Ten Things I Learned From My First Week At A New Church

In United Methodism pastors are subject to appointment and that means we go as the Spirit leads the church. A particular pastor can serve as short as one year in a particular place and some can serve one church for their entire vocation. The point of itinerancy is to be subject to the movement of the Spirit and to go where you can best serve the Lord.

I just finished my first full week as the pastor of Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA after serving St. John’s UMC in Staunton since 2013. Like all churches, Cokesbury is unique in a number of ways and has been around longer than I’ve been around (and will be here long after I’m gone). Below are ten things I learned from my first week in the new appointment.

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  1. Names Are Important

Of course names are important, but they can mean a whole lot to a whole lot of people during the first week. I did my best to match names to faces as quickly as possible such that when I was serving communion for the first time I was able to call a few people by name as I handed them the body of Christ. After the first service was over, the individuals whom I had called by name all made comments about how valued they felt because I had made the effort to know them. Names are important and learning the names of the people you serve God with is the beginning to a strong ministry.

 

  1. You’re Not The Only Visitor

On Sunday morning I stood in the parking lot greeting people on their way into church and welcomed them even though I had never been there before. I made a lot of jokes about welcoming people into their own church and when a younger couple walked up I did the same thing. However, it was their very first time at Cokesbury just as much as it was my first time. It was an important lesson to learn before the service because it reminded me not to use “insider language” and therefore made it as welcoming to people as possible whether they’d been in the church every Sunday of their life or if it was their first Sunday.

 

  1. Prepare To Be Surprised

You can plan a whole worship service and line up all the hymns and the prayers and the liturgist but something will always spring out of nowhere. I hadn’t even made it to the scripture reading when a group of lay leaders brought forth a prepared liturgy to welcome me as the new pastor of the church. At the moment I was so consumed by the feeling that I needed to get everything right that I reeled when the service was taken by other people in order to ask God’s to lead me and guide me in the best ways possible for the church. I needed those words and prayers more than I can describe.

 

  1. Something Will Go Wrong

Like being surprised, it’s important to remember that something will go wrong. On my first Sunday at St. John’s I completely forgot to give the offering plates to the ushers and they just stood by the altar patiently waiting until one of the choir members waved her hands to get my attention. For my first Sunday at Cokesbury we didn’t have anyone to play music. The long time organist retired the day before I arrived and the back up players were either out of town or don’t know how to read music. So instead of singing along to an organ or a piano or a guitar we did everything acapella and (thanks be to God) we made it through the service.

 

  1. God Is In The Business Of Doing New Things

Just because the church has done something a certain way, that doesn’t mean it has to continue that way. This can be true on a number of levels from how many committees there are to what kind of songs is the church supposed to sing. For the first service at Cokesbury I tweaked the order of worship around a little bit but biggest change came during communion; instead of allowing the gathered people to tear their own piece of bread from the common loaf I offered a piece to each individual and instructed them to come forward with their hands outstretched in order to recognize the gift they were receiving. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment that I felt led to change it this way but in response to the change in communion many people remarked about how holy it felt and how the experienced the Spirit’s presence in worship. God is in the business of doing new things, some big and some small but all for the glory of the kingdom.

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  1. God Provides

After preaching nearly 250 sermons in once place I was nervous and anxious about preaching to a relatively unknown congregation. I knew what the last church needed to hear and what they were familiar with and what kind of stories would resonate in their heart of hearts. And even though I stressed about the words for the first sermon, God provided the words I needed to hear and the words Cokesbury needed to hear. The sermon came when I remembered that I am not the one called to provide for the church, only God can do that. And when I submitted to God’s will, the right sermon came forth.

 

  1. A Familiar Face Can Go A Long Way

We had already started worship when I saw one of my oldest friends walk into the back of the sanctuary with her infant daughter. She lives about 30 min away and made the drive down my first Sunday to be there in worship. I cannot convey in words how humbling it was to see her sitting in the back pew and how much it helped me to feel God’s presence in the midst of worship. A familiar face can go a really long way during the first worship service.

 

  1. Hope Does Not Disappoint

After the first service I showed up at the church every day for work this week and people from the community kept swinging by. Some wanted to ask questions, other wanted to offer advice, but all of them were filled with the hope that comes from the Lord; hope for things unseen; hope for new life and new ministries; hope for resurrection. Their hope in the Lord is infectious and I can’t wait to see what God is going to do next for Cokesbury.

 

  1. The Church Is Not A Building

One of the strongest ministries of Cokesbury is a weekly flea market that takes place in the parking lot every Saturday morning. I drove over to the church this morning to check it out for the first time and I was overwhelmed by the number of people, and by the interactions between people from the church and people from the community. In my limited ministry experience there are too many programs that feel like “us and them” whereby there is a divide between those who serve and those who are served. But this morning there was no line. Instead I saw conversations and interactions that triumphantly declared the church is not a building!

 

  1. Christ Is Alive

Christ is alive in the community of Woodbridge, VA and in the community of Cokesbury Church. Whether singing or praying, worshipping or praising, talking or eating, Christ has been fully present in the interactions I’ve had during my first week and is surely alive in this place. Thanks be to God.

The Story (First Sermon for Cokesbury UMC)

Romans 12.1-2

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 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 who was about to embark on his second appointment in the United Methodist Church. He had gone to the right seminary and learned from the best professors. He had served his first church faithfully, but the time had come for him to follow his call at a new church.

However, he didn’t know much about where he was being sent. All he knew was the name, John Wesley UMC, and the location, off in the middle of nowhere Georgia.

