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. 

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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?”

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The Anger Will Set You Free

Ephesians 4.25-5.2

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk comes out of your mouths, but only what it useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Holy Week is a strange time in the life of the church. While Christians are gearing up for the joy of Easter morning, pastors like me try to slow everything down so that we can take stock of everything that happened the final week before jumping to the empty tomb.

Some churches embody this patience with dramatic performances. They’ll get actors to play all of the characters including Roman centurions guarding the tomb. And some are crazy enough to even bring a donkey into the sanctuary as a way of remembering Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem.

Other churches will slow down the week with special music and scriptures. Every night there will be time for reflection and prayer as a choir leads the gathered people through a few songs, and specific individuals will read the stories aloud from Jesus’ final week.

I got the great idea years ago to preach the entirety of Holy Week in a 15-minute sermon.

This meant that I committed the important details between Palm Sunday and Good Friday to memory as I attempted to guide the congregation through a time of encounter and contemplation. I was as passionate as possible, marching up and down the center aisle frantically waving a palm branch like the crowds who gathered outside of Jerusalem. I set up tables by the altar only to flip them over with as much force as possible to frighten the congregation just like Jesus did at the temple. And even at the end, I got out a hammer and knocked on the pulpit to really bring home Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross.

After the service ended, while I was saying goodbye to the community of faith, more than a few people said the same thing to me. “You sure sounded angry today Pastor, is everything okay?”

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So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin.

There is little truth in advertising. In fact, most of advertising is built on selling us a lie. If you buy this car you will finally find the fulfillment you’ve been looking for. If you go on this vacation, your children will actually love you and respect you. If you take this pill you will shed the extra weight you’ve been carrying around.

But Paul, Paul is a terrible advertiser for the church. While we are quick to make sure people know we have open hearts, open minds, and open doors, Paul tells the truth. The church in Ephesus is filled with all sorts of bitterness, wrath, anger, slander, and malice. So much so that Paul has to tell them to get rid of it all!

Who in their right mind would like to go to a church like that? Who wakes up on a Sunday morning and says, “Yeah, I want to try that community of selfishness, and greed, and anger!”

Paul doesn’t mince words. The church of Ephesus is messed up. They’ve got tons of problems with no easy solutions. They’ve got to drop a lot before they can pick up their crosses. The Ephesians would have to give up themselves, their need to always be right, their need to feel superior, their grudges and bitterness. They’d have to sacrifice it all if they wanted to be God’s church.

They’d have to start looking like us! Because we’re perfect aren’t we? From where I stand I see a room of beautiful people, filled with nothing but love and joy and hope. I see people with perfect families, and overflowing bank accounts. I see people without fear and loss. I see perfection!

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin.

What is the truth?

Let us at least admit that we are far from perfect here. We, like the Ephesians, are filled with bitterness, wrath, anger, slander, and malice. They might not bubble to the surface often, or even in church, but deep down we know its there. We know the people we’ve maligned, we know the bitterness we feel toward other, we know the wrath that can show up when we least want it to.

But the anger, what are we do to about the anger? Paul, in this passage alone, tells the Ephesians to be angry, and then later to put away their anger. But anger isn’t always, or necessarily, a bad thing.

Jesus was angry all the time in the gospels. As fully God and fully human Jesus could not not be angry. When he encountered the Pharisees looking on those at the margins of life, Jesus got angry. When he saw what was happening inside the temple of Jerusalem, Jesus got angry. When Peter raised a sword in the garden, Jesus got angry.

And whereas other might caution us against adding fuel to the fire of others’ anger, Jesus’ anger is a lens into the divine desire for a different reality.

Paul cautions the people of Ephesus to avoid conflict, which is a difficult thing for any group of people attempting to live and work together. But he also knows that conflict is at the very heart of who we are. And, in particular, when we are bold enough to speak the truth.

Because the truth, the hard and unavoidable truth, is that we’ve got plenty to be angry about.

