In Anticipation – Maundy Thursday Homily

1 Corinthians 11.23-26

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 

This is a good amount of people for Maundy Thursday. It is a weeknight after all. But it isn’t as many people as we had for Palm Sunday and, Lord willing, it is smaller than the number of people we will have for Easter. 

That’s okay. There wasn’t a big crowd at the first Maundy Thursday either. 

And yet you are here. 

Why are you here?

We are a people forever stuck in the past.

And we can hardly be blamed. 

We only know what we know. And we can’t know what we don’t know.

So our minds, whether we like it or not, are often rooted in days long gone.

Take tonight for instance, some of you can and probably do remember former Maundy Thursdays. And even if you haven’t been to a service like this before, you can know doubt think of a time you’ve received communion. And if you’ve never had communion before, you can certainly think of a time that you’ve shared a meal with someone else.

And because we tend to spend as much time in our minds as we do, we read what is happening in our present through the lens of the past.

It happens in the political realm, and the familial realm, and the theological realm. 

When I was a kid my home church had lots of volunteer opportunities. 

There were the big ones, you could sign up to read scripture from the lectern during a service, or you could carry in the flame as an acolyte, and every summer you could travel near and far for mission trips.

And there were, of course, the little ones as well. Your family could sign up to be greeters for a particular Sunday, shaking hands with everyone on their way in, or you could join together with some of the older members and fold bulletins every Friday morning, and every Wednesday night you could help serve food for the weekly community dinner.

In my young life, I did all of those things at one point or another, but there was one particular volunteer opportunity that my whole family took care of for a long time: we prepared the communion elements.

This meant that every first Saturday of the month we would drive over to the church and retreat to the sacristy behind the altar. There we would pre-poke the bead with this medieval-like dagger to make it easier for the pastors to tear it apart on Sunday morning, and then we would set  out hundreds of tiny little plastic shot glasses within the altar rail using a little squirt bottle to fill every single one.

It would take forever.

And forever really felt like forever when I was ten years old.

On Sunday mornings, every one would arrive at the church none-the-wiser about the work we had put in to prepare everything. Even my family, knowing how long the grape juice had been sitting out in that old sanctuary, we would line up like everyone else and we would patiently kneel at the altar until a piece of bread was placed in our hands, and then we were instructed to drink from one of the little cups, and then we would go back to our pew so the next group could go.

And if preparing communion felt like forever, doing communion was even worse. It was assumed that the sermons on the first Sunday of the month would be half as long so that the congregation would have the time to all come to the altar to receive our stale bread and tepid grape juice. 

And this went on for years.

Until one day after worship, I mustered up the courage to approach our aging senior pastor and confront him about our way of the Lord’s Supper. I had been to other churches and seen other variations on how to consume communion. The Catholics would all drink from one cup, and the Presbyterians would pass around these giants trays of circular discs and tiny cups. I’m not sure what propelled me forward that day – perhaps the bread had been extra hard, or my sisters and I had consumed a few too many of the little grape juice shots after worship, but I walked up to the pastor and said, “Why do we do communion this way?”

His response: “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

We call today Maundy Thursday. This quaint names come from Jesus’ words at his last supper in John’s gospel: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you. In Latin, new commandment is mandatum novum. Maundy is simply the Middle English version of the word mandatum.

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So, we are mandated by God to do what we are doing.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly like being mandated to do anything. Christianity has long-suffered under the oppressive rule of expectations and assumptions. You must do this, you must do that.

All of the musts don’t muster up to a very lively faith.

Instead we trudge into the sanctuary to sing the hymns and offer the prayers because we think we must do it.

We stand and proclaim with bored affectations the words of the Apostles’ Creed because we think we must do it.

We drag ourselves up to the altar to receive the body and the blood because we’ve made it out into our minds that we are mandated to do so.

What are we hungry for? 

Are we even hungry at all?

There is always a lot that happens in the eucharist, a lot happens here tonight. In John’s Gospel Jesus spends his final evening breaking bread and drinking wine with his friends, but he ends with getting on the floor and washing all of their feet. 

There have been countless traditions throughout the history of the church that are all tied up with what we are doing right now. By the time Paul writes to the church in Corinth he conveys it as “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

And so we remember. We remember how Jesus’ self-giving life included feeding the poor as well as dining with the rich. We remember that Jesus broke bread with the religious elite and the social outcasts. We remember that most of Jesus’ ministry took place around tables with those who both loved him and were confused by him. 

And because we spend so much time remembering, we often look at this thing of communion backwards. We focus all of our attention on Jesus’ final night and we get caught up in the “we’ve always done it this way.” 

Do you know what it says on our altar? I have it covered so you can’t just take a peek. Any guesses?

“This Do In Remembrance Of Me.”

It fits doesn’t it? We place the bread and the cup on the table, we read the words that Jesus shared with his disciples that final evening, and we do what we are doing in remembrance of all that Christ did.

But somewhere along the way we got our tenses confused.

Communion is not a backwards looking proposition. Yes, it is good and right for us to imagine ourselves in that space with those people on the night in which he gave himself up for us. But to do so as fully and totally as we do denies the fundamental truth that Jesus is here with us tonight in this space and with these people!

Of course communion is about remembrance, but it is equally, if not more, about anticipation. For as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 

There was a woman who used to sneak into the church during the first hymn and would often retreat before the final hymn concluded. I would see her from my preaching vantage point but it was as if she planned everything so as to not have to interact with too many people when she came. After a while I noticed that she would only come to church on the first Sunday of the month and when we held our Maundy Thursday service. 

Luck had it one day that I was able to catch up with her outside the main doors when she was briskly walking to her car and I asked if everything was okay.

