Devotional – 1 Corinthians 8.9

Devotional:

1 Corinthians 8.9

But take care that this liberty of your does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

Weekly Devotional Image

When I graduated from High School, my family put together a big party in the backyard and invited a ton of people. All of the usual suspects were in attendance: relatives, neighbors, and family friends. But my parents also extended a handful of invitations to my favorite teachers. And of all the teachers I had, my very favorite was my band director.

Mr. Rice was everything you could have wanted in a teacher. He was intelligent, funny, and easy to talk to. He made studying, and performing music, an absolute joy. Because of his commitment to his discipline, and his ability to lead and engage his students, some of my fondest memories from high school are of sitting in the band room playing music.

So I was in my parents’ backyard, celebrating my graduation from High School, when Mr. Rice walked around the corner. I remember the immense pride I felt in that moment, and not just for graduating, but also for the fact that he took the time to come celebrate with us.

As the afternoon wore on, people came and went, and Mr. Rice continued to mingle among the crowd, always keeping his right hand down by his side. He was someone who always spoke with both arms flying about (as if he were conducting) so it stood out that one arm remained unmoved. Finally, I had a chance to ask him about it and I noticed that he was holding a beer bottle, wrapped in five napkins, hidden down by his side. At first I thought he was hiding the drink because he was embarrassed, or worried it wasn’t allowed, and then I just decided to ask what the deal was. And I’ll never forget what he said: “I don’t want to become a stumbling block to others. Particularly my students.”

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Mr. Rice was there to rejoice with us, but he was also cognizant of the role he was still playing regardless of the location and occasion. There were plenty of high school students in the backyard and he didn’t not want them to make some assumption that because he was drinking, that it would be okay for them to do so as well. Mr. Rice, even in the midst of a party, remembered who he was, and the impact he had on us.

To this day I give thanks to God for placing Mr. Rice into my life. I learned a lot from him, and not just about music. From his witness I learned about the virtues of kindness, hope, and patience. Through his leadership I learned what it means to listen and to guide. And above all, he taught me what it means to carry myself in such a way that I won’t become a stumbling block to others.

Devotional – Philippians 1.27

Devotional:

Philippians 1.27

Only, live your lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.


Weekly Devotional Image

I’ve been writing weekly devotionals since shortly after entering the ministry. On Monday mornings I sit down with the lectionary texts for the week, I read through all of them, and then I usually pick one or two verses to write about. I try not to overthink the whole thing and instead I hope that God will speak through the words I use in such a way that they resonate with God’s Word.

Over the years a lot of the devotionals have ended with rhetorical questions; a lingering thought to stay with you, the reader, throughout the day/week. Examples: What would it look like to pray for one of your enemies this week? Or, When was the last time you prayed about the money you spend?

Most of the time I get the devotional done in a short amount of time and I send off the mass email and post it online for anyone and everyone to read, and rarely (I can count the number of times on two hands) do I ever receive a response. And frankly, that’s okay. The devotionals are not written so that I can get a response, instead they’re designed to bring forth a response from the reader in the way they (you) live out the rest of the day.

But this devotional is different. This time I actually want responses.

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Paul wrote to the church in Philippi about “living in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” What does it mean to live in a manner worthy of the gospel? When I’ve preached about this text, or taught it in a Bible Study, I’ve whittled it down to: “Live your life as if Jesus is in the room with you.” Surely we would behave and speak and think differently if we knew and believed that Jesus was physically close in the room. But living in a manner worthy of the gospel has to be about so much more than that, it has to be more complicated and strange and wonderful and beautiful. So, I end with these non-rhetorical questions in the hope that you (dear readers) will respond:

What does it mean to live in a manner worthy of the gospel?

What behaviors or habits or practices would signify that someone is living in a manner worthy of the gospel?

How are you trying to live in a manner worthy of the gospel?

Who Are You? – Sermon on James 1.17-27

James 1.17-27

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act — they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

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The small town sheriff was frustrated when he received a phone-call from the station that interrupted his Sunday supper. A report had come in that a group of young boys were throwing water balloons at strangers walking along Main Street. Reluctantly, the sheriff changed out of his Sunday best into his uniform and went to find the hooligans.

Just as the report noted, a group of young boys were standing on a street corner with a bucket of water balloons and were striking anyone within distance. As he approached in his patrol car, he expected to hear the boys laughing and hollering, but they were rather silent as he inched his way forward. He recognized all the boys from his local church, and dreaded the phone calls he would be making to all of their parents, but he knew their behavior had to stop.

The boys were smart enough not to throw a balloon at the police car, but the sheriff was still nervous to roll down his window in case a wayward throw made it inside. “What do you think you’re doing?” he yelled to the boys. In unison they all solemnly replied, “we’re working for the Lord.” He was mystified by their response, after all how could throwing water balloons at strangers be equated with the almighty? So the sheriff sat in his car with one eyebrow raised and motioned for them to explain.

The ringleader then stepped forward and said, “Didn’t you hear the preacher this morning sheriff? He told us to go out baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We’ve got Holy Water Balloons and we’ve done already made 45 Christians.”

Every good thing in our lives, every generous act of giving, every perfect gift, every blessing, every compliment, is from above.

Throughout our days, the Lord nurtures, guides, and provides all that we need. More often than not, God uses the people around us to do so, but nevertheless God supplies the goodness in our lives.

The letter of James is beautiful, and it begins with a quick assessment of the discipled life and what it means to live into this identity.

James knew how to notice the small things, because the small acts of life are the nuts and bolts of existence. It is the little things, the small actions and the tiny compliments, that hold together the fabric of our lives and give us the power to build and shape community. What we say and how we act are more important than we can possibly imagine.

The Lord has given us new life by the Word of truth and the power of scripture so that we would become a kind of first fruits. We have been given the great blessings of God’s presence, scripture, and Jesus Christ and now we have the responsibility to let those blessings bear fruit in our lives, and in the lives around us.

We must understand this, children of God, we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, because our anger does not produce God’s righteousness. How many times have we jumped to a conclusion, or said something without thinking it through and immediately regretted it? How valuable is James’ advice: be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger?

Our contemporary conversations are filled with “uhhs” “buts” “likes” and other verbal bridges because we are afraid of silence. Rather than actually listening to others, or at least giving them the chance to speak, we fill up every ditch between our words out of fear that someone else will jump in with something else to say. Imagine how much our relationships would change if we only heeded James’ words in our conversations? Can you picture how different our identities would be if we were quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger?

If we have the strength to change the way we converse, then we will begin to welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to change the world. Instead of relying on our own words at all times and places, with patience we can remember the great Word of God in Jesus Christ and put all our trust in him. Instead of believing that we are alone in the world and in our situations, we will come to see that God is with us, and has carried God’s people through this before and will again.

But it’s not just about the words we use and speak, as Christians we are invited to be doers of the Word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

Have you ever departed from church on a Sunday morning, after hearing a particularly convicting message, only to believe that it had nothing to do with you? Have you ever picked up the bible and started reading only to think about the other people the scripture should apply to instead of you?

For if we are hearers of the word and not doers, then we are like those who look at a mirror and as soon as we walk away immediately forget who we are. Our identities are rooted in the scriptures we read, and in the water of our baptism. But too often, we leave from church, or we put down the bible, or the water dries from our hair, and we immediately forget who we are and whose we are.

If church is supposed to accomplish anything on a regular basis, it is to act like a giant mirror so that we catch a glimpse of who God is calling us to be, and then never forget what we have seen.

