Being A Christian Is Awesome

John 6.48

I am the bread of life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” the grandfather remarked casually.

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

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

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

And it is enough.

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Incompatible

Ephesians 4.1-16

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Can’t we all just get along?

So asks the woman in her Sunday school class, so asks the friend of his neighbor wearing the Make America Great Again hat, so asks the father of his children fighting in the back seat of the car.

Can’t we all just get along?

You don’t need to hear it from me to know that, at our cores, we can’t really get along. We resent our neighbors for the dumbest reasons, we berate our children for raising their voices after we first raised our voices at them, and we drive through town day after day with clenched fists as we hear the news over the radio.

Sure, getting along in the world might be a forlorn possibility. Maybe our differences in opinion, our polarized political proclivities, and our desire to speak more than to listen will always prevent unity in the world.

But the church should surely be a place of unity, right? If nothing else, can’t we be the place where we just get along?

I passed 15 different churches on my way here this morning. 15! That alone answers the question of whether or not we can get along.

This part of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus is absolutely breath taking: One body, one spirit, one calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. I can hear Paul crescendo-ing these words in the locker room we call the church. It is the pep talk of all pep talks about what it means to be who we are.

But the more I read it this week, the more I wondered, when has the church ever felt like this? I can’t speak toward what this church was like before I arrived, but I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced a church that felt like what Paul’s talking about. What Paul describes sounds more like a wedding, or a giant party, focused on one particular thing where great pluralities of people can join together in oneness.

In contrast, the church often feels like the place where we are supposed to gather for one, but the plurality is precisely what holds us back.

Most of us tend to think we know best, we insist on our own way, and we are intolerant of others’ quirks and weaknesses. We stand on pedestals of our own making looking down on just about everyone else. And even if we are “tolerant” of the differences, that’s because we are the ones with power! No one wants to be tolerated! We want to be loved and heard and cherished and respected.

Do you all remember the time Jesus traveled into town and gathered everyone together to hear his earth-shattering proclamation? “The kingdom of God is near, and the time has come for toleration!”

Yeah, me neither.

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Paul does not say the mission of the church is to tolerate the behaviors of others.

            Paul says the church is called to be one.

But can’t we all just get along? Can’t we be one by just being nicer to each other?

There is a tremendous difference between loving one another (like Christ), and being nice. Being nice often means being quiet, and not calling out the behavior of others. Loving like Jesus however, often means speaking up and actually calling someone out.

            Easier said than done.

Paul pokes and prods our human tendency toward division and schism by using the word “one” seven times in two verses. We can all imagine the divisive energy that must have been present in Ephesus for Paul to write these words, because those types of arguments are still very much a part of the church today.

The sevenfold emphasis on oneness is at the heart of the great challenge we call the church. How do we find unity in our plurality? Unity, to be clear, is not uniformity. Jesus does not want the church to be a factory where random parts are brought in and perfectly congruent products are shipped out.

And so, as the church struggles toward, or around, the kind of unity that God has already created in the church through Jesus Christ, a unity made possible by the three-in-oneness of the trinity, a question arises: Where have we dug our trenches so deep that we are no longer able to experience this God-given unity?

The line that forms after worship is one of my favorite, and least favorite, things about the church. I love the intimacy that can be found in our narthex as I overhear conversations about the prayers, and the hymns, and even the sermon. I relish in the opportunities to hear feedback about what we all experienced together. And every once in a while I receive the greatest compliment a pastor can ever hear: “I heard God speak to me today.”

But, of course, the narthex can also harbor the resentments that percolated during the service. A wrong word, or phrase, or reading, or hymn can stick with us and boil over when we finally have a chance to let it go. I see the same arguments and disagreements manifest over and over again in small and subtle ways.

A few months back I was observing the strange space that is the narthex following worship, when a new family walked up to shake my hand. They had recently moved to the Woodbridge area and were looking for a new home church. They expressed their joy with our worship and how welcomed they felt. And though we talked about a great number of things, our conversation ended with the father saying, “But we really need to know your opinion about homosexuality, and this church’s opinion about homosexuality.”

Since then, it’s happened three more times with three different families.

And in every one of the conversations it was abundantly clear that however I answered the question would determine whether the family would come back the following week or not.

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As it stands the United Methodist Church believes the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. In some churches this means that pastors prevent openly gay individuals or couples from becoming members of the church. In some churches this means that pastors refuse to baptize or offer communion to anyone who is openly gay. And it means that in all churches an openly gay individual is not supposed to be a pastor, and that pastors may not preside over same sex unions.