She told me that she was Baptist and that her church almost never celebrated communion. But she knew she needed strength for the journey, so she came every month to commune with us. 

I expressed my admiration of her faithfulness and she said that a pastor once told her that communion is where the past, present, and the future get all confused with each other. The pastor apparently meant it as a bad thing, but she fell in love with the idea.

She told me that she loved her church and would never leave it, but that she always needed to feel the confusion of time with us.

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Maundy Thursday services often end in a confusing way. Tonight, as we conclude, we will join with Christians across the globe in the striking of our altar. We will remove elements of color and vitality making the turn toward the cross. 

We will do so because our sense of time is purposely confused. Jesus has already shared the meal with the friends. Jesus has already mounted the hard wood of the cross. Jesus has already broken free from the tomb.

But tonight we both place ourselves in the time of Jesus and we witness to the fact that Jesus is still with us. We will gather at the table not just because that’s what Jesus did, but because it is what Jesus is still doing. And, we will engage in all of this in anticipation of when we will gather at Christ’s heavenly banquet with all who have come before, and all who will arrive long after we’re gone. 

This is the place where time gets confused. 

And that’s a good thing. Amen. 

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What Did Jesus Do? > What Would Jesus Do?

1 Corinthians 11.23-26

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat of this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

 

Years ago I was in Michigan helping a church out for a summer. The church was massive in size and in ministries. They had hundreds of people in worship every week and were deeply involved in their community.

I did my best to help in every area of the church, including worship and preaching. However, they had plans for everything, including who would be preaching on what every Sunday six months in advance. So some shuffling was done, and I, the faithful intern, was given an opportunity to preach.

It so happened that I would be preaching on the first Sunday of July, and there would be communion.

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As I said, this church had everything planned out. But not only the text, and the sermon subject – they had metrics and data for worship attendance going back ten years and they used this information to provide necessary items in the sanctuary. That had it so fine-tuned that they were able to print an accurate number of bulletins +/- 10, they knew how many parking attendant workers they would need, and finally, they knew how many pieces of bread would need to be pre-cut for communion.

Here at Cokesbury we serve by intinction, in which I tear off a piece of bread from a common loaf and offer it to every person in worship. But at that church, years ago, they pre-cut every slice of bread, and had them stacked in baskets for people to pick up on their way to the altar where the single cup could be found.

And so I preached, and we moved to the table, the elements were blessed, and then the congregation was invited forward. However, no one thought to augment the numbers of bread pieces, and, as the shiny new intern, more people came to hear me preach than they anticipated.

As the gathered people lined up in the center aisle and walked forward to receive the body and blood of Jesus, it was abundantly clear that we were going to run out of Jesus. So, when the last piece was picked out of the basket, I walked back up to the altar where the actual loaf we blessed was, I ripped in in half, and I started giving Jesus so people.

And while I was standing there one of the lay leaders from the church leaned over and whispered into my ear, “Are we even allowed to do this?”

Are we even allowed to do this?

communion_elements

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you. So Paul writes in his letter to the church in Corinth. I gave you what was given to me. That on the night in which Jesus was betrayed he took a loaf and he took a cup and he said do this in remembrance of me.

Memory is a funny thing. It connects us to the past, in both good ways and bad. We can all reflect on those positive moments from our lives, and we can also remember the visceral pain we have experienced.

We cannot escape our memories. Memory is everything.

Paul cherished the memory he received, but he was concerned with the Corinthians ability to remember how transforming the meal was for their community. Like counting the number of bread pieces to such a degree that they no longer gave life, the Corinthian church was partaking in the meal without remembering why.

On any given Sunday, or even a Thursday night, at best the church is called to remember. Remember what God did for God’s people. Remember Jesus’ words to his disciples. Remember how God has showed up in your life.

Remembering our memories is strange, particular in the time we are living in. Many families and groups are separated in ways impossible in the past – we are separated by geography, estrangement, or even through dementia. And because of all these weird divisions, the art of memory sharing is dying. Memory, however, is the glue that keeps us together, and without it we don’t know who we are.

I’ve had to do a lot of funerals as a pastor, and whenever a family and I sit down to discuss the arrangements; I will ask questions to get the conversation going. “What was your mother passionate about?” “What stories did your grandfather tell you about his childhood.” “What’s a the story about your wife that you’ve told the most?” “How did your husband pop the question?”

And then I will sit back and listen.

And throughout all of the funerals I’ve prepared, and all of the families I’ve listened to, there are two things that have happened every single time.

No matter what the person was like, or how old they were, or even where they lived, at some point some one in the room always says, “I never knew that.”

Children make the comment about one of their parents, a brother will make the comment about his sister, and I’ve even heard a wife make the comment about her husband.

Something is shared, a deeply personal and important memory, and someone’s response is “I never knew that.”

Either we don’t remember these important things, or the memory of them was never shared. It is always a troubling and difficult moment to process in my office in which someone realizes they didn’t know the person as well as they thought they did, and now it was too late to do anything about it.

In addition to the “I never knew that” comment, there is always a moment in which someone shares a funny story about the person we are about to bury, and 99% of the time, the story takes place around a dinner table.

I don’t know what it is exactly, but there is something mysterious about the dinner table. Perhaps it’s the one place where entire families gather together for a finite period of time, maybe it’s the sharing of food that compels us to share stories, or maybe it’s just the wine that get passed around. At the table memory is shared unlike anywhere else.

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As disciples of Jesus, we believe that whenever we gather at this table, or dare I say any table, Christ is with us breaking the bread and pouring the wine so that we too can be his body redeemed by his blood.

