Saved In Death

Devotional: 

1 Corinthians 15.36

Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 

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There are two types of stories we can tell in the church. 

1. There’s a lifeguard who has just ruled that the surf is no longer safe for the visitors at the beach. He ascends to the top of his vaulted chair until the wind dies down but then he hears a few people shouting down the beach. As he glances toward the commotion, he sees fingers pointed out toward the ocean, and he immediately grabs his binoculars and discovers a woman in struggling to keep her head above water. He then rushes down toward the water, swims as hard as he can against the current, grabs the struggling woman, and drags her to safety on the shore. Countless observers watch as the winded woman expresses her gratitude toward the life guard who has saved her life.

2. Same as the first, except when the lifeguard makes it out to the water, he is unable to overcome the pull of the water, and the drowning girl, and they are both pulled below the surface. The crowds on the sand wail in fear and sadness. However, on the lifeguard stand, attached to a clipboard, was a note with the following words: “Everything will be okay, she is safe in my death.”

This two-type typography comes from Robert Farrar Capon who notes that we can tell both of these stories in church, but we are FAR more inclined to tell the first. It has a happy ending, there is a noble hero, and the crowds get to witness a “miracle.” But, upon comparison, there’s nothing that miraculous about it. Sure, the drowning woman has been saved, but she has only been saved to eventually die in the future. Sure, the lifeguard appears heroic but he was doing nothing more than his job. Sure it appears magical and powerful, but it doesn’t really result in any profound changes; people will still swim in dangerous oceans.

The second version leaves us uncomfortable. Its ending appears tragic, the hero dies, and the crowds witness a tragedy. It strikes us as a rather dark tale, and certainly not one that we want to hear about in church on Sunday mornings.

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And yet the second story is the story of the gospel!

We are not saved by Jesus only to die again in the future – his death defeats death. 

We are not saved by being better swimmers (studying out bibles, praying our prayers), because the waves of life will keep crashing on us regardless.

One of the most important, and least talked about, aspects of faith is that we are saved in our deaths, not in our attempts to live better and more faithful lives.

When we start to realize that the second story is our story, other parts of the puzzle begin to fall in place. We are no longer trapped by the feeling of having to be perfect for God to love us. We are freed from believing that any of our sins (Any!) have the power to separate us from God’s grace. We break away from the crazy idea that we have to be morally perfect to earn God’s favor.

If all we tell is the first story, then Jesus really is nothing more than a lifeguard who saves us only for us to die again.

But if we tell the second story, the challenging and truthful and even dark narrative, then Jesus’s death really is the thing that bring us life. 

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Love Is A Crazy Thing

Devotional: 

Jeremiah 17.9

The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?

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Last night I frantically paced through the grocery store while looking for Valentine’s Day gifts. You might be thinking that I am a delinquent husband neglecting to properly procure said gifts with plenty of days to spare, but these were not little trinkets for my wife. Instead I was trying to find appropriate cards/items that my son could hand out during his Preschool party today. 

Tucked away in the corner of the store were shelves upon shelves of pink, red, and white. And at the bottom were the kid friendly gifts and when my son saw a package containing Lightning McQueen pencils, he tucked them under his arm and triumphantly declared, “We’ve got our plan!”

This morning, as we were walking across the parking lot toward his preschool, he inexplicably looked up at me with his Valentines in his hand and asked, “Daddy, why do we give these presents?”

And I realized that I had yet to even explain Valentine’s Day to him.

In the moment I just offered a brief response about how it’s a kind way to show the people around us that we love them, but upon getting back to my car I couldn’t get his question out of my head.

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Because I know about Saint Valentine for whom the day is named, and it’s always been strange for me to reconcile what so many of us will do tomorrow with who he was.

There were numerous Christians in the early church named Valentine and many of them were martyred for their faith. But perhaps the most famous was Valentine the Bishop of Terni during the 3rd century. The story goes that he was put under house arrest by Judge Asterius for evangelizing and the two of them eventually struck up a conversation about Jesus. The judge wanted to put Valentine’s faith to the test and brought him his blind daughter and asked him to heal her – if Valentine was successful, the judge agreed to do whatever he asked.

So Valentine placed his hands on the girls blind eyes and her vision was restored.

