To My Youngest Sister On The Occasion Of Her Engagement

Jeremiah 31.31-33

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

20293024_10155585934242840_1460480852449788428_n

I answered the phone yesterday afternoon to the delightful news of your engagement. You shared the where, and the how, and the when. I listened with my imagination and tried to picture the scene as it all unfolded. I contemplated the beginning of your relationship and all the mountains and valleys that led to the proposal.

And as soon as you hung up to call the next person on the list, I gave thanks to God.

I gave thanks to God not because you’ve found your partner, or that you were asked in accordance with your romantic desires; I gave thanks to God because your engagement is a sign (and reminder) of God’s covenant with all of us.

When the day of your wedding arrives, I will stand with the two of you by the altar, and I will ask you to make promises (read: covenants) with each other about the future. A future that you cannot possibly imagine. And I will save more theological reflections for that particular moment, but until that holy time, I will share this – there is a difference between the promise that is now present on your finger, and the promise that marks our hearts.

For centuries the people of God abandoned the ways of God. Rather than rejoicing in all the good gifts they received, they (just like us) wanted more. They wanted more power, more wealth, more esteem at the expense of their faithfulness, holiness, and convictions. They worshiped other gods, they rejected the covenant, they assumed that they could make it through this life all on their own.

And for that reason God established a new covenant.

It was a new covenant not because the first was flawed, but because the partner of the covenant was flawed. The covenant became a list of dos and don’ts such that they worshiped the Law rather than the One who gave the Law. Moreover, they began to see one another not as fellow brothers and sisters set apart by God, but as objects to be manipulated for individual gain.

In the fullness of time God saw fit to establish a new covenant through water and Spirit, the covenant of baptism, through which we are incorporated in Christ’s church. It is a sign of a promise written on our hearts that God will be our God.

It is not a ring on a finger.

That is a different sort of promise. That promise (of which you sent a picture to me minutes after the proposal) is a promise made between two of God’s people in anticipation of God’s promise being made manifest.

That’s not to say that God’s wasn’t there on the mountaintop when you shouted “yes!” with gleeful joy. God certainly was; just as God has been with the two of you in every moment of your relationship. But there is a new covenant coming, one made between the two of you in the sight of God, and in the sight of the community that will promise to hold you accountable to the covenant you are making.

What I’m trying to say is this: the covenantal moment on the mountain is a reminder of the power and necessity of the church. The church (for all of her warts and bruises) makes intelligible the kind of promises that you and your beloved have made, and will continue to make, with one another. The church itself is a covenant from God to us. The church is the bride to Christ as bridegroom. We make promises with the Lord to live in this life in a way that is in accordance with the grace made manifest in the manger and exemplified in the empty tomb.

You two are now on a path that Christians experience every Sunday in worship, through every clasped connection of hands in prayer, in the breaking of bread, in the baptism by water, in the singing of hymns, and even in the occasional sermon.

Your engagement is a reminder of God’s engagement (covenant) with us. And for that I give thanks to God.

 

Sincerely,

Your Big Brother

God’s Engagement Party

strangely-warmed-spreaker-header

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Rev. Ben Maddison about the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent [Year B] (Jeremiah 31.31-34, Psalm 51.1-12, Hebrews 5.5-10, John 12.20-33). Ben is an episcopal priest who serves as the rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal church in Wenonah, NJ. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Where The Red Fern Grows, new covenants, the Law on our hearts, gifts for high school graduates, the sinfulness of email, mirrors at the altar, Jesus as priest, and the problem with loving your life. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God’s Engagement Party

BM2

The Not Top 10

Exodus 20.1-17

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven alone, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son of your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”

It is not an easy season in the life of the church.

In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.

Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.

ten-commandments-set-free-to-live-free_27594_banner_img

Confession time: I am prejudiced against Sunday School.

I can’t help it really – while growing up in the church, I had far more love for what we did in a room like this, than what happened in the Sunday School rooms. Participating in Sunday School required waking up earlier than usual, it forced us to rush through the typical morning rhythm, and then we’d be deposited in classrooms in which there were old smelly couches, fading biblical posters, and an assortment of discarded bibles.

Bless the teachers’ hearts: they tried to teach us about the bible… but it never really stuck. I can remember a lesson about David and Goliath, but all we talked about was how buff David looked in the pictures and we wondered aloud how long it would take us to look similarly.

I can remember learning about Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac, and even though I now know that God provided a ram instead, at the time I was terrified of God and didn’t want to go back to church for a few weeks.

I can even remember learning about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but the story fell a little flat when our teacher kept referring to her as a “lady of the night” which made Mary sound more like a vampire than whatever a lady of the night is.

