Bonus Sermon – The Bad Shepherd

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

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

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

 

Psalm 23

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

ISHALLNOTWANT

 

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

It was a great party.

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

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

Did he think about the words to Psalm 23?

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

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

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

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

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

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

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

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

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

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

But what did it mean to Jesus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eucharist as Exodus

Exodus 12.1-14

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. You lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you make take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the house in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

Death is inescapable. We know this to be true because we go to the funerals for the people we love. We know this to be true because we sit in church and listen to people like me talk about it. We know this to be true because just a few weeks ago we were walking around with ashes on our foreheads, and the words you are dust and to dust you shall return were stuck in our minds.

I talk about death a lot because it seems like the rest of the world is hell-bent on denying it. Movie stars and pop icons and even politicians do everything that can to ignore the inevitability of their own finitude; they’ll get the Botox, the facelift; they’ll even participate in culturally relevant memes like dabbing now, or planking a few years ago.

Even in church we like to deny death at times. That’s why far more people will be here on Easter than the rest of our Holy Week Services combined. But if Easter is all about new life, then why should we keep talking about death?

Here in the United States, millions of people gathered in churches like this one on Sunday for the Liturgy of the Palms. Christians, like us, lifted up their palm branches and said those all-too familiar words like “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Here at St. John’s I tried my best to impart upon all of us the staggering nature of being able to shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday and “Crucify!” on Friday.

Maybe you were here and heard the gospel. Maybe you didn’t.

But by now I’m sure that most of us heard what happened in Egypt on Sunday. While we American-Christians sat comfortably in our khakis and color-coordinated cardigans, while we shook our nursery grown palm branches, two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt were bombed. Two men strapped explosives to their bodies, walked up to the respective altars, and detonated.

Dozens of people were murdered.

They died doing the same thing most of us were doing: worshipping the living God who rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

The only difference between them and us, is that they live in a world far more like Christ’s than we do.

What we’re doing here tonight is not a normal thing; it defies conventional wisdom. We could be anywhere doing anything, but instead we came to this place to share the Lord’s Supper. Being Christian is weird, it is strange, it is different. And in a lot of places, that’s enough to get you killed.

And so it was with the first disciples, who sat in a small room surrounded by their friends long ago. We are here tonight to remember what Jesus said and did in that room. The disciples were there that night to remember what God said and did on the first Passover.

The time had come to break free from the tyrannical and dictatorial rule of Egypt and to go to a strange new land. The Hebrew people were enslaved and worked to the death. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Pharaoh ordered the murder of every first-born male in every Hebrew family. Can you imagine the terror of the powers-that-be coming for your baby boy? But these were their lives, living under the shadow of subjugation.

And the time had come to break free.

God spoke to Moses and gave him explicit instructions on what to gather together, how to cook it, and even how to eat it. With specifics like an overly heavy cookbook, God laid out the plans for their deliverance: Every household shall cook and eat and lamb. Blood from the lamb shall be taken and adorned on the doorposts of the house where they eat it. You shall eat it hurriedly, with your loins girded, sandals on your feet, and staff in your hands. This will be the Passover, for the Lord will pass over the homes marked with blood and strike down every firstborn in Egypt, including the animals. But the blood shall be a sign, and nothing evil will come to you. You must remember this day every year, tell the story to your children, and your children’s children, for this is the day you will be delivered from slavery.

That’s the story the disciples gathered to remember. It’s a strange one, but they, like the generations before them, were a product of that story and it shaped everything about their lives.

And while they were sitting at the table, Jesus reached for a common loaf of bread; he gave thanks to God, and shared it with his friends. As they passed the bread around the table, Jesus said, “I am going to do a new thing, I am giving my body for you.”

And then, before the supper was over, Jesus took a cup, gave thanks to God, and shared it with his friends. As they passed the cup around the table, Jesus said, “This cup is my blood of the new covenant. I’m pouring out my blood for you, and for the world.”

In the frame of the blood of the lamb from the first Passover, Jesus poured out his blood as the Lamb of God.

christ-our-passover

Whenever we share this meal, we like to talk about forgiveness; being forgiven by God for what we’ve done. And this is good, and right, and true. But the first Passover wasn’t about God forgiving the Hebrew people for anything they had done… Passover was about God making a way out of no way; it was about freedom from tyranny and slavery; it was about the journey to a strange new land.

