“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
“It must be so weird preaching in a pandemic,” he began. Unsure as to what kind of response would be appropriate I resigned myself to silence. So he continued, “I mean… how can you stand up and preach into a camera week after week without knowing who’s watching or even if people are watching at all?”
And, he had a point. It is strange standing up week after week not knowing who’s watching or even if anyone is (though the metrics indicate that more than a few people are watching. In fact, more people are watching worship online than were coming to church in-person before the pandemic…)
However, the preaching to strangers is nothing new.
Since I began standing up on Sunday mornings with hopes of speaking words about God’s Word, I’ve encountered the strange conundrum of preaching to strangers. That is, I quickly learned to take nothing for granted in terms of lived experiences, or biblical literacy, or even knowledge of the liturgy. I therefore try to make Sunday worship as approachable as possible assuming that someone, whether it was in person before or online now, could know nothing of Christianity and still wind up worshiping the Lord.
But the pandemic has exacerbated it to the nth degree.
Because we have the advent of metrics through our technology, I not only can discover how many people streamed the worship service, I can also see from where they worshiped. Which means that the church I serve in Woodbridge, VA is now regularly reaching people in Alabama, Washington, Texas, Ghana, Nigeria, Germany, and even more places across the globe.
This is something worth celebrating, but it also makes the task of preaching all the harder.
Back in 1992 (when I was 4 years old!) Stanley Hauerwas wrote, “Most preaching in the Christian church today is done before strangers. For the church finds itself in a time when people have accepted the odd idea that Christianity is largely what they do with their own subjectivities. Politically we live in social orders that assume the primary task is how to achieve cooperation between strangers. Indeed we believe our freedom depends on remaining fundamentally strangers to one another. We bring those habits to church, and as a result we do not share fundamentally the story of being God’s creatures, but rather, if we share any story at all, it is that we are our own creators. Christians once understood that they were pilgrims. Now, we are just tourists who happen to find ourselves on the same bus.” (Preaching To Strangers, 6)
The bus that is Christianity is full of people who have, sadly, remained strangers to one another. This was true when we could actually sit next to each other on Sunday mornings, and its even more true now that most of us are worshipping through our computers and phones. And nothing about Christianity was meant to remain privatized or removed from communal knowledge and experience. “Church” comes from the Greek word EKKLESIA which literally means “gathering.” And yet, such much of our gathering has entailed a uniting of people without the people having to be bound by or to one another.
Hauerwas also notes, “It is almost impossible for the preacher to challenge the subtle accommodationist mode of most Christian preaching. We accommodate the hearers by trying to make the sermon fit their established habits of understanding, which only underwrites the further political accommodation of the church to the status quo. Any suggestion that in order to even begin understanding the sermon would require a transformation of our lives, particularly our economic and political habits, is simply considered unthinkable.” (Preaching To Strangers, 9).
This coming Sunday Christians across the globe (thanks to our widely used Revised Common Lectionary) will encounter Jesus’ encounter regarding the greatest of the commandments. Those of us versed in the verses will know that his response is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
That the church chooses so often to preach love while the world (and we Christians in it) continues to revolve on, and around, hate is indicative that we have not seriously considered the seriousness of Jesus’ words. For, loving God and neighbor implies that we are no longer strangers to one another because we have all shared the same baptism together. And yet, churches are still filled (whether in-person or online) with strangers.
This will continue so long as preachers and laity alike refuse to push the church to a place where we recognize how the story of Jesus Christ has rid us of our otherness to one another. Love, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, doesn’t look like Valentine’s Day or the latest Rom-Com to drop into our Netflix feeds.
Instead, love looks like the cross – The cross upon which Jesus died for the sins of the world.
There’s no easy way to move the church away from the overwhelming context of preaching to strangers, but we can, at the very least, take Jesus’ words seriously and start actually loving our neighbors.
As the old hymn goes: “As Christ breaks bread and bids us share, each proud division ends. The love that made us, makes us one, and strangers now are friends, and strangers now are friends.”
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Have you heard of it?
It’s falling into deep, morbid rabbit holes filled with negative content, agitating oneself to the point of physical discomfort, erasing any hope of a good night’s sleep.
Basically, instead of retreating to the binge-worthy content of Netflix many of us are actually binge-watching the world flush down the drain.
We can’t unplug or disconnect ourselves from the headlines – COVID cases spiking across the country, a horrific blast rocking Beirut, social unrest resulting in broken buildings and broken people.
And, like slowing down on the interstate past a wreck, we can help ourselves from staring.
We’ve become addicted to the world of bad news so much so that a new word was created to help explain it – doomscrolling.
And it’s not just what we’re doing on social media – it’s how we’re having our conversations with friends, family, and even neighbors.
Did you see the latest numbers for the virus?
Can you believe he went golfing again during all of this?
What kind of idiot posts a video of a Corvette while preparing to run for president?
So it goes.
And, I must confess dear online worshippers, even I am not immune to the bizarre charms of doomscrolling. I find myself, at times, scrolling through the likes of Twitter and Facebook only to discover more and more bad news.
Last weekend the city of Staunton, on the other side of Virginia, experienced heavy rains in a very short period of time that resulted in horrific flooding. Restaurants, businesses, homes all filled with water that destroyed everything.
The videos and the pictures have been devastating. And they felt all the more pressing for me personally because Staunton is where I was first appointed before coming here. The restaurants and businesses were those that I frequented, and now they’re all navigating through a completely unknown future.
So I was scrolling through the videos and images, reading the comments from various community members offering support, and then I noticed a comment that seemed to keep cropping up on every different post. No matter how bad or grim the situation appeared, someone felt the need to write, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
It is my sincere hope and prayer that, in the midst of a moment of pain or fear or grief, no one has ever dismissively said to you, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
But chances are, someone has.
It is near the top of the list of Christian expressions used when we don’t know what else to say and, spoiler warning, it’s NOT in the Bible.
Sure, there are plenty of verses about how God will see us through to the other side, about how we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, and so on. But the specificity of claiming that God won’t give us more than we can handle implies a whole lot about God that it absolutely shouldn’t.
To begin with, “God won’t give you…” immediately sets up a theological understanding that God, you know the author of salvation, gives every single little thing to us, on purpose; the good and the bad, the joy and the sorrow, the love and the pain.
Which means, according to the expression, God sows our suffering.
As has been said from this place on a number of occasions, if God delights in our suffering, if God purposely sends bad things to happen to us in order to punish us or teach us a lesson or make us stronger, then God isn’t worthy of our worship.
God, absolutely, rejoices with us when we rejoice and God, absolutely, weeps with us when we weep, but that’s not the same thing as God authoring and willing every little thing that happens to us.
God is not some sadist who rejoices in our tribulations.
God is not an architect of divine destruction.
God is not sitting up in heaven plotting away about what difficult things he should send for us to handle.
Let me put it this way: Can you imagine reaching out to a neighbor whose house just burned to the ground only to pithily remark, “God won’t give you more than you can handle?”
Maybe you can imagine it, maybe you’ve even said it to someone before. And, chances are, dear listeners, you’re pretty decent people, and if you ever said something like that you were only doing so because you wanted to cheer up the person suffering, or you wanted them to believe they could make it through, or you believe that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.
And we should try to comfort those in the midst of tragedy, suffering, and grief.
We should help in ways both seen and unseen.