Beyond the lack of theological depth, the thing that really drove me crazy about Sunday School was the fact that it felt way too much like regular school. We had a teacher, who took our attendance, assigned us particular seats, gave out homework, and even presided over pop-quizzes. And I understand that theological education is important, I went to seminary after all, but the way it was done for me resulted in my studying not to hear what God had to say, but for the promise of receiving a piece of candy if, for instance, I could find the book of Isaiah before anyone else in the room.

I could fill this entire sermon with Sunday School anecdotes, but the one event I remember most vividly was the day we were quizzed on the Ten Commandments. I knew they were a thing, I was pretty sure we had an embroidered version of them hung on the wall outside the sanctuary, but I had no idea what they were.

I sat there at the table with my blank piece of paper and I stared off into the distance for a long time. What does God command us to do? I probably wrote something about loving God, and loving neighbor. I might’ve even suggested that we’re supposed give our money to God. But when the time of our quiz came to an end I turned in my poor excuse of a quiz, and I failed.

There would be no piece of candy for tween-age Taylor that day.

Do you know all of the Ten Commandments, in order? If I gave each of you a piece of paper for a quiz, would you receive your piece of candy? How many of us have memorized God’s top 10?

When I was living in Durham, NC there was a period of time when people started placing the Ten Commandments on lawn-signs in their front yards for everyone else to see. I’d be riding my bike to class, and house after house, rather than wanting me to know who they would be voting for in the next election, wanted me to know that I’m not supposed to break the Sabbath, or worship any other god, or kill anyone.

It was around that same time, as it comes up again and again, that a sizable portion of the population began advocating for the appearance of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, like schoolhouses and local courthouses.

And I couldn’t help but think that God was using the surging publicity of the Ten Commandments to make up for my failure in Sunday School.

            Somehow or another, God was going to drill these commandments into my brain!

            But then I began wondering, was this God’s work, or was it ours?

Or, to put it another way: Were the commandments being used to provide freedom, or as a weapon?

Then God spoke all these words… Through a covenant, a promise to be our God, God delivers us, sustains us, heals us, and watches over us. God only asks that we follow ten simple rules. And we can’t do it.

Every single one of us in this room has broken a commandment (some of us more than others!) And yet, our failure to hold up our end of the agreement does not affect God’s commitment. It is in knowing that we fail, God loves us.

God is the one who establishes the covenant with us, not the other way around. No response, no bargaining on our part, was required. God binds God’s self to us knowing full and well how we will respond.

And the way we talk about the commandments, the way we quiz children, or place them in our yards, or desire them in our courthouses, makes a mockery of the gift that they are.

We make them more about us, than about God.

The Ten Commandments express the purposeful will of God for God’s people. In our limited imaginations we’ve made them out to be a list of what we can and cannot do. We’ve used them like a bludgeon against those who do not follow them.

But at the heart of the commandments, at the heart of God’s covenant with us, is the freedom to love God and one another.

Of course, there is a freedom to ignore the covenants, something we do all the time. All those signs in people’s yards, they were all facing away from those who lived in the houses. It was as if they wanted others to follow what they themselves had forgotten. Quizzing children on what the commandments say is a far stretch from helping them to be implemented. Displaying them in courthouses will not make people follow them any more than a speed limit sign will on a highway.

It’s incredibly ironic that many people want the Ten Commandments up in public in a country where divorce is over 50% (you shall not commit adultery), where we have more guns than human beings (you shall not kill), where capitalism is more important than community (honor the Sabbath), and where we spend more time worshipping celebrities than Almighty God (you shall have no other gods before me).

Public displays of religious affection in the form of the Ten Commandments will not change or transform this world.

But binding ourselves to them, holding each other accountable to these strange and life-giving realities, is the seed that results in a new garden of life. If we ignore them, we do so at our own peril, not because God is waiting with a whip to punish us, but because the teachings establish a way of being.

Living outside the commandments results in a life of isolation, individiualism, and apathy.

            But living in the commandments, writing them on our hearts rather than our walls, is the beginning of a trust that transforms everything else.

We might say, “What’s the harm in a little coveting?” Our entire advertising economy is based on the principles of jealousy and envy after all. Or we might wonder about what’s so wrong with working extra hours on a Saturday morning… Our entire culture produces a narrative in which over production is an expectation.

It is in the prohibition of such things that God challenges our understanding of reality. We can give our lives over to our own commandments, but our lives will be a shallow shadow of what they could be. Living in the Ten Commandments sets us forth on a path that allows us to fully love God and one another. It is the way we become who God is calling us to be.

The Ten Commandments are God’s Top 10 rules for faithful living and, sadly, they have become a Not Top 10 list for us.