As it stands the United Methodist Church believes the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

There are, of course, some churches within the UMC who ignore the language and do whatever they can to welcome those who are gay, and because we, as a church, are not united in our theological convictions about those who are gay, the church is struggling to find a way forward.

There are those who want the language to remain and for stiffer penalties to be enacted against any pastor or conference who violates the tenants of the incompatibility of homosexuality.

Maybe they want uniformity.

And there are those who want the language to disappear all together and to be fully inclusive of anyone who is gay.

Maybe they want uniformity too, just of a different flavor.

And there are those who wish to remain in the middle, they want a church where people who believe it is incompatible, and those who believe it is compatible, are able to sit down in the pews together to worship the living God.

            Maybe they just want everyone to get along…

The language surrounding the incompatibility of a human being in Christian teaching is strange and wrong. To say that who someone is makes him or her incompatible with what we do as the church is oxymoronic in a way that is indescribable. So much of Jesus’ ministry, and Paul’s too, was founded upon finding people who were once told they were out and showing them how God in Christ brings them in. The message of Jesus is one where we are made one, regardless of any other identification.

And the incompatibility of Christians, at least the way some use the language, is now also applied to those who believe that individuals are incompatible. Some will use places of power and privilege to say that those who are gay are incompatible. But others will use similar places of privilege to say that if you believe someone is incompatible, then you are now the one who is incompatible with Christian teaching!

The infighting within our denomination about identity such that some are in and some are out, that some are compatible and other are incompatible, is antithetical to the Good News made manifest in Jesus Christ.

            Friends, no one is incompatible with Christian teaching. No one.

            Or, perhaps better put, we are all actually incompatible with Christian teaching. Not because of our sexual orientation, not because of who we love, but because we are all sinners in need of God’s grace. Paul begs, truly begs, us to live lives worthy of the calling to which we were called. And we will never be worthy. None of us.

We, like Paul writes, are so tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, we are moved by trickery. We look out at whatever the other is, and we are so quick to pull out the label of incompatibility.

            But it is in using that label we become the thing we so label!

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Here is the truth spoken in love. You and I, all of us here, we are broken and battered disciples. We are incompatible with the one born in the manger and delivered from the tomb. We have grown apart and ignored the call to grow into him who is the head, into Christ. It is Christ who joins all of our incompatibilities and knits together every ligament of our greed and our sinfulness and our judgments and builds us up in love.

Hear Jesus as he speaks to us throughout the centuries, hear his voice in the songs we sing and the prayers we pray. He is not just being nice and asking us to be a little kinder, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt. Jesus didn’t get killed for saying we ought to love one another. Jesus got hung on a cross for calling out the sinfulness of the world and the sinfulness in you and me; The shouts of “crucify!” came because the crowds knew that the message of Jesus would disrupt the power dynamics in which they were most comfortable.

Even today, Jesus speaks to us and disrupts what we think we know about who is in and who is out. Because the truth, the hard truth, is that none of us should be in. None of us.

And yet, this meal, what we call Christ’s communion, is offered to all, as surely as Christ is for all, as surely as all of us are not divided in him, but all of us belong together and brothers and sisters.

All of us are poor sinners and all of us are rich through Christ’s mercy. In our incompatibility, we are made one. Amen.

Expecting The Unexpected

1 Samuel 3.1-10

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

Words are important.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love Loves To Love Love

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for Easter 5B (Acts 8.26-40, Psalm 22.26-40, 1 John 4.7-21, John 15.1-8). Alan is the Lead Pastor at First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including interruptions in worship, King’s Hawaiian Bread with Welch’s Grape Juice, coffee communion, the need for discipled guidance, ambiguity in the psalms, choosing scriptures, theologically problematic hymns, the cosmic Jesus, and growing by subtraction. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Love Loves To Love Love

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What Did Jesus Do? > What Would Jesus Do?

1 Corinthians 11.23-26

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we even allowed to do this?

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

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

We cannot escape our memories. Memory is everything.

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

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

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

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

And then I will sit back and listen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            So, what did Jesus do?

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

Let us then remember…

Make The Church Weird Again

Jeremiah 31.31-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

 

I’ve been in ministry for roughly 5 years and I’ve finally figured it out. After all the sermons and all the meetings, after all the prayers and preparation, I know how to fix all the church’s problems.

It’s time to do a new thing.