But the more we say things like, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” the more we make God into monster and the more we place the burdens of the world entirely on one person’s shoulder.
Jesus has been doing his Jesus thing for a little bit. Been baptized by his cousin in the river Jordan, called some of the first disciples, and word has started to spread about this Messiah man.
Did you hear the he healed Peter’s mother-in-law?
What kind of Kingdom is he talking about all the time?
And have you seen his followers – what kind of Messiah enlists fishermen?
Jesus moves from town to town, synagogue to synagogue, preaching about a new age and healing the sick all while seeking the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
But Jesus needs some rest, so he returns to Capernaum for a spell.
He’s sitting in the house, kicking up his feet, when the whole town shows up at the door looking for a word, hoping to catch a glimpse of something they’ve longed for, yearning for someone to make something of their nothing.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, some friends are milling about, loitering their afternoon away, when word of the Messiah reaches their ears.
And, without taking much time to discuss their plan, they drop everything and run to their friend’s house. They find him like they always do, laying on a mat in the corner of the room, wasting away without the use of his legs.
He can’t even put up a word of protest before the friends are dragging him out of the house because, surely, if anyone can do something about the condition of his condition, Jesus can.
They carry him through the streets on a blanket, knocking people from side to side, but as they arrive in front of the house the crowds are so thick they can’t get any closer.
Ah, but these are no ordinary friends and this is no ordinary day – they take matters into their own hands.
They lift the paralyzed man up onto the closest rooftop, and they cross from house to house until they reach their destination. They dig a hole straight through the roof, and they lower their friend to the Lord.
Jesus, now interrupted from his sermon, looks up to see the spectacle above his head and smiles saying, “Good job! I’m impressed!”
And then he looks straight into the eyes of the paralytic, having witnessed the faith of his friends, and says, “You are forgiven.”
The strange new world of the Bible is indeed strange.
Notice: Jesus doesn’t berate them for destroying property in the midst of the reckless hope for healing and transformation. Jesus doesn’t wax lyrical about what is and isn’t possible in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus doesn’t interrogate the paralyzed man about his past and every choice he ever made.
Instead, Jesus offers forgiveness.
The rest of the story includes a rebuttal from the scribes accusing Jesus of blasphemy to which he memorably replied, “Which is easier to say? ‘Your sins are forgiven’? Or ‘Take up your mat and walk’? Well, to show you that I really mean business I’m going to say both. Hey formerly paralyzed man! Get outta here and go celebrate with your friends.”
It’s wild stuff.
Jesus delights not only in forgiving the man of his sins (what sins?) but he also restores him to wholeness.
And why does Jesus do this? Well, Jesus can do whatever Jesus wants, but scripture also dangles out this little thread of the faithfulness of the man’s friends.
Friends who, in the end, have such a profound hope in what Jesus can do they carry their friend, literally dig through a roof, just so something remarkable might happen.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but think about pallbearers when I read this story – those who carry the dead into and out of the church.
I also can’t help myself from considering the many who have carried me during times when I needed it most. Friends, family, and even strangers who, when encountering the condition of my condition, said, “Okay, it’s our turn to carry you for a bit.”
Because whether it’s a friend in need, or a body being put into the ground, when we can’t handle what’s happening in our lives, we need others who can carry us, and who can carry us to Jesus.
Life tends to come at us pretty fast. These days all the more. We might’ve been fed the lie since birth that “we’re in control of our destinies” but a pandemic and economic instability is quick to remind us of the truth – all of us will face things that are more than we can handle, on our own.
So here’s a potential corrective to the statement in question today: It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle. But when life give you more than you can handle, God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.
This acknowledges that tribulations and hardships will occur and that when we go through the muck and mire of life, God will be there in the midst of it with us.
And when those time comes, because they will, it is good and right for us to admit, “You know, I can’t do this by myself – I need help.” There simply are times when we need a doctor, or a financial expert, or a pastor, or a therapist to help us through to the other die.
God does not give us what we can or can’t handle – but God does give us Jesus so that we can handle what life gives us.
There was a woman who, back in the 90’s, was struggling with a horrible drug addiction and was trying her best to kick the habit all while her newborn baby was asleep in the next room. The new mother was at the rock bottom of her life, fearing that every day she wouldn’t be able to get the kick she needed, or that her child would be taken away, or (most frighteningly) maybe her child needed to be taken away, from her.
So one night, around 2 am, she was lying in the fetal position on the floor desperately trying to will herself into turning her life around. In her hand she kept folding and unfolding a piece of paper with a phone number on it. It was the number for a Christian counselor that he mother had sent in the mail 4 years earlier, back when they were still talking.
The new mother didn’t know what to do, or where to turn, but she knew she couldn’t do it on her own so she grabbed the phone and dialed the number.
A man answered, and the woman blurted out, “I got this number from my mom, do you think maybe you could talk to me?”
She heard some shuffling around on the other line and then the man said, “Uh, yeah. What’s going on?”
She realized right then that she hadn’t told anyone the truth, not even herself, and without thinking much about it she said, “I’m not in a good place and I’m scared.” And she kept going, she told the man about her drug problem, and that she was worried about her baby, and on and on and on.
And the man, well, he listened.
He didn’t judge, he didn’t offer advice, he just stayed with her on the phone.
They phone call lasted until the sun started to creep through the blinds and the woman, noticing how long she had been on the phone, said, “Thank you for staying with me, and I really appreciate your listening, but aren’t you supposed to tell me some Bible verses I should read or something?”
The man laughed, brushed her comment aside, and she interrupted by saying, “No I need you to know how grateful I am. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”
And he said, “Listen, I’ve been trying to avoid this, I need you to not hang up. That number you called, the one your mom gave you… wrong number.”
She didn’t hang up, but thanked him nonetheless and they talked until the conversation came to its natural conclusion. In the hours that followed the woman experienced what she calls a peace she didn’t know was possible. She said she discovered, for the first time, that there is love out in the world, some of it being unconditional, and some of it was meant for her.
After that, everything changed. Not right away, but slowly, her life transformed.
When she tell her story she always ends it with this: “I now know, that in the deepest and darkest moment of despair, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come right in.”
Today we live in a world under the shadow of fear. Between civil unrest, an infectious pandemic, and economic uncertainty, we’re all looking to put our hope somewhere. The world puts its hope in human strategies – the belief in progressivism is very tempting! But as Christians, we know that human strategies rarely, if ever, work.
But God is full of impossible possibility. God can make new what no one else can. God can make a way where there is no way.
In the end, that’s what God’s all about. God helps us handle what life gives us through Jesus Christ.
Sometimes it’s through a wrong number.
Sometimes it’s through a group of friends willing to dig through a roof.
God won’t abandon us to our own device. God won’t leave us alone. God won’t let life get the better of us.
Because when life give us more than we handle, God will help us handle all that we’ve been given. Amen.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
The Spirit fell upon the disciples like flames of fire.
They were given the gift to speak in many languages, tumbled out into the streets, and started spitting off the Good News.
Crowds of people assumed they were drunk, even very early in the morning.
But Peter, ever eager Peter, stood and preached to the people and told them exactly what God was up to.
And that day, 3,000 were added to the early church.
That should be the end of the story and we should be able to move on to the next relevant narrative. After all, it’s the Acts of the Apostles so it would nice to find out what happens next. Maybe jump to the early details of Saul soon to be Paul. Or maybe give us an update on what the women who went to the tomb were now up to. Maybe we could catch a glimpse of the powers and principalities plotting against this budding group that just won’t shut up.