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We’re angry that it’s been a year since the white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, VA and it feels like nothing has really changed. We’re angry that people in our community don’t have food to eat, or clothes to wear, or beds to sleep in. We’re angry that people are treated as less than whole because of the color of their skin, or their religious beliefs, or their sexual orientation, or their country of origin.

And we should be angry!

            Being angry isn’t a problem; it’s what we do with it that is.

We can be angry about what happened in Charlottesville, but the people marching and chanting about death to Jews and death to blacks are angry too. They’ve let their anger manifest itself in the violence and degradations of entire populations.

We can be angry about those who are suffering in our community, but there are people who are angry at those who are suffering for no reason other than the fact that they are suffering! They’ve let their anger manifest in selfish ways that belittle people for choices made on their behalf by communities who abandoned them.

We can be angry at all the people who are xenophobic, and sexist, and racist, and homophobic, but those people are angry too. They just let their anger out in horrific ways against people without caring about who they really are.

The line between anger and wrath is slim and mysterious. There is good anger that propels us closer to the divine will, anger that gives us the courage to speak out against injustice in our midst, and anger that provides the strength necessary to imagine a different way of being.

            But there is also anger that propels us closer to violence, anger that encourages us to see the other as other instead of as brother, and anger that justifies a hatred and violent way of being.

There’s a hymn that’s been around since the sixties and is filled with all of the cliché charm made possible by a Christian people in the sixties. It’s called They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love. And for as much as the hymn paints this hopeful image of the church, a church where people walk hand in hand, and work side by side, it’s a far cry from what the church actually looks like.

            The hymn sounds a lot like the terrible advertisements we see that promise us an impossible world.

And I really wonder how many people outside the church know Christians like us for our love… Because, sometimes, we Christians appear to be the most negative, hostile, and unloving people around. There are times where Christians like us relish in any opportunity to stir up and perpetuate conflicts rather than resolve them.

            I think, if we asked people outside the church, what they know us for isn’t our love, but for our anger.

So then, who in the world would want to join us? Who in their right mind wakes up on a Sunday morning and says, “Gee, you know what, I think I’m going to join those angry Christians at Cokesbury. Maybe that’s just what I need”?

            Why do you keep coming here?

We are an angry people, we Christians, and that’s okay. We worship a Messiah who spent most of his earthly ministry being angry. But our anger, like Christ’s, should not send us into despair or violence. Our anger, like Jesus’, sends us to an even stranger place: telling the truth.

And while Paul might call upon us to tell the truth to our neighbors, no doubt a worthy venture, maybe we should start a little closer to home. Perhaps the person who needs to hear the truth is… me and you.

It is so easy to hear this text from Ephesians, and imagine the other people in our lives that it seems to describe. We can immediately conjure up someone in our minds who is too bitter, too wrathful, and too angry. But the text is also about us. It’s definitely about us. There is no one for whom these words to not represent a profound challenge and a holy opportunity.

The time has come for the truth, for us to take a good hard look in the mirror and accept who we are. We can even be angry about it if we so choose. But then the anger, that raw energy, can be focused into better places, while Jesus starts working on us from the inside out.

You see, that’s why people keep coming to church even when they know it’s filled with angry people. It’s because they’re angry too, and on some level they know that the hymns we sing, the prayers we pray, they are like seeds within us sprouting into new life. They know, whether they can articulate it or not, that the church is the place where they can bring their anger, where they can be angry, and the anger will set them free.

People don’t join churches because they are open hearted or open minded, though it certainly doesn’t hurt. People commit their lives to the work of the church, Christ body in the world, because Christ is revealed in this place! Jesus is what makes our anger intelligible and applicable. Jesus takes our pent up frustrations with the world and with ourselves, and he flips them over like the tables in the temple to say, “Follow me!”

            God in Christ doesn’t make our anger disappear, church is not the salve that fixes our ailments. But it is the place where we discover how anger is the beginning of a revolution of the heart, anger is the catalyst that reshapes the possibilities we believe about the world, anger is what Jesus felt as he made his way to the cross.