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It was New Year’s Eve 1999 and Javier was afraid. For months news pundits and writers speculated about the “end of the world” coming with the year 2000. In addition to some strange and warped biblical prophecies, technologically proficient workers warned about the change that might come with the digits 99 changing to 00 and the blackouts that could ensue. For weeks people throughout the world prepared for the worst, and the rhetoric about the end times increased.

So Javier found himself getting ready to attend a worship service with his family and friends in El Salvador on the eve of the new millennium and he was afraid. The service itself was fine; it proclaimed the word of God’s faithfulness in spite the warnings about the new millennium, yet Javier could not rid himself of the fear that was shaking him to his core. Before the service came to a close, Javier stood up, walked to the front and asked to be baptized. He did not know what the New Year would bring, he did not know what would happen to the world, but he figured that a little water on his head couldn’t hurt.

Except, that simple affirmation that God was bigger than himself, that simple humbled moment of reverence to God’s power to save was enough to change Javier’s life forever. Of course, the year 2000 did not bring about the end of the world, but it did bring about Javier’s new identity in Jesus Christ. From that night forward he saw himself as a disciple and has lived into that ever sense.

My own baptism took place when I was 19 days old. Other than some strange blurry photographs of my mother and father standing at the front of the church, I have no idea what it was like or what happened. But it came to shape my very identity. The people who were present in worship that day 27 year ago took seriously the commitment to raise me in faith, and helped me hold on to my identity in Jesus.

The Sunday before I became the pastor at St. John’s I stood before my home congregation and thanked them for nurturing me in the faith all these years and said goodbye. But while I stood in the narthex shaking hands after the service, a much older woman came up with a very worn bible in her hands. Without saying much she turned to the back inside cover and showed me my name and the date of my baptism. For decades she had written down the name and date of every person baptized in her presence and made a point to pray for every single one of them, every single day. Her prayers shaped me into who I am.

Those of us to look in the mirror and remember who we are when we walk away, those of us who are doers of the word will be blessed in our actions. Our religion is pure when we, like the disciples from long ago, actually live into the Word of God and start caring about the people in our midst. Our religion is pure when we clasp our hands together and pray for the world. Our religion is pure when we remember our baptisms and are thankful.

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Who are you?

What defines your identity?

Perhaps we’ve forgotten who we are and whose we are. Instead of seeing disciples of Jesus Christ in the mirror, we only see fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters. Instead of holding on the image of God in our hearts, we turn away from the mirror of church and we immediately forget what God is speaking into our lives.

Do you remember your baptism? Can you recall the details of what eventually led you to yearn for the water of a new identity? Were you, like Javier, led to baptism out of fear? Were you, like me, led to baptism before you even had a chance to know what was happening?

Baptism is not about quantity; we’re not interested in throwing Holy Water Balloons at everyone within distance. Baptism is instead about discovering our fullest identity in Christ through a covenant by water and the Spirit.

Today, we are all invited to remember our baptisms and be thankful. In a few moments I will pray over our baptismal font, and everyone may come forward to remember and give thanks. The mirror behind the water is there for us to take a good look, so that when we turn around we will not forget who we are.

Disciples of Jesus Christ: Remember that every good thing is from above, that God has given us the word of truth so that we may bear fruit in our lives. Remember to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Remember that we are called to be doers of the Word. Remember your baptism and be thankful. Remember who you are. Amen.

The Johns – Sermon on John 15.9-11, 1 John 2.15-17, and Revelation 21.1-5

John 15.9-11

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

1 John 2.15-17

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.

Revelation 21.1-5

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

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“Taylor, the bishop is appointing you to St. John’s United Methodist Church in Staunton, Virginia. We believe the church fits with your gifts and graces and we are excited to see what the Holy Spirit can do through you there.” Those were the words used to let me know where I would be spending the next few years of my life. I remember how I felt with the phone next to my ear and Lindsey by my side when I found out that I would be coming here to serve this church.

Obviously, for the next few days all I could think about was the church and the community. What would you all be like? Would we enjoy living here? What would we do for fun? How would you respond to me as your pastor?

Of course I Googled the church, searched the church name in the local newspaper databases, and even looked up the address of the parsonage. And for as many things as I could discover, more questions began to develop to the point where I had to just stop and accept that this is where I was going.

However, one question remained in the back of my mind during the months leading up to my first Sunday. I was fine letting everything else go, I was content with the unknown, except for one thing: Why St. John’s?

Now I don’t mean why this church out of all the churches in the Virginia conference, though I have wondered about that at times. What I mean is this: Why is the church named St. John’s?

Do any of you know? Church naming often carries an interesting history. Like when a group of people from a Baptist church grow frustrated with another group and decide to leave and start a new church with the ironic name of Harmony Baptist.

Or like what we have here in town with 1st Presbyterian, 2nd Presbyterian, 3rd Presbyterian, etc. I would love to know the story behind that.

Anyway, why are we called St. John’s?

The story goes that a long time ago there was a particularly advantageous District Superintendent who dreamed of 4 new churches in the Staunton District. The population was booming in the valley and he believed it was time for the Methodist Church to start breaking ground and forming church homes for new people. He wanted 4 new churches and he wanted them to be named after the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Though only two of them ever came to fruition: Mark and John.

Now, is that really how we got our name? I have no idea, but thats the story everyone seems to tell.

I want to know if thats the story we want to tell. That the name of this blessed house of the Lord got its name from some guy in the past who wanted to leave his mark in Staunton. Or do we want to take ownership of our name, and live into the reality of what it means to be St. John’s?

Our name is part of who we are, it is a part of our very identity, for better or worse. If we were First UMC I would expect that we were the first to break ground in Staunton, that we would be leading the community in what it means to love one another. If we were Harmony UMC I would expect a church full of people who agreed on everything all the time, no matter what. If we were Wesley UMC I would expect that John Wesley would be fundamental to our mission and work in the kingdom.

But if we call ourselves St. John’s, then who are we?

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On the right side of our sanctuary we have three stained glass windows that I call The Johns. We have John the Evangelist, John of Patmos, and John the Presbyter. Do they represent three different and distinct men? Are they in fact all the same person, just being shown throughout the different decades?

Early Christian tradition held that John was one of the original 12 disciples who actually lived a long life and was not killed for his faith like the others. It is believed that he was responsible for writing the gospel according to John, the letters 1-3 John, and the final book of the New Testament Revelation. Of course modern scholars debate as to the particular authorship and whether or not one man was responsible for all of these different writings.

What is important for us is the fact that we affirm all of the writing as canon and life-giving, that Christians for centuries have come to discover the living God in the words attributed to John, and that we will continue to live into our discipleship through them.

Our first window displays the young John as the Evangelist. Today when we hear the word evangelism we tend to picture people converting others to follow Christ, but in its most simple meaning, an evangelist is someone who shares the Good News, and in this case, it came through a written account of Jesus life and ministry.

We see a young John holding a chalice and the image of an eagle. The chalice serves to emphasize the importance of the sacrament, and the pouring out of Jesus blood for us. Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is a particular focus and theme. Reflecting on Jesus life later, John could remember everything through the lens of the resurrection, and we see the importance of Jesus’ life here in the chalice.

The other detail, the eagle, is very interesting. In Revelation, a book we will talk about shortly, there is a brief section where John describes four winged creatures from his dream. Each of them have come to represent a specific gospel and it’s respective author: Matthew is a man with wings, or an angel; Mark is a lion; Luke is an ox; and John is the eagle.