But that’s not what happens in Acts.
Luke just keeps going. The story continues by showing, rather immediately, how the Holy Spirit is embodied by those who are now part of The Way.
They devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching.
They gather together in fellowship.
They break bread and feast with one another.
And, finally, they share their prayers.
But it’s more than that.
We, those of us for claim to follow Jesus, we can point to any of those descriptions as being part of our faith lives even today.
On a weekly basis many of us commit ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, we gather (even on the internet) to share in fellowship with the revealed Word, we offer signs of peace to each other with the breaking of bread, and, at the very least, we pray.
But wait, there’s more!
And the more is something that, we confess, we’d like to overlook at times.
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need.
I mean, God, it’s all good and fine if you want us to put some money in the offering plate or donate online every once in a while. We’re even on board with serving meals to the homeless so long as it eases our guilty consciences.
But selling off our possessions and distributing the proceeds to other people?
That sounds awful.
Luke choses this moment, having learned that the Good News is spreading like wild fire, to show what the early gathering of faith looks like. And it looks like a bunch of lazy pinko commies who want everything done for them.
Or, that’s at least how some would have us imagine it.
However, the commonality of goods is set up as a concrete testimony of how empowering the Holy Spirit really is. It forces us to confront, with wonder, that something unsettling, specific, and substantial has happened to these bewildered and bewildering people.
And maybe, just maybe, we should call the first Christians communists.
That, of course, sounds ridiculous and downright rude to some of our ears. Communism, politically speaking, doesn’t really come close to the bartering and redistribution of the small and early group of the faithful, but it is notable that we find those two things to be so incompatible with one another.
Particular when, frankly, Christianity has far less in common with something like capitalism than communism.
This is somewhat of a scandal to those of us in the West, and in particular those from the good ol’ US of A. Today, with our (and by “our” I mean American) bizarre piety for, and idolatry of, free enterprise and private wealth, it’s almost unimaginable that we would ever call something like this country a Christian nation.
Or, to put it simply, if the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer, then it’s not the kingdom of God.
Certainly no one in the Acts church, not even Peter, was advocating for, or attempting to institute, some new political rule over and against the powers and principalities. The disciples were not holding informational meetings with agendas about how to get the right people elected to office. Nor were they standing on the street corners of Jerusalem handing out hats emblazoned with “Make Israel Communist Again.” They weren’t even setting up their own political action committees to consolidate tremendous amounts of money.
But the church was (and always will be) its own politics.
Our form of life as the gathering body of Christ is predicated on the sharing of goods as seen here at the beginning of Acts. And it’s not just because we think we should be doing nice things for other people.
It’s simply the embodiment of what we really believe.
God has made all things new and turned the world upside down.
However, most us would like to tip it back over every once in a while.
It’s amazing to read this little description of the early church and see how far we’ve moved away from it. But, for a long time in the early centuries of the church, the redistribution of all things was fairly normative. So much so that even by the 4th century, Ambrose of Milan refused to grant that even a rich man could make gifts to the poor. Instead, he could, at most, only restore what already belonged to them,
Say that in a place like the US today and you’re liable to get kicked out.
Again, many would consider that behavior and idealism downright awful.
But how could it ever be possible unless people were filled with awe?
They devoted themselves to this wildly different way of living, instilling a sense of value and worth in all people, and then they broke bread together with glad and generous hearts.
Which, in many senses, means they liked to have a good time with each other.
And, this makes a lot of sense. When you take away the things that tend to divide us from one another the most (namely economics and possessions), when those walls are torn down forever, there’s no better way to respond than by throwing a party.
This really is at the heart of what it means to be a gathering people, to be the church.
Go through the Gospels sometimes and note how many times Jesus “was at table with them.” And the them in that sentence contains a whole bunch of people who never would’ve eaten together otherwise.
Jesus goes to a wedding, and when the host runs out of wine he makes manifest the first miracle so that the party won’t stop.
Jesus comes upon a tiny little tax collector, a man who has made life miserable for so many, and what does he do? He invites himself over for lunch.
Jesus meets the deserting and denying disciples on the shore of the sea with some grilled fish and a nice loaf of artisanal bread.
Of all the criticisms lobbed at Jesus by the governing and religious authorities, the fact that he ate with sinners is one of the things that comes up the most. They couldn’t stand the company he kept at table. Receiving the outcasts, eating with the marginalized, instilling worth and value in people who felt worthless and valueless was Jesus cup of tea.
And it drove people crazy.
It would be quite easy, therefore, to take this text and preach it at people like all of you in such a way that you would feel guilty for not inviting more of the riffraff over for dinner. It’s not all that difficult to raise up the redistribution of goods here in Acts and drop that like a bombshell on the dozing church and triumphantly declare that you all need to get your acts together!
And, that’s all fine. Perhaps we should feel guilty for the company we keep and maybe we should feel guilty about how we keep holding onto all our earthly possessions while people around us starve.
Jesus failed to make distinctions between people and we can’t get enough of it of those distinction that people squarely in their places.
But, haven’t we heard all of that before?
We need longer tables, and more open churches, and bigger feeding programs.
Preacher types like me remind people on a somewhat regular basis that Jesus has given us work to do. That we must rid ourselves of our addictions to the old systems of prioritized self-interest that result in the first being first-er and the last being last-er.
But has that kind of exhortation ever worked?
Notice: when Jesus went to the wee-little man’s house for a mid-afternoon snack, he doesn’t tell him to go and repay everyone he wronged.
The tax collector comes up with that all on his own.
Notice: The Holy Spirit doesn’t command the early church to set up programs for food delivery and economic redistribution.
They just start living differently.
Being filled with awe, really filled with awe, is a crazy thing and can make us do crazy things.
And what could fill us with more awe than knowing that Christ chooses us?
Or, let me put it another way: What if what we’re supposed to focus on isn’t so much our need to have bigger visions of the kingdom, but that Jesus’ vision of the kingdom was big enough to include us?
Or how about this: What if instead of thinking about what we would have to do to get criticized for the people we hang out with, we thought about how Jesus would be criticized for hanging out with the likes of us?
Because, let’s admit it, we don’t have a lot going in our favor.
We do things we know we shouldn’t.
We avoid doing things we know we should.
We care more about ourselves than other people.
Giving up our possessions so that those who have nothing can have something doesn’t sound like a good deal.
And knowing this, knowing that we bristle at the ideas and images of a radical way of life, knowing that our addiction to self-interest isn’t something we can kick, Christ comes to us and for us anyway.
It’s like we’ve been brought before the throne of God and every single one of our mistakes is paraded out in front of us. With every instance we cower closer and closer to the floor. And at the end, Christ looks at us, really looks at us, and says, “It’s okay. I forgive you.”
That is radical.
Perhaps even more radical than inviting a few extra people over and giving away a few things to make someone else’s life a little better.
Once we even come close to realizing how ridiculous it is that Jesus has invited us to his table, how bewildering it is that in him all things are held together, how perplexing it is that through him the first have become last and the last have become first, then we can begin to see what it means to be filled with awe.
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.
I love and loathe the 23rd Psalm. I love it because it brings a sense of peace whenever I read it and I loathe it because it is, by far, the most overused psalm from the entirety of the Psalter.