For four years the young man had worked hard for his first church, he had made just enough mistakes to know what was right and what was wrong, and when he drove into town with the moving van full of his belongings, he went to the church before he went to the parsonage. Filled with excitement and hope he drove out on the old country road but when he arrived at the right address there was no church. So he doubled back and went down the empty road until he found a very disheveled looking building with the biggest and the most hideous tree he had ever seen blocking the sign and most of the church.

The place needed some work: a new roof, new paint, new everything really. But above all things, it needed to have that tree uprooted. The young pastor stood on the front lawn of the property and the wheels started clicking in his mind… How many people had driven past the building without evening knowing it was a church? How could they let such an ugly tree blemish God’s house? And then he knew what he needed to do.

He got in his car and went back to the parsonage, but instead of unpacking all his belongings and getting settled, he was on a mission for one particular box, the one labeled: chainsaw.

Hours later, with sweat dripping from his brow, the pastor stood proudly on the front lawn with the church now being completely visible from the road. The marquee shined with a new brilliance, the side of the building was available for all to see, and the old gnarled tree was perfectly arranged in neat even logs stacked in the back.

A few days passed and the young pastor continued to day dream about how many more people would be there for his first service simply because the tree was gone. And he was working on his first sermon when the telephone rang; it was the District Superintendent. For a fleeting moment the young pastor thought that maybe the DS was calling to congratulate him for taking the initiative to beautify the church, but the DS said, “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking, because you’re being sent to a different church.

You see: the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason. Back in the 1730s, John Wesley himself had planted that tree during his mission to the colony of Georgia and the community built a church around the tree to commemorate where the founder of the movement had once served. For centuries the tree stood as a reminder of all the Wesley stood for, the roots were reminiscent of the need for a deep love of the scriptures, and its shade was enjoyed like the mustard bush from the time of our Lord.

And that young, foolish, and brazen pastor had chopped it down to the ground.

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I haven’t been here long, but I love how we have these open windows in the sanctuary, windows through which we can see the church property. And I want to be clear: no trees have been chopped down since I arrived in town!

Stories are remarkably important. They contain everything about who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another and how we understand what it means to live in this world. We tell stories all the time to make people laugh, to make people cry, and to teach important lessons about life.

We are the stories we tell. And today we live in a world of competing narratives; people and organizations are constantly bombarding us with information regarding what we are to think and, perhaps even more frighteningly, who we are to be.

We only need to think back to the recent presidential election to see how much it further divided us as a country, we only need to turn on the television to see how violence and anger and fear are separating us as a people, we only need to get online for a brief moment to see how broken this world really is.

Every single day we are thrust into a world that tells us how to think, speak, and act through stories.

But God’s Word, through the apostle Paul, looks out to the world and dismisses all of it. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Do not let your favorite reality television show dictate how you interact with other people, do not let the news channel send you to the corner to cower in fear, do not let your political proclivities limit your relationships with those who are different from you.

Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Open your eyes to the wonder and beauty of scripture such that it speaks new and good and true words into your lives. Let the story of God with God’s people wash over your like the waters of baptism such that you can take steps into a new life. Feast on the bread and the cup at this table such that it will bring you to the upper room from long ago and you can hear Jesus speak into your ear: “You are mine and I am thine.”

We are the stories we tell.

When the stories of the world become the only stories we tell then we fail to be the church that God is calling us to be. If who we voted for, or what team we celebrate, or what show we love is more important than the living God, we are no longer the church at all.

Paul proclaims that we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds by telling the story that is our truest story. The story of God in the flesh, of a baby born in a manger, a child who sat at the feet of the teachers, a man who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, healed the sick, a savior who turned the world upside-down, a Messiah who died on a cross, a Hope that broke forth from the tomb three days later.

That is our story.

Two weeks ago I sat down at a Chili’s in Hampton with four people from Cokesbury Church. We introduced ourselves and got to know one another. I asked questions in order to find out what the church was like, and they asked questions to find out whether or not the church would like me.

It was a hope filled conversation as we casted visions about what the church can be. But if you had been with us an hour earlier in the midst of Annual Conference with all of the other United Methodists from Virginia, you would’ve felt the whiplash.

According to the ways of the world, Mainline Protestant Christianity is floundering in the United States, worship attendance is plummeting, and churches are being closed regularly. Christianity has lost its status in the political arena, we are becoming biblically illiterate, and young people are absent from the reality of church. At Conference we went over all the statistics, we learned about how the average age of a member of a United Methodist church is 57. We learned that most churches have attendance that has stayed the same or dropped even when the communities surrounding the churches are growing. And we learned that most people who claim to be part of a United Methodist Church invite another person to worship once every 33 years.

By the standards of the world, the church is between a rock and a hard place.

Well then thanks be to God that Jesus is the solid rock upon which the church stands! Thanks be to God that we don’t need to be conformed to the ways of the world, but instead we get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds! Thanks be to God that the Lord is not in the business of statistics and analytics, God, our God, is in the business of making all things new!

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The story of Cokesbury Church is entering a new chapter. God is breathing new life into this church, and not through a new pastor, but through our willingness to know and believe that God will provide. We can name and claim this because our church story is part of God’s great story.

And at the heart of what it means to be the church is a willingness to learn one another’s stories. We learn one another stories by gathering here for worship, by meeting together to study God’s Word, and by going out to serve the community. We learn one another’s stories so that we can cherish the trees of our foundation while at the same time look to the future with hope because God is doing a new thing.

In time I will come to learn your story. I will discover who you are, what you believe, how you think, and how you act. And in time you will come to learn my story, how I felt called to the ministry, what I believe, how I think, how I act. But in learning one another’s stories we will be doing so much more. In fact, in telling our stories we will discover how we are caught up in God’s great story.

Friends, we are more than the stories of the world. We are more than the statistics and the estimates and the analytics. We are God’s people and this is God’s church!

