during vacation bible school, when dozens of young children are in our building, I’m not breaking out the bible stories about tent pegs being driven through skulls, or rules about genitalia, or verses about women’s subordination. Those kids, like the scriptural story today tells us, are like Samuel and they do not yet know the Lord.

Similarly, if I’m teaching a Sunday School class to seasoned Christians, I’m not going to just talk about how nice it is that God loves us. It’s true, but that kind of simple affirmation alone doesn’t challenge us to be any better than we were before we heard it.

The church is supposed to be a supple and open avenue to God’s ways in the world such that we can delight and rejoice when God moves outside of our expectations and reaches people where they are rather than assuming that they’ll figure it all out on their own.

That’s one of the reasons that we keep coming back to do this strange and wonderful thing we call worship. For Samuel it took God’s calling in the night three times, and the wisdom of a mentor, to help him know that God was encountering him. For some of us, it takes a lifetime of Sundays before we hear it.

Of all the stories in the bible, this one, this nighttime calling, might have the most ominous beginning: The Lord’s Word was rare at that time. This meant there were few prophets, decent sermons were all but gone, and the Lord seemed to be nothing more than an idea. And yet it is precisely at this time when the Word was rare that God intrudes and upends expectations.

When we have communion we, like many Christians, are invited to the table, we confess our sins, share signs of peace, and then share the bread and the cup together. While you all line up in the center aisle and make your way toward the altar, I will adapt the words I use as I offer the body of Christ. For some of you, well seasoned in your faith, I can say the words that have been said for centuries: “The body of Christ, given for you.” But for others, saying something like this only produces more questions, and so I will adapt the words, and instead I might say something like, “The gift of God for you” or “This is Jesus” or “God loves you.”

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A few months ago we had a fairly typical Sunday service, the sermon was around a B- quality, the hymns fit well with the theme of worship, and then we moved to the table. We said and did what we always do, and then we feasted. I offered the body of Christ to all who came forward and there was a young girl who I’d never seen before, and when I tore off the bread I said to her, “God loves you.” And then I kept serving everyone else.

When our service ended, the young girl’s mother shook my hand on her way out of church and then she said words I’ll never forget, “That’s the first time my daughter’s ever had communion. Thank you.”

And I couldn’t help but think, “What if that was the first time she ever heard that God loves her?”

Years from now I can imagine that girl graduating high school and entering college. Though fully endowed with a message of faith and love here in this place one Sunday, she never steps foot in a church after that day for one reason or another. High School is tough for her as she wrestles with her identity and wondering if life is about more than what she has experienced. The good grades never feel good enough, the friendships never feel close enough, and no matter what she tries it always seems like something is missing.

So without really knowing why, she applies to some university, and leaves home without looking back with the hope that this new chapter will be better than high school.

Sadly, it’s not. College life for her is filled with even more people, and she feels less and less connected. She falls through the cracks of campus life and spends far too much time alone in her dorm. She still believes that life must get better but she’s not seeing any indication of it. One night, however, her roommate invites her to a campus ministry service. She reluctantly attends, and is truly underwhelmed by the experience.

The music is okay, and the message is all about spreading the Gospel, whatever that means. She sits and listens attentively but she knows that she’ll never come back. But right before the service ends, the pastor brings out a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and starts talking about communion. Immediately, the girl is brought back to that morning when she walked down the aisle in this church when she heard a bearded man wearing a long black dress talking about communion. While her mind is flooded with memories from the past she makes her way up to the make-shift altar and stretches out her hands to receive the body and blood of Jesus while the pastors whispers just loud enough for her to hear: “God loves you.”

But, sadly, I can imagine that even after that profound moment of the past catching up with her future present, the knowledge of God’s love doesn’t stick. The girl continues through school and eventually meets her husband. They get married shortly after graduation, and move to a new city for work. Years pass, and even though all of the things on the outside look perfect – she has a few children, a steady job, and a home – she still feels like something is missing.

She tries to find fulfillment in her life: She joins young professional groups, she volunteers at the local soup kitchen when she has time, she even helps start a community garden. But nothing seems to fill the void she feels.

One day, however, a neighbor invites her and her family to the local United Methodist Church. She laughs while responding about how her mother dragged her to a UMC one Sunday morning when she was a kid but the neighbor is persistent and she eventually agrees to go to worship.

The woman sits with her family in church on Sunday morning. She stands when she is supposed to, sings when everyone else does, she even bows her head and mutters some version of a prayer under her breath. She listens to the sermon, but most of it feels lifeless and too repetitive. And then the pastor moves to the table and invites the congregation to partake in this beautiful and precious meal that Christ offers without price. The pastor says, “This table is the one true place we can find who we are and whose we are, because in the bread and cup we discover grace. We are living in a time when the Word of the Lord is rare – but at this table you can hear God calling, because here you find the God whose finding you.”

With tears welling up in here eyes, tears she cannot explain, the woman walks forward. She remembers that day long ago at Cokesbury UMC, she remembers the night in college when she walked up toward the altar. The emotional wave is almost overwhelming and as she stretches out her hands the pastor whispers just loud enough for her to hear, “God loves you.” And for the first time she believes it.

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One of the hardest things in the world to accept is the fact that God loves us. In our heart of hearts we, more than anyone else, know what we have done and what we have left undone. We see the mirrored reflection of our brokenness and we believe that we are unworthy of the love of God we so often hear about in church.

Sometimes, in fact most of the time, it takes more than a simple affirmation from the pulpit, it takes more than hearing it whispered during communion, it takes more than a bumper sticker or a billboard for the message to sink deep in every fiber of our being. We need to hear those words over and over and over again but they are true and remarkable and difficult.

When the Word of the Lord was rare during Eli and Samuel’s life, no one was expecting God to do something like call upon a young boy in the temple. The call completely disrupted his life not with peace, but with a call to disturb to the peace.

Why a kid? God does not call the equipped, God equips the called. God bypassed the expected and seasoned possibility of Eli, and went instead for the untrained and immature Samuel.

God does whatever God wants. But this story, this calling, is also about more than that. God loves upsetting our expectations.

God loves loving us, even when we do not love ourselves. Amen.

What’s In A Name?

Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.”

Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”

It is not an easy season in the life of the church.

In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.

Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.

I was born 30 years and 3 days ago, and my parents named me Taylor Christian Mertins. They, like a lot of parents during the late 80’s, refused to find out my gender ahead of time and decided to live into the mystery of those months not quite knowing what they were about to receive. And it was during those months of mystery that they started debating baby names.