            So, it’s fine if those outside the church will know we are Christians by our love. But maybe it would be better if they knew us by our anger. Amen.

Comprehending The Incomprehensible

Ephesians 3.14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

“Tell me about your prayer life…” has got to be some of the most ridiculous pastor lingo I’ve ever heard. I mean, who else would ask someone a question like that? I am rarely, if ever, happy about my “prayer life.” I consistently feel like I could be a better prayer, that I could spend more time in prayer, and that I could get more out of prayer than I usually do.

And, to be honest, I’m not even sure how I learned to pray in the first place. Maybe prayer is like learning to read. I know that at one point in my life I didn’t know how to read, and now I do, and I’m not really sure about the magic that made it possible.

Tell me about your prayer life… How would you feel if I asked that question, right now, right here in the sanctuary and made you stand up to answer? Exactly.

And yet, for all of the difficulty and frustration and confusion that surround prayer, it might be the most important thing the bible has to offer us.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father and I pray. Paul here in Ephesians is no longer offering sound ethical advice, he’s not providing visions for the organization and structure of the church, he is simply describing his prayers. For the church. For us!

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I think, like reading and so many other things, we learn how to pray by observing other people pray.

Maybe you pray like Paul… You get down on your knees and you use all the right language to elevate the divine qualities of God. You earnestly yearn for the people around you that Christ might dwell in their hearts. And that, above all, you pray for the world to know the breadth and height and depth of Christ’s love.

Or maybe you pray like my buddy Will: Woah God, how great was the weather today? Thanks! I mean, like, really awesome stuff. The way you had the clouds moving and the Sun! The Sun! It was like just bright enough but not too bright. You know what I mean? Of course you do! You’re God! Well, anyway, thanks.

There is no wrong or right way to pray, though there are certainly things that are better to pray for than others. The point isn’t so much how we pray, but that we pray at all.

Years and years ago I was helping a church in North Carolina and one of my responsibilities was visiting some of the older and retired members of the church. Many of them were what we call shut-ins, in that they could no longer make it to church for worship or fellowship, but they still felt very connected to the church.

So I would bring a copy of the latest bulletin and sit down with someone for an hour for nothing more than a conversation, and we would always end our time in prayer.

One of my regular visits was to a retired pastor, and he was easily my favorite. We got to know each other pretty quickly, and every time we got together he would offer me a sage piece of advice regarding my future vocation in the ministry. He told me story after story about his successes and failures. He told me what passages to avoid in the bible, and he even told me about the time a police officer had to drive him home after a funeral wake because he didn’t know the punch had alcohol in it.

Anyway, one afternoon I went to go visit him and our relationship had grown to such a degree that I regularly walked into his room at the retirement home without knocking. And as soon as I stepped through the threshold I saw him kneeling by his bed in a posture of prayer.

What a holy sight to behold! This man, after all the years of praying and serving the church, was still just as dedicated to communing with the divine. But the more I took in the scene the more uncomfortable I felt. I didn’t want to just leave without saying anything, and I didn’t want to just keep standing their awkwardly by the door, so after a minute or two I decided to join him by the edge of the pray and start praying too.

            I slowly crept across the room and lowered my knees to the floor and centered myself before I overheard the prayer of the retired pastor… he was snoring.

And, of course, I tried not to laugh, but then again I found myself at a loss for what to do. What would happen if he woke up while I was trying to slide out of the room? What would he do if he opened his eyes and saw me kneeling on the floor right next to him? I decided to very gently rub his back and he immediately opened his eyes and said, “Amen!”

Tell me about your prayer life…

Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus because he was filled with joy that all followers of Jesus Christ are part of God’s family. No longer is there “us” and “them.” There is no “insider” or “outsider.” All have been made part of the new family in Christ Jesus. And Paul’s response to this profound revelation is to get down on his knees and pray! He knew that trying days were ahead, that it would not be an easy thing for the church to accept, the incomprehensibility of a new family made up of all, and he knew that he could not give the church what it needed to be sustained by himself.