When we break bread, when we pass the cup, when we tell stories, we are connected with the signs and symbols that tell us who we are and whose we are. It is around the table the particularity of bread slices, or the shame in admitting “I never knew that,” disappear. Because at the table things begin to change.

At the table signs of memory are everywhere. In the water we remember our own baptisms, we remember the great stories of scripture where God’s people were delivered through water, we remember the living waters Jesus offers us. We see wedding bands are reminded of a couples’ promise, and God’s promise to us.

            At the table, all sorts of ordinary things become extraordinary.

We break bread, we share the cup, and we remember and retell the story of Jesus death, and resurrection. But it is more than just passing on a story – it is contemplating a mystery.

For years it has been fashionable in certain Christian circles to wear a bracelet with the acronym WWJD on them. WWJD of course meaning: What Would Jesus Do? It is used like a talisman, a final reminder of Jesus’ morality before we make a choice or a decision. And for as helpful as the WWJD reminder can be, it is also inherently problematic. It is problematic because, at the end of the day, we fundamentally can’t do what Jesus did, and that’s kind of the point.

We don’t gather to contemplate how Jesus would respond to a certain situation, we don’t wonder about what Jesus would do, instead we ask ourselves What Did Jesus Do?

Because that question, and the struggle to answer it, is at the heart of the mystery we call faith. This night, tomorrow night, Easter Sunday, every Sunday, they’re not about what we should do. It’s about what Christ did.

The Christian life is predicated on a story handed to us, a story about a poor Jewish rabbi named Jesus. It is Jesus’ story that re-narrates and re-navigates our story. We repeat it again and again and again because is not only reinforces our memory, but it also becomes a proclamation, it is a witness.

We do not gather here tonight for ourselves. We are here because at the table we discover God’s story for us, and not the other way around.

            So, what did Jesus do?

On his final night, while surrounded by his closest friends and disciples, one of whom who betray him and another would deny him, he took an ordinary loaf of bread. He gave thanks to God, and then he broke it. He looked at his friends and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he then took the cup, and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Let us then remember…

Eucharist as Exodus

Exodus 12.1-14

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. You lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you make take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the house in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

Death is inescapable. We know this to be true because we go to the funerals for the people we love. We know this to be true because we sit in church and listen to people like me talk about it. We know this to be true because just a few weeks ago we were walking around with ashes on our foreheads, and the words you are dust and to dust you shall return were stuck in our minds.

I talk about death a lot because it seems like the rest of the world is hell-bent on denying it. Movie stars and pop icons and even politicians do everything that can to ignore the inevitability of their own finitude; they’ll get the Botox, the facelift; they’ll even participate in culturally relevant memes like dabbing now, or planking a few years ago.

Even in church we like to deny death at times. That’s why far more people will be here on Easter than the rest of our Holy Week Services combined. But if Easter is all about new life, then why should we keep talking about death?

Here in the United States, millions of people gathered in churches like this one on Sunday for the Liturgy of the Palms. Christians, like us, lifted up their palm branches and said those all-too familiar words like “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Here at St. John’s I tried my best to impart upon all of us the staggering nature of being able to shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday and “Crucify!” on Friday.

Maybe you were here and heard the gospel. Maybe you didn’t.

But by now I’m sure that most of us heard what happened in Egypt on Sunday. While we American-Christians sat comfortably in our khakis and color-coordinated cardigans, while we shook our nursery grown palm branches, two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt were bombed. Two men strapped explosives to their bodies, walked up to the respective altars, and detonated.

Dozens of people were murdered.

They died doing the same thing most of us were doing: worshipping the living God who rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

The only difference between them and us, is that they live in a world far more like Christ’s than we do.

What we’re doing here tonight is not a normal thing; it defies conventional wisdom. We could be anywhere doing anything, but instead we came to this place to share the Lord’s Supper. Being Christian is weird, it is strange, it is different. And in a lot of places, that’s enough to get you killed.

And so it was with the first disciples, who sat in a small room surrounded by their friends long ago. We are here tonight to remember what Jesus said and did in that room. The disciples were there that night to remember what God said and did on the first Passover.

The time had come to break free from the tyrannical and dictatorial rule of Egypt and to go to a strange new land. The Hebrew people were enslaved and worked to the death. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Pharaoh ordered the murder of every first-born male in every Hebrew family. Can you imagine the terror of the powers-that-be coming for your baby boy? But these were their lives, living under the shadow of subjugation.

And the time had come to break free.

God spoke to Moses and gave him explicit instructions on what to gather together, how to cook it, and even how to eat it. With specifics like an overly heavy cookbook, God laid out the plans for their deliverance: Every household shall cook and eat and lamb. Blood from the lamb shall be taken and adorned on the doorposts of the house where they eat it. You shall eat it hurriedly, with your loins girded, sandals on your feet, and staff in your hands. This will be the Passover, for the Lord will pass over the homes marked with blood and strike down every firstborn in Egypt, including the animals. But the blood shall be a sign, and nothing evil will come to you. You must remember this day every year, tell the story to your children, and your children’s children, for this is the day you will be delivered from slavery.

That’s the story the disciples gathered to remember. It’s a strange one, but they, like the generations before them, were a product of that story and it shaped everything about their lives.

And while they were sitting at the table, Jesus reached for a common loaf of bread; he gave thanks to God, and shared it with his friends. As they passed the bread around the table, Jesus said, “I am going to do a new thing, I am giving my body for you.”

And then, before the supper was over, Jesus took a cup, gave thanks to God, and shared it with his friends. As they passed the cup around the table, Jesus said, “This cup is my blood of the new covenant. I’m pouring out my blood for you, and for the world.”

In the frame of the blood of the lamb from the first Passover, Jesus poured out his blood as the Lamb of God.