They could have gone the popular girl route with Jessica, Ashley, Amanda, Sarah, or Jennifer. Or they could have stuck with the equally popular boy side of Michael, Christopher, Matthew, Joshua, and Andrew.

They wondered about giving me a family name. In fact, my father once said that if I was a boy, he really wanted to name me Wolf Detlef Mertins after his brother who did not survive childbirth. And my mother, apparently, said, “That’s fine, but I won’t be your wife anymore.”

So they talk and talked, my mother’s womb grew and grew, and they finally picked a name. If I was a boy I would become Taylor Christian Mertins, and if I was a girl I would be Taylor Christiana Mertins.

Years later, when I was old enough and mature enough to actually think about the name given to me, I asked my parents why they picked Taylor Christian. My mom said that they liked Taylor because it could be used for a boy or girl, and my dad said they liked Christian because they wanted me to act like one.

And look where that got me.

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Names are important, more important in fact than we often give them credit for. Of course, today, some of us are more inclined to name our children after a character on a television show than with some kind of theological intent. However, in scripture, names reflect character, purpose, and identity.

Lent is the perfect time to read about Abram and Sarai. We find them here in Genesis 17 during the twilight of their lives, they are reflecting on all the have seen and done, what went well, where they screwed up; its basically what we do every Lenten season.

And in this particular covenantal moment, it’s been 24 years since God promised Abram a son and Abram was still waiting for the promise to come true. (Though he had Ishmael during those years, but that’s a whole different story). 24 years of hoping against hope that God would make good on the covenant. Abram is 99 years old, after waiting for a quarter of his life, when God says, “walk before me and be blameless, and I will make my covenant with you and you will become exceedingly numerous.”

We could, of course, talk about how God always makes good on God’s promises. I could preach a half-decent sermon on patience in waiting for God to reveal God’s will. We could even spend the next ten minutes reflecting on Abram’s faithfulness being reckoned as righteousness.

But, it’s important to remember that these two soon-to-be-elderly parents were deeply flawed. They had plenty of opportunities to practice their faith in the covenant established 24 years prior. They went to a strange land without knowing what would happen. They saw grim hope for the family God promised them. They agreed (to some degree) to let Sarai lie (to and with) Pharaoh in order to protect Abram. They even plotted to let Abram sleep with Hagar in order to bring about God’s promise on their own time.

And nevertheless, we serve a great God of “nevertheless,” God chose these two to make the covenant possibility possible. “In you,” says the Lord, “will I make a multitude of nations.” God uses the flawed and fatigued couple as the seeds that become the people Israel. Where we see failure, God sees possibility. Where we see problems, God sees solutions. Where we see an end, God sees a beginning.

“I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.”

“And you shall no longer be called Abram, but you shall be called Abraham, for I have made you the ancestor of many nations.”

“As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.”

Everyone in the story receives a new name – The Lord becomes God Almighty, Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah.

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The name changes are subtle, but their theological implications are profound. Abraham means the father of a multitude and Sarah means princess. These two have been changed by God’s promise, God will do with them the impossible, and who they are called by God is important.

Today, as I said before, we usually use names as nothing more that titles, something to be flung around without a lot of thought. But in scripture, there’s a lot in a name. And for Abraham and Sarah, they have no say so in the matter! They do not choose their new names, only God does.

They have been called by God to do something for God. In spite of their identities as flawed and somewhat forgotten people, God uses them to inaugurate a new reality in which the world would be forever transformed.

This covenant, a promise made to Abram and Sarai, its nothing short of hope. It’s saying to a people with no future that they will be given a future. It is a promise that is reflected through God’s relationship with all of Israel, and through Israel to the church, and through the church to each one of us.

In their new names they discovered the new call and covenant placed on their lives.

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Names are so important. There are few things that warm the heart quite like someone remembering your name in a world so busy that we often forget almost anything else. There is a huge difference between saying, “Oh hey, it’s so nice to see you!” and “Oh hey Taylor, it’s so nice to see you.” The difference might only be one word, but that one word makes all the difference.

Our names are so integral to whom we are that sometimes we neglect to realize how vital they are. For instance: studies show that individuals who share a first initial with the first initial of a major hurricane are far more likely to donate money than others. Kims and Karls were more likely to donate money after hurricane Katrina than Taylors and well Taylors.

The incredible importance of our names is also made evident in what’s called the cocktail party effect. The idea is that if you’re at a party, even when hundreds of people are in attendance, if someone mentions your name on the other side of the room, you’ll hear it. Somehow your name with rise above the fury of the room, it will float along, until it catches your attention in a way that nothing else quite can.

I experience this every week during the passing of the peace. I will stand right here and motion for you all to engage with one another, and while standing by the choir loft I can hear one of my back row ladies start talking about Taylor’s choice in sermon title. Or I’ll be off to the side of the room shaking hands with a visitor and I’ll hear a youth on the other side of the sanctuary lament the fact that Taylor picked the same hymn again.

My name is so much a part of who I am, that I can pick it out of a crowd, and you can too.

A couple weeks ago I was working on a sermon at Wegman’s on a Thursday morning. I was sitting at a table by myself, with my bible opened in front of me, a hot cup of coffee in my hand, and I was trying to figure out how to tie all my thoughts together.

Wegman’s provides what I think is the ideal environment for my creativity, there’s always a low drum of sound that keeps me focused, but it’s not so loud that its distracting. I can sit by myself, and no one from the church bothers me while I’m writing.

So a few weeks ago I was sitting there, working hard, when someone, seemingly out of nowhere, shouted, “PASTOR!”

I almost fell out of my chair.

“Yes?” I stammered. The man was unfamiliar to me, but he was giving a look I can only describe as bewildered. He said, “I saw your bible, and I figured you were a pastor, and I wanted to ask for your prayers, but I’ve been trying to get your attention for a minute and every time I said, ‘Pastor’ you didn’t even move. Are you sure you’re a pastor?”

He had been calling my name, the one given to me by God, for over a minute and I didn’t hear him at all. But when I’m here in church, when I can worry about what all of you are thinking and saying about me, I can hear it all.

Our parents gave us our names, the ones that draw our attention. But God has given each of us new names, just as powerful and as vibrant as Abraham and Sarah. God has sealed our hearts with these names, names that truly define who we are. The great challenge is that sometimes we can’t hear them at all, or we’ve forgotten who we really are: children of God.

The Lord is calling us to the covenant, to a promise of hope, that is not contingent on our faithfulness. We are no better than Abraham or Sarah. We will fall and fail. But the covenant remains because God is faithful! God sees our potential even when we’ve grown blind to the future. God makes something of our nothing. Our God is the God of nevertheless.