Now, before we get to the solution, we need to talk a little bit about the problem that needs fixing. Churches everywhere, not just here at Cokesbury, are suffering under what I will call the paralysis of analysis. We spend far too much time looking at what we’ve done, evaluating past strengths and weaknesses, such that we don’t spend enough time looking forward. We don’t even ask if God is doing a new thing. Instead we assume that God did all the things God was going to do, and if it worked in the good ol’ days then it should certainly work now.

Here’s an example: Communion

Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday of the month, we had communion like we usually do. I stood here at the front of the sanctuary, and I prayed for God’s anointing on the bread and the cup. We all prayed together, we stood together, and we began feasting together.

One by one you came forward with outstretched hands recognizing the incredible gift that you were receiving. I took the bread, placed it in your hands, you dipped it in the cup, partook of the meal, and returned to your pews.

It was a holy thing.

However, there was a young family with us in worship two weeks ago, a family who has never ever been to church. They sat patiently during the service, though I’m sure that a lot of what we did must’ve sounded and felt strange. But nevertheless, when the time for communion arrived, they stood up like everyone else, walked to the front, and prepared to celebrate the joy of the Lord’s Supper.

I reverently handed a piece of bread to the mother, who bowed penitently before dipping the bread in the cup. I then knelt down close to the floor to hand a piece of bread to her son, but the longer I held it in front of him the longer he stared at it. I motioned for him to take it, which he eventually did, but before dipping it in the cup he frantically looked between his mother’s eyes and the brim of the chalice back and forth, back and forth.

When finally I said, with every bit of pastoral bravado, “My son, this is Jesus’ gift for you.” To which he said, “Yeah, but you said this is his blood, and I don’t know how I feel about drinking it.”

            And he promptly swallowed the un-dipped piece of bread, and jogged back to his pew.

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            We have been doing what we do for so long that many of us neglect to think, at all, about what we are doing.

We, in many ways, are exactly like the Israelites during the time of the prophet Jeremiah. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant they broke.

God had to do a new thing, not because there was anything inherently wrong with the first covenants, but there was something wrong with the participants within the covenant. Their faithfulness, their days of living as the people of God, had become so repetitive, that the Law God offered them was nothing more than a clanging cymbal, instead of the lifeforce it was meant to be.

Many of them followed the Law, they ate the right food at the right times in the right places, they abstained from foreign worship, and they wore clothes without mixing fibers, but it was done simply because that’s what they were supposed to do.

They were going through the motions.

They, to use God’s analogy, were like a spouse who no longer remembered what drew him or her to the marriage in the first place. They were waking up every morning to make breakfast, rushing to get the kids out the door, and maybe even stopping to give their beloved a kiss on the cheek, but without love, without intention, without grace.

For the people of God during the time of Jeremiah, it was all about the external and rarely about the internal. It was assumed that if you did all the right things, life would work out accordingly. Day to day experience was rationalized through objective realities – children exist to help the family, the community exists to maintain order, the worship of God exists to move life along.

There was no “why?”

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

God looked out on the people, a people for whom the law was written on stones and parchment, a people who did what they were told without it providing life, and decided the time had come for a new thing.

The days of laws written on stone came to an end. There would be no need to write them down for all to see and few to follow.

Instead of attempting to adhere to a code of do’s and don’ts, instead of the Law being the thing they worshiped, instead of the marriage dissolving into routine rather than romance, God writes the law on their hearts, on our hearts.

No longer would the people need to shout at one another until they were blue in the face, “Know the Lord!” No longer would the marriage partner scream at the spouse, “Do your duty!” No longer would the people walk around as if God wasn’t there with them all the while.

This was the beginning of a new day, one in which all people would no longer know about God, with the right words and right theology. Instead they would know God, with all the intimacy needed, in which the “why” would become more important than the “what,” in which a new covenant was established.

            So now to the solution… The time has come to embrace the weird.

WEIRD

If you take a step back from all of this, from the pageantry and the pedagogy, from the liturgy and the lighting, being the church is a pretty weird thing. We take time out of our schedules every week to sit in a strangely decorated room, to listen to somebody wearing a dress talk about texts that are far older than even the country we’re in, and then we do the even weirder practice of pouring water on people’s heads and eating a poor Jewish man’s body and drinking his blood.

We are pretty weird.

But, because Christianity has become so enveloped by the world, we often see and experience what we do as being normative. We make assumptions about ourselves and others based on the fact that this is “what we do.”

But if we only focus on “what we do” instead of “why we do it” then we neglect to encounter the weirdness of who we are.

The time has come to make the church weird again. To embrace all that separates us from the expectations of the world. In no other place, in no other gathering, do we willfully consider how far we have fallen from what we could be. In no other arena of our lives do we say, and believe, that there is something inherently powerful about gathering even just to sit in silence for a few moments. In no other community can we find the power and the bravery to tear down injustice and overthrow corruption and evil.