When I visit folk in the hospital and ask if they would like me to read some scripture, they invariably ask for Psalm 23. When I meet with families to prepare funeral services they request a read of Psalm 23. If you’re with a group of Christians and someone says, “The Lord is my…” there’s a better than good chance that the room will finish the sentence and keep on going to the very end.
Now, to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it being the most popular psalm, but it does mean that we know it without really knowing it.
When was the last time you thought about how the Lord prepares a table for you, in the presence of your enemies? For many that would strike a sense of fear, rather than comfort. Or, when was the last time you thought about dwelling in the house of the Lord your entire life? I know some of you love church, but to dwell in the house of the Lord for the rest of your life would have to mean that you really love church.
But today, the bit that sticks out the most to me is the psalmist declaration that the rod and the staff of the Lord are a comfort. This sticks out to me because the rod and the staff are tools used by shepherds to keep their wandering sheep in check.
Another way to encounter the verse would be like this: “Even though I’m going through some tough stuff, I’m not going to be afraid, because God is with me and knocking me around until this stuff really starts to sink in.”
These are uncertain times – the numbers of confirmed Coronavirus cases in Virginia keep going up day after day, schools are closed for at least another 3 weeks, and local grocery stores are starting to shift around their operating hours to help mitigate the rate of exposure.
And yet, strangely, the psalmist reminds us that, even though we are sequestered into our homes and are limiting our interactions with others, are not alone. God in Christ has come to dwell among us, to be present in our prayers, to be revealed in the reading of the Word, and even to rest in the silence with us that we otherwise try to avoid.
Sometimes it takes a lifetime of Sundays before the Gospel message finally hits home. Sometimes it takes a pandemic to remind us of our fragility in a world that keep foolishly promising us that we’re invincible. Sometimes it takes reading the most popular Psalm for the thousandth time before we can start to see the most beautiful aspect of it: the fact that its true.
We tried something different in church yesterday… Instead of the typical ~15 sermon, I broke the congregation up into groups and sent them to different rooms throughout the building. Below I have included the directions for the group leaders in addition to the questions used for discussion. After the groups had spent a significant amount of time together, I invited them back into the sanctuary for a brief homily to connect the scripture with our activity.
We Are (Not) Together – Group Leader Instructions
Below you will find step-by-step instructions to guide each group through their time together. In light of your leadership during the activity I will share with you the reason for our activity, but I ask that you do not share it with the group – Many of us attend church on a regular basis, we see the same familiar faces, and yet we don’t have an intimate knowledge about those whom we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Over the last few weeks I have been particularly struck by our lack of knowledge in regard to the people in the pews on Sunday, and when the text for worship came up with a focus on “working together” I had the idea that we might try to work together on working together.
Each group will be asking and answering questions in order to learn more about our community. My hope is that we will begin to know more about one another than just where each person sits in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. The quality of the answers should be emphasized over the quantity. I would rather you only get to one of the questions and really learn about each other than get to all of the questions without really soaking up the answers.
Reread the following portion from our text for the day:
1 Corinthians 3.9
“For we are God’s servants, working together: you are God’s field, God’s building.”
Ask everyone to share their names.
Say: “For the next 15-20 minutes, we will be speaking casually with one another about our respective interests. This is not going to be a densely theological conversation about “When was the last time you felt God’s presence?” Or “What sins are you currently struggling with?” Instead, our time we be focused on what makes you, you. By no means is this mandatory, and if there is a question that you do not want to answer, all you have to say is “pass” and we can move one to the next person. However, if you can answer the questions, it will allow for greater growth and fruitfulness in this church and in our community.”
Below are a list of questions that you may use for the group. The idea is to read one of the questions aloud and then ask everyone to respond in a circle, or at random, or any other way you’d like. I have prepared more questions than you will be able to answer in the time allowed but that’s okay. I trust you to know and judge the situation such that you can choose the right questions to get conversation flowing. A primary emphasis should be placed on giving every person ample time to respond so that everyone will learn a little bit about everyone else. If a natural conversation begins in response please allow it to continue so long as it fits with the general nature of the activity. However, if someone begins to monopolize the time, or become too long-winded, please ask them to conclude so that the group can move on to the next person.
What was the last good movie you watched and what made it good?
What is your “go-to” restaurant in Woodbridge and what do you usually order?
What is one of your most memorable birthday presents and how did you feel when you opened it?
If you could have one superpower what would it be and why?
If you could recommend one book for all of your friends to read, what book would it be and why?
When was the last time you felt truly joyful and what were the circumstances behind it?
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
What is your favorite thing to do in the winter and why?
If they made a movie about your life, which actor would you want to play you and why?
If you could only eat one type of food for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Who is your hero and why?
What is one thing that you’re extremely proud of from your life and why?
If you had a time machine, to what time would you travel and why?
If you could have a conversation with one person from the entire history of the world, who would it be and why?
If you had an entire vacation paid for, where would you travel and why?
What do you think is the greatest invention from your own lifetime and why?
Depending on the service, we need everyone back in the sanctuary by 9:15am or 10:45am. When your group comes to a time that naturally allows for a conclusion I ask that you pray the following words out loud, and then lead your group back to the sanctuary.
Prays: “Lord, you know each of us and have called us by name. In the midst of our community together, we give you thanks for each person in the group and for everything they have shared today. We praise you for the many ways in which you have revealed yourself to us through one another. We pray, Lord, that you might instill in each of us the beauty of our community. Give us the strength to live in harmony and work together for your kingdom. Amen.”
For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
What are churches for? One on hand, churches are physical spaces for God’s people to get together. And that makes sense – we are a people who recognize what comes from communing with community. The church is also a symbol. It stands as a beacon of a different way of being in which we know and believe we cannot make it through this thing called life by ourselves. And still yet, the church is practical – we need somewhere we can gather and sing and pray and listen and eat and baptize. We need a place for study and for contemplation.
But mostly, church is a place for us to come to grips with the strange new world of the Bible and recognize how that strange new world has become our world.
A few years back I got a knock on the door of my office and a man asked if he could speak with me. He introduced himself and told me that he was married in the church forty years ago and that his wife had died the day before. He said that he woke up that morning and realized he had no one to tell about his loss – no family, no friends, no church community. So he got into the car and drove to the place where their marriage began and told a stranger about how he was feeling.
The church is a lot of things, more things that we often realize, but if it is anything it is a place where loneliness is combatted with every fiber of our beings. Part of what we read in scripture is the witness that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian because Christ has gathered all of us together.
We are God’s servants working together. But how can we work together if we’re not together?
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
The church is on the brink of schism.
On either side people, lay and clergy alike, keep flinging their disappointments and their differing theologies at one another and it seems as if there is no future in which we stay together.
One pastor put it this way, “I have spent twenty of the best years of my life serving the church in which I have grown closer to more people than I can count. For a long time it was my friendships within the church that kept me with the church. But for the sake of a high and holy cause, I can let all of those friends go. I can no longer live solely for myself, nor for the present age alone, but only for God for eternity. I have prayed, and I have waited, and I must either submit myself to the way things are, or to leave. I have chosen the latter.”
Another said this: “It is not just for the great number of Methodists across the world that we plead, not even the millions we have yet to reach, but simply for the church herself. We wish to speak the truth in love. Treating people the way we have is simply wrong, cruel, and unjust in all parts and principles because we have denied freedoms, numbed the mind, and killed the soul. How we have belittled particular individuals must cease now and forever.”