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Whenever we share this meal, we like to talk about forgiveness; being forgiven by God for what we’ve done. And this is good, and right, and true. But the first Passover wasn’t about God forgiving the Hebrew people for anything they had done… Passover was about God making a way out of no way; it was about freedom from tyranny and slavery; it was about the journey to a strange new land.

The Hebrew people took blood from the lamb and it was a sign for them to be saved.

Jesus took the cup and told his friends that his blood was to be their freedom from a different form or slavery, far worse than any power in Egypt then, or now. Through the Lamb of God’s blood, we are freed from death.

While sitting at the table with his friends, it’s as if Jesus is telling them that when they see him hanging on the cross, they should see a door with blood. It’s as if Jesus is telling them that his sacrifice, his death, is our exodus.

It might not feel like it at times, like when we gather in the sanctuary for a funeral or when we turn on the news and see what’s happening in Egypt or Syria or any number of places, but death no longer holds any control over us. For centuries the Hebrew people remembered how God delivered them out of Egypt, and for centuries Christians have remembered how Jesus delivered us out of the slavery to sin and death.

            Jesus is our Passover Lamb.

His blood has been spilled in the cup at our table and it covers the doors of our souls.

Tonight, Coptic Christians in Egypt will gather in their churches to remember Jesus’ final night with his friends, just like we are. They will remember God delivering God’s people out of Egypt, and God delivering them out of the bondage of death.

And we might wonder: Why stay in Egypt? As Christians, why don’t they just leave and go to a place where they can worship without the threat of death? Why not come to a place like the United States where they can be free to worship how they please?

Perhaps they will stay because they’ve already had their exodus. They’ve already been delivered from the reign of death into a strange new land we call the Kingdom of God. Maybe they’ve been shaped by the knowledge and faith that Jesus is their Passover Lamb.

I don’t know what you’re wrestling with tonight, whether you’re feeling God’s presence or it’s been a long time since you’ve felt anything remotely holy. I don’t know what sins you need to confess, or who you need to seek reconciliation with. But what I do know is that this meal is the beginning of our exodus; it is our journey to a strange new land.

So come and see that the Lord is good, let this be a moment of remembrance, and look to the cross as a door covered with blood. Amen.

A Letter To My Son

Galatians 1.1-10

Paul an apostle – sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead – and all the members of God’s family who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

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Months ago, while I was planning all of our worship services for the year ahead, I read this text from Galatians for the last Sunday of May and I thought it was perfect. I knew that Lindsey was pregnant and that, if the timing worked out, this would be the first Sunday and opportunity to preach after the birth of our son. All of you would have listened to other preachers for four weeks, and then I would be standing up here proclaiming God’s faithful Word from Galatians.

The text is so fitting for today because Paul, having worked with the Galatian churches for some time, has been absent from the community and catches wind about their lack of faithfulness. Perhaps after the community listened to a group of different preachers for four Sundays in a row, Paul felt inclined to write to them about the true gospel.

Now, keep in mind, most of Paul’s letters are filled with elevated language complimenting the community from the conception. Galatians begins in a very different way. Far from kind and pastoral, Paul’s tone is irritated and cranky. Paul whips through the customary pleasantries and gets right to the point: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel!”

So, here we are. I’ve been gone for about a month. I tried to keep away from my phone and email, I even attempted to avoid driving near the church on Sunday mornings, but I’ve heard through the grapevine about what’s really taken place. Our District Superintendent had the nerve to break four of his ribs shortly before preaching and called upon Larry Kreamer to fill in as best he good. Chris Markham had the nerve to get up here in the pulpit and preach about Mary Magdalene, calling all of us to recognize how quickly we lift proverbial stones to cast at one another, in particular toward people of a different sexual identity. Rick Maryman had the nerve to boldly call the church to remember the role of the Holy Spirit and never lose sight of the importance of Pentecost. And then Eric Fitzgerald stood up here last week and talked about how God’s ways are not our ways, and that there really is a time for everything; whether we recognize it or not.

I can’t believe it! I’ve only been gone four weeks and you all have fallen away from the gospel. You’ve listened to those who would rather distort the gospel of Jesus Christ and who offered something contrary to what has been offered previously! I knew I needed to pray for you in my absence but I didn’t know I needed to pray that much!

Of course, I am only joking. I am grateful for the witness and willingness of our gifted laity who faithfully proclaimed the gospel over the last four Sundays. It brings me a sense of peace that words cannot describe to know that, unlike the Galatians, all of you have held fast to the Good News and have continued to be servants of Jesus Christ.

For the sermon today, I decided to write a letter in the vein of Paul. Though instead of writing it to a wayward church in Galatia, I wrote it to my son Elijah. This passage is one that is easy to avoid, after all we’re reading a letter meant for somebody else’s church. We can write it off as a personal matter between Paul and the Galatians – except for the fact that this is God’s Word for us. Similarly, it is my hope that in the words I have written for my son, you will hear God speaking to you as well.

Transformed

 

Dear Elijah,

You are loved beyond your ability to comprehend. You mother and I eagerly awaited your arrival, we prepared by purchasing everything we thought we could possibly need, we read books on how to raise a child, we sought out advice from friends, family, and at times even strangers. You are the first grandson in the family, and in your short month of life, your grandparents have become completely obsessed with you.

And more than the family, there is an entire community who knows nothing about you other than your existence, and yet you are loved. Preschoolers from the church have bombarded me with questions about you, and what you look like, and how you’re sleeping, and a slew of other inquiries. Members from the church have flooded my email inbox wanting to know if we need anything to take care of you. And for as long as we’ve known that you were joining our family, the entire community has lifted you up in prayer.