1280x720-apA

We regularly worship other gods, like the god of wealth or political power. We build up false idols in material objects. We do things in the name of the Lord that harm and destroy others. We break the commitment to rest. We reject and rebel against our parents. We live in a world fueled by war and violence. We are captivated by a highly sexualized culture that tempts us toward adultery. We steal from those without power. We lie constantly. And we believe the commercials that tell us life will be better if we just had what the person on the screen has.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can rediscover this Not Top 10 list for the freedom that it provides. We can bind ourselves to it, and in so doing the shackles of death will fall away. We can remember that its not a list to be memorized, or a weapon to be used, but a way of life that leads to life.

We can love God with our whole hearts, we can trust in our allegiance to the Lord, we can ask to be used by God rather than the other way around, we can find true rest, we can love our parents both biological and spiritual, we can see all people as having sacred worth, we can live into the promises we make in marriage, we can give to those in need, we can tell the truth in love, we can believe that we already have enough.

We can do all of this but God makes the impossible possible. God fills us and fuels us for lives bent not toward ourselves, but toward others. God sustains us when we are down in the valley, and uses the Spirit to push us back toward the mountaintop.

Displaying the Ten Commandments for other people to see will never bring us closer to God, but striving to live according to the them results in a profound freedom unlike anything else. Amen.

What’s In A Name?

Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.”

Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”

It is not an easy season in the life of the church.

In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.

Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.

I was born 30 years and 3 days ago, and my parents named me Taylor Christian Mertins. They, like a lot of parents during the late 80’s, refused to find out my gender ahead of time and decided to live into the mystery of those months not quite knowing what they were about to receive. And it was during those months of mystery that they started debating baby names.

They could have gone the popular girl route with Jessica, Ashley, Amanda, Sarah, or Jennifer. Or they could have stuck with the equally popular boy side of Michael, Christopher, Matthew, Joshua, and Andrew.

They wondered about giving me a family name. In fact, my father once said that if I was a boy, he really wanted to name me Wolf Detlef Mertins after his brother who did not survive childbirth. And my mother, apparently, said, “That’s fine, but I won’t be your wife anymore.”

So they talk and talked, my mother’s womb grew and grew, and they finally picked a name. If I was a boy I would become Taylor Christian Mertins, and if I was a girl I would be Taylor Christiana Mertins.

Years later, when I was old enough and mature enough to actually think about the name given to me, I asked my parents why they picked Taylor Christian. My mom said that they liked Taylor because it could be used for a boy or girl, and my dad said they liked Christian because they wanted me to act like one.

And look where that got me.

german-names-58b5a0e25f9b5860468bc4d3.jpg

Names are important, more important in fact than we often give them credit for. Of course, today, some of us are more inclined to name our children after a character on a television show than with some kind of theological intent. However, in scripture, names reflect character, purpose, and identity.

Lent is the perfect time to read about Abram and Sarai. We find them here in Genesis 17 during the twilight of their lives, they are reflecting on all the have seen and done, what went well, where they screwed up; its basically what we do every Lenten season.

And in this particular covenantal moment, it’s been 24 years since God promised Abram a son and Abram was still waiting for the promise to come true. (Though he had Ishmael during those years, but that’s a whole different story). 24 years of hoping against hope that God would make good on the covenant. Abram is 99 years old, after waiting for a quarter of his life, when God says, “walk before me and be blameless, and I will make my covenant with you and you will become exceedingly numerous.”

We could, of course, talk about how God always makes good on God’s promises. I could preach a half-decent sermon on patience in waiting for God to reveal God’s will. We could even spend the next ten minutes reflecting on Abram’s faithfulness being reckoned as righteousness.

But, it’s important to remember that these two soon-to-be-elderly parents were deeply flawed. They had plenty of opportunities to practice their faith in the covenant established 24 years prior. They went to a strange land without knowing what would happen. They saw grim hope for the family God promised them. They agreed (to some degree) to let Sarai lie (to and with) Pharaoh in order to protect Abram. They even plotted to let Abram sleep with Hagar in order to bring about God’s promise on their own time.

And nevertheless, we serve a great God of “nevertheless,” God chose these two to make the covenant possibility possible. “In you,” says the Lord, “will I make a multitude of nations.” God uses the flawed and fatigued couple as the seeds that become the people Israel. Where we see failure, God sees possibility. Where we see problems, God sees solutions. Where we see an end, God sees a beginning.

“I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.”

“And you shall no longer be called Abram, but you shall be called Abraham, for I have made you the ancestor of many nations.”

“As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.”

Everyone in the story receives a new name – The Lord becomes God Almighty, Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah.

519_covking_657bull-02-02-1080x675

The name changes are subtle, but their theological implications are profound. Abraham means the father of a multitude and Sarah means princess. These two have been changed by God’s promise, God will do with them the impossible, and who they are called by God is important.

