Precious Lamb of Jesus Christ – A Snow Day Sermon

Isaiah 43.1-7

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.”

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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 wanders.

She marries.

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!

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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. 

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We Are What We Eat

John 21.9-17

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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

Seven Days Without Prayer Makes One Weak

Devotional:

James 5.13

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any among you cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.

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 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!

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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.

Just Do It

Matthew 6.9-13

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.

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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.

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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.

And now, let us pray, Our Father…

On The Perils Of Going With The Flow

Ephesians 6.10-20

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against the enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and have done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrow of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly as I must speak. 

A few weeks ago a young pastor got on the radio to address the nation. He offered a speech entitled, “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” Though most of the talk was highly philosophical and kind of dense, it also constructively argued against the type of leadership all too common these days. It boldly claimed that unless something changes, and changes soon, our nation will be lead in a nightmare of violence and misery.

The pastor said a true leader must know the limits of his or her authority. The good leader serves others and leads others to maturity. The leader puts the values of other first, like a good parent does with a child, wishing that child to someday be a worthy parent. 

The young preacher then said this type of leadership is better known as discipleship. Only when we see that leadership is a penultimate authority in the face of an ultimate, indescribable authority, in the face of the authority of God, then real leadership has been reached.

The pastor said, “All leaders are responsible before God.”

And right then, at that exact moment, the speech was cut off and the line held dead.

Authorities representing those in leadership found the words to be too controversial, and too critical, to allow it to continue. And so, the young pastor’s message on leadership was suppressed all under the auspices of control. 

Can you believe it? Someone was so afraid of that pastor’s words they yanked the power to the radio station just so the words would not hit more ears than they already did. Can you imagine the fear required to stop an address like that? Can you fathom the trouble the preacher got in for saying what was said?

Perhaps you can’t believe it. Maybe you’re thinking, “Surely in today’s world, no one would be so foolish to speak out against the governing authorities and the powers and principalities!” 

Or maybe you’re thinking that the freedom of speech we hold so dear in this country would prevent anyone from being cut off even if he or she was being hyper-critical of those in power.

If you’re thinking any of those things, you’re right. It didn’t happen. At least, in didn’t happen the way I described it…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

On January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany, and thus began what we call the Third Reich. Germany, the land that produced the likes of Bach, Goethe, and Durer was now being led by a man who consorted with criminals and was often seen carrying around a dog whip in public. Hitler was known for his ruthless uses of power for destructive purposes, his love of overwhelming propaganda, and his fear-mongering through scape-goating.

Not many of us today can remember what it was like when he ascended to power simply because we weren’t alive, but the world shuddered when his reign began.

Two days after he was elected by the people of Germany, a young pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address to the entire nation spelling out the dangers of worshipping a leader the way Christians were meant to worship the living God in Jesus Christ. He critiqued a people who were blind to the injustices around them already, and those surely to be committed, and called for Christians to stand firm against an idolatrous nation that would be marched to its doom.

And they pulled him off the radio before he could even finish.

Paul is quite clear in his letter to the church in Ephesus the the role of the Christian is the opposite of going with the flow. He calls for the church to stand, in faith, with all of the armor of God against the evils and injustices of the world made manifest in the powers and principalities. Stand your ground against enemies, rules, authorities, cosmic powers, and all spiritual forces of evil.

This is a call, here at the end of the letter, to be courageous with every fiber of our being regardless of the circumstances. Because standing up in our faith, not necessary for our faith but in our faith, for the vision of the kingdom of God made possible in Jesus Christ will make us unpopular, at least according to the terms and values of the world and culture around us. 

Going against the flow runs the risk of ridicule, if not worse, as we strive to be faithful people living in the community of faith.

Paul’s vision of a church that stands firm in its convictions about the first being last and last being first implies a willingness to debate, a willingness to listen, and a willingness to call into question the powers that be when their values stand in opposition to God’s. In this proclamation, God’s kingdom is the goal, while maintaining the basic principles of discipled living offered to us throughout the centuries.

Sadly, Christians like us are told all too often to just go with the flow, or to chill out, or to relax about everything under the sun. But Paul’s words beg us to reconsider our posture of passivity. 

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We are not merely sitting along for the ride while the world falls apart around us. 

We are bound to the created world around us even if we are no longer able to harmonize with it. 

We have a responsibility of standing up for those who can no longer stand, speaking up for those who no longer have a voice, and empowering those who have been disenfranchised.

And friends, this is not a popular thing to do! We would rather hear from St. Paul about how much easier our lives would be if we could just go with the flow, we’d like to read a passage about how much our lives are going to get better if we stick together, we want God to tell us that every little thing’s gonna be alright. 

Being a Christian isn’t popular, and it certainly isn’t easy.

Paul calls for us to put on the armor of God because we’re going to need it!

