How The Dishwasher Taught Me To Pray – Sermon on Ephesians 3.14-21

Ephesians 3.14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

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I loved my college roommates. Some of us knew each other from high school, and others were grafted in along the way, but nevertheless, when we lived together it felt like a little family. We tried our best to communicate needs within the domicile, we kept it quiet when someone had a midterm the next morning, and we quickly learned to share common appliances for the betterment of the entire living situation.

Between us we would come to earn Bachelor degrees in Philosophy, Religion, Biology, Communications, and History. I always kind of imagined that we would be a awesome group Jeopardy team with the wealth of knowledge spread between us. Living together in college was great, but it wasn’t always easy.

There was the time we discovered mice in the house. We did our best to keep the kitchen clean, and spread mouse traps throughout the house, but during the cold winter months they came back like clockwork.

There was the time a huge snow storm came through, trapping all of our cars, and we ran out of heating oil to keep the house warm.

There was the time that we all contracted swine flu at different intervals. As one person became sicker and sicker, those of us who were well shared the responsibility of caretaker, until we started displaying our own symptoms.

Part of the beauty of living with other people was the sharing of life experiences. We celebrated each others successes, and grew to really rely on one another. Part of the challenge of living with other people was learning how to change our habits and needs based upon the habits and needs of other people.

Ephesians 3.14-21 is a prayer. Paul is writing to this new faith community in the hopes that his prayers will be answered by the Lord of hosts. He prays for the congregation because he knows that he cannot give them what they need in order to grow, but through prayer the church will learn to fully rely upon God.

The beginning of the prayer establishes the main focus: Paul prays for the church to be strengthened in its inner being, from the inside out, by the power of God. He hopes that the individuals that make of the community will see the vital importance of letting Christ into their lives and then change accordingly.

If Christ dwells in the hearts of the people, if they are rooted and grounded in love, then they may have the power to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love that surpasses all knowledge.

During college, I was the only person from the house that went to church. While my roommates enjoyed the comfort of their beds on Sunday mornings, I was making my way out the door to worship the Lord. I learned to accept their priorities, and on some level they learned to accept mine.

For instance: I made them pray with me whenever we ate dinner that I had prepared. I felt that if I was willing to go through all of the steps necessary to make a dinner for all of us, then they could bow their heads with me in prayer. So once a week, we would sit in our living room, eating on paper plates with plastic silverware, and they would listen to me pray.

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It is difficult for many of us to hear about God’s unending love, particularly a group of college-age men who just wanted to eat. It may seem so obvious to us that it no longer strikes at the core of our being. We hear “God is love,” and “love is patient, love is kind,” and “Love you neighbor as yourself,” and “God’s love knows no bounds” and instead of that love becoming clearer, it just floats around in the air.

Faithful love is even harder to grasp for those of us who do come to church because we hear about all these beautiful and wonderful things, we look around at a church filled with people who appear to have their lives figured out, when in reality we are all struggling with a myriad of secrets, private disappointments, lost hopes, and frustrations.

It’s hard to hear about love, when we don’t feel love in our lives.

Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus is all about letting Christ in to change lives: I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.

Letting Christ into our hearts is like moving in with a new roommate. At first, we spend a lot of joyful time getting to know one another, discovering common likes and interests. We do a great job putting all the dishes away and keeping the house clean, but then we have to start making compromises, whether we want to or not.

I learned about this type of faithful living the right way through my wife Lindsey. When we were dating, and I was getting ready to ask her to marry me, I dreamed about what it would be like to live together. I imagined the way we would set up our living room, where we would put the record player, and even where we would dance to all of our old jazz 33s.

After the wedding, while we were still giddy from the honeymoon, we decided to tackle the challenge of combining all of our possessions in the kitchen. We debated the value of keeping our plates in one cabinet versus putting the coffee cups near the coffee pot. We worried about the safety of keeping our knives in a drawer or right on the counter top. And we experimented with the location of the microwave in relation to the toaster and whether or not we would blow the fuse if they were both on at the same time.

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The real challenge came to the precipice over the dishwasher. I was of the opinion that it did not matter where dishes and cups were placed in the dishwasher, so long as we could fit as many things as possible. Lindsey was not of the same opinion. For the first few weeks, whenever I put a plate away, she would come behind me and rearrange the dishwasher. It got to a point that I started purposely putting items wherever I wanted because I didn’t think it mattered, but sweet Lindsey would watch me live out my frustration, and then when I left the room, she would bring order to the dishwasher.

I don’t know how long this continued, but I do know when it stopped. Lindsey was working late one night, and the dishwasher was almost full. I saw my opportunity to prove that the dishwasher works fine no matter where the dishes are placed. So with a mischievous grin on my face I rearranged the order into chaos, I started the dishwasher. I couldn’t wait to see her face when she got home, I imagined the apology she would offer me regarding her wrong interpretation of dishwasher etiquette, it was going to be something beautiful.

But when the dishwasher cycle finished, I knew I was in trouble.

How could this have happened? Whenever Lindsey ran the dishwasher, everything came out all nice and clean and ready to use. But this time, there was still food on a few of the dishes, and some of the utensils looked worse than when I put them in!

I was wrong, and I learned to change. Now I will freely admit that sometimes I still place something in the wrong place, but after my passive-aggressive experiment, I have learned to alter my focus because Lindsey was right.