Whenever our eyes fall to this window we are called to remember the Father’s love in Christ Jesus. Like the winged eagle flying high in the sky we look up to the kind of love that Jesus exemplified and strive to live accordingly. The great sacrifice was made so that our joy could be complete in and with one another as we look on eternity without flinching as we journey toward the goal of communing with the Lord.

John the Evangelist wrote what he did to remember for us what his master taught him: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.

Our second window, the one to the right, contains John as the Presbyter. Presbyter comes from the greek word presbuteros which means “elder.” As John grew older and continued to play an integral role in the formation of the early church, it became necessary for him to write letters concerning the faith.

In the window we see a mature John with a quill and parchment. Like we still do today, whenever we encounter the struggles of fellow disciples, we strive to help them through their trials and tribulations. For John, having lived with Christ and experienced the true power of the resurrection, he devoted himself to the early Christians and helped them to understand the importance of love.

He wrote things like: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” Only a man speaking from a life of wisdom could make such a statement. The desires of flesh and the prides in riches only serve to destroy us because they wither away. All of the false things that we put our faith and hope in are passing away, but the love of God endures forever and ever.

Whenever we glance to this window of John as the Presbyter, we are called to remember the value of wisdom and what it means to grow together. Being Christian is not something that can be done in isolation, but instead can only be fruitful and life-giving if we disciple as a community. John wrote letters to encourage and remind the faithful what it means to be faithful. As disciples we have the responsibility to build one another up for kingdom work.

John the Presbyter wrote to Christian communities about what faithful living was all about: those who do the will of God live forever.

The third window, in the middle, contains John on Patmos. After a life of faith, John was exiled away to Patmos, a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea where he wrote about his visions. The book of Revelation contains fantastic imagery of the way God has, is, and will move  in the world. Our final John is older with a fiery city at his feet, and the new Jerusalem above his head with the lamb.

The Lord gave John certain visions and told him to write them down because they were trustworthy and true. Our window displays the height of the revelation when God will make all things new. A holy city, the new Jerusalem, will come down from heaven. This is where God will dwell with the people, God will wipe away all of our tears. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. The first things will pass away because God will make all things new.

In our window we see the former things, the earthly passions of the world at the bottom passing away. But God has not, and will not, abandon us to our own devices. The new city at the top will reign and the kingdom will be forever. 

Whenever our eyes fall upon this window we remember that the Lord is with us now and forever. That even in our death we will come closer to the new heaven and the new earth that the Lord has promised. In the midst of our grief and suffering now we can still give thanks to the Lord for that day when he will make all things new. This window calls us to trust the Lord just like John did throughout his life.

John on Patmos wrote down the visions the Lord had provided so that others would come to know what the future holds: The Lord will dwell with us and make all things new. 

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Who are we? A group of Christians who get together week after week to rediscover what it means to follow Christ? A ragtag collection of disciples who need to find a little more light in our lives?

If we want to live into our name, then we need a better story than being named by a District Superintendent. If we want to be the St. John’s that God is calling us to be, then we need to reclaim what that name means for us.

We are St. John’s. That very name carries with it the history of what our church has done for this community. Wherever I go in Staunton I love to tell people that I serve as the pastor here at St. John’s because our name is immediately met with recognition; “My children went to Preschool there!” “My wife and I were married in that sanctuary.” “We buy our Christmas tree from your church every year.”

But we are also more than what we do. Our identity is firmly rooted in the name of John and we should be proud of it. We were named after a man who was called to follow Jesus, remembered the Messiah’s life for other communities, wrote to churches about faithful wisdom, and caught glimpses of future glory. 

Likewise, we are a community of faith that believes in following the Lord, in sharing God’s story with other people, in teaching those younger in the faith about what it means to love, in celebrating the coming day when God will make all things new.

St. John’s; what a perfect name. Amen.

The Methodists – Sermon on Psalm 22.25-31

Psalm 22.25-31

From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pray before those who fear him. The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

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How can we get young people to worship?” I get asked this question all the time. Because I am young and involved the church, many assume that I have the secret to unlocking the riddle of putting younger people in pews. The truth is, I have no answer to the question. For me, it is as simple as discovering God in a place and time such as this, and therefore I return week after week because it provides the strength for my own discipleship. I don’t know what to do to get younger people to worship other than doing what we do well. 

However, some believe the key to growing the church can be found in contemporary worship. The belief goes that traditional worship styles with stained glass sanctuaries, organs, and hymnals, no longer connect with people and give life.

So, contemporary services strive for the opposite, instead of traditional church architecture they meet in auditoriums or gymnasiums, instead of stained glass they use projectors and screens, instead of an organ and hymnals they use a rock band and display lyrics on the screen. Many church planters believe this is the future of worship, that if we want the church to grow we have to be willing to let go of the past and embrace the future.

I’m not so sure.

Interestingly, many young people are finding themselves drawn to traditional worship, while contemporary services are regularly filled by the boomer generation. Why? What we discover in traditional worship is unlike anything we encounter during the week. Worship is supposed to be different than our daily lives and fill us with God’s grace. I could go on an on about the importance of listening to the organ and singing our faith from the hymnal, but I’ll save that for another sermon series. This month we will take time each week looking at the Stained Glass of our sanctuary and wrestle with how they convey the Good News to us today.

We begin with what I call “The Methodists.

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The first window contains the mother of Methodism Susanna Wesley. Born in 1669, Susanna was the twenty-fifth of twenty-five children. Her father, was a preacher of sorts who rebelled against the status quo of the Church on England and he consistently encouraged his daughter to study books from his library (against the conventional wisdom). Susanna eventually married Samuel Wesley, a clergyman from the Church of England and gave birth to 19 children, of which only 10 lived to adulthood.

Because her husband was often busy with the responsibilities of the parish, Susanna was left to raise and educate the children on her own. They all learned Latin and Greek and were well informed in classical studies.

The image in our window shows Susanna teaching two of her sons, John and Charles Wesley. She took seriously the need for her children to be raised with a proper education and also put a tremendous emphasis on raising them in the faith. I don’t know for sure why the artist chose this particular representation, but I imagine it has something to do with an episode during her life when her willingness to engage her children sent them on a path that led to a renewal within the church, and eventually a new church.

The story goes that her husband was gone in London for a period of time, and a guest preacher was brought into the local parish. After a few weeks of particularly sub-par sermons, Susanna decided to assemble her children on Sunday afternoon for her own services. It would begin with the singing of a psalm, then Susanna read a sermon written by her father or husband, and concluded the worship with another psalm. Word about the services began to spread and people started to ask if they could attend. At the height of her Sunday afternoon services, over two hundred people were attending regularly, while the Sunday morning service at the local church dwindled to nearly nothing. 

Susanna, like the psalmist, believed in the importance of remembering and returning to the Lord. She took time each week to educate her children, and the local community, about God’s dominion so that future generations would be told about the Lord.

Whenever our eyes fall upon this window we remember that we, like Susanna, are called to nurture and teach and love those around us. John and Charles Wesley would eventually grow into the men who sparked a theological revolution. Charles will always be remembered for his hymn writing (all of the hymns we are using this morning were written by him) and John would become the founder of Methodism.

This window helps us to remember that we can serve the Lord by sharing the Lord with others. Our words are powerful and they can be the spark that ignites a revolution of the heart.