You are loved beyond your ability to comprehend. But more than this church, and even more than your parents, God loves you with reckless abandon.

Over the years you will come to know more about God’s unending love through the stories of scripture that will be shared in worship. You will hear about God’s creative majesty in the foundation of the world, God’s calling of the people Israel to a new beginning, God’s persistence when the people fell away from the path, and even God’s grace made manifest in a manger.

In time you will experience the power and might of Jesus Christ. God in the flesh, born in a humble abode, who walked the roads of life with friends and strangers, healed the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, broke the law, fulfilled the scriptures, died on a cross, and rose from the grave.

Elijah, the church will strive to share with you the radical message of Jesus Christ in such a way that it transforms your life forever. The people in the pews will gather you in, proclaim God’s Word, respond to it, and send you forth week after week to be Christ’s body for the world. No small task.

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And Elijah, you will live and move and have your being in a world that few of us can even imagine…

As you become the person God is calling you to be, you will live in a world where the church is no longer the status quo for everyone. Christianity as Christendom has fallen away. You will be judged for your strange faith, rather than commended as many of us once were.

You will live in a world where homosexuality is normative. You will encounter couples that have otherwise been called incompatible with Christian teaching, but for you they will be perfectly compatible with Christian teaching. You will interact with people from such a wide plethora of diversity that you will want the world to be the mosaic it is, rather than hoping for birds of a feather to flock together.

Sadly, you will never know what it means to live into the mystery of life and faith. There will always be an answer for every one of your questions at just the click of a button. You will have to work harder to experience the profound wonder of God’s presence because you will rarely have to struggle for clarity.

And, I’m sad to say, you will never know of a life prior to September 11th. You will grow up in a world cowering in fear to the seemingly endless threat of international and domestic terrorism. You will be raised with the words Jesus gave to his disciples about striving for peace, while countless men and women are called to give their lives for the freedoms we hold so dear. Son, the world we live in is broken; we often succumb to the power of sin that pushes us to believe that violence and power control our destinies, and that death carries a strong sting.

Elijah, in time you will struggle and wrestle between the call of competing narratives and gospels that vie for your allegiance. Even though your mother and I, and your friends, and the church will do everything we can to hold fast to the gospel that was shared with us, at some point you will fall away. Whether through doubt, disillusionment, or some other reason, there will come a time when you will grow frustrated with this thing called church.

Elijah, it might happen when you start to understand the pressure that is constantly placed on churches to increase attendance, to raise the budget, to fill the pews, to do whatever it takes to improve the market share. You will see how many of us care more about being nice, or funny, or unassuming, that we make the church more about us than about God.

And on the other side, you will meet people who subvert the gospel to mean whatever they want it to mean; people who will use scripture like a weapon to attack others for their way of life and it will leave you feeling frustrated.

But Elijah, I want you to try to remember one thing: Jesus is Lord, and everything else is secondary.

Wherever you are led throughout your life, wherever the Spirit calls you to go, you will encounter Christians at both ends of the spectrum. Christians who will do whatever it takes, even at the expense of watering down the gospel, to make it as appealing as possible. And Christians who will take up the bible like a sword to mow down their enemies.

But Jesus, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, was not concerned seeking the approval of his fellow human beings. He did not belittle the immense and profound qualities of God’s love to being something easy and trite. Jesus pushed his followers into uncomfortable arenas of love and respect in order to transform the world.

And at the same time Jesus, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, was not concerned with attacking people for their differences and ostracizing them from the community. He did not use scripture to condemn the world. Instead, Jesus went out to the people that most of us would rather ignore and he told them that they deserved to be loved just as much as anyone else.

Elijah, God’s love in Jesus Christ is a mystery. Thanks be to God that there is not an easy and simple answer to that question of faith. Unlike almost everything else you will experience, it cannot be explained at the click of a button. Instead, you can only know the love of God through the table at which the church gathers, through the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup. Only when God invites you to the table will you begin to enter the light from the darkness. Only in the sharing of communion will the competing narratives and false gospels begin to fade away. Only when you experience this little bit of heaven on earth, will you begin to rejoice in the mystery that is the grace of Jesus Christ.

Elijah, I love you. Your family loves you. The church loves you. But more importantly, God loves you.

-Dad

 

Amen.

Why Remember? – Maundy Thursday Homily

Mark 14.22-25

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

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Why is this night different from all other nights?; A worthy question for any of us who took the time to gather in this place to remember Jesus’ final night. But the question is also asked of Jewish children who gather together for the celebration of Passover. Why is this night different from all other nights?

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God brought forth all forms of life, which culminated in the creation of humankind. God made a covenant with Abraham to be his God, and for his descendants to be more numerous than the stars in the sky. Abraham eventually fathered Isaac who grew to father Jacob. Jacob wrestled with an angel of the Lord on the banks of the Jabbok river and was renamed Israel, which means: “you have struggled with God and prevailed.” Israel fathered Joseph who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his other brothers. But during his time in Egypt he became prosperous and eventually brought the gathering of Abraham descendants to live in the new and strange place.

At first everything was great in Egypt, the Hebrews lived comfortably, they had food to eat, homes to live in, and opportunities abounded. But over time, as it happens, the Egyptians grew jealous of the Hebrews and began to subjugate them. They were forced into labor, and eventually every male child born to a Hebrew woman was killed for fear that they would grow to rebel against the Egyptians.

Moses was born during this time and was saved by his mother by placing him in a basket to float down the Nile River. Moses grew in strength and wisdom and was called by God to lead God’s people out of captivity in Egypt to the Promised Land.