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The incident with the dishwasher taught me that prayer is about change. When I forced my roommates to pray in college, was I doing it because I was concerned about them, or was I doing it because I thought I was better than them? Did I earnestly pray to the Lord during that time, or did I just want them to hear the sound of my voice?

The beauty of prayer comes to fruition when we let Christ in to change us, and when we are willing to give up some of our space for the Lord. The dishwasher taught me that if prayer is only about myself, that if I am only concerned with my thoughts and actions, then I am neglecting to let God in to make some important changes.

Faithful living is about giving up those habits and behaviors that are no longer fruitful, reprioritizing and reorganizing our lives, so that God can make us clean.

In a few moments we are going to end our service not here in the sanctuary, but outside on the front lawn. We are going to gather in a group and we are going to pray.

First we will pray for God to give us the strength to give up some room, and let Christ in. That instead of focusing on just our needs and wants that we will begin to comprehend the love of Christ and the fullness of God.

Then we will face the sanctuary and we are going to pray for our church. So many of us, myself included, get caught up in such a tunnel-visioned view of prayer that we neglect to pray, like Paul did, for the community of faith.

And finally we will turn to face the community around us and pray once more. Prayer is not just about you and me, and it is not just about the church, prayer is about communing with the Lord about the very fabric of life.

If we want our lives to change, if we want our church to change, if we want to let God’s love reign, then we have to be willing to give up some space. We have to learn to rearrange the dishwashers of our lives so that everything can be made clean.

Amen.

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The Johns – Sermon on John 15.9-11, 1 John 2.15-17, and Revelation 21.1-5

John 15.9-11

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

1 John 2.15-17

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.

Revelation 21.1-5

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

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“Taylor, the bishop is appointing you to St. John’s United Methodist Church in Staunton, Virginia. We believe the church fits with your gifts and graces and we are excited to see what the Holy Spirit can do through you there.” Those were the words used to let me know where I would be spending the next few years of my life. I remember how I felt with the phone next to my ear and Lindsey by my side when I found out that I would be coming here to serve this church.

Obviously, for the next few days all I could think about was the church and the community. What would you all be like? Would we enjoy living here? What would we do for fun? How would you respond to me as your pastor?

Of course I Googled the church, searched the church name in the local newspaper databases, and even looked up the address of the parsonage. And for as many things as I could discover, more questions began to develop to the point where I had to just stop and accept that this is where I was going.

However, one question remained in the back of my mind during the months leading up to my first Sunday. I was fine letting everything else go, I was content with the unknown, except for one thing: Why St. John’s?

Now I don’t mean why this church out of all the churches in the Virginia conference, though I have wondered about that at times. What I mean is this: Why is the church named St. John’s?

Do any of you know? Church naming often carries an interesting history. Like when a group of people from a Baptist church grow frustrated with another group and decide to leave and start a new church with the ironic name of Harmony Baptist.

Or like what we have here in town with 1st Presbyterian, 2nd Presbyterian, 3rd Presbyterian, etc. I would love to know the story behind that.

Anyway, why are we called St. John’s?

The story goes that a long time ago there was a particularly advantageous District Superintendent who dreamed of 4 new churches in the Staunton District. The population was booming in the valley and he believed it was time for the Methodist Church to start breaking ground and forming church homes for new people. He wanted 4 new churches and he wanted them to be named after the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Though only two of them ever came to fruition: Mark and John.

Now, is that really how we got our name? I have no idea, but thats the story everyone seems to tell.

I want to know if thats the story we want to tell. That the name of this blessed house of the Lord got its name from some guy in the past who wanted to leave his mark in Staunton. Or do we want to take ownership of our name, and live into the reality of what it means to be St. John’s?

Our name is part of who we are, it is a part of our very identity, for better or worse. If we were First UMC I would expect that we were the first to break ground in Staunton, that we would be leading the community in what it means to love one another. If we were Harmony UMC I would expect a church full of people who agreed on everything all the time, no matter what. If we were Wesley UMC I would expect that John Wesley would be fundamental to our mission and work in the kingdom.

But if we call ourselves St. John’s, then who are we?

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On the right side of our sanctuary we have three stained glass windows that I call The Johns. We have John the Evangelist, John of Patmos, and John the Presbyter. Do they represent three different and distinct men? Are they in fact all the same person, just being shown throughout the different decades?

Early Christian tradition held that John was one of the original 12 disciples who actually lived a long life and was not killed for his faith like the others. It is believed that he was responsible for writing the gospel according to John, the letters 1-3 John, and the final book of the New Testament Revelation. Of course modern scholars debate as to the particular authorship and whether or not one man was responsible for all of these different writings.

What is important for us is the fact that we affirm all of the writing as canon and life-giving, that Christians for centuries have come to discover the living God in the words attributed to John, and that we will continue to live into our discipleship through them.

Our first window displays the young John as the Evangelist. Today when we hear the word evangelism we tend to picture people converting others to follow Christ, but in its most simple meaning, an evangelist is someone who shares the Good News, and in this case, it came through a written account of Jesus life and ministry.

We see a young John holding a chalice and the image of an eagle. The chalice serves to emphasize the importance of the sacrament, and the pouring out of Jesus blood for us. Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is a particular focus and theme. Reflecting on Jesus life later, John could remember everything through the lens of the resurrection, and we see the importance of Jesus’ life here in the chalice.