And this is why we read from the story that is our story. The story of scripture speaks greater truths than simple affirmations or facts. In it we learn about who we are and whose we are.

According to the ways of the world the church is in a difficult place. But I’m not worried about any of that, I’m not worried about anything because my hope is not in me, my hope is not built on the ways of the world; my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteous. I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name!

Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands; all other ground is sinking sand.

We can believe in the future of the church because our faith is in almighty God! We are here to share our stories so that we might learn more about God’s story. The ways of the world, the stories competing for our allegiance, will falter and crack and fissure, but God’s story is eternally unshakable.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Tell the story that is our story! Remember your truest identity in Christ Jesus. Listen for who you are and whose you are in the Word of God. Remember your baptisms and be thankful. Come to the table and see that the Lord is good. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Amen.

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We Are The Stories We Tell (Final Sermon at St. John’s UMC)

Romans 12.1-2

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sister, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 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.

 

Years ago there was a young man fresh out of seminary, ready and eager to begin serving his first appoint in the United Methodist Church. He had taken all the right classes, learned from the best professors, and was excited about finally embarking on the ministry he had imagined for so long.

All he knew about his church was the name, John Wesley UMC, and the location, off in the middle of nowhere Georgia.

The young man was so anxious about the appointment that when he first got to town, a few days before his first Sunday, he got in his car and drove straight to the church. But when he arrived at what he thought was the address there was no church, so he doubled back and drove down the empty road until he found a disheveled looking building with the biggest and most unruly tree he had ever seen blocking the marquee and most of the structure.

The church clearly needed work: a new roof, new paint, new everything, it even had a bell tower without a bell. But above all it needed to have the tree uprooted. The young man stood there on the front lawn looking at the tree and the wheels started clicking in his mind… He thought that if he took the tree down, individuals from the community would be able to see the church and the sign from the main road and they might even get a couple extra visitors on his first Sunday.

So instead of going back to the parsonage to unpack all of his belongings and get settled, he went straight to the box with his chain saw and he went back to John Wesley UMC.

Hours later, with sweat dripping down his brow, the young pastor stood proudly in front of the church that was now completely visible from the road with the old gnarled tree perfectly arranged in neat even logs stacked in the back.

A few days passed and the young pastor was sitting in the study at the parsonage preparing his very first sermon in his very first church when the phone rang. It was the District Superintendent and the pastor briefly thought that maybe his boss was calling to congratulate him on the quick work with the tree and the beauty of the totally visible church, but the DS said, “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet, because you’re being sent to a different church.

You see: the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason. Back in the 1730s John Wesley had planted that tree during his mission to the colony of Georgia and the community built a church around the tree to commemorate where the founder of the movement had once served. For centuries the tree stood as a reminder of all that Wesley stood for, the roots were reminiscent of the need for a deep love for the scriptures, and its shade was loved like the mustard bush from the time of Jesus.

And that young, foolish, and brazen pastor had chopped it down to the ground.

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Stories are remarkably important. They contain everything about who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another and how we understand what it means to live in this world. We tell stories to make people laugh, to teach lessons, and to hold dear the most important elements of existence.

Stories are remarkably important. I’ve been saying some version of that sentence in every sermon over the last 4 years. It’s what I started with, and it’s what I’m ending with.

            We are the stories we tell.

By my rough calculations I’ve preached over 250 times while serving St. John’s and written about as many devotionals. I’ve traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles, read countless books, and gone to the hospital enough time that a few of the security guards will wave me into the ER without having to ask who I am.

I’ve gone to more meetings than I ever thought possible, compiled annual budgets I though we could never meet (though we always did), and led bible studies that have addressed almost every book of the bible.

And in all of this, I’ve written close to a million words in four years. Between the sermons and the studies, the devotionals and the prayers, even the chapel times and the epistles, nearly one million words.

All of those million words, in whatever context they appeared, they have been my attempt at saying these words: We are the stories we tell.

I could tell you the story about how the first time I ever walked into this sanctuary it was late in the evening on Good Friday in 2013 and no one could figure out how to turn the lights on. I groped around this room in the dark hoping to have a sense of what it looked like and left none the wiser. I love that story because it became indicative of our time together: rediscovering the light of Christ that burns in our lives.

Or I could tell you the story about how the first time I ever led the Children’s Message during worship I realized that I was closer in age to the kids sitting on the steps than to the vast majority of you folk sitting in the pews. I love that story because it quickly embodied how this church needed to discover it’s multi-generational gifts and people of all different ages have really grown closer together.

Or I could tell you the story about how on my very first Sunday I remembered to do everything except I forgot to give the ushers the offerings plates. It was good for a refreshing laugh that first worship service and I love that story because in it we learned, as a church, to stop worrying about the offering plate and instead we began to believe that the Lord would provide, and the Lord has provided ever since.

We, preachers and laypeople alike, tell stories in order that they might be remembered. We tell children about George Washington and his tree so that they will tell the truth. We tell high school students about political elections from the past so that they might cast informed votes in the future. We tell older adults about what our children have been up to so that they might live a little through them.

We tell stories because we want them to be remembered.

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But recently I was reading a book by Ellen Davis and she believes that a successful sermon is one that isn’t remembered. Sounds strange right? I’ve stood in this pulpit for four years in the hopes that you might actually remember what I said. But after reading that part of her book, I went through the archives and I came across a ton of sermons that I barely remember writing, let alone preaching.

A forgotten sermon is successful because we have to keep showing up Sunday after Sunday to hear again the story that makes us who we are.

If one sermon was capable of proclaiming all that the bible has to tell, all of the life of Jesus Christ, all of God’s glory, all of the fellowship of the Spirit, then we would never come back and our lives would be perfect from then on.

            But that’s not the way our lives work!