And still yet another said this, “It matters not how we treat particular people – this is the way it has been and it is the way it shall continue. The matters of individual liberties belong to Caesar, and not to the church – otherwise God would have intervened.”
Have you heard people speak this way about the church? Or perhaps you’ve read an article in the newspaper about our irreconcilable differences? Great and powerful leaders in the church are looking through the legalities of separation because it seems like we can no longer remain together.
By the way, does anyone happen to know what year it is? I can’t quite remember. 2020? Oh, you’re surely mistaken. The year is 1844 my friends, how could you have forgotten!?
Those quotes I read, contrary to what we might’ve thought, were not shared over the last few weeks by pastors offering too much information on their respective Facebook pages. Actually, they are all from the year 1844 when the Methodist Church was fighting about whether or not to stay together. And what was the actual matter at hand? Slavery.
One of the great ironies in the church is that we call ourselves United Methodists and we are anything but united.
The church in Corinth was similarly divided. In Paul’s first letter alone we can count at least fifteen different problems the apostle had to confront including lawsuits, idolatry, prostitution, and a whole lot more. But here, right after his pronouncement of grace upon God’s people, he got down to the business of addressing partisanship – otherwise known as divisions.
We’re not entirely sure how it happened, or even why, but the Corinthian Christians factionalized behind different leaders. Some followed Paul, some Cephas, and some Apollos. And the disrespect they held for the rival leaders extended down to the individual followers as well, such that some of the followers of Jesus refused to break bread with one another.
It doesn’t make any sense.
I mean, how can an organization founded upon the principles of total inclusion descend into such rampant division? How can a people told to love their neighbors as themselves cease to love their literal neighbors? How can something as united as a church break down into different factions?
Those questions were asked in Corinth, they were asked in 1844, and they’re still being asked today.
The gospel itself doesn’t make a lot of sense. As I said last week, and will be saying over the coming weeks, grace is really really messy. It is not simple – For, what God did, makes no sense to us. It makes no sense to us because we would not have done what God did had it been up to us.
The gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, the message of salvation made available to all, is so contrary to everything we think we know about the world and even, at times, contrary to everything to what we think we know about the church!
I mean, is the gospel really for all? What about the real sinners (let your minds wander), do they have a place in the church? How would we feel about the outsiders being let into the inside?
We might bristle at the thought, but we can’t ignore that making the outsiders the insiders was exactly Jesus’ cup of tea.
Faith, whatever it may be, is confounding precisely because it runs counter to so much of what we’ve been taught to expect about the world. It is challenging to wrap our minds around which, incidentally, is why we keep coming back to church week after week in hopes that we’ll get a better angle on all this.
Now, of course, there will be plenty of other folk who will try their best to convince us that there are easy steps to Christianity, that if we follow a simple formula we will get our lives perfectly sorted out. Countless books are sold every year on that premise alone.
There will always be Cephases and Apolloses vying for our allegiance.
But the word from scripture, and in particular within the Pauline corpus, is that if the steps to a better church or a better life are easy, then they are completely bogus. The most challenging things in life, namely change, require communities of people to sustain us through something as difficult as transformation.
It can take a lifetime of coming to the table over and over again before we really start to believe that Jesus would do what Jesus did, even for us!
It can take decades of Sundays hearing the gospel story before it finally starts sounding like good news.
It can take generations of patient faithfulness before we begin to see how foolish the message of the cross is, and how everything we do hangs on it.
Which leads us back to Corinth, and in a sense back to 1844, and back to the church today. All churches throughout time have fallen prey to the temptation of easy answers. And who can blame them? If people provide the answers we already want to hear, then why not follow them?
There have been plenty of Apolloses and Cephases over the centuries. As Christians we so regularly self-identify around particular leaders who give us what we want to hear. Tribalism runs rampant in the church such that since the very beginning of the church there have been alternative modes of the church within the church!
But the cross demands something different and something far more difficult.
Most of us here today have come of age in a world in which we are so comfortable with crosses dangling around our necks and adorning the top of our steeples, that we cannot conceive of crosses as anything but sterile symbols of something vaguely religious.
But the cross is, and forever shall be, a shocking thing.
2,000 years of church life has made it next to impossible to consider how shocking it was to preach a crucified Messiah during the time of Paul. The next closest thing would be hanging hypodermic needles around our necks, or placing electric chairs on top of churches, or hanging nooses on the walls of our living rooms.
The cross is death. Which is why Paul can say, “The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
The world doesn’t want death – it wants other signs of worldly power. And yet our King of kings rules from a cross, and one of his final pronouncements is not an exhortation about all we must do to earn a spot in his kingdom. Instead, Jesus uses some of his final earthly breaths to declare one of the strangest things of all, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
And, indeed, we have no idea what we are doing. We are a people at war – not necessarily in the conventional sense but we are certainly at war with one another these days.
The United Methodist Church is battling about who can marry who and who can get ordained. We appear at the brink of schism, dooming ourselves to repeat 1844 all over again.
Our partisan finger wagging continues to divide families, and friends, and co-workers. We identify who is in and who is out by the name of a candidate on a bumper sticker or by the avenue by which they receive their news.
We write people off for Facebook posts and tweets and delight in our ever tightening tunnel vision about reality.
Our tribalism is going off the rails and, shockingly worst of all, it seems like we actually enjoy it.
The word of the cross is not easy to proclaim. It wasn’t easy for Paul, it wasn’t easy for the church in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and it’s not easy today.
The word of the cross is a stumbling block to those who call themselves religious and it is foolishness to those who delight in the rise of secularism precisely because the cross stands as a beacon to a different reality, a reality we wouldn’t choose for ourselves.
For as much as the cross is a sign to the world about the forgiveness of sins, it is equally a reminder that we have plenty of sins for which we all need forgiveness.
Or, to put it another way, we cannot look at the cross without confronting the inconvenient truth that we are the sinners for whom Christ died.
We confess, however, that we would much prefer to hear a different kind of message about the cross. Perhaps something a little more uplifting, or at the very least something optimistic.
Ultimately, whether we like to admit it or not, what we really want is to be told that we are right and they, whoever they are, are wrong.
But, again, the cross tells us something different – the cross tell us we’re all wrong.
Jesus was put to death by the legitimate powers of his time – He was denounced by the Roman governor, flogged and beaten, and was taken along with common criminals to be executed outside of the city.
He was condemned to death by all of the best people of church and state, and was condemned for crimes against religion and government.
This is a challenging thing to confront – particularly for those of us who feel good in our piety, or happy in our political proclivities… Jesus went to the other side, he went to be with the people we would rather ignore, and he took his place upon a cross because we put him there.
We hate it, we don’t want to even get near it, here in the ivory towers of our own making. But Jesus, the one we worship and adore, Jesus is on both sides. He is on the side of the victims and on the side of the perpetrators. He eats with sinners and tax collectors. He speaks to the powerful and to the weak.
That is why the gospel is so overwhelmingly radical – When we say Jesus is for all, we really mean all.
We are not united. We have plenty of divisions cropping up all the time that keep us from one another. But there is something that truly unites us – the gospel. It is radically inclusive in ways we can’t even dream of. Whether we like it or not the gospel refuses to divide the world up into the correct and the incorrect, the righteous and the unrighteous, the innocent and the guilty. Jesus takes all of that into himself and says I forgive you.