The other detail, the eagle, is very interesting. In Revelation, a book we will talk about shortly, there is a brief section where John describes four winged creatures from his dream. Each of them have come to represent a specific gospel and it’s respective author: Matthew is a man with wings, or an angel; Mark is a lion; Luke is an ox; and John is the eagle.

Whenever our eyes fall to this window we are called to remember the Father’s love in Christ Jesus. Like the winged eagle flying high in the sky we look up to the kind of love that Jesus exemplified and strive to live accordingly. The great sacrifice was made so that our joy could be complete in and with one another as we look on eternity without flinching as we journey toward the goal of communing with the Lord.

John the Evangelist wrote what he did to remember for us what his master taught him: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.

Our second window, the one to the right, contains John as the Presbyter. Presbyter comes from the greek word presbuteros which means “elder.” As John grew older and continued to play an integral role in the formation of the early church, it became necessary for him to write letters concerning the faith.

In the window we see a mature John with a quill and parchment. Like we still do today, whenever we encounter the struggles of fellow disciples, we strive to help them through their trials and tribulations. For John, having lived with Christ and experienced the true power of the resurrection, he devoted himself to the early Christians and helped them to understand the importance of love.

He wrote things like: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” Only a man speaking from a life of wisdom could make such a statement. The desires of flesh and the prides in riches only serve to destroy us because they wither away. All of the false things that we put our faith and hope in are passing away, but the love of God endures forever and ever.

Whenever we glance to this window of John as the Presbyter, we are called to remember the value of wisdom and what it means to grow together. Being Christian is not something that can be done in isolation, but instead can only be fruitful and life-giving if we disciple as a community. John wrote letters to encourage and remind the faithful what it means to be faithful. As disciples we have the responsibility to build one another up for kingdom work.

John the Presbyter wrote to Christian communities about what faithful living was all about: those who do the will of God live forever.

The third window, in the middle, contains John on Patmos. After a life of faith, John was exiled away to Patmos, a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea where he wrote about his visions. The book of Revelation contains fantastic imagery of the way God has, is, and will move  in the world. Our final John is older with a fiery city at his feet, and the new Jerusalem above his head with the lamb.

The Lord gave John certain visions and told him to write them down because they were trustworthy and true. Our window displays the height of the revelation when God will make all things new. A holy city, the new Jerusalem, will come down from heaven. This is where God will dwell with the people, God will wipe away all of our tears. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. The first things will pass away because God will make all things new.

In our window we see the former things, the earthly passions of the world at the bottom passing away. But God has not, and will not, abandon us to our own devices. The new city at the top will reign and the kingdom will be forever. 

Whenever our eyes fall upon this window we remember that the Lord is with us now and forever. That even in our death we will come closer to the new heaven and the new earth that the Lord has promised. In the midst of our grief and suffering now we can still give thanks to the Lord for that day when he will make all things new. This window calls us to trust the Lord just like John did throughout his life.

John on Patmos wrote down the visions the Lord had provided so that others would come to know what the future holds: The Lord will dwell with us and make all things new. 

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Who are we? A group of Christians who get together week after week to rediscover what it means to follow Christ? A ragtag collection of disciples who need to find a little more light in our lives?

If we want to live into our name, then we need a better story than being named by a District Superintendent. If we want to be the St. John’s that God is calling us to be, then we need to reclaim what that name means for us.

We are St. John’s. That very name carries with it the history of what our church has done for this community. Wherever I go in Staunton I love to tell people that I serve as the pastor here at St. John’s because our name is immediately met with recognition; “My children went to Preschool there!” “My wife and I were married in that sanctuary.” “We buy our Christmas tree from your church every year.”

But we are also more than what we do. Our identity is firmly rooted in the name of John and we should be proud of it. We were named after a man who was called to follow Jesus, remembered the Messiah’s life for other communities, wrote to churches about faithful wisdom, and caught glimpses of future glory. 

Likewise, we are a community of faith that believes in following the Lord, in sharing God’s story with other people, in teaching those younger in the faith about what it means to love, in celebrating the coming day when God will make all things new.

St. John’s; what a perfect name. Amen.

What Is Love? (Jesus Don’t Hurt Me) – Sermon on 1 John 3.16-24

1 John 3.16-24

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater that our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

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1 John is a letter written by a wise, old, veteran Christian leader who continues to help those who are new and young to the faith by addressing the challenges of discipleship. What we have read this morning encompasses John’s understanding of love, Christ’s love, and the need for Christians to find this same love in their lives. Now, to be clear, I am not like John. I am not a mature Christian leader, with years of experience to rely upon. I cannot pull from the wisdom of leading churches throughout the decades to help those who are struggling. I am not like John. In fact, I’m the kind of person that John wrote this letter to in the first place.

Yet, knowing I am not qualified, I decided to write my own letter this week as if I were John to our contemporary church…

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Dear St. John’s,

What is love? Do you ever find yourself asking that very question? Love seems to be one of those things, those words, that we tend to just throw around without really thinking about what it means. I love your outfit! I love what you’ve done with the place! I love eating frozen Kit Kats! I love you!