God commanded Moses to have the people to slaughter lambs and use the blood to mark their doors; this was to be a sign for the Lord to pass over their homes while slaughtering the firstborn males of Egypt. While waiting in the night, God implored the people to gird their loins and prepare to depart because their time of delivery had come near.

Passover is a night different from all other nights because it is a time set aside to remember the sacred and holy moment when God delivered God’s people out of slavery.

Jesus had gathered in the upper room with his friends to celebrate Passover. They sat around the table to remember what God had done long ago and be thankful. While they were eating Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”

While they were remembering God’s actions from the past, Jesus said, “I am doing a new thing. I am delivering my body and my blood for you and the world.”

He took the Passover celebration, and assigned it to the great sacrifice he was about to make. Not only would the meal be a remembrance of God’s mighty acts, but also a testimony to God’s actions in Jesus Christ. The disciples would remember God delivering the people out of bondage in Egypt, and would now remember Jesus delivering the people out of bondage to sin and death. Whereas God brought the people into the holy land through the waters, God was now about to bring the people into resurrection through Christ’s sacrifice.

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This is Good News for us, but it is also heavy news. Many of us buckle under the weight of knowing that Christ would give his life for us, but then we remember that Peter and Judas were at the table that night as well. We remember that in short time, the disciples who received the bread and cup would abandon Jesus to his cross and death. But he gave his life for them and us anyway.

So here we are, millennia later, remembering Jesus’ give of body and blood in the bread and cup. We remember God’s mighty acts of deliverance for the Hebrew people. But God’s power is not limited to the distant past. It is made available to each of us here and now.

At our tables, we are going to remember what God has done for us before we feast. With the people next to you I want you to discuss the following questions: What has God done for you? How have you seen God at work in your life recently? And what has God delivered you from?

 

I have seen God at work with our youth. Each week the youth of our church gather for an hour to share communion, fellowship, and bible study. We have examined some of the great moments from both the Old and New Testaments, we have learned about one another’s lives, and we always take time to remember Jesus’ final night with his disciples. Over the last year I have seen the youth transformed by the grace of God. Whereas they began meeting sheepishly and nervous to share about their lives, we now know each other well enough to check in on everyone without have to be prompted. Whereas they might have giggled during the first time we celebrated communion, they now respectfully and faithfully outstretch their hands to receive the bread and the cup.

Through the work of this church, God has delivered our youth from lives of selfishness to lives of appreciation. They have been delivered out of isolation into a community that genuinely cares about their well-being. They have experienced God’s love and it will stay with them forever.

Whenever we gather at God’s table, and particularly on Maundy Thursday, it is a time for us to confess where we have fallen short, recognize our forgiveness, share peace with one another, and give thanks to God for our deliverance. We remember where God has showed up in our lives, and the lives of others, because it retunes us into God’s frequency. We remember Jesus sharing the bread and the cup because he has shared it with the world. We remember in order to transform the world. Amen.

Crumbly Faith – Sermon on Mark 7.24-37

Mark 7.24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying in the bed, and the demon gone. Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

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Brandy had high expectations for Staunton, Virginia. When she moved here with her adult son Verney, who suffers from Cerebral Palsy, she knew that one of the best ways she could get connected with the community was finding a church home so she went looking. Each Sunday she would get herself ready with just the right outfit, she would put Verney in his wheel chair, and they would worship with a different church. The days between Sundays were spent in prayer about whether or not it was the right fit.

At some point she felt that she had found her church home and she approached the pastor about whether she could join. The conversation was great, she immediately felt loved and welcomed, she learned about Sunday school options, and different opportunities to serve in the church. But before the meeting was over she asked another quick question. “When do you think you could baptize my son Verney, and when will he be able to start taking communion?” The pastor stared back at her with a puzzled look on his face. “Ma’am,” he began, “I will not baptize your son, nor will I offer him communion. He can’t understand what they mean. And honestly, there would be no point.”

Jesus entered the house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet, word about him had spread so quickly that he could not escape notice. A woman, whose daughter had an unclean spirit, heard that Jesus had entered the town and she went to bow at his feet.

Up to this point Jesus, as a Jew, had been ministering to the Jews. He had read to them from the Torah, he had proclaimed God’s reign like one of the prophets from old, and he lived according to the law. This woman who came to beg at Jesus’ feet was not Jewish, she was a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin.

The woman was prostrate on the floor begging the Lord to cast out the demon from her daughter. And Jesus said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Imagine a homeless person banging on your door to ask for a favor, or a mother with a handicapped son asking for her son to be given communion, and you can get a sense of what was taking place in front of Jesus.

The unnamed Syrophoenician woman was driven by something more than proper etiquette and expectation; she was so desperately afraid for her daughter’s life that she was willing to beg at the feet of Jesus, a man from a completely different culture and way of life. Yet, Jesus’ response to the woman is one that many of us would rather overlook. We don’t hear Jesus immediately proclaim the grand scope of God’s kingdom; Jesus doesn’t reach out with his hands for a blessing. Instead he calls the woman a dog, and tells her that his mission is for the Jews alone.

The Syrophoenician woman, with no worth or status, does not go quietly into the night. She holds her ground and pushes the point back to Jesus and says: “even dogs eat the crumbs from the table.” When I read this story I imagine a sly smile stretching across Jesus’ face, a smile of recognition that this woman understands the way God’s upside-down kingdom is supposed to work, she believes in God’s goodness, she yearns for the kind of love than goes beyond all borders of culture and race.

So in response to her declaration, Jesus blesses her daughter, and rids her of the demon.

But the story is not over yet.

Jesus continues on his way, and people brought him a deaf man with a speech impediment. The deaf man was brought into a private place away from the crowds and Jesus used the power within him to open the man’s ears and release his tongue. In response Jesus ordered the people to tell no one what he had done, but the more he ordered the more zealously they proclaimed it.