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The time has come for us to re-evaluate our “whats” and begin to shore up our “whys.” Instead of going through the motions of our faith, instead of taking the church for granted, we have to ask ourselves “Why are we doing all of this?” “What does this have to do with the kingdom of God?” “How does the church make tangible the new covenant of God?”

If we can’t answer those questions, then we need to dive deep into the “why.”

            Better yet, we should, at the very least, start with our “why.”

Why are we here? Are we here because we don’t have certainty about anything else and we’re looking for answers? Are we here because we’ve always gone to church and we don’t know how to live any other way? Are we here hoping to get something out of church?

Or, are we here because we know God is getting something out of us? Are we here not for ourselves, or our families, but for the Almighty Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Are we here because God found us when we were lost and showed us a better way?

The people during the time of Jeremiah were lost. They were lost in themselves, lost in their exile, even lost in the Law. They were a people of “what.”

            God saw their suffering, God saw their heartless practices, God saw their injustices, and ultimately saw it fit to do a new thing. The new covenant was inscribed on the hearts of God’s people, such that they would remember the “why.”

Perhaps God’s Spirit is moving again in such a way that the new covenant will break our hearts of stone and we might know that God is ours, and we are God’s. Maybe the time has come for us to question every little thing we do as a church so that we break free from our bondage to doing what we’ve always done such that we can ask why we do what we do and start over with God’s new covenant.

Perhaps the time has come to make the church weird again. Amen.

Kicking and Screaming

Mark 1.4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful that I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you will the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

All of us have questions. We have questions about what it means to be a Christian, what the bible is all about, and how to make sense of it all in the ways we live. In November I compiled questions from the congregation and created this sermon series in which I will attempt to answer some of the questions that vex us in regard to faith. Today we begin the series with, “If Jesus was dunked, why do we only sprinkle?”

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The parents stood next to me by the baptismal font, each trying desperately to keep their sons under control. Abe and Archer had never been up at the front of the church, the stained glass windows were mesmerizing, but more than anything, they just wanted to get down and run all over the place.

So I grabbed some of the water in the bowl and let it drip onto their hands as I read the words that countless Christians have heard before their baptisms. It was nothing short of God’s grace that as the water moved from hand to hand, both boys froze in their parents’ arms, and they almost prayerfully joined me in the sacrament that would change their lives forever.

I took them one after the other into my arms, lightly sprinkled water onto their heads and baptized them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Afterwards, I carried them out into the middle of the sanctuary and you could hear a pin drop as the congregation took in the beloved sight of two newly baptized boys moving down the aisle. For them, the church, it was the first baptism in a very long time, and in those two boys they saw their future.

It was a beautiful baptism, and one that I will cherish till the end of my days.

Years later I stood with two different parents, one of whom is another United Methodist pastor, and two different sons, in a very different place. Instead of standing before the church in a church, we had, as the good ol’ hymn goes, gathered by the river. And by river I mean creek.

The crowd of people snuggled closer together as the wind howled through the trees. I came prepared with waders and got appropriately bundled up before stepping into the current. And the closer we came to the moment of baptism the more frightened the two boys looked about a moment that would change their lives forever.

However, I believe it was the fear of the water’s temperature that made them quake in their baptismal gowns more than the disruption the Holy Spirit was about to make real.

I grabbed the younger one first, carried him across the waters to the deepest part of the creek, and his mother and I thrust him completely under the frigid waters three times in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And he was kicking and screaming the entire time.

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I honestly tried to focus on the holiness of the moment, doing my best to make it right, but all I could think about was whether or not the older brother was going to hightail it out of there as soon as I tried to pick him up.

But when we made it back to the shore, I deposited the one brother for the other, took him out and did the same thing. He cried the whole way back to the shore.

It was a beautiful baptism, and one that I will cherish till the end of my days.

If Jesus was dunked, why do we only sprinkle? It’s an interesting question, and frankly one that has vexed the Christian church since nearly the beginning. In the account of Jesus’ baptism by John in Mark’s gospel, it says that Jesus was coming up out of the water when he heard the voice of God, therefore implying that he had been completely under the water. Yet, in many churches when baptism takes place it is done so with the pouring of water over someone’s head, or the sprinkling of water on the forehead.

Answering this question, the one about why we baptize, is at the heart of why there is no universal church. Just take a drive through Woodbridge and you will encounter just about every flavor of church there is and one of the things that divides us is our inability to answer the question.