The second window portrays a grown John Wesley during the height of the Methodist renewal movement. Born in 1703, he was raised and taught by his mother and followed a call to ministry within the Church of England. However, John grew disenfranchised with the way the church was being run, he saw pastors who were following a career path rather than giving their lives to Christ. He saw people fighting for positions within the church rather than submitting to the will of God. He saw hypocritical preachers rather than people seeking holiness of heart and life.

After a particular string of episodes that left him filled with doubt, John Wesley had his heart strangely warmed during a small service on Aldersgate Street in London. He wrote in his journal: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” (The Journal of John Wesley, 35).

The glowing heart in our window is a reminder of his conversion experience. From that point forward he felt called to spread scriptural holiness of heart and life throughout the lands and helped to form small groups through the country to help disciples grow in love of God and one another. The moment of heart warming encouraged him to see the world as his parish. Rather than being limited to a particular time and place, John Wesley listened to the Spirit’s call and moved according to God’s will.

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John, like the psalmist, believed in the importance of remembering the Lord’s works even to the ends of the earth. He understood Jesus as Lord and did whatever he could to share the love he experienced in his heart with other people.

Whenever we take in the beauty of this window we remember that we, like John, are called to feel and experience God’s pardoning and loving nature. Having our hearts strangely warmed is at the heart of what it means to follow Christ and give our lives to discipleship. Yet, once we feel this assurance like Wesley did, we cannot just keep it to ourselves. If it really is something that transforms our very lives then we should be willing to go even to the ends of the earth to help others remember the Lord.

The gift of God’s love is something worth sharing with others just like John did. Our words are powerful and they can be the spark that ignites a revolution of the heart.

Our third window displays Francis Asbury, the symbol of American Methodism. John Wesley discovered Asbury while a young man in England and encouraged him to become a circuit riding lay-preacher for the renewal movement. He was remarkably successful as a preacher even at a young age.

In 1771 Wesley sent lay preachers to continue the movement in the colonies including the young and talented Francis Asbury. However, by 1777, at the height of the American Revolution, all but one, Asbury, would return back to England. For Asbury the kingdom of God was more important than any human nation, and nothing would stop him from following his call.

Asbury became the de facto leader of the movement and spent the rest of his life traveling on horse back to spread scriptural holiness. When he arrived in the colonies there were 600 people participating in Methodist ministries. By the year of his death (1816) there were more than 200,000 members (2.3% of the population) making it the single largest Christian tradition in America at the time. 

Why was he so successful? In our stained glass we see Asbury holding a bible and riding on a horse. He had a strong and fundamental belief that the Lord was calling him to reform the continent, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land. Asbury was willing to go wherever whenever with only the Word of God to guide his words and actions. He traveled so widely across the landscape that at one time he was the most well known man in America simply because of how much he traveled.

Asbury, like the psalmist, believed the people were hungry and yearning for something greater than themselves. He understood that if he was willing to bring the Word to the people, that they would feast and be satisfied. He gave his life to the mission of spreading holiness so that people would praise the Lord.

Whenever we gaze upon this particular window we remember that we, like Asbury, have a responsibility to help people feast on the Word. Going out and meeting people where they are is fundamental to the kingdom of God. If we are content to just wait for people to show up with their questions and hopes, then we will be disappointed. This window gives us the encouragement to give of ourselves for other people just like Francis Asbury was willing to do.

The gift of God’s grace and mercy is something worth sharing so that others might feast and be satisfied. Our words are powerful and they can be the spark that ignites a revolution of the heart. 

What we do in worship, how we understand discipleship, and even why we gather for communion was largely determined by the three Methodists in our stained glass. From Susanna’s Sunday afternoon lessons, to John’s heart-warming experience, to Asbury’s commitment to mission of God, we are who we are because of what they did. However, if we call ourselves Wesleyans or Methodists, it is fundamentally important to remember that we are first disciples of Jesus Christ.

These three Methodists followed Christ and their lives were results of their discipleship. It was through their reading of scripture and persistent prayers that they started a revolution within the greater church and brought the Word to people to tell them about the Lord.

When we come to gather at the Lord’s table in a few moments, let us remember that Susanna, John, and Asbury all gathered at a table such as this to feast on the Lord and receive the strength for their discipleship. Wesley in particular believed in constant communion, doing whatever he could to experience the Lord’s grace at all times. If you want to know God’s grace and love, look no further than this table.

But after we feast, what shall we do? Shall we return to the busyness of our lives and forget the importance and value of finding holiness? Will we limit the power of the Lord to Sunday mornings at 11am?

Or will we take the bread and cup and let it nourish our souls for the work of discipleship? Will we pray fervently for the Lord’s will to be done? Will we go out into the world to tell future generations about the power of God?

Now is the time for a revolution of the heart. Amen.

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Lost and Found – Easter Sermon on Luke 24.13-35

Luke 24.13-35

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes kept them from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to the, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and return to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

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I have been a Christian for as long as I can remember.

I was baptized at 19 days old and church has been there for me my entire life. As a child I loved hearing the incredible stories from scripture: Jesus walking on water, David defeating Goliath, Moses moving through the Red Sea. Church was an exciting place that was unlike anything else I did. In worship I learned how to listen, I learned what it meant to sing my faith, and I found tremendous joy in receiving communion.

Of course, as I grew older, the perfect glow of church began to fade away. We would learn about the importance of love and forgiveness during church, and then I would see a man screaming at his wife in the parking lot after worship. We learned about God’s kingdom as a rich and diverse new reality, but I only saw privileged white people in church. We heard about how important it was to keep the faith, but I started to have doubts about what scripture revealed.

Like most Christians, I have had my doubts. I have been kept awake late at night wondering about the divine, praying for God’s presence to be made known in my life and in the lives of others, and hoping for something to cleanse my unease.

Yet, it is almost always in the midst of a question, at the precise moment that I feel most lost, that God shows up and finds me.

The two disciples on the road were filled with doubt. We don’t know anything about the two who were walking to Emmaus; they weren’t famous, and they weren’t part of the 12 – they were just common, ordinary disciples like you and me.

I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have felt like to be walking on that road on that day so long ago. They had followed Jesus throughout Galilee and heard him proclaim the Good News, they had seen him heal the sick and feed the hungry, but just days previous they saw him betrayed, arrested, and murdered.

They might have known where they we walking, but I bet they felt lost. They had put all their hope and faith in a man who was buried in a tomb and now his body was missing. They thought the world was going to change, but the dirt under their feet felt even worse than before.

Suddenly, Jesus found them on the road and he went with them. Yet, they did not recognize the Lord in their midst. “What are you two talking about?” he asked. To which one of them replied, “Have you been living under a rock? How could you not have heard about the things that have taken place in Jerusalem?”

Jesus asked, “What things?

Immediately they began to explain all that they had seen and heard. “Jesus of Nazareth, a mighty prophet, was betrayed and sent to his death. We had hoped that he was the one who would save us. And now three days have passed and some of the women from our group went to his tomb and they say his body was missing and angels appeared, but no one has seen him.”

Jesus then began interpreting the scriptures to the men on the road, from Moses through the prophets, he showed how what had come to pass was part of God’s great cosmic plan. And yet, they still did not recognize him.

Later, as they came near Emmaus, Jesus kept walking on but the men invited him to stay. When they sat down at a table to eat, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. With the bread in their hands their eyes were opened and they finally understood who had been with them the whole time and he vanished.

All of the sudden everything started to make sense, the encounter on the road, the strange question, the interpretation of scripture, and even the holy meal. “Were not our hearts burning within us while we were together with the Lord?” Immediately they went back to Jerusalem to declare the good news: “The Lord has risen indeed!