The Hebrew people took blood from the lamb and it was a sign for them to be saved.

Jesus took the cup and told his friends that his blood was to be their freedom from a different form or slavery, far worse than any power in Egypt then, or now. Through the Lamb of God’s blood, we are freed from death.

While sitting at the table with his friends, it’s as if Jesus is telling them that when they see him hanging on the cross, they should see a door with blood. It’s as if Jesus is telling them that his sacrifice, his death, is our exodus.

It might not feel like it at times, like when we gather in the sanctuary for a funeral or when we turn on the news and see what’s happening in Egypt or Syria or any number of places, but death no longer holds any control over us. For centuries the Hebrew people remembered how God delivered them out of Egypt, and for centuries Christians have remembered how Jesus delivered us out of the slavery to sin and death.

            Jesus is our Passover Lamb.

His blood has been spilled in the cup at our table and it covers the doors of our souls.

Tonight, Coptic Christians in Egypt will gather in their churches to remember Jesus’ final night with his friends, just like we are. They will remember God delivering God’s people out of Egypt, and God delivering them out of the bondage of death.

And we might wonder: Why stay in Egypt? As Christians, why don’t they just leave and go to a place where they can worship without the threat of death? Why not come to a place like the United States where they can be free to worship how they please?

Perhaps they will stay because they’ve already had their exodus. They’ve already been delivered from the reign of death into a strange new land we call the Kingdom of God. Maybe they’ve been shaped by the knowledge and faith that Jesus is their Passover Lamb.

I don’t know what you’re wrestling with tonight, whether you’re feeling God’s presence or it’s been a long time since you’ve felt anything remotely holy. I don’t know what sins you need to confess, or who you need to seek reconciliation with. But what I do know is that this meal is the beginning of our exodus; it is our journey to a strange new land.

So come and see that the Lord is good, let this be a moment of remembrance, and look to the cross as a door covered with blood. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 27.4

Devotional:

Psalm 27.4

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

Weekly Devotional Image

Of all the questions I get asked, the one I hear the most is: “What’s heaven like?” I’ll be down in the preschool when one of the children will saunter over and randomly ask the question with their eyebrows askew. Or I’ll be sitting with a grieving family planning a funeral service when a new widow will ask the question as if she’s never really thought about it before. Or I’ll be working on a sermon in a coffee shop with my bible open on the table when a stranger will walk up to ask the question out of nowhere.

“What’s heaven like?”

If Hallmark, the Lifetime channel, and uncles who tell bad jokes have anything to say about it, then heaven is a mysterious place in the clouds with fat little cherubic babies floating around playing harps, golden arches keeping certain people out, and Saint Peter sitting with a ledger.

st-peter-pearly-gates

If one of our preschool parents has something to say about it, then heaven (as she told her daughter) is a place filled to the brim with her favorite candy.

But if scripture has anything to say about it, then heaven is like a never-ending worship service. Which, to some people, sadly, sounds more like hell than heaven.

However, the bible is forever making connections between the worship of the Lord here and now, with the worship of the Lord in the New Kingdom. And not the announcements that always take to long to list at the beginning, and not the logistics of sitting down and then standing back up for hymns, but the beauty and wonder of encountering the beauty and wonder of the Lord.

The psalmist says the one thing worth seeking after is to live in the presence of the Lord each and every single day, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to wonder and inquire in the house of God. In weekly worship, when we experience God’s faithful presence through a choice phrase in a prayer, or a melodic move in a hymn, or even a powerful sermon, we are catching a glimpse of heaven on earth. For when we gather in the house of the Lord, when we are confronted with God’s majesty, what could be better?

As Christians, we do well to seek out the presence of the Lord here and now as foretaste of the kingdom of heaven. We do it on Sundays when we gather together to proclaim and respond to God’s Word. We do it when we are invited to the table for communion. We do it when we sit with a friend and earnestly pray together. We do it when we hear God speak to us in the still small voice. And when we do, we receive an answer to the question, “What’s heaven like?”

Too Busy To Welcome – Advent Homily on Romans 15.7

Romans 15.7

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

too-busy-for-christmas-1

When Bob Sharp was sent to Marquis Memorial, I know that he was welcomed because it didn’t take long for the church to paint his office burgundy and gold in honor of his dedicated devotion to the Washington Redskins.