The goal of preaching, and of good story telling, is the hope that people won’t remember what you said. The goal should be that the next time someone turns to that part of the Bible it will say a little more to him or her. The purpose of the church, of doing worship week after week, is to give the bible a little more room to shine.

Now, don’t get me wrong… I hope you won’t forget me. I hope you will think back over these last years with fondness. I’m even bold to hope that you might remember some of my sermons. But more than that, I hope when you open up your bibles, the story of God with God’s people shines a light in your life, regardless of whomever the person was that stood in this pulpit.

Because today, the world is full of stories, competing narratives vying for our allegiance. It is almost impossible to go anywhere or do anything without someone or something telling us how we are supposed to understand the world.

And Paul dismisses all of it. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Do not let your favorite reality television show dictate how you understand others, don’t let the news channel send you to the corner to cower in fear, do not let your political proclivities limit your relationship with those who are of a different opinion. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Tell the story that is our story! Jesus Christ and him crucified!

Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. God transforms our lives whenever we gather in this place for worship and whenever we tell the story. The story of God in Christ reconciling himself to the World is what transforms us into the very people God is calling us to be.

According to the world, the church is in between a rock and a hard place. Mainline Protestant Christianity is floundering in the United States, people are no longer attending church like they once did, offering plates feel lighter and lighter. Christianity has lost its status in the political arena, we are becoming biblically illiterate, and young people are disappearing from the fabric of church.

The church is between a rock and a hard place.

            Thanks be to God then that Jesus Christ is the solid rock upon which we stand! We don’t have to be conformed to the ways of the world! We get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds by telling the story that is our story!

Jesus does not work according to the ways of the world. He does not say bring me your votes and your mortgages and your perfect families. Jesus says, bring me your burdens and I will bring you rest.

Jesus does not tell us to earn all that we can and save all that we can. Jesus tells us to give away all we can.

Jesus does not say that our religious convictions are private and something to keep to ourselves. Jesus tells us to go tell it on the mountain and share the Good News.

Jesus does not look at our outward appearance and say you’re too fat, or short, or tall, or dumb, or slow, or strange. Jesus looks into our hearts and says, “You are mine and I am thine.

This church, St. John’s, is on the precipice of a great journey; you’re about to receive a new pastor. But at the same time, this is nothing new. This is what the church is! It is the place where disciples gather to hear the story over and over and over again.

The stories of the world will never compare to the actions of God in the world through Jesus Christ. Whether you’re a brother or a sister, mother or father, republican or democrat, rich or poor, old or young, none of those narratives, none of those identities, none of those stories compare with what it means to follow Jesus.

According to the ways of the world the church is in a difficult place. But I’m not worried about any of that, I’m not worried about anything because my hope is not in me, it’s not in Pastor Chuck Cole, my hope is not built on the ways of the world. My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’s blood and righteousness. Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands. Jesus Christ is Lord and that means that the ways of the world crumble away when compared to the foundation made manifest in God in the flesh.

We are here in this place to share our stories with one another in order that we might learn more about how we are caught up in God’s great story. The ways of the world are nothing but sinking sand, they falter and flounder, they creak and groan, but God’s story is eternally unshakable.

Be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Remember that Jesus is Lord! Keep the faith! Let the stories of scripture wash over you like the waters of baptism. Feast at this table like the disciples did with Jesus long ago!

            Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! To God be the Glory!

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Can I Get A Witness?

Psalm 66.8-20

Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip. For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net, you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us our to a spacious place. I will come into you house with burnt offerings; I will pay you my vows, those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble. I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats. Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me. I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.

 

What do you want for your funeral? It’s a strange question, and its one we would rather like to avoid if possible. But have you ever thought about what your funeral might look like? What hymns would you want your family to sing? What scripture has meant the most to you in your life? Do you want people to offer testimonies?

Every time I meet with a family to plan a Service of Death and Resurrection I avoid mentioning a time of testimony. I avoid it for a number of reasons including the fact that testimonies are supposed to be about how God has worked in the life of the person now dead, and that rarely happens, you never know what someone might say when they are invited to speak freely from a pulpit, and sometimes you don’t know whether anyone will get up to say anything at all.

To be clear, a lack of testimonial witness on behalf of the gathered body for worship is not an indication that the person lived a flawed or inconsequential life, it usually has more to do with how uncomfortable many of us are with public speaking.

But every once in awhile the family insists on having it, even when I didn’t bring it up. And every time we have a service and the time comes for the testimony, I invite anyone who would like to speak to come up to the pulpit, I sit down, and I pray that God taps on at least one person to come up and say anything, but I am always prepared to make something up on the spot should the pulpit remain uncomfortably empty.

If I were bolder, if I had more faith, I would just say, “Can I get a witness?” and then I would sit down in comfort knowing that God will provide.

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In Psalm 66 the faithfulness of God is remembered, offerings on behalf of God’s people are made, and then one lone worshipper offers a witness to all who will listen.

Bless the Lord your God! Let the sound of his praise be heard in this place and in all places. Our God has kept us among the living! What a great God is ours who has tested us, laid burdens on our backs, let people ride over our heads, and delivered us through fire and water. We remember, o people, how God journeyed with the people through the valleys of the shadow of death and brought them to the Promised Land. We remember, o people, how God has been with us in the midst of suffering and carried us through to the other side.

And because of what the Lord has done, we will come into this house with our offerings. We will present our money, and our gifts, and our time. Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me.

The writer describes in great detail the types of offerings made to the Lord, the physical things brought forth as an act of faith. But it is also about far more than that: God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel, God’s faithfulness to us, is the lens by which we interpret our own lives.

God has listened to the prayers of the psalmist; God has listened to us. And because God has listened we must testify.

Can I get a witness?