This was radical.

During the first century, the time of Jesus, people who were blind, people who were deaf, and even women had little or no status at all. They were consistently removed from populated areas of life and were largely ignored. In those days people were afraid of anything that was different than the status quo; Jesus embraced it.

The story of the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man are intricately linked because they demonstrate Jesus’ willingness to upset the expectations of the world and welcome all into God’s love.

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After Brandy’s meeting with the pastor, the meeting where he told her there was no point for him to baptize or share communion with her son, she abandoned the church. When I met her for the first time and she told me her story, she couldn’t remember what eventually brought her to St. John’s, but when she got here she was afraid. She was afraid that this church would be like the first. She was afraid that this church would see her son as worthless, invisible, and unworthy of their time.

There is something about our own sinful nature, perhaps our deep insecurity, which pushes us to institute rules that give certain people an elevated status while denigrating others. These divisions can take place over differences in physicality, economics, race, gender, sexual identity, and an assortment of other identifiers. Even today in our modern contemporary world, there is a sense that we are supposed to avoid people who are unlike us, that we are entitled to brush past the people in need in our community and in the global community, and that we have no need to embrace the things that separate us.

Jesus’ actions in the two stories from Mark 7 are worth our careful consideration and emulation. Jesus shows how a worthless unnamed gentile woman and an ignorable deaf man are actually vital and worthy people in the kingdom of God. This story forces us to reopen our eyes and ears to the fact that there are no barriers between God and humankind. Nothing can ever separate us to from God’s love in Jesus Christ, not race, class, gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, or physical condition. And if there are no barriers between God and God’s people, then there should be no divisions between us.

Brandy was afraid of how this church would respond, but this church knows the stories of Jesus. All those years ago this church community welcomed Brandy and Verney with open arms, he was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and was always reminded that he had a place at God’s table. This church knows that the best kind of faith is crumbly faith; you only need a little taste for the world to change.

When God came in the form of flesh in Jesus Christ the world was turned upside down. Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus time and again demonstrated that all people are worthy of God’s love. His work and words testified to the fact that the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love. Jesus did everything he could to embody how the Lord is good to all, God’s compassion is over all creation. Jesus even went so far as to carry a cross on his back, hike under the ridicule of the world, and die to defeat death.

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We remember and experience how far God was willing to go for our sakes in the bread and in the cup of Communion. When we are invited to this table to feast on the crumbly bread of Jesus’ body and partake in his blood we are like the Syrophoenician woman, we are like the deaf man, and we are like Brandy and Verney. We all come with our shortcomings and brokenness, we all share disappointments and failures, but when we stand before the throne we are all made new in God’s love.

I don’t know what you might be going through in your life right now. Many of us are remarkably reluctant, if not downright afraid, to share where we feel broken in our lives. We don’t want to admit our shortcomings or fears.

But remember the people from God’s word, remember the strong and resilient faith of the Syrophoenician woman who gave voice to God’s power in the world. Remember the deaf man whose life was forever changed as he was welcomed back into the heart of the community. Remember Brandy and Verney who were given hope in the midst of fear. And remember that you are always welcome at Jesus’ table, where the crumbs of eternal life are waiting. Amen

The Advent of Samuel – Sermon on 1 Samuel 3.1-10

1 Samuel 3.1-10

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

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Today we continue with our Advent Sermon Series on “New Beginnings.” These few weeks of Advent are integral to the life of our church in the sense that we are preparing our hearts, minds, and souls, for the coming of God in Christ on Christmas day. Last week we looked at Abram and his call to go to a new and strange land, a call for a new beginning. Today we continue by looking at the Advent of Samuel.

Chapel time is the best. Every week our little preschoolers gather here in the sanctuary to a hear a story from the bible and how it can relate to their lives right now.

The first week I had them gather in the choir loft with the lights turned off. We talked about the beginning of creation and how God spoke the world into existence. I then encouraged the kids to scream, “Let there be light!” as loud as possible, and only when the volume was sufficiently over the top, I cut the lights on in the whole room. Another week we made chicken noodle soup together and talked about Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for a cup of stew. Another week, I had the kids do push-ups and sit-ups in the center aisle to build up their strength for a wrestling match. One by one they came forward and wrestled with me, just like Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the Jabbok river.

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On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I gathered with the children in the basement in preparation for their Thanksgiving feast. Chapel time that week was going to be all about communion. The kids made their way into the yellow room, and I sat down with them on the floor next to a table with the bread and the cup.

“Good morning my friends! Over the last few weeks you have been learning about the first Thanksgiving with the pilgrims and the Native Americans, about how they shared their food and ate with one another. We remember that great meal this week as many of us will sit around a table with our families and friends to share what we were thankful for. But a long time ago, way before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, there was another very special meal.”

“Jesus had been with his friends for a few years and this was going to be his last night with them. I’m pretty sure that they spent time that night talking about what they were thankful for, especially for Jesus. And when they were done talking, Jesus took a loaf of bread and gave to his friends to eat, and then he took a cup and shared it with his friends to drink. He said that he was giving himself for them, so that they would always know how loved they were.

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At the moment I couldn’t believe how well the kids were paying attention. Usually someone gets distracted, and therefore distracts the rest of the kids, but that morning they were all listening and hanging on every word.

I then asked the children to pray with me over the bread and the cup and I shared communion with them. I tried very carefully to limit the amount of times I called the cup Jesus’ blood, but of course I let it slip and one of the kids shouted: “Are we really drinking blood!?” “Well, yeah, but its also grape juice” “Oh man I love grape juice!” One by one they came forward with their hands outstretched to take a piece of the bread and then dip it in the cup and then received it. For every child that came forward I looked at them in their eyes and whispered, “God loves you.”