Some Christians, since the time of Jesus, have been willing to name the powers and principalities for what they were. They’ve stood firm, without fear, bearing the repercussions of their actions knowing full and well that God was with them regardless of the outcome. They knew the kingdom of God was more important than whatever their lives might be.

Things became quite difficult for young Dietrich Bonhoeffer after he made that first radio address. As Germany descended into Fuhrer-worship with the German church emphasizing politics more than theology, Bonhoeffer struggled with what it meant to be authentic to the Word of God as a pastor. 

With each passing day he saw the injustices and evil being perpetrated in the name of his beloved country to such a frightening degree that when he was once asked about his prayer life, he responded by saying, “If you want to know the truth, I pray for the defeat of my nation, for I believe that is the only way to pay for all the suffering which my country has caused in the world.”

By 1940, Bonhoeffer was forbidden to speak in any public forum and he was required to regularly report his whereabouts and activities to the police. The next year he was forbidden to print or publish any of his thoughts. And on April 5th, 1943, ten years after making his speech on the radio, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo for his continual Anti-Nazi remarks. 

He went to prison for two years and was thankfully able to smuggle out letters filled with theological reflections to friends and family. And though he remained hopeful that the second World War would come to an end, and that he would be released, he was condemned to death just weeks before the camp where he was held was liberated.

Right before his execution, Bonhoeffer was allowed to preside over one final worship service and his last words to his fellow prisoners were: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”

Now, there is a strong temptation for any of us here to hear a story like the one about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and regard him as an exceptional example of what it means to be a disciple. We encounter the story of his firm standing with his faith and because it is such an extreme example we can appreciate it, but we cannot resonate with it.

And this makes sense considering the fact that it is extremely unlikely that any of us here will ever be silenced, or imprisoned, or murdered for our Christian commitment to going against the flow. And yet, Paul is bold enough to conclude this letter with a call to be strong in the Lord in the strength of his power.

We might not encounter a sweeping governmental and idolatrous disaster like the one in Nazi Germany, but we all know the slippery slope that begins when we worship those in power the way we are meant to worship God.

We might not have the opportunity, nor the desire, to speak to the entire nation about the evil in our midst, but we all know of particular ways that our voices can draw attention to injustices that are happening here in our community.

We might not be punished with jail time or threatened with death for calling the powers and principalities into question, but we can all imagine the stress and anxiety that would begin if we did so in small and tangible ways here and now.

Pain and suffering will always come when one prepares to engage with the things that really matter. That’s why we need the church community surrounding us, we need the armor of the Lord protecting us, and we need the voice of the Lord empowering us.

It can be a hard word to any of us who believe that we are a Christian nation, or that Christian values are normative here, but following Jesus actually implies a willingness to be counter-cultural. It means that what we stand firm in and for are not necessarily the same things that the culture around us stands in or for. 

I often joke that Jesus could use some better PR because the stuff the church has to offer doesn’t sell very well. We don’t have simple fixes and salves that make your life go back to normal, we don’t shuffle everyone in here just to pat ourselves on the back and go on our merry way. It should come as no surprise (the more we hear what Jesus had to say) that the once large crowds all but disappeared by the time Jesus was hanging on the cross.

All of this going against the flow isn’t something we’re naturally disposed to. It is so dissonant with much of what we’ve been taught about the ways the world works.

But the kingdom is not the same thing as the world. 

We do this difficult and challenging work not because it is easy or fun but simply because it is what God did for us! If God went with the flow, or just chilled out, we would still be left to our own devices, twiddling away the good gift of creation, still suffering under the reign of sin and death.

But God, in Christ, stood firm for something different. Wearing the armor of God Jesus mounted the hard wood of the cross with the divine declaration that the power of sin, and the empire of the powers and principalities, had come to an end. With a sure and firm foundation the Lord of lords inaugurated the beginning of a new time, one in which real power would be felt in weakness, where standing firm is worth the pain, and where life could be found in death. Amen.

Drunk With The Spirit(s)

Ephesians 5.15-20

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all time and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The massive sanctuary was eerily quiet at 7am as four of us gathered for morning prayer. It was my first year of seminary and I had committed to join together with the Episcopalians every morning to pray through the liturgy and read scripture together. Some days the room would have 20-30 people, but every once in a while only a few of us would gather.

I remember it was raining and I assumed thats why so few of us managed to make it out so early. I saw by myself, which wasn’t hard to do, and I centered myself for prayer. Typically one of us, a student or a professor, would guide us through the liturgy, but on that day an Episcopal priest walked down the center aisle and guided us from behind the altar.

I know we all raised our voices a little louder than usual as were were tasked to respond because it felt like we needed to. And then right before the final “amen” the priest began praying over communion.