Love, as a word, has the power to mean everything and nothing. For instance: when we start dating and we grow closer and closer to someone else and they say for the first time: “I love you” it can mean everything in the world. Time can slow down and we can remember the way we felt when we heard it for the first time. However, years later, “love” can become routine, that word we use to end conversations rather than to declare how we feel in our heart of hearts. Love becomes a filler rather than a feeling.

What is love? Is it something that we can only experience in a romantic way? Can we love our friends and family? Can we love our church? Can we love the Lord?

This is how we know what love is: that Jesus laid down his life for us – and we ought to do the same for one another. Now, stay with me if you can, I know that as you read this letter you might already start to grow weary of this thing called love. How willing are we to really lay down our lives for other people? Frankly, most of us will never have to come that far, we will never be martyred for our faith. For as much as we talk about lifting up our cross to follow Christ, it is unlikely that we will ever find ourselves hanging on that cross for what we believe.

Yet, as Christians, this is how we know what love looks like. That a man, fully God and fully human, delivered himself to die for us even when we did not deserve it.

St. John’s, how can the Lord’s love abide in us when we are filled with the world’s goods, but we refuse to help our brothers and sisters in need? Is it possible to love without sacrifice?

Most of us want to love and be loved so long as it doesn’t hurt. We want to know all about love, and we are ready to follow the Lord’s commands so long as it won’t cost us anything.

Love is never really love unless it has the power to harm us.

Discipleship is never holy unless we are willing to sacrifice and be deeply honest with ourselves and others. Trust is never fully possible until we know what’s its like to have our trust broken. Love is what it is because it can both build us up and tear us down.

We might never have to die for somebody else like Jesus did for us, but to love others implies a willingness to lay down our needs and desires for someone else’s needs and desires. What is love if not a willingness to be vulnerable with another?

So, if we want to love, let us do so not with words or speeches, but in truth and action. Anybody can say “I love you”; it is far harder for our lives to match our words. Do we practice what we preach? Are our feet and tongues in alignment? Do our actions match our professions?

Love is hard. It requires dedication and commitment, vulnerability and sacrifice, honesty and attention. We would rather love with our words because we do not have the strength to love with our actions. This is why we pray; We pray for the Lord to give us the strength to love the unlovable because we cannot do it on our own.

Have you ever noticed the covenants made at a wedding? The couple consents and promises to love one another in the sight of God and witnesses, but then the entire congregation makes a promise to nurture that couple in love. Romantic love and a promise between two people is not enough to sustain a life-long marriage. We need others to hold us accountable to the promises of love, and in particular to the love between partners.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes, in fact many times, the Lord does not answer our prayers? Or at least not the way we would want to the Lord to answer them? We know that the Lord is greater than our fickle hearts and that he answers our prayers, but sometimes we ask for the wrong things.

How often do we pray for the Lord to fix this or that, to make our children better, to rid us of our sickness when we could be praying for the Lord to give us the strength to address our own problems, the courage to be honest with our kids, and the endurance to bear the pain?

The Lord is greater than all of our selfish desires and trite fixations. The Lord’s love knows no bounds and continues to seek us out even when we turn away. This is the truth of the Good News, that God’s love remains steadfast even as ours falters. We will never be able to love others in the exact same way that God does, but our challenges is to strive for it nonetheless.

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St. John’s, our church needs some encouragement so despair will not take root. We need to love and feel loved. We need to lift one another up with this sacrificial love so that we might know and experience God’s love right now through each other.

If we fail in our own eyes, if we feel that we have been a disappointment, be assured that God knows our hearts better than we do. We might look in the mirror every morning and see regrets, failures, and short-comings, but the Lord sees hope, beauty, and wonder. We might replay in our minds the hateful words that have been shouted at us by our bosses, friends, and spouses, but the Lord wants us to hear only one thing: you are loved.

Do we know that we are loved? Do we feel it in our lives on a regular basis? Do we experience a feeling of worth from the Lord through others?

The Lord has given us a worthy commandment: we should believe in the power of his Son Jesus Christ, and we should love one another. 

I asked the children of our preschool about love and they were able to describe it in a way that many of us forget by the time we grow up. They want to love because it makes them happy, they feel love through hugs and snuggles and time well spent. Yet, when I asked one particular boy if he feels loved, this is what he said: “I feel loved by my mommy and daddy whenever they hug me and sit with me. But I don’t know why they love me.

It is so sad that we believe love can only exist when it is deserved or warranted. We live in such a commodified society, that we expect that love only accompanies good behavior.

God’s love is unconditional, and ours should be to.

You might not know it, or even believe it, but I have seen this love made real and tangible through the people in our pews.

When we learned about the needs of a community in West Virginia, men from our church volunteered to shave their faces just so we could raise money for the mission trip. They literally put their faces on the line for God’s kingdom. At the same time, everyone that contributed financially sacrificed from their lives so that we might bless and love on others in need. We responded in love not because of what people deserve, but simply as a reaction to need.

When we learn about someone’s recent diagnosis or loss of a loved one, we gather together to nurture them and surround them with care. We write cards and offer prayers, we drive to homes and cemeteries, we sit and we listen. We respond in love not because they once did the same for us and we believe that we owe it to them, but we do so because living by loving is the only way that makes sense as Christians.

If love is real, there is no “why?”