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Witnessing is a taboo thing in the church these days, or at least in the United Methodist Church. There was a time however when worship was all about testimony, moments when the preacher would step away from the pulpit and let the people of God proclaim the glorious works of God to the rest of the people of God.

But today, we don’t have time for any of this witnessing stuff. We don’t want to make people uncomfortable. We don’t want to evangelize anyone. Professional Christians like pastors are the ones meant to testify.

Or, we might say that we don’t want to talk about our faith because it is a private thing. Which is ridiculous since we can only understand and interpret our faith within the faith community.

Over and over again scripture bombards us with the call to testify, to witness, to our story because that is exactly what the bible is. The bible is the witness to the marvelous works of God.

The psalmist witnesses to the truth of God’s reign because the psalmist has experienced it and cannot be kept from proclaiming it. The psalmist has been so transformed by God that the only way to respond is to tell the stories to everyone with ears to hear.

Can I get a witness?

When we are lost and found by God, that is a worthy beginning to our witness. For it is when we are lost that we are most open to the possibility of being found.

And here’s the thing: Testimony, witnessing to God, is not limited to speech about what God has done. Testimony is speech shaped by what God has done. The psalmist witnessed to the works of the Lord and in so doing allowed others, people like us, to hear and even experience what the writer experienced in God.

We don’t care much for the idea of witnessing any more. It no longer matches up with our modern sensibilities, but telling our story is the means by which we come to understand our own faith. When we do it, when we are brave and bold enough to witness, we don’t simply tell what we have already come to believe… it becomes the means by which we believe.

And that is why we witness, that is why we testify, because in so doing we become the very community God has called us to be.

So, can I get a witness?

Seriously this time, who among us will stand to share what God has done for you?

 

(Time of congregational testimony)

 

My testimony:

I’ve shared with you on a number of occasions the ways and means by which God called me to spend the rest of my life doing what I do. You’ve heard about the sidewalk square where I fell to my knees and offered my life to God. You’ve been brought into the narrative of being marched to the front of the church as a teenager and attempting to proclaim God’s Word through my first sermon. But I want to testify to another of God’s marvelous works in my life: God sending me here to you.

I never would’ve picked St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA. Not because there was anything particularly wrong with the church, I just knew nothing about it. When I walked into the sanctuary that first Sunday morning I only knew about 5 of you, and even then I barely knew you. And yet God called me here.

When Lindsey and I arrived, it was really hard at first. We were a young couple plucked out of our community in Durham, NC and planted here. She couldn’t find work. I didn’t know what it meant to do this work. We didn’t make friends with people in the community. And, whether or not either of us would admit it, I wondered if God had called me to the right place.

And I got up in this pulpit every week to proclaim what God had placed on my heart. I prepared for Bible Study. I visited people in the hospital. I sat on the floor with our preschoolers and told them about the bible.

And slowly, you grafted us into the community. As the weeks and months passed we felt more and more connected to the people in the pews this very morning. We loved you, and you loved us. And suddenly, this church became our family. We wept when you wept; we celebrated when you celebrated.

God sent me here to you. And some might say that God sent me here for a reason, that this church needed me. And that might be true. All churches need pastors for different reasons. But for as much as this church needed me, I needed this church.

I know in my heart of hearts that God sent me here in order to rekindle my faith; after spending years reading about God in seminary it was too easy to be cynical about what the church might be. In coming here I needed to rediscover the wonderful power of God made manifest in a community of love that you can never discover in a book on theology; I needed to re-encounter the One in whom we live and move and have our being. And you provided that for me.

And I know in my heart of hearts that the time has come for God to send me to a new place. But when I got the call about moving, it came without knowing who would be the new pastor at St. John’s. And I’ll be honest, I’ve been nervous about it. I love this church because this church has loved me. And I want it to have a pastor that will love it, and receive love from it, like I have.

And today we can finally announce that the new pastor of St. John’s is Rev. Chuck Cole. When I found out Chuck was coming here I knew that God had answered my prayers: Chuck and I were ordained together last June and have interacted a lot before we knew he was coming here. Chuck and his wife Sarah have four children and they currently live in Covington where Chuck is serving two churches. Chuck is full of love for God’s church and I know that he will love this place, and that you will love him.

What has God done for me? God sent me to a church that listened to me, prayed with me, and loved me in spite of myself.

What has God done for me? God is sending me to a new place and is sending a new pastor to the church that I love to continue the good work of the kingdom.

What has God done for you? Amen.

 

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The Cole Family

Bonus Sermon – The Bad Shepherd

I try to have my sermons finished by Thursday afternoon before being preached on Sunday. This allows me to truly experience Sabbath on Fridays and forces me to think about the scripture throughout the beginning part of the week rather than procrastinating until the end. But every once in awhile, something will take place during the week that necessitates a sermonic change.

Last Friday morning I woke up, read over the sermon one last time and it just didn’t feel right. With everybody online going crazy about the executive order for religious liberty and the House voting on a bill that would repeal and replace most parts of the Affordable Care Act, I felt like God was calling me to trash what I had written and start over. So I did (You can read that sermon here: “The Politics of the Church.“)

But I had already written an entire sermon and crafted a whole worship service around a central theme! So I asked the congregation to pray for me as I offered the new sermon, written later than usual, outside the normal connections through our whole service. And, because I wrote two sermons last week, I have included the sermon that wasn’t preached below…

 

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

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“Pass the wine.” The party was getting on into the wee hours of the morning, and everyone was having a great time. The food was good and plentiful. The wine flowed profusely. The stories kept bubbling forth. “Remember that time we walked into town and everybody just kept staring at us, waiting for something to happen?” “Or what about the day we ate by the beach and talked about the future.” “I’ll never forget the looks on everyone’s faces when we walked out of town that one time and wiped the dirt of our feet.”