Overcome by the miracle the judge eventually agreed to be baptized and freed all of the Christian inmates under his authority.

Later Valentine was arrested again for his continued attempts to evangelize and was sent before the Roman Emperor Claudius II. Though Claudius liked having Valentine around, he tried to convince the emperor to become a Christian and the emperor condemned him to death unless he renounced his faith.

Valentine refused the emperor’s request and was beheaded on February 14th, 269.

Later additions to the story imply that shortly before his execution, Valentine wrote a note to the young girl he once healed and signed it “from your Valentine” which is said to have inspired the Hallmark holiday that tomorrow brings.

So what does a beheaded Christian martyr have to do with boxes of chocolate and bouquets of flower?

The prophet Jeremiah warns that the heart is devious above all else. It compels people to do incredible things, but it can also compel people to do horrible things. Who can possibly understand what love can make us do?

I often think it’s crazy to see the kind of stuff people will do tomorrow, including the amount of money that people will spend of trivial and fleeting items. But others will say that Valentine’s willingness to give his life for Jesus is even worse.

Love is a crazy thing.

It just also happens to be how God feels about us.

So much so that God in Christ, out of love, mounted the hardwood of the cross to die for us.

Happy early Valentine’s Day!

What’s Good About The Good News?

Devotional:

Luke 5.11

When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. 

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Are you willing to leave it all behind for Jesus?

It’s a question that Christian types will ask under the auspices of something like “evangelism.” And for as much as it pains me to hear things like that, it’s not actually wrong.

I mean, its THE implicit question that Jesus hangs in the air when he meets Peter while fishing. The fisherman have finished their late night trolling (no one was dumb enough to fish during the day) and then this strange and bewildering rabbi shows up and says, “Hey, let’s go out and see what we can catch.” 

Peter, inexplicably, agrees and before long they’re hauling in so many fish the nets begin to break and the boat starts to take on water.

Peter can’t handle the holiness of the moment and begs Jesus to depart from him because he is a sinful man. But Jesus calmly replies, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

Notice: Jesus doesn’t ask a question! There is just something about the profound wonder of the moment that compels Peter and the other fishermen to leave everything and follow Jesus. 

Oftentimes when this passage comes up, we make it out into a moment of self-righteousness; it becomes a competition about who has given up more for Jesus. And, invariably, the everything isn’t everything but mostly just a list of material possessions.

And no doubt, Peter and the others gave up something material – they left the livelihoods of fishermen. But there is more to what is left behind for Jesus than just our jobs or our material comforts.

Sometimes we are compelled to leave something even more difficult behind.

Our sins.

Goodnews word on vintage broken car license plates, concept sign

The faithful life is not easy. When we confront the frustrations in another person, Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek. When we witness horrible behavior, Jesus whispers in our ears “judge not, lest ye be judged.” When we are so convinced of our own righteousness, Jesus shows up to remind us of how broken we really are.

But the kicker is that even though we are compelled to leave it all behind, we don’t. 

We might have good days where we make the right decisions and speak the loving words that Jesus would have us say. But we invariably fall back into patterns and rhythms in which we are not the people God has called us to be.

And we’re not alone – the same thing happened to Peter! Peter, called from the boat, abandoned Jesus in his greatest hour of need and denied even knowing him.

But to whom does Jesus appear after the resurrection by the side of the sea? 

Peter.

One of the great mysteries of faith is that we are compelled to leave it all behind and Jesus knows that we won’t. 

That’s the kind of love we encounter in the risen Jesus, a forgiveness in spite of, and because of, us.

No wonder we call it Good News.

Age Is Just A Number

Devotional:

Jeremiah 1.6-7

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.”

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I was out in my front yard when the two young men wheeled up with their too tight helmets and their too long black skinny ties.

Mormons.

I had seen them around the neighborhood on a number of occasions but always in passing and they never seemed to notice me. But now here we were, standing on the sidewalk when the taller of the two introduced himself and immediately began with, “Excuse me, but do you know Jesus?”

Do I know Jesus?

For a moment I thought about lying, I thought about pretending I had never ever heard of the man, just to see what kind of lecture I was going to receive.

But I was tired, and in no mood to be evangelized. So I simply said, “I sure do, and I tell people about him every Sunday, I’m a pastor.”