It’s foolishness according to the world, but to us it is the power of God. Amen.
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
She’s looks up at the strange man in whose arms she is being held. Her mother and father are standing nearby with looks of hopeful anticipation but she keeps looking at the man who seems to be talking to everyone else.
There’s a bowl of water nearby. She wants to touch it. But the man keep moving her around.
Suddenly everyone gathers closer and the man’s voice grows very soft. She feels a cold slither making its way down her head and she hears the word, “Father.”
The liquid spills onto the top of her dress when she she feels the cold across her scalp once again though this time she hears the word, “Son.”
She feels the goosebumps spreading across her body and all she really wants is to be held by her mother when the final handful of water splashes all over with the last words, “Holy Spirit.”
The last thing she remembers is being carried by the man around a large room filled with people all staring, staring right at her, with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes.
She grows up in the church, or at least that’s what other people say, but she’s not there every week. She knows all the words to some of the hymns, she always dips her bread in the cup with practiced precision, and she sees plenty of pastors come and go.
And then she leaves, off to find her own way in college. She doesn’t know who she is really, or even what she wants to do, but she studies hard and pours herself into her work.
Graduation comes and goes. Boyfriends come and go. Jobs come and go. And with each passing momentous moment, she feels a little less than she did before. The people and the work and the moments require so much of whoever she is.
She has children.
She finds herself back in church.
She leaves the church.
She buries her mother.
And then her father.
She brings the first child to college, and then the second.
She volunteers in the community, makes new friends, starts a book club.
She realizes that she has more gray hair than brown.
She drives by a church on a Sunday morning and, on a whim, she decides to stop and go inside.
The pastor stands at the front of the room, with a little baby in his hands and two parents on the side. He lifts water from the fount and places it gingerly on the tiny little head. And the last thing she hears before the tears starting streaming down her face are the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.”
Who am I?
Where do I belong?
What give me worth?
These questions, whether we are young or old, they never really go away; we are a people looking for answers.
And, more often than not, we go looking for those answers in all the wrong places. We seek out our identity in our spouses or our children, we claim ourselves in our work or our vocation, we even define who we are by our accomplishments or retirement accounts.
But those things never bring us what we need.
What we need, according to Isaiah, is to hear how God is the one who gives us identity and value.
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
I have redeemed you!
The people who heard these words from Isaiah were bloodied, bruised, and bedraggled. They were thrown into exile without hope for the future. And in God’s most bewildering of ways, these tender words remind the people Israel who they were, and whose they were, despite their identities and circumstances.
We often don’t like the so-called “God of the Old Testament.” God sends a flood to wipe out the humanity God had created in order to start again. God asks a father to sacrifice his only son in order to test his faithfulness. God sends an entire group of people into exile for their continued sins and ignorance of the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast.
But, to be abundantly clear, the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament!
Only in God’s infinite and unknowable wisdom does the exile become the mechanism in which the people Israel become who God always intended them to be.
In that time, living as strangers in a strange land, if the exiles were able to take a good and hard look at themselves in the mirror they would’ve seen a tiny, miserable, and insignificant band of uprooted men and women who were standing on the edges of the empire.
But Isaiah screams out at them in the midst of the suffering and isolation and fear: “That’s not who you are! You don’t belong to Babylon, you don’t even belong to yourselves, you belong to God!”
They are a hopeless people in desperate need of hope. But where in the world could they find hope in the midst of such uncertainty? The hope they so desperately needed is not within them, it is not even in some leader who claims to speak on behalf of all the people.
Their hope, their only hope, is in the One who has not turned away from them.
Today, just as in the time of Isaiah, we let our sins define us and those around us. Whether it was a one time mistake, or even a habitual failure, we name and are named by our failures. We’ve grown far too comfortable with letting a choice define an entire person’s life.
And yet, and yet (!), we are precious lambs of Jesus Christ in the sight of God despite our sins! That’s crazy! No matter how horrible we feel about what we’ve done, no matter how judgmental we are regarding the actions of the people around us, to God we are precious.
To God we will always belong.
However, lest we fall prey to the belief that God’s loves gives us the freedom to do whatever we want, to whomever we want, whenever we want… that’s not what Isaiah is saying. The prophet is looking out on a people in the midst of uncertainty, then and now, and says that when we fail and fall (because we will), whether as individuals or even as churches, we can take comfort in the realization that our sins do not prompt God to quit loving us or laying claim to us.
God’s love doesn’t free us to sin. God’s loves frees us from believing that our sins define us.
We can put our trust and hope in a great number of things – a spouse, a job, a politician, a bank account. But all of those things will eventually fail to give us what we’re looking for.
Instead, the prophet Isaiah calls us to put our hope and trust in the One who never abandons us.
Today churches all across the globe are celebrating the baptism of Jesus Christ. They will encounter the wonderful story of Jesus being compelled to the water and receiving his own baptism by his cousin John. And it is a rather fitting moment for us considering the fact that in baptism, God marks us and claims us as God’s own children. In the water, God seals God’s love for us, no matter what we’ve done and no matter what we will do.
In the water, we are precious.
Baptism, though we only receive it once, is not something that we do and then wash our hands of it forever. Our individual baptisms are something that we return to over and over again. At our church today we were planning to baptize a grandfather and his granddaughter, but the snow prevented us from gathering together! We were going to surround them at the fount as they heard the words that countless others have heard. I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit – you are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.
And then the plan was to have everyone come forward to place their fingers or the hands in the water to remember their own baptisms – to be grateful and mindful of the water that brings us our truest identities.
Throughout January we’re doing a series on What’s Right With The Church? There’s plenty that’s wrong, but there is far more right with the church than wrong. In the church, and in particular through the sacrament of baptism, we discover that we are wanted and loved by God regardless of whether we deserve it or not.
That’s pretty crazy when you think about it!
While we live in a world in which institutions and individuals can regularly disappoint us or even abandon us, God says, “I have called you by name, and you are mine!” Amen.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” Because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
My first Sunday at Cokesbury felt like a whirlwind. I remember being extremely nervous and trying desperately hard to remember every name that I heard. I remember praying out in the narthex that God would make something of my nothing. I remember worrying about whether or not all of you would laugh when I made a joke about being closer in age to the youth than to almost everyone else.
But I also remember feeling like I blinked and the worship service was over and all of the sudden I was upstairs sitting at a table with my wife and son, wondering what had just happened. People were milling about, waiting to eat their food, when someone motioned for me to stand up and pray, so I did.
I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was probably something like, “Lord, bless the food we are about to receive that it might nourish our bodies for your service. We are grateful for the land that it came from and the lives that were sacrificed for it. Please help us be mindful of those who do not have food like this, and friends like these. Amen.”
And like the words implies, with the “amen” everyone promptly dug into all of their food.
But, anyway, after eating there was some time for questions and answers. I don’t remember any of them. Though I do remember that after all was said and done, somebody came up to me and asked, “Are you going to pray like that before every meal?”
I wasn’t sure how to respond, but I asked if I misspoke during the prayer, after all it was a rather overwhelming day. And they said, “I don’t like thinking about things dying just so I can eat.”
