Knee-Jerk Love

1 John 4.7-11

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

Love has got to be once of the most misused and misunderstood words in our entire lexicon. Think, if you can, about the last time you used the word – perhaps you said it to a family member this morning, or maybe you used it in reference to the breakfast you consumed, or the movie you watched last night, or even the way you feel about this church.

In our daily live we drop the word “love” like it’s going out of fashion – Oh I love your outfit! You’ve got to watch this new show on Netflix, I just love it! There is no restaurant on this planet that I love more than Chic-Fil-A!

We love to love love.

And, more often than not, out love is directed away from what’s essential and toward the things that do not actually provide life. It has become far easier to express our love for meals, and experiences, and even God than toward our families and fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

That might seem and sound strange, but it can be pretty easy to love God. God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food! God does all kinds of nice and wonderful stuff for us. And because we’ve relegated God to some realm beyond, we can talk about God in this place and use words like “love” while acting as if God isn’t even in the room.

Our world is terribly confused about love.

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Perhaps it’s so confused because love can be so convoluted. We read from 1 John that love is the hoped-for and normal response between people and the Lord. Love is perfected in God, and God is perfected in human love. This love, whatever that actually means, calls us to see the sacred and holy not in God alone, but also in each person whether we think they’re worthy of love or not.

            It is in the loving of the other that we, and they, are made both human and holy.

And this is at the heart of it all. We can talk about how much we love God because God loves us, but without loving our fellow human beings, we cannot know God!

Let that sink in for just a moment – without love for one another, we cannot know God.

And love is difficult! Differences in nation, religion, gender, generation, sexual orientation, race, they all have these unspoken rules and guidelines about who should be included in the loving circle of comfort. However, those same rules and guidelines also tell us implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, who is not worthy of love.

But we’re here in church, so we must be doing something right. Otherwise, why else would we gather early on a Sunday morning to day-dream about God? We could take the time right now to examine the evil people in the world, as opposed to those we love, and explore what it would mean to change our behavior toward them. But that’s no easy task, and that’s not really what John is talking about.

Love is this: Not what we can do, but what God can do through us. We know love, and we know God, because God was, and is, willing to love us even though we do not deserve it. God sacrificed God’s own Son, for us, in spite of us.

That is love.

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Therefore the act of loving the other is not so much about conjuring up in our minds the most evil person in the world and deciding to love him or her, but instead looking a little closer to home at those who produce a knee-jerk reaction in us.

Do you know what I mean when I say knee-jerk reaction? It’s that almost involuntary feeling we experience when we experience something outside of what we are comfortable with.

You might consider yourself a modern person, but how do you feel when you see two men or two women kissing in public? You might imagine that you have a pretty cosmopolitan view of the world, but how did you feel the first time you saw items in the grocery store listed in a different language? You might even think you’re a pretty racially progressive person because you attend a church that looks like this on Sunday morning, but how would you feel if this is what your home looked like on Sunday afternoon?

Those are knee-jerk reactions.     

Just over a year ago my family and I drove up to Woodbridge to start looking at houses. We searched online through our parameters and eventually had a list of homes we wanted to see in person. The very first house was in a nice neighborhood, not too far from the church, and when we pulled up in front of the address we immediately started to imagine ourselves living there. We walked around the front yard while we waited for our realtor, made comments about the trees and expressed our delight in the thought of our son playing in the front yard.

When our realtor finally arrived he walked briskly over to us and said, “I’m glad you two have a list of other homes to see cause you’re not gonna like this one.” I said, “Wow, I appreciate the wisdom, but I’m curious, what is it about the house that make it so bad? Is there something wrong with the roof? The foundation? The air-conditioning?”

All he said was this, “Come back here around 4:30pm and take a good look at the type of kids getting off the school bus. You don’t want to live here. Why don’t you let me show you some nice places in Stafford? I can get you into a nice neighborhood where you won’t have to worry about any of those types of people.”

Those types of people.

He had a knee-jerk reaction toward that which was different from himself. When he looked around the neighborhood and saw different skin pigmentations, he made an assumption that it was not the place for us, because presumably it would not be the place for him.

And that man is no different than any of us here this morning. For some of us it’s race, for others it’s class, or economics, or sexuality, or religious convictions, or political persuasions. We all have some sort of knee-jerk reaction to the other in our midst.