The two monochromatically dressed missionaries stared at me in disbelief until the smaller one said, “Gee, I thought pastors had to be old.”

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It has amazed me how much my age in relation to my vocation is brought up on a regular basis. And, to be perfectly honest, I don’t even look very young. I’m losing my hair and I have a fairly sizable beard. 

And yet, there is this strange expectation that to be involved in the duties of pastoral ministry requires a look of weathering!

When called called Jeremiah to his vocation of being a prophet, Jeremiah promptly responded with doubts about his usefulness precisely because of his age. And God hears none of it: “This isn’t about you or your age or your experience; it’s about what I’m going to do through you!”

Throughout my varied experiences in varied churches there is this limiting belief that God can only call certain kinds of people to certain kinds of tasks. Churches want extraverted people leading worship, but they also wanted introverted people to visit them in the hospital. They want young ministers to help bring in young families, but they want old pastors who can work from experience.

In the church, almost more than anywhere else, age is nothing but a number. Time and time again throughout the Bible God calls upon people regardless of their age, or their experience, or even their talents simply because God is the one who will work through them. 

Do you feel unqualified for something that’s happening in church? Do you believe your abilities might be best suited elsewhere? Has God called you to something that you think is impossible?

These are important questions, but like Jeremiah, we do well to remember that it’s not really about us; it’s about what God can do through us. 

Approaching Spiritual Doom

Psalm 19.14

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. 

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I’ve been doing some thinking, which is a dangerous thing these days…

Things are pretty messed up right now. People are lobbing destructive claims about other people in their communities simply because of the color of their skin or their political affiliation. Kids are afraid to go to school because of the violence they might experience. Great sums of people are making their way through life day after day without any hope of a better future.

We, as a people, are so obsessed with financial gains and economic prosperity that we’ve allowed capitalism to become our religion. We worship our bank accounts. And the evils of capitalism, of which there are many, are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.

We, as a people, spend more money on national defense each and every year than we do on all of the programs of social uplift combined. This is surely a sign of our imminent spiritual doom.

We, as a people, perpetuate a culture in which 1 out of ever 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. The price that we must pay for the continued oppression of black bodies in this country is the price of our own destruction.

We, as a people, enable gross injustices each and every day: racial, economic, gendered, and social injustices. And they cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.

Something has to change.

How are you feeling right now having read those words? Do you agree? Do you disagree? Are you clenching your fists in anger about the problems we have and are planning to go out and do something about them? Or are you clenching your fists in anger because you feel like I’ve criticized our country and culture?

Most of what I just wrote did not come from me, but from another preacher, one who was responsible for many of us not having to go to work yesterday: Martin Luther King Jr. And it was because he was willing to say that like what I wrote that he was murdered.

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When we think about Dr. King or even when we learned about him in school, he is often white-washed and whittled down to the “I Have A Dream Speech.” But Dr. King’s life and witness was about a whole lot more than one quote, or one speech, or even one issue. 

All of what we do as a church was handed down to us by those who came before us. The same was true for Dr. King. His life was a testament and witness to the power of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead which gave him the confidence to say and believe that God could make the impossible possible.

He, more than most, prayed for his words and his meditations to be worthy of the One who hung on the hard wood of the cross for people like us.

When we remember Dr. King, just as we remember Jesus, we celebrate their convictions and challenges, and we give thanks for their joy. But we must not forget the scars they bore for us! 

Dr. King was repeatedly beaten and arrested and eventually murdered.

Jesus was berated, arrested, and eventually murdered.

One of the hardest prayers to pray is one that’s even harder to live out. Because if we really want our words and meditations to be acceptable in the sight of the Lord they might lead us toward the valley of the shadow of death. But what is resurrection if not a promise that death is not the end?

A Wedding Sermon From A Prison Cell

Devotional:

John 2.1-2

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an outspoken pastor and was decisively opposed to the reign of Adolf Hitler and Germany’s complicity in providing the power and leverage Hitler used to decimate parts of Europe. Bonhoeffer’s theological convictions against Hitler eventually got him locked up in prison, though he befriended enough of the guards that he was able to write and receive letters from his family.

