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

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

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

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  1. Names Are Important

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

 

  1. You’re Not The Only Visitor

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

 

  1. Prepare To Be Surprised

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

 

  1. Something Will Go Wrong

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

 

  1. God Is In The Business Of Doing New Things

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

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  1. God Provides

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

 

  1. A Familiar Face Can Go A Long Way

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

 

  1. Hope Does Not Disappoint

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

 

  1. The Church Is Not A Building

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

 

  1. Christ Is Alive

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

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Last Things (Part 1)

2 Corinthians 13.11-13

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Today is Trinity Sunday. It falls on the first day of a new liturgical season we call ordinary time (terrible name) and it is always the first Sunday after Pentecost. Trinity Sunday is often used as an opportunity for preachers to explain away the complicated math of a three-in-one God with metaphors that often leave congregations more confused than when they arrived. On Trinity Sunday we usually read a passage contains examples of the three parts of the Godhead working together in such a way that it can help the preacher out. However, sermons on Trinity Sunday run the risk of sounding more like a lecture, or a dogmatic defense, than sounding like the proclamation of God’s living Word.

And for us today, the scripture for Trinity Sunday has taken on another ironic twist. This bit from Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth contains some interesting language for what will be my second to last sermon in this church: Finally, farewell. Put things in order, listen to what I’ve said, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.

After serving God in this place for four years, this would not be a bad scripture to end with (Though I still have one Sunday left). It contains all the things I would want to leave you with much like what Paul wanted to leave with the Corinthians. If you live in peace with one another the God of love will be with you.

But Paul goes on to implore the gathered community to greet one another with a holy kiss, which sounds like doing a lot more than just living in peace with one another.

Holy kisses require an intimacy that many of us might find uncomfortable. To be clear: it doesn’t mean the pews turn into the back seats of parked cars at “make out point”, but it does imply a willingness to know and encounter the stranger as sister and the other as brother.

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I spent last week on the Easter Shore of Virginia with 40 United Methodists from the Staunton-Waynesboro Area for a mission trip. We represented a handful of churches and our youth were tasked with a number of work projects from reorganizing a Thrift Store to painting a dining hall to building a Habitat for Humanity House.

On our first night it was clear that this mission trip was going to be like a lot of others in that when we finally arrived and unpacked the vans, the youth broke off into their comfortable cliques from their respective churches. So we did what we always do: ice breakers and group activities. We quickly learned the names of everyone on the trip and random factoids that gave us glimpses of one another’s personalities and preferences.

But unlike other mission trips, by the first morning the home church groups started to fade and dissolve which left new friendships to determine the gatherings of our youth. I don’t know to what I can attribute the quick change and adaptation short of the fact that the youth greeted one another with “holy kisses” that first evening through questions and jokes and laughter such that they were in a new communion with one another by the next day.

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This was made abundantly evident through a number of situations, such as when we went kayaking and canoeing and the pairs did not know each other prior to arriving at camp, but it also showed up in more intimate and beautiful ways…

One of our youth, Grace, was the only girl from our church on the trip. The boys from St. John’s all love the same things: video games, Star Wars, and the internet, (they’re like younger versions of me) but Grace is not of the same persuasion. And it could have been easy for Grace to sulk in a corner and remain isolated, she could have retreated to the false sense of communion on her phone with friends back home, but instead Grace actively sought out new friends in this new place. She quickly bonded with a girl from another church and they discovered that they shared more in common than their similar sense of humor and quick wit: both of their mothers had breast cancer at the same time and were being treated at the same facility and had the same surgery.

Their bond over a shared experience was the holy kiss that filled them with the same type communion that connects the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as Trinity.

There was a boy on the trip from a different church who, years ago, had an accident that resulted in severe burns over 40% of his body. I knew him before hand well enough to know that he is remarkably self-conscious about what his skin looks like and was afraid to get ready for bed in front of the other boys in my cabin. And on that first night, after all the games designed to bring us closer together, he tentatively lifted off his shirt to which one of the boys pointed and shouted for the rest of the cabin to hear. I immediately winced and prepared myself to intervene in order to protect the boy’s dignity but then I heard what the other boy had shouted: “Dude, that’s so cool!” The majority of the cabin immediately gathered around the young boy and he beamed with pride about his scars.

And the thing that had so often brought him shame and ridicule became a beautiful example of how the holy kiss of friendship filled our cabin with the same type of communion between the Trinity.

I don’t like to make comparisons like this, but our trip to the Eastern Shore was one of the best mission trips I’ve ever been on precisely because we connected with one another in a faithful and intimate way. Rather than scattered pockets of groups and cliques we got to know each other and therefore our work became that much more faithful and fruitful.