It was a great party.

There’s something about the stories and the food and the wine that help blind us from the reality of what is to come. On Thanksgiving we fill our bellies in denial of all the money we are about to spend during the Christmas season. On New Years Eve we clink the champagne in ignorance of all the mistakes we made and we believe that this year will finally be the one we get it all right. On Easter we tell stories about the resurrection in hopes that hope will not fade in the weeks that follow, but the normalcy of life slips in and our hallelujahs don’t have quite the force they did a few weeks ago.

But what did the host think during the party? While the friends were passing around the bottle and giggling with memories of the last few years, what was going through his mind? Was he buzzed with the joy of his compatriots as he walked around the table filling their glasses? Was he nostalgic about all they had been through and in denial of what was going to happen in just a few hours?

Did he think about the words to Psalm 23?

Throughout the gospel narratives Jesus is forever quoting and referring to the Old Testament, and in particular the Psalms. The psalms, it seems, are his prayers. They are familiar and well known and comforting. But while he sat at the table that night, that last night, when he told them the bread was his body and the wine his blood, I wonder if he thought about the 23rd psalm when he looked across the table and into the eyes of his friend Judas: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Full disclosure: I don’t enjoy preaching on well-known texts. Give me some obscure passage from Zephaniah or Joel and I will get up here and proclaim it with everything that I’ve got. In fact, I rather enjoy preaching on the passages we don’t know because we can all come to the text with a fresh perspective. But when we read a passage that everyone knows, a passage that we’ve all heard more times than we can count, the challenge becomes that much greater.

Like John 3.16 – For God so loved the world… As soon as the words hit the air most of us immediately wander in our minds to black tape under the eyes of sport figures, scratched notations in bathroom stalls, and college evangelists trying to save souls. And because of this we forget that John 3.16 is part of a much bigger story of Jesus meeting in the late hours with Nicodemus.

Instead, I could randomly flip open the bible, pick any verse, and I think we would receive it better than the well-known texts because we would not bring any of our own baggage to God’s Word.

But today we’ve got one of the most well known, perhaps the most well known passage in all of scripture: Psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

And already most of you have tuned out whatever I’m about to say. Because the moment we hear these remarkably familiar words, our minds jump back in time to memories of this passage. We start thinking about the last time we read the passage out-loud at a funeral. We remember sitting down on our Grandmother’s lap and hearing her repeat the words without looking in her bible. We are transported back to our childhood Sunday school classrooms where many of us were forced to repeat the psalm, out loud, from memory, in front of our peers.

Perhaps for some of us, the mere mention of the psalm elicits a feeling of joyfulness and peace. We think about the green pastures and the still waters and whatever stress we’ve got going on in our lives starts to fade away.

And maybe for some of us, the mere mention of the psalm elicits a feeling of strange and bizarre reflection. The green pastures and still waters are nice, but why in the world is God preparing tables for us in the presence of our enemies? Our cups are overflowing with many blessings, but why can’t we dwell with the Lord forever, and not just while we’re living?

It is remarkably difficult to approach this text with open eyes because it already means so much to so many of us.

But what did it mean to Jesus?

That night before he gave himself up, the evening of the Last Supper, did he think about the table being prepared before him with an enemy? Did he still believe that his cup overflowed with grace and peace and mercy even though one of his closest disciples was about to betray him for a couple pieces of silver?

In the midst of stress, fear, and anxiety the psalmist offers a strange alternative: the refreshing peace found in the Good Shepherd.

But is the Lord really a good shepherd? Yeah, God will set us down in the green pastures, and will lead us beside the still waters; whatever that means. God takes us down the right paths for his name’s sake, and even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil.

Really? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I have the kind of faith such that I could walk through a place or a time in my life described as the valley of the shadow of death and not be afraid. I get afraid every time I get a phone call from an older member of the church on their way to the hospital, every time I hear my son fall to the ground with a loud thud, and even when I’m hear at night in the sanctuary and all the lights are off.

And the rod and the staff? Those aren’t meant to be tools of comfort like a quilt or a duvet. Rods and staffs are meant to wring us and knock us back on to the right track when we’ve gone astray. And where does God eventually lead us? To a table prepared just for us in the presence of our enemies.

We love this psalm, we pray it and read it and hear it all the time. But sometimes, God sounds more like a bad shepherd than a good one.

Sometimes we hold it so close that we don’t think about what it really says, or even what it might’ve meant to the one we call the Good Shepherd.

I want to have the faith of the psalmist, I want to be able to look at the darkest valley, and the rod and the staff, and the table filled with my enemies with hope and joy. But this psalm isn’t really about me or us, nor is it about what we think of the Shepherd. It’s a psalm about who God is, and what God does for us, his sheep.

God’s protective power, God’s immense grace, is so great, so unimaginable, that God has the audacity to prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies. A good shepherd would prepare the table in the presence of our friends and our families; not with the people who want to destroy us. God’s table, provided for us, is not the table we would choose for ourselves. Like a middle school cafeteria, we would rather sit with the people we like than with the bullies eyeing us from across the room.

We read in the psalm that God transforms every situation. But we take that to mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. A good shepherd, we think, would protect us from every type of evil. But no, our bad shepherd says there will be deathly valleys and enemies galore; the difference is that our shepherd has done something that prevents them from destroying us.

We will absolutely experience hardships, and fear, and stress, but the bad shepherd is with us in the midst of them.

Our shepherd is only a bad shepherd in that we think we know what God should do for us. We abstract this psalm from the reality to which it speaks and make it out to be some kind of shield to protect us from everything in life. What makes our bad shepherd a good shepherd is that our shepherd will never abandon us.