Today, as I said before, we usually use names as nothing more that titles, something to be flung around without a lot of thought. But in scripture, there’s a lot in a name. And for Abraham and Sarah, they have no say so in the matter! They do not choose their new names, only God does.

They have been called by God to do something for God. In spite of their identities as flawed and somewhat forgotten people, God uses them to inaugurate a new reality in which the world would be forever transformed.

This covenant, a promise made to Abram and Sarai, its nothing short of hope. It’s saying to a people with no future that they will be given a future. It is a promise that is reflected through God’s relationship with all of Israel, and through Israel to the church, and through the church to each one of us.

In their new names they discovered the new call and covenant placed on their lives.

hellosticker

Names are so important. There are few things that warm the heart quite like someone remembering your name in a world so busy that we often forget almost anything else. There is a huge difference between saying, “Oh hey, it’s so nice to see you!” and “Oh hey Taylor, it’s so nice to see you.” The difference might only be one word, but that one word makes all the difference.

Our names are so integral to whom we are that sometimes we neglect to realize how vital they are. For instance: studies show that individuals who share a first initial with the first initial of a major hurricane are far more likely to donate money than others. Kims and Karls were more likely to donate money after hurricane Katrina than Taylors and well Taylors.

The incredible importance of our names is also made evident in what’s called the cocktail party effect. The idea is that if you’re at a party, even when hundreds of people are in attendance, if someone mentions your name on the other side of the room, you’ll hear it. Somehow your name with rise above the fury of the room, it will float along, until it catches your attention in a way that nothing else quite can.

I experience this every week during the passing of the peace. I will stand right here and motion for you all to engage with one another, and while standing by the choir loft I can hear one of my back row ladies start talking about Taylor’s choice in sermon title. Or I’ll be off to the side of the room shaking hands with a visitor and I’ll hear a youth on the other side of the sanctuary lament the fact that Taylor picked the same hymn again.

My name is so much a part of who I am, that I can pick it out of a crowd, and you can too.

A couple weeks ago I was working on a sermon at Wegman’s on a Thursday morning. I was sitting at a table by myself, with my bible opened in front of me, a hot cup of coffee in my hand, and I was trying to figure out how to tie all my thoughts together.

Wegman’s provides what I think is the ideal environment for my creativity, there’s always a low drum of sound that keeps me focused, but it’s not so loud that its distracting. I can sit by myself, and no one from the church bothers me while I’m writing.

So a few weeks ago I was sitting there, working hard, when someone, seemingly out of nowhere, shouted, “PASTOR!”

I almost fell out of my chair.

“Yes?” I stammered. The man was unfamiliar to me, but he was giving a look I can only describe as bewildered. He said, “I saw your bible, and I figured you were a pastor, and I wanted to ask for your prayers, but I’ve been trying to get your attention for a minute and every time I said, ‘Pastor’ you didn’t even move. Are you sure you’re a pastor?”

He had been calling my name, the one given to me by God, for over a minute and I didn’t hear him at all. But when I’m here in church, when I can worry about what all of you are thinking and saying about me, I can hear it all.

Our parents gave us our names, the ones that draw our attention. But God has given each of us new names, just as powerful and as vibrant as Abraham and Sarah. God has sealed our hearts with these names, names that truly define who we are. The great challenge is that sometimes we can’t hear them at all, or we’ve forgotten who we really are: children of God.

The Lord is calling us to the covenant, to a promise of hope, that is not contingent on our faithfulness. We are no better than Abraham or Sarah. We will fall and fail. But the covenant remains because God is faithful! God sees our potential even when we’ve grown blind to the future. God makes something of our nothing. Our God is the God of nevertheless.

God is calling us by our names.

The question is: “Can we hear it?” Amen.

Hoping Against Hope

strangely-warmed-spreaker-header

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Rev. Dr. Emily Hunter McGowin about the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent [Year B] (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22.23-31, Romans 4.13-25, Mark 8.31-38). Emily is a teacher and scholar of religious studies and a theologian in the Anglican tradition. She has a book on evangelical family practices titled “Quivering Families” coming out in May. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the recent school shooting in Florida, the covenant, name changes, mutual suffering, professional Christians, the difference between trust and witness, and the obsession with safety. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hoping Against Hope

EM

The End Of The Rainbow

Genesis 9.8-17

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”

It is not an easy season in the life of the church.

In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.

Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.

 

519_covking_657bull-02-02-1080x675

Things were looking good for the people of God, but just six chapters into the Good Book, humanity has become polluted beyond repair. The situation was so terrible that God sends a flood to start over. However, God calls upon Noah to build an Ark that will be the seed of new life, and he and his family, plus two of every animal are spared..

And then, after rocking gently on the waves for forty days and forty nights, the waters recede; the family and animals walk down the ramp, and up in the sky is a rainbow declaring God’s love toward all of creation.