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On Friday at noon I took the cross from our sanctuary, placed it on my shoulders and started walking around Staunton. When I did the same thing last year and I was largely ignored. For hours I walked through our community and most people averted their gaze, they tried to pretend that there was no cross for them to see.

This year, the opposite happened. People would honk their horns as they passed, they would roll their windows down and give me a thumbs-up. I saw familiar faces throughout my journey and felt glad for the sense of community that I experienced.

I carried the cross around because I want to bring the Lord to people outside of church. If we continue to falsely assume that we can only experience God’s grace in a place such as this, it will never grow and give life to other people.

Anyway, I was bearing my cross through Staunton and I was walking along the sidewalk on Beverly Street when I was stopped. In front of me stood an older woman with a large shawl draped around her shoulders and she kept staring at the cross. For a period of time that felt uncomfortably long we just stared at one another without saying anything until I saw her lip quiver and she asked a question that I was not expecting: “What will happen to me when I die?

I stood there with the cross digging into my shoulder and I felt the spirit of God fall upon us in that holy moment. Instead of giving some densely theological answer, and instead of evading the depth of her question I told her what I believed: “When we die God will take care of us. I don’t know what it will feel like or what we’ll experience, but the God that has been revealed to me will take care of us.

What kind of faith do you have?” she asked.

I explained that I am a pastor in the United Methodist Church, but above all I am a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Tell me about him,” she said.

So I did. I started with Christmas and the story of God coming in the form of flesh as a baby to be in the world with us. Jesus grew and called people to know that they were loved regardless of their life circumstances. This Messiah went out and found the people who were ignored by the rest of the world and he gave them value. He preached, healed, and he loved. And then Jesus was betrayed, arrested and killed on a cross for everyone to see, and three days later he was raised from the dead. The beauty of what Jesus did is that he died so that we might live. Jesus died for you, and for me, so that we might live.

Tears began to well up in her eyes, she reached forward to hug me, thank me, and before I knew it she was gone.

I can’t tell you anything about her other than our brief interaction, but to me it felt like she was lost and then Jesus found her in the cross and in the story. Whatever she had going on in her life suddenly fell away and she felt valued and loved by the one who came to live and die for us.

Jesus came to the disciples on the road, and not the other way around. They were lost in their thoughts and doubts and were incapable of recognizing Jesus in their midst. Only through the scriptures, and through the bread and wine did Jesus reveal himself to them, he demonstrated what his life had been all about: his resurrection means our resurrection.

Those of us here in church on Easter Sunday are in the same position as those two disciples on the road. Jesus has come to us here in this place through the reading of scripture, and in a few moments we will encounter the risen Christ through the bread and cup at the table.

I don’t know what you’ve got going on in your life. Most of us are pretty good about shielding away and hiding our doubts and insufficiencies. We turn on the smiles when we need to, and we know what we have to do to keep afloat. I don’t know what you might be wrestling with right now, or even if you’re wrestling with anything at all. But I do know this: If you took the time to come to a church on Easter, you believe in something more than yourself, even if its very faint.

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My faith is not perfect, and there are days that I struggle. I’ll be driving in my car on the way home from the hospital after praying with a family before a desperate surgery, or I’ll be standing above a casket with dirt still clinging to my fingers after saying goodbye to a faithful friend, or I’ll be reading the news online and be bombarded with never-ending negativity. There are many days that feel as if I’m walking to Emmaus all on my own with questions in my head just like those two disciples so long ago. But that’s when Jesus shows up.

Jesus isn’t looking for people with perfect faith and blind trust. God does not want puppets that he can string along. If Jesus is looking for anyone, it’s the people who are walking toward their own Emmaus. He’s looking for people like you and me who have questions.

Faith is an exciting thing not because it provides all the answers to our questions, but because it encourages us to ask questions in the first place. 

Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is not something that can be explained from a pulpit or from a book, it defies all logic and rationality, it exceeds our expectations, and often leaves us scratching our heads. But that’s the point. It is beyond anything we could ever imagine. Only the Lord who gives us life could have come up with something so incredible to change the world.

The resurrection is real, Christ appeared to the two on the road and revealed himself through the wonders of God’s word and holy table. God died in Christ on a cross and defeated death so that we might live with him in the kingdom; Christ died so that we might live.

The Lord is risen. God is on the move in the world seeking out those who are lost. God loves showing up in the words of scripture, in the bread and wine of communion, in chance encounters on the road, and in a variety of places to help find those of us who are lost.

Do we feel our hearts burning within us while we praise the living God? Do we feel the blessed holiness that comes with receiving this meal broken and shed for us? Are we ready to be found by the living God while we make our way to Emmaus?

The good news of Easter is that Christ’s resurrection has made our resurrection possible. But until that day when we feast with him at his heavenly banquet, I think the good news can be found when we feel lost on the old roads of life and Jesus finds us. Amen.

Washing With Tears – Maundy Thursday Homily on John 13.12-20

John 13.12-20

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who are my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”

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The disciples had already finished their food, they had passed around the bread and the cup, and Jesus had told them it was his body and blood. For many of them these words might’ve gone in one ear and out the other; after all Jesus was known for saying all sorts of the things that didn’t make sense right away. Perhaps some of them were picking up the crumbs from the bread when Jesus got up from the table. Others might have been refilling their cups with wine when Jesus tied a towel around his waist. But by the time he started to wash their feet the room must have been silent. 

Imagine how profound it would have been to see Jesus kneeling on the floor and using water to wash away the grime of Jerusalem. Even more amazing is the fact that Jesus doesn’t waste time explaining what he’s about to do, he just gets down on the ground and goes to work.

However, Peter, the ever vocal disciple interrupts the serene mood with a question: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?

“Right now it won’t make sense my friend, but soon it will all come together. If you want to be in this with me, you must let me wash your feet.”

Jesus went from one disciple to the next taking as much time as necessary, holding their feet in his hands, letting the water drip upon them, until he finished.

I took a group of middle-schoolers on a mission trip a number of years ago to Winchester, Virginia. We worked in trailer parks building wooden steps up to the doors, we worked on a wheel chair ramp that took up an entire yard, and we worked on clearing out areas that had been long forgotten. All week we did everything we could to serve the needs of the people from the nearby community, and every night we gathered to sing songs and praise our Lord.

At the end of the week we were invited into the fellowship hall for a foot-washing ceremony. I don’t know if any of you have had the chance to spend a week working outside with middle-schoolers, but it begins to smell pretty bad pretty fast; the prospect of washing one another’s feet was not high on my list of priorities. The leader explained that long ago Jesus washed his disciples feet and we would be doing the same thing. Everyone was invited to participate, but if you were uncomfortable you could simply ask for a prayer instead.

A few chairs and basins were set in the middle of the space, and when the music began we were on our own.

In my work group there was a precious young girl who had worked so incredibly hard all week and there was a young boy that annoyed her every chance he had. He would begin by playfully flicking paint onto her clothes, but when she asked him to stop he became relentless. He called her names behind her back, and schemed to turn the other kids against her. Even after I pulled him aside to set him straight he continued to prey on her at every opportunity. 

As we sat in the room waiting for the first people to go forward for the foot washing, I watched the young girl stand up, and bee-line across the room for the annoying boy. For a fleeting moment I was afraid that she had finally had too much and she was about to sock him in the face, but instead she leaned over and asked if she could wash his feet.