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Hopefully some of us are self-aware enough to already know where and who those types of people are for us. It won’t take us long to conjure them up in our minds, and we still experience that knee-jerk of confusion, frustration, and even anger.

For others of us, it will be a little harder. Whether it’s because we think too highly of ourselves and imagine that we have no judgments of others, or because we sit in places of privilege and we are never made to feel less than ourselves by others, or we haven’t taken the time to address our sinful and harmful feelings toward others, it can be very difficult.

Love is a very difficult thing. And again, I’m not talking about the love any of us have for our families or friends or spouses, but the love that we are called to have for the very people who draw forth knee-jerk reactions in us. Love is a very difficult thing.

And yet, and yet, God loves us. And not only that, God is love.

The Greek word for love here in 1 John is AGAPE – it is a love that gives without expecting anything in return. It is a form of love that is sanctified and sacrificial. We might even call it unconditional love. And that’s what God is, AGAPE.

God is not the love that we often experience in our regular daily lives, a love that is contractual, a love in which “I’ll do this if you do that.” That’s is not AGAPE.

God is love, offered freely to us, the very people who have no reason to deserve it. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

We are the beloveds of God. We are those who receive the impossibly possible love of the divine.

God is love. God is AGAPE. Dare we say anything different? In this broken and battered world ruled by impersonal forces, ruthless principalities, and extremely complicated issues, some might want another gospel. We might want church to simply be a place where we can gather to feel better about ourselves. I know of no better way to feel joy than to know that God loves me, even me, in spite of me.

Yet, to proclaim this thing we call church as anything less than the heart of the universe as being a pulse of mercy with infinite passion and love and grace for all is to betray the gospel.

God as love, as AGAPE, pushes us to love everybody. And we cannot scare people into acceptance, or terrify them into tolerance. That will only result in a tepid version of reception that has almost nothing to do with love. It will result in a world still ruled by the powers and principalities. It will result in certain people not wanting anything to do with certain people.

In the church, in the fellowship of God with God’s people, there is little room for those who nurse grudges, who seek revenge, who assume superiority, or care little about the needs of others. Mercy and forgiveness and love are at the heart of God, and therefore they are poured on us!

            We are God’s beloved, we are God’s AGAPETOI.

True AGAPE love, the very nature of God, is loving the very people who create within us a knee-jerk reaction. Christ died for the godly and the ungodly. God gave of God’s self for us and for all. In the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, all of humanity has been bound together by a love that will not let go: A love for the beloved. AGAPE for the AGAPETOI.

In each of your bulletins you will find a very special piece of paper. It is special because it is blank and because it is for you and you alone. All of us are going to take a few moments to prayerfully consider the people who produce knee-jerk reactions within us. We are going to contemplate the people in our lives, not far away and removed, but people we regularly encounter who make us feel uncomfortable, and frustrated, and angry.

And then we’re going to write it down on the piece of paper, and fold it in our hand. We are going to hold onto the name or the type of person tightly in our hand, we are going to grip it tightly until we need to let it go. And then we will. Amen.

 

(During Communion each congregant was invited to drop their paper in a large and clear baptismal bowl, the paper is specially designed to dissolve in the water such that we can experience how, in baptism, all of these false identities have been washed away.)

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What We Believe Shapes How We Behave

Mark 1.29-39

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

After a month of answering your questions during our January sermon series, I am happy to be moving on. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy tackling different topics, but I always look forward to getting back to the rhythms of scripture in worship. The problem with taking time every week to answer specific questions from a biblical perspective is the temptation to do what we pastors call “proof-texting.” It is the practice of taking verses or passages out of context and re-appropriating them in whatever way helps to craft the argument.

Perhaps the best, and by best I mean worst, example of this is from Ephesians 5.22: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as you are to the Lord.” As soon as those words just left my mouth, the women perked up and the men grew smug smiles on their faces. But this verse has been used again and again to subordinate women in terrible and horrific ways. And what makes it all the worse is that we take it out from the whole of the bible and use it like a weapon.

But the verse immediately before “Wives be subject to your husbands,” says, “[Everyone] be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” And just three verses later we can read “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loves the church and gave himself up for her.” The love that Paul writes about is not the Hallmark version of love, Paul isn’t saying that husbands need to buy flowers and chocolate for their wives every once in awhile (though it’s a good idea), but that husbands must sacrifice, even their very lives, for their wives just as Christ gave up his life for us.

But we don’t get that when we just pick and choose the verses we want to use.