God is calling us by our names.

The question is: “Can we hear it?” Amen.

Worthy of the Gospel

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Lindsey Baynham about the readings for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (Exodus 16.2-15, Jonah 3.10-4.11, Philippians 1.21-30, Matthew 20.1-16). Lindsey is an elder in the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and currently serves as the Associate Director for Call, Candidacy & Discernment in the Center for Clergy Excellence. The conversation covers a range of topics including what it means to be “called”, the overabundance of arrogance, justice-oriented ministry, and the joy of serving the church. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Worthy of the Gospel

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I AM WHO I AM

Exodus 3.1-15

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up our of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses sais to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

 

I have always loved churches. But before I loved the church for the people in the church, I loved churches because of their sanctuaries. Ever since I was a young child I felt a since of awe and wonder and peace whenever I entered a sanctuary. When I got my driver’s license I would drive myself over to the church in the middle of the week just to spend some time in the sanctuary. And it’s not like I would always kneel at the altar and pour out my soul to God, though I did, I just loved the feeling of being in the sanctuary.

When I was in seminary I was part of a church worship band, and I would drive to the church really early every week just to sit in the sanctuary before the rest of the group arrived. On one such occasion, I was sitting in a random pew and looking at a stained glass window when a man ran into the sanctuary screaming for help.

I immediately rushed to him and we met in the middle of the center aisle and before I had a chance to ask what was wrong he mumbled something out about being afraid and needing help and wanting prayer. I took him by the arm and tried to calm him down but the more I soothed the louder he wailed. Finally I grabbed him by the shoulders and said, “What’s your name?”

He stopped.

“I’m Marcus,” he said almost as if he was asking a question.

“Well then, Marcus, tell me what’s going on.”

Over the next fifteen minutes I listened to him as he described his fear and shock. His wife was pregnant and they had gone to the doctor that morning and heard the heart-beat for the first time. And instead of it filling him with joy, it terrified him. Not because of the responsibilities that were about to fall into his lap, but a terror about what would happen to his baby if he, as a father, died. He told me about how he had never been in a church before, that he never even wanted to go to church, but that he had been walking through the neighborhood crying, and before he knew it he started running. He told me about how he ran and he ran, and all the sudden he wound up in the sanctuary with me.

I listened as he shared his fears, and then I prayed for him. After the “amen” he hugged me and he left almost as quickly as he arrived.

Two weeks later I was driving near the church when I saw him walking down the road and before I knew what I was doing I pulled over, got out of my car and jogged up to him. “Marcus, Marcus!” I yelled, when he turned around it was like I was looking at a different person. He talked and he told me about how he was feeling better and that he was excited about the baby, and that he didn’t know who that God was I kept talking to that night but he felt like something changed. And then, as we were getting ready to say goodbye, he grabbed me by the arm and said something I’ll never forget: “Thanks for remembering my name.”

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Moses was keeping the flock for his father-in-law when he came upon a burning bush. Moses saw the strange and wonderful sight and chose to turn toward it. And that’s when the Lord declared, “Moses, Moses!”

What follows is perhaps one of the most well known stories from the Bible. God speaks to Moses through the burning bush and calls him to help deliver God’s people out of Egypt. But Moses, like almost everyone encountered by God in scripture, feels unsure of the call. “Well, when the Hebrew people ask about you, who should I tell them you are?” And God said, “I AM WHO I AM.”

            The Tetragrammaton: I AM WHO I AM. YHWH. Yahweh.

For many Jews, the name of God revealed to Moses is so holy, so precious, that it cannot be uttered by the lips of mere mortals. Instead, there are other names for God like Adonai and Lord. In the Christian tradition, we will call God Yahweh, but the name of God revealed by God is unlike anything else and demands a respect and holiness that is rarely seen.

The passage about Moses in the wilderness with the burning bush is usually interpreted in such a way that it is all about Moses. Moses is walking, Moses is given a command, Moses responds. But there’s more to the story than Moses; it is the revealing of God’s holiness.

We could not have found this name, this Yahweh, by ourselves. Even if we entered into a long and passionate search through prayer or any other spiritual discipline we are not capable of finding out whom God is on our own. God’s name had to be revealed. God alone can tell us who God is.

And what does God say, “I AM WHO I AM.”

The divine name is a non-name in the best sense. Can you imagine Moses returning to the land of Egypt, mixing and mingling with the Hebrew slaves and saying, “Don’t worry, I AM WHO I AM sent me to set us free.”

What’s the purpose of a name? Do we name individuals to distinguish them from others? Do we give names to children in order to stroke our egos in attempts to live forever? Do we give names to people in order to build them up or break them down? What’s in a name?

I’ve been in enough hospitals to hear doctors refer to their patients not by Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jones, but by a room number (or worse: by their disease).

There are plenty of people who are judged simply because of the color of their skin, or their political persuasion, or their sexual orientation without their names ever being mentioned.

Names are important.

They are important in our everyday lives whether it’s learning the names of our neighbors, or our classmates, or our coworkers, or even the people in the pews next to us right now. Learning the name of the other, and actually using it, breaks down the walls and barriers that often lead us to judge rather than listen. Learning the name of the other prevents them from remaining a stranger. Learning the name of the other builds a bridge into something new instead of moving in the opposite direction.

God reveals God’s name to Moses in such a way that it bridges the divide but it also keeps the mystery. And I mean mystery in the most beautiful and theological way possible. We finite creatures cannot understand the infinite wonder that is I AM WHO I AM. There is a mystery to who God is simply because God is completely unlike us, but knowing how God reveals God’s name is important.

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If God is not given a proper name, God becomes a faceless unknown god with no story or history. But our God is a God of the story; our God has a name and is known by connections with other names.

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” and God also said so much more. God said, “I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.” Over and over again we are reminded in scripture that our God knows God’s people by their right names; God calls them and us by such: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Hannah, Samuel, Saul, David, Mary, Martha, Peter.

God knows our names, and we should know God’s name as well.

If you’ve turned on your television or opened a newspaper this week you’ve seen some of the horrific and awful images coming out of Houston in the wake of hurricane Harvey. While some have taken to the internet to chastise and ridicule those in leadership about their lack of preparation or their delay in response, normal (and not-so-normal) people have done some heroic things so bring safety, life, and hope to the people who feel no hope.

And as I watched videos from Houston this week, as I saw boat after boat traveling up and down streets in attempts to bring people to safety, I was struck by one thing. In every instance of rescue, the rescuer began with the same question, “What’s your name?”