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When we are bold and brave enough to reach out in intimacy toward the church around us we connect with all the saints and we enter into the same friendship within the Trinity.

There is bravery and boldness and confidence in Paul’s willingness to say farewell to the church in Corinth. After doing the work to unite a community and sharing with them the Good News he could have held control over what they were doing from afar, he could have micromanaged every situation, but instead he knew that God’s church is far bigger than anything he could ever do. He was able to look at that collection of Christians and know that he could say farewell because they would thrive with or without him; after all the church didn’t belong to Paul, nor was it successful because of Paul. The church in Corinth thrived and was fruitful because it belonged to the Lord.

In addition to it being Trinity Sunday, we’ve also used part of our worship service today to thank the staff of St. John’s. They have all done tremendous work for and in this place whether it’s playing music on Sunday mornings, educating the preschoolers during the week, keeping everything safe and clean, or (in the case of our secretary) being the real boss around here. But their work has been productive and faithful because they are intimately connected with one another. They do not see their jobs as jobs. Instead they see what they do here as an extension of their community such that all of them will arrive early not just to get their tasks completed but to check in on one another and do whatever they can to help each other whether it connects to their work here or not.

But even beyond this church, beyond the wonderful people sitting in the pews this morning, God is the one who makes their work, and the work of the church possible. God has blessed them with unique gifts suited for making the kingdom come here on earth through their work at St. John’s. God is the one who has filled them with grace, love, and a sense of communion that makes possible the fruitfulness this church has embodied.

And that is what rests at the heart of Trinity Sunday. Not metaphors and dogmatic dissertations, but the communion and fellowship between the Godhead – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That very communion, the friendship of the Trinity, is made manifest here every week, and whenever we gather together, as the church. It was there with us on the mission trip last week. It’s here between the staff members and all of their work. It rests in between us in these pews and is most certainly present at this table and in this meal.

We become God’s people, a people of holy kisses, when the pews of the sanctuary become avenues of connection instead of walls of division. We could easily remain isolated in our own comfortable boxes of experience, or we can do the good and bold and challenging work of Trinitarian communion – like the youth on our mission trip and the staff of this church, we can open our eyes to the fundamental reality of what God is calling our lives to look like, we can believe that we have been made one in Christ Jesus, and we can know that God is the one working in our lives binding us together for the work of the kingdom.

And so, may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of us. Amen.

Devotional – Acts 2.1

Devotional:

Acts 2.1

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.

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When was the last time your entire family was together in one place? For some it probably occurred around a holiday like Christmas or Easter, for others it might have occurred at a funeral service or a wedding celebration, and for others the possibility of having everyone together might simply be an impossibility.

When an entire family is together in one place, magnificent things can take place. All the sudden you might overhear a distant cousin telling a story when you realize he or she sounds exactly like you, or you’ll notice that that you have the same color hair as an aunt, or you begin to see how really connected you are even without seeing the whole family very often.

However, being together with an entire family in one place can also bring about conflict. Old disagreements from the distant past can percolate to the surface, political differences can ruin an otherwise wonderful afternoon, or the swift judgments of family members about their family members can show the true colors of brokenness even within a group of people who share the same genes.

When was the last time the entire church was in one place? Across the country, at least in mainline Protestantism, most churches see the majority of their members only once a month. That is why there is such an abundance of churches with upwards of 400 members, but they see less than 100 on Sunday mornings. And, even if everyone showed up to be together in one place, you would get the good and the bad just like when an entire family gets together.

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But can you imagine what our churches would look like if we were all together in one place? And, if you can, think beyond the local church, what if The Church came together in one place? That, among many other wonderful blessings, is the miracle of Pentecost. When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples in a new and transformative way, they were all together in one place even though they were not of one mind. The whole of Acts reads like a bad family reunion in that whenever they gathered together they were forever disagreeing about some tenet of theology, and it is why Paul’s letters were necessary and instructional for the Church to figure out what it meant to be the Church.

Pentecost, though we celebrate it once a year, is actually still taking place in all of our churches whenever we gather together (whether we have all our people or not). The journey and mystery of the church is a group of people striving to be together without agreeing together, it is a miracle made possible by the grace of the Spirit that binds us together particularly when we don’t want it, and it is nothing short of a miracle.

When was the last time you were together with everyone in church? This Sunday might be a great chance to encounter the story of Pentecost that is still being written whenever we gather together.

Bonus Sermon – The Bad Shepherd

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

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

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

 

Psalm 23

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

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

It was a great party.

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

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

Did he think about the words to Psalm 23?

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

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

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

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

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

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

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

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

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

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

But what did it mean to Jesus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.