Up until that point in my life I had received communion hundreds of times, but only in the context of a United Methodist Church where we dipped our bread in the common cup, so you can imagine my surprise as I, the last one in line, walked forward the the priest began to bring the chalice to my lips.

I reached out my hand to take the cup myself, but he ignored my movement, and began tilting the cup. Immediately my mouth filled with the strangest and warmest liquid. I, a good Methodist, foolishly assumed that I was about to take a sip of grape juice, but I was wrong. Instead my mouth was filled with warm port wine, and the priest wouldn’t stop pouring. 

I later learned that he was going to have to drink whatever was leftover, and with such a small number of people in attendance, he tried to share the burden with me.

I kid you not, my cheeks were both puffed out as I held the wine inside my mouth, debating whether to swallow or not. I even made it back to my seat before I decided to just get it over with. The sickeningly sweet taste of the port rolled down my throat and my belly immediately felt like it was on fire. It would have been helpful had I eaten breakfast that day, or had anything to drink other than coffee, but of course I hadn’t.

So there I was, sitting in a sanctuary at 7 in the morning, a little buzzed.

I gracefully exited the sanctuary with what probably looked more like stumbling, and I giggled as I made my way to my first lecture for the day. I remember receiving a lot of strange looks from my peers as I gave them my brightest toothy grin with lips that had turned a subtle shade of red, and then as I got closer there noses began to sniff with a detective like quality.

But I was feeling fine.

Right before my professor began the class, one of my friends leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I know Paul said that we’re supposed to be filled with the Spirit, but I don’t think he meant the spirits.”

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Be careful how you live, and make the most of your time. Do not get drunk with wine! But be filled by the Holy Spirit. Paul is getting close to concluding his letter to the Ephesians and he has some final exhortations. Time is a fleeting thing, is it not? Most of us here are all too aware of how life seems to keep passing by regardless of our best efforts to slow it down. 

This thing we call time is all we’ve got. No one can add days on to their life. So with the beautiful and finite time we have, Paul urges us to resist foolishness, to withstand the temptation of temptations, and make the most with what we’ve been given.

No matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve done, all of us will experience times of emptiness. It can manifest itself in strange ways, and with unexpected consequences, but those moments will come for us all.

When the kid leaves home for college.

When the retirement celebrations come to a conclusion.

When we bury a friend.

When we see an empty pew.

And Paul knows that we need to fill those empty spaces, and Paul even knows one of the ways we do it the most: through wine!

Now, to be clear, Paul is not just standing up on his soapbox to address the virtues of temperance, but he is probing and prodding the people of Ephesus with a question, “What’s filling you?”

It’s all too easy to be filled with all sorts of trite and finite salves. Coming home from a hard day on to wallow away in a bottle leaves us withered and distracted. Reeling from a difficult conversation only to waste away some money on a gamble leaves us hollowed and guilty. Feeling frustrated by relationships only to discover the dark and frightening temptations of the internet leaves us ashamed and never truly satisfied.

So Paul suggests that we fill ourselves with something else; not a temporary fix or a hit from the nearest distraction. Paul says we should sing.

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We know today, thanks to scientific studies, that our brains literally change when we are involved in the act of singing. Endorphins are released, feelings of joy and euphoria are present, and something within us transforms.

I could regale all of you with countless stories of visiting older people in retirement homes, people whose communication with the outer world had all but stopped, until I started humming a familiar hymn and the curtain of dementia was be pulled back as we sang together.

O I could tell you the story from Acts 16 when Paul and Silas we singing in prison, singing in the midst of their bondage, when an earthquake happened and it set them free.

Or I could tell you about the time John Wesley was on a ship traveling to the colony of Georgia when a storm appeared out of nowhere and it destroyed the main mast. While he and nearly everyone else thought they were going to die, a group of Moravians were quietly singing psalms. When the storm later passed, Wesley asked them about their strange behavior, and why they chose to sing in the face of death, they responded, “If we die, we know where we’re going.

Music can make us lose control, in the best ways possible. Through music the Holy Spirit somehow grabs hold of us, and shakes us or moves us or prods us to feel something we’ve either missed or ignored. We lose control of the control we so desperately cling to, and sometimes music reminds us of the hard and beautiful truth – we’re not in control.

And most of us have a really hard time with that! Perhaps its because most of us have come of age in a world we are told again and again that we must be in control – that life is up to us, and us alone – and that if we lose control then we’ve lost everything.

Singing, music in general, is a gateway to unanticipated blessings like losing control.

Paul implores the hearers and readers of the letter to not be distracted by things that claim to fill but only leave us empty – he uses music as an alternative, and it would be easy to leave it there. It would wrap up nicely if all we really needed was to sit down every once in a while with our favorite song, or hear our favorite hymn in church.

But it’s about more than that.

Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all time and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We are filled together by the Spirit – it’s not something we’re left to do on our own. And that’s what often confounds us the most — we need each other!