While other people started to do the same, my gaze was transfixed on the boy and girl from my group. The boy had gone over the line time and time again yet there she was holding his foot in her hand and washing it. When I looked closer I saw that she was crying and her tears were falling on his feet. And when I looked even closer I saw that he was crying and his tears were falling in her hair.

Foot washing is a service among equals in a company where no one’s status stands out. When Jesus finished with his friends, he called them to do the same to one another. We wash and are washed by our Lord through our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we kneel before a fellow Christian and hold their feet in our hands we make our way back to the upper room so long ago. We aren’t just called to wash the feet of those whom we love, but even the ones who drive us crazy and fill us with anger. Remember: Jesus washed Judas’ feet knowing full and well what he was about to do. 

Sometimes the people we need to reconcile with most are the ones in the pews next to us. We tend to sweep under the rug all of the proverbial problems we have with our friends and family and are far more inclined to complain about strangers. If we are filled with stress regarding the closest people in our lives than this might be the best place to embark on a new beginning. Perhaps the water can bring new life for us and for the ones we love and hate.

Jesus took time after breaking bread with his friends to wash their feet. He humbled himself to the floor and showed them what faithful love looks like. With each foot he equipped them for bringing the peace of God into the world. He washed away their insufficiencies and doubts. He rid them of labels and assumptions. He showed them how important they were for the kingdom of God.

If you want to know what faithful love looks like, look no further than this time when we follow the example of Jesus and wash one another. Amen.

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On Regretting My Vote

Psalm 13.1-2

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 

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Annual Conference always elicits an assortment of emotions for me. At one moment I can feel renewed spiritually and theologically as I listen to some of the great preachers from our conference/denomination as they proclaim the Word of the Lord. At other moments I can feel socially fulfilled as I rekindle friendships with other clergy and laity from Virginia. And still at other times I can feel elated and jovial as I did recently when I witnessed our bishop dancing to Pharrell’s “Happy” after we voted to support “Imagine No Malaria.”

However, at other times I can feel deflated and frustrated with our church. Traditionally Annual Conference has been a time of Holy Conferencing when the leaders of the church gather together to have their faith reignited for the kingdom of God. In the beginning of our denomination’s history annual conferences were held to maintain the theological convictions of our connection as the circuit riders were spread other a vast geographical area. It also served to maintain the relationships with fellow disciples as well as a dynamic and life-giving relationship with God. As the decades passed, annual conferences began to focus more on the polity of our church while still providing avenues for spiritual growth. In our contemporary period annual conference is a time when we hear about the focus of the denomination, recommit ourselves to spiritual disciplines, and vote on resolutions that have been put forth for our consideration.

After spending Saturday afternoon deeply entrenched in the reports from various agencies within the church (Report from the Common Table, Report of the Site Selection Committee, etc.) it was time to begin our holy conferencing around the resolutions. We were running behind schedule, as is typical at Annual Conference, and only began speaking about the resolutions at 4:30 pm (thirty minutes before a recess for dinner until the Service for the Ordering of Ministry at 7:30 pm).

It has been no secret that Resolution 1 was one of the most anticipated conversations to take place this year (as was also made evident via the conference hashtag #vaumc14 where many people were anxiously awaiting the resolutions). Resolution 1 was as follows:

 

Resolution 1: “Change Book of Discipline Reference to Homosexuality”

Whereas, as stated in the opening sentence of ¶161F in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.” Whereas we declare that the following statement found later in ¶161F in the Book of Discipline “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” is inconsistent with the first statement. Whereas medical science has established that homosexuality is a state of being and not a choice and therefore homosexuals are part of God’s creation. [See Amicus Brief filed by American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and other related organizations, Hollingsworth vs Perry.] Whereas Scripture is not referring to the loving, consensual, victimless relationships we speak of today. Whereas the words used by Paul as applied to homosexuality are the result of translations and interpretations, these passages are therefore open to alternative interpretations. Whereas Christian marriage is offered to sinners, even when the sin is extreme, but we do not offer it to homosexuals who are living out their lives in love as created by God. Whereas the General Conference has failed to explain why a loving, monogamous relationship is inconsistent with Christian teaching. Whereas the current policies, laws, doctrine and practices of the United Methodist church as documented in the Book of Discipline relating to homosexual relationships creates a double standard thereby promoting discrimination and creating the circumstances that lead to the very behaviors among homosexuals that are abhorred in the Bible, both of which are in direct conflict with Jesus’ teachings. [“Judge not lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1); “Let the one without sin among you cast the first stone” (John 8:7); “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”(Matthew 22: 37-40); and many other references.] Therefore, be it resolved that the Virginia Annual Conference petition the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church to expunge the sentence “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” and the attendant references to and penalties for homosexuality detailed in ¶¶341.6, 2702.1 and 304.4 from the Book of Discipline and all people be accepted into The United Methodist Church to truly embrace “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” as Christ would have us live.

 

When it came time to hear the resolution, a representative stood before the Annual Conference and explained their position in a way that accurately reflected the above written resolution. As is commonly practiced, the bishop then inquired if anyone would like to speak for or against the resolution. In response a leading elder from our conference offered a motion suspending conversation on Resolution 1 indefinitely so that we, as a conference, could gather in small groups over the next year to begin having conversations about how to move forward regarding this “issue.” Two people then spoke in favor of the motion, and two spoke against it.

When the bishop called for us to vote on suspending the conversation, I raised my hand.

As I sat there listening to the murmuring of the crowds while various lay leaders and clergy spoke into the microphones I was overwhelmed by the vitriolic responses from the people both for and against the resolution. It frightened me to see and hear Christian disciples speak so harshly against one another publicly and privately as we gathered to be the body of Christ for the world. When it came time to vote on whether to suspend the conversation or not, I believed that the right and true and faithful thing to do was vote to have the conversation stop. In so voting, I was implicitly hoping and praying that over the next year we, as a church, can faithfully respond to this resolution in such a way that it represents the will of God, not just to be decided by the people gathered at conference (who, in my opinion, disproportionately represent the church).

However, over the last two days I have begun to regret the vote I cast. While reading from the lectionary texts this morning I was struck by the first two verses of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” It seems to me that, as a church, we have been having a conversation about homosexuality for a very long time. People have raised their opinion for the continued language in our Book of Discipline, and others have spoken against it. Moreover, Annual Conference is supposed to be the time that we gather for holy conferencing to experience the will of God and attempt to make it incarnate in the way we live our lives. I have begun to regret my vote because I now believe that I participated in a continual and perpetual denial of the value of the LGBTQ community by putting the language of homosexuality from our Book of Discipline on the back-burner.

This week the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow gay marriages. While we methodists continue to ignore the need to address the growing concern of the LGBTQ community, debating whether or not we can officially (which is to say “by Discipline”) regard homosexuals as fully Christian or not, the Presbyterians have moved to grant homosexuals the theological and sanctifying grace we understand as marriage. We have continued to ignore the issue over and over again to the point that we are now more aligned with the Southern Baptists than we are with the Presbyterian and Episcopalian traditions from which we came (more on this at: http://tamedcynic.org/are-methodists-really-mainline-anymore/).

I regret my vote. I believe the time is now for the UMC to faithfully and finally address the language regarding homosexuality in our Book of Discipline. But, as a conference, we voted to push the decision back, yet again.

It is my prayer that the Holy Spirit abides in us over the coming year as we continue to have holy conferences. And it is my deepest and sincerest prayer that soon, we, along with the LGBTQ community, will no longer have to cry out like the Psalmist: “How long, O Lord?”