When Courtney Joyner started at St. Paul’s, I know she was welcomed because she is a triple-threat: She can sing, she can jam, and she can preach.

When John Benson first preached at Augusta Street, I know he was welcomed because his people haven’t stopped shouting “Amen!” since his first sermon.

When Won Un showed up at Central, I know he was welcomed because their entire church community has developed an affinity for Kimchi and they know that if they can’t find Won on a nice day, it’s because he’s out riding his bike.

When Janet Knott arrived at Jollivue, I know she was welcomed because she preaches with gifts, and who doesn’t love presents?

When Clayton Payne began at Cherryvale, I know he was welcomed because people keep showing up week after week even though he keeps preaching the same sermon over and over again.

When Bryson Smith was appointed to St. Paul’s, I know he was welcomed because they know if the sermon falls flat, he can always sing a solo and get the people to shout “Praise the Lord!” and “Mercy!”

When Sarah Locke was sent to Christ, I know she was welcomed because people started showing up in her kitchen while she was still unpacking boxes. I know that because I was there!

I know the United Methodist churches of Staunton are a welcoming bunch because you have so warmly welcomed your pastors. But I wonder, do we welcome everyone to our churches in the same way we welcome the pastor when he or she first arrives? Do you really welcome one another just as Christ welcomed us?

When I arrived in Staunton, Won and I got together and thought it seemed about time to resurrect the Lenten and Advent luncheons. We were not here when they used to happen and so we were able to tweak the schedule and the organization a little bit. Important for us was the shifting of host churches and guest speakers so that everyone got a chance to welcome, and every preacher got a chance to preach.

Fun fact: As of Christmas day, I will have preached in every single United Methodist Church in Staunton. And it only took me three and a half years!

Anyway, we got the Lenten luncheons started again, and the first time I was invited to preach we were gathering at Central UMC. At the time, I was young and naive, and I thought it would be a good idea to wear my Carharrt Overalls when I preached from the pulpit in order to really drive home the message. Maybe you were there. Maybe you even remember some of the things I said.

I poured out my heart and soul from the pulpit at Central UMC and I did my best to make the people of St. John’s as proud as possible. Afterwards, during lunch, after the tenth or so person made a comment about my attire, an older woman came up to me and asked if we could talk (I won’t say which church she was from).

So we moved to the corner of the social hall, and she gingerly placed her hand on my shoulder and said, “I understand that you’re new to town you might be looking for a church home, so we’d love to have you join us for worship on Sunday.”

I remember just standing there stunned. I mean, it was a kind gesture for her to invite me to church (particular when the average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone to worship once every 33 years). But going to another church on Sunday is impossible.

She welcomed me, but she didn’t listen to me. I suspect that she was more concerned with having people in the pews, than with knowing who the people are in the pews.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.

How did Jesus welcome? Well, he certainly didn’t wait for people to just show up because he was having a service on a Wednesday afternoon, or a Sunday morning, or even on Christmas Eve. Jesus welcomed others by showing up in their lives, he met them where they were and ministered to them in terms and in ways they could understand. He told stories that connected with their daily living, stories about the soil and the birds of the air. He welcomed them in the midst of their suffering and isolation. He welcomed the very people who would abandon him to a table without cost.

At St. John’s we have a Preschool and I spend time every week leading the kids in what we call chapel time. I’ll take a lesson from scripture and try to rework it in ways that can understand and apply to their life.

Last week, after practicing the Christmas pageant for what felt like the thousandth time, I set up a small table near the altar and I invited the kids to come sit and listen. The thirty minutes prior to chapel time were filled with pushing and tripping and laughter and debauchery, but when they sat down around the table I started speaking in a soft voice, and they all started to listen.

I said, “My friends, I have something I want to share with you. This is bread and grape juice, but it is about to me much more than that. For this is a gift that Jesus gives to us. Some of you might do this in your church on Sundays, and whenever we sit at the table we are remembering Christ’s love for us. At this table, all of us are welcome no matter what. So let’s pray… God thank you for loving us so much that you welcome us no matter what we’ve done and no matter who we are. I pray that you would pour out your Spirit on us and make us more like Jesus so we can love others. Amen.”