Being a disciple is a way of life that we cannot know outside of being converted to it. For taking up our cross to follow Jesus changes every little thing about the way we live. It means that even though we talk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil because Jesus has defeated the very death that casts a shadow in our lives. We cannot live without that fear unless we’ve been converted to a way of life that constitutes knowledge of the bad shepherd who takes care of us.

Sitting down with the very people who hate us is not something we could do without being converted to it. All of us, sinners that we are, would choose the other table. But God in Christ chose to sit down at the table where his betrayer sat, offered him the same bread and cup that we are offered here in church knowing full and well what he was about to do.

Being a Christian is possible only through the grace of God empowering us to follow His Son on the way. We cannot do it on our own accord, and it cannot take place without a radical restructuring of what we know and what we believe. We cannot follow Jesus without sitting at the table, elbow to elbow, with the people who would rather betray us.

And, again, that makes God sound like a pretty bad shepherd. What kind of God would willfully send a child to the table with bullies? What kind of God would use a rod to knock us back into line? What kind of God would ignore the rest of the guests to make sure our cup was overflowing at all times in the middle of a party?

The very same one who was willing to take on our flesh in the incarnation. Our ­bad shepherd really is the good shepherd because Jesus came to live and to die and to live again for the sheep. Christ is the one who makes possible the goodness and mercy that follows us all the days of our lives such that we can sit at the table with hope, because Christ did the same thing for us. Amen.

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Devotional – Luke 17.5

Devotional:

Luke 17.5

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

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4 years ago I received the phone call about being appointed to St. John’s. And over the last 4 years I learned what it really means to love God through the people of St. John’s. Through every rolled sleeve to clean dishes, through every casserole provided for a family in grief. Through every committee meeting, bible study, and Circle gathering. Through every mission trip, hospital visit, and church picnic.

St. John’s UMC has increased my faith.

While here I have watched people who were spiritually dead be resurrected into new life through the faithfulness of the church. I have seen people surrounded in the midst of sorrow and grief when they needed it most. I have seen tears spilt over the precious sacrament of baptism, and in recognition of the incredible gift of communion.

In the United Methodist Church clergy people like me make a vow to go where the Spirit leads us. When I was finishing seminary I lived into the promise when I received the phone call about coming here and I embraced it. I came to St. John’s not knowing what it would look like, how it would feel, or whether or not it would be fruitful.

And I can say today that serving St. John’s has been the greatest privilege of my life.

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But the Spirit is moving. Over the last few months the leadership of the church and I have been praying for God’s will to be done and we have discerned that the time has come for me to respond to the Spirit yet again in a new place, and that the Spirit is calling a new pastor to serve St. John’s. And in response to that prayer and discernment, our Bishop has projected to appoint me to serve as the Pastor of Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA at the end of June.

I am grateful beyond words for the community of Staunton, VA and for the people of St. John’s for increasing my faith. I have nothing but hope and faith that the church will continue to pour out God’s love onto the last, the least, and the lost. I rejoice in the knowledge that our God makes all things new.

This is a time of new life for St. John’s: a new pastor, a new chapter, and new beginning.

In the coming weeks of transition I ask that you please keep my family in your prayers and I encourage you to continually seek out new ways to increase the faith of the people around you like you’ve done for me.

Less Preaching, More Praying

Psalm 119.33-40

Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain. Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways. Confirm to your servant your promise, which is for those who fear you. Turn away the disgrace that I dread, for your ordinances are good. See, I have longed for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life.

 

I’ve mentioned The Circle in a number of recent sermons, and for good reason. Every week, our youth gather together as a witness to the loving nature of God made manifest in their lives. While others their age are consumed by that which they consume: the Internet, social media, attention from co-eds, false identities, and even politics, our kids are consumed by another thing they consume: the body and the blood of Jesus Christ.

But I don’t want to lay it on too thick. I love our youth, but they can be miserable at the same time. I have never been more self-conscious about my balding head than when one of our boys insists on bringing the subject up every single week. (Honestly, I think he does it not because he cares about my lack of follicles, but because he enjoys watching my reaction to his provocation.)

Another one of our youth will miss a meeting (too much homework, play practice, or some other obligation) only to have her brother tell me that she’s not at The Circle because a recent sermon I preached made her lose her faith.

Another one of our youth will purposely pretend like he can’t find a particular book in the bible, forcing one of us to flip through and declare the page number only to have him smile diabolically in return.

Like I said, we’ve got wonderful and miserable youth at this church.

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions, we follow the same formula every week – we gather around the table for communion, fellowship, and bible study. Communion looks a lot like it does in this room whereby we pray together for God to pour out the Holy Spirit on us, and on the gifts of bread and the cup. And after we feast we go to the box.

The box contains a random assortment of questions designed to get all of us to share and reflect on what it means to be faithful. An example: “Who do you trust the most and why?” The question propels us to think about the value of our friendships, and implores us to be thankful for the people we trust.

One of the more frustrating questions is: “When was the last time you shared your faith with someone?” Everyone always sighs deeply when that one is pulled, but one by one they’ll each struggle to share a moment from the last week or so when they talked with someone about their faith.

But recently we read a new question: “If you could change one thing about the church what would it be and why?” Without hesitation, my follicle-conscious friend said, “I’d get rid of the preacher!” Another youth however, took the question seriously and said she would make the youth group larger so we could share the stories of Jesus with more people.

One by one each youth got a chance to reflect about a particular change to the church, and we ended with our adult volunteer for the evening. You see, everyone has to answer the question from the box whether you’re in the sixth grade of you’re sixty.

After giving the question some deep thought she said, “I’d get rid of the preaching… I’ve always thought that preaching in worship was okay, but it’s not the most important part of what we do. Sometimes you go on a little too long. But I would definitely increase our prayer time. In fact, what if all we did was pray?”

I got burned.