This, of course, is the most beloved of all Sunday School stories for children. I have yet to encounter a church nursery or children’s Sunday school room in which the ark wasn’t painted on a wall, or a book describing the events couldn’t be found on a shelf, or plastic figurines of the animals and Noah weren’t tossed in a corner after years of repeated use and play.

At my last church I would take time every year to teach the children in our preschool about Noah and his Ark. We would put on little animal masks and line up two by two and march around the church property making animals sounds as loud as we possibly could while cars would slow down to watch a tall bearded man lead a group of children in flapping their wings, clomping their jaws, and shaking their tails.

And it would inevitably end in the playground where there was a large plastic boat that had enough space for everyone to climb aboard. We would pretend that the waves we shaking us back and forth, and then we’d look up in the sky for our make-believe rainbow.

            The end.

And we almost always tell the story that way; we jump straight to the rainbow. But in jumping ahead, we forget about the immense devastation the survivors would have witnessed. We forget that God sent the flood for a reason, and that death and carnage would have spread as far as the eye could see.

Have you seen what Houston looked like after the flood waters receded? Do you remember how long it took to sift through the entire city of New Orleans after Katrina? That’s what the flood must have been like, but worse.

            And we teach this story to our children.

Full_featured_double_rainbow_at_Savonlinna_1000px

The rainbow was in the sky as a sign and reminder of the covenant God made with God’s people, but it was also done in the presence of death and destruction. “Never again,” says the Lord, “Will I destroy the earth.”

On Wednesday afternoon, while countless Christians were walking around with ashes in the sign of a cross smeared across their foreheads, a young man pulled the fire-alarm at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and waited for people to pour out in the hallways. And then he began shooting.

17 dead, another dozen injured.

In October, a man looked out from his room in Las Vegas at the crowds of people dancing at a music festival. While the pumping music was filling the air, he added to it with the sound of gunshots.

58 dead, 851 injured.

On December 14th, 2012, a young man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and began shooting.

20 dead, the majority of whom were 6 or 7 years old.

Since the shooting at Sandy Hook, more than 400 people have been shot in over 200 school shootings. Those numbers don’t include what happened in Las Vegas, or a number of other shooting related events. But in the last five years, 400 people have been shot in over 200 school shootings.

Called to life out of chaos and nothingness by the breath of God, we humans seem at every turn bent on returning to that chaos. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” And so God sent the flood.

Following the Flood, God placed the rainbow in the sky, and God promised to never drop such violence on us again, and for some reason, we’ve failed to hold up our end of the bargain.

God’s act over creation binds all of creation together, from the fish in the sea to the birds in the air, to the people in the pews next to you. And yet violence, anger, aggression, they rule the day. They captivate our attention, they fuel our inner thoughts, they drive our responses to frustration. We are a people near the end of the rainbow.

It’s like we’re so obsessed with the end of the story, we forget what got us here.

Since Wednesday afternoon I have been bombarded with messages from people both inside and outside of the church.

On one side there are people fighting for stricter gun control. They believe that sensible legislation could prevent events like those we’ve seen as of recent from ever happening again. They want to make it harder to purchase a firearm.

It’s important to note, that of the last 18 mass shootings, the majority of the firearms were purchased legally and with a federal background check.

On the other side, there are people fighting for greater access to weapons and freedom to use them. They believe that arming teachers and administrators will prevent events like those we’ve seen as of recent from ever happening again. They want to protect their freedom to defend themselves and others.

Violence, it seems, is inescapable. Regardless of the rainbows above our heads, this world of ours is captivated by one in which the power to end life reigns supreme.

But God has a knack for making a way out of no way.

We all know what chaos looks like, we don’t need the reminder from Genesis, we have the nightly news, and Facebook, and Twitter to show us what real chaos looks like. But it is in the midst of chaos, with the stories flooding in and the destruction around our ankles, that the rainbow arches across the sky demanding our attention.

And when we see that bow, when we hear about those teachers who sacrificed their lives to protect their students, when we witness the children standing in front of the school praying for their friends, we remember what God did for humanity and all of creation, we get a taste of the covenant, we discover redemption.

noahs-beaver-problem

Maybe that’s why we teach children the story of Noah and the Ark, and the rainbow in the sky, even if we’ve lost a connection to its deep and frightening truth – we want our children, in fact we want everyone, to know that God’s love and hope is present in the chaos, that even while the world is full of disturbing devastation, God has not forgotten us.

In the covenant made through the sign of the rainbow, God bound God’s own self to us in a new and different way. God became intimately connected with the creatures of his creation, preserving, sustaining, and encouraging them (us) toward redemption.

The rainbow, therefore, acts like a mirror, in which we see the truth of our reflection. We see who we really are, with our anger, and our propensity toward violence, and our fear. We see the truth, and we remember that God hung his bow in the sky.