 

Go and Lo – Sermon on Matthew 28.16-20

Matthew 28.16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

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I disliked the orthodontist. Every month I would see the appointment on the calendar and I dreaded moving closer and closer to the date. I often thought of excuses that could get me out of going, but I would inevitably have to return at some point to have my braces examined, shifted, and adjusted. Going to the orthodontist was dreadful because I knew, no matter what, I would walk out with my mouth hurting. Going to the dentist was fine, you get you teeth checked and cleaned, but the orthodontist… he was going to put pliers into my mouth and adjust all the little metal bits that were stretching all over my teeth.

When I think back on the orthodontist, it wasn’t so much the pain that I dreaded, but the entire experience. I can vividly recall the frighteningly exaggerated images of people smiling with dreadful teeth in a “before” image alongside of the perfectly straight and whitened smile in the “after” picture. I remember the orthodontist doing magic tricks in the waiting room in order to calm down the terrified children that only went to further their anxieties. But most of all, I remember the poster on the wall by the chair I sat in every month.

When it was my turn to take the seat, I would be propped back and told to wait for a few moments. From that position I could only see one thing, month after month, mocking me from the wall: The popular poem “Footprints

I am sure that many of you are familiar with the poem; the text is often set above an image of a beach or a sunset. But in case you’ve never been lucky enough to experience the poem I will share it with you now…

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Footprints-

One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand; one belonging to him, and the other to the Lord. When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life. This really bothered him and he questioned the Lord about it, “Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times of my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why, when I needed you most, you would leave me.” The Lord replied, “My precious, precious child. I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

I disliked the orthodontist, but I loathed this poem. Month after month it sneered down from the wall as if it was mocking me and challenging me to accept my fate. What kind of twisted orthodontist places a poem about being carried through suffering on the wall by the chair with knobs, pliers, and wires with a bright light hanging above as if to interrogate you? But there was the poem. Even when I closed my eyes I could still see the text, the badly cropped image of the footprints in the sand, never leaving me alone.

As I grew older I continued to resent the poem, perhaps because of my mental association of the words with the orthodontist, but I also came to dismiss the poem in light of its cliche and trite claims. To me, it always sounded like the type of thing that an incompetent and bored pastor would offer a grieving family in the wake of a loss.

I can’t stand the poem. But what drives me craziest about it, is the fact that its true. Even with its overly simplistic explanation, with its trite metaphorical conclusions, with its cliche affirmations, it is absolutely true. In the midst of our sufferings it can be very difficult to experience God’s presence, but when we look back, when we reflect on the troublesome moments of life, we can see that it was God who carried us through. “My precious, precious child. I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

Make-Disciples

The end of the gospel according to Matthew. Mark ends abruptly with the women running from the tomb say nothing to anyone because they were afraid. Luke ends with the people constantly praising in the temple for all they had seen and witnessed. John ends saying the gospel could not contain everything that Christ said and did. But Matthew’s gospel ends with the promise of the never-failing presence of Christ. 

The eleven disciples went to Galilee, as they had been told to do, and there on the mountain the saw the risen Christ and they worshipped him, though some doubted. And Jesus told his friends, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Even though they were in the presence in the resurrected Christ, even though many of them worshipped him, some doubted. There will always be those who question what they worship. Faith is never as perfect and clear as we like it to be; our ways our cloudy and the ways of God are a great and deep mystery. With worship and reverence, doubt is almost always waiting in the shadows, prepared to creep in at our most vulnerable moments.

However, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Show me a person without doubt and I will show you their lack of faith. Doubt helps fuel our faith because it encourages us to question and ponder. Doubt cannot be overcome with arguments, logic, speech, sermons, and reason; the best bible studies and preaching cannot erase our most fundamental doubts. Instead, we need to bring our doubts out of the shadowy recesses of our minds, and venture with them toward God in prayer.

And while some doubted, Jesus gave them their final commandment: Go therefore and make disciples. The church that is not going out, the church that is not on the move sharing the story, is not the trinitarian and believing church that Christ is talking to. We were not told to build a nice and beautiful church in the Shenandoah valley, show up for an hour on Sunday mornings, remember the same story over and over, surround ourselves with people who look, act, and talk just like us, and then return home until the following week. We have been told to GO! Share this incredible story with people who have ears to hear and eyes to see.

We often treat this building/sanctuary like our home. We find comfort here. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard some of you say, “When I sit in these pews, when I see the Good Shepherd stained glass, it feels like I’m home.” But my friends, if we hear anything that God is saying today it is this: home is on the go, home is where we meet God in others outside of this place. 

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Even when you feel like God is gone, when you feel lonely and abandoned by your Creator, God is still there. There are always days of faith, and days of doubt; days of peace, and days of war; days of joy, and days of sorrow. The end of Matthew reminds us that Jesus is still Emmanuel, “God with us.” Even when we share the story with someone and feel as if we have failed to convey the gospel, we are not alone. God is with us, even to the end of the age. We have been baptized into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we have been brought into the protection and possession of God, we are incorporated into the church and have been surrounded by a new family that has vowed to keep us close, raise us in faith, and nurture us in love.

The disciples’ journey to share the good news with the nations was not an easy adventure. The books of Acts reminds us again and again how often the disciples were harassed, ignored, and persecuted. I am sure that, at the ends of their lives, many of them wondered why God had abandoned them at their worst moments. Perhaps some of them were fortunate enough to hear those familiar words: “My precious, precious child. I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

Many years ago a man named Samuel Morrison spent 25 years of his life as a Christian missionary in Africa. Maybe, while a younger man, he had heard the words that we read today: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. Maybe he felt the call of God to do exactly that and left behind the familiarity of home to be Christ’s body for the world.

After 25 years of giving it his all, it was time to return home. There had been days of great success where Samuel had brought many to the knowledge and love of God, but there were also days of great suffering and fruitlessness. When it came time to go home, he boarded his ship and bid farewell to his missionary field of Africa.

And so it came to pass that Teddy Roosevelt was on the same ship with Samuel Morrison returning from a three-week hunting adventure in Africa. Whether they knew about one another’s presence or not, they both sailed across the Atlantic back to the United States.

When the boat arrived in New York City, Samuel was thrilled to discover countless individuals who had gathered at the port with banners and signs echoing cries of “welcome home!” He even noticed a band playing on the dock in celebration of a successful voyage. Samuel’s spirits were high and he truly felt the love of God in his soul.

However, when Samuel made his way down the steps off of the ship, he was disappointed to discover that the crowds, and the signs, and the band were all for Teddy Roosevelt. Thousands had gathered to welcome home a man who had been hunting and killing animals for three weeks; Samuel Morrison had spent 25 years sharing the Word of God, and no one was waiting for him.

He weaved his way in and out of the crowd, disappearing into the shadows, and was quickly lost in the multitudes. Samuel Morrison felt abandoned by God. He found himself walking through the empty streets and alleys of New York praying and disappointed in God. “Why God? Why have you left me alone? Where are you now? I did what you called me to do. I left everything behind to follow your Son and this is what happens when I return home? I gave 25 years of my life for your kingdom! Where are you!?”

Silence. Samuel Morrison walked in silence after screaming out to the Lord and demanding to know what had happened. He continued to walk alone until he heard a small voice, as light as the wind: “I am right here my Son, and you are not home yet.

Amen.