Some churches believe that you can only baptize adults who have made the choice for themselves. And when they are baptized it has to be “living water” which is to say it cannot be contained in something made by human hands, and has to be in a creek, river, lake, or even the ocean.

Others say you can fully immerse someone in a pool or large baptismal font.

Some churches believe that you can baptize babies, with the consent of their parents, and can do so in a great number of ways, from dipping them in the font to sprinkling water across their foreheads.

And still yet in some churches, they believe that using water in baptism is unfaithful and will instead only baptize by the Spirit without any physical object being used.

And because we have no single answer to the question, there are an almost limitless number of Christian denominations throughout the world.

Do you want to know a secret? The amount of water used doesn’t really matter. Bring a kid to a creek, or a baby to the font, or an adult to the pool, all you want, baptism isn’t about what we do, but instead about what God does to us.

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Baptism, like communion, is what we call a sacrament. It is an outward sign of an invisible grace. It is one of the ways we experience the grace of God here and now through something we can touch, feel, and experience.

It is good for us to practice baptism as such because the whole of the gospel is done to earth, it takes place in the real, tactile, fleshy world. Whenever the Spirit is mentioned in scripture it is tied to the material – real water, real bread, real flames. The Spirit fills us in church when we gather, and sends us out from the church to be in the world.

The Spirit is not something meant for our hearts and souls without the bodily experience.

That’s why the story of Jesus’ baptism has all these great physical details… The people were gathering out in the wilderness at the behest of a radical man named John dressed in camel’s hair with a leather belt, perhaps with locusts and wild honey dripping out of the corner of his mouth. John declares that the one more powerful is coming, and that even he, John, would be unworthy to untie his sandals. And then Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan, he comes up out of the water, still dripping with the experience, and the heavens are ripped apart as a voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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Baptism is not some concept that we can relegate to our minds and our philosophical reflections. It is a defining act that grabs us out of who we were and pushes us into who we are.

Churches, for centuries, have fought battles and excommunicated Christians for their differing beliefs on how much water should be used for baptism. But more important than the amount of water, is the fact that baptism is a violent, disruptive, and transformative change that takes place in our lives.

When I first baptized the boys in the sanctuary, it was picturesque; it was everyone’s dream baptismal experience. But the baptism that took place in the cold creek was more in line with the theological conviction of what it means to be baptized.

            It might bother our modern sensibilities to think about children, or even adults, kicking and screaming on their way to baptism, but when we consider the truth of what we are doing to them and for them, it might be the most proper response.

Immediately following Jesus’ own baptism, the heavens were ripped apart. This was no happy-rainbow-spewing-splitting of the heavens, it was a violent rendering of the cosmos such that the earthly and the divine were coming into contact with one another. We might, in our minds, imagine a beautiful scene where sunshine broke forth from behind the clouds to surround Jesus with a glow, but the language of the gospel beckons us to imagine a scene more akin to the violent rendering of the bomb cyclone the east coast just experienced.

Baptism, whether it’s Jesus’ or our own, is a moment of profound transformation. When we baptize someone in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are, as Paul puts it, baptizing them into Christ’s death so that they can be raised in new life with Christ.

That is no easy thing.

Baptism is the radical reorientation of all things. Whenever we bring someone to the water, whenever we remember our own baptisms, the heavens are torn apart again and God meets us where we are.

It is radical because in the sacrament we affirm that God’s kingdom is more powerful and life changing than anything else in existence. We proclaim that the water washes away every bit of who we were such that we can become the people God is calling us to be. We move into a way of being that is intimately connected with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

I was baptized nearly thirty years ago when I was 19 days old. I have no memory of it at all. I don’t even know who was there or what was said. But it made all the difference. It made all the difference because a group of people who gave their lives to Jesus believed that in giving me to God my life would be about more than me. In baptizing me into the death of Jesus, and raising me into the new life of resurrection, I began a journey that has reshaped my understanding of the world and what it means to love God and neighbor.

Baptism doesn’t promise a perfect life. It is not a cloak of protection that we can drape over those we love. It should shake us that we do something so radical to the people we love. We baptize those whom we love because we want their lives to be about something bigger than themselves, we want them to know what it means to love God and neighbor, we want them to experience resurrection here and now.

I have brought infants, and toddlers, and even teenagers to the waters of baptism again and again because what God does through the Spirit is the most wonderfully disruptive thing that can ever take place. In those moments, God speaks from the torn open heavens, just like on the day Jesus was baptized to say, “You are my child.”

            And we are who God says we are. Amen.