So, perhaps the time has come to reclaim the strange, ugly, and beautiful truth of the rainbow. Maybe the time has come to put an end to the rainbow in nurseries and children’s bibles alone. Perhaps we need to seal our hearts with the rainbow that declares a new day has broken, that there is a better way, that there is room for all of the colors that make the covenant what it is.

That kind of rediscovery could completely reshape and shake up what we know of who we are. It won’t make us perfect, it won’t rid the world of evil, but it will stand as a reminder, just as it once did, that God has not abandoned us to our own devices, that God has made a new day and a new way.

This story from near the beginning, is the beginning of the covenants that lead to the kingdom. It is a promise established in Noah, and later with Abraham, David, and through our baptisms into Jesus’ death and resurrection.

            The covenant, at its core, is a witness to the fact that God is stuck with us, and that we are stuck with God.

In life, there are moments when we can feel the rage build within us. It usually happens in response to something we experience in another person, whether right in front of us, on television, or on the Internet.

And, to be clear, there are times when rage is appropriate. The Psalms are filled with these little vignettes into the anger of the people Israel amidst such terrible injustice. It is good and right for us to be angry when we see what happened in Florida this week, it is good and right for us to be angry about innocent children being murdered indiscriminately, it is good and right for us to voice our opinions about what can and needs to change.

            The challenge is in remembering that God is with us in the midst of our anger. That God saw the deplorable state of the world not only during the days of Noah, but in the days right before Jesus’ birth, and God sent us a new sign, in his Son, who came to show that love always trumps violence, that we are bound to one another even when we can’t stand each other, and that there is a better way.

The rainbow above Noah’s head, the experience of Jesus in our lives, they are a reminder that the world was broken, is still broken, and that God is in the business of reconciliation. It forces us to confront the brokenness of our own lives, and in the lives of others. It even makes us uncomfortable – for if God was willing to refrain from violence upon the world, if God was willing to hang up the bow, why haven’t we done the same? Amen.

The Word Made Verb

strangely-warmed-spreaker-header

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Johanna Hartelius and Jason Micheli about the readings for the First Sunday of Lent [Year B] (Genesis 9.8-17, Psalm 25.1-10, 1 Peter 3.18-22, Mark 1.9-15). Johanna is the host of the (Her)men•you•tics podcast where she unpacks theological terms without using stained glass language. Our conversation covers a range of topics including covenant reminders, God’s immutability, liturgical vision, Lent as Christianity’s January, and the connections between death and baptism. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Word Made Verb

IMG_3586

Devotional – Ezekiel 27.1-2

Devotional:

Ezekiel 37.1-2

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

Weekly Devotional Image

I love challenging couples to pick their own wedding scripture beyond the cliché of 1 Corinthians 13 (Love is patient, love is kind…). In between premarital counseling sessions, I ask them to dive deep into their bibles in order to final a passage or a verse that really speaks to them, and I have been deeply impressed with the scriptures they’ve picked. I’ve been blessed to bring couples together into holy marriage with the stories of David being anointed by Samuel, Paul’s description of what it means to be a Christian, a prayer to the church in Ephesus, and more.

The scripture passage a couple chooses for their wedding says a lot about what their relationship is like, and what their marriage will be like.

Years ago, two of my friends from Durham were married at a local Presbyterian church that was known for the preaching of the pastor. To start the wedding homily, the pastor described the sanctity of marriage and what it means for two individuals to make this covenant, but then he began shaking his head and said, “You know that these two standing before us are devoutly faithful, because when I asked them to choose their wedding scripture, they picked the valley of the dry bones from Ezekiel.”

1509747_10155231246960627_1383507341785953622_n

I can remember sitting with my back against the pew and wondering what in the world he was going to do with the text. The valley of the dry bones is a remarkably beautiful passage, but it doesn’t naturally lend itself to a wedding sermon.

So the pastor continued on with bits of wisdom and advice, he shared stories about successful marriages and what to emulate as well as terrible marriages and what to avoid. But for the better part of ten minutes, he completely avoided the Ezekiel passage. And then, out of nowhere, the Spirit start blowing and he said, “James and Jennifer, I think you two can have a good marriage, but if you think that you can do it without the help of your friends, family, and the Lord, it will never be more than a dry valley filled with old bones. Only your friends, family, and the Lord can breathe the Spirit back into those bones and give them life.”

It was a simple sermonic twist, but it’s one that I think everyone it attendance will never forget.

What does your life look like? Is it filled with vibrancy and energy? Do you feel the Spirit moving in your midst? Or is your life like a deep valley filled with dry bones?

Thanks be to God who calls us into relationship with the Spirit, with our friends, and with our families who can breathe life into the dry bones of our lives.