What is love? God is. We love others because God loves us. God was willing to humble himself to the form of flesh, to know what we know and feel. God was willing to walk among the people and listen to their needs and hopes, to lift them up and offer them worth. God was willing to carry death on his back and hang there for all to see. God was willing to die for you and the world. God was willing to love us, and continues to through every moment of our lives.

Do you know that you are loved? Whenever you look at a cross, remember that Jesus died on one for you. Whenever you look at a loaf of bread, remember that Christ’s body was given so that you could live. Whenever you look at another person, remember that Christ died for them just as much as he died for you. 

When we love we abide in the Lord and he abides in us. Loving others is the closest we can ever get to really being Christ’s body for the world. When we love with our actions we allow the Holy Spirit to live and move through us. Whether we love with a hug or a letter, a smile or a sacrifice, a commitment or a vow, we are abiding in the Lord.

St. John’s, loving is the greatest thing in the world, but it can also be the hardest. Love can build us up and break us down. Love can inspire majesty and travesty. Love can bring us closer to God and drive us away.

Love is hard, but if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be worth it. Amen.

C.O.G. – Sermon on Galatians 4.4-7

Galatians 4.4-7

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

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The sermon title this morning is C.O.G. which, if you are unfamiliar with the acronym, stands for Child of God. Made popular by the evangelical movement, COG is an identification with those who are part of a Christian community. For me, the use of child of God, happens whenever I baptize an infant or an adult. After going through the entire liturgy, blessing the water, and baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit I always announce that they are a child of God. There is just something incredible about receiving a new identity and a family through baptism that orients one’s priorities toward the divine and the new family that is the church.

Other than baptisms, I use Child of God when referring to our little preschoolers that gather here during the week. It has been strange recently, since they are on Christmas break, the hallways and building have been significantly quieter, and I have gotten a lot more work done! Nevertheless the COGs in our Preschool are one of the most important elements of our church and I believe in sanctioning my time in such a way that I can be with them and communicate the gospel in as many ways as possible.

This has taken place from being present at the basement doors every morning to welcome the children and families, to inviting them for regular church functions. But the way that the gospel is best communicated is during our weekly chapel time here in the sanctuary. While many of you are at work or home, studying in school or day-dreaming about the future, all of our COGs make their way to the choir loft and they sit in eager anticipation of a new story. We began in Genesis and have made our way to the time of David, we have made Chicken Noodle Soup, and gone through obstacle courses, we have drawn our own technicolor dream coats, and we have pretended to be our favorite animals on Noah’s Ark.

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The most profound Chapel Time experience, for me, took place when we prepared to wrestle with God. The kids lined up in the center aisle and did push ups and sit-ups in order to gain some strength, and then one by one I wrestled each of them by the altar in the same way that Jacob wrestled with an angel on the banks of the Jabbok river. Each of them came forward, we would go back in forth, I would let them think they would beat me, and then I would pick them up over my head and spin them around as they giggled and screamed. When our last four year old, Jack, made his way forward I began to bring the lesson home…

I got down on my knees and we grabbed hold of one another and I said to the kids: “This is what God is like. We can wrestle with the things that happen in the world, we can question and be angry and upset, and no matter how confused or frustrated we become God will never let us go. That’s how much God loves us. He can put up with all of our tantrums and yelling, He is patient with us when we no longer have patience. God loves us no matter what.

The kids were silent and listening attentively. I don’t remember anything else I said, even though I went on for awhile, because I was distracted by something else. While I was holding Jack in my arms, I could feel his heartbeat through my hand. This precious and vulnerable little child, who I was wrestling with, was gripping me so tightly that I could feel his little heart beat. In an instant the lesson I was trying to communicate took a different form for me as I realized how fragile this child was in my arms and the kind of ways that we strive to take care of other children. In a fraction of a second I felt afraid of letting him go, out of fear of what could happen to him. Though not even a father, I felt responsible for him, and was terrified of what might happen if I let him go.

When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son in order to redeem us so that we might receive adoption as children. The world was a strange place when Jesus was born in Bethlehem; indeed the fullness of time had come. Between the Old and New Testaments a lot had taken place and changed. For a while the Jewish people flourished as their culture continued to grow and spread until Antiochus Epiphanes brought about a horrific wave of persecution. The Jews were hated and tortured for their faith and were driven to armed rebellion.

People, for the first time, were traveling beyond the cities and towns of their birth to see greater parts of the world.

During the time of Christ’s birth, the world was full of change and excitement. Add to that the Roman network of international highways over which the first Christian missionaries traveled, and the Greek language that united many different people under one tongue.

For Paul, writing the letter to the Galatians, the timing of Jesus’ birth was remarkably important. We too celebrate this event in such a way as to date everything that happened BC (Before Christ) or after his birth AD (Anno Domini) “in the year of our Lord.” (Now known as BCE “Before Common Era” and CE “Common Era”)

This was the specific and the right time for God’s new intervention in the world. Long anticipated through the Old Testament, the time of the Lord’s favor had begun.

Born into the rude stable that so many of us display on our coffee tables and mantles, God’s Word became incarnate in a baby born to a virgin. By becoming like us, by taking on our flesh to be just like us, God adopted us into his heavenly family so that we might become heirs and children of God.

Paul is then writing and pleading for the very thing that makes Christianity unique; the change that Christ can make in someone’s life so that they can possess and exercise total freedom.