And then one by one I called them by name, I gave each of them a piece of the bread, they dipped it into the cup, and the received communion.

Unlike us, the preschoolers have the benefit of not rushing around through this season of Advent endlessly crossing items off our to-do lists. Unlike us, the preschoolers don’t feel burdened by the tyranny of things and can sit quietly for a moment to receive a gift better than anything under the tree.

It often happens around this time of year that we feel too busy to welcome. We become more concerned with the wrapping paper and the ornaments and appearance of things than with the welcoming love of the Lord who was born into an unwelcoming town. When our sanctuaries fill up with more people than usual on Christmas Eve we are more often burdened by making sure everything is in the right place, than we are by making sure we are in the right place to welcome and be welcomed by the Lord.

And it is at the meal, the Lord’s Supper, the thing that most of us do on the first Sunday of the month, where we learn what it really means to welcome like Jesus. For Jesus is the one inviting you to the table, not merely hoping that you will show up to fill an empty place in a pew, but earnestly and truly yearning for your presence. You are invited because you are unique, you are wonderful, and you are a child of God. There is a place for you at the table no matter what.

Can you imagine what our churches would really look like if we welcomed others as Christ welcomed us?

Amen.

Devotional – 2 Thessalonians 3.13

Devotional:

2 Thessalonians 3.13

Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Weekly Devotional Image

This election cycle has been exhausting. The endless torrent of sound bites blasted through the television, the revelatory number of click-bait articles on social media, and the overwhelming amount of animosity between neighbors with differing political signs in their front yards have left most of us feeling weary and worn. I don’t know if this is a common thing for pastors to experience during presidential election cycles, but I’ve had more people than I can keep track of show up at my office telling me which candidate God wants me to vote for.

Many have already cast their ballots, but the majority of Americans will gather at the polls tomorrow to make their choice. Churches, schools, and other local community buildings will be filled with all kinds of people; people who are exercising their right to vote for the first time, people who feel they are being forced to vote for the lesser of two evils, people who will vote according to the party line regardless of the names attached to the positions, and people who believe that this election is the most important in the history of the United States.

Sadly, there are some for whom the foretaste of power has given them the bravado to stand outside polling areas to intimidate other voters. Whether the shout at the top of their lungs, or physically approach particular individuals, they will do what they believe is right in order to secure what they believe is right. Sadly, this election cycle has led to the bombing of political offices and the burning of black churches. Violence and fear still reigns supreme in this country. Sadly, the anger and animosity percolating in the country will not come to a peaceful conclusion when all the votes have been tallied. Many will be just as angry, if not angrier, if their candidate loses.

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Friends, in this time of great strife and division, do not be weary in doing what is right. Do not forget that the people who we disagree with politically are the very people that Jesus calls us to pray for and love. Do not forget that to be Christian is to believe that Jesus is Lord, and that God is really in control regardless of who wins the election. Do not forget that though we may not think alike, we may certainly love alike.

If you are in the Staunton area, I invite you to gather together at St. John’s UMC at 7pm tomorrow evening. As the polls close and the pundits proclaim early victories on the news, we will be in the Lord’s sanctuary feasting at the table. We will listen for the Spirit and ask for God’s will to be done. We will pray for our politicians, whether we voted for them or not.

Partying with Jesus

Luke 14.15-24

One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”

parables

Today marks the beginning of our July Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.

Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch that they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us, The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, but during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. Over the next month we will do our best to recover this sense of strangeness and encounter the power of the parables.

 

I really didn’t want to go. I’m not one to feel anxious but the entire car ride was white knuckled and nauseating. As we went around the block until we could find an available parking space I came up with even more excuses to why we shouldn’t go into the party but I kept my mouth shut. While walking up the front steps my knees began to wobble but Lindsey put her hand in mine and confidently opened the front door and walked right in.

I really didn’t want to do.

Days before Lindsey had casually mentioned that we were invited to an engagement party for someone she knew from work. We were dating at the time so I was willing to do pretty much anything to keep her interested in me so I agreed to attend. The days passed and finally I decided to learn a little more about this couple before we showed up for their party. I assumed that the bride-to-be was a fellow coworker with Lindsey, that they had spent countless hours together learning about one another, but I was wrong.