Baptism and Temptation

Mark 1.9-13

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.

baptism (1)

This morning is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. Christians throughout the world will use this season to repent of past sins, and seek renewal in their commitment to follow Jesus Christ. Throughout this season we are going to explore and examine Jesus’ life from baptism to resurrection by walking in his footsteps on the way that leads to life. We are using Adam Hamilton’s book The Way to guide our weekly services, because it follows Jesus’ life in a way that is important for us to rediscover during Lent. We begin with Jesus’ baptism and temptation.

 

Before I became your pastor, I helped a number of churches with their ministries. One such church is nestled in the Great Smokey Mountains in the far reaches of western North Carolina. Bryson City United Methodist Church has a beautiful building right in the center of town. They have services every Sunday that are often interrupted by the sound of motorcycles during the summer. They have a dynamic choir that rivals choral groups from cathedrals. And it is within walking distance of one of my favorite restaurants: Bojangles.

I spent an entire summer doing everything I could for the church, but honestly they didn’t have many expectations – so long as I showed up on Sunday morning with something to say and checked in on people during the week, I was encouraged to spend my time exploring the local area by hiking and whitewater rafting. (It was a great summer).

I will never forget some of the characters that would show up on Sunday mornings. There was Ralph, the church organist and music minister, who had a ponytail and always wanted to talk more about fly fishing than the hymns we would use during a worship service. There was Mr. Outlaw who knew his bible better than the seminarian that had shown up for the summer. And there was Ben Bushyhead. I will never forget Ben Bushyhead, not just for his incredible last name, but because after I preached for the first time he walked right up to me and said (rather declaratively), “Son, you using too many of them big seminary words.”

On one particular Sunday morning, toward the end of my time at the church, they were going to have their first baptism in a long time. A member of the church’s grandson was visiting and they all thought it was the right time and the right place to have him baptized. The excitement in the congregation that morning buzzed through the pews. This was what the church was all about: Welcoming visitors with signs of affection and love; returning to the great sacrament of baptism; and seeing young people standing near the altar.

The service built up toward the baptism at the end and the pastor invited the family to join him around the baptismal font. He spoke with conviction about how God had moved across the waters in creation to bring order out of chaos, he reminded us of the Israelites’ journey through the water on their way out of Egypt, and he even compared this sacrament to the baptism that John shared with his cousin Jesus at the Jordan River.

It was a holy moment seeing the congregation preparing for the baptism and a few of the older members were doing their best to cover up the tears that were slowly falling down their faces.

The pastor then motioned for the baby. He held the young boy with one hand, took of the top off the font with the other, and his eyes went wide. The beautifully and intricately carved baptismal font was empty; there was no water for the baptism.

The pastor looked up from the font and we locked eyes in the middle of the sanctuary. Without being told what needed to be done, I jumped up from my spot and ran to the kitchen. I frantically searched for any vessel that could hold water and settled on an old and chipped coffee mug. Using the sink, I filled the cup to the brim and then ran back to the sanctuary spilling a fair amount of water on the way.

While I stood in front of the congregation, I tried to make it look as liturgically appropriate as possible as I poured the water into the font, and the baptism went on as planned.

Bryson City UMC

Bryson City UMC

The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ. John was preaching and proclaiming in the wilderness when Jesus arrived to be baptized. This important and sacred event revealed the voice of the Lord identifying Jesus as the Beloved, while also setting in motion Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Jesus, as the Son of God, did not need to be baptized to be cleansed from his sins, but in going down to the water with the masses, he demonstrated his willingness to identify with sinful people. Jesus believed in doing ministry with others, rather than for others. In this scene we see God, in Christ, starting to bridge the great chasm between the earthly and the divine to inaugurate a new reality.

Yet, just as the baptismal scene comes to its conclusion, the Spirit of the Lord drives Jesus out to the wilderness where Satan tempted him for forty days.

During this time Jesus fasted from food and spent most of his time in prayer, though Satan was not inclined to leave him alone. He tempted Jesus with bread, with praise, and power. And Jesus remained steadfast; he resisted the temptations, and came out on the other side of the forty days strengthened and ready to begin his public ministry.

Again, in the temptations, we see Jesus’ willingness to identify with sinful people. All of us have moments where we wrestle with the devil.

We might feel helpless to resist the call of abundant and unhealthy foods. While countless people die of starvation everyday, few of us actively work to end hunger in the world.

We might feel helpless to the temptation of empty relationships and abusive power dynamics. We settle for the easy route so long as it benefits us completely, and few of us live selflessly instead of selfishly.

We might feel helpless to resist the urge to spend money on lottery tickets, or we cheat on our taxes, or we pretend to be something we’re not in order to further our quest for financial gain.