The preaching on Sunday is a little long? Seriously? You all should be grateful! I get you out of here before the Baptist churches in town every week, and we want to talk about the length of the sermon?!

I’m only teasing. But maybe she’s on to something. What if we prayed more, and I preached less?

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The psalmist, at least the author of Psalm 119, was a praying poet pleading with God. No preaching, no pontificating; only praying.

Teach me Lord, give me understanding, lead me in the path of your commandments, turn my heart to your decrees, turn my eyes from looking at vanities, give me life.

Where does this life of prayer come from? Praying like the psalmist requires an awareness of God’s presence. We can pray like the psalmist when we poetically plead with God, not to show that we are above anyone else, not out of arrogance, but with remarkable humility and hope – we ask God to give us what only God can give us.

And we can dispense with polite trivialities. No more do we need to start our prayers with a listing of God’s divine attributes, no more do we need a long list of adjectives before we begin to converse with the Lord. We need only pause, breathe, and then declare our faith in the Lord who hears and responds to our prayers.

Teach us, O Lord, your ways and we will follow on the path to the end. Give us understanding God, so that we can observe your will here on earth with our whole hearts. Lead us on your paths and we will delight in traveling the way that leads to life. Turn our hearts to your commandments, and not to our own selfish and arrogant ambitions. Turn our eyes from looking at vanities, the things that fade away, the things that do not give life, and instead give us life in you. Confirm to us your promises God because we are worthy when we fear you. Turn away the disgrace that we are ashamed of, for you are forgiving. O God, we have longed for your will; nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. In your righteousness, give us life.

When those words become our words, when we can utter them with true faith and humility, when we can ask for God’s will to be done and mean it, then our prayers will always mean more than my preaching. As Karl Barth said, when we clasp our hands together in prayer, it is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.

Because this is what we need God to do for us. We need God’s help to empower our uprising against the disorder of the world. We need God to teach us, to lead us, and to turn us. We cannot do this stuff on our own.

God, thank you for gathering us together in this place, at this time, with these people to call on you to make us into your people. Come to us now! Awaken us! Give us your light! Be our Teacher and our Comforter! Speak to us through the scriptures, through the prayers, through the hymns, through the sermon, so that we may hear just what we need and what will help. Preserve us by your Word; protect us from hypocrisy, error, boredom, and distraction. Give us knowledge and hope and joy.

We can pray like that. We can pray like the psalmist. We can do it from the comfort of our bedrooms when we wake up and right before we fall asleep. We can pray from the depths of our souls in this holy place whenever we gather together. Our prayers can be as long and as profound as the entirety of Psalm 119, or they can be as short and as simple as: Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.

Praying to God is a good and right thing because it actively makes us participate with the divine. Praying calls us to question the status quo, and to wonder about what could be. Praying challenges us to see ourselves for who we really are and to ask for God’s help to be better. Prayer changes things, and more often than not the thing that prayer changes is us.

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But sometimes we need to be prayed for, more than we need to pray for ourselves. Do you hear the difference? It is good and right for us to pray to the Lord like the psalmist, but at the heart of being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a willingness to share our burdens and needs with others, and to receive their prayers for us when we cannot pray on our own.

Years ago, I helped lead a mission trip to Costa Rica. We went for a week, and I was responsible for keeping track of the youth at our different work sites, and led devotions each night. A large focus of the trip was partnering with the local community in order to empower them, rather than helping with something only to disappear a few days later.

Every day, whether we were working on construction for a new school building, or we were helping young children in a day care program, the whole trip was about creating relationships with people.

Of course, for some of us, myself included, this was quite a difficult task since there was a language barrier. We quickly learned to speak with our hands and with the few words we knew of each other’s languages, and we did the best we could.

At the end of the trip I asked the youth to each pair up with someone they connected with during the week, but not someone from our own team. The kids quickly dispersed to find the friends they made over the week and I watched my sister Haley walk over to Jose. Haley and Jose were the same age; both had wonderful and loving personalities; but they couldn’t have been more different.

One grew up with all the advantages and privileges of an American who grew up outside of Washington D.C. The other lived day to day without a clear understanding of what the future held.

And yet, even though they spoke different languages, and had different hopes, and different dreams, they sat down together and prayed for each other. Haley went first, she prayed for Jose and lifted him up to the Lord. I only later realized it was the first time that Haley had ever prayed for another person out loud. And after Haley said “amen” Jose grabbed her by the hands and prayed for her.

Haley could not understand a word he uttered, but she wept as Jose prayed for her.

I know this is going to drive some of you crazy, but I am here not just to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable. So, in just a moment, we are going to pray for one another. You will feel tempted to find one of your friends in the congregation, someone you are comfortable with, but we all need to resist that temptation. We are going to stand up, and move about the sanctuary until we find someone we are not as familiar with, and they will be our prayer partners. And we’re going to talk to them. We’re going to listen to them. We’re going to pray for them. And they are going to do the same for us.

Remember, God does not need ornate and complicated prayers; God only needs our hearts. Pray for one another as you feel led, and then I will lead us in a congregational prayer. So, let us pray.

We are afraid, God, and we believe we can and should hide ourselves from you. We did it in the Garden, we did it in the wilderness, and we still do it today. We even think we can hide from ourselves. For better or worse, usually for worse, our desire to hide scatters and shatters our identity in you. As a result, we begin to hate ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and even You. We hate ourselves, and one another, because You refuse to believe that we are the masks we wear. God, help us learn to trust your love. Help us to learn we do not need to pretend to be something we are not. Help us accept that we are who we are because of You. Forgive us God. And as forgiven people, help us follow your Son in this world shaped by lies and deception. As your forgiven people, make us your salvation, that the world might see how good and great it is to be who we are, your children. Amen.