When we eat, we are doing something remarkably profound. It is always more than satiating the hunger in our bellies, it is always more than moving our mandibles to chew, it is always more than a perfunctory necessity. For us to eat – others have to die.
But many of us, including that person my first Sunday, don’t like confronting the profound reality of our eating and our food. We’ve grown content with the ultra-commodification of our eating whereby we can get anything we want, whenever we want it.
And we don’t have to think twice about where it came from, or what it took to get to us.
Food is important! No only because without it we die, but because our food, and how we eat it, says so much about who we are, what we believe, and what we value.
Just about every religious system in the world have some sort of rituals, or rules, or expectations about food. In Buddhism vegetarian diets are desired, in Hinduism beef is prohibited, in Islam and Judaism the consumption of pork is not allowed, and in Christianity, we believe Jesus is the bread of life.
Food is important!
And yet here, in America, our connection with and to our food is one that has altogether lost its sacredness.
20% of all American meals are eaten in car. That means the average American eats at least one meal in the car every other day. And the overwhelming majority of those meals are consumed alone.
1 out of every 5 children will go hungry, multiple days without eating, at least once a year. And among Black and Latino children the rate is 1 in 3.
And somehow (!) we throw away more than 40% of our food every year – a waste of $165 billion annually.
We have such little respect for the food we eat, and don’t eat apparently, that we rarely even think about it. And those who hold the power and economic dominance in food production have convinced us that we should prefer food that is already prepared. Countless companies will grow, deliver, and cook food for us (just like out mothers) and convince us to eat it. That they do not yet offer to insert it, pre-chewed, into our mouths is only because they have found no profitable way to do so.
Food, though theologically and biologically important, has become just another chore on our never-ending to-do lists and with every passing year our kitchens more and more resemble filling stations, just as our homes more and more resemble motels.
Eating food is one of the most primal and basic and simple ways we learn to delight in each other, and in the goodness of God’s creation.
Eating with other people is without a doubt one of the most important and practical ways by which we overcome the barriers of ignorance that separate us from one another.
We are what we eat.
Or, perhaps a better way to put it would be: we are consumed by what we consume.
It was on the other side of Easter when the disciples were out fishing one night, and when they returned to the shore in the dim morning light, they saw a man standing by a charcoal fire. They know, or maybe they don’t know, that its the resurrected Jesus, and he has decided to make them breakfast on the flames – bread and fish.
We know that they ate, but we know nothing of what they talked about during the breakfast chatter – but when the food was finally consumed, Jesus asked Peter three times about his love.
Three times in order to redeem the three denials of Jesus prior to his crucifixion.
And as Peter’s frustration grows with the persistent line of investigation, Jesus’ resolve remains steadfast – Feed. My. Sheep.
The food by the shore is simple, it is local, it is fresh. And it is after consuming the food that Peter is in the place to be redeemed – to be turned back to the Lord from his wanderings. It is in the call to feed the sheep, to feed the disciples, perhaps both literally and figuratively, that Peter returns to the fold of discipleship.
This story, this little vignette by the charcoal fire, is a prelude to what we do at this table, God’s table, when we commune with one another and the Lord. As we break bread we are being warmed by the fire lit by Jesus, we are filled with the bread of life to do the work of God in the world, and we are made right in our willingness to answer Jesus’ question.
Jesus knew that one of the quickest ways to our hearts is through our bellies. And there is a vulnerability, strangely enough, that comes with food and with gathering around a table together. Taking the time to make a meal, whether simple or complex, shows a deep love for whomever we are cooking.
I imagine that many of us can remember profound moments from our lives, little windows of profound change and discovery, that came around a table with food.
And yet, we are eating around the table with others less and less. We see our eating and our food as another notch on the check-list instead of the life-giving and transformative moment by the seashore.
Because this table, in this sanctuary, is not the only table where we break bread and discover the presence of the Lord. This table extends far beyond the confines of our church and is available and manifest whenever we gather to eat.
As I noted at the beginning of the sermon, and every sermon this month, we have been taking time to encounter the simple qualities of complex realities, but we have also been leaving each Sunday with a challenge.
This week we are encouraging everyone to invite someone over to eat.
The meal can be as simple as cold cut sandwiches or as complicated as a five-course meal, it doesn’t really matter (though the more intentional you are with the food the more your guest will feel the love). But we are asking everyone to consider a person, family, neighbor, co-worker, whatever and invite them over for a meal.
That might sound overly simple but that’s kind of the point. We want everyone to consider how their tables are an echo of this table right here and how gathering at home for food with others is a foretaste of the new heaven and the new earth.
And so you can leave it right there, invite someone over for a meal, or you can take it a step further by going through all of the food you currently have – in the fridge, in the freezer, in the pantry – remove anything that is expired, and donate everything you know you won’t actually eat. And then map out all of your meals for the following week. Instead of resigning yourself to picking up a prepared meal, imagine taking the time and energy to make a least one meal a day.
And finally, if you want all the extra credit you can muster, having already invited someone to your table and then reimagining all the food you have, invite someone to eat at God’s table. It can be the person, or family you invited to you house, or someone completely different. But if we believe that what we do at this table is absolutely transformative and all powerful, then find one person to invite next Sunday when we will gather at this table yet again.
Because here, around the bread and the cup, we are truly consumed by what we consume. As we feast we are not individuals daydreaming about our own salvation, in communion we are absorbed into something much larger than our individual identities.
This is something we do, together.
As Christians, strangely enough, we believe that through eating we become the body of Christ and that entails a willingness to be food for others.
Just as we are fed, so too we feed those around us.
This table, any table, is an opportunity to meet the risen Lord by the fire beckoning us to another meal in which we become what we eat. Amen.
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any among you cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.
On Friday evening I stood in the sanctuary with a wedding party and was attempting to guide them through a rehearsal of what would be the wedding ceremony on Saturday evening. The bridesmaids, of course, were attentively listening to my directions and promptly moved through the church accordingly while the groomsmen, of course, were joking with the groom and trying to distract him from everything we were doing.
We finally got to the portion of the rehearsal when I lined everyone up by the altar and gave the bride and groom a glimpse of what would be said and done during the exchanging of vows, when one of the groomsmen leaned over to the groom and made a jesting comment about his weakness and inability to get the thing done. To which the groom triumphantly declared, “No! Seven days without prayer makes one weak, and I am strong!”
Which just so happened to be the words on our church marquee when he arrived for the rehearsal!
When should we pray? Some might say that prayer is necessary when we feel overwhelmed by the darkness of life and we are in need of the light. Some will say we need only pray when we actually need something. And still yet some will say that we should pray only when we are in a place to properly praise the Lord before asking for something.
Sadly, prayer is often made out to be a conditional proposition in which we must be in the right place, or we must offer God the right words or phrase in order for it to become efficacious.
However, prayer (at least according to St. James) is something that we should do, regardless of the circumstances. Pray when you are suffering, and pray when you are cheerful. Pray when you are alone, and ask other people to pray for you when you’re in community. Prayer, in and of itself, is not something that can or should be relegated to particular times and moments. Instead, it is something we are called to do without ceasing.
For it is in prayer that we are made strong in our faith, in our convictions, in our beliefs that we are who God believes we are.
So pray when you are up and when you are down. Pray when all is well and when all is hell. Pray when you are received and when you are nowhere believed. Pray until sinners are justified, until the devil is terrified, until Jesus is magnified, and until God is satisfied.