The church relies on God, not itself.

That’s a tall order in today’s world and in today’s culture. We are told from childhood to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that we can be anything we want to be, and that it’s all up to us. But the message of the gospel is in fact the opposite. You cannot pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you can’t be anything you want to be, and it is not all up to us.

We cannot do this thing we call life on our own. And we certainly cannot pray on our own.

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Paul prays for the church to comprehend the incomprehensible. This is no easy thing! But Paul prays that we might comprehend the incomprehensible WITH the saints. It is something we can only do in community, and not in isolation.

The more time I spent with the retired pastor, the one praying in his sleep (or sleeping through his prayers), the more I learned what he was really like. Because for the first few months he was what I would call his Sunday morning self, the person he used to become on Sunday morning for everyone that once showed up at his church. He was able to keep the smile for the hour we were together and send me on my way with what felt like a benediction.

But after a couple months I saw behind the curtain and I learned about his loneliness, his broken family, his fears and failures. I encountered who he really was as I discovered his inner self. And the hardest discovery of all was learning that he felt as if he had moved beyond the love of God.

The great theme of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is the fact that there is no nation, no tribe, no family, and no person who is beyond the love of God. This may sound obvious, but it can be very difficult to believe. Particularly if you’ve lost the community, or family, or church that helped to make that love feel manifest.

Even on our best Sundays here at Cokesbury, we, the gathered people of God, bring together a myriad of secret hurts, private humiliations, and lost hopes.

After only being here for a little more than a year I can stand behind this altar and look out at the truths many of you have shared with me. I see the broken families and the betrayals, I see the terror and fear about unknown futures, and I see the pain and loss of people who used to sit in these pews. I know so many of the secret shames and private failures that are contained in isolation and I know that the ultimate fear is about what happens if any of it gets out.

And yet we keep showing up. We keep carrying our own weights and disappointments. We put on our Sunday selves, we keep the smile for the hour we are here and then we are sent away with a benediction.

But what would happen if we revealed our truth to the church? Now, I don’t mean we take turns standing up at the front and airing out all of our dirty laundry. But think with me for a moment… how could this church change if we treated it like the church Paul prays for, rather than just a place where we hang out for an hour on Sundays?

Paul prayed for the church to know, above all else, the love of God in Christ that surpasses all knowledge. Paul prayed for Christ to so dwell in our hearts and minds that we might be filled with all the fullness of God. Paul prays for us to imagine the unimaginable, to know the unknowable, and to comprehend the incomprehensible.

If we pray for our church, if we pray for Cokesbury like Paul prayed for the Ephesians, then we do so by praying for a communal experience of the love of God in heart, soul, mind, and strength. And then we pray for the church to come to grasp the truth of grace; a truth that is utterly massive and beyond all earthly reason.

            God loves us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

And so it is for that reason, that we bow our knees before God the Father, and we pray that according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that we may be strengthened in our inner beings, that Christ may dwell in all of our hearts, as we are being rooted and grounded in love. We pray for the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.

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We pray this so that all of us might know that no one, NO ONE, is beyond God’s love. Not even us. Amen.

Knee-Jerk Love

1 John 4.7-11

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

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

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

We love to love love.

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

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

Our world is terribly confused about love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is love.

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

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

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

Those are knee-jerk reactions.     

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

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

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

Those types of people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

What We Believe Shapes How We Behave

Mark 1.29-39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what happened before?

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

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

            Jesus’ teaching cannot be separated from his healing.

            He practiced what he preached.     

            What he believed shaped how he behaved.

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

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

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

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

And it stopped me right in my tracks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one can do it all on their own.

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

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

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

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

She was given a job to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devotional – Psalm 25.5

Devotional:

Psalm 25.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

But sometimes, it doesn’t feel like it.

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

What’s Right With The Church?

Psalm 145.1-8

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            What’s right with the church?

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

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

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

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

And with that he said: Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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