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After we finished the kids made their way to the red room to begin their feast when I discovered that Debbie, our Preschool Director, was crying. Worried that I had done something wrong I went forward to comfort her and was shocked when she shared why she was so upset: “Taylor, that was beautiful. You have no idea how precious it was so see those children line up for communion. This might be as close as some of them will ever get to understanding that God loves them.

This might be as close as some of them will ever get to understanding that God loves them.

Years from now I can imagine one of our Preschool students entering college. Though fully endowed with the knowledge of scripture and the willingness of this church to be there for him, he never enters our doors after he leaves the Preschool. High School is tough for him as wrestles with understanding his identity. Try as he might his grades are never good enough, his friends are never close enough, and no matter what he does he feels empty. Without having a true sense of direction, he applies to college and leaves home without looking back with the hope that this new beginning will be better than high school.

Sadly, it is not. College life is filled with even more people, and he feels less and less important. He falls through the cracks of campus life and spends most of his time alone in his dorm room. He still has the bible that we gave him so long ago, but it remains unopened on his shelf. One night, however, one of his roommates invites him to a campus ministry service. Reluctantly he attends, and is underwhelmed by the service.

The music is okay, and the message is all about spreading the Word of the Lord, whatever that means. He sits and listens attentively but he knows that he will never come back. But before the service ends, the pastor brings out the bread and wine and starts talking about communion. Immediately the boy is brought back to that morning sitting on the floor of the yellow room listening to a young bearded pastor talking about communion. While his mind is flooded with memories from the past he makes his way up to the make-shift altar and stretches out his hands to receive the body and blood of Christ while the pastor whispers, “God loves you.

I can imagine that even after that incredible service the knowledge of God’s love didn’t stick. The boy meets his wife in college, gets married, graduates, and moves to a new city for work. Yet, even after his family grows through the arrival of a few children, even while he is secure in his work, he still feels like something is missing.

He tries different things to find fulfillment in his life: he joins a civic organization, he volunteers at a local soup kitchen, he even helps a boy scout troop. But nothing seems to fill the void he feels in his life.

One day, however, a neighbor invites him to the community Methodist church. He laughs while responding about how he went to Preschool at a United Methodist Church but the neighbor insists that he comes to worship.

The man sits with his family in church, stands when he’s supposed to, sings when he supposed to, he even prays when he’s supposed to. He listens attentively to the announcements and the sermon, but most of it feels lifeless and repetitive. The pastor then moves to the table and invites the congregation to partake in this beautiful and precious meal that Christ has offered us without price. She says: “This table is the one true place where we can find fulfillment because in the bread and wine we see what Jesus gave for us on the cross, we see his truest and deepest act of grace. We are living in a time when the word of the Lord is rare, but at this table you can find what you’re missing, because here you discover the glory of God.

With tears in his eyes, the man walks forward. He remembers that day so long ago sitting on the cold floor in the basement of our preschool, he remembers that night in college when he walked up toward the altar. The emotional wave is almost overwhelming and as he stretches out his hands the pastor whispers, “God loves you” and for the first time, he believes it.

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People have heard the call of God in many different ways. Samuel heard it while he was sleeping in the temple and it took him three times to recognize that God was the one calling his name.

The word of the Lord was rare in those days, and it took an incredible act of faith to recognize that God was planning to do something incredible. Samuel did not identify his call when he first heard it, it had to be repeated and it had to be interpreted for him by the old priest Eli. 

Only when Samuel was able to respond with: “Speak, for your servant is listening” would he embark on a new beginning to be a prophet of the Lord. Part of the incredible beauty in this nighttime calling is the fact that God does not give up on Samuel. Though he clearly misses the location of his communication, God continues to call to him in an intimate and loving way.

One of the hardest things in the world to accept is that God loves us. In our heart of hearts we know, more than anyone around us, what we have done wrong and how we have fallen short of God’s glory. We see the mirrored reflection of our brokenness and we see someone unworthy of God’s love. Sometimes it takes more than a simple affirmation, it takes more than just a preacher babbling from a pulpit, it takes more than a bumper sticker or a billboard to remind us that God loves us. We need to hear it over and over and over again because it is true and remarkable.

I believe we are living in a time, just like Samuel, when the word of God is rare. We attempt to fill the emptiness in our lives with superficial commodities, we assume that money, power, and importance can make us feel whole. We foolishly hope that we can root our identity in a culture that ignores the outcast, in a country that neglects to embrace the democracy that we so worship, in a socioeconomic system that punishes the poor while rewarding the wealthy.

Now, more than ever, do we need to recapture that spirit of wonder and joy that a young man felt in the fuzzy hours of the morning when he heard his name being called in the temple. We need to discover the truest new beginning that comes when we remember that our identity is rooted in God. We need to let our discipleship be a living witness to others so that they can feel God’s love through people like us.

It was during another time when the word of God was rare, a time when governments oppressed the people they claimed to fight for, when a poverty stricken couple was forced to travel to a strange town for a census decreed by the emperor. In Bethlehem, when visions of God’s glory were not widespread, Mary and Joseph huddled together for warmth, believing the world had abandoned them to an awful fate. In the depth of their loneliness and fear, God came in the flesh to remind them that they were loved.

This table, where we gather, might be the closest you ever come to knowing that God loves you. When you feast on the great gift that was first given on Christmas, you are just like that child from our preschool, just like that questioning college student, just like that empty parent, and just like Mary and Joseph in the manger. This is where God makes all things new.

So if you remembering anything from today let it be this: God loves you. God loves you. God loves you.

Amen.