Pray then in this way: Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this say our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
For the month of September we’re keeping things simple – though, when in the church is anything simple? When in our lives is anything simple? Well, we’re going to try and bring some simplicity in the midst of all our complexities each Sunday till the end of the month.
The whole series is focused on the materially simple life that Jesus led, taught, and exemplified. And, each week, we’re going to have a challenges that accompany our worship.
The first week we were challenged to spend time every day being grateful for our time. The second week we had a clean out challenge where we reflected on what really matters in our lives. And last week we were asked to take a look at our finances and imagine ways to be more faithful with our money.
Today we’re moving on to the subject of prayer.
The bible spends a lot of time addressing a great number of topics, but time, possessions, money, prayer, and food are the topics that Jesus talked about the most. And, when Jesus addressed these issues for the people of his days, he came at all of them with an air of simplicity that is often lost in the church today.
There was a time before I was your pastor.
I spent a summer in Detroit Michigan helping a church and I was asked one Sunday to be the guest worship leader and preacher at a church downtown.
My answer was, “Yes! I’m 23 years old and I have no idea what I’m doing!”
I wrote a perfect 2,000 word sermon, and when the Sunday arrived I put on a suit and a bow tie.
The church was a gothic-like cathedral with massive stained glass windows made by Tiffanys. When I reached for the door it was locked and I had to wait for someone to show up and let me in.
No one spoke to me, there was no bulletin, so I just sat down by the altar.
I realized quickly that this church was no how I imagined it would be. Not only was I the most over-dressed person there, I was also the only white person.
A group of women joined me by the altar and they just started singing a hymn. And when they finished they started a second. And when they finished that one they started singing a third.
An older gentleman slowly made his way to me down the center aisle and shouted, “Son, if you don’t say something, they ain’t gonna stop singing.”
I had never been to a black church before and it was a very difficult experience. In the white church I grew up in, the expectation was silence while the preacher preached. But in the black church this is quite the opposite.
So I pulled out my sermon, and I tried to preach it the way I thought sermons were meant to be preached: “The Lord has gathered us here today for his most divine Word, that it might dwell in our soul.”
And a lady in the front row shouted, “Lord!”
And I thought, wow, I’m pretty good at this preaching thing – so I kept it up.
“The God above has been so good to us.”
“Lord!” She shouted again.
And I just kept preaching like a fool until she said, “Lord! Please help this young man!”
She was praying. For me! And I needed it.
So with her final and desperate prayerI took off my suit jacket, untied my bow tie, threw the sermon off the pulpit, walked down into the midst of the people and I said, “My name is Taylor, and I want to tell you about a story from the Bible that changed my life.” And then I did.
At the end, when I said “amen,” they all did too.
Prayer is at the heart of the Christian life. It is something Jesus consistently did throughout the gospels, it is something we do here every single week, and I would venture to guess that most of us here, in a variety of ways, pray every day.
But prayer, with all of its prevalence in the church is something we don’t really talk about. Sure, we might do it, but what is the it we are doing?
Prayer is simply communication with God, though it can take place in a variety of ways – They can be spontaneous, or read entirely from a text, or it can just be silence. It is time apart from the regular movements of life to commune with the Lord is such a way that our needs, desires, and hopes are expressed while recognizing the immense wonder of God through whom we receive our blessings.
Prayer is the powerful means by which we discover who we are and whose we are.
For as long as I can remember I have been the de facto pray-er at all of my family functions, and this began long before I was a pastor. I’m not sure what granted me this responsibility, but it has surely been mine. And frankly, I don’t feel like I’m all that good at it.
Even though it is at the heart of so much of what I do, I still feel like being asked to pray is like being asked to be pious for just 30 seconds, and I can’t help but feel like sometimes it falls flat.
How would any of you feel right now if I asked you to stand and pray on behalf of the whole church? Where would you begin?
For many of us prayer feels like the burden of pretending to be more faithful than we really are. We supplement words in our prayers that we would never otherwise use, and when we’re done we can’t help but wonder where all of that actually came from.
Praying off the cuff is no easy thing because we’re often made to feel like it has to be a certain way, or at least sound a certain way, when the truth of prayer is that it is nothing more that learning to speak with, to, and about God.
God doesn’t need our protection, nor does God need our deception. God can take us and our prayers just as they are because God can handle us. We don’t need to curtail how we are feeling, or defer from the truth of our reality, we can be more honest with God than anyone else.
Just read some of the psalms, they don’t hold their punches.
God does not want us to come to the altar, or clasp our hands together, differently than from how we live the rest of our lives – the truest and holiest prayers are those that sound like we’re talking to a friend.
And yet, for some of us, this will still be a challenge. Confronted by the sheer and stark reality of being in a space all alone, talking to God who might feel far away or silent, we don’t quite no what to say.
And that’s okay.
Because even though prayer is at the heart of what it means to be a disciple, that doesn’t mean we have to do it on our own, or off the cuff – some of the most important and life-giving prayers are those written long before we arrived.
We can pray like first disciples: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…
Or pray like St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, not so much to be understood as to understand, not so much to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving we receive, it is in pardoning we are pardoned, it is in dying that we are awake to eternal life.”
Or we can even pray like Jesus: “Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, now what I want, but what you want.” Or, to put it another way, “Let thy will be done.”
We, like countless Christians before us, can rely on the prayers of the saints to give voice to our feelings and needs that are difficult to articulate. We can lean on them, because they leaned on the Lord to pray the prayers they prayed.
But, of course, we can also pray our own prayers, and by we I really mean we. Notice, the Lord’s Prayer, the text read for us today and the prayer we pray in this room every week is not, “My Father who art in heaven.” It is, “Our Father.” The language of the prayer is decisively communal and met to be prayed as such.
And that’s exactly what we’re going to do right now.
In just a moment I’m going to break us up into small groups here in the sanctuary, and each group will be responsible for writing a prayer together, a simple prayer that could be prayed by anyone in the group. And once we’ve all had the time to work together and come up with something, each group will need to select a pray-er who will stand and pray the prayer on behalf of the group…
Amen. As I noted at the beginning the sermon, each Sunday this month we are taking the time to encounter the simple qualities of complex realities, but we will also have challenges that accompany our worship. And I know, that for many of you, what we just did was enough of a challenge, but we’re going to keep the theme going.
This week we are encouraging everyone to pray daily.
You may take the prayer that you just wrote with your group, or you may write your own, or you may use another prayer like the Lord’s Prayer or any other and we would like you to pray that prayer at least twice a day: when you wake up and before you fall asleep.
That might sound overly simplistic, but that’s the point. We want to consider how different our days would feel and become if we began and ended them in prayer, knowing that even if the words are not our own, they may at least convey some sense of who we are, and whose we are.
And so you can leave it right there, praying a simple prayer at least two times a day, or you can take it one step farther, and find at least one person this week, and ask how you might pray for them. Listen to their concerns or joys, and then rather than praying about it when you get home, take them by the hand and pray right then and there. Because the truth of prayer is that sometimes people need people like us who can pray on their behalf when they do not have the strength, nor the words, to do it on their own.
And, if you want serious extra credit, find at least one person this week, and ask them to pray for you. For many of us, the call to pray for someone else is good and fine, but the hardest thing of all is admitting that we need to be prayed for as well. So find someone who love and trust, and humbly ask them to pray for you.