Being Christian is all about freedom. God came into the world to free us from sin, and to free us for a new life.

However, this incredible gift cannot be brought about by unquestioning adherence to a book of rules. Otherwise we choose to break the rules, or we let the rules break us.

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Too many of my friends have left the church, and left the faith, because it was made into a rule-system by which they were required to follow. Like the child I held in my arms during chapel time, the church refused to let them go and experience the freedom to question, doubt, and explore. Perhaps when they were younger the church had been life-giving and exciting, but as they grew older it felt suffocating and demanding. They heard about the “freedom” that Paul wrote about, but they certainly didn’t feel it in their own lives. They were taught to so fervently keep the faith whenever they doubted, even just a little, that when they had a crisis of faith their entire discipleship fell apart and they left the church.

Paul’s thoughts to the Galatians opens up a new vision of what it means to be a Child of God, and how we can, in turn, nurture other COGs around us.

I held on to Jack and I felt his little heart beat in my hand. I began to play in my head all the terrible things that could happen to him once he was released from my protective bubble. I thought about what I had shared with the children: God loves you so much that he will never let you go. But that’s not exactly true.

God loves us to such a degree that He will not abandon us, but at the same time God gives us the freedom to question, to raise our clenched fists in the sky in frustration, and to wonder about what all of this faith stuff actually means. 

In that profound moment kneeling on the floor of our chancel I recognized that, like God, I had to let him go. That God’s love was so great and incredible that no matter what happens to him, God will never abandon him. That we have to give our children freedom to make mistakes and explore the world, because that’s the only way that they will come to know our God as “father.” They cannot experience God’s divine loves through a book and moral expectations alone. They will discover God’s majesty in those moments when they begin to doubt, and recognize that God’s love remains with them anyway.

Only a bible like ours would contain the psalms, a tremendous source of writing that has almost every single human emotion, most of them directed at God.

Only a faith like ours would gather in grieving people for funerals and triumphantly declare that death has been defeated in Jesus Christ even when the loss of a loved one feels so horrifically overpowering.

Only a God like ours would let us wrestle and walk away and still see us as his children.

Years ago I was lamenting with one of my friends about the ways certain Christians give others Christians such a bad name. It felt like every time I turned on the TV there was a report of some pastor abusing power from the pulpit, some church spouting off with heretical theology, or some Christian organization bashing anything and anyone that did not look or sound just like them.

I remember feeling beaten by these rogue Christians. How could we ever make the church appealing again if people like that are getting all of the attention from the media? Why don’t we share information about all the good the church is doing in the world? Why don’t we ever hear about the food pantries and clothing drives that are saving communities?

My friend listened patiently as I went on and on listing my complaints. She smiled politely whenever I went off on another tangent and waited for me to finish.

She said: “They’ll figure it out someday Taylor. When? No one knows, but at some point they will see how far they have moved away from God’s commands.

What makes you so sure?” I demanded.

They’re children of God, just like you and me.

Part of what makes our faith so beautiful is that we have been brought into God’s great family as children. We have been adopted into a new identity because God came to be Emmanuel by our sides. As God’s children we have been given the freedom to love God with our hearts, minds, and souls, and we have been given the freedom to question and wonder.

The future of our faith will largely depend on how we continue to nurture the spiritual questions of people young in the faith. We might want to grip those around us with structured rules of how to live and behave, but remember that God came to be with us to adopt us as children; our heavenly Father has given us the freedom that brings about true faith.

The world was a strange place and full of new and exciting things when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The world is still a strange place and full of new and exciting things. It will take a tremendous amount of courage to see others as Children of God just like you and me; to give them freedom to doubt, to be patient with their foolish ways, and to not abandon them. But if God is willing to do it, shouldn’t we?

Amen.

Devotional – 1 Thessalonians 1.6-7

Devotional:

1 Thessalonians 1.6-7

And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 

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There is a burden that comes with being a Christian leader (or as the Spiderman comics would put it: with great power comes great responsibility). Just as in the day of Paul, we, as Christians, are expected to imitate the Lord through our actions, so that we can be examples to all other people. The great challenge with this responsibility comes with the temptation to use the power we have been given for ourselves, rather than for God’s kingdom.

For too many years some Christians leaders and preachers have tended to elevate their ministry to such a staggering degree that they become more important than the living God whom they claim to follow. I have seen churches that have no images of Christ displayed in the sanctuary, no cross to remember the great act of the incarnate God, and nothing else that would lead anyone to know that the gathered people were Christians. I remember visiting a church when I lived in Harrisonburg, Virginia that looked like a music venue and by the time the service was over I realized that the triune God was not mentioned even once. It seemed that doing church, for them, was more about living a good life based on the standards imposed by the leaders rather than a profound commitment to discover the living God and follow Christ.

Grunewald's Crucifixion

Grunewald’s Crucifixion

When the great theologian Karl Barth was a pastor in Basel, Switzerland he discovered Matthias Grunewald’s depiction of the crucifixion and kept a copy of it on his desk throughout his ministry, from his days as a young pastor until his death. Barth believed the work of art was a worthy metaphor for Christians; John the Baptist stands off to the side holding an open bible while pointing away from himself to Christ on the cross. Christians, at their best, are called to be like John and point away from themselves to the incredible Christ who is the only one worthy of our imitation. We point toward Christ through our words and actions, while also remembering the distance between us and Christ; we will never live exactly like him, but we nevertheless strive to imitate him in our living.