Think about that for a moment. While surrounded by signs of terror and fear, instead of commanding a person to leave their belongings or throw them over the shoulder, every rescuer looked in the eyes of the fearful other and asked the one question that would remove their otherness.

“What’s your name?”

From the burning bush God called Moses by name. Through words and flames Moses was changed through learning the name of God. I AM WHO I AM shows up in our lives at all kinds of strange moments, we could be shepherding, or sitting in a sanctuary, or waiting for rescue in a flooded house when the Lord calls out to us.

And we can trust I AM WHO I AM for the very same reason that Moses could. Because I AM WHO I AM is the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. Yahweh is the God who made a covenant with out ancestors, who delivered God’s people out of captivity in Egypt, who delivered us out of our captivity to sin and death. I AM WHO I AM is the God who was revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. I AM WHO I AM is the Spirit that lives and moves among us.

I AM WHO I AM is as mysterious as it is intimate. I AM WHO I AM comes to us in the intimacy of a piece of bread, and through the mystery of is being the flesh of Christ. I AM WHO I AM is as close as the person next to us and is as mysterious as the person sitting next to us. I AM WHO I AM is the name of our God who calls us by name. Amen.

On Evangelism or: Why The Church Needs Crucifixion

Matthew 28.19 – Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Evangelism

We sent out hundreds of post-cards over a month ago inviting the entire neighborhood to join us on the front lawn of the church for a free Community Cook-Out. The post-cards were well designed and inviting with all of the necessary information. For a modest price we were able to reach a whole group of people who we would otherwise miss.

This will be our third annual gathering and it has been largely successful. Half of the people in attendance are usually not from the church and we want them to know that we care about the neighborhood we are in. However, on some level, we also want them to know that we love them enough that we would love to have them join us in worship on Sunday mornings.

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Yet, evangelism is not the goal of our gathering. We have not specifically identified key lay people to go around asking people if Jesus Christ is their personal Lord and Savior. We have not prepared pamphlets to hand out describing the eternal fires of hell if someone does not get saved. We have not invited the neighborhood to our front lawn to get them into heaven.

Instead, we hope that by showing them our love, it will somehow draw them into church to discover where that love comes from: God.

Next week we are going to send out even more post-cards to the local community about our upcoming sermon series titled “Confronting Controversy.” After speaking with a few nominal Christians from the neighborhood about what they want to hear about in church, we synthesized this series to be approachable and life-giving to people who are not currently in the church. The post-card has been well designed with a catchy image and all of the necessary information on the back. We hope that by sending them out, people from the community will join us in worship and discover that what the world thinks about the church may not be the same thing as what God thinks about the world.

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Both of these ventures, a Community Cook-Out and a Controversial Sermon Series, are about trying to grow the church in some way, shape, or form. Many of us call this “evangelism.” But that’s not what evangelism means.

In David Fitch’s recent work Prodigal Christianity, he highlights a moment from his ministry where the church tried to grow and failed:

“When our church, Life on the Vine, was new, we sent out ten thousand postcards to people in our neighborhoods. We artfully displayed a collage of various depictions of Jesus (classical paintings, icons, and European, African, and Asian portrayals) with the question in bold print running across it: “Who is Jesus?” On the back, we invited the neighborhood to have a discussion with us about the question. We were playing off the cultural curiosity around Easter and hope that we could welcome a constructive conversation around the question. The card was not well received. Local “Bible-believing” Christians accused us of straying into relativism with so many different depictions of Jesus. They worried we were losing the truth of Jesus. Meanwhile many others accused us of being intolerant. Were not other religious leaders just as worthy of discussion? We got nasty phone calls asking, “Why are you focusing only on Jesus?” No one, and I mean NO ONE, came to any of our gatherings from this postcard.”[1]

Out of ten thousand postcards, no one came to any of the gatherings. I think a lot of this has to do with our false assumption that just by offering something people will show up. We believe that if we give them an interesting sermon series or bible study people are bound to show up in droves. And if we let them know about it through a postcard we can reach even more people!

These types of evangelism largely fail because we’ve confused evangelism with filling the pews instead of sharing the Good News.

I cringe whenever I encounter an “evangelist” in the midst of life who abruptly asks, “Have you confessed Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” Because with their question is the assumption that we have the power to save ourselves, and that they are playing a fundamental role in our salvation. However, Jesus does not command the disciples to go out convincing people to confess him as Lord. Instead he tells them to go and make disciples.

Discipleship formation is primarily about relationships and less about post-cards and Main Street confessions. We become evangelists not when we beg or convince someone to confess Jesus as Lord, but when we intentionally create relationships with individuals through the love that Jesus taught us to live by. We can use sermon series and community events to first bring people into the church, but those types of things will never be enough (by themselves) to evangelize. It takes a willing and loving disciple who sees others not as pew fillers but fellow brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God.

As a gathering church we are called to be confident in God’s love for us, and for us to share that same love with others; “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4.19). We will grow and bear fruit in the kingdom when love becomes our first priority instead of growth. We have failed to grow not because we have been doing things unworthily, but because we’ve grown bored and unhappy. With churches all across the American landscape floundering under the pressure to grow and remain sustainable, the church falls back to the common tropes of Vacation Bible Schools and Sermon Series assuming they will grow the church.

Can you imagine what the church might look like if Christians were actually happy and excited about being the church? That’s where and when evangelism happens – not in the boredom of another series or bible study, but in the community transformed by joy and sharing that joy.

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Evangelism is our call as Christians. We are commanded by the Lord to share the Good News in order to make disciples and transform the world. If we want this kind of dynamic and life-giving evangelism to take place, then we have to be willing to crucify some of our current practices and programs; you can’t have resurrection without crucifixion.

We need to crucify our boring and lifeless activities that we assume will grow the church. Is the annual Cook-Out really sharing the good news with others, or are we doing it to feel good about seeing a lot of people on our property?

We need to ask difficult questions about our programs and whether or not they are designed to evangelize. Are our monthly meetings really about branching out to the community and transforming our cultural landscape, or are we meeting to keep the people already in the church happy?

We need to confront our budgets and demand that they reflect Jesus’ mission. Are we spending our resources according to the great commission, or are we neglecting to be good stewards by wasting our resources of lifeless avenues of ministry?

We need to take a look at our own families and reflect on how we evangelize those closest to us. Are we so consumed by raising our children to choose whether to be Christian or not for their own good, or are we afraid of telling them what we really feel and believe?

What can we crucify in our hearts and in our churches to be resurrected into the kind of evangelists that God is calling us to be?