The beginning of today’s scripture is another prime example: “As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.” Wait, what do you mean, “as soon as they left the synagogue”? What were they doing there? What happened? Is that important to know?

Dividing the bible into discrete units is a pretty strange practice. However, it’s hard to imagine it as strange, because we’ve been doing it all our lives, but we don’t do it with any other text. Think about your favorite book for a moment, perhaps you could repeat a really moving line but can you remember what chapter it was in, or what page it is on? Probably not, but I bet if I asked you what your favorite passage from the bible is, you could not only quote it, but also provide the book, chapter, and verse.

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So here were are with this incredible story. It’s a day in the life of Jesus. After leaving the synagogue they go to Peter’s mother-in-law’s house, Jesus makes her whole, he cures everyone who gathers around the door, then he retreats to a deserted place for prayer, and finally they all depart for the next town to do it all again.

But what happened before?

Jesus brought his first disciples to the synagogue, and he taught as one having authority. While he was there, a man with an unclean spirit cried out, and Jesus made the man whole again. And his fame began to spread through Galilee.

What has that got to do with the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, and the curing of many people, and praying in a deserted place, and moving on to the next town?

            Jesus’ teaching cannot be separated from his healing.

            He practiced what he preached.     

            What he believed shaped how he behaved.

Last Sunday I stood right here and I invited the congregation to stand for our final hymn, My Hope Is Built. We were coming to the conclusion of our service after spending an hour reflecting on how God is the one who saves us, not the other way around. The first notes began to harmonize throughout this space and I did what I usually do, I closed my eyes and listened. It’s a beloved hymn of mine and I love hearing the faithful sing it together. But for some reason, as we neared the final verse I opened my eyes, and I looked out at all of you.

In the short amount of time it took to get through the last verse, one of our congregants collapsed and was clearly not doing well. I walked forward while most continued to sing, and immediately two of the nurses from our church rushed over to check on him. The words were still bouncing off the walls as we checked on him together, and one of them ran out to call for an ambulance.

When the song ended I offered a rushed benediction, in order to clear out the sanctuary as quickly as possible and I went into what I call “boy scout” mode. I assigned tasks to different people and tried to encourage others to give him space as we waited for the ambulance to arrive. Once the room was mostly cleared, I looked out our doors to see the ambulance and fire truck pull into our lot, and I walked back into the sanctuary to pray for him before he left.

But as I walked into the room, a group of eight people from the church were already huddled over him with hands touching his head and shoulders praying fervently to the Lord.

And it stopped me right in my tracks.

No one asked any of them to pray, they were not ordered to do so, and it was as natural to them as just about anything else.

By the time I got over the holiness of the moment I witnessed, I walked over and he was smiling while a group of women were fanning him with their bulletins. I said, “I know these beautiful women are making you feel like a king right now, but try to not let it go to your head.” And with that he chuckled, and winked at me.

Friends, I felt God’s presence in our worship last week as surely as I ever have. Through the hands and the prayers that surrounded Don, I experienced a moment of profound holiness where what we believe shaped how we behaved. It was powerful, and it was faithful.

For what its worth, Don is doing well, and he and his family are grateful for all of the support and prayers.

There is a healing power in touch and in intimacy. Over and over again in the bible we read about Jesus bringing restoration to people through his willingness to meet them where they were and offer them a new way. Jesus is an intimate Messiah who found individuals in the muck of their lives, who finds us in the moments of our deepest frustrations, and says, “follow me.”

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From the very beginning of scripture, up through the end, we see again and again that it is not right for human beings to be alone. We are at our best when we join together even while all the odds are stacked against us. We are the truest form of God’s dream for us when we gather together rather than trying to do it all by ourselves. We are the faithful vision when we congregate as a congregation.

No one can do it all on their own.

And when you’ve had a taste of what the healing power of community can do, it changes you forever.

Jesus took Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. I’ve seen depictions of this scene from the beginning of Mark’s gospel where the mother-in-law is feverishly sweating under a blanket, with a thermometer sticking out of her mouth, but after receiving the touch of the Lord, she pulls our a pitcher of lemonade to make sure all the men are refreshed. But that portrayal of the scene diminishes the truth of what happened.

We read that she served them, but a better translation might be she ministered to them. Not unlike what the pastor is supposed to do for a church, gathering them together attending to their needs, challenging them to be better. In some churches we call this the work of a deacon, a service ministry to the community.