When I learned about Barth’s affection for the Grunewald piece, I made sure to find a copy for my office. It is the first thing I see when someone enters my office, and the last thing I see before heading to the sanctuary for worship. It hangs at eye sight right next to the door as a constant reminder about my responsibility to point toward Christ and not myself.

How do you imitate the Lord in your daily life? Where in your life can you point to Christ so that others can come to know the love of God?

Take Up Your (Cross) Collar – Sermon on Matthew 11.25-30

Matthew 11.25-30

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such is your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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I wonder what the disciples thought when Jesus said, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Bartholomew probably nodded along in agreement, James and John might have clapped in approval, but there’s a chance that Peter said what I think whenever I come across this passage: “Is he serious?

I mean, in reality, it would seem that what Jesus is talking about here is rather ironic. My yoke is easy and the burden is light? Coming from the one who said: take up your cross and follow me, those who wish to save their life must lose it, sell all of your possessions and give to the poor, let the dead bury the dead, is it easier for camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven… it seems a little paradoxical for him to claim that is yoke his easy and the burden is light. 

When we take a step back and look at the greater picture of this address, Jesus’ invitation is not to the work burdened, nor the sin-burdened, but to the law burdened, to those who felt the heavy weight of religiosity. At a time when law observance was followed by some to a ridiculous degree, Jesus triumphantly invited the weary to come to him for rest.

The promise for the weary is not, however, a rest from inactivity. What Christ offers to the tired is not a vacation from the law but a less burdensome way of fulfilling it. At particular points during his ministry Jesus’ interpretation of the law was more lenient (observing the Sabbath) and at other times more stringent (divorce, acts of mercy, forgiveness). The main thrust being that the weighted matters of the law can be simplified by justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

Compared to the other law followers of his time, Jesus is offering a lesser burden of religious existence. Yet, I can’t help but feel that there is something inherently wrong with the idea that Jesus’ yoke is easy and the burden is light.

 

It brings me more joy than I can describe to know that I have been serving as the pastor of St. John’s for more than a year. I have only begun to scratch the surface of our collective story, the way we have all come to know God in our lives, and I look forward to our continued journeys of faith.

Years ago a good friend of mine had just finished his first year in ministry, like me, when the “honeymoon” period came to an abrupt end. They say that the “honeymoon” period can last anywhere from 6-18 months; the church body becomes so excited with a new pastor that they are willing to look past the old problems to envision a new reality of faith. However, as with all things, the honeymoon eventually comes to an end. Honeymoons can end by a simple mistake from the pulpit, a forgotten phone call to a parishioner in need, or simply when the new shiny toy looses its luster. For my friend, the honeymoon came to a screeching halt during a church council meeting.

After serving for an entire year it appeared as if things were finally getting better for the church; they had new visitors attending worship, new programs had taken off, and they even had a few youth present during church gatherings. Some of the lay people had come to describe this new young pastor as the shot in the arm that the church had desperately needed. He was their little Messiah, inaugurating a new age and time for the church when it could return to its former glory.

The church council meeting took place in the damp church basement that smelled of mold and burnt coffee one evening shortly after his one year anniversary. The leadership of the church sat appropriately in the stiff folding chairs and exchanged pleasantries about the comings and goings of town until the real business came to the floor: The much needed update to the curtains in the fellowship hall. He describes the moment as a eternity of debating what color would best accent the needs of the hall where peoples’ feeling were hurt over the color-coordination. And then they talked about replacing the organ, and the sanctuary windows. They talked about the only two children in worship, just two, who were deemed disruptive to the older folk. And when they were done complaining about the children, they started to complain about my friend…

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The shut-in list was passed around the table until it arrived in his lap when someone said, “the only explanation must be that you don’t have this list. Our last pastor made sure that each of them were visited one a week.” “Thats wonderful” my friend replied, “Who visits them?” “The pastor does!” they all agreed in unison.

My friend looked down at the list and read the names of the faithful church members who could no longer attend. While he sat there in silence reading over the list one of the older women spoke up, “this is the way we’ve always done it, and we’ve always been successful

“Successful at what?” he said. “There are 36 names on this list. That means there were 4 more people on this list than there were in church last Sunday. I don’t think you’ve been successful at all.”

And thus the honeymoon came to an abrupt conclusion. 

 

My friend was young, brash, and foolish, and he was wrong. It is part of the pastor’s vocation to visit the shut-ins, to maintain a connection between the people and their church. But he was also right about something; the call of discipleship rest on all of us, not just the pastor.

Once, while I was working on a sermon, I got a call letting me know that a beloved woman from the church I was serving had just been admitted to the local hospital after having a stroke. I remember leaving my my computer and bible open on my desk, and driving straight to the hospital. I sat by her bed and held her hand as she talked to me about everything that had happened to her, her inability to move some of her fingers, her fears about being able to return to the normalcy of life, but the thing that stuck with me most was the last thing she said before I left.

“Thank you for coming to see me,” she said. “I miss my church. I’m so sorry that I haven’t had a chance to come hear you preach, but I’ve been too sick to leave the house and my hearing has gotten so bad. I miss the people. I’ve received a lot of cards that have helped to cheer me up. But you know what? No one has come to visit me. And the only reason you’re here is because I’m in the hospital.