 

 

[1] Fitch, David and Geoff Holsclaw, Prodigal Christianity: Ten Signposts into the Missional Frontier (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 2013), 32.

Yes!

Psalm 16

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight. Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the pit. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Romans 12.2

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

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Years ago there was a young man, fresh out of seminary, ready to start serving at his first appointment. He had taken all of the right classes, learned from gifted professors, and even volunteered in the local community. After he finished packing his bags, he loaded up the car and made his way to John Wesley UMC. The novice pastor was anxious and excited about what the church would be like, so before he unpacked any of his belongings he drove out to the church property.

He found the location on the map, went to the listed address, but there was no church to be found. So he turned around and drove to the spot once again only to discover that the church was blocked by the oldest and most decrepit looking tree he had ever seen. The roots were stretching all over the property and the leaves blocked the building and the marquee from being visible on the road.

He couldn’t believe it! No wonder he had heard that church attendance had decreased over the last few years! The young pastor was convinced that if only people could see the church from the road, it would grow and grow and grow.

So, before unpacking any of his important belongings, before even working on his first sermon, the young pastor unpacked his chainsaw and went back to the church. It took him most of the afternoon, but by the time he was finished the tree was gone, the sign and church were visible from the road, and he just knew that the church pews would be filled to the brim on Sunday.

A few days later, as he sat in the study of his parsonage crafting the words for his first message, the local District Superintendent called: “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet,” he said, “because you being reappointed.”

You see, the church was called John Wesley UMC for a reason: nearly two hundred years earlier a man named John Wesley had planted that tree while he was in the community. The gathered people decided to build a church right where the tree had been planted in honor of the man who planted the seeds that started our church, and that young pastor had chopped it down.

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I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved,” says the Psalmist. What kind of faith would we have to have to be able to faithfully affirm these words? “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places… You show me the path of life.” Who do you imagine speaking when you hear these words? Perhaps you picture one the great prophets from the Old Testament like Elijah, and Isaiah, and Jeremiah speaking about their faith, or maybe you immediately connect these words with a saint from your life, or perhaps you recall one of the wonderful pastors who served this church in the past.

I want to be able to faithfully proclaim these words, I want my life to reflect the kind of trust and assurance present in the psalm, I want to say “yes” to God over and over, but the problem is, I usually say “no.”

That, in a sense, is the great story of scripture. God offers us a path, he offers us a way, he offers us a “yes” and we respond by saying “no.” I have given you everything you will ever need here in the Garden of Eden; your lives will be perfect forever so long as you don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. “No thanks God, we know what we’re doing and we’d rather try the fruit.”

I will deliver you out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt and bring you to the Promised Land. Follow my servant Moses, adhere to my commands, and everything will be wonderful. “No thanks God, we’d rather go back to Egypt, at least we had food there.”

I will make of you a great nation, you will grow in prosperity, but you must not worship any other gods instead of me. Listen to the prophets, give heed to my Word, and you will have life. “No thanks God, it’s easier to worship a golden calf and ask for prosperity than it is to live a life according to your law.”

Take up your cross and follow me, give of yourself to those who are suffering, pray for your enemies, worship the Lord, believe in the Good News. “No thanks Jesus, we’d rather hang you on a cross than start living our lives for other people.”

In scripture, whenever people stubbornly say “no” to the will of God, God declares, “Yes.” Like a parent with a child, it happens over and over. And this paradoxical relationship between God and God’s people bleeds out from scripture into our lives even today. God starts calling us to live a new kind of life through the words of a friend, through a profound experience, and maybe even through a sermon and we think “No thanks Lord, I know better.”

God calls us to sacrifice our time and money, to gather regularly for worship and be transformed, to believe in the power of grace and mercy, and we say, “No thanks God. I’ve got better things to do.”

God says to a young pastor, “I am calling you to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Preach the Good News. Serve the last, least, and lost. Plant seeds of faith. Remember the tradition that brought you here.” And he says, “No thanks God. I know what I’m doing, and I’m gonna chop down that tree.”

The truest and most faithful words we can ever pray, are words that we pray every week in church: “Thy will be done.” Those words are at the very heart of what it means to be Christian: submitting ourselves to the will of the Lord. And even though they are the truest and most faithful words we can ever pray, and even though we say them every week, they are the hardest to live by.

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Today marks the beginning of our 4th year together in ministry. And, I have to admit, I didn’t want to come here. I was utterly convinced that I needed to be an associate pastor at a different church right after seminary. I even contacted all the churches in Virginia hiring associates that year and had scheduled interviews. But then the Lord decided this is where I was supposed to be. I knew what I wanted, I knew where I thought I should be, and I was pretty nervous about coming here. Even though I continued to pray, “thy will be done,” I was really saying “my will be done.”

And, I’ve come to find out, that some of you didn’t want me to come here. Members of the staff-parish relations committee wanted a younger pastor to come to St. John’s, but one with experience. They wanted some new and fresh energy, but definitely not someone right out of seminary. And one of you told me that they first time I walked into the church, all you could think was, “he’s a baby.” But God sent me to you. You knew what you wanted, you knew what kind of pastor the church needed, and then I showed up. Even though many of you were praying, “thy will be done,” you were really saying, “my will be done.”

It happens with pastors being appointed to churches, it happens when we start wrestling with a call to a different career, it happens when children enter the picture and new priorities erupt, it happens when someone proposes a new way forward. My will be done versus thy will be done.

In the great battle of “No” and “Yes” in scripture, the final movement came in the cross and the tomb. God’s people continually rebelled against God’s love time and time again, even to the point of delivering God’s son to the cross. But after the three days of silence that followed the crucifixion, God declared the final and triumphant “Yes” in the resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Because of the good news of the resurrection, the final “Yes” to every “No” we’ve ever offered, we are reminded of God’s unwavering faithfulness in every circumstance. Even when we push back against the will of God, the Lord’s love remains. We say that in baptism we have died with Christ and therefore we have already seen the worst. Since we have also been raised with him in his resurrection from the dead, we can live in confidence that God has already saved us from all that might destroy us, even death. Because of the resurrection, because of Easter, we can be people who actually pray those hard and beautiful words, “thy will be done,” and mean it.