In many senses, Simon’s mother-in-law is the first deacon. She was touched, and it changed everything. Not only did it restore her to health, not only did it bring about a sense of wholeness in her being, it propelled her to minister to those nearby.

She was given a job to do.

This is exactly how Jesus lived his life, it’s what he called his followers to do, and I caught a glimpse of it last Sunday here in the sanctuary.

Fair warning: “practicing what you preach” is no easy thing. There will come times when the last thing we want to do is gather with the people whom we call the church. Whether it’s because they stand for different political realities, or they speak the truth in love (and it hurts), or they simply remind us too much of whom we really are, it is not easy being a faithful community together. Even Jesus needed time alone.

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After the episode with Simon’s mother-in-law, word quickly spread through the town and the first disciples brought to Jesus all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door (a reminder that all are struggling whether we can see it on the surface or not).

But in the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. After emptying himself to others, Jesus had to empty himself to God before he could go to the next town to do it all over again. It’s a dance of being filled by the Spirit, to share the Spirit, to need the Spirit again. And in this wonderful story, a story beyond the scripture we read this morning, we experience a day in the life of the Lord, a day like any other day, a day perhaps like today.

When I was ordained, the bishop placed his hands on my head and shoulder and said, “Take thou authority. Go and comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” It’s not an easy task, but it’s one we all get to experience right now. In just a second I’m going to invite all of us to comfort someone in the church who is afflicted, and it’s going to be so uncomfortable that you’re going to feel afflicted while you’re comforting. It’s so much easier to pray for someone than to ask someone to pray for you. To say, “I am broken, I need help, I am not the whole vision God has for me.”

But if we can’t do that for each other as the church then we are not the church. So… sorry that I’m not sorry. Go find someone you don’t know, and pray for each other.

Devotional – Psalm 25.5

Devotional:

Psalm 25.5

Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.

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On Friday, at a campaign rally in Alabama, President Trump suggested that any “son of a b!@#$” who kneels during the national anthem should be fired. His comment was made in reference to the growing controversy initiated by the (former) NFL player Colin Kaepernick who last year knelt during the national anthem to protest police shootings of black people. And as more and more players began to join Kaepernick in demonstrating, responses from political figures have garnered a lot of attention including the recent comments from the president.

At both a wedding reception on Saturday evening and in church yesterday I overheard a number of conversations between people about the controversy and battle lines were quickly drawn. On one side there are people who believe those who kneel represent anti-patriotic sentiments and that they are ungrateful for the military. On another side there are people who believe that kneeling in protest is part of the 1st Amendment and therefore is absolutely an American thing to do and that it should be protected.

Witnessing conversations about the American Flag and the responses of professional football players to it reminded me of Stanley Hauerwas concern that most Christians today are moved more by the American Flag than by the cross of Jesus Christ. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the flag (though it is certainly a more complicated symbol than we often think it is), but the fact that the flag itself generates more response and appears to be more powerful than the cross is something that should give Christians pause.

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It’s one thing for talking heads to ramble about the pros and cons of kneeling during the anthem but it’s another thing entirely when it comes to the realm of the church. These days the church seems to revolve around tweets from the White House more than the revealed Word of God. These days the church appears to spend more of it’s time debating the values of our country’s democracy than our Savior’s teachings and ethics. These days the church seems to believe that our salvation will come from Congress more than from Jesus Christ.

The psalmist wrote, “Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” As Christians, our God is the God of salvation, God is the first and the last, and God is the one for whom we wait all day long. Our creeds and our prayers, our hymns and our scriptures, all point to the definitive claim that God is the source of our being and that the cross of Christ is, and forever shall be, the most determinative symbol in our lives.

But sometimes, it doesn’t feel like it.

Instead, in the realm of the church we label one another as liberal or conservative when we’re supposed to see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. When we have culture wars over things like NFL players kneeling during the national anthem we classify entire groups of people as pro or anti American, we neglect to remember that all of us are children of God. When we are more concerned about how someone responds to the flag than we are about how someone responds to the grace of God, we neglect to be a church that can faithfully say: “Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation.”

What’s Right With The Church?

Psalm 145.1-8

I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable. One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate. The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed, and I will declare your greatness. They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of your righteousness. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

 

People outside the church love to talk about its faults and failures. For instance: Church organizations were able to mobilize and respond to the recent devastation in Texas and Florida before FEMA or the Red Cross, but whenever the Church is in the news it has to do with a failure to keep track on money properly, a scandal involving clergy, or a denomination’s vote on something like homosexuality.