I am a professional Christian. I have it easy. I am paid by you to live out my faith, order the church, preside over the sacraments, proclaim the Word of the Lord, and serve the needs of the community. I attend our committee meetings to help with the ordering of the church, I pray over the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of communion, I preach sermons from this pulpit every week, and when someone has a need I leave what I’m doing to be with them. Going to visit someone in the hospital is what I am called to do. However, one of the hardest things to accept and live into, is our shared commitment to take care of one another.

I went to see that woman in the hospital because I knew it was what I was supposed to do. I went because I am a pastor, but more importantly I went because I am a Christian. When I wear my clergy collar it is a constant reminder that I am called to act, think, live, and behave like a Christian. This collar has become my yoke. It sits uncomfortably around my neck as a constant reminder of who I am and whose I am. Im not proud to admit it but, sometimes, I need to wear it in order to live out my faith. Without this yoke around my neck it becomes too easy to fade into the crowd and forget my obligation to make God’s kingdom alive in the world. I am weak enough that I need to have something like this to help me remain faithful.

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And so I wonder… I ask myself: Did I go see her because it was the right thing to do? Or did I go see her because that’s what you expect me to do?

When you wear something like this around your neck you begin to act differently. It is an inescapable demarkation that I have given my life to Christ to live a radically transformed life that often feels burdensome and heavy, unlike the easy yoke of today’s scripture.

Jesus calls the weary to come to him because his yoke is easy. A good yoke is one that is carefully shaped so that there will be a minimum of chafing for the animal. Jesus’ yoke therefore is one that is supposed to be kind to our shoulders, enabling us to carry the load more easily. But I will be the first to tell you, sometimes the weight feels unbearable.

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” In our discipleship we are not merely called to listen to Jesus’ words and reflect on them. In other words, our faith in not one that is limited to the mind. From Christ we are to learn not only to think, but to do. We gather in this place every Sunday to learn by listening and then living out God’s Word in the world. The yoke of discipleship, much like this collar, is not one that Jesus imposes on us, but one that he wore and continues to wear alongside us. 

When the weight of discipleship begins to feel too heavy for me, I call for Christ’s help with the load. I cannot do this on my own for I am a wretched man, full of sin and devoid of glory. Only through Christ’s love and grace am I able to take up my cross, which is to say I am able to take up my collar, and live as a Christian fully and deeply. 

Imagine what it would look like if we all started acting like Jesus here and everywhere. The burden of wearing a collar like this in the world is mine to bear. But think, if you can, how differently you would act if you wore one around your neck. That’s why I have placed 100 collars in our sanctuary this morning. Take one home with you, leave it in a place where you will see it regularly, and when you do, ask yourself, “how would I behave today if that yoke was hanging around my neck?”

Christ is on the other side of your yoke, helping you to carry this burden of being his body for the world; it is not easy being Christian. The cost of discipleship is one that will cost us our very lives. And just as Christ is helping to carry your yoke, so also are we called to help one another.

When we hear about the sufferings within our community we have been given the great privilege to help carry those who are in their deepest valleys while at the same time recognize that we need to be helped through our sufferings as well.

I count myself blessed to serve the needs of this church, to wear this collar that comes at a price, to take Christ’s yoke upon my shoulders because it is through God’s love, Christ’s mercy, and the Spirit’s presence through people like you that the yoke becomes easy and the burden is light.

Let us all put Christ’s yoke upon our shoulders, let us take up our collars to live as Christ’s body for the world, serving the needs of others while lifting up one another in faith.

Amen.

Devotional – 1 Peter 2.21

1 Peter 2.21

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.

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The argument broke out during a discussion on the Philosophy of Religion with a few of my peers in college. “Dying for someone is the ultimate sacrifice!” someone yelled. “Don’t be such a martyr!” someone ironically interjected. The conversation started politely enough; I made mention of a passage from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and was curious what others thought about it: “I could die for you. But I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, live for you.” Before too long an argument had erupted regarding the necessity of physical sacrifice for others. A few of my friends adamantly believed that our ultimate call was to give our life for others so that we completely mirrored Christ’s life in our lives.

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However, one young woman was unconvinced. She stayed quiet for much of the fight but eventually, with a calm and collected voice, she said, “I think dying for someone else is easy. Not that Christ’s death was easy; but his death is not our death. Christ died for the salvation of the world, so that we would not have to. I think the far greater challenge is to live for one another. Living for someone else requires us to love the way Christ did. It would be so easy to sacrifice my own life for someone else. But to live for someone that I despise? Thats what Christianity is all about.”

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“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” For those of us living in the comfort of Christianity in the United States, our faith will probably never require us to give our lives. Christianity has become such an accepted reality that faith rarely frustrates or disrupts our society. However, we have been called to so much more than just sacrificing ourselves for others in death. The call of Christ on our lives is to sacrifice ourselves for others in the way we live. Just like the young woman proposed during our argument, to love someone that we despise is precisely what being a Christian is all about.

In this Easter season, a time of new faith, new beginnings, and new realities I wonder how we are all sacrificing ourselves for others? Today might be the best day to ask ourselves whether or not we are really following in the steps of Jesus.