All of us are tempted one way or another. But chief among our temptations, is the temptation to forget what it means to be baptized.

In the small church in the Great Smokey Mountains, they had lost sight of the value of baptism; it had been so long since anyone was baptized that the font was empty and held no water! When we let the wells of baptism run dry in our churches and in our souls, we forget who we are and whose we are. When the identity we receive in baptism is forgotten, we quickly fall prey to the devil’s many temptations.

Baptism is a defining act. Through the sacrament of baptism God claims us, we are anointed with the Spirit, and we are set aside for God’s purposes. During baptisms in worship, the entire congregation makes a public commitment and covenant to raise the baptized person in the faith and become a new family. In baptism we receive the power of God’s Spirit to resist temptations through unending grace.

But when we forget who we are, when we forget how far God was willing to go for our sakes, our baptismal identity fades from our minds and is replaced with insatiable desires and temptations.

On Wednesday, many of us were reminded of our baptismal identities while ashes in the sign of the cross were marked on our foreheads. Wherever we went on Wednesday we were met with strange looks regarding the smudges on our skin, and whenever we glanced at our appearance in the mirror, we came face to face with our baptismal identities. But if you take a quick glance around the congregation, you will notice that all of the ashes have faded away.

Like empty baptismal fonts, and clear foreheads, we can fall to the temptation of forgetting who we really are.

In a few minutes all of us will be invited to remember our baptisms. We will use similar words just like the ones that have been used for centuries, we will pray over the water, and we will ask God to give us the strength to remember who we are each and every day. Whether we can vividly remember the moment we felt the water on our skin long ago, or it was done to us while we were babies, we will take time to give thanks for the people who surrounded us in those moments. We will give thanks for the congregations that promised to raise us in the faith, and do the same for others.

modern-artwork

But just in case this baptismal remembrance is not enough, we are going to take it one step further. After I take water and mark your forehead with the sign of the cross, you will receive a little plastic card with these words: “Lord, as I was my hands, I remember my baptism. Cleanse me by your grace. Fill me with your Spirit. Renew my soul. Amen.” Our challenge is to take these cards and place them near a sink in our homes. That way, whenever we go to wash our hands we can offer this prayer to God and remember who we are. That way, the baptismal font of our souls will never run dry. That way, we can resist the temptation to forget our baptisms.

Remember your baptism and resist temptation. Remember your baptism and receive strength. Remember your baptism and be thankful. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 51.1

Devotional:

Psalm 51.1

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Weekly Devotional Image

When I am asked to preside over a wedding, I take full advantage of the opportunity to share the beauty of God’s love. During pre-marital counseling I encourage couples to find a bible verse that relates to their relationship, we discuss what it looks like to pray for our spouse, and we use God’s love as a lens by which we view the love we have for our partner. During the actual wedding ceremony I am unashamedly open about God’s love being at the center of this relationship, and that only with God’s power can all couples live in harmony and peace with one another.

This past Saturday I stood before a gathered community outside under the hot sun for a wedding. With sweat beading on my forehead I shared reflections on the joy of marriage and how God plays an integral role in all of our relationships. I used stories from the couple’s history in order to make the homily approachable, and I even included a number of lines from famous movies because the groom is a self-avowed movie buff. (For example: “Enjoy this time because life moves pretty fast, and if you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it” –Ferries Bueller’s Day Off)

11781683_10153086252896267_3300763643978016391_n

Following the ceremony I was mingling among the wedding guests when a young woman approached me and said, “I wish my pastor was like you.” Startled by the compliment, I asked her to explain and she described how her pastor “never connects the scripture with regular life” and that she leaves church feeling like she “listened to a lecture.” Our conversation continued for a few minutes, and before we went our separate ways she asked where I was a pastor and told me that she would be joining the church for worship sometime soon.

As I stood there taking in the complimentary conversation, feeling affirmed in my words, and hopeful about a new person coming to church, I was struck with the sensation that I had lost my focus. I let myself get puffed up by her kinds words and I recognized that I selfishly wanted her and her family to start attending the church I serve. I like the idea that she wanted to come to the church because of me. It only took a few words to stroke my ego to such a degree that I forgot my place in the kingdom.

So before she had a chance to walk away and disappear into the crowd I asked her to do me a favor and I said, “Before you come to St. John’s, I think you need to pray for the pastor you have. Maybe God wants you to help him grow and learn what it means to serve your church rather than leaving to just try something different.”

The psalmist calls for God to “blot out my transgressions.” In our daily prayers we thank God for our blessings, and we ask God to intervene in our lives and in the lives of others, but rarely do we pray for God to make us clean, to rid us of our selfishness and false pride. This week, let us take time to be honest about our sinfulness, pray for God to transform us, and begin taking steps into a new way of life.