Last week I gathered with thousands of other United Methodists from across the Virginia Conference for the Service of Ordering Ministry. For the last three years I have worked on demonstrating my effectiveness in ministry, which culminated in being ordained as a full elder. I made my way up to the front of the arena with my two pastoral mentors and Lindsey with Elijah, I knelt before the bishop and the conference, and I was ordained. While each ordinand knelt they were invited to choose a particular section of scripture to be displayed on the screens for everyone to see. I chose Romans 12.2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Those words were the first we ever shared together in worship 3 years ago, and they have come to define the ministry to which all of us are called. And as I felt the bishop’s hands upon my head, I thought about those words from Romans and I was overwhelmed by the Spirit’s persistent reminder, through YOUR faithfulness, I have seen the path of life. I felt convicted by the deep and profound truth that this is not a one-way relationship whereby I teach you, or I pray for you, or that I share God with you. Thanks be to God that we are in this beautiful and messy thing called church together.

Every week WE gather in this place to be transformed by the renewing of OUR minds. Through OUR worship we have worked to discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

            We are becoming the kind of people who can faithfully say, “the Lord is our chosen portion and our cup.” The communal Christian experiencing here, is about choosing Jesus again and again and again. It is about coming back to the Lord knowing that he will welcome us. It is about hearing God’s triumphant “Yes!” even when we want to say “No!”

And right now, the world wants us to believe that we have every reason to say “No.” Annual Conference is a reminder of the death that is possible in the church, we hear about all the churches closing this year, we learn about the lack of new and younger generations attending church, and we are reminded of the most frightening statistic of all: The average United Methodist invites someone to church once every 38 years.

But that doesn’t have to be our story. Desiring our will to be done is what got the church to this point in the first place. Can you imagine what would happen if we actually lived by the words “thy will be done”?

The time has come for us to declare “yes!” to the will of God. “Yes Lord, we know that through you all things are possible.” “Yes Lord, crucify our hearts so that they might be resurrected to your glory.” “Yes Lord, convict our souls to invite someone we know to experience your love here at St. John’s!” “Yes Lord, remind of our baptisms and of who we really are.” “Yes Lord, fill us with your Spirit till all shall see Christ living in us.” “Yes Lord, give us the grace and strength to take up our crosses and follow you.” “Yes Lord, let thy will be done!” Amen.

Devotional – Jonah 3.2

Devotional:

Jonah 3.2

“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

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The phone buzzed while I was still asleep. I fumbled with it as I attempted to read the number in the dimly lit room when I discovered that it was from an unfamiliar zip code. On any other morning I might’ve just ignored the call and let it go to voicemail, but for some reason I answered it and began with a sleep-ish “Good Morning.”

“Good morning to you!” the too bright voice on the other end began, “Taylor, I am the District Superintendent from the Staunton District in Virginia. I know you were thinking about pursuing an appointment as an associate pastor, but the bishop and cabinet have prayed over you and we believe that you gifts and graces fit best with a church in Staunton. You are being appointed as the pastor of St. John’s UMC. Have you ever heard of it?”

In a matter of seconds I had gone from resting soundly in a bed, to learning where I would be serving for the next few years. I remember rapidly thinking: “Staunton? Have I ever been there? I know it’s south of Harrisonburg, but that’s about it. Did they just tell me that I’m going to be pastoring by myself? What are the people like? What if they don’t like me? etc.”

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After finishing the conversation, and making sure that I wasn’t dreaming, I looked up the church online. I used google maps to see what it looked like from the sky and from the road. I used the church website to learn about all the pastors who had served in the past and what the church was currently focused on. I used local newspaper archives to see if the church had been in the news. A few weeks later I got in the car and drove to Staunton just to see what the church looked like from the outside and what the surrounding community was like so that I could see if I  could picture myself there.

God said to Jonah, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” Staunton is definitely not my Nineveh, but I can relate to the feeling of unease that Jonah had regarding his divine message; Going to a strange city with the task of proclaiming God’s Word is a frightening thing. How will the people respond? Will they hear what God is saying and believe? I still feel that uncomfortable feeling each week as I take the steps up into the pulpit and pray before the sermon begins.

Jonah was tasked with sharing a message with the people in a way that is similar to pastors preaching from pulpits. Similarly, all of us are given opportunities to share God’s message with the people around us: You might see someone alone at work and feel God pushing you to check on them. Perhaps you’ve been putting off a phone call to your son or daughter about how you want your relationship to change. Maybe you’ve been praying for a friend to start coming to church and now is the time to put your prayers into action by inviting them to come with you.

We all have difficult things to share with others around us. We can run away from the Ninevehs in our life like Jonah did or we can be brave and walk into the situations that God has given us a message to proclaim. The choice is ours.

The Advent of Paul – Sermon on Acts 9.1-9

Acts 9.1-9

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

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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 community in the sense that we are preparing our hearts, minds, and souls for the coming of God in Christ on Christmas day. We began with Abram being called to go to a strange land, and then we looked at Samuel being called by name in the temple. Today we continue by looking at the Advent of Paul.

Most pastors love to talk. They spend their Sundays standing before the gathered people proclaiming the Word of God with the hope of it becoming incarnate. It takes hours of preparation, study, and prayer to craft a sermon and many pastors find excitement and fulfillment when they are speaking. Whether they are preaching from a pulpit, leading a bible study, or huddling together in prayer, words are at the foundation of what we do.

Most pastors love to talk, and when you get a group of us together, sometimes the talking never stops…

I was at Licensing School, a required element to become a Pastor in the United Methodist Church, but frankly it could’ve happened at any clergy gathering. The routine is typical, everyone tries to size one another up based upon appearances, we try to guess what kind of churches are represented; Is this their first career, second, or third? What kind of call story do they have? Did she have all that gray hair before she became a pastor? We are usually forced to sit with people who we have yet to meet and then comes the ice breaker questions that will hopefully move us from strangers to friends.

The familiar questions focus on our ability to share our call narrative. I like to call it the elevator speech. In the time that it takes you to get from the lobby to the top floor, can you share how God has called you to ministry?

Here is my elevator speech:

“Born and raised as a United Methodist in Alexandria, VA, I began wrestling with a call to ministry when I was in high school. There were a number of formative experiences that led me to believe that God was calling me to ordained ministry including: being the crew chaplain for a Boy Scout High Adventure trip in Philmont, New Mexico, creating and leading a youth band for my home church, and helping to organize a weekly youth bible study. However, my awareness of the call truly came into focus when one of my dear friends died in a car accident right before Christmas. As we mourned her death I found myself comforting those around me with words that were not my own, and one night I was pulled to my knees on the sidewalk along Ft. Hunt Road to pray. I prayed and prayed and when I stood up, I knew there was nothing else in my life that I could do other than proclaim the Word of the Lord through ministry.

I have had to tell it so many times that I have learned how to include just the right amount of details in just the right amount of time.