The thrust and theme of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus is that they, and we (!), are no longer strangers! The community of God called the church is a people who respond to the wonderful things God has done, is doing, and will do together!

Do you know how hard that is? Waking up in the midst of our frustrations and failures only to believe that the way, the best way, to handle it all is to share it we each other… Who wants to do that? Who among us wants to stand hand in hand and sings songs knowing full and well that our lives do not look like what we portray on Sunday morning?

Well, of course, all of us here do. That doesn’t mean its easy; in fact, its incredibly challenging. Most of the time its hard to find the joy and glamour in all of it. But as we live out the ordinary moments of our lives, as we experience both the mountaintops and deep valleys together, we can be filled to overflowing with the Spirit.

This, after all, is the call of the church: to be the body of Christ, a community together, in spite of all our differences. This, all of this, is made possible and tangible in the person of Jesus Christ who came to live and die and live again in a way that makes intelligible our commitment to community.

Our call is to be the church, in all of its simplicity and complexity. And, to use Paul’s language, time is of the essence! Right now is the moment for us to make good on all the possibilities for redemption and transformation and fullness in Christ Jesus. We, the church, cannot afford to waste our time, or fill our days with frivolous pursuits, or miss this particularly poignant call.

When we, the church, are out of touch with our vocation it’s as if we’re stumbling around in the darkness like drunken fools. We might feel a welcome reprieve from the mundanity of life, we might get the hit we need to forget our frivolity, but without our call we cease to be the church.

So the questions arise:

Do we know, deep in our bones, what we are called to do and who we are called to be?

Or, are we just stumbling around in the darkness looking for the next drink, the next distraction, the next filler?

Are we drunk with wine, ego, money, power? 

Or are we filled with the Spirit?

God, strangely enough, desires our drunkenness. God wants us to be so filled and fueled by that which we consume such that we are forced to rely on the person to our left and the person to our right as we stumble around through life. God hopes and yearns for us to throw our cares to the wind as we are three sheets to the wind! 

The time has come for us to lose control and to be filled with the right Spirit. Amen. 

Metanoia

Devotional:

Psalm 111.10

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever. 

Weekly Devotional Image

Reaching new Christians, finding a way to engage with the so-called “nones” (no religious affiliation), is all the rage these days. Countless books are published about growing church by reaching new people, there are symposiums offered on the subject, and there are even “3-step programs” online about how to knock on strangers doors with the hope of getting them to become Christians.

Since the days of the first disciples the church has grown and changed with the addition of new people. Though, for the majority of the church’s life, it was not done by what we might call evangelism today. Instead it was either a matter of public normativity to be involved in a church, or people were forced into the realities of the church by overextending powers like the nation-state.

Today, however, Christians might canvas certain public spaces in order to “grow the church” by asking people to repent of their sins. Repentance, after all, is what John the Baptist was calling for in the wilderness and it’s what Jesus called his followers to do. But using it as the beginning of faith, as the mechanism by which people are initiated into the church, often falls flat.

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Many years ago the theologian Karl Barth met with a group of Swiss Methodists and they had a rather interesting exchange on the same subject:

Methodist: “Should the church, in its proclamation to modern people, follow the example of Jesus and quite decisively call them to metanoia (repentance) as the first conscious step that initiates discipleship to Christ?”

Barth: “Certainly, this question causes some upset. But to my knowledge Jesus called the pious people of his time to metanoia. These people were the theologians, the scribes, the Pharisees (the Pietists back then and maybe as well as the Methodists just a little bit), and then the Sadducees (these were the liberals). And so it makes me uncomfortable when this picture emerges: the church stands here, and over there are modern people – and now we, the Christians, call for metanoia. Is not metanoia something above all else that we must call ourselves to do, us and those like us? I would say this about our established church. It is precisely the church that actually has need of metanoia!

(Barth in Conversation, Volume 1 1959-1962)

Metanoia, the act of repenting for sins, is at the heart of what it means to be Christian, but that doesn’t mean it should be the first entry point for exploring Christianity. Who wants to join a group where the first thing you are called to admit is your wrong being? Barth was right to call the church to repent first, because the church (today) often appears to be extremely judgmental and archaic. When the church leads the way with metanoia, when the church looks in on itself and admits its faults and failure, it then can encounter those outside with an open heart to the way God is moving in the world.

Metanoia, like fear, is the beginning of wisdom, because in (re)turning toward God we are struck by the profound truth that God chooses us in spite of our faults and failures. God still sends us Jesus knowing full and well that we will have to repent again and again. God makes a way where there was no way for us to enter into the kingdom on earth. But it begins with our metanoia.

Or, to put it another way, we have to get our house in order before we worry about anyone else.

Or, to put it yet another way, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own?”