She met the woman through work because she was a customer who happened to strike up a conversation one time and casually invited Lindsey to attend her engagement party. They had barely spent 30 minutes together and we were now supposed to join her and her husband-to-be for a celebration of their impending wedding.

“We can’t go,” I declared. “We don’t know them at all! If this was just a casual double date or even a dinner party I would entertain the thought of going, but we absolutely, positively, cannot go to a stranger’s engagement party!”

            Lindsey replied, “Oh yes we can, and yes we will!”

The moment Lindsey and I walked through the doorway we were engulfed into a living room filled to the brim with party-goers. Like the proverbial record scratching through a speaker system, most people turned to look at us and when no one recognized who we were they all went back to their prior conversations. To me, it was a nightmare.

Lindsey, on the other hand, was lapping it all up. She thrives on this kind of unexpected atmosphere and quickly began floating through the house to find the happy couple. I remained transfixed just on the inside of the front door watching her disappear into a large community filled with joy. It was only when she completely disappeared from view that it really hit me how even though I was in a room full of people, I felt absolutely alone.

Jesus was surrounded by a group of people at a party when someone shouted out, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Then Jesus said to him, “A man decided to have a party and invited many. He sent out his people to those who had been invited to announce that everything was ready, but each of them started to make excuses. One of them said, ‘Sorry, I just moved and I’ve got so much to take care of at the new house; please accept my regrets.’ Another said ‘I just bought a new car and I really want to give it a test spin; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, “We just got home from the honeymoon, and therefore we cannot come.’ So they returned to the party with bad news about the impending lack of attendance. The man throwing the party became frustrated and sent them back out into the streets to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.”

I wandered around the party, looking for an opportunity to jump into a conversation with anyone about anything. Lindsey was invited, but I felt compelled to attend and was trying to make the best of it. I literally knew no one in the house and was hoping to find a place to stay put until Lindsey returned. In the den I encountered a group of good looking young couples who were talking about their strong financial portfolios, so I kept walking right passed them. In the backyard, sitting around a fire, there was another group of friends talking about the virtues of libertarianism, so I kept walking right passed them. In the dining room I experienced an air of exclusivism as the group insisted on telling one inside joke after another, and I decided to start the loop all over again. These were not my people.

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The crowded house felt like a never-ending loop of diversity and strangeness whereby I found no one like me. Everyone seemed so different and unlikely paired up in conversations and I continued to mingle about without ever opening my mouth.

In the kitchen I saw an opportunity for a small reprieve: a glass of water. My hope was that the act of walking into the space for a glass would give me a brief moment of purpose. With a glass in my hand, I turned away from the sink and was immediately met with an outstretched hand from a middle-aged man with a wide smile.

The servants returned from rounding up the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame, and still there was room at the party. The host had enough and he sent them back out once more and ordered them to compel people to come in, so that the party might be full.

The wide smile said, “My name’s Mark. Who are you?”

I returned the smile and attempted to introduce myself without giving away the strangeness of my attending a party to which I did not belong. He asked me about my work, I told him I was a student. I asked him about his work and he told me that he was in sales. We talked for about five minutes before he asked the question I dreaded: “So how do you know the happy couple?

I briefly thought about lying and making up some intricate story of our long time friendship, but after walking around without conversation for so long I decided to stick to the truth. I explained that I had no idea who they were, that they could be standing with us in the kitchen and I wouldn’t even know which two people we were celebrating. I confessed my discomfort in walking around a house without knowing a soul inside, and laid it all out.

The man looked back at me the whole time with a puzzled look on his face and then he said, “Well, I’m the father of the bride. And in my opinion it’s better to have a house full of strangers to celebrate than a house with no one at all. So I’m happy you’re here.

Parables are a strange breed. They are heard in a number of ways, even by the same person at different times. They defy explanation and demand proclamation. They should leave us scratching our heads just likes the first disciples, they should jolt us, and they should shock us.

At times we can identify with the party host. We have all spent time preparing for a celebration, filling out all the invitations, only to have people make excuses for not attending. We have known the embarrassment of putting all our energy into something and not having nearly enough people show up for the event.

At times we can identify with the people who have excuses. We’ve all received invitations to something we don’t want to attend, or something that has grown so familiar that it no longer holds the luster it once did. We have known the ease of creating an excuse in the midst of a moment and the hope that enough other people will show up to distract from our lack of attendance.