Last week I shared some stories about a recent wedding I presided over, and I told you about how effusive some of the people in attendance were with their praise. There is something strange and mysterious about a wedding that leads people to speak in deeply honest ways. Perhaps it’s the fact that love is in the air, or that reunions are bringing people together, or the free alcohol. However, what I didn’t share with you last week were the negative comments from other people.

“I don’t think you’re gonna have a job much longer preacher. You know the church is dying right?”

            “How can you support a system that is so archaic and out of touch with reality?”

            “You seem like a nice guy but I think the church is more responsible for evil in the world than good.”

It’s easy to pick on people outside of the church who are so harsh and judgmental with their language. It’s easy to pick on them because they’re not here, they don’t know what God is up to, they don’t know what the church is really like.

And for as much as people outside of the church love to talk about its faults and failures, people inside the church might be even worse.

I went to my first clergy meeting for the Alexandria District this week and I was struck by how somber so many of us were. Throughout the time of our gathering there was far more negativity than positivity, and at some point it felt like the whole point of the meeting was to get preachers together to complain about people like you.

            What’s right with the church?

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A few years ago I was given a copy of sermon preached by a man named Zig Volskis in 1987, the year before I was born. In it he attempts to answer that very question, “What’s right with the church?” Zig, like me, was frustrated with all of the negativity surrounding the church and instead he wanted to focus on the life-giving elements of the body of Christ that is the church.

Zig preached that as a child he would have responded to the question with: the church bells and music. They both represent the energy and depth of the worshipping community through sounds and communal response. The music of the church reassures the people that God is the one in control, even is the world claims the contrary.

As an adult, Zig claimed that his answer had changed over a career of serving the church for thirty years. He believed the best thing about the church is that it endures. Empires come and go, even church buildings are destroyed by war and exodus, yet the body of Christ always endures. With all its blindness and plundering, for all its inability to faithfully use its enormous resources properly, the church has sought to minister to human needs in thousands of different ways. And, for untold numbers of persons, the helping hand of the church has been a lifesaver.

Zig ended the sermon with a call to those who love the church: make more room for church, bring to the church your best and highest devotion. And to those who are not sure about the church: you will not find perfection here, but come in anyway, and help us make the church better.

And with that he said: Amen.

Over the years I’ve thought a lot about Zig’s sermon, and in particular our willingness to overemphasize the negative rather than addressing the positive. And, I’ll be the first to admit – The church does have problems. From this Cokesbury here in Woodbridge to the great universal church, we have problems because, at its heart, the church is filled with people like us: broken, flawed, sinners.

I could take time to bring up poor management, or fiscal irresponsibility, or personal judgments. We could spend weeks talking about how we’ve failed as a church, we could spend weeks talking about how we need to get better, but in so doing we would fail to recognize all the things that are right with the church.

But the psalmist, and the witness of scripture, chooses to focus on the things that are right. I will extoll the Lord, I will meditate on the goodness of God, I will declare the greatness of God. Every generation will share with those who follow all the splendor and majesty of God.

The psalm we have today is like a hymn, something to be declared by the entire congregation. And if you look at it, and really read through each line, it is so over the top with declarations of God’s glory that it sounds like the kind of love letters middle school students used to leave in each other’s lockers.

The love and praise the psalmist has for God is not something that can remain bottled up and hidden away. There is a quality of God’s grandeur that evokes a response, it pushes us to bring forth our gladdest praise and declare from the rooftops about the mighty works of God.

However, most of us are uncomfortable with wearing our faith on our sleeves. We don’t know quite what to make of religious displays of affection. We can’t even imagine standing up in church to talk about what God has done for us.

This psalm, these words about God, they are an invitation to remember what God has done for us, and shout it out.

I love asking people to tell me about sermons they remember from the past. Such as: Have you ever heard a sermon on Psalm 145? Can you remember the preaching from when you were a kid? Can you even remember what I preached about last week? The truth is that most of us remember very little, myself included!

I think back on what it was like to be raised in the church and I can’t remember any sermon I heard. There are a couple phrases that continue to bounce around the grey matter between my ears, but I don’t remember anything more than that. But you know what I do remember? I remember the people who got up and talked about how the church had changed their lives.