For others, this process can take multiple elevator rides. They go on and on about the ways God has called them, and when I was at Licensing School I learned a lot about the people I would be serving with for the rest of my life.

You call that a call story? My husband left me right before the cancer came back. My children had grown up and moved off to different places with their own families and I was all alone. I went to support groups, and tried to keep a positive attitude but nothing was working. It was then that I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior and put my whole trust in his grace. Later, when I beat the cancer, Jesus told me to become a pastor and share the Good News like he had done with me.”

You call that a call story? I was killing more brain cells than Paul was killing Christians when God called me to a new life in Jesus Christ. The bottle was my bible. Jose Cuervo and Jim Beam were my best friends and were with me through the important moments of life, though I could never remember any of them. It was deep in the trenches of one of my worst benders that Jesus told me it was time to live a new life, that he had a mission for me, and I haven’t had a drink since.”

These call stories went on and on with every new story going deeper and farther than the last. The more I sat and listened, the more I realized that I was doing the same thing, and that we were trying to “out-Paul” one another.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I love the story of Paul on the road, but sadly, we have too often used it to judge what Christianity is supposed to look like.

Flannery O’Connor, the American writer, once said “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse!” Her statement gets at the heart of the matter for Paul’s conversion, but oddly enough there is no horse in the story.

But that helps to show how “well” we think we know the story. It has been told so many time in such a variety of ways. Most of the art depicting this scene has Paul falling off his horse, when this is a detail missing from the scripture. Regardless of equine presence, the story is one that captivates us even today.

The first detail we learn about Paul is that he was a young man who watched over the garments of those who stoned Stephen. But he was not just any young man, not just an innocent bystander. He not only approved of Stephen’s death, but also led a violent persecution of the budding Christian community.

Paul was enemy number one to the church, and God would turn his life around to become evangelist number one.

While he was threatening and murdering the disciples of God, Paul went to the high priest and asked for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any Christians on the way, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. He was not just a concerned citizen, Paul was an active go-getter against the subversive community, willing to go above and beyond his duty.

It was on the way to Damascus that a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Paul’s companions that were traveling stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. After being helped up from the ground Paul could see nothing, so his friends had to guide him the rest of the way to Damascus.

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Some have subjected this story to psychological reflection about the inner-turmoil bubbling within Paul’s soul regarding his willingness to kill Christians. They see the Damascus road experience as an inward struggle that results in a changed life.

However, the details of the narrative argue the contrary. This is not an account of what was going on within Paul, but rather a story about a man who was encountered by something outside of himself. Conversion has to do with being approached by God, and being changed in the process of the encounter.

Paul was helpless and totally dependent on others after encountering Christ on the road. God, meanwhile, spoke with a disciple named Ananias in Damascus. He was commanded to go and meet the man from the road, Paul from Tarsus, lay hands on him so that he might recover his sight. Ananias hesitated knowing the kind of wrath and destruction that Paul had brought on his fellow Christians, but the Lord insisted “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles, and kings, and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.

So Ananias went and laid his hands on Paul to restore his sight. Paul was then filled with the Holy Spirt, was baptized, and regained his strength. Through the power of God made manifest in Ananias, Paul went from being an enemy to being a brother; his life was completely turned around.

When pastors get together we can attempt to “out-Paul” one another. We strive to substantiate our call stories by comparing it with the one who was confronted on the road to Damascus. I have seriously heard people begin their stories with, “It was like I was on my own road to Damascus when God called me to a new life…” This story has become the prototype for many Christians, and we use it as a lens by which we judge others’ calls to different forms of discipleship.

This is a problem.

It is a problem because we forget that the radical kind of change worked in Paul is something that Christ does, not us. Sometimes we become so concerned with the desire to convert others that we foolishly put all of the responsibility on our shoulders when God is the true agent of change. We can show people the door of faith, but God is the one who gives them the strength to walk through it.

It is also a problem because it is not universal. The story of Paul on the road to Damascus is wonderful and miraculous, but it should not lead us to conclude that every conversion is basically the same.

Different people come to Jesus along different routes. When we consider the wealth of conversion stories from scripture, in addition to the tales of fellow Christians in our lives, it become self-evident that God calls individuals according to his will, not a singular story by which all others should be judged. Paul was called in a way that was proportionate to the life he was living – he needed to be knocked down in order to start a new life. But not all of us have lived like Paul. 

The one thing that is universal regarding the story of Paul on the road is that meeting God changes the way we see everything. When we encounter the divine we become dependent on those already versed in the faith, we need Ananiases to help guide and nurture us when our vision has been turned upside down.

God met Paul on the road to Damascus and changed his life forever. God brought me down to my knees on a cold December evening when I was sixteen years old and changed my life forever. God spoke through Gabriel to a virgin named Mary about her bringing a baby into the world which changed her life forever.

Paul’s story is a great. It is full of beautiful details and demonstrates God’s power to change lives. But his story is not the only one. The Old and New Testaments are filled with stories about people whose lives were changed by God in incredible ways. Our church is filled with people who have encountered the good God in ways that are beyond our imaginations.

Whenever we meet God, whether through a particularly poignant moment, the reading of scripture, or the deep thoughts of prayer we embark on a new beginning. Like Paul, everything gets changed and we see the world a little more clearly, we see God’s grace manifest through the friends and family around us and we realize the deepest truth about Christmas – that God does not leave us to our own devices. Amen.

Authorized for What? – Sermon on Matthew 21.23-32

Matthew 21.23-32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to the, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

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Jesus does what Jesus wants. He has gone all over Galilee proclaiming the Good News, bringing sight to the blind, and healing to the sick. He has fed the multitudes miraculously, walked on water, and calmed the storm. He entered the holy city of Jerusalem on the back of a derelict donkey, charged into the temple and drove out the money-lenders while overturning the tables. Radical and revolutionary, Jesus does what he wants, and now the chief priests and the elders want to stop him in his tracks.

“Who in the world do you think you are? Who gave you the authority to do these things?” Of course, “these things,” refer to him cleansing the temple, curing the blind and lame, feeding the hungry, providing for the poor, listening to the weak, and giving hope to the hopeless. The question has been posed to Jesus before, but never has the question been more ominous; Jesus is in enemy territory and those asking the question will constitute the court that will later sentence him to death by crucifixion.

What gives you the right to come in here and tell us how we are supposed to understand the world?” They do not really want an answer to their question. Instead, they are seeking an opportunity to trap Jesus by means of his response. So Jesus does what he wants: He ignores their question for the moment and proposes a counter-question that they too cannot answer without getting in trouble.