And at times we can identify with the people compelled to attend. We have found ourselves in an environment we did not deserve to be a part of. We know the strangeness of being surrounded by people who do not look like us, nor think like us, nor speak like us. We have known the joy that comes with being caught up in something bigger than ourselves, and the thrill that comes with being welcomed into a strange and new community.

That’s the power of a parable: it can strike us differently every time we hear it. A new detail will emerge that we’ve never seen before, or we will identify with a character we’ve never thought about before. The power of a parable is its ability to convey a deep and profound truth about Jesus without succumbing to the desire of explanation. We know what it means without anyone telling us what it means, even if it upsets our expectations about what the kingdom will look like. The power of a parable is its ability to show us that God’s kingdom is strange, unexpected, and beautiful.

A man was sitting in church one Sunday when he felt compelled to invite others to attend the following week. Whenever he brought the subject up with coworkers and friends they quickly and politely made excuses for not being able to attend. He couldn’t believe it; he was inviting them to discover God’s grace, not go to an office party. And as Sunday loomed closer, he began inviting complete strangers to join him in worship. He would rather have a church filled with oddballs and strangers discovering the grace of God, than no one at all.

A mother becomes distraught when all of the kids she invited to her son’s birthday party made excuses for not coming. She can’t bear to picture her son’s face while she places a birthday cake down at a table surrounded by empty chairs. So she gets onto Facebook and makes a plea for anyone, anyone, to come to her son’s birthday party. She would rather have a house full of strangers to celebrate her son, than for him to sit at that table all by himself.

A father rejoices when his daughter meets the man of her dreams and they plan to get married. In order to properly celebrate he sends out all the invitations he can afford to fill his house to the brim. And in the middle of the party he meets a complete stranger in the kitchen and believes that it’s better to have a house full of strangers to celebrate than a house with no one at all.

Partying with Jesus is a strange, unexpected, and beautiful thing; precisely because Jesus loved filling places with people who by all other accounts did not belong together. He was the original melting pot for diversity. He compelled his disciples to go out into the streets to share the good news. He knew that what he had to offer would radically transform the lives of the people who received it.

All of us are here, not because we received an invitation in the mail, but because someone once compelled us to come. They believed that bringing us in to this party was worth it because it would transform our very lives. And now we are compelled again to come to the party and to the table. Here we will feast and rejoice with the bread and the cup and Jesus is the one who looks at us in the middle of the party and says, “I’m happy you’re here.” Amen.

 

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Devotional – Galatians 1.13

Devotional:

Galatians 1.13

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Jerusalem. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.
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“Would you ever prevent someone from receiving communion?” The probing question was asked during a clergy-training event I attended a few years ago. The discussion leader pushed the question back to each of our tables for debate before offering his answer. At my table an older woman made it clear to all of us that children should not be able to receive communion because “they can’t understand it.” A middle-aged man declared that he would not give communion to anyone living in sin, particularly if they were gay. And a younger man shyly offered that he didn’t think it was his responsibility to allow, or prevent, anyone from coming to God’s table.

Each of the tables debated who should be able to receive communion, and the longer we discussed… the louder the room became. Theological and scriptural references were flung back and forth regarding the power clergy hold over God’s table; stories were shared about the merits of refusing to serve communion and the power of offering it to everyone; relational bridges were broken and walls were erected.

The leader let us duke it out amongst ourselves for some time before patiently raising his hand for silence. After waiting for a moment for our attention to move from our argumentative vantage points he said, “Remember this: Even Peter perjured and Paul murdered. God’s love knows no bounds.”

Do we get so caught up with Paul’s letters and his travels that we forget how horrible he was before he encountered Christ on the road? Do we respect his theology so much that it blinds us to the vital narrative of his life?

In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul specifically addresses his sordid past in order to demonstrate the power of God’s revelation. Only in the transformative and redemptive power of God’s divine love could a man like Paul be moved from murdering Christians to baptizing Christians.

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All of us are broken by the powers of sin and selfishness; no one is free from the temptations to take the easy path and neglect to follow the road that Jesus prepared for us. Therefore, it is vital for all of us to remember that church is meant to a hospital for sinners. No matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve done, there will always be a space for us at God’s table. The challenge is to remember that beautiful and graceful truth when we encounter people we deem less than worthy.