I remember sitting as a child at the altar and listening to a man in a hospital gown talk to us about how the church visited him when he was in the hospital after finding out he had cancer. I remember the woman who wept from the pulpit as she was thanking people for attending her husband’s funeral. I remember the older man who was baptized in front of the whole church who then shared his story about how he lost everything in his life, and then found everything when he started coming to church.

There is a profound power in being reminded, again and again, of what God is doing in the world and in the church. There is something good and right and true about sharing stories of what is right with the church. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

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I’m going to go first, as an example, but then I want to open up this space and this time for you to share what you think is right with the church.

Shortly after I arrived here at Cokesbury, I was working on a sermon in my office when a bunch of people came in through the door and kept walking past without saying a word. I mean I was the new guy and they didn’t even both to check on me. And they call themselves Christians! I found out later they were the Prayer Shawl team, and that they had work to do in the conference room.

I sat in my office for a while, pretending to work, but what I was actually doing was eavesdropping. I wanted to know what they were really up to, I wanted to know what these ladies were really like, I wanted some gossip.

But I was disappointed. Instead their conversation was filled with affirmation for one another, and they worked and worked and worked.

You want to know what I think is right with the church? Our prayer shawl team. They gather together and have created a beautiful community designed to make the community more beautiful. They work to give away everything they’ve created to be a blessing to others. And they do so with abundant joy. Each of their shawls, and all of the squares in our bulletins today are seeds they are casting into the world, and because of their work and God’s grace, those seeds will grow to bear beautiful fruit for God’s kingdom.

So, now its your turn: What’s right with the church?

 

There are few things in this life more joyful than discovering how our lives are caught up with the great and enduring story of God’s wondrous works. As we share what’s right with the church we discover how connected we are with one another. As we listen to what’s right with the church we rediscover the faith and the fervor of the psalmist within each and every one of us.

So to those who love the church: make more room for it, bring to it your best and highest devotion. And to those who are not sure about the church: you will not find perfection here, but come anyway, and help us make the church better. Amen.

Pub(lic) Theology – What’s Right With The Church?

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Before the beginning of the Virginia Annual Conference in June, the team from Crackers & Grape Juice hosted a pub theology event at Bull Island Brewing Company in Hampton, Va. The evening was full of good music, good beer, and good conversation. Our guest was the profane and profound Jeffrey Pugh who talked a lot about what it means to be a Christian during the era of Trump. This episode is part two of our Pub Theology event in which we field questions from the crowd. If you would like to subscribe to the podcast or listen to the episode you can do so here: Pub(lic) Theology – What’s Right With The Church? 

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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 – Matthew 28.16-17

Matthew 28.16-17

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.

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Doubt has been with the church since the very beginning. Even after the resurrection while the disciples were worshipping Jesus on the mountain in Galilee there was doubt. This is a particularly interesting note in scripture considering the fact that doubt is so ridiculed and berated in parts of the church today.

In some so-called “prosperity gospel” churches if someone gets sick or loses a job the rest of the church blames the occurrence on the doubt of the individual. In other churches you might hear a sermon that makes it plainly obvious that doubting the Lord is a sign of weakness and it needs to be dismissed from the mind (or the heart). And still yet in some churches the “d” word is never mentioned because of it’s supposed negativity.

But doubt was with the disciples from the beginning! How else could a group of finite human beings respond to the infinite wonder and grace and mercy of God made manifest in the flesh?

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Doubt is not the opposite of faith. In fact, doubt is often the prerequisite and part of the cyclical nature of faith.

Two summers ago I took a group of people from the church on a mission trip to War, West Virginia and while we were there serving the needs of the community one of our members expressed doubt in God’s love and compassion when confronting the destitute poverty of the people in the community. One afternoon, while working on the floor of a house, he said, “It’s hard to believe in a God who could let something like this happen.” At that precise moment the homeowner walked around the corner laughing and said, “Honey, you are the proof that God is not done with us yet!”

Oftentimes when we are in the midst of doubt, whether a particular event has led us to begin questioning the Lord or it comes out of nowhere, it usually takes another person to show us back to The Way. In West Virginia is took a poverty-stricken homeowner to show my friend what the grace of God really looks like. When I begin questioning aspects of the kingdom or scripture or any number of things it usually takes a word or phrase from our hymnal to knock me back into the reality of God’s reign. For some people they need a friend or relative to reach out and ask to pray together. For others it takes something close to a miracle to show how God still rules this world and is the author of our salvation.

Regardless of what we doubt, or even if we doubt, the Good News is that God is not done with us yet!