“I will ask you a question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” The chief priests and the elders argue among themselves about how they can answer. This is a classic Catch-22; “If we say his baptism was from heaven then Jesus will ask why we did not believe him and have him beheaded, and if we say it was an earthly thing the crowds will revolt against us because they all regard John as a prophet.” Caught in a dilemma of their own making, they recognize that there is no way they can answer the question without putting themselves in a worse position, so they answer with the answer that students have relied on for centuries, “We do not know.”

I imagine then, that Jesus smiled while saying, “neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Rev. Dr. Warren Smith

Rev. Dr. Warren Smith

When I was in seminary a professor named Warren Smith led my class through the great wonders of Church History. We studied some of the greatest theologians and mapped the various trajectories of theological positions that have brought our church through the centuries. After a semester of heavy reading and writing, Dr. Smith ended his final lecture with a story…

When he was a young pastor he was appointed to a church fresh out of seminary and did his best to proclaim the Word, serve those in need, and live into God’s kingdom on earth. For months the church listened deeply to his sermons and prayers, and grew in their love of God and neighbor. However, there was one older woman who never spoke to Dr. Smith after worship. She would sit patiently in her pew, unaffected by his words and gestures, and would return to the parking lot without saying a word to the young pastor. That was the typical routine until one Sunday she made her way in the receiving line following church.

Who do you think you are?” she began. “To come into this church and tell us how to live our lives. I have been a Christian longer than you have been alive. What could you possibly teach me about what it means to follow Christ?” And with that, she left.

Her words struck deep in Dr. Smith’s soul. Was she right? What could he possibly teach someone who had been following the Lord for decades when he had just graduated from seminary? Dr. Smith however, is not one to go gently into the night.

The following Sunday, Dr. Smith made his way to the pulpit and began to preach with words that resonated throughout the sanctuary: “I know I may look young from this pulpit. I know that some of you might be concerned with my ability to preach and teach in this church considering my age. But when I stand in this pulpit I AM 4,000 YEARS OLD. I speak with the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before me. I am equipped by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Good News of Christ because the Lord is with me even to the end of the age.”

“So too,” he said to my class, “remember that you have been authorized to do incredible things and you are older than you think.”

When Dr. Smith’s authority was challenged he responded by recalling the great tradition of the living Word that is brought forth into new life on a regular basis. He looked back in order to look forward. He validated his responsibility by acknowledging his earthly youth while at the same time affirming his divine wisdom through the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus’ authority was challenged by the chief priests and the elders he responded with an unanswerable question, and then with a parable. The parable becomes the lens by which they can see their error and envision a proper understanding of God’s reign in the world.

What do you think? There was a man with two sons. He went to the first and asked him to work in the vineyard. The first son refuses, but later he changed his mind and went to work in the field. The father went to the second son and asked him to work in the field as well. The second son agrees to work, but never went to the vineyard. Which of these two sons did the will of his father?

The chief priests and elders respond in unison, “the first.” It is obvious that even though the son refused to work, the fact that he did, in the end, is far better than the son who agrees to work and never enters the vineyard. Jesus then uses the parable to draw the unmistakable conclusion that they, the chief priests and elders, are the second son who has failed to do the father’s will. “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. John came in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but they did. Even after you saw what he did, you did not change your minds and believe. You preach and preach, but you never practice the words you proclaim.

Jesus responding with a parable is typical of the gospels, and helpful for bringing about new understanding. He uses a story in order to open up the kingdom of God to show that it works in a way that is approachable and livable.

What do you think of the parable? In your faith journey do you feel like the first brother? Was there a time that you rejected the calling of God on your life, refused to believe, only to find yourself caught up in the grace of God and working in the vineyard of the kingdom? Is your faith vibrantly alive and fruitful?

Or do you feel like the second brother? Was there a time that your faith was so alive that you were willing to say “yes yes” to God’s call on your life only to find yourself apathetic to the work of the church in the kingdom? Is your faith stagnant and fruitless?

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Individually, we can respond to God’s call in faithful ways by reaching out to others in our community and letting God’s love abound in their lives through our actions. But collectively, as a church, it can be quite difficult to be Christ’s body for the world.

This week I met with a handful of other Methodist clergy from the valley and we discussed our local churches, some of the challenges facing our congregations, and the fruit that has come forth during our time of service. We talked about new ministry ideas that might help share the Good News with people in our communities while also affirming the many challenges of being the church for the world today. But, to be honest, most of the conversation was a time for the leaders to complain about the lack of enthusiasm in their churches, their inability to see the call of the church and the mission of God in the world. At one point a friend of mine shook his head and said softly, “It can be so depressing to hear that most of our churches are far more concerned with maintenance, than mission.

One of the hardest things to admit, as a church, is that we are more often like that second son than the first. After all, here we are sitting in the vineyard, preparing to go out to harvest the grapes. But as Christians, we can become blind to what God is doing in the world around us. How sad is it that “church work” can quickly degenerate into conversations about maintaining our building, with no excitement about what God’s living Word and grace are doing in our community? How sad is it that the majority of our conversations and budget are focused on making sure that the church will still be here next Sunday instead of focusing on the renewal of the church and the formation of disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? Like the second brother we say that we are going to work in the vineyard, but instead of harvesting grapes we spend our time rearranging the stones along the path. 

I’ll admit that our church is changing, we are slowly moving away from the maintenance model and are becoming lively and excited about the ways we can be Christ’s body for the world. We are no longer content with just being a building where people can sit together on a Sunday morning. A church is not a building. A church is the work of the people for the vineyard, for the kingdom.

Jesus was authorized by his father in heaven to do the will of God on earth. To overturn the tables in the temple, to call out the leaders of the people for their hypocrisy and limited vision, to seek out the last, least, and lost, to bring them a sense of wholeness, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to make disciples.

In the same way, Christ has authorized us to be his body for the kingdom of God. Today we have the remarkable responsibility of acting like God’s son, and the first son from the parable; even when we doubt our responsibility to the mission of God we are needed in the vineyard.

What are we doing as a church? Are we giving our tithes and offerings to God so that the church will stay open, so that we can hear an articulate and thoughtful 15 minute sermon every week. Are we content with letting our discipleship look like maintenance?

What are we doing as Christians? Are we radical people who believe that God continues to do amazing things in the world? Do we hope and pray for God’s will to really be done here on earth among us?

We have been authorized to do great and wonderful things in the world. Let us remember and believe that the Lord will provide, that nothing will ever separate us from God’s love, and that we have been called to work in the vineyard.

Amen.