Getting Stoned With Stephen – Sermon on Acts 7.54-60

Acts 7.54-60

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. When they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

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I was standing in front of a packed lecture hall, talking about Jesus according to the gospels, when I began to notice that the crowd was turning against me. For the previous three weeks I had stood in the front of that same room, a brilliantly bright powerpoint displayed on the screen behind me, making my way through the original Greek text of the gospel according to St. Mark. Each week we focused on a different element of Mark’s writing, comparing his gospel with the others, and generally reflecting on how this gospel still speaks fresh and new words into our lives.

It had seemed as if everyone was on board with what I was talking about, until the conversation moved to the cost of discipleship. I recognize now that I probably went to far, but at the time I felt the truth was worth exploring.

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This is what I said: “In the gospels, particularly Mark, Jesus makes it very clear that following him, taking up our own crosses, being a disciple, will cost us our very lives.” Many people in attendance nodded. But then I continued, “Most of us here have no idea what that means. We sit in the comfort of our homes here in Michigan, sure we hear about all the bad things happening in the world, and even the bad things happening down the road in Detroit, but our lives will never be taken for our faith. We exist in such comfort with our faith that we can no longer even imagine what it would mean to give our lives for Christ, the cost of discipleship for us doesn’t cost very much at all.” “Well excuse me young man,” one of the women began, “but I go into downtown Detroit every week to serve food and give away clothing. My life is on the line for Christ every seven days. Don’t lecture me about the cost of discipleship.” This is when I should have stopped, apologized, and moved on, but I couldn’t help myself. So I asked her, “Do you go downtown every week because you believe thats the most and the best you can do as a disciple? Or do you go downtown with food and clothing every week because you feel guilty?

 

The early church had a problem. While the disciples were increasing in number, an argument developed over the distribution of food. Like us modern Methodists, a major conflict erupted not over proper theology, or reverence, but instead who was getting the appropriate amount of food. The twelve got together and asked for seven leaders to come forward in order to help with the organization of the early church, and to faithfully distribute the food among all the people. Stephen, described as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, was one of those chosen seven. 

In a short amount of time Stephen began to do great wonders and produce signs among the people. Once he stepped into the limelight of the early church, he rested under the microscope of many leaders and elders of the synagogues who argued with him. The leaders instigated some others to raise charges of heresy against Stephen and he soon found himself standing before the high-priest in order to defend his words and actions.

What followed is one of the most concise and deliberate retellings of the entire salvation story of God with God’s people. Stephen’s speech contains remembrances of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and the prophets. He weaves the story in and out of the major moments; the beginning of the covenant, the flight to Egypt, Moses’ calling, the delivery from slavery to the Promised Land, the commandments being given on Sinai. In just a few short paragraphs Stephen perfectly encompassed the Old Testament for the high priest.

Though very descriptive, Stephen committed no blasphemy in his speech. He fairly repeated that which we have detailed for us in the scriptures, but before he finished speaking he had one final message to deliver: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that have received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.

It was only after hearing these words that the people became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. While they began to torment him, he looked up and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing along the right side, and he declared this triumphantly to the people. But instead of listening, instead of looking up to see what he could see, they covered their own ears and with a loud shout rushed forward to grab him and take him out of the city. While they stoned him, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And with his final breath he cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

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Stephen’s speech to the high priest and those gathered sealed his doom. Did he speak the kind of blasphemy against Moses and God like he was accused of? Nope. But Stephen went too far when he claimed that Jesus was at the right hand of the Lord, ready to rule. Stephen merely affirmed the same thing we claim every week when we stand and affirm the Apostles’ Creed, yet when he did it, it cost him his life. 

Some scholars and theologians claim that the climax of this episode in the book of Acts is Stephen’s death, when in fact the defining moment is the exaltation of Christ. Surrounded by his accusers and killers, Stephen continues to assert that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God, that he is the long awaited Messiah already changing the world.

Jesus is there with Stephen at the final moments of his life, and how fitting considering the fact that Stephen utters the same words that Christ did at his own death. While the stones were flying through the air, Stephen’s prayer was not for deliverance, but a declaration of trust. Not, “Lord, save me!” but “Lord, receive my spirit.” His prayer is one that looks forward, not backward. His prayer was for his enemies, and not himself.

At his death, Stephen did what all of us are called to do in every moment of our lives: he acted like Jesus. He was serene while everyone else was going crazy; he was forgiving while the crowds were vindictive; he prayed while the people acted as if God was not among them; he loved when he saw nothing but hate; he trusted the Lord when everything was claiming the contrary; he kept on hoping when there seemed nothing left to keep hope alive. All of this to tell the truth to the high priest and the crowd. All of this to die for what he believed in. All of this as the cost for his own discipleship.

What happened to Stephen is paradigmatic for what the church was like. Thousands upon thousands of Christians have given their lives in order to speak the truth of God’s reign in the world.

In the United States we have “freedom of religion.” This was instituted during the foundation of our nation and has secured the right to practice religion, regardless of orientation or denomination. For Christians, the freedom of religion means that we are free to exercise our faith in whatever ways necessary so long as we do so within certain limits, as long as we do not become fanatical. We can pray as a family at public restaurants so long as it is not too loud to disrupt the other patrons. We can teach our children to turn the other cheek and love their enemies so long as we are still willing to let them serve in the military. We can talk about controversial issues in church so long as we limit those conversations to this building.

Yet the story that we read today, the remembrance of Stephen’s final moments, reminds us practitioners of polite, civil, and calculated religion that once there were Christians who readily and joyfully parted with possessions, family, friends, even life itself to remain faithful.

Some might call Stephen fanatical and crazy (after all he was willing to give his live for his faith) but he is presented as a very rational person who died for the same faith by which he lived.

When I stood in front of that crowded lecture hall, talking to the Methodists of Birmingham, Michigan, I could sense their desire to be affirmed in their faith. They wanted me to believe that they were willing to give their lives for Jesus, but the truth is, most of them, and most of us here, will never be in a situation like Stephen’s. Christianity has become so complacent and accepted within our culture that we no longer feel the need to be radical and controversial when considering the ways of the world versus the ways of God.

Our faith used to be a movement. The early church used to be attacked, arrested, and silenced for their dedication to the Word. The first methodists used to be ridiculed for their methodical dedications to spiritual disciplines, feeding the poor, and befriending the outcasts.

What would it take for someone to ridicule you in your faith? I’m not saying that we are all called to stand trial for our God and give our lives like Stephen, but instead we need to ask ourselves if we are living up to the potential of faith that God sees in us.

Not all of us can be Stephens, but we can all be Christians. We can all speak the truth of what God has done for us. We can reclaim our commitment to changing the world for the kingdom of God. We can discover our faith in God by opening our eyes to the kind of faith that he has in us. How far would you go to demonstrate your faith in the world? What would it take to start ruffling people’s feathers here in Staunton by living as Christ’s body?

Speaking the truth can be the most difficult thing in the world, but at the same time it can also be the most faithful thing in the world. Perhaps you know someone who has, for too long, relied on alcohol to fill an emptiness in their lives but you’re too afraid to saying anything. Maybe you know someone who treats their spouse horribly and you’re unsure how you can help the situation. Perhaps you’ve seen someone embarrass or harass their children in public. Or maybe you need to be honest with yourself about something you need to change in your own life.

Stephen was willing to speak the harsh truth to a people who desperately needed to hear it. Stephen was prepared to give his own life for a man he barely knew that died on a cross and was raised again. How far are you willing to go? Amen.