In May 1943, while held in prison, Bonhoeffer wrote a sermon for his niece Renate and long time friend Eberhard Bethge’s wedding. The sermon is beautiful and appropriately faithful: 

“Certainly you two, of all people, have every reason to look back with special thankfulness on your lives up to now. The beautiful things and the joys of life have been showered on you, you have succeeded in everything, and you have been surrounded by love and friendship. Your ways have, for the most part, been smoothed before you took them, and you have always been able to count on the support of your families and friends. Everyone has wished you well, and now it has been given to you to find each other and to reach the goal of your desires. You yourselves know that no one can create and assume such a life from his/her own strength, but that what is given to one is withheld from another; and that is what we call God’s guidance. So today, however much you rejoice that you have reached your goal, you will be just as thankful that God’s will and God’s way have brought you here; and however confidently you accept responsibility for your action today, you may and will put it today with equal confidence into God’s hands.

“As God today adds God’s ‘Yes’ to your ‘Yes’ , as God confirms your will with God’s will, and as God allows you, and approves of, your triumph and rejoicing and pride, God makes you at the same time instruments of God’s will and purpose both for yourselves and for others. In God’s unfathomable condescension God does ass God’s ‘Yes’ to yours; but by doing so, God creates out of your love something quite new.”

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I had returned to the words of Bonhoeffer’s sermon many times (particular while preparing my own weddings sermons!) but every time I read it, I can’t help but imagine the pain of the writer knowing that he could not be there to celebrate the union of two people who meant so much to him.

According to the John’s gospel, one of Jesus’ first miracles took place at the wedding in Cana of Galilee when Jesus turned water into wine. In that poignantly beautiful moment God’s abundant grace was poured out upon the celebration of two people brought together in marriage, and yet we receive no details about the two brought together! It’s as if the gospel writer wants us to see that though marriage is important, the one doing the marrying is actually God almighty!

Or, to use Bonhoeffer’s language, when God adds God’s “Yes” to our “Yes” we become instruments of the Lord for both ourselves and for others. So, for as much as I wonder about Bonhoeffer’s disappointment from missing out on the festivities, I am reminded, through his words, that God is the focus of the covenant of marriage; it doesn’t matter if we are there to celebrate or not, because God surely is. 

The Voice Of The Lord

Psalm 29.4

The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. 

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It was a particularly nice day outside so I decided to walk across the church lawn to the retirement home that was adjacent to the property. A number of my members would march with their walkers across the grass every Sunday for worship and I would try to swing by for random visits whenever I had the time. On this particular day I can remember the sounds of birds chirping in the trees as I turned toward the main entrance.

When I looked up I saw Polly, one of the oldest members of the church, standing out on her balcony on the third floor. She was tidying up the little space that she had, and I cherished the brief stolen moment I had seeing her without know that anyone could see her. But then it felt a little awkward to be staring at an older woman from the parking lot so I shouted out, “Hey Polly.”

No response.

I knew she could be hard of hearing so I cupped my hands to my mouth and shouted even louder, “Polly!”

To which she quickly looked up in the sky and said, “Yes Lord?”

I started laughing so hard in the parking lot that it took me a few moments to collect myself before going into the building to actually knock on her door. And when I did she answered with a flustered look on her face and she said, “Pastor Taylor, you’re never going to believe this… but I just heard God talking to me, and He sounded a lot like you!”

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The psalmist describes the voice of the Lord like thunder with tremendous power that can even break cedar trees in half. I tend to imagine God’s voice sounding a lot like Maggie Smith’s voice from her portrayal of Professor McGonagall from the Harry Potter series, but it doesn’t carry with it quite the weight of the psalmist’s understanding. God’s voice is apparently powerful enough that it can shake the very foundations under our feet.

Today it is all too easy to read scripture or hear it read aloud in church on a Sunday morning and immediately think of someone else for whom those words were written: 

“Judge not, lest ye be judged” and our minds jump to our remarkably frustrating relative and we think about how nice it would be if they would stop being so judgmental! 

However, the strange and convicting truth of the gospel is that when God speaks, God speaks to me – to us – to you. Sometimes the voice of the Lord speaks great and comforting words into the midst of our fears. But there are other times, times we’d rather ignore, when the voice of the Lord calls us out of our